- SIGNIFICANCE: It is commonly assumed that using the objective lens to create a tightly focused light spot for illumination provides a twofold resolution improvement over the Rayleigh resolution limit and that resolution improvement is independent of object properties. Nevertheless, such an assumption has not been carefully examined. We examine this assumption by analyzing the performance of two super-resolution methods, known as image scanning microscopy (ISM) and illumination-enhanced sparsity (IES). AIM: We aim to identify the fundamental differences between the two methods, and to provide examples that help researchers determine which method to utilize for different imaging conditions. APPROACH: We input the same image datasets into the two methods and analyze their restorations. In numerical simulations, we design objects of distinct brightness and sparsity levels for imaging. We use biological imaging experiments to verify the simulation results. RESULTS: The resolution of IES often exceeds twice the Rayleigh resolution limit when imaging sparse objects. A decrease in object sparsity negatively affects the resolution improvement in both methods. CONCLUSIONS: The IES method is superior for imaging sparse objects with its main features being bright and small against a dark, large background. For objects that are largely bright with small dark features, the ISM method is favorable.