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DSLR vs. mirrorless, full frame vs. APS-C: which is the best camera for 360 panoramic photos?

Which is the best camera for 360 panoramic photography
Which is the best camera for 360 panoramic photography

You’ve seen 360 photos with a DSLR and you love the image quality.  You’ve decided to take 360 photos to the next level with an interchangeable lens camera.  Now you’re wondering which camera body to choose, and whether you should use a DSLR or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.  And should you go full frame or APS-C or Micro Four Thirds?

Choosing the system instead of the camera

As a preliminary matter, if you’re choosing a camera, I very strongly recommend comparing the entire system, rather than just specific camera models.  By system, I mean the lenses, and systemic features such as their sensor technology (some systems consistently have better sensors than others), or the way their menus are designed, for example.   Choosing a system first, and then the lenses you plan to use, and lastly the camera, will lead to better satisfaction with whichever camera you end up getting.

DSLR vs. Mirrorless

For panoramic photography, the biggest difference between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras is the availability of lenses.  DSLRs have longer flange distances than mirrorless cameras.  This means that DSLRs cannot use lenses for mirrorless cameras, but mirrorless cameras can often use lenses for DSLRs, with a suitable adapter.

Using an adapter typically means that the lens can only be used in manual mode.  For many types of photography, such as event photography, that’s a usually a dealbreaker.  But for 360 panoramic photography, it’s not a problem because you need to shoot with manual focus in any case (to maintain a consistent focus throughout all sides of the panorama).  The only inconvenience of a manual lens is not being able to have EXIF data for the aperture and focal length.

Because mirrorless cameras can use more lenses, therefore mirrorless cameras have an advantage over DSLRs for panoramic photography.

Full frame vs. APS-C vs. Micro Four Thirds

Usually, one of the advantages of a full frame sensor is its shallower depth of field, which can be desirable for portraits (I’ll admit that was the reason I got my first full frame camera, a Nikon D3, many years ago).  However, for 360 photos, photographers prefer having a deep depth of field.  Note: the shallower depth of field is NOT a disadvantage for full frame.  You simply stop down the aperture and increase the shutter speed or ISO.

Another reason photographers typically choose full frame sensors is because they have better image quality.  To put it in concrete terms, full frame sensors have higher bit depth, higher dynamic range, and better low light performance.  But for 360 photos, low light performance is generally irrelevant because most photos are taken on a tripod, making it possible to use low ISOs at slow shutter speeds.

As for bit depth and dynamic range, sensor quality has now improved to the point that some APS-C cameras have as much or even greater dynamic range than some full frame sensors.  For example, according to DXO, the APS-C Nikon D7200’s dynamic range is 14.6EV, while the full frame Canon 5DS has a dynamic range of 12.4EV.

Rather than dynamic range or bit-depth, the biggest practical difference between full frame, or APS-C or MFT for 360 panoramic shots is resolution.  Resolution is important for panoramic photography because a higher resolution will enable you to shoot more detailed panoramas with fewer shots.  And unlike normal photographs, people look at 360 photos closely by default, since the viewer shows only a cropped portion at any given time.  If you shoot tiny planets, it’s even more important because the outer part of the tiny planet (or rabbit hole) will be magnified several times from their original size.

With respect to resolution, full frame sensors have a clear advantage over APS-C size and Micro Four Thirds sensors.  In 2018, most APS-C sensor cameras have a resolution of 24mp or less (Samsung NX1 and NX500 have 28mp but Samsung has abandoned the NX cameras).  Micro Four Thirds sensors are typically around 16mp, although a few like the Panasonic GH5 have 20mp.  Meanwhile, there are several full frame cameras with far higher resolutions such as Canon 5DS (50mp), Nikon D850 (45.7mp), or Sony A7R III (42.4mp).

Suggested lens / camera combinations

Here are some popular camera and lens combinations for 360 panoramas:

SystemBodyLens
Canon full frameCanon 5DSCanon 8-15
Nikon full frameNikon D850 or D810 or D800 or D800ENikon 8-15 or Nikon 10.5 (with shaved hood)
Nikon APS-CNikon D7200Sigma 8mm or Nikon 10.5
Sony full frameSony A7R III or Sony A7R II or Sony A7RSamyang 8mm 2.8 II with shaved hood or Canon 8-15
Sony APS-CSony a6500 or a6300 or a6000Samyang 7.5 with conversion kit for E-mount or Samyang 8mm 2.8 II

Here is a table of fisheye lenses and their field of view based on sensor size:

LensPrice (estimated street)Manual focus ring? Aperture ring?Full frameAPS-CMicro Four Thirds
7artisans 7.5mm f/2.8139MF, apertureCropped? (haven't shaved mine yet)Diagonal<180
Canon 8-15 f/41249MFDiagonal at 15mm
Cropped at 12mm
Circular at 8mm
Diagonal at 10mm<180
Lensbaby 5.8mm f/3.5299MF, apertureCircularCircularCropped
Meike 6.5mm f/2139MF, apertureCircularCircularCropped
Nikon 8-15 f/3.5-4.51095MFDiagonal at 15mm
Cropped at 12mm
Circular at 8mm
Diagonal at 10mm<180
Nikon 10.5 f/2.8772MFCropped if hood is shavedDiagonal<180
Opteka 6.5mm f/3.5 (similar to Samyang 8mm 3.5)120MF, apertureCropped with hood removedDiagonal<180
Peleng 8mm f/3.5289MF, apertureCroppedDiagonal<180
Samsung 10mm f/3.5299none - electronicno adapters foundDiagonal<180
Samyang 7.5 f/3.5219MF, apertureCircular if hood is shaved completely; conversion kit requiredCropped if hood is shaved; conversion kit requiredDiagonal
Samyang 8mm 2.8 II269MF, apertureCropped if hood is shavedDiagonal<180
Samyang 8mm 3.5 (removable hood)199MF, apertureCropped with hood removedDiagonal<180
Samyang 12 2.8399MF, apertureDiagonal<180<180
Sigma 8mm f/3.5899MFCircularCropped<180
Tokina 10-17 f/3.5-4.5479MFCropped up to 12mm if hood is shaved
Diagonal at 14.5mm
Diagonal @10mm<180
Tokina 10-17 f/3.5-4.5 NH (no hood)499MFCropped up to 12mm
Diagonal at 14.5mm
Diagonal @10mm<180
Yasuhara Madoka 7.3mm f/4200MF, apertureCircularCircularCropped

My choice

If money was not an issue, I would choose a Sony a7R III.  It has an excellent high resolution sensor, and although I’m not impressed with the full frame Sony FE lens selection, the a7R can use most lenses from almost any brand.  But since I can’t afford it just yet, I got a used a7R from eBay instead (btw it has a similar sensor as the Nikon D800), with an eye toward possibly upgrading in the future.  Meanwhile, I also still have a Sony a6000 and several lenses that I am testing, which I’ll discuss next time.   Because I am using the Sony a7R and a6000, I can use lenses such as:

– Samyang 7.5 for Micro Four Thirds (converted to E-mount): 4 shots on APS-C
– Samyang 8mm for Sony E-mount: usable for either APS-C (8 shots) or full frame (4 shots)
– Tokina 10-17 for Nikon: usable for either APS-C (8 shots) or full frame (4 shots or 8 shots)
– Sigma 8mm for Nikon: usable for either APS-C (8 shots) or full frame (4 shots)
– In the future I plan to get the excellent Canon 8-15.  Yes I can use that too.

Here are some camera and lens combinations:

Do you agree with my analysis?  Are there other factors that you consider when choosing a camera?  Let me know in the comments!

Related tutorials:

Here are related tutorials.  For multi-row panoramic heads (typically, 8 shots):

For single-row panoramic heads (typically, 4 shots portrait, or 8 shots diagonally):

About the author

Mic Ty

12 Comments

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  • Good review Mic, agree with what you’ve said. Would like to add that Full Frame have a slight advantage with wide angle lenses as their field of view is wider compared to their APS-C or M43 equivalents. I also have a Sony a6000, and have recently purchased a Meike 6.5mm f/2.0 Fisheye which is really sharp. Haven’t used it for 360’s yet but plan to. I recommend picking one up if you have the chance, they’re relatively cheap.

    • Thanks Roland! Yes I love the Meike – it’s an excellent lens, and a fantastic value. It’s actually included in my comparison. My only comment is that the resulting resolution is quite low – around 30mp If you instead use the converted Samyang 7.5, or a Sigma 8mm, you can get around 75mp, for the same number of shots.

      Best regards,
      Mic

      • Hi Mic, I never looked at the comparisons but will. Didn’t quite think of that, I guess that’s because the fisheye isn’t using all the image space, just a circle in the middle, is that right? I got it because I thought I could replicate how commercial 360 cameras work with 2 fisheye lenses and only need to take 2 shots with it, but now see it will probably loose resolution.

        I also have the Samyang 8mm 2.8 and 12mm 2.0, also great for the price. May I ask what stitching software are you using?

        • Hi Roland. Yes that’s right. A circular fisheye uses less than half of the sensor. Yes you can replicate commercial 360 cameras with just 2 lenses, although the stitching won’t be as good as a 3-shot or 4-shot pano, because the overlap between just 2 shots is not very big. But it should still look better than a 360 camera.
          Yes Samyang 8 2.8 is great for APS-C (8 shots) or full frame (4 shots if shaved). I haven’t tried the 12 f/2 but I bet it’s good too.
          For my software I like to use PTGui 11 these days, although I used to use Panorama Studio 3 Pro, which can sometimes be faster.
          Best regards,
          Mic

  • Good article. Only thing that doesn’t make sense is the argument mirrorless are better because they don’t get Exif data when using an adaptor.

    I’d say DSLR’s are better, since you do have more lens options, you don’t need to spend more on an adaptor, and if you use them to shoot anything else and swap lenses often, the sensor is less likely to get dirty. Otherwise I don’t think one has an advantage over the other as far as image quality goes.

    • Thanks Ty! Just to clarify, I’m not saying that mirrorless is better for lack of an EXIF, but that *despite* the lack of EXIF, they are still a good choice, and I would argue, a better choice for panoramas.

      As for more lens options, DSLRs do have more native lenses simply because they have had decades worth of headstart. But in terms of usable lenses, mirrorless cameras actually have more options, which is what I was trying to point out in the article. On my Sony mirrorless cameras, I can use any of the Nikon lenses or Canon lenses, or pretty much anything except Micro Four Thirds. By contrast, Nikon can’t use Canon lenses or any mirrorless lens. Canon DSLRs can use Nikon lenses (with an adapter) but they can’t use any mirrorless lens.

      As for image quality, i agree there is no real difference between dslr vs. mirrorless.

      best regards,
      mic

  • Really interesting, Mic!
    It should be interesting to add in the comparison table the number of shots required to get a fully spherical panorama (single or multirow).
    Tokina offers fisheye zoom lenses.
    Tokina 11-16mm fisheye fpr APS-C could be an interesting lens for fullframe DSLR too:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/supermariano81/6853478324/
    because you may chooose if prefer single row spherical (11-12mm) or higher resolution single row cylindrical panoramas (16mm).
    Tokina has also a AT-X 107 fisheye zoom native for (Canon) fullframe DSLR
    samples here: https://crkphotoimaging.com.au/products/1017DXNIKNH

    In my case, personally I should go for an used D800 + shaved 10.5mm.
    With a budget of 1200$, you can buy it on Ebay.

  • While I believe you are right in your assessment, you can still get very detailed and high resolution 360’s using micro four thirds camera’s. I’ve been using Panasonic camera’s with a 14mm lens, which on one side forces me to make more pictures (3 rows of 12 = 36 images) but on the other side delivers me 360 panorama’s of 140+ MP. The highest I reached was about 250 MP. That said, I do plan on getting a Meike 8mm to reduce shooting time.

    Another reason MFT might be a good choice is portability: in general that kit weighs a lot less then fullframe camera’s. If you plan on shooting outdoors a lot like me that may be a reason to opt for lighter kit.

    • Thanks Frank. I’m a fan of MFT too. I used to have an E-M5 and one of the Panasonic cameras. Many very good lenses. wow 28mm equiv…. I’m too lazy to shoot that manually, although maybe I will try that with my newly-acquired Gigapan hehehe.

      Re portability, yes definitely. Cant’ beat MFT. That’s actually one of the reasons I like my NX500 – Samsung NX has many excellent pancake lenses. 😀 For now I find the Sony mirrorless cameras to be “compact enough.”

      Best regards,
      Mic

  • I’ m using a7R + Samyang 12mm F2.8 Fisheye for hotel panos and A6500 + Samyang 8mm II for drone, telescopic mast, mountains panos or videography. Very satisfied with this combo. I’ m thinking to upgrade to a7r2/3 or a73 but most probably i’ ll go to a73 because of video capabilities. A7R is still pretty good camera for shooting from tripod. (The only problem is that it can’ t shoot more than 3xEV bracket HDR)

    • Thanks Igor! i’ll check out the Samyang 12 2.8! With your Samyang 8mm on the a6500, do you shoot 8 shots in a single row?

      Yes too bad about the limited bracketing on the a7R. It would have been great if Sony could improve the bracket pro app to expand the number of shots.

      Best regards,
      Mic

  • Hey, Mic,
    I have a5100 x Meike 6.5mm set up. I use R20 pano head and considering upgrading my lens to Samyang 8mm 2.8. Do you think it is worth it?
    I am trying to get maximum quality out of 4 HDR shots on my APS-C sensor. In the future, I may upgrade to another APS-C model, but for now, I am not sure which one would make sense.
    My priorities are portability and the balance of great result quality and fast producing/shooting/editing time