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 full frame and crop sensor is the actual, physical, sensor size. That sensor lives inside the full frame sensor camera.  The sensor size is actually the same size as a frame of traditional 35mm film. A full frame sensor will also give you a shallower depth of field.

This is why full frame sensor 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, refers to any sensor smaller than the 35mm film frame. Crop sensors have a sensor smaller than its full frame sensor counterpart or “cropped” sensor.  The most noticeable impact associated with this is what is called a “crop factor.”

In a crop sensor, the crop factor refers to the magnification of field of view when looking through the viewfinder. Just remember crop sensors also affect depth of field. For most APS C and crop sensors DSLRs, the crop factor is 1.5 or 1.6, so for easy math, let’s use 1.5 as the crop factor.

A Crop Factor Example:

A 50mm lens on a full frame sensor camera will have a field of view of 50mm with a shallow depth of field.  A 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera has a field of view of roughly 75mm (50mm lens 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 camera lens, full frame sensor DSLRs have an advantage at shooting in low light conditions. There larger sensor size allows for larger photosites on the sensor which allows for improved performance at high ISO ranges.  Full frame DSLRs with large sensor size will just about always outperform a crop sensor camera 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 full frame cameras was a must.  The lens and focal length choices available for crop sensor cameras weren’t as vast as the full frame sensors and focal length choices and the ISO, focal length and image quality performance just wasn’t at the level of full frame cameras 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 in terms of ISO, focal length, and image quality.

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 have crop sensor cameras greatly caught up to full frame sensors and closed the gap between full frame and crop cameras in terms of ISO and focal length performance but also in image quality, autofocus 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 know what the primary difference is between full frame vs crop cameras, and we’ve seen how far crop sensor cameras have come in terms of capability and performance in relation to the full frame sensors cameras, which camera do you need?

When you have to decide which camera do you need, whether full frame vs crop sensor, I want you to ask yourself these four questions:

1. Am I a paid photographer or just a 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 to decide if you need full frame cameras or crop sensor.  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, full frame vs crop sensor.

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 with high ISO performance can certainly help you do your job better, with better results.  Do you NEED a full frame DSLR 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 and focal length performance won’t be much of a concern for you compared to the wedding photographer. Do you need a full frame DSLR camera? No.

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

What Aspects of My Current Camera are Limiting Me?

To continue on with our wedding photography example, let’s 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 from a crop sensor to a full frame camera.

Let’s say your using an old D40 Nikon and considering an upgrade to a full frame body.  You feel the 3-point autofocus 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 and focal length 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 DSLR.

What is my budget?

Ultimately, budget is what will play a significant role in your decision between a full frame and crop sensor camera.  The cheapest full frame body cameras are currently sitting around $2,000 and up to $6500 for just the camera frame 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 cameras, 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!