Upgrading to a Full-Frame Camera: Ownership Costs and Benefits

April 06, 2013  •  4 Comments

Full-frame DSLR camera and gear: Nikon D800E, camera lenses and Mac Book Pro Retina. _DSC5884

After long deliberation, I finally made the leap – or arguably the dive – to a full-frame digital camera.  With the impressive new generation of full-frame DSLR’s and more reasonable price points, I could at long last justify this purchase in my own mind. I could not be more pleased with my first full-frame camera, the Nikon D800E.  That said, the additional costs associated with this upgrade have been substantial, far more than I had anticipated.  Not to complain, but outlays for two new lenses, a laptop computer and other items really start to add up … 

Reflecting on the upgrade to a full-frame DSLR, it is instructive to consider the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and the Total Benefits of Ownership (TBO).  While a complete cost analysis is beyond the scope of the article, management accounting principles provide a solid framework in considering the start-up costs, lifecycle plan and business opportunities occasioned by a major camera upgrade.

Total Cost of Ownership 

Planning for a full-frame camera purchase, I budgeted for a new wide angle lens to replace my current Nikon DX lens designed for the APS-C size sensor. My calculations also included the sale of the DX lens, quickly sold on Craig’s List.

What I did not contemplate was the need for a longer telephoto lens, given the loss of the 1.5x crop factor with my APS-C sensor camera, a Nikon D300.  Surely, I thought, my Nikon 70 -200 mm telephoto lens coupled with a Nikon 1.4 tele-converter will suffice on a full-frame sensor. Not so, I learned, when registering for a photography workshop with some wildlife shoots. With my old APS-C camera bodies, this lens setup stretched to 420 mm with the 1.5 crop factor.  On the full-frame camera, however, the same lens set-up provides a maximum focal length of only 280 mm: barely enough magnification to capture a group photo of Moose Elk assembled on a distant hillside at Rocky Mountain National Park.  I ended up buying a Sigma 150 – 500 mm telephoto lens to provide that extra “reach.”

Additional costs were also incurred with the purchase of a new computer. Admittedly, my earlier computer (a Dell running Windows XP) had become quite dated, but it still worked well enough with photo files from my 12.2 megapixel DSLR.  Photographers with more up-to-date computer gear might not incur this major expense. However, the large digital files generated by a full-frame DSLR may require additional hard drive storage and/or processor upgrades to support a smooth workflow.  

The need for additional computer resources occurs during the creation of large composite images from a full-frame camera.  Specifically, this is applicable in creating multi-photo “stitched” panoramic images, HDR images and “stacked” hyper-focal images.  Substantial computing power is imperative for efficient retrieval, merging, storage and editing of the enormous multi-photo full frame digital files. With these factors in mind, I opted to purchase an Apple Mac Book Pro laptop computer with a solid state drive.    

While individual circumstances will vary, my overall outlay for the full frame camera, lenses and other items was approximately $9,047.










Camera Equipment:



Nikon D800E



Nikon 17 - 35 mm  f/2.8 lens



Sigma 150 - 500 mm lens








Apple Mac Pro Retina











Extra battery



86 mm UV filter



86 mm polarizer filter



Hi speed memory cards








My overall expenditure was reduced by proceeds from the sale of my Nikon 12 -24 mm wide angle DX lens (used sales price of $650) and will be further reduced by the sale of a Nikon D300 body (estimated value of $625). With these offsetting revenues, the total cost of ownership for my upgrade to a full frame DSLR is $7,772 .



Purchase Costs


Revenue from equipment sales





For discussion purposes, let us assume that the full frame camera and other equipment will be used over a five year period or longer.   This is probably a fair assumption for this Nikon D800E camera body and computer, but the lenses should have a longer period of use. Using these figures without adjustments for opportunity cost or inflation, our cost of ownership for the full-frame camera is $1,554.4 per year or $129.53 per month.  If we decrease or eliminate the cost of the new computer and/or lenses, the annualized cost of full frame camera ownership is further reduced.

Missing from this quick analysis are the costs of equipment maintenance (e.g.,  sensor cleaning ), repairs, extended warranties and insurance coverage. 

Total Benefits of Ownership

With this ownership cost estimate in hand, we next consider the Total Benefits of Ownership for a full-frame DSLR. The benefits take into account increases in high value work, accuracy and efficiency, and improved customer service.  These benefits must be weighed against the equipment costs, which can also be equated to annual or monthly costs. From my perspective, the full frame DLSR really delivers on all fronts when judged in this framework (no pun intended). 

The extraordinarily high quality of full-frame DSLR images is derived from a combination of interrelated factors including larger pixel sizes, increased sharpness and high resolution, low noise and improved color differentiation. These factors are addressed in Ken Rockwell’s informative article, “The Full-Frame Advantage” (2007), which discusses the technical basis and practical implications of full frame cameras.

Full-frame image have ample resolution for creation of large scale prints, be that in the form of prints, canvas wraps or metal.  Large scale printing has been one of my key considerations, as I’ve always wanted to present landscape photographs on a grand scale – like that of gallery displayed fine art paintings.

Large photo files generated by the full frame sensor also allow for major image cropping, while still maintaining high resolution files. The photograph from the National Memorial Cemetery, Phoenix, Arizona, was heavily cropped from a full frame photo, still having more than adequate resolution for display.   While the cropped version of this scene was not planned in the photo shoot, it turned out to be the best scene of the series ultimately receiving recognition on the Capture My Arizona.   In memory of our war veterans, a cross and Saguaro cactus in sunset light at National Memorial Cemetery, Phoenix, Arizona. National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona quiet at dusk. Phoenix, Arizona.

National Memorial Cemetery, Phoenix, Arizona - Capture My Arizona Photos of the Day, NIKON D800E,f/20 @ 19 mm1/15ISO 200

The opportunity for this kind of creative editing also provides for “close up” fields of view in post processing, in effect extending the length of a telephoto lens.

From a business standpoint, the use of a full-frame DSLR gives rise to expanded lines of photography services, some heretofore reserved for large and medium format photographers.

Final Thoughts

Beyond this kind of cost-benefit analysis and technical considerations, I find a certain “peace of mind” knowing that my time in field is well spent creating the highest resolution images currently possible with a full-frame DSLR. So often, photography travels bring us to places where we may never return or transient moments never to be repeated.  Using a full-frame DSLR - the state of the art tool today - affords the photographer an added sense of confidence and a degree of satisfaction not so easily measured in dollars.  Point Reyes coastline in Northern California.  Point Reyes Limantour Beach Grass

Time exposure photograph of cascading creek along the Bootjack Trail, Muir Woods, California.  Muir Woods Bootjack Trail River Cascade, California


Limantour Beach at Point Reyes, California, NIKON D800E, f/18 @ 40 mm1/50ISO 400











Bootjack Trail, Muir Woods, California,  NIKON D800E,f/16 @ 30 mm4sISO 800



For more photos from the Muir Woods and the Northern California Coast, see California Coastline. 


Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer






Marcus Reinkensmeyer(non-registered)
Jason: Thanks much for your feedback on the cost breakdown. Your article on the crop factor and lenses is highly instructive; a "must read" for those considering the full-frame DSLR upgrade. Especially like the graphic diagrams you included with your explanations. All the best, Marcus
Jason Little(non-registered)
Excellent article! I read your comment over at Lightstalking.com, and I really appreciate this cost breakdown perspective. Cost is definitely a major consideration and you've provided a lot of food for thought here.
Marcus Reinkensmeyer(non-registered)
Randy - Thanks much for your feedback, my friend. That was my purpose in laying out this information: Hoping to help other photographers in making the tough decisions on equipment upgrades.
randy dannheim(non-registered)
Well written and a very appropriate topic given the popularity full-frame image quality of the new push by the major camera mfg. companies. Personally, I am not financially ready to take the leap. When I am ready, I will be more informed because of your blog. Thanks my friend.
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