The 5D Mark II went home today...so no more tests. The weather certainly hasn't been co-operating anyway. I'm sorry to see it go; it's an appealing little beast, and it sure was fun to use. After Christmas I hope to post a couple of "second opinions" about it from others.
Meanwhile, I've been barraged (not inundated, but barraged) by a steady stream of emails from people who are clearly agonizing over the full-frame (FF) dilemma. Some in a good way, some in a not-so-healthy, obsessive way.
Is FF for you?
In comparing shots made with APS-C cameras and FF cameras, whether you're going to see any difference will depend on a lot of things. Are you making prints or are you pixel-peeping? (And if you're pixel-peeping, why?) And which parameter of performance are you pushing? And are you pushing it because you need to, for the sake of the picture, or are you inventing difficulties for yourself just to show off what the camera can do? ( I remember a scene, long ago, from a college classroom, waiting for a lecture to start: two photo buffs had their nice SLRs with them, and both had recently bought motor drives, which at that time (early '80s) were still fairly exotic, used mainly by pros. They got into a discussion about whose was faster, and both guys energetically took out their drives and attached them to their cameras. One said, "Ready? Set, go!" and they both began firing off "dry shots" to see whose drive was faster. After a few rounds of this, one guy had "won" and the other guy had been shamed. I silently wondered whether either of them actually ever encountered situations where they really needed a motor drive to get a shot. Maybe.)
Full-frame isn't a magic bullet. The pictures aren't so much better that people are going to look at your pictures and go, "Wow! That looks so good it must have been shot with a full-frame camera!" No. I don't imagine that happening. Gentle daylight scenes with lots of light, with the lenses at optimum aperture, I doubt anybody would see any difference. In most cases.
At the risk of repeating myself, here's a shot with the K20D I've posted before, along with a detail. I believe I first posted this after I read a forumer somewhere opining that the Pentax 35 DA Macro lens "couldn't be used" for landscapes because it "isn't corrected for infinity," or sentiments to that effect. I know the therapy that guy needs: he needs to stop thinking so much and go shoot some pictures! (As do I, most of the time, but that's neither here nor there.)
Here's a little detail from the shot, with foliage looking like something Fragonard might paint. I'd put the little red square on the big picture, but you can do the Where's Waldo thing yourself.
When is enough detail enough? I'd say that's enough. As you can see, it's quite a nice sensor, despite not being full-frame. And pretty good for a lens that's no good at far focusing distances. (And please, please, Forumers From Other Places, be sensible: the only reason I've posted an example from the K20D is that it's the current APS-C sensor camera I happen to have been shooting with, on extended loan from Pentax. I could just as easily have used an example from the 50D or D90 or whatever your favorite happens to be, but I don't have those cameras. I also wanted to post this picture again because right now I'm pining for June weather.) I grant you that I've had a little trouble opening up those shadows on the left, having set the exposure "to the right" of the brilliant clouds. So does that mean I "need" an FX Nikon or the Sony A900, to give me a little more DR?
And that brings me to what full-frame cameras are all about: they push various performance edges here and there.
In general the full-frame cameras aren't different in kind than the smaller-sensor cameras when it comes to results. It's just that you can push them a little harder in certain parameters. The 5D Mark II and the FX Nikons have one to two stops more high-ISO capability; bravo, but then lots of people don't really need high ISO capability, especially given how good most DSLRs already are. (Pictures taken in good light are usually better than pictures taken in bad light.) The Nikons and the Sony A900 can recover a stop or two more dynamic range in the crucial highlights, depending on the image. And the 5D Mark II and the Sony can print bigger.* Which is great if you print big. If you don't print big, not necessary.
The biggest difference I notice with the full-frame cameras is not the results they yield but the cameras themselves! The viewfinders are really nice compared to APS-C and 4/3 cameras—especially the Sony's. (The Sony is the first digital camera I've used or seen that has a good dose of the "fine object" quality of premium cameras of days gone by.) And it's nice to "come home" to my favorite lens again. There are some real advantages to the APS-C and 4/3 sensor size, and I think I'd like the smaller size better if the cameras were just as good and I could get the lenses I want. They're not, quite. And I can't. The camera manufacturers have let us down a bit with the design and execution of the reduced-sensor-size cameras. I think their hands were tied in certain ways, especially with legacy flange distances. As a result, the smaller format DSLRs have never really been anything but hybrids. Nobody ever really made a good viewfinder for any of them. (I use something called the "Pentax Magnifying Eyepiece" on the K20D (they now appear to be calling it the "Viewfinder Loupe"), and I recommend it. It magnifies and improves the view in the viewfinder, to almost-as-good-as FF levels. Emphasis on "almost.")
I liked all three full-frame cameras I tried, but it's not like somebody's going to look at your print and go, "Ooh, you must have shot that with a full-frame DSLR!" It's not that obvious, I'm afraid. It's really just a matter of degree.
And the cure
What's the cure for camera agony of any sort? Just work. Shoot. Get interested in something. Take stock of what equipment you already have, and figure out what it can be used for. Go shoot. Get involved in the pictures. If your camera isn't the last word in high ISOs, then find a little more light and shoot at lower ISOs. You'll live. If your camera doesn't have the best dynamic range, then avoid high-contrast scenes (there are scenes the A900 won't handle, either). If your camera won't print really, really big, then make your prints a little smaller. It won't kill you, I promise. It ain't the camera.
The more that people get interested in the pictures they're making, the less they obsess about equipment. Try it. It's really true—it really works.
*My HP printer is "native" at 300 ppi, which means a non-interpolated print from the Sony A900 is 20" wide, and from the Pentax K20D, 15 and a half inches wide. Let's chart that:
Camera that makes 20" wide prints: $3,000
Camera that makes 15.5" wide prints: $800
Both can be uprezzed considerably, and the more pixels, the better they will look at even larger sizes. But how big do you really need to print? Ansel Adams once made some very large exhibition prints, and John Szarkowski's slightly catty comment was something like, "With virtuoso technique, large prints can look almost as good as small ones." If you have to have really big prints, the more expensive camera might be necessary. The largest size paper my printer will handle is 13 x 19", and that's plenty big enough for me. In fact, the biggest problem I have in trying to justify the Sony is that I just plain don't need all those nice pixels. And I know it. Dammit.
Featured Comment by Shaun: "I went out shooting with my new 5D Mark II last night in the dark; very nice result @ 3200, lovely images I couldn't do with my 5D. But my point is, to my surprise, the files in Photoshop are over 120 megabytes in 16 bit. Before adding any layers. Run Photokit capture sharpener and the file size jumps to over 400 megs! So add that into the cost calculation of a high megapixel camera—lots more storage space required, much faster processor, lots more ram. 64 bit photoshop seems to chew through these larger photos pretty quickly with 8 gigs of ram, but it is slower than my work flow last week."
Featured Comment by John A. Stovall: "As soon as the 5D was out I went to it and dumped my 20D. Why? Because with full frame my ultra wides once more became ultra wides. My C/Y 21mm ƒ/2.8 was once more a 21mm not a thing with a 33mm FOV."