I will start by saying that I am useless in Photoshop processing. I use the same workflow with almost every image and my depth of image editing knowledge is very limited but improving I must say, but I do not simply possess the same control over processing than a lot of others. It is an imperative requirement to be able to process images successfully when shooting with a digital camera if you want to get the best from your images. It can be hugely frustrating to think you have an image in the bag, only to fail to process it properly.
I always shoot in RAW mode. This gives me control of the final image to a much better degree. When I first tried it, I wasn't getting any better results after processing, in fact, it was worse, and found the extra processes a total waste of time and couldn't understand why people were using it, but realised they must be doing something different to me by the sheer quality of their images.
I started using Capture One Pro and although processing was simple, I didn't really get the best out of my images as I didn't realise the RAW process was so important to the final output. GET IT RIGHT DURING RAW CONVERSION before processing an image further in your Photo editing software. All I do in the RAW conversion is to sort out the white balance, exposure, to avoid blown highlights and black shadows and contrast and saturation. These can be fine tuned when the conversion is done, but the more you can do at this point, the easier it will be later and with probably better results.
I also use Photoshop CS3 which I'm quite lucky as it's free as I use it for work use too. I haven't tried RAW processing in CS3 as my experience with RAW using CS2 was terrible. C1 Pro is entirely a different class, even noticeable by a relative novice like myself, but you certainly pay for that improvement, but it's worth every penny in my opinion.
Ok, let's look at what I do after transferring the images to my PC. The first thing I do is open up C1 and browse the images checking for sharpness. If they're not sharp, they go in the bin. I don't batch process as such although I will sometimes apply various adjustments to multiple images if the exposure is the same ie. within the same sequence of shots, but this is fairly rare.
I then set the levels to ensure that the highlights aren't blown and also the blacks aren't black ie. they show some detail and aren't clipped and adjust the midtones. I find the midtones quite hard to judge and I think it comes down to experience and it can be altered if not right within the image editor software. I will then simulate sharpening to make sure it's acceptably sharp (I then reset to no sharpening) and then check and alter the white balance if necessary. With regards to sharpening at RAW conversion, I avoid this as sharpening within CS3 is far better in my opinion. I then process the images as 16 bit TIFF files. The RAW file is totally unaffected and will remain as such for future processing.
Processing the TIFF
I then start to fine tune the TIFF image by opening this up in my image editing software. As mentioned, I use CS3.
Again, I will have to fine tune the levels, curves, saturation, but these will be subtle adjustments. This is also where I will clone out any visible dust spots (I have the dirtiest censor known to mankind), clone out anything that needs it (cloning sucks, but is sometimes necessary!). Once I am happy with my adjustments and the overall image, I will save this as a TIFF again, but name it as xxxxFULLWORKED.tiff This is so that I can use it for printing requests or whatever, but the main thing is the image will not alter as I won't have to reprocess it all over again should I need more than a web image from it. The fully worked TIFF becomes the Master copy if you like.