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How To Achieve The ‘Full Frame Look’ When Shooting On MFT & Other Crop Sensors

Ever since the Canon 5D MKII took the video world by storm, full frame video has been one of the most sought after looks in modern cinematography. Unfortunately though, there aren’t a whole lot of full frame DSLRs out there that also have great video functionality, and arguably the very best DSLRs/DSLMs today (for video) are all crop sensors. This dilemma leaves many of us torn between investing in full frame cameras that have inferior video functionality, or crop sensor cameras (such as MFT) that have better video performance, but don’t have the ‘full frame look’. Throughout this article I’ll go over just what the full frame look is, and how we can achieve it on just about any interchangeable lens camera.

As many of you already know, full frame is actually not a standard sensor size for motion pictures. Or at least it wasn’t until the 5D MKII was released… 35mm still photography cameras always had a bigger film size when compared to 35mm motion picture cameras, as you can see illustrated in this image:

FF_MOTION_600

Although the full frame format was not traditionally intended to be used for motion pictures, so many of us were thrilled to be able to capture video with a full frame sensor as it gave a very unique aesthetic to our work, and opened up new possibilities in terms of capturing images in low light. That said though, it’s worth pointing out that full frame is not the be all end all when it comes to capturing video. In fact APS-C sized sensors (found in cameras like the C300, 7D, etc.) are the closest digital equivalents to real 35mm motion picture film, so technically if you want to stay as true to 35mm cinematography as possible, you should be shooting on APS-C sensors (which have a crop factor of about 1.6 when compared to full frame). Then of course there are other formats that crop even further, such as Micro Four Thirds or Super 16.

For this article, I’m going to focus more heavily on MFT since I happen to be a big MFT shooter and many of the readers on this site are as well. Even so, all of the same principles and examples that I will outline throughout this article will apply just as well to cameras with even bigger crop factors, such as the Blackmagic Pocket Camera.

The Full Frame Look

So what actually is the full frame look? There are a lot of characteristics that make up this look, but probably the most obvious one is the extremely shallow depth of field that is achievable at wide apertures. If you are shooting on let’s say a 50mm lens at 1.4 on a Canon 5D, your depth of field will be so razor thin that you will have the ability to select your focus down to a hair. On a crop sensor camera, the same lens at 1.4 will still give you a relatively shallow DOF, but it won’t be as razor thin and selective. This will especially be noticeable if your subject is being shot close to a wall or background element, as you will be able to see where the focal plane starts to fall off. The full frame look isn’t just about depth of field though…

Another big giveaway that a project was shot on a full frame camera is the abundance of beautiful wide angle shots. Since full frame cameras have such large sensors, a wide lens (18mm for instance) will give an extremely wide field of view, especially when compared to a MFT camera which would give roughly a 36mm equivalent on the same lens. Since many of the same popular lenses are often used on both full frame and crop sensor cameras, there is something about that ultra wide angle look (not fisheye, just wide), that is found far more often in full frame images, which makes it another huge trait of the format.

Full frame cameras are also exceptional in low light since their large sensors have the ability to capture even the faintest ambient light. This leads a lot of full frame DPs to shoot in conditions that are not possible with other formats, such as shooting under available streetlight at high ISOs. So while this isn’t a specific ‘look’, the idea of shooting with only natural light (even in extremely dark environments) is one that is most commonly associated with full frame cameras – at least when it’s done well and the images aren’t overly noisy.

Getting The Full Frame Look On A Crop Sensor

The full frame look is one that it very distinctive, but also one that can certainly be emulated in a number of ways with crop sensor cameras. There are now lens adapters (like the Metabones SpeedBooster) that will actually take full frame lenses and make them faster and wider when adapting them to smaller sensors.

speed_booster_photo-48583

The purpose of this article though isn’t to talk about the SpeedBooster, as many crop sensor shooters don’t have full frame glass, and may not want to go out and buy more expensive lenses and a $500 adapter to try to emulate that look. After all, one of the biggest benefits of shooting with crop sensors (especially MFT and smaller) is the inexpensive and high quality lens selection that is available. So rather than look at the SpeedBooster, which is more suitable for a specific scenario (such as a Nikon DSLR shooter with lots of lenses switching over to the MFT format), let’s look at some techniques for achieving the full frame look without the use of a SpeedBooster.

First off, it’s important to remember those three characteristics of full frame that I went over above: Depth of field, wide angle, and low light. All of these three elements are completely achievable within the constraints of a crop sensor format, it just comes down to choosing the right lenses and using them the right way.

The most important aspect of your lenses (if you’re after the full frame look) is that they must be very fast. While you might rarely shoot at F1.4 on a full frame lens, you will likely want to shoot at 1.4 a lot on your crop sensor camera in order to emulate that extreme shallow DOF associated with full frame. Personally speaking, I make it a habit to only buy lenses that are F2 or below, except in special circumstances. The lower the F-stop the better, meaning lenses like the Rokinon 85mm F1.4 are excellent MFT options when going after that larger sensor look.

Many of us already have fast portrait or telephoto lenses that cover our day to day close up shots, but what about that wide angle look that we touched on? Well, if you don’t already have a very wide and fast lens, then one of the first things you need is something like the SLR Magic 12mm T1.6 or the recently released Rokinon 12mm f/2.

1216gearrokinon-12mm-f20-mft-500x500

These lenses will give you the ability to capture those gorgeous wide panoramic shots, and shoot in really tight spaces just like you could with a full frame camera. No matter which wide lenses you choose to buy, make sure you are not just buying them based on their focal length, but also on their speed as at some point you will want to shoot with them at night, and you definitely don’t want to have to fight against an F4 lens under streetlight.

So now we know that we can get a more full frame look simply by choosing the right lenses – those that are fast and those that are wide (and fast). But it is also important that we use these lenses in the right way. For instance, there’s no sense in having a fast 42.5mm F0.95 Voigtlander if you shoot at F8 all the time. The whole point of these lenses is that you can let in a lot of light and limit your depth of field, so make sure that you are pushing them as far as you can. There are some limits to this… For example on the Voigtlander I just mentioned, I normally would stop it down to a 1.2 or 1.4 since I find 0.95 a bit soft, but even still it will give a very nicely shallow DOF.

Also remember to let in as much light as you can so you don’t have to bump up your ISO too high. Under reasonably lit circumstances there is no reason why you should ever need to shoot above 1600 ISO (especially for narrative, documentaries are a different story), so make sure that you aren’t straining your camera too much. A full frame camera will always look cleaner at high ISO’s, and one of the biggest giveaways of a crop sensor is shadow noise when the ISO is pushed too far, so make sure you keep your ISO down and your lenses open.

The final point that I’ll make is that you should aim to use either wide or long-ish lenses, not normal focal length lenses. The reason being that the full frame look is most often associated with extreme wide angle shots, or shallow DOF close ups, with beautiful bokeh in the background… And to emulate this look on a crop sensor camera, you want to avoid certain focal lengths. For instance a 10mm or 12mm is perfect for your wide angle (on a MFT camera) since that will give you approximately what a 20mm or 24mm would give you on a full frame camera. But for your tighter shots, I would recommend using lenses that are 50mm and above as they will give you such a gorgeous and shallow DOF that will be very reminiscent of full frame. You might be wondering about lenses like 24mm or 35mm (both of which are two of my favorite focal lengths, especially the 24mm), but for the ‘full frame look’, these lenses won’t always work as well as their wider or longer counterparts. They tend to give you those medium or medium closeup shots that can look fantastic but aren’t necessarily in line with the full frame look per se.

Here are a couple of still photos that I recently shot with my GH4 while aiming for more of a full frame look. The first was shot using a Nikkor 50mm 1.4 prime and the second with a Tokina 11-16 F2.8:

NoamKroll-Photographt

Noam-Kroll-Photo

Is The Full Frame Look Actually Better?

That’s up for debate. Many DSLR oriented DPs swear by it, but then again most of the highest end working DPs in Hollywood have probably rarely, if ever shot on full frame since cameras like the RED Epic and Arri Alexa (not to mention every 35mm film camera ever made), are ‘crop sensors’. That said, there is a time and a place for the full frame look. Like any artistic choice, this look needs to fit in with your story and be consistent with the tone and feel of the project that you are working on, and there are certainly many situations where full frame could be the best choice. However there are also many situations where it isn’t ideal, especially when shooting a more run and gun style project where it can be difficult to pull focus as your subjects move unpredictably, so make sure to choose wisely when considering this type of look.

I like to think of the full frame look as another tool in the tool kit. It’s nice to be able to emulate that look from time to time when necessary, but it isn’t always the right look for every project. If I had to pick one sensor format to use on every project, it would not be full frame. Mainly because it isn’t true to the cinematic form, but also because of the caveats that come along with shooting full frame. Cameras like the Lumix GH4 which I am currently shooting with a lot, are so far beyond any full frame camera in terms of their capabilities for video. I wouldn’t sacrifice the ability to shoot 4K internally, 96fps slow motion, focus peaking, or any of the other huge benefits of a camera like the GH4 for a full frame look, especially since I can emulate it easily by using the right lenses, the right way. But there are those times when the full frame look might just be the best thing for a specific scene or project, and in those circumstances there is a lot that can be done to achieve that aesthetic without actually using a full frame camera.

For those of you looking to take the next step and develop your craft even further, be sure to check out my Guide For Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR.

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

24 Comments

  • Georgiy Shevchenko
    May 31, 2017 at 12:50 am

    Hi!
    Great stuff – thank you for the material!

    Would you consider a G7 paired 20mm f1.7 to be a viable solution to achieve a relatively cinematic look in an urban environment not that space constrained, presuming proper adjustments\color grading and post production will be made and camera movement will be “the way it should be”.

    Like, is it possible to shoot video with this setup (a short, ~5 min) that would resemble a true movie look without looking amateur’ish wannabe?))

    Thank you!)

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 1, 2017 at 5:24 pm

      Absolutely! I shot one of my early short films on a Lumix GH2 with the 20mm Pancake (I think the whole thing was shot on that lens), and it looked great! I say, go for it.

      Reply
  • TALIB
    May 3, 2017 at 6:30 am

    Suppose if I am going for a cinematic look and want my video to look exactly the same as Arri produces in Hollywood films in terms of frame like 24 mm for example……so how can I emulate 24 mm (Hollywood) look on a crop sensor camera like Canon80D…….should I consider crop factor and choose 15mm lens? Will that give me a true 24 mm output. I am more concerned about the end product here i.e the actual frame of the video that I shot for my audience and whether they will see it as 24 mm frame.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 3, 2017 at 6:11 pm

      Hi Talib – actually, the Arri Alexa (and most cinema cameras) use a “cropped sensor”. Full frame refers to photography cameras, which have larger sensors than film cameras. But a camera like the 80D has an APS-C sized sensor, which is very similar to Super 35. This means that a 24mm lens on your 80D will have approximately the same field of view as a 24mm lens on an Alexa. Hope this makes sense!

      Reply
  • James
    March 30, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    I’m in this predicament right now going from APS-C sensor of the 80d to a Full Frame sensor with the Sony a7sii or going to the Gh5. I shoot wedding videos right now so obviously low light is important, however with Lowel Pro lights or LED’s to light up the dance floor, that definitely helps the low light. I don’t know which to choose!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      April 3, 2017 at 12:21 am

      Hey James – that is a tough call! Both cameras are great and can produce excellent results. The A7S II will definitely be better in low light, but if you have a lighting kit with you that is probably a non-issue as I’m sure the GH5 would be great too. I would make the decision between the cameras based on other factors… For instance the aesthetics of the images off of each camera, and which one produces the “look” that you like better… There are so many great cameras out there these days that it often just comes down to picking the one the feels right on an instinctual level based on your subjective taste.

      Reply
  • PRADIP KURBAH
    March 25, 2017 at 4:20 am

    Hi Noam

    If shooting a feature with two different camera set up,say one is Blackmagic mini ursa and the other i go for a Panasonic gh4,will it be possible to match the differences of both the cameras when it comes to the final post production work

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      April 3, 2017 at 12:08 am

      Yes, it is absolutely possible, although they will never look identical. You can color correct them to be very similar, but there will be some inherent differences between them (dynamic range, highlight rolloff, etc.), so you might want to take that into account. That said, I would recommend using a color card (or color checker) on set to help you match the colors in post more easily.

      Reply
  • Erik Lu
    December 2, 2014 at 3:24 am

    Great article.
    Had a question though because this is somehing I never understood.
    Would you be able to tell a wide angled full frame look from an equivalently wide mft look, both stopped down relatively to each other to achieve the same bokeh?

    I feel like full frame wide would have less distortion than a mft trying to achieve the same exact look. Mainly because you need a more fisheye lens with the mft. Is that what you think?

    Thanks so much for the article.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      December 3, 2014 at 7:03 pm

      Hi Erik,

      That’s a very good question. Personally, I would probably be able to tell the difference by eye in most very wide situations, but it really depends on the exact lens/camera combo. For instance the Lumix 7-14 lens on a GH4 comes very close to looking like a 16-35 on a 5D.

      Reply
  • Eric Bogan
    November 24, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    Interesting article.

    If supper shallow DOF or ultra wide angle are what you are going for have at it. But I think the supper shallow DOF is over done. And I find lots of rack focusing annoying. And I do not think many stories need ultra wide angles.

    To each his own but the movies, directors and cinematographers I like and admire use little or none of these two qualities.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 27, 2014 at 8:22 pm

      Agreed! There is a time and a place for shallow DOF and it really needs to be used sparingly. Even so, its nice to know how to get that look on crop sensor cameras when you need to!

      Reply
  • karthik sippy
    November 21, 2014 at 5:55 am

    Nice message..
    Red and arri is not full frame camera means we can go with canon 7d mark 2 and lumix gh4 for low budget cinematography

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2014 at 7:43 pm

      Good point! We certainly don’t always need the full frame look…

      Reply
  • Glenn
    June 21, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Thanks Noam, that is helpful. Yeah, I highly reccomend messing around with some Pentax M lenses or A, they’re essentially the same optical formula. The 50mm 1.7 is legendary but I mostly use the 28mm 2.8. Even the 50mm f2 is a decent lens considering it was originally a kit lens. Honestly, side by side, I think the Pentax holds their own against my Nikkors.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 23, 2014 at 7:47 pm

      Awesome! I will be sure to check them out. Thanks again.

      Reply
  • Glenn
    June 17, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Good article, very informative. I love the photo with the Tokina. The pipes on the upper land corner adds a nice level of distortion to the sterile white background.

    One thing you didn’t touch though, is the use of ND filters to keep that lens open in the bright light. I am coming from a no budget stance, so I use a Fotga brand, el cheapo, eBay Fader ND, but I would imagine on the budget of your projects, you are using a higher end ND filter. After getting a Nikkor 50mm 1.4 for 40 bucks on eBay (the seller thought it was a Series E lens) I have decided it might be time to upgrade to a higher level of ND filter. I have used some B+W’s in the past, with good results, but I think I might want to stay with a Fader. Any recommendations?

    Also, to be completely off topic, I have been using the Pentax M series of lenses on my Canon EOS-M and getting unbelievable results. Have you used any Pentax M’s? And any thoughts as to why we don’t hear about much about them in the DSLR filmmaking?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 18, 2014 at 8:50 pm

      Hi Glenn, Thanks for the feedback!

      I use a mix of different types of ND’s, ranging from high end ND/IR matte box filters, all the way down to basic screw on fader ND’s. Truthfully, I think fader ND’s are completely useable as long as you are aware of their limitations and are careful about not turning them too far and getting that dreaded X effect on your images. The slight color shift you get from them is usually pretty easy to remove in post or in camera. Alternatively you could by some relatively affordable screw on ND’s (non-fader) and switch them as needed throughout the day. Brand wise, I don’t really have a specific recommendation as I use many types and haven’t found one that is perfect as of yet…

      I haven’t used Pentax M myself, so can not comment on why they haven’t been adopted as much – but I will be sure to do some homework on this!

      Reply
  • kashif
    June 10, 2014 at 7:50 am

    excellent

    Reply
  • Luca
    June 9, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    Very interesting, as usual! 🙂 Thank you Noam for all this work and passion for your readers!!!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 12, 2014 at 5:49 pm

      Thanks Luca – glad you enjoyed it!

      Reply
  • Robin
    June 9, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Great article.

    Reply

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