When choosing a camera it’s not so much the megapixels that matter but rather the size of the sensor that really counts. Of course, lens quality, pixel density and processor speed need to be taken into account but more than anything, it’s the size of the sensor that determines the quality of the photograph.
The following chart lists the sensor sizes starting with the iPhone 4 in grey and working up to the professional size sensors found in medium format cameras. Most point-and-shoot camera sensors are the size of the red box but a few are the size of the blue box. The chart can be used to determine what sensor size and therefore if you are getting really value for your money.
The chart shows that the iPhone sensor is 55 % the size of a point and shoot camera, but a point an shoot camera is less than 12% of the size of 4/3 camera (represented in green). This means the iPhone is amost the same quality of as a point and shoot when compared to a 4/3 camera!
Another way to look at this by comparing the old 35mm film camera as we are familiar with its quality, and all digital cameras are still measured against this standard. An iPhone is just over 2% the size of a 35mm camera sensor, the point and shoot 4%, a 4/3 camera 33%, most amateur DSLR camera sensors are 54% the size of a 35mm sensor. So the iPhone is very similar in quality to most point and shoots.
Why are people still buying point and shoots? Because the camera companies have not told the consumers just how small the senors are in these cameras. Instead looking at sensor size, a number of myths are perpetuated in the marketing of these cameras to make them appear appealing.
Myth number one is the megapixel myth. A common misconception is that the higher the megapixels on a point and shoot the better. The opposite is actually true; if you have a small sensor at a certain point the higher the megapixel the poorer the quality of the images. It is for this reason cameras with larger sensors generally don’t have megapixel counts much higher than that of your average point and shoot.
Myth number two is point and shoots are more reasonable. On average a good is between $300 and $400 dollars perhaps more – a considerable amount for a camera not much better than the iPhone. On the other hand, 4/3 camera on the other hand starts at $500 and their sensors are 88% larger, than the point and shoot sensor. 4/3 camera has significantly higher quality lenses, significantly better low light capacity, higher resolution, significantly better colour capture, faster shutters, faster focus, more accurate autofocus to name just a few.
Myth number three is point and shoots are small enough to be dropped into a shirt pocket but because the cameras weight drags the pocket down, not to mention bending over causes the camera to crash to the floor, its is rarely carried like this. Even pant pockets are a risky place to put a camera, especially in tight jeans which runs the risk of cracking the LED. So really the camera is more likely to be put in a jacket pocket, purse or bag.
So Lets compare the difference in size using the a mid range Nikon point and shoot the P7000 and the new Olympus E-PL3 4/3 camera.
The diagram demonstrates the 4/3 camera in green is actually smaller compared to the point and shoot in red. Even after you add a lens it’s still small enough to easily fit into a jacket pocket, bag or purse.
Myth number four only the point and shoot, as the name implies, is easy to use. Pick up the Olympus PL3 4/3 camera for example and you will see an interface identical to a point an shoot. The 4/3 cameras are just as automatic as a point and shoots and simple to use, but in addition to this the cameras have more professional modes that can be turned on. It is like having your cake and eating too – two cameras in one.
Basically the iPhone 4 renders a point and shoot camera unnecessary and paying for another $300 or $400 more won’t get you a much better camera sensor. If you want 4 x 6 snap shots, then give cameras a pass altogether and use your iPhone. If better quality or larger prints are what you are aiming for spend $100 or so more for a 4/3 camera. You’ll get an 88% larger sensor for the extra few bucks, it is definitely the better buy.
The real death knell for the point and shoot will come in the next year or so as sensor manufactures are now making cell phone sensors in the point and shoot sensor size 1/2.3. Soon the new iPhones will have a sensors the same size as the point and shoot cameras!
If you want to do your own research on sensor size I recommend www.dpreview.com. On their site under the “Cameras” pull down menu select “camera time line.” This will tell you one more important piece of information: the age of the camera your’re considering. If it is older than six months don’t buy it. Once you find the camera you want in the time line, click on the link and it will give you the specs. Again, look for sensor size to make sure you know what you’re getting before you spend your hard earned dollars.