Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Photography Blog: Do you need Full Frame?

The Bursledon Blog had a post about cameras and how much the tech is required which interested me as it's a topic I've been thinking about. In particular, the long debated question "do you need full frame?".

This question relates to sensor size which relates to how big a camera is and a whole host of other factors. Basically, the order is:

  • Full frame 36 x 24mm 
  • APSC 24 x 16mm e.g. my Sony A6xxx series, shown above
  • 4/3rds 17 x 13 mm
  • 1 inch 13 x 9 mm e.g. my Sony RX100m4
  • 1/2.3 inch e.g. my GoPro 5 Black, Mavic Pro drone
  • 1/2.6 inch 5.5mm x 4.1mm e.g. my Pixel 2 phone

There is a school of thought that to be a true photographer you have to use full frame and only noobs and amateurs use anything else. But is that right?

As always, the answer it that it depends, most importantly, on what sort of photography you do, and is strongly connected to the choice of lens.

Many years ago I did a camera comparison and Tillerman commented all the photos looked very similar, which is a good point. For scenes such as these, well lit, using medium aperture and results displayed on small sizes on a screen, there is very little difference and so you don't need full frame.

However there are times when this is not true, such as:

  • if you want shallow depth of field and use lenses with large aperture, then full frame is better (e.g. for portraits)
  • if you want to take photos and videos in low light, then larger sensor (again, with suitable lens) is better

But how often is that the case for you? With me its not that often, as I get sufficiently shallow depth of field for portraits with my APSC camera if use longer focal length and/or shoot wide open. Also, these tend to be family photos, so the moment and expression are most important, not technical details.

That's an important point: very often its composition that is key, not technical details for pixel peepers. On one of my Greenland trips, someone was just taking photos on his phone and they were great - but he was a film director, used to thinking about composition and using what he had.

The APSC camera is usually, but not always, ok with low light scenes. Sometimes you can get away using a tripod, other times there is actually enough light (e.g. London at night isn't that dark). But there are shots my A6500 can't handle - such as I tried to take a video of us sailing off Morocco under moonlight, and the noise & lack of dynamic range were disappointing.

However that's rare, and there's another consideration, which is weight and size. I take pictures for fun, often while travelling, and there is a significant difference in weight between full frame and APSC. On another Greenland trip I was there with my A6300 and someone else had the full frame Canon 5Dm3. In a battle on features the A6300 would win on all counts apart from sensor size and yet was literally half the size and weight, which to me is an important factor.

And if you're going to crop, e.g. for wildlife photography, you might as well go APSC to start with.

If you're a professional photographer then maybe you'd take what is required because its a job, but I was off travelling for fun, and that fun is a lot less if you're carrying many kilos of weight you don't need most of the time.

There's a saying that the best camera is the one you have with you: yes, the APSC camera might struggle with some shots but if the full frame is so large you leave it at home, you might actually get more shots using a smaller sensor camera as you'd actually bring it.

Then there are specialised niches, such as action cameras. Yes, you could strap a full frame camera to you head and take videos of you zooming down mountains, but its much more sensible to use a GoPro even if its sensor is smaller.

Similarly you might want a stabilised camera, using (say) a gimbal. These are what professionals use to get the butter smooth flowing shots, but that all adds weight. Say you have a full frame camera, good lens & gimbal - that might be 2 - 3 kg in total. Plus you'd need other stuff like ND filters, batteries, external mics, recorders etc etc. Yes the results might look great, but I'd never travel with it.

Instead what I've recently got is the DJI Osmo Pocket, small enough to take anywhere and weighing only 118 grams. Ok, the image isn't brilliant but what matters is story telling and the best camera is the one you have on you, and you can take this anywhere.

So there's not simple answer: it depends on what sort of photography you do.

Maybe one day I'll go full frame, but don't feel you have to. Focus on composition and think about what lenses you need.


Alden Smith said...

Thanks for this post and your point of view - I am in the market for a new camera and have been mulling over the very issues that you talk about - usability is the key for yachtees. In fact I have been looking at the Sony A6500 and wondering whether I should wait for the talked about A6700 which is coming out (of course there is ALWAYS a new version on the horizon!).

JP said...

Hi Adam,

Yes the mythical A6700 or A7000 or whatever, I've been waiting a long time for that!

Generally very happy with the A6500, it combines a lot of power, high IQ and features in a small body, which makes it great for those wanting to travel light and yet do a lot. The 18-135 lens is pretty flexible so the combination would be a good starting point. For video on a boat its really worth getting an external microphone with dead cat to avoid wind noise - I have a Sony ECM-XYST1M but many vloggers use Rodes mics.

It's worth taking a bit of time learning all the features and customising the UI (buttons and Fn options) to make sure you know how to change settings when needed. It has usability - when you know how to use it!

My wish list for the A-next is enhanced IBIS, extra control wheel and that new focus algorithm - not into selfies so don't have a great need for that flip up/round screen (hence might skip the A6400)

But we're lucky as at the moment there's a lot of choice. I haven't used the Fuji XT-3 (also APSC) but it got a lot of rave reviews. It's larger but has more control wheels which can make it more intuitive. The Sony A7iii would be a no-brainer if you want to go full frame

I prefer an interchangeable lens camera because of the flexibility: to switch from wide angle, large aperture for landscape & low light to long zoom for wildlife & sport. The sensor size of APSC is a trade off between size/weight and image quality (IQ)

Alden Smith said...

Just a slight correct there JP - (I have nothing against that archetypal name Adam - but my name is Alden) - My namesake is John G Alden, the great American Yacht designer.

All that you say in your reply is also good information. I am also taken by the Fuji XT-3 but are awaiting the new version (I think image stabilization is an issue with the XT-3 but again whatever camera is produced there will always be something not quite right - I think this may be a sales strategy to keep us always purchasing the new version as we wait for the non existent perfect camera.

I have no experience taking video but making videos for my Blog is something that I would like to do in the future - so thanks for the information.

JP said...

Oh my gosh, so sorry, need to increase the font size on my monitor (or get new glasses!)

So, Alden, yes there is always the "next thing" coming. Most modern cameras are hybrids, equally able to do both video and stills, though some have limitations, like the new Canon R mount cameras which have large crop factors for video but not stills. So if you feel like trying video (which is fun, though a whole different skill set) either the Sonys or XT-3 should be capable enough (though the lack of IBIS in the latter is a drawback).

There's an interesting article up on dpreview about APSC and Sigma's lenses for it - their 16mm f1/4 is something I have been thinking about for low light situations like that moonlight video on the Morocco sailing trip.

Sounds like you're on the right track with your thinking