I'm looking for a raw photo editor/developer application for my Nikon D5100. The two obvious choices are Capture NX2 and Lightroom. I'm new to this whole thing, I read a lot about them, played a bit with both trial versions, and I have a slight preference towards LR. Capture NX2 seems a bit old-school and has certain problems (I read that actual effect editing in NX2 is not gamma-aware and is 8-bit only, after the exposure/WB have been applied). Lightroom seems better technically and quality-wise, and instead of NX2's control points you have that brush which actually gives you more control. (Not to mention LR is on sale on adobe.com right now.) My big problem is its catalogue workflow. I don't need a catalogue, I just want to open my raw files, edit them, save as JPEG and then forget about the raws, just like in NX2, I might even delete the raw files. Does Lightroom work that way?
You can use Lightroom for editing photos only, although I'm sure once you start using it, you'll want the benefits of a catalog also. If you're wanting to get rid of the RAW files because of their size, there are a couple of options with LR:
Convert to DNG (Digital Negative) with lossy compression. The files get significantly smaller (a bit less than half the size), with no noticeable loss of quality and keep the flexibility of RAW, which allows for much greater adjustments in exposure, shadow and highlight recovery, etc.
Convert from RAW to JPEG. When you export in LR, there's an option to reimport to the catalog. I do this when I want to get rid of RAW files but still keep the JPEG just in case.
If you still want to use LR for strictly editing purposes, you can have a blank catalog where you import the files, do whatever changes you need, and then export them. You can then delete the RAW files right in the catalog so you can re-use the catalog later.
You need to import photos in Lightroom, but you can do a bulk Export to JPEG after you have made your changes and then delete the RAW files. It's generally easier to work with when working with a bunch of photos because you can apply the same changes to a group of photos if they were all taken under the same conditions. There is no rule saying you can't export to JPEG and then delete the lrproj and RAW files after you are done.
Alternately, Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop will allow you to open and make adjustments while importing RAW file data in to Photoshop, though I don't find it quite as convenient as Lightroom.
"I don't need a catalogue, I just want to open my raw files, edit them, save as JPEG and then forget about the raws… Does Lightroom work that way?"
Lightroom really doesn't want to work that way, but the good news is that Lightroom also isn't really raw conversion or photo editing software. It's workflow and management software that's built around a really good raw converter, Adobe Camera Raw. This is what powers Lightroom's 'Develop' module.
Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements also use Adobe Camera Raw as their conversion engines. These programs are ideal for the per-file "open-edit-save" approach that you're looking for.
There are some differences between the power of Adobe Camera Raw, or ACR for short, that's included with Photoshop versus Photoshop Elements. The page from Adobe outlining them is here: http://helpx.adobe.com/x-productkb/multi/camera-raw-differences-photoshop-photoshop.html
Note that even though you can't do things like spot removal or graduated filters in Adobe Camera Raw with Elements, ACR is simply the starting place for pixel-editing in the main program. You can still do these things in Elements itself, and more besides. Pixel-editing programs like Photoshop and Elements don't depend on the raw converter to perform all of their actions, making the raw converter more of a 'first step' than a complete process.
Get DXO Optics Pro and dump Lightroom, that's the best advice you can get, trust me. I felt the same way. Catalogue sucks big time, in DXO I have already my work done while in LR it's just Importing photos... And the details and noise reduction are clearly superior in DXO. Just be sure to get DXO v9 and above, it really shines from 9.5 IMHO.
To answer your question indirectly, if you want raw editor without catalog, you could try DxO's Optic pro.
I use Lightroom to "develop" the RAW files, and put up with the way to point it at the current directory. The .xmp files can be witten to the same dir as the raw.
I think DxO has a program that can do that, too, on sale at the moment. I'm looking at it as a suppliment but I think it can do all the exposure settings too.