Crop or Crap :: Math or Moment · DEDPXL

Let’s get a few things out of the way ::

I have said, in the past, that you should move toward full frame sensors. I have always championed full frame sensors. At the end of the day, full frame sensors beat APS sized and smaller sensors.

The whole reason I bought an original x100 was because it had the largest sensor I could find in a small camera. Yes, it’s a crop sensor but I was only looking for a nice point and shoot that I could carry around with me when I didn’t want to carry a DSLR. I wasn’t looking for a “work” camera.

It had been a number of years since I had shot an APS crop frame sensor. The last APS camera I shot professionally was the Nikon D200. I replaced that with a Nikon D3 (full frame) and then moved on to the Canon 5d2, (also full frame.) From the time I retired my D200 to using the x100 on jobs was about four years. When I bought that little x100 I had ZERO desire to change to a new camera system. I sure as hell was NOT going to switch from a full frame camera to an APS camera. Full frame cameras are better. Right?

For proof of this check out this clip from my 2010 CreativeLive class…

So why am I back pedaling now?

I started shooting personal work with my little Fuji. Then I pulled it out on jobs from time to time because I loved that little camera. Then I used it more. Then I got the X-Pro1. Then I started seeing my Fuji images in print. Then I started putting the Q&A book together and I had the chance to run pages of test prints for the book. I printed every type of image I had from every camera I had owned. Studio shots. High ISO shots. Portraits. Street photos. I cropped into some images and enlarged them to full page. I received the test prints back and I taped them to the wall and took one step back. My Fuji images ran side by side with D3 and 5d2 images without a single noticeable drop in quality. If anything, my Fuji images were just a tad sharper. My PhaseOne medium format images were the only images that had a noticeable change in quality when I looked at everything side by side.

You know what happened between my D200 and the Fuji x100? Technology got better. And I’m saying this across the board. Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus… all the technology in our modern day cameras have increased ten fold or more. When I jumped to full frame sensors they were far better in terms of image quality than the crop sensors of that time.

During the time I was saying, “full frame sensors are the way to go,” crop sensors were getting better and better and better. As did full frame. Everything has gotten better but I’d argue that the difference in image quality from crop to full frame has narrowed significantly. However, through that time I still argued that 35mm full frame was still a small format. It is a small format. It’s a tiny ass little itty bitty format when you compare it to the other formats of photography out today. I didn’t think that full frame was better just based on size.

Why are professionals all around the world working with 35mm based DSLRs and not medium format and up? Simple — price. The price of a medium format system is still stupid. It took me a long time to save up for mine and I still have a very limited medium format kit. I have one body and back and three prime lenses. I don’t have a second body or back because I just can’t put the money into it. If it fails on set then I go to my Fuji’s.



Looking at the 100% crop in the photo above shows me that every bit of detail that I need from a working camera can be achieved using an APS camera. This XT1 blows my old D100 and D200 images out of the water. It stands side by side with anything I ever shot with my D3 and I’d say it’s a hair sharper than my 5d2 images. It doesn’t match that of a medium format camera… but what does? I’ve tested the Nikon D800 pixel beast and it still doesn’t come close to matching a medium format camera. Would it best the XT1? By a bit it does. By enough that I’m going to go all in on a Nikon D800 kit? Because it has that tiny bit much more detail? No way. If I’m going to drop money on a big expensive camera why piss around with a small 35mm and not just go big or go home? #amirite?

Look. Some of the trolls out there are going to think this is a Fuji sponsored message. It isn’t. While Fuji is a client of mine and I have done work for them they sure as hell don’t keep food on my table or a roof over my head on any sort of regular basis. I don’t get shit for saying this stuff or making blog posts like this. I’m simply relaying my experiences working with all sorts of cameras in all sorts of situations. And in preparation for making this blog post I have done a lot of pixel peeping at newer APS cameras from Nikon, Canon, Sony, and the rest and I feel confident saying… APS sensors kick ass these days. Across the board. Whatever you are shooting.

So that brings us to the physical size difference. Is that such a big deal? The thing that I would first consider is depth of field. The larger the sensor, the shallower the depth of field you get at a given aperture. I’ve run a few tests for myself and I have yet to see a big difference in this regard from APS to full frame. When I jump to the Phase?  That’s when it shows up. Night and day difference on not just the amount of fall off with focus, but the way the focus falls off. I hate the term bokeh because 99% of the time I hear people use that word they have no idea what in the hell they are talking about. It’s become this catch phrase for “out of focus” or “shallow depth of field.” When people say, “Wow. I love the bokeh in your pictures,” that’s a pretty good sign that they don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s how much focus falls off then there’s how it falls off.

Four things effect the depth of field in your photographs. Aperture, focal length, camera to subject distance, and sensor size.

Where things start to get confusing and is the topic of many a debate on forums is focal length of lenses and equivalent focal lengths in regard to crop sensors and all that. Let’s look at three different sensor sizes and their equivalent lenses that would give the same field of view. Field of view is way different than depth of field. Here is a Nikon D3 with an 85mm lens. That is 1:1. The equivalent field of view lens on a 1.5 crop factor Fuji is the 56mm. Then I’ll add the micro 4/3’s Panasonic GH4 to the mix with the Panasonic/Leica 42.5mm lens. The Panasonic has a 2.0 crop factor compared to a full frame camera like the D3. All of these images were shot from the same distance and all were shot at f 2.8.


bokeh balls

Here we have three shots that are basically the same frame shot with three different focal lengths and you can clearly see the difference in the depth of field. The D3 bokeh balls are softer and larger, thus more out of focus. The Fuji 56mm is slightly more out of focus. The deepest, or largest depth of field comes from the smaller sensor sized GH4 camera. So… at an 85mm equivalent focal length, the full frame sensor camera has… shallower depth of field. Yes? The proof is in the pudding! There it is! Full frame wins the bokeh ball challenge!

Aperture remained constant. Distance remained constant. The only other thing we have to look at is focal length and sensor size. Which one has the most effect on the changes in depth of field? It is my contention (and argument and hypothesis) that focal length is causing the greatest change in what we’re seeing. We go from an 85mm lens to a 56mm lens to a 42.5mm lens. The longer the lens… the shallower the depth of field. The wider the lens, the deeper, or longer the depth of field. Focal length has a HUGE impact on depth of field.

Look at the same 85mm lens on a full frame D3 and then on the Fuji APS crop sensor. Same lens. Same aperture. Same camera to subject distance…

free lensing

Look at those bokeh balls. They’re pretty damn similar if you ask me. Here’s where the fight will start. Are they equal focal lengths when you start putting them on different sized sensors? Is the 85 more of a telephoto on the Fuji than it is on the Nikon? I know we are seeing a magnified image or are we just seeing a crop of the lens? Is the lens still a true 85mm on both?

When I was in photography school we had a class called “The Science of Photography.” It was taught by a physics teacher and one of the assignments we had that quarter was to build a pinhole camera. It went beyond that, though. We had to build a pinhole camera and then calculate its focal length and aperture. Lots of math ensued.

And yes, the image above, I didn’t get it tack sharp and all that and I’m not super interested in doing so. I was free-lensing the thing. Let the conspiracy theories begin!!! Click any of those to see them larger.

Is there more going on with sensor size? Well, Tony Northrup recently made a video going deep into the differences of sensor sizes in respect to aperture values, ISO, etc. There’s a lot of math in his video. Some of the points he’s made have been hotly contested. Look, I’m not going to say he’s right or wrong on all of his points about sensor size and aperture and ISO values. If I were to argue with any of his points it would be more about ISO than anything else. Tony puts out great stuff and his video above is well researched and I think his math is right but honestly, my dear? I have not a damn to give!

Do you want math? Or do you want moments? Math? Moments? What will define great photography? Yes. Yes. Photography is art and science and you need to have a foot planted in each of those to be a well-rounded photographer. At some point, though, it gets overwhelming.

Here’s what I know:

Aperture, focal length, camera to subject distance, and sensor size ALL play a role in depth of field. If I’m walking up to a scene or creating a portrait and I have a full frame with an 85mm and I want a shallow depth of field I can go to f2 or whatever. If I put the full frame camera down and pick up a Fuji with the 56mm I know I’m going to get a deeper depth of field at f2 so I might want to open up to f1.2 or something to get an equivalent depth of field because two things are going on. I’m going to a “wider” lens and I’m using a smaller sensor.

“But Zack! I have math that says…..”

I’m so glad you brought math! Love it! Yummy math! That’s why I’m a photographer. Because I love math so much. That’s why I study the likes of Avedon and Mary Ellen Mark and Dan Winters; it’s because of all their gorgeous math. Every time I see a beautiful photograph I grab a calculator because math turns me on that much. Have you ever studied the math of Paolo Roversi (NSFW)? OMG. His math… his math is unreal. Love his math. I hope to do math like him one day. Mmmmm. Math.

I’m just being a jerk. I know math is important. Math or moments? Math or moments? Math or moments? Get a basic hold on some math and then go get those moments!

The last physical issue I’ve run into for a long time with crop sensors is the fact that it really puts blinders on your wide angle lenses. However, camera manufacturers are bringing some amazing wide lenses to the market now. Fuji has the new 10-24mm and a gorgeous 14mm. I’ve also recently purchased the Panasonic 7-14mm for my GH4 and it’s a kick ass wide lens. More on the GH4 later. A 15mm equivalent is all I personally need. I have owned one fisheye lens in my life, had it for about two years, didn’t use it much (or only used it as a crutch when I couldn’t think of something more interesting to do), and then I sold it.

Let's get back to large format.
Real full frame photography.


I have twice had the privilege of seeing Gregory Heisler’s work in print. I’m talking about large gallery prints. There’s a photo he has of Cal Ripken that was shot with a large format camera. It has a shallow depth of field and the background is out of focus. The thing that made me stop and stare though is how the focus falls off. Seeing how the focus falls off in that transition from in focus to not in focus. Holy shit. There’s nothing like it; 35mm cameras are tiny baby toys when it comes to that.

NOTE :: I’m not talking about tilting and/or shifting the lens or film to move the plane of focus. I’m not speaking to that AT ALL. I’m talking about how an area of an image comes into focus and then falls out of focus. That “focus gradient” for lack of a better term, or, how the field of focus works with large format film and optics. That’s what Willis and I are talking about. Large format cameras and lenses give you this “look” that just can’t be achieved with smaller formats. Medium format then gives you a look and feel that can’t be achieved in smaller formats. Take a photo with your DSLR at f1.8 and then take the same shot with your cell phone. You’ll start to get the idea.

I swear on all things good… You go shoot a portrait with a large format camera, nail that exposure, nail that print… there is nothing like it in the world. It will f*cking ruin you. You need to have the experience of shooting large format at least once in your life. You are cheating yourself out of something mystical, magical, and a royal pain in the ass. You are currently standing on the shoulders of many a large format photographer. You really need to give it a go at some point. It gives you a whole new perspective on DSLR photography. Good and bad. You’ll appreciate the speed and agility the 35mm or whatever gives you but you’ll realize how much you are missing as well. It will humble you. You’ll be thankful for your Canon or Nikon or Fuji but you will know there is something out there in the photographic world that it just can’t touch.

I know I keep eluding to an upcoming post on stitched portraits and it is in the works but let me say this quickly. Stitching Fuji portraits starts to give me the feel of medium format. Stitching medium format starts to give me the feel of large format. I even… back that feeling up with a little bit of math! Look out! That’s coming later though. When? When I finish it. 🙂



Above you see David Burnett working an old 4×5 Speed Graphic in Dubai. He’s still traveling the world with large format cameras and film and all the PITA stuff that goes with that. His coverage of the Olympics with that old Speed Graphic is fantastic and unlike anything other photographers were shooting there.

For a great example of a photographer currently creating kick ass work with an 8×10 please check out the work of Greg Miller. His work is fantastic and that 8×10 format gives his images a special extra *something* that cannot be achieved with our little tiny ass cameras. Check out his blog as well – Dark Cloth Diaries. His “By The People” post is unreal. It’s hard to judge subtleties when looking at images on the Internet but look at how the focus falls off in those images. There’s a special quality to it that I’ve never ever ever seen achieved with anything smaller than a 4×5 camera. You can also see him working on the streets shooting portraits with an 8×10 in this video.

Also check out Gregory Crewdson’s work and the documentary about his process. Wait a minute…. Gregory Heisler. Greg Miller. Gregory Crewdson? Seriously? I guess if your name isn’t Greg or Gregory you just need to stick with small format stuff. 🙂

See also my dear friend Cary Norton. Cary is a photographer’s photographer and shoots just about every format known to man. He built a large format camera out of Legos. It’s called the Legotron. Check it out.

Lastly, check out this post over at Wonderful Machine’s blog about Austin Hargrave photographing Dany DeVito with an 8×10.

So… wanna fight over APS vs Full Frame? Do you have some math to show us? Have you recently been eyeing a “downgrade” to a smaller sensor like the offerings from Sony, Fuji, Olympus, etc? Do you think I’m full of shit? Let’s discuss in the comments below!


Zack Arias

A full time commercial and editorial photographer, Zack shoots everything from bands to CEOs to ad campaigns. A gifted teacher and communicator, he has an uncanny ability to meet and connect with all types of people.

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