Full Frame or Cropped Sensor – Which Should I Get?


A long time ago, in the days of film when life was simple and you had no choice all cameras shot with 35mm film. Actually that’s not entirely true because there were and still are various film sizes but the 35mm became probably the most widely known and used.

That basically meant that the area of physical film that the light from the lens fell on to create the negative was 35mm wide.

And that was it.

No further discussion.

Everyone knew that a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera gave you a field of view roughly that of the human eye, 24mm was wide angle and 85mm was a moderate telephoto.

Digital cameras were invented and life became a little more complicated! Cameras were still made with 35mm size sensors and became known as full frame and other cameras were made with smaller sensors and became known as cropped sensor.

Full frame is still easy to understand because a 50mm lens still gives the same field of view as it always did on an old 35mm film camera. the benchmark hasn’t changed. All the other lenses behave in exactly the same way so life is not too confusing.

But, start using a cropped sensor camera with a standard 50mm lens and everything changes. The actual sensor is smaller so it magnifies the field of view. There are a number of different cropped sensor sizes but, as a rule of thumb, if you multiply by 1.5 you will end up with roughly the correct focal length so our 50mm lens ends up being roughly a 75mm lens on a cropped sensor body.

To add further to the confusion some lenses are specifically designed for crop sensor cameras and the field of view is expressed in cropped sensor terms. Others aren’t – just so that you know!

So, the whole lens issue is relatively easily solved and understood – what are the pros and cons of each??

Firstly a few years ago there was a much more marked difference between the output of cropped and full frame. Today the gap is closing and and it is much harder to really tell the difference. However, the main thing that most people will mention as being important is the fact that, as the full frame sensor is bigger it captures more detail, more light so there is less noise and lower ISO can often be used. A full frame sensor with a high quality fast lens also produces a special kind of bokeh or background blur that can’t really be matched by a cropped sensor camera. Full frame is more expensive, you need to have faster and better quality lenses to make it worth while and they tend to be bigger and heavier as well.

So what about getting a cropped sensor camera? Well, it will be cheaper, you will have more choice and your lenses don’t have to cost more than the camera body itself to make it worthwhile. You will find that for 95% of the time it makes little difference in terms of quality and you will probably be delighted with your new camera and have forgotten about the whole dilemma within a day or two.

The only real reason to invest in full frame is if you are looking for the very very highest quality. Maybe you shoot landscapes or architectural photography or shoot in low light and natural light a lot of the time. Still, there will today be only a very small difference and you need to make sure that the extra investment really is worth it to you.

The only thing that you will really notice is very different is bokeh. If you lust after fast lenses and shot wide open and dream of the background blur then go for it. The difference is small but noticable, the blur is beautiful and can be obtained only really by shooting full frame on a very fast lens.

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