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What is a Full Frame DSLR Camera?

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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.

On Location Photography: Cleveland National Forest, Orange County

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In the Cleveland National Forest of Orange County, CA you'll find something interesting along the Trabuco Canyon trail (adjacent to the more well-known Holy Jim Falls trail). Just a few minutes into the hike is an old car mangled and broken from decades of decay. How it got there I cannot imagine. The trail is narrow enough to only accommodate a single person and there are no roads within a reasonable distance. My guess is that the hiking trail was once wide enough for a car. Someone drove this car out on the treacherous road, got stuck, and ditched it. Or perhaps the story was much more interesting than that involving a cache of stolen goods, a bag of lye, and a Tommy gun. Whatever the case, this thing is just begging to be photographed in its rusted state.

Orange County, like California, offers a diverse range of landscapes. When you think "OC" you probably imagine sandy beaches and real housewives. But the Cleveland National Forest blanketing the Santa Ana Mountains offers some decidedly "un-Orange County" scenery with plenty of spruce trees, a babbling brook, and even the occasional snowfall. This area is as rural as Orange County gets and it's also where you'll find some of the best hiking in the county.

A little while back I decided to venture out to this area of "rural Orang County" looking for a short escape from the crowds and I was itching to photograph that car I'd photographed several times before. Having been there previously with my 35mm film camera in 2003 and years later with my Canon 5D DSLR in 2011, my goal was to get a new take on it, create some new compositions, and try an overall different approach. That's why I planned to do some black and white photography (which I'd never done there before) and some color landscape photography a little less vibrant and saturated than my usual stuff.

Here are the 2 shots I'd taken previously at this location. The first is my 35mm film image from 2003 and the second is from my DSLR in 2011:

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Upon arrival, I realized quickly that this photo trip wasn't going to go like I planned. The verdant forest surrounding the car that I remembered from my previous trips wasn't so green this time around. Everything was brown, dead, and dry. Even the creek bed was empty. We've had a terribly dry winter here in Southern California - one of the driest on record - and the vegetation in Orange County has been feeling the effects.

Without rich greens surrounding the rusting car, there was really no visual separation between my main subject and the background. It just blended in with everything else. The black and white photos came out so-so in my opinion and the color shots were absolutely abysmal. It was one of those shoots that just didn't go as well as I hoped. But as I say in the video, the sweet isn't as sweet without the sour, so although I didn't get any great shots, at least it'll create a deeper sense of appreciation the next time things do work out.

Click any image below to enlarge:

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

New Landscape Photography & Video: Storm in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art PhotographyJoshua Tree in Fog
Image made on Ilford Delta 100 Film
with a Mamiya RZ67 and 110mm f/2.8

It's been kind of an unusual couple weeks weather-wise for Orange County. Temperatures have been soaring and we've had lots of scattered cloud cover. It's resulted  in some seriously gorgeous skies - the sunsets especially.

Unfortunately, though, the beaches are crowded and, frankly, I'm a little burned out on photographing beach sunsets. So although I've been enjoying the beautiful skies, I haven't really been photographing them. But Monday of last week I decided to get myself out to Joshua Tree National Park to photograph these dramatic weather conditions.

The forecast called for scattered thunder storms in the desert - which is really what made me decide to drive out there - but the thunder never materialized. That's okay though because the breaking storm made for some of the most beautiful light and skies I've ever seen in Joshua Tree National Park.

The drive to Joshua Tree from Orange County is about 2 1/2 hours, which feels about 3 hours longer than I remember. And especially with the heavy downpour and flooded streets through the desert, I was beginning to doubt my decision about an hour in to the drive.

But boy am I glad I took this trip!

On the way in to the park, I found a stretch of road where a heavy fog enveloped the Joshua Trees and rock formations, creating some truly stunning scenery for me to capture on my Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. I chose black and white for this entire outing for a couple reasons (with the exception of a single roll of color film I'm pretty sure I botched). First, I've simply been more attracted to black and white landscape photography lately. Maybe I'm burned out on color, maybe I just don't find it "artsy" enough anymore. But whatever the reason, B&W seems to be keeping my creative juices flowing in a way color film isn't. And aside from that, I mean come on...Joshua Trees in fog and breaking storms over the desert? It's just begging for black and white!

I spent the first half of the day photographing these unique yuccas in the fog with my Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera. I chose this format because with the 110mm f/2.8 lens, I was able to get a real shallow depth of field by shooting wide open. This helped to draw attention to my subjects as if I was shooting a portrait of each Joshua Tree. I made 10 frames of these "portraits" with plans to create a triptych from the best 3.

I used a dark yellow #15 filter on these shots to help introduce some contrast in this flat lighting and I over-developed the film intentionally to help raise up the highlights a bit (N+1 processing for you Zone System users).

After lunch, I spent the day in the higher elevations of the park scouting out a good location for sunset and creating some B&W 6x17 photographs highlighting the stunning sky.

I'm normally pretty humble and modest about my photos and I always feel weird heaping praise on my own work, but I am truly thrilled with the photos I made on this trip. For a long time now I haven't felt that my pictures are actually representative of me or of the vibe I want to create. But these pictures are a better representation of me than I think anything else I've put out before.

I must be moving in the right direction.

Please, oh, please click any image for a larger view

Breaking Storm over Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Landscape Photography

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Photography

And check out the on-location video:

View on YouTube for full HD version