Using Small Sensor Cameras

This article shares some small sensor camera performance tips. While many of these tips are applicable for digital cameras in general, they are especially important when using small sensor cameras such as M4/3 and 1″ format.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 PRO with M.Zuiko 1.4 X teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/4, 1/125, ISO-3200, image from RAW file processed to taste

Tip #1: Don’t believe all the negative hype about small sensor cameras.

The internet is full of negative comments about using small sensor cameras. Much of it comes from folks who have very little, if any,  experience with M4/3 and 1″ sensor format gear. Some people have expectations that they will be able to use small sensor cameras in exactly the same way they do larger sensor cameras and get identical results. This is misguided and unrealistic.

Are there differences in performance between smaller sensor cameras like M4/3 and 1″ format when compared to full frame? Of course. An obvious one is photographing moving subjects in low light conditions where full frame cameras do have a clear advantage.  We need to keep in mind that there are also performance differences between APS-C or full frame cameras when compared to medium format. There is no such thing as a perfect camera. Each piece of equipment comes with some kind of trade-off.

Some folks who slag smaller sensor cameras incessantly have no first-hand experience whatsoever using them. Comments of this nature are best equated with the droppings that fall from the rear ends of male bovines.

Using small sensor cameras is not just for amateurs. They have the potential to create wonderful images that are absolutely acceptable for professional use. If they didn’t have that potential then professional photographers like Andy Rouse, Joe Edelman, Kelley L. Cox, Matt Suess, Petr Bambousek, Scott Bourne and Tim Boyer… to name a few… wouldn’t put their reputations on the line by using Olympus M4/3 gear.

The moment you start believing the negative hype on the internet about using small sensor cameras… is the moment you restrict your own photographic potential with this type of equipment.

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

Tip #2: Be creative with post processing.

Generally speaking smaller sensor cameras will have less dynamic range and colour depth than larger sensor cameras like APS-C and full frame. I say ‘generally’ because not all camera sensors are created equal. Depending on specific camera match-ups, the differences can be surprisingly small.

When using small sensor cameras it can be very beneficial to experiment with your post processing. For example, when I process my Nikon 1 or Olympus RAW files I always ‘double bump’ them in post in terms of highlight and shadow adjustments. I make some initial adjustments to these dimensions using DxO PhotoLab 2. It should be noted that I always use the DxO Smart Lighting tool with all of my photographs.

After exporting a DNG file into CS6, I adjust the highlights and shadows a second time. Depending on subject matter it is quite common for me to take highlights to -100 and shadows to +100 when working with my Nikon 1 RAW files. I can also be quite aggressive with the black and white sliders in CS6 when processing these specific files. I would have never taken these aggressive approaches when working with my Nikon D800 RAW files in post.

Images created with different format camera systems require different considerations in post. Approaching small sensor RAW files in post in the exact same manner used with larger sensor images will typically result in suboptimal image quality.

Since RAW files are always processed to the objectives and taste of an individual photographer, I think it is fool’s play to recommend specific software. Like cameras, there is no such thing as a perfect software program.

Find software, or a combination of programs, that enables you to create finished images that meet the photographic vision in your mind. Then hone your skills with those software tools, rather than bouncing around from one software program to another. Most of us don’t fully utilize all of the potential in the software we currently own. Our time is best spent experimenting with our existing software, rather than wasting it trying to learn a completely new program.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/400, ISO-6400, subject distance 250 mm, Handheld Hi Res Mode

Tip #3: Become intimate with your camera and lenses.

If you really want to get the most out of your small sensor camera (or any camera for that matter), it pays to get intimate with your gear. Once we truly understand the nuances of using a particular camera body, or a specific lens, we develop an intimate relationship with it. When we pick up that camera gear it is like a Zen experience. We are ‘at one’ with our gear and know exactly how to use it in a range of photographic conditions. We can adapt to specific shooting situations instantly.

Photographic opportunities are often fleeting. If we are not operating on an intimate basis with our camera gear we will miss many creative opportunities as we fumble around trying to figure out what to do. In some cases, we will not even attempt to create an image because we fail to recognize an opportunity to experiment with our gear. Sometimes we don’t challenge our assumptions and our understanding of what can be possible with our small sensor camera equipment.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO-200, subject distance 950 mm

Tips #4: Take a different road to the same destination.

There will be times when you will be told that you can’t do something with your small sensor camera. A common one is that shallow depth-of-field is not possible. There is very often a different road you can take to create the image in your mind. This approach must suit the camera you are holding in your hands. In terms of shallow depth-of-field there are options to consider. You may have to use a longer focal length lens. Or choose to adjust the distance between your camera and the subject. Or, the distance between the subject to the background.

The key is to remember that you are in control of how you go about creating your images. Most often there is a solution. You may have to take a different road to get there when using small sensor cameras, than you would with a full frame one.

Belvedere House Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 13 mm, efov 35 mm, f/5.6, 0.8 seconds, ISO-3200

Tip #5: Learn to shoot handheld at slow shutter speeds.

If you’re like many people, one of the reasons that you own a smaller sensor camera is because of its relatively small size and weight. You likely don’t want to be bothered carrying tripods and other camera supports around with you. Learning to shoot handheld at slow shutter speeds will extend the image capturing potential of your small sensor camera significantly. That skill will also allow you to use lower ISO values which can directly impact the overall quality of your images from your small sensor camera. In some cases your skill at shooting handheld using slow shutter speeds will make the difference between capturing an image, or missing it entirely.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + N.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, f/5.6, 1/2 second, ISO-200

Tip #6: Leverage the deep depth-of-field of wide angle lenses.

For as much as many owners of full frame sensor cameras like to talk about shallow depth-of-field, many are strangely silent when it comes to images requiring deep depth-of-field.

A wide angle lens will always create more depth-of-field at a specific aperture than a lens with a narrower field-of-view at that same aperture. For example, a 12 mm lens will have more depth of field than a 24 mm lens at the same aperture. This is true regardless of the size of the sensor in our camera.

Owners of M4/3 and I” camera systems can often get the depth-of-field they need in their images using apertures like f/4 or f/5.6. These apertures often allow small sensor camera owners to shoot at base ISO, and also avoid the potential effects of diffraction that can occur when lenses are stopped down to f/11 and beyond. This can be a significant advantage when shooting landscapes, architecture and other subject matter.

Using wider angle focal lengths with a small sensor camera to achieve the equivalent field-of-view of larger sensor cameras has some other advantages. It can help reduce the need to use a tripod as faster shutter speeds can often be used.

When using smaller sensor cameras I’ve never worried about having to calculate hyperfocal distances.  Or, setting up a series of focus stacked landscape images shot from a tripod… then spending time combining them in post in order to achieve my desired depth-of-field.

That’s not to say that a photographer may not choose to focus stack images, or take a range of images and stitch them together in post. All I’m saying is that using wide angle lenses come with some inherent depth-of-field advantages. Shooting with M4/3 and 1″ sensor cameras makes this advantage very practical and accessible.

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

Tip #7: Understand and use the unique functionality of your small sensor camera.

For whatever reason, smaller sensor cameras often seem to have some unique functionality built into them that larger sensor cameras don’t have. Maybe camera manufacturers innovate more with smaller sensor cameras to entice people to buy them. Or, perhaps it is easier to build in these capabilities with smaller sensor cameras from an engineering standpoint.

From a practical perspective there are some interesting and innovative features that I’ve come to appreciate with my smaller sensor cameras. Things like using microscopic mode with my Olympus TG-5. Using my Nikon 1 V3 to capture full resolution images at 20 frames-per-second when shooting in continuous auto-focus. Or, confidently capturing a series of unique action images after they have occurred by using Pro Capture with my Olympus OM-D E-M1X.

I’ve used a range of camera formats over the years, including APS-C and full frame. Each camera has brought advantages and disadvantages to the table. I can attest to the fact that many photographs that have appeared in my articles over the past 5 years would not have been possible if I wasn’t using smaller sensor cameras.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, f/10, 1/2, ISO-64, Live ND Mode

Tip #8: Focus on personal growth and expanding what is possible.

At the end of the day two things have been my most important priorities along my photographic journey. The first was to get my shot. The second was to push myself by expanding my experience and understanding of what is possible.  For me, using small sensor cameras have been an integral part of my photographic journey, and will remain so in the future.

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 PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 @ 7 mm, efov 14 mm, f/4, 5 seconds handheld, ISO-200

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4 thoughts on “Using Small Sensor Cameras”

  1. Tom,

    Your post is spot on and thanks for the reminder. Every camera choice has its share of trade-offs. I think the internet shills and trolls are obfuscating the issue/s with regards to small sensor cameras. As the former generation of camera users/photographers whether enthusiasts or amateurs mature, the move into smaller cameras (or even smartphones with their slew of camera tricks and features) will become more apparent. The decreasing ILC market seems to be pointing in that direction. Our earlier analysis indicate that in the short term, the camera makers will try to make users gravitate towards full frame (or bigger like Fuji’s version of medium format) but it remains to be seen whether that can arrest the market decline.

    Tip #5 resonates me with very well as I’ve come to leave my tripod more and more at home.

    Regarding tip #7, the smaller sensor format allows Olympus to take full advantage of a more advanced type of IBIS which makes the high resolution hand held macro shots you were showing us as possible with the E-M1X.

    Tip #8 is very relevant to me as well, having moved from Nikon FF to Sony mirrorless APS-C 2-3 years ago. It’s not just the weight of the body and lenses that convinced me to switch; it’s the availability of the camera during climbs and hikes that I like doing.


    1. Hi Oggie,

      Thanks for adding your perspectives to the discussion!

      I don’t think dedicated cameras will disappear completely… at least during the remainder of my lifetime. There are certainly a lot of troubled waters ahead as camera and lens manufacturers deal with declining demand. Tough decisions about remaining in the camera market will face all manufacturers at some point in the future as it becomes harder and harder for companies to be profitable.

      Rather than worry about such things I’ve been taking a pragmatic approach… i.e. use/buy whatever camera gear best meets my needs right now and provides some additional capabilities with which I can continue to grow with my craft. I have no control over the market or the future of a particular brand of camera… so there is little point in worrying about it. I often remind myself that my Nikon 1 gear is still as serviceable now as it was when the product line was discontinued over 18 months ago.


  2. Thanks again, Thomas, for a clear and straight forward approach to this subject. It was a great read and certainly added to my understanding of photography in general.

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