Crop Sensor vs Full Frame

Occasionally, I’ll talk about crop cameras and full frame cameras, especially as they relate to glass (or lenses). Like my lenses, my camera bodies are used for specific photographic purposes, too. I figured it would be best to put together a small introductory “Crop vs Full” so you can better navigate not only the new second (or third or fourth or…) language photography is for you, but also have an easy reference guide I can link as needed.

“Full frame” and “crop” both refer to a camera’s sensor size. Most beginners don’t learn about camera sensors before picking their first DSLR or mirrorless camera. It’s really important to understand if the camera you’re looking at is a crop sensor or full frame. This will help you get the best photos possible, as well as pick out the best lenses.

What is “full frame”?

Full frame sensors have the same dimensions as 35mm film (24mm x 36mm), which is considered the standard size. It’s the largest sensor you’ll find on a consumer camera. And, no surprise, a full frame camera does not have any crop factor.

What are the advantages of a full frame camera?

Having no crop factor means that the lenses you use have the image angle you’re expecting. Basically, a 50mm lens on a full frame camera has a 50mm image angle. Also, the ever important “depth of field” you always hear about is also a factor here. Full frame cameras allow for a smaller depth of field since you can get closer to your subject while using a comparable focal length to a crop sensor. This means you can get a crisp photo of your subject and have creamy bokeh in the background. 

Resolution is dependent on megapixels. Yes, you can buy a full frame and crop sensor camera with the same amount of megapixels, but those megapixels won’t be created equally. Camera sensors contain millions of “photosites” that capture light that is then translated into pixels. On a full frame camera, those pixels are spread over a larger surface and are, therefore, larger. This means that they are able to capture more light, which is always important for capturing the best images. Full frame cameras will be better at capturing photos in low light situations.

Full frame cameras will also have improved dynamic range, or the measure of light intensities from shadows to highlights. This same better dynamic range also gives you a higher tonal range giving you access to more depth of color. Lastly, there will also be less overall distortion when using wide angle lenses due to the wider angle of full frame sensors.

Overview: Advantages of Full Frame

  • True Lens Image Angles
  • More Control of Depth of Field
  • Better Low Light Performance
  • Improved Dynamic Range
  • Better Depth of Color
  • Less Distortion at Wide Angles

What are the disadvantages of a full frame camera?

Everything has potential disadvantages. Most notably for a full frame camera? The cost. Full frame DSLR or mirrorless cameras generally cost more than their crop counterparts. Obviously, if you have a use for a full frame camera, the cost is definitely worth it, but it is something to keep in mind as you think about what camera to buy.

Full frame cameras are also typically bigger, size and weight, than their crop counterparts. Full frame lenses are also typically larger and heavier. Put those two together and the weight difference can be significant. You might think weight is not a factor for you, but it can quickly become one depending on how often (and far) you need to carry your gear around.

I know I mentioned that having no crop factor is an advantage of full frame cameras, but it’s also a notable disadvantage. No crop means that the telephoto reach of a full frame camera is reduced. Simply put, a 150mm telephoto lens on a full frame camera reaches 150mm. On a 1.5 crop sensor camera, that same 150mm telephoto lens reaches to 225mm.

Finally, all those megapixels also mean huge files. It’s something I think most people don’t account for until you mean to find a way to store all of your photos. You’ll need to invest in better and faster memory cards, as well as storage to house your photos, including backup storage and, potentially, cloud storage, as well.

Overview: Disadvantages of Full Frame

  • Cost
  • Size & Weight
  • No Crop Factor
  • Image Size

What is “crop sensor”?

A crop sensor camera refers to any sensor with a smaller measurement than the standard 35mm.  Most commonly, you’re talking about a camera with an APS-C sensor. This introduces a crop factor to the photos the camera takes. Crop factor means that the edges of your photos will be cropped depending on your camera body’s crop factor. Different camera bodies have different crop factors. Nikon, Pentax, Sigma, Sony are 1.5x, Canon is 1.6x, Panasonic and Olympus are 2x.

What are the advantages of a crop sensor camera?

While I’ve talked a lot about the benefits of sensor size, there are some advantages to the crop factor of crop sensor cameras. Cameras with a crop sensor have an increased focal length. For instance, a Nikon with an APS-C sensor using a 50mm lens will actually reach to 75mm. That can definitely come in handy when you are photographing a subject that is particularly far away. If you are using a 600mm lens on a Nikon crop sensor camera, you’d multiply that lens focal length by 1.5x which is an astonishing 900mm.

Shallow depth of field isn’t always desirable for every photography style. In instances when you want as much in focus as possible, a crop sensor will be a benefit. Crop sensor cameras will allow more of the image in frame to stay in sharp focus. Crop sensor cameras can also use a faster shutter speed (or lower ISO) because they don’t need to let in as much light to try to achieve a shallower depth of field. And because the crop sensor has less overall information to record, they will also often have a faster burst mode than your typical full frame camera.

Crop sensor cameras are generally cheaper than their full frame counterparts. Since crop sensor cameras have many advantages, especially for certain styles of photography, if you can save the money on your camera body, you can put that money toward more glass. Lastly, smaller sensors mean smaller bodies. And potentially smaller lenses. If you need to carry your gear around a lot, lightening that load will be hugely beneficial if you can. 

Overview: Advantages of Crop Sensor

  • Focal Reach
  • Deeper Depth of Field
  • Faster Frame Rate in Burst Mode
  • Cost
  • Size & Weight

What are the disadvantages of a crop sensor camera?

A crop sensor, and its smaller sensor, can’t fit the same amount of information into a frame. The smaller sensor means smaller photosites, even with higher megapixels, which means a lower resolution image. Since smaller sensors contain smaller photosites, they will produce a less sharp image.

Smaller sensors also mean that the camera will be less capable in low light since the smaller photosites are capturing less light and the exposure decreases. That also means more noise and graininess, unfortunately. Since a smaller sensor camera is also inherently slower, bumping up your ISO will just mean adding more noise, too. Really, you’d need to introduce a light source to remedy this issue.

Crop factor is, at times, advantageous, but it can also be a hindrance. If you are interested in a style of photography where being able to take wide, full frame photos is a benefit, like architecture or landscape, the crop factor will continue to be an issue.  Lastly, there is also a lot of mental math required when using a crop sensor camera. Yes, it’s one thing for me to include the information that if you take a 50mm lens and put it on a Nikon APS-C crop sensor camera, that will actually give you 75mm of reach. It’s another to have to account for that for all photos.

Overview: Disadvantages of Crop Sensor

  • Lower Image Quality
  • Noise   
  • Crop Factor
  • Mental Math

What kind of photography are you most interested in?

  • Portrait – Overall, full frame is recommended since the full frame sensor will result in that beautiful shallow depth of field.
  • Landscape – Overall, full frame is recommended since the full frame sensor has better low light capabilities, offers more detail, and is better at wide angle photography.
  • Architecture – Overall, full frame since the full frame sensor has less distortion when using wide angle lenses.   
  • Sports – Overall, this is a tie. Sports photography benefits from high-ISO capabilities which is a full frame sensor feature, but it also benefits from better reach which a crop sensor can offer.
  • Wildlife – Overall, this is a tie. Wildlife photography benefits from high-ISO capabilities which is a full frame sensor feature, but it also benefits from better reach which a crop sensor can offer.

So, which camera? Crop sensor or full frame?

Overall, I think it really depends on what kind of photography you are interested in, coupled with your skill set and budget. If you are just starting out, a crop sensor camera and crop lens is a lower budget opportunity to jump into the photography world and figure out what you want to do. If you already know the kind of photography you want to do, and budget isn’t as much of a factor (save, save, save), I’d choose the camera I get based on my goals. Like most things, this will be a highly personal choice and most everyone will have a different opinion to share with you. So, my question to you is what do you want to do?

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