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The Full Frame Myth 

By Michael Reichmann

"Size matters" – Godzilla

"But not as much as it used to" – Michael Reichmann

It's now been more than a decade since digital imaging hit its stride and changed the way in which we do photography. Back in the day, I was convinced that the future lay in Full Frame digital. Then, and even now, full frame was very expensive, much more so than APS-C, and although prices have dropped over-all, it's still a rule of silicon manufacturing that larger sensors cost more to make. A lot more. It also has been a long-held popular belief, by myself as well, that a larger sensor is necessary for top image quality.

There is an almost exponential relationship between size and price when it comes to sensor fabrication. A wafer can hold hundreds of point-and-shoot sized sensors, and if a few are defective it's not a big deal. The same wafer can only hold a few full-frame 35mm sensors, and an unavoidable defect or two contributes to making costs even higher, because of the lower yield per centimeter of wafer real-estate. APS-C and Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensors fall in between, but certainly in the lower cost range.

Sunflowers — Credit Valley, Ontario. August, 2004
Contax 645 with 16 Megapixel Kodak DCS Proback 645C
and 120mm Zeiss f/4 Apo-Makro Planar

The Future Ain't What it Used to Be

As written above, it has been a rule of thumb (some even believe a law of nature) since the dawn of the digital camera era at the turn of the past century, that for the highest possible image quality one needed to use the largest possible sensor. And indeed, medium format digital backs and their stratospheric prices, along with the first couple of generations of Full Frame 35mm and their also very high prices, bore this out. If you wanted a high megapixel count along with large photo sites this was the road to travel.

But then a funny thing started to happen about three or four years ago. Many photographers started to find that they were getting truly excellent image quality from APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras. Once pixel count got to about 16 Megapixels, the number of pixels itself stopped being something to pursue just for its own sake. Of course higher resolution sensors offering 24MP and 36MP allow one to produce larger prints, and crop severely if necessary. But, for most photographers somewhere in the 16-20MP range was sufficient at a practical level.

More importantly, when using mid-sized sensors, such as in APS-C and MFT cameras, 16MP turned out no longer to be a stretch in terms of image quality. Anyone who has shot with the latest generation of mid-sized sensor cameras, especially those from Fuji, Olympus or Panasonic, will likely attest that today's cameras produce extremely high quality images, both in terms of resolution and noise. The reason is that while photographers were focusing (no pun intended) on megapixel count the sensor makers focused on technologies that allowed smaller than full frame sensors to produce image quality that meets or surpasses that from full frame sensors of just a few years ago.

Girl in Procession #1. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2013
16MP Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 @ ISO 200

Selling Cameras

Of course what drives the industry is not photographer's needs for more pixels or higher image quality. It is driven by the need of camera makers to keep selling cameras and to generate continuing profits for their shareholders. Good enough, may indeed be "good enough", but that doesn't sell cameras.

Selling more megapixels was a good pitch to use for a long time. When serious cameras had 3MP, 6MP and 8MP, photographers knew that they needed more. We were used to making 11X14" prints for exhibition and display from 135mm film, and sometimes a 16X20", though this was pushing the small format to its limits for very high quality reproduction. Digital cameras with less than 11MP were hard pressed to give us the large prints that we wanted and needed, and for a long time 11MP was the exclusive domain of Full Frame (and of course Medium Format).

But then in the last few years we reached the 16-18MP range from medium-sized sensor cameras (1.5X to 2X) and many of us found that the image quality was pretty terrific. ISOs up to 1600 were clean, and even higher was pretty good. Of course camera makers were happy to sell us cameras with higher megapixel counts, but to maintain image quality the only way to do this was to sell full frame cameras, and thus we now have them with 24MP and 36MP sensors.

But, unless we are making really big prints for exhibition (and how many really do that on a regular basis?) do we need full-frame? These days this is really asking – do we need pixel counts much above 24MP, and therefore a full-frame sensor?

Girl on Staircase. Guanajuato, Mexico. December, 2013
36MP Sony A7r with Leica Tri-Elmar at 50mm. ISO 2500

Do I Need a Full Frame Camera for The Best Image Quality?

This is one of the questions that I am asked the most, after – "What camera should I buy"? – which is akin to "What car should I buy?", and just as unanswerable. But I can answer the question, "Do I need a full frame camera for the best image quality?" The answer is yes, and no. 

It's yes, if you need pixel counts of 24MP or higher because you make large prints. It's likely no if you print smaller than 16X20", and also don't need to do strong cropping.

Till now Full Frame has had a serious drawback, and that's camera size and weight, as well of that of lenses needed to cover the format with a DSLR.

But Full Frame has now become a moving target, and Sony has just seriously moved the goal posts – to mix a couple of metaphors. Up until the release of the Sony A7 and A7r in late 2013 it would have been safe to say, or write, that the compromise for Full Frame's higher resolution was larger, bulkier bodies and also larger, heavier lenses. But the new Sonys knock that postulate into a cocked hat. These cameras are in fact as small and as light as some MFT cameras, let alone APS-C models.

Sony's trick, of course, was in doing away with the prism and mirror housing and replacing it with a very high quality electronic finder. One can debate whether this new generation of EVFs is as good as, or as pleasurable to use as a large optical mirror / prism system, but it's hard to dispute that they are much better than EVFs of even a couple of years ago, and for many users they are now "good enough".

But the A7 and A7r did not arrive without an Achilles Heel of sorts... a lack of native full frame lenses. If there had been a few appropriate primes and a couple of pro-grade zooms at launch Sony would have been sold out their A7 and A7r camera production for the next 12 months. But, sadly, that's how long it's going to take until there is a decent set of lenses available in FE mount. Yes, there are no end of legacy lenses available via mount adaptors, but all involve some sort of compromise, either in functionality or size.

And here lies the rub. A lens has to be of a certain size to cover full frame. That size is now smaller than it used to be, because FE mount lenses don't have to have the large rear register distance that ones designed for DSLRs did. By way of comparison have a look at Leica M lenses vs. SLR lenses. They have always been considerably smaller. Compare the size of a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux, for example, to a Nikon or Canon 35mm f/1.4. The implication of this is that the size and weight disadvantage of digital full frame is rapidly disappearing. And if I were a manufacturer committed to the Micro Four Thirds format I'd be looking over my shoulder nervously. Very nervously!

But this mostly lies in the future. Today, with the exception of Sony's two new models, Full Frame means a Canon 24MP DSLR or a Nikon 36MP DSLR, and these are big beasts that require pretty large lenses. 

That brings us to APS-C and Micro Four Thirds. APS-C camera users, at least those whose cameras are of DSLR design, don't get much of a break. The cameras aren't that much smaller and lighter than Full Frame,  and most people use full frame capable lenses, because to buy APS-C specific lenses locks you out of an eventual full-frame upgrade, and they aren't that much smaller and lighter in any event. Finally, few if any are of Pro grade.

Fire Escape and Window. Guanajuato, Mexico. December, 2013
16MP Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 @ ISO 200

Mirrorless APS-C and Micro Four Thirds

Which brings us to the third act of this play. My experience of the past couple of years is that Fuji's mirrorless APS-C cameras and lenses, and MFT cameras from Olympus and Panasonic with the latest generation of sensors, leave little if anything to be desired in terms of basic image quality.

Of course they are limited at the moment to 16 Megapixels, but frankly, that's usually enough for me, and I regular exhibit my work in galleries as large prints. High ISO? Well, yes, some cameras with larger sensors and lower pixel counts offer a stop or two better high ISOs, but frankly, the last time I shot anything serious at higher than ISO 3200 was...I don't remember.

The trade-off over Full Frame (and yes, I own a Nikon D800e, so I am fully aware of the pros and cons on both sides of the equation), is the smaller and lighter bodies and the smaller and lighter lenses. It's a trade-off that I am willing to make without regret a lot of the time.

For example, the type of street shooting which I enjoy doing, while I spend part of the year in Mexico, relies on my walking the streets of towns and villages with a minimal kit. A large DSLR with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens just is asking to be noticed, and this means missing great shooting opportunities. Small systems are much less intimidating when doing documentary style street shooting, not to mention that a small shoulder bag can easily carry a body and three or four lenses, and do so all day without user fatigue. 

Then there's the issue of travel. If I'm doing landscape shooting and I'm getting around by car, then I'll use the biggest, badest system that I have available. Either medium format or Full Frame 35mm. But when I'm traveling by air, frankly – I've had it with large heavy camera bags and the limitations of carry-on. The new mirrorless systems just make those aspects of travel that much simpler and less problematic.

What I find interesting, is that the latest statistics (Nov., 2013) show that mirrorless systems are becoming very popular in Asia, followed by Europe. North America? Not so much. Indeed Americans and Canadians seem wedded to their large cameras and lenses in the same way as they are to their large vehicles. (Hey – don't look at me, I drive an SUV with a V8 engine, so I'm no example of anything green or politically correct). But, I can rationalize my SUV because I do a lot of off road travel during the part of the year that I'm in Mexico, and need a serious 4WD vehicle to do it – or a jacked-up pickup truck such as used by the locals, but that's not quite my style.

So there you have it. Much of the world is embracing Compact System Cameras because image quality meets their needs and the advantages of small size and lighter weight are appreciated. North Americans stick to their large cameras, want full frame, and don't seem to mind lugging large and heavy systems around as they travel.

Now, Sony has kicked everyone's ass (or at least will in a year or so when they have a proper slate of lenses available to go with their new mirrorless full frame system). APS-C will find itself monkey-in-the-middle, and MFT may find that its calling card, smaller size and lighter weight, has effectively disappeared. The new generation of small Full Frame systems will always carry a premium price, because large sensors will always remain more expensive to manufacture. But I believe that even that disparity will shrink, just as Full Frame cameras and lenses are now doing.

Of course there'll be the argument for the big and bright optical prism / mirror system over the EVF, but that's a story for another day.

Interesting times, huh?

Michael Reichmann
December, 2013

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Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Digital photography, Digital camera, Pixel, Image resolution, Camera, Image sensor

Entities: Sony, Nikon, Fuji, Olympus, Kodak, Panasonic, Contax, Leica, Asia, Europe, Mexico, North America, Summilux, Digital cameras, digital camera, calling card, Credit Valley, Michael Reichmann, Michael Reichmann, D800e, Ontario, MFT, Sonys, SLR, APS-C

Tags: image quality, frame, cameras, Micro Four Thirds, best image quality, frame cameras, MFT cameras, frame capable lenses, frame lenses, mid-sized sensor cameras, medium-sized sensor cameras, large prints, pretty large lenses, APS-C specific lenses, high quality, large cameras, Frame digital, higher image quality, possible image quality, sensors, higher resolution sensors, point-and-shoot sized sensors, high quality images, digital full frame, Thirds cameras, basic image quality, high quality reproduction, digital camera era, larger sensors, large photo sites, higher megapixel counts, small Full Frame, high megapixel count, large heavy camera, mirrorless full frame, APS-C camera users, Digital cameras, mirrorless camera systems, camera makers, largest possible sensor