Full Frame Misnomer by Adrian Galli


Anyone who knows me will tell you Adrian Galli is a rational, logical, creative, scientist, and appreciates intellect and justice over most anything else. In the film production and photography communities, you’ll hear so many gear enthusiast talk about what one “should” shoot with or what one “can’t” shoot with or what one “needs” to be a “real” photography or cinematographer. It is all bunk.

First, just go out and shoot. Have a good time with whatever gear you have. Push it to its limits, learn those limits, and turn those limitations into advantages; you'll be a better photographer for it. I, personally, enjoy such limits or having someone tell me, “you can’t use that camera for that.” I then show them a series of photos and ask them to tell me which photos were shot with my iPhone(s), Four Thirds*, APS-C, or Full Frame. They invariably fail because it isn’t the camera that creates the image, it's the photographer. Perhaps there is no greater example of this than from DigitalRev and their “Cheap Camera Challenge” where they give a professional photographer a “junk” camera and see what they can do with it. A photographer is someone who can consistently produce exemplary work with their camera.

However, this post isn’t really about gear, it is about marketing. Actually, it is about accuracy of language which marketing departments are generally not very good. “Full frame” is a photography misnomer.

In the early 2000’s, companies like Olympus, Nikon, Canon, and all the big photography gear names were stepping into the digital age with “large” sensors. By 'large' I refer to APS-C (similar to super35 in film production) at just shy of 24x18mm and Four Thirds, just a hair over 17x13mm. Up to this point, most digital sensors that anyone could afford were much smaller. Sensor technology was expensive so larger sensors were generally cost prohibitive for most people.

However, many photographers of the film days were shooting 35mm, medium format, and large format. There were some cameras like the acclaimed Olympus Pen-F (recently revived with a digital version) that shot a half frame of 35mm film. But the time came for larger sensors to be lower in cost and 35mm sensors (36x24mm) worked their way into our digital cameras.

I would estimate that you don’t hear people call it 35mm, however. You will hear the term ‘full frame.’ It is shorthand for a sensor that is the size of 35mm film. Personally, I dislike the term. Too frequently it is used to demean any camera technology that does not have a 35mm sensor in it. “You need to shoot full frame to get the quality you really want,” some will say. Or you’ll hear the depth of field arguments being based on sensor size; if you want shallow depth of field, you “need a full frame camera.” And you’ll hear ALLLLL about "crop factor" and “equivalence." Personally, I like smaller sensors in many ways explored in this previous post. Even then, depth of field is really controlled by aperture diameter so the sensor, while seemingly a variable, I'll argue that it is not. 

The 'full frame' is a marketing term. I would argue Canon came up with it to insinuate that one needs it because anything else is not “full” <fill in the blank>. To be fair, I have nothing to support this argument other than intuition from working with many marketing teams around the world. The reason I accuse Canon is simply because they were the first company to make a 35mm sensor mainstream in a digital camera with the Canon 5D. Nikon shortly followed but they refer to their 35mm sensor as FX; APS-C as DX, and their 1-inch sensors as CX. I’ll forgo the naming conventions the many other 35mm sensor camera makers for the moment but this is my argument and I’m stand by it. From this point forward, I will not refer to a sensor in a camera as ‘full frame.” It is a 35mm sensor or digital 35mm.

Why is it a misnomer? All cameras use the full frame of their sensors. A Four Thirds sensors is not a 35mm sensor using only a quarter of the frame. It is simply a sensor with less surface area but still uses the full sensor to capture an image.

On the other hand, there is also medium and large format. Medium format digital cameras have even bigger sensors than 35mm. In the days where film was the only option, some photographers would scoff at the idea of shooting with “small” formats like 35mm. Medium format cameras come is various sizes themselves. The Leica S uses a sensor of 45x30mm†. Mamiya, Hasselblad, and Phase One use sensors that are just under 54x40mm‡. So is the Leica a full frame and a half camera? Or a 1.5x frame camera? Or .8 crop? You can see the issue with the convention of 'full frame.' 

The whole ‘crop factor’ verbiage is a spot of contention. For the same reason above concerning 35mm vs. Four Thirds, 'crop' sensors are not actually cropping anything. The whole sensors is being used. It is, perhaps, a good reference point that a Four Thirds sensor has a field of view half that of a 35mm sensor, but the image is not cropped. The image that comes out of the camera is the full image. If cropping was taking place, then a 35mm sensor is a crop of a medium format sensor, a medium format sensor a crop of a large format, and so on. 

Certainly, a baseline for comparison is valuable and 35mm is a very common size for both film and sensors. However, to be fair, the most common sensor size is around 1/3 inches which you find on an iPhone and many other mobile device, small video cameras, etc. One might argue that to be the standard by which all other sensors are compared. 

The convention that I prefer to use is simply the field of view; the angle of view spanning the horizon. It is strictly math without any insinuations about the sensor. A 50mm lens on a 35mm sensor will give a field of view of about 40° while a 25mm on Four Third (and Micro Four Thirds) will give you a similar field of view. In other words, one will see essentially the same composition using a 50mm on a 35mm sensor as one would using a 25mm on a Four Thirds sensor.

The purpose of language is to communicate and words can be clumsy. To communicate more effectively is the ultimate achievement.

As always, Accuracy Matters.™



* Four Thirds is both a sensors size and a type of lens mount. Micro Four Thirds, however, has the same size sensor but a different mount.
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