Nick Carver Photography Blog

Photography Tips, Tutorials, & Videos


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.