A popular topic of debate among photographers is whether or not full-frame digital cameras let in more light than other types of cameras. If you visit any photography forum on this subject, you will see commenters making strong cases on either side. So, who is right? Do full-frame cameras let in more light? Well, yes, and no.
Full-frame cameras do not actually let in more light. The sensor on a full-frame camera will not find more light than the sensor on any other camera. However, because the pixels on full-frame cameras are so much larger, there is less noise on full-frame images.
When all other settings are equal, a full-frame camera can typically produce better images in lower light due to the higher ISO sensitivity. Read on to learn more about full-frame cameras and how they operate in low-light situations.
What Is a Full-Frame Camera?
A full-frame camera is a camera that uses a full-frame sensor. This means that the camera’s sensor is 36 x 24mm. The term “full-frame” comes from the fact that the sensor is the same size as one full frame of 35mm film. These cameras pay homage to the film cameras that came before and offer similar benefits.
Other cameras on the market use APS-C crop sensors which are 22 x 15mm. Because full-frame sensors are so much larger, each captured pixel is also much bigger. Bigger pixels translate to greater light sensitivity and better image quality overall, due to the decrease in image noise.
Full-frame cameras offer other advantages besides higher light sensitivity. While light sensitivity is great, that alone would not be enough to make these high-dollar cameras as popular as they are today. We will cover more of those other features later in this article.
Does a Full-Frame Capture More Light?
While a full-frame sensor does not necessarily let in more light, as stated above, it will produce better quality images. This is due, in part, to the full-frame camera’s large sensor and its higher sensitivity to light. Images will come out clearer and sharper, with less electronic noise obscuring image detail.
If a full-frame camera and a crop-sensor camera are set to equal exposure settings and have the same number of pixels, a full-frame image will still show better lighting. This is because, even though the number of pixels in both cameras is the same, the pixels on the full-frame sensor are much larger.
In larger pixels, light gradation will show more clearly, and less electronic noise and distortion will come through on the final image.
Do Full-Frame Cameras Work for Low-Light Photography?
Full-frame cameras work great for low-light photography. There are many styles of photography that call for cameras with low-light capabilities. A full-frame camera would be the most appropriate choice for capturing photos in these environments.
- Photos of cityscapes and buildings.
- Photos of concerts where flash photography is not allowed.
- Nighttime events, like parties and weddings.
- Moody sets, like boudoir shoots.
- Photoshoots set at dusk or dawn.
Not all photographs feature people. When darkness falls and all the lights in the city square come on, a full-frame photograph can make the city look alive. Conversely, a lively concert likely will not allow flash photography, so it is necessary to have a camera that can handle operating in a low-light, high ISO environment.
Some weddings and events go on into the evening, especially wedding receptions. People pay a lot of money to have their special day documented with beautiful pictures. It is important to have the proper camera and equipment to get high-quality photos, regardless of the evening’s low light.
Popular Full-Frame Cameras for Low-Light Photography
Now that we have gone over the benefits and advantages of full-frame cameras for low-light photography, we can compare some of the most popular models on the market right now. Anyone familiar with photography will recognize some of the names on this list, like Canon, Nikon, and Sony, but some might be less familiar.
|Camera Model||Camera Type||Camera Resolution||Approx. Weight||Approx. Price|
|Nikon D850||DSLR||45.7 MP||2.02 lb||$2,500.00|
|Sony Alpha a7R III||Mirrorless||62.4 MP||1.45 lb||$2,800.00|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark IV||DSLR||30.4 MP||1.76 lb||$2,300.00|
|Pentax K-1 Mark II||DSLR||36.4 MP||2.04 lb||$1,800.00|
|Panasonic S1R||Mirrorless||47.3 MP||2.25 lb||$3,700.00|
These are a mere fraction of the full-frame cameras on the market right now. The resolution and prices vary greatly. However, each of these factors plays a large role in making a camera great. Resolution alone will not be enough if a camera weighs too much, or if it is woefully unaffordable.
Because full-frame cameras are the best for low-light photography, any of the above candidates would be great when high ISO sensitivity is necessary. Each of these cameras has a large sensor with large pixels and will create images with less image noise in low-light situations.
The megapixel resolution, weight, price, brand loyalty, lens collection, and many other components should be taken into consideration before a full-frame camera is chosen. If it were as simple as choosing the most expensive, or the camera with the highest resolution, there would not be a market for so many excellent, differing choices.
Full-Frame versus Crop-Sensor Cameras
Full-frame cameras are not the only option on the market. While we have determined that full-frame cameras are better in low-light settings, many photographers choose to use crop-sensor cameras for their work. However, for low-light photography, full-frame cameras hold the top spot.
When it comes to low-light photography, crop sensor cameras cannot beat full-frame cameras in regards to the amount of light available in each pixel. The sensors on full-frame cameras are so much larger than crop sensor cameras, meaning more light is going to be available in each image taken, even in darker environments.
Full-frame cameras are in a league of their own when compared to their crop sensor counterparts. Consider the following advantages full-frame cameras have over crop sensor cameras in low-light situations.
- ISO Sensitivity
- Dynamic Range
- Overall Image Quality
With professional-grade digital cameras, you get what you pay for. Full-frame cameras will deliver better images at higher ISO levels, providing more clarity with less distortion. Other types of cameras are not capable of capturing images at such high ISO levels without sacrificing image quality.
Dynamic range plays a big factor as well, not just in low-light situations. Full-frame cameras produce images with a greater range between blackest blacks and whitest whites. This results in sharper images. This is an advantage of using full-frame cameras in any type of photography.
Crop-sensor cameras have smaller sensors than full-frame cameras, making them smaller and lighter overall. These cameras are also cheaper than full-frame cameras. Their smaller size allows manufacturers to create them more easily and quickly, saving consumers money.
Crop-sensor cameras have their specific advantages. If you aspire to take a lot of depth of field shots, a crop-sensor camera has a higher depth of field and would be a better choice for this style of photography. Crop-sensor cameras are also great for wildlife or sports photography.
It is up to any photographer, professional or amateur, to determine what camera meets their needs. Most major camera manufacturers make both full-frame and crop-sensor camera models. There are plenty of choices, which can feel overwhelming, but you should be more comfortable making your best choice with this newfound knowledge.
Choosing Lenses for Low-Light Photography
Lenses are a crucial piece of any veteran photographer’s arsenal. A camera alone can only do so much, but having multiple lenses opens up a great number of possibilities. While full-frame camera sensors are best for low-light photography, there are also lenses that are best suited for low-light photography.
A lens aperture acts as its pupil. When the aperture opens wide, more light comes in. So a lens with a wide aperture will let the most light in when shooting in low-light. Lenses with apertures of f/2.8 and below are considered large. A large sensor paired with a large aperture combines to create a great low-light photography experience.
It is important to choose the correct lenses for your camera. A full-frame camera requires lenses designed for a full-frame sensor. Manufacturers will distinguish between which lenses are designed for full-frame cameras and which are not.
So, full-frame cameras cannot miraculously pull more light out of the atmosphere than a crop-sensor camera. Still, an image taken on a full-frame camera will seemingly show more light than one taken by a crop-sensor camera. When a low-light lens is added, even more light can be captured in low-light settings.
It is strange and oxymoronic to answer a question with both yes and no. Sometimes, it is the right thing to do. A full-frame camera does not let more light into its sensor, but the combination of higher ISO sensitivity, lower image noise, and greater dynamic range make up for the lack of supernatural ability.