Full-Frame and 24.6MP Compared

The A900 is the first Sony to feature a full-frame DSLR. The sensor is approximately the size of a frame of 35mm film, which is 24x36mm, and 24.6MP is the highest resolution currently available in a full-frame camera.


Compared to most digital cameras today where the sensor size is closer to APS-C size, the lenses appearing to be 150% to 200% longer than the specified focal length. Other Sony DSLR cameras, like the A700, feature a 23.5x15.6mm sensor. 24.6MP is also double the sensor resolution of today's prosumer or advanced amateur models, which are generally around 12MP.

In the computer world smaller and smaller traces mean higher density, more transistors, and generally better and faster performance. However, the digital sensor is not a digital device. Instead, it is an analog device that gathers light and turns it into a digital signal. The reverse is true in sensors in that larger sensor size is almost always better, with everything else equal.

As you can see in the chart below, none of the APS-C sensors is even half of the area of a full-frame sensor. With a range of 28.1% to 42.4% of full-frame size, there is clearly a lot more information that can potentially be captured with a full-frame sensor.

DSLR Sensor Comparison
Camera Effective Sensor Resolution Sensor Dimensions and Area % of Full-Frame Sensor Density (MP/cm2)
Olympus E-520/E-3 10.0 13.5x18
2.43 cm2
28.10% 4.0
Canon XSi 12.2 14.8x22.2
3.28 cm2
38.00% 3.7
Canon 50D 15.1 14.9x22.3
3.32 cm2
38.40% 4.5
Pentax K20D 14.6 15.6x23.4
3.65 cm2
42.20% 4.0
Sony A700, Nikon D300, Nikon D90 12.3 15x23,5
3.66 cm2
42.40% 3.3
Sony A350 14.2 15.8x23.6
3.72 cm2
42.90% 3.8
Nikon D700/Nikon D3 12.1 24x36
8.64 cm2
100% 1.4
Canon 5D 12.7 24x36
8.64 cm2
100% 1.5
Canon 1Ds Mark III 21.1 24x36
8.64 cm2
100% 2.4
Sony A900 24.6 24x35.9
8.61 cm2
100% 2.9

The last column in the chart is the one that tells the story most accurately, however. Here the resolution of the sensor is divided by the sensor area to yield a sensor density. The lower the density, the larger the individual pixel size, and the more info that pixel can gather - all else being equal. There are a few surprises here, such as the Sony A350 being essentially the same density as the Canon XSi, and the new Canon 50D having the highest density of any current DSLR camera.

The last column does put into perspective the true potential of the full-frame sensor and sheds some light on the true meaning of Sony's 24.6MP A900 sensor. At 2.9MP per cm2 the A900 still exhibits a lower density and theoretically better high ISO performance than any current APS-C DSLR. This is very much at odds with the ridiculous claims many on the web are making about Sony going too high in resolution on the A900. In fact, sensor density on the A900 is lower than the 10MP Canon 40D, which is 3.1.

The point is that any issues the Sony may be found to have with noise are not the result of pixels being "too small". All else being equal the high ISO noise should be at least as good as an 8 to 10MP Canon sensor. Where the Sony does suffer is in comparison to sensor density of other full-frame sensors. In that metric the Sony has twice the pixels per cm2 of a Nikon D3/D700 and Canon 5D, and keeping up in high ISO performance with those cameras would be quite a feat.

Index Sony A900 vs. Nikon D700
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  • kalow - Monday, November 17, 2008 - link

    Hi Wesley,

    Can you confirm if your a700 has firmware 4? I looked into the exif and it says v03
    Reply
  • Gantlett - Friday, October 31, 2008 - link

    The photographed subjects in the photo reviews pose 0 challenge for my VGA camera, let alone a multi-megapixel multi-thousand $ professional DSLR.

    With all due respect, I think AnandTech.com should focus on computers and not photography (even if they really like digital photography...)
    Reply
  • oldscotch - Wednesday, October 29, 2008 - link

    Hi there, thanks for the update. Nice to see informed and unbiased evaluations of the s900.

    I just had a couple of questions about the test conditions, or maybe I missed them? Mostly, are these test results raw conversions? or are they jpegs out of the camera? Also curious what lenses were used for each camera.

    I find the a900 vs. a700 test most interesting, I've been looking for a controlled comparison of the two at higher isos. The fact that the a700 actually takes cleaner shots at higher isos leaves me believing that the noise out of the a900 is largely due to its processing - meaning it can be improved upon (and there's definitely room for improvement, even with raw).
    Do you know what might have caused the different colours on the a700 though?

    Thanks again,
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Wednesday, October 29, 2008 - link

    All test shots used each manufacturer's prime 50mm f/1.4 lens (Canon, Nikon, Sony/Minolta). Test conditions are in the test introduction, but all shots at at f/4 with shutter speed varied as ISO changes. This provides a constant depth-of-field. The tripod location was the same in all shots and a shutter timer was used to minimize camera shake.

    As for the samples images on the last page we used the famous Minolta beer can (70-210mm f/4), a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX Macro, a Minolta/Sony 24-105mm f/3.5-4.5, and a 50mm f/1.4 for the various shots. You can determine the lens from this list by looking at the EXIF data in each full-sized image.

    We used the Tungsten WB preset for the test shots on all tested cameras. It seems clear that the A900 and A700 have a different color temperature default for Tungsten. ALL shots used camera defaults and in-camera JPEG processing. RAW is very useful in many situations, but with a new camera like the A900 which RAW converter is the best choice for processing is very much a question mark. A couple of PROs we know who are shooting the A900 in their studio use Capture One RAW conversion software.
    Reply
  • jamesbond007 - Wednesday, October 29, 2008 - link

    As a semi-pro, I find Sony's images to be very soft. For a lens with an aperture capable of f/1.4, one would at least HOPE it would be sharp by f/4 or especially f/5.6. It is appropriate to offer a client a variety of images, including various crops. I would be ashamed if a $3,000 body and added glass could not deliver such capable images. Additionally, Sony's noise performance leaves much to be desired.

    Granted, while lighting is by far the most important element of photography, sharpness/AF accuracy is among my top priorities as well. Although I am sure no Unsharpen Mask or High-pass sharpening was applied to any of the sample images, Sony's still appear far softer than what I'm accustomed to.
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Wednesday, October 29, 2008 - link

    The results would also likely improve in sharpness if we had used the microadjust feature to tweak AF for each lens. I have seen results of the 70-210mm f/4 before and after microadjust and it certainly did improve performance, so that may also be the case with the f/1.4.

    We have been working with the A900 just over a week and tweaking the microadjust can be very time-consuming with lots of samples to carefully evaluate. Sony makes this even more difficult since there is no zoom or magnify feature in Intelligent preview. That feature alone would have made the micro-adjust faster.
    Reply
  • jamesbond007 - Thursday, October 30, 2008 - link

    Really, even at f/4? I've seen some slight variations with faster lenses (f/1.2-f/2.8) using the microadjustment tweaks inside the custom settings, but I really have my doubts at f/4 or even f/5.6 if a noticeable difference would be visible. Perhaps the lens you had was simply a lemon. :P Reply
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, October 30, 2008 - link

    Remember, the full-frame sensor has a more shallow DOF at a given aperture value than APS-C, so if you are used to seeing shifts at f/2.8 on APS-C, that is ballpark what you can expect on FF at f/4. Check the DPreview images from the Sony and Canon 1DsIII, both sensors are high enough resolution to show parts of their test scene moving in and out of the plane of focus which all looked in focus in previous tests of lower-resolution sensors. Reply
  • forest23 - Friday, August 14, 2009 - link

    Oh no , not someone else who believes that putting a lens on
    a half frame camera gives greater depth of field. But see Coxes Optics
    1974 pages 68-97
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Thursday, October 30, 2008 - link

    The Minolta 50mm f/1.4 is the same lens used in noise tests of the Sony A700 and the past review of the Sony A200. We have 50mm f/1.4 lenses available for all tested brands except Olympus/Panasonic. Because of the 2X lens factor we use an Olympus 35mm Macro lens as the test lens for 4/3 cameras. Reply

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