APS-C Sensor Comparisons

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.

  1. A difference of 0.5EV is needed for a difference in dynamic range to start to become noticeable.
  2. A difference of 1-bit is needed for a difference in colour depth to start to become noticeable.
  3. 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.

  1. When it comes to Canon APS-C cameras there is no relationship to camera age and sensor performance.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. At base ISO values the Nikon and Sony APS-C cameras all outperform the E-M1 Mark II in terms of dynamic range.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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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11 thoughts on “APS-C Sensor Comparisons”

  1. Hi Tom,

    There’s another relevant factor to consider when comparing 4/3 cameras with APS-C cameras: being the width/height sensor ratio.

    The ratio of images from a 4/3 sensor is not well suited to display on typical screens – – as displayed width is compromised by need to accommodate the proportionate height.

    Yes, one could crop the 4/3 image to a 3/2 ratio size – – but then you’re throwing away pixels in the process.

    I’d be interested in your views/comments on this. (I’m coming from a Sony perspective – tho, I did own a 4/3 ratio camera some years ago).

    Regards, John TKA

    1. Hi John,

      Your comment mirrors exactly what I used to think when I was shooting with 3:2 ratio sensor Nikon cameras. I now feel the exact opposite, finding that the 4:3 ratio of a M4/3 sensor is much more ‘pixel efficient’ than a 3:2 ratio and allows me to get more pixels on my actual subject. How it displays on my screen is not something that concerns me at all. I am much more interested in how the ratio of the image aids or hinders capturing a photograph at source.

      There is the odd landscape image where I may want to crop a M4/3 sensor image a bit… but this is usually when I have not done a good job with composing it in the first place. Now that I have adjusted my shooting perspective using a 4:3 ratio sensor for landscape doesn’t bother me at all. In some ways it helps me with many compositions as I now have a bit more vertical room in which to fit foreground elements which can add more depth to my compositions.

      For portraits, flowers, birds and most other subjects that I photograph I now find that the 4:3 ratio is much easier to work with and is a much more natural size from which to make prints. Most standard frame sizes are based on an 5:4 (i.e. 8×10) ratio, so a M4/3 camera’s 4:3 ratio has far less cropping than a 3:2 ratio image.

      One of my favourite photographic subjects are birds in flight and a M4/3 image ratio gives more vertical room to fit in wing movements without clipping them. I would never want to go back and work with a 3:2 ratio sensor now that I’ve experienced the advantages of working with a 4:3 ratio sensor for the work I do.

      Tom

  2. Tom,

    I agree with what you reported. As a Sony user, what I know is that the sensors for the APS-C line (A6xxxx series) is little changed from the original ones used in the A6000, A6300, and A6500 now supplanted by the A6100, A6400, A6600. What has changed are features added (or subtracted), some specs (EVF resolution upgrade) and largely, software upgrades like the latest EyeAF (human and animal). I also add the improved jpeg engine.

    Personally, my move from the A6000 to an A6400 was prompted by the better AF, touchscreen AF selection, and when not inclined to postprocess images for submission, the better jpeg in-cam processing. If I were to keep my A6000, I figured I could’ve done so since I usually PP my images anyway if judged from that standpoint.

    As a former, long-time Nikon user, I know that their entry level cameras are good performers, often competing with their mid-tier levels in term of image quality. It’s just that marketing strategies necessitate the niche marketing of each model in the stable (e.g. bare minimum of AF points in the D3xxx and D5xxx models; pared down features; smaller footprint) to keep costs down and profits higher as well as cater to the casual shooter or the smartphone photographer who wants more creative control. This last category of users is largely diminishing, of course, owing to the prevalence of smartphones and their very advanced features. I can also add the changing/evolving behaviors of the market in terms of image generation and consumption.

    The continued introduction of newer models can be interpreted two ways: the offering of newer technologies to the consumer; on the other extreme, it’s feeding the gear acquisition impulse of some people.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Thanks for adding your experiences to the discussion Oggie! Hopefully people will become less fixated on sensor size and performance specs. By focusing their attention on performance enhancements offered by newer models of camera they will get a better return for their investment.

      Tom

  3. I’m curious about why Fuji sensors were not included in your comparisons. Also, doesn’t Sony make the sensors for itself AND Nikon? Aren’t you thereby comparing the same sensors across different camera bodies? For that matter, my understanding is that Sony makes the Fuji sensors. Doesn’t Sony also make the Olympus sensors? Is Sony’s sensor technology across camera brands more important than the size of the sensor?

    1. Hi Bill,

      DxOMark stopped testing Fuji cameras a number of years ago when the camera company started using their own sensors. If my memory serves DxO doesn’t support Fuji with their post processing software either. I don’t know if Sony makes all of the sensors for the camera manufacturers that you noted. At any rate, the test scores do have some variations between cameras.

      Tom

  4. I understand the point you are making but my first thought looking at the data is that it should be limited to bodies in the same price range as the EM1 Mark II. That would knock out the bargain priced but also lower performing bodies “old tech” bodies from Canon. But as you look at the results, the Nikon 3400 and Canon 200D (SL2) actually look pretty good. They are both the entry level DSLR for their respective brand and both represent good value, at least for a stills photographer.

    As to your general point, I have often wished I could make the switch from Canon to micro 4/3 but the expense, particularly for fast zoom lenses, has been a major barrier. However, now that “affordable ” full frame mirrorless has arrived in the Canon world, my interest in switching has been reduced. BTW, that does not mean I dismiss the value of small sensors. I just upgraded my Olympus TG-5 to a TG-6 and I am looking forward to doing more macro shooting using focus stacking. With the current lockdown, finding subjects close to home (or in your home) is going to be popular!

    1. Hi Kevin,

      I looked at APS-C sensors in cameras that were launched within the last 3-4 years as I wasn’t concerned about model match ups, but simply sensor age. The spark for this article was a few camera reviews that I happened upon that made negative comments about the age of the sensor in a camera without providing any test data to indicate that the sensor was no longer competitive. Some quick research revealed that the sensor was still very competitive with ‘new’ sensors. I find these types of reviews to be both sloppily done and misleading.

      I agree that switching brands and formats can be quite an expense. I was fortunate back in July 2015 when I sold all of my Nikon full frame gear. At that time Nikon had recently put through a price increase on all of their lenses and I was able to recoup most of my initial investment. Once we start making major investments in glass it really makes it hard to switch.

      One of the things that I quite liked about my recent switch to Olympus was the comparatively good pricing on their PRO f/2.8 zoom lenses. Much more cost effective when compared to full frame versions and in most cases about 1/2 the weight.

      I won’t be venturing out unless I have no option. So, like you, I will be looking for subjects to photograph around my home and yard. Luckily I have a lot of catching up to do with photographs I’ve captured over the past year or so. Hopefully I can finish a couple of eBook projects and keep some articles flowing over the next 4-6 weeks.

      Tom

  5. Hi Thomas,
    What do you mean by “see the difference.” In a print? On a computer screen? In a test chart? Anyway just for fun, I set up the EM-1X, 3400D (green), Rebel T6/1300D (red), and A6300 on the DP Review studio shot comparison tool at ISO 200, RAW, daylight, COMP, in an attempt to do so. Needless to say this is not scientific as all three factors you discussed plus the lens, Adobe processing, etc contribute to the final image. Now the fun starts, or so I thought. I am not an expert, so where in the image can I look to “see the difference.” Is my methodology flawed? And if it is truly as difficult as I found , I think the point of your article is now even more abundantly clear.
    Thanks

    1. Hi John,

      I am simply using DxOMark published data and their references for what constitutes a ‘noticeable difference’ for dynamic range, colour depth and low light performance, based on their testing.

      The point of the article is simply to point out that independent test data does not support the opinion that the sensors in newer cameras always perform better than the ones in older cameras.

      Tom

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