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When you shoot in 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 it into a color image, then it applies your white balance settings, it sharpens your image, and then finally, it compresses it into a JPEG file and writes it to the card. Along the way, it also possibly performs some image editing operations, changes to saturation and contrast for example. Picture controls are collections of image editing operations that can be applied to JPEG images when you shoot.
Now, your camera comes with a selection of picture controls that are tailored towards specific subject matter. For example, the Portrait Picture control will apply color corrections and contrast adjustments that will make skin tones look better. If you're shooting raw, picture controls have no effect on your image because no image processing takes place on raw files inside the camera. However, if you select a picture control other than standard, a tag is set in your raw file. If you then open that raw file with Nikon's Capture NX, it will identify that tag and automatically apply settings in Capture NX to achieve the look of that specific picture control.
Now if you're processing your raw images with other raw processors then picture controls 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 find a picture control that gives you results you like. If one of the default picture controls works for your common shooting locations or if you can craft a picture control that does, then you can save yourself a tremendous amount of postproduction time.
If you're shooting JPEG then your camera will automatically apply the corrections defined in your picture control. If you're shooting raw and processing your images with Capture NX, then it will automatically apply your picture controls' corrections. If your picture style is configured properly, this might mean that you don't have to do any further adjustment to any of your images. Now, as you'll see later, picture controls can contain extremely refined adjustments that can create very subtle changes in color and contrast.
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