The Full-Frame Digital Edge: It Cuts Two Ways! – The upsides and downsides of upgrading to a full-frame digital camera

Apr 13, 2017  By Jason Schneider
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By Jason Schneider

Shooting with a full-frame digital camera is seen as the mark of a pro or serious enthusiast, and many professionals do indeed favor cameras with full-frame (24x36mm) sensors. In general, full-frame cameras, especially DSLRs, are larger, heavier, and more expensive than their APS-C- and Micro Four Thirds-sensor counterparts. In addition all full-frame cameras require lenses that are larger and heavier than smaller-sensor cameras at each equivalent zoom range or coverage angle. And the wider the aperture is, the greater the size/weight difference. Why are knowledgeable shooters inclined to shoot full-frame? Because full-frame cameras give them a discernible edge in terms of image quality, low-light performance, and creative control. Here’s a quick rundown on full-frame advantages.  

Full-frame cameras offer enhanced image control:  Full-frame cameras require longer focal-length lenses to cover the larger 24 x36mm-format than smaller-sensor cameras. For example, the normal lenses for full-frame-, APS-C-, and Micro Four Thirds-format cameras are 50mm, 35mm, and 25mm respectively. In short, full-frame lenses of equivalent angular coverage provide a shallower depth-of-field at any given aperture than lenses for smaller formats, assuming the images being compared have the same field of view (framing). This shallower depth of field, especially in pictures shot at wide apertures (f/1.2-2.8), makes it easier to achieve classic pictorial effects in portraits and scenic images that combine sharp in-focus areas that “pop” off attractively soft backgrounds and foregrounds.

Full-frame sensors have larger pixels: The larger the sensor area, the larger each pixel is for any given megapixel (MP) rating. Larger pixels can capture more color information and are more efficient at capturing incoming light than smaller pixels, resulting in lower noise levels. This is the principal reason that full-frame sensors deliver better performance at higher ISO settings than smaller sensors. They can also capture a greater dynamic range and render finer color distinctions within a given hue. The result: Better overall image quality, color accuracy, and brilliance..

Full-frame sensors can provide higher resolution:  Full-frame sensors can also be designed to provide a larger number of smaller pixels, while still keeping the individual pixels large enough to maintain high image quality, low noise, and an extended dynamic range. The result: higher MP ratings and greater resolution than can be achieved with smaller sensors, enhancing the sensor’s ability to capture fine detail. The manufacturer determines the precise balance between high ISO performance and high resolution based on the needs of the camera’s target audience.  Example: The Sony Alpha a7S II, which is aimed at low-light and video shooters, has a full-frame 12.2MP CMOS sensor and a maximum ISO of 409600. The broad-spectrum Sony Alpha a7R II employs an ultra-high-res, full-frame 42MP CMOS sensor and a lower, but still impressive, maximum ISO of 102400.

Full-frame cameras maintain full wide-angle coverage: Another advantage of full-frame digital cameras is that older wide-angle lenses designed for 35mm film cameras retain their wide-angle field of view when they’re used on a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera. For example, a 24mm lens for a 35mm SLR will cover the full 24mm field when it’s mounted on a full-frame DSLR, but will only cover a 36mm semi-wide field on an APS-C-format DSLR due to the 1.5x crop factor. On the other hand a smaller-sensor cameras can “extend” a normal, telephoto, or zoom lens by its crop factor, thereby increasing its effective reach. That’s why keeping compatible sub-full-frame body in your shooting stable may be a good idea.

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