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The Full Frame Advantage

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Full frame cameras are much sought after these days. More and more users are making the leap from crop factor cameras to cameras with large, 35mm sensors. Today, we're going to look at why so many photographers are choosing these cameras.


What's a Full Frame Camera

First, we should take a look at what exactly a full frame camera is, and compare it to a crop factor camera. These terms - "full frame" and "crop factor" - refer to one specific part of the camera: the sensor. Just as film is responsible for recording images on film cameras, a digital sensor is tasked with capturing an image on modern digital cameras. In combination with the shutter, mirror, and lens, the sensor is the key part of the image making system.

Camera sensors vary in size. Cameras found in cell phones are going to have much smaller sensors than even most point and shoots. Generally speaking, larger sensors can allow for better imaging quality.

A full frame sensor is called a full frame sensor because it is the same size as a full frame of 35mm film. Although you may not have shot film before, you are probably familiar with the appearance of film. An example of a full frame camera is Nikon's D700 and Canon's 5D. A crop factor camera has a smaller sensor, so it can be thought of as a "cropped down" size. Examples of crop factor cameras are the Nikon D40, D7000 and the Canon Rebel T2i and 60D.


The above image is the best illustration of the differences between full frame and crop factor cameras. Think of the overall image area as what your eye sees. The red area is the field of view provided by a full frame camera. The cropped down blue area simulates what the same lens on a crop factor camera would render.

Sensor sizes can be all over the spectrum. Crop factor cameras are frequently called "APS-C". A size between full frame and APS-C exists that is called APS-H. This is also a crop factor camera (being smaller than 35mm) but is larger than an APS-C camera like the Canon Digital Rebel line. Currently, the APS-H cameras are pretty much limited to Canon's 1D line, such as the 1D Mark IV. If you're interested in a more technical look at camera sensors, check out this article.


Full Frame Advantages

Now that we have a better idea of what a full frame camera is, let's take a look at some of the features that make them so desirable.

Viewfinder

For me, perhaps my favorite full frame advantage is the quality of the camera's viewfinder. If you have ever used an older film SLR, you might have been impressed by the size and clarity of the viewfinder. Indeed, one of the shortcomings of crop factor DSLR's is the relatively small viewfinder. Full frame cameras overcome this greatly.

Now that I have a full frame camera, using a crop factor camera's viewfinder can feel a bit like staring down a tunnel. If you've never had the pleasure of checking out a full frame viewfinder, try to get hands on one. It makes it much easier to manually focus a lens and make sure that your shot is in perfect focus compared to a crop factor counterpart.

Focal Length

An effect that you may be aware of is the focal length multiplier that crop factor cameras.

I tend to prefer the view shown by a full frame camera because I like wider perspectives. On my full frame 5D, one of my favorite lenses to cover weddings with is the 24mm f/1.4 lens. On a crop factor camera, the effective focal length of this lens is around 36mm. To view the flipside, you would be required to find a 16mm lens for crop factor; a 16mm f/1.4 prime doesn't even exist. In short, fast wide lenses are much easier to come by on full frame.

High ISO

If there's one performance factor that I really appreciate from a full frame camera, it's the advantage in high ISO shooting. The larger sensor benefits from a technical advantage. In the most basic technical terms, the larger sensor allows the manufacturers to not cram the photosites onto the sensor, and the camera benefits in high ISO performance because of this. The photosites can be larger and each one can take in more light.


A picture of the Canon 5D Mark II's full frame sensor.

Canon and Nikon have taken slightly different approaches to the full frame offerings. With the larger sensor size, Nikon has chosen to keep megapixels fairly low and really gear the camera to outstanding high ISO performance. Nikon's D700, D3 and D3s are 12 megapixels each, but they do offer a high resolution option in the 24 megapixels. Canon too has full frame cameras with great high ISO performance, but seem to choose the route of high resolution, with the 21 megapixel 5D Mark II offering. Sony too offers full frame cameras, with the a850 and a900.

Speaking generally, full frame cameras will enjoy better high ISO performance due to the larger sensor. With a variety of offerings from the various manufacturers, there's something for everyone.


Downsides

Full frame cameras aren't perfect for everyone; some shooters choose crop factor cameras intentionally for a number of reasons. Let's take a look at some of them.

Reach

Remember the lens effects that we discuss above? For some shooters, the additional reach provided by using a crop factor camera is a huge advantage. Consider sport shooters or wildlife photographers - these people are always looking to gain the most reach. A photographer I know once remarked that shooting a crop factor camera was like having a free 1.6x teleconverter.


This is a teleconverter made by Canon that extends the length of lenses to provide greater reach. This is an effect shared by crop factor cameras.

Cost

Having the best of any technology is always going to hit you in the wallet. Although full frame cameras are becoming more popular and thus more affordable options are on the way. Each manufacturer's flagship offering is an expensive full frame model.

Many people speculate that because full frame cameras are becoming more popular, relative price will continue to drop and eventually become the norm. Given the advantages of full frame, it is not difficult to envision a future when all DSLR cameras are of the full frame variety. The technology will continue to fall in cost and could easily become the standard sensor offering.

An advantage of full frame camera pricing is that with fewer full frame models available, they typically hold their price better on the used market as compared to their crop factor counterparts.


Jumping to Full Frame

So you've decided that you're ready to make the leap to shooting a full frame camera - which one is right for you? If you have money invested in a certain system, it makes sense for the most part to continue using that system and choose the full frame offering from the manufacturer of your choice.

As discussed above, full frame is definitely advantageous in most respects. However, the additional cost can be a huge barrier for many people. If you're looking for the least expensive route to jump into full frame, a used Canon 5D can be had for under $1000.

One mistake that I see too many people make when switching to full frame is to blow their budget on a body. Before you leap for that large sensor camera, make sure that you have the lenses that will take advantage of the camera. This means making sure that you aren't using lenses that are incompatible.

For instance, DX lenses made by Nikon should not be used on a full frame camera like the D700. If you shoot it in full frame mode, the corners will be blacked out. A low resolution crop mode is available. On the Canon system, EF-S lenses won't work with full frame cameras like the 5D.


The above shots were all made on a full frame camera, but various zooms are used to illustrate the differences that the same lens can provide on various crop factors. At top is a shot at 70mm on full frame - therefore, with no crop factor multiplier. Below that is a 1.3x crop factor length shot. 70mm times 1.3 equals approximately 91mm. Finally, at bottom is the same 70mm lens as it would appear on a 1.6x crop factor camera, at an equivalent of approximately 112mm.

In addition to choosing lenses that are compatible, you should choose lenses that take advantage of the superior sensor. Frequently, full frame cameras are high resolution models, such as the 5D Mark II, a 21 megapixel model. Using a cheap, low quality lens basically negates the image quality enhancements of using a full frame camera. We need good lenses to "resolve" all of the detail of these high quality, high resolution sensors.

I'm sure that you've heard the line that you should first build a lens collection. I'm a big believer in this rule... although I'm guilty of breaking it. After breaking the bank on a camera upgrade, my lens collection couldn't keep up. If I had it to do over again, I would first build a good lens set on a crop factor camera, and then jump to a full frame model. If you think you might be jumping to a full frame camera sometime soon, keep in mind that you should choose lenses that fit that objective.


Conclusion

A full frame digital SLR is an amazing tool; but it's just that - a tool. With a number of big advantages, it can help you make better quality images in low light. With more and more full frame cameras becoming available, it is definitely the format of the future for professionals.

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