How small is too small - at what point is there no benefit to smaller sensors?

Ray Sachs

Not too far from Philly
Real Name
you should be able to figure it out...
With the recent introduction of the Pentax Q and now the announcement of the Nikon mirrorless camera, I'm starting to wonder at which point we've blasted through the point of diminishing returns...

I was drawn to m43 primarily because the cameras and lenses were notably smaller than DSLR, the IQ was good enough (and would get better), and I knew I didn't want to carry a big heavy DSLR setup around. When the Nex came around, I was interested, gave it a try, but ultimately concluded (upon seeing the more recent lens roadmap) that the size of the lenses that Sony was developing was still bigger than I wanted to deal with in a compact camera system. So I see the benefit of downsizing from APS sensors to m43 sensors if the lenses can be made notably more compact.

But, even in the m43 world, both Panasonic and Olympus have shown they're capable of making fully functional cameras in sizes that are frankly too small for me to be comfortable holding for long. I settled on the EPL3 from the recent batch of camera bodies (primarily because of its flip screen), but its smaller than I'd ideally like. As are the EMP1 and GF3). To me, the most comfortable cameras to shoot with for an extended period of time are more around the size of the EP3 (and 1 and 2 before), the GF1, the X100, etc. Small enough to be light and inconspicuous but large enough to hold and grip and make adjustments easily on the fly. The Ricoh GRD3 also works for me in this sense, but its an aberration - an amazing combination of interface and ergonomics that makes a very small camera feel incredibly comfortable to use for an extended period. I've had a Canon S90 and a slightly larger Panasonic LX5 and these are both great little cameras, but they were really both too small for my taste, with various ergonomic compromises resulting.

So, what is the benefit of these new even SMALLER ILC systems? I'm sure that as sensor technology continues to improve, these too will achieve results that are at least good enough and maybe better than that (although I question the Q with the tiniest sensor used in the cheapest P&S). But at what point is not much gained by going smaller? I know the lenses for the new systems will be even smaller than the m43 lenses, but with the exception of a couple of the telephoto zooms, the m43 lenses feel incredibly in-scale and small for these basically small cameras.

Is there a point where it no longer makes sense to try to make a fairly high quality camera system smaller? For me, I think we're there, but obviously a successful camera maker like Nikon doesn't lauch its own smaller sensor and build a system around it on a whim. They obviously have something in mind here. But I'm having trouble seeing the benefit, even if its incredibly well implemented...

What do others think?



....A sensor becomes "too small" when you can buy a larger sensor camera for the same price,........Nikon girlycam with "CX" sensor is too small becasue it's nearly the same price as a Sony NEX 7.......


Huntsville, AL
Real Name
I think it depends on a few things.

First, image quality of the sensor. It could be possible that a 2.7x could have as good of quality as a 2x crop sensor in terms of dynamic range and noise.

Second, lenses could be smaller and lighter or faster and sharper.

Thirds, what is the overall vision of the system. Where is the system going and where will it be?

And lastly, does the typical consumer care about DoF control?

Now, hypothetically, if the sensor is as good as micro four thirds in terms of image quality, Nikon could be onto something. Then the lenses have to come into play. Looking at the press releases, the lenses are about the size of mFT lenses and we have no idea how good they are. The weight of the overall system is the same as micro four thirds. The vision of the system is completly unknown. Since the smaller sensor has less DoF control, the consumer will have to determine how important it is.

My final conclusion from what I see is this:

If the sensor has the same IQ characteristics as mFT and the lenses are smaller, faster, cheaper than mFTand consumers don't care about DoF control, then Nikon has a winner.

Currently the sensor quality is unknown.

The lenses appear to be as large as mFT lenses, and quality is unknown.

Lastly, many P&S upgraders don't care about shallow DOF.

Overall, I think Nikon has an uphill battle, unless the sensor and lenses prove to be just far superior to traditional enthusiast compacts and is equal or better to mFT.


Top Veteran
Kiev, Ukraine
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To Nikon's credit, their sensor is 4 times as large as the sensor used in Pentax Q. It's also 2.6 times larger than the sensor used in Samsung EX1, which is satisfactory in terms of image quality.

If they somehow manage to create a camera that is as small as EX1 but twice as good, I may even buy it eventually. I usually use my EX1 either at 24 or at 72 mm, so 2 fast primes will be enough for me.


Hall of Famer
Interesting discussion, however, I can't simply say that a sensor is too small or not to small, I always have to ask: too small for WHAT? Because, honestly, I very much distinguish between compact and all-in-one cameras on the one hand, and camera SYSTEMS on the other. Compacts and all-in-ones I do not consider an investment. I'll buy them and then I'll use them until they break, get lost or I don't want to use them anymore.

With a system, it's a different story. I'll buy add-ons, lenses, upgrade the body several times but keep most lenses in the meantime etc. – for this kind of camera system, my demands are higher, and so is my time horizon. I certainly would never even consider INVESTING in anything less than APS-C or maybe (maybe!) MFT. Hence this Nikon announcement is joke for me, honestly my first reaction to it was to check if it's already April 1st again. Why in the world would I invest in a proprietary small sensor system with a few lenses? I can't find a reason.

Don't get me wrong, I love tiny cameras with crappy sensors, I have a room full of them, I use them frequently, heck, I just started an extensive report featuring the microsensoric Fuji HS20EXR here in this very forum:

However, while I start to think that the HS20 turns out more decent pictures than one might initially suspect (and I'll happily get an HS30 and 40 in the future), I'd never invest in a system with such a tiny sensor. So it really makes a difference, at least to me.


I think for Nikon the 1 fits in between the P&S cameras with tiny sensors and the DX DSLRs with APS sensors. It creates a full line of cameras in neatly organized categories (P&S, 1, DX, FX).

Now, the question is, not so much what is the benefit but what is the market? the P&Ss are slowly losing ground to smart phones. DSLR sales are steady but slowing. Are the tiny sensor CSCs the new P&Ss? A way to entice would be P&S buyers who would otherwise use a smart phone, and who don't need or want a DSLR, to buy an actual camera? That would imply a benefit to Nikon if that market adopts those cameras.

But those tiny sensor CSCs are not that easy to use (I've tried the Q), particularly with zoom lenses. Therefore, what benefit to the consumer (beyond cuteness)?

I think the somewhat larger serious compacts with larger sensors are the sweet spot. And I completely agree with your comments on the GRD3.

But how small is too small? I think history has shown that the masses are perfectly fine with their tiny sensor P&Ss and phone cameras.


I can see why Nikon have come into the mirrorless market, and I can also see why they have gone their own way.

Lots of consumers want a "proper" camera, with the provisos:

1. That it is very easy for them to use.
2. That it is not big and ugly.

Minimal Dof, Ultimate IQ, Wireless System flash etc... are really not important to this market. Just enough DoF to make portraits pop and optical zoom are the key points.

Yes, a lot of people still think in terms of x# optical zoom.

I agree it looks expensive, but people often equate price with quality (for better or worse), and the lens line is nothing like m4/3, but it will still take great pictures in the right hands, and with the right lens - it has a lot of zoom.

It might not make my pulse race, however; style, size, zoom, "Nikon", and interchangable lenses will shift units by the dozen.

Someday, somewhere, someone will make us die-hards a mirrorless full frame body for less than £5k. Won't they?


Derby, UK
I suspect this is market driven but not the market most on here are familiar with. In parts of Asia miniaturisation is very much the in thing, it's fashion rather than IQ that will sell these cameras and I think they will sell.
As for those of us not buying for fashion, it is as always about compromise. I'm grateful for the choice, which seems to be better than at any other time I've been interested. I've settled on LX5 size, it's sometimes a bit awkward in my hand, I'd love a viewfinder and would appreciate a bit more IQ and DR, but in the year I've had it I haven't once not had it with me when I wanted it, that's what compact means to me.

Ray Sachs

Not too far from Philly
Real Name
you should be able to figure it out...
OK, interesting discussion - thanks for all of your thoughts, but I think I have to take it all back in terms of the Nikon Gear. The Nikon system, despite the smaller sensor, seems to be quite large. The larger of the two cameras (the one with the EVF) is about the size of the GF1 and a good deal larger than the EPM1:

And the lenses, despite the small sensor, are a good deal larger (or at least heavier) than the m43 lenses. I saw this comparison on DPR and can't vouch for its accuracy, but assume there's something to it:

Nikon 10mm F2.8 77g
Sony 16mm F2.8 70g
Panasonic 14mm F2.5 55g
Nikon 10-100mmm F3.8-F5.6 530G
NEX 18-200mm F3.5-F6.3 524G
Panasonic 14-140mm F4-F5.8 460G
Olympus 14-150mm F4-F5.6 280G

That superzoom is heavier than the Pany 14-140, which is unacceptably heavy to me, and even heavier than the Sony 18-200, which is enormous!?!?!?

So, OK, if the gear isn't even smaller, who are they marketing this stuff to??? I was accusing them of making the cameras unnecessarily small - I guess the actual complaint should be that the sensor is unnecessarily small or the lenses too damn big! Again, I'm not dissing the quality - I don't know anything of it and I assume Nikon will make it at least good, if not better than that. But who is it supposed to appeal to in the sliding scale of people who care more about compactness than IQ or vice versa??



Top Veteran
When is small too small? When it no longer delivers desired quality and handling for the person who is asking the question.

The Canon S90 is a great little camera but the physical design is what makes it hard to handle. Give it the Ricoh pear skin surface and a contoured rubberized grip and lots more people would find it much easier to handle. Oh, I just described the physical form of the GRD. What do you know.

The Nikon 1 series is probably not going to win a lot of fans in the 'IQ is paramount' department, but will most likely be good for those who want a very fast and convenient way to capture images and video. If the marketing is to be believed, the 1 series AF is faster than any other Nikon camera, and the burst framerate is pretty darn good as well.


Hall of Famer
Brisbane, Australia
Real Name
Three years and four rival mirrorless ILC systems on, I am still yet to see evidence that Micro 4/3 isn't the sweet spot for the combination of weight, body size, lens size, and sensor size (considering IQ and DOF control). Having said that, even Olympus and Panasonic might have pushed the envelope too far with the latest E-PM1 and GF3; they are truly tiny cameras. There is a limit to how small you can go before handling and ergonomics start to bite you in the arse. I think that the original E-P1 and GF1 were right on the money for size, and the lenses balance beautifully with them. The Panny 14/2.5 looks about the size of a bottlecap, but for me the M Zuiko 9-18mm is the lens that blows me away in terms of size-&-weight-vs-specification.

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