The Difference Between Full-Frame and Crop Sensor DSLR Cameras

In Gear by Jim Harmer84 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. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..

Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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!!

  4. #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.

  5. 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 :).

  6. Hey guys!

    Just logged on the website. I’m interested in the courses but need to know from you if it would help me in my line of work. I’m a crime scene Technician and use photography in that capacity. Unfortunately, my folks don’t move much and since I have to shoot them ïn-situ”, I’m not sure if the courses are for me. But I would like your input. Thanks.

    1. Author

      @Lou – If you’re a crime scene photographer, I’d recommend two of the classes: (1) The beginner class to get the technical stuff down, and (2) The LIGHTING CLASS! You won’t so much care about the posing part, but lighting is CRUCIAL for crime scene photography. For example, using off camera flash to shine light across the ground instead of keeping the flash on camera will show texture MUCH better (like blood stains, debris, etc).

      1. Thank you Mr. Harmer, I will sign up for the beginners course starting on November 13th. Thanks again!

  7. Thanks mate, loved the explanation on this blog without too much technisism etc.. very well explained.. !!

  8. Hi. Love the blog. One point though. I have been able to mount a couple of a friend’s EF-S lenses including a wide angle. However, when I opened it all the way I had a big black circle in the frame. In essence, it was as useless as with the Nikon. But still, I could mount it.
    Keep up the good work.
    Cheers, Denis

  9. Hi Jim,

    You wrote that crop sensor users do not get the professional features. but what about the Canon 7D? Seems to me that that is a crop camera aimed at the pro market.

    Cheers, JP

    PS Love your podcasts

    1. Author

      @JP – I’d disagree.

      The Canon 7D uses the same sensor in the Canon Rebel T2i, T3i, T4i, and the 60d. The sensor is quite outdated.

      On top of that, the focus system in the 7d isn’t anywhere NEAR that of the 5D Mark III or the 1Dx.

      I could go on and on.

      I’m not trying to say the 7D isn’t a good camera. It’s awesome! But I’m saying that it isn’t anywhere close to as feature packed as the higher end cameras.

      I’d love to see Canon make a REALLY powerful crop sensor camera–even if it is more expensive.

    1. Thanks Tim that has to be the best presentation on the subject I have come across. I use a Canon 7D and been looking at upgrading, now I realise I don’t need to, but instead improve the guy behind the camera

  10. Lens availability IS NOT A PROBLEM for Full-Framed-Cameras… …but, lenses for FF-cameras MAY be more costly.

    1. Certainly not a problem for happy Pentax owners 🙂
      We have FF lenses stretching back over 5 decades

  11. Very helpful, and to the point. Thanks!

    I have a client that needs images to be between 18mp and 24 mp. I will be taking pictures of athletes, in static or moving situations. These images will then be made into posters ranging from 12×24 to 24×36 roughly, and also put on canvas(same sizes) I have been using a canon rebel EOS 8mp for years, and am very happy. Nikon has been dropping prices, so I’m not sure if i want to hump sides. Someone asked me if i wanted full frame or a crop sensor. I would like to get the body. Also, what lens would you recommend. Most of the shots will Not require a zoom, but sometimes, I may want to get a close-up, on the fly without changing lenses. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you! Pete.

    1. @Pete,

      Check out the Canon 7D MII camera that meets the 24mp requirement and also brings extremely fast focusing along with improved ISO performance over other crop sensor offerings from Canon. If the $1,800 for the 7D MII is too pricey, the new Canon T6i that will be available in April offers a 24mp sensor now too at a cost of $750. I think either would be a fine choice for you here.

  12. Pete, I would recommend the canon 7d mark ii. Also I like watching videos on YouTube made by digitalrev you should look him up! Asian guy who is silly and knows his stuff about cameras!

  13. I’d like to know if you have yet got an opinion on the OM-D E-M5 Mark11. This appears to be what some Canon and Nikon fans are requesting from those makes. I have had a Olympus E30 for years and picked up several awards with it. But I need to upgrade. I was thinking about the 7D Mk 11 but now with the release of the E-M5 Mk11 I’m having another rethink as I can use the glass from my E Sytems. In the past I have shot mainly sport/action then some portraits, landscapes, weddings (which I have backed away from) and events. I now want to just relax when shooting so am thinking my priority now will be landscapes with just a little of the others. Landscapes was why I was thinking the 7d Mk 11 But …………………………..??? I’d would appreciate your thoughts.

  14. My local camera dealer is telling me I have a “half frame” camera, and due to this, I must multiply all mm sizes by 1.3. Meaning if I buy the 10.5 Nikkor fisheye lens, I’m really getting a 13.65mm view. Is this true?
    (I have a Nikon D2x)

  15. What about the 1.3x APS-H sensor that Canon used in its 1D bodies up to the Mark iv, after which they dropped it and merged the 1D (fast-shooting) and 1Ds (High-pixel count) lines in the 1Dx. For me the APS-H format is the ideal compromise, and combines many of the benefits of 35mm-equivalent (low noise, ability to shoot at higher ISO, wide angles are wide, narrow selective-focus is easily achieved) with APS (greater telephoto reach, excludes the worst part of the image circle with “Full Format” lenses, ensuring good corner sharpness).

  16. Quite a great post. Thank you.

    I didn’t know about the greater depth of field, but now that you mentioned it, I can believe it. Thank you!

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