Nikon DX vs Canon APS-C: Dynamic Range

Many are aware of DxO’s sensor rankings and tests, particularly their dynamic range comparisons, but perhaps not everyone understands what exactly dynamic range is, how it affects your photographs, and what exposure techniques and post-processing steps are necessary to take full advantage of it. I address all of this and more in my new three-part video, which also includes an extensive comparison of the dynamic range between the Nikon and Canon crop bodies, using real photographs to demonstrate the differences in practice. For this comparison I used a Nikon D5100 and Canon T2i (550D), but the results are also applicable for a Nikon D7000 vs Canon 7D (or 60D, T3i), since each family of these bodies share identical or near-identical sensors. The Canon results can also be applied for the 5D Mark II, as it has similar dynamic range and cross-hatch banding characteristics as Canon’s 18MP crop sensor.

Part 1, Explanation of Dynamic Range and how to utilize it

Part 2, Dynamic Range comparison between the Nikon D5100 and Canon T2i

Part 3, Dynamic Range comparison between the Nikon D5100 and Canon T2i (continued)

Sample Photos
Here are links to the full-sized 100% JPEG quality photos that were used in the videos. All photos were shot RAW and processed in LR 3.4, using neutral/faithful camera profiles and default settings unless otherwise noted.

Photo #1
Canon T2i Raw (Rawshack report) (Raw Values) (Blacks Subtracted)
Canon T2i Original
Canon T2i After Shadow Push, no Luminance Noise Reduction
Canon T2i After Shadow Push, +70 Luminance Noise Reduction

D5100 Raw (Rawshack report) (Raw Values)
Nikon D5100 Original
Nikon D5100 After Shadow Push, no Luminance Noise Reduction
Nikon D5100 After Shadow Push, +20 Luminance Noise Reduction

Photo #2
Canon T2i Raw (Rawshack report) (Raw Values) (Blacks Subtracted)
Canon T2i Original
Canon T2i After Shadow Push, no Luminance Noise Reduction
Canon T2i After Shadow Push, +70 Luminance Noise Reduction
Canon T2i After Shadow Push, +70 Luminance Noise Reduction, Black & White

D5100 Raw (Rawshack report) (Raw Values)
Nikon D5100 Original
Nikon D5100 After Shadow Push, no Luminance Noise Reduction
Nikon D5100 After Shadow Push, +30 Luminance Noise Reduction
Nikon D5100 After Shadow Push, +30 Luminance Noise Reduction, Black & White

Photo #3
Canon T2i Raw (Rawshack report) (Raw Values) (Blacks Subtracted)
Canon T2i Original
Canon T2i After Shadow Push, no Luminance Noise Reduction
Canon T2i After Shadow Push, +70 Luminance Noise Reduction

D5100 Raw (Rawshack report) (Raw Values)
Nikon D5100 Original
Nikon D5100 After Shadow Push, no Luminance Noise Reduction
Nikon D5100 After Shadow Push, +30 Luminance Noise Reduction

Something I didn’t have time to cover in the videos is whether a third-party noise reduction tool like DeNoise or Dfine can do a better job with cross-hatch banding than Lightroom. Here is Photo #2 for the Canon processed with both DeNoise and Dfine on a B+W TIFF exported from Lightroom with no luminance noise reduction and then processed using the Photoshop CS5 plug-ins offered by Topaz (DeNoise) and Nik Software (Dfine 2.0).

Canon T2i Original
Canon T2i with Dfine debanding noise reduction
Canon T2i with DeNoise noise reduction

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22 Responses to Nikon DX vs Canon APS-C: Dynamic Range

  1. Eytan says:

    Excellent explanations, Thanks for sharing. Very educational and clear.

  2. Bruce Campbell says:

    Well, I’ve already left a comment somewhere, but can’t find it. Anyway, these videos are the best I’ve ever seen. Its fascinating stuff, which is understandable even to a non-technical type like myself. I have a question to ask. I shoot raw almost exclusively, and I’d like to know if it would be better for me to apply some negative exposure compensation on my D7000 in the field, or later in post processing? Does it make any qualitative difference to the IQ? Thanks, Bruce (pith)

    • Adam says:

      Thanks Bruce. It’s better to reduce the exposure in post rather than in the original photo, provided you’re not clipping any highlights in the scene that are important to you. This is true for all digital cameras because the more light that reaches the sensor, the less noise your photograph will have. Whether or not the difference shows up in the IQ of the final image depends on the particular exposures you’re comparing, the content of the image, how much post processing you intend to perform, and the size of your print. I shoot a lot of landscapes and typically the noisiest channel on a bayer sensor is the blue channel so the extra exposure really helps, especially once you start to manipulate the sky in post.

  3. Harry says:

    Nice explanation. This helps in deciding between brands

  4. Bruce Campbell says:

    Thank you Adam, I was thinking of applying a one third to half stop of negative exposure in the field in cases, where as you mentioned the highlights might clip. I recently posted a shot of a Grist Mill at photographycorner.com, that was well exposed with the exception of some white trim on the building. In this case would it be advisable, to add the negative compensation in the field, since it doesn’t seem possible later? Thank you for you’re expertise. Bruce

    • Adam says:

      Bruce,

      There’s no way to restore clipped highlights in post, especially if all three of the RGB channels are clipped, so yes you’ll want to apply negative exposure compensation when taking the photo if you’re certain that raw clipping would otherwise occur. One thing to keep in mind is the clipping indication on the image review/playback (LCD) for raw files is based on the tone curve for the active picture control and the white balance, even though you wont necessarily be applying that same picture control in post, and these factors can sometimes show clipping on the LCD where there in fact is no clipping in the raw file. I hope to do a future video to demonstrate how to configure the camera for more reliable clipping indication.

  5. Omar S says:

    This is the way to do a review for the more informed users! I was really curious how the new Sony sensor fares in real world scenarios and if the extra DR is really noticeable! Well it sure is, thanks to your review! Keep up the terrific work

  6. Bruce Campbell says:

    Thanks Adam, I guess you actually answered my question the first time, but I wanted to be sure I understood what you were saying. I’m looking forward to seeing more of you’re camera related videos in the future, because although I generally fear technical information this stuff is interesting. Bruce

  7. Nikko says:

    Great videos here ! ! !
    Thank you so much for your time and effort !

    I have a question.
    I try to achieve the same result with pic. no.3 (D5100) in LR 3.4
    As far as I can tell in the video you change only Exposure +2.0 and Fill Light +100,
    but when I do these I loose the details in the highlights.
    Is there anything else you are changing when developing this picture. (apart from the Noise reduction)

    Thanks in advance !

    • Adam says:

      Hi Nikko,

      To offset the +2.0 exposure I applied to the entire photo, I created a -2.0 exposure adjustment brush for the window and window seat area, to keep the highlights. I think I mentioned that in the video. An easier solution would be if Adobe added support for > +100 fill-light, or if they added fill-light as one of the attributes for the local adjustments (brush and/or graduated filter). Hopefully they’ll add that in a future version of LR, since there are now cameras like the D7000/K-5 with shadows clean enough to support it.

  8. Martin says:

    Great work Adam! This is the only review where I could really see how well DR performs with the kit lenses in both the Nikon and the Canon cameras. I was somehow doubtful about whether it could be noticeable with average lenses, so this it’s really helpful as for my final decision (I’m stuck between a T3i or a D5100 which is less than 100U$S more expensive than the Canon). Nevertheless, have you test the T2i with its HTP (Highlight Tone Priority) or the Auto Lighting Optimizer modes on? I know one of those modes is intended to improve the dynamic range in the image, but once again, I couldn’t find valuable information as for the final image quality obtained when this modes are applied…
    Thanks!!

    • Adam says:

      Hi Martin,

      Thanks. HTP and ALO are tailored for JPEG shooters and principlally use tonal compression (and a little exposure adjustment) to achieve some extra output DR. Neither actually improves the DR of the sensor, so if you shoot raw it’s best to keep those options disabled.

  9. Erick says:

    Well, I must say that I’m really impressed with the quality of the Nikon/Sony sensor. That proves that the Canon software (Digital Photo Professional) does a lot of tweaking to the RAW files to have them clean and somehow “noise-less” but when you take them to LR or ACR then you find the real image. Thanks for taking the time to show this. I’m really waiting for the D400 now.

  10. Daniel says:

    well this is hardly a fare comparison because the T2i is like 3 years old and the nikon is a new camera only released like 3 months ago…and these videos are soo long and boring.

    • Adam says:

      All of the Canon 18MP cameras share the the same, nearly identical sensors, including the newer 60D and the T3i.

  11. Harry says:

    Hey everyone, I don’t know why but my D7000 kit lens, 18-105 mm DX is really loud when shooting videos with continuous autofocus (AF-C).

    Also, I dont’t know why, but when I go into Q (Quiet) mode, after I release the shutter button, if you listen carefully and hear it near the lens, you here an echo sort sound like an spring or something…is mine 1 month old lens defective?

  12. Aaron says:

    I wonder how much of this is really an issue in a practical sense. I mean, if you shot an image that needs 3+ stops of lifting shadows, you are probably exposing your photos incorrectly. The only use I can think of, is to create surreal, artificial looking HDRs out of a single RAW file. Sure, there is a (tiny) market for that sort of photography, but I fail to see why anyone would want those painting-style photographs for normal or even commercial use. I highly doubt that, for 99% of the photographs, you, or anyone else would be able to pick these banding patterns or blotching in a Canon photo. For that matter, I’m confident that you couldn’t tell a canon, pentax, nikon photo apart from the image quality alone (not lens artifacts), for 99% of the snaps. I am of the opinion that good technique up front will largely eliminate your need for doing things like what you mention.

    • Adam says:

      Capturing high dynamic range scenes requires exposing for the important highlights and thus underexposing the shadows, which then need to be lifted in post. I regularly shoot such scenes so the banding frequently interferes with my workflow but I agree, it may not affect other shooters nearly as much. Btw, the banding is not limited to shadow lifting; it can also occur when you do certain levels of color manipulation in post.

  13. treepop says:

    Curious. Would you mind comparing these images in DPP and whatever Nikon’s respective software suite is? I wonder if Lightroom might be a factor?

    Thanks

    • Adam says:

      I’ve done some informal comparisons with DPP and LR and didn’t see much difference with respect to shadow noise or banding.

  14. jordan says:

    adam,
    great video and review! i have a d7k and love the DR. i’ve been shooting some hawks for the past several months and many times in difficult lighting situations and the d7k really performs here.

  15. Daniel Robu says:

    Nice work on all this.

    I’m also making a research in this area for more then a year, the reason being my need for large prints (film and digital so scanning and enlarging are included). I’ve noticed many of you’re finds but until now I didn’t discovered in detail the reasons that cause the problems.
    My work was more concerned on methods of resolving these problems even if it included buying high end equipment.

    Thanks for sharing!

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