Photography Is About Compromise


Canon EOS 5D Mark III full-frame digital camera

Photography is all about compromise.  If I’ve learned anything about photography in the 59 years I’ve been shooting it’s that.  No one camera does it all; no one lens does everything.  You do the best you can with what you have available.

The following post is a short treatise on a question that has plagued me ever since I started shooting digital.  It’s kind of techie and nerdy, so you non-photographer types might want to opt out (but you’re more than welcome to stay if you wish).  This post assumes a certain level of experience and knowledge on the part of the reader, and is not a primer on digital photography.  It deals with just one aspect of photography that has eluded me (up until now I think).

The question for me was:  What camera gives the best results for most kinds of photography (most especially wildlife photography)?  A full-frame camera (like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II) or a crop sensor camera (like the Canon EOS 7D)?


Sensor Comparison Chart (the full-frame sensor is the large 35mm size, and the 1.6x crop sensor is the one right next to it APS-C.  Overlaying those green boxes on an imaginary image shows you how reducing the FOV appears to increase the FL by cropping out more of the image.  Take a magazine and draw a box over an image and you will see what I mean).

Even as late as last week I was vacillating on that question.  Would I be better off shooting wildlife with my 40D with its 1.6x crop sensor, or my 5D Mk2 with its full-frame sensor?  I finally have an answer (I think), at least for me.  The number one big advantage of a crop sensor camera (supposedly) is its innate ability to change the FOV (Field of View) on a lens. For example:  If I use a 100mm FL (Focal Length) lens on my FF (Full-frame) camera the FOV is also 100mm.  However, if I put the very same 100mm FL lens on my crop sensor camera it gives me an effective FOV of 160mm (1.6 x 100 = 160).  Thus making a standard lens ‘appear’ to be a medium telephoto lens for all intents and purposes.  In wildlife photography this would appear to be a distinct advantage (drawing the subject in closer).

But with the reportedly superior image resolution of a full-frame camera (with its larger sensor) what happens if we take that same image, but crop it to the same 1.6x image size? Better, worse or the same?  That is precisely the question I have been struggling with.

If I crop my 21.2 mp image from my 5D Mk2 to a 1.6x crop I get 8.3 mp on target (21.1/1.6/1.6 = 8.28).  Now my 40D is a 10 mp camera, so uncropped it puts 10 mp on target (better, right?).  And the 7D puts 18 mp on target (much, much better, right?).  Not really.  C’mon Steve, the more mp on target the better the image resolution.  You would think so, but no.

Because, and this is a HUGE because, not all mp are created equal.  On a full frame camera you have fewer mp per mm (millimeter), but they are larger and of better quality (they bring in more light allowing for a higher image resolution and less ‘noise’ or grain in the image).  With the crop sensor camera there are more mp per mm, but they are smaller and of lessor quality (and they have to cram more of them onto the smaller sensor creating noise).  The more mp per mm on a sensor the more noise or graininess on the image.

This is where Nikon and Canon are now parting ways.  Nikon is cramming more and more mp onto their sensors (they even have a 36 mp camera), but at the expense of image quality. With more mp comes more noise, and the necessity  for more in-camera noise reduction software.  This in-camera software can lessen the noise, but at the expense of image detail (remember, photography is all about compromise).  Canon, on the other hand, is retaining a modest mp per mm count (and has even reduced the mp on some of their cameras) further reducing the need for ‘over the top’ in-camera noise reduction (thus preserving more image detail). Complicated isn’t it?

So, whereas, you would think the relatively new 7D with its 1.6x crop sensor and 18 mp would be a huge improvement in image quality, actually the opposite is turning out to be true as reported by unhappy users.  They are finding the noise levels unacceptable at relatively low ISO’s.  The 5D Mk2 can shoot images at ISO 3200 that are only obtainable with a 7D at 400 to 800 ISO.  Remember that low ISO is good and high ISO is bad.  That’s an oversimplification of course, but you get the idea.  So if the 5D Mk2 can shoot an image at ISO 3200 that looks as good as one shot at ISO 400 then that’s a huge plus.  Higher ISO allows for higher shutter-speeds in lower (darker) light.

But there are trade-offs (compromises).  The 7D shoots at an impressive 8 fps whereas the 5D Mk2 only shoots a sluggish 3.9 fps.  And you don’t get the 1.6x FOV advantage with the 5D Mk2.  But, if you can live with the 3.9 fps, I think you will find your images are much better from the 5D Mk2 even when cropped to 1.6x to match the 7D.  And if you can’t live with the 3.9 fps then you will be happy to know that Canon recently released the 5D Mk3 and it shoots at a crisp 6 fps, and has the 7D’s latest AF system.

If I could have only one camera it would be the Canon EOS 5D Mark III.  Its low noise at high ISO alone makes it worth the money.  You can shoot all day long at ISO 800, 1600, 3200 and even 6400 allowing for very fast shutter-speeds to stop action while hand-holding the camera for wildlife photography (such as birds in flight).  The image, even when cropped to 1.6x, will yield superior results to the 7D, 60D, 50D and 40D.  The only cameras Canon has that can match the 5D Mk3 in performance are the 1d X and 1d Mark IV (and they cost about three times as much, even used).

Now this post is on a very controversial subject in photography, and you will have advocates on both sides of the argument.  Google this subject and you will have every opinion imaginable about full-frame vs crop sensor.  But for me, finally, the evidence is clear.  The one camera that comes closest to doing it all (for less than $7,000 USD) is the current Canon EOS 5D Mark III.  And you can still pick up a new Canon 5D Mark II for a very reasonable price (they still ain’t cheap, because they’re Pro cameras, but reasonable given what’s out there).  Can I justify upgrading my 5D Mk2 to the newer Mk3?  Probably not, but then I really don’t need to.  I am an unmarried, adult male; I can make that decision on my own without harming anyone.  Plus, I’m really old, and old people can do whatever the hell they want without consequences.

I don’t know if this post will prove helpful to my photog friends out there in the blogosphere, or just stir the pot and add to the controversy.  But for me the question has been answered. Am I saying that crop sensor cameras are bad?  ABSOLUTELY NOT!  They are GREAT cameras (my 40D backup camera is a crop sensor and I love it, as long as I’m shooting at ISO 800 or less … ISO 400 is better still).  But I think you will see the crop sensor camera go away in the next few years, just like so many other cameras have gone away before it.  I would be interested in any of your comments relative to this topic.

And if you’re really interested pursue the subject further.  There is a wealth of information about photography (all kinds and types) on the internet.  I enjoy learning something new everyday about my craft.  I am more of a ‘Shooter’ than a techie, but it’s kind of cool to know how these new gizmos work.  Happy shooting mi amigos.

Note:  A very good article (2007), by Alan Stankevitz, comparing the Canon 1d Mark III with the 40D.  I agree with everything he says with the possible exception of the high ISO performance he credits the 40D with.  I have not found this to be the case with my 40D (he claims good performance at ISO 1600 and even 3200).  Back in 2007 that might have been true, it fact it probably was true. But by 2013 standards my 5D Mk2 blows away the 40D  on high ISO noise performance, and I can readily see a big difference in my images.  But the article is well worth reading, and still very relevant to this particular post (Click Here).

P.S.  I am NOT schilling for Canon, these are my personal opinions only (because the subject interests me).

Indiana Jones_Painting


One response to “Photography Is About Compromise

  1. Steve, I am interested in the camera. A couple of questions. I think that I know the answer, but I have an older Canon A1 and wonder if any of my old lenses will be compatible? If not, can you give me an idea of what I will need to spend for a rudimentary zoom lens, used or otherwise? John

    Date: Thu, 14 Mar 2013 02:57:24 +0000 To:

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