Most People Cannot Tell The Difference Between Nikon, Sony, and Canon High Res Files

Most People Cannot Tell The Difference Between Nikon, Sony, and Canon High Res Files

Last month we had the three highest megapixel cameras by Nikon, Sony, and Canon in our office, and we filmed a pretty polarizing review pitting them against each other. Many viewers pointed out an unfair bias in our studio test so we redid the test again using the same lens on all three cameras. We then asked our readers to pick the best looking image from the 3 cameras without telling them which camera took which photo. The results from this test were pretty alarming.

Below you can see the results we gathered from our "Which Image Looks the Best" poll. With over 2,500 votes, the overall conclusion is that most people cannot tell the difference between the three cameras when they are pitting against each other in a real world studio setting. What is even more shocking is that the Nikon D810 camera with the lowest megapixel count of 36mp actually received the most votes for having the best image quality. If you haven't seen the studio test setup where we fitted all three cameras with the same Tamron 24 - 70 2.8 lens and reshot the baby turtle in the studio, you can view that video immediately below.



The argument that most photographers cannot tell the difference in image quality without zooming into the individual pixels has been around for a long time. Most images are displayed on the web at a fraction of their full resolution, and nuance differences in image quality such as ISO noise is almost completely lost when files are actually printed. Since we uploaded high resolution files for this test, these results cater towards those who really love to "pixel peep" and make arguments that might not stand up in the real world. If anything, if you were to take these files into real world post-production editing, large scale printing, and online web displaying, I bet even fewer people could distinguish the differences in each file. 

Obviously each of these cameras have unique features that make them desirable (or undesirable) other than strictly image quality alone. However, for many studio photographers who specialize in beauty, fashion, and product photography, image quality is of the upmost importance. As this test demonstrates, image quality among manufactures has reached an unbelievable milestone. Image quality is so good now that even the educated, tech savy photographers who took this test could not accurately distinguish one brand over another. Imagine what the results would have been if this poll was sent out to the general public! Image quality at this tier of camera has become a game of diminishing returns. How much more detail does a photographer need when very few of them are actually printing billboard sized images viewed up close in subway stations or in fine art galleries? Don't get me wrong; I love the feeling I get when I zoom into 36+ megapixels and see razor sharp nose hairs or can read the imprinted logo on a pair of contacts, but for almost all practical purposes this does not change the actual monetary or creative value of the photographs I am taking on a weekly basis. 

Not everyone will agree with me, but I believe the success of future high resolution cameras is not actually going to be based on image quality as much as it will be based on new and innovative features. Despite what you think of the new Sony and Fuji mirrorless systems, there is something to be said about camera manufacturers who have thrown out traditional design in hopes of creating something new and innovative. In a previous Fstoppers article called Why Do Our DSLRs Not Have These 12 Features Yet I outlined a few simple and extreme innovations I would love to see offered in the next breed of digital cameras. For me personally, marginally better image quality is not something that makes me excited anymore; instead I would like to see features that either make my job easier or allow me to create images more consistently (think better Autofocus and in-camera radio flash triggering). 

With ridiculous 250 megapixel cameras already on the horizon, I have no doubt that this resolution game will continue to play out. Image quality arguments will continue to rage on, and basic consumers will continue to fall for the gimmick mantra that says "more megapixels means better photos." But in the end, none of this really matters. Your images aren't going to suddenly become world class because you have indefinitely more detail. You will not have more clients lining up to pay you for your work because "OMG you shoot with a 100mp camera!" Of course your sense of style, mood, and creativity will also not be affected by this increase in resolution either. Unfortunately for many aspiring photographers who like to bicker about this sort of thing, all they will be left with is mediocre photographs that take up even more space on their hard drives.The general public won't be able to distinguish these images from those shot on more "obsolete" cameras, and ultimately your wallet will be thinner after selling all your gear to "upgrade to the latest and great technology."

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michael buehrle's picture

i would expect nothing less from a Nikon.

Kenny Van's picture

Now this's telling me that people picked photography tools by name. and if you want to be a pro, then must be either Canon or Nikon, but at the end they can't tell the difference.

Dave Kavanagh's picture

I fully agree that by looking at the final image most photographers couldn't tell the brand or model camera that was used. Although I do think there are a lot of images that simply wouldn't exist, or at least be the images that they are without certain features that distinguish some of these cameras from each other.

As a Canon shooter for years who switched to using Nikon cameras a year ago, there are definitely images in my portfolio, in particular images where I've been able to recover an amazing amount of detail from shadows, that I simply wouldn't have with my previous camera setup.

Anonymous's picture

I'm not surprised at all. It's not like people open a magazine or drive by a billboard and say, wow, that Canon/Nikon/Sony/Panasonic/Olympus, etc. shot looks great! Post-processing has far more impact on the final image, at least for pro work.

Patrick Hall's picture

It does seem like everyone would think that way. Maybe because I'm bombarded with emails and social media but I can't tell you how many people have told me that they switched systems to go to Sony because of the A7RII and it's unbelievable image quality. I'm hearing this now with Canon as well since the release of the 5DSr. It makes no sense to me when they make the argument from an image quality stand point. As we found in our test video, some of the cameras did perform a little better than the others in some tests but as a whole I would never think of changing complete systems for any of the results that we found (except maybe adding a Sony for 4k video or something like that).

ade adetayo's picture

Patrick, from what I have seen, for most pics, once you go over 12 mega pixels its diminishing returns, D300 users proved that. Mega pixels only matter for super large prints.
However whats hugely noticeable and makes a practical difference is dynamic range and low light performance.
To be brutally honest most clients will struggle to see the difference between Nikon D300 and latest D810 in studio shots. Photographers hate it when I say that, but its true.
I use Sony sensors for dynamic range and low light. Here gear actually does make a noticeable/meaningful difference.

FYI. The same is true with video, Arri Alexa and F65 aside, most well trained people can't tell the difference between a 3k USD DSLR type camera and a 50K one, if used by a good DP.
Check Zacuto's camera tests.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

I really couldn't tell the difference between my Canon and my mirrorless Olympus for the type of stuff I do. I know there are situations where Canon might perform better, but that is a situation I wouldn't be in (ex: weddings). I am able to print much larger than I'm supposed to be able to do in theory (printed something that is roughly the size of the side of a bus). There are just so many more advantages that outweight potential disadvantages, I couldn't justify the Canon and ditched it. I honestly do not understand this whole megapixel war. Are we trying to make a print that will cover the state of Texas? The human brain can only take in so much at a time, where cameras have surpassed that, and people tend to perceive these overly sharp images as "fake". I definitely think you are correct in that the value of a camera is going to be less about megapixels and more about features. I'd much rather have more stuff available on my camera than the ability to print something that can be seen from space.

A lot of people are toting these more expensive units around as part of their image though. It's the same as the guy who arrives at a shoot with 2 assistants and a truck of equipment he never uses. It is important for professionals working with clients to use "pro" gear. These people aren't going to want to give up the investment until their current gear craps out, then you have brand loyalty and whatnot. I think photographers who aren't creating an experience for their client and an image of themselves are going to be more open to different things.

Dave Kavanagh's picture

It'd be interesting to see a follow up to this where photographers were sat in front of Lightroom, Capture One, or whatever, and given raw files to edit (obviously with no exif info showing that gave the game away). I think the differences between cameras would be a whole lot more apparent then.

Lee Morris's picture

The files did look "different" before we changed the color and exposure to match but I think the point is that if you can get them to look identical it just doesn't matter.

Dave Kavanagh's picture

I agree that does prove they're all very capable of taking a very similar shot in controlled circumstances. It just seems like the suggestion is that they're all just as capable as each other. That's only really true up to the point where you hit the limitations of what one camera can do. At that stage the other cameras abilities to go beyond that become a whole lot more important. Just to stress I don't have any particular brand loyalties and I fully accept they're all extremely capable of taking amazing shots.

Daris Fox's picture

It really sums up the point I make about images, it's not the camera but the eco-system you invest in. That will have more bearing on the images you capture. The sensor is only a small part of the whole equation, the ergonomics, features and the support from the companies who provide the tools are worth more. Sensors evolve, sure Sony has the advantage at present but that can change within a generation.

Patrick Hall's picture

I'm not sure that Sony has the advantage from our tests but it does perform very very well. I suspect as usual, when Nikon releases their version of the A7RII chip (probably in the D900) it will out perform the Sony. This is a common trend...Sony releases the technology first and everyone gets excited and then Nikon is given the same sensor only to show that they can pull so much more out of the sensor than Sony can. I suspect a D810 replacement should be out sometime in 2016.

Daris Fox's picture

That was I referring to they have a first to market advantage over Nikon, and Nikon nailing their colours to Sony's mast does give concerns about their long term survival. Both Canon and Nikon have a lot of experience in extracting and producing imagery from sensors, but it won't take long for Sony to catch up once they learn the market and gain experience especially from looking at how Nikon gets the raw data and leverages it.

The next few years will be interesting for photography.

Casey Berner's picture

I'm not really surprised. Why does it matter? Everyone slogs them through a bunch of editing afterwards anyways.

David Walters's picture

I understand completely that one can get an image to look similar in editing. I chose what I use because of the way they feel. They feel like tanks and I love that. They focus quickly and I love that. Glass is easy to find for them and I love that. They are road tested and I love that. There is way to much focus on the final look of the image...I am completely aware that technically that's all that matters to the viewers BUT I can make it look that way with any camera! It's all about the feel and the ergonomics of the shooting system.

Arnold Barr's picture

Hahahaha! great follow up Lee!!!, very entertaining and i like you think the nikon was the best from first test.

Simon Whitehead's picture

So the moral of the story is let's all stop doing comparisons and playing 'who's better' and just concentrate on the work being produced.

Wishful thinking.

Patrick Hall's picture

I know right? I just walked around Photo Plus in NYC a few weeks ago and remember seeing all these amazing creative images printed HUGE. Not once did I wonder what camera shot what or what lighting system was used....instead I appreciated the hard work the photographer did to conceptualize the image and create a captivating photograph.

Alexandre Watanabe's picture

I'm here for the baby turtle girl... Hahaha... For the cameras, I wouldn't change to another different brand just because of the points showed on the reviews, in fact, it's not a huge deal breaker for any one of them. In the end, all of them are just tools to work with.

Terry Hernlund's picture

There needs to be waaayyy more trolls like this on the Internet. Bravo.

Prefers Film's picture

One of the guys that writes for my online magazine actually said "But my phone has better megapixels than my camera". Clearly, at the less-educated consumer level, a larger file size is falsely equated with better quality.

I'm going back to my studio now, to shoot with my 5D...

Ariel Martini's picture

why is this alarming?

Tareq Alhamrani's picture

I wish if you included a digital medium format or film medium/large format in that test comparison then let's see what will be the conclusion with people votes.

I am not that rich to afford so many gear especially those high mp newest, but i am lucky enough to have few, and i do see the difference if it is out of camera without SOOC, my digital medium format shots has that 3D WOW look without pp, and my Sony A7R is still amazes me against me Canon, i don't have 5DsR or Nikon 36mp, but my digital medium format is my first choice for portraits under the light and my Sony is my first choice for outdoor and my 1DX is #1 sports/action camera, why i care about how others can't tell the difference, i am a photographer so i should make the difference.

Percy Ortiz's picture

who cares about Sony or Nikon or Canon... GIVE THAT ASSISTANT A STANDING OVATION! :P

Will Milner's picture

Looks like Nikon are doing a better job with what they have. I get the point of this article and it's conclusion is very real. But those whom did chose a favourite, picked the oldest sensor out of the three....

Dennis Bater's picture

I agree that there is very little difference in images between the cameras. If some replaced all my gear with Canon, I would gladly use it and if someone did the same with Sony gear I would be happy as well. But I have held them all and my hand likes the feel of Nikon.

Sam's Clicks's picture

To me the biggest difference between the brands is the colors they produce. It is well known that skin tones produced by Nikon, Canon etc. with the equivalent lens & exposure settings are different. In this test, given that the images were all shot using the Tamron, I am wondering if the skin tones produced were exactly the same or were they adjusted to in post to be the same. I ask because I assume that would make a difference to the viewer's opinion and trying to see if that's a factor here.

luke smith's picture

Could someone please tell me the name of the LED light panel he uses on the beach?

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