The Eternal Debate: To Full Frame or To Crop?
Since the time that DSLR cameras have become available to a more mainstream audience, there has been a continuing debate about the advantages and disadvantages of different camera features and specifications. Easily the loudest and most pervasive of these debates is the one aiming to prove that full frame cameras are better or worse than cropped frame ones.
This debate, which is perpetuated most often by those wanting to draw a line between professional photographers and the growing army of enthusiast photographer, has led to confusion on both sides as to which type of camera is really the better one.
What we’ll tell you straight away is that there’s no ‘better’ camera type or sensor size overall. There’s only one that’s best for you. With this in mind, let’s look at full frame and cropped frame sensors and cameras in detail, to see if we can’t help you make a decision, or at least better understand the distinction between these two types of camera.
Why Full Frame?
Let’s start by defining just what we mean when we talk about ‘full frame’ cameras. A full frame camera is a camera body featuring a sensor that matches the 35mm standard size, which was dictated as standard as early as 1909. For years, full frame cameras have been the mark of a professional photographer, in part due to their vastly increased cost, but also because of some of their photographic advantages.
One of the reasons that full frame cameras are often considered better, and thought to produce images of much higher quality, is because the larger sensor allows for larger individual pixels, also known as photosites, to capture images. Although many cropped frame cameras have the same number of pixels (this measurement is most commonly referred to as megapixels), larger individual pixels have the ability to capture more light. For photographers, this means that although there may be some image quality benefits in using a full frame camera, they really shine in their ISO performance, which makes them favorites of portrait photographers shooting in natural or low-light situations.
One more advantage of full frame camera models compared to their cropped frame counterparts is that they tend to capture depth of field differently. This is an advantage for portraits, as it allows the photographer to gain a softer and more appealing background blur for portraiture than might be achieved with a cropped frame camera.
Yet another advantage of the full frame camera sensor is that, when fitted, lenses are true to their focal length. On a cropped frame camera, the crop factor of the sensor will result in lenses performing at ‘equivalent focal lengths’ as these lengths are based on the original full frame 35mm sensor. So, wide-angle lenses are only truly wide-angle when fitted on full frame sensors, which is one reason that photographers who need more perspective and angles, like architectural photographers, favor these types of cameras.
Why Cropped Frame?
Since the rise of the enthusiast photographer, cropped frame camera bodies have been the equipment of the hobbyist photographer not ready or willing to upgrade to full frame. This is an annoying label for many professional photographers who use cropped frame cameras without issue, as it is based on a number of flawed misconceptions. In reality the cropped frame sensor, which refers to any sensor smaller than the standard 35mm sensor size, is hardly a piece of beginner’s equipment, nor is it seriously lacking. Improvements in imaging technology have seen the cropped frame cameras celebrated for a wide range of advantages over full frame models.
These advantages include the crop itself, which can effectively increase the focal length, sometimes called the reach, of zoom lenses. For example, as the cropped frame camera has a crop factor of between 1.3 – 1.6x on average, a 200mm lens could reach the equivalent of more than 320mm. This makes cropped frame sensor models ideal for any high zoom photographers, like wildlife or sport photographers.
Another advantage of a cropped frame body is that they tend to be much lighter. For many starter photographers, and even some passionate semi-professionals, a lighter camera body is a blessing. It makes the body (with the additional weight of the lens) easier to carry around and to have on you at all times to shoot with.
Some cropped frame photographers also claim that the depth of field argument works in their favor as well. In the same way that the full frame camera models do better in producing shallow depths of field due to the size of their sensor, cropped frame cameras do better at maintaining a larger depth of field, which is better for landscape photographer. This is contested, as full frame cameras can capture more detail in images, similar to the style of landscape photography, but it is still worth mentioning.
Looking at Costs
In the last few years, full frame camera bodies have gotten much cheaper, and it is for this reason that an increasing number of people are questioning the difference between the two kinds of sensors. In almost every situation, full frame cameras will be more expensive than their cropped frame counterparts.
The reason for this is that the sensors in full frame cameras can cost as much as 20 times more than cropped frame sensors. This, along with the more rugged professional bodies that tend to be associated with full frame cameras, mean that the camera bodies can be significantly more expensive.
That being said, there is a growing number of ‘semi-pro’ full frame bodies that, although expensive, are beginning to reach similar price ranges with the top range of cropped frame bodies. In the future, we may see this gap shrink even more as advanced manufacturing technology allows for much cheaper full frame sensors to be created.
One thing that is often forgotten by photographers trying to choose between full and cropped frame sensors is the lens differences between the two sensor types. To keep up with the growing market for cropped frame cameras, manufacturers have produced new lines of lenses that are specifically suited to these types of cameras. In line with the cheaper cost of the cropped frame camera bodies, these cropped frame lenses are also much cheaper.
In the case of some manufacturers, Canon excluded, these cheaper cropped frame lenses will work on a full frame body, but they will do so at a lower resolution. Considering the cost that many people spend on buying a full frame camera, it makes little sense to waste the camera’s potential on a substandard lens. Full frame lenses are of a much higher quality rating, but are vastly more expensive, although they certainly perform better.
Another thing to consider in choosing between full frame and cropped frame bodies are the variety of lenses available for both types. Obviously, as the enthusiast market continues to boom, there will be a far greater number of cropped frame lenses on the market, as well as a lot more available at cheaper prices when used. The same cannot be said for full frame bodies, which is worth remembering.
Full Frame: Canon EOS 1D X – $6,800
The Canon EOS 1D X sits right at the top of Canon’s camera body line and although some laymen might shake their heads at the enormous price tag, this camera deserves ever dollar spent to acquire it. Claimed by many to be the world’s best full frame professional DSLR camera, the Canon EOS 1D X offers the highest quality images with some of the fastest shooting capabilities seen (12fps continuous shooting), faster than any other DSLR on the market. It has a high quality autofocus system that is perfect for tracking subjects at speed, paired with the amazing ISO performance that we would expect at this level.
It is tempting in many ways to call this the perfect camera, but there are still some things missing, including video features that prove that full frame cameras love still photographers above all others. The Canon EOS 1D X is definitely not an impulse buy, neither should it be acquired to vastly improve your ability with no work. For the professional, the Canon EOS 1D X is a solid and dependable body that works in perfect harmony with a skilled photographer to capture the images they need.
Full Frame: Nikon D4S – $6,500
Like the Canon EOS 1D X the Nikon D4S is an enormous beast of a camera, the pinnacle of the Nikon line. A slight upgrade on the earlier Nikon D4, the new Nikon D4S doesn’t just have a big price tag, it has the features to match. These include an autofocus system widely considered to be one of the best in the industry, the same impressive ISO performance we would expect, stunning image quality and amazing speed. Yes, its 11fps don’t quite match the Canon EOS 1D X, but each camera has its strong points and the Nikon D4S’ is its autofocus system.
Like the Canon EOS 1D X the Nikon D4S still has room for improvement, including in its size and some additional export ports, but for most people the Nikon D4S is an impossible dream. For the professional, it is the top of the Nikon castle, a fully equipped, high potential camera that, in the right hands, is likely to net absolutely beautiful images.
Cropped Frame: Canon 7D Mark II – $1,800
The recently released Canon 7D Mark II is experiencing a serious popularity boost at the moment, riding the wave of press that it gained in replacing its predecessor, the ever popular Canon 7D. The camera has certainly seen its fair share of upgrades in the five years since the original body was released, and it is definitely one of the better cropped frame cameras in the Canon line at present.
The Canon 7D Mark II offers stunning image quality with an innovative Dual Pixel sensor, powered by two of Canon’s fastest ever image processors. With a reasonable ISO range, as we would expect at this level of cropped frame model, the Canon 7D Mark II outdoes itself with an impressive 65-point autofocus system, with all cross-type points and an amazingly speedy 10fps. All of this, along with its notable video performance, makes the Canon 7D Mark II a likely favorite of cropped frame shooters in the near future.
Of course there is always room for improvement, and the Canon 7D Mark II definitely needs to have built-in wifi and perhaps a more innovative perspective on its screen. That being said, it will likely impress and work effectively with a skilled cropped frame photographer, offering no limits on the right potential.
Cropped Frame: Nikon D7100 – $1,100
The Nikon D7100, the not so long awaited upgrade to the Nikon D7000, comes with a much cheaper price tag in comparison to the Canon 7D Mark II. This is more due to the recent release of the Canon 7D Mark II than it is to the features, so don’t make the jump to Canon just yet. The Nikon D7100 is a remarkably feature rich addition to Nikon’s cropped frame line, and one that certainly deserves the top spot out of their collection of cropped frame cameras.
Offering beautiful image quality and impressive sharpness, thanks to the lack of an Optical Low Pass Filter, the Nikon D7100 is not a beginner camera. It features an innovative 1.3x crop mode, notable battery life, a better LCD screen than the Nikon D7000 and the same semi-pro features the people loved, like dual SD card slots. But, it’s the autofocus feature that so defines the Nikon D7100. Despite being a cropped frame body, the Nikon D7100 offers the same 51-point focus system that can be found on the Nikon D4, opening up the camera’s potential for accurate subject tracking and superior autofocus abilities.
As always there are tweaks that might be made, such as some better screen technology and the improvement of built-in features like wifi and GPS that are becoming the norm on entry-level models. However, in almost all aspects the Nikon D7100 is a shining example of cropped frame cameras done right, likely to serve any dedicated photographer well.