The results I got at SXSW this year during a concert shoot was eye-opening. I always knew, according to DPReview specs anyway, that the new Olympus micro 4/3 cameras basically match my big gun, the Canon 7D DSLR in image quality. But it’s one thing to read about something, it’s another to experience it yourself. Some people weren’t surprised. After all the 7D is a 4-year-old camera — of course the new stuff, even with a smaller sensor, is going to outpace the old tech.
Curious, I decide to poke around and see what Canon’s done lately.
I was a bit surprised. I’m following Olympus and micro 4/3 lately so I haven’t kept up with Canon. Sure, I knew they introduced the 5D Mark III and the 6D, but what have they done in the APS-C space?
The short answer, basically, nothing.
Canon has 3 lines of APS-C DSLRs. The consumer Rebel line, the XXD series (currently the 60D) and the prosumer 7D. While there are rumors of a Mark II, the 7D has no update since the original 2009 introduction. The 60D, introduced in 2010, also has no update. Only the consumer Rebel line has been updated on a regular basis.
The newest Rebel, the T5i, appears to use the same 18MP sensor, introduced by the 7D back in 2009. The image processor is updated to the Digic 5, also used in the Rebel T4i, and SL1. The Rebel T3i, 60D and 7D use the older Digic 4. So within the last 4 years, it looks like the update to Digic 5 is the only image quality related change Canon has made.
So how good is this new Digic 5 processor? Here is some analysis I did for your reading pleasure.
1. I started with the usual DPReview image comparison application. You can access it via this URL. I compared the Olympus OM-D against the Canon 7D and the Canon Rebel T4i. Make sure to change the cameras you are comparing via the drop down menus. The Rebel T4i is listed under Canon EOS 650D, the European name for the same camera. The OM-D represents the newest of the Olympus micro 4/3 sensors, the same one used in my E-PM2 as well as the newest E-P5. The Canon 7D, the other camera I own, represents the older Digic 4 processor. The Rebel T4i has the newest Digic 5.
You can eyeball the results yourself. Things don’t begin to get interesting, these days, until at least ISO 1600. That is where the noise creeps up and the color quality begins to drop. To my eye, the 3 cameras look pretty close. The OM-D more than holds its own against the 7D and if anything the Rebel T4i seems a bit noisier. So unless Canon purposely reduced the image quality on their consumer line, the Digic 5 processor doesn’t seem improve image quality or at least high ISO performance does not seem any better.
2. Let use another comparison. DXO is a company that does extensive sensor and lens testing for their software. They have an interesting database called DXO Mark where they publish their results. Let’s compare the Canon Rebel T4i (650D), the Olympus OM-D and the Canon 7D. You can see for most results, the OM-D with the smaller micro 4/3 sensor outscored the Canon APS-C sensors. Also, the 7D with the older Digic 4 processor outscored the Rebel T4i with the Digic 5 on every test.
I’m not saying that these tests are perfect, I’m sure some people will quibble about it. But the two results seem consistent. And it’s also what I see when I compare my Olympus E-PM2 vs the Canon 7D. So the question is, why hasn’t Canon improved their APS-C image quality? Since the APS-C sensors are larger than micro 4/3, in theory they should produce better results. Is Canon committed to APS-C or is their plan to just add more extraneous bells and whistles to their camera while not improving image quality.