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Image sensor formats in cameras and why they matter
By Abhilash Pavuluri
Often, I get asked whether investing in a DSLR camera is worth it these days, since smartphones are doing so well in the camera department. “This one has 18 megapixels, that’s more than even a point and shoot!” Alas, numbers don’t tell you the whole story. While smartphones are slowly bridging the gap between conventional photography and price, they’ve still got a pretty long way to go. But why is this?
Undoubtedly, the fundamental component of any modern camera is the sensor. A tiny wafer(don’t try and eat these!) that detects light and captures it in order for your camera’s processor to form the image. The sensor, coupled with the processor and lens is what constitutes a basic, functional digital camera.
Back when photography was primarily done on film, the rolls used to come in different sizes and lengths, depending on the camera model mostly. One format that stuck is the now popular 35 mm. A 35 mm film roll measured 36 x 24 mm and 43 mm across. This format was used in Leica cameras, but eventually went on to be the standard across most forms of consumer photography. What are the sensor sizes we find today? Read on to find out.
Sensors found on smartphones
Since smartphone cameras have proprietary sensors, there really isn’t a standard sensor format for most of them. Some manufacturers boast of sensors with large pixels(as opposed to number of megapixels). We did find the specifications for a sensor manufactured by Sony; their IMX318 sensor boasts a 1 /2.6 inch sensor, which is smaller than even that of a point and shoot camera. That’s not to say it’s a bad sensor. When used to its full potential, it can still deliver some mean shots. We estimate that other manufacturers use similarly sized sensors.
1 /2.3 inch
This is what’s found in most point-and-shoot cameras. It’s far from the best performing format but still delivers. A camera with this sensor usually costs less, and in some cases, these sensors are used in “high zoom” cameras because of the apparent increase in focal length provided due to the narrow sensor.
However, expect to see a lot of digital noise and darkness in photos taken by these sensors because they simply cannot gather enough light.
Some cameras that come equipped with this sensor are the Nikon P900 or the Canon SX60HS.
This format is becoming increasingly more common as the sweet spot between point-and-shoot cameras and more performance oriented models. The sensor occupies a size of 9 x 12mm and have a crop factor of 3X. These sensors are commonly used in travel cameras since they offer a suitable balance between quality and cost. One camera that sports a 1 inch sensor is the Panasonic Lumix FZ2000.
This is the standard chosen by Olympus and Panasonic for their mirrorless cameras. Despite the name, M4/3 sensors are actually bigger than 1-inch sensors(having a crop factor of only 2X). The 2X crop factor still adds an element of zoom to your lens but you don’t lose out on image quality(when compared to lesser models).
Almost all Olympus or Panasonic Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras(MILCs) are M4/3.
Advanced Photo System(type C) or APS-S is the industry standard for nearly all DSLR cameras(and the odd mirrorless camera) in the market. It’s a sensor that’s in the absolute sweet spot(at about 24 x 26 mm area covered with a crop factor of around 1.6x) where quality and price meet expectations. And it’s certainly powerful: while it gathers half the light of a full-frame sensor, it’s about 15 x more powerful than a point-and-shoot camera sensor. Now, one can only imagine how much more powerful it is compared to a smartphone sensor!
The big daddy when it comes to the sensor, and also the most expensive. Covering the full 36 x 24 mm format, these have a 1x crop factor(meaning your lenses won’t have any distortion or apparent zoom when in use with a 35 mm sensor). This is the reason full frame cameras are so expensive. But even a 35 mm sensor has a bigger sibling: it’s called Medium Format.
Medium Format sensors are generally bigger than even 35 mm sensors and occupy a very niche category of consumer photography. They’re found in most film cameras, but Hasselblad manufactures products with small and medium format sensors.
Other kinds of sensors
While we’ve covered pretty much everything, the world of imaging is ever changing. RED and their lineup of Helium sensors(which are currently among the only 8K capable sensors on the market) is an example of tech that might not be for the everyday consumer but is an indication of things to come in the future.