Photographing rockets. What camera works for you and why?

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blackwing94

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The quick question: I'm tired of trying to use an Iphone as a camera. Looking to get a digital camera to take pictures of rockets both on the pad and in flight. ("on the pad" usually means it's 100 feet away) For those of you who photograph rockets, can you offer any experience and/or advice of what works for you? What lens do you use for in flight shots?

More details: I’m considering a Cannon 6D. I like the 35mm sensor size. I’m leaning toward fix focal length lenses as apposed to zoom. Probably 300mm F4. I looked at a used 400mm F5.6 but it may be too hard to isolate a moving target with it. I'll set aperture so xx ft to infinity are in focus and turn autofocus off (is that a good idea?).

Polarized filter? Yes/no?
Tripod/pole? Hand held?

I'll also be taking pictures of our two new kittens so... the wife's on board. :) A cannon 24-105L F4 will handle that chore.

Photoshop elements for any post processing.

Any advice or experience appreciated.
 
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timbucktoo

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I've been taking pics for about a year now and still have a long way to go but I am using a Canon EOS 7D with a Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 lens. I use auto focus and was initially shooting hight speed shutter priority but recently I started shooting manual as I am trying to bring out the motor flames by underexposing. By no means am I an expert and there are several other members here who do some really nice work & I am sure they will chime in!

I would probably stick with the zoom as there are times when the rocket is so close on recovery, you have to zoom in (or change lenses)!
 

DavidMcCann

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7D, 70-200 f/2.8 L

Burst and a huge buffer are king.

M, always. keep the shutter over 1000, aim for 1800. Aperture, I try to keep it around 8. Sacrifice ISO first.


Sun low and to your back. Noon photos suck. No way around it.

At the speeds you need to shoot a rocket, tripods, poles, and any anti-vibration are useless. You could have a seizure in a hurricane on a boat at 1/1600 and get a still frame.

Primes are nice and the art crowd would have you believe the only thing to use. Some zooms are sharper than some primes. With glass you get what you pay for 100% of the time. I like the 70-200 range. 100-400 isn't bad either.

the 400 is massive... hard to swing and tiring to carry.


At the distances between rockets and the background you're not likely to actually get an infinite DoF by setting aperture. I've shot as high as f/22 and missed ><


I set up the pads so I can put the numbers in line with the pads. Focus recompose sucks as a rule.... but when your shooting shooting 38mm wide in a sea of objects, AF on the pad number is a pretty good hack.


polarizer eats two stops of light. tried it once at LDRS. tossed it after an hour. I shot 20,000 photos that week :)

get quality cards.

I'm no expert.... but i've gotten a couple nice shots- https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/collections/72157658759265791/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/albums
 

mkadams001

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I would go with a zoom what others have recommended. I tend to shot loose at launch and tighten up during flight.

Handheld works best.

I love the polarizer filter.

Light, I don't let its location limit my shooting. I have great photos facing the sun. I have great photos away from the sun. I will find a way to make a photo that is interesting (at least to me)

I shoot at all different speeds and f ratios.

Just have some fun.

Is this your first DSLR?
 

TangoJuliet

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Everything David said, except I do use a circular polarizer. I haven't shot (yet) model rockets, but I have shot R/C models (published in Model Aviation). I use a Canon 7D in Manual; sometimes I set Aperture Priority though. And I prefer to use the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM II lens, rather than purchase it (it's a bit expensive), I rent it when I need it from www.borrowlenses.com
 

blackwing94

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Thanks for all the advice and experience. You're helping me make some decisions. Yes, this is my first DSLR.

I used to shoot 35mm and 4x5 large format. I had my own dark room with a 4x5 enlarger. Black and white. I'm red/green color blind so color processing proved to be very... frustrating. I kinda miss the smell of fixer. fun times.
 

ChrisAttebery

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I have a 6D and it does pretty well for rocket photography. It is a little slow at 4.5fps and the buffer isn't very deep, but don't let that stop you from getting one. In general glass costs a lot more for full frame than APS-C. I use a 70-300 L lens and I think I'd prefer a 100-400 L. For HPR I'm zoomed in all the way most of the time. The 400 5.6 L is pretty old and the even the first generation 100-400 is about as sharp.

I have the 24-105L also and it is a great general purpose lens.


Both of these were shot in manual and are underexposed 2 stops.

If you follow the link the EXIF data is listed under the pictures.

Untitled by Chris Attebery, on Flickr

Untitled by Chris Attebery, on Flickr
 
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ChrisAttebery

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BTW: I don't buy anything new. I use the classifieds at Photography on the Net and Fred Miranda along with eBay for all of my needs. If you look around you can get some great deals.
 

TangoJuliet

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That's some nice work Chris.

I use Photoshop CS5 for my editing needs. I tried LR once and didn't really like it - learning curve I guess. What I like about PS is the ability to do layers. Like with your 2 stop under-exposed images to get the flame colors in better detail, I could layer a copy of the image and bring the rocket/background back into a proper exposer, and composite the image. I believe Elements can do that, but I don't think LR can.
 

FredA

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First DSLR....don't sweat the body, choose the glass carefully.....
Bodies come and go ... they are "competitive" for only a couple of years.
Glass is "forever" as it is your major investment.

For ROCKET PHOTOGRAPHY, you want good a large buffer and high frame rate.
Excellent AF is very useful - otherwise you turn it off and manual focus.
Shoot in Manual or Aperture-preferred modes and look for a camera with a good Auto-ISO to take care of exposure.
And agree that a Circular Polarizer if worth having....learn when to us and when it is just costing you light.

I'd suggest a NIKON DX body used with FX Glass.
I suggest this for many reasons:
- I think Nikon has the best IQ. NASA and almost every "forensic" application are using Nikon - they want the best IQ and not just a pretty snapshot SOOC.
- I think Nikon has the best Auto-ISO implementation.
- You want DX (Crop Sensor) for the effective reach as rockets are far away and the added DOF due to the smaller sensor is a plus.
- You want to buy FX glass as insurance for the day you get the photography bug and want the IQ and DOF advantage for your kiddie pics.

I shoot a Nikon D500 these days.
AF is good enough to use on a rocket taking off - this is a FIRST. Before I shot using manual focus.
10FPS into it's near unlimited buffer is awesome...especially when the motor is slow to light.

I like to push SS as high as the light allows.
1/2000th is my target....higher if possible....you'll want the speed if you have a CATO.
Stay reasonable on your aperture. OOF backgrounds are nice when you use the lens wide open, but then your focus becomes critical. On the other end, realize that anything beyond f8 will probably suffer softening due to diffraction.
 
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SCrocketfan

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Another 7D shooter here, currently running an 18-135mm for small launches and 55-250mm for HPR launches, but planning to upgrade to a 70-200 F4L IS soon. One thing that's been mentioned above but can't really be overstated is that higher frame rates actually make it much easier to use longer focal lengths. I've found that if you can catch a liftoff at 100mm and 4 frames/sec (for example), you can catch it at 200mm and 8 frames/sec. Luckily a camera like the 6D has a lot of resolution so you can shoot at a wider angle and then crop in as needed.

I pretty much always shoot wide open in M or Tv, and I have run tests (just shooting launches at different shutter speeds) and generally find with fast launches it's advantageous to stay at 1/3200 or faster. I've gotten motion blur (rocket, not the surroundings) at 1/2000 occasionally but 1/3200 or 1/4000 generally stops anything, even minimum diameter K2045s!

On the focus side-I use back-button AF in AI Servo, which gives continuous autofocus but doesn't lock it to the shutter button. The advantage is you can lock focus on the rocket on the pad, don't run focus during the launch itself, then use continuous AF for recovery/descent. Manual focus can be tricky with rockets hundreds of feet away. As David said, the pad numbers can be really useful to lock AF on if the camera can't find the rocket.

Two of my favorites from a recent launch, both SOOC:

 
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TALON

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First DSLR....don't sweat the body, choose the glass carefully.....
Bodies come and go ... they are "competitive" for only a couple of years.
Glass is "forever" as it is your major investment.

For ROCKET PHOTOGRAPHY, you want good a large buffer and high frame rate.
Excellent AF is very useful - otherwise you turn it off and manual focus.
Shoot in Manual or Aperture-preferred modes and look for a camera with a good Auto-ISO to take care of exposure.
And agree that a Circular Polarizer if worth having....learn when to us and when it is just costing you light.

I'd suggest a NIKON DX body used with FX Glass.
I suggest this for many reasons:
- I think Nikon has the best IQ. NASA and almost every "forensic" application are using Nikon - they want the best IQ and not just a pretty snapshot SOOC.
- I think Nikon has the best Auto-ISO implementation.
- You want DX (Crop Sensor) for the effective reach as rockets are far away and the added DOF due to the smaller sensor is a plus.
- You want to buy FX glass as insurance for the day you get the photography bug and want the IQ and DOF advantage for your kiddie pics.

I shoot a Nikon D500 these days.
AF is good enough to use on a rocket taking off - this is a FIRST. Before I shot using manual focus.
10FPS into it's near unlimited buffer is awesome...especially when the motor is slow to light.

I like to push SS as high as the light allows.
1/2000th is my target....higher if possible....you'll want the speed if you have a CATO.
Stay reasonable on your aperture. OOF backgrounds are nice when you use the lens wide open, but then your focus becomes critical. On the other end, realize that anything beyond f8 will probably suffer softening due to diffraction.
I agree with Fred. I am using a Nikon D200 I bought over 10 years ago and my 2 main lenses are a 16 year old Nikon 80-200 2.8 & a Nikon 18-70 3.5-4.5 I got at the same time as the D200. I have been very happy with this equipment. I hope to upgrade to a D500 next year with the AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR Lens. I also plan on spending about $200 to get the Auto/manual ring on the 80-200 fixed and cleaned. I would like to go Full Frame (FX), but cost and the results I get I can't see it being worth it.
Get good lenses can not be emphasized enough, no matter what brand body you use. Here are a few of my images. The rocket shots are with the 80-200, the aviation is with the 18-70 (36-105 with the D200 DX format)

GO1_0043r.jpgGO1_0046r.jpgGO1_0065r.jpgGPA_0682rCR.jpgGPAb_0424rwc.jpg
 
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GrouchoDuke

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I shoot rocket launches with a 5D Mark II and a 70-200 F4L. For photography in general, the lenses you use matter more than the body. However, for rocketry fast shutter speed matters a ton since the launches happen so fast and the cool looking shots are typically right near the launch pad. Fast frame rate generally means an expensive body.

200mm is a little short for my launch area. F/4 has been enough for me, but it's always sunny here in the desert. Like SCrocketfan said, 1/3200 or faster is a good target to stop the motion.

So basically, spend all your rocket money on a camera. ;)
 

Zeus-cat

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I pretty much gave up on rocket photography. I would rather watch than try to photograph them.

I have a Canon 5D II. I have the 24-105L. Fantastic lens that rarely comes off the camera. I also have a 300 prime with a 1.4X extender and a 2X. The 1.4X is great as my "cheap" lenses work with it and it turns the 300 into a 420. Yes, you lose an f stop and some other stuff, but I like it. The 2X is a pain as none of my cheap lenses will do autofocus with it. And by cheap lenses I mean they cost $1,500 or so. You need to get the REALLY expensive lenses to get full functionality on the 2X.

If you do shoot rocket launches you really need to practice on other people's rockets as well as your own. Figure one in 10 might be decent; one in a hundred will be really good.

Ken Rockwell has a good photography website. He is not married to any camera manufacturer so is pretty unbiased in his opinions. You could also try the Canon digital photography forum (now called Photography on the net). Its been a while since I went there, but if I remember correctly some people recommend some of the cheaper Canon cameras over the 5D. Nearly as good, but significantly cheaper. Ken Rockwell really likes Adorama and a few other New York based retailers. I do too. You could score some good used equipment from them if money is an issue.
 

FredA

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The Nikon D500 with the 200-500 for BIF's (All types of Birds in Flight) and the 16-80 for walk-around is an GREAT setup.

Gotta disagree on the KR site recommendation --- a "pundit" who has a large enough following he can write jibber-jabber and get enough clicks...and proves it with every post. There are WAY better places to learn. Ken "really likes" Adorama since they give him a big juicy check every month.

Buy from B&H or your local brick and mortar...Nikon and Canon will be priced the same so go local.
Nothing wrong with used....but you need to know enough to make sure you are not buying something that was dropped, etc. Plus no warranty.

And yes, practice, practice, practice. With digital, all the shots are free. Shot as much as possible and then you'll be ready to get that special flight captured just perfect. Your L3 liftoff is not the time to learn to get good rocket shots.......
 
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TangoJuliet

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I'll plug BorrowLenses.com one more time because it's also a great way to try different products on a rental basis before you drop money on a purchase. They have just about anything and everything you could want, and the rental rates are pretty reasonable in my opinion. If you're lucky, you might find a local brick and mortar camera dealer who also rents equipment. We have one in Mobile that rents Canon and Nikon, but I find BorrowLenses to actually be cheaper.
 

blackwing94

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Stopped by my high end brick and mortar camera store today and they want to push me toward mirrorless. They say it's the future. Much faster fps, smaller, lighter camera and lenses. But smaller sensor size. Olympus EM1 Mark 2. It can do 60 fps burst mode with focus locked. Holy smokes!!! They went on about how Nikon and Cannon have not come out with anything really new for years. He suggested Nikon and Cannon were behind the times with mirrorless technology and that the store gave up trying to sell Nikon mirrorless because they were not selling.

I'll have to research the lenses available for the Olympus, but I'm not holding my breath.

Getting me to consider a smaller sensor size is like pulling teeth. With film, bigger was always better. Hard to break that mind set.
 
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SCrocketfan

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While larger sensors are better, I think the difference isn't that big anymore. I've heard (please feel free to correct) it's about a one stop loss from Full Frame to APS-C (DX), and about another stop for Micro 4/3 (where the EM1-2 is). But yeah, 60 fps! Nikon's D500 (and older D300 and D7K series) and Canon's 7D series keep up pretty well though. The other advantage of the EM1 is incredible image stabilization (and nice telephoto lenses too).
 

mkadams001

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I use a Nikon D300 and get great photos. It is a DX camera. I am not generating giant prints so I am perfectly happy. I also have a Nikon mirrorless camera which also does a great job. They both different uses. I am much more comfortable using a DSLR when shooting action. Not to say you could not do it with a mirrorless, it just requires learning how to do it with a smaller camera without it being press against my face.

I bought my cameras online. I tried with a local dealer but the price was too high and I could not get them to negoeate a deal. I'll keep trying.
 

FredA

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Mirrorless is just another "not me too" product trying to break into a market.
Need something to hype....something that will make you look.

Mirrorless does NOT yield much, if any, in weight, size or cost when you compare total kit-to-kit.
Mirrorless does have a different viewfinder which is very polarizing to the customer base as in love/hate.
Mirrorless LACKS the critical focus detector used by DSLR's for their very fast and precise focus over a wide aperture range.
Mirrorless cameras EAT batteries....about 1/4the shots/charge.

Are they better than DSLR's.....let's just say, how many do you see on the sidelines of major sporting events?
If they were better, you would see them being used.
There are some there -- but not many.

Sure, there are less moving parts, but those parts are CHEAP and EASILY MADE as demonstrated by the 100 million already made.
And if that was the real reason for mirrorless, then they should be CHEAPER than DSLR's, which they are not.

Mirrorless is a fishing tale looking for gullible fish....
 

jadebox

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I'll plug BorrowLenses.com one more time because it's also a great way to try different products on a rental basis before you drop money on a purchase. They have just about anything and everything you could want, and the rental rates are pretty reasonable in my opinion. If you're lucky, you might find a local brick and mortar camera dealer who also rents equipment. We have one in Mobile that rents Canon and Nikon, but I find BorrowLenses to actually be cheaper.
I've rented lenses from a local place a couple of times and I'll also recommend it. Really good lenses are really expensive. The long ones also tend to be really large and heavy. I'm glad that I rented one that I was considering purchasing before I bought it. The lens helped me take some great photos at a launch, but I discovered that it was too heavy and awkward for me to use very often. So, instead of buying it, I'll just rent it occasionally.

-- Roger
 

jadebox

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Mirrorless is a fishing tale looking for gullible fish....
I have a couple of mirrorless camera as well as a couple of DSLRs. Mirrorless is just another tool in the arsenal. I wouldn't recommend a mirrorless camera over a DSLR for someone wanting to be a photographer (amateur or pro). But, they have their place. I find that the mirrorless is almost as easy to carry around as a small point and shoot, but takes photos, in most cases, almost as good as a DSLR. So, for casual use by someone who wants photos that are better than snapshots, a mirrorless camera is not a bad choice.

For rocketry use, the typical mirrorless one I have doesn't work as well as I had hoped. It's a compact design and the lenses I have for it don't zoom in close enough. The autofocus isn't very fast and, a big disappointment for me, the Wi-Fi remote control through my smartphone is kind of useless because it doesn't let you do anything except press the shutter button. (I had hoped to put in on a tripod near the launch pads and take remote controlled shots.)

The other mirrorless camera that I have is pretty cool for rocketry use, but it is out of production. It takes up to 60 frames per second at full resolution and will buffer frames until you hit the shutter release. Then it will save however many frames you wish from before you pressed the button. This makes it possible to get a good lift-off shot most every time. You just wait to press the shutter release when you see the rocket move. Other mirrorless cameras have this "pre-record" function, but may call it by other names. So, it's hard to search for cameras that do it.

One thing to watch for with mirrorless cameras is the "rolling shutter" effect. Some mirrorless cameras don't have a mechanical shutter and use a type of sensor that doesn't capture the entire frame at once. So, if the camera or subject is moving quickly, different parts of the image may be captured at different times. With the OOP camera I mention above, the rocket is skewed in some lift-off shots because of the camera's CMOS sensor. Most of the time it isn't bad enough to worry about or I can fix it with Photoshop. But, it does ruin some shots.

-- Roger
 
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mkadams001

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Mirrorless is just another "not me too" product trying to break into a market.
Need something to hype....something that will make you look.

Mirrorless does NOT yield much, if any, in weight, size or cost when you compare total kit-to-kit.
Mirrorless does have a different viewfinder which is very polarizing to the customer base as in love/hate.
Mirrorless LACKS the critical focus detector used by DSLR's for their very fast and precise focus over a wide aperture range.
Mirrorless cameras EAT batteries....about 1/4the shots/charge.

Are they better than DSLR's.....let's just say, how many do you see on the sidelines of major sporting events?
If they were better, you would see them being used.
There are some there -- but not many.

Sure, there are less moving parts, but those parts are CHEAP and EASILY MADE as demonstrated by the 100 million already made.
And if that was the real reason for mirrorless, then they should be CHEAPER than DSLR's, which they are not.

Mirrorless is a fishing tale looking for gullible fish....
Why are you so angry at mirrorless cameras? Have you ever used one? Do you hate smartphone cameras too?
 

blackwing94

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A follow up. I ended up buying a Canon 80D. 7 fps. 25 shots of raw until buffer is full. I'll get some experience with an APS-C DSLR then move up to a full frame body later. Got a used Sigma 17-50 F2.8 for general stuff. Finally, I bought a Canon 70-200 F2.8L ii. I know the focal length doubles when shooting a full frame lens on a cropped sensor, F2.8 on full frame is F4 on cropped. However, if you were going to crop your full frame shot anyway (little rocket, big background), APS will give you a denser image. (or so I'm told)
 

SCrocketfan

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A follow up. I ended up buying a Canon 80D. 7 fps. 25 shots of raw until buffer is full. I'll get some experience with an APS-C DSLR then move up to a full frame body later. Got a used Sigma 17-50 F2.8 for general stuff. Finally, I bought a Canon 70-200 F2.8L ii. I know the focal length doubles when shooting a full frame lens on a cropped sensor, F2.8 on full frame is F4 on cropped. However, if you were going to crop your full frame shot anyway (little rocket, big background), APS will give you a denser image. (or so I'm told)
Good choice-the 80D is supposedly very good. APS-C is actually a 1.6x crop-the 70-200 will be ~110-320mm equivalent, and the 17-50 will be 27-80mm equivalent (not that you can use it on full frame, but I've heard it's a nice crop lens). It's also still F2.8 for light gathering purposes, just that depth of field will be deeper than full frame. Basically, you are using a center crop of the full frame lens. 70-200 should be excellent for rockets!
 

ChrisAttebery

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Benno,

He's right. You have to multiply the aperture by 1.6 also because the sensor is ~60% of the area of a full frame.
 

blackwing94

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As I understand it, you have to multiply the focal length AND the aperture by the crop factor. So the 70-200 F2.8 full frame lens becomes a 112-320 F4.5 apc-s lens.
For and explanation, see: [video=youtube;YDbUIfB5YUc]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDbUIfB5YUc[/video]

I should have added more detail. The Sigma 17-50 F2.8 is an apc-s lens. Only the 70-200 is a full frame lens. Anyway, I'm excited to get to a launch and get lots of pictures of the bottom half of rockets. Boy they move fast! :surprised:
 

SCrocketfan

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Benno,

He's right. You have to multiply the aperture by 1.6 also because the sensor is ~60% of the area of a full frame.
Right, sorry, I didn't explain well-it's F4.5 on APS-C for depth of field but F2.8 for light collection purposes right? As in, F2.8 on full frame and F2.8 on APS-C would both expose the same at the same shutter speed and ISO, but the APS-C has more depth of field and a smaller angle of view. Doesn't this also mean diffraction starts earlier on APS-C?
 
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