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Why Your Sensor Size Matters

December 19th, 2011

Thanks to Dave Williamson for passing along this great article on why sensor size matters. I’ll never forget  when I moved from a CoolPix-995 (3.1 megapixel tiny sensor) to a Canon 1Ds (full frame 11.4 megapixel). The images from the 1Ds were so magnificent, amazing and detailed I would spend hours looking at them in Photoshop.

With digital sensors size really does matter. As this article describes a large sensor gives you:

  1. Bigger sensors give higher quality and more detail.
  2. The bigger your sensor the less noise you get at higher ISO settings.
  3. The large your sensor the more dynamic range you get in an image.

In the article Sean Arababi describes an interview with Annie Leibovitz:

NBC’s Brian Williams interviewed Annie Leibovitz who, when asked what kind of camera one should buy, remarked the iPhone – “that is the snapshot camera of today… it’s the wallet with the family pictures in it.” Although I truly dig the iPhone 4S’ new 8 megapixel camera and all the revolutionary technology crammed into the smartphone, the Sony-made image sensor is just not large enough to rival images captured with a DSLR – and that’s expected. Apple describes its A5 chip, designed with an image signal processor, as “just as good as the ones found in DSLR cameras” and this might be true, but the image sensor is not – big difference between a signal processor and a sensor. It might allow you to shoot faster, or capture nice color and tonal range, or to use when you don’t have a camera handy, but it can’t match the quality of a larger image sensor that’s comes with a higher-quality lens. Simply put, you can’t squeeze a V8 engine into a moped. Then again, I can’t make a call, text, tweet, Google Map a route, or play Fruit Ninja with my DSLR camera, either.

This expresses how I feel as well. I love my iPhone 4s. It is an amazing little package of technology but there is nothing that matches the lovely images that my 5DMKII turns out with a great piece of L series glass on it. I am still frequently stunned by some of the images a 5DMKII turns out with a Canon 24-70mm lens or a 70-200mm. You just can’t beat a full frame sensor with a quality lens.

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11 Responses to “Why Your Sensor Size Matters”

  • I am using my Nikon D-300 (probably would have gone to Canon if I did not have so many specialty Nikon lens and locked into the Nikon system) for most of my real estate work. The images are superb and for real estate and web, you don’t need the full frame.

    I use my full frame for my fine art and any assignments that pay more than real estate.

    That being said, I would take my D-700 full frame any day over my D-300 because of the image quality. I still shoot low ISO when I can and wish pro cameras would go down to ISO 25 because my commercial studio strobes are too powerful. And if I want to blurr movement like water, (don’t want to use ND filters to shoot at low f-stops).

    I think full frame will start taking over and be the “norm” again, when chips become very cheap to produce.

  • This is a tricky issue. I’ll resume some ideas. The ONLY REASON why people don’t just use full frame cameras is because: they are much more expensive (for a very few ones, weight is also important specially so count this too).
    BUT LENSES are far more important then sensor size (if we are comparing APC-S to full frame).
    A picture taken with a D700 and with cheapest and low quality lenses will be WORSE (and noticeable) then a picture taken from a medium format camera with good lenses. And actually buying the best lenses and a medium format camera it’s cheaper then a full format camera with the most cheap lenses.
    It has many advantages (if you are starting) from not going straight to full frame (unless you have $10000 to spend). You can use medium format lenses on full frame (at least with nikon but beware of the cropping factor) so it gives an upgrade path.
    I love check exif info from RE photos. It let’s me learn a lot from it. And something I realised is that many of the suberb photos we see are taken with medium format cameras. You don’t NEED full frame, yes it has many advantages, but the photographer and the lenses does the work.

    A simple test is to take pictures from the same thing using a full frame camera and with a medium format one. Differences WON’T be noticeable (unless you are inspecting them and you specifically look for it) if you are comparing let’s say, a D700 with a D7000.
    BUT if you test different lenses in the same camera, everyone will notice the differences.
    Also software can help a lot correcting lenses errors, chromatic aberration, distortions etc. Not ideal but cheap and it works great.

    You can easily compare several sensors and cameras here:
    http://www.dxomark.com/index.php/Cameras/Compare-Camera-Sensors
    http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/studiocompare.asp

  • what would be a real improvement if they can ever get a sensor to have a greater dynamic range! I still don’t understand why this is such an elusive scientific accomplishment

  • I would also like to point out that the megapixels on the sensor are not very important. There’s dirty cheap point and shoot cameras with true 20mp on ebay, they won’t take better pictures then the cheapest dslr even if it has only a 4mp sensor. It’s all about sensor size. Actually tomorrow cameras will have less MP then the previous generation. We reached a point that increasing more and more MP on a sensor will actually decrease image quality. Larger sensor will gather more light which is great (but not limited) for low light conditions, this is where the difference is VERY noticeable compared to smaller sensors. In normal light situations it will not bring any noticeable differences.
    Example: The Canon EOS 5D Mark II from 2008 has a 21.1mp sensor but it won’t take better images then the upcoming Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with a sensor of “only” 16.1mp.

  • I have heard the same thing.
    The Canon G-12 went from 12MP, down to 10MP and has better quality. I think bit depth is a big factor (16 bits on the med format cameras versus 14 bits on the full frame cameras) makes a big difference. Being an ex- (film) Hasselblad and Leica M-6 user I am waiting for someone (might be FUJI) to come out with an interchangeable lens rangefinder camera with med format quality (maybe built in HDR) and I will be happy as a clam. I saw a 40×60 B&W print, shot from a Leica M-9 with a 25 year old 21mm lens that looked like it was shot on 4×5…….very impressive, but still expensive.

  • Yes, it’s a lesson that took me a while to appreciate. Larger sensors aren’t only about depth of field (throwing the background out of focus), which isn’t so important when working with interiors; they are also about accommodating larger photosites, which gather more light with less noise, and that is important for interiors.

    A large sensor junked-up with too many photosites will still have a lot of noise in low light conditions. It’s great when you have plenty of light and need to do a lot of post processing or need to blow-up an image to the size of a poster. Otherwise, and especially for internet use, a large sensor *and* large photosites are what’s really needed.

    For video, it’s even more important. Your DSLR throws away most of the pixels it captures, so high pixel count isn’t so relevant. At full HD you’re only recording a little over 2 megapixels per frame (1920 x 1080). Bigger photosites can make all the difference here, especially if you have to stop down the aperture or use some kind of filter and you want to stay at a low ISO.

  • I am very interested in learning about video for my real estate customers.
    At this time I have no video equipment, but years ago I shot some 16mm Arriflex for my company while working at Lockheed Martin. Now, the digital world is so different and I have to learn all over again. I am not sure weather to go with a Nikon DSLR for video, or look into a dedicated video camera. I have seen productions shot on DSLRs that are excellent. But it seems like video people (not still photographers) want dedicated video cameras, which would be an expensive investment, for a Nikon still guy like me. Technology is changing so fast that there are no standards. The one thing I tell young photographers starting out is to invest in fine glass. Digital bodies will become obsolete in a few months, but fine optics will last forever.

  • Eric Hilton, at this moment Nikon is behind new tech in video. In video only Canon really is more advanced, specially in full frame formats. And realise that for nikon you are dealing with old or entry level cameras that don’t allow advanced video features. Things will change in the next few weeks/months with the upcoming cameras from nikon and canon that will boost dslr video into a new level. Video made it’s introduction and into dslr in this current (current for a few weeks) generation of cameras. Read the upcoming specs and expectations and you will be amazed. Doesn’t make any sense to buy a new camera today if in a few weeks major cameras are going to be launched including flagship ones from nikon and canon that will transform the market and the business.
    You definitely don’t need a dedicated video camera. Actually if you want one you need to spend several hundreds to buy one better then the dslr video would deliver. Also don’t forget that with dslr you get great flexibility by being able to use a wide choice of lenses. Something you can’t unless you spend at least 10k for a video camera with that capability plus extremely expensive lenses.
    If are starting from scratch wait and analyse upcoming canon and nikon systems. You can even wait for the new cameras and then just get a previous generation Canon 5D mark II for cheap. If you are a nikon guy and already have invested in equipment lenses etc you really should get a new video capable nikon.
    It all depends on your budget but you will be able to do great videos for real estate with a full frame dslr. Just check the amazing stuff done with the canon 5D II.

  • Comparing camera phone sensors and Full Frame DSLR sensors is like comparing a mini-van to a Corvette, each one has their own specific use and really should not be compared with each other. A built in camera phone like the iPhone 4s is a convenient way for you to snap and share your photos while you are on the go or just forgot to bring your DSLR camera. There is no way you can compare the tiny sensor to the Full Frame sensor of say a Nikon D3s just simply because of its smaller size it cannot capture the same amount of space and detail. Personally I never leave home without my Nikon D3s and D700 because I like to have high res photos and full control of what I am photographing.

  • It’s an interesting and valuable article, to be honest, most of the science is way beyond my grey matter’s ability to keep up with, so I won’t argue with any of it. If anyone is considering getting a DSLR for video work specifically, they would do well to watch this 40 minute presentation by Doug Jensen – http://pro.sony.com/bbsc/video/channels-nxcam_camcorders/video-nxcam_hd_35mm_large_sensor/ – It does a great job of explaining why the new SONY FS-100 takes over from where the D5 left off. As someone primarily interested in video for real estate, I would not now consider the Canons D5.

  • The Endgadget article that Dave refers to didn’t get DxOMark quite right concerning dynamic range. Apparently, there’s more to dynamic range than just sensor size. DxOMark says bluntly: “K5 vs D3x – Dynamic Range: the $1300 APS-C Pentax has a better dynamic range than Nikon’s $9000 full-frame flagship.” http://www.dxomark.com/index.php/Publications/DxOMark-Reviews/DxOMark-review-for-the-Pentax-K5

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