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Compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, 4/3, 1″-Type

To optimize the portability of a serious travel camera, consider APS-C sensor size or as small as 1-inch Type sensor (recommended here: BUY>CAMERAS). The archaic inch-sizing of sensors is clarified in the illustration and table below with relative sizes and millimeters.

Recent digital sensor improvements have shrunk cameras and increased zoom ranges while preserving image quality. These days, evocative images can clearly be captured with most any decent camera, even as small as a good iPhone or Nokia Lumia smartphone. But if you ever want large prints and more control, get a bigger camera. For a given year of technological advance, a camera with physically bigger sensor area should tend to capture better image quality (by gathering more light), but at the cost of larger-diameter, bulkier lenses than a smaller-sensor camera system.

In the illustration below, compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″ and 1/2.5” Type.

Compare digital camera sensor sizes overlaid together: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, and more.

Compare digital camera sensor sizes overlaid together: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″, 1/2.5” Type. (Above, the relative sensor proportions are true, but greatly enlarged for easier viewing.)

Examples of great travel cameras with optimal sensor size

The best two-pound 11x zoom travel system of 2014-15 is Sony A6000 (12 oz, with 24mp APS-C sensor) with Sony 18-200mm OSS lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv). Improving its quality across the same zoom range would require a heavier set of prime (non-zoom) lenses or a larger-sensor camera (such as the full-frame-sensor Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless) requiring bulkier lenses. Click here for my latest camera recommendations.

From 2012 to the present, I have been traveling with the earlier mirrorless Sony NEX-7 camera with 18-200mm lens with APS-C sensor (23.5 x 15.6 mm) and electronic viewfinder (EVF). I also carry a pocket-sized Sony DSC-RX100 camera, which justifies its price premium by ingeniously packing a 1-inch Type sensor (13.2 x 8.8 mm) with a light-gathering area several times bigger than its peers. The revolutionary 20-megapixel Sony RX100 captures great wide-angle close-focus shots (macro) and also landscape photo quality beating my 3-times-bulkier camera of 2009:

Paradigms are shifting fast. In 2014, new technology slashes camera size and weight (compared to DSLR systems) for serious 810mm-equivalent-lens photography of sports, birds, and wildlife:

I upgrade my digital cameras every 2-4 years because the latest devices beat the image quality or abilities of older models.

How to compare cameras

For me, yearly advances as of 2014-15 put the sweet spot for a serious travel camera between 1”-Type and APS-C size sensors. Most cheaper compact cameras have smaller but noisier sensors such as 1/2.3″ Type (6.17 x 4.56 mm) — tiny enough to miniaturize a superzoom lens (above 15x zoom range), but poor for capturing dim light or for enlarging prints beyond A4 or letter size.

Smartphones have even tinier sensors such as 1/3.0″ Type (4.8 mm x 3.6 mm) in iPhone 5S. Top smartphone cameras (as in the Nokia Lumia 1020 and Apple iPhone 5S of 2013 in the table below) have improved miniature sensors to the point where citizen journalists can capture newsworthy photos with image quality (debatably) good enough for fast sharing and quick international publication.

Click here for a great perspective on how far image quality has progressed from early DSLR to 2014 smartphone cameras. While I don’t use a smartphone camera myself, evocative images can clearly be captured with most any decent camera. The “best” travel camera is the one that you are willing to carry. But tiny-sensor cameras have considerable limitations compared to physically larger cameras in terms of print enlargement, autofocus speed, blurred performance in dim or indoor light, and so forth.

More details:

The non-standardized fractional-inch sensor sizing labels such as 1/2.5-inch Type and 1/1.7″ Type confusingly refer to antiquated 1950s-1980s vacuum tubes. When you see those archaic “inch” size labels, instead look up the actual length and width in millimeters reported in the specifications for each camera:

Table of camera sensor size, area, and diagonal crop factor relative to 35mm full-frame

Sensor Type Diagonal (mm) Width (mm) Height (mm) Sensor Area (in square millimeters) Full frame sensor area is x times bigger Diagonal crop factor* versus full frame
1/3.2″ (Apple iPhone 5 smartphone 2012) 5.68 4.54 3.42 15.50 55 7.61
1/3.0″ (Apple iPhone 5S smartphone 2013) 6.00 4.80 3.60 17.30 50 7.2
1/2.5″ Type 7.18 5.76 4.29 24.70 35 6.02
1/2.3″ Type (Canon PowerShot SX280HS, Olympus Tough TG-2) 7.66 6.17 4.56 28.07 31 5.64
1/1.7″ (Canon PowerShot S95, S100, S110, S120) 9.30 7.44 5.58 41.51 21 4.65
1/1.7″ (Pentax Q7) 9.50 7.60 5.70 43.30 20 4.55
2/3″ (Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone with 41mp camera, Fujifilm X-S1, X20, XF1) 11.00 8.80 6.60 58.10 15 3.93
Standard 16mm Film Frame 12.7 10.26 7.49 76.85 11 3.41
1” Type (Sony RX100 & RX10, Nikon CX, Panasonic FZ1000) 15.86 13.20 8.80 116 7.4 2.72
Micro Four Thirds, 4/3 21.60 17.30 13 225 3.8 2.00
APS-C: Canon EF-S 26.70 22.20 14.80 329 2.6 1.62
APS-C: Nikon DX, Sony NEX/Alpha DT, Pentax K 28.2 – 28.4 23.6 – 23.7 15.60 368 – 370 2.3 1.52 – 1.54
35mm full-frame (Nikon FX, Sony Alpha/Alpha FE, Canon EF) 43.2 – 43.3 36 23.9 – 24.3 860 – 864 1.0 1.0
Kodak KAF 39000 CCD Medium Format 61.30 49 36.80 1803 0.48 0.71
Hasselblad H5D-60 Medium Format 67.08 53.7 40.2 2159 0.40 0.65
Phase One P 65+, IQ160, IQ180 67.40 53.90 40.40 2178 0.39 0.64
IMAX Film Frame 87.91 70.41 52.63 3706 0.23 0.49

* Crop Factor: Note that a “full frame 35mm” sensor/film size (about 36 x 24 mm) is a common standard for comparison, having a diagonal field of view crop factor of 1.0. The debatable term crop factor comes from an attempt by 35mm-film users to understand how much the angle of view of their existing full-frame lenses would narrow (increase in telephoto power) when mounted on digital SLR (DSLR) cameras which had sensor sizes (such as APS-C) which are smaller than 35mm.

With early DSLR cameras, many photographers were concerned about the loss of image quality or resolution by using a digital sensor with a light-gathering area smaller than 35mm film. However, for my photography, APS-C-size sensor improvements easily surpassed my scanning of 35mm film by 2009.

An interesting number for comparing cameras is “Full frame sensor area is x times bigger” in the above table.

Raw format and advantages of large sensors over small

Cameras with larger sensors can achieve a shallower depth of focus than smaller sensors, a feature which movie makers and portrait photographers like to use for blurring the background (at brightest aperture setting, smallest F number value) to draw more attention to the focused subject. Conversely, smaller-sensor cameras like the Sony RX100 (version III) tend to be much better at capturing close-focus (macro) shots with great depth of focus (especially at wide angle), at ISO up to 800. But the macro advantages of small-sensor cameras can quickly diminish in dim light or when shooting at ISO higher than 800.

Landscape photographers often prefer to capture a deep depth of focus, which can be achieved with both small and large sensor cameras (often optimally sharp using a middle aperture F number value such as f/4 to f/5.6 on 1-inch Type sensor or f/8 on APS-C, while avoiding the diffraction of small pupil openings at high F number values such as f/22 on APS-C or full-frame).

To maximize raw dynamic range of brightness values from bright to dark, use base ISO (around ISO 100 or 200 in most digital still cameras), rather than higher ISO settings which amplify noise (blotchiness at the pixel level, most-visibly in shadows). However, using the latest full-frame sensors at high ISO values 6400+ can capture unprecedentedly low noise and open new possibilities for dim-light action photography at hand-held shutter speeds, indoors or at night.

Without the help of a flash, night and dim indoor photography is best with a full-frame sensor to gather more light with less noise. Low-noise night photography is usually best shot on a tripod at slow shutter speeds in raw format between ISO 100 and 800 (or as high as 1600-3200 on the latest large sensors).

For a given year of technological advance, cameras with larger sensors typically capture a wider dynamic range of brightness values from bright to dark per image than smaller sensors, with less noise. Camera raw format allows editing recovery of several stops of highlight and shadow detail which would be lost (truncated) in JPEG file format (if overexposed or underexposed). Alternatively, PC software or camera firmware using HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging lets any size sensor greatly increase an image’s dynamic range by combining multiple exposures; but for me, the great dynamic range of a single raw file (from APS-C sensor) usually makes shooting extra images for HDR unnecessary.

Despite advanced circuitry, cameras are not smart enough to know which subjects are supposed to be white, black, or midtone in brightness. By default, all cameras underexpose snowy scenes and overexpose highlights within a predominantly dark scene. To correctly expose for all tones, you need to lock exposure upon an actual midtone (such as middle-green grass or a gray card) in the same light as your framed subject.

For greatest editing flexibility, rather than shooting JPEG format, serious photographers should record and edit images in raw format, which is supported in advanced cameras but often not in small-sensor devices. Editing raw format fully recovers badly-exposed images − allowing you to “point and shoot” more freely than with JPEG. Even so, I carefully shoot to expose each histogram to the far right while avoiding truncation of highlights, in order to capture the highest signal-to-noise ratio in each scene (close to base ISO 100 or 200). I typically first shoot a test shot on automatic Aperture-preferred priority, inspect the histogram, check any blinking highlight warnings, then compensate subsequent shots using Manual Exposure (or temporary Exposure Lock grabbed from the scene). Tonal editing of JPEGs can quickly truncate color channels or accumulate round-off errors, often making the image appear pasty, pixelated, or posterized. White Balance (Color Balance) is easily adjustable after shooting raw files, but tonal editing often skews colors oddly in JPEG. 12-bit Raw format has 16 times the tonal editing headroom and color accuracy compared to JPEG (which has only 8 bits per pixel per red, green, or blue color channel). In their favor, automatic point-and-shoot JPEG camera exposure modes get smarter every year, making advanced larger cameras less necessary for many people.

How can we distinguish the image quality captured by different cameras? Images are best compared at a normalized pixel level (with fine detail examined on a monitor as if printed with equal overall image size) after shooting side-by-side in the field with comparable lens and shutter speed settings. Consider two sibling full-frame-sensor cameras:

  1. Sony Alpha A7S (12 mp of large-bucket photosites optimized for high ISO, low light, and videography plus stills, new in 2015) versus
  2. Sony Alpha A7R (36 megapixels of smaller-bucket photosites optimized for high resolution, new in 2014)

Despite its tinier but denser photosite buckets (also called sensels or pixel wells for catching light photons), the 36mp Sony Alpha A7R beats the dynamic range of 12mp Sony Alpha A7S in a normalized comparison of raw files. While both cameras spread their photosites across the same surface area of a full-frame sensor, the 36mp A7R trumps the 12mp A7S for exposure latitude flexibility in raw post-processing at ISO 100 through 6400. Overall image quality of the 12mp A7S doesn’t beat the A7R until ISO 12,800 and higher (but only in the shadows through midtones under low-light conditions). Sony A7S is better for low-light videographers, whereas A7R is better for low-light landscape photographers who value high resolution and dynamic range.

For travel photography, a full-frame-sensor camera costs you extra money and bulky size. If you rarely shoot higher than ISO 3200 and seldom print images larger than 2 or 3 feet in size, then consider a cheaper and smaller APS-C-sensor camera with excellent dynamic range and advanced autofocus capabilities such as a 24mp Sony A6000.

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5 thoughts on “Compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, 4/3, 1″-Type

  1. Gautam Lakra says:

    I am also new to photography , and good in painting oil canvasses , so while I am good at composition , my cameras , which I bought recntly because I became a paraplegic due to an accident , I have taken decent pictures with both , but like you have stated m the sharpness, or details seem to be missing at the telephoto end and not so good in low light. I sell my photographs , and people do buy my pictures , but I would like to further improve. Money is always a constraint, but my question is that what I have read so far , btw , I have two sony cameras, HX 300 and HX 60 V, the 1200 zoom on my HX 300 would actually translate to 215 mm on a full frame. Does it mean that 215 on a full frame means the same as 1200 mm on my sony HX 300 ? Thanks a lot in advance !

    • Tom Dempsey says:

      Thanks for your question. When we speak of “equivalent focal length in terms of full frame”, we’re only referring to the equivalent angle of view captured by the sensor (such as seen through the electronic viewfinder). “Equivalency” lets us compare the angle of view of cameras having different-sized sensors.

      Perhaps less confusing is to express angle of view in terms of degrees (measured diagonally across the frame), instead of “equivalency” (but comparisons to full-frame 35mm remain a legacy from the hallowed 35mm film era).

      A zoom lens equivalent to 24mm – 1200mm on a full frame 35mm film camera has a diagonal angle of view of about 84 degrees at wide angle and 2 degrees at longest telephoto (assuming focus is at infinity, image has a 3:2 aspect ratio, and other assumptions).

      The front lens of your Sony HX300 is labeled with the following numbers for the zoom’s brightest aperture and actual focal length: 2.8-6.3 / 4.3-215mm
      which means that it actually zooms from 4.3mm focal length (at wide angle) to 215 mm (at longest telephoto), with brightest aperture ranging from f/2.8 to f/6.3 as you zoom.
      Focal length can be thought of as the distance from the sensor to the optical center of the lens.
      The Sony HX300 has a “crop factor” of 5.64 when compared to the standard of full frame. In other words, its 1/2.3″ Type sensor (measuring ~8.80 x 6.60mm) is about 5.64 times smaller diagonally than a full-frame (“35mm” size) sensor. For a camera with a full-frame sensor to detect the same angle of view seen by the Sony HX300, it would need a 24mm – 1200mm zoom. This is calculated as follows:
      — a wide angle lens of 4.3mm multiplied by 5.64 crop factor = ~ 24mm on a full frame camera
      — a telephoto lens of 215mm multiplied by 5.64 crop factor = ~ 1200mm on a full frame camera

      Tiny sensors allow the miniaturization of long telephoto lenses, in terms of angle of view. As you have noticed, the tiny sensor on your Sony HX300 struggles to collect enough light for sharp shots, especially at telephoto, where the angle of view is very narrow. Image quality is strongly affected by light-gathering area (sensor size) and sophistication (most recent design) of the sensor, plus lens quality and its light-collecting diameter. But a good photographer can often work around the limitations of a small sensor to capture evocative, sellable images. You might like a new or used camera with a larger sensor such as:
      Panasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz with 16x zoom lens, 1″ type sensor, 25-400mm equivalent).
      Good luck with your photo sales!

  2. saeed says:

    Amazing information! thanks

    • John bresnen says:

      Hi, Pulled up your site looking for sensor info..What is your opinion of the Ricoh GR with apsc sensor. I’m new to photography. In the past, Always shot In auto. Thanks. John bresnen.

      • Tom Dempsey says:

        Hi John, thanks for your question about Ricoh GR (released in 2013, 8.64 oz with battery, 16mp, APS-C): The Ricoh GR is a very good specialty camera, generally beating its peers — pocketable cameras having a fast lens with a wide, fixed, non-zooming angle of view and large sensor. In a delightfully compact body weighing less than 9 ounces, it packs a surprisingly large sensor (APS-C) and excellent 18.3mm f/2.8 lens (28mm equivalent angle of view in full-frame-35mm terms), an impressive achievement in miniaturization, good for travel portability.

        But I personally prefer a more versatile pocket camera with electronic viewfinder and image-stabilized zoom lens such as Sony RX100 version III ($800 at B&H). The RX100 images won’t be quite as sharp at 28mm equivalent compared to Ricoh GR, especially edge-to-edge, but RX100’s versatile stabilized telephoto will be sharper than cropping the wide angle lens of Ricoh GR to reach a telephoto angle of view. A workaround for Ricoh is to move closer to the subject to better fill the frame, which often isn’t possible. Ricoh’s large APS-C sensor becomes superior to RX100’s 1-inch-size sensor at around ISO 800 to 1600 and higher (AUTOmatically invoked in dim light conditions such as dawn, dusk, or indoors), to helpfully reduce image noise for sharper enlargements.
        – Ricoh GR generally beats competitor Nikon Coolpix A. The pricier Fujifilm X100S ($899 at B&H) has a top-notch viewfinder; but Sony RX100 version III is a better value including good electronic viewfinder (EVF). Both Sony RX100 ver III and Ricoh GR flash have an impressively fast synch speed of 1/2000 sec.
        – Ricoh GR has no image stabilization and doesn’t shoot very fast continuously (just 4 fps). It’s not good for raw action photography or movie shooting (which has no exposure control). In April 2015, Ricoh GR costs $597 at B&H including Ricoh GV-1 External Viewfinder (but this minimal viewfinder doesn’t indicate focus, and frames inaccurately at less than 6 feet, and adds bulk so camera no longer fits your pocket). A good viewfinder is crucial for photography outdoors in bright sunlight where reflections often obscure LCD screens.
        – By the way, for just $100 more than Ricoh GR (and twice the weight), instead of a pocketable camera, you could upgrade to a much superior Sony A6000 with 16-50mm Lens (2014, 12 oz + 4 oz 24-75mm equiv zoom, 24mp APS-C) with truly Fast Hybrid Autofocus.

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