In the semi-pro and professional segments, full-frame cameras remain the go-to choice for photographers. And for the simple reason that they produce better images and offer superior lenses.
Previously, picking the right full-frame camera was an easy choice, as only Nikon and Canon produced them. But, starting in 2014, the mirrorless revolution emerged, and the markets shifted. And the advent of mirrorless cameras ignited stiff competition between manufacturers. So much so, now, that every player in today’s game offers comparable options.
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Thankfully, the increased competition has also meant that prices have steadily decreased over the years. And once an exclusivity to pro photographers, now provides a much broader appeal.
Now, whether you’re looking to upgrade from an APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, or Point and Shoot camera or desiring the ultimate professional tool, getting a full-frame camera is an excellent option. In today’s post, we’ll cover the factors to consider when looking at full-frame cameras. And we’ve also compiled a list of the top ten best full-frame cameras in the present market.
Canon EOS R5
Canon’s EOS R5 is the current RF flagship and the mirrorless counterpart to the 5D series. Released in 2020, it features a 45MP CMOS sensor, 8K DCI 30p, 4K DCI up to 120p, and 1080p FHD 60p. It also has a 3.2-inch vari-angle touchscreen, a top-deck status LCD, in-body stabilization, log profiles, HDR, zebras, multiple exposures, focus bracketing, time-lapse, USB-C, dual card slots, microphone and headphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The R5 obtains Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF II from the flagship 1DX Mark III, with 5,940 selectable AF points covering the entire frame. It also receives head-detect AF, which is new to Canon’s mirrorless line. And combined, it delivers the fastest focusing of all RF cameras at just 0.05 seconds. But, at only 650g body alone, it’s about the same weight as the base EOS R. However, Canon’s upped the level of durability with a similar magnesium alloy design from the 1DX, producing even better weather sealing. Additionally, they’ve redesigned the sensor with faster scan rates, which almost entirely removes rolling shutter.
Overall, Canon’s EOS R5 debuts several previously unseen features. And it’s a significant milestone in their lineup. Sure, they may have fallen behind in recent years, but this camera changed their fate. And this is easily their best stills camera ever released.
Sony’s a9 is their most specialized full-frame camera and the first camera to switch to fully digital SSD based technology. Released in 2017, it features a 24MP stacked BSI CMOS sensor, 4K UHD 30p, and 1080p FHD 120p. It also has a 3-inch tilting touchscreen, in-body stabilization, zebras, time-lapse, an ethernet port for FTP, a flash sync port, mic and headphone ports, dual card slots, and wireless connectivity.
The a9 uses Sony’s 693-point phase-detect AF system with 93% frame coverage and support to -3 EV. And it makes 60 autofocus and exposure calculations per second, allowing it to produce class-leading subject tracking performance. But, crucially, the a9 was Sony’s first camera to offer a stacked backside-illuminated design, which offers 10x faster readout speeds and processing power.
This added speed allows the camera to produce 20 FPS bursts without any blackout. And its anti-distortion design virtually removes any rolling shutter, allowing it to shoot completely silently at these speeds with outstanding quality. Yet, at 588g body alone, it’s similarly sized to the a7 cameras. But, with its full magnesium alloy chassis, it provides superior strength.
Overall, Sony’s a9 was the first camera that truly cemented them into the otherwise DSLR dominated segment. And it dawned a new era in imaging that proved mirrorless can indeed meet the demands of working pros.
Panasonic’s S5 is the company’s latest full-frame mirrorless camera. Released in 2020, it features a 24MP CMOS sensor, 4K UHD 60p, and 1080p FHD up to 180p. It also has a 3-inch free-angle touchscreen, in-body stabilization, log profiles, weather sealing, High-Res Shot, 4K Photo, time-lapse, dual card slots, mic and headphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The S5 uses Panasonic’s 225-point contrast AF system with DFD technology and support to -6 EV. This system also brings along Body detection, allowing the camera to focus on subjects turned away from the camera. Additionally, this camera receives the HLG Photo Mode to capture high dynamic range images and now in various panoramic dimensions. But easily, the key highlight is that it offers 10-bit 4:2:2 unlimited video recording, making it one of few full-frame cameras to provide this rare feature.
Overall, the S5 is arguably Panasonic’s best hybrid camera. And while it’s the entry point in the current LUMIX S line, it builds heavily on the S1H with a surprisingly attractive price.
Panasonic’s S1 was their first full-frame mirrorless camera and the first camera to initiate the S lineage. Released in 2019, it features a 24MP MOS sensor, 4K UHD 60p, and 1080p FHD 60p. It also has a 3.2-inch tri-axle touchscreen, weather sealing, in-body stabilization, HDR, a full-sized HDMI, Post Focus, USB-C, a status LCD, dual card slots, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The S1 uses Panasonic’s 225-point AF system; the same system featured on the newer S5. And it too provides refined DFD technology for more sophisticated subject tracking. But, it was their first camera to debut animal tracking. And, crucially, it offers the High Res Mode, which combines eight photos in-camera to create 96MP images. It also offers both the 4K and 6K Photo modes to pull 18MP images from a 30 FPS video, plus full HLG support with unlimited recording time to boast.
Overall, Panasonic’s S1 packs nearly every feature they’ve released to date into a single camera. And as their first attempt at full-frame, it has little shortcomings.
Nikon’s D850 is their latest super-high-resolution DSLR. Released in 2017, it features a 45MP CMOS sensor without an AA filter, 4K UHD 30p, and 1080p FHD 60p. It also has a 3.2-inch tilting touchscreen, time-lapse, weather sealing, dual card slots, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The D850 uses Nikon’s 153-point phase-detect AF system taken from the flagship D5. And it provides the best autofocus in the category, closely matching Sony’s A7R series. However, it houses an enormous 45-megapixel back-side illuminated sensor, delivering class-leading resolution and dynamic range. Yet it does so, producing the longest battery life in the segment at 1,840 shots per charge, more than doubling its nearest rival.
Overall, Nikon’s D850 proves DSLRs are still a worthwhile option, despite the trends towards compact mirrorless cameras. And it ups the stands in robustness and professionalism into a package that culminates into Nikon’s best all-rounded to date.
Sony a7 Mark III
Sony’s A7III is easily one of the most popular mirrorless cameras to date. Released in 2018, it features a 24MP BSI CMOS sensor, 4K UHD 30p, and 1080p FHD 120p video. It also has a 3.0″ tilting touchscreen, in-body stabilization, log profiles, weather sealing, dual card slots, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The A7III uses Sony’s 693-point phase-detect system, with 93% coverage, which is identical to the a9. And it too provides outstanding performance with full-time face and eye-detection. But, it was the first a7 series camera to debut the larger Z-type battery, which currently offers the longest battery life of all full-frame mirrorless cameras at 710 shots per charge.
Overall, Sony’s A7III remains a strong option, given its performance and attractive price. And it’s an excellent choice for first-timers looking for an upgrade.
Nikon’s D780 is their most refined and versatile release to date. Released in 2020, it features 24MP CMOS sensor, 4K UHD 30p, and 1080p Full HD 120p video. It also has a 3.2-inch tilting touchscreen, time-lapse, weather sealing, dual card slots, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The D780 uses Nikon’s 51-point PDAF system with 3D-Tracking. But, it was also the first camera to incorporate a 273-point phase-detection Live View system. And this addition, in particular, ensures critically sharp portraits and videos.
Nikon’s even equipped the camera with 10-bit log and HLG to preserve dynamic range, contrast, and detail. But, with a battery life of 2,200+ shots, it offers unmatched stamina in the entire full-frame segment.
Overall, the D780 shatters traditional expectations of SLR capabilities. And Nikon’s provided an enormous upgrade to an already well-engineered platform. As it stands, it’s their best all-rounder to date and a doubly powerful option for DSLR filmmaking.
Canon 5D Mark IV
Canon’s 5D Mark IV is the flagship of the acclaimed 5D series. Released in 2016, it features a 30MP CMOS sensor, 4K UHD 30p, and 1080p FHD 60p. It also has a 3.2″ touchscreen, weather sealing, dual card slots, time-lapse, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The 5D IV uses Canon’s 61-point phase-detect AF system, taken from the flagship 1DX II. And it also obtains Canon’s Dual Pixel AF, allowing the camera to produce smooth and cinematic focusing in Live View, which is the best of the series to date. The updated 30-megapixel sensor delivers the best image quality and dynamic range as well. Yet, it does so with a 900 shot battery life.
Overall, the 5D Mark IV holds true to the line’s original heritage and remains a well-rounded camera. Since its debut, it’s continued as a workhorse in the professional’s tool belt. But it delivers the series’s best performance to date.
Nikon’s Z6 is the entry-level option in their full-frame mirrorless lineup. Released in 2018, it features a 24MP BSI CMOS sensor, 4K UHD 30p, and 1080p 120p video. It also features a 3.2-inch tilting touchscreen, a status LCD, in-body stabilization, log profiles, weather sealing, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The Z6 uses Nikon’s 273-point phase-detect AF system with continuous eye and animal detection. And it delivers the best autofocusing performance in the line to date. Nikon’s also equipped this camera with several high-end video features, namely, 10-bit via HDMI, built-in time-code, and N-log. And these make it quite a package for budding filmmakers.
Overall, the Z6 is an excellent all-rounder and a solid option for those wanting to go mirrorless but enjoy DSLR styling and ergonomics.
Sony A7R IV
Sony’s A7R IV is their latest high-resolution mirrorless camera. Released in 2019, it features a 60MP BSI CMOS sensor, 4K 30p, and 1080 FHD 120p video. It also has a 3″ tilting touchscreen, in-body stabilization, log profiles, dual card slots, weather sealing, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The A7R IV uses Sony’s 567-point phase-detect AF system with face-detection and real-time tracking. And like the A7III, it debuts the new Z battery, which delivers the longest lifespan in this regard as well. But, at 60-megapixel, this camera shines in detail. And both stills and videos produce unrivaled quality, which remains mostly unmatched by rivals.
Overall, Sony’s A7R IV shines as the ultimate full-frame camera. And not only does it provide class-leading resolution, but it’s doubly capable as a hybrid shooter for filmmakers wanting enormous detail. And, as a package, it’s quite a powerful option indeed.
Do you need a full-frame camera?
Technically, the answer here is no, you do not need a full-frame camera. However, there should probably be a little more explanation in order for you to understand the whole story. Today’s crop-sensor cameras, like APS-C and Micro Four Thirds models, will give plenty of resolution and low light performance to please most photographers, even many professionals. If you add in that most photographs, even professional ones, end up getting sized down and altered to be viewed on Instagram through reduced phone resolutions, there’s not a lot of benefit to investing in a full-frame camera.
Compared to APS-C, Micro Four Thirds and compact cameras, the main advantage of the full-frame format is sensor size: with more space on the sensor, pixels are larger and can gather more light. That translates into outstanding image quality in low light and at higher ISO sensitivities.
The full-frame camera earns its name by having a 35mm sensor — the largest available on the market today. This sensor creates images that are noticeably better in quality than any other camera format. Because of the large sensor, professional photographers usually choose full-frame cameras.
And compared to smaller APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, or compact cameras, they offer a key advantage, which is sensor size.
However, there is one subjective quality of larger sensors that can make a real difference, even if you’re viewing the image on your phone via Instagram. That one exception is the depth of field control. A full-frame sensor will yield a shallower depth of field (that is, more background blur) than a smaller sensor with a lens at the same aperture setting. So, the complete answer can be summed up only one way.
If you want that silky-smooth, ultra-shallow depth of field then a full-frame camera might be worth the investment for you. However, you will also need to purchase a lens with a bright aperture, like f/1.4, which tend to be quite expensive, so you will have an added cost involved.
For prints, a full-frame camera can give you some real advantages, especially if you choose a model like the Sony AR7 IV which serves up a pixel count that no crop-sensor camera can even come close to reaching. More pixels means that you can make a larger print at the same number of pixels per inch (PPI). However, keep in mind that you do not need to invest in a full-frame camera to end up with a high-quality print.
Camera Type: DSLRs or Mirrorless
The biggest consideration, bar none, is the type of full-frame camera you prefer. Today’s full-frame cameras come in two varieties, DSLRs or mirrorless.
For decades, DSLRs regained king in the full-frame segment. But, in 2014, with the release of the Sony a7 series, things changed. And this particular release originally catapulted the full-frame mirrorless revolution, finally proving that mirrorless cameras could offer similar quality in a smaller and more portable form factor. Now today, mirrorless cameras are a significant player in the game. And many professionals have already made the switch from DSLR to mirrorless. Not to mention, both Canon and Nikon are making the switch themselves.
So what are the main differences between these cameras?
In short, the main differences are viewfinders, form factor, battery life, and lens ecosystems. DLSRs use an optical viewfinder, while mirrorless cameras use an electronic. Optical viewfinders present what is coming through the lens, giving you a real-world view.
An electronic viewfinder, however, gives you a digital presentation. The benefit of optical is that they’re entirely lag-free. But, they don’t provide any feedback in gagging exposure; you only see what the lens sees. While electronic viewfinders usually have a bit of lag. But, at least you get a visual representation of the exposure in real-time.
DSLRs also offer superior ergonomics due to their inherent larger design. And this gives manufacturers more room to install larger capacity batteries, which offer upwards of 2-3x longer lifespans than the best mirrorless cameras. And since they’ve been around for much longer, their lens ecosystems are also fully fleshed out.
Resolution is another critical area of consideration, as it determines the overall image quality. Camera manufacturers indicate resolution through megapixel count (noted MP for short). And when it comes to full-frame cameras, the higher the megapixel count, the greater the detail during large format printing.
However, it’s important to note that the difference between 24MP and 45MP is usually not discernible at smaller sizes. So, unless you’re a landscape, architectural, product, or commercial photographer making large prints, you may not appreciate the difference. It’s also key to understand that a higher resolution camera requires technique, particularly proper focusing and stabilization. Any movements during the exposure will be magnified as ghosting and blur during playback.
Continuous shooting speed, measured in Frames Per Second (FPS), is something to consider if you plan on shooting sports, action, or wildlife. Most photographers don’t need ultra-fast shooting speeds. But, burst rates of 10 FPS or more are a must to capture truly fast subjects. However, manufacturers have to make comprises to create cameras that go above 10 FPS. In this case, the main downside being resolution, which tends to decrease as frame rates increases.
Additionally, these cameras are also the most expensive models on the market, typically doubling their slower counterparts. But, this is also part of the trade-off required to create sensor technology to shoot this fast.
We mentioned this briefly above. But, it’s essential to understand mirrorless cameras don’t offer comparable battery life to DSLRs. Instead, they provide the advantage of compact size. And since most full-frame mirrorless cameras are relatively small, there isn’t a ton of room for large capacity batteries. Even the newest mirrorless cameras only offer 700 shots per charge. In comparison, a mid-range DSLR provides 1,300, and the professional levels 2,000. In practice, this is an enormous difference. And this becomes one of their biggest complaints.
Not every full-frame camera is ruggedly built and ready to handle the abuse of adventure photography. And while many cameras are advertised as fully weather-sealed, there isn’t a standardization or universal practice to confirm this. So the degree of sealing will vary between cameras.
If you’re accustomed to navigating on smartphones, you may find it frustrating and archaic to rely on buttons and knobs alone. But, sadly, not every full-frame camera offers a touchscreen LCD. And if they do, not every manufacturer optimizes their user interface for this style of input.
Image Stabilization (IS) is essential if you plan on shooting in a run & gun fashion or low light. Having stabilization will help the camera combat shake, preventing blurring images. And you can rely on internal stabilization instead of ISO. The combination of these helps ensure you get sharp photos when you’re shooting in otherwise challenging conditions.
Last Updated on September 17, 2023 by Photography PX Published November 1, 2020