Most of the digital cameras targeting serious shooters provide a Raw capture mode. This is a useful alternative to JPEG since the camera records but does not lock-in the settings that are used to make an image. Open a Raw photo in converter software and you can modify numerous aspects with non- destructive processing. When we discuss this topic in my BP digital photography course, at least one astute student usually raises an interesting question, such as this one.
"My digital SLR has many Picture Styles plus features for modifying the colour saturation, contrast, sharpness, dynamic range, Noise Reduction, etc. of images that I will shoot. But is there any need to use these when shooting in the Raw mode?"
Raw vs. JPEG: Those features are certainly very useful in JPEG capture and they're valuable for the JPEG file that's generated in Raw+JPEG mode. Make the appropriate settings for any type of subject and you'll need to do less work on the JPEG photo in your imaging software. By minimizing the amount of image modification, there's also less risk of degrading the quality of the image.
Digital cameras that offer a Raw capture mode ship with software that allows for opening and modifying the Raw data before converting the file to a JPEG or TIF. Nikon, for example, provides View NX2 free of charge but also offers the more versatile Capture NX2 as an option for serious photographers and pros. (c) Peter K. Burian
In Raw capture mode, the settings you made are recorded in the Metadata (EXIF) file and attached to the photo, but the Raw data is not processed in the camera. Open a Raw photo in the converter software developed by the camera manufacturer, and preview will be accurate. It will reflect the picture style and the overrides that you had set. If the preview looks fine, simply go ahead an convert it to JPEG or (preferably) to TIF. If you had made suitable in- camera settings, you won't need to spend much time modifying a Raw photo.
A camera maker's Raw converter, such as Nikon View NX and the optional Capture NX2 (shown here) can identify the in-camera features you had used and apply them to the photo. If your settings were ideal for the scene, there's no need to spend time making modifications before converting the photo. (c) Peter K. Burian
Other Raw Software: Some shooters prefer to use aftermarket software to modify and convert their Raw photos. That's fine and it also allows for modifying any aspect using the available tools. However, the software will not be able to determine all of the in-camera settings you had made, such as picture style, levels for Saturation, Sharpness, Noise Reduction, dynamic range expansion and so on. Hence the preview that's displayed may look entirely different than the Raw photo you had viewed in your camera's LCD screen display.
Adobe Camera Raw in Elements, Photoshop and Lightroom has some benefits over some of the camera makers' programs but it cannot identify or apply many of the in-camera settings. Hence, you will need to spend more time in setting the colour saturation, sharpness, contrast, noise reduction level, etc., than you would with the camera-maker's Raw converter. (c) Peter K. Burian
Note: There is one exception to the rule however. If you are using the latest version of Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop or Lightroom, the Camera Calibration utility allows you to select a picture style to be applied to a Raw capture. While this is an extra step, it does minimize the amount of time you will need to spend with other tools to achieve a pleasing effect for any type of subject. The results are excellent, closely matching the effects you'll see in JPEGs made with the same in-camera picture style.
Recommendation: So the bottom line is this. I do recommend using in-camera picture styles and overrides in Raw capture mode if you plan to use the camera-maker's converter program. If you prefer another brand of converter software, only the settings for more common aspects - such as exposure and white balance - will be important. The more sophisticated camera features you had used will be ignored. This is one reason why I always use programs such as Nikon Capture NX 2, Canon DPP, Sony Image Data Converter, or Pentax Digital Camera Utility when testing various DSLR cameras.
Editor's Note: Peter Burian teaches two terrific photography courses online - Mastering the Digital Camera and Photography and Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels - at BetterPhoto's digital photography school online. Also see Peter's Pro BetterPholio website: www.peterkburian.com.