After I have published my Canon 6D review, a number of our readers asked if there was a way to show a comparison between dynamic range performance of a Canon DSLR and and a Nikon DSLR side by side with image samples. Since the Canon 6D has the largest dynamic range in Canon’s line (higher than 5D Mark III), it was a good candidate for such a comparison. On the Nikon side, I used my Nikon D800E, since it has the same base ISO of 100. Since there was a brightness difference between the two cameras (as noted in the above-mentioned review), I compensated the shutter speed accordingly to make it a fair game. The results are quite interesting to look at, showing visible advantage on behalf of Nikon when compared to Canon. The intent of this article is not to spark another Nikon vs Canon debate, as I personally find such discussions useless. This is done as a case study to analyze recovery options between the two brands when shooting in the field.
Let’s take a look at our base exposure, with no adjustments on both cameras (Left: Nikon D800E, Right: Canon 6D):
The above are 100% crops. I did not want to down-sample these images from the D800E, since it would have shown a lot less noise in comparison below.
Nikon vs Canon Overexposure
For the first case study, I increased the exposure length by full five stops from the base exposure, which obviously resulted in a lot of overexposure. Neither camera was able to fully reproduce most of the colors, so I adjusted the exposure to four stops instead. Here is what both looked like before exposure adjustments:
It is a pretty drastic overexposure. Here are the results from both cameras, with a -4 EV adjustment in Lightroom:
As we can see from the above crops, the Canon 6D retains less colors than the Nikon D800E when images are overexposed. Take a look at what happens with green, magenta and yellow color patches – some yellows completely lost their colors. In comparison, the Nikon D800E clearly does a better job, although it also mostly loses magenta and green.
Nikon vs Canon Underexposure
The second case study is for situations where there is severe underexposure taking place that needs to be recovered in post. Both cameras were able to handle a +5 EV recovery, so I decreased the exposure time by an additional stop to make images very dark:
And now here is what happens when I dial +5 EV in Lightroom:
This is an interesting comparison, because it shows a drastic difference in the way both cameras handle severe underexposure. The image from the Nikon D800E looks very good – colors are mostly retained and the amount of added noise is minimal. Now take a look at the Canon 6D – the same cannot be said about it. There are a lot of artificial colors added and the amount of noise is very high, similar to what I had seen when comparing the Canon 5D Mark III and the D800E. The difference is pretty drastic and noticeable.
Now you might be wondering when one would ever go to such extremes during normal post-processing. When working in Lightroom or Photoshop, any time you use Highlight or Shadow recovery tools, dynamic range surely matters. Say you are photographing someone in a shade with a very bright background, or dealing with a sunrise / sunset situation where shadows need to be brighter and the sky needs to be darker. You would be mostly using three sliders for the job – Exposure, Highlights and Shadows. These sliders will attempt to pull out as much information from a RAW file as possible, if it is there. So in the case of the Canon 6D, you are risking losing more colors in highlights and adding more artificial noise in the shadows when compared to the Nikon D800E. A similar behavior can be observed when shooting with the Nikon D600 / D610 cameras – they have very similar dynamic range performance as the Nikon D800E.
The above dynamic range case studies pretty much validates what DxOMark has been claiming to date about the dynamic range of Canon DSLRs – they are visibly worse when compared to Nikon.
Still, whether you are looking at Nikon or Canon, it is pretty darn amazing what modern digital cameras can do, turning almost pitch black images to something workable today. Just imagine trying to do this experiment 10 years ago…
And if you are still shooting JPEG, hopefully the below comparison will convince you to start shooting RAW (Left: Nikon D800E RAW +5 EV Recovery, Right: Nikon D800E JPEG +5 EV Recovery):
Ouch for 8-bit JPEG files. Looks like it is time to update my RAW vs JPEG article with a better example!
Up Next: dynamic range comparison between Nikon D810 and D800E.