Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How To Research Digital Cameras (And Why None of It Matters)

I've been disappointed with some of my images lately. In each case the scene had harsh light and the dynamic range of the scene exceeded the dynamic range capabilities of the camera. My Nikon D3300 simply wasn't capable of handling it, and so I had blown highlights and/or black shadows devoid of details.

It's not a big deal, really. Viewers don't notice. I pointed it out in several images to my wife and she said, "I don't see what you're talking about." I showed a non-photographer friend and was told, "Who cares--the picture is great!" It's only my ultra-critical eye that notices.

Still, it bothers me. A little, anyway. I've had this camera for a year, and I have the "itch" to buy new gear. Not because I need to--the Nikon D3300 is plenty good and well outperforms its "entry level" title--but because I've got G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).
Pacific Dudes - Avila Beach, California
I included this photograph, which was captured using a Nikon D3300, to break up the text.
I'm using this opportunity to demonstrate how to research digital cameras. There are some excellent resources on the web that take a lot of the guesswork out of the process. Forget photography forums where someone will say that some camera is amazing, and the next guy will reply that the camera is terrible and call the first guy an idiot. There is so much useless and inaccurate information posted to photography forums, and too many rude users. There's a much better way.

To start, I would head on over to DxOMark. They do scientific tests of digital camera sensors and posts the results in an easy-to-read format. They rank cameras based on color depth ("Portrait"), dynamic range ("Landscape") and high-ISO ("Sports"), as well as overall, which takes into account all three categories.

The great thing about this is that you can view the results based on whichever category you want. Looking for the best high-ISO camera? Click on Sports. Want to know which camera has the largest dynamic range? Click on Landscape. And cameras can be compared side-by-side using the "Compare" feature on the far-right.

When looking at DxOMark's camera database there are a few things to keep in mind. First, they're testing the RAW sensor data and nothing else. Second, they don't test every camera, such as Fuji cameras with X-Trans sensors or Sigma cameras with Foveon sensors, so not every camera is represented. Third, the overall score is based on all three categories, and you might not give all three categories the same weight as DxOMark. Fourth, small differences in score numbers equals unnoticeable differences in image quality--only large differences in scores are noticeable. Fifth, art is not science, so all of their results might be meaningless.

All of that is to say that DxOMark scores should be taken with a grain of salt, but it's a good starting point. You can get an idea of which cameras might meet your needs based on what's important to you in regards to image quality.

After narrowing things down, the next place to go is DPreview to use their Studio Comparison Tool. Select up to four cameras that you want to compare. Choose JPEG or RAW. Select the ISO you want to see. Move the cursor around the image to see a close-up side-by-side-by-side-by-side photograph from each camera. You can examine the differences for yourself.

What you need to keep in mind is that you are viewing an extreme close-up crop of a photograph that was captured in a highly controlled studio environment. This isn't "real world" photography. And no one will be viewing any photograph this closely. This is called pixel peeping. You are looking at the tiny differences in image quality that most viewers would never notice in a photograph.

I looked at four cameras: Nikon D3300, Nikon D7200, Nikon D610 and Nikon D750. Surprisingly, according to DxOMark, the D7200 has the second largest dynamic range of any digital camera. I couldn't tell a difference in dynamic range between the cameras by looking at the images. That's because they all have good dynamic range and also because these are controlled studio shots.

Interestingly, the D3300 and the D610 at low ISO look extraordinarily similar (I would say identical), despite the large price difference between them. Ditto for the D7200 and the D750. It's not until ISO 800 that the full-frame sensors begin to show their advantage. By ISO 3200 the D610 and the D750 have a clear one-stop high-ISO advantage (ISO 3200 on the D3300 and D7200 look almost identical to ISO 6400 on the D610 and D750).
The Old Boron Housing - Boron, California
Another photograph captured with a Nikon D3300.
In other words, the differences in image quality between the Nikon D3300 and the Nikon D750 are small, and it takes a close side-by-side study to really notice. That four-times-higher price difference doesn't get you a whole lot, strictly from an image quality standpoint. This proves that it really doesn't matter what camera you use--photographic vision is what's important. All digital cameras today are great, whether they are labelled "entry level" or "pro" or whatever other name camera companies give them.

If you feel you still need to get a new camera, once you've gone to DxOMark and DPreview and have narrowed your search based on the image quality you want, the next step is to then look at the price and features to see which may be a good fit for you. Perhaps figure out which two or three cameras provide the desired image quality, give you the features you want, and fit within your budget.

Once you've done that, use Google to find reviews of those cameras. Skip the reviews by magazines and the big photography sites--they're usually paid by the camera manufacturers--and find the smaller independent blogs (such as this one) that review gear. You'll get a better hands-on, real world take on each camera. From there, realize that whatever you pick will be a good choice and don't worry so much about it. Let your gut decide! Or, if one camera requires you to buy new lenses and the other doesn't, then the choice is obvious.


  1. Your blog has become one of my favorite reads over night. So much well detailed information, your blog and Casey Neistate on you YouTube have been my recent addiction.

    1. Well, thank you! I'm honored and flattered. I'm glad that I can be helpful to you and the photography continuum--a "pay it forward" for all those who helped me at different times and different ways. I appreciate the feedback ! --Ritchie Roesch