Full frame mirrorless systems

So now Panasonic have introduced full frame mirrorless cameras. They join the ranks of Sony, Nikon and Canon in having recently released one.

There are undoubted advantages to full frame over APS-C sized sensors. The advantages include:

  • Better high iso performance
  • Better dynamic range
  • More control over shallow depth of field
  • Better resolution

I would argue that these advantages are nowhere near as compelling as some would have you believe.

Some terminology

In the good old days of film there were three main formats:

Large format – huge view cameras taking 5×4 inch sheets of film

Medium format – large cameras using approximately 3 inch sheets of film

Small format – SLRs and compact cameras using 35mm roll film.

Notice that 35mm film was ‘small format’.

In the days of film, the larger formats had a mathematically provable advantage. As they all used the same film emulsions, it was obvious that larger formats used larger films and so had more photographic light receptors than the smaller formats. After all, Fuji Velvia is Fuji Velvia whatever the format. It’s just with large format you had a lot more Fuji Velvia for each shot than with small format.

And this meant far higher resolution. Larger prints. More pleasing projections onto a screen.

The digital misnomer

When digital SLR cameras began to be produced they used a small sensor, the APS-C sensor, mainly to keep costs down.

Of course, this should really have been called tiny format. But that wouldn’t have been so appealing so they called it APS-C. Digicams and mobile phones use even smaller chips and these could, I suppose, be called minuscule format but instead are labelled differently.

In any case, when DSLRs were produced with 35mm film sized imaging chips, the manufacturers pulled off a master stroke. They called it full frame. But, of course, it’s just small format renamed.

The consequences

Knowing this should give us a cognitive perspective shift. Going from APS-C to full frameĀ sounds a lot grander than going from APS-C to small format!

The fact is, if you want a quantum leap forward in terms of image quality then going from APS-C to medium format is the way to go. APS-C to full frame, sorry, small format just doesn’t really provide that leap. Why?

Because APS-C technology today is so good that many of the advantages of small format are negligible.

A 24mp DSLR/mirrorless APS-C camera already provides huge resolution, easily able to produce a good 30″ print.

It also provides fantastic dynamic range. For example, the much underrated Canon M100 has a dynamic range of 12.9 stops.

Contrast that with Fuji Velvia, which only gives 5 stops of dynamic range!

It is true that, by today’s standards, the M100 is a modest performer when it comes to dynamic range. Yet it blasts away a top grade film emulsion such as Velvia!

The truth is, APS-C cameras and their lenses have marched forward technically to the point where an M100 and a decent lens will give results that equal or better virtually every small format film camera ever made.

One area where small/full format cameras really trump their APS-C rivals is in the area of depth of field. But that has more to do with the lens than the chip size.

Small format’s signal to noise ratio is also better, resulting in better high ISO photos.

But noise reduction and shooting RAW allows APS-C cameras to produce very acceptable images even in poor lighting.

If you pixel peep, yes you’ll see differences. But in the final print/on screen I doubt you’d see much to compel you to pay 3 to 6 times more for the privilege of shooting small format.

It’s always worth remembering that no camera will make you a better photographer. Practice and training will do that.

So, should I upgrade to full frame/small format?

If you can afford to without having to sacrifice something important, then why not? These are great cameras and you’ll enjoy using them.

But if purchasing any gear means foregoing a holiday, a photo trip or taking your soul mate out for dinner then no, it’s not worth it.

And if you can afford to go to small format then look at the medium format opportunities. That format does provide tangible benefits that will be seen in print and on screen.

Just my 2 cents!

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