What’s So Magical About Full Frame – Or Is It all Just ANOTHER INTERNET MYTH?

FIRST THINGS FIRST:
The only way to change the perspective of a shot is to change the position of the camera relative to the subject or scene.  Just put a 1.5x wider lens on a s35camera and you have exactly the same angle of view as a Full Frame camera. It is an internet myth that Full Frame changes the perspective or the appearance of the image in a way that cannot be exactly replicated with other sensor or frame sizes. The only thing that changes perspective is how far you are from the subject. It’s one of those laws of physics and optics that can’t be broken. The only way to see more or less around an object is by changing your physical position.

The only thing changing the focal length or sensor size changes is magnification and you can change the magnification either by changing sensor size or focal length and the effect is exactly the same either way. So in terms of perspective, angle of view or field of view an 18mm s35 setup will produce an identical image to a 27mm FF setup. The only difference may be in DoF depending on the aperture where  f4 on FF will provide the same DoF as f2.8 on s35. If both lenses are f4 then the FF image will have a shallower DoF.

Again though physics play a part here as if you want to get that shallower DoF from a FF camera then the lens FF lens will normally need to have the same aperture as the s35 lens. To do that the elements in the FF lens need to be bigger to gather twice as much light so that it can put the same amount of light as the s35 lens across the twice as large surface area of the FF sensor.  So generally you will pay more for a comparable FF like for like aperture lens as a s35 lens. Or you simply won’t be able to get an equivalent in FF because the optical design becomes too complex, too big, too heavy or too costly.
This in particular is a big issue for parfocal zooms. At FF and larger imager sizes they can be fast or have a big zoom range, but to do both is very, very hard and typically requires some very exotic glass. You won’t see anything like the affordable super 35mm Fujinon MK’s in full frame, certainly not at anywhere near the same price. This is why for decades 2/3″ sensors and 16mm film before that, ruled the roost for TV news as lenses with big zoom ranges and large fast apertures were relatively affordable.
Perhaps one of the commonest complaints I see today with larger sensors is “why can’t I find an affordable fast, parfocal zoom with more than a 4x zoom range”. Such lenses do exist, for s35 you have lenses like the $22K Canon CN7 17-120mm  T2.9, which is pretty big and pretty heavy. For Full Frame the nearest equivalent is the more expensive $40K Fujinon Premista 28-100 t2.9. which is a really big lens weighing in at almost 4kg. But look at the numbers: Both will give a very similar AoV on their respective sensors at the wide end but the much cheaper Canon has a greatly extended zoom range and will get a tighter shot than the Premista at the long end. Yes, the DoF will be shallower with the Premista, but you are paying almost double, it is a significantly heavier lens and it has a much reduced zoom ratio. So you may need both the $40K Premista 28-100 and the $40K Premista 80-250 to cover everything the Canon does (and a bit more). So as you can see, getting that extra shallow DoF may be very costly. And it’s not so much about the sensor, but more about the lens.
The History of large formats:
It is worth considering that back in the 50’s and 60’s we had VistaVision, a horizontal 35mm format the equivalent of 35mm FF, plus 65mm and a number of other larger than s35 formats. All in an effort to get better image quality.
VistaVision (The closet equivalent to 35mm Full Frame).
VistaVision didn’t last long, about 7 or 8 years because better quality film stocks meant that similar image quality could be obtained from regular s35mm film and shooting VistaVision was difficult due to the very shallow DoF and focus challenges, plus it was twice the cost of regular 35mm film. It did make a brief comeback in the 70’s for shooting special effects sequences where very high resolutions were needed. VistaVision was superseded by Cinemascope which uses 2x Anamorphic lenses and conventional vertical super 35mm film and Cinemascope was subsequently largely replaced by 35mm Panavision (the two being virtually the same thing and often used interchangeably).
65mm formats.
 At around the same time there were various 65mm (with 70mm projection) formats including Super Panavision, Ultra Panavision and Todd-AO These too struggled and very few films were made using 65mm film after the end of the 60’s. There was a brief resurgence in the 80’s and again recently there have been a few films, but production difficulties and cost has meant they tend to be niche productions.
Historically there have been many attempts to establish mainstream  larger than s35 formats. But by and large audiences couldn’t tell the difference and even if they did they wouldn’t pay extra for them. Obviously today the cost implication is tiny compared to the extra cost of 65mm film or VistaVision. But the bottom line remains that normally the audience won’t actually be able to see any difference, because in reality there isn’t one, other than perhaps a marginal resolution increase. But it is harder to shoot FF than s35. Comparable lenses are more expensive, lens choices more limited, focus is more challenging at longer focal lengths or large apertures. If you get carried away with too large an aperture you get miniaturisation and cardboarding effects if you are not careful (these can occur with s35 too).
Can The Audience Tell – Does The Audience Care?
Cinema audiences have not been complaining that the DoF isn’t shallow enough, or that the resolution isn’t high enough (Arri’s success has proved that resolution is a minor image quality factor). But they are noticing focus issues, especially in 4K theaters.
 So while FF and the other larger format are here to stay. Full Frame is not the be-all and end-all. Many, many people believe that FF has some kind of magic that makes the images different to smaller formats because they “read it on the internet so it must be true”.  I think sometimes some things read on the internet create a placebo effect where when you read it enough times you will actually become convinced that the images are different, even when in fact they are not. Once they realise that actually it isn’t different, I’m quite sure many will return to s35 because that does seem to be the sweet spot where DoF and focus is manageable and IQ is plenty good enough. Only time will tell, but history suggest s35 isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Today’s modern cameras give us the choice to shoot either FF or s35. Either can result in an identical image, it’s only a matter of aperture and focal length. So pick the one that you feel most comfortable with for you production. FF is nice, but it isn’t magic.

Really it’s all about the lens.

The really important thing is your lens choice. I believe that what most people put down as “the full frame effect” is nothing to do with the sensor size but the qualities of the lenses they are using. Full frame stills cameras have been around for a long time and as a result there is a huge range of very high quality glass to choose from (as well as cheaper budget lenses). In the photography world APS-C which is similar to super 35mm movie film has always been considered a lower cost or budget option and many of the lenses designed for APS-C have been built down to a price rather than up in quality. This makes a difference to the way the images may look. So often Full Frame lenses may offer better quality or a more pleasing look, just because the glass is better.

I recently shot a project using Sony’s Venice camera over 2 different shoots. For the shoot we used Full Frame and the Sigma Cine Primes. The images we got looked amazing. But then the second shoot where we needed at times to use higher frame rates we shot using super 35 with a mix of the Fujinon MK zooms and Sony G-Master lenses. Again the images looked amazing and the client and the end audience really can’t tell the footage from the first shoot with the footage from the second shoot.

Downsampling from 6K.

One very real benefit shooting 6K full frame does bring, with both the FX9 and Sony Venice (or any other 6K FF camera) is that when you shoot at 6K and downsample to 4K you will have a higher resolution image with better colour and in most cases lower noise than if you started at 4K. This is because the bayer sensors that all the current large sensor camera use don’t resolve 4K when shooting at 4K. To get 4K you need to start with 6K.

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14 thoughts on “What’s So Magical About Full Frame – Or Is It all Just ANOTHER INTERNET MYTH?”

  1. Good article Alister. I loved “Zulu” which was shot on Vistavision – horizontal 35mm – and was good enough to be printed up to IMAX. It is also a masterclass in exterior lighting using reflectors.

  2. One advantage of using a full-frame sensor is having a wider background than S35.
    For example, if a person is framed in a medium shot, with say a 50mm lens on a S35 camera, and the frame size is matched with a 50mm on the full-frame camera, the background of the full-frame camera will be much wider than the S35 camera; foreground same frame size, backgrounds wider.

    1. No, that is not a FF advantage because simply by putting a 35mm lens on the s35 camera you would have exactly the same shot with the same wider background. The shots would be identical. There is nothing that can’t be exactly matched in terms of AoV/FoV and perspective between both s35 and FF.

      1. What you are describing is simply what happens when you have a wider FoV and then move the camera closer to match the shot. The foreground objects become larger because they are closer to the camera relative to the still distant background. A wider FoV can be achieved with a wider lens, whether 2/3″, s35 or FF. It’s moving the camera that changes the perspective.

        1. This is the key point that people should understand. FF allows you to position the camera closer to the subject than with an S35 camera when using a lens with the same focal length and maintain the same angle of view. Because the camera is closer to the subject, the background appears more blurred than when you use the same focal length lens on an S35 camera and move the camera farther away to achieve the same angle of view.

          Alister, you alluded to this point in your post. A FF and S35 camera will have the same bokeh when using the same lens focal length and aperture and when placed at the same distance to the subject. The angle of view will be different, but if you crop the FF image to match the size of the S35 image, they will appear identical—including the quality of bokeh.

          Think of it from a physics perspective. The light is being focused in the exact same way to each camera’s sensor in my scene above—identical camera-to-subject distance. The only difference is that the FF camera is capturing the light that would fall outside of the smaller S35 sensor’s edges. The amount of blur is the same.

          The way that the FF “magic” bokeh happens is when you move the camera closer to the subject. But you could achieve the same bokeh by moving the S35 camera to the same distance to subject. The only difference then will be the angle of view is smaller or cropped.

          1. Move the camera closer with either FF or s35 and the effect on the perspective and bokeh is identical for both, there is no magic FF bokeh. Match the AoV by using the appropriate lens and the images are going to be identical. The ONLY difference, the one, single difference, is that because you can use a longer focal length to achieve the same AoV that the DoF will be shallower assuming the aperture is the same on both lenses. But this is easily compensated for by using a faster lens on the s35 sensor and then you have absolutely identical images from both cameras. The only Bokeh difference will actually be down to the design and characteristics of the individual lens.
            I didn’t just allude to this in my post, I explained this very carefully.

            The bottom line is that there is absolutely no way the audience watching a production can tell whether something was shot on FF or s35 just by looking at the images, because both can look exactly the same and exhibit all the very same image characteristics.

        1. Why? Bokeh is simply a function of the quality of the lens, the design of the aperture blades and other factors. Different lenses will have different Bokeh, but that is not a function of the sensor size, just the construction of the individual lens.

          DoF may be different, but if the lens on the s35 sensor has an aperture 1 stop (more or less) wider than the FF lens then the DoF will be the same and if we assume the same design of lens then the bokeh will also be the same.

          I think you’ve convinced yourself that FF is magic and has a different loom to s35. It isn’t and it doesn’t.

          Of course different lenses may have different characteristics specific to the individual lens, so picking a lens that gives you the look you want is important no matter what the sensor size. But there is no reason why bokeh will be any different for FF or s35 assuming the s35 lenses aperture is one top more open. This is easy enough to test and prove with a zoom lens.

  3. Alister, you are the rocket scientist of video production! Thank you so very much for sharing and keeping our grey matter from turning to mush.

    I absolutely love shooting with the Sony FS5mk2 s35 camera. But, there is still a time when I need to switch to my FF camera. It is when I don’t have the room to move back with my camera. Sure there is always a wider lens, but not all lenses are flattering to talent. Sometimes in small tight places you just need that longer focal length lens.

    1. Or you simply need a better quality wide lens. You can get equally rectilinear results for any given AoV no matter the sensor size. It’s simply down to the quality of lens you choose to use.

  4. I completely agree that the FF camera offers no additional magic over the s35 camera. And, I was thrilled that I could use everyone of my FF lenses that I already owned. It is just a fact that there are fewer s35 wide lens choices verses FF choices at present for that can give you good options between 10mm-16mm focal length. Oh well, I guess another reason to buy another lens is all I need to solve my problem. In the meantime, I use my FS5mk2 for 95% of my shots and save the A7sii for the wide shots so that I have more wide lens choices.

    1. But don’t forget that with E-Mount you can always add a speedbooster to almost any non Sony full frame DSLR lens to get exactly the same shot, same DoF, same lens characteristics but with a s35 sensor.

      The great thing is now we have more choices and supersampling of 6K to 4K. But it’s really important that people understand that there’s no magic.

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