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Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

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The full-frame vs crop sensor debate is a common weighing point for photographers. It’s a dilemma for those buying a new camera or looking at using a different camera body. But do you know why this sensor size choice is so difficult?

We hope this article will help you decide which one suits your needs as a photographer better. We’ll let you know what full-frame and crop sensors are and what each does best. And hopefully, you’ll learn how you can take advantage of each option to take better pictures.

What is a Sensor?

The sensor is the rectangular, photosensitive surface in your digital camera. It records the scene projected through your circular lens. The sensor detects light waves and turns the recorded information into electric signals and eventually an image.

What is a Full-Frame Sensor?

Full-Frame Sensor

A full-frame sensor for DSLRs was derived from film photography. It was created so photographers could use their film lenses on DSLRs. Essentially, a full-frame sensor is based on the 35mm frame used in film photography. Therefore, full-frame cameras have a sensor size of 36mm × 24mm.

An image of orange flowers and text illustrating full-frame and crop sensor framing within a full-frame lens projection using a circle and rectangles

What is a Crop Sensor?

Crop Sensor

Any sensor with a crop factor smaller than a full-frame sensor is called a crop sensor. It’s called a crop sensor because you’re effectively cropping the full-frame image.

Illustration explaining crop factor with different sized rectangles and the multiplier effects in comparison with 35mm full frame

What is Crop Factor?

The crop factor is the ratio of the diagonal of the crop in comparison with the 35mm full-frame diagonal (which is 43.3mm). The different crop factors are then described as multipliers of the full-frame sensor. You can see how sections of the image you’d see on a full-frame sensor are out of the frame on a smaller sensor.

There are the most popular crop sensor sizes in use today with DSLRs:

  1. The Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system uses a 2x crop factor. MFT has an aspect ratio of 4:3 compared to the standard 3:2. And you can find 2.0x crop sensors mostly in Panasonic and Olympus cameras.
  2. Canon solely uses a 1.6x crop factor. Most of their consumer-level cameras utilise 1.6x crop sensors. It’s also called the Canon APS-C.
  3. Every camera brand, except Canon, manufactures their APS-C cameras with a 1.5x crop factor. It’s the standard and most widespread crop sensor.

Practically, what does this mean? Well, if you place a 70mm lens on a camera with a 1.5x crop factor (i.e., any Nikon DX body), you’ll see an equivalent image of 105mm (70mm multiplied by 1.5) in terms of focal length.Two half-camera bodies, with visible full-frame and crop sensors with differences in their sizes marked with lines and numbers

Full-Frame vs Sensor – Which is Better?

Pros and Cons of a Full-Frame Sensor

Full-frame sensors and are primarily designed for professionals or serious photography enthusiasts. If you’re shooting large-scale commercial projects for companies or even professional gigs like wedding photography, you’ll probably want a camera with a full-frame sensor. They’re a better fit for large-scale prints and higher-end projects.Full-frame sensor camera image of couple on their wedding day in front of a wall full of climbing plants

Better Image Quality and Performance in Low Light

In general, a full-frame sensor will produce higher-resolution images than crop sensors because they let in more light and detail. And for the same reason, they’re also better in low-light conditions. They provide sharper, clearer images without having to set higher ISOs and therefore have less noise.

Broader Dynamic Range

Dynamic range refers to the range of light exposure your camera captures. The dynamic range of a full-frame sensor is much broader. This means you can take better high-contrast images and more easily recover details both in dark shadows and bright highlights (if you’re shooting in RAW) than you would with a crop sensor.

Shallower Depth of Field

Even though your image’s depth of field relies a lot on your lens and aperture, a full-frame sensor can help provide a shallower depth of field.

You’ll get more bokeh with a full-frame sensor compared to a crop sensor if you’re using an equivalent lens with the same aperture. For example, an 85mm lens with a full-frame sensor provides a similar view as a 50mm lens with a crop sensor. But the bokeh is larger with a full-frame sensor.

This is helpful for portrait, food photography, and any other situations where you want blurred backgrounds.

Full-frame sensor food-photography image of strawberries and blueberries with a blurred table and background

Higher Costs

A downside of full-frame cameras is they are much more expensive than ones with crop sensors. But we’ve already discussed the reasons for that. In most cases, if you need a full-frame sensor, it will be worth buying it, and it will pay off in the long run.

Besides the cost of the full-frame camera body, we have to mention that lenses for them are also more expensive than ones for crop sensors. Plus, you have to buy lenses that are specifically designed for full-frame sensors.

Pros and Cons of a Crop Sensor

If you’re primarily taking photographs more in your spare time or sharing pictures on social media, you can easily use a camera with an APS-C sensor or even a smaller crop sensor. However, more and more niche professionals are discovering some benefits of using crop sensor cameras in their fields of work.

More Compact Size

Crop sensor cameras are generally smaller in size and lighter. That means that they’re more portable than full-frame cameras. And mirrorless cameras have even smaller sensors these days and are providing even more portability than ever.

Benefits of Crop Factor

If you’re photographing sports, wildlife, or anything that requires you to get a bit closer to the action, you’ll value that 1.5x-2x crop magnification.

The crop factor of your camera applies to every lens that you put on it. So as the view is cropped, your lens is magnified.  This is very advantageous with telephoto lenses because it extends their reach exponentially.

Crop sensor telephoto shot of horses running across an arid grass landscape

Lower Costs

Crop sensor cameras are smaller and much cheaper to manufacture, which can be a big consideration if you’re on a budget. And if you’re not sure if you want to spend a lot of money on photography, crop sensor cameras are the sensible choice to begin with.

More Noise and Less Sharpness

Because of their smaller surface, crop sensors collect less light and details. This results in less sharpness and more noise in images.

Also, the density of pixels on crop sensors is usually higher. And they require more resolving power from lenses. So, a sharp lens on a full-frame might not produce the same sharpness on smaller sensors, even if both sensors have a similar resolution.

Manufacturing sharp lenses for crop sensors is thus actually harder. So, you have to be careful when buying such lenses. Even so, crop sensors have fairly high resolutions of up to 32MP.

Conclusion

There is no easy way to decide whether a crop sensor or a full-frame sensor camera is for you. It will depend on several considerations, mostly around your budget and your intended use for it.

If you need the best low-light performance or very high resolution, you can’t really avoid going full-frame. And those features will cost you.

However, if you’re using a telephoto lens to photograph objects far away or perhaps want portability, a crop sensor camera gets you closer to your subject and lets you travel lighter at a relatively lower cost.

I have used both full-frame and crop sensor cameras for different purposes. So, if you have to choose one type of camera, really think through which will serve you best in the long run. In the end, a camera is just a tool, and you’ll be able to create fantastic images whatever size sensor you choose.

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