Quick Guide: Crop vs Full Frame Sensor Cameras

Crop vs Full Frame Cameras - Tuto

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Welcome to my first blog post in my new series known as Tutorial Tuesday. For this series, I aim to post a new photography guide or tutorial every Tuesday. In this blog post I will give you a quick guide to cameras with a Full Frame sensor and those with a Crop sensor. I explain the difference and weigh up pros & cons of each. 

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When it comes to camera sensor sizes, two of the most common terms to describe them are “Crop Sensor” and “Full Frame”. The term “Full Frame” refers to a sensor that is the same size as the 35mm format (36mm x 24mm) film slide. Anything less than this format is referred to as having a “crop” sensor also known as “APSC” in DLSR cameras.  Most professional DSLR cameras will have a full frame sensor while compact cameras, phones and entry-level DSLRs will have a smaller crop sensor.

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The most obvious difference between full frame and crop sensors is the size. Crop sensors typically measure 23.5mm x 15.6mm (APSC standard) and full frame 36mm x 24mm in DSLR cameras. Cropped sensors in phones, compact cameras and other devices may be even smaller. Due to this, crop sensors will have a different field of view and focal length when compared to full frame. A crop sensor crops out the edges of the frame which will effectively increase the focal length of your camera lens.

If you had a crop sensor and full frame camera side-by-side with the same lens, effective focal length and composition – the crop sensor’s field of view will be tighter and look like it was zoomed in.  It won’t capture the entire area that the full frame can. In order for the crop sensor camera to capture the same field of view as the full frame, you would have to zoom the lens out or move the crop sensor camera further back.

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The difference in field of view or effective focal length on a crop sensor is calculated by a “multiplier”.  A typical crop sensor Canon DLSR like the 7D Mark II or the 80D has a 1.6x multiplier.  When a full-frame Canon 50mm lens is placed on a crop sensor camera, it effectively acts like it were an 80mm lens on a full frame camera (50mm x 1.6 = 80mm). For this reason, crop sensor cameras also have special lenses made exclusively for them which take into account the smaller sensor and provide the correct focal length of the lens on that camera. Other DSLR brands like Sony and Nikon have a multiplier of 1.5x as their APSC sensors are slightly larger.

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Generally speaking, a camera with a full frame sensor will give you a better quality image as the larger sensor can capture more detail and dynamic range. A larger sensor will also perform better in low light situations and at higher ISO with less visible noise. For these reasons, full frame cameras are favoured more by professional photographers, especially those who shoot portraits or night time photography. You will also get a bigger field of view which is useful for wide angle photography such as architecture and landscape.

One downside of using a full frame camera though is that they are generally much more expensive than cameras with crop sensors. Full frame cameras are also incompatible with lenses designed for crop sensor cameras – which could be a problem if you have a large collection of crop lenses and are wanting to upgrade to a full frame camera. You will have to buy new lenses specifically designed for the larger sensor. Full frame camera bodies are also generally bigger and heavier than smaller crop sensor cameras.

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A crop sensor camera is more favourable for sports and wildlife photography as the smaller sensor will give a closer/tighter field of view (more “reach”). For example, a 70-300mm zoom lens designed for a full frame camera, will give you an impressive 112mm – 480mm focal length when placed on a crop sensor camera with a 1.6x multiplier!

Cameras with a crop sensor are generally smaller, lighter and less expensive. Crop sensor cameras also enjoy a wider range of lenses as you can use lenses designed for both full frame mounts and also lenses specifically for smaller crop sensor mounts. Another advantage is that most crop sensor cameras come with additional auto modes which are great for beginners.

However, due to the smaller sensor size you will not get the same image quality or low light / high ISO performance that you would with a full frame camera. You will also not have the full field of view which isn’t ideal for wide angle photography such as landscapes.

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Now that you know the differences between full frame and crop sensor cameras, you can better decide which one is right for you.

If you are a beginner or enthusiast, interested in photography that requires getting closer to your subject (like sports photography or wildlife), don’t have a big budget, want more lens choice and prefer not to carry a bulky and heavy camera – then a crop sensor camera may be more suited to you.

However, if you are a professional wanting better image quality, less noise at higher ISOs, a more advanced camera body with a wider field of view, the correct focal length for all of your lenses and budget isn’t that big of a concern – a full frame camera would be a better match.

Which sensor size is best for you? Answer in the comments below!

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I am a photographer, photo retoucher and website designer from Northern Ireland. My current focus is portrait photography as I have a passion for creative concepts and photographs that tell a story. You can hire me for freelance photography or website design work. My about page has more info. See my blog for the latest news, Tutorial Tuesdays and projects I am working on.

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