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Ten years of APS-C

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Ten years of APS-C, text and photos by . Published on .

How much progress has there actually been in sensor technology in 10 years? I was curious to see how an old camera compares with the most recent APS-C cameras, so I have taken the dust off my old Canon 350D and I have compared it side by side with the Canon 70D. The Canon 350D was announced in 2005, but it uses the 20D's 8 megapixels, APS-C sensor, from 2004. The 70D currently (June 2014) is the most recent APS-C from Canon.

The comparison

Here you can see 100% crops for RAW files converted with Camera RAW; no noise reduction has been applied. Since noise can change a lot depending by the brightness of the scene, I have included both a crop from highlight areas and one from shadows.

At ISO 100, the 70D clearly has a lot more detail than the 350D; the advantage of 20 megapixels vs 8 can be clearly seen. The shadow noise is about the same if you look at 100% crops, but if you resize both images to the same resolution the 70D shows much cleaner shadows.

At ISO 1600, when looking at unresized photos, the 70D show obviously more detail, but surprisingly the noise is about the same. By resizing at the same resolution the noise of the 70D is reduced, so it gets about one stop better than the 350D.

At ISO 12800 the 70D is, agin, the winner both in terms of detail and noise, but the difference is not huge and frankly both images are unusable. Note that the 350D is limited at 1600 ISO, to get the 12800 ISO photo I have taken a photo at 1600 underexposed by three stops, then I have corrected the exposure by the same value (+ 3 stops) with camera RAW.

So, how much sensitivity have we gained in ten years of APS-C sensor development? Actually, not much: the most recent Canon APS-C sensor is about 1 stop better than a sensor from ten years ago, of course a welcome improvement, but less than what I expected. In the next crops you can see that the 70D at 1600 ISO is about on par with the 350D at 800 ISO; these are the maximum sensitivities that I consider fully usable on 70D and 350D.

Of course, sometimes I have got good results even at 3200 ISO with the 70D, but it requires a careful post processing. ISO 6400 is usable only in exceptional circumstances and 12800, 25600 ISO are here just for marketing. In the past, cameras were limited the the maximum truly usable sensitivity - for example, the maximum ISO of the 350D was 1600 - a good habit that has been lost in favor of implausibly high limits.

What about fullframe?

The first FF camera from Canon, the 11 megapixels 1Ds, was abominable at high ISO - some years ago I compared it with the 350D and the 1Ds it was one stop worse than my cheap APS-C camera! But, of course, we are talking of an old, old camera.

If we give a look at 10 years ago, in 2004 Canon announced the 1Ds Mark II, that was an huge step forward from the original 1Ds: 16 megapixels and two stops better ISO, fully usable up to 1600 ISO. Nowadays, the resolution has not changed much for Canon FF cameras, we are still around 18-22 megapixel, while Nikon and Sony offers a lot more resolution with theur 36 megapixels cameras.

In terms of high ISO, currently the very best cameras - Sony A7s, Canon 1DX and Nikon D4s - are fully usable in every situation up to 6400/12800 ISO (it depends by personal tastes), so in the FF realm there has been a two stops improvement in 10 years, a good step forward.

But a camera is just the sensor...

Coming back to my comparison between APS-C sensors, while working with the 350D and the 70D for the test I was amazed by how much the whole camera has improved. Looking in the viewfinder of the 350D, I wondered how I managed in the past to focus and compose with that little dark hole...nowadays, I rarely use the viewfinder anymore - for landscape and macro I compose the photo with the large screen of the 70D, and I manual focus in live view at 10x magnification...it is so much easier!

Talking about screen, the one of 350D is so small and it has such low resolution that I could clearly see the single pixels; the screen of recent cameras are big, bright, sharp, a pleasure for the eyes.

Of course, in terms of shooting speed, features, AF speed and so on there is no comparison, the 70D is another world! Things like live view have changed the way we frame and focus our photos; AF has become much faster and it is able to track the subject with better efficiency; the continuous shooting has more than doubled and the memory card are light years bigger and faster.

Conclusions (for APS-C cameras)

While resolution has improved a lot, the improvement in noise performance is less than expected: in 10 years, we have gained just one stop. All the other aspects of the camera have seen huge improvements that makes much, much more enjoyable the whole shooting experience.

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sent on July 07, 2014 (6:52)



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