But advances in technology in many crop-sensor cameras (such as Olympus’s Pixel Shift functionality) are allowing photographers who can’t afford – or don’t want to spend the money on – full frame to take equally large images up to 50MB in resolution.
So you might be asking yourself: do I really need a full-frame sensor? What’s the difference between full frame vs APS-C cameras?
Simply put, crop-sensor cameras are those that have image sensors that are smaller than a physical frame of 35mm film. If you can remember the 1990s, APS-C sensors (also called crop sensors) take their name from the old APS film format.
You’ll find an APS-C-size sensor in most entry-level and mid-range DSLRs as well as many mirrorless or compact system cameras (CSCs). They typically measure about 24x16mm, and you will find that cameras with these sensors produce images with a narrower angle of view. This is simply because they capture a smaller section of a scene than a full-frame camera can record.
Most interchangeable lens cameras launched in the last decade had APS-C sensors, so if you’ve been biding your time to upgrade, waiting for the technological developments to slow down, you’re probably now in a position where you’re considering whether to buy full frame or APS-C.
In this quick full frame vs APS-C comparison we’ll run through the key principles and differences that you need to know in order to make an informed decision to upgrade.
Full frame vs APS-C: Image quality
Provided you know what you’re doing technically, full frame cameras will generally give you a wider dynamic range than APS-C cameras with the same pixel count. However, at low sensitivity settings the smaller pixel size of APS-C sized sensors could actually enable you to capture more fine detail.
Full frame vs APS-C: Low light
Also related to image quality, a full frame camera will typically provide cleaner (noise-free) images in low light. With a full-frame camera you can more confidently push your ISO up to its higher settings, which for a night photographer might be all the motivation you need to upgrade to full frame.
Full frame vs APS-C: Viewfinder performance
If you like to compose images via your viewfinder rather than your Live View screen you’ll find that in a full frame camera your scenes will appear much brighter in the viewfinder. The reason for this is that a full-frame camera simply uses a larger mirror than its crop-sensor contemporaries.
Full frame vs APS-C: Body size
While you get more dynamic range, cleaner images at higher ISO settings and better resolution with full frame, the flip side is that you’re also getting a much larger camera body. For someone like me who shoots a lot of street photography and on-the-go, this is a deal-breaker.
For this reason I prefer a smaller camera body like my Fuji X-Pro1, which still offers a high-quality sensor. That said, you can now get a full-frame sensor in smaller system camera bodies, such as Sony’s A7 range. So increasingly, body size is ceasing to be a limitation.
Full frame vs APS-C: Depth of field
If you switch to a full-frame camera, no doubt one of the first things you will notice is a change in how your depth of field appears in your images. In other words, your out-of-focus areas will become more obvious.
For instance, if you mount a nifty fifty (50mm lens) on your new full-frame camera and shoot a landscape scene, you’d need a 35mm lens on an APS-C camera to capture the same angle of view. And the 35mm lens will give you much more depth of field because of its shorter focal length.
Full frame vs APS-C: Lenses
Full-frame lenses can be costly (way more than your camera), but they never go obsolete. But even if you’re still saving to buy that expensive full-frame Nikon lens, you can still use your crop-factor lenses on a full frame Nikon camera.
Your camera will restrict the sensor area to an APS-C-size rectangle in the middle of the frame and you won’t get the benefit of your full-frame camera’s resolution, but the lenses will work just fine.
Canon EF-S (APS-C format) lenses, however, extend further into the body of the camera than do EF lenses. This can potentially damage your mirror assembly.
Full frame vs APS-C: Wider views
What’s more, you’ll find that full-frame lenses will give you a truer focal length when mounted on a full-frame camera. A wide-angle lens will deliver that wide angle without any clumsy math to determine the effective focal length.
Full frame vs APS-C: File size
It stands to reason that if you are shooting higher resolution images, your file sizes are going to be larger in turn – that’s true whether you shoot with a full-frame or cropped sensor camera. With this in mind, an upgrade to full frame may require investment in bigger capacity – and more expensive – memory cards.
Likewise, this will also have repercussions on how you back up these files, whether it’s an external drive or a cloud storage option.