When the chips are down, measure them.

Camera Chip Size Chart

Comparative chart of imaging chip sizes.

A bit of a frivolous posting this, but I was putting a presentation together based around the camera systems that are available, the pros and cons of various options, and what some of the technical jargon means (geek speak, if you like).

As an exercise to demonstrate difference at the heart of various cameras, I made a chart comparing the imaging chip sizes of various types of camera. The boxes you see in the graphic are to scale relative to each other, so don’t go measuring them with a ruler and then complain that they’re not the right sizes. I make no claims to absolute accuracy, but they give some idea of the difference between (say) the iPhone 4 chip and the chip in the Canon 5D MKII (the full-frame example).

What surprised me was that the enthusiast compact (my measurement taken from the spec of the Canon G12) is actually larger than the chip found in a typical bridge camera. This might explain why the enthusiast compact is around £175 dearer than the bridge camera.

The chart also points up that although micro 4/3rds (MFT) camera manufacturers like to claim that you can now take pictures like a pro with their cute, retro-styled, interchangeable lens cameras (my measurement is based on the Olympus Pen), the chip size is still some way off the full-frame DSLR and remains smaller than the chip found in the average budget DSLR. And that same DSLR chip is found in more expensive SLRs too, like the Canon 7D.

It’s probably testament to quality of the chip found in budget DSLRs, aka APS-C size, that it is good enough to go into cameras like the Canon 7D which costs around £1,130. Personally I’ve been a little underwhelmed by the test images I’ve seen from the MFT cameras, and with the body and basic lens costing well over £700 it makes you wonder if you’re not paying as much for the retro cuteness as for the camera itself.

Panasonic also make MFT cameras without all the chic charms of the Olympus Pen, and their equivalent to the Pen, the GF2, is around £460. That’s quite a saving for eschewing the chic, and it’s not an ugly camera either.

But what the exercise drew my attention to, in looking at cameras like the Pen, was that photographers risk being lured not by what a camera is capable of, but how cool it looks around your neck. You only have to hear the starry-eyed droolings of photographers who lust after the Fuji X-100 to know what I mean. I should know; I’d like to try one too!

To me though, a camera is a tool which is necessary in the process of taking pictures. It’s obviously at the heart of what I do, but provided I can hold it properly and all the buttons are in sensible places, I’m not too concerned about what it looks like. The world would be a duller place without nicely designed objects, but I do think camera manufacturers risk luring people more with cute and clever design than with basic photographic quality.

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  • Neil Turner March 29, 2011  

    I always quote pixel density to non-believers… the worst offenders have a pixel density of nearly 50 Mp/cm2 which means that they have a lot of image noise as soon as the light is not perfect and it means that the ability to do anything with the images is severely limited. The best cameras for pixel density have a figure of less than 2 Mp/cm2 and anything under 5 on a modern chip will be pretty noise free at higher ISOs – and that means either very few megapixels to start with or a full-frame chip.

    • Glass Eye March 29, 2011  

      Indeed, I often say that 12 million pixels is all very well, but if it’s 12 million rubbish pixels then what’s the point?

      It was interesting to see the dismay from photographers when the pixel count on the Canon G10 was increased from the G9 (can’t remember the exact figures, but didn’t it go from around 12mp to 14mp on the G10?) and Canon capitulated on the G11 and dropped it back down to 10mp. So maybe someone is listening!

  • Ken of London March 29, 2011  

    It doesn’t matter which era or format you look at Tim there will always be brand snobs and dandy boys who will always fall for the charms of the manufacturers marketing campaigns.

    Case in point, in the mid 90’s I was part of a weekend workshop where we got all the available medium format cameras together, shot the same item set up in a studio, using each brands standard lens – 80mm or 90mm generally.

    We then processed and printed (B&W) cropping to 6×6 at the same magnification on the easel. All the prints where then numbered and the local Pros of all walks invited in over the next two weeks to the gallery to match the brands with the numbered prints.

    No one even came close, the best was 25%. Random choice dictates that you could do better by just blindly picking and choosing.

    The point being – the more things change the more things stay the same.

    • Glass Eye March 30, 2011  

      Ken, I bet most people would have expected prints from a Hasselblad to stand out from the crowd. Was that one of the cameras tested? And did more people match it to its prints? Probably too long ago now for you to have the deep statistics of the exercise, but it’s an interesting case in point.

      Even the Fuji X100 worries me in that as lovely as it looks, it’s still just an APS-C sensor at its heart. For what you pay for that camera, you’re within spitting distance of a Canon 7D. But people will think that if they own something that looks vaguely like Cappa’s Contax, they’ll somehow manage to take amazing, society-changing pictures. Still, I can’t blame them. Maybe I’d buy one if I thought I’d get the use of it. There are few crimes greater than the purchase of a brilliant camera only to end up using it for holiday snaps and pictures of cats.

  • Ken of London March 30, 2011  

    We tested the following:

    Rollei 6006
    Rollei 6008
    Mamiya RB67
    Mamiya TLR
    Bronica 67
    Pentax 67

    There where many who predicted that the Hassalblad would be easy to pick since it was obviously the best camera in the whole Universe. From the manufacturers literature we read aloud on the presentation at the end of the workshop, it was clear that Hassalblad believed their system to be infinitely superior to everything else in the universe, where clearly we showed it was not.

    These same predictors got the complete shits and declared a rigged exercise (why we would do that I don’t know) so the results where null and void and they refused to accept the test as impartial. I find most Hassalblad owners/users much like Leica owner/users – so blinked in their unfailing belief in said camera systems they refuse to accept that their brand of choice isn’t totally dominant of everything ever made – dumb shits.

    Random choice dictates you should get at least 40% (this may be inaccurate but its about this area) – Thats any Schmoe walking up and randomly putting brands on prints. So the experts where beaten by random choice – this I always remember.

    It was a simple exercise showing that no matter what current medium format system you used (at the time), they all gave a similar (pretty much exactly the same) result when printed to 8×8 inches not showing any startling difference that could characterise one system from another or place one at a higher value than another for results. It also revealed how many people let their ego’s do the shopping. Someone who had just forked over $30,000.00 for a hassalblad could get no better result that others where getting from a $3000.00 system.

    So that long held quote still remains true to this day – Caveat emptor!

    • Glass Eye March 30, 2011  

      That’s brilliant, Ken. Just goes to show. I mean, ok you can tell the difference between a pinhole camera and Hasselblad, but in this digital age where most images viewed are either tiny online images or fairly bog-standard magazine print, you’d be struggling to justify setting yourself up with £18,000 worth of Hasselblad kit (just the basics!) over a decent DSLR. Unless somehow you can wow your clients with your kit, but wouldn’t that call your photographic abilities into question if that’s what you have to rely on!

      Thanks for the extra info by the way.

      • Ken of London March 30, 2011  

        Most people use symbols of accepted excellence rather than be that symbol themselves through hard work and learning. London is one of the most image conscious places I have ever been in, lacks a lot of substance but there’s no doubting they know their brands here.

        If I could be shown a compelling outcome and given a compelling business plan to change my camera systems I would. No one has done either so I won’t be shovelling out a tonne of money any time soon.

        As for the extra info thats fine, I enjoy sharing an anecdote or two.



  • murraylaidlaw March 31, 2011  

    I think it also says a lot that the Canon 1D MkIV has less pixels than the III as you say space between pixels is very important. I still can’t help feeling we’re all being conned and that film produced a better result.

    • Glass Eye March 31, 2011  

      Hi Murray, I didn’t know about the pixel count on the 1D MKIV. I should pay more attention!

      You may well be right about film vs digital, I personally find digital far more versatile, but then we can get into a debate about what one means by the words “better” and “result”. What occurs to me is that since there are only a small number of cmos and ccd chip manufacturers making the same chips for all the cameras available today, it doesn’t matter what people do to their files in Photoshop, at the heart of every image taken are the same basic shooting characteristics. We have lost a lot of choice, and I don’t think Photoshop gives that choice back.

      Back in the day, when you owned a SLR and some decent lenses, your choice of image characteristics was determined by the film you chose, the shooting and the processing. In a sense we’ve lost the choice of film. You either have Nikon with Nikon chip characteristics, or you have Canon with Canon chip characteristics. Which leaves the shooting and post production to inject the feel. I think this change is visible in the pictures we see now, and is possibly another erosion of the margin between what a pro can do and what an amateur can do. We’re all using the same cameras, after all.

      • Ken of London March 31, 2011  

        Truer words have never been spoken Tim. Digital is much more flexible than film when it comes to versatility on the job. Back in the day you would have several film bodies or film backs depending on your format, this allowed you to swap to another film brand or style or speed if needed. This was okay for Commercial Photography but reportage it was painful.

        I actually get a bit bored using digital sometimes, its great but it doesn’t have the same tactile involvement that film has.

        Film required enormous investment from the film makers to produce, plus all the chemicals required for processing and printing. These days its all electrons until it hits the printer which is ink.

        This makes for a much better production environment for the manufacturers as stuff these days doesn’t have shelf life like film did.

  • Ken of London March 31, 2011  

    This doesn’t make it better for you and me, it makes it better for the manufacturers

    • Glass Eye April 2, 2011  

      Do you think maybe we’ve been led by the nose to this “digital nirvana” by the manufacturers? We’ve been so beguiled by the possibilities of digital, we’ve ignored its limitations…

  • Ken of London April 3, 2011  

    Tim, thats exactly what I am saying.

    We have thrown the baby out with the bath water. I know fr a long time manufacturers dreamed of moving on from film. In the early days it as all talk about making their own chips ad being self contained. It looks like ecomnomic streamlining has won the day and as yo suggested earlier all the cameras have a sameness to them.

    Personally I think we have so much advanced in photo creativity as gone off on a tangent.