What is a Full Frame Camera

What is a Full Frame Camera

What is a full frame camera? 

The short answer is – a camera with a sensor the same size as the 35mm single lens reflex cameras from days of “olde ” when photos were produced from negatives captured on a 35mm roll of film.

Since the introduction of digital cameras in 1986 the old 35mm SLRs have largely been forgotten and today’s generation of photographers are often unaware of their existence.

While working in a camera/photo shop I was often asked by both wannabe photographers and, surprisingly just as frequently asked, by more experienced photographers – “What is a full frame camera?”

And the question came up again the other night at an afternoon BBQ where two of us had our cameras – one a full frame and the other a crop sensor. Both photographers were equally adept at taking photos and our friends wanted to know the difference as to them the cameras looked very similar.

I decided it may be a topic of interest for others and hence this post to help those who don’t know the difference between a full frame camera and other models.

Full frame cameras are nothing new but the term “full frame” came about when photography went digital.

Full frame cameras are based on the sensor size of the old 35mm film camerasThe starting point of “digital” photography was quite naturally engineered around the highly popular 35mm SLR film cameras, the original full frame cameras, that were around at the time.

As a consumer product the 35mm cameras were a huge success so it made absolute sense to model digital SLRs around the same or similar sized “image capturing” technology.

By doing so manufacturers also took into consideration the need to accommodate their customer base who already owned inter-changeable lenses for their 35mm SLR cameras. It made sense to design a digital camera body that would work seamlessly with the existing range of lenses.

And that is exactly what they did – they designed and manufactured DSLRs with a sensor equivalent to the 35mm SLRs.

The trouble was that the 35mm digital sensor was an expensive sensor to produce and the consuming public were reluctant to take the digital plunge at the much higher price! 

The solution lay in producing a cheaper (smaller) sensor now known as a crop-sensor or APS-C. This smaller version was aimed at the lower priced end of the market and targeted the hobbyist. And what a success it has proved to be.

“They” in “their” infinite wisdom decided that the name of the new digital 35mm sensor would be ‘full frame” and all other digital sensors would be named relative to the larger full frame sensor – hence “cropped”, “micro 4/3rds” etc.

The crop sensor bodies were also designed to accommodate the existing range of full frame (35mm) lenses allowing photographers to switch to digital at minimum expense.

This raises the question of the possibility of reduced image quality with a full frame lens on a smaller sensor. The answer is that any reduction in image quality that may occur will be a result of the smaller sensor and not because of the full frame lens. 

On the plus side in terms of zoom the smaller sensors gained some “reach” – this is explained later in this post.

Size Does Matter - When It Comes to Sensors

Or it doesn’t – depending on your requirements.

Let me make it very clear that crop sensors (and even smaller sensors such as those found on phones) take amazing images and meet the needs of the hobbyist/enthusiastic photographer.

Here’s a short video that will help explain.

Could you tell the difference and do you think it is worth the extra money?

For the vast majority of consumers, who only upload photos online, the camera makes little or no difference but there are those who want that extra image quality.

And for these photographers the full frame cameras, with their larger sensors do have a distinct advantage in a number of areas.

Larger sensors can accommodate more pixels – makes sense that you can fit more into a larger area right?

As an example the Canon 5D Mark IV has 30.4 million pixels that are there to accumulate light and produce a very high resolution image that even when cropped will produce a very high quality print.

No you don’t have to crop but sometimes a crop produces a better composition and a totally different image.

And then there is Nikon’s flagship D5 (full frame) and Nikon’s D500 (crop sensor) both of which have almost the identical number of pixels on their sensors – which seems to dispute what I have said above.

The difference in this instance lies in the size of the actual pixels; the full frame Nikon D5 has larger pixels which make for more effective “light gathering” capabilities and hence more detail is captured in the shadows and highlights.

The results make for clearer, better quality images with less (or no) noise at high ISO settings – making for a big difference and advantage when shooting in low light or at night where you need a faster, action stopping shutter speed.

This has obvious advantages in situations such as photographing game, sports, indoor activities (for some reason I have an image of a ballet dancer as I write this – go figure), moody portraits and a myriad of other situation.

The real power of more, and more efficient, light gathering pixels lies in the ability to bring out incredible detail in post processing. Herein lies the difference between the pros and the “rest” – post processing can change a very good photograph into a masterpiece! 

And that leads us to further advantages that the full frame cameras have over their smaller cousins.

Depth of field for one …

It’s easier with a full frame camera to exploit the effects of shallow depth of field – that appealing aesthetic that is called bokeh – the softy dreamy look one get’s with portraits,or the shot where the focal point is sharp and stands out against the rest of the blurred image.

Full Frame Cameras produce lovely soft bokeh

 

In layman’s terms the larger sensor is like having a wider f-stop from the start. This effect is further enhanced when a large aperture full frame lens is used.

This is not to say that beautiful bokeh cannot be obtained with crop sensor cameras and lenses – it can but full frame cameras and lenses produce a softer and smoother bokeh.

And then there is dynamic range …

Dynamic range is a term used to describe the range of light intensities in a photo from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows.

Full frame cameras with their larger, more effective light gathering pixels are better able to record a broader range in a single exposure. The histogram indicates the full range captured and is the best guide for indicating the range of tones captured.

Again the intensity of the ranges can be greatly enhanced in post processing – provided they have been captured in the first place and for this a full frame camera is superior to a crop sensor.

More Lens Options For Full Frame Cameras

Lens manufacturers have ranges of lenses for both the full frame camera bodies and the crop sensor bodies.

Full Frame Cameras are able to a wide range of older lenses

Lenses produced for the crop sensor bodies are essentially “digital only’ lenses – that is to say they were produced after the introduction of digital photography.

The Crop Factor

As I mentioned earlier the “reach” of any focal length lens on a crop sensor camera appears to be greater than the reach of the same focal length lens on a full frame body. Of course the focal length is the same but because your sensor is bigger or smaller, as the case may be, the image contains more or less of the subject. The less it contains (small sensor) the closer the subject appears to be – I always struggle to get my head around that description as it sounds counter-intuitive to me, but trust me it isn’t.

The crop sensor lenses, such as Nikon’s DX lenses or Canons EF-S lenses, have shorter focal lenses to assimilate to the more traditional full frame lens sizes. For example an 18-55mm crop sensor lens (often sold as a kit lens on a body) equates to, and gives more or less the same perspective as, the more traditional 24-70mm zoom used by full frame bodies.

The interesting part and of great advantage to the full frame user is that older lenses can almost always be used on any modern full frame DSLR (particularly with Nikon) in some cases with limitations – such as no auto focus. Many of the older lenses are still some of the best available – I have an old 80-200 f2.8 that I rate very highly and I use it almost continually.

Can you use a full frame lens on a crop sensor body? 
Yes – and it is perfectly safe to do so. 
A good idea is to use the better quality full frame lenses on a crop sensor body. Yes they cost more but if ever you intend to upgrade to full frame you will already have your lenses – limiting the cost of the upgrade to the body only. 

Can you use a crop sensor lens on a full frame body? 
I would advise against using a crop sensor lens on a full frame body under all circumstances but .. 
In certain cases yes – but you land up with a circular image the size of a crop sensor with a black ring around the edge. 
To overcome this problem some full frame cameras have a crop sensor mode. 
Caution:
 Be very careful about putting a crop sensor on a full frame body. In many cases you could damage your camera body. The most common problem is damage to the mirror as it flips out of the way. 

What's Not To Like About Full Frame Cameras

One of the biggest drawbacks that manufacturers faced with the introduction of DSLRs was the size of the bodies. These tended to be much bigger than the 35mm film cameras that they replaced.

This was particularly so with the full frame models and slightly less so with the smaller, yet still relatively large, crop sensor models. Crop sensors were not only cheaper but also smaller than their full frame counterparts and helped make the transition from film to digital that much easier and more palatable to the budget.

With the introduction of mirrorless full frame cameras, Initially from Sony and now also Pentax, Nikon, Canon and Panasonic, the body sizes have been further reduced. But not so the lens sizes. The smaller mirrorless body with a big zoom on it is still a large piece of gear to be lugging around – but the same can be said for crop sensor bodies with large zoom lenses on them. 

Price is still a negative but as technology improves we are seeing the prices come down for bodies while the more expensive full frame lenses are still expensive. On the plus side they hold their value and will continue to produce crisp photos for a long time to come provided you look after them and don’t bang them about.

Who Would Use a Full Frame Camera?

An interesting question with so many options available in a variety of sizes, brands, models and price range.

Those more likely to want to use a full frame camera could include:

  • Professionals who rely on top quality images and believe that full frame is the only way to go.  There are lots of very good and successful professionals that use crop sensor cameras.  The debate continues.
  • Keen hobbyist/amateurs who demand the highest quality and won’t settle for less.
  • Photographers who specialize in a particular genre such as portraits, landscape or low light action.
  • Retirees who want a quality camera that will last.
  • People with a healthy budget.
  • Amateur/hobbyists who want to upgrade.
  • Those who print large photos and need or want as much detail as possible in their prints.
  • And then those who want one – just because they can.

Take the above with a bag of salt as advancements in technology improve the quality of the images produced by the smaller models.

As photographers we are blessed with a wide choice.

Conclusion

With newer and better technology (especially in phones and point and shoot cameras) it is interesting to consider the future of photography in general and full frame cameras in particular.

They’re big, they’re expensive and there is lots of competition from the smaller models.

They’re also beautiful and produce amazing photos when in the right hands and for this reason there is still a very big market for them.

Professionals tend to prefer them.

For more information about full frame cameras and what each of the current models feel free to browse this site.

As always your comments are appreciated so please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

2 thoughts on “What is a Full Frame Camera”

  1. Hi Lawrence

    What a great explanation of what a full frame camera is, thank you! This is very timely and very, very helpful but also not so helpful.

    Let me explain …

    The Helpful Part

    I am in the market for a good camera and the likelihood is that I will take to it and want to become an expert. To that extent, this post is very timely and very useful as I think I may be one of those who “demand the highest quality”. Budget is always a consideration, but I don’t believe in buying now to upgrade later. That just seems an unnecessary additional step. The challenge of the learning curve also appeals to me. And that brings me to the …

    Not so Helpful
    You don’t make a specific recommendation. I’d love to know what your recommendations are for an excellent camera. I know this will depend on what I would ultimately like to photograph so for a bit of feedback I live in South Africa (thinking wildlife and birds here) and travel quite extensively (thinking landscapes, seascape and general scenery). That’s pretty diverse I know but a girl has to start somewhere. 😉

    Thanks for great post.

    Louisa Squeeza

    PS Love the squirrel shot – is that one of yours?

    • Hey Squeeza,
      Really pleased you liked the post and appreciate the time you took to give me some good feedback (naughty me for not making a recommendation – see below where I will reveal all).
      Yes the squirrel is mine – taken in Sabi Sands which I am sure you are familiar with.
      Now for my recommendation …
      I honestly believe that the immediate future lies in mirrorless cameras. They are smaller and more compact and if I was in your position I would not hesitate to purchase the Nikon Z6. Its probably the smallest full frame on the market and with its amazing processor and 12 frames per second burst rate it’s way more than a great start – its many photographers ultimate and at an excellent price (compared to its bigger brother the Nikon Z7).
      If you come across one of those “buy one get the second one free” deals do think of me. 🙂
      Excited much for you.
      Lawrence

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