Facebook Pixel Upgrading to a Full-Frame Camera: Pros and Cons

Should You Upgrade to a Full-Frame Camera? Weigh These Pros and Cons Before You Decide.

Should you upgrade to a full-frame camera?

Has anyone ever said to you, “That’s a nice photo; you must have an expensive camera”? It’s a common line – and a common source of frustration for photographers. 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; it’s not going to capture that “nice photo” all by itself.

That said, specific camera types and models do come with different benefits. So if a camera doesn’t perform up to your expectations, then it may be time for an upgrade – from APS-C to full frame.

I recently made the jump from a crop sensor camera to a full-frame body. In this article, I don’t want 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 for those who are on the fence about purchasing a full-frame body.

So let’s start with a discussion of some important full-frame pros and cons:

Advantages of a full-frame camera

Full frame photo of a forest at sunset
I took this image at ISO 6400 on a full-frame Nikon D750. Thanks to the larger sensor, I was able to capture great tonal range and acceptable noise levels, despite the ultra-high ISO setting.

Shooting with a full-frame camera comes with several important benefits. Here are the main advantages to bear in mind as you consider an upgrade from APS-C to full frame:

  • Enhanced low-light performance: Full-frame cameras have larger sensors, which in turn have bigger pixels; as a result, you get less noise at higher ISOs. In most cases, you will get a one- or two-stop improvement in high-ISO noise over crop-sensor cameras. Thus, with a full-frame camera, you can push your ISO higher in low-light situations to maintain a faster shutter speed or a narrower aperture.
  • 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. With a full-frame camera, you’ll often be able to successfully capture a high-contrast scene with a single shot, and you won’t have to rely on HDR techniques or GND filters to ensure that the shadows and highlights have plenty of detail.

Disadvantages of a full-frame camera

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.

Shooting full frame isn’t all sunshine and roses. Sure, there are plenty of benefits (see above!), but there are some significant drawbacks, too:

  • 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, which can set you back thousands of dollars.
  • Size and weight: Simply put, full-frame cameras are bulkier than their crop-sensor counterparts. With advances in mirrorless technology, this is less of a problem – full-frame mirrorless cameras like the Sony a7 IV are very compact compared to full-frame DSLRs like the Nikon D850 – but for travel photographers, street photographers, and anyone else looking to keep their setup light and portable, the difference will be noticeable. Perhaps more importantly, full-frame lenses are larger and heavier; here, mirrorless technology has not made a significant difference, and you can expect that full-frame 70-200mm f/2.8 lens to weigh you down, regardless of whether you use a mirrorless camera or a DSLR.
  • 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 200mm; a 200mm lens on a 1.5x crop sensor camera reaches 300mm. However, whether this is a benefit or a drawback depends on the type of subjects you like to shoot. For wildlife, sports, and bird photographers, a crop factor offers much-needed extra reach. For landscape and cityscape photographers, on the other hand, a crop factor often takes away from the desired wide perspective.

Questions to ask before upgrading to full frame

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, 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. (Full-frame lenses work well on crop-sensor cameras, but the reverse is not true!)

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. You also get a wider perspective thanks to the lack of a crop factor. 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, depending on your lenses.
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. For this type of cityscape photography, a full-frame field of view is very helpful!

To summarize:

If you are a portrait or landscape shooter, there are many reasons to switch to full frame. In fact, nearly every professional portrait and landscape photographer ultimately makes the switch from APS-C to full frame.

However, if you’re a sports or wildlife shooter, you’ll need to consider more carefully. There are plenty of serious sports and wildlife photographers who prefer to use a crop-sensor camera; in fact, it’s the reason that Canon has consistently released fast-focusing, rugged APS-C cameras such as the Canon 7D Mark II, and more recently, the (mirrorless) Canon EOS R7.

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 was possible thanks to my full-frame sensor – and if I were working with an APS-C camera instead, I might have ended up with a frustratingly noisy file.

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
Despite the low light, I was able to capture a sharp handheld photo of this cityscape by increasing the ISO (which allowed me to use a faster shutter speed). My camera’s full-frame sensor ensured that the final photo had limited noise and plenty of dynamic range.

What is your level of photography experience?

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

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. If you’re not familiar with these different elements, and you’re not making careful camera settings decisions on your own, you may struggle to notice a useful difference between APS-C and full-frame sensors.

(Also, full-frame cameras are generally designed with advanced users in mind. Therefore, manufacturers often leave out beginner-friendly modes and guides that are helpful for new users but are avoided by professionals.)

Basically, 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.

Do you make large prints?

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

Also, since full-frame sensors are bigger, they tend to contain more megapixels. A 45 MP full-frame camera will produce far better large prints than a 24 MP APS-C camera (all else being equal, of course!).

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, and a great photographer can take great images with any camera, whether the sensor is full frame or crop.

But if you’re an experienced photographer, switching to full frame does come with real benefits that’ll expand your capabilities as a shooter.

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!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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

I need help with...