Full Frame – Do I Really Need It?

Full Frame or aps-c?

Should I buy a full frame camera or stick with aps-c?  This is a dilemma I’ve been struggling with for awhile.  Unlike most photo nerds, I hate buying new gear.  It rarely improves my photography and doesn’t add value to my business.  When I need full frame gear for a big job, I simply rent it.

For my local work and most of the images on this blog, I use a Nikon D90.  It may be old, but it’s still a fantastic camera.  In fact, it’s even better today than it was in 2009.  With the amazing advances in RAW processing software, the camera has actually gained a stop of dynamic range!

Should I Upgrade to Full Frame?

If I love this camera so much, why am I considering upgrading?

The required baseline file size for client delivery has changed and I need something with at least 16mp.  Does this mean that my current files are lousy?  Of course not.  I shot the above image of Mondo in 2010 with the D90 and it’s as good today as it was back then.  I could print this 40’x60″ and not even break a sweat.

The problem is one of perception.  Unlike the days of film, cameras are now a consumer electronic product with an expiration date.

FX vs DX

A few years ago, fx vs dx wasn’t even a debate.  Full-frame cameras were clearly superior to any aps-c(dx) cameras on the market.  The first time I used a full frame D700, I was blown away by its dynamic range and high ISO capabilities.

Of course that was 2009 and since then, sensor tech has made huge advances.  The current crop of Nikon aps-c cameras actually outclass the amazing D700.  Full frame sensors have also made advances, but aps-c cameras have nearly closed the gap.  I always thought I was going to upgrade to a full frame Nikon, but I’m now questioning that assumption.  Here’s why:

Size: Even with the newer and lighter mirrorless cameras, professional full frame lenses are huge. The new Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 weighs 1070g!  I understand the need for tough professional glass, but these optics are now larger than medium format lenses.  With a Nikon D7200, I can drop on the incredible Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4 that weighs a svelte 480g and call it a day.

Price:  I don’t want to pay $3300 for a D810.  I know I should just suck it up, but for this kind of cash, I can go out and buy an iphone, ipad, and Macbook Pro.  Unlike the film days where I could keep my camera for a decade, the D810 will depreciate faster than a luxury car.  If I combine this camera with the Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8, I’m now out $5700 just to take some cookie shots.

Lenses:  If I was going to stick with DX for one reason alone, it would be my 60mm macro lens.  It’s an optically perfect lens and one of the best pieces of glass Nikon makes.  On an aps-c sensor it has an effective focal range of 90mm which makes it perfect for food photography.  If I were to go full frame, I would switch to the Nikkor 105mm macro, but it just doesn’t have the stunning character of the 60mm.

Image Quality:  I supervise a college photo lab and see hundreds of prints and files every year.  Spotting the difference between different formats of film is easy, but trying to identity the various formats of digital is nearly impossible.  It used to be simple when digital cameras were primitive, but nearly all modern digital cameras are capable of producing astonishingly good prints.

The image quality of the latest generation of Nikon DX cameras is incredible.  It beats Canon full-frame cameras and according to DxOmark, the D7200 has the widest dynamic range of any camera ever produced except the d810.  I’ve worked with the D7200 and the ability to push and pull exposure is remarkable.

If I was a shooter who needed to capture professional action in low light,  I would need a full frame camera.  The format excels at high ISO.  But I’m a guy who hasn’t moved the camera above ISO 800 in the last decade. For me, a full frame camera doesn’t hold much of an image advantage.

My Decision

The choice is simple.  I’m going to buy a D7200.  I don’t need a full-frame camera and if I do, I’ll go out and rent one.  The D7200 is a highly capable and mature camera.  It feels good in the hands and the size and price are unbeatable.  I may lose out on bragging rights to the latest and greatest system, but I win with an incredible camera that perfectly fits my needs.


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  1. 1

    Hi David,

    Great read. I emailed you around the 1st of August about the Oly E-M10 I was considering buying. While I know it is not in league with the professional shooting you do, man what a camera! I have a 3500 road trip and a couple of shoots for my wife’s blog under it’s belt and I love it more every time I pick it up. I have noticed I can’t push the exposure more than a stop or two tops post processing like our big Nikon but other than that it rocks. If my wife picks it up a couple more times before her Nikon I may have to buy a second one…
    Roger @ Madeleine Effect recently posted…Peach Rosemary Cornmeal CakeMy Profile

    • 2

      Thanks Roger. With regard to dynamic range on the Oly E10, I’m seeing the same thing on the Panasonic GH4 files. M 4/3 at this point in the time has a similar sensor response to the original Canon 7D. It’s a truly great camera that can meet 99% of your photography needs. If I wasn’t invested in Nikon, I would definitely consider Olympus.

  2. 3

    I think you’re going to love your new D7200. I had a D7000 and loved that camera so the D7200 can only be better! Then I “upgraded” to the D600 because suddenly full frames were relatively affordable and though I didn’t have the problems with mine that others had (the well discussed oil and dust spots) I didn’t really notice any vast improvement in my photos. I was also shooting a lot of events at that time and using two bodies so I didn’t have to switch lenses often. But I was now using my crop sensor D7000 and my new full frame D600. Let me tell you, if you’re shooting an event with two bodies, they better both be either crop frame or full frame because combining the two is almost useless (because you wind up grossly overlapping your focal lengths). So what did I do? I sold the D7000, of course, and went out and dropped a ton of moolah on a D800! But then I was shooting events with a monster sensor that produced monster files!! And sending them to clients who weren’t even printing them — they were using them on the web to promote their events or band on social media. But man, is the low light capability of modern full frame sensors awesome! Still, I hear you — it’s easy to get caught up in the hype when very often you don’t need to …and, of course, I now have a D810 as well. So now I have way more gear than talent and need to turn that around. Btw, I only sold my old D70s about two years ago (got next to nothing for it) — that thing took awesome pics with it’s miniscule 6.1 megapixel sensor! 🙂

  3. 4

    Great article!
    I have the Nikon D7100 and before that I used the Nikon D80 for pretty much everything food.
    Now that I started doing portraits of people, I do see the benefit of full frame and bought the D750 with the D7100 as back up for weddings and such. But if I were just doing food 99% of the time, the D7100 and D7200 are fantastic cameras and take outstanding photos.

  4. 5

    hi; love your blog! i had a nikon D7000 now i have a xt1 fuji. i am not really impressed from fuji rendering for food photography, also have hard time decide i i switch back to nikon d7200. have you tried boath? a recommandation would be helpul….

    • 6

      Thanks! I don’t have any experience with the Fuji XT1 but I have used the D7200. It’s an exceptional camera and I’m sure you would be happy with it. It has a wide tonal range and renders food beautifully with the Nikon 60mm macro.

  5. 7

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