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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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!

  • Chris

    I agree that the mirrorless camera systems are going to keep growing and keep challenging the world of the SLR, but they’re not there yet. I see amazing results from them, but the viewfinder lag that I read about is a deal break for me as of right now. Maybe in a few years though!

  • triptikkah

    My favorite thing about the crop sensors/mirrorless cameras is the amount of reach you can get with relatively small lenses. With a 2x crop factor, a 300mm telephoto lens is equivalent to a 600mm lens on a full frame camera, but I can drop it in the pocket of my cargo pants without needing a belt 😉

  • I’m not sure about the “extra reach” of crop sensor. Won’t you get the same exact thing if you crop a full frame photo?

  • FeralWhippet

    To the extant that megapixels matter, cropping a full frame to the equivalent of APS-C will lose you a lot of resolution. With the d800, the cropped image area would be ~15-16 mp, so the argument makes sense there. With other cameras, you might not get the image size / resolution that you want. (Of course with the d800 you don’t really get larger pixels over an APS-C either).

  • Morgan Glassco

    I could create an import that crops to DX on every photo. Plus I would have the added space for recomposing.

  • Lyn Rees

    I bought a Nikon D700 many moons ago to give me better low light performance over the D300s I had. I also mainly had full frame lenses, so the fit was good.

    For me, at the time, full frame delivered what I wanted in low light. However, sensor tech has come on enough for me to get good enough results from APS-C or M4/3.

    Today, I use an Olympus E-P5 (sometimes with the viewfinder), and some of those lovely Olympus primes. The systems better fits my needs today. APS-C, and more so, M4/3 allows for small light lenses (and Olympus and Fuji make them good as well).

  • Weather sealing is another parameter to consider. I am on Pentax and love my new K-3 with a 24 MP APS-C sensor. Together with some of Pentax weather-sealed lenses the combination is light weight (as compared to Full frame), gives high quality pictures and can be used on the toughest hikes.
    As for the bokeh there is a fair line-up of Sigma lenses for Pentax with apertures of 1,8 or even 1,4 that gives beautiful ouput.
    Side-by-side to some of my friends with Full-frames I sometimes envy their slightly better low-light capabilities

  • DarCam7

    It still comes down to perception, the stigma of what an APS-C can do versus a full frame sensor. However, price and the growing popularity of smaller 4/3 & compact systems is slowly eroding that view as these cameras get into more hands.
    As for me, I was looking into a full frame camera as my next upgrade, but for what I use it for and the demands of the work that I do an APS-C does just fine.
    I’m probably going to go with a Pentax K-5 II s and use the money that I would have spent on a full frame for a nice wide angle lens.

  • david

    I Like to shoot small concerts so I need all de ISO I can get and for that I think I need a full frame camera but I love the mirrorless cameras for street… I want both… but still on a aps-c….

  • Ido Scharf

    I think that the full-frame format definitely has its place even in the future, but it’s not as obviously needed as it was before. My little Olympus OM-D E-M5, which is equipped with a sensor that’s 4 times smaller than full-frame in area, takes wonderful, clean images up to ISO 2500, and I can use some noise reduction in Lightroom to make ISO 6400 shots look great. The dynamic range is awesome, and if I had a full-frame camera, I don’t think I would’ve done less brackets for HDR than I do with my OM-D – it’s just as good, no more than ? EV difference in dynamic range between the latest 4/3 sensors and the latest Sony full-frame sensors (which are supposedly the best in the industry).

  • Plaken

    Good post but spoiled by complete boycott of pioneers of mirrorless systems, Olympus. Frankly dPS almost never covers 4/3rd cameras while most photography online media is raving about them! No it sure what the reason is for such bias.

  • alioly

    Talking about crop factor and mirroless cameras but ignoring the makers of this tech (Olympus &Panasonic)?? They are the reason why people ignore compact and SLR in Asia specially Japan market. What kind of articles is this?

    don’t write about tech if your information is outdated.

  • nice post! .. I get this question very often.

  • Jack Sassard

    I have a k-5II and a K-5IIs. I can’t tell to much difference without the low pass filter. What I am trying to say is you can’t go wrong on either one, excellent cameras.

  • I don’t like mirrorless cameras, you see a video image fron EVF and there is lag in low light. That’s why I can’t use any camera without optical viewfinder.

  • I use 2 older Full frame camera’s, 1Dsmk2 and a 5Dmk2.. Still getting very nice pictures out of it, so why would I move to a cropped body? Before I went for Canon

    I had Olympus (E3, E5..) and I always wanted to have the latest body.. Now I have no need anymore.

  • MarcosV

    I invested a lot of money in my Canon L glass and two FF bodies. That investment continues to server me very well. Not sure what a similar investment will buy me with the current state of mirrorless systems out there where I either wonder if the lens I want will ever be available or if the sensor tech will ever catch up (e.g., Nikon 1, m43). And of course I love my shallow DOF.

    As it is, I am about to take the plunge in Fuji-X, but, my investment will be limited to less than 20% of what I invested in Canon FF. I like having options.

  • Craig Cullum

    This isn’t really the case, the latest generation of mirror less cameras have this solved. Look at the reviews for the A7/7R, E-M1 and the new Fuji.

  • Craig Cullum

    EVF lag is already pretty much solved.

  • Craig Cullum

    This isn’t quite accurate, cropping a photo is not the same as sensor crop…

  • In my opinion cropped sensor cameras work fine for my landscape and nature photography. Post-processing using DxO Optics Pro software with its prime noise reduction and lens softness correction, I get great images from my cropped sensor cameras. For the best image quality out of the camera, I have a Sigma DP2M that gives me medium-format quality and the sharpest images I’ve ever seen, at a low cost and in a compact package. Not for everyone, but certainly delivers on image quality.

  • Nate Cochrane

    Errm, what about medium format? Large format? Rangefinder? The article starts with a false premise and proceeds to build a strawman argument around it.

  • Lou

    for an article on the quality of a full-frame camera…the portrait chosen showcase “Bokeh” is bizarre. It’s not even a good photo let alone an “example” of quality.

  • Morgan Glassco

    TL;DR, but if you’re talking about MP, I get what you’re saying but nobody ever said we weren’t comparing the D800 to the D40, so even in THAT scenario the D800 would still have more MP even cropped.

  • Real case is it is not optic, it is a digital image on screen. Optic viewfinder most close to what you see in real. Best smooth EVF performance can’t convince me.

  • Cyan Zone

    Full frame camera sensors are super max.

  • Thank you to everybody who has made a constructive comment. There are some interesting discussions here, and it’s good to see a variety of points of view. Perhaps the bottom line is that with so many high quality crop sensor and full frame cameras to choose from, most photographers will be happy with whatever they buy?

  • Photography by James

    Having started off with a Canon EOS 600D I recently blew a financial bonus I received on a 5DIII and some L series glass. The difference between the two is awesome. I do a lot of portrait work and the quality of skin tones on the 5D is way beyond anything I was getting on the 600D, let alone the fact that I can now get eminently acceptable results up to ISO6400 and beyond, extending the shutter speed and low light ranges available.

    I do miss the extra range on the 600 D with my telephoto lenses but in less than perfect light the results were often unusable. Cropping down from the 22mp of the 5D gives almost the same resolution as the 600D with much better quality results. I was lucky enough to be in a position to afford the expense but I don’t regret a penny of it.

  • marius2die4

    I am in Olympus photo-club and we have in some cool pro who that work about 80-90% of time with new OMD gear, after they sell almost all Canon or Nikon full frame stuff. They complain about missing a fast telephoto lens quality for mirrorless. They have a lot of works and are not cheap (about thousand per sesion). I think new mirroless have problem in sport/wildlife area.
    A issue for full frame they complain is calibration of lens with body, before of the gear weight.

  • Pavol Sojak

    This is what I think looking at your questions:
    Budget – market pressure, technology advancement will make even full frame affordable. Look at Canon 6D, and compare the price range with FF cameras 5y ago (i’m Canon-ist, but believe Nikon have similar FF in given price range).

    Lens compatibility, in some extend, is possible even today for dslr lenses. The impact of mirror less could even lead towards mount standardization, which could make this whole business easier for photographers.

    TCO(total cost of ownership) is really different for hobbyists and pro’s. If I dont make living from it, I will most probably stick with brand unless deeply unsatisfied. Pro’s decisions are most probably driven by hard reality of getting the right product for type of photography + personal preferences/experience.

    Size/weight – the fact is that majority of population is happy with mobile snap, or any generic compact. I doubt people hooked on DSLR photography will compare weight of Canon/Nikon/Sony/Pentax and take it as important factor in decision process. Even exchanging heavy lens with much lighter mirror-system lens (not sure the brand name) will not be favoured.

    If I’m not mistaken most of the readers here are DSLR users, and I do believe they will be looking as well on different parameters such us:
    – high ISO noise
    – what pictures I want to shoot? Portraits, landscape products, macro-photography, sport, street, …
    – is shallow DOF important for me? E.g. macro vs. portrait
    – easinest of cleaning/maintenance, or access to right-priced services in local area
    – durability, used materials
    – weather sealling

    And as commented by others the technology is advancing in increase tempo and maybe the size of sensor will not be an issue anymore. There is technology which could create high-resolution pictures using just 1px sensor, or even snaps picture from behind corner. So maybe in near future we will be able to make fully interactive recordings allowing free movement within scene, adjustable angle, zoom, apperture for any second of our days 🙂

  • Daniel Lee

    I started out with an APSC (Canon 550D) and just recently upgraded to Full Frame (Canon 6D) and couldn’t be happier. I only bought EF lenses when I had a crop body so I’m using the exact same lenses now but I feel like I get a lot more out of them on a FF body. Although I don’t own a mirroless, I wouldn’t be against owning one simply for their portability.

  • Bob

    I’m new to this site, but I can see that while this site is called Digital Photography School, it seems to come across that digital photography means full-framed cameras. After 10 years, I finally moved from fully manual point-and-shoot to MFT because I wanted to go farther in my photagraphy skills without having to lug around something that was inappropriate for my context. However, this blog entry appears to communicate, between the lines, that true digital photogrphy means full-frame. To be honest the article does say “The question has shifted…” in the section “A new question” But it comes across that anything other than full-frame is something that the extreme minority do, stated as “you might consider”, and in reality anything other than full-frame doesn’t reflect the true digital photographer.

  • Matt M

    But since it’s a digital camera the EVF is closer to what your sensor sees.

  • JR

    IMO full frame is unnecessary for the 99% of the photographers. Only professionals – and depending what kind – take advantage of the format.

  • Andy Whiteman

    I just can’t work this one out – it’s the cost thing for me. I have a D300 with a bunch of glass that is designed for APS-C so to move would cost me an arm and a leg. I’m waiting (in vain?) for the D400…..for my photos I think that’s the route I’ll take if it ever comes out….

  • 99rider

    I own a Fuji X-E1 and a Nikon D800. I loved the X-E1 because it’s display was a terrific improvement over past efforts in mirrorless. That is until I got the D800, now I can hardly tolerate the X-E1’s display through the viewfinder. I use it when I have to, but the Nikon kicks it butt all over the place. The biggest improvement is the metering is far superior in the D800. With the Fuji I had to bracket everything, with the Nikon I just take one shot most of the time. You get what you pay for and the D800 was not cheap. I am not recommending the D800 though, it’s full frame 36 megapixel sensor creates the largest megabit RAW in the the DSLR class, 40 megs per shot and that is a lot of storage for most people to deal with. Jpegs I think are 20 megs, I’m not sure though, I never shoot Jpeg.

  • 99rider

    All of that is well and good unless you want to shoot with a real wide angle. A clip frame only captures half of a 20 or 24 mm wide angel image view. Really, basically your only getting the center image area of whatever lens you are using which is okay for most stuff it doesn’t matter all that much, but you never get real wide angle work no matter what.

  • Confused

    Wish I could decide what to do!

    Back in the old days I had a great Pentax ME Super film camera; it took great photos, but stopped working and was too expensive to fix, so it just stayed there until along came digital.. after riding out the original leading edge cameras I eventually bought a nice little 4 Megapixel Olympus C-750 Ultra Zoom (10x optical). That was around 15 years ago. Life was simpler then; digital cameras lived alongside film cameras and everything was in its rightful place in the scheme of things.

    Having decided to take up photography again, I started to look around for an entry level but quality camera.

    After many hours of research I more or less had settled on a Nikon D 5200 and was just tracking the price over time to be ready for the moment when I could nab a bargain when.. bang.. I happened to read about the Sony Alpha 7 full frame mirror-less camera! Now I am totally off-track again because it seems that this is lightweight and portable AND full-frame to boot. But of course it is still expensive so I am still hesitant.

    So much change, so quickly.. is it always like this with digital cameras or am I just unlucky in seeking a camera at this point in time?

  • Dear Confused,

    No, you’re not unlucky, it is like this all the time with digital cameras. There is lots of innovation at the moment and competition between camera manufacturers vying for your custom and continually bringing out new models. But don’t worry – this is probably one of the best times to buy a digital camera. Any model you buy today will last you for many years. The most likely problem is that you will buy an entry level camera and then find you grow out of it after a few years and want to upgrade to a better one. Maybe the best approach is to decide what type of camera you want first (ie. mirrorless, digital SLR etc) based on weight, size and performance considerations, and then look at the options within that range and work out how much you want to spend.

    Hope that helps.

  • The main disadvantages you list for the full-frame DSLR are cost and size/weight. I contend that as a pro photographer, I’ve built the cost into my business, and I have accepted the size/weight of the system. In fact, I don’t *want* miniaturization- what I want is the same footprint with more/better technology built into the package. As technology advances, I should get more memory, faster speeds, better autofocus, more features, etc. in the same basic footprint.

  • deadlock

    What intrigues me the most about this whole situation is: 1) full-frame sensors become cheaper (not so much lenses), and 2) sensor tech gradually improves therefore from certain point on we’ll see diminishing returns (one can argue this has already happened). So, one possible point of view is: if there are cheap full-frame cameras available, who needs crop sensors anymore. But another one is: if full-frame doesn’t bring any obvious advantage, why drag around all the bulk? It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Currently all systems have their merit, depending on the circumstances.

  • Christopher Smith

    There is nothing like A Full Frame Camera. I haven’t found a crop sensor that has been able to compare, yet. As for the A7 or A7R, it’s not the same as a A99. More mp doesn’t mean its better.

  • Alma Smith

    The Pentax system is great (weather sealing, size, weight, adjustment placement, etc…), but when it comes down to it Pentax is still way behind on noise/grain and video capabilities. The low light ability of a Canon 5D II is just too desirable to choose any Pentax.

  • Jack Sassard

    I disagree. I am a semi pro and use it for high end real estate photography, portraits and do a lot of night shots. We can argue about camera’s all day long but the Pentax is quite capable in the right hand as I am sure the Canon is too. So it come down to preference and the capabilities of the one behind the camera.

  • Jack Sassard

    Your also comparing a camera that cost 2-3 time more and full frame to boot. Apples to oranges really.

  • Alma Smith

    You’re right, the comparison isn’t really a true comparison. I learned on Pentax with film, my first DSLR was a Pentax, and I loved them. But then I made the leap and bought a canon 7D and realized that all of the cool features I loved about the Pentax didn’t matter to me as much as the final image quality, Pentax left a bit of a bad taste I’m my mouth. I’ll have to re-examine some of their newer models

  • John Bak Dinitzen

    I have to disagree with you regarding your noise/grain comment and Pentax – It is true, if you compare to top end FF cameras, but compared to similarly priced models from Canon and Nikon, you will find that they are more than competitive.
    Video is a different thing – I don’t do video. Needless to say, I shoot Pentax;)

  • Roy Fazey

    Has anyone out there opted for a Sony A99v full Frame camera, if so, how do you rate it?

  • Daniel

    Focal length equivalent is one thing — aperture equivalent is quite another. I use an Olympus Pen E-PL5 in the Micro Four Thirds system. I’m not really into printing my photos much, especially not in large sizes. But what I am interested in is whether I can get enough light in to capture an image with a minimal amount of noise. Assuming ISO 1600 is ISO 1600 (it’s not — ISO 1600 is much noisier on my Micro Four Thirds camera than on a full-frame camera), f2.8 is NOT f2.8! With the 2X crop factor, f2.8 on my camera is f5.6 on a full-frame camera. And now these point-and-shoot cameras are coming out with f2.8 constant zoom lenses. That’s a good thing, no doubt, but as you can see from the chart, f2.8 on the Panasonic Lumix FZ200 is nearly F16 on a full-frame camera!

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