Does Sensor Size Matter? The Test Results Are In

Do cameras with larger sensors have a specific look? Last week I posted images taken with four different sensor sizes and let you decide. Spoiler Alert: Nobody could tell the difference. 

The Test

Proponents of full frame and medium format cameras have always said that images taken with a larger sensor look different. Yes, they typically have shallower depth of field, but most photographers say that it goes beyond just that. They say that larger sensors produce "better looking images" but they are usually unable to elaborate. I decided to put this to the test. 

This is not a resolution test, we will do that in another video. This test is strictly to determine if images are inherently different coming from different sized sensors and manufacturers. 

I stood in one spot and shot my buddy Keith Bradshaw with 4 different cameras with 4 different sized sensors. To keep the field of view the same, I used a 50mm "equivalent" lens on each camera. To keep the depth of field the same, I changed the aperture as well. My cameras and settings are below. 

FujiFilm GFX 50R/ 43.mm x 32.9mm sensor/ 64mm lens f/8

Canon 6D/ 35mm ff sensor/ 50mm f5.6

FujiFilm XT-3/ 23.6mm x 15.6mm sensor/ 35mm f4

Panasonic GH5/ Micro 4/3 sensor/ 25mm f2.8

I shot each of the images below in raw, I changed only the white balance, and stacked the images on top of each other. I cropped in on all of the images to hide the 4/3 aspect ratio of the GFX and GH5 and shrunk them to 1920 pixels in width. 

The Results

Image 1: Panasonic GH5

Image 2: FujiFilm XT-3

Image 3: FujiFilm GFX 50S

Image 4: Canon 6D

The results of our polls were all over the map. With each option being chosen right around 25% of the time, it's obvious that the images are almost identical.  Any noticeable differences like color or density could easily be tweaked further to make these four images look even more similar. 

So what does this prove? Larger sensors do not produce different looking images on their own. Some of you knew that, most of you probably didn't. 

But, shooting at the same F-stop will produce a shallower depth of field on a larger sensor. This is because F-stop is a unit of exposure and works on any sized sensor. A medium format camera lens' aperture shooting at F4 will be physically larger in size compared to a smaller lens' designed for a smaller aperture, and this physically larger aperture will produce a shallower depth of field. 

This may lead you to believe that it's easier to shoot shallower images on a medium format system, but that isn't necessarily true. Most lenses that FujiFilm makes for this system are f/4 which will look like f/3.16 on a full frame camera. Of course, most "pro" 35mm lenses are f/2.8 which will produce a shallower depth of field than f/3.16. So, at least at this time, shooting with a shallower depth of field may actually be easier on a 35mm camera. 

This test/post is not meant to discredit larger sensors. There are certainly many perks to large sensor cameras that will produce an overall better image like resolution, color accuracy, bit depth, lens sharpness, ISO performance, and dynamic range. We haven't tested any of that yet... But we will. 

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70 Comments

Jordan McChesney's picture

(“Well actually...” intensifies)

Great video, I’m looking forward to the other tests.

Lee Morris's picture

Did you read my article? Did you watch the video? Perhaps you knew that image quality out of 4 completely different cameras and sensors would be almost identical, but I, as well as most people didn't. I certainly expected there to be a huge difference in color, contrast and dynamic range at the very least and there wasn't. That's and interesting result, especially for those photographers who believe that medium format cameras produce totally different looking images.

I plan do to another test, and really get into the details. What exactly should I test so that they next one isn't also meaningless?

ANDREW WILDER's picture

I thought it was a cool test.

Mike Kelley's picture

I enjoy the personally attacked version of Lee Morris very much!

Terry Wright's picture

I enjoy seeing the two of you troll each other

Lee Morris's picture

Watch it Mike

Deleted Account's picture

You honestly expected a significant difference? Go figure.

Kieran Stone's picture

A good use of the scientific method. Eliminating variables to test a hypothesis. I would take it one step further and use a studio set up with a still life subject to see the difference, especially in print. Similar with what you did for the ISO testing.

EL PIC's picture

Good example of test to support the manufacturer that pays the most ..
Make the images 16 x 24 or it’s more meaningless test.

Colin Robertson's picture

Aww yeah... NAILED IT! I could tell by the differences in color. #4 had the more magenta skin tones I am familiar with on Canon, while 2 & 3 had nearly identical color—so they were obviously the fuji's. By process of elimination #1 was the GH5. I figured the GFX was #3 because that image has slightly better color fidelity and was slightly sharper (look in the beard area) than #2. Looking forward to the other tests.

Colin Robertson's picture

One thing I've been trying to wrap my head around is sensor size as it relates to DOF, not just in portraits like you see here, but the full field of depth you can get in a scene, front to back.

Since moving to a full frame (EOS R) sensor I've felt like I have better *control* over DOF than I did with my 7D (APS-C). I also assist a photographer who uses the GFX system and was surprised at first when I saw that f/11 didn't result in infinity focus at common focus ranges like it did on my 7D.

I put this table together to try and make better sense of it. Lee, I would be interested in your thoughts.

https://i.imgur.com/N29vio8.png

sacha's picture

Basically, a larger sensor means you can get closer to achieve the same field of view.
And the closer you get, the shallower the depth of field is.
Hope that answers your question.
One downside is that the closer you get, the more distortion you get.

Kurt Schuster's picture

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject of 'separation' supposedly provided by various focal length lenses on this selection of sensor sizes. Basically, the ability to capture the 'perspective' of a scene where the image conveys how an object is closer or further away from the camera. It was something I thought I would see in your sample images but I did not see at all. It is likely related to DOF but it is not exactly the same thing.

Having an APS-C camera, there will be times when I crank the lens down to 16mm and still have to take a step or two back to get something in the frame, thus changing the perspective of the image. Naturally, a 16mm on a full frame camera would get every thing, (and probably more), in the image from the original position.

Maybe it is just a matter of technique or lighting that I am missing.

Thank you.

Kirk Darling's picture

So what are the results of comparing 24x30 prints from each sensor? Because that's what I sell.

tyler h's picture

Yes, They need to do large prints and poor lighting. Without those two the tests will be lacking.

Francisco B's picture

The higher megapixel medium format camera will have the best prints, no question.

sacha's picture

This proves nothing that hasn't been discussed over and over already.
A crop sensor does only one thing : crop the image.
A larger sensor means you can get closer to achieve the same field of view.
This test is irrelevant, I don't understand the point - yes you can achieve the same image with all sensors, in terms of depth of field. But the photos are radically different in ALL other aspects: dynamic range, noise, distance to subject, focal length, etc etc.
I don't understand this test.

Usman Dawood's picture

You can get closer with a larger sensor and that means you have a less compressed image, however you can always pick an equivalent lens on a smaller sensor camera and that way you can shoot from the same distance to your subject.

80mm on large medium format camera vs 50mm on full frame. You would shoot from the exact same distance to subject for a similar FOV.

Depth of field can be shallower on the full frame too because there are no f1.2 equivalents for medium format.

Rhonald Rose's picture

"This test/post is not meant to discredit larger sensors. There are certainly many perks to large sensor cameras that will produce an overall better image like resolution, color accuracy, bit depth, lens sharpness, ISO performance, and dynamic range. "

So what's the conclusion in the end. Does it matter or not. From the write up, it looks like it does except the samples that took away the speciality of each sensor and making the poll pointless.

Usman Dawood's picture

Apologies Rhonald.

michaeljin's picture

They weren't his claims. That was a quote from the article.

Usman Dawood's picture

My bad I didn't actually read the article lol. I only watched the video.

I hang my head in shame. Thank you for clarifying Michael. Much appreciated.

michaeljin's picture

It happens to all of us.

Mike Gregory's picture

Sorry but you have it so terribly wrong. MF has a look that nothing else has, Its even visible when printed at 3"x2".
Just go over to the DPR MF forum, They will educate you.
Where did they hide the winking emjoi ?

michaeljin's picture

Oh dear... without that winking emoji now you're likely to get people taking you seriously.

David Ha's picture

And where's the proof?

Mr Blah's picture

Can you show the math for this one? I'm not following...

Adriano Brigante's picture

Basically, this test says: "Look, if we take away all the differences, there's no difference." Well, duh. It's physics, not magic. Nobody said the 'medium format look' is some kind of mystical thing that appears out of nowhere when you use MF. That look comes from all the parameters you cancelled in your test. Simple as that.

Usman Dawood's picture

What are those parameters?

Adriano Brigante's picture

For instance, depth of field and field of view. With MF, you can get a wider field of view with a shallower depth of field. Of course, you can mimic that with the Brenizer method but it's still part of that MF look. This test doesn't allow to show this.
Also, the fact that there's less distortion in MF for a given field of view (especially a wide field of view) because the "absolute" focal length is longer. A 15mm lens on a small sensor will have more distortion than an equivalent 30 or 40mm lens in MF. Again, the test doesn't show that because of the lens choice.
There's also differences in the transitions from in-focus to out-focus parts of the image. This test doesn't show such transitions, so that's another parameter cancelled.
And one more thing for MF cameras with a leaf shutter: the out of focus areas (and the transitions) are rendered slightly differently, because the aperture varies during the exposure, from closed to full aperture and back to closed, instead of a constant aperture.

Usman Dawood's picture

The wider field of view with a shallower depth of field is not true. The reasons for this is because you have much wider aperture lenses available for full frame than you do for medium format. For that reason shooting with an equivalent lens will grant you the same results and you can also open up your lenses even wider than equivalent too.

There is no 50mm f/1.2 equivalent for medium format.

Lens distortion has nothing to do with the sensor size; unless of course, you're talking about perspective distortion. Perspective distortion is the same with any lens on any sensor. It's entirely dependant on your distance to the subject and has nothing to do with the equipment you're shooting with.
Also if you're shooting with an equivalent lens on a smaller sensor then you will be shooting from the same distance to your subject thereby negating any differences.

Leaf shutters are found in smaller sensor cameras too so that's not a factor of the sensor and the GFX does not have any native leaf shutter lenses.

In focus to out of focus is entirely dependant on the lens and optics so again has very little to do with the sensor.

If you're shooting with an equivalent lens then the results you produce will be pretty much identical.

The Brenizer method mimics large format; it's far beyond any digital medium format sensor.

Gordon Cahill's picture

All you did was prove that lowering every shooting parameter below the weakest point of the weakest sensor and reproducing them at 1920 pixels in an 8 bit space on the web nullifies what *all* the sensors in this test are capable of. Fstoopers has really gone to the dogs lately with these weak click bait tests and links to other peoples work dominating what used to be a great resource.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Maybe they did, by the nature of the scientific approach, but nevertheless, I found the content useful and entertaining. It proves that there are no insurmountable differences in certain conditions and it is fun to learn to intuit that differences to have a chance to enhance own craft. Nice work with MF you have. What was your fav image among 4?

Brian Stricker's picture

So you mean it is flawed because they showed images the same way roughly 99% or more of all images are presented now? The "yeah but" comments are the best. BTW, I have read for years, in countless forums and blogs, about the magical quality of "FF" so at any aperture or size it should be noticeable. That was the point of this test.

Christian Wilde's picture

The "magical" qualities of FF are dynamic range, resolution and shallow dof, all of which they completely eliminated, to the point that they could have smuggled a phone pic in there without anyone noticing. The way the test was done it was just pointless, because there is no significant finding.
Imho they should have kept at least the aperture at f2 on all cameras, or something similar.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Nevertheless, I've been able to pinpoint 6d, MF and MF3. They are not the same.

Gordon Cahill's picture

No Brian. That's not why it's flawed. It's flawed because the test removed all the things the test was meant to test. The differences are in focal length to aperture, resolution, dynamic range, blah blah blah....

What things like this does is prove that often a larger sensor is on no real benefit to a small one. I think tests that show what you have to do until the differences between formats becomes noticeable are useful and educational. This test doesn't try to show that there are no real world differences in out of camera jpegs at low resolution for use on the web.

Instead the conclusion here is stated as "Larger sensors do not produce different looking images on their own." Which is only true under conditions like these but not always when under different conditions. If I were to do some highlight recovery or large prints or heavy manipulation of the raw files the we'd have different results to the same question.

If you do tests you need to answer the question asked. Not a different one.

Gordon

Nate Reese's picture

yep.. my Focus goes as fast as LaFerrari if we stay under speed limit ...

David Penner's picture

He mentioned he used the 6d as the base. If he opened up the 6d as the "background" layer and stacked the others on top the metadata would show that the image was taken with the 6d.

michaeljin's picture

Can we all shut up and just take some photos?

Vincent Alongi's picture

This!

Kurt Boomer's picture

The one thing that just glares at me is the abysmal highlight details in the background. With the 6d looking like something out of my iphone. The GFX is worse than a Panasonic when looking at the grass and background tree. Im always shocked at the dynamic range claims by manufacturers. It seems they weigh it heavily on the shadow side of the spectrum.

Philip Philippidis's picture

To take advantage of the dynamic range, you still need to expose correctly...

stuartcarver's picture

The comments on the YouTube video are pathetic, pixel peeping gearheads arguing like their life depends on being right. Luckily it’s a bit more civilised on here.

Josh Creasy's picture

This may be the dumbest test I've ever seen. You purposely set out to make each image look as close as possible to begin with. Seriously? Why don't you do the opposite and set out to show how each sensor CAN show a difference between photos instead?

Just dumb man, really.

Arthur q's picture

I have a great project for you to do, instead of whining.................

Arthur q's picture

Please give the actual physical size of apertures to go with the article. focal length/size (f stop ) is of interest for exposure.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

This was the coolest and best test ever. I am not surprised at the results. Too many people are biased towards their own brand. Tony Northrup did a very nice test and it showed that the famous Canon colour science superiority is non-existent for many users.

Uneternal Van de Dood's picture

AFAIK there is no lens on Fuji or 645 format that produces a shallower DOF than lenses available for full frame cameras - for instance the Mitakon 50mm f/0.95.
The fastest lens I know for Fuji is the Mitakon 65mm f/1.4 which equals ~50mm f/1.1 on full frame.

jay holovacs's picture

I think this is more about 'how much difference does it make'? Will the extra finesse of the larger format make a difference in the real world? Sometimes yes, often, no. Reminds me of the automobile performance enthusiasts who worry about a few tenths of a second in 0-60 or in quarter mile. True differences exist... but in a trip to Walmart, or even a cross country road trip, the differences are usually immaterial. Purists will look at pixels in the corners and see real differences, but for the quality of the picture, for whether it sells or wins a prize, that is usually not the important thing.

Photos are mostly about emotional impact. The rest is detail. Pick any iconic photo from history. Does anyone really care about the vignetting or edge to edge resolution? They care about the subject matter, and how it comes through.

Some years ago, professional wine critics were shown to be easily fooled by the label, giving cheap (but fairly good) wines high ratings. Presumably we won't get to that stage.

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