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:
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.
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.
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:
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.