Bigger is better? OK, but why?

What gives large formats “depth”, “roundness”, and “dimensionality”?

Whether it’s Quentin Tarantino shooting “Hateful Eight” in 65mm, the Panavision Millenium DXL, RED’s VV sensors, the Arri Alexa 65, or the new Sony Venice, large format cinematography is being touted as the Next Big Thing (pun intended). Large format—from full-frame 36 x 24mm to RED/DXL’s 40.96 x 21.60mm, Arri’s 54.12 x 25.58 mm, and beyond—is said to deliver greater depth, dimensionality, roundness, naturalness, and just all-around goodness than plain old Super35mm at 25 x 18mm (more or less, depending on the camera). It’s not uncommon to find rapturous reports of using large formats, and there’s a raging discussion on CML this past week about just why bigger is better.

What strikes me in many of these colloquies is that it’s exceedingly hard to pin down what exactly it is about large format work that gives it that special quality. There tends to be a lot of handwaving, with amorphous terms like “naturalness”, “dimensionality”, and “roundness” that elude definition. Sometimes two images are presented for comparison: shot on different film stocks, of different subjects, with different lighting in different environments, using different aspect ratios (we are not making this up). It’s all a bit too much “is this apple more like a banana, or is this tangerine more like a guava?” for my tastes.

Trust, but verify

In an attempt to better understand the “large format experience”, I decided to shoot the same subjects on two or three formats of different sizes, varying some parameters while keeping others constant. In this way I could look at individual factors, including:

  • Aspect ratio
  • Resolution
  • Focal length / angle of view
  • Aperture / depth of field
  • “Look-around”

If there’s magic sauce involved, this methodology should squeeze it out.

To that end, I procured two Sony ILCs: an A6300 with a Super35mm-ish sensor, and an A7ii as a full-frame exemplar. Both cameras have the same photosite count so I could match resolutions between formats. They also have similar image rendering characteristics, so I can minimize the effects of differing color and tonal-scale responses.

Both cameras came with kit lenses, a 16–50mm f/3.5–5.6 on the A6300 and a 28–70mm f/3.5–5.6 on the A7ii. These are typical Sony kit zooms: they render images with boringly middle-of-the-road good quality, low distortion, minimal flare, and unfussy bokeh. Importantly, the lenses lack substantial differentiating “character”, so there’s nothing that calls attention to the particular lens used to make an image. Thus I can avoid the sorts of biases that might creep in from shooting one format with a crisp Zeiss prime and the other with, say, a Lomo Petzval.

You might ask why I didn’t get some proper video or cine cameras and lenses for this test, like a Sony F55 for S35mm and a Venice for full frame, and a case full of matched Zeiss primes for each. All I can say is: if you pay for the rentals and insurance, I’ll happily test ’em.

I also threw a Panasonic GH5 into the mix, with an MFT sensor half the width of full-frame. Its photosite count is 14% lower and its color and tone handling are different, but its 12-35mm f/2.8 zoom is just about as boring as the Sony kit zooms when it comes to “character”. I shot all three cameras in their Rec.709 modes (PP4 on the Sonys, Like709 on the Panasonic) to get them all as close as possible to a common rendering.

  • Sony A7ii: 35.8 x 20.1 mm (in 16×9); 6000 x 3376 photosites. Full-frame, “FF”
  • Sony A6300: 23.5 x 13.2mm (in 16×9); 6000 x 3376 photosites. Super35mm, “S35mm”
  • Panasonic GH5: 17.3 x 9.7mm (in 16×9); 5184 x 2916 photosites. Micro Four Thirds, “MFT”

Shall we have a look? I’ll present a series of image comparisons. In each one, I’ve varied one thing while keeping everything else constant—but I won’t say what I’ve done. Have a look at each comparison and see how the images vary—if they do.

For best results use a “large format” tablet, laptop, or desktop machine; a “small format” phone won’t give the clearest view of the images. Yes, sometimes size does matter.

Which images have the most “dimensionality”, “depth”, “roundness”, and/or “naturalness”? What have I changed between the images in a comparison, and how do those changes contribute to the “large format look”?

Afterwards, I’ll show each series again, with explanations and commentary.

TL;DR version: skip to page 2 if you want to bypass all the freakin’ Junior Detective work and just see what the heck it was I did. Because, maybe—just maybe—you have a life and want to get on with it?


Series 1

Series 1 image A

Series 1 image B

Series 1 image C


Series 2

Series 2 image B

Series 2 image D

Series 2 image E


Series 3

Series 3 image B

Series 3 image F

Series 3 image G

Series 3 image H


Series 4

Series 4 image B

Series 4 image I


Series 5

Series 5 image S

Series 5 image J

Series 5 image L


Series 6

Series 6 image M


Series 7

Series 7 image X

Series 7 image Y

Series 7 image Z


Series 8

Series 8, shot T

Series 8, shot U

Series 8, shot V


Series 9

Series 9 image B3

Series 9 image B

When you’re ready, go to page 2…


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Adam Wilt

Adam Wilt has been working off and on in film and video for the past thirty years, while paying the bills writing software for animation, automation, broadcast graphics, and real-time control for companies including Abekas, Pinnacle, Omneon, CBS, and ABC. Since 1997 his website, adamwilt.com, has been a popular reference for information on the DV formats. He reviewed cameras for DV Magazine and started its “Technical Difficulties” column, and taught classes and led panels at NAB, IBC, and DV Expo. He co-authored the book, “Optimizing Your Final Cut Pro System”, part of the Apple Pro Training series. He currently writes for ProVideoCoalition.com and DVInfo.net, and creates iPhone apps like Cine Meter II and FieldMonitor.

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7 Comments on "Bigger is better? OK, but why?"

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Daniel Colmenares
Daniel Colmenares
Adam, First thanks again for taking the time to make these articles. I find them to be very helpful and insightful. You nailed the factor that I think is just not being explored enough about big formats – Specifically test #8. Look at the background magnification between the A7 and a6300 and the GH5. The A7S’s background is less magnified and feels less compressed and gives me a better sense of depth to the room. I feels more “normal”. This is something that I really love about the larger format’s inherent shallower depth of field and larger field of view… Read more »
Richard van den Boogaard

Thanks for taking the time to do these elaborate tests – very insightful.

The key reason why I would prefer an FF sensor over an S35 has to do with flexibility, although both formats have its merits.

With FF, you can shoot under more difficult circumstances
– tight spaces
– dark locations

With S35 (or MFT even more so), you can reach further
– crop factor (1.6 for S35 or 2.2 for MFT)

Also, with FF, you get to use all of your glass, not a (sub-optimal) portion of it.

Adam Wilt
Hi Richard, Agreed: it’s easier to find wider lenses for larger formats, and if your larger format has higher resolution, you can shoot wider and still preserve the critical details needed to read the scene, like nuances of an actor’s expression or the glint in her eyes. And, most of the time, a larger sensor will be better in low light than a smaller sensor. As to “all of your glass, not a (sub-optimal) portion of it”, that assumes two things: you’re using the same lens—or at least, lenses designed for large-format imaging—on both large and small formats, and that… Read more »
Paris
Thank you for this test. I’ve been trying to convince people of these points for years. But there’s a kind of hard wired correlation in a lot of minds of focal length to perspective. And to a lesser degree angle of view. When perspective is entirely a function of subject to camera distance. And angle of view relative to focal length is entirely dependent on format size. So when one is familiar with FF 35mm for example, and learns that a 24mm is a “wide angle” with certain charateristics and perspective distortions, they assume that carries over to other formats.… Read more »
Adam Wilt
Hi Paris, No argument whatsoever with any of your points from a technical perspective, but implementation could be a nightmare. The active imager size on various “S35mm cameras” is all over the map: Arri isn’t the same as Arri open gate, which isn’t the same as F55, which isn’t the same as Varicam, which isn’t the same as EVA1, which isn’t the same as EVA1 with EIS. And I haven’t even thrown in the various RED active sizes based on the umpteen different resolutions they shoot. So what you really need is an update to /i and LDS and EOS… Read more »
Paris Remillard
Paris Remillard

Ha! So true on all points. Thanks again for the test.