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16May/14

What is a Full Frame DSLR Camera?

View on YouTube for full HD version

In my line of work as a photography instructor, I get a ton of questions from students about full frame DSLR cameras. The number one question is "should I get one?" I've addressed that common question previously in a blog post titled "Photography Tips: Do I Need a Full Frame Camera?" But it occurred to me recently that many of these people asking the question aren't even clear on what exactly a full frame DSLR camera is. And most people don't realize why we have the 2 systems - full frame and crop sensor - in the first place.

So let's put the first matter to rest: no, you shouldn't necessarily get a full frame DSLR camera. It depends on what your needs and wants are, and it depends on what you like shooting and how you like shooting it. Full frame DSLR cameras are not better than crop sensor cameras and your pictures won't necessarily turn out better. I know, I know, the guys on Flickr said you absolutely have to get a full frame DSLR, but trust me, it won't make your pictures better. But for a full rundown of that, please check out the article linked above. It'll really clear things up.

Now let's address the more basic question of "What is a full frame DSLR camera?" And to best make sense of this full frame business, let's take a look back at film.

Okay, so when film was the only option (waaaaay back in the 1990's), a film format called 35mm was the most popular film size available. In fact, when most people imagine film, what they're envisioning is the 35mm film system. But there were bigger film sizes like 6x6, 6x7, 4x5, 8x10 and bigger, and there were also smaller film sizes like the APS film system. 35mm film just so happened to strike that perfect balance between ease of use and affordability with decent resolution and versatility. The bigger film systems like medium format and large format required more skill, more expense, and bigger cameras. Grandma Gertrude shooting little Johnny's birthday party wasn't interested in that. The smaller film formats were easy to use and cheap, but good luck getting a decent 11x14 print out of it. So 35mm was "the goldilocks option," not too big, not too small...juuuust right.

Full Frame DSLR Camera35mm Film Image Area

When digital first hit the scene, there were all these amateur and professional photographers out there who had cameras and lenses and accessories all designed for their 35mm film systems. They were itching for a digital DSLR - a digital version of their trusty 35mm film cameras. They wanted to use their same lenses and accessories, but just on a digital camera body.

"You got it," said the camera makers, "we'll convert some of our film cameras into digital cameras for you by putting a digital sensor in place of the film. But here's the thing...if we make the digital sensor as big as your 35mm film (24mm tall by 36mm wide), the camera is going to cost more than you're willing to pay. So we'll work out a compromise with you - we'll make you a digital SLR camera that uses all your 35mm lenses and accessories, BUT we're going to put a smaller sensor in there, one that measures the same size as APS film - just 16.7mm tall by 25.1mm wide."

APS-C Crop Sensor DSLR
APS-C Digital Sensor Image Area

So then, the first affordable "35mm" DSLR cameras didn't actually have a 35mm sensor in them, they had the smaller APS-C sensor. From the outside, you couldn't tell any difference - the cameras looked the same and operated the same. But since the sensor was smaller, the image appeared cropped from what it looked like on film. This made it look like a given lens was more zoomed in on the DSLR than it was on the film SLR. That was good for shooters who liked to photograph far away subjects, like wildlife shooters and sports shooters, but it was a real bummer for shooters who liked wide angle lenses. On the DSLR, their wide angle lenses didn't look wide angle anymore. But luckily, camera makers quickly remedied that. They just invented a new lens for DSLR cameras that could go even wider. So today, full frame or crop sensor, you can go just as wide angle on either.

Of course, technology caught up and eventually it became affordable to make a digital sensor equal to the full size of 35mm film. They called those "full-frame sensors" because they were equal in size to the full frame of 35mm. But the crop sensors were already out on the market and we couldn't un-ring that bell.

Really, we don't need both full-frame and crop sensors today, but each has their benefits, so we might as well keep both around. Plus, it gives camera makers a good excuse to upsell their customers. "Hey your pictures aren't coming out so good on your crop sensor camera? Well try this snake oil full-frame camera. It'll solve all your photography woes." I'm just pulling your legs, Nikon, Canon, and Sony. You know I love you guys.

Be sure to watch the video at the top of this post for some good visuals on what I've described here. And check out the full-frame offerings from Canon, Nikon, and Sony at the following links:

- View Canon Full-Frame DSLR cameras at B&H
- View Nikon Full-Frame DSLR cameras at B&H
- View Sony Full-Frame DSLR cameras at B&H

Thanks for reading.

15Apr/14

Gear Review: The Slim UV Filter

I’m a fan of UV filters for DSLR cameras (here’s why). With a high-quality UV filter, you can get some peace of mind from a small investment without any penalty. High-end UV filters won’t degrade image quality regardless of what the Flickr forums tell you and they will protect the front of your expensive lens from sea spray, dirt, scratches, and even some serious falls.

I’ve also written about what I think is the best UV filter on the market (read that article here). So then what’s left? You know I’m for ‘em and you know what brand I like...

Well there’s one sneaky little option when it comes to purchasing a UV filter that you should know about: the slim UV filter.

The only difference between a slim UV filter and standard UV filter is that the slim version has no front thread on it. See, regular screw-in type photography filters have a male thread on the back that allows you to attach it to your lens (duh) and they usually have a female thread on the front of the filter that allows you to attach another filter on top of it, and another one on top of that, and another and another...

Gear Review: Slim UV Filter
Standard UV Filters have a front filter thread like this

The slim UV filter, on the other hand, typically does not have a front thread. You can’t attach a filter on top of a slim UV filter. They are basically flat on the front - the outer ring is flush with the glass.

The idea is that with ultra wide-angle lenses, there’s a risk of vignetting from a standard UV filter. Vignetting is when the corners of your photo are darkened because the filter sticks out in front of the lens too far. It’s like looking through a tunnel. So someone came up with the bright idea of slicing off that front filter thread to reduce vignetting. It’s a smart idea. And hey, it’s not like anyone was using that front filter thread anyway...

So some say that for wide angle lenses, you need a slim UV filter otherwise you’ll get vignetting. Well, not exactly. A standard UV on even the widest angle lens might create vignetting, it might not. Depends how they engineered the lens. For instance, I have a Canon 16-35mm lens on a full-frame camera, which is the widest angle available second only to fisheye. My standard B&W 77mm UV filter (not slim) creates no vignetting even at 16mm. Take a look:

Standard UV at 16mm
Even at 16mm, a standard UV gives me no vignetting

But maybe your wide angle lens does get vignetting with a standard UV filter. If that’s the case, you really have just 2 choices: either use a slim UV filter or don’t use one at all. Just remember that this filter is going to be on your lens all the time. So if you use a slim UV filter, your lens will no longer have a front filter thread available. And here’s the thing about having no front filter thread: you can’t use any other filters (goodbye polarizer and split ND filters) and you can no longer use a lens cap.

Sure, you could remove the UV anytime you want to use a polarizer or split ND, but that kind of defeats the whole point of having a UV filter to protect your lens. I’m betting that if there’s any time you’ll drop your camera, it’ll be when you’re trying to unscrew a UV and replace it with a polarizer. And sure, slim UV filters come with a replacement lens cap that slips over the top like a glove, but it’s going to pop off your lens much more often than a standard pinch cap.

So before you buy a slim UV filter, weigh the pros and cons of having no front filter thread in exchange for no vignetting. But most importantly, see if a standard UV filter is even going to create the vignetting you’re worried about.

And by the way, if you’re interested in learning more about filters for digital photography - a subject I’m very passionate about - check out my Filters for Nature Photography online course.

20Mar/14

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

I love me some vintage cameras. Take a stroll through my office and you'll find old cameras on display all over the place. They just look cool. Vintage cameras are like vintage cars - they're from a time when visual aesthetic appeal didn't play second fiddle to cost of materials and functionality. Sure, most of these cameras didn't sit in your hands as comfortably as a modern day DSLR with its ergonomic grip and rubber coating, but they looked awesome.

Modern cameras, like modern cars, are designed primarily around the ideas of functionality and comfort. It's no wonder they all look the same - same grip, same shoulders, essentially the same control layout. Once manufacturers have a design that sells, they're afraid to mess with the ergonomics and style shooters have become comfortable with.

But vintage cameras are as varied as snowflakes. Designers were still experimenting with different designs back then. The collective ideas of survey-based marketing hadn't destroyed the art of product design yet. They had beautiful lines, interesting color schemes, and a charming lack of bells and whistles. Vintage cameras are sculptures that should be put proudly on display.

My favorite thing about vintage cameras is that their designs were usually so simple that there was little to break or malfunction. No electronics meant no deteriorating circuit boards. Few precision mechanisms meant fewer things to go out of alignment or timing. So long as you can find a film to fit, many vintage cameras from 100 years ago can still be used. I once put a roll of film through a 1920's era Kodak Brownie. It worked just fine.

A good friend of mine recently gifted me an Argus 40 TLR camera. "TLR" stands for "Twins Lens Reflex." "Twin Lens" because it has 2 lenses - one you look through to compose the image and the other lens to actually expose the film. "Reflex" because it has a mirror in it. Any camera with a mirror in it is a "reflex camera" because one definition of "reflex" is "archaic: (of light) reflected." You can probably guess how they got the name "Single Lens Reflex (SLR)."

I was thrilled to learn that this Argus 40 camera still worked - not bad for a camera from the early 1950's - and that it can accept modern film with a simple modification. It used the now-discontinued 620 film. 620 film just so happens to be the exact same size as modern-day 120 film, just on a thinner spool. So I picked up some old 620 film spools off eBay for $15, re-spooled a roll of 120 Ilford Delta black and white film onto a 620 spool and boom, I had myself a fully-operational Argus 40 ready for shooting.

With no internal light meter, I had to meter manually using a handheld light meter. No problem, that part's easy. The tough part was the focus. It's all done with a crude distance scale on the lens. I had to guess how far away my subject was, then find the corresponding measurement on the focus ring. My estimation of distance was really put to the test.

To try out my first roll of film, I ventured to nearby Old Towne Orange to photograph some old structures there (thought it was fitting for this camera) and finished off the roll at Corona Del Mar beach. I also threw in a photo of our dog for a real challenge.

I love the look this camera creates. The 75mm lens gets a nice, shallow depth of field, the square format is just classic, and the crude-by-today's-standards lens created some awesome lens flare, vignetting, and blurring. The images are gritty and riddled with flaws - just how I like it. Can't wait to do some portraits with this bad boy.

Click any image to enlarge

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR




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