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

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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 Author

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

Thank you Bob! Congratulations on your purchase – can’t wait to see the beautiful images you take with your new camera. I love my cropped sensor too – makes a difference for our birds and many other images. Have a great day!

Greetings Gonzalo, yes, you are correct. There are 3rd party lens manufacturers that make very good lenses for crop sensors. Thank you for reading and your comment – enjoy the day!

Hi, thanks for the article, I am just in the position of deciding whether to upgrade to a 5d mk iii from my 60d. I have spent so much time researching and reading I feel like I am going round in circles. I found your article really useful. Just hope I can now finally make the decision!

Tina, good luck with your decision. If there are any additional questions, please do not hesitate to ask. The fact that you are reading and doing your research will ensure you make the right decision. Enjoy your day!

Thank you for this easy to understand definition. I have been a bit confused ever since I purchased my first DSLR (Canon 60D) four years ago. After reading numerous articles, over the years, I finally get it!

Nice article. One other significant difference between crop and full frame sensors is that many full frame sensors have the ability to capture more light and produce better quality images at higher ISO levels. This could be an important advantage in low light situations.

Absolutely agree Joe. The full frame does handle low light situations and high ISO situations better! Thanks for commenting!

great overview on a well discussed topic. I am currently using both a Nikon D300s (crop sensor DX) and a D700 (full frame FX) and use one or the other depending on the subject. When travelling I mount a 17-35 f/2.8 Nikkor lens on the D700 and a 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 Nikkor on the D300s. With this combo I have a total focal length range of 17mm to 450mm readily at hand without the need to swap bodies or lenses.

Nikon Fullframe cameras off a Crop mode too. I suppose the same can be used for Birds , Wild Life and Macro needs.
Also you cam crop a full frame image to the ‘ Crop Size without any loss of IQ, I suppose.
Do correct me if I am wrong. I am currently with Nikon D7000 and am
Considering the new full frame D750.
Amol Sandil

Hi Amol – you are correct that the Nikon full frame offers a DX (crop mode). The file size is a bit smaller than taken with a true crop sensor camera but still enough to work with. Good weekend to you!

There is one overriding factor that makes full frame my choice, especially for birds. That is the extra room you have in full frame to crop in post. Many of my images are “grabbed” when the bird is in motion such as at sudden take off. Most times the bird is not in the optimum position with in the frame. I switched from an Apsc sensor to full frame Canon 5d mk 2 and now mk3 and will not go back except possibly for a small light camera for street work.

I see no big differences between the cropped and full frame sensors; except for the field of view that is wider in full frame, and narrower in the APS-C sensor. Light sensitivity is also not a pronounced advantage for a full frame sensor. You always have to have a good source of light to be able to shoot a good photograph though; that’s the beauty of exposure. Very seldom do I photograph subjects in dim light and never in the dark, to be honest with it. Complimenting your cropped sensor camera with wide angle lenses for its equivalent in full frame is the same as using one. I’ve been using film cameras for a long time. I also have a full frame camera but never have an issue using my fuji xpro1 w/c I recently bought.

The best of best worlds would be to have a full frame camera for landscape work and a crop or APS-C sensor for sports and wildlife. that being said not many can afford that kind of set up. both types of cameras have their pro’s and con’s cost being the largest one. A full frame camera with several lenses cost more than a APS-C set up and as we all know man or women can not potograph with only one lense, lenses for full frame are larger and higher in price, so that is why I shoot with a APS-C Pentax camera, why Pentax over Canon or Nikon? price mostly. I picked up a Pentax K5ii body at the end of its run for a price of 600$. The price of a low end Nikon or Canon. This goes to Raphie, if you don’t have a tripod, pick one up, the best photography can be found in dim or low light. use a cable release or camera timer, over the years my best landscape photos were taken when most people were still in bed, take care and happy shooting.

I love my full frame Canon 5DMKlll . My widest lens is 24mm, so it allowed me to get the true 24mm view, so I didn’t have to spend more money on a wider angle lens. 24 is adequate for most of my landscape needs. Also, if you work with longer lenses or extention tubes for macro, the added light really comes in handy. I still use my 40D for certain applications, but the 5D can’t be beat. I’m doing a lot of night shooting and painting with light, which is made easy using the full frame, with minimum noise issues.

Good article! I currently have a DSLR and am considering going mirror-less. Most important is to be able to shoot birds in flight, plus keeping it reasonably priced. Any suggestions are welcome! Friend has Olympus OMD Em1.
Thanks

Nice article. I just sold my old 7D and 2 cropped lenses. Picked up a 6D (and free printer) with a tremendous rebate. You helped me make up my mind on getting the 7D MkII as a second body. Waiting for reviews on the new Canon 100-400L and the Tamron 150-600. What is your favorite bird lens?

Hi Bill and thanks for your comments! I really enjoy my Tamron 150-600 and I use it on my cropped sensor (Nikon 7100) camera. I just returned from Costa Rica and I have many images that you’re welcome to see on my smug mug page Sheen’s Nature Photography SmugMug site If you click on the caterpillar will take you in to the costa rica gallery. If you go to the other bird galleries, you’ll see quite a few taken with the Tamron. I also still use the 70-300mm quite a bit when I’m in smaller areas, can’t use the tripod or I need to get around quickly. I also did a Light Stalking article on the Tamron 150-600 a couple of months ago that should give you some insight too. Let me know if you can’t locate it. Hope this helps!

Thank you so much! Your article proved helpful. I was really confused as to which sensor format should I prefer for bird and wildlife photography. I’m thinking of buying D7100. 🙂

Hi Sheen

I would need some light on my query which is…..in bird photography I click with crop sensor and I get the reach and my subject is more filled in the frame…..now if I take the same image on full frame and then crop it during processing is it not the same……this is where I am confused.

Assuming good light, I think they would be very similar. The real difference is seen in poor lighting conditions. The full frame cameras take significantly better pictures and you would see a big difference if you did the same experiment taking hockey pictures inside a rink.

A very important benefit of crop sensors is MUCH cheaper and lighter lenses. A 400mm f2.8 prime costs 12k and weighs over 8 pounds. Lug that around in the woods for awhile. You can get an 18-300 zoom for a crop Nikon camera for 900 bucks and it only weighs 1.8lbs and gives you the equivalent view of a 450mm. Will pictures be as good? Probably not, but under good light conditions they will be similar. I use both, a Nikon D7100 and a D750.

Nicely covered many of the issues. One thing I don’t see covered, though, is the depth-of-field topic. For the same composition, a full-frame sensor enables a shallower depth of field. Often, for example, portraiture work looks better with a shallow depth of field, and so a full-frame sensor gives you better control if you really want to work with a wide aperture.

Would love to own a full frame,. However, here in Australia just cannot afford the very high costs of the body, let alone the lenses.

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