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Camera Equipment

The Death of the Point and Shoot

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.



2 thoughts on “The Death of the Point and Shoot

  1. I wonder who you are trying to convince.

    I basically agree with you. I have an iPhone and I can’t see buying most point and shoots. Sometimes I’m tempted by something like a Canon g15 or whatever, but you’re right. The image sensor size is so tiny. It almost doesn’t make sens given the other aspects of that camera’s build quality and manual features, but there it is.
    I would say that something like a Fuji X20 is appealing because, unlike the iPhone, it has a zoom lens which gives me optical zoom and a form factor that feels in my hands more like a “real” camera. But then I think, yeah, that’s sort of an in between kind of value. Wouldn’t I rather have the X100s with a bigger sensor (even tough it has a fixed focal length sort of similar to the iPhone)? Which I guess proves your point.
    If we’re talking folks who just want to take quick snaps of their loved ones doing the things that we tend to want to record in some way “on film,” then yes, the iPhone or the droid is the way to go. Kind of like the Kodak 126 Instamatics of old. No zoom. Just snaps, and through aplastic lens at that. And all the apps let us tweak the images in whatever direction suits our fancy.
    The next step up is definitely something like the X100s, and after that, it’s an expensive race to status and fame and glory.
    But who are you trying to convince?
    Your friends at the pub?
    Funny article, really…
    Bye bye miss American pie Mr. Canon Powershot whatever. You were a champ in your day. I used to carry one everywhere but now the PS800 just sits in a box in the room full of stuff I don’t know what to do with.

    Posted by David D | March 31, 2013, 2:50 pm
  2. I like the points you make, and strictly from a size standpoint you are correct. I have a Sony dsc-HX5V, that despite the small sensor, has reasonable MP at 10.2 and a CMOS at that. It also has a fast capture speed, and a couple modes where it can layer shots in, stitch them together, and give a very good low noise rendering of the image. I am a DSLR guy all the way, but wanted something small and compact that would creativity wise give me the latitude to get specific results. That I guess is the rub. The phones take good pictures, but lack in controls where a guy like me would actually appreciate them. Thank you for the info, and for the average layman, which is 90-95% of the world you are right on the money. Ken Rockwell has for years has been preaching that MP are just a marketing gimmick to sell cameras. BTW, which if any phones do you recommend when it comes to camera features?

    Posted by Micheal Hoskins | May 4, 2013, 9:50 am

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