A lot of photographers have been buzzing about full-frame cameras compared to APS-C cameras. If you have bought a mid-range DSLR in the past decade, chances are you already have an APS-C sensor and you might be wondering if you should upgrade to full-frame. Advances in technology have allowed full-frame cameras to become more accessible, so now many photographers are faced with a choice: APS-C or Full-frame? How do you decide?
In general, compared to APS-C cameras you’ll find that full-frame cameras:
- Produce less noise
- Have better image quality
- Have a more dynamic range
- Have a brighter viewfinder
- Give true focal lengths
- Have a shallower depth of field
- Are bulkier in size
- Are more expensive
- Have less options for lenses and lenses are more expensive
The choice between APS-C and full-frame cameras will often come down to personal preference and available budget, but photographers who have specific goals in mind should be familiar with the differences between the two systems and understand what advantages and disadvantages are inherent to each type of camera.
To learn more about what exactly makes these types of cameras different and what all the buzz is about, read on below for the full breakdown and comparison.
APS-C Versus Full-Frame: At a Glance
See the table below to get a break down of the main differences between these two systems before we dive into each feature in-depth.
|Average Sensor Size||22m x 15mm||36mm x 24mm|
|Image Quality||Smaller range, quality may suffer at high ISOs||Less noise, more dynamic range|
|Low light performance||Weaker, more noise||Better, less noise|
|Depth of Field||Deeper||Shallower|
|Angle of View||Narrower||Wider|
|Price point||More affordable||More expensive|
The exact differences between APS-C and Full-frame cameras are featured below. These features depend on your feature preferences and what you want to get out of your camera.
Full-Frame Cameras: Demystified
If you’re relatively new to the full-frame debate, you may be asking yourself what “full-frame” even means. According to Techradar, a full-frame camera is one that uses a sensor that is identical in size to a single frame of 35mm film. This means the sensor is 36mm by 24mm. In comparison, one of the more popular sizes of APS-C sensors only measures 22mm by 15mm.
APS-C sensors, also called crop sensors, are named from the antiquated APS film that was popular in the 1990s but is now discontinued. This film was only 24mm wide, so most APS-C sensors did not lose a significant amount of information when using this film. However, with 35mm film, APS-C has a significant crop factor (more on that later).
As the name implies, for full-frame cameras the sensor fills the entire frame of traditional 35mm film. Full-frame sensors tend to have more than 2.5 times the surface area of a standard APS-C sensor. This larger sensor allows for larger individual pixels, which permits better image quality.
The larger pixels are able to take in more light, which reduces image noise. These larger pixels are especially helpful when shooting in higher ISO settings, as higher ISO lends itself to noisier, grainy images. Full-frame sensors help reduce the risk of noise even in these extreme scenarios.
Image Quality Differences Between APS-C and Full-Frame
When it comes to overall image quality, full-frame cameras have a definite advantage over APS-C cameras. One of the most heavily touted benefits to having a full-frame camera compared to an APS-C camera is the better quality images.
As for resolution, APS-C and full-frame cameras are nearly identical thanks to today’s technology. What really sets the full-frame apart is the sensor. With a sensor that is over 2.5 times the surface area of a standard APS-C sensor, full-frame cameras are capable of having larger pixels and, in some cases, more pixels than APS-C cameras.
More pixels and larger pixels mean the sensor can take in more light, allowing it to get a more accurate reading of the scene and lowering the chance of digital noise. Digital noise occurs when the sensors of a DSLR aren’t able to get a sufficient amount of signal to reproduce an image. This most often comes down to how much light is able to reach the sensor.
The larger pixels of full-frame cameras also tend to produce a much finer level of detail in photographs. Since the sensor is larger, it also produces better, more accurate wide-angle shots since the field of view is larger. This can be helpful for anyone who prefers landscape or architectural photography.
In general, larger pixels and more pixels mean more opportunities for the sensor to absorb light. This makes the image quality of full-frame cameras superior to those of APS-C cameras, but sometimes this difference in quality is only truly of note in certain situations. Read on to find out more.
Low Light Performance of Full-frame Versus APS-C Cameras
The point in which image quality is remarkably different between full-frame and APS-C cameras is in low light settings. In low light settings, typically a photographer would boost his or her ISO setting in order to try to let more light reach the camera’s sensor. However, there is a limit where increasing the ISO past a certain point will start to degrade image quality.
Once the ISO setting is too high, the image will start to be plagued by noise. The amount of noise that begins to creep in with higher ISO settings is dependent upon the size of the sensor in the camera. The larger the sensor, the less noticeable the noise.
While APS-C cameras can perform well in low light settings and high ISO, a full-frame camera has the advantage of the larger image sensor. This means that the full-frame camera can be set to even higher ISO levels and still not betray much image degradation. The larger pixels capture more light and reduce unwanted digital noise.
The larger sensor also gives a more flexibility in settings involving points with high contrast, such as a scene with very dark shadows alongside bright highlights. This feature of full-frame sensors makes them ideal for anyone who tends to work in extreme settings, including low light.
Full-frame Sensors Have a Wider Dynamic Range than APS-C
If you’ve ever tried to take a photograph of a dramatic sunset only to feel disappointed that your photo doesn’t seem to capture the true majesty of the scene, the fault may lie with your camera’s dynamic range.
Dynamic range refers to the variance in light intensities of a scene. The bigger the difference between the shadows and the highlights, the broader the dynamic range. So, a scene such as a sunset has a wide dynamic range since it often includes areas of particularly bright rays of sunlight as well as the dark shadows of a horizon or the encroaching night sky. If your camera’s sensor isn’t well equipped, the contrast can be lost and the image feels washed out.
Full-frame sensors have a wider dynamic range than APS-C sensors. This means that when presented with an identical scene of dramatic contrast levels, a full-frame camera will do a better job at capturing the true light levels. Shadows will retain details, rather than appearing murky and black, while highlights won’t be washed out.
If you want to be able to capture the full range of brightness levels within a scene, the larger pixels of a full-frame sensor will allow for more accurate representation. You will be able to appreciate both the highs, lows, and mid-tones of a scene much more consistently than with an APS-C sensor.
The Shallow Depth of Field of Full-frame Sensors can Help or Hurt a Photographer
For certain situations, it is advantageous to have a narrow depth of field. A narrow depth of field will allow you to isolate a single subject and throw the background and foreground out of focus, drawing attention to a single point of interest. For portrait photographers, this is often ideal. The subject of the image is crisp and your attention is drawn immediately to it while the rest of the image is defocused.
Full-frame cameras have the capacity of giving a much more blurred background and narrower depth of field than an APS-C camera. While this can be helpful for portrait and macro photography, it can actually be a disadvantage for those trying to capture landscapes or broader scenes.
While the narrower depth of field of a full-frame camera might allow for more creative effects, the wider depth of field for APS-C cameras can be more versatile. An APS-C camera’s depth of field allows you to be further away from a subject and still fill the frame, giving a more zoomed-in and “close up” look, even when you can’t get closer to your subject. This is especially helpful for anyone photographing wildlife or sporting events.
Being able to maximize the depth of field allows a lot more flexibility, so APS-C cameras lend themselves well to landscape photography and studio photography, where you may want to ensure a sharp, focused scene across the entire frame.
Depending on what type of photography you like to take, the shallow depth of field inherent to full-frame cameras may be an advantage or a hindrance. Using differing lenses may let you achieve the desired effect, but keep in mind these are an additional cost. Be sure to weigh out this feature when deciding what type of camera is more suitable for your needs.
APS-C Cameras Are Subject to the Crop Factor Effect
APS-C sensors are also called crop sensors, with the reason being that the image sensors are smaller than the scene being captured, so the image is always automatically cropped to fit the sensor’s dimensions. Full-frame sensors, in contrast, are able to capture the entire scene.
When switching between lenses on an APS-C camera, the angle of view changes, and the sensor will not cover the entire image that is projected by the lens itself. This relation between the angle of view in comparison to a traditional 35mm full-frame camera is referred to as the crop factor, and all APS-C cameras have some form of it.
Due to the smaller sensor, APS-C cameras have a smaller angle of view and so the image will be cropped. Because of this, lenses on an APS-C camera will give a different angle of view than a full-frame camera. For example, a 24mm lens on an APS-C replicates the same angle of view as a traditional 36mm focal length. This is a real disadvantage for anyone wanting to capture wide, sweeping landscape photographs.
The lower the focal length number, the wider the angle of view. Higher focal lengths have a narrower field of view, so the subject will fill more of the frame. Since APS-C sensors result in an artificially higher focal length, the scene will be cropped but the subject will appear closer and larger. For a more in-depth, mathematical breakdown of how crop factor works, read more about it here at B&H Photo.
Sometimes, having a smaller angle of view is an advantage. If you are photographing distant subjects, such as an athlete on the basketball court or a grazing gazelle, an APS-C camera will allow you to feel much closer to the action and the subject will fill more of the frame. So, while it may not be desirable for anyone looking to capture the full extent of a landscape, APS-C cameras can be ideal for isolating a distant subject and centering attention on it.
Full-frame Cameras and APS-C Cameras Differ in Size
While a full-frame camera comes with a lot of potential advantages, one possible downside is the actual size of the camera itself. Full-frame cameras tend to be bigger and bulkier than their ASP-C counterparts. Even mirrorless full-frame cameras, which eliminate the sizable mirror box used in DSLR cameras, can still be fairly large.
Since APS-C cameras have a smaller sensor and smaller lenses, they are able to be much more compact in size. This can be a really convenient feature, especially if you like to carry multiple lenses with you and you have limited room in your camera bag.
The smaller, more portable size of APS-C cameras also make them more ideal for photography on the move, such as street photography or travel photography. APS-C cameras are also lighter weight than full-frame cameras, so they are easier to maneuver and won’t weigh down a travel pack.
Newer models of full-frame cameras are starting to reduce in size, but often this comes with a corresponding increase in price when compared to APS-C. In the future, there may be less of a difference in the body sizes of the cameras and it may no longer be a limitation of full-frame cameras.
Full-frame Cameras Are More Expensive than APS-C Cameras
Perhaps one of the biggest setbacks of a full-frame camera is simply the cost. Some camera manufacturers have started producing full-frame cameras at more reasonable price points, but on average even a high-end APS-C camera still tends to be less expensive than a full-frame camera.
A smaller sensor and a smaller camera size means that APS-C cameras are less expensive to produce and therefore easier on your budget. Even if you aren’t scared away by the price tag of a full-frame camera, you still need to take into account any potential additional costs.
Often, those who are serious about photography won’t stop with just buying a camera. In order to make the most of your setup, you’ll likely also buy additional lenses and filters and accessories, all of which can add up. When it comes to lenses, you might be startled to discover that some of the lenses for full-frame cameras are just as, if not more expensive as the camera itself.
For example, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens for Canon’s full-frame DSLR will run you about a thousand dollars. This is pretty notable, especially because you can buy a decent APS-C camera like the Nikon D5300 with a 18-140mm VR lens for about a hundred dollars less. So, if you buy a full-frame camera, keep in mind that buying additional lenses might cost as much as buying a new APS-C camera outright.
In addition, APS-C cameras simply have a wider variety of lenses available for purchase. Since APS-C cameras are intended more for amateur or intermediate photographers, there is a larger market of lenses available than for full-frame cameras. You’ll have a much easier time building up your photography kit with an APS-C, since there not only are more lenses on the market but they are also less expensive than those for full-frame cameras.
Reasons Why You Should Consider a Full-Frame Or APS-C Camera
Certain photographers will likely prefer features that are advantageous to the type of photography they pursue. If you are trying to decide, here’s a quick breakdown of which camera type lends itself better to the type of photography:
- Sports and wildlife photography: APS-C is better, able to fill the frame with distant subjects and has a wide depth of field.
- Architecture or landscape photography: Full-frame is better, has a larger field of view and is more capable for wide-angle photography.
- Night or low light photography: Full-frame is better, the larger sensor captures more light, allows for higher ISO with less digital noise, broader dynamic range.
- Street photography: APS-C is better, cameras tend to be lighter and more portable.
- Macro photography: APS-C is better, wide depth of field and narrow angle allows subjects to be large and in focus.
- Creative or artistic photography: Full-frame is better, with a narrow depth of field allowing for artistic experimentation and a broader dynamic range.
Preferred Full-Frame Cameras on the Market
If you’ve got your eye on a full-frame camera, there are a myriad of options available on the market today. While the prices can vary, some full-frame cameras are more easily accessible than others, even for amateur photographers.
The Canon EOS 6D Mark II is marketed as an “affordable” full-frame camera, but some might find its price point of around $1,400 still a little daunting. Its size is only slightly larger than an APS-C DSLR, however, so it might be appealing for anyone wanting a more portable full-frame option. The 6D Mark II has a remarkably fast autofocus and performs beautifully in low light settings. A fast frame rate also makes it more capable of capturing action shots.
The Nikon D850 is a powerful full-frame camera that delivers incredible detail, 4k video, and a continuous shooting speed that makes it excellent for sports photography. It’s wide range of features makes it ideal for a broad variety of photography styles, though, and is a great option for anyone looking for a full-frame camera that can do it all. At a price of nearly $3,000 for the camera alone, the Nikon D580 is an investment that may be well worth the cost in the long run.
If you’re looking for a truly stunning full-frame camera, look no further than Canon’s EOS-1D Mark III. It’s packed to the brim with the latest technology like a deep learning autofocus, uncropped 4K, and head tracking, what makes the EOS-1D Mark III truly remarkable is its optical viewfinder. It means the camera is mirrorless, allowing no chance of lag between what you see and what you capture. All these features come at quite a price, however: $6,499.00.
If the EOS-1D Mark III is out of your league, consider the Sony Alpha7 III. This camera has features that make it ideal for a number of photography styles. The sensor is backlit, which makes it adept at gathering light, and it has a built-in sensor stabilization. One helpful feature is Sony’s EyeAF, which uses technology to recognize eyes in humans and animals and automatically set the focus so you can have crisp, perfect portraits every time.
Preferred APS-C Cameras on the Market
Even though full frame cameras are getting a lot of attention these days, there is still a strong market for APS-C cameras. They are generally more affordable, have a wider range of lenses available, and are great for both beginners and professionals alike. I’ve rounded up a list of some of the favorites here.
If you are an absolute beginner, a great starting camera is the Canon EOS Rebel T100. The Rebel T100 boasts helpful features for photographers who are just starting out, like “intelligent” full auto modes and a score of scene modes that eliminate the immediate need to learn manual controls. What makes this camera the most appealing is the cost, however. At under $300, it’s a great investment for anyone who wants to try their hand at photography.
If you’re a little more serious about your craft and want a stunning APS-C to allow you to showcase your talent, Canon’s EOS 90D may be a better choice for you. It has 32.5 megapixels and a 10fps continuous shooting potential, as well as uncropped 4K video abilities. It’s on the higher end of APS-C cameras, coming in at a neat $1,199.
At just shy of $800, the Pentax KP is another great APS-C option and its compact size, weatherproof body, and adjustable grip makes it perfect for those who like to photograph on the go. The Pentax KP features a number of shooting modes, including those for depth of field bracketing and motion bracketing. It also features a 5-axis shake reduction and pixel shift resolution, allowing for crisp, beautiful high-definition photos.
Finally, the Nikon D7200 is an impressive APS-C DSLR that offers a lot of bang for your buck. Starting at $1,099, it has 24.2 megapixels, dynamic autofocus, and built-in Wi-Fi. With its 6fps capture rate, it is ideal for photography involving fast action, such as sports photography. It also has the ability to make time-lapse movies.
When it comes down to it, there are a lot of advantages to full-frame sensors that make them very appealing to professional and expert photographers. However, for many photography enthusiasts and hobbyists, the advantages of a full-frame camera may not be worth the expense when a less expensive APS-C can do the job.
APS-C cameras tend to be more compact and less expensive, but they suffer from image cropping due to the smaller sensor size and don’t perform as well in low-light situations or at high ISO settings.
Full-frame cameras offer more lighting versatility thanks to a wider dynamic range and a larger sensor, and the images are often better quality and have less noise. However, they are also more expensive and bulkier, and the lenses available are limited and high cost.