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?
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.