There are two main camera sensor standards: full frame (or 35mm) and crop sensor (or APS-C). A full frame sensor is about 1.5 times the size of a crop sensor, which changes things a bit. If you’ve just upgraded (or are thinking about upgrading) from a crop sensor camera to a full frame camera, here’s what you need to know.
All Your Shots Will Be Wider
In every article where I mention focal length, I always have to say something like 20mm on a full frame camera or around 35mm on a crop sensor camera. This is because of the crop factor. Although a 20mm lens is still a 20mm lens when it’s on a crop sensor camera, it has the field of view that a 35mm lens would have on a full frame camera.
This difference changes how you use your lenses when you move to a full frame camera. Your 50mm is going to go from a short telephoto that’s equivalent to a 70mm lens and perfect for headshots to a normal lens that’s better for environmental portraits. Your 35mm is now a wide angle lens.
You’ll probably be disappointed to realize that your 200mm telephoto that was so good at getting close to birds doesn’t have as much zoom. You’d need a 350mm for your new camera to get the same effect.
In this photo…
…and this photo…
…I’m standing roughly the same distance from the subject and using the same 40mm lens. The only difference is that in the first shot I’m using a crop camera and in the second I’m using a full frame camera.
There Are More Manual Controls and Better Build Quality
Full frame bodies are designed for professionals and advanced hobbyists, so a lot of the hand holding features are stripped away. Don’t expect to see six different automatic modes for a wide range of situations. Instead, you’ll get more and better manual controls. There’s normally an extra dial for adjusting both shutter speed and aperture at the same time. There might be dedicated custom modes where you can save your settings or buttons you can assign to different tasks.
Your new camera is probably going to be built better, as well. Camera manufacturers don’t add full frame sensors to cheap bodies; instead, they upgrade everything, often using metal instead of plastic.
Your Old Lenses Might Not Work
While lenses designed for full frame cameras work on crop sensor cameras, the opposite is not always true—or at least isn’t true without some compromises.
Any Canon EF-S lenses you have will not work on your new camera. They won’t even mount. You have to use EF lenses.
Nikon DX lenses and Sony E-mount lenses will at least mount, but the photos you take will use only a small portion of the sensor or have massive amounts of vignetting.
For more on buying the right lenses for your camera, check out our guide.
Get Ready to Shoot at Night
If you’ve been disappointed by how messy and blurry your images are when you shoot in the dark with your crop sensor camera, get ready to have your mind blown. My 5DIII which is a few years old shoots excellent images at ISO6400. ISO12800 is even usable in some cases.
There Are Downsides Too
Full frame cameras are also significantly more expensive than crop sensor cameras. Lenses for full frame cameras are more expensive too. You’re not likely to get much change from five grand for a camera and two lenses unless you go second hand.
Crop sensor cameras are also better in certain situations like sports and wildlife because the crop factor gives you more zoom and the smaller file size means you get a faster burst mode.
Upgrading to a full frame sensor is a big move but, if you’re serious about photography and can afford the expense, it’s worth it. Just don’t expect it to solve all your problems.