- Why are There Different Formats?
- Similarities of Full Frame vs APS-C Formats
- Differences Between Full Frame vs APS- C
- What About Crop Factor?
- Full Frame vs APS-C - Image Quality
- Full Frame vs APS-C - Low-Light Performance
- Size and Weight of APS-C vs Full Frame
- Full Frame vs APS-C Prices
- Final Thoughts
- What You Need In a Beginner Photography Kit
- Should You Get a Full Frame or Crop Sensor Camera?
- Family Photo Ideas
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There are different camera formats, but why?
What are the deciding factors between Full Frame vs APS-C formats? Are APS-C vs Full Frame the only choices?
First off, great questions! There is so much to learn when you decide to venture into serious photography. In addition to the thoughts of what camera to get, you also want to know what you’re reading when you see all those labels and descriptions.
Additionally, you want the best value for investing your time, money, and effort into this hobby, art form, and/or career, so I’ll include some helpful hints about that as well, such as the value of buying quality used gear. Beginners and more advanced photographers alike will benefit from this information, so let’s get started!
Table of Contents:
Why are There Different Formats?
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If you're old enough to remember when film was king and digital imaging was just articles in the magazines, you may recall that there were competing formats then, too.
There were 110, 126, 135, 2 ¼, large format, and several movie film sizes. Generally, the larger the format, the higher the image quality and the bigger, heavier, and more expensive the cameras were.
In terms of sales and popular usage, the 135 format (35mm Full Frame) was at the top. If you saw a TV commercial or a big ad in a magazine, it was most often for a camera using 35mm film. These 35mm cameras came in all types, from basic, no-frills models to easy-to-use cameras with sophisticated automation to full-fledged cameras for professional use.
So when digital imaging finally got some firm footing, it was the 135 or 35mm Full Frame format that was the measuring stick for comparisons.
Early sensors were expensive to make, though. So as an alternative, several big-name camera and film makers (Kodak, Fuji, Nikon, Canon) turned to an already existing smaller film format that was designed around the 135 format, namely APS-C.
Yes! APS-C was a film format first. It was developed by camera makers and film companies in a joint venture to address some of the issues of 35mm cameras. For example, these cameras featured simplified film loading, electronic files for frame numbering and exposure info, and decreased size and weight of cameras and lenses, to name a few.
Similarities of Full Frame vs APS-C Formats
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Since APS-C was a format designed around the already existing 135 or 35mm Full Frame format, there are some similarities. The biggest similarity is the shape or aspect ratio of the two formats.
The actual image area of a photograph captured on 35mm film or by a Full Frame format digital camera is a rectangle measuring 24mm by 36mm. This rectangle has an aspect ratio (the relationship between the short and long sides) of 3:2 This explains why a standard print made from the entire image area is 4x6 inches.
APS-C kept that same 3:2 aspect ratio, but in a smaller overall size. The image area of most APS-C format cameras is 16.7mm by 25.1mm. With 35mm Full Frame format being a popular imaging standard, everyone could be comfortable with the new format simply being a smaller version of it.
Differences Between Full Frame vs APS- C
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It is easy to see that one of the primary differences of Full Frame vs APS-C is the size of the imaging area. Since the image area is smaller, that means that the circle of coverage of the lenses doesn’t need to be as large as for Full Frame, thus the lenses can be made smaller, leading to camera bodies being smaller, too.
Besides the size and weight of the cameras and lenses being different, there are also varying characteristics concerning low-light performance and image quality in the Full Frame vs APS-C comparison. Lastly, there are definite contrasts in monetary costs.
What About Crop Factor?
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Full Frame vs APS-C crop factor always comes up in these comparisons, and for good reason. Remember that APS-C is linked by design to the Full Frame format. So there will always be comparisons between the two.
Since the size of the image capture area of APS-C is reduced from 35mm Full Frame format, then that means that the “normal” lens focal length is also reduced. Normal was put in quotation marks because it has a fluid definition.
For a lot of photographers, the commonly accepted definition is that a normal lens focal length is determined by the diagonal measurement of the image area, the film frame. For the 24mm x 36mm format of Full Frame, that is 43.3mm and for an APS-C frame, 30.1mm.
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Normal also means the apparent perspective of the lens and angle of view. For Full Frame, the most used normal focal length has been in the 50mm range. There are more reasons, but you can check out our crop factor articles for an in-depth discussion. In APS-C, that focal length has been generally accepted as a 35mm lens.
Any lens with a shorter focal length than normal for that format behaves as a wide angle. Longer focal lengths behave as a telephoto lens. The difference between Full Frame vs APS-C format lenses comes out to a 1.5X crop factor.
In simple terms, a focal length in Full Frame format will behave on the smaller format as a longer lens. The difference is 1 ½ times or 1.5X. Note that the focal lengths themselves do not change, but how a focal length behaves in the chosen format is what changes. Crop factor is a comparison point only, but it does help you to understand what you’re buying and using.
Full Frame vs APS-C - Image Quality
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In digital photography and film-based imaging, all other things being equal, the larger the format, the higher the quality. Instead of looking at this as a hard fast rule, I like to suggest that it’s more like a guideline, since all other things are rarely equal.
However, it does hold true as a rule of thumb that if you desire the possibility of better resolution, tonal range, sharpness in enlargements, and so on, then you should consider the larger of any formats you may be comparing.
That being said, in the comparisons of Full Frame vs APS-C formats, you will find many cameras in the smaller format that are absolutely superb. APS-C is not a tiny format, it’s simply smaller than Full Frame.
Many working professionals use APS-C format digital cameras and get beautiful results. You can, too. Image quality is only one of the comparison points to ponder, there are several other thoughts to weigh.
Full Frame vs APC-C - Low-Light Performance
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Honestly, for a lot of photographers, this should be looked at more so than absolute image quality. Because (disclaimer language again), all other things being equal, the larger the format, the better low-light performance it should provide.
It comes down to physics. If an image sensor for Full Frame format gives 24MP resolution, then the individual pixel size will be larger than an APS-C format 24MP image sensor. That means that each individual pixel has more room for gathering light, color, and exposure information. Just like a bigger cup holds more water.
Event photographers such as wedding photographers and serious videographers (filmmaking) prefer low-light performance gains over higher resolution. Truth be told, it may not show much difference between Full Frame vs APS-C format in terms of photos being enlargeable, but you can definitely notice low-light performance limitations or advantages at the extreme ends of exposure values.
Size and Weight of APS-C vs Full Frame
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There can be huge variations in the size and weight of equipment of APS-C vs Full Frame cameras and lenses. Being mirrorless or DSLR style can also have a huge impact on the size and weight of a camera body and the normal lens or kit zoom lens.
Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8
As an example of what I mean, check out the size of a DSLR Full Frame professional camera like the Nikon D4s, which weighs 1180 grams (48.6 oz) and has dimensions of 6.3 x 6.2 x 3.6 inches without any lens. Adding a battery increases the weight, and a normal range zoom lens such as the Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 adds 1070 grams (37.7 oz) and 6 inches in length.
Fujifilm XF 16-55 f/2.8
At the other end of the scale, you can find a mirrorless APS-C camera like the Fujifilm X-T20, which is 4.6 x 3.2 x 1.6 and weighs 333 grams (11.3 oz) with an all-around zoom lens Fujifilm XF 16-55mm f/2.8 which weighs 665 grams (23 oz) and is 4.1 inches in length.
In between, you can find Full Frame mirrorless like the Canon EOS R and Sony Alpha a7S II or APS-C format DSLR camera such as a Canon EOS 80D or the very tiny DSLR Canon EOS Rebel SL2 camera. Each camera type and brand has lenses from compact to large, depending on focal length and lens aperture.
Full Frame vs APS-C Prices
Nikon Z7 II
Sometimes we have to think in terms of money when shopping for photography equipment. As mentioned at the outset, the larger the format, equipment generally costs more. Some camera types, a full-fledged professional model for instance, will cost more than an entry-level camera or one meant for intermediate levels.
We may as well say it - cameras and lenses, the good ones, can take up a huge amount of our available budget. One way to help counteract that, whether looking at Full Frame vs APS-C cameras or any level of intended use, is to shop an online platform such as MPB for previously owned cameras, lenses, and other gear.
MPB is one of the first places I check when considering purchasing photography equipment. They have a rigorous inspection process for acquiring their used gear and you get a clear, honest, and accurate description of everything they offer for sale. Most items also have a generous return and exchange policy plus a six-month warranty.
You can even find virtually new versions of currently produced cameras and lenses in addition to deeply discounted slightly older items. Buying high-quality used cameras and lenses from a reputable dealer is a good way to maximize the purchasing power of your photographic equipment budget.
Canon EOS Rebel T6i
As a couple of examples, a professional camera like the Nikon Z7 II mirrorless Full Frame camera currently can be found in like new condition for $2699.00 while a gently used, excellent condition Canon EOS Rebel T6i DSLR style APS-C format camera can be purchased for a current price of $414.00 for the body.
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For some specific thoughts about Full Frame vs APS-C cameras and lenses, browse our huge catalog of reviews and other articles here on Photography Talk. Whatever purchasing or usage decisions you face, we can help with lots of information, reviews, and ideas!