Do You Need Full-Frame?

I have been slow in updating this site recently, as I have been busy going through a lot of stock and private images. My family prefer not to have their images shared in public πŸ˜› , and stock photographs being what they are – look extremely boring. πŸ˜› πŸ˜›

Fortunately, there is still something constructive I can share in writing during this lull.

I wish to talk about whether one really needs a full-frame (abbreviated FF) camera. FF has been perceived as the ultimate medium for image quality as long as we do not cross over to the pro-level medium-format and its eye-watering price tags. The best medium one can buy within the boundaries of (relative) affordability. However, does one really need it? I shoot with an FF body, and I myself question whether I should down-size to a smaller format, considering how FF is bigger and heavier. Indeed, Sony’s series of FF mirrorless cameras has proved that it does not matter even if we remove the mirror – the lenses will still be big and heavy. Unless you only shoot with pancakes or prime lenses that are f/2.8 or slower, the final size and weight of the final package makes little practical real-life difference compared to a FF DSLR.

I started shooting with APS-C around 2011 before switching to FF in 2013. The main reason for doing so was because I had several images at ISO 3,200 during then which were simply too noisy for any amount of post-processing to correct. Obviously your mileage and preferences vary. What I find unacceptable at ISO 3,200 may be acceptable to another. What another finds unacceptable at ISO 1,600 may be acceptable to me. However, back then I was looking at some images that I thought were really good captured moments that were ruined by the poor high ISO performance.

So I made the switch to FF. However I still continued to monitor the ISO performance of new APS-C cameras. Dpreview has a convenient image comparison tool that allows for easy comparison of RAW image quality at different ISOs of different cameras. Perhaps one day APS-C will be good enough to satisfy my needs and I could down-size to something more portable.

The state of affairs as of July 2016 is this: APS-C at ISO 3,200 is still not acceptable to me. An FF D610 at ISO 6,400 is reasonably good enough that after careful processing, can get accepted as a stock image.

But do you really shoot at such ISOs often? Come to think of it, even I don’t shoot at such high ISOs regularly – except when the need arises. πŸ™‚ After all everyone tries to shoot at the lowest ISO whenever possible for the best image quality. In addition, a flash on your camera or a tripod beside you are sufficient to do away with most high ISO needs.

Exceptions are when you can’t use a flash or tripod, or when your subject is too far away (wildlife and sports photography). I just took pictures of family and stock objects at several locations where flash photography is prohibited. There are also many real-life instances where carrying and setting up a tripod wherever you go is inconvenient, ill-advised, or both. Being able to get a memorable and usable picture of a loved one hand-held at ISO 6,400 with an FF camera with no flash and no tripod is extremely satisfying!

Sensor size also has some effect on resolution. The pixel density of a 24MP APS-C sensor is actually similar to that of a 50+ MP FF sensor. It is generally easier to increase resolution on a larger sensor than on a smaller sensor. If you require higher resolution, an FF sensor would provide more scalability. But how much resolution do you really need? Personally I am very happy with 24MP and is content to stay with it for the foreseeable future. Bear in mind that having accurate focus and good glass is more important for image sharpness than megapixels!

There is also the subject of background blur or bokeh. Larger formats will always give you a more shallow DOF at the same aperture size. (Conversely it is easier for a smaller format to give you more DOF coverage when you need it!) What this means in layman terms is that you may require a 35mm f/1.2 lens wide-open on APS-C to create the equivalent shallow DOF effect produced by a 50mm f/1.8 lens wide-open on FF. But do you often shoot at wide apertures? Again this depends on the individual’s creative preference. I know some wedding photographers who regularly shoot wide-open to capture that dreamy shallow DOF look which brides and girlfriends really like. I personally very rarely shoot wide-open.

So do I need FF? I guess my high ISO needs will make me stick with it for the time being. Maybe one day I would feel I no longer need to shoot at high ISOs and migrate to a smaller format. But do you need FF? Only you can decide. Just do not be hesitant to choose a smaller format if it really suits you. The less bulk you have to carry around, the better you can shoot. But do not shy away from picking FF if that is really the best format for your style of taking pictures. Have fun shooting! – WY

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