- 35mm Film and the Nifty Fifty Lens
- Crop Factor and Sensor Size
- Larger Sensors Have Higher Quality
- The Various Camera Sensor Sizes
- What Camera Sensor Size Should You Get?
- National Geographic Photo Basics: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Great Photography
- Photography: The Definitive Visual History
- Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs
- Is a Full Frame or Crop Sensor Better for Landscapes?
- What You Need to Know About Full Frame vs Crop Sensor Cameras
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Camera sensor sizes, crop factor, and focal lengths vary quite a bit among all the different digital cameras presently up for grabs. This can cause no end of confusion for beginner and advanced photographers alike.
In order to have camera sensor sizes explained, and to understand just what a crop factor is, we’ll have to go back in time… Not too far, though, just to the golden age of film photography.
Table of Contents
35mm Film and the Nifty Fifty Lens
Photo by Stefan Grage from Pexels
If you’re old enough to have firsthand memories of the 1970s and 80s, one of those memories could be the Canon AE-1 camera commercial with tennis pro John Newcombe informing us that the AE-1 was “so advanced - it's simple.”
The reason I bring this up is because that era pretty much cemented in the minds of the populous the idea of 35mm film cameras being the “standard” format for most photography. At least, most amatuer photography, and a whole bunch of pro photography, too.
Photo by Dave Craige on Unsplash
The Nifty Fifty 50mm lens has been the standard or normal lens for the 35mm film format for about 100 years. So, everything involved in lenses and formats tends to be based on or compared to these two standards.
Full Frame digital format is the same as 35mm film format, with most other digital formats being compared to Full Frame by means of a crop factor. And many lenses are compared to that format’s 50mm lens for magnification.
So, a 200mm lens might be referred to as a 4X lens, since 200mm on Full Frame delivers 4X the magnification of the 50mm lens. Crop factor refers to how a lens focal length behaves on a format other than Full Frame.
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Crop Factor and Sensor Size
Crop Factor is mentioned so often in camera advertisements and digital photography articles, we should probably find a good explanation of it so we understand what it means to us and our digital photography.
Specifically, crop factor is the ratio of a format’s imaging area compared to the reference format, in most cases, the Full Frame format. Any sensor smaller than Full Frame sees a narrower field of view, thus any focal length lens will provide a narrower field of view on smaller formats.
This is what is referred to when listing a crop factor. As an example, on a format with a 1.5X crop factor, a 200mm on Full Frame will behave similarly to a 300mm lens on the smaller format. The focal length has not changed, only how the sensor sees it compared to Full Frame. See what I mean in the video below by ProAV TV:
Compared to Full Frame is the important part to understand. It is still a 200mm lens. Focal lengths don’t change, only how a format sees the field of view of that focal length. Compared to a 50mm lens on Full Frame, a 200mm lens is a 6X telephoto on a 1.5X crop factor format camera, even though it’s only 4X on Full Frame.
Is your head swimming yet? Yeah, I know. Imagine how it feels to some of us who shoot with multiple formats or who have dyslexia!
Larger Sensors Have Higher Quality
This isn’t a knock on any sensor size or camera brand. It’s simple physics. The larger the sensor, the larger each individual pixel is. Which is why my 7 gazillion MB smartphone camera can not provide the overall image quality of my Full Frame mirrorless.
That won’t stop me from using my smartphone, MFT, or APS-C cameras, though. Like many pros or other serious users, I choose the equipment to fit the needs of that photo or video shoot. Likewise, if you have standardized on one or two formats for yourself, you can achieve outstanding results.
When used properly, any camera gear can produce outstanding images. Conversely, the highest end equipment on the planet won’t deliver superior results if not used well.
The Various Camera Sensor Sizes
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The pixel size and overall area of larger digital formats also impacts depth of focus. Crop factor is a huge reason, but there are other characteristics that come into play as well. Which is why there are post processing programs and smartphone apps for selective focus effects.
It should also be noted that most of the digital formats have an aspect ratio of 4:3 as opposed to the Full Frame format’s aspect ratio of 3:2. Which means that Full Frame and the closest crop format APS-C have a height to width ratio that is slightly more rectangular than most of the other formats.
The MB count is only part of what provides overall image quality. But enough about that, let’s get to the most used camera sensor sizes. I’ll start from small and get larger.
Canon PowerShot A100
There are smaller sensor sizes in some older smartphone and point-and-shoot style cameras, but this size is one of the smallest currently used in a decent quality camera. Camera examples include the iPhone 5 and Canon PowerShot A100.
This sensor size is 4.5mm x 3.4mm, so it’s pretty small. This small size allows it to be a smartphone camera sensor size. In order to get any selective focus from this sensor, you will need to use a smartphone app or post processing.
Crop factor is 7.6X, so focal length calculations usually aren’t even mentioned for this smartphone camera sensor size.
Panasonic Lumix FZ80
A more common size, this is also used as an iPhone camera sensor size and in many point-and-shoot style cameras. Plus you may find it in various medical and scientific imaging devices where small size is vital.
Several Super Zoom Compacts use this sensor with a crop factor of 5.6X and a size of 6.3mm x 4.7mm. The Nikon Coolpix B500 and Panasonic Lumix FZ80 use this sensor. So does the waterproof compact camera Olympus TG-6.
Image quality can be quite good, which is also because of the excellent lenses in many of these cameras. Few of these or smaller sensor cameras offer any RAW image file recording, using JPEG as their standard image file type.
Fujifilm X30 and some tablets like the iPad Mini 2 use this 8.8mm x 6.6mm sensor with a crop factor of 3.9X. Just so you know, many tablets have excellent imaging capabilities, a fact that sometimes gets overlooked by focusing on the super portable and ubiquitous smartphone.
Some older cameras such as early Leica Digilux cameras made outstanding use of this sensor size. Many of these cameras can be found for great prices on your favorite used camera sites.
1” Type Sensor
Sony RX-100 VI
The 1” type sensor is one of the more common sensors for serious video cameras such as the Sony FDR-AX100 4K camcorder and the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema 4K camera, as well as super high quality compact cameras like the Sony RX-100 VI with Carl Zeiss lens and the Canon PowerShot G9.
Some ultra compact interchangeable cameras use the 1 inch sensor as well, Nikon 1 series of cameras and lenses is a prime example.
A crop factor of 2.7X is a characteristic of the 13.2mm x 8.8mm sized 1 inch sensor. Excellent video in 4K is capable with this sensor as well as exceptional still imaging with the ultra high quality lenses normally paired with these cameras.
4/3rds and MFT Sensor Cameras
Olympus OM-D E-M1X
Both 4/3rds and MFT (micro four thirds) cameras use this camera sensor size, the difference in cameras is one is a DSLR and the MF is mirrorless. Almost all of the newest offerings are MFT.
MFT is also an excellent format for high end video recording. It offers video recording quality that actually surpasses film formats such as 16mm and Super16, depending on the exact application.
Serious and professional level still photography can also be accomplished with this format that has a crop factor of 2X and an image area of 13.5mm x 18mm. Notable cameras with superior performance in MFT are the Olympus OM-D E-M1X, the ultra compact Olympus PEN-F, and the video superstar Panasonic LUMIX GH5s.
APS-C is used on still imaging and video-capable DSLRs and mirrorless cameras from entry-level up to professional caliber. For most brands, APS-C format sensors are 23.6mm x 15.6mm with a crop factor of 1.5X. Canon APS-C cameras use a 22.3mm x 14.9mm sensor for a 1.6X crop factor.
There is also the APS-H crop format with a 1.3X crop factor, but no current cameras are using that format. It was really more of a stop gap format before any of the camera manufacturers were building any of their own DSLRs in Full Frame sensor size.
Canon EOS 90D
This format is a great option for serious photography as it gives you outstanding image quality while maintaining a smaller size and lower price that photographic enthusiasts have been leaning towards since well before digital photography became commonplace.
Several amazingly advanced cameras and camera systems are using the APS-C format, including ones from Sony, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and Fuji. Notable lower-priced cameras include the Nikon D3500, Canon EOS Rebel T6, Pentax K-70, Fujifilm X-T30, and Sony A6100. Prosumer or professional models include the Nikon D7500 and Nikon D500, Canon EOS 90D, Pentax K-1 Mark II, Fujifilm XT-4, and Sony A6600.
Full Frame 35mm Format
Some simply call it Full Frame, leaving off the 35mm label, but this is the same size as the film cameras using 135 or 35mm film. The full frame filter size is 24mm x 36mm, crop factor of 1X.
There aren’t many entry level priced cameras in this format because it costs much more to make larger sensors, not to mention the increased size, weight, and cost for lenses as well. Still, there are several models from the various brands that cost less than a nice used car.
Sony a9 II
A few excellent general use cameras that come to mind are the Nikon D780 and the mirrorless Nikon Z6, Canon EOS 6D Mark II, and Sony a7 III. Professional use cameras such as the Nikon D6, Nikon Z7, Sony a9 II, and Leica M10 are among the finest imaging tools ever made but are extremely expensive for any average user.
What you get with Full Frame digital, DSLR or mirrorless, is absolutely excellent image quality, plus all the other characteristics that can be used to create superior images and video. And no crop factor! Everything is larger, heavier, and more expensive than crop formats, but for those who want or need it, it’s definitely worth those costs.
Medium Format Digital
Hasselblad X1D II
A digital format that is very important in the commercial photography world but doesn’t get a lot of discussion among any but the most serious photographers is medium format. Actually, we could say multiple medium formats as there is a lot of variation in format sizes. Some aren’t much larger than Full Frame, others are equal to 6X6cm film format.
Some of the best options in medium format digital are the mirrorless cameras such as the Hasselblad X1D II, Fujifilm GFX 50S, and Fujifilm GFX 100. These cameras are amazing tools and their price points are amazing, too. A little rich for most enthusiasts, but absolutely superb cameras.
What Camera Sensor Size Should You Get?
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Any of the larger camera sensor sizes are worthy professional and advanced photo enthusiast cameras. The larger sizes like Full Frame and APS-Care preferred for pro use more so than smaller formats, outside of MFT and 1 Inch Type being the favorites of many serious videographers.
As we say many times, though, a camera is only as good as the photographer using it. Check out the Learn More links in this article to reference other guides to help you continue to grow as a photographer, regardless of what camera sensor size you are currently using.