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Do You Really Need a Full Frame Camera?

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This article is here to tell you what a full-frame camera is exactly, and how it differs from a crop sensor camera.

For those interested, we are also looking at the best full-frame cameras on the market today.

There are still many photographers out there who are uncertain of the type of camera they have. Or they are looking to upgrade without knowing the ins and outs of camera sensors.

A Nikon full frame camera and two lenses resting on a map

What Is a Full Frame Camera?

A full-frame camera is essentially one that doesn’t have a crop sensor. To understand this better, we need to go back a few decades, to when photographers used analog cameras and film.

The 35mm film camera was a popular staple for photographers starting with the Leica 1 in 1925. When digital cameras first appeared in the 1970s, they were based on the analog models.

Digital SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras still had a 35 mm format, even if they were capturing on a sensor rather than film.

This is why you might hear that the best full-frame camera is 35 mm equivalent. They kept the sensor dimensions the same, which were of a 3:2 aspect ratio of 36 × 24 mm.

If the best full-frame DSLR camera sensor is 36 mm x 24 mm, then a crop sensor is any size less than the 35 mm size. There are benefits and drawbacks to both sensor sizes, which we will look at next.

A full-frame camera is the biggest size for a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR). There are other digital cameras that surpass this, such as Medium or Large format. We will not cover those here.

If the best full-frame camera has the biggest sensor, it means it captures more of your scene. If you use a 50 mm lens with a full-frame DSLR body, you get a 50 mm focal length with a 58° angle of view.

This is exactly what you would expect. Yet, if you use the same lens with a crop sensor camera, the captured scene changes dramatically.

A diagram showing the difference between using a 2.0 crop factor, 1.6 crop factor, 1.5 crop factor or 35mm full frame camera

Crop Sensor

APS-C is the term used for crop sensor cameras. It means Advanced Photo System – Classic, and has a sensor frame size of 22 x 15mm, compared to the 36 x 24 mm of full-frame.

There are three main sizes of crop sensors that are widely used today. These are APS-C Nikon, Pentax and Sony (1.5x), APS-C Canon (1.6x) and the four-thirds system used by Olympus and Panasonic (2x).

The 50 mm lens on an APS-C Nikon camera will give you a 75 mm (50 mm x 1.5) focal length and a 32° angle of view. On an APS-C Canon, you get an 80 mm (50 mm x 1.6) focal length and an angle of view of 30°.

For the four-thirds system, it is even more extreme. The 50 mm lens becomes a 100 mm lens, where the angle of view changes from 58° to 24°.

These are substantial changes, which need to be accounted for when thinking about lenses. For a full camera, you don’t need to think about much. If you buy a 50 mm lens, you get a 50 mm lens.

Yet, if you have an APS-C sensor camera, you need to think and calculate. If you want a 50 mm focal length, then you will need a lens with a 30 mm focal length.

Luckily, the camera manufacturers take this into account. Usually, Canon and Nikon lenses aren’t interchangeable across DSLRs, let alone across mirrorless systems.

There are even specific lenses made for those crop sensor cameras, giving you the correct focal lengths

A beautiful mountainous landscape shot through a forest with the best full frame camera

Benefits of a Full Frame Camera

Camera Selection

For the best Canon or Nikon full-frame cameras, expect to pay a lot of money. These cameras are designed for the professional photographers and keen enthusiasts, so they have all the bells and whistles.

Not everyone needs these advanced features, which is why we have some affordable full-frame cameras on the market.

Digital cameras such as the Canon 6D Mark II or Sony alpha A7 II have full-frame sensors. Yet, not exactly the same rugged build of the most expensive pro-level DSLRs offered by both Canon and Nikon.

There is a large camera selection for those who want to photograph using a full-frame sensor.

Image Quality

The biggest advantage of having the best full-frame DSLR sensor is the image quality that comes with them. Everyone wants their images to be of the highest quality possible.

It makes sense. Full frame sensors are larger, so they have many more pixels than crop sensors. More pixels means a higher resolution, resulting in better image quality.

Even if a full-frame sensor and crop sensor has the same resolution, the full-frame will win every time.

With full-frame sensors, you can expect to see above 22 mp for entry-level cameras. For higher-end full-frame sensors, you can fall between 30 and 45 mp.

A view of the rooftops of a stunning cityscape at sunset

Low-Light Performance

Photographing in low light situations might be the second reason photographers would seek a full-frame camera. They tend to capture better quality images at higher ISO sensitivities.

Larger individual pixels, like those often found on a large sensor, can capture more light. This results in less unwanted digital noise.

By having a larger sensor, more pixels can be used. This is what we see with the Nikon D850, which uses a 45.4 MP sensor.

In many cases, using a low ISO with both full-frame and crop sensor cameras produce images that are difficult to tell apart. Another thing that separates them is the dynamic range.

The dynamic range of a camera allows the sensor to capture more of the scene better. The best full-frame DSLR sensor has a broader dynamic range, allowing them to capture the full range of brightness in any given scene.

Depth of Field

A full-frame sensor can capture a shallower depth of field than an APS-C crop sensor.

This is due to the sensor size. The same wide aperture on point-and-shoot cameras or four-thirds systems doesn’t come close.

Drawbacks of a Full Frame Camera

Cost

As a full-frame sensor is larger and contains more pixels, there are higher costs involved. Production costs drive the price up, so does the lower volume of production.

Consider the most expensive full-frame DSLR camera is the Canon EOS-1DX Mark II at a cool $7000. The cheapest full-frame camera is the mirrorless system Sony A7 for under $900.
The Sony A7 will not have all of the features of the 1DX, but it is considerably cheaper.

The most expensive APS-C camera is possibly the Canon 7D Mark II at just over $100. The cheapest APS-C DSLR is the Canon EOS Rebel T7, costing less than $350.

Field of View

This is a drawback and a benefit rolled into one, but you need to have both types of camera to feel the benefit. When you put a full-frame lens on a full-frame body, you get the exact focal length stated.

However, if you put a full-frame lens on a crop body, your lens is magnified. For Nikon, this is 1.5x and Canon is 1.6x. This is a zoom of 50% or 60%.

Landscapers might prefer the full-frame, whereas nature photographers might prefer the crop sensor. The sensor size doesn’t magnify the scene, it only restricts the field of view.

Weight

The sensor itself doesn’t add any weight to the camera. But, a larger sensor requires a larger body and heavier lenses.

This means, overall, that your camera system is much more cumbersome than a crop sensor.

Lens Availability

Camera and lens manufacturers saw the benefit of creating lenses specifically for crop sensor cameras. These are exclusive for APS-C, and can’t be used with the best full-frame cameras.

To do so would create dark corners or ‘vignetting‘. However, the opposite isn’t true. You can use full-frame lenses with a crop sensor, it just changes the focal length and angle of view.

This is a major plus for crop sensor cameras, as the availability is larger. If you own the best full-frame camera, then you are forced to spend more money on lenses, with a smaller range of possibilities.

Distance

Cropping into a scene is the biggest drawback of having a crop sensor rather than a full-frame one. But, this also becomes a benefit in another area. Namely distance, with a secondary benefit of cost.

If you use a Canon 70-200 mm lens on a crop sensor Canon body, you effectively have a 112 – 320 mm focal length. This means you are suddenly 1.6x closer to your subject.

This is a great way to have accessibility to a super-telephoto lens, for those moments when you want a tighter crop. You could use editing software to get the same effect from a full-frame camera, but it won’t be as strong.

The same works for macro photography, allowing you to get in closer without having to spend more money. I’m not sure if you know the cost of a 300 mm lens, but it is around the $2000 mark.
A diagram showing how cropping works with a full frame camera

 

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10 comments
  1. Hi Craig, great artical, wish I had read it an hour ago, because before reading it I just bought a new canon 16 to 35 4.5lens, to use on my 700d canon, already have a 100 to 400 canon lens for wildlife and just wanted something to do a bit of landscape, sounds like I could have made a better choice, any advice . Trevor.

  2. Very helpful article explaining everything in brief and with clarity. I was in a dilemma about the choice which in short time, it has been amply clarified. Thank you !

  3. But if I M using APS-c Canon 80-D for portrait ….which lense is best for me…?

    I have
    1. Nifty fifty
    2. 100 f 2.0 macro
    3. 18-150mm kit lense

    shall I but 35mm f 2.0 USm/ 35mm 1.4 USM II / Sigma 35mm f 1.4 / 50mm f 1.0 L / 85mm f 1.4 L/85mm EF 1.4 ….
    please do reply

  4. The Sony A7iii does not have 42.4 MP resolution; that is the A7Riii, which is what your article links to on Amazon. The A7iii has about 24MP resolution.

  5. I am satisfied with nikon d90 using g lenses and some sigma best pick up. Why to spend huge money for small too difficult differentiation in result.

  6. Good article and thanks for writing it. I think it just really says – decide what you want to shoot and what trade-offs you are prepared to make. just to add to the debate, I used to shoot in old anologue 35mm before digital came along and made it too expensive to process film. Digital cameras were too expensive for relatively poor quality so i went away from photography. A few years ago i bought an olympus OMD em 5 mk1 with 12-50 (in reality 24-100) lens for silly money as they had just lanched the mkii. I travel a lot and so found that the size of the body and, more radically, the lenses makes the mocro4/3rds perfect for travel and I regularly take a 80-300mm lens with me. This will fit into a jacket pocket and so causes no strain (and hence lower camera shake) when taking long shots of animals etc and cost me only $300. I am being told of the benefits of full frame DSLRs on image quality – which i fully understand – but not yet found a reason where I would regularly use those benefits over the price and transportability benefits of the micr4/3rds. But then I shoot street, wildlife etc as a rule so these are things important to me. I think the key rule is that the best camera is the one you will use most often for what you want to do.

    I would a further explanation of this comment though
    “The sensor size doesn’t magnify the scene, it only restricts the field of view.”
    as I find that a 50mm lens on the half size processor does defintely bring this closer which feels like genuine optila magnification

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