Comparing sensor size, image quality and the fun factor

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade – Austin, Texas

There’s always a lot of chatter on the net about sensor size. Some people insist that full frame is the only way to go, perhaps because it matches the classic 35mm film size. Other people say the world has changed and full frame is no longer required. That APS-C or even smaller is more than adequate, image quality wise. I always find these discussions amusing. People talk about sensor size but they don’t talk about the tool in relation to the requirements. And by requirements, I’m not trying to get all businessy. You may have stringent requirements for high-resolution photos for a paying customer or your requirement may be as simple as having fun taking pictures.

Where do I fall in the sensor size debate? All over the place, as you can see. You know I own a lot of cameras and I realized that I own and shoot with practically every sensor size from full frame, downward. Here’s a list of my current cameras, arranged from larger to smaller on the sensor size scale.

Sensor Size Camera Type Make/Model Resolution
Full Frame (35mm) DSLR Canon 6D 20 MP
APS-C Compact Fujifilm X100S 16 MP
APS-C Mirrorless Pentax K-01 16 MP
APS-C Mirrorless Sony NEX-5 14 MP
Micro 4/3 Mirrorless Olympus E-PM2 16 MP
Micro 4/3 Mirrorless Olympus E-P3 12 MP
Micro 4/3 Mirrorless Olympus E-PL1 12 MP
4/3 DSLR Olympus E-1 5 MP
1 inch Mirrorless Nikon 1 J1 10 MP
2/3 inch Compact Fujifilm XF1 12 MP
1/1.7 inch Compact Canon G15 12 MP
1/2.3 inch Point and Shoot Olympus TG-2 12 MP
1/2.3 inch Point and Shoot Panasonic ZR-1 12 MP
1/3 inch Smart Phone Apple iPhone 5S 8 MP
Paramount Theater Color - Austin, Texas

So what can you conclude from this list? First, of course, that I have too many doggone cameras. Also, you can tell from the various makes that I’m brand agnostic. I use cameras that fit my needs or piques my interest.

I’ve added an assortment of photos from these cameras on this post. You can hover over each image with a mouse to see which camera I used. With all of these modern digitals, you can make good images, at least at web sizes. As I found out recently, even the 11-year-old 5MP Olympus E-P1 looks great at this size. When talking about image quality, you got to go back to the requirements. What is your target output? How large? What is the purpose of the photo?

Javelina Outdoor Seating, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

Do they need to be printed 8 feet by 10 feet at high-resolution? Are they going to be used only on the web? Perhaps they are just going to be on Instagram or Facebook? If shot correctly, all of these cameras will make good quality 13” x 19” prints, except for, perhaps, the 5MP E-1. I’ve tested this with my own printer to prove it to myself. I wonder how many people actually print large?

State

There is no question, keeping all non-sensor factors aside, that a larger sensor creates better image quality. They also have better high ISO performance and create a shallower depth of field which can be nice for portraits. But there’s a lot of photography where shallow depth of field is not preferred. Think landscapes, for example. Or try to take a group photo with shallow depth of field.

Performing at the Bat Bar, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

I’m known for shooting street scenes at night so I’m constantly using cameras in challenging dark conditions. There are techniques and technologies that allow one to shoot in the dark, even with a small sensor. I’m not just talking about tripods, which certainly work, but can be cumbersome. Look at this image above. I shot it with the Nikon J1, with a “paltry” 1 inch sensor, which was panned by camera enthusiasts. I too was surprised that with good image stabilization and the right settings, it produces outstanding photos at night, with the kit lens. I especially love its dynamic color.

Foreigner Concert, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

How about this photo from a compact camera. Not bad for something that easily fits inside a coat pocket.

Golden Gate Bridge, Battery Crosby - San Francisco, California

If you do use a tripod and HDR techniques, you can create images like this which expand dynamic range and challenge cameras with a sensor of any size. Having shallow depth of field seems to be the holy grail for some users but in a landscape photograph like this, having everything in focus is usually desirable. I find it easier to make this picture with a micro 4/3 sensor than with full frame. The naturally deep depth of field on the Olympus allows me to shoot this image quicker which has tremendous benefits.

ROT Rally Parade #3, 2012 - Austin, Texas

Then there is the fun factor, which many people and camera reviews seem to ignore. On an absolute scale, the Canon 6D shoots higher quality photos than the Nikon J1, but I can tell you that the J1 is a lot more fun to shoot. It’s smaller, lighter, focuses faster and shoots quicker. Or take the Olympus TG-2, my waterproof camera that I used on the beaches of Waikiki and Cancun. It’s towards the bottom of the list, image quality wise, but in those harsh environments, it’s the ideal camera. I don’t care how good of a photograph a camera will take, I’m not going to have fun if I worry about salt water sprays and sand particles getting lodged in the lens.

House Park Stadium Sunset - Austin, Texas

Finally there is convenience. Regular people, unlike the photography enthusiasts that visit this site, have practical concerns. Is the camera easy to use? Convenient? Have acceptable image quality? Can I share photos immediately? Most regular people have already migrated to smartphone cameras. They are inexpensive and always accessible. I admit that I’ve been a camera snob and didn’t take smartphone cameras seriously until recently. But used in the right way, they make satisfying images, even for someone picky like me.

A Moody Fisherman's Wharf - San Francisco, California (iPhone 5S)

I’ve realized a few things that ultimately changed my mind. First, smartphone cameras continue to improve and, especially under good light, their images have really approached good enough for most everyone. The best place to view these photos are directly on the phone, not necessarily on websites or in large prints. That’s fine because most people’s requirement is to shoot for Facebook or Instagram. Even grainy low light images become acceptable on the small retina displays which people always carry. The 4 x 6 snaps and albums are dead. People have all the pictures they need on their handheld computers that answers phone calls and records memories. A paper album can’t compete with that.

Long Ceiling, Xcaret - Mexico
Jeweled Doorway, Hole in the Wall - Austin, Texas

And talking about fun. I can shoot, select, post-process and upload these smartphone images almost anywhere. Camera manufactures put WiFi on their purpose-built cameras but they are too cumbersome. The smartphone will always trump regular cameras for convenience and fun. Again, it comes down to requirements.

I like to have high quality photos viewable minimally on 27” displays. That’s why I still use purpose-built cameras. But as you can see, I’m open to adopting smaller cameras when the need arises or when it’s more convenient. That’s my benchmark, 27” or larger, except for my iPhone photos which are generally targeted towards Instagram.

So the sensor size argument is silly and simplistic. Next time you hear people arguing about sensor size, ask them what their requirements are and how much fun they want to have. Only then can you intelligently talk about what cameras are right for the situation. Do you really want to lug that hefty 36MP Nikon D810 with the beefy f2.8 zoom lens to take Instagram photos? It’s the best right? After all it’s full frame.

I have 14 cameras listed in the table above and I have a photo from each camera. Hover over the photos with a mouse to see which camera I used. Click on the photograph to see a larger version.

An Assortment of Neon, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Gold and Blue - Breda, Netherlands

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9 thoughts on “Comparing sensor size, image quality and the fun factor

  1. Great write-up, that’s a very useful post. I still shoot with my trustworthy Sony Nex-5 and I’m very happy with the results. That’s the fun in photography for me, being able to take it with me whenever I want (and thanks to your Lowepro Edit 120 review, with all equipment included). Even when I cast the photos to a 46″ TV they look great. I do still value the paper album though, that’s far from dead in our family. My wife puts much effort in selecting and printing the highlights of our digital album. It’s just more cosy and fun to share memories like that 🙂
    A friend of mine had a point-and-shoot snap printed on a large panoramic canvas. The photo doesn’t look so good on screen but due to the grainy surface of the canvas it looks pretty good when printed, even when it’s cropped to achieve the panorama simulation.

    1. Thanks for sharing Timmy. Digital albums are great. Mine is not as carefully selected but it’s nice to see the image popup when the AppleTV goes into screen saver mode. I still think there is value in print and in book, I like to create them, however, I think I’m in the minority.

  2. I have a simple rule: do I like the pictures? Can I look at them enlarged and still like them? Is the color repro good? Do they print well at 11X14 — if and when I actually print? Do I need new glasses? I can answer yes to all of the above.Aside from the eyeglasses issue, it’s all good and entirely Olympus and Panasonic with Leica glass.

  3. Great article. We should not underestimate the fun factor. The camera I most often bring with me on nature walks is a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS (1/2.3″ sensor). Best image quality? Not by a long shot! But 50x zoom in a small package is great fun and prints are fine up to 11×14.

  4. It’s refreshing to read someone with a balanced viewpoint regarding the topic of camera sensors. There was a time when larger sensors had distinct advantages but that delineation seems to be disappearing fast. At least where quality of final image is concerned. I recently showed some of my photos to friends on a 55″ HDTV and they could not tell apart the ones taken with a phone from those taken with a SLR. Admittedly, the phone produces 34MP to my SLR’s 16MP but even that shows how irrelevant sensor size has become in terms of quality.
    Oh, and I feel very inadequate with my one SLR and one phone camera. Perhaps I should buy another camera. Or twelve, hmm. 🙂

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