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Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

Full Frame vs Crop Sensor [Everything You Need to Know]

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Want to get a new camera but not sure whether to go full frame or crop sensor? don’t worry. Even professionals get confused about this topic.

In this article, we explain the difference between full frame and crop sensors looking at things like size, depth of field, ISO, resolution, pricing and image quality.

So with a little patience, you won’t be scratching your head at the camera store or on a film set when numbers and letters come flying at you.

What is a Sensor?

A camera sensor is a flat piece of hardware directly behind your lens to capture the image. It has millions of tiny spaces called photosites. These photosites are light collectors. Once the captured light is converted from analogue to digital values they then become Pixels. 

The most common sensor you’ll find in digital cameras these days is the CMOS Sensor. Its been around since the ’60s but became very advanced in the ’90s.

Camera Sensor
Camera Sensor

What is a Full Frame Camera Sensor?

A full-frame digital sensor is the same size as the negative in a 35mm film camera. These dimensions are 36mm x 24mm. This gives the aspect ratio of 3:2 – three units wide compared to two units tall.

What is a Crop Sensor Camera?

By definition, a crop sensor camera is a camera with a sensor smaller than 36mm x 24mm. The crop will create a tighter field of view in one frame.

There are many sizes available on the market and each brand has its own crop factor depending on the camera model. You can see the difference with an APS-C crop factor sensor below.

Crop Factor Diagram
Crop Factor Diagram – Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

What is a Crop Factor?

Way back in the day during analogue photography, there were many formats, but the one that became the most commonly used format was 35mm film.

When the digital age was born, that same 35mm was converted into what’s called a full-frame sensor.

At the time, producing full-frame sensors was quite expensive. As a result, to make digital cameras more affordable, the crop sensor was born.

Different cameras have different crop factors.  For example, an APS-C sensor’s lens only projects an image circle large enough to cover the smaller sensor. This in turn reduces the field of view by 1.5x

Field of View Comparison - Full Frame vs Crop Sensor
Field of View Comparison – Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

The Camera Crop Factor Explained

Without presenting a chalkboard of math like a scene from Good Will Hunting (1997) review the image below.

Crop Factor Equation Diagram
Crop Factor Equation Diagram – Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

If you take the diagonal length of the full-frame sensor (43.3mm) and divide it by the crop sensor APS-C’s diagonal length (28.2mm) you’ll get the crop factor of 1.5x

In addition, to figure out how to get the diagonal length of the frame, you use something called the Pythagorean Theorem: a squared + b squared = c squared

Pythagorean Theorem Diagram
Pythagorean Theorem Diagram

To get your diagonal frame measurement, you take the (√) square root of that sum total.

Too much? No Problem. Use this fast and easy focal length calculator app to quickly find your full frame equivalent with any camera and lens combination.

At any rate, it’s helpful to know there’s a method to this madness. Also, here is our camera crop factor cheat sheet for the most common brands.

Camera MakeType of Crop SensorCrop Factor
CanonAPS-C1.6x
NikonAPS-C1.5x
SonyAPS-C1.5x
PanasonicMicro Four Thirds2x
OlympusMicro Four Thirds2x
Camera Crop Factor Chart

Most camera brands also have acronyms to let you know whether a lens is designed for a full-frame or a crop sensor camera. Here’s a quick breakdown.

Lens MakeFull Frame LensCrop Sensor Lens
CanonEFEF-S
NikonFXDX
SonyFEDT or E
PentaxFADA
SigmaDGDC
TamronDiDi-LL  
Camera Lens Chart

Why Learn The Difference Between Full Frame and Crop Sensor?

Difference Between Full Frame and Crop Sensor

To be honest, it’s useful to know why and how things came to be. At the end of the day, understanding how your camera works will make you a better filmmaker.

Plus, if you’re on a film set, it’s a signal to professionals that you don’t know what you’re doing when it comes to the difference between full frame and crop sensor.

Still a bit confused? Watch this quick breakdown video explaining the difference between full-frame and crop sensor cameras.

Pros & Cons of Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

Crop SensorFull Frame
PriceCheaperMore expensive
SizeSmallerBigger
Depth Of FieldGood if using a telephoto lensBetter depth of field overall
ResolutionFewer megapixelsMore megapixels
ISOLower ISOHigher ISO
Image QualityGood qualitySlightly better quality
Wide AngleThe sameThe same
TelephotoShorter, lighter lensLonger, heavier Lens

There are several differences between a full frame and a crop sensor camera. However, keep in mind that professionals sometimes use both.

Ultimately your decision will be based on what you’re using the camera for. So let’s discuss the pros and cons of full frame vs crop sensor cameras when it comes to price, size, image quality, ISO, depth of field telephoto, and wide-angle performance.

Price

As mentioned before, full-frame sensors are much more expensive to make. When it comes to price there’s no contest. A digital crop sensor camera purchase won’t cost you your life savings. You can use that extra cash to add accessories to your camera kit.

Size

For the most part, the bigger the sensor, the larger the camera body and lenses. We give the crop factor camera the upper hand when it comes to keeping the payload light. If you’re a travel filmmaker or are unable to shoulder extra weight, the smaller crop factor system is the better choice. They also make great backup cameras.

Depth of field

  • A narrow depth of field means you have a blurry background like on a portrait
  • A large depth of field means you have a sharp background — Ideal for capturing wide-angle scened where you want most of the shot in focus

Full-frame cameras have the advantage when it comes to getting shallow depth of field.

However, if you want everything sharp and in focus like in a landscape or establishing shot, the crop sensor camera is a better way to go.

Resolution

First of all, image resolution is the number of megapixels that can fit onto the digital sensor. Full-frame sensors are slightly larger than digital crop sensor cameras, so they can technically fit more megapixels.

ISO

ISO is a way to control the light that enters your camera, to either darken or brighten the image. Each sensor has a sensitivity range of how it reacts to light.

Crop sensor cameras cram pixels into a smaller sensor area. When they are crammed into a smaller area, they have a harder time collecting light without noise. As a result, you compromise image quality in low-light conditions.

So, the bigger the sensor, the higher the ISO it can handle with less image quality compromise. In short, If you need to use high ISO settings, a full-frame camera will be the way to go.

Images Quality

Most people care a lot about image quality and can be the deciding factor. If everything is the same on both cameras then full frame will give you slightly better image quality.

Wide Angle

Because of the crop factor of a smaller sensor, many people believe that you have to use a full-frame sensor camera to get wide-angle shots. This is simply not true.

There isn’t a benefit between the two cameras when it comes to wide-angle shots. If you have a 16mm lens for a shot then you’ll need to use a 10mm on an APS-C crop factor (1.6x) to get the same 16mm shot.

Telephoto

When it comes to telephoto shots, this is one of the main pros of crop sensor cameras. This is because the crop sensor is cropping the image so the lens will appear to be zoomed in.

For example, if you want to fill the frame by capturing wildlife in the distance, you might need a 600mm lens with a full frame. When using a digital crop sensor camera, you only need a 400mm lens to capture the same subject at the same size.

In short, crop sensors allow you can zoom in tighter without having to get ultra-expensive lenses. 👍

Full Frame vs Crop Sensor  – Wrapping Up

So there you have it. Hopefully, this has cleared up some of the crop factor mystery.

In the end, both options have benefits, it just depends on your needs. But remember, they are just two different systems, one is not better than the other. You’ll be able to capture great content on both types of cameras. 

So don’t get bogged down with all of the pros and cons. The most important thing as a filmmaker is to focus on composition, lighting, subject, technique and your own vision.

Marcus VanWormer
Marcus VanWormer
I'm a meticulous filmmaker who has a diverse background in the field of film production and entertainment. My passion is storytelling.
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