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Camera Sensor: All You Need To Know

April 2, 2018

What is camera sensor size and is it something you should be concerned with? This question is one of the most critical issues that many wrestles with when deciding what kind and type of camera to buy. If you have struggled with this issue worry note because we will tackle this critical question, so you can make an informed decision when you are choosing which camera to get.


A starting point, I guess, is to define what a camera sensor is.  At the risk of oversimplification, a sensor is a device in your camera that captures light and translates it into an image.  Without a sensor, your camera body and lens will merely look at light without transforming it into a viewable image.  It is the job of the sensor to translate the light into a picture you can see and or print.



Camera sensors come in varied sizes with a 35mm film equivalent sensor as the standard.  Referred to as full-frame sensor, it measures 36x24mm mimicking the traditional 35mm film negative.  Cameras such Nikon D850 or Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and all other cameras labeled full-frame use the standard 35 mm sensor in their camera.  


Note though that pixel density is not proportional to sensor size.  In our case here even though both Nikon and Canon have the same full-frame sensor, their pixel densities are not the same.   Nikon has 45.7 megapixels while Cannon has 34.4 megapixels despite both cameras having a 35 mm sensor. 


A size down from the full frame sensor is the cropped sensor. As the name suggests, a cropped sensor is sensor that has been reduced in sized form the full frame camera.  The crop factor, in cropped sensors, depends on the manufacturer but ranges from 1.5 crop factor with Nikon cameras to 1.6 with cannon cropped sensor. 


 Next is a micro 4/3 sensor which has 2 x crop factor followed by the 1-inch sensor with a crop factor 2.7.   You can go smaller to a 1\1.7-inch sensor or even 1\2.5-inch sensor with 4.6 and 6.0 crop factors respectively.


The more you crop the sensor, the smaller the camera usually becomes. So, the sensor in your phone camera falls in the 1\2.5 range to fit in the modest body.  On the other hand, bigger and bulky camera bodies can hold sensors more significant than the traditional 35 mm sensor.  These cameras, with a sensor bigger than the conventional 35 mm, are referred to as medium format.  These cameras boast a minimum sensor size of 48x36 mm as well as a high megapixel density. Take for example Hasselblad H6D-100c. This camera boasts a 53.4x40 mm sensor with a resolution of 100 megapixels!


So, what is the difference between the tiny sensor in your camera phone and the relatively humongous sensor in a medium format camera? Apart from physical size, large sensors are better than smaller ones. First, the image quality of large sensors in much better than the smaller ones.  Because of their substantial size, larger sensors are able capture more information compared to the smaller sensor. You can, therefore, afford to crop the image without losing quality as well as enlarge it without image degradation.


Second, larger sensor cameras perform better in low light situations.  Because of the large surface area, large sensor can capture more light compared to small sensors.  Image if you were to put a large bucket and small on in the rain.  The large bucket will obvious catch more rainwater compared to the small one.  The same holds true of light.  Larger sensors can capture more light than their smaller counterparts.  You, therefore, with a large sensor, don’t need to boost your ISO when taking pictures in low light reducing the problem of sensor noise.


Lastly, large sensors will provide you with high-resolution images. Since their surface area is super-sized, a more significant sensor will pack a lot more pixels per inch than small sensors.  The more pixel density, the more you can capture minute detail leading to higher resolutions images.


Is there a downside to larger sensors? Yes.  The most significant drawback to the large sensors is the size. Your camera phone is small and portable because it can only hold a small sensor. Compare your camera phone to a medium format camera.  The difference is not only in size but also in weight.  Size and weight greatly diminish the versatility of large sensor cameras hence their use is limited.  It is rare to see someone walking around with a medium format camera snapping picture compared to smaller DSLRs. 


Price is another factor that makes large sensor cameras out of reach for most people.  These cameras can go as high as $48,000 while you could but a decent camera for $500. 


The decision of what camera to buy ultimately resets in the hand the person using it, their preference and budget.  I hope though that information will help you to make a more informed decision when buying or using your camera.


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