Sizing 'em Up

Photos and text by Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame

Last May, after the usual madness of spring had died down, I found myself with some idle time and--being the nerd that I am--I decided to try an experiment: I believe that just as a bigger negative generally made a better print, a bigger digital sensor generally makes a better photo.  But I'd never actually tested that.  Between ND-owned and personal gear, I had quite assortment of sensors: Digital medium format, full-frame, APS-C crop sensor, as well as the tiny sensor in the Mavic Pro drone.  Time to play mythbuster!

The contestants:

  • Pentax 645Z (medium format digital)
  • Nikon D810 (Full frame)
  • Nikon D4s (Full frame)
  • Nikon D500 (APS-C crop sensor)
  • Fuji XPro2 (APS-C crop sensor)
  • DJI Mavic Pro (1 2/3" sensor...whatever that means)



Here's the comparison of the physical size of each sensor (may or may not be actual size depending on your screen)

The kinda-sorta scientific comparison:  Use the sharpest lens available for each camera, keeping focal lengths as similar as possible, and shoot the same scene. Process as I normally do using Adobe Camera Raw and eyeball the result. I do not claim to be the expert on Adobe Camera Raw or squeezing the most out of RAW files, so needless to say, Your Mileage May Vary! 


The lovely banks of St. Mary's Lake, looking toward the campus skyline.  All photos shot at 400ISO except the Mavic Pro, shot at 100ISO.

We'll get right to the results, in order of my own personal opinion of clarity and sharpness.  Again, this is my own personal subjective call, and more skill with RAW files or different processing software might see a different result. 

Each image began looking more or less like this:


And then I cropped into the central part of the image. Here in order of my preference are the results:







And just for fun I cropped into another part of the image and compared the bookends of my experiment:


You can almost read the "No Parking" signs. Medium format delivers the detail.


Is this a photo or an impressionist painting? The Mavic Pro has its obvious advantages, but resolution ain't one of 'em!

So there you go...Yes, a bigger sensor gives a better photo.  The D4s and D500 were close...really close...but in my opinion the D4s had a bit "smoother" detail. Our print sales customers routinely order very large prints so especially with campus scenics, I'm always thinking of the possibility that the photo I'm making might very well become  a 30x40 print.  Since I did this experiment the D850 has been released & I have not compared the D850 head-to-head with the 645Z...yet.