A Guide to Digital Camera Sensors – Full Frame or Cropped?

The dawn of digital photography has made cropped sensors the norm for most new photographers. However, during the film era, there were no cropped sensors. Every sensor was 35mm or larger. Since making digital sensors is quite expensive, camera manufacturers made a variety of cropped sensors to respond to the growing market demands.

Today, there are a couple of leading digital camera sensor sizes, full-frame and cropped. There are other sensor sizes such as Sigma’s but the aforementioned are enough to illustrate how sensor size affects your photography.

Price

Unless you have an unlimited supply of cash, price is one aspect of photography that can’t be ignored. If they were the same price, full frame is the way to go. However, full-frame cameras cost more compared to their cropped counterparts. Larger sensor size means more manufacturing expense. Canon’s 5D Mark 3 is around $2,500 while the 7D is around $1200. Despite the 7D’s more advanced features including better AF system and faster continuous shooting, the full frame camera is still more expensive.

Compact cameras with large sensors are also popping up today. A couple of years ago, having a sensor that is more than an inch in a compact camera is not really feasible. But now, the market is demanding better quality. Keep in mind that these are not your traditional SLR, they are not even SRLs since they don’t have the pentamirror mechanism. Despite that, they can still output amazing pictures since their sensors are improving (increasing in size).  This category can be more expensive since this is relatively new. For example, Sony’s RX1 is listed at $2,800. It has a full frame size sensor at a very compact footprint. Fujifilm’s x100 is also on the higher side of compact cameras, $1300, despite having a smaller sensor.

Of course, choosing what type of camera you use is entirely dependent on your shooting style. A DSLR with a kit lens is a light gear already but a lot of people will still find this troublesome.

Untitled by Astragony

Zoom Multiplier

When comparing shots between a full frame and cropped sensor, the most obvious difference is their “perspective”. Try using a 50mm lens in both kinds of camera. The 50mm attached to a cropped camera produces a tighter image compared to a full frame camera. Using identical settings and lens, you can literally crop an image from a full frame camera and achieve the same image output of a cropped camera.

Cropped camera photographers use this as an advantage and use telephoto lenses to capture more distance. With a crop factor of 1.5, a 200mm lens will yield the point of view of a 300mm lens. This is good for wildlife photographers and sports photographers.

However, keep in mind that despite having the effect of a 300mm lens, a full frame sensor using 300mm lens will yield a wider perspective.

Landscape photographers will tend to use full frame cameras since they can maximize the field of view of their camera. A 14mm lens will stay 14mm in a full frame camera, but when used in a cropped sensor it will result in 22mm which is not wide enough.  Cropped cameras can still be used in landscape photography. There are ultra-wide angle lenses for cropped cameras that can go up to 10mm so don’t worry.

Depth of field is also maximized when using a larger sensor. If your lens can be attached to both types of camera, a cropped sensor won’t be able to maximize the DOF. Since the image is cropped, some parts with the beautiful bokeh can’t be seen. If you plan on investing in wide aperture lenses, you’re better of using them with a full frame camera.

Abby 🙂 by ryantron.

Noise

Full frame cameras technically have better image quality out of the box. For example, the Canon 7D is pretty amazing in low light. But compared to its much older sibling, the Canon 5D Mark 1, it loses a bit in terms of image quality. In real world tests, the 5D can provide as much as 1 stop advantage in useable ISO compared to the 7D. Despite being a much older model, the D700 still performs very well thanks to its full frame sensor.

LCL FTL by Neil Kremer

If you have the money, full frame is the way to go since it has better image quality. However, don’t frown since having a full frame camera will not guarantee better pictures. A lot of professional photographers are still using cropped cameras and they make good living out of their photographs. In the end, the camera you choose is just a tool. Remember, it’s not the camera but the photographer.

 

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