Raw does offer the opportunity and tools to make the photo be perfect, which is an additional step (and it does bypass the early step of guessing camera settings to be correct for the picture as yet unseen). The advantage comes only after the raw images have been "processed" by the user, later. We can call that process to be "editing" in the raw software, done later at home, but really, it is mostly simply selecting the same settings later, like White Balance, and color profile (like Vivid maybe), and even tweaking Exposure some - except it is done after we can actually see what it needs. We can see, and know, and choose, and verify what will help this specific scene, and can judge what works, and how much it helps. And it's so easy, we might try other choices instead, without suffering the effects of having to undo wrong stuff first.
But yes, shooting raw necessarily involves of this process. Then the huge benefit is that we can select the right settings after we can see what it needs, for this specific picture, leisurely at home later, instead of like many users, just depending on whatever settings happen to already be in the camera. Raw is about caring, and raw provides for those that care to get it right.
Sure, we could set default auto white balance and color profile values in the raw software, and get something like those same automatic defaults we set in the camera (possibly set months ago, not remotely even about this current image). So if that's all you want, if you won't bother to think about doing anything else, shooting JPG in the camera would be easier, it's already done. Not much point of raw then, the advantage of raw is being able to see the specific results, and then choose how to fix it, correctly, easily, to actually be like we want it - seeing what we are doing, when we have time to deal with it, instead of guessing and hoping in advance. Many consider that advantage to be a really big deal. Certainly it's a whole different game, a day and night difference in our photos.
But (speaking bluntly), raw is not for everyone. If you only plan to point and shoot, imagining that the camera ought to always get it right, and you cannot be bothered to consider any additional edit later, then Raw is NOT for you. You're not ready yet, but growing into raw would be a great goal. Raw is for those that want to make their photos be perfect. Raw offers the easy way to do that. Assuming you care. Raw is about caring.
But "Edit is Hard, I'm scared of Edit". OK, this could apply to photo editors, but raw software has wonderful tools, tools oriented specifically for camera images. Tools named White Balance, just like the camera has, but much better, and much more versatile and useful (and we can see what we're doing then too). Tools named Exposure, we just tweak a slider (to look right). Tools named Color Profile, we can select Vivid there too, if it looks right. Sure, you may learn a new thing or two, but raw is a very different experience. Raw makes good photos easy. There is a video below, watch it.
Camera settings for camera JPG images (white balance, vivid profiles, contrast, all that stuff) are set before the image is created. However (possibly excepting bright direct sunlight), we can't even know the precise color of the light for White Balance, and don't have precise tools to set it even if we did know. Or maybe these camera setting are done before we even arrive to see the scene? Maybe it was last year? Maybe we're not even sure what all settings are in there? Saying, maybe the settings are not actually much about the specific image we are about to create. How useful is that?
The problem with correcting white balance in JPG images is that white balance can be a substantial data shift which needs more than 8 bits. JPG processing does the white balance in the cameras 12 bits, and then creates the 8-bit JPG. That's fine if white balance was set accurately in the camera, but if not (and nothing except maybe direct sunlight ever can be precisely known), that 8-bit conversion is irreversible. However raw files are processed by always using the original 12 bit raw data, when white balance and other extreme data shifts (like Vivid) have less problem, so changes over much greater range is easier.
In contrast, another overwhelming purpose and advantage of Raw is that it offers really good and easy and fast tools allowing us to defer the corrections until after we can see the actual image. Then we KNOW what this specific image actually needs (no longer wishful hoping). We can see and know and choose and judge those results immediately. And easy retries are available, if necessary, or if we just want to see a choice of things. Sure, we do need to get camera exposure about right (but exposure results can still be easily corrected in raw processing), but otherwise, the camera settings are better done AFTER we can actually see the image. Raw is for those users who care to get it right. Raw is the fun part, the satisfying part. Creating really good images is enjoyable.
One possible confusion is that raw images do also embed a JPG image in the raw file, which is what is shown on the camera rear LCD, and in the histogram. This is because raw images are Not RGB images, which otherwise prevents those operations. Raw image files do contain the camera Exif data for the camera settings, even though these settings did not affect the raw data. The camera settings do however affect the embedded JPG image included (the rear LCD preview image and the histogram). The Nikon raw editor has options to read the Exif data and apply those camera settings to the raw image shown. Other raw editors may offer additional features, but they don't do that Exif business, other than to possibly offer camera White Balance as an optional possibility. Why we would want it is a question, the whole point of raw is that the camera WB is typically wrong (in some degree), and raw lets us easily fix it ourself, when we can see it.
Raw allows us to choose these settings later, after we can actually SEE what it needs. That's BIG. But yes, the raw files do need another pass where we do this. We cannot just set Raw and quit, because the raw file is still unprocessed. So yes, there are advantages and disadvantages, depending if you want great results, or if you can't be bothered to do any more to make the photo be right.
Some people imagine they would not tolerate shooting Raw, because then they would have to Edit (Gasp! Oh horror! That scary word Edit) all their pictures first. Which is true in some degree, at least it must be first converted from Raw to RGB (to JPG or TIF) to use it. But they must not realize this is what makes everything be so easy, or the big advantages it offers (really good photos). OK, it is an extra step, which can be very minimal and fast (your speed will dramatically increase once you get the hang of it). But the really big deal is "you can easily fix your pictures to be like you wish they would be". This really can be fast, and easy, and good, and it's the same setting concerns we otherwise should consider before taking the picture - raw just waits until we can see what we're doing first. Often it goes about like this:
Oops, that one is a little dark. Click Exposure, much better.
And look, the color isn't really right. Weather looks cloudy, click Cloudy White Balance, much better.
And the picture isn't even straight. Click Straighten on horizon, much better.
Cropping might help many of them. Might help a LOT.
And then run a batch to output resampled JPG from all of them. This is another advantage, only one JPG, no accumulation of JPG artifacts. If any later change is desired, then you discard this JPG, make your changes, and output a replacement JPG.
But it is an extra step, maybe like being given a check for a thousand dollars is not a bad thing either, even if you do have to drive to your bank to process it. The reward makes it very easy to deal with.
About the only viable objection to raw comes from those shooting like several hundred pictures of the kids ballgame, to post them online immediately at the end of the game for any others interested (hoping to sell a few copies). They might delete a few, but they think they cannot consider delaying those pictures in any way, so "JPG as is" is their only consideration (other than fast as possible). But for most of us, a few extra seconds checking each picture for corrections is a big plus, no problem in the overall plan. Another half hour is nothing considering the time and cost already invested, and the better results that are so easy.
I'm trying to say, Raw is a big deal, and maybe you're missing out on a really good thing. If you have never seen just how easy and useful and powerful the Raw concept is, here' a video to show what Raw can offer (Introduction for Newbies). YouTube shows it fuzzy the first few seconds after selecting full screen size, then it will clear up.
I'd do the video a bit different next time. The best part starts nearly 8 minutes in, I'd hurry up to get there. And I would remember to mention that setting Color Profile (like Vivid or Standard or Neutral) is done in the Adobe raw software on the 8th tab called Camera Calibration, 3rd from right end. You can set defaults for this stuff in the raw software, same as you set in the camera, but the beauty is that raw allows easy correction of that after you can actually see it to know what you're doing. And I said in a poor way that Adobe's As Shot tries to match the White Balance it thought was in the camera, but it won't be quite right. I was Not blaming Adobe, I was trying to say the problem is that any WB selection in the camera is not likely right, since we simply don't know the color of the light. But we can always fix it later.
It is absolutely awesome to actually see the picture first before deciding what it needs, and also to still have the full range data to work on. Think of it as correcting instead of editing, since that is the necessary job. Whether JPG or Raw, many pictures will always need a little more work. We know editing numerous JPG files is a formidable job, so you might imagine Raw must take a lot of time too, but the full opposite is true of Raw - because the Raw tools are so much better and more useful, and Raw does it better, because the Raw range is greater. And Raw certainly can do it better than the camera, because now we can actually see what we're doing.
Raw editors are Not like regular photo editors (which have tools really designed more for graphics than photos). Raw editors have tools designed for camera images - a pretty big deal. And in many cases, we can work on many like images at once. This doesn't require much special skill - on the contrary, Raw helps those that don't always get it right in the camera (and who can?) I started doing darkroom work way too many decades ago, but it seems I'm not good enough to shoot JPG out of the camera. Too many surprises in White Balance and Exposure, the camera tools are not that precise, JPG is too hard to deal with, limited data does not respond well, regular color tools too poor, job too tedious if handling many images. But instead, Raw is a tremendous help, makes it Day and Night easy to get great results. Those dissenters obviously just must not understand the situation yet. If they are just saying that they don't care about fixing their pictures, then maybe an attitude adjustment is necessary. :) Raw processing is extremely popular for those that have tried it, and know and care. We can't tolerate JPG now. I will try to explain why, there is a lot more below (but the video above is the first step). All of the raw edit tools shown below are using Adobe Camera Raw.
Again, raw image data is Not affected by any camera settings (other than exposure). Raw is raw, meaning unprocessed, meaning it includes no camera settings (other than basic exposure). No white balance, no color profile, no camera settings are in raw data. The purpose and the big advantage is in doing this ourself, leisurely at home when we have time, after we can see what it needs, and with better tools. Critical users want their images to be precisely correct, and raw makes that possible. The good images just jump out at us when we get white balance and exposure actually correct.
So the point here is that the normal raw editing procedure is this:
Film cameras only set exposure, everything else was post processing. Digital lets us hopefully guess at much of the post processing before we even take the picture, but which doesn't make much sense before we have even seen it. However, raw is raw, unprocessed, meaning there are no camera settings already applied to the Raw files. The single purpose of Raw is to NOT have any settings in it - so we can see what it actually needs first. White balance seems the most important of these. We can specify Daylight or Incandescent WB later in Raw just as easily as we could have set it in the camera. A lot easier, we can see it now. But the big issue is still that there are many shades of Daylight, and many of Incandescent, and many of Flash. The one generic WB setting is just wishful thinking. But in Raw processing, no problem, we can actually see the image first, and KNOW what it needs, and choose choices, with trivial effort. Even better, in Raw we finally have the good tools to do it just right. The concept starts making sense now.
Raw simply has the best tools, and certainly the greatest capability, by far. Easier tools, but more powerful because they are specifically designed for exactly what camera photos need, even for the extreme shifts like White Balance. Instead of being same as regular photo editors, Raw editors are designed specifically to offer what camera images need (with tools named White Balance and Exposure, etc). Raw images are not committed to some prior bad choice of camera settings, instead we can still choose anything we want anytime later when we can actually see what we are doing. Of course, a reasonably proper exposure is always needed at the camera, but we can still tweak Exposure too. The great beauty of Raw is that the most important and most necessary adjustments become trivial to fix later. Raw data has the greatest range for it, and the best tools. The camera settings were not likely perfect every time, as there are other factors. The actual light may not exactly match the setting in most situations - for various reasons, things happen. You can just simply select Flash or Daylight or Cloudy or Incandescent White Balance later, whatever you see it obviously needs, better than the camera could do it. But simply clicking the White Balance card works best of all, white comes out white every time (meaning, no color cast). You include the known white balance card in the scene for your first setup picture, then apply that same setting to all of the similar images of that same lighting session.
This Raw idea is not a radical concept. Digital sensors only capture Raw images (so you are already doing it, like it or not, but without any advantage to you). Then the camera computer processor uses camera settings to convert Raw to RGB color, and applies White Balance processing, and compresses it as JPG. All of this happens anyway, unseen, under control of automation, with no options (not now, at this point). And of course, gamma encoding is added too, but it's always invisibly automatic no matter what, so no need to mention it now.
Or, we can instead choose to output the Raw image directly, and simply select White Balance later, in the Raw software instead (Adobe Camera Raw menu at right, is same as WB menu in the camera), using stronger and more versatile PC software to do the same processing steps. And since we can now see the result in real time, we decide it AFTER we are able to see what it actually needs - the huge advantage is that we can see the result first, so we know what we are doing. We still have the full range to do it, and the tools are better too, and did I mention that of course we can actually see it first too? We can fix White Balance, and we can also fix the exposure, and bypass JPG artifacts, and process many files simultaneously. This is a really really big deal, extremely useful.
Raw processors have the "As Shot" WB choice, which can match the camera's WB setting from the Exif. WB temperature is not in the Exif, but there is a multiplier of the RGB values that the camera would use.
For example, from Nikon Exif: WB RB Levels: 1.8984375 1.44140625 1 1
These are multipliers for red and blue and two green Bayer channels (RBGG) that the camera would have used. But As Shot usually won't come out just right. Which is Not Adobe's fault, they can multiply too, and get what the camera would have done, but it's only a camera guess. The camera does not know the actual color temperature of the light. We can specify Daylight or Tungsten or Flash WB there to help it (in camera, or in raw too), but we don't know a correct number either, and there are many colors of each of them. That's mostly why we shoot raw, so that we have a better chance of getting WB correct, later, after we can see it. If we care.
The camera offers various settings, Contrast and Sharpening and Color profile, none of which affect a Raw image, which is unprocessed and flat (One exception is Nikon Raw software which can extract some of those Exif settings). But we do have fine tools in Adobe Camera Raw, and the point is now that we also have the opportunity to actually see our image first, to know what it needs, or what will look good, and if it in fact did look good. Raw simply defers processing until we can see what we're doing.
For Contrast, the Curve Tab offers a good S-curve, shown at right (not in Elements). This tool is better than the simple Contrast slider on the Basic tab, which clips both ends to increase contrast. This S-curve is more sophisticated, and makes whites whiter and blacks blacker without clipping the end points.
Digital cameras have more extreme profile settings to mimic Kodachrome or Velvia colors, and raw offers that too, but now in raw, you can see it first, to know what it needs, and to judge results, and make other choices if you prefer. These choices are in the Adobe third icon from right end, the little black camera icon. I tend to favor "Camera Standard" (is set as my default), but I might boost landscapes more. Or for formal portraits, the ladies like Portrait or even Neutral (to retain the correct color of their hair). Or just correcting white balance is a big improvement. Raw even offers UNDO of all this (lossless editing).
All images do not have to processed the same. However, if applicable, they can be... any change can apply to all images selected, a couple, a few, or all few hundred of them, in the same one click.
As for the "extra work" involved in processing raw, at barest minimum, we always have to at least look at all of the pictures we took, an inspection pass. That is what Raw "editing" is, it is our first look at them (the actual viewing pass is much of the "work", but we have to look at the pictures we took). Then a file conversion (from Raw to RGB for JPG), but we really ought to look at them once to see what we got. This first access of it (viewing or output) can use your default white balance and color profile, applying defaults like the camera does for JPG. But the beauty is, while we are here, then if we see they need little tweaks, like White Balance correction, or exposure correction (and many of mine do, + 1/4 stop is shown below), or straightening, or tighter cropping (all the things I can easily screw up) - then we simply tweak it in as we go, in this first view pass. We can do this so easily AFTER we are able to see what it actually needs. That is not a overhead burden, it is a huge advantage. If I don't fix it, it does not get fixed. If first glance shows it is a little dark, or a bit pink, then for Pete's sake, simply just fix it, then and there. Why wouldn't we? The JPG alternative is that your images don't get the necessary tweaks that they surely will need.
We know that digital overexposure can clip at 255, which is the fundamental thing to always avoid... it is not correctable. Raw latitude lets us simply err a bit on the low side, to ensure we never overexpose. Then simply adding a bit more exposure to hone it in is totally trivial in raw, yet we do still have that safety factor. Adding more exposure in raw is basically the same act as adding a bit more ISO in the camera (shifts histogram tones up). We can do miraculous things in raw.
The camera tools are simply not good enough to help us always get this right. White Balance always varies and needs attention, and we don't even know a precise white balance until we see a result. And often exposure and cropping needs help too. You look at them, and fix them, and Raw allows it, and makes it easy. Much improvement opportunity is still possible, and Raw is overwhelmingly the easy way, after you see what it actually needs. And it is the fast way. We can simply give the image a tweak as we go by looking, which only takes a few seconds each. So easy, just slide the little Exposure slider thingie with your mouse, one way or the other, maybe watch the histogram, until the image looks right, like you want it, like you intended it, after you see it, after you know how it came out instead.
No one can always get white balance and exposure right in the camera. Any varied situation will see some surprises. Even for flash, white balance varies with flash output level. And then after this first viewing pass fixes it, then a click or two to output them all to JPG, and you have the same thing the camera would have output, except now, much improved pictures, with everything fixed. I must admit, Raw makes me a little lazy. I do always try to give exposure close attention, but it is almost impossible to always get it just right in the camera, and so easy to fix in Raw (so it becomes no big deal if it was not exactly right). I don't even think about White Balance in the camera (except in mixed lighting situations), since it simply doesn't matter (except on camera rear LCD Preview, which is an embedded JPG).
One thing about WB though - It is true that WB does not matter yet in Raw files, we set WB later, however the camera settings are reflected in the LCD Preview JPG, so you might want to set WB in the camera just so Preview shows a realistic histogram. My notion is that camera Auto White Balance is not always great, but it is usually good enough for the camera LCD Preview, then raw White Balance can be corrected later. Since camera values often need correcting anyway, this is really not an extra step. It is instead the easy and fast way. White Balance of course always needs attention, but Raw lets us do it leisurely anytime later, when we can actually see it.
Regular photo editors are intended for any general image, maybe like scanners, prepress, or even graphics or documents. But camera Raw software is specifically designed for camera images, and provides camera specific tools, like White Balance with specific settings like say Flash White Balance (can be one click). Exposure adjustment is also a very important tool, and Saturation is a popular tool. We choose this AFTER seeing what it needs, what would actually help it.
And a big deal, certainly for any fixed session (any time applicable, processing many images all with same lighting), this white balance correction is easily applied to all or many images simultaneously (which is lightning speed). And other problems too, exposure of course, or maybe the horizon is not level, and it needs straightening, takes only a couple of seconds. Probably we want to crop it better, another couple of seconds. This is all stuff that simply must be done anyway (it seems unimaginable not doing what is needed), and the Raw tools are so good, and so fast. And Raw of course can also bypass the JPG artifacts, and preserve the original. Certainly White Balance is a major biggie, no tools are better than this, and JPG simply does not have the range of Raw (to do it well later).
Raw software does not need anything of course, but you can install the free Nikon NEF Codex so that Windows utilities like the file explorer can show thumbnails for the raw files... They cannot show the edits, but do show the original image thumbnail. Or, Canon also has a free Canon codex. Or, Microsoft has a free codex that recognizes Raw files from several camera brands.
The Adobe ACR module (Adobe Camera Raw software) looks like this (in Photoshop CS5): Elements and Lightroom also use the same ACR module. Elements ACR only has three of these tabs, to enable only the basic ACR features, but it is enough for basic processing.
The best part is that the Raw tools are so good, and so specific to cameras, and so easy, and even more so, easy definitely also includes the Select All button (top left). We can (if appropriate, if same situation, same lighting, etc), select several or all of our images in this session, maybe a hundred or two of the same session images, and apply the same White Balance correction to all (all in the same lighting). We can simply select Flash White Balance one time, or simply click this white card one time. Then this same "edit" goes into every selected one of the images, at the same time, one click, instantly. Same with Exposure adjustments, or cropping, or any adjustment, same goes into ALL selected images, one click. The necessity to handle a few hundred images is the BEST reason to use Raw, certainly not any reason not to. Otherwise, if dealing with many files, you will slave for hours doing the same few minutes of work that raw can do so quickly.
Or really, of course the very best part is that whatever settings you make, you obviously can make them in the Raw software AFTER seeing what you have, after knowing what it actually needs, and you can see the result after you do it, and decide how much, and if it is what you want. Viewed on your large calibrated computer monitor, instead of the little three inch LCD. And you have the best tools, and the most range, to do it then. This is so easy, so fast, and so good. The JPG alternative is to make the setting in the camera before you even take the picture, maybe before you even arrive at the scene, and hope for the best (wishful thinking). Yes, we ought to get the exposure near right in the camera, but anything else, especially including White Balance, seems better done later, after we can see it and judge it, and have the tools to deal with it.
There are so many best parts of Raw. We can see what we are doing of course. And we have better tools to use for our specific purposes, like White Balance and Exposure. And another best part is that it eliminates any thought about JPG artifacts, your images remain pristine until the last final output as JPG, one time (which can be then discarded, and reedited again in Raw and output again, when any additional change is necessary).
Another best part is that raw is lossless editing, which means, no matter how you might screw it up, your totally unmodified original Raw image is still always present. Nothing is ever lost, unless you delete the original raw file. But it means even better, consider this.