Choosing a digital camera – megapixels, sensor size, pixel pitch?

Choosing a digital camera – megapixels, sensor size, pixel pitch?

by Jonathan Bourla (www.jonathanbourla.com)

The choice of modern digital cameras seems bewildering. What separates one from another? It would seem that most laypeople judge a digital camera’s capabilities solely by the number of megapixels of its sensor. This is great for the manufacturers, persuading customers to part with their present camera with one for more megapixels. But is it the whole story?

In film cameras, in general the larger the film size the better, in terms of image quality. At the small end was the very popular 35mm format. There were smaller formats than this, but they weren’t great and didn’t take away from 35mm’s prominence. The next step up, the choice of many professionals, was medium format. The next step from this was large format. As with a lot in photography, the choice was one of compromise. Medium format was, for many professionals, a great compromise between good image quality and ease of use and portability.

Now, in the digital world, 35mm sensors have become the pinacle. You can get medium format digital cameras and backs, but they are extremely expensive and out of reach of all but a small number of professional photographers. So for most, 35mm, also known as Full Frame, is the best and what serious photographers aspire to owning. There are a number of different sensor physical sizes, ranging downward from Full Frame to relatively tiny sensors used in the cameras in some smart phones. In the chart here are some common sizes. Note that the names of these sensors are often rather weird. For example a one inch sensor is not one inch in either dimension, or the diagonal measurement. Another thing is the APS-C sensor size – Canon’s version of this sensor is of a slightly smaller size than the APS-C sensors used by other manufacturers.

Camera-Sensor-Comparison-Chart

So, which is it, what should we be concerned with – the number of megapixels or the physical size of the sensor? As it turns out, it’s a combination of both. What is important in several ways is the physical size of each pixel. The bigger the pixel size, the better. This measurement is often called the Pixel Pitch, and is measured in microns ( a millionth of a meter). Let’s have a look at the Pixel Pitch measurements for a range of cameras. Remember, higher is better….

But first, I want to point out that you will notice in the tables below links to Amazon.com .  If you click on a particular link, you will be taken to the page on Amazon.com associated with more details on that particular camera.  If you do click on one of these links and subsequently make a purchase on Amazon.com, I receive a small commission.  I (Jonathan Bourla) am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com .

Ok, let’s have a look at the cameras and their numbers:

Camera (Smart Phones)Pixel Pitch in micronsnumber of megapixelssensor typeLinks to Amazon.com  
Iphone61.481/3"
Apple iPhone 6
Samsung Galaxy S61.1161/2.6"
Samsung Galaxy S6
Camera (Compact cameras)Pixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelsSensor TypeLinks to Amazon.com 
Panasonic LX1003.912.8Micro 4/3
Panasonic LUMIX LX100
Fuji X302.1122/3"
Fujifilm X30
Sony RX102.420.21 inch
Sony DSCRX10/B
Panasonic FZ10002.420.11 inch
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000
Canon SX60HS1.316.11/2.3"
Canon PowerShot SX60 HS
Panasonic TZ70/ZS501.412.11/2.3"
Panasonic LUMIX DMC-ZS50K
Olympus Tough TG-31.3161/2.3"
Olympus TG-3 Waterproof
Canon Powershot D301.412.11/2.3"
Canon PowerShot D30 Waterproof
Sony W8001.120.11/2.3"
Sony W800
Camera (Entry-level SLR)Pixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelsSensor typeLinks to Amazon.com 
Nikon D33003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D3300
Nikon D32003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D3200
Canon EOS 750D3.724.2APS-C
Canon EOS 750D
Nikon D55003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D5500
Nikon D53003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D5300
Canon EOS 700D (Rebel T5i)4.318APS-C
Canon EOS Rebel T5i
Canon EOS1200D (Rebel T5)4.318APS-C
Canon EOS Rebel T5
Pentax K-504.816.3APS-C
Pentax K-50
Sony Alpha a584.320.1APS-C
Sony SLT-A58
Pentax K-S14.320.1APS-C
Pentax K-S1
Camera
mid-level SLR
Pixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelsSensor typeLinks to Amazon.com 
Nikon D71003.924.1APS-C
Nikon D7100
Canon EOS 7D Mk24.120.2APS-C
Canon EOS 7D Mark II
Nikon D72003.924.2APS-C
Nikon D7200 DX
Pentax K-S24.320.1APS-C
Pentax K-S2
Canon EOS 760 D (Rebel T6s)3.724.2APS-C
Canon EOS Rebel T6s
Canon EOS 70D4.120.2APS-C
Canon EOS 70D
Sony a77 Mk23.924.3APS-C
Sony A77II
Pentax K-3 ii3.924.3APS-C
Pentax K-3II
Camera - High End SLRPixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelssensor typeLinks to Amazon.com 
Canon EOS 5DS4.150.6Full Frame
Canon EOS 5DS
Nikon D8104.936.3Full Frame
Nikon D810 FX
Canon EOS 6D6.520.2Full Frame
Canon EOS 6D
Nikon D7506.024.3Full Frame
Nikon D750
Canon EOS 5D iii6.222.3Full Frame
Canon EOS 5D Mark III with 24-105mm lens
Nikon D4S7.316.2Full Frame
Nikon D4S
Canon EOS 1DX6.918.1Full Frame
Canon EOS-1D X
Nikon Df7.316.2Full Frame
Nikon Df
Sony Alpha a996.024.3Full Frame
Sony Alpha a99
Camera - MirrorlessPixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelssensor typeLinks to Amazon.com 
Sony A77ii6.024.3Full Frame
Sony Alpha a7II
Leica Monochrom6.918Full Frame
Leica M Monochrom
Leica Monochrom Type 2466.024Full Frame
Leica M Monochrom Typ 246
Leica M96.918Full Frame
Leica M9
Sony A7rii4.542.4Full Frame
Sony a7R II
Camera - Medium FormatPixel Pitch in micronsNumber of megapixelssensor typeLinks to Amazon.com 
Pentax 645Z5.051.4Medium Format 43.8x32.8 mm
Pentax 645Z
Leica S6.037.5Medium Format 45x30 mm
Leica S

The tendency for manufacturers is to squeeze more pixels on a given sensor size. But it was interesting to find that both Nikon’s and Canon’s flagship models had relatively low number of megapixels, as did the very high quality Leica models. It was interesting to see that the latest version of Leica’s Monochrom camera, the Type 246, had more megapixels than its predecessor, and consequently a lower pixel pitch rating. Perhaps people who have experience of both could comment on how they compare?

The highest rating cameras were Nikon’s D4S and Df with pixel pitch of 7.3, closely follwed by Canon’s EOS 1DX and Leica’s cameras such as the M9 and the previous generation Monochrom at 6.9 .

I had expected the Medium Format cameras/backs to be better than any smaller format models, but the medium format models I assessed had pixel pitch rating of 5.0 or 6.0 microns, less than the 6.9 or 7.3 of the models above. For larger prints, theory would suggest these medium format models to reign supreme. But does that still hold true when printing at smaller sizes? If pixel pitch were the overwhelming factor for image quality, it would seem rather close.

So there you go, a factor to consider when you next buy a digital camera – Pixel Pitch.

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