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Camera Sensors: Crop-Sensor versus Full-Frame

A common question for photographers getting into or upgrading DSLR cameras is whether full-frame is better than crop-frame camera sensors. In this article, I will cover the pros and cons of each sensor type. This should help you decide which camera is best for you. Before I do though, I have assumed that you already understand what a full-frame and crop sensor camera is. I am also assuming you know the differences between the two formats. For those that don't, I have another article covering this particular subject. Do Crop Sensors Increase a Lenses Focal Length.

With that out of the way, let's look at the key technical differences between crop and full-frame sensors.

Technical Differences between Full and Cro-Frame Camera Sensors

Cost

Whilst there are some exceptions, generally speaking, cameras with full-frame sensors are going to cost you more. The reason is that the physical sensor is a big cost driver for the camera. Indeed, this was the reason crop sensors were used pretty much exclusively in the original DSLR cameras, it just wasn't commercially viable to manufacture full-frame sensors for the mass market.

Size & Weight

Again, whilst there are some exceptions; because the sensor is larger in the full-frame camera sensors, it generally follows that the size of a full-frame sensor camera is greater. The lenses for these cameras also tend to be larger, and because of the larger pieces of glass, they are heavier.

Low Light Performance

A full-frame sensor has larger pixels than its crop sensor companion. This results in an improved low light capability, which translates into an increased utility in low light conditions and higher image quality.

Daylight Performance

There is an argument that crop camera sensors are better in regular light conditions, as they are only looking through the center portion of the lens, and therefore you avoid aberrations and vignetting at the fringes of the lens. This only comes into being if you use cheap lenses on your full-frame camera, so for me is not really an argument in favor of crop sensor cameras at all. If you took the time & money to buy a full-frame camera, you are unlikely to then use cheap lenses. In regular light, the performance is good on both types of sensor, albeit the full-frame sensor will still capture details in the shadows and highlights that a crop sensor cannot; due to the full-frame sensors' higher dynamic range. A crop sensor is typically also going to give you approximately two extra stops of Depth of Field (DoF). This can have its positives for nature photography, but also a negative for other genres like portraits, where you want a shallow DoF.

Versatility

With a crop sensor camera, the world is your oyster on lens choice, as you can use both full-frame and crop sensor lenses. The same is not true on full-frame sensors, whilst you can use a crop sensor lens on a full-frame camera, the resultant image will be cropped both in terms of what it can see through the lens, but also half the size; so e.g. a 50Mp camera will give a 25Mp image. There is, also an upside and a downside to using a full-frame lens with a crop sensor camera. The upside is that a telephoto lens will give you the effect of additional reach, as the camera only sees a portion of what the lens sees. The downside is on wide-angle, where you will also lose the wide-angle capability of the lens.

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Lens Quality

Generally speaking, manufacturers aim their best quality glass at their best quality cameras, and for the big names like Canon & Nikon, this means that the full-frame cameras get the best glass. Now, for the reasons we identified above, you can still use these lenses, but you are not going to get the lenses full capability; particularly being prevalent on wide-angle lenses.

Full-Frame & Crop Sensors Camera Use Cases

With the technical differences now covered, let's go through a few use cases to see how full-frame and crop sensors can work for you in the field.

Professional Photographers

Most professionals & Semi Professionals will opt for full-frame cameras. The extra cost is justified because:

1) The extra dynamic range and low light performance are going to maximize your photo shooting ability

2 )Increased image quality is going to be a prerequisite, especially if you are cropping images during post-processing and printing big.

The downside is the extra weight, but you probably have a range of prime lenses for different shooting scenarios, and besides, you don't carry them all-around at the same time.

However, many pro photographers may also have crop sensor cameras:

1) Either as a backup to their main camera, or

2) For when they don't want to be lumbered with all the big full-frame kit.

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Enthusiast & Hobbyist Photographers

This scenario is less clear-cut than with professional photographers and can depend on several factors. Let's go through the key ones:

1) The genre of photography you shoot:

If you predominantly need long-reach, then a crop sensor camera with e.g. a prime telephoto may be beneficial. This is because of the effective increase in reach compared to a full-frame camera with the same lens.

With that comes the extra depth of field, which can help when trying to keep objects sharp at a distance. Of course, the downside is:

- Lower quality of images due to the lower pixel size,

- Lower dynamic performance, and

- Less low light performance.

But, there is definitely a strong argument for using a crop sensor camera for this genre. The main ones being cost and weight. This is because to get the same reach on a full-frame camera you need either:

- A lens extender (which in turn is going to impact low light performance and DoF) or

- Some expensive long reach glass.

So if you think about a real-world situation, you are shoulder to shoulder with a pro at a sports event, their kit costs 10x what yours does! But, you are capturing exactly the same image, it is just that yours is slightly lower quality. Seems a strong argument to me for a crop sensor camera!

If you shoot Landscapes, a full-frame sensor and wide-angle lens are the winning combinations for that vast expansive look. Yes, you can walk backward a bit to try and get the same view! But you only get 'the look' with the extra-wide lenses. The manufacturers tend to reserve these lenses for their best (full-frame) cameras.

If you predominantly shoot Portraits and want the 'portraits look' that you get with an 85mm lens with super low DoF, then the full-frame camera and a prime 85mm lens are the only way to go. If on the other hand, you are happy using any lens with a mid-length telephoto. An example being if you shoot predominantly at say 50mm. Then you can achieve perfectly adequate results with a crop sensor camera. 

2) Your willingness to carry heavy kit around

A day out walking in the mountains, or around a city might need various lenses, a tripod, a flash, etc. The extra weight involved if you have a full-frame camera and associated lenses can be a real burden! You need a lot of dedication; particularly if (like me) you are getting older. Crop Sensor cameras really do make a lot of sense, as the kit is generally much smaller. With smaller size you get lower weight, and therefore is easier to manage.

New Photographers

If you have just decided to take the step into a DSLR camera, then unless money is no object, it makes sense to go with a crop sensor. You are trying out a new hobby, so why sink loads of cash into a high-end camera until you decide whether photography is for you or not! Besides, you have plenty of things to think about, e.g.

- What genre/genres of photography do you want to focus on?

- The technology leap from a smart-phone camera or a point-and-shoot camera into the world of DSLR cameras can be daunting.

- Getting to grips with Aperture Priority, Speed Priorities, Depth of Field, Flash, Long Exposures, etc.

With all these types of things to get to grips with, it's going to be a while before you start to think about squeezing extra performance and extra image quality into your shots. Besides, lugging around a hefty full-frame camera and associated lenses is likely to put you off. So get yourself a crop sensor camera within your budget range, and get out there and enjoy photography.

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Conclusions

In conclusion, there is certainly nothing to be embarrassed about taking photographs with either sensor type. Both types of cameras have their place, and both have their positives and negatives.

You can take great pictures regardless of the size of your camera's sensor! So get out there with your camera and start snapping.

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