In one of the many previous threads on this topic, DeanS got to the crux of the matter with this question: how many shooters could distinguish between a well shot/well pp'd jpeg and a similar RAW photo? So I've decided to take a completely impartial whack at it: let's export a raw file at default settings as a jpg, process the raw file in Camera Raw, then make the exact same ACR edits to the jpg and see what we get.
Since I believe the biggest benefit of shooting raw is the ability to recover shadow and highlight detail, I used an example covering a wide tonal range. Here is our starting point, a shot straight into the sun from Northern Ireland:http://www.ddphotos.com/orig.jpg
That is exported straight out of ACR before any edits. This was a bracketed series, and I chose this one because the next brightest exposure blew out the sky. Ordinarily my pp method would blend several exposures on a shot like this for reasons we will see later, but for this example I will use just this one raw. I started out by double processing the raw into a shot optimized for the sky and one for the land:http://www.ddphotos.com/raws.jpg
I then blended the two together with a simple gradient on a layer mask. I then opened the jpg I had exported earlier and double processed it using the exact same ACR settings, and blended it using the exact same gradient mask. Here are the results. Can you tell which is which?http://www.ddphotos.com/comparison.jpg
Kind of tough at that reduced size, but a sharp eye could tell. Now let's zoom in:http://www.ddphotos.com/comp1.jpghttp://www.ddphotos.com/comp2.jpghttp://www.ddphotos.com/comp3.jpg
See it now? The raw image has more shadow detail, smoother tonal gradations, no noise around the sun as opposed to the jpg which has artifacts, etc. The jpg actually held up better than I thought, but I still would be horrified to print this large. Now if I'm just shooting portraits or pictures of my cat
, I'm not taxing the tonal range of my sensor and therefore jpgs should be quite fine. But for landscape work I want the best quality possible, so it's raw all the way. On that note, you can see that the foliage on the rock in the closest foreground is a bit out of focus and noisy, which is due to the shadow recovery and f13 not quite reaching it. In my actual process of this scene I used a separate shot for the front foliage, exposed solely for the foliage and focused precisely on it:http://www.ddphotos.com/foliage.jpg
So there you have it, an actual test. Read into it what you will.