The Great JPEG Shootout! (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, iPhone, Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic)

  By Chris Niccolls

Colour. One of the key fundamentals of art, and yet at the same time, one of the most taken for granted aspects of it as well. To complicate the issue further, colour in digital photography, and how we perceive it, is critically important. It can also get downright confusing. The main reason for all this difficulty stems from our representation of colour as 1s and 0s in a digital format. The colour of a red apple can be represented in many different ways on many different cameras, and much can be lost in translation from the analog to the digital. We view photos on many different monitors as well, constantly switching between laptops, desktops, and phones. Each one of these displays renders colour differently to our eyes. It quickly becomes obvious that colour is a dynamic issue.

Now when confronted with this issue, any experienced photographer (ourselves included) will naturally mention that colour can be changed and altered on the computer after the photo is taken. Concepts such as white balance, raw photography, custom kelvin settings, bit depth, and the like, will be dropped in conversation, until the issue of colour is distilled to pure academics. For the beginner photographer, or casual user, this becomes at best intimidating, or at worst ignored. This is a shame however, because colour is so important in how we convey mood or feeling in our photos. Warm tones bring about feelings of warmth, and comfort. Cold tones convey, stillness, seclusion, or a somber mood. Colour is as important to the expert as it is the enthusiast, but if the user isn’t ready for post processing, then it’s going to be critically important how their camera renders a scene, right out of the box.

It’s this very conundrum that inspired us at TCSTV to try an experiment, which surprisingly hasn’t really been explored before. We sought to answer the question: what brand of camera delivers the most pleasing colour, straight out of camera? Without getting into scientific colour theory we simply wanted to build data on how various people perceived colour, and more importantly, what they found to be the most pleasing for them personally. Our grand experiment began and we proceeded to shoot three common photo situations for our test. First off was a skin tone test portrait shot to evaluate gradation and accuracy of colour. Secondly, we took a landscape shot under consistent light. Lastly, we decided on a “lab” test with all the cameras set to a fixed white balance. We tried to test not only different kinds of light, but also how the cameras auto white balance, and fixed white balance handled different scenes. The emphasis was always on the cameras dealing with scenes in default configurations. To avoid the whole issue of computer monitors showing colour inaccurately, we went to our good friends at Resolve Photo. They are the best high-end inkjet printing shop in Calgary and they were kind enough to help us out with accurate prints from each of the eight cameras, over the three scenes we shot. With prints in hand we were ready to poll staff members, customers, pro photographers, and enthusiasts, and get their impressions on which cameras delivered the “best” results. We also made sure our polling group had wide representation from both men and women, as we were curious to see if there was a correlation between gender, and colour preference. The camera brands were never revealed so as to avoid any brand bias people may have, and the results definitely surprised us.

Now I know you’re probably curious as to the results of the experiment, and to explain it in writing won’t do it justice, so I encourage you to watch the Great Jpeg Shootout video and see for yourself how things turned out. I will say that we were fascinated by how such a wide variety of people can gravitate towards common traits that they find appealing. Higher contrast, warmth, and saturation, seemed to appeal to almost everyone. However many people preferred cool tones, and some valued a more realistic rendition of colour, as opposed to a punchy and saturated result. Everyone agreed universally that the test was something they always wondered about, and that the results were interesting, and useful to them in their future camera decision-making. We definitely see ourselves revisiting this grand experiment in the future, because although camera manufacturers have signature ways that they deliver colour, they are constantly tweaking their look in order to appeal to the widest audience. Perhaps the future holds a totally different result, but one thing is very clear. The look and feel of the image straight out of camera can vary wildly, but what people find appealing is far more universal.