The million dollar question! Do I need a full frame camera?

Whether you are a beginner getting ready to purchase your first DSLR, or a advanced photographer considering if you need to upgrade your camera, at some point you may find yourself scratching your head and wondering: crop vs full frame, which camera do I need?

Crop vs full frame: What is the difference anyway?

The actual difference between crop and full frame cameras is the actual, physical, size of the sensor. That sensor lives inside the camera.  The size is actually the same size as a frame of traditional 35mm film. This is why full frame cameras were a must have for anyone coming over to digital from shooting with film for years.  In terms of field of view, when looking through the viewfinder, you’d get a similar “feel” between a full frame DSLR and a 35mm film SLR.

crop vs full frame

A crop sensor camera, as the name implies has a smaller or “cropped” sensor than it’s full frame sensor counterpart.  The most noticeable impact associated with this is what is called a “crop factor.” The crop factor refers to the magnification of field of view when looking through the viewfinder.  For most AP-C and crop sensor DSLRs, the crop factor is 1.5 or 1.6, so for easy math, let’s use 1.5 as the crop factor.

An example of the crop factor:

A 50mm lens on a full frame sensor camera will have a field of view of 50mm.  A 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera has a field of view of roughly 75mm (50mm x 1.5 crop factor = 75mm).  So in simple terms, your 50mm lens will “feel and act” like a 75mm lens on a crop sensor camera.

Along with having a similar “feel” to 35mm film cameras, full frame DSLRs have an advantage at shooting in low light conditions.  There larger sensor size allows for larger photosites on the sensor which allow for improved performance at high ISO ranges.  Full frame DSLRs will just about always outperform crop sensor cameras in low light conditions.

crop vs full frame camera

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Technological advances matter!

Up until the last few years, if you were a professional or serious hobbyist photographer, having a full frame camera was a must.  The lens choices available for crop sensor cameras weren’t as vast and the ISO and image quality performance just wasn’t cutting it for any serious photographer.  Heck even my first DSLR (a Nikon D40) was a lousy camera in terms of ISO at anything over 800 or so.  Each year we are seeing cameras getting better and better.

The newest Nikon full frame camera is now able to use ISO 408,600 and the Nikon D7100 crop sensor camera has an ISO range up to 6400 now!

Not only has crop sensor cameras greatly caught up and closed the gap between full frame and crop cameras in terms of ISO performance but also in image quality, auto focus accuracy and even other “bonus” features too (video, live view etc…).

crop vs full frame camera

So which camera do you need?

So now that we now what the primary difference is between crop vs full frame cameras, and we’ve seen how far crop sensor cameras have come in terms of capability and performance, which camera do you need?

I want you to ask yourself these four questions:

1. Am I a paid photographer or just hobbyist photographer?
2. What kind of photography do I shoot?
3. What aspects of my current camera are limiting me?
4. What is my budget?

Let’s go through the questions above.  If you are just someone who loves photography, but isn’t being hired for any photoshoots, then you can just jump to question #4 and let your own budget determine what camera to get. If you are a paid photographer though, then you have to consider question #2 next…

What kind of photography do I shoot?

If you are a wedding photographer things may get tricky. Are you are consistently having to shoot in adverse low-light conditions out of your control (like church ceremonies, without flash)? If so, then you know that you need great high ISO performance. In this case, a full frame camera can certainly help you do your job better, with better results.  Do you NEED a full frame camera?  Today, probably not.  Five years ago, yes.

If you are a newborn photographer, where you are setting up the photo shoots on location or in a studio and your subject is pretty stationary? Then potentially a high ISO performance won’t be much of a concern for you compared to the wedding photographer.  Do you need a full frame camera? No.

If you are a sports or wildlife photographer you might actually prefer a crop sensor camera because the “crop factor.” It will help give you a narrower field of view! Your 200mm lens will feel like a 300mm lens!

What aspects of my current camera are limiting me?

To continue on with our wedding photography example, lets say you are currently using the latest Canon crop sensor camera. It has great performance overall, but at ISO 2500 it starts to get really, really grainy. In this case, you really need to be able to shoot clean images at ISO 5000.  If this is a limitation that is affecting your work (and ultimately your clients images), you may need to consider upgrading to a full frame camera.

Let’s say your using an old D40 Nikon and considering an upgrade.  You feel the 3-point auto focus isn’t sufficient enough to capture your fast moving children.  Maybe you want more than 6 megapixels because you LOVE to make very large prints up to 20×30 in size; and its ISO performance is pretty bleak as well.  For you, I’d say you too are limited and ready for an upgrade. However, many of the newer crop sensor cameras would be very suitable upgrades and there isn’t a “need” to step up to full frame.

What is my budget?

Ultimately, budget is what will play a significant role in your decision.  The cheapest full frame cameras are currently sitting around $2,000 and up to $6500 for just the camera body. This is compared to crop sensor cameras in the $500-$1200 range.  Professional lenses for full frame cameras are also pricier than most lenses designed for crop sensor cameras, so make sure to take that into account as well.  It is an investment, but based on your answers to the questions above, you’ll know if you need a full frame, or not.

In Closing

The most important thing to always remember is, YOU as the photographer are more important than any piece of gear you can buy.  Always focus on improving your exposure and technical skills, your composition, your posing skills, etc… those are the elements that will allow for great photographs and you can take them with you from camera to camera!