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