Full Frame Advantage

Stick has had a few months now to get used to his new Canon 5d Mark II and biggest difference from his old 20d is the inclusion of a full frame sensor.  People ask me to recommend DSLRs all the time and almost without exception I’m thinking to myself “if they only knew the advantages they’d get with a full frame DSLR.”  But when you ask them about their budget  and realize a full frame model isn’t a possibility then you go ahead and recommend the best crop frame model (for their needs) knowing that if they ever progress to the intermediate stage they’ll eventually end up with a full frame DSLR anyway.  This week Stick is going to share with us his thoughts and experiences after moving to a full frame DSLR.
 

I raised more than a few eyebrows when I told friends I had picked up a Canon 5D mark II and everyone wanted to know why!  After all, my 20D had served me faithfully for more than 4 years.  People liked the photos I took with it so why did I need to upgrade?

The answer was simple.  Full-frame!

The 5D II is a full frame SLR.

What is meant when we hear the term "full frame"?  It means that the size of the sensor is the same size as 35 mm film i.e. 36 x 24 mm, give or take a fraction of a millimetre.

So why is this important?  Well, put simply, that is a huge sensor!  The sensor is the part of the camera that captures the light that has been guided through by the lens.  The theory is that the bigger the sensor, the better.  So when we talk about medium format cameras the sensor is bigger again and when we talk about large format, we're talking a massive sensor and serious bragging rights!  But that is the domain of professionals only so let's come back down to earth...

So how much bigger is the sensor in the 5D II than the 20D or other "compact" digital cameras like say Canon's acclaimed G10?  Well, in my 20D and in all of the Canon "crop cameras", the sensor size is 22.5 x 15 mm.  In a Canon G10, it is 7.6 x 5.7 mm.

Let's do the maths.  The sensor in the 5D II is 36 x 24 mm meaning a total area of 864 square mm.  In a crop camera it is 338 mm.  That means that the full frame sensor has a far greater area to collect all the light and which, as I will try and show, results in better images.  In the Canon G10, the total size of the sensor is a mere 43 square mm!  Tiny!  So when we talk about full-frame, these numbers start to give you some idea of just how dramatic the difference in sensor size is.

The advantages of full-frame are numerous.  The sensor is the "full" size so uses all of the lens.  This means that the focal length of the lens is what you actually get with it on a full-frame camera.  My 24 – 70 had an effective focal length on my 20D of 38 – 112, meaning it was not very wide at all.  The sensor only caught what went through the middle of the lens and the rest of the glass of the lens was essentially not used.  This means that your lenses operate how they should and wide lenses really are wide, you can see in this photo of Soi Cowboy.

 

The advantages of full-frame are numerous.  The sensor is the "full" size so uses all of the lens.  This means that the focal length of the lens is what you actually get with it on a full-frame camera.  My 24 – 70 had an effective focal length on my 20D of 38 – 112, meaning it was not very wide at all.  The sensor only caught what went through the middle of the lens and the rest of the glass of the lens was essentially not used.  This means that your lenses operate how they should and wide lenses really are wide, you can see in this photo of Soi Cowboy.

 

Because a full frame sensor is larger, the part of the sensor where what will be the pixels of the image isn't as cramped and images have a bit more colour and punch to them.  I like this picture.  Technically it is nothing special but I still like it because of the vibrant colours.  This is straight out of the camera with no Photoshop post processing i.e. the colours have not been saturated at all.  Images out of a full-frame camera have much more punch to them than what the 20D or other 'crop cameras' produce and the colours look more vibrant and more pleasing.  I have heard some refer to this as "the 3D effect".  Sure, some smaller digital cameras produce punchy images too but they are invariably heavily processed JPEG images out of the camera that often have an over-processed "digital" i.e. not 'natural' look.

 

Because the sensor is so large you can have higher ISO settings because the pixels are not crammed as close together as they are in a crop camera or, God forbid, a smaller digital camera.

 

Because the sensor is so large you can have higher ISO settings because the pixels are not crammed as close together as they are in a crop camera or, God forbid, a smaller digital camera.

The image here of a lady from Laos in an Udon Thani bar was taken in pitch darkness.  I mean, I really could not see her when I looked through the viewfinder which is a testament to the 5D II's focus system that the image was indeed in focus.  This shot was taken at 25,600 ISO, F1.4, 1/30 second.  Admittedly much post processing was required to make it viewable and I could only really get it suitable for web size.  You probably couldn't get a decent print from this but it does give some idea of just what is possible with the full frame / high ISO combination.  This was a fairly extreme example and I cannot imagine shooting in lower light.

So full frame allows for clean or at least somewhat clean high ISO shooting which for someone like me who takes more shots at night than during the day is truly wonderful.

This final photograph would have been difficult to capture on anything but a full-frame camera.  Full-frame cameras allow you to use a very narrow depth of field, meaning your subject, or just part of the subject, can be sharp while the rest of the image fades from sharp to blurry to totally out of focus.

 

This final photograph would have been difficult to capture on anything but a full-frame camera.  Full-frame cameras allow you to use a very narrow depth of field, meaning your subject, or just part of the subject, can be sharp while the rest of the image fades from sharp to blurry to totally out of focus.  This allows the photographer to be more creative.  Perhaps the biggest drawback with the smaller, cheaper digital cameras is that everything in the image is sharp and there is a very limited capability to control depth of field.  This might sound like a good thing but if you wish to be creative, being unable to throw the background out of a focus is a massive drawback.  The shot below was taken at ISO 6400 at F1.8 1/30 second.  I was very close to the woman yet the noise in the shot is low, the colours are ok (it was much darker than the photo suggests) and the shallow depth of field that full-frame allows works very well.  The only part of the entire image that is in focus is the eye of the mother closest to the camera.  The rest of the image is a nice dreamy blur which leaves much to the imagination and adds atmosphere to the shot.  If the whole image had been in focus – and it would have been with a compact digital camera - the image would have been boring.

 

I almost didn't go full-frame.  I spoke with BKKSW and mentioned that I may go for a 50D but his answer was short and sweet.  A 5D was ideally suited to my type of photography and that is what I should get.  I have absolutely no regrets!

 

I almost didn't go full-frame.  I spoke with BKKSW and mentioned that I may go for a 50D but his answer was short and sweet.  A 5D was ideally suited to my type of photography and that is what I should get.  I have absolutely no regrets!