How to tell when you need a full-frame camera

Digital SLRs come in two sizes: APS-C ‘consumer’ cameras and full-frame ‘pro’ cameras. Full-frame cameras have sensors the same size as the old 35mm film format, while APS-C sensors are approximately half the size, equivalent to the old film APS-C format.

Sensor technology is improving all the time, and APS-C digital SLRs can now produce spectacular image quality. But there is a limit to what they can do, and the old adage is still true: ‘a good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un’. APS-C is good, but full-frame is better!

So how do you know when it’s time to take the step up to a full-frame camera? Here are five key pointers, and if you recognise yourself in any of these, then maybe you should be thinking about making the move…

1. Your high-ISO shots are too noisy
The bigger sensor on a full-frame camera usually brings bigger photosites (the individual photo-receptors on the sensor). This means a better signal-to-noise ratio when the ISO is increased. A 24-megapixel full-frame camera will give cleaner, sharper images at high ISOs than a 24-megapixel APS-C format D-SLR.

2. You need bigger blow-ups
Full-frame cameras usually have slightly higher megapixel ratings than APS-C format cameras, but there’s more to it than that. The larger sensor and correspondingly larger lenses bring benefits of their own – images are perceptibly clearer, crisper and smoother because the image formed on the sensor is larger to begin with.

3. You want beautiful bokeh
You can get attractive defocused backgrounds with APS-C format cameras, but you may have to rely on very wide lens apertures and longer zoom settings to get really shallow depth of field effects. But one of the optical effects of larger sensors and lenses is that depth of field is reduced, so beautiful bokeh (the term that describes out-of-focus effects), is a whole lot easier with full-frame cameras.

4. You need specialist lenses
Specialist lenses like fisheyes and perspective control lenses are often designed solely for professional full-frame cameras, and while they may work on APS-C format cameras, the smaller sensor will ‘crop’ the image area they produce so that they’re far less effective at the jobs they’re designed to do.

5. You want to turn pro
Full-frame digital SLRs don’t just have bigger sensors, and image quality isn’t the only reason for upgrading. Many full-frame cameras are designed for professional use, which means they’re built to shoot faster, last longer and offer specialised functions and accessories that ‘amateur’ cameras don’t have.

There are exceptions, such as the Canon EOS 6D, which is designed for enthusiasts and makes a good stepping stone into full-frame photography.

This means there’s no longer such a big divide between APS-C ‘amateur’ cameras and full-frame ‘pro’ models. So if you’re thinking of moving up to a bigger format, there’s never been a better time!

Full-frame or APS-C – what’s your take? Let us know below…

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