Q What do you think of full-frame digital SLRs? Are they worth the extra cost over other models?
-- A.M., Pittsburgh
A A full-frame digital SLR has a sensor the size of a frame of 35mm film, which is 24x36mm. This refers to the physical dimensions, not resolution. You can have a full-frame sensor with 12 megapixels or a full-frame sensor with over 36 megapixels. There are mirrorless full-frame cameras as well, for example Leica M cameras or Sony's new A7 series.
The other typical sensor sizes are the smaller APS-C, which is ubiquitous in consumer SLRs, and Micro Four Thirds (or just Four Thirds), which is slightly smaller than APS-C.
A bigger sensor will provide better dynamic range (ratio of light to dark captured by the camera) as well as lower noise in low-light situations. All other things being equal, bigger sensors are better for image quality.
There are also operational advantages. The viewfinder is much larger than an APS-C SLR and you have more control over depth of field. If you want a really soft background for a portrait it is easy to achieve with full-frame. There are no focal length multipliers so a 50mm lens behaves like a 50mm lens, not a 75mm lens.
You can get professional quality with smaller sensors, but if you are taking up wedding photography, shoot in very low light often, or have professional aspirations, full frame may be a good choice. It is also suitable for those who demand the very highest resolution and image quality regardless of price, as long as you don't mind the weight and bulk of the equipment.
There are some notable negatives. To me, the benefits of full-frame are outweighed by the drawbacks, especially for consumer photographers.
When you get a full-frame camera body, you are just getting started with expenses. You need expensive, high-end lenses to get the best results. Most consumer lenses won't work on them at all. If you aren't going to commit to investing in the best lenses, I would not bother with a full-frame camera.
Full-frame cameras make gigantic digital files. You will fill up memory cards and computer hard drive space very quickly.
The cameras themselves, as well as suitable lenses for them, tend to be large and heavy. Sony's new A7 is an exception, but there are not many lenses available for it yet.
Readers know I have fully embraced the Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four Thirds system and use it for almost all of my shooting now. I am very picky, and I am fully satisfied. I just got back from Europe and everyone who looks at the pictures on my iPad are simply floored by the technical excellence, and I know I could make huge enlargements and they would look great.
That said, I have to admit that I wouldn't mind owning a full-frame SLR and may buy a used one to play with. It would be a nostalgia trip for me. I grew up using 35mm SLR cameras and most people don't know what they are missing when they look in the tiny viewfinder of a typical APS-C digital SLR, or when they have to juggle their lenses because a 28mm wide-angle lens behaves like a 42mm normal lens
If you want to give full-frame a try without spending big bucks, look for a used Canon 5D. They can be had in the $500-$600 range. That's probably what I will do if I decide to get a full-frame camera to play with.
Contact Don Lindich at www.soundadviceblog.com and use the "submit question" link on that site.