I am teaching another photography class this month at Pontotoc Technology Center.
On the first night of class, we talk about some of the basics of digital photography, and the topic of sensor size is always part of that discussion.
“A friend of mine wants to buy a ‘full-frame’ camera,” one of my group said.
Photography is full of misnomers and myths, and one of these issues is the idea that “full frame” is some kind of holy grail of sensor sizes. I hate to break it to the full-framers, but what, exactly, is this supposed to be a “full frame” of? It turns out, it describes a sensor that is the same size as a frame of 35mm film.
Over the decades of news photography, I used a lot of 35mm film, but whenever I could, I used larger film, as did most studio, magazine and portrait photographers. The bigger, the better. Having a larger negative meant you could make larger prints, since you didn’t have to enlarge the film area as much.
When digital came along, this idea came with it, and in the early years of digital, it made a giant difference, as most early sensors were quite small, and were prone to noise, bad color, and slow operation. The Kodak DCS 315, for example, had a 13.9 mm x 9.2 mm sensor, about the size of button on a shirt.
As time went by, sensors started to get bigger, until now we have some very large ones. The Fujifilm sells the incredible GFX100S, which sports a whopping 100 megapixel 33mm x 44mm sensor, and is currently being touted as “more than full frame” on their website. They are obviously after my heart, and my wallet.
Well, there’s the rub, really. We’d all love to shoot with these giant sensors with crazy huge resolutions, but the reality is that they are expensive. The GFX100S’s street price is about $6000.
So, maybe is does all come down to economics. My way to get around that is to buy yesterday’s treasures – used cameras – and take advantage of what they still offer even though they’re no longer shiny and new. My current “full frame” (although I just call it a 24x36mm) camera is the Nikon D700.
The main reason I have an use the D700 is that it breathes new life into three of my favorite old film-era lenses, a Sigma 15-30mm, a Nikon 18-35mm, and a Nikon 20mm. These lenses just sat on the shelf until the larger sensor came along, and now that are adding to my bag of tricks.