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How to Choose the Right Camera

A Sensor as Big as Film

There’s never been a better time to make the jump to a full-frame digital camera. Over the past few years, models with 24-by-36mm image sensors—the same dimensions as a frame of 35mm film—have become more and more affordable. And while the smaller APS-C sensor format is still the de facto standard for entry-level SLRs and mirrorless cameras, you don’t have to move too far north of $1,000 to go full-frame.

There are real advantages to the format, which features a sensor with roughly twice the surface area of APS-C models. It gives photographers more control over depth of field, generally better images in difficult light, and access to higher-resolution capture than you’ll find in cameras with smaller sensors.

Mirrorless, SLR, or Something Else?

Choosing the right full-frame model for you isn’t the easiest prospect. You’ll need to decide if you want to go with an SLR or mirrorless model—or to buck expectations and opt for a rangefinder or fixed-lens camera instead.

See How We Test Digital Cameras

Mirrorless systems have overtaken SLRs in performance. You’ll enjoy wider autofocus coverage, faster burst rates, and much better video than with a traditional optical viewfinder model. If you’re not ready to move on, you can still get an excellent SLR from Canon, Nikon, or Pentax.

If you’re thinking about moving to mirrorless, you can look to an adapter to take your existing lenses. Canon and Nikon both offer adapters for their respective systems, and other accessories, like flashes, can be used without the need for adapters.

The advantages of mirrorless systems are palpable. There are fewer moving parts, and engineers are able to put the autofocus system directly on the sensor, so there’s never a need to make focus calibration adjustments, and focus points can extend all the way to the edge of the frame. And, while there’s certainly an adjustment period needed for photographers used to optical viewfinders, the fact that an EVF is able to show you a preview of what a photo will look like with current exposure settings makes it easier for photographers to get the exposure where they want it.

Video is the other arena in which mirrorless cameras outpace most competing SLRs. Putting focus on the sensor means that cameras are able to keep up with moving subjects when recording movies, and models from Nikon and Sony offer in-body image stabilization (IBIS), which does a very good job steadying handheld video. Canon promises to add the feature to its forthcoming EOS R5, a model that promises to be its first true professional mirrorless body.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

There are still plenty of great photos made with SLRs, and while they might not offer as many advanced features as upstart mirrorless rivals, they still have their place. Professionals with years of muscle memory may find that familiar ergonomics trump technical advantages. Others may find that they prefer an old-school, optical viewfinder.

And there’s the road less traveled. There are cameras with full-frame sensors, like the Leica M10 rangefinder series, which is a purely manual focus camera with an optical viewfinder and absolutely no video support.

There are even a few cameras out there with 24-by-36mm sensors and permanently attached lenses. The Leica Q2 and the Sony RX1R II represent the current crop.

System Options

Fixed-lens outliers aside, most photographers buying into full-frame will go with an interchangeable lens camera. And before you settle in on a particular camera, you should make sure it’s part of a system that will meet all of the challenges you face as a photographer.

Canon camera

Canon has two full-frame systems available. Its well-established SLR series uses the EF lens mount and offers cameras ranging from entry-level to professional. In 2018 it added the EOS R mirrorless family, which uses the RF mount, but can also use EF lenses via an inexpensive adapter.

In addition to its iconic M rangefinder series, Leica launched its own mirrorless system, with autofocus, in 2015 with the SL camera. It lived in its niche for a few years, but that changed at the 2018 Photokina conference. Leica announced that Panasonic and Sigma were joining it to form the L-Mount Alliance. Panasonic has released three models so far, and Sigma is shipping its compact fp, one of the smallest full-frame cameras.

Nikon camera

Like Canon, Nikon has two full-frame systems. You can opt for an SLR, which uses the F-mount, and the mirrorless Z-mount system, launched in 2018. Nikon offers SLRs ranging from entry-level to fully professional. Its Z system skips the bottom end of the market, but the two available models are suited for all but the most demanding sports and action photography.

Pentax camera

Pentax is an iconic SLR brand, but doesn’t give owners much choice when it comes to full-frame cameras. It’s released two—the K-1 and K-1 Mark II—and the Mark II’s upgrades are minimal.

Sony technically has two systems, but its A-mount SLR series is all but dead. We don’t recommend it to new users, although the a99 II offers plenty of appeal for photographers with a heavy investment in glass.

Sony camera

It’s Sony’s mirrorless E-mount system that has been the focus of development efforts, and it shows. After a full five years on the market, the company has delivered models tuned for high-speed action, high-resolution capture, and for video. There are loads of lenses available, both first- and third-party, and Sony continues to sell older models with reduced pricing, broadening the appeal for entry-level buyers. It’s the most mature of all the full-frame mirrorless systems.

If you’re still not sure what system is right for you, we cover all the options, including those with smaller than full-frame sensors, here.

Get the Right Camera

It’s easy to buy a full-frame camera—you just need a credit card. It’s getting the right one that can be tricky. Once you’ve settled in on the right system, make sure the model you choose meets your needs. Photographers interested in action should look for one with great autofocus and a fast burst rate, while fine art and landscape specialists will seek out high resolution and extreme dynamic range.

You can take a look at our latest reviews to see what’s just come to market. We also have some tips for enthusiasts who want to get more out of their camera, and guides with instructions on getting great shots of fireworks and lightning.  

Where To Buy

  • Nikon D850

    Nikon D850

    Pros: Full-frame 45.7MP image sensor.
    153-point autofocus system.
    7fps burst shooting.
    Wide ISO range.
    4K video.
    Large optical viewfinder.
    Tilting touch LCD.
    Dual card slots.
    Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

    Cons: Live View focus uses contrast detection only.
    Omits built-in flash.
    SnapBridge system needs some work.

    Bottom Line: The Nikon D850 offers the best of all worlds: extreme resolution, fantastic image quality, fast shooting, and an exceptional build.
    It’s our favorite pro SLR.

  • Sony a7 III

    Sony a7 III

    Pros: 24MP full-frame BSI sensor.
    10fps with tracking.
    5-axis stabilization.
    4K HDR video.
    Silent shooting available.
    Tilting touch LCD.
    Dual SD slots.
    Vastly improved battery.
    Focus joystick.
    Flat profiles available.

    Cons: Screen not true vari-angle.
    Only one card slot is UHS-II.
    No in-body flash.
    Accessory required for time-lapse.
    Shooting buffer must clear to start video.
    Dense menu system.
    Omits PC sync socket.

    Bottom Line: The Sony a7 III is an entry-level full-frame camera that goes well beyond the basics in features, with excellent image quality, 10fps subject tracking, and 4K video capture.

    Read Review

  • Sony a7R IV

    Sony a7R IV

    Pros: 60.2MP full-frame imaging.
    10fps Raw capture.
    Real-Time Tracking autofocus.
    5-axis image stabilization.
    Big, crisp EVF.
    Tilting touch LCD.
    Dual UHS-II slots.

    Cons: Lower-pixel cameras are better for video.
    Phase detection doesn’t extend to edge of frame.

    Bottom Line: The 60.2MP Sony a7R IV boasts the most resolution we’ve seen from a full-frame camera.

    Read Review

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

    Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

    Pros: 30MP full-frame image sensor.
    Fast 61-point autofocus system.
    7fps continuous shooting.
    Unlimited JPG shooting buffer.
    Pro-grade build.
    Dual Pixel AF Live View focus system.
    3.2-inch touch screen.
    Integrated GPS and Wi-Fi.
    CF and SD card slots.

    Cons: Cropped 4K video.
    Clean HDMI output is 1080p only.
    Dual Pixel Raw function slows camera and offers limited benefits.
    4K video files are quite large.
    Omits in-body flash.

    Bottom Line: The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV balances resolution and shooting rate, making it an ideal camera for professional photographers.

  • Leica Q2

    Leica Q2

    Pros: High-resolution full-frame image sensor.
    Quick, accurate autofocus.
    Bright, sharp lens.
    Optical stabilization.
    IP52 weather protection.
    Big, sharp EVF.
    Up to 20fps capture.
    4K video.
    Wi-Fi.

    Cons: Expensive.
    Doesn’t track subjects at top burst rate.
    No flash.

    Bottom Line: Leica’s pricey Q2 camera marries a superb lens to a high-resolution image sensor and puts it all in a travel-friendly, weather-sealed package.

  • Nikon D5 (XQD)

    Nikon D5 (XQD)

    Pros: Fast 153-point autofocus system.
    12fps continuous shooting.
    Strong high ISO image quality.
    20MP full-frame image sensor.
    Tough, durable build.
    3.2-inch touch LCD.
    Clean HDMI output.
    4K video capture.
    Available with dual XQD or CF slots.

    Cons: 4K video is cropped.
    Underwhelming autofocus for video.
    No Wi-Fi or GPS.
    Omits in-body flash.

    Bottom Line: The top-of-the-line Nikon D5 SLR doesn’t disappoint thanks to best-in-class autofocus, 4K video recording, and a full-frame image sensor.

  • Sony a9

    Sony a9

    Pros: Shoots at 20fps with subject tracking.
    Full-frame 24MP image sensor.
    93-percent focus coverage.
    Electronic shutter eliminates blackout.
    Also supports traditional mechanical shutter.
    Large, crisp EVF.
    Tilting touch LCD.
    In-body 5-axis stabilization.
    New high-capacity battery.
    Dual SD slots.
    4K video.
    Wi-Fi and Ethernet.

    Cons: Pricey.
    Only one slot UHS-II compliant.
    Dense menu system.
    Uncompressed Raw capture cuts speed to 12fps.
    Doesn’t include external battery charger.

    Bottom Line: The Sony a9 shoots faster than any other full-frame camera out there thanks to a stacked CMOS sensor with incredible autofocus coverage.

    Read Review

  • Canon EOS RP

    Canon EOS RP

    Pros: Compact body with full-frame sensor.
    Vari-angle LCD.
    Integrated EVF.
    Quick, accurate autofocus.
    Macro stacking and time-lapse tools.
    Wi-Fi.
    Attractive price.

    Cons: Small EVF.
    Low-cost native lenses not available yet.
    Inconsistent face and eye detection.
    4K video suffers from heavy crop.
    Sensor shows limited dynamic range.
    Small battery.
    No built-in flash.

    Bottom Line: Canon wants to bring full-frame photography to the masses with the affordable EOS RP.
    It’s a solid camera for the price, but Canon needs to release more low-cost RF-mount lenses to pair with it.

  • Leica M10

    Leica M10

    Pros: Optical viewfinder.
    Rangefinder manual focus.
    24MP full-frame image sensor.
    4.8fps image capture.
    Crisp rear display.
    Integrated Wi-Fi.
    Dust- and splash-resistant design.
    Add-on EVF available.

    Cons: Very expensive.
    Manual focus isn’t for everyone.
    Omits video.

    Bottom Line: The Leica M10 camera improves upon its predecessor, upping performance and slimming down the body.
    It’s a solid, albeit pricey, choice for rangefinder devotees.

  • Nikon Z6

    Nikon Z6

    Pros: 24MP full-frame sensor.
    90 percent autofocus coverage.
    12fps Raw continuous shooting.
    In-body image stabilization.
    Tilting touch LCD.
    Big, sharp EVF.
    Compatible with Nikon SLR accessories.
    4K video.
    Dust and splash resistant.
    Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

    Cons: Baked-in Raw adjustments.
    Oversensitive lens control ring function.
    Single memory card slot.
    No PC Sync socket.

    Bottom Line: The Nikon Z 6 is the company’s high-speed, full-frame camera with a 24MP sensor and a class-leading 12fps burst rate. It’s a strong debut thanks to excellent ergonomics, in-body stabilization, and 4K video.

    Read Review


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