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

Canon EOS R Hands-on
Gannon Burgett/Digital Trends

Full-frame cameras are making headlines again. With Nikon and Canon recently announcing new lineups of full-frame mirrorless cameras, you might be asking yourself, what’s the big deal? In truth, full-frame digital cameras are nothing new, but with these new mirrorless models, Canon and Nikon seem to be doubling down on the format and not offering smaller sensors at all (at least, not yet). So is it time you bit the bullet and went full-frame?

We originally published this article in 2013, when Sony unveiled the first full-frame mirrorless cameras: the A7 and A7R. Nikon and Canon’s announcements gave us a slight deja vu, so we decided to revisit this article. Five years have passed, and with Sony now in its third-generation of A7 cameras (in addition to the newer A9), it seems Sony made a good decision — it’s currently the best-selling brand for full-frame cameras, mirrorless or DSLR, according to the company.

Nikon and Canon’s entry into the high-end mirrorless segment give this category even greater validation and momentum, but it still begs the question: Do most consumers even need full frame? Let’s take a look at the benefits of a big sensor, and also at some reasons why you might not need a full-frame camera to take great pictures.

What is a full-frame camera?

Full-frame digital cameras use a sensor that’s equivalent in size to 35mm film (36 x 24mm), and is the largest “consumer” format you can buy without moving up into the specialized realm of medium format. Full-frame sensors are typically found in high-end DSLRs and, increasingly, mirrorless cameras. These are interchangeable lens cameras used by professional photographers and advanced amateurs, typically with starting prices around $2,000 — although older models can often be found for much less.

Gannon Burgett/Digital Trends

Cameras with full-frame sensors tend to be big and bulky when you compare them to the smaller, more budget-friendly formats like APS-C and Micro Four Thirds. These are often called crop-frame sensors. Even mirrorless full-frame cameras — which can throw out the bulky mirror box used in a DSLR — can be quite large, as the lenses need to be big enough to project an image that fills the larger sensor. APS-C or Micro Four Thirds cameras, by comparison, can have much smaller lenses and therefore provide a more convenient overall size, especially when carrying multiple lenses at a time.

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

So, why might a photographer want to lug around a full-frame camera? As it turns out, the size of the sensor makes the most significant impact on image quality. The more surface area there is, the more light the sensor can gather, and this leads to better image quality — particularly in low light situations.

However, one perk of smaller sensors is that it’s easier to make long zoom lenses. That’s why compact bridge cameras like the Nikon P1000 have insanely long zoom ranges that simply don’t exist on larger cameras. But the sensor inside such cameras is many times smaller than even Micro Four Thirds, let alone full-frame.

However, full-frame sensors have another advantage that goes beyond objective image quality: better depth of field control. Consider two pictures with identical framing, one shot on full-frame and one shot on a smaller format. The smaller format camera will require either a wider angle lens or will have to be placed farther away from the subject in order to capture the same framing as the full-frame camera. Both of those choices — using a wider lens, moving farther away — have the effect of increasing depth of field. Effectively, this means a full-frame sensor will yield a shallower depth of field compared to a smaller sensor.

Canon EOS R Sample Photos
Sample shot from the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R Image used with permission by copyright holder

In other words, the background blur can be “blurrier” on a full-frame camera, which helps separate your subject from its environment. This is a look that is popular in portraiture, hence why modern phone cameras have “portrait modes” that mimic the effect shallow depth of field.

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 or travel cameras. Mirrorless full-frame cameras are smaller, but not as compact as Micro Four Thirds and APS-C mirrorless cameras. And while that extra depth of field control is great, shallow depth of field is not always what you need.

Full-frame cameras also can’t use lenses designed for cropped sensors, or at least can’t use them to their full potential, and full-frame lenses are typically more expensive than their crop-sensor counterparts. And while a full frame sensor offers better quality, the detail of the image is still dictated by the lens — and you can usually put a full-frame lens on a crop-frame body and still get great results, while saving some money on the camera in the process.

Do you need full frame?

The truth is, not everyone needs a full-frame camera to create beautiful images. A Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensor is already many times larger than what you have in your smartphone. So while Nikon, Canon, and Sony may be drawing a lot of attention to full-frame right now, other major brands don’t even touch the format. Fujifilm offers both APS-C and medium format cameras, skipping over full-frame entirely; Panasonic and Olympus have fully embraced Micro Four Thirds, although the former will roll out a full-frame mirrorless line in 2019.

sony-a9-best-mirrorless-camera
Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr / .

The better light-gathering capabilities, higher resolution, and softer backgrounds make full-frame cameras a favorite among professionals, but it’s not necessarily a must-have for every pro. For some, the compactness of smaller formats is a bigger advantage.

If you’re looking to step up your photography, however, moving to full frame will allow you to squeeze a bit more out of your gear. Before you move up from an entry-level camera, make sure you consider several things beforehand, like the cost, the price of the lenses, and if the type of photography you do actually calls for those full frame benefits.

So, is there another full-frame revolution on the way? Maybe, but full frame still isn’t likely to become the consumer standard. However, with three major players now competing in the full-frame mirrorless segment, we could see more and more affordable full-frame cameras in the near future.

Hillary K. Grigonis
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