The full frame obsession: valid or fallacy?

The full frame obsession: valid or fallacy?

shot with the Canon 5DmarkIII and the 50mm 1.2 L lens at f 2

The following post was inspired by a few emails asking for advice weather to jump on the FF wagon and get one of the new Sony’s (A7 or A7r). I hope some of you will find it helpful.

The two universally known advantages of a full frame sensor over APSC are better high ISO performance and shallower depth of field, provided that the aperture settings, field of view of the lenses and the distance between the cameras and subject stay equal.

The latest Sony A7 and A7r mark the beginning of the end for DSLR’s as we know it. Yep, ladies and gentlemen, this was it, it is over, say good bye, don’t cry because the future is much brighter, sharper, lighter, cheaper, smaller and faster

more after the break

shot with the Canon 5DmarkIII and the 50mm 1.2 L lens at f 1.4

Faster? Well, eventually manufacturers will get it right, the AF thing, phase-detect/contrast-detect at the blink of an eye in all lighting conditions. We aren’t quite there yet, Olympus is out in front but the pack is closing in. Next generation Sony A? will get us a little closer to that illusive instantfocus™. I am looking forward to the day when I board a plane with one carry on bag, packed with two or three ILC’s capable of shooting 30+mp, 16fps track anything, 4k raw video up to 120fps, base ISO 800. Well, there is a lot of wishful thinking going on here. But hey, let’s keep dreaming for another minute.

Two zoom lenses, one super wide, one standard. Image stabilized and constant aperture.
And one or two bokeh-licious lenses, either a standard high speed prime and/or a medium tele photo.

To have a full frame sensor and possibly be limited for quite some time to 1.8 due to lens size concerns sounds rather pathetic. Why not release two lenses, a big high quality standard lens starting at 1.4 or even 1.2, currently an incredibly popular focal length and the 55mm f1.8 as a small, compact, high quality alternative. Of course if you can live with mf, there are plenty of 3rd party high quality lenses you can adapt.

The Zeiss 55mm 1.8 looks and feels like a great lens, speedy af performance, excellent image quality and seriously small when compared with a 50mm 1.4.

And then there is the 24-70mm f4 oss, available early next year ,lovely but really nothing to cry home about. It is endearingly small, but seriously, for my type of shooting, I need a 2.8 standard zoom or something really practical in terms of focal length, like a 24-105mm or 24-120mm or 28-135mm, on the latter I will take f4 any day. But those lenses are huge and the same can be said about 1.2 and 1.4 lenses, large, heavy and expensive.

shot with the Nikon D800E and the Nikkor 135mm f2 wide open.

At this point we can’t have it all, to take full advantage of a full frame sensor, we need high speed primes and high speed zooms. Lens design as we know it won’t allow for quality high speed and compactness at the same time. Just take a look the Zeiss Otus, it is huge, insanely expensive and mf only. Even Nikon’s 58mm 1.4 is huge, heavy and expensive.

Now this is probably one of the reasons why the Fuji X system became quite popular. A small, lightweight ILC system rivaling and sometimes even surpassing the look and feel of images coming from FF cameras. Lenses designed from the ground up, maximized specifically for large apertures and image quality in a light weight, small portable package, not cheap but not as expensive as high quality FF lenses. I am using Fuji as an example because it is the only company offering an appealing lens line up right from the very beginning for a newly introduced system.

Elizaveta Bulokhova_Q_Mike_Kobal4227
shot with the Fuji X Pro1 and the 35mm 1.4 wide open

Lets recall the advantages of full frame, better high ISO performance and better bokeh.

Now in the field the lines start to blur if you can’t take full advantage of those inherent FF properties because your prime , for example, happens to be a 35mm 2.8 and you could get a 23mm 1.4 for an apsc sized system.

shot with Fuji X100s wide open.

model of the day, Fuji X-E1
shot with the Fuji X-E1 and the Nikkor 50mm 1.8 G wide open.

Comparing these two lenses wide open, the two stop FF ISO advantage suddenly vanished and it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to see a noticeable bokeh advantage in either shot. Despite the much larger aperture on the 23mm, the inherently shallower depth of field properties of the longer 35mm lens will look pretty descent and compensate for the weaker aperture. This applies to any prime or zoom and as long as you are aware of the angle of view and the equiv focal length on apsc you can easily figure out if your preferred lenses are available for the system you are considering and you will be able to tell right away if you really get a noticeable advantage going full frame or not.

Personally, I am very excited about the Sony A7r and can’t wait to get my hands on it. A D800E sensor in a small body, capable of shooting 1080/60p, framing it through a fantastic EVF with full manual control and audio level adjustment during recording, articulated LCD, that alone does it for me.

My advice, make sure you know exactly what you want from the camera and why you plan to buy it. Don’t rely on promises about future releases. It might happen, it might not.
If you happen to own serious DSLR gear, don’t dump it just yet, order the camera, try it out, make sure it suits your needs. It won’t replace my Nikon system yet, but I will store the A7r on the same shelf for the Nikon to see the future :)

Let me know what you guys think and how and if this new Sony release affects you. Thanks for reading!

If you find this article inspiring, please consider helping me maintaining this blog by purchasing your gear through my product links to Adorama and B&H and Ebay. It will cost you nothing and allows me to keep adding! Or consider making a direct donation using PayPal, thank you!

11 thoughts on “The full frame obsession: valid or fallacy?

  1. mike.kobal Post author

    Hi Derek, we all behave like little kids in a toy store these days, well, I can’t speak for everyone, I sure do and this is one of my goals for 2014, DO NOT GET TOO EXCITED ABOUT ANYTHING, except great models and good pictures :) You are absolutely right, it is the perfect full frame for landscape shooters with high quality vintage glass. As for the flash system, it is a real shame Sony can’t offer something on the same level as Nikon or Canon. When I got the A77 for a project in Africa, it seemed to be the ideal tool for the variety I had to shoot and since I was advised not to bring pro looking gear, it was perfect. Everything worked great -well almost- however the bloody flash system was the real deal breaker, if you are interested you can read it here, scroll down to ugly. I am looking at the A7r – or even just the a7, not much difference in quality -as potential full frame video “brain” to use on shoots with the D800E. It is a real pain to go back and forth shooting stills then video with the same camera. Much better to have them specifically set up. Looks like it is going to take some time for Sony or anyone else for that matter to get it right in all departments for us to make the switch 100%

  2. derek

    Mike ,as you say, I’ve really realized as a bread and butter camera the 7R des not work for event or wedding kind of photography due to its complete lack of any proper computer tethering option , and maybe more importantly the silly flash system.

    there is no real radio trigger option and there is no flash like my SB910 for the tiny camera.
    so until real flash tech breakthrough comes for the small camera system, we will have to use a big camera, albeit all big cameras even Nikon Canon pro level cameras will become mirrorless.

    I think it is too risky to invest a lot of money into the Sony FE(Ihave only 2 lenses and mostly use my old Zeiss 50mm f2 ZM and Leica 90mm and 75mm primes). If you are considering it for pure work or pro use(as you obviously are a pro), especially for studio, portrait or event, etc , I think it will not work.
    But for landscape or architecture it may be the best camera system under 20k.
    Personally, I do not shoot landscape or anything like that, I mostly shoot weddings and events in lowlight , so I may return the 7R.
    so I apologize my initial excitement did not last long.
    I actually bought back my D800E and I am glad I did not sell all my Zeiss and Nikon lenses yet.

    have a great one.

  3. mike.kobal Post author

    Thank you, John, glad to hear that! Shooting with the 5DmkII was an exciting period, I loved working with the 50mm L, the unique look from that lens esp when shooting video was out of this world. When Canon released the 5DmkIII most of my assignments where photo oriented with little need for video. I needed more resolution then Canon had to offer and ended up getting the D800E, there are a few things I miss from the days when Canon was my main gear, mostly the 50mm L, the 24 105mm kit lens and the video quality of the 5DmkIII of course. For video gig’s I often rent the 5DmkIII or C300. What I really like about the Nikon lenses is the ability to mount them on Canon and Sony bodies without the need for complicated and expensive adapters. I use them for video gigs all the time. Love the aperture ring and ended up replacing a few G lenses with D lenses just for that reason.
    In response to your previous post, I am sure DLSR’s won’t suddenly vanish but mirrorless ILC’s are still at the beginning whereas DSLR’s have reached their peak, not much room left for improvements. Maybe I should have said DSLR’s are not dead yet, they just start to smell funny :)
    Fuji full frame, now that should be very interesting, right? If Fuji manages to built on what they have achieved so far with the X100s and X E2 I think it will be a very interesting camera, let’s hope they get the AF thing right on the very first model. As for the Sony A7 releases, I am very excited about it, obviously they aren’t perfect, I am still waiting for my review unit to arrive….

  4. John Havensworth

    By the way, your canon work has always been the most magical to me. Ever since I saw your tree of memory work and discovered it was a 5d mark 2 + 50L, I have gained a tremendous amount of respect gfor my canon gear. I favor it now more than my Nikon and Sony gear. Bought a x100s and the IQ wasn’t completely there. But I look forward to their full frame cameras. I will pass on the Sony a7s for numerous reasons.

  5. John Havensworth

    Hilarious how people claim to foresee the future and wish death upon the DSLR. For me, the camera system is what matters to me, its consistency and options. Evfs are fine but I’ll prefer ofvs. DSLR body and lens size feel better to me. I don’t see any reason why different systems cannot coexist. Thinking that one system has to eradicate the other is very primitive thinking.

  6. Tom

    I’ve got the X-E2 on order. Just sold the X Pro1 and the Leica (and all but one Zeiss) is going to be sent out for consignment. It *does* feel so liberating to pare down the gear. Now to focus on the shooting…

    I do love the Zeiss 50 1.5, but you are right, that new Fuji 1.2 will be very tempting. A simplification to the 23, 35, and 56 could be a great choice. I’ll let you know how your prediction pans out… in the mean time, happy shooting and cheers to a simpler 2014.

  7. mike.kobal Post author

    Hi Tom! Thank YOU for taking the time to comment, very much appreciated. I have set a new goal for 2014-only keep the gear I use on a regular basis, no exceptions-
    seems like a radical choice at first, but since I have sold off lots of stuff over the last few month, lenses and other items just sitting around unused, waiting for that magical day, I found it quite liberating. Assignments often require a specific piece of equipment and instead of buying and storing it for 6 month I end up renting it.
    I can absolutely relate to your decision getting rid of the Leica, I loved mine to death during the film days but haven’t touched it since going digital.
    I think you will like the X-E2 and 23mmm very much, so much, that I predict you will sell the 50mm at some point in the near future and order the Fuji 58mm 1.2 ;)

  8. Tom

    Hi Mike,

    Long time listener, first time caller. I really like this article and definitely like your photos. I agree 100% with you that we are seeing the end of the dSLR. We live an amazing time in the mirror less world with new releases coming one right after the other and vendors like Sony, Fuji, and Olympus innovating all over the place. Exciting times but one that also leads to a bit of gear acquisition syndrome and all the uncertainty that goes with it – “did I make the right choice and buy the right gear, or should I acquire something different.

    I have shot the Fuji X Pro1 since it came out and even though I bought a Leica M-E (because the marketers and blogosphere tell me that is what I should strive for) I keep going back to my Fuji. Quirks aside, I love that thing and the images it gives me wide open with the 35mm 1.4. The images with my 50mm Zeiss Sonnar 1.5 are nothing short of (when I get the focus right) magical. I am *supposed* to love my full frame Leica, but truth be told, I love my APS-C Fuji more.

    I’ve decided to sell my Leica and all of my Zeiss lenses except the 50 15. I’m going to do “one last” upgrade to the Fuji X-E2 and the 23 1.4… then with that camera and 3 lenses, try not to pick up anything else for the next three years and try to focus on taking images. We’ll see how that goes as new stuff is so, so tempting.

    Anyway, a ramble on my own thoughts on the full frame vs smaller sensor and the mirror less world. For now (and I hope awhile) I have chosen APS-C and Fuji. Knowing what I have shot with it the last couple of years, I am happy with my choice.

    Keep the reviews and the great images coming. Thanks!

  9. mike.kobal Post author

    Hi Derek, thanks for swinging by and your input, really appreciate it. I wish I could sell my D800E, however, as the bread & butter camera for 75% of my assignments I am going to hold off for a while since there really aren’t enough pro lenses available for the A system….yet. Not to mention a reliable pro TTL flash system, this is where Nikon really shines and rules, exciting times though, I can’t wait, I will definitely also check out the A7.

  10. derek

    hi mike,I think what you’ve just said below is correct.

    >The latest Sony A7 and A7r mark the beginning of the end for DSLR’s as we know it. Yep, ladies and gentlemen, this was it, it is over, say good bye, don’t cry because the future is much brighter, sharper, lighter, cheaper, smaller and faster

    I have shot the A7R and the A7 and I am keeping the A7 because I use my mirrorless cameras for night time street shooting and I think the AF makes huge difference there.

    the 7R had very slow in accurate AF , I used some Leica M and Voiklander 35mm f1.2 M mount glass on my 7R and I was really disappointed how they performed on the 7R(there is lot of vignetting and corner smearing).
    to be fair to the 7R , with the FE35mm f2.8 ZA lens there is no issue at all, the 55mm is extremely sharp and AF fast even on the 7R(even faster on the 7).

    so for me, D-SLR may be dead, I ‘ve been debating going all mirrorless or get an old but good A99v (I love Sony A mount primes).
    in case I go all mirrorless , I think I will be following your advice and get the Fuji Xe2 to back my Sony A7 system up until at least I can get 85mm f1.4 and 35mm f1.4 in Sony native FE mount.

    but I personally believe D-SLRs especially high resolution ones like the D800 will die out much sooner than many pepole actually believe.
    but the high ISO and action type of D-SLRs may be able to survive a bit longer at least a few more years.

    I think high resolution sensor really requires mirrorshock-less design to get best out of it.

    so it is interesting time , we will see what really happens in a few years.

    personally, after having shot my A7 and 7R for a couple of weeks , I cannot go back to the big D800E any more. now, I really seldom use it and I think I am selling it soon.
    hope you will love the 7R.

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