The sensor is one of the most important components of any digital camera. It is the device that is responsible for capturing the light that enters the camera and creates a digital image from it. Different cameras have different size sensors, which impacts the quality of images they produce.
Large cameras such as DSLRs and mirrorless cameras commonly have the biggest image sensors compared to other cameras, especially smartphone cameras. This is part of the reason why DSLR cameras are able to capture better photos than mobile cameras.
So, exactly how big is a mobile camera sensor?
Smartphone camera sensors differ in size, depending on the manufacturer. In 2020, the biggest sensor on a smartphone camera is 1/1.28-inches (Huawei P40 Pro+). However, the biggest smartphone camera sensor of all time is 1-inch (Panasonic Lumix CM1).
Compared to sensors found on high-end compact cameras and DSLRs, even the largest smartphone camera sensor is no match.
The smartphone camera sensor compared to other camera sensors
Despite improvements in mobile camera technology, smartphone cameras remain at the bottom of the camera hierarchy. But to be fair, besides taking photos, smartphones perform a multitude of other computer-like functions and yet they fit in our pockets.
Due in large part to their size restrictions and space limitations, smartphone cameras have the smallest sensors of the lot. The illustration below can give you an idea of how small they are.
Besides the obvious glaring difference in size, another difference between mobile camera sensors and sensors found on other cameras is how the size is indicated. For example, the size of a full-frame DSLR sensor is expressed in millimetres (mm) while smartphone camera sensor sizes are most often shown in inches.
Smartphone camera sensor vs compact camera sensor
Once upon a time, it used to be easy to tell the difference between a photo taken using a mobile camera and one taken using a compact digital camera (also known as a point-and-shoot camera). But that’s not always the case anymore. The size of smartphone camera sensors now rivals that of some point-and-shoot cameras.
The average size of an entry-level compact camera sensor can be anywhere between 1/2.3-inch and one-inch. These days, it’s not uncommon to find a smartphone that has a camera with a 1/1.76-inch sensor. High-end smartphone sensors are getting closer and closer to the 1-inch mark.
Because the size and performance of smartphone camera sensors are similar to that of entry-level compact cameras, you can see why smartphones have made a large dent in that market.
There are some compact cameras that have sensors larger than one-inch. As a result, they can give you superb picture quality that not many mobile cameras can match. However, these are few and can cost as much as a DSLR camera.
Smartphone camera sensor vs DSLR camera sensor
The most noticeable difference in sensor size is when you compare a smartphone camera sensor and that of a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a full-frame sensor. As mentioned earlier, the size of a smartphone sensor is expressed in inches while that of a full-frame sensor is expressed in millimetres.
Not only that, the inches measurements don’t really reflect the actual size of of the sensor but rather the size-equivalent of old school one-inch video camera tubes that were used in old broadcast television and video cameras.
To learn more about this, check out Everything You Need To Know About Smartphone Sensors.
When it comes to the actual size of a smartphone sensor, the largest sensor (1-inch) is 12.8mm x 9.6mm, with a diagonal measurement of 16mm.
A full-frame sensor measures 36mm x 24mm. This is equivalent to 35mm film, which is why a full-frame sensor is sometimes referred to as a 35mm sensor. Diagonally, a full-frame sensor is 43mm. Compared to the 16mm diagonal measurement of a 1-inch smartphone sensor, a full-frame DSLR sensor is huge.
But not all DSLR and mirrorless cameras have full-frame sensors. Some have APS-C sensors which, despite being considerably smaller than full-frame sensors, are still much bigger than any smartphone camera sensor.
Impact of mobile camera sensor size on image quality
The sensor is the most important part of a smartphone camera because it is responsible for capturing the light that enters through the lens from which an image is created. The more light a sensor can capture, the better the images the camera can produce.
This is where the size of the sensor comes into play. The surface of every digital camera sensor is made up of millions of light-catching elements called photosites (commonly referred to as pixels). If a smartphone camera has a large sensor, it can fit bigger photosites/pixels onto it.
Small photosites are susceptible to digital noise, especially when the lighting conditions are not ideal. A big mobile camera sensor with big photosites will capture more light. This means that the smartphone will perform better even in low light.
On the other hand, a large smartphone camera sensor can fit a lot more pixels. This will increase the resolution of the mobile photos, making them appear more detailed. This is perfect, especially if you want to print large, quality copies of your mobile photos.
However, adding more photosites to the sensor for increased resolution comes at the sacrifice of the size of the pixels. So, even though the images might look sharper, the quality might not be so great in low lighting because of the small photosites.
Some mobile cameras, especially smartphones with high megapixel cameras, feature pixel binning. This essentially allows you to increase the size of the pixels on the sensor by merging multiple adjacent pixels into one. You can learn more about how that works here.
Phones with the biggest sensors
|Phone||Sensor size||Year of release|
|Panasonic Lumix CM1||1.0”||2014|
|Nokia PureView 808||1/1.2”||2012|
|Huawei P40 Pro+||1/1.28”||2020|
|Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra||1/1.33”||2020|
|Xiaomi Mi 10||1/1.33”||2020|
|Nokia Lumia 1020||1/1.5”||2013|
These are as of July 2020
You may notice from the table above that in some cases, different smartphones from different manufacturers have sensors of the same size. That’s because even though the smartphone companies might be different, they share the same sensor made from the same company.
In the case of the Samsung, Xiaomi, and Motorola handsets listed above, they’re all fitted with the same Samsung ISOCELL CMOS sensor technology in their primary cameras.
Even though smartphone camera sensors all differ in size, one thing is for sure-- the bigger the sensor, the better the picture quality.
Of course, having a large sensor does not automatically make a camera take better pictures. There are other factors that play a part such as the number and size of the pixels, quality of the lenses, aperture, and others.
But it’s also worth noting that a phone with impressive mobile camera specs is only a tool. If you want to take amazing photos with a smartphone, you have to do more than just rely on the specs. You have to get to know the camera well so that you can get the most out of it despite its limitations.
If you’re a novice at taking photos with a smartphone camera and would like to improve your skills, you can download my free 22-page ebook that teaches you five ways in which you can improve your mobile photography. It is very informative yet simple and easy to understand.
And best of all, it’s absolutely free. So, you have nothing to lose but new photography skills to gain.
- What To Look For When Buying A Camera Phone For Mobile Photography
- What Makes Smartphones Photo Look Good
- Is An 8MP Smartphone Camera Good Enough?
- How To Take Amazing Photos With Your Phone
- What Size Are The Pixels Of A Smartphone Camera?