A Debate in Photographic Nihilism: The Case for 35mm “Full-Frame”

Quote unquote “full-frame,” that is. No one can deny that Micro Four Thirds is as much full-frame as is APS-C as is 35mm-based “full-frame”… Full-frame referring to 35mm format is a bit of an accidental term that just stuck. Full-frame simply means lens coverage with respect to sensor or film. For the basics on this, read our backgrounder on equivalence. 35mm frame was the first popular, commonly used format. So that kind of set the “standard” we’re stuck with today. Instead of “35mm equivalent,” a 35mm sensor is called “full-frame.” Until only recently smaller sensors were clearly less capable. Today, what are a 35mm sensor’s distinct advantages, if any? Do I absolutely have to long for a “full-frame” camera?

Which sensor size is for you — and why does 35mm full-frame still make most sense?
In terms of imaging quality, bigger will always be better. Period. You can twist and turn this simple fact as much as you want. But that doesn’t mean a bigger sensor is better for photography. Here are the main aspects to consider:

Size and Weight

You can’t reinvent physics, even though there are more and more advanced in-camera and post-processing workarounds to offset certain disadvantages inherent to a given focal length, such as distortion, vignetting or corner softness. Size and weight though are the two great factors speaking for the “smaller can be better” approach. Take Olympus latest lineup of fine primes, notably the 12mm F2, 45mm F1.8 and 75mm F1.8. With the tiny gear you might look like a dwarf beside the pro with the big guns. You’re however perfectly capable of delivering similar if not the same goods. So smaller sensors enjoy the advantage in regard to size and weight relative to IQ.

Processing Speeds and Autofocus

Right, a larger body can pack more electronics promising better processing speeds, higher frames per second, better autofocus and so on… am afraid this is not necessarily true any longer. So let’s call this a draw.

Viewfinder

Composing with a full-frame camera’s viewfinder can be like seeing for the first time when coming from a crop-factor DSLR. Full-frame viewfinders are a class of its own in regard to size and clarity. You’re no longer staring down a tunnel. Make sure you get a camera with 100% viewfinder. True, you can get used to anything. Nothing beats a big fine viewfinder, and yes, you better get used to EVFs. Guess the bigger sensor bags this win.

Depth of Field vs. Bokeh

The larger the sensor, the easier to cream that background. The smaller the sensor, the easier to get incredible depth of field even at quite wide apertures. Macro photographers love this while your long lenses become even longer. For nature, wildlife and sports enthusiasts, it might make more sense to stick with a smaller sensor. An advantage of larger sensor lenses is that they show certain “character.” Smaller lenses with less complex construction tend to render more sterile images. Certain optical characteristics may add a distinct flavor to a composition. Perfect images with pixel-to-pixel sharpness and no vignetting whatsoever? That’s bordering on boredom. I prefer more flexibility when composing, so the point goes to the larger sensor.

Focal Length

You get what you see with any sensor format. Still, lens denominations are misleading to say the least. The above mentioned Olympus 12mm, 45mm and 75mm lenses give you a 24mm, 90mm and 150mm perspective. Camera and lens makers could do everyone a big favor by agreeing on a binding standard. The commonly used standard now refers to the classic 135 camera. Even the Ricoh GXR camera units use this standard. Ricoh explicitly states that lens focal lengths are converted into 35mm camera equivalents. So what they advertise as a 50mm F2.5 is in fact a 33mm on their 1.5x crop sensor. Camera makers, spare us the many different units and refer to 35mm as the mother of all standards and therefore binding focal length. So you instantly know what 24mm or 50mm mean and can easily previsualize the shoot. I’d say that’s a positive win for 35mm full-frame format.

Photosites

Every photographer loves large good photosites that can take in more light. The Nikon D800, however, seems proof that the size of photosites is no longer all that matters. That sensor squeezes in 50% more pixels than its direct competitor, the Canon 5D Mark III. We’re not getting into an argument which one’s the better camera. Fact is (or was until now) that larger photosites render a greater tonal range, smoother tonal transitions, better blacks and lower noise. Even with smaller photosites the Nikon still gets great dynamic range. There goes the Canon’s expected advantage. Looks like the size of photosites matters no more as much as it once did. Especially at the low end of the high ISO spectrum, the disadvantages of smaller photosites don’t yet become an issue. So that’s a draw in the battle between smaller and larger sensors.

Resolution

Luckily the megapixel war is over. By now everyone should know that cramming in more pixels was mainly good for marketing hype and reducing IQ. You can be perfectly fine with 15MP. In most cases not the camera is the limiting factor, but the lens and printer. You can even upscale the output of a 10MP sensor to 30″ prints and retain good detail. Again a draw between smaller and larger sensors.

Conclusion

Today a Micro Four Thirds camera can indeed compete with a full-frame camera. Differences boil down to minor details that the human eye can hardly detect. Still, a full-frame digital SLR — or HD SLR as they’re called nowadays — is an amazing tool. But it’s just that, a tool with certain advantages and disadvantages, such as that larger sensors make your lenses wider and smaller sensors make them longer.

Good low light performance, however, isn’t anymore a privilege of cameras with bigger sensors. Mastering photography is less about the sensor and its photosites than the lenses used. Full-frame camera lenses based on the 35mm standard have more resolving power and are more capable of giving your images a fuller kind of three-dimensional look whereas smaller lenses tend to look flat.

Agreed, those are highly subjective parameters no review can pinpoint or measure. So the advantage of a “fuller, more 3D” look is a highly relative one. But, if you ask me, it the only major advantage remaining speaking for the use of 35mm full-frame.

Others just don’t feel comfortable with small gear. Who wants to deny that it doesn’t look quite the same when you’re posing for a shot with a tiny camera as opposed to larger format cameras. But do they really need all that extra cost, weight and time investment? Or do they always print larger than say A3+?

If full-frame DSLRs are too bulky for you, rest assured it’s just a matter of time until compact full-frame cameras with interchangeable lenses arrive, most likely first by Sony and then Fujifilm.

Well there’s always the Leica M digital with its outstanding glass. Terribly expensive, but glass lasts and if you might not upgrade for many years to come, meaning in the end you pay less than when upgrading again and again with more conventional gear.




  • PWL

    Shoot both “full-frame” and Micro Four Thirds. Lately, I’ve been making heavy use of my Olympus EM-5. Why? Well, for one, it’s small….which I like. Makes it inconspicuous, which of course has always been one of the selling points of the Leica M. And it’s quiet.Very quiet. Even more so, it seems to me, than the vaunted Leica Ms–certainly quieter than the M9. And it delivers images which to me are just as good as anything coming out of a “full-frame” camera.

    Do I have ay problems with the MFT focal lengths? No. I simply translate them into their 35mm equivalents. It’s gotten to the point that I think of my 12mm lens as a 24mm lens, my 45mm as a 90, and so forth.

    I like to think that Micro Four Thirds may be the wave of the future as far as cameras are concerned, once we get over our silly prejudices regarding the 35mm format as “full frame” (and the idea that the only good camera is a big, heavy one. I’ve had to haul Nikon Fs around. They may have had cachet, and looked “pro,” but after suffering through aching backs and shoulders after a day’s work…..I’ll take the EM-5). With the improvements in digital technology, there’s no reason a 4/3 sensor won’t be able to deliver images with resolution as good as–or better than–“full frame.”

    And I might remind you that when the Leica and its 35mm format made their debut some 90 years ago, they were looked upon by the cognoscenti the way today’s “full-frame” advocates look upon Micro Four Thirds….

  • Thanks for this PWL. Completely agree, to the human eye the output of smaller and larger sensors has reached near-distinguishability. Those highly subjective parameters, however… Images from smaller sensors look fine. I still feel I get a “fuller” look with a larger sensor and a fast prime lens that can suck in a lot of light.

  • Steve Weldon

    I find myself agreeing with the entire conclusion right up
    to the actual conclusion. How odd is
    that? I think I would simply say that
    there are differences, small differences in each area, but differences which
    are cumulative in effect. Differences
    which become more important as your quest for image quality increases.

    Some photography professionals only care about “good enough” where it comes to
    image quality, while those who are either at or aspire to the top of their game
    will usually chase whatever advantages are out there.

    I have noticed a trend where some are calling “smaller/lighter
    weight” better by default, where in if all else is equal then smaller and
    lighter is better. This isn’t any more
    true than when selecting bowling balls.
    It depends. Then you have the “it’s
    not the size, it’s how you use it that counts” crowd. Well, personally I think ‘size’ is important,
    as is how you use it. Some uses dictate
    the virtues of the small, and you can use a large camera small but small will
    always win out. And some uses dictate
    the virtues of the large, and you can use
    a small camera large but large will always win out. Know they subject and attend to thy subject
    truly.

  • Not quite sure Steve how much size per se matters. Size is more about convenience a.k.a. portability than IQ, isn’t it. I know pros who do fashion shoots with the Olympus OM-D and clients are perfectly happy. I know a war photographer who must work with the 1D X. If he’d show up with a compact system camera, he says, no agency would hire him again.

    Photography for many is also about looks and perception I’m afraid.

    Still, I’d go for the largest possible sensor with fastest possible glass in the smallest possible package. Maybe that’s a more accurate conclusion.

  • Steve Weldon

    Dan –

    Size matters in different areas of photography when shooting in different conditions and weather. Heavier easier to hold on to cameras do better in more tough rugged conditions, especially if you need to be gloved. You can get them on target faster, easier, and with my accuracy. Long telephotos benefit from heavier more sturdy bodies. I can give solid examples on each.

    Before I started doing “general photography” and workshops my gear revolved around my own style(s) of photography. When I opened my first “general photography” studio and started doing my first workshops, I had to play catchup quite a bit where my knowledge about gear came into play. Requirements for sealed dust/water proofed bodies comes into play and these are generally larger and heavier.

    We’re lucky to have all these great choices available. My gear is pretty evenly divided between DSLR”s, mirrorless, and compacts. Either can be used for just about any photography need, but one generally works much better with a certain type of gear.

    Looks and perception I’m sure we can agree is a fools game.

    Your war photographer example I’ve seen personally. It wasn’t long ago the ONLY weather/dust sealed cameras and lenses were the large professional level DSLR’s. Agencies spend a lot getting us in the field, they don’t want us not functional when we get there. There are also gear and repair contracts to be considered.

    I personally go for the best camera for the job. I feel a freedom and comfort level with my Fuji or NEX series like I’ll never get with a DSLR, right up until my shooting requirements dictate the larger sized gear. I haven’t believed in the “perfect camera” for decades. but I do believe in the best camera for the job. It just depends on what the job is.

    Selection of gear is an important area and I’m really glad to see you covering it so thoroughly. I admit to still being surprised when someone shows up for a workshop with 10-20 grand in brand new gear where the selection f was based on nothing more than what a friend shoots (usually doing a completely different type of photography) or their salesperson recommended. What I recommend if asked first, is to not buy a camera until after the workshop, allow me to supply several different types for them based on their desired styles. It’s what I wish someone would have done for me.

  • Well, about the full frame sensor thing, I think the vast majority of people coming to photography now have never used film cameras and just buy cameras that have crop factors anyway.
    In other words when 90% of people stick on a 35mm on a non-full frame 1.5 crop factor camera, they have no inkling 35mm then is actually about 51mm, or; a 50mm lens will become a 75mm. Etceteras.
    In a sense that means very little because it is like buying tomatoes today and never having tasted them 30 years ago. Or thinking a Big Mac is all a hamburger can be because you have never eaten in one of the hamburger joints 99% of which have been driven out of business. People no longer know the difference. Or know how to adjust a carburetor on a car.
    Really in a sense full frame is just referring to what lenses were for 35mm film cameras, using 24mm x 36mm film. Thanks again, Oskar Barnack.
    Full frame also gives better low light performance as the higher asa (iso) which can be used for the same quality of image allows for this. But it is to a point of bordering on the ridiculous. I mean, who cares? I have people telling me “wow Ronn I can now shoot the back corridors at a wedding at iso 64,000”. WTF.
    OK, but it is an advantage.
    The one advantage I see (actually two):
    1) The lenses, the wider they are, the more expensive (in general) And thus, if you want to shoot with a 24mm lens on a full frame, you just stick it on the camera. If you want to shoot “as if” with a 24mm lens on a 1.5 crop factor camera, you need to buy a 16mm lens or thereabouts. Or you want to shoot all day with a 35mm, you really CAN. You need not stick on a 22mm lens and imagine. Many fairly good 35mm lenses are cheap.
    Thus the lens lineup in general can be cheaper. A lot. Especially if you are shooting wider.
    2) For old-timers like me from the world of negatives and funny smelling darkrooms, the feel, the unconscious associations made with lenses from experience, both mine, many conversations with photographer friends over decades, and from tens of thousands of photographs viewed, seem more logical. Maybe logic is not the word. It is a feel factor that has become a part of it all.

    When I first tried a D200 and screwed on lenses it was almost baffling. At best, it was annoying. By the time i tried a Canon 5D for one year and was able to use a 50mm lens as a 50mm lens, well, it got better.
    But again, as most people these days never used film cameras, crop factors is all they know. So it can rarely bother them and rarely be an advantage to use full frame. Many people need to justify buying the best all the time and so “oh wow, cool…full frame” becomes a cliche they cannot quite comprehend the meaning of.
    Now this is very personal and in fact, I in no way want to belittle anybody. I am simply saying most people might as well stick with their cheaper crop factor cameras. And a cheap lens or two.
    As for asa well, the world has many photographs taken with film @ asa 50 to 1600 or thereabouts and I doubt seriously the option of shooting at 64,000 asa will give us better photographs. The world is an awesome, mysterious place. It always has been. You do not need a hubble telescope to see the stars and wonder.
    For most consumers a cropped camera is just fine, especially with a kit lens like 16-55 (read, say: 24-80)
    The full frame sensor appreciation needs some awareness of photography’s past. But the companies are hard-selling this to potential buyers. They are rarely interested in photography itself. They are far more interested in your money.
    My own inability to become accustomed to the D200 (for example) was my own limitation due in large part to decades of doing things one way. I am sure if I really wanted I could adapt and use a camera with a crop factor too, as long as I could have access to lenses I wanted and needed. On the rare occasions I have tested digital cameras I have had little problem using them, other than returning to my own preferences.
    In the final analysis I think small P&S cameras have become so good, the crop factor on them is less noticeable than full DSLRs.
    I do confess, I still prefer driving a stick shift to an automatic.

  • Chas

    Only the blind cannot see the many advantages of FF. the disadvantages are only temporary.