Viewer Mail Question: Full Frame vs. Crop Frame?

We’re rolling out a new type of article here, where our faithful followers can ask those burning questions about photography they’ve always wanted to have an expert opinion on.

We received a great question right off the bat…something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now – about the differences, merits, and “need to knows” about full frame vs. crop frame cameras.  If you’re not familiar with these terms, not a problem, we’ll lay it out for you.  But the basic gist is that these are two types of Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras (DSLRs). You know, the kind that you buy separate lenses for.

The main difference between the two is that crop frame cameras are more of the “consumer” level DSLRs (canon rebel, Nikon 7200, etc.).  They are great intro cameras that you can grow a serious hobby into a lifelong passion or even a profession.  Full frame cameras are your “pro” level cameras that most professionals and serious amateurs go to.  What you can probably surmise right off the bat is that full frames, being the pro choice, are more expensive.  Yes, this is one of the key considerations, as the intro crop frames are less painful on the pocketbook.  But still, even if money is no object there are other important considerations to make.

First, you need to ask yourself if you plan on primarily photographing distant wildlife, or if you are a more general photographer interested in wildlife, certainly, but equally interested in landscapes, and general travel photography.  The reason being is that crop frame sensors have a “multiplier effect”, such that they give you significantly more telephoto capacity.  For Nikon, this multiplier is 1.4x the focal length and for Canon it’s 1.6x.  Thus, it’s like putting a 200mm lens on your camera and getting 280mm worth of reach.  Or, a 300mm would effectively be a 480mm.

This is the main positive of the crop frame sensors – longer telephoto reach.

However, if you are into landscapes, general travel photos, and other things where getting maximum reach is not priority number one, there are some key merits of full frame cameras.  The main one being that they allow you to photograph at much higher ISOs without degrading the image much.  In addition, you can do a fair bit more computer editing of your photos before seeing any ill-effects of “over editing.”

In addition, full frame cameras often give you higher megapixel counts, so your images may appear sharper and better quality.

But, since full frames do not have that multiplier effect, you have to carry a bigger telephoto lens with you if you plan to get the same reach as with a crop frame sensor.

In terms of when you should upgrade, or whether you should start with a full frame right away, it is going to quickly become a personal decision.  I started with several intro crop sensor Canon cameras before I “graduated” to a full frame.  I really liked this method because I could really appreciate the difference in quality and the incredible flexibility that the high ISO capabilities gave me.  However, I do miss the telephoto capabilities of my crop frame Canon 7D outfit since it had that nice multiplier.

Nevertheless, there is also the school of thought that if you are shopping for a new camera, and you know you’re going to like the full frame better, why not get all your photos with that camera, rather than starting with something you may view as suboptimal.

At the end of the day, I feel that photographers tend to be somewhat of perfectionists, and are always searching for the sharpest, crispest images.  And for that reason, full frame cameras have an advantage.  They just don’t give you the same reach, so you have to anticipate needing a longer lens.  However, if you are exclusively photographing distant wildlife, the crop frame cameras may have the advantage because of the extra reach.

Hopefully this helps, and if you have any insight that I may have missed, please feel free to share in the comments below.  In addition, if you have a question that you’d like to ask for the next round, please also leave that in the comments below, too!

All the best,