Some thoughts about going full frame (and shooting with a high resolution sensor)

The love story that is me and my Nikon d800 began about two months ago. Going from a 12 mp crop sensor to a 36 mp full frame 35 mm sensor has meant some changes. Rather than illustrating my points with boring test shots, I will accompany my thoughts with a few photos of some buildings during one of those first really hot days under a heavy sun just north of Stockholm.

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The obvious first thing that I noticed when using the d800 was the fact that my 50 mm was now really a 50 mm. On the d90 the crop factor meant I was actually using a 75 mm lens effectively. Going wider to actual 50 mm meant a much more practical focal length for everyday use. It’s not really wide or long; this is both the curse and the bliss of using a focal length like this.

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Depth of field is something that is closely related to the size of the sensor along with the aperture, focal length and focus distance. With the larger sensor you get the same depth of field with the same lens as before, but as your field of view is wider the depth of field will appear to be even thinner. This is in many instances a desired effect as it opens up to dreamy like scenes where only the person or item you want to be in focus is, whereas the rest is cloaked in a fog of out of focus-ness

On the other hand, in those moments when you want everything, or at least a lot, to be in focus a problem arises. In many scenes I find myself stopping down all the way to f11 in order to be able to get most in focus. With that comes longer shutter speeds, higher iso numbers, risk of diffraction etc.

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The other issue with depth of field is that it can indeed be too thin. If a centimeter is all that is in focus it’s ever so easy to miss it by a hair, leaving you with an out of focus image. The closer the subject is, the thinner the area that is in focus is.

Back on a crop sensor I grew accustomed to always trying to max out that minimum focus distance by standing as close as I possibly could focus to the subject, whereas I with the d800 try to stay a bit farther back. Otherwise I end up having just some parts in focus, regardless how small the subject may be and how parallel to the sensor it might appear to be.

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Continuing on the discussion about depth of field, this is something that makes exact focusing even more so crucial. Back on a lower resolution sensor you would sometimes not know if the subject is just slightly out of focus. On the d800 however, the 36 mp demands maximum perfection out of the photographer as it enables you to just keep zooming in on the image, and having the out of focus-ness surpass the resolution.

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In the same way that you are able to zoom in on images that seemingly are in focus only to realise that they in fact aren’t, you will also be able to see the shortcomings of lenses in terms of image sharpness much easier with a high-resolution sensor. I used to be all happy cats about the sharpness of my 50 f 1.8 G wide open on my d90, but with the d800 there just isn’t enough bite to the image when shot at f 1.8. Stopping down to say f 8, pop a flash and the resolution is just mindblowingly intense, though. It’s an absurd experience to take a headshot and be able to zoom all the way into the eye and make out perfect details in the eyelashes.

This does leave me somewhat worried, as I will soon start expanding on my lens collection (well, from only one at the moment). Although I would like to believe I don’t care all that much about so-called pixelpeeping, it will affect my choice more than I would probably like to admit. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The same concept applies to motion blur. For the most of the time now I have my d800 set to a minimum shutter speed of 1/100th second, even though you according to the golden rule of focal length = minimum shutter speed would be able to use 1/50th a second quite consistently. This is because I would too often find myself looking at the images up close at slower shutter speeds and realise there was a lot of motion blur going on that I wasn’t used to seeing. Once again: it’s the bliss and curse of a high-resolution sensor.

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People will argue that this resolution is unnecessary for everyday use and that the average photographer won’t ever print this big. Completely disregarding the cropping potential, I will instead counter this argument. In the year of 2014 where there are monitors everywhere, surely the printed product is not the most common way we consume photos these days (although printing is a whole-nother topic of discussion to continue sometime later). For me as the photographer, and clearly the one who’s the most interested my own photos, it’s worth the world to be able to zoom in on details and discover more levels of my photos. Yes, downsized for web use, printed at normal sizes and whatever else uses there might be for these gigantic, high-resolution files 36 megapixel is definitely overkill. But when you get to abuse those beautiful files in photoshop/camera raw/lightroom and be able to zoom in all the way to 100% and beyond you will still appreciate them being there.

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I’ve left out quite a bit of extra pointers, but all in all I suppose it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Clearly using a camera such as the d800 is ever so superior in twice as many aspects as it might be different or problematic, though.

Smaller sensors with lower resolution still do play a significant role in photography. I would like to have some sort of micro four/thirds camera to mainly use for street photography. They’re smaller and less conspicuous and they are easy to get a wide depth of field with. Sadly, there is only that much gear I can afford out of the ridiculously long list of things I would like to have. One can always dream…

I feel like I’m rambling a little, but I want to try writing a bit more in my posts and not just have them be a bunch of photos without a context. If that’s the case, I’d rather write a bunch of photos without a context and have some rambling photography nonsense in text form along with it 😉 I hope to get better at structuring posts like these in order to make them more easily digested by the reader in the future. It’s a start anyway.

/Martin

7 thoughts on “Some thoughts about going full frame (and shooting with a high resolution sensor)

  1. Like all tools, camera take some getting used to and when you switch to a full frame sensor after using a cropped sensor your brain has to adjust. But, once it does I think you’ll enjoy the ride. I remember going from a Canon 20D to a 5D and had similar feelings although I did a lot of very shallow depth of field work so I immediately saw a plus. I also loved the larger pixel sites and lower noise.

    But, for me, the DSLR kit with lenses is too heavy and cumbersome for the kind of photography I like: hiking with a very quick stop for a shot so as not to lose rhythm or annoy my hiking partners.

    At this point, smaller cameras with larger sensors are eating into the DSLR world: the image quality is excellent, they’re less expensive, and most important, they’re a lot easier to carry around. I’ve been trying many and I’ve settled (for the moment) on the Ricoh GR and Fuji X100S. Neither is perfect but they’re suiting me well for the time being.

    Keep up the great work.

    • Hey there! Sorry for a late reply. Thanks for popping by and sharing your thoughts 🙂 I agree that smaller cameras will keep getting more and more market shares. DSLRs will probably become something strictly for a just a few professionals with specific needs.

  2. I had the same ‘surprise’ going from a D200 to D700 and relished every aspect of it. I don’t go in for pixel peeping but it’s great to know that your photos are sharp where they need to be and that your creativity is limited only by yourself. I do a bit of travelling by motorcycle and sometimes wonder about having less/smaller kit – but I just can’t bring myself to do it!

    • The endless gear anxiety of a photographer, eh? It’s funny and sad how photography so easily can become an exercise of technicalities as opposed to an art form. I think it’s important to ponder these questions every now and then. I still do think gear plays a huge positive role in terms of opening up doors of creativity, but it’s important to walk the line just right and not fall over board on either side.

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