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What is a Full Frame DSLR Camera?

View on YouTube for full HD version

In my line of work as a photography instructor, I get a ton of questions from students about full frame DSLR cameras. The number one question is "should I get one?" I've addressed that common question previously in a blog post titled "Photography Tips: Do I Need a Full Frame Camera?" But it occurred to me recently that many of these people asking the question aren't even clear on what exactly a full frame DSLR camera is. And most people don't realize why we have the 2 systems - full frame and crop sensor - in the first place.

So let's put the first matter to rest: no, you shouldn't necessarily get a full frame DSLR camera. It depends on what your needs and wants are, and it depends on what you like shooting and how you like shooting it. Full frame DSLR cameras are not better than crop sensor cameras and your pictures won't necessarily turn out better. I know, I know, the guys on Flickr said you absolutely have to get a full frame DSLR, but trust me, it won't make your pictures better. But for a full rundown of that, please check out the article linked above. It'll really clear things up.

Now let's address the more basic question of "What is a full frame DSLR camera?" And to best make sense of this full frame business, let's take a look back at film.

Okay, so when film was the only option (waaaaay back in the 1990's), a film format called 35mm was the most popular film size available. In fact, when most people imagine film, what they're envisioning is the 35mm film system. But there were bigger film sizes like 6x6, 6x7, 4x5, 8x10 and bigger, and there were also smaller film sizes like the APS film system. 35mm film just so happened to strike that perfect balance between ease of use and affordability with decent resolution and versatility. The bigger film systems like medium format and large format required more skill, more expense, and bigger cameras. Grandma Gertrude shooting little Johnny's birthday party wasn't interested in that. The smaller film formats were easy to use and cheap, but good luck getting a decent 11x14 print out of it. So 35mm was "the goldilocks option," not too big, not too small...juuuust right.

Full Frame DSLR Camera35mm Film Image Area

When digital first hit the scene, there were all these amateur and professional photographers out there who had cameras and lenses and accessories all designed for their 35mm film systems. They were itching for a digital DSLR - a digital version of their trusty 35mm film cameras. They wanted to use their same lenses and accessories, but just on a digital camera body.

"You got it," said the camera makers, "we'll convert some of our film cameras into digital cameras for you by putting a digital sensor in place of the film. But here's the thing...if we make the digital sensor as big as your 35mm film (24mm tall by 36mm wide), the camera is going to cost more than you're willing to pay. So we'll work out a compromise with you - we'll make you a digital SLR camera that uses all your 35mm lenses and accessories, BUT we're going to put a smaller sensor in there, one that measures the same size as APS film - just 16.7mm tall by 25.1mm wide."

APS-C Crop Sensor DSLR
APS-C Digital Sensor Image Area

So then, the first affordable "35mm" DSLR cameras didn't actually have a 35mm sensor in them, they had the smaller APS-C sensor. From the outside, you couldn't tell any difference - the cameras looked the same and operated the same. But since the sensor was smaller, the image appeared cropped from what it looked like on film. This made it look like a given lens was more zoomed in on the DSLR than it was on the film SLR. That was good for shooters who liked to photograph far away subjects, like wildlife shooters and sports shooters, but it was a real bummer for shooters who liked wide angle lenses. On the DSLR, their wide angle lenses didn't look wide angle anymore. But luckily, camera makers quickly remedied that. They just invented a new lens for DSLR cameras that could go even wider. So today, full frame or crop sensor, you can go just as wide angle on either.

Of course, technology caught up and eventually it became affordable to make a digital sensor equal to the full size of 35mm film. They called those "full-frame sensors" because they were equal in size to the full frame of 35mm. But the crop sensors were already out on the market and we couldn't un-ring that bell.

Really, we don't need both full-frame and crop sensors today, but each has their benefits, so we might as well keep both around. Plus, it gives camera makers a good excuse to upsell their customers. "Hey your pictures aren't coming out so good on your crop sensor camera? Well try this snake oil full-frame camera. It'll solve all your photography woes." I'm just pulling your legs, Nikon, Canon, and Sony. You know I love you guys.

Be sure to watch the video at the top of this post for some good visuals on what I've described here. And check out the full-frame offerings from Canon, Nikon, and Sony at the following links:

- View Canon Full-Frame DSLR cameras at B&H
- View Nikon Full-Frame DSLR cameras at B&H
- View Sony Full-Frame DSLR cameras at B&H

Thanks for reading.

Photography Tips: Fixing Blurry Pictures

Skill Level: Beginner

Blurry pictures are one of the most common reasons a student will contact me for private lessons or an online photography course. It’s a problem as old as photography and still continues today despite all the technological advances with digital. Fixing blurry pictures involves changing the way you shoot, not getting new equipment or hoping Photoshop will undo the blur (it won’t). 

Often times a shooter will attribute their soft photos to their “crappy kit lens” or their entry-level camera. If only they had sharper glass and a better auto focus system, then blurry pictures would be a thing of the past. And with all the bloated lens reviews on the net comparing side-by-side images and MTF charts, it’s no wonder people assume lens sharpness is a big issue.

Well, it’s not. I can almost guarantee that your blurry photos are not blurry because of your lens. I have tons of students come to me with blurry photos and almost every single time, the blur is not due to a soft lens or bad focus.

Fixing Blurry Pictures

This photo is blurry (as can be seen in the 100% crop below)
but the culprit is not a bad lens or poor focus.
It's blurry because the shutter speed was too slow.

Fixing Blurry Pictures

When it comes to fixing blurry pictures, we first must establish that there are 2 basic types of blur in photography: out-of-focus blur and motion blur (let’s not get in to diffraction). Out-of-focus blur can be intentional and pleasing, like a blurry background in a portrait. Out-of-focus blur can also be unintentional and can ruin a shot. That would be like when the camera focuses on the wrong thing and so your subject goes out of focus.

Motion blur, on the other hand, comes from subject movement or camera shake during the exposure. And whether or not this results in blur is dependent on what shutter speed you use. You’ll get less motion blur with fast shutter speeds and more motion blur with slow shutter speeds.

In my thousands of hours of experience working with aspiring photographers, I can confidently say the number one reason for blurry photos is from camera shake at shutter speeds that are too slow. This is why blurry photos are especially common in low light scenarios, like indoors. The camera needs a slow shutter speed in low-light environments in order to create a correct exposure. Sometimes that’s the only way the camera can get enough light. But this slow shutter speed makes it nearly impossible to freeze camera shake and subject movement.

So the key to fixing blurry pictures caused by motion is to use a faster shutter speed. And how does one get a faster shutter speed? Well, it isn’t as simple as switching over to shutter priority mode and dialing in a faster shutter. You can’t take away light with a faster shutter speed unless you give the camera more light from the aperture or ISO.

To get your faster shutter speed, you must raise the ISO and/or open up the aperture. It’s that simple. Anytime the shutter speed is too slow, just raise the ISO or open the aperture and you’ll get a faster shutter. You may have to do this a few times. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Fixing Blurry Pictures

With a wider aperture and higher ISO,
my camera was able to use a faster shutter speed, 
resulting in a much sharper photo. 

Fixing Blurry Pictures

Now it may happen sometimes where you raise the ISO to its limit and you open the aperture all the way, and the shutter is still too slow. Now what? Well that’s why God gave us flash. Alternatively, you could get a new camera with a higher maximum ISO or a lens with a wider maximum aperture, but let’s not run out and drop a few grand on new gear just yet.

The bottom line is you need to know shutter speed, aperture, and ISO like the back of your hand. If you know those things well, you’ll be in complete control of motion blur and out-of-focus blur. That’s why I devote over half of my Introduction to DSLR Photography online course to shutter, aperture, and ISO. You really can’t know these things too well.

So next time you’re faced with blurry photos in low light, try raising the ISO and/or opening the aperture. Oh, and you sure as hell can’t be in full auto mode for this one!

Common Misconceptions: High ISO Noise


The Misconception:

Digital noise caused by a high ISO setting will ruin the image.

Why This is Wrong:
Alright here’s the deal, high ISO noise is not nearly as big a problem as people make it out to be. True, higher ISO settings result in more digital noise. No doubt about that. But it is very unlikely to ruin your shots. The final presentation size must be taken in to account when determining whether or not digital noise is something to be worried about. Sure, the maximum ISO on your camera will exhibit quite a bit of noise when you look at the image magnified 100% on the computer. But that’s not an accurate representation of the image. How often do you print that big? And even if you do print that big, how often will you view that print from just inches away like you do on your computer?

It’s tempting to judge photos at full magnification on the computer, but resist the urge. Everything looks bad that big. Don’t believe me? Take a headshot of yourself then see how you like critiquing the image at that high of a magnification (look at those pores!).

This is why when I analyze film negatives on a light table, I don’t use a 10x magnification loupe even though they do exist. I use 4x for most viewing and an 8x only if I want to really critique a negative. If the loupe magnifies the image too much, the negatives just start to look soft and grainy. And it wouldn’t be a realistic critique of the image because it’s not like I’ll be blowing up the image to those magnifications, and even if I do, people won’t view it from inches away.

High ISO Noise

Below are 100% magnification crops from the original 12-megapixel image (above)
On the left is ISO 100 on my first-generation Canon EOS 5D,
on the right is ISO 3200 (the max ISO).

The noise is, of course, noticeable in these magnified views, but how big is the image
really going to be viewed? This noise won't be noticeable except for at very large
print sizes. Plus, newer cameras will have much better high ISO performance
than my out-dated 5D.

High ISO Noise

The Truth:
Unless you print really big, high ISO noise ain’t going to ruin your shot. And if you do print big, it still won’t be as big of an issue as you think. The bigger the print, the further away you view it from. And besides, most people’s pictures end up on Facebook barely bigger than a greeting card. Noise won’t show up on an image that small. You may see it because you know it's there when it's blown up, but others won’t see it.

Yes, you should use the lowest ISO you can in any given situation just so you don’t have needless image noise, but sometimes you need an ultra-high ISO to get the shot. If you do, don’t worry about the noise. Know that it’ll be there, but don’t let it prevent you from taking the shot. Like I tell my students, “better to have the image with some noise than no image at all.”

My Thoughts and Rants:
As far as I’m concerned, high ISO noise is basically a non-issue today. Every new generation of camera is getting better and better at reducing digital noise. Today’s cameras are so good at high ISOs that it’s practically not even worth talking about. Plus, no one prints anymore (which is a tragedy in its own right). It’s all Facebook, Flickr, email, slideshows, photo books, iPhones...all great ways to share photos, but they simply don’t show the images blown up very big. So why are we even talking about noise?

And remember that no one else will ever notice the digital noise in your images. Your family, friends, clients - they won’t see it. Other photographers will, but who wants to impress them anyway? Other photographers are un-impress-able.

There are a thousand things that will ruin your photos. Digital noise is number 999. Good technique, good light, good composition, good subjects...Focus on that.