When upgrading to a DSLR, one of the most confusing issues, especially among newbie photographers, is understanding the difference between full-frame and crop sensor DSLR cameras. Of course, you won't have to deal with this problem if you have a compact camera since the built-in lenses are designed in such a way that made the difference unnoticeable. However, learning the difference becomes important when you want to venture into the use of a DSLR. In this article, we will explain the differences between the full-frame and crop sensor DSLR cameras so you can make an informed decision when you are in the market.
In the days of film photography, the standard film size is 35mm. However, in the recent years where digital photography has taken over, the digital imaging sensor that replaced film is much smaller than 35mm film. In fact, in digital photography, when people talked about full frame, they are actually referring to the 24x36mm sensor size.
Full frame cameras are expensive. You will need to spend thousands of dollars to get a good one. If you are not willing to pay this huge price tag, you are left with the alternative which is "cropped frame' cameras, otherwise known as "crop sensor" cameras. These types of sensors are much cheaper compared to full frame.
A cropped frame is much smaller than the full frame; you can liken them to cutting off the outside edges of an image leaving you with only the middle of the image. They are much similar to the APS film format which was popular in the past. Most brands such as Sony and Canon still call their cropped sensors "APS-C" cameras. Any sensor that is smaller than a full frame sensor or 35mm film frame is a cropped sensor.
Note that crop of the sensor usually varies a little between different manufacturers. Most brands have crop sensors that are smaller than a full frame sensor by a 1.6 ratio.
Differences Between Full-Frame and Crop Sensors
Before I point out the differences, it is important to note here that every camera is capable of taking great photos. You can even take breathtaking shots with cameras that come with some smartphones nowadays.
Note that the term full-frame or crop-sensor only refers to the size of the imaging sensor inside a camera. Apart from the differences mentioned above, there are also other differences between these two:
Field of View and Focal Length
The major difference between full frame and crop sensor can be found in their field of view. From the look and size of crop sensors, you will be able to notice that the smaller sensor's field of view is a crop of the full frame. What this implies is that if you take the same shot with a crop-sensor DSLR such as a Nikon D7100 and a full-frame DSLR such as a Nikon D800 from the same distance, the same point of view and lens, the D7100 will capture a tighter field of view than the D800.
Your focal length is increased when you use a crop-frame camera because the sensor is cropping out the edges of the frame. This automatically makes the focal length to increase.
Obviously, full-frame is larger than crop-sensors which could be a disadvantage. It is easy to see that a larger sensor will require a larger camera size in order to compensate for the increase in sensor size. If you are not particularly thrilled about working with large cameras, full-frame sensors could pose a problem to you.
A full-frame sensor can provide a better ISO performance which will result in a higher quality image than a crop sensor. In fact, this advantage is the reason why some professional photographers prefer full-frame to crop-sensor cameras. Moreover, it performs better when it comes to architectural photography because they have a wider angle which is extremely useful with tilt/shift lenses.
Depth of Field
A full-frame DSLR has a shallower depth of field when you compared it to a crop sensor DSLR. This could make your image more beautiful. When you are shooting at the same length with a full-frame and crop-sensor camera using the same aperture settings and shooting from the same distance, you will notice that your full-frame camera will have a shallower depth of field than the crop sensor camera.
The reason for this is that a larger sensor needs a longer focal length of the lens in order to capture the same field of view.
Low Light Performance
When you compare the performance of the both sensors in a low-light situation, full-frame sensors come out on top. This is because full-frame sensors have larger photosite. Photosites are tiny light sensors that record light and produce a pixel in digital imaging sensors. By the rule of thumb, the larger the photosite, the more ability it has to capture weak light signals. Everything being equal, a full-frame sensor will perform better in a low-light situation than crop-frame DSLR cameras.
When you are traveling, you need a lighter camera. The weight of the DSLR isn't as a result of the sensor itself. But since larger sensor requires a larger camera, full-frame tends to have more weight as it requires more expensive lenses. It may seem cumbersome and awkward. You can easily go for more flexible crop-sensor if you don't want to deal with the enormous weight.
When it comes to cost, you have to spend more to get a full-frame sensor. In fact, since these image sensors are not cheap to manufacture, you will need to spend twice as much as their crop-sensor counterpart to get a full-frame sensor. In most cases, the price for these sensors starts from $10,000 and above.
From the above, it shows that neither of the sensors is inherently better. Both of them are designed to help you accomplished different tasks.
When you are in the market for a sensor, you need to be aware of the price and your purpose for this camera. This will help you make the best buying decision.