Full Frame Vs Crop Sensor Cameras | Find the Right Fit for Your Photography
When it comes to sensor sizes in cameras, the two most popular sizes include “full frame” and “crop.” The term “full frame” refers to a sensor size that has the same dimensions as the 35mm film format. A crop sensor, on the other hand, is smaller in size. As a result of its balance in cost and image quality, 35mm has held its rank as the industry standard in film gauge since 1909. Still, crop sensors have earned their place in modern cameras and for good reason, which we’ll discuss below. So, when it comes to full frame vs crop cameras, which sensor type is the best fit for your photography? Let’s find out.
The Difference between Full Frame Vs Crop Sensors
The differences between the full frame vs crop sensor are not limited to size, but it’s a good place to start. A crop sensor refers to any sensor smaller than a full frame sensor or a 35mm film frame. The common types of crop sensor include APS-C and micro 4/3 systems. For a full breakdown of the different types of cameras, see this article on 14 Different Types of Cameras or this article on DSLR vs Mirrorless Cameras.
Full Frame vs. Crop Video
While the video below is an older one, the concepts have not changed over time.
Full Frame vs. Crop Sensor Field of View and Focal Length
The most visible difference between full frame and crop sensor is their field of view. In fact the term “crop” implies just exactly that. The smaller sensor’s field of view is a crop of the full frame.
In other words, if a full frame DSLR and a crop sensor DSLR take the same photo from the same distance, with the same lens and point of view, then the crop sensor will capture a tighter field of view than the full frame.
Focal length measurements on lenses are based on the 35mm standard. If you use a crop frame camera, the sensor will crop out the edges of the frame. This effectively increases the focal length. The amount of difference in the field of view or focal length with a crop sensor is measured by its “Multiplier.”
For example, a Nikon APS-C crop sensor has a 1.5x multiplier. When a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens is attached to that Nikon DSLR, the focal length is multiplied by 1.5x and effectively acts like a 75mm lens on a full frame DSLR.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Full Frame and Crop Sensors
There are several advantages and disadvantages to each sensor size. We are going to avoid the technical details and just give you the most practical and general information.
Full Frame Advantages
Below are the advantages of a full frame camera.
Dynamic Range and Wider Angles
Generally, a full frame sensor can provide a broader dynamic range and better low light/high ISO performance yielding a higher quality image than a crop sensor. Full frame sensors are also preferred when it comes to architectural photography due to having a wider angle which is useful with tilt/shift lenses.
Full frame DSLRs also have a shallower depth of field than crop sensor DSLRs. When shooting at the same EFFECTIVE focal length, using the same aperture settings and shooting from the exact same angle/distance to the subject, the full frame camera will have a shallower depth of field (more bokeh) than the crop sensor camera.
Focal Length and Field of View
This is because the larger the sensor, the longer the focal length of the lens needs to be to capture the same field of view. For example, using a 50mm lens on a full frame Canon camera gives the equivalent focal length or field of view as using a 31mm lens on a crop sensor Canon camera since it has a 1.6 crop multiplier (31mm x 1.6 = 50mm). Now, a 31mm lens doesn’t exist of course, but you get the idea. The larger the sensor, the longer the focal length required to create the same field of view. As a result, the additional focal length creates a shallower depth of field.
Crop Sensor Advantages
Below are the advantages of a crop frame camera.
First, the extra reach gained from the crop sensor multiplier works especially well for telephoto photography. The added reach comes in handy when shooting sports, wildlife, and other types of photojournalism. With a crop frame body, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens effectively transforms into a 112-320mm lens! Let me also clarify that this is simply a benefit, it doesn’t mean that you SHOULD use a crop sensor DSLR when shooting these types of photography. This is going to depend on your intended use, budget, and so forth.
While a crop sensor DSLR doesn’t provide the same level of image quality as a full frame DSLR, it does offers major advantages when it comes to cost. For enthusiasts or non-professional sports photographers, plenty of budget-friendly options exist. A crop sensor DSLR and a standard 70-200mm 2.8 Lens will run around $3,000 – $5,000. This “affordable” combo is also quite compact and portable as well.
But, for a professional, a full frame DSLR paired with a longer telephoto lens will still yield the best overall quality. This is why you commonly see professional sports photographers using cameras like the Canon or Nikon’s flagship cameras paired with a 300mm or 400mm low light lens. However, this is a costly setup as your lens and body are going to cost upwards of $15,000 – $20,000.
Why is a crop sensor camera cheaper? Manufacturing a full frame sensor is far more expensive and can cost over 20x that of a crop frame sensor. High-end crop sensor DSLRs can provide quality similar to that of full-frame DSLRs at a fraction of the price.
So, the full frame vs crop sensor debate doesn’t necessarily end with a clear choice, at least not at first. As we’ve discussed, each has its advantages and disadvantages. While full frame sensors may offer a bit better quality, they might not provide the best fit in all situations. Hopefully, the information here, when paired with your own reflections, will lead to the choice that’s best for your photography.