APS-C Cameras Aren't Good For Portraits? Hold My Beer

APS-C Cameras Aren't Good For Portraits? Hold My Beer

After losing almost my entire photo kit due to blatant stupidity on my part (yay insurance), I was put in the unenviable position of rebuilding a camera system from scratch. Being a portrait photographer, I immediately gravitated towards full-frame bodies. I was close to pulling the trigger on one when it hit me: Why not try a crop sensor? I'm glad I did.

Like most photographers, although I tend to stick to a couple of genres, portraits and weddings for me, I also get the odd call for jobs that are a little out of the box for me. This may be a sporting event, photojournalism coverage, you get the idea. Usually when I get that call, I answer "yes" but with some hesitation. How will my full-frame camera do with something like that? Will my lenses have the reach I need? Will the autofocus be quick enough? You get the idea. 

Cateynn, 7D Mark II, Sigma 50-100mm 1.8 Art at f/1.8. Bare-bulbed flash fired through the fencing, camera right.

But, what if I could pretty much guarantee the performance I need no matter the situation, yet still have a camera that had fantastic image quality for portraits? I mean, I used to use APS-C cameras all the time, right? Before the original 5D I did a lot of work with crop sensors. Maybe it's time to seriously consider one again. I was discouraged to find, when doing research, that most reviewers dismiss cropped sensors out of hand for photographers who focus on portraits. Personally, I think that's B.S. I decided to go my own road, reviewers be damned.

First of all, mirrorless was out for me. Yes, I know they've come a long way. I was in love with my Fuji XT2 (RIP), but if I were to be honest about it, it still had some issues with autofocus and I missed an optical viewfinder. When I was putting together my new kit, I wanted to be pragmatic and not emotional. I wanted a DSLR. I settled on a Canon 7D Mark II. Why Canon? It had 90% of the performance of the Nikon D500 and I don't care about 4K video. Taking advantage of a sale, I now have great autofocus in a rugged, speedy body that will do anything I need for less than $1500. The AF points cover the frame from left to right. The high ISO performance is great. As good as full-frame? Not quite, but close enough. If I need more light, I'll provide it myself. If I miss a shot with this, it's my own damn fault.

To be fair here, I could have also gone the route of grabbing a used, high-performance, full-frame body like a Nikon D4 or some such. I thought about this, but when I considered that I could get the same performance with more resolution at half the price for a new body, it just didn't add up for me. Now, if I were doing portraits in, say, the Sahara, then yeah I would spring for a more rugged body. But as I'm in Denver I'd rather go with something a bit more practical. All right, so the body is taken care of. But what about the lenses?

Catelynn, 7D Mark II, Sigma 50-100mm Art at f/1.8, silver reflector, camera left.

When I was looking to build my kit, by far the most important focal range for me as a portrait shooter is from about 35mm to 135mm (full frame equivalent). I ended up picking up two lenses: the Sigma 18-35 1.8 Art and the Sigma 50-100 1.8 Art. So far, I've gotten two copies of the 18-35 and both have been lemons. I've heard almost universal praise for that lens, but apparently my luck is crap with it. I have the Sigma Dock but the focus was so far off that it made calibration impossible. I have a Canon 17-55mm 2.8 on order. When in doubt, go native. But what about the Sigma 50-100 Art? 

Holy. Hell.

This lens is stupidly good. I mean, I don't know how more people aren't talking about this lens, but it's flat out amazing. It's a bit heavy and there is no image stabilization, but for image quality like this I just don't care. I'll do a full review of the lens soon, but for now just know that I can shoot at f/1.8 all day long with it and not bat an eye. Sharp as a tack.

Catelynn, available light at ISO 1600, Sigma 50-100mm Art at f/1.8.

So, now that I've got the long end of my portraits taken care of, how does the system as a whole perform for portraiture? Flawlessly. Yes, the 7D Mark II is a sports photographer's dream, but the quick, reliable performance is also a boon for portraits. I was nailing focus on the eyes like it was going out of style. I never had to wait for the camera. It was just a part of me. This is not an endorsement of a particular product, however. I'm sure Nikon and Sony's offerings are just fine. This is what I got and what I'm telling you about. 

But what about the bokeh? Is it shallow enough? Of course it is. Believe it or not, the shallowness of depth does not make a better portrait camera. If that were the case, everyone would be going medium format as soon as humanly possible. The fact is, full frame is great! APS-C is also great! Is it more difficult to get the ultimate in shallowness? Well, yeah, that's physics for ya. But I don't think that takes away from the image. For me, I'll take a camera that I'm comfortable with over something as insignificant as a stop of depth.

Catelynn, 7D Mark II, Sigma 50-100mm Art at f/1.8, large, silver reflector behind me.

So if you're in the market to buy a new body, don't believe the hype. APS-C is just as capable of doing portraits as full frame. There may even be some advantages to that smaller sensor. In the end, your clients don't care what you got the shot with. It only matters that you got it. 

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48 Comments

thanks for writing this. I love my 7Dmkii. And yeah, I never get FF envy when shooting portraits... only when I shoot wide angle and low light.

Nick Dors's picture

Cool! But personaly I would've gone for a used Nikon D600/610 with some 1.8G glass. Better camera and better glass.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I used to own a D610. Great camera, but better? I guess it all depends on what your needs are. Also, the 50-100 is just as sharp at 1.8 as both the 50mm and 85mm. I've used all of them and if there's a difference it's so small as to be negligible.

Nick Dors's picture

Think it's a better camera for my work. And F1.8 is different on APS-C, so if I shoot my 1.8G glass at 2.0 or 2.8 it's pretty sharp.

Dustin Francis's picture

Definitely should have looked at the D7200, for under $800, it's killer. I shoot it along side D750s and it really is wonderful. If you have issues with Sigma glass (I have all the available Art primes) just send them to Sigma and they will come back great! That's what I did with mine. The dock is more of a marketing gimmick based on my experience, but sending a body and my lenses to Sigma gave me lenses that perform perfectly (to their ability) and I recommend it to everyone now.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Although getting that sounds like a good way of getting a really nicely calibrated system, I have issues on principle of having to do something as drastic as send both my body and lens away to get adequate results. Sigma makes some wonderful stuff, but QC is still an issue.

Brian Anderson's picture

The only camera setup that's bad for portraits is the setup that a person doesn't know how to completely operate or take advantage of ;)

Is this post being made from five years ago? I didn't think there was any question about a decent m43 camera being good enough for portraits, let alone DX format. This is a snapshot with the most fashionable cheap m43 (it's just even been selected as a replacement for his Leica Q by celebrity gear reveiwer Ming Thein) the GX85
http://www.popco.net/zboard/data2/dica_forum_panasonic/2017/01/24/101353...

No studio lights, I doubt much if any post, and it still looks like a 5Diii shot. Except it probably has a couple of stops more range. Seriously - 12 stops at 3200iso.

And here are more

http://www.popco.net/zboard/view.php?id=dica_forum_panasonic&no=20721

Or from an EM1ii

https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=ro&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2F...

There are genres where this would be news. But portraits with strobes? In other news, France is no longer a monarchy...

Hans Rosemond's picture

Who said anything about this being news? It's an opinion piece. And since there is still a prevailing narrative around full frame being better for portraits, I believe still relevant. You're welcome to disagree, of course. Thanks for reading.

Not sure where you get the idea its a prevailing narrative. Portraiture is just about the least taxing type of photography on gear you can get. Its a static subject in excellent light. Even a cell phone can take a damn good portrait in the right hands.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Maybe we travel in different circles, but full frame has long been pushed as the format to get if you're interested in portraiture on a DSLR. As to it being taxing on gear, I would think that depends on the photographer's vision. Some shoot all available light. Some subjects are jumping or moving in other ways and a robust autofocus would prove very useful.

I've never seen or heard anyone pushing full frame for portraiture. In fact, reading through the entire first page of Google results for "reasons to shoot full frame", you'll find lens choices mentioned more often than portraiture. Depth of field is literally the only thing mentioned in any of those articles as benefiting portraiture and unless you're one of those lazy photographers who can't be bothered to find a relevant background for your subject, that isn't much of a benefit...

As for robust autofocus, that is a separate system from the sensor size, but if we're looking at the state of the market, crop sensors have the advantage of much greater coverage of focus points than full frame (at least, for DSLRs). As a matter of fact, the crop sensor D7200 has a better autofocus module than my full frame D600 does...

Fact is, when people say "gear doesn't matter", they're mostly talking about portraiture.

Hans Rosemond's picture

K

Excellent article and completely agree on the expectation for full frame with portraiture. There are so many factors in choosing the right tool, the most important that you highlight is that the camera must feel natural and responsive. With all the other options for cameras its easy to overlook the 7d ii but its simply a well rounded camera and as you say can be adapted to many different applications. Canon also offer (in my opinion) the best skin tones of any of the systems on the market.

Great read and nice to see an article not written by a gear head motivated by camera specifications.

...and more importantly beautiful images, she is stunning but you have made her look magical. Well done you and well done Canon for continuing to make great cameras and not conforming to the masses driven by tech heavy market, some of us just want a reliable tool and not another "thing" that seems to do just about everything we will never really need it to do :)

Chris Jones's picture

Definitely agree with this, I was at work the other day mentioned I was a photographer, when I said I shoot portraits the first thing the other person asked was do I shoot full frame.

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

"Portraiture is just about the least taxing type of photography on gear you can get. Its a static subject in excellent light."

That is subjective lol.

Not really. Static subjects in excellent light...it really doesn't get any easier for gear to capture such things. The only thing less taxing is still life...and that's because still life can't blink...

>>> Who said anything about being news?

It's sort of implicit in the need to make a statement. As in

"The sky isn't falling!"

..True, but useless. And in your case worse than that, because the way you wrote the article presents this as a revelation and something that may be (you're not the clearest writer) connected to your particular gear choices.

>>> Maybe we travel in different circles, but full frame has long been pushed as the format to get if you're interested in portraiture on a DSLR. As to it being taxing on gear, I would think that depends on the photographer's vision. Some shoot all available light

In which case for the same dof you can open a lens up more for a smaller sensor. And the smaller sensor cameras have portrait lens options that shoot at close to 100% sharpness wide open, and the latest ones have sensors that give 12 stops of DR at 32000. So casual hanging out shots in a bar can look at least as good as your studio work -

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/523675fbe4b0adf633e60071/t/58b920...

..If you're going to write a gear oriented portrait article, at least do a few minutes research. I shoot a often Merril for studio work - and that PITA will outshoot a 5Div in good light - but I'd have no problems shooting the latest m43 for a walkaround camera. In fact I'd be more willing to for portraits than a 7D - the sensors on the new m43 perform better than the 7D sensor, on sensor focus is better, the lenses are better.

The big problem with your article isn't just that is wasting everyone's time but that it it implies that sensor size is significant and that DX is now just good enough.... But actually a host of factors affect image quality and you could have got at least equal results from a cheaper camera with a smaller but more modern sensor.

I don't get all the hostility to this article. Poor guy was just sharing some thoughts. If you were already aware of the points he was making, then GREAT! You're well informed. No reason to insult his writing, which I found just fine. Move on and read something else.

Keep in mind, while this site attracts a large following among seasoned pros, there are more novice photographers - pro and amateur - who stop by to learn from the experience of others.

I personally am an amateur/hobbyist/novice. I've taken courses at a local college, and a local photography school, and have spent time among many professionals and I can confirm as an owner of an APS-C there is an overwhelming tendency to advise those like me that "Eventually, you'll want to upgrade to a full frame". As if it's a given. Reading this article reassured me to challenge that assumption.

This prevailing notion has had me worried to buy any lenses because while I like to save the $ on APS-C lenses (not to mention benefit from smaller sizes often, as well as the extra reach) I often find myself wondering if I'd be better off just getting full frame to avoid having to sell and upgrade down the road.

Also, I have specifically been eying this lens (Sigma 50-100 1.8 Art) and seeing his images and hearing this well qualified photographer's experience with it, has been very helpful. So please, with all due respect, speak for yourself. I got a lot out of reading this.

>> I don't get all the hostility to this article. Poor guy was just sharing some thoughts. If you were already aware of the points he was making, then GREAT!

And your reply shows why it is a harmful article. Because he didn't bother to understand what was really happening he left you with a false impression. The point he made was that a DX camera with with an state of the art lens from one of the most and most innovative lens makers can now do what FF only used to be able to do...

In fact, anyone with half a brain could get a decent portrait on m43 with old Takumar since 2010. Vogue features have been shot with 12MP GF1s. Vogue covers were shot with early 6MP DSLRs...

And shooting in a studio, where you can keep down ISO down to 200, a typical current model m43 camera will actually have as much resolution as a full frame camera - and maybe more dynamic range, if the FF is a Canon. Understanding sensor performance and how it varies with lighting conditions is fundamental to being a technically competent photographer. This guy just took an opportunity to make you more competent and made you less competent instead.

A competent article would have read "Hey! My friends and I are idiots! These are three basic factors in sensor performance and you can measure them with graphs! It turns out that in a studio, where you can shoot at 200iso, a Full Frame has no meaningful advantage at all over a modern m43 sensor.." (Really - go to Techradar and look at the graphs for the 5Diii and tiny GX80.)

This is VERY different from "I love my 7D and expensive lens!"

Hans Rosemond's picture

So angry. :) You seem like a lobbyist for m43. Which is fine, considering I never mentioned m43.

dale clark's picture

Photographer forums are so full of trolls. If you say the sky is blue...there will be 10 people arguing against you. Being a pro for many years, Crop sensor is something that professionals (especially older ones) DO make a distinction. Maybe not so much for the non pro world (who gets impress with a BIG camera) or younger pros.

For me the most important thing is shooting a lens designed for the frame size I'm shooting. I wouldn't worry about a Fuji X series camera's sensor because the Fuji lenses are designed for an APS-C sensor. For sports I wouldn't worry either because it's not so bad shooting through more of the center of the lens in that application. For portraits though, I think the nuances you get at the edge of the lenses helps. The falloff, the slight vignetting all work well for portraiture. It would definitely help with the first, second and fourth picture where the edges are showing distracting amounts of detail (first = freckles on the arm, second = texture of the flooring, fourth = knobs on the cabinets [blurred, but not enough]).

Hans Rosemond's picture

I think we have different priorities when it comes to portraits, but I can respect your opinion.

>> For portraits though, I think the nuances you get at the edge of the lenses helps. The falloff, the slight vignetting all work well for portraiture.

Excellent point! There's no way that anyone could add these effects in post. I mean, on the raw developer I use, you'd have to press a button to turn the effect on and then cope with TWO sliders to control the effect. And who could cope with that?

>> It would definitely help with the first, second and fourth picture where the edges are showing distracting amounts of detail (first = freckles on the arm, second = texture of the flooring, fourth = knobs on the cabinets [blurred, but not enough]).

Fair criticism but look up "the clone tool".

...Vignetting etc when you shoot is silly. You can always add vignette or blur or remove just about anything when you do post. You can't do the opposite,

For the record, I am aware of software and yes you can simulate these effects in post but I don't think it's just as good as the real thing. Maybe getting close though, check out the water CGI in animated film Moana. Very impressive. Still, even with skilled retouchers I can usually spot fake blur and vignetting a mile away.

When you have good optics and a good capture I believe even lay people can tell the difference -- they just might not be able to explain why. Though, some may not at all. My wife says she can't tell the difference between SDTV and HDTV. No one human experience is the same.

I always bought Full Frame lenses for my APS-C cameras because I knew I'd go that way eventually and with Nikon lenses, you can also use their Full Frame lenses on their film bodies.

Granted, this is all subjective, but when I moved from the D300s to the D610 I felt my lenses came alive. Everything had a little more depth and character. I'd been shooting at f/1.8 and f/2.4 on my Nikon 50mm f/1.4D with the D300s to separate my subject from the background. With the D610 I was getting the same effect at f/5.6 which is closer to the lenses sweet spot and gave that 3D effect people generally love.

Could I do that in Lightroom with the Radial tool? Yeah, but I've done that before and it's not the same. So because this article has a section below it that says, "Post a comment," I did.

I disagree with the thesis of this article.

>> For the record, I am aware of software and yes you can simulate these effects in post but I don't think it's just as good as the real thing. Maybe getting close though, check out the water CGI in animated film Moana. Very impressive

Ok: everyone else here is now amazed. Vignetting in post has nothing to with CGI. It's like comparing building a small cairn of rocks and the Empire State Building.

..You can also add "vintage" effects to any lens quickly with a piece of cardboard or clingfilm smeared with vaseline. The exceptions being lenses with very unsual bokeh effects will the Helios 44-2 or Trioplans. And I say this as someone with 4 vintage lenses in my lens draw.

>> Could I do that in Lightroom with the Radial tool? Yeah, but I've done that before and it's not the same

Then you need to learn to do better post.

>> because this article has a section below it that says, "Post a comment," I did.

That doesn't mean that everyone has to agree with you. Especially when you are leaving junk information on the Internet that might make people waste money.

You're welcome to believe you're right.

Thank you for that truly substantive contribution.

Anytime.