The Truth About Camera Sensor Sizes

Sensor size is a hotly debated topic in photography, with many arguing that larger sensors are always superior. However, the reality is more nuanced. Understanding the pros and cons of different sensor sizes can help you make informed decisions about your gear and improve your photography without wasting your money.

Coming to you from Tom Calton, this informative video explores the impact of sensor sizes on image quality and practical considerations. Calton tests four cameras with different sensor sizes: full-frame, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, and 1-inch. He examines how crop factor affects field of view and depth of field, demonstrating that smaller sensors can actually be advantageous for certain types of photography. For instance, wildlife photographers may benefit from the increased reach provided by smaller sensors.

The video also addresses common misconceptions about sensor size. Contrary to popular belief, Calton's tests show that base ISO performance is quite similar across all sensor sizes. However, as ISO increases, larger sensors do exhibit better noise performance. This suggests that while smaller sensors can produce excellent results in good lighting conditions, larger sensors may have an edge in low-light situations. Calton also highlights the importance of lens quality, which can sometimes have a more significant impact on image sharpness than sensor size alone.

One of the most interesting aspects of the video is Calton's exploration of print quality across different sensor sizes. He orders prints of various sizes, including large metal prints and photo albums. Surprisingly, even images from the smallest 1-inch sensor produce impressive results when printed at moderate sizes. While differences become more noticeable at larger print sizes, they're often less significant than many photographers might expect. This challenges the notion that you need a large sensor camera to create high-quality prints. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Calton.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Am I the only one that knew 35mm cameras were invented to use left-over pieces of movie film?
It's the reason the first color films were Kodachrome types in just 35mm sizes.
35mm was never conducive to standard professional picture/portrait sizes, 4x5, 5x7, 8x10... So, finally, a new innovation in photography arises, digital, and the design a "professional" camera STAYING with that same bastard-child format of the industry, 35mm movie size...
Still cutting the ends off for an 8x10 format.....
Is it just me?????

It’s just you. So many of the worlds great photos have been taken on either 35mm film or a FF digital sensor. You need to get over yourself

The format was used because the transition to digital was expensive. Being able to take advantage of hardware and lenses made sense, much the same way that several models of vehicles share the same underlying platform.

i think that camera colour science is just as important as sensor size. i have a Fujifilm APS-C camera and a Fujifilm medium format camera and am unable to colour grade away the differences in colours. i also have cameras from Canon and Nikon.

also, for the camera tests i would have tried to have similar pixel pitches or microsite sizes so i would have chosen a higher megapixel count for the full-frame, perhaps around 45mp (4.34 µm) or 60mp (3.76 µm), a 24 or 26mp (3.77 µm) APS-C sensor, a 16mp (3.74 µm) m4/3's sensor such as an Olympus E-PL7 or E-PL8, and a lower megapixel count for the 1" sensor, such as a 10mp (3.39 µm) Nikon 1V1.

Smaller sensors do NOT increase reach. It's a crop which you can achieve the same image in larger sensor cameras by cropping in post.. I wish those "in the know" would not say that crop sensor cameras increase reach. The only advantage may be improved autofocus.

You're not going to get the same effect in post mainly because u'll lose resolution from the FF image by cropping while u'll have full resolution from the crop sensor. For high res FF sensors like from the A75R etc that's a minor detail though.
For systems that share the same lenses its important, so putting your 300mm FF lens on your APSC camera gives you full resolution at 450mm reach. Again a high res FF camera can negate that in post and those tend to have poorer AF for things like birding etc when the reach would be beneficial.