One of the most important decisions you’ll ever make as a photographer is deciding what type of camera to buy. A crop sensor camera is a more affordable option for photographers or those who prefer tight shots, but you sacrifice some image quality. Full frame sensors are pricier, but they produce better quality images because each pixel is larger and stores more information, which improves the resolution and sharpness.
Whether you’re looking to get into photography or upgrade your equipment, knowing the pros and cons of crop sensor cameras vs. full frame cameras can help you make a smart decision.
What is a sensor?
The camera sensor captures an image of the scene and converts it into electronic data, which is then stored in the camera’s memory.
What is a crop sensor?
The crop sensor camera has a smaller sensor and captures images smaller than the standard 24x36mm.
Advantages of a crop sensor
Crop factor refers to how much the sensor will cut from a scene compared to the standard 35mm frame of a full frame camera. A crop factor of 2 means a 35mm frame is twice as big and a crop sensor will capture half of what a full frame camera will capture. Every camera’s crop sensor is different, so be sure you check your camera’s specifications to determine the crop factor. For example, if you take a picture with a full frame camera and a crop sensor, you will lose more of the scene as you switch to a smaller sensor size. Depending on your style, the crop factor could be a disadvantage.
Effective Focal Length
The magnification of the crop factor changes the effective focal length of a lens. To determine the effective focal length, multiply the camera’s crop factor with the focal length. For example, a 50 mm lens on a 1.5 crop factor sensor will have an effective focal length of 75 mm and 80 mm with a 1.6 crop factor. This is helpful for bird and wildlife photographers or macro photographers who want to get close to the subject without using a teleconverter. A camera with a smaller sensor is preferable because the teleconverter affects the aperture and auto focus capabilities and longer focal length lenses are heavier.
Focal Length Comparison Chart
Lighter and more affordable
Crop sensors are a good option for travel photographers who want to pack light because they are smaller and lighter than full frame cameras. They are also a great option for beginner photographers looking to invest in their first DSLR but want something less expensive. Cheaper lenses and camera bodies make photography accessible without breaking the bank!
More Lens Versatility
One of the first questions you should consider when buying new camera gear is if you need a new lens instead. Lenses account for more of the image quality than the body and you can use full frame lenses on a crop sensor, but not the other way around. So not only do you have more options when looking for new lenses, but you can take the full frame lenses with you if you ever decide to upgrade.
disadvantages of a crop sensor
lower image quality
Understanding the limitations of your camera is important for getting great photos. Crop sensors can’t fit as much information into each pixel so the camera bodies and lenses produce lower-quality images; you may find more chromatic aberration or less sharpness than what’s expected from full frame cameras. In practice, this may only be noticeable in certain situations, like low light conditions.
Depth of Field
Wider depth of field means more of the scene is in focus and you get less bokeh, which may be a downside to those who shoot macro or wildlife and use a blurry background to help their subject stand out. The wider depth of field can be useful for landscape photographers who want more of the scene in focus.
Favorite Crop Sensor Cameras
What is a full frame camera?
Film and cameras came in a variety of shapes and sizes, but 35mm became the standard. The name “35mm” came from the width of the filmstrip, including sprocket holes; the size of the actual image 24×36 mm. Images on a full frame digital sensor are the same size.
Advantages of a full frame camera
Full frame cameras have a higher dynamic range, which means they can record more values between the darks and lights. This gives an image more contrast and is more forgiving in recovering the underexposed or overexposed areas in the image during post processing.
Low light performance
Full frame cameras have larger pixels that allow the sensor to capture more light and create less digital noise at higher ISOs. Usually you can get an extra stop or two of light than crop sensors, which allows for shooting at faster shutter speeds or lower ISOs.
Shallow Depth of Field
You can get much softer, smoother backgrounds than you would on crop sensor because the wider focal length requires photographers to shoot closer to the subject than they would with the same focal length on a crop sensor. The shorter focusing distance creates the bokeh. So it may be advantageous to forgo the longer reach of the crop sensor for a blurry background.
Less Lens Distortion
Lens distortion, the unnatural bowing of objects caused by your lens, is one of the most common problems in photography, and it can make for a less than ideal photo. A full frame camera reduces the effect at wider angles because it naturally wider than crop sensors.
Full-frame cameras are geared towards professionals and experienced enthusiasts, so they offer more functionality and durability. It’s common for full-frame cameras to be weather-sealed, meaning can be used in more demanding conditions and their shutters will probably last longer. They also offer more advanced focusing systems with more auto focusing point points, more accurate metering and white balance.
disadvantages of a full frame
Pricier and bulkier
The improved functionality and quality of full frame cameras comes at a cost. There are a few affordable lenses and camera bodies, but prices increase quickly in this category. Full frame cameras are larger and heavier to accommodate the larger sensor size. The lenses have larger and higher quality glass, which adds more weight to the overall camera system.
Slower Frame Rate
A full frame camera captures more information, which increases the file size the memory card must record. When using burst mode, the camera stores images in the buffer while the card saves the information. Larger the file sizes increase the time it takes to process each file which affects the frames per second capabilities in burst mode. Some cameras combat this with a larger buffer, allowing the camera to store more files before they are recorded on the card.
Favorite Full Frame cameras
Should I Buy a Crop Sensor Or a Full Frame Camera?
It depends on your primary types of photography; cons to one person may be pros so another. You should buy a full frame camera if you plan to shoot in low light settings such as astrophotography or wedding and event photography, or if plan to print at a large scale. A full frame camera may also interest you if you are a landscape or architecture photographers who need to shoot at a wide angle.
Most professionals and serious hobbyist gravitate towards a full frame camera, but technology in crop sensors has improved and more experience photographers are using them. Wildlife photographer like the focal length multiplier and travel photographers enjoy the portability of lighter equipment.
Ultimately, if cost is an important factor for you, it doesn’t matter if you buy full frame or crop sensor. The image quality differences are negligible for most people and you can learn to work with the disadvantages. You can create good photography with any camera.