Here, I show you how to take the first steps with the free and open photo-editing software RawTherapee.
RawTherapee is just one of the free and open resources for editing photographs. If you want to know the pros and cons of this software, you might be interested in my review of RawTherapee, where I compared it with the popular but expensive Adobe Lightroom. After all, there are some downsides. Also keep in mind that this is only a guide to help you make the first steps with RawTherapee rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. Every photograph is different, and so is our taste.
Copy and Import
I don’t think I need to tell you how to find software online and install it on your device. So, let’s jump right into it: RawTherapee. Before you start your editing career with RawTherapee, you need to know where to find your photographs, though. RawTherapee doesn’t help you organize your pictures, it will only support you in the editing process. Make sure that you establish a clear structure on your drive.
When you open RawTherapee, you will find three different panels on the very right of your window: “File Browser,” “Queue," and “Editor.” To find your photographs, you’ve got to switch to the File Browser and find your photographs in the “Folders” section on the left. Got them? Great! They should appear in the middle section of the program.
In many photo sessions, you will have made a lot of pictures of the same subject. In RawTherapee, you can rank the images with stars. Because the program doesn’t offer you a fill screen review, you might want to unfold the magic of the “Inspect” panel on the right. Here, you can review your photograph in a 100-percent view. Collapse the left panel (shortcut “i”) to give it a little more space. Now, you can check all the details in the image and rate them one by one. To rate them, you can either click on the stars of the thumbnails or hit “Shift” plus your rating between “1” and “5” on the keyboard.
When you are done, you probably only want to give the best images a try. By hitting 1-5, you can make RawTherapee filter your folder for the rating. In my example, I want to edit the three-star images, and, so I hit 3.
Edit the Basics
After selecting your photographs for the edit, you’ve got to open the editor either by clicking on it on the left side or by hitting “Ctrl” and “F4” at the same time. Don’t confuse “Ctrl” with “Alt” here; that combination will shut down your active window.
I personally like to crop my photos before I edit them. Either click on the crop tool or hit “C” to crop your image. The right frame of RawTherapee will switch to the “Transform” panel. You can choose your preferred overlay and also select a certain aspect ratio for your image. When you're cropping, you probably want the whole image to be visible. Select the “theme-base” preview by hitting “9” multiple times on your keyboard or clicking on the left square field in the bar above your image.
You can also straighten the horizon in the “Lens/Geometry” module below. Just click on “Select Straight Line” and draw a line over your horizon. The image will be straightened accordingly. Crop: Done!
Hint: RawTherapee won’t remove your Crop overlay, so you switch it back to “None.” It can also be annoying to see the area of the image, which you actually cropped out. Hit “9” on your keyboard to adjust the background color and make the cropped area disappear.
Set the Overall Exposure
By pressing “Alt” and “E” on your keyboard, you will get to the Exposure panel quickly. RawTherapee applied some settings on the tone curve when I imported the photographs. It looks decent, but I want to start from scratch here, so I set the curve back to “linear.” You don’t need to do this if you are happy with the automatic development. After all, the uncooked photograph looks quite dull.
When adjusting the exposure via the exposure compensation slider, I take a careful look at the histogram. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, sometimes it’s on purpose, but usually, I don’t want to blow out any highlights. I keep the indicators for clipping highlights and shadows on by clicking on the small warning signs above the image. Then, I set the exposure. In some cases, I’m very careful with the highlights. Here, I will bring them back later.
I generally find the image a little dark, so I push the exposure a little bit. The photograph doesn’t really look better yet, but that will be fixed soon.
This photograph lacks contrast because there are very few dark spots at the moment. With the help of the "Black” slider, you can give your photograph a lot of punch. Push the slider to the right, and it’ll make the dark parts darker. Now, we already have a good basis for our development.
You can also add contrast with help of the contrast slider. I tend to be rather careful with that one because it affects colors really heavily. Usually, I decrease the saturation whenever I add contrast to keep the colors more realistic, but that’s a personal decision.
Now, you probably have realized that I blew out quite a lot of highlights (marked black by RawTherapee) and clipped even some of the shadows (marked white). I can bring back detail in the highlights by using the “Highlight compression” and “Highlight compression threshold”. Using compression, you define how much you want to pull the brightest parts of the image down. By setting the threshold, you decide which areas will be affected. As I only want the brightest parts to become darker (meaning the bright blue spot in the sky), I set a high threshold and pulled it back quite a lot.
Now that all the blown-out parts are gone, I do exactly the opposite with the black parts by using the “Shadow compression” slider. I generally find it appealing to have some black spots in the photograph, but I can also remove them all depending on the situation. Here, I got the clipped areas back.
Hint: If the exposure of the sky is generally too bright, you can also add a Graduated filter instead of using the highlight compression. It’s easier and won’t affect other highlights in the image.
Export and Play
Exporting your developed photograph is quite easy. Just click on the little floppy disk in the left corner below your photograph.
RawTherapee will usually save your image in the original resolution. If you want to resize the image, unfortunately, you need to go back to the “Transform” panel.
You can export the photograph as a JPEG, TIFF, or PNG file. If the basics weren’t enough for you already, you can play around with other sliders. I’d recommend you the “Shadows/Highlights” module in the Exposure panel, as well as the Tone Curve in the Exposure module.
For my final image, I did the same and played a little with the colors as well to achieve a film-like/retro (and somehow Instagram-able) look. I hope you enjoyed your first edits. Feel free to ask questions if you have some!