Full frame cameras are often considered the tool of choice for professional photographers. You rarely find such cameras in articles aimed at beginners. For many photographers, transitioning to a full frame camera is the next logical step in their journey. In this article, we will explore some crucial factors to consider before making the leap to full frame.
I'll be straightforward with you and admit that I'm firmly in the full frame camp. Although I have some experience with cropped sensor cameras, my exposure to them is limited. Nevertheless, my previous encounters with cropped sensors have given me insights into what they lack and how full frame makes a difference. While I may be a full frame enthusiast, I will objectively consider both the advantages and disadvantages of investing in a full frame camera. Essentially, this is the practical guide to anyone who is interested in the real differences between full frame and cropped sensor cameras.
1. Size and Weight
If you're upgrading to your first full frame camera, you'll certainly notice the difference in the size and weight of your gear. Mirrorless full frame cameras are lighter than crop sensor DSLRs, but once you attach a lens to these new cameras, you'll hardly distinguish them from DSLR setups, regardless of the sensor size. This is because while cameras have become lighter, lenses have grown heavier. I can only imagine the balance issues that arise when using a full frame mirrorless lens on a lightweight crop sensor body.
That said, if size and weight are your top priorities, full frame may not be the ideal choice. We all have unique priorities in photography, and I understand how significant size and weight can be for photographers who often work outside their studio comfort zone. If you frequently find yourself on the move, shooting in less comfortable environments, or needing to carry your gear for extended periods, upgrading to full frame might not be the best option. It's a heavier setup, and I strongly urge you not to be misled by the lighter mirrorless bodies; the weight of the lenses can disrupt the balance and reduce comfort.
Most lenses are originally designed for the full frame market. There are exceptions, with certain brands offering a substantial lens lineup for cropped sensor cameras. Additionally, lenses made for full frame cameras tend to be of higher quality since full frame is the industry standard for professional photographers, who demand nothing less than perfection. I, for one, love using my trusty 2004 24-70mm f/2.8 lens on my full frame camera. Despite the layers of tape and battle scars, I won't replace my lenses until they become irreparable.
3. Image Quality
When it comes to image quality, full frame cameras outshine their crop sensor counterparts. Even an older full frame camera from 2010 will surpass the image quality of any cropped sensor camera released in 2023. I apply the same logic when discussing the capabilities of smartphones compared to cameras. While modern smartphones boast superior processing technology, sensor size remains a limiting factor. The most noticeable differences in image quality are in low-light performance and color depth. Since some photographers, myself included, enjoy post-processing and image manipulation, it makes sense to opt for a camera with a larger, yet still reasonably affordable sensor, rather than a smaller one. I've found that files from cropped sensor cameras can be more challenging to edit and fine-tune.
4. It's Not the Best You Can Get
While full frame is often seen as the pinnacle of camera sensors, there's something even better: medium format cameras. These cameras occupy a niche market and come with a hefty price tag. Medium format cameras reign supreme in terms of image quality, color reproduction, and capturing the most from a single scene. If you want to witness the most significant leap in image quality, consider a medium format camera and never look back. However, it's essential to note that medium format cameras are notoriously slow, which is why I recommend them primarily for portrait and studio work. If you have a well-established studio setup and introduce a medium format camera, you'll be fine. However, if you're into sports and action photography, medium format might not be the best choice for you.
This aspect is a double-edged sword. A cropped sensor provides an extended effective focal length, but it also limits your ability to shoot wide angle shots compared to a photographer with a full frame camera. Some professional wildlife photographers require the extra reach of a crop sensor and opt for cameras like the Canon 7D or the EOS R7. However, if you intend to focus on wide-angle work, a cropped sensor might not be the most optimal choice. Any full frame lens attached to a cropped sensor camera will immediately alter its zoom range. For instance, a 24mm full frame lens on a Canon crop sensor will become a 24 x 1.6 = 38.4mm lens. The limitations of a crop sensor do mean that you are not able to take full advantage of the focal range your camera gives. You might say that the telephoto capabilities make it worth it for you; however, you can always crop in, but you can't crop out.
Before upgrading to full frame, it's essential to be aware of the limitations and advantages such a setup brings. Smaller sensors come with their own appeal, offering a more portable setup. Some photography genres may not even require the image quality of a full frame sensor, let alone medium format. If you're considering an upgrade from a crop sensor camera, I encourage you to contemplate a medium format camera if you aim for the best of the best. A quick online search reveals appealing used options from brands like Phase One, Hasselblad, Fujifilm, and more.
What type of camera do you shoot with? Please share in the comments below!