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Are Full Frame Cameras better?

Are Full Frame Cameras better

Full-Frame Cameras are often presented as the pinnacle of the upgrade path, the ultimate camera system for enthusiasts and professionals alike. As an owner of a full-frame camera, my own experience tells a different story. So what is a full frame camera, why are full frame cameras better, and why are they worse.

What is a Full-Frame Camera

A full frame camera features a sensor with the same dimensions as a single frame of 35mm film. If you are too young for that to mean anything to you, a full frame sensor is 36mm across by 24mm high. This makes a full-frame sensor more than twice as large as the APS-C sensors commonly found in entry-level DSLRs and four times larger than those found in Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras. Click here for size comparison and specs for all popular sensors

Full frame vs APS-C, Micro Four Thirds and more

If size really matters guys (and girls), full-frame is not your largest option. Fuji is having some success bringing medium format to the mainstream with its GFX system. Hasselblad’s H system is larger still


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Why Full Frame Cameras are better

The larger the sensor, the more surface area it has to receive light. In the case of full-frame versus APS-C, the twice-as-large full-frame sensor will receive twice as much light as an APS-C sensor. This size advantage can be exploited in two different ways.

#1. Larger photo wells

For every megapixel, there is a photo well. Photo wells litter the surface of your camera’s sensor and serve as collection points for incoming light (photons). Larger sensors have room for larger photowells. The larger the photo well, the more light it receives in much the same way a large bucket collects more rain water than a smaller bucket. The photo well responds to incoming light by producing electrons and the more light it receives, the more electrons it produces, and the better each of your megapixels look. Find out how a photo sensor works

The result is richer colours, more detail and superior low light performance. As the sensor, or photo wells become smaller – photo quality is diminished. Smartphones have small sensors and tiny photo wells and suffer as a result. Why your smartphone does not need more megapixels

Photos from Small Sensor Cameras and Smartphone look okay so long as you don’t look too closely or print too large. Taken with iPhone SE (16 Megapixel)

#2. Increased Resolution

Instead of increasing the size of each photo well, manufactures can opt to add a greater number of smaller wells. Compared to a 24 megapixel APS-C sensor, a twice-as-large full-frame sensor can accommodate a two-fold increase in pixels (48 megapixels) without making the photo wells any smaller than those of the 24 megapixel APS-C sensor. Thus, larger sensors are better for high megapixel counts.

3 Reasons why Full Frame cameras are better

#1. Image quality

A large sensor will always out-perform a similarly designed smaller one. Since a full-frame sensor is twice the size of an APS-C sensor, you can expect twice the quality. Put another way, a full-frame sensor can produce the same image quality at ISO 200 as an APS-C sensor can at ISO 100 – giving full-frame users a one stop advantage. Learn more about ISO

Whilst the difference can be near-invisible in some shooting scenarios, those who shoot in low light or at faster shutter speeds (wildlife and sports shooters), good image quality at higher ISOs can be advantageous. Alternatively, a full-frame sensor may come loaded with an increased number of pixels and the potential to produce more detailed photos. This can be ideal for those making large prints or photographers who frequently crop their images to smaller size.

The New Zealand fantail – an erratically mobile subject. Shooting Full-Frame helped me to isolate the fantail by blurring the background and get reasonably clean results at ISO 6400.

#2. Shallow Depth of Field (Background Blur)

There is a prevailing myth that large sensors blur backgrounds (bokeh) better than smaller sensors. In truth, a sensor receives whatever the lens serves it. However, full frame cameras use longer focal lengths to achieve the same field of view as cameras with smaller sensors and longer focal lengths do blur backgrounds better. Learn more about Focal Length

For example, to get the same field of view as a 25mm lens on a Micro Four Thirds camera, the full frame camera must use a 50mm lens. Since a focal length of 50mm is greater than 25mm, the Full Frame Camera and 50mm lens combo produces the shallower depth-of-field. Best 50mm lens of Nikon Full Frame

However, for the sake of simplicity – it is practical to say that Full Frame Cameras are better for blurring backgrounds than cameras with smaller sensors.

Taken with a 50MM F1.8

#3. Simple lens labeling

There is no mental arithmetic with a full-frame camera. An 18mm lens is an 18mm lens whilst an 18mm lens provides a 27mm field-of-view on an APS-C cameras. Of course, describing a lens by its focal length is rather abstract and not at all practical since all you should really care about is field-of-view. Since we buy for field of view, manufactures could just label their lenses as 46 degrees or 8 degrees but I digress.

3 Reasons why full-frame cameras are not better

#1 Full Frame Photography is more expensive

The cameras themselves are a little more expensive but full frame lenses can be hugely expensive. Furthermore, full frame lenses are larger so you will need larger, more expensive lens filters. To support your rig, be sure to buy a robust tripod and a large bag to store everything in. Alternatively, you might be buying a high resolution full frame camera such as the Canon R5 or Sony A74 mk4. If so, be prepared to purchase premium memory cards for those massive raw files. Learn about raw files

#2. Size and weight

The camera’s themselves are somewhat larger but again, it is the lenses that make the difference. Try comparing a Fuji’s 35mm F2 for X mount with a 50mm F1.8 for Nikon’s Z mount. Yes, the Nikon blurs backgrounds better but that only pays off if blurring the background is your intent.

Two comparably specified cameras – the full-frame Nikon Z6 with a 50mm F1.8 (1 KG) and an APS-C Fuji XT-3 with a 35mm F2 (709 grams). Comparison from the talented folk at CameraSize.com

There is also the matter of escalation. If you buy a high resolution full-frame camera such as the 61 megapixel Sony A7R mark 4, you will have to mount the very best, largest and heaviest lenses to take advantage of that resolution. Even then, pin sharp detail will require a tripod – a substantial one that can hold the weight of the camera and its weighty lens. If the best camera is the one you have with you, the worst must be the heavy one you prefer to leave at home.

#3. Superior Image Quality is not guaranteed

When shooting with a full frame camera, its remarkable how shallow depth of field is. Even for a group portraits its necessary to stop down to F5.6 to get everyone’s face sharp. Assuming, your are shooting handheld in average light, you will likely need to push your ISO up in order to get a sufficiently bright photo. Even if you boost your ISO from 100 to 200, you have lost one-stop’s worth of image quality. Furthermore, APS-C cameras shoot with greater depth-of-field. In fact, an APS-C camera has more depth of field at the brighter aperture of F4 than a Full-Frame has a F5.6. As such, the APS-C camera stays at ISO 100 producing the same image quality as the Full Frame camera at ISO200.

I had two cameras with me, a Nikon D750 and a P330 compact with a tiny 1/1.7″ sensor. The best photo was taken with the P330 since its tiny sensor was stabilised enabling me to capture the shot handheld at an insanely slow 1/5th of a second at ISO 80.

If you are shooting static subjects from a tripod, you will no longer need to boost your ISO yet you may still be unable to get your moneys worth out of the sensor. Attached to a Nikon Z7, Nikon’s Z 14-30mm f4 can only provide the Z7’s 45.7 megapixel sensor 17 megapixels worth of detail. Nikon’s excellent 50mm F1.8 fares better resolving a respectable 37 megapixels. Remember – these outstanding results were achieved in controlled conditions. In the real world, you must suffers haze, undesirable lighting and handheld shooting. How to avoid Camera Shake


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Are Full Frame Cameras better?

In terms of absolute image quality, full frame cameras can produce better quality images in the right circumstances. If your kind photography has you shooting at large apertures (portraiture, sports, astrophotography), not only will you benefit from full-frame’s superior image quality, you will benefit from shallow depth-of-field and glorious background blur.

In many cases, particularly at smaller apertures where the blur aesthetic is lost, full-frame owners can expect diminished returns. Whilst detail may be higher, only those who print large or view their photos at 1:1 on their computer monitors will appreciate a difference. However, if your photography pays the bills, even diminished returns can pay for themselves.

For everyone else, a camera with a smaller sensor paired with a good quality lens may prove a better option overall. A smaller, lighter camera system makes for a better travel companion and the more you carry your camera, the more opportunities you will have to take photos and the better the photographer you become.

Canon’s M100 – a fantastic APS-C camera and for less than US$500 / NZD$600 including an optically stabilised lens.

Is a Full-Frame Camera better for you?

Full-frame cameras thrive in some circumstances whilst smaller APS-C and Micro Four Thirds can provide more value in others.

Portraiture

Go to full-frame if you can since you get to exploit the shallow depth-of-field for the sake of beautiful blurred backgrounds. For group shots and routine family photos – you will likely need to extend depth-of-field and a smaller APS-C system will serve you just as well. Smartphones are pioneering simulated digital blur which is better than nothing but not at all comparable to the real thing.

Landscape photography

Controversially – I would not recommend full-frame since I would be looking for extended depth-of-field and a lightweight kit. Any difference in image quality can largely be mitigated by using a tripod which itself can be lighter if you are not using a heavier system. Whilst full-frame systems can offer more resolution, it won’t necessarily yield more detail due to limited lens resolution and detail-degrading atmospheric haze. If you really need lots of megapixels – you can always take multiple shots at lower resolutions and stitch them together to create a single, highly detailed composite/panorama.

Taken with a full-frame camera using a tripod and base ISOs. Any APS-C camera would have done as good a job. A Micro Four Thirds with Pixel Shift might be better still.

Sports and wildlife

For indoor sports, I recommend full-frame since you may need to work with fast subjects in low light necessitating fast, dim shutter speeds supplemented with large increases in ISO. Full-frame really thrives in these scenarios. In brighter conditions, APS-C could be a better option since the crop factor provides more reach, ideal for capturing distant action and wildlife.

Travel and everyday

The smartphone dominates this category partly due to portability and discretion. Full-frame cameras offers little of either. The Micro Four Thirds system is a great option since it is so compact. Micro Four Thirds is also home to the very best image stabilisation systems – handy since you probably wont want to be carrying a tripod.

The do it all

If you are looking for an affordable, highly capable system that you will be happy to carry anytime everywhere, APS-C is a great option. Micro Four Thirds is smaller still and punches well above its weight with industry leading image stabilisation and pixel shift technology.

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