Put me down as one of the big fans of the new release of Adobe Photoshop CS6. It takes awhile to get into all the new features, but once you do there are a lot of really great workflow improvements. This is especially true with Camera RAW for CS6. I use maybe 20% of the total functionality in Camera RAW, and for this post I will just focus on the primary image enhancement tools in the control pallette that appears when you open a RAW image in Camera RAW.
First thing I do when I open an image is to examine the histogram and get a sense for the mapping of the tonal values in the image (white is to the right, black is to the left). You can use the eye-dropper tool to set the white point and black point in the image. You can also now use the Blacks and the White sliders to essentially set the white point and black point, especially when you see clipping in the histogram (notice the blue triangle icon in the left side of the graphic indicating some clipping in the dark side of the tonal range). If necessary, you can refine this later using a Curves or Levels adjustment layer in Photoshop.
What I will do then is go down each one of the rest of these sliders one at a time. I usually only play with Temperature & Tint if the shot looks excessively cool or warm to me, otherwise I let it go, as I would say 80% of the time white balance was pretty accurate on initial exposure. In images where I have multiple light sources with varying color temperatures, I can use this as a creative tool. I can open an image as a smart object, and then open the same image again as a second smart object, and set each as a layer in the psd file. If I want to adjust the color temperature of either layer, I can simply click on the layer and Camera RAW opens again to allow adjustments. I can then use a layer mask on either layer and paint in whatever part of the image where I want the different color temp to appear.
I am now using Exposure much more frequently than in previous versions of Camera RAW. I find that a tweak by 1/3 or 2/3 stop in either direction is about as far as I usually need to go. The nice thing about all of these sliders is that they all are now set to a midpoint of zero. That way I can go under or over, which is more natural to how photographers think when we shoot.
I like adding Contrast in a scene where overall light was fairly flat and I do not have a lot of shadows to work with. It helps to give color a little more punch. I will use it in combination with Shadows. This is one of those areas where there is no right or wrong answer. It’s like trying to decide how much salt or seasoning you want in your stew and is mostly to taste.
Conversely I do especially like the advantage of using the Highlights and Shadows sliders to reveal detail in images where the RAW capture had intense shadows. This is a great improvement over Camera RAW CS5 where we only had Fill to lighten shadows. Using Fill also lightened highlights in the image, but now these two functions have been differentiated. You can lighten the shadows without affecting the highlights, or darken highlights without reducing detail in the shadows. Huge improvement.
I went back over images I had captured in Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in May of 2011. On initial run through I really struggled with processing the RAW images in CS5, and was never really satisfied with how they came out. In CS6 this was a breeze, especially with canyon photos. (See slidehow below).
The last three sliders I use to add some punch to the color. I like bold color in my shots, and in the past I was guilty of over-indulging when using the Saturation slider. In general I now find a nice combo of Vibrance and a smaller Saturation value (nothing above +10) with a dash of Clarity thrown in, works just great.
I am somewhat tired of the constant upgrade cycle with software. I understand why a company like Adobe needs to do it. Photoshop CS5 was a stunning release, so I was somewhat skeptical of the value of this latest upgrade. But I am sold now. My images just look better, and for me that is the primary criteria in judging if I take the plunge to the next generation.