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Which camera offers the best image quality?

Image quality is evidently of utmost importance for photographic capture. While many aspects of what constitutes a 'good' image are difficult to describe and pin down, some technical foundations for high-quality imaging can be measured. In particular, data scientists at DXO Mark have published camera sensor assessments for well over a decade now that cover important image quality criteria, notably color depth, dynamic range, and low-light sensibility. Similarly, William J. Claff has published extensively about camera sensor performance on his PhotonsToPhotos website.

DXO Mark publishes an overall sensor score, which represents an average of component indicators focusing on characteristics that are important, respectively, for portrait, landscape, and sports photographers. The rating for portrait photography indicates the extent to which a camera sensor can capture color nuances accurately. The landscape score represents the capacity of the sensor to maintain detail in high-contrast settings, and the sports rating shows how well a sensor operates at higher ISO settings without generating excessive amounts of noise in the image.

The ranking

Top DXO
Camera with best DXO Total score: Hasselblad X1D

Considering that imaging is based on the capture of light, it is not surprising that the list of highest rated cameras by image quality is dominated by large-sensor cameras. The Hasselblad X1D currently occupies the top spot with a DXO Total score of 102, followed by the Pentax 645Z. Most of the top-rated cameras also offer relatively high image resolution, suggesting that it is total sensor area and not necessary the size of individual pixels that determines the quality of the capture. The following table shows the 30 highest ranked cameras in descending order of their overall DXO score.

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Image Quality: The Top-Rated Cameras
    Camera
Model
DXO
Total
DXO
Portrait
DXO
Landscape
DXO
Sports
Sensor
Class
Resolution
(MP)
Camera
Launch
Launch
Price (USD)
Street
Price
1.
 
Hasselblad X1D10226.214.84489 Medium Format 51.3 Jun 2016 8,995i
2.
 
Pentax 645Z10126.014.74505 Medium Format 51.1 Apr 2014 8,499 i
3.
 
Panasonic S1R10026.414.13525 Full Frame 46.7 Feb 2019 3,699 i
4.
 
Sony A7R III10026.014.73523 Full Frame 42.2 Oct 2017 3,199i
5.
 
Fujifilm GFX 50S II10025.914.83456 Medium Format 51.1 Sep 2021 3,999 i
6.
 
Fujifilm GFX 100S10025.814.73391 Medium Format 101.8 Jan 2021 5,999 i
7.
 
Nikon Z7 II10026.314.72841 Full Frame 45.4 Oct 2020 2,999 i
8.
 
Nikon D85010026.414.82660 Full Frame 45.4 Jul 2017 3,299 i
9.
 
Sony A7R IV9926.014.83344 Full Frame 60.2 Jul 2019 3,499 i
10.
 
Hasselblad X1D II9925.714.53234 Medium Format 51.3 Jun 2019 5,750 i
11.
 
Fujifilm GFX 1009925.714.53227 Medium Format 101.8 May 2019 9,999 i
12.
 
Nikon Z79926.314.62668 Full Frame 45.4 Aug 2018 3,399i
13.
 
Sony A7R II9826.013.93434 Full Frame 42.2 Jun 2015 3,199i
14.
 
Fujifilm GFX 50R9825.714.43169 Medium Format 51.1 Sep 2018 4,499 i
15.
 
Sony A19825.914.53163 Full Frame 49.8 Jan 2021 6,499 i
16.
 
Leica S39825.614.43143 Medium Format 64.0 Sep 2018 18,995 i
17.
 
Sony RX1R II9725.813.93204 Full Frame 42.2 Oct 2015 3,299 i
18.
 
Nikon D8109725.714.82853 Full Frame 36.2 Jun 2014 3,299i
19.
 
Sony A7 III9625.014.73730 Full Frame 24.0 Feb 2018 1,999i
20.
 
Pentax K-19625.414.63280 Full Frame 36.2 Feb 2016 1,799i
21.
 
Sony A7 IV9625.414.53052 Full Frame 32.7 Oct 2021 2,499 i
22.
 
Canon R39625.414.53048 Full Frame 24.0 Sep 2021 5,999 i
23.
 
Sigma fp L9625.314.43001 Full Frame 60.2 Mar 2021 2,499 i
24.
 
Nikon D800E9625.614.32979 Full Frame 36.2 Feb 2012 3,299i
25.
 
Fujifilm GFX 50S9625.414.12977 Medium Format 51.1 Sep 2016 6,499i
26.
 
Leica Q29626.413.52491 Full Frame 46.7 Mar 2019 4,995 i
27.
 
Leica SL2-S9525.214.13504 Full Frame 24.0 Dec 2020 4,895 i
28.
 
Sony A7C9525.014.73407 Full Frame 24.0 Sep 2020 1,799 i
29.
 
Panasonic S19525.214.53333 Full Frame 24.0 Feb 2019 2,499 i
30.
 
Nikon Z69525.314.33299 Full Frame 24.3 Aug 2018 1,999i
Note: DXO values in italics represent estimates based on sensor size and age.

The overall ranking above comprises very different camera types. Here are some rankings by category:


Estimating missing DXO Mark scores

DXO Mark provides sensor quality scores for many, but not for all cameras. Perhaps this less than complete coverage is understandable given the considerable time and effort that goes into the measurement of camera sensor characteristics. Yet, missing values are a nuissance for photographers who want to assess and compare a camera that has not or not yet been reviewed by the experts at DXO Mark. In this context, regression-based estimates can provide a useful indication on the likely performance of the sensor in a non-reviewed camera.

The two most important determinants of image sensor quality are sensor size and sensor age. A larger sensor generally scores higher on all the image quality characteristics assessed by DXO Mark. When compared with smaller sensors of the same technological era, the large chip provides more color depth, higher dynamic range, and better low-light sensitivity, which results in a higher total image quality score (see graph below).

dxo scores
Average DXO Mark (total) scores by sensor class and release year

The second critical determinant for imaging quality is the release date of the sensor. Technological progress has made it possible to enhance the capacity of sensors to capture high quality images over time even as the resolution of cameras has risen markedly. Newer cameras, thus, tend to outperform older models of the same sensor class. In some cases, the technological advances can even more than compensate for differences in sensor size. For example, the Olympus OMD E-M1 II of 2016 has higher DXO Mark scores for portrait, landscape, and sports use than the Leica M9 of 2009, even though the latter has a full-frame sensor that is four times as large as the Four Thirds chip in the OMD.

Regression analysis can then be used to predict missing DXO Mark values based on the size and age of the imaging sensor. The resulting estimates can give an indication where the sensor quality measures will likely fall if an actual measurement of the quality characteristics were to be undertaken. This information might be useful when comparing different cameras.

Beyond image quality

The imaging quality of the sensor is, of course, an important aspect of any camera decision but certainly not the only one. Camera handling, speed, features, and connectivity are among the other criteria that need to be considered. The CAM-parator App can be used to compare any two cameras and assess their relative strengths across several feature dimensions. Just enter two comparators into the search boxes below and you will promptly be taken to a respective comparison.

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