RAW Stacking – A Technique To Better Highlight And Shadow Management

December 20, 2012

Shooting RAW or JPEG is a topic that photographers will eventually encounter along their path toward advancing their craft, and the benefits of shooting RAW is also discussed and reiterated incessantly everywhere. While learning how to use RAW to its utmost potential is an art in itself, there is an additional technique that I sometimes utilize to make RAW even more useful to me than it already is: “RAW stacking.”

There may be many different definitions of RAW stacking, but they all have their unique uses. My way of doing RAW stacking for cosplay or portraiture is to utilize different RAW conversions from a single RAW file based on the need, and stack them together in Photoshop using layers to create an even better base working file than what a single conversion could provide. So how does it all work really? Let’s get right to it.



Stage 1 – The Base

TL;DR – adjust RAW settings » save settings » open image in Photoshop as base working file

For this tutorial I am using one of the images from the Steampunk Poison Ivy photoshoot I did with Lauren. As the title suggests, the first step here is to create a baseline conversion for further editing and, you guessed it, this step is essentially the exact process you would already do before opening the image in Photoshop. The picture below shows the before/after of the image we will use today, just to give you an idea of what we are working with. Note that you might also want to save your settings at this stage as we will use it later. Open this image in Photoshop, and we are ready for the next step.

The difference between the original RAW file vs. with custom settings

Stage 2 – The Skin

TL;DR – apply saved settings » identify areas to fix » adjust settings to fix » open/copy as layer to main working file

Here is where the fun begins. With the same settings as step one, what you want to do now is identify which area you want to “fix”. The first thing that pops out to me from this particular image is the highlighted areas of her skin, as circled below. Notice that I did not circle her right elbow’s blown highlight because I already planned to clone over texture from other areas due to how much detail has already been lost.

Some areas of the skin are slightly too bright

I want to bring back a little bit more texture around these areas, so what I am going to do is adjust my settings to do exactly that. Note that this can be any area that you want to fix for whatever purpose, but as cosplay photography is portraiture, skin work tends to be an important part of the process.

The highlight areas of the skin now look more natural

The overall image probably doesn’t look that great, but don’t fret, we are only focusing on the area you are attempting to fix. Once you are satisfied with the look of this particular area, open it up in Photoshop as another working file. Now this is important: select the 2nd image in PS, and copy this into the first working file as layer 2. I renamed this layer to “skin”.

Great! Now you have technically stacked 2 RAW conversions together. Onto the next step!

Stage 3 – The Eyes

TL;DR – Step 2, different area
Open up the RAW and apply the base settings again. Repeat what you did in step 2, but focus on a different area that you want to fix. For this particular case, I want to bring out more detail in her eyes, so I am really going to push the exposure, contrast, sharpness, and whatever settings that get me the look I want from the eyes.

As the whole image, the eyes are brighter, sharper, and slightly more saturated.

Once done, open this in Photoshop, and again copy it to the base working file as layer 3. I am naming this layer “eyes”.

You can see a pattern here after base image: apply base settings » determine problem area » adjust settings to make problem area look good » open in Photoshop and copy to base working file as another layer. Rinse and repeat until you think all problem areas are covered.

The Masking

TL;DR – create layer masks on all but base layer » brush to reveal/hide fix on upper layers » done
Now that we have all the necessary conversions in one single working file, the goal is to mask away all the areas that were unaffected. The first thing to do here is to create black mask (hide all) on all layers except the base layer. With a fairly low opacity, low hardness white brush, you slowly brush away (on the mask of each layer) and “reveal” the fix that you have applied on the fix layers. Since you are working on the layer mask, you can “reveal” using white brush and “hide” using black brush, so brush accordingly to get what you want to create the final baseline working file for you to further your editing.

The masking the of skin layer

The highlight areas on the right image is not as prominent and the skin tones are more even



One very obvious question I can imagine people asking is, how is this step different from brushing directly from the RAW editing tool? There is little difference for the most part, but doing this in Photoshop would grant you greater and easier control over the brushing of the layers. With the help of layer masks, you could also easily utilize the selections to expand on your editing immediately.

I personally do not always take this step when editing photos, but there are certainly times that I find this step exceptionally useful. I hope this tutorial gives you an idea of what you could do to squeeze a bit more usefulness out of RAW files in your editing, and if you discover some tips and tricks to go about editing, or simply have feedback for us, we here at Cosplay Photographers are always happy to hear from you.

If you found this article interesting, be sure to join our Facebook group, Cosplay Photography Discussion Group. It is a place for cosplay photographers of all levels to learn from each other. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook as well!

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I am a Seattle, WA based lifestyle fashion photographer who has Cosplay to thank for his adventure into the photography world. In addition to fashion, I also maintain Costographer as my cosplay work outlet: http://facebook.com/costographer

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