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Your NEF images contain a JPEG preview image that has all of the in-camera settings applied to it. This preview is what you see in your LCD screen on your camera, and it is the image that Bridge displays initially. However, Camera Raw cannot read many of those in-camera settings, so they are not part of the raw image. I think the best thing for you to do is to take the time to create your own set of default settings in Camera Raw that will be applied initially. Then you won't see such a dramatic change in your images. What you are seeing is normal and part of the raw workflow.
That certainly makes sense many thanks. What I find strange is that I used the camera for about 6 months - shooting in NEF and the images stayed like the preview when I clicked on them in Bridge.
The change seems so dramatic that, even when I do you as you suggested, using my own default setting, so much detail is already lost I can't really get it close to what the camera produces. Is there anything else you can suggest to keep the raw settings as close as possible to those taken by the camera?
My experience has been that the previews will almost always change. I don't know what you were doing, or what may have changed. Depending on what I have photographed, sometimes I find that I have to make some drastic adjustments. Have you worked with the different profiles for your camera? I have a D40, and Bridge and Lightroom both defaulted to Adobe Standard. I find I usually get better results with the Camera Standard profile. Other than that, I really don't know what to suggest.
I am experiencing a problem when I look at my NEF images in Adobe Bridge. When I load them in and look at the thumb nails without clicking on them or opening them, the images look fine. As soon as I click on the images (just to select it not to actually open it) the colours change quite dramatically and i can't get back to the original images. It looks as if a greenish tone is put onto them and some of the detail is lost.
Can you upload such a NEF? Use yousendit.com if you don't have web space (and post the URL for downloading here).
A friend of mine is experiencing the same problem on her Mac (10.5) and CS3. I took a few of her raw images to my Mac (10.6) and CS4 and when I click on the image in Bridge, there is no change. This leads me to believe that it's not the jpeg preview, persay, but rather Bridge/ACR.
>> What I find strange is that I used the camera for about 6 months - shooting in NEF and the images stayed like the preview when I clicked on them in Bridge.<<
For the purpose of sorting files it can at times be useful to stay with "JPG based" Quick Thumbnails in Bridge.
Sounds as if you changed to Raw/ACR based High Quality. Maybe unintentionally.