A photographic rabbit hole exists, and if you choose to go down it you’re pretty much guaranteed to sub-optimize your small sensor camera’s capabilities. That photographic rabbit hole is equivalency.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to serve as visual breaks.
A rabbit hole is defined as “a complexly bizarre or difficult state or situation conceived of as a hole into which one falls or descends, especially one in which the pursuit of something (such as an answer or solution) leads to other questions, problems or pursuits.” In photographic terms this is the nonsensical world of full frame equivalency.
If you’re one of those folks who are adamant that everything photographic must be translated into some kind of full frame equivalency… *sighs*… there’s no point reading this article any further. For the most part I think full frame equivalency is irrelevant and counterproductive.
Regular readers of this website may have noticed that I recently stopped including equivalent field-of-view (efov) in the EXIF data for images that are featured in various articles here. I do include the appropriate focal length multiplication factor in the Technical Note section for readers who want to do their own efov calculations.
After some reflection I came to the conclusion that including efov calculations in EXIF data for my individual images is pointless. Not only that, it can be detrimental when it comes to understanding the settings used to create specific photographs.
There is a particular situation when understanding equivalent field-of-view information can be helpful. That’s when a photographer is transitioning to a different sized sensor camera system (i.e. smaller) and they want to ensure that they are selecting the correct lenses for their photographic needs. Considering equivalent field-of-view can help a photographer understand which lenses in the new format system will be needed for the work that they do.
Once a photographer has purchased their smaller sensor camera equipment, any thoughts about full frame equivalence need to be totally abandoned. Hanging on to notions of full frame equivalence will only get in the way of us learning how to use our smaller sensor systems to their maximum effectiveness. The only thing that is relevant when we’re out with our cameras creating photographs is relating to our gear for what it is… not what it isn’t.
If you own a 1” sensor camera like Nikon 1, or a M4/3 system like Olympus/OM System, when you’re out in the field with it… remind yourself that you’re not using full frame camera gear. The proof of that reality is incredibly simple to prove. Just look at what is in your hands. Do you see a full frame camera? No. To pretend that it is a full frame camera, or to try to relate to it as such, takes you on a journey down a photographic rabbit hole.
It makes absolutely no sense at all to attempt to relate to your smaller sensor camera using full frame equivalencies. I sold all of my full frame camera gear back in July 2015. For the next four years I used the Nikon 1 system exclusively and really enjoyed the experience.
During that time I never once thought of my Nikon 1 lenses in full frame terms. While it is true that a Nikon 1 6.7-13 mm zoom has an equivalent field-of-view of 18-35 mm when compared to a full frame lens… that’s where any relatability ends. The depth-of-field characteristics of a 6.7-13 mm lens are very different from an 18-35 mm zoom. This is true regardless of the size of the sensor that is in a camera.
Every camera system has its unique benefits and challenges. And, each camera system needs to be used in ways that help to maximize its positive attributes, and minimize its shortcomings. We simply cannot accomplish that when we try to relate to our gear based on what it’s not by using irrelevant full frame equivalencies. If you have a dog and a bird as pets would you relate to your dog as if it was your budgie?
If you have a few minutes, go to a depth-of-field calculator website and do a very simple exercise. Select a camera format based on sensor size. Then, select a specific aperture… something like f/5.6 which is very commonly used out in the field, may be a reasonable starting point. Then select a subject distance. Now, keep all of those variables (i.e. camera format/model, aperture, and subject distance) constant and only change the focal length of the lens.
As you make successive changes to lens focal length what you’ll discover is something fundamental to getting the most out of the camera gear you own. Regardless of the size of the sensor that is in your camera body. The amount of depth-of-field will increase as focal lengths decrease. And conversely, the depth-of-field will become shallower as focal lengths increase. Understanding how the focal length of a lens impacts depth-of-field is a critical component in the creative process of photography.
When travelling with my Nikon 1 kit I had three camera bodies and three zoom lenses in my shoulder bag. A Nikon 1 J5 with a 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6. A second Nikon 1 J5 with a 10-100 mm f/4-5.6. And, a Nikon 1 V3 with a 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6. When I identified an image opportunity all I had to do was choose the right camera/lens combination to capture that opportunity. Did I need a wide angle, mid angle, or telephoto length lens? That’s all that mattered in the moment that I reached for a camera… and that’s all that ever mattered. Full frame equivalency means absolutely nothing when creating photographs.
How bizarre and counterproductive would it have been for me… when using my Nikon 1 gear… to stop and think to myself, “If I was still shooting with full frame gear what focal length lens would I use to create this image? What aperture would be required with that full frame gear that I no longer own?” Clearly that would have been an idiotic thing for me to do. And, it would have led me down a ridiculous photographic rabbit hole.
When owners of smaller sensor cameras hold on to their full frame habits and beliefs they often make errors with their camera settings. For example, they will sometimes stop their lens down more than is needed. This is particularly common when creating landscape images with wide angle lenses. The wide angle landscape image above was created using an aperture of f/2.8… rather than f/8 or f/11 that would often be selected when using full frame gear.
Stopping a lens down further than is needed with a smaller sensor camera can lead to another potential problem… using a higher ISO value than required… and thus reducing dynamic range. Image quality can suffer as a result. What makes it even worse is that this is a self-induced reduction in image quality. Going down a photographic rabbit hole has that effect on us.
When I began using Nikon 1 gear for my client safety video projects I did so because it was far more time efficient for me than using the full frame Nikon gear I owned in the past. I was able to leave all of my studio lights at home because I could shoot at f/2.8 rather than at f/8 in the rather poorly lit industrial settings in which I had to operate. This was due to the fact that I could get my desired depth-of-field, and the field-of-view I needed, with a Nikon 1 10 mm lens shot at f/2.8, rather than using a full frame 28 mm prime at f/8. This is a simple example of the impact of lens focal length on depth-of-field.
When it comes to our camera gear, the most important thing that a photographer needs to do is relate to their gear… and use it… for what it actually is… not based on some irrelevant notion of full frame equivalency. Not only does that keep us out of entering a photographic rabbit hole, but it also encourages us to learn the nuances of how to get the most out of our smaller sensor camera equipment.
When that happens, we stop trying to use our smaller sensor cameras in exactly the same manner that we used our full frame gear in the past. We’ve escaped the photographic rabbit hole. Our choices of focal lengths, apertures, and distances to subjects can change significantly in order to create the images we have in our minds. We can then maximize the potential of the smaller sensor camera gear that is in our hands.
There may be some folks out there who would love to argue about full frame equivalency notions. Those comments are best posted on other websites. I have no interest in obfuscating the realities of using smaller sensor cameras by giving air to irrelevant notions of full frame equivalency. It’s best not to fall into a photographic rabbit hole.
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.
For those readers who are interested in calculating equivalent field-of-view, multiply focal lengths for Olympus M4/3 cameras by a factor of 2 and Nikon 1 camera by a factor of 2.7. This is the 1,264 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.
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16 thoughts on “Photographic Rabbit Hole”
I entirely agree, but as a hobbyist who began photographing in the film days and used several formats, I still understand the angle of view in terms of 35mm focal lengths. My 45 mm Zuiko is a “portrait” lens like my old 85 mm Nikon. Aside from this I never really bothered about the depth of field equivalence.
I think many photographers used equivalent field-of-view when they are moving into a smaller sensor camera sensor to help ensure that they will be buying the right lenses they need from a field-of-view perspective. I include factors for M4/3 and Nikon 1 in the Technical Note section for this reason.
I see where you’re coming from, Tom. And your perspective is clearly stated.
The problem is, some kind of commonly used standard for field of view is missing in photography (no one that I’ve seen reports in °!) Many of us convert focal lengths to “full frame equivalencies” simply because 35mm was the most-used standard for decades before digital came along.
Having grown through 35mm, 6×7, 4×5, 4/3s, FF, 1” and APS, the one constant for me has been FF equivalencies. When I see focal lengths listed in exif data, like many others, I continue to convert them to FF, but only to get a sense of field of view, to answer what for me is an important question: what focal length did the photographer use to achieve the effect/perspective of the view being shown?
Thanks for your many thoughtful posts!
Thanks for adding your perspectives to the discussion Terry. I do appreciate that some folks will want to calculate equivalent field-of-view which is why I include multiplication factors in the Technical Note section.
Agree totally. Incidentally, I came across this interesting YouTube channel recently, simply explaining this equivalance issue. link here:
Readers will need to understand that this is a fairly long video (~ 20 minutes) with the presenter on screen for most of the video with no change in camera angle, and using a subdued presentation style.
I also find it slightly amusing that 35mm is referred to as full frame. I started photography when snapshooters were still using mostly 126, 127 and 620. Pros, at least local ones, used 120, except 35mm for sports.
The fact that 35mm is considered full frame is a testament to a remarkable path 35mm took from a rather oddball size used mainly by serious amateurs in the mid-1920s to the dominant film size for by the mid-1970s.
Your are right the equivalence is detrimental as far as DOF, but still useful for FOV. At least to those of us who shot 35mm for almost 50 years before going digital.
Thanks for adding your perspectives to the discussion Martin. I’ve wondered what the camera industry will call medium format if it continues to grow in market share. If something is already ‘full’ what does one call something larger than that… jumbo? 🙂
Truly enjoy your articles Thomas, so refreshing to read about the pursuit of photography and not equipment jousting and “measurebating” leading to that rabbit hole!
Excellent writing, and I appreciate how you break things up with your inspiring photography… truly a demonstration of equipment being the least important factor in making images.
I still have some full frame gear, as well as 35mm and medium format film cameras. They are of course very different in some ways, but they are all tools for creating images that satisfy my artistic wants and needs.
Personally, I certainly wouldn’t try to make photographs of flying aircraft at an airshow with my Bronica, so having different tools can at times be beneficial.
If I felt like wandering the woods with a slow methodical camera bolted to a tripod, the the Bronica is something that gives me pleasure to use. But truly, there is nothing I cannot do photographically with the smaller system.
I have found that M/43 strikes an amazingly good balance for practically any photographic situation. Any small differences are easily overcome with technique, and for me, the system is truly a joy to use.
My other systems are only pulled out for a bit of creative juice stirring, because their limitations are far greater. There is no question which format is the most versatile for me, M/43 is my sweet spot.
Thanks for adding your experience and perspectives to the discussion. Your comment reminds me of an old adage of ‘using the right tool for the job’. I appreciate that many photographers use different camera systems for their specific needs. It all comes down to each of us using whatever equipment fits our needs best in our individual journeys to create images. I’m glad that you’ve been enjoying the website and I appreciate your supportive comment.
Part of the rabbit hole is the marketing phrase “full frame.” The implication is that anything less than a 35 mm sensor is just that – less. But the first Leicas were called miniature cameras and except for portability who would want them? They would never catch on. And where does the full frame hype leave those with “medium format” cameras that have sensors four times the size of “full frame”? So I guess full frame actually means 1/4 the size of medium. And, sticking to fractions, 4/3 is bigger than 1/4 by marketing math. I have no problem calling the sensors 35mm and 18mm, but full frame means 4” by 5”.
Like you, I’ve never understood how and why ‘full frame’ i.e. 35 mm sensors became the Holy Grail of photography in terms of marketing. Perhaps it is the relative cost of various camera systems with 35 mm sensors hitting some kind of ‘sweet spot’ from a manufacturer’s standpoint. I agree with your comment that calling something ‘full frame’ infers that anything that uses a smaller sensor is somehow ‘less than’ and inferior.
Part of the objective of this article was to encourage owners of smaller sensor equipment to appreciate the capabilities of what they own and cast off any notions of their gear being less than or inferior to larger sensor cameras. Best is a relative term that each of us defines based on individual photographic needs.
Dear Mr Tomas,
This may sound like “preaching to the choir”, but in the ’90s 135mm was a small film. It was a big jump when I put my hands on a Mamiya… And yes the most important are the lenses and their behavior. Plus nowadays with all the “umpalumpas” working along the processor, we are able to achieve things that were impossible a couple of decades ago. (if people care to learn how we get here and read a book or 2) The trade-off is, we need to learn and retrain ourselves. It’s a fast pace for change. Thank you for your thoughts and photos.
Thanks for adding to the discussion Antonio. I agree that computational photography technologies are redefining what is possible with our cameras. I’m still amazed when I go out with my gear and experience what it can produce for me. As your comment indicates, there is a need for us to learn and retrain ourselves in order to take advantage of these new technologies. That’s from where our personal growth flows.
This article is pertinent for people who bought a small sensor system and are frustrated with their results.
I think that is a good observation. Pre-COVID I did some photographic coaching and some of my clients were finding it difficult to make the transition to a smaller sensor system in terms of adjusting to depth-of-field with shorter focal length lenses.