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Thoughts About "Full Frame"

by Mike Johnston

The Sunday Morning Photographer a photo.net column:    October, 2004

The last column I published on this site is of a type almost tailor-made to make me look like a fool one day. In "Mo' Bettah" I wrote about "How Much Is Enough," and actually specified some parameters of digital cameras that I thought would amount to "enough."

This, of course, is tantamount to saying "further progress isn't needed," and all such pronouncements run the risk of being simply blind — blind to progress, blind to future innovation — or just wrong.

There are many examples in history, but the story that comes to my mind is one told by the great automotive writer Ralph Stein about a car called the Wills Sainte (((SIC))) Claire. C. Harold Wills was Henry Ford's chief designer, the man who was instrumental in many of Ford's early engineering successes, and who designed the classic, and lovely, Ford script logo.

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The Ford blue oval, one of the most recognized logos in the world, was originally designed by C. Harold Wills.

Wills, a multi-millionaire from his work with Ford, wanted to build his own car. So he left Ford and founded his own manufacturing company on the banks of the St. Clair river. His first product had a V-8 engine and was said to be ten years ahead of its time, and cost eight times what a Model T did. Although Wills went on to build somewhere between 5,000 and 12,000 cars, only fifty of which survive today, Stein says that the future progress of his successful company was torpedoed in 1927 when a group of investors got cold feet and hired a consulting firm to analyze the automobile market. The consulting firm — and this is the point — concluded that there were three million cars on the road in the United States already, and the market was saturated. The investors pulled their money, and Wills Sainte Claire went belly-up in 1927.

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C. Harold Wills admired geese, and made a gray goose the symbol of his superbly engineered cars. Photo courtesy Wills Sainte Claire Club.

Who's Right?

Apocryphal or not, the Wills story does illustrate the perils of making predictions (as well as the perils of consulting). Especially with a technology as vibrant as digital cameras are today, it's probably wrongheaded to say that anything is already good enough, or that we can guess already what good enough is going to be.

Accordingly, you can also take my thoughts about "full frame" DSLRs with a dose of skepticism if you like.

I first began thinking of this when my friend Oren Grad posed a riddle: What do Canon digital SLRs and view cameras have in common? I gave up on guessing the answer (and none too happily, I might add), but it seemed obvious once Oren clued me in: users of both have to deal with issues of lens coverage and angles of view for different formats.

View camera photographers are perfectly used to this. They commonly use the same lenses to serve different purposes on different cameras. A 210mm lens, for instance, is moderately long on 4x5, normal on 5x7, and would be quite wide-angle on 8x10 if it covered the format, which few of them do. Canon, similarly, has the equivalent of three different formats in its DSLRs today. Its APS-sized sensors on the Digital Rebel and 20D. being a "smaller format," make 35mm lenses effectively longer, by a "multiplication factor" or "field of view crop" of 1.5X. But the 1Ds and 1Ds Mk. II has a "full frame" sensor (meaning, in this case, the same size as 35mm), giving 35mm lenses the same angles of view photographers are used to from shooting film 35's. But there's an in-between sensor size: the one in the 1D and 1D Mk. II, which is 19x28mm and gives a field of view factor of 1.3X. So the same Canon 50mm lens, say, has a "normal" angle of view on a 1Ds, a slightly long 65mm equivalence on the 1D Mk. II, and a short telephoto 75mm equivalence on the 20D.

Nikon, meanwhile, with the introduction of its professional ├╝ber-kamera the D2x, has shown its firm allegiance to the APS-size sensor that gives a 1.5X effective crop. Its digital "format" is uniform, from the entry-level D70 to the D2's (yes, there's the choice of a further crop with the D2x, but that doesn't count because the whole sensor is still 1.5X). Nikon has also quietly begun building up a collection of its DX lenses, made expressly for its digital format.

Not to beat around the bush: I firmly believe that what Nikon is doing will prove to be smarter in the long run.

The path Canon is taking gives it an advantage right now, because so many photographers want, or think they want, "full frame" (i.e., 35mm-sized) sensors, so they can use their old 35mm lenses on their DSLRs. I've opined before that this is "oldthink,"  and I still think so. What sensor development up till now has firmly demonstrated is that sensors are getting exponentially better as time passes. Right now, in my opinion, we're beginning to enter the stretch of time when the "enough is enough" influence will begin to kick in. That is, in five or six years, we're going to know approximately what the market demands in terms of ultimate pixel size from a DSLR-type camera. And we're also going to have a pretty good idea of what it doesn't demand.

And Nikon, by getting a jump on standardization in formatting, will quietly build for itself an advantage for the future, while Canon, though giving itself a decided advantage now, is inadvertently acquiring a disadvantage for the future with its multiple "formats."

And what of Michael Reichmann's argument that real estate in sensor size is always going to win, no matter what the technology? Well, I don't think he's wrong: but what shows us the shape of the future in that respect is the just-announced Mamiya ZD, with its gargantuan 36x48mm, 22 million pixel sensor. In other words, for those who really need high quality and large image size, the old 35mm frame isn't going to cut it. It won't be "full" frame in that sense either.

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Mamiya's ZD gives us an idea of what the future holds for those who want the ultimate in image quality.

My bet is that whatever we end up thinking of as ideal in terms of pixel count and image quality in an SLR-style camera for sports, editorial, and news work is going to fit just fine on the 16x24mm, APS-sized sensor area. Gradually, lenses purpose-built for the format will replace 35mm lenses as the standard line, and 16x24mm will be full frame.

Just one opinion.

All best and good light,

—Mike Johnston

A few notes: There is currently no further news about my book, unfortunately. If you've ordered a copy, I sincerely apologize for making you wait so long. This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen, believe me.

The 7th issue of my newsletter "The 37th Frame" has just shipped. If you're a subscriber and still haven't gotten issue #6, please contact me in the next week or two at mcjohnston [at] mac [dot] com and we'll get you set up to receive the new issues. Issue #7 is more than 40 pages long, illustrated, and features an extended appreciation of the late Henri Cartier-Bresson, new lens reviews, a "rant" about the camera-police in the wake of 9/11, and an extensive "backgrounder" article on the new Leica 50mm Summilux. And of course my peculiar slant on the news. Please go to http://www.37thframe/subscribe.htm  if you're interested in ordering your own copy.

My blog, "The Quotidian Meander," is at www.quotidianmeander.blogspot.com. For the time being it's mainly political, what with the election being around the corner, but that's more or less temporary. There are a few amusing "short stories" buried in the archives.

Coming on my website: How to test a lens for "bokeh," and subjective bokeh rankings for dozens of lenses.

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