To finally understand this sensor size stuff!

Today, we are going to talk about the sensor size.
Aren’t we always pleased to understand better a damned technical point?! 😉

Obviously, as usual, what we are talking about that is not the technical subject itself but its importance for our pictures.


Sensor size is NOT the megapixels stuff!

One thing to begin. Sensor size is NOT the megapixels stuff.
“Megapixels” are the sensor resolution and it is only important if you want to make huge prints from your pictures. But, for a photo you see on the web, there is no difference between a low or high resolution picture.

However, the sensor size, my article subject, CAN be seen on our photos (depending of the adjustments) and makes a difference that you will notice on your pictures.
Do you want to see it?! Here is why it matters for picture quality.



Consequences in terms of depth of fields, digital noise and focal length

First, small sensor means a lot of digital noise.
Bigger the sensor, higher the image quality when shooting with dim light and high ISO.

Below, a cat and a bird are fighting at a same ISO sensitivity. The cat were shot with a compact camera, and the bird with an hybrid one. Look at the dark areas of the pictures : cat’s eyes and bird’s feathers. Do you see that semolina on the cat’s picture? And not on the bird one?!

(sorry for French texts in the pictures!…)




There is more digital noise in the cat pictures, taken with the compact camera (small sensor), and less in the bird picture, taken with an hybrid (bigger sensor), at the same ISO sensitivity.
That’s it : the bird win because I used a camera with a bigger sensor to shoot it. Sorry cat!…


Then, another difference, in your pictures, which depends of the sensor size : blur you can create with a wide aperture. Bokeh, shallow depth of fields…
Small sensor means sharp images on all their depth.
With a bigger one, you can create gorgeous blurry backgrounds to enhance your subject.

Fed up with pets?! 😆 Here are some sooo sweeeeet floweeeers.
The left one is taken with a compact camera (small sensor) and the right one with an hybride camera (bigger sensor). The two pictures are taken at the same aperture : f/4.
Which picture do you prefer?!
No comments, isn’t it?! 😉


Finally, the sensor size influences the focal length of your lens.

With full format sensor, a 50 mm is a 50 mm. (and a cat is a cat. But I don’t know if it means something in English. 😉 )

Still, with a smaller sensor, the lens magnification is higher.
For example, with an APS-C camera, the 50 mm will leads to a 75 mm magnification (the real focal length). And with a micro 4/3 hybrid camera, you will shoot with a 100 mm focal length lens when using a 50 mm.



So, does the small sensors suck?! 🙁

No, not necessarily! To shoot an amazing landscape with sharp details on both the panorama and the foreground, you win! 😀

And with an hybrid which has a smaller sensor than a full format camera, as I have just explained, a small sensor makes a classic 50 mm f/1.8 become an incredible (and really cheap!) 100 mm f/1.8. What’s better than that?!

Though, to shoot in dim light or create nice blurry backgrounds, that’s true that a bigger sensor is better.


Compact camera, Hybrid, DSLR… Which sensor for each camera type?!

Now that we know what differences make the sensor size, let’s talk a little bit more about the sensor itself.
What is it ? What does it mean, a small size, a big size ? Which camera must I buy to enjoy a big sensor benefits?

In fact, the sensor size is, as its name suggests, the size of a rectangular area, inside our camera, which is our “digital film”.
Feel free to convert millimeters in inches to visualize the size of the sensor. More than an inch?! Less than an inch?


Purple area : 6×6 cm = medium format camera (with film)
Lime area : Full format 24×36 (film cameras and full frame digital cameras)
Salmon pink area : APS-C format of a lot of DSLR cameras and some few hydrids.
Blue area : Micro 4/3 format of a lot of Hybrid cameras.
Bright pink area : Really small sensors of most of the bridges and compact cameras.

I chose to include, in the diagram, the 6×6 cm of the medium-format camera (purple area) to put into perspective the sensor sizes differences. The full-format (lime area) is the bigger sensor we can use for digital photography. And it’s 4 times smaller than the 6×6 medium-format.
Regarding to this huge gap, 24×36, APS-C, and Micro 4/3 really seem to be bunched together !

On the other hand, the tiny sensors of the point-and-shoot camera and bridge camera are 8 times smaller than the micro four third one. What a wide gap again!


Cameras and sensor sizes

Let’s talk about cameras.

First, DSLR can have 2 types of sensor.
[icon name=”icon-circle-arrow-right”]Full format DSLR include a sensor of the same size than film cameras. Their size is 24 mm x 36 mm.
[icon name=”icon-circle-arrow-right”]Then, the more common and less expensive ones have an APS-C sensor of 16,7 mm x 25,1 mm.

The hybrids camera are really free electrons in our photographic world. Their sensor can be big or small…
Be careful when you are going to buy one if you don’t want to end up with a point-and-shoot camera called hybrid, when you are looking for a better gear!!
[icon name=”icon-circle-arrow-right”]Now, hybrids can even be found with full-format sensors (24×36). These are the Sony A7 (means alpha 7) and Leica M.
[icon name=”icon-circle-arrow-right”]Then, and more common, hybrids can include an APS-C sensor of 16,7 mm x 25,1 mm.
Here are a few examples : Sony NEX, other Sony alpha camera (for example Sony Alpha 6000), Fuji X-Pro 1, Canon EOS M etc.
[icon name=”icon-circle-arrow-right”]And then, the hybrids I use are the micro 4/3 ones. Here is their sensor size : 13 mm x 17,3 mm.
Examples : Lumix GF, GM (GH too, but they are bigger cameras), GX7 of Panasonic, and Pen and OM-D of Olympus.
[icon name=”icon-circle-arrow-right”]Finaly, there are some hybrids with a small sensor. Brands call them hybrids because of their amovible lenses but the sensor can be a compact camera one.
The Nikon 1 has a sensor of 8,8 mm x 13,2 mm and seems to be between hybrids and point-and-shoot cameras. The Pentax Q is a point-and shoot which allows you to change the lens, with its sensor of 4,62 mm x 6,15 mm.

And, finally, with smaller sensors, we have bridge and point-and-shoot cameras.
[icon name=”icon-circle-arrow-right”]Bridge camera are bigger but NOT have a bigger sensor. The size of their sensors is 4,6 mm x 6,1mm.
[icon name=”icon-circle-arrow-right”]Point-and-shoot camera have 4,6 mm x 6,1mm sensors too. Can you imagine how tiny it is?!
[icon name=”icon-circle-arrow-right”]But but but!… 😮 Some cameras, not with interchangeable lens so not hybrids, have a great sensor too! They are point-and-shoot camera with big sensors. The Fuji X 100 has got an APS-C sensor, and le Sony RX-1 has even a full format one!



Conclusion and pictures, for the delight to the eyes 🙂

As a conclusion, I could say that, if the camera’s size does NOT matters, the sensor’s size (like other technical features) makes a difference.

Once again, the best camera for you depends of the pictures you like to create. Point-an-shoot ones are wonderful, outdoors, to shoot wide views during vacations, due to their small size and sharpness in depth.

However, to make and enjoy wonderful portraits of your children, close-up view of plants and shoot the family life, indoor, I think you need a bigger sensor because of the image quality in dim light and the wonderful blurry background it provides.

To choose the camera itself, the challenge is to find the good compromise between sensor, camera size, features, lenses available etc.
I hope that this article leads you to understand, now :
– why we don’t need to have a DSLR to enjoy gorgeous bokeh and blurry backgrounds 😉
– why bridge image quality is often disappointing, while the photographer thinks he can enhance his gear and image rendering changing his point-and-shoot camera… 🙁
– why hybrids are a little revolution in the photographic world of photo gear as small camera with big sensors! 🙂
The last but not the least, as regardless of the camera we use we like to create photos, here are a few pictures made with point-and-shoot, hybrid and DSLR camera.



Pictures taken with a compact camera :






Pictures taken with an hybrid camera :






Pictures taken with a DSLR camera :





Bottle does not matter so good shooting to you! 😀

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