There you are, sitting around with a stack of APS-C cameras and a bigger stack of micro four-thirds cameras with glorious, jewel-like lenses, and in the back of your mind, no matter how logical you are and no matter how many times you've proven to yourself that your selection of cameras does exactly what you want it to do, you start to think you just might really need a full frame camera. You know, mostly for those times when you'd really like that depth of field to be......tiny. For those portraits like the one above that was done with some sort of esoteric, ultra fast 85mm lens on some splendid, old 35mm film camera. Maybe you were digging through boxes of prints and some random image just grabbed you by the short hairs and made you uber nostalgic for a look you thought you'd have gotten over by now.
We'll leave out whatever personal or psychological reasons might be driving you to even consider getting back into that full frame....situation and we'll consider the whole exercise to be entirely hypothetical, Okay? This isn't (necessarily) an admission that as soon as I finish typing that one of us might be jumping up, grabbing the credit card and the car keys and heading out to acquire one of the cameras under discussion. Rather it's intended as a high minded discussion of the various attributes of three different cameras that might appeal to someone who might be considering adding a bit to the kit.
Just above I mentioned that I was thinking of three different cameras. That's because, to my knowledge, there are just three that can be purchased brand new for under $2,000 each. The candidates I want to discuss are: The Sony A7, The Nikon D610 and the Canon 6D. All three feature full frame, 35mm area, sensors but all three of them are different enough so that a person with no allegiance and no ties to any particular brand might have a hard time choosing.
When I look at them this is what I see:
The Sony A7 is the odd man out. This is because the camera is designed as a compact, mirror less design and uses contrast detection auto focus. The pros of the camera are (because of its shallower dimension between lens flange and sensor plane) its ability to use just about any full frame lens from any system and from just about any decade. At one point I fantasied about buying the camera along with a Nikon 20mm, a 55 Micro Nikkor lens and the much adored (but probably over romanticized) 105mm 2.5 ais lens and having a wild system that spanned the ages. And probably at the lowest cost of the three system choices.
The sensor in the A7 most probably shares its DNA with the sensor in the Nikon D610 and both of those sensors are highly rated. The 24 megapixel sensors have AA filters in front of them so I suspect that the performance of both is much like the overall performance of the Sony a99 camera with each company changing the secret sauce of file processing to hit the tastes of their respective markets. I'm sure each sensor resolves plenty of detail and does so even at high ISOs. But I think the reason most cognoscenti are looking at full frame isn't necessarily for performance as much as it is the look of the lenses at particular angles of view. The selling point of any larger sensor camera (at least to me) isthat the look of the lenses and the slope of their defocusing at any given angle of view looks different from smaller sensor implementations. If high resolution was the dominant metric we probably be just as well off considering Pentax or Nikon APS-C 24 megapixel cameras with no AA filters on the sensors (the K-3 and the D7100).
The Sony A7 is the smallest (by far) of the three choices, has the shortest battery life, and focuses much more slowly. In the ultimate plus column I would put the very nice EVF which adds so much to the operational success of cameras---especially those pressed into service with manual focus lenses.
The Nikon D610 is the logical choice of the three....on paper. It's got a sensor that seemingly outperforms the sensor in the Canon camera and matches the sensor in the Sony. The camera is also an interesting camera for some manual lens users since it can accept and make use of manual focus Nikon lenses from decades ago (as long as they are "ai" or auto indexing lenses.). I've handled the D610 extensively and can report that the camera is very comfortable to hold and exudes that workman like haptic that makes it both reliable and, to some of us, boring. The finder is nice, the updated shutter (compared to the D600) apparently has stopped spraying oil and dirt on the sensor and it seems to be a well made picture taker.
The Nikon and the Canon are very much traditional DSLR cameras in almost every sense. Yes, both of them have added the obligatory video apparatus but it feels as though it's been bolted onto both cameras grudgingly. Using the rear screen and live view complicates video work and makes both cameras, with attendant aftermarket finders and after market digital recorders bulkier, more expensive and less fun to shoot with.
So, if the Sony A7 is one type of camera and the two DSLRs both represent a different design and shooting philosophy are there any major differences (besides lens families) that would drive a photographer to choose one of these over the other? What does the Canon do that the Nikon doesn't?
Well, what is all seems to boil down to for me is the difference in the way the two cameras feel. The Canon has a sensor that is reputed to be a generation behind the Sony sensor in the both the other cameras. The dings against it seem to boil down to about a one stop difference in ultra high ISO noise performance and a stop and a half less dynamic range. I'm sure these two things make a difference to some users but, again, my interest in using any full frame cameras is not the ultimate performance of the sensors but the uniform imaging differences caused by the overall geometry of the class of sensors.
The Canon and the Nikon handle differently. The Nikon is rounder and has a much more grippable hand grip on the right hand side. The Canon is boxier and feels more squared off in the hand. Both have really nice finders (for optical finders) and both have good shutter itchinakagamichu (or sound that pleases the ears while in the process of creating art. I think it's a common Japanese term for shutters whose sounds don't jangle the nerves in a bad way). Of the two cameras the shutter itchinakagamichu of the Canon in the default mode is a bit ahead of the Nikon, and surprisingly both of the traditional DSLRs have much better itchinakagamichu than the mirror less Sony A7. When switched to "silent" modes the Canon and Nikon both do even better with the Canon pulling away into a more rarified sort of itchinakagamichu I describe as anechoic chamber-y mercedes door thump.
So the Canon and Nikon feel different from each other. The Canon has, for want of a better description, a stand alone feel. It's as though the camera was designed to be used with one lens and in a very personal way while the Nikon feels to me like it's meant to leverage a system. The Nikon is obvious a serious production tool as indicated by the two card slots while the Canon seems like a self contained photo contemplation machine. I know that sounds a bit weird but the cameras seem to signal their strengths to a user who is open to soaking in all the design touches.
How is the actual performance of all three? Having shot some with each camera I would have to say that if one were to put the same lens on each body, say a 100mm, and take images of the same things with the camera locked down on a tripod I think the differences between raw files would be minimal or non-existent until we started hitting the nose bleed areas of ISO. Then the Sony sensors might show off their design advantages. In a similar way if the test scene were out doors in brilliant sunlight and included subjects in deep shadows one might have a bit less difficulty pulling more detail from the shadows than one would with the Canon files. But in all three of these cameras I'm confident that the limitations will be the user's technical chops and the vagaries of doing post production on sRGB monitors.
To my mind all three of the cameras are very good image makers but how does a potential (or hypothetical) buyer narrow down the choices and end up with the right tool? Here's my process:
I would be buying the camera to supplement the current cameras I own by adding higher resolution and the "look" of the full frame sensor. I would not make ISO performance or dynamic range part of my overall calculations.
Next I would understand that although I see myself as a careful worker I know that I would use the camera mostly to take portraits in the studio and out on location and I'd want to side step the issues I've had in the past when using manual focus lenses with AF designed bodies. I don't have time to DSLR live view. I would want to use the camera with AF lenses. I tried valiantly to use the 85mm 1.4 Zeiss lens for months on a Canon 5D mk2 only to be ultimately defeated by the design of the lens. It shifts focus as you stop down. You may focus wide open and nail something but the lens is shifting it's point of sharp focus as you stop down to, say, f4. It's just enough with close in portraits to make ears wonderfully sharp while eyes go blurry. And it's not that obvious on your little screens unless you stop repeatedly to zoom in and examine your images as you shoot. The only remedy was to use live view and focus at your taking aperture. Shades of the 1950's.
So, if I bought one of these cameras it would be to use an AF lens as a fast and accurate portrait system.
As a working stiff there's a lot to like about some of the things camera makers have gotten right for a long time. For instance, I would pretty much disqualify the Sony camera for its slow focus and its use of very small batteries, as well as its heavy usage of the diminutive batteries. I lived through the 100 exposure, half pound, batteries for the old Kodak Professional series cameras and I don't want to live through the hourly battery change cycle again. Yes, the batteries are smaller but who wants to stop and reload batteries throughout the day? And once you toss the used batteries in your pockets who wants to have the extra brainpower draining subroutine of remembering which pocket has the charged ones and which the dead ones?
The one thing that keeps the Sony in contention for some people is the low used prices. If you go to Amazon right now you'll see half a dozen "like new" or "very good" used cameras that are hovering around the $1250 price point. It's a temptation to get into full frame at that price point but I did my research and really, you'll lose the price advantage the minute you either buy the dedicated Sony lenses (which don't currently give me much choice in the 90-105mm range for fast glass) or you'll lose all handling advantages and pay a price to buy an adapter and a legacy lens to put it on. Add it all up, toss in the slow focusing, mix in the obnoxious shutter noise and we're really down to just the other two candidates.
At that point, to me, it becomes a toss up. I know that Nikon will allow me to use a lot of older lenses but in many cases I'll have to give up automation and go back to the drama and trauma of focus shifting with fast long lenses used manually. I know the sensor is probably better as well and I know that I'd be able to achieve a more reliable one handed hold on the D610 because of the great grip ergonomics. So pretty much my mind should be made up, right?
Logically, yes. Emotionally and aesthetically? Not so fast. I like the overall feel of the Canon and I like the enhanced simplicity of the Canon 6D as well. It seems so focused on picture taking. Some of my prejudice is nostalgia for a cheap but reliable 100mm f2 lens that I used to use to good advantage on the old 5Dmk2.
Essentially it boils down to a choice between the two majors. In a totally hypothetical exercise.....
I'm curious to know if I'm, A: missing any other candidate? B: missing some "must have" feature set?
C: How you would make your choice between the three cameras? And D, If you ever have the same (ir)rational desires to add full frame cameras to your already delicately balanced inventory?
Funny that after handling the Panasonic GH4 as a video camera none of the three candidates holds any interest for me as a video tool. Ah, what a fragmented hypothetical reality.
Just a curious morning.