Camera Format? Which Camera type should I buy?

What camera format should I buy? That’s a question I get asked as a professional very often. There is so much choice out there now that the decision is a bewildering confusion of technical details.

It used to be really simple back in the days of film, 35mm was the most popular  camera format with either simple instamatics or more complicated SLR or Single Lens Reflex camera format as the choice (that’s a camera where you look through the throat of the lens via a mirror that flips up).

But today the range is far more confusing. Not only is there instamatic ranges of camera and 35mm digital chip size camera formats but there is also a vast range between, some with fixed lens lengths, some with fixed zoom lenses and some with interchangeable lens – where to start?

The first thing to understand is the bigger the chip the less tightly packed the pixels have to be for any set quantity of pixels – yes that’s confusing too isn’t it – you can have a 16 Mega pixel camera with a physically small chip or a much larger chip.

So what’s the point of having a camera with the bigger physical chip? The answer is that the physically larger chip works better in low light than the small chip. More space to gather the light gives less noise in the black areas of a picture and more ability to gather light at low levels. A big 35mm chip is therefore going to produce better results in low natural light than a little chipped camera format.

So why are there so many little chipped cameras about? Well, the advantage of the smaller chip is that it requires a smaller length lens to produce an image at any given focal length, so where as a 35mm chipped camera might consider a 50mm lens as a standard lens a small chipped camera might only require a 15mm lens to produce the same angle of view. To understand more about Chip sizes click here.

So a small chipped camera can be built with a zoom lens attached that might only stick out 150mm but it’s equivalent focal length for a 35mm camera would be 7-800mm.

So it’s always a trade off, small and compact, with a good range of focal lengths makes an ideal holiday camera. For the Hobbyist maybe the flexibility of the greater range might be of more importance.

To add to the confusion as the chip qualities have been getting better and better the camera manufacturers have got together and invented a completely new camera format called Micro Four thirds. It’s a chip size 3-4 times the size of the compact cameras but only half the size of the 35mm chip. It has interchangeable lenses like the 35mm camera but the lens lengths are about half that of the 35mm, so it’s compact but still offers reasonable low late abilities.

The Macro four thirds camera format is gaining a good following in the hobbyist market because the quality is good enough for prints up to 24×36 inches, the lenses all fit on all the different manufacturers cameras and it is possible to get body sizes as small as the compact cameras.


what camera format
A holiday camera has to be easy to use yet catch the moments you want

So as always one has to compare your requirements with your budget. If as I said you only want a reasonable holiday snapper go for a compact camera format with anything up to a 30x zoom integrated. These range from £100 up to £500.

If you want a hobby camera to enjoy with out the weight of a full 35mm kit buy a macro four thirds system with a short and a long zoom. You will have to change lenses but for the hobbyist that is all part of the fun of looking for a picture.

If you are perfectionist and want the highest of quality available for an amateur then buy a 35mm camera format. But remember a camera like this is pointless if all you are ever going to do is stick in program mode and let the camera work out your exposures. To get the best out of the larger formats one needs to learn how to and when to override automatic exposures.


camera format 35mm
a 35mm cmaera will cope with low light better

There are bigger camera formats I haven’t mentioned, bigger than the 35mm camera format but these are for the professional user and start at many thousands of pounds, in fact 15-20,000 are not unusual figures. They are all bulky and more suited for the studio on a tripod than location work. Not an area the man in the street needs to bother about.


Brian Russell

November 2015