#118. Sensors : why size matters!

By pascaljappy | News

Aug 24

Rumours of a Full-Frame NEX camera to come recently triggered jolly flame wars with (uneducated) comments successively denouncing the technical impossibility of the task and, more interestingly, how pointless the whole endeavour is.

Now that comes as no surprise. The photo world is dotted with interest niches and, as self-centeredness often overrides intellect, fanboy antics inevitably follow big announcements.

Cambridge Round Church entrance detail

Trying to convince the adverse camp you’re right being totally meaningless, let me jump right in with the most consensual arguments that come to mind πŸ˜‰

By Universal Law, there 3 reasons for wanting bigger sensors :

  • Modern cameras are too small.
  • The high-ISO race is stupid. Only lower enlargement means better quality.
  • More pixels, I want more pixels.

Having publicly made a fool of myself, let me now defend my honour.

Modern cameras are too small

Ever heard of Goldilocks ? The lass would fall for the Sony NEX-7. Not the 5n or the mighty Nikon D4.

Huge & heavy camera are nuisance and the only sane people who use them need their specialty features to bring food home. And having ranted for years against the bulky DSLR, getting my hands on the Sony NEX-5N was a revelation.

Grenwich Astronomy Center stairs

But that may be a just tad too far in the other direction. Even my current Olympus OM-D [rest-of-the-stupidly-long-name-omitted] is a bit too small for comfort. Some controls are too cramped for some hands, including my own average-build sample pair.

Bigger means more room for wheels and dedicated buttons. If Leica designers didn’t have an obsession for suppositories, they’d have it nailed just about perfect.

The race for smaller cameras has given us smaller sensors. But we don’t need smaller cameras! Seriously, if you need something truly pocketable, get a smartphone. Their cameras are ample enough for the family shot and for recording scenes. Instagram and other apps let you add fun filters and you can share the newly born instantly with 900 millions others on Facebook. 99.9% of pocket cameras are lousy. My 12 year-old daughter has outgrown hers, feeling frustrated be the constant limitations in focus and exposure.

For small, get a smartphone. If you need something that lets you make your photographic decisions for yourself, ergonomics will matter wayyy more than absolute tinyness.

So let’s have bigger sensors so manufacturers give us bigger cameras πŸ˜‰

Stop the high-ISO fallacy and give us more pixels.

Yeah, I know this reasoning is so 2009. More pixels, right. I was one of the “no-more” protesters.

But what we got instead of the pixel race is even more preposterous. The vast majority of the best pictures in history were created below ISO100, yet most cameras today won’t even let you use such a low setting. That is so $*#@OM-D EM-5&Β£$ irritating!

Marketing departments have managed to convince us that we absolutely need low-noise images at 12800ISO and dependable 50000ISO, so camera quality is now judged by photographing bats in caves without a tripod. Well, bats stink, what an obnoxious idea.

If you absolutely need to be making handheld pictures in a very dark place, why not consider an f/2 prime instead of that f/5.6 megazoom and – even better – internal stabilisation. The one in the Olympus [I forgot the middle part] E-M5 is fantastic. It adds 3 stops to your range plus it stabilises live-view with long lenses.

So instead of the utterly nonsensical ISO200-25600 range, could we please have ISO25-3200 ? Please ? I mean so that 1/4 second exposures in mid afternoon doesn’t require space-age filter technology ? It doesn’t seem to occur to those marketing and engineering departments that some people actually *want* to make long exposures. If that’s wrong, let’s just ban people like Michael Kenna from the Internet, shall we πŸ˜‰

A row of green Vel'Lib lights against a backdrop of multicolour out of focus street lamps showing the great bokeh of the Digital Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 on the Olympus OM-D E-M5

Vel’Lib Intimacy

Good. Now that we’ve established that all beyond-ISO1600-nonsense is bad for your Karma, let’s see why a big sensor is better !

Depth of field ? Nope. The above pic was made with my lovely Olympus OM-D EM-5 (yay, made it !) and its humiliatingly small chip. Shallow depths of field are indeed easier with larger sensors, but for me the main reason is the lower enlargement required for equivalent-size prints.

Conventional wisdom suggests that DPI is responsible for print quality, but if you examine well made gallery exhibits made with a 5Mpix Nikon D1x and compare that to your latest pocket 20Mpix effort, you’ll soon dump conventional wisdom right down the chute. Bigger pixels are better pixels (all else being equal), end of story.

Take the two photographs below :

Three levels of roads and passageways in Hong Kong

As Above, So Below

Winkworth arboretum

A Brittish Sossusvlei ?

The first was made with the Sony NEX-5n and its fantastic sensor. But it’s heavily processed (from RAW) and no amount of digital massaging will allow me to print it more than 12 inches wide with really good quality.

The second predates it a fair bit and used an equally lovely Fujica folding 645 camera. By the time my APS view of Hong-Kong is blown to 12 inches (13x enlargement), the arboretum covers 30. Small may be beautiful but big is beautifuller πŸ˜‰

Why more pixels?

So, if the asinine hunt for High-ISO is not the way to go,why would high pixel count fare any better?

Ken Rockwell recommends you FART before you shoot (his exact words : “I take my best pictures when I FART first.”). May I humbly suggest you consider a crop as well ?

The man about to be crowned best photographer of all time was a strong advocate of cropping. The best format should not be dictated by technological considerations but purely artistic reasoning. The best crop is the one that makes the picture the strongest and best fits you vision.

In the first picture of this post, for example, any extra information would have broken the abstract design and provided unwanted context revealing this is an English church, not an Atlantean palace !

There’s no way around it : Just like Guiness, croppin’ is good for you! Ponder.

Another argument in favour of cropping is this : get rid of heavy telephotos. A 3x crop on a 36Mp Full-Frame NEX-to-be using a 180/3.4mm Leica-R lens will produce a 4Mpx image of stunning quality (probably enough for a 12-16 inch print, if you don’t go wild on processing). Equivalent focal length : 540mm. Money saved : a lot. Back-ache saved : even more. Pictures saved : countless, because that 500m f/3.4 would not follow you up a mountain, if it even existed.

Circular lakes in Western Australia seen from the plane, Sony NEX5n

The third use is even more fun ! Face a tall building with a wide lens. Hold it horizontal so that the street is lined up with the middle of the frame and the top of the building is lined up with the top (if not, walk ;)) That bottom half of the frame is littered with rusty cars, passers-by and 9-year-olds doing graffiti. But that’s all right because we can … yes … crop it. And voilΓ , that kit lens just gained Shift-lens status. For free, curtesy of the many many pixels that let you dump half of them with no quality cost … Isn’t life wonderful?

Having a good crop for a free shift!

Oh, and number 4 is so trendy. Imagine this. You’re this great photographer in that cave. And there’s that bat you absolutely need to photograph while the black cat is pouncing on it. You desperately need to freeze the action because your editor won’t have it otherwise and you’re so good you don’t use flashes or tripods. Well here’s where those 40Mpix come in handy. Bin them. Bin them 3×3 for extra low noise and transform your ISO3200 into high-quality ISO25600. Isn’t that wonderful?

I tried this below. It looks great doesn’t it ? Absolutely no noise in the blacks ! πŸ˜‰


But too many pixels mean small pixel. Unless that is, you have a large sensor.
Storage size, you say? Shoot fewer photographs. Make every picture count!

Phew, that was close. But let me take this a step further …

A gentle plea for SQUARE

My Gran, best Gran in the world, once handed me a small gardening book entitled “A gentle plea for chaos” that changed my gardening life for the better and forever. The little pamphlet brilliantly captivates you through wonderful storytelling and suggests you let nature reclaim some if its rights in your garden and invite more freedom into your gardener’s life. No other book has had the same impact on me (in my gardening life, that is. Let’s not forget St Ansel’s The Print ;))

Well, with far less talent but no less enthusiasm, I would like to request that camera manufacturers breathe a little more freedom into our photographers’ lives as well.

A misty sunrise refleted in a camping car using an olympus OM-D EM-5

A bit of adventure can do us no harm, right?

Here we are in 2012 with camera technology defying all we’ve ever known in the past but stuck with a sensor format that predates World War I. At the time, the introduction of a small film area made possible by darkroom enlargement equipment was essential to mass market cameras.

Today, what is the rationale, I wonder with some frustration …

  • The 3:2 format is good for a full magazine page spread? Rubbish! Any 200$ used DSLR can produce a file clean and large enough to crop for a double page.
  • The 3:2 format uses more of the lenses, coverage ? Nope. It’s actually worse in that respect than 4:3, 4:5 and 1:1 (square).
  • Sensors are easier to produce in that format ? Wrong again. I’ll let co-author Philippe explain why if he reads this, as he’s a top consultant in this area.
  • Another good reason ? Possibly, but not one I’ve ever heard of.

The only reasons are apathy and fear of change. Understandable but very silly. Four-Thirds and now Micro-Four-Thirds systems deliberately abandoned the format in favour of the far superior 4:3. And they seem to be doing well enough.

lamps on the ceiling of an underground station. Instagram

Instagram Lamps

Why do I care? Certainly not because of the format’s age, but because it’s plain horrible in most cases. Not wide enough for a true horizontal sweep as in panoramas but too slit-like for many scenes. Worst of both worlds? Just take a walk in picture galleries and examine the paintings and photographs. Except for Magnum photographers, how many do you see in 3:2 format? Not that many. One of the reasons for clinging to my Olympus OM-D is that the 4×3 aspect ratio is soooo much more pleasing to use.

But that’s just my very personal opinion. However, with a 4:3 format, you lose very little if you crop for a 3:2 format or for a more square-ish format. When you start with Oskar’s elongated 3:2, you lose far more (and need to crop far more often). I know I know, cropping was a great thing just a few lines before. But HAVING to crop and having the OPPORTUNITY of near lossless cropping are two very different concepts πŸ˜‰

The bar carriage in a TGV train. Instagram

Intragram train bar.

And even better is the square format. It’s doubtful any mainstream camera maker will dare go that way, but think about it : no horizontal/vertical means simpler ergonomics (and boundless joy for tripod users) and a square lets you crop to any other format (why not use electronic frames on the fly?). And it’s not like the risk would be that big of people disliking the result, either. The square format used to repel a few photographers who found it difficult to compose with but, today, 50-100 MILLION Instagram users seem to enjoy it no end! Where’s the risk, then? Auto-stitch for panoramas and here’s your universal tool.

Concluding thoughts

So here’s where we stand: we’ve established that full-frame 50Mpix sensors with low ISO range and in-camera stabilisation are a cure to poverty and famine and essential to a good FART, shift and crop. And that the square format rules and is THE way to go.

Being tolerant by nature, I’ll settle for a 4:3 close second best. But please forget about the ugly duckling that will never grow into a beautiful swan 3:2 format and please torture anyone suggesting higher ISOs than 3200.

Bring back the big fat pixels and the smooth joy of ISO25.

A kari forest along Caves Road in Margaret River, Western Australia. Sony Nex-5n in camera panorama

Square rules, OK!

  • A very thoughtful post. Some reasons for FF that I hadn’t thought of!

  • […] Why size matter – Auf dearsusans.wordpress.com wird schΓΆn bebildert ΓΌber die Sensorgrâßen nachgedacht. […]

  • philberphoto says:

    Aha, my fellow Pascal has decided to throw his hat in the ring! How can I fail to rise to this bait, and take the opposite position? This is actually more serious than just a friendly argument, because I jhave just sold all my DSLR gear, 5DIII and Zeiss primes, and am leaving today for what could lead to serious photography with “only” my APS-C -sensor-sized Sony NEX 7 and backup NEX 5N.

    The first argument I will take up is that of weight, and its companion, bulk. How this relates to the point Pascal makes is simple: small sensors make for small cameras. Forums buzz and roar with photographers lusting for cameras with good IQ but without the bulk and weight penalties of full-sized DSLRs, without even considering professional-only boat anchors like Nikon D4 and Canon 1D-X.

    While it may sound strange to many of you, because Leica is such an idiosyncratic brand and product, rangefinder and no-LiveView and no-AA fiter and all, the key reason why many of my forum buddies (well, those who can afford it at least) shoot M9s, is weight. Bulk and weight. Take Boris, for example. He used to shoot Canon 5D II, and now shoots M9. His two bodies, plus ‘Lux lenses cost him a ton. Is it because of IQ? He says no, it wasn’t any less good, all things considered, with the 5D II. Was it practicality? God no! It was so much better with the Canon system, with LiveView, easy use of polarizers, a good rear LCD etc… It is all because of the weight. He has more than halved the weight of his backpack, and loves it.

    Look at yours truly. Another landscaper shooting 5D II with Zeiss primes. The NEX 5 was a revelation. Not because of its quality, but because I could take it everywhere. This led to 5N and then 7, and quality increased more rapidly than moving from 5D II to 5D III. Eventually, portability and useability trumped untimate IQ, and Canon lost me as a customer.

    Now, before you start arguing, let me remind of an eerily similar situation, that of sound reproduction. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, it was all about quality, and from this quest evolved the very esoteric “audiophile” market segment, where a really top-notch system competed on cost with a new Ferrari ( I should know, I had one!). Meanwhile some addicts remained focused on analog sound like some love their film and won’t touch digital. People thought that this quest would go on forever, and the 16-bit CD evolved into the 24-bit DVD-Audio. Did this fly? Nope. Why? Because a very sick company with a legendary past and declining market share launched a unique gadget that looked strange and had horrible sound quality. It was called the iPod, and the rest is history. Portabilty trumped quality to such an extent that hi-fi as an industry essentially died.

    People preferred having “acceptable sound quality everywhere” than great sound quality from time to time. It is the same for me with my NEX. And there is a another example unfolding as we speak. Camera phones are squeezing low-end compact cameras out of existence. Every one has his smartphone with him all the time, but not his camera, and the IQ of the IPhone 4S is quite good compared to a compact, adn Nokia 48Mp camera phones are coming, and…. you get the drift…

    And yes, my small-sensor, minute-pixel camera gives me more memorable shots, just because I can and do take it everywhere every time, than the DSLR did. And is this not what photography is all about: taking memorable shots?

    Let us leave it here for now, and give Pascal a chance to get his breath back. Then I will go on with argument NΒ°2…:-)

  • pascaljappy says:

    Oh man, is this going to take time. You brought audio into this. Talking to a man who sold his lungs, kidneys and liver to finance SE monotriode amps, built horn loaded speakers and still owns a turntable. You’re lucky I’m at work. But … wait for it, asap, ha ha πŸ˜€

    • pascaljappy says:

      OK, Philippe, first of all : welcome to a lightweight world πŸ™‚ Although my rant on “sane people don’t use large DSLR” was meant to tease you, I actually thought the 5DIII wasn’t all that huge and it’s a bold and brave move to dump it in favour of less professional equipment. Being in the unfortunate position of having my cameras fail in very distant and remote trips over the past years, I recommend a second body to anyone (I know you will carry one :))

      As for the perfect size, we both agree the M9 is just about spot on. Let’s give Leica 10 more years to jump into 21st century design and it should be perfect (maybe the M10 will make me wrong ?).

      So, I’m not advocating much bigger cameras, only asking makers stop trying to make them smaller and smaller. We do have hands and gloves to operate their tiny buttons. Anyone looking for a clue should just take a look at the Mamiya 7, a camera that could be operated in ANY circumstance. Too big by modern standers, but so comfortable. In my mind, the Sony NEX-7 is the closest you can get to that spirit.

      And what about ultra-fi ? You shouldn’t have mentioned that. I’ll write all day and break the Internet. Still, having gone the (expensive) digital way in its infancy (Wadia, YBA …) and cried at the resulting screetch, going back to low tech mono amps with glorious 17W per channel output from 100lb machines that melted the Antartic and lit the night sky with the glow of rectifiers, VV52B triodes and other exotic bottles, was a cure beyond description. The sound of these sweeties through single driver horns is simply magical and more soothing than anything this side of Samadhi πŸ™‚ Still, digital evolved and got better with smoother transitions, better converters and less … digital sound, and swayed me back after 10 years.

      To me, the comparison with cameras is a very good one and small pixels can be compared to the early DACs with that gritting digital sounds, whereas big lazy pixels from big format CCD sensors (Phase, Leaf, Mamiya …) are the modern best-of-breed at stratospheric prices and low practicality. In the middle, the perfect sweet-spot is the full-frame mirrorless, don’t you think ? πŸ˜‰

      • pascaljappy says:

        Now, for argument #2 πŸ˜‰

      • philberphoto says:

        Haha, Pascal, you hopeless romantic! 300B monotriodes! Definitely King of the Hill, but it is the wrong Hill. King of glorious sound, no doubt, but not of fidelity… but back to photography.
        You make a case that larger pixels are better. If that were the case, a Canon 5D would offer better IQ than it s later siblings 5D II and III. Similarly, a Nikon D3 would outperform a D4, let alone a D 800. Yet that is not the case, because technology moves on, and we are not comparing apples to apples…
        You also want not only large pixels, but also a gazillion of them, and I agree. But, laws of physics being what they are, this means large sensors, and, in consequence, large lenses. The only way to keep lenses relatively smaller is to use a very short register, a la Leica or NEX, and that carries hardships in terms of wide angles.
        All I am saying is that, as this stage of technological evolution, IQ from smaller sensors is good enough that total portability comes at a price in IQ which I am willing to pay. I don’t care that the FF DSLR that I left at home would have delivered better image quality thant he APS-C mirrorless that I have with me.
        And I am confident that sensors, electronics and software will continue their rapid progress to the extent that smaller systems deliver ever closer IQ to their larger siblings, leaving them fit only for professionals.
        Lastly, I find it amusing that your passionate plea for FF and large pixels comes from the same man who is in love with a small-pixel-small-pixel system. My camera is smaller than yours, but my sensor is larger…. Haha….300B, no, really….:-)

        • pascaljappy says:

          Ha ha, but that’s precisely why your analogy between HiFi and photography is so good. Do we really want absolute realism or not ? Those little tubes were more moving than amps I listened to that cost the price of a small house.

          we both agree : technology moves on. And my stunning little Olympus OM-D is there to prove it, whith the high-quality pictures produces by its microscopic pixels. But all things being equal, they’re ain’t no substitute for cubic inches! Technology recently has mainly given us better performance at high ISO which does as much for me (and many other photographers still working with CCD or – ghasp – film πŸ˜‰ ) as more legs on a centipede.

          Isn’t it time manufacturers recognised there are multiple styles and aspirations out there and that the whole world isn’t necessarily after ISO16gazillion in a tiny package. If they did and focused more on niches, the variety would be welcomed by many. There’s a very interesting article on Steve Huff’s blog explaining why the wonderful NEX-7 will simply be forgotten when a technically superior model comes out, because it simply excels nowhere. It’s great all rounder, not a perfect niche camera. http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2012/09/01/peaking-into-the-past-present-and-future-with-the-sony-nex-7-by-vitor-munhoz/

          My niche is great quality at low ISO. I love my tripod (so do you, I’ve seen the beauty ;)) and we would be both better served by fantastic dynamic range and colour fidelity at ISO50 than by ridiculous ISO6400 performance. Bigger pixels would give us that. And a larger sensor would give us more of these bigger pixels. I’d happily stick to just 2 great lenses with a camera like that. You 24 Elmar might just be one of them πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰


  • […] Post navigation ← Previous […]

  • […] some time, I have been complaining about the general trend towards more and more technological cameras that give us great nocturnal […]

  • […] not long ago that I implored manufacturers for large sensors and large pixels in portable cameras. And here we have 24 thousand thousands, each about 6 micron wide (almost three times the size of […]

  • Roni says:

    Very cool blog, and thanks for putting these analyses and comments out there, with some really pretty pics.

    I’m just wondering if your comments about high ISO aren’t overstated. I’ve heard many photographers also comment that shooting 36MP raw on a D800 can burn up card space much faster than anticipated. And I’ve seen dpreview shots with the NEX 5N 16MP that are more usable at high ISO than NEX 7 24MP at the same ISO (due to the higher pixel density). So, what I’m saying is that lower pixel count and higher ISO can make for wonderful images, much like the enormous 12MP sensor of the D700.

    Also, I wonder if the high ISO sensors are not better for portraits. For example, wedding photographers must take hundreds of portraits in dimly lit environments, and the option to up the ISO the 3200 can make a huge difference for many shots. Simply opening an 85mm lens to f1.4 doesn’t always solve this issue because of the intensely shallow DOF.

    Just wondering your thoughts on high ISO over high pixel density for low light portraits. For most other types of photography, I would agree that high ISO is unnecessary, with the exception of astrophotography, which has benefited immensely from affordable ultra-sensitive sensors.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Roni, thanks for the kind comment.

      You’re quite correct about the D800. I just bought one and cards shrink by a factor of 3 at least. Plus, mu ultra-fast laptop huffs and puffs to process the big files …

      I agree entirely with you. Big fat pixels are the way to go. But they don’t necessarily imply high ISO performance (see CCD digital backs for instance). What bugs me is small pixel cameras gunning at high ISO instead of great quality at low ISO. There’s some sort of crase about being able to shoot at 12800 that just baffles me. Who in the world needs that and what great pictures were taken at high ISOs ? To me it’s far more important to have great low ISO performance. Obviously, the two can go hand in hand (as in the D700 you mention) but this is not always the case and many small pixel cameras have a gritty digital look even at base ISO.

      For low-light portraits, you’ll probably want nice ISO800 performance. Since you’ll probably be shooting at f/2 or f/2.8 much higher isn’t necessary (unless you’re talking really low light). Astrophotography needs low read and amp noise. Canon are better at that than Nikon and yet Nikon boast better high ISO performance (which is really in camera processing). CCS cameras used in astrophotography are cooled (down to -100Β°C in EM-CCD extremes) to lower noise as much as possible and their read-out speed is much lower than what you find in photo cameras, again to reduce noise.

      But on the whole, I totally agree with you : big low-pixel count sensors are way better than the other way around. I’ll take a D700 over a 40Mpix Nokia any day πŸ˜‰ Cheers.

  • >