Editor's note: this essay is written by long-time OHM IMAGE friend, and confidant, Thomas Tsai aka Mr. T, of Cymbacavum fame. You may also know Thomas Tsai from products such as OHM AIR, and The A-Team. Be sure to check out his flickr account, Thomas Tsai Photography (Facebook), and Cymbacavum. And, stay tune for more. His journey has just begun.
When it comes to photography, I’m not exactly a gear head. I’ve been using my Canon EOS 40D for the past eight years or so, and it has served me quite well. In today’s terms, however, the 40D is a stinker. The cheapest micro 4/3rds cameras best it in image quality on DxOMark, and my iPhone theoretically has the better autofocus system. It doesn’t even have video capability.
Yet, I’ve taken it to a couple of exotic locales: in chest deep water and hanging off the side of a catamaran, in the throng of mass civil disobedience at a student protest (pushing ISO 3200 no less), and have gotten pristine images in the studio just as well. At high ISOs, I’d continually see ugly banding on it, but a little bit of elbow grease in Photoshop would still give me suable web images. To put it short, the 40D, despite its age and “inferior capabilities”, has never limited me from getting the shot I want.
So why bother upgrading? Well, after many, many shutter clicks, my 40D is nearing the end of its life cycle, and it’s just not worth spending a few hundred getting the shutter replaced. I’ve also always wanted to go full frame. Having learned photography in the digital age, I’ve never gotten the pleasure of looking down the viewfinder of a film SLR, so getting a full frame camera is going to be the closest thing I ever get to shooting in the 135 format (using full auto film cameras and disposables notwithstanding).
As a Canon shooter, I knew that I was going to continue with the EOS line. All the buttons and functions are familiar, and I’ve already invested in a few EF lenses that I’d hesitate to part with. Indeed, Sony and Nikon have outstripped Canon in terms of sensor performance, but I wasn’t about to change systems just for a little more dynamic range. Therefore, I had a few options: the venerable 5D Mark III and its high resolution 5Ds/R derivatives, the speedy and rugged 1DX, and the upstart 6D. The 1DX and 5Ds/R were out of the question in both budget and usage, while the 5D Mark III was a little pricey for my tastes, especially when there might be a 5D Mark IV looming out in the horizon.
So really, the only option for me was the 6D, but I disliked the 6D’s prosumer-derived button layout. I much preferred the layout of the 5D Mark II and Mark III. However, with local used prices on the 5D Mark II so close to those of the 6D’s (at the expense of lessened resale value and with poorer autofocus), I decided to bite the bullet on the button layout and get the 6D.
I’d be getting a lot in return for the sacrifice I’d be making for a less convenient button interface. For starters, the 6D is considered to have the best low-light noise performance of any Canon camera on the market. It also allows Wi-Fi tethering which is a boon for studio work. There is also this point: the 6D should retain better resale value than the Mark II, which would suffer significantly lower interest amongst second-hand buyers once used Mark IIIs hit flood the market.
Luckily, I found a great seller and a great price for a used 6D --- the unit had a low number of shutter clicks (just over 10,000), was still under full warranty. It had also just undergone a full sensor cleaning and maintenance service at the Canon Service Center. I also picked up a 24-70mm f/4L IS USM along the way to complete the kit. All in all, this entire setup cost me less than $1700 USD, which is less than a new 6D body in spite of current Canon rebates.
And so, my full frame journey begins, in stereotypical fashion with an “entry-level” full frame camera. Canon really did mean for the 6D to be enthusiast-oriented. The 6D is lighter than the 40D --- 680 grams to the 40D’s 740 grams. It’s supposed to be barely heavier (15 grams) than the current 70D, making the 6D a veritable lightweight in the world of full-frame cameras. In my hands, the 6D feels super light, especially compared to my 40D (which has a host of things attached to it, such as a heavy quick-release plate).
Of course, the 40D was built during an era where the XXD lineup was more of a semi-pro camera (designed as a backup to the 1D series), rather than a high-end consumer camera, so the frame is fully magnesium, whilst the 6D’s top plate is polycarbonate-based (Canon claims the use of composites was necessary for Wi-Fi and GPS functionality, but plastics also help lower the manufacturing cost). I’m still getting used to the weight reduction, but lighter weight isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the 6D shouldn’t lose out to the 40D in durability.
Luckily, the D-pad and general feel of the buttons of the 6D are better than expected; since the layout was lifted almost straight from the 60D (a camera my father owns), I had been dreading the user experience. But the transition is better than expected. The buttons are more tactile and the mode dial clicks far more confidently. The omission of a white balance button on the top panel has been terrible, however. It’s strange to have to go into the quick menu to change white balance.
The other purported “weakness” of the 6D, the autofocus system, is not so bad. I rarely ever shoot action, so accurately tracking subjects is not at all important to me. What is important is focus under low light conditions, and the 6D works wonders. I can hit focus with it in pretty much any lighting condition around, as the centre focus point has a sensitivity of -3.0 EV, and can work in cross-type mode with any lens faster than f/5.6.
Interestingly, my Sigma 50mm f/1.4 is actually hitting focus better with the 6D than with the 40D. It’s pretty much common knowledge that prior to Sigma’s Global Vision campaign, Sigma lens autofocus was pretty hit-or-miss (pun intended). The 50/1.4 lens was particularly bad wide open, and my copy consistently back focused when shot wide open on the 40D. It’s possible that the centre focus point of the 6D, with its improved sensitivity, just simply works better than the eight year-old 40D’s autofocus system. I don’t even need to make AF micro adjustments.
Functionally, my adjustment to full frame has been good. The biggest draw for me was always the larger, brighter viewfinders that come with full frame cameras. It’s been a little strange to see lenses’ field of view without the crop factor, but I’m sure I’ll quickly adjust. Already, I’m loving how my 50mm lens is suddenly perfect for the street, though this means I’ll need to find a dedicated portrait lens for my work in the studio.
Full frame mirror vibration is obvious, though. I’d thought I had steady hands, as I regularly went down to the minimum handhold-able shutter speed on the crop sensor 40D with ease. But while I’ve yet to shoot a lot of low light shots with the 6D yet, I’m definitely feeling the mirror vibration down my hands a lot more with the 6D. Thus, I’ll be paying extra attention to see whether or not the extra vibration will affect the sharpness of my shots. Maybe it’ll end up being a nonentity. Maybe not.
At the same time, I am looking forward to the improved dynamic range. While I don’t shoot much landscape photography these days, I’m excited for the extra 2-4 stops of dynamic range I get out of a full frame sensor. I don’t really care to invest in graduated NDs, so I’ll have a little more digital headroom when taking a sunrise or sunset shot when I’m out traveling. Yes, that’s technically very “lazy” of me, but I want that convenience!
Only time will tell how I ultimately feel about going full frame; maybe I’ll really appreciate the benefits, or end up lamenting the extra cost for not much improvement in image quality. But so far, I’m really liking the change.
Editor's note: All images shot for this review come straight from RAW conversions. Apart from the noise reduction inherent in resampling for lower resolutions, no noise reduction was made on any photograph.
Thank you Thomas.