Full frame vs crop sensor. Which one do I choose?
New and experienced photographers alike often struggle with the question of which sensor format is better.
Well, the truth is that one type of sensor isn’t necessarily superior to the other.
So how do you know which sensor is better for your needs? It’s the matter of asking yourself a few simple questions.
But before we get there, let’s talk about what the differences are between the two sensor types.
The sensor in your DSLR is the part of the camera that captures and records light. (It acts like film in an SLR camera.)
When you press the shutter button, everything in view of the lens is recorded by the sensor – the amount of light, the colors, the focus.
Because the bigger sensor in a full frame collects more data than a smaller crop sensor does, you might think that the best choice is always going to be a full frame camera. While there is some truth to this, it’s definitely not the whole story.
Creating a “good” photograph has a lot more to do with the skill of the photographer than the equipment they choose.
Full Frame Sensor
A “full frame” sensor is a sensor that is the same size as one frame on 35mm film. (For the last 100 years this has been a 24mm x 36mm rectangle.)
This film size might seem a bit arbitrary, but it’s not.
There are two main reasons why 35mm film became the industry standard in 1909:
- 35mm film (paired with a standard 50mm lens) produces roughly the same field of view as the human eye.
- Consumer cameras were gaining in popularity at the time the standard was adopted. Creating an industry standard size meant that 35mm film could be used in any common camera.
Though camera technology has made huge advances, the aspect ratio of the “film” used has remained the same. As a result, both full frame sensors and cropped sensors generally produce photos with the same dimensions.
Crop sensors are technically noted as APS-C sensors which stands for Advanced Photo System, type C. (For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with the term crop sensor.)
The term “crop sensor” is a bit misleading. The “crop” reference is just a way to describe the reduction in the field of view compared to that of a full sensor. When you shoot with a cropped sensor it trades a wide field of view of a full frame for a longer reach.
Here’s what that means in a nutshell: if you were to compose the same shot with the two sensors, the image from the crop sensor would appear to have been zoomed in, or cropped. (Hence the name.)
Check out this chart as a comparison with the full frame and crop sensor.
A 50mm lens on an APS-C sensor produces nearly the same zoom as a 75mm lens on a full frame camera does (50 x 1.5 = 75). This multiplier is known as the crop factor.
Each brand of camera uses a slightly different crop factor, but almost all APS-C sensors use a crop factor within the range of 1.3 to 1.7. This increase in focal length produced by a crop-sensor camera is neither a good nor a bad thing. The usefulness of the crop factor with an APS-C sensor depends entirely on the type of shooting you do.
Head to Head. Full Frame vs Crop Sensor
Regardless of what type of sensor you choose, your composition and editing skills matter more than the camera does. A good photographer can create a great photo on an entry level crop sensor camera.
But let’s take a closer look at the advantages (and disadvantages) of the two sensor formats.
- Note: Although camera technology has made huge advances, the aspect ratio of the “film” used has needed no adjustment. As a result, both full frame sensors and cropped sensors generally produce photos with the same dimensions.
Full frame advantages
- Better in low light – A bigger sensor means less interference (noise) at high ISO ranges.
- “Standard” focal length – Lenses and focal lengths are straightforward.
- Larger sensors record more data, and more data commonly means sharper images and the ability to print larger photos without noticeable quality loss.
Full frame disadvantages
- Size and weight – Larger sensors usually necessitate larger, heavier camera bodies.
- Higher cost – Larger sensors are significantly more expensive.
Our Favorite Full Frame Cameras:
- Canon 5D Mark IV –
- Canon 6D Mark II (great alternative to the Mark IV)
- Sony A7 III – Mirrorless option – Learn more about Mirrorless cameras
- Nikon D850
Crop Sensor advantages
- Bonus zoom – Increased focal length can be desirable in some circumstances.
- Lower cost – Much more affordable to produce, and their dominance in the market further reduces retail cost.
- Ease of use – Smaller sensors mean smaller, lighter, more portable cameras.
Crop Sensor disadvantages
- Less versatile – Smaller sensors are less capable in low-light conditions. You’ll be more limited by A) the environment, or B) extra equipment to produce better light.
- “Mental math” is sometimes required to determine your actual focal length. This is mainly an issue for professional photographers using a variety of lenses on one camera body.
Our Favorite Crop Sensor Cameras:
- Canon Rebel T6
- Sony a6500 (Mirrorless camera) – Learn more about mirrorless cameras
- Nikon D3400
Which is right for you?
Given the pros and cons of each type of sensor, it’s a bit easier to understand which shooting situations benefit from each sensor.
For example, full frame cameras have a wider field of view, produce slightly sharper photos, and are more capable in low light. This makes them most useful for landscapes, architecture, and conditions where the available light is not in the photographer’s control, such as at large events.
- Weddings, events, large print media, and wide-angle shots.
Crop Sensor cameras are most useful for telephoto work (such as when shooting sports, wildlife, portraiture, or for journalism.) Hikers, portrait photographers, and casual point-and-shooters get the most out of crop sensors. The extra reach of crop sensors also benefit macro photography.
- Macro photographs, portraits, small print media, and images meant for use on social media.
With a solid understanding of each type of sensor, you’re now fully equipped to choose the right one for you. When you start searching for your next equipment upgrade, these 3 questions will guide you to the right choice:
- What is my budget?
- What kind of photography do I want to do?
- Given the answers to 1 and 2, would I be better served by a specific lens, or by a new camera body with the right sensor, or both?
Have you decided that a full frame camera is the right choice for you, but you are reluctant to carry around a bulky, heavy camera? Then you might be the perfect candidate for a mirrorless camera.
Camera technology has seen many advances, but the biggest leap in recent years is the advent of mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless digital cameras occupy the full range of use, from high-end professional photography, down to weekender’s point-and-shoots.
Without the mirror and mechanical switch to control it, mirrorless cameras tend to be both smaller and lighter than their mirrored counterparts, without sacrificing image quality.
About the guest blogger:
“Hi, I’m David Molnar and I remember being overwhelmed when I was trying to learn to take great photos.
And even more overwhelmed when I was staring at a Photoshop screen.
Even after years of photography classes I still felt confused.
I wished an experienced pro photographer would have mentored me on what I needed to know (and skip all the boring scientific nonsense). unsure at all on how to weigh in on the full frame vs crop sensor debate I had to learn.
I realized photography is not that hard when you have a simple plan to follow.
We’ve just had super nerds, that are way too smart, trying to explain photography to us.
I dreamed of helping aspiring photographers avoid all the trial and error and years of frustration I went through.
As a busy working photographer my photos were featured on millions of Pepsi cans, in People Magazine and the New York times. But all I could do was dream bigger.
I dreamed of helping tens of thousands of photographers pursue their dreams”.
All images and content sourced from David Molnar unless stated.