Dodging the Full Frame Bullet

Josh, Precision Camera - Austin, Texas

Josh, Precision Camera – Austin, Texas

I’m always amused how even relatively novice photographers get hot and heavy for full frame. It now seems to be the must-have photography tool. Especially since prices have decreased to almost reasonable levels. And certainly, the full frame moniker that organically evolved around digital sounds compelling. It must be good, it’s “full”, right? Much better than medium format, for example, because “full” sounds more impressive than “medium”.

There’s nothing special about full frame, of course. It’s just a larger sensor which has its pluses and minuses. It matches the traditional 35mm film format, known also as Kodak 135 which measures 24x36mm. By the way, back in the film days, 35mm or the current full frame size was known as a small format, originally designed for amateurs. Serious photographers shot medium format or large format.

Digital sensors are so good now that even smaller sensors, like micro 4/3 out resolve 35mm or even medium format film. So if it’s resolution, details, and noise characteristics you want to optimize, any modern interchangeable lens camera will do the trick. No need for full frame. About the only practical advantage, you get from full frame is an extremely shallow depth of field, which can be desirable mostly in portrait photography.

I’ve analyzed all the new and existing full-frame mirrorless cameras out there, and here’s what I’ve concluded.

The logical camera for me is the Canon EOS R line since I have a bunch of existing Canon lenses and Canon 6D DSLR. The Canon EOS R and RP seem like first generation products. They don’t have particularly compelling sensors and focusing systems, and most importantly, no in-body image stabilization. Both cameras will be an improvement over my Canon 6D, but not enough of one to justify the $1300 to $2000 price.

The Panasonic S1 and S1R cameras are even more expensive. They appear to be the best-built mirrorless full frame cameras but the camera body and lenses are much too large for my needs.

The Nikon Z6 is my favorite full frame mirrorless camera. But, I don’t have any full frame Nikon lenses and I will have to buy the entire system from scratch. The camera is more compelling over the Canon but it will probably cost me north of $4000 to buy a camera and lens combination that I want.

The Sony A7 III is the most mature and high performing full frame mirrorless system out of this group. On a technical level, it seems to do everything well. Being the third generation, Sony has continued to refine the camera, and it shows. The Sony color has improved over previous versions and now seems adequate during my quick tests. My biggest gripe is the physical ergonomics of the camera and the user interface and menu system. Can I get used to it? Sure, probably. Do I want to? No, not really. I know this is a personal thing. But to me, the Sony cameras feel more like a computer and less like a camera. The cost for getting into the system is similar to the Nikon Z6.

While I’m generally happy with Olympus, there are limitations that I wanted to address. Shallow depth of field portraits are one of them. I mentioned recently that I’m impressed with what Fujifilm has done over the last few years with their rational approach to camera and lens design.

I made this picture of Josh at the Spring Expo at Precision Camera. I extensively tested the Fuji cameras and lenses and came away impressed, including the sweet 56mm f1.2 lens that I used to make this photo. The more I looked into it, the more Fujifilm seems to address some of my desired needs. Enough so that it eliminated, for now, any consideration for full frame. The Fujis are not without critical weaknesses, however. Including one that’s very important to me. I’ll talk more about this tomorrow.

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10 thoughts on “Dodging the Full Frame Bullet

  1. My roommate in college was a professional photographer, he usually shot with 4×5 but was always pining for a “real” camera (8×10). I’m more than happy with M43 for the duration, there’s no way I would carry full frame, especially for the marginal (oftentimes nonexistent) benefit.

    1. Hi David, thanks for your visit and comment. Yup, it’s all about trade offs. People seem to forget that if they have a reflexive want for full frame without figuring out their photographic needs.

  2. Welcome to the dark side. You’re not going to whine about the lack of in-body image stabilization in your Fuji are you? 😉 Just crank it to ISO bazillion. It’ll be fine. I’ve shot concerts at ISO 12800 and the pictures look great.

  3. What attracted me to full-frame was shooting the night sky. Larger sensor generally means better light sensitivity. But it is bulky and expensive. If that wasn’t important, I probably still be at APS-C.

  4. You can do shallow DOF on Olympus with pro lenses or 75/1.8. You jump around systems easily because you don’t have these lenses more likely you use kit lenses which of course won’t give you DOF you’re looking for.

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