Do I Need a Full-Frame dSLR?

If I were to really, and I mean really stretch my budget, I could get a Canon 5D mark II (5DmkII).  And if I were to ever get it, now is the ideal moment — so I’d be able to use it on my upcoming trip to India.  So, should I?

What would be the advantages of a full-frame body for me personally?

  • Great high-ISO performance.  This is very important for me, so two thumbs up.
  • Larger viewfinder due to the larger sensor.  Very nice!
  • Canon’s newest imaging technologyAccording to DxO mark I can expect highest quality images, overall 33% better than from my 3-year old 30D.  That’s very significant, but I already talked about high-ISO performance above, so when I limit the comparison to color depth and dynamic range, the numbers show only 11% improvement.  That’s not enough, especially since I subscribe to the theory that a great photographer with a mediocre camera will take much better pictures than a mediocre photographer with a great camera.
  • No crop factor.  Intuitively I used to think of myself as a wide-angle type of guy, so full-frame would be just the thing for me, right?  Well, not quite.  I just examined my four- and five-star images and guess what? It seems that I am a mid-tele kind of guy!graph_fl_numshots1If I were to get a full-format camera, I’d use the 17-40 for 19% of my shots, the 50mm lens 16%, the 70-200 lens 40% of the time, and I’d miss or have to crop 25% of all shots! So for me no crop-factor seems to be a disadvantage.
  • Better AF.  Apparently the AF is a bit better than the 30D, but not radically better.  I recently used a Nikon D300 in the light of three candles and a TV, and the AF did not hesitate once — pretty amazing.  Such performance is much better than my Canon 30D, and according to first test reports on the Internet, also better than the 5DmkII.

Unfortunately, the 5DmkII also has several other disadvantages:

  • Very expensive.  OK, so it’s space-age technology and cheaper than a few other bodies.  I don’t earn any money with my camera, so for me the price alone is almost a deal-breaker.
  • Very large.  Yeah, there are even larger bodies out there, but I want small.  Something between a Canon 450D and 30D would be ideal.
  • Too many pixels.  21 MP is just too much for what I do.  I’ll have to buy more memory cards, a larger hard drive, a faster computer, wait longer for backups, etc.  I’ve learned to sharpen images properly, so I get very good 30×45 cm (12×18″) prints from my current 8 MP body.  If I had 10 or 12 MP I could crop more, but that’s it.  In case I do get the 5DmkII, I’ll set it permanently to sRAW1 and produce 10 MP files.
  • No in-body IS.  I would very much like IS, but none of my lenses are IS, and Canon and Nikon do not offer in-body IS.  If I were to change systems, Pentax would be the top contender, mostly due to IS and my familiarity with the system.
  • I need a new lens strategy.  If I look at the graph above again, I see that it makes sense to swap the 17-40/4 for a 24-105/4.  I’d miss 3% of the wide-angle images, but I’d be able to take 32% more normal and short-tele images without changing the lens.  Wow, that would be good!  But it would cost money, and if I don’t want to miss 25% of my tele-shots, I’d also have to swap the 70-200/4 for a 70-300/4.5-5.6 DO IS or 75-300/4-5.6 IS.  But that would mean putting non-L lenses on a top-notch body, which makes little sense.  So I’ll have to live with the 200 mm limitation and crop 25% of my shots.  Which would speak for the 21 MP, which I wanted to turn off.
  • 14 bit RAW images.  On paper this sounds good, but it makes for even larger files, and noone has reported any real-life increase in image quality.
  • Not that reliable. Michael Reichmann reports that although not exposed to extreme weather or temperatures 23% of the 5DmkII on his Antarctic expedition failed at one time or another.  Hmm…

So, what to do?  It seems that the Canon 5D Mark II produces mixed feelings, and in my case the negatives seems to outweigh by a good margin.  So what are the alternatives?

  1. 5DmkII + 24-105/4 and 30D + 70-200/4, then sell the 17-40/4.  Sounds good, but I’ll have to spend a lot of money, lug two cameras around, and I’d still only have IS in my shorter lens.
  2. Get a 5D (mark I).  It is moderately priced, has the large viewfinder and the ideal pixel count, but only a slight edge over my 30D in terms of ISO and overall image quality.  Plus it’s still large and heavy.
  3. Switch to Pentax.  A K20D + 16-50/2.8 + 60-250/4 sounds sweet: IS, relatively small, relatively light, relatively inexpensive.  But I’ll have to change systems, will not gain image quality, and the viewfinder will not be as large as with a full-frame camera (but nicer than the Canon 30D).
  4. Change to Nikon D700 or Sony Alpha 900.  This is just theoretical, since it brings virtually no advantages, but all the disadvantages of a new system.

And the winner is …  alternative 5: stay with the 30D for as long as it works and concentrate on the images.