Photo by Scott Bourne - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons

Shot With A Crop-Sensor Nikon Camera – Photo by Scott Bourne – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons

Most of you who read Photofocus regularly know I recently switched to micro four thirds cameras. I am more convinced than ever that these cameras perform as well as ANY camera in 95% of the situations where it counts.

While I used to be an advocate for full frame cameras, I changed my mind when I saw the advantages of going small. So to counter all the posts that are out there advocating why you need a full frame camera, here’s why I think you do not.

1. The Low Light Argument

One of the arguments for full-frame cameras is that they offer better low-light performance. They do. But while the “religion of low-light” has caught many of you in its net, the majority of the last 100 years, photographers haven’t been concerned about it. They brought their own light, made light, borrowed light, reflected light, etc.

My flashes, reflectors, hot lights, etc. will work anywhere, with or without power. Since photography is actually about light, I don’t understand the fascination for working without much of it.

2. The Shallower Depth of Field Argument

Right after the religion of low-light, comes the shallow depth-of-field argument. You may not know this, but not every photograph requires shallow depth-of-field. In fact, most do not. But when you want it, you can have it two ways on a mirror less system. Very fast glass, i.e., 75mm (EFL 150MM) f/1.8 is plenty shallow for most situations. And post-processing tools can make an f/22 shot look like it came from a tilt-shift lens.

3. The Lens Flexibility Argument

Some full-frame shooters like using old film camera lenses on their full-frame cameras. They seem to think this is only possible on full-frame. In fact, Micro Four Thirds cameras can easily, quickly and affordably be set to work with almost ANY lens, including lenses that will NOT work on full-frame cameras.

4. The Sharpness Argument

This is the silly one in my opinion. People actually think they can make sharper photos on full-frame lenses. The physics say differently. Sharpness is controlled by MANY factors, lens, pixel depth, pixel size, subject distance, and photographer skill. To think you’ll get sharper photos just because you switch to full-frame cameras is pure horse pucky.

5. The Winder Angles Argument

While it’s true that ultra wide angles like 16mm etc are not available on some non-full-frame cameras, the trade off is that the very crop factor FF proponents rely on here works against them for those who need longer reach. If you’re a wildlife or sports shooter, trading ultra wide angle for longer telephoto reach is a no-brainer. And many of the smaller cameras are able to shoot 24mm un-distorted. We used to think of 35mm lenses as wide when I was a kid so 24 seems pretty wide to me.

6. The Better Build Quality Argument

Sigh. This is plain stupid. Just because a camera is full-frame doesn’t mean it’s built any better than one that is not. Some full-frame cameras have no special waterproofing or dust blocking capability. My Olympus OM-D E-M5 on the other hand does – and it’s no full-frame camera.

7. The Full-Frame Cameras Look Cooler Argument

If your photography is so bad that you put more importance on how your camera looks than your images, there is no hope for you. Start learning to garden, fish or whittle – photography isn’t for you.


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Join the conversation! 36 Comments

  1. You can still have full-frame and be compact – Sony RX1. It is a brilliant camera, despite some limitations.
    I also shoot with a OM-D and agree that the quality from this MFT camera is excellent, especially coupled with good glass (e.g. Olympus 70mm).

  2. I would consider these less “myth,” and more “legacy beliefs.” At one time, not very long ago, these were all most true statements.

  3. Great article Scott. I just purchased a GH3 with the 28-280 and the 100-300. I am a nature photographer/videographer. The small size – portability of 4/3 made it a easy choice. I am having difficulty getting the quality from the 4/3 that I did from my Canon 5D MK3. Close shots are amazing but the medium to long shots lack detail. My questions are to many for this arena. Could you recommend tutorials or books that would help me shoot better.

    Thank you

  4. @Jody I passed your comment through moderation mostly for pure entertainment value. I worked hard on this article and the best you can do is attack one word in the title???

    And please be specific. At which time specifically were which of these MYTHS true? I am pretty sure that physics have been consistent at least during your lifetime :)

  5. I always look at the end purpose for your photograph. If its for the web—shoot you could use an iphone and it would be okay. If its to send to friends via email–again..But lets just say you want to make a 30×40 landscape print—you need the most information you can get=tripod, probably full frame and a high quality lens at the very least. I have seen some galleries where the images are huge — most shot on large format cameras 5×7 to 11x14s –and then a high quality drum scan. So I would agree with the post a Micro Four Thirds Camera certainly has its place…. but in today’s world no camera is an end all–no what you’re using the camera for and then go out and get the best you can afford for the job–JMHO!!!!

  6. Scott, I get it all the time. I will research something for a full day, craft an interesting piece and someone (out of many) will take the time to snark a word. The internet is full of snark and we all get those. I’m following your four thirds experience with great interest. I shoot full frame Nikon and love it, but always wish it would be smaller and lighter. I’m also watching the features develop with each generation.

    I almost wish I could turn off all comments. But that defeats the whole community thing. Life is like high school. Remember some of those kids? We give everyone in the class (including those particular kids) a sharpie and the opportunity to write on our locker. :)

    Your exploration of four thirds is very helpful and interesting.

  7. As a “shoot it in camera” kind of guy the depth of field argument still stands. Sorry, but you cannot match a full frame 35mm f1.4 lens “look” (for sake of argument focused at four feet at f1.4) in camera with your four thirds camera. Never will happen.
    Interesting article – thanks.

  8. I disagree.

  9. I agree totally with this , having used a Panasonic G2 for over 2 years, I am impressed with the capablties of this camera. The experience further enhanced with my most purchase of the Sigma 30mm f2.8 lens. I suggest if anybody is in doubt of the quality of M4/3 find someone with one checkout their results and presently surprised

  10. High ISO performance has benefited me greatly when shooting in places such as the local hockey arena, gym and auditorium. Even at 2.8 I’m shooting 6400 and higher to get the shutter speed I need for hockey. I have no ability to control the light in these locations.

  11. I could have just written the comments for this post in advance. Most (but not all are predictable.)

    @John R. Fulton Jr. Perhaps you should read the post again. I do not care whether or not you can’t get the DOF “look” most of the time without a FF camera. The only reason most photographers DO care is that they’ve bought into the false meme that you HAVE to use shallow DOF ALL THE TIME. I’ve been shooting 41 years. Never even heard that discussion at all the first 35 years I shot. It’s a new, trendy, false – manufactured issue. Just like low-light shooting. Most of the images I’ve sold are shot between f/5.6 and f/11. And ANY camera – FF or not can deliver a nice looking DOF with the right lens at those apertures.

    @Matt some very small percentage of photographers need high ISO performance. I agree in these situations – that a full frame sensor is best. Again, you’re talking about a handful of people. The point of the post was to explain that you don’t ALWAYS need a FF camera.

    @Ron I never said anywhere in this post that MFT is the best camera for every job. I merely debunked the myth that you have to have a FF camera.

    Keep em coming folks. A lot of you are smarting from this post because it makes it harder for you to justify all the money you spent on that full-frame body. Be honest with yourselves about that and then leave your comment.

  12. I love #7! A talented photographer can take amazing photos with any equipment. Great read as always :)

  13. Scott, I like the article. I liked your points. I am a full frame owner–newly so. For right now, it’s what I like. I don’t know much about the Four Thirds cameras, indeed am very ignorant of them. Some day when arthritis sets in, or I get bored, I’ll probably explore them. I think the best thing I’ve learned about photography is, a REALLY good photographer can get the absolute best out of pretty much any camera they pick up, because they understand the principles about photography, and the basics of how cameras work.

  14. Scott, thanks for all the information and for opening me up to new possibilities. I have a cropped sensor SLR and always though I would “upgrade” to full frame when I could afford it. I could afford it right now but am seriously thinking about 4/3 because I could buy a complete kit for about the same price as a new full frame body. Right now my two alternatives are going 4/3 or buying a used full frame a couple of generations back (1D MkIII).

  15. Thank you!! My god I am sick to death of Fool Frame nonsense!!!

    I just posted this on another forum and most of it applies to this one as well:

    These people have, for the most part drank the Canikon DOF/Bokeh kool aid and think it must apply to everything.

    15 years ago shooting film with Medium Format it was a constant fight to keep DOF because your big corporate client or magazine was dumb enough to actually want to see in your images what the hell they had paid an arm and a leg for!

    This whole DOF/Bokeh thing is FOR THE MOST PART the obsession of amateurs and pseudo artists/pros looking to justify their considerable outlay on expensive equipment. If you really want it that shallow go Medium Format ‘More Full Frame Than Full Frame’©.

    This reminds me of the silly war re: having a a comp with the fastest megahertz a few years ago… No one hears that any more.

  16. Scott, great post! I shoot both Canon FF and Fuji X APSC. If you could get an OM-D with a full frame sensor in about the same size as the current model, would you be jumping on it?

  17. @Mike that would be impossible but I think I am making the point by my actions. I HAD a full frame sensor – I had FIVE of them – i.e., five Canon 1DX bodies. I don’t miss the camera EVERY because of its full-frame status. I am sure there are some photographers who need it. I do not. In my opinion much of the noise about full frame is from people who wouldn’t be able to make it produce images that are one bit better than a crop sensor or smaller sensor camera.

  18. Okay, as to low light. I’ve heard this “just use your flash” argument before. Sometimes that’s exactly what you can’t do. The bulk of my photography is of musicians in concert, including my wife. I’d never dream of blasting at them with a flash, and indeed would be thrown out of the venue if I did. I love all cameras, including compacts and micro four thirds (I own three, including the Olympus OM-D E-M5). They’re awesome. But sometimes there is nothing like a full frame.

  19. @Dr. Andy back when the fastest film you could buy was ISO 800 or 1600 pushed – what did those poor photographers do? How DID we get ALL those photos of the Rolling Stones in concert back in the 60s?????????? Must have been by magic?

    Yes I agree – maybe five percent of the people reading this absolutely NEED good low-light performance, but even still – many of the crop sensor cameras and even compact cameras perform VERY well at ISO 12,500 or even higher. Sorry I just don’t think it’s a relevant argument for many.

    And while we’re at it – Look up the origin of the word photo. Here I’ll do it for you.

    Notice the key ingredient?

    “Many words in the English language come to us from Latin or Ancient Greek.
    “Photo” is derived from Greek – the Greek word “phos” means “light.”
    The word “graph” also comes from a Greek word meaning “to draw.”
    A Photograph is therefore a drawing made with light.
    We often shortern the word “photograph” to “photo.”
    The latin word for “light” is “lux.”

  20. @Scott, I agree with your points. I’m extremely happy with my X-E1’s and use them extensively on all my shoots, the IQ is on par with my 5D2. Interestingly, I considered the OM-D but found it too small for my liking, as I have larger hands.

    One big reason I still rely on my FF 5D is the 70-200 2.8, a lens that has no equal on the X-System. Every system has it’s benefits and compromises as you’ve said many times. I love the size, weight and cost benefits of the smaller format cameras but I’m happy to lug my FF for the results I can get from that lens. Perhaps that will change in the future as things continue to expand in the mirrorless area.

  21. I loved my Olympus four thirds kit and wish I hadn’t switched to Canon. Looking at getting an OM-D and hopefully switching back at some point.

  22. Hey Scott-

    This isn’t a disagreement on #5, but need some clarification. From what I understand, crop factor refers to field of view, not the effect of focal length. I used to think that if I put a 180mm lens on my DX camera, it is equivalent to zooming to 270mm. But actually it’s the crop that limits what can fit onto a DX frame, rather than being a cheaper (and smaller) way of getting the same effective focal length of a 300mm telephoto on a full frame camera, which it’s not.

    Another way of looking at it, a 35mm lens on a D7000 will have the same “distortion” or look as on a D4, but won’t show the same field of view because of crop factor. The D4 is “wider”, but if you crop the image down like the D7000, wouldn’t it look the same?

  23. @Michael on a purely pixel-peeper level you are mostly right. But this argument has gone on for a decade and I won’t be drawn into it because it isn’t really important at all in making good pictures. I am usually more careful with my words and use the phrase EFL – effective focal length. That makes it harder for someone to pick a fight over the topic. I think everyone gets the meaning. If you take the position you do to discuss this issue then it is also relevant at the wide angle side of the argument which means there is no problem with wide angle lenses on non-full frame cameras.

  24. Good article Scott. I am still fascinated by all the gear heads out there in the wild.

  25. If your post is to point out that not everyone needs FF, then if course you are correct. However, low noise is something that every photographer needs or would benefit having at some time, not just 5% of us. Photography is about light and the more versatile your equipment, the more potential it leaves in your artistic expression. Think of the difference between film and a D3S. Yes, people made amazing pictures 50 years ago and talent trumps gadgetry. Shallow DOF is very time consuming in PP in some situation like portraiture when the background is the same color as the hair or very busy with high frequency detail. Refine mask just doesn’t do it. Autofocusing on birds in flight (as you say yourself on your website) or on kids is still much easier with FF technology as it stands. For the same autofocusing reasons, I would still opt for FF for many sports despite the crop “advantage”. I have by used in my 42 years of photography, Hasselblads, Nikon F, F2, F4, F3, D3, OM-D, PM2.

  26. @Thomas my post is to point out myths and I did just that. And I am amazed that you think you speak for every photographer. Low noise is not important to many photographers. In fact, you make that argument for me in your comment. Grain (the old fashioned equal to today’s noise) was a part of every image for 50 years. While I agree that AF is important on birds in flight, I have never said that FF is the reason that AF is good on the cameras that do it well. In fact I explained that these cameras (5DMKIII and 1DX) have separate processors for AF – they happen to be FF cameras but the tech is being applied to crop sensor cameras in Canon’s line. Proving that FF isn’t required for good AF. Feel free to use any camera you like. Again – I am merely pointing out myths. Not discussing preferences. I am tired of people being tricked into buying things they don’t need when something less expensive would do just fine. That is the reason for exposing these myths.

  27. Different cameras fulfill different requirements.

    I thought about medium format, (as I like to shoot landscape and architecture a lot), and used to shoot 8″ x 10″ film. The sticker shock shut me down; and I use the camera for other types of photography where the size of the camera would be very much against it, (street photography), and where the limited focal ranges of available lenses is an issue, (wildlife photography.) Still, putting an IQ180 on a view camera has tremendous appeal, for the full movements, the great dynamic range, and the resolution. They are also king of the hill for product photography. They are too bulky for most event photography in my opinion, (though the Leica S2 is smaller in size and weight than the Canon 1Dx and Nikon D4, so there is an exception to this rule.)

    So then what about a 1.5 – 1.6 crop sensor. Many of these are fine instruments and work well as general purpose cameras. (I even have one, a D7000 converted for I/R photography). The smaller physical size makes them a great choice for street photography, (and the Pentax K-5 with pancake lenses is probably the ideal street camera short of a Leica M-9.) WIldlife photographers in general and birders in particular love this format. Put your 500 or 600mm lens on one of the weather sealed, high pixel pitch models, and it is the ideal weapon of choice for this type of photography. Low cost, and excellent quality never hurt either. The dynamic range on the best ones is comparable to what is available on the best full frame. ISO, not so much, (but then I tend to shoot at base ISO 90% of the time.) The new higher pixel density (24mp Nikon models) are a mixed blessing. The IQ is phenomenal, but that pixel density means your hand holding technique better be damn good to realise what the camera can deliver. Also, the pixel pitch is now so high that you will realise the benefit fully only in the f-stop range where diffraction limitation does not begin to show itself, and with a 24mp APS-C camera that is up to f5.6. Yes, it still grants a benefit at higher f-stops, (to a point, though by f-11 the severity of the diffraction means that you will probably notice no difference in resolution between it and a 12mp camera.)

    I went full frame in the form of a D800. Why?
    1) Good weather sealing of a pro level body.
    2) High pixel pitch over a full frame for landscape equals big prints at high resolution.
    3) i like shooting near-far landscape, which means a 24mm tilt-shift. On a crop sensor this lens would not be wide enough (being effectively 36 mm.)
    4) It is affordable, (for me), compared to the medium format systems.
    5) It is small enough, for street photography, (which MF is not, and a Pentax K-5 is better.)
    6) I am not hitting diffraction limitation until f-8 on the D800 which allows me a wider usable range of apertures in which to obtain the benefit of the resolution. For practical purposes, above 80mp on the IQ180, 36mp on full frame, and 16mp on a 1.5 crop factor, is “marketing pixels” to me.
    7) This last one is a criticism of the manufacturers in general, and Nikon in particular. I agree with Thom Hogan that in lens choices, the format which is a bread and butter format for the bottom line is being treated like the less beautiful sister at the prom. There ain’t enough attention being paid to new and exciting lenses for the APS-C format, whereas the full frame lenses on offer, are amazing. Try the 14-24mm, 85 f1.4 or f1.8 lenses, and a 70-200 VRII, Full frame is getting all the love.
    8) Note: High frames per second, and ISO that stretches to over 100K has never been of use to the photography I do, so the advantages of the Nikon D4 or Canon 1Dx would not have given me anything, whereas the resolution and dynamic range of the D800 are about as good as I can get without jumping that medium format shark.

    Choose your camera on the basis of the application you are putting it to most often, within your budgetary parameters. Once you think about that carefully, you will have your answer, Also, consider the lens set, because you are buying a system, and not only a format, and that the cost of the lens you want or lust for can often equal or exceed the cost of the camera body. (Ask any birder.)

  28. It would appear from all the dialog going on that a lot of folks would be well served to spend more time improving their skills and less time worrying about the techno stuff and what other people are using. Mr. Bourne’s decision, and the decision of many working pros, to move to ILC mirrorless cameras more than proves their capability. If your DSLR meets your needs and you don’t mind the expense of the periodic upgrades and the weight and bulk fine. If a system that is very capable and weighs lots less and cost less appeals to you think real hard about mirrorless. I just got a Panasonic G5 and a couple of lenses. The fact that the photos are just as good as my EOS-7D is making me a little grumpy.

    With respect to low noise – The new cameras are very capable – All of them. I am old enough to remember playing with Royal X-Pan at ASA 2400 and extended developing time. I still ended up with thin negatives and grain about the size of ping pong balls.

  29. I agree with each and every point in this post. Physics is physics, and most of what you say is basic (or somewhat advanced) physics. As you quite clearly point out, the number of situations where you NEED FF is very limited. The main situation for me would be low light, and as you correctly point out, most of the time you have plenty of light, and if you don’t, you can bring it. The Hockey and Concert examples above being exceptions.

    Still, I am in the process of upgrading to FF. Not because I am a pro who needs it, but because I am an enthusiastic amateur who need it, and who can’t really “afford” the alternatives. I am a father of young children. This means I am taking pictures inside under bad lighting conditions with no possibility of adding my own. So, for that important task, which is very, very important, I need a FF camera. Other times I do not.

    I can not “afford” two different systems though. I would love to mainly lug a MFT system around. The reduced weight would be a boon. Since I do not use the photo equipment in a professional setting though, and since I want to have the highest quality all of the time, including the Christmas show, the in-door soccer match, the karate grading etc. I am on FF, and all alternatives will be inferior, some times significantly so.

  30. @Nick I generally agree with you – but you missed the point. This post isn’t about how to pick a camera or even which camera is better than the other. It’s about the myths that some FF camera buyers use to justify their purchase of more camera than they need.

  31. @michael, I believe the point of stating EFL with a smaller sensor is to represent the cropped field of view that matches a higher focal length using a 35mm FF sensor.

    However, that misses the point, in my opinion.

    The real variant angle of view arises from the concomitant change in distance (position) one would need to make to achieve the same subject framing.

    By itself the focal length does not alter AOV, and neither does a smaller sensor, but in the end, the pragmatic act of framing a subject will result in a different angle of view as a consequence of repositioning according to the focal length multiplier and/or crop, and of course, framing a subject is an essential element of composition.

    Therefore, if you take composition into account (which you must), then the altered AOV that derives from repositioning to account for EFL and/or sensor crop does show a tightly bound relationship between the two. To speak only of FOV and to stop short of the eventual photography is to make an academic but largely useless point in practice.

    With that said, it’s a good point that doesn’t hurt to know, but I’d say it’s generally more valuable to have a good sense of how the focal length and sensor crop affect your actual photographs.

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