Why a full frame camera?

The market of digital cameras is full of different models. In the case of full frame dSLRs just seven choices share the 90% percent of full frame dSLRs market.

So why a full frame camera? What is the difference?

The basic difference is the lenses. The market share of cameras with full frame sensors is dominated by only two companies Canon and Nikon. Usually Canon has slightly bigger share. What makes them so successful is not the bodies of their dSLR cameras but their lenses. Quality photographic lenses unlike the cameras are very tough to be made. They don’t have the rapid electronic progress of the main electronic equipments. They are more mechanical equipments than electronic ones. For example a five year old dSLR is obsolete and can be bought new at a bargain price. A five year old lens for full frame cameras won’t loose its value easily after five years. In the case of prime lenses the technological depreciation is extremely slow.  Lenses force the dSLR users on a specific brand of a camera. The SLR camera manufacturers since the age of film avoided a common mount and common auto focus control of lenses. A Canon user who wants full control of the lens is obliged to use a canon compatible lens. The same with the Nikon users. A lens made 10 years ago is compatible with a new dSLR of the same brand. That is good and a quality lense is a real investment. It doesn’t loose it usefulness even after 20 years.

Most lenses from Canon and Nikon are made for full frame cameras. Why?

Most high quality Lenses are fully compatible with full frame cameras. Nearly all casual photographers without full frame dSLRs are satisfied with their mediocre Kit Lenses. In really the default kit lense is good for the majority of shots. Full frame dSLRs users are willing to pay more for the quality and variety of  lenses designed for full frame cameras. That have placed Canon and Nikon at the top of the photography industry. The other competitors can’t beat them due to their superiority and variety in lenses.

A full frame lens is not fully compatible in a non Full frame dSLR with crop sized APS sensor. That is a bad choice. The lens behaves with lower sharpness, apperture, brightness and different focal length. A lens for full frame cameras is named EF by Canon and AF-S by Nikon.

A Lens for crop sized image sensor APS dSLRs is named EF-S by Canon and AF-S DX in Nikon. An EF-S lens is not compatible with full frame Canon camera body. An AF-S DX lens is compatible to a Nikon full frame body with vignetting. It is an important feature of Nikon dSLR cameras. With Nikon the passage from APS sensor camera to full frame sensor camera is less costly. In general EF-S and AF-S DX lenses are cheaper with inferior quality.

There are three categories of full frame cameras by Canon and Nikon.

  • The cheapest Canon EOS-6D and Nikon D610 for amateurs.
  • The medium sized professional Canon EOS-5Ds and Nikon D810.
  • The big expensive flagships Canon EOS-1D C and Nikon D4S.

Until five year ago a full frame dSLR was only the choice of professionals and rich photographers. Quite resently two affordable models appeared.

 

The Canon 6D is the only full framevcamera with build-in GPS receiver.
The Canon 6D is the only full frame camera with build-in GPS receiver. GPS is a feature that most serious photographers snob. For amateurs travel photographers who want quality photos with embedded GPS tag this camera is s must. That makes Canon 6D a very interesting choice for first time full frame camera users.

The Canon EOS-6D is the best choice for amateurs who want a relatively  affordable full frame camera. The body costs around 1600 euros. It is the cheapest camera which can fully use the EF Canon lenses. Since it is targeted mostly for amateurs it integrates GPS and WiFi. The only negative is the lack of flip screen. Something very popular by amateurs but indifferent by professionals. Please avoid buying it with a kit lens. It doesn’t offer shallow depth of field and the bokeh is hard to appear.

 

The frame Canon 6D is not fully metalic due to GPS receiver.
The frame Canon 6D is not fully metalic due to GPS receiver. The signal of GPS satellites is weak. So the upper body is synthetic. It is a compromise against durability.

The best value for money lens for the Canon EOS-6D is the Canon EF 50mm – f/1.4 USM Lens. It is a normal lens and doesn’t have the unavoidable distortions of wide lenses or telephoto lenses. It has the field of view of a human eye. So photos look natural. It costs around 350 euros. A very good price for an aperture of  f/1.4. One of the things that differentiates an amateur photo from a professional photo is the shallow depth of field that creates bokeh. The f/1.4 aperture and the 50mm focal length is a good combination for bokeh.

The Nikon D610 is a direct upgrade of the problematic D600.
The Nikon D610 is a direct upgrade of the problematic D600. It is slightly cheaper than Canon 6D because it doesn’t have GPS neither WiFI. The main difference from Canon is that is compatible with DX lens for APS Nikon dSLRs.

The next affordable full frame dSLR is the Nikon D610. It is the upgrade model of the Nikon D600. It costs around 1500 euros. It works fine with AF-S lenses. It accepts AF-S DX lenses with vignetting at some focal lenghts. WiFi and GPS are optional with extra paid accessory. It has two SD cards slots. The Canon EOS-D6 has got only one slot. A double flash card slot is a professional feature. It offers redundancy. The photo is written in both cards simultaneously. If one of the two cards fails, there is a back up. Both Canon EOS-D6 and Nikon D610 don’t have flip screens. Nikon has a built in flash. The built in flash is useless. For serious photography an affordable external flash offers better results.

 

Nikon D750 is the only full frame camera from Canon and Nikon with a flip screen.
Nikon D750 is the only full frame camera from Canon and Nikon with a flip screen. The quality of photos is somewhere between D610 and D810. It has build in WiFi unlike the rest of Nikon full frame cameras. If it had GPS built in receiver it would be the most versatile full frame camera in the market.

The Nikon D750 is a full frame camera somewhere between Nikon D810 and Nikon D610. It is the only full frame camera of both Nikon and Canon with flip screen. This is very useful for special shooting positions.

 

The  metallic frame of the Nikon D750 is more robust than that of Canon 6D.
The metallic frame of the Nikon D750 is more robust than that of the Canon 6D.

 

 

The canon 5D series is the most popular full frame camera by professionals.
The canon 5D series is the most popular full frame camera by professionals. It is not big neither heavy. It is not very expensive neither cheap. It the best value for money if you want top and affordable quality.

The Canon 5Ds and the Nikon D810 are the mainstream cameras for professionals and passionate amateurs. They are not very expensive for the quality of photos they shoot.  They cost around 2.500 euros. Both are weather resistant with frame of magnesium alloy. They had great grip and stability.

 

The fully metallic frame of the Canon 5Ds.
The fully metallic frame of the Canon 5Ds.

The 5Ds has bigger buffer for endless shoots. It is great for filmography and is used by pros as a cheaper alternative to Sony professional video cameras. It has by far the most megapixels by any full frame camera.

 

Until the entry of Canon 5Ds the Nikon D810 was the fullframe camera with the most megapixels.
Until the entry of Canon 5Ds the Nikon D810 was the fullframe camera with most megapixels.

 

 

The body of Nikon D810 is very tough like most of dSLRs of its category.
The body of Nikon D810 is very tough like most of dSLRs of its category.

The Nikon D810 is inferior to Canon 5Ds despite being one year older and with a similar price. For those with nikon lenses is the best solution. It focus great and have good ISO. Nothing very special though.

 

In photography big size counts.
Canon EOS-1D C. In photography big size counts. Manufacturers can add more features or increase performance without the fear of adding weight and bulk.

 

Canon EOS-1D C frame.
Canon EOS-1D C frame. It is built like a rock.

The flagships of Canon and Nikon are the Canon EOS-1D C and Nikon D4S. Both arepricey around 12.000 euros. They cost at least three times more than 5Ds and D810. Its huge size provides a camera grip. They are targeted only for professional who don’t care about size, weight and want reliability and quality. Their body is metallic and the toughest of all. Of course they are water resistant, not just weather sealed. Only 15 Megapixels doesn’t mean inferior photo quality. Their quality is the best in dSLRs. Their shutter is tested to work 400.000 times without problems. A typical dSLR can shoot just 100.000  without shutter problems. 

 

The Nikon D4s is the best camera of Nikon.
The Nikon D4s is the best camera of Nikon. Its image sensor is made by Sony.

 

 

The frame of Nikon D4s.
The frame of Nikon D4s.

Both have incredible ISO above the 256.000. The noise is the lowest it can be. 12.000 euros for a camera is two much. I would prefer a Leica which depreciates fat slower in time. 

The Sony a99 is a case theat worths mentioning. It is decent full frame camera with great features. The truth is that it isn’t a popular camera. Sony don’t have a tradition in full frame cameras. However it is a dominant video camera manufacturer and knows about optics. The Sony bought Minolta resently and is the only with SLT technology. 

 

With SLT there is no movable mirror and that creates fewer vibrations. What differentiates an a99 camera is the image stabilization inside the camera. That stabilization permit the uses of old legacy lenses of other manufacturers. If it is combined with the external lens stabilization of a lens the result is the longest possible exposures without tripod. This is great in handheld photography with super telephoto lenses or with handheld low light photography. Is the camera of choice for paparazzi photo journalist because they use super telephoto lenses and a tripod is not an option. 

 

The frame of Sony a99 is made from magnesium alloy like most of full frame dSLRs.
The frame of Sony a99 is made from magnesium alloy like most of full frame dSLRs.


Digital image sensor size in cameras. Does it matter?

Even if it is a crucial thing for the quality of photos, most ordinary photographers are ignorant of the image sensor size they use.    

Image sensor size is the most important factor of the camera’s cost. Manufacturers tend to conceal it and focus their marketing on other specifications. In the case of small cameras doesn’t even exist on their manuals and brochures. Consumer compare megapixel, body size, weight, optical zoom, connectivity and forget the most important which is the image sensor’s size.   

 

Image sensor wafer
Image sensor wafer are pieces of high technology. The purity of the silicon and the precission of transistors is awesome. If you notice the wafer edges a lot of space is lost due to larger image sensors.
 Image sensors are cut from a big silicon disk called wafer. Silicon wafers are expensive. VERY EXPENSIVE. Usually only one in three wafers is pure enough to make sensors. A wafer can be cut in more smaller sensors than big ones. Since the wafer is circular bigger rectangular sensors create more waste space at the disk edges than smaller ones. So a small image sensor is by far more cheap than a bigger one and more profitable.   Big sensors shouldn’t be related with more megapixels. Actually what counts more is the size of every individual pixel than the total amount of them. A bigger pixel receives more light than a smaller one. More light reduce the need of higher sensitivity ISO. Low ISO produce lower image noise and sharper images. Image noise is the equivalent of the grain in high ISO films. Big sensors are ideal in low light photography. That’s the reason why  mobile phones no matter how expensive they are shot low quality photographs under poor lighting. It is impossible to insert a large sensor in such a slim device.  

 

Lenses for full frame cameras are typically larger.
Lenses for full frame cameras are typically larger. That piece of art is a canon EF lense with aperture 1.2. It is perfect for shallow depth of field. It is heavy, big and expensive around 2.000 dollars.
 Big image sensors require bigger lenses in diameter. The bigger the elements of a lens the more expensive they are. That doesn’t have to do with the cost of the material like in the silicon wafers case. When an element of a lense is big requires more time and effort to be perfectly polished and multi layered than a smaller one. Imperfections are more visible, like barrel distortion, chromatic aberration, sharpness, flaring, clarity etc. Larger lenses are exponentially more expensive from small ones of the same materials and technology. For example full frame cameras have bigge lenses in diameter than crop sized compact cameras.  

Under normal conditions the difference between small or bigger sensors is negligible. Outdoor daylight photography without shadows, or well lighted indoor photography doesn’t demand big sensors. 

The iPhone during daylight produces resespectable photos.
The iPhone during daylight produces resespectable photos.
An iPhone can shot decent but boring photographs under ideal lighting. Impressive photographs are under special lighting.  Sunset or sunrise, blue hour, artificial lighting in sports et are very demanding. A bigger sensor offers creativity to the photographer.   

The bigger sensors have better dynamic range. Dynamic range is the difference of the amount of light the sensor receives from the brightest and darkest areas. 

The iPhone during daylight produces resespectable photos.
The upper photo has low dynamic range and the shadows vanishes everything. The lower photo has high dynamic range. Shadows and hilights are properly exposed. Difficult dynamic range of a photo can be post processed with the cost of extra noise sometimes.
A classic example is photos during sunny middays. The shadowy and the bright areas can’t be captured equally well. In this case there is a large dynamic range of light. During a cloudy day there aren’t any shadows and the dynamic range is small. The large pixels of a large sensor copes with this problem better. 

 

Canon 5D is one of the most popular full frame cameras.
Canon 5D is one of the most popular full frame cameras. It is not cheap around 2.500 dollars but it can be purchased by both professionals and enthousiastic amateurs. Its low noise at very high ISO is legendary.
The size of a digital image sensor varies a lot. However for compability reasons with legacy lenses of the film era the main sensor is the full frame one. The full frame sensor has the same size of a 35mm film, 36mm length X 24mm width. Its aspect radio is 3:2. The aspect radio of 3:2 is considered the standar in photography. The 35mm film is named from the width of the perforated film gauge. 24mm width + 11mm holes = 35mm.  The full frame sensor is considered big today. However the 35mm film was also known as small format film for amateur in comparison to professional medium format and large format films of the film era.  The compatible lenses for full frame digital cameras are named EF by Canon and AF-S by Nikon.  

 

Canon 7D is the most succesfull dSLR camera.
Canon 7D is the most succesfull APS format dSLR camera.
The APS-C sensor size derives from the APS film. Advanced Photo System type Classic was introduced in 1996 a few years before the expansion of digital cameras. Its classic type size was 25.1mm × 16.7mm. It had a magnetic coating that could store informations like shutter speed, aperture size, aspect ratio etc. It was created to be more practical but not better than 35mm film. It was short lived. By 2002 the compact digital cameras were cheap enough to replace APS film cameras but not 35mm cameras yet. First mass produced digital SLR cameras appeared the early 2000. They were not affordable by anyone at the begging. Despite being compatible with 35mm lenses, they didn’t have full frame sensors. That came later. The size of the first dSLR sensors was  similar to the APS-C. Even nowadays most dDSLRs have APS-C sensors because they are easier to be mass produced and offer good quality. Also most lenses are constructed for APS-C sized  sensors. Canon name them EF-S and Nikon AF-S DX.   

 

The swidish Hasselbald is one of the few medium format digital cameras.
The swidish Hasselbald is one of the few medium format digital cameras.It was as mych as a car with its default lens. For an extra lens the cost is increadibly hight.
Every digital sensor bigger than full format (35mm) is named medium format. Medium format films were the choice of professionals. The 35mm film was inferior but cheap and good enough for amateurs. Medium format digital cameras are still very expensive. They have the same price of a car. Their quality is second to none. They offer by far more megapixels without reducing the size of pixels. Their Dynamic Range is perfect as their sharpness and light sensitivity. Additionally these lenses are not mass produced. That makes  them very expensive. It’s a niche market. The dominant Canon and Nikon brands haven’t ever created a medium format digital camera. The both very prestigious and historical German Leica and Danish Hasselbald offer medium format digital cameras. These are cameras for the very successful professional photographers or the uber rich amateurs.   

 

Olympus and Panasonic opened the road to mirroless cameras.
Olympus and Panasonic opened the road to mirroless cameras. However Sony proved to be more versatile in the mirrorless sector with the APS-C sensors, the full format sensor of the cheapest full format A7 camera and numerous lenses for the E Mount format.
Micro Four-thirds sensor size doesn’t derive from a film size but from the 4/3 inch diameter of the common video camera tube. The standard aspect ratio of glass TV sets was 4:3. A Micro four third sensor has 17.3mm length and 13mm width. It is inferior than the previous sensor sizes. However the recent advances in low noise ISO and dynamic range have created four-thirds sensors with equal quality of a five year old APS-C sensor. The first mirrorless digital cameras in 2008 had a micro four-thirds sensor. Most mirrorless cameras still have micro four-thirds sensor. It is the only decent solution in high quality small cameras with reasonable price. It saved brands like Olympus, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Samsung that couldn’t compete with Nikon and Canon at the dSLR sector.   

 

The sony DSC-RX100 is the most popular premium conpact digital canera.
The sony DSC-RX100 is the most popular premium conpact digital canera. It is truly small with acdecent one inch sencor. Despite being compact with fixed lens it offers good photos under low lighting.
1″ sensor is a the more recent popular sensor size. The size of one inch sensor is 13.2mm length X 8.8mm. Nikon names it CX format and puts it in his mirroless cameras. Sony uses it in his premium compact and super zoom cameras like the series of compact Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 and super zoom Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10. The one inch sensor is the smallest size for serious photography. Mobile phone after 2007 with first iPhone had gradually elbowed the digital compact cameras with tiny sensors. The 1″ inch sensor is big enough for quality photos and small enough to be inserted into small compact or mirrorless camera. It has reopen the gap between mobile phones and very small digital cameras.   

 

The Nokia Lumia 1020 is the king of the mobile phone photographic cameras.
The Nokia Lumia 1020 is the king of the mobile phone photographic cameras. Its sensor size is so big 2/3″ 8.8mm X 6.6mm that exceeds the main body of the camera. The sensor’s size is proper more for a compact camera. Also the 41 megapixel it delivered in 2013 is something we won’t see again for many years by another mobile phone. Unfortunatetly the poor operating system of Windows mobile diched such a wonderfull effort from Nokia. The phone wasn’t able to save Nokia from defaulting. The initial price of Nokia Lumia 1020 was 800 dollars, a year later it was sold for 350 dollars. The phone was a flop. However the trend for cameras exceeding the main body is followed by others. Something not so obvious with the canera had been mimicked by iPhone 6.
Smaller sensors are measured in fractions of the inch. For example the legendary Nokia Lumia 1020 mobile phone has a 2/3″  8.8mm X 6.6mm image sensor with the amazing 41.3 megapixel. The iPhone 5 with its decent camera has a 1/3.2″ 4.54mm X 3.42mm sensor. The iPhone 6 plus with its electronically stabilized lens has a 1/3″ 4.8mm X 3.6mm image sensor.   

Crop factor is relative to size of an image sensor. Crop factor or Focal Length Multiplier FLM is the ratio of the diagonal length of  a full frame image sensor  to the diagonal length of the actual image sensor. The typical diagonal length of image sensors are: Full Frame 43.2mm, APS-C 30.1mm and Micro 4/3 21.6mm. For example if the camera has a full frame lens its crop factor is (43.2/43.2=1) 1. If the camera has an APS-C sensor  then the ratio is (43.2/30.1=1.43) 1.4 crop factor. If the camera has a micro 4/3 sensors then the ratio is (43.2/21.6=2) 2 crop factor. That ratio in practice affects the field of view of the lens. In simple words a 100mm lens of a full frame (crop factor 1) camera when is put on a APS-C (crop factor 1.43) camera acts like a (100 X 1.43 = 143) 143mm lens. On a micro four thirds camera (crop factor 2) it acts like a (100 X 2 = 200) 200 mm lens. The smaller the sensor the more powerful a telephoto lens is. Super zoom compact cameras have small image sensors in order to avoid lengthy lenses.                                              

 Sources:  

https://web.archive.org/web/20150518060022/http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/2012/11/21/full-frame-sensor-size-explained-how-to-exploit-its-advantages-and-cool-effects/  

http://web.archive.org/web/20150518094229/http://www.gizmag.com/camera-sensor-size-guide/26684/