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Are the Extra Dollars Worth the Upgrade to the Full Frame Sensor?

Most professional photographers work with full frame cameras. No surprise here, it is known to yield the best image quality. That said, the latest APS-C size sensors have improved drastically lately. The Sony A6000 and the Nikon D7200 and the D5300 are the proof that this sensor size can be excellent (for the most camera geeks of you, you will have noticed that these 3 have the same 24.3MP Sony sensor but Nikon has its own way of working with it).

nikon-1-micro-four-thirds-aps-c-full-frame-sensor-size-comparison

This test here is showing how close it can be. The gap seems to get smaller and smaller lately, so is it worth upgrading your gear to have a full frame sensor knowing a full frame camera and all the lenses are significantly more expensive? There are many criteria to take into account.

Investing into a camera system can be very costly. The body itself is expensive but the lenses are the most expensive purchases. Fortunately, the lenses can last for decades if well maintained and treated. They also lose less value over time then the camera body. But even if we can change the camera body relatively more easily, the system we invest in determines the lenses you will buy.

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Questions: Is it worth investing in a full frame sensor nowadays knowing the APS-C size (and even the micro 4/3rd sensors to a lower extent) have a great image quality, most of the time similar?What criteria are to take into account?

Size and Crop Factor

First and foremost, we need to understand the technical differences from the Full Frame sensor (35x23mm) and the APS-C sensor (23.6×15.7mm). For your information, a micro 4/3rd is 17.3x13mm and has a crop factor of 2. As you can notice, the full frame format is based on the 35mm film cameras. It is the size of reference. For Nikon shooters, the full frame format is called FX and the APS-C format is called DX. There is a larger sensor called medium format but its size and price make it hardly affordable for non-professional photographers. Hasselblad will be the main manufacturer for this kind of large sensor. The APS-C size sensor has thus a crop factor of x1.5 (1.6 for Canon sensors as they’re slightly smaller). That means that a 50mm lens on a FF camera will end up being equivalent to a 75mm lens on a APS-C camera. 100mm on a micro 4/3rd.

Sensor sizes - iLHPCrop factor APS-C vs Full Frame sensors 4-iLHP

As you can see above, it will change drastically your field of view. If you want the same field of view of a full frame 50mm, you will need a 33mm on an APS-C sensor. This can be an advantage if you want an extra reach to far subjects. A 200mm lens being equivalent to a 300mm lens on the APS-C camera.

APS-C vs Full Frame explained- iLHP

This size sensor difference implies a lot of technical differences in the built and rendering of the final camera and photographs.

Overall Size and Weight
5DIII vs Canon 100D size comparison - iLHP
Like the Sony A7II and the Sony NEX-5T a little above in the article, the Canon 5DIII (high end full frame) and the Canon 100D (entry level APS-C DSLR) have very different sizes. So do their lenses.

You can now understand that the sensor size determines the size of the lenses. Of course the camera body can be smaller but so can be the lenses which can sometimes be determining when you have to choose your camera system. That’s one of the criteria to take into account.

Some examples of camera bodies:

That being said, even among full frame cameras, the size can differ a lot like in the pictures below! However, because of optical physics, the sensor determines the size of the lens, not the size of the camera body. Even if the cameras below have different sizes, the lenses will be about the same.

But an APS-C camera can also sometimes be the size of a full frame camera like the Canon 7DII and the Canon 5DIII or the Nikon D7200 will almost be as big as a Nikon D610. That is because APS-C sensor can be good enough for professional work. The manual controls must then be similar (full frame bodies are always considered pro or semi-pro cameras). But again, the size of their lenses will differ if you use optimized lenses for APS-C sensors: lighter and smaller.

Canon 7DII vs Canon 5DIII - iLHP

Taking into account that the sensor determines the size of the lenses and not entirely the size of the body, your APS-C equipment will be considerably lighter and smaller. If this is one of the criteria that you consider the most, then the APS-C format will probably suit you better. Unfortunately, there are other criteria that can affect your choice.

Depth of Field and the F stop Marketing Lie
Depth of field comparison with APS-C vs Full frame sensors Nikon D600 vs Nikon D5200 - iLHP
We can see here that the depth of field is smaller for the D600 and more blurry in the out-of-focus area.

Size does matter when it comes to the image rendering! Indeed, the sensor size impacts the image with 2 main aspects. The depth of field and the ISO performance. Let’s first talk about the depth of field and the bokeh. The sensor being smaller, you will also have to multiply the f number by its crop factor. As a consequence, the depth of field will be wider and you will get less blur in out-of-focus areas. A 50mm f/1.8 will actually be equivalent to a 75mm f/2.8. But what the manufacturers do not tell you is that when they sell a 35mm (equivalent to 52.5mm on a full frame) lens at f/1.8, it is actually the equivalent to an f/2.8. And if the aperture is an f/2.8 it will be the equivalent to f/4 on a full frame sensor. That’s the marketing lie lens manufacturers never tell.

bokeh FF vs aps-c - iLHP
Bokeh comparison. The difference is undeniable.

The f number is a commercial argument but false on APS-C and micro-4/3rd lenses. Like you can see on the picture above. The bokeh (out-of-focus areas) is smoother and more “creamy” on full frame sensor with the same lens thanks to a shallower depth of field on the full frame sensor. So that is one of the reasons why pros love full frame cameras: Shallow depth of field making your subject stand out even more.

Here’s an article on how to try to get the full frame look with a micro 4/3rd.

Thus, considering the f number is higher on the APS-C lens, less light is captured by the sensor since the aperture is smaller. That leads us to the ISO performance.

Pixel Count and ISO Performance
DxO Lab comparison APS-C vs Full Frame - iLHP
The 2 first ones are APS-C cameras. The last one is a Full Frame. There’s quite a difference! Especially in the ISO performance range.

2 things have to be taken into account here. The smaller aperture and the pixel count. As you now know, the sensor catches less light with a smaller aperture. The shutter speed has to be longer or the ISO higher ( Full frames being more efficient with wider aperture, they also have faster shutter speed, up to 1/8000 of a second compared to 1/4000 for APS-C sensors). It is easy to have long exposures on a tripod but it is quickly limited when you shoot handheld. You will then have to push your ISOs. That is one element that “small” sensors have improved a lot during these past 2 years. Some of the best ones, like the Nikon D7200, D5500 or Sony A6000 have very good performances. They have shorten the gap. But where they mostly show their limits around ISO 1600, or 3200 for the best ones, the full frames still have decent images at 6400 or even 12800.

DxO Lab comparison APS-C vs Full Frame - iLHP
The first one is APS-C, the 2 others are full frames. These tests can also show you how close are some APS-C cameras to the full frame performance. The ISO still is quite low here compared to the 2 others.

For low light beasts like the Canon 1D or the Sony A7s, ISO 25600 or even 52000 can still produce usable images after noise reduction in LightRoom for instance. The amount of noise is then better handled with full frames. That is also due to the pixels being smaller. The signal they get when the light hits the sensor is not as clear. The 24.3mp sensor from the Nikon D610 or from the Sony A7II necessarily has bigger pixels than the 24.3mp sensor on the Nikon D5300, D7200 or the Sony A6000. this helps having better results. So in the end you can actually have a higher shutter speed and a better noise control with a full frame sensor. That is mostly for those who shoot in low light conditions and only with natural light. I’ll come later to talk about the kind of photography where the switch is not necessary.

Canon 5dIII_vs_7d_images ISO comparison - iLHP

As for the dynamic range, the full frame sensors are better with some incredible capabilities allowing you to do HD pictures with only one shot (if shot in raw mode)! However, as you can see with the latest Nikon D7200, it has the same performance as the best full frame cameras like the D810 and the Sony A7r which is amazing! So if you already have one of the latest APS-C sensor, this criteria might not be relevant for a switch.

Price Tags!

Price comparison Sony Nikon Canon Full Frame APS-C- iLHP

As I said earlier, upgrading to a full frame camera is very expensive. The body can be twice as expensive, and the lenses as well. This spreadsheet says it all. There are too many type of lenses to make an accurate price comparison here but you can make your own comparison with the lenses you like/want.

What Kind of Photography is Worth the Move?

It mostly depends on your style, but something is for sure, if you like shallow depth of fields and smooth bokeh, the upgrade can be interesting. Same thing if you like/need to shoot in low light conditions. If you are in both conditions and that your wallet allows you to go for a full frame system, then I would say go for it!

iLHP

Fields of photography worth the move:

  • Wedding (for low light and depth of field),
  • Portraits in general and street photography (mostly for depth of field);
  • Wildlife (for low light. however having a small sensor will be easier to carry around your equipment and the extra reach easier to have. It’s up to you to know if you value the weight and bulk over the image quality)
  • Action/sport (only for low light conditions)
  • Astro-photography ( it’ll allow you to have longer exposure without blurring the stars and of course you need an extremely good low light capability)
  • Concerts ( it is worth it in low light conditions again. If the spot lights are good enough then I don’t think it’s worth the price)
  • Macro photography ( most will say it’s better with a small sensor however a full frame can help you do some handheld shots and as light is always a problem in macro, this will help you too.)

Fields of photography that are not worth the move:

  • Landscape/ cityscape (no matter what, you will need a tripod if you want descent pictures at night or even during daylight if you want to blur the clouds, and you certainly want to have everything in focus. So the image quality with the latest sensors will pretty much be the same. Especially as the dynamic range is now similar with the latest sensors)
  • Architecture (Same thing as landscape/cityscape photography)
  • Macro (the depth of field can help some photographers. It is not my opinion but it is a question of style here.)
  • Food photography (it is usually done in good light situation, and close enough to be able to blur the background)
  • Travel photography ( It’s better to be discreet, and not to carry a lot of weight with you. The depth of field can be secondary. The low light performance is important but I would advise to carry a tripod instead that can help you in many ways (tips for travel photography))
  • Action/Sport (if you shoot only in good light conditions)

    What's in my camera bag Sony A7II - iLHP
    Sony A7II (full frame) body and Sony Nex-5T (APS-C). The lenses are only full frame lenses here.

The size of your wallet, and the type of photography you practice will probably determine, whether the upgrade is worth spending so much money or not. Your photography field and style is something not to neglect either.

My experience as a macro and nature photographer ( I made the move a few months ago from APS-C to full frame) is that it was worth the upgrade. However, the size and weight of the body and especially the lenses is also really to consider. It has changed considerably my back-pack. The image quality, bokeh (creamy and neat back-grounds) and the noise control and dynamic range makes me enjoy this upgrade.


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