Quote unquote “full-frame,” that is. No one can deny that Micro Four Thirds is as much full-frame as is APS-C as is 35mm-based “full-frame”… Full-frame referring to 35mm format is a bit of an accidental term that just stuck. Full-frame simply means lens coverage with respect to sensor or film. For the basics on this, read our backgrounder on equivalence. 35mm frame was the first popular, commonly used format. So that kind of set the “standard” we’re stuck with today. Instead of “35mm equivalent,” a 35mm sensor is called “full-frame.” Until only recently smaller sensors were clearly less capable. Today, what are a 35mm sensor’s distinct advantages, if any? Do I absolutely have to long for a “full-frame” camera?
In terms of imaging quality, bigger will always be better. Period. You can twist and turn this simple fact as much as you want. But that doesn’t mean a bigger sensor is better for photography. Here are the main aspects to consider:
Size and Weight
You can’t reinvent physics, even though there are more and more advanced in-camera and post-processing workarounds to offset certain disadvantages inherent to a given focal length, such as distortion, vignetting or corner softness. Size and weight though are the two great factors speaking for the “smaller can be better” approach. Take Olympus latest lineup of fine primes, notably the 12mm F2, 45mm F1.8 and 75mm F1.8. With the tiny gear you might look like a dwarf beside the pro with the big guns. You’re however perfectly capable of delivering similar if not the same goods. So smaller sensors enjoy the advantage in regard to size and weight relative to IQ.
Processing Speeds and Autofocus
Right, a larger body can pack more electronics promising better processing speeds, higher frames per second, better autofocus and so on… am afraid this is not necessarily true any longer. So let’s call this a draw.
Composing with a full-frame camera’s viewfinder can be like seeing for the first time when coming from a crop-factor DSLR. Full-frame viewfinders are a class of its own in regard to size and clarity. You’re no longer staring down a tunnel. Make sure you get a camera with 100% viewfinder. True, you can get used to anything. Nothing beats a big fine viewfinder, and yes, you better get used to EVFs. Guess the bigger sensor bags this win.
Depth of Field vs. Bokeh
The larger the sensor, the easier to cream that background. The smaller the sensor, the easier to get incredible depth of field even at quite wide apertures. Macro photographers love this while your long lenses become even longer. For nature, wildlife and sports enthusiasts, it might make more sense to stick with a smaller sensor. An advantage of larger sensor lenses is that they show certain “character.” Smaller lenses with less complex construction tend to render more sterile images. Certain optical characteristics may add a distinct flavor to a composition. Perfect images with pixel-to-pixel sharpness and no vignetting whatsoever? That’s bordering on boredom. I prefer more flexibility when composing, so the point goes to the larger sensor.
You get what you see with any sensor format. Still, lens denominations are misleading to say the least. The above mentioned Olympus 12mm, 45mm and 75mm lenses give you a 24mm, 90mm and 150mm perspective. Camera and lens makers could do everyone a big favor by agreeing on a binding standard. The commonly used standard now refers to the classic 135 camera. Even the Ricoh GXR camera units use this standard. Ricoh explicitly states that lens focal lengths are converted into 35mm camera equivalents. So what they advertise as a 50mm F2.5 is in fact a 33mm on their 1.5x crop sensor. Camera makers, spare us the many different units and refer to 35mm as the mother of all standards and therefore binding focal length. So you instantly know what 24mm or 50mm mean and can easily previsualize the shoot. I’d say that’s a positive win for 35mm full-frame format.
Every photographer loves large good photosites that can take in more light. The Nikon D800, however, seems proof that the size of photosites is no longer all that matters. That sensor squeezes in 50% more pixels than its direct competitor, the Canon 5D Mark III. We’re not getting into an argument which one’s the better camera. Fact is (or was until now) that larger photosites render a greater tonal range, smoother tonal transitions, better blacks and lower noise. Even with smaller photosites the Nikon still gets great dynamic range. There goes the Canon’s expected advantage. Looks like the size of photosites matters no more as much as it once did. Especially at the low end of the high ISO spectrum, the disadvantages of smaller photosites don’t yet become an issue. So that’s a draw in the battle between smaller and larger sensors.
Luckily the megapixel war is over. By now everyone should know that cramming in more pixels was mainly good for marketing hype and reducing IQ. You can be perfectly fine with 15MP. In most cases not the camera is the limiting factor, but the lens and printer. You can even upscale the output of a 10MP sensor to 30″ prints and retain good detail. Again a draw between smaller and larger sensors.
Today a Micro Four Thirds camera can indeed compete with a full-frame camera. Differences boil down to minor details that the human eye can hardly detect. Still, a full-frame digital SLR — or HD SLR as they’re called nowadays — is an amazing tool. But it’s just that, a tool with certain advantages and disadvantages, such as that larger sensors make your lenses wider and smaller sensors make them longer.
Good low light performance, however, isn’t anymore a privilege of cameras with bigger sensors. Mastering photography is less about the sensor and its photosites than the lenses used. Full-frame camera lenses based on the 35mm standard have more resolving power and are more capable of giving your images a fuller kind of three-dimensional look whereas smaller lenses tend to look flat.
Agreed, those are highly subjective parameters no review can pinpoint or measure. So the advantage of a “fuller, more 3D” look is a highly relative one. But, if you ask me, it the only major advantage remaining speaking for the use of 35mm full-frame.
Others just don’t feel comfortable with small gear. Who wants to deny that it doesn’t look quite the same when you’re posing for a shot with a tiny camera as opposed to larger format cameras. But do they really need all that extra cost, weight and time investment? Or do they always print larger than say A3+?
If full-frame DSLRs are too bulky for you, rest assured it’s just a matter of time until compact full-frame cameras with interchangeable lenses arrive, most likely first by Sony and then Fujifilm.
Well there’s always the Leica M digital with its outstanding glass. Terribly expensive, but glass lasts and if you might not upgrade for many years to come, meaning in the end you pay less than when upgrading again and again with more conventional gear.