Is it Time to go Full Frame? Pros and Cons

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Is it Time to go Full Frame? Weigh These Pros and Cons Before You Decide

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Has anyone ever said to you, “That’s a nice photo, you must have an expensive camera!”?

According to photography legend Ansel Adams, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!”  

Your camera is simply a tool, that you use to create your vision of the scene in front of you. A camera can only do what you tell it, so it’s not going to capture that “nice photo” all by itself. But, what if the camera doesn’t perform up to your expectations? Then, it may be time for an upgrade.

 

Captured at ISO 6400 this image shows great tonal range with very acceptable noise levels.

Captured at ISO 6400 on a Nikon D750 full frame, this image shows great tonal range with very acceptable noise levels.

I recently made the jump from a cropped-sensor camera to a full frame body (a Nikon D750, used in all the images below). For the purpose of this article I am not going to get into a technical discussion about the differences between a crop sensor (APS-C), and full frame camera (the main one being is that the full frame has a larger sensor, the size of a frame of 35mm film).

But how do you know if, and when, upgrading to a full frame camera is desirable? What follows are some points to consider if you’re on the fence.

Advantages of full frame

  • Improved low light performance: Because of the larger sensor size, a full frame camera is able to capture more light, which allows it to attain focus in darker environments.
  • Higher ISO performance: The larger sensor of a full frame has larger pixels, which creates less digital noise at higher ISOs. In most cases you will get a one or two stop improvement in high ISO noise, over crop sensor cameras, though many new models of APS-C models have a much improved performance in noise reduction.
  • More control over depth of field: This is a commonly misunderstood benefit of full frame, because the larger sensor does not really affect the depth of field of an image. However, with the larger sensor of a full frame, you can move closer to the subject which causes the depth of field to become smaller. This, in turn, creates a smoother bokeh.
  • Improved dynamic range and color depth:  A full frame sensor can record more tonal range within shadows and highlights. Detail and color are much improved at both ends of the spectrum.

Disadvantages of full frame

Bird in fight was captured here at high ISO to achieve fast shutter speed to capture a very sharp image.

This heron in flight was captured at high ISO to achieve the fast shutter speed needed to get a sharp wildlife image.

  • Expense: Not only is the cost of the full frame DSLR higher than a crop sensor, you will most likely need to make additional investment in compatible lenses.
  • Size and weight: Not only are the sensors larger in a full frame DSLR, the overall size and weight are as well. Also, the lenses have more glass elements, and are also larger and heavier. This may not matter to many photographers, but when carrying gear for long distances it could be a factor to consider.
  • No crop factor: The telephoto reach of a full frame DSLR is lessened by not having a crop sensor. For example: a 200mm lens on full frame doesn’t have the reach of the approximate focal length on a cropped sensor  camera (about 300mm).
  • Slow frame rate in burst mode: Because a full frame DSLR has a larger sensor, there is more information to record to the memory card. Therefore, it will take longer to save images to the card, resulting in fewer frames per second when you are shooting in burst mode.

So, how do you know if you are ready to make the jump to a full frame camera? Ask yourself these questions:

How much will it cost?

As mentioned above, the cost of buying a full frame camera is significantly more expensive than a crop sensor one, plus new lenses will most likely need to be purchased. There isn’t much use in changing to full frame if you are not going use high quantity lenses designed for full frame cameras. If you plan to make the jump to full frame, you may want to begin by upgrading lenses to those compatible with full frame DSLRs.

Choosing a smaller aperture of f/22 gave enough depth of field to keep both the boys and the waterfalls in focus.

Choosing a smaller aperture of f/22 produced enough depth of field to keep both the boys and the waterfalls in focus using a full frame Nikon D750.

What type of photography do you enjoy shooting?

Full frames have advantages and disadvantages for different types of photography.

  • Landscape: Low light performance, more detail and improved ISO performance are all great advantages of full frame for landscape photography. The only possible drawback here is the effectively shallower depth of field, but this can be compensated for by using a smaller f-stop.
  • Portraits: The larger sensor size of a full frame will result in a shallower depth of field. For portraiture this means the backgrounds can feature more blur and make the subjects stand out better.
  • Wildlife: A full frame camera loses the telephoto reach that a crop sensor has. Nevertheless, a lot of wildlife photography is shot in low light situations, where a full frame gives a much improved advantage.
  • Sports: As in wildlife photography, limited reach and low light factors apply to sports photography. Shooting with a full frame, the improved focusing in low light is a helpful benefit for sports. However, the slower frame rates of a full frame can be a drawback in photographing a fast moving sport.

If you are a portrait or landscape shooter, there are many benefits that might convince you to make the switch to full frame.

This scene was captured with at 24mm on full frame Nikon D750. The white line shows how much of this image would be captured on a crop sensor from the same location.

This scene was captured at 24mm on a full frame Nikon D750. The white line shows how much of this image would be captured on a crop sensor from the same shooting location.

This image was captured at 600mm with a Nikon D750. The white line shows the extra reach that a crop sensor camera would give you. This image was also captured in low light conditions with ISO of 2000 with very acceptable noise level.

This image was captured at 600mm with a full frame. The white line shows the extra reach advantage that a crop sensor camera would provide. Still, capturing this image in low light conditions with an ISO of 2000 results in a desirable noise level.

Is your current camera holding you back?

Every camera has a limited number of shutter releases, so if your camera is nearing the end of its life cycle, it might be time to consider an upgrade. If your older crop sensor DSLR is limiting your results in low light, and you are constantly frustrated by high levels of noise, you might benefit from an upgrade to full frame.

Keep in mind that it’s convenient to blame a camera for taking poor images, but it may not be the camera holding you back. Many times photographers don’t get the results they expect by underutilizing high-end equipment. No matter what type of camera you shoot with, get to know it, and how all of its features work, before moving on to a different one.

shooting here in low light, this shot was able to be captured in low light by increasing the ISO without adding digital noise to the image.

This cityscape was captured with a full frame in low light by increasing the ISO, without adding digital noise.

What is your level of photography experience?

A full frame camera is probably not the best one to use as a beginner. Start shooting with a more entry level DSLR, and work up to a full frame model. If you are looking for a camera to take photos of family and friends, a crop sensor DSLR is a very satisfactory choice. Having a good handle on the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) and how they work together is a must if you’re going to take advantage of all the benefits of full frame. You must be comfortable with shooting in manual mode. If you earn any part of your income from photography, you may benefit from switching to a full frame camera.

Do you make large prints?

A full frame sensor has a larger pixel size, which will capture more light and detail, which results in sharper images that are conducive to making large prints. If you never make any prints larger than 8×10″, then a full frame DSLR may not be of benefit to you.

Here this sunrise shot has a nice range of tones without any noise in the shadows that you might get with some crop sensor cameras.

Captured with full frame Nikon D750, this sunrise image reveals a nice range of tones, without any of the digital noise in the shadows likely to be present with some crop sensor cameras.

Will purchasing a full frame make you a better photographer?

You may have heard this quote, “Skill in photography is acquired by practice, not by purchase.”

Do you need a full frame camera to capture great images? No, of course not! Most new crop sensor cameras on the market today are engineered to take beautiful images! But if you are an experienced photographer who makes money with your camera, you may gain an advantage by switching to full frame.

The bottom line

If you are thinking of upgrading from a crop sensor camera, be sure to consider the price, lens compatibility, and type of photography you do, before you make the change to full frame. Jumping to full frame can be quite a leap! But if you are ready for that big step, the results can be rewarding.

Are you ready to go full frame? Please leave your comments below.

Editor’s note: Wow this one has certainly sparked a rigorous discussion, thanks for all of your comments. This article shares our author’s personal experience and opinion, but we appreciate that there are many variables at play and many alternative points of view.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • SG

    We are mostly in agreement, and in my final comments on this thread I will give a nod to the author of the original article who began with a quote from Ansel Adams, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!”. I think that for people who want to express their own vision of the world, photography is an accessible medium, but expensive. My grown children and wife can attest to my early fanaticism about image quality when digital cameras became usable and affordable, and my struggle to achieve what I considered quality prints. Print prices have come down significantly in the last seven years, and that has made a big difference to me. My “standard” size custom print on metallic paper mounted to foam core has gone from over four-hundred dollars per-print in 2009 to just under two-hundred in 2016, and that is a huge savings. Combined with my drastic reduction in expensive equipment, it is more reasonable for me to order more prints, and I really don’t miss the disappointments I had working with chemicals in my dedicated home-darkroom either. I have seem prints by Adams, I am always in awe of his darkroom skills as well as photography skills, and I have yet to see a print from digital that equals his workmanship, but I do see many images made by everyday people that really are extraordinary too. I still think that the original article speaks to a large audience, and that audience will benefit from supportive (if not entirely accurate) suggestions with examples. I wish I had the shock therapy treatment back in 2006 when I went from film to digital, but I struggled on. My main lens used to be a Fujinon SWD 75mm, now it is a Canon TS-E 90 adapted to a mirror-less body, and this is definitely not for everyone. I have said that if I ever went to a larger sensor again, it would likely be a phase-one product on my other old camera the Mamiya (RZ), but that will likely never happen. I just hope everyone rpints a few decent images in their lifetime, and enjoys the process in the interim.

  • Karl

    Currently using an old EOS 300d. Hopefully going to upgrade to 7D MK ii. Crop sensor, I have ef-s lenses and ef so both will fit. Been using 300d for a few years now. Think it will be a good jump for my. 65 point focus I enjoy wildlife photography and portrait

  • Rich Billig

    Umpti – I think the light bulb finally went on in my brain and I now appreciate your knowledge, intent, education and overall experience!!!!!! I would like to address some of the statements above and seek your forgiveness of my ignorance. Please forgive me and my opinions!
    “If these people were really innocent, I’d be nicer” I’m very sorry for my lack of innocence. Lost it many years ago.
    “Determined ignorance” – I realize that I’m not blameless and need to be punished. I was determined to be ignorant but you’ve shown me the light!
    “Spending more money…..makes them better than other people”. That’s why I bought my d750, I wanted to be better than other people. What can I say, I’ve seen the light and I apologize!
    “This belief is bad for them and everyone around them – so shock therapy is in order” I’m making an appointment with a therapist and asking for additional shock therapy!!! Although I must admit it sounds like something Adolf Hitler might have said. Thanks though for protecting me and others.
    “Spending thousands of dollars on stuff you don’t understand is never spiritually dignified” I am selling my Porsche IMMEDIATELY because I don’t know enough about its engine. I will be in my war room praying for forgiveness and spiritual sanctification. Also, selling all of my photography gear and will only use my cell phone for taking pictures since I do know how to make a phone call with it. Is that acceptable?
    “Pointless pictures of objects isolated by seas of wide aperture blur” I will delete all of my macro shots of objects. Quick question about portraits of human beings? Should I dump those too or begin to shoot my brides at f16? Just want to make sure my artistic interpretation is in line with the program.
    “They’d be perfectly happy with a compact or a bridge camera, except for a self perceived loss of status”. Well, the Porsche is history, the gear is going, and hopefully, my cell phone will provide enough status so I can sleep at night!
    Umpti – Just want to say thanks again for your infinite wisdom, intelligence, knowledge as respects everything.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Karl, the 7D MK II is a great wildlife camera, good choice. Have fun!

  • umptious

    >>>Sensors” don’t take pictures, cameras take them with their incorporated SNR algorithms etc.<<>>I rely on my eyes, as do my clients<<<

    Yes, you do. Unfortunately, ears and eyes are no better than the brain attached. The world is full of people who say they can tell the difference between a $200 amp and a $10K one, and then can't in blind testing. And this happens an awful lot when people look at images from cameras too. The very fact that you think the argument you're attempting strongly indicates that you are incompetent.

  • waynewerner

    I wish I could find the example, but I’m *pretty* sure the one that I saw had a picture taken a 35mm with a crop sensor, and 50mm with a full frame. If I’m remembering correctly, the 50mm on FF depth of field was quite a bit shallower, with the details in the background quite a bit more blurred.

  • waynewerner

    In some cases, even a point and shoot will produce better macro shots than a nice DSLR.

  • lbrilliant

    This is what you would expect. For a given f number and angle of view, a larger sensor will have a narrower depth of field. Now, if both used 35mm lenses then they would be the same. Think of it this way, a 1/4″ sensor would need about a 4mm lens to match a 35mm lens on a full frame. Wouldn’t you expect a 35mm to have a narrower depth of field than a 4mm?

  • lbrilliant

    Yes it is. See my other post and Wikipedia. I once used a 4X5 camera and it had virtually NO depth of field, even with a wide angle lens.

  • flash321

    I am definitely ready. I shoot performers at the Casino. A full frame camera would certainly raise my odds on good prints.

  • Rich Billig

    I also shoot events and you should be very pleased. Not sure of your equipment but the NIkon d750 excels at low light/low noise performance. Good luck!

  • Rich Billig

    Nikon d750, Nikon 24-70 2.8 (70mm), ISO 6400, No flash, 1/60

  • Rich Billig
  • Rich Billig

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/97ce04793ba0fda2fb8609a6a539040181f33a2b45bc59ddc49b9006a7fb0004.jpg

    Shot from the balcony – Nikon d750 at ISO 4032, F4, 1/320 with a Nikon 70-200 2.8 at 75mm from about 80 ft

  • Rich Billig
  • Yes, it does. That said, the difference between APS-C and FF is pretty negligible. From APS-C to 645 or larger is when it makes a significant difference.

  • Ugh….

    “No crop factor: The telephoto reach of a full frame DSLR is lessened by not having a crop sensor. For example: a 200mm lens on full frame doesn’t have the reach of the approximate focal length on a cropped sensor camera (about 300mm).”

    Small sensors DO NOT magnify an image!!! They simply aren’t large enough to capture the pixels on the outside. It’s like drawing a picture, then taking out a pair of scissors and cutting the center part out. Nothing is magnified, the rest just isn’t there!

    That’s just for starters, there are numerous points of misinformation in this article…

  • flash321

    I have a Nikon D7000. Some of your stages are well lit, but at least one shows you what can happen when it’s not. I have this one light that is so bright, it is blowing out the detail. If I bring the exposure down and burn in the dark areas, I get a lot of noise.

  • Rich Billig

    The image below was shot at 8000, spotlight in my face. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cf7820a8a223302d975059d8b620bec49a8349acf945480d0cf43ffc37f3b0b4.jpg I’ve shot with a d40, d5100, d7100 and d750. I couldn’t shoot at 3200 or 6400 with any of them other than the d750. I can tell you than the same shots (same stage and lighting) with the d7100 were much noisier. It sounds very frustrating that you have to deal with that one light. The d750 has a meter setting (highlight metering mode, in addition to the typical spot metering, which helps). It shows as a spot with an asterisk. You have a tough situation. That’s where the d750 will shine. Maybe you could rent one to try it if you want to test it out. Good Luck.

  • Rich Billig

    Here’s another shot at 6400. Trust me, it was not a well lit stage and that one light was making it difficult. I have grain but I like the look. So did the magazine.

  • flash321

    I will NEVER surrender. It’s frustrating sometimes, but I take enough shots with enough different settings, that I usually get some good ones.
    I really want a full frame camera, though. You know us guys, we always want more power!
    It’s worth it. Who would have thought I’d get to meet the guys who made the rock n roll that I loved so much growing up.

  • Rich Billig

    I know what you mean. There’s no replacement for displacement as they say. You’ll love the full frame and I believe you’ll see an immediate improvement. You should also get a lot of good ones versus a few. Good luck!

  • Josh

    not mentioning that you only take full advantage of better iso when your willing to shoot wide open…. which destroys part of the advantage for landscape. …i want a fullframe. but i dont feel inferior with my apsc. 85 1.4 on apsc gives you bokeh. enough. more than enough.

  • Josh

    and still you get shallower depth of field in the end. why do you want to confuse people?

  • Gregory Johnson

    With the advent of Nikon’s D500, many of the pros for full-frame no longer apply.

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