Full frame DSLR: do you really need one?

Full Frame DSLR: do you really need one?

Owning a full-frame DSLR, such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II or the Nikon D700, is the ambition of many photographers. ‘After all,’ they think, ‘bigger must be better’ – and these cameras, with their supersize sensors, are what all the top professionals seem to use.

Switch to a full-frame DSLR and your pictures will automatically be better – or so the hype goes. But this is only partly true… A full-frame sensor camera just takes different – not necessarily better – shots than Nikon or Canon DSLRs with the more standard APS-C-sized sensor.

Nikon D600 release date confirmed

So, what exactly do we mean by ‘full-frame’? A full-frame DSLR from Nikon or Canon or Sony has a sensor that’s the same size as a frame of traditional 35mm film, measuring 36x24mm. The more popular APS-C sensor cameras have much smaller 22x15mm sensors. This means, a full-frame sensor has over 2.5 times the surface area of an APS-C sensor.

Sure, size has certain advantages, but there are distinct drawbacks, too, to making the switch up to a full-frame DSLR.

Camera selection
To upgrade to a full-frame DSLR, prepare to pay a premium. For instance, the street price for a Canon 5D Mark II body is around £1,700, while Canon’s flagship EOS-1Ds Mk III body is £5,250! The added production cost of the bigger sensors means that full frame DSLRs aren’t launched all that often. Today’s Nikon D800 announcement, nearly four years after the release of its predecessor, the Nikon D700, is a shining example of this.

Because full frame DSLRs are less frequent, though, this means you don’t get as much choice as with APS-C.

Image quality
The biggest advantage of full-frame is image quality and image size. Both the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 1Ds Mark III full-frame DSLRs, for instance, come equipped with 21.1-megapixel sensors, and crucially these sensors are over two-and-a-half times bigger – and have much larger individual pixels (or photosites) – when compared to APS-C cameras.

It is not the number of pixels that really counts – APS-C models such as Canon’s EOS 7D and EOS 550D have almost as many photosites, thanks to their 18-million pixel count – but the size of the photosites is crucial to image quality.

Bigger individual light sensors capture more light – and this means that less electronic noise is created. You notice this most as you increase the ISO setting – with this noise creating a coloured mosaic pattern that is particularly noticeable in shadow areas.

Crop-factor effect
The size of the sensor also changes the amount of the scene captured by the camera. Although APS-C and full-frame cameras can share many of the same lenses, the visual effect they provide is different. It is the angle of view that actually changes – as the smaller sensor covers less of the image projected by the lens.

This is known as the crop factor – which compares the angle of view with that seen by a traditional full-frame 35mm film SLR. With full-frame DSLRs the crop factor is 1x – so effectively can be forgotten. A 24mm lens gives the same angle of view as a 24mm lens before the age of digital cameras.

Full Frame DSLR: do you really need one?   Full Frame DSLR: do you really need one?

Top: Full frame DSLR at 24mm. Bottom: APS-C sensor DSLR at 24mm.

An APS-C sensor sees a smaller angle of view – with a crop factor of 1.6x. This means the same 24mm lens actually captures the angle of view of a traditional 38mm focal length setting (24×1.6=38). So if you want to capture sweeping wide-angle vistas, a full-frame camera allows you to take in more of the scene in front of you than an APS-C model with the same lens.

The flip side is that the crop factor effect of APS-C cameras becomes an advantage when shooting distant subjects.

Full Frame DSLR: do you really need one?   Full Frame DSLR: do you really need one?

Top: Full frame DSLR at 200mm. Bottom: APS-C sensor DSLR at 200mm.

A 200mm telephoto lens gives the same view as a traditional 320mm lens, when the 1.6x crop factor is taken into account – great for getting close to the action in sports or wildlife photography.

Less lens choice
Full-frame cameras used to offer a real advantage when shooting landscapes or indoors in tight spaces. However, lens makers have combated this by developing zoom lenses with shorter focal lengths exclusively for use on APS-C-sensor cameras.

Standard APS-C-style zooms offer an 18mm setting, equivalent to the view given by a full-frame 28mm lens. Super-wide lenses offer settings of 10mm – equivalent to, or with an effective focal length (EFL) of, 16mm. These lenses cannot be used with full-frame cameras (as they would produce dark corners) – so APS-C users actually get a wider choice of optics!

Blurring backgrounds
Portrait photographers love full-frame DSLRs, as the larger the sensor a digital camera uses, the smaller depth of field (DoF) you get. This means that you can throw backgrounds and foregrounds more out of focus – for artistic effect and to draw strong attention to the subject. The reason for this is that the amount of depth of field depends of three different factors: the aperture, the subject distance, and the focal length.

Use full-frame, and the actual focal length you use for a particular composition changes. You use a 28mm lens setting, say, rather than the 18mm you would need with an APS-C camera – and this difference in focal length means less depth of field.

In practice, this means that wide apertures on full-frame cameras provide noticeably more defocused backgrounds than on APS-C cameras. Look at our portrait photos below and you’ll see that a full-frame DSLR at f/5.6 produces a seemingly similar amount of depth of field and background blur to an APS-C camera at f/2.8. The f/2.8 shot on the full-frame DSLR creates a very shallow DoF for knocking backdrops out of focus to make your subjects really stand out from their surroundings.

Full Frame DSLR: do you really need one?   Full Frame DSLR: do you really need one?

Top: Full frame DSLR at f/2.8. Bottom: APS-C sensor DSLR at 200mm

APS-C cameras are better, however, if you want to maximise depth of field – which has advantages in studio and landscape photography. For example, when using the same angle of view, on an APS-C DSLRs you will be able to get away with using, say, f/14, whereas on a full-frame DSLR you may have to use f/22 to ensure your scene is sharp from foreground to background.

  • pete guaron

    I was surprised that there is discussion of the cost of camera bodies, but not the lenses. Lenses for full frame cameras are also generally more expensive than lenses for APS-C sensor cameras.

    I was also surprised there is no mention of the extra size or – more significantly, perhaps, for some people – additional weight of full frame cameras.

    My personal assessment – based on a lifetime of photography at an amateur and semi-professional level – is that people should get the equipment they feel comfortable with. What suits them, and so what if someone else has something different? “Better” won’t necessarily make them any happier, although they will admittedly be able to gloat about the quality of their gear.

    During the analogue era, I vacillated between various formats – one of my buddies used a Graphlex Speed Graphic, I tried a Linhof studio camera and most of us used 35 mm in the field – several of us tried Hasselblads or Bronicas. But I also had a lot of fun with cameras like Zeiss Super Ikontas, or Voigtlanders. And often, it was more fun to fool around with a much lighter, less sophisticated camera. Even in 35mm format, the full rig weighed a heap.

    These days I use my cams mostly for candid photos, travel, macro & portraits – I no longer create 16×20 enlargements – and I am perfectly happy with my Nikon D7100 & D7200. The D7200 is rigged for convenience – yes there’s a quality sacrifice, but scarcely noticeable in the sizes I print my photos these days – and I made a conscious decision to fit one zoom to cover pretty much the whole range of anything I’m likely to shoot. OK, again a trade-off between quality and convenience, but the results are so outstanding that I frankly don’t care if I could have done “better” – for me, it’s a “distinction without a difference”, now that I’m shooting purely for my own amusement.

    And this kind of equipment, these days, is so good that it blows the socks off other people – I recently covered two weddings and the married couple & several of their family commented afterwards that they preferred my shots to the ones taken by the professional wedding photographers.

    The pros had “better” equipment, and I think that assessment was a bit harsh on them – but that does rather make the point. It’s not the camera that takes (or makes) the photo – it’s the person shooting the shot.

    Because I missed one of the best photo opportunities of a lifetime a few months back, I’ve also gone in the opposite direction and now have a Nikon compact camera that I can ALWAYS have with me – I guess most people use iPhones or similar for that, but I’d rather pull out a camera.

    And I can safely rely on a much lighter carbon fibre travel tripod, using the APS-C format.

  • ptz55

    Great reply, very thoughtful. You are right about the lenses and the cost and the additional weight. I like light weight anymore too.

  • Aquila Sol

    Very true. I had the option of choosing between a new 70D (which was a fresh release at that time) or a secondhand 6D. For me, the 6D wasn’t an options due to its size. I’ve got very small hands (so small that even the smallest ring size is to big). When holding it correctly I couldn’t even reach the shutter.

    Full frame is all fun and well, but if you’re a female photographer, or a bloke with small hands, and you aren’t in the position to use a ridiculously heavy stationary, (Good luck lugging that about on public transport) they’re pretty inconvenient.

    Needless to say, I went with the 70D. It also happens to be quite a bit smaller, so it fits into my shoulder bag. The 6D wouldn’t have fit.

  • We are very spoiled these days. It’s easy to forget that a lower end camera is still a highly competent tool. My own photography has really changed since I got a mirrorless camera, which, spec-wise, is nothing special but size-wise allows me to have it on me at all times. If I think about my own favourite shots, one of the best is a poor quality shot on a 2MP camera from some years back. It’d be nice if I’d had a decent camera for it, but I didn’t. Meanwhile I see people with high end gear and L lenses taking pictures of walls wherever I go. It’s always going to be about your subject foremost, and your own eye.

  • Gulyás Tamás

    I got D800. Fantastic IQ ( stills and video ) and fantastic ( perfect ) grip to my hands.
    Much better than my former D7100.