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Camera Basics - Sensors Pt. 1
Category: Photography Basics
Updated 2 weeks ago by renan


Choosing a camera used to be a lot easier before camera phones became so advanced that it can actually compete with basic point-and-shoot or compact cameras. Camera manufacturers have to step up every technology they can to make their models relevant to the current market.
 
The most significant difference, and probably the first thing you should consider when choosing between different camera models (including camera phones) are their image sensors.
 
A sensor is the part of a digital camera which receives light and converts it into an electronic signal or a digital data. This is the part that replaced the film in an analog camera. Unlike the film however, the sensor is not one continuous material, it is subdivided into smaller array of elements, each capable of interpreting different levels of light and sending them out as an electronic signal. These element of the sensor are called pixels (short for picture elements). All of the signal coming out from each of the pixels of a sensor are then gathered and composed together by the camera's processor to form an image.
 
SENSOR TYPES. There are two common types of sensors, the CCD (Charged Coupled Device) and CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor). When digital imaging became popular, the CCDs were the most popular since they gave superior image quality compared to CMOS sensors. However, some companies still use CMOS since they are cheaper and consumes less power. Nowadays, the advancement in production and imaging technology has allowed CMOS sensors to produce the same or better level of image quality than their CCD counterparts. It has also proven to be more responsive, cheaper to mass produce, and is more energy efficient, which is why it is currently preferred by most camera manufacturers.
 
SENSOR SIZE. The size of the sensor plays a large part in producing cleaner, crisper, more detailed images. It also allows the reproduction of slight changes in color tones from the deepest blacks to the brightest whites. Large image sensors are great, but they also consume more power, requires a large space, and is expensive to manufacture. The most appropriate sensor sizes has to be chosen for each camera model, depending on their target market.
 
Full Frame - Based on the most popular film size (also referred to as 35mm film) has a dimension of 36 x 24mm. This is used by Full-Frame DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
 
APS-C - This format is adapted from the Advanced Photo System - Classic film format introduced by Kodak on 1996. The size ranges from 22.2 x 14.8mm to 23.7 x 15.7mm, depending on the manufacturer, and is used in various "cropped" sensor DSLR cameras and mirrorless systems.
 
Four-Thirds - Used in Micro Four-Thirds camera system has a size of 17.3 x 13mm or roughly 25% of the size of a Full Frame sensor.
 
CX Format (1-Inch) - Used mostly in high-end Compact cameras, this sensor has a size of 13.2 x 8mm.
 
Small Sensors: 2/3", 1/1.7", 1/2.3" - These are sensors smaller than the CX and are typically used in most Point-And-Shoot, Compact cameras and Smartphones. Other size variants available are 1/3.2", 1/2.7", 1/2.5", 1/1.8", 1/1.5", 1/1.2".
 
Other Sizes - Other not-so-common sensor sizes have been used too, such as Sigma Foveon (20.7 x 13.8mm), Canon APS-H (28.7 x 19mm) used in their 1D series of professional Sports DSLR cameras and Canon 1.5-inch (18.7 x 14mm) used in their G1X series Compact cameras.
 
Large Sensors - High-end professional camera manufacturers have started using Medium Format (larger than Full Frame but smaller than 4 x 5-inch) and Large Format sensors (4 x 5-inch or larger).
 

APS-HAPS-CCanon APS-CFoveon4/3"CX2/3"1/1.7"1/2.3"

sensor size 2/3Click on any of the formats to compare them with a Full Frame sensor.
 
CROP FACTOR. You may have heard the term Crop Factor used to describe the size of a sensor. It is actually a value that represents the ratio between the diagonal of a Full Frame sensor and the sensor it is compared to. For example Canon's APS-C sensor (22.2 x 14.8mm) has a diagonal of 26.68mm, compared to Full Frame (36 x 24mm) with a diagonal of 43.27mm, gives us 1:1.62, in this case the crop factor is 1.62 or simply 1.6. Nikon's APS-C has a crop factor of 1.5, Four-Thirds sensor has 2, and CX has 2.7 crop factor.
 
This values are very handy when you go deep into understanding Equivalence of focal length, aperture, or depth of field.

 

Related links:
Camera Basics - Sensors Pt. 2



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