The Challenge of Small Sensors

Lucky up close - Austin, Texas

Lucky up close – Austin, Texas

My sister had a problem. She texted me over the weekend, confused and frustrated. Her smartphone didn’t seem to focus properly on a portrait she was taking of her two kids. One decent photograph. That’s all she needed to create the annual holiday card.

I jumped into the forensic analysis. The crime scene, a muddy, grainy soft image of two nicely smiling kids.

1/30 of a second, ISO 125, 35mm equivalent. That’s what the EXIF told me. All sounds harmless enough until you consider it was shot with a smartphone. The data didn’t look good and I quickly figured out the problems. And there were multiple issues.

ISSUE 1: Typical smartphones shoot at a 28-30mm equivalent. But the EXIF said 35, I’m guessing she must have zoomed in, digitally. Digital zoom is a problem. It just softens the picture to create that zoomed in effect.

ISSUE 2: ISO 125, while on a dedicated camera is great, but not on a smartphone. To get the best quality I shoot ISO 25 to 40. Sure enough, the photo was snapped at 5:19pm. It was late afternoon, in the winter, and rapidly getting darker.

ISSUE 3: The kids wore dark clothing, with a dark background. Their light-colored faces were blown out. Dynamic Range issues. The phone struggled to create a nice exposure of both the dark and light elements in the frame.

It turns out, the phone was, if fact, focusing properly. The noise and softness made for a less than stellar photo, which gave the wrong impression. Perfectly acceptable for a Facebook post but not for an important card. As a photo enthusiast, I automatically optimize the conditions to take decent photos with any camera. But I can see how this is a problem for most lay people.

Smartphones have made amazing progress over the last 10 years and are capable of truly wonderful images. But there are limits — all cameras have them of course — but smartphones hit them quicker. The culprit, the smaller sensors. There is only so much it can do, since it gathers a lot less light than dedicated cameras.

The same physics works when comparing bigger sensors too. When looking at just sensor performance, a 1″ sensor in the Sony RX100 does a lot better than the typical point and shoot. The micro 4/3 format does better than the 1″ RX100. APS-C does better than micro 4/3. Full frame does better than APS-C. Medium format digital does better than full frame. They all have limitations, you just hit them at different points on the challenge curve.

My recommendation to my sister? Shoot in great light, mid-day, don’t zoom in, and have the kids wear lighter colored clothing with a background that’s only slightly darker than their faces. Or just bust out the Canon S90, that I know she has somewhere. Yes, that camera is from 2009, but with its 1/1.8″ sensor, it’s still going to take better quality pictures in less optimal conditions.

You may be wondering, what’s the connection between a post on small sensors and a photo of Lucky? Other than being a cute picture of my dog, there is a slight connection. You see, I finished creating my holiday card this weekend. I have a simple formula. Have a nice picture of my two boys in the front, and a picture of the family dog in the back. I used this one on this year’s card.

Incidentally, there are ways to get around the smaller sensor challenges with the more serious, interchangeable lens cameras. With my Olympus, for example, I use lenses with big apertures to collect more light. The camera also has terrific image stabilization, so I can shoot at slower shutter speeds.

For the photo above, I was testing my new Olympus 75mm f1.8 lens. Despite being a 150mm equivalent, I shot it at 1/60 of a second. Opened up at f1.8, I get extremely shallow depth of field and ISO 3200 doesn’t look too bad on modern micro 4/3 cameras.

An available light photo, at night in a not too bright kitchen. Smartphones are getting really good, but they still can’t do this. And the software simulated faux background blur is not going to work this well. Yet.

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9 thoughts on “The Challenge of Small Sensors

  1. The web size of that picture of Lucky looks amazing. The focus is perfect, tack sharp, and beautiful drop-off to bokeh. I was wishing for a full screen view! I should hire you to get a picture of my dogs, I don’t have any as good as this – they won’t sit still for me.

  2. That’s one of the lenses on my wish list. Still too pricey for me, but I found a “pre-owned” 25mm f1.4 leica lens. It gets great reviews. I guess I’ll see. f1.4 is fast and I’m getting very fond of the 25mm view.

  3. Tack sharp at 1.8…excellent!

    I completely agree about the smart phone camera sensor issue. I once had someone tell me that I wasted my money on my photography set up when I could just buy a decent phone. I guess they’ll find out the issues when they try and take low light, long exp or try to print anything.

    That being said, I do suffer from GAS (Gear acquisition syndrome) I recently just bought an APSC sensor body to complement my FF body…..

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