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, 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.
Vignetting here in top corners (cropped at bottom):
This picture was with Nikon D800, 14-24 mm lens, f/2.8 and 14 mm at ISO 4000 and 15 seconds. Vignetting in first picture is very apparent (in the top corners, bottom is cropped off). 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 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, 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. 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 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: Previously, it was that if you have bought a new camera model, you 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. The subscription system has changed this. Elements can still be bought anyplace software is sold, but Photoshop and Lightroom are only available now in the Adobe subscription system, which 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 Raw files (they just extract the Large Basic JPG embedded in the Raw file, which uses the camera settings, and is same as the camera shows on its rear LCD), and yes, you can see and edit that, but only with regular 8-bit photo tools, not with any camera Raw tools, and not with the same range and Not the same philosophy. Yes, you can save that edit as JPG, but there are no raw features, it is not lossless editing, you cannot back out any changes. It only saves the result as JPG, but 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.
Not to take anything away from their other regular features, but these are Not raw editors, and 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, 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 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, 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 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 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).