“Full frame”. Does this saying baffle you? Do you pretend to know what it is because you’re afraid no one will take you seriously if you say, “well um…I don’t know exactly what that means”? Or maybe you do have a clue but could just use a refresher. Honestly, it has only just recently made full sense to me and I’m going to explain it in simple terms and not allow this to get too technical. So please excuse the baby talk, but I desperately wish someone had been this plain with me. I may have had a clue a bit sooner.
Full frame sensor vs. cropped sensor
Ok so…you probably have a DSLR camera, right? If you have a full frame, you’ll know it. You don’t have to wonder if you have one because you don’t accidentally end up with a full frame camera unless you didn’t happen to notice the extra $1k added onto the price. Examples of full frame cameras are the Canon 5D cameras or Nikon D700. Among others, of course. If you don’t have a full frame, what you have is a cropped sensor camera.
In film photography, a 35mm camera records an image that’s approximately 35mm in width. When they were inventing digital cameras, the technology wasn’t yet there to create a digital sensor that could record that size image and what they did come up with was so expensive that no one would afford it. What they ended up with was a sensor that recorded a 15mm wide image. So just going on that number, you can understand that half of the image is cropped out on a ‘cropped sensor’ camera. Like this –>
Now, funny as it seems, it was only 9 years ago that a camera manufacturer (Canon) even produced a DSLR camera with a ‘full frame’ sensor (‘full frame’ meaning equivalent to 35mm film). It was Canon’s marketing ploy to call the 35mm equivalent digital camera ‘full frame’ and the others ‘crop sensor’. This was to make those without a ‘full frame’ camera feel that they only had half a camera. And doesn’t it feel that way? You may see comparison images below and feel that you’re missing out. But you’re not at all…you just have to know what lens to put on your ‘cropped sensor’ camera to get the field of view that you’re looking for. So just to clarify…the more politically correct term for the full frame camera is ’35mm equivalent camera’. But whatever you call it, remember…you don’t have half a camera just because yours isn’t ‘full frame’.
So anyway…the results of using a cropped sensor camera are sort of like cropping a photo before it’s even taken. I was told this before, but didn’t understand what that meant until taking my first photo with a full frame camera. Below, you’ll see examples that show what you see when you look through cropped sensor and full frame cameras…
See what I mean? When you have a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor camera, you’re not actually seeing the full potential of the 50mm lens. Now bear in mind that no matter what, the focal length (50mm) remains the same no matter what camera you have it on. The difference you see above is the field of view. Which is totally fine because you’ll come to know your lens how it is on your camera and neither type camera is superior in this sense. If you have a cropped sensor camera and you want to see through your lens as in the second example above, go for a 35mm lens.
Below is an example of two more images, but this time it’s to show you the quality of a jpg photo taken in full auto mode on a 7D vs 5D. I didn’t realize until trying the full frame that the images coming from my 7D were flat and lacking in contrast and ‘pop factor’. Which can easily be tackled in Lightroom or Photoshop with just a click or two. But on the other hand, the results from the 7D are still sharp yet soft and smooth. Which can be a desirable trait. Just depends on your preference of course!
A myth to unravel…
There are always urban legends surrounding seemingly superior pieces of equipment like the almighty full frame camera. Most commonly is that of DOF (depth of field). People rave about how the DOF is ‘sooo much better on a full frame camera, dahling’. By ‘better’ I mean that you can supposedly get smoother bokeh (background blur) with a full frame camera. But I think you’ll notice in the above example images that the background has pretty much the same amount of smooth blur in both images. But for the techies out there, here are a few stats I found here:
- Using the same lens on a crop sensor camera and a full frame body, the crop sensor camera image has 1.6x LESS depth of field than the 35mm image would have (but they would be different images of course since the field of view would be different).
- If you use the same lens on crop sensor camera and a full frame body and crop the full frame image to give the same view as the crop sensor camera’s image, the depth of field is IDENTICAL
- If you use the same lens on a crop sensor camera and a 35mm full frame body, then shoot from different distances so that the view is the same, the crop sensor camera image will have 1.6x MORE DOF then the full frame image. (which means that the background will be 1.6% more in focus and less blurry which isn’t really desirable when you WANT the best bokeh you can get).
So you can see, it’s not just the sensor that determines the amount of blur you can achieve. It also has to do with your lens, your method and of course the other factors you have to be aware of when trying to achieve luscious bokeh.
…never buy a piece of equipment just because it seems like the logical next step. I mean…how many failed marriages have started this way? Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior because you don’t have a (to be politically correct) ’35mm equivalent camera’. I have a full frame and I adore it. I just might be falling in love with it entirely. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t value a beautiful piece of cropped sensor equipment because I so totally do. Get to know what you have, upgrade as-and-when and just master the art of photography no matter what you’re using.