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Is Full Frame Still the Best?

Nikon D800

The Nikon D800, a 36.3 megapixel full frame camera.

For many years photographers have accepted that, when it comes to image quality, a full frame camera beats one with a smaller sensor every time. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

Advantages of full frame cameras

  • Full frame camera sensors have larger pixels. This means they create images with less noise and all-round better image quality.
  • Full frame cameras usually have more megapixels. While this doesn’t matter to most photographers, it may be useful if your client demands large images or you want to make large prints.
  • There are more wide-angle primes available. If you prefer prime lenses to zooms, you have more choice at shorter focal lengths with a full frame camera.
  • Legacy lenses can be used as intended. If you own a 24mm prime lens that you used with a 35mm film camera, you can use it exactly the same way on a full frame camera. On a camera with a smaller sensor the crop factor means you are effectively using a longer focal length.
  • There is less depth-of-field at any given aperture, and focal length setting, than there is with the equivalent focal length on an APS-C camera. For example, a photo taken at f/2.8 with an 85mm lens on a full frame camera has less depth-of-field than one taken at f2.8 on with a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera even though the field-of-view of both lenses is approximately the same. This is a benefit if you like to create photos with bokeh.
  • The top cameras in a manufacturer’s range are usually full frame. Let’s say you want to buy a durable, weatherproofed, Canon EOS camera, designed to handle everything a professional photographer could possibly throw at it – then you need the EOS-1D X. An APS-C (cropped sensor) version of this camera does not exist.
Portrait taken with EOS 5D Mark II

This portrait was taken with an EOS 5D Mark II. Using a full frame camera helped obtain the out of focus background.

Disadvantages of full frame cameras

Full frame cameras have some disadvantages too:

  • They cost more money than cropped sensor cameras. Larger sensors are more expensive to manufacture, therefore full frame cameras will always cost more than similar models with smaller sensors.
  • Size and weight. Full frame cameras are larger and heavier – they have to be to fit the larger sensor. However, the new Sony A7 and A7R cameras go against this trend.

The EOS-1D X – Canon’s largest and most expensive full frame camera, designed for professional use. It’s an amazing, high precision camera for the most demanding photographer. But it also shows the main disadvantages of full frame cameras: size, weight and expense.

The rise of the mirrorless camera

If you’re an aspiring pro, you may feel that you need a full frame camera to be taken seriously. In fact, this has never been completely true. There are plenty of professional photographers who use crop sensor cameras. The quality is more than good enough, and if you’re a sports or wildlife photographer you may also appreciate the extra reach that an APS-C camera gives you with telephoto lenses.

So far most of these points apply mainly to digital SLR cameras. But over the last few years we have seen the rise in popularity of mirrorless camera systems (sometimes called compact camera systems). It is easy to see why these are popular. Their small size and unobtrusive design means they are easy to carry while travelling, and less likely to draw attention if you in an area where the locals are sensitive to photographers. Mitchell Kanashkevich has written an excellent article on this topic: Istanbul and My Review of Fuji X100S as has our own Valerie Jardin using the same camera.

Furthermore, the new Fujifilm cameras such as the X-Pro 1 and X100S have garnered a lot of praise for their high image quality, with some reviewers saying it is on a par with that of full frame digital SLR cameras (there is more information on the science behind it here).

Fujifilm X100S

The Fujifilm X100S. This camera has had some very positive reviews. Some photographers are moving away from full frame digital SLRs and towards smaller, mirrorless camera systems.

A new question

It seems to me the question has shifted. We used to ask ‘what camera gives you the best image quality?’ and the answer was inevitably – full frame. Now the question has become ‘which camera is best for me?’ Image quality is only part of the equation, and has become less important as the gap between full frame and crop sensor cameras has narrowed. So if you’re in the market for a new camera here are the things you might want to consider before making a purchase:

  • Budget – this is important for fairly obvious reasons. Don’t be afraid to buy a crop sensor camera if your budget doesn’t stretch to full frame.
  • Existing lens compatibility – If you’re staying within the same camera system, how do your current lenses work with the new camera? Some lenses are designed for crop sensor cameras and won’t work with full frame. Does upgrading to full frame mean that you will also have to spend money on new lenses?
  • Total cost with accessories –  If you’re moving to a new camera system, how much will you need to spend on lenses and other accessories? For example, there are a lot of photographers praising the merits of Fujifilm cameras and writing about making the switch from their current system. But bear in mind these guys make a living from photography and expect to spend a certain amount on camera gear each year. Cameras are tax deductible expenses and this is effectively a discount on new equipment that hobbyists don’t receive.
  • Size and weight – These are important factors if you like to travel with your cameras, but maybe not so important if you take most of your photos locally. Despite the advances in mirrorless cameras the digital SLR design is still the best for most types of photography. The trade-off is size and weight, as digital SLRs are bigger and heavier than other types of camera.
  • Alternative lens options – Do you want to use lenses from other manufacturers or old lenses on your camera? If you’d like to experiment in this area then think about a mirrorless camera system, as most of them have lens adapters that let you use them with a variety of different lenses. This can be a lot of fun and source of experimentation in itself.
Sony A7

The Sony A7 (pictured) and A7R are the world’s smallest full frame digital cameras with interchangeable lenses.

What do you think?

What are your thoughts on the full frame versus crop sensor debate? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

More reading on this topic here:

Mastering Photography

Mastering Photography ebook

My ebook Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to photography and helps you make the most out of your digital camera, no matter which one you own. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to take beautiful photos like the one in this article.

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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