One of the most highly debated “advantage” of a full frame camera over it’s smaller sensor counterparts is the shallow depth of field (DoF). Is it really an advantage? Is it a feature that is only achievable with a full frame camera?
It is quite understandable that those who are coming from small point and shoot cameras would desire this shallow DoF effect. It makes even the most ordinary portrait snapshot look as if it was professionally done. Some of them would even start dreaming about putting up their own photography business after seeing what they could do without putting too much effort into the shot. Heck, even experienced photographers still can’t get over this cliche after years of shooting with full frame cameras and continue buying expensive, fast, huge lenses just to get even shallower DoF. Let’s face it, shallow DoF is probably the most sought after feature that forces everyone to upgrade to a DSLR.
Do realize that shallow DoF is just a cliche that can be done by anyone who happens to own a DSLR. After years of making snapshots of flowers and their pet cat those who are serious about photography will start to understand that there is so much more to this art. It’s not just about blurred backgrounds but making the background contribute to the image. It’s not just about isolating the subject but giving context to the subject and its environment. That’s what real pros do. Real pro shots have enough depth of field to make the viewer appreciate the subject and the environment. They shoot at f8 or f16 not f1.2. That’s where the money comes from. Look at fashion magazines. You can’t present that expensive Louis Vuitton bag when only the model’s eyes are in focus. To shoot a guy in a tuxedo a pro will probably have him stand against tall buildings or maybe inside a modern office to show class. Wedding photos aren’t just about the bride but also the grandeur of the church. It’s not just portrait and fashion shots. Have a look at pulitzer shots and see if you can find one with very shallow DoF.
A good photo shows both the subject AND location. I have said this before: why waste your time looking for a nice location when all you do is blur everything but the subject’s eyes? It does not make any sense at all.
I’m not saying that shallow DoF is bad. Too much of anything IS bad. What’s worse is if everything that you do is shallow DoF. Get over it.
In the real world, photographers desire to have enough DoF. Shallow DoF is a PROBLEM not a FEATURE.
Consider a group photo in dim light. A concert for example or a night shot. In these conditions, you will be forced to open up your aperture to, say, f2.8 or even wider just to get enough shutter speed at a reasonable ISO sensitivity. With a full frame camera, you will struggle to get everyone in sharp focus.
Another example is macro photography. When your lens is just inches from your subject, DoF will be terribly shallow. You will be forced to stop down to f16 or f22 just to get the proper focus. Unless you have enough lighting, good luck on getting a handheld shot with that.
This is where m4/3 cameras really shine. At f2.8, a m4/3 camera will have approximately the same DoF as a full frame camera at f5.6. And because of the crop factor, a m4/3 camera will use a shorter focal length for the same field of view. That means smaller, lighter, cheaper lenses and shutter speeds that you can easily use handheld.
Let us use real world values here. A full frame shooting at f5.6 with a 50mm lens will struggle at 1/25s shutter speed. The m4/3 equivalent will have it easy at f2.8, 25mm at 1/125s without sacrificing DoF. To compensate, the full frame shooter will probably open up to f4 at 1/50s which is still barely fast enough or go wide at f2.8 wherein DoF would now be a problem.
The good thing with m4/3 is that if the photographer really needs shallow DoF, he could always choose the excellent 45/1.8 or 70/1.8 lenses. Even my el cheapo 40-150 kit zoom offers good enough shallow DoF if you know how to use it.
A full frame user who bashes a lowly m4/3 because of DoF does not know what he is talking about.
Bottomline is, a m4/3 camera has hit the sweet spot in depth of field control. It can do shallow DoF with fast lenses or get excellent DoF without effort.