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7 Questions to Ask Before You Upgrade to a Full Frame Camera Body

One of the most common questions I get by email or in the comments on this site is about upgrading equipment. What lens should I get next? Should I get a new camera body, and if so should I upgrade to a full frame camera?

Whenever I get that question in my classroom I have my student ask themselves a few questions, to help them decide on their own. That's what I'm going to do now. So if you're considering an upgrade, read on.

I can't give you the answer, but I can give you some things to consider and really ask yourself – then you can make an educated decision.

Let's look at the questions first and I'll walk you through each one in more detail.

  1. Is your current camera letting you down or limiting you in some way?
  2. Do you plan on making large prints of your images?
  3. Do you plan on, or are you doing commercial photography where large, high resolution files are required?
  4. Do you plan on, or are you doing stock photography and they've listed “full frame camera” as a requirement?
  5. Do you have a large bank account with almost unlimited funds which you can use to buy stuff?
  6. Is your existing camera failing?
  7. Is it truly a need?
Reader Question full frame questions
Photo by Colin Kinner
Is your current camera limiting you in some way?
If you have a DSLR that's four years old or older, you may find that it's starting to limit you in the area of ISO. New advanced in technology in that area have gone a long way recently. So if that is the case you may want to consider getting a new camera; but do you need to go all the way up to full frame?

Keep reading before you decide.

As your photography improves and you learn new techniques and try out new genres of photography, you may also feel limited by some of your camera's features. Things such as: burst rate or frames per second, focus accuracy and speed, and durability of the camera itself. Sports and action photography does require a camera a step above the entry level ones, if you are really serious about doing that kind of shooting.

Entry level DSLRs have mostly plastic bodies. As you move up the scale of camera options they get more well made, including metal-alloy bodies, and you do not need to go to full frame to get that feature. So, do you need go to the top, the very best? Or would a couple of models up do the trick for you?

Are you going to make large prints of your work?
First let's define large. In my world a large print is not an 8×10, that's the smallest size I print for fine art work. No, by large I'm talking about prints that are 30″ or larger. Big wall art printed on canvas, metal or some other fine art medium. Think art that hangs in show homes as decor to entice the buyers. Think giant prints over a lawyer's board room table. LARGE!
Reader Question full frame large print
Photo by Jonathan

The reality is, sadly, that most of us don't make many prints any more. In fact a while back the monthly challenge was to make a print at least 16″ or larger. Some that participated hadn't printed their work before. If you relate to that and currently don't make a lot of large prints – do you really need a full frame camera?

The amount of megapixels in some of the top end cameras now, borders on ridiculous. Back in my days of shooting weddings with film I used a medium format camera. Pretty much only pros used such a camera. It was out of reach to amateurs price wise, skills wise, and just generally not something the general population owned. Now the high-end cameras rival quality from those medium format film ones, and I see many hobby photographers buying them because they can. It's become something to covet. Let me suggest something else to covet.

Become a master of light!

Just because you have more pixels than the next guy does not mean you know what to do with them. Give me a high-performance race car and I'd have no idea what to do with it. Let me say it in a different way:

Bigger is not necessarily better!

Be honest with yourself on this one. If you plan on making a photo book from a company like Blurb.com or similar, putting some of your photos on Facebook or maybe on your own portfolio on Zenfolio, and sharing with friends and family – do you really need a full frame megapixel monster camera? Or is it overkill?

Are you doing commercial photography where large, high resolution files are required?

Reader Question full frame commercial

Back to the medium format reference again. I have photographer friends who do commercial advertising photography. They regular do shots for magazines, billboards, corporations' annual reports where they need high resolution files for such jobs.

If your plan is to do that kind of work, then perhaps full frame is the way to go for you. If not, keep reading.

Are you going to do stock photography?
I haven't read the requirements for doing stock photography lately (each agency may have different rules) so I can't answer this for you. If this is an area of photography you want to branch into, then do some research. Find out what file size they require and if it stipulates that you must be using a full frame camera or not. Likely that isn't a requirement.

From what I remember when I dabbled in it for a while was that they need a certain file size uploaded, and they do look at image quality. But quality also has to do with noise (somewhat controlled by you in-camera and can be corrected in the processing stage), lighting, composition, having a clear subject in the image, and sharpness. Most of those things have nothing to do with the camera you're using. Get all the rest of those things handled – then see if you still need full frame.

Do you have unlimited funds to spend?

Reader Question full frame money

Well if you are in the category of having more money than time – then the rest of us are jealous. If that is the case and you want to treat yourself and have only the best – then I say go for it. But, please always remember:

It's not the camera that takes good photos –
it's you that needs to create them!

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Is your existing camera failing or broken?
Digital cameras have a lifespan – a limited number of shutter actuations that they can perform – before they die.

I had my original Canon 5D Classic for six years. I saw no reason to upgrade to the MarkII as it was still working for me just fine. By the time the MarkIII came out my original body was starting to show some signs of quitting on me. The body had a few dings on it and every now and then it took a pure black photo (signs of the shutter dying).

You can find out your shutter count using a site like Camera Shutter Count.com, or google your camera model and the words “shutter count” to find out its expected lifespan. If you discover your camera is nearing the end, and you answered YES to at least one of the questions above then you might want to upgrade to full frame. If not and you said NO to all the questions above – hold on for a while.

Likewise if your camera is broken or has become damaged beyond reasonable or feasible repair. If it costs more to fix a four year old camera than buy a new one, it's not worth it. But there is a big difference going from say a Canon Rebel or Nikon D3300, and the likes of the Canon 5DM3 or Nikon D810. There are lots of options in between that range – consider a step up, but not a giant leap.

Do you NEED it?

Reader Question full frame question marks

By now after reading this far you probably have a pretty good idea if you need full frame or not. Years ago I got this advice from a business advisor and it has stuck with me to this day. Think about this before you make any major purchase:

  • Is it going to save you money?
  • Is it going to help you make more money?
  • Is it going to save you time?

If it does one of those things, then buy it – it is a tool, a real need. If it does none of the above, then you can still buy it – but understand clearly (no fooling yourself) that it is a WANT, a toy – NOT a need.

One more thing to consider

So, if you said NO to most, or all of the questions above do you still feel you need to upgrade to a full frame camera? As I said above, don't let me talk you out of it if your mind is made up. But let me give you one more thing to consider before you make your final decision.

What if you spent that money on photography education instead? What if you do indeed buy a new camera, but just go up a model or two? Save yourself $1000-2000, and invest that in some courses, ebooks, or maybe even go on a photography tour? Which is going to advance your photography to the next level more – a full frame camera body, or actually learning and doing photography?

You decide

Now that you're armed with information and knowledge, you can make that informed decision I mentioned earlier. If you're hell bent on full frame here are a few choices:

Going the other route and upgrading, but not all the way? Here are some options for you:

Other options

OR keep what you have for a while and take a course – or come on a travel photography tour!

Cuba Jan2015 1046 2400px
Cuba photo tour – experience new things
Cuba Jan2015 0460 2400px
Cuba photo tour – make friends and have fun doing photography
Nicaragua Feb14 0366 1100px
Nicaragua photo tour – relax and photograph in the best light and amazing locations
Nicaragua Mar14 1794 1100px
Nicaragua photo tour – photo opportunities daily
Drumheller sept 2012 036 7 8 9b online
Drumheller, Alberta weekend workshop – learn new techniques
Upgrade full frame 750px 03
Drumheller, Alberta weekend workshop – learn about light
Upgrade full frame 750px 02
Drumheller, Alberta weekend workshop – learn light painting
Upgrade full frame 750px 01
Drumheller, Alberta weekend workshop – learn how I did this?!

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png


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