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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Previous comments
Wasim Ahmad's picture

I mean, I bought a Panasonic Lumix G1, a GF1, a GF2, a GF3, a GM1, a GH3, an Olympus E-M10 II, and a Fuji X-T1. How much more mirrorless and/or change do you want me to embrace?

Aran Y's picture

How about using something that came out in the last year for a change. The pace of innovation for mirrorless is probably double what the dslr was to the slr. Every camera you bought was more than 2 years old. Buy a full frame to compare to a current full frame. The 750 may be a current camera but don't fool yourself it's for people who are too boxed in to move on to a mirrorless. I'd recommend the z6 every day of the week over a 750 and they are the same target market based on initial price release. The z6 is miles better just for the ibis alone. As a person who is going to write a article you need to differentiate between how you feel and what is technically superior. There is no argument for mirrorless being more accurate these days, and 💯 better than dslr af. I love my d850 but I know my z6 and Sony a73 is more accurate on a consistent basis for shooting 90% of things that mostly, fall in between all I shoot. Don't forget that Sony is implementing eye af for animals which will soon end the reason to not use mirrorless as a wildlife camera other than lenses. I watched the adapter tech go from useless metal adapters to something is perfect. Nikon makes thier own mount and it works great for 90% of what you need. The other 10% will eventually come as will all things with tech. You can love shooting dslrs but don't deny that mirrorless is not technically superior in most instances n these days. Loving the look of film is fine but it is undeniable that current raw photos is technically superior.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I only listed what I bought. As an educator I have access to a few other cameras, and I got some seat time behind the Z7 for a workshop we ran here. Image quality was fine, and the camera handled fine, but autofocus, while better than all the models I listed that I own, was still not where my DSLRs are already at. The autofocus controls also took more after what Nikon does in Live View on their DSLRs rather than the conventional system that just works better. You're entitled to your opinion, but to be clear I have used the EOS R and the Z7 and the needle hasn't moved. The Fuji X-T3 is probably closer to doing that than those two, I'd say for me.

The RP makes a great case on price though, for the performance it provides (this is one I haven't used yet).

user-156929's picture

Horses for courses. I love full-frame DSLRs and have no use for anything smaller or mirrorless but a lot of folks feel just the opposite and that's okay. Now, if people would just stop trashing each other's choices and saying things like, "It's really just a matter of time..." ;-)

Michael Jin's picture

Well, stating reality isn't really trashing other peoples' preferences. It's just stating reality. When digital photography came out, it was only a matter of time before it supplanted film photography in terms of popularity and widespread use. That's not an indictment of film cameras or film as a medium, but just a reflection of economics and peoples' desire for certain quality-of-life improvements like being able to see their images immediately.

MILC's will definitely supplant DSLR's in the same manner simply because they can use the same sensors, same form factor (if desired), and open up a bunch of things both from an engineering standpoint and end user standpoint that simply aren't possible with the DSLR. Yes, you lose the OVF and the haptic feedback of mirror slap, but it's going to be relatively few people compared to the total size of the market that will value this over all of the advancements that MILC's make possible.

user-156929's picture

Maybe. What I don't understand is, writing that ad nauseum does NOTHING for anyone. Nothing!! Why do people do it?? Then when someone say's something about it, people (not you...other people who look like you and use your screen name) go on and on with the same arguments that EVERY SINGLE LIKE-MINDED COMMENTER uses.
If I concede (for the sake of argument) you're right, can you please stop!? Please!

Michael Jin's picture

Because we're all bored and a bunch of us are probably stuck at work in our soul-sucking jobs. Giving each other grief is the little joy that we get to experience between dealing with idiots or performing mind-numbing tasks so that we can make our miserable pittance to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads, and buy that thing in our Amazon cart.

Then again, I can only speak for myself. LOL

user-156929's picture

Well, I'm bored and stuck at work which is the only reason I read articles I don't care about. I'm not even mad at you. If you noticed, I put a winking smiley face at the end of my reply. It's just, as an older, white man, I get tired of having everything I do and enjoy being questioned. So when someone comes along ALL THE TIME and says, 'Enjoy it while you can because it's going away,' it makes me cranky. :-(

Michael Jin's picture

I feel you. It's not easy being an older white guy these days. Ironically, I'm not even saying that ironically. Somewhere in history, a bunch of Brits took over 3/4 of the world and now every white man is at fault for the aftermath of our global colonial history. Go figure.

It's not that I don't believe that "white privilege" exists at all, but it's gotta be rough being the big bad wolf in every SJW's fairy tale.

user-156929's picture

Everyone has privilege. If you're tall, you can reach the top shelf. If you're short, you can crawl under the table. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence!

Michael Jin's picture

I don't disagree with you in principle (although I would argue with the notion that EVERYONE has privilege). We're might be equal in the intrinsic value of our souls, but we are not and, barring widespread genetic engineering, will never be equal. Some are born poor. Some are born rich. Some are born in good health and others with illness or disability. We work with the hand that we're dealt and do our best.

user-156929's picture

Give me an example and I'll tell you their privilege.

Michael Jin's picture

A person born with muscular dystrophy.

user-156929's picture

This isn't intended to minimize their situation *at all* but, people with debilitating conditions are free from many of the temptations of their unaffected peers.
Matthew 18:8 doesn't specifically address MD but the principle applies.

Disclaimer: I have a chronic condition which, while not as obvious as MD, affords me similar liberties. And it's no consolation to me either.

Daniel Medley's picture

White privilege is so much a thing that Elizabeth Warren and Rachel Dolezal spent decades lying about their minority status to cut in line and further their careers.

But since that's wildly off topic, this will be the last thing I have to say about that.

Michael Jin's picture

Race relations is a pretty long and wide ranging discussion that I'm tired of having at this point. Suffice it to say that I don't believe that either of the examples that you gave are really good ones.

Jaran Gaarder Heggen's picture

You do understand that what you see as an reality, doesn't have to be how other people see the same?

Michael Jin's picture

I understand that there is only one reality and that we all have different perspectives and opinions about it. Those perspectives and opinions do not, however, change the actual facts on the ground. And yes, I'm perfectly capable of understanding that people can hold uninformed or misguided views. Sometimes it's me, sometimes it's others.

What I do not understand is what exactly your post was intending to accomplish.

Benton Lam's picture

Wow. This is one heck of a click-bait article.

The E-M10ii is $500 now and the D750 is $1200+ on B&H, and they were never on the same category in the first place. And you're comparing an ISO 800 shot with an ISO 200 + flash shot. I've done ISO 1600 with flash (because I forgot I was on ISO 1600) and I couldn't find ISO noise on the face.

The E-M10ii isn't geared as a studio camera triggering flash, so I think to bring that as a point of contention isn't particularly fair.

The D750 doesn't have IBIS, while the E-M10ii does, which goes totally unmentioned. Aside from m43 lenses, I have a m42 adaptor, and could use Helios 44-2, or a bunch of older Pentax cameras, all while stabilized.

While I normally strive for a more diplomatic feedback, this article just has *no* resemblance of balance...

user-156929's picture

It's his opinion. It doesn't need *no* resemblance of balance.

Benton Lam's picture

Well, if his opinions are formed on the basis of bad comparisons, then his opinions are just as ill-informed as anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers.

user-156929's picture

I'm not sure you can apply the term "opinion" to knowable subjects. You can have an opinion regarding whether you like full-frame DSLRs vs MILCs or other sized sensors but you couldn't have an opinion about what constitutes a DSLR vs an MILC.
That being said, his arguments *did* cause my eyebrows to rise.

Campbell Sinclair's picture

I love my D750 and no I willl be getting a mirror less as it does not suit my photography. Goodness the mirror less fans on here acting up like toddlers.

This has got to be the dumbest article since UD's flip screen article. comparing iso 800 vs flash lit iso 200 pic? lol. i have m43 and sony and both have their strengths. a pro knows what tool to use at the appropriate time.

"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"

why are you comparing older cameras from a system that had not matured until the 3rd generation?

"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."

you seem to be complaining about the past. compare current models from oly, sony and fuji.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

The 5D4 and the A7RII were both current models at the time the 5D4 came out, so that's what I ran head-to-head tests on (both cameras on a multi-mount tracking a subject running/walking towards the camera). It's a fair comparison for those two (and I made it clear it wasn't fair on the ISO 800/200 comparison)

Full Frame is cropped medium format

Michael Jin's picture

And medium format is cropped large format. Your point?

Tamas Nemeth's picture

His point might be that as soon as you got used to that extra detail you get from a larger sensor, it is hard to get back to a smaller sensor. It doesn't matter if it is between 645 and 135 or between 135 and APS-C.
As of it is now there is no greater than ~645 digital sensor commercially available, hence the it is hard to compare with LF in exact way.
On the other hand I was digitalizing some of my older 4x5 films. The shots I digitalized were a few Velvia, Ektar, but mostly BW films. Back then I ran through a batch of ortho film (very high resolution, I think it was an Adox Ortho 25) and I digitalized a few of those as well. I used a Phase One iXG 100MP camera for the digitalization (basically the same sensor as the 100MP IQ backs have), and the only pictures where I could see more details on the film itself was those ortho films. The rest were on the same level of detail digitally. And of course the 150MP backs are already on the market.

I guess the more precise manufacturing process makes the newer digital cameras able to produce higher resolution images than an average film of the same size (especially on larger sizes, remember those vacuum filmholder Contax made for its 645 system to be able to handle the 80/2). But obviously the resolution cannot really grow infinitely because of the laws of physics.

Michael Jin's picture

Then his point wasn't articulated very well.

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