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Photography Tips: Do I Need a Full Frame Camera?

(Updated April 2013)

I've had many students approach me and say something along these lines: "I'm trying to decide whether or not to upgrade to a full-frame camera" or "once I upgrade to a full-frame camera..." or anything like this that seems to hint at a full-frame camera somehow being better than a standard digital format (APS-C) sensor. So the real question you should ask yourself is "Do I need a full frame camera?"

The answer is simple: No. No you don't.

"But what if I want to-"

No. Still no.

Regardless of what kind of photography you are doing, you don't need to upgrade to a full-frame camera. In fact, even using the word "upgrade" when you talk about full-frame is not quite accurate. "Upgrade" implies that a full-frame camera would naturally be better than an APS-C camera. Well they are more expensive after all...

Do I Need a Full Frame Camera? ^ A full-frame sensor has the same
dimensions as a piece of 35mm film:
24mm tall by 36mm wide.

APS-C Sensor Size ^ An APS-C or "digital crop" sensor has the same
dimensions as a piece of the short-lived APS-C:
size film: 16.7mm tall by 25.1mm wide.

Do I Need a Full Frame Camera? ^ Overlay the APS-C on top of the full-frame sensor
and you can see how much a digital crop sensor
will crop the image. But does that mean
it's inferior to a full-frame?

The thing is, though, that a full-frame camera is not necessarily any better than a digital format camera. Take the Canon EOS 7D and EOS 5D Mark II cameras for example - two cameras that were on the market at the same time. The 5D is a full-frame camera and cost about $2500 when it was new. The 7D, on the other hand, has a digital crop sensor and cost about $1700 new. In my opinion, the 7D is a far better camera than the 5D Mark II for several reasons.

First, the 5D's auto focus system pales in comparison to the 7D's. The 7D also has an electronic viewfinder that can pull up a grid on demand. The 7D has an electronic level, a much faster frame rate and a more advanced metering system. The list goes on. And that's not even addressing the $5000 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. That camera isn't full frame, but it has many advantages over the 5D including one of the fastest frame rates of any camera, a longer-lasting shutter, weather sealing, a better AF system and dual memory card slots. Again, the list goes on.

So a full frame camera is not an "upgrade" necessarily.

But then what's all this talk about getting a full-frame camera? Well, first things first: look at who makes a big deal about getting a full-frame camera. That mentality usually comes from beginner photographers, gear reviewers, and internet forums. (Which, by the way, you might want to stay out of internet photography forums. They are absolutely saturated with false information. In fact, read this blog post titled "5 Quick Bits of Advice for Beginning Photographers.")

So don't listen to what beginners have to say about camera recommendations. That's the blind leading the blind. Any professional worth his salt will tell you that it really doesn't matter that much what camera you have. And not coincidentally, the first question out of a real pro's mouth will never be "what camera do you use?" Why? Because pros don't care and pros know it ain't the camera. It'd be like asking a painter what brushes he uses.

As a professional with tons of experience, let me tell you why I use a full-frame camera and why they get a reputation of being better.

I use a full frame camera for 2 reasons that actually really boil down to just one: I used to shoot film. I shot film for about 5-6 years before switching completely to digital. In that 5 or 6 years, I got used to certain focal lengths looking a certain way. In other words, 16mm looked a certain way to me because I was used to the "full-frame" film view of it. Had I put that 16mm on a digital crop sensor (which I could have), suddenly 16mm on my lens wouldn't match up with 16mm in my mind. It would have been more "zoomed in" than I'm used to.

So if you shot extensively with film before getting your DSLR, then you might want to look at a full-frame camera. But if you started your photography adventure on a digital crop DSLR, then all is fine in your world. 16mm looks a certain way to you and that's all that matters. Your 16mm won't match my 16mm, but who cares? We're not going to compare mental image pictures to see who's is more zoomed in. But for me, I didn't want to have to "re-learn" my focal lengths. That would be a lot of habits to break and I didn't want to throw that kind of wrench in my gears, so I went with a full-frame.

Then there's the argument that full-frame cameras are better for wide-angle shots (like landscapes) because the sensor doesn't crop the image and, therefore, you get a wider view. Well, that is technically true that you get a wider angle image on a full-frame camera with the same lens. For instance, if you put a 16mm lens on a full-frame camera, you get a field of view measuring about 108 degrees wide. Put that same 16mm on a digital crop camera and that angle shrinks to somewhere around 84 degrees. That's a pretty big difference.

Advantages of a Full Frame Camera^ The blue border indicates the image as it would appear on
a full-frame sensor with a 16mm lens. The green border indicates
the image on a digital crop sensor with the same 16mm focal length.

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors^ This is the image at 16mm on a full-frame.

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors^ This is the image at 16mm on a digital crop sensor.

This used to be a problem in the early, early days of DSLR cameras because the widest lens available was about 16mm (before getting in to fisheye). So if you wanted that full 108-degree angle of view, you couldn't get it on a digital crop sensor. But the thing is, that doesn't matter anymore. It doesn't matter because Canon and Nikon were smart enough to come out with wide angle lenses compatible only with digital crop sensors that now go all the way to 10mm. And, wouldn't you know it, 10mm on a digital crop sensor gives you a field of view measuring (drumroll please) 108 degrees wide.

That's right. A 10mm lens on your digital crop DSLR will give you the exact same view as 16mm on my full-frame camera. So the "wide angle argument" is null and void.

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors ^ 16mm on a full-frame will give you the same angle of view as a
10mm on an APS-C sensor (or 11mm on a Nikon digital format).

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors ^ 16mm on a full-frame or 10mm on a digital crop sensor
- either would give you this same image.

Another argument for full-frame is that full-frame cameras perform better at higher ISO's. That is true with all things being equal. If you try to cram 21 megapixels into a digital crop sensor, noise will be a bigger problem than on a full-frame camera where the pixels have more room to "breathe." But I still call folly on this argument because camera companies are getting so good at noise reduction that high ISO noise really isn't that big of an issue on the latest cameras. And every time they release a new camera, the noise reduction gets better. So the noise on your new 18 megapixel digital crop sensor may very well be better than my 7-year-old 12 megapixel full-frame camera (I use an "ancient" first-generation Canon 5D). Besides, I could write an entire post about digital noise and how people make way too big of a deal about it. Unless you're printing gallery-quality billboards, stop worrying about noise. Most people's pictures end up about 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall on Facebook. And if you want to feel real good about your camera's noise performance at ISO 3200, try shooting ISO 3200 film for a week.

The last argument for full-frame that has any validity to it is that full-frame cameras give you a smaller depth of field. This isn't because a bigger sensor creates a smaller DOF. In fact, the size of the sensor has no bearing whatsoever on DOF. But the reason full-frame cameras create a smaller DOF is that with a full-frame camera, you have to use a longer lens to get the same shot. In other words, if you and I are both going to take the same picture and you're going to use a 50mm lens, well then I'll have to use an 80mm lens. Since your sensor is cropping the image, I have to use a lens with more magnification in order to match you. And since longer lenses have smaller depths of field, my lens will blur the background more than yours at the same aperture. So for portrait photographers who want real blurry backgrounds, that's a good thing. But for landscape photographers, that's not so great.

Also, look at the other side of the coin here. With a full-frame camera, you'll need a longer lens to get the same shot as with a digital crop sensor. For instance, if you need 300mm to get a shot of a bird on your small-frame camera, I'll need 480mm on my full-frame. A 300mm f/4 lens costs about $1400. A 500mm f/4 costs about $7000. I'll have to spend an extra $5600 to get the same magnification as you! This is why sports and wildlife shooters tend to prefer small-sensor cameras.

So don't feel like you need to get a full-frame camera. Your current DSLR is great. You can do amazing things with it. Instead of buying that new camera, spend some time learning the camera you have. Become a better photographer. Take classes, read books, practice like crazy and always remember that it's the photographer, not the camera.

 Parts of this article including the example images and graphics are from the "Composition for Dramatic Landscapes" online course.