Home Cameras/Lenses Leica DSLR Full Frame v Mirrorless Cropframe: Are we ready to downsize?

DSLR Full Frame v Mirrorless Cropframe: Are we ready to downsize?


A real professional, judging by the equipment.  I took this image a couple of months ago with the Leica SL and the (relatively) tiny 35mm Zeiss f/1.4 Distagon that I reviewed this week. The occasion was the opening of a new mural under an Underground railway bridge in West London. The event attracted a surprisingly large number of visitors, all of whom were confined to a small area. So a large telephoto lens was perhaps not the best tool.

Admittedly, the Leica SL is no shrinking violet in the size stakes either, but my rig was considerably more modest with the Distagon in tow. This shot reminds me of the perennial problem of size versus performance. If you need a full-frame camera or, even, a medium format, the size of the lenses is the penalty you pay. The SL is no exception in this respect, given the size and weight of even the standard 24-90mm zoom. There is no overcoming the laws of physics, and that’s one of the major reasons there has been such interest in crop-frame sensors.

Performance of micro four-thirds sensors, for instance, has improved dramatically over the past five years, with impressive advances in dynamic range and low-light capability. However, larger sensors have also forged ahead in performance and everything has moved along a notch or two. There is still a significant gap in results. But it’s all a matter of horses for courses.

What do you think? Is it still worth humping a full-frame camera and a bag hefty zooms around with you? Or should we ditch all this gear and buy a G9 or an OM-D E-M1? Maybe we should all buy an RX100 and have done with it…..


  1. I switched from full frame Canon EOS to Fuji-X and I will never go back again. OK, I still have my Leica M gear, that I love to use. 😉 But thats a different story. The X-Pro2 produces images of a quality, way better than needed for 99 % of most applications (prints from small up to big sizes, photo books up to coffe table size, photo folios, web presentations…). I am convinced that the same goes for 20 megapixel Olympus and Panasonic cameras.

    Indeed we have now reached a quality level in cameras and lenses that IMHO talking about camera gear has become an absolute waste of time. Let’s concentrate on photography instead.

    • I hesitate to say this because I’ve seen similar statements from 2005 when sensors were 5MP at best. But I do think we have reached a point where camera performance is good enough for most uses. Indeed, digital camera reproduction at enlargement has already exceeded film (at least in my opinion) and it could be argued that a competent camera from today — M10, Fuji, Sony, whatever — will produce excellent results for years to come.

      • It has well exceeded film, thats for sure, Mike. Years ago, when digitizing my film negatives and slides I did extensive testing and comparing and came to the conclusion that a 35mm slide (or negative) has a resolution power of about 6 to 7 megapixel. Thats all. If the film grain is visible there is no more information to use.

        I think that all that megapixel-madness has become pretty much irrelevant for my photographic work because… Hmm, just two examples. A photograph of 30 x 45 cms to hang on the wall (50 x 70 cms matted and framed) is just 18.8 megapixels in size. A pretty large photograph for use in a book of lets say 20 x 30 cms is just 8.4 megapixels in size.

        And even the occasional large print can be easily "upsized" in Photoshop without significant visible loss in quality. I see the proof every day when I get into my living room. Above the sofa I have a print of 1 meter by 1.5 meters, I made from an 8 megapixel photograph.

        The ideal viewing distance for a photograph is about 2 times it’s diagonal. Of course there are occasional applications where a 50 or 100 megapixel camera is a solution e.g. huge backlit murals. But how many of those things do we do during our careers?

        What I am trying to say is, that is so easy to fall prey to industry’s constituted pressure to keep buying the latest and greatest gear without scrutinizing whether this makes sense or not. Since the introduction of the CMOS-sensor the DSLR concept has become obsolete–a mirror, mirrorbox and a prism are not necessary anymore.

        • All very true, Frank. We do become obsessed with latest and greatest. But there are always people wanting to get on the bandwagon at some stage and that’s why it’s good to look at what is new from time to time. To be honest, a Leica M10 could be my one camera if it had to be.

  2. Hi Mike,

    As you well know I am currently walking around with the Leica X, one camera, one lens, and APS-C. Some of my images have been turned in to large canvas’s at Seargeant towers, and still look awesome. They are probably the only time I have taken images beyond prints. I would go so far as to say they hold up against the canvas’s from images out of my D300s.

    The only difference I have spotted in the images I have, is that the small batch I have from the M10, are significantly better quality than the images out of my X. But then the sensor is three years younger and full frame. But is it worth the difference in price, that is the question I cannot answer at present.

    The only camera worth having, is the one your using, and needs to be in your hand. So I tell everyone, get out and use the bloomin thing, as they look shocking as bookends.

    Have a good day.


  3. You always ask good questions. As I look at your image above, I’m reminded why the FF SL still has an important place. It has a unique clarity that impresses and satisfies. I use it when I want that clarity in my woodsy landscapes. That said, I also love the G9! I just went hiking with it and the 15mm Panasonic Leica and the files look fantastic. I honestly believe the G9 sensor is somehow a step above my other recent experiences with M43s. Surely the Leica designed lenses play into that, though.

    I just purchased the GX9 too, which I’ll pair with the 15mm as an always-on-hand camera for family snaps and experimentation. The G9 has the beautiful 12-60mm attached to it (or glued, as some say). I find the G9 highly satisfying to use.

    To provide an answer to your question – honestly, I could be perfectly happy with just the G9. But the SL still serves a purpose and it satisfies in a way that no other camera has for me – but it also has a specific purpose nowadays. Otherwise, it’s the G9/GX9! I tend to print small because I have an affinity for small prints – the M43 sensor is more than adequate for that. As an example, I just created a book at Adoramapix that’s just 4.5×6 inches! I can’t explain my affinity for small prints, but somehow they feel more "poetic" to me (for lack of a better way to describe them).

    All that said, maybe the iPhone is all I might need. I use it a lot too because it’s there and it’s an easy way to scratch the creative/photography itch. And I print them out with Fuji Instax, which is great fun and a great way to experiment (I tend to use the square film and print B&W most often).

    • I will be interested in our experiences with the GX9 when you have had some experience. I took the view that I prefer to keep the GX8 because of the slightly trimmed-down-to-a-price nature of the GX9. I’m very happy with the G9 and have kept the GX8 as a backup, although frankly, it hasn’t been off the shelf since the G9 arrived

      • Happy to share after some experience! That was my experience too – after the G9 arrived the GX8 was left out. The G9 is both more enjoyable to use and I could swear the IQ is that much better (in dynamic range in particular, and of course no moire filter). The GX9 is said to be exactly the same, albeit different to use.

  4. Mike

    You speak of "horses for courses" and you are of course right. But I would suggest that the only horses who actually need full frame gear are those mostly pro sports/action and landscape photographers who need and use to the full the advantages of full frame, including ultra low light performance, sensitivity and ruggedness.Indeed an increasing number of pros use apsc for example Kevin Mullins (wedding) and Dan Bailey (action/sports) who is no relation of mine by the way.

    I do not in any way knock the superb quality of full frame cameras of any brand but merely question whether there is any point in lugging around such full frame gear if you are not utilising their unique strengths?

    I would also argue that although you are correct that the goal posts are always moving and both full frame and apsc have improved, nevertheless sales in the market demonstrate that apsc mirrorless cameras are growing fast whereas dslrs including full frame are not. The message is in the market.

    I would have supported your final remarks about ditching dslrs and replacing them with Olympus and Sony gear if only you had also included Fuji in your recommendation!



      • I am reading carefully but not I think writing very clearly as I should have specified that it is growth of all mirrorless cameras, of varying size of sensor, which is far eclipsing dslr growth, not just apsc alone. Apologies!

  5. "Mirrorless" is a red herring to me – a marketing lever. I don’t care whether I’m using mirrorless or DSLR, I care more about how quickly I can operate the camera and how long it takes to process the image. Leica, Canon and Nikon still do it best.

    Sony, Ricoh, Oly M43, and Fuji are competent cameras, but I just don’t want them. They always seem to be a half a bubble off.

  6. Of course mirrorless is not a red herring once once one understands the technology difference and advantages of each system.

    However, I am a perfectionist and for my joy, I have recently tried Panasonic G9 and an assortment of premium glass from Oly and Pana. My only hesitation with my move to MFT was the number of bits per pixel but that will come with time. The size and rendering of the premium glass puts the fun and joy back into my photography especially since suffering a rear ending 3 weeks ago and a concussion and whiplash. The M43 has become of age for most photographers. Many pros do not really need it anymore if they really checked out smaller sensors assuming the glass they really need is available. My Leica SL will be soon sold.
    I was considering APC but decided M43 is now adequate (17x 22”) prints. I cannot believe the number of camera club members posturing with their pro grade Nikon and Canon systems that have pictures of birds on a twig that never get beyond their phone or flikr. Canon and Nikon are making surviving off of technically incompetent “photographers”. I think if only real professionals were buying Canon or Nikon, one of them would be gone and there would be a much slower rollout of cameras.

  7. By the way, there was a magic with the Leica SL and the SL 24-90 I looked at files on my high end 30” colour managed monitor. The natural colours of sky were amazing However, printed there was not enough difference to justify the weight. So I am not trying to say the Pana G9 is equivalent by any means, but for my purposes, it does not justify the weight and I want a bag filled with more glass and I do not have assistants to carry it. And for general images, no body would spot any difference.

  8. I think with the best sensors of today, our cameras provide performance equal to one sensor size up from 3 or 4-years-ago. My Leica M10 or any modern Sony, Nikon or Canon full frame system can deliver results similar to a generation and a half back of medium format in most ways, just as today’s APS-C is more than a match for a Canon 5D3, Leica M240 or equivalent and today’s M4/3 equals something like a Canon 7D or Fuji XT-1.

    By extension, today’s M4/3 can match the performance of full-frame from 3 generations back quite well, with today’s M4/3 easily matching performance of an original Canon 5D or Nikon D700 and the latest Fuji X100F or XT-2 matching quite well in most ways with something from digital medium format’s first generation.

    Even if we stay with products from a given generation, there is little quality loss going down one or even two sizes unless one prints large. I recently went on a shoot and landed my Leica M10 to a friend and shot exclusively with the Fuji X100F. Comparing similar shots with similar lenses (Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH) there was a quality difference when pixel peeping, but not much on 8X10 or even 11X14 prints.

  9. Hi MIke
    Despite your reluctance toward the GX(, I’m very happy with mine on the Leica and Panasonic Lumix lenses – in fact I have recently tested the Lumix G Vario 12-60 against the Leica 12-60 and found that there is hardly a detectable difference – this made me very sad! But given the weight difference…

    I’m still waiting like most of us for a lighter version of the SL – when I will very happily swap out my CL (but not my TL which is so comfortable as a walk around with the pancake 18…)
    As for my M10 or my Q I uses them only for special occasions now – the CL does everything thing that the SL used to do.

    • I will be interested to hear your views on the GX9 in due course. I have nothing against it other than the fact that I have a GX8 on the shelf, and that has the advantage of weather protection. I need to handle one and see what I think. It’s also interesting to hear your comparison between the two 12-60s. If there is indeed little difference, the price difference definitely has a big bearing on choice. I’m wondering if these two could be the same lenses, just packaged differently. I must check the detailed specifications.

  10. Mike

    It is interesting that you are bringing this subject up at this time. As I have been thinking along these lines for myself recently, though in the reverse direction. I have been considering going back to full frame from M43.

    Why? One of the reasons is, if I may paraphrase you; If you want or need a crop framed sensor (APS-C or M43) the magnification and focus reach of the lenses is part of the price you pay. Since, there is no overcoming the laws of physics.

    While you are correct, advances in sensor and image processing software technology make cameras with smaller sensors viable. And the smaller camera size allows us to be much more spontaneous. The optics hold us back a bit.

    The reason for this is the concept of equivalence. In order to get an equivalent field of view using a smaller sensor, we need to reduce the focal length of the lens. Which can’t focus to the same maximum distance as the longer lens. So we need to be proportionately closer to our subject to achieve approximately the same image. Which may not be desirable or possible to do.

    Personally I have mixed emotions. A year ago I sent my M9 to Leica for service and in the five months it was there, I found that as long as I am close enough to my subject my Olympus Pen-F was a satisfactory replacement in my street projects. On the other hand, I find the Pen-F to be a little disappointing for travel and landscape images. Particularly in the normal to wide angle focal length ranges, and usually at distances greater than 20 ft (7 m).

    Concerning your question about carrying a full size DSLR and a bag full of zoom lenses, I am still on the fence about that. My M9 kit is acceptable to carry all day. But I have been experimenting with a Sony A7II and adapted Canon EF lenses, which is a significantly heavier kit than my M9. I have carried it all day. Though, it does have me rethinking what will be in my revised "landscape/walking" kit. Which may end with a body and two lenses in a much smaller bag.


    • Paul,
      I can understand your reasoning here. While I find the M10 just about the right weight and size, I was frustrated in my quest for a full-frame mirrorless camera by the weight of the SL and its associated lenses. But the recent arrival of the A7III has set me thinking. This camera is 10g lighter than the M10 at 650g. And while it is a little bulkier, the EVF and grip are useful. Surprisingly, the A7III is the same weight as the Panasonic G9 and only 100g heavier than the OM-D E-M1.

      Of course, that’s only part of the story. The SL weighs 850g and the basic 24-90 zoom is a monster. But with M lenses, the Sony is no heavier than the G9 or the M10, so what’s not to like — full frame and no weight penalty.

      Once you start getting into autofocus lenses, however, the weight penalty is all too clear. It’s a constant dilemma and I wish you well with your deliberations.



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