Looking to Upgrade? Should you go Full Frame for your next D-SLR?
With the advent of full frame D-SLRs a few years ago many pros and amateurs alike were excited to be able to go back to the familiar "35mm" perspective and focal lengths on their lenses. Long limited by technology to APS-C size (about 2/3 the size of 35mm) sensors digital was finally able to go toe to toe with film. But the initial cameras cost nearly $8,000, putting them out of the range of most photographers. But the newest crop of full frame models have brought the costs down to a fraction of that. So should you go back to full frame with your next camera purchase? We'll take a look at some of the models and pros and cons...
Bigger Pixels Can Make Better Photos
The math of full frame is confusing but actually fairly simple. If you put a fixed number of pixels into a sensor, full frame gives you more space for each pixel (technically called a photosite or well). That means it can capture more light (in the form of photons) and do a better job of telling light from the image apart from the electrical noise that runs around in every camera. The result is much better low light performance in the form of better color and lower noise at high ISOs.
As one example, the Nikon D700 (which uses the same full frame sensor as the more expensive D3) can capture images easily at 1-2 stops higher ISO than its sibling the Nikon D300S which uses the smaller "1.5" multiplier DX sensor (also known as APS-C). Practically speaking that means you can use up to four times the shutter speed or get two more stops of depth of field with the full frame version.
For Canon shooters the similar tradeoff is between the prosumer small sensor Canon 7D and the full frame Canon 5D Mark II. This image of a leopard taken after sunset on one of my African Photo Safaris wouldn't have been possible without the full frame sensor in the D3 I was using:
Obviously full frame can be crucial when photographing indoor sports, low light wildlife action often found pre-dawn and post-sunset, and scenics and interiors without a tripod, for example. It is amazingly freeing to know that if needed you can crank your camera ISO up to 3200 or even higher if needed. Of course it's always better to keep your ISO as low as you can for maximum image quality. The Nikon D3S pushes the envelope even further, with another stop of added low light performance over the Nikon D3.
The True Cost of Full Frame
For both Canon and Nikon shooters the first tradeoff for going full frame is the cost of the camera body. The full frame prosumer models with very similar features to their small sensor cousins will cost you nearly $1,000 more. If you've got a tight budget then you're better off sticking with the smaller sensor models. Later we'll talk about the other additional costs you'll incur with full frame.
Of course this means that if you want any type of entry level or "budget" camera you'll be limited to smaller sensor models like the exciting new Nikon D3100 or the Canon 50D. At least that simplfies your choices!
In the Pro line the costs run even higher, with the full frame Nikon D3X costing $7,400 and the Canon 1DS Mark III around $6,200 while the smaller sensor faster versions--the Nikon D3S runs $5200 and the Canon 1D Mark IV is just under $5,000.
The real cost of switching to full frame isn't only in the camera body, but in lenses. Small form factor lenses can be light, small and highly functional. Because they only need to resolve the image on a small sensor they are easier to design and build. The result is easy on your wallet and your back.
As an example, the ultra-popular Nikon 18-200mm DX f/3.5-f/5.6G is a nearly pro quality "one size fits all" lens for DX format Nikons selling for about $750. The minute you shift to full frame you'll need to carry two lenses to replace it. For example the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-f/5.6G and the Nikon 70-300mm f/4-f/5.6--totalling nearly $1200 and of course requiring changing lenses and a larger camera bag.
Nikon is attempting to address this issue with the newly announced Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-f/5.6 super-zoom with VR & AF-S which you can pre-order for $1049. This lens is guaranteed to be an exciting alternative for those of us with at least one full frame camera who really miss the versatility of the 18-200.
Canon shooters already have a full-frame super-zoom option, but it is quite a monster as the Canon 28-300mm f/3.5-f/5.6 USM lens sells for $2,420 and weighs a hefty 3.7 pounds. The Nikon version will weigh under 2 pounds but of course it is too early to judge its performance and image quality.
Telephoto lenses can push the discrepency even further. Moving from a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VR II lens to a 400mm f/2.8 lens to keep the same effective focal length for example will cost you a cool $3,000 additional and a few extra pounds of weight. This Puffin image captured on our Alaska Photo Safari this year was a cinch with a Nikon 200-400mm lens with a 1.4x Teleconverter on my Nikon D300S, but would have required much more lens if I'd been using my D700.
New Sensors, New Lenses
In addition to needing "full frame" friendly lenses its important to realize that many older lens designs that worked just fine with film will vignette (have darker corners) when used with full frame digital cameras. This is because the sensor is more sensitive to the angle of light than film was. Nikon, for example, has updated its legendary 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S VR lens partially to address this issue for their pro users.
Opinions vary on how severe the vignetting is, and it is not too difficult to correct in Photoshop in any case, but if you're in doubt make sure and leave some of your budget for upgrading your existing lenses if you make the jump to full frame.
The Brighter Side of Full Frame
Of course you get some benefit from the lower noise of the full frame sensor so rather than thinking you need to upgrade all your telephoto lenses when you go full frame its reasonable to think of the switch as the same as removing a 1.4x Teleconverter. So the fix is simple--add a teleconverter to your telephoto lenses. I detailed this tradeoff in a blog post explaining the situation when I first started shooting with both full frame and small sensor cameras.
And then there is wide-angle shooting. With the ubiquitous 18-200 you'll only get to an effective focal length of 27mm on the wide end. Even with the nearly essential Nikon 12-24mm DX zoom the widest you can go is an effective 18mm. Shots like this one of Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone that I captured at 12mm with the lovely Sigma 12-24mm zoom (whch I compared with the Nikon 14-24mm last month in my blog on cardinalphoto.com) just aren't possible:
Whether it is wide-angle images like this one or low light action images like the monk below from my Southeast Asian Photo Safari full frame clearly has large advantages. Whether they are worth the extra effort and cost is a decision you'll need to make for yourself. Armed with the information in this post hopefully you can at least make your next D-SLR buying decision with your eyes open!
Perhaps you'll make the same decision I have and start using both formats depending on the project and the subject.
If you're enjoying our posts here on B&H Insights then we welcome you to visit our information website nikondigital.org (also conveniently accessible as canondigital.org, since we cover not just Nikon but also Sigma and Sony and compatible photographic equipment) and our photo and safari website (we offer educational and enjoyable photo safaris to Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, Texas and Alaska), cardinalphoto.com. You can also subscribe directly to our monthly DigitalPro Shooter to keep up with our latest news and analysis.