Upgrading from an APS-C to a full-frame DSLR doesn’t have to cost a fortune. We look at the benefits of upgrading to a full frame camera.

As technology becomes more affordable, features that were once the preserve of the professional photographer filter down into cameras that are attainable for the average enthusiast. Cameras with full-frame sensors are one such example of this. In fact, we are now in a second, or even third generation of DSLR cameras with full-frame sensors that are priced within the reach of the average enthusiast.

Canon and Nikon both have “entry-level” full-frame cameras available, such as the Canon EOS 6D and the Nikon D610. They both still cost over £1,000, so they’re still very considered purchases. Meanwhile, Sony offers a range of full-frame E-mount, mirrorless cameras, as well as the Alpha 99 which uses translucent mirror technology. Pentax has recently entered the full-frame market, with the launch of the K-1.

Bear in mind, not only will you face the cost of upgrading your camera, it’s very likely that you’ll also need to upgrade your lenses if you’re coming from an APS-C system – even though these cameras are now more affordable than ever, the costs can still significantly mount up.

So before you commit to buying a new full-frame DSLR, you could consider the alternative option of purchasing a second-hand model. With previous-generation DSLRs readily available, and at prices that can be less than half that of the latest models, you can get the advantages of a full-frame sensor at just a fraction of the cost. Then, once you have dipped your toe in the water and decided that you want to commit to full-frame shooting, you can sell your used full-frame camera and lose little, or no, money.

Benefits of full frame

Traditionally, full-frame cameras have offered higher resolutions, better image quality at high sensitivities and greater dynamic range compared to their APS-C-format contemporaries. With the rapid advances in sensor technology, however, older full-frame SLRs tend to have less of an advantage over current models with APS-C sensors, so it’s worth thinking about this if you intend to buy an older or second-hand model. In general, though, they still give impressive image quality, often with specific advantages in terms of either resolution or high ISO image quality, or both.

Full-frame DSLRs are also compatible with lots of film-era lenses without any cropping of the angle of view. This means that any nice lenses you still have for an old 35mm film camera will work on a full-frame digital model in much the same way as before. However, note the word ‘nice’ – it’s probably not worth buying a full-frame camera to resurrect zooms that were relatively cheap when new, as their optical quality won’t match modern lenses.

Despite this, perhaps the biggest advantage of full frame is the huge range of lenses available, and primes in particular. Wideangles in the 20-24mm range, or short telephoto ‘portrait’ primes of around 85-100mm, don’t have many direct equivalents in APS-C land, either in terms of focal length or the shallow depth of field effects they can create.

For users thinking of getting into full frame, some second-hand lens bargains can also be had. Because a number of full-frame lens types don’t make much practical sense on APS-C, most notably wideangle and normal zooms, they can be picked up relatively cheaply if you shop around a bit.

One further benefit of full-frame DSLRs is that they usually have larger, brighter viewfinders than APS-C models, which can help with composition. Older models also often have interchangeable focusing screens, including manual focus and grid screens.

APS-C lens compatibility

While full-frame DSLRs can often be used with APS-C lenses, compatibility varies between brands.
Canon’s own EF-S lenses simply won’t fit onto its full-frame cameras, but third-party lenses will, and can sometimes be used with acceptable results. However, vignetting can confuse the evaluative metering, so it’s best to switch to partial or spot.

Nikon full-frame (FX) DSLRs are designed to be fully compatible with APS-C (DX) lenses, and will switch automatically into a DX crop mode when such a lens is mounted. A viewfinder frameline shows the active area, and the metering adjusts to match. Of course, the resolution drops, and in DX mode the D700, for example, only produces 5.3-million-pixel images.

Full-frame Sony cameras like the Alpha 99 also have a crop mode for use with APS-C lenses, which the user can turn on or off as desired. The big advantage compared to the D700 is that the resulting image size from the Alpha 850 is a much more usable 10.7 million pixels.

Size and weight

It used to be that upgrading to a full-frame camera meant picking up a camera which was significantly weightier and larger than an APS-C model. However, these days that’s not necessarily the case. If we compare something like the Nikon D500, which is its top end APS-C model and the Nikon D610, the size and weight is more or less the same. Meanwhile, Sony’s range of E-mount, mirrorless, full-frame models have proven very popular and offer stunning image quality in a very small and light package – making them likely that you’ll want to take them out on your travels with you.

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Once you’ve made the decision to upgrade to full-frame, you’ll need to know which model to go for. Read our Best Full-Frame DSLRs 2016 feature to help you choose.