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Full-frame Nikon vs. Fuji X for formal group photos - the difference may surprise you (or not)

Last year Sarah and I converted  from a full-frame Nikon system (featuring D750 bodies and the new f/1.4G prime lenses) to the Fuji X-T2, an APS-C format mirrorless camera. The biggest reason for the switch was that the Fuji images simply looked better, especially in terms of color, with little to no post processing. Shooting with them is also much more enjoyable, which invites us to be much more adventurous in creating with them. Ultimately, we end up with what I feel is a much more interesting essay of images by using the Fuji system.

The only application where I’ve found myself missing the larger format sensor are formal group photos, where faces are small and we’re often using added light. I think of these as the ‘photographs of record’ that document who was at the wedding ceremony, what the given family members looked like at the time, etc. Wedding photographers tend not to look forward to these shots; they aren’t terribly creative, and getting 15 adults to look in the same direction and smile is harder than you might think. In fact, we don’t even showcase these shots on our website since our millennial clients are typically indifferent to them. They’re usually quite important to the parents, aunts, and grandparents though, and there's something undeniably satisfying about really delivering on a traditional photographic task like posed group portraits.

But was there really a difference between our old Nikon system and the new Fujis when it came to the quality of these group photos? To satisfy my curiosity I decided to conduct a side-by-side test at our wedding last weekend in Balston Spa, NY. My original plan was to isolate sensor size as a variable by using a 24 megapixel full-frame camera like the Nikon D750, to match up against my 24MP Fuji X-T2s, which have an APS-C or ‘crop’ sensor. In order to make things more interesting though, I decided to try the best Nikon has to offer in terms of pure image quality and rent a D810, which has a 36MP sensor and even better dynamic range and color fidelity than the D750. Were I to purchase a ‘studio’ camera for tasks like this, the D810 (or its successor) would likely be it. 

Before we get to the images, I have to confess that this test was not at all scientific. I fed the Fuji a little more light (lower shutter and aperture since these are a mix of ambient and flash), and left the framing of the Nikon a little bit wider, all in an attempt to compensate for the full-frame’s superior light gathering ability and larger field of view at a given focal length. Also, these were paying clients, and while the wonderful bride and groom graciously consented to my using two different cameras to take these photos, I didn’t want to take advantage of their generosity more than necessary and take more than I needed. Anyone who’s taken photos like this after a wedding knows that the bride and groom are anxious to take as many photos as possible in different locations in that window before the reception, and some of the other guests may be eager to get a drink!

So were the results of the test? In short, there is certainly a difference in favor of the D810, which is visible to just about anyone (but especially photographers) when pixel peeping, ie zoomed in to 100%. This is of course as it should be, given the Nikon’s larger sensor size and higher resolution. But while the difference is there, I'm not sure that is justifies the headache of dealing with a separate camera system during the wedding day.

See the full views below, first the Fuji, and then the Nikon:

Fujifilm X-T2, 1/100, f/4.5, ISO 200. XF 50-140mm at 66mm

Fujifilm X-T2, 1/100, f/4.5, ISO 200. XF 50-140mm at 66mm

Nikon D810, 1/160, f/5.0, ISO 200. NIkkor 70-200 f/2.8 VRII at 86mm

Nikon D810, 1/160, f/5.0, ISO 200. NIkkor 70-200 f/2.8 VRII at 86mm

There’s some difference to see at this size, at least to my eyes, but I be happy to deliver either of these (the above JPEGs have been through Lightroom for some basic corrections, a link to the originals is at the end of this post). It’s when zoomed into 100% that we see some clear deliniation between the images. Again, first the Fuji, then Nikon. 

Fuji X-T2, cropped to 100%

Fuji X-T2, cropped to 100%

Nikon D810, cropped to 100%

Nikon D810, cropped to 100%

For experienced photographers, the Nikon image has that ‘bigness’ to it, the distinctive look of a larger sensor. Facial features seem a bit sharper and more well-defined, especially for those in the back row. That may at least partially a result of a longer focal length and wider aperture for the Fuji however, not just resolution and sensor size advantages for the Nikon.

So again, clearly a difference (especially for photographers), but does it really matter? Remember that images like this, if printed at all, will likely be 8x10, maybe 11x14, much smaller than the 27” 5k iMac screens or large 4k monitors that many of us are using now. Even a 16x20 wouldn’t show these differences unless viewed up close, and even then, they would really only be detectable if both images were side by side - which of course would never happen expect on a photographer’s blog post. I won't rule out a larger format sensor in the bag at some point in the future, but this test made me feel a lot better about using the Fujis even for groups, provided we get the technical details and lighting right. 

If you’d like to view these for yourself, all of the images used in this post, plus the original RAW files can all be found at this link.

 As an epilogue, I actually decided to deliver the Fuji image to the couple, despite the objective superiority of the Nikon’s technical image quality. Why? The bride’s smile is nicer in the Fuji image, and that’s what really matters.

 

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White balance matters

White balance is important to your photos, but like so many things in life there's really no right answer. 

White balance, a combination of color temperature and tint, has a tremendous impact on the 'feel' of a photo's implied setting, so by adjusting white balance during post processing, you can dramatically change the time and season it looks like a photo was taken in.

The first shot shot below  (on the left) feels like a summertime evening after a rainstorm, bathed in pinks and oranges, while the one on the right looks like it was taken on a dim winter afternoon. I'd say the one in the middle is somewhere in between. 

You can make these adjustments with any photo, so if you have a photo laying around that looks too orange or too blue for your taste, it's an easy fix. If you're using a RAW file instead of a JPEG (as I was here) you'll be able to make much more drastic white balance changes, but most photos with weird WB need just a small tweak to change the look entirely for the better.

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The First Look

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The 'first look' is something we get asked about a lot as wedding photographers. Can you make SURE to get the first look? It's so important to us that we get the first look. But what is it, why should you care about it, and how do we make sure we get it? This post will cover the two of those three questions, and we'll do the rest later. . . . because if you make these things too long, no one reads them. 

First, what is is this look supposed to be?

The term 'first look' originally meant the groom's first look at his fully realized bride, resplendent in dress, updo and waterproof mascara. In this sense, it would be paired with the classic radiant/emotional bride walks down the aisle with stoic Dad photo in the wedding album. This patriarchal connotation has evolved in recent years to reference the couple's first look at each other, with the groom expected to be impressively cleaned up as well (side note - we say bride and groom, but obviously this applies to gay couples too). 

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OK, so what are we going for here? Some combination of elation and surprise seem to really hit the mark, and the photo of Steve at the top of the post is a nice example (the cute kid doesn't hurt). What it absolutely shouldn't be is faked - there've been a couple of occasions where we've gotten the 'say cheese for the camera' smile, and it's creepy and weird. Just be yourself and don't try to win an Oscar.

But why is the First Look so important to so many couples? Why do we, as, like, a society, man, care about this? We can think of three reasons:

'This is as good as it gets.' Some see the way you look walking down the aisle (or standing pensively at the end of it) as a once-in-a-lifetime zenith of physical attractiveness, and as such your spouse's reaction to this shocking new height of physical beauty needs to be documented for posterity. 

Curiosity. Most grooms tend to think their fiancee looks pretty great most of the time, and so are understandably curious about what sort of insane super-beautifucaion must happen after an entire morning of primping. Also, let's not forget that rarely wear a tie/suit/tux etc., so she's interested in seeing what that's going to be all about too. 

It's the beginning of the wedding ritual. The first look is the official 'we finally made it' moment. It's the end of the months of planning, paying and preparing, and the beginning of the actual wedding. This is the moment when each spouse sees the other as a participant in the wedding ritual, fully fitted in the costume we wear to tell those closest to us that I''m getting married today.' The first look makes the wedding REAL. 

Remember, even if you're shooting by yourself, always swing around and grab a few shots of that first look.

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