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Has Canon Closed the Gap, or Is It Hobbled by Poor Performing Sensors?

Has Canon Closed the Gap, or Is It Hobbled by Poor Performing Sensors?

Canon is the most popular camera manufacturer in the world, but it has had a reputation in the past for using sensors inside its cameras that have lagged behind the best of the competition. Why is this and what does the future hold?

Digital image sensors are an expensive business, but with annual sales of smartphones at around 1.5B units, that's an awful lot of sensors, particularly when you factor in multi-camera models. The burgeoning image sensor business doesn't stop there, with industrial vision systems (particularly robotics and automotive, but also medical and science applications) adding to global demand that is continually rising. In fact, demand is such that earlier this year, Samsung announced that they were converting an existing DRAM manufacturing line over to camera sensor production. This isn't unusual (Samsung did the same thing back in 2018), as around 80% of the process and equipment overlaps; however, what gives an impression of scale of the capital and ongoing production costs is that this will still see a write-down of some $815 million to complete it!

Sensor Manufacturing

In terms of the global image sensor market, Samsung holds around 18% to Sony's 49%, with OmniVision trailing at 9%. In a market that's vastly expensive to enter and — at least for smartphone cameras — has low margins, the scale of production is all-important. Sony has an ability to invest in R&D to an extent that others are unable to. Of course, a single large manufacturer is never a recipe for a competitive sector, and it's for this reason that many camera manufacturers try to spread their risk between different sensor suppliers, although exactly which sensors are used in which cameras can only be surmised after a tear-down, and even then, it might be difficult to ascertain. Nikon has long used Sony sensors, but also produced its own LBCAST sensors and over the years continued manufacturing, although it appears they no longer have a fab facility. They now either source from other manufacturers or have their own designs produced. As a result, they are also quite promiscuous and not averse to using a range of suppliers (Toshiba, Aptina, and the recently rumored Tower Semiconductor).

This brings us to Canon, who is a major manufacturer with a particular focus upon industrial applications, although they make a point of stating that they produce the sensors in their EOS cameras. Holding somewhere around 5% of the market, Canon is an important — although small — player, which is something you don't often say about their business! Sony has dominated the sensor market both in terms of volume and top-end camera sensors for the best part of a decade, with Canon trailing in the image quality stakes. This is clearly something that Canon is aiming to redress: while they show no interest in entering the smartphone sector (which is where the volume lies), they have increased their production capacity and in 2016, announced they would sell to third parties. This began in 2018 (via Phase1); however, these are industrial sensors, which reiterates their manufacturing focus: horizontal expansion into related imaging markets.

EOS-1D X Mark III Image Quality

In terms of image quality, the gap has been narrowing with each iteration of sensor although DXOMark's recent review of the EOS-1D X Mark III again raises the issue of image quality. DXOMark score camera sensors on the basis of testing color, noise, and ISO sensitivity, with the overall score an average of the three. Garnering a score of 83, we could describe DXOMark's assessment of the image quality as "lackluster":

it’s not quite at the cutting edge in our metrics for sensor performance, but there’s far more to it than that.

The nearly two-year-old Nikon D850 and more recent Sony a9 II outperform in these stakes, scoring 100 and 99 respectively. The D850 isn't a direct competitor, although the a9 II is. Perhaps more pertinently, the low-light quality of the EOS-1D X III is only broadly on a par with the Nikon D5, which was released in 2016. Is the 1D X Mark III a miss for Canon in what should have been a superlative Olympic year?

It's still too early to get a consensus on how the camera performs; however, both the DPReview studio test and Photons to Photos dynamic range test paint a different story. DPReview clearly show a significant jump in performance over the EOS-1D X II, whilst ISO dynamic range performance at Photons to Photos shows a stop improvement at lower ISOs. More importantly, it edges ahead of the a9 II and offers significantly better low ISO performance than the Nikon D6, which trades this for very high ISO performance. It's also important to note that DXOMark does not publish their methods, which are frequently called into question.

Future Sensor Strategy

All of which makes the upcoming release of the R5 and R6 immensely important for Canon, particularly given the headline specifications that have been teased so far. Make no mistake, this is an era-defining year for Canon as it transitions its camera business from DSLR to mirrorless. Nikon beat it to market by some considerable distance with the release of the Z 6 and Z 7, although it's as much about the lens lineup as it is about the camera bodies themselves. The lead it has given Sony, both in terms of the time advantage for developing a system and relinquishing market share in the ILC sector, is substantial. It is no longer number one in its home market, a position it has held for a long time. Manufacturers may bemoan the cataclysmic drop in unit sales, but the truth is that this isn't about cameras. It's about companies that produce cameras, and their manufacturing influence goes much broader. The pivot to mirrorless and implosion of camera sales is an opportunity for disrupting the sector, one that Sony has taken advantage of.

Could it be that 2020 will actually be a return to form for Canon that sees its engineering teams not only fill out its RF lens lineup, but produce genuinely world-class mirrorless camera bodies? On top of that, could we also see Canon's sensor fabrication finally leapfrog Sony in terms of image quality?

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72 Comments

Rick Rizza's picture

I used a cheap crap EOS M10 for fun, the result was better than my friend's D6. We went to the same place and take the same subject. Cannot tell whether the lens makes the difference or is something else but the D6 color is not the way I expect. Anyway, I enjoyed taking pictures with Canon, I found the quality of the images are better than other brands that I know.

Jack Mead's picture

I agree, Canon output is great. Why so much talking about "bad sensors"?

Timothy Linn's picture

Color output has nothing to do with the quality of the sensor. It is determined by the processing that occurs after the data comes of the sensor. I think most people agree that Canon's colors are pleasing, maybe the most pleasing. Their sensors are a different story. Dynamic range, pattern noise, and luminance noise are all areas where a Sony-made APS-C sensor can be equal to or better than a Canon full frame sensor.

James Jones's picture

The area you see this the most is in astrophotography. In astro people take black frames using the same ISO, shutter speed and f stop that they use for the main picture just with the lens cap on while it's on the tripod. This allows you to see the noise the camera makes for your settings and when you stack the images in deep sky stacker or something you can make a much less noisy image. The black frames that I've seen out of Canon Cameras have far more noise than Sony or Nikon for similar image settings.

Spy Black's picture

Not just astrophotography. I've worked in product photography studios that primarily use Canon Mk IIs, IIIs and IVs, and their noise levels, even with the somewhat improved sensor used in the Mk IV, have always been problematic.

Prabhakar Rao's picture

The 5D MK IV has a terrible sensor. After 11 years of canon gear the Mk IV was the worst investment ever. My unit had serious purple banding whenever I tried to lift exposure by about 2 stops or more especially with dark background. Just got rid of my 5D MK IV and replaced it with the Sigma Fp which has a superb BSI sensor with incredible astrophotography results. I am very happy and very highly recommend the Sigma Fp for astro work and and also a video capability that beats any similarly priced or even more expensive offerings from Canon.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

This could be a culture based thing. I think Canon colours are too warm and a bit muddy. Especially skin colours seem to be far too warm to my taste.

Rick Rizza's picture

Maybe just my preference but the skintone is quite good. Perhaps since like some people said, the dynamic range is not too extreme, therefor gradient on the skintone are more detailed I would say.
anyway, you are right, it is a matter of taste.

Frim Tac's picture

When did you do the comparison? Obviously you made up this story because the Nikon D6 was delayed lol. It's only a few weeks ago that it was made available in the US. Even if your story is true, of course a Canon shooter will choose a Canon image because most Canon users are very biased. They will always choose images from a Canon camera but if you ask a Canon shooter or a random person to choose an image that they prefer, lets say from 10 sets of unlabeled images, he wouldn't choose all the images from a Canon camera lol in fact he might choose most of the images from another brand lol.. Canon has not won any blind color science test recently because Canon users actually prefer Sony color science LMAO.
On the other hand, Canon sensors since the Canon 5d4 are pretty good and the difference compared to Sony sensors is tiny. All cameras from all brands no matter what sensor they use are very capable so stop all these nonsense about canon color science, sony superior dynamic range, etc. Images do not win based on these nonsense.

Chris Freeman's picture

Yeah me and my friend where photography stuff. I was shooting a nikon d3000 and he was shooting the canon 5d mark L. The pictures from my camera where so much better. This is definitely a true story.

Mark Cooper's picture

What is a 5d mark L ?

Chris Freeman's picture

You do realize this was joke right and to answer your question it would be the 5d mark 50.

Rick Rizza's picture

About a 10 years ago.

Timothy Linn's picture

Years ago there was a rumor going around that Canon was offered the chance to purchase the rights to the technology, developed by a third party, that make Sony sensors so much better. They declined. Sony did not. The rest is history. I don't know if this is true or not but it is plausible.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

While you're talking about 1/3 stop better Dynamic range and 0.2bit more color depth people are making a living with 10 or 15 year old cameras and clients are happy.

I just bought a canon 6D and am also happy. You keep pixel peeping for meaningless differences

Koketso Resane's picture

Good point.
I'm always baffled by the TeamSony guys on YT who perpetuate the dynamic range debate at every opportunity. Most of us who shoot with good exposure settings have plenty of room in either direction of the histogram when we edit. I'm saying this as a hybrid shooter with both Sony and Canon bodies.

Tom Anderson's picture

Even when comparing Canon's best FF sensor, found in the 5D mkIV and EOS R to the bargain-priced Sony a7III, the difference is much more drastic than you claim. If you were to compare to a Sony or Nikon camera in the same price range (D850, a7RIV) the differences are much greater, but let's stick with the base model to kill your argument.

At base ISO the a7III has a full 1-1.2 stop advantage in DR, which is definitely noticeable if you shoot anything outdoors. That gap widens dramatically as you increase the ISO setting.

The color depth is behind by .5 bits in the Canon, less noticeable than the DR results, but not a negligible amount.

ISO is where the biggest disparity lies with Sony leading by .3-.5 stops. In anything but the most ideal conditions, the Sony has a dramatic lead in terms of amount of noise overall, and noise pattern.

The Canon might have touch-screen features that you like better, or better ergonomics for your shooting style, but the image quality comparisons leave you wanting more from the Canon sensors.

It's easy to make the argument that people are making a living using old cameras, but it's irrelevant. This is an article about new releases, not 10 year old cameras. If Canon wants to stay relevant (and in business) they can't continue to flop around in last place when it comes to tech.

Competition is good, better products force competitors to improve their products and everyone wins. Giving one manufacturer or another a free pass on sub-par tech does not help move anything forward.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

Imagine your a hunter. You kill your prey with state of the art rifle, scope and ammunition.

I kill it with a simple old rifle and iron sights.

The prey is dead either way and only the most Keen eyed hunter would ever be able to tell the difference.

That is us. No client would ever know the difference, maybe the hunter or the photographer have an slightly easier time getting the job done, but the quality of the final work is is negligible difference, only an expert could tell the difference.

We fool ourselves that we upgrade our gear for the client when we do it to make our life easier.

Tom Anderson's picture

The subject of this article is Canon sensor tech. If you are trying to say that it's not relevant, then why read the article or comment?

Tom Anderson's picture

Is waffle meant to be some kind of insult?

Stuart Carver's picture

Not as such, it means you are talking waffle.. meaningless statistics taken from people who use spreadsheets rather than cameras.

Get off these bollocks websites and get out taking photos. Nobody cares about 0.3% better dynamic range and ‘how the colours render’ it’s all just waffle.

Prabhakar Rao's picture

I've owned the 5D MarK 2, Mark 3 MarK 4 and the 6D and I can honestly say the 6D had the best dynamic range of the whole set. I unfortunately upgraded from 6D to the 5D Mark 4 and was bitterly disappointed with purple noise banding when lifting exposure by about 2 stops. I moved away from Canon after Canon New Zealand's repair shop refused to do anything about this issue even thought I showed them that another unit of the Mk IV didi not exhibit this problem (not to the level mine did). I've recently upgraded to the Sigma Fp and it is an incredible camera for astro work and supports Dual ISO (ISO 100 & 3200) excellent for astro work and has an incredibly low sensor noise and nothing in the Canon stable comes even close. Canon lenses are also some of the worst for astro work especially bad with coma distortion. There is absolutely no point in canon making high resolution sensors when nothing in the lenses offering has the MTF to take advantage of any higher resolution than 30 MP.

Reginald Walton's picture

Ahh, DXO Mark. I don't know very many pro photographers, but the few I do know that shoot the 1DX II and III, certainly didn't get advice from DXO before they purchased their cameras.

Stuart Carver's picture

Is there such a thing as a poor performing sensor in the last 6/7 years or just poor people using the camera the sensors attached to? i swear everytime i see someone trolling a sensor on the internet i can find a world class shot taken with the same sensor in like 20 seconds.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

Only thing I would change in your statement is the time. You could have said 10 years, maybe more and it would still be accurate.

jim blair's picture

1dx3 is Canon's best sensor attempt and the R5/R6 will not be significantly better. As a Canon shooter everybody knows Sony sensor is better so who cares anymore. Post processing software closes that gap anyways so IMO older bodies still have tremendous value.

Rayann Elzein's picture

Sony sensor is better how? In tests? Who cares for 1% difference in real-life shooting.

Jon The Baptist's picture

Canon hasn't created a class-leading chip in over a decade.

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