Revisited: Do you need a full-frame sensor?

Five years ago, I wrote this piece on whether you should buy a full-frame or cropped sensor digital camera. At the time, cameras with a full-frame sensor were substantially more expensive than cropped-sensor cameras, and a lot of people believed that, eventually, cropped-sensor cameras would be phased out and replaced by more affordable full-frame cameras. Five years later, we’ve seen that that’s not going to happen, but the question remains: do you need full-frame or is a cropped sensor camera okay?

Because it was originally prohibitively expensive to make full-frame image sensors, a lot of people believed that, as the cost of image sensors came down, the cropped sensor would go away, to be replaced by all full-frame, all the time. But as is obvious now, cropped sensor cameras aren’t going anywhere. Both Nikon and Canon now have extensive lines of lenses made specifically for cropped sensors, and both companies produce a greater variety and number of cropped sensor cameras than full-frame cameras.

There’s a good reason for this commitment to the smaller sensor size: a cropped sensor allows for a physically smaller, lighter camera; cropped sensors can use physically smaller lenses, making it easier to carry a collection of lenses in a reasonably-sized bag; for telephoto users, a cropped-sensor camera delivers a narrower field of view than a full-frame sensor. For all of these reasons, cropped sensor cameras can be an excellent choice.

Just a few years ago, full-frame sensors delivered a substantially higher pixel count, and much better low-light, high ISO performance. However, in the last few years, that has changed as cropped sensor cameras now yield excellent high ISO images with plenty of pixels. So, you no longer have to compromise on image size and low light performance if you choose to go with a cropped camera.

But, of course, full frame cameras have their own advantages. They still have an ISO advantage over cropped-sensor cameras, with the latest models delivering staggeringly high ISOs that deliver useable images. Because their imaging size is larger, you can shoot images with shallower depth of field than what you can achieve with a cropped frame sensor. If you like to shoot with wide-apertures, this can be a significant advantage.

If you’re coming from a 35mm background, then you might prefer not having a multiplication factor on your focal lengths, so that when you stick on a 50mm lens, you know you’re getting a “normal” field of view. Also, if you have a nice collection of high-quality full-frame lenses with short focal lengths, then a full-frame camera will let you take better advantage of that glass.

Finally, because camera vendors have divided the market into “high end,” meaning full-frame users, and “not as high end” meaning cropped sensor users, both Canon and Nikon save some of their high end features for their full-frame cameras. So, if you want fast burst rates, or robust weatherproofing, then you may have to go with a full-frame camera.

Image quality should always be your primary concern when choosing a camera, and these days you won’t be able to make a buying decision based on image quality difference, unless you’re a stickler for shallow depth of field, or really need a usable ISO 6400. This means you can base your decision on more practical concerns, and the first of those will be size and weight. Get your hands on both a full-frame and cropped sensor camera, and compare the difference in weight. It can be substantial, especially if you’re comparing to a very small cropped-sensor camera.

When assessing camera weight, remember to consider the lens you’ll typically keep on the camera – a 70-200 f2.8 lens is quite a bit different than a 50mm f1.8. Also, think about whether you also carry a bag of additional lenses. While it may seem strange to heavily stress something as pedestrian as weight when shopping for a camera, luggability can be a significant factor when you’re shooting all day.

After size and weight, you can consider other practical concerns like feature set.

Obviously, if you go with a cropped sensor camera, you’ll want to give some thought to lens selection. Some people buy a cropped sensor camera with the plan of eventually upgrading to full frame, and so only buy full frame lenses. While this is a perfectly sound approach, there’s often good reason to buy cropped sensor lenses. They’re small, and very high quality, and to limit yourself to bigger, heavier lenses obviates one of the advantages of going with cropped sensor in the first place. (Obviously, some lens options are only available as full-frame.) Quality camera gear holds its value very well, so if you opt for a cropped sensor camera, I’d recommend embracing the cropped sensor world and buying cropped lenses, when you have the option. You can always sell them off and buy new lenses if you ever upgrade to a full-frame camera.

Whatever you choose, the good news is that, these days, you’re going to have a great image-making machine no matter what you end up with.

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