70-200: The full-frame advantage

Well, what a whirlwind week it’s been. I’ve been in and out of Sheffield more times than I care for this week, but I’ve managed to make getting a new camera a reality, since breaking my D300 left me with out a camera. After a mind-blowing amount of reading, I’ve spent the last few days getting my hands on a number of camera bodies. The D200 went back. The images were more than adequate, but after the D300, it was very frustrating to go back to a camera which required the use of a computer to assess sharpness. Then I looked at the D7000 and D7100. These are both excellent cameras, but the D300 had them beaten on how it felt in the hand, and the fact that all of the controls are readily available on the outside of the body.

So although any new camera was going to be an upgrade in terms of sensor output, I had to rule out a lateral move. I’ve even tried out a D3 this week. It’s an amazing machine, but a couple of things stopped me taking up an offer on a used model. The weight doesn’t bother me. I like to use a battery grip on my cameras to make vertical shooting a bit more comfortable. What I found was that this actually meant that a fundamental control on the D3 was missing. The second multi-selector.

Now for any of you using the D3, D3s or D4, I’m guessing your first question is “why do you need one?” It’s well placed, almost in the middle. Well, the sad truth is that I have little girl hands, and my thumb just won’t stretch that far. Which means I had to look at the line of compact bodies, with the view to add a grip again later.  The D600 feels just like the D7100, which left just one option: the D800.

Now, this is a significant jump in terms of cost, and the fact that it’s a full-frame model also means that at some point, I was going to need to upgrade my lenses. Since I’ve had to shed some kit to make up the price difference, I had to consider how it will affect me in the short term. Thankfully, this decision became much easier in light of one small detail. It’s got a 36.3MP sensor.

Now I’ve never been one for the megapixel race, but the fact is that if you use DX lenses on a full frame (FX) camera, a lot gets trimmed back. In the case of the D3, this leaves you with quite a small image. When you crop an image from the D800, you are left with an image that is still larger and more detailed than one from the D300 that I am replacing. In short, if I wish to use my D800 in DX mode, I still have an upgrade. In short, it’s the perfect transition camera for moving up to full frame, provided that you have a slow, considered technique and don’t just blast away.

So why was this important to me? For years I’ve listened to the debate about full frame and cropped sensor cameras, and two major points stand out:

Full frame cameras generally have better low light capabilities

This is generally true, although cameras like the D7100 and even some mirrorless models have similar abilities to mid-range full frame cameras now. Any current storefront DSLR has greater ISO handling then the D300, which is now six years old.

Macro is easier with a cropped sensor camera because they have a greater depth of field than full frame.

Now, this to me always seemed like a flawed argument. Phone cameras make macro photography very easy, and they certainly have a huge depth of field, but that isn’t the only factor in image quality.  It’s not simply that larger sensors have less depth of field, it’s that focus falls off faster. This makes it very precise. Your focus has to be exactly where it’s needed, but it’s easier to see when you’ve hit that sweet spot, because it leaps off the background, both in the viewfinder and in the finished article. This give the illusion of greater contrast in the image. This suits my own style of macro right down to the ground, and it’s always been this genre of photography which bears the greatest guidance to any equipment purchases.

To me, FX cameras just feel right. When I look through the viewfinder, it’s like looking through the camera my dad owned when I was a child. In that respect, full frame cameras come with a free sense of nostalgia that makes them worth a premium price tag.

Furthermore (and this is where it should all start to make sense in the context of reviewing lenses), I’ve been very conscious that the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 SP Di VC USD is designed with the full-frame camera in mind. I’ve never really been able to look at edge sharpness, vignetting or anything like that up until now. So a couple of days ago I traded a number of items and a huge wad of cash, and came home with a new D800. Yesterday I got to see what the lens can really do.


Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 SP Di VC USD
F/4; 1/1250s; 1400 ISO; Nikon D800

I can’t tell you how happy I was with this. I know it’s a simple shot, but it confirmed to me in one fell swoop that I’d made the right choice. The Himalayan Balsam and the wasp stand out very clearly from that sea of green, and everything has room to breathe. And even if you crop down to DX equivalent, that’s an effect that doesn’t really change, and can’t be replicated by DX cameras. Unfortunately, since I no longer have a DX camera, I can’t do a side-by-side comparison. You’ll just have to take my word for it.


Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 SP Di VC USD
F/4; 1/1250s; 1400 ISO; Nikon D800

And although it was shot at 1400 ISO, there’s not even a hint of noise, because any that shows up when you “pixel peep” will disappear when downscaled for web viewing or print.

Knowledge of this is why I rarely show full-size images in this blog. I could upload the images and let people inspect them for flaws and imperfections. But that doesn’t matter to me. All I care about is knowing that I can get the images I want from the kit I have.  That’s why I’ll be sticking with the Tamron as my first choice of 70-200mm.

If you need more convincing, pop over to the DXOmark comparison table and look at how it fared…


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