Except that it isn’t.
There must be some secret cabal of full frame conspirators clandestinely orchestrating global PR campaigns, because everyone knows the virtues of the large imaging sensor: the shallow depth of field, the dynamic range, the resolution, the high ISO noise performance! There are only two types of photographers, surely: those who shoot full frame and those who can’t afford it yet.
That’s a half-truth. In fact, there really are only two types of photographers: those who shoot full frame and those who haven’t been punked by their own irrational gear-lust. There are serious downsides to shooting full frame, and consequently serious advantages to shooting with APS-C or MFT cameras.
Here’s the dirt on full frame cameras that
1. Cost and Weight
Bigger sensors mean bigger cameras. Bigger sensors also mean bigger lenses. Bigger lenses mean bigger filters. Bigger cameras, lenses, and filters mean bigger camera bags. Bigger cameras, lenses, filters, and camera bags mean bigger price tags.
There are several prices to pay for having a big sensor, and the steepest one is literal. At the time of writing, the cheapest available full frame digital camera is the Sony α7 at $798, which is inexplicably still for sale despite being released in 2013. The latest version of that same camera, i.e. the one you’d actually want to buy right now, the α7 III, costs $1,998. The α7 III, however, is not Sony’s newest or most full-featured camera body; that honor goes to the new α9 at a decidedly not-affordable $4,498. The most expensive mirrorless camera without a full frame sensor is currently the Panasonic GH5S at $2,498. (*I’m excluding Leica here because, well, all of their stuff is hilariously expensive and not in direct competition with Sony or Olympus.)
The differences in cost and size for full frame and APS-C/MFT mirrorless bodies aren’t drastic, on the whole. But let’s talk about lenses for a moment. Here are a few lens comparisons between Sony full frame and Olympus MFT for the gear most photographers would have in their kit:
(Note: images not to scale! The MFT lenses are considerably smaller. See weight figures.)
A fast standard zoom
Total cost and weight of these 4 lenses
|Sony full frame||Olympus MFT|
|8.52 lbs.||4.86 lbs.|
The MFT kit costs and weighs roughly half of the Sony full frame kit and covers the same effective field of view at the same constant maximum aperture. This is a fair comparison in that these lenses are as similar as offered currently by Sony and Olympus (remember that MFT has a 2x crop factor). That said, there are some noteworthy differences. For example, the Olympus wide zoom is wider than the Sony; the Olympus standard zoom is longer on the telephoto end; the Olympus tele-zoom is considerably longer on the telephoto end, such that it isn’t even a fair comparison, but there is no 70-300mm f/2.8 zoom available for Sony (nor will there likely ever be - see #6 below for more on that); the Olympus telephoto prime has a faster maximum aperture. So in all cases the Sony full frame equipment is nearly twice as expensive, twice as heavy to lug around, and generally not as useful as the MFT equivalents.
You might complain that this is a worst-case-scenario - there are cheaper lenses available than these top-tier professional offerings. That argument doesn’t work either, because of full-frame-dirty-little-secret number 2.
2. Soft Corners, Vignetting, Distortion
One unpleasant surprise awaiting photographers who upgrade their crop sensor gear to full frame is how noticeably worse the corners and edges of the frame now look. This is because lenses are best at their centers and worst at their edges. Crop sensors conveniently eliminate this problem by only capturing the light projected onto the middle 50-60% of the image circle:
3. Shallow Depth of Field
Wait a minute - this is one of the good things about full frame sensors! All of that dreamy out-of-focus area, those spherical highlights, that background separation! Here’s the problem you never thought your full frame camera would give you: not enough depth of field. Yes, when you have a fast lens and shoot wide open on a 35mm body, you get really shallow depth of field. Like, too shallow. So shallow that there’s barely anything in focus at all in your photo.
Lemme drop a hypothetical on you right quick. Let’s say you’ve got a Sony α9 with the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 T* prime lens, and you’re in a dimly lit bar with a big group of friends and family members - maybe it’s a wedding weekend or college graduation or something. You’re walking around pretty damn proud of yourself with your $5,500 worth of photo gear, and you’re taking pictures of everybody. You grab two nearby friends and tell them to stand together for a nice photo with some pimp-ass background blur (you know they’re gonna make this their FB profile pic when they see it and tag you for the credit). You stand about 3 feet away and shoot wide open at f/1.8. You turn the camera around and give them a glimpse of the shot, and from a few feet away everybody loves it. Then you get home and open it in Lightroom only to see that one of your friend’s faces is in sharp focus, while the other poor sap is blurry as shit. That’s because with a 55mm focal length at a distance of 3 feet and an aperture of f/1.8, you have 1.09 inches of depth of field. Some guy next to you took the same shot with an Olympus E-PL8 and a 25mm f/1.7 ($850) wide open and got both faces in focus.
So what could you have done to get the shot? Well, stop your lens down for more depth of field, obviously. But now you’re losing light gathering power, which means shutter speeds have to go down or ISO has to go up. More risk of motion blur or more noise, while the crop sensor shooters can shoot at similar apertures without worrying about these problems. Everyone wants a full frame camera and a fast prime, nobody realizes that you can’t actually shoot wide open most of the time. Want to shoot at f/1.4 in broad daylight? You’ll be shelling out another chunk of change for a neutral density filter to screw onto the front of your 77 or 82mm filter thread.
4. The Telephoto Blues
Another nasty surprise awaiting the new full frame user is the complete lack of reach from the telephoto lens that was doing a fine job on an APS-C body. It can be downright disheartening to realize just how little you get from 200mm on a full frame camera - it’s scarcely long enough to do any serious wildlife or sports photography. Add to that disappointment the large cost and cumbersome size and weight of something like a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens, and it’s enough to trigger instant buyer’s remorse. We all like those 70-200mm zooms when they’re really more like 112-320mm on a crop body. Even that standard zoom lens you were walking around with barely seems as useful now. If there’s a thing far away and you’ve got a full frame camera, you are not taking a photo of that far away thing.
5. Sorry to Burst your Bubble
That was a terrible pun and I apologize profusely for it. But your full frame camera is woefully slow when it comes to continuous shooting, and you should feel bad about it. The new α7 III can manage 10fps with its mechanical shutter, which isn’t totally embarrassing compared to older models. The MFT Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II, of course, shoots 15fps with its mechanical shutter and up to 60fps (!) with its electronic shutter. If you want to take pictures of stuff that moves, full frame is not your best friend.
6. Limitations on Lenses
Big full frame sensors create a problem for lens designers: they need to make an image circle large enough to illuminate all 35mm of the sensor, and physics gets in the way quickly. With their considerably smaller sensors, crop cameras have fewer limitations on lens design, and as a result, there are lenses that exist for crop body cameras that do not (and practically cannot) exist for full frame cameras. These otherwise unthinkable lenses are bridging the gap between the capabilities of the two camera types and rendering full frame systems less and less attractive by the day. Some notable examples:
- Panasonic Leica DG Elmarit 200mm f/2.8. This effective 400mm f/2.8 prime lens for MFT does now have a Sony full frame equivalent, but it costs $12,000.
- Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS. This effective 600mm f/4 prime lens has no Sony counterpart. Canon makes one, though: it costs $11,500.
- Handevision IBELUX 40mm f/0.85. This manual focus prime lens only exists for mirrorless cameras. f/0.85!
- Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO. This effective24-200mm f/4 standard zoom lens has no full frame counterpart on any system.
- Olympus 17mm, 25mm, 45mm f/1.2 PRO. These autofocus prime lenses are faster than any autofocus lens available for Sony.
No, Olympus hasn’t paid me to write this (although if anyone from Olympus would like to offer me cash retroactively, please contact me). The truth is that I shot full frame Canon DSLRs for several years (the original 5D and then the 5D mark II) before selling all of my gear for MFT, and I haven’t looked back. My collection of lenses is smaller, lighter, and more capable than my old Canon L glass, and I shoot more because of it. Is there a difference in image quality between Sony alpha full frame cameras and Olympus MFT cameras? Not one that matters to most photographers. 20MP photos already well exceed the resolution of any device I’ll ever view a photo on, and they’re big enough to print (even though I never do that.) I don’t believe there’s really any type of photography that can’t be done as well on a MFT camera as a full frame camera, and the differences between them are only going to get less and less pronounced as the imaging technology improves. My E-M1 mark II, for example, has a higher overall DXO benchmark score than my old Canon 5D mark II. Yes, the 5DII is a much older camera, but it’s the same resolution as the E-M1 II and the sensor is four times larger. There was a time when there was a difference between full frame and crop cameras that actually mattered, but those days are gone.