There are so many specs which don't have any influence on your RAW file. I'm trying to isolate the factors that matter for image quality only. For example, I'm not sure about the processor : of course it is crucial with JPEG, but what could it bring to a RAW file?

To make myself as clear as possible, let's just pretend I don't care about :

  • the auto-focus
  • frames/sec I can take
  • the size or the weight of the camera
  • features such as WI-FI or touch screen
  • things that don't have anything to do with RAW files

And yes, let's suppose I have an amazing lens which is not a bottle neck for image quality.

  • The best sensor in the world won't help if you cannot buy a good lens for it - so that could be worth looking at too. Other than that, yes, the sensor is the most important (recording/shooting raw) plus whatever read out circuitry is employed in the camera, but that isn't advertised.
    – DetlevCM
    Aug 15 '15 at 16:33
  • i think the question is - can a lowend DX body take images with a equal quality compared to a highend DX body if they have the same sensor?
    – fubo
    Aug 17 '15 at 5:49
  • That would be another way to formulate my question, but people would basically say that it depends on what kind of photos I take (and they would be right because now the question doesn't exclude parameters such as autofocus for example). But yes, I'd like to know how you would compare, for example, image quality of RAW files of a Canon 760D and a Nikon D7100 (which is a bit older but could be placed in a higher range of product) with the same lens when shooting with a good light and not in a hurry timing.
    – Zeugm_A
    Aug 17 '15 at 10:07

Many of the things you want to eliminate are actually important for answering this question in the real world. In practice, image quality almost never comes down to sensor characteristics. I'm a little reminded of this Monty Python sketch..... when you eliminate all of the image quality factors other than the sensor, sure, the sensor is the only spec left.

You mention the processing pipeline; this does matter in a sense, because there are factors like analog-digital conversion and possible noise introduced at other levels, but again, in a practical sense, this is all what you get when you read, for example DxoMark's sensor scores — the sensor in a lab is irrelevant, so sensor quality generally means the entire pipeline associated with the sensor, too.

When it comes right down to it, the most important image quality factors are, roughly:

  • The lighting
  • How the photographer responds to that — composition, technique, and other technical choices
  • timing!
  • The lens and what capabilities it allows — especially in extreme situations
  • The post-processing options selected by the photographer (including in-camera JPEG options if so chosen)
  • sensor-related factors

And, crucially for the purposes of this question, it's important to note that if you buy any camera today above the bottom of the barrel — that is, anything with a 1" sensor or larger, or even a smaller-sensor camera in the higher end of that range — the image quality factors from everything sensor related range from A plus to A plus plus plus. They're all really good. Resolution, dynamic range, color rendition — wow. So, unless you have all of the rest nailed, the differences come out in the wash.

  • The only difference I was going to include in my answer was Lossy vs. Lossless raw files, where the low/mid-range bodies don't necessarily offer a 'true' raw (though at that point in the range the lens with it is likely to kill IQ more than the body.) Aug 15 '15 at 13:24
  • @mattdm I'm slightly upset with the beginning of your answer (except the Monty Python ;) ) because I actually tried to eliminate all the unrelated IQ factors (except the lens which I left out on purpose). And you're saying that I'm eliminating all the factors except sensor. So am I missing something? I found really useful the rest of your answer though.
    – Zeugm_A
    Aug 15 '15 at 14:28
  • 2
    I'm saying that the elimination you've specified gives a non-useful answer to your actual question ("In terms of “image quality”, is the sensor the only spec of a DSLR I should look at when shooting RAW?"). It's like going to a car showroom and saying that you want the best driving quality, and you don't care about power locks or the radio, but that if you eliminate the suspension, is it only the engine that matters, or does the drivetrain factor in too? When, really, not just aspects of car construction you've left out, but the driver, the road, and all of the other stuff matters more.
    – mattdm
    Aug 15 '15 at 15:08

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