As far as what passes for the 'debate' surrounding 'full frame' dSLRs is concerned, I've always been a mildly disinterested observer. Given that 35mm still cameras evolved out of a pre-existing movie standard (and that the first examples were widely derided as being too small for 'serious' use), I've never really understood what all the fuss was about.*
So much so, that when Nikon announced the FX-format (oh, ok, 'full frame' if you insist) D3 and the DX-format (1.5x 'crop', though it's not really a crop at all) D300, it was the smaller, lighter, cheaper D300 that interested me. And when I had the opportunity to try them at a pre-launch demo, I left my co-photographers drooling over the D3 and spent some time getting acquainted with the D300.
So how on earth did one of these behemoths...
...find its way into my camera bag last week? Given that I had no intention of buying a D3, I'm still pretty surprised myself. But it all makes sense, kinda. See, it's like this...
There's absolutely no doubt that the D300 fulfils nearly all of my needs. The trouble is, I've been yearning for a fast ultra-wide for a while. My faithful 12-24mm f/4 gave me the equivalent of an 18mm in 35mm terms, but its wide-open performance wasn't exactly stellar. So I replaced it with the 14-24mm f/2.8 in spite of some misgivings about its size, weight, price (and, after a few weeks' use, its practicality in wet conditions).
The new lens is astoundingly good, concerns about that vulnerable front element notwithstanding. Several reviews have called it the best ultra-wide ever made and, whilst I'm not in a position to agree or disagree, it is quite obscenely sharp.
There's always a 'but', isn't there? And the 'but' in this case is that it only gives me 21mm-worth of width, in 35mm terms, on the D300. That's a big difference from 18mm equivalent, and a world away from the 17mm that I used to have with my old film cameras (1mm might sound like a trivial amount, but at the wide end it makes a noticeable difference to angle of view).
So I've been looking for a way to get that width back. But none of the alternatives for the D300 looked like they'd give me both the speed and quality that I wanted... and all of them pre-supposed that I was happy adding a second wide lens. Which seemed, quite frankly, a bit daft.
And then the bottom fell out of the D3's price (well, OK, it dropped by a bit over 10%), and suddenly a 'what if?' thought popped into my head. What if I had a full frame camera? I'd be able to make full use of the 14mm of my lovely new lens, that's what. Wider than a very wide thing. And my plastic had hit the counter before you could say 'that's a lot of money for 7mm'.**
Which, of course, it is. But I've always been a fan of ultra-wides. The 17-35mm f/2.8 (which I still own) was semi-permanently attached to the front of my F5 and F6, and spent much of its life at the widest setting. Being able to shoot at 14mm is going to open up a whole world of new possibilities - and to that extent, at least, I'm beginning to understand some of the 'full frame' fuss. I still don't really care what the dimensions of the sensor are - but I do like the fact that I can go that wide with a seriously sharp, fast lens.
I'm confident that the combination of D3 and 14-24mm f/2.8 will allow me to get shots that I couldn't otherwise capture. Whether my bank manager is as impressed is, of course, an entirely different matter. Best start earning some money with it, then...
* In fact I've been watching Olympus's 4/3 format with interest for a few years. Ditching 35mm legacy standards makes a lot of sense, given all the problems everyone else has had with chromatic aberrations and the like. Olympus has some of the best lenses out there, period, and I might have been tempted to switch were it not for the fact that the 4/3 aspect ratio doesn't sit well with European A-format paper sizes.
** UK-based riders who've been around long enough may recall the Hairsine ratio. Named after rider, inveterate weight-weenie and occasional writer Jon Hairsine, it was intended to indicate the value for money of bike components in terms of the weight they'd shave per £ spent. The equivalent here would be width gained (in mm) per £ spent. Hmm, let's see. I've gone from 21mm to 14mm at a cost of... eeek!