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.

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.

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84 Comments
Ann Gagno's picture

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.

terry mckenna's picture

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.

Matthew Saville's picture

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!

Deleted Account'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.

Mark Davidson's picture

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.

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account'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".

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account'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?

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account's picture

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

Deleted Account'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. :-/

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account'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?

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account's picture

Friends?

Deleted Account's picture

All good, Sam :)

Matthew Saville's picture

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.

Deleted Account'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.

Matthew Saville's picture

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!

Deleted Account's picture

Yosemite is serious. Good luck to you also :)

terry mckenna's picture

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.

Deleted Account's picture

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

Matthew Saville's picture

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.

Deleted Account'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! ;-)

Matthew Saville's picture

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.

Deleted Account's picture

I also shoot a bit of landscape but that doesn't really highlight the differences. I guess I'm just not interested in the hypocrisy of some "other" person. Anyway, I'm generally a fan of your comments and hopefully, we'll find ourselves fighting for the same best vantage point for a photo someday! :-)

olivier borgognon's picture

Great article, and very interesting point of view.

On my side, I have ditched my 5dMk3, 5dMk2 and all the set of L lenses and primes to go the fuji Way. The Canon gear has been sitting in a bag since march 10th, and I have not looked back once.

I now run my work on a Fuji x-h1, a 23, 35, 56, and a 55-140 lens with a 8mm fisheye for messing around as it was a 200$ lens worth it for a few rare shots (and more for fun).

I wrote an article on my website blog 2 days ago exactly on that, so it's great to read yours now. My concern was about the ego and the messing around we all go through with our photography. Full frame, loads of gear, flashes and strobes all over the place, whatever more, the bigger the better (a bit of a testosterone race if you ask me)

One thing I know is that a client has never asked me if my images were shot on full frame, if i was using a prime lens or a L series lens, and if I was using a specific brand of flashes to get the result.

So I would say some would argue that it's not the same bokeh (has a client ever compared 2 bokeh and said he wanted the other one ?) or that it's not this or that, or whatever would be wrong as it's APS-C.

I only have 1 body at this stage, so it's more my concern when i shoot triathlon, sport, cycling races, or weddings, and that would be more of my problem.

I was as many I think wondering between sony and Fuji, and finally went the fuji route (might change one day, it's just a tool). Good or bad, right or wrong... don't know. Basically it's a question of getting the right tool for the job, and when a job requests a medium format, I'll rent it for the shoot, but for all the rest, with 24mpx it's way sufficient to get major pics even on wide billboards, as the paper quality for prints requires 30 to 115dpi depending on which distance from eye to board is needed.

Great thought and challenging question.

Deleted Account's picture

My clients don't nit pick on things like bokeh because they know I do. The other thing...clients don't always tell you they're dissatisfied. Most of the time they just don't call back.
Agree with everything else. :-)

olivier borgognon's picture

I agree with you on clients not telling you they are dissatisfied, but it's a question of setting expectations IMHO, and to be honest, for my sake, if a client is dissatisfied because he wanted photos with more bokeh (they usually say blurry in the background :D), or if they wanted a 50mpx for a 6meters by 4 meters image, it comes out to 2 things, and it's my fault or can be theirs.

1) I didn't clearly define the brief with them, and i didn't ask what the end result was for, so it's my fault, because i didn't do my due dilligence beforehand.

2) They defined the brief with me in a certain way, and on the day of the shoot changed the expectations to grow the project in another direction, thus changing the end product, the type of shoot and the pricing, in this case, they are responsible for the mistake.

In both cases I could loose the client, but honestly, if there is a good trust relationship it can be worked around nicely. and if it's case 2 and it's a new client... and if he's pissed off, well I apply my red velvet rope policy and i'm not the photographer he requires, because project inflating for same pricing is trying to get more for less, and that's not how i work, as I value what i deliver at the level i'm at, and clients value what they get the same way.

I always ask clients when they don't choose me for a job after asking for a quote, what the reason was behind it, and I always say that it's not to make them change their mind, but to understand why, what is the decision making point, and it helps me clarify my position, my marketing, my sales funnel and clients usually really respond well to this question, some come back for future projects because I really listened to they remarks and worked on improving some of these elements if i feel they are something part of who I am too.

Deleted Account's picture

That's a really good post rejection strategy!

Saul Shiffman's picture

The commentary conflates cropped sensors and mirrorless camera design. I just switched to mirrorless, which cut the weight by HALF compared to my 'traditional DSLR. I think that will make a bigger difference, and does not degrade quality at all.

Saul Shiffman's picture

Though I will admit the mirrorless camera really eats battery....

Andy Day's picture

Agreed, but my 6D is pretty much exactly the same size as the a7 III..!

Phil Wright's picture

Not meaning to nit pick (great read!) but no, your 6D isn't pretty much exactly the same size as an A7iii :) 6D = 144x111x75 765g. A7iii 127x96x74 650g. Only real similarities are the depth of 74 and 75, and that's just the battery/grip :)

Deleted Account's picture

I'm with Andy, that's pretty much the same size.

Andy Day's picture

Lol. I was literally sitting down at my computer to look up the weight/size comparison when I read your post. 😂

Anthony McAfee's picture

Mirrorless full-frame camera bodies do tend to be a bit smaller but the pro quality zooms are not, (at least not on Nikon or Sony) so while the body may be marginally smaller you're still looking at large and heavy lenses if you want fast apertures and wide focal ranges. I suppose you could overcome that with prime lenses or just cheap lenses, but it all depends how much you are willing to sacrifice. Whereas if size and weight of the total rig is your concern, you can reduce that much more significantly by going with a pro-level cropped body like a Nikon D500. Yes, the body is larger than the smallest APS-C cameras available, but you can take advantage of MUCH smaller lighter f2.8 zooms, reducing your total size and weight more in the long-run while preserving features which are important to some photographers such as weather sealing, high frame-rate, battery life, image rating, commenting, etc...

bing putney's picture

It sounds to me like you don't need to switch to a crop sensor, you need to switch to a full frame mirrorless. Maybe give it a couple months and see what Canon (and Nikon) come out with, but as of today, it seems that Sony can meet all of your needs. They're substantially smaller, they have the dual dials that you like, you can actually SEE the changes to exposure in the viewfinder as you adjust, the battery life is much improved in the 3rd gen bodies, and the image quality will destroy your 6D. Rent a Sony A73 (or A7R3 if you need the resolution), shoot with it for a week, and report back.

Andy Day's picture

This is exactly where I'm at. I'm waiting for somewhere in London to have the a7 III available to rent. Was hoping to grab one in August while I'm over here for work but no luck, unfortunately!

James Madara's picture

I would love to see a follow-up article on your thought of a full frame mirrorless.

Andy Day's picture

I just need Sony to send me an a7. 😂

Jon Kellett's picture

I mostly agree with you.

Sony bodies are nice and light, but if you buy their G Master lenses (L series equiv) you lose any gains on weight or size or cost. I've not looked into using third party lenses on a Sony body though, so I'm not sure if they're the same size or not.

In the end I decided that Panasonic would be better for me, because of the shooting that I mostly do. I needed a smaller kit and if you take the Leica equiv of a 24-105/F4 and 70-200/F2.8 plus a G9 body all up it weighs less than a 70-200/F2.8. The fact that it's also physically smaller is a bonus - It also looks less "professional", which translates to easier to get street and travel photos.

I still have a Canon and L series glass, but I'm using it less and less. Next trip I think the Canon will stay home... If I even have it then.

Paul Sokal's picture

So I started shooting Nikon's 50 years ago with a black FTN. Talk about ego, shooting high school football with the same camera pros were using in Vietnam. I moved into Nikon digital in 2004 ultimately shooting weddings with a D700 and D3 with all the big glass and a bunch of SB900 strobes. It felt like I was going into combat. I quit shooting weddings several years ago focusing on fine art, whatever the hell that is, shooting Nikon D800 and Pentax 645Z. Several years ago I got the first Fuji x100, purely because I was old and nostalgic. People would come up to me and ask what kind of film I was shooting. Yes it was clunky, but it resonated with me. I since got the X-Pro1 and then the X-Pro2. For me the cameras just felt right, more organic. So Last year I dumped all the Nikon and Pentax gear and went completely Fuji: X-Pro2, X3E, and GFX 50S. The APC cameras and glass are a joy to use for me. I print large and I have no issues with 24 MP. The images from the GFX are of course amazing with the 50MP sensor. Using this gear feels like I've lost 50 pounds, compared to the DSLR's. The lenses are amazing and a lot smaller and cheaper for very similar results. And one thing that cannot be understated about Fuji is their responsiveness to their users. You really feel like part of a community. And their cameras do have a front and rear command dial you can set to control aperture and SS just like your DSLR, if you insist.

Andrew Houser's picture

Just finally listed my Nikon D750 and all my lenses on ebay after not touching that system for a couple of years now. Fuji (X-T2) gives you those dials you are looking for. As one that used to shoot plenty of portraits but now only shoots landscapes and travel, I am loving the lightweight system and I don't miss a stitch in the quality.

Tony Tumminello's picture

I use a combo of Micro Four-Thirds (E-M1 Mark II) and full frame (5D, 5D Mark II). They each have their own pros and cons, their own quirks, their own features. I find that when I need a camera that's unobtrusive, not intimidating in the slightest, and travel-friendly, then the Olympus works perfectly. When I need no compromises in lower light situations, that's when I break out the full frame. I won't be "ditching" either of them, there's nothing wrong with having two (or more!) systems that work in unison.

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