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Next time you’re at a pro sports game, car race or rock concert, take a look at the cameras the professional photographers are using. Guess what? They’re not taking pictures with their phones.

They’re not using cameras like these, either:

How Sony Is Ushering In a Golden Age of Photography

 No, they’re probably using cameras like this:

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I’ve always assumed that there’s a reason for deliberately hauling six pounds of equipment around one’s neck. Probably because you need a big camera to accommodate a big sensor, the “film” in a digital camera.

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It’s very simple: Big sensor = better photos.

A big sensor can absorb more light. It makes possible sharp photos with better color in low light. Less digital “noise” (random speckles). And with the right settings, a big sensor also makes possible a large aperture, which gives you that delicious, professional-looking blurry background.

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In short, the single most important statistic about a camera is not the number of megapixels (which actually means very little to picture quality). It’s sensor size.

Until last year, you could make this equation, too: Big sensor = big camera. I mean, look at the relative sizes of these cameras and their sensors (I threw the iPhone camera sensor size in there for your amusement): 

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What the world has always wanted, of course, is a small camera with a big sensor.

I’ve always assumed that that’s impossible. Year after year, the camera companies cranked out new models that basically stuck to the same formula: Big sensor = big camera = big price. We all assumed that there was some reason camera makers couldn’t stuff bigger sensors into smaller cameras — like, say, the laws of physics.

A few years back, though, Panasonic and Olympus struck a huge blow for small cameras with big sensors when they introduced a format for mirrorless cameras called Micro Four Thirds. (“Mirrorless” cameras can be smaller than real SLRs, because they don’t contain the usual system of mirrors and prisms to bring the light from the lens to your eye. Instead, the viewfinder has a little screen.)

But for the last couple of years, Sony has been taking the small camera/big sensor concept to thrilling new levels. The challenge is not physics, Sony says, but cost and difficulty. Nobody puts big sensors into small cameras because the price would be too high for consumers and because it would involve redesigning everything: body, lenses, processor and so on.

These days, most cameras fall into one of three categories shown above: pocket size, consumer SLR, and professional SLR. Here’s a look at what Sony’s been doing in each category.

Pocket size

Let’s start with the classic pocket camera — 4 inches wide, built-in flash, no eyepiece viewfinder.

Shown here on the left: a representative pocket camera. Price: $250. Sensor: tiny. On the right, Sony’s best, the RX-100 II: nearly three times the price, but a sensor nearly quadruple the size. (In this article, everything is pictured at scale — cameras and sensors — for your eyeballing convenience.)

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There are other reasons the RX100 II is more expensive, of course; it is, in essence, a miniaturized professional camera. It has a hot shoe on top (an attachment for accessories), a screen that tilts up or down, an incredibly fast f/1.8 lens (meaning amazing low-light photos and the ability to blur the background), wireless sharing to your phone, a control ring around the lens, a programmable Function button, manual controls over everything, 10-frames-per-second burst mode, Sweep Panorama (just swing the camera around you and it builds a 360-degree panorama automatically), and better components all around.

But, really, that huge sensor is the key. I maintain that the RX100 II is the best pocket camera ever made, and so far, nobody who’s tried it has disagreed. Here are a few sample shots:

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That last one: handheld, no flash, dead of night. That’s impressive.

I also maintain that $700 for a compact is borderline price gouging. Sony knows that the world will pile onto this thing like piranhas, and it intends to milk every penny.

Speaking of which: You can save $150 by buying the previous year’s model, the RX100. It offers the same size sensor but lacks the tilting screen and the WiFi and isn’t quite as good in low light. But it’s only $550.

Superzoom fixed-lens

There’s another oddball but popular camera category worth mentioning in here: the superzoom fixed-lens camera. These cameras have one permanently attached zoom lens. The Nikon Coolpix L820, for example, can zoom 30x. Sony’s own HX300 zooms to 50x. 

That’s a big deal when you’re trying to photograph sports action from the stands, or musical-theater action in a school auditorium.

The marketing of these cameras, however, has always infuriated me. It’s great that they zoom a lot — but the zooming comes at a terrible cost. These cameras have the same microscopic sensors as the cheap $250 pocket cameras.

Worse, the more you zoom in, the smaller the maximum aperture (the size of the shutter opening). Once you’re zoomed in fully, you have a tiny aperture indeed, which means you have a greater likelihood of blurry shots. (Why? Because the shutter has to stay open longer to admit more light. And during that time, any motion of your little athlete or tenor — or of your hand holding the camera — creates a blur.)

Superzoom cameras are generally lousy at focusing when they’re fully zoomed, too.

Sony’s freakishly unusual RX10 solves both problems. It’s that rare superzoom with an 8.3x, constant-aperture zoom. It’s f/2.8 the whole zooming way, 24 to 200 mm. (You can control the zooming either with a ring or with a lever; it’s slowish both ways, though.)

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Sony calls the RX10 a “premium” superzoom; it’s $1,300 — again, crazy steep — and absolutely loaded. It has the same 1-inch sensor size as the RX100. It can shoot 10 frames a second (yet another reason it’s a great sports camera). It has a magnesium alloy body, weather-resistant so you can shoot in the rain. An aperture ring around the lens. A tilting screen. Crazy great video with full manual and auto modes. Microphone and headphone jacks, three control rings, a flash that pops up high enough to clear the lens completely. Even a built-in neutral-density filter — a useful feature when you want to cut down the amount of light, especially useful when you’re shooting video and you want that blurry-background look.

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“There’s nothing the RX10 can do that a larger SLR couldn’t do with two lenses,” a Sony manager explained to me. “But you wouldn’t get 10-frames-a-second burst mode, autofocusing all the way.” And you couldn’t take telemacro shots (15 inches to your subject) without yet another lens.

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Sony also cheerfully points out that if you bought an f/2.8 70–200 mm lens for an SLR, you’d pay more than $2,000 just for the lens.

Finally, of course, there’s the biggest RX10 advantage of all: having to carry only a single piece of gear that does almost everything.

Consumer SLRs

Let’s move on now to SLRs — the big, black cameras with interchangeable lenses. If you want to stay under $1,000, the biggest sensor you can get is what’s known as APS-C. That’s the sensor size found in, for example, Canon’s popular Rebel line. (The name comes from the Advanced Photo System film specification. That kind of film is no longer with us, but its dimensions live on.)

Here, Sony’s ability to pack a big sensor into a small camera does not require a price penalty. In fact, Sony’s least expensive SLR actually costs less than Nikon’s. This illustration shows the relative sizes of these two cameras:

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And check out how much thinner the Sony is; it’s less than half as thick. In fact, overall, the Sony camera’s body occupies only 26 percent as much volume as the Nikon’s.

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If I wanted to buy an inexpensive SLR, you’d better believe I’d get one of Sony’s NEX cameras. Why on earth would I want a camera that’s four times as big, 85 percent heavier, and $50 more expensive — if I could get the same photos from a smaller, lighter, less expensive camera?

Pro SLRs

But now we have to talk about full-frame sensors. That’s the Holy Grail. That’s a huge sensor, the size of one 35 mm film frame of old.

The bigger a sensor is, the more expensive it is to make. That’s why the pros pay so much for their cameras — like the awe-inspiring Canon 5D Mark III ($3,500 without the lens) or the Nikon D800e ($3,000 without the lens). These cameras are incredible. Their sensors are so big, they can see more in the dark than you can.

“It’s cool that Sony has shrunk the cameras around 1-inch and APS-C sensors,” the photographic world used to sigh. “But too bad it can’t pack a full-frame sensor into something that size, so I don’t have the bulk of a microwave oven hanging around my neck.”

Well, don’t look now, but Sony’s finally done it.

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The Sony A7 is the world’s smallest, lightest interchangeable-lens full-frame camera. It’s the first one that you can shove into a coat pocket.

And, amazingly enough, it doesn’t cost more than the other full-framers on the market. In fact, it’s among the least expensive: $1,700 for the body alone, or $2,000 with a 2.5x zoom lens (28–70 mm, f/3.5–5.6). No wonder it’s rocking the photographic world (and earning its place as Popular Photography’s Camera of the Year).

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I have much more to say about the Sony A7; you can read the nitty-gritty, and see more sample pix, in my review here.

Sony ascending

In the high-end camera market right now, Nikon and Canon are the Big Two camera companies. Sony trails at number 3.

Now, listen: I’m aware that camera choice is a religion, like iPhone vs. Android. Canon, Nikon, and the other companies make some truly sensational equipment. What I’m about to say is in no way intended to slight them, or you if you prefer them.

But here’s the thing: When a company is on top, it has an overwhelming incentive to preserve the status quo, to keep doing what it’s always been doing. When you’re the underdog, on the other hand, you have every incentive to shake things up, to take risks (*cough* Yahoo *cough*).

“We don’t believe that camera sales are slowing down just because people are using their phones for photography now,” a Sony rep told me. “We think it’s because camera makers aren’t doing interesting things anymore.”

Well, Sony has certainly been doing interesting things. A 1-inch sensor in a pocket camera? Never been done. A premium superzoom? Nobody else is doing that. A full-frame sensor in a coat-pocketable body? Unheard of.

These are great ideas, and they’re arriving in great cameras. Yes, Sony may be No. 3 — but it tries harder.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the Sony RX10 as the world’s first fixed-aperture superzoom camera. In fact, Panasonic has offered fixed-aperture superzooms, although with much smaller sensors.

Additionally, In the originally published images in this article, sensors were pictured slightly larger than they should have been, for complicated measurement reasons explained here. In the revised illustrations here, the sizes of all sensors and cameras are correct relative to each other.”

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