There are two main camera sensor standards: full frame (or 35mm) and crop sensor (or APS-C). The full frame sensor is about 1.5 times the size of the crop sensor, which changes things up a bit. If you’ve just upgraded (or are thinking about upgrading) a crop sensor camera to a full frame camera, here’s what you need to know.
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All your shots will be wider
In every article where I mention focal length, I always have to say something like 20mm for a full frame camera or around 35mm for a crop sensor camera. This is due to the crop factor. While a 20mm lens is still a 20mm lens, when 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 the way lenses are used when moving to a full frame camera. Your 50mm goes from a short telephoto lens, equivalent to a 70mm lens and perfect for headshots, to a regular lens that’s better for portraits in ambient conditions. Your 35mm is now a wide angle lens.
You will probably be disappointed when you realize that your 200mm telephoto lens, which was so good at getting close to birds, doesn’t have that much magnification. You will need 350mm for your new camera to get the same effect.
On this photo…
… and this photo …
… I stand about the same distance from the subject and use the same 40mm lens. The only difference is that in the first picture I use a crop camera, and in the second I use a full frame camera.
There are more manual controls and better build quality
Full-sized cases are designed for professionals and advanced hobbyists, so many of the hand holding features have been removed. Don’t expect to see six different auto modes for a wide range of situations. Instead, you will get more and more manual control. There is usually an additional dial to adjust shutter speed and aperture at the same time. There may be special user modes where you can save your settings or buttons that you can assign to different tasks.
It’s great, but you won’t be able to take advantage of it if you don’t know how to use the camera properly. Make sure you understand the exposure triangle and how to use manual mode.
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Your new camera will probably be better built. Camera manufacturers don’t add full-frame sensors to cheap bodies; instead, they retrofit everything, often using metal instead of plastic.
Your old lenses may not work
While lenses designed for full-frame cameras work with cameras with crop sensors, the opposite is not always true, or at least not true without some compromise.
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Any Canon EF-S lenses you have will not work on your new camera. They won’t even sit down. You must use EF lenses.
Nikon DX lenses and Sony E-mount lenses will at least mount, but the pictures you take will only use a small portion of the sensor or have a lot of vignetting.
You can learn more about buying the right lenses for your camera in our guide.
Get ready to shoot at night
My favorite thing when I switched to a full frame camera was how well it performed at night. With a larger sensor you will get much better ISO performance.
If you’ve been frustrated by how muddy and blurry your shots are when you’re shooting in the dark with a crop sensor camera, be prepared to have your mind blown. My 5DIII, which is a few years old, shoots great images at ISO6400. ISO12800 can even be used in some cases.
There are disadvantages too
Full frame cameras aren’t perfect, and the best camera doesn’t guarantee you’ll take better pictures if you don’t understand non-camera things like composition and how to use color.
Full frame cameras are also significantly more expensive than cameras with a crop sensor. Lenses for full-frame cameras are also more expensive. You’re not likely to get big changes from five grand for a camera and two lenses unless you go secondhand.
Cameras with a crop sensor 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.
Switching to a full frame sensor is a big step, but if you’re serious about photography and can afford it, it’s worth it. Just don’t expect it to solve all your problems.