Bigger isn’t always better, but when it comes to camera sensors, the stereotype holds true. If you’re in the market for a new camera, or are comparing the quality of two cameras, the first place to look is inside, at the sensor.
Image quality is largely dependent on sensor size, meaning cameras with larger sensors will produce higher quality images than cameras with smaller sensors. This is due to the fact that larger sensors have larger pixels, which means they’re better at reducing noise, can record more information, have a larger dynamic range and perform better in low light.
There are a few major camera categories, each of which has a corresponding sensor size.
Medium Format cameras have the largest sensors, making them generally heavier and bulkier than their more modern counterparts. We might soon start to see an insurgence of more compact medium format cameras, with companies like Hassleblad releasing smaller mirrorless medium format options like the X1D. Within the medium format category exists a subcategory with three different sized sensors, ranging in size from about 43.8×32.9mm to 53.7×40.2mm.
The larger sensor and antiquity of these cameras makes them quite a bit more expensive than even many of the highest quality full frame DSLRs. The cheapest medium format option on the market is the Mamiya 645DF, which can cost as much as $6,000, making medium format cameras accessible only to extreme gear junkies and serious professionals.
This category includes traditional 35mm film cameras, modern DSLRs that have become the professional photography norm and the newly popular mirrorless cameras. 35mm sensors are generally 36mm x 24mm, the same dimensions as the type of film popularly used before digital cameras came on the scene. Some great options include the Canon 5D Mark III, Nikon D810 and .
This sensor is slightly smaller than the full frame. Canon’s first launched its EOS line in 2001 with the revolutionary Canon EOS-1D. They made four more models before discontinuing the series in 2009.
The APS-H sensor is slightly bigger than the APS-C sensor that most modern day Canon DSLR cameras have, but it’s still a smaller option than the full-frame. APS-H sensors are about 27.9mm x 18.6, making them just a few millimeters larger than their other crop sensor brother.
The APS-C sensor is the most commonly found crop sensor option in both digital and mirrorless cameras today. APS-C sensors in Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm, Pentax and Sigma cameras are about 23.6mm x 15.6mm, with Canon sensor slightly smaller at about 22.3 x 14.9mm, giving these cameras a crop factor of about 1.5 – 1.6. In this range, try the Nikon D500, Sony Alpha a6300, Fujifilm X-T1, or Canon EOS 7D Mark II.
This sensor size makes for an exceptionally popular camera option with a range of models that come in under $1,000. Crop sensors are a great option for beginning or amateur photographers looking for a solid, entry level camera.
Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds
The Four Thirds System was created by Olympus and Panasonic in an attempt to make a range of lenses and bodies from different producers compatible with one another. This was likely done as a way to stay competitive with the more popular Nikon and Canon cameras, which are only compatible with Nikon or Canon specific lenses. These sensors are about 17.3mm x 13mm, giving them a crop factor of about 2, with a 4:3 image aspect ratio.
In 2008, Olympus and Panasonic created the Micro Thirds Format System for mirrorless cameras. Although these sensors are the same size as those in the Four Thirds System, the compact, mirrorless option emits the movable mirror, pentaprism and other mechanisms found in bulkier DSLRs. The Micro Four Thirds System also has a 4:3 image aspect ratio, but can record images at 16:9 and 1:1 as well. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 is a great option.
1” Type (and below)
Sensors at about 1.5 to 1-inch or smaller are generally only found in smartphone or point and shoot cameras. These are the small, compact cameras that don’t offer interchangeable lenses. Although these options have generally produced lower quality results than the more expensive cameras, newer high-end compact cameras like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000 and the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX10 III produce great results using only a 1-inch sensor. Even more exciting options are drones! Try the DJI Phantom 4 or 3DR Solo.
With so many camera options available today, deciding what to buy or where to start can be a daunting task, but a simple sensor size comparison can get you off to a great start.