Sensor performance isn’t everything

Choosing a new camera can be a daunting task given how many makes and models are available. While I am a big fan of the independent lens and sensor testing done by DxOMark, sensor performance isn’t everything when deciding on a camera.

That’s not to say that sensor testing isn’t important – it certainly is! Sensor performance is one of the fundamental factors that has a huge effect on image quality and as such is a significant factor when choosing a new camera. It just shouldn’t be our one and only criteria.

The following is a brief list of factors that can enter into a purchase decision. No doubt I’ve forgotten some factors, but these are some of the most common considerations.

Sensor performance
Even though this should never be the sole criteria for choosing a particular camera it is still an important factor. Using test data from independent organizations like DxO can be helpful to compare various cameras and associated lenses. Unfortunately not all cameras are tested by DxOMark, most notably Fuji due to its sensor design.

Lens availability and performance
Buying a DSLR or interchangeable lens mirror-less camera body is only one half of your purchase decision. The other half is lens availability and performance. Do you prefer to shoot with prime or zoom lenses? What types of subjects do you intend on capturing? What focal lengths of lenses do you need? Which are the most critical for you? How often do you shoot in low light? How do the lenses you’ll need perform in terms of sharpness? Flare? Vibration reduction? Will a bridge camera or super zoom with an integrated lens suit your needs? Answering these types of questions will help you narrow down your selection.

Auto-focus performance
When it comes to auto-focus performance not all cameras are created equal. Few things are more frustrating than missing shots because the AF on your camera isn’t performing to your needs.

Viewfinder or rear panel
Are you most comfortable using a camera with a viewfinder or would you prefer composing on the rear panel of a camera? I learned a lesson the hard way when buying a non-EVF Nikon 1 body. Neither my wife nor I like using a camera that doesn’t have an EVF. We sold that camera within a month of buying it.

Ergonomics
How does a particular camera feel in your hands? Is it comfortable? Do you like where the controls are located? Does it feel balanced? Can you shoot with it and have the experience feel fluid or does the camera get in the way? I’ve heard of many photographers who loved the image quality of a camera they purchased but in the longer term just didn’t like the ergonomics of it. They usually part ways as a result.

Size and weight
I’m finding this to be an issue for more and more photographers, including myself. How much bulk and weight can you realistically handle? Are you willing to use a monopod or tripod if needed? How does the size and weight of a camera and lens system fit with your other photography/videography gear like tripods, heads, sliders, jibs, stabilizers etc.? Will you need to upgrade other equipment?

File size and format
How many megapixels do you really need for the photography you do? Is your current computer up to the task of handling larger files? Will you also need to upgrade your hardware or storage space? Do you like the format image shape of the camera you’re considering? For example, some folks don’t realize that a micro 4/3’s camera utilizes a different image shape (4×3) than found in DSLR’s and cameras like Nikon 1 that use a 3×2 format. For many folks image width is the key measurement when considering the cropping potential of a digital file. They may be surprised to learn that a 16 MP m4/3 sensor doesn’t give them any additional horizontal cropping advantage over a 14 MP CX sensor in a Nikon 1 camera. Much of this is simply what a photographer is used to and is comfortable with in terms of image framing.

Menu structure and operation
This is a factor that many folks don’t initially consider. Menus are not created equal and some cameras have very awkward menus that consume a lot of time in terms of navigation. This can be the source of a lot of frustration. I’ve often heard photographers describe menus as ‘clunky’ and the frustration of dealing with poorly designed menus can lead to a new camera and its owner parting company.

Weatherproofing
Based on the nature of your shooting do you need a body that has weather proofing or will a rain sleeve do in inclement weather?

Software compatibility
If you buy that new camera body will you be able to process files with your current software? Will you need to upgrade your software as well? Is the make/model of camera you are planning on buying supported by the software you own? For example, folks like me who use OpticsPro 10 need to be aware that the software does not support newer Fuji cameras because of their proprietary sensor design.

Video capability
Format and frame rates may be important to you, maybe not. You may also want to consider video performance in terms of moire and noise. Don’t assume that just because a particular camera does a good job with still photography in low light that its video performance under those same conditions will be identical.

Attachment compatibility
Is the body your considering compatible with other related equipment your own like flashes and microphones?

Special features
Based on the shooting that you do what kind of special features do you need? AF-C frame rate? Bracketing? Panoramas? The list can be very extensive so its a good idea to make a list of your ‘must have’ features as well as your ‘nice to have’ ones.

So, given that this is only a partial list of factors how does one go about making a camera buying decision when the new models they are considering are only available for pre-order and not in stores yet? The simple answer is to wait. While I believe that manufacturers intend on producing high quality gear, the reality is that buying an early copy of any new camera is a risk. As an early adopter of the Nikon D600 I went through many months of frustration. Nikon Canada was very supportive and eventually sorted things out for me, but it was still a frustrating experience that I could have avoided by not choosing to be a guinea pig by buying a new model.

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Article and all images Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication of any kind, or adaptation is allowed without written consent.

4 thoughts on “Sensor performance isn’t everything”

  1. Thanks Thomas for another good article; short and to the point.

    Having been through the gear lust phase I would repeat what I was told when I started and did not fully understand for a long time.

    Point 1-It is not the camera that makes a good picture it is the photographer. Study Art.
    Point 2-There will be times when you really need a slow shutter. Buy a top of the line support system right up front.
    Point 3-Put your money into pro glass, either zooms or primes.
    Lastly Point 4-Get a sensor big enough for what you are going to do with the pictures. 6 mp is over kill for the web. It is the quality of the pixels and the handling of the camera that count.

    All this said, eBay is a treasure trove. 2004-5 technology is good enough for most camera situations. Just be sure you get 12 plus db of dynamic range so as to avoid hdr hassles. I love my old Nikkor Lenses and use them more than my newer pro-zooms.

    1. I agree that 2004 dslr is probably good enough. I got an old Nikon D70 dslr from a friend. For some reason he does not want it, guess he must have upgraded to some new model. Anyway, I like the D70 and learning photography, but the D70 is just so big and bulky for a guy who hikes and bikes quite a bit. So I’m looking around for a smaller camera as an everyday camera and open to mirrorless, dslr or premium compacts .. Also the colors seemed to be off, I think that I need to recalibrate the D70. Any tips or advice? thanks,

      1. Hi John,
        There are lots and lots of great cameras from which to choose…or you could look for a good, used body. The first thing is to really define your photography needs as that will help steer you towards the right format, size etc. of camera.
        Tom

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