Digital cameras don’t produce pictures.
They capture impressions of the light that came through the lens, and it’s not a picture until you put some processing behind it. Even the simplest, most rudimentary digital camera has a tremendous amount of processing behind it. If you shoot jpeg and use the resulting images, the processing doesn’t go away, you’re just letting the camera choose the defaults for what the processing should be. When you shoot raw, you can do the processing yourself, and get a lot more control over every variable in the procedure.
There’s a pretty good guide to the steps here (via lifehacker):
The basic workflow is similar to what I outlined in my digital camera workflow diagram.
I mostly agree with the points in the article, but I have a few comments to add:
- I would avoid auto levels, auto constrast, and auto-color. Generally, they give horrid results unless you’ve tweaked the default settings. (Scott Kelby has a good section on this in his Photoshop for Digital Photographers books, which are outstanding.) The tools to do these adjustments by hand, particularly Curves, are not terribly difficult to learn to use, and well worth the effort.
- Sharpen last! If you’re shooting raw, no sharpening has been done for you. This is good. It should be done as the last adjustment, and at 100% magnification so you can see the effects close-up. Photoshop sharpening applied correctly will always be superior to what the camera will do for you, especially with the CS2 Smart Sharpen filter.
- My typical order of operations is: fix any glaring problems (rotation, editing out major objects), fix color, fix contrast/brightness (both with curves), fix up blemishes, reduce noise, then sharpen. If I want some special effects, there may be more steps in there.