What to Expect from a Cropped Sensor and a Full Frame Sensor

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A while ago, our fearless Light Stalking leader posted a question on Facebook asking for topics that would interest our readers. One of the responses requested insight on what to expect when moving from a cropped sensor camera to a full frame camera. We'll outline some of the considerations and differences. As an avid user of both cropped and full frame camera bodies, in my mind there is no ‘war' between the two. The camera chosen is based on the subject that I plan to shoot.

Which One is Right for You?

 

With today's technology, both have outstanding image quality.

We'll cover what to expect with each type in three key areas. Photographers who have both, or have chosen one or the other, have done so based on preferences specific to their personal photography objectives.

The Cost of Full Frame vs Cropped

Cropped sensor cameras are commonly used for a variety of reasons. They are less expensive than their full frame counterparts. Cropped sensor camera lenses are also less expensive.

For those that think they'll buy a full frame camera down the road, they can also by full frame lenses as they work on cropped sensor cameras.

Cropped sensor lenses can also be used on full frame models when they switch to DX/cropped mode.

Field of View/Image Size

The image size is initially the most obvious difference between full frame and crop sensor cameras. “Crop” refers to the fact that the field of view is a smaller view or crop of the full frame field of view.

If you were to stand in the same place with a full frame and then with a crop sensor camera, what would the image look like? Let's take a look at a house, one using a full frame and the other using a crop. These were taken with a 50mm lens.

20150922-81swnaturephotosep19-2 houses

 

What do you observe? Which one appears closer? Which photo shows more of the house?

The photo on the left was taken with a full frame. A realtor would probably prefer the one on the left as it shows curb appeal and the front view of the house. The photo on the right shows a nice photo of the front porch and door.

Because of the ‘crop factor' or extra reach, many wildlife photographers choose the crop sensor cameras. With Nikon as an example, the crop factor is 1.5. A 300mm lens gives the reach of a 450mm lens on a crop sensor camera. Even though you are technically not any closer to the animal, there's more of the subject in the frame because it captured a smaller area. Conversely, a 300mm lens on a full frame provides 300mm reach.

The photograph of the deer below was taken on an evening walk. At the last minute, I decided to take my camera. A deer popped up in the woods and posed for a few seconds before gracefully bounding off into the brush. A cropped sensor camera (Nikon 7100) and 70-200mm 2.8 with a 1.4III teleconverter was used.

 

Sensor Size & Image Quality

With a full frame, the sensor is larger than a cropped sensor. The larger sensor allows for larger pixels. Larger pixels provides a wider dynamic range and lower noise at high ISO levels. This impact is that full-frame DSLRs may produce better quality images in certain high contrast or low light situations. There is less digital noise which means that a higher ISO can be used for faster shutter speeds without significant impact. Additionally, the larger sensor can manage a more shallow depth of field.

As a result of the larger sensor and pixels, full frame camera technology has the ability to produce higher quality images than cropped sensors. However, a full frame camera does not ensure that your photos will be better. It's up to the photographer and their use of lighting, their composition and their post processing techniques. All of these things being equal, however, a richer image can be produced by a full frame.

The macro of the Cosmos flower illustrates the rich color management and quality of a full frame. The shades of reds and greens with the bright yellow all comes together with a balanced, yet gentle,shallow depth of field. Camera and lens: Nikon 810, 105mm macro.

 

Which Type is Right for You?

The best camera for you is the one that you've chosen based on what you want to do as a photographer. Both camera types can work in just about any situation. Here's a few considerations if you're choosing a camera (or 2nd body).

  • Nature/wildlife photographers use cropped sensor cameras when working with birds, animals as the additional reach is an advantage. While you're not closer to the subject, there's less to crop or less area around the subject.
  • If taking family photos one minute then moving into nature photography the next, and then walking around to shoot what moves you – a cropped sensor works great.
  • If landscape, architecture and other large view photography is your primary interest, a full frame is optimal for the bigger views. Full frame cameras will take full advantage of the wide and extra wide angle lenses.
  • Both types work very well with Macro situations. Remembering the crop factor, that bee will appear larger in the frame. The subject and details, given the photographers techniques can be beautifully captured.
  • With Macro and full frame, the way it handles a shallower depth of field combined with richer tonal range, the image quality is outstanding. If macro is a primary focus, the full frame will shine.

If you have one type of camera and want a second camera body, having both in your camera bag provides additional flexibility. It also adds the internal dilemma of ‘which one do I use' in situations that could go either way.

 

When I first started using digital cameras, cropped sensor was the best choice as my subjects were birds and wildlife. I was also able to delve into both landscape and macro with my cropped sensor camera and was very happy with the results. The orange flower above was taken with my Nikon 5100 and a 105mm macro.

As my interests expanded (and pocketbook shrunk), a full frame was added. I typically have both camera bodies when traveling or hiking as I want to be able to take advantage of the strengths of each.



If limited to carrying only one, the primary subject of the day serves as the guide for which camera and lenses to take.

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Profile photo of Sheen Watkins
Sheen Watkins is a bird, nature, wildlife photographer and photography writer. You can follow her photography on Facebook, Instagram and her website. A long term birder and nature enthusiast she is Vice President of Saving Birds Thru Habitat, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating others about the importance of protecting our natural habitat for migrating birds. She also has a travel and photography blog.

13 thoughts on “What to Expect from a Cropped Sensor and a Full Frame Sensor

  1. Neil Adamson

    I have a Nikon D800 ;It’s a full frame camera but can be operated in the DX or cropped mode . I’m photographing small birds and printing to A3.
    Question : do I use the full frame mode (all 34.2 Mpx) and crop later in photoshop or
    do I increase the focal length of my tele lens and lose resolution.
    Which of the options gives me the best final print definition?

    1. Simao Campos

      Full frame and crop later. Youay also use raw. Cropping in the camera will just Dave data from a sub area of the sensor not use the full sensor for a true longer focal length.

  2. Dan Ladurini

    This is a very well stated article. It covers main issues and has done so in laymen’s terms. Not offending the seasoned veteran and in such a way the novice could take away very good information. I to enjoy nature, and sports photography. This is a new found love over the past 4 or 5 years for me. I have been exclusively a micro 4/3rds shooter and been happy with the results and quality. My mentor is much like you, has mostly full frame gear and a micro 4/3rds for leisure.

    Keep up the good work!

    I am not a social media person but will try to see more of your work.

  3. Federico

    Excellent and clear article, however I tend to disagree on the argument that a Crop sensor has “Extra Reach”, which in fact it does not. Correct me if I’m wrong, but IMO it is only an illusion to think you have a “more powerful” zoom and hence an advantage with a Crop-Sensor. Using your example of a deer above, you could’ve taken the same picture with a Full Sensor camera, including more of the animal and background on those EXTRA pixels that the smaller sensor simply leaves away. You are not filling in the same pixels with more of your desired subject…. If you were to crop it in post processing you would end with the same size and frame picture. You would ‘ve definitely saved money in that particular picture in buying a less expensive crop-sensor camera if you would to crop all your FX pictures…… but you loose the other advantages on a per-pixel level of FX vs Crop.
    This is an analogy to digital zooming on other cameras: you are better off using tyour OPTICAL zoom and cropping on post production – never, ever, run into the digital zoom range. I’ve tested this in iPhones and Point and Shoots.
    I am open to four feedback and correction, but to me “discovering” this false illusion has had an important impact in my selection of camera an lenses. And the way I shoot with my iPhone in spontaneous occasions without my DSLR on.

    1. Profile photo of Sheen WatkinsSheen Watkins Post author

      Hi Federico and thank you for your response. You are correct in that you are not getting extra reach in the actual, physical distance but rather a ‘perceived reach”. In the case of the house above – the front door as an example on the right (cropped sensor) appears larger and closer even though I’m standing in the exact same spot as the image on the left.

      As far as post processing when we crop our images, we may crop less with the crop sensor camera because the bird appears larger and there’s less excess to crop out. That’s not to say you can’t crop with a full frame, you just may need to crop more for wildlife to make it a larger part of the photograph. Even though I’ve done wildlife in full frame, I prefer using the crop sensor camera with smaller animals for that reason. One of my photographer partners, only goes with full frame and large lenses and he’s happy with his results too.

      Thank you again for reading and commenting – have a great weekend!

  4. Michael Dunningham

    Hello Sheen. Thanks for your information but I have a question or two. If both full frame cameras and cropped cameras have the same number of pixels or close to, wouldn’t less cropping on a cropped camera give better resolution?. My question here is confused in my mind by something you mentioned by way of larger pixels. Are the pixels in a full frame camera actually larger in size to the pixels in a cropped camera and so may give better resolution?. When I read my digital count on my own camera[a cropped camera] it say’s 24.2 which is pretty much the same as a full frame camera.What is 24.2 meaning. 24.2 to the centimetre,millimetre,inch or the frame of the camera? or does the term ‘larger pixels’ relate to a larger number of pixels available in comparison to a point and shoot model with less pixels? In my mind it as an amateur it comes down to this. Having the same number of pixels in both full and cropped cameras the less cropping done where cropping becomes necessary then the better result will be achieved by using a cropped camera. Is that correct?

  5. Matthew

    Is there a difference/advantage of shooting in full frame and then cropping vs. shooting with a DX the same subject? Lets take the house for example. Lets say the shot on the left is done with a FF using a 50mm. If you were to crop it to show the same area as the photo on the right, what would be different about the two both in what is seen and what resides in the details of the file?

  6. Claude B.

    As you mention (I agree): ”With today’s technology, both have outstanding image quality.”

    The only people who know if a picture was done with a full frame vs APS-C, or even a 4/3, is the photographer unless he mention it.

  7. Ian

    I have a Nikon 7100) and 18-200mm 2.8 Nikon lens. I was advised by my camera store that a with a teleconverter could not be used on this camera.
    I would love to be able to use a teleconverter. Can you please advise. Thanks
    Ian

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