Full Frame, Cropped Frame

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 🙂

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10 Comments

  1. Martin, I have been trawling through these very same waters – even to the point where I thought of putting out an SOS blog post for a “prescription camera” from those who know better because, as you say, there is just so much opinionated detail out there!

    In the last few weeks I have been looking at the 5D III, which to me felt a little “clunky”, with a much faster lens because, like you, I want better night shots and far less noise than the tractor I am pushing up hill at the moment. I have also been flirting with the Fuji x100s. And then I think hang on, I don’t have the money!!! 😦 😦 😦

    Have fun with your new purchase and can’t wait to see, and hear, all about it. So excited for you! 🙂

    1. Fuji have made some great cameras over the years, just never mainstream ones. I did own a Fuji ST-705 many years ago before I bought the AE-1. The 5D III was a simple choice for me once I was prepared to spend the money because it has a great deal of commonality with the 7D – same body shell, similar ergonomics… It doesn’t feel clunky to me – more clicky with the way the control wheel works 😉 I seem to recall reading that you use a Digital Rebel? If that uses the EF-s series lenses then the 7D could well be a good compromise for you as it could utilise your current lenses and you could then upgrade them as time and resources permit. ISO3200 works well in town lighting on the 7D and 6400 isn’t too bad. Just don’t try using the expanded ISO 😦

      Alternatively, consider getting the 17-55mm f2.8 EF-s lens – that will let some light through…

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/martin_addison/sets/72157633238697493/ are examples of the 7D at ISO6400 through a 70-200mm f2.8 lens – whilst I mutter about the noise, it’s pretty good and street lighting is far better than our floodlights because things generally dont travel so fast 🙂

    2. Hi Patti – Having checked out your camera, changing to the 7D won’t really help will it 😉 Same ISO range and metering (though there are slight differences in the sensor according to Canon). I wonder what lens you are using? Perhaps that’s the first area to upgrade?

      1. I am definitely looking at lenses but with so many to choose from, as in which one to stump up the cash for, I become paralysed with fear of commitment issues! At the moment, and it has been a long moment, I have one lens which I use for everything, an 18-200 mm but I am now finding it too slow and hard work in poor light . . .

    1. Hi Colline – at 640px in this blog I doubt that the difference will be apparent because the subject matter will be the same, but we shall see 😉

  2. That’s how all negotiations should be conducted! Even when they’re negotiations with yourself. Gather the facts, Examine the alternatives. Examine your specific needs and desires. An exemplary analysis, and then — go for it!
    Congratulations!

    1. Thanks Judith – After making the decision there was still a certain frisson about it which is probably why I needed to write this post. Hopefully it will help Patti with her decision tree too 🙂

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