Cheap vs expensive cameras in low light

See if you can spot which image was taken with the cheap camera.
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01 .Which image is from the low-priced camera?

There’s been some discussion in the comments for digital cameras about how reasonable it is to compare cameras with very different price points, even if they fit our criteria for being high-end cameras.

To help illustrate that a relatively low-priced camera can compete, we’ve taken these three images from our testing as examples. One of these cameras is worth about $500, while the other two cost considerably more.

These images have been deliberately changed to make it difficult to know which camera produced them. The EXIF data has been removed and they’ve been cropped a little and resized to make them easier to display. In every other way they are as they came from the camera as JPEGs. Click on the image in the slideshow to be taken to Flickr where you can view them at larger sizes.

Which of these images do you think is the from the $500 camera? Indicate your choice by selecting the image number in the quick poll on the right-hand side of this page (poll now closed).

We will reveal which image is from the cheaper camera in a week or so.

Test conditions

The test is carried out under the same conditions for each camera. The light level in the test target area is set to approximate a poorly lit room (11 lux), using halogen lamps. The cameras are positioned at the same distance from the test area and the zoom lens is adjusted so the entire test area fits in the frame. 

The cameras are set to fully AUTO function and checked to make sure they can focus on the scene. Focus and exposure areas are left at the camera's default setting. Image quality is set to the highest possible and image size to the largest possible.

In low-light tests we don’t make judgements based on the depth of field, as different cameras will focus on different parts of the target. However, we do make judgements on colour management, noise levels and exposure of the image. We also note how much blur there is in the slow moving card at the back of the target area.


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Thank you to everyone who participated in trying to pick the $500 camera. For those who have not already looked, here are the latest results of the poll:

Lowlight photo 1 - 37% of the vote
Lowlight photo 2 - 34% of the vote
Lowlight photo 3 - 28% of the vote

Total votes = 210

With such an even split it's clear that the cheaper camera is not easily identified, because the images are not so different that everyone can see which is doing a better job.

We can now reveal that the $500 camera produced Lowlight photo 2. Also, we can tell you that on our test scale it would score better than the other two cameras for this part of the test.

However, this is only one of the many tests that make up our image quality score and for overall picture quality the cameras that produced images one and three get better scores.

What does this tell us?

If you remove the dollar value and brand of the camera from the equation, the viewer has to rely on their understanding of what makes a good photo. 

Our testers have the advantage of seeing the test target in both daylight and other light sources. As a result they have judged that Lowlight photo 2 is the best combination of white balance, exposure and noise in this instance.

The other two cameras clearly have not compensated for the overly warm light and you would have to do some work to correct this, if you have the skills and can be bothered.

Here is what happens when we manually set the ISO to ISO3200, do a manual white balance and exposure with the cameras that produced images one and two. They’re in the same order, so Lowlight manual 1 comes from the same camera as Lowlight photo 1 on the previous page.

This image is also part of our overall score and you can see the image Lowlight manual 2  is much noisier and has lost quite a bit of edge definition as a result.

It’s not possible to judge a camera on the basis of just one or two images. We produce dozens of images from every camera we test in a variety of circumstances designed to replicate normal usage. In addition we do technical tests that give an indication of how well the camera performs some more specific tasks (such as resolution to show how much detail a camera can record). We do this in both auto and manual modes for the cameras we include our high-end tests.

You can see the full tests by following the links below:

High-end cameras

Basic cameras

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