Full Frame or Sub-Full Frame Cameras: Which Is Right For You?

There are a lot of heated debates going around the interwebs about whether or not you should be shooting full frame or sub-full frame cameras. While I’m not really big on arguing over gear (especially on the internet), there are advantages that each format offers. In today’s post I’m going to talk about each sensor type in an effort to demystify some of the hype.

First off, both sensors are capable of providing outstanding image quality. Let’s get that straight right out of the gate. The sensors in today’s cameras are the best around – leaps and bounds ahead of where digital imaging was ten years ago.

Megapixels Don’t Matter
Camera manufacturers have been battling back and forth for years, bragging about how many megapixels their newest camera has. This is not much more than a sales gimmick. Megapixels translate to resolution, which only is a concern when making very large prints. A 6 megapixel sensor in a camera will yield excellent print results up to 20″ x 30″, and maybe even a little bigger.

In fact, the more pixels that you have on an image sensor, the less sensitive to light it will be. Think of it in terms of buckets of water. If I have a 24′ x 36′ surface, I can fit 864 buckets of water that are 12″ in diameter. If I use 6″ diameter buckets I can fit 1,728 buckets on the same surface area, but each bucket holds less water. Camera sensors work the same way in terms of how each pixel holds light.

Full Frame
Camera bodies that are considered to be ‘full frame’ have an image sensor that is 24mm x 36mm, the same size as a 35mm film negative. The advantage to these sensors is that larger pixels can fit on the sensor while retaining the same resolution as it’s sub-full frame counterpart. This also translates into better image quality at high ISO settings as there is less noise in the image.

Another advantage lies in the fact that full frame sensors don’t have a magnification factor. If you enjoy shooting really wide angle photos, a full frame digital camera will yield image results identical to a 35mm film camera in terms of composition. A 12mm lens is super wide, which really excites the wide angle fanatics out there.

Sub-Full Frame (APS-C or DX)
I know that I made full frame cameras sound really good in the couple of paragraphs above, but don’t worry because sub-full frame cameras have their advantages too. First off (and likely very important to most of us) is cost. Smaller sensors are less expensive to make and that translates into a less expensive end product.

Since APS-C or DX sized sensors have some sort of magnification factor (usually 1.5x or 1.6x), this means that you will get more bang for your buck out of your telephoto lenses. For example, Nikon DX bodies have a 1.5x magnification factor which means that my 70-200mm lens performs like 105-300mm lens. That extra reach really helps out if you are shooting sports or wildlife where the object is to get as tight a crop as possible on your subject.

Today’s smaller sensors still perform remarkably well in low light at high ISO settings. For example, the Nikon D90 and Canon 50D do an excellent job of keeping the noise low at ISO settings as high as 3200.

Which One Is Right For Me?
You are the only one that can really answer that question, but you should base your decision off of what you are going to be shooting in order to make a practical choice. If you are an architectural photographer that will be shooting buildings and indoor spaces, a full-frame sensor will net you the most gain because wide is REALLY wide. Wedding shooters will also appreciate the better high ISO performance since they are almost always shooting in low-light situations. If you shoot sports, wildlife or people, sub-full frame cameras will get you the most out of your longer glass. There are several sports shooters today that use a full frame camera for their wide shots and put their 400mm lenses on a full-frame body in order to take advantage of the magnification factor.

Given the advantages and disadvantages of each type of sensor, you simply have to choose the format that best suits your shooting needs in order to capitalize on your sensor type.


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3 thoughts on “Full Frame or Sub-Full Frame Cameras: Which Is Right For You?

  1. Nice one Stephen.

    Most folks need to think about how and what they shoot, and then make a list of the most important requirements.

    In my case after purchasing a D70 (my first DSLR), I waited a long time to get a new camera. I made my list…Because I shoot in a lot of urban environments I wanted to have someting small that didn’t attract a lot of attention. I felt I needed a bit more head room in the image and because the APS-c sensor seemed sensible enough I felt that was a good choice. I also like to take natural light photos and tend to shy away from strobes (not from not knowing how to use them but because I use them all day). My list of wants meant solid high-iso capability, ~12mp and a smaller size and weight. I liked the D80 well but it did not meet all of my criteria so I waited. I’m glad I did because the D90 is a champ.

    Glad to see you’re back posting.

    • Thanks Rich! I have to agree whole-heartedly that the D90 is just an awesome DSLR all the way around. What is really going to be impressive is if Nikon can find a way to top it. If they do, you’d pretty much have a smaller D300s so I have no idea how they are going to do it.

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