Are you thinking of taking up photography as a new hobby?
Perhaps you are considering an upgrade as an aspiring professional or simply an enthusiast who wishes to know more about cameras?
Since there are so many types of cameras out there, this article is here to give you everything you need to know about full frame vs crop sensor, with a comparison of the pros and cons of each type.
What is a Camera Sensor?
A sensor is a photosensitive surface that records the scene that is being photographed.
It detects light waves and turns the recorded information into electric signals, and eventually into an image.
The sensor in each camera varies slightly since every camera manufacturer designs their sensor a little differently. Camera models from the same company can be just as different.
Nikon offers two different sensor sizes: full frame (FX), and 1.5x (DX).
Canon makes three available: full frame, 1.3x and 1.6x. Most other manufacturers are in the same range, except Olympus at 2x.
Generally, a larger sensor allows for images with higher resolution and lower noise levels. This better image quality is because the larger sensor can detect more light waves.
Any other camera sensors that are smaller than a full frame are considered crop sensors.
When it comes to full frame vs crop sensor, the full frame has the larger sensor, hence better image quality.
The size of a sensor is a huge factor when deciding to choose a camera, whether full frame or crop sensor. Now let’s jump into the full frame vs crop sensor article.
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 availability of wide-angle lenses. The fuller framed images are better than those from its 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 being 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 Frames
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 about Crop Sensor Cameras?
Crop sensors are smaller than full frame’s 35mm film size. Their sensors cut out edges of the frame, thus increasing the camera’s focal length. Crop sensor model 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:
o 2x. Commonly used in Micro Four Thirds (4/3) systems, these sensors are found mostly in Panasonic and Olympus cameras.
o 1.6x. Championed by Canon, this system is standard for consumers. It is also named Canon APS-C.
o 1.5x. Aside from Canon, this system is applied by every other manufacturer for their APS-C cameras.
o 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
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 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 lower cost of 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
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.
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 a 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 like 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 to 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.
Some professionals have recently migrated from full frames to crop sensors. Regarding the full frame vs crop sensor debate, one explained that even though he still prefers his full frame, some of his friends in the industry started moving to crop sensors since the technology of these cameras are getting better and better.
Coupled with a smaller camera body and lighter weight, crop sensors are now becoming a more practical and economic choice among professional photographers.
The seemingly difficult choice of full frame vs crop sensor depends on your available budget and the type of photographs you intended to make.
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 would be a better choice.
If you are going to be using the standard 18-55mm kit lens and perhaps one more lens, it makes sense not to spend the extra cash on a full frame. A crop sensor camera is also perfect if taking photos to share on social media.