Small Sensor Naysayers

I suppose there will be always be folks who criticize various camera brands and formats that other people buy… especially small sensor naysayers. Ever since I bought my first Nikon 1 camera in the summer of 2013 I became more aware of this phenomenon.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

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/7.1, 1/3200, ISO-2000, subject distance 5.2 metres

Why some people feel the need to criticize the camera choices of others is anyone’s guess. Maybe its rooted in their own personal insecurities.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18.1 mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO-400

Or perhaps it is more an indication of someone’s inability to get the most out of the camera gear that they own. Maybe they assume that since they have not been able to get satisfactory performance from a particular camera that no one else can.

Olympus TG-5 @ 10 mm, efov 55.6 mm, f/5, 1/200, ISO-400

Many people go through life having unrealistic expectations of things. They make illogical comparisons so they can ‘win’ a debate. Some have a ‘my glass is half empty’ orientation towards life. All I know is that some people criticize the camera choices of others… and it can become very tiresome if we pay any attention to it.

Olympus TG-5 @ 18 mm, efov 100 mm, f/4.9, 1/250, ISO-800, microscopic mode

Obviously cameras are different and have varying performance characteristics. That doesn’t make one particular format better than another… just different.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 PRO @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/8000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture mode

I remember reading scathing reviews that stated a Nikon 1 camera was terrible in low light, and that they could not be used over ISO-400. Well, I initially used mine up to ISO-800. After a while I started to experiment with software.

Reginald’s Tower, Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18.1 mm, f/5.6, 1/10, ISO-3200

I soon discovered that the arbitrary ISO-400 limit espoused on the internet was just that… arbitrary. I routinely shoot my Nikon 1 gear at ISO values much higher than ISO-400. I’m at the point that I never hesitate to use my Nikon 1 cameras up to ISO-3200.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 250 mm, efov 675 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250

Regardless of the sensor size in our cameras it is a best practice to use the lowest ISO possible in terms of having the most dynamic range and colour depth in our images. So, I’m not advocating using a higher than needed ISO.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 34 mm, efov 91.8 mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO-3200

The point is not to accept what we read on the internet at face value. Cameras that utilize various sensor sizes all have their place. The key is to find the format that best fits your particular needs and budget.

Olympus TG-5 @ 12 mm, efov 66.7 mm, f/3.8, 1/40, ISO-1600

I think it is important to view the software we use as an integral part of our overall camera system. There’s no doubt that DxO PhotoLab 2 and its PRIME noise reduction helps to extend the ISO shooting range of my Nikon 1 gear.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 31.9 mm, efov 86.1 mm, f/5, 1/15, ISO-3200, extension tube used

That doesn’t make my Nikon 1 gear bad, or make DxO PhotoLab 2 a ‘crutch’. All it means is that the integrated camera system that I built for my Nikon 1 gear may be different that what someone else may choose for their gear.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/1000, ISO-2500, subject distance 215 mm

Assumptive thinking abounds on the internet. One assumption that small sensor naysayers make is that an APS-C camera’s sensor will always outperform a M4/3 sensor. I like to look at independent testing when such claims are made.

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, 1/2000, ISO-6400, subject distance 3.7 metres

It is true that cropped sensor cameras that use Sony sensors do score higher in DxOMark testing than the 20.4 MP M4/3 sensor in the E-M1 Mark II. The same cannot be said for Canon APS-C cameras.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko 1.4X teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5.6 1/1600, ISO-125

At the time of writing this article there are no Canon APS-C cameras showing in the DxOMark sensor testing database that have an overall score higher than the OIympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. A few Canon models do score a bit higher on one measure or another like Portrait, Landscape or Sports. If you take the time to go into the DxOMark website you’ll discover that the sensor in the E-M1X Mark II actually outperforms most Canon APS-C cameras.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO-1600

I don’t bring this up from a ‘gotcha’ standpoint… but only to illustrate that just because something is assumed doesn’t make it true. We need to consider how much dynamic range, colour depth and low light performance we actually need for what we create. Assuming that we need a full frame sensor is just that… an assumption.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/200, ISO-200, subject distance 700 mm

At the end of the day all of this sensor size debate is a complete waste of time and energy. All that each of us needs to do is to fully understand our photographic requirements. Then we can go out and purchase camera gear that is best suited to what we individually need.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/4, 1/10, ISO-3200

That may be a small sensor camera. Or an APS-C camera. Or a full frame camera. Maybe even a large format camera. What another photographer chooses doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s their money and their decision. Not mine.

There is one assumption that is prudent to make. When someone buys camera gear, we should assume that they know a whole lot more about their photographic needs than we know about their needs.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 31.9 mm, efov 86.1 mm, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-160

What about all those small sensor naysayers? I’d suggest doing what I do. Just ignore them and don’t waste your precious time debating with them. Your time is much better spent going out with your camera and having fun creating images!

Technical Note:
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8, f/8, 1/250, ISO-200, subject distance 275 mm

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15 thoughts on “Small Sensor Naysayers”

  1. Thomas,
    I am on the side of believing that most any camera today can take great pictures assuming they are handled by a good photographer like yourself who knows the camera system and can post process the photos decently. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Robert… most appreciated! I agree that cameras today are all very good in terms of the quality that they can deliver. The key is for each of us to find a camera/system that meets our needs… then to go out and have fun creating with it.

      Tom

  2. A few comments.

    First, PhotoLab tends to be a relatively slow workflow compared to the alternatives. That’s fine when you’re doing single images on a recent spec computer, but can be frustrating if you’re doing lots of processing, particularly if you’re running Prime NR. I like PhotoLab, and use it from time to time, but its a far slower process than my regular workflow.

    Second, DxOMark doesn’t seem to be doing testing of dedicated cameras at the moment. Which means that the most recent Canon sensors don’t show up in their results. Their latest 32mp APS-C sensor is pretty much equivalent to the current Sony 24mp ones. One thing we probably both agree and disagree on (;~) is that just reading numbers off Web sites that don’t fully disclose their origin and actual application isn’t wise. The simple fact that there is a lot going on in raw DN creation and placement beyond the photon efficiency means that even when we get such numbers that look the same (e.g. Nikon and Sony use of the same sensor base), the actual implications downstream at the raw converter can and often are different. It doesn’t help that a lot of the common raw converters punt on the math (e.g. use fixed digit integer math and simply ignore outlying data, as Adobe does).

    My current observation is this: we’ve hit the same underlying technology in all sensor sizes. That clearly shows on the Sony 26mp APS-C, 60mp full frame, and 100mp small MF sensors, which all use the same base technology and pretty much the same photosite size/technology. And because we have, it’s simple enough to do actual apples-to-apples testing of sensor size versus performance.

    When you do that, you get the expected answer based upon Quantum Shot Noise: full frame is a stop better than APS-C, et.al. In other words, full frame shot at ISO 1600 looks like APS-C shot at ISO 800.

    The question of choosing sensor size then becomes as to how much post processing you want to really do, and whether that post processing imparts visible changes in visual quality. For most people, for most uses, the answer has been—for awhile now—probably not. Those of us who shoot sports in low light environments probably have a different answer ;~).

    But the real problem I see for camera makers isn’t whether their sensor is smaller (more noisy) or larger (more costly) than the other camera makers. It’s that the smartphone makers have been rolling more tech into their products so that they are now capable of results—again for most people, for most uses—that make smaller sensor cameras irrelevant.

    Another very prominent person who understands and evaluates the same tech who I work with has been having an argument with me about where the smartphone attack currently stands in “most use equivalence.” He believes that products like the iPhone 11 Pro now produce better output than 1″ sensor dedicated cameras (assuming, of course, the same equivalent focal length, etc.). Which means that you get a 13-50mm equivalent zoom that is most of the lenses most people need, too.

    On the one hand, we live in a world of plenty now where it comes to imaging. On the other hand, that world is becoming disrupted because pretty much everything is over a “most uses for most people” bar. Which means that you have to examine your particular use very carefully to find the right gear for you. Which, of course, is what Thomas is asserting.

  3. Thank you Tom for taking the time to give us some insight into your workflow, particularly using DxO products. Also to John for his further comments about the latest DxO suite. I’m already a frequent user of the NIK collection but not DxO/Prime/noise reduction. Since I am laid up for a further 5 weeks with a broken ankle, this would seem like a great time to experiment with previously taken images to see if I can improve them. Do you think my results will be limited using the DNG files that Adobe has produced for me, the original ORF files are long gone?

    1. Hi Colin,

      Always a pleasure to be of assistance!

      I always save my original RAW files as well as the DNG files so I don’t have an answer for you… sorry. Perhaps some readers can provide some insights in this regard.

      Tom

  4. Hi Tom,

    I guess a lot of the “mythologizing” is caused by the trolls as well as people who are overly obsessed with specs. It’s the reason why I often avoid the comments section of DP Review for example, especially when a new camera is launched. I agree with what you said — it must stem mostly from insecurities.

    Personally, I’ve known and met “photographers” who will bash any camera with a sensor smaller than what their camera(s) have. Some equate only full framers with pro-worthy status. I guess everyone’s entitled to their opinion but I reserve the right to label such inanities as b.s. Any camera can be only as good as the one wielding it.

    P.S. I love the philosophy of the Russian photographer, Sergey Shakuto, one of the finalists of the Red Bull Illume 2019 — taking the cheapest camera and lens he has, a Sony A6000 and 16 f/2.8 lens to film a freefall/freedive jump at sunset (https://www.dpreview.com/news/0002843519/slideshow-red-bull-illume-image-quest-2019-semi-finalists?slide=2). When the opportunity presents itself, it’s ultimately the case of using whatever you have to capture it as well as using your skills to capture it well.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

  5. Another excellent and topical article, Tom.

    As an owner of Sony RX10 (ii) and RX100 (iv) cameras with a 1″ sensor (like your Nikon 1) – and Sony full-frame cameras (a7ii and a7iii) I can attest to the accuracy and fairness of your comments.

    My a7s are amazing in low-light, with their ability to happily work at very high ISO settings ( processed with DxO PhotoLab’s PRIME noise reduction feature, like you ) – – and I can definitely achieve more definite depth-of-field control with the full-frame sensor a7s – – BUT, my RX10x cameras also produce very good, sharp images, and in a package that’s lighter and more manageable than their a7 “big brothers”.

    So, I’m not planning on giving up on my RX10 anytime soon – – it’s my preferred camera in many situations.

    Regards, John TKA

  6. Your results are always impressive, particularly at high ISO levels! As an OM-D E M1.2 owner, can you provide any hints as I embark on the process of adding DxO PhotoLab 2 and PRIME noise reduction to my workflow?

    1. Hi Colin,

      First, I should explain that I use a rather unorthodox approach for my post processing workflow in that I use a combination of three different software programs. This approach may not appeal to other folks.

      My RAW processor is DxO PhotoLab 2. I activate the standard automatic settings in PhotoLab so as soon as I open a RAW file the program makes automatic lens corrections as per DxOMark lab testing. I have a number of custom presets that I created that suite my specific needs. These are often camera, lens, subject, and sometimes lighting specific. These take time for a photographer to establish and mine were created to suit my shooting style and how I like to work with my images in post. You may want to do the same once you are more familiar with PhotoLab. I apply PRIME noise reduction to every one of my RAW files regardless of the camera I use… Olympus TG-5, my Nikon 1 bodies, or my E-M1X… and regardless of the ISO at which an image was captured. So… even when I shoot at base ISO I always apply PRIME noise reduction. I also use the DxO Smart Lighting tool on every one of my images to bring out as much dynamic range as I can. I would recommend regular use of PRIME and the Smart Lighting tool for sure. I never attempt to finish my images in PhotoLab… only give my process a good start.

      After I do my basic RAW processing in PhotoLab 2, I export a DNG file into CS6. I make some basic slider adjustments and use some of the functions in CS6 as I like how I can develop my ‘look’ with some of the functions in CS6.

      My final adjustments are then made with an old copy of the Nik Collection… usually in Viveza and Color Efex. What I use is image dependent.

      It is difficult for me to explain the how’s and why’s of what I do in post. When I look at my base file, experience tells me how and what I need to use in each of the three programs. I never try to finish a file in only one program. I guess because I haven’t used one that does everything that I want to the level I want. Sorry I can’t be more helpful… it is a rather organic experience when I work in post with every image telling me in its own way what it needs. I don’t typically spend a lot of time working on an image… usually 3-4 minutes tops including computer processing time.

      Tom

    2. Hi Colin – – As I see you are considering purchase of DxO PhotoLab .. here are a few comments that may be of interest.

      An update to PhotoLab has recently been released; it’s now at version 3.0. The new version doesn’t make any improvements (or changes) to the PRIME technology – but it does include a number of new features that establishes PhotoLab as a credible *complete replacement* for other commonly used RAW-processing and photo-enhancement software.

      Tom also mentions the Nik Collection, which is now owned by DxO – with PhotoLab providing a handy interface to any of the Nik tools (after it handles processing of the RAW file).

      A purchase of the Nik Collection includes a copy of PhotoLab Essentials (which does not include PRIME) – but, you could then upgrade Essentials to the Elite version (which includes PRIME) – thereby ending-up with PL3 + the DxO Nik Collection at less than the cost of purchasing them individually (tho, you should confirm those numbers for yourself).

      Regards, John TKA

      PS: I have no affiliation with DxO – other than as a happy user of many of their tools.

      PPS: Ironically, the steady improvement of PhotoLab (including use of Nik-sourced U-point technology for local/selective adjustments – much like was once left to Viveza) has meant that fewer of the Nik tools are now relevant to the PL user – – but, as Tom notes, Color Efex Pro definitely has a very relevant place in “polishing” a keeper … as does Silver Efex Pro for B&W/monochrome processing.

  7. Thomas,
    It is so refreshing to see an article like this that deals with a subject that is so volatile. Thanks for taking the time to deal with some of the myths out there. Your posts are always interesting and very informative.
    Ron

    1. Hi Ron,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

      There is a lot of assumptive thinking out there. At the end of the day there is only one valid assumption that we should make. That is… whenever some buys camera gear we should assume that they know a whole lot more about their camera equipment needs than we know about their needs. We need to respect the choices that other photographers make… not criticize them.

      Tom

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