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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.