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

To optimize the portability of a serious travel camera (recommended here), get 1-inch Type sensor size or as large as APS-C sensor. Above this range, full-frame sensors overly increase camera weight for most travelers. Below “1-inch” size, sensors can suffer from poor image quality (especially in dim light) when making large prints. The archaic inch-sizing of sensors is clarified in the illustration and the table further below with relative sizes and millimeters.

For a given year of technological advance, a camera with physically bigger sensor area tends to capture better image quality by gathering more light, but at the cost of larger-diameter, bulkier lenses. Recent digital sensor advances have shrunk cameras and increased optical zoom ranges while preserving image quality. If you avoid using their poor digital zoom, even top smartphones such as Google Pixel, Samsung S6/S7 or Apple iPhone 6s can potentially make good 18-inch prints, and they excel at instantly sharing images. A powerful image can be created any decent camera in the hands of a skilled or lucky photographer. But for superior optical zoom, better performance in dim light and sharper prints, get a bigger camera.

Below, compare sensor sizes for digital cameras:

Sensor sizes for digital cameras.

In the above illustration, compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″ and 1/2.5” Type. For new digital cameras, a bigger sensor area captures better quality, but requires larger diameter, bulkier lenses. To optimize the size of a serious travel camera, consider 1-inch-Type sensor or up to APS-C sensor size. “Full-frame 35mm” sensor / film size (36 x 24 mm) is a standard for comparison, with a diagonal field-of-view crop factor = 1.0. In comparison, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5” Type sensor crops the light gathering by 6.0x smaller diagonally (with a surface area 35 times smaller than full frame).

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1″-Type sensor size is now optimal for travel camera portability:

I upgrade my digital camera every 2-4 years because the latest devices keep beating older models. As of 2016, a 1″-Type sensor size is perfect for a portable, lightweight travel camera, as in the following which capture excellent dynamic range (bright to dark) with exceptionally fast autofocus:

Or the following top APS-C-sensor camera lets you interchange lenses (though I prefer the above all-in-one solutions for travel convenience):

The next step up to full-frame-sensor cameras costs extra, adds bulk, and is only needed if you regularly shoot in dim light higher than ISO 6400, or often print images larger than 2 or 3 feet in size to be viewed closer than their longest dimension by critically sharp eyes.

But huge effective billboards can be printed from compact 3-megapixel cameras (read my article)

How to compare cameras

  • My CAMERAS article updates Light Travel camera recommendations several times per year.
  • If possible, compare cameras shot side-by-side under a variety of actual field conditions (which I do just before selling a former camera to confirm the quality of the new replacement camera). I like to “pixel-peep” a side-by-side comparison of two different cameras capturing the same subject under same lighting conditions. Be sure to mentally or digitally normalize any two given shots to compare their fine detail as if printed with equal overall image size.
  • I judge image quality and resolution not by megapixel (mp) count but instead by comparing standardized studio test views at 100% pixel enlargement and checking resolvable lines per picture height (LPH), at the authoritative (owned by Amazon since 2007) and handy Comparometer at Check other review sites analyzing a camera’s telephoto in addition to standard lens.

For me, yearly advances as of 2014-16 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 much beyond 12-18 inches.

Smartphones can have even tinier sensors, such as 1/3.0″ Type (4.8 mm x 3.6 mm) in iPhone 5S. Top smartphone cameras have improved miniature sensors to the point where citizen journalists can capture newsworthy photos with image quality good enough for fast sharing and quick international publication. My Samsung Note 5 smartphone (same camera as S6/S7 with 1/2.6″ sensor) captures sunny 16mp images sufficient to make a sharp 18-inch print, virtually indistinguishable from that taken by a larger camera. Tip: avoid the digital zoom on smartphones, and instead move closer before shooting or crop at editing time, if needed to isolate subjects.

Read this pointed perspective on how far image quality has progressed from early DSLR to 2014 smartphone cameras. Historically, evocative images can clearly be captured regardless of camera size or modernity. But for a given year of technological advance, tiny-sensor cameras can have severe limitations compared to physically larger cameras in terms of print enlargement, autofocus speed, blurred performance in dim or indoor light, and so forth. The “best” travel camera is the one that you are willing to carry.

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 7.6
1/3.0″ (Apple iPhone 5S smartphone 2013) 6.00 4.80 3.60 17.30 50 7.2
1/2.6″ Type (Samsung Galaxy S6 & Note 5 in 2015) 6.86 5.5 4.1 22.55 38 6.3
1/2.5″ Type 7.18 5.76 4.29 24.70 35 6.0
1/2.3″ Type (Canon PowerShot SX280HS, Olympus Tough TG-2) 7.66 6.17 4.56 28.07 31 5.6
1/1.7″ (Canon PowerShot S95, S100, S110, S120) 9.30 7.44 5.58 41.51 21 4.7
1/1.7″ (Pentax Q7) 9.50 7.60 5.70 43.30 20 4.6
2/3″ (Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone with 41mp camera; Fujifilm X-S1, X20, XF1) 11.00 8.80 6.60 58.10 15 3.9
Standard 16mm Film Frame 12.7 10.26 7.49 76.85 11 3.4
1” Type (Sony RX100 & RX10, Nikon CX, Panasonic FZ1000) 15.86 13.20 8.80 116 7.4 2.7
Micro Four Thirds, 4/3 21.60 17.30 13 225 3.8 2.0
APS-C: Canon EF-S 26.70 22.20 14.80 329 2.6 1.6
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 publishing needs, 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.

  • In comparison to full a frame sensor, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5-inch Type sensor crops the light gathering surface 6.0 times smaller diagonally, or 35 times smaller in area.
  • An APS-C size sensor gathers about 15 times more light (area) than a 1/2.5” Type sensor and 2.4 times less than full frame.
    • APS-C sensors in Nikon DX, Pentax, and Sony E have 1.5x diagonal field of view crop factor.
    • APS-C sensors in Canon EF-S DSLRs have 1.6x diagonal field of view crop factor.
  • 1 stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of gathered light. Doubling a sensor’s area theoretically gathers one stop more light.

Lens quality & diameter also affect image quality

For improving image quality, the quality and diameter of the lens can rival the importance of having a physically larger sensor area. Prime (non-zoom) lenses usually are sharpest for larger prints, but zoom lenses are more versatile and recommended for travelers.

Small sensor can beat larger with newer design (BSI) plus faster optics:

In my side-by-side field tests, the sharp, bright 25x zoom of Sony RX10 III resoundingly beats the resolution of 11x SEL18200 lens on flagship APS-C Sony A6300 at 90+ mm equivalent telephoto, even as high as ISO 6400. (Wider angle zoom settings show little quality difference.) Apparently RX10’s faster f/2.4-4 lens plus backside illumination (BSI) technology magically compensate for the sensor size difference, 1″-Type versus APS-C. Like most APS-C-sensor cameras in 2016, A6300 lacks BSI. Surprisingly little noise affects RX10’s image quality at high ISO 6400 in dim light. Its larger lens diameter gathering more light also helps in this comparison (72mm filter size of RX10 III versus 67mm SEL18200 on A6300).

Larger lens diameter can help dim light photography:

In my field tests, the linear sharpness of Sony’s high-quality SEL1670Z 3x zoom f/4 lens on flagship A6300 is only about 5% better than Sony RX10 III f/2.4-4 in bright light in the wider half of its 24-105mm equivalent range, but no better in dim light. I expect that RX10’s catch-up in quality under dim light is due to superior light sensitivity of BSI sensor plus larger lens diameter gathering more light, 72mm versus 55mm.

Using sweet spot of full-frame lenses on APS-C may not improve quality:

In principle, you might expect a slightly sharper image on an APS-C sensor when using the sweet spot of a lens designed for a full frame (which has a larger imaging circle), but results actually vary, especially when using older film-optimized lenses. In fact, a lens which is designed and optimized specially “for digital, for APS-C” can equal or exceed the quality of an equivalent full-frame lens on the same sensor, while also reducing bulk and weight (as in the Sony E-mount example further below).

Theoretically, new full-frame lenses “designed for digital” (using image-space telecentric design) may perform better on a digital sensor than would older lenses designed for film:

  • Unlike film, digital sensors receive light best when struck squarely rather than at a grazing angle.
  • Digital cameras perform best with lenses optimized specially “for digital”, using image-space telecentric designs, in which all the rays land squarely on the sensor (as opposed to having incoming rays emerge at the same angle as they entered, as in a pinhole camera). The light buckets (sensels) on digital sensors require light rays to be more parallel than with film (to enter at close to a 90 degree angle to the sensor).
  • Film can record light at more grazing angles than a digital sensor. Because older film-optimized lenses bend light to hit the sensor at more of a glancing angle, they reduce light-gathering efficiency and cause more vignetting around the edges (which is somewhat mitigated by the image circle being cropped by the APS-C sensor, which uses just the center part of the full-frame lens).
Side-by-side testing works better than theory to distinguish lenses:

Compare the following two Sony E-mount zoom lenses, full-frame versus APS-C:

  1. 2015 full-frame “Sony E-mount FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS” lens (27.5 oz, 36-360mm equivalent).
  2. 2010 APS-C “Sony E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS (silver SEL-18200)” lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv).

Both lenses are optimized for digital, yet the APS-C lens is much lighter weight and performs equal to or better than the full-frame lens. Side-by-side comparisons and also DxOMark tests on a Sony A6000 camera show that while they are about equally sharp, the Sony 24-240 has more distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration than the 18-200mm.

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 RX10 III and RX100 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 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. In 2016, Sony’s 1″-Type backside illumination (BSI) sensors capture sufficient dynamic range for my needs.

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 of 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 1″-Type BSI or 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 scenes where white tones (such as snow) predominate, and overexpose highlights in scenes where black tones predominate. IMPORTANT TIP: To correctly expose for all tones, you need to lock exposure upon an actual midtone (such as a gray card; or on a line halfway between light and shadow) 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. Try to stay 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.

Detailed full-frame comparison of low-light Sony A7S 12mp versus A7R 36mp

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 (see dpreview article). 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.

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

  1. Hi Tom,

    First off one of the best explanations on sensor sizes and comps I’ve seen..thank you.

    I currently have a Canon 6D and Sony A6000. For the 6D I have a number of L lenses but nothing over 105mm in length. For the Sony A6000 I only have the Zeiss 35 2.8mm.

    I’m getting tired of swapping out lenses and want a more versatile one stop shop situation. Great picture quality is key though and zoom. I can’t handle the higher quality zooms on my Canon due to an elbow injury. Would you therefore:

    1. Get a metabones adaptor for the A6000 and put the 24-105L on it giving me “okay” reach, or
    2. Get the Panasonic FZ2500 (this over the 1000 because I like the built in ND filter), or
    3. Get the Sony rx10iii

    Money isn’t a big deal in the equation.


    • If your goal is versatile outdoor photography of very high quality for optimal weight, Sony RX10III is the best of these three. Compared to Canon 24-105L f/4 mounted on adapter to Sony A6000, the RX10III has a 1 stop brighter lens advantage, plus new backside-illumination sensor technology, that helps makes up for the sensor size difference (APS-C vs 1″ Type), in terms of low noise. The 24-105L on A6000 may at best make 5% bigger prints than RX10 when shot at wide angles, but only noticed if printing larger than 20 inches or so. But anything shot beyond 3 or 4x zoom will be much sharper using the amazing 25x optical zoom of RX10, when compared to cropping the A6000 images (to achieve the same telephoto angle of view via digital cropping). Compared to RX10III, the FZ2500 saves 4 ounces, focuses a bit faster, and builds in an ND filter, but as a nature-travel photographer, I would rather have the superior lens quality (half stop advantage & superior glass) and further zoom reach of RX10III. Here are the weights & zoom capabilities of your proposed systems:
      1. 40 oz for 4.4x zoom 36-158mm equivalent, 24mp APS-C = Sony A6000 (12 oz body; plus adapter ~4 oz; plus Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Lens weighing 23.5 ounces.)
      2. 33 oz for 20x zoom 24-480mm equivalent f/2.8–4.5, 20mp 1″ sensor = Panasonic FZ2500.
      3. 37 ounces for 25x zoom, 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4, 20mp 1″ sensor = Sony RX10 III.

  2. Hi, I have a Canon D5ii (50mm 1.4, 70-200 f2.8 and 75-300 f4-5.6). I bit too heavy even carrying two lenses. For Travel would I be better off buying Rx10, Panasonic Fz 2500 or a Canon D7 with 28-105 lens? I am a very quality conscious photographer. What do you recommend? Thanks.

    • In terms of image quality balanced with incredible travel flexibility, RX10 III beats both Panasonic FZ2500 and also Canon 7D with 28-105. With Sony RX10 III you get a sharp 25x zoom weighing just 37 ounces. The Canon EOS 7D (2009, 18mp APS-C) body alone weighs about 32 ounces with battery, plus a 13 oz Canon 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 lens makes 45 ounces total, for a measly 3.75x zoom. The EOS 7D Mark II (2014, 20mp) is slightly sharper than Mark I, but Sony A6500 or A6300 clearly beats both 7D cameras in resolving fine detail. In the studio tests below, RX10 III’s image quality falls somewhere between the Mark I and Mark II models of a Canon 7D.

      When you compare wide angle studio scene image quality at (select Canon 7D, 7D Mark II, and Sony RX10 III from drop down menus) you get equal or sharper results with a lighter-weight Sony A6500 (2016, 24mp) or A6300. The big surprise is that RX10 III performs well in comparison, even pulling ahead to resolve more details than the 7D in the “dim light” studio scene (click the light bulb icon), but is not as crisp as Sony A6500. Bravo for RX10 III’s bright f/2.4 lens (combined with stacked backside illumination sensor technology), which rivals a good PRIME lens presumably used by dpreview on the compared 7D camera. RX10 III roughly matches the D7 Mark II through ISO 800, but adds more noise at 1600+.

      RX10 III keeps up surprisingly well considering its smaller 1-inch sensor size versus APS-C on the other cameras. My own testing shows that a good 4x f/4 zoom on A6300 (or A6500) is no more than 5% sharper than RX10 III at wide angles in bright light, and is about equal in dim light. At telephoto 5x-25x, RX10 III is much superior to digitally cropping the 4x zoom of APS-C cameras. And for most travelers, adding a bright, heavy zoom tele lens to their APS-C kit doesn’t improve quality sufficiently to beat the lightweight all-in-one solution provided by RX10 III, which is surprisingly sharp throughout 24mm to 600mm equivalent.

  3. Tom, …Im looking for a point and shoot camera that can capture as clear detail as possible in the background of the shot (with obstacles), that the shots be easily enlargeable, in lower light (dusk) settings. …The camera i am using now is an Insignia 12 mp. It is decent but i want to try to push the detail up a tad more. And no, im not some creeper…im a paranormal investigator. But i need a slightly better equivalent to the insignia use…they are a great camera but no longer manufactured. I know you might not be a believer, but if you can suggest one. The insignia 12 says on tge lens 5.0-20.2mm EQ 29 — 110mm 1:2.8-6.3 and i believe (not sure) the sensor is a 1/2.3 type. …the Insignia NS-DSC1112 was a great little camera if only a little clunky and slow (However with the sony dsc-w800 i had, i got some decent shots…it also caught some anomalies but the photos were kind of gray overall. The little panasonic lumix dmc-fh24 is a noisy mess of speckled garbage…useless for what I do.) Thanks for allowing me to pick your brain. Sincerely, Kirsten K.

    • A good next camera for what you describe would be Panasonic FZ1000 or more recent FZ2500. Or if it must fit in a pocket, then try the Panasonic ZS100. These cameras greatly increase your telephoto reach while providing a larger sensor (“1-inch Type”) for sharper details with less noise. Since the flash on most cameras such as these don’t reach beyond 25 to 45 feet or so, you could also consider a larger system with interchangeable lenses and flash mount for more power. Depends on your budget and desire for portability. From the photos shown on your (private) link, I see your camera capturing noisy, smudged detail which has been overly enlarged so the pixels are visible in some cases. The image becomes a Rorschach, open to imagination. We humans look for patterns and naturally anthropomorphize our perceptions. The more detail you capture, possibly the less mysterious the subjects become. Your current camera has served your needs to capture blurred patterns at the limits of its sensor, lens and flash capabilities, but a better camera will extend your range of shooting conditions.

  4. How many megapixels in a sufficiently sized sensor, say four thirds, is needed in the camera we are going to buy?

    • The number of megapixels is much less important than the following:

      1. Look for most recent year of sensor design or camera production, such as 2015 or 2016, in order to make larger, sharper prints for a given camera size. Look especially for stacked Backside Illumination (BSI) sensor technology, which gathers light much more efficiently by moving wiring to the back so as not to block the light collection buckets (sensels).
      2. A larger physical surface area size of the sensor usually beats smaller ones: APS-C sensors capture more light than Four Thirds type; and 4/3 type captures more surface area of light than 1″ Type.
      3. However, a lens with fast maximum aperture (such as f/2.4) and larger diameter glass (such as 72mm) with high quality can sometimes beat larger-sensor cameras, as with my 25x zoom Sony RX10 III with 1″ sensor beating the 11x zoom lens on a flagship APS-C camera at most zoom and ISO settings (such as on my Sony A6300, or on 11x-15x zooms on Nikon or Canon DSLRs), especially at telephoto, despite RX10’s smaller 20 megapixels versus 24 mp on APS-C.

      Due to many factors, one-on-one field tests under constant conditions are required to distinguish camera quality (or else use the above guidelines). When tiny sensors such as 1/2.5″ type first started to exceed about 8 megapixels, adding more megapixels such as 12 or 16 at first did not increase quality (unless used with a larger lens diameter). As sensor sensitivity improved in later years around 2013-2016, megapixel count again became relevant for making larger, sharper prints in pocket cameras (especially for cameras using new Sony 1-inch Type 20mp sensors). Image quality sometimes roughly coincides with megapixel count for a given physical sensor size, for example: My Samsung Galaxy S6 and Note 5 smartphones with identical 16 megapixel cameras capture images superior to rival Apple iPhone 6s which has 12mp, which in turn is superior to the 8mp camera in earlier iPhone 6. But in general, don’t choose cameras by megapixel count alone.

  5. Hi Tom,
    Many thanks for this amazing article gives a lot of insight. I do birding and am always contemplating between far reach of a small sensor vs a larger sensor with BIF [Bird in Flight] / low-light capabilities. What I want to know is, if there a simple matrix ( I know its theory and practical results can be varied) for comparison and conversion. Example: My current kit is a Nikon P900 with its massive zoom and superb IS. Now if I were to say get a 1inch with 400mm micro 4/3 with a 300mm or an APS-C with a 400/500mm. Considering all of them are same MP cameras and F stop is same at the tele end. What would yield a better picture ? Cropping the image to their respective crop factors obviously and consider good light. My experience has always been contrary to what most of “large sensor lovers” mention. This is strictly for super zoom good light pictures. If there were a ready calculator where one can punch in sensor size, lens reach, fstop, ISO etc. and get a “quality” number vs others it would be fantastic, just like graphics and cpu benchmarks. Every time one travels there is a compromise between weight / size, cost and zoom reach, but with so many new cameras coming out its always an effort to find the best fit option.

    • The next step up in quality from your Nikon P900 would be Panasonic FZ2500 (or earlier FZ1000). Beyond that, for serious bird or wildlife photography on a budget, nothing beats Sony RX10 III (read my review), which is currently my favorite travel camera. Its incredible weather-sealed 25x zoom is sharp across the frame, from wide angle to wildlife telephoto. Its stacked Exmor RS CMOS backside illumination BSI 1-inch-size sensor technology, plus a big 72mm-diameter lens, elevates image quality to rival a larger-sensor flagship APS-C system, even in dim light, as proven in my field tests. APS-C cameras don’t yet offer the advanced BSI technology that is found on Sony’s latest 1″ sensor (which is built into my list of best portable cameras). This stacked BSI technology efficiently moves sensor wiring to the back, away from blocking the newly enlarged light buckets (sensels). [Interestingly, evolution also designed human eyes in quick and dirty fashion with wiring (blood supply) partially blocking the light sensing retina tissue, like most sensors before BSI design.]

      By the way, my telephoto article also addresses the birders’ search for the best portable superzoom camera: “BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+ for wildlife: Sony RX10 III vs APS-C, 4/3 cameras

      Image quality is most improved as follows (most important shown first):
      1. Improving creative photographic skills.
      2. Upgrading to the latest sensor technology every 3 to 4 years.
      3. Optimizing sensor size between 1″, Four Thirds, or APS-C, to make the camera portable enough to carry everywhere so you don’t miss shots. (But sensors smaller than 1″-Type suffer too much noise in light dimmer than bright sunshine).
      4. Using a top lens in terms of large diameter, effective stabilization (IS, VR, OIS, etc or tripod), zoom range, bright/fast aperture and good glass.

      No reliable formula exists to predict the quality of camera systems, especially at the telephoto end, due to too many variables [such as different surface-area-size sensors, ever-improving technology, sensor processing, sensor design, lens design (zoom range, brightest aperture, light-gathering diameter, sharp glass, low distortion), image stabilization and many other factors, such as critical user skills]. The best way to compare cameras is side by side in the field, capturing the same subjects in the same lighting with similar practical settings (as I do when changing to a new system, just before selling the old camera). Tests typically shown on camera web sites usually just compare wide angle settings using prime lenses, and hardly ever compare cameras at telephoto reach, side-by-side. Here’s a useful telephoto test:

      My field tests of the pocketable 10x zoom Panasonic ZS100 reveal that it is definitely not as sharp as my little Sony RX100 III camera throughout the Sony’s measly 3x zoom; but the Panasonic captures close macro at more zoom settings and more importantly, enormously extends optical telephoto reach from 70-250mm, which overwhelmingly beats digital cropping of the RX100. Both have the same Sony BSI 1″ sensor, albeit different processing software.

      Also, for sensors having larger surface-area sizes, a given F stop (such as f/4) will have shallower depth of field (depth of focus), affecting image quality; for example portrait photographers and videographers may like very shallow depth of focus with subjectively-attractive bokeh. The “equivalent F stop” in terms of comparable depth of focus is proportional to crop factor. For example, my Sony RX10 III (37 oz) has a 1″-Type sensor, with 2.7 crop factor compared to full frame. So its f/2.4-4 zoom lens has a “full-frame-equivalent” brightest aperture of f/6.5 at wide angle to f/10.8 (starting at 100mm equivalent) (making it a f/6.5-10.8 equivalent, 24-600mm equivalent lens), giving much greater depth of focus than larger-sensor cameras for a given F stop, for potentially sharper bird photography.

  6. I use a Sony NEX 6 APS-C sensor size. Shouldn’t I expect a sharper image when using a lens designed for a full frame sensor since I’m using just the center portion of the lens? Less apparent fall off? Just curious.

    • In principle, you might expect a slightly sharper image on an APS-C sensor when using a lens designed for a full frame, but results actually vary, especially when using older film-optimized lenses. In fact, a lens which is designed and optimized specially “for digital, for APS-C” can equal or exceed the quality of an equivalent full-frame lens on the same sensor, while also reducing bulk and weight (in the example further below).

      Unlike film, digital sensors accept light best when it lands squarely on the sensor rather than at a grazing angle. Digital cameras perform best with lenses optimized specially “for digital”, using “image-space telecentric” designs, in which all the rays land squarely on the sensor (as opposed to having incoming rays emerge at the same angle as they entered, as in a pinhole camera). The light buckets (sensels) on digital sensors require light rays to be more parallel than with film (to enter at close to a 90 degree angle to the sensor). Film can record light at more grazing angles than a digital sensor. Because older film-optimized lenses bend light to hit the sensor at more of a glancing angle, they reduce light-gathering efficiency and cause more vignetting around the edges (which is somewhat mitigated by the image circle being cropped by the APS-C sensor, which uses just the center part of the full-frame lens).

      In principle, new full-frame lenses “designed for digital” (using image-space telecentric design) might be expected to perform better on a digital sensor than older lenses designed for film. But without actual testing, we cannot really predict which lens will beat another:

      For example, compare the following two similar Sony E-mount zoom lenses:

      1) the 2015 full-frame “Sony E-mount FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS” lens (27.5 oz, 36-360mm equivalent) versus
      2) the 2010 APS-C “Sony E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS (silver SEL-18200)” lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv)

      DxOMark and other test results show that, while they are both about equally sharp, the Sony 24-240 has more distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration than the 18-200. The two lenses are both optimized for digital, yet the APS-C lens is much lighter weight and performs roughly equal to or better than the full-frame lens!

  7. Why smartphone’s photo resolution is bigger than video’s resolution? The sensor is the same. I have a Samsung Galaxy S3 and the photo resolution is 3224×2448 but the video size is 1920×1080…

    • Video resolution on the Galaxy S3 is smaller than still-image resolution because the high frame rate per second of video would overload its processor. You would need to upgrade to a Galaxy S6 or Note5 to get 4k video (3840×2160 pixels).

  8. Today, a reader “Su H” asked the following interesting question:
    Dear Tom, I was doing research into a compact camera… Can I please ask your opinion. My requirements are: Variangle Screen / f1.4 – f 2 / 1 cm NFD up to 2 cm for high macro pics / large sensor – the bigger the better / full manual controls / pref ISO 80 or 100. DO NOT want a DSLR as it is to heavy and bulky for me. The main use 95% will be for taking photos of very small Native Orchids in Australia… a dedicated Macro digital camera.

    Tom Dempsey replies Aug 30, 2015: Dear Su,

    Depending upon your desired “large sensor size,” due to physics, the requirements that you listed may not exist within a single given camera. A large sensor generally means large lens and heavier body. Currently, I find that the optimum camera quality in the smallest box is a Sony RX100 version III or IV, good for my macro and great for general photography.

    With patience focusing using Sony RX100’s tilting LCD with digital magnification, I was able to capture some pleasing shots of tiny wild Calypso Orchids. The head of each tiny purple flower blossom was only about 1 or 2 cm high. Cropping from 20mp down to 7 mp (2360×2897 pixels) nicely magnified to fill the frame, in image #1405WA-398.JPG.

    For my photography on, you may notice that I’m a generalist. I currently use just 2 cameras:
    1. I primarily use a Sony NEX 7 camera (24mp, APS-C size sensor, 14 oz body) mounted with 19-oz Sony 18-200mm lens (which is poor for macro but great for a variety of nature travel shots).
    2. For backup, portability, and macro, I carry the great Sony RX100 version III (2014, 20mp, 1-inch-Type sensor, 24-70mm equivalent f/1.8-2.8 lens, tilting screen, plus great pop-up viewfinder). It fits in a shirt pocket, and also captures publishable quality! Because its close-focus distance is not exceptional (as close as 1.97″ or 5 cm at wide angle; but 11.81″ or 30 cm focus at telephoto), its 20-megapixel macro images of tiny subjects will need to be cropped so that they look sufficiently magnified. For example, see my Calypso Orchids (above); and also the Nevada flower macro shot (cropped to 1500 x 1000 pixels, but presented on the web at 800 pixels wide) in my article on Sony RX100.

    Some macro specialists prefer Olympus cameras (like Olympus OM-D E-M5) with Micro Four Thirds size sensor – these camera systems have some excellent choices for macro lenses, some have bodies with tilting screens, and the live view often lets you magnify to attempt good manual focus. For some photographers, a Micro Four Thirds sensor size gives a nice optimum for good macro shots: a depth of field that is deeper and generally sharper than larger sensors, captured on a sensor with sufficient surface area to keep ISO low enough to avoid noisy images while keeping a shutter speed fast enough to prevent blur due to subject motion and hand shake.

    For close focus/macro magnification, some people like sensors smaller than the RX100’s 1-inch-Type sensor, such as the Panasonic FZ50 (1/1.8″-Type sensor) (described below) or similar successor cameras. A disadvantage of focusing with the lens poking just a few centimeters from the subject is that you may cast a darkening shadow on it (or disturb insect subjects). Larger-sensor systems can usually give you a further working distance from lens to subject (if that is an issue), but at the cost of shallower depth of focus, due to the physics of having a larger sensor. Many smaller-sensor cameras require you to shoot at noisy ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to stop motion of the subject; but luckily the latest Sony sensors in RX100 version III and IV are excellent, controlling noise well, even as high as ISO 800.

    For a non-DSLR camera that is good for macro of small subjects, check out the following photographer’s gear: — Surprisingly, Mark shoots most of his striking macro photos of tiny insects with an old Panasonic FZ50 (2006, 1.6 pounds, or 734 grams, with 1/1.8″-Type sensor, just 10 megapixels) with achromats (achromatic lenses) screwed onto filter threads. The FZ50 has a dedicated macro switch on the side of the lens barrel, and can get as close as 5cm at wide angle (capturing an area around 5.5cm across). At telephoto zoom around 200mm-equivalent, the macro isn’t as close and captures an area just over 16cm across. On this web site, Mark says:

    “An achromat works best on long focal length lenses since they magnify what is already there and they effectively shorten the working distance – from lens/filter to object – according to dioptre #… I generally use three achromats. Each is made of quality glass and has a different dioptre strength. One is a +2 dioptre that gives me a working distance of around 18 inches and is good for Butterflies – don’t see many of them – and Dragonflies, so I can get the whole creature in the frame. Another is a +4.5 dioptre with a working distance of around 8 or 9 inches that I rarely use on its own these days and is good for larger insects. The third is a +8 dioptre with a working distance of around 4.5 inches. Very often now I stack the +4.5 on the +8 which gives me a working distance of 2.5 inches. This is considered to be too/very short by some but I find it very comfortable as it gives me more control over the scene and especially the lighting, but it doesn’t work for everything since, obviously, I have to get closer to the creature.”

    Mark says the newer Panasonic FZ200 should also work “with an adapter tube so achromats can be mounted and the lens zooms freely inside it…. More often these days I am using the Pany G1 and soon … the G6 with Olympus f2/50mm, f3.5/35mm macro lens and maybe the f2.8/60mm in time. For this setup I have decided to use a flash bracket and articulating arm to get the light where I want it on the extending lenses.”

    On the web, you’ll find good photographers choosing all sorts of different size sensors for macro shots. Each system has various advantages and disadvantages. Research what actually works in the field, based upon the practical experiences of yourself and other photographers who are experienced at shooting your type of subjects.

    Readers, please let me know what you think – I’m curious which camera system you’ll pick for macro of tiny subjects. – Tom Dempsey, creator of

  9. Thnk you so much for the reply. What are your views on Canon G3X ? Is it worth the price of 1300 dollars with the EVF and the hood.

    • In the past, I’ve really enjoyed the high quality and ease of using Canon PowerShot compact cameras (models S95, G9, SD700IS, Pro1, ELPH SD500, and G5; released from 2010 back to 2003).

      But currently, the Canon G3X is generally beaten by the competing Panasonic FZ1000.

      I admit that, when compared to Panasonic FZ1000, the Canon G3X (2015, 26 oz, $1000 + $240 EVF-DC1 viewfinder) has some good advantages including a touchscreen, longer zoom range (24-600mm equivalent) and significantly smaller body.

      However, the Panasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz, 25-400mm equiv, $800 at B&H) is a much better dollar value, especially with its essential built-in viewfinder (EVF). In comparison, the Canon G3X has various disadvantages:

      — FZ1000 has significantly faster autofocus speed (less shutter lag), and longer battery life (360 shots per charge versus 300, CIPA). G3X has inferior continuous shooting performance (especially shooting RAW).
      — FZ1000 tilts and swivels (articulates) its LCD, but G3X just tilts.
      — Compared to Panasonic FZ1000 and Sony RX10, RAW file dynamic range for G3X is a stop or two worse at ISO 800 and higher, and its sensor is a bit noisier.
      — At wide angle, when shooting RAW, G3X’s resolution equals the sharpness of Panasonic FZ1000 and Sony RX10 version I; but the latter cameras shoot sharper JPEGs.
      — If you are looking for excellent video, the Sony RX10 II is best, followed by Panasonic FZ1000; whereas the G3X lacks 4K video.

      Alternative: instead of using Canon G3X with its pricey add-on viewfinder, travel photographers may prefer upgrading to the following with only slightly higher price, size & weight:

      — $1430 at B&H for a great 31-ounce camera system:
      Sony A6000 (12 oz body, ~$630 at B&H) mounted with a Sony 18-200mm lens (27-300mm equivalent, 19 oz, model SEL18200, $800). The A6000’s APS-C sensor has 3 times the light-gathering surface area compared to the 1-inch-Type sensors found in G3X and FZ1000. 24-megapixel images shot with the telephoto end of A6000’s 27-300mm equivalent lens can be cropped to approximate telephoto quality from the smaller-sensor G3X and FZ1000 cameras (which have 20 megapixels, generally captured with lower overall quality).

  10. 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 !

    • 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!

      • …Why would diagonal degrees be of interest to anyone? Do you ever hold the camera diagonally when taking photos? Why not use the horizontal angle? I want to know how wide an area I can capture – especially for multi-shot panoramas. Many fisheye lenses claim 180 degrees – when really they have a horizontal angle of about 140 degrees. Let’s be honest about angle of view. I suspect it is the same mentality that causes us to measure TV screens sizes diagonally?? How USEFUL is that?

      • You’re right that knowing the horizontal lens angle of view for a lens can be practical such as when stitching panoramas with a specified number of degrees. For any lens, the horizontal measurement can be found online (or converted from the diagonal using a mathematical formula).

        But lens manufacturers have a good reason for reporting lens angle of view as a diagonal measurement when their lenses are used on sensors with different aspect ratios, such as 3:2 and 4:3. A diagonal measurement relates more closely to the size of a lens’ image circle (a fundamental property of a given lens) — so diagonal measurements are normally used to determine “lens equivalence” in terms of angle of view when comparing different formats. When a lens is described as 50mm equivalent (in terms of angle of view measured diagonally), you have a much better idea how similar will be the imaging area when comparing a 4:3 format compact camera with a 3:2 format camera (whereas using a horizontal standard of measurement would mislead in terms of image area and fundamental image circle).

    • 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.

      • 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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