Why I shoot small sensor cameras

The evolution of the photographer usually goes something like this: First they get a point and shoot camera, than get a bridge camera, then a DSLR, then a full frame camera. While I shoot my pro stuff on large sensor cameras, the majority of my work was done one a small sensor camera and I don't plan on changing anytime soon, here's why.

 

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What's a small sensor anyway?
First things first, let's define our terms, for the purposes of this article, a small sensor is a sensor that is maximum 1/1.7th inch or close neighbor, but definitely not bigger than a 1 inch sensor. That is of course relative, some peeps would call a 1 inch a small sensor, but with that being out of the way, here are my reasons for keeping my small sensor cameras.

 

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1-The pocket factor

You can't shoot without a camera, that's just the way it is, so a small sensor camera has the advantage of just being always there . Just by the fact that small sensor cameras are small, it makes them better companion than larger cameras, you just don't have to think twice about going out without them because the camera is always present and gets out of the way. Furthermore, I won't shy away to say that the best shots have always been unplanned, as in I wouldn't have made the shot because I probably would have left my camera at home.

 

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Case and point, the shot of the lady in the sea. Kids wanted to pick up seashells, I was going to get them to go back, about a 10 minute excursion. Why would I in my right mind pick up my regular camera? But just cause my small sensor is always in my pocket I made the shot. Also, the funny thing is, when you have a camera in your pocket you subconsciously seek photographs.

 

There was a period where I didn't have my small sensor camera with me and guess what? I almost despaired my muse had left me. Your brain knows what you are up to, so having a camera always on you tells it to always check for images.
Now granted, some cameras are really too large for the kind of sensor they are carrying but that's mostly exceptions. I'm looking at you Nikon p7800 (love this thing!)

 

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2-Large depth of field

 

When I first got my DSLR that 1.8 aperture was magic, but slowly after getting used to small sensors, I actually much prefer large depth of fields. It's of course pretty easy to get due to the fact that the sensor is, well, small! To be honest, while I should be at say f/5.6 for hyper-focal, I rarely go that far with small sensor cameras, 2.8 is usually fine and when I miss my focus, it's not overly exaggerated.

 

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3- Constant awareness of the background

 

Because there is a large depth of field, it's pretty hard to Bokeh with a small sensor camera, but in my opinion that's a good thing. I have a different mindset when I take my 1.4 APSC camera then when I pick up my GRD IV. With the first I tend to rely on the Bokeh too much to make the background go away, while when I shoot with my Ricoh GRD, I have a constant awareness of everything within the frame…..from the foreground to the background, making me make more conscious images.

 

I found that I approach images much differently then, and at the end of the day I much prefer my small sensor images because I find them more deliberate.

 

 

4-People just don't care bou't you

 

Say you are in a crowd, 3 shooters pull up their cameras. One has a phone, the other a small sensor camera, the other a DSLR. The one with the phone is invisible, no one knows what he or she is doing, from texting to shooting images, the one with the DSLR stands out and attracts too much attention if you ask me. The one with the small sensor tends to be discredited because his camera looks like a point and shoot, gasp! a tourist with a camera!

 


I prefer people in their elements, I don't mind them looking at the camera for a second but I do not want them to be attracted to my camera nor me. Try pointing a dslr at someone in the streets and you might have more than one person ask what you are doing….no one ever asked me what I was doing with my wee little camera.

 

 

 

The ability to be dismissed in my opinion is very important, say you put up the camera in order to make a picture, two things can happen, either the person will hold their gaze in order to figure out what the heck you are doing (and keep their picture face on) or they can dismiss you and go back to what they are doing because they deem you and your camera as non important. That's how I got the shot of the fisherman below, he was looking for a sec and then turned his head.

 

When I see a shot, it's usually the person doing something, but then by raising the camera, if that person looks, usually I want them to go back to that original position, and usually the small sensor camera allows just for that. So it's not only the photographer's approach that the small sensor affects, it also affects the subjet's perception.

 

5-The small sensor look

 

Some are after the Leica glow, others the medium format look, I'm after the small sensor look. It's really THE reason I shoot mostly small sensors: the gritty/dirty look. Let's take two images I made not long in between.

 

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I made this with the Fuji XE1, and this one with the Ricoh GRD IV:

 

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While I really like the first image, for me it's definitely too clean, too “HD” if you like. Just look at the sky, it's just so smooth and silky! Now look at the second image's sky….yeah that's more like it!
I don't like cleanmages, for me they are sterile and don't do nothing for me. The small sensor cameras grit really fast and that's the way I like it. This is of course a matter of preference, if you like clean HD images, by all means shoot like that. But for me it's the grit, the grain, the imperfections (wabi-sabi!) that make the image.
There's a certain look that I can get from presets, but there's a little something something that is just there when you process small sensor files. There's just this gut feeling I have when I finish processing small sensor images that I just don't get from larger sensors. Yes, that is why I do not have the Ricoh GR and I'm still using the Ricoh GRD IV, the second one grits better.

 

 

Conclusion

 

There you have it. At the end of the day, the perfect camera doesn't exist so shoot what is best for you. But as things progress, I'm seeing the baseline sensor no longer being 1/1.7inch or similar but 1 inch, and for me that's too big. I hope with my reasons, you'll see why I am a small sensor fan and hope manufacturers still release cameras with those sensors in since it give images that have a certain look, affect the way you shoot and how others perceive you.

 

What about you, do you still shoot small sensors or have you gone to the dark side? Let me know in the comments below! Be yourself, stay focused, and keep on shooting.

 

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57 thoughts on “Why I shoot small sensor cameras”

    1. Hey Val, Ricoh GRD IV. Period. Other likes….Nikon P7000+ series, Canon G series but they are not that small. The canon S series are pretty small but no controls like the GRD IV has ;/

  1. Good points Olivier! I don’t have a small sensor camera anymore but I have settled in m4/3 and I don’t want to buy anything bigger than that for most of the reason you mention.

  2. +1 p7800: Amazing gigantic little camera
    Also, that second shot of the guy in the boat is great. I find I am using my dslr’s more and more lately, only because I use my p7800 so much. It’s with me almost every day and takes amazing photos. I have to force myself to go out and use my larger camera (d300/610).

  3. To each his own. If there is one thing I have learnt from this website, and from Olivier in particular, it is not to obsess about technology, but to love the camera you own.

  4. Finally another small sensor shooter,love the blog,I use iPhone,Samsung Compact,PentaxQ original with 8mm lens,love these for depth of field and image look. Will admit to a new Ricoh GR for my architectural style. More big sensor boys should try the style before rubbishing the images.

    1. Yay! Iphone, I don;t like the fact that I can’t hold it right but a battery case is slowly changing my mind! Samungs are great, Pentax Q, was eying one a while ago! Would love to see your GR results, feel free to post!

    1. Sure: I only shoot RAW, the simple reason is because there is more data in the file. I want to have some wiggle room and RAW allows me to do that. Say the image of the second fisherman, a JPG can’t do that, the sky would have fallen apart in my opinion…

  5. Nice article Oliver, I also like the small sensor camera especially for street, same reasons as you mentioned, I shoot DLSR and Fuji X100 for events, and use my Samsung EX1 for street, I shoot Raw with all my cameras.
    Keep up the good work.

  6. Nice article, Olivier. For me it’s my old X10. I haven’t taken a single shot with that camera that would look any better to me if I had captured it with one of my larger snappers.

  7. I use the Ricoh GR but I can understand that you think those files are too smooth. I Like to add some grit in post process sometimes so I can have it both ways 🙂 and also try to shoot in higher ISO’s to get more grit if possible. Of course the small sensors give you that feel by nature 🙂

  8. arnar steinthorsson

    My trio are Small Sensor, Big Pictures cameras.
    Panasonic LX3, Nikon V1 & Olympus Pen EPL5. Each with it´s own character. I like them all.

  9. I own and use a Fuji X100 and do like the images it produces despite some frustrations and limitations with using and maintaining the camera. But do you think one could do any kind of professional work with such a camera? I mean, sure, of course it’s possible, but would date files hold up in print? Would you be taken seriously by clients? I had my Nikon D700 stolen and am considering buying a new “pro-spec” camera because although I don’t want another big, expensive, weighty DSLR, I want to earn some money from photography on the side of my personal projects; events, portraits, editorial if possible. I don’t know if the small sensor look, lack of weather sealing, hit-and-miss autofocus, limited availability of accrues or ability to change lenses, bad battery life and noisy high-ISO handling would be enough in the professional world. A friend who does some paid work for magazines such as Nat Geo Traveler has told me that you can indeed see the difference in print between shots he’s made with full-frame DSLR’s and mirrorless compacts, and that some of his images shot on the latter have been turned away by editors because of the look of them and lack of quality of the files. Thoughts? Thanks

    1. Sorry, some type-o’s in there. Hope you can figure out what I mean despite auto-correct oddities like; “date files” – the files*, “accrues” – accessories*,

    2. Hey Graham,
      Let’s get some middle ground out of the way first….you can always get a FF Sony A7 for about 1200. As for pro stuff, I don’t know much about the Fuji X100 itself, a good member of ours, Kevin Mullins (http://www.kevinmullinsphotography.co.uk) shoots with that.

      I personally shoot mostly with my XE1, mainly weddings, events and food, got no complaints at all! I really do not know why the editor turned down some shots, go on Flickr or similar site and you’ll be hard pressed to see what was shot with what, even mu43 holds it’s own very well.

      Attached is a wedding shot with the XE1

  10. Going from a Canon DSLR to a Sony A5100 was quite a trip. No viewfinder, lack of custom controls etc…. But I LOVE the A5100, The screen used for selfies is amazing when angled horizontal so I can get low without laying on the floor. It is a full frame sensor but with Mirrorless pancake lens. I’ve been blown away by the results and use it far far more than my old bulky DSLR. I’ve even pulled off a few pro level shots that compare well with cameras costing over 5k. Truly astonishing little camera.

  11. I just got a Panasonic LX3 off eBay for $49 and it’s absolutely perfect. It’s got a leica lens, dials, a hot shoe and shoots raw. I always have it with me. Anyway, great article. Thanks. Jeff.

    1. I purchased my LX3 back in 2010 and I really like it because: size, you can use it from iA to fully manual, hot shoe for external flash or remote trigger, RAW, macro photography, and quality of images.

  12. I certainly go with what you say, though I wouldn’t accept a 1/2.3 sensor any day since having used Leicas with 1/1.7 or 1/1.8. So I get small sensor and Leica colour! My favourite that ticks all your boxes at the moment is the Leica C in its twist protective case. It even has a “through window” setting which makes it superb on train and bus tours! Thanks for some marvellous B&W images – though I like to nusánce my “noir” abit more!

      1. Oliver, I saw your review of the Lumix LF1 and bought one. Its been a great camera for ‘street’ type stuff but really wonderful as a tourist camera too I have some great shots. The Combo of f2 7.5x zoom, weight of 200g , a viewfinder and RAW images for just about $300 is truly amazing. Thank you.

        1. I too brought the Panasonic LF1 after reading Olivier’s review, a great little camera I can keep in my pocket with the ability to shoot in RAW, then post process with DX0 Filmpack. I love the “gritty” film look of the mono images it produces.

  13. Hello

    I recently found an AgfaPhoto Optima with a CCD of 1/2,3″ which is as basic as it gets. It was one of the last (if not the last) of the Agfa compact cameras in 2011. It has a lens construction with 7 groups 9 elements including 2 aspherical lens elements, resulting in very nice and sharp images. It is a “wysiwyg” but the manual option allows for dome degree of control. It use it like a notebook.
    So I agree, small sensor, big inspiration, fine results.

  14. I have a Ricoh GRD IV on its way to me, I can’t wait to start using it.
    I tried to download you ebook from the following instructions:

    “https://www.theinspiredeye.net click on store and then ebooks”

    I go to the web address, then click store. But on this page there is no “ebook” to click.
    I this book still available?
    Thanks.

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  17. Yet another example with the AgfaPhoto Optima with a CCD of 1/2,3″ which is as basic as it gets. It was one of the last (if not the last) of the Agfa compact cameras in 2011. It has a lens construction with 7 groups 9 elements including 2 aspherical lens elements, resulting in very nice and sharp images. It is a “wysiwyg” but the manual option allows for dome degree of control. It use it like a notebook.
    This time from Lisboa, Portugal.
    So I agree, small sensor, big inspiration, fine results.

  18. jean pierre (pete) guaron

    I love the feeling of common sense in your articles, Olivier.

    This topic of “how big” is close to my heart – after I missed one of those “shot of a lifetime” opportunities for lack of ANY camera, I decided to buy a compact – so I could be sure that I’d never be caught with NO camera.

    The 1/2.3″ sensor it came with was not sufficient, though – so I recently bought a Canon PowerShot with a 1.5″ sensor. The compact was just TOO small, and the PowerShot is a little too large to go into a pocket – but it gives far better images and it’s no great hassle to sling a small bag around my neck, to carry it.

    I chose their G 1X II – lower pixel numbers than the later PowerShots, but larger pixels – and they capture quality images.

    Sadly, I don’t see ANY manufacturer making a cam that would really suit. There’s an “almost” out there, but it’s been the subject of some alarming comments on QA and the price is way too much to take the risk. So for the time being I’ll stick with the Canon – maybe when the industry hears the comments from the photographic public, we’ll see something that really does nail it in this sector.

  19. I use a Fujifilm X10 for many of the reasons you have stated in this excellent article. I love my little X10, it’s easy to carry, it’s got a great “retro” look and it produces beautiful images.

      1. Well, actually I tested some raw files and both TZ70 and TZ80 are too much noisy.

        I bought a couple of weeks ago a LF1 that has perfect crisp raw files and it has become my favourite camera ever. It stays in the pocket and that light (both in black and white and color) and those presets for just out of the camera jpegs are so fascinating.

        It is my favourite camera (my first one is a G7x mark 2).

  20. This was surely interesting thoughts! Small sensor and dirty look. I’m using Fuji APS-C and Fuji 1/1.7″ (Fuji X10), but I don’t make my images so blackish. My style is more on the light side of black&white, probably too clean for you. But I’m interested in your processing. Do you shoot raw with the small sensor or do you shoot b&w directly in the camera? What are your post processing methods?

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  22. I shoot street portraiture in San Jose, Costa Rica and I mostly use small sensor cameras. I mostly shoot between 80- 135mm (equiv). I typically shoot full bodied portraits and I love shots of 2 and sometimes more people inter relating. Face detection is crucial for me. My DSLR cameras don’t have it, (except in Live View mode which is worthless for me).

    For street or any type of realistic photography I am NOT a fan of bokeh. When I use it it is for a special effect. Over use of Bokeh is for me BORING! I For realistic photography I love deep focus because that is how our eyes actually see. And of course as you well point out Olivier that is made for small sensors. I even get deep focus shots at 80.- 135mm.

    Small sensor cameras are all things being equal small and unobtrusive. They also tend to mark you as a tourist which many people ignore.

    While I love the obsession people have today with technology because they pay big bucks for camera development which I get a few years later for chump change, great shots are made first and foremost by finding great subjects and then framing them well.

    If Cartier Bresson cared about film grain, (noise) and not getting shots as sharp as one can on a larger piece of film the development of street photography would have been seriously retarded. Today his best shots are still out of the league of 99.9% of street photographs taken with far superior gear.

  23. Hello. Great article 🙂 . I want to ask you a question. I run photography workshops for seniors mostly, and have to often help them with purchase of a new camera. My website is still poor and I would like to use your translated article on it. Of course I would write that the article is not mine and mention it at the beginning and at the end. The best way would be to just share it but most of my students can’t even translate it via google, not to mention how crippled that translation would be. I don’t have suitable camera to make sample photos, so I would need to download them anyway, and the text… If someone made it better I can just put all the credit on him and make his work more popular. What do you say? 🙂

  24. Hi Olivier,
    Just loved your article. I guess there’s a lot of cameras out there that would tick your boxes. I love my Canon G11. The viewfinder is optical and so does not see exactly what the lens does but I only use it when the lighting demands. Its very flexible and saves in Raw too.

    Actual many small sensor Canons can use Raw even if not specifically built in with the CHDK hack freely available on line. My other indispensable favourite is the Canon S120. Even with a Joby stand permanently screwed in the bottom it is shirt pocket pocketable. It has captured some awesome images from light trails to star shots amongst others.

    By the way I’m not just plugging Canon. Another great favourite is my Panasonic TZ90. The 4K video mode captures amazing images otherwise impossible saving them sadly only as 8mb jpegs. Otherwise the camera can save in raw too.

    I even got images from my phone (Samsung S5 – ancient now) that enlarged to 15”x27” tack sharp!

    Yep I have DSLRs and CSCs. I’m currently playing with Olympus micro 4/3 not to mention gasp…..film! The real stuff 35mm. But it is all big, clunky and a chore to take out so doesn’t get much air time at all.

    But my first preference is small sensor and I would love to see a “Small Sensor Camera Users Group,” formed. Pixel peepers won’t like small sensor but to me, they free the photographer to… photograph and get the image. My argument, which is better a grainy but interesting shot or a tack sharp image of nothing in particular?

    By the way, Nikon at least are still holding up the small sensors with their amazing P900, P1000 and A1000. The A1000 looks very promising to me.

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