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Introduction

A friend of mine was asking for advice on which lens she should buy the other day, to which I gave my standard reply of, “get a 50mm 1.8, unless you’re shooting on Nikon, in which case get a 35mm as the angle will work better on your crop sensor”, to which she replied, “what’s a crop sensor?”

The lack of knowledge about the type of camera surprised me but, looking back, I remember when I didn’t know either. This post is about setting it straight and helping you to make the right choice when it comes to buying a lens.

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Step 1 – What is the Crop Factor?

The crop factor is common to most digital SLR cameras these days as they use smaller sensors than the more expensive cameras.

Professional cameras have a sensor the same size as a 35mm piece of film; any old lenses which were used on film bodies, using the same mount, would still work on digital SLRs.

The problem with this is that the technology was big and expensive, putting the price of cameras up.

To fix this, camera manufacturers started building new cameras with smaller sensors that would take the old lenses, as well as new lenses designed to mimic the same focal length.

Putting a lens meant for a full frame camera onto a body with a crop sensor produces the crop factor.

It’s called the crop factor because you’re effectively cropping the image. Imagine you’ve printed a photo out but, suddenly, the paper is half the size; you have to cut bits out, cropping the image.

This probably isn’t the world’s best analogy, so have a look at the diagram below (it was taken from my post on focal length so there may be some information on there that you’re not familiar with).

In both images, the lens is meant for a full frame camera. On the left, you can see the projection of that image as though it were projected onto a crop sensor – a lot of the image is missing at the sides.

The image on the right shows you what this is effectively doing – it’s taking a regular full frame sensor and bringing it closer to the lens so that part of the image is cropped out.

As you can see, you’re losing a lot of the image when you use a full frame lens; lets look at it from another angle.

A circular lens produces a circular image, then the sensor crops this depending on its size. Full frame sensors are all the same size, whereas crop sensor sizes tend to vary between manufacturers. Tor the sake of this diagram, know that it’s not to scale.

Step 2 – How Much Does it Crop?

There are two main sizes of crop (APS-C) sensors: those used by Nikon, Sony and Pentax, and the one that’s used by Canon.

The main difference is that Canon’s is slightly smaller and magnifies the image by 1.6 rather than 1.5.

What this means is that, if you put a 50mm lens designed for a full frame camera onto a crop sensor body, the focal length would effectively be 80mm, rather than 75mm.

These magnification differences don’t make a big difference at this end of the scale as the lenses are designed accordingly. All you need to know is which sensor you’re using so that you can work out the crop factor when you want to buy a full frame lens.

Step 3 – How do I Know if I’m using a Crop Sensor?

This is pretty easy to answer, simply ask yourself one question:

If you look for your camera body brand new at the moment, can you buy it for less that $2000?

If the answer is yes, you’re using a crop sensor. Full frame cameras are expensive and aren’t that common when you compare them to amount of crop cameras around. If you walked into a store and paid less than $2000 for it, you’re shooting on a crop sensor.

Another great way of telling is to look at the kit lens that came with your camera.

These lenses are designed to work with your camera body by providing a smaller lens projection; their focal lengths will be shorter than a full frame camera – staring at 18mm, rather than 24mm.

There will also be your camera brand’s marking to indicate which body it was made for.

Here are the most popular brands:

  • Canon — EF-S
  • Nikon — DX
  • Sony — DT
  • Pentax — DA
  • Sigma — DC
  • Tamron — Di-II

If, one day, you decide to upgrade to a full frame camera, these lenses will no longer work; buy carefully.

Step 4 – Why Buy Full Frame Lenses?

If you have only ever bought a prime lens, you’ll know why.

The lenses made for professional, full frame cameras are usually a lot better quality. You can still buy high quality lenses for crop sensor cameras but, if you really want to use the best lenses out there, you need to use full body lenses.

These lenses have been around long before digital cameras became popular and provide us with the speed and accuracy you would expect for the price.

Prime lenses in particular are really only made for full frame cameras.

50mm is a great focal length when you’re using a full frame camera but that’s not so good on a crop sensor because it’s unnaturally zoomed. If you’re a Nikon user and want to buy a f/1.8 lens, I would always recommend the 35mm over the 50mm for a much more natural appearance.

Some people are worried that the perspective may change, as perspective appears compressed at longer focal lengths but this isn’t something you need to worry about; it’s not the lens that compresses the image but the distance from the subject.

That being said, when you get into much wider angles, the barrel distortion at the edges is much more significant so, if you crop this out, it won’t change the perspective but you will notice the difference.

Step 5 -Buying The Right Lens For You

The first thing worth mentioning here is a realistic warning: if you’re going to replace your kit lens and you’re not planning on upgrading your body for a few years, buy a crop sensor lens.

The field of view that you lose in the shorter focal lengths is quite big – have a look at the photos below for comparison.

The first photo was taken at 18mm on a crop sensor and the second was shot at 24mm on a crop sensor. If you shoot wide often, or even at all, you’re going to want to keep the extra few millimeters.

I would thoroughly recommend prime lenses no matter which body they’re using. Just have a look at my gear post for some recommendations.

They’re sharper and better quality for the price than any alternatives such as an all-in-one wide angle to telephoto.

My best piece of advice is to consider carefully what you want to do with your photography – are you’re going to want to upgrade the body soon or shoot really wide angles? Then you’ll be able to choose the lens that’s right for you.

Your Free Quick-Start Photography Cheatsheet

In order to simplify the process of learning photography, I’ve created a free download called The Quick Start Photography Cheatsheet and you can download it below.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • A downloadable cheatsheet to carry with you as you shoot
  • Detailed summaries of each section of this post
  • External links to relevant articles and blog posts
  • At-A-Glace Images that will explain how each exposure works
  • And much, much more…

Your Free Quick-Start

Photography Cheatsheet

This downloadable cheatsheet gives you detailed summaries of every section of this post, as well as links to relevant articles, and at-a-glace images that will explain how exposure works.

5 Steps To Understanding The Crop Factor

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Josh

Hey I'm Josh, I'm Photographer in Chief here at ExpertPhotography, and I'm in charge of making sure that we provide you with the best content from the most knowledgeable photographers in the world. Enjoy the site :)

  • Dave

    “unless you’re shooting on Nikon, in which you should get a 35mm as the angle will work better on your crop sensor’”

    Why just Nikon?

    • Canon only go as wide as f/2 at 35mm and it’s 2-3 times as much as the 50mm 1.8. Nikon’s 35 and 50 are pretty similarly priced I believe.

  • “my standard reply was ‘get a 50mm 1.8, unless you’re shooting on Nikon, in which you should get a 35mm as the angle will work better on your crop sensor’” <~~~ I don't mean to troll, but just because it's a Nikon body, doesn't mean it has a cropped (1.5x) sensor.

    • You’re missing the point slightly, I assume that friends who are asking me advice on photography gear are not shooting on a full frame sensor. I recommend the 35mm over the 50mm because the angle is better and they’ve very similarly priced with Nikon. Canon only go as wide as f/2 at 35mm in that range and it costs a lot more, so I recommend Canon users buy a 50mm.

  • Great Article Josh, About lenses: a few month ago I decided to get a prime lens. I was convinced that 35mm would be the best choice as I rented one recently and loved it. But before making this buying choice I looked at metadata of all of my images I shot lately with zoom lenses and to my surprise the majority of photos were taken at 24mm (on cropped censor canon 7d which is 35 on full) So I think it’s a good way to figure out which prime lens to get is look at metadata of your favorite images that you have taken with zoom lens and see your own preferred range. …. just a thought….

    • Yeah definitely, that’s a good point. I always recommend wider angles (35 over the 50) for people who are buying their first new lenses because, as you said, they’re used the most. The only problem is that a 50mm 1.8 in the UK is £69 at the moment for Canon, whereas a 24mm 1.8 is £369 and made by Sigma. It’s best for beginners to get to grips with how everything works, and see if they like it before they start investing more money. Thanks for the comment Sasha, you’ve got a very cool website.

  • Jeffrfey

    Hi Josh, just found and read this post. I have a Nikon D7000. Does your suggestion to use a 35mm 1.8 over the 50mm 1.8 apply to portraiture, too? I’ve seen many suggestions, even on the Nikon site, to use the Nikkor 50mm for portraits as it results in the best perspective being closest to emulating a 80mm FX.
    Thank you.

    • Yeah, go for the 50mm if you’re doing portraits. Josh

  • MPAC

    Hi Josh , I am confused i was watching a YouTube video by Cazillo he said in his video. It’s not good to use a 50mm on a full frame or crop sensor for portrait. Please help me understand better. I have a 50mm and 16-50mm and a 70-200mm lense.

  • hello ! I’m a wedding photographer- now i’m planning to move to a full frame camera, i’ve decided to get canon 6d. Can you tell me what will be the essential lens kit for my purpose 🙂 Thanks

  • Muy buena su ilustración, me es de gran utilidad ya que estoy comprando ópticas para poder dar el salto a full frame. Saludo desde Colombia.

  • Swamesh

    hi i own a d7100 which has a 1.3x crop factor. should i opt for a 35mm or 50mm 1.8d lens?
    i want it mainly for portraits and low light photography, what difference would it make?

    • You’ll want the 50mm if you want to take portraits as it will be more zoomed

  • Sids

    Hi Josh, how do i know the lens am using is a crop sensor lens, any indication of it on the body of the lens

    • Yeah, it will say on the lens with a denotation like EF-S on Canon and DX on Nikon.

  • Sids

    Recently bought a nikon d5200, would like to know how to regulate the shutter speed and also the aperture size

  • Martin Winkler

    Thank you for the explanation! What I still don’t get, is this: I own a Canon crop sensor camera with an EF-S lens. Does this mean that a setting of 50mm on this lens really is 50mm focal length or does the crop factor apply for EF-S lenses as well?

    • It’s 50mm focal length, but that’s effectively 80mm on a crop sensor. It applies to EF-S lenses too.

      • Martin Winkler

        Thank you very much!

  • fawad

    Which lens are suitable for nikon d5200 with aperture 1.4 ? which cost arount 600$ ?

  • Tod Hamilton

    Hi Josh,
    Just looking at buying something better than I probably NEED right now, but which will do me for other things later on. That being the SONY NEX 7.
    My question is, Sony say it’s 35mm full frame sensor.

    In THIS post your comments were that [and yes, time moves quickly with these newer digitals];
    “Another great way of telling is to look at the kit lens that came with your camera. These lenses are all designed to work with your camera body, by providing a smaller lens projection, so their focal lengths will be shorter than a full frame camera – staring at 18mm, rather than 24mm. There will also be your camera brand’s marking on the camera to indicate which body it was made for.”

    So the Sony NEX 7 says full frame, comes with the 18 – 55mm standard.
    So in this case, is it just a case of this is one of the newer full frame sensor cameras, but still offers the 18 – 55mm lens [as in, it definitely IS a 35mm full frame sensor is what I’m getting at].. Or am I missing something.

    **Just to note, right now, their smaller 7.68mm 1/2.3 sensor HX60V would probably do me. As right now, the pics taken are whilst out riding motorbikes, we stop, take some pics of us and the bikes, a bit of the landscape and keep riding; OR – it’s at a lunch stop. So the NEX 7 would be something to learn with and to make use of when I’m out on my own, focussed on images and not the riding.

    And YES.. it looks like I’ve been swayed to go down the Sony route, since the release of their NEX 6 and new range of tiny, yet potent little cameras.

    • That’s not a full frame sensor, it’s a crop sensor. Nice little camera though!

      • Tod Hamilton

        Thanks Josh.
        The part I left off, as it was getting long and off topic was that in the perfect world, I’d opt for their top flight RX1R.. Again, way more than I need. Only found your site / blog today. Will look into your lessons etc. A few of the basics are there, such as backlighting, off camera flash positioning, can comprehend manual operation [used to race bikes, so got to know a lot of snappers], from Peter “Granny” Geran, Mark “H” now with Canon and Mark Toia [Zoom film & TV], who progressed from stills to doing lots of film and commercials..
        So had to learn somethng as they showed me how their expensive toys operated and took my cash to fund their efforts and so I could get some pics of the racing.. Maybe I could ‘borrow’ Mr Toia’s Red Epic.. He’s probably got a couple of spares.. Then I could spend the next decade learning how to use it..
        Thanks for your tips, great infomative site and I’ll be back. Cheers!