Do I Need a Full Frame Camera for Landscape Photography?

by Aug 26, 2021Photography Blog

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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Do I Need a Full Frame Camera for Landscape Photography?

I was recently asked the question “do I need a full frame camera” by a couple of people. Whilst both saw full frame as something to aspire to photographically, they also questioned if it was necessary given recent advances in software. In this article, I will try to answer this question in relation to landscape photography.

Why Full Frame Cameras are Desirable

When I first made the switch to digital photography from film, I could only afford a crop sensor camera. That camera was a Canon 300D with 6Mpixels and quite honestly, the camera characteristics felt like I was shooting slide film. Highlights blew out easily and the dynamic range was shall we say challenging.

Shortly after I purchased the 300D, Canon launched the first 5D camera which quickly became the camera of choice for serious landscape photographers. It was full frame, had 12Mpixels and a reasonable dynamic range. The magazines at the time were quickly raving about this ground-breaking camera, its low light performance, the detail it could resolve and the wonderful colours it captured.

Most of the articles of the time would expound the benefits of full frame as:

  • Better image quality.
  • Higher pixel count leading to larger images with more detail.
  • Greater dynamic range.
  • Better low light performance and image quality at higher ISO settings.
  • Wider angle of view because super wide lenses weren’t widely available for crop sensor cameras and those that were, cost a fortune.

At the time, most of these benefits were genuine and the arguments for full frame cameras have endured with the same benefits often repeated. Possibly because of this the full frame camera continues to be an object of desire for many landscape photographers.

But in recent years, the gap between full frame and crop sensor has narrowed and these benefits may not be so clear cut. This is especially true with the advent of new technology and software. Perhaps this is one reason for the rise of the medium format camera, with many marketing teams working hard to convince us to make the upgrade. It’s beginning to feel a little like the Crop Sensor Vs Full Frame Sensor debate again.

My Position on the Need for Full Frame

Before I explore possible alternatives to using full frame cameras, I should make my position clear as I may be biased.

I currently own several digital cameras which I use for landscape photography (some more than others). My most used cameras are Fuji models, based around the XTrans (APS-C size) crop sensor. I also have several micro 43 cameras which I use quite regularly which have an even smaller sensor than the Fuji. I then own a couple of 1” sensor cameras which are pocket and bridge cameras. The image quality I can achieve from these cameras ranges from good to excellent, and to a large part is dictated by the RAW converter.

Camera Sensor Size compared

Before embracing the smaller format camera, I was shooting with a full frame Canon 5D MKII. I have also subsequently owned other full frame cameras, including models by Nikon and Sony, alongside my smaller sensor cameras. It’s been a bit of a love hate relationship with full frame and I’ve found myself almost fighting with these cameras because of various issues. Ultimately these came down to size and weight and in the case of the Sony, reliability.

I’ve now sold all my full frame gear and find packing my current kit for a day in the mountains and a 10-mile hike, much easier to cope with. If you are less than 40 you will come to recognise this problem in time.

I’m a total convert to using smaller cameras providing they are fit for purpose. This means they must produce the required image quality and size and they must also take a beating from the weather. I have no doubt that I don’t need a full frame camera (or larger) for my landscape work, but that won’t stop me buying one if the camera is the right one for me.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at how some of the benefits of the full frame cameras and these may have been eroded.

Pixel Count

The traditional argument in favour of full frame cameras is that of pixel count. The full frame camera has usually had more when compared to smaller format cameras of the same time (a few low light models excepted). My original Canon 300D had 6Mpixels whilst the Canon 5D model of that time had 12Mpixels. Then came the 5D MKII with 20MPixels whilst the Canon 400D had only 10Mpixels. This difference in the number of pixels continues today, but do we really need so many pixels.

My current Fuji has 26Mpixels which I would argue is enough. This produces a print almost 21” x 14” at a resolution of 300dpi. As an uncompressed JPEG this would be a 74.3Mb sized image.

If you are wondering why I’m interested in the uncompressed image size, it’s because the image libraries I supply set limits on this. An uncompressed image must be at least 50Mb but less than 100Mb so the Fuji XT3 is perfect. Interestingly, when I submit images from my old 36Mpixel full frame cameras, I need to down sample them to reduce the size.

Example image from a micro 43 camera

When it comes to making stock library submissions from my micro 43 cameras, the Panasonic G9 is fine. It comes in with an uncompressed image size of 57.7Mb. It’s only my old 16Mpixel Olympus EM5 that doesn’t make the grade. Does this mean I can’t use that camera for stock photography? Not at all. The stock libraries are quite happy for me to resize the image using software.

I realise not everyone want’s to shoot stock but if a resized image is good enough for commercial stock libraries to sell, then it’s good enough for most things. And don’t forget, these images are submitted as JPEG’s and then compressed on the stock library servers.

Countering the Pixel Count Argument

Let’s assume that you are still not convinced and that you want to make large prints from your images. This would possibly require larger file sizes than can be produced with a crop sensor camera.

If you hear yourself making this argument, the first question I would ask you is how many large prints have you produced in the past 12 month. By large I mean more than 30 inches on the long edge. The reason I ask this is that many photographers admit the answer is none and most have never made a large print in their lives. They just want the opportunity to make one if they catch that great image.

But now we have technologies that make the sensor pixel count less important and which make it easy to print large when needed. The first of these is the pixel shift technology of some cameras like my Panasonic G9. When I set this, I can produce an 80Mpixel RAW file which is 7,776 x 10,368 pixels, and that’s without resizing the image.

Now consider resizing the image in software like Affinity Photo, Photoshop, or Topaz Gigapixel. Topaz Gigapixel is particularly effective for resizing landscape images to make large prints. I’ve tested it with 6Mpixel images from my old Canon 300D and it’s made excellent prints of more than 40” on their long edge.

More recently, Adobe launched a Super Resolution feature in Photoshop and later Lightroom. This can double the pixel dimensions of a RAW file, saving the result in the DNG format. When I tested the results, not only did it create a great enlargement, but the enlarged image appeared sharper and with more detail than the original. Adobe has also announced that it’s working on higher resolution versions of this feature.

Image Quality and Detail

Now let’s look at image quality and detail.

On the surface this seems easy to define because we can all recognise image quality problems. It’s the absence of these that marks an image out as being high quality and a lot of this comes down to the quality of the lens. Put a poor lens on a great camera and you get poor quality image.

Often you will notice problems like Chromatic Aberration or a colour fringe along high contrast edges. Other problems are the inability to render fine detail or fine details that appear soft. Perhaps the image is sharp, but the corners of the frame are soft. Or perhaps the lens is suffering from distortion.

For a long time, software has been able to deal with the problem of chromatic aberration. Simply click an option in your RAW converter and it’s gone. Now it’s also able to deal very effectively with lens problems and equipment manufacturers even use this reduce the price of their lenses/increase profit margins.

Take the example of the Fuji 16mm prime lens which has two versions, both of which are weather sealed. One has a maximum aperture of f/1.4 and the other f/2.8. The f/1.4 lens costs £839 whilst the f/2.8 costs only £339. But the reason for the substantial difference in cost isn’t the better maximum aperture but that the f/1.4 is optically corrected. With the f/2.8, that lens correction is performed in software, usually the RAW converter. Having owned both, I can tell you the difference is substantial and very clear when you turn of the correction in your RAW converter.

Companies like DxO have some excellent software solutions to these lens quality problems. Recently DxO launched the excellent DxO Pure RAW software which works as a pre-processor for your RAW files. Providing your camera and lens are supported by its profiles, the detail it extracts is amazing. Of course, if you have PhotoLab 4 Elite, you can achieve the same results as PureRAW.

In addition to correcting lens problems, both packages deal with image noise very effectively. Which leads us nicely on to ISO performance.

High ISO Performance

One possible benefit of the larger sensor in full frame cameras have a better ISO performance. The theory goes that the more space each pixel can take up on the sensor, the better the low light performance. And because full frame sensors have a larger surface area the pixels or photo sites that detect light, are larger. That is unless you pack them tightly to produce a high pixel count. With the full frame cameras, I’ve owned I could see the difference when compared to my crop sensor cameras.

But does this really matter much today. Most cameras, even small sensor cameras have acceptable levels of noise up to ISO1600 or even higher. This is usually sufficient to handhold the camera in low light when combined with image stabilisation. In any case, most landscape photographers tend to use their camera on a tripod, so ISO performance isn’t an issue.

Despite this, there are times when you might want to use your camera at a high ISO. When that time comes, you want to achieve a high-quality image and don’t want it full of noise. In those instances, software can now come to the rescue with noise reduction that works.

High ISO on an old camera following noise reduction

I shot this image in Death Valley in 2013 using a Panasonic Lumix GX1 micro 43 camera. This was a time early in the micro 43 development and this camera was extremely noisy when used above the base ISO. Because I didn’t have access to a tripod for this shot, I had to increase the ISO up to ISO800 and the image is full of noise. But after pre-processing the RAW file using ON1 NoNoise, the image was noise free and packed with detail. It’s also visibly sharper than the original RAW file.

Image section at full magnification showing detail and no noise

Here you can see the original RAW file on the left and the processed image on the right. You can also achieve similar results using the DeepPRIME noise reduction in DxO Pure RAW and DxO PhotoLab 4 Elite. Another alternative is Topaz DeNoise which has become my default application for noise reduction when processing stock photography.

Having access to these noise reduction technologies can easily save my RAW files when shot at ISO3,200 on old cameras. On my newer Fuji cameras, whilst I haven’t yet pushed the limits, I know they do a great job at ISO12,800.

Greater Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is the exposure range between the darkest and lightest point in a scene that a camera can capture. This has always been greater on larger sensor cameras but again, not everything is as it seems. There isn’t a great deal of difference in practice between a good crop sensor and a full frame sensor despite what the stats suggest. If there was, why would full frame photographers still use filters on their lenses when shooting landscapes?

Assuming you don’t want to use filters, you can bracket your images and then blend them in software later. This is no different whether you are using full frame or a cropped sensor. You will need to do something to tame the excessive dynamic range you see in many landscape scenes.

Wide Angle Focal Lengths

The final point to consider was a valid one 15 years ago. Older lenses for digital cameras really weren’t that great unless you paid a lot of money. But today, even budget lenses perform well.

Despite this, that there is still a lot more lens distortion using an 8mm lens on a micro 43 camera as there is using the equivalent 16mm lens on a full frame camera. The more extreme the wide-angle, more difficult, and expensive for the manufacturers to optically correct this in the lens design.

That said, a good RAW converter like Capture One Pro or DxO PhotoLab (if they support your camera) will make even extreme wide-angle lenses appear natural. Personally, I’ve found the lens modules in DxO PhotoLab produce superb results. Unfortunately, they don’t support my Fuji XTrans RAW files, so I’m limited to using it for my Micro 43 work.

Summary of Do I Need a Full Frame Camera

We’ve covered a lot in this article, but I can sum it up in a simple sentence. There is now little if anything that can’t be achieved using a crop sensor camera and these cameras can compete with the best full frame cameras.

Having owned both I don’t believe there is now as much difference as some might lead you to believe. That is if you ignore the extra size, weight, and cost of full frame cameras. Those differences do exist. Yes, you may be able to see a difference on a 27” 5K retina screen with both images side by side at 100% magnification, but the only person able to see that is you. Images used on the internet are downsized considerably and compressed. The only time an image is used at full resolution is when printing, and guess what, any difference in perceived resolution/sharpness vanishes.

If you have a genuine need for full frame (and there are some reasons), or that’s your dream, then certainly buy one. But if you are just wondering if it will somehow transform your photography, think again. You may find you would be better investing a portion of your upgrade budget in some of the alternatives mentioned in this article. At least you can test out the trial version of the software for free.

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