Canon Catches Up in the Camera Sensor Game: Why It Matters and Why It Doesn't

Canon Catches Up in the Camera Sensor Game: Why It Matters and Why It Doesn't

Earlier today, DxOMark released their evaluation of the Canon 5D Mark IV, concluding that it has made notable strides in sensor performance. Anecdotally speaking, I can corroborate their results based on my time with Canon's latest generation of bodies. For years, many have bemoaned the company's sensors as lacking in dynamic range and being generations behind those of Nikon and Sony, but it seems now that they have essentially caught up to their rivals. However, for the everyday work of photographers, the story is a bit more complicated.

The 5D Mark IV and Why It Matters

The 5D Mark IV is the latest in a new generation of Canon cameras whose sensors represent a major step toward the future for the company. Beginning with the 80D and continuing with the 1D X Mark II, the move to on-chip ADC (among other improvements) has meant reduced read noise, giving better dynamic range. Practically speaking, it's translated to notably easier photography for me. Scenes which normally set off red flags in my head with regards to exposure are now far less worrisome. While I loved my 5D Mark III, its 11.7 stops of dynamic range and poor file latitude meant exposing scenes I couldn't bracket was sometimes an exercise in choosing what information I was going to lose. In particular, shadows had a nasty habit of quickly developing red noise and distinct vertical bands when pushed, meaning the standard technique of preserving highlights via underexposure had to be done very carefully and with less latitude than on other cameras. Just say "shadow banding" to any 5D Mark III shooter and watch them immediately sigh and gaze off into the distance, longingly dreaming of cleaner files.

So, imagine my delight when the 1D X Mark II came along with 13.5 stops of dynamic range and astoundingly improved post-processing latitude. Scenes that used to make me cringe no longer present even a slight challenge. In a very practical and measurable sense, it has improved my output. For example, I recently shot a wedding at which the ceremony took place in a dark room with a large, northwest-facing window directly behind the couple. It took place at 4 p.m., making it a backlit nightmare. Strobing was out, as it was too intrusive to the ceremony. So, I underexposed the couple to preserve the garden scene outside the window. I ended up pushing the shadows about two stops in post, which would have been a disaster had I been using my 5D Mark III, but worked perfectly well with the 1D X Mark II. We also took some portraits beneath a large tree at about 5 p.m. with the couple in a fairly deep shadow under the tree and bright highlights from the sun filtering through. Shown below is the result with only global edits and a radial filter on the couple applied.

Had this been taken on my 5D Mark III, my initial exposure would have had to have been far more to the right, and those sparkly yellow highlights would have become much less appealing, crunchy splotches. Sure, I could have bracketed, but we had very little time for portraits and I wanted to move on. Numbers aside, that's a tangible, worthwhile improvement, and it's the reason why I recently sold my 5D Mark III and am now rocking a 5D Mark IV.

What makes the 5D Mark IV more impressive is that unlike the 1D X Mark II, it received a substantial bump in resolution (almost 40%), and its noise performance is also notably improved. As DxOMark reports, its dynamic range at base ISO is 13.6 stops, giving it a two-stop improvement over its predecessor. While it's not quite of the 14-to-14.5-stop levels of Nikon and Sony cameras, it has closed the gap enough that I would wager 99% of photographers could not discern the difference. What makes this achievement particularly impressive is that Canon also improved resolution and noise performance, and it's rare that the aggregate of the three is improved so substantially across a single generation. For example, Nikon improved the high-ISO performance of the D5 over its predecessor, but its base ISO dynamic range is almost a stop lower. Of course, the D5 is not meant to be their dynamic range monster like the D750 and D810, but rather, the point is to illustrate just how difficult it is to improve all three metrics simultaneously. Sensor development is a tricky thing. And so, the 5D Mark IV is certainly something that should make Canon shooters very happy to own; in my few days with mine, I'm quite thrilled with the results.

Why It Doesn't Matter

Photography existed before the 5D Mark IV and D750 did. And people have been doing amazing work with lesser cameras for generations before. For example, if you check out our new tutorial, "Where Art Meets Architecture 2," you'll see that the 5D Mark III that I was bemoaning (in a relative sense) above and its dynamic range cousin, the 5DS R (12.4 stops), are more than good enough for Mike Kelley. For every rant about measurements I see on an Internet forum, I can find an example of a photographer who does great work with far less capable tech. Even as a mathematician, numbers are only worth so much to me.

That's because the truth of the matter is that modern professional-level cameras are small marvels of technology, and when placed in the hands of a capable photographer, they will get the shot, whether their badge says "Mark III" or "Mark IV." At this point, improvements are less necessary than they are supplemental. I would go so far as to say that I truly believe that there is no job that is possible with one brand's equipment, but not another's. Much like my shot above, these improvements just make our lives easier; they don't rewrite photography. 

And so, we should rejoice in some sense. Canon has equalized the sensor game, or at least brought it close enough that the "Nikon/Sony/Fuji/Pentax's dynamic range is so much better" argument is essentially irrelevant. But if you ask me, it was never relevant. The difference between 11.7 and 13.6 stops is not a hard-and-fast line on one side of which rests a certain realm of possible shots and on the other rests another realm. That's because there's a bridge between those two realms: technique. I'm excited for the 5D Mark IV's performance, but I don't place my livelihood in it. 

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Zach Alan's picture

I agree completely. Now I'm just waiting on Adobe to update its products so I can edit everything I've shot with my 5D4 so far!

Alex Cooke's picture

Ah, you and me both! I've gotten along with DPP, but I'm really looking forward to the ACR update!

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

"It took place at 4 p.m., making it a backlit nightmare. Strobing was out, as it was too intrusive to the ceremony." What happened to the good older reflector? lol. Time factor?

Alex Cooke's picture

No good place to put it without being intrusive. Space was very tight, and if I put one up where I needed it, someone's view would have been blocked.

Chris Ingram's picture

Been there, done that, have the T-Shirt to prove it. The big Registry Office here in Perth is in a 'high-rise" with beautiful panoramic views of the skyline and the naked eye. Try capturing a dark office/boardroom, and midday daylight exposure in one image. But because people are used to their eye being able to handle that level of DR automatically, they have no idea what that means to a camera.

Terry Henson's picture

Alex, I really appreciate your articles but I feel like this is pretty biased and even somewhat an advertisement for Canon. Just using your source (DxO), The 5DIV is still 6 cameras behind Nikon's. Some of those Nikon's have been out for a few years now too(D600 is 4 years old this month). It really doesn't matter what camera you have, but I feel the industry leader (Canon by a large margin) should have been focusing on better sensors for a while now. While I think someone like you, who is an amazing artist and photographer can and will do great things with the 5DIV, I am not entirely sure it's caught up with it's rivals in the sensor arena.

Alex Cooke's picture

Hey Terry,

Well, I can definitely assure you it's not an advertisement. I'm certainly not disagreeing with you; as I mentioned, Canon hasn't *quite* closed the gap. Raving about the performance of the new sensors is more to illustrate that I'm impressed by the relatively big step forward they've taken, but mostly to highlight my point that the gap is now narrow enough and the technology capable enough that the difference doesn't matter in terms of one brand making a photographer more capable than another. I do agree that Canon lagged in sensor development for years, especially given their position in the industry, and no matter what the current capabilities are, I always want to see a push toward something even better. So, in short: my apologies if that was lost in translation. Either way, I truly appreciate your kind words about my articles and work. :)

Terry Henson's picture

Thank you for replying and doing so tastefully. Very reminiscent of your work. :)

Chad Andreo's picture

Regardless of camera specs, one thing Canon has going for them, is the Canon "colors" especially when it comes to skin tones, which is preferred by many photographers and cinematographers.

I wish canon would stop handicapping their cameras, especially when it comes to their mirrorless line.

Will Dongleur's picture

You can't just sort on the DXO mark score and say the Mark IV is 6 cameras behind.. For instance, they do not count megapixels and other stuff that make a great camera. Also, that same score would indicate that a D600 is a better camera than a D750.

kris risner's picture

Being almost a full stop under the competitors does not make it "caught up". I don't doubt that you can create beautiful pictures with this camera, but on paper it is still way behind Nikon, Pentax, and Sony. And you could give me almost any camera in the world and I could find somebody who took good photos using it...

Alex Cooke's picture

Correct, which is why I qualified the statement by saying "brought it close enough." Weber's Law has been shown to apply to light brightness, and I highly suspect it's at play when we're talking about gaps of the current magnitude.

I never try to get involved with what are generally fan boy discussions about which camera is better or my sensor is better than yours. However Alex makes a very good point that I think was overlooked by most of the readers. Any camera in the hands of a skilled photographer can make great photos. Most of the general sensor dynamic range comments indicate that the person never did much photography in the film era. Try working with an unforgiving transparency film with an ASA 25 such as Kodachrome. Cameras had light meters and manual focus, but the photos produced by the pros were magnificent. Quit looking for excuses and go out and learn how to take photos. Equipment matters less than experience.

Fritz Asuro's picture

In my work, we use Canon and what the company issued to me is a 5D Mark II. It does the job, but I can see how "challenging" it is when it comes to my camera's dynamic range. Coming from a Nikon user like me, I've totally seen the difference and the advantage of having a sensor can store more data for post.
But like what the topic mentioned, sometimes it just doesn't matter - I just adapt to what camera I am using rather than whining about something that it can't do.
And whenever I know that I would need the extra detail and DR, I just bring my D810.

Nikon doesn't make sensors. They are either sourced from Sony (vast majority) or from other sources.

The ones listed as "Nikon" are Nikon designed, but Renesas does the actual manufacturing. Nikon has no fabrication facility.

Alex Cooke's picture

Correct, but their implementation of the sensors renders different performance than does Sony's implementation of its own sensors.

Fritz Asuro's picture

As far as I know, Nikon designed the sensors but Sony manufactures them.

Sony are off-the-shelf. Integration is up to Nikon. The customs are done by Renesas

Just to preface I bought two immediately and am in fact a Canon fan boy who has been swallowing my pride for a while. Although this is a nice step forward, and if you are a pro ANY step forward is required, I am hoping that the A 7R II successor doesn't have 17 stops of dynamic range or I'll add that to my bag too.

Oh and for the love of GOD please update Lightroom and Capture One, DPP to Tiff is a horrific experience I can't suffer through for too much longer.

"they have essentially caught up to their rivals."

Still lagging behind Nikon and Sony.
"Essentially Michelle Pfeiffer" does not mean the real Michelle is your girlfriend.

I'm still shooting my Canon 5d (the original) - dynamic range 2.5 I feel - for landscapes and most of the time, it does the job just fine but I certainly have to work a little harder with filters (Grad. ND filters) but I like that aspect of it. I think that's why it has been in my bag for so long.

That's my studio camera for products. With an equally old 50mm macro.

And it was stated quite eloquently that a good photographer can make excellent images, regardless of the gear. My Canon D30 was a $3k, 3.1 megapixel beast. But when that came out, people were in awe of the images users were able to create. They just couldn't share them as easily on Al Gore's slower internet...

Jared Wolfe's picture

If I were to believe the internet's keyboard jockeys I would think it's impossible to get a decent shot without 14 stops of dynamic range and I should kill myself if a single pixel clips the highlights.

Yet some of my favorite shots this year were with the ~5 stops of dynamic range offered by some expired Ektachrome Slide film in my Hasselblad.

Ariel Martini's picture

"99% of photographers could not discern the difference"
Glad to be 1% :)

Alex - never used DPP before and the files look completely washed of detail. Is that common or a conversion setting? They look like a bad use of Portraiture.

Stephen Fretz's picture

Something about Fstoppers web hosting makes everything I've posted look soft-ish, even compared to the same jpgs on Flickr. Don't get me wrong, I still love this site, but ... you're not seeing things. Or rather, you're seeing exactly what you think you're seeing.

Stephen - In this case I'm not talking about an upload here but rather the pure conversion from the RAW to TIF within DPP and what should be a full res TIF on my computer. Doesn't appear there is detail or there is a significant loss of detail.

Christopher D. Thompson's picture

While I appreciate the necessity of going out of your way to remind pixel peepers that "it's the photographer not the camera" I think I have to disagree with that conclusion. For a professional, those differences matter. Making the job easier/more seamless gives more space for creativity.

In the past, the camera really was just a box for film (which STILL has arguably more "dynamic range" aka latitude), but today, the camera IS the film, so the sensor performance is of the utmost importance. If we go to war over just this one aspect, digital is still catching up - getting close, but not quite there.

OF COURSE the 5DIII is good enough for Mike Kelley - he's bracketing EVERYTHING! But as you illustrated in your example, professionals are tasked with making beautiful images in less than ideal circumstances.

Lastly, Nikon's D810 is 2 years old, Photokina is less than a week away with Fuji expected to announce a possible "gamechanger," and I'm curious to see if Canon is the equivalent of Brian O'Connor hitting the NOS too soon, only to watch Dom roll past as their hopes of winning go up in steam.

Christopher D. Thompson's picture

Photokina Update:

Sony: "What're you smiling about?"
Canon: "Dude I almost had you!"
Sony: "You almost had ME? You never had me."

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