DX vs. FX: It's Not a Debate, It's a Choice
A friend of mine recently took a step into a brave new world of digital SLR photography when she shelved her point-and-shoot camera and purchased a Nikon D5300 and kit lens. The purchase was not without an amount of trepidation: confusing controls, buttons everywhere, multi-function interfaces, knobs, an interchangeable lens, and increased size.
For many customers, moving from your camera phone or compact point-and-shoot to a larger and more complex photographic tool is a big decision. Some immediately feel at home with the DSLR, and others never get past what can be an intimidating technological leap.
Within a few days of purchasing her new camera, a friend of hers, a "professional" photographer, did exactly what a friend/mentor/advisor encouraging a shy new photographer entering the DSLR world probably should not have done. He told her that she had purchased the wrong camera. Why? Because the Nikon D5300 has a smaller than full-frame sensor, what Nikon calls its "DX," sensor. "You should have gotten an FX (full-frame) camera," he told her.
"DX" and "FX" are Nikon's designations for the size of the cameras' sensors. It was not very long ago that all DSLR cameras came with sensors whose dimensions were smaller than a frame of 35mm film. However, things have changed, and photographers may now purchase DSLR cameras with "full-sized" sensors from Canon, Nikon, Sony, and others. Once the sensors grew in size, the debate over sensors grew in volume. For the purposes of this article, I will use the Nikon DX/FX nomenclature to refer to the sensor sizes, but the reader should be aware that this discussion applies to any manufacturer who makes 35mm equivalent full-frame and cropped-frame sensors. For example, Canon's cropped-sensor lenses, in Canon nomenclature, are known as EF-S.
A Nikon DX sensor (left), compared to Nikon FX sensor (right).
My friend was immediately filled with self-doubt after having made a sizable financial investment in her new camera. Should she return the camera to the store and spend more on a larger and more expensive camera that requires more expensive lenses, or should she just retreat from DSLR photography altogether and use her new D5300 as a paperweight?
If you, like many photographers, have been inundated with blogs, chats, and editorials about this issue, you are likely on your way to being firmly entrenched in the FX side of the camp, as the DX stalwarts are becoming few and far between.
No need to panic, DX fans! There are many out there who still enjoy the benefits of the DX sensor while living, happily in many cases, with its drawbacks.
PROS AND CONS
|Low-light performance/Image quality - directly attributed to larger pixels||Higher Price|
|More control over depth of field because you have to get closer to your subject||Size (the full-frame cameras are generally larger and heavier - there are exceptions)|
|"True" angle of view/focal lengths - No conversion needed||Cannot use lenses designed for smaller sensors without cropping to the smaller image|
|Higher dynamic range||Image quality - by using a large portion of the lens image circle, edge softness and vignetting can occur|
|Lower Price (cameras and DX lenses)||Low-light performance inferior to FX|
|Size (usually smaller and lighter cameras)||Smaller dynamic range|
|"Telephoto" effect (a 200mm lens is virtually a 300mm lens)||General lack of "super-wide" lenses|
|Versatility - uses specially designed smaller lenses as well as all "normal" lenses||Smaller viewfinder image|
|Image quality - captures image closer to the center of the image circle. This usually offers more sharpness and less vignetting (darkening) around the edge of the frame|
Moving away from the technical differences and impassioned sales points in the battle between the FX and DX sensors, I feel that photographers hoping to educate and inspire new photographers should steer clear of telling other photographers that they are "wrong" simply because they purchased a DX-sensor camera.
My father used to tell me, "Some of the world's greatest photographs were taken with a cardboard box (pinhole camera)."
My father used to tell me, "Some of the world's greatest photographs were taken with a cardboard box (pinhole camera)." This is true. Pulitzers have been won with photos taken with $20 plastic cameras. Point-and-shoot disposables have captured exquisite beauty.
The camera is a tool used to gather light. And, like any tool, there are different cameras for different jobs. The DSLR might be the photographic equivalent of a pocket-sized multi-tool, but it is not always the right camera for every job. Continuing that thought process, there is not only a market for the DX sensor cameras, there are real-world benefits to their operation and those fans of DX should not be criticized for their choice of tools.
So, if you are shopping for a new DX DSLR camera, or you are a fan of the DX sensor and its advantages, know that there is no reason to bury your head in the sand or feel envy when someone comes by with their FX machine—the world will keep spinning about its axis. Meanwhile, go out and create some great photographs with your camera—regardless of the sensor size.