Do you really need that full-frame sensor?
When choosing any camera the size of the sensor is perhaps the most important consideration. That is, if you are serious about photography. If you’re not serious, you will be swayed by other factors such as appearance, convenience, brand recognigition and, of course, cost. In general terms, the smaller the sensor, the lower the cost, so a glittery bauble with a tiny sensor from the now struggling point-and-shoot market at a low price has certain attractions for the unaware.
The issue has been muddied in recent years by the success of smartphone photography. All smartphones, even the most sophisticated such as the Leica-equipped Hauwei models or Apple’s iPhone X, contain relatively tiny sensors. Yet the results can be impressive, aided by software wizardry capable of creating passable bokeh and subject separation — in ideal conditions, that is. But results overall are very acceptable in the context of the modern way of viewing, on a phone, an iPad or, at most extreme, on a computer screen. Few people these days bother to print anything, least of all poster-sized images. It’s no exaggeration to say that the smartphone has created a whole new generation of budding photographers. Some of them, fortunately for the future of the camera industry, will eventually seek something with a bigger sensor.
Bigger sensors can certainly create a narrower depth of field at any given aperture, often better image quality and, of course, the ability to enlarge images to a much greater degree — up to the size of the proverbial bus side if you like.
But let’s get back to the choice of sensor size. There is a school of thought that the bigger the sensor the better in any circumstances. It has to be full frame, say some. Others are now being seduced by the even greater attractions of medium format. Surely, the bigger the sensor the better, they say. Yet it isn’t always so. Bigger sensors mean bigger cameras, bigger lenses, more disk storage.
Things are changing, though. Sensor technology is improving all the time. Smaller sensors are becoming more proficient. Even the one-inch sensor, as found in the extraordinarily successful Sony RX100 range or the super bridge cameras from Sony and Panasonic, is now producing results that would have been astounding just a few years ago. System cameras with micro four-thirds or APS-C sensors are gaining popularity for their autofocus speed and, crucially, for their compact bodies and lenses. Dynamic range and low-light performance, once a stumbling block with smaller sensors, has come on dramatically in recent years. Increasingly, smaller sensors are impressing experienced photographers.
Photographers who once thought that using a full-frame camera was the only way, are now happily downsizing their systems to APS-C or, even, m4/3. David Bailey wrote yesterday about his migration from a full-frame DSLR system to Fuji’s X cameras and lenses. It’s a transition more and more photographers are making.
Smaller systems are definitely easier to carry around and, in most cases, that is the initial prompt to downsizing. But it would be fatuous to suggest that experienced photographers would choose a camera purely on the basis of system size. If these smaller systems didn’t cut the mustard in terms of results then photographers would be returning to full-frame DSLRs in their droves. However, while we hear many stories such as David’s, recounting a move to a smaller sensor, we hardly ever hear of movement in the other direction, except, perhaps to the Sony A7 range which manages to combine relatively small size with large sensor.
For me, the main attraction of larger sensors is the narrower depth of field that is possible. Mount a Noctilux on a full-frame M10 or Leica SL and you can play around with razor-thin depth of field and achieve impressive feats of subject separation. There’s no doubt that it is an alluring benefit of owning a large sensor. I love using both the M10 and SL, especially the M10 with its rangefinder and manual focus. It’s a refreshing antidote to function-filled modern cameras.
That said, I am no longer as committed to full frame as I once was. I’m impressed with the results from my m4/3 Leica DG lenses, especially in partnership with the new Panasonic G9. And I am very happy with APS-C results. In most cases it is impossible to tell which size of sensor has been used, so good is the image quality — as David Bailey, William Fagan, John Shingleton and other contributors to Macfilos have proved time and again. We have to realise, too, that for most of the work we do (and a blog such as Macfilos is a case in point) sensor size doesn’t really matter all that much. I could use a 1in sensor and produce enough stuff to talk about, with good illustrations, and to be honest I have no absolute need for even APS-C or full-frame.
So, the question is, do you really need a full frame sensor any more. This thoughtful article in TechRadar set me thinking and it’s worth a read (and prompted this article) if you are in the market for a new system, perhaps to replace your full-frame DSLR, your Leica SL or, even, your Leica M.
What do you think? Have smaller sensors finally come in from the cold? Are they about to take over in the same way that Leica’s “miniature camera” of the 1920s effectively replaced larger-format film over the decades?
- David Burnett switches to Sony after 40 years with SLR
- Returning to DSLR from Mirrorless
- Thom Hogan on DSLR v Mirrorless
- Albert Normandin switches to mirrorless
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