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    Full-Frame vs. APS-C Cameras: Which One Should You Buy?

    By June 16, 2020 June 23rd, 2020 Photography

    What is an APS-C and Full Frame Camera?

    The terms APS-C and full-frame refer to the physical measurements of the sensor inside the camera.

    Full-frame cameras have a standard measurement of 35 x 24mm. 

    APS-C has a smaller sensor size than a full-frame sensor and takes on two different sizes: 

    1. The traditional APS-C sensors, which measure around 23.6 x 15.6mm.
    2. The Canon APS-C sensor, which is slightly smaller than traditional APS-C sensors at 22.2 x 14.8mm.

    Below you can see how full-frame sensors compare to APS-C sensors. 

    Full-frame vs APS-C size

    APS-C vs. Full Frame Cameras

    1. Image Quality

    Camera sensors influence image quality in two ways: 

    1. Resolution 
    2. Noise

    1. Resolution

    Both APS-C cameras and full-frame cameras deliver high-quality images.

    But full-frame cameras offer a higher resolution because their larger sensors allow for more pixels. 

    Having a higher resolution is beneficial on two occasions:

    1. If you print your pictures 
    2. If you crop your images (the additional resolution will the quality of your image even after you crop your image.)

    2. Noise

    Larger pixels mean less noise. 

    And full-frame cameras typically have larger pixels than APS-C cameras.

    So full-frame cameras tend to produce less apparent noise than an APS-C camera. 

    The Sony A7 full-frame camera, for example, has 24.3MP.

    For an APS-C camera to have the same pixel size, it would need to have 2.3x fewer pixels than a full-frame camera. 

    But, while this would improve image noise, it would reduce the resolution and detail in an image. 

    The only way for an APS-C camera such as Sony A6400  to have the same amount of pixels as Sony A7 is to use smaller pixels (24.2MP).

    2. Low Light Performance

    There are two important factors that determine how a sensor performs in low light: 

    1. Sensor Size 
    2. Pixels Size

    1. Sensor Size 

    Full-frame cameras tend to perform better in low light conditions than APS-C cameras. 

    This is because they have more than 2x larger sensors than APS-C cameras. 

    The sensors’ larger surface area allows them to collect more light.

    2. Pixel Size

    While each pixel on a sensor generates the same amount of noise, they record different amounts of light. 

    SNR is the ratio between the light and noise gathered in the same pixel.

    For example, if a pixel collects ten photons of light and one particle of noise, it will have an SNR of 10:1.

    The higher the SNR, the less apparent noise will be when using a high ISO.

    Since full-frame cameras typically have larger pixels, they collect more light and produce a higher SNR.

    That means there will be less visible noise at all ISO values on full-frame cameras than APS-C cameras. 

    3. Size and Weight

    One of the major disadvantages of full-frame cameras is that they are typically larger and heavier than APS-C cameras. The only exception to this is mirrorless cameras.

    For example, the Nikon D7500 APS-C camera weighs about 1.6 pounds while the full-frame alternative the Nikon D850 weighs about 2.2 pounds. 

    And if we compare the Nikon D7500 and the D850, the D7500 is ½ inch shorter and ½ inch narrower than the D850

    Overall, by going with an APS-C camera, you can save at least 1 inch in size and over ½ a pound in weight. 

    4. Lense Options

    There are a few things to consider when choosing lenses for full-frame and APS-C sensors. 

    1. Crop Factor 
    2.  Price 
    3. Size and Weight
    4. Availability 
    5. Compatibility 

    1. Crop Factor 

    full frame vs APS-C

    Legend Full-frame vs APS-C

     

    One of the biggest differences between full-frame sensors and APS-C sensors is the crop factor, as shown in the image above.

    The crop factor gives you a narrower field of view for the same focal length than a full-frame sensor would. 

    APS-C sensors have a crop factor of 1.5x or 1.6x, while full-frame sensors have no crop factor. 

    The crop-factor on an APS-C means that the focal length of your lens is not an accurate measure of the field of view you are shooting in. 

    To determine the real field of view, you need to calculate your effective focal length. 

    The effective focal length gives you the actual focal length of the lens on your sensor. 

    To determine the effective focal length, you would multiply the focal length by the crop factor. 

    For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm on a Nikon APS-C sensor, the effective focal length is 75mm. 

    This means that a 50mm lens on an APS-C sensor has the same field of view as a 75mm lens on a full-frame camera.

    Likewise, to create the same field of view a 50mm does on a full-frame sensor on an APS-C sensor, you need a 34mm lens. 

    If you are shooting with an APS-C camera and prefer shooting wide-angle scenes, the crop-factor is a disadvantage because you need to use wider lenses to produce the same field of view. 

    Even with a wider-lens, the wide-angle view full-frames offer is hard to recreate with an APS-C sensor. 

    On the other hand, if you prefer to shot with telephoto lenses such as wildlife and sports photography, the crop-factor can be an advantage. 

    This means you will need shorter focal lengths to create the same images that a full-frame does. 

    2. Price

    APS-C lenses are typically less expensive and more compact than full-frame lenses. 

    A prime example of this is the Canon 24mm f/2.8 lens. 

    The full-frame option of the Canon 24mm f/2.8 lens costs $549, while the APS-C option only costs $129

    The crop frame lens is $420 cheaper than the full-frame counterpart. 

    Cheaper APS-C lenses contribute to the overall cheaper nature of owning APS-C cameras compared to full-frame cameras. 

    3. Size and Weight

    APS-C lenses are not only cheaper but also lighter and more compact. 

    Using the same Canon 24mm f/2.8 lens as above, the APS-C version is only 4.4 ounces, while the full-frame option is 9.9 ounces. 

    APS-C lenses are also more compact than full-frame lenses. 

    The APS-C lens is only about 0.9 inches, while the full-frame option is only 2.2 inches. 

    The pattern holds true for most camera brands, APS-C lenses are typically lighter and more compact then full-frame lenses. 

    4. Availability

    APS-C sensors also have a larger selection of lenses than full-frame cameras.

    This is especially true for zoom lenses, you can often find lenses with ranges that are not offered by full frame lenses.

    This means that you will be able to experience a greater range of focal lengths at a cheaper price with an APS-C camera.

    5. Compatibility

    For most camera brands, you can use APS-C and full-frame lenses interchangeably. 

    Although you can use these lenses interchangeably, it doesn’t mean you should. 

    Most photographers and camera manufacturers don’t recommend you use APS-C lenses on your full-frame camera. 

    One of the main reasons is that you don’t use the full capabilities of your camera. 

    Due to the crop nature of APS-C lenses, you will only use an APS-C-sized portion of your lens when taking photos. 

    Another reason that you should avoid using APS-C lenses on your full-frame camera cameras is that they vignette the corner of your images. 

    Vignetting is especially strong at shorter focal lengths than at longer focal lengths. 

    Most cameras have a crop-frame mode that will only take a photo using an APS-C sized portion of your sensor. 

    Using APS-C mode on your full-frame camera is an effective way to extend your focal length if you don’t have a long enough lens. 

    You could also use your full-frame lenses on your APS-C camera, but this is a less common option. 

    This is a less likely option because most people don’t upgrade to a full-frame camera then go back to their APS-C. 

    It is important to note that using a full-frame lens on your APS-C sensor will still only give you a crop-view. 

    The only difference when using a full-frame lens on an APS-C sensor is that you get the higher quality optics often associated with full-frame lenses. 

    Lenses are made for a specific sensor, whether it is APS-C or full-frame. 

    For the best results, always use the correct lens on your camera. 

    Keep in mind that it is better to take a photo with a mismatching lens on your camera than not to capture the image at all. 

    5. Depth of Field

    Depth of field is one of the most important features you can use to achieve your photographic goals. 

    APS-C and full-frame sensors create different depths of field. 

    APS-C sensors produce a deeper depth of field than full-frame cameras. 

    This is only true if you use the same aperture and field of view. 

    To achieve this, you will need to adjust your focal length and shooting distance to create the same composition using a full-frame and APS-C camera. 

    This is one of the greatest features of APS-C cameras because, for the same aperture value, you can capture a deeper depth of field while letting in more light than a full-frame camera. 

    Full-frame sensors, on the other hand, produce wider scenes with a deeper depth of field. 

    Without adjusting for composition, the same aperture on a full-frame lens will produce a deeper depth of field. 

    Full-frame cameras are great for producing wide images with the entire frame in focus. 

    They are also very effective at creating smooth bokeh effects in your images. 

    6. Dynamic Range

    The size of the pixels on your sensor is directly related to a sensor’s dynamic range. 

    Larger pixels produce images with a wider dynamic range than smaller pixels. 

    Since full-frame cameras typically have larger pixels, they produce images with a wider dynamic range than APS-C sensors. 

    Larger pixels allow you to record exposure and colors more accurately than smaller pixels.

    DxO Mark has a great comprehensive analysis where he ranks cameras on a scale of 0 to 100 based on a dynamic range. 

    Based on their analysis, you can see that full-frame cameras consistently rank higher than APS-C cameras. 

    But, in recent years, the discrepancy between the dynamic range offered by APS-C and full-frame sensors has decreased drastically. 

    Dynamic Range Comparison full frame vs aps-c

    In the chart you can see that since 2012 full-frame cameras have seen little improvement in overall dynamic range performance. 

    On the other hand, APS-C cameras have experienced a significant increase in the dynamic range score.

    The trend shows that there are APS-C dynamic range scores are increasing since 2012. 

    In 2019 alone, two of the cameras released had a score dynamic range score of 80, which is on par with some full-frame cameras.

    When Should You use a Full-frame Camera?

    1. Superior Image Quality

    If your main concern is capturing tack sharp photos with extreme detail, full-frame cameras are the best option. 

    Full-frame cameras produce images with superior image quality than APS-C cameras. 

    Their larger sensors and pixels produce images with finer detail and less noise. 

    Full-frame cameras also produce images with a wider depth of field. 

    This allows you to capture images with greater color and tonal accuracy than APS-C cameras. 

    The superior image quality allows you to create high-quality images for both a digital display and large prints. 

    2. Wide Angle Shots  – Landscape, Street, and Architecture Photography

    Golden Gate Bridge with Marshall's Beach at Sunset, San FranciscoFull frame cameras also offer a wide field of view that typically can’t be matched by APS-C cameras. 

    This makes them ideal for landscape, street, and architecture photography. 

    These types of photography benefit from a wide field of view that captures the entire scene. 

    Another benefit of full-frame cameras is that it creates a deeper depth of field and makes it easier to place your entire frame in focus. 

    3. Low Light and Night Photography

    Aurora Borealis, Lofoten islands, Norway. Nothen light, mountains and frozen ocean. Winter landscape at the night time. Norway travel - imageYou should use a full-frame camera if you are shooting at night or in low light photography. 

    The larger sensors on full-frame cameras allow you to capture brighter images for the same exposure settings. 

    Also, since full-frame cameras produce less noise, they are perfect when using high ISO values. 

    Full frame cameras will allow you to capture night photos with less noise and lower ISO values. 

    4. Creative Flexibility

    creative use of full-frame cameraThe beauty with full-frame cameras is that they give you full creative flexibility. 

    They are capable of producing tack sharp images with your entire frame in focus, and they can also create that smooth bokeh effect. 

    Full-frame cameras also give you the ability to capture ultra-wide scenes and telephoto scenes without losing any image quality. 

    Full Frame Camera Recommendations

    Model TypeMPBudgetPrice
    Nikon D850DSLR45.7HighCheck Price
    Nikon D750DSLR24.9MidCheck Price
    Nikon Z7Mirrorless45.7HighCheck Price
    Canon EOS RPMirrorless26.2MidCheck Price

    When should you use APS-C cameras? 

    1. Inexpensive High-Quality Camera 

    APS-C cameras are a great option if you want to capture high-quality images but don’t want to spend a fortune on a full-frame camera. 

    For comparison, high-quality APS-C cameras such as the Sony A6400 and Canon 7D Mark II only cost around $1,000. 

    On the other hand, equivalent full-frame cameras such as the Nikon D750 and the Canon EOS R cost around $1,500. 

    Keep in mind that high-end full-frame cameras cost upwards of $2,000. 

    2. Telephoto Photography 

    wildlife photography

    If you prefer shooting with telephoto lenses, APS-C sensors are better due to the crop factor of APS-C cameras. 

    The crop factor of APS-C cameras is works especially well when shooting wildlife or sports photography. 

    It will allow you to shoot close-up images with shorter focal lengths than full-frame cameras. 

    3. Compact and Lightweight Option 

    APS-C cameras are also a great option if you are looking for a compact and lightweight camera that can still deliver exceptional results. 

    While APS-C cameras can’t deliver the image quality that full-frame cameras do, it will still provide quality images.

    4. Macro Photography

    Macro Photography of Water Drops

    APS-C cameras are also a great option for macro photography since they offer a deeper depth of field. 

    The crop factor of APS-C sensors allows you to use shorter focal lengths to capture your macro photos. 

    APS-C Camera Recommendations 

    Model TypeMPBudgetPrice
    Nikon D500DSLR21HighCheck Price
    Nikon D7500DSLR21MidCheck Price
    Canon EOS Mark IIMirrorless20.2HighCheck Price
    Sony A6400Mirrorless24.2MidCheck Price

    About The Author

    Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.

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