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Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos

If you've ever wondered what sensor size actually means and what effect it has on image quality then this article is for you.

| Digital Cameras

Sensor Size
Noise Results

The sensor in a digital camera is the electronic version of film, and records light to create a digital image. The size of the sensor determines how much light can be recorded after travelling through the lens of the camera, with a large sensor receiving more light, and a smaller sensor much less. The more light the sensor can record, the better the image quality. The technical aspects of sensor types and designs will be looked at in another article, but here we'll look at the effect sensor size has on image quality.


Sensor Size:

Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos: Sony NEX-C3, Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1, Pentax Q
Sony NEX-C3 (APS-C sensor), Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 (Micro Four Thirds sensor), Pentax Q (1/2.33 sensor)

The most commonly used sensor sizes are Full frame (DSLRs), APS-C ("Crop sensor" Canon, Nikon, other DSLRs), Micro Four Thirds (Olympus, Panasonic), 1inch / CX (in Nikon 1 cameras), 1/1.7inch (in "Serious compacts") and 1/2.33inch in compact cameras, although there are occasionally other sizes used, for example in some compact cameras, and even smaller sensors (typically 1/3.2inch) can be found in camera phones.


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Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos: Nikon 1, Olympus OM-D, Samsung NX, Sony Alpha A7Nikon 1 S1 (1inch), Olympus OM-D E-M10 (Micro Four Thirds), Samsung NX30 (APS-C), Sony Alpha A7 (Full-frame) - click to enlarge.


Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos: Sensor Sizes Updated

Shown above is a relative diagram showing the size of many of the common sensors found in digital cameras, with the full frame sensor equalling the size of a 35mm film. Mobile phones often use a smaller 1/3.2inch sensor, as do many digital camcorders.


Camera Examples Sensor "Type" Crop Area (mm2) Size (mm)
Leica M9, Canon EOS 1D X Full Frame / Nikon FX 1x 864 36x24
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV APS-H 1.3x 548 28.7x19
Nikon D5100, Fujifilm X100 APS-C Nikon DX etc 1.5x 380 23.6x15.7
Canon EOS 600D APS-C Canon 1.6x 329 22.2x14.8
Sigma DP2x Foveon 1.7x 286 20.7x13.8
Olympus PEN E-PM1 Micro / Four Thirds 2x 225 17.3x13
Nikon J1 / Sony RX100 1/1inch CX / 1inch 2.7x 116 13.2x8.8
Fujifilm FinePix X10 2/3inch 3.9x 58 8.8x6.6
Canon Powershot S95 1/1.7inch 4.7x 43 7.6x5.7
Pentax Q, plus many more 1/2.33inch 5.5x 28 6.16x4.6
Sony Xperia Arc 1/3.2inch (typically mobile, camcorders)   15.5 4.5x3.4

The crop factor is used to calculate what the effective focal length of a lens would be in 35mm terms based on the focal length printed on the lens. For example, if you put an 18-55mm lens on a Canon EOS 600D with a 1.6x crop factor, you get the equivalent of a 28-88mm lens in 35mm terms.

If you've ever wondered why sensor size is referred to as a fraction of an inch, then this is one of the best explanations around, and a much more useful indication would in fact be using the crop factor, or pixel size instead.


Noise results from different size sensors:

Shown here are examples of what you can expect to see in regards to image quality and noise performance from different sensor sizes, each photo has been taken at ISO3200. Things to look out for include loss of colour as the ISO setting increases, loss of detail and edge quality, as well as any random colours appearing. We have picked a variety of 12 megapixel cameras where possible, with the exception of the 1inch sensor in the Nikon J1/V1, as this is a 10 megapixel sensor. Shown below are 100% crops, showing the actual pixels of images taken with each camera.

Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos: Nikon D3s ISO3200 Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos: X100 ISO3200 Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos: EPL3 ISO3200
Full Frame (Nikon D3s) APS-C (Fujifilm X100) CMOS m/43 MOS (Olympus E-PL3)
Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos: Nikon J1 ISO3200 Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos: X10 ISO3200 Sensor Size And Crop Factor Explained With Sample Photos: Pentax Q ISO3200
1inch CMOS (Nikon J1) 2/3 EXR CMOS (Fujifilm X10) 1/2.33 Backlit CMOS (Pentax Q)

As you can see, for the most part, as the sensor size decreases, the noise levels increase due to the size of each pixel decreasing on the sensor, and this in turn means the camera can't record as much light. Where this can change is where companies use different noise reduction processes in the camera, with Fujifilm as an example having some of the best noise reduction procedures.

Find a more in-depth look at sensor and pixel size here.
Find out all about digital camera sensor technology.

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