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

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.

About the author

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.

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