Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Making The Case For Small Sensor Cameras + 5 Reasons To Own One

Tipped Wheel Chair - Lancaster, California
Captured using a Panasonic ZS40, which has a 1/2.3" sensor.
Cameras with tiny sensors get mocked. They're considered inferior. They're for amateurs, or--worse--snapshooters. Why would anyone ever consider using small sensor cameras for anything remotely serious? Small sensor cameras are what you start out with, and not something that you'd return to after owning several DSLRs, right?

Let's decide what defines a small sensor. This is highly debatable. In my opinion, any sensor that's 1" or less in size is a small sensor. Why? Because cameras with this size sensor can generally fit into your pocket. Once you get larger than 1" (M-4/3, APS-C, etc.) the cameras are not typically pocketable. You may disagree with my definition (and that's fine), but it's what we're going with for the purpose of this article.

I believe that small sensor cameras have received an unjustified bad rap. They should be shown a little more respect. And I will explain why I use small sensor cameras, even for "serious" photography.

#1 - A Bird In The Hand...
One Legged Bird - Cambria, California
Captured using a Sony RX100 II, which has a 1" sensor.
You've likely heard the old saying, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." This means that something you have direct access to is twice as valuable as something that you don't have direct access to. Photographically speaking, it could be said this way: "A small sensor camera in hand is worth a large sensor camera at home on a shelf."

Small sensor cameras come in small packages. They're portable--almost always pocketable--because they're small and lightweight. Slip one in your pocket before you head out the door and you have one with you no matter where you go.

You're photographically seeing the world when you have a camera with you, actively looking for potential pictures. There are so many images that you don't see when you're not looking. And you're not looking when you don't have a camera.

Small sensor cameras open up the opportunity to photograph more. Chase Jarvis coined the phrase, "The best camera is the one that's with you." It doesn't matter if your camera is high-end or not. What matters is whether you have a camera--any camera--to capture what's happening around you.

#2 - Depth-of-Field
Sad Statue - San Simeon, California
Captured using a Sony RX100 II, which has a 1" sensor.
People will say that a disadvantage of small sensor cameras is depth-of-field. The smaller the sensor the larger the depth-of-field will be at any given aperture. It's difficult to achieve a narrow depth-of-field. While this is true, it's a bit of a myth, as well.

While it is more difficult to achieve a small depth-of-field with tiny sensors, it's certainly not impossible. You just have to focus as close to the end of the lens as the camera will allow and you'll get a narrow depth-of-field. So, yes, you have to work a little harder to get it, and you may have to compose the scene differently, but you can still get a small depth-of-field if that's what you want.

On the flip side, achieving a large depth-of-field is much easier on a small sensor camera. This is a big advantage! Small sensor cameras are superior to large sensor cameras if you want everything foreground-to-background to be in focus.

#3 - People Don't Notice
Come To Jesus - Pasadena, California
Captured using a Sony RX100 II, which has a 1" sensor.
When you're using a DSLR (or any camera that looks big and expensive, whether it's technically a DSLR or not) out in public, people will assume that you're a photographer or a creep (and either way, somehow, you're up to no good). You don't blend in. People will avoid you, give you a dirty look, or call the cops (or all three).

But if you have small gear, especially if that gear looks cheap or is a cell phone, nobody pays any attention to you. You blend right into the scene. Some people might look at you, but they'll assume that you're harmless.

For some situations (such as a trip to Yosemite National Park) nobody cares if you have big gear, but in other situations (such as street photography) having inconspicuous gear might be the difference between getting the shot or not.

#4 - Price
Vintage Half Dome From Olmsted Point - Yosemite National Park, California
Captured using a $130 Canon N, which has a 1/2.3" sensor.
Photography is expensive. A full-frame DSLR will run you several thousands of dollars for just the camera body, and you're likely to spend even more than that on lenses. It's very easy to break the bank. And if you're a starving artist, who has that kind of spare change lying around anyway?

But do you know what's worse than spending a ton of money on gear? Having that gear stolen out of your car while on vacation. That happened to me once, and it wasn't fun. I also once accidentally dropped a DSLR onto a hard surface from six feet high. I was lucky that nothing broke, but all of the time people accidentally damage their gear. Besides all of this, the average photographer replaces his or her camera every two years, dropping a whole bunch more money.

Small sensor cameras are much cheaper in comparison. If you don't have tons of money to spend, no problem! If your gear gets stolen or broken, well, that stinks, but it's not a huge deal. A few hundred dollars will get you right back in business.

#5 - Image Quality
The Closed Road - Fish Camp, California
Captured using a Nokia Lumia 1020, which has a 2/3" sensor and near medium-format resolution. 
"You've got to be kidding me," I can hear you say. "You actually think that image quality is a reason to buy a small sensor camera? You're out of your mind!"

Hear me out. Yes, all things being equal, a modern full-frame DSLR will way outperform any small sensor camera. But not everything is equal.

A small sensor camera with a great lens will put a larger sensor camera with a mediocre lens to shame. A new small sensor camera will match and sometimes even outperform an old larger sensor camera (because of technological advancements). There are times when the image quality from a small sensor camera is equal to or better than a larger sensor camera. I certainly understand that these are caveats and not rules, but I think it illustrates that the image quality from cameras with small sensors shouldn't be so easily dismissed.

A big reason that one shouldn't dismiss the image quality from tiny sensor cameras is that viewers don't know or care about the sensor size that was used to capture the photo that they're viewing.  Viewers only care about the photo itself, the technical aspects don't matter whatsoever.

Small sensor cameras nowadays produce image quality that is at a minimum sufficiently good, and some cameras produce image quality well beyond the "sufficient" description. It isn't 2006 anymore. In the last 10 years camera sensors have improved by leaps and bounds, and this is especially true for small sensors. A few manufacturers have paired some pretty darn good optics with those sensors. And many of these cameras will even let you capture in RAW.

Conclusion
Lines & Shadows In Monochrome - Tehachapi, California
Captured using a Sony RX100 II, which has a 1" sensor.
Cameras with small sensors have come a long ways, and they certainly have some advantages. But they also have some disadvantages. The perfect camera doesn't exist. Use what works for you, and don't worry about what other people think of it.

Don't think that because you use a small sensor camera your images are inferior, or because you use a larger sensor camera that your images are superior. Photographic vision trumps gear--always has, always will.

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