Full-Frame or Cropped Sensor: Which Will Work for You? | Light Stalking

Full-Frame or Cropped Sensor: Which Will Work for You?

By Sheen Watkins / September 22, 2014

There's a large selection of camera brands, with various models combined with choices of full-frame, and cropped frame sensors. Searching for the right camera can be exciting, but it can also be time consuming and sometimes downright confusing. Cameras, lenses, gear and accessory costs can mount quickly.
The information and images in this article are to assist you in making a decision that is right for you. There really isn't a right or wrong but there probably is a ‘better option for you' based on your goals.
We'll start with a look at two images taken with the same Nikon 50mm 1.8G lens, from the exact same spot. The full frame was taken with my Nikon 600 and the cropped was taken with my Nikon 7100. To compare the adjustments needed in post processing, I used using the same Aperture and ISO settings.

Pretty House:  Full Frame
Pretty House using Full Frame Camera
Pretty House:  Cropped Sensor
Pretty House using Cropped Frame Camera

Probably the most visible difference between the two is the image area size. The full frame captured a bigger area. The cropped frame captured a smaller area, but the area in the image is magnified. In post processing, the cropped sensor image required more, but still minor, adjustments in digital noise, sharpening, and color enhancements than the full frame. As an owner of both cropped and full frame formats, I can say they both produce high quality images.
Just enter phrases of “Full frame versus cropped frame sensors” in your favorite browser and a host of articles appear from the basics to a lot of technical detail that can make a head spin. For those of us that are techies, there's plenty of detail available to comb through. For those of us that want big-picture (pardon the pun) differences, the information below will get us started.

Major Differences Between a Full Frame and a Cropped Frame Sensor

Sensor Size

A full frame sensor is the size of 35mm film which is 36 X 24mm. A cropped sensor size using Canon DSLRs is 22.2mm X 14.mm and Nikon is 23.6 X 15.7mm. Back in the days of film, a larger negative generated higher quality images. While full frames have the ability to generate higher quality images based on sensor and pixel size, that by itself will not automatically ensure high quality. Composition, use of lighting, lenses, settings, post processing are all part of the picture. All of these things being equal, however, a richer image is produced by a full frame.

Magnification size (aka “Crop Factor)

Whether using a full frame camera or cropped sensor, the actual reach from lens to subject is the same. With a full frame, a larger area is captured in the image. With a cropped sensor, there's less physical area in the image. However, the image that is captured is magnified when the image is enlarged to the standard output size. For example, the magnification size for Nikon is 1.5 and Canon 1.6 based on models. For bird photography, magnification definitely can make a difference in the detail.

Black-crowned Night Heron
Black Crowned Night Heron – Sheen's Nature Photography

Pixel density

This is the number of pixels on a sensor. In the instance of the Nikon 7100 and 600, they both have the same number of pixels 24.1 and 24.3 respectively. The number of pixels may or may not matter. If large scale prints are needed, a lot of cropping is required, etc, this may impact the number of desired pixels.

Pixel size

Using the comparison of my Nikon 7100 (24.1 megapixels, sensor size of 23.5 X15.6mm) vs 600 (24.3 megapixels and sensor size of 35.9 X 24mm) – the larger sensor allows for larger pixels that provide 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 and ISO can be pushed up for faster shutter speeds without significant impact.

Lenses

They are used at their ‘real’ focal length on a full frame. A 50mm is truly a 50mm. On a cropped sensor (Nikon 1.5) a 50mm effectively becomes a 75mm due to the cropped sensor/magnification factor. Wide angle lenses can be maximized to their fullest potential using full frame cameras.

What Format is Best for a Given Type of Photography?

Since my first photography subjects were birds, my first camera was a Nikon 5100 (cropped frame) recommended by our local camera retailer. I used it for birds, wildlife, landscapes and macro. To this day, when I go back and see early images, I'm still pleased with the quality and would not bat an eye if I needed to use it as a backup.
The addition of a full frame was based on expanding the types of photography I wanted to explore further. From my experience here's what I've found with both:
Landscape, portraits, macro and street photography work beautifully in full frame. The amount of image that can be captured with a wide angle lens makes full frame optimal for landscape photography. The additional bit of sharpness, ISO capability with my primes used at their given length provides flexibility for walking around day or night.
Nature, wildlife, birds, and insects can be captured with lovely detail using cropped sensors. As a bird photographer, I will probably rely on the cropped frame for a very long time. A 500mm lens becomes 750mm (again not in actual reach but resulting from the cropped sensor). When trying to photograph a tiny bird, a lot of lens makes a difference.

Hibiscus:  Full Frame
Hibiscus: Full Frame – Sheen's Nature Photography

Macro images, I still go back and forth. Taking a look at the hibiscus flower above and below, the two images were taken from the same vantage point using both Nikon cameras and a 105mm Macro lens. The amount of flower versus stamen in each photograph is very different. The red center of the flower in the full frame is richer. The stamen appears much larger in the cropped frame. This again ties back to personal preferences.

Hibiscus Cropped Frame
Hibiscus: Cropped Frame – Sheen's Nature Photography

A bit of research at the beginning will only enhance your enjoyment of your investment over the course of time. In addition to reading articles and research, chatting with your local camera retailer can offer valuable insight into your decision.

About the author

Sheen Watkins

Sheen Watkins is a conservationist, wildlife photographer, instructor, author and photography writer. You can follow her photography on Facebook, Instagram and her website.

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