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Living with Photography: Full-Frame Image Quality

By Norman Chan

I brought two cameras on my vacation last week, but ended up only using one. Here's why.

It's been two weeks since I went full-frame and bought a Canon 6D DSLR. My experience with the camera has been interesting, to say the least. Most of the in-house photos you've seen on the site since then have been taken with the 6D, and we even experimented with its video capabilities in shooting reviews and Show and Tell videos. The latest podcast with Adam was also shot with the 6D. Video, especially when paired with my 50mm f/1.5 Sigma lens, looks incredible. We're still tinkering with that, so expect many more thoughts on it in the future. Today, I want to talk about the transition from APS-C mirrorless to a full-frame camera, and where having a high-end DSLR leaves my beloved NEX-C3.

For my vacation last week, I packed both the NEX-C3 and the 6D in my shoulder bag--I didn't have a proper camera bag yet, as I never needed one for the NEX. And in my expeditions through affable Portland and chilly Seattle, I actually only took one camera out of that bag.

It was the Canon 6D. But it wasn't because of image quality. In fact, something that has surprised me is how comparable photos from the APS-C camera are to that of the full-frame one. When first testing the NEX-C3 back in 2011, I was astounded by the image quality, because my points of comparison were smartphones and point-and-shoots. But the 6D's photos, while very pleasing, definitely don't have the wow factor in detail that I felt back then. And in situations where lighting is good and I have full control over timing and camera stability, the APS-C photos actually almost look preferable to the 6D's. For example, click the two photos below, which are cropped in to 1920x1200:

Both were shot at f/4 and with an equivalent 40mm focal length, with slight differences in ISO and exposure compensation. See if you can guess which one was taken with the the NEX and which with the 6D.

If you think the second photo looks slightly better (which I actually do), then you may be surprised to hear that it was shot with one take of the NEX, just using auto-focus. The first photo, taken with the 6D, doesn't looks quite as sharp in the beard area, and the painted skin tones aren't as flush. I also had to take about a dozen photos to get this singular one, which was the best of the bunch. Of course, when resized, cropped, and compressed for web, the differences are negligible. But it's a testament to the quality of modern APS-C sensors in mirrorless cameras.

So if image quality is basically the same, why did I choose the bulkier, less-portable camera to take to museums and marketplaces?

The reason I favored the 6D over my NEX for this trip was because of the lens. Comparable sensor quality aside, the 50mm 1.4 lens that arrived just in time for my trip lets me take photos I would never have been able to before. Photos in very low light like the ones at the Experience Music Project horror film exhibit (my photos here), and ones in daylight at high shutter speeds to capture moments like this:

Moving objects were never my strength with the NEX, partly due to its kit lens (widest aperture of 3.5) and my love for low ISO images--which lowers shutter speed. And I made a conscious decision not to invest in high-end e-mount lenses because I knew a DSLR purchase was imminent.

But it's not as if my NEX is going to permanently stay in my shoulder bag. There are situations in which it makes much more sense to have a relatively compact camera than a full DSLR slung around my neck. For example, I took a product meeting on Monday and chose to leave the 6D at home because I knew I would have to focus on taking notes, not photos. The NEX, as it has for the past year, was perfectly capable in grabbing product photos on-location, and I was even able to find a quick moment to shoot the gorgeous view from the meeting room, which encompassed several iconic San Francisco landmarks:

I don't regret not having the 6D and a wide-angle lens to capture that view--the quality of this photo is more than good enough for my purposes, and still better than that of a smartphone. If I had my 6D in hand, I would've been fumbling around with settings and shooting angles, which time would not have permitted. Increasingly, I'm treating the NEX like a point-and-shoot, which is why some photographers carry both a full-frame DSLR and a compact camera like the RX100 (or RX1 if they can afford it). That's why I'll be looking into an E-mount pancake lens--maybe the new 20mm f/2.8--to make my camera that much more portable. And that's why the Metabones adapter is that much more appealing now, despite its $500 price. I have full confidence in the NEX sensor--it just needs a confidence boost with better lenses.

Finally, my favorite photo taken in the past week, shot on the 6D using its built-in HDR setting:

More on my experiences next week, but in the mean time, join our new Tested community Flickr group and share your own photos!