Small Sensor Tips

This article discusses some small sensor tips in terms of photographic technique and working in post with RAW files. The intent of this posting isn’t to suggest that people should sell their current camera gear and switch to a small sensor system. Every photographer should do their own research to determine what format, brand, and model of camera best suits their needs.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M!~X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/3200, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4034 pixels on the width, subject distance 3.3 metres

Unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation that is perpetuated on the internet. Why some folks choose to do this is beyond me. There is no such thing as a perfect camera. Everything photographic comes with benefits and challenges. The key is to pick the camera equipment that best meets our individual needs while offering the least number of potential trade-offs.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/100, ISO-250, full frame capture, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 305 mm

Adjust Your Technique To Suit Your Camera Equipment.

It’s obvious that we can use a jig saw, circular saw or table saw to cut a piece of plywood. The technique that we use for each of these tools will vary based on the tool that we choose. The same concept holds true with camera gear. We need to understand how to adjust our technique to suit the camera gear in our hands.

OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/6400, ISO-1250, Pro Capture H, cropped to 2999 pixels on the width, subject distance 6.2 metres

Some of the criticisms levied on small sensor cameras like M4/3 can be directly linked to photographers using that camera gear format in exactly the same way they use larger sensor cameras like full frame… and expecting identical results. Technique needs to be adjusted depending on the camera format used and the creative outcome desired.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-800, subject distance 1.1 metres

Sensor Size Does Not Directly Impact Depth-of-Field

It is quite common to read comments that state that it is ‘impossible’ to achieve shallow depth-of-field with a small sensor camera. This is simply misinformed and incorrect.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 48 mm, efov 129.6 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-3200, extension tube used

It would appear that folks who make this kind of erroneous statement do not understand how depth-of-field is impacted by lens focal length, aperture, distance to subject, and subject distance to background. When these factors are properly understood it becomes quite easy to achieve shallow depth-of-field with a small sensor camera. Even when using a Nikon 1 camera with its 1″ sensor.

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, 1/320, f/7.1, ISO-6400, subject distance 1.9 metres

Using a shorter focal length will always produce more depth-of-field than a longer focal length when shot under identical shooting parameters. This is true regardless of the size of the camera’s sensor. For example a full frame 28 mm lens will always have more depth-of-field than a full frame 90 mm lens when shot at the same aperture, and from the same physical location in terms of subject distance.

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, 1/500, ISO-3200, subject distance 2.9 metres

Subject Distance to Background

Regardless of the camera format that we may be using it is critical to consider subject distance to background when we want to achieve good subject separation.  A poorly composed image will still be poorly composed regardless of the size of the sensor in the camera used. We need to remember to consider the backgrounds in our photographs, and how far away from our subjects those backgrounds are.

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, 1/500, ISO-6400, subject distance 3 metres

Get In Closer And Use a Longer Focal Length

A very simple technique to achieve shallow depth-of-field with a small sensor camera is to get in closer to our subject and use a longer focal length.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300mm, efov 600mm, f/5.6, 1/160, ISO-640, subject distance 920mm

Lens Optical Properties Don’t Change.

Some confusion arises when photographers consider equivalent field-of-view… and forget that the optical properties of the lens that they are using don’t change. While a 150 mm lens on a M4/3 camera may have an equivalent field-of-view of 300 mm when compared to a full frame system… the actual optical properties don’t change. We’re still using a 150 mm lens.

Olympus TG-5 @ 18 mm, efov 100 mm, f/4.9, 1/100, ISO-1250, microscopic mode

As such it will produce more depth-of-field when compared to a 300 mm lens… all other factors remaining the same. If we examine the macro butterfly image above we see that it has a quite deep depth-of-field even though it was captured with an aperture of f/4.9. The key factor was that an 18 mm lens (efov 100 mm) was used to create the photograph.

Belleek Castle Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/3.5, 1/15, ISO-3200

Advantage of Shorter Focal Lengths

Sometimes photographers who use small sensor cameras forget to fully leverage the advantage of using shorter focal lengths. The photograph above is a good illustration. You can see the image has good depth-of-field even though it was captured using an aperture of f/3.5. The key is the focal length of 6.7 mm.

On a Nikon 1 camera this provides an equivalent field-of-view of 18 mm when compared to a full frame system… but the optical properties are still that of a 6.7 mm lens.

So, by moving in closer and using an auto-focusing point skewed to the foreground of the composition, I was able to achieve good depth-of-field while using an aperture of f/3.5. The wide angle of 6.7 mm allowed me to shoot handheld at 1/15 with ISO-3200.

By comparison a full frame camera user shooting from the same physical position with a full frame 18 mm focal length at 1/15 may have needed an aperture close to f/11 to create the same depth-of-field. This could have necessitated about 3 stops higher ISO, potentially putting it in the ISO-16000 to ISO-20000 range.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 @ 7 mm, f/2.8, 1/2000, ISO-200

Using shorter focal lengths can allow us to get deep depth-of-field even when shooting handheld wide open at f/2.8 as we can see in the image above. Not having to stop down to f/8 or f/11 with landscape images can help us use base ISO-200 and utilize all of the dynamic range available to us with our small sensor camera.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro with 16 mm and 10 mm Kenko extension tubes, f/8, 1/320, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, Hand-held Hi Res Mode

Maximizing Available Dynamic Range

A full frame camera will often have more dynamic range than a M4/3 camera like the E-M1X or OM-1… so learning to maximize available dynamic range is important. I say ‘often’ because it is not always the case depending on the technology that is used.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 300 mm, Handheld Hi Res Mode

Use Handheld Hi Res When Appropriate

When using the Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) technology found in the E-M1X and OM-1, the cameras will deliver dynamic range that is very competitive with full frame cameras at their base ISO values. As ISO values are pushed higher to ISO-6400 the E-M1X and OM-1 will outperform full frame cameras in terms of dynamic range. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just visit the photonstophotos website and check it out for yourself.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS @ 24 mm, efov 48 mm, f/5.6, 4 sec, ISO-200

Take Advantage of IBIS Performance

Small sensor cameras from Olympus/OM Systems have outstanding IBIS performance. This can allow for very slow shutter speeds and the use of correspondingly low ISO values. In the photograph above we can see that a 4 second handheld exposure allowed this image to be captured at base ISO-200.

OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/4, 1/40, full frame capture, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 515 mm

Use Open Apertures With In-Camera Focus Stacking

Utilizing in-camera focus stacking can also deliver beautiful results when fairly wide open apertures like f/2.8 to f/4 are used at base ISO-200. Not having to stop your lens down to f8, f/11 or more to get the desired depth-of-field can help retain dynamic range.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 @ 7 mm, efov 14 mm, f/4, 5 seconds handheld, ISO-200

Use Base ISO-200 Whenever Possible

Under calm conditions shooting handheld at 4 seconds or more can help extend your photographic capabilities without the hassles of lugging a tripod around. Using longer handheld exposure times can allow a photographer to shoot at base ISO-200 on a more frequent basis, thus maximizing the available dynamic range of the camera.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 20 mm, efov 54 mm, f/8, 1/25, ISO-400

‘Double Bump’ in Post

One of the techniques that I regularly use when processing my small sensor RAW files in post is to ‘double bump’ them. I make initial adjustments to highlights, midtones and shadows in DxO PhotoLab, then export a DNG file into PhotoShop and ‘bump’ those settings again in that software program.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 12-100 mm f/4 IS PRO @ 12 mm, f/8, 1/10, ISO-200

Depending on the RAW file it is not uncommon for me to be quite aggressive with my second ‘bump’… often taking Highlights to -100 and Shadows to +100 when needed. By using these two software programs in post I’m able to make broader adjustments to highlights and shadows than would be possible if using only one program. This helps to stretch the available dynamic range in the RAW file.

Glengarriff Blue Pool Walk Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 7 mm, efov 18.9 mm, f/8, 1/80, ISO-160

Use DxO PhotoLab Smart Lighting Spot Adjustment

To achieve better overall exposure balance with my small sensor images I always use DxO’s Smart Lighting Spot Adjustment with each of my files. I’ll draw a sample box and move it around the photograph and sometimes change the size to achieve my desired appearance.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/8, 1/40, ISO-200, subject distance 1.4 metres

Use Black and White Sliders

Given the somewhat limited dynamic range with small sensor cameras it is critical to get our exposures right in camera. It can also be very important to pay special attention to adjustments made with black and white sliders. These two sliders can add depth to an image and help with edge acuity.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/4000, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3588 pixels on the height, subject distance 2.7 metres

Pro Capture!  Pro Capture!  Pro Capture!

If you own an Olympus/OM System camera with Pro Capture. experiment with it and learn how you can apply it to your photography. I simply cannot imagine owning a camera that did not have Pro Capture technology. Using Pro Capture will enable you to consistently and confidently capture precise moments that will help set your work apart.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 plus M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 104 mm, efov 208 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.6 metres
E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3336 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/5000, ISO-1250, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3790 pixels on the width, subject distance 10.4 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, 1/5000, f/11, -0.3 EV, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3164 pixels on the width, subject distance 3.9 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, 1/5000, f/6.3, -0.3 EV, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4932 pixels on the width, subject distance 5.1 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.7 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 24.8 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 454 mm, efov 908 mm, f/8.9, 1/1600, ISO-2500, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3132 pixels on the width, subject distance 45.9 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3132 pixels on the width, subject distance 134.2 metres

Don’t Be Afraid of Noise

Individual comfort levels with noise vary by photographer. As long as I can get a good, balanced exposure I never hesitate shooting my E-M1X up to ISO-6400 and will sometimes push my camera higher.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-12800, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2507 pixels on the width, subject distance 38.7 metres

I use a ‘double-barrel’ noise reduction approach. I start with DxO DeepPRIME at the front end of my process… with a maximum value of 15. At the end of my process I use either Topaz Denoise AI or Topaz Sharpen AI to finish my images. The combination seems to work more effectively than any of the programs individually.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 4142 pixels on the width, subject distance 52.6 metres

There are many benefits to use small sensor cameras like those from Olympus/OM Systems. Adjusting our shooting technique and using some small sensor tips can help us get the most out of our small sensor camera gear.

OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/6400, ISO-1250, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4085 pixels on the width, subject distance 6.2 metres

Choice of Many Professional Photographers

Unfortunately there are quite a few comments in photography chat rooms claiming that M4/3 cameras are not suitable for professional photographers. This is complete and utter nonsense.

Top, award winning, professional photographers like Jari Peltomaki, Andy Rouse, Petr Bambousek, Matt Suess, and David Tipling all use Olympus/OM System M4/3 camera gear.  Most of these individuals used full frame gear at some point in their careers, and made the switch to M4/3 equipment. Pros would not risk their reputations using camera gear that doesn’t meet their demanding needs.

OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/4000, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3531 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.8 metres

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files or out-of-camera jpegs using my standard approach in post. Images were resized for web use. This is the 1,212 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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12 thoughts on “Small Sensor Tips”

  1. Hi Thomas, great article as always. Your snowshoes photo under the “Handheld Hi Res” heading has an exposure time of 4 seconds! Was that off a tripod, were you iced in place, or is there something about the latest OLY IBIS I need to know about?!

    1. Hi Rog,

      The snowshoes images was not shot using Handheld Hi Res… just a standard, single exposure captured handheld at 4 Seconds. The flower bud image above the snowshoes images was Handheld Hi Res as noted in the EXIF data. I usually show a topical image above the headline/copy. Sorry if this was a bit confusing in this particular article.

      I’ve been shooting with an E-M1X since late May/early June 2019 and have never used a tripod with this camera. At some point when I get around to experimenting with Live Composite I will need to use a tripod at that point.

      Tom

      1. Whoops, sorry I got the wrong heading. But a 4 second handheld exposure with no perceptible motion blur – That’s amazing! Is the E-M1X vastly superior in this regard to any of the previous/lesser specced OM/Olympus bodies? Can you tell us a little more about your bracing technique?

        1. Hi Rog,

          I’m unable to comment on previous Olympus cameras as the E-M1X is my first experience with the brand. If my memory serves the E-M1X was the first Olympus camera with new IBIS technology which delivered up to 7 stops of image stabilization. Cameras like the OM-D E-M1 Mark II were rated for 5.5 stops of image stabilization.

          The image we are discussing was captured using the M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS lens. This lens further extends the IBIS performance by syncing the image stabilization in the lens with the 7 stops available with the E-M1X. This takes the total effect to 7.5 stops (if my memory serves). 2 stops of additional IBIS performance vis-a-vis the E-M1 Mark II without a sync-IS lens would create a very noticeable difference.

          In terms of technique, I only use the EVF for long exposures if I am able to lock my elbows and form a solid triangle. Typically I do this while seated on a portable stool so I can keep my elbows pressed firmly on my knees or thighs.

          If I am taking a long handheld exposure from a standing position, body sway becomes more of an issue. I will try to brace my body against a pole, tree, rock or other solid object. If there is nothing available against which I can brace myself, then I’ll shoot a long exposure using the rear screen of my E-M1X, and avoid using the EVF. If my memory serves that is what I did with the snowshoes image.

          Every photographer has their own technique. I find that I have less body sway when I use the rear screen of my E-M1X than if I use the EVF during a long exposure when I’m in a standing position. Regardless of my body position, and use of EVF or rear screen, I keep my breathing slow and shallow and focus all of my attention on keeping my body still. Once I have framed my image I no longer pay any attention to the photograph being created… its all about focusing my effort on body control. I use a very light but deliberate shutter finger movement. I often keep my shutter fully depressed during the exposure period rather than risk additional body movement. A 4 second handheld exposure is about my physical limit to create a potentially useable image with a degree of confidence. My longest successful handheld exposure from a standing position was 8 seconds with my E-M1X and PRO 12-100 f/4 IS zoom, but I cannot replicate this with any kind of consistency.

          Hope this has helped.

          Tom

          1. Very helpful, many thanks for taking the time for a detailed reply. I’m using older models with lens stabilisation only, no IBIS. I find I can get a decent result down to around 1/8 if I take a burst of 4 or 5 shots.

            4 seconds is the stuff of dreams. That’s 5 stops more than I’m getting. The difference between ISO 800 and 25,600 mush!

            1. Hi Rog,

              When I was shooting with other camera gear systems that had in-lens stabilization I was lucky to get 2.5 to 3.5 stops of stabilization with some of the zoom lenses I owned. Some specific lenses (mostly primes) didn’t have in-lens stabilization at all which made things challenging. Moving over to Olympus created some jaw-dropping experiences for me in terms of IBIS performance. I just couldn’t believe what I was able to do in terms of handheld long exposures. With my E-M1X or my wife’s E-M1 Mark III, exposures of 1 to 2 seconds with wider angle lenses are common.

              Tom

  2. Hi Thomas
    Although my journey led me from small to „maximum“ sensor, I still visit your site. I cannot imagine, how you capture those birds in flight. My motives do not move, so I am rather in a more easy zone 😊.
    Your tips above are precious, I shall try them for my Nikon 1 files, which I still use occasionally on holidays. I do not engage in discussions, which sensor size is „better“, I love the „biggies“, because – one could say – I can. If I may, I would add to your essay, that your tips are important for FF and MTF photographers too. It never hurts to aim for highest possible quality, sensor size notwithstanding. So, I certainly shall check them how far are they applicable for my FF and MTF files too. Thank you.
    Best regards
    Robert

    1. Hi Robert,

      Thanks for adding your perspectives and experiences to the discussion. As noted in the opening section of this article, I encourage folks to use whatever sensor format, brand and model of camera that best suits their needs. To me, “best” is a relative term based on individual needs. I’m glad that the article is of benefit to you.

      Tom

  3. I hope this post will be read by the millions who belief that full frame is the ‘only’ way to go. You’ve set a strong argument providing factual information that small sensor photography is viable for many photographers. Yes folks, you can work very well with small sensors.

    1. We appreciate your supportive comment Lewsh… thanks! As noted in the article, each photographer needs to assess their own needs to determine what gear will work best for them. I agree with your assessment that “small sensor photography is viable for many photographers”.

      Tom

  4. I read DxO just released a new version. If you test it out, it might make an interesting article. Supposedly they have made more improvements to Noise Reduction.

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