Camera System Sizes: Phones vs Nikon 1 vs 4/3 vs APSc vs 35mm vs Medium


Different cameras all have different sensor sizes. This page lists and the sizes of different systems and provides some measure of comparison of size, as well as listing the current (March 2018) megapixel counts of each system. This page is not about merits of size nor megapixel, just a pool of data to reference in any discussion.

While smart phones are not a ‘system’, they are also compared, as they are certainly significant.


The days of film.

Cameras all produce images on a sensor. At one time the sensor was film, so the camera required the appropriate film size. The first camera makers had to make both film and the cameras. Well known brands include Fuji, Agfa and Kodak. Manufacturers producing only cameras (eg. Canon, Nikon) had to rely on independently produced film being readily available.

To make a new system size, there need to be a new film, new cameras and new lenses. Despite the need for such an ecosystem, there have been a multitude of film sizes. Even under all these constraints, a huge plethora of formats have existed.

The Size Trend – > Smaller.

At one time the main film sizes were ‘large format‘, ‘medium format’ and 35mm. This smaller 35mm is now often referred to somewhat confusingly as ‘full frame’. Large format is now only in restricted usage, with usage by the press dropping as long ago as the 1950s. At the dawn of the digital era, professional photographers used medium format, unless they were photographing for lower resolution newsprint or long range zoom sports photographs, but with the increase of resolution of 35mm photographs with digital print, medium format is also overall becoming more specialised than mainstream, and newer far smaller images such as even those taken with smart phones are in wider and wider usage.

The System Sizes

Phones: 4.07×3.05mm – 12.4mm2

The figures quoted are for ‘normal’ lens of the iPhoneX. The iPhoneX actually has 3 cameras, and these measurement are for the rear telephoto lens, firstly because it is a sound choice and secondly because I could find the specifications.

The iPhone X actually has 3 cameras. The two rear cameras are the ones designed to produce the highest quality photos. It is difficult to find actual specifications, but the 56mm equivalent lens indicates and actual focal length of 6mm. This may not be exact, but yields a ratio of 9.3333 compared to a 35mm camera. Update: I have since another report the length is actually 6.6mm yielding a ration of 8.4848, so I have based calculations on this figure, which suggest an approximately 10% larger sensor than would be the case with 6mm focal length. So it is possible the calculations here are for a sensor 10% larger than the actual, and if I discover this is the page I will adjust, but assume the larger value until that time.

The 35mm sensor has a diagonal of 43.2mm, which divided by 8.4848 suggests an sensor with an 5.09mm diagonal. The ratio of the width to height is 4:3 ..which by Pythagoras theorem gives a diagonal of 5. So width is 5.09 x 4/5 and height is 5.09 x 3/5.

The figures may not actually be precise. Is the focal length actually 6? or even 5.9mm, or 5.95, or 6.05…. or is the 6.6 also slightly out? There is also a suggestion the focal length of the telephoto lens is 52mm and the image is cropped to 56mm…. but that would mean the effective area matches the calculations anyway. I am not certain of the exact precision, but given the iPhone is representing phone cameras in general, the figures are sufficiently representative of a high quality smart phone camera.

Nikon 1: 13.2×8.8mm – 116.2mm2

  • Potential pixels at camera phone scale: 108 megapixels
  • Actual maximum: 21 Megapixels

The smallest of the genuine ‘systems’ with interchangeable lenses, the Nikon 1 system, is eleven times (9x) larger than the iPhone X sensor. This would suggest 12 x 9 = 108 megapixels would be possible at the density of the iPhone. However, the highest resolution, the J5, has 20.8 megapixels.

First introduced in 2011, there have been no new cameras for this system since 2015 leading, to fears the system is to be abandoned. Despite this, the system has genuine fans.

Micro Four Thirds(m4/3): 17.3mm x13mm – 225mm2

  • Potential pixels at camera phone scale: 216 Megapixels
  • Potential pixels at Nikon 1 scale: 40 Megapixels
  • Actual maximum: 21 Megapixels

Micro four thirds is the only system with the same mount shared between manufacturers (Panasonic and Olympus, plus some smaller participants).

Just over twice the area of the Nikon 1 system, Micro 4/3 cameras currently have a similar maximum resolution of 20 megapixels, rather than the 40 megapixels that would result from the same density as the Nikon 1 or, the over 216 megapixels that would scale up from a smartphone with sensor around 18 times smaller.

Canon M System (APS-C): 22.2mm x 14.8mm – 329mm2

(+Canon APS-C subsystem of Canon 35mm is the same size sensor)

  • Potential pixels at camera phone scale: 318 Megapixels
  • Potential pixels at Nikon 1 scale: 57 Megapixels
  • Potential pixels at M43 scale: 29 Megapixels
  • Actual maximum: 24 Megapixels

The Canon APS-C DSLR subsystem uses the same sensor size as the mirrorless Canon M-System, but the DSLR system is a subsystem of a 35mm system, both of which use a slightly smaller sensor than other APS-C systems.

Just under 1.5 times the size of the smaller m43 system, the increase in pixels is small (as is the real size change) but there is more colour depth available.

The M system appears to use the same sensors as the Canon APS-C DSLR cameras, but the M system is a mirrorless system based around what appears to be an APS-C mount, while Canon DSLR APS-C cameras use a mount designed for ‘full frame’ 35mm sensors, and crops the image coming in from the lens.

EF-M and full frame: It appears that EF-M is a APS-C size system, but this may not be true. The Sony E-Mount also launched with only APS-C sensors, but it was later revealed they were a crop of what the mount, and lenses could deliver. The same may be true with EF-M and this may actually be a full frame capable mount.

Fuji X mount APS-C System: 23.6mm x 15.6mm – 368mm2

(Nikon, Sony, and Pentax APS-C subsystems of respective 35mm are the same size sensor, with a variation of up to 0.1mm in width)

  • Potential pixels at camera phone scale: 318 Megapixels
  • Potential pixels at Nikon 1 scale: 57 Megapixels
  • Potential pixels at M43 scale: 29 Megapixels
  • Actual maximum: 24 Megapixels

The mirrorless Fuji X mount system is the an actual system designed on the same size as APS-C DSLR subsystems from Sony, Nikon and Pentax. While this mount is smaller than the main systems from Canon and Nikon, Fuji, like Pentax, also has a system with a larger mount than Canon and Nikon.

35mm (135 format) Full Frame:  36mm X 23.9 – 24.3mm – 860 – 864mm2

Nikon, Canon, Sony and Pentax all have digital mounts for this size. 35mm, the smaller size of the two most common system sizes in the film area at the time digital cameras emerged, is a system size that originated in the 1920s.

  • Potential pixels at camera phone scale: 850+ Megapixels
  • Potential pixels at Nikon 1 scale: 148 Megapixels
  • Potential pixels at M43 scale: 76 Megapixels
  • Potential pixels at APS-C scale: 62 Megapixels
  • Actual maximum: 50 Megapixels

The M system appears to use the same sensors as the Canon APS-C DSLR cameras, but the M system is a mirrorless system based around an APS-C mount, while Canon DSLR APS-C cameras use a mount designed for ‘full frame’ 35mm sensors, and crops the image coming in from the lens.

Hasselblad X1D, Cropped Medium Format: 43.8 x 32.9 mm – 1,441mm2

Just 1.6 times 35mm full frame, is small for medium format, but still offers an advantage in colour depth and the quality of some of the lenses available. Similar to the step up from m43 to APC

  • Multiply the figures for 35mm by 1.6
  • potential pixels at 35mm scale 80 Megapixels
  • actual maximum pixels 50

Medium format and similar lens/mount sizes are common to Hasselblad, Fuji, Pentax, Mimolta and Phase One. However all of these suppliers can use the other medium format size sensors listed below and either do that already or a likely to in future.

Hasselblad H1D: Cropped Medium Format 49.0mm X 36.7 – 1,798.3mm2

Two time (2x) the 35mm full frame, this sensor size does make for sense for the future of medium format.

Medium Format 645 (Phase One P65): 53.9mm x 40.4mm – 2,177.6mm2

2.5 times the size of full frame 35mm, this is the first medium format sensor size that is not necessarily a crop. The all medium formats are capable of this size, but the only current product using this size is the Phase One P65.

Large Format: 127mm X 102mm – x 12,954mm2 (and larger)

Fifteen time (15x) the size of 35mm full frame, and over a thousand times (1,000x) the size of a typical phone sensor, large format was the main format of photography for most of the history of photography. But the format of artists such as Ansell Adams, is now a very specialist format. With a trends like a revival of film perhaps large format may play an important role, but there is also large format digital, predominantly through the use of digital camera backs.


No System size is inherently ‘best’.

The first photographs needed no enlargement, as the size of film was appropriate for viewing. Then smaller and smaller sizes were created on the basis that the photo could be enlarged, and as film grain size decreased, greater enlargement was feasible.

With film, the same grain size, or ‘pixel density’ is feasible regardless of film size.  This means that with film, a phone sized film would have , 175 times less pixels than a 645 medium format size film.

Despite quality advantage of larger film, smaller film means smaller lenses and more portability and many images were only needed for newsprint.

Different sizes systems were most popular for different uses.

The same compromise between sensor size and image quality exists with digital, but digital has the  new factor that ‘finer grain’, or increased pixel density, is easier to achieve with a smaller sensor. This results in phone size sensor having around 1/8th of the pixels of 645 medium format sensors, a significant improvement of the 1/175th they would have with the same pixel size.

Although all pixels are not the same, with digital it is clear that the compromise with smaller sensor size is less than in the days of film.  With less disadvantage to small sensors, there is an even wider range of possible sizes and it is even harder to choose the best compromise.

Every system is a compromise or we would all simply choose the largest sensor and move to large format.  The reality is that even medium format is too inconvenient for most photographers and the even smaller, ‘small format’ 35mm is more popular despite naturally having lower quality potential.  In fact camera phones are the most popular of all despite the lowest quality potential of all.

One system is unlikely to rule them all any time soon.

There is still a trend for several incompatible systems to have a common sensor size, just as in the days where these systems were the same size in order to use the same film. In practice, sensors are now produced by companies independent of the camera makers, and just as in the days of film, several different brand cameras may in practice use the same sensor.

Only the m43 (micro four thirds) system is promoted as an open system, although several brands may in practice use the same ‘proprietary’ mount. For example, for the Canon EF mount, there are not only third party lenses, but even third party cameras.

Highly profitable Chinese drone maker DJI is now a majority owner in Hasselblad, who have since that investment introduced new medium format systems, as has Fuji, others such as Pentax and Leica still produce new models, so clearly the scope still spans from medium format to camera phones.

Systems will come and go, but a wide range seems ensured for a long time.

Digital Cameras: Crop vs ‘Full Frame’

There are cases where the rapid evolution of technology means that terms can lose connection with their original meaning.  ‘Crop’ and full frame are clear examples.  Should we go back to the original meaning, or embrace using the original term in ways that evolve further and further from that original meaning?


Film Cameras

studijskifotoaparatFilm Cameras were invented in the 1880s, but it was in around the 1920s that standard film sizes became popular, which allowed specialist camera brands to emerge.   No film camera is of any use unless film for the camera was readily available, but with film already available, a company could now manufacture only cameras and lenses.  Eventually, specialisation allowed for an ecosystem of specialist camera brands (e.g. Nikon, Canon, Ricoh, Pentax, Leica, Hasselblad etc) and separate specialist film brands (eg Kodak, Fuji), who often made both film for general use, and for their own brand cameras.

nikonfThe most common standard sizes to emerge were 35mm (suitable for consumers and newspaper photography), the larger medium format for magazine photography and studio work, and even larger large format (4inches x 6inches and larger)  sizes for specialist high quality work.  As film qualify improved, medium format and particularly 120mm and 220mm film took over from large format in almost all use cases.pentaxshift

Standard film sizes, meant lenses were all manufactured to produce an image size optimized for a specific film size, mostly 35mm lenses or medium format lenses.

Pre ‘DSLR’ Digital Cameras

1996, 640×480 resolution Sony DSC-F1

The first digital cameras were either:

– not really alternatives for ‘real’ photography, very expensive specialist professional
– or cameras made by Kodak combining a Nikon camera with electronics made by Kodak.

Image quality of early consumer cameras was often 640×480 pixels or lower. Sensors were small and image quality no match for film cameras of the same period.

Enter the ‘Crop Factor’

The professional Kodak Digital DCS cameras first released 1991 introduced the concept of a ‘crop factor’. The sensors were not as large as the film they replaced within these cameras.  This meant the image captured did not cover the full area of the view finder, and was a ‘crop’ of the image which would have been captured with film.   The sensor for the camera ‘cropped’ the image captured by the lenses, retaining only the central section of the image.frontview

The kodak cameras were built using camera bodies from Nikon and Canon (and later medium format cameras), but adding a digital capture system using typically a 2 megapixel CCD (some later models reached 6 megapixels). Prices were as high as $25,000.  This was specialist technology!

The first Mainstream Digital DSLRs

In 1999 and 2000 Nikon and Canon respectively released far more mainstream digital SLR cameras to join those original models from Kodak.  However all of these cameras two things in common, they were all designed around 35mm camera systems and used exclusively 35mm lenses, but ‘cropped’ the 35mm image from the lens as they used sensors smaller than 35mm.

Digital Cameras in 2018 and beyond

The original digital interchangeable lens cameras were all designed around 35mm sensors, but now in 2018 we now have digital camera systems using:

  • smartphone cameras of 4.8×3.6mm (iPhone6)
  • 1/2.55 smartphone  5.6×4.2mm (iPhoneX, note8=1/2.4)
  • 1″ sensors 13.2×8.8mm
  • m4/3 sensors and lenses 17.3x13mm
  • APS/C sensors and lenses 22×14.8, 23.5×15.6 or 23.7×15.6
  • 35mm sensors and lenses 36x24mm
  • Crop Medium Format sensors of  44x33mm (Fuji)
  • Medium format lenses of 56x44mm
  • (Medium Format could be within the range 56×44-224 mm)

The leader in producing sensors for these various sensor sizes is Sony, and Sony concentrates technology for 35mm and smartphones.

The original meaning of Crop and Full Frame

Originally, and still today in most contexts in photography, to crop is to select an image from within a larger original image, and ‘full frame’ is to use the entire image.

As you can only crop if you have a larger image to start with, the only true ‘crop’ systems are those using lenses designed to accommodate a larger sensor than was used for the image.

So with a 35mm system lens on an APS-C camera, the camera will crop the image from the lens.  That is the lens is designed to produce an image of 36mm x 24mm, and the image captured is approximately 24mm x 16mm.  However, and  APS-C lens on an APS-C camera is using the entire image the lens is designed to produce, and is not cropping, and therefore is being used full frame.

APS-C cameras when used with full frame lenses (possible with Sony, Nikon and Canon, but not Fuji) and being used as cropped cameras, but all also have native APS-C lenses and these cameras are full frame for these lenses.

Similarly all current medium format cameras (Hasselblad, Pentax, Fuji) crop this image as they all use a smaller sensor than the medium format design.  It is reported here that the brand Zenit is preparing the first full frame medium format cameras.

So APS-C cameras when used with 35mm lenses and Medium Format Cameras are cropped, and others cameras are full frame.

The Evolved meaning of Crop Factor and Full Frame

The evolved meaning is to assume that every camera could be used with a 35mm lens, and the image cropped from that 35mm lens.

This meaning is useful for cameras up 35mm, but becomes quite strange above 35mm as it would suggest a cropped image medium format camera like the Fuji GFX 50s is actually beyond full frame (which of course is not really possible).

Full Frame: The evolved meaning is that ‘full-frame’ is 35mm, which means cameras from Fuji, Pentax, Hasselblad and Phase One are all ‘overfull’ or beyond full frame.

Crop Sensor: Any camera with a small sensor than 35mm is referred to as ‘crop sensor’, meaning large cropped sensors are not called ‘crop’ even though they do crop, and smaller sensor like smartphones which do not actually crop are called crop.

Crop Factor: The multiplier that should be applied to lens focal length to give as 35mm equivalent focal length.  Whether called ‘crop factor’ or more accurately ‘multiplier’, this is a very useful number.

Why the misleading terms?

The history

The first mass market interchangeable lens digital camera to capture the ‘full frame’ was a 35mm camera, the Canon 1DS.  For some years, the only digital camera to capture the same ‘full frame’ that film would capture, were 35mm cameras.

Further, while professional studio and fashion photographers mostly used the larger ‘medium format’ cameras,  consumers and newspaper and sports photographers used 35mm, the smallest format in wide usage at the time. The largest number of digital camera were a ‘crop’ of 35mm format, so the alternative for those cameras would be the full frame of 35mm format.

Digital photography disrupted the rules since as the sensor now came with the camera instead of being separately purchased and developed film, now any size sensor was possible and it was not just professionals dealing with differnt sizes, but also consumers.

New systems have since been released and generally these new systems use “full frame of an alternative size to 35mm”,  but, as the first cameras were actually a crop of 35mm, common practice became to quote the sensor size as if it was still a crop of 35mm.

Further, the need arose to compare effective lens magnification and apertures, even those these had traditionally been measured in film size specific ways.  Previously the most common system was 35mm, and the second most common was for professionals who lived cameras and had no difficulty converting.  Converting equivalence to 35mm became the standard for the all systems other than medium format, where people did not need to convert.

Rather unfortunately we kept the sensor size specific ways of specifying lens field of view (and debatably aperture) which means with so many different sensor sizes some conversion and equivalence is required.

Is it(using misleading terms) workable?

Yes, but only just, and perhaps not for long. Clearly the terms ‘crop’ and ‘full frame’ are now for most mirrorless systems misleading at best, and just crazy for sensors beyond 35mm.  However technology took a long time to deliver sensors of even 35mm, so sensors beyond 35mm are still relatively rare.  The other reason the terms work better than would be expected is that I would suggest the sensor market is currently dominated by Sony, and Sony focus their technology on three sensor sizes, 35mm, APC-C and camera-phone, and uniquely release their own mirrorless APC-C system using a full 35mm mount, and thus currently, produces the only crop 35mm mirrorless system.  (Canon produces the EOS-M system APS-C system, lenses for this mount can only be 35mm, as with the Fuji APS-C mirrorless system).

Unless the sensor market changes, beyond 35mm will remain rare and the misleading terminology will remain workable (if still misleading) in practice.  A future post will cover why the sensor market may indeed change!

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