This article provides some APS-C sensor comparisons based on tests done by DxOMark. There are many assumptions made about how various sized sensors perform. For example, many camera reviews seem to assume that ‘newer is better’. Sometimes they even go so far as to criticize some cameras for using ‘old sensors’.
What is the reality? Are the sensors in ‘newer’ cameras always better than ones that are several years old? Should we be concerned if a camera uses a sensor that is a few years old?
Before we look at some comparisons of Canon, Sony and Nikon APS-C cameras there are a few things we should keep in mind based on DxOMark guidelines.
- A difference of 0.5EV is needed for a difference in dynamic range to start to become noticeable.
- A difference of 1-bit is needed for a difference in colour depth to start to become noticeable.
- A difference of 25% in the low light score equals about 1/3 EV which is barely noticeable for most people.
Let’s have a look at some Canon APS-C cameras to see how their sensors compare.
NOTE: Click on charts to enlarge.
When we study the test data in the chart above we see some interesting things.
- When it comes to Canon APS-C cameras there is no relationship to camera age and sensor performance.
- The sensors in some older Canon APS-C camera models perform at noticeably better levels than newer ones when it comes to dynamic range and colour depth.
- With two notable exceptions, the low light performance between various Canon APS-C cameras would not be noticeable to most people.
Now, let’s have a look at the performance of the sensors in some Sony APS-C cameras.
Looking at the data in the above chart tells us something very clearly. There is no reason whatsoever to upgrade one of these Sony APS-C cameras in order to get a better performing sensor. There may be other specific camera features and capabilities that may be important to individual photographers. These may justify an upgrade depending on the needs of a specific photographer. APS-C sensor performance would not come into play in terms of justifying an upgrade.
Finally, let’s have a look at some Nikon APS-C sensor cameras.
When we look at the test data in the above APS-C sensor chart we see similar scores between the various Nikon APS-C camera models. There is a higher degree of difference between them than we observed with Sony models, but none of the differences would cross the thresholds outlined by DxOMark. So, as with Sony cameras, there would be no reason to upgrade a Nikon APS-C camera body in order to achieve better sensor performance.
You may have noticed that I included the D7100 in the Nikon chart. This camera is of an older vintage than models included in the Canon and Sony charts. You may be wondering why I included it.
One of my friends recently upgraded his Nikon kit by adding a Nikon D500. His D7100 is now his backup camera. My friend is very pleased with the improved performance that his Nikon D500 provides. Not because of anything to do with sensor performance, but because of the faster AF-C frame rates, buffer size, card writing speed, and auto-focus performance.
Before upgrading your APS-C camera do your homework by referencing independent tests done by organizations like DxOMark. A newer camera body may provide you with improved functionality, but don’t assume that its sensor is going to perform any better than the one that is in your current camera. And, take some of the sensor criticisms pronounced in various camera reviews with a grain of salt. Many of them are opinions or assumptions, and not based on factual data.
Another very common thought is that a camera with an APS-C sensor will always outperform a M4/3 sensor camera. Is this actually true or is it just an assumption?
Let’s have a look at the same cameras in our previous charts and compare them to DxOMark sensor scores for the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II.
I have highlighted in red any sensor comparisons where the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II outperforms an APS-C camera. Highlighted in green are any comparisons where an APS-C camera outperforms the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Previously noted DxOMark required ‘differences to be noticeable’ were used to determine colour coding.
I have added one additional column to this comparison chart. The base ISO value at which the dynamic range of a camera is measured can vary. For example, the base ISO for the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is ISO-200. The base ISO for the Canon, Sony and Nikon APS-C cameras in this comparison is ISO-100 or lower.
As we all know, increasing ISO values will reduce dynamic range. To put the dynamic range measurements for all of the cameras on the same footing, the additional column shows the dynamic range for all of the cameras at ISO-200.
As we examine the test data we find some interesting things:
- Except for the Nikon DD3400 and three Canon APS-C cameras there is no noticeable difference in colour depth performance between the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the APS-C cameras. There are three Canon cameras noted that do not perform as well as the E-M1 Mark II. The Nikon D3400 performs slightly better.
- At base ISO values the Nikon and Sony APS-C cameras all outperform the E-M1 Mark II in terms of dynamic range.
- In terms of dynamic range, at base ISO values the E-M1 Mark II performs better than three Canon APS-C cameras, and under performs two of them. There would be no noticeable difference between the other four Canon APS-C cameras and the E-M1 Mark II.
- When the dynamic range of all of the cameras are compared at ISO-200, the E-M1 Mark II outperforms six of the Canon cameras, and there is no noticeable difference with the other three. At ISO-200 there would be no noticeable difference between the E-M1 Mark II and all of the Sony APS-C cameras. At ISO-200 three of the Nikon APS-C cameras would still outperform the E-M1 Mark II. There would be no noticeable difference with the other two Nikon APS-C cameras.
- In terms of low light performance there would be no noticeable difference between the E-M1 Mark II and all of the APS-C cameras in this comparison, except for two Canon bodies. In these cases the E-M1 Mark II would outperform them.
As we saw with the individual camera brand test data, photographers should not make assumptions about sensor performance, or blindly believe comments in camera reviews. Taking the time to do your homework by referencing test data can be very instructive. Regardless of the size of the sensor in the cameras you are considering.
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