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.
What Is a Full Frame Camera?
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.
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
Benefits of a Full Frame Camera
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.