Choosing The Right Camera Sensor When Buying A Digital Camera

Choosing The Right Camera Sensor When Buying A Digital Camera

When it comes to purchasing a digital camera, the topic of sensor size is likely to arise early on. You’ve probably encountered phrases such as “crop sensor,” “full frame,” and “micro four-thirds,” but may not fully comprehend their significance. So, what precisely do these phrases mean, and does the size of the camera sensor genuinely have a significant impact?

How the Sensor in Your Digital Camera Works

The mechanism of a digital camera relies on the sensor to gather light and translate it into an image. This sensor is a diminutive square situated within the camera body, positioned behind the lens. It consists of minuscule photoreceptors termed “photosites,” which pick up photons of light, subsequently undergoing conversion into the pixels that constitute an image.

Pixels serve as the tiniest discernible component of an image that can be displayed on a screen. Thus, they are used to quantify sensor resolution. A megapixel corresponds to one million pixels. Therefore, a sensor that boasts a 24.6-megapixel resolution can generate an image composed of roughly 24.6 million pixels.

Moreover, filters are fitted onto the photosites of a camera sensor, allowing them to capture light of different colors such as red, green, or blue. These colors are then combined to produce the final image, akin to a printer merging inks of different hues to produce a printed photograph.

In a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, the sensor is situated behind the mirror assembly, which swings aside to enable light passing through the lens to reach the sensor. In contrast, mirrorless cameras have the sensor located at the same spot as DSLRs, but lack a mirror assembly.

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How Important Is Camera Sensor Size?

To put it simply, yes, camera sensor size does matter. A larger sensor size implies a greater number of photoreceptors and the ability to gather more light. More light falling onto the sensor results in more information being captured, increasing the image’s sharpness and resolution.

Hence, even if the megapixel count is identical, a crop sensor (also referred to as an APS-C sensor) camera cannot deliver the same caliber of image as a full-frame camera.

The significance of sensor size is not limited to image quality alone. It also influences the following factors:

  • Image depth of field: Sensor size determines how much of an image is in focus and how much is blurred, particularly in the background.
  • Angle of view: Cropped sensor cameras capture a narrower field of view since the image is cropped.
  • Low-light performance: Smaller sensor sizes can cause more digital noise in low light conditions, resulting in reduced image quality.
  • Size of camera and lenses: APS-C and smaller camera bodies and lenses tend to be smaller in size.

Currently, some APS-C cameras on the market are high-performing, but the gap between APS-C and full frame cameras is still noticeable.

Moreover, larger sensors, such as full frame or medium format, generate additional data, enabling more flexibility in editing RAW image files later. This increased data facilitates the recovery of dark shadows, among other benefits.

What Is the Meaning of Crop Factor?

A sensor’s size influences how much of the scene it can capture when light enters the camera lens and strikes the sensor. A full frame sensor can capture the entire scene, whereas an APS-C sensor can only capture a portion of the same scene.

This is comparable to two individuals looking at an object through windows of varying sizes. The person peering through a smaller window has a more limited view and cannot see the entire object.

The crop factor of a sensor indicates the amount of the scene it can display. As the available image gathering area gets smaller with a smaller sensor, the amount of cropping increases. For instance, an APS-C sensor is roughly 1.3 times smaller than a full frame sensor, which implies that the field of view is reduced by a factor of 1.3, and any attached lens will also be impacted by this crop. If a 50mm lens built for a full frame camera is connected to a crop sensor camera, the resulting view would be about 65mm, as 50mm multiplied by 1.3 equals 65.

Camera Sensor Sizes Compared

Sensor size is a crucial factor to consider when purchasing a camera as it affects image quality, depth of field, angle of view, low-light performance, and the size of the camera and lenses. Smaller sensors pick up less of the projected image, leading to a “cropped in” view compared to larger sensors. The crop factor of a sensor determines the amount of the scene it lets you see, and different sensor sizes are suitable for different types of photography or videography. 

Nikon Z50

For beginners, DSLRs with APS-C sensors are recommended as they are cheaper and simpler to operate compared to full-frame or medium-format sensors, which are more expensive and offer more advanced features. When choosing a sensor size, it’s essential to consider your needs and budget.

1” And Smaller Sensors

The tiniest sensor size, which you can find in most smartphones and point-and-shoot digital cameras without interchangeable lenses, is the 1/2.3-inch sensor. Some high-end cameras with this sensor size still produce impressive image quality, such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10.

Although not suitable for professional work, these cameras are perfect for enthusiasts and can be ideal for casual photography while traveling. They are generally classified as mirrorless cameras, and they have a crop factor of 2.7X.

Four-Thirds/Micro Four-Thirds Sensors

Micro four-thirds cameras are popular among photographers and videographers who prioritize portability and versatility. These cameras are great for travel and street photography, and they also have advanced video capabilities. 

While micro four-thirds sensors may not match the resolution or low-light performance of larger sensors, they still offer impressive image quality and dynamic range. Additionally, the smaller sensor size allows for smaller and lighter camera bodies and lenses, making them a popular choice among photographers on-the-go.

APS-C/Crop Sensor

Just to clarify, “APS” actually stands for “Advanced Photo System,” which was a film format introduced in 1996. However, in digital photography, APS-C and APS-H are terms used to describe crop sensor sizes. 

APS-C sensors are used in cameras ranging from beginner DSLRs to fast-action shooters. The size of APS-C sensors can vary a bit between manufacturers, for example, Sony and Canon have slightly different sizes. Some higher-end APS-C sensors are also suitable for professional use. There are two types of crop sensors: APS-C and APS-H, both of which use active pixel sensors and have around a 1.3X crop factor.

Canon EOS R7

Full Frame Sensor

Full frame sensors are often found in professional-level cameras because they offer the highest image quality and are able to capture more light, resulting in better low-light performance. The Canon 6D is an example of a basic full frame camera, while the Canon R5 and Sony A1 are high-end models that offer very high resolution. 

Full frame sensors are called so because they are approximately the same size as a 35mm film frame – around 36mm by 24mm. They don’t have any crop factor, meaning that the field of view you get with a lens is exactly the same as the lens itself. So if you attach a 50mm lens, you will see a 50mm field of view, and if you use a 35mm lens, you will see a wider view and so on.

They also provide a wider field of view without any crop factor, making them ideal for wide-angle shots. However, full frame cameras can be quite expensive, so they may not be necessary for everyone, depending on their photography needs and budget.

Sony A1
Sony A1

Starting with an APS-C camera is common, and many people upgrade to full frame cameras after gaining experience, but this is not always necessary.

Medium Format

Medium format camera sensors are designed to capture extremely high levels of detail and are larger than full frame sensors. The idea is based on the larger medium format film frames. The Fuji GFX 100S, for instance, has over 100 megapixels of resolution. Medium format cameras are mostly used by photographers who want to capture detailed imagery such as landscapes or high-quality studio portraits.

These cameras are more expensive due to their specialized nature and larger size. They are not ideal for carrying around all day or shooting fast-paced action scenes, but newer mirrorless models like Hassleblad’s X1D II are more compact and offer greater portability.

What Size Sensor Should You Purchase?

As a photographer, it’s important to consider your goals before selecting a camera. You should weigh the pros and cons of each type of camera sensor and determine which one will best suit your needs. If you are looking for an affordable option and just want to take decent pictures, then an APS-C or micro four-thirds camera could be the way to go. However, if you are looking to take professional-level photos, then a full frame camera might be worth considering.

Ultimately, the best camera for you will be the one that meets your specific needs and preferences, rather than the one that is the most popular or has the most hype surrounding it. So, take your time to research and test out different cameras before making your final decision.