Nikon - The sensor kings?


There is belief circulating around the photographic internet that Nikon buy their sensors from Sony, so that if Nikon come up with a well-received camera in terms of image quality, then credit is therefore largely due to Sony. 

There is an interesting article by Chipworks > HERE, that looks at recent Nikon sensors and who makes them. As can be seen more recent DSLR's have Nikon designed and manufactured to their specifications units rather than units manufactured by Sony. And of course the piece of silicon is just the starting point. There is processing and filtering to take into account.

It is a pretty complex procedure getting an image recorded in a digital camera and the notion that the most important element is who makes the sensor is clearly not the whole case. We only have to see how camera upgrades using the same sensor as previous models, manage to produce better high ISO results. Its also wrong to assume that the same sensor in different cameras will produce identical results. Until recently both Olympus and Panasonic cameras used the same sensors, but the images from each companies cameras were certainly different, showing how each company and each camera has its own individuality in terms of how it renders files.

While I have argued many times that there is far less difference between different camera / sensor combinations than is often suggested, these differences are still there, marginal though they might be. Differences in noise production, colour rendition and dynamic range are certainly visible and we now have a wide choice to find something to our taste. There is for example a vast difference between the results from the CCD sensor of a Leica M9 with no AA filter and the CMOS sensor of the Nikon D3200 which looks like it has at least 3 AA filters piled one on top of the other! Within a manufacturers own range there are marked differences. Much as I liked the camera as a whole I found the output from the Nikon D600 somewhat soft. Looking at the few files I've managed to shoot with the D7100 this is significantly different. A much sharper output. Now I haven't done any tests as yet but I suspect that the D600 has a much better high ISO output than the D7100.

I basically think of sensor output on cameras as like film. I tend to go for sensors that give me the look I want, in much the same way as I chose the films I used. It will come as no surprise that I used a lot of Fuji Velvia. However I also used films such as Agfachrome 50, which was great for autumn colours and I also liked and used the short-loved Kodak Panther and Kodak Elite Chrome Extracolour 100. So a cameras sensor output is something I take into consideration.

Another important element is how a cameras sensor output responds to post-processing. For example Sony came out with their amazing 16MP sensor that was in a lot of cameras, such as the Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000, that allowed virtually noiseless lightening of shadow areas at low ISO's. This in contrast with the Canon 5D MK II which exhibited a somewhat noisier lightening of shadow areas at low ISO's. One of the reasons I like the Nikon D800E so much is how it responds to what I want to do in Photoshop. I have moved over the past few months to processing my files with much lighter shadow areas and toned down highlights. A sort of faux HDR which was clearly illustrated by a picture I posted a few days ago.


Now I've tried using these settings on some older camera files I have and it just ends up as a noisy mess, so the 'elasticity' of a sensors output is important to me. Much of this is down to commercial considerations since picture libraries don't like images with heavy shadow areas, since they don't sell well. 

Its also important to me to be able to get the right colour. I do for example spend a lot of time getting the right shade of blue sky. Not too cyan, not too magenta and as rich as possible. People looking for travel images pretty much want everywhere looking like the Mediterranean in summer with those deep blue skies.

Finally, I need a 'clean file'. No CA, no fringing, no luminance or colour noise. This is down to other factors as well as the sensor I know but there is significant element from that part of the chain. Again going back to the D7100, I was pleased to see that at ISO 100, the files produced had no luminance noise whatsoever in the sky, if the image was properly exposed. This is somewhat different to the output I got from a Sony A77 or NEX-7 for example. With both those cameras I had to use noise reduction on sky areas, otherwise I would get my images rejected by the libraries for being too 'grainy' or 'noisy'. I also like to add some sharpening to images, as in a previous piece I wrote about the fact that there are occasions where this gets ignored in the publication chain. Different sensor outputs respond differently to this. I remember that my Nikon D7000 files could look somewhat soft but responded very well to added sharpening in Photoshop, without adding noise whereas other cameras I have used have responded very badly to extra sharpening.

So all of this is difficult to navigate through to get the output we want. This is why I'm always keen to get to see raw file samples of cameras I'm considering. Jpgs. tell me nothing about whether I can get what I want. My last minute purchase of the D7100 was in fact heavily influenced by the fact that Adobe released ACR with support for that camera only a few days ago, so I was able to see how the raw file samples I had saved responded to my workflow. Being very pleased with the results I went ahead and bought it.

So, you might ask, what has this to do with the somewhat provocative headline. Nikon - The sensor kings? (Just as an aside on this, my piece on the Nikon V1 entitled 'The Nikon 1 is the best mirrorless system. Period!' which of course if you read it says nothing of the sort, is getting lots of hits and being linked to from other sites, so maybe this style of headline gets peoples attention!!) Well what I intended was to show that for me Nikon are the sensor kings, since they produce more of what I want at this current moment in time. The D800E, Nikon 1 V1 and D7100 all give me files that I can work with and get to what I want easily and quickly. I have felt this ever since I used a D7000 about 18 months ago. Yet another reason I like the V1 is that it slots in very easily to this way of working that I have. The files look similar to what else I'm producing and I'm not having to come up with different presets in ACR to compensate.

Whether this makes any difference to us is a question of knowing what we want and how far we are prepared to get it. It should be obvious by now that I'm prepared to go quite some way to get exactly what I want, and of course I have economic reasons to do so. So as of now, Nikon and the way they design some (certainly not all) of their sensors suits me well. Since I'm not planning to change my cameras for the next year, thats probably a good thing!