There are best practices in processing, and optimisation is the best way to start
Optimisation means preparing a TIFF from a RAW file to expected industry standards, with a just-full dynamic range and qualities that a typical viewer would expect, and which appear normal. The qualities include overall brightness, contrast, colour saturation and sharpness. This is what, for example, a professional digital pre-press company would do to tweak images if necessary.
Over-processing and failure to process adequately are the two widespread ills of image editing, and optimisation involves a lot of avoidance – that is, not using adjustment sliders that superficially offer interesting effects. Optimisation ignores creative choices, and so is not necessarily a guaranteed way of processing. Rather, it’s a starting point. It means the overall colour balance is free of an obvious cast, with anything expected to be neutral (concrete, for example) looking exactly neutral. It also means having the exposure of the subject approximately mid-tone (if it is a mid-tone), and the dynamic range filling up the width of the scale – just (by setting the black and white points).
An example of when this last adjustment might not be appropriate is if you had shot, say, a misty scene. In this case, setting the black point would certainly increase the tonal range, but it would also eliminate the delicate misty feeling by introducing blacks into an image that shouldn’t have any blacks.
1. Sample helmet shadows for neutral 2. Set neutral to change colour temperature and tint 3. Slightly raise Exposure 4. Slightly adjust Highlights and Shadows and compensate for slight flatness by raising the Contrast 5. Set black and white points
unprocessed processed A straightforward shot in no need of local adjustment, just given the basic procedure of setting the neutrals, tweaking exposure, a slight recovery in highlights and shadow areas, and setting the black and white points