You've heard it a million times: RAW capture is best. Among its many benefits, it gives you the highest image quality, the flexibility to tweak the white balance and get the color right, and the most exposure latitude.
But all the power of your RAW files won't help you if you can't preview them, quickly convert them, and make them the best sizes for sharing or printing. To do that, plus organize and choose the your favorites, you need a program like Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom 2 ($280, street; $90 upgrade, street). Here's how to use Lightroom so that working with your RAW files is as easy (or easier) as working with JPEGs.
Import: Since Lightroom makes a database of your files, you have to first import them.
If your photos are well organized (see "Lost!" October 2008), go to File > Import Photos From Disk. Choose the folder you want to add. This will bring up the import dialogue.
Use the metadata pull-down tab how and why you should usE Adobe lightroom to create a new set of file info that you want to apply to your images. Make a metadata template that includes, at minimum, your name as the creator and copyright holder. That way, this information will be embedded in your image whenever you export it.
Add a few key words that apply to all the photos, then hit Import.
Lightroom automatically puts you in Library mode, so you're ready to get started. Tap L on your keyboard once to dim the interface; tap L twice for a black background.
Use your right arrow key to flip through them. When you like one, tap the P key to flag it as a pick. If you have second thoughts, hit U to take the flag away. See a really horrible shot? Hit X to name it a reject. Check out all your flagged photos by clicking the flag icon.
Hit tab to hide the menus on the sides and see the pictures extra-large.
Next, pick your favorites. Dim the lights again (with the L key), and flip through your flagged photos. Star them according to your preference: Hit the number one on your keyboard to give an image one star, the two key for two stars, etc. Then filter again by your stars. Now that you have found the best, start editing.
Since you're working on a RAW file, everything you do to your image is nondestructive and easily reversible.
All of your steps show up in the History list on the left, so if you mess up, click there to go back.
If you like an edit but want to try another tack, click the plus sign in the Snapshots box, and name your current edit. You can always come back to it later.
Start at the top and work down. Crop, clone out ugly spots such as sensor dust, and fix redeye first. Then make sure you're not clipping any highlights (using Exposure) or shadows (using Blacks). Hold down the Alt (Option on a Mac) key, and move the Exposure slider until you don't see any bright spots and the preview is almost solid black. Do the same thing with the Black slider.
In Lightroom, unlike Photoshop, Curves is nearly foolproof. Just grab that little donut in the upper left corner, and mouse over an area of your image. Tap the down arrow to darken that tone, up to brighten. The Curves will follow.
When you're done, sharpen, get rid of noise, add a vignette, or go blackand- white. You can also use the new Gradient Filter or Adjustment Brush to make adjustments to specific areas while leaving the rest untouched. When your image is close to how you want it, head to Photoshop for any serious retouching. Right-click on your image and choose Edit In Photoshop. (Use Elements or other software? You can make it an option in Lightroom's preferences.) Saving and closing the file will send you back to Lightroom.
The first time, use the Profile pull-down menu (circled) to choose Other, then check the profiles you use from the list. Those will be the only ones you'll see when you print.
Set your Page Setup and Print Settings on the left, and Lightroom will remember them. From now on, all you have to do is choose your layout and hit Print. The only time you'll need to head back to Page Setup and Print Settings is when you switch paper size or type.
Choose to rename, resize, and sharpen; pick your colorspace, file type, and compression level. Then hit Export and go back to editing-Lightroom performs the task in the background. You can also send files to CD or DVD or download plugins to export directly to websites such as Flickr or Picasa Web. Save your settings so you can go back to them, and never shoot RAW + JPEG again.