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Date: 14/12/2013 | By: Mathieu

The Quest for Full Frame: Is it worth it? – Part I

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The Quest for Full Frame: Is it worth it? – Part I

Full Frame: these two words put together make lots of photographers happy. Immediately we think of gorgeous image quality, beautiful shallow depth of field, exceptional dynamic range and great low-light performance. But technical specifications aside, what are the real benefits of using a Full Frame camera and what are the reasons to choose one?



To begin, let’s explain what we mean by a Full Frame camera for those unfamiliar with the term. Full frame terminology refers to the 35mm film that we were used to on most film cameras. A full frame digital sensor matches the same dimensions of a 35mm film frame. As with digital today, back in the days of film there were already different sizes. The 35mm format was the most common, then there was also the medium format and the half frame used by the original Olympus Pen. Without digging into all the film formats available, we can simplify by saying that sensor size is today what film size was back then.

When the first digital cameras were released, sensors were smaller than the 35mm format. The first full frame DSLRs were the Contax N and the Canon EOS 1Ds, which were released in 2002. On the “mirrorless” side, the first interchangeable-lens full frame camera came from Leica, the M9. Later in 2012, Sony released the first fixed lens compact camera with a full frame sensor, the RX1.

DMC-G6, 1/80, f/ 45/10, ISO 400
Me with the Sony RX1.

Late this year, the announcement of the Sony A7 and A7r opened a door to a more consistent full frame market in the mirrorless segment, a sensor which was mainly present in the DSLR market. The M series by Leica was the only alternative, but its prohibitive price placed it in a niche. But now everything is about to change…

sony a7r
The Sony A7r

My experience with a full frame camera is mostly related to the Nikon D700. Since its release, many new cameras with improved sensors have come out, and today the low-light capabilities of a Nikon D4 or the dynamic range and resolution of a Nikon D800 are without a doubt a big reference in the high-end digital camera market. My goal here isn’t to write an in-depth technical analysis of full frame capabilities, as it would require lots of tests and comparisons, but rather to share a more personal thought about sensor size and up to what point it matters.

Let’s take the three topics we are most likely to see in a discussion about full frame cameras: dynamic range, depth of field and low-light performance. There are also other aspects I will purposely skip, like sensor technology, resolution (or megapixels) and other important things such as printing. I don’t skip them because they are less important, but because I want to concentrate on the aspects mentioned above. This is why this article is just a first part. More episodes will likely follow in the future.

Shallow depth of field

… or the right lens makes the difference

Let’s be honest, this is the first and perhaps the most appealing aspect of full frame cameras, as with the right lenses, they can truly give you what other systems (with smaller sensors) cannot. Below, you can see some shots I took with the D700 in Canada during the summer of 2012. They probably best represent what you can do with a full frame sensor and shallow depth of field. These images were taken with a Nikkor 24mm f/1.4, so we are talking about a very fast wide angle lens on a full frame format – quite a rare combo that can deliver pictures like the ones below.

NIKON D700, 1/8000, f/ 14/10, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/8000, f/ 1.4, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/125, f/ 14/10, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/125, f/ 1.4, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/320, f/ 14/10, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/320, f/ 1.4, ISO 200

So yes, a shallow depth of field and especially a “bokehlicious” depth of field may depend on the lens. Certainly, the sensor size helps. But why? Well, put in simple terms, comparison to a smaller sensor, a full frame sensor will require you to be closer to a determined subject or to use a longer focal length in order to fill the frame with the subject in. If you get closer to the subject or use a longer focal length, your depth of field will be shallower. If you want to maintain a DoF equal to the one obtained with an APS-C sensor, you will have to close the aperture.

Explained in a concrete manner, a f/2.8 lens aperture used on a APS-C sensor would gave me a corresponding result of f/4 on a full frame sensor. On a MFT sensor, it would gave me a corresponding result of f/5.6. This can explain why even without using a super fast lens on a full frame sensor, you can achieve a good DoF.

NIKON D700, 1/100, f/ 14/5, ISO 500
NIKON D700, 1/100, f/ 2.8, ISO 500 – Nikkor 17-35mm at 35mm

If I wanted to have the same DoF of my full frame shot, let’s say, on my MFT camera, I would need to use a f/1.4 aperture. This is why a full frame sensor to me makes a bigger difference with short focal lengths than with APS-C and MFT sensors (and I won’t go a step further and talk about medium format). To replicate the same DoF as my D700 shots with the Nikkor 24mm f/1.4, I would need an equivalent focal length lens on MFT with a f/0.7 aperture, which simply doesn’t exist. The fastest lens you can get for MFT is the Voigtlaender f/0.95, and perhaps the upcoming Ibelux 40mm f/0.85.

But let’s put aside technical comparisons. If I want a shallow depth of field at these focal lengths with a MFT camera, things certainly become more complicated but not impossible. Again, it depends on the lenses, the focus distance and how you use your knowledge of the camera to compose your shot and achieve that desired DoF.

E-M1, 1/50, f/ 1.8, ISO 1600 - M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8
E-M1, 1/50, f/ 1.8, ISO 1600 – M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8
E-M1, 1/1000, f/ 1.8, ISO 200 - M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8
E-M1, 1/1000, f/ 1.8, ISO 200 – M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8

With an APS-C sensor, the difference can become less noticeable, as there is a smaller gap between it and a full frame sensor. Put that wonderful 23mm f/1.4 on an X-Pro1 or X-E2 and you might get very similar results

X-E1, 1/1500, f/ 14/10, ISO 200
X-E1, 1/1500, f/ 1.4, ISO 200 – 23mm f/1.4

Certainly the difference on MFT is more pronounced. Let’s say that what you can do with a 24mm or a 35mm lens on a full frame, you are likely to get with a fast 50mm equivalent on a MFT sensor. This theory is not scientific and it of course depends on the aperture the lens has. But the point is that, in the end, there exists a beautiful shallow depth of field for each system if you know how to reproduce it and more importantly, which lens to choose. And since you probably won’t shoot the same scene three times with three different cameras just to pick the best DoF, you will do what you have to do with the right lens to get achieve right composition.

E-M5, 1/50, f/2 , ISO 500Voigtländer 25mm f/0.95
E-M5, 1/50, f/2 , ISO 500
Voigtländer 25mm f/0.95
E-M5, 1/1000, f/2 , ISO 200Voigtländer 25mm f/0.95No processed version
E-M5, 1/1000, f/2 , ISO 200
Voigtländer 25mm f/0.95
DSC-RX100M2, 1/250, f/ 18/10, ISO 160
DSC-RX100M2, 1/250, f/ 1.8, ISO 160

With portrait lenses and telephoto lenses, the difference is less noticeable as the shallow depth of field is dependant on the focal length itself. Certainly there will be a difference in bokeh depending on the lens type, aperture and focal length but in this case the advantages of a full frame format are less important to me.

The most important thing to take home from this chapter is that a full frame sensor will give you more control over depth of field even with short focal lengths, something that is harder to achieve with MFT sensors, and slightly less difficult with APS-C. What is also in favour of full frame cameras is a wider variety of fast aperture lenses. You will very rarely find a 24mm equivalent designed for APS-C or MFT cameras capable of a f/1.4 aperture or less.

Some photographers choose their favourite system and then pick the right lenses to achieve a shallow depth of field. Others might choose the lenses first and then the system that mounts them. One way isn’t better than the other, as long as you remember that DoF isn’t the only element of importance in photography. Certainly, if you want a super sharp wide-open 50mm f/0.95, there is only one system to choose and it will cost you money!

Dynamic range

A full frame sensor has a bigger surface, therefore it has bigger pixels which also means bigger photodiodes (although there are some exceptions). Not only should it be able to give better performance in low light (with less noise) but also capture a more rich range of tones.

With digital cameras, one of the easiest ways to see how far you can push the dynamic range of your image is to post process the RAW file and see how much detail it hides in the shadows and highlighted areas. This could result in a HDR-like photograph with an unnatural look if you push the settings too far, but despite the look, it helps you understand how far you can go in post-processing an image.

With my D700, the furthest I went in post-processing a photograph was during the Venice Carnival in 2012. We woke up at dawn and went to San Marco’s Square where people with masks were already flooding the canals, ready to be photographed as the sun began to rise. I wanted to make those wonderful colours pop. Since HDR was impossible because there were too many moving elements in the frame, I shot the RAW with the maximum possible quality (14 bit). Though I noticed some slight deterioration in the files, this is surely an example how far I could go in processing a RAW file coming from a full frame camera, something that I could probably replicate with a very good APS-C sensor, but less so with a MFT sensor.

NIKON D700, 1/500, f/ 56/10, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/500, f/ 56/10, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/640, f/ 56/10, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/640, f/ 5.6, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/1600, f/ 28/10, ISO 200
NIKON D700, 1/1600, f/ 28/10, ISO 200

Dynamic range isn’t only about opening shadows and recovering highlights. It is also about having lots of information in every area of the exposure, as it helps with the richness of details, accuracy in the rendition and tonal transitions. But what are the situations where you would require a better dynamic range?

Certainly situations with a high contrast or sunrise/sunset are good situations to test the dynamic range of a camera. I’ve personally found that the latest generation of sensors are all capable of handling dynamic range pretty well, even though they are smaller.

DSC-RX100M2, 1/400, f/ 8, ISO 160
DSC-RX100M2, 1/400, f/ 8, ISO 160

In a real world situation, if the camera has a good sensor and you shoot RAW, you will have little difficulty recovering what you need. Certainly, the bigger the sensor, the more you will retain detail especially in the highlights. A full frame sensor or the Fuji X-Trans sensor are very good with highlights. MFT sensors are stronger with shadows.

In the end, it is a question of knowing the strengths and limits of your system and using the settings accordingly. Even with MFT, I’ve never come across a photograph that has given me a headache in post-production. Of course if you accidentally overexpose a picture, you will recover it more with a full frame sensor than with a MFT sensor. But let’s not forget that an overexposed picture is almost always a bad picture (unless there is a specific intention behind it).

Low-light performance

This is the part where I do envy the performance of certain full frame cameras. The native ISO range of a Nikon D4 or a Canon 5d mark III are nothing short of impressive. Knowing that I could shoot at 6400 ISO and achieve the same quality of 800 ISO on my E-M5 would certainly be a huge benefit for some of my shooting, but for my kind of work, the higher costs, weight and size remain strong arguments against the system.

As I explained before, a full frame sensor has bigger pixels, meaning that each one can capture more light with less noise. In my case, the switch from my D700 to the E-M5 was not very painful as I rarely went over 3200 ISO with my Nikon camera. Moreover, the D700 has an old generation sensor. The E-M5’s sensor is more recent and while I’ve never made a direct comparison, I found the amount of noise very similar. Probably at 6400 ISO, the D700 would retain more detail. As for my X100s, I’ve found the X-trans sensor II even better than the other two.

NIKON D700, 1/100, f/ 14/5, ISO 3200
NIKON D700, 1/100, f/ 2.8, ISO 3200
E-M1, 1/200, f/ 28/10, ISO 3200
E-M1, 1/200, f/ 2.8, ISO 3200

I must say that I’ve never worried too much about high ISO. Certainly, I would be careful for work assignments and try to keep the values as low as possible, but otherwise I’ve never disliked a little bit of grain in my images. If the photograph is powerful enough, 6400 or 200 ISO become irrelevant. If the photograph is bad or just boring, we might become more sensitive to its technical aspects.

NIKON D700, 1/50, f/ 7/5, ISO 3200
NIKON D700, 1/50, f/ 1.4, ISO 3200
E-M5, 1/40, f/ 2, ISO 6400
E-M5, 1/40, f/ 2, ISO 6400
X100S, 1/60, f/ 2/1, ISO 4000
X100S, 1/60, f/ 2, ISO 4000

Conclusion

As I wrote in the introduction, there are other aspects that would be worth analysing such as resolution, printing or colours. The first two are for me more specific. Printing is a world of its own and if it is a primary aspect of your photography, then it can certainly influence your choice of camera. Resolution is also related to printing. I have never been a huge fan of counting megapixels. The D700 had 12, the E-M5 and the X100s that I am currently using have 16, which is more than enough for me. Certainly, the 36 megapixels of a D800 or a Sony A7r can be useful for large prints and you may achieve what you could only do with medium format before. But these are specific situations. If I don’t need large prints, I don’t need 36 MP sensor that will fill my hard drive in one fell swoop.

In my opinion, a full frame format is not essential in this day in age. Don’t get me wrong, I really love the image quality and completely understand why it remains the first choice of professionals. But at the same time, I’ve never missed my D700 for one second since I sold it months ago. I adapted my photography style to the new gear I was using and little by little I actually updated it. That minor loss of overall image quality was compensated with many advantages.

Now, the question is: could the Sony A7 & A7r reunite the amazing image quality of a full frame sensor with the joy of using light and compact gear? Well, I will be able to say more about that tomorrow so stay tuned!


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About the author: Mathieu Gasquet

Mathieu Gasquet is a professional photographer with French and Italian origins. Besides running his own video and photography studio 3Dit Lab, he is also the official photographer for the National Cinema Museum in Turin. You can follow him on Google+, Twitter or Facebook!

  • Mathieu

    There is nothing backward under the “awful” bird photo. What I explain is that a f/2.8 aperture on a full frame camera will correspond to a f/4 if used on APS-C and f/5.6 if used on MFT due to the difference in sensor sizes. Put differently, if you take a full frame lens, set it to f/2.8, then mount it on an APS-C and then MFT sensor, you will loose some exposure and depth of field, with the same equivalent of setting f/4 or f/5.6 on the lens mounted on the full frame camera. That’s why on the next paragraph, I state that if you want the same result of a 2.8 apertura on a full frame camera, you will need a f/1.4 aperture on MFT (and f/2 on APS-C). Anyway, I changed the text to make it even more clear.

  • SKPhoto12

    In the second paragraph under the awful bird photo from Niagara Falls you have it all backwards. F1.4 on a FF camera corresponds to f 0.7 on an APS-C sensor, not f2.8. You have got it riight a little later in the blog. If you want to write a “techie” article, you need to have your facts right!!

  • Mathieu

    Hi Jim, thanks for your feedback. I think that pixel peeping on a computer or “ink-peeping” on a print is ok as long as there is also a comment that explains the purpose of it. In my case, most of my work in reviewing the cameras are visibile only through this website, that is seen by many users that have different computers and monitors, and even smart devices. So for me viewing an image at 100% sometimes can help me illustrate something. But as I always write in my articles, there is a limit in pixel peeping and it will never be a final argument to judge a camera. I guess I could say something similar regarding printing, but I have less experience in the field.
    Actually I am working on an article about printing for the beginning of next year because I think it will help giving a different prospective than usual pixel on a computer screen.
    But I agree with your last sentence, an image must be evaluated at the right size and the right distance.

  • http://jimkphoto.com Jim Kahnweiler

    All the hand wringing over image quality I think is misplaced.

    In addition to work as a professional photographer, I am employed as an image specialist, preparing pictures for offset printing. I see photos from every imaginable camera using both 4×5 and smaller film and all kinds of image sensors. Output is at 300 dpi, CMYK, 12.25 x 14.25 inches. Subjects are generally fine art, land- and city-scapes, wildlife, pets, automotive and florals. File size is 56Mb and above. When the ink hits the paper, there is really little difference whether the original is a 4×5 transparency or from a Nikon 1 V1. However, I will say the best images we get are from an automotive photographer using Phase 1 back in a studio or highly controlled location situation. But again, the difference I see is mostly at the pixel level. At the normal viewing distance of our printed page there is no difference.

    I think we as photographers do ourselves a disservice by evaluating our results at the pixel level. We are the only ones who see our pictures that large. Most printed images are seldom larger than 1/4 magazine page and certainly web images are even smaller–only a few hundred kilobytes at most; this from as large as 36megapixel or higher sensors. That’s a lot of extra pixels.

    Some of the discussion here is about depth of field. A sharp background can always be softened during post production. OK, no one wants to be a Photoshop drone, but the advantages from the mirrorless, small sensor camera are well a known. And, of course there’s the converse of shallow dof, that some photographers will want and that the small sensor excels. As the EM-1 and other new cameras demonstrate, image quality of the small sensor will continue to improve and will rival larger devices. Remember, evaluate your images at the size they will be viewed not at 100 percent or higher on your display.

  • Peter

    Thanks, this should be big enough and gives me even more confidence in the EX-2 files (which are great so far, if I do things right in the first place, can`t blame a tool for the fool using it… ).

  • Mathieu

    I printed some D700 shots (12mp) on 100x70cm format and the results are wonderful. So I don’t think you will have any problem with your X-E2 photographs. I don’t really know what is the limit for APS-C sensors. My guess is that if you go bigger than the size mentioned above, the difference can become more visible, depending on the mp and sensor size.

  • http://baptistepottier.com baptiste

    Thanks !
    I agree the lack of the viewfinder. Interesting point of view.i love the omd em1 but the a7r seems to be the perfect mix even if i dont need intergangeable lenses. Thanks again

  • Peter

    Thanks you for the thorough write up! You cover everything and explain it simple and elegant!
    The Sonys really seem to conquer new grounds with the technical specs they offer at their given body size.
    But I often (as in your article) read, one would only need the larger pixel count for larger prints, so: How large actually?
    I just started shooting with ab EX-2 and a photo might need to be printed in poster size for a friend’s band.
    So when does APS-C reach it’s limit?

  • Mathieu

    Hi Baptiste, I wasn’t particularly amazed by the RX1. Certainly the image quality is wonderful, no doubt about that, but the lack of viewfinder, slow AF and high price tag make the camera not really appealing to me. I find the A7 more interesting and it costs less.

  • Juri

    Thank you Mathieu, very interesting and exhaustive article! I’m just deciding for my next mirrorless camera (I own a Pen E-P2). I like the Fujifilm X-E2, but the Sony A7 is very tempting too. I hope your review will clear up my doubts.

  • Baptiste

    Hello,

    Thanks for tour article
    You speak about the a7r And a7 as the possible amazone compromize between qualité And compacity(smala size and agility) .what did you think about the rx1 , i see you with this camera.

    Thanks for tour feedback.

    Baptiste

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