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

Is it time to go full frame?

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, one that you use to create your vision of the scene in front of you. A camera can only do what you tell it to, so it’s not going to capture that “nice photo” all by itself.

But what if a camera doesn’t perform up to your expectations? Then it may be time for an upgrade – from APS-C to full frame.

Full frame photo of a forest at sunset
Captured at ISO 6400 on a full-frame Nikon D750, this image shows great tonal range with acceptable noise levels.

I recently made the jump from a crop sensor camera to a full-frame body (a Nikon D750, used in all the images below). For this article, I am not going to get into a technical discussion about the differences between a crop sensor camera and a full-frame camera.

Instead, I want to talk about if and when upgrading to a full-frame camera is desirable, especially if you’re on the fence about purchasing a full-frame body.

Now let’s discuss some important full-frame pros and cons:

Advantages of full frame

  • Enhanced low-light performance: The larger sensor of a full-frame camera has bigger pixels, which create 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, which allows you to shoot with faster shutter speeds in low light.
  • More control over depth of field: This is a commonly misunderstood benefit of full-frame cameras, because the larger sensor does not really affect the depth of field of an image. However, with the larger sensor of a full-frame camera, you can move closer to the subject while using an equivalent focal length, and this causes the depth of field to become narrower. Ultimately, you get smoother background 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

Great Blue Heron in flight
This heron in flight was captured at a high ISO to achieve the fast shutter speed needed to get a sharp wildlife image.
  • Expense: Not only is the cost of a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera higher than crop sensor alternatives, but you may also need to invest in full-frame lenses.
  • Size and weight: The overall size and weight of full-frame cameras is greater than their crop sensor counterparts. Full-frame lenses are also larger and heavier. This may not matter to many photographers, but if you frequently carry gear for long distances, it could be a factor to consider.
  • No crop factor: The telephoto reach of a full-frame camera is lessened by not having a crop sensor. A 200mm lens on a full-frame camera reaches to 200mm; a 200mm lens on a 1.5x crop sensor camera reaches to 300mm.

If you’ve made it this far and you still like the sound of a full-frame camera, it’s time to ask yourself a few key 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 you’ll likely need to purchase new lenses. There isn’t much use in changing to full frame if you are not going to use high-quality lenses designed for full-frame cameras. So if you plan to make the jump to full frame, you may want to begin by upgrading your lenses to those compatible with full-frame cameras.

What type of photography do you enjoy shooting?

Boys sitting by a waterfall
Choosing a smaller aperture of f/22 produced enough depth of field to keep both the boys and the waterfalls in focus when using my full-frame Nikon D750.

Full-frame sensors offer advantages and disadvantages for different types of photography.

  • Landscape: Enhanced low-light performance and more detail are both key advantages of full-frame cameras 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 size of a full-frame sensor 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 camera offers. Nevertheless, a lot of wildlife photography is shot in low-light situations, where a full-frame sensor gives a significant advantage.
  • Sports: As with wildlife photography, high-ISO capabilities are helpful for sports photography. However, the loss of increased reach may be a problem.

To summarize:

If you are a portrait or landscape shooter, there are many reasons to switch to full frame. But if you’re a sports or wildlife shooter, you’ll need to consider more carefully.

Architecture at sunset
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 camera from the same shooting location.
Bald Eagles in a nest
This image was captured at 600mm with a full-frame camera. The white line shows the reach advantage that a crop sensor camera would provide. Still, capturing this image in low-light conditions with an ISO of 2000 is possible thanks to my full-frame sensor.

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 model 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.

However, keep in mind that it’s convenient to blame a camera for taking poor images, but it may not be the camera that’s holding you back.

Many times, photographers don’t get the results they expect from high-end equipment simply because they struggle with more fundamental techniques. 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.

Cityscape at sunset
This cityscape was captured with a full-frame camera in low light by increasing the ISO.

What is your level of photography experience?

A full-frame camera is probably not the best option for beginners.

So if you are a beginner, I’d recommend starting with an entry-level camera and working up to a full-frame model. In fact, if you are looking for a camera to take photos of family and friends, a crop-sensor model is a great choice.

Having a good handle on the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) and how its key components work together is essential if you’re going to take advantage of a full-frame sensor. You must also be comfortable shooting in Manual mode.

Do you make large prints?

A full-frame sensor has larger pixels, which will capture more light – and this results in high-quality large prints. If you never make any prints larger than 8×10″, then a full-frame model won’t help you much here.

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

Will purchasing a full-frame camera 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’re an experienced photographer, you may benefit from 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 a larger sensor can be intense – but if you’re ready for that big step, the results are often rewarding.

Now tell me:

Are you ready to go full frame? Please leave your answer in the comments below!

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Bruce Wunderlich
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

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