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 to use a different camera body. But do you know why this sensor size choice is so difficult?
We hope our article helps you decide which one suits your needs as a photographer better. We let you know what full-frame and crop sensors are and what each does best. And you will learn to take advantage of each option to take better pictures.
Full Frame vs Crop: What’s the Difference in Camera Sensors?
A camera sensor is the rectangular, photosensitive surface in your digital camera. It records the scene projected through your circular lens. The sensor detects light waves. Then it turns the recorded information into electric signals and, eventually, an image.
What Is a Full-Frame Sensor?
A full-frame sensor for DSLR and mirrorless cameras was derived from film photography cameras. 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. So full-frame cameras have a sensor size of 36mm by 24mm.
What Is a Crop Sensor? What is Crop Factor?
Any sensor with a crop factor smaller than a full-frame sensor is called a crop sensor. It’s called a crop sensor because it effectively “crops” the full-frame image. The smaller sensor creates a narrower field of view.
The crop factor is a ratio. It’s the diagonal of the crop in comparison with the 35mm full-frame diagonal (which is 43.3mm). The different crop factors are described as multipliers of the full-frame sensor.
And sections of an image you see on a full-frame sensor are out of the frame on a smaller sensor. These are the most popular crop sensor sizes in use today with DSLRs:
- 2.0x Crop Factor: The Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system uses this. An MFT sensor has an aspect ratio of 4:3 compared to the standard 3:2. You can find 2.0x crop sensors, mostly in Panasonic and Olympus cameras.
- 1.6x Crop Factor: Canon solely uses this. Most of their consumer-level cameras have 1.6x crop sensors. It’s also called the Canon APS-C.
- 1.5x Crop Factor: Every camera brand, except Canon, manufactures its APS-C cameras with a 1.5x crop factor. It’s the standard and most widespread crop sensor.
Practically, what does this mean? Suppose you place a 70mm lens on a camera with a 1.5x crop factor (e.g., any Nikon DX body). You will see an equivalent 105mm (70mm x 1.5) image in focal length.
Pros and Cons of a Full-Frame Sensor
Full-frame sensors are primarily designed for professionals or serious photography enthusiasts.
Are you shooting large-scale commercial projects or even professional gigs like wedding photography? Then you’ll probably want a camera with a full-frame sensor. They’re a better fit for large-scale prints and higher-end projects.
Better Image Quality and Performance in Low Light
A full-frame sensor generally produces higher-resolution images than crop sensors. That’s 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 setting a higher ISO. So they 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 you can more easily recover details in dark shadows and bright highlights when editing photos (if you’re shooting in RAW). You can recover much more than you would with a crop sensor.
Shallower Depth of Field
Your image’s depth of field relies a lot on your lens and aperture. But a full-frame sensor can help provide a shallower depth of field. You get more bokeh with a full-frame sensor than a crop sensor if you use 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 portraits, food photography, and photos with blurred backgrounds.
A downside of full-frame cameras? 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’s worth buying. And it will pay off in the long run.
Besides the full-frame camera body cost? Full-frame lenses are also more expensive than lenses for crop sensors. Plus, it’s best to buy lenses specifically designed for full-frame sensors.
Pros and Cons of a Crop Sensor
Are you primarily taking photos in your spare time or sharing pictures on social media? If so, you can easily use a camera with an APS-C sensor. Or you can consider one with an even smaller sensor, like a Micro Four Thirds camera.
And more and more niche professionals are using APS-C cameras. They’re discovering the benefits of using crop sensor cameras in their fields of work.
More Compact Size
Crop sensor cameras are generally smaller in size and lighter. This means they’re more portable than full-frame cameras. Some mirrorless cameras have even smaller sensors these days. And they are providing even more portability than ever.
Crop Factor Benefits
Are you photographing sports, wildlife, or anything that requires you to get closer to the action? Then you’ll value the 1.5x to 2x crop magnification.
The crop factor of your camera applies to every lens you put on it. Because the view is cropped, your lens is magnified. This is very helpful with telephoto lenses because it extends their reach exponentially.
Crop sensor cameras are smaller and much cheaper to manufacture. This can be a big consideration if you’re looking for a budget camera. And if you’re unsure if you want to spend too much 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 need more resolving power from lenses.
So a sharp lens on a full frame might not produce the same sharpness on smaller sensors. That’s even if both sensors have a similar resolution.
Manufacturing sharp lenses for crop sensors is thus actually harder. So you must be careful when buying such lenses. But crop sensors can have fairly high resolutions of up to 32 MP.
Conclusion: Full Frame vs Crop Sensor
Full frame vs crop sensor? Which one is best? There is no easy way to decide whether a crop sensor or a full-frame sensor camera is for you. It depends on several considerations, mostly around your budget and intended use.
Suppose you need the best camera for low-light performance or a very high-resolution camera. Then you can’t avoid going full frame, and those features will cost you.
But suppose you’re using a telephoto lens to photograph objects far away. Or perhaps you want portability. A crop-sensor camera gets you closer to your subject in those cases. And it 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 must choose one type of camera, think through which will serve you best in the long run. In the end, a camera is just a tool. And you can create fantastic images whatever size sensor you choose!