Going full frame

60d 50 f18

Entering the world of photography can be a daunting experience. Many first time buyers will consider how much they have to spend and what type of camera to buy? DSLR, mirrorless, bridge etc.

When purchasing their first DSLR, a buyer may have no comprehension of what full frame or crop size sensors are but if you continue to develop (and lust over new gear), the question of going full frame will arise at some stage. While the advantages of full frame are usually improved low light capabilities (benefiting from less image noise in scenes with low light), the benefit I have actually enjoyed the most is the larger image frame (sounds slightly obvious or not… but I’ll explain).

So what am I actually talking about?

A camera’s sensor (full frame and crop) refers to the actual element of the camera which converts optical light into an electrical signal. The size of a full frame sensor harks back to the traditional 35mm film format with the physical dimensions of the sensor being 36x24mm, a crop sensor (Canon and Nikon ranges currently referred to as APS-C) is smaller than full frame and therefore cheaper to manufacture and are generally included in manufacturer’s lower end DSLRs.

Nikon’s crop sensors have a crop factor of 1.5x and Canon of 1.6x, it took me a while to grasp what this actually meant however hopefully I can enlighten you and save you the hassle of figuring it out. An image from a crop sensor in comparison to full frame could be considered similar to cropping an image in post production. A cropped sensor does not effect the compression of an image (areas in and out of focus), it mearly means that a subject would appear larger on a crop sensor camera compared to a full frame camera when exported at the same resolution. The easiest way to demonstrate this is of course with images, in the following example, I took photos of tulips with both the Canon 5d mark ii (full frame) and Canon 60d (crop sensor) from the same position with a 50m lens:

Photo of tulips captured with Canon 5D Mark II and 50mm lens

Canon 5D Mark II (full frame sensor) with 50mm lens

Photo of tulips taken with Canon 60D and 50mm lens

Canon 60D (crop sensor) with 50mm lens

You can see that the second image (taken with the Canon 60D crop sensor camera) appears closer, although both images were taken with the same lens and at the same distance from the tulips. When using the 50mm on the 60D, you are effectively seeing a field of view of 80mm In the following example, I used another lens (Canon 24-105mm) and with the focal length set to 105mm:

Photo of tulips taken with Canon 5D Mark II (full frame sensor) and 24-105mm lens at 105mm

Canon 5D Mark II (full frame sensor) with 24-105mm lens @ 105mm

Photo of tulips taken with Canon 60D (crop sensor) and 24-105mm lens at 105mm

Canon 60D (crop sensor) with 24-105mm lens @ 105mm

You can see the full frame Canon 5D Mark II appears to have a wider image, however this is just because the larger sensor receives a larger proportion of an image. As an analogy, consider you put an image in a frame to hang on the wall, you then decide to purchase a border to insert into the frame which makes the image appear smaller and cropped. The original image would represent photo taken with a full frame sensor camera and the image with the border would represent a photo taken by a cropped sensor camera.

If you wished to achieve the same framing as a full frame sensor but with a crop sensor camera, you’d have two choices, either physically move back or use a lens to zoom out. Be aware that both moving or zooming will have an effect on the perspective of the image captured.

Ok, so why is that a benefit?

For me, being able to capture more within a frame is a plus, whether it be a landscape or portrait, I much prefer having the ability to move closer than back. Of course, this is subjective but if I approach a mountain, looking at the framing in the viewfinder and believe compositionally that it’s still too far away, I am most likely in the process of moving forward and therefore more likely to capture what I am looking for when I try again after walking closer. Conversely, it can be a frustration to intend to capture an image where you think you have to move back and there may be no option, e.g. in the corner of the room. Where you have the option of a zoom, the issue may be negated but zooming out, however this will change the perspective which may or may not be the look you are aiming for.

There are benefits from cropped sensor cameras in terms of smaller physical image size such as wildlife photography. When using a 400mm lens, you are effectively gaining an image of that of 600mm lens (on a Nikon crop sensor camera where the crop factor is 1.5x). Therefore an eagle perched on a tree in in the distance may be more isolated from distracting elements around it. It could be said that with a full frame sensor, the image could be cropped in post, but for some (select few), they may believe that capturing the correct framing of the image is part of the skill of the art.

So for me, having a camera with a larger sensor allows me to get more in the frame, an advantage I have personally benefited from more than low light performance (as I generally do not shot as much in low light situations).

I do caveat that there are other pros and cons to be considered, but this is one aspect and just my opinion.

I intend to compare more of the benefits and constraints of using both in future posts, for example how it affects depth of field. Feel free to comment if you’d like to see more of this.