How we test cameras and lenses

Every DSLR and mirrorless camera we review is put through a series of technical and real-world tests to gauge its image quality and overall performance. The exact process is broken down below.

Cameras with 1-inch sensors or above are taken through both sets of tests. Compacts with smaller sensors will be taken through just the real-world tests, with additional testing done on special features like waterproofing or ruggedness.

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Our technical test procedure

We put every camera we review through a series of rigorous tests to analyse how each model performs. All results are analysed by using high-quality industry software.

Resolution test: we use a Sigma 105mm macro as standard, set at f5.6 for the resolution on a target chart by Applied Imaging to get an lp/ph (line pairs per picture height) figure for the sensor at all ISO settings.

If we don’t have a Sigma macro available for a particular camera mounting, then we use the sharpest lens available at 50mm equivalent for full frame.

Noise and colour rendition: we have a permanent Diorama set-up which is photographed at all ISO settings using either a kit lens or a lens at 50mm full frame equivalent.

The test charts and Diorama are evenly illuminated with Hedler continuous lighting with soft box diffusers. We mount the camera on a Foba studio stand  for absolute stability on a concrete factory floor with a huge loading capacity. A Manfrotto geared head and sliders  are used for accurate alignment and Lux settings are standardised using a Sekonic Lightmaster Pro.

Test images: these are captured in JPG and RAW, with RAW conversion done with Adobe Camera RAW. To ensure consistent results the standard test rig is not moved or altered and tests are conducted by the same test engineer.

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Lens tests

Lenses are tested on the best camera body/sensor available for the lens mount supplied.

Mounting: the camera is again mounted on the Foba/Manfrotto combination rig. We mount the target charts on custom stands (lenses up to 600mm full frame equivalent can be accommodated) and consistent lighting is again provided by Hedler continuous.

MTF test: we use an Image Engineering TE 42 Chart, while for distortion and chromatic aberration an Image Engineering TE 251 chart is used.

Shading tests: these use the Image Engineering LE6 100 Spherical illuminator and all analysis graphs and results are produced using Image Engineering’s IQ Analyser Suite.

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Real-world camera tests

Our lab’s controlled environment gives us reliable, comparable measurements of camera performance, but just as important is how well a camera works out in the real world.

To evaluate this we put each camera through the same series of field tests to gauge its performance in the following areas. We use a formatted UHS-1 card and shoot in the highest available JPEG setting. Outside of speed tests, we’ll also shoot in JPEG + RAW if available.

Battery life: before taking the camera out, we give its battery a full charge and make sure the camera and its screen are set to default settings. We then carry out the real world tests below – once the battery has run down to zero, we count the number of shots taken to see if it matches the manufacturer’s claims.

Startup speed: we use a digital stopwatch app to measure how long the camera takes to startup, focus and take a photo of the screen using the kit lens, from a set distance. With our proposed lab setup, we are able to do this under controlled lighting.

Continuous shooting: to test the camera’s ‘high’ and ‘low’ sequential shooting modes, we dial in our test settings (1/250 shutter speed, ISO 200, continuous AF, image stabilisation off) and rattle off a series of handheld frames while focused on a digital stopwatch from a set distance.

This is done for both RAW and JPEG shooting, if available, and we’ll also check how quickly the buffer clears before another sequence can be shot.

Autofocus speed: in a range of different lighting conditions, we test the speed and accuracy of the camera’s various autofocus modes, including single point, area and continuous. This will reveal whether there are any conditions which cause it to hunt a little.

Once that’s complete, we also evaluate the speed and accuracy of any special AF modes, such as face and eye detection.

Controls and ergonomics: a camera’s handling and control layout are a crucial part of its usability. We assess how features like grips and body weight affect the camera’s balance and feel in the hand.

After spending time with its physical controls, we also judge how comfortable they are and how well they suit the target user.

Screen and viewfinder: in both indoor and outdoor lighting conditions, we evaluate a camera’s screen for its resolution, sharpness and contrast. If the display is a touchscreen, we also judge its responsiveness, and if it tilts we test its range of articulation and assess how this impacts other functions such as the hot shoe or tripod mount.

On DSLRs, we evaluate the optical viewfinder’s coverage, magnification, comfort and any additional features like virtual horizon. For mirrorless cameras with built-in electronic viewfinders (EVFs), we gauge their colour accuracy, resolution, lag and blackout compared to the competition.

Software and usability: while they can be a matter of personal taste, camera GUIs do vary and can affect how easy and enjoyable a camera is to use.

We look at how logical and intuitive a menu system is, how easy it is to find and perform common functions, and the level of customisation that the software offers for both menus and physical controls.

Connectivity and app: most cameras now include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and sometimes NFC for pairing the camera to a smartphone, but the process isn’t always seamless.

We take the camera through the setup process and judge how well it connects to a smartphone for sharing photos. We also look at any extra controls the app provides, such as remote shutter.

Real world photos and video: while our tests help us evaluate colour accuracy, resolution and noise in a controlled environment, there are some things they can’t measure. That’s why we spend as much time with a camera outside the lab to replicate some of the shooting situations our readers will encounter in real life.

We take a variety of shots with each camera’s kit lens in both JPEG and RAW, if available. These will be tailored towards the type of camera and its target market, but where possible we’ll aim to shoot examples of the scenes below to get a sense of the camera’s all-round capabilities. Images and video are then reviewed on a hardware calibrated monitor.

Portrait (indoor / outdoor): a good way to judge the colour accuracy for skin tones, and also gauge overall dynamic range.

Low light (indoor / outdoor): shot at a variety of ISO settings, these show the camera’s ability to handle noise and detail in gloomy conditions or at night.

Landscape: to complement our lab’s close-range testing, we also shoot some landscapes to gauge the camera and lens’ ability to resolve detail in far-field shooting.

Macro/close-up: shot using the camera’s closest possible focusing distance, this shows the camera’s ability to pick out detail from close quarters and also its tonal range.

Action/sport: where relevant, we’ll shoot some fast motion scenes fast to judge how well the autofocus works with erratic subjects and how effective its burst mode is in that environment.

Arts and special effects: if a camera has some notable special effects or art filters, we shoot some suitable scenes to see if they’re useful or just novelties.

Video: we shoot sample videos to test the camera’s abilities at different framerates/resolutions, and also any special functions like high-speed movie mode. These are then reviewed on our calibrated 4K monitor.

Waterproofing and ruggedness: we’re usually unable to test non-waterproof cameras to destruction, due to the terms of our loan agreements with manufacturers.

However, to test the claims of waterproof/rugged cameras we put them through a variety of tests, including taking them underwater, dropping them from arm’s length onto a concrete floor and encasing them ice to test their minimum temperature claims.

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Scoring and final verdict

After all the tests are completed we then score the camera using the criteria outlined here.

When scoring we first check to see if its performance matches the manufacturer’s claims and if all the camera’s features work as advertised.

The target user is always a consideration during scoring, which is why a compact like the Panasonic TZ200 can achieve a similar score to a professional camera like the Sony A7 III.

Within camera sub-categories, factors like value, design and the availability of lenses will also affect scoring and help buyers decide between two similar cameras.

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