Stop Buying Crop Format Lenses

You can turn and twist it as much as you want. In the end physics can’t be cheated and size still matters. The smaller a sensor = the more compromises you burden yourself with (except if you’re a diehard macro photographer because you’ll love the smaller sensors’ greater depth of field). These past years I’ve shot all kinds of sensors and formats. As an early adapter of Four Thirds, its first CCD sensor (Olympus E-M1) rendered beautiful images, but forget it in difficult light and the high ISO department. The gap between the performance of different sensors has since been narrowed down dramatically. Still. The 35mm equivalent is a format hard to beat. Go larger and the lenses become monstrous. Go smaller and still enjoy great imagers — APS-C is considered to be digital photography’s standard of reference. But there’s hardly any alternative for whomever tasted full-frame and ideally shoots prime glass to avoid the cumbersome weight of zooms. And there’s a sweet spot of image quality where full-frame cameras deliver the most cost-efficient solution.

Whether we really need more full-frame or not is up for discussion. Yes, it is the job of marketing to breed constant discontent, so that people will always want to buy more and something new. Fact is, I’m a more happy photographer with a large sensor and proper glass. Let it all be mirrorless (but OVF pleeease, EVFs’ are just not there yet), and I promise, I’ll be completely satisfied.

Fuji Rumors suggests full-frame is the way Fujifilm chooses for future X series releases. Remember, back at CP+ Fujifilm conceded they might even be forced to compete head on against professional full-frame cameras. Senior management told DP Review:

Inevitably yes, we have to compete against full-frame. The professional market is very segmented, and for example for sports photography I think the X-T1 is already competitive. So yes, I’d like to challenge full-frame.

Add Sony’s A7(R)s with the A9 in the pipeline, probably announced around Photokina this autumn.

Wouldn’t even count out Olympus with similar ambitions — and the Nikon Df is only a first foray by world’s number two camera maker into full-frame territory that will become more populated over the course of the next years.

Size is the main drawback to beat. Mirrorless will make the dreams become reality. Production costs for full-frame imagers are down — and the struggling camera industry dearly needs new selling stimuli. Looks like a fait accompli, 35mm as tomorrow’s digital photography sensor size standard.

If you don’t really care about image quality, then the smaller sensor always wins. With increasing demand, larger sensor options still cost more, but in the end they become more cost efficient overall. That’s why it’s wise to always go for the better glass. Because glass lasts. Camera’s don’t.

There is a sweet spot of image quality where full-frame cameras deliver the most cost-efficient solution today. | LumoLabs
There is a sweet spot of image quality where full-frame cameras deliver the most cost-efficient solution today. | LumoLabs

To be on the safe side: each camera system has its own pros and cons. If you’re reasonably sure though you can’t resist the temptation of a promising 35mm offering some time down the road, better stop buying crop format lenses. Canon and Nikon full-frame mirrorless are unavoidable.

Problem’s the legacy flange focus distance — which is the most likely reason why the two dominant market players hesitate to jump into the mirrorless full-frame fray. They’d upset loyal users who might switch sides because they’d be forced to buy new lenses anyway.

Exciting times ahead. Time to hedge glass and read the signs of the times. There is a sweet spot of image quality where full-frame cameras deliver the most cost-efficient solution today. And the cost-efficiency only gets better.

  • Guest

    What people often refer to “full frame” is indeed just a cropped format from Bronica, Hasselblad, Sinar etc etc lenses. So I take your “stop buying crop format lenses” as an advice to only buy into medium format systems.

  • Jack Anders

    Agreed. Sounds like 35mm marketing rhetoric. Absolute waffle with little bases of fact.

  • Nicholas Dunning

    And 120 was considered the baby format when everyone shot sheet film so really we should be only accepting 4×5 digital cameras

  • flambeauriver

    I’m assuming you wanted some discussion with the bait “If you don’t really care about image quality” … I’m waiting for the mirror less full frame with IS in the body.

  • “Technology” wasn’t that advanced, that required “bigger” gear, bigger format. That’s simply Moore’s law. Maybe 35mm is the perfect compromise.

  • B. D. Colen

    I think Nicholas Dunning’s post below puts it best:
    “And 120 was considered the baby format when everyone shot sheet film so really we should be only accepting 4×5 digital cameras”

    All the “full-size sensor” chatter is just marketing hype. As is always the case, it depends upon what one is shooting, and why. Yes, Olympus made a lousy bet on 4/3, not because the sensor is smaller than 35 mm, but because all these years later – more than a decade – very smart engineers have still not figured out out to keep the higher iso quality competitive with that of APC size sensors. However, the 4/3 image quality has improved, just as it has for other sensors. And unless one is shooting magazine spreads – for slick magazines, there are plenty of APC sensors that will produce gorgeous image quality, even at high iso’s. Finally, let’s not forget that the accepted film standards for 35 mm were, by today’s digital standards, pure crap. Tri-X? Really? Pushed to – Wow! 800 or 1200?. And I loved the Tri-X look.

    Image quality out of cameras with less than full-sized cameras really has reached a level today where unless one has a very specific reason for trading up, the only reason to dump a camera is that it has died.

  • I agree about the legacy lenses. It’s the only way to go. But crop sensors have done pretty well for a while now. Here’s a post I wrote with a video about National Geographic photographer Steve Winter using a crop sensor camera for double page spreads in the magazine.

  • Point is, when using different sensors side by side: the Nikon Df for example smokes the brand new X-T1 in every aspect, I’m afraid. No, I’m not partisan. Just observing. Would love more power in smaller size. It’s just not yet the reality.

  • C.R. Parish

    I often work in low light with wide lenses, so FX is cost efficient for me. I use “legacy”
    glass, and if I had gone DX, I would have needed to purchase another wide lens.

  • David Holliday

    I agree with the above . The DF with a 50mm 1.4 d is producing results I have never seen before with my D7000 DX. My other camera is the X100S Fuji

  • Totally unconvinced by this, so no bait :)

    One has to trust so many who left FF35 for m4/3 who say that the only difference is 2/3 of a stop in critical exposure.

    However FF35 is critical in many other respects, bad edges, missed DOF, no good legacy UWAs, that in the end you have *less* keepers – and that is what ever matters. At least for a non-pro.

    Pros too speak with their images, and witness the many that use m4/3, not only for small size, but for resolution *and* good DR.

    So, nice try. Let’s wait what says Leica with APS :)

    my new blog:

    Photo & Poetry

  • “Affordable” digital full-frame is a newer thing, guess the jury is still out on the new generation of digital 35mm vs. the benefits of compactness.

  • Well, exactly. You remember how big and expensive must be the Zeiss 55mm for the A7s, in order to meet the resolution of the sensor? That is a pack of dough – Imagine to own a set of Zeiss lenses!
    So you try instead to buy legacy, but UWAs won’t work.

    The problem is not inexpensive bodies, but ordinary lenses which cannot meet the resolution need of the sensor, when distance to flange is short. Zeiss must build therefore big and expensive telecentric lenses that compensate for the short register. No way to avoid the problem.

    So in many cases the m4/3 set up has *more*resolution – not in all cases of course.

    I wonder if that is not the real reason why Sony must introduce curved sensors… Perhaps *then* lenses might get smaller and cheaper. But it’s a solution in search of a problem. m4/3 istead is well proportioned from the start…

  • MarcoSartoriPhoto

    Well, everything is a compromise. I’ve seen Hassie 50mp shots compared to stitched d800 files and they “win” hands down. That means a Hasselblad is good let’s say at sport photography? Mmm. You can use a d800 for street shooting but a smaller camera would serve better the purpose. APS-c or m43? It’s just a matter of taste today.
    Sensor tech moved forward and since two years I’m the only one standing on the red carpet in Venice with a m43 system paired with some great primes (nocticron is on the way), and though the first time pro photographers grinned and smiled at my tiny camera, my photos were among the best 10 among a selection of more than 10.000 shots. That simply means that you can do a nice job even with a “cropped” (smaller would be a better word) sensor.

  • neil buchan-grant

    I can’t believe you actually believe have of that Dan! I think you’re just trying to wind me up!…;)

    evf’s have well overtaken ovf’s and there lies the primary advantage which csc’s have over the dinasuar DSLR’s! actually seeing your exposure and compensations in realtime ‘before’ you shoot

    if it’s all about the fast glass and extreme subject isolation for you and that trumps all else, then you need to re evaluate your choices. I shoot at 3200 all the time and am more than happy with noise free images from my csc

    yes full frame has is applications (I have an A7 for those times – WITH the benefit of an evf!) but for much photography cropped sensors are kicking ass!

  • mrc

    I also agree. My DF is a notch above my Fuji X100. The DF has an incredible sensor. Everything in life is a compromise. If you want small size and very good image quality, buy four thirds or APS-C. If you want better tonal, colour gradations, higher iso performance, overall improved image quality, buy full frame.

  • No bad intentions, Neil… Guess my capital mistake was shooting the Df (and D600 and 5D Mark III). Smaller sensors just pale in comparison, I’m afraid. But that’s very subjective. To each his or her own. As a main system, I wouldn’t settle for anything less.

    The X-T1, for example, is a great camera. Still, comparing the files…

  • So you are back to the old reactionary view: there is no salvation outside a good dSLR.

    Or you could get a mirrorless Sony A7. Trouble is that people are selling them as fast as tthey can, for a 12 Mpx model – LOL

    All is not well in the FF kingdom.

  • Just comparing files, amalric. Wouldn’t call someone who uses P&S, all sorts and sizes of cameras and sensors “reactionary”… Having so many cameras in my hands the simple, humble conclusion is: it takes skill to beat a larger sensor’s output with a smaller one.

    Sony’s dumping full-frame on the market? Possibly. Just imagine the pixel quality of a 12MP full-framer… wow.

  • Again, why don’t you choose a View Camera instead?

    There should be a balance between the reactiveness the portability and the resolution of a camera *on the field*.

    One week ago I was shooting with a friend and her Canon 5 MxII.
    She is still under the illusion that she has much better files than my E-M5 but comparisons show that it is simply not true. And she has to carry gear twice the size. Why?

    Again, the problem is content, not resolution. Most people have no content at all, so they imagine that resolution is going to save the day. There are exceptions, like van Wolferen that you published, but then he uses a Sigma Foveon.

  • Bengt Nyman

    The only reason to go down from FF to crop is to extend your reach. For everything else FF rules, unless of course you never look at the IQ of your images.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I guess only a poet can keep ignoring reality and still think he has something to say.

  • It’s sweet to ignore you, Bengt. You are as passe’ as your big bandit hat :)

  • Bengt Nyman

    I’ll see you on a desert shoot and bring a spare one for you.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I checked out your site. I like your “Retro Focus” gadget.
    However, compared to FF images your images have fuzzy focus and poor sharpness.

  • You know what ? If m4/3 is good enough for Michael Reichmann, it’s good enough for me. He’s actually in a position to judge, and has some considerable track record as a photographer. But everybody is welcome to their opinion, and to just get on doing what they want, but I’m really, really surprised to see such comment-bait nonsense spouted on this site. I thought better of you. And really, wtf does that graph actually mean ?

  • There are better things there if one like the interaction between picture and text.
    Also I shot FF35 slides most of my life in film, that I sold to newspapers.
    When I went to scan them – guess what, most were slightly OOF. Content matters more than resolution, and in this respect the OM-D is a magical bird.
    I might however complement it with a Sigma foveon for landscape, if that is the standard that Stock agencies need.
    There’s not really an absolute standard. Some m4/3 lenses are absolutely brilliant, that is why i think that the title of the post was flawed. Poor resolution is mostly due to user error – I confess to mine easily.

  • Finally, let me add a practical consideratiom. Do you think that Sony despite its posturing is much increasing sales? If anything what I see is m4/3 owners digging in and recruiting new customers, while Sony tries desperately new niches. So m4/3 will keep buying new lenses. That says it all.
    Wrong title here.

  • While the topic’s a bit lurid, the article in no way denounces other sensors. It just states some pros and cons observed by someone who shoots all the systems, period; someone who was among the earliest adopters of (back then) Four Thirds.

    I could easily write stuff everyone likes. There are plenty other sites praising everything.

    Now and then I shoot Micro Four Thirds and APS-C, depending on the task. Again, at base ISO not much differences. This article’s point becomes clear when shooting in more challenging environment.

    And honestly, first and foremost I try to ignore all the marketing hype that comes along with new stuff… fastest, lightest, smallest, bestest… I’m afraid some brands really like hyping up things, as if they’d have to create an even playing field.

    Re: graph — click on the highlighted URL in the graph’s text box, kind of interesting read!

  • Robert Mark

    until it’s not anymore.

  • Robert Mark

    Owning both 35mm and m4/3 systems, I’ll agree with about half of your argument. If I were to bench test all my gear and run a series of tests like DPReview, showing still life and brick walls, I bet you’re right — my 35mm gear will out resolve my E-M1. But day to day, I’m getting results from m4/3 that are at least as good as what I get with 35mm. My viewpoint might be different because I frequently print my work at exhibition sizes, not just view the images at 200% on screen. There is just no practical difference between the formats when printed.

  • Honestly, I think we tend to adapt to our gear. I’d certainly not take the same photo with 35mm FF as I would with 4/3, both due to the aspect ratio and the DOF, which personally I notice. But I really don’t believe that my photography would be better by any reasonable metric if I used an FF camera. And I print up to A2, with results that please me at any rate. So, what does “better” mean, finally? And how does one unambiguously, generically measure “IQ” ? what’s the unit of measure of IQ ?

    And by “challenging environment”, I suppose you mean low light, sports, or something that a mirrorless system wouldn’t be ideal for ? Fine, but there are other definitions of challenging environment. I’ve used “crop format” systems in regions such as equatorial rain forests to high polar latitudes, and they’ve worked just fine. I pity anybody dragging an EOS 1d or a D4 through a rainforest…

    Again, personally, I don’t buy crop format lenses because they’re crop format as such. I buy them because they’re fabulous (the Olympus ZD zooms for 4/3 are pretty highly rated, and the selection of primes from both Panasonic and Olympus for m4/3 are in my experience inspirational).

  • Some more thoughts on the topic — can a $400 camera take as good a picture as a $4,000 pro shooter?