Full frame vs APS-C vs 4/3rds

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Which is heavier, a kilo of cotton or a kilo of nails? This is a classic trick question that a lot of people still fail to answer.

A rough translation in photography goes like this: which camera will produce better prints, a 12Mp full frame or a 12Mp micro 4/3rds? Some “photographers” will hesitate to give an answer but the brave ones will go “of course they are the same but ….“.

It is this “but…” that I would like to discuss in this post.

But what?

If you have visited “photography” forums long enough, you will notice that the resolution wars are now over. Discussions now revolve around more relevant aspects of photography such as high ISO noise, sharpness, CA, bokeh, fast lenses, frames per second, video and so on. It is inevitable that choice of platform (not just brand wars) are thrown into the mix. Most forumites believe that m43 cameras are OK but full frame is still superior.

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For the benefit of full frame shooters, let’s cover the most common arguments pro FF. The bigger sensor means bigger sensels and therefore better performance in low light at high ISOs. The bigger sensors also result in shallower depth of field and allows much smaller apertures before the onset of diffraction issues. Phase detection focusing is also very fast. Of course, there’s a multitude of different lenses that cover just about any focal length you will ever need. Lastly, real pros, not the forumites, use ONLY full frame cameras…for a good reason.

All the advantages mentioned above are true. It would be foolish to deny those important points. The question now is, how does m43 compare? Let’s discuss them one at a time:

Bigger sensels/pixels. No contest here. Bigger sensors will have bigger sensels given the same resolution. But how much of that really matters? The fantastic OM-D can shoot at ISO 6400 with very acceptable output. There will be noise but I have yet to encounter a full frame camera that is noise-free at this ISO sensitivity. So both full frame and m43 will be noisy at ISO 6400 although the latter will be more pronounced. It’s like comparing the exam results of two examinees who both failed…there’s no point. What matters is the picture. If the viewer starts noticing the noise in your photo instead of the photo itself then your shot wasn’t good enough. You should not have taken the shot in the first place. A good photo is a good photo. A bad, noise-free photo is just a bad photo. Simple as that.

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Shallower depth of field. No doubt about that. Getting shallow depth of field (DoF) is not everything though (unless you are a n00b). DoF has to make sense. What’s the point of getting very very shallow DoF in a portrait shot when you could barely recognize the ears of the model? But n00bs love this because it’s the easy way out. I have always (half) jokingly stated that shallow DoF is for those who can’t compose a shot. When only one spot is in focus, what’s the point of composition? Just fill the frame with bokeh and that’s it. Again, DoF needs to make sense. With the right technique and an inexpensive lens, a m43 can easily make lovely shallow DoF shots.

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Diffraction issues. Given the same sensel density, a m43 camera will experience softness due to diffraction at a larger aperture compared to full frame. For example, the 16Mp OM-D sensor is diffraction limited at around f5.6 while a full frame of the same megapixel rating will be limited at around f11-f16. Roughly two stops difference. Does it matter? Not if you understand correct photography and know how to overcome this limitation. Firstly, why would you shoot at f11 for example? Maybe to get everything in focus as in landscape photography. That’s easy with a m43: just shoot at f5.6 because you will get the equivalent DoF of a full frame camera at f11. How about shooting in bright light? Easy: shoot at lower ISOs or use a ND filter. How about long exposures? Same thing: get a darker ND filter or better yet, shoot in appropriate light conditions. Then again, the use of narrower aperture should make sense. A photographer should not be afraid to shoot at much narrower apertures if the composition calls for it. I shoot at f22 with my K5 (APS-C sensor) in countless situations. Yes, there will be softness in the output but as I’ve said earlier, if the viewers start noticing the irrelevant aspects of your shot then your shot wasn’t good enough. Unfortunately, a huge percentage of those who look at your digital photos are pixel peepers. They don’t really care about the shot. All they care about is criticizing the irrelevant details and the EXIF data so they know which gear you used and and them to their wish list.

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Focus speed. DSLRs used to be the king of autofocus (unless you use a Canon 5D II). Beginning with the Olympus E-P3 and then followed by the OM-D, autofocus speed has been surpassed by m43 cameras. Other full frame DSLR cameras are a dog just like the Canon 5D2 which can’t even focus properly. Face detection has been around for m43 for quite some time but this feature has only been implemented properly in full frame DSLRs with the release of the D800. One could say that m43 is equal to, if not better, than full frame DSLRs in this respect.

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Lens selection. Full frame has been around way longer than m43 cameras. It follows that more lenses will have been made for them. How much of this really matters? If you are a lens collector, every single lens matters. If you are a photographer, a handful of lenses will be more than enough. The great Henri Cartier-Bresson only used one lens, so there.

Olympus and Panasonic have already created lenses that would cover most focal lengths. If these aren’t enough, you could always buy an adapter and attach your favorite full frame glasses to your m43. Such is the beauty of the platform.

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Pros don’t use m43. Not true. A well known full time pro portrait photographer has replaced his mega expensive Leica M9 full frame camera with a m43. But really, who cares? Pros have been doing photography way before m43 has even been conceptualized. It would be foolish of them to dump all their gear and years of investment on lenses just so they could switch to m43. These pros won’t even dare switch to a full frame Sony even with its fantastic Carl Zeiss lenses.

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Notice that I barely mentioned APS-C sensor cameras. There’s no need. The arguments for or against them are basically the same. It does not matter.

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In closing, full frame or APS-C or m43 is a matter of choice. I love shooting full frame because of the huge view finder. The size of my D700 is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because heavier cameras are generally more stable by virtue of the law of inertia. Bad because they are heavy (doh?!). I am wed to my K5 (APS-C) and my OM-D (m43). The K5 does everything that I needed in a camera while the OM-D is something that I could carry every where I go without sacrificing my photos. Again it’s a matter of choice but don’t be fooled by arm chair photographers saying that your choice is inferior to their choice just because theirs is bigger and more expensive. In the end, it’s the output that counts.

Before I end this post, notice that I have sprinkled several photos in this post. Without cheating, can you recognize which ones were captured by my full frame, APS-C or m43?

P.S.

I’d be damed if you could recognize them 😉
Until next time.

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