Is it Time to Go Full Frame?

I haven’t been using my SLR much lately. Our summer was really busy and I haven’t been home very often since November. Lugging my camera all over the place was getting annoying and most of my photos ended up on Facebook anyway, making my phone an easy replacement. The photos were of reasonable quality and didn’t require any post-processing, plus I could take videos, panoramas, and HDRs with no extra effort. I took photos here and there with my SLR but the majority came from my phone. At the time it was a good decision – I was tired from life so I stopped caring about serious photography for a bit. Lightroom got lonely.

After six months of using my phone almost exclusively I’m really missing my SLR. While my phone is convenient, it’s limited in terms of anything outside of Facebook, despite Apple’s best efforts to convince me with its Shot on iPhone campaign. There are very few parameters that can be controlled and I hate using a touch interface for anything but immediate photos. I don’t use fancy camera apps because they are too cumbersome and defeat the purpose of using my phone in the first place. There are no zoom options (pinching just crops the photo) so there is no way to get the close detail photos that I love, nor is it easy to achieve any sort of blur in the background.

As I said, the images look fine for Facebook, but blow them up and they are just terrible. Zoomed-in, details are blotchy, lacking any sort of definition, as if everything was just averaged together and smoothed out. The shadows and highlights are grainy and blocky. The images are JPEG files which provide very little latitude to correct any issues in post. My SLR is the opposite – out of camera its RAW images look flat and dull, but after a little massaging in Lightroom they look amazing.

A camera on a cell phone shouldn’t be compared with a DSLR, so why am I trying to use it as one? I don’t know, so I’m going to stop. I came to this epiphany while staying in Redmond Washington for work. My hotel is right next to a beautiful park with long winding hiking trails. The trails follow a stream and there are plenty of trees, shrubs, flowers, ducks, geese, people, and other subjects to photograph. The temperature in the area hovers between 40 and 60 degrees throughout the winter (or at least since I’ve been here) so there is plenty of plant life available and numerous opportunities to go out and capture the world.

As I walked along the trails one Saturday I immediately began missing my camera. There was so much to photograph! There were so many ducks and geese that I could zoom right in on with my 70-200mm f/4 lens, so many plants I could macro with my 60mm f/2.8, and so many other things I could snag with my 17 – 55 f/2.8. I tried in vain to use my phone to capture everything but struggled with an inability to zoom with any quality. The photos looked nice on-screen but not very nice on my MAc. I didn’t really expect them to be great up-close but I had some hope.

It’s time for me to pick up my SLR again and get reacquainted; I’ve been thinking photography for the past couple weeks now in anticipation. In fact, I realized that it may be the perfect time for an upgrade.

Crop & Full Frame

My camera is nearly 6 years old, having been purchased brand new about 7 months after it was released. Over the years I have expanded my lens collection, replacing lower quality variable aperture zooms with fixed aperture L-class glass and adding new focal lengths such as 60mm macro. The camera body, and of course the sensor inside, has remained the same. It takes beautiful photos when given enough light but it has always struggled in lower light scenarios where I have to push the ISO above 800. ISO 1600 is about as high as I will go and even with that I can’t really get the noise down and the detail up to an acceptable level. It’s time to start considering an upgrade, especially if I’m going to start using it again. Plus its bonus season 🙂

My 7D has what is known as a crop sensor, meaning that the image sensor is physically smaller than a frame of 35mm film. This magnifies the focal length of the lens by a factor of 1.6, making the lens zoom in further. A 200mm lens on my camera magnifies an the image like a 320mm lens on a film camera. This means that the camera gets the “best” part of the lens (by cropping out the edges) but also shows any imperfections in the glass.  The sensor’s smaller size reduces the amount of light it gathers, limiting to a degree, the depth of field achievable at various apertures. It also generates noisier images  because its photo receptors are small and close together. On the positive side, crop sensor cameras are light, the lenses can be cheaper, they can shoot fast continuous frames, and their additional reach (due to focal length multiplication) makes them great for sports and wildlife photography.

Full frame DLSRs have image sensors that are the same size as a frame of 35mm film. The sensors are larger and gather more light, which allows them to maintain low noise at higher ISOs, generate more detail, and provide the same depth of field as film cameras. Lenses are not magnified so the standard rules of focal lengths apply in terms of perspective and distortion. Full frame cameras are larger, heavier, more expensive, and use different lenses than crop-sensor cameras. While all crop sensor cameras can use non-crop lenses, most full frame DSLRs cannot use crop lenses (except Nikons).

A common path for a digital photographer is to start off with a crop sensor and later upgrade to full frame. The majority of professionals use full frame cameras to get the best quality they can, which makes sense because it is their livelihood. The necessity for a hobbyist photographer is a bit less clear and requires deep consideration. Over the years I’ve considered this possibility and as a result I own a mixture of crop sensor and full frame lenses. My 17 – 55 f/2.8 and 60mm f/2.8 macro are crop, and my 28 – 105 f/4L  and amazing 70-200mm f/4L are full frame. If I were to upgrade to a full frame Canon, I’d already have two lenses for it.

So is Full Frame for Me?

Full frame cameras provide a lot of advantages but that doesn’t make them a no-brainer. I already complain about dragging my camera around with me so getting  something that is bigger might not be the best “choice”, as I’d tell the boys. Crop sensor quality has improved in the past six years and current models have competitive autofocus, continuous shooting, and other features. Full frame cameras are also more expensive and would not work with some of my existing lenses.

From the other perspective I want to use my great full frame lenses the way they are intended. I want to use my 70 – 200mm for sharp portraits with beautiful background blur where I don’t have to be 20 feet away to take the photo. I want the depth of field (or lack of) that I deserve at f/4 or f/2.8 so my subjects can really stand out from the background! More than that I want the image quality improvement that comes with a larger sensor. I want to take photos inside that don’t look like noisy, lifeless junk even after significant massaging in post.

Will a full frame camera do all these things for me? I think so, but it’s not guaranteed. The camera doesn’t make the photographer, but it makes it easier to be the photographer. I have a lot of options and I’m going to explore full frame. I’ll start by picking up my trusty 7D and getting reacquainted with photography in general. I’ll visit my local Best Buy and play with some full frame bodies and probably rent one from for a week to really see if it makes all of my dreams come true.

My next step is to start researching. While researching I will be asking a very important and interesting question – Canon or Nikon?

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