Is a full-frame DSLR right for you?

Wednesday, December 31, 2008 ·

I started writing this blog for people who bought Nikon's D700 and who might find it interesting following my trials and tribulations getting to grips with a camera from a different manufacturer than I was used to. But it has occurred to me that there may be people reading it whilst trying to make up their mind if a full-frame camera is the way to go.

If so, I know exactly what you're going through - because I've been there, too. I'd been a happy user of Pentax's K10D SLR (you can follow my K10D blog here) for over 18 months before starting to look at full-frame. The catalyst for this was the launch of the Nikon D3. When I saw high ISO files from that camera, I was blown away. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, to be honest, but it was just too expensive.

I love low-light photography and thought I'd be able to do some of that with the K10D when I first got it. The truth is, though, that I don't like the low-light results from the K10D at anything above 400 ISO. If there's a reasonable amount of light, then it's usable up to 800 ISO but I find the K10D's noise - and the splotchy character of it - to be unacceptable, or at least unattractive when it's quite dark. I'd originally thought that a fast lens and the in-body anti-shake of the K10D would let me shoot away in city streets at night but I don't think the anti-shake is very effective - at least it's far less effective than that in my previous camera, a Minolta A2.

My longing for a hand-holdable DSLR remained unfulfilled - until the D700 came on the scene. Low-light wasn't the only reason for switching to full-frame. I was never happy with the K10D's viewfinder, despite the fact that it was one of the better ones at the time. I still use classic 35mm SLRs such as the Olympus OM1 and the Pentax MX and they spoiled me for just about anything else. The D700's viewfinder, in that respect, is a significant step up from the K10D if not quite a match for those of the OM1 and MX.

Another appealing feature of the D700 is the way it largely deals with CA or colour fringing when shooting jpegs and can even reduce the effect of vignetting. As someone who submits photographs to microstock agencies, I reckoned this would save me some time in post-processing. I know it's possible to squeeze extra quality out of raw files and always shoot in raw plus jpeg just in case but if I can get the file right in the camera then there's little to be gained from the raw files - especially since they have to be converted to jpeg for uploading to the microstock agencies anyway.

Having used 35mm SLRs for 30 years, I was also looking forward to getting back to a situation where a 50mm lens, for example, was exactly that and not a 75mm lens as it becomes under the K10D's crop factor. With shallower depth of field for a given lens, it's easier to isolate subjects with a full-frame camera by throwing the background out of focus.

Since making the move I've also noticed that the D700 feels much more like a good, motordriven, 35mm SLR of old. It's far more responsive than the K10D. It focuses faster, responds more quickly to the shutter release button and the time taken for the mirror to pop up and down is much less. Overall, then, I've been very pleased with my move to full-frame.

Having decided to take the plunge and set a budget, I didn't just consider the D700. I also looked at the Canon 5D and 5D Mk II and the Sony A900. The 5D's advantage was that it was available for quite a bit less than the D700 - in fact, I could have picked up a 5D with the 24-105mm 'L' zoom for around the same price as the D700 body. It didn't feel as nice nor handle as well as the Nikon, though, and it's low-light performance isn't a match for the D700 either. The Canon zoom is also huge which made it quite an unwieldy package.

The A900 was tempting. It's viewfinder is marginally better than the Nikon's but it's no better than the 5D at high ISOs, was more expensive at the time and I didn't have a need for the 25MP files its produces so there was no advantage to be gained there. For much the same reasons, I discounted the 21MP 5D Mk II.

So that's how I ended up with the D700, a camera that just seems to be getting better and better the more I use it. But where does that leave you if you're still at the "will I, wont I" stage? Well, if you shoot mainly in good light, such as during daylight hours on holiday, you can put up with a little bit of noise at higher ISOs and you don't have any 35mm SLRs in your background as a frame of reference, then I'd stick with the smaller format, especially if you've already built up a wee system.

Full-frame isn't for everybody - in many cases, it's simply overkill - and there are advantages to DX sensors, one of the most important being savings in size and weight. A full-frame DSLR left at home because it's a bit big and heavy isn't going to capture many great images.