The ultimate portrait bokeh shootout – Crop vs full frame vs large format

May 29, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

The ultimate portrait bokeh shootout – Crop vs full frame vs large format

May 29, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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When it comes to the discussion fo bokeh, we often hear of the “benefits of full frame”. There are many comparisons out there all over the web, extolling the virtues of a larger sensor, and how a full frame mirrorless or DSLR is the “ultimate”. It’s really not, though, if that’s your goal, which this video from photographer Bill Lawson sets out to prove.

In this side-by-side shootout, he compares a Nikon D7000 DX body, along with a Nikon D700 full frame DSLR and 4×5 large format. He uses 50mm, 85mm and 300mm lenses to achieve a similar field of view with each of the different cameras, and gets to work.

YouTube video

One thing to note, is that Bill isn’t actually using 4×5 film in the large format camera. He’s photographing the ground glass on the back of the camera. But this has the same result. Photographing the ground glass of a large format camera with a 300mm lens, is not the same as simply slapping a 300mm lens on DSLR. The final image still shows what the alrge format camera sees.

So, with that in mind, Bill tests two main theories in this video. The first is matching the depth of field with all three cameras. As each has a different sensor/film plane size and a different focal length lens, each will require a different aperture setting in order to get the same result.

First up, a fixed depth of field. In each of these shots, the aperture was adjusted to match the near and far “in focus” parts of the image.

  • DX Crop + 50mm @ f/1.8.
  • FX Full Frame + 85mm @ f/3.3
  • 4×5 + 300mm @ f/12.7

As you can see, all three show a similar level of sharpness and start to go out of focus at the same points. Each lens does fall off slightly differently, though. The design of each lens is going to play a part in how the bokeh presents, just as much as the sensor size, focal length and aperture. But you can see that you have to have very different apertures to get the same shot as your sensor or film plane increases in size.

But what happens if we keep the aperture the same on all three cameras? How much does that affect the depth of field? In the next test, Bill kept all three cameras at f/4.5. The difference is quite striking.

  • Crop sensor @ f/4.5 = 116cm (46″) depth of field
  • Full frame @ f/4.5 = 59cm (23″) depth of field
  • 4×5 large format @ f/4.5 = 15cm (6″) depth of field

While the demonstration does illustrate the differences between larger sensors and film planes at the same aperture, one can only go so big.

I know in my own work that I tend not to shoot a shallow depth of field. It happens, but not often. I’m happy with either a crop or full frame body, because I’m rarely wide enough that full frame makes a difference. 4×5, while on my list, and something I want to experiment with, would just be too impractical for the types of locations I shoot at.

For you, it might be different. Shooting 4×5 might be perfect for your needs and give you the exact look you want. Just as full frame can give you images that a crop body can’t, 4×5 large format can give you images that full frame can’t, too.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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7 responses to “The ultimate portrait bokeh shootout – Crop vs full frame vs large format”

  1. Rick Satterwhite Avatar
    Rick Satterwhite

    Someday I would like to work with large format but I am currently shooting with digital medium format and enjoying the jump up in quality from 35mm.

  2. Zsolt Könczey Avatar
    Zsolt Könczey

    Excellent material!

  3. Jeffrey Wright Avatar
    Jeffrey Wright

    It’s a good and fun video but is incomplete. If the point is to show the amount and quality of the out of focus areas on the different systems it would have been helpful to show what can be achieved with those systems. Other than some very rare lenses you may be able to find, that f4.5 is about as wide as you can go on a 4×5. He did tests with the maximum apertures from the crop sensor and 4×5 wide open but didn’t do the same with the full frame lens. 85mm full frame lenses at f1.8 and wider would have shallower depth of field than that 4×5 and would have the advantage of more accurate focusing for portraits, making them much more usable.

  4. Blair Avatar
    Blair

    What about all three wide open?

  5. Eric Rolleiflex Avatar
    Eric Rolleiflex

    Photographing the ground glass gives the same result? Hahaha! Sure if you never shot 4×5 you might think that, but in a visual comparison like this it’s not fair because of the detail lost in the GG compared to film or film scan plus also the compression of the image by whatever digital format he used to shoot the gg with – it’s like recording sound from a car radio on on your iphone and saying it’s the same as being in the concert – nope! Still pretty amazing that 30% preferred the LF. I’m guessing that number would have been a lot higher.

  6. Θεοδοσιος Avatar
    Θεοδοσιος

    Sorry, but the results of the current shootout are misleading for two reasons. Please let my explain. 1) In the very first triad of photos the same person is presented with three different types of background bluriness, as if a crop system is not capable of bluring the background in a similar way to a full frame or even to a medium format camera, which is wrong. Use a Fujinon xf 50 f1.0 wide open instead, and you have got the bokeh of the medium format, as it is presented in the first triad of photos. 2) In all triads of photos, where three lenses of different focal lengths, 50, 85 and 300 mm, are used in three different systems, apsc, ff and mf, the same person has three different proportions, that is, normal and natural proportions in the 50mm crop lens, wider in the 85mm ff lens and the widest in the 300mm mf lens. That is very important to emphasize, if one goes for great bokeh without the distortion and compression of your subjects in longer focal lengths. For example, using a Fujinon xf 50 f1.0 wide open, you can get natural results, regarding lack of dirtortion in proportions, while achieving the very same bokeh of a ff or mf, something that is not presented in the current shootout with photos, in order to judge objectively the three systems and vote accordingly in the poll. 3) What hapens if we use 50mm lenses in the three systens. Well, then all three lenses present exactly the same bokeh and lack of distortion in proportions, and if you shoot your subject from the same distance, you ll get exactly the same framing, since the field of view remains the same. What is different, though, because of the different circle that is formed on the different sensors, is the size of your undistorted subject in the foreground, while the background remains exactly the same. In crop the subject is larger, though undistorted, while in ff is smaller and in mf the smallest. Only in this regard the 50mm f1.0 is equivalent to a 75mm f1.0 ff lens, BUT WITHOUT THE DISTORTION AND COMPRESSION OF THE 75MM FF LENS!!! If you want to achieve the same size of the foreground subject in all three 50mm lenses, you need to step a little back from your subject in crop, while step closer in mf. By doing so, though, the bokeh changes. In order to achieve the same bokeh in the three systems, after having step back or close to the subject, you need to open a bit the aperture in the crop, while stop down in mf. In addition, stepping back from your subject in crop, changes framming, for you can now include in your composition more of the blured background, which is beneficial in videography and filming, while you lose some of the background in ff and even more in mf. Therefore, in all three systems the 35mm to 50mm focal length lebses remain normal lenses, regarding distortion and lack of compression, achieving exactly the same bokeh at the same aperture shot from the same distance. In crop, though, if you step back to get the same size of your subject in the foreground, you gain more background, while the bokeh of a Fujinon xf 50mm f1.0 wide open, is now similar to a ff 50mm lens at f1.5 (because of x1.5 in crop sensor compared to ff).
    For all the above reasons, if there are fast lenses in crop system, you can get quite similar or even better results than with ff or even mf, depending on what you want to do.