Why sensor sizes don’t matter (at least to me)

Sony A7

Don’t let the title fool you, I promise it won’t be another one of ‘those’ sensationalist articles. The following are just some personal thoughts based on a recent experience I had printing, and setting up a gallery exhibition of my work a few months ago.

In 2013, I decided to start publishing my photo work. Now, why print in a digital age?. Well, I am a designer during the day, and I simply love the smell of ink on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I love instagram, tumblr and all that, but something happens when you take the image out of the screen. In fact, I do believe in ‘is not a photo, until is printed’ more or less.

Ricoh GR
Ricoh GR

So, I embarked myself into self-publishing through the ‘zine’ format, which I called “Øbservations”. As the name suggests, this were my own visual journals documenting my wanderings in Auckland, NZ. I was printing and ‘using’ images from different sensors: Micro four thirds(Olympus OMD EM-10), APS-C (Ricoh GR) and Full Frame (Sony A7).

I knew that printing those zines at an A5 (148 x 210mm/5.8 x 8.3in) size wouldn’t give me any problems, in fact, I would have no problems with printing smartphone photos at those sizes either. Technology right now, is simply impressive. I have to be honest though. At one point I knew that if I was going to do any bigger prints, I might get all those differences that people kept writing on the internet about how cropped sensors ‘struggle to keep up’ with full frame.
A year after I started my ‘Øbservations’ project, I received an invitation to exhibit my work:

I decided to make each print as big as possible, which in this case, they were A3+ (330x482mm / 13x19in), which is a pretty big size for a gallery show. In fact, anything bigger than that and you really need a big room, with enough space to view each print from a distance, light them up properly, etc.
When I started to print my work for the exhibition (from the three different sensors, m43, APS-C and FF), the first test prints I did, were from the m43 sensor. And I was blown, I was actually seeing way more details than I saw on lightroom in my retina macbook pro. The prints kept coming out of the printer, of course the other two sensors (APS-C and FF) were outstanding as well. But here’s where things get interesting.

Ricoh GR
Ricoh GR

From all the people that came to the show,9 out of 10 times no one could really tell the difference in between sensors. No one cared really, because quality is simply outstanding from all three sensors nowadays. That 1 out of 10 time someone could actually tell the difference, was when they noticed the thinner depth of field of the FF sensor over the other two. Which, for some it might be a flaw, truth is, depth of field has nothing to do with the image quality of the sensor. right?
I prefer smaller cameras, because when I first started in photography, I started with film, and most 35mm cameras were (are) in fact, smaller than most digital cameras. But that’s another story. Technology, today, in 2015, has gone far. More than necessary for 98% of the users out there.
Lets not forget that one of the first, if not the first consumer digital full frame camera, came out in 2006, the canon 5d (a huge step for digital photography, no doubt!).


That is not even 10 years ago! and technology has gone so far that its safe to say that even APS-C sensors from 2 years ago or so, would run circles around those first Full frame sensor cameras. But we still care, and read endless blogs about the new and the latest megapixel/sensor-size. I know, I do and probably you do too.
I want to be clear though and say, No, I am not trying to ditch FF at all guys. I love it, and I own a FF sensor camera. But I do believe and insist that technology has gone so far, that I believe, cropped sensor do have an advantage compared to most FF sensor cameras. And that is… you guessed it, size and weight.


In fact is not a surprise that real master photographers, are right now shooting professional assignments with smaller and cropped sensor cameras. Why is that?, well, the quality is as good as 35mm sensor cameras, and the convenience of a smaller kit allows them to carry the camera anytime and anywhere more easily.
David Alan Harvey (National Geographic / Magnum Photographer) shoots m43, iphone, DSLR, and rangefinder cameras. Saul Leiter, considered one of the masters of color photography of the 20th century, was shooting m43 cameras before he passed away one and a half years ago (Watch his documentary, its a must). Daido Moriyama, the japanese master photographer, has made a career shooting compact cameras, even shooting very small sensor cameras and making huge prints out of it.

Ricoh GR
Ricoh GR

On the other hand, there’s guys like Michael Kenna, that have shot landscape photography with nothing less than Medium format, but then again, he is also known for using Holga cameras (cheap plastic, fixed lens, 120mm cameras) which one thing they lack the most is, sharpness and perfection.
Having said all that, I was thinking, why would a simple amateur like myself or yourself perhaps, demand more and more from the manufacturers than we currently have.

Ricoh GR
Ricoh GR

Every Time I surf through photo blogs or forums were I used to share my photos, now most of them, seem to be delusional with edge to edge sharpness and resolution as if it were almost the only conversation to have when talking about cameras or photography. What else do we need from our digital cameras? Because if you are not going to print any of the photos (which a lot of people don’t), this whole article is muted and there’s nothing more to say.

Also, you might well not know, but if you think you need a 36 or 50 megapixel sensor camera, heck, even a 24 megapixel camera to fill and share photos through your retina, 2k or even 4k dedicated screens, I can only tell you, that they ‘only’ resolve an equivalent of an 8 megapixel photo, which in fact is, what your iphone shoots.


For me, photography does not need to be perfect, it is about moments, personal expressions, reality, and lots of trial and error, and personally I’ve been experimenting with other ways of printing my work: screenprint, risographs, etc. Because what is cool about photography, is that timeless feel, a slice of time frozen in a piece of paper, which might be slightly blurred, textured or color saturated, just like your memories about that moment.

I guess what I wanted to share with you guys, is that there’s no camera on the face of the planet that will take ‘those’ photos you dream of, it is you behind it that will. And any sensor will capture an amazing or crap photo. A good photo is a good photo regardless of the sensor, camera or format you shoot at. Again, I’m not trying to say, cropped sensors are better than full frame ones or trying to ditch full frames for cropped ones. It’s more like, if you are trying to buy a camera in 2015, go with whatever you can buy within your budget (except those $100 dollar point and shoot, stick to your cellphone if that’s the case).

Sony A7
Sony A7

Instead of spending days and weeks reading reviews of this vs that (been there done that), try going to your local shop and play with all the cameras. Now, when it comes to Sensor quality, meaning, image quality, right now, today, is better than what most people need.imho.
Again this are just some personal thoughts after publishing and setting up a fine art gallery show in the last year and half. Sensor size, really don’t matter to me anymore.
PS: By the time I finished this article, I received some test prints I’m doing for some other publications in the future. I printed two large formats photos, and when I say large i do mean it, 841 x 1189mm (46.8 x 33in). One from a 16 megapixel APS-C camera and the other one from a 24megapixel FF camera. To be honest, you’d be hard pressed telling which one has more details in the very top corner near the tree branches. Also, look at the amount of crop sensors that won awards!

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10 thoughts on “Why sensor sizes don’t matter (at least to me)”

  1. This all makes total sense, Chris, and as someone whose main system is Micro 4/3, it certainly pushes my buttons. However, there is one thing you may be missing. People value a camera for how well it does what is most important to them. What is actually most important to lots of photographers, particularly “enthusiasts”, is looking at images on a large screen and then zooming in to 1:1. This is what gives them pleasure. Posting on line and printing in reasonable sizes – neither of which require large sensors – are in reality secondary uses for most images. So I think there will always be a megapixel race, and there will always be people rightly pointing out that those megapixels are superfluous to many needs. I will probably be in the second group, but I will also admit that the megapixel push has contributed to the amazing improvement in the quality of digital cameras over the last decade.

      1. Full agreement!

        I went back from a heavy Sony A7rII- equipment to a much more practical mFT- system on the basis of Panasonic’s new Lumix G9.

        Of course the image quality delivered by the Sony full frame sensor is better, but in most situations of no practical value, so in the final product you will not see the difference – only when examining the images at 100 percent on the screen of your computer (what seems to by a hobby by many bloggers in technique-oriented forums …)

        In contrast the much more compact size and lighter weight mFT- equipment IS of practical value – it gives you great mobility what supports your creativity, without any loss in image quality in practical terms (at least if you use good lenses )

  2. Socorro Velazquez

    Could not agree more. While I’m a super-senior, I consider my self a rookie in photography; and, own a FF and a couple of APF-C’s. All these cameras take very acceptable photos. But ironically, the ones my family most like, are the ones with poor resolution or technical qualities. So, beyond the technology, there also lies the photo opportunity. This past week I spent a couple of of work-related days in Tegucigalpa and got invited to dinner the last night at a restaurant called La Cumbre. No idea what to expect but as usual, had my Sony RX100 with me. Wow! What a sight from that mountain top looking down into the city! Enough to cry about when you realize you don’t have the right camera with you. But the moment is what counts, so I attempted to take hand-held shots: F/1.8, 1/6’, ISO 1600 exposure. Some iPhoto PP.

  3. I went out for dinner planning not to photograph and so carried only my Canon S 90 with me. When the perfect scene occurred, I shot it hand held, printed it 20 X 16, and the print was splendid. My big camera is an m43 and I print 16 X20 or even a bit larger to show in a gallery. The prints have adequate detail. I agree completely that the technology today is so good that bigger cameras may be needed for special situations like impressing a client or subject. But for nearly everything m43 is plenty big enough and so easy to carry around.

  4. Pingback: INSPIRED EYE | The big, fat list of all things Street Photography

  5. Thanks, it’s 2020 now, 5 years later, and the most intelligent article I ever read about sensor size.

    I sometimes believe that the whole sensor size/pixel count debate is caused by insecurity and not knowing what you need or want. If people don’t know what they want they will default to a camera that presumably can do it all and if they don’t know what quality they need they will default to the ‘best ‘or ‘biggest’.

    If cameras were cars, all pixel peepers would drive all wheel drive buses for 24 persons with monster truck tires and four V12 racing engines, just to bring their kids to the school two blocks away.

    People who take photographs and make prints know what they need. Granted, everybody has to start somewhere and the ‘review/product push’ sites and forums don’t help.

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