Here's how Adobe Lightroom 4 renders this Canon EOS 60D image when the Camera Calibration is set to Process: 2012 (Current) and Profile: Adobe Standard. These are the default settings, but they are not your only options.
Anyone who shoots RAW images rather than JPEGs should know that RAW is exactly that: It’s the raw image data recorded as it comes off of the image sensor. Because it’s data, you can never actually see a RAW image. It first has to be interpreted, converted, and rendered as a screen image based on what the designer of the RAW converter thinks is the most useful starting point based on the characteristics of your image sensor.
If you set your camera to JPEG, the RAW converter in your camera will interpret the data, render it a certain way, and save the results as a JPEG. There are countless ways raw data can be rendered, which is why today’s digital cameras offer choices that begin with “faithful,” “standard,” and “vivid,” and extend into so-called art filters that produce effects such as sepia tone, cross-processing, toy camera, etc.
You can do all this and more with a RAW converter, presets, and plugins that produce specialized renderings of their own. Regardless, the basic question you should ask yourself is whether your RAW converter’s default rendering is right for you and, if not, what you should change it to. (Jeep in mind that I’m referring to default renderings here, not presets that give your images a film look, a weathered look, heightened vignetting, or whatever.)
This is important enough to some photographers that they choose their RAW conversion software as carefully, if not more, as they do their cameras, lenses, and computers. Just as electric guitarists sample various amplifiers and tweak the knobs until they find a tone that’s most pleasing to their ear, the best digital photographers play around with their software’s basic rendering options until they find the one that’s initially most pleasing to their eye.
This is the final image after I adjusted the tone curve, clarity, and sharpening to my liking. It's a lot closer to the Portrait default renderings and therefore would have been more time consuming to achieve if I had started with the Adobe Standard default at the top of the page.
You should do the same. It can be the difference between a default rendering that’s flat and dull and one that gets you off to a good start. A visually appealing default rendering can also save you the time of performing the same tweaks to individual images after every import.
As you can see from my examples, the defaults I use are relatively subtle. That doesn’t mean yours have to be. You’re free to use more punchy defaults or even flatter ones if you prefer. Just remember that your default rendering is your starting point, not your ultimate destination. The more image detail you begin with, the better you can decide what to change and where.