Just as mirrorless is now the dominant camera type, full frame is now the dominant sensor size. It wasn’t too long ago when full-frame cameras were seen strictly as tools for professional and high-end photo applications due to their expense and the associated feature sets that were part of the complete full-frame camera system. Over the last few years, however, full-frame options have begun to trickle down to the middle tier of interchangeable-lens camera development, with some instances placing entry-level full-frame cameras right alongside APS-C or Micro Four Thirds in terms of price and feature sets.
Why Full Frame?
But what, really, is “full frame” and what does it do for you? Why is it a big deal to “have a full-frame sensor in an entry-level body?” The short answer is a full-frame sensor is larger than the other two most common sensor formats available: APS-C and Micro Four Thirds. Full-frame sensors measure roughly the same size as a 35mm film image, which is ~24 x 36mm. Compared to the ~15.6 x 23.6mm sensor size of APS-C or the 13 x 17.3mm sensor size of Micro Four Thirds, the greater area of full frame leads to improved image quality, low-light performance, and, perhaps most overlooked, more versatile lens selection. Each of these points is somewhat contentious and it’s true that APS-C and Micro Four Thirds are still formats with a lot of life left in them, but relatively speaking, full frame is the format that is receiving the most attention right now, which subsequently means it’s also the format that’s likely receiving the most research and development from manufacturers. The major camera brands are pushing each other to make cameras smaller, faster, and more attainable, and lens manufacturers are trying to keep up with the pace to design smaller and better lenses for new full-frame and mirrorless systems.
It’s also worth mentioning that just as full-frame cameras have grown in popularity, so have medium format cameras. And it could stand to reason that, just as full-frame cameras were once seen to be out of reach and niche and are now seen as “normal,” wouldn’t medium format be the next to take center stage? Well, no. Or at least I don’t think so. There’s a proverbial asterisk with medium format that’s been there since the film years, and that is size and weight. APS-C and full frame were designed around a similar vague idea of form factor, a somewhat nebulous idea of roughly how big and how heavy is acceptable for a camera body and lens. Even though it’s been several decades since the introduction of the SLR and wide availability of interchangeable lens cameras for all, the size, shape, and weight of these cameras have changed surprisingly little. There’s always room to make a camera smaller and lighter, but if you look at a Nikon F and a current Sony a7 III, you’ll probably immediately see more similarities than differences. And the same carries over to medium format. Just as in the film era, medium format cameras were never known as walkaround, take-everywhere cameras because of their size and weight. Beyond just sensor size, the medium format accoutrements contribute to a form factor that is just too much for most. Full frame, while viewed as a step up from APS-C and Micro Four Thirds, is still a compromise between the large and the small, which is another reason it’s so well regarded.
Beyond the general notion of full-frame cameras becoming smaller, lighter, and more affordable, the ethos of full frame was split into the sports/speed and the resolution camps, which approximate the two dominant realms of professional photography. You have your working shooters who are photographing action, sports, events, weddings, and so on, who require image quality and efficiency, and then you have your portrait, studio, and landscape shooters, who will give up speed for image quality. Where does that leave the rest of us? Vloggers? Travel shooters/tourists? Admittedly, the two-prong approach can encompass most needs, but it’s not as graceful a solution as making more versatile, nonspecialized cameras in more purpose-built, lighter-weight body designs.
I would also add that the rise in popularity of video is also contributing to the rise in popularity of full frame, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Despite that many professional cine cameras are still designed around a smaller-than-full-frame sensor size, the larger sensor size stands to benefit consumers due to its flexibility and forgiveness for working in less than ideal conditions and it’s one route to achieving the highly coveted shallow-depth-of-field effect compared to working with faster lenses.
One other point I mentioned earlier that is often overlooked is that full-frame sensors accommodate more lens versatility right away, compared to smaller and larger sensor sizes. This is due to full frame being the predominant sensor size for a while, as well as due to the history and popularity of 35mm film cameras. Lenses tend to be designed and spoken about in comparison to full frame (the beloved and equally dreaded phrase “35mm equivalent,” for instance). It’s built into a photographer’s head that 50mm lenses = normal, but we fail to recognize that this expression is only applicable when speaking of full-frame/35mm imaging areas. Regardless of the correctness of these assertions, it’s something that is programmed into the industry and is something that feeds the availability and versatility of lenses for full-frame cameras. It’s easier to find a varied selection of wide-angle lenses for full-frame cameras than it is for APS-C just as it’s easier and more practical to work with longer focal length, super telephotos on full frame as compared to larger medium format systems.
As mentioned above, an older strategy for camera manufacturers was to split their full-frame camera development into two strains, say a lower-resolution model with great speed and low-light performance and then a higher-resolution model. This plan is fine for the pros, but doesn’t really address typical users’ needs, and the two cameras are often further spec’d out with the best supporting tech to make it a pricy endeavor even if the sensor specs work for you. More recently, though, an opening of the full-frame gate has occurred, with several prominent manufacturers finally placing a full-frame sensor within a smaller, lighter, and more affordable package.
Canon’s second full-frame mirrorless camera, regardless of tier, was the sleek and capable EOS RP. While this isn’t a camera to win any awards for most innovative tech, it’s a perfect example of the state of full frame today. This camera packs immense value and versatility within its compact design and gives you the oh-so-coveted full-frame sensor at the same time. Looking ahead a bit, Canon also laid the foundation for the future of its mirrorless development, and of most interest might just be the EOS R6. It doesn’t pack the immediate excitement or bells and whistles of the showstopper EOS R5, but it does give you solid, more-than-capable stills and video performance with the most modern focusing and handling technologies.
The launch of Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless platform took the abovementioned two-prong approach, but the company also released a counterpoint to those initial offerings with the Z 5. A bit sleeker and, admittedly, a bit lighter in capabilities, it’s still a camera that offers all the imaging performance most need for travel and everyday shooting.
Also looking to evolve into smaller, lighter-weight ways, Panasonic’s Lumix DC-S5 is, perhaps, the camera that everyone was looking for in the first place. While the initial offerings in the S1 class were well spec’d and perfect for the working shooter, they were known to be heavy and cumbersome despite their mirrorless design. The S5, on the other hand, brings the sleek size that’s welcomed by all, along with a versatile feature set and full-frame sensor.
Always unique when it comes to cameras, the Sigma fp is arguably a full-frame camera for everybody, as well as being a full-frame camera for those with very specific needs. It just depends where you fall on the scale of “everybody.” It's enticing to most due to its pocketable size, and enticing to few due to its cine-oriented feature set and idiosyncratic omission of a mechanical shutter and viewfinder. Any way you look at it, the fp is a polarizing camera, but also one that’s attainable enough to invite everyone to the table to voice their opinion on it.
Additionally, Sigma offers the high-resolution counterpart, the fp L, which has the same quirks as the original fp, but is also one of the most accessible high-resolution full-frame bodies available, with its 61MP sensor.
As one of the forerunners in bringing full frame to the masses, Sony has long championed making larger sensor sizes more accessible and available for a variety of shooters. Its a7-series of cameras had taken the form of a three-channel approach to bringing compact full-frame options to various users, with a video/sensitivity-centered model, a high-resolution model, and an all-arounder model, namely, the Alpha a7 III. Recently, though, Sony apparently realized it could go even smaller and even more affordable with the Alpha a7C. Shedding the viewfinder hump for a rangefinder-styled look, the a7C is poised to be the go-to full-frame camera for walkaround, everyday needs.
What are your thoughts on the state of full frame? Is it the sensor size for everyone? Are you a full-frame shooter? How long have you been using a full-frame camera? Let us know your full-frame thoughts in the Comments section, below.
If today's mirrorless technology were available in 2013, then I might have considered a mirrorless instead of a DSLR. I have been shooting full frame since 1980. With their respective motor driver, my Canon A-1 and F-1N matches the fps of the 5D III, so I the 5D when I went digital.
The 5D (in all of its iterations) is still quite the capable and impressive camera, glad you're still getting good use out of yours.
What is the price?
Thank you for checking out the article. The following is a list of the full frame mirrorless cameras, including some that we feature in the article, along with their current prices. Please note that pricing is always subject to change at any time.
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