Does Sensor Size Really Matter or is it all Just a Bunch of Marketing Hype?

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MC Contributor and Photo/Video/Hybrid Photography Super Hero Will Crockett answers a reader question posed on about sensor size and whether or not it really matters, or if it’s just a bunch of marketing hype?

As we’ve stated in this space before, the image quality lines between mirrorless camera systems with their “crop” sensors and “full frame” DSLR systems has been blurred over the last few years, and now there are several mirrorless systems that are cracking the “Pro Level” glass ceiling.  So can the smaller sensors on mirrorless cameras hold their own against the big boys?  More and more proof is piling up that says YES…  Indeed they can!

Head to Head and Side by Side…

For the pixel peepers out there, there are numerous articles comparing the IQ and performance of Sony, Fuji, Panasonic and Olympus Camera Sensors against their full frame brethren, and more often than not, the difference if any is negligible.  In fact, we posted an article just 2 days ago showing that DxOmark had the micro 4/3 sensors of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and the Panasonic Lumix GH3 rated higher than the full frame sensor of a $5,500 Leica Camera (read about it here).

For those of us who get headaches when constantly bombarded with statistics, numbers, calculus and complex scientific equations, there are the more subjective, side by side comparisons to consider.  As Will states in the video above, just blow up your images to a healthy size and put ’em next to each other.  Unless you’re planning on making a two car garage door size print, you’ll be hard pressed to see any appreciable difference in image quality.  And in my opinion, which sensors produce the “better” image is mostly a matter of personal preference.  For instance, I like the look produced by Sony sensors because I think the images are bright and the colors are punchy – but I like the images from Fuji X-Trans sensors even more (by a hair) because to me, the images look more natural…  more “organic.”  Of course, which ones you like is completely up to you, but I’m sure we can all agree that when placed side by side, the images from all of these cameras and those with larger, full frame sensors will all be brilliant and beautiful with superb clarity.

There’s Technology in Them Thar Sensors (and Lenses and Processors)…

We’ve also stated in this space that the biggest advancements in sensor and processing technology over the last few years have come from the mirrorless camera sector.  When mirrorless cameras first entered the market in 2008, there was a difference in IQ that resulted in most professionals viewing the new, smaller and lighter mirrorless systems as nothing more than toys and hobbyist cams.  But sensor size alone is not the sole determining factor of image quality (enter technology) – you also have to consider the quality of the lenses that focus light onto the sensor and the ability of the processor to turn that information into stunning imagery.

While Full Frame DSLR systems had a head start in the lens department, mirrorless systems are closing that gap swiftly as well – especially in the micro 4/3 division, where both Panasonic and Olympus have created an impressive array of top quality lenses that are smaller, lighter and less expensive – but can match (if not surpass) the IQ produced by their larger cousins shot for shot (the new Panasonic Pro Zooms and many of the Olympus M.Zuiko Primes are perfect examples).  Although Fuji have a smaller selection of lenses for their X-Series Cameras (X-Pro1 and X-E1), the ones they do have are terrific, and a good value too.  Sony on the other hand have some catching up to do in this department, but lens makers such as Carl Zeiss are now beginning to manufacture E-Mount lenses, and Sony have committed to releasing at least 5 new NEX lenses per year.  Indeed, a fast, bright and brilliant lens can make up for a lot of megapixels.  Witness the Sony RX100 and the Panasonic Lumix LX7 fixed lens compacts.  The RX100 has a 20mp sensor where the LX7’s sensor is only 10mp – but the 24-90mm 1.7-2.3 Leica Summilux lens on the LX7 is so good that it draws the camera into a virtual dead heat with the more celebrated and larger sensored RX100.

Now let’s look at processing technology, where Sony Bionz, Fuji X-Trans, Olympus TruePic VI and Panasonic Venus II Processing engines have allowed them to not only compete with larger sensors, they actually beat them in many areas such as autofocus performance and advanced features (like face detection, etc.) that you just can get with a camera that has a mirror in it.

To use our “Fast and the Furious” analogy:  Tiny Car + Superior Tech > Big Muscle Car (read more here).

Ready for Prime Time…

Here are our picks of mirrorless camera systems that will produce Prime Time, Pro Level Results…

Panasonic Lumix GH3 – Best in Class for both stills and video, Pro Level Lenses and Wi-Fi make this the Best Hybrid Camera on the Planet today.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 – Classic styling with top notch performance and revolutionary 5 point IBIS make this one of the breakthrough cameras of the last year.



Fuji X-Pro1 – Hybrid Viewfinder combined Fuji’s X-Trans Sensor and EXR Processing Technology deliver some of the best quality still photos you’ll get from ANY camera (35mm or smaller).


Fuji X-E1 – Same Sensor and Processing Technology as the X-Pro 1 in a smaller, more stylish frame.


Panasonic Lumix G5 – One of the best mirrorless camera values today.  Delivers many pro level features and performance at a mid level price.


Panasonic Lumix GH2 – The former flagship of the GH lineup.  This model is a few years old, but it’s still one of the best video cameras you’ll get anywhere.


Sony NEX 6 –  Hybrid Autofocus, Wi-Fi and most of the main features of the flagship NEX 7 make this the most advanced NEX camera yet, though there are not many native lenses from which to to choose.




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