Small Chip, Big Chip

(micro 4/3 v. full frame: magnification )

In the final analysis I think you’ll want both.


Quality versus pack ability, price versus practicality – lots to talk about, but not today. The point of this post is to demonstrate the difference in apparent magnification between small chip and big chip cameras.


I’ve always been interested in different film formats having worked with so many of them as a visual effects artist at ILM and Boss Film Corp. In those days, larger film formats like Vista Vision and 65mm were used to preserve maximum quality due to generation loss - inherent in optical composite printing and subsequent release print processes.  For proof, look no further than an Imax film for superior image quality from a large original negative.

In general, the image quality of a small chip compared to a big chip is far less obvious than comparing super 16mm and Vista Vision images. Digital images aren’t plagued with grain, dirt and negative scratches that are far more onerous on smaller film formats. Plus, the data is digital rather than emulsion based, so there’s no perceptible quality loss in sharing and copying back. In other words, NO emulsion based printing intermediates are required for VFX or release printing. For more about printing intermediates check out my “Blue Screen 1980”.

The playing field is far more level when comparing digital sensor sizes for color, detail and sensitivity. In fact, the only notable difference is the apparent image magnification relative to the sensor size in a camera.  Below are some comparative examples of magnification or more precisely: the Field of View differences between small and large chip cameras.

For those of you considering a wide angle theme for your next project, a big chip camera might be the way to go. Beautiful wide shots are possible without resorting to spherically imperfect “wide angle” lenses. To get undistorted, high quality wide shots with a small chip camera, you’ll need pricey 8, 10, or 12mm lenses. I recommend shooting some tests before you commit to one or the other.

In all of the test photo’s, the truck was 300’ from camera. The 100mm lens in the big chip frame renders a horizontal view of 108’ and a vertical height of 60’. The small chip horizontal is 52’ with a vertical dimension of 29’ – almost twice as tight as the Canon 5D field of view. So, to match the size of the Lumix small chip 100mm image, you’ll need a 200mm lens on the big chip camera.

If you’re thinking about lensing your next project with a telephoto feel, a small chip camera might be the way to go. The micro 4/3 line of long lenses are small, lightweight, reasonably fast and well priced. To match the 150mm micro small chip example above, you would need a 300mm lens and that can be one big hunk of expensive glass. Think about all the camcorders you’ve owned, lousy on the “wide” end with way more telephoto than a novice ever needed. That’s because those cameras have a very small sensor - an unfortunate,  almost counterintuitive design for the beginner resulting in shaky, unwatchable family memories.

The lens on the left is a Micro 4/3 Olympus 40-150mm f4-6.3 zoom that I bought used for $125.  The lens on the right is a Canon 70-200mm f2.8L zoom that I bought used for $1600. I shot with these two lenses for this post. The 50mm full frame was photographed with 17-55mm f2.8L zoom. If you’re thinking about buying a very good 300mm prime or zoom lens, check out the pricing options below.

Final thoughts. When shooting for the highest quality possible, bring your full frame sensor camera and lenses. If you need a big telephoto, rent it. You can’t beat the large “negative” image that can be blown up to billboard size prints. If you’re packing light, a micro 4/3 system with a couple of zoom lenses is more than adequate and it’s what I take on vacation, location and wildlife shoots. The images are very good and the replacement cost if lost or stolen won’t break the bank or your heart.

In the final analysis I think you’ll want both.

Return To Musings