The 1-Inch Sensor Is a Lie

The 1-Inch Sensor Is a Lie

It’s shocking in 2020 that you can go on to most electronics stores and still purchase a point-and-shoot camera for north of $500. Many of these cameras justify their high price tag by heavily advertising a “1-inch sensor.” Unfortunately, that’s not really a selling point when the 1-inch sensor never really lived up to its photographic promises.

Let’s be real here, the 1-inch sensor was the compromise no one wanted. It’s “The Good Place” analogy of only getting yogurt when what you really wanted was ice cream (a larger sensor). And more to the point, with many phones sporting wide angle and telephoto lenses and a raft of computational imaging smarts and processing, a 1-inch sensor in a traditional point-and-shoot camera means nothing these days.

Look, I bought heavily into the idea that a 1-inch sensor camera could make a viable point-and-shoot walkaround to take when out with the kids. The Canon PowerShot G9 X made a serious bid to be my diaper-bag, carry-all-the-time camera while the Canon PowerShot G3 X was an attempt at a Zoo/Aquarium camera. But after using each only a few times, they’ve been collecting dust on the shelf. When I critically pixel-peeped at the files, there wasn’t more detail there than what a good phone with good software could do with a smaller sensor, such as an iPhone 11 Pro Max or Google Pixel 3a. That’s where phone manufacturers have the camera makers beat: Their programmers work magic in the small space of a cell phone. The autofocus systems in these cameras were woefully inadequate even for light-duty family photography.

Sure, there’s a case to be made for the extreme zoom of something like a G3 X, but at $850 (for a camera introduced 5 years ago!), that’s a lot of DSLR and lens to be had there, or if you’re looking for smaller, a mirrorless camera. And even with a Micro Four Thirds model, such as an Olympus E-M10 Mark III you’ll get a lot more image quality for the dollar in about the same size package. I’d argue that Micro Four Thirds was really the sensor size that delivered on the small package/big quality promise that 1-inchers did not, especially when you consider such groundbreaking small cameras like the Panasonic GM series. Nikon tried to make the 1-inch sensor viable in an interchangeable lens system (the Nikon 1 series) but when Micro Four Thirds is vastly better in low light and image quality at a lower price, what’s the point?

Panasonic shoehorned a Micro Four Thirds sensor into a camera the size of a deck of cards. This is smaller than many 1-inch sensor point-and-shoots, and it still gets better image quality and more features.

Panasonic shoehorned a Micro Four Thirds sensor into a camera the size of a deck of cards. This is smaller than many 1-inch sensor point-and-shoots, and it still gets better image quality and more features.

The flaw in the logic is this: A 1-inch sensor is in a camera primarily because it’s a cost-cutting measure. When Nikon added sophisticated autofocus, interchangeable lenses and other fancy DSLR-like features, the result was a price tag that made used or entry level larger sensor cameras more appealing. Another scenario is true for cameras like the G3 X and G9 X and their close cousins, the Sony RX100 series, where the 1-inch sensor saves costs, but then is attached to a decontented camera at a high price.

I once saw a calendar from Nikon that had wildlife photos from the 1 system right next to the company’s full-frame DSLR images, and the image quality difference, even in print, was noticeable. Trained eyes can tell.

Where Is a 1-Inch Sensor Appropriate?

That’s not to say that 1-inch sensors don’t have their place. Ricoh makes an excellent 360 photo camera in the Theta Z1 that sandwiches two 1-inch sensors together. For video, which has lower resolution requirements than photo, it can be a benefit in action cameras such as the Insta360 One R 1” Edition and broadcast-style ENG cameras such as the Panasonic AG-UX90.

But that said, no one has quite figured out to market these cameras to ordinary folks. Most people don’t care about sensor size or even understand what it does, so making that a prominent part of the name of the camera or the marketing materials misses the point. What can the camera do that will make a user choose to pay money for it over just using a cell phone? It’s the main reason none of the 1-inch sensor cameras have exactly set the world on fire and these cameras are collecting dust on the sales floor.

What do you think of 1-inch sensors, is it time to move on? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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67 Comments

Robert K Baggs's picture

I think what bothers me the most about "1-inch sensors" is that they aren't an inch, even measured diagonally. The name is just purposely misleading marketing. The surface area of a 1" sensor is nearly half of micro four thirds, which gives you an idea just how tiny it really is.

Greg Edwards's picture

Sensor size descriptions confused the hell out of me until I did some research A few years ago and found out that some of them had had nothing to do with their physical size, but have their origins in vacuum tubes!

For the uninitiated...

“Bizarrely, the mostly fractional measurements used to detail sensor size date back to the age when vacuum tubes were used in video and television cameras. But the size designation is still nothing like as simple as the diagonal measurement of the sensor. Instead, it's the outer diameter measurement of a tube needed to produce an image, when the usable image takes up two thirds of the circle. Yes, it's that crazy.”

https://newatlas.com/camera-sensor-size-guide/26684/

Dave Haynie's picture

Yup. The standard was for vidicon tubes. When the first CCDs were reasonable for use in much of anything, it was video, thanks to standard definition. So they started using the same terminology for CCDs, then CMOS sensors. Apparently a full frame sensor is also a 2.3" sensor, despite only being 1.7" on the diagonal.

Keith Mullin's picture

A micro 4/3 sensor isn't 1.3 inches on the diagonal either.

Indy Thomas's picture

And "Full frame" refers to the crippled 35 mm frame that is a pathetic response to larger roll film formats. /s

Christian Fiore's picture

Huh? Unless you're counting capturing into the perforations, 35mm film is usually 36 x 24, while digital FF is around 35.6 x 23.8. Not much loss there. Medium format, on the other hand...

Mike Shwarts's picture

I think Indy was referring to full frame being the same as 35mm (more properly called 135 format). And he was saying 35 mm was considered a "crippled," small format when it was first introduced. People were used to larger formats. It would be much later when 35 mm was considered a serious format.

Koen Miseur's picture

Who cares?! It's bigger than a normal compact camera and smaller than a 4/3 who cares about the name, can it take good pictures, that's what should matter!

Pieter Batenburg's picture

I own a Sony RX100VA and it is really a big step up from a mobile phone while still being really small and pocketable. I love the form factor and what it can do.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/Ah4j4DcJvjLuzRUv8

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Indeed, 1 inch sensors destroy the older, more common 1 2/3” sensors in cheaper, older P&S cameras.

This is just another crap article.

Mike Shwarts's picture

I have the RX100iii and love it for the same reason. It is a pocketable camera that handle's like a camera. While the EVF isn't great, it works in bright light that obscures the rear screen, so I can avoid that problem you are stuck with in phones. At slower shutter speeds, I can hold it like a traditional camera, so more steady than you'll ever get with a phone. I can control shooting parameters far easier than with a phone.

If I want, I can lock focus and exposure, and shoot action like we did before auto focus.

Dave Haynie's picture

It's kind of a weird situation. Nearly every 1" camera these days uses Sony's 1" chips, but only Sony gets the latest and greatest. So there's that issue. But the reason for that is because some of the early, non-Sony sensors kind of sucked. I have the Nikon AW1 mirrorless camera, which has a 1" sensor at 14 megapixels made by Aptina. The results... well into the P&S zone. But on my Sony RX10 Mark IV, I'm at least at the edge of the kind of general quality, editability, etc. you'd expect from a "real" camera.

But also, when you're buying an RX10, RX100, or one of the 1" cameras from Canon or Panasonic or whomever, you're also getting a far, far better lens than in the usual 1/2.3" P&S. You're probably not diffraction-limited at full aperture, which you are on just about any cheap P&S. So 20 megapixels actually looks a bit like 20 megapixel should. And of course, the sensor is good enough to shoot raw, while on most phones, shooting raw bypasses all the AI + computational enhancement and you see just how awful the camera really is.

Deleted Account's picture

I'm shooting on an RX100 often and the IQ is great. But then you can also obtain high quality prints from a phone https://youtu.be/h2Td5CbcBRw

I think my polite rsponse is if you can't produce high quality images from ANY modern camera you should probably find a new hobby/job.

Christian Fiore's picture

The problem with phones is that they're far more limited in the situations they can be used effectively in vs a 1" sensor camera. Sure, you can "get" the shot, but if you're looking at printing even close to sizes like above, forget it.

sam dasso's picture

If you haven't tried RX100 series of cameras, then you don't have any idea what 1" sensor can do and have no business to trash this sensor.

Deleted Account's picture

^this

Wasim Ahmad's picture

If money weren't a factor, that could be the case, but at $900?

Dave F's picture

The problem is that you’re acting like a 1” sensor is somehow being advertised as new tech in 2020. It’s not. The RX100 has been around for 8 years. And yeah, it blew cell phone cameras (and other point-and-shoots) out of the water for the better part of a decade. Plus a 1” sensor was certainly not the only selling point of that camera.

It would be one thing to say, “Is a 1-inch sensor point and shoot still relevant?”, but that’s not what you wrote. So yeah, this is a garbage article.

Ed C's picture

LOL Wasim seems to be a really passionate size matters type of guy.

Deleted Account's picture

Hey wut!?

How did you go from "The 1-Inch Sensor Is a Lie" to "...but at $900".

It's almost as though you have no conception of logic.

I think it's time to look at your work; you have the stench of the gear obsessed/snob.

sam dasso's picture

How about under $400 brand new for original model ? I payed $650 8 year ago and still use it for pocket camera. And I have 18x24 prints taken with this camera that look great.

Koen Miseur's picture

Get a second hand RX100 u can find them very cheap, maybe than your article would have value, now u are talking about something u don't have first hand experience in! Also I have been using an RX100 and RX100 IV and they take awesome pictures, better pictures than an old D40 and in good light even as good as my old D90!

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I have a G3 X and a G9 X ... both one inch sensors, probably the same as what's in a secondhand RX100. I had a D300S, which was the same sensor as the D90, and I can tell you the 1" sensors that I have aren't even close.

Koen Miseur's picture

No they are not the same sensors and yes in good light they are very comparable in sharpness! I have both and I have taken pictures of the same flower on both camera's!

Greg Silver's picture

I have the RX10 IV with a 1" sensor and I have to say i am very impressed with the quality that comes out. I know it has shortcomings not being a FF camera but because it's paired with a 24-600mm equivalent lens it gives me a lot more flexibility when shooting. The 1" sensor does have a niche market and with wildlife it has served me well.

Dave Haynie's picture

The RX10 IV is great -- I have one, most for shooting music events that don't premit "pro" cameras. It is essentially a $300 camera with a $1400 lens, but still. These cameras are really capable. You don't hit diffraction limits at full aperture, and yet, the lens is sharp pretty much the whole way, with just a little lost at the full 220mm (600mm full frame equivalent). It's also got the latest Sony 1" stacked chip, with on-chip PDAF, fast 24fps raw shooting, and on-sensor buffering of over 180 raw shots. It's like a baby A9. In one long weekend, I shot 7200 images with this camera at a festival. So okay, it's actually larger than some of my pro cameras, and nearly as expensive. But it's no lie, brother!

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Oh look, another garbage article by Wasim, knew it was him the moment I read the headline...

Just me's picture

Generating web traffic, not useful content.
Rule number one these days.

Chris Fowler's picture

I want to see GoPro start using 1" sensors to get better low light performance. I know they already have 4k (since Hero5?) but if you've ever tried to use a gopro pre-dawn, its pretty bad.

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