Do I need a full-frame DSLR?

Camera manufacturers are offering more and more «full frame» sensors. Should the millions of photographers who own DX or APS-C cameras start worrying? Are their cameras suddenly obsolete? The answer is, of course, no.

First we need to remember what makes a so-called «full frame» full. It has nothing to do with digital photography. The phrase is a throwback to the film era, when most serious photographers used 35mm cameras. The image area on the film surface was 24mm x 36mm, which is now being called «full frame». Sensors in the vast majority of DLSRs sold today are smaller in size, and are called DX or APS-C or other acronyms by various camera brands.

Of course, a large sensor can accommodate more and larger pixels. There will always be an advantage to increasing both their size and number. But there are practical limits. Pricing is one, along with camera size, weight and lens coverage.

So how many pixels and what size sensor do I really need?

Truth be told, the smaller DX or APS-C cameras are capable of taking remarkable photographs. They are lighter, smaller, and make your zoom or telephoto lenses about 1,5 times more powerful. And they can use both DX or FX lenses. Cameras with this type of sensors have just as many features and advanced electronics as do the equivalent full frame models. Because the sensor is smaller, lenses are less expensive to manufacture and, in today's market, a chunk of that savings gets passed along to the consumer. And they offer great image quality, with high-end models offering up to 24 megapixels of resolution.

Of course, if you are an experienced photographer from the film days, a «full frame» means that a 50mm lens or any other has the same field of view you are used to. And there is a real advantage to having larger pixels, because they tend to have better response in low light and more dynamic range. In actual shooting conditions, a full sensor will capture a better image, easier to enlarge. But looking at an 11 x 14 inch print from a normal distance, you will probably not notice the least difference. Not a minor point in a day when most photos are shared on screens more than printed.

Larger sensors also have inherently less depth-of-field, so it's easier to isolate a subject by popping it in or out of sharp focus, and using relatively larger apertures makes bokeh easier. However this same characteristic can be a disadvantage when all you really want is to include most or your subjects within sharp focus.

So, in fact, there is no «better» choice. The type of photography you practice, your budget, and the final destination of most of your photos should all influence your choice. Still not sure? The best advice you can get is just around the corner at your Zone Image store.