Why Nikon CX sensor so small? (size comparison)

September 21, 2011




In this article I want to put my mind on the decision of Nikon to use a CX-format sensor, which its size is smaller than the APS-C and even the Micro Four Thirds one. Some people (including me) were surprised to see that Nikon has chosen to use a sensor that is smaller than the Micro 4/3. Many of us know that their is a direct implication on image quality, especially with the amount of noise in high-ISO sensitivity level.

Before I continue the discussion about what are the implications of using the CX sensor vs larger camera sensors, let’s see a sensor size comparison paradigm that illustrates the difference in sensor sizes, including APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, CX (the one used with Nikon 1 mirrorless cameras, 1/1.7-inch and 1/2.3-inch):

Sensor size comparison pardigram

APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, CX, 1/1.7-inch and 1/2.3-inch sensor size comparison

Nikon FX = Full Frame (35mm)
Nikon DX = APS-C
Nikon CX = 1-inch (Nikon 1 Mirrorless cameras)

The above image illustrated the differences between sensor sizes. Yu can see that the CX-type sensor used in the Nikon 1 J1 and V1 cameras is much smaller than the M43 one, but four times larger than the 1/2.3-inch one.

There are cons and pros for both large and small sensors. Let’s go over the advantages of each one.

 

Advantages of Small sensors

  1. Ability to manufacture relatively cheaper, smaller and lighter cameras
  2. Create cheaper, smaller and lighter lenses due to the smaller projected imaeg circle
  3. Can lower sensor manufacture price (depends on the technology used)
  4. Deeper Depth of Field (DOF) for the same equiv. FOV and f-stop , Good for Macro and Landscape shots
  5. Higher focal length multiplier (2.7x in the case of the CX), also means longer zoom but in more compact lenses (see sectino 2) – magnified angle of view
  6. Sharper images due to the fac that most lenses are sharper in the center (more evident in 35mm lenses used on smaller size sensors)
  7. Easier to manufacture wide lenses

 

Advantages of Large sensors

  1. Ability to get much more shallow Depth of Field – great for portraits
  2. Lower focal length multiplier (1x on 35mm, 2x on M43), less magnified angle of view – great for wide angle shots
  3. Better low light performance, less noise in high-ISO
  4. Better for lage prints, requires less magnification
  5. Better color accuracy and image quality in general

 

Of course the disadvantages works the other way around, but mostly are related to the ability of the sensor diodes to absorb more light photons.  A larger sensor will (in almost all cases) will results in better image quality, especially in high-ISO.

Now, Nikon 1 CX sensor carries a focal length multiplier of 2.7x, compared to 2x on the Micro43. The sensor’s dimension on the Nikon 1 J1 and V1 equals to 13.2 x 8.8 mm (1-inch). In image quality terms, that means that in practice, Nikon 1 mirrorless cameras will (most probably) won’t be able to give the same high-ISO performance compared to Sony NEX and Micro Four Thirds cameras (ie. Samsung, Olympus, Panasonic).

The question that many people ask themselves is why Nikon has decided to use a small sensor and not use an APS-C sensor like Sony NEX mirrorless cameras (ie. Sony NEX-7 and NEX-5N)?According to leading camera review websites and analysts in the field of digital photography, Nikon didn’t want the Nikon 1 cameras to overlap / clash with its DSLR cameras, which can result in decrease in sells.

Some people think that Nikon has actually done a very smart marketing move. Photographers who search for an advanced camera  can choose from either Nikon’s high-end compacts (ie. Nikon P300),  Nikon 1 Mirrorless camera or buy a digital SLR camera.

Those are distinct camera types both in terms of of price, performance and the features that each camera offers to its respectable owners.

 

Has Nikon forgotten about the competition in the mirrorless market?

Even if the above is correct, there is the issue of competition. Nikon is not alone in this market. In fact, it’s fashionably late entering the mirrorless market. Releasing a new camera lineup doesn’t promise Nikon success.In fact, some will prefer investing in a Sony NEX camera due to its larger sensor and better image quality in high-ISO. That already proved to hurt the sells of DSLR cameras worldwide.

I also think that Nikon assumes that those who purchase a mirrorless camera don’t give that much attention to the image quality in high-ISO. If it’s not true, how come they release new cameras with a relatively small sensor?

This will be surely tested in 2011/2012 and we’ll see how the market adopts Nikon’s new mirrorless cameras and interchangeable lens lineup.

 

What’s Your Opinion?

I am opening this discussion in order to hear your opinion about that “issue”. Do you think that Nikon has made a smart move releasing Nikon 1 J1 and V1 mirrorless cameras with sensors smaller than APS-C and smaller than the Micro Four Thirds?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Simmessa September 22, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Well, frankly I’im inclined to think that Nikon is acting quite cowardly with the release of System 1 cameras.

A 2.7x crop factor isn’t gonna make it with such fierce competition from Sony, The micro 43 group and soon Canon!

Just hope that Nikon drops their current mantra:

“Don’t damage the DSLR sales”

Guess they’ll end up damaging a lot more than that.

My 2 cents!

Thank You for the bright article comparing all sensor sizes.

S.

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Idan September 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm

I have to agree with you on that. I think that Nikon is over-protective here. Considering the advantages, I would have enjoyed seeing a Nikon 1 camera with an APS-C sensor. But is seems that Nikon is locked towards a smaller sensor. I just can’t see a Nikon 1 mirrorless that can compete against the Sony NEX-5N in terms of image quality. From what I can tell, the target market of mirrorless cameras DO care about image quality in high-ISO, it was proven by the sells of the Sony NEX-5 and will be proven again with the Sony NEX-5N. Who knows, maybe Canon will surprise us this time..

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John September 28, 2011 at 12:31 am

I’m buying a NEX-5n

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Idan September 28, 2011 at 9:45 am

Hi John, I can understand why many people have decided to purchase a Sony mirrorless over Nikon. The size of the sensor certainly have a direct implication on the low-light performance of the camera. I have a friend who asked me to help him choose between the Nikon 1 and Sony NEX-5N. He really wanted a camera that has high image quality in high-ISO, and the 5N is certainly the right choice. The Nikon 1 CX sensor is larger than ones found on point-and-shoots, but I agree that many will prefer the Sony over the Nikon 1 for that reason alone – as I can see, you are one of them. The other thing is depth-of-field, that with APS-C sensors you can get a shallow depth-of-field compared to Nikon 1 CX sensor. Although some people will prefer the longer DOF and 2.7x focal length multiplier of the CX.

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Harry March 3, 2012 at 5:46 am

While I agree that the low light performance could have been better with larger sensor, I bought my V1 for my specific purposes.
1. I can use my large collection of AFS lenses on Nikon 1 with AUTO FOCUS – no other brand offer this compatibility
2. I often shoot sports for my kids in competition events. I can put my 70-200 AFS VRII onto V1 and get 189-540mm AF with VRII. – again, no other brand could provide me this on mirorless camera. especially when all I have to spend is the adapter which at $250 is not cheap but better than spending $9000 on 400mm lens.
3. V1 Autofocus is faster and smarter than other mirorless camera.
So depending on your style of photography and the exisiting gear you have, you may get some serious benefit from Nikon 1 system.

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Carlos Serra October 31, 2012 at 12:37 pm

It seems to me that nobody here understands the benefits of the CX format sensor of Nikon 1!
I do not understand why APS sensors or micro-four- thirds sensors was adopted as standard formats! There are sensors that were smaller and universalized, used in broadcast television cameras as the sensor 2/3. The CX format sensor is so valid as others standardize formats. The photo cameras are currently video cameras too. The Nikon 1 sensor came to meet the 16mm film format as the full frame was based on 35mm film. With the Nikon 1 I can use 16mm film lenses and get video with a wide range optics! The CX format sensor and Nikon 1 SPEED 3 processor produces high quality full Hd videos with good response in high ISOS. The video and photo RAW files quality from Nikon 1 is evident. I´m glad to use the Nikon V1 with its spectacular viewfinder.
Thanks to Nikon for having manufactured a format sensor so perfect as the CX sensor!

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Micky Roadstar April 10, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I have no idea why Nikon chose the CX format sensor and if it’s a wise decision or not, but I do know that I like their 1 series cameras a lot. I’m the happy owner of a Nikon V1 camera (two actually) with a couple of Nikon 1 lenses. I have shot extensively with most types of cameras from medium format (6×6, 6×7) film cameras to full frame digital and everything in between. So, I know a thing or two about image quality. This is not my first camera and it probably will not be my last. I like the Nikon V1 not because of the sensor size, but because the images it produces look good for a small camera. Colours and automatic white balance are very good. Despite being only ten megapixels, the files from the CX sensor are really more than enough for most people. It handles well, has a build in viewfinder, an outrageous fast (and totally silent) shutter and it has great battery life too. Most of the 1 series lenses are high quality, very compact and lightweight. You can carry an extensive camera system in only a small bag. The Nikon 1 cameras aren’t burdened with an over complicated menu. They are easy to control. That is the great power of this system.

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Adipranoto July 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I am a J1 user and totally agree with Micky. While the sensor size can’t compete with Sony nor 4/3 series, there are some advantages for Nikon 1 series. First, the size of the lenses are even smaller than 4/3, which will impact on the weight of the system (camera body + lens). For me, this camera provides an excellent replacement for my broken P/S camera. Since J2 (and J3) is already in the market, I can get a much lower price for the J1.
Apart from the initial price, this camera’s performance is really under rated. Now I am happily using the J1 as my ‘go everywhere’ camera :-)

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Carmen October 12, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I’m late to this debate, but I’m the happy owner of a V1 that I’ve had these past 3 months. I bought secondhand for a total bargain price and I’m completely in love with the system. I can see the advantages, the camera is brilliant for macro and sports and general photography. The lenses arre good quality, even the kit 10-30 lens gives lovely sharp punchy images.

I’m the owner of a D700 and D800 and know what low noise at high ISO is, but i think the V1 isn’t too shabby and would place it above my old D200 at high ISO, actually probably nearly 2 stops above.

I wrote a blog post on my website about why I love the V1…!

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Kugatt December 1, 2013 at 1:27 am

The idea of using legacy lenses sounds good until you try it as in using old 35mm and 16mm lenses on new digital cameras. New generation electronic lenses are simply so much better than 40 year old optics that one quickly discards the idea upon trying them, for example trying old Pentax lenses on a Olympus Pen Micro 4/3 morrorless camera. The old lenses have been surpassed by new technology. I found old legacy lenses to be a waste of time. Thus, the issue becomes choosing a mirrorless camera that can use a variety of modern Micro 4/3 lenses Panasonic, Soni, etc. This is where Nikon made a mistake if she is trying to attract a market using 16mm technology. In the old days, Nikon made its name by producing the best cameras. In the old days, Nikon feared no company in the 35mm SLR market and won its place through making the best camera. It would for Nikon to go up against modern Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4/3 cameras. Young Nikon engineers should pick up the gauntlet. Competition will make Nikon strong.

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