When Size Matters

sensor-size

A friend of mine is thinking of moving up from a good P&S digital camera to a DSLR and, like many first-time buyers, is confused by all the models out there and how they compare. She is currently wondering which of the brands takes better pictures.

What I want to explain is that the brand makes little difference, when it comes to image quality. What matters is size — the size of the pixels rather than the number of pixels or megapixels. The larger the pixels, the better the image will look. In general, the larger the sensor, the larger the pixels.

If you look at the chart above, you can see how consumer digital cameras compare in sensor size. Using 35mm as the “gold standard,” what’s called a full-frame (FF or FX) digital has a sensor the size of a 35mm negative or transparency. There are some high-end Nikon, Canon, and Sony models that offer these. They’re expensive, and big. You would have no trouble making smooth, gorgeously sharp 16×20″ prints from a sensor this large, and you could print even larger without losing too much detail.

Compare that to the little 1/3″ and 1/2″ sensors in the center. That’s the size of the sensor in most P&S digicams. Considering the difference in size, the P&S units do a remarkable job and can print beautiful 8×10″ prints and can be stretched to 11×14″ and still look relatively okay. A few P&S digicams have the more desirable 2/3″ sensor, but they’re limited to a very few models.

The majority of DSLR’s fall into the middle, from 4/3″ to the slight variant of the APS-C size sensor (1.6x crop for Canon, 1.5x crop for Nikon). If you compare these to the tiny sensors on digicams, you can see why there is a big jump in image quality potential in this mid range. An APS-C sensor has a slight advantage over 4/3, but as the diagram shows, the difference isn’t dramatic.

The thing is, any brand of camera in this mid range is capable of excellent image quality. 11×14″ prints will look great, and they can be stretched to 16×20 without too much quality falloff. They also allow for better prints after cropping than a P&S digicam.

The brand doesn’t make a lot of difference to any of this. True, each manufacturer puts its own processing software in the camera and there are very subtle differences in the default look of images. Canons tend toward warm tones, Nikon toward cooler tones. But you can adjust any of these cameras to look pretty much like the output from any other. Panasonic and Olympus have done such a good job of processing on the 4/3 sensor that they can be used up to ISO 800-1600 and still deliver good quality.

The real leveler in all this is Photoshop, or whichever photo editor you use. It’s good post processing that takes a good image and turns it into a great looking image. That and the photographer’s eye, of course.

There are reasons to think about brand. Where they differ most is in their ergonomics, which is why it’s important to try them out in the store to see which feels best and most natural to use. I personally don’t like the ergonomics of Canons, but that’s totally subjective. To me, Nikons and Pentaxes (and Sonys for that matter) seem to have controls and menus that are located where I expect them. Take a look at how menus are organized too. Again, I find Canon menus confusing, compared to Nikon menus. That’s one of the reasons I switched from Canon to Nikon, but bear in mind there are people who go the other way, for the same reasons. Canons feel right to them.

Lens selection can be a factor. Canon and Nikon offer more “pro” lenses than other brands, which is why the pros use them. If you’re not a professional photographer, though, this is likely not a big issue. All the brands have a good selection of consumer lenses, and they’re very good.

So, the bottom line is that any DSLR in the mid range can deliver great results, including the 4/3 cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic. Choose the one that feels like you want to use it a lot. Then brush up on your Photoshop!

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About Gene Wilburn

Gene Wilburn is a writer ~ photographer ~ humanist
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One Response to When Size Matters

  1. Jarrett says:

    You know it never occured to me when you’re shooting film you’re either using Kodak or Fuji 95% of the time. Meaning, depending on the film you shoot, there’s just less variables when it comes to colour. With digital cameras every company has their own processing and colour rendition (Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax, and Fuji all look distinct in their own ways). I’d describe myself as a perfectionist in some ways, so having all these ‘versions’ of reality really drives me up the wall haha, maybe that’s what lead me to get an Olympus Trip 35 ;)

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