Do you need a full-frame digital SLR?

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Many semi-pro and professional photographers are strategizing their SLR buying purchases – or putting them off altogether – as they wait for the price of full-frame SLRs to fall. But are the prices of full frame SLRs going to fall? Some of Canon’s recent offerings cast some doubt on this assumption.

Though Moore’s law has been driving the digital camera market so far, Canon appears to be re-shaping the breakdown of the market into something a little different from what we’ve seen so far. For the full argument, check out my article at CreativePro.

UPDATE: (3/29/2010) Revisited: Do you need a full frame sensor?

Related Links:
Canon EOS 20D Review
Should you buy a Rebel XT or EOS 20D?
Should you upgrade your Canon EOS 10D to an EOS 20D?

Buy an EOS20D

40 Responses to “Do you need a full-frame digital SLR?”

  1. Joel

    I think about this from a different angle. I wonder how long it will take until the smaller sensors exceed the quality of current full-frame offerings, and the smaller ones will be viewed as 35mm film replacements, and 24×36 considered 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 replacements

  2. Ben Long

    Yes, I think this is a very good point. Right now, 35mm size is being seen as some sort of objective arbiter of quality and it’s not, necessarily. What you’re describing is a time when people will judge the merits of a particular sensor size because of the quality it can produce. It seems like we’re already close to having APS-sized sensors being equivalent to 35mm and full frame being real close to 2.25, so you may not have long to wait.

  3. Ben Long

    Something else I didn’t mention in that article: not all 35mm lenses (few, actually) are optimized for digital sensors. Film is much more forgiving of chromatic aberrations at the edges of the frame than is a digital sensor. Since the sensors in each photosite on an imaging chip sit at the bottom of a well, the edges of the sensor are prone to bad CA. (This is one reason there is some merit to Olympus’ claim that you need lenses and sensors engineered for each other.) I’m in no way trying to say that this fact means that full-frame sensors are a drag, but that full-frame sensors have their own issues and compromises.

  4. anon

    One point almost everyone seems to be missing on this issue is depth of field. Depth of field gets shallower as the size of the film plane increases – for rather obvious reasons – and a 35mm DOF is what makes a big part of the difference in the feel of a digital camera

  5. Anonymous

    I agree with the last comment. I, too, am not necessarily looking for a pixel to pixel competitor; there are other benefits of a larger-format camera, digital or otherwise. Whether it is field of view, depth of field, or viewfinder size/personal preference and useability.

  6. ansel

    The last poster seems a bit confused on several issues:

    “there are other benefits of a larger-format camera, digital or otherwise. Whether it is field of view, depth of field, or viewfinder size/personal preference and useability.”

    1. field of view is detmined mostly by the lens, not the camera
    2. depth of field DECREASES with a larger film plane. (also pointed out by post #4)
    3. viewfinder size is not a function chip size but camera design, in fact there are sony’s with very small chips that have 3″ finders/view screens
    4. personal preference and usability are again functions of the camera design
    not the size of the imaging chip

    It is unclear what this poster considers “benefits”.

  7. anomynous

    For someone seriously considering Photography as a career or consider photography to be a serious hobby, you have to look at the long term investment you are making and I would think Full-Frame sensors would be a preference, for myself mainly because of the conversion if you go APS-C, like on Canon’s between 1.3 and 1.6x. I hate dealing with 35mm equivalents and would never buy a lens “made just for dslr using aps-c” lenses because they won’t work on a full-frame camera later. Not that there aren’t really good APS-C cameras out there, even I have taken pictures with them and have been fully satisfied but…think long term, versatility, better resale value, etc.

  8. NN

    In reply to poster #6: Actually poster #5 is right. Keep in mind that we’re talking here about SLR camera’s. Since the size of the sensor determines what part of the image is recorded, the bigger sensors have a much wider view (hence the 35mm recalculations for the smaller sensors). Also the viewfinder is smaller due to this same phenomenon (cutting out the otherwise wider view).
    The greatest benefit of using a full frame sensor is that a wide-angle lens also works as a wide-angle lens. Adding the better depth of field (and a decrease in dof is better, mind you), the benefits are clear, I guess.

  9. Anonymous

    APS-C sensors already are up to 12-13 megapixels. How much more can be squeezed on?
    There must be a limit I reckon.

  10. bhogi

    Considering wavelength limit, you could squeeze on about 400 megapixels, with excelent optics 100 megapixels might be achieavable, but taking in account noise and pricey optics needed practical limit seems to be around 25 megapixels for APS-C. Make that 64 megapixels for full frame

  11. Philosopher

    Whilst full frame offers a wider field of view etc I think the real issue is of the number of mega pixels on the sensor. Currently, this number is increasing at a phenomenal rate and currently far exceeds that of visual display equipment such as monitors, projectors and high definition TV.

    Surely theremust be a limit on this number beyond which the human eye will not discern any difference in resolution or picture quality (for a perfect optical system, say).

    Have we reached this point with 12.8 or 16 megapixels and, if not, when will we? I’m holding off buying a DSLR because it will be obsolete in 12 – 18 months time at with the current trend.

  12. bhogi

    To philosopher:
    There is a reason why people still use large format cameras. Large amount of details for large prints. There’s also DOF and lens movement.
    For a more modern aproach take a look at:

    If you take my limit of 64mp for a full frame 35mm digital camera you can print at 300DPI up to 30″x20″. Not good enough.
    Here are the reasons why you can’t replace the film yet:

    For normal use and small prints, my opinion is only the cheapest of cameras marketed today will be obsolete at all, the rest are simply good enough.

  13. William

    “I wonder how long it will take until the smaller sensors exceed the quality of current full-frame offerings”

    That will NEVER EVER happen!!! For a very simple fundamental reason. At same resolution bigger sensors will have bigger pixels therefore it will ALWAYS have better noise performance. Really it is physical impossibility for smaller sensors to out perform bigger ones given that technology is pushed to its limits in both cases. The same way 35mm can never ever out perform medium format. Ken Rockwell is an absolute idiot of dismissing Full Frame. Really DX sensors born out of cost nessecity and canon switched as soon as it was cost effective to produce full frame where as Nikon is very stupid not to have came out with a Full Frame (and I am a Nikon user). Why would any pros will wanna settle with second best DX format when they can have Full Frame.

  14. bhogi

    Noise on APS-C sensors is superior to that of 35mm film, and even when megapixels reach 20-30megs noise it will still be better and image quality without a doubt better than film. Some say it’s been done already. So, you don’t *need* full frame to replace *35mm film*. For smaller prints, let alone internet use, there’s simply no real justification to invest in full frame, it’s a waste of money, for now. Even equivalent lenses are cheaper, lighter etc. especialy in telephoto range.
    Full frame sensors may indeed replace *medium format* and that’s way beyond what 35mm film was used for. It’s medium format you should compare it to not 35mm.
    That’s my reasoning.

    But I agree with you, there’s nothing wrong with a full frame camera like this

  15. bohoops

    Today’s lens technology will not support higher resolution cameras 20+ meg without first redesigning the lenses. This may not be practical. In other words, our current lenses would not be able be used on these extremely high resolution cameras. Would any of us want to buy a complete new set of lenses to be able to use these new cameras? These lenses would also be considerably more expressive than our current versions.

    This is the main reason why the rumor of a 22meg Canon has not come true at this time.

  16. Johnboy

    Anolog Rules digital imaging is a farse. “Noise” don’t you mean lack of detail and general nastiness in the shadows .
    My Kodak DCS SLR/n is rubbish, well I say that, but it is really good for Black and White.
    The Chromatic Aberations that the sensor causes is really bad and I’m not surprised that Kodak deleted it soon after it came out. until I see good detail in the shadows and no Chromatic Aberations causing nasty magenta casts. I will not be purchasing a another digital SLR camera.
    I have used Nikon for years and like many I have horded my len collection for the day when there was a full frame camera to take them, I feel that Nikon have become very cynical in their old age. And will most likely bring out a D3 series full frame camera once we’ve all bought a D2X? Also last but not least I have a collection of Nikkor Wide including PC 35 and PC 28
    and I don’t want them chaged to telephoto by an under size sensor,

  17. sean

    A point i did nto see here… the reason i want a full fram digital si to not have a 1.6X on my lens! If i choose a 17mm lens i want a 17mm lens not a 27mm lens.

    i dont care about being above 6 0r 8 MP as much as i care about my lens length.

  18. Femi

    I am with you on that point, my business is virtual tours houses cars etc, I currently have an Olympus e330, with an Olympus 8mm fisheye which is fine. However the fisheye pictures need processing through software, to remove the barrel l distortion.
    In an effort to reduce work flow am I correct in assuming that a full frame DSLR like Canon 5d will give me a very wide image using their 10mm lens and therefore reduce my workflow, because I would not need to process the image through software?

  19. bhogi

    Sean, what do you mean you have 1.6x on your lens, and think 35mm format is somehow ideal so you have to compare to it?
    17mm is 17mm. Why would you ever choose to buy 17mm when it’s realy 11mm you want? You can get equivalents for most focal lengths, the only real differences are a bit more noise due to smaller sensors, less DOF and cheaper lenses.

    Femi, no you’re wrong, you won’t be able to use the 10mm (10-22) on 5d, it works only on APS-C sensors. Why don’t you get an olympus 7-14? It’s equivalent to 14-28 on full frame, you can’t get wider zoom than that.

  20. Warren

    OK, I guess I am a bit confused by all of this. Looking at a photo is not the same a seeing something live in front of you; you lose stereoscopic vision, motion, etc. that motivate focus on your subject. So you need every bit of help you can get to focus your audience’s attention.

    Blurring distracting backgrounds (and foregrounds) is a very powerful tool to use for this purpose in photography. One of the major reasons I bought a DSLR rather than a small-sensor point and shoot camera was to have the ability to do this.

    With the 1.5 crop factor sensor size, however, even with dedicated digital-only lenses I need to buy optics one stop faster to achieve the same DOF control. One stop is expensive! And perhaps not possible in some cases.

    So of course, if the price of the larger sensor were to become more favorable, full frame cameras would be preferable, for me at least.

  21. michael

    the bigger the better

    i had the nikon d 100 with two good zoom optics 2.8 and i extended it with an sigma lense for wide angle fotography. i had always problems with noise, cause i used in available light situations. then after 3 years of use i thought switching to the d200 and another wide angle solution – i tested it – the result was high resolution noise.
    so i ordered a canon d5 with 2 L-lenses – and now im really happy
    the pictures “standing” al lot better – with just a little noise.

    i use photoshop cs2 raw vonvertion (tested also aperture)

    a 4×5 inch camera will always be better than a 6×6 hasselblad – and a hassi will always be better than a slr…. size counts

  22. Chad B

    I am new to DSLR’s, but I dove into the hobby after College because I love hiking and wildlife. With my 1.6 FOVCP I can easily shoot wide landscapes at 18mm (roughly 29mm converted) and can still choose wider lenses, however, I like the 1.6 because I can spend $700 to $1000 on a very nice 300mm lens and get 480mm super telephoto range for wildlife without spending three to four times as much. I am not good enough to notice anything all that “wrong” with my corners or sharpness, and I consider I am not being published in National Geographic. I understand the need for full frame, but for amateurs like me who shoot telephoto most of the time, the 1.6 FOVCP is what got me to buy a DSLR in the first place.

  23. Stefan

    Chad, keep in mind that if/once the resolution is good enough, you can use a full frame to create 1.6 images (by cropping and enlarging), but you cannot go vice versa! (You can only crop to simulate longer lenses, you can’t do anything after the image is taken to simulate a wider lens!) And therein’s my problem with 1.6 (after having used film for decades), I lose (the width of) the ultra wide lenses that I’ve invested the most in, and get nothing that I couldn’t get by software cropping (to 1.6) on a full frame (if a good-enough Nikon-compatible full frame SLR existed).

    This trick of shooting with the longest (high quality) lens you have and cropping to simulate an even longer one has been used in the pre-digital (film) world for ages. It doesn’t require 1.6 in the camera, it just requires enough “spare” resoultion (in both the lens and the film or sensor) so that you don’t get noticeable “side effects” from cropping.

  24. Lawrence

    Smaller is often better. That’s why 35mm film took so much of the market away from the larger formats that were in common use. I often get what I consider to be better images from my 35mm Nikons or 1.6 frame digital then I do from my medium format cameras. First of all, They are so much lighter and easier to use! And I’m not just talking about the bodies. As the sensor or film size shrinks, the lens can get dramatically smaller, lighter, cheaper, and easier to handle. Also, the smaller format lenses are much faster for a given size, weight and cost. Mechanical vibrations are less in the smaller format cameras. For some, the relatively large depth of field of the smaller sensor is a downside. But for others it is wonderful.

    Lots of people have a considerable investment, both monetarily and emotionally, in their 35mm lenses. It can feel very wasteful to have the whole lens and not get the full frame. But in the long run, that may be more of an argument for more smaller lenses that are not designed to be full frame on 35mm.

    And the idea that one can always shoot in a larger format and then crop to get the equivalent of the smaller format’s depth of field and/image magnificatioin misses some points. The pixel density of the best smaller format sensors tends to be higher then the new full frame ones. Also, a lens designed for a small format is likely to have better technical specs then a large format one at a similar or often even at a greater price range. Medium and large format film lenses often don’t have phenomenal tech specs. They produce big gorgeous prints because of the film size. They have their purpose and their place.

    Right now, with the quality of digital being what it is, I would rather have smaller lighter faster glass for most of what I do. If I were doing a lot of wide shooting, I would be frustrated right now. But how about some smaller format digital sensors for that are designed to be closer to the back of the lens – sensors that are concave to avoid some of the optical problems of trying to spread a wide angle image onto a digital sensor. After all, if we give up the idea of digital / film lens compatibility, a lot of things are possible.

  25. Juno

    For me it boils down to one thing.
    For a photographer you simply dont have a choice in the matter.
    You must have a full range of lens capabilities.

  26. Vermeer

    Who says any photographer must be constrained to one format or one technology. Use the format or technology that gives you the best results for what you are trying to achieve. For me that’s small formats film or digital, for telephoto work and larger formats with the ability to alter the film plane to the lens axis for wide angle work. Besides, its more economical than buying one extremly expensive new camera system that promises to do it all but can’t.

  27. David Baldwin

    I am a photographer who specializes in wideangle and low light imaging. I am absolutely delighted Nikon are going full frame! Now I can save up, buy a Nikon full frame digital body, and resurrect my wonderful Nikkor 28mm f1.4 lens which should now act as a proper wide again, not a sawn off standard lens as it did under APS-C.

    The full frame or APS-C argument seems to me to boil down to one thing, if you are a telephoto photographer APS-C is great, if you are a wide angle photographer APS-C is a disaster.

    Now Nikon are giving us the choice, or at least they will if they ultimately release a mid-price full frame body like the Canon 5D.

  28. Paul Smith

    Am I wrong to assume the published argument that aps sensors packing large numbers of photo sensors onto a smaller size are inherently noisier than an equal resolution 35mm sensor. Would that not be why most manufacturers make the pro cameras with such a frame size.

    Manufacturers are milking the market for all they can, so it stands to reason that they will hold off for as long as possible before making full frame cams more affordable to such as me. I have a canon 350d and will not upgrade this camera until a more affordable full frame sensor comes available. All technical arguments aside, (and knowing photographers there will be some) I will not buy Di lenses as they are of no use to anyone going to full size sensors. I always advise friends asking to refrain from doing so as well.

    I am sure canon and others will (by necessity) produce larger sensor cameras to keep the market going as time goes on. If we refrain from jumping on the bandwagon and saving our money, this will happen sooner than later.

  29. Paul Smith

    Don’t know about anyone else, but I have emailed the site owners about the crappy references to porn that are above my post. Hopefully it will be policed better and such references removed so that our discussions can remain on the main subjects.

  30. Paul Smith

    Impressively fast response within an hour from admin of site. Explanation of problem was ok, but a shame something like this site is targeted for this crap. Full marks to owner anyway.

  31. Allen R

    A lot of confusion here. I believe these are the facts: (1) 35mm is an arbitrary size based on movie film. Optical geometry of a camera is determined by focal length and aperture of the lens together with image size, so the idea that a 1.6 ratio is”bad” is wrong. Its just a number. A 50mm lens has always been “wider angle” on a larger format camera by some ratio over a 35mm. (2) Perfect lenses project images of any point of light as an “airy disk” that looks like a bulls-eye, and is bigger for smaller apertures, Packing 100 pixels into a spot the size of a camera/lens combo’s Airy disk, or in other words, a sensor with more resolution than the optics driving it are of no use.

  32. Harold

    Well, well, well, the arguments go on. There has been some valuable points made here so far, that is for sure.
    I use four cameras, one for each type of result I want. I have had Olympus, Nikon, Canon, and several others if yo include film. And many different lenses, including the latest so called super zooms / do it all touted lenses.
    I have, by experience, found out that there is not one do – it – all camera body or one do – it – all lens. I use a Canon 5d for stills, landscape, portraits, etc.. and a 40d for sports and birding, a Minolta for underwater, and a Nikon L16 for my pocket. I also have an Olympus system. All my canon lenses are Ls except for the 50mm 1.4.
    There is one thing for sure as far as my Canon 5d vs the 40d. The 5d is a full frame and has bigger pixels, less noise at the same ISOs, but it is not for most sports at only 3 per second. The 5d does better in available light, low light than the 40d. So argue on your cases but as you do I trust they will be from your own personal experience / and or tests / of using different lenses and cameras for yourself. I had a Nikon D200 w/18-200mm vr lens, but sold it and switched to Canon after borrowing a Canon 40d and a 24-105 L is/usm lens and compared the IQ and features.
    The newer cmos processor just did a better job and with 14 bit ad conversion made it better for me than the Nikon. Now the Nikon has the 300 and the 700 and the d3x and switched to CMOS sensors (wonder why) so it goes on and on. Like someone said, in 18 months or less, there will be another new and improved model. Whatcha going to do?

  33. Conrad

    What seems to be overlooked is the magnification required to make a print from a smaller image size – I have mostly shot 4X5 for the past 30 years and prefer larger format due to their superior ability to store information. an 8X10 from 4×5 is only a 2X magnification. an 8X10 from 35mm is an 8X magnification. an 8X10 from a Canon TSi – 22.2 X14.8 is a 14X magnification.

    Having specialized in photomurals up to 4’X8′ I understand that it not just the quality of recorded information, it is also the degree of magnification in final usage that must be considered.

  34. Terry

    I really am getting tired of the attitude of camera manufactures at this point. They talk about glass and lens design. They go on and on about the quality of the barrels the glass is in…
    This is the year 2010. Most people have more than enough computer sitting in the living room to design a lens with. The glass doesn’t cost more than a few bucks to produce and the barrels are made of crap metal and plastic. If you want over a thousand dollars for a lens, it should have a carbon fiber frame, modular electronics and be user repairable.
    Paying thousands of dollars for plastic cameras should be a crime in this day and age. In the 60s and 70s Nikon and Canon sold handmade, nearly indestructible pieces of art for the same amount of cash that today they are charging for junk that is obsolete the day they put it on the shelf for us to buy.
    Full frame cameras allow lenses to be used as they were designed to do decades ago . Selling lines of lenses that cover the equivalent of 110 film should make you ask what happened to 110 format.

  35. Dan

    Most interesting discussions by everyone. I am newby to digital stuff. I do have a little Coanon Powershot for everyday use. Have used an Olympus OM-2 for most of my life, best ever viewfinder in the business. If they would just put a full frame digital back on it …….
    Question I have is I also use a Questar telescope for long range wildlife shots. Works ok with the OM-2 but I would like a digital SLR. With that narrow field, I probably wouldn’t need a full frame for sure but I need a fast shutter and a good image sensor..any recommendations? Many thanks

  36. CjW

    The problem has nothing to do with pixels – totally irrelevant. Its all about lens field of view. I loved the 24mm lens on my 35mm film SLR. I see its the equivalent to approx 15mm in the newer format DSLR’s – and a 15mm lens is an arm & a leg.

    What if I wanted something a Tad wider again ?

    A good photo is a good photo, even if its a bit blurred after extreme print sizes. A naff picture is still a naff picture even if its super sharp !

  37. JP

    Well, on the trailing end of this seven year discussion, I’d like to say the following:

    If you’re a starving artist with a small budget versus large passion: work with what you’ve got. A photographer with a level of skill and awareness can achieve amazing results using supposedly mediocre tools.

  38. omer farooq

    ISO, DOF, Better quality at wide angle, much better image quality (detail). these are the full frame advantage. i have both crop sensor and full frame. full frame always out class. check dxo mark for that. even best dx camera d7000 does not exceed in ISO then old 5D. 5D (2006 made) can take photo with non noticeable noise on ISO 1300 but d7000 gets noisy at 1000. if you compare d7000 with d700 then d700 is good on even 2000 ISO and compare it with d3s then forget about comparison d3s can go upto 3200 without a clue of noise. DOF is optical physics fact so no need to talk about it. also less distortion on wide angle and after all these advantages image quality will surely be better.

  39. Colin Taylor

    A fascinatimg discussion.
    I was looking for advice on buying a full frame camera but most of you have different ideas about what is best so now I am more confused.
    I’m retired so I take photo’s for fun & memories.
    I have had a wide range of Fuji cameras & now I am trying a Nikon Coolpix P500 which is good but there are times when I would like a longer lens than the 36x zoom.

  40. Kamen Kay

    The last wedding I shot I had to use 2 cameras – D90 an a 5D Mark II
    What was supposed to be a battle of the cameras slowly became a humbling experience for me discovering what each of the cameras was good at.
    Let’s stay on the topic. Full frame and APS-C cameras have been out there for long enough and have strong pedigree. I think that if you have a great idea and you know how to set up photo equipment (camera included) there should be no difference to you whether it’s a full frame or an APS-C camera. For more technical specs and head-to-head comparison check the link below

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