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What is a Full Frame Camera? – Everything You Need to Know

While going through camera websites and blogs, you must’ve heard terms such as full-frame, mirrorless, cropped sensor, and so on. Ever wondered what they meant? Well, for a start, all of these terms indicate the size of the sensor.

A camera’s sensor is what primarily determines the image size, depth of field, low-light performance, and dynamic range. Basically, everything that makes a camera what it is. The bigger the sensor, the better its configurations.  So, obviously, most professionals prefer full frame cameras.

So, what is a full frame camera? How does it work? What are the benefits of using one?

Let me elaborate.

Heads Up

It goes without saying that a full-frame camera is one that has a full-frame sensor. But what makes a senor ‘full-frame’? Well, when a sensor is equivalent in size to 35mm film (36x24mm), it’s generally considered a full-frame sensor.

36x24mm is the largest ‘consumer’ sensor format that you can get without having to upgrade to the ‘specialized’ section of cameras. These sensors are typically found in DSLR and high-end cameras, and of course, mirrorless cameras.

Camera Sensor Size

Full-frame cameras are basically interchangeable lens cameras that are used by professionals and well-read amateurs, and of course, anybody who has a good knowledge about photography. The starting prices of these cameras are typically around $2,000. But you can get older models at a much cheaper rate.

The thing about full-frame cameras is that they tend to be pretty big and bulky. That’s the reason why many beginner photographers are moving onto compact cameras, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds these days. But the image quality produced by them is nowhere near to that of a full-frame camera.

Why Even Use A Full-Frame Camera?

Apparently, despite all the setbacks that occur due to their huge bulky size, full-frame cameras have some advantages that no other camera will provide you. For one thing, the size of the sensor impacts the image quality to a great deal.

The more surface area the lens can capture, the more of the light the sensor can gather, the brighter and sharper the images will be. This feature turns out to be extra handy when shooting in low-light conditions.

But that’s not the only advantage of having a full-frame camera. To me, at least, a good image is only the surface level benefit of a full-frame camera. The best part of using a full-frame camera according to me is the superior control over the depth of field. A better depth of field brings more life to your photos.

Let me explain how.

Imagine two pictures with the same identical framing. One taken with a full-frame camera, and the other with a smaller format.

The camera with the smaller format will either require a wider-angle lens or will have to be placed farther away from the subject compared to the full-frame camera in order to get the full image in the frame.

Even when they’re shooting the exact same frame, the smaller format camera needs to be far away from the subject to capture the entire frame compromising the details.

On the other hand, the full-frame camera can capture the whole thing at one go while capturing all the intricate details of the subject because it was closer to the subject. In simpler words, a full-frame camera will allow you to take clearer and sharper images even in dark situations.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body

Canon 5D Mark IV

Mind you, a full-frame camera can have the same number of megapixels as a cropped sensor one. The main difference is not in the number of megapixels. Since the pixels of a full-frame sensor are spread over a comparatively larger surface area, the pixels tend to be longer.

This allows them to capture more light making it easy to photograph things in low light.

But in both ways, whether you use a wider lens or you move farther away from the subject, you’ll get a better depth of field with the smaller format camera. But why take all the hassle when you can get your camera to do it for you?

Full-frame cameras help you to achieve aesthetic ‘blur’ in the background which is essential for this portraiture. They make the ‘blurs’ look ‘blurrier’. It’s pretty much like the portrait mode in smartphone cameras these days. Obviously, it’s way better than what the tiny sensor of a phone can offer.

That’s why, even a smartphone camera that offers more megapixels than say… a compact camera, won’t be able to take portraits as good as a full-frame camera would. Because the image quality and the low-light performance depends solely on the size of the sensor.

That’s the advantage a full-frame camera offers: a large sensor.

Is It Perfectly Splendid? – No!

Despite having all the wonderful capabilities, a full-frame camera does have its own set of drawbacks. As I had mentioned earlier, full-frame cameras tend to be bulky and big. This makes them almost unsuitable for travel and even everyday photography.

Although mirrorless full-frame cameras are comparatively smaller, but still they don’t have the compactness that’s offered by Micro Four Thirds and APS-C cameras. Yes, having an extra depth of field is great. But that’s not always what you’re looking for, is it?

There is also the factor about lenses and the compatibility with them. Full-frame cameras can’t use lenses that are designed for cropped-sensor cameras. Yet again, the ones that they are compatible with, they can’t use the lenses’ full potentials.

To add more to it, full-frame lenses are usually more expensive than cropped-sensor ones. This can be a huge setback for amateur photographers because they’re usually on a budget.

But if you reverse it… I mean, use a full-frame lens with a cropped-sensor body, you’ll get equally excellent results while saving a handful of cash on the camera. This works because despite the full-frame camera’s capability of offering better image quality, the detail of an image is dictated by the lens.

This is one of the budget hacks many beginner photographers and even some professionals’ use. They simply buy a cropped-sensor camera and use a full-frame lens with it. You won’t be able to tell the images taken with that combo, apart from ones that are taken with a full-frame camera.

Smart, eh?

Do You Actually Need Full Frame?

It mostly depends on the type of photos you’ll be taking. If your sole priority is simply getting good images, then a full-frame camera won’t serve the purpose much differently than a cropped sensor one would. In that case, you could simply go with a Micro Four Thirds or an APS-C sensor camera.

This is one of the main reasons why some major brands like Nikon, Canon, and Sony have been drawing so much attention towards their full-frame cameras while most others haven’t even touched the format. Although Panasonic has its own range of mirrorless cameras that they started making recently.

Fujifilm for example has made both APS-C and medium format cameras, but skipped full-frame cameras entirely. Panasonic and Olympus on the other hand, have dedicated themselves entirely in the production of Micro Four Thirds.

The benefits that a full-frame camera offers, such as better light sensitivity, higher resolution, and softer backgrounds make it a favorite among professionals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a must have for everyone. Even some professionals prefer the compactness of smaller formats.

However, if you’re thinking of upping your photography game, upgrading to a full-frame camera might be the best option for you. It will allow you to squeeze the best juice out of your gear.

When Do You Go for A Full-Frame Camera?

The main objective of using a full-frame camera is to get the entire image in the photo you’re clicking. To break it down, a full-frame camera uses an image angle of your lens in which your photo appears to be larger in the frame.

If you want to use the entire image angle of your wide-angle lens then you should definitely go for a full-frame camera.

But there are also some additional benefits of it as I mentioned before. The sensor of a full-frame camera happens to be more sensitive to even the tiniest of light particles. This means, you can use it for taking clear and sharp photos. Typically, without noise, EVEN in dark situations.

But do keep in mind, that a full-frame camera is expensive. You should only buy one when you know you’ll be able to make the most value out of it.

So, You’re Getting It, Now What?

Once you’ve made the final decision to buy a full-frame camera, you should always consider studying about the various aspects of it on the internet. There are many camera forums online where experts will be happy to help you choose the camera that’s the best for you.

However, here are some initial points you should keep in mind.

Lenses

The first and foremost thing you should pay attention to when buying a full-frame camera is: lenses. Yes, lenses are important because they actively impact the performance of your camera. Not all lenses are compatible with all cameras. Finding the best match is the key.

The lens for a full-frame camera ideally needs a full-frame mount for being attached to. You could just put a lens on it with a smaller mount, and maybe it’ll be usable too. But it won’t give out its best performance because the edges of the sensor are not fully exposed.

So, always buy a lens that is the best compatible with your camera. Invest not just money, but time and research behind your lens even if your camera is not that expensive.

Budget

Always remember, there is a huge difference between the terms ‘Best’ and ‘Right’. Just because a camera or a lens is considered to be the best in the market, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’d be the right gear for you.

Different people have different photographic styles and preferences. Choose the one that’ll fulfill all your requirements, and that includes budget as well. Obviously, it’s next to impossible to find a gear that ticks all your boxes. But try choosing one that ticks the most of them.

Of course, the more expensive the camera or lens, the more features it’ll offer. But you won’t really need all those features if you’re a complete beginner. What you should be focusing on instead is to learn to use the camera right.

If you already have a camera that you got for Christmas or maybe bought for cheap at a garage sale, and you’re thinking of upgrading your gear, then just go for a better lens. In most cases, investing in a good lens is way more efficient and smarter choice than buying another expensive camera.

Megapixels

Don’t run after megapixels. Seriously, don’t. For a long time, megapixels were considered as one of the most important factors. But that’s not entirely true.

Unless and until you’re taking pictures for hanging on large billboards, or to be sold in galleries, megapixels don’t matter. What matters is the size of each pixel.

On that note: Read my post about if Camera Megapixels Matter or Not here.

Buy a camera that offers the largest pixel size. Get a good lens with it, and you’re good to go.

Ergonomics

This is very important factor because the size, compactness, and the weight of your camera directly impacts how portable it’ll be and how suitable it is for using for a long time at a stretch.

Heavy and bulky cameras may have a lot to offer, but after using one for some time our hands get fatigued and that causes the decrease in the image quality. Always pick a camera that is lighter and easier to handle.

If you have the opportunity to go to a store and hold each camera in your hand to see which one feels the best, then do that. But if you’re shopping online, then always pay extra attention to the customer reviews.

That should give you a proper idea about whether the camera sits comfortably in your hand and whether you can reach and use all the controls and configurations properly.

Go for The Package

A lot of manufacturers have cameras that come in ‘kits’ where they have the lens already included with the camera. The lenses that are included in these ‘kits’ are the ones that are ideally considered to be the best compatible with that camera.

This not only saves a lot of hassle behind finding the right lens for your camera, but it also saves some extra bucks if you’re on a budget. This is a good way to go for beginners.

But if you already have a clear idea about what you really want, and what you want requires gears with higher technical capabilities, then a kit lens may not be the best choice for you.

In that case, buying a camera body and a lens that goes the best with it separately will be the best idea. Yes, it will cost you some extra money, but all good things come at a price.

But if you’re faced with the dilemma of which you should be spending more on, the camera or the lens, then I’d always recommend investing more on a good lens. Even a mediocre camera can produce great images just because the lens used with it is a quality one.

Autofocus Speed

Autofocus speed is measured in units of FPS (Frames Per Second). FPS refers to the number of photos you can take at one go by holding down the shutter button in continuous (aka ‘burst’) mode. It’s an important factor because it determines the startup time and the general operation speed of the camera.

But FPS isn’t the only leading factor as long as the camera’s speed is concerned. While a higher FPS may allow you to capture fast moving objects, it’s actually the autofocus tracking performance that ensures that all your shots are in clear focus.

In fact, being able to shoot hundreds of shots in a jiffy isn’t always a good thing. Because it means you’ll have more photos to examine while editing. Even the thought of it makes me exhausted (Phew).

Also, there’s the question that how fast you buffer can ‘clear’. Meaning how long your camera needs to stay locked up in order to write all the images down to your memory card. A slow buffer sometimes turns out to be the most annoying thing when you’re processing a lot of photos within a tight deadline.

Autofocus performance is an important factor no matter what type of camera you buy.

Last but Not Least

Choosing a good full-frame camera is hard, and it generally takes one a few cameras to get to the one that’s right for them. A full-frame camera, pretty much like a wizard’s wand from Harry Potter, chooses the photographer.

So, go ahead and buy one that ticks most of your boxes. If you find it not that useful after a while, resell it and buy another one. Be brave enough to experiment. Trust me; professional photographers resell their cameras all the time. That’s how you get to have first-hand experience with all the brands.

Point-and-shoot cameras are good for a limited extent of photography. But if you’re up for some serious business, a full-frame camera is the ultimate gear.

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