One of the toughest decisions you will make as a photographer will be which camera and lenses you will use. Now I am not going to discuss which manufacturer to choose, but rather which format you will want to use. With DSLR’s you have two choices to choose from, you have the APS-C format and the Full Frame format. Both are based on their sensor size in comparison to 35mm film.
35mm film got its name because the size of the negative is 35mm wide. This was the standard of SLRs for many years. Then along came DSLR’s in the early ‘90’s. Instead of film they used digital sensors to record the images on memory cards instead of film. The first DSLR’s used sensors that were smaller than the considered norm of 35mm camera, they were APS-C sized sensors. Basically they were the same size of the quickly done away with “Advanced Photo System” film which was 1.5 times smaller than the traditional 35mm negative. The reason for making smaller sensors was the cost and the speed of the cameras.
The first DSLR consumer camera came out around 1991. It was a one megapixel camera and cost around $20,000 dollars. The big excitement about this camera wasn’t the cost, but rather the speed of digital technology. You could shoot a picture and send it immediately across the world via the World Wide Web. So camera manufacturers were set on pushing digital camera sales past that of film so they were touting this technology as being better and faster than that of film. And because they wanted these cameras to succeed they had to keep the speed up and to keep the costs down somewhat so they had to go with smaller sensors in the cameras to achieve this. That is why the APS-C format came to be.
As I said, APS-C sensors basically are a 1.5 crop of 35mm film size. That also changes the ratio that you see through the lens. Ah, another way to cut costs and make money, by selling a new line of lenses with these cameras. These manufacturers now started making dedicated lenses for these new cameras. The sizes of these lenses were smaller which meant that there was less glass needed which saved them money. They also started using plastic instead of metal on the lens bodies. This was another rage of the digital camera age, smaller and lighter.
Then in 2002 with the cost of electronics and memory coming down the first full frame DSLR was introduced. This changed the whole landscape of digital photography again. A full Frame DSLR uses a sensor that has the same size as 35mm film. These cameras were aimed at serious professional photographers due to the original costs. Then in 2008 Nikon introduced the D700, the first full frame camera aimed at advanced amateurs. Game on.
So which system is best for you? Most people who have ever shot with a DSLR have shot with an APS-C sensor camera. They are cheaper, more compact, lighter, and now are offering some of the same capabilities that the full frame cameras offer. The biggest drawback to these cameras is the image quality and the fact that some photographers want to shoot wide. With their crop factor you must buy weird sized lenses to give you the same ratio as you can get in a normal wide for a full frame sensor camera.
Full Frame cameras are more expensive, bigger, heavier and generally tougher due to their bodies being made out of magnesium alloy versus plastic. They also offer better and more settings, and because of their larger sensors and pixels size they give better image results. Not only in the expected details of the images, but also in the color depth of those images. Also they give you better iso range for less noisy images. This is a huge plus if you shoot in low light situations.
Here is an interesting fact, with an APS-C camera you can use either the dedicated lenses or the ‘full frame’ lenses, but you cannot do so in the opposite direction. Well you can, but you must switch the full frame sensor to APS-C format there by losing the full frame size. The only thing by using the full frame lenses on an APS-C camera is that the ‘lens size’ will be different because of the ratio of the glass to the sensor. And here is another advertising fiction; when you use a full frame zoom on an APS-C camera you are getting a crop factor of 1.5 times. You are not zooming in 1.5 times closer to the subject. Huh?
I had read somewhere someone saying that if you put a 300mm full frame lens on a full frame digital camera you could make that lens a 450mm lens by switching over to the APS-C format. I had to try this out for myself. So I got out my old D100, which is an APS-C camera and my D700 which is a full frame camera and did this test. I shot with my 70-300mm lens at 300mm on my D700 at full frame and then APS-C crop. Then I shot with it on my D100 to verify the results. Guess what the results were. Yep, the zoom of the lens was the same in both formats. The only difference that by switching over to APS-C crop did was to crop my image the same as I would have if I had done it in Photoshop. And like I said, I shot on my D100 and the results were the same. So you see, marketing magic.
As you have read, I have shot with both formats. Actually I have shot with more, let me explain. I started out in photography in the days of film. I grew up with fully manual camera so I learned how to meter with only the cameras meter, no program modes to help me out. I started a wedding photography business in 1999 and bought a medium format camera to go along with my 35mm. Now medium format is about 2 ½ times larger than 35mm film, and the cameras and lenses are huge. So when digital became affordable and I got my first DSLR I was in love with the size and weight. But I had to learn how to see through the lens all over again because of the crop factor. Things to me just didn’t look right. Then when I got my first full frame DSLR it was so wonderful to be able to see again. It was like a homecoming.
My point here is that you need to decide what you are comfortable with first of all and then you need to decide what you want from your camera. Do you like a lighter camera and smaller camera? Or do you like the size and feel of a full framer in your hands? Do you want the deliciously large sensor that lets you see wide and can give you incredible detail and iso range? Or can you not justify the full frame and just go with a APS-C camera?
I always say buy for the future. What I mean by that is don’t buy less than what you really want because you will never be happy. Photography is art and art comes from the heart. So if want a full frame camera but cannot afford it today buy one you can afford. But buy the full frame lenses for that camera. Remember that you can still use them on your APS-C camera. Then once you are able to afford that full frame you will already have the lenses. I also promote buying lenses used but from a reputable dealer and buying quality glass. Almost all of my glass was bought used, and I also have sold a lot of glass too. If you buy quality it will hold its resale value better. Camera body’s not as well, unless they are full framers.
Another thing to consider is the accessories to the camera and whether or not they will convey over from system to system. A lot of APS-C accessories are not compatible with full frame systems, but some do. Those accessories include camera remotes, memory card type, and even dedicated flash units. So my advice is if you are thinking that one day you want to move up from APS-C to Full Frame then find an APS-C system that accepts the Full Frame accessories.
One more piece of advice that I can give is to do your research first online. Don’t trust the kid at the box stores to be knowledgeable and buy from a reputable camera shop. If you don’t have one in your area you can find several big ones online. Their prices are very competitive and their sales staff is very knowledgeable.