I currently shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The 5D Mark II is the bottom of the few full sensor Canon bodies. Don’t assume that is a bad thing. The more expensive bodies have more battery power and faster electronics for very quick shooting like sports photography. And they are heavier. The 5D I believe is a easy to use, feature rich camera for those who want to do general shooting without overly specializing in particular and demanding aspects of photography.
That being said the 5D Mark II comes with a 200+ page manual, and more bells and whistles than any camera I have ever owned. It takes individual photos or full HD 1080p video. It has been used to film TV commercials and Hollywood movies. It packs so much capability that I don’t expect I will ever learn it all or even need to learn it all. But it does have many features I tend to use in a camera. It has a 21 megapixel sensor which gives large 23-33 megabyte raw files. There are 7 shooting modes plus 3 you can program yourself. These include Aperture Priority, Program, Time Value, Manual, Bulb & a couple of automatic modes. There are 4 metering modes. It has the ability to automatically bracket a metered reading by 1/3 stop increments up to 2 full stops. It can record jpegs in 6 sizes and raw in 3. It will do a few combinations of these also. It will shoot from ISO 100 to 6400, way higher than anything I’ve ever needed or used. A 16 gigabyte memory card will hold over 550 raw files. There are lots more to the feature list than the few things I’ve mentioned.
There is a minus side from my point of view. It has only 9 autofocus points, and even though it is lighter than its other full sensor siblings it is still a heavy camera.
Full size 24x36mm digital sensors vs. smaller digital sensors
When I made the migration from film cameras to digital the thing I wanted most was a full sized sensor. I was used to shooting on a 24x36mm piece of film and I didn’t want to adapt to a smaller format. I also wanted something that could use the few Canon lenses I kept.
A full sized sensor became very important because most of my photography has been in the wide to ultra wideangle range. This is going to become another technical explanation. You non-techie readers may want to bail out, but try to bear with this.
The normal range of a camera (1x or life size) is generally considered to be the square root of the sum of the square roots of the images height and width. A 35 mm camera has an image size of 24mm high by 36mm wide. The math is this: 24 squared is 576, 36 squared is 1296, 576+1296= 1872, the square root of 1872 is 43.27.
So a 43 mm lens length is normal for a 35mm camera? Yes and no. It used to be. At one time Nikon sold a 43-86mm manual zoom lens. I shot with one for years. It gave a theoretical range of 1x to 2x life size on the zoom. But over the years 50mm became more of the idea for a normal lens for the 35mm cameras and that is where current thinking lies.
In case you are wondering how this translates over to medium format cameras be they film or digital then 80mm is generally considered to be normal. For years most medium format cameras shot a square picture of 56x56mm. Do the math and you will get an answer of 79.20 mm, therefore the 80mm lens for medium format became the adopted practice. Some of the other medium formats have other size normal lenses.
Back to the 35mm cameras. So what about the sensor or film size? Most electronic cameras today use a number of different sized sensors. Most are smaller than 24x36mm and may even have a slightly different aspect ratio than 1:1.5, the aspect ratio of a true 35mm camera. If the camera has a fixed lens this is no problem, the manufacturer has allowed for this and will tell you what the zoom range is. After a while you will figure out where you like to shoot.
If you have an interchangeable lens camera body with a smaller sensor the situation becomes a bit more complicated. Many camera lenses are sold with fixed focal lengths. These are called prime lenses. If the lens has an adjustable focal length it becomes a zoom lenses. In either case the focal lengths are expressed in millimeters (mm) compared to a standard sized sensor of 24x36mm. If your camera has a standard sensor size and you use a 100 mm short telephoto lens you will get a photo that is roughly 2x magnification.
You must know the size of the sensor and make a ratio between the small sensor and a full size sensor. Many of the smaller sensor variants cover an area of 13.8×20.7 mm to 19.1×28.7 mm. There are others also. If you do the math you’ll see the two examples just given are exactly or almost exactly 1:1.5 ratio. You will also see that the sensor area of each is a lot smaller than 24×36 mm. Generally, most reduced size Canon sensors relate to a full size sensor with the ratio of 1:1.6, although some of them with the 19.2 x 28.8 mm sensor have a ratio of only 1:1.3. With the 1.6 that means you use a multiplier of 1.6 on your lens size. The multiplier for many Nikon cameras is about 1.5.
With the 1.6 multiplier that means your 100mm lens will act like a 160mm lens telephoto on certain interchangeable lens Canon bodies. A Nikon lens equivalent gives 150mm. If you want a long reach on a reasonable budget a 300mm f/4 lens becomes a 480mm f/4. Even better add a 1.4x tele-extender and you have almost a 700 mm reach at f/5.6. That is almost 14x normal and it still gives you enough light to compose and autofocus in the viewfinder. Besides being affordable for many shooters a 14x reach is also very impressive. Think of this in terms of binoculars. Most standard magnifications of binoculars are 7x.
This is great if you have long lenses and like to shoot telephoto because everything works out great for the telephoto shooter. But what happens if you like to shoot wide to ultra wide with a smaller sensor camera? What is your photo size in relation to life then? Unfortunately the multiplier is the same. A 20mm lens that was ultra wide becomes a 32mm lens, which is barely in the wide class. A 24mm lens, which is still quite wide becomes a 38+mm lens, almost back at the normal range.
Recognizing this problem Canon, Nikon & other vendors have made lenses in the wide area that counter this effect. Canon, the brand I know best, makes a lens rated 10-22mm for their reduced sensor format. It yields a 35mm photography equivalent of a 16-35mm focal length, which covers almost all of the wide angle bases. It is cheaper than an equivalent 35mm lens because it is smaller and uses less glass. It uses the same camera mount as a full sensor lens. Add to this the fact that reduced sized sensor cameras with or without interchangeable lens capability have captured most of the market. So why not use this? Many people do and are quite happy.
Besides the multiplier problem another issue is a lens engineered for a smaller sensor camera will not work on a camera made with a standard sized sensor. Think about it. A lens for a reduced size sensor has to focus light into a smaller area than a lens for a full sized sensor. If it is engineered for this smaller area then how could it possibly cover the larger area?
If I chose a full sensor camera in the future that smaller sensor lens would not work on the full sensor body. In other words small sensor cameras are really a different format than full size (35mm) cameras. The smaller sensor cameras are still very close to full size sensor cameras in capability. Most shooters consider small sensor interchangeable lens digital SLR camera to be fine for what would normally be 35mm work. The manufacturers tend to show both together on their websites. Many professionals carry both formats to be used depending on the shooting situation. But by design small sensor SLRs are compatible only in a one-way direction.
I did not want to deal with this issue. Because of my preferences I found myself in a position with only a very few choices in camera bodies.
(Shiprock, NM, Aug., 2004, shot with the Linhof 617)
Linhof Technorama 617
For about 10 years I owned a Linhof 617 with a Schneider 90mm lens. This camera lens combination gives a 3:1 aspect ratio. Some panorama buffs have told me it was not a true panoramic camera because the lens did not move across the film exposing 120 degrees of view or more. The Schneider was a fixed lens mounted to the camera. It was approximately equal to a 25mm view in a 35mm camera within its particular aspect ratio. It had no tilt, no shift, no movement unless you moved the whole unit.
If I had wanted to spend a few thousand dollars more I could have bought a 72mm lens for the camera yielding about an 18-20mm lens equivalent view. I can think of only one place I’ve been where this would have been more useful than the 90mm.
The Linhof is a very demanding camera. It is totally manual with no electronics what so ever. If you do not load the film just right it will wind incorrectly, sometimes overlapping photos, sometimes shortening them. Sighting the camera is done with a snap on viewfinder. The viewfinder is quite accurate for landscape work, but it is not accurate for close up work. That is because of the parallax of the viewfinder vs. the lens. The front center of the viewfinder is about 2 inches higher and 4 inches farther back than the front center of the lens. When you get close to a subject those differences begin to have an effect on your composition unless they are compensated for during the setup of the shot.
Because the camera has a large ultra wide lens it must be level, otherwise a curved horizon will appear in the photo. To avoid this a spirit level is mandatory and I always used it.
The lens itself has a huge front lens element. Filters must have a 95mm thread or you need an adapter & holder for 4×4 flat filters. This large size made the filters very expensive. In 2000 I seem to recall a 1 stop central neutral density filter for this camera cost $300. A central neutral density filter was also mandatory. Because of the extreme wide angle nature of the lens the light fall off at the edges of the photo required the 1 stop central neutral density filter.
The Linhof was tough on film. A roll of 120 yielded only 4 photos. A roll of 220 doubled that. When you burn film like that you slow down and think of what you are going to do. And that is the simple reason why despite its lack of ease of use I was attracted to the Linhof 617. It slowed you down! Because it wasn’t automatic, and because it was costly it made you think of what you were going to do, and how to make the most of it. This was an invaluable lesson and it spilled over into my more normal format photography!
I shot numerous rolls of film with the Linhof, and I blew a lot of rolls for sure. My keepers are technically correct, but very few are great shots. For me I found the few really good photos from it were best if cropped down to a more manageable size or a more popular aspect ratio. This could be because I was so used to shooting a more popular ratio that the extreme rectangle of the Linhof never took hold of my sense of composition.
You will see a perfect example of that in the photos in this website. I found the Linhof panoramic format required a lot of getting used to, and it demanded a different mind set than a more normal aspect ratio camera. But it was a lot of fun.
If you shoot film and can afford this type of camera I cannot recommend it enough. The rigorous way of shooting that it imposes on you in both technique and composition is only beneficial in the long run. I have never owned a 4×5 (or larger) field camera, but I imagine the same would be true there also.
Some day someone may adapt a large digital sensor back to the Linhof 617. If that day ever comes I will really miss the 617.