Thursday, November 18, 2010

Frame Wars

One of the big buying decisions photographers make these days is whether to purchase a full-frame or cropped-frame sensor camera. Back in the day, a 35mm SLR was a 35mm SLR.

Today, a small format, 35mm dSLR is one of two things: It either matches the frame dimensions of analog 35mm SLRs (full-frame) or it records a smaller portion of the traditional 35mm frame via a cropped-frame sensor. (APS-C size sensor.)

Often, the decisions of which to buy is decided by money: Full-frame dSLRs cost more than cropped-frame dSLRs. (D'uh.)

Some photographers, depending on what they mostly shoot, let their preferred genres be their big deciding factor. Someone who shoots a lot of nature (flora and fauna) might choose to go with a cropped-frame camera. Someone else who shoots a lot of nature (landscapes) might choose to go with a full-frame camera.

Generally, the kind of glass you mostly use helps make the decision. If you're most interested in shooting the flora and fauna side of nature, you might opt for a cropped-frame because you want to extend the reach of your long lenses. (You don't actually extend their reach, i.e., lengthen the focal length of telephoto lenses, but it seems like you do.) If you're most interested in photographing the landscape side of nature, you might opt for a full-frame because a full-frame lets you take full and best advantage of your wide angle glass.

With people photography, the decision to go with full or cropped-frame becomes a little less obvious. (Money aside.) For shooting glamour, I much prefer my full-frame dSLR. (A Canon 5D.) Since I shoot most of my glamour with a telephoto lens, i.e., anywhere from 85mm to 200mm as my focal lengths, using both prime and zoom lenses, I want to be able to utilize the full frame.

Even though I might be shooting full-body shots with a long lens, the 5D's full-frame means I don't have to back up as far in order to frame the model, head-to-toes, in my viewfinder. That's not to say, of course, that terrific glamour photography can't be produced with a cropped-frame dSLR. It can and often is! I'm mostly talking about convenience and efficiency.

For most portraits and headshots I don't care as much if I'm using a full-frame or cropped-frame camera. When I'm shooting headshots, for instance, using a long-ish telephoto lens, I'm only framing the subject's head and some portion of their upper torso. The frame-size characteristic of the camera, in this case, becomes less important.

There are other factors when considering full-frame versus cropped-frame cameras.

Full-frame cameras generally produce less noise than their cropped-frame kin. That's because camera-makers use smaller pixels on their smaller sensors. Full-frame sensors also record greater dynamic range. They "see" into shadows better and also have greater abilities to handle the details in highlights. (Dynamic range is also a product of pixel size.)

In a nutshell, what all this noise and dynamic range and pixel stuff means is that full-frame sensors will capture images with greater quality and resolution. This becomes more and more obvious as you enlarge images captured with either full-frame or cropped-frame cameras. The images from a full-frame camera will noticeably trump those from APS-C sensors as you make the images bigger and bigger.

I talk a lot more about cameras and glass and other gear in both my ebooks, Guerrilla Glamour and Guerrilla Headshots. I also talk a lot more about stuff that's even more important; more important than gear, that is.

The pretty girl at the top, the one demonstrating her butt-flossing technique, is Penthouse Pet Tori Black. I snapped Tori with my Canon 5D and an 85mm prime lens. Had I been using a cropped-frame camera, it would have been difficult to get as much of Tori into the frame (as shown) because, when I shot this, my back was nearly to a wall in the room where I was photographing her.

Tori captured at ISO 100, f/5.6 @ 125. Three lights plus lots of ambient employed: Main light modified with my 5' Photoflex Octodome, a couple of kickers, way behind her on either side, modified with small, shoot-thru umbrellas. There was lots of big windows in the room plus a large, overhead, clear-glass skylight so I was able to take advantage of all that ambient.


MacGyver said...

Couple of questions on the lighting:

For your kicker lights, what size umbrellas are you using and does the size or type of modifier make a difference on the edge lighting of the model? Also, do you ever run into problems with light spill from your kicker lights affecting your background?

Just curious 'cause I'm planning to do a few glamour shoots in Tokyo next month and trying to figure out the smallest lightest lighting setup to take with me.

jimmyd said...

@MacGyver: The kickers I mostly use, when I'm using shoot-thrus, are small, two-footers or smaller.

I prefer shoot-thrus for exactly the reason you mentioned: light spill. Light spill is easier to contain with shoot-thrus than with reflective umbrellas.

How much "edge" i want to kiss my models with is also, other than the size of the modifier, determined by the distance between her and the umbrella. Since they're small and because umbrellas tend to spread light naturally, keeping them further away will allow the light to spread more before it reaches the model and result in the edge appearing on more of her body. Closer in and, of course, the light is more focused in on a smaller area.

Since they're being used as kickers, I'm not too concerned about the quality of the light from a soft versus hard light perspective.

I don't always use umbrellas for my kickers. Sometimes, I use strip boxes. But those little shoot-thrus are easy to set-up and deploy. Time is often a factor.

photographyinprogress said...

I remember back in the day when scanners were popular. At one point a selling-point for the general public was "800x1600, can interpolate to 1600x3200!" as if it were a great thing. Without the education it would sound like a great deal, but it simply wasn't.

I felt the same way about frame size with cameras a few years back. But now, other than having to stand a bit further away and do the 1.x multiplication to get to my actual lens mm, I seem to not really care much anymore.

At one point I put my Canon 24-70/2.8 on a full frame camera and then all of a sudden those feelings from a few years ago rushed back.

Meh. I'll just keep shooting! ;D

jimmyd said...


Keeping shooting will do more for the excellence of your photography than most any camera will!

John said...

I don't know about the physics of sensors - whether or not the pixel size impacts dynamic range. I can't address that issue.
But I suspect your preference for full-frame and its relationship to perspective may, in part, be driven by your familiarity with film systems. A 50 mm is a "normal" lens; 100 mm for headshots; etc. But of course with cropped frame sensors, "normal" is closer to a 35 mm focal length, and a 50 acts as a 75 mm. I certainly don't have your experience, but I find forcing myself to use a lens "wider" than what I instinctively grab helps make the APC sensor in my Pentax seem more "normal."

Nice column, sir. And I REALLY agree with your comment above, "Keeping shooting will do more for the excellence of your photography than most any camera will!"

jimmyd said...

@John: I shot for more than a couple of years with a cropped frame sensor. First with a 10D and then with a 20D. The cropped frame always bugged the crap out of me. I felt I was being cheated out of the way my glass was supposed to deliver the image. I felt like I went from 35mm to 110 film. When the 5D was first released, I was delighted. Full-frame was affordable, leastwise for me, and I immediately purchased a 5D.