The Full Frame Cult Is Getting Tiring

The Full Frame Cult Is Getting Tiring

I wish we’d all just move on. The format that used to be a compromise between image quality and price in the film days is nowadays being taken as the sole possibility for a serious photographer, and if you are not part of the gang, you apparently deserve to be ridiculed.

It’s Getting Old

Can we have one camera announcement without someone preaching his millimeters are more than the other dude’s? Every single time there is a discussion regarding cameras, or every single time there is a new camera announced, the “full frame evangelists” seem to feel as if it is their time to shine and their time to shun whomever is not using the sacred 24x36 mm sensor. We get it, you invested a decent amount of time and money in picking your preferred gear, but leave the rest out of it and stop dragging everyone else down. 

I work with cameras for a living, not just using them as a photographer, but also in customer service, advice, retail, workshops, technical support, B2B, and more. The number of people coming to me asking for a full-frame camera without actually knowing what that term means is frankly too high. The social media crusade of “you can’t be a serious photographer unless you use full frame” is getting old. Many are so confused that they just know to get a full frame camera without actually understanding what one is. 

What is even sadder is the fact that a smaller sensor body and system would be beneficial to their needs in terms of cost, size, image quality requirements, lens selection, and speed, but they’ve been so mentally conditioned that anything other than a 35mm sensor is just unacceptable. 

Medium format? Full-frame? APS-C? M4/3? Can you really tell which image is taken using what format? Well, do so in the comments. I am truly curious.

Not Just The Users Though

Manufacturers are often guilty of this too. Of giving in to the pressure and dumping anything else. Of course, Canon’s and Nikon’s professional bodies are full-frame. That is where they shine and that is perfect for their target demographics. Sony has been at the forefront of full-frame mirrorless production for some time, before the former two finally caught up and in some instances surpassed the latter. But that was at the cost of leaving the smaller sensors in the dust with a lacking lens and feature selection.

We still have no true successor to the near-perfect Nikon D500. Sony’s APS-C lineup is mediocre at best, with no serious camera on the horizon since most of the resources are being poured into the a7/9/1 lineups. 

The worst offender would unfortunately be Panasonic with their Lumix cameras. The micro 4/3 cameras they have produced were some of the best and unique in their respective price ranges. The GX9 was a perfect small camera with decent image quality, considerable speed, a quiet mechanical shutter, a unique tilting viewfinder, and decent ergonomics. Unfortunately, there is no successor in sight, and it seems that the cheap but capable micro 4/3 cameras are all but dead to Panasonic.

I’ve had a chance to shoot with the recently released G9 II along with the original G9, and I can’t seem to not feel like the new generation is a considerable downgrade. The original Lumix G9 was a wonderful crop sensor camera with brilliant ergonomics, a great control layout, a well-shaped and well-fitting grip, a unique almost racecar-like design, and, even by today’s standards, great shooting speeds. And how has Panasonic decided to follow it up? Slap a micro 4/3 sensor in the literal same body as the full-frame S5 II, which is ergonomically inferior to the G9, and call it a day. I don’t generally like being negative about new releases. But this does truly feel like an afterthought of a camera to keep a few core users happy. And it will. Mainly due to the fact the original G9 is now going to be truly affordable on the second-hand market though.

Don’t even get me started on the discontinuation of the brilliant LX100 II (or the Leica D-Lux7 for the red badge fans out there). The current selection of premium compacts is rather sad, and the fact that the number is getting even smaller definitely does not put a smile on my face. All of that to divert resources toward full-frame cameras.

Medium format? Full-frame? APS-C? M4/3? Can you really tell which image is taken using what format? Well, do so in the comments. I am truly curious.

A Small Few Do It Right

There are still some manufacturers who do sensors right, ignoring the nay-sayers. If Ricoh listened to the full-frame lobbyists, their GR would’ve lost a considerable amount of its charm due to the perfectly pocketable size. Had OM System jumped ship to the 35mm sensor, their OM-1 would have lost its charm, speed, and the clear benefit of lenses at a fraction of the size of their full-frame equivalents. OM System seems like the only manufacturer currently taking M4/3 seriously and honestly, picking between an OM-1 and a G9 II is not a tough decision. 

Then we have Fujifilm. A company whose every single camera launch in the last decade has been met with a crowd of “But muh full frame!” Luckily, Fujifilm has stuck to their guns which means in 2023, they have two fully capable systems, each with the benefits of a wholly different sensor size either smaller or larger than 35mm. Even their latest GFX100 II release has also been met with comments in the form of it not being full frame. That is what baffled me the most. 

There are currently seven camera manufacturers producing 35mm cameras of all shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Fujifilm is the one company not going with the flow but rather plotting their own very capable course of small, fast, and lightweight X-Series and uncompromising, beefy, and detail-oriented GFX “Digital Large Format” cameras. Who in their right mind would cannibalize such a lineup by releasing a mid-range compromise eating into both of their currently unique sensor formats?

Workers in an often shelled Avdiivka coke plant, Donbass, Eastern Ukraine.

Taken using a brilliant M4/3 Panasonic GX9. Apart from the 4:3 aspect ratio you'd most likely would not be able to tell unless zooming in at 200%. And that is truly a pointless excercise to do with most photography.

Image Quality? Please.

There is no doubt that a larger sensor often produces better results either in terms of low-light performance or in the amount of detail captured. But nowadays, technology has advanced so much that most of us can barely tell the difference unless we zoom in at stupid levels on a computer. Good photography is often subjective. That we can all agree on. But some of the greatest photographs in the history of the medium were captured on technology far inferior to a 10-year-old Sony a58. Just look at the best works of photography giants like Sir Donald McCullin, Sebastião Salgado, Peter Lindbergh, Alfred Stieglitz, David Bailey, and many, many more. None of their work cares about grain, about detail, about the latest gear. The eye, the dedication, and the vision of the photographer are what matters.

Sure, it helps to be able to crop 80% of the image out if you’re shooting 102 megapixels. Sure, it might be beneficial to show your client a product image of a shoe with the split seam invisible to the naked eye being captured in the shot. I completely understand the precise and meticulous professional needing top-notch image-resolving capabilities, but the vast majority wouldn't be able to tell a difference between a Phase One image and a well-shot GH5 one. 

For most of us, a smaller sensor is good enough. A 16-megapixel APS-C file taken using an old X70 can easily be printed on 297x420mm paper with all of its detail retained. The most important aspect of photography is not the amount of detail per pixel, but the overall beauty of the image. We concentrate so much on the noise performance of a new sensor instead of the stories we can capture with it. Shooting a wedding does not mean getting every single unwanted pimple hidden under a layer of makeup. It means capturing the once-in-a-lifetime day along with the overall mood and feel. Documenting a poignant story should much less be about noiseless, grainless postcards and more about the emotions of the captured seen through the eyes of the photographer. 

Seagulls on Charles bridge.

Would a full-frame make this Fujifilm X70 capture any better? I highly doubt it. 

Just One of Many Formats

If you want to carry a 5D Mark IV on you with a 70-200mm f/2.8 on you everywhere you go regardless of your back telling you to stop, that is entirely up to you, and I couldn’t be happier for you to have a camera that works for you. However, if your entire personality is based around having a camera that has a sensor a few millimeters larger than the other guy which in turn must mean you’re the better photographer, that is when photography stops being a form of art and communicating your vision to the world and instead becomes a contest of who can pee higher with zero positive outcomes.

Do Yourself a Favor And Print

Now, the sad truth. How many of you still print their images? I’ve always been an avid believer in the notion that if it's not printed, it's not truly a photograph. Paper is what makes a photo a photo. And it is a lot more forgiving in terms of grain and detail than many might think. However, the vast majority of photography nowadays is being displayed on screens. And mostly on truly small screens at that. What is the most popular way to share and look at photography today? Instagram. Your full-frame, AI-sharpened, meticulously processed image you poured your soul into is going to be displayed at the width of 1080p on a six-inch display for a few seconds to receive a quick double-tap and then forgotten.

It’s a terribly sad truth about most photography nowadays. Many photographs are just lost in the endless scroll, never to be mentioned again. Does a sensor size really matter so much in that case? Do yourself a favor and just drop the need for a full-frame camera idea from your head. Shoot whatever works for you. Don’t spend unnecessary and hard-earned money on something that is not going to magically advance you to the next level. You can do just fine with less.

Would this image quality taken using a seven-year-old 24-megapixel Fujifilm X-Pro2 not be enough for most photographers? A photograph like this can be printed up to A2 with no difficulties. Light is often more important than sensor size.

And if you already have a full frame camera, and it works for you, that is wonderful. I’m truly happy for you. But don’t go out of your way to shove it down everyone else’s throats. It’s beautiful to have options. I think we should all just concentrate on photography more and less on whose is bigger.

Ondřej Vachek's picture

Ondřej Vachek is a Prague based independent documentary photographer and photojournalist with multiple journeys to war-torn Ukraine where he covered everything from the frontline in the Donbass to the civilian life adapting to the new normal. Avid street photographer with love for writing and storytelling.

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You poor, sad plebs and your small format cameras. Real photography is only possible with a 20x24" Polaroid.

I knew someone who did that....dragged a large format setup around. Took very few photos...and they looked good 🙂

Look up Eric Bouvet. He usually captures protests in France using large format field cameras. And his work is stunning.

That was me for many years. Big camera on a tripod slows you down and makes you work harder on composition, exposure, etc. Result?… great photographs.

For the image examples where people are asked which type of camera they think was used, it doesn't work if the images are scaled down to 500x750, outside of characteristics such as a shallow depth of field or other aspects, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the highest end medium format camera from Phase One, and a 1/2.3 inch sensor canon powershot point and shoot camera. With that in mind, this doesn't mean you can get away with using a Canon powershot SX230 HS to shoot a client's wedding. While absurd at first glance (using an old point and shoot for a wedding), it points out the flaw of using heavily downscaled images to compare image quality, lens quality, or any aspect of the image pipeline of a camera.

Aside from that, with improvements in sensor technology, crop sensors have gotten good enough to meet more users needs. For example, a modern APS-C sensor can be pushed to ISO 4000 without looking like swiss cheese, where in the past, you would need to go full frame, especially since in the past many lower end APS-C cameras, would also have a lower quality VGAs and ADCs since those parts are expensive, but as the cost of that tech came down, the image SNR improved significantly. Though even with all of that, there are still very noticeable differences, especially if you are not scaling a 60 megapixel image down to 0.4 megapixels.

For example, compare full resolution images and raw files (especially at higher ISO 1000+) from a high end micro 4/3camera such as the Panasonic GH6

Compare to a similar res APS-C

And a 1 megapixel lower full frame camera that is a few years older.

At low ISOs, pretty much all of the cameras do well, but even at ISO 800, the differences start to be more clear, and as ISO goes up, the differences stand out more and more.

Aside from that, over the years, full frame has become less vital. Modern higher end micro 4/3 cameras are offering better detail and lower noise than full frame cameras from many years prior, and while all sensor sizes have improved, as a certain point the smaller sensors became good enough for many people, especially if their use cases don't have them pushing ISO 6400+

Exactly my point. I do agree there are uses and users that do utilise the difference and benefit from larger sensors. But the vast majority usually can't even tell. Many don't even look at or show their work further at such resolutions to notice the difference.
I use my APS-C cameras up to the maximum native ISO and I'm more than happy with the results. Pixel peeping has never produced better images story or subject-wise.

This is a well written reply. Only one thing missing which I will comment on if nobody below brings it up.

Poor soul, you should use whatever camera suits your purpose. I think that some put too much emphasis on others opinions and label the opposing opinion as cult like. We cannot all shoot the same subject, with the same gear or edit the same, it would be strange.

I do use what works for me. And it's not full frame. This wasn't about my personal camera choice. But you'd be surprised how often I run into the "must use full frame" mindset created by its loudest users. Whether its my customers coming in to buy a camera or its clients asking for a full frame camera wielding photographer without actually understanding what the difference is. Most often it makes no difference to them but they are adamant that full frame means professional and decline any other views.

What's gotten really old is the carping back and forth about sensor sizes. I use what works for me, and you do you.

At the end of the day, the viewer doesn't care what camera you use. They only see the image they're looking at.

Exactly my point.

The viewer doesn't however I have heard and read a number of stories by various photographers albeit most in the wedding industry who have shot with some of the early fuji's for example to be asked where is your proper camera by the clients and usually Uncle Joe with his old DSLR :-)

Some of my most favourite images I've take were on my old XT-1, yep I have a Nikon Z9 now but that's a sport issue another story but those fuji images were stunning.

I just want somebody to make an interesting sensor period. Why are we still stuck with Bayer arrays, and anti-aliasing filters? I do appreciate X-trans, but would prefer something more like Foveon.

Or imagine if someone made a true panoramic sensor. A digital XPan. That would be super niche and probably wouldn't sell a lot but man would it be interesting.

But if the panoramic sensor was actually wide enough to be awesome, such as 60mm by 20mm, and not just a vertically cropped down version of an existing sensor, can you imagine how huge the lenses would have to be?! It'd be even worse than large format, inasmuch as bulk and weight of lenses are concerned.

Not necessarily. Look at the Fujifilm TX-2 (Hasselblad XPan 2) lenses. They're pretty small even though they're built to cover effectively two 35mm frames side by side.

If those lenses are actually casting an image circle that is 60mm or more across, then I am extremely impressed. If they are not, then we might as well just take medium format files and crop them down vertically to panorama aspect ratio.

Bayer arrays will stick around because there isnt anything better - X-trans and Foveon have drawbacks that we've never seen them able to overcome, and probably never will. Anti-aliasing filters have been dropped from all high-resolution sensors that will perform better without them, and only retained for lower-resolution sensors that still need them, so no worries there.

See, that too is subjective. I prefer the high ISO outputs of X-Trans sensors compared to a high ISO Bayer file.

There isn’t anything worse (from Canon, Sony or Nikon) either. Fuji has quietly conceded that by not using X-trans on their medium format cameras.

Foveon definitely has drawbacks with dynamic range and it being a base ISO-only sensor. X-Trans is a very mature technology now and is used in the APS-C cameras because it has better performance (especially with color moire) than equivalent sized Bayer sensors. IMO, Fuji rightly realized that in building a new digital system without a huge backlog of lenses like Canon and Nikon, full frame was not really relevant and just an antiquated size from the film days.

The reason Fuji doesn’t use X-Trans in the GFX system is because most of its advantages over Bayer at APS-C become a wash at those sensor sizes and resolution.

The only 'drawback' to the Fuji X-trans sensor is that Adobe is far too lazy in it's subscription forever universe to have ever perfected or bothered to render clean files from RAF RAW. That is why I use DXO Photo Lab. The drawback is solved and the images are beautiful. The color science is something other manufactures can only dream about.

Does that mean I can b*tch and moan about all you mirrorless shooters? ;-)

Please do. Optical viewfinders do need their representation in the world 😁

Gosh this whole article seems unnecessarily angry.

I understand his frustration. As a die-hard DSLR shooter, I can't tell you how many times people ask me why I haven't "upgraded" to MILC and then try to convince me why I should. If you don't do that to people or if you're not one of us being preached to, I'm sure it sounds unnecessarily angry.

Could be more that he is wanting to get on the platform for some clicks. It worked. Lots of comments. One can always count on the many sects of pixel peeping to draw ire and presume ire from the author.

Totally agree. I don't even know who the author is angry at, because nobody is making anyone feel as though smaller sensors aren't "good enough". It's like he just made up that people are saying that so that then he could get angry at those people (who don't exist .... lol)

Some people apparently confuse social media with the real world.

I shoot with the D500 and I have been asked many times why I don’t shoot full-frame… the struggle is real.

It does, which makes it difficult to get past the whining headline and the whining tone to what are actually valid (mostly) points.

It's kind of crazy when a historical artefact is promulgated across technology as the only acceptable outcome. The 'full-frame' myth is just nonsense. Today's cameras far out-perform most peoples ability.

Hi, just to add my two cents. My local camera reseller is making the demonstration of the better quality of full frame on a 4k TV ! This is just ridiculous as only 8 Mpix are used here. And it's not only a selling technic, he is really convinced to "see" the difference. Of course he is not doing a fair comparison, adapting the focal length to the crop factor of the sensor, so comparing a view of a 50 to a 85, for exemple.

That is kind of funny but sad at the same time as it misleads the potential customer. It'd be more fair to show the difference on a large print and even then you'd have to be close to see any difference in resolution. Printing is notoriously forgiving when it comes to image quality.

I agree. But the prints are not forgiving so much. I'm usually printing (by my own, on my Canon Prograf-2100) in a size 60x80 cm to 60x120cm for what I'm selling as Fine Art and my Sony 60 mpix was really fine for that. But recently I wanted, for a show coming next month, very larg prints, so I ordered 6 very big prints from 90x150cm to 95x190cm. And for some pictures (size 105x140cm) I can really see the limits of these 60 mix. A few weeks ago I migrate all my Sony stuff to a complete Fuji GFX100 system and the difference is really impressive, maybe more than the resolution difference by itself, maybe linked to the sensor size.

At these sizes, I do agree that resolution actually does make a difference. However, I'd argue that massive prints aren't generally being looked at from short distances but instead being seen as a whole from a few steps back. Then you can get away with a lower DPI than 300. Unless you're Gregory Crewdson in which case the GFX sensor and resolution are not enough for you anyway 🤭

I'm still using one APS-C camera and two full frames. I do need the full frame setups in fortresses and bunkers due to the conditions in those areas. I'm not writing you cannot photograph in those sites with an APS-C or m4/3 for my style it's just easier.
Sony has to do something about it's aps-c lineup (the 6700 got out - but they need to do a lot more at the bottom of the offerings). The same comment can be used on their full-frame lineup too. Continuing selling older cameras at a lower pricepoint isn't good enough unless you update the firmware with new features.
I don't know about the other brands - so i'm not going to give comments about canon/nikon/pentax/olympus/panasonic though. What i see is that they do have a little bit better offerings at the entry point. The prices are as high as Sony for the medium segment (where i want to buy my gear, i don't need an A1) - too high to attract a new public. I need an A7IV for one specific feature - but i don't want to spend 2800€'s on it, no way. Maybe the A7CII will come at a better pricepoint - and will have that one feature. I don't even need the 33 Mpix - 24Mpix is good enough.
If Sony wants me to shut up - they should give me full LA-EA5 support for the old minolta glass for the A7III with a firmware update. In fact i'm mad at them!

Thank's for explicitly mentioning the Fuji X70. It's still my ever day camera and the images are still great.

PS: If panasonic had produced a successor of the GM5 with flip screen, I'd probably still be using m43.

I'll keep mentioning the X70 until we get a successor 😁

Preach it brother! The FF gang is so annoying! I agree with the G9 II. You took the words out of my mouth! We need more LX 100's not wannabe S5's. Clearly they're doing this to cut costs and give users an upgrade path. The biggest issue with the upgrade path is you'll need to change lenses too. Not really an upgrade, IMO.

Have you tried the LUTs feature on the G9 II or S5? Apparently you can make your own color profiles. Imagine if they pushed firmware upgrades to their GX line to do this. They'd become the new X100V wannabes, LOL!

I want a GX9 II or LX 100 III ! M43 is about small size and weight. Not just small lenses, but bodies too. Come on Panasonic, make it happen!

It's such a shame with Panasonic. A GX10 or LX100 III would be great. Or even just keep the GX9 and LX100 II in production. Both are still great to this day. It's a shame to discontinue them.

The anti-full frame is equally annoying as are the many other cults of spec. hounds.

Yes, they are. Will speak to that in another post.

Indeed, but I have feeling that FF farriors are really multiplying over night :)

Currently only Canon makes a full frame camera that I know of. Sony and Nikon so called full frame cameras are actually cropped sensor cameras as well as they are not ff 24x36.
As far as APS-C Canon has been aggressively producing crop cameras from the class leading R7 to the p&s and very inexpensive R100, not counting the M series.
As to lenses, crop lenses are being introduced and 3rd party are coming on line soon. But many Canon R lenses are very small and light compared to so called crop lenses. The 24-240mm is a good example and where else can you get a 600mm or an 800mm lens as small, light and inexpensive?
I could buy a ff or APS-C as i wish and chose the R7 for the crop. The resolution is equal to an 80mp ff camera and the speed is amazing along with pro level like the R3 AF. Compared to the slow and low IQ with no useable video D500 it's like a Ferrari vs Yugo to the R7.

Yeah, the Nikon is .1 mm smaller (35.9 x 23.9 mm), like that makes a really big difference.

Just making sure that people know the facts.

You are either joking or clueless.

No, I am not.
I am 100% correct in all I wrote. It just irritates some fanboys to hear the truth so they attacj.

Many users look to full-frame because that is where the much of the development by many of big manufactures are; and of course, the profit. Size really isn't the deciding factor, I have a Nikon Z7 which is a very small camera and only 10g heaver than the G9 II.

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