Sensor Size Matters, but Do You Need a Full Frame Camera?

Sensor size is one of the most fundamental and influential aspects of a camera, and often, when you buy into a certain camera system, you are committing yourself to a certain sensor size unless you spend a lot of money to switch systems again. So, what is the right sensor size for your work? This excellent video discusses why sensor size matters and what the right choice for your wants and needs is.

Coming to you from Mike Smith, this great video discusses the different effects sensor size has on your photos and which is the right one for you. No doubt, full frame is thought of as the professional standard for most work, offering all the benefits of a larger sensor (all other things equal), such as narrower depth of field, better dynamic range, and more without getting into the expense and more niche equipment required by medium format. That being said, crop sensor cameras have made remarkable progress in the last few years, with Fujifilm's X Series in particular being recognized for offering professional-level image quality and performance in a very portable and affordable package. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Smith.

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15 Comments

Tom Reichner's picture

I think that for those who like to make big prints from a single exposure, full frame accomplishes this better in most scenarios than smaller sensors do.

For me, I like to be able to take a frame-filling action shot of a running deer or flying bird and print it big - like 60" by 40". This expands my options when it comes to how an image can be used. And people DO NOT view big prints from a further distance than they view smaller prints - that is a myth.

So when someone stands 3 feet away from a 48" by 32" print, or from a 60" by 40" print, and closely looks at the intricate hair and/or feather detail of the subject, I think that detail will be better resolved and more pleasingly rendered if it was captured on a full frame sensor than it would be if it was captured on an APS-C sensor or a micro four thirds sensor.

And no, we can't use composites when shooting fast action sequences of running mammals or flying birds ... so sensor size of the original capture really does matter.

Lawrence Jones's picture

"And people DO NOT view big prints from a further distance than they view smaller prints - that is a myth."
LOL- people don't conform to arbitrary standards. You weren't supposed to tell.

Stuart C's picture

Surely if the focus of someones attention is 'intricate hair and feather detail' in a shot, then the overall photograph needs to be better.

Matt Edwards's picture

That's a ridiculous statement. Feather detail for example is one of the most important aspects of bird photography. People want to see detail in wildlife photography, because it is usually detail they have never been able to see in real life. Seeing a wild animal in vivid detail is a pleasing and important aspect of wildlife photography.

Stuart C's picture

You should change that to ‘some’ people…. Because the fact is ‘most’ people are just interested in viewing the image in its entirety.

All your comment is doing is proving the theory that bird photography attracts the most gear oriented of photographers, who seem to think they are a majority, when in fact it’s a minority, thankfully.

Matt Edwards's picture

I have found that a crop sensor camera paired with a nice telephoto lens has been an excellent combo for wildlife photography, specifically because the cropping aspect helps effectively increase the range of the telephoto lens. You can do the same with many FF cameras with a crop mode in the camera settings.

I do however think the way FF sensors handle ISO is helpful in low light settings.

Kurt Hummel's picture

The sensor doesn't increase your range, it only changes the field of view.

Matt Edwards's picture

I suppose that is why I said "effectively". You have a cropped image that at 300mm is the same view you would have at 450mm with an FF sensor. The semantics of this issue gets old, I think everyone who has any familiarity gets the concept at this point.

Tom Reichner's picture

Actually, Kurt, crop sensors usually do increase one's range, or "reach", when compared to equivalent full frame sensors.

"Reach" is normally defined as "pixels on target" or "pixels on the subject" in the context of wildlife photography. And the higher end crop sensors cameras, the pixel density is much greater than it is in most of the full frame sensors.

It really has everything to do with how many pixels you can put on the subject itself, from a given distance with a given lens at a given focal length. By and large, the better crop sensor cameras put more pixels on the subject than full frame sensor cameras do, with very few exceptions.

It has everything to do with pixel density, and nothing to do with angle of view. If most full frame sensors had the same pixel density as the better crop sensors,then what you said would be completely accurate in any and every context. But until 80 megapixel full frame sensors are the norm, then crop sensors will give more "reach", or "range", than full frame sensors do.

Morgan Bowle-Evans's picture

Exactly, take a Sony a6xxx and an a7iii, both have the same megapixels so when you put a FF lens on a a6xxx it is effectively "zoomed" 1.5 times, no resolution lost.

Toma Paunovic's picture

APS-C is definitely good enough for most applications, but supposed benefits of smaller size and price saving are no longer true imho. Biggest issue with crop sensor systems is, once you factor in equivalence in terms of FoV and DoF, all savings in terms of size and price quickly melt away. Generally FF F4 zooms are cheaper and smaller than APS-C F2.8 zooms, and same goes for FF F1.8/F2 vs APS-C F1.2/F1.4 primes. Similar goes for camera bodies as well.

Some saving can be made for low end APSC bodies or kit lenses, simply because there is no FF equivalent.

Tom Reichner's picture

Toma Paunovic said,

"Biggest issue with crop sensor systems is, once you factor in equivalence in terms of FoV and DoF, all savings in terms of size and price quickly melt away."

I love that you said this, Toma!

I read so much where people say how crop sensors or micro four thirds are just as good as full frame, and that they can do everything that full frame sensors can do just as well.

But I think they are forgetting to factor in the necessary equivalence, particularly with regards to aperture as it relates to depth of field. Many of these folks speak as though they think that f2 on a MFT sensor is the same as f2 on a full frame sensor ..... which of course is so very far from the truth.

Toma Paunovic's picture

Yeah, people often make that mistake, most likely in order to defend their purchase. This is most evident with Fuji, because they have large aperture and expensive APS-C lenses. So you can have Fuji 56 1.2 vs FF 85 1.2 comparison which end like "full frame has much shallower DoF but Fuji is good enough and also half the price and weight and therefore the right choice". But if they've compared 56 1.2 vs FF 85 1.8, it would be evident that end result is the same while FF lens is much cheaper and often lighter too.

David Purton's picture

Simples really. Bigger sensor, less dof for same aperture as the focal length for similar angle of coverage is longer...standard lens, as we know, is 35mm for aps, 50mm for FF and in film days...80mm for mf and 150mm for 5x4, etc. The standard lens focal length for any format is roughly equivalent to the format diagonal dimension.

The other benefit of larger sensors is larger pixels. Larger pixels = less noise/better high iso performance. This is salient. Resolution is determined by pixel count, image quality by pixel size. Which is why a phone with 45mp may have the same resolution as a Nikon 850 but dont try shooting at high iso on the phone and expect it to compare with the dslr, particularly on large prints.

The arguments for format choice are identical to the days of film...disc camera (phone) to sheet film (digital mf)..?

Sean Egan's picture

Not surprising that a bunch of guys are arguing whether size matters and that it's really how you use it