Full Frame vs. Crop Sensor Cameras: Which One is Right for You?

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Jason Little is a photographer (shooting macros, portraits, candids, and the occasional landscape), writer, and music lover. You can see Jason’s photography on Flickr, his Website or his Blog.


Too many photography subjects get muddled in argument: this brand vs. that brand; one technique vs. another. Yours vs. mine. Better vs. best. Certainly, one could argue credibly that their current pro level dSLR is better in every way than the point and shoot camera they started out with and no one would even challenge that notion.

But photography is art. Art is subjective. And the tools used to make said art tend to fall under the same principle of subjectivity as the art itself. People, of course, have their personal preferences on things and there’s nothing wrong with that; being informed about others’ preferences can actually be helpful by expanding the options we make available to ourselves.

At some point during your time as a photographer, you have likely encountered some poor individual who posts on an Internet message board that they need help deciding whether to upgrade to a “full frame” camera or stick with their “crop camera,” totally unaware of the upheaval that would ensue as a result of this rather innocent inquiry. The topic of full frame vs. crop sensor cameras is a legitimate concern that often gets bogged down by useless arguing. So if you are someone who has ever wondered about this topic, particularly if you are considering purchasing a new camera, a level-headed approach to the issue might do you some good.


Full Frame and Crop Sensor: What Do These Terms Mean?

This whole discussion hinges on the traditional 35mm film SLR camera as a reference point. Obviously, digital cameras don’t use film; they use a sensor that receives and reads the values of accumulated electrons allowed into the camera via the lens, converting those bits of data into a digital image. A full frame digital SLR, then, refers to a camera whose sensor size is roughly equivalent to a 35mm film frame (24mm x 36mm).

A “crop” sensor, on the other hand, is simply one that is smaller than a full frame sensor, thus capturing only a portion of the image that a full frame sensor would, due to the fact that a small sensor magnifies the angle of view. These smaller sensor sizes vary by manufacturer, though the most common naming convention used by crop sensor cameras is the APS-C. For Nikon, Sony, Pentax, and Fujifilm dSLRs, an APS-C sensor measures in the range of 23.5mm x 15.6mm to 23.7mm to 15.6mm. Canon APS-C sensors measure 22.2mm x 14.8mm. These measurements are used to determine what is known as a sensor’s crop factor (Nikon, Sony, Pentax, and Fujifilm APS-C cameras have a crop factor of 1.5, while Canon’s APS-C cameras have a crop factor of 1.6).

What Effect Does a Smaller Sensor Have on Your Photographs?

As stated above, a smaller sensor magnifies your field of view and also causes an apparent increase in the focal length of whatever lens you are using. The focal length of your lens, of course, doesn’t magically change when you take it off a full frame camera and attach it to a crop sensor camera; the only thing that changes is your angle of view, a phenomenon that is simply a function of sensor size.

This apparent difference in focal length, however, can impact how you frame your shot. If, for example, you are using a camera with a crop factor of 1.6 and are looking to recreate the framing provided by a 50mm lens shot from the same distance on a full frame camera, then some simple math might lead you to the conclusion that a 35mm lens is what you will want to use (35mm x 1.6 = 56mm). The 35mm lens won’t become something it’s not just because it’s attached to a crop sensor camera, but it will closely approximate the framing of a 50mm lens on a full frame camera.

Full-frame_vs_APS-C

Fig.1 “Why a 50mm lens on APS-C amounts to an 80mm in full-frame.”

Advantages – Full Frame

  • Low light/High ISO: One of the features most commonly touted about full frame cameras is their low noise levels, specifically when shooting at high ISO settings; the larger sensor and its resident photosites are able to more efficiently collect light. This gives full frame cameras a considerable advantage in low-light and night photography.
  • Viewfinder: A bigger, brighter viewfinder makes manual focusing easier.
  • Wide angles: A full frame camera allows you take full advantage of wide and ultra wide angle lenses. If you enjoy the perspective of a 24mm lens on a full frame camera, you may not be satisfied with the 38mm effect you would get with the same lens on a crop sensor camera.

Advantages – Crop Sensor

  • Crop factor: Sports and wildlife photographers may actually prefer the crop factor as it can effectively provide more reach, keeping you from having to get physically closer to your subject.
  • Cost: Crop sensor cameras and the lenses made especially for these cameras (such as Canon’s EF-S line and Nikon’s DX line) are typically less expensive than their full frame counterparts.
  • Fewer visible lens issues: Imperfections tend to become more apparent as you move further away from the center of an image. So, vignetting, for instance, is less of a concern on cameras with smaller sensors due to the fact the edges are cropped.

The advantages listed for each camera type in no way represent the entire scope of why someone might prefer one over the other. And are there any disadvantages to either? Again, it’s a subjective matter. If you desire top high ISO performance but the size and weight of a camera such as the Nikon D4 or Canon 1D X are off-putting, there are full frame options available in smaller, lighter bodies (not to mention lower prices), while crop sensor cameras continue to make fantastic strides in ISO performance.

There are those who champion full frame cameras because they are “better” in every way than crop sensor cameras; it’s a valid opinion insofar that it applies to their own experiences. But others will express the same sense of satisfaction with their crop cameras, albeit for different reasons. Bigger doesn’t automatically mean better; and even if there are features we could all agree on as being objectively “better,” the question of how much better remains. Are those better features enough to mitigate cost/size/weight considerations and make a smaller option more desirable? That all depends on what your individual wants and needs are. That’s really all that matters. Don’t get caught up in the intellectual dishonesty of ideas such as “professionals only use full frame” or “crop sensors are for amateurs.” Go with whatever works best for you and your style of photography.

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