Which Sensor Size Suits Your Type of Photography the Best?

Which Sensor Size Suits Your Type of Photography the Best?

There are different sensor sizes in existence. This is common knowledge for most photo enthusiasts, and often it is said a full frame sensor is the professional choice. Let’s see if size makes a difference for your type of photography.

Although the different size photo sensors are something of the digital age, different film sizes already existed in the old days. Large format, medium format, 35mm film, and even smaller APS film and the 110 film cassettes. Of all these different film sizes, the 35mm film became the standard, measuring 24mm x 36mm. It was used in an extensive range of cameras, from the simple consumer compact cameras up to the professional SLR cameras. The much smaller 110 film cassettes were almost foolproof and used for cameras like the Kodak Pocket Instamatic. The APS was introduced as an Advanced Photo System, and could be used for high definition, classic, and panoramic pictures. It never really took off and the 35mm film stayed the standard in film sizes.

Now we have the digital full frame sensor, which has the same size as the 35mm film. It is often considered as the best sensor size available, or perhaps affordable one. Today everything is related to this sensor size. When we talk about focal length, which is a given physical number, it is always converted to full frame equivalent. And often we do the same with depth of field.

Full frame sensors are considered the standard. Cameras containing these sensors are often called professional cameras.

Full frame sensors are considered the standard. Cameras containing these sensors are often called professional cameras.

It is not wrong to have a standard. That is why we also use a meter, and kilogram, and liter. But it does not mean the standard is always the best option to use. Just like we use a centimeter instead of meter, it may be easier to use smaller sensors for some types of photography. Or larger sensors, of course.

The Different Sensor Sizes

Throughout the digital era we have seen a lot of different sensor sizes hit the market. It all started with small 1/3.5” sensors (3 x 4mm) in point and shoot cameras. Sensors grew up to 1/2” (6.4 mm x 4.8mm) and 1” (12.8mm x 9.6mm), which are still widely used. Larger sizes like the micro 4/3 (17.8mm x 13.4mm) appeared, and the well-known 1.5 and 1.6 crop sensors, about similar in size to the APS from old days. Finally we have the full frame sensors and the even larger medium format sensors.

On the other end we see the minute sensors for smartphone cameras appear, like a 1/5” (2.55mm x 1.91mm) and even 1/7” (1.85 x 1.39mm). Although you would think these sensors cannot produce any decent image, the quality has improved dramatically of the last few years. Photos from these sensors have become usable for a lot of purposes.

A list of sensor sizes available, and examples of their use.

A list of sensor sizes available, and examples of their use.

So there are a lot of sensor sizes to choose from. It is not realistic to divide these sensor sizes into consumer or professional. I think each of these sensor sizes can coexist, both for professional and amateur, and some of these sensors may even be ideal for a certain purpose. Because sensor sizes are almost always related to a certain type of camera, I will mention the different cameras and for whom I think they’re perfect for.

Compact Cameras

These have the smaller sensor sizes, often measuring between 1/3.6” up to 1/2". The small size make it possible to keep these cameras small, and easy to carry with you. Because of its small sensor size, the focal length can be very short, thus resulting in a very large depth of field. These sensor sizes are not for the photographer that love a shallow depth of field, or need to use high ISO values, because the sensors will produce a lot of noise with the increase in ISO.

A typical, yet old compact camera. The small sensor size requires a short focal length, as seen on the lens barrel. Still, the field of view is almost similar to 28mm - 175mm on a full frame

A typical, yet old compact camera. The small sensor size requires a short focal length, as seen on the lens barrel. Still, the field of view is almost similar to 28mm - 175mm on a full frame. Because of it short focal length, the depth of field is very large, even with f/2,8

Bridge and Super Zoom Cameras

The 1/2" and 1”sensors are often used in the larger compact and the super zoom cameras. Although these sensors are larger than the regular compacts, they are still very small, making it possible to retrieve large magnifications with short focal lengths. These super zoom cameras can reach focal lengths that are similar to 1000mm or even 2000mm on a full frame, while still having a relative small size.

A bridge camera for consumers, with a super zoom lens build in. This compact camera is easy to take with you, has a very long focal length, and does not break the bank when buying. These are also available in more professional versions. Sensor sizes often

A bridge camera for consumers, with a super zoom lens build in. This compact camera is easy to take with you, has a very long focal length, and does not break the bank when buying. These are also available in more professional versions. Sensor sizes often go up to 1".

These cameras are perfect for the photographer who love to use very long focal lengths, but don’t want to carry large cameras and lenses. But just like the compacts, a shallow depth of field is nearly impossible to use.

Micro 4/3 Cameras

Measuring only half the size of a full frame sensor, these micro 4/3 sensors are used in the system cameras with interchangeable lenses. The small size make it possible to retrieve large depth of fields and it makes the focal length twice as long compared to full frame. It is ideal for the wildlife photographer that loves the use of long focal lengths, and a landscape photographer that uses a maximum depth of field. It is not ideal for the portrait photographer, who wants a shallow depth of field.

Because the sensor does not need large and heavy lenses, the camera system is easy to carry with you while still having a large focal length available. Travel photographers can benefit from this.

The small sensor of micro 4/3 allow long tele lenses to act like even longer ones. In this example I am using a 100-400mm lens, acting similar to a 200-800mm lens on a full frame. But the size is very handy. (photo by Hetwie (http://www.hetwie.nl))

The small sensor of micro 4/3 allow long tele lenses to act like even longer ones. In this example I am using a 100-400mm lens, acting similar to a 200-800mm lens on a full frame. But the size is very handy. (photo by Hetwie (http://www.hetwie.nl))

APS-C Cameras

The well known 1.5 and 1.6 crop sensors, that can be found in the DSLR and mirrorless systems, are the perfect middle ground between small size sensor cameras as mentioned previously, and the larger size sensors. They have the benefit from a focal length multiplication of 1.5x or 1.6x, and make both shallow depth of field as well as large depth of field possible.

A small APS-C sensor allows cameras to be very small and easy to take with you. Also lenses can be more compact. This one is a consumer camera, and is more compact than its larger brother with the same sensor, as seen in the image bottom right.

A small APS-C sensor allows cameras to be very small and easy to take with you. Also lenses can be more compact. This one is a consumer camera, and is more compact than its larger brother with the same sensor, as seen in the image bottom right.

The camera size is larger than the cameras with smaller sensors, but not as large or bulky as the full frame versions. I think these cameras are the best choice of the all round photographer. A downside is the increased noise level at high ISO compared to larger sensors.

The APS-C sensor is often used in the professional DSLR cameras like this Nikon D500 and Canon EOS 7D mark II. The smaller sensor provides an extra magnification when using lenses, which comes in hany with longer focal lengths. using a large depth of fiel

The APS-C sensor is often used in the professional DSLR cameras like this Nikon D500 and Canon EOS 7D mark II. The smaller sensor provides an extra magnification when using lenses, which comes in hany with longer focal lengths. using a large depth of field will also be much easier.

Full Frame Cameras

Finally we have the full frame sensor, the holy grail for many photographers. Perhaps that is a bit exaggerated, but it is almost always considered the best choice. And indeed, this sensor size is very good to use for portraits concerning depth of field. But I think it is not the best choice for people who need very long focal lengths, or when very large depth of field is needed, like in landscapes.

The balance between the size and amount of pixels make a relatively good high ISO performance considered. The full frame cameras need large and often heavy lenses, making the camera with these sensors not ideal for traveling.

Full frame sensors in professional cameras. Although we see a difference in camera size, full frame sensor often will aquire large and heavy lenses. At least, compared to the cameras with smaller sensors.

Full frame sensors in professional cameras. Although we see a difference in camera size, full frame sensor often will aquire large and heavy lenses. At least, compared to the cameras with smaller sensors.

Medium Format Cameras

Larger sensors are called medium format sensors. These often have a crop factor of 0.7, making a huge resolution possible. At the same time these sensors perform very well with dynamic range and high ISO, at least, in the last few years. Medium format cameras have become less expensive, thanks to the mirrorless techniques, and are well within reach of the professional and enthusiastic amateur photographer. Although the lack of a mirror makes these cameras less bulky than previously, the lenses are still large and heavy.

One of the first affordable medium format cameras. Although the mirrorless system allows a smaller camera, they are not small at all. Also lenses will be large and heavy. The large sensor will allow a wonderful depth of field.

One of the first affordable medium format cameras. Although the mirrorless system allows a smaller camera, they are not small at all. Also lenses will be large and heavy. The large sensor will allow a wonderful depth of field.

I think these cameras are perfect for studio environments, and situations when high resolution and a smooth depth of field is needed. These cameras seem have an appeal for landscapes, but the large sensor makes it difficult to obtain a really large depth of field.

Choose Wisely

If you want a camera for a certain kind of photography, it might be good to look beyond the inevitable advice by many to buy a full frame camera. Choose the camera with a sensor size that suits your preferred photography the best. Think of focal length magnification, depth of field, size, and weight, among other things.

Did you choose your camera and sensor size with your type of photography in mind? I would love to read about it in the comments below.

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38 Comments

Robert Montgomery's picture

4X5 LF sensor none, MF: 6X9cm none, 6X7cm none, 6X4,5cm -1 made, used in Phase One, Hasselblad $50,000.00 / body. Film it is. Sorry Fuji, Pentax,and some Hassy's, if FF had to equal 36 x24mm. Medium Format has to at least equal 6X4,5 cm.

Nando Harmsen's picture

There is nothing wrong with film. :)

Robert Montgomery's picture

Thanks, its the only way to go for me.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

What would you call the formats between 36*24 and 60*45 ?

Robert Montgomery's picture

What they shold have been called in first place Digital larger than Full Frame or Intermediate. That would be a more accurate discription of what they actually are. Because it is smaller. Even Full Frame is technically wrong. Small Format is correct . Full Frame is Printing a negative without cropping that shows the entire negative borders on the print. Small Format is 35mm and below to microfilm.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Full frame is indeed printing the complete picture without cropping. So in that case I can print my APS-C photo also full frame, or my minute sensor in the smartphone.
But why bother about names... it is only a name, nothing more

Robert Montgomery's picture

I know. Somedays. I just feel likr companies sometimes use statements to highlight their products as something they technically are not. In regard to Digital MF, I think part of the problem with DOF being shallow and what not is that the sensor size is not even close to the format. It is extremely cropped . The same problem with DOF occurred when Kodak was gutting F5, F 100 and Canon EOS 1N. They used crop CCD sensors with lenses for 35mm film. Same problem then that is with Digital MF now. Only ones not affected are Phase One and the Hasselblad that use a true 645 sensor at $50,000.00USD. And I think it has to be tethered and its a scanning sensor to boot. Though I could be wrong .

Nando Harmsen's picture

Do the Phase One and Hasselblad H-series have real 645 sensors? I cannot recall they have, but I could be mistaken.
Ah wel... manufacturers just want to sell, and play the consumers very well ;)

Robert Montgomery's picture

Both the Phase One and Hasselblad H series have a true 6X4,5 sensor made I think by Sony. They both use the same sensor. I do believe it is still a scanning sensor. But am not 100% certain. Hence both are around $50,000.00 a piece. Both I believe have to be tethered hence in studio work mainly.

Perry Harrington's picture

I noticed you went from cheap compact cameras to bridge cameras, ignoring the large segment of compact 1" cameras, like the Sony RX100 and Lumix TZ100. Those cameras are compacts with 3x up to 10x zoom lenses. The Sony has less zoom than the Lumix, and it's brighter, but the Lumix has 5 axis stabilization, so 250mm focal length handheld shots are trivial (but can be soft). The Lumix camera(s) are nearly half the price of the Sonys.

Nando Harmsen's picture

It is not about the camera and its features, but about the sensor size, camera type, or prize, those mentioned are just as an example. There is not a sharp edge between the types, but a gradual course

Perry Harrington's picture

The 2.75x crop factor does a few interesting things. These cameras have bright lenses but the crop factor gives them tremendous depth of field. For video work they are superb because they are very sharp and have a lot in focus, which means it's hard to screw things up. They also have decent noise performance and very quick shutters. 10fps mechanical shutter with electronic shutter up to 30fps.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Good to know. Thanks for sharing this

Spy Black's picture

1-inch and M4/3 for portability, M4/3, APS-C, and full frame for other.

Nando Harmsen's picture

M4/3, APS-C or FF depending on the type of photography, I presume?

Spy Black's picture

Yes of course. ALL of my street photography is 1-inch and M4/3 now. My astrophotography is primarily M4/3, with some APS-C. My FF camera has for the most part been relegated to my studio.

Nando Harmsen's picture

May I ask why the astrophotography is not FF?

Spy Black's picture

Field of view. Also, many scopes will have significant edge falloff with FF sensors. 1-inch and M4/3 sensors are common astro sensors.

That said, FF isn't necessarily off the table, especially for wide field shots and shots with native lenses.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I did not know that about the scopes. I think that is the reason webcams were used for so many years on scopes, or am I mistaken?

Spy Black's picture

Webcams are popular with planetary imaging. They record video and you make an image stack from a zillion frames and increase resolution in the process. I don't shoot planets tho, I shoot deep sky.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Ah yes. Quite obvious now I read this. Did not realize the difference up to now. :)

LA M's picture

I use 3 different formats sometimes on the same job.

Now what?

Nando Harmsen's picture

What?
Perfect. Why not. But I guess you will choose a certain format for a reason during that shoot, and not at random

LA M's picture

Ya.

Like when I want deep DOF with a small aperture for shooting food/drinks...or shooting video handheld (Olympus)..

Nando Harmsen's picture

Sounds like you choose the best tool for the job
:)

1" sensors suit me fine for now. Rarely print and if I do the sizes I print at are more than adequate. Plus have the bonus of not carrying around extra lenses or cleaning the sensor.

Nando Harmsen's picture

IN that case I think you have chosen the camera that benefits your wishes and needs, and you did not chosen it because of the sensor size?

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Good overall view, but I can't agree with a few things you told :

-Keeping FF cameras from landscape : Clearly MFT cameras are lighter to take on a hike, but some people take even medium format to shoot landscape, for the higher overall quality (Resolution, color, bits, noise, etc...), which is not attainable with a mft gear.
-Same for long lens shooting : Take a hide and a good tripod, and you won't bother about the weight of your 600mm f/4 + 1DX, but the beautiful blur will be there.

-IMO, APS-C are the ugly little brother of FF : Taking FF lenses, so, almost as big, and not even 1 stop better than MFT. Fuji made a full system around it, that's the way.

-Shallow depth of field in MFT for portraits : That's a new trend, and few studio portrait photographers actually shoot wide open. I've got more than enough with my 45mm f/1.2 on olympus.

In any case, it's good to have a good understanding of the gear, their good parts, and their downsides.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Resolution is not per definition related to sensor size. The resolution of a 50mp full frame sensor is the same as a 50mp medium format sensor. But I do agree on some of the other things.
But I do not say to keep away FF from landscapes - I use one myself - but the benefits from a smaller sensor can help to achieve certain things much easier than a larger sensor.
About large lenses - not everyone fancies a hide, or want a large tripod. There are lots of people who just want to hike and use a longer focal length.
The article is not about discussing trends but about reasons or preferences that could lead to a choice of camera sensor due to its strenghts and weaknesses. If you love a tiny depth of field in your portraits, and it is your "thing", than a small sensor can make it difficult. No matter if it is a trend or not.

Willy Williams's picture

I'm going to say "PHOOEY!" on the statement that one can't get a shallow depth of field with M43. Try the Lumix G9 with the Leica 42.5mm Nocticron lens for portraiture to see what I mean. I think the G9 with the Leica 8-18mm lens is spectacular for real estate, too.

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