Why I Can Never Quit Full-Frame DSLRs

Why I Can Never Quit Full-Frame DSLRs

I’ve had a long flirtation with mirrorless cameras of all stripes, from the earliest Panasonic to Fujifilm to Olympus. I’m usually quite happy with and shoot them all frequently, but at the end of the day, it’s always a full-frame DSLR that reminds me why none of those have ever become my main squeeze.

As a practical matter after an injury, I’ve been using more of my Micro Four Thirds gear than I have in recent times. While I would frequently use the system for traveling, I’ve started to pull it out more for family portraits and photos of the kids than I would have in the past, where I’d carry a Nikon D750 or Canon EOS 6D. Recently, I decided to put my current daily driver, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II against the D750 on a portrait shoot of my daughter just to remind myself of what I was missing. Boy, was I missing a lot.

The Olympus was sporting the better of the two lenses, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f/1.8 lens while the Nikon sported the more pedestrian AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G lens. I can already hear the screams about the lack of scientific rigor, but hear me out.

Size Matters

When you view everything at web size, it’s easy to miss the differences in the images produced by a smaller sensor camera versus a larger one, but when you enlarge them or look at them on a big screen, it’s pretty obvious. Just take a look below at these 100 percent crops of a portrait I shot of my daughter.

The Olympus E-M10 Mark II vs. the D750 at 100 percent. The D750 produces a cleaner image all around, even without the lighting advantage (which it has in this shot).

The Olympus E-M10 Mark II versus the D750 at 100 percent. The D750 produces a cleaner image all around, even without the lighting advantage (which it has in this shot).

The smaller-format mirrorless looks hideous in comparison. OK, here’s where it gets less scientific. The Olympus is shooting at ISO 800 under natural light while the D750 was using SB-700 Speedlights with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System built into the camera, all at ISO 200. Of course the full-frame looks better. It’s using a lower ISO and lighting gear.

That’s part of the point, though. While Olympus is just getting on the wireless bandwagon with it’s still-on-preorder FL-700WR Flash and FC-WR Commander unit, Nikon and Canon have had this down for years with optical triggering and subsequent radio systems. Sure, there are third-party brands like Godox picking up the slack, but compatibility and TTL features work better with a native brand, or at least my experience with Olympus-Godox seems to be the case compared to Canon-Canon or Nikon-Nikon.

And when the flashes fail, there's the leeway in the files. Here's a slightly more than three-stop lift in exposure from a shot where the flashes failed on the D750.

The flashes failed to fire on a shot, and so I raised the exposure by a little over three stops. No replacement for displacement, as they say. The full frame DSLR did this easily.

The flashes failed to fire on a shot, and so I raised the exposure by a little over three stops. No replacement for displacement, as they say. The full-frame DSLR did this easily.

If I start to push this much on the Olympus, I'll get horrible banding and color shifts. The APS-C Fuji is more tolerant than a Micro Four Thirds camera, but the D750 shows both of these sensors who's boss.

Then there’s the lens selection. Canon and Nikon have had full-frame glass available for years for DSLR systems. Some like the venerable 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens are on their third iteration. While Olympus and Panasonic offer interesting f/2.8 options, in a smaller format such as Micro Four Thirds, a little faster than f/2.8 is needed if we’re talking about pro zooms because pushing past ISO 800 gets dicey. My Fujifilm X-T1 can go a little higher but even still, a full frame is going to beat it for a cleaner image. Canon is forging ahead with even faster than f/2.8 zooms on full frame, which is crazy, but promising.

So at this point some will say I'm comparing older cameras to a D750, but it should be pointed out that the cameras I’ve talked about so far — The Olympus OM-D EM10 Mark II, the Fujifilm X-T1, and the Nikon D750 — all came out in 2014, and two are still current models in each manufacturer’s lineup. So, science.

What About Sony?

Full-frame mirrorless would seem like the logical answer here, but there are still some pitfalls. From a sheer image quality perspective, things are great on the Sony side. But after two weeks with an a7 II (when it was new) and the a7S II (still a current camera), it’s clear that the system was designed by engineers and not photographers. While feel is often subjective, I haven’t heard anyone talk about how the squared off edges of the cameras feel great in their hands, or how awesome the menu system is to use on a daily basis (I found it to be insane, and I’m an Olympus shooter, a brand known for labyrinthine menus).

I have heard of people coming back to the tried-and-true formula of more experienced camera makers such as Canon or Nikon. It makes sense in actual, real-world usage. A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is essentially the same in practice as its D30 ancestor, which was similar to the film models before it. The design hasn’t changed because it was perfected years ago.

Well-developed DSLR autofocus systems just work without a fuss.

Well-developed DSLR autofocus systems just work without a fuss.

And more to the point, so is autofocus. The 51-point system on the Nikon D750, itself a variant of the older D3 autofocus, almost never misses, and in my seat time with the 153-point system in the D500, such is the case there only more so. The current systems on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and 5D Mark IV offer similar capability.

In contrast, the continuous autofocus of the Sony a7R II (the contemporary of the 5D Mark IV) in controlled head-to-head tests I performed against Canon showed an impressive amounts of green boxes flying across the viewfinder, but little actual focus going on. That may have changed with the a9 and a7R III, but the fact remains that Canon and Nikon DSLR systems have already been there for years. They just get out of the way and work.

What Do You Think?

I love my mirrorless systems. Especially when it comes to the tactile feel of my Fuji, or the quality lenses available on many mirrorless systems, but at the end of the day, whenever I pick up a trusted tool in one of my full-frame DSLRs, I’m reminded of why I went that route in the first place.

Now if someone could just stuff the innards of a D5 or 5D Mark IV into a body the size of an SL2, with some advanced computational imaging tech from a Pixel 3, I’d stop hemming and hawing about DSLR size and mirrorless flirtations.

What are your thoughts? Can smaller-format mirrorless cameras truly replace full-frame DSLRs?

Lead image by Sam Levitan and used with permission.

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Previous comments
Dan Donovan's picture

Nikon and Canon see the benefits of mirrorless and are putting all of their efforts in those systems. DSLRs will fade away. The latest Sony cameras and lenses are the ones to beat when it comes to full-frame mirrorless (a7III, a7RIII and a9).

Deleted Account's picture


michael butler's picture

Right on Wasim, agree with you wholeheartedly

Koen Miseur's picture

I don't use FF-dslr but I've always used crop-sensor dslr's and I have been looking for a mirrorless camera but after reading and comparison alot I still choose a Nikon D7500 over a DSLR.
Why? Mainly Batterylife but also a Nikon dslr just fits my hand perfectly and I still don't think there is a mirrorless that is small enough (most of them are almost as big) and has enough batterylife to replace it.

imagecolorado's picture

I've always been "full frame" DSLR first. I've owned many crop sensor bodies and still have one. I see crop sensors as a better alternative than a teleconverter. Mirrorless, whoopie doobie. When they perform better than what I have now, I'll take a look. They don't solve a single problem I've ever had.

To each his/her own.

David Pavlich's picture

This was just before a thundering herd of 30 kids on snowshoes arrived. :-)

Dean Dahlstedt's picture

I built my first darkroom in 1975. I have shot with a lot of different cameras over the years. I recently bought an a7r2 and a7r3, 100 400gm, 16 35gm, 24 70gm, and a couple gm primes. My wife and I are having a blast with this new set up. I have enjoyed all the new technology I have been lucky enough to play with over the past decades. There are many great cameras available today and they just keep getting better. It is fun to read all the comments and see the passion.

Campbell Sinclair's picture

Personally , I love my D750 , the dynamic range is killer and the images are exceptional. The AF is also very good and when it does miss on the odd occasion its down to my Tamron 70-200m G1 just not focusing in time . which I intend to retire that lens this year and grab a faster Nikon version. With the bottom grip its great to hold all day in the field.Only negative is the puny buffer for 14 bit raw files.

Jake Lindsay's picture

Comparing a crop of a crop sensor with a full frame camera seems a little bit silly especially if image quality is one of the focal points. I think if you would have used one of the newer Sony bodies you probably would have a different opinion. Maybe not. But the auto focus ergonomics and as you indicated image quality all are as good if not better then their DSLR counterparts. The benefits of an evf and the video capabilities alone are reason enough to switch.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I spent a week with an A7II, and then a week with the A7S II which is a current model. I suppose you mean something like the A7RIII but that assumes I'm the type that needs that resolution. Also, the bodies feel about the same so the complaint about the squared off edges are still there.

I use plenty of cameras with EVFs and the newer ones are nice, but I've never understood why it's transitioned into an absolute need these days when before people prized looking through the lens directly more than anything else (I still like this approach - the meter lets me know what's going on with the image without the need for a live preview). I suppose that's a bit like my preference for manual transmission cars.

michaeljin's picture

Photography has always evolved over time to provide the photographer with more tools to accurately predict and control their end result, whether it's the evolution of the SLR or the development of the light meter and zone system. The EVF is just the next evolution of this.

People prized looking through the lens directly because prior to that (at least for smaller formats) they had to approximate their framing through a separate viewfinder, whether it was on a rangefinder camera or a TLR. SLR technology at the time changed the game by getting closer to showing photographers what their photograph would actually look like by giving them the direct view through the lens. MILC goes a step further and shows photographers not only their precise framing as the SLR did, but their actual exposure and DoF in real time. The Panasonic cameras are even going so far as to try to approximate the effect of the shutter speed as well to give the photographer an even better idea.

Your manual transmission car analogy is apt. There's a certain joy that some people derive from driving stick, but in terms of performance on the road, manual transmissions are dinosaurs now that automatic transmissions have gotten so good. Sure, if I had a weekend car to take on the highway for fun, I'd probably opt for a stick shift, but I would never choose one for a daily driver or for performance on a track just like I would never show up to a real estate shoot with my FM2n and a roll of film. It may be fun, but there's no real upside beyond that.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

All good points.

marcgabor's picture

Totally agree with this article. I did some side by side comparisons between my Fuji X-T2 and Nikon D750 and the results surprised me. There is so much more detail in both the shadows and highlights in shots taken with the Nikon. The shadows aren't as much of an issue but the highlights are so much more natural looking with the Nikon. Also surprising was that when both cameras are set to the same exposure, the Fuji files look underexposed by comparison. Don't get me wrong, I shot with a Fuji X-T1 and then X-T2 for years and got great results - lots of my portfolio images were shot with these cameras and I've made beautiful prints up to 72" wide. I can't say enough about the quality of the Fuji lenses and of course the compact nature of the body lenses made it a great system to travel with. However, after comparing the two cameras side by side it's hard not to want to shoot with the Nikon. The D750 is pretty compact for a FF DSLR and with the right lenses makes a great travel camera.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Those Fuji lenses ... yeah, it's pretty much why I keep the X-T1 in regular use. The 56 f/1.2 is one of my favorite lenses for any system.

Michael Ma's picture

Totally agree but I'm sure plenty of people will disagree with you citing reasons they heard on a random youtube channel without trying it themselves. I think majority of Sony users believe DSLRs can't autofocus well.

Scott Edelstein's picture

Maybe I don't have typical hands... Maybe feel is about whatever you are used to... But, to me, the square edged Sony's feel amazing in my hand. I have shot Sony full-frame since the a7s. After the A7s, an a7rII and now an a9. They all feel better in my hands than any of the competition. The size difference between my OMD-EM1 and the Sony's is negligible and the Oly kit just collected dust after the Sony's arrived. Once upon a time i was all Canon but now DSLR's just feel bulky and clunky. Add that to the lack of an electronic viewfinder and I will never go back. I can't help but wonder how much longer Canon & Nikon will continue to spend R&D dollars on FF DSLRS. The over/under may be sooner than you think.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I've had the occasion to hold the Sony models for all-day affairs (workshops) and my hand just hurts. Shooting weddings and sports all day with Nikon/Canon stuff, I feel just fine. I've used the Fujis for some journalism stuff, and despite having a similar squared off design, the squares must be in better places because they don't seem to hurt my hand as much (the X-T models).

All comes down to personal preference and the size of my hands I guess.

Deleted Account's picture

Yep. Already knew all that. OK piece for neophytes.

John Koster's picture

I am full-frame Nikon. D4S and D810. Perfectly happy with my results.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I think if you are happy with your DSLR then good. I think if the camera gets the job done, then fine. A good FF is best choice for many types of photography. For most I don't see why a huge DSLR woul help image quality. Shooting people the new Sony cameras are superior and that's what I use. I am glad they have good engeeners. That's why I use it. Most important is to learn and know the camera you use, so you can focus on creating images.

francisco dania's picture

Olympus have a flash system comparable to Nikon. I shoot both systems Nikon and Olympus and I use Olympus FL50r with my epl-6 triggering with the small flash bundled FL-LM1 to trigger it optical and with TTL function

Don Atzberger's picture

I don't know why people are downvoting this either. I know that I'm comfortable with my FF DSLR (a D610) and not only am I consistently getting the results I need from it, I enjoy using it. Upgrading to a Z6 or Z7 isn't in the cards at this point. I have neither enough economic nor enough visceral motivation to do so. I like big cameras that I can get a grip on as I'm usually using fairly large lenses and I think a DSLR with a battery grip, whether it's integral or an add-on, just balances better.

Before considering mirrorless, I also am waiting for Nikon to come out with a model that has dual card slots. Having this in the D610 has saved my butt on more than one occasion.

I will DEFINITELY be interested in this supposedly up and coming sensor technology that will make the 1/320 sec
(or slower) maximum flash sync speed a thing of the past and allow flash sync all the way to the camera's max shutter speed. One of the rumors is that this will only be available in mirrorless cameras, and if that's the case, I will need to reevaluate whether mirrorless belongs in my kit.

Note that I keep referring to myself here. This is what works for me and the OP shares my opinion. If you like mirrorless, knock yourself out. I'd never be so intrusive as to tell anyone what equipment they *need* -- I can just relate my experience and others can take it or disregard it at their discretion. I'd hope you'd give me and the OP the same courtesy.

Our craft/art is about the image, and at the end of the day it doesn't matter whether you're getting it with a Z7 or with a view camera and a sheet of Velvia.

Spy Black's picture

Hello Wasim, one thing I would like to point out is, while the E-M10 Mk II has a decent sensor, I think it may be bottom of the barrel lots, while the E-M5 and E-M1 get the better yields. I have lots of hot pixels and whatnot on my E-M10 Mk II. In comparison, my GM5 isn't nearly as noisy, and I believe it's the same sensor tech.

That aside, I think it's silly to bother comparing the formats, as of course FF will look so much better, but you gotta carry that weight. My FF, and even APS-C gear stays in the studio and I shoot M4/3 and 1-inch on the street. Coming from the film world as I have, and having done lots of night shooting back in the 70s-90s with films like Fuji 1600 pushed to 3200, the noise and resolution at high ISO on M4/3, 1-inch, or any format really, is light years ahead of my old night street shooting medium, so it doesn't bother me much. :-)

Despite the noise, and compared to film or earlier digital cameras, there is amazing amount of high acutance in high ISO digital imaging today. There isn't a single digital camera I've worked with recently that didn't have that at high ISO's. For me it makes shooting at high ISO practical, despite noise. A surprising amount of dynamic range is also still available, not a lot, but useful wiggling room, and it helps to maintain color fidelity. For me it all adds up to make m4/3 and even 1-inch practical street photography cameras.

Timothy Roper's picture

I think the E-M10 II portrait is MUCH better. Are you sure you didn't get the two mixed up when posting?

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Nope, definitely not mixed up. Curious, what about the E-M10 II portrait do you like better, expression aside?

Timothy Roper's picture

I guess maybe it's the natural light then. On the left, skins tones are much richer, as is her hair color and definition. On the right, due to the hard flash light, things are washed out and the hair isn't defined much (just clumped together). The left is a really nice portrait, the right rather mediocre at best. Good example, maybe, of how it's really light that matter most, not sensor size : )

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Interesting way to look at it. Thanks for the clarification. I'm not sure I agree, but maybe that's down to personal taste?

Spy Black's picture

One thing I can say is that Olympus color is, surprisingly, spectacular. Had you used base ISO and strobes on the E-M10 shot it would look just as good as, and possibly even better than, the Nikon shot.

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