The age-old question for digital camera owners should they invest in a “full frame” or “crop sensor” camera? There are many differences between the two including pricing, lighting, the field of view, and what lenses will work best.
This article will help you better understand everything you need to know about crop sensor vs full frame cameras to help you make the best buying decision for your next gear upgrade. Let’s explore which works best for your photography needs.
Table of Contents
- Sensors Explained
- What is a Full Frame Sensor?
- What is a Crop Sensor?
- How to Choose between a Crop Sensor vs Full Frame Camera
Sensors were developed for digital cameras as a film replacement. They use light entering through your camera lens to develop a digital image. Essentially they are made out of wafers of silicon as a base for their advanced circuit system. Interestingly, the process is a bit the same as those used in a darkroom to develop film.
The sensor is comprised of millions of tiny holes known as pixels. Each pixel contains a light-sensitive element that read how many photons have arrived at a particular piece of the sensor. More pixels provide greater detail in your photographs but what is more important is the sensor sizes. Let’s explain more on what sensor size means below.
What is a Full Frame Sensor?
Film cameras originally shot on a 35mm film reel. When the DSLR arrived on the market, camera manufacturers decided to give them a 35mm sensor so that photographers could continue to use their precious lenses on the new digital cameras.
Basically, a full frame camera has a sensor the size of a 35mm film camera or (24mm x 36mm). Out of this design, the full frame sensor camera was born!
Full Frame Advantages
Here are some of the reasons you should consider investing in a more expensive full frame camera.
Better Field of View
Just like the name says a full frame sensor doesn’t crop your images creating a wider field of view. If you are a landscape or wildlife photography enthusiast this can be an important factor when choosing a camera. If your photography requires focal lengths using wide angle lenses then consider a full frame body camera.
If your photography work requires you to print higher quality and larger images then a full frame body is a good investment. A full frame DSLR can print any image at a very large size and offers more megapixels meaning you have more options to crop later as well.
Low Light Capabilities
When it comes to full frame vs crop sensor cameras, full frame sensors win every time in low light situations. A smaller sensor does not offer the same detail and sharpness. With a lens on a full frame sensor camera, you can be sure your images will be sharper and clearer.
If you are looking for cameras to shoot night sky photographs, this will be one of the more important deciding factors for you. Your image quality will not suffer when you crank up your ISO because of the size of the sensor. The high ISO performance makes these cameras worth the extra cash. Get the best low-light performance and invest in a full frame.
The dynamic range covers the exposure values in a photo from its lightest to darkest areas. A full frame sensor provides the best dynamic range giving you the option to shoot contrasty scenes easier. The image quality will not suffer the way it might with a crop sensor DSLR when you over or underexpose an image. It’s important to shoot in RAW to take full advantage of this quality in full frame cameras.
Shallower Depth of Field
Full frame sensors provide a better depth of field, especially when shooting shallower images. If you are someone who loves beautiful bokeh and blurriness around your subjects then you may want to avoid crop sensors for the best image quality. Food photography and self portrait photographers especially love full frame lenses for this shallower depth of field option.
Full Frame Disadvantages
And now the downsides of buying a full frame sensor.
A larger sensor means a higher price tag. Keep in mind you will also need to buy full frame lenses to go with your full frame DSLR. Full frame lenses are also more expensive than crop frame lenses.
Weight and Size
A full frame sensor takes up more space inside your camera therefore they are often bulkier and heavier. If you are someone who suffers from back and neck pain you may want to consider crop sensors instead.
You will need to invest in more expensive and bigger drives and memory cards to hold the bigger file size images. More pixels mean more details and information in your files. This is a big disadvantage for many when it comes to buying full frame sensors.
Top Full Frame Cameras
Canon EOS RP Full-frame Mirrorless
This full frame camera is compact and lightweight because of its mirrorless capabilities. Canon EOS RP comes with a high-quality zoom lens of 24-105mm making it a great camera for shooting anything from events to portraits.
Nikon Z6 Full Frame Mirrorless Camera
The Z6 is a favorite among professional photographers. It comes complete with a full frame sensor and optimum optical performance. We love it for its 273 point sensor and advanced autofocus systems. If you like to shoot video as well this is a great option.
What is a Crop Sensor?
The full frame camera became very popular but it was also very expensive. Manufacturers decided to create a cheaper option to open the camera market to a bigger audience. They created something called the crop sensor cameras.
These cameras were made smaller and with cheaper sensors inside: the crop sensors. Full frame camera lenses would work on the crop sensor cameras but they also created cheaper lenses to better fit the crop sensor format. With this, the full frame vs crop sensor debate began.
Furthermore, because a crop sensor is smaller than the full frame sensors it introduces a crop factor into your photos. Meaning if you use a full frame lens on a crop sensor camera you will notice the whole image you see through your viewfinder will be outside the square of your lens.
Even if you use a crop sensor lens on your crop sensor camera you will be offered a tighter field of view. The most commonly known crop sensor sizes are Micro four thirds and APS-C crop sensors.
Every camera body has a different crop factor that you should examine before investing. Here are some examples:
Canon: 1.6x crop sensor camera
Panasonic: 2x crop sensor camera
Olympus: 2x crop sensor camera
If you want to find the equivalent angle of view for a lens on a crop sensor body, you need to multiply the focal length of the lens by the magnification of the crop sensor size.
Crop Sensor Advantages
So why should you invest in a crop sensor camera over a full frame sensor? Let’s find out below.
As mentioned above, crop sensors are cheaper to make and therefore cheaper to buy as well. Even better the lenses that fit on crop sensor cameras are cheaper as well and offer a broad variety of focal length options.
Increased Depth of Field
We know a full frame camera is better for a shallower depth of field. But if you want more of your images in focus then a APS c crop sensor and micro four thirds sensors will give you 2 stops more depth of field, meaning more of your image could easily be in focus. This comes in handy for an architecture photographer.
As we learned above a full frame camera often wins over a crop sensor. But when it comes to focal length and especially telephoto lenses in the full frame and crop sensor debate; the crop sensor wins! The crop sensor multiplier provides some extra zoom for your telephoto lenses.
A crop sensor camera has a smaller sensor and therefore weighs much less. They are usually easier to carry around too because they require less bulk to house a smaller sensor. If you are someone who often travels or is just an amateur photographer, this may be important to you.
As mentioned above, a crop sensor camera can be very useful when you need a little extra zoom. If you often photograph wildlife, you can use this multiplier effect to your advantage.
Crop Sensor Disadvantages
These are the reasons why you may want to avoid a crop sensor camera.
Crop sensors are made in a cheaper manner and therefore hold less information and details. Simply put it is a smaller area of sensor and doesn’t work as well in low-light situations.
One of the biggest issues with a crop sensor camera is it psychically crops the actual image size. When you are looking through your viewfinder you will find that the image you produce is not the same image you saw in front of you.
This can be frustrating for some photographers especially when using a 50mm lens. Also, the angle of view is narrowed so much it can cause issues when trying to control the background.
Low Light Performance
If you are a wedding or event photographer you may want to avoid crop sensor DSLR cameras. Their small sensors do not work well in low-light situations. The other option to combat this is to invest in expensive flashes and lighting.
Top Crop Sensor Cameras
Nikon D7500 DX-Format DSLR Camera
Unlike the last two cameras, the D7500 is not mirrorless but a robust camera with a leading ISO range and award-winning metering. The 51 points autofocusing system will help you to keep everyone in focus in those sometimes hard to get group shots.
Canon EOS 90D DSLR Camera
The Canon EOS 90D is a favorite among budding photographers who do not want to pay the hefty price tag of a full frame camera. It shoots at high speed with up to 10 frames per second and even offers full HD video. The software it comes with works on Apple or PCs making it a great starter camera.
How to Choose between a Crop Sensor vs Full Frame Camera
As you may have noticed above there are many pros and cons to both the full frame DSLRs and using a crop frame camera. At the end of the day, you have to decide if a sensor smaller than a 35mm or full frame sensor will work for you. The biggest deciding factors are what are you shooting, budget, and what do you already own?
Does your budget allow for you to invest in expensive full frame DSLR camera bodies and lenses? Are you a pro who needs low light capabilities? Or maybe you are a beginner who just enjoys learning about photography and wants an affordable camera to shoot with. Is focal length important to you? Does a crop factor bother your photography? Take a moment to weigh the pros and cons above before deciding where to invest your wallet.
In conclusion, no matter which sensor you decide to buy it’s a good idea to buy full-frame lenses. These lenses will work on either a full frame or crop sensor camera body and at the end of the day, your glass is more important than your camera body. It’s a smart move to spend more on lenses no matter what you decide. You can put a full-frame lens on a crop camera but not the other way around.
Also, no matter what always shoot in RAW so that you have more editing options in post-production. Whether you shoot with a full frame or crop sensor this will help you whenever possible. With RAW files you can always recover your shadows and highlights more easily. With JPEG images it’s not as easy to fix your errors.
Lastly, remember that the gear does not define the quality of the photography. So many photographers get wrapped up in having the newest and greatest equipment. But at the end of the day, it’s your eye and perspective that make for great images. Focus more on experimenting and having fun than buying the most expensive camera body.
If you are enjoying photography or want to make a career out of it you can always invest in what you need later. Or if you still don’t know what to buy, try renting a full frame and crop sensor camera from your local camera store and try both before buying.