28 May Does sensor size still make a difference?

Source: DP Review

We’ve seen huge breakthroughs in the computational photography techniques in the latest smartphones, as well as the launch of some excellent small sensors in more traditional cameras. Does that mean that bigger is no longer necessarily better?

To answer that question, let’s look at why big sensors tend to produce better image quality and what smaller-sensored cameras and smartphones are doing to close the gap.

Benefits of larger sensors

The three main benefits that prompt people to move to larger sensors are the ability to blur the background with shallow depth-of-field, exhibit less noise in low light situations and the ability to capture a wider dynamic range between the brightest and darkest areas of the image. Since these all primarily stem from getting more light, it presupposes that you have a lens with a wide-enough aperture to let in enough light, but this is usually possible. Collectively, these three factors mean that large sensor cameras can usually produce better-looking images. They can’t make up for the photographer, of course, but if used by the same person, the bigger sensor usually ‘wins.’

Computational photography allows small sensors to imitate the effects of a larger sensor, while leaps forwards in sensor performance can help small sensors produce better-looking images. But do these advances mean you no longer need a larger sensor?

Computational photography

The most visible example of computational photography in widespread use are the portrait modes in the latest smartphones. These use a variety of techniques but fundamentally they make…

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