Some Background on My Decision
I’ve shot with digital cameras for a while now. They were comfortable and allowed me to quickly learn the basics of photography, as well as amass a decent portfolio to begin my career. However, about two years ago, I noticed a change. Even though I was shooting with really good equipment (finally), I wasn’t as eager to go out and make art. Shooting for fun didn’t really exist for me anymore—I was relegated to using it solely for professional work. So, after much soul searching…okay, I’ll be honest. There wasn’t much soul searching—it was gear envy—the photographer’s trap. After looking at a bunch of equipment I couldn’t afford, I stumbled upon articles talking about shooting on film.
I had always thought that these film photographers were just stuffy old dudes who couldn’t let go of old technology. I was only half wrong. It turns out, there is a way to bridge the old technology of photography’’s past with the new workflows of today. Meaning I could acquire old film equipment and adapt it to the digital workflow by developing and scanning in the negatives. Any enhancements would be done in digital work space. So, the final question I had to ask myself was…”What film camera or system should I invest in?”
This was a journey in and of itself. There were so many possibilities and so much knowledge out there, that it was easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of content and opinions. I was initially going to settle with shooting 35mm due to the compact nature of these cameras, but then I started thinking long and hard about that choice. I’m already shooting 35mm full frame with my Canon 5D. I needed to further remove myself from my native system. So, I thought about why it would be advantageous to my preferred style of photography, and I realized that over the course of my career, I’ve been moving up in image plane size. With each move, I became more invested in doing the work and putting more heart into making photographs, because I was slowly getting closer to the type of look I had admired for years. What I’m talking about is the nostalgic look of medium and large format photography that dominated the late 19th and mid-20th century. I always thought those photographs were so cool and conveyed so much character about their subjects and the scenes they were in. But, what separates that category of photography from 35mm and cropped sensor digital bodies? Why is it so difficult to achieve that vintage look? In order to understand the answer to this question, we have to examine something that’s already familiar to us: full frame vs crop sensor digital bodies.
What Does Full Frame or Crop mean?
Have you ever wondered what people mean when they say they’re shooting full-frame or crop sensor? Well, it all has to do with the relationship between the size of your sensor/film plane and the lens you’re using. The smaller the sensor, the more difficult it will be to achieve shallow depth of field in your photographs. To compensate, lenses have to be “faster” by featuring much wider apertures to achieve subject separation. With larger camera sensors/film planes, (e.g. think 35mm, medium format, and large format), you begin to struggle with achieving critical focus, because you need much smaller apertures to control your depth of field. But, to understand how this fits into the modern narrative, we have to delve deeper by going back to the days of film and see where the focus (pun intended) was in terms of the mass production of camera bodies and lenses.
35mm Film Becomes the Standard
Film photography has a storied history which I will not go too far into here (mostly because I only know bits and pieces). Essentially, from what I was able to piece together, 120 film (medium format) was the popular film for decades. But, by the end of the 1960s, 35mm film had supplanted 120 film at the everyday consumer level, and companies began to shift their emphasis onto 35mm systems. It allowed for more exposures (36) and much more compact camera bodies, due to a much smaller film plane. As the years went on, 35mm systems dominated production lines and massive infrastructure was put in place to manufacture, as well as market this system to consumers.
Digital Overcomes Film
Then, around the early 2000s Digital sensors became cheap enough to produce and compete with the old film camera bodies. Like many emerging technologies, it was extremely expensive to produce sensors due to the nascent industry’s lack of experience in manufacturing these sensors effectively. To match the 35 film bodies that they were in the process of replacing, these companies needed to charge exorbitant amounts of money and target the few professionals who could afford its steep price. But to get to the prosumer and amateur, they needed to reduce the cost—so, naturally, they reduced the size of the sensors to less than 35mm to compensate for this expense.
What is APS?
These new “cropped” sensors were cheaper to produce and were based off of the “Advanced Photo System” film format, or APS. APS was initially an attempt by the photography industry to create more compact cameras targeted at amateurs. It never took off with professionals because of the lower quality in resolution that the APS format provided. The affordability of digital cameras pretty much shut the door on APS film. However, camera companies began to adapt this format to the digital realm in order to lower the price of digital cameras. The downside of this decision resulted in new, advanced camera bodies that couldn’t adequately take advantage of the lenses that were already on the market. But, it was the quickest and most affordable way to adapt and integrate the old 35mm equivalent system to the new digital product line. Most importantly for them, it kept things immediately profitable.
The Beginning of Confusion
However, that’s where the confusion began—you see, 35mm equivalent lenses were maintained as a system, but the first digital camera bodies available to the average consumer were NOT 35mm full frame cameras. Digital sensors were (and still are) expensive to produce because in general, the larger the sensor, the smaller the successful yield is when manufacturing them. This means that the lenses that were sold were not behaving the way they were initially marketed. When a sensor is smaller than 35mm in size, the lens will perform differently because the sensor isn’t large enough to cover the actual focal length of the lens. You have to use a multiplier and multiply it times the aperture and focal length to see how the camera actually sees through the lens. For example, on Canon crop sensor bodies, the multiplier is 1.62. This means that if you’re shooting with an 100mm f1.8 EF lens, multiply its focal length by 1.62 to see its actual performance. In this case, it would be a 162mm lens at f2.9. Check out the wikipedia graphic below:
Also, a really cool site for those of you who’d like to quickly calculate how certain lenses will behave on different sensor/film planes, you can use this handy calculator: https://mmcalc.com/. You can fiddle with different combinations to further demonstrate this relationship between focal lengths, aperture, and sensor size.
The Effect on Aperture
Remember how the multiplier affects focal length? Well, it does something similar to the aperture. What it does is it merely affects how these lenses behave—it doesn’t alter the actual light transmission, thus keeping exposure requirements intact. This means that while an f1.8 lens on a crop sensor body will behave more akin to an f2.9 lens, it will still gather the same amount of light it would on a full frame body. However, your depth of field will be that of an f2.9 lens.
Is a Larger Sensor Better?
Better is a relative term—better for me? Yes. Because smaller sensors and film planes don’t suit my style of photography. I shoot landscapes and architectural stuff, so I prefer to shoot wide angle and to gobble up as much detail as possible. For you, it might be a different story. Instead, what I’ll do here is I’ll show you what advantages and disadvantages there are to shooting with the various sizes.
Some Advantages of Full Frame Sensors:
It’s much easier to achieve a shallow depth of field at wider focal lengths.
The focal length is the true 35mm equivalent (e.g. a 50mm lens is actually a 50mm lens).
Benefits landscape and architectural shooters because you’re taking full advantage of the angle of view (e.g. your angle of view isn’t cropped due to the multiplier).
Due to the shallower depth of field in general, portraits are a bit more striking due to subject separation.
Full frame sensors have more pixels due to the increase in sensor size, so it gives you less noise as you crank up your ISO for low light performance. For film cameras, medium format and large format give you less film grain when you enlarge them.
Some Advantages of Crop Sensors
Generally means your camera is a bit more compact and easier to carry
Lenses that are designed for crop sensor bodies are also lighter and more compact
If you use a true full frame lens, you’ll get “closer” to action in general without disturbing the scene. This would be great for wildlife and events where it’s either difficult or impossible to physically get close to your subject.
When using full frame lenses, you’re using a zoomed-in and cropped view of the strongest performing portion of the lens.
They’re a bit more affordable than full frame bodies—so if you’re just starting out or you’re on a budget, this may be your best bet if your’re buying “new”.
The Not So Conclusive Conclusion
So, with all that being said, why did I make the move to medium format film? Well, it has to do with the relationship between the image plane and lenses. Digital medium format photography is out of reach for me, so I needed a more affordable way of getting there. Most importantly, though, I think that this decision is partially fueled by my childhood dream of being a photographer. When I was a kid, film was king and the idea of a darkroom and using chemistry to develop photographs sounded like the coolest proposition. Being of sound adult age, this notion has not changed whatsoever. So, to kill two birds with one stone, I made the move to film and moved up by shooting medium format. In part II, I’ll go into more detail about this new (old) world of film and what the journey has been like. At this point, I’m all in—and by the time you finish reading all of these blog entries, I hope I can convert some of you to join me.