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

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.

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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