Sensor Size And Image Quality

Now that Nikon has entered the "full" or FX-format realm with their new D3 the debate is sure to ensue about what creates the best image quality--so-called DX (or APS-C) sensors or the 35mm-size sensor found in the Nikon D3 and former Canon models and the new Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, reviewed in this issue. (The D3 review will appear in our May issue.) These premium-priced models certainly challenge the medium format marketplace in terms of image quality, but is the difference between them and advanced amateur models, like the Canon EOS 40D, Nikon D300, and others in that class enough to justify fretting over the choice? Indeed, for many of us the price differential makes the discussion moot, with about a 4x difference between the two. But given lack of budgetary restraints (a big if) should you think any less of APS-C sensor-size cameras, or that you're getting the short end of the stick when you choose or use one?

The main question is: will you and the work you do require an FX-type sensor? These cameras are clearly aimed at high-end pros and organizations that will realize the benefits. While Canon and Nikon will certainly not sell lots of these cameras, they wouldn't be making them if they didn't see a market for them. Studio, fashion, and some wedding photographers, among others, will be the prime audience for these premium pro models.

Being a practical sort, I decided to research some stock agency guidelines to see if these image marketers were going to start insisting on FX-format images to the detriment of the DX-format models. Most now insist on digital submissions only, but will they exclude smaller sensor digital cameras?

Here's what I found: Most of the agencies are looking for a minimum of 24MB file size--that would encompass most every advanced amateur D-SLR sold today.

One agency even went so far to list cameras they deem just fine for making stock photos. I list them here not to recommend one over another, but to make the point that even image sellers think that APS-C models are all you need. All are 8 megapixels or higher. The list includes: Canon EOS 30D, 20D (and we presume 40D); Nikon D40X, D80, D200, and D300; Olympus E-VOLT E-400 (and of course the new E-3); Pentax K10D; Samsung GX-10; Sony A100 (and above); and the Fuji FinePix S5.

Having photographed with quite a few of these cameras, and edited text from contributors who do testing for us on others, I can also attest to the fine images they produce. I would also mention that how you process the images, and the care you take in exposure, sharpness, etc. also makes a big difference in quality, but the main point is that it is not the camera that will hold you back.

Yes, having an FX-sensor camera certainly might give you bragging rights for a while, and these are fine photographic tools by anyone's definition, but it is not the camera that makes a great photographer, or, in large part, that will make or break an image, or potential image sale. It's what you do with the camera, and the processed image, that counts.

On another note, this issue kicks off our "Top 20 Cameras of All-Time Countdown," with numbers 20-16 in this issue. Jason Schneider, an expert of renown in this matter, undertook this Herculean task. We know, and trust, that this will stir some debate, so we've set up a Top 20 Camera Forum at for your comments, laudatory remarks, and brickbats. Let that debate begin!