So, you've figured out what kind of photography you're interested in, did a little research about possible places to shop, now it's time to figure out what kind of camera system to invest in. This is the point where you'll hit a split in the road: full frame vs. crop sensor.
image courtesy of SLRLouge
What is a full frame camera?
A full-frame camera is the tool of choice for most professionals and serious amateurs. So, what is a full frame camera? Do you remember film cameras? Remember those old 35mm rolls of film? A full frame camera is a camera with a sensor that is the same size as a traditional 35mm format film, measuring 36x24mm. (As a side note, there are larger formats - medium and large - which will produce bigger results, but for the sake of this series, full frame sensor is the larger of the two.) These sensors have up to 2.5x the surface coverage as a traditional APS-C crop sensor camera.
What are the benefits of a full-frame camera?
Low Light Situations. Having a camera that can handle multiple situations is key, especially when it comes to low light. No one wants a grainy, blurred, or discolored photo but you don't want to miss capturing moments just because the lighting wasn't perfect. Indoor situations and dark nights call for sensors that can handle wherever you happen to be. The solution to this is a larger sensor. The larger the sensor, the more light it will take in and the easier it will be to work in those tricky situations.
Better Dynamic Range. Having the ability to gather better detail and more information in the darkest shadows all the way up thru the brightest highlights will provide you with a much better photograph to work with.
Sharper, Higher Resolution Images. Even if you're shooting with a full frame, guaranteed sharper images isn't always the case. You have to know how to operate a camera and as technology advances, image quality on crop sensor cameras is getting better and better. But, the one thing a full frame sensor offers is a larger sensor and a larger megapixel count. You'll end up with a larger image file which means the potential for larger, more detailed prints.
Depth of Field. It is much, much easier to achieve shallow depth of field effects with a full frame sensor. Think of those photographs you've seen with beautifully blown out backgrounds, this is called bokeh and it provides a wonderful visual element to any photograph. Being able to easily achieve and control this with a headshot, travel, or product photograph makes it a dream.
Features. Pro bodies often offer more features. This might not sound like something you need, but ease of use for a professional makes a huge difference. A full frame camera will often offer features like light up display screens on top of the camera, an array of fully customizable buttons, a great degree of manual controls, and a greater number of AF points.
What is a crop sensor camera?
A crop sensor camera is simply a camera whose sensor cuts out the edges of the frame. This allows for a direct increase in focal length. The difference is measured by a multiplier or crop factor. For example, a 50mm lens on a full frame camera will have a 50mm field of view. That same lens on a crop sensor camera with a crop factor of 1.5 (for example) will have a field of view of 75mm.
What are the benefits of a crop sensor camera?
Frame Fill. One of the most important lessons in photography is to fill the frame. When you are composing a photograph you want to be aware of what and how much of your frame is filled. You don't want to rely on cropping out later, that is a bad habit to get into. It is much easier to fill the frame of a crop sensor camera due to its crop factor. That extended focal length gives you ample opportunity to pack much more into the photography.
Price. Full frame cameras are expensive, they can often start at a couple thousand dollars and up for the body alone, putting it out of reach for many new photographers. The beauty of a crop sensor camera is price, typically under $1000, mixed with a selection of options that allow the photographer to get high-quality results.
Weight and Size. Full frame cameras are heavy! They can be large in size and weight, paired with a lens this can be very cumbersome for a day trip, travel, or a simple event. Crop sensor cameras pack a lot into a small, lightweight frame and are much easier to throw into a bag and take with you. Depending on what you need, a smaller, light weight camera may be the better option. Any camera is better than no camera!
Less Vignetting. Vignetting is the dark, almost shadow like effect you will find around the edge of a photograph. A crop sensor camera not only allows you ease of use when filling the frame, it also provides less vignetting because you are cropped in toward the center of the image. Vignetting is easily fixed with a good lens or click of a button in post processing for any camera but it's always nice to have one less step to worry about in the editing process.
Full Frame and Crop Sensor are two DSLR options in a very crowded market. If a camera with interchangeable lenses isn't in your budget or of interest to you could consider a point and shoot or small mirrorless camera (there are interchangeable and non-interchangeable options in this category) which run a wide range of price and features. I would recommend checking into cameras made from Canon, Fuji, Sony, Leica, or Olympus.
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