How is it possible that with a particular sized sensor (say APS-C) it is possible to get different sized image cameras (by this I mean a 10 megapixel camera, a 15 megapixel camera etc)? Where does this translation between sensor size and image size happen? Does it happen in the camera's image processing stage? Is there a limit to the amount of megapixels you can get from a certain size of image sensor?

I'd love a very technical answer to this.


2 Answers 2


The same way that we can make an HDTV the same size as an old low res TV or even smaller. We make the pixels on the sensor smaller.

The sensor size (APS-C, full frame, etc) refers to the size of the area that the light is focused on to. It can be very large in the case of research telescope sensors and digital medium format cameras or very small in the case of things like smartphone cameras and other embedded cameras, or anywhere in between. While it is more difficult to make a high resolution sensor the smaller it is, there is no direct correlation between sensor size and sensor resolution.

Sensor resolution (megapixels) on the other hand is simply the number of points of light that are sampled within the sensor area. The smaller you make those pixels, the more of them you can fit in a given area and the higher the resolution can be for that sensor.

Since we have 13+ megapixel cellphone cameras, that might bring up the question of why do we only have 20 or 30ish megapixels full frame DSLRs (since the sensor is so much bigger). The reason is two fold. Part of it is that while we may be able to make very very small pixels, scaling it up from a very small area presents challenges such as heat management and supporting the structure of the sensor itself. Another part of it is quality of the sensor. We may be able to cram a 13 megapixel sensor into an area the size of a pencil eraser, but the quality of that sensor is nowhere near as good as the quality of a full frame sensor since it can use much more complex sensing. This is also part of the concept behind the so called "ultrapixels" that HTC uses in their lower resolution but in some cases better performing smartphone cameras. Getting functionality like better noise management and faster reading allows for better overall performance of the sensor.

So what is the limit of resolution, well, ultimately, the main issue we run into is something called diffraction limiting. We can make pixels so small that it virtually doesn't make a difference because beyond a certain size, light diffracts and we can't reliably resolve pixels any smaller than that. This is another part of the reason we don't see cameras greatly exceeding the limits of modern high end DSLRs. The advantage of each additional megapixel becomes less and less of an advantage when compared to other areas of gain.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Nowhere near the quality of Full Frame DSLR sensor" - Does this mean that a full frame sensor of a compact camera is of different quality than a DSLR full frame sensor? Or could it be you momentarily forgot there's full frame sensors in all kind of cameras? \$\endgroup\$ Aug 29, 2013 at 14:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @EsaPaulasto - good point, I altered my post to more accurately reflect that full frame sensors are occasionally found in non-DSLR cameras such as the Sony RX1. The key point is that larger size allows for more flexibility in sensor design (up to a point anyway, it can eventually become a liability in other ways at large sizes.) \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 29, 2013 at 14:54

On the physical sensors are a number of pixels. The smaller you can make one pixel, the more pixels you can get on the sensor.

With time and progress in research and manufacturing, sensor manufacturers have been able to produce higher-resolving cameras as pixel sizes become smaller.

The larger the pixel, the lower the noise (not taking into account other improvements that naturally happen over time).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Good info, Unapiedra. You can cram a lot of very tiny pixels onto a very small piece of silicon. However, the smaller the pixel size, the higher the noise. If you use a bigger piece of silicon with the same number of pixels, you will get a much better quality image. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Aug 30, 2013 at 23:23

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