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When you're shooting JPEG mode, the computer inside your camera has to do a lot of things. It reads the raw data off of the image sensor, it converts that into a color image, then it applies your white balance settings, it sharpens the image, and finally, it compresses it into a JPEG file. Along the way, it also possibly performs some image editing operations; changes to saturation and contrast, for example. Picture styles are collections of image editing operations that can be applied to JPEG images when you shoot.
Your camera comes with a selection of picture styles that are tailored towards specific subject matter. For example, the portrait picture style will apply color corrections and contrast adjustments that will make skin tones look better. If you're shooting RAW, picture styles have no effect on your image, because no image processing takes place on RAW files inside the camera. However, if you select a picture style other than standard, a tag is set in your RAW file. If you then open that RAW file with Canon's Digital Photo Professional, it will identify that tag, and automatically apply settings in DPP to achieve the look of the picture style.
If you're processing your RAW images with other RAW processors, then picture styles will have no effect. If you regularly shoot in the same environment, say, you're a wedding shooter, or an event shooter, and you routinely shoot the same types of subject matter in the same type of light, then it's worth trying to define a picture style that gives you results you like. If one of the default picture styles works for your common shooting locations, or if you can craft a picture style that does, then you can save yourself a tremendous amount of post-production time. If you're shooting JPEG, then your camera will automatically apply the corrections defined in your picture style.
If you're shooting RAW, and processing your images with DPP, then it will automatically apply your picture styles corrections. If your picture style is configured properly, this might mean that you don't need to do any further adjustment. As you'll see later, picture styles can contain extremely refined adjustments that can create very subtle changes in color and contrast. s
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