Camera cost and Sensor performance (or, which camera should you buy)

De Adriaan Windmill in the town of Haarlem in the Netherlands (Holland) at dusk.

So, how much should you pay for your camera? And the related question of, which camera should you get? Is this new camera worth the upgrade? Where does the “bang for the buck” equation stop making sense? These questions have plagued many a photographer for eons, and doesn’t leave anyone immune — novices and professionals have all been bitten by this bug, that keeps mutating and infecting us every year.

And before us photographers feel bad about being bitten by the Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS), one should realize quickly that there are other disciplines, hobbies, interests that fall victim to this disease as well. Audiophiles anyone? Gamers? Car enthusiasts? Heck, even your common neighborhood Jane or Joe, ogling at the new Apple or Samsung or Google phones.

But just like mobile phones today, desktop computers from a few years ago, I believe that the differentiation between various brands and products is an academic exercise. iPhones versus Pixels versus Galaxies — it is less about feature, function, performance, and mostly about brand loyalty, look and feel. And so is the case with cameras.

Don’t believe me? DxOMark tabulates a whole variety of metrics for mobile and regular cameras, and while a large subset of those metrics could be useful to people (such as shutter speed), the one metric that tops most lists is the dynamic range — how well does the camera (sensor) capture shadow and highlights in an image, leading to a more realistic photograph. But instead of the dynamic range being represented by just one number, the folks at Photons To Photos plot the dynamic range for each camera over the entire usable ISO range. Let me summarize their results for you.

Sensor dynamic ranges across the usable ISO range for a host of mobile, full-frame, APS-C and Medium Format sensors.
Sensor dynamic ranges across the usable ISO range for a host of mobile, full-frame, APS-C and Medium Format sensors © PhotonsToPhotos.

A few things to note (you can recreate the same graph on -

  1. These are all from cameras and phones released in the last (roughly) 2 years.
  2. A difference of a digit on the Y-axis indicate an improvement of 2 times (the Y-axis is logarithmic).
  3. I have clubbed the graphs as follows:
  • MO: mobile (iPhone 7)
  • AP: APS-C, which in this case is the Fuji X-T20 (which is the same sensor as the top of the line X-Pro2 or the X-T2)
  • FF: Full frame (Canon 5D Mark IV, Sony a7RIII, Nikon D850) — all top of their lines from their brand.
  • MF: Medium Format, and in our case, these are the Pentax 645Z and the Fuji GFX-50s
  • PH: The creme de la creme — Phase IQ3

First and foremost, the images from the iPhone 7 have 32 times less dynamic range than any modern DSLR or Mirrorless (APS-C as well). Read that again. So if your only camera is an iPhone, what these images will appear like on a modern desktop, or even on a mobile phone in a few years time, will be unbearable. Get a real camera, however small or cheap.

De Adriaan Windmill in the town of Haarlem in the Netherlands (Holland) at dusk.
De Adriaan Windmill in the town of Haarlem in the Netherlands (Holland) at dusk.

Secondly, the difference between the $900 Fuji X-T20 and the $3500 Nikon D850 (or the Sony) is at the most 2X at ISO 100. These are just sample points, with the real message being — get any camera, a 1" sensor, an APS-C or a Full Frame; Mirrorless or DSLR; and you will be in this ballpark. No need to look for performance numbers. They don’t matter, and are only marketing speak. Save that cash and get some serious lenses.

Moonrise over Amsterdam at dusk, Holland.
Moonrise over Amsterdam at dusk, Holland.

Third, you can get to 2X better than most full frames by spending $6500 and getting the medium formats. Are they worth that extra cash? Maybe to some, but definitely not to most people. And finally, if you want the real cutting edge, the Bugatti, get the Phase IQ3. At $45,000 (yes, I haven’t misplaced that comma), you get the absolute best. One that beats the $900 Fuji by 5.6X in dynamic range.

Fuji X-T20 with the kit 18-55 F2-4 lens. A spectacular combination for $1100.
Fuji X-T20 with the kit 18–55 F2–4 lens. A spectacular combination for $1100.

In fact, just like phones, if anything, getting a modern (non-phone) camera is all about the look and feel (the number of cup holders in your car, or the design of the driving panel). And for us, the Fuji cameras are the most ergonomic, lightweight, feature-rich, with the most elegant aesthetics, and the most fun to use. It’s a camera that we feel like taking out all the time and playing with, which is what photography is all about. Plus at $899, they are a bargain.

PS: The two Holland photographs in this article have been taken with a 1" sensor Sony RX100 MIII and a Canon 6D Full Frame camera. Unless you pixel peep, you cannot even tell which is which.

Originally published at rowdy planet.

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