The full frame advantage

This year has seen quite a lot of activity in the market for digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras.

If our experience at Hillcrest Camera Club is anything to go by, more and more people are buying them and enjoying the better quality of picture you get when compared to compact cameras. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but the thing that really differentiates digital cameras is the size of their sensors.

It was the same in the days of film, when a bigger negative was always better from a quality point of view. Compact digital cameras suffer from the fact that they have tiny sensors which make their pictures grainy, or to use the correct term, noisy.

Adding more megapixels to the chip makes the situation worse because there is more noise and the cameras are forced to use noise reduction technology, which also has the effect of blurring the detail in the picture.

Digital SLRs have bigger sensors and hence there is less noise and more detail in the pictures they produce. One common size is APS-C which is about 23mm wide and 15mm high and can give excellent results.

The sensor size is still a good bit smaller than a frame of 35mm film and, through physics which I only dimly understand, this has the effect of increasing the focal length of lenses. A 200mm lens becomes a 300mm when you put it on an APS-C camera, and that can be great if you’re taking wildlife or sports pictures where you need a longer lens.

It’s not so great when you want a wide angle lens and your expensive 24mm lens become a 36 or 37mm. To get a really wide angle lens for an APS-C camera, you need to buy something like a 10mm lens which costs a silly amount of money if you get a good one.

There are many benefits to cameras with APS-C-sized sensors, including lighter lenses, but I was reminded of one major drawback while I was out shooting last weekend with my Canon 30D. I took along my old 35mm film camera and was immediately struck by how much brighter the viewfinder is; by comparison, looking through the 30D viewfinder is like looking through a dark tunnel.

The rule that, the bigger the sensor the better the picture, holds true when you compare cameras with APS-C-sized sensors and ones with full frame sensors, the same size as a 35mm film negative. Canon shooters have had the option of buying cameras with the larger sensor for quite a while and its 5D was has been avidly embraced by landscape, portrait and wedding photographers because of the superb image quality.

I’ve seen image files from the 5D side-by-side with those from lesser cameras, such as my own, and its no exaggeration to say that they’re chalk and cheese. There was talk that Nikon was going to stick solely with the APS-C format but this year, they have launched two full frame models which have taken the photographic world by storm.

I attended the launch in Durban of the mighty D3 which is already described by many as the best professional camera every made and is touted as the one which will reverse Nikon’s declining share of the professional market. We were shown a poster-sized picture of a circus performer, taken in the half darkness at ISO3200, and the quality was magnificent.

**** [See here for the dramatic difference in image quality between the D3, D700 and Nikon’s great APS-C-sized D300]

At a price of nearly R60000 for the camera body alone, it should be good but Nikon has topped even that by their recent launch of the D700, which incorporates the same sensor chip and much of the same technology, at only R35000. Early reviews claim that its image quality is as good as that of its big brother.

Canon shooters have been eagerly expecting the launch of a successor to the 5D and I’m looking forward to seeing the image quality from that. I’m beginning to believe that full frame DSLRs will be the future and that it won’t be too long before they come down in price, so that we ordinary mortals can afford them.

When that happens, there will be little reason, in my view, to stick with smaller-sensored cameras especially if, as with Nikon full-frames, you can use the lenses you bought for the smaller format on the larger.

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