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Full frame, half price


Upgrading from an APS-C to a full-frame DSLR doesn’t have to cost a fortune. We look at three second-hand full-frame DSLRs for Canon, Nikon and Sony users

As technology becomes more affordable, features that were once the preserve of the professional photographer filter down into cameras that are attainable for the average enthusiast. Cameras with full-frame sensors are one such example of this.

In fact, we are now in a second, or even third generation of DSLR cameras with full-frame sensors that are priced within the reach of the average enthusiast. However, with the Canon EOS 6D, Nikon D610 and Sony Alpha 99 each costing well over £1,000, they are still very considered purchases, particularly for someone upgrading from a DSLR system that uses an APS-C sensor where a new set of lenses may also be required.

So before you commit to buying a new full-frame DSLR, you should consider the alternative option of purchasing a second-hand model. With previous-generation DSLRs readily available, and at prices that can be less than half that of the latest models, you can get the advantages of a  full-frame sensor at just a fraction of the cost.

Then, once you have dipped your toe in the water and decided that you want to commit to full-frame shooting, you can sell your used full-frame camera and lose little, or no, money. In this article we’ll look at three of the least expensive used full-frame DSLRs available: the Canon EOS 5D, Nikon D700 and Sony Alpha 850.

Benefits of full frame

Traditionally, full-frame cameras have offered higher resolutions, better image quality at high sensitivities and greater dynamic range compared to their APS-C format contemporaries. With the rapid advances in sensor technology, however, older full-frame SLRs tend to have less of an advantage over current models with APS-C sensors.

In general, though, they still give impressive image quality, often with specifc advantages in terms of either resolution or high ISO image quality, or both. Full-frame DSLRs are, of course, also compatible with lots of film-era lenses without any cropping of the angle of view. This means that any nice lenses you still have for an old 35mm flm camera will work on a full-frame digital model in much the same way as before.

However, note the word ‘nice’ – it’s probably not worth buying a full-frame camera to resurrect zooms that were relatively cheap when new, as their optical quality won’t match  modern lenses. Despite this, perhaps the biggest advantage of full frame is the huge range of lenses available, and primes in particular.

Wideangles in the 20-24mm range, or short telephoto ‘portrait’ primes of around 85-100mm, don’t have many direct equivalents in APS-C land, either in terms of focal length or the shallow depth of field effects they can create. For users thinking of getting into full frame, some second-hand lens bargains can also be had.

Because a number of full-frame lens  types don’t make much practical sense on APS-C, most notably wideangle and normal zooms, they can be picked up relatively cheaply if you shop around a bit. One further beneft of full-frame DSLRs is that they usually have larger, brighter viewfnders than APS-C models, which can help with composition. Older models also often have interchangeable focusing screens, including manual focus and grid screens.

APS-C lens compatibility

While full-frame DSLRs can often be used with APS-C lenses, compatibility varies between brands. Canon’s own EF-S lenses simply won’t ft onto its full-frame cameras, but third-party lenses will, and can sometimes be used with  acceptable   results.

However, vignetting can confuse the evaluative metering, so it’s best to switch to partial or spot. Nikon full-frame (FX) DSLRs are designed to be fully compatible with APS-C (DX) lenses, and will switch automatically into a DX crop mode when such a lens is mounted.

A viewfnder frameline shows the active area, and the metering adjusts to match. Of course, the resolution drops, and in DX mode the D700 only produces 5.3-million-pixel images. Full-frame Sony cameras like the Alpha 850 also have a crop mode for use with APS-C lenses, which the user can turn on or off as desired. The big advantage compared to the D700 is that the resulting image size from the Alpha 850 is a much more usable 10.7 million pixels.

WHILE full-frame cameras are often seen as a logical upgrade from APS-C models, the chances are that most buyers will end up needing to get a couple of new lenses to make the best use of the format. Lenses designed for APS-C sensors generally don’t work well on full frame, as their image circles won’t cover the full area of the sensor, resulting in severe vignetting.

Both Nikon and Sony allow the use of these lenses in a crop mode, but while this can be a useful stop-gap measure, it obviously doesn’t make the best use of the sensor. In general, anyone upgrading to full frame will likely need to buy a new standard zoom for everyday shooting, and perhaps a wideangle zoom too.

The kit can be rounded off with a fast prime or two, which will help make the most of the larger sensor’s imaging properties. Like the cameras, these lenses can often be bought relatively cheaply second-hand. Here’s a quick summary of some of the main lens options  for full-frame use.

Canon EOS 5D

  • £350-£500

Canon’s 12.8-million-pixel EOS 5D, launched in 2005, was the first affordable full-frame DSLR

EOS 5D mIII FRT w EF 24-70mm

CANON was the first camera manufacturer to produce a high-resolution full-frame DSLR with the 11-million-pixel EOS-1Ds in 2002, and three years later it built on this with its first ‘affordable’ model, the EOS 5D. This quickly gained a strong following for its image quality, giving impressively detailed files at sensitivities up to ISO 3200.

By modern standards, the EOS 5D is a rather basic-looking camera – it has no live view, let alone movie mode, and its autofocus system isn’t particularly great, with only the centre of its nine points being really reliable. Continuous shooting is limited to just 3fps, and the 2.5in, 230,000-dot screen is nothing much to write home about, either.

So why even consider it? Well, most importantly, it’s the cheapest current entry point into full frame and can be used with every Canon EF lens ever made. Paired with relatively inexpensive fast primes such as the EF 35mm f/2, EF 50mm f/1.8 or EF 100mm f/2 USM, it‘s a great way to experiment with shallow depth of field effects.

Build quality is very good, and the large viewfinder will please anyone who struggles with APS-C models. It handles pretty well too, with all key controls at your fingertips. Crucially, its 12.8-million-pixel files still give plenty of detail for an A3 (16 x 12in) print, especially when processed using a modern raw converter. Due to its age, the EOS 5D can’t match either of the other cameras in this round-up, but at  its current price it’s great value for money.

Nikon D700

  • £700-£850

With the same 12.1-million-pixel, full-frame sensor as the D3, the Nikon D700 is a great for low-light shots


NIKON’S first attempt at an affordable DSLR with a full-frame sensor was a resounding success. Arriving in the summer of 2008, off the back of the D3 and D300, Nikon stuck to a tried-and-tested body construction, layout and set of key features.

Of course, the 12.1-million-pixel, full-frame sensor of Nikon’s D3 is at the core of the D700, and it offers the same exceptional low-noise performance that makes it great for shooting in low light or at high sensitivities. Like the D300, the D700 can shoot at 5fps, or 8fps when used with the same MB-D10 battery grip as the D300.

It has an expanded sensitivity range of ISO 100–25,600, and a 51-point AF system that is still hard to beat, even six years after the camera was first released. Although the resolution of the D700 may not match the 24.3-million-pixel resolution of the current Nikon D610, it is still a superb camera for those looking for a full-frame starting point.

With a built-in drive motor that can couple with older AF lenses, as well as compatibility with manual-focus Ai and non-Ai Nikon F-mount lenses, there are 50 years’ worth of optics that can be used on the D700. It is therefore easy to find some very affordable older lenses to complement the camera and begin building an affordable full-frame range. Despite being six years old, the D700 is still a highly sought-after DSLR that has held its value well.

Sony Alpha 850

  • £550-£680

A cheaper variant of the Alpha 900, the Alpha 850 has the same high-resolution, 24-million-pixel sensor


SONY’S Alpha 850 is virtually identical to the Alpha 900 and was designed to compete with the likes of the Nikon D700 and Canon EOS 5D and 5D Mark II. To do this, Sony made a more affordable version of the Alpha 900, releasing the Alpha 850 in August 2008.

The Alpha 850 uses the same 24.6-million-pixel, full-frame sensor, image stabilisation, nine-point AF system and 3in, 921,000-dot LCD screen, and has the same sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400 when in its expanded mode. There are a few small differences between the two cameras, but these have no impact on the image quality.

First, the viewfinder is slightly smaller with 98% coverage, rather than 100% in the Alpha 900, and second, the buffer and shooting rate were reduced, meaning that the Alpha 850 can only shoot at a pedestrian 3fps. But don’t let the shooting rate put you off.

Images are great when captured at low sensitivities, particularly when combined with the latest versions of Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom or DxO Optics Pro. The build quality is also very good, with a magnesium-alloy body adding security, while rubber dust and moisture seals allow the camera to be used in adverse weather conditions.

With the resolution of the Alpha 850 still holding its own against the likes of the Nikon D610, Sony Alpha 99 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the Alpha 850 should be considered something of a bargain.


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