We certainly live in interesting times. Often it feels like we are in some kind of twilight zone where one enters through the ‘you must have’ door. With photography, the current ‘you must have’ appears to be a full frame (or larger) sensor camera. If some of the articles on the internet are to be believed, unless we own a full frame camera we are incapable of creating a good photograph. Truth is, a camera is much more than a sensor.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. I added a few photographs that I captured today to serve as visual breaks.
There’s no doubt that a larger sensor camera does come with some advantages. For years the two that have been cited most often are shallow depth of field and low light performance. For some photographers these factors are critical for the work they do. Increased levels of dynamic range and colour depth can also be extremely important. If all of these factors are critical for the work that you do… then buying a full frame sensor camera is logical and absolutely necessary.
For others of us (including me)… not so much. A number of years ago I was lured by the full frame siren. I spent a lot of money on new bodies and a good selection of full frame lenses. In retrospect I probably bought into the notion that having full frame camera gear would somehow make me a better photographer. It didn’t.
The only thing that will make each of us a better photographer is ourselves. Our passion. Our dedication to keep growing and learning. Our willingness to grab a camera, then go out and actually use it. What’s the point in having money invested in camera gear if all we ever do is just talk about its specifications as it collects dust?
Not every image we create will be a work of art. There’s some learning in most everything that we do. Sometimes its noticing the small details that can make a difference in our craft. Hmm… did you happen to notice the sloppy job that the painters did on the bridge in the photograph above? Here’s a 100% crop. Look at all those paint dribbles!
Fixating on camera sensor size is like paint dribbles to me. They are only one small part of a much bigger picture. Just for fun let’s compare the highest rated full frame cameras as tested by DxO Mark, with the highest rated M4/3 camera.
The Panasonic DC S1R and the Nikon D850 lead the full frame group, both with an overall score of 100. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is the top rated M4/3 camera. Its overall score is 80. With a sensor only 25% of the size of a full frame camera its no surprise that the M4/3 camera gets clobbered in DxOMark testing by the full frame camera leaders.
When I owned my D800 or my D600 I very rarely ever captured photographs at base ISO, especially when shooting hand-held. When composing landscape images hand-held I often stopped my lens down a bit to get deeper depth of field. Or, I had to up my shutter speed a little to help avoid blur in my images. Both scenarios pushed my ISO up marginally to ISO-400… or on occasion to ISO-800. I never worried much about it. After all I was shooting with full frame cameras with lots of dynamic range and colour depth.
As we all know, dynamic range and colour depth both decrease as ISO increases. It is interesting to consider the practical ramifications of that fact.
Let’s say that three photographers were all creating images of the same landscape scene. In the case of the full frame camera owners, let’s assume that they stopped their lenses down a bit to get more depth of field. So, rather than shooting at ISO-200, they captured their images at ISO-400. Let’s then assume that the M4/3 photographer could capture their image at ISO-200 since they were using a camera with a 2X crop factor.
Do the full frame cameras still blow the M4/3 camera out of the water under this scenario? Let’s look at DxOMark test data.
At base ISO-50 the Panasonic CD S1R has 14.05 EV of dynamic range and 26.4-bits of colour depth. At ISO-200 sensor performance falls to 13.0 EV of dynamic range and 25.5-bits of colour depth. Losing one more stop of light and shooting at ISO-400 brings dynamic range down to 12.05 EV and colour depth to 24.2-bits.
At base ISO-32 the Nikon D850 has 14.81 EV of dynamic range and 26.4-bits of colour depth. At ISO-200 this falls to 13.97 EV of dynamic range and 25.1-bits of colour depth. Losing another stop of light and shooting at ISO-400 brings dynamic range down to 13.37 EV and colour depth down to 24-bits.
At base ISO-200 the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II has 12.84 EV of dynamic range and 23.7-bits of colour depth. According to DxOMark, a difference of 0.5 EV in dynamic range is needed for it to begin to be noticeable for most people. For colour depth 1.0-bit is needed to begin to be noticeable for most people.
This means that when the full frame cameras are shot at ISO-400 the dynamic range of the Panasonic will be noticeably less than that of the OM-D E-M1 Mark II when it is shot at ISO-200. The difference in colour depth will not be noticeable for most people.
The Nikon D850 does slightly better at ISO-400 and the difference in dynamic range would begin to be noticeable for most people. The difference in colour depth would not be sufficient to be noticeable for most people if the OM-D E-M1 Mark II was shot at ISO-200.
So, sensor size can be important when it comes to shallow depth of field, low light performance, dynamic range and colour depth. But… sensor size is not the ‘be all and end all’ solution that many bloggers write about. The effectiveness of image stabilization and sensor crop factors can negate some of the dynamic range and colour depth advantages of a full frame sensor. Especially in situations where more depth of field, rather than shallow depth of field is needed.
A full frame sensor camera’s usefulness to you may be reduced if it does not offer the frame rates you need for bird photography. Of if the buffer is too small. Or if the auto-focus does not provide the quickness and accuracy you need.
The ergonomics and handling of a camera are often overlooked. If you use your gear non stop for long periods of time, comfort and ergonomics will be very important to you. For example, I have larger hands and I very quickly ruled out the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II as I did not find it comfortable to hold for longer periods of time.
You’ll also need to consider things like the file sizes of many full frame cameras. They can quickly fill up hard drive space and may necessitate purchasing upgraded computer gear. Many of us really don’t need more than 20-24 MP for what we do. It is important to check out the memory card format used in various models. You may be facing some additional investments in memory cards… some of which can be pricey.
Lens availability and quality are other important factors. You can invest in a full frame camera and shortchange yourself by buying lenses that cannot leverage the potential image quality of the camera. If you buy a full frame camera, can you also afford the lenses needed to fully leverage the potential of the camera? In my mind there’s no point buying a full frame camera if the lenses you’ll be using are unable to define paint dribbles on a bridge.
Over the years I’ve owned and used full frame cameras, cropped sensor cameras, M4/3, 1″ sensor cameras, and some cameras with even smaller sensors. Each format has its own nuances to understand in order to use them effectively. Owning a full frame camera may sound appealing from a specifications viewpoint. From a pragmatic one, do you have the experience and skill set needed to effectively use a full frame camera?
A camera is much more than a sensor. If buying a full frame camera may make sense for you… do your homework to ensure that you understand what you are getting into before you lay your money down.
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All of the photographs displayed in this article were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Most images are displayed as 100% captures. A few of the bird images have been cropped to varying degrees.
Use of Olympus Loaner Equipment
Some of the photographs in this article were captured using Olympus Loaner Gear which was supplied by Olympus Americas Inc. on a no-charge basis. We are under no obligation what-so-ever to Olympus Americas Inc. in terms of our use of this loaner Olympus camera equipment. There is no expectation or agreement of any kind with Olympus Americas Inc. that we will create and share with readers any images, articles or videos, or on what that content may be.
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