Full Frame Or Not?

Full-Frame Or Not?

Q) Should I buy a camera with a full-frame sensor or an APS-C-sized sensor?

R. Eick
Porto Alegre, Brazil

A) Whether you choose full-frame vs. APS-C is determined mainly by two factors: cost and the type of photography you do. Generally, full-frame cameras offer higher-quality images and better large-format printing capability. APS-C cameras offer greater speed and enhanced magnification (crop factor). And cameras having the smaller-sized sensor are less expensive than their full-frame brethren.

That doesn’t mean that pro-quality work can’t be accomplished with APS-C digital cameras. As examples, Canon’s EOS 40D and Nikon’s D300 are both capable and feature-filled photographic tools. Other manufacturers like Pentax and Sony also have capable APS-C cameras. And if you’re mostly interested in wildlife or sports photography that demands long lenses, you’ll want the extra 1.6x or 1.5x crop factor that the smaller sensors offer—a 300mm lens offers the angle of view of a 480mm or 450mm extreme telephoto while preserving the original speed of the lens. If you want a wide-angle effect with the smaller-sensor digital cameras, invest in a special lens like a 10-22mm or 12-24mm lens that fits only the APS-C cameras.

Full-frame cameras typically have more, or at least larger, pixels, and these gather more light and capture more information with less “noise.” So full-frame cameras excel in landscape and macro photography and provide more detail, allowing for impressive large-format prints. The slower capture speed of, for example, a Canon EOS 5D, isn’t a problem in landscape or macro photography since light is more controllable as the photographer composes and then captures an image, sometimes using long exposures of the subject. On a full-frame camera, wide-angle lenses perform the same way they do on a 35mm film camera. There’s no crop factor.

So when choosing your D-SLR, consider the main subject area you shoot and what level of quality you need. Be sure to check the bank account as well!

A 24-105mm Canon “L” lens set to 24mm and ƒ/16 at ½ sec. was used with a full-frame Canon EOS 5D camera to capture this morning landscape at Mono Lake, California. A quality lens is necessary when you expect sharpness out to the edges of the frame. The 5D is a full-frame, 12 MP camera that’s light to carry in the field and still offers captures that can be enlarged to great proportions.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

12 Comments

    Thank you for this Tom, i had actually looked at the 10-22 EF-S lens and its about ??500 but, if I’m looking to upgrade my body too, would it not be worth getting a fulll frame lens rather than an EF-S lens? at least that way I can use it on the 5D. Im constantly being told that a good lens for my 350d and really notice the difference, if this is so maybe I dont need to go full frame at all and I can spend more money on more EF-S lenses?

    Have picked up the phone twice in the past two days to order 5D, then think about what I could do w/ money saved if ordered 7d. I have one lens: Canon 28-135 EF. I could get the 7D w/ the 18-135mm for less than the 5D body. I do outdoors w/ an Olympus e530 and don’t like it. Also, plan to move into senior portraits and team/individual pics for local school. Should the latter be driving me to the 5D?

    Why do people have to have a go at the post?

    Why do they have to give the idea that they are the fountain of knowledge on everything?

    These posts end up being about ego not info.

    I am sorry, but Mr. Lepp does not understand what the crop factor is. Since the sensor of an APS-C camera is 23 x 15 mm in size, it only captures the center of the projected image from a lens which is designed to provide an image which will cover a 35 x 24 mm sensor (35 mm film). So it crops the image by taking only the center.

    This does not in any way effect the magnification of a telephoto lens. So it is nonsense to say that a 300 mm lens becomes a 450 mm lens because of the crop factor.

    You only get the coverage of a 450 mm lens, and only the magnification of a 300 mm lens if you use a 300 mm film lens on a 1.5 crop, APS-C, 23 x 15 mm sensor camera.

    The area of the image at 35 mm x 24 mm is 840 sq. cm.

    The area of the captured image at 23 mm x 15 mm is 345 sq. cm.

    So the “crop factor” is throwing away about 59% of the image which is sharp enough to be useful with a 35 mm x 24 mm capture area.

    I am sorry, but Paul Fretheim does not understand multiplication. You see if you take 300mm x 1.6 it equals 450mm. If you look at a photo taken with a full frame sensor and a 450mm lens, it will look the same as an APS-C sensor with a 300mm lens (as long as they have the same mega-pixels).

    Full frame lenses are a bit wasteful if you have an APS-C sensor. You have to pay extra for all that glass you will never use. But there is one benefit. The APS-C sensor will use only the center glass of a full frame lens. So some ‘ok’ full frame lenses become ‘good’ lens on a APS-C camera. Mostly because:

    – There is better overall edge sharpness, since the edges are now more in the center of the lens.

    – Less light fall off in the corners, for the same reason.

    I noticed that newer APS-C camera?۪s can actually have better noise control below ISO 1600 then a full frame camera that is a few years old. The 40D actually has better image quality and less noise than the 5D and the 1D Mark II below ISO 1600 according to popphoto.com. But of course pro models are better overall cameras for many other reasons.

    I am sorry, but even I don’t understand multiplication. I guess Lepp was talking about Nikon’s where are 1.5. So 300mm x 1.5 = 450mm. My grade school teacher can now breath a sign of relief.

    I am sharing similar views as Paul Fretheim. It sounds like magnification achieved by APS-C camera is nothing more than marketing buzz. As it literally said: crop-factor, APS-C camera cut take a small part in the middle. How can it be referred to as magnification. The common sense is that shooting with the same lens, there should be no different object size between full-frame and APS-C.

    Using multiplication to talk about APS sized sensors is totally misleading. I have only heard a few times people talk about field-of-view or angle-of-view. The focal length means nothing in terms of magnification…I know plenty of people, including myself at first, who thought I’d be expanding my lenses by 1.6x which a DSLR… Like all of you who have commented, its about time people stopped using the word magnification in the same sentence as lens factor…rather, you all have, the word crop needs to be used more. I am sure there are many people who there who are disappointed with their long lenses and don’t really know why yet…

    Reading all the above has helped me further understand the whole debate but one thing still leaves me confused. I’ve had a 350d for a while now to get used to Digital photography (coming from the old school SLR) but I’m about to upgrade as its becoming less of a hobby and more of a professional opportunity. Money being tight in the current climate I need to know if: a) Its worth investing in some nice lenses for this 350d (I’ve had some good result already just hindered by my current kit lens) OR b) I really want a 5d mkII but don’t want to buy PS-c lenses for my 350 and they’re no good for the 5d. Can I use full frame lenses on my APS-c so when I upgrade the body I’ll already have the lenses and they’ll fit?

    any assistance would be greatly appreciated. Merry Christmas!

    Yes, you may use Canon EF lenses on any Canon APS-C camera. I have an EOS Rebel T1i and several EF lenses. It does NOT work the other way around! You can’t (will damage the camera) mount an EF-S lens on a full frame body. Canon makes some excellent EF-S lenses. The 18-135 EF-S is a fantastic ‘all the time’ lens. Great range, not too heavy, acceptable distortion and CA is bad (but fixable) where you expect CA. It is my general carry lens. The 10-22 EF-S lens is the best wide-angle APS-C lens you can get. It has less distortion (at any FL), less CA, less vignetting than any other crop frame lens on the market, from any manufacturer. On top of that, it is the widest wide-angle lens you can get without going fish-eye. The drawback of this lens is the price. You really need to want a high-quality lens to buy this one. I do, I did; it is an excellent lens.

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