My long Road to full-frame

I have been taking pictures with all sorts of cameras since I first dug my Dad’s Brownie Hawkeye out of the hall closet when I was about 10 years old. I bought my first Minolta SLR at fifteen and have never been without a camera or two since. While I have photographed occasional weddings and produced a few photo-illustrated catalogs, I have always been an “enthusiast” with no real professional aspirations. As a result, I have never spent a ton of money on equipment. I have always looked for quality in my equipment but never had a time where the funds or the desire for top-end gear existed simultaneously. Being “only” a hobbyist didn’t stop me from absorbing everything available regarding photo techniques, current photo technology and even the actual science photography is based on. I knew the difference between top-end and good enough better than most. The tech behind film cameras was pretty flat for a long time with gradual improvements in the film itself being the only notable changes until sophisticated, automated metering started to appear in the ‘70s and autofocus dropped a bomb on the industry in the ‘80s. After that, things got interesting. Quickly.

When digital started appearing in products like the Sony Mavica, it seemed like a good technology for documenting things like insurance damage and such, but the color and resolution was trounced by all but the most rudimentary film cameras. “Certainly it can never replace film” was the mantra of nearly everyone I had conversations with in the late ‘90s. I wasn’t so sure. I was working with computers in the tech sector as a consultant at the time and had watched PCs go from the same toy-like stage to indispensable business tools in a short 10 years. My optimism wasn’t strong enough for me to early-adopt but when an undetected shutter failure in my SLR on a trans-canal cruise in late 2000 left me with 14 of 20 rolls of film completely blank, I was shocked into re-evaluating my photographic future. A year later I bought a Kodak digital camera and film, along with the 35mm format, was immediately dead to me.

I went through a string of ever-more-capable cameras and digicams until 2005 when I returned to Minolta and bought a 7D DSLR. It had a 6MP APS-C sensor and produced some really nice images. After Sony ate Minolta in 2006, it was followed by an 12MP A700 and finally a 24MP A77. All with APS-C sensors . I never considered full-frame as the price of admission was astronomical (to me) at the time and I was very pleased with the results from my “enthusiast” APS-C cameras, not to mention the 1.5x crop bonus on telephoto lenses. I had ditched the ageing Minolta zooms for a third-party 70-200 f/2.8 and a Sony 16-50 F/2.8. Both were way better than “good enough” but not top-end. My reasoning at the time was that 95% of the quality at less than 50% of the cost was a reasonable compromise. I was happy.

Despite my satisfaction with digital imaging in general, the digital dream of smaller, faster, better-than-film cameras had never really materialized. While APS-C sensors had a little less than 50% of the area of a 35mm film frame (or full-frame digital camera) and the 4/3 sensors a little over 25%, the cameras were only slightly smaller (if at all). When Sony introduced the diminutive NEX APS-C cameras in 2010, I was overjoyed and bought a NEX-5 as a backup travel camera to replace the A700. They had a new lens mount and though the kit lenses were pretty good and almost anything could be adapted to them, quality native glass was rare. When the NEX-7 came out in 2011 with the same 24MP sensor as my A77, it gradually became my go-to camera with the A77 used for those times when I needed the fast autofocus and better A-mount glass. When the A6000 came out in early 2014, I sold the NEX-5 and bought one. It had a lot of whiz-bang improvements like truly fast on-sensor, phase-detect autofocus and the A6000 became my primary camera with the NEX-7 replacing the A77 on trips where the better A-mount glass wasn’t really needed. Since we last went to Alaska before the A6000, the A77 sat on the shelf just about all the time. A couple of years later, my NEX-7 started having problems and I picked up an A6300. Good night A77. The tiny, fast, rock-solid bodies with a couple of descent lenses added along with the blazing autofocus of the A6300 drove the last nail into the DSLR coffin for me. I had a travel kit that weighed as much as a small dog instead of a fat child. Full-frame was still completely off my radar despite the introduction of the ridiculously compact A7 series. The Bang-for-the-Buck just wasn’t there for me. The A6x00 cameras were (and still are) really that good.

So… Here I am two years later selling my A77, a flash and a half-dozen A- and E-mount lenses to help finance my transition to full-frame. What happened? A couple of things. It started a few years earlier when I picked up the surprisingly good 50mm f/1.8 E-mount and later the incredibly sharp 12mm f/2.0 Rokinon. Recently, I bought an 18-105 f/4 G lens for my A6x00 cameras to replace the kit lens. The leap in quality more than offset sacrificing some compactness. I’m not sure my photography was getting any better, but I was getting a bit fussier and my “good enough” threshold was shifting. Then Sony happened. First the A9 with it’s larger battery, over-the-top performance specs and the G-Master lenses made a pretty solid “we’re here to play” statement. This was followed by the A7rIII with similar eye-opening leaps. For me, these were “hey, that’s nice…Go Team!” events and I while was pondering picking up a high-quality FE lens or two for the image quality bump, I was still a solid APS-C guy and perfectly happy with 24MP. The final straw was when the A7III “basic” camera hit with what amounts to a de-tuned A9 with a hot new 24MP sensor for $2000. It was already pretty close to my Bang-for-the-Buck threshold and ticking upward with every hands-on review. At some point in early March, the high-ISO samples hit and it was all over but the crying. (I am almost exclusively an ambient light shooter.)

I am now the Full-frame guy that I never wanted to be. I am not selling my APS-C A6x00 cameras. I’m keeping the better lenses and the A6300 with its great AF will give a 1.5x boost to any new telephoto I end up with. They are also good platforms for fun stuff like the 35mm f/1.7 CCTV lens I picked up for $30. I’ll likely keep the widest end of my shooting on APS-C for now with the 12mm, fisheye or even the Lensbaby on an A6x00 body as the alternate on walkabout days. I got the new FE 24-105 f/4 G lens as my daily driver and the A-mount 70-200 f/2.8 was replaced by the FE 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 G for now. Later this year, I may add the 85mm f/1.8 (a Bang-for-the-Buck champion) for a portrait project I have in mind. They say that once you have great glass, you’ll never go back. The steps on my path to Full-frame would seem to support that.