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Photography Tips: Do I Need a Full Frame Camera?

(Updated April 2013)

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 you should ask yourself is "Do I 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...

Do I Need a Full Frame Camera? ^ A full-frame sensor has the same
dimensions as a piece of 35mm film:
24mm tall by 36mm wide.

APS-C Sensor Size ^ 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.

Do I Need a Full Frame Camera? ^ 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.

Advantages of a Full Frame Camera^ 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.

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors^ This is the image at 16mm on a full-frame.

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors^ 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.

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors ^ 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).

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors ^ 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.

Common Misconceptions: You Don’t Need Filters for Digital Photography

The Misconception:
Photoshop (and other image editing programs) have replaced traditional filters. I can do everything in Photoshop that photographers used to do with filters.

Why This is Wrong:
Whether you're talking about a digital sensor or a piece of emulsion, photography is all about recording light. The whole purpose of traditional filters is to alter the light on its way to the sensor or film so as to achieve an effect. Using Photoshop to mimic a filter is simply "pushing pixels." It's altering ones and zeros. It's trying to change the light after the fact.

Let's take graduated neutral density filters for instance. There are the real deal and there are imitations built into software like Lightroom. The way true graduated ND filters work is by darkening the light coming from the sky as it makes its way to the sensor. The way the "graduated ND filter" in Lightroom works is by darkening blown out pixels to make the sky appear darker. So with the real McCoy, the bright light is tamed down so that the sensor can actually record the sky in all its detail and color. With the cheap imitation, a blown out sky with no detail at all is artificially darkened without ever recovering much more detail.

Check out this side-by-side example. The image on the left was taken with no filters and the image received almost no post-production work. The image on the right is my attempt to digitally mimic a graduated ND filter on the exact same file. I used the dodge and burn tool in Photoshop along with gradients, layers and curves. It took about 10 minutes to do all that work to just one image.

Graduated ND ImitationYou'll see that the sky is a bit darker and there is a little bit more detail, but it's really no replacement for the real deal, as illustrated below. In the next comparison, take a look at how much better the image is when I utilized a simple traditional graduated ND filter. The image on the left is the same one as above - no filters with heavy post-processing. The image on the right is the picture taken correctly with proper filters with almost no post-processing work. Time spent on the computer for the image on the left: about 10 minutes. Time spent on the computer for the image on the right: about 10 seconds.

Digital Grad ND vs Read Grad NDLook at that...you can actually see detail in the sky! With a simple $40 filter and zero time spent in Photoshop, I went from a blown out sky with no detail to a beautiful sky with lots of detail.

No filters vs a Grad ND

So you can see that my Photoshop imitation of a grad ND doesn't even hold a candle to the real grad ND. It doesn't recover detail in the sky, it doesn't capture the color in the clouds and it doesn't preserve the quality of the original file. More work with worse results. I don't know about you, but I like to worker smarter, not harder.

Here's another variation on this picture that, again, utilizes true grad ND filters and received almost no post-processing.

Using Graduated ND Filters

Same goes for circular polarizers. Those filters cut through reflections on everything from water to windows to foliage. There is no replacement for that in the computer!

The Truth:
Filters are just as important today as they were with film!  There's no replacement for altering the light on its way to the sensor. And no matter how much money you spend on Photoshop and all its plugins, no piece of software can travel back in time to the moment you clicked the shutter and alter the light before it hits the sensor. Especially when it comes to blown out pixels, Photoshop just can't work miracles. If pixels are blown out, there is literally no detail to be recovered. And if you're thinking, "But Nick, what about HDR." Well...don't get me started.

My Thoughts and Rants:
I don't know where this idea started that just because everything's digital now, we don't need traditional filters anymore. I have a sneaking suspicion that it's all rooted in marketing from image-editing software companies. They want you to buy software, so they market their products as a replacement for filters. Just like diet pills trying to convince you it's a replacement for proper nutrition and exercise.

But regardless of where it came from, this mentality drives me nuts! To me, it's like using software to correct a horrible, pitchy musician who really has no business singing in the first place. Instead, let's ditch the software and just get someone who can actually sing. Is that really such a novel idea these days? What would the world be like if we never used Auto-Tune or Photoshop ever again? All the horrible musicians and photographers would drift out of sight like dregs at the bottom of a dirty bucket of water. Then all the actual talent would float to the top. Oh, also all of our supermodels and celebrities would suddenly look flawed and human. God forbid!

Bottom line is this: using software to mimic proper use of filters out in the field is the work of incompetent photographers. They can operate software, but they can't operate a camera. But don't fret if you fall into this category. We were all incompetent photographers at one point. But don't turn to software to fix your images - just become a better photographer through study and practice! Then you can save the $600 you would have spent on Photoshop for something really valuable, like filters and a tripod...or your mortgage.

 

10 Essentials for the Outdoor Photographer

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography

In the world of hiking, camping and backpacking, there are the “10 Essentials.” It’s a universal list of 10 things you should always have with you when setting out to explore the wilderness. It includes things like a first aid kit, water, food, a map, sunscreen, matches, etc.

If you plan on heading into nature to take some pictures, you should keep the 10 essentials in mind — even if it’s just a short local trip. Things can turn bad in an instant and many people who die or nearly die in the wild were no more than a few miles from the nearest help.

But in addition to the 10 essentials, I thought I’d share with you my list of “10 Camera Bag Essentials” for the outdoor photographer. These are items gleaned from 11 years of shooting that I’ve found to be invaluable for outdoor photography. Some items will stay in your bag all the time while others you can throw in at the last minute.

So in no particular order, here they are...

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - Lens PenLens Pen

Whoever invented this thing is a genius. A lens pen is a $7 item that’ll last you years and will come in handy more times than you can count. It’s shaped like a thick pen (wouldn’t you know it) and consists of a retractable brush on one end with a soft chamois pad on the other. The brush is great for sweeping dust off your lenses and filters while the chamois pad will buff out finger prints and smudges. With a handy clip built in, this thing slides nicely into a shirt pocket so it’s always at the ready.

Lens Cloths (lots and lots of lens cloths)

Put a lens cloth in every main compartment of your bag, inside and out. It seems every time you really need a lens cloth, the colors in the sky are at their peak and you only have about 90 seconds before the moment is gone forever. You don’t want to be fumbling around trying to find that one pocket where you keep your lens cloth, so just stash one in every single compartment you can, then you’ll always find one no matter what pocket you check first. And if you have some extra cleaning cloths from your sunglasses, just throw those in — they are the same ones you buy at a camera store.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - Multi-ToolMulti-Tool

Two words: 127 Hours. If you saw that movie, you know what I’m talking about.

...alright that’s not the real reason you should have a good multi-tool in your bag. You should invest in a decent multi-tool with pliers and screwdrivers because they are an endlessly valuable tool to have at hand when dealing with mechanical equipment like cameras and tripods. They can be used for everything from fixing a loose tripod screw to extracting a fishbone lodged in your brother’s throat (which is something mine has been used for). Also, throw any allen wrenches into your bag that may have come with your tripod.

Handkerchief

You could also pack a small towel in your bag, but I like handkerchiefs because they fold up small, they’re lightweight and they can be used for a multitude of tasks. If your camera gets drenched from a rogue wave, it’ll mop up the seawater. If you find yourself in a light rain, you can drape it over your camera for some basic shielding. Or if it’s just too damn hot out, you can soak it in a creek and wrap it around your neck for some good relief.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - Flashlight and HeadlampFlashlight/Headlamp

I’d recommend bringing both a headlamp and a flashlight. An LED headlamp is great for keeping your hands free while you work in the dark. A flashlight with better reach than your headlamp is good for the walk/hike back to the car. I use a Petzl headlamp and an LED Mini Maglite flashlight myself, but there are tons of great brands out there.

Warm Clothes

Weather can change in an instant, especially once the sun drops, so I rarely leave for a photo shoot without a jacket in my bag — even in the summer. In fact, I leave gloves in my camera bag at all times. Gloves are the kind of thing that hardly ever come in handy, but when they do, they really come in handy...uh, no pun intended. But get some gloves with a good grippy palm so you can still handle your camera.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - CompassCompass

Aside from the obvious “find your way out of the wilderness” implications, a compass is a great tool to have in your bag so you can better predict a sunset or sunrise. It’s easy to get turned around as to which way is west when you’re in a new location, especially in the middle of the day. A compass will aid you in figuring out where to be for when the sunset or sunrise rolls around.

Smart Phone

With thousands of comprehensive apps out there, a smart phone is a smart item (haha - I kill me...) to keep with you on a shoot. I have apps for checking the tides, the sunset and sunrise times, the moon phases, moonrise times and more. Also, you can take notes about what filters you used, what your thought process was or any little tidbits you want to remember when reviewing the pictures later. But don’t rely on your smart phone for something more important than just tide information or sunset times. Don’t count on it for a compass or GPS because your smart phone has batteries, and batteries die.

Cash

Many places you’ll want to shoot require a parking or entrance fee that must be in cash. Of course, when you show up, that’s the one time you forgot to get cash. So, you may want to just leave $20 in your camera bag at all times. Break it up into some ones and fives, too, so you can cover those $3 honor system parking fee drop boxes.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - BatteriesBatteries

Yeah. This is a no-brainer. But it’s so important that I’m pointing it out anyway. Make sure your camera batteries have a charge before you go out and bring some extras if there’s any risk they’ll die before you can get back to a wall outlet. But make sure to bring batteries for any other powered devices you might have with you. That includes batteries for your flashlight, headlamp and GPS unit.

So there you have some good “10 Essentials” type basics to think about when packing your camera bag. I keep these in mind even if I’m just hitting a local beach that’s no more than 3 minutes from civilization.

I also tend to bring water with me no matter how long I plan on being out. You’re usually out longer than you intended and you’ll burn a few more calories than you thought you would. Nothing sucks more than leaving a good sunset early because you just couldn’t take the thirst anymore. Same goes for a snack. Throw some trail mix in your bag and never miss the good light because you were starving.