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Full Frame vs APS-C: Which Camera Do You Need?

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The image sensor is one of the most important components of a digital camera. But deciding between a full-frame and APS-C sensor camera can make your head spin. And when you’re buying a camera, it isn’t easy to know which sensor size is best for you.

There’s no right and wrong or good and bad when it comes to full-frame vs. APS-C cameras. But there are significant differences you should understand before you buy a new camera.

We’re lifting the lid on the full-frame vs. APS-C camera debate. We’ll look at the key differences and the strengths and weaknesses of each sensor type. Continue reading to find out whether an APS-C or full-frame camera is better for you.

Close up image of a camera with the lens removed so you can see the sensor
© WB77 (Depositphotos.com)

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What Are APS-C and Full-Frame Sensors?

Every digital camera has a sensor. It captures the light that passes through the lens and processes the information to create an image. In analog cameras, light passes through the lens and hits a segment of film, reacting with the film emulsion. But film and emulsion have been replaced with a solid-state device that reads the light info digitally.

Camera sensors come in two main sizes for consumer cameras. You have the APS-C sensor, sometimes referred to as a crop sensor. And there’s the larger full-frame sensor. Neither is inherently inferior to the other. But there are notable differences.

APS-C Sensors

APS-C stands for Advanced Photo System-Classic. It gets this name because the sensor is the same size as the Advanced Photo System film type in the Classic format. It measures 25.1 x 16.7mm with an aspect ratio of 3:2.

Simply put, an APS-C sensor is smaller than 35mm film and full-frame sensors. This means APS-C cameras tend to be smaller and cheaper than full-frame cameras. And the smaller sensor size also gives the camera a crop factor, something we’ll look at in detail below.

Full-Frame Sensors

A full-frame sensor is equivalent in size to traditional 35mm film. They are larger than APS-C sensors. And full-frame camera users experience no cropping on their images. This is why they’re called full-frame sensors. They capture the entire frame.

The larger sensor size means full-frame cameras are generally larger and heavier than APS-C cameras. And they allow for higher megapixel counts, better depth of field control, and a wider dynamic range.

A full-frame and a APS-C camera next to each other for comparison
Canon EOS 6D vs 80D

How APS-C and Full-Frame Sensors Affect Camera Size

The first difference you might notice between APS-C and full-frame cameras is the size. Full-frame sensors are physically larger than APS-C sensors, meaning they need a bigger camera body to house them. The larger body size also means there’s additional weight.

While this isn’t always the case, APS-C cameras are usually smaller and lighter. That makes an APS-C more appealing to travel photographers who need a camera they can take with them on the road. And many street photographers also favor an APC-C camera because they’re more discrete.

Full-frame cameras are favored by photographers that cope with the extra heft. These include photographers that work in studios or on sets. And it will also include photographers that often use tripods, like landscape and product photographers.

Illustration showing the crop factor of APS-C and Full-frame

What Is The APS-C Crop Factor?

APS-C sensor cameras are often referred to as crop-sensor cameras. This name comes from the fact APS-C cameras are subject to a cropping effect when taking an image. The smaller sensor size reduces the angles of view of the camera, thus cropping the final image.

Most APS-C cameras have a crop factor of 1.5x. You’ll find this degree of crop factor on APS-C cameras from Nikon, Sony, and Pentax. Canon is unique, and a Canon APS-C camera has a crop factor of 1.6x.

The crop factor also means you’ll experience an increase in focal length. A crop factor of 1.5x effectively turns a 50mm lens into a 75mm lens. And with the increased focal length, you’ll experience additional magnification.

Micro four-thirds (MFT) cameras also experience this crop factor. And as MFT sensors are even smaller than APS-C sensors, the cropping effect is greater. When using an MFT camera, you’ll experience a 2x crop factor, which changes the aspect ratio from 3:2 to 4:3.

Full-frame cameras experience no crop factor at all. They capture the entire frame, with nothing cropped from the edges and no additional magnification. A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera gives you a 50mm view. That’s why it’s called a full-frame sensor.

Illustration showing the crop factor sizes

Full-Frame vs. APS-C Sensors: Image Specifications

We’ve seen some practical differences in the full-frame vs. APS-C debate. Now we’ll look at how the different sensor size affects your images. We’ll review the different specifications to see how these types of cameras differ from one another.

Sensor Resolution

You might assume that full-frame sensors have a higher megapixel count due to their size. And generally speaking, this is true. They have a bigger surface area and can house more megapixels compared to an APS-C sensor.

This might lead you to believe that the image quality of a full-frame camera will always be better than that of an APS-C camera. While there is a correlation between a high MP count and image quality, it’s not always that simple.

Some APS-C cameras might have a lower MP count than a full-frame rival. But as the crop sensor is smaller, the megapixels are more densely situated. When the megapixels are spread across more space, you might experience inferior image quality.

The Canon EOS R7 has the highest MP count for an APS-C camera. It has a sensor resolution of 32.5MP. And even though it has an APS-C sensor, it outperforms full-frame cameras with a similar MP count.

The problem with APS-C cameras is that the megapixel count maxes out at about 32.5MP. And this MP count is low for modern full-frame cameras. We’re seeing full-frame DSLRs and mirrorless cameras with much high sensor resolutions.

The Nikon D850 is a full-frame DSLR with a 45.7MP sensor. And Sony has raised the stakes in the mirrorless camera division. Their Sony A7R IV has an eye-watering 61MP image sensor. So a bigger sensor can translate to better image quality. (Check out the full Nikon D850 vs Sony A7R IV specs for yourself!)

Coastal landscape high resolution photo
© Neil Mark Thomas (Unsplash.com)

Image File Size

An image with a higher resolution will take up more storage space. The higher the MP of your camera, the larger the file size of your images. And this is especially true if you’re shooting RAW files.

The issue of file size and digital storage usually isn’t a deal-breaker for photographers. But it is something you should be aware of. The larger file size of your images will affect the number of photos your camera can take before the memory card is full.

You have solutions to the file size issue. You can buy extra SD cards and additional storage units, like external hard drives. But these cost money, and you’ll have to account for them in your photography budget.

External hard drive on a table
© Martin May (Unsplash.com)

Full-Frames Have Better Low Light Performance

Full-frame cameras have better low-light performance than their APS-C competitors. The larger sensor takes in more information from the light it receives. And full-frame sensors have larger megapixels.

The larger pixels absorb more light, giving the sensor more information to work will. It gives you more detail from darker environments. And it allows the camera to have higher maximum ISO settings.

Full-frame cameras are better suited to night photography. And the extra low-light capabilities make them a good choice for concert photography. And you’ll need the extra resolution and light sensitivity of a full-frame camera for astrophotography.

Image of a starry night sky above mountains
© Guille Pozzi (Unsplash.com)

Full-Frame Cameras Have a Wider Dynamic Range

Dynamic range refers to how much detail your camera can pull from bright and dark areas. And again, APS-C cameras underperform against their full-frame counterparts in this field.

The increased number and size of the pixels means the sensor receives more information. And with this information, the camera can decipher details in the brightest and darkest areas of your shot. It means you can have a detailed picture even in a high-contrast situation.

Landscape of mountains with trees in the forground.
© Nick Gardner (Unsplash.com)

Can a Full-Frame Camera Give A Shallower Depth of Field?

A shallow depth of field, or bokeh effect, looks great in portraits and product photos. But does a full-frame camera give you a shallower depth of field? The simple answer is yes. But only if you’re using the same lens type on both cameras.

To achieve a soft bokeh effect on any camera, you need to use a wide aperture. And a lens with a wider angle will also help you achieve a shallow depth of field. But the difference in depth of field with full-frame vs. APS-C relates back to the crop factor issue.

A 50mm lens on an APS-C camera has an effective focal length of 75mm. And a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera has a focal length of 50mm. The shorter focal length of the full-frame camera makes it easier to achieve the bokeh effect.

But you can compensate for this by using a lens with a smaller focal length on an APS-C camera. A 35mm lens on an APS-C camera is equivalent to a 50mm lens on a full-frame. It means a 35mm lens on an APS-C camera gives you the same level of bokeh as a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera.

Close up macro shot of beetle on a flower bud
© Timothy Dykes (Unplash.com)

Full-Frame vs. APS-C: Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages of a Full-Frame Sensor

The main advantage of a full-frame sensor over an APS-C machine is image resolution. And the higher resolution gives you increased image quality.

It seems like APS-C cameras have reached their limit for MP count. And while some high-end APS-C cameras can compete with lower-level full-frame cameras, the top-end full-frames are miles ahead.

Full-frame cameras also have bigger and better ranges when it comes to ISO. They have better low-light performance. And you also find some full-frame units with a 50 ISO setting. The Sony A1 and Panasonic Lumix DC-S5 both have the 50 ISO setting.

Full-frame cameras also give you a better dynamic range. And you can achieve a shallower depth of field with a longer focal length lens. Most manufacturers also have excellent lines of full-frame lenses.

Disadvantages of a Full-Frame Sensor

With their bigger sensors, full-frame cameras tend to be bigger and heavier than their APS-C rivals. The extra bulk might put some photographers off.

Full-frame cameras tend to be aimed at photographers at a higher skill level. There are a few entry-level full-frame options. The Canon EOS RP and the Nikon Z5 are excellent options. But features and specifications often put full-frame cameras in the enthusiast or professional category.

Another big issue is the price. Full-frame cameras tend to be more expensive. And the professional-grade full-frame mirrorless cameras can have some staggering price tags. But the higher performance makes it worth it for many professional photographers.

A hand holding a Sony A7 III
© The Registi (Unsplash.com)

Advantages of an APS-C

APS-C cameras are smaller and more lightweight. And there’s a crop sensor camera for every skill level. They have excellent beginner options like the Nikon D3500 or the Canon EOS M50 II. Then there are professional cameras like the Canon EOS R7 and the Fujifilm X-T4.

These cameras are also on the cheaper end of the price scale. The professional-level APS-C cameras will set you back a bit. But it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the top-end prices of the full-frame line.

While many photographers won’t like the crop factor of an APS-C sensor camera, others will appreciate the extra magnification. If your 50mm lens gives you an effective focal length of 75mm, you’re closer to the action. Sports and wildlife photographers might appreciate this feature.

Disadvantages of an APS-C

They don’t have the resolution power of their full-frame counterparts. And features like ISO and dynamic range are also lagging. While they produce fantastic images, they can’t compete with the full-frame heavyweights for image quality.

Many photographers don’t like the crop factor or the additional magnification of APS-C cameras. And it also makes bokeh more difficult when using the same focal length lenses. You also don’t have the selection of new APS-C lenses as you do with full-frame lenses.

Hand holding a Fujifilm X-T20 camera
© George Beridze (Unsplash.com)

The Verdict on Full-Frame vs. APS-C

In the battle of full-frame vs. APS-C, you could say that full-frame cameras are the winners. They have better image specs, and there’s no crop factor. But that’s too reductive. It actually depends on what kind of camera you need.

An APS-C camera’s small and lightweight camera body might appeal to travel and street photographers. And photography beginners have far more options in the APS-C sensor category. Or it might be the case that a full-frame camera is out of your price range.

Full-frame cameras dominate the top end of the photography market. But that only appeals to a small section of the photography community. No matter what type of photography you like or skill level you’re in, APS-C cameras have something to offer us all.

Check out our Photography Unlocked e-book to master your camera no matter which sensor your camera has!

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