Saturday, June 25, 2016

Photography Basics: What about sensors?

I think sensor size is a conversation that I would have loved to have heard sooner than later. In the long run, it would have saved me some money. I would not have spent so much on a variety of point and shoot cameras, especially the super zoom bridge cameras that look like DSLR's. Why is sensor size so important? Well, the answer is quite simple and there are several reasons. First, the larger the sensor, the better the detail available. That should just simply make sense, right? Secondly, The larger the sensor the shallower depth of field available. This means that the larger sensor is capable of smoother bokeh in the background. Portraits that have a shallow depth of field (DOF) have those soft, smooth, out of focus backgrounds. Sensor size is not the only factor, aperture also plays a part but in order to get the kind of portraits you want, the bigger the sensor the better.

Here is a diagram showing the relative size of sensors. There are more sizes than this but let me say that this shows the glaring difference between the three most commonly owned cameras, namely, the full frame DSLR or Mirrorless, the APS-C DSLR or Mirrorless, and the point and shoot/bridge camera.

What I want to illustrate here for you is the big difference between the P&S camera's and the full frame or APS-C cameras. However, another thing that you must understand is that the bigger the sensor the more expensive it is to make, and the more expensive it is to make, naturally, the more expensive it is to buy. Therefore, you have to understand the trade-offs you get with the various size sensors. The full frame gives the best photo quality and the greatest dynamic range, however to purchase a full frame camera you will find yourself paying from $1,200.00 US to $4,000.00 US just for the camera without the lenses. The least expensive full frame with lens runs around $1.800.00 US. Yes, full frame cameras are expensive and require deep pockets.

This is why as a developing amateur, I recommend the ASP-C size sensor. Now professional photographers don't get up in arms! I will readily admit that if one is planning on earning a living shooting photos he or she should have a full frame camera. I know that a lot of pro's have an APS-C camera as an emergency back up, but the pro will do better with a full frame. However, there are some really great images made with APS-C sensor cameras and that is exclusively what I shoot. What you get with an APS-C sensor is detail in the foreground, middle, and background. Also, when it comes to shooting portraits, you get super great detail up front. There is greater detail in the eyes, skin, lips, hair etc.

It infuriates me to see someone who has deep enough pockets purchase a full frame camera, but not enough skill to make their photos look any better than a P&S camera. I am on a lot of Facebook groups and believe me, I see photos every day that are shot with expensive full frame cameras that are barely in focus, dull and look like they were shot with the smallest of sensors. Maybe I am just jealous but it still makes me angry :).

Now then, small sensors do have their place. They make it possible to zoom to great distances with a fairly small camera and relatively short lens. An example of this camera is the one bridge camera that I have kept around. It is the Canon SX40 HS. If you look at the photo of my Sony A3000 at the top of this post you will see that it has a very long lens. Further, it's maximum zoom is  215mm (larger with the crop factor but that is another blog article). The Canon pictured to the left has a zoom capability of 840mm. Yes, you read me right, 820mm zoom. It allows some spectacular moon shots with a very small sensor. It has a fixed zoom lens but it allows a range of 24mm to 840mm (in 35mm equivalent terms). Here is a moon shot I took with it.

This was on a tripod, 100 ISO, f/8

This is just scratching the surface of the importance of sensor size but will be sufficient for today. Hopefully I have given you food for thought and you will not waste as much money on P&S cameras as I did. One thing is certain. You can get a lot of really nice images with an APS-C sensor on either a DSLR or a Mirrorless camera.


  1. Another great post Joe. One thing that I may have missed being mentioned, and should if not included, is that the added effective crop factor of an APS-C camera body does at times make it a preferred sensor size depending on what you shoot mostly. Such as for wildlife photography. A good solid APS-C body such as a Sony a6000/6300, Sony a77ii or Canon 7Dmk2 will help reduce cropping in post production and they offer up to 11 frames per second to be captured. This is very useful to help you get an award winning shot of something such as an Osprey or Eagle catching a meal from a local body of water.

    Aside from that, the blog post is well thought out, flows nicely when read and provides excellent information.

    1. Thanks Chris for adding to this. You make a very good point. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I want to add this comment that was sent to me from a friend, a fellow photographer in the Memphis Area Bob Rhodes.

    "Joe, I read your photography blog and rather than comment publicly, I thought I'd send you a message. You said that you have to have deep pockets to shoot full frame, but my full frame camera cost me much less than my APS-C camera. I bought my full frame camera (Canon 5D) used and bought my APS-C camera new (Canon 7D) and the 7D cost more than twice what I paid for the full frame. I used to shoot a lot of sports so the 7D was used much more than the 5D, since I mainly used it for shooting portraits and sometimes landscapes. I shoot primes (35, 50, 85, 135, 200) a lot, a carry over from my youth, and those lenses work on either camera, so each lens performs like 2 different focal lengths, depending on which camera I'm using. I also have a wide and an ultra-wide zooms that only work on APS-C cameras and I have 2 telephoto zooms that work on both cameras. I have had my current setup for a long time and haven't bought a lens for almost 10 years. I did buy the 5D about 5 years ago, but the only other equipment I've purchased has been lighting equipment. Since I bought good equipment in the beginning, I don't find a need to upgrade every time a new camera or lens is introduced. My equipment is still far superior to my skill. Anyway, I just thought I'd offer my opinion about buying full frame. It does have a place in my arsenal and I didn't pay a lot to acquire it. In case you want to pass along to your readers some places to buy used equipment, I've purchased and sold used equipment on and on I've also sold equipment locally on Craigslist, but you need to be cautious when meeting people. Keep up the blog, Joe. I'm sure a lot of people will find it very useful. I've been shooting off an on for almost 60 years, so I tend to have different opinions than most younger people." ~ Bob Rhodes

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