Why I Can Never Quit Full-Frame DSLRs

Why I Can Never Quit Full-Frame DSLRs

I’ve had a long flirtation with mirrorless cameras of all stripes, from the earliest Panasonic to Fujifilm to Olympus. I’m usually quite happy with and shoot them all frequently, but at the end of the day, it’s always a full-frame DSLR that reminds me why none of those have ever become my main squeeze.

As a practical matter after an injury, I’ve been using more of my Micro Four Thirds gear than I have in recent times. While I would frequently use the system for traveling, I’ve started to pull it out more for family portraits and photos of the kids than I would have in the past, where I’d carry a Nikon D750 or Canon EOS 6D. Recently, I decided to put my current daily driver, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II against the D750 on a portrait shoot of my daughter just to remind myself of what I was missing. Boy, was I missing a lot.

The Olympus was sporting the better of the two lenses, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f/1.8 lens while the Nikon sported the more pedestrian AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G lens. I can already hear the screams about the lack of scientific rigor, but hear me out.

Size Matters

When you view everything at web size, it’s easy to miss the differences in the images produced by a smaller sensor camera versus a larger one, but when you enlarge them or look at them on a big screen, it’s pretty obvious. Just take a look below at these 100 percent crops of a portrait I shot of my daughter.

The Olympus E-M10 Mark II vs. the D750 at 100 percent. The D750 produces a cleaner image all around, even without the lighting advantage (which it has in this shot).

The Olympus E-M10 Mark II versus the D750 at 100 percent. The D750 produces a cleaner image all around, even without the lighting advantage (which it has in this shot).

The smaller-format mirrorless looks hideous in comparison. OK, here’s where it gets less scientific. The Olympus is shooting at ISO 800 under natural light while the D750 was using SB-700 Speedlights with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System built into the camera, all at ISO 200. Of course the full-frame looks better. It’s using a lower ISO and lighting gear.

That’s part of the point, though. While Olympus is just getting on the wireless bandwagon with it’s still-on-preorder FL-700WR Flash and FC-WR Commander unit, Nikon and Canon have had this down for years with optical triggering and subsequent radio systems. Sure, there are third-party brands like Godox picking up the slack, but compatibility and TTL features work better with a native brand, or at least my experience with Olympus-Godox seems to be the case compared to Canon-Canon or Nikon-Nikon.

And when the flashes fail, there's the leeway in the files. Here's a slightly more than three-stop lift in exposure from a shot where the flashes failed on the D750.

The flashes failed to fire on a shot, and so I raised the exposure by a little over three stops. No replacement for displacement, as they say. The full frame DSLR did this easily.

The flashes failed to fire on a shot, and so I raised the exposure by a little over three stops. No replacement for displacement, as they say. The full-frame DSLR did this easily.

If I start to push this much on the Olympus, I'll get horrible banding and color shifts. The APS-C Fuji is more tolerant than a Micro Four Thirds camera, but the D750 shows both of these sensors who's boss.

Then there’s the lens selection. Canon and Nikon have had full-frame glass available for years for DSLR systems. Some like the venerable 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens are on their third iteration. While Olympus and Panasonic offer interesting f/2.8 options, in a smaller format such as Micro Four Thirds, a little faster than f/2.8 is needed if we’re talking about pro zooms because pushing past ISO 800 gets dicey. My Fujifilm X-T1 can go a little higher but even still, a full frame is going to beat it for a cleaner image. Canon is forging ahead with even faster than f/2.8 zooms on full frame, which is crazy, but promising.

So at this point some will say I'm comparing older cameras to a D750, but it should be pointed out that the cameras I’ve talked about so far — The Olympus OM-D EM10 Mark II, the Fujifilm X-T1, and the Nikon D750 — all came out in 2014, and two are still current models in each manufacturer’s lineup. So, science.

What About Sony?

Full-frame mirrorless would seem like the logical answer here, but there are still some pitfalls. From a sheer image quality perspective, things are great on the Sony side. But after two weeks with an a7 II (when it was new) and the a7S II (still a current camera), it’s clear that the system was designed by engineers and not photographers. While feel is often subjective, I haven’t heard anyone talk about how the squared off edges of the cameras feel great in their hands, or how awesome the menu system is to use on a daily basis (I found it to be insane, and I’m an Olympus shooter, a brand known for labyrinthine menus).

I have heard of people coming back to the tried-and-true formula of more experienced camera makers such as Canon or Nikon. It makes sense in actual, real-world usage. A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is essentially the same in practice as its D30 ancestor, which was similar to the film models before it. The design hasn’t changed because it was perfected years ago.

Well-developed DSLR autofocus systems just work without a fuss.

Well-developed DSLR autofocus systems just work without a fuss.

And more to the point, so is autofocus. The 51-point system on the Nikon D750, itself a variant of the older D3 autofocus, almost never misses, and in my seat time with the 153-point system in the D500, such is the case there only more so. The current systems on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and 5D Mark IV offer similar capability.

In contrast, the continuous autofocus of the Sony a7R II (the contemporary of the 5D Mark IV) in controlled head-to-head tests I performed against Canon showed an impressive amounts of green boxes flying across the viewfinder, but little actual focus going on. That may have changed with the a9 and a7R III, but the fact remains that Canon and Nikon DSLR systems have already been there for years. They just get out of the way and work.

What Do You Think?

I love my mirrorless systems. Especially when it comes to the tactile feel of my Fuji, or the quality lenses available on many mirrorless systems, but at the end of the day, whenever I pick up a trusted tool in one of my full-frame DSLRs, I’m reminded of why I went that route in the first place.

Now if someone could just stuff the innards of a D5 or 5D Mark IV into a body the size of an SL2, with some advanced computational imaging tech from a Pixel 3, I’d stop hemming and hawing about DSLR size and mirrorless flirtations.

What are your thoughts? Can smaller-format mirrorless cameras truly replace full-frame DSLRs?

Lead image by Sam Levitan and used with permission.

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100 Comments

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Agreed, I thought the EM10 looked far better. The colors were so much richer, they brought the photo to life. I also think it probably came down to the light. I have the same Olympus that you used and while it is capable of very nice photos it really should hold a candle to the Nikon.

Never say never.

Adriano Perticone's picture

Opino que sos una nabo. Esas comparaciones con fotos mal expuestas no tienen nada que ver con las capacidades de los equipos.

Hi, Sorry if this is off topic - but I was wondering why video cropping is bad and how it effects the video quality ?

Great article indeed. I did left my DSLR's behind, Full Frame! So far I did not look back at all. I have seen in my corner of photography, Wildlife and Landscape, that I have certain advantages using mirrorless cameras. I travel a lot by plane, train or by car. The weight of my bags got quite less, means I have no more problems when checking in at an airport. I happily lift my camera bag on the weight scale when asked. Yes I do have heavy gear in there, but not anymore cement bricks!

Quality wise I am more as happy with my mirrorless cameras. They work for my needs outstanding. They even give me quite some advantages comparing to my sold DSLRs!

So far I haven't looked back to the DSLRs. Happy that I made the switch.

Cheers Anette

leo george's picture

informative article

Chris Maes's picture

I guess, technically, if handled well, the FF DSLR delivers superior results. As an amateur having had almost everything in the book I've settled for MFT. What matters to me is what meets the eye: point of view, light-and-dark, colors, composition. All the rest may matter for press agencies, magazines or billboards. Nothing I'm involved with.

I've been enjoying both (my trusty 5D Mk III and recently A7III). In studio, I'm still attached to my 5D, largely because Sonys can't tether with Lightroom; I believe it's an agreement with Capture One that prohibits this. On real estate shoots, I've been enjoying using the Sony with its "PlayMemories Mobile App" to remote shoot using my iPad rather than lugging around and tethering to a laptop and this combo makes it easier to light paint when needed, controlling the A7 with an iPad via the app. The A7III has been fantastic for videos as well. I enjoy using the right tool for different jobs and the value of hanging on to my DSLR makes more sense than selling it. I'm using Sigma MC-11 adapter with my Canon and Sigma lens and quite enjoy the marriage, though not always perfect. One thing I love about the A7iii is the easier usage of manual lens with focus peaking/magnify assist! However, I still have difficult time shooting while looking at the LCD screen. I prefer the viewfinder (makes me feel less like an smartphone photographer). Both fantastic systems and those in position to have a choice of gear for our various projects should feel grateful.

Rick Lewis's picture

A camera is a tool to me. I've licensed images, professionally, from the following digital cameras: Nikon D200, D3, D3s, D4, D750, Fuji X-T1, X-E2, X-T2, X-Pro2, Olympus OMD E-M1 Mk2, and I'm sure it won't be long before one of my Nikon Z 7 images licenses.

If the camera can do the job the client wants, use it. Use the appropriate camera system for the job. I currently am 100% mirrorless, for the sake of my nerve damage in my neck. It works for me and I'm still licensing images.

Fair points mostly, except you did no favours to Olympus in lighting setup.

I love my D850’s performance and ergonomics, and find that the weight of the body adds stability (same can be said of E-M1X).

However, I absolutely hate the weight and size of any of the higher quality Nikon, Zeiss or Sigma Art lenses once you go longer than, say, 105mm, with the exception of the outdated Nikkor 180mm f/2.8. Not mentioning Nikkor prices.

A "do-it-all" high-end FF DSLR bag (let's say covering from reasonable UWA to reasonable tele) with f/2.8 zooms weighs at least 6kg (1 body, 3 zooms + bag, before any additional gadget). That is the weight of 6 large bottles of water hanging for hours from your shoulder, squeezing your veins, pressuring your nerves and creating damaging posture strains. Or weighing on your back, out of reach. Simply not sustainable for an average human. Of course you can go for f/4 alternatives, but you then loose crucial FF advantages, or opt for a body with 3 f/1.8 prime lenses (28/50/85 or other cocktails) and loose versatility, knowing that option is terribly limited at the longer end. I might sing a slightly different tune if anyone came along with a modern-but-compact 180mm f/2.8 under 1kg, or even a 135mm f2.8 under 700g.

Total weight/size of bag is where m4/3 shines, and if find the Olympus Pro line mouth watering in that respect, even if I include the "heavy" E-M1X, coming in at broadly half the weight with the Pro zoom trio, while extending reach to 300mm equiv. No APS system comes close by the way.

No need to mention the ability to deal 600mm equiv handheld with an additional lens that would actually fit in the bag....

I increasingly look at top end m4/3 as a credible alternative to DSLR or FF mirrorless systems, and I am surprised at the negativity around the format. The quality of the glass is there. The quality of the bodies is there as well. And the files are absolutely excellent as long as you do pay a little attention to lighting.