Does size matter?

Ask around and you are likely to get an assortment of answers ranging from the fully positive to fully negative and everything in between. When the question is put in terms of photography, and more specifically sensor size, you’d think that it would easier to pin down what the majority thinks. Not the case…

Back in the days of film photography, the vast majority of cameras normal people used were what is now referred to as full frame, i.e. they operated with a roll of film whose negative was 24×36 mm in size. True, there were smaller and larger formats used, by the casual photographer sporting smaller compact cameras with 110 film for example or pros with medium or large format studio or other cameras respectively.

With the transition to digital, things changed. What most normal people ended up using (and do so today still) were cameras (and smartphones) with a host of different and smaller sensors. Full frame was reserved for more “pro” cameras and medium format (which is bigger than full oddly enough!) for studio work and recently even “more pro” cameras. Confusion…

This seems to be a polarizing subject in the microcosm of photography for some strange reason! People feel they have to “defend” their camera system-sensor size by exposing the weaknesses of other systems (smaller and larger) and overplaying the advantages (or perceived advantages) of the system they prefer. Arguments are flying left and right and, depending on where one stands, compelling cases are made by everyone.

It is not that hard to make sense of it all though. Actually, it is fairly simple and largely a matter of use cases and starting point. The starting point for this discussion should be that there is no sensor size that trumps all others in all aspects of photography. Each has both advantages and disadvantages that are well documented in the literature, so I will not go into this in any meaningful detail. So then, the matter becomes one of specific use cases: what one’s needs and genre or photography and shooting style demands, pretty much dictates where they should look for the best camera (and sensor size) for the job. And of course, because money is almost always an object, all this has to be out in financial perspective as well. Easy.

Where sensor size shines in in Image Quality (IQ for short). Larger sensor (usually) means larger pixels and this translates to increased light gathering capacity and that’s a good thing. What one is losing with larger sensors is speed of operation. So, if one is looking to invest into a new system or just buy a new camera, the first thing they should do is understand the use they will be making of this and try to get the best camera for this use case within their budget. A larger sensor system will not always be the right choice. Also, to put things further in perspective, the vast majority of people (not necessarily photography enthusiasts or pros) are best served with a smartphone and they actually choose to take pictures with that smartphone increasingly as time goes by. So this is discussion that refers to a minority of people that identify as enthusiast or pro photographers.

So, to put the whole matter in practical terms:

  • If you would like to take a picture of your kid or dog or aunt once in a while, use your smartphone.
  • If you’d rather have a dedicated camera for that same use case, there are plenty of compact cameras with small sensors (but larger than most smartphones) that will do the job and they won’t set you back a lot financially, plus they are small in physical size, so carrying them around most in not all of the time, should not be a problem.
  • If you would like to do general photography and invest in a couple of lenses (aka create a system) and you value quick operation and a rich feature set of stuff hat will make your life easier without getting too technical, then go for a m43 (micro four thirds) or APS-C camera.
  • If you value IQ more and are willing to go with larger, heavier and more expensive cameras and lenses to make sure you achieve it, then you should consider full frame.
  • If you do studio work or want the best IQ available at the expense of speed and cost (even more so that full frame), then you should consider medium format.

I am not discussing larger than medium format sensors here, because this would interest a minute amount of people. The usable spectrum then is from the smartphone sensor to the medium format sensor. One last point to make here is this: within each of these categories there is a huge amount of options and there are distinct differences.

WIthin the smartphone universe, there is a new crop of devices with extremely capable cameras that take advantage of computational photography and deliver stellar results for most people and use cases, while others are pretty rudimentary.

In the compact camera category, there is a large amount of cameras with different sensors (and some even sporting full frame!) and a different philosophy that may appeal to one user and deter another. Long zooms, pancake lenses, fixed lens vs. interchangeable, and the list goes on and on…

In the system camera category, the options are even more and things start getting more expensive as well. Extremely fast operation, weather sealing, multi shot capabilities, lenses for any and all need you may have, and that’s before getting into brand philosophy and they way each approaches the subject. So, for example, Olympus (OM Systems now) is seen as more rugged and highly configurable, with small lenses, fit for macro, outdoors, fast moving subjects. On the other hand, Canon or Nikon are designed to appeal to a wider audience, they are easier to configure and use (by and large), and they offer more options in terms of building an actual system.

Moving to full frame, the options are more limited, but still there are differences: now they are sticking full frame sensors to smaller bodies (Leica Q2 springs to mind!), but the game here is played mostly on the lens front. Depending on what one has already or their preference for the way a particular lens brand renders images, they can choose to go different ways.

On the medium format front, there are only a couple of players really, but even there, the differences of Fujifilm and Hasselblad or Leica are obvious.

It all comes down to personal choice once you realize in which braid category you should be looking in. So, does size matter? Well, the answer is a definite maybe. But you knew that already!