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Tuesday, 23 December 2008


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"One thing rarely mentioned in comparing APS-C to full frame is depth of field. I like to use fast lenses and shallow depth of field to isolate subjects and there just isn’t a substitute for full frame no matter how good the picture quality is with APS-C or smaller sensors."

RARELY mentioned? It's mentioned all the time as far as I can see. And the same argument works equally well the other way around: the greater effective depth of field of the smaller sensors is quite often an advantage.

Mike J.

My biggest issue with APS-C cameras is the focal length of the lenses available. The crop factor prohibits very wide angle images. With my current 20D, the resolution at 8mp is plenty for my needs. Sure, I'd like the higher sensitivity available from newer cameras, but what I really want is to get rid of that crop factor. I think this is where the manufacturers have failed us: they haven't offered a good suite of options for wide angle photography with APS-C sensors. Canon has a 10-22mm EF-S lens that I could buy for my 20D, but that would be the equivalent of ~16-35mm. There's just not an option for wider than 16mm(eq) available.

I have a K20D also and the amount of detail it can pull out of a scene is scary when you give it a good lens. I don't really need more detail, and the file sizes from 15MP are already a bit on the unwieldy side. My preference would be a great focus (no pun intended) on dynamic range. Another stop or two would be great, at least get us back to what film had.

I am a few months into the D3 and love FF, Don't really care about how many mega pixies I just love putting on a 35 mm and it's a 35, seems I have been without the traditional lens feel for the last 5 years of my pro career.
I like the 13 x 19 size prints it makes but all my work is web and I could make a living with a 2 MP sensor and a 40 mm lens equivalent.
It's time to forget about gear and get out with any camera, even one you do not like can turn up a master shot...if you are out there with it. GB.

Good article. I've pondered this choice like everybody else. I decided that in my photography I find myself wishing for more focal length more often than higher ISOs or other FF advantages, so for the time being I'm sticking with DX sensors.

"Using the Pentax magnifying eyepiece, can you still see the entire viewfinder, including the shooting information along the edge?"

Pretty much. It's a little tight, which is the price you pay. I think I normally shift my eye just a bit to see the info more clearly, which I marginally prefer anyway. It probably wouldn't be acceptable for people who wear glasses.

Mike J.

One thing rarely mentioned in comparing APS-C to full frame is depth of field. I like to use fast lenses and shallow depth of field to isolate subjects and there just isn’t a substitute for full frame no matter how good the picture quality is with APS-C or smaller sensors. That is also the reason I still use medium and bigger formats on film.

I print on 8.5" x 11". Guess my little, old D200 will........ah......do........sigh.

Using the Pentax magnifying eyepiece, can you still see the entire viewfinder, including the shooting information along the edge? None of the comments on the purchase page mention it that I can see, if you can, it sounds like an amazing thing to have.


I wrote a similar post for my Pentax blog yesterday having reached much the same conclusions. I said that under the sort of conditions for which 100 or 200 ISO film would have been fine, there's very little difference between the Pentax K10D and my newly acquired D700. In fact, I suspect that the K10D with the lovely DA Limited lenses actually captures slightly more detail than the D700 with the 28-105 Nikkor but I'd need to do some checking to prove it and I can't be bothered just now.

I bought the D700 for its low-light capabilities and it excels in that regard so I'm happy. (I've started a D700 blog as well - http://d700snapper.blogspot.com/ - and find I've turned into The Nocturnal Flaneur). Files from the D700 also seem to convert very well to black and white and are also capable of withstanding more post-processing than the K10D's files whilst retaining their quality.

I can see where you're coming from with the A900's viewfinder but I think the same set up I have - D700, 35mm f2 and 85mm f1.8 lenses - would suit you better.

"What is better about APS-C besides cost?"

Two things. One, you get more depth of field for the same angle of view and aperture. And two, your long lenses are effectively longer.

Mike J.

These reviews just get better and better.
I find myself in the same boat, to go FF or not... So I decided to go for a proper printer first, so I can actually print some of the photos I like.

Now, all I have to do is figure out how to print what I see....

And thanks for mentioning the eye piece magnifier. I didn't know they existed and it was just what I was looking for.

Not an issue for me, as I'm still happy shooting with a 6MP DSLR, but another question (which people usually don't mention) in the FF vs APS-C discussion is the "total lens resolution". When the lens becomes the resolution limiting factor, FF camera will be sharper than APS-C.

An APS-C camera needs an 60 lp/mm lens to achieve the same total resolution (total line pairs across the frame) as an FF with an 40 lp/mm lens.

Again, it only matters when the lens becomes the the limiting factor, and "normal people" shouldn't worry about it.

On a related note: It's so important to get out to galleries and see the real photo prints by the great photographers. How is this relevant? It was by spending time looking at real prints (not online, not in magazines and books) that I learned to stop worrying and love the shadows (among many other lessons). Those photographers I love and admire show do not hesitate to lose all detail in the shadows, if that's what serves the image. It's not necessary, probably not even desirable, to use Photoshop to eke every detail from the shadows in every photo you print. But you'll need to get out to a gallery and look at the great prints to be reminded of what I'm talking about.

"I think this is where the manufacturers have failed us: they haven't offered a good suite of options for wide angle photography with APS-C sensors. Canon has a 10-22mm EF-S lens that I could buy for my 20D, but that would be the equivalent of ~16-35mm. There's just not an option for wider than 16mm(eq) available."

Good lord. I remember when I was handed a 35mm lens for doing wide angle. I find it really hard to go much below 20mm without it feeling like a gimmick.

You hit two of my most serious interests in one post.

The DX-sized, 1.5 crop cameras aren't just less expensive compromises, they have their own qualities. I don't need the resolution that landscape artists want; I need high-quality PJ resolution, which means that a D3/D700 is more than good enough. What I *really* like is the FF/D3 and DX/D300 combination, with the D300 as a backup. The D300 is a terrific, sturdy camera that will put 12m pixels in a cropped frame, with only a stop or so loss in ISO compared to a D3, using the same lenses. In other words, it gives you the same resolution as a D3, but with a 1.5x sensor factor (either a "crop" or a "magnification", depending on which fanboy group you subscribe to.) That means that my 70-200 f2.8 gets me out to 300mm with 12m pixels when I need it, and my compact but less-optically-good f4.5-5.6 80-400 VR gets me out to 600m equivalent should I need that. And since the D300 give you a perfectly good ISO1600, that's like shooting a 600mm f2.8 zoom with Tri-X. The D3, on the other hand, has the great high-ISO qualities, and is terrific down at the wide end and in low light. In my opinion, the D3/D300 is a better main/backup combination that a D3/D700, or two of either of the FF cameras.

About print sizes. I think that if you can't produce a best-quality print at, say, 3x4 feet, then you are handicapped in some ways. There are lots of work-arounds, but one reason that paintings often look a lot better than photos is simply that you can *see* them better. An 8x10 print usually looks kind of crappy when it's hung behind a wide couch, because you can't get your nose close to it. So, you don't hang 8x10s over a couch; you work around the problem by hanging them someplace else, and putting the art print behind the couch.Szarkowski has a point when he says large prints may almost be as good as small ones; but Adams also has a point in trying to make larger prints. Both are actually trying to deal with a photographic handicap, and that is, the inability to scale large while maintaining quality.

For me, photographic near-perfection will be reached when you have a 35mm-sized camera that can produce 3x4 foot prints at a native 300dpi . I don't expect to see that in my lilfetime, but it may eventually happen.


What is better about APS-C besides cost? The lenses are the same size. The accessories are the same size. The bodies can be smaller but my Pentax K20D isn't exactly small (compared to the earlier DSLRs with 6 megapixel sensors from Pentax).

I like my K20D. Enough that it is probably going to be my last APS-C DSLR. But I hope one day we all look back at APS-C and find it a distant memory. I just want 85mm to be 85mm (and everything that goes along with that) and a big view finder. Is that too much to ask?

I do a lot of railway photography and can use all the depth-of-field in can get. When the 4/3 sensor in my Olympus E-1 is to big for a job I reach for my trusty Canon G6.

"The lenses are the same size. The accessories are the same size. The bodies can be smaller but my Pentax K20D isn't exactly small"

Ah, it's not the matter of _format_. Apparently, the photographers are those who asked for it.

Take Olympus E-3, for instance. They could have made it smaller, certainly. But they said it was photographers who want something with more heft and "dignity". And I believe them.

Consider all those behemoths from before and you'll see that it's de rigeur for a professional or semi-pro camera to be big(ger). D300, E-3, K20...

"I am told that the 'Pentax Magnifying Eyepiece' will fit the Sonys as well."

Well I'll be darned. It fits the Konica-Minolta 7D, which I assumed has the same eyepiece as the Sonys.

Mike J.

It's true that the current Canon and Sony full-frame D-SLR's yield files that can be printed to very large sizes. Everything's relative, however. I bought the original Canon Eos-1Ds when it was first released, funding the purchase by selling 10 years worth of 35 mm Pentax gear. (And, damn it, I still bitterly regret selling the splendid Pentax 85 mm f:1.4 lens.) Nowadays you can get higher resolution, wider dynamic range, and much better noise characteristics from a camera costing scarcely 1/10th as much. If you need still more resolution for mural-sized prints, this can be achieved very nicely for any non-moving subject simply by stitching frames together. A sturdy tripod, careful technique and a little Photoshop time, and you can greatly exceed the resolution of any feasible sensor.

Great post. I think your cure applies to many elements of the photographic equipment - camera, lens, strobe, other light shapers, printer, etc.

Can any of those be fun to play with? Can any of those make life easier? Sure. Are you really going to use it often enough to justify the cost?

Most professional photographers look at this and justify the cost with either (a) jobs they can get that are otherwise impossible - maybe ones that either pay better, or add to the portfolio for future growth; or (b) makes them more efficient so they can achieve a result in less time and thus less expense.

Most amateurs don't have this equation. Though it would be helpful if they just thought in virtual terms about it.

It's been more than a year that I bought a new lens. Why? Because the ones I have give me the full range of things I shoot. Are there lenses which would be cool to have? Sure. Do I look at them from time to time? Sure. But every time I come back and decide that the money I would spend on this lens, I could also spend on buying another head for my lighting gear, and that actually extends my creative range more than that cool lens. One day I will have enough lighting gear, and it will be some other dimension I will invest into.

Speaking of high-end cameras and how amateurs gobble them up: The most vivid memory I have is in a local photo group someone showed of his new D700 the day it showed up on store shelves. His biggest complaint? It had too many buttons that he would never learn what they did. Now if all those cameras could just take the most gorgeous pictures by just pressing the shutter. Kind of like a ghost writer for authors. If I pay enough, I should be able to get that Nobel Prize - but there are so many words involved which I'll never understand :-)


When Canon released the 5D, to me it was a real solution to the problems I had with DSLRs. Sure, it has shortcomings - all cameras do. But having a full frame DSLR does make a difference.

Why? Well, apart from all the obvious reasons - depth of field, low light performance, a much improved viewfinder, etc., full frame cameras expose all the 'flaws' in lenses. And flaws are what give lenses character.

Sounds crazy, I know. But one of the reasons pictures taken on a 5D with a 35 1.4 have a certain quality to them isn't just the result of a large aperture. It's also the result of vignetting.

I've never thought about full frame being a dilemma. I've always felt that when the time comes for me to put my money down for a digital SLR, it will be full frame. Mostly so I can continue to use the prime focal length lenses I like, without a crop factor and without having to learn to 'see' differently for digital and film. In the meantime, the small digital p & s I have serves my purposes very well for snapshots, and images for the computer.

I think that at the level we are reaching, for most people (or at least for me), improvements in shooting technique have greater value then buying the next (or newest) camera 'up' from what you have.

My favorite quote about photography, and I forget who said it, was along the lines that 'the best pictures are taken from two inches behind the camera.'

The only hesitation I have for going from DX to FF with my next body purchase---which I see as no sooner than 4-5 years from now---has been that the 35mm lens I have are all old Oly Zuiko lenses and I now shoot Nikon.

I will address this by no longer purchasing DX size lenses. If I make any lens purchases, they will most likely be used lenses, which are readily available at good prices in Japan.

It also might make it a little easier for me to swap systems when I do get a new body, since FF will pretty much require a replacement for most of my lenses anyway.

Oddly, I remember just a few years ago on certain forums that the mere mention of FF as having any possible advantage in digital would get one nearly hung as troll for another brand. How quickly times change.

I have an old Pentax K100D I picked up cheap when the K20D was the new hot thing, and I'm more than happy with the 10x15 prints I have made from it. And my camera's only 6 megapixels! I've given some as presents, and people have been nothing less than effusive. It doesn't do so well at 20x30, but not having the disposable income to buy a full frame camera also means I don't have any wall surfaces big enough to hang a print that big.

And as for the DOF objection, I don't really see it personally. I shoot a 50 F1.4, and with it, I can throw everything except someone's eyes out of focus. That's just about the cheapest option for limited depth of field. My problem is getting the AF to hit in the kind of poor light I'm invariably shooting in.

Do I lust after the latest full frame cameras? Absolutely. But I'll wait until I can get a good copy used for, oh, $400. Unrealistic, you say? Well, I can wait a long time.

One of my biggest worry when buying the E-3 were the lack of shallow DOF option. After all, I have been a Leica F1.4 guy (my 3 favorite Leica lens are the 35/50/75, all 1.4). Having shot the E-3 for 10+ months and well over 10,000 frames, I have to say it's a non-issue. In fact, most of the times, I need more DOF, and I am glad that the 4/3 sensor gives me a little extra. For portrait, I use the 35-100/F2 zoom at the long end, and the DOF is quite shallow. Not as much as the 'Lux but I can deal. Besides, I still have the Ms when I need them.

And the E-3 viewfinder is at least as good as the D300. I compare them side by side for a while.

John Camp articulates something I've always thought -- that the perfect combo is a FF body with a wide-normal zoom, and a DX body with a tele zoom. Like, say, a 5D with the 24-105, and a 40D with a 70-200. Then I am covered from 24mm to 320mm (equivalent) with two bodies and two lenses. (Note that I almost always shoot with two bodies at the same time. At work, anyway.)

So here's a question for those in the know: Given that I don't need 21 megapixels, is it worthwhile to purchase a used 5D body now that prices are dropping with the release of the Mark II? I would use it for personal and freelance (photo-J, corporate) shooting along with my 40D, leaving the big heavy 1D bodies at work. Or get another 40D for $800, which is a steal.

Also, most FF lenses are weakest in the corners, so reduced-frame cameras get the best of them.

Funny, I never notice the viewfinders like you seem to. Actually I almost prefer a small viewfinder image, it makes it easier for me to have an overview of the whole composition. To see the Picture instead of the details in it.

I agree with the comments above - full frame is only truly necessary in specialty settings such as proper wide-angle and large size prints. Additionally there *is* a downside to full frame, I've found with the 5D that there are progressive degrees of sharpness available only with careful technique. Spray and pray shooting style typically comes up wanting in the fine details. Processing the large images also has costs: storage, CPU speed, and the final print all have greater demands with full frame.

I've had a really good run with my 20D but found it lacking specifically for architectural work. I was often backing myself into walls trying to get wide enough to shoot interior spaces and the 24mm tilt-shift lens from Canon just isn't wide enough to be useful on a crop-sensor body. I've also found that interior work to be extremely demanding from a resolution standpoint such that the 8MP sensor on the 20D proved weak. Obviously, one *can* do pano shots and stitch in post-processing but that rarely gives you the best results and certainly lengthens the time from capture to print.

One area where the 20D was a champ was pared with the 85mm f1.2 - the extra depth of field on the crop body allowed me to get more of the scene in focus when shooting wide open. Also, on the crop body the 85mm is effectively a 135mm further serving to separate subject from background. On the 5D, f1.2 offers a shocking narrow DOF causing me to bump up the f-stop in most cases.

As I see it, each format will rendering the same scene in a unique way; sometimes that works well for the scene, sometimes the format cause you to do more work in order to get the results you want.

I find it interesting that in Scott Kelbys books on digital photography he makes the comment that a 6 mpx dslr can output very nice 13"x19" prints, and that 8 mpx cameras will yield good 16"x20" prints. So he asks "who are the 12mpx cameras for?...suckers!...Not really, the 10 and 12 mpx and higher cameras are for pros or others that regularly print ot poster size." They also come in handy if one crops.


I am told that the "Pentax Magnifying Eyepiece¨ will fit the Sonys as well. I do not need wide angle, so one of the lesser Sonys and the eyepiece should do just fine for me. (I have some decent Minolta glass).

Mike: I think you just saved me about $1500. I was seriously considering a D700 as my next camera instead of the far more modest upgrade (from my D40) to a D90. Now not so much, and I get movies.

"What is better about APS-C besides cost?"

I'll add another. Some of us actually like what an APS-C sensor does to the FOV of lenses designed for 35mm. (And incidentally why can't we just call it "35mm" or "135" instead of "full frame"? Every format is "full frame".)

For example, a 24mm lens on a Canon APS-C body comes out pretty close to 40mm equivalent, and a 28mm becomes a 45mm. Those are probably the two focal lengths I like best, and neither one is available in a full-function autofocus lens for a Canon 35mm body.

Dear Cassio,

The lens is almost never the limiting factor in the sense you're talking about. A poor lens always has a bigger effect in smaller format than larger. But good 35mm-and-smaller format lenses so vastly exceed the resolutions you're talking about that it doesn't matter. Until you're talking about cameras with pixels smaller than 1.5 µ, the good lenses hold up just fine. Anyone who says otherwise just doesn't know what they're talking about. Ignore them.

Really, this whole topic has been done to death. What it boils down to is nothing more than "larger format means better quality." Tell me something new. If you need the higher quality, then you photograph in larger format. If you don't, you don't. Only a minority of photographers needed medium format over 35mm. A miniscule fraction of them needed 4 x 5 or 8 x 10 (for image quality, I mean, not for other kinds of controls). Those of us with even a small lick of sense learned to ignore people who claimed you couldn't do good photography in 35mm format (or the sheet film snobs who claimed that over medium format, and believe me they did). This is no different. I would really love to see people stopped discussing this topic, everywhere, because it's a no-brainer and there's honestly nothing interesting nor new to say on it.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

If you read the forums, those who post there will certainly give you a number of very good reasons as to why you really need full frame digital. They'll also tell you how you cannot live without a 12mm wide angle (on 35mm/FF). These experts will provide technical reasoning for never using anything less than the latest (expensive) Photoshop incarnation, RAW (always RAW--never JPG), L-series glass and 21 mp dSLRs.

You cannot use those crummy pocket cameras like the G10 and LX3 because they have too much noise. Of course, APS-C cannot be trusted to resolve fine details. True believers and real photographers use full frame dSLRs with lots of megapixels. I've read those forums, so I know this stuff is true.

So I stopped reading the forums.

Bought an 8 mp APS-C dSLR and a third party 12-24mm lens (35mm/FF equivalent of approximately 20-35mm) and then bought a little G10. Couldn't be happier. My long lenses are longer, my prime lenses are sharper in the corners when used wide open and my back no longer complains about the load I carry. And that 12-24mm off-brand lens turned out to be one of my most useful lenses. Damned sharp too.

So much for photo forums and their expert advice.

"An 8x10 print usually looks kind of crappy when it's hung behind a wide couch, because you can't get your nose close to it."

I wonder if Edward Weston ever hung up any of his own prints? Does anybody know? Of course, he probably did not have a wide couch.

The only reason I want a full frame digital is because I'm so used to shooting 35mm. I want to use the lenses that I already own & I don't like the cropping that occurs with smaller sensors. However I don't feel like paying big bucks for some monster size pro DSLR. I'm hoping for a reasonably priced FF somewhere down the line.

Cymen, for me 85mm is 85mm. Of course, I never used 35mm so for me 35mm is normal and 50mm is a nice short tele and portrait length.

Except that i use MF film too, and there 80mm is about right for a normal, and I'd love to have a camera with a nice, wide 65mm or so. We have handled multiple sensor sizes since the birth of photography and digital is no more complicated. If you were fine thinking of focal lengths for different formats of film, then just do the same for digital.

Me, I'm happy with APS. 10mp is plenty for all I do. I've printed a set at B1 size (30x40) on one occasion and at the distance people actually view those images you can't see any loss of detail at all.

None of the FF cameras on offer come even close to what I want. They're very big, very heavy and very expensive. If I want to lug around that kind of gear I'd just get a Mamiya RB and be done with it. In fact, if my K10D would die at this point, I'd probably pick up the K-m, not the K20D. The small size is far more appealing than the improved resolution (which I don't particularly need). With the 40/2.4 pancake, the K-m really does go into my coat pocket - tempting, tempting...

I went from a 10D to a 5D last year. Aside from getting all my EOS lenses back, as it were, I loved the way the big mirror went Ka-chunk! For us older people, it's like getting our cameras back...

When I got my first (actually, my only) APS-C DSLR, a Nikon D100, I was delighted with the increased depth of field afforded by the smaller sensor format (for a given field of view) relative to 35mm cameras. In low light indoor shooting, using a 24mm instead of a 35mm lens greatly improves the depth-of-field in handholdable, indoor light shots. No more settling for just the eyes in focus, or perhaps 1 person out of a group in focus. I still love it for this reason. The downside of course, is that wide DSLR lenses are rarely brighter than f2.8.

Atleast in my case, your opinion cost Canon a 5Dii kit ;-) My pre-order came in, and I gave it up to the next guy in line (local store). I had researched TOO MUCH, and was torn between the the 3 FF choices. (I even contemplated flying to Canada for a weekend to purchase the A900 ;-)

Finally I chose the Pentax K20 after all ;-) for about $600 with 3 year manufacturer warranty... couldn't pass it up. Well, my precious Pentax lenses have a body for the next 3 years... and may live even longer with an adapter on Sony/Canon FF bodies.

In many ways, the Pentax with it's wonderful Limited lenses is currently the BEST bargain.

"forumer"? Perhaps sad to admit, but I think that's the first time I've seen that word. Will it contribute to the projection of one million English words by April 2009?

For guys like me, who seldom shoot with anything longer than an 85mm lens (35mm full-frame), the attraction of a full-frame DSLR is not so much about the resolution; it's about having a camera that's only slightly larger and heavier than an APS body but can be used with much smaller, lighter, faster and less expensive prime lenses.

For example, neither Canon nor Nikon offer a true APS equivalent for their 35mm f/2 or 50mm f/1.4 lenses. As a result, in some cases it could cost almost as much to buy an APS-sensor DSLR with a 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom (the closest equivalent to the fast primes) as it would to buy a full-frame DSLR with a couple of actual fast primes.

You should have no trouble guessing which I'd rather use.

I find I do most of my camera shopping in the winter. When I can shoot I tend to do that. When I'd rather let the UPS guy freeze to the tundra rather than go out there myself I camera shop.

There are only two reasons why I prefer full frame:

1. I like the big viewfinder.

2. I am so used to shooting with 35mm film SLR lenses that I like not having to retrain my brain when choosing a focal length (after previsualization).

I've shot decent photos with both APS-C and FF digital bodies, but basically feel more comfortable with FF.

I recently switched to the D700 with the 24/2.8, 35/2.0, 50/1.8, and 85/1.8 lenses from the K20D and a full set of DA limiteds. I loved that Pentax glass, as portable and sharp as it was; but I frequently shoot at social gatherings with available light and 3200-12800 ISOs aren't uncommon. The D700's ability to shine in this light has made a difference. Apart from that, the depth of field has been a treat, and the fact that a 35 once again feels like a 35 (and this matters... as much as I told myself that the DA 21 Ltd should feel like a 35, it never, ever did) has made my decade of photography experience feel relevant again.

Now I just need to find the best way to carry a DSLR and four primes. Any ideas?

"'forumer'? Perhaps sad to admit, but I think that's the first time I've seen that word. Will it contribute to the projection of one million English words by April 2009?"


Mike J.

Nice article, Mike, I tend to agree with your premise. I think there is definitely a place for APS-C sensors. Having shot everything from 16mm to 8x10 I really don't have an obsession over focal lengths. I tend to like a long DOF, from my LF work and think images with only one plane in focus are strange and most don't work.
That said I only have one APS-C lens and that is a wide angle. So is there a 35mm frame digital camera in my future well....maybe.


"Full frame" is a marketing term designed to make you think you have less than you should. :-)

That said, if you like to shoot fast and wide, APS-C might not be enough. There's no such thing as an 18/1.4, as far as I know, and a 24/1.4 is a huge, expensive thing.

One nice thing about rangefinders is that Leica's current 35mm lenses are about as good as their 50s, and Voigtlander offers several very good 35s as well. So a guy like me, who prefers 50mm with film, is fine with an M8 or RD-1.

If you preferred shooting 35mm and wider with film, it's a different story. The lenses are generally slower, bigger, heavier, much more expensive than their equivalents in full frame. And since your highest usable ISO goes down a notch with APS-C vs. full-frame, you can't always compensate by cranking up the ISO.

Good article. I am somewhat confused by some things. I have older manual Nikon lenses, am I to understand that they will not give adequate coverage to the newer Nikon FF digital cameras?

John R

I, too, have often felt hindered by not being able to print 3x4 feet at 300 dpi. I have also felt hindered by not being able to afford a printer that will print that size, or a house with enough wall space to accommodate more than a few 3x4 foot prints. I guess what really hinders me is a job that doesn't provide enough income for the printer and house for 3x4 foot prints. Now I'm really depressed. Merry Christmas, everybody!

I currently use a 5D and a 1D mk3 ... I've used plenty of 1.6 crops in the past. Image quality? Frankly, while there is always something "better" out there, I think I reached "good enough" (for my purposes) with the Canon 20D.

However, I do find that the 5D gives me a different look to my images - perhaps the shallower DOF, or the way lenses perform on the full frame is the reason. Or perhaps it's that the 5D encourages me to explore the possibilities of shallow DOF and wide angle photography more than a crop body would.

For me there is no dilemma - cropped and full frame cameras are different creatures, each with strengths and weaknesses. Having both extends your creative options. Having one or the other will impose certain limitations. Only the photographer can determine which characteristics are most important to him/her.

Its a bit of a stretch, but I equate FF vs cropped to 35mm vs medium format. The big difference is that while I could never justify a complete 35mm outfit and a medium format kit, digital has made it (just) possible.



Lenses are my bugbear. The trade off for the smaller sensor could be a smaller camera and lenses, but those never materialized at the wide end. Small, fast primes, fast wide zooms equivalent to the Canon 16-35 or the Nikon 17-35 f2.8s. Without these and with the smaller viewfinder, I find I cannot really see focus with the APS cameras, and I am too old fashioned to be willing to rely completely on autofocus. If I had the same eyes I did at 20, I might not care, and if I had never used manual cameras with fast lenses, I might never miss being able to focus. The D700 lets me recapture the Spotmatic experience.:-)

The D700 is introducing me to the late generation Nikon film experience of a very fast, very well thought out camera whose controls are actually placed so that you can use them on the fly. I could get this experience with the D300, but not get the lens and viewfinder experience. Having moved from decades with Canon, this is a completely new experience for me.

OTOH, I love my D40 with its 18-55 because it is so small and light and functional that I can carry it without a thought.

Mike, what about your comment regarding the D700 and Black & White. In a previous post you discussed the D700 being the first DSLR that produces acceptable quality B&W prints. If that's the case, and if they are that much better, would that be a case for selecting the FF?

There's something I'm missing here. As I understand it, DOF is only a function of object-image ratio and aperture. Throw into the mix that a smaller film or sensor form would have to be enlarged more to arrive at the same print size, thus the allowable COC for say my 4:3 sensor would be half the COC of a full frame sensor. It looks like the DOF advantage at the same print size should just be a wash...six in one, half a dozen in the other. While I'm here, when someone presents pictures for illustration and says "this is at 100%" what do they mean? One hundred present of what?

Just curious.
John Robison

Hi Mike
Not too long ago in the dark distant past I remember you posting about the 7D apple pic - 'THAT post said all that was needed to be said about pixel racing and print quality!'
I am lucky enough have an A900 and A700 plus 2 A100's. Whilst the 100s show their age in technology and quality the 700 equals the A900 for most situations and I find I am treating the A900 how in the past I would have treated medium or large format. One thing the A900 has done for me is allowing the re discovery of how wonderful the 50mm lens can be.

All the best for the season.


Funny, reading all this has made me decide to buy a second 5D mark 1 body when they get cheap enough.

I just don't need more pixels then I've already got, as I'm certainly not going to upgrade from my existing 17" wide Epson 4800 printer.

Richard Man: "And the E-3 viewfinder is at least as good as the D300. I compare them side by side for a while."

This is good to hear. Come one Pentax, make the K30d as big as the full-fame cameras, please? There's no law of physics preventing it.

About "Pentax Magnifying Eyepiece": there are Nikon and Olympus versions of this too, I think they are interchangeable, certainly the Nikon one fits Pentax, which have similar rectangular viewfinder surrounds.

There are bigger stronger magnifiers too, one made by KPS (which I've had trouble fitting to the Pentax, because of the shape of the camera) and the Nikon DK-17M (designed for round-viewfinder cameras, but apparently you can modify adapter #2370 to fit square ones...)

FF Digital was a no brainer for me as an Architect. After all, the only reason I stopped shooting Canon FD was to get a 24mm TS-E... and what would be the point in that on an APS-C.

Dear John,

When people talk about presenting an image at 100%, they mean that there is one pixel in the uploaded image file for each pixel in the original photograph file. How physically large the picture looks on your screen depends on the pitch of your monitor.

Now on to depth of field. A couple of things. The first is that you're assuming the depth of field is proportional to image magnification and circle of confusion. It's not. The equations are more complicated than that. If you make yourself up a spreadsheet and plug in numbers, it turns out that VERY ROUGHLY, the aperture needed to get equivalent depth of field scales with the size of the format. I want to emphasize VERY ROUGHLY; there are substantial deviations from this rule of thumb.

So, for example, going from 35mm to 6 x 7 cm format, to get approximately the same depth of field I need to go from f/4 to f/8.

There was also an implicit assumption in your post which is incorrect, although it is very commonly believed. That is that the depth of field does not depend on lens focal length, only on the image magnification and aperture (and circle of confusion, of course). That's been repeated so many places isn't funny. 90+% of the sources you find out there will tell you that so long as you keep the same image magnification in the film (sensor) plane, it doesn't matter what focal length lens you use. Well, it does!

Ignoring focal length only works when you're in close. The further away you get from the subject (and the more you stop down) the more effect focal length has. When you get out to the hyperfocal distance, the image magnification for a given aperture that corresponds to the hyperfocal difference is actually fully proportional to the focal length of the lens.

In a nutshell, ignoring focal length works when you're indoors; it fails miserably when you're outdoors.

I'm not entirely sure why this error continues to be promulgated. This falls directly from the depth of field equations and it's pretty easily verified with some careful experiments. Unlike the business of meters actually being supposed to be calibrated to 12% gray instead of 18%, which takes some fairly deep understanding of photometry, this is something that anybody with a calculator could figure out. Yet people don't.

Mind you, it took me 20 years to figure it out, but I'm not the only person on the planet with half a brain. Go figger.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

"The camera manufacturers have let us down a bit with the design and execution of the reduced-sensor-size cameras."

Do ya think? As silly as the megapixel race has been, the feature race is nearly as silly. Where is the digital camera that is the "fine object" that has controls so straightforward and intuitive that it falls to hand immediately? And that is "affordable" and still supported by the manufacturer? I.e., M8 and R-D1 do not count.

Two things. One, you get more depth of field for the same angle of view and aperture. And two, your long lenses are effectively longer.

Mike J."

Neither is really much of an advantage for the smaller sensor. The fact that you can get more depth of field for the same DOF when at the same aperture is pretty meaningles since no one is forcing you to use the same aperture. You can get more depth of field on the FF simply by stopping down. You don't need a smaller sensor for that. The better high ISO performance of the big sensor makes up for the smaller aperture. The increased DOF at a given aperture is really just an equalizer and not an advantage. Even then, that's only possible if the lens you are using allows you to open up the aperture enough. At shallower DOFs you might not be able to open the aperture enough to take advantage of it.

The fact that your lenses become longer has nothing to do with the format really. You can crop a fullframe shot to get the same effect. Where the advantage usually lies is in the much maligned higher pixel density of the smaller sensors. When you crop a fullframe shot you often end up with a lower resolution image due to the lower density. Of course, the fact that in this situation you can propably more easily focus and frame the shot in the viewfinder in a crop camera is an advantage for the smaller format.

So with a smaller sensor the main advantages you currently get are lower cost, usually higher pixel density (an advantage for telephoto and probably easier to achieve in small sensors), and some size advantage. I'll take these over the marginal quality increase of FF at moderate ISOs. The 4/3 system will serve me fine for now.

I agree with Mike on the principal reasons for full-frame.

For me the big pluses are the big viewfinder, the fact that your wides are "fully" wide, and the special image quality of 12 megapixels on full-frame sensors (and the noise performance from those big buckets ain't too shabby, either).

FWIW, the 100% viewfinder on 1.3X crop factor 1D's is better than you might think.

In my opinion, the most important difference among formats is how they represent "transitions", both in tonalities and sharpness.

Larger formats show more gradual transitions, and the pictures have a more 3D-like look. I love it.

It applies to pictures taken under particular parameters (maybe not so shooting a landscape focusing at infinity). For particular applications smaller formats can be more convenient.

Anyway, my preference goes for larger formats due to that special aesthetic quality.

"The fact that your lenses become longer has nothing to do with the format really. You can crop a fullframe shot to get the same effect."

C'mon, nobody does this as a regular thing. Unless your camera is set up to do it like a few of the Nikons are, it makes it difficult to visualize in the viewfinder and it makes your pictures look inconsistent from one to another because they're not the same pixel density or degree of enlargement. This is the sort of "on paper" argument that might seem reasonable when you're thinking about it but quickly gets old in the field. Anyway if it were true, nobody would need longer lenses...who needs a 600mm when you could just use your 400mm and crop? But in real life people still want the proper lens.

Just because there's a workaround for some technical issue doesn't mean the issue doesn't exist.

Mike J.

Dear Lasse,

"...no one is forcing you to use the same aperture..."

Well maybe "no one", but frequently "some thing." Aperture, shutter speed, and exposure index are all locked to each other. Plus, there are physical limits to lenses.

I'm one of those photographers who needs more depth of field 100 times more often than I need less, but I could easily invert these arguments, so they're not about that. That said, one of the things I'm always fighting using medium format film is depth of field. Basically, I'm losing two stops of depth of field over 35mm. Even for outdoor nature photographs, this frequently has me pushing the acceptable shutter speed limits (it's not just about using a tripod, which it often isn't feasible anyway, it's also about things moving in the scene). Indoors, I'm fighting low light; to get even an acceptable shutter speed often means working near maximum aperture.

My lenses have limits, too. Even when I can work at f/16 outdoors, that may not get me all the depth of field that I need. Some of my lenses go to f/22; not all.

Et cetera, et cetera.

I consider this one of the less important reasons for choosing one format over another. Notice that I favor high depth of field at the same time that I'm using larger format. I simply live with it as the disadvantage of larger format. But it is by no means something that is inconsequential or easily circumvented.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Mike,

"... it makes your pictures look inconsistent from one to another..."

While I prefer to use much of the frame is possible (as is obvious from my film work), I've never felt any qualms about cropping with either film or digital. So far as consistency goes, the difference in grain scale in cropped film is more noticeable to me than any difference in pixel density in cropped digital files. And even there I don't find it objectionable. Heck, I'm even willing to mix prints from different films in the same portfolio. Maybe this is something I'm just not very sensitive to, but I've never felt it makes an image in a group look out of place.

Which doesn't mean I disagree with your fundamental point, I don't. I think it's a rather odd notion to suggest that one should work with the wrong format/lens and solve the problem by doing consistent cropping. It certainly isn't going to get you the best overall quality.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

"So far as consistency goes, the difference in grain scale in cropped film is more noticeable to me than any difference in pixel density in cropped digital files. And even there I don't find it objectionable. Heck, I'm even willing to mix prints from different films in the same portfolio."

I'km *very* sensitive to it, although possibly just in my own work. Part of the reason I ended up my 35mm career printing full-frame to the film edge is because it eliminates the variable of cropping to inconsistent rectangles. And I could hardly use different films in the same life, much less the same portfolio. I strived mightily to mix Tri-X and T-Max P3200, but it never quite worked in my mind. I didn't like showing pictures from the two films together. (At least I could mix lenses, so I wasn't entirely hopeless.)

To each his/her own, I guess!

Mike J.

Great post, Mike. My history was Canon 20D, Pentax K10D, then Canon 5D. You've already mentioned these things, but here's what I love about FF:

1. Huge, bright viewfinder. Can't be emphasized enough.

2. Lens selection. Aside from the obvious (i.e. more wide angle selection / a 35mm is a 35mm), price is a consideration. Canon makes VERY high quality primes at 35, 50, 85, 100 & 135 that won't break the bank. To get lenses with equivalent quality at equivalent focal lengths with APS-C, you often have to pay more.

3. Better low light performance.

4. Shallow DOF. I shoot mostly portraits, so this was a big advantage to me. I understand that it is a disadvantage for other folks.

For someone who shoots primarily portraits and does it in less than stellar light, I think FF can be worth the extra $$. I got a brand new 5D for $1300 during the crazy Christmas promotions last year (2007), which was a deal that I couldn't pass up.

"Mind you, it took me 20 years to figure it out, but I'm not the only person on the planet with half a brain. Go figger.
~ pax \ Ctein"

No wonder I have such a hard time figuring this stuff out. If you have only a half a brain I must be limited to 1/64 of a brain. ;)

The reason we are not getting the lenses we want in DX, EF-S etc, is that the manufacturers do not want to spend a huge fortune rebuilding it's entire lens line up. They want to squeeze as much as they can from their legacy lenses.

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