When it comes to full frame vs crop sensor, which is best? How much does it matter? Is a full frame vs Crop Sensor the thing that takes you to the next level?
If you’re always critiquing your work, or worse comparing your work to others, you’re almost always going to find a reason to explain why you aren’t getting the results that you want or hoped for.
To borrow a phrase from the music community, “The tone is in the fingers.”
You can buy the same guitars, pedals, effects, and set up as The Edge (Come on guys. The Edge! From U2!), but you still won’t sound exactly like The Edge because...well, you’re not The Edge. You don’t have the unique personal quality that makes him, him. The exact quality that is his "tone."
“Eventually, I upgraded [to full frame] and do you know what happened? The only thing that immediately jumped to the next level was my ego.” —Chris Daniels
Likewise, no one else has your tone or unique quality. No one can replicate what you do and how you do it because they are not you! It took me a long time to learn to embrace this for myself, and it may take you a while as well. Once you do, it will start working for you rather than against you.
That doesn't mean the gear you choose doesn’t matter. Is absolutely has weight and goes hand-in-hand with your tone (Laura Partain explains this well), but it will not be the one thing to make you a better photographer or artist. That comes with time, practice, and patience.
Let's compare full frame vs crop sensors
Now let’s look at what some of the most immediate and practical differences are between a full frame sensor vs. a cropped sensor.
The Cropped Sensor:
The crop will be the most immediately noticeable difference.
This is where the term ‘crop sensor’ gets its name. Without getting too techy, the basic idea is that a cropped sensor will increase the focal length of the lens you’re using.
For example, if you’re using a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor camera, it will shoot closer to an 85mm lens. Usually, it’s around 1.5 x higher than the lens itself. So, a 50mm shoots like a 75mm, a 35mm shoots like a 52.5mm, and so forth.
The difference looks something like this:
Inside frame represents the same image taken with the same lens and from the same place. By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Ektar 100 preset
Depth of Field:
Shooting both crop and full frame at the same effective focal length will produce a slight difference in depth of field. A full frame sensor creates a more shallow depth of field compared to a crop sensor.
Another critical difference between the two sensors is the dynamic range. A full frame sensor does have a greater dynamic range and ability to capture details in highlights and shadows.
The difference may or may not matter a ton, depending on what and how you shoot. If you’re shooting a wedding and accidentally botch the exposure on a shot, you do have a higher chance of saving that image (especially shot in RAW), from a full frame sensor. If you’re a stickler for settings and that’s rarely an issue, then you may not need the dynamic range as a fail safe. But that’s just one example. Dynamic range has many other uses and advantages.
My Own Experience With Cropped vs. Full Frame
I shoot with many different cameras these days, and there are images still in my portfolio that I shot using a Canon T3i and a second rate lens (and I bet you can’t pinpoint them)! I have also shot entire bodies of work with a Fuji XPro2, which is a cropped, mirrorless camera.
The T3i was my first “big boy” digital camera. I pushed that thing to its limits and found its breaking points which were pretty damn extreme! I upgraded the glass and spent more on one lens than I did that camera. It took it to another level, and I pushed it further. I was certainly in the camp of thinking that the only way to get to the next level was to upgrade to a full frame sensor.
Eventually, I upgraded, and do you know what happened? The only thing that immediately jumped to the next level was my ego. Sure, I had a better tool for what I was doing, but I didn’t really use it that way until I realized that the new fancy camera didn’t instantly make me better. In that way, upgrading to a full frame was great for me. It showed me that it wasn’t the game-changer I thought it was and that I had to work harder. That’s an expensive way to learn, though. So if you’re in that camp, you and your bank account will be better off just to trust me on this one!
I've never heard a story where someone says, “I upgraded to a full frame camera, and then everything was perfect.”
We’ve all had the experience of taking a surprisingly good photo with our phone and then say to ourselves, “Damn. I wish I’d taken that on my pro-camera.” The camera is not what makes you a good photographer!
As a more experienced artist today, I reach for the tool that suits the job, my current need, or my latest curiosity.
I’ve shot professional jobs, editorials, and portraits with nothing but my Fujifilm X-Pro2. It doesn’t have the same dynamic range as my Canon 5D or the same creamy depth of field I get with the 5D and a 50mm 1.2, but I know what the Fuji camera does super well (and it loves Mastin Labs Presets)! When I want that quality in my images, I don’t hesitate to reach for it. Cropped sensor or not!
When I really need to push a photograph further or know that I’m going to be doing a fair amount of post-work, I’ll reach for my Canon 5D.
There are pros in either direction, and it just comes down to knowing what you want and need out of your equipment.
The biggest thing that can make a difference in your images is you! The more you practice shooting, editing, and connecting with your subjects, the better at all of those things you will be. If you’re looking to up your game, practice first. When it comes to taking your equipment to the next level, a full frame sensor is a great option, but my suggestion is to prioritize buying the best glass you can first.
I’d also recommend renting the camera or lenses that you’re considering upgrading. It’s a great way to find out how you really feel about using the new tools and how valuable they are for you.
Happy shooting, friends!