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Thursday, March 27, 2014

DX to FX: A Personal Journey by Jon Hillenbrand

Recently I was asked by Matt Ballard from Art of the Image to write an article for his blog about my switch from a smaller sensor size to full frame (36mm x 24mm) sensor size.  I feel this subject has been talked about quite a bit a few years ago and has resurfaced due mainly to the improved noise reduction of current smaller-sensor cameras.  So instead of boring you all with pixel pitch, heat dissipation, megapixel counts and crop factors, I will speak mostly of my own personal journey and say that my transition to a full frame sensor was and continues to be one of the most important things to happen to me as a photographer.  Because all discussions such as these require a frame of reference, first a little about me.

I am a professional photographer and documentary filmmaker with over 17 years of experience.  I am currently employed as the head of photography for a major healthcare company.  In my journey as a photographer and filmmaker, I have been exposed to lots of equipment;  some good, some bad, all a compromise between what I need and how much I have to spend.

A few years back, I was able to convince the purse string-holders that image quality could help the bottom line and I was blessed with two members of the Holy Trinity (a.k.a. The Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 and the 24-70mm f/2.8).  I accomplished this by purchasing the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII lens for personal use and started consistently blowing people away with the dramatic increase in image quality.  At the time, I was shooting with the Nikon D2Xs, a camera with a sensor size of 23.7mm x 15.7mm, or what Nikon refers to as their DX sensor size.

Life was good with my new f/2.8 maximum apertures.  My arms were getting stronger from their massive weight.  I was impressing many with my bulbous 14mm front element.  However, a few situations kept cropping up that were still giving me a hard time.  Low light.  Small rooms.  Lack of enough muscles and bags to carry separate video cameras.  Lack of any image quality from those flip "HD" video cameras.  So I went back to the purse string holders and made my case for the Nikon D3S.  Denied!

A short while later, I was at a press event where another photographer was shooting with one.  She was one of the only people not using a speedlight in the shuttered room to photograph the speakers on stage.

Later when she was downloading to a laptop, I approached her and asked about her setup.  She said, "It changes the way you take photos forever."  She handed me her D3S with a harshly dented 70-200mm f/2.8  attached and I clicked off a few frames.  Beautiful.  Smooth.  Noiseless.

Her words stuck in my brain for months like a sliver.  Every time I shot in a darkened auditorium at my D2Xs's maximum-usable ISO 400, I cursed the DX sensor and the limitations of speedlights.  Every time I photographed a group shot in a small room, I cursed the cropped 1.5 sensor size.  And in the beautiful moments when things still came together in an artful blending of natural and artificial light, I imagined the small photos moving and wished I had video.  Eventually I was blessed for my constant pressure and begging and received the D3S in the mail the Monday after a huge dark weekend shoot.

The Nikon D3S was, and still is, an amazing capture platform.  It's shapely curved body is extremely rugged and weatherproof and a pleasure to hold.  It's got great features like 720p video capture that you can adjust while shooting, 9-11 fps still capture, auto-ISO, built-in time lapse computer, advanced D Lighting, a huge buffer, just to name a few that I use every day.  And behind it all, there is that marvelous and gorgeous full frame sensor.  Noiseless up to ISO 3200.  Perfectly printable to ISO 6400.

My transition to a full frame sensor was and continues to be one of the most important things to happen to me as a photographer.  It completely transformed the way I looked at the world and how to capture it.  Everything changed.

Before, with the DX sensor, I was still looking at lighting situations the way I did when shooting SD video.  Dark-ish areas needed to be lit.  Bright-ish areas needed to be avoided.  The real world was too contrasty.  But with a full frame sensor in my hands, my eyes reclaimed the subtlety of light.  All of the reviews went out the window and I just gawked at the beauty of it all.  I no longer needed to fit the world into my camera.  My camera now acted as a fellow viewer of what I was seeing around me.  I now use far fewer lights than I did before, depending on them mostly to fix bad artificial lighting or to fill in harsh shadows when outside on sunny days.

So where do I stand on this debate between 35mm sensor size and smaller sensor size?

Well, since I shoot photos and video, I am always looking at what is available not just from Nikon or Canon, but from RED, ARRI, Blackmagic, Sony, Panasonic, Canon Cinema and others.  The worlds of photo and video aren't converging, they've converged.  All for the better.

Most dedicated video cameras have smaller sensor sizes because of the simple fact that image processors have to contend with a lot of data when processing HD or Ultra HD (4K, etc.).  Also, all sensors generate a lot of heat especially when operating at frame rates faster than 24fps and a dedicated video camera is better designed to dissipate that heat.  The RED Epic can shoot 120 fps with its 35mm sensor because it is designed to take those things into account at the expense of affordability, ergonomics and convenience.

Many of these video cameras are doing great things with their smaller sensors and the image quality, at 1920 x 1080 is just as good as anything you can shoot with a D800 or 5DMk3.  So what it comes down to is, what do you need?

If you don't need 240 fps, don't pay for it.

If you don't need the ergonomics or heavier weight of a full size camera body like a D4S or D3S, get something smaller and lighter.

If you can't afford a full size sensor HDSLR, then get something cheaper.

But if you are wondering if a full frame sensor is better than a cropped sensor, then don't kid yourself. The difference is difficult to overstate.  A full frame sensor will change the way you look at photography.  The only thing I can't answer for you is whether or not it's worth it.

I still remember my surprise a few years ago when I first started using it.  A full frame sensor is not like getting an extra stop or two on a faster lens.  It's impossible to define by numbers and graphs alone.  It's music for our primary sense.  Today, I captured one of my most beautiful portraits I've ever taken.  I sat for a long time looking at the quality of the image and thinking about my journey to this point.

The struggle to get the right equipment into your hands is one of the most important struggles we as professionals undertake.  Are we great?  Are we professional?  Are we worth a look?  Through all of our talk, in the end, the image speaks for itself.

By: Jon Hillenbrand

1 comment:

Chris Hayes said...

Awesome article, Jon. As a budding professional, I know FX is in my near future. I hope to see more articles from you here.