Full-frame cameras are superior to the crop sensor ones. There's no doubt. Most of the professional photographers out there are making a living with full-frame bodies and thus those cameras are considered professional. What if you shoot with smaller sensor cameras? Let me share my own story.
First Encounter With a Camera
I never had photography as a hobby. I started it as a business. In order to justify my expenses I taught myself the basics buying books and video workshops. I did that even before I owned a camera. For most of you that's not the case. For me, I needed to know what I was getting into before spending thousands in gear. I had to understand how the camera worked: what were the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I didn't know anything about cameras less than 10 years ago. I even searched the web if I could change the aperture of an f/2.8 lens or it was always constant.
As I went deeper in knowledge, I became fascinated with lighting. I wanted to do a specific type of images and I found it was the lighting that I liked the most. But first of all, I had to buy a camera being the basic tool in the craft.
My main criteria was the cost. I wanted to spend as little as possible on a camera that could get the job done. I started my investigation comparing the differences between the mid-priced and high-end DSLRs. I had to be aware what I was paying for if I didn't own the most expensive machine of them all.
I come from a music background where the weight of a musical piece of gear is proportional to its build and sound quality, whether that's a piano, guitar, microphone, amplifier, or cable. A common sense for me was the more a camera weighs the better the materials and the more hardware perks it had. I wasn't far from the truth. It turned out a heavier camera felt more stable in the hands and images had less blur at lower shutter speeds. My first consideration was to buy a camera that feels solid. Imagine myself going into the store and comparing the weight of cameras and buying the heaviest. I did not have that joyful experience because I chose and bought it online.
After deciding I wanted a heavier camera body with a better build quality I looked at the sensors. Budget was still an issue, so I chose a combination of a crop sensor with a good dynamic range and a tank-like body. My only drawbacks then were the small image resolution and noise starting to get quite visible even at 400 ISO. A quick calculation showed me I could have big enough prints for commercial use out of 10-megapixel files. For the noise I comforted myself that I'd use lights and most of the time I wouldn't need to shoot at high ISO values. I made my choice and bought a Canon 40D.
With lights, the price was not my main criteria. I spent much more on lights than on the camera and the lenses. I look at images the same as I look at paintings. I focus on the story, the light, and the nuances. I don't care if the painting is big or small, if it's photorealistic or not. That's the reason I chose to spend my budget ot lights than on sensor pixel parameters and resolution.
Do I Know What I'm Missing?
Yes. I'm fully aware I'm missing a fat pixel that absorbs more light which means less noise at high ISO. The field of view is so much wider that I could shoot with higher focal range in tight spaces avoiding the distortion I have with a crop sensor and wide-angle lenses. If I shot architecture, a full-frame or medium-format sensor would definitely be my choice. The sharpness with full frames is usually better because of the sensor pixel size and the (often) bigger resolution.
Do I Care That I Miss Full Frame Features?
Most of the times, no. Lots of my clients rarely print their images and it's often at a maximum size of 8x10 inches. The majority of my clients use their files online. In cases when I know the files will be displayed as bigger prints or the project calls for a higher resolution images, I would rent a full frame. Most images of mine printed in magazines were from those humble 10-megapixel files from the crop-sensor camera.
Do Clients Care About Full Frame?
No. They just need certain types of images for certain purposes. They care to see nice sharp results. I can deliver them with a crop-sensor camera. Can you see the difference between full-frame and crop-sensor cameras in these images?
No? Then what, pixel peep? But why? To prove which is which or to tell me there's an striking obvious difference?
Do Fellow Photographers Care About Full Frame?
Definitely, yes. Not only that, but I have clients who hire me and own more expensive camera bodies than I do. Lots of aspiring photographers wonder why I don't use a full-frame body. Others are maybe looking down on me.
My Second Camera
After working with just one camera body and risking it a lot (except for the times I rented a full frame as a primary camera) I bought a second camera. Guess what it was? A crop-sensor camera. Now my primary criterion wasn't the price. I sat down and took time to estimate if full frame would bring my business more profit than a smaller sensor. The answer was no. I know what I'm missing but nobody really sees the difference, so why should I pour money into a something that won't return my investment faster? Instead, I spend money on knowledge (workshops, books), additional gear such as computer hardware, and in the last several years, on video equipment. If I need a full-frame body on a shoot, it's cheaper to rent it than buy it.
In the Future
I still don't know if I would buy a bigger-sensor camera in the future. Maybe if I need the resolution I'd spare more on a camera body. Until then I better get a few more lights and modifiers. There can never be enough lights whatever camera I use.