The Full Frame Move

Published July 18, 2010

I hear it all the time: I’m thinking about moving to a full-frame camera. It’s getting more common as the price gap between full and crop frame cameras is shrinking, at least to some degree. But often it said as if moving to full-frame is, by itself, an upgrade. As someone who moves back and forth between full frame and crop frame cameras all the time, I see it more as different, not always better. Horses for courses, and all that. Anyway, I thought I’d put some comments down for those who are thinking about the move.

What’s better with full frame?

If we consider the move to be from the top of the line crop-frame to the intro level full frame (A Nikon D300 to D700, or Canon 7D to 5DMkII, for example) there’s often not a huge difference. The full frame will offer either higher megapixels or better high ISO performance, or sometimes a bit of both. The full frame sensor is about twice the area of a crop frame, so if it has the same number of pixels then those pixels will be larger and larger pixels generally mean less noise at high ISO. If the pixels are the same size then the full frame camera will have more of them and offer higher resolution. In practical terms, though, with today’s cameras unless you print very large (more than 11×16 inches), the resolution may not be apparent. Crop-sensor cameras have plenty of resolution for at least an 11×16 print.

The full frame camera also has a shallower apparent depth of field. By this I mean if we change focal length or distance of subject so that the image from a crop frame and the image from a full frame appear to be the same size, the full frame image will appear to have a shallower depth of field. Considering it mathematically, the same lens on either camera would have the same depth of field, but we don’t take pictures mathematically. If I shoot the same outdoor portrait with both a crop and a full frame, the subject taking up the same portion of the image, the background will be more blurred on the full frame.

What’s better with a crop frame.

The biggest advantage is the so called magnification factor, that a lens appears to be 50% longer on a crop sensor than full sensor camera. The reality is that if the cameras have the same pixel density, you could just crop the full-frame image to be exactly the same as the crop-frame image. But if you compare a 12 megapixel crop sensor to a 12 megapixel full-frame, the image of the crop sensor will have more detail than the full frame image taken at the same focal length. This is particularly important for sports shooters, since f/2.8 zooms generally only go up to 200mm and a 300 f/2.8 is much easier to handle (and costs a lot less) than a 400mm f/2.8.

Crop sensor cameras also allow you to use lenses specifically designed for their format. These are almost always less expensive, smaller, and often have similar image quality to their full-frame counterparts. Some crop-sensor lenses just have no full-frame equivalent. There are no 18-270mm or even 18-200mm full frame lenses, so the “one lens solution” is basically a crop-sensor only club. Also, when you do use a full-frame lens on a crop sensor, the camera is shooting through the “sweet spot” of the lens: the weakest part of most lenses are the edges and corners. The crop sensor image circle doesn’t use them.

What’s just different?

Wide angle lens choice

This is good or bad, depending on what you want to accomplish. A 24mm zoom on a full frame body is fairly wide, with an angle of view that’s about what a 16mm would look like shooting a crop sensor. That great 35mm prime is now somewhat wide. This can be a good thing. But at the same time the large selection of ultra-wide crop sensor lenses is no longer available: the 10-22, 10-20, 10-24, 11-16, whatever zoom won’t work. For Canon shooters the 17-40mm f/4 lens is better and not too much more expensive, but for Nikon and Sony shooters the high quality wide zoom for full frame is going to be a lot more expensive. My summary would probably be the wide angle change is a good thing, but the ultra-wide angle lens is going to cost you more.

Prime lens choice

One of the big motivators for many of us changing to full frame is to be able to use the great, top end, wide angle prime lenses that are superb on those cameras. (Yes, you can use them on crop-sensors, too, at least for standard range shooting). But price, again, may result in sticker shock. Those primes are expensive. And particularly for Nikon shooters you leave some very nice DX only crops behind, the 35mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/3.5 Macro, both of which are dirt cheap (well, compared to their FX equivalents) and very sharp. Canon shooters may miss the 60mm f/2.8 Macro for the same reason, and the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is missing for everyone. But once the sticker shock is overcome, there’s nothing that looks better than a Canon 85 f/1.2 or a Zeiss ZF 85 f/1.4 shot on a full-frame body.

So who should make the move?

Those who need a pro body

I haven’t really mentioned it, because I’ve been concentrating on the not-sure-if-the-benefits-are-worth-it kind of move, but obviously some people have to have the sturdy, large battery, weather resistant body, and on the Canon side more robust autofocus (Canon 1D series, Nikon D series). That move is just a given.

Those who need every megapixel they can get

This isn’t as big a difference as it once was, but for people who shoot for billboards, make large prints, or shoot for glossy print ads need to move to full frame to get every megapixel they can. In most brands that means a move to a full frame camera.

Those who need the highest ISO performance

Not every crop to full frame move improves ISO—if you get 50% more megapixels, with otherwise identical cameras, high ISO performance may not improve. For example, moving from a Canon 50D (15 Mpix) to a 5DMkII (21 Mpix) gives a bit better high ISO performance. Moving from a Nikon D300 (12 Mpix) to a D3 gives dramatically better high ISO performance. Notice I say performance not ISO it will shoot at. Just because they put the ISO number on the menu doesn’t make it usable.

Those who want to use certain lenses

The best example I can think of is why I did it. I loved (back in the day) doing portraits with the Canon 85 f/1.2 and 135 f/2. They are a marvelous portrait lens, but too long for my liking on the 40D I was shooting. They were exactly what I wanted on a 5D. It may sound superficial to some people, but among more experienced photographers it’s one of the most common reasons to change that I know of. But it also works the other way. If I was spending most of my time behind a 500mm lens, I’d rather have a 7D for the increased pixel density to get every bit of telephoto imaging I could get.

Those who want the shallowest depth-of-field

And to repeat, before I get corrected 13 times, the actual depth of field for a given lens at a given distance to the camera doesn’t change. But if you frame the shot to look the same, the perceived depth of field will be narrower with a full frame camera. Videographers, in particular, really want this effect.

Those with years of 35mm film shooting who are just more comfortable with focal lengths acting like they expect them to act.

No, not me. My first SLR was digital. But there are definitely still some ex film shooters wandering around.

Those who just like the look

It’s totally, completely subjective, but some people just like the contrasty look of a Zeiss lens, or the warmer look of a Sigma, some people like the look of a certain full-frame cameras compared to their crop-frame brethren. The difference between a full-frame and a crop frame camera of the same brand is not nearly as pronounced as the difference in look between Canon and Nikon colors, but it is noticeable.

So what’s the summary?

For many people shooting crop or full frame is an easy call. One person wants the high pixel density and crop factor for telephoto work and will never go full frame. Another has to have full-frame for the high-ISO look he wants. For most of us, though, it’s a trade off and one that needs to be thought about carefully. It’s not clearly better to shoot full frame, but it certainly may be better for some people and in some situations. But moving from crop frame to full frame may have drawbacks, too, and these should be considered carefully before making the move.

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Photo
  • simon

    the viewfinder. I started with an nikon f3HP and I hate the viewfinder of the d7000 it just doesn’t fit that huge camera (compared to the f3HP which by the way doesn’t have the biggest viefinder in 35mm, I also used a olympus om2n that had an even larger (mitght be the largest) viefinder (I’m talking about the image not the physical size of the finder of course) but I had to press the eye really close to the viewfinder to be able to see the whole image, didn’t like that either) it is hard to describe what the problem is (with crop sized viefinder like the d7000, the older ones are even worse of course d70 for example) but it really makes a big difference for me. I don’t have the same problem with the om-d viewfinder which is only a bit larger than the one of d7000 but it suits the size of the camera better. but I really don’t know why that matters to me.

  • c.d.embrey

    Lpts of “glossy print ads’ are being shot with APS-C/DX cameras. Also more than a few Vogue covers. Magazine ads are submitted as 300 DPI PDF files, and the actual resolution of the printed page is closer to 150 DPI.

  • Thanks for the reply. I will stop second guessing the purchase. Next worry is when the camera will be come more available. Any idea whan supplies might increase and the price might come down?

  • Roger Cicala


    It’s an excellent compromise, the 1D IV has good high ISO performance but you still keep some crop. Just be sure you aren’t using any EF-S lenses, they won’t transition to the 1D IV.

  • I am struggling with the question 1d mark iv or the 5d mark III. The sensor size is the center of the question. Using a 7d now, the noise level at high ISO is too much, but I do not want to give up some crop factor. I just can’t afford the longer glass to give me the same range I have now. Is the 1d mark iv a good compromise for me?

  • Tord S Eriksson

    Jamming too many pixels into a small sensor creates more problem than it solves, at least in my book. But almost all our really good lenses are FF, even if we (the wife and I) use them with cropped sensor cameras, almost exclusively (we do have a FF film camera, an old SFX).

    The cropped sensor lenses have their uses, of course, as the resultant packages are often much smaller than a similar crop Full Frame lens. And often, in real life, does size and weight matter!

    But if we could have a Full Format NEX camera, the other manufacturers would have real problems, as that would be a combination of light weight and a FF sensor, to whick I still could use my olf FF lenses ;-)!

  • Tom Cavanaugh

    There’s one other difference you didn’t mention. ‘Full Frame’ dSLRs have larger bodies, which contain larger “rangefinders” in the phase detection autofocus systems, which are more accurate. At long distances (i.e. wildlife), the difference is within the depth of field, but at moderate distances (i.e. sports/action) the difference is not, and can be significant.

  • Tom Cavanaugh

    “Full Frame” is the new “Medium Format”.

  • Reagan Lamb

    I made the move to full frame and then back to dx. Bought a D700 and then a used 24-70,16-35 then developed the aching back problem. At 58 years old I decided that $4k-$5k was more than I wanted to spend as
    as a avid hobbyist. Sold it all without losing too much and now happy with 12-24 and a light 2.8
    Only thing I really miss is the shallow depth of field.
    Just my observation, maybe save some one money. If I need or want to play with better glass I know I can Get it here.

    Thanks, Reagan

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