I use Adobe Lightroom as my RAW file converter. I love this program. It does what I want and need it to do. I feel strongly about the importance of applying the best settings possible during the RAW conversion.
For an image to be successful, in my mind, three things must be present. Focus, exposure and composition. After importing my images into Lightroom, beginning in the Library Module, I will browse thru all the images, and mark any obvious rejects. Then I make sure I have added all the tags and keywords which uniquely identify my images. Then I go to the Develop Module. This is where I will make the initial tonal corrections, white balance and framing edits.
Interestingly, when you first open a RAW file, it can look like you really messed up with the exposure. This is because the camera does not do any processing to a RAW file, like it does with other file formats. So the first thing I do in the Develop module is, while looking at my histogram, set the white and black points until the histogram reflects that none of my important highlights and shadows are clipped. From that point, I adjust my midtones until I have a nice balance of tones. I generally stay away from the saturation slider, but will sometimes add a touch of vibrance.
A good friend of mine gave me a good tip about the Clarity slider in the Develop Module. He said to be very cautious when using the clarity slider, because if you use too much (more than 30), it can cause halos to appear around the edges of your subject.
I then set my white balance, by simply clicking on the eyedropper icon, and then clicking on a part of my images which is neutral. If my result does not look right, then I keep looking for a neutral area which gives me a pleasant look and feel. 99% of the time, this works fine, but in the rare cases where I’m not happy with my result, I will correct for any white balance issues in Photoshop.
If my image needs straightening or if the image suffers from lens distortion or chromatic aberration, I will also try and rectify it here in the Develop Module.
I don’t do any noise reduction or sharpening in Lightroom. I like to apply these selectively, in Photoshop. Once all of this is done, It is time to export my image into Photoshop. It is here that I decide whether or not to export to Photoshop as a smart object, or just as a regular file. Exporting as a Smart Object gives you the ability to go back and forth to make corrections to the RAW file without destructively altering your Photoshop file. There are many things I like about this idea, but, unfortunately, there are also a few functions inside of Photoshop that don’t work when you have converted your image to a smart object. So, this is not something I do all the time.