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:

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  • H Nikon 7100 / Canon EOS 70D / Nikon D610

    I am planning on getting one of these. I like to take variety of photos but mainly photos indoors like models posed or at people at a bar getting intimate shots with a lovely background blur. Quality bokeh which is depended on the lens.

    I have done a lot of research reading before I posted this. My first post. I looked up full frame vs cropped and you would think FF is best option but their are arguments for everything.

    It seems cropped frame cameras create DOF blur easier because of the crop. I know its all distance related. But articles seem to lean on that cropped cameras do create a easier dof if you want that easily. I am guessing with a full frame you would have to get quite close to make up for the fuller frame. This is important because it is what I am looking to produce.

    D800 sounds lovely but I can’t afford that. At this point I am just going in circles.

  • Satyam Joshi

    I will never understand the price tagging of Canon…Pricewise and featurewise ..I know Nikon wins in every aspect ….. starting to dislike Canon !

  • Joshua Sage Son

    Iso 1600 is iso 1600. Its 16x as light sensitive as iso 100 on the same camera going by internation light sensitivity standards. The m43 sensor is just smaller and therefore has between 1 and 2 stops more noise at the same iso. Not that it matters. It still looks better than iso 1600 film or 400 film pushed to 1600. Iso 6400 on my gx7 looks better than iso 1600 film.

    and aperture equivalence is silly. In most cases a photographer is looking for more depth of field not less. And realistically the difference between m43 dof and full frame is less than a stop. With our selection of 7 different f0.95 lenses and 1 f0.85 lens plus the option to use the canon 50mm f0.95 dream lens on a speedbooster for a full stop more than f0.95 I can absolutely assure you we do not hurt for shallow dof in high quality glass. Which is also nice because the smaller sensor size means our lenses in general are of better optical quality than full frame. Add ibis and honestly m43 has a 4 or 5 stop light gathering advantage over full frame. Full frame has advantages. Dont get me wrong. But they arent big ones and they are easy to work around.

  • Joshua Sage Son

    We have 7-14mm zooms of high quality, a 10.5mm f.095 lens being released in 2015, a fantastic 12mm prime, and a few zooms that start at 12mm…so we have wide angle rectilinear covered from 14-35 mm equivalent very easily….im not really sure what your argument was. Maybe you are just unaware of the m43 lense selection.

  • simon

    I will put my d5300 up against my d4s any day of the week. Why you ask? Because i am the photographer.

  • Free Man

    Size is listed as a disadvantage for full frame cameras, but it can be an advantage. The viewfinder is bigger, the controls are further apart and the camera fits more easily in the hand. I tried to use a APS-C camera but I found that I preferred my full frame camera because of the larger size.
    Full frame is becoming cheaper and lighter, and you can buy a discontinued model 2nd hand to keep the costs down.

  • Alex Bernatzky

    No Mention of medium format… Poppycock! 😛

  • Full Frame is the best for me until I win the lottery and can finally get a Hasselblad!
    “Photography” is in our brains, these camera merely represent what we’re seeing or thinking. I stopped being concerned with gear a long time ago…

  • Lion Hijmans

    I have that Sony A7 – Zeiss 55mm 1.8 combination. At ISO 50 it makes absolutely more beautiful pictures than my Canon 5DIII even with Canon 24-70 2.8 II did: more dynamic range, incredible sharpness all over the picture, very strong contrast and colors.
    On the other hand… as a tele lens I have to use a Canon 400mm with metabones ‘interface’. Why is there no Sony/Zeiss 400mm prime? And yes, I admit full heartedly: when shooting deer I miss the crop factor dearly. And the AF is good, but surely not as great as the 5DIII.
    Still, most of my pics are portrait, architecture or landscape, so most of the time I’m very happy with my Canon to Sony switch. The Sony 16-35 2.8 is very satisfying in that field.

  • Clive

    Most photography magazines seem to be a bit anti 4/3 with few reviews of their lenses when they do a multi test, often saying the image size is outdated.

  • Clive

    Pentax seem to have a limited lens supply. With Canon and Nikon there seem to be a lot of second hand kit available along with a good supply of third party optics.

  • Clive

    There will never be a D400

  • You do realize that it is quite irrelevant the use of full frame or any other frame for that matter or number of pixels…Most images end up on the web at 72DPI. 1024×768 or 1200×1900…

    How many of you print large canvas, metal, billboards, and anything over 4×6(if that)?

  • Clive

    The problem for Nikon ,in particular, is that most people are taking photos on phones and pads now.
    Full frame might give the best image quality, but most people won’t need that level of quality, or even notice the difference unless shooting at high iso’s. anyway, whether full or cropped you need the best lenses to really get the full benefit from the sensor.

    Some phones now have 1 inch sensors in them and are starting to match good compacts and SLR’S costing a few hundred pounds.

    The options for taking photos is getting bigger all the time and the market for small, quality cameras was up 12% last year while APC’S and full frame camera sales fell.

    Full frame might still give the best image quality. bit do enough people even care these days? and then there are the medium format sensors…

  • Stoffers

    Other than the Panasonic CM1 what phones have a 1inch sensor?

  • Clive

    The Nokia 808 comes close, but at the moment most are in the development stage, but should be out in a year or two.

  • AlpNek

    True. Not just magazines but online photography sites and blogs too. Maybe its just their lack of experience with m4/3. Seeing how mature m4/3 format is, one would imagine photo journos to pick up their game by now.

  • I recently made the switch to Fujifilm X-T1 matched with prime lenses and I haven’t looked back. Absolutely love the camera, lenses, and mostly the results!

  • Andy Whiteman

    You’re possibly right but it would be great if we were both proved wrong.

  • e.simmons

    I think, it depends on the photographer, their perspective and purpose. /e.simmons from

  • Clive

    Sure would. A D400 with about 16 mega pixels would be good.

  • Clive

    There is more likely going to be a Nikon D8000 or something along those lines

  • Clive

    I have an Olympus Pen and was wondering on which lens to get that doesn’t cost stupid amounts of money.

  • Andy Whiteman

    Spot on – would be just great.

  • marinsd

    I’ve won over 100 club awards for images taken with my old APS-C cameras, so am convinced cropped sensors are just fine for most photographers given many of the considerations noted above (cost, lens availability, etc). That being said, I’ve been thrilled with my original Sony a7 – and now my Sony a7M2. Small, lightweight, mirrorless full-frame cameras with amazing features. True, the native lenses are expensive and still limited in variety, but the Sony a7x series is a platform that can accommodate just about any lens from any lens family. (And I don’t miss the size/weight of my old APS-C’s.)

  • Clive

    4/3 is great for macro I have just found out.

  • Graig

    They don’t. Because you don’t need optical stabilization with pentax. There is in body sensor based movement that replaces the need for any optical stabilizer. You can just throw out the need for quite a few of canon and nikon’s expensive OS lenses. Because optical stabilization is outdated tech that they used on film bodies. A pentax camera can correct for all the same things an os lens can. And more, because it can compensate for rotation by rotating the sensor. You can’t rotate a lens. 😉

  • Clive

    I just found out you can use Pentax lenses going back to the seventies
    giving a bigger choice than I thought there was.

  • sebastianinfante

    I’m thinking switch to Sony A7II or a6000 from Nikon (D7100,D7000, sigma 30 1.4 art, tamron 17-50 2.8, tamron 28-75 2.8, etc) what is your recommendation?

  • marinsd

    Sorry, don’t check this very often. The answer depends on what you’re shooting. I’m not familiar with the Nikon cameras, so don’t know their features. But I assume those are APS-C cropped sensors. The pros and cons of switching: the a7ii is a great camera. It’s light, full-frame, has in-body IS, and has a bunch of very user-friendly features. On the downside, it’s not quite as good as focusing for sports, etc as the a6000 or the Sony alpha predecessors like my old a77 or a99. But I’ve been shooting sports and wildlife anyway and it’s certainly good enough! The real downside – and something you need to think about – is that the lenses are expensive. The good native FE lenses for this camera are all over $1,000 US. What I’ve done is picked up the 70-200FE and the 35 2.8 FE to use with the kit 28-70. And bought the LA-EA4 adapter to use with a bunch of cheaper alpha lenses (12-24, 50 1.4, 150-600, 90 macro), so I’m covered. Of course anyone changing from one brand to another will deal with the same lens issue (but there just aren’t any older lenses which will work with the FE mount and no third party lenses yet).

    I don’t have the a6000, but have several friends that do. If you don’t mind the crop sensor (which has it’s own 1.5x advantage for many things), it has the fastest focus on the planet, has a ton of cheaper lenses that work with it (and will work with any of the new FE full-frame lenses too), and has many of the benefits of the a7x series. But I’d suggest waiting for the new model that’s coming out to see what else they’ve added to it. Good luck!

  • sebastianinfante

    Wow!!!, thank you very much, more than expected advice, In my country din’d have local presence of Sony and because that I need to ask users to make a choice, thank you very much!!!

  • mauipete

    Sony would be great of they had any lenses. Their lens are truly awful.

  • mcb1

    Cameras are, at least in Canada, not legally tax-deductible for photographers, unless they are buying the cameras to sell to someone else. The basic idea is that everything gets taxed just once. This is a very common misunderstanding among photographers and the only reason people don’t get nailed by the income tax folks is that (1) they don’t know when this is being done by a photographer and (2) they are too busy with other things to look into this question. If the camera were bought and resold, tax would apply to the purchaser. If the original buyer paid sales tax, that would mean that the camera was taxed twice. However, if the original buyer does not pay sales tax, and does not resell it, then magically sales tax just disappears for that item, which in Canada is illegal. What you CAN use as a deduction, legally, is depreciation on all your equipment, including your vehicle, to the degre that you can prove its use for your business.

  • Richie Fairlamb

    You obviously haven’t used the
    Sony 70–400mm F4–5.6 G SSM II

  • Graig

    As I see it there’s not much difference. And it may not even matter in the future if past sensor improvements continue at the same rate. I had a k20d Pentax and just moved to a k3. And not only have the sensors added more megapixels. The noise has improved dramatically. It could be that in another 5 years the sensors will have improved again and the noise will be even better. I say we have seen more improvements from new sensors than we have from the size of the sensor.

  • pete guaron

    Interesting, looking at this article, 2 years on. I still feel that the mirrorless cams don’t quite hit the target – there’s quite a range, now, and some of them are “excellent”, but when I decided recently to replace my compact with one of them, I ran into headwinds. There was nothing that really suited – really pushed ALL the buttons for me. Although heaps of them had other features, that I’d never need, want or use.
    I’ve been driven to the realisation that I am running 3 cameras, to cover the range of photography I do on a regular basis – all of which COULD be replaced by a single camera/system, if only there was one that suited. And found a number of “almosts” that suffer from things like quality assurance problems, which I am not prepared to tolerate – haven’t been, since I was a teenager and had no other choice, and that was a VERY long time ago.

  • jonathanwpressman

    It really depends on what you use it for and what’s best for you. I mainly do street shots at night and my Panasonic LX100 (which uses a micro 4/3) is just perfect for that; I couldn’t imagine using anything else. I’ve also gotten some pretty decent bokeh off the regular f3.5 kit lens on my old Canon Rebel (APS-C).

  • John T

    Image quality advantages of full frame cameras are only relevant in two areas: 1) very low light situations and 2) if you are printing at massive sizes, which does not affect 99.9% of users, even professionals.

    As the owner of an Olympus M 4/3 camera that turns out stunning images, the two cases above are not enough to make me return to lugging around a huge camera and accompanying lenses, all of which cost and weigh about 50% more than what I am using. I’m a convert and truthfully can’t ever see myself going back.

  • John T

    M4/3 is hardly miniturisation… really it is only taking cameras back to what they used to be before the digital monsters arrived.

  • joerotheray

    My feeling is that there are too many bells and whistles on the modern digital camera. By the time all the right settings are made, the shot is lost. Planning I guess!

  • Ron Olivier

    I’m a big fan of Pentax since getting my K-50. Even with a modest 16MP, this camera delivers great quality pictures (I can even get pretty decent bokeh with the kit lens), When I bought it, I was REALLY hoping to get a mirrorless, but the Pentax was such a great deal I couldn’t resist…and have never regretted the decision.
    Would I like to have a full frame DSLR? Yeah, I guess so, but I don’t really have the need for one. I can deal with using a crop-sensor camera, and really appreciate the less burdensome size and weight. I’ll admit that low light photography is a bit of an issue, but I can improve that by getting a decent prime lens with a larger aperture and some practice.

  • Psychedelic Chicken

    Huh. I have an excellent 11-20 wide angle lens for my pitiful D3300 ( I know I know, I shouldn’t even walk out of the house).

    This equipment machismo gets old. And you have no idea what you are talking about, in regard to wide angle capability on a cropped sensor.

  • Pat McCrady

    I am new to dslr. Bought canon 80d. Truly amazing photos. Still learning but (to me) only a photography pro or semi pro would have a clue or care because of the extraordinary quality of even the entry level equipment. Composition it seems (to me) is much more important than the size of the sensor. Does sensor size matter? Not yet

  • Vijay Krishna

    Thank you for a great post. I would add here you can get cameras for rental and can read blogs related to cameras,lenses,photography

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