Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sensor Size Jealousy

Sunset At Morro Rock - Morro Bay, California
Captured using a Nikon D3300.
Let me tell you a story. Maybe you can relate. Perhaps it will even help you in some way.

A few months ago I had something that I've coined "Sensor Size Jealousy" which is to say that I wanted a camera with a larger sensor. I was envious of larger sensor cameras. I coveted the Nikon D810 and similar models.

Over this last summer I became frustrated with the image quality from my DSLR which has an APS-C sized sensor. It's not because the image quality was poor--in fact the camera has pretty darn good image quality--but because there were cameras capable of better image quality. I wanted just a little more dynamic range and just a little cleaner high-ISO images. And full-frame sensors offer that.

Besides, who takes you seriously with an APS-C DSLR? I can't tell you how many times I've had to explain my camera choice to someone with "better" gear. Yes, my camera does what I need it to do, even if it doesn't necessarily look like it should be able to. If I have more expensive gear I will get more respect, which is an incredibly sad fact.

So I began to look at cameras. I went to a camera store and took a close look at a few. Boy, that D810 sure is heavy! I decided that the Nikon D750 was the model that I wanted. I just needed to save up the money, because full-frame sensor cameras aren't cheap.
Vintage Half Dome From Olmsted Point - Yosemite National Park, California
Captured using a Canon N.
Interestingly enough, the D750 and my DSLR, the Nikon D3300, are more similar than dissimilar. If you compared two identical photographs, one captured with each camera, it would be extraordinarily difficult to tell which image came from which camera. But the D750 does have a dynamic range and high-ISO advantage (plus a few more frills), so that's the camera I set my sights on.

Even though my camera was a Nikon and the camera that I wanted to purchase was a Nikon, none of my lenses were going to work on the full-frame DSLR. I started adding it all up and was shocked at how much this was going to cost me. I began to have mixed feelings. Was the small improvement in image quality going to outweigh the huge difference in cost? Was I going to regret paying so much money? Even so, I forged ahead and put together a plan to get the money that I needed.

But then something happened that changed my mind entirely. I took a road trip up U.S. Highway 395 in autumn. I brought along my DSLR, and my wife had her brand new Canon N point-and-shoot. I ended up using her camera way more than mine. Her camera was small and lightweight while mine was bulky and heavy. The difference in the experience was night and day. The difference in image quality between the two cameras was noticeable, but the gap wasn't nearly as large as one might expect. The point-and-shoot produced surprisingly good results.

What was great about using the Canon N was that it easily and comfortably fit into a pocket and it was fun to use. It was simple, and that simplicity was more enjoyable than the complexity of the DSLR. Besides, it was great not having that bulky, heavy, uncomfortable Nikon hanging around my neck.

What I learned is that sensor size doesn't trump the experience. Photography should be enjoyable. If it's not fun then why are you doing it? If it's not fun then you should find ways to make it fun. After all, life is short.
Clearing Storm Over The Valley - Stallion Springs, California
Captured using a Sony RX100 II.
Big sensor cameras are great, but they're also bulky and heavy and expensive. No camera is perfect, every single one has flaws of some sort. The D750 is great but also flawed. I considered how I might feel after spending all of that money on the camera, enjoying the image quality, but not enjoying the experience of using the camera. And I thought about what I could use that money for instead.

So rather than getting a larger sensor camera I got a smaller sensor camera--the Sony RX100 II, in fact. This camera seems to have the best of both worlds: small, lightweight, pocketable design combined with a sensor and lens that delivers DSLR-like results. I get the experience that I want along with the image quality that I desire.

The RX100 II's 1" sensor cannot match that of full-frame sensors. It has a smaller dynamic range and it can't touch the high-ISO capabilities of full-frame cameras. But it's not far off, either, and it's so much more enjoyable to use. I'm very happy with this choice.

When someone shows off their new 50 megapixel DSLR, or that new high-end mirrorless camera, or whatever expensive gear they just purchased, it's important to remember that each one of those things has a negative. There's a flaw. And that flaw impacts the experience of using it.

So don't be envious. Don't have sensor size jealousy. Be happy with what you have. Or, if you aren't happy, find something that will give you an enjoyable experience.

After all, gear doesn't matter. The photograph is all that the viewer cares about, and whether or not it moves them or speaks to them. It takes vision to create that. No one cares if it's a cell phone or medium-format camera that captured the photograph. The image is all that matters to the viewer, never the size of the sensor that captured it.


  1. Josh here. I agree 100%. That A7rii is still calling though... Absolutely not a need, but a major and expensive want!

    1. Thanks, Josh! The A7R II is certainly a nice camera.

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