Photographic Image Quality:
Camera + Lens Comparison (1)

Over the years, I've used many cameras and lenses: Pentax H1a and ME-Super film SLRs, Mamiya 220 2¼"×2¼" film twin-lens reflex, Calumet and Toyo 4×5 view cameras, Canon EOS 650 film SLR, Canon PowerShot Pro1 digital "super-zoom," Sony alpha NEX-7 (APS-C digital), and a variety of smaller digital point-and-shoot cameras. The three described below are the ones I currently own, representing the spectrum of most popular formats.

▸ Update: since these shots were taken (late 2013), the top-of-the-line full-frame Canon is up to 30Mp, Olympus has released a wide range of professional lenses, and the iPhone is up to version 8. Based in part on what you see here, I've sold the Canon gear in favor of the more practical (for me) Olympus system. My current iPhone 6s fares even better in recent testing than the 4 did here. Newer comparison to follow.

As promised: a new second page of comparisons for the most recent gear. Follow the "Next" link at the bottom of this page, or skip directly to the update.

Canon, iPhone, Olympus


Canon EOS 5D mkII, digital single-lens reflex (DSLR)

Image from Canon

Advantages: Large sensor; prints to 30"×40" or more ♦ Huge selection of high quality lenses: ultra-wide, super-telephoto, tilt-shift, macro, etc. ♦ Optical viewfinder (preferred by some photographers) ♦ Weather-resistent, designed for professional use.

Disadvantages: Big and heavy (3.8 pounds combined) ♦ Focus and compose on screen only in special "live view" mode; screen fixed in place on back ♦ Mirror adds complexity, noise ♦ Takes some practice to use effectively ♦ Expensive.

Image data: Sensor: full-frame, 21Mp ♦ Lens: Canon 24–105mm f/4 at 50mm (longer than the other images to accommodate minimum focusing distance of 1.5 feet) ♦ Focus: manual, label enlarged in live view mode on external monitor ♦ Exposure: aperture priority; f/11, 1/15 second, ISO 200 (f/11 to give depth of field similar to smaller sensors with wider apertures).


Olympus OM-D E-M1, mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC)

Image from Olympus

Advantages: Smaller and lighter than DSLR (1.9 pounds combined) ♦ Prints to 21"×27" or more ♦ Image stabilization in camera ♦ Excellent low-light performance ♦ Weather-resistant and sturdily built ♦ Tilt-screen always active; permits waist-level and overhead shooting ♦ Electronic viewfinder for shooting in bright light (includes exposure data) ♦ Pro-quality lenses available ♦ Wi-fi to phone ♦ Best photographer-friendly controls I have used.

Disadvantages: Smaller selection of specialized lenses ♦ Still another item to carry around ♦ GPS only with smartphone ♦ Still relatively expensive.

Image data: Sensor: Micro 4/3 (2.0 FOVCF), 16Mp ♦ Panasonic Lumix GX Vario 12–35mm f/2.8 (FF equivalent 24–70mm) at 15mm (FF=30mm), minimum focusing distance of 10 inches (you can see the difference in perspective from the one above) ♦ Focus: Manual, label enlarged on screen ♦ Exposure: Aperture priority; f/5.6, 1/8 second, ISO 200.


Apple iPhone 4S, smartphone with built-in camera

Image from iPhone

Advantages: Pocket-sized, light weight (5.9 ounces) ♦ Always available ♦ Excellent image quality on computer screen and mobile devices ♦ Easy to share images electronically ♦ GPS data with image ♦ Trivially easy to use.

Disadvantages: No photographer control ♦ JPEG only ♦ Poor low-light performance ♦ Prints to 8"×10" or less ♦ Difficult to see screen in bright sunlight ♦ Quickly outdated by latest technology.

Image data: Sensor: approx. 1/3.6" (8.2 FOVCF), 8Mp ♦ Lens: Apple built-in 4.28mm (FF equivalent 35mm), minimum focusing distance unknown, but this was very close to the bottle ♦ Focus: Tap screen on label ♦ Exposure: Automatic; f/2.4 (fixed), 1/20 second (set by camera), ISO 64 (set by camera).


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