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Crop Sensors vs Full Frame: Crop or Crap?

Published: 28/03/2017

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I frequently get questions about whether real estate photographers should use full frame or APS-C cropped sensors and if Full Frame is better for real estate photography.

For those faced with this decision, check out this entertaining video by Zack Arias on the subject.

Larry Lohrman

9 comments on “Crop Sensors vs Full Frame: Crop or Crap?”

  1. Well it's amusing but suffers from a touch of over simplification. There have always been photographers who make their equipment into a religion and will only shoot with a certain brand of camera or film size or make. And they make a specialty of it. More power to them. But it's a bit like saying "if you are a hammer, everything is a nail." Personally I prefer to think of cameras as tools. So who has only a hammer in their tool kit if you are a carpenter? No, you have various tools to do various jobs all on the same project. You don't use a chisel to screw in a screw. So why would you use a 35mm camera if what you needed was incredible detail? Conversely, why would you use an 8x10" camera to shoot sports? But also even if you were shooting a fabulous still life that was going to be reproduced on soggy news print with 60 dpi why bother to shoot it on 8x10 inch film when it will reproduce just as well shooting 2 1/4 on a Hasselblad? My point is that it's not all about size. It's about picking the right tools for the job. And resolution is only one consideration; an important one but one of many. If you have to shoot fast, say war photography, photojournalism, sports, catching the moment is far more important than worrying about high grain or slightly course pixels. So a 35mm format is ideal. If your are taking several days to set up a still life in a studio and want a rich depth of color and tonality as well as exquisite sharpness and you have a hell of a lot of light to poor onto the subject matter (the larger the film plane the more light it takes to cover it) you will pick the 8x10 camera (since the size discussion in the video included these cameras).

    So if you are an architectural photographer who wants to reproduce your photo of Trump Tower to billboard size, you would not use a crop sensor, nor frankly would you use a full frame DSLR, you would try to find the camera with the largest image sensor with the highest number of pixels if you want that billboard sized print to look sharp and be filled with intricate detail even as you got close to the billboard. Like if it was to be hung in Trump's office.

    But for most real estate, the images will be used on the Internet, looked at on 15" lap top screens, iPads and other tables and much more ofter today on big and small cell phone screens. In the latter case why would you shoot on a camera with a sensor larger than the phone screen itself? Makes no sense.

    If you are shooting for print at 300 dpi resolution reproduction, I can crop my horizontals today to a vertical and still be able to crop to an 8.5x11" size at 300 dpi with my Canon 80D. I have even done the same thing with still images from my Phantom2 that would not in their natural resolution hold up at 300 dpi but by increasing the resolution and using un sharpen mask in Photo shoot (that I use on all my digital images since they are all a bit fuzzy out of the camera) they will print just fine on glossy magazine covers.

    So size does matter but only taken in context of how the images are intended to be used, as in published. I have scanned some of my older Kodachrome 35mm 25 ASA slides and they cannot compare in sharpness to the images coming out of my cropped sensor 80D or even my older Rebel 4Ti. And with the old film cameras, it was the film that determined the sharpness not the camera given a decent camera and lens. 25 ASA (now renamed as ISO) was a finer grain film than 400 ASA. So it was sharper. But the trade off was that it was also much slower to absorb light so not good for moving objects. 400 ASA was fast so perfect for sports but had higher grain since the larger the flecks of sliver the faster they absorbed light. And that 400 could be pushed in the development to 1600 and would be even faster but you would loose shadow detail and the grain would be even larger. Everything in photography is a compromise.

    The same thing happens with todays' sensors when you have to bump up the ISO in poor lighting. The pixels group together to try to figure out barely discernible detail and to help them capture color, contrast and detail. So the image gets more textury and the shadow detail goes lumpy. So even with digital cameras, when the light from an image has to be spread over a larger area (sensor) there is less light strength the larger the sensor gets so the slower the shutter speed, or wider the aperture or higher the ISO required, or usually a combination of all three. So references to ancient film photography is not such a big leap despite today's images being digital, much of the underlying light absorbtion principles still operate on those same principles.

    So for most real estate, the cropped sensor is more than adequate for both print and Internet use. And the files sizes for storage on hard disk, especially if you bracket for HDR, is smaller if you use cropped sensor than if you use full frame. The lenses today are incredible in sharpness, the sensors are carrying many more pixels, although like angels on a pin head, I think some of the claims may be virtual pixels since alogarhythmes often seems to bump up the pixel count.

    So Pete Turner in NY would only shoot 35mm on Kodachrome while Avadon after he set up in his NY studio would shoot 8x10 and have his assistant follow the model around carrying the flash head and umbrella in his hand. I assisted a famous London fashion photographer who shot his work using everything from a half frame Olympus and Tri-X film (400 ASA) to a 4x5 view camera but generally shot with a 35mm Pentax or his Hasselblads. But Turner had a style built around the look of his 35mm Kodachrome. Avadon had a style build around his 8x10. David Baily, a pal of my guy, had his style built around 2 1/4 and Twiggy and my guy, Brian Duffy had no style at all, he loved instead to be constantly changing, trying new things, using different cameras and lighting like when she shot the iconic images of David Bowie and the ground breaking part photo part air brush images for the Pirrelli Calendars back in the 1970's.

    I am rabbiting on since to worry about equipment before figuring out what the photo should be and how it is going to be used is putting the cart before the horse. First you establish what you want the image to be, how big, what the light and shooting conditions will be or what you will make them to be, then you pick the camera, lens and settings, how fast you will have to shoot (i.e. Will you have time to light the rooms or not); not the other way around. Pick your tools for the job. And the size of your sensor is only one consideration out of many.

  2. I agree with his overall synthesis in the video. My general take on crop vs full frame is you're paying about twice as much for full frame equipment (give or take). Businesses are about ROI. Crop simply gives you a vastly superior ROI, and the reason being is not one client will ever drop you because you shot on a crop sensor.

    Seriously, this is the most important key to the equation that everybody leaves out. If you had clients that were saying... "no no no, there's a little bit too much noise in these crop sensor images you're delivering, we're going with the other guy", then I could see it. But, this never happens. Ever. Now if you're a gear head and just admire nice gear, don't hold back and buy away, and there's nothing wrong with that. But again we're essentially businessmen and the smart choice is clear it is crop for our work.

    In the end, I do think there is an argument to be made to buy fx gear if you never Light and of your work and are very dependent upon pushing and pulling all of your files. I work sort of the opposite of that though and tend to light things up, and I believe if you do light things that crop is the way to go.

    The last aspect of the discussion has to do with lens choice. There is better glass in the fx realm, and the glass is having to squeeze the straight lines onto a smaller surface with a crop camera, which certainly is a disadvantage. But, I do think crop sensor glass is quickly catching up. Crop glass will never be able to compete with the physical limitation of having that smaller sensor to squeeze the image onto, but again I do see a number of lenses very relevant to our field, particularly in the sigma art series, that are tailored toward crop sensors and are bridging the gap. So I feel the better glass argument for fx is holding less water nowadays.

  3. Crop cameras definately give you more bang for your buck, but at the same time it is much more fun to shoot a full frame camera. If you shoot solely from a business perspective and you don't need shift lenses, don't bother with full frame.
    But at the end, photography is still a form of art and if the art you want to create deserves a higher level of detail go as big as you can with your sensor size.
    Your customer might not see the difference, but you will!

  4. While I have an appreciation for sub-FF cameras what keeps me from moving entirely to a smaller format is the dearth of extreme wide angle lenses.
    In APS-C the widest effective focal length is a 15mm equivalent. In µ43 that is 14mm.
    In FF I can choose from several 11-12 mm lenses.

  5. If we are just talking about real estate photography, the crop sensor is fine. In fact, some of the new hi-end crop sensor cameras, like the new Fuji XT-2 which I just purchased, is incredible and so are their lenses, especially the primes which I started using again.
    Peter is correct, it depends on your usage and the end result. (and by the way Peter, along with Irving Penn, Pete turner was one of my idols while learning photography). I started and learned photography as a NYC commercial photographer where everything was done on 8x10 for ads and catalogues. But when we did location work, we used 4x5, which later became our norm in the studio, because film got better and 4x5 produced outstanding quality (view cameras also train you to be more precise on composition). later, when I became a corporate photographer at Unisys/ Lockheed, I had to get into very tight locations (bottom of ships, subs or aircraft to photograph electronic equipment that 4x5 would not fit, so we used Hasselblad s which is how I learned to master super wide lenses, a plus for our real estate work. The point is, (unless you are wealthy) you should consider what the final result is going to be used for. My feeling is, to pick what ever camera system you feel is comfortable and build on it (you need two bodies that take the same lenses). And always invest in the best glass, even if you have to borrow or wait until you have the money. Lenses don't change often, but digital bodies do, and often! Also, because I shoot multiple subjects, I always invested in good lighting equipment and lighting accessories. But I have to admit, the Yongnuo YN560-IV Speedlight's that Larry and Scott recommended, which I thought were going to be cheap crap, have been working excellent. They have fallen off my light stands a few time and keep working. My Nikons SB-800, SB-700 and SB-900 would not hold up to these falls and have been repaired for more than twice the price of a new Yongnuo YN560-IV Speedlite. these lights are disposable, but so far work excellent!

  6. Fantastic. GREAT VIDEO!!! It's not about the gear . . . it's about telling a story. About composition, lighting, color, starting at "A" and ending at "Z". Sure picture quality helps, but it's what WE do behind that camera that really matters. That's all.

  7. Spot on, Charlie!
    I cringe every time someone asks me about what camera I use. I just say a really good one and gently remind them that it's not about the camera, but all about who is operating it.

  8. Love that video. But.

    I just can't take this 24mm TS-E lens off my camera (for any size home)... I think you need a 'full' sensor camera for it (and it WILL make a difference 🙂

  9. Ha!

    Zack in the video says that none of us have a millimeter of experience with DSLRs [nor with Photochop].

    We are all innovators.

    What am I going to come up with next?

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