Sunday, 12 June 2011

The great leap forward - technologically speaking

You see a lot written on nerdy forums about how much better 'full frame' DSLRs are. I'd seen the comparison shots showing the better high ISO and low light capabilities of these cameras over crop sensors and for a confirmed hand-holder that was the big attraction to me. What I didn't realise when I took the plunge a few weeks back was the other benefits that not only the sensor gave, but also the 'pro spec' body. Apart from the bulk and weight it's like going back to using my old Pentax ME - only better!

The handling, despite the number of knobs and dials, is simple, intuitive and fast. Much better than my D90s, which are a step up from an entry level menu and button driven camera. For example, even though it still requires a button to be pressed and a dial spun, changing ISO settings is a doddle. The viewfinder is larger and brighter. Everything just feels right. Sure it weighs a ton, but that's a much lesser price to pay than the financial one. Still, I think the price is pretty well justifed when I consider the performance.

ISO values up to 8000 at dusk give images with less noise and grain than I'd have got at half that value or lower. In good daylight ISO 800 makes hand-held macro shots without flash possible at shutter speeds that eradicate camera shake. This much I had expected. I'd heard the 51 point autofocus system was good, but I didn't realise how good. This has proved to be most beneficial.

Not only does the focus tracking work incredibly well, as opposed to hardly at all with the D90, but it has transformed my long Sigma zoom. I knew the lens was optically capable as it had produced sharp, detailed shots for me now and then. Either in bright sunlight or when I'd succeeded in nailing focus manually. On the D3s it auto-focuses spot on 90% of the time or more - even in light levels that would have sent me home with the crop sensor. And it focuses quickly. I guess the D90 just couldn't cope with the f6.3 maximum aperture.

So much for the technology working well. There have been two changes in the image quality too. Maybe it's a factor of the larger sensor's bigger photosites, or maybe it's the way the images are processed in camera, but the colours look richer to my eyes. It's subtle, but I like it. More noticeable is the way the large sensor alters depth of field. This really does have an impact on the look of the images, making them pretty much like 35mm film shots. I'd never been happy with the out of focus blur in images from the Sigma zoom. They looked sort of harsh. On full frame they are much improved. Perhaps not up to the standard of a better quality, faster lens, but far more to my liking. So much so that I can live with the reduced 'reach' the larger sensor provides at 500mm compared to the crop. In fact the overall image quality from the full frame is so good it can stand cropping on the PC and still look more than acceptable.

Drawbacks? There are some. The size of the camera doesn't lend itself to discretion when out and about, so for town shooting it gets left behind. The biggest drawback is financial. The initial outlay isn't the end of it. Most of my zoom lenses only suit DX bodies - I can use a couple of them at a reduced zoom range, but that's not ideal. So they will have to go to fund one or two replacements. A spare battery is always nice to have, but that's a fair old price too. Worst of all is that I have got used to having two identical camera bodies, which is making me hanker for another full frame job! On the plus side the camera does everything I could want and more. Although I know technology moves fast, I can't see me wanting to upgrade again for some considerable time. More pixels aren't going to tempt me, that's for sure. Now to get out there and do some shooting!

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