This whole debate about full frame vs APS-C has been raging since prehistoric ages. Well, not exactly prehistoric but since the dawn of APS-C cameras.
The argument became a hot topic when digital cameras came into existence because when digital SLRs came about APS-C cameras were the beneficiary as the smaller sensors were inexpensive to make.
This discussion aims to find out whether this discussion about full frame vs APS-C is still valid. They both have their advantages and disadvantages.
The kind of sensor that you should invest in will depend on a lot of parameters.
We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):
In a hurry? Here’s the summary!
For professional, high quality photographs that involve shooting in low light conditions and printing in large formats such as A1s or A0s, a full frame camera is the ideal choice.
However, for casual fans, and those who want to start a new hobby (good on you, you will be one step closer to being a Renaissance man!), a crop sensor camera with a crop factor of 1.5x or 1.6x could be a better choice.
Keep reading to see the whole guide.
What is a Full Frame Camera?
Any camera sensor with a size of 35mm film or 24mm x 36mm is considered as a full frame.
This standard sensor size is based on film photography and the size has been as such since 1909, due to the balance in cost and image quality.
Advantages of Full Frame Cameras
So when should I invest in a full-frame camera? Professional? Amateur?
Generally, a full-frame camera delivers a better photo quality than a crop sensor, especially in natural light/low light/ high ISO performance as well as a broader dynamic range.
These cameras are also highly suitable for architectural and landscape photography due to the availability of wide-angle lenses. The fuller framed images are better than those from cropped relatives.
A full-frame camera will have a shallower depth of field when compared to a crop sensor camera. This will allow for more bokeh or blurry effects compared to a crop sensor, making the resulting image stand out even more.
The relationship is that the larger the sensor, the longer the effective focal length needed for producing the same depth of view for an image.
The result will be an image with a shallower depth of field.
A Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 50mm f/ 1.4 (also known as a Nifty Fifty Lens) will give the same focal length/ depth of view as using a 31mm lens on a Canon 7D since its crop factor is 1.6 (31mm x 1.6 = 50mm).
Unfortunately, there is not a 31mm available, though we discuss it for your understanding.
Since camera companies make a wider variety of lenses for full frames than for crop sensors, there is also an added sense of flexibility that comes with this abundance of choice.
As such, full frames are the go-to for large-scale commercial projects, for large corporations, as well as for professional wedding and model photography.
Cons of Full Frame Cameras
Should I reconsider splurging in a full frame?
Well, due to the higher price range of a full-frame camera, one should reconsider if it is just a casual thing and not intended for a professional career or a super serious hobby.
With full frames, the camera and associated lenses will be bulkier and heavier than a crop sensor’s, so there will be a need to consider the type of bag to pack the equipment in order to protect their gear.
Professionals and dedicated enthusiasts would usually invest in a specific bag designed for their camera equipment
What is a Crop Sensor Camera?
Crop sensors are smaller than the full frame’s 35mm film size. Their sensors cut out the edges of the frame, thus increasing the camera’s focal length. Crop sensor models include APS-C and micro 4/3 (four-thirds)
An APS-C crop sensor has a 1.5 crop factor/multiplier (1.5x). When a Nikon DSLR with this crop sensor is paired with a Nikon 50mm f/ 1.4 lens, the camera will act as a 75mm lens of a full-frame DSLR.
This “Multiplier” determines the total focal length of the camera.
Crop sensors are cheaper to make, so they can fit into smaller and cheaper camera bodies. Different crop sensors have different crop factors. Here are some of the more widely seen examples:
- 2x. Commonly used in Micro Four Thirds (4/3) systems, these sensors are found mostly in Panasonic and Olympus cameras.
- 1.6x. Championed by Canon, this system is standard for consumers. It is also named Canon APS-C.
- 1.5x. Aside from Canon, this system is applied by every other manufacturer for their APS-C cameras.
- 1.3x. This is a rarer type as Canon used to make sensors with 1.3x crop factors in the older 1D series.
Pros of Crop Sensor Cameras
Since the camera and its accompanying lenses come in smaller sizes, space management will be much easier.
Its lower costs and weight will also make a crop sensor a much cheaper choice than a full frame.
This will be ideal for hobbyists and casual enthusiasts with a smaller budget or someone who has just started having an interest in photography.
For enthusiasts and casual hobbyists, full frame vs crop sensor price differences would help in the decision-making process.
It would be so much more reasonable to invest in a crop sensor camera for $3,000 – $5,000 compared to a costly full-frame setup of $15,000 – $20,000.
Thanks to the extra reach of the crop sensor multiplier, the camera can also deliver good images for nature, wildlife, photojournalism, and sports.
One example of a decent setup for a telephoto image is a combination of a crop frame body such as a Canon 7D with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
This pairing of camera body and lens would work like a 112-320mm lens. Using combinations like this provide additional focal lengths for decent quality, with the lower cost for the camera.
Hence, a higher-end crop sensor camera might be able to produce quality close to that of a full-frame camera, at a cheaper price.
Crop sensors are also good at macro photography, where you can photograph flowers and insects with closer detail.
Cons of Crop Sensor Cameras
Crop sensor cameras tend to have a smaller field of view, in other words, the produced image will have cropped edges, unlike a full-frame camera.
Even when paired with a good lens, full frame cameras would still perform better in a full frame vs crop sensor comparison.
As a professional, you can have an overall better quality by using full frames with a longer telephoto lens.
Crop sensor cameras are also at a disadvantage when shooting wide-angle photos such as landscapes and architecture since the edges of the final image will also be cropped out.
Since crop sensors have smaller photosensitive areas than a full frame’s by about 2.5x, they collect 2.5x less light, thus resulting in more noise (ISO).
These sensors also could not produce the blurry bokeh’s that are great in low light conditions and portraiture photography.
If this effect is very important to you, a full-frame camera might be a better choice. Good sharp lenses on crop sensors are difficult to make, so you will need to be careful when choosing them.
Full Frame vs. APS-C Differences
1. Sensor Size
The biggest point of difference between an APS-C sensor and a full-frame sensor is the size of the sensor.
If you take a 20 MP APS-C sensor and compare that with a 20 MP full-frame sensor you’ll see the full-frame sensor is bigger and also the individual pixels or light receptors are larger.
This means full-frame cameras can capture a lot of light compared to the light receptors on the APS-C sensor.
2. Low Light Performance
There are several advantages of that (the ability to capture an additional amount of light) but the biggest advantage is better low light performance.
Or that’s what people who shoot with full-frame cameras will tell you. That is not entirely true these days.
Sensor technologies have evolved in the last ten years or so and one of the benefits is improved low light performance with smaller sensors even when those are packed with a lot of light receptors.
So, if you compare a full-frame camera from five years ago with an APS-C camera that was launched in the last year or so, there is a good chance that the APS-C camera will outperform the full frame.
It is pertinent to mention low light performance is no longer just about sensor size. A lot of other factors also come into the equation.
Sensor architecture, whether it is a BSI design if it is a stacked design, and whether it incorporates a dual-gain technology all determine low-light shooting capabilities.
3. Crop Factor
Sensor size also has a bearing on another parameter and that is the crop factor.
To define the crop factor, we can state that it is the ratio of the dimensions of the sensor size when compared to a full-frame camera.
In layman’s terms, because of its smaller size, the smaller APS-C sensor utilizes only a portion of the image that comes through a lens.
What it means is that when you mount a lens on an APS-C Nikon camera, the smaller sensor will not use the whole image it will only use a portion of it.
When you look at the image shot with the APS-C camera it will appear as if you had used a longer lens. The image will appear zoomed in.
This is why technical details of lenses that are possible to be mounted on crop cameras (APS-C cameras) include ‘Effective Focal Length’.
There are two major crop factors one is the 1.5x which is the Nikon APS-C camera format and the other is the 1.6x which is the Canon APS-C format.
I. Crop Factor and Its Effect on Image Quality
The crop factor has an unexpected advantage in terms of how it positively affects image quality.
Really? How is that? Well, a lot of the cheaper full-frame lenses are not the sharpest at their edges.
The center of the lens is a different question though. This is why when you use a crop sensor camera with a full frame lens you use the sharpest bit and leave out the fuzzy part.
That automatically improves image quality.
II. Crop Factor and Effect on Field of View
Notice there are two terms associated with a lens when you read the specifications. One is the Angle of View (AoV) and the other is the Field of View.
These two terms are often used interchangeably though they are not to be confused as one.
a. Angle of View
Angle of View (AoV) is the extent of the scene that you capture with your lens. It is what the lens can see.
A wide-angle lens will have a wider angle of view (thus the name) and a telephoto lens will have a shorter angle of view.
b. Field of View
Field of View (FoV) denotes the slice of the scene that a particular sensor and lens combination can capture.
That means both sensor size and the focal length in use have a bearing on the FoV.
In other words, the Crop Factor affects the Field of View (FoV).
To further explore the crop factor, we also recommend this video by The Northrups:
4. Depth of Field
Depth of field (DoF) denotes the extent of the scene that is acceptably sharp.
Sometimes it is also referred to as the distance between the closest and the farthest objects in a frame that is acceptably sharp. The depth of field is affected by the size of the sensor. I’ll explain why.
I have already mentioned how sensor size and crop factor will affect the FoV. With the same lens, a full-frame camera will capture a wider portion of the scene.
That means it will offer a wider FoV than what is possible with an APS-C camera.
With the aperture remaining the same, the APS-C camera’s crop factor will produce a tighter image with a smaller FoV and with it a larger DoF.
So almost everything will be in focus behind the subject.
On the other hand, a full-frame camera will produce an image with a shallower depth of field.
If you want to replicate the image shot with an APS-C camera on a full-frame camera you will have to move closer. As you do so your FoV becomes narrower and the DoF becomes shallower.
I know at this point you might be thinking if it is a good idea to shoot portraits with a full-frame body.
That is a good idea and a lot of photographers do prefer to use a full frame body for shooting portraits because it is easier to create that shallow DoF.
But on the other hand, it does not mean that everyone shoots landscapes and architecture and interiors (or for that matter street photos) with an APS-C camera.
That may be easier to do but is not always the rule. A full-frame camera will find itself useful in all the above genres just as much will an APS-C camera.
To further explore the depth of field, we also recommend this video by Booray Perry:
5. Focal Length and Sensor Size
A typical myth is that sensor size changes the focal length of a lens. That is not true.
There are better chances of finding the Yeti rather than trying to establish that focal lengths change when you switch to a crop body.
Focal length is a physical attribute. It means the distance between the optical center of a lens and the sensor at the back of the camera when the camera is aimed at infinity.
Focal length as a physical attribute will never change regardless of the size of the sensor behind it.
What changes, however, is that when you mount a lens on a crop body, the sensor utilizes a smaller portion of the image coming through the lens.
The effect of that is that the image appears zoomed-in or that a lens with a longer focal length has been used.
That is why when a lens is used on a crop camera the ‘Effective’ focal length is also mentioned.
You can easily figure out the effective focal length by multiplying the crop factor with the actual focal length.
For a 50mm lens, the effective focal length on a Nikon APS-C camera is 50 x 1.5 = 75mm. That on a Canon APS-C camera is 50 x 1.6 = 80mm.
6. Large Prints
Full frame cameras have the real estate to pack in an incredible amount of sensors or light receptors.
APS-C cameras also pack in a lot of sensors but they tend to get too cluttered and that often creates issues of noise.
Despite sensor technologies improving quite a lot in the last decade, people still prefer full-frame cameras when it comes to choosing a higher resolution camera.
They argue that full-frame cameras make better images. They say that these cameras have better dynamic range and so on.
None of that is true. Even if you need to print large or shoot images for a publication, an APS-C camera is just as capable of shooting those as a full-frame camera.
7. Cost Advantage
It costs less to manufacture APS-C sensors and that is a big reason why cameras with APS-C sensors are inexpensive.
If you are an amateur or somebody looking for an entry-level camera an APS-C camera sounds like a better bet compared to a full frame.
A lot of people these days shoot only for Instagram and for that kind of photography even a mobile phone is good enough.
So, you can save a few hundred bucks by not buying a full-frame camera. you can even use that money to buy some good lenses.
Is a Full Frame Camera Sharper than a Crop Sensor Camera?
When it comes to full frame vs crop sensor, the density of pixels on a crop sensor is relatively higher.
As such, more resolving power is needed. A lens that is sharp on a full frame may not produce the same quality on crop sensors, even though they have similar resolutions.
Let’s take the Nikon D300, which is a crop sensor camera, (crop multiplier/factor 1.52x), and Nikon D700, a full-frame camera, for comparison.
Overall, the Nikon D300 is quite good in low light, however, the D700 performs better. When photographing in low light, the D300 could not shoot above ISO 1600, while the D700 can do so with ISO 6400.
This is due to the different sizes of the camera sensors. Although both models feature 12 megapixels, the respective imaging sites on the full-frame D700 are further apart, thus producing a sharper image.
Can You Put a Full Frame Lens on a Crop Sensor?
There is a compatibility problem when using a full-frame lens on a crop sensor camera body.
When attaching a wide-angle lens that is made for full frames, to a crop sensor camera, the resulting image would look slightly wider, though the difference with a standard angled lens is not significant.
The solution to this issue would be to simply stick to lenses that are designed just for crop sensor cameras.
A Tokina FX 16-28mm, which is a wide-angle lens, attached to a full frame, is the same in view as a Tokina DX 11-16mm lens with a 1.5x crop sensor.
What do the Pros prefer? Do they use Crop Sensors?
Traditionally, professionals tend to flock to full frames as these cameras have an overall better performance.
When it comes to full frame vs crop sensor, two professional photographer friends of mine both share their passion for full frame cameras due to the higher quality images produced with them. One of them even gave hers a nickname.
Events with low light conditions, such as dimly lit music events and wedding receptions call for the higher capability of a full frame so that every available ray of light can be captured.
This avoids the subject from appearing too dark. Professionals would call this an “underexposed image”, where the overall image is too dark.
If a full frame is used correctly under low light conditions, with the necessary settings for ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, the resulting image can be quite powerful.
As you have just seen it is not about full frame vs APS-C cameras. None has a clear advantage. Even if there is it is actually very small.
A professional photographer can shoot with an APS-C camera and get stunning results much the same way he or she can with a full-frame camera.
Notwithstanding, the general trend is to invest in an APS-C camera when someone is just starting out and then gradually move on to a full-frame camera.
Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. The first time he ever clicked an image was with an Agfa Click IV back in 1984. A medium format film camera. From that auspicious introduction to photography, he has remained hooked to this art form. He loves to test and review new photography gear. Rajib travels quite a lot, loves driving on Indian roads, playing fetch with his Labrador retriever, and loves photography. And yes, he still proudly owns that Agfa Click IV! You can find my Model Mayhem profile here.