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Obviously there are differences in everything, both optics-wise and mechanism-wise, but I would like to know:

  1. Are the materials used to construct sensors (disregarding sensor size) different at any level ranging from entry-level to professional-level cameras?

  2. What is the impact of sensor size: do larger sensor sizes result in higher-quality images?

  3. Are image differences due mainly to optics or sensors? I've noticed that pro cameras produce very vibrant colors and very sharp images: does the lens or the sensor have a greater impact?

  4. With high-quality lenses, can entry-level and professional DSLRs produce equivalent pictures? Or is a professional body required for the best images?

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I think you're asking multiple questions here about what affects final image quality: (1) sensor size, (2) sensor materials, and (3) lenses. If you could separate out your questions (either with bullet points or separate questions) you might get better answers since each of these affect image quality in different ways. –  drewbenn Feb 21 '11 at 8:02
    
Edited in a better way. Thanks for suggestion. –  sat Feb 21 '11 at 8:34

7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

It depends where you draw the line. Many "pro" level cameras use full-frame sensors, which are about twice as big in area as the APS-C sensors common in lower (including mid-range) dSLRs. This gives an advantage, because surface area is the best way to get more light, and more light is never bad. So, more expensive cameras will have an image quality advantage there. (With the corresponding tradeoff in size and cost as well.)

But, the basic technology is the same. These days, sensors are usually CMOS — the other leading option is CCD. These have various trade-offs, but both can produce great images.

Even when you get down to point & shoot cameras, we're still really in the same ballpark — CMOS and CCD, almost all using the same Bayer pixel layout. The main difference is that those cameras use very small sensors, so the technology is focused on enabling that. Pixel density is higher (which is generally bad). There are some sensor tricks like backlit CMOS which only show up in these small sensors — probably because the quality gain isn't worth the cost on a larger scale. As those technologies mature, they may be available on bigger sensors too — or maybe not.

The vibrant, sharp colors you've seen from pro cameras are probably mostly because someone put a lot of time into making those images look good (both in the field and in post-production.)

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If I could, I'd give you an extra +1 for bringing up post-processing. –  drewbenn Feb 21 '11 at 8:03
    
+1 for the final paragraph. –  Greg Feb 21 '11 at 23:40
    
This answer really needs to be updated for 2014. CCD vs CMOS is pretty much over, with even medium-format digital cameras moving to CMOS. I'll put it on my list. :) –  mattdm Apr 7 at 13:08

1.Are the materials used to construct sensors (disregarding sensor size) different at any level ranging from entry-level to professional-level cameras?

  • The sensor materials are effectively the same among the different entry points in the camera market. There are currently a few different sensor techs, but where you step into the market doesn't effect which one you end up with.

2.What is the impact of sensor size: do larger sensor sizes result in higher-quality images?

  • This is THE big reason to choose a "pro level" camera for many folks. The sensors are MUCH larger, allowing more light to hit the sensor and as a result higher ISO with less noise and generally MUCH cleaner images. Weather sealing, ruggedness, ease of USE are important as well but don't effect image quality the same. Additionally, alot of these other points are starting to show up at a lower price point like the Nikon D7000 which is much, much cheaper than their top of the line.

3.Are image differences due mainly to optics or sensors? I've noticed that pro cameras produce very vibrant colors and very sharp images: does the lens or the sensor have a greater impact?

  • Its a combination of the sensors, good lighting, expensive glass, "vision", and post processing. Adding additional lighting helps with the quality of your photos in MANY, MANY cases and should be on your list to investigate, assuming you're not a landscaper (in which case its about waiting for the right light). The sensor helps - but in the exact same, well lit scene (not dark), with the same lens, the difference in sensor may not be fully apparent.

4.With high-quality lenses, can entry-level and professional DSLRs produce equivalent pictures? Or is a professional body required for the best images?

  • In all but certain situations, yes - upgrading your glass is the best way to get amazing images (as far as things you can buy guys). The difference between good glass and bad glass is FAR greater than the difference between entry level sensors and "pro" sensors (full frame) in nearly all cases. Good glass and a good tripod (something I still wish for) will help get that high quality look your after.

The other part of a "pro" level camera thats going to affect the sharpness of your image is the AF tracking system. Most pro level cameras have auto focus systems that track much faster so that if you're shooting a moving target, you're much more likely to nail the focus. That said, even among the top level, there's still quite a bit of variance. Camera manufactures make different models with different purposes in mind - as such, not every cool piece of super duper tech ends up on all their new - even new pro - cameras.

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The difference in size does make a difference in terms of image quality.

One of the largest impacts is on the noise that an image gets on different sized sensors. Generally, the larger the sensor the less noise it has.

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The sensor in a "pro", top of the line DSLR camera is much the same as the sensor in the simple entry-level DSLRs. It it sometimes bigger, but this is very far from given, there are pro models with APS-C sensors and there are advanced amateur cameras with full-frame 24x36mm sensors too so sensor size is neither here nor there. They may be more picky in terms of quality control for the sensors that go into the most expensive cameras, that's about it.

The big difference is... well, everything except the sensor really. The pro camera body tends to be more solid, is better weather-proofed, has more buttons, wheels and knobs for immediate control, has more configuration options in its software, has a more sensitive (and more expensive) autofocus sensor array, has a bigger and brighter viewfinder and so on.

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  1. While new technology usually gets applied in high end cameras first, there's not necessarily any difference in the technology (and thus materials) used in the sensors of high end and entry level cameras.
  2. sensor size can have a positive effect, but doesn't have to. While cramming more elements into a limited space increases noise, spreading them out too much to create a physically larger sensor has its limits too and can lead to pixelation.
  3. optics are vital. Far more important than sensors. Of course high end cameras may have higher quality filters and other things that sit in front of the sensor as compared to entry level cameras. But again, these things trickle down the line over time so the entry level camera you buy now is actually a lot more advanced than the professional level camera costing several times as much you could buy 5-7 years ago.
  4. yes and no. The camera has things which influence what you can do with it. For example high end cameras have faster triggers, faster electronics, allowing them to react more quickly and take pictures at shorter intervals. They also typically have better metering and focusing sensors and motors, allowing for greater accuracy especially in tricky lighting. And they tend to feature more options for manual control, thus allowing the photographer far more freedom. But if you were to use only the functionality available on the entry level camera, there's no reason you can't get a result that's very similar to what a professional level camera could get using the same lens and operator.

Thus, given the same lens, the camera limits the expert while the beginner limits the camera :)

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Actually, Canon in particular is notorious for introducing the cool new stuff in their next-to-top camera models, not in the top of line line models. The big guns tend to lag half a generation behind; they seem to want to prove that the stuff works in the advanced-amateur segment before throwing it at the professionals. –  Staale S Feb 21 '11 at 12:40

The materials are most probably the same, certainly when talking about cameras from the same manufacturer (chips are fabricated in the same process). If any, there may be a difference in the filter(s) in front of the sensor, but I doubt that. As @Vaibhav said, the size does count for the amount of noise which in turn can contribute to image quality in terms of sharpness and color vibrancy.

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It goes without saying that sensor size has a major effect on performance, but when talking about cameras with the same sensor size, in most cases the higher models still have better performing sensors.

It depends on the product/marketing strategy of the camera company. And by "better performing" I mean they use newer or more expensive technology allowing for greater dynamic range, low noise performance. Theoretically, there is no reason a camera company couldn't use the same top-notch sensor in all its cameras of the same sensor size, and make them different only in other features. But this normally isn't the case, as they need to be competitive in the bottom of the market.

For example, Nikon's D7000, its top of the range camera with a DX sized sensor, has a much better sensor than any other camera it offers with the same sensor size. Often it's because a camera company keeps older mid-range cameras (D90) around for longer and they become the new entry-level, or it just uses lower spec sensors (D3100, D5000) on the lower models.

You'll often find that most camera models in a range will use the same or similar sensor, but that there will be one or two models at the top which have a better sensor. In Micro 4/3, virtually every camera available in this format has the same sensor, except for the top of the range Panasonic GH1 and GH2 with a much better performing sensor. Not to mention the $5,000+ (body only) AF100.

As for whether the differences in sensor performance matter, that's up to you. They'll matter less than the way you use your camera, or your skill and experience, or your lenses, or your lighting and choice of subject, and often less than your choice of format (compact, 4/3, DX, FF).

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