Choosing a sensor size for nature photography

Grizzly Bear in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, BC – Shot on Micro Four Thirds

Any time a question about the best sensor size to use for nature and wildlife photography comes up, the answer is typically ‘full frame’. But is full frame truly the best and/or only choice? Let’s find out.

If you are already familiar with different sensor sizes and how they affect crop factor, depth of field, and ISO, feel free to skip ahead.

Sensor size differences

Full Frame/35mm

The 35mm Full Frame sensor is nearly identical in size to 35mm film. This was the standard in the film photography days. Medium format and large format film were used typically only by true dedicated professionals, as 35mm film was ‘good enough’ for nearly all applications. Medium and Large Format are only viable for portraits and landscapes anyways, you would not be shooting wildlife with them since super telephoto lenses don’t really exist for those film sizes.

Full Frame is the standard by which focal lengths are compared, but more on that later. Most new cameras released from the three major manufacturers (Nikon, Canon and Sony) are full frame. They are considered the ‘flagship’ cameras, and have a higher price and more in-depth feature set than their APS-C line-up.

APS-C/Crop Sensor

APS-C has an interesting history behind it. Just prior to the emergence and popularization of digital cameras, the Advanced Photo System (APS) was introduced. In some ways it was more advanced, but in others it was considered a step back. The film area was smaller than 35mm, which turned some professionals off of the format. But, APS cameras were able to switch between 3 different aspect ratios on-the-fly.

APS cameras had a toggle to switch between APS-C (Classic), APS-H (High Definition), and APS-P (Panoramic). APS-H was slightly wider at 16:9 than APS-C, which is 3:2, the same ratio as 35mm film. 16:9 is the standard aspect ratio of ‘widescreen’ computer monitors and TVs, which was just beginning to become popular as an upgrade from the previous 4:3 standard. APS-H photos would perfectly fit on an HDTV with no black bars on the sides. APS-P had an aspect ratio of 3:1, which is a fairly standard ratio for panoramas.

The ability to seamlessly switch between these 3 aspect ratios on the same roll of film was somewhat revolutionary for the time. But, APS film required a very expensive proprietary system for development, which many film labs did not want to invest in. This issue, as well as the aforementioned dawn of the digital camera, led to the downfall of the Advanced Photo System. Many photographers even to this day shoot 35mm film, myself included, but it is nearly impossible to find a place to develop APS film, so it typically isn’t used any more.

The first digital cameras to emerge in the consumer market had miniscule sensors. It was not until the first generation of Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras launched did larger sensors become the norm for digital photography. The Nikon D1 had a sensor with a size very close to APS-C film, and at the same aspect ratio. Thus, the APS-C digital format was standardized, and continues to flourish in the ‘dedicated hobbyist’ market today. APS-C sensors are around 40-50% smaller than full frame.

Micro Four Thirds/M43

Micro Four Thirds is smaller than APS-C by about 30-40%. It is 75% smaller than full frame, meaning one quarter the size. Panasonic and Olympus (now OM System) popularized the standard almost 15 years ago, and continue to release M43 cameras today. M43 is based off of the Four Thirds system, which Olympus used for DLSRs. The ‘Micro’ part comes from the fact that M43 cameras are mirrorless, and thus smaller than Four Thirds cameras. The name Four Thirds obviously derives from the fact that the sensor is four thirds smaller than full frame sensors.

M43 cameras, especially from Panasonic, are popular with video shooters. Smaller sensor sizes mean faster readout speeds, which gives relatively affordable consumer-level M43 cameras pro-level video features. They are also popular with some wildlife photographers due to the smaller size of the camera bodies and lenses, as well as the 2x crop factor, which we’ll get into later.

1″/1.0 Type

1″ sensors are about half the size of Micro Four Thirds, one quarter the size of APS-C, and one eighth the size of full frame (approximately). They are typically used in high end bridge cameras, and some drones and action cameras. There is also a smartphone with a 1″ sensor (Sony Xperia Pro-I), but it doesn’t use the full sensor size.

Funnily enough, the name 1″ is a bit of a misnomer. That’s why it’s sometimes referred to as ‘1.0 type’. This is due to the fact that it isn’t actual 1″ by any possible type of measure. The name stems from old video camera technology that used vacuum tubes as ‘image sensors’. These vacuum tubes would have a diameter of 1″ to cover the same image area as a modern ‘1.0 type’ digital sensor. The more you know!

1″ sensors are routinely dismissed by most dedicated photographers. There was only one interchangeable lens system that used this sensor size, that being the Nikon 1 series with the CX mount, and it never really took off. A lot of photographers dismiss any bridge cameras, even if they use a 1″ sensor, because bridge cameras aren’t considered professional in any way due to the fixed lens. I disagree, which is why I have been using a 1″ bridge camera as my main shooter. There are also high end point-and-shoot cameras with 1″ sensors that produce great results.

All other smaller sensors

There are tons of other smaller sensor sizes, used in everything from cell phones, to point-and-shoots, to bridge cameras, to drones, to action cameras, to security cameras, and so on. Some common examples are 1/6″ (most older smartphones), 1/3″, 1/2.5″, 1/2.3″, and 1/1.7″.

I don’t typically recommend using sensors smaller than 1″ for wildlife and nature photography, because that is really when you start to lose out on too much detail and Depth of Field. Certain superzoom bridge cameras with 1/2.3″ sensors are popular, mainly due to their extreme zoom range and extremely narrow FOV, making them useful for certain applications like birding. Cameras like the Nikon Coolpix P1000 with its 125x zoom range and 3000mm effective focal length are outliers.

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