Full Frame vs APS-C Cameras: Which Do You Need?

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Do you want to know the difference between full frame vs APS-C cameras? Are you struggling to decide which type of camera to buy?

Full Frame vs APS-C Cameras: Which Do You Need?

You’re not alone. APS-C vs Full Frame is a topic that’s been debated for years – with neither option coming out on top.

Because here’s the truth:

While beginners often think they need a full frame camera to succeed, APS-C cameras can perform better in a number of scenarios. And whether you’ll do better with an APS-C camera or a full frame camera has nothing to do with your level of professionalism. It has to do with your photography needs.

And in this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about two types of cameras APS-C and full frame. You’ll ultimately come away knowing the perfect camera type for you.

What is the Origin of Full Frame vs APS-C Cameras?

Back when film was popular, there were a number of well-known film formats: 35mm format, medium format, large format, and more. These could only be used by corresponding cameras. A medium format camera used medium format film, a 35mm camera used 35mm film, and so on.

These different film formats could be distinguished by their physical size; for instance, 35mm film was 36mm by 24mm.

Origin of Full Frame Sensors

35mm film was by far the most popular format, primarily because of its perfect size. It was small enough for easier to carry around a 35mm camera than medium or large format bodies. And, it was large enough to produce high-quality photos. This made 35mm cameras into highly desirable pieces of kit for professional and amateur photographers alike.

The origin of Full Frame sensor size is 35mm film format

In fact, the 35mm format was popular enough and so perfectly sized that many of the first digital cameras were 35mm, which was known as full frame. The sensors on these full frame cameras offered dimensions of 36mm by 24mm.

Origin of APS-C Sensors

This term – full frame – was defined in contrast to smaller, or APS-C, camera sensors. APS-C stands for Advanced Photo System type-C. It is equivalent in size to the Advanced Photo System film negative in its “Classic” format, of 25.1×16.7 mm, an aspect ratio of 3:2.

Related: What Camera Should I Buy? How Much Should I Spend?

These cameras featured sensors with a range of dimensions, often around 24mm by 16mm. Many digital cameras these days sport APS-C sensors because smaller sensors are cheaper to produce. Smaller sensors also require smaller camera bodies and smaller lenses, which results in more compact camera setups.

Confusion Surrounding Crop Factor

APS-C cameras include something called the “crop factor.” This simply refers to a “crop” effect created by the smaller sensor. When you shoot with an APS-C camera, the field of view is changed, creating the impression of a cropped photo.

For instance, if you shoot a bird at 100mm on a full frame camera vs an APS-C camera, the APS-C photo will look tighter. This is because the smaller sensor captures a smaller portion of the scene.

Placing a smaller sensor behind a lens doesn’t change its focal length. What changes, is the angle of view only.

Note that the focal length of your lens, while often described as “effectively” changed, doesn’t experience any real shift. Nor does the depth of field or the lens speed change. The only real change is the cropping of the sensor, which makes your lenses appear longer.

That said, having a smaller sensor can make a big difference to your photography:

Advantages of Full Frame Cameras

Full frame cameras, while more expensive than their APS-C counterparts, are known for their quality.

This is for a few reasons.

1. Better Low Light Performance

First, full frame cameras have more sensor space, so they offer larger pixels. Larger pixels means that each pixel can take in more light, which results in decreased noise (and better low light performance). Therefore, a full frame camera at 24 megapixels will outperform a crop sensor camera at 24 megapixels; the ISO performance will be better.

Full Frame sensors always outperform smaller sensors in low light situations

2. Wider Dynamic Range

Second, full frame cameras offer a greater dynamic range than APS-C cameras. While dynamic range is often hard to perceive, it manifests as the difference between the detailed whites and the detailed blacks in your photos. Full frame cameras are better able to render extreme tones in a scene.

3. Higher Resolution

Third, full frame cameras often have higher resolution than APS-C cameras. The larger the sensor, the more pixels that fit!

4. No Crop Factor

Fourth, full frame cameras don’t force you to deal with annoying crop factors. A crop factor makes your wide angle lenses less wide and makes your standard lens into telephotos. For some, it’s important to be able to shoot with the lens field of view that you initially purchased.

Related: Best Cameras for Low Light Photography

And speaking of wide-angle lenses, full frame cameras allow you to shoot wide angle lenses as true wide angle lenses. That way, you can capture sweeping landscapes without missing a beat.

Wide angle is always wide on Full Frame cameras

5. Better Lens Selection

Finally, the full frame lens selection is much broader than the APS-C lens selection. While you can use full frame lenses on APS-C bodies, camera manufacturers also offer APS-C lenses, such as Canon’s EF-S lens series.

Disadvantages of Full Frame Cameras

Full frame cameras are often great, but they sometimes fall short.

Why?

1. Higher Cost

First, full frame cameras and lenses tend to be hugely expensive. While there are some budget full frame cameras and lenses, they’re hardly cheap. Most beginner photographers just can’t justify the cost of a full frame option.

2. Bigger Size and Weight

And second, full frame cameras and lenses tend to be larger and heavier. This isn’t ideal for photography on the move: outdoor photography, travel photography, etc.

Advantages of APS-C Cameras

Depending on your needs, there are plenty of reasons why you should go for an APS-C camera:

1. Size and Weight

First, if size and weight are important characteristics to you, then I recommend going with an APS-C setup. Both the cameras and the lenses are smaller than their full frame counterparts, and therefore much more manageable. APS-C cameras are perfect for travel, hiking, and backpacking.

Compact Fujifilm combo is the perfect travel companion

2. More Attractive Cost

Second, APS-C cameras (and lenses) tend to be far cheaper than full frame gear. So if you’re on a budget, APS-C may be the way to go.

3. Longer Reach

Third, if you’re looking to shoot birds or wildlife, you’re going to need a lot of reach. Because of the crop factor, an APS-C camera will give you a 1.5x or 1.6x extension on your lens focal lengths. This can be invaluable for getting the close-up shots that bird and wildlife photographers love.

It can be advantageous to use APS-C cameras for wildlife photography

4. Larger Depth of Field

Finally, because of the way the crop factor works, it’s easier to achieve a deeper depth of field with APS-C cameras. If you want to get the entire scene sharp, you won’t have to stop down as much–which is fantastic for shooting in low light scenarios.

Disadvantages of APS-C Cameras

What are the downsides to APS-C cameras?

A few things:

1. Poorer Lens Selection

First, APS-C lenses just aren’t as plentiful as full frame lenses. There aren’t many high-quality APS-C lenses, though there are plenty of great full frame options.

2. Crop Factor Issue

Second, there’s no way of turning the crop factor off. When you shoot wildlife, the crop factor may be useful. But if you’re trying to photograph a beach sunset, the crop factor can be thoroughly annoying.

3. Lower High ISO Performance

Third, the low light performance of APS-C cameras just doesn’t match up with the low light performance of full frame cameras. So if you want to shoot genres such as astrophotography, a full frame camera is a better choice.

In optimal light conditions, APS-C cameras produce amazing results

APS-C vs Full Frame: Conclusion

This article described the difference between full frame and APS-C cameras, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.

As you should now realize, neither camera format is more valuable than the other. Deciding whether to go with a full frame or an APS-C camera should be based on your current needs as a photographer.

So think about what you want to photograph. Think about what you’d like to see in a camera.

And then choose a camera body and start photographing!

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Jaymes Dempsey

Jaymes Dempsey is a photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s obsessed with nature, and loves teaching people new photography tips and tricks. To see more of Jaymes’s work, check out his portfolio website (https://www.jaymesdempsey.com/) or his photography tutorial blog (https://www.jaymesdempsey.com/blog/).
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