Is It Time To Go Full-Frame?

Full-frame DSLRs are hot! The reasons? Well, image quality, for starters: All other things being equal, a full-frame sensor can collect more light than a smaller one, and that means a better signal-to-noise ratio (see the sidebar for more about this). And that means better image quality, with less noise, especially at higher ISO settings—full-frame DSLRs hold the top 17 positions in’s RAW sensor ratings for high-ISO performance, while the highest-rated APS-C camera ranks twenty-first. Full-frame sensors also have room for more pixels of a given size, and more pixels mean more detail can be recorded.

Another potential advantage is that full-frame sensors also "see" more of the image produced by any given lens, while smaller sensors "crop in" on that image, producing a narrower angle of view. For example, a 16mm lens on a full-frame camera shows the same angle of view it does on a 35mm film SLR, but frames like a 24mm when used on an APS-C DSLR. This makes serious wide-angle photography easier with a full-frame camera. There are a number of excellent 16mm prime lenses and 16-35mm zooms available; to get that wide an angle of view with an APS-C DSLR, you’d need a 10.5mm lens, of which there aren’t as many choices.

Of course, the above benefits have been there from the first full-frame DSLR. (Canon’s original EOS-1Ds, in 2002, was the first really successful full-frame DSLR.) What has changed recently is the introduction of full-frame DSLRs at a much more affordable price point: Canon and Nikon offer new full-frame models—the EOS 6D and Nikon D600—that list for $2,099. The price of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II has dropped to $2,199 now that the EOS 5D Mark III has joined the line. And Sony has produced the first full-frame translucent mirror SLT (more on that technology later) at a list price of $2,799.

Canon’s current full-frame lineup includes four models: the EOS-1D X top-tier pro model; the newer EOS 5D Mark III, a popular model for HD video; the older (and now less expensive) EOS 5D Mark II, which started a revolution in HDSLR filmmaking; and the newest and most affordable full-frame from Canon, the EOS 6D.

That’s still higher than APS-C DSLRs, but roughly half the price of the top-tier pro cameras. Why do those pro models cost so much more? Mainly because they’re more ruggedly built, can shoot 10 or more frames per second, and have better autofocus (AF) and metering systems and higher usable ISO capabilties. But the new "entry-level" full-frame models are no slouches: The Nikon D600 rates third overall in’s sensor ratings.

These new lower-cost models aren’t the first such cameras—Sony introduced the now-discontinued full-frame DSLR-A850 at $1,999 in 2009. But this is the first time there have been so many options. If you like Canon, there’s the full-frame EOS 6D for $2,099 (also, the EOS 5D Mark II at $2,199, the EOS 5D Mark III at $3,499 and the flagship EOS-1D X at $6,799). If you prefer Nikon, there’s the full-frame D600 for $2,099 (also, the D800 for $2,999, the D800E for $3,299, the D4 for $5,999 and the D3X for $7,999). And Sony offers the unique SLT-A99 for $2,799, which accepts Sony A-mount and legacy Konica Minolta Maxxum lenses. That’s 10 full-frame DSLRs, half of which list for under $3,000.

Of course, even $2,099 is a lot of money, which is the major "con" to the full-frame DSLR. Full-frame cameras also are bulkier than smaller-sensor models. (I personally like a bigger DSLR body, but many think smaller is better, hence the rapid rise of the mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras over the last few years.) If you’re a wildlife photographer, a smaller-sensor camera gives you more telephoto "reach:" On an APS-C camera, a 300mm lens frames like a 450mm. If you’re into telephoto lens work, an APS-C DSLR is a more economical way to go. Canon, Nikon and Sony lenses longer than 400mm cost more than $8,000 (although Sigma and Tamron offer slower tele-zooms that go out to 500mm for around $1,000). Of course, the opposite is also true: If you’re into wide-angle work, a full-frame camera gives you a wider angle of view with any given lens.

Anyway, the point is, there have never been more full-frame models available at near-APS-C prices than there are right now. And that—the previous paragraph notwithstanding—means there never has been a better time to go full-frame.

Of the top-10 cameras on‘s camera sensor ratings, Nikon holds six of the top spots: the D800E* comes in at number one, followed by the nearly identical D800 at number 2. The newest and most affordable full-frame Nikon, the D600 places at number 3, while the older—and considerably more expensive—D4 and D3X rank number 6 and number 9, respectively. (*The difference between the D800 and the D800E is that the E model omits the low-pass filter used in most digital cameras to prevent moiré patterns.)


Canon offers 55 EF lenses, which cover full-frame sensors. These range from an 8-15mm fisheye zoom and a 14mm superwide-angle to an 800mm supertelephoto. There are also four manual-focus TS-E tilt-shift lenses and several macro lenses, including the MP-E 65mm ƒ/2.8 1-5x, as well as 1.4X and 2X teleconverters. Nikon offers 59 lenses that cover the full-frame format, from a 14mm superwide-angle to a 600mm supertelephoto. There are also three manual-focus, perspective-control (PC-E) lenses and several 1:1 macro lenses, as well as 1.4X, 1.7X and 2X teleconverters.

Sony offers 20 lenses that cover full-frame, from a 16mm superwide-angle to a 500mm supertelephoto, including full-frame fisheye and 1:1 macro lenses. There are also 1.4X and 2X teleconverters. Sony DSLRs can use legacy Konica Minolta Maxxum lenses, too.

Canon, Nikon and Sony also offer some lenses that were designed specifically for the smaller APS-C sensors, and these won’t cover a full-frame sensor. Canon’s EF-S lenses can’t even be mounted on full-frame DSLRs.

Nikon’s DX and Sony’s DT lenses can be mounted on full-frame DSLRs, but when they are, the camera automatically crops to APS-C format (with a corresponding loss of angle of view and pixel count). It’s best to use full-frame lenses on full-frame cameras, but in the case of Nikon and Sony, it’s nice to be able to use your APS-C lenses when moving up to full-frame.


The more light a sensor can collect, the better the image quality it can produce. That’s because photonic noise (the noise carried by light itself, and the main source of noise in most digital images with current cameras) increases as the square root of the signal. In other words, if you have 4 photons of signal, you’ll get 2 photons of noise (2 being the square root of 4). The resulting S/N ratio is 2:1. If you have 100 photons of signal, noise would be 10 photons, and the S/N ratio would be 10:1. If you have 10,000 photons of signal, you’d have 100 photons of noise, for a photonic S/N ratio of 100:1.

All other things being equal, a larger sensor can collect more light (photons) than a smaller one when you use a given shutter speed and aperture combinati
on. So, the image made with the larger sensor will have a better S/N ratio. A better S/N ratio means fine details aren’t lost to noise, nor are steps of dynamic range; that means better image quality.

Of course, things aren’t that simple. Given the same exposure, a full-frame sensor will collect more photons than a smaller sensor, due to its larger area, and produce a better S/N ratio, and better image quality. But to get the same field of view with the full-frame camera, you have to use a lens with a focal length 50% longer than the lens on the APS-C camera.

Using a longer lens reduces depth of field. To get an image with the same field of view and the same depth of field with a full-frame camera as with an APS-C camera, you’d have to use a lens 50% longer and stop down 1.3 stops (to ƒ/12, in this case).

If you stop down and shoot at the same shutter speed, the sensor will receive less light (1/500 sec. at ƒ/8 delivers more light to the sensor than 1/500 sec. at ƒ/12), and the S/N ratio will thus go down, negating much of the larger sensor’s S/N ratio advantage. In order to maintain the same image brightness and the same depth of field, you’d have to shoot at a longer shutter speed with the full-frame camera, which could be a problem when shooting moving subjects or handheld.

The bottom line is, if depth of field isn’t a concern, bigger is better. If you need equivalent depth of field with a given angle of view, you’ll have to stop the lens down with the larger sensor, and either increase the shutter speed to maintain the same image brightness, or increase the ISO setting and suffer the resulting loss of S/N ratio due to the resulting smaller amount of light delivered to the sensor.


Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II (introduced in Fall 2008) was the first full-frame DSLR to do video, and it started a DSLR video revolution as pros began using the Mark II for TV and movie work, as well as still photography. (Nikon’s APS-C D90, introduced just before the 5D Mark II, was the first HDSLR, but was limited to 720 HD.)

Today, all current full-frame DSLRs except the Nikon D3X (also a 2008 model) can do 1080 full HD video. The primary benefits of full-frame DSLRs for video are the narrower depth of field possible with the bigger sensors (which makes possible that film-cinematic selective-focus effect not possible with smaller-sensor camcorders) and better high-ISO image quality. HDSLRs are also compact and relatively inexpensive compared with pro motion cameras.

With Canon’s video DSLRs, you can use contrast or phase-detection AF before you begin shooting, but focus changes during shooting must be done manually.

Nikon’s full-frame video DSLRs offer full-time, contrast-based AF while shooting, but it’s too slow for many action situations. Sony’s SLT-A99, with its unique nonmoving translucent mirror, permits quick continuous phase-detection at all times, for still and video, with eye-level viewing via the built-in OLED electronic viewfinder, which makes it the best bet if you want to do videos of action.

Bear in mind that with all systems, camera noises, including autofocusing, will be picked up by the built-in microphone, so it’s best to use an external mic. All of the full-frame DSLRs have a socket for an external stereo mic. On pro movie shoots, focusing is generally done manually, and manual focusing during shooting can be done with all video-capable DSLRs.


Canon’s lowest-priced, full-frame model, the 20.2-megapixel EOS 6D lists for $2,099, but nonetheless contains a Canon-produced CMOS sensor and DIGIC 5+ processor that yield (according to a tie with the flagship EOS-1D X for best overall image quality of any EOS DSLR. The 6D can shoot full-res images at up to 4.5 fps, and has a normal ISO range of 100-25,600, expandable to 50-102,400.

The 6D features built-in WiFi and GPS. A big pentaprism viewfinder shows 97% of the actual image area, and the 3.0-inch, 1040K-dot LCD monitor provides easy live viewing. While there’s no built-in flash, the 6D provides E-TTL II flash with compatible Canon Speedlites.
Compact for a full-frame DSLR, the 6D measures 5.7×4.4×2.8 inches and weighs 24.0 ounces. It has a single memory-card slot, accepting SD, SDHC and SDXC media, including UHS-I units. Canon states the 6D has "enhanced dust and weather resistance." The shutter is rated at 100,000 cycles.


Nikon’s 24.3-megapixel D600 features EXPEED 3 processing and the third best overall score of any camera on’s sensor ratings (trailing only Nikon’s 36.3-megapixel D800E and D800). It can shoot full-res images at up to 5.5 fps, and has a normal ISO range of 100-6400, expandable to 50-25,600.

The big pentaprism viewfinder shows 100% of the actual image area, and is complemented by a 3.2-inch, 921K-dot LCD monitor. The built-in flash provides i-TTL flash control, as do compatible optional external Speedlight flash units. The camera offers GPS and WiFi via optional accessories.

Dimensions are a compact 5.6×4.4×3.2 inches and 26.8 ounces. Dual memory-card slots accept SD/SDHC/SDXC media, plus UHS-I compliance. The D600 features extensive weather-sealing, providing dust and moisture protection equivalent to that of the D800/D800E cameras. The shutter is rated at 150,000 cycles.


Sony’s 24.3-megapixel SLT-A99 brings the benefits of the company’s Translucent Mirror Technology (TMT) to the full-frame format. Instead of the complex moving-mirror system used on other DSLRs, Sony’s SLT cameras use a translucent fixed mirror that transmits light to both image sensor and phase-detection AF sensor simultaneously. So, there’s no mirror vibration, and you get full-time, phase-detection continuous AF in Live View and Movie modes. Additionally, SteadyShot provides image stabilization with any lens. hasn’t tested the A99’s sensor as of this writing, but it’s similar to the one in Nikon’s D600, so results should be comparable, perhaps a bit lower due to the light lost to the TMT mirror. The A99 can shoot full-res images at 6 fps with continuous AF and 10-megapixel APS-C images at 7 fps (8-10 fps in Tele Zoom Continuous Advance Priority mode). Normal ISO range is 100-12,800, expandable to 50-25,600. With the TMT system, the Sony SLT-A99 has an OLED Tru-Finder instead of a typical DSLR optical viewfinder; that’s the same unit used in the SLT-A77—a really good one that permits eye-level viewing for video, as well as still shooting. A 3.0-inch, 1229K-dot LCD monitor tilts in almost any direction for easy odd-angle shooting.

The rugged, compact body (5.6×4.4×3.1 inches, 25.8 ounces) is sealed against dust and moisture (although the manual says not to use the camera in the rain). The shutter is rated at 200,000 cycles. You can use SD/SDHC/SDXC and Sony Memory Stick PRO/PRO-HG Duo media.


So, you want the benefits of full-frame, but you don’t want to lug around a big DSLR? Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 is a "pocket" camera with the same 24.3-megapixel, full-frame sensor that’s in the SLT-A99 (and the same $2,799 list price), yet it measures just 4.5×2.6×2.7 inches and weighs only 16 ounces, definitely the smallest full-frame
digital camera.

It can shoot full-resolution images at 5 fps (2.5 fps with AFS), JPEG or 14-bit RAW, and saves them on Memory Stick PRO Duo or SD/SDHC/SDXC media. Despite the tiny body, there’s a 3.0-inch, 1229K-dot LCD monitor and a built-in flash unit. A mode dial, an exposure-compensation dial and a focus-mode dial make setting those items straightforward, quick and simple.

The built-in Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm ƒ/2 lens focuses from 9.4 inches to infinity in normal mode and 5.5 to 11.4 inches in macro mode. Normal ISO range is 100-25,600 (expandable down to 50 and with Multi-Shot NR up to 102,400). The RX1 can do 1080 full HD video at 60p, 60i and 24p with stereo sound via a built-in or an optional external microphone.

A Multi-Interface Shoe atop the camera accepts an optional, more powerful external flash or eye-level EVF. Sweep Panorama, Auto HDR, SteadyShot image stabilization and a digital level gauge add versatility.

One thought on “Is It Time To Go Full-Frame?

  1. As a user of cameras over the past 50 years, I am unlikely to be reverting back to FF, due to their weight, the unlikelihood of me ever printing a photograph above A4 in size and last but by no means least, the monumental cost of a completely different range of lenses which do exactly the same thing as the m4/3rds lenses I already have. Having said that, I do use a couple of my ‘old’ FF lenses telephoto lenses longer than 400mm via adaptors on my Olympus, rather than ‘waste’ money on their 4/3rds equivalents.

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