Crop Sensor vs Full Frame: What’s the Difference and Which Is Better?

When you’re deciding which digital camera to buy, one crucial choice you have to make (unless you can afford to splash out on a medium format model) is the one between full-frame and crop sensor.

But when it comes to full-frame vs crop, what's the difference? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

What are camera sensors?

When light passes through the lens on DSLR or mirrorless cameras, it projects what’s known as an image circle onto the recording medium.

Before the digital revolution, that medium was film – typically, 35mm film. In digital cameras, it’s a CCD or CMOS chip – basically a rectangular piece of light-sensitive silicon.

Photography crop sensor vs full

© Karl Taylor

Why is sensor size important?

Sensor size determines how much of the image circle is recorded. The larger the sensor, the more light it catches and the more image data it records.

As the name suggests, 'crop sensor' refers to a sensor that is smaller than the one inside a full-frame camera.

(The sensors in medium format cameras, somewhat confusingly, are significantly larger than full-frame sensors. For more on that, check out our class on 'Understanding Medium Format'.)

Crop sensor vs full frame: what's the difference?

In a full-frame camera, the sensor is 24mm high and 36mm wide, giving it a 3:2 aspect ratio. These dimensions, as well as the term ‘full frame’, derive from the days of film cameras – specifically, the fact that these sensors have the same dimensions as a single frame (or negative) on a roll of 35mm film. Hence the name!

In a crop sensor camera (or, to use its proper name, a cropped-frame sensor camera), the sensor is much smaller. Exactly how much smaller (known as the 'crop factor') can vary, and depends on the kind of crop sensor camera you’re using.

Full-frame vs crop sensor

© Karl Taylor

Now we’ve established the basic difference between full-frame and crop sensor, let’s dig a little deeper to help you figure out whether a full-frame camera or a crop-sensor camera will best suits your needs.

Crop sensor vs full frame: video

Full-frame sensor: pros and cons

Though they are typically favoured by professional photographers and come with many advantages, full-frame cameras aren’t necessarily the best choice for everyone.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of a full-frame camera.

Full-frame advantages

  • Wider angles. With a larger sensor, you can literally fit more light, more image circle and more of the world onto a full-frame sensor than you can onto a cropped one.
  • Larger photosites. Photosites are the tiny light collectors on a sensor that record the pixels in an image file. The larger photosites on a full-frame sensor mean you'll see less digital noise and diffraction in your images.
  • Greater creative control. The larger sensors on full-frame cameras allow for shallower depth of field, enabling you to achieve a blurred bokeh background effect that would otherwise depend on your lens and aperture settings.
Photography crop sensor vs full frame

© Karl Taylor

  • Better dynamic range. Another benefit of larger photosites is that they allow for a greater transitional tonal value, greater tonal accuracy and better colour accuracy.
  • Better performance in low light conditions. With a full-frame sensor, you’re less reliant on high ISO in darker conditions, which means you can shoot in low light without too much degradation of image quality.
  • Higher overall image quality. This is the main reason pro photographers favour larger sensors, and why once you have tried a full-frame camera with a full-frame sensor, and seen the results in the form of a higher quality image, it can be difficult to switch to cropped one.

Full-frame disadvantages

  • Heavier. Full-frame cameras tend to be bulkier and heavier than their cropped-sensor counterparts.
Taj sunset

© Karl Taylor

  • More expensive. Favoured as they are by professionals and devoted enthusiasts alike, full-frame sensors come with significantly higher price tags.
  • Larger files. Because larger sensors capture more data each time you press the shutter button, the resulting image files can be much bigger than those produced by a crop-sensor camera.

What To Consider When Buying a Camera: DSLR, Mirrorless, Medium Format, Full Frame, Crop Sensor?

If you’re feeling confused, trying to decide what camera’s best for you, then this video explains the first and most important steps to take before you head to your preferred camera store.
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Crop sensor: pros and cons

The most common crop sensor you’ll encounter is the APS-C. This stands for Advanced Photo System - Classic. Confusingly, the name carries over from the APS film format introduced in 1996, which has since been discontinued. APS film frames were 16.7mm tall and 30.2mm across – notably smaller than 35mm film.

APS-C sensors vary in size from brand to brand and camera to camera, so be sure to check the exact dimensions before you commit to a purchase. Their dimensions range from 13.8mm x 20.7 mm to 19.1mm x 28.7mm, but most are somewhere in the middle.

It’s worth noting that Canon APS-C sensors are very slightly smaller than those offered by most other well-known manufacturers, including Nikon, Pentax and Sony.

Brooklyn Bridge

© Karl Taylor

Though at first glance they may appear inferior to full-frame sensors, crop sensors do have some advantages.

Crop-sensor advantages

  • Lighter. Smaller sensors mean smaller, lighter cameras. If you’re out and about with your camera, and you’re also carrying lenses, tripods, and other gear, a lighter camera can be a real plus.
  • Zoomed-in view. Strictly speaking, a crop sensor is simply capturing a central section of what the full-frame sensor would capture, rather than actually magnifying what you see through the viewfinder. But by cropping out the outer regions of an image, cropped sensors create the impression of magnifying an image 1.6 times. This makes them...
  • Great for shooting at a distance. If you’re photographing, say, sports, wildlife or nature photos, or doing any other kind of telephoto photography, and need to hone in on particular subjects from far away, a crop sensor can be advantageous.

© Karl Taylor

  • More affordable. Smaller sensors cost less to manufacture, and those savings are passed on to you. If you’re on a tight budget, a crop-sensor camera is probably the way to go.
  • Smaller image files. Because they capture less raw data, crop sensors generate smaller image files than full-frame sensors do. This can be beneficial in terms of file management and storage capacity, especially if you’re on a budget.

Which DSLR Camera to Buy

There’s a huge range of DSLR cameras on the market. If you’re trying to decide which is the best for you, this article will help you cut through some of the confusion to reach a decision you won’t regret.
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Crop sensor cons

  • Tighter focal length. With the image circle hitting a smaller recording medium, your ability to capture wide-angle shots is definitely limited by a crop sensor. While you can compensate by using extra-wide angle lenses on crop-sensor cameras, you’re likely to get some distortion at the edges of your images.
  • Lower low-light performance. A cropped-frame sensor lets in less light than a full-frame one, which means you’ll need to crank up your ISO when you’re shooting in dark conditions. The result, unfortunately, is more noise.
  • Lower image quality. A smaller sensor means smaller photosites. This has consequences for dynamic range, tonal accuracy, and overall image quality.
Basketball paint splash

© Karl Taylor

Full-frame camera vs crop: final thoughts

In summary, if you can afford the higher price and don’t mind the extra bulk, a full-frame camera clearly offers major advantages. It's going to give you more creative freedom, more detail, and better results.

If a crop-sensor camera suits your budget better, you can absolutely still capture amazing photos.

One way to help yourself do that is to use full-frame lenses on your crop-sensor camera. Though the lenses built specially for crop sensors are perfectly fine, a good quality full-frame lens will be a great investment.

Not only will it enable you to capture a higher quality image every time – it will also likely hold its value longer than your camera!

Full-frame sensor vs crop sensor

© Karl Taylor

Another tip is to shoot raw whenever you can, something you can do with both full-frame and crop sensors. Raw image files are uncompressed and capture more data than JPEGs, giving you greater capacity to enhance and refine your shots in post-production.

Knowledge and technique are more important than equipment

Finally, always remember that idea beats gear! In other words, if you work on your technique, broaden your knowledge, and channel your creativity, you can keep improving as a photographer regardless of what kit you use.

However, if you're interested in the latest kit, Hasselblad's new X2D 100c boasts an impressive back-illuminated sensor which delivers astonishing results in these X2D test photoshoots.

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