We’re going to follow a two-stage adjustment strategy: overall image-prepping adjustments in Adobe Camera Raw; then creative and fine-tuning, localized area adjustments in Photoshop Elements or CS.
In Adobe Camera Raw adjust in this order: color, tonal range, flaws, general sharpness.
Open your image in Adobe Camera Raw. Click on the Preview box so you can see any changes you make. Click on the Basic icon. Move the temperature slider to the position that gives you appealing color while yielding accurate or natural color to subjects that are color sensitive (like faces, wedding dresses, blue skies). Except for these color-sensitive subjects, color is very subjective, and often a creative decision. If you want a more accurate, neutral rendering of color, select the White Balance Tool, and click it on a white or gray part of the picture.
Stop when you get the color you like.
To maximize image data, click on this link and choose a color space of ProPhoto or Adobe RGB (1998).
Adjusting tonality (exposure)
To adjust tonality and color, click on the Basic icon and then use the sliders provided.
The goal at this stage is to maximize dynamic range to hold detail in the shadows and highlights. You’re starting with a correctly exposed picture, so this shouldn’t be too difficult unless it’s a high-contrast image with tonality extending beyond the capability of the sensor.
Turn on the clipping indicators. They will highlight in color the problem areas (blue for clipped shadows, red for clipped highlights). It’s okay (and sometimes good) to have clipped areas if they are unimportant; for instance, sunlight reflecting from water or a meaningless shadow under a large boulder.
Play around with the sliders (while keeping an eye on the histogram and clipping indicators) until you get the result you want. Assuming you have a good exposure, you likely need only play with the Recovery slider to pull back any clipped highlights, and the Fill Light (possibly the Black) slider to show enough shadow detail.
For larger overall tonal shifts, move the Exposure slider. To darken shadows, use the Black slider. To adjust midtones, use the Brightness slider. And use the Contrast slider to further darken dark tones and further lighten light tones.
Click on the clipping indicators to identify areas that might be over- or underexposed.
For gentle overall saturation adjustments, use the Saturation or Vibrance slider under the Basic icon. The Vibrance slider works so that you don’t oversaturate any of the colors. To increase saturation of specific colors, click on the HSL/Grayscale icon and then on its Saturation tab. Move the slider of the color you want to change.
Keep in mind that by later using the selection tools in Photoshop CS or Elements software, you can fine-tune adjustments.
Click on the Detail icon and apply a mild sharpening, such as Amount: 100%, Radius: 0.8, Detail: 25 (0 for portraits), Masking: 0. Because it works on the luminosity channel, sharpening in ACR avoids the haloing that can result from the Unsharp Mask function in Photoshop CS or Elements. But you have less control, since you can’t limit sharpening via a Threshold control or apply it to specific selections, such as eyes.
Click on the HSL icon to display saturation controls; click on the Detail icon to display sharpening controls.