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A Quick Rant about the ‘C’ and ‘F’ Words

OK, so I have been reading lots about the APS-C format lately which is the reason I have reacted; one thing that really dribbles down my blowhole is what I see as standard acceptance of a misused word or phrase. Ebay ‘Mint’ is one such example while the term ‘macro’ is increasingly (mis) assigned to anything that provides close focus attributes.

And here are more examples that have gained acceptance into today’s compendium of the great misunderstood; first there is ‘Crop’ when used as part of the phrase ‘Crop Format’, specifically with reference to the APSC format. And ‘Full-Frame’, when used to describe 36x24mm sensor size. I am sure their use is simply a matter of convenience, but they mask inaccuracies that I find difficult to pass up on.

Let us first take a look at Crop Format. Those of us who come from a film background will recall, back in 1996, the release of the Advanced Photo System as an alternative to 35mm film, specifically targeting amateurs (it was not accepted by professionals due to the reduced negative size). Despite massive promotion in the early years, and the rise of digital photography, it was not long before the target market fully embraced the convenience of digital technology. By the early 2000’s the spectre of obsolescence rose around APS as sales fell and manufacturers slowly discontinued camera production. Film stocks took their last gasp in 2011 and consigned the whole experiment to the history books.

Irrespective of its demise, APS was an entirely new photo system; new cameras and lenses were designed specifically for the format, which ensured the highest possible results were produced from the smaller film size (with a reduced size and weight being two benefits). Some manufacturers created APSC cameras that used existing 35mm format lenses (more cost effective for all parties) which meant a reduction in the field of view by approximately 1.6x, effectively cropping the final image. But this was not the format that caused the crop, it was bastardisation of existing technology that was the culprit.

Fast forward to now; APS-C (and H) format digital cameras use similar sized sensors as the obsolete APS film. Its size sits between the larger 35mm (I will come onto this later) and smaller Four Thirds formats. It is fair to say that the perceived ‘crop’ spectre has continued to haunt the format due to many manufacturers continuing to offer lenses that fit both 35mm and APSC formats (probably for the same reasons as back in the days of film). However, there are some that have created dedicated lenses designed specifically for the format. Therefore APS-C is not a crop format, merely one that is smaller than 35mm. In a similar way, the Four Thirds format is a system specifically designed for the digital market. It is not the format that is ‘cropped’ but the optical technology used by some manufacturers to exploit it.

Moving on to ‘Full Frame’ or 35mm; given photography’s long past, when has 35mm ever been full frame? There have been many formats offering a much larger (therefor ‘fuller’) frame. 35mm has its origins in motion picture film from where its 36x24mm size was adopted for the ‘still’ market due to it being able to provide a portable solution that retained an essence of larger format’s higher quality.

Quite how this has transferred to the digital realm is perplexing as sensors measuring 36x24mm are far from the largest available. If the phrase relates to the fact that associated lenses cover the entire (full) frame, then this is equally perplexing as those made specifically for medium format, APS-C and Four Thirds also cover the entire frame. 

I have read increasing amounts of material that hints at snobbery around the ‘Full Frame’ format, and that anything smaller is inferior. It is not my intention to go into the pros and cons of Full Frame vs APS-C vs MFT as this amounts to far more than perceived image quality. My beef comes with the application and entrenchment of keywords and phrases which are fundamentally incorrect.

Righty, off my soapbox now…I think I am going to create a sloppy terminology phrasebook…