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Technology is often known for its trickle-down factor, with higher-end features slowly appearing in more affordable products. This is certainly true for digital cameras, and right now, the latest feature making its way down the pipeline is the full-frame sensor.
The recently introduced Nikon D600 DSLR ($1,999 with free shipping, a low by $98) and the Canon EOS 6D DSLR ($2,075 with free shipping, a low by $24) are currently the lowest-priced full-frame cameras on the market. At around $2,000, they're not inexpensive, but they are about $900 to $5,000 less than current generation full-frame models. Plus, these full-featured cameras are physically smaller and lighter than other full-frame DSLRs — a necessary change if manufacturers want these advanced models to be appealing to the average consumer. So are full-frame sensors soon to become commonplace technology for all advanced amateur cameras? And if so, why should you care?
A full-frame sensor gets its name from being about the same size as a 35mm frame of film (36mm x 24mm). Because a full-frame sensor is physically larger than other, more commonly used sensors (such as APS-C size sensors), the larger surface of the sensor can accommodate larger pixels or photosites. This, in turn, delivers better image quality with increased dynamic range. It also boasts the ability to shoot at higher ISOs with less image noise.
Put a compatible 35mm lens on a full-frame camera, and you get the true focal range of the lens, instead of the crop factor delivered by smaller sensors. For example, if you put a 100mm lens on a DSLR with an APS-C sensor that has a 1.5x crop factor, the effective 35mm-equivalent focal length is 150mm. Put the same lens on a full-frame camera, and the angle of view is actually 100mm. While some photographers appreciate the extra reach that the crop factor delivers, others prefer full-frame cameras because they offer a wider-angle field of view.
While no one will turn up their nose at better image quality, the affect a full-frame sensor has on focal length is a mixed bag, depending on the lenses used. Nikon offers both FX (full-frame) and DX (designed for digital cameras with a crop factor) lenses, which fit on both full-frame and cropped sensor cameras. The DX, however, comes with a crop factor regardless of what type of sensor a camera has. Canon's EF-S lenses were designed for digital cameras, and are only compatible with crop sensor DSLRs such as the Canon EOS T4i. Canon EF lenses can be used on both full-frame and crop sensor models. It may sound messy, but it's important to keep this in mind when shopping around for a full-frame DSLR.
Full-frame sensors aren't limited to DSLRs, either. Leica has been using full-frame sensors in its rangefinders for quite a while and Sony recently debuted the smallest full-frame model ever — the Sony Cyber-shot DSC RX1 ($2,798 with free shipping, a low by $1) available in December. However, the new Leica M-E is priced at $5,450. That said, if you want a full-frame camera, we'd recommend going with the aforementioned Nikon D600 or the Canon 6D, as they offer the most affordable entry points.
It's likely that the price point associated with this premium feature will in fact continue to drop, at least for DSLRs. Not only should the starting price of full-frame cameras gradually decrease, but it's also important to keep in mind that naturally, as these models age, their deal prices will also go down. For example, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR is a 4-year-old full-frame model that we originally listed for nearly $3,400; it now occasionally dips as low as $2,100 with a lens (a low by $500). Thus, with the current Nikon and Canon models starting at $2,100, they're bound to usher in new all-time low prices as they age.
It's also possible too that full-frame sensors will make their way into more compact cameras than the Leica M and the Sony RX1. But it may take longer for that to happen, and probably longer still before we'll see a full-frame compact camera that costs under $500 — a price point that many consumers would expect. However, camera manufacturers have surprised us before, so anything is possible.
Readers with a penchant for photography, what do you think of full-frame sensors making their way into consumer cameras? Is it a feature you'd pay a premium for, or will you wait until it becomes a cheaper option? Sound off in the comments below.