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Full Frame vs. Crop Frame Sensors: What is crop factor?

There’s a lot of buzz from the pros about wanting a full-frame camera. As a result, people new to the industry may wonder – what’s a full frame camera and why do I want one?

A full-frame sensor is one that is considered equivalent to the 35mm cameras of the film days. It captures the full image nearly identically to what those film cameras captured – about 24mm x 36mm. Problem is, those cameras are expensive.

Most entry-level or prosumer cameras are crop-frame sensors. They have a crop factor already built into the image in comparison to a 35mm camera. Why does this matter and why is this not desirable?

Well, it’s not necessarily undesirable – particularly if you don’t intend to print huge images. It’s honestly a matter of preference and budget and there are some situations in which the crop-frame sensor may be an advantage to you. Don’t tell the pros I rained on their parade – but if you shoot primarily wildlife or nature or if you prefer a more tightly-cropped portrait you may actually prefer a crop-frame sensor, especially if you don’t intend to print huge images. And especially if you don’t want to drop $$$ on a camera.

Crop is NOT a four-letter word.

Okay, well, it does have 4 letters, but you know what I mean.

Why does it matter? Well, besides the obvious that it’s a smaller sensor? It’s because it changes the way your lenses behave. The distance of your lens, given in mm, won’t be the same if you have a crop-frame sensor camera. And in today’s current market, the most common crop factors are 1.5x, and 1.6x.

So if you buy the 50mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.4 lens and you have a crop-frame sensor, you are actually shooting at:
50mm x 1.5 = 75mm or
50mm x 1.6 = 80mm

Likewise, if you put an 85mm lens on a crop frame sensor, the result will appear as if you’re shooting at a focal distance of 127.5 – 136mm. That’s a totally different ball game! An important note here: the focal distance does not change, only the field of view changes – giving the illusion of focal distance when you print at equivalent sizes.

How to determine if you have a full frame or crop frame sensor.

Full frames cameras offered by Nikon: d700, d3 series
Full frame cameras offered by Canon: 5d mark II, 1D series (actually uses 1.3x but still labeled “full frame”)

The remainder of the Nikon cameras – called the DX series – crop at 1.5x. Canon crops at 1.6x.

crop factor full frame vs crop frame sensor cameras

Entire image = full frame: what the 35mm film, Nikon d700 & d3, and Canon 5d Mark II will capture
Green = 1.3x: what the Canon 1D series will capture
Red = 1.5x: what the Nikon DX sensors and equivalents will capture
Blue = 1.6x: what the Canon crop sensors and equivalents will capture

Does the crop sensor actually magnify my images?

No – it just appears to if you print comparable images. Imagine you printed each of the red, green, blue, and full images above as an 16×20 or 16×24 inch canvas. If the full frame prints at 1:1, the others would actually need to stretch to fill the same print size. Therefore it will appear to zoom in, or magnify your image since less of the image covers the same size print. The crop frame simply prints a smaller portion of the same image.

If you are trying to zoom in on a deer in the forest – appearing closer to the animal may be a feature rather than a hinderance. But the pros want full frame because of that 1:1. The result will be sharper images with more information – generally speaking – when printed at the same print size.

It’s even more obvious in the following example:

crop factor portrait

Printed at an equal size would result in 3 very different portraits.

But here’s where the real difference lays:
Full frame sensor camera generally start at $2500 for the body while you can get a crop frame sensor for under $500. Having a full frame camera allows you to crop if you wish to achieve the same crop factor, but doesn’t force a crop if you don’t want it. This 1:1 and more pixel information is why pros want full frame dSLRs.

Which camera are you currently wishing for?

Comments

  1. Darcy! You never fail to answer my questions just when I start to wonder. Just yesterday I was asking myself…really, what is a full frame camera and why would I want one? This post is perfect. Also just discovered back button focusing…would love to hear your take on that! Thanks again for the great information.

  2. I just got a Nikon D7000 and I LOVE it. It’s a DX, but since standard proofs are 4×6 and it shoots to that ratio, I feel there was less of a transition from my F75 (35mm). I LOVE it. Also – I have revisited a lot of your tutorials. Thank you!

  3. Very timely – I was trying to decide between an upgrade of my body (hehe) to a D700 – I currently shoot on a D200 – OR get the new AF-S 85mm 1.4g. I want the better ISO handling and the FX – but when it came down to it, I wanted the lens more. So happy with my decision! That is a hunka hunka burnin lens! The camera will happen eventually, but I am livin large at the moment. 🙂

  4. I suppose Im wishing for a 5dMII… because I tend to always want the “bigger and better” (its a fault that im working on.) BUT the truth is I dont use my rebel t1i to the max yet and would rather have a new lens or 2 given the option 🙂

  5. You always manage to explain things so clearly Darcy. I will always have this at the back of my mind now, when I am deciding on my shot. So now what I’m wondering is when I take a look at my shot in my editing program. It is showing me the cropped shot already or does that just happen once you send it off to be printed?
    Dana

    • If you have a crop sensor – you will only ever see / capture the crop.

      • That was sort of my question too… when you’re looking through the view finder what you see is what you get, right? But basically it just means you’re zoomed in more than you “should” be based on your focal length. Right? 🙂
        Came over from 5MinutesforMom. Thanks for the info!
        I’m hoping to upgrade my d50 to my father-in-laws d200 soon! He got a new one and will sell me his at a knock off price! And he’s meticulous!

        • Yes – what you see is what you get. It’s not a true zoom – it just appears that way when printed on equal size canvases.

          The d200 is a great camera!

  6. Thanks for that. I’ve been wondering about that and couldn’t find any good “plain English” explanations.

    I’m currently researching my first dslr and trying to decide between the D90, T2i, and 60D. SO HARD to choose.

  7. I’ve read a lot of explanations about crop factor, but once again, yours is the clearest of all. Thanks. I’m a hobbyist and can’t imagine laying down the funds for a full-frame camera. But I do like understanding the difference!

  8. Love that you posted this. I actually had a discussion about this yesterday… I shoot with a T1i, which is a Canon consumer camera. I print large canvas prints, posters, and the smaller. Thus far, the in-camera crop hasn’t mattered at all – the resolution is incredible, so I’m satisfied. I had all Nikon, but when it was time to upgrade, Canon offered the resolution for less cost.

  9. I hired a Canon 5D Mk11 for a little wedding at the end of last year and the quality of the images compared to what I get on my 50D were incredible. Unfortunately I’ve been spoiled now and really want one for myself!

  10. thank you for clarifying!

  11. Thank you for writing this! I’ve been wondering what the *real* difference between full and crop frame was for a while and never could find an answer in lamens terms. I’m looking to upgrade my Canon and was debating on whether to go with the 7D or just save a little longer and go full frame with the Mark ii. Since I’m not really doing professional work now, I’m probably going with the 7, but this makes sense for future references. Thanks again for sharing!

  12. Thanks for writing it out. Makes me understand it a lot easier.

  13. As you know, I have no clue on what I’m doing…

    I use a D60 for personal, and a D80 at work. I’ve been researching the D7000, but seeing the D700 intrigues me. I’m soo undecided. But this post helped my husband understand the differences.

  14. Thanks for such a thorough & yet understandable explanation. One related question: does the viewfinder image on a crop frame camera match the crop size or do I need to be mindful of a difference between what I see in the viewfinder and what the final pic will look like?

  15. If you had been my photography teacher in high school I wouldn’t have gotten a D-. Your explanations are so easy to understand.

    I’d love a 5D one day.

  16. I am very happy with the 7D I got for my birthday last week. I thought I wanted a Canon 5D because I hate having to back up into another room to get grown-ups into the frame indoors. But I couldn’t justify the extra $1000 for the camera body for a hobby.

  17. I have soured through the world wide web so a broken down plain english explanatoin of this. You NAILED it. thank you so much. I currently shoot with a t2i but I will be investing in a 5DMII by next year. I plan to rent one for an even this summer though. I am super excited.

  18. I have soured through the world wide web so a broken down plain English explanation of this. You NAILED it. thank you so much. I currently shoot with a t2i but I will be investing in a 5DMII by next year. I plan to rent one for an even this summer though. I am super excited.

  19. wehelmina says:

    hello… i have a canon 60d, i would want to have a quite cheap all around lens for it. i am just starting in photography and very interested on it, and pursue it in the near future either as a career etc.I plan to upgrade also my dslr if I am ready. I am confused because of the crop factor of my current camera, and it is compatible with ef-s and ef lens, if I will buy an ef-s lens will it fit with the much higher end dslr of canon like 7d, 5d’s, or 1d”s? and what will be the out come of my photos if I will just buy and ef lens, will it fit my canon 60d?

    thank you

    • I apologize, but I am unfamiliar with Canon equipment – I’ve never used any before. Perhaps someone else can weigh in on those brand-specific questions.

      Good luck. 🙂

  20. Thank you Darcy for the well-written explanation! I’m beginning to get a glimmer of understanding..
    It seems to me that there is no “problem” or issue when using a crop frame camera. If you want more in your picture you just back up or wide-angle, etc. to get more in your picture. Right? I guess if you were standing side by side with an ff photographer you might say, “wow – you can capture a bigger area than I can! I have to back up to get that much in my frame.”
    Am I understanding that right?
    Thanks for your help!

    • The proportions are also different. Crop cameras shoot in a 4:5 ratio. This is the same ratio is an 8×10. Full frame cameras shoot in a 1:1.5 ratio. This would print like an 8×12 for comparison.

      Hope that helps. 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Darcy @ m3b, Angela Mills. Angela Mills said: RT @my3boybarians: Full Frame vs Crop Frame dSLRs: What is Crop Factor? http://twurl.nl/tjjh6y #tog #photography […]

  2. […] full versus crop bodies? Instead of trying to explain myself, I am referring you to the brilliant Darcy at My3Boybarians, where she wrote a very helpful post explaining that very […]

  3. […] You’ll have to know the make and model of your camera – why? Because full-frame and crop-frame cameras have different formulas. Crop-frame cameras already have a 1.5 to 1.6 magnification factor. You can read more about crop factor on my post, Full Frame vs. Crop Frame Sensors: What is Crop Factor? […]