Full Frame Cameras – What are they?

Posted by in Frequently Asked Questions on 24th April 2020

The easiest way to understand what a full frame camera is, and what it offers, is to imagine a solar panel. This solar panel is a big rectangle that takes in light and produces energy. Switch out energy for a digital image and you have a camera sensor.

Camera sensors are the part of the camera that actually ‘looks’ at the image. The light comes in through the lens which you use to angle it to hit the sensor a certain way. You can change out the lens, adjust its zoom, aperture, focal length, focus, etc. but the sensor remains the same. All you are doing is warping and sculpting what the sensor sees.

Then you press the button, the shutter opens, the sensor sees the image through the shutter for as long as it’s open, the shutter closes, and the sensor gives you the image.

So that’s what a sensor is. So, what is a full frame sensor?

Essentially, it’s just a bigger solar panel.

The lens sends through a big circular image. A full frame sensor takes a rectangle from the middle of this circle, where each corner of the rectangle touches the edge of the circle. In contrast, there are crop sensors (which are often smaller and found in cheaper cameras) which don’t reach to the edge of the circle. They are a smaller rectangle in the middle of the circle.

Now the image the lens is sending through doesn’t change because crop sensors are smaller, they only ‘look’ at a smaller piece of it. The result is an image that looks more zoomed in. A full frame sensor looks more zoomed out by comparison. While the actual zoom of the lens hasn’t change, the two sensors see different amounts of the image so create that different effect.

Replacing a crop sensor lens with a full frame one is the equivalent of replacing a window in your house with a larger one. The view hasn’t changed, you can just see more of it now.

That isn’t to say that one is objectively better than the other. Crop sensors are great to use with telephoto lenses as it gives you an extra degree of reach. Equally they can be good for macro photography as you can get ‘closer’ to the subject without having to bring the lens closer to it.

However, we tend to favour full frame sensors for our line of work. Taking photographs of large buildings can be a challenge. We often work on quite large builds where it is important to get as much information about the surrounding landscape in the frame as possible. Therefore, having a full frame sensor means that we have that extra space to play with.

Another advantage of full frame cameras is that, since the solar panel is bigger, it can take in more light. This means that you get less noise in your image. But one of the biggest advantages of full frame sensors is the lens choice.

On a crop sensor you are working with a smaller sensor and so you often have to do more with your lenses to open the image out. With a full frame sensor, you have a larger area to play with and so you don’t have to have such strong lenses to get different effects. For example, a 50mm lens on a crop sensor will give you quite a tight image whereas on a full frame sensor the image will be quite wide.

You can always crop down from a full frame image, but you cannot uncrop a crop sensor image. It is easy to reduce the amount you see but it can be difficult to increase it the other way, so having a full frame sensor gives you plenty to work with from the start.

In a practical sense however, sometimes shooting full frame is not viable. Because the sensor itself is bigger, everything around it tends to get bigger. The internals of the camera will grow, meaning the body will grow and the lenses will grow. Often you can tell a full frame camera from a crop sensor just by the weight.

Or by the price. Full frame photography is not cheap because manufacturing costs increase exponentially with size.

Both of these factors are fine for us because this is our job. We can cover the cost and the weight is not an issue because we shoot on tripods anyway but for the average consumer, these cameras may not be the ones for you. For sports or wildlife photography for example where things are more handheld and use zoom lenses, a crop sensor lens is the way to go.

Like it so often is with photography, the kind of camera you need depends on what kind of photo you are trying to take. It just so happens that for us, full frame cameras do just what we need.

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