A major consideration for many photographers is the size and quality of the camera’s sensor. More often than not, camera body discussion revolves around comparisons between cropped and full frame sensors.
In June 2015, just a few months into my effort to begin a portrait photography business, I was already obsessed with comparing camera body statistics. I just knew that I wanted a Canon 5DMIII–every “professional” photographer seemed to be using one. Thankfully, I didn't talk myself into buying one too quickly and adding $2500 to my credit debt.
Fast forward a year to May 2016: I had officially put my modest Canon T3i through its paces. Dozens of clients and a few small weddings later, I knew I was outgrowing my entry-level dSLR. I bought a full frame Canon 6D and wrote about the transition here.
As of November 2016, I have owned and used the Canon 6D for six months. I have photographed a few weddings, at least two dozen family portrait clients, and who knows how many photos of my own family.
Was purchasing the Canon 6D worth it? Was the Canon 6D the right purchase for me? Should you make the jump from a cropped sensor to a full frame camera?
Over the course of this article, I’ll answer those questions, compare my thoughts now to my thoughts six months ago, and give you a final verdict if you’re considering a similar purchase.
1. The Physical Body and Features of the Camera
In my original article, I described holding the camera for the first time as “big and heavy. The 6D is a solid piece of technology.” Yes, the 6D still feels solid, though I don’t really notice its size all that much. If I pick up my old camera, sure, the T3i seems small and light by comparison, but I don’t find myself complaining about the 6D’s size and weight. In fact, I can’t really think of a time when I left the 6D at home simply because I thought it would be too much to carry. With a 50mm f/1.8 lens, its footprint isn’t much different than my old cropped sensor.
Six months ago, I wrote that I that I still used the Peak Design Clutch on the full frame camera, but that I thought I’d need a different type of strap for longer sessions like weddings or nature walks. My initial thoughts were correct: I don’t use the Peak Design Clutch anymore. I bought the Black Rapid Curve Strap and haven’t looked back. I love the Black Rapid strap for its comfort and security. And I love that I can let the camera rest at my waist during long sessions with heavy lenses, like a 70-200mm f/2.8.
When I first bought my full frame Canon 6D, I fell in love with the separate scroll wheels for changing aperture and shutter speed. After six months of use, changing these two settings is a breeze. However, I wish the ISO button was in a better place; in fact, I wish the camera had a third scroll wheel to change ISO.
The ISO button on the 6D is one in a series of buttons on top of the camera. Yes, you can find it by touch since it has a difference surface than the other buttons, but it’s just not as comfortable or as intuitive as the aperture or shutter speed wheels. As someone who shoots in manual, I want to change the exposure triangle without pausing to think about which button changes what function. The 6D just isn’t quite there yet. There are cameras that get this right: I know the Fuji mirrorless cameras–which are cropped sensor–have separate physical wheels for the exposure triangle. Come on, Canon! Just one more scroll wheel, please!
(Update a few hours after publishing: thank you to Simon Brettell's comment after the article. I have just updated the physical settings of my camera to make changing the ISO setting a little more intuitive. You can change the “SET” button's function to affect the ISO setting if you hold the “SET” button and scroll the wheel for shutter speed. While this is much like the default for changing aperture on my old camera, it is better than the default on the Canon 6D. Time will tell if I like this setting or if I would still wish for a third scroll wheel. Thank you, diligent and helpful reader!)
Previously, I noted that the viewfinders of both my old and new camera had the same focus-point layout, which was untrue. The full frame 6D has 11 focus points, while the cropped sensor T3i only has nine. Not a big difference, and I often find myself using the center point more than the other ten points. The 6D is Canon’s baseline full frame camera, so its focus system isn’t as robust as more advanced models. The cropped sensor 7DMarkii also boasts a better focusing system. I only mention this again to say that I wish the 6D had more autofocus points; however, as a portrait photographer, I’m often just fine focusing with the center point and recomposing.
The last feature I’ll mention is the AF Microadjust/Fine Tune adjustment that I discussed in the first article. Essentially, the feature allows you to program the camera to counteract any front- or back-focusing that may occur due to manufacturing inconsistencies in lenses and camera bodies. For example, a lens might actually focus a few millimeters closer than you intend it to. Six months later, I haven’t thought about that feature at all. I think I was obsessing over a new feature and customization. I’ve rented several lenses, and I never thought that I missed focus due to a micro-adjustment problem. I miss focus due to poor technique or a fast moving subject, not a defect in the camera or lens.
2. Are full frame photos better?
Not if you don’t take good photos. No piece of equipment is as important as good light and a good eye. I still take plenty of terrible photos. More often than not, my bad photos occur due to poor light or awful composition. A more expensive camera won’t take better photos. A better photographer will.
However, the high resolution of the sensor has saved many poorly composed photos. I often photograph children, so getting a great composition can be difficult. The kids just don’t sit still long enough to consider all of your composition needs. With the full frame camera (or any high resolution sensor), I can cut off a big chunk of the photo and still get a 300dpi photo for an 8×10 or 11×14 print.
3. ISO Performance
Over the last six months, I have pushed the ISO performance of my full frame Canon 6D. (ISO is the setting that changes the light sensitivity of the sensor. A higher number means it's more sensitive to light, which means it can capture an image in low light). In my original article, I did a few test photos, pushing the ISO to 16000. Yes, the ISO 16000 photos had plenty of digital noise. But the test photos showed me that I could comfortably push my ISO to 4000 or even 8000 depending on the subject. In a pinch, I won’t hesitate to do an impromptu photo at a wedding reception with ISO 5000.
Knowing that my camera’s sensor can be set that high really gives me freedom and lessens my anxiety about quality. After six months with this full frame sensor, I don’t hesitate to push the ISO setting. I have a ton of confidence in low light. If I can keep my ISO anywhere below 1000, I know my photos really won’t suffer. On my old camera, I would worry if I went over ISO 400.
I do always remind myself that most “noise” isn’t noticed by your average viewer. Photographers will notice noise, but the average client might not. Think of all the noisy photos you see on social media!
Perhaps my answer as to whether the camera takes better photos should include that the ISO capabilities do afford me greater flexibility and confidence in more kinds of light, especially low light. Also, the Canon 6D is four-year-old technology now. The latest camera sensor technology–say, the 5DMiv–will give you even more flexibility and quality in low light or when you miss your exposure. If you know what you're doing with camera settings and RAW processing, then you could argue that a full frame sensor will help you take better photos.
4. Depth of Field
With a full frame sensor, you really get shallow depth-of-field at wide apertures. I have two f/1.8 lenses, and I know I have to be careful when I shoot wide open at f/1.8. The shallow depth-of-field leaves no room for error. I cannot focus and recompose at f/1.8. I’ll lose my focus instantly.
As I experimented with how sensitive wide-open apertures tend to be, I found myself shooting narrower f-stops, like f/2.8, f/4, or even f/8, depending on the scene. What a difference I see with the narrower aperture! The sharpness of the photo increases tremendously. Most lenses perform significantly better–i.e. they’re sharper–two stops or so narrower than their widest aperture. I have loved that the sensitivity of my full frame camera forced me to use settings that result in better sharpness. Plus, if I’m shooting an up-close portrait at f/4, the eyes and ears are in focus.
If you’re like me, when you bought your first wide-aperture lens, you became obsessed with shooting wide open. You felt like a real photographer, someone who could blur the background while everyone else with a cell phone camera couldn’t. Shaking the habit of shooting wide open is really tough. But once you do, I promise you’ll love it. Portraits with an 85mm or 100mm lens at f/4 can be stunning. Narrow your aperture. I know you’ll appreciate the results.
5. Size isn’t the issue. Quality is.
A cropped sensor camera isn’t necessarily an inferior camera. If you’re thinking about purchasing a new camera body, the real consideration is where in the line of each manufacturer’s camera bodies you are purchasing. Canon and Nikon seem to have three groups of cameras: entry-level, prosumer, and professional, with some wiggle room depending on the model. Essentially, if you’re paying under $1000US, then you’re most likely getting an entry level camera body. The performance and resolution of the sensor just won’t stack up to the next level of camera body. Spending $1000US to $2000US gets you in the prosumer line, which is where my Canon 6D resides. Beyond that, you’re paying a ton of money and getting an amazing piece of technology. Chances are, though, that someone paying over $2000US isn’t reading this article, right?
Also, consider what you like to photograph. What do you do with the camera? If you shoot sports and wildlife, where distance between you and the subject might be great, then choose a cropped sensor. You’ll appreciate the added zoom you’ll get on a crop sensor. Even landscapes can benefit from the extra zoom if you need to bring distant mountains closer to the foreground.
Again, the size of the sensor isn’t really what should make your decision. You need to consider the quality of the sensor–there are high quality cropped and full frame alike–and you need to consider what you like to photograph.
6. Buy a New Full Frame Camera Body If…
Buy a new full frame camera if you have invested in a few good lenses. If you only have kit lenses, then you should not buy a new camera body yet. You should buy a new lens or two. Buy a Nifty Fifty (a 50mm f/1.8) or a decent zoom lens, something with a constant f/2.8 aperture. I had three decent lenses (a 50mm, an 85mm, and a 28-75mm) before buying the Canon 6D. I’ve heard it said that you date your camera but you marry your lenses. Your lenses are everything. Money spent on good glass will always be a better investment than money spent on a camera body.
Buy a new full frame camera if you must have low light capabilities. If you photograph events that have awful light and won’t allow flash photography, then the ISO performance of a full frame camera is a feature worth paying for.
Buy a new full frame camera if you have invested in education, practice, and community. If you’ve read a few books, downloaded a few tutorials, worked with a mentor, done a photowalk or workshop with other photographers, and you still think the camera body is what’s holding you back, then buy a new full frame camera. Unless you’re really pushing the capabilities of your entry-level camera and no amount of training or education is moving you forward, then you don't need a new full frame camera.
7. Would I make the same purchase again?
Yes, six months ago, buying the full frame Canon 6D was right for me. Yes, it was worth it. Yes, I would do it the same way again. I had three good lenses, a 50mm f/1.4, an 85mm f/1.8, and a 28-75mm f/2.8. (Though, if I could have one do-over, I wouldn’t buy that Tamron 28-75; sorry, Jim.) With the lenses I owned and the results I was getting from my old camera, I knew I could do better with an upgraded camera body. Plus, I was getting into event photography and needed the ISO performance.
All in all, the Canon 6D is a reliable camera. It does everything I want it to do every time I go out to take photos. I will run the 6D into the ground before I buy another camera body.
What’s also great about the 6D is that I don’t think about my camera body any more. It’s a good camera with excellent image quality. Now, I think more about my lenses and my light. Do I have the right lens for the occasion, and do I have good light to make a photo? The camera body is all about function. Lenses and light are where you get creative, where photography becomes art.