There are a few key differences between full frame cameras and crop sensor cameras.
Knowing these differences is important because it can help you decide what kind of camera is right for you.
For a quick summary:
Full frame cameras have bigger sensors and:
- Are more expensive
- Perform better in low light (produce less image noise).
- Can ONLY use lenses made for full frame cameras (with some exceptions)
- Can achieve a wider angle of view because they have NO crop factor
- Have higher dynamic range
Crop sensor cameras have smaller sensors and:
- Cheaper to buy, better for beginner budgets.
- Not as good in low light
- Can use lenses made for BOTH full frame and crop sensor cameras
- Can achieve more zoom due to crop factor on lenses.
If you have a bigger budget or are a professional you will probably be looking at getting yourself a full frame camera.
Otherwise get a crop sensor camera and you’ll be fine.
Table of Contents
Advantages of Full Frame Cameras
Higher Dynamic Range
Full frame cameras always have a higher dynamic range compared to crop sensor cameras.
This basically means they’re able to capture more details in the darkest shadows and the brightest highlights so it’s easier to photograph high-contrast images.
The reason we like this is that the human eye is incredibly good at dynamic range, but a lot of the time cameras fall short.
Ever wondered why a sunset always seems to look better in person than on camera?
It’s because cameras don’t have the same kind of dynamic range as the human eye.
At least with full frame cameras, we can get as close as possible to what your eyes can see.
Editing is also easier because there’s more data in the image that you can manipulate (especially if you shoot in RAW).
Better in Low Light
Since full frame sensors are larger, there’s a larger surface area to absorb light.
This means that in the exact same scene, with the same camera settings, a full frame sensor will be able to let in more light.
Because of this, you don’t have to put the ISO as high on full frame cameras, and we know what happens when you crank that ISO up.
When you crank the ISO up too much you start to get that grainy noisy look.
Full frame cameras help you avoid this grainy ‘high ISO look’ since they are better than crop sensor cameras in low light situations.
Image Quality and Resolution
In general, you’ll tend to find that full frame cameras have higher megapixel counts. This means they have higher resolution.
But more importantly even if a crop sensor and a full frame sensor both have the same megapixel count, the full frame sensor will be higher quality.
This is because, on a full frame sensor, each pixel is larger and has more space and can retain more information about the image.
So for example, if you have two 24 megapixel sensors where one is a crop sensor and one is a full frame sensor, the full frame sensor will always have a higher image quality.
To put this into perspective, think about how there are phones with 48MP cameras on them, but they’re no way near as good as a 24mp full frame sensor camera.
Wider Angle Focal Lengths
Since full frame cameras don’t have a crop factor applied you always get a wider field of view for a given lens.
Where a 50mm is a 50mm on a full frame, on a crop sensor, that same 50mm lens might look more like an 80mm.
Meaning that if you need a wider angle of view then a full frame camera will be better.
This can be particularly important because high-quality wide-angle lenses can be pretty expensive.
If you do something like real estate photography or landscape photography then a wide angle of view is kinda important.
Disadvantages Of Full Frame Cameras
This one’s pretty self explanatory.
Full frame cameras are better objectively and have more capabilities, so they tend to be more expensive.
By going for a crop sensor you could save hundreds of dollars and invest that extra money into a decent lens instead.
Since they do have larger sensors they also have a larger camera body overall.
This might not be an issue for everyone, but you might not like that they tend to be a bit bigger than their crop sensor counterparts.
Especially if you have a lot of heavy lenses and other equipment already.
The added weight of a full frame camera might tip you over the edge.
Although, some people do like the weightiness of a full frame camera, so whatever floats your boat…
Bigger sensor, equals more information, equals bigger files.
This means more memory which means bigger SD cards and longer processing times when it comes to editing or moving files around.
This can be more of an issue if you have an older slower computer, but even on fast devices and with the best SD cards it can get a bit boring waiting for things to move around.
Who Should Use A Crop Sensor Camera?
In short, crop sensor cameras are perfect for beginners or hobbyists and those who are on a budget.
Unless you just happen to have a big budget then go for full frame.
In practice, crop sensor cameras can be useful when you want to get closer to a subject and need that extra ‘zoom’.
This is because of the crop factor that you get from using a crop sensor camera.
For example, think of sports photography or wildlife photography where you might want a close-up of a subject but you can’t physically get too close to the subject.
E.g. A sportsperson in the middle of a stadium, or an eagle in flight in the sky.
These are situations where having a longer full frame equivalent focal length can help.
Also if you won’t be doing much photography in dark settings then the image quality advantages of a full frame camera are less important.
Who Should Use A Full Frame Camera?
A full frame camera is perfect for professionals or anyone with a big enough budget because they are, plain and simple, better than crop sensor cameras.
If you need to get as much into a frame as possible then full frame can be better.
Think of situations where you may need a wider angle like a landscape where you need to capture a lot of foreground as well as background.
Another thing to consider is if you will be shooting a lot in low-light situations, then you may want to go full frame for the added benefit of better low-light performance.
Maybe you shoot in dark indoor settings or shoot a lot at night, then available light could be harder to find.
What Is A Full Frame Camera?
A full frame camera is a camera that has a full frame sensor which has a size that is the same as 35mm film.
Full frame sensors have a sensor size of 36mm x 24mm and they have an aspect ratio of 3:2.
The diagonal length of sensors of this size is 43mm. (You’ll see why this is important later.)
In general full frame cameras perform better than their crop sensor cousins and because of this, they come with a higher price.
While crop sensor cameras can be bought for a few hundred dollars, full frame cameras can easily be thousands of dollars.
What Is A Crop Sensor Camera?
A crop sensor camera is one where the sensor is smaller than a full frame sensor which results in a smaller image circle.
Instead of having a standard full frame sensor size of 36x24mm, crop sensors can vary in size depending on the brand you are looking at.
For example, Canon crop sensor cameras often have a sensor size of 22.3 mm x 14.9 mm and this means that Canon crop sensors are about 38% the size of Canon full frame sensors.
But Nikon crop sensor cameras have a sensor size of 24mm x 16mm and this means that Nikon crop sensors are about 44% the size of Nikon full frame sensors.
How Is Crop Factor Worked Out?
In short, a full frame sensor is bigger than a crop sensor and this ends up affecting the crop factor.
💡 The crop factor, also known as the focal length multiplier or format factor, is the ratio of the diagonal length between a crop sensor and a full frame sensor.
If a crop factor is 1.6 then the full frame sensor is 1.6 times longer diagonally compared to the crop sensor version.
This crop factor influences the look of your images and I’ll go over this below.
But first, here’s a quick example to just show how crop factor is worked out.
Example: Canon crop sensor camera vs Canon full frame camera.
- Crop sensor size for Canon Rebel SL3 sensor: 22.3mm x 14.9mm
- Diagonal length of Canon crop sensor: 26.8mm
- Full frame sensor size for Canon: 36mm x 24mm
- Diagonal length of Canon full frame: 43.2mm
- Crop factor = 43.2mm/26.8mm = 1.61 ≈ 1.6
If you want to play around with the numbers yourself then try out my -> crop factor calculator.
Different cameras from different manufacturers have different sensors resulting in different crop factors.
Here’s a list of common crop factors for different camera brands:
- Canon EF-S / EF-M = 1.6x
- Nikon DX = 1.5x
- Nikon CX = 2.7x
- Panasonic & Olympus micro four thirds = 2.0x
- Sony E-mount = 1.5x
- Sigma DC = 1.5x or 1.7x
How Does Crop Factor Affect Your Image?
The crop factor changes the effective focal length of your lens.
You take the crop factor and multiply it by the focal length of the lens. This gives you the actual full frame equivalent focal length as if it was a full frame camera.
For example, say you have a 50mm lens but your camera has a crop factor of 1.6 then your effective focal length is 80mm instead.
Because an 80mm is more zoomed in than a 50mm lens, your resulting image for the same lens on a full frame camera will look different.
So if you took a picture, the crop sensor camera will produce a magnified version of the image created by the full frame camera.
Will My Lens Work On A Full Frame Or Crop Sensor Camera?
As a general rule:
Within the same camera brand and camera type (DSLR or mirrorless), you can use full frame lenses on both crop sensor cameras and full frame cameras.
However you cannot always use crop sensor lenses on both crop sensor cameras and full frame cameras.
Remember this is a general rule of thumb so always double check. There are times when you can use crop sensor lenses on full frame cameras.
For example you can use Nikon DX lenses on Nikon FX format DSLRs.
Lenses are normally designed specifically for full frame or crop sensor cameras.
Because of this, they’ll have various mounts depending on the system you are using.
We don’t need to go into detail about lens mounts but, the mount type is just the way a lens and a camera are connected.
It determines which cameras and lenses can fit and work together. Different camera brands tend to use different lens mounts that don’t overlap.
So a Canon lens would not fit a Sony camera by default and vice versa. (unless you use some sort of adapter)
For example, if we look at Canon’s DSLR range they have EF-S lenses which are designed for crop sensors.
On the other hand, you also have the Canon EF lenses which are designed for full frame cameras but these can ALSO be used on Canon’s crop sensor cameras.
So EF lenses can be used on ALL EF or EF-S mount cameras by Canon, BUT EF-S lenses will NOT fit Canon’s full frame cameras.
EF-S lenses are ONLY to be used with EF-S mount cameras which are just the crop sensor Canon cameras.
For example, you cannot use Canon EF-S lenses on a Canon 6D.
Basically DON’T USE an EF-S lens on a full frame Canon camera.
To know which lens type you need you can simply put in your camera model name and mount type into Google and you should find it pretty quickly.