Crop Versus Full Frame: Can You Tell the Difference?

In more recent years, with a huge price drop in medium format and increase in quality of micro four thirds, can you tell the difference between a crop sensor and a full frame camera?

Since the mid naughties, full frame digital cameras have reigned over their crop sensor counterparts for most genres of photography. But, a lot has changed since then. The resolution, low light performance, build quality, and autofocus have been dramatically improved in cameras that have smaller sensors than the 35mm full frame; the same can also be said for cameras with larger sensors. This has also made the price of a used medium format camera become far cheaper and almost identical to a pro full frame DSLR, which creates the questio:, if you want to move up from an APS-C size sensor and you don't shoot action, would jumping up to medium format be the answer?

In this comparison video, I compare a Canon APS-C size sensor to a full frame offering. I don't think that the difference is that great considering the price jump. Going forward, I am going to put together a comprehensive and in-depth sensor size review, going from the smallest I can find through to the largest I can get my hands on, as I think a lot of the benefits of a full frame sensor are not as great as in the past, and for those who want it, the price jump to used medium format is far more viable than ever before. 

Can you tell the difference between the two sensors?

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30 Comments

Tim Gallo's picture

jeezus, not again. you compare it on your monitor? omg
aps-c and 3/4 are great. depending on what kind of work you want them for.

try comparing it working for demanding clients and editorial that is bigger than A4. and will see how far aps-c will take you... also, compare em at iso 540-640. and yeah, youll want a proper dslr.

you take a shot of a pot and talking about image quality? try properly retouching skin, on a cropped file, shot in iso 400-640 range. than print in mag. and "know" the actual difference.

"This has also made the price of a used medium format camera become far cheaper and almost identical to a pro full frame DSLR"
really? like what? can you compare prices for a full working kits?

Stuart Carver's picture

But don’t pictures taken with Fujifilm, Nikon etc APS-C get magazine published all the time? By your logic they wouldn’t

Tim Gallo's picture

Of-course they are. We are talking about comparison right? have you read my comment? lol

"try comparing it..."

I used 3/4 (lumix gx7mk3, eh, not sure whats its naming in US), and aps-c (hello fuji) and D850... and funny enough the cover for magazine was from a 3/4 (had to add some grain to look it less jpg-y). But when it came to retouching and low-light situations, I was cursing all the way through when retouching stuff from aps-c... cause its just not enough data there to work with.

daylight, low iso, proper lens selection and aps-c is fine. but even iphone looks great in proper lighting. so read my comment again.

Scott Choucino's picture

I find most people needing this sort of info shoot personally and for social media rather than for billboards so it’s more aimed at those people, rather than someone shooting massive campaigns (y)

Be cool to do a monster shoot and print comparison at some point if I can get funding for a team. See how much diff a apsA-c to a medium format makes in the eyes of an art buyer

John Koster's picture

That used to be true. With advances in computational photography, the ISO performance of the best APS-C cameras are just as good as full frame. Period.

Leigh Miller's picture

That's not entirely true.

Computational image processing is the next big leap in photography but it won't totally overcome the physics of sensor size/optics quality.

We have already seen the early stages of what you are referring to in things like in-camera HDR etc. The more advanced iterations take the form of features such as high megapixel stitching..again in-body. All designed to overcome specific limitations of the particular camera/sensor.

Hmm not sure - these days in Commercial work between 35mm and APS-C, APS-C is king. I moved over from Nikon because precisely there is no difference if you know what you are doing. That is not to say you don’t but there’s potentially confirmation bias you have to get over. Have you shot the same image in the same condition? I did that test and was surprised. I can print at 2 meters in amazing quality and no issue on a Fuji XT3.

However if you really are after high resolution details - in say, Studio based Fashion shoot or Fineart Landscapes or Architecture/ Interiors you may as well go Medium Format.

So in reality 35 mm is the jack of all trades but doesn’t do anything perfectly. Lens sizes have become a joke and so is the cost of your kit. APS-C scores in portability, journalistic work, video making, speed, cost (ie more flexibility/ bang for buck), and can do everything except ultra high res.

But when you really want ultra high res quality you may aswell have a Medium Format which simply is magic in depth of colours and shaping of subjects.

The one thing speaking for 35mm is the availablity of specialised lenses such as TS - actually in particular TS. But there are some great adapters out there which substitute the need: Pentax on a Fuji GFX for example

What sort of commercial work are you talking about?
I have seem more than few folks doing video with APS-C but most photographers I know are still using 35mm size. No one using MF but I have rented MF a few times.

Leigh Miller's picture

I use APSc and MF...depends on the subject matter and end usage.

All righty...

I work in Architecture/Interiors and also have friends working in fashion and quite a few wedding / social photographers aswell. In Hospitality and Fashion MF is king. 35 mm is definitely a safe bet but I found the results on APS-C to be so good
I got rid of it and focused on MF for anything where a meticulous setup is possible and my Fuji XT3 does all “on field” where action and speed is asked for and for Corporate Interiors which is sort of in the middle (less setup, more images asked for). Plus Journalistic work which I like to do on the side to keep my brains satisfied

I would say that the one area I would give 35 mm the king spot is concerts... where you need that extra ISO ability and action. Sure you could say why not go 35 mm then a d my response to that is: cost, size. I much prefer the ability to carry less or have more lenses with me with the same weight and being able to manoeuvre a smaller camera. In the days where a 50 mm lens on a 35 mm is the same size of a 70-350 mm zoom lens (equivalent) on a Fuji, I am laughing my butt off thinking of the days I lumped around my D850 and realising that a Z7 means the same thing because lenses have become large even if the body is smaller...

Tim Gallo's picture

I am not sure z7 is the same thing, hope you dont mind me bargin in on your conversation. It is much easier on wrist (also its not much bigger as X-T3 http://j.mp/2ACQA6b
if you accept bigger grip as "ergonomics"), and lenses are not super small yet not much smaller than their dslr equivalent. But super-zooms are definetly smaller on aps-c... yet I have a feeling that fast super zooms are big and heavy everywhere... I am definitely taking weight for bright dslr super-zoom vs light yet dark super-zoom on aps-c..

LOL, I know you would need at least a 4k monitor to tell the difference on some images and it's only shot at 1080p haha. Also isn't the resolution almost the same between a 70D and 5Ds? I thought a 20.2mp sensor was almost 50mp when scaled to the same size, so I don't get what he means. The truth is that a crop is a crop and ever only a crop. The only differences are the effective aperture on a crop sensor in certain situations and full frame has a very slight advantage in tonality. Other than that, crop sensor's now a days in most situations have an advantage in their pixel density. Most modern crop camera's are 24mp and 1.5x crop factor so they are great for things like wildlife photography, where you would normally be cropping anyways and need the density of pixel pitch. I use my D7200 over my D4s anytime I need either higher resolution, additional reach as in using it as a teleconverter or when I know I would be forced to crop. DX sensor's have advantages in some scenario's and FX has advantages in other area's. Its like the current EVF and OVF debate, which is so stupid because both have different advantages in different situations.

Leigh Miller's picture

The instinct is to say this entire conversation is BS..but there is a difference and it's not simply about the sensor size..it's the quality of those pixels, the qualities of the lenses, the attention taken during the capture phase and then of course post-processing.

At web sizes you're simply wasting your time.

Make large prints and up-rez the crop sensor to match the dimensions of the FF and take a look FFS...

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes at web res the difference it so small. I’ve made the assumption that most people needing this content shoot almost exclusively to post on social media rather than to a billboard campaign.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes I realise now that I need to be clearer as to whom the video is really aimed at.

Scott, I am sort of sad to see you doing this and the cheap v pricey lens comparo. I have seen some of your videos and they were a good real world view into shooting food, running a studio, dealing with success or failure and running a business. Many how to vids by the "Hi Guys!" crowd are done by "experts" who only shoot for content for their site and workshops, at least you shoot for actual clients.
Aren't there enough opinion pieces on cheapo v expensive, or amatuer v pro, or aps-c v FF, from people who may or may not be savvy enough to tell others what to do.
Take car magazines for example, some articles are about how the car feels or the adventures the writer had on the Nürburgring or off roading in Moab. Some are about tires and suspension. You should go back to the other stories IMO. Those were good and interesting. Just my opinion.

Scott Choucino's picture

I’m trying lots of things atm. I use to run beginners getting into M mode workshops to. There really isn’t a great audience of people needing or wanting to know the higher level stuff that I do for work. When ever I’ve put fstoppers articles together about such things the flop pretty hard haha.

Manfred Mueller's picture

Comparing results from cameras where one downsamples to ~ 2MP size for display on a web browser is meaningless and shows a signifcant lack of understanding of the subject matter. A more meaningful test would be to make the same size large print and then make the assessment.

Let's face it, there is no need to use a 50MP camera when all one is doing is shooting for 8-bit sRGB output for a standard 2K display. Even a 4K display is only using around 8MP.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes a more meaningful tests for commercial photographers would certainly be to see how they print and retouch.

I made the assumption that most in the category who needed this advise would be amateurs who mostly share their work to the internet. I should have been clearer about this in the video rather than assuming haha.

Manfred Mueller's picture

Strangely enough I'm an amateur that retouches and prints, generally using A3 / 17" x 22" on my Epson P800. I have full-frame, APS-C and mFT gear and when I print large format, I can certainly tell the difference between the three formats. In fact, I rarely print any image that has not been taken with the full-frame camera simple because the image quality is higher.

If I could afford it, I would shoot medium format. As the sensor size gets larger, the image has more "presence". Try comparing a 3-frame pano from a FF camera against what the same camera does with a single frame with both images framed to equivalent focal length. The pano somehow has more "presence". Sensor size does matter and bigger tends to give a better image.

Talk to any photographer who still shoots with a film on a view camera. They'll likely tell you the same thing.

Kenneth Muhlestein's picture

I just came for the comments.

Scott Choucino's picture

Id say there more entertaining than my video haha

Isn't it amazing that photography never existed before full frame digital.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah I find the term full frame a bit off. Especially as 35mm was never considered to be a full frame or the main size for working photographers. But then it is just a word, so I try to not lose sleep over it. The other term that winds me up is "Great depth of field". Great because its massive or so small nothings in focus? Seems really odd to use it as a way to say "well done for finding f1.0

As a photographer who was working with "full frame" (a term never used before digital) film 35mm, 120, and large format were all used by photographers for various uses. In fact I used all three, for editorial, product, advertising and portraits.

And some folks think a "large aperture" is 16 because of the number and other think 1.4 because it's wide open...

Keith Mullin's picture

Oh man, now I want to do a side by side comparison of a FF camera and a APC-C camera with similar resolutions and do all the math on focal length, iris, and ISO and see if anyone can tell the difference. Maybe I'll get around to it with an A73 and a6300...

Then again, it would just get flamed to death because it was done wrong, so maybe I wont.

Keith Meinhold's picture

It really depends on the subject - a detailed product shot with small print text, a mesh even some architecture for example. How much light is exposed? Age of the camera itself and the sensor's dynamic range. I have published iPhone photos for print (either because there was no other choice or it was good enough for the intended use), but generally I have found the larger the sensor the more if have to work with / rescue. I count myself as a dedicated APS-C fan.

Joe Hoddinott's picture

The "naughties" - my favorite decade.

Time check. The mid-90's did not have any consumer full frame cameras.

Nikon's first DSLR, the D1 (1.5x crop before it was called APS-C,) came out in 1999. Canon's first DSLR, the D30 came out in 2000 and was also APS-C (1.6x crop). Before that is was all Kodak DCS models, and none of them were full 35mm frame. The Kodak 14n was the first Kodak full 35mm sensor and that came out in 2002. The Canon 1Ds, also released in 2002, was Canon's first full 35mm sensor. Nikon didn't release its first full 35mm frame DSLR until the D3 in 2007.

The Canon 5D, (released in 2005, followed by the Nikon D700 in 2007,) started and fueled the "Full Frame vs APSC Wars" because FF was finally affordable. So Mid-90's is way off. Spelling error aside, this 10 year error makes me second guess any technical info you're presenting.

Steven Gotz's picture

I can tell the difference between my Nikon D750 (full frame) and my D500 (crop sensor) when I shoot in low light.

Also, I can tell when shooting through fencing, glass or mesh at the zoo.

There are advantages to both which is why I own and shoot with both, but it really depends on what I am trying to shoot.