Why My Ego Won't Let Me Ditch My Full-Frame Sensor

Why My Ego Won't Let Me Ditch My Full-Frame Sensor

As my photographic career has evolved, so has my appreciation of image quality. I now spend a huge amount of time on the road and would love a lighter, smaller system, and yet I can't bring myself to let go of my full-frame sensor.

Until recently, shooting on a full-frame DSLR made sense to me; I traveled only occasionally, didn't mind the weight of the body and the lens, and having that full frame made me feel like a "proper" photographer. Two years ago, my life became much more nomadic and hauling my DSLR and two L-series lenses has become a chore. Given my desire for minimalism and the fact that photography is only one part of my profession, I can't justify the cost and space of owning two different systems. As a result, I find myself caught between a full-frame camera that feels too big, and the prospect of a cropped-sensor system that, despite the amazing technology, feels like a step backwards.

When I made my last purchase, a full-frame DSLR felt like the best fit and, as a long-time Canon shooter, the Canon 6D was a nice compromise of quality, size, and that magical full frame. Despite shooting sports, I don't rely on a high framerate, deciding five years ago that the size, weight, and cost savings justified the 6D's 3.5 fps over the 5D Mark III's 6 fps. A cropped sensor mirrorless camera might have been a much better option, giving me the small, lightweight, and affordable system that I craved. However, switching systems was daunting and mirrorless sensors seemed to attract dirt and kill batteries like nothing else, so I never considered it seriously as an option.

An upgrade is now overdue. I spend most of my life at wide angles and not-massive apertures, and it's only for the occasional portrait (an area of my photography that could do with a lot of practice) that I open up to f/2.8 to take advantage of some nice separation of subject and background, typically at the longest end of my 24-70mm (or my beloved 40mm prime).

That said, the thought of not having two dials — one under my finger and the other under my thumb — is not something that I can contemplate. I always shoot in manual mode, often adjusting my exposure without looking at the numbers. The thought of not being able to respond instantly to changing conditions, whether that's passing clouds or sudden movement, is an unpleasant thought.

But there is one other factor that, I realize now, is even more decisive: my ego. In a way, my sensor has tracked my photography career. I started out shooting cheap color film, scanning soft negatives, before landing an advert for Canon and being paid with my first DSLR. From there, the step to full frame felt natural, giving me the width that I wanted with the lenses that I already owned. And one more crucial element: the sensor quality made me feel like a "proper" photographer.

move from full frame to micro four thirds

One of the most successful images of my early career. I can't bring myself to stare at the high res scan at 100% because the grain and softness are too upsetting.

I've gone from being an incompetent amateur shooting blurry film to a (relatively) tech-savvy photo geek with a professional-looking camera dangling around my neck. The camera itself feels like a passport to this world of accomplishment and prestige. Even now, watching people shoot photos looking at their screen rather than through the viewfinder makes me cringe. Of course, that cringe is ridiculous, but I'm also conscious of what my commercial clients expect: photographers should hold big expensive cameras and look through the viewfinder. They shouldn't be holding a small, toy-like piece of plastic, framing shots by staring at an LCD at arm's length.

Photography has changed and maybe I'm resisting. If Nikon and Canon's reluctance to embrace mirrorless has proven one thing, it's that a unwillingness to embrace change can come at a cost. I need a system that suits me, my lifestyle, and my photography, not my ego and some precious idea of what "a photographer" is supposed to look like. As so many articles point out, these expensive lumps of metal and plastic are not representative of our capacity to produce images. But, at the same time, how we feel when we're holding the camera can influence how we shoot, so, whatever my biases are, they're still factors that are difficult to ignore when making this decision.

Have you ditched full frame for a cropped sensor? I'm keen to hear about other people's experiences. If you have any regrets, wish you had made the move sooner, or have any thoughts on how it affected your photography, please leave a comment below.

Log in or register to post comments

80 Comments

I have the same feelings about my Canon5D MKII and 6D. I wish they are lighter and I can’t justify replacing it with the mirror-less system when it still both generate technically acceptable pictures that my clients wants. It seems to me now, it is really about convenience and availability of resources and not the ego.

Rob Davis's picture

We know that if people think a wine is expensive, they enjoy it more so the positive association with pro looking gear is not nothing. To most people who don't know much about photography, big cameras and big lenses mean pro. It instills confidence and puts clients at ease on incredibly important days. Events like weddings are also great sources of referrals. There's a good chance a guest may never see your final images but they will definitely see if you look like a "real photographer" or not.

Luckily for photographers almost all big lenses and big cameras are usually the highest quality from a manufacturer so there's not much loss there quality-wise, unless the difference between 4 pounds of gear and 5.5 pounds of gear is an absolute impediment to the work you do, and it could be for some people.

Go ahead and show up to a job with a Rebel if you want to. I wouldn't.

as someone who used a 4x5 decades ago, I feel differently. the "crop" sensor is great for some pictures and a full frame and top quality lens on a full frame useful for other. (i used a Pentax 35mm and a crown graphic 4x5 in the early 70s.). Canon and Nikon are reacting to the reality the cameras are a low margin business. Sony got lucky. (they are also good).

Doc M's picture

I use a digital Leica m with a couple of prime lens. Full frame and tiny. Very easy to transport. While I am not a professional by any means it is a system that I can grow into and the camera is small enough that I always have it with me.

If you're shooting at ISO 100 and don't need ultra-fast apertures, then indeed full-frame is almost completely pointless for general shooting, even most professional applications where ~24 megapixels is enough. For example, in landscape photography, both the Nikon D5600 and a couple of the Canon M-series APS-C MILC cameras are actually just as good as, or better than, their full-frame, same-generation counterparts. The Canon 5D2 and 5D3 had such bad dynamic range, that it's laughable how a landscape shooter will consider them to be "acceptable professional tools" and yet scoff at the latest EF-M bodies as insufficient. They're actually better. (Again, at ISO 100)

Technology is indeed progressing amazingly. If you're not truly, truly pushing the envelope with regards to resolution, ISO, and/or depth of field, then you don't need full-frame. (And yeah, most folks /think/ they "need" it, but they really don't.)

Having said that, I totally understand that certain professional situations do benefit from having a big camera. It's silly, but it's likely to continue for the foreseeable future, especially for certain high-end clients in certain markets. But hey! Just an excuse to buy more toys!

Personally, I own a bunch of full-frame gear and big chunky full-frame lenses, but when I travel I often leave it all at home and opt instead for an ultra-lightweight beginner series DSLR with smaller kit lenses. They're super sharp, and the image quality is great!

user-156929's picture

If you compare an older FF camera to a newer APS-C camera, you're not really comparing FF to APS-C. :-/ And landscape isn't the best example to highlight the differences. I've shot portraits with crop sensor and FF cameras and I don't ever want to use a crop sensor camera again. All in all, it's the little things that make the difference. It's not huge or ground shattering but it IS there.

What exactly were the issues that turned you off to APS-C? I started with a Canon 10D and now use FF Canons. Apart from res the quality is similar. Note I am using studio lighting and shooting at f6.3-f8. Even with the 10D I was able to get shallow DOF outdoors in portraits using my 70-200 f2.8.
I actually am considering a move to Fuji or even Olympus for my headshots and event work.

user-156929's picture

FF is better for low-light photography, which I use quite a bit for nature photography; shallower DOF at shorter distances from subjects for portraiture (corporate photography); better image quality, which may be due to my particular camera (D810) to some degree; brighter viewfinder (I'm an older guy); professional looking (Not vanity. It gets you more respect and compliance from a lot of people, both subjects and others you have to deal with as a photographer); more useful zoom lens ranges. I'm sure there are others but that's all I could think of right now.
To put the question the other way, what would APS-C get me? Lighter and smaller. Meh.

user-189304's picture

I just had to call search and rescue, because my gear (my full winter kit, as opposed to my camera gear) was too heavy to deal with snowshoeing through snow drifts in a blizzard. When it comes to safety, grams matter.

I don't see that risking the safety of the people who come to help you as particularly "professional".

user-156929's picture

I will be happy to deliver the appropriate response after you tell me how this relates to my post in any possible way. I would wear myself out exploring the possibilities unaided.

user-189304's picture

I apologise for overestimating your ability to draw reasonable inferences. In future I'll keep in mind that everything has to be explained to the point of absurdity.

You assert that weight is irrelevant (or more precisely "meh"), and sure, any time you want to climb a mountain carrying 20kg of camera gear, please feel free.

But then I suppose an old man who drives to his destination is utterly incapable of comprehending this simple and obvious fact.

user-156929's picture

I see. Thank you for the explanation. I appreciate your patience and candor.

Brook Brown's picture

Come on, Sam! You need to pay attention. Didn't you know this was a discussion of appropriate gear choices for mountain climbing and snowshoeing in blizzards?

user-189304's picture

Weight is weight.

Maybe you think that 1kg of camera gear has a different weight to 1kg of non-camera gear, or 1kg of that fat around your gut.

Complex stuff, I know.

user-156929's picture

Do all Aussies go out of their way to insult people or are you just special like that?

user-156929's picture

I'm still confused as to why I should listen to the opinion of someone who had to call search and rescue because he, having no idea what gear to take, decided to attempt such a trip. :-/

user-189304's picture

Given that I've been snowshoeing and snowcamping since 2002, and have never had an issue, it's fair to say that I do know what gear to take. I hadn't accounted for 50cm of snow in 24 hours.

But nice attempt to move the conversation from the fundamental point that weight is significant and important, to trying to assert that because I ran into issues my statement that weight does matter is of no consequence.

As to your objection that I was rude; given your constant attitude on here, combined with your initial snark, I'm not feeling too bad about it.

user-156929's picture

I don't recall making a general statement that weight and space are insignificant. My comment was reserved to MY perspective regarding MY camera gear and, of course, MY situation.

You, on the other hand, moved from the specific, which being MY specific you had no idea about, to the general, encompassing all of humanity and their collective experiences.

Let's start over. If I were snow camping, or any kind of self-sustained camping, weight and size would be very much an issue. Better?

user-189304's picture

To be totally fair, the clause I objected to was:

"what would APS-C get me? Lighter and smaller. Meh."

Which was a less than redundantly precise statement.

My fundamental point, is that for some activities, size and weight are the overarching consideration.

Fair to say, I should not have made reference to my own experience, and that I fully deserved to be shat on.

user-156929's picture

Friends?

user-189304's picture

All good, Sam :)

William, in all fairness it was not wise to divulge that you had to call SAR because your gear was too heavy, even if it wasn't camera gear. Having said that, I do totally understand that sometimes predicaments happen, and I doubt you went into the situation foolishly. That's what "Spot" etc are for... Extreme emergencies.

Anyways, I agree with you- every gram matters. And that is why I travel with as lightweight of a kit as I can afford to, often. On all of my recent major wilderness adventures in the last ~10 years, I've left most of my bigger, heavier gear back at the car, and only brought the bare minimum, even if it means a crop-sensor camera or two, instead of 1-3 full-frame cameras. (I shoot nightscape timelapses, so full-frame is definitely helpful)

Sam is simply a different genre of photographer. Shooting corporate work and portraits, there's no reason to shoot anything less than full-frame, and there's plenty of reasons to take full advantage of the options, too.

user-189304's picture

Hi Matthew, yes, I was asking for it, I've been on the internet long enough to know better.

As you (and anyone who does such things) know, full winter kit is at least twice as heavy. If I was carrying my summer kit, it wouldn't have been an issue, but the weather could have killed me. In any case, it's a question of basic physics, as it pertains to floatation, surface area, and pressure. I simply didn't expecy 50cm of snow in 24 hours, and powder was outside my experience (next year I'll start skiing).

And yes, I carry an EPIRB.

For many years my friends and I have been attempting to plan a cross-country ski or snowshoe to Glacier Point during a heavy snow in Yosemite, so I wish you the best in your own adventures!

user-189304's picture

Yosemite is serious. Good luck to you also :)

I find low light (indoors without flash and late day outdoors) much better on full frame. but mid day landscapes where you will be walking for a few hours are fine with APS-C. Perhaps better with mirrorless where the image is not reduced by 1 step - the mirror.

user-156929's picture

Agreed, although I have zero interest in ML cameras, despite any advantages they may possess.

That's my point exactly, Sam. An old FF camera is nowhere near as good as a new APS-C camera, at ISO 100 at least.

So, all the idiots who once called their 1Ds3 or 5D2 "the most amazing landscape camera ever", ...and yet now scoff at an EF-M camera just because their 5D4 (or more likely, the A7R-series that they switched to) is of course way better, well, it's just a /little/ hypocritical.

user-156929's picture

Well... I think you're framing the argument to support your POV. Anyone who says, "best xyz ever" is just silly. But 'the best given the current technology', may very well be true. I want the best, given the current technology, that also happens to fit my other *personal* criteria. That always happens to be a FF camera. Everyone else needs to decide that for themselves. If I were climbing mountains or snowshoeing through blizzards, I would definitely NOT be bringing a FF camera! ;-)

That point is still a little weak, because the hypocritical element is still there. I understand that the bar is raised with each generation, but for certain things, the newer generation of a lesser option is truly that much better than the older generation of a better option.

I'm not saying the new generation full-frame option isn't a little better than the new generation of APS-C. It's usually a bit better. (Although the base ISO DR of the D750 is almost identical to the DR of the D7200. Again, that's landscape photography for you!) Anyways, all I'm saying is, superior or not, don't /scoff/ at the standard which you once deemed so amazing. I hope that makes sense.

And, of course I'm framing my context a certain way, because that's the thing I shoot, (and it's a pretty BIG genre of photography) ...just like you have a way that you shoot, which you also gave the context of.

More comments