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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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  • Instead of blowing the bank or credit card, why not rent the full frame when you need it? I also use a printing company and get 22″x30″ from an apsc jpeg. They have a $300k printer. Get good first.

  • LTE

    A helpful article and very on point . On a similar note, I suppose this thought process can also be used to help decide if it makes sense to upgrade to another camera in the same format. I have a Sony A6000. It’s a great little camera and as you noted a lot of people have been very impressed with it. However, because the native lens lineup and accessories are somewhat limited when compared to Nikon and Canon DSLRs (and that lack of choice translates into fewer options at different price points and a somewhat smaller experienced support community), I often wonder if I might find the Sony options limiting and be better served in the long term by switching systems to a more “beaten path” rather than continuing to invest in my current system. Is this, in your opinion, a reason to consider switching?

    • Honestly I’d stick with the Sony. They will come out with new lenses for it and as it’s been pointed out – learning to use your gear and getting good at photography are way more important. One lens and a camera and you can take great photos. I think too often we get caught up on what we’re missing out on. Focus on what you HAVE not what’s missing.

      • LTE

        Thank you, Darlene. I thought that would likely be your response. With all of the options available, it is difficult to restrain that nagging voice that keeps telling us that the one thing we don’t have is the one thing that will make all the difference. 🙂

  • Pete Mueller

    I thought one’s lens “collection” would factor as a major talking point? If you’ve purchased additional lenses suited to your current crop body (perhaps nice and pricey ones??), you’ll likely be needing/wanting to upgrade/replace those as well in most cases.

    • Yes another very valid point that I missed, thanks for adding that! However, most APS-C specialty lenses aren’t as high-end as the top of the line ones – so if someone is going to go full frame they’ll likely consider new glass at some point too if they haven’t already.

  • Thanks for this article. It really clarified the issue for me. Number 2 was a strong ‘maybe someday’ for me, but your comments about money spent on education first, instead of equipment, really made sense. Sometimes, in photography circles that I’ve participated in, comparing my gear to others can make me feel my equipment is inferior and ergo, so is my photography. More likely it’s just my inexperience that influences the quality of what I produce. Thanks for helping me get that in perspective. The question of upgrading equipment should be settled by the individual and their specific needs and I think you’ve laid out good decision making points.

  • Vinay Bavdekar

    Isn’t quoting the price as $2296 USD a tautology? Just saying…

    • As in redundant? No. Many countries of the world use dollars: Canada, Australia, New Zealand to name a few. None of which are the same value and conversation rate as US dollars.

  • Leyden

    As your loyal readers may have surmised by my passed dribble, I’m on a limited retirement income, but I can plan, and one of those plans was to only upgrade lenses to full-frame compatible, now I don’t think so…..Thanks!!!

    • Glad to have helped. I’m not here to convince anyone of anything but give you information so that you can make your own educated decisions.

      • Leyden

        Indeed, it was the education that convinced me that sticking to a ‘full frame someday’ attitude is too limiting

  • L Free

    Darlene,
    Thanks for this thoughtful and well laid out article! An excellent example of the thinking needed, not only to consider upgrading camera equipment, but any purchase or equipment upgrade. So often (too often?) we just covet the newest, biggest, greatest, maybe even most expensive because of some ego or emotional issues! Great to see this article that redirects all of that constructively!
    Lynn

  • Thanks! I was about to invest in a Full Frame and not I won’t. 🙂

    • Didn’t answer yes to more than one of the questions hey? 😉 If so, then probably a good call.

  • TriciaB

    Great article! I’ve been debating upgrading to the 7D Mark
    II or the 5D Mark III for a while. To be honest, I am still not sure, even
    after reading your article. As well as upgrading my camera, it’s also time for
    me to upgrade my lenses (70-200mm is on my list). Currently I mostly shoot
    animal/pet/action, travel and landscapes. I’ve had some requests to do a few
    weddings as well. A big issue leaning me towards the full frame is the cropped
    field of view I’d get with the cropped sensor. So my 70-200mm would act more
    like a 112-320mm which would mean I’d need another lens to make up for the lost
    actual 70mm-100mm range. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this Darlene? 🙂

    • Tricia – honestly the cropped view can be an advantage at times. If you do sports it sure is! 70-200 f/2.8 on a cropped sensor is a 105-300mm (as you said). 300mm f/2.8 is a lot more expensive if you have to buy that lens which is what most sports shooters use. If you find it too long for the pet stuff rein it in to the short end. Or get a 28-70 f/2.8 to compliment it. Or heck get a 50mm f1/8 to go with it.

      No I’d say that is not necessarily a disadvantage.

  • Darlene Dunn

    My Nikon D60 was 8 years old and I just went through this thought process myself . I went with a Nikon D7100. I love the sturdy feel and all my lenses still work. I don’t shoot to make a living, so it was the right decision for me and I love my new equipment. It’s so hard to turn the “want” voice off sometimes 🙂

    • Great choice! So you concur with my questions?

      • Darlene Dunn

        Your questions are spot on. I’m new to your site/blog/newsletter and am excited to read and do the challenges as well as the rest of your material and insights.

  • Harold Mayo

    I am a teacher and events/concert photographer. I totally agree with your article. Many of my students think they need to upgrade to a full frame camera, not thinking of the additional cost and other factors, when the crop-body is just fine for what they do. I have heard every excuse in the book, then turned around and sent a photo taken on a basic camera body with a cheapo lens. Getting people to understand it is the person behind the lens that is the most important factor seems to be the hard part.

  • GreenMountainGirl

    Hi Darlene! While I still want a full frame camera, I have put it on hold for a while. For now my plan is to invest in better lenses. My Nikon D7000 is still a good camera, although I have begun to see its limitations (such as ISO and resolution). But after reading your article, I am going to find out my shutter count so I can estimate how much life it has left!

    I’ve never been one to jump into a new purchase without considering all the angles first, and doing the research to (hopefully) ensure I get the best choice I can afford. Already upgraded my tripod and am very glad I did!

  • One item that a friend told me about was that he had recently bought a higher end Canon full frame camera body, now most of his old lenses do not work. Something about white dot and red dot??? I have a Nikon D7000, but was wondering what lens I have would work on a full frame. Is there an easy way to tell?

  • Felicity

    mmmm…I upgraded to a Nikon D750, will never look back…really….HOWEVER, now I have to work to get the lenses I NEED….. This article is true, don’t do it, first think of the after-effect – it becomes a VERY costly issue 🙂

  • Filmmaker Phil

    I have a Canon T2i and recently purchased a 24mm Rokinon lens. I was thinking of upgrading to bmpcc but the $$$ I’ll have plop down will set me back a bit. Should I just keep my t2i and invest in more glass?

  • Sebastian Sassi

    Very interesting read. As someone who mostly shoots candids of the family and landscapes here in CO and in Italy, for those applications the answers are pretty universally “no” on all of the above. I’m rarely in a context where I feel hamstrung by not being able to shoot continuous 6f per second bursts or fast moving sports action. And modern crop sensor Nikons like my D5200 have 24mp sensors, so the 24″ prints I’ve made look incredibly sharp…heck, lots of the full frame older models I looked at had lower count sensors. For me it’s all about taking time to construct the image, manage the settings, and focus carefully–a more expensive frame isn’t going to do any better in this regard. It’s the person behind the shutter that matters. Would my images be even better with more than 24mp? Maybe, but hard to say that you’d notice the difference.

    Unless you’re shooting a lot of video or need the speed of the more sophisticated full frames, the modern offerings from Nikon and Canon are more than adequate it seems. The pro photographers of 20 years ago would have killed for the capabilities $500 cameras have today.

  • Liz

    I just ran across this. About a year and a half ago i upgraded from a D3300 to a D7200 and have not been disappointed at all. I am now starting to do a lot more, including weddings and am getting worried i should have a full frame to be more “professional” for this stuff. Thoughts?

    • So based on our chat on Facebook assuming you’ve answered your own questions now??

  • John Nicholson

    Very clear and helpful. I can now stop wondering whether FF wwould do anything for me that my X-Vario, Sony 6000(+Zeiss) and Pentax K50 don’t already do perfectly well!

    • Awesome! So you answered your own questions. Now do something exciting with all the money you just saved!

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