This isn’t a pro vs con discussion touting the benefits of either cropped (DX) or full-frame SLR cameras. To be honest, I find most of those arguments rudimentary. Twenty years ago when I purchased my first SLR (a Chinon CP-7M) from a pawn shop in Beaumont, TX no such argument existed.  Back then all the arguments were over format (35 mm, medium, and large). Amazingly, the basis for these discussions hasn’t changed.

Users of 35 mm cameras were among the first to convert to the new digital format. Medium and large format aficionados did not have a digital counterpart in those days. Sounds so long ago when it’s written that way and I’m only talking about 1998-2001. For all but the well-financed and newspaper photogs, digital SLRs were cost prohibitive and to be honest not worth the climb.

Norfolk State vs Morris Brown 2001. Shot with a Nikon D1 and Nikon 80-200 mm f2.8, ISO 400, 1/320 s.

It wasn’t until Nikon released its D1 with a retail price a few bucks short of $5000 that portrait studios and wedding photographers like myself began to see the benefit of switching from film. I went all in trading my workhorse Mamiya RB67 Pro-SD, lenses, and cases to Showcase Camera and Video on Cheshire Bridge Road for a used D1 ($3200). The fact that I already owned a Nikon N70 (the second camera I bought this time from Richmond Camera Exchange in Houston, TX) and several Nikon lenses helped make the switch easier.

Switching to digital helped add sports photography to my list of client services. Shooting sports action with film was cost prohibitive as well. It was easy to through 5-6 rolls of 400/800 speed film (yes back then the film determined the ISO not the camera).  Most of the photographers not affiliated with a newspaper or magazine spent most of their frames from the sidelines of football games on the cheerleaders, dance teams, and band members. It was easier to get a clear, perfectly composed photo from a still subject.  Dance team members and cheerleaders would happily pose for photos and then wait until the next home game to purchase an individual photo or the entire series. Homecoming and senior day photos were always the most popular.

Once upon a time this was a large capacity flash card. ha!

After the move to digital, the only limiting factor was the size of your compact flash card. It took awhile before cards cracked the 1 GB threshold. At one time a 64 MB card cost what a 64 GB card costs now.  The best part about moving to digital was the cropped factor inherent in the new digital SLR format.  The Nikon 1.5x crop factor (Canon 1.3) was viewed as a benefit to everyone except portrait and wedding shooters. The cropping factor added length without affecting the aperture like tele-extenders. A 300 mm turned into a 420 mm (approximately) and a 70-200 mm into a 105 mm – 290 mm (approximately).  Anyone shooting football, baseball, track and field, or soccer appreciated that added length very much. The wedding and portrait photographer community didn’t like it one bit and for good reason.  Their once sufficiently wide 28-80 mm/28-70 mm that was used to shoot wedding parties now required a bit more distance from the group to squeeze every bridesmaid and groomsman into the frame.  Unfortunately, some smaller venues forced photographers up against the wall, into corners, or balconies to make shots of larger wedding parties work.  The Nikon portrait photographers that praised their 85 mm or 105 mm were immediately thrust into an un-winnable situation. The 50 mm wasn’t long enough nor did it possess a pleasing enough perspective. Images were just meh.

It was a full 4 years before Nikon finally introduced a lens specifically for the cropped/APS-C format sensor. In 2002, Canon released the 1DS the market’s first full-frame pro digital body. The 1Ds came with a pro price tag too of $7999. The luxury of returning to full-frame shooting caused some serious body envy.  Those with the cash dumped their Nikons for whatever they could get, sold a few pints of blood, and rushed over to buy the 1Ds. Despite the defections, Nikon kept releasing it’s cropped bodies as more competitors like Sony and Olympus began entering the market.

Five years after the release of the 1Ds, Nikon released the D3 its first full-frame pro DSLR. A year later the prosumer version of the D3, the D700, hit the market. Not too long after full-frame cameras became common in the stores, the comparisons began.

Dwight Howard knocks the ball away from Marvin Williams. Shot with D700 and 80-200 mm 1/640 s, f3.5, ISO-3200

Using the full-frame D700 allowed me to stay with the 70-200 mm longer at basketball games and the 400 mm at football games.  It also allowed me to use my super sharp 85 mm for portraits again. The 24-70 mm returned to being sufficiently wide enough to use in tight spaces. Woo Hoo!!!

Of course, I still owned several DX cameras (D1, D70, D300s, and D2H).  I had bought the 16-85 mm DX lens but refused to buy more DX lenses because it felt as if the trend towards FX or full-frame would consume the industry all the way down to the lowest price point.  Admittedly, I had become a sort of sensor snob preaching the virtues of the full-frame format over the cropped format. The D700’s became my cameras of choice for everything from portraits to sports. I used the two bodies to shoot the 2012 Olympic Track and Field Trials, the D2 Winter Festival, Penn Relays, the 2012 NFC Championship game, and several NBA playoff games. Yep, you couldn’t tell me anything.

Change is Good

When I decided to purchase the much lighter and flexible Nikon 200-400 mm f4, my 400 mm began to sit idle more and more. Rather than waiting for someone to buy it from me (attempts to sell it on consignment had failed), I traded it for a Nikon D7200 SLR body and a 16-35 mm f4 full-frame wide angle lens.  I picked the D7200 because of the positive reviews it received for its video and performance in low light.  Clearly, the core development that had been taking place at Nikon over the last 5 years had been towards achieving cleaner images in low light. Nikon’s newest consumer DSLRs like the D7200, D610, D750 had reportedly provided clean image quality at ISO sensitivities above 6400. It was really a no-brainer especially since it was going for less than a grand used at KEH.

I started using the D7200  in the last third of the 2015 football season. It’s capability to render noise-free images at ISO settings of 8000 and 10000 while adding range to the 200-400 mm made it my go-to camera for evening football games inside the dark Georgia Dome.  It also made shooting under the traditionally dismal lights of high school football games a worth the trek.

The only drawback to the D7200 was the 5 fps frame rate. Frame rate matters when shooting high-speed action. Enter Nikon with their latest and greatest (until next week that is) D500. The Nikon D500, also dubbed the baby D5, benefitted heavily from the technology found in the company’s flagship DSLR. At 10 frames per second, pro terminals, ISO performance, advanced focusing, the D500 offered more than both the D3 and D4 for half the price. Even though I rarely, if ever, go full machine gun, the frame-to-frame speed allows me to capture the ball in a soccer match before, during, and after impact.

Atlanta United defeated New York FC 3-1. Shot with a Nikon D500 and 200-400 mm f4

After using it this past Sunday at the Atlanta United match, I realized how short-sighted I had been on the whole FX vs DX topic. When I first started in the business, the photographer who photographed my wedding (Ron Witherspoon Photography) explained it to me. He shot my wedding with a Bronica medium format system and a Nikon 35 mm system. Ron told me to buy the equipment you need for the job at hand.  Although at the time he was discussing medium and 35 mm formats, his view is every bit as valid in the DX vs FX discussion.  Now that all of the manufacturers have a substantial amount of DSLR and lens offerings there is no reason to fuss, its all about preference.

The high frame rate, increased low-light sensitivity, and larger buffer in the D500 provides any sports shooter enough firepower to capture every fraction of action regardless of the sport or venue.  Wedding, event, and portrait photographers can do a good job with it as well because there are enough lenses on the market to compensate for the crop factor.  Bowens/Rokinon/Samyang market a surprisingly sharp manual focus 8 mm for those who need to be wider than the Nikon 10.5 mm.  It also comes at a substantially lower price.  Nikon also has a 12-24 mm non-fish eye zoom that should do the trick for those extremely large wedding parties.

In short, get whatever you need to get the job done.  There isn’t a photographer in business that owns one lens, so why own one camera, one camera brand, or one format. Advances in technology have caused the prices on used digital medium format camera prices to drop (<$10,000).  Although, at the moment cameras like the D810 rivals them in resolution at a significantly lower price and size.  And the best part about it is Nikon is preparing to release the next evolution of the D810 and others in the fall.  When they finally hit the shelves, all the cool kids with loads of disposable income will dump their current gear in the used market for those of us with tighter operating budgets to peruse. It’s also a good idea to wait until the camera has been out for awhile to allow the bugs/flaws to be discovered. The D2H and D600 come to mind. The D2H had a focusing problem. I had to return my first one to the store after it failed midway through a college football game in Florida. That’s why you always carry backup cameras. The D600 had dust specks that appeared on images.

Just be smart and buy the camera you need not what everyone else is using. Read the specifications for yourself because every upgrade doesn’t necessarily warrant a purchase. Remember the golden rule, if it doesn’t pay for itself, it’s not a good investment for the business.