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Why you don’t need a Full-frame Camera for Landscape Photography

size difference between full frame crop frame camera micro four thirds

Above, the size of a full-frame camera system (left) is compared to the size of a crop-frame micro four thirds camera system (right) showing equivalent lenses.

A lot of photographers want to upgrade to a full-frame camera because they assume it will produce better images, but this assumption isn’t necessarily true. Full-frame cameras produce better images when viewed under specific situations. Outside of those situations the differences are invisible, and a full-frame camera can actually be a hindrance to enthusiast photography. The final straw to write this blog came when I was recently at my local camera store. I listened to a sales clerk trying to help a customer who was interested in getting into landscape photography as a hobby. The clerk told him, “If you want to do landscapes, full-frame is definitely the way to go!” Definitely?

Full-frame cameras have a 35 x 24mm sensor. A crop-frame camera has a smaller sensor, and there are several crop formats. The most common crop-frame sensor on the market is the APS-C size, which is 1/3 smaller than full-frame at 24 x 16mm. The Micro Four Thirds sensor is roughly half the size of a full-frame sensor at 18 x 14mm

To summarize this post and be specific about whether your needs justify a full-frame camera for landscape photography:

  • If you regularly produce or earn money from large prints, then you probably need a full-frame camera.
  • If you mostly post photos online, occasionally make large prints, and do a lot of backcountry/hiking photography, then you don’t need a full frame camera.
  • If you don’t necessarily make prints often, but money is no object, and you do mostly roadside photography, then there’s no drawback to a full-frame camera.

When I say “large prints”, a modern crop-frame camera can still easily produce good prints up to 45×30″ as long as good techniques and sharp glass were used.

Full-frame is for Large Prints, not Online Photos

Full-frame cameras don’t produce noticeably better looking pictures, they produce bigger images. However, A typical 24 megapixel APS-C crop-frame camera produces very respectable 6000 x 4000 px images. A typical 42 megapixel full-frame camera produces  7900 x 5300 px images.* In landscape photography the main reason for higher resolution images is to routinely make large prints. Your money and the extra pixels of a full-frame are wasted if you mostly share your photos online. But even so, files from a 24 megapixel crop camera are quite capable of making prints up at least 45″, especially when run through resizing software. I still even make large prints from 10 and 16 mp cameras that I was using a few years ago. For online use, most images need only be 1500 px or less. Instagram limits files to a modest 1080 x 1080 px. Rarely, you may post 4000 px images to match 4k displays. Any modern crop-frame camera can handle these duties with pixels to spare.

*Some full-frame cameras have the same megapixel count as crop-frame cameras. The extra sensor space is used to make each photo-sensor point (pixel) bigger. For example, a full-frame camera with 24 megapixels has larger pixels spread over a larger sensor area than a crop-frame camera with 24 megapixels. Bigger pixels absorb more light photons, which increases dynamic range in the photo. Greater dynamic range means there will be somewhat more detail visible in dark areas, and less noise…in other words, better performance in low light. A full-frame camera with bigger pixels will produce better night photos of the Milky Way for example.

You can’t tell the Difference just by looking at Images

It’s often assumed that the best images must have been taken by high-end cameras. However, the the final appearance of an image has little to do with the camera used. It’s more affected by how the image was post-processed, the photographer’s technical skill, and the perspective of lens used. The notion that you can emulate great photos by using the same camera is false. The actual difference between full and crop-frame is evident only when pixel peeping. When viewed at normal size, there isn’t a noticeable difference between full and crop-frame images. However, when viewed at 100%, the full-frame image can be magnified to a larger size, and has slightly less noise in dark areas. Noise shows itself as grain in dark areas of a photo. Spending thousands extra for more pixels and smoother shadows probably isn’t worth it unless you frequently print large. The difference in image quality and noise levels between full and crop-frame used to be more noticeable, but advances in sensor tech, and camera imaging processors have narrowed the gap.

Full-frame = Heavier, Bigger, More Expensive

Full-frame cameras cost 2 to 5 times more than crop-frame cameras. They’re also at least 1/3 bigger and heavier. If you buy a full-frame camera, you’ll also need a suite of full-frame lenses, which are like expensive anchors compared to crop-frame lenses. The extra money spent on the camera, and especially the lenses, amounts to no small fortune. If you’re a backcountry photographer, the extra weight of the camera and all those lenses can really bog you down. In the past, if you wanted the best quality glass and largest apertures you had to buy full-frame. But today the companies who specialize in crop-frame cameras -Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic- produce pro quality lenses that are dangerously sharp, and have large maximum apertures like their full-frame counterparts.

Panoramas: You already own a 100 megapixel camera and didn’t know it!

You can create huge, mega-resolution images using a crop-frame camera simply by shooting panoramas.  A panorama is when you shoot several individual photos and stitch them together into one big image.  An app like Photoshop seamlessly stitches them together for you. The resolution of the final image depends on how many photos you stitch, and can be far larger than a single image from a full-frame camera. This technique can be done hand-held, but works best with a tripod.

Not even Pros need Full-frame most of the time

Social media has given every photographer on Earth a platform to be seen. However, this has diluted photography so much that prints are no longer a significant part of most photographers’ business. In landscape photography many pros don’t earn income directly from their photography, but from ancillaries like workshops and online ad revenue. With that in mind, their primary use of a camera is to curate their online portfolio, which doesn’t require a full-frame camera. Still many photographers sell digital images for stock, online content, and print media, which also don’t require the high resolution of a full-frame camera.

Full-frame is pointless without best Techniques, Post-processing and Glass

Resolution of most full-frame sensors is so high that it exposes any shortcomings in technique and clarity of glass. If you’re not using the most disciplined techniques, the resolution of a full-frame sensor is for naught. For example, if you don’t habitually use a tripod, mirror-lockup and a remote shutter release in low light, motion blur will reduce the effective image resolution. If you’re still understanding these techniques, then honing your skills will improve your images more than buying a full-frame camera. Glass clarity can also limit resolution before the camera’s megapixel count, therefore the high resolution of a full-frame camera can only be realized with the best possible lenses.

Furthermore, if you don’t post-process your images in editing software then you probably don’t need a full-frame camera, or a serious camera at all. That’s because modern cameras capture a vast dynamic range that isn’t visible in images directly out of the camera. This data must be brought out using a post-processing app like Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom.  Processing exposes brightness and detail in seemingly black shadows, and restores detail in overexposed highlights. This isn’t cheating, the camera records this data in the image file so that you can manage how it appears in the final image. The best photos that garner attention have all been processed, and images that haven’t can’t compete.

Spend the extra Money on Lenses

Acquiring new lenses can have a massive impact on your photography compared to getting a different camera because they increase the subject matter that you can shoot. Let’s say you just saved $1500 by buying a crop-frame camera instead of full-frame. That’s enough money to buy 2 lenses that expand what you can shoot beyond what the kit lens is capable of. One example is an ultra-wide angle lens with a fast aperture to shoot the Milky Way. Another is a macro lens to shoot highly detailed shots of insects. If you’re on a budget, I’d certainly opt for more lenses over more megapixels.

Do you need an Interchangeable Lens Camera at all?

A camera can only produce better looking images if you know how to work it, so there’s little point in buying an Interchangeable Lens Camera if don’t learn photography through a course or self-education. The reason that ILC’s with all of their knobs and buttons exist is so that you can manually set the f/stop, shutter speed, ISO and other settings to control the look of your pictures. If you don’t have time to learn photography, but do want to add more creativity to your photos, and want a greater zoom range than what a smartphone can offer, then you’re probably better off getting a high-end point & shoot camera instead of an ILC.

About Bryan Maltais

I’m a Colorado landscape photographer based in Ft. Collins. I blog about adventure in the Rocky Mountains and photo technique. I also make nature documentaries, tinker around with websites and grow vegetables.