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Drooling over the newest full-frame digital cameras? You might not need one after all

Full-frame digital cameras are making headlines. With the introduction of Sony’s new A7R and A7 full-frame mirrorless cameras, and Nikon’s recent update of its entry-level full-frame DSLR series, casual photographers might be asking: What’s the big deal? Aren’t all DSLRs the same? Are full-frame digital cameras the next big trend?

What is a full-frame camera?

First, let’s talk about what full-frame entails. Full-frame digital cameras use a sensor that’s equivalent in size to 35mm film (36 x 24mm), and is the largest you can buy without moving up to truly professional (and expensive) gear like medium format. Full-frame sensors are typically found in high-end DSLRs – the kind used by professional and advanced-level photographers (there are also full-frame compact cameras from the likes of Sony and Leica). They also tend to be big and bulky when you compare it to the more consumer-friendly DSLRs and compact system cameras (CSC) that use smaller APS-C and Micro Four Thirds “cropped frame” sensors.

Despite a full-frame camera’s potential, you don’t need it to create beautiful images.

So, why might a photographer want to carry around such a heavy camera? As we’ve mentioned before, large sensors can make a huge impact on image quality, in particular when you’re dealing with high megapixel counts, because of the increased surface area. Simply put, full-frame cameras produce the best high-res images. They’re clean with low noise, especially if you’re working with high ISOs and in low or natural light. Photos look more natural and warm. Landscape, architectural, or any type of wide-angle photography can benefit from a full-frame sensor, as well as portrait photographers, because of the smaller depth of field needed to achieve that artistic blurring. When DT’s lead camera reviewer David Elrich tested Nikon’s D600 (the predecessor to the new D610 announced this month) after having looked at many cameras with smaller sensors, it reminded him how beautiful and fun photography can be.

But it’s not just about image quality, as there are also other advantages. Many photographers, who started shooting with film and have amassed a collection of 35mm lenses, like full-frame DSLRs because they can use their older lenses and preserve the full view, or native focal lengths (especially with wide-angle lenses). DSLRs with smaller sensors can also utilize 35mm lenses, but the image will get cropped on the sides (hence the term “cropped frame”). Videographers are also using full-frame DSLRs to create cinematic-quality videos.

Digital Camera Sensor Sizes

Despite all the wonderful photographic capabilities full-frame sensors are capable of, there are disadvantages. As mentioned, full-frame cameras are big and heavy, so they don’t make ideal everyday DSLRs (that’s why Sony’s new compact full-frame mirrorless cameras are a big deal). Depending on the manufacturer, full-frame cameras also can’t use lenses designed for cropped sensors, or use them to their full potential. Cropped sensors like APS-C also perform better when it comes to nature, sports, or anything at a distance, because of the increased focal length (or reach); lens options for these cameras are also wider.

Ultimately, it’s the price. Unless you have the money or you’re a working photographer who makes money with the equipment, even the least expensive full-frame cameras will run you around $2,000 to start, not to mention the pricey optics to go with it.

Do you need it?

Despite what we said about a full-frame sensor’s potential to capture great images, you don’t need a full-frame camera to create beautiful images. The regular consumer will do just fine with the cropped sensor in an interchangeable lens camera for general photography. All the major camera companies have made a lot of major improvements to these smaller-sensor models and lenses. While they may not match a full-frame camera in image quality, many cameras with cropped sensors today can take beautiful photos and are starting to challenge a lot of the full-frame advantages. If you’re looking to step up your photography, however, and are ready to move up from an entry-level DSLR, consider several things beforehand: cost, existing lenses, type of photography, etc.

So, is there a full-frame revolution on the way? Not really, at least not anytime soon. As long as prices remain high (don’t forget that you’ll need to invest in lenses too), there’s really no justification for the regular consumer to spend more. (On the other hand, advanced amateurs can benefit from the least-expensive full-frame cameras to up their game.) The new Sony A7R and A7 are very attractive because of their compact size and light weight, and relatively low starting price – a dream camera for photographers who’ve been wanting a smaller full-frame camera. But full-frame E-mount lens options are still limited to five at launch (although the lineup will grow, Sony has an adapter for the A7R and A7 that allows it to use full-frame A-mount lenses), and still not “cheap” for the general consumer. When it comes to full-frame cameras, professionals and advanced amateurs are the ones who will benefit the most for the type of photography they do.

Because camera makers are taking a beating at the low-to-mid end from smartphones, they’re looking to diversify their offerings with products smartphones can’t match, and a full-frame camera is one of them. As technology advances, there may come a day when large sensors will become the norm, but for now most consumers will benefit from cameras with cropped sensors. With that said, full-frame sensors demonstrate there is a clear advantage to larger sensors and image quality.

Sensor size diagram courtesy of School of Digital Photography

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