Full Frame (in full english)

“I’ve been researching this all day and then saw this…in plain English! I understood all of it. Now I don’t feel inferior because I shoot on a 7D. Thank you, thank you!” -Brianne

“Full frame”. Does this term 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. Please excuse the baby talk, but I desperately wish someone had been this plain with me.

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, 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 (2002) that a camera manufacturer (Canon) produced a DSLR camera with a sensor 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. You just have to know what lens to put on your 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’.

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 similar as in the second example above, go for a 24mm or 35mm lens.

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’. By ‘better’ I mean that you can supposedly get smoother bokeh (background blur) with a full frame camera. 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 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.

In short…

…never buy a piece of equipment just because it seems like the logical next step. Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior because you don’t have a (to be politically correct) ’35mm equivalent camera’. I have one 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 your photography no matter what you’re using.

  • Great post. I just read somewhere online yesterday that you can’t consider yourself a professional unless you have a full frame camera. Well, I don’t. But I had to start somewhere, right? I’m happy with my D90 for now and plan on buying better glass before I upgrade to a full frame…but I do know that I will eventually upgrade. Right now, I’m just having fun learning and growing into a professional!

    Keep the Light & Love in Your Images ~ Gabrielle

  • Interesting article, well done.

    I moved to full frame for the superior noise performance. I think it has to do with the fact that for the same megapixel numbers, the pixels are bigger on a full frame camera. So they heat up less so you get better signal to noise (or something – it’s a while since I did physics…).

    Anyhow I know for sure the noise performance of full frame leaves my old crop sensor cameras in the dust…

    I do miss the crop factor sometimes, when I find my longest tele no longer reaches as far as it used to. Ah well, you can’t have it all.

  • Great information. I feel like sometimes I was missing out on a full frame but I am just not ready to explore that yet. I am still learning so many new things with my camera. It took me forever to stop using my 35mm SLR, because the digital was overwhelming. But now that I have gotten more use to it I love it and one day will upgrade. Thanks again.

  • Thank you for sharing the difference between the full-frame and the cropped sensor. I have a quick question though. It seems to me that if I wanted more background with a cropped sensor camera, I could move back a tad or zoom out to get the look of full-frame. Am I missing something (other than picture quality)? Sorry, I’m still learning this all myself and currently only have a cropped sensor camera (which will probably stay that way for awhile). I’m not putting down the full sensor, I’m not having a hard time seeing via images the big difference between the two.

  • elizabethhalford

    @Christina: well yeah that’s the funny thing…no matter what camera/lens combo you have, you will always have the same pair of legs. You’ll get what you want in the shot no matter what. It’s not like you’ll be standing there with 10 feet of walking space behind you saying “darn if only I had a full frame so I wasn’t cutting mom out of the picture”. The point is just that the field of view for lenses will change on a FF sensor.

  • Janie Pollard

    I found you through The Modern Tog and I’m so glad I did… :)

  • JenC

    Seriously Elizabeth I just love how well you put things.  This made total sense!

  • This article describes where I am at right now “newbie” and it helps so much thanks for this post! 

    One day I will be able to nail bokeh and predict whether or not it’s going to appear in my photos 

  • Shaina Longstreet

    this makes so much sense now!!  you have a way with words and explaining things in plain english.  so glad I found your blog today.  thank you! 

  • The cropped sensor image dimensions are 22.5×15 rather than 15×22.5

  • maibritt

    so will you still get the same amount of distortion from a 24mm lens on a cropped camera as on a full frame? you said that a 50mm would be a 50mm focal length no matter on which camera? 
    I know that it’s said that a 50mm lens would be the perfect portrait lens on a non full frame camera because it will act the same as an 85 mm on a full frame – but that won’t be true if you still get the distortion… just wondering…

  • dini

    awesome post and so helpful! thanks!!

  • I wish I had read this before I bought my 50mm lens. I love the quality but it is always cropped in too close for the places I’m in – where I don’t have the room to step back. I would have gone for a 35mm lens instead. Ah well – lesson learned.

  • I saw a video recently of one of those courtroom tv shows where you get to see someone suing someone for a small claims kind of thing.  A woman was suing her wedding photographer for taking bad photos.  The judge ruled in favor of the woman and one of the facts he used most in making his decision was that the photographer had used a cropped sensor camera.  I thought it was ridiculous.  It made me feel defensive about my Rebel T2i, though secretly wondering if I shouldn’t be calling myself a professional while using it.  But the truth is, I had a 5D.  But it was like 4 years old which meant that the sensor was very old.  I decided to sell it and then used the money to buy a Rebel T2i and the photos are sooooooo much sharper because the sensor is so much newer.  So in my case, the Rebel takes better photos than the 5D.  I agree with you that people shouldn’t judge a photographer so harshly according to what camera they have.  The camera doesn’t make the photographer.  Thanks for your encouraging post!

  • I have that same problem but I have the 85mm.  You have to have a lot of space to work in to use an 85mm on a cropped sensor camera.  For that reason, I’ve been considering getting a 50mm.

  • Cara

    Yes and no… Indoors and in certain tighter outdoor locations I would run out of room with my crop sensor camera, even with my 35 mm lens. I didn’t like to use my wider angle lens (especially for portraits) because of distortion. Now that I’m on a full frame, my 35 mm is plenty wide for most everything I do.

  • Mandi C

    A photographer makes a good image, not the camera…I saw the same show, and honestly she didn’t have a darn clue what she was talking about…couldn’t even tell the judge what f-stop she used. I know a lot of “photographers” that can afford the nicer cameras and still choose to shoot them an auto.  :)

  • Anonymous

    Hello! I don’t think that saying that a 50mm “will act the same” as an 85mm is completely accurate. I think what people mean when they say that is that you see the same amount of scene through the lens as you would see through an 85mm on a full frame body. As far as “acting the same”, the distortion doesn’t change necessarily. What DOES change is where the image is coming from on the lens. Most distortion problems {like barrel distortion} happen on the outer edges of the lens. So if you’re using a cropped sensor camera, you’re literally cropping the outer edge of the image off while taking the picture. If you use that lens on a full frame sensor, you’re going to see the edge-to-edge image and, unfortunately, the distortion too.

  • Marianna

    OMG Thank you Elizabeth, the penny just dropped!  I have a 600D and have never really understood the difference btwn full frame and cropped!  WOW, what a revalation! :-)

    Now given that financially I am pretty much stuck with my cropped baby, can you give any tips on how to adjust my photography  when I am using my 50mm?  Like others have mentioned it’s hard to use in small spaces etc.  Any tips on getting around it? 


  • Marianna

    OMG Thank you Elizabeth, the penny just dropped!  I have a 600D and have never really understood the difference btwn full frame and cropped!  WOW, what a revalation! :-)

    Now given that financially I am pretty much stuck with my cropped baby, can you give any tips on how to adjust my photography  when I am using my 50mm?  Like others have mentioned it’s hard to use in small spaces etc.  Any tips on getting around it? 


  • Brianne

    I’ve been researching this all day and then saw this…in plain English! I understood all of it. I don’t feel inferior because I shoot on a 7D. Thank you, thank you!

  • Maureen

    So field of view is different, but what about compression/distortion due to focal length? Is that purely dictated by the lens of does sensor size factor in?

  • Lisa

    you explain things so well!!!