An off-beat apology of small sensors

Every month, a new camera is released and their is a real inflation of bigger and bigger sensors: mirrorless sensors at APS-C’s size are now more or less the norm whereas it used to be the micro 4/3 a few years ago. The rumour says a new Nikon D600 low cost full frame will be released in 2012. Sony released a competitor of the Canon S100 (expert compact camera very small) with of course a bigger sensor. Canon refused to release like the others a mirrorless, just to release a bigger new G compact camera, the G1-X.

It is a well known fact, the bigger the sensor, the better the quality. A better quality for either portrait photography (Colour depth), landscapes or actions shots (read DxO Mark for more information). So it seems to be a no brainer: take the bigger sensor available and shoot. That’s cannot be more simple no? Actually, that’s not so black and white. Let me be more specific:

Don’t follow the herd

First, one should notice that when the sensors’ sizes are inflating, so are prices too (Canon G1-X and Sony new camera DSC-RX100 are much more expensive than Canon G12, the precedent G camera and Canon S100, the most obvious Sony competitor).

Even more important, small body does not go so well with bigger sensor even if some manufacturers did miracles (Sony and the NEX cameras, Sony again with the DSC-RX100, and Canon with the G1-X). Conversely, some mirrorless with small sensor (Nikon 1) can be chunky compare with other cameras with bigger sensors. But I mean, if you want to make it small and light, small sensors have more potential.

More important, the depth of field (DOF) is always much significant with small sensors, it is actually quite dramatic. For many photographers, that’s a pain because many, like me, like to play with the shallow DOF. But in many occasions, a great DOF can make some of your pictures really better. Some photographers can make excellent pictures with small sensors, taking advantage of their huge DOF.

I have already explained why small sensors can suffice in many occasions. Nowadays, small sensors are so good in normal light conditions, you many not need a bigger one. AF speed, controls ergonomics, view finder are still often a pain, but that’s not a sensor’s size issue.

The final word: controls and ergonomics suck, not sensors

Don’t be a pigeon, don’t pay too much for something you don’t need. More important, take advantage of small sensors specificities. Learn the limits of your camera, and you will know which one you really need. It may be one expensive with a bigger sensor, or not, but as usual, don’t believe the marketing guy.

I may recommend manufacturers to rather focus at controls ergonomics which most of the time really suck. We don’t need bigger sensors with more pixels, we need cameras easy to use with direct access to the main controls we need so that we may focus on taking picture rather that “where is the damned option” or “How do I change this”. The issue is not trivial, and manufacturers are very conservative when it comes to ergonomics. I am no Apple fan boy, but who will be the Steve Jobs of cameras?

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