Full Frame vs APS-C vs m4/3 Round 3

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.

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25 thoughts on “Full Frame vs APS-C vs m4/3 Round 3”

  1. Sorry for my english.
    I ended up on your blog doing a research on the Olympus E-P3, I am looking for a replacement.
    What a great surprise, I love the quality of your posts! They are full of good sense.
    For exemple I always wondered why the majority of people wants to blur completely the background as to me taking the portrait of someone without the context tends to be boring after 2 shots; I have my answer now.
    I thank you for the time and effort you take for sharing these knowledges and will share the link with my friends.
    Kind regards,
    Laurent

  2. Very Interesting stuff and good said. I was just looking for a fullframe camera because my Sony RX100 sensor was to small to make good pictures in the dark settings with concerts (thats all I photograph) . Very much noise at iso 3200 and 6400. And too dark images at lower iso’s, so the big sensor of the FF seems to be the answer (less noise, higher iso, bigger pixels, higher speed possible i almost can never go above 1/60) and now i read your story ???
    I am 80% of the time at 2 to 7 meters away from the bands should i forgot the FF and go for APS or 4/3 instead? Is 4/3 even better then APS in my case?

    1. Micro 4/3rds cameras have come a long way. Sensor performance has become so good that you probably will not notice any difference in image quality vs full frame cameras. I can’t say for sure if it’s the right one for you. If all you are concerned about is the image quality then any camera will do. It comes down to preferences.

      What I like about m43 is that they are very small. If you are shooting concerts for example, it is very easy to tilt the screen of the Olympus E-M5 and hold it above the crowd. It’s not much heavier than any other quality point-and-shoot camera. The lenses are small and fast. Try doing that with a full frame DSLR.

      Where the m43 excels is in depth of field. It is easier to get a group in focus even if the lens is wide open because of the crop factor and the shorter focal length. If this is what you need then a m43 camera is what you would probably want.

      Here are some of the photos that I shot with my m43; some of them in very dark spots:

      https://plus.google.com/photos/102153453421455324992/albums/5787631380001814401?banner=pwa

      I hope that helps.

  3. Thanks it absolutely helped me. I am now thinking to experiment first with the cheap A3000 from Sony. People say is has very good modern APS sensor and is getting dumped for less then $300. And a cheap 1.8 prime to see if i like to walk and shoot with a big camera.

    But i am still looking at good and cheap 43. The thing that bothers me a bit is that my Sony RX100 has 100mm2 sensor, APS has three times that 300mm2 and the 43 “only” two times 200mm2.
    Because i shoot in small rooms (100 to 500 man) the lights are 80% of the time very very bad, the APS larger sensor ‘feels’ somehow better.

    1. Your choice. Here’s my latest shot from inside a cathedral. Check out the full size completely unedited photo straight from the camera. This cathedral is dimmer than a concert stage.

      SOOC

  4. That’s one amazing picture!!! Beautiful and full of detail color and no noise. Indeed good photo for “only” a 43.
    I see that there is also a cheaper but still good 43 camera (PEN-E-PM2) available.

  5. Maybe a stupid question but would it make sense to buy a Pm2 and a cheap canon 1.8 lens (the famous plastic fantastic) and a 43 converter? Or maybe even the 1.4?
    The 1.8 canon goes for only 100 while anything special made for the 43 mount cost at least 3 times as much here.
    Because of your story and your foto’s, i am thinking on 43 now.

    1. I would not recommend mixing brands. Canon lenses or any other lens that are not meant for m43 are not optimized for it. M43 lenses are optimized such that the light that hits the sensor is angled properly for maximum resolution for the format. You can’t expect the same from other lenses if you fit them into a m43 mount.

      As always, get the equipment that meets your budget. You can’t really buy a bad camera now. We have come to a point where buying into a specific brand is more of a personal choice than an obvious advantage. My favourite camera for example is a Pentax with a cheap $300 Sigma 17-70 lens but it’s the small Olympus that I bring with me to work every day.

  6. Hi, i bought also a M43 the E-PM2. A small cam so i take it easier with me. Now i am looking for 1 or 2 primes anywhere F1.4 max F1.8. Thnx for the article.

    1. Have you tested the 45/1.8? This thing is the stuff of magic 🙂 It’s next on my list. I just need to negotiate harder with the minister of finance 🙂

  7. Yeah i heard very good things about it. Its the first on my list to get and not that expensive, compared to the other one that is on my wishlist, the 25mm 1.4

  8. So far i am a bit disappointed with the results. I expected more with the extra 3.5 stop (got the 1.8 prime). Even now i have 4000 iso 5000 iso and 6400 iso and a lot of to dark pictures. I will test more but i dont think i go for 1.4 prime dont expect much beter pictures with it after what i have seen.
    Sometimes i even think that there isnt that much difference with my RX100 to go through all the trouble with a bigger cam and 2 primes. Also the videofunction is unusable it cant keep the focus even when the object isnt moving.

  9. I use the S mode on 1/60th and auto iso limited on 6400 iso. Only with bright white light i get a decent photo even with faster shutterspeeds but most of the time small concerts are in all red or yelow or blue or green light or a combination of them.

    1. Can you post a sample? The venue must be really dark if f1.8 1/60 ISO 6400 is not enough. I dont think any camera can save you in that situation without getting terribly noisy output.

    1. Nothing wrong there man. If anything the DJ shots are overexposed. You lost texture in the highlights. Learn to time your shots when the lights hit the vocalist.

  10. I dont know or you can see them. I just got a message that the service looks at the photo’s first before making them public 😦

  11. Ok the photo’s get better now even at terrible 6400 iso. Takes some time to get used on the new camera, i shoot RAW again instead of JPG so i can get the most out of it.

  12. I see that you had terrible lighting to deal with.
    Also not the easiest band to film, they (the original) move so much.
    But a lot of them are more grainy then I think should be possible knowing you, how comes?
    btw what lens did you use a prime?

    I am now again two gigs further, one in almost no light -> 6400iso but still razorsharp.
    And one with so much light on stage, every photo is 200iso some 400iso. Results very beautiful photo’s.

    Also wondering or i should still buy the expensive 25mm because today i stood on 10 meter and already my 45mm shoot so much i had to crop a lot. 25mm is IMHO only useful if you are standing on 3 meters form the person. How may times we are on that distance … for $250 i say yes, but for $500…

    Btw thanks for shooting a gig so i can see the difference between a pro and an amateur.

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