Cameras Under A$1000 With Amazing Dynamic Range

A nice photo from Japan my wife took that I could have taken but I didn’t have a camera with me.

I kinda want to get back into photography as a hobby and figured maybe buying a camera of my own rather than sharing my wife’s Sony a6000, might inspire me to leave the house with a camera over my shoulder. The how, why and where of photography on a camera versus a smartphone is a whole article on its own, but what I want to focus on here is if I was to buy a cheap camera, which one is the best value for money? Which one will give me the most bang for my buck?

There’s an awesome website called Photons to Photos that’s measured/compiled the dynamic range of basically every camera on the market for the last 20 years. The higher the number, the more detail the sensor resolves and the more you can fuck around with a RAW image in Photoshop before it falls apart. Yes, there’s more to a camera than simply the dynamic range of its sensor, but it’s a good place for me to start as I’m pretty flexible with what I need from a camera.

The kings of dynamic range are unsurprisingly the medium format cameras with honking big sensors and even bigger price-tags. Phase One, Hasselblad and the beautiful Fuji GFX range (though a GFX50 can be had for under $2k these days - the lenses however, oof). Not far behind are big sensor DSLRs and mirrorless cameras like the Nikon D850 and Sony’s A7R. They’re more attainable, but still a bit more cash than I want to spend on a hobby that requires putting on pants.

I went through all the cameras that have a maximum PDR rating above 11, looked on eBay & Facebook Marketplace for the cheapest one in decent condition for sale. I then took the ones available for under $1,000 without a lens and ended up with this shortlist of cameras:

Camera PDR Price
Nikon D600 11.46 $400
Nikon D610 11.61 $450
Canon EOS 6D(ML) 11.37 $450
Canon EOS 5D Mark II(ML) 11.07 $500
Sony ILCE-7S 11.16 $625
Nikon D800 11.42 $720
Nikon D750 11.49 $700
Sony ILCE-7M2 11.16 $715
Nikon D7200 11.06 $700
Nikon D810 11.6 $900
Nikon Z6 11.06 $1000
Sony ILCE-7SM2 11.2 $1000

Some interesting results here! The two Canon cameras are running a hacked firmware called Magic Lantern that allows for something called “dual ISO”, where it takes two photos (e.g: one at 100 ISO and the other at 1600 ISO) and mixes them to exploit the full dynamic range of the sensor. You also need to process the dual ISO files with an app called CR2HDR and its a bit of fucking around.

Looking at them on a chart, we can see that performance at ISO 100 is weak compared to the other sub-$500 Nikon cameras. This, I think, means that if you’re shooting at ISO 400, you’ll get more dynamic range out of the Canons running ML, but with more noise than the same photo at ISO 100 or 200 on the Nikons. I’m undecided about running a camera with ML, it feels like more hassle than its worth for my purposes.

Let’s put the rest of the cameras on the Photons to Photos chart and compare how they perform at various ISO settings.

It doesn’t appear to be that much difference. The main standout is the D7200, which starts to drop off at higher ISOs due to its APS-C sensor compared to the full-frame sensors of the others. The Sonys also have a slight advantage above ISO 2000.

Zoom in to the ISO range I use the most (100-800) and we get a bit more of a gap.

That black line at the top is the Nikon D610. It’s consistently the best performer of the bunch except at ISO 200 (beaten by the Nikon D800) and at ISO 600/800 (Sony A7S slightly better). For a camera I can buy now off Facebook Marketplace in mint condition for $450 that’s bloody impressive.

Even when compared to Nikon’s latest full-frame cameras that cost 5x or 10x as much, the $500 D610 is on-par, or better, when it comes to dynamic range.

Like I said in the intro, there’s more to a camera than simply dynamic range. DPReview lets us compare the features of up to 20 cameras at once, side-by-side. Thank God Amazon didn’t nuke this site as they planned to a year ago!

Some notes on things that matter to me:

  • Nikon D800/D810 have more megapixels (36 vs 24), which is always nice for making prints or crops and the D810 can shoot at ISO 32 (most just go down to ISO 50).

  • Nikon D7200 has an APS-C sensor, which while doesn’t perform at the same level as the full frame sensors, isn’t far behind and is better for telephoto photography (300mm lens becomes 450mm due to crop-factor).

  • Nikon Z6, Sony A7SII and Sony A7II have built-in sensor stabilisation, allowing for sharper images at lower shutter speeds and/or better low-light performance (shoot at 1/60 instead of 1/30 for example). They’ve also got superior auto-focus, particularly the Z6 and are lighter (almost half the weight) than the older Nikon/Canon DSLRs.

  • Sony cameras have superior video capabilities, with the A7II doing S Log 2 but only 1080p - only the Z6 and A7SII will do 4K, at 30fps, not 60fps.

  • All the Nikons except the D810 can do timelapse recording built-in. That’s a nice feature the Sony and Canon cameras lack.

  • The Canon cameras in general are just a smidge behind the Nikons in almost every aspect.

After looking at the features on offer I’ve narrowed it down to 3 cameras:

Nikon D610

  • So bloody cheap
  • Top of the class for dynamic range
  • Huge range of Nikon F-mount glass available used
  • Optical viewfinder
  • $450 + $100 for 50mm lens

Nikon D800

  • More megapixels
  • Better AF than the D610
  • Optical viewfinder
  • More robust build quality, better weather sealing
  • 14 years old now, but does that matter?
  • Heavy at 1KG
  • $720 + $100 for 50mm lens

Sony A7II

  • Excellent autofocus
  • Built-in stabilisation
  • Better high ISO performance
  • Decent video capabilities
  • Fewer E-mount lenses
  • Electronic viewfinder
  • $715 + $232 for 50mm lens (new one is cheaper than used!)

Not much in it when it comes to dynamic range, but the Nikons have a slight advantage, particularly below ISO 200.

The Nikon D610’s main allure is its cheapness and dynamic range, but it’s not very fancy. The D800 is great because of more megapixels and better weatherproofing (can get it a bit wet), but it’s big and heavy. The A7II is simply more modern with great AF, stabilisation, much lighter and useful video features, but lenses are expensive versus the plethora of old Nikon glass.

Still not sure which one I’ll get, but kinda leaning towards the Sony…