Occasionally when I share a photo I get the photographer’s favorite question, “What kind of camera do you use?” I’m sure that 95% of the time, the person asking genuinely just wants to know, but it’s always hard not to think of the question as an insult as if anyone using the same camera could produce the same image. My experience has been that my ability to produce good photographs has improved with practice, that photography is a skill that must be developed over time. I think it is absolutely true that a trained photographer with an older or cheaper camera will always produce better images than an unskilled photographer with the latest and most expensive gear. Sure, the newer gear may produce technically superior images with better resolution and less noise, but those images may not be worth viewing.
The reason I’m writing this post is because I have recently made the decision not to upgrade to a full frame digital camera. It seems that every photography website or podcast assumes that a full frame camera is a given necessity for landscape photography, but I strongly disagree and will explain why in the following paragraphs. But first, let me tell you about my digital photography gear (I’ve also recently developed a love for shooting with vintage 35mm and medium format film cameras, but that’s a topic for another day).
I bought my first DSLR-type camera in 2014. Not having any prior experience other than having owned a string of Olympus and Canon point-and-shoot digital cameras since 2003 (upgrading whenever my daughter broke the last one), I hit the review sites and picked up a Sony a58 based on several articles that cited that camera as the best entry-level DSLR. I am so grateful for those recommendations because that decision got me into the Sony system. What I didn’t realize or appreciate at the time was that the Sony DSLT cameras provided many of the same benefits of their line of mirrorless cameras, most notably the EVF and all of the associated capabilities that it brings instead of the optical viewfinder found on DSLRs.
After two years, my photography skills had improved to the point where I recognized the need to upgrade, primarily for better lenses to improve the overall resolution of my landscapes. I researched and obsessed for months and eventually decided on the Sony a6000 mirrorless camera, but with a twist-I intentionally decided to continue using Sony A-mount lenses for my landscapes. At the time, I only had a couple of higher quality A-mount lenses, but it made sense to me to continue using those and to also purchase a used copy of what is now my primary landscape lens, the Zeiss-branded SonyVario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 ZA. The truth is I had read so much about this lens and its capabilities that I almost didn’t make the jump to mirrorless just so that I could use it. So I purchased the a6000 kit with the small 16-50 power zoom and 55-210 telephoto zoom along with the Sony LA-EA4 adapter that enables the use of A-mount lenses with the same focusing system I had on the Sony a58 DSLT camera.
Although it may look a bit silly mounted on the small camera, the 16-80mm “Zony” lens did not disappoint. My opinion is that it is optically superior to the 16-70mm version available for Sony e-mount cameras although many of the advanced focusing abilities of the a6000 are not available. It is a trade-off that does not bother me at all, although I am currently upgrading my e-mount lens collection to include the top-end APS-C Sony Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 and the Sony 18-105mm f/4 G series for family and travel photos.
The decision to buy these more expensive lenses was directly tied to the decision not to upgrade to a full frame camera for the foreseeable future. Sony’s current mid-range full frame offerings include the a7II and now the a7III. In fact, the a7II is actually available now for less than the a6500, so why would anyone stick with APS-C rather than going full frame? For me, the simple answer is the cost of full frame lenses is still very high, and APS-C mirrorless cameras and lenses are so much smaller. Including my recent acquisition of the Zeiss 24mm, I have a total investment of about $1,300 for my landscape lens kit that includes a 12mm wide-angle prime, a 24mm prime, and a 16-80 zoom. An equivalent full frame kit would cost upwards of $2,500 assuming I could get some good bargains on eBay, and all 3 of those lenses are huge by comparison to my APS-C lenses.
So what is the trade-off? In terms of image quality for landscape photos, I don’t think there is much at all. APS-C cameras currently top out at 24 megapixels, but the Sony a7II and a7III are the same. Yes, there are full frame cameras that offer (much) higher resolution but with a much higher price tag as well. Yes, the full frame camera offer higher dynamic range. DXOMark rates the a6000 at 13.1 Evs, compared to 13.6 for the a7II and now 14.7 for the a7III (and 14.8 for the Nikon D850). The current top-end a6500 returned a score of 13.7, so it looks like full frame sensors (from Sony and Nikon at least) are providing one-half to one full stop higher dynamic range than their APS-C counterparts. But I have not encountered many situations where I felt limited by the dynamic range of my camera, and it is easy enough to bracket landscape photos if I need the extra range.
On the other hand, APS-C cameras offer greater depth-of-field than full frame cameras. I hardly ever encounter situations where I need to focus stack my images, and if I do, I only need 2 shots, yet it is very common to focus stack 3 or more images when using a full frame camera because of the reduced depth-of-field (and yes, I realize this is not a benefit for portrait photography.)
Where I see the greatest difference between APS-C and full frame cameras is in low light and night photography. Based on DXOMark’s ISO scores, current full frame cameras offer from about 1-1/3 to 1-2/3 stops advantage over APS-C. That is a significant, but not huge, difference, and for someone specializing in night sky photography the upgrade to full frame would absolutely be justified.
For now, I am content with the abilities of my a6000. I am jealous of some of the advanced capabilities and features of the latest cameras, but I also feel that I haven’t learned to fully exploit the capabilities of what I have. Although the a6500 offers a lot of improvements over the a6000, the price of that upgrade is very steep and there’s really not much of an improvement in real-world image quality. Maybe the mythical a6700 or a7000 will offer something to persuade me.
Update May 15, 2018: Less than a month after writing this post, I have upgraded to the a6500 as my primary landscape camera and will get my a6000 converted for infrared. I really did not plan to upgrade, but the opportunity came up, and the a6500 does offer some compelling improvements for other types of photography (IBIS and improved high ISO JPGs). I was also motivated because after trying out the a5000 (which lacks a separate viewfinder) which I planned for infrared conversion, I was concerned about using that camera in bright sunlight with only the rear LCD for composing the image. The a6000 should be much more usable for infrared.
Update April 1, 2022: As I am migrating this post to my new website, I thought it would be good to include a camera update. Four years later I am still shooting with the Sony a6500 and using the a6000 for infrared. Sony’s newer line of a6x00 cameras offer some improvements in autofocus and image processing. The a6600 appears to offer about 1/2-stop improvement in dynamic range at ISO 100 (and less than 1/3-stop improvement at other ISOs) and about 1/3-stop less noise (it appears to be similar to the a7II but with dual gain ISO). I certainly wouldn’t mind having a new camera but the technology gains don’t justify the upgrade right now.