Small Sensored Cameras: More Viable Than Many Think

Discussion in 'Open Gear Talk' started by Biro, Jan 30, 2014.

  1. Biro

    Biro Super Moderator

    Aug 7, 2011
    Jersey Shore
    Since the name of this site is Serious Compacts, I'm sure many of us have wrestled with the appeal of certain smaller-sensored cameras and, at the same time, concern that image quality may not be good enough. Ctein directly addresses this issue in a piece he has written for Mike Johnston's The Online Photographer:


    There are, of course, two legitimate issues with smaller-sensored cameras: Very high ISO work (although that point keeps getting higher) and deep depth of field (if you don't want it). But Ctein's article reminds me of a lot of things I already knew but tended to forget or ignore in recent years. Thoughts?
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  2. Luke

    Luke Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Nov 11, 2011
    Milwaukee, WI USA
    I don't buy it.

    In good light, they're good enough. But for a lot of my shooting, the light is miserable. I am an available light photographer. I would guess that less than 10% of the photos I have taken in the last couple years are under ISO800...... and a healthy portion of them are 3200 and up.

    Yes, small sensor cameras keep getting better all the time, and sure you can make large prints from a landscape photo taken in full daylight.

    But then if his post were a little more forthright about the limitations in which a small sensor camera were good enough, it wouldn't get as many hits.
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  3. yakky

    yakky Regular

    Nov 30, 2013
    Interesting read, but in the end I think just about anyone would pick a bigger sensor if they could. It's all about compromise.
  4. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee All-Pro

    Jul 8, 2010
    I get his point, but my own experience is different. I don't print large so that is not my concern. For me, small sensors have a certain look that sometimes appeals to me, but for the most part I find that larger sensor files (APS and above) have more post processing latitude, and that's what I ultimately look for. If all you need is a solid, straight picture or snapshot then small sensors are fine, but if you are looking for a flexible RAW file then larger sensors give your more options. I even get frustrated that, good as they are, my E-M1 files are not as flexible as my APS cameras.

    There, of course is also the depth of field difference. And the fact is that different sensor sizes tend in general to render differently. I read a recent Kirk Tuck post about using the Sony RX10 camera to shoot theater, and for the most part he was very happy with it, but he did mention that the "watercolor" effect often associated with small sensors was still apparent.
  5. I guess one big difference is the subjects you shoot:

    - For landscapes, macros, etc. I'm perfectly fine with a small sensor.

    - For portraits, people-shots, etc. I think bigger sensors yield more pleasing results.

    Since Ctein mostly shoots landscapes or abstracts (as far as I know) I can understand why he's happy with smaller sensors.
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  6. pniev

    pniev Student for life

    May 13, 2013
    I do have the same experience as you, even with the APS-C based Fuji. In good light, everything is OK. But as soon as you get the higher ISO levels, there seems to be a "grey cast" even with extensive PP. It is definitely a reason for me to consider the Nikon Df. On the other hand: the organic sensor is coming which should push things like signal to noise and DR to new levels without increasing the size of the sensor.

    BTW: I noticed that the Fuji EF-20 flash (facing upwards) helps a lot. I have several ISO3200 shots and like the result.

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  7. Woody112704

    Woody112704 Top Veteran

    Nov 7, 2013
    For landscapes I think it would depend on what your goals are/how serious you are about it. Everything I've read says that the more detail you can get the better and with a larger sensor you are able to resolve more detail, in most cases. And I think it also depends on how malleable of a file you want/need. Sometimes I like to push my files and atm I only have an EPL5, while it can take some abuse it's no where near as malleable as say the FF Sony's.
  8. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee All-Pro

    Jul 8, 2010
    It's the opposite for me. For landscapes the APS sensor is the right balance as it gives me a fair amount of the right depth of field along with a sense of space and depth. The smaller sensors seem to compress the depth of the landscape view. Sometimes I like that, as it gives, at least in B&W, a pencil sketch feel to the image. Interestingly, for macros, I love using the Ricoh GRD4 at f1.9 - allows me to get close and still have some DoF, just the right amount in most cases. And I like its rougher rendering in B&W macros.

    For people, yes large sensor and shallow DoF can be fantastic, but usually it's the people in the picture I care about and my mind tends to focus less on the IQ. Still, I do love a beautifully rendered shallow DoF large sensor portrait!

    OK, so maybe we agree after all :biggrin:
  9. demiro

    demiro Serious Compacts For Life

    Dec 15, 2011
    I think the big lesson here is to know and understand your needs. It's way too easy to get caught up in some specification or feature that others are stoked about without realizing that it may hardly have any impact on what and how you shoot. Know thyself.
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  10. Amen
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  11. Luckypenguin

    Luckypenguin Hall of Famer

    Dec 24, 2010
    Brisbane, Australia
    To be honest I haven't spent enough time shooting and particularly processing the files from smaller-sensored cameras to get an idea of where they stand in the world. My general feeling is that I wasn't confident in what they produced but I have never given them a lot of time to find their sweet spot and my most recent exposure to them was with an Olympus XZ-1 so nothing that is a current model.

    The bottom line for me is that I have been shooting with APS-C sensors since 2005, 4/3 sensors since 2010 and even one in between (Canon G1X) since 2012. They provide a level of depth-of-field that I am comfortable with, a level of IQ that I am happy with, they shine when shot optimally (ETTR) and processed effectively and still can look very good when not. The most innovative system cameras sit within this envelope of sensor size, the balance of size and performance is right, and even going back to my 8mp Canon 350D from 2005 they print very nicely to a 40" canvas (my favourite print size and medium). As mentioned I can't really speak for anything below this size, but certainly once you get to this level and above I believe the content and processing ability and style can make for a more unique image than the brand of camera or sensor format used.
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  12. Chrisnmn

    Chrisnmn Veteran

    Jul 8, 2012
    Auckland, New Zealand
    Chris Leskovsek
    Oh Luke! really? where do you shoot? that means you shoot in a dungeon or so! LOL :rofl:
  13. Luke

    Luke Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Nov 11, 2011
    Milwaukee, WI USA
    I shoot primarily the evening. It's a bit of a dungeon, but we're moving soon ;)
  14. 0dBm

    0dBm Rookie

    Jan 26, 2014
    Southern California
    Most of my work involves portraits of singular or no more than three individuals. In the studio, my D700 is what I use. My Micro Four Thirds equipment go with me when I do in-situ projects. I just acquired a Canon S120 for all other moments when I need better than my iPhone5. It's good to have options!
  15. ryanshoots

    ryanshoots Regular

    Apr 22, 2012
    I would agree, that's the domain of larger sensors. One thing I'm not fond of in smaller sensors ( I'll define smaller as < aps-c ) is the tonality compared to what I see in full frame or even aps-c. It's nothing to do with dynamic range, it's the more gentle transition from bright areas to darker areas. Sensor size seems to make a real difference in tonality.
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  16. NickLarsson

    NickLarsson Veteran

    Jun 24, 2013
    Paris, France
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  17. I think I may have read that already at some time but what I did not remember was his frequent use of the Ricoh GRDIII. Its the camera I take at night if I am going anywhere. I can set it to auto and know it will do the job and do it well. I have no aversion to small sensor cameras at all. I *like* to have larger sensors but I am not opposed to having small sensors at all as evidenced by my frequent use of them. My C760-UZ was a brilliant bit of kit. Its old (5+ years) and a small small sensor (1/2.5) and yet I did prints from it which I understand are still on the wall at my old workplace. A bit faded now... the ink and paper I used for the prints was rubbish, the output from the sensor was not.

    I think it just depends on what you want to do with it.
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  18. Jock Elliott

    Jock Elliott All-Pro

    Jan 3, 2012
    Troy, NY
    I agree . . .

    I have danced around this subject more times than I would care to think.

    i use small sensor cameras professionally. Never had an editor express technical issues with my photos.

    With software capabilities like the PRIME noise reduction in DXO 9, the ISO range of cameras with small sensors can be substantially extended.

    I am an opportunistic photographer. I like shooting in dynamic situations (like covering an event or shooting a rapidly changing skyscape) and making the most of it. A camera that delivers 24-600 mm (equivalent) in a package that weighs less than 2 pounds is a lovely tool for me.

    Do I give up anything? Of course! Bigger sensors mean better almost everything: dynamic range, low light sensitivity, color depth, and so forth.

    But bigger sensors also mean bigger glass, the need to carry more than one lens, and the need to change lenses to get the focal length range that I use.

    I have the utmost respect for the folks here (and elsewhere) who take advantage of bigger sensor "system" cameras; they often do gorgeous work.

    Here are some examples taken by me with small sensor cameras:







    A confession: I really want to like some of the new system gear, but in my heart of hearts, I wonder: If I bought it, would I continue to carry it and use it? And a second question: am I absolutely certain that I have bumped up hard against the technical limitations of my existing gear? Until I am dead certain that the answer to both questions is "Yes," I'm going to stick with my small sensor gear.

    Cheers, Jock
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  19. drd1135

    drd1135 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Jul 13, 2011
    Lexington, Virginia
    The problem is I'm taking a camera for an all day event, like a day at Disney. The daytime is great, but the inevitable indoor environments and eventual nighttime shots mean that I will take the EM5. The small sensor cameras still aren't as flexible. I would love to get a Pentax Q7 but I know it just won't be the grab camera of choice.

    One more point: Once you move past pocket-ability, the EM5 is a small camera. If I have a small bag, even with the 40-150 it's no real burden.
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  20. Biro

    Biro Super Moderator

    Aug 7, 2011
    Jersey Shore
    I actually ordered a Q7 from B&H when they were going for $399 around Christmas. The box actually arrived at my house. But after thinking for a day or two, I sent it back. Why? I had the original Q and three lenses: 01, 02 and 06. And I liked it all. But, truth be told, I rarely used it. Like you, I realized that while I loved the idea of the Q, it would never be my grab camera of choice. So back it went... and I sold my remaining Q gear within days. I still have a few unused Q batteries and the Pentax K-to-Q-mount adaptor to sell. The problem wasn't image quality - even with the original Q. It's just that there was no reason for me to bother with interchangeable lenses on a camera of this size. The lenses (with the exception of the 01 prime) made the camera non-pocketable and I had other cameras that I could pocket and were more convenient that could give me results just as good or better.

    On the broader subject, I'm happy that my original post has triggered a discussion. My own opinion: Everyone is different. If you shoot often above ISO 1600 - definitely above 3200 - and/or do a lot of low-light work, small-sensored cameras probably aren't for you. But Ctein was stressing that to reject out of hand small-sensored cameras for pro-level work is a mistake. To believe that small-sensored cameras are inherently incapable of delivering great results is a fallacy. But, like eveything else, some tools are better for certain jobs than others.