Since we’re in the Christmas season - I thought I’d be educational for those people out there that may be confused by this whole “crop sensor” or “full frame sensor” business. I’d also like to pass along some tips on Christmas shopping for your budding photographers out there looking at getting into photography.
Caveat: I do not subscribe to the thought that “full frame” is better than “crop frame” when it comes to digital cameras. So I’m not going to get into an argument about it. It is what it is, and plenty of great photographs have already been made with both. People who really believe passionately in the subject will argue all kinds of technical points about it, both good and bad. Let’s just say that I do not care all that passionately about it, and I think the whole reason we got in to “crop sensor” in the first place was more economical anyway.
So why do I even bring it up? Well, because as a budding photographer, you will get into discussions with people about it, and the full framers will make you feel inadequate for not having a full frame sensor, and the effect it has on the crop frame shooter is that he’s always wishing he could upgrade, and worse, that his photographs aren’t good enough.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Before we get into technically what it is, just understand that when someone talks about “full frame” sensors, he’s failing to mention that there are much BIGGER sensors out there than his dinky little ‘full frame’ sensor in his dinky little DSLR. So if you were really into FULL FRAME - you’d be spending more money and getting into BIGGER FULL FRAME sensors - which will generally run up the cost into the tens of thousands for those particular cameras. So I would further argue that the “full frame” shooter who puts down the “crop frame” sensor shooters is really feeling inadequate himself - because in photography (like other things) SIZE DOES MATTER, I suppose.
Here’s my simple synopsis on “Full Frame” sensors: back in the day, on your standard 35mm film camera, the 24mm x 35mm size of a single exposure on your roll of film was the size of the image you took - hence the name, “Full Frame Sensor”. The actual light gathering chip in that DSLR camera you have is the same size as a frame of 35mm film. When you make the sensor smaller, hence the name “Crop Frame”, you have a sensor smaller than your standard 24mm x 35mm frame used in 35mm film.
[HISTORICAL NOTE - 35mm film was always considered “amateur” because it was so small. Before 35mm film hit, there were all kinds of bigger sizes, like 6cm x 6cm, or in inches, like 4x5 or 8x10. Heck, I think Ansel Adams dragged around a view camera that could take 11x14 sheets of film and that would be his “sensor size” - this is why I find it comical that people make such a HUGE deal out of the 24mmx35mm frame as being FULL FRAME].
What does this do? With the smaller sensor, your vision through the lens tunnels a little bit more (cropping off what would’ve been there had your sensor been the same size as a piece of 35mm film. So you’re seeing a smaller portion of that frame, and you may have to back-up from your subject if you wanted to get more of them in the frame (or at least more than just their eyes and nose if you’re that close to begin with).
What this means is that your lens adds some length, and you usually have to multiply by a certain number to know what your actual focal length really is.
So, if you have, say a 50mm lens on, with a Nikon crop sensor camera, if you multiply the focal length by 1.5, you get the actual length of the lens you’re using. So if you shoot with a 50mm, it effectively becomes 75mm. On a Canon, the sensor is a bit smaller, so you multiply by 1.6 to get the effective focal length. 50mm times 1.6 equals 80mm. 80mm is perfect for doing nice portraits. On the other hand, if you have a Full Frame Sensor, 50mm stays 50mm, and so on.
This is the only reason I like Full Frame: when I put a 20mm or a 50mm lens onto the camera, I actually get 20mm or 50mm lenses! I grew up in the film era so I got used to a 50mm lens being 50mm, and so on. Although I do it pretty often, I don’t like having to multiply to know what effective length I’m putting on the camera. When I shoot a portrait session, I know if I put the 50mm on my little Canon DSLR, I know it’s at textbook portrait focal length because the lens becomes an 80mm lens.
Getting distance is cool, right? This can only be answered by how you like to shoot. If you’re into nature photography or portraiture, then yeah, distance is cool. You put a 300mm lens on your crop frame camera, you get an effective length of 450mm, so you’re getting more distance to get the same shot. You can be farther away from the wild animals if you’re on safari (safer), and farther away from the football players on the field playing the game (even safer). But, if you like landscapes and want to include as much in your shot as possible (this is me), shorter focal lengths are king. But, instead of being able to do that with a 20mm regular focal length, you need an even shorter focal length. Both the big DSLR makers offer zooms that go down to 16mm, so your focal length at 16mm on a crop frame will be 24mm.
Ironically, if you shot with regular ol’ 35mm film, a 24mm prime lens used will run you about $200. Canon’s 16-35mm zoom lens (which will give you almost 24mm on the short end) costs upwards of $800 used. New they’re a lot more.
This is why I think coming out with crop sensors first was an economical decision. Firstly, it costs money to make a big sensor - just like having more RAM in your computer costs more money. So the manufacturers couldn’t very well sell everybody a $9000 DSLR body, they wouldn’t sell enough to stay in business. Now, make the sensor smaller, and it opens up a whole new world of new lenses to develop and sell! Canon and Nikon both have probably made quite a bit of bank on people clamoring for that 16-35mm or 17-35mm zoom lenses.
So think about that.
Now, onto what to get that budding photographer in your life for Christmas…..
A lot of people ask me for advice on this subject, and you can go online or in magazines and read all kinds of reviews and be blown away by all the features available to you in all the new cameras. And frankly, everybody makes a good DSLR that even shoots video these days. They will all be in that 16-24MP range too.
I try not to be flippant about making recommendation. It’s a big deal, and if you’ve never spent money on a camera before, everything is expensive. I get it.
But in the real world, besides the ability to shoot video, a camera has to be able to do these three basic things:
1) Focus (either manually or automatically)
2) Adjust shutter speed
3) Adjust aperture
What you decide to point the camera at is totally your business. A camera to me, is like a musical instrument. You can own a beautiful 9-foot Steinway piano, but if all you know how to play is Chopsticks, then that’s all it’s ever going to do for you. BUT - you definitely do not have an excuse not to get better, and the piano is definitely not going to be at fault if you can’t get better.
Cameras are just like this. In fact, ALL DSLRs are like this. If you’ve never shot a camera before in your life, getting hung up on megapixel count, frames you can shoot per second, face recognition, WiFi capability,…..etc.,….then you’ve definitely put the cart before the horse and you might as well get a baseball hat that declares “I have no friends”, and go buy a metal detector and spend endless hours alone on the beach using it.
Features in a DSLR are nice. They’re like the whipped cream you add to a pumpkin pie - it makes the experience nice, but the pie has to be solid. This is why I’ve been recommending people go find an old 35mm film SLR from the 80s, and give that a shot first where you have to adjust everything, and even manually focus. Then at least you understand what your new-fangled DSLR is doing for you when you do use it. But I digress - that’s a whole ‘nother topic we can jump on later.
So what do I recommend for first-time camera buyers? Or even people looking for another camera? Going to my local Sam’s Club today gave me the seeds for today’s topic. I walked into the photo area, and they literally have all these cool, yet cheap(er) DSLR camera kits, all boxed and ready to go. Just grab any one of those, go to the cashier and buy it! Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Sony….they all make them. They’re all good. They all pass my minimum requirements as to what a camera should do. And they’re cheap!
But wait, what about features? Megapixels? Video? Do you not remember what I said about putting the cart before horse? Have you ever seen a pro shooters camera? Even though they might have these bitchin’ features, you’ll see that they may have programmed their camera to use only a certain set of things they need. Back in the 80s and early 90s, there probably were NO features anyway. A little further back in the film days, anything that needed power was suspect to the professional photographer - he didn’t want to be out in the field and suddenly have batteries die and he couldn’t shoot. That would mean an entire wasted day.
So Canon Rebel T5? Nikon D3200? Does it matter? No. One thing I will recommend with whatever camera kit you buy, is get an extra battery. You’re gonna need that. Buy more memory cards, you’re gonna need that. Maybe even get your standard 50mm prime lens too, because the lenses that come with these kits, will be more aggravating in the short term to you. So if you got the standard 50mm f/1.8 lens with it, then you’ll have a lens that will help you learn more about photography than you’ll ever want to know. In fact, my 50mm is mainly glued to one of my cameras, it’s my go-to lens for everything to this day.
Make sure you can plug your camera into your computer and download your images, and maybe make sure you have a computer editing program to play around with your images, like Adobe PhotoShop Elements. That’s a good starter software program. Well, not really a starter, I use that after downgrading from the full-blown Adobe PhotoShop CS (from ten years ago).
But make sure the desire is there to go out and shoot. You have to get up off your arse and go outside to make photographs. One real cool anecdote I got from a photo lecture once was “Now that you have the camera, make sure you go to cool places with cool things to photograph”.
Best. Advice. Ever.