Dynamic Range Differences

This article discusses how you can estimate dynamic range differences between various cameras using published test data. This may help you evaluate various camera options in terms of brand, model and sensor size. In this article we have prepared overviews of Olympus OM-D E-M1X dynamic range test scores versus 20 different full frame and APS-C cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sony. This is a lengthy article so grab a coffee or make yourself some tea.

Assumptions and Generalities

I believe that relying on often quoted generalities and assumptions about dynamic range differences between camera formats is a risky endeavor. Many of us have heard or read general statements that full frame sensors have a “2 stop advantage over M4/3” and that APS-C sensors have a “1 stop advantage over M4/3”. These are examples of assumptions that have become accepted as fact by many folks. As you read this article you will discover that these dynamic range assumptions don’t stand up when test data is examined within the stated parameters of this article.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1X’s average dynamic range based on test data is higher than 5 of the other cameras noted in this article. It is identical to one other camera, and is just marginally behind 3 other cameras. These results may surprise some readers since all of the other 20 cameras noted in this article have larger full frame or APS-C sensors. The largest average dynamic range difference is between the E-M1X and a full frame camera… reaching 1.07EV.

Regardless of the camera you own, and other camera bodies that you may want to evaluate, taking time to personally compare dynamic range test data will prove far more beneficial to you than just using assumptions. It will provide you with a more accurate and objective assessment.

Obviously there are many factors that come into play when trying to get the most out of an individual camera’s dynamic range. This article only focuses on some published dynamic range sensor test data.

Similarities of OM-D Cameras

Before we get into individual camera match-ups I should mention that the dynamic range sensor test scores for the OM-D E-M1X, E-M5 Mark III and E-M1 Mark III are virtually identical on photonstophotos.com. So, if you own one of these cameras, or are thinking about purchasing one, the following commentary on the E-M1X can realistically be applied to the two other Olympus models noted above.

We should also point out that the test scores used for these comparisons were derived from data displayed as manufacturer stated ISOs, not measured ISOs. So, there could be some differences between individual camera models at specific ISO values.

Practical Shooting Considerations Were Not Considered

Other factors, such as IBIS performance, have not been considered. If one photographer owns a camera that can be handheld at a shutter speed 1 or 2 stops slower than another photographer’s camera under identical conditions… they would be able to use lower ISO values on a more frequent basis.

Obviously for static subjects for which a photographer may choose to use a tripod, the dynamic range of any camera can be maximized. The base ISO for the Olympus OM-D E-M1X is ISO-200. The other 20 cameras noted in this article would have a base ISO of ISO-100 or lower. If we looked at tripod-mounted photography the larger sensor cameras would have an additional advantage as their base ISOs are lower.

As we all know, shooting at lower ISO values gives a photographer more dynamic range in their images. During practical handheld use, differences in IBIS performance could help lessen the dynamic range differences between camera models, and cameras of differing sensor sizes.

Average ISO Values Used

Rather than splitting hairs and getting into all kinds of ‘what if’ scenarios, I have calculated the average dynamic range scores with each camera match-up. I also looked at differences in dynamic range test scores at various ISO levels. I did this to find out if there were any noteworthy differences in the slope of the dynamic range curves of various cameras in each match-up.

One of our objectives with this article is to provide readers with a general assessment of the dynamic range differences that could be reasonably expected between various camera models and the Olympus OM-D E-M1X. Our commentary covers the standard operating range of an Olympus OM-D E-M1X, i.e. ISO-200 through to ISO-25600.

The key point in this article is that you can construct this same type of analysis of dynamic range differences for yourself, using photonstophotos.com published data. So, regardless of the camera you own, or the cameras bodies in which you may have an interest, you can prepare your own dynamic range comparisons and assessments.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X Camera Matchups

Let’s look at our first group of E-M1X comparisons with three models from Sony.

E-M1X versus Sony A6600
The dynamic range curves for these two cameras are quite similar in slope. The overall dynamic range advantage for the Sony A6600 throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range is an average of 0.35EV.

E-M1X versus Sony Alpha A9II
The dynamic range curves for these two cameras are more divergent. The overall dynamic range advantage for the Sony Alpha A9II throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range is an average of 1.05EV.

E-M1X versus Sony Alpha A7RII
Dynamic range differences between these two cameras tend to be higher at the lower end of the ISO scale, then tend to flatten out as ISO values increase. The overall dynamic range advantage for the Sony Alpha A7RII throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range is an average of 1.05 EV.

Now, let’s move on to our evaluation of E-M1X with seven full frame and APS-C cameras from Nikon.

E-M1X versus Nikon Z50
The two dynamic range curves for these cameras are very similar with slight advantages bouncing back and forth between the two cameras at various ISO values. The overall dynamic range advantage for the Nikon Z50 throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range is an average of 0.13EV.

E-M1X versus Nikon D7500
The two dynamic range curves for these cameras are very similar. The overall dynamic range advantage for the Nikon D7500 throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range is an average of  0.15EV.

E-M1X versus Nikon D500
The two dynamic range curves for these cameras are very similar, There a slightly increased advantage for the D500 at ISO-400 through ISO-1600. At other ISO values the differences are negligible. The overall dynamic range advantage for the Nikon D500 throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range is an average of  0.15EV.

E-M1X versus Nikon D850
Overall there is a wider spread between the dynamic range curves of these two cameras with the Nikon D850 having an average advantage of 0.79 EV throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range. The D850’s advantage widens to about 1 stop in the ISO-400 to ISO-1600 range.

E-M1X versus Nikon Z7
Overall there is a wider spread between the dynamic range curves between of these two cameras with the Nikon Z7 having an average advantage of 0.76EV throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range. As seen with the D850, the Z7’s advantage widens to about 1 stop in the ISO-400 to ISO-1600 range.

E-M1X versus Nikon Z6
At ISO-200 and ISO-400 the Nikon Z6’s advantage is less than 0.7EV. At ISO values above this the Z6’s advantage widens to between 1 stop and approximately 1.4 stops. Throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range the Nikon Z6 has an average dynamic range advantage of  1EV.

E-M1X versus Nikon D5
This match up is an interesting one. At ISO-200 the Olympus E-M1X has a dynamic range advantage of 0.42EV. At subsequent ISO values the Nikon D5 develops a dynamic range advantage that steadily increases from 0.26EV to about 1.5EV at higher ISO values. Overall,  throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range the Nikon D5 has an average dynamic range advantage of 0.94EV.

Our last set of E-M1X comparisons are with ten different Canon full frame and APS-C cameras.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS 1DX Mark III
The curves for these two cameras are fairly consistent in slope. The Canon EOS 1DX Mark III has an average dynamic range advantage of 1.07EV throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
The curves for these two cameras are fairly consistent in slope. The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV  has an average dynamic range advantage of 0.96EV throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS 7D Mark II
The curves for these two cameras are more variable in nature with the dynamic range advantage of the Olympus OM-D E-M1X shifting from a miniscule 0.01EV difference to a maximum of 0.98EV. Overall the Olympus OM-D E-M1X has an average dynamic range advantage of 0.34EV throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS M6 MII
Similar to what we saw with the Nikon Z50 curves, the E-M1X and Canon EOS M6 MII dual back and forth with slight dynamic range advantages throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range. The overall dynamic range averages for these two cameras are identical.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS R
There some variations of the dynamic range curve of the Canon EOS R, resulting in differences ranging from 0.53EV to 1.04EV. The Canon EOS R has an average dynamic range advantage of 0.9EV throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS RP
The dynamic range curve of the Canon EOS RP strengthens at higher ISO values. At ISO-200 and ISO-400 the Olympus OM-D E-M1X has an advantage of 0.98EV and O.22EV respectively. Overall, the Canon EOS RP has an average dynamic range advantage of 0.39EV when the entire ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range is considered.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS M5
The Olympus OM-D E-M1X has a fairly consistent dynamic range advantage over the Canon EOS M5, with an average dynamic range advantage of 0.59EV throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS M6
The Olympus OM-D E-M1X has a dynamic range advantage throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range. It is fairly consistent although it does lessen slightly at the highest ISO values. Overall, the Olympus OM-D E-M1X has an average dynamic range advantage of 0.61EV.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS M3
The Olympus OM-D E-M1X has a dynamic range advantage all the way through the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range. The advantage does reduce as higher ISOs are reached, going from 1.09EV at ISO-200 to 0.04EV at ISO-25600. The average dynamic range advantage is 0.53EV.

E-M1X versus Canon EOS M50
The two dynamic range curves of both cameras have similar slopes with the Olympus OM-D E-M1X maintaining a dynamic range advantage throughout the ISO-200 to ISO-25600 range. Overall the Olympus OM-D E-M1X has an average dynamic range advantage of 0.55EV.

How To Establish What Level of Dynamic Range Difference Is Noticeable/Acceptable

When using DxOMark data, the company suggests that a difference of 0.5EV is needed for a difference in dynamic range to start to become noticeable. I don’t know if this guideline applies to data from photonstophotos.com or not.

I think the best way for an individual photographer to establish their ‘noticeable level’ for differences in dynamic range is to do some tests with their current equipment.

Mount your camera on a tripod, then take some successive images of the same subject matter at increasing higher ISO levels. Obviously working with full stop jumps would not be advisable. Then, process all of those RAW files by doing your typical adjustments. View all of the finished images in a way that makes sense for you. Some folks may want to view them on a large computer monitor. Other people may want to make a good sized print of each image to compare. I would suggest maintaining a typical viewing distance rather than pixel peeping.

By examining all of your test images you should be able to assess when you begin to notice a difference in dynamic range. Only you will know if it is at 1/3 of a stop, a 1/2 stop, or perhaps more.

My Experience With Full Frame and M4/3 Gear

I used some excellent Nikon full frame cameras for a few years. At the time the Nikon D800 was one of the top rated cameras available and without any doubt it was capable of producing some wonderful images. I married that body up with some quality Nikkor glass… both primes and zooms. From memory I think I had 7-8 Nikkor lenses at the time.

When travelling, and during other typical uses, I quite often found that I would not use my full frame gear at base ISO values. I hate using tripods for still photography so that factor came into play frequently for me. I most often shot my full frame gear handheld in the ISO-200 to ISO-800 range.

More often than not I can shoot my Olympus OM-D E-M1X at base ISO-200, when I would have used a higher ISO value with my full frame gear because of the E-M1X’s outstanding IBIS performance. My ISO-200 Forest Challenge article is a good demonstration of that. Shooting handheld for multiple second exposures is a practical reality because of the E-M1X’s IBIS performance. These capabilities have changed the way I think about capturing my images.

Every photographer is different and has their own needs. The image quality from my Olympus M4/3 kit more than meets my specific needs. I have never once felt that I didn’t have enough dynamic range. Nor would I ever consider going back to full frame gear. But… that’s just me.

The point of this article is not to suggest that anyone should buy the same gear that I use. It was simply to provide folks with some examples of how they can use published dynamic range test data to replace assumptions about sensor performance with objective data. You can then make more informed decisions about your camera gear.

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6 thoughts on “Dynamic Range Differences”

  1. Hi Tom,
    I’ve been taking an interest in the OM-D E-M1 range (as a result of being intrigued by a number of your articles and examples!), which led me to compare the Mark ii & Mark iii versions on photonstophotos.net site: specifically the PDR vs ISO chart.

    I was most surprised to find that the PDR readings for the older Mark ii model is better than the Mark iii (and, by association, the E-M1X too). The advantage is marginal up to ISO 400 – but beyond that the differences are “significant” (being better than 0.5EV or more).

    Does that surprise you too ?

    John TKA

    1. Hi John,

      I also had a look at the Photographic Dynamic Range chart on photonstophotos.com and noticed the difference in dynamic range. I then looked at the Photographic Dynamic Range Shadow Improvement chart and noticed that the E-M1X is quite a bit better than the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. I think you mentioned that lower scores on the Shadow Improvement chart indicates that a sensor is more ISO invariant. Perhaps this would provide more latitude in post when working with E-M1X RAW files compared to those from the E-M1 Mark II. It appears that Olympus decided to make some changes in how its newest cameras process photographic data.

      I’m not sure that I would assess the difference as being ‘significant’. DxOMark suggests “differences below 0.5 EV usually not noticeable”. That would indicate to me that scores just above 0.5EV would be barely noticeable.

      Was I surprised that there were some test score differences between the OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the OM-D E-M1X (and newer OM-D models)? Yeah… a little bit. Does that concern me? Not in the slightest. Based on real world use the image quality of my OM-D E-M1X is more than sufficient for my needs and the technical capabilities of the camera have significantly expanded my creative options. I have captured countless images that would not have been possible with any other camera that I have ever owned. I am a very happy OM-D E-M1X owner and I have no regrets about buying into the Olympus system.

      Tom

  2. Hi Thom
    While there is not much dynamic range difference between smaller sensors and full frame, I get the impression that when I shoot for highlights in a large dynamic scene, I will surely have to retrieve shadows with the “shadow slider ” and the larger sensor have pixels size that are a real advantage there. I am also using an old D800 36mpx pixels and I prefer its image to my D750 24 mpx , using the same lenses, I feel the image is sharper (more pixels).
    When I use DXo Photolabs 3 ,using Prime for noise I don’t prefer the D800 image anymore. On small sensors cropping is the limiting factor for me. I find that I have to print 80-100% of the sensor image on most of my APS-C cameras, mostly if I print above 11X14 inch.
    The weight of the full frame and even the APS-C lenses for me is the limiting factor for shooting outdoor or on a trip. For instance the weight of a Fuji X-T2 (APS-C) +18-55+ 14mm + 50-140 with carrying backpack is over 8 pounds.
    Please add your comments
    Have a nice day

    1. Hi Luke,

      Since I sold my full frame gear almost 5 years ago I can’t really comment on how to work with those types of files in post today. Those memories have faded from my old, porous brain!

      I think it is critical that each of us understand how to get the most out of our camera gear in different photographic situations… regardless of what we may happen to own and use. I’ve always made it a practice… especially when using smaller sensor cameras like my Nikon 1 kit and with my Olympus gear… to compose my images so I can totally avoid cropping them if at all possible. The vast majority of the travel and landscape images that readers view on this blog have not been cropped at all. This is more of a challenge with bird photography, but I still try my best not to crop my photos unless absolutely necessary. Whenever I compose an image my goal is always to use 100% of the pixels that I capture. I don’t always meet that goal… but I try each and every time I create a photograph.

      It is also important for each of us to work with our post processing software as an integral part of our photographic system. For example, there are some things that I routinely do with my Nikon 1 files that aren’t needed with my Olympus files. Each of us needs to find out how best to utilize our camera gear and our post processing software in an integrated way.

      Tom

  3. Tom,

    I have also looked at dynamic range comparisons between cameras using DXO data, but with a slightly different approach. My key observations are:
    1) At base ISO, the Sony A7R3 has a two stop advantage over the
    Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk 2 (14.7 vs 12.84).
    2) The A7R3 at ISO 800 has the same dynamic range as the E-M1 Mk 2 at ISO 200 (12.75 vs 12.84). This two stop advantage is reduced to about one stop at higher ISOs.
    3) Any time you are hand-holding, the E-M1 Mk 2 has at least a two stop stabilization advantage over the A7R3. (I can consistently hold the E-M1 Mk3 and E-M1X at 1 sec with no motion blur with a 40mm focal length lens [80mm full frame efov].)
    4) I can handhold the E-M1 Mk3 and E-M1X and get a 50Mpix image with two stops of reduced noise.
    5) I can increase dynamic range in post processing if the dynamic range of the captured image file is less than the dynamic range of the sensor in the camera I am using (the advantage of this is hard to quantify, but it is a factor).

    Since I can photograph handheld with micro 4/3, the weight I have to carry is reduced by a factor of two or three (camera/lens weight + no tripod weight ).

    Between sunrise and sunset, the only disadvantage I have found with micro 4/3 is my options to crop in post processing are more limited because of the number pixels on the sensor.

    1. Thanks for sharing your M4/3 experiences Jack!

      As you know there are a number of ways to look at the functionality and specifications of a camera. I like to look at such things from a pragmatic perspective. For example, if a camera offers a lot of dynamic range at ISO-64 but there is no practical way that I can handhold that camera to use this ISO value… then it really is nothing more than a number on a spec sheet. Being able to shoot my E-M1X at ISO-200 handheld at 2 seconds, 5 seconds and even 8 seconds extends the usefulness of the camera’s dynamic range significantly under real world conditions.

      Tom

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