We have at our disposal more types and sizes of cameras today than ever before.
And with that variety comes plenty of different options...
That includes sensor sizes, which range from tiny 1-inch sensors in things like compact cameras to full frame sensors in high-end cameras like the Nikon D810.
But with all that variety can come a little bit of confusion about sensor size, what that means for your photography, and what that means for your pocketbook too.
In a nutshell, the smaller the camera, the smaller the sensor. For example, you won't find a full frame sensor in a smartphone.
By the same token, you won't find a 1-inch sensor in a full frame camera, either...
This isn't to say that smaller sensors can't produce excellent results. In fact, smartphones, micro-four thirds cameras, and crop sensor DSLRs have arguably the best sensors they've ever had. That's put them on a more level playing field with larger and more expensive full frame sensors.
Of course, this might all sound like gibberish if you don't know what a micro four-thirds or a crop sensor DSLR even means...
Let's review the most common types of camera sensors.
Full Frame Sensors
The largest kind of camera sensor for consumer and professional cameras is a full frame, which is named as such because it's roughly the same size as a 35mm negative.
Full frame sensors offer a few benefits over smaller sensors.
First, they have more surface area, which allows them to have larger pixels that result in higher resolution images. Though some full frame cameras only have 20-something megapixels, others, like the Canon 5DSR shown below have more than 50-megapixels.
Second, that surface area also means that a full frame sensor can collect more light, making them ideal for low-light shooting situations.
Lastly, full frame sensors don't have a crop factor.
That means that if you buy a 50mm lens for your camera, the lens will operate at 50mm. On other cameras, the effective focal length will vary (more on that later).
Pro: Great resolution and low-light capabilities
Con: Expense. Full frame sensor cameras are typically the most expensive
Best for: Enthusiast and professional photographers
By far, the most common type of camera sensor for DSLR and mirrorless cameras is the APS-C sensor.
These sensors come in a variety of sizes, meaning, depending on the manufacturer, the sensor will have a different crop factor.
Crop factor determines the effective focal length of the lens you're using.
For example, Canon APS-C sensors have a crop factor of 1.6x, so if you use a 50mm lens on a Canon APS-C camera like the EOS Rebel T6i, the lens will have an effective focal length of 80mm.
However, Nikon APS-C cameras like the D7200 shown below have a crop factor of 1.6x, so that same 50mm lens will have an effective focal length of 75mm.
That's a feature that many photographers - especially those that work in wildlife and sports photography - really like because they can get closer to the action with a shorter lens.
Aside from impacting the effective focal length, APS-C sensors are smaller than full frame sensors.
Since there's less room required to fit the sensor into the camera body, these cameras are smaller, more compact, and lighter weight. That's a big advantage for many photographers, especially beginners.
Pro: Portability and price
Con: Resolution and low-light performance aren't quite on par with full frame sensors
Best for: Beginner and intermediate photographers
Micro Four-Thirds Sensors
Micro four-thirds sensors represent sort of a middle ground of sensors.
They are smaller than the APS-C sensors described above but larger than the 1-inch sensors described below.
Usually, micro four-thirds sensors are roughly one-fourth the size of the full frame sensors described earlier.
As a result, they have a significant crop factor of around 2x. That means if you use a 50mm lens, you'll have an effective focal length of 100mm.
Typically, these sensors are found on compact system cameras from Panasonic and Olympus, like the Panasonic DMC-G7 mirrorless camera above, which is a solid mid-range camera, and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II shown below, which is a high-end mirrorless camera more suited to enthusiast shooters.
One advantage of the micro four-thirds system is cross-brand lens compatibility. That is, a Panasonic lens might work on an Olympus body and vice versa. That's not the case with full frame and APS-C systems.
Additionally, because these sensors are smaller still, that means that cameras with these sensors are even smaller and lighter than DSLRs. That smaller form factor doesn't mean diminished performance, either.
In fact, many micro four-thirds cameras have image quality that is as good (and in some cases, better) than that which you find with an APS-C sensor.
Pro: Excellent performance in a small package
Con: Because the sensor is quite small, low-light performance suffers
Best for: Travel photography and other applications where shooting fast and light is important
In recent years, 1-inch sensors have enjoyed a lot of popularity and innovation as camera manufacturers have made it a point to pack a lot of punch into smaller sensors.
Cameras with these sensors more or less provide good quality images, though some have reduced sensor resolution than what you can get with the other sensors described above.
That being said, cameras with 1-inch sensors are small and compact, making them incredibly easy to carry - small enough, in fact, to put in your pocket.
Lenses for these cameras are usually fixed, meaning the cameras are not compatible with various lenses.
However, the lens often have a wide range of focal lengths, like 24-70mm, so you have plenty of versatility.
Pro: 1-inch sensor cameras are highly portable
Con: Functionality can be limited due to the small sensor size
Best for: Casual shooting
There are other types of sensors out there - medium format, APS-H, and 1/2.3-inch among them. However, those types of sensors are much less common in the beginner and intermediate camera market.
Though other factors are at play when making a decision on a new camera, having an understanding of sensor size and how it impacts your photography is certainly a good thing.
For most beginner photographers, an APS-C sensor camera is likely the best choice, as they offer excellent performance in a smaller camera body than a full frame sensor.
But this is just a generalization. Based on your specific needs and wants, a 1-inch sensor might be the best for you or a micro four-thirds sensor might make the most sense.
What's important is that you do your due diligence, research possible cameras based on your specific needs, and buy the camera from a reputable retailer so you're sure you get a good deal with service after the sale.
Get the process started by checking out the video above by PhotoRecTV, in which they break down the differences between sensor sizes.