A Camera is Much More Than a Sensor

We certainly live in interesting times. Often it feels like we are in some kind of twilight zone where one enters through the ‘you must have’ door. With photography, the current ‘you must have’ appears to be a full frame (or larger) sensor camera. If some of the articles on the internet are to be believed, unless we own a full frame camera we are incapable of creating a good photograph. Truth is, a camera is much more than a sensor.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. I added a few photographs that I captured today to serve as visual breaks.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 80 mm, efov 160 mm, f/5, 1/1600, ISO-320. En route to Bronte Harbour in response to a mayday call

There’s no doubt that a larger sensor camera does come with some advantages. For years the two that have been cited most often are shallow depth of field and low light performance. For some photographers these factors are critical for the work they do. Increased levels of dynamic range and colour depth can also be extremely important. If all of these factors are critical for the work that you do… then buying a full frame sensor camera is logical and absolutely necessary.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 90 mm, efov 180 mm, f/5, 1/1600, ISO-160

For others of us (including me)… not so much. A number of years ago I was lured by the full frame siren. I spent a lot of money on new bodies and a good selection of full frame lenses. In retrospect I probably bought into the notion that having full frame camera gear would somehow make me a better photographer. It didn’t.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5, 1/1600, ISO-320, subject distance 151.7 metres

The only thing that will make each of us a better photographer is ourselves. Our passion. Our dedication to keep growing and learning.  Our willingness to grab a camera, then go out and actually use it. What’s the point in having money invested in camera gear if all we ever do is just talk about its specifications as it collects dust?

Not every image we create will be a work of art. There’s some learning in most everything that we do. Sometimes its noticing the small details that can make a difference in our craft. Hmm… did you happen to notice the sloppy job that the painters did on the bridge in the photograph above? Here’s a 100% crop. Look at all those paint dribbles!

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5, 1/1600, ISO-320, subject distance 151.7 metres

Fixating on camera sensor size is like paint dribbles to me. They are only one small part of a much bigger picture. Just for fun let’s compare the highest rated full frame cameras as tested by DxO Mark, with the highest rated M4/3 camera.

The Panasonic DC S1R and the Nikon D850 lead the full frame group, both with an overall score of 100. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is the top rated M4/3 camera. Its overall score is 80. With a sensor only 25% of the size of a full frame camera its no surprise that the M4/3 camera gets clobbered in DxOMark testing by the full frame camera leaders.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/5, 1/4000, ISO-320, subject distance 14.3 metres

When I owned my D800 or my D600 I very rarely ever captured photographs at base ISO, especially when shooting hand-held. When composing landscape images hand-held I often stopped my lens down a bit to get deeper depth of field. Or, I had to up my shutter speed a little to help avoid blur in my images. Both scenarios pushed my ISO up marginally to ISO-400… or on occasion to ISO-800. I never worried much about it. After all I was shooting with full frame cameras with lots of dynamic range and colour depth.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 7-14 mm f/2.8 @ 7 mm, efov 14 mm, f/4, 1/100, ISO-250

As we all know, dynamic range and colour depth both decrease as ISO increases. It is interesting to consider the practical ramifications of that fact.

Let’s say that three photographers were all creating images of the same landscape scene. In the case of the full frame camera owners, let’s assume that they stopped their lenses down a bit to get more depth of field. So, rather than shooting at ISO-200, they captured their images at ISO-400. Let’s then assume that the M4/3 photographer could capture their image at ISO-200 since they were using a camera with a 2X crop factor.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5, 1/2000, ISO-3200, subject distance 3.5 metres

Do the full frame cameras still blow the M4/3 camera out of the water under this scenario? Let’s look at DxOMark test data.

At base ISO-50 the Panasonic CD S1R has 14.05 EV of dynamic range and 26.4-bits of colour depth. At ISO-200 sensor performance falls to 13.0 EV of dynamic range and 25.5-bits of colour depth. Losing one more stop of light and shooting at ISO-400 brings dynamic range down to 12.05 EV and colour depth to 24.2-bits.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5, 1/2000, ISO-250, subject distance 36.3 metres

At base ISO-32 the Nikon D850 has 14.81 EV of dynamic range and 26.4-bits of colour depth. At ISO-200 this falls to 13.97 EV of dynamic range and 25.1-bits of colour depth. Losing another stop of light and shooting at ISO-400 brings dynamic range down to 13.37 EV and colour depth down to 24-bits.

At base ISO-200 the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II has 12.84 EV of dynamic range and 23.7-bits of colour depth. According to DxOMark, a difference of 0.5 EV in dynamic range is needed for it to begin to be noticeable for most people. For colour depth 1.0-bit is needed to begin to be noticeable for most people.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5, 1/4000, ISO-320, subject distance 7.6 metres

This means that when the full frame cameras are shot at ISO-400 the dynamic range of the Panasonic will be noticeably less than that of the OM-D E-M1 Mark II when it is shot at ISO-200. The difference in colour depth will not be noticeable for most people.

The Nikon D850 does slightly better at ISO-400 and the difference in dynamic range would begin to be noticeable for most people. The difference in colour depth would not be sufficient to be noticeable for most people if the OM-D E-M1 Mark II was shot at ISO-200.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-500

So, sensor size can be important when it comes to shallow depth of field, low light performance, dynamic range and colour depth. But… sensor size is not the ‘be all and end all’ solution that many bloggers write about. The effectiveness of image stabilization and sensor crop factors can negate some of the dynamic range and colour depth advantages of a full frame sensor. Especially in situations where more depth of field, rather than shallow depth of field is needed.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-3200

A full frame sensor camera’s usefulness to you may be reduced if it does not offer the frame rates you need for bird photography. Of if the buffer is too small. Or if the auto-focus does not provide the quickness and accuracy you need.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 224 mm, efov 604.8 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-2000

The ergonomics and handling of a camera are often overlooked. If you use your gear non stop for long periods of time, comfort and ergonomics will be very important to you. For example, I have larger hands and I very quickly ruled out the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II as I did not find it comfortable to hold for longer periods of time.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1100

You’ll also need to consider things like the file sizes of many full frame cameras. They can quickly fill up hard drive space and may necessitate purchasing upgraded computer gear. Many of us really don’t need more than 20-24 MP for what we do. It is important to check out the memory card format used in various models. You may be facing some additional investments in memory cards… some of which can be pricey.

Lens availability and quality are other important factors. You can invest in a full frame camera and shortchange yourself by buying lenses that cannot leverage the potential image quality of the camera. If you buy a full frame camera, can you also afford the lenses needed to fully leverage the potential of the camera? In my mind there’s no point buying a full frame camera if the lenses you’ll be using are unable to define paint dribbles on a bridge.

Over the years I’ve owned and used full frame cameras, cropped sensor cameras, M4/3, 1″ sensor cameras, and some cameras with even smaller sensors. Each format has its own nuances to understand in order to use them effectively. Owning a full frame camera may sound appealing from a specifications viewpoint. From a pragmatic one, do you have the experience and skill set needed to effectively use a full frame camera?

A camera is much more than a sensor. If buying a full frame camera may make sense for you… do your homework to ensure that you understand what you are getting into before you lay your money down.

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All of the photographs displayed in this article were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Most images are displayed as 100% captures. A few of the bird images have been cropped to varying degrees.

Use of Olympus Loaner Equipment
Some of the photographs in this article were captured using Olympus Loaner Gear which was supplied by Olympus Americas Inc. on a no-charge basis. We are under no obligation what-so-ever to Olympus Americas Inc. in terms of our use of this loaner Olympus camera equipment. There is no expectation or agreement of any kind with Olympus Americas Inc. that we will create and share with readers any images, articles or videos, or on what that content may be.

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10 thoughts on “A Camera is Much More Than a Sensor”

  1. I would like to donate my Nikon 1 bodies (2) and lenses to you and your wife. They have hardly been used at all. I am downsizing my photo equipment, being a heavy GAS type. Please accept these as I would like these fine cameras to be actually used as they deserve. Let me know your mailing address. Thank you for all your fine instruction over the years.

  2. I am thinking of buying the Tamron 16-300 and adapt it to my Nikon1 J5, since the 70-300 Nikon 1 is so expensive but the same weight as the Tamron and as an all round lens it gives me more options. Is it a good idea? My current zoom is the 70-300 Tamron at 800 g. It is hard to focus on flying birds, also because the J5 has no viewfinder.

    1. Hi Renate,

      It is difficult for me to advise you on this since I never had any luck using third party lenses with my Nikon 1 system. If you are looking to add more capability to your J5 you may want to look at the 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 f/3.5-5.6 or the 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 non PD as these lenses would give you more wide angle capability without losing all of the Nikon 1 focusing options. I am admittedly biased towards the 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4/5-5/6 and have found this lens to be worth every penny of the price paid.

      Tom

      1. Hi Renate,

        I hope that you enjoy the 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm as much as my wife and I enjoy the two copies we have. Not counting bird images, I probably capture 75% to 80% of all of our travel images with the 10-100 mm. It really is a great, flexible lens for everyday photography.

        Tom

  3. Tom,

    At the end of the day, a camera can only produce results that its wielder will coax out of its use. Especially during an age where a lot of images get shared only on social media, the differences are but subtle. BUT camera manufacturers, trolls and armchair photographers would have us believe otherwise.

    When you said “In retrospect I probably bought into the notion that having full frame camera gear would somehow make me a better photographer. It didn’t.” I immediately recognized who that personifies — me about 2-3 years ago. Having a full framer somehow has this magical aura or cachet that a lot of people buy into. It quickly grows old though especially when it’s a poor fit into one’s needs as the D800 was to mine. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent camera and all; it’s just a pain to hike without worrying about the possibility of breaking it (I certainly I’m not the only photographer who will risk taking a fall just so to keep a camera body or lens from breaking). After years of resisting the idea, I embraced mirrorless and the learning curve that goes with it and I can’t be happier.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Thanks for adding your perspectives Oggie! I agree with your assessment of the Nikon D800… it is an excellent camera.

      I don’t believe that there is anything inherently right or wrong with any particular camera format. It always comes down to a photographer purchasing the camera equipment that best suits their individual needs. All things photographic come with a trade-off of some kind. The challenge is to find gear that best suits our needs with the least number of acceptable trade-offs.

      I’ve been out and about quite a bit the past 6 weeks or so as I’ve been doing field testing with the Olympus Loaner Gear. This has led to many impromptu discussions with people about camera gear. During one such conversation a photographer mentioned that he’d like to get into landscape photography but would need to buy a different camera. He believed the Nikon D500 in his hands ‘wasn’t a landscape camera’. It’s not my place to question someone’s assessment of their own camera gear so I didn’t respond to his comment. I did find it intriguing to think about what would lead to someone holding arguably one of the finest APS-C cameras made, to feel that it could not be used for landscape photography.

      Tom

      1. Tom’

        I felt compelled to reply “wow” regarding your D500 anecdote. Such an absurd thought! I don’t know if such thinking is a testament to the success of marketers to segmentize the market, or the myth- creation/spin/conditioning brought about by reviews that categorize cameras as “portrait”/”landscape”/”sports” cameras, or just plain ignorance. This somehow reminded me of buyers of my Nikon full frame lenses/body who think going full frame means having “arrived” as a photographer; alas, with minimal to no proof of improvement in their photos to show for it. I may have shifted ti Sony but I have high regards for Nikon cameras and lenses. If one can’t shoot a decent landscape photo with the pro-specced D500, there must be something wrong with one’s skill set. Heck, even the entry level 3xx and 5xx series of Nikon can yield beautiful results in the hands of a skilled and knowledgeable photographer.

        Oggie
        http://www.lagalog.com

        1. Hi Oggie,

          Since I didn’t ask any follow up questions it is difficult to assess the rationale for the D500 owner’s self-assessment. I wouldn’t question another photographer’s skill set as much as wonder about the intended use of a ‘landscape’ camera. For example, it could be associated with thoughts about doing extremely large prints. If this is the case then a high density full frame sensor camera would make sense.

          Tom

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