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 having to undo wrong stuff first. But yes, shooting raw involves of this process.
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 months ago). That defeats the purpose of correcting the images, and you will still have to output a new JPG to be able to use it. So if that's all you want, shooting JPG in the camera would be easier, already done. Not much point of that, the advantage of raw is being able to see it, 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 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?
In contrast, the 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 drastically 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.
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 the bank to process it. The reward makes it very easy to deal with.
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 is a video to show what Raw can offer (Introduction for Newbies).
I'd do the video a bit different next time. The best part starts nearly 8 minutes in, I'd hurry it 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 see it to know what you're doing.
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 are 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 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.
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 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.
There are many types of edits possible - in the image of the tool below, see the row of tab icons below the histogram? First Basic tab is selected above, but the middle Lens Corrections tab is selected here. The tab contents are shown below it. Where Photoshop mostly provides generalized image tools, for graphics, for publishing, for scanning, and photos too, Raw provides specialized camera-oriented tools for photography, specifically to correct white balance and exposure, lens vignetting, lens distortion, lens chromatic aberration (color fringing), noise reduction, etc - stuff camera photos need. Other standard stuff like Curve and Sharpening is also in there, but I leave sharpening until last, after resampling smaller for print or view.
This picture was with Nikon D800, 14-24 mm lens, f/2.8 and 14 mm at ISO 4000 and 30 seconds (too much, I backed it off a little here). Vignetting in first picture is very apparent (in the top corners, bottom is cropped). This is simply what wide lenses do, and FX is wider and worse. Distortion is present too, but maybe not apparent here (because there are no straight lines to show it), but you know about distortion. This step fixes both. The picture on top is from the camera (out of the lens), and the copy below it simply also applied Adobes default Vignetting and Distortion controls for this specific lens model, from its profile data base (lens was selected automatically from the Exif). Notice the top corners are made full bright again. The stars around the corners and edges are also moved a bit to correct distortion.
The editing effort here consisted of simply clicking the Enable checkbox at right, no big deal (This feature is not in Elements). The correction is made from a stored profile of this specific lens design, what this lens needs at this focal length and aperture. Adobe ACR has a big list of specific lens profiles, seems like all of them, and it already knows what each lens needs in this regard (and you can add others). Most lenses have some vignetting and distortion, especially wide lenses. Or of course, this can be ignored if you choose.
Raw has Auto modes for WB and exposure, etc, if you cannot be bothered, but there seems less point then, the camera can do that much. I am usually on the first Basic tab, which is absolutely essential - White Balance and Exposure are the most important to get right. White balance was tough here, there is orange incandescent coming up from the ground in the distance onto thin wispy clouds. I decided the black sky and white stars ought to be neutral, so I just lined up the three channels in the histogram. This is all so easy with the right tools. Edit is not a scary word, this is totally easy. You just see and judge the result immediately, and tweak it if it needs it. The point is NOT that you have too... the point is that you CAN FIX IT NOW! The camera is not going to help, human help is necessary. And it is so easy too, it goes extremely fast, during your first inspection of the images, which you have to do anyway. You do have to consider, maybe you are missing out big time. :)
Or, if desired, you can also intentionally add vignetting, next tool tab over.
It is true that any settings you make in the camera, like Saturation or Contrast or Sharpening, etc, are ignored, are not implemented in the Raw file. Nikon software sees it, Adobe does not, because I think Nikon considers our image data is its proprietary data. But that is unimportant, contradictory even, Raw is Raw, what the camera sensor saw, and includes none of those settings. You get to see it first, before having to decide what it needs. The camera exposure settings are already done of course, and Adobe Raw does pick up the White Balance setting from the camera, and these can be used as a starting point (the camera rear LCD shows that White Balance too). Otherwise all camera settings are ignored in Raw, but if desired, similar settings are available in the Raw software, so you simply make the settings there, after you see what you've got, what it needs, and if you like it. If you want Incandescent White Balance, you simply set it now, it does not matter what the camera did (the camera did even not do it to Raw). But you can see it now, so you probably fine tune it closer than that coarse try. You probably made most of those camera settings several months ago, they were not even about THIS scene anyway (so it might be good to get rid of them anyway). In Raw, you can simply do the same settings later, at home, at your leisure, after you can see the result, and see what it needs. You could even save those settings as the default in Raw, to be automatically applied to all images, same as the camera does it. Seems better to actually see the image first though, but if in Raw, it can always be backed out later.
And the Raw software has a Auto White Balance settings, and even Auto Exposure (Adobe ACR CTRL U, or a Preference menu), same as the camera does Auto. Which is maybe not the best idea for these to always be automatic default in Raw of course. You can, but it seems bad because then you will lose sight of the pictures you are actually taking. Bad because for example, maybe you are always underexposing a stop or two, but you never see or know it, if the Auto Raw stuff always corrects for you first. It's surely better to realize such problems, so we ought to look at the pictures we actually take. But even then, either way, you are still able to change it easily after seeing the results. Those that do just want something automatic, and won't dare ever change anything, might as well stick with JPG. But if your goal is good correct images, the best possible, and you're not afraid to help a little, you will love Raw, because it is so powerful, so easy, and makes so much difference. The settings in the camera really don't matter if we have to redo them anyway, so it is easier and better to do them last, when you can see and judge it (and Raw allows backing them out too, anytime, if we change our mind).
At output from Raw (which is the conversion from Raw to RGB, i.e., a copy to JPG or TIF), there are choices of when/how to do it - one of which is the Save Images button at bottom left of ACR. It will save all that you selected, as JPG or TIF files, wherever you want them, and will offer file renaming options at the time (like MarysBirthday001.jpg). I normally create the JPG using Photoshop menu File - Scripts - Image Processor, because it will batch resample to specific size for specific purposes. OK, maybe saving a couple hundred files will take a few minutes, but you can go get coffee. And then, you can have what you would have had if you shot JPG, except now the quality can be stunning (after your chance to see and correct them). Isn't good pictures pretty much the whole idea? Realize that these JPG become only temporary and expendable copies, for whatever purpose at the time, and the original Raw remains your archived master copy (the previous edit list is saved too), and you go back to it next time you need different output. The link at bottom center (ACR screen above) offers setup options about output size and printing dpi and sRGB, etc. And there are of course other output options, the Open Image button sends one or more of them (all that are selected) to Photoshop (the same ACR is more embedded into Lightroom, but my knowledge is about Photoshop). Using Raw means you don't have to add JPG artifacts until that one last final save as JPG for whatever purpose. I treat the JPG as expendable, and discard it, and output again, rather than to ever edit JPG again. I often use a batch menu in Photoshop for output, which accesses and converts all Raw files in a folder, and offers wider resample options, and can also apply other Actions at it goes. You have to love Raw, it offers so much.
What is the downside? Well, you will need some good Raw software. And the Raw files are at least double size of JPG, you may eventually need some storage. And Raw files cannot be distributed or used as such, so there is an extra step to convert Raw to JPG or TIF files. But the opportunity and advantage of Raw is so great. The editing tweaks are so easy, and so good, and the tools make this be the fastest and best way to do what is always needed anyway.
NOTE: If you have bought a new camera model, you possibly may need either an ACR update, or may have to upgrade to the latest Adobe software version to recognize your new camera model, to be able to open your new raw files. Lightroom and Elements can still be bought anyplace software is sold, but Photoshop is only available now in the Adobe subscription system, of which the basic version offers both Photoshop and Lightroom for $10/month (which includes all future updates for both).
Important Adobe documents about ACR version compatibility:
Free Raw software
Otherwise, don't be confused by some regular photo software which can also open Raw files. For example, Faststone and Irfanview are free standard editors, but they are NOT a Raw editor. Yes, they can open the Raw file (I think they just extract the Large Basic JPG embedded in the Raw file, same as the camera shows on its rear LCD), and yes, you can see and edit it, but only with regular 8-bit photo tools, not with any camera Raw tools, and not with the same range. Yes, you can save that edit as JPG, but the paths part then. It is not lossless editing, you cannot back out any changes. It only saves the result, not the edit steps. Next time, you can only access the edited JPG you saved, or you can start over with the original Raw file. These offer no Raw advantages at all.
These are all pretty big deals, important, really helpful. I probably overlooked something, and OK, so I am guilty of proselytizing for raw, but facts are facts, and during that fast first look at your images, in that few minutes (hardly more than the time to just look at them once), you can optionally do a few quick necessary fixes too, so much, so easy, so good, on so many files, with so few clicks, when you can actually see it to know what it needs, which will make such a tremendous difference in your images. It will change your life, photography-wise. The simple fact is, Raw is the easy and fast and good way. I would be very crippled without it. There are really good reasons Raw is so popular, it makes it be so easy, and good, and fast.
Really too chatty now, the rest is too long to read:
FWIW, I timed a test with Adobe ACR... with an Intel i7 3770K processor from 2012. With 154 12-megapixel D300 Raw images, 1.51 GB. A studio portrait session like above, all frames very similar. Opening them all at once in ACR. Then selecting All, clicking the white card in the first one, and adding +0.25EV Exposure (for all), and cropping all a bit smaller to 5x7 shape took maybe 20 seconds - total. Studio images, I did not look at any but the first few (I knew what they were). Realistically, then individually viewing and checking 154 images and scooting the crop box a bit on some, is maybe five or ten seconds each (which is a relatively long time, now that White Balance and exposure is fixed). For 154 images, this might have taken maybe 20-25 minutes. So here, only a check for cropping still needs this pass, but we really ought to at least look at all of our pictures. A few could be deleted as we go. At Close, the 12 megapixel Raw files are NOT Saved and rewritten again (they are never changed) - instead only about 8KB of each .xmp edit instruction file is saved, no big deal time wise. Then using a Photoshop batch to resample all to 5x7 inch printed size (3 megapixels), an i7 computer and a 500GB disk took eight minutes to output all (to apply these adjustments and resample and output 154 JPG files) as smaller JPG Quality 9 (5 minutes if not resampled smaller). That is the one and only Save as JPG these images ever saw. They will never be edited - if any change is wanted, they will be discarded and output again. 12GB of memory only used about 3GB for the entire Windows system. So for a session of 154 similar images, maybe 35 minutes can make such a major improvement (including individual verification of each, in this fixed situation). You can't give 154 of your images that much time? You have to look at them regardless. What is the alternative? Random pictures require more individual attention, but consider that alternative. My notion is that NOT doing this same work is simply unacceptable, regardless if JPG or Raw. What was the point if we don't? Raw just makes it easy and fast and good. And of course, if you really are so good that all of your pictures are always perfect, then this viewing pass won't take long at all.
A certain amount of "edit" simply should happen in any possible case. No one can always get exposure and white balance, or even cropping, exactly correct (our camera tools, and our own attention, are simply not that good). Your JPG always needs this same editing work, Raw just makes this attention be very easy (and results very good). I shoot 100% Raw, because it is so worthwhile, like day and night, especially handy in any batch environment (handling many images in same lighting).
An example story: My wife is not into photography, but takes pictures depending on the automation of her little point&shoot camera, and then on me to make it right. Now and then she brings me her memory card, with maybe craft or women's group stuff, or from one of our cruises, sometimes a few hundred images. She wants 6x4 inch prints. The Adobe Camera Raw software works on JPG too, so the first thing I do is open all her JPG in it, because the tools are so much better. JPG is still only 8 bits of course, but the Raw software tools are easier, stronger, and oriented for camera images. Also Adobe Raw software offers the same multiple file editing, and the same lossless editing for JPG as for Raw (avoiding accumulation of JPG artifacts from multiple times). The original JPG data is never modified, instead edit instructions are stored, and applied at any output. Other programs cannot see this edit in this file, they only see the original JPG, until you "output" from Adobe, into a finished JPG they can see.
Anyway, then just I select "All", and crop the first one of the 4:3 compact camera format to full frame width at 3:2 (to match the 6x4 paper). Basically one click, crop All is as fast as one. Then while quickly looking at each one (which must be done regardless), I might scoot that individual cropped frame up or down to better center the subject on the paper - just a nudge, a touch, as I go. A few will individually need straightening, or tighter cropping to be an effective picture, eliminating side distractions, etc. Her little camera cannot use bounce flash, so many need red eye correction, just some simple clicks. And some need to tweak exposure or white balance, just tweak a slider or click something white (more or less). Do what you see it needs. JPG does not have the same range as Raw, but small tweaks are usually satisfactory, and any try is certainly better than not fixing it. All this is done as I go by looking, very fast. Some need nothing more, so it averages only a few seconds each frame - done by eye, to make it look better, all so easy. This quick pass is really pretty much the same effort as any first look at them, but it offers awesome tweaking capabilities as I go, just putting the ideas into actions as I go.
A few may need a little more work, removing glare on eyeglasses, or something important that needs touch up with regular edit tools (Clone tool, Healing Brush, etc)... Especially in serious studio portraits, ladies love the touchup, which these are then output as TIF for editing in other editors. The number of repeated TIF Saves doesn't matter (lossless), which also allows coming back to them later if necessary, if something difficult. However, TIF is rare for me, most only need the raw editor processing and JPG output. So at completion, I run a resample batch that sizes them all to 1800x1200 JPG for uploading and printing 6x4 inches (Specifically, "Fit To" 1800x1800, so that the crop and aspect ratio handles any portrait or landscape). Doing JPG in Adobe Raw is essentially lossless - this batch accesses the original JPG, applies the corrections, resamples, and outputs as only one more JPG save. You can of course upload your large file, the printer people can handle it if the cropped aspect ratio is right, but I resample them smaller, and only upload what is needed for that one specific print job. She just saves the print, and the original file (and edit instructions) is the archived master copy.
So this can be a total of only two JPG saves and artifacts, one from the camera, and the final output for upload to be printed, both of the two at high JPG quality. Much of this processing was simultaneous on all, or at least on several, but each frame has had a few seconds of individual attention (the alternative is not to correct them, which is unacceptable). Then during her own first look, she might delete a few before printing, but she thinks her little camera is fantastic, it takes such really good pictures. Working on Raw files is easier, pretty much same procedure (the quick inspection pass), except that wider Raw range is capable of much more, and omits the cameras JPG artifacts.
A tedious description, but important: Note something else regarding White Balance shifts: The camera sensor takes whatever Raw picture that it sees. White Balance is not yet a factor, the sensor can only capture whatever light it sees. Maybe the scene was orange incandescent or green fluorescent or blue skylight or red sunset, but what the sensor sees is what the sensor gets. Then later, when White Balance is applied (by either the camera, or later by the Raw software), the RGB channels are shifted to correct white balance.
If the camera outputs JPG, then the camera computer first converts Raw data to RGB and then shifts the data according to whatever the White Balance setting says to do - which of course was setup before the picture is taken, via a very minimal user interface. Then it converts to 8-bit JPG. And that is what we get - shifted 8-bit data is output. The range of the digital data is necessarily limited (clipped) at the 0 and 255 ends, nothing exists beyond those end points to be shifted in. Possibly the result was correct, or often maybe not. But if we change it again later, we are changing previously shifted and limited data. There may be nothing left at the ends to be shifted back into the image.
If the camera outputs Raw, then the White Balance done later will again use the same two things: the original captured unmodified Raw image data, and a White Balance instruction for how to shift it. But the Raw software shows us the RGB picture first (on our large calibrated monitor), and shows histograms, and provides easy tools specific for this purpose to help evaluate and fix it (for example, it offers the White Balance menu, and Temperature sliders, and the White Balance dropper tool). When we adjust WB in Raw software, we are merely changing the instruction about how to shift the original data. We are shown a preview copy, but the original 12-bit Raw data is only shifted once, at final RGB output, one time using the new modified instruction. We are still limited at the 0..255 ends, but there was no previous bad shift to push data off those ends before we see it. We are never shifting already shifted data, never shifting it twice, even if we come back next month to do it again. What is archived is always the original unmodified Raw data, and any editing instructions for it - which can always be changed or deleted or backed out, but otherwise, the instruction is applied one time at any RGB output. Same is true for any modifications, cropping, saturation, sharpening, etc. - Only the instructions are modified, and new RGB data will be output again. The original Raw data is never modified, it is always what the camera sensor saw.
So, the White Balance operation performed is exactly the same thing regardless if the camera or Raw software does it. You can simply set Incandescent White Balance either place, and that's what you will get (Adobe calls it Tungsten, same thing as Incandescent). If you do set WB in the camera (used for the camera rear LCD display), the Raw software will try to use that value too, the best it can, but you are not limited by it, you can always change this instruction. The Raw difference is that we always get to see it and evaluate it and correct it first in the Raw software. Which is a huge plus, since human eyes generally can recognize what it needs, or at least, we can learn to click the white card. The result is not always the same if we do this on the JPG file (which is reshifting the data again, although small changes can work OK).