Photo of a sunset and a fence with trees holding the barbed-wire surrounding a field in Costa Rica.

DX vs. FX Cameras: Don’t switch, keep both!

Very hot posts in the web talk about switching from cropped into full-sensor cameras.  When I got a Nikon D810 I kept my D7100 system and this actually saved me money! Let me explain why.

Ever since I got started in digital photography I loved the DX format. In spite of all the talk about not having true wide angles available there were enough DX lens choices like the Nikon AFS 12-24mm f/4 (which I still use), the AFS 10-24mm, and the AF 10.5mm fisheye. Sigma eventually produced an DC (DX) version of its amazing 12-24 rectilinear FX lens: the 8-16mm DC HSM. The very recent crop of f/1.8 primes and the 18-35mm f/1.8 Sigma are there to satisfy photographers wanting fast glass. There have been  DX midrange zooms in all flavors, and the telephoto lenses became all that more useful thanks to that money-and-weight saving 1.5-crop factor. The cameras progressed both in features and in image quality until reaching the current high-density 24 MP models like the Nikon D7100. So, why change to FX format?

If you want to follow a good discussion about the big “upgrade” check out Richard Butler’s recent post in DPReview which addresses exactly this point:   http://www.dpreview.com/articles/5678273556/opinion-the-myth-of-the-upgrade-path

When the Nikon D810 was released I saw a great camera with well-thought features and impressive image quality. Now, after using it for  several months, I can see its strengths and weaknesses. What I thought was an increased acutance was mostly the product of the new default clarity adjustment. Also, the dynamic range is not too different from the one in the D7100. The in-camera jpegs of the D810 are far better than those from previous Nikon cameras due to the new EXPEED 4 engine, and the noise reduction is much improved but these are not so relevant if you shoot raw. In addition, things like the shutter’s electronic first curtain and its lower noise are improvements I wanted to have.

Photo of a pair of Inca Terns courtship in the Paracas peninsula, Peru.
A lens with 300-400 mm focal length is ideal for pictures of birds in flight. Inca Terns in courtship in the Paracas peninsula, Peru. Click to enlarge.

With FX I now have a wider choice of wide-angle lenses and this could be an advantage to the FX format (but, how many lenses can you carry around?). Also, I can get more subject separation from the background in the mid-telephoto range which is something I always wanted. It is in the telephoto range that I still think DX is and will always be a winner for wildlife photography: there is no way I am going to lug around 400 f/2.8 or 600 f/4 lenses through steep, muddy, and thick jungle trails. My 300 f/2.8 is in the limits of portability for that purpose. If I need more power, then teleconverters and Nikon 1 series cameras are perfect choices.

Of course, if you routinely make 40 x 60 inch prints, a 36 MP file can make a difference, but this applies mostly to landscape and architectural photography. Getting birds and small mammals to look large in the frame is hard enough even with the 1.5 crop factor of DX cameras. Besides, the D7100’s  24 MP will print better than the 15 MP of the D810 DX area. In the telephoto range is where you really save money!

So, will I be FX or DX? No need to choose actually: A lot of people carry more than one camera body, and I can just reserve my D7100 for the telephoto and macro lenses while I leave free the D810 for wide- and mid-range optics. The DX camera is about the size of a large lens and works as a 1.5 teleconverter. Best of both worlds!

Here is a great equipment setup: one FX camera body (your choice) with 18-35mm FX zoom (about $ 750,) and one DX camera body with 70-300 FX zoom (105-450 equivalent focal length, you probably own these two already). If you need mid-range coverage then switch lenses and you get 27-52 mm and 70-300 mm): Nearly the complete focal length range from 18 to 450 mm and you don’t have to change lenses as often!

Photo of a sunset and a fence with trees holding the barbed-wire surrounding a field in Costa Rica.
Wide angle lenses are very useful in landscape photography. The two types of pictures in this post can be done with my suggested DX/FX camera duo. Click to enlarge.

To sum up the lesson I learned: do not “upgrade” but supplement your DX with an FX camera body and a wide angle zoom lens according to your needs and budget. I am aware of how expensive modern camera equipment is but I also believe in waiting and saving… I believe this will make you happier in the long run.

What are your equipment choices in this changing world? I will like to know of your own experiences.

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23 thoughts on “DX vs. FX Cameras: Don’t switch, keep both!”

  1. I’am using a Canon C-mos camera, just for 1,6 times more focus you have with these camera’s, so i’m thinking the same, don’t have one good camera, but two best ones, which each have there winning points in use…
    Good article!

    Regards René

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perfect timing for your post. I was about to buy a Canon 6D full frame body, with their 28-300 IS USM lens for travel. Total package about $4700 Canadian (plus tax). Would I be better off with putting a 17-40 wide angle zoom on the full frame body, and getting a 2nd APS-C sensor body with a 70-300 zoom?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The FX/DX combo is also nice because you don’t have to change lenses and can shoot faster. In addition… You get a spare body that should keep you shooting (with a small compromise in effective focal length range) in case one camera body malfunctions.

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  3. You mentioned there weren’t much difference in dynamic range. How would you compare image quality between your D7100 and D810 on lower ISO values (typically used for landscapes)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mark,
      Numbers for dynamic range are not obvious to compare because the results depend on how measurements are made and especially what are the points that are considered the limits of the dynamic range. DxO scores 14.8 stops for the D810 and 13.7 for the D7100 or about one stop different. They are ample enough for most landscape photography and I have only run into trouble when including both the sun or brilliantly lit clouds, and black rocks in the shadows. Here, for either camera, I need to blend exposures or use a 2-stop split-field neutral-density filter.

      In practical landscape photography terms what I mean is that with either camera’s NEF files I easily get good shadow detail by raising the shadow values from areas that are 5 stops below middle gray. Normally anything more than 3 stops below middle gray prints solid black so they are very similarly good.

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  4. Good article. I have both APS-C and fullframe digital cameras, Canon models in my case, and the reality is that the advantages of full frame, greater depth of field control, less noisy sensor, larger images in terms of megapixels, really aren’t that significant. They’re nice to have, but they are not going to make you a better photographer. I didn’t always think this way – there was a time when I was caught up as much as anybody in the technical details of digital cameras and lenses, seeking the latest and greatest. Along the way, I began to realize that I was missing the point of photography. It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have that counts.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m still shooting with a Nikon D7000. My next camera will be the 810, so I’m saving my pennies. I primarily use the FX 28-300 Nikor lens. When I got it I figured that at some point I’d be getting an FX body, so I paid a little extra but that will hopefully pay off in the near future. The main reasons I have for wanting the 810 include that it is full frame, far superior performance with higher ISO settings and the bigger image capture as more of my prints are getting to be bigger sizes. Having those big RAW images would make it easier to get high quality prints of cropped images.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Eduardo,

    Thanks again for your kind words about my floral photography. I love art and took a lot of art history classes in college but I am an untrained photographer who spends a lot of time outside. I have a little point and shoot Sony Cybershot WX300, which takes surprisingly nice photos. Someday, I may get fancier. I particularly love your landscape photo as well as the street scene in Peru with the woman dressed in red. I am looking forward to learning more through following your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Then we’ll learn from each other! You obviously have an eye for choosing a good point of view to make a picture, and point and shoot cameras are great for close-up work due to their large depth of field.

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    1. You are welcome Marisa! More than expertise I would call it continuous learning though! By the way, I will be posting in a few weeks some multiple exposure work that is new to me and I will love to hear your feedback.

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  8. This is a very informative and well-thought-out post regarding this dilemma. I’ve ended up with both also, on the Canon side (6D and 7DII) and use the full frame usually in low light situations where I need to crank up the ISO. But the crop camera is my choice 90%+.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dear Eduardo,
    Thank you for visiting my blog on Saturday. I am glad you liked my new post about Pinterest.
    I see your interest is photography. Did you know I have written two posts about photography? I am interested in it as well.
    Nice to meet you. Thanks again for dropping by.
    Janice

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Eduardo, I have been using FX format cameras for more than five years now. I use my D700 and D800 exclusively when I am shooting landscapes to get the full effect of my wide lenses. But I still have my D300 which I use in combination with a 80-400 lens for wildlife and birds. As you’ve said: best of both worlds.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi, Eduardo. Thx for stopping by. I shoot Canon, but full heartedly agree. I like my APS-C (1.6x) for wildlife, and my Full Frame for landscape. Keeping both bodies, equipped with their respective lenses, allows me to pick up one rig to shoot different subject matters at the same spot.

    Liked by 1 person

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