The Difference Between Full-Frame and Crop Sensor DSLR Cameras

In Gear by Jim Harmer83 Comments

crop frame

Camera sensors

One member of our community, Sean Allen, sent in a question to me through our Facebook Fan Page, asking the difference between full frame and crop sensor DSLR cameras.   Some of you may already know the answer to this question.  If you do, please share your knowledge in a comment below.

Welcome to the Full frame vs. crop frame DSLR camera debate!

Background

Back in the stone age when we all used film, 35mm became the gold standard film size.  When we switched over to digital, there was no film to be used.  On most DSLR cameras, the digital imaging sensor, which replaces film, is significantly smaller than 35mm film.   In 2002, the first sensor that equaled the size of 35mm film was produced.

Canon was the first mainstream camera manufacturer to produce a DSLR camera with a sensor the size of 35mm film.  I can just imagine how the meeting went when the executives at the Canon marketing department sat down and tried to think of a way to make their new DSLR seem ultra-incredible and make everyone else's camera seem like it was half a camera.  They accomplished this task by calling their 35mm equivalent sensor a “Full frame” DSLR camera, and decided to call all other DSLR cameras “Crop frame” cameras.

The marketing worked.  Many photographers feel like they have only half a camera unless they get the new, shiny “full frame” DSLR.  The truth is that the “Full frame” sensors aren't “full” at all.  It is an arbitrary size that was chosen at some point long in the past.  Obviously, a much larger sensor could be produced.  If this ever happens, I'm sure the marketing department at Canon or Nikon will have another meeting.

The truth is that a more correct name for “full frame” would be “35mm equivalent sensor.”  The correct name for a “crop frame” sensor would be “APS-C sized sensor.”  Sometimes, politically correct photographers will refer to full frame and crop frame with these names, so they are handy to know.

The Benefits of Full Frame DSLR Cameras

Full Frame Advantage #1: Low-light performance.  Digital imaging sensors have tiny little light sensors that record light and produce a pixel.  The tiny sensors are called photosites.  Naturally, the larger the photosite, the more ability it has to capture weak light signals.  Picture it like a satellite dish.  Therefore, when all other factors are equal, a full frame sensor will always perform with less noise at high ISOs than “crop frame” DSLR cameras.

Full Frame Advantage #2: Depth-of-Field. You may have noticed that although your point-and-shoot has an f/1.8 lens, it is nearly impossible to accomplish short depth-of-field on most point-and-shoots.  The reason is that the sensor size affects apparent depth-of-field.  Since a 35mm equivalent (full frame) sensor is larger, it can accomplish more shallow apparent depth of field than an APS-C sized (crop sensor) camera.

Full Frame Advantage #3: Viewfinder Brightness.  Because full frame cameras use larger lenses, they can produce a brighter viewfinder image.  Very handy.

Full Frame Advantage #4: Pro bodies.  Unfortunately, both Canon and Nikon do not make DSLRs with all the bells-and-whistles in a crop sensor format.  In my opinion, this is a shame.  Still, it's the world we live in.  Those who simply prefer a crop sensor camera cannot get all the same ultra high-end features available on the full frame bodies.  Ugh!

The Drawbacks to Full Frame DSLR Cameras

Full Frame Problem #1: Cost. Imaging sensors are cut out of large sheets of expensive chips called wafers.  Since a full frame sensor is larger, only 20 sensors can be cut out of a standard-sized wafer.  This, among other similar production costs, means that Full Frame DSLR cameras will always come at a premium.

Full Frame Problem #2: Field of view.  This is both a drawback and a benefit.  Landscape photographers like full frame cameras because it makes all lenses seem like they are zoomed out more.  You might think of crop sensor cameras as having a built-in zoom of 50 or 60%.  This is a blog post all of itself to fully explain.  Just know that SOME wildlife photographers choose a crop frame camera to get the extra zoom and landscape photographers almost universally prefer full frame, even though a crop frame camera can achieve the same wide angle of view by buying a wide angle lens built for a crop frame camera, like the fantastic Nikon 10-24mm.  Just to be technically correct, the sensor size doesn't magnify the scene at all, it just restricts the field of view.

Full Frame Problem #3: Weight.  The sensor itself barely adds any weight to the DSLR, but it requires larger, heavier, and more expensive lenses.  This means that the gear can be much more cumbersome and awkward to use.

Full Frame Problem #4: Lens availability.  Although full frame lenses will work properly on crop frame DSLRs, the reverse is not true.  Therefore, crop sensor DSLR cameras have a greater variety of lenses available to them.

What this Means for Buying Lenses

On a Canon camera, you should know that a full frame EF lens will work on any EF-S crop sensor body; however, the reverse is not true.  EF-S lenses do not work on full frame Canon bodies.

In the Nikon system, both crop sensor DX lenses and full frame FX lenses will function on crop or full frame bodies; HOWEVER (and it's a big however), if you put a DX lens on a full frame body, you'll see that a significant portion of the edge of the frame is black.  This is caused by the smaller DX lens not reflecting the image onto the full area of the full frame sensor.

So in short, full frame cameras require full frame bodies.  Crop sensor cameras can use either full frame or lenses for crop sensor cameras.  The only difference between Canon and Nikon in this regard is that Canon's crop sensor lenses won't even mount on a full frame Canon, and the Nikon crop sensor lenses will mount just fine but the functionality is mostly useless.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. Benefit #1 = True
    #2 The sensor only indirectly affects the depth of field. Your camera to subject distance is what affects the depth of field, and since a full frame sensor gives you a more complete representation of the lenses field of view, you camera to subject distance will be less there by reducing your depth of field.
    #3 A wide lens will offer a brighter view on either.
    #4 I disagree, the D300 and D50 are both great cameras, Canon downgraded a bit with the D60 but still a great camera, the 5D and D700 are both short of their respective “PRO” counterparts in the D3 and 1Ds and significantly cheaper.
    Drawback
    #1 It is what it is,
    #2 “even though a crop frame camera can achieve the same wide angle of view by buying a wide angle lens built for a crop frame camera” This is extremely deceiving and ultimately not true. An 18mm is an 18mm, The lenses made for crop sensors have the same field of view as there regular build counterparts would if mounted on a crop sensor, not the same field of view as their regular build counterparts would have on a full frame sensor. They can just be made with smaller glass and components since there image circle can be smaller only having to cover the smaller sensor. I have an 18-270 DX for my nikon D300 and I have a 20mm prime mounted on my D700 the 20mm on the full frame is wider on than the 18mmDX on the crop. Even though the 18mm is made for a crop sensor camera the field of view is still only equivalent to 27mm.
    #3 I think you are reaching on this one, I have zero issues syncing up to 1/250 on my D700 exactly as if I were on my APS-C D300, High speed sync would be required to go beyond that regardless of sensor size.
    #4 “This means that the gear is much more cumbersome and awkward to use” You are starting to sound like a “Crop sensor fan boy” Better quality things always have a healthier feel to them. The difference in size and weight between my D300 and D700 is minimal. I don’t see how my D700 is cumbersome or awkward, in contrast, when I pick up a D70 or 60D they feel small and toy like.
    #5 Only true for Canon, I can put a “crop” sensor lens on my full frame D700 and I can chose to have the D700 either “Crop” the sensor or shoot the whole sensor and get everything the lens projects including the black circle of the lens body.

    My opinions, I love my D300, but I love my D700 more. 🙂

    Thanks for the conversation Jim

    1. Excellent explanation. If I had known about these three major advantages I would have jumped into full frame sooner. I thought it was all about speed with full frame. I love the wider angle as I shoot a lot of landscape and the superior low light performance is incredible on full frame. The shallow depth of field makes portrait and macro photography look eye popping.

      And on Nikon if I want the 1.5 crop factor it is a simple setting. So when I go shoot wildlife I turn it on.

  2. Author

    Good points, Kieth. I fully agree with many of your points. Obviously, I can’t get into such detail in every post or else the posts would be unwieldy in length. Some statements may be simplistic, but most readers prefer brevity to political correctness.

    Benefit #2: Yes, you’re correct. It really only affects the APPARENT depth of field, not the optical depth of field.

    Benefit #3: True. Again, trying to be brief.

    Benefit #4: I didn’t say that the crop frame bodies weren’t good. Some of them are FANTASTIC! However, it will be tough to convince me that the crop frame cameras generally have as many high end features as the full frame bodies.

    Drawback #2: If you thought that’s what I meant, then I must not have been very clear. I certainly didn’t mean to say that an 18mm lens will give the same angle of view on either a full frame or crop frame camera. The point I was making is that there are lenses available with crop sensor cameras to get as wide an angle of view as the wide angle lenses for full frame cameras.

    Drawback #3: Probably true. I was reaching 🙂

    Drawback #4: Actually, I am a bit of a crop sensor fanboy in some ways. You’re right that there is little weight difference between the D300 and the D700, but you fail to take into account that the D300 could use DX lenses, which are often MUCH lighter, to achieve the same focal length and aperture as an FX lens for the D700. Most of the time I don’t mind lugging around pro gear, but I have really enjoyed the D7000’s ease of use lately.

    #5: Ugh! You’re right. It will FIT on your camera, but that’s not what I said. I said it won’t WORK on the full frame cameras. I think it’s safe to assume that I meant with full functionality. Not sure if it’s really necessary to be THAT politically correct.

    Thanks for the comments, Kieth. I haven’t seen many podcasts from you lately. What’s the deal?

  3. Author

    However, I will fully admit that while I like a lot of things about crop sensors, I am stoked to buy the D800 when it is released this summer. I hope it matches the hype that is building around it.

  4. 🙂 Thanks for plying Jim, this is one of those topics out there that gets people’s heads spinning. 🙂

    Interested to hear where you heard that the D800 will be released this year.

    The rumor I heard was that the earthquake/tsunami has pushed release of most speculated releases out by as much as two years.

    The D700 is going for full sticker now and the ebay prices have jumped similarly.

  5. Thanks for the post. I teach digital photography and I often have people ask me this question. As a teacher and professional photographer I have found uses for both full frame and cropped cameras. When I shoot weddings I use a Canon 50D with a Canon 18-200 and find that I rarely need anything else. The 50D is (was) reasonable enough in price that I could carry two or three with me at all times… carrying several 1d series was not financially viable for me and the 50D gave me great shots again and again. I also use a 1Ds series to shoot landscapes… not only because my 16mm is a “true” 16, but the full frame camera give me a much different feeling to the photos.

    In terms of the cropped cameras not have all the bells and whistles… I think the Canon 7D comes with most of what anyone might want. True it does NOT have 100,000+ ISO… but who really needs that on a daily basis?

  6. Seems to me, the megapixel count of the full frame 24 x 36 vs the APS sensor does not go up at the same rate as the size would suggest.
    That being said the quality of each photosite seems to render a much better image with what would be considered a low megapixel image in today’s market with the larger sensor.
    So the manufacturers are either putting more quality into the full framers, or they are compromising something to get the 14 to 17 megapixels in the cropped sensors just to boast more horsepower and sell more cameras to the masses.
    If I were shopping for a sports car even in today’s economy I honestly don’t think I would go with the V6 over the V8 just because it might get better gas mileage or because I could buy two of them for the price of one of the top of the line models.
    After all back in the days of film, how many pros conciderd shooting APS over 35mm just becuase you could shoot a half roll of film and save the rest for later. If anything one dreamed of shooting medium format to raise the quality of ones shots.

  7. OK now my head is really spinning. I knew there was a lot to know about my camera and the lens I use but this is really in-depth. Thanks for the info it’s given me something to think about when the time comes to buy a new body.

  8. As a Sony user my options for FF are limited. I’m hoping the new a77 is a real hit, time will tell.

    1. Oops, ‘scuse me; I should read my own posts.

      Here’s what I meant to say :

      “Will a crop DSLR with a wide angle lens have the same field of view as a full-frame DSLR ?
      …… Barry

  9. I suspect that a full-frame sensor will always have a larger field-of-view, when the same lens is used on both cameras.

    But different story when the lenses are different.

    ….. Barry

  10. a77 not in category full frame but a77 spect like a pro camera. a77 not SLR but they call SLT…..What ever camera the beutiful colour still the best Fuji Pro camera….. Why Fuji stop production SLR camera ??????

  11. Head spinning really bad….just lost my Canon 50D, replaced with FF 5D, still have my tokina 11-16 F2.8 that was outstanding on that Crop body….what lens should I get for the FF that will give me the same wide angle field of view??

  12. Is a typical crop-frame body (Rebel) considered to have a sensor that is exactly half the size of a full-frame? Thus making the apparent zoom twice as much?

    I get all this sensor size stuff just enough to make my head hurt. 😉

  13. I would like to comment on Full frame advantage #4. Pro bodies. Well it is true the pro bodies only come in a full frame. With the new lower priced full frames from Nikon and Canon, this advantage is not really automatic as I know from the specs that my Canon 7D is much closer to a pro body then the Canon 6D. I was really sad to see them retire. The 5D Mark 2 as for a short time offered more advantages I believe then the new 6D for roughly the same price.as far as what I want in a camera. Perhaps I will pick one up used. But for now I will stick with my 7D with it’s beautifully constructed body of magnesium allow (I have dropped it 2 or 3 times and not a nick)But I would like the other advantages of a full frame especially it is too bad it comes at such a high cost.

  14. Several years ago, I returned to taking photographs after a snapshot hiatus of many years. At the time, I had an old, but serviceable collection of Pentax K-mount lenses, so I purchased a Pentax K-10D, to be able to take advantage of the old glass. I now use a Pentax K5, and have acquired a few lenses (55-200 zoom; 50 prime) and accessories over the years, but reading your column, I am now concerned that I may suffer from crop frame disorder and be in need of a camera transplant. Not sure my bank account or learning curve could readily handle leaving the Pentax system for Nikon or Canon. Do I need to be concerned? What steps, short of a brand change and major expense, can I take to minimize any downside?

  15. Ok I have a question about lenses. I currently have a Canon rebel t2i and am considering buying a wide angle lens. I hope to someday upgrade my camera to be able to get the super sharpness that I feel I am missing but am wondering if the full frame lenses work on my camera why not spend the extra and get that so that when I do upgrade I am not needing to buy more lenses to go with the full frame camera? Make sense? Or do they not work as well with the crop dslrs? Thanks!!

  16. #3 under the benefits is incorrect, it is because the nicer cameras use pentaprism viewfinders so you get less light loss than you would get in a pentamirror viewfinder

    Same with #4 under the benefits, Canon makes the 7D which is very full featured and pro just in a crop sensor body.

  17. I’m so torn on the Crop vs FF, Seems I know all the arguments and reasons and whys etc but I’m still torn – I have picked a FF ideal set of D610 body and lenses but maybe I should buy the D7100 but STILL buy FX lenses or maybe go fully Crop aaargh – hmmm wish I wasn’t such a techy geek as I always talk myself into the best and most expensive options 🙂 Thanks for the balanced views here. In the mean time I’m gonna shoot the heck out of my D3000 to improve everything else I’ve read and tried, as its not the camera taking the pictures its the photographer yadda yadda haha :).

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