I’ve had a rush of blood to the head of which, more later.
Anyway, modern digital SLR cameras come in two basic forms. Full Frame, where the sensor is the same size as an old 35mm film frame, and cropped frame. In cropped frame SLR’s the sensor is usually roughly half the area of a full frame sensor, depending upon the manufacturer. Which to choose is a conundrum facing all really serious amateur photographers and quite a few pro’s too!
I had been considering a move to a full frame DSLR for well over a year. The issue is that these things are not cheap, so the decision is not an easy one and research is definitely advisable. Type ‘Full Frame vs Cropped Frame’ into your preferred search engine and you will be greeted by a plethora of opinions from around the web. The key thing to recognise is that they are opinions – some of them informed but still opinions. How much simpler it was back in film days when everything SLR was 35mm (ignoring the large format cameras by Pentax). You were guided by balancing what you could afford against the quality of the camera and lens you were buying. I can remember choosing my first Canon camera because it achieved that balance of price v quality – the AE-1.
But coming back to the present, we now have to look at this whole sensor size debate as part of our choices as well as which manufacturer’s cameras are striking that price v quality balance for us. So I diligently read through lots of websites varying between ‘cropped is crap’ to ‘why waste money on full frame?’. If you can cut out the opinionated from the fact then you can dig down into the bedrock of truth. Each has its unique advantages and disadvantages and the type of photography you do could well be the best way to guide your decision.
If it purely came down to cost of course, I wouldn’t be looking beyond a cropped sensor camera in the first place – SLR’s with cropped sensors are decidedly cheaper because of the sheer cost of manufacturing the silicon sensors. Though it is also true that manufacturers chose to position their full frame SLR’s at the pro end of the market and add lots of expensive additional abilities that most amateur photographers don’t want or need. This is my attempt at a balanced view which has guided my decision to get a full frame camera…
Full frame sensors gather light more efficiently because the light receptors are larger and thus more receptive – a plus
Cropped sensors effectively multiply your lens’ focal length 1.6 x on a Canon camera – a plus or minus depending upon your preferred photographic style. It’s good for sports.
Cropped sensor cameras can utilise smaller lens designs bringing significant weight savings. Good for trekkers.
Full frame sensors produce less noise and therefore can be used with far higher ISO’s. Good for low light photography.
Full frame sensors produce better colour rendition (also due to producing less noise).
Full frame sensors allow the use of less extreme wideangle lenses in architectural photography. Better for controlling lens distortion.
Cropped sensor cameras are considerably cheaper and in most average photographic circumstances the results will be indistinguishable from a full frame camera.
Those of you who know my photographic style will have recognised a conundrum here, a conflict of benefits between full frame and cropped sensor 😉 For I am both a keen sports photographer and a lover of low light images (often doing both on the same evening!). I have been using a Canon EOS7D since 2010 – it is a fantastic cropped sensor camera that performs exceptionally in all areas. However, there are times when I’d prefer to get a higher shutter speed in low light than the best compromise between ISO and noise will give me. There are also times when I wish I could get a genuine 24mm shot rather than the forced 35mm that I have to due to the crop factor. Other than that I can’t fault the 7D. But, I’m also aware that it takes a hammering every football season, averaging around 300 frames per match, so it would be good to be able to spread the workload a bit.
With the above in mind I decided to bite the bullet and buy a full frame camera. In some ways I had already laid the foundations for this over the last 3 years – upgrading to L-series lenses which are top of the range and compatible with both sizes of sensor (essential if I wanted to get the very best out of the 7D). I am pleased to announce therefore that I have added an EOS5D mkIII body to my camera bag. In future the work will be divided between the two with the 7D continuing to handle most of the sports and the 5D picking up my transport and other general photography. It’s an expensive purchase (most of the cost coming from the sheer size of the manual describing how to use its many features!) but I know I will put it to good use. It will be like a return to the days when I used a T-90 for all my photographs – when everything was full frame and my usual lens was a 35-70 zoom 🙂