(NOTE: I originally posted this article on my blog back in September 2011. I'm posting it again now because the misconceptions about full-frame cameras continue to rage on, and I've received a lot of positive emails from readers saying this blog post helped them immensely in choosing the right camera for them. Enjoy!)
I've had many students approach me and say something along these lines: "I'm trying to decide whether or not to upgrade to a full-frame camera" or "once I upgrade to a full-frame camera..." or anything like this that seems to hint at a full-frame camera somehow being better than a standard digital format (APS-C) sensor. So the real question is, do you need a full frame camera?
The answer is simple: No. No you don't.
"But what if I want to-"
No. Still no.
Regardless of what kind of photography you are doing, you don't need to upgrade to a full-frame camera. In fact, even using the word "upgrade" when you talk about full-frame is not quite accurate. "Upgrade" implies that a full-frame camera would naturally be better than an APS-C camera. Well they are more expensive after all...
^ A full-frame sensor has the same
dimensions as a piece of 35mm film:
24mm tall by 36mm wide.
^ An APS-C or "digital crop" sensor has the same
dimensions as a piece of the short-lived APS-C:
size film: 16.7mm tall by 25.1mm wide.
^ Overlay the APS-C on top of the full-frame sensor
and you can see how much a digital crop sensor
will crop the image. But does that mean
it's inferior to a full-frame?
The thing is, though, that a full-frame camera is not necessarily any better than a digital format camera. Take the Canon EOS 7D and EOS 5D Mark II cameras for example - two cameras that were on the market at the same time. The 5D is a full-frame camera and cost about $2500 when it was new. The 7D, on the other hand, has a digital crop sensor and cost about $1700 new. In my opinion, the 7D is a far better camera than the 5D Mark II for several reasons.
First, the 5D's auto focus system pales in comparison to the 7D's. The 7D also has an electronic viewfinder that can pull up a grid on demand. The 7D has an electronic level, a much faster frame rate and a more advanced metering system. The list goes on. And that's not even addressing the $5000 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. That camera isn't full frame, but it has many advantages over the 5D including one of the fastest frame rates of any camera, a longer-lasting shutter, weather sealing, a better AF system and dual memory card slots. Again, the list goes on.
So a full frame camera is not an "upgrade" necessarily.
But then what's all this talk about getting a full-frame camera? Well, first things first: look at who makes a big deal about getting a full-frame camera. That mentality usually comes from beginner photographers, gear reviewers, and internet forums. (Which, by the way, you might want to stay out of internet photography forums. They are absolutely saturated with false information. In fact, read this blog post titled "5 Quick Bits of Advice for Beginning Photographers.")
So don't listen to what beginners have to say about camera recommendations. That's the blind leading the blind. Any professional worth his salt will tell you that it really doesn't matter that much what camera you have. And not coincidentally, the first question out of a real pro's mouth will never be "what camera do you use?" Why? Because pros don't care and pros know it ain't the camera. It'd be like asking a painter what brushes he uses.
As a professional with tons of experience, let me tell you why I use a full-frame camera and why they get a reputation of being better.
I use a full frame camera for 2 reasons that actually really boil down to just one: I used to shoot film. I shot film for about 5-6 years before switching completely to digital. In that 5 or 6 years, I got used to certain focal lengths looking a certain way. In other words, 16mm looked a certain way to me because I was used to the "full-frame" film view of it. Had I put that 16mm on a digital crop sensor (which I could have), suddenly 16mm on my lens wouldn't match up with 16mm in my mind. It would have been more "zoomed in" than I'm used to.
So if you shot extensively with film before getting your DSLR, then you might want to look at a full-frame camera. But if you started your photography adventure on a digital crop DSLR, then all is fine in your world. 16mm looks a certain way to you and that's all that matters. Your 16mm won't match my 16mm, but who cares? We're not going to compare mental image pictures to see who's is more zoomed in. But for me, I didn't want to have to "re-learn" my focal lengths. That would be a lot of habits to break and I didn't want to throw that kind of wrench in my gears, so I went with a full-frame.
Then there's the argument that full-frame cameras are better for wide-angle shots (like landscapes) because the sensor doesn't crop the image and, therefore, you get a wider view. Well, that is technically true that you get a wider angle image on a full-frame camera with the same lens. For instance, if you put a 16mm lens on a full-frame camera, you get a field of view measuring about 108 degrees wide. Put that same 16mm on a digital crop camera and that angle shrinks to somewhere around 84 degrees. That's a pretty big difference.
^ The blue border indicates the image as it would appear on
a full-frame sensor with a 16mm lens. The green border indicates
the image on a digital crop sensor with the same 16mm focal length.
^ This is the image at 16mm on a full-frame.
^ This is the image at 16mm on a digital crop sensor.
This used to be a problem in the early, early days of DSLR cameras because the widest lens available was about 16mm (before getting in to fisheye). So if you wanted that full 108-degree angle of view, you couldn't get it on a digital crop sensor. But the thing is, that doesn't matter anymore. It doesn't matter because Canon and Nikon were smart enough to come out with wide angle lenses compatible only with digital crop sensors that now go all the way to 10mm. And, wouldn't you know it, 10mm on a digital crop sensor gives you a field of view measuring (drumroll please) 108 degrees wide.
That's right. A 10mm lens on your digital crop DSLR will give you the exact same view as 16mm on my full-frame camera. So the "wide angle argument" is null and void.
^ 16mm on a full-frame will give you the same angle of view as a
10mm on an APS-C sensor (or 11mm on a Nikon digital format).
^ 16mm on a full-frame or 10mm on a digital crop sensor
- either would give you this same image.
Another argument for full-frame is that full-frame cameras perform better at higher ISO's. That is true with all things being equal. If you try to cram 21 megapixels into a digital crop sensor, noise will be a bigger problem than on a full-frame camera where the pixels have more room to "breathe." But I still call folly on this argument because camera companies are getting so good at noise reduction that high ISO noise really isn't that big of an issue on the latest cameras. And every time they release a new camera, the noise reduction gets better. So the noise on your new 18 megapixel digital crop sensor may very well be better than my 7-year-old 12 megapixel full-frame camera (I use an "ancient" first-generation Canon 5D). Besides, I could write an entire post about digital noise and how people make way too big of a deal about it. Unless you're printing gallery-quality billboards, stop worrying about noise. Most people's pictures end up about 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall on Facebook. And if you want to feel real good about your camera's noise performance at ISO 3200, try shooting ISO 3200 film for a week.
The last argument for full-frame that has any validity to it is that full-frame cameras give you a smaller depth of field. This isn't because a bigger sensor creates a smaller DOF. In fact, the size of the sensor has no bearing whatsoever on DOF. But the reason full-frame cameras create a smaller DOF is that with a full-frame camera, you have to use a longer lens to get the same shot. In other words, if you and I are both going to take the same picture and you're going to use a 50mm lens, well then I'll have to use an 80mm lens. Since your sensor is cropping the image, I have to use a lens with more magnification in order to match you. And since longer lenses have smaller depths of field, my lens will blur the background more than yours at the same aperture. So for portrait photographers who want real blurry backgrounds, that's a good thing. But for landscape photographers, that's not so great.
Also, look at the other side of the coin here. With a full-frame camera, you'll need a longer lens to get the same shot as with a digital crop sensor. For instance, if you need 300mm to get a shot of a bird on your small-frame camera, I'll need 480mm on my full-frame. A 300mm f/4 lens costs about $1400. A 500mm f/4 costs about $7000. I'll have to spend an extra $5600 to get the same magnification as you! This is why sports and wildlife shooters tend to prefer small-sensor cameras.
So don't feel like you need to get a full-frame camera. Your current DSLR is great. You can do amazing things with it. Instead of buying that new camera, spend some time learning the camera you have. Become a better photographer. Take classes, read books, practice like crazy and always remember that it's the photographer, not the camera.
Parts of this article including the example images and graphics are from the "Composition for Dramatic Landscapes" online course.
Price: On sale for $0.99, normally $2.99 (buy)
I shoot at the beach a lot. Orange County is more known for it's cookie-cutter tract housing and shopping centers than its natural scenery. It's not exactly Yosemite around here... But the beaches do offer some great photographic opportunities. With unobstructed views out to the Pacific and beautiful rock formations, all you need is a good sunset and you're ready for some primo landscapes.
But the beaches look drastically different from high tide to low tide. Those rock formations and tide pools may be un-photographable at certain times due to high tides. Some beaches aren't even accessible depending on the level of the water.
So when photographing beaches, it's invaluable to know the tide level. This information helps you plan when to go, what beach to visit, and where to plant your tripod. Tide charts can be found online, but are sometimes like sorting through a complicated spreadsheet. But luckily there are some great smartphone apps for checking the tides.
I've used a couple different apps over the course of a few years and the best one I've found yet is TideTrac by Rivolu Pte Ltd. It shows all the valuable information in one easy-to-read display. At one glance, you can view the high and low tides for the day superimposed over a traditional tide graph. You can even slide the vertical red line around to see what the tide will be at any given time. Move days, weeks, or months into the future, and then reset to present time with one click.
My favorite feature about this app is that sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and moonset times are overlaid on the tide graph with clear delineations for determining how the tide levels coincide with sunrise and sunset. This information is absolutely invaluable for the landscape photographer. With one quick look, I can see if my desired low tide will match up with the perfect light.
And with a swipe to the left, you'll pull up an illustrated list of the important times for the day - sunrise, sunset, high tide, low tide, etc. Swipe to the right for a quick look at the tide levels over the next 4 days. You can also see a map of the tide stations nearby to make sure you're getting the right data from the right area.
Overall, TideTrac is a fantastic app. It has all the information you need without any of the clutter. I highly recommend it. Plus, come on...it's only $0.99. Click here to purchase for iPhone.
There are tons of options out there when it comes to tripods. Too many options, I say. The product lines are cluttered and confusing. It's so cluttered that even I have a hard time narrowing down tripods when someone asks me for a recommendation. I tried my best in my post "Recommended Tripods (Part 1: Aluminum)" and there will be a part 2 and probably part 3, but I think it'll be more effective if I give my advice on what features and options to look for in a tripod rather than try to narrow down very specific models. So let's look at some of the most important criteria when shopping for a tripod:
If you're planning on doing backpacking or international travel where weight is definitely a concern, go with a lightweight carbon fiber. If you'll be shooting within a couple miles of a car or tour bus, weight isn't as big of a concern and aluminum will probably be fine. And keep in mind that if your tripod is ultra lightweight, that can equate to less stability. Make sure it has a hook on it that allows you to hang some weight off the bottom for more stability.
Maximum Load Capacity:
This is how much weight the tripod can carry. Unless you're using those huge 15+ pound lenses, don't worry too much about this specification. Most tripods over $100 can handle your typical DSLR just fine. Make sure the maximum load capacity is at least 7 lbs or so.
Check out the specifications for the maximum height of the tripod. Two heights will usually be listed - the maximum height without the center column extended and the height with the center column extended. Disregard the maximum height of the tripod with the center column extended. You shouldn't extend the center column of the tripod unless absolutely necessary because it greatly reduces stability. If weight and folded size aren't a huge issue, try to find a tripod with a maximum height (without the center column extended) not much shorter than 8" below your eye level. It's a drag being hunched over a 3-foot tall tripod all sunset long. But if you're doing a lot of travel and you need something that folds up small, you'll probably need to sacrifice maximum height a bit. Although the bad back from being hunched over a short tripod may about match the bad back from carrying a taller, heavier tripod.
If you plan on shooting low to the ground for macro work, get a tripod that can shoot from a few inches off the ground.
I could (and probably will) write an entire blog post on tripod heads. For now I'll keep it simple. You have 2 basic options: ball heads and pan/tilt heads. Ball heads consist of a ball in a socket which has full range of motion with the flick of a single knob. Pan/tilt heads have 3 separate knobs for each motion - panning, tilting, and leveling. Pan/tilt heads are slower than ball heads because you have to loosen 3 knobs for a full range of motion versus one on a ball head. But the nice thing about pan/tilt heads is that you can level the camera or pan it side to side or tilt it forward without messing up any of the other adjustments. It makes leveling a horizon much easier. I personally prefer ball heads because of their speed and I think most people prefer them unless they have some specific reason to use a pan/tilt head. But whatever the case, you can either buy a tripod that includes the head and legs, or you can buy the head separate from the legs. And if you like your tripod legs but you grow tired of the head down the road, don't worry. You can switch out the head and legs on any decent tripod. You can mix and match brands, too. Oh, and don't get a fluid head. Those are for video.
The tripod leg locks are what secure the telescoping sections on each leg. There are 3 different types of leg locks - butterfly knob locks, flip locks, and rotating grip locks. The butterfly knob locks, like on this tripod, are slow and annoying. Don't bother if the tripod has these locks. But the good news is that manufacturers know they are a hassle, so very few tripods have them. Flip locks are ultra fast and are the most common on tripods. As the name implies, they consist of a little flip lever that with one flick of the hand unlocks the telescoping legs. Here's an example of a tripod with flip leg locks. Almost as common as flip leg locks are rotating grip locks. They consist of a rubber-gripped collar around the tripod leg that rotates to loosen the telescoping legs, like on this tripod. They are not quite as fast as flip locks but they are close. Rotating grip locks are nice, though, because there is no flip lock to snag on anything and there are no steel parts in the lock itself. Flip locks have bolts and screws that rust (especially bad at the beach). Rotating grip locks are just anodized aluminum and rubber. That's why high-end tripods like Gitzo tripods use rotating grip locks. Less moving parts and less metal means less breakdown. I prefer rotating leg locks for extreme environments, but I like flip locks for the speed.
The folded length of the tripod is especially important for air travel. Will you need to pack it in a small suitcase? Do you want to try to fit it into a backpack? If you want something ultra compact, check out the line of travel tripods from companies like Gitzo and Feisol. Their legs usually fold up in the opposite direction to save a few inches on the folded length. Kind of cool.
There are so many brands out there now. I haven't used all of them, so I can't comment on the quality of each. But you can get good quality from almost every manufacturer now. Very trustworthy brands are Manfrotto and Gitzo. Gitzo makes the best and most expensive tripods on the market. They are overkill for most people. I had a bad experience with Giottos once, but I saw a tripod from them recently and the quality seemed to be better. Feisol (I think) has good stuff. Slik tripods are great, especially for the money, but they aren't quite as rust-resistant as Manfrotto. Stay away from Sunpak or anything sold at Best Buy.
Price is easy. Just buy within your budget and realize that you get what you pay for. Tripods run from $30 to well over $1000. The more expensive ones will usually last longer, stand up to rough conditions better, and they should certainly be more stable. If you have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), you have money to burn, and/or you absolutely must have the very best tripod available because your photos and your $3000 camera are only worthy of the very best 3 sticks on the market, then go for the thousand-dollar tripods. But be smart and buy something that makes sense for how serious you plan on getting with photography. A tripod in the neighborhood of $400-$500 would be a very sufficient tripod for even the most serious shooters. Most would be more than happy with something around $300-$400. More expensive tripods usually just make setting up a shot slightly less of a hassle and/or they allow higher vantage points. Gitzo tripods are some of the best on the market, but I would bet that for at least 75% of the people who have them, it's just a form of peacocking (showing off). So buy within your budget. Simple as that.
I shoot at the beach quite often, so my tripod sees a lot of sand. The sand and salt water ain't no big deal because I always clean my tripod after a trip to the coast, but one thing that drives me nuts is when my tripod sinks in the sand as the tide washes in and out around it. Whenever the waves swirl around those legs, the thing just starts sinking like Indiana Jones in quicksand. And since I use long shutter speeds quite often when shooting seascapes, this phenomenon has forced me to stick to rocky areas or timing my shots to finish before the water reaches me.
So I had the brilliant idea (after years of putting up with this problem) to steal the brilliant idea of other photographers and utilize some "snow shoes" to prevent the sinkage. I haven't had a chance to try them out yet, but the concept is solid - give the tripod legs a wider foot, and hopefully the water will be able to swirl around them all sunset long without the quicksand effect. To be honest, I'm skeptical and my hopes aren't high, but we'll see.
Being the DIY kind of guy I am, I thought I'd make my own. With $30 or so worth of materials, you can make your own, too. But if you're smart, you'll just buy these ready-made ones by Manfrotto. And wouldn't you know it, they're about $30. My home made ones may not be cheaper, but at least they're uglier. Wait...aw, man. But mine do secure higher up on the legs, so maybe they're more secure. But probably not...
Anyway, here's what you'll need
- 3x adjustable flag pole brackets - like these
- 1x package of furniture sliders - like these
- 1x washing machine & dishwasher hose 1.75"x7/8"x2' (not like what you think, see the pictures below)
- 12x machine screws 3/4" long with nuts
Step 1: Remove the foam padding from the furniture sliders
Step 2: Set the flag pole bracket on the upside-down furniture slider and mark the screw hole openings with a Sharpie
Step 3: Poke holes through each Sharpie marking with an awl
Step 4: Attach the flag pole bracket to the furniture slider with screws and nuts
Step 5: Cut a piece of the rubber hose to slide into the flag pole bracket - make it just long enough to stick out about 1/2"
This little length of rubber hose protects your tripod legs, fills the gap in the flag bracket for a tight fit, and gives something for the tightening screw to brace against. Make sure the rubber hose can fit over your tripod legs before buying it. If your tripod legs are thicker than mine, you may not need it at all.
Step 6: Repeat 2 more times
So there you go. Now you have 3 adjustable tripod all-terrain shoes. Use the screw on the side of the flag pole bracket to tighten the shoe to the tripod. And don't worry about scuffing up your tripod because the rubber tube inside provides more than enough protection.
Enjoy your ugly, DIY, may-or-may-not-be-as-good-as-the-real-thing tripod shoes!