Bodies and Sensors
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
Every camera comprises a body and a lens. On some cameras, the lenses can be swapped. On other cameras, the lenses are fixed.
Camera bodies are essentially containers that house either your film, or your digital sensor. Both of these mediums are light-sensitive devices that react to incoming light to produce an image. The size and type of film or sensor you use impacts how the photo ultimately looks.
While film cameras let you switch out your film, digital cameras often (but not always) mount the sensor to the body.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to refer to both mediums – analog film and digital, as “sensors”.
Sensors come in various sizes.
Image by Moxfyre, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons
The “standard” size is called “full frame” and is equivalent to a piece of 35mm film – i.e. a digital full-frame sensor receives the same amount of incoming light as 35mm film. This is why it’s the standard – 35mm film was the go-to film format in the analog era, and its strong influence persists to this day.
Small digital sensors are ubiquitous today, from APS-C and Micro 4/3rds formats which appear across the full spectrum of cameras from entry to pro-level, to 1-inch sensors on point-and-shoots, and of course, the tiny sensors found on cellphone cameras everywhere.
These days it’s rare to find film formats smaller than 35mm, but they do exist. Some examples are 110, 126, and the APS format used in Advanced Photo System cameras.
Medium Format sensors are larger than full-frame and give a beautiful depth to photos. Medium format film is usually around 61mm wide, and common aspect ratios include 6 x 4.5, 6 x 6, and 6 x 7. Medium format film is still popular today. Medium format digital cameras are also widely available, but their high cost generally means only professionals invest in them.
Large Format is generally used to refer to cameras with sensors that are 4x5 inches or larger. Some notable landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams were known for using large format film cameras. Large format digital cameras are not widely available.
Generally, the larger the sensor, the higher the image quality and the more expensive the camera body will be.
Here's a real-life example of APS-C, Full Frame, and Medium Format sensors in digital cameras. You can clearly see the difference in sensor size between the three.
From L-R: APS-C , Full Frame, and Medium Format sensors
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