Camera Buyer’s Conundrum – DxOMark Low-Light Performance Commentary [Updated]

I feel like it’s time for a non-Senior Project related post, so what better to do than complain about the state of affairs of photography technology. I’ve been in the market for an SLR or SLT(Translucent) camera for awhile now and so far, I’ve come away mostly disappointed. There’s always one feature that’s compromised, or missing unless you go above $1000, although I do respect the fact that you can’t have everything.

For me, two things are important: 1) good low-light performance, and 2) solid HD video. The first factor is pretty much the only way you’re going to capture events indoors (without a flash) or get good action shots (that aren’t in broad daylight) because the shutter of your camera will only be open for a fraction of a second to let light in. The second is just a nice way of capturing memories without a camcorder, and with more flexibility than some pocket-sized cameras, cellphones, etc. The latter gadgets tend to have fixed zoom. I’ll tackle item 1 first though, since that’s more complex than just finding the sticker that says “1080p HD w00t!” sticker. For that, I looked to DxOMark, which runs numerical benchmarks on cameras and lenses. In their words, it “consists of a comprehensive RAW-based image quality Measurement Database and a set of Scores to evaluate and compare digital cameras and lenses. ” Let’s get shopping.

I was previously checking out creations from Canon for two reasons. The first was that just about everyone with a camera on campus was telling me how great Canon cameras were. To be fair, I’ve noticed like a 60-30 split on campus between Canons and Nikons. The remaining 10 percent is Pentax (me), Olympus, and Sony. The second reason is that only Canon thus far has produced an SLR camera capable of processing HD video at 60 frames per second, albeit at a reduced 720p resolution. It’s a very cool feature to have, as it’ll let you create slow-mo effects in post. But when I dug a bit deeper into the sub-$1000 market, I found that Canon has been virtually stagnant in terms of innovation. Their new camera, the T3i (EOS 600D) is essentially the same camera as the T2i with a few tacked on software goodies and a flip out screen. The image sensor is identical. This means that there will be no improvements in picture quality. <– Lame.

I’ll complain more about Canon later in the mid-range market later, but continuing my original thought, here’s a few cameras with a lower MSRP, but similar if not superior low light performance:

That’s not to say they are more advanced cameras, just that there’s a high quality sensor sitting in the camera. It should be noted that the above ratings aren’t stating that “ISO 800 is the best the camera can achieve,” it’s more a measure of how sensitive you can make the sensor without getting excessively grainy pictures. The K-x has already been succeeded by the similar K-r, both of which max out at 24 FPS video at 720p. Not a deal-killer, but seriously? My iPod touch can handle the same thing. The Nikon D3100 does 720p at 30 FPS, and 1080p at 24 FPS. Still clearly limited by its image processor, but better. Sony’s got an interesting shooter. It does 1920×1080 at 60 frames per second, interlaced and 30 FPS progressive. Obviously capable of good things, but somewhat full of itself and filled with marketting fluff. For those of you who don’t know, interlacing means your footage is at risk of coming out like this:

On top of this, you have to consider build quality, which is largely anecdotal. Almost all cameras are plastic on a metal chassis. The differences are how much plastic is used and whether the metal is plain stainless steel, or high-strength/low-weight magnesium alloy. I’ve heard a lot about the Rebel series feeling like toys compared to the Canon 7D and a lot of cheaper cameras from other brands. I can’t confirm or deny this factually, having never handled a 7D, but I would definitely not abuse a Rebel like I do my dust/weather-sealed K20D.

If I had to make a decision right now based solely on features, I would probably go with the Sony, even though I think the button layout is questionable and the thing looks darned clunky. But given that I would save $300 by reusing old lenses, the K-r (+kit 18-55mm) is also tempting given that it can be had for $620 on Amazon. The a560 starts at $650 without a lens. And back to my original point, the T3i retails for $900, which I feel is egregiously overpriced for this segment of the market. It should also be noted that Canon and Sony are the only brands to include a microphone input for those occasions when that white-noise background you get in home videos drives you insane.

One little twist in the story of current generation camera tech is the “SLT” camera. Sony has a few now, and more are coming, but these cameras have Translucent mirror elements, so ~30% of the light bounces up to your viewfinder, and ~70% of the light goes straight through the mirror and hits the image sensor. It’s the ultimate in what-you-see-is-what-you-get technology because there is no mechanical action involved in taking a picture. Everything happens instantly. You can even record video while observing through the viewfinder (I think). The drawback is that you have 30% less light hitting the image sensor. Your low light performance goes down the drain unless you compensate with a more expensive sensor. For comparable performance to the a560, the Sony a55 (SLT) costs at least $100 more.

One final thought is in regards to the $1000+ segment of the market. More money generally buys you better quality tech, which is why I’m a little surprised at the benchmarks for the Canon 7D. I’ve read many reviews praising it for excellent low-light video-taking, and it’s also popular for budding wedding photographers. But on the chart, it’s not so hot compared to the likes of the newly released, but cheaper Pentax K-5. And at this price, Pentax cut fewer corners. It’s packs 25FPS 1080p with external audio inputs with a 16 megapixel sensor. If I ever become filthy rich, I’ll buy both (assuming they’re not discontinued) and try ’em out. The rumor sites of the internet haven’t heard any rumblings of Canon or Pentax introducing a new mid-range (~$1000) camera in the near future. On an unrelated note, the 5D MK.II is godly. That is a camera I can understand being used for television and film production.

But at the end of this winding discourse, which is really just for my own benefit of doing some shopping research and organizing my thoughts, I think I’m going to have to wait a bit longer and see if some of the compromises I’ve highlighted magically disappear. I don’t expect earthquake battered camera companies (read: “ALL OF THEM”) to suffer research and development delays of more than a few months and hopefully any pricing instabilities smooth themselves out. I just think the market has a little more ways to go before reaching maturity. HD video only became a feature taken for granted maybe a year or two ago. Canon was slightly ahead of the game because it already makes professional video cameras. But the rest of the market will eventually get to the point where they can comfortably evolve features, instead of awkwardly cramming them into cameras. It’s just a matter of time.

My buying trigger will probably be:

  • DxOMark ISO score of 800 minimum, 850+ preferred
  • 1080p 30FPS capable
  • $750 Body Only price, maybe 800 with good features
  • Video Auto-focus & at least some manual controls

Update: I just came across an article describing how Sony’s a33 and a55 series cameras suffer from poor thermal engineering. The image sensor overheats during recording, cutting off your videos. Whoops.

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