If your camera can shoot “RAW” photos instead of JPG, use it. I won’t go into the arguments people have against shooting RAW, I think the best way to make the case is through an example. To the left is a shot at sunset taken under a bridge. It’s not a particularly great photo either technically or artistically, but I hope illustrates the degree of control you have when shooting RAW.
This is as it would have come out of the camera if shot in JPG (I used the default settings in Lightroom to simulate this). There is extreme contrast, ranging from the setting sun, the back-lit buildings and barge, and the ground in shadow. The colours are muted compared with what I had experienced watching the sun go down. Setting the white balance is always tricky at sunset or sunrise as the sun itself is strongly filtered to give warm light, whereas the rest of the sky gives a blue cast.
I exposed the shot so that the sunset would not be overblown. I used a low ISO, medium aperture and a wide angle lens to capture the scene. I made sure than there was little camera shake in the captured shot. If I’d exposed for the shadows, the sunset and sky would have been blown out. It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to recover that amount of overexposure, especially from a digital capture. However, the dynamic range of my camera is sufficiently high that I should be able to dig out the detail in the shadows from this shot.
After importing the RAW file into Lightroom, I cropped, straightened, and adjusted the image using the exposure, black and white points, highlight and shadow recovery sliders. I also played around with the whitebalance until I obtained a result that I was happy with. There’s no one “correct” whitebalance in this situation, I simply chose one which balances the blues in the sky and water with the reds and oranges of the setting sun. You can play around with warmer or cooler images to get the impression you desire. The end result of my adjustments is a “neutral” image, one that has detail at both ends of the brightness range and which does not look too unnatural. Even such a normal looking image would have been difficult to produce using film.
To give the image a bit more “punch”, you can adjust the contrast, clarity and vibrance. The highlight and shadows may need a bit of extra recovery, I prefer to retain some detail rather than crushing the blacks or totally blowing out the highlights. I don’t claim that the final result conforms to good taste but is certainly more eyecatching (or eyesearing) than the original photo.
This range of post-capture adjustment is due to shooting RAW. I was able to leverage the information captured by the sensor in a single frame and in Lightroom process it to my needs. Even if you do not perform such extreme modifications to the image, the ability to extract shadows and highlights, together with whitebalance is invaluable. It is all about giving you options for the final image.