Full Frame vs APS-C and Micro 4/3 – Does Size Really Matter?

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“Full Frame”…  It’s a term that you hear bandied about a lot on most of the more prominent photography blogs and forums.  There almost seems to be an air of aristocracy to those who purport that a camera just won’t deliver quality results unless it’s “full frame.”  Whether or not a camera with a smaller sensor can deliver top tier image quality is one of the most common arguments in the photoverse, and it’s one into which we’ve delved several times in this space.  After all, I’m of the opinion that the term “full frame” is a misnomer, and that ANY camera in which the entire sensor is utilized is technically a full frame camera – and who decided that 35mm was “full frame” anyway?  I mean, 35 mm film cameras are 60 year old technology.

To me, what matters most is not the size of the sensor, but how well it performs.  Think about it…  If someone can build superior technology into a smaller sensor that makes it perform at or near the level of a larger sensor, then isn’t that what really matters?  If you’ve ever seen any of the “Fast and the Furious” movies (which are a guilty pleasure of mine), you’ll know what I mean.  Numerous times in those movies, you see the main characters racing in little 4 cylinder cars against big, 8 cylinder “muscle” cars.  The little cars shouldn’t stand a chance, right?  But then Vin Diesel hits the NOS button and his car gets a huge boost that allows him to win the race.  I’ve always contended that most of the major advancements in imaging technology over the last few years has been in the smaller sensors of mirrorless cameras, and they’re working with photographic NOS of their own.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that an APS-C ot micro 4/3 camera sensor is going to act the same way as a 35 mm sensor will, but have advances in mirrorless sensor technology closed the gap and does the size really matter any more?  I just came across an excellent article by Jordan Steele on AdmiringLight.com called “Full Frame Equivalence and Why It Doesn’t Matter” that thoroughly and articulately refutes many of the full frame vs mirrorless myths that are floating around the interwebs.  (By the way.  The video above is an animated comparison produced by Panasonic Australia)

What Came First, The Sensor or the Lens?

A diagram showing angle of view and the effect a crop sensor has on a lens’ angle of view- Courtesy of AdmiringLight.com

A diagram showing angle of view and the effect a crop sensor has on a lens’ angle of view- Courtesy of AdmiringLight.com

Within Steele’s article are in depth explanations of terms such as…

  • “Full Frame Equivalence” – which Steele argues is a way to compare angle of view, and more recently, the look you’ll get with respect to depth of field, between a full frame sensor and a ‘crop’ sensor.
  • “Crop Factor” – Where Steele says that people who tell you something like “Your 50mm lens becomes a 75mm lens on that camera because it’s a crop sensor” are WRONG. He goes on to say that “Focal length is a property of the LENS and the LENS ONLY, and it does not change in any way regardless of what camera you mount it on. What is true is that on an APS-C DSLR or CSC, a 50mm lens will have the same FIELD OF VIEW as a 75mm lens on a full frame camera.”
  • “Aperture Equivalence” – Which Steele says (and we agree) is the mistaken notion that a smaller sensor will also affect the amount of light coming through the lens and therefore, the aperture value of the lens.  I would say that the notion of “Aperture Equivalence” is the same as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, except that Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster are real 😉

Steele does a great job explaining the many different variables that go into creating images, such as maximum aperture, f stop, depth of field and background blur (which are NOT the same thing).  He then goes on to explain in detail why none of this matters when considering the “Full Frame” vs Small Sensor argument.

Yes, there are advantages that 35 mm sensors have over their smaller siblings, but those advantages are quickly disappearing.  Case in point, Dynamic Range.

Steele says that it used to be that Dynamic Range (the ability to capture a wider range of shadows and highlights in a single image) was one of the advantages that 35mm sensors had over the mirrorless sensors, “but in recent times, this isn’t the case.   For instance, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 has better dynamic range than ANY Canon DSLR ever made, while the APS-C Nikon D5200 is within 1/3 stop of matching the dynamic range of the Nikon D600.”  (Read full article on AdmiringLight.com)

In other words, it’s not the size of the sensor, but the way that it performs that matters most (where have I heard that before ~_^) – and these days, mirrorless camera manufacturers like Sony, Olympus, Panasonic and Fuji are adding lots of NOS to their sensors.

There are now several mirrorless camera systems on the market that can hold their own against (or even surpass) most higher end DSLRs.  At the time of this posting, Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji and Sony are the major players in the mirrorless realm, with Samsung coming on strong.  In 2012, cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M5, the Panasonic Lumix GH3, the Son NEX 6, and the Fuji X-Pro1 and X-E1 caught the attention of many imaging professionals.  This year, as the lines between photography and videography become increasingly blurred, look for mirrorless systems to gain even more prominence.

Our Picks for the Top 10 Mirrorless Camera Systems on the market today

1.  Panasonic Lumix GH3 – Best in Class for both stills and video, Pro Level Lenses and Wi-Fi make this the Best Hybrid Camera on the Planet today.


2.  Olympus OM-D E-M5 – Classic styling with top notch performance and revolutionary 5 point IBIS make this one of the breakthrough cameras of the last year.


3.  Sony NEX 6 –  Hybrid Autofocus, Wi-Fi and most of the main features of the flagship NEX 7 make this the most advanced NEX camera yet.


4.  Fuji X-Pro1 – Hybrid Viewfinder combined Fuji’s X-Trans Sensor and EXR Processing Technology deliver some of the best quality still photos you’ll get from ANY camera (35mm or smaller).


5.  Fuji X-E1 – Same Sensor and Processing Technology as the X-Pro 1 in a smaller, more stylish frame.


6.  Panasonic Lumix G5 – One of the best mirrorless camera values today.  Delivers many pro level features and performance at a mid level price.


7.  Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 – Same sensor and image processor as the flagship OM-D E-M5 have many calling this the OM-D Lite.


8.  Panasonic Lumix GX1 – Top level performance in a small, go anywhere body (SPECIAL DEAL – Get the GX1 for only $300 USD Body Only)


9.  Sony RX100 – fixed lens compact named by Time Magazine as one of the Best Inventions of 2012.


10.  Olympus PEN Mini E-PM2 – Sensor and processor of the OM-D E-M5, now in mini form




Legalpusher says:

In general, the larger sensor holds the advantage. Of course, a Porche equiped with a smaller engine may out run a Buick equipped with a larger engine. If we are to compare the effect of size difference upon a sensor, then we need to hold all the other parameter equal. Do not compare a older generation 4MP APS-C sensor with a new 20 MP 4/3 sensor or the result may be distorted.

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