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Full Frame vs Crop Frame Explained

When looking at camera choices, you may have come across two terms that mystify you: “full frame” and “crop frame”. What exactly are these two types of frames, and what does that mean for your camera? Let’s get to the bottom of this mystery!



Understanding the terms

So where do these terms come from? We have to go back to the days of film cameras to understand the background. Before the digital age, SLR cameras all had one size of frame, which was 24mm x 36mm. This size was of course dictated by the size of the film which was passing through the camera. Since the film was always the same size, there was no point in making a camera which had a different size frame – you would simply lose part of the image or have blank space on the film.

If you wanted to shoot at a different size, you would need a different type of camera, such as a medium format. You could shoot on larger film or on slides. But everything was fairly simple, and that was that.

If you were to find a DSLR today with a sensor of 24mm x 36mm, that would be exactly the same as the film size that used to be used. In other words, it would cover the full frame. Get it?

As for crop frame, that’s pretty easy to guess once you know the origin of the name. A cropped frame is one that isn’t quite the full size of 35mm film. It might be a few millimeters short on all sides.

Where it gets a bit more complicated is how we describe the crop frame. Instead of giving you a measurement, we talk about crop factor instead, which is how much smaller than the full frame it will be.


Crop factor by brand

Just to make things even more complicated for everyone, different camera brands use different crop factors. It’s not something that was really planned in the industry, so instead of everyone adopting the same sizes, we ended up with a lot of variation.

Nikon has just two sensor sizes, keeping things nice and simple. Full frame is known as FX in their range, while DX is their crop frame range. These DX cameras have a crop factor of 1.5x.

Canon have a bit more range, with three sensor sizes to choose from. These are full frame, 1.3x, and 1.6x. Where this gets complicated is if you switch between manufacturers: you will find that you can’t really match them up to what you were used to.

Other brands also use the same kind of range as Canon for the most part. One notable exception is Olympus, which has a 2x crop factor for one of their ranges. You can normally find the crop factor in the technical details of your camera if you want to check.


What’s good about full frame?

Full frame isn’t always exactly 24mm x 36mm, but you can count on it being in that ballpark. Full frame cameras do have some great advantages which you can look forward to if you pick them, such as:

  • Really good performance at high ISO levels
  • Better image quality across the board
  • Better for wide-angle shots
  • Good for natural light and low light situations

Now, this isn’t the full story – if it was, we would all be using full frame without question. So now we have to look at why camera brands introduced alternatives in the first place, and what we can gain from switching between the two types of frame.


Why not just use full frame?

There are two huge reasons for this, but you will also find that there are some great little advantages to crop frame that you may not be aware of. If you are thinking about sticking with crop frame for now, here’s why that could be a great idea:

  • Full frame bodies are more expensive
  • Full frame cameras are bigger and heavier
  • Crop frame gives you a bit of extra reach when using zoom lenses
  • You may well be used to crop frame and won’t want to have to change your style

Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to each side. Since that leaves us right back at square one for deciding which one is best, perhaps we need to look in more depth at exactly who might appreciate each style of frame.


Who needs full frame?

If you have a lot of lenses from film cameras, then switching to a full frame DSLR might be a no-brainer. Modern Nikon cameras have retained compatibility with just about every Nikon lens which was ever made, so you can still use your oldest pieces comfortably. As for Canon, all EF lenses will still work with any type of body, so you will be getting the full benefit of those great lenses with a full frame.

If you shoot architecture or landscapes, full frame should be on your radar. This gives you so much scope for wide-angle images, and the quality of each shot will be higher. That is definitely what you want for those kind of photographs. You will see the difference immediately and probably wonder why you didn’t change sooner.

If you only use available light when shooting, an upgrade could help too. You might be able to go from a maximum ISO 1600 at crop frame to something like ISO 6400 on full frame, whilst still retaining that high quality.


Who should stick with crop frame?

If you are just starting out as a photographer, there’s no need to go anything higher than 1.5x or 1.6x. For consumers who have just picked up an 18-55mm kit lens with their camera, there’s no need to upgrade. You won’t likely notice the difference, and your shots are still going to be high level if you know how to use your camera.

If you shoot wildlife or sports, then crop frame is probably best, getting you high detail even when you are far away. Others who might benefit from this include paparazzi or fashion photographers who cover long catwalks.

If you’re doing family portraits or senior shots, your clients probably won’t be able to tell that your quality has increased if you upgrade. You can make that purchase for your own pride, but it might not add anything to the perceived value of your work, so it’s worth giving it serious consideration before you invest.


Are you in the crop frame camp or full frame? Let us know your allegiance in the comments!


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