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Sensor Size Doesn’t Matter

Discussion in 'Open Gear Talk' started by ZDP-189, May 9, 2011.

  1. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    Apr 18, 2011
    Conventional wisdom says that the camera with the biggest sensor will be the best. That’s such a gross oversimplification as to be almost a lie.

    Conventional Wisdom

    Conventional wisdom says that the larger the pixel sensor element size, the cleaner and more noise free the image will be. Therefore, there has been a trend over the last few years to increase the sensor size.


    Almost all high end compact cameras now use 1/1.7” sensors at a minimum. The Lumix DMC-LX5, Canon G12, Nikon P7000, GR Digital III and Olympus XZ-1 all sport 1/7” sensors. Now we’re at the point where we have a whole new class of compact cameras with APS-C sensors. Cameras in the Super Compact class include Sigma’s DP1x and DP2x, Leica’s X1 and the new Fujifilm X100.

    Problems with Large Sensors

    Large sensors are not without their own problems. First they are expensive. APS-C compacts typically cost more than a thousand dollars.

    Secondly the whole optical system has to be physically scaled up so they’re hardly compact anymore. I can barely fit a Micro Four Thirds Lumix GF2 with even 14mmm pancake lens into my pocket. Likewise the X100 is a tight fit. For me portability is the whole point of compact cameras. Without compactness, I may as well leave it on the shelf next to the DSLR.

    The third problem lies with image quality. I can just about live with noise, but I can’t save a picture with poor focus. Slow and inaccurate focus is a bit of a problem with all the super compacts. The large sensor is compounded by fast lenses that give shallow depths of field and show up focusing inaccuracy. Compare this to the Ricoh GRDIII. You can be very sloppy with the focus and the wide lens, and smaller sensor is more forgiving.

    Small sensors are improving faster than large sensors.

    All would be forgiven if the super compacts made up for it in image quality. The X100 and its peers deliver in this respect. However, I’d be kidding myself if I said that most of my photos ever got printed or used at the highest resolution. At screen resolutions, it can be hard to justify the difference in price and size compared to the XZ-1 or GRD. I tend to use a DSLR for more serious shooting, technical shooting. A compact sits in my pocket as a backup or a walkabout camera. Viewed this way, the results are uncomfortably close between the ‘serious compacts’ and ‘super compacts’. Likewise, smaller sensor cameras seem to be catching up too. You can get much better performance from a 1/2.5” or 1/2.3” these days than I remember getting from my old IXUS 65.

    Amazingly this image quality advanced hand in hand with increased resolution. Sensor testing authority DxOMark explains it thus: “increasing resolution results in additional information that evenly balances the added noise due to smaller pixel size”. As a result, DxOMark says, small sensor cameras are beginning to catch up with large sensor cameras in terms of image quality.

    Yes, the X100 can take outstanding low light images, but I think that under the majority of real world conditions, I actually get better low light images with a smaller sensor. By a real world condition, I mean seeing something I want to photograph, whipping it out and quickly taking the shot.

    Some Parting Thoughts

    What does this all mean? Compact cameras are coming into their own. Over the next few years, I think we’ll see many DSLR owners come to rely more and more on their compact cameras. The new super compacts will grow as a class, but for many people the smaller 1/7” format is more practical and certainly cheaper.
    • Like Like x 9
  2. soundimageplus

    soundimageplus Top Veteran

    Jul 6, 2010
    Well certainly small sensor compact cameras are smaller and cheaper, there's no denying that, but are you trying to say that the quality you get from those sensors is ever going to match sensors from m4/3 up?

    If you're happy with the kind of quality and portability equation you get from them, then thats fine but I think trying to say that quality difference is unimportant or insignificant (if thats what you are saying) is misleading. I certainly am not and probably never will be happy with the kind of quality micro sensor compacts produce.

    Also regarding some of your points. I've used m4/3 and other CSC's extensively including X1 and X100 and I can't say I've experienced focusing innacuracies. Indeed the X1 in particular is renown for its accurate (though slow) focus. You talk about not being able to see the difference on a screen. Well again, I can see a substantial difference in quality between micro sensors and m4/3 and APS-C on my screens. I also have no idea how you get better low light images with a smaller sensor. Do you use a magic wand? I also don't see the difference between different kinds of photography. You indicate you use a DSLR for "serious" photography. How would you define "non-serious" photography? Family? Friends? You define it as a walkabout camera - so you don't take "serious" photographs walking about?

    As I said, if thats what you're happy with then fine, but if you're trying to say we're all wasting our time and money buying cameras like the X1 and X100, because cameras like the LX5 and XZ-1 are just as, or nearly as good as them, then thats not fine, because it just isn't true. Just because you can't see it or don't want it doesn't mean that quality difference doesn't exist.

    • Like Like x 9
  3. Bron

    Bron New Member

    May 5, 2011
    Good post. I've been using a G9 as my primary camera for several years now, even professionally, documenting fine art. Image quality is very much a moving target. The quality of even the G9 at 1600, compared to film, is amazing. I'm even using my iPhone camera more, as the result can be very good, and it is with me more than any other camera.
    • Like Like x 3
  4. pictor

    pictor All-Pro

    Jul 14, 2010
    It is one thing to say that the image quality of a given camera is good enough for ones purpose, but it is a completely different thing to say that there are no significant differences in image quality at all.
    • Like Like x 7
  5. olli

    olli Super Moderator Emeritus

    Sep 28, 2010
    Metro Manila
    Thanks for your thoughts Dan. I would agree that the differences in many situations are nowhere near as great as is often made out, but I think there are visible differences, and as you move towards more challenging situations sensor size - among other things - does become a factor.

    Regarding your three problems with large sensor compacts, I'm going to disagree with all of them. First, regarding price high end compacts typically run between $450-500. Comparing these to the X1 and the X100 is unreasonable. The DP2x is $700. The M43 cameras and the NEX cameras which are large sensor compacts can be picked up at prices starting from around $500.

    Second, while I accept that these are not pocketable cameras for me this is irrelevant. I never put cameras in my pocket because I know what other junk has been in my pockets. For me the bigger issue is weight and while the large sensor compacts do weigh more than the high end compacts they still weigh a lot less than a DSLR.

    Finally, I'm a little confused by your claims regarding poor focusing. All of these cameras, whether small sensor, large sensor, CSC use contrast detect autofocus off the main sensor. There is no basis for claiming that a larger sensor will produce poorer focusing results.

    I should emphasise that I'm not criticising high end compacts - I have one. I also have a NEX and a DSLR. I'm happy with the results from all of them and have no plans to ditch any of them.
    • Like Like x 7
  6. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    Apr 18, 2011
    For 'serious stuff' I mean where I have to set up gear and plan a shot. This may mean studio lighting or a landscape/ tilt-shift commercial real estate shot. I use a 5D Mark II for anything requiring lighting or where precise focus, shallow depth of field or simply where I am required to project a "professional appearance". My backup for events is a crop frame EOS for commonality of lenses. It's good experience working with my pro friends. I don't do hardly any sport stuff so never needed a 1D series or a 7D. I am much happier with a compact camera taking photos at my fancy.

    Being a gear-head I have a fair few compacts to choose from. Some of the recent purchases include an X100, XZ-1 and a GRDIII. Tonight I have in my pocket a little DMC-FX38. It sounds like a random assortment, but my choice is never random. It depends on anticipated lighting, location and what I expect to photograph.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you say you have to balance compactness and capability. There are other factors besides pure camera technical imaging quality in making a good picture.

    There are some things none of the APS-C cameras are particularly good at. The GRDIII will beat any one on the quickdraw for example. When I look at the pictures from the Ricoh vs the Fujifilm, the Ricoh are always the most interesting.

    In the past, I had always picked the camera on the basis of pure IQ, but now I realise that cameras are more practical in the smaller sensor format and the difference in IQ rarely justifies the higher price, greater size and less robust focussing of APS-C sensor super compacts.
    • Like Like x 3
  7. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    Apr 18, 2011
    Postscript: An interesting set of questions for soundimageplus and all the readers is what's your most used compact camera, what's the sensor size, are you happy with the image quality and do you think it's worth the extra price and bulk for a 4/3 or APS-C sensor could offer?

    I used to think so. My daily carry was a GF1 and 20/1.7. Then I discovered the GRD. Even the X100 can't supplant it. If I lost the X100 I wouldn't replace it for a year or two. I misplaced my GX for a fortnight and nearly bought a new one on day 3. Had it been the GRD, I'd have caved in. I'd have beeen willing to sell the X100 to raise the cash. The GRD is miles behind the X100 in IQ but ahead in EQ.

    The IQ trend is clear though. Small sensors are improving faster than larger sensors. They're already good, as good as my beloved 135 film in most situations. Tomorrow they'll be better still.
    • Like Like x 3
  8. soundimageplus

    soundimageplus Top Veteran

    Jul 6, 2010
    Shortly after I posted my original reply Amin suggested that I write a piece putting the opposite point of view, which I'm in the process of doing. Hopefully I've have it done tomorrow. I'm currently editing some property pictures myself, done for an estate agent (and shot on a GH2 + 7014 zoom), so when I finish those, I'll get onto the case for "Serious" Serious Compacts. Along the lines of "Are larger sensor compacts worth the extra money and effort". Watch this space!
    • Like Like x 4
  9. soundimageplus

    soundimageplus Top Veteran

    Jul 6, 2010
    Well yes, but producing a decent quality image can only enhance a good picture, it certainly won't detract from it.

    Look at the pictures Don (Streetshooter) produces. Are you telling me (or him) that the m4/3, NEX and Fuji cameras he uses are slowing him down? It doesn't look like it to me.

    In what way are the Ricoh pictures "more interesting"?

    I absolutely, totally and unequivocally disagree with you, and tomorrow will attempt to justify that.
    • Like Like x 5
  10. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    Apr 18, 2011
    Great, I very much look forward to reading that. It's not my intent to convince, but to stimulate thought and discussion.
    • Like Like x 3
  11. ZDP-189

    ZDP-189 Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/ZDP189">@Z

    Apr 18, 2011
    For my part, I'll post a couple of sample images that I took a month ago in Venice of San Giorgio Maggiore from the Gondola station in front of St Mark's Square. I'll attach unretouched but resized images and provide links to the JPEGS as shot in camera.

    Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1, plus Panasonic Lumix G Vario 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH OIS
    Full image (click here) 4.3MB
    f/5.6, 13Sec, ISO 100, 24mm (112mm), +0EV bias, pattern metering

    Olympus XZ-1
    Full image (click here) 4.0MB
    f/5.6, 13Sec, ISO 100, 45mm (93mm), +0EV bias, pattern metering

    Both photos were taken without a tripod, but with the camera sat on the dock propped in position. I am slightly unhappy with the XZ-1 focus, but I had trouble finding infinity and relied on AF. The Lumix's lens was easy to manually focus to infinity. White balance in the Olympus needs tweeking. However, I think the 1/1.7" sensor did pretty well considering the long exposure. Yes, there is some quality difference. Whether it is acceptable is for each of us to decide.

    BTW, Readers may consider both images public domain, but don't abuse my bandwidth as my hosting is limited.
    • Like Like x 3
  12. Djarum

    Djarum All-Pro

    Jul 10, 2010
    Huntsville, AL
    I love being an amature and someone without disposable income to fund my GAS addiction, lol. While all these topics are interesting, for me, I have one camera I use, and thats my PEN. Thats it. Most of the shots that don't turn out have nothing to do with the Image Quality or sensor of the camera, rather, user/photographer error.

    I think I like Don's attitude. Its about whether the gear gets in the way or not.
    • Like Like x 3
  13. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee All-Pro

    Jul 8, 2010
    I've come round to the fact that the picture matters more than the IQ, therefore sensor size is not as relevant. This is in an amateur perspective where I'm not doing it for money, only for my own pleasure. I am continually amazed at what my Ricoh GRD3 can do. But I attribute a good chunk of its IQ to lens quality. That does matter.
    • Like Like x 3
  14. Lili

    Lili Hall of Famer

    Oct 17, 2010
    Dallas, TX
    Except for the pricing point there is much to be said in Dan's post.
    I will add my zwei pfennig here, however.
    I do find the compacts much easier to take with.
    The best camera is is the one you have with you.
    My Nokia N8 phone cam has a 1/1.6" sensor; the biggest in the phone world and in good light can be used to create superb imagery and I take it everywhere.
    Go here for the original. 100% image
    Smaller sensors allow one to supply greater zoom range, ala' the F550EXR, or faster apertures; the XZ1 or TL500/EX1. They are still very portable with with these lenses.
    Such lenses even on the PENs would be huge by comparison.
    I will not go so far as to say the larger sensors are useless.
    Far from it, Nature and lendscape photographers need as much IQ as they can get, esp for print media.
    For most of us, printing a10 or less or for web use, the high-end smaller sensor cameras are superb combinations of versatility and portability.
    • Like Like x 1
  15. Lili

    Lili Hall of Famer

    Oct 17, 2010
    Dallas, TX
    Agreed double time!!!!
    • Like Like x 1
  16. texascbx

    texascbx Veteran

    Jul 10, 2010
    Canton Texas
    What drove me to my Sony SLT-A33 with it's 14Mp APS-C sensor was the performance of my Panny G1 at 800 ISO as far as noise is concerned. I bought a Panny FZ100 and it was horrible with noise. Great little cam, just a really crappy pinhead sensor with way to many Mp stuffed into it. I could not believe they put all the features that the FZ100 has into the cam and ruin it with a super noisy sensor. Plus the contrast auto focus while faster than ever still can't hold a candle to a decent phase detect system. The focus on my G1 compared to the phase detection on my Sony is just not even fair.

    I think it will be a few more years until a pinhead sensor is as good as a really good APS-C sensor. These new back lit sensors they keep talking about may be better than a non back lit sensor, but they are still way behind just making a bigger sensor.
    • Like Like x 2
  17. BBW

    BBW Administrator Emeritus

    Jul 7, 2010
    betwixt and between
    Dan, I'm afraid that I have to respond to your comment
    I respect your right to think that Ricoh photos are "always the most interesting" though I couldn't possibly agree with it since I've seen plenty of great Fuji photos, as well as Ricoh photos...but what does this have to do with size? Aren't you really talking about what interests you here? What your aesthetic likes and dislikes are? I don't think that this has anything to do with the size of a camera's sensor.

    I believe people should buy and use the cameras they want to and enjoy them for their own enjoyment and needs, whatever the size is.
    • Like Like x 1
  18. stratokaster

    stratokaster Top Veteran Subscribing Member

    Dec 27, 2010
    Kiev, Ukraine
    My Samsung EX1 produces RAW files of very high quality. Of course, they're worse than what I get from my Panasonic G2, but the difference isn't as great as I thought it would be. I'd say EX1 at ISO 400 is very slightly worse than G2 at ISO 800... And it actually has more headroom in highlights. I can pull quite a bit of detail back using Lightroom's highlight recovery slider.
    • Like Like x 1
  19. Luckypenguin

    Luckypenguin Hall of Famer

    Dec 24, 2010
    Brisbane, Australia
    I've bit my tongue on many an argument over at mu-43 where members like to justify their choice of a smaller camera by dumping on larger SLRs, so it's quite funny to hear the m4/3 cameras referred to as large and bulky, LOL.
    • Like Like x 3
  20. Lili

    Lili Hall of Famer

    Oct 17, 2010
    Dallas, TX
    LOL, very true. In my case to get an equally fast lens on my PEN I would have to use an adapter and large lens. The kit would be larger and heavier tho still far less than my former K100D APS-C
    • Like Like x 1

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