If you're considering an upgrade from your current camera to something newer, one of the considerations you might need to make is whether a full frame or a crop sensor camera is best for you.
There are many things to like about both types of cameras and to be perfectly honest, you can get it right by going in either direction.
Of course, you can also make a very poor decision too, and end up with a camera that is not well-suited to your specific needs.
The first step in making the full frame or crop sensor decision is laying a foundation of understanding of the primary differences between the two.
Let's start there, and explain what makes a full frame camera different from a crop sensor.
A full frame camera, like the Canon EOS 1D-X Mark II shown above, has a sensor that's the same size as 35mm film, which measures 36mm x 24mm. That's where the term 'full frame' comes from.
By contrast, an APS-C crop sensor camera's sensor is smaller - thus the name - coming in at around 22mm x 15mm (though there are fairly wide differences from one manufacturer to the next). That makes a full frame sensor much larger, by a factor of about 2.5x.
The primary difference between full frame and crop sensor cameras is the field of view that their sensors provide.
If you stand side by side with another photographer and you take a photo of a scene with a full frame camera, and the other photographer takes a photo of the same scene with a crop sensor camera, and you use the same lens, the crop sensor camera will take a photo with a narrower field of view. See the difference between the two in the video below by Video Upskill:
As you can see in the video above, when using a crop sensor camera, it essentially crops out the edges of the frame. By doing so, you effectively increase the focal length of the lens.
For example, on a full frame camera, a 50mm lens acts like a 50mm lens - there's no change in its focal length.
However, if you're using an APS-C crop sensor camera with a 1.6x crop factor, that same 50mm lens would act like an 80mm lens (50x1.6=80).
Not all crop sensor cameras have the same crop factor. Canons are usually 1.6x, Nikons are typically 1.5x, and micro four-thirds cameras are usually 2x.
So, full frame cameras have the largest sensors available, which gives you a greater field of view. But what are the benefits and detriments of that feature?
Advantages and Disadvantages of Full Frame Cameras
Because of their larger sensors, full frame cameras like the Nikon D810 shown above have a few advantages over many crop sensor cameras.
First, image quality tends to be better on full frame cameras because the larger sensor means they can have much larger pixels. The larger the pixels, the better the sharpness and resolution of the image produced.
That's because of the larger the pixels, the more light they can capture, and the more light they capture, the less digital noise that's produced.
This leads to the second advantage of full frame cameras - low-light performance.
Full frame cameras can gather more light, which means you can work in conditions with less light with greater ease than most crop sensor cameras.
In fact, you can work in poor lighting conditions and be able to avoid using a flash or raising the ISO (which increases digital noise) to a much greater extent than you can with a crop sensor camera. That means your low-light images will be of a higher quality with a larger dynamic range (the range from deep blacks to bright whites in the photo).
Third, full frame cameras have a shallower depth of field than crop sensor cameras when the two shoot at the same effective focal length and camera settings (like aperture).
This could be advantageous if you primarily shoot portraits and want to get a nice, blurry background behind your subject. Get the scoop on these and other advantages (and disadvantages) of full frame cameras in the video below by Spyros Heniadis:
Of course, there are a few drawbacks to full frame cameras.
First, they are typically pricier than their crop sensor counterparts. This isn't always the case as there are some high-end crop sensor cameras that are more expensive than low-end full frame cameras.
Second, because they have to accommodate a larger sensor, full frame camera bodies are larger and heavier than a crop sensor body. Many professionals prefer full frame cameras because of their improved image quality, but it comes at the price of having to carry around a heavier camera.
Lastly, because full frame cameras aren't as common, there are fewer choices when it comes to camera bodies and lenses. Though this certainly shouldn't be a deal-breaker, it's still something to consider - there's simply less choice.
Primary Advantage: Image quality and low-light performance
Primary Disadvantage: Price
Best for: Photographers that aspire to tackle professional work; enthusiasts that need improved image quality and low-light performance.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Crop Sensor Cameras
Like full frame cameras, there's a lot to like about crop sensor cameras.
For starters, if you're on a budget, a crop sensor body like the Canon EOS Rebel T6s shown above is the way to go.
As noted above, there are some very expensive crop sensor cameras, but by and large, they will be easier on your pocketbook.
Secondly, because crop sensor cameras increase the effective focal length of lenses, they can be advantageous for photographers that need that extra reach - sports and wildlife photography come immediately to mind.
For example, if you use a Nikon crop sensor camera, a 200mm lens has an effective focal length of 300mm. That extra 100mm could make all the difference when photographing a sporting event or an animal from afar.
And, of course, since crop sensor cameras are much more common, there is a wider selection of camera bodies and compatible lenses to choose from. This is advantageous for many reasons, particularly from a budget standpoint.
Learn about the differences between two types of crop sensor cameras - APS-C and micro four-thirds - in the video below by ArtoftheImage:
However, as noted above, you don't get the same image quality with a crop sensor camera as you do with a full frame. If you intend to segue into professional photography or want to sell your images as large prints, a crop sensor camera is usually not the way to go.
What's more, if you don't usually work with a telephoto lens, a crop sensor camera's field of view can be a negative.
For example, in landscape photography, a crop sensor camera only captures the central part of the scene, eliminating the peripheral areas that a full frame camera would include in the image.
And as was discussed above, crop sensor cameras also have smaller pixels, meaning they don't have the same low-light performance as a full frame camera.
Primary Advantage: Price and selection
Primary Disadvantage: Narrow field of view
Best for: Beginner and enthusiast photographers that want a budget-friendly camera.
Making the Decision
When it comes down to it, you can take great photos with either a full frame or a crop sensor camera. Each has their strengths and weaknesses that you'll need to consider as you look for the next camera that's right for you.
Though a full frame camera is the choice of many professional photographers, that doesn't mean that you can't take professional-quality images with a crop sensor camera.
What's more, some amateur and enthusiast photographers might very well prefer to work with a full frame camera over a more budget-friendly crop sensor camera.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer here. It will likely just come down to budget and your specific needs.