A popular statement in the world of photography is that there is a "special look" to images captured with larger sensors/film formats that you simply can't get from smaller sensors. I fail to see that as long as I keep the settings the same for both cameras and taking the crop factor into account regarding both the focal length and the aperture (and the ISO for image quality equivalency).

Of course there are certain lenses that can't be manufactured to certain specifications, but I'm referring to comparisons where the equivalent lens exists for both systems.

Is there any truth to the statement that there is a "special look" to images from large sensors (correcting for the focal length/aperture and ISO) or is it simply a gear talk fallacy?

Clarification: I'm fully aware of that it's easier to achieve the shallow DOF look with larger image sensors and it could very well be the reason behind the statement. However I'm only interested in if there is anything special with the larger formats when correcting for the aperture/focal length and ISO.


Many of the frequently touted reasons for larger sensors producing better images, more subject isolation, lower noise, better dynamic range, all assume you keep the f-stop constant, i.e. you use f/2.8 on a smaller sensor and f/2.8 on a larger sensor.

However this question is specifically asking about what happens if you keep the DOF the same. This is actually perfectly reasonable as if you look at larger format lenses the widest f-stop you can get remains roughly constant.

Medium format lens designs are often said to be more "relaxed" in that they don't have to work as hard to achieve equivalent performance figures, especially at large apertures and longer focal lengths. This roughly translates into things like greater microcontrast, that can be observed in images.

An f/1.0 lens for APS-C would usually be fairly soft wide open, with lots of spherical aberration, field curvature, whereas you would expect an f/2.0 lens for medium format to be much better, (think Canon/Nikon/Zeiss 100mm f/2.0 but with a larger image circle). The fact that "fast" lenses are very rare is more down to the excessive weight that would result than any extra difficulty in making an f/2 lens.

It's worth emphasizing that these differences are small, even smaller when you're talking about digital medium format backs and the lower end of the market which are only 1.2 or 1.3 times the [diagonal] size of 35mm sensors.

I wouldn't expect anyone to be able to pick out medium format images reliably in a double blind trial, so in that sense there isn't a "special look". However I imagine studio photographers who work with both systems regularly will notice subtle differences.

Large format photography is a different ball game, however. There are some effects that come about when you approach 1:1 magnification. Your standard DOF calculator figures are no longer accurate for starters. With a 35mm sensor, macro photographs are of objects approximately 35mm or smaller.

With an 8x10 large format camera, you can take macro photos of people and include their whole face. Thus an 8x10 close headshot with a 200mm lens set to f/11 would not be the same as made with the equivalent (in terms of FOV, entrance pupil) 26mm f/1.4 on a full frame 35mm camera due to the magnification being much greater with the large format camera.

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    Great that you've actually took the time and read my question carefully. Just to be clear, is the lenses that you refer to as not having to work as hard i.e. the technical constraints are not as demanding during manufacture or is it something else? – Hugo Feb 25 '15 at 12:08
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    @Hugo is both the design and manufacture that's easier (for a given performance target). Imagine making a really good 100mm f/2.8 that's sharp wide open. Now imagine trying to match that with a format half the width/height, which means designing an 50mm f/1.4 that's resolves twice the lines/mm wide open. Now imagine halving the format again and designing a 25mm f/0.7 that resolves twice the lines/mm again! That's roughly what happens when you move from 6x7 to full frame to micro four-thirds. – Matt Grum Feb 25 '15 at 14:19

Larger sensor, in digital photography at least, means that you have more pixels, or bigger pixels, or usually a combination of both.

A bigger pixel can store more information, it means that you will have a better signal to noise ratio, as 'damned thruths' said, and it also means that you'll have a better dynamic range, so you'll be able to get more information from the RAW file in the under and over exposed areas.

It also allows to have better color depth. For example, you can have more details on a bright red flower. With a smaller sensor, it will be uniformly red. With a big sensor, you will have more details and texture and micro-contrast instead of fully saturated red.

This page explains in details why a bigger pixel is better:


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    "A bigger pixel can store more information"... logically false – Anentropic Feb 24 '15 at 18:26
  • Look at the link I added to my answer, it explains everything. – Fumidu Feb 24 '15 at 22:30
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    Theory aside, though, does this actually contribute meaningfully to a visibly-distinct "special look"? – Please Read My Profile Feb 24 '15 at 22:55
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    Again, like every other answer here it completely ignores the last paragraph of the question which states depth of field must be the same, this the larger format lens has to be stopped down. Once you do this all the advantages you state, such as better colour depth, disappear. The link you provide is irrelevant as it's talking about a completely different case where you keep the f-ratio (and not the entrance pupil) the same. – Matt Grum Feb 25 '15 at 9:18
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    @Fumidu stopping down to increase depth of field to match a smaller sensor reduces the amount of light per unit area, thus you have increased noise and decreased dynamic range. Compare DR, colour depth etc. plots of cameras at ISO 400 and ISO 1600. – Matt Grum Feb 25 '15 at 13:15

The larger sensor simply allows for higher quality photos. I assume the very low noise ratio will give a photo from a fullframe just a little more of a "professional" look.

The people using fullframes invest in their equipment because they spend a significant amount of time making photos. Any professional will probably carry a fullframe. So naturally the collection of fullframe photos out there is of much higher quality.

But is this statement still popular? Sensors have improved dramatically the past years. Large sensors where obviously better in the past, but now the small sensors are getting better. Software corrections fix most of the problems these days. Micro four thirds are getting popular because most people don't even see the difference anymore.

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    When you are required to match depth of field, as stated in the original question you must stop down and no longer have any advantage when it comes to noise. – Matt Grum Feb 25 '15 at 9:20
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    There are plenty of "professionals" who don't use full frame. – vclaw Feb 25 '15 at 14:22

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