Full-frame vs Super 35mm: which sensor size should filmmakers choose?

What are the key technical and creative differences between Super 35m and full-frame? DoP Ian Murray explains how he decides which sensor format is right for each production.
A pair of hands hold a Canon Cinema EOS camera and point to a full-frame sensor within.

Getting to grips with the differences between full-frame and 35mm can open up a world of creative choice and control for your filmmaking.

The Canon Cinema EOS range features full-frame cameras and Super 35mm cameras, and an extensive line-up of cinematic lenses to suit each sensor format. But what are the main points of difference between Super 35mm and full-frame, and when would you choose one type of sensor over the other?

The big difference between full-frame and Super 35mm sensors is their physical size. This has implications for the field of view, your choice of focal length and creative control over depth of field, among other things.

Director of Photography Ian Murray says he continues to jump between full-frame and Super 35mm for his work. "It's a creative choice, because there are times when each is appropriate," he explains.

Ian has worked on campaigns for major brands, including Amazon, Volkswagen and Nespresso, and suggests that some subjects suit the larger depth of field that's easier to achieve on the smaller format. "I did a job involving food and shot it on Super 35mm. If the depth of field falls off too quickly with food, it doesn't look right. So I knew full-frame wasn't the best choice here.

"If you're shooting a period piece or something that needs to feel more retro, then Super 35mm is a better sensor size as that gives more of a classic, early cinema look," he continues. "If you're working on something in a run-and-gun style and it's more narrative-led – particularly when you want to be immersed in a character's world – then I think full-frame is a better choice."

A front view of a Canon EOS C500 Mark II, showing the size of its full-frame sensor.

The Canon EOS C500 Mark II and EOS C300 Mark III are practically identical in size and weight, but the former (above) houses a full-frame sensor while the latter has a Super 35mm sensor.

A front view of a Canon EOS C300 Mark III, showing the size of its Super 35mm DGO sensor.

Even though its Super 35mm sensor is smaller than a full-frame sensor, the Canon EOS C300 Mark III features a 4K DGO sensor that's small in size but big on performance.

Super 35mm vs full-frame crop factor

In a stills camera, the sensor might be full-frame or APS-C. The latter is smaller and, as a result, APS-C cameras capture a smaller area of a full-frame lens's field of view, with a "crop factor" of 1.6x. The other way to look at this is that the subject is that much larger in the frame, so the APS-C sensor in effect increases the reach of the lens. For this reason, the crop factor is also known as the focal length multiplier. This means that the effective focal length of a 50mm lens, for example, becomes 80mm (50 x 1.6). It's the same with video cameras. Compared to the larger full-frame format, Super 35mm format has a focal length multiplier of 1.460x to 1.534x (depending on the aspect ratio).

All things being equal, the larger full-frame format gives a more expansive image than a Super 35mm sensor. To put it the other way around, full-frame requires a longer focal length to achieve the same angle of view as Super 35mm. The difference between the two sensor types' active area (approximately 1.5x) means that a 50mm lens on a Super 35mm camera gives a field of view that's similar to 75mm on a full-frame camera.

While the greater reach of Super 35mm can be an advantage when filming subjects that you're unable to get physically close to, it's more limiting when you're working in confined locations and looking to capture a wide view without moving to anamorphic lenses.

"One of the benefits of the full-frame format is that it allows you to use wider lenses with less distortion," Ian notes. "When you're using a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera you get a massively wide view, but you need a focal length of 17-18mm to get the equivalent view on Super 35mm. Everything starts to look distorted once you go below 24mm, so by moving to full-frame you're able to see more of the world you're in without it feeling optically artificial."

A technician wearing white gloves cleans the sensor of a Canon camera.

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A pair of hands holds a Canon EOS R5 C camera with Canon 35mm prime lens attached.

Full-frame and Super 35mm each have their own advantages when it comes to focusing, Ian suggests: “Focus pullers have a little bit more depth of field to work with on Super 35mm because you’re often working with wider lenses than on full-frame, but the nice thing about full-frame is that you really see details snapping into focus.”

DoP Ian Murray looks down at a Canon FD 135mm prime lens, a shoot setup in an outdoor space behind him.

Director of Photography Ian Murray is used to making a call between full-frame and Super 35mm, as well as different depths of field, when shooting for brands with varying visions. “I’ve always liked magical realism in cinema, and T2 is always a stop that I keep moving around when shooting on Super 35mm," he says. "But I wouldn’t shoot full-frame at a very wide aperture such as T1.4. The background becomes too liquid and dreamy. It just feels too much of an effect rather than a normal presentation of a situation.”

Creative depth of field control

A common misconception when it comes to full-frame versus Super 35mm is that the larger full-frame sensor has an inherently shallower depth of field. But this isn't really the case. Attach a 24mm lens to a full-frame camera or a Super 35mm camera, and the depth of field will essentially look identical – it's just that the Super 35mm image will be less expansive. Full-frame does make it easier to achieve a shallow depth of field, though. In order to get the same view as the smaller Super 35mm format, you need to use a longer focal length or move the camera closer – both of which help to isolate the subject.

A shallow depth of field can be used to draw attention to the most important element of a shot, although the deeper depth of field that can be realised with Super 35mm has creative advantages too.

"If you want to be able to direct the viewer's eye without completely designing the scene, then you can do that very easily with a narrow depth of field," Ian explains. "There's also an argument to use full-frame on a story with a strong psychological element, as it can help you to pull the viewer inside a person's world if everything else around them is softer.

"I like to experiment with Super 35mm to get a slightly deeper focus, though," he continues. "Everyone seems to be going for that full-frame narrow depth of field look at the moment, but if you shoot Super 35mm at T2.8 or T4, or even T5.6, then you get a different presentation to everything you're used to seeing now. You need to have more control of your scene and be able to art direct the colours and throw light in there to guide the viewer's eye, though, as you won't be able to rely on selective focusing to do that for you. But then you get a completely different look and something that feels like the deep focus technique pioneered by [Citizen Kane cinematographer] Gregg Toland."

DoP Ian Murray pictured on a shoot in a studio with a green screen in the background.

"If you're building sets and interiors and you want to make sure the viewer gets to see it all, then Super 35mm is good for that," Ian says. The smaller format makes it easier to achieve a deeper depth of field than with full-frame. "Why build a brilliant set and then defocus it all?" On the other hand, full-frame is sometimes useful for filmmakers working to tight budgets in locations that they have little control over. The compact size of the EOS R5 C enables it to be used in small spaces while still capturing a wide field of view, and its high resolution provides more flexibility for cropping in post-production.

A close-up of a user's hands fitting a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R 0.71x to a Canon EOS C70 camera.

The Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R 0.71x enables full-frame EF lenses to be mounted on the RF-mount Canon EOS C70. The adapter allows the original full-frame angle of view of the lens to be realised on the Super 35mm sensor, as well as increasing the maximum aperture by one stop. EOS C70 firmware updates continue to expand the range of lenses that are compatible with the adapter.

Lens compatibility

Full-frame lenses project an image that covers the active areas of both full-frame and Super 35mm sensors. It might appear wasteful to pair a full-frame lens with a Super 35mm sensor because the smaller format ignores a large part of the projected image. But doing so has a number of advantages. It allows you to use the sharpest and brightest area at the centre of the lens, for example, and it also gives you the flexibility to move between full-frame and Super 35mm cameras using the same lens.

Full-frame lenses tend to be heavier and slower (smaller aperture) than the equivalent Super 35mm lenses, though, which can be a consideration in some situations.

Using a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R 0.71x, it's possible to maintain the original angle of view of a full-frame EF lens when it's mounted on a camera with an RF mount, particularly the Super 35mm Canon EOS C70. The adapter effectively shrinks the image from the lens by x0.71, and it also increases the light transmission to give an image that's 1-stop brighter.

The image circle of a Super 35mm lens matches the size of a Super 35mm sensor, but it may still be possible to use it on a full-frame camera that allows the image to be cropped to Super 35mm. Full-frame Cinema EOS cameras can support both full-frame and Super 35mm crops in the same body, making them a versatile option when shooting productions with a variety of lenses.

"A 35mm lens gives you a mid-shot on Super 35mm, but on full-frame it's a wide shot," Ian says. "What I find most interesting out of all of this is the way you’re positioning your audience in relation to the character. You can sit opposite someone at a normal conversational distance with a full-frame camera and frame them in a kind of a loose close-up with a 35mm lens. It feels more natural, as you're seeing a little bit more of the surroundings but they’re softening off because of the depth of field. Whereas with Super 35mm, you’d be on a longer lens, you’d be more cropped in to get that same fall-off with the background and you’d see less of it, so it would be a tighter close-up.”

A Canon EOS R5 C, with a mic attached to it, sits on a wooden bench in the bow of a boat.

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Camera size and weight

Bigger sensor formats typically require bigger camera bodies. Stills cameras with APS-C sensors are usually significantly more compact than full-frame cameras. But the difference between full-frame versus Super 35mm video cameras is not as pronounced in this regard. In fact, the sensor size makes little difference in the Cinema EOS line. The Super 35mm EOS C300 Mark III and full-frame EOS C500 Mark II, for example, are practically identical in size and weight.

The EOS R5 C has really changed the game, though. The smallest camera in the current Cinema EOS range, it can capture 8K DCI RAW video across the full width of its full-frame sensor – but it's smaller and lighter than compact Super 35mm cameras such as the EOS C70 and the EOS C100 Mark II.

A pair of hands hold a Canon EOS R5 C camera, navigating the Main Recording Format screen.

Having a high-res full-frame sensor provides more room for image stabilisation in post, and the Canon EOS R5 C can capture video in a number of different formats including 8K DCI RAW. "I'd much prefer not to get into gimbals and be able to shoot handheld and stabilise the bits that need to be stabilised later. I think there's a real honesty about that," Ian says. "Being able to shoot on full-frame using wider lenses and in high resolution also gives you the opportunity to reframe it in Super 35mm later and take out everything unnecessary."

Resolution, dynamic range and low-light performance

The larger area of a full-frame sensor can hold more photosites for a higher resolution or larger photosites for better sensitivity and improved low-light performance.

A higher resolution provides more flexibility, both in-camera and in post-production. Take the Canon EOS C500 Mark II with its 5.9K full-frame sensor, for example. If you set the camera to XF-AVC recording, you're able to take advantage of 5.9K over-sampling processing to record 4K DCI and 4K UHD footage with improved clarity, suppressed moiré and reduced noise compared with standard 4K content.

Switch to 5.9K RAW recording, and you can use the extra resolution during the edit to punch in, reframe a shot or apply image stabilisation while maintaining a 4K or Full HD frame. The EOS R5 C's full-frame 8K sensor offers even more scope in this regard. The potential downside to all this extra information is the increased amount of data that needs to be managed and stored, although the development of Cinema RAW Light has alleviated this problem.

Full-frame offers the potential for capturing a greater dynamic range, but the evolution of Super 35mm sensor technology in the EOS C300 Mark III and EOS C70 provides a new level of performance. The 4K Super 35mm Dual Gain Output (DGO) sensor in these cameras enables a wider dynamic range of 16+ stops to be captured in Canon Log 2, as well as delivering a low-noise low-light capability of up to ISO 102,400.

As Ian puts it, "Super 35mm is not going anywhere." Films have been shot on a format similar to Super 35mm since the 1950s, and filmmakers continue to be drawn to this standard when inspired by the look of classic films of the past.

In short, each format has its own characteristics, which may suit a particular project. Super 35mm remains a popular standard for good reason, and switching to full-frame is a creative choice, not a technical necessity.

Marcus Hawkins

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