Sensor Obsession

The amount of heated exchanges in photography chat rooms that people have about sensor size seems to be almost out of control these days. It’s as if some people think that nothing else matters when it comes to the art and craft of photography other than the size of a camera’s sensor. I can’t help but shake my head and think that this entire sensor obsession phenomenon, and related fixation on pixel peeping, are a waste of time.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Images have been added to serve as visual breaks.

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-640

A camera is an image creating tool. Nothing more. Nothing less. While individual cameras provide various capabilities that may be different than other models, simply owning a particular camera will not automatically make us better photographers.

Olympus TG-5 @ 18 mm, efov 100 mm, f/4.9, 1/400, ISO-320, microscopic mode

It doesn’t matter if the sensor in our camera is 1”, M4/3, APS-C, full frame, or even medium format.  The only thing that is important is what we can individually create with it. We can be equally proficient, or inept, with larger sensor cameras as we can be with smaller sensor ones.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 83 mm, efov 224 mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-3200, 10 mm extension tube used

All of the debate about megapixels is another complete waste of time. At the end of 2019 the renowned wildlife photographer Andy Rouse talked about his biggest payday in a YouTube video. It involved an image that he sold which ended up being used on billboards adjacent to every Jaguar dealership in the United States. What was the size of that digital file? 6 MP. If you scroll ahead to the 2:50 mark you can watch Andy’s comment.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 100mm, efov 270mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-1600

Just for fun I did some web searches for reviews of older, full frame cameras. The general commentary from those old reviews was eerily familiar with modern day camera reviews. The focus was on specifications and assessments of things like ‘world leading frame rates’, ‘incredible dynamic range’, or ‘phenomenal image details’. The fact is that many full frame sensor cameras that reviewers gushed about and heaped mountains of praise on in the mid 2000’s, performed comparably to many M4/3 sensor cameras 10 years later.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/6.3, 1/1000, ISO-1600

Technology keeps advancing, but not much has changed over the past 15 years in terms of how we use photographs. From a commercial standpoint we still enlarge images for billboards, for posters in bus shelters, and for in-store point-of-purchase displays. We don’t need 50 MP files for those enlargements to look really good from the intended viewing distances.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-250

My optometrist has a couple of photographic enlargements of night-time cityscapes in his waiting room. They are probably several metres or more in width. I have no idea what type of camera was used to capture them. Both enlargements are spectacular when viewed from a standard distance of about 1.5 to 2 metres. If I stand in very closely (i.e. less than 0.5 metres away) I can see that some details are a bit pixelated and have lost some sharpness. So what? Those enlargements were never intended to be viewed from a close-in distance.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 27mm, efov 73mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO-160. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.

For some reason many folks have become totally obsessed with pixel peeping. None of us will ever appreciate the beauty and artistry of a photograph by pressing our noses up to a computer screen and pixel peeping. Just like none of us would appreciate the beauty and artistry of the Mona Lisa by visiting the Louvre and examining each of Leonardo da Vinci’s brushstrokes with a magnifying glass.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-1100

It’s as if some photographers have become little more than armchair quarterbacks. They’re content to incessantly talk about and debate the most inane differences between cameras. Even taking time to call each other names and hurl insults back and forth. It really makes me wonder how much time some folks spend using their camera gear actually creating images.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-1600, subject distance 2.7 metres

I would certainly encourage people to fully assess and understand their photographic needs. They should absolutely use the gear that makes the most sense for them. Regardless of sensor size.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 100 mm, efov 270 mm, f/5.6, 1/15, ISO-1600

It really is a colossal waste of time to spend hours debating cameras. The odds that anyone’s opinion is going to be changed through these communications is miniscule. That time could be much better spent picking up a camera and actually creating some images with it!

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 30mm, f/5.6, 1/100, ISO-3200, extension tube used

Understanding how each of us can get the most out of our camera gear is paramount. Every camera comes with some kind of trade-off. There is no such thing as a perfect camera, regardless of the size of the sensor inside it. Knowing how to leverage a camera’s strengths, and mitigate its weaknesses as much as possible, helps us become better photographers.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 40 mm, efov 80 mm, f/5.6, 1/13, ISO-3200, subject distance 340 mm

Over the past 5-6 weeks I’ve spent a lot of time updating the html coding for many thousands of photographs that appear on this website. All told, I’ve made well over 10,000 individual html coding changes. While this work was tedious, it was also interesting to go back through the 650 active articles on this website and review each and every photograph. My task would have been even larger had I not deleted over 150 articles last year that were focused on my previous work with full frame cameras.

Gemstone Beach, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/160, ISO-160

In some cases I had a somewhat negative “What was I thinking?” reaction to individual photographs. Other images generated a more favourable personal response as I reviewed them.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @208 mm, efov 562 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-4500

The key takeaway for me from this exercise was that our approach to photography can, and does, change over time. How we use the capabilities of our camera gear. How we compose images. How we work in post. All can change and improve over time, directly impacting the quality of our work. It is important that we apply ourselves to both the art and craft of our photography. We hold ourselves back when we let a sensor obsession consume us, and waste time pixel peeping.

Technical Note:
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data.

“That Tree in Wanaka” New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5, 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 41 mm, efov 111mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

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Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 230mm, efov 460mm, f/5.6, 1/125, ISO-800, subject distance 870mm

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8 thoughts on “Sensor Obsession”

  1. A nice post Tom, and some great images. I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of sensor obsession and pixel peeping, and it’s a real distraction from what matters. Now I think the most important things are:
    1) Know your camera. Whatever camera you’re using, get it set up the way you like it, and know your way around it instinctively. You’ll miss far fewer shots if you do this. It’s one benefit of not following the constant upgrade route.
    2) Use the right tool for the job. I own a Nikon D810 and a D500, and if I know I’m going to be struggling for light I’ll take one or the other, depending on whether I’m going for landscapes or wildlife. However, it’s on fairly rare occasions and most times I find my Nikon 1 kit or Sony RX100 VI will do a great job, and be easier on my back!
    I love reading your articles and please keep up the good work in fighting the good fight for small sensor cameras! David.

    1. Thanks for adding your perspectives to the discussion David!

      I completely agree that knowing your camera is paramount… regardless of the format a person uses. Whenever we can get to that point with our gear it ceases ‘to get in the way’ of our creativity.

      In some ways I’ve been fortunate that my work almost never involves needing shallow depth-of-field or photographing moving subjects in low light. Smaller sensor cameras just work better for me with the kind of work that I do. At times I do regret buying into the full frame format. It cost me some money and used up some precious time when I could have been trying to improve my work with gear that was better suited to my needs. I did learn from the experience so all was not lost.

      It’s been interesting the past little while trying to keep new articles flowing while trying to finish my Ireland photography eBook. After that I’ll need to focus on some other eBook projects to keep my old, porous brain engaged.


  2. Tom,

    I think this is a case of misplaced attention — focusing on the tool rather than the art. I admit to being guilty of it at one point in my photographic journey, building up to FF from APS-C then back again. Granted that the tool is important to bring the art to life but obsessing on it instead of keeping practicing the art can be a lost opportunity. Heck, even an iPhone can be a wonderful tool, given an opportune moment and the hands and mind of a creative person.

    PS – In a post-Covid19 world where camera sales are falling off the deep cliff, sensor size may matter little at all. Apart from keeping hearth and home, most people may likely turn to practicing the photographic art as an artistic expression, maybe even as a diversion from real-world problems.


    1. Hi Oggie,

      I absolutely agree that we shouldn’t obsess about our photographic tools. After all they are just tools to create images. Cameras are a means to an end… not an end unto themselves. At its foundation a photograph is nothing more than a snapshot of a moment in time. That moment will never have an exact replica.

      It is the moment captured that is the miracle, not the camera used. Whether it be the impish smile of a small grandchild. A delicate blossom that has opened. A bird flying. All of these are Nature’s miracles. For me, a tool that allows me to see more… experience more… remember more… is a conduit that connects me to the everyday miracles around me. It reconfirms the gift that is life… and how fleeting that gift can be.

      Like everyone else I have seen thousands of birds taking flight. For me to be able to experience that exact moment in time when its wings are gloriously spread reveals Nature’s miracle to me in a deeper and more meaningful way.

      I think I used a poor choice of words in my last comment. Technology can help reveal the miraculous so we can appreciate it more. It doesn’t transform it.


  3. Tom, I wait for every post because I know I will learn something from a professional who ‘really gets it’ and is a phenomenal teacher as well. I recently sold my A7iii and A6000. Years ago, I tried to buy a Nikon 1v3. It will be interesting to see how my new Z50 works out. Thank you very much for all you do. Ron

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