Expanding Your Vision with Full Frame Cinematography

“Full Frame is affordable, available and exciting to use.”

By Snehal Patel

Full Frame Cinema camera systems like the Alexa LF, Sony Venice, RED Monstro, Canon C700 FF and others have ushered in a new flavor of digital cinematography that makes use of larger silicone sensors and cinema lenses with increased projection sizes. Slotted in-between the popular Super 35mm size and the much larger 65mm type of sensor found in the Alexa 65, this new format is quickly making a splash among cinematographers. Full frame digital cameras and lenses have been working on commercials, television shows and feature films since the introduction of the RED Monstro. The release of the Sony Venice has spread usage further mainstream. The Alexa LF (Large Format) promises to be the go-to camera for fans of the Alexa sensor. Full Frame is affordable, available and exciting to use.

Digital full frame cameras are nothing new, as evidenced by the HD-capable Canon 5D still camera, which has sported a full frame sensor with 16×9 cropped video recording mode since the Mark-II version was introduced almost a decade ago. The modern Sony A7 series has 4K recording in full frame mode, making the technology quite accessible. Full frame is defined as a 24mm x 36mm recording area on a sensor, which is an emulation of the analog still-photography frame size derived from running 35mm film sideways in SLR and rangefinder cameras. The new full-frame cinema cameras have 4K or higher recording modes. They all have a version of Log recording, the ability to record RAW or compressed RAW image files, high dynamic range and a host of modern features that make them suited for a variety of applications.

So, what makes these cameras exciting for a cinematographer? It is all in the format and interaction with lenses. The first thing you will notice when using Full Frame cameras with larger format lenses is that your resulting image seems bigger in scope and has a wider field of view. In basic terms, that means the larger sensor is able to see more of the world in comparison to using the same focal length of lens on a smaller sensor. Take a look at this first example: a still image of a Mariachi statue taken with a full frame 25mm ZEISS lens. The overlays indicate how much of the frame is recorded by a full frame camera, in comparison to a cropped sensor camera. The cropped sensor is 1.6 times smaller in area, about the size of a Canon APS-C found in cameras like the Canon 7D. This cropped area is approximately the size of the Super 35 film plane found in previous-generation analog motion picture cameras.

In this second example, shot with a 21mm ZEISS lens, we can see how a cropped sensor would not be able to see as much of the escalator and surroundings. In this situation, we may be in a cramped space with a wall behind us and if we used a lens wider than 21mm, the resulting distortion may change the tone of the story from realistic to exaggerated. Here it is helpful to the cinematographer to have the option to use a larger sensor that can capture a wider (and taller) image using the same lens, preserving the architecture of the shot. The line remains straight and undistorted, the text looks realistic and the production design of the location is highlighted nicely.

This next example shows the distortion introduced by a 15mm focal length ZEISS lens, which works perfectly for this scene at a carnival. The guy throwing the ball has an arm like Popeye (due to the natural distortion of this lens) and seems to be aiming a bit too close to the bored carnival worker. This shot works perfectly fine on the cropped sensor, which can be tilted to follow the action. But I believe the shot works even better on the larger full frame sensor because you can see so much more of the world around the game. There is a bystander watching the action on the left. Kids that won the game earlier, taunt new players with their recently acquired winnings. Even the lights above are pretty and add to the ambiance.  It’s true that you can capture something similar by moving the cropped sensor camera back a bit from the action and maybe changing focal lengths. But then you lose all the great aspects of having the 15mm so close to the action. You would have to sacrifice the curvature or distortion of the image, just to catch the same action the full frame sensor sees already.

This kind of principle works on longer focal length lenses as well. This example of the fashionable doll is filmed with a ZEISS 85mm portrait lens. Such a focal length gives you a nice one-to-one shape and interesting out-of-focus fall off. You may use an 85mm for close-ups because of the way people look: realistic with a good separation between them and the background. As you can see, the cropped sensor has a tight frame because of the distance between camera and the subject. Whereas the full frame sensor can capture more than just the face, enhancing the shot by telling a complete story in one frame.

The best way to experience the kind of ideas expressed in this article is by testing for yourself. Grab a full frame still camera with video capabilities and go see what the world looks like in comparison to the cropped sensor recording you may be used to. You will see that this technology opens the window to new ways of storytelling.


All images provided by: Silver2Silicon on Flickr.


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