Where did the term “full-frame” originate?

Why are digital cameras with sensors the same size as 35mm SLR’s, i.e. 36×24mm, called full-frame cameras? This is somewhat of a strange concept considering that unlike film, where the 35mm dominated the SLR genre, digital cameras did not originate with 35mm film-equivalent sized sensors. In fact for many years, until the release of the first digital SLRs, camera sensors were of the sub-35mm or “crop-sensor” type. It was not until spring 2002 the first full-frame digital SLR appeared, the 6MP Contax Digital N. It was followed shortly after by the 11.1MP Canon EOS-1Ds. It wouldn’t be until 2007 that Nikon offered its first full-frame-camera, the D3. In all likelihood, the appearance of a sensor equivalent in size to 35mm film was in part because the industry wished to maintain the existing standard, allowing the use of standard lenses, and the existing 35mm hierarchy.

One of the first occurrences of the term “full-frame” as it related to digital, may have been in the advertising literature for Canon’s EOS-1Ds.

“A full-frame CMOS sensor – manufactured by Canon – with an imaging area of 24 x 36mm, the same dimensions used by full-frame 35mm SLRs. It has 11.1 million effective pixels with a maximum resolution of 4,064 x 2,704 pixels.”

Canon EOS-1Ds User Manual, 2002

By the mid 2000’s digital cameras using “crop-sensors” like APS-C had become standard, but the rise of 35mm DSLRs may have triggered a need to re-align the market place towards the legacy of 35mm film. As most early digital cameras used sensors that were smaller than 36×24mm, the term “full-frame” was likely used to differentiate it from smaller sized sensors. But the term has other connotations.

  • It is used in the context of fish-eye lenses to denote an image which covered the full 35mm film frame, as opposed to fish-eye lenses which just manifested as a circle.
  • It is used to denote the use of the entire film frame. For example when film APS-C appeared in 1996, the cameras were able to take a number of differing formats: C, H, and P. H is considered the “full-frame” format with a 9:16 aspect ratio, while P is the panoramic format (1:3), and C the classic 35mm aspect ratio (2:3).

In any case, the term “full-frame” is intrinsically linked to the format of 35mm film cameras. The question is whether or not this term is even relevant anymore?

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