Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Is Digital Full Frame the Holy Grail for the Masses?

I am no stranger to full frame, analog or digital. I shot 35mm film camera from early 1980s for almost 20 years, and have owned a few full frame digital, including the Canon 1Ds, Kodak SLR/c, Canon 5D, and currently 5D Mark II.  In the last few weeks I have been thinking about why, it seems, that digital full frame is the ultimate goal for a lot of people. Aside from a larger sensor that mates to the focal lengths of 35mm lenses 1:1, thinner shallow depth of field, and marginally better image quality, what makes people want to upgrade to full frame?

I have to ask myself that same question. Other than what's listed above, I can't think of any other reason. After using different (and concurrently most of the time) sensor formats, I am so used to adjusting myself to see and capture pictures through the viewfinder, regardless of what size the sensor is; Point & Shoots, Micro 4/3 (and 4/3), APS-C 1.5 (Sony), APS-C 1.6x (Canon), APS-C 1.7x (Sigma, yeah I had an SD-9, but it suffered from electrical problems so it was short lived), APS-H 1.3x (Canon 1D, 1D II, 1D III). I am as comfortable with a 50mm lens on a 1.5x crop camera as a 50mm lens on full frame. When I look through the viewfinder, my mind automatically compensates. I can't say I prefer shooting with full frame over APS-C or M4/3, although I have a preference to what lenses go with what camera.

Big Tree - Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm f2 & NEX-6

So, do people just want full frame camera because it's full frame, and they can say I shoot with a full frame camera?  In most shooting circumstances, the size of the sensor is all but irrelevant, given the right lenses. I can't deny there is a certain amount of influence of that, but the most important reason has been image quality. Full frame back then was the pinnacle of digital sensors, but how times have changed.

Even the M4/3 format sensors have achieved amazing image quality not possible just a few years ago. The Olympus E-M5/E-M1 sensor is as good as most APS-C sensors and may even be better than some 18MP sensors that's been around for more than five years from a certain manufacturer. But the most amazing low light sensor is in the Fujifilm X-E2/X-T1. If you compared the RAW output (on dpreview), it's on par, or even better than the Sony A7 full frame sensor. I am always attracted to weird and unique features and that's why I had a Kodak SLR/c and Sigma SD-9.

For the last few weeks, it has been a struggle for me deciding which camera to upgrade to. The Sony A7 is my top of my list with great image quality and using all the legacy lenses as they were designed is an alluring feature.  Then there is the Olympus E-M5/E-M1 and the Fujifilm XE-2/X-T1. These two cameras keep distracting me from firmly committing myself to the A7.

The E-M5/E-M1's In-Body-Stabilization is something I have always wanted, and I want to replace my dying Panasonic G1 so that I can start using those wonky c-mount lenses again. The Fujifilm X-E2/X-T1 for its amazing image quality, especially high ISO. Besides, the sexy look of the X-T1 gives me wet dreams; I can not shake its image off my mind! This is a camera with retro done right.

So, full frame digital is not the ultimate and the end all of camera quest. To some, unique features like in-body-stabilization is more important than full frame. If I get any camera other than the A7 in the near future, it also means full frame is not as important to me as other camera features.


  1. the only reason that I want a FF is that I want a 20mm be a 20mm lens again. On the long run a FF is cheaper because lenses are (at least with A7 + legacy lenses if you own a whole bunch like me)
    IQ is important. More important to me is IQ with high ISO working @ night. All that I got with my A7r. I know I will not upgrade to anything else coming in the (near) future. Stabilization I never wanted. Not in the lens nor in body. I did not need it with film, why should I need it today (when I should suffer Parkinsonism once I will stop taking photos).

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. (first post deleted because of typos)

      Forgot this: No, FF is not for the masses at all.

      Smartphone is for the masses, possibly with an additional lens like the SONY offers
      (even I doubt it). The smartphone will kill much and many. That is why I call it "eye-phone"...

    3. True. Wide angle lenses are much easier to find and cheaper on full frame but I do enjoy having IS either on lens or in body. I am spoiled with IS lenses.

  2. when I look through the viewfinder I see what I see. I already know what I'll see because of my experience in picking a lens for getting that view. Like you I have used a variety of formats, although I go from 4x5 (10x13cm) , 6x12, 6x9, 35mm to 4/3 and of course compact digital.

    Like you I like all, each for different reasons.

    The shallow DoF that you can get with 35mm (aka full frame) is of course even shallower on Large Format (4x5) and Medium Format 6x9. My observation is that with such a shallow DoF comes the requirement for precise focus (assuming you had some previsualisation happening rather than snap away and pick one you like that the camera made for you). If one is relying on AF (many do) then 4/3 has the benefits that the AF system has bigger 'margins of error' for it. So you get the benefit of a f2.8 shutter speeds with f5.6 DoF. As it happens I often used f5.6 or f8 on my full frame camera unless I was really paying attention because I would exactly get 'focus failure' in my images due to many reasons.

    When shooting my 4x5 camera I often use f8 to get the same DoF that I would get with a 28mm lens on a "full frame" camera wide open. In fact the closest approximation is (f11 on 4x5 with a 90mm) = (f2.8 on FullFrame with a 28mm) ... the 35mm is hand holdable in typical light with 200ISO while the 4x5 (even with an appropriate camera) nearly isn't.

    My current situation is : given that my 35mm film doesn't scan as well as 6x9 does (heck even 2400dpi on my Epson looks great and gives me 4800x7200pixel or 34Megapixel images).

    To really reap the benefits of the high pixel density on the current full frame digital cameras I'll really need a good tripod (shit even DPReview has figured that out now it seems). If I'm going to go to the trouble of tripod mounting and lugging the tripod around then I'll be served just as well by LF and infact better because I'll have more creative choices in terms of focus tilts and shifts. Actually my LF outfit weighs less than my Mates 5DmkII and his two 'preferred' lenses.

    The Sony sure ticks a lot of boxes for me, but mainly its in getting access to a wealth of low priced FD 35mm lenses which are in the wide and mid tele area. For me, once you go over 100mm in focal length I'm personally better served by going down a format (to 4/3 or APS) and getting the benefits there.

    Olympus has released a 300mm f4 lens for micro4/3, if the modernisation of the optics and coatings on that have improved it over their wonderful 300mm f4.5 for 35mm then it will be a hot item for those who are after the equivalent of 600mm in FullFrame land. Given such a lens (the FF one) is over $12,000 its likely to be cheaper even get it and a m4/3 body too.

    What I guess I'm saying is this: not every cutting job requires a circular saw ... sometimes a $15 hand coping saw does the job as well as a $2000 drop saw with a $100 24 tooth blade.

    1. Medium or large format is out of the question for me, at least not at the moment. One of the best things about Olympus is their lens line up, and the quality of the lenses.

    2. if you only have a chance to own one saw you need be careful to chose the that will fit your common needs.
      My needs would be pleased with a Leica M with 4 lenses (35-50-90-135) - if I had enough money. I do not have enough.
      So to me the A7r was best choice ever possible. I walk between 20-30 km almost daily. My DSLR was mostly at home in the drawer. My NEX-5 let me start photography again, NEX-7 was pure joy to me. If I had not the experience of 24x36 from my early times with OM2 + all the bunch of OM-lenses I own, NEX-7 had covered my needs completely.
      My son never used a FF, he loves NEX-7 and I my A7r...

  3. I finally got an FF camera a couple months ago, today it's gone in exchange for an APS-C body and a few lenses.

    The compromises were too much. In this case, it was size & weight, the D600 was just too large & heavy for my carry-everywhere style of shooting these days. I don't like the ergonomics on the A7 all that much and it's unrefined compared to the smaller format mirrorless bodies, even from Sony. And while the IQ is clearly better than the smaller sensors, it's not enough better to matter to me. I was fine with the output from the E-M5 for the most part and going back up to APS-C gets me that smidgen of maleability in the files that I missed with m43.

    Note the IQ from the Fuji's is no better than from your NEX-6. VERY nice colour and a very minor high ISO advantage but a minor low ISO disadvantage (X-Trans gives up chroma resolution and low ISO's compared to bayer in exchange for better handling of chroma noise at high ISO's). It's in no way comparable to modern FF bodies in performance at any ISO.

    Personally I'm on Fuji's system now, I've got (or have on order) the original prime trio (18/2, 35/1.4, 60/2.4) along with the X-A1 body with 16-50 zoom. I'm planning on getting the X-T1 this summer, as it's exactly the sort of digital FM2n I've wanted for a long time.

    1. From the comparisons on dpreview, the Fuji looks better to me. If you look at this page: http://www.dpreview.com/previews/fujifilm-x-e2/8 and select NEX-6 or A7 and RAW, starting with ISO 200, the Fuji looks cleaner (and sharper) on ALL ISO settings.

      The Fuji system is tempting right now, as their lenses are currently on sale at very attractive prices. The very capable X-A1 with a 16-50mm kit lens goes for $500, or the X-M1 for $100 more, which is indeed very good price. I would love to have an X-T1 too.

    2. Have checked the comparison on dpreview you mentioned and I doubt you are right. If I select the brush or the face on the right side NEX-6 looks almost same, A7 and A7r are sharper and clearer to me. To me the Fuji looks warmer and softer.

      Anyway: All the cameras are excellent. Tests like this do not make happy. Sometime they help to decide what to take. Having done better avoid it. Not you become unhappy with your decision later...