Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to sensor size in video.
For those who would automatically dismiss my hypothesis based on the title alone, I’ll start with a few obvious concessions. In a vacuum I would agree that a full frame sensor is superior to a super 35mm (crop) sensor. You have greater depth of field options. You have a wider field of view, which is a legitimate practical advantage in tight shooting situations. When it comes to filmmaking and photography, the larger the sensor, the greater the potential for image quality in most situations. As someone who owns almost exclusively full-frame sensor cameras, I hardly want to suggest that full-frame isn’t the best decision for you.
What I do want to emphasize, however, is that full frame versus Super 35mm is probably not the key factor stopping you from creating your cinematic masterpiece. In fact, choosing Super 35mm over full frame could actually work in your favour.
A note beforehand: this particular discussion will focus on the filmmaking side. Whilst many points will be relevant to both, I will mainly address sensor size as it relates to video as opposed to stills. It’s also worth noting that I use the terms super 35mm and cropped sensor interchangeably to refer to sensors smaller than “full frame”. In digital filmmaking, sensor sizes vary quite a bit. For a more scientific explanation of the different formats, this Sharegrid article provides a detailed explanation.
Part of what brought me to this particular topic today is that I’m in the process of testing Sony’s new FX30 cinema camera. With a handful of notable differences, which I’ll get to in my actual review, it’s essentially an FX3 with a crop sensor as opposed to a full-frame sensor. It’s also half the price. Now, whether I would really call it a “cinema camera” as opposed to variations on mirrorless cameras is a matter of debate for another article. But both are capable of producing amazing videos for the right filmmaker. Of course, every review you’ve read/seen about this camera so far will likely have pointed to the cropped sensor as a negative for the FX30. But that made me ask the question: is it really a negative?
Having already discussed how full frame is clearly better, I thought it might be worth considering a few areas where Super 35mm offers a significant advantage.
I mentioned that the benefits of full frame exist in a vacuum. But real life doesn’t work in a vacuum. And unless you’re independently wealthy, money is a real thing. Film equipment will be expensive regardless of the camera you choose. But I think a pretty good litmus test to know if you’re spending your production budget wisely is to consider what portion of your budget is going towards your camera. Image quality is undoubtedly important. But if you’re spending so much on buying/renting a camera that you can’t afford things like production design, sound or lighting, I can safely say you’ve thrown things a bit off balance. Especially nowadays, when even the cheapest crop sensor cameras on the market are capable of producing image quality at a very high level compared to cameras from ten years ago, you really have to consider the added value that more is added to the recording device spends
Any cinematographer quickly learns that a great camera means nothing without a great piece of glass in front of it. And this is one area where a filmmaker’s choice of a crop sensor camera can prove to be a savings multiplier.
Super 35mm cameras can use Super 35mm format lenses. And just as crop-sensor cameras are half the price of full-frame cameras, so are crop-format lenses in many cases. For example, the Sony FX3 costs $3,900 for the body. The FE PZ 16-35mm f/4G costs $1,198. I am referring to this lens as it is currently in my possession. On the other hand, the Sony FX30 cost $1,798 for the body. And the E 10-20mm f/4 PZ G with a similar range is only $648. So the first combo costs $5,098 while the other costs only $2,446. I realize these aren’t 1:1 comparisons and there are a million plus lenses to choose from, but this should give you an idea of potential savings. You can still opt for the more expensive combo for a number of reasons. But it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether these benefits are worth the double the investment.
But the savings don’t stop there. If you’re shooting a big project, chances are you’ll be renting high-end cinema lenses, no matter what camera body you choose. Again, the lenses have as much or more to do with the look of a finished film as the camera. So let’s say you want to shoot with high-end cinema glass like Cooke, Arri, Zeiss or any of the other iconic glasses that have been used to shoot major Hollywood movies for decades. Since, until recently, the vast majority of major Hollywood films were shot with Super 35mm sensors rather than full frame, the vast majority of high-end glass screens have been formatted for these smaller sensors. So, for example, if you want to rent a set of Arri/Zeiss Master Primes used by Roger Deakins in Blade Runner 2049, you will do so with a Super 35mm sensor since the film was shot on the Arri Alexa Mini (and Alexa Plus and XT ). As a general rule in life, I feel like if a format is good enough for Deakins, it’s good enough for me.
This, of course, brings financial benefits. The top cinema lens lines offer numerous options to also cover full-frame sensors. But as you’d expect, these lenses are more expensive to rent or buy compared to many of their Super 35mm format companions. So if you’re looking to up your game by upgrading your lens, it’s probably far cheaper to do so with a Super 35mm sensor.
In a way, shooting with a Super 35mm sensor gives you the best of both worlds. Starting with a Super 35mm sensor gives you access to a world of lighter, less expensive glass. You also have access to a wide range of iconic cinema lenses designed for the Super 35mm sensor. However, if you prefer to invest in full-frame glass, these lenses can also cover the Super 35mm sensor. This allows you to future-proof your lens collection while gradually expanding your camera body.
Many manufacturers also produce speed boosters that allow you to get a full-frame field of view on a crop sensor body. For me, the main advantage of a full-frame sensor isn’t image quality or bokeh. It’s the more practical concern of getting the best out of my wide-angle lenses. By tapping into a speed booster, you can break the crop sensor’s constricting effect and open up new possibilities.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this is not an argument that Super 35mm is better than full frame for filmmakers. Rather, this is just to point out that a full-frame production package that exceeds your current budget isn’t quite the end of the world. Big, beautiful films have long been made on Super 35mm sensors. And the only real limitation is your imagination and skills. So dream big, pay attention to your lighting and composition, and don’t spend so much time worrying about sensor size.