Ansel Adams once said that the negative was the music score and the darkroom work was the performance. This still holds true today, although we now shoot digital. When you shoot RAW then the sensor will capture as much data as it can, but the image appears flat and lifeless. If you shoot JPG then it’s the camera that ‘performs’, e.g. makes the decision what algorithms to apply to get a good final result. But your scope of manipulating a JPG image is a lot more restrictive than working with a RAW file. I have heard the analogy that if you bake a cake and it doesn’t taste right you can add a bit of extra icing or inject some sugar syrup and try to resurrect it; that’s working with a JPG. However the changes you can make are limited. If you work with RAW however, it’s like baking a new cake from scratch, every time you change the way you work with it.
Let me try and illustrate what I mean. (A picture is worth a thousand words).
Here is a RAW file, shot near Cameron Corner in Australia’s Outback:
Here is a JPG file I worked on:
You can see the difference: from lifeless to ‘in your face’ 🙂
I’ve adjusted overall contrast, pre-sharpened the RAW file and adjusted the exposure selectively. I applied saturation and adjusted brightness level, again selectively and then applied ‘output’ sharpening to the overall image. I also use noise reduction (although that’s hardly an issue at ISO 100). The final result has punch and matches what your eye sees a lot closer.
I import my RAW files into Adobe Lightroom and do all my editing in Adobe Photoshop. This is purely my preference, there is nothing wrong with using different software. One reason I do use Lightroom extensively is that I shoot a lot of stuff with a LEICA S (*medium format) and Adobe Lightroom has camera presets in the software that are from Leica themselves. It sets a great starting point.