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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.

Cameras with larger sensors can achieve a shallower depth of focus than smaller sensors, a feature which 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.

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

  1. 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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