Is There a Real-World Difference Between APS-C, Full Frame, and Medium Format Cameras?

An often-debated element of camera systems is APS-C versus full frame versus medium format. Which one is better? Which one fits your needs? Which one should you use? This video dives into the question with real-world comparisons between all three!

This week, Nigel Danson heads out into the field with a Nikon Zfc, an APS-C camera at 21 MP; the Nikon Z8, a full frame camera at 45 MP; and a Hasselblad X2D 100C medium format camera at 100 MP and puts each of them to the test. Danson even captures a few photos with his iPhone 15 for comparison. 

Danson talks through his compositions and his early expectations of what he will see as he works his way through multiple images with each camera. He then returns to his office with brief on-screen comparisons across the three cameras.

Danson then puts the images to the real test with prints in sizes ranging from A3 to A2 to A1. He looks at each composition and compares the printed results of each camera, from the smaller prints to the larger prints, and comes to his conclusion of the difference between an APS-C camera, a full frame camera, and a medium format camera. 

I found the comparison refreshing, with the emphasis put on the results of actual prints instead of pixel-peeping. I agree with Danson’s summary and what is really important for photographers.

Jeffrey Tadlock's picture

Jeffrey Tadlock is an Ohio-based landscape photographer with frequent travels regionally and within the US to explore various landscapes. Jeffrey enjoys the process and experience of capturing images as much as the final image itself.

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The difference in the color representation of the green tones should be related to the fact that the Hasselbad has a 16-bit sensor (281,474,976,710,656 color gradations) and the other two have a 14-bit sensor (4,398,045,511,104 gradations). With the Zfc, RAM can be stored in 12 or 14 bits. With 12-bit, there would only be 68,719,476,736 gradations.

When comparing the resolution, the number of pixels must therefore be taken into account as well as the number of bits.

In my opinion, the sweet spot for most applications would be 25MPix with 16Bit.

Not sure on the color, but that seems a good explanation.

I'm probably not too far off on thoughts of the sweet spot - I might lean towards a higher MP, but mainly because I am a habitual cropper... I shoot a z7ii now I like some of the flexibility that gives me, but really - getting into the 30-ishMP range would probably work well for me.

Those 12-14-16 bit values are monochromatic. Sure, each photosite is covered with a color filter, but there's a lot of overlap between the sensitivities of each. And none of them have peak transmission at the same wavelengths used by each channel of our RGB emissive display devices (nor our CMY printing devices). "Red" isn't even close. The "red" filters in a typical Bayer mask are somewhere between Orange and Yellow.

"Is There a Real-World Difference Between APS-C, Full Frame, and Medium Format Cameras?"

It all depends upon what you're taking photos of, under what kind of environmental and lighting conditions, and how you plan to display the output. Sometimes it makes virtually no difference. Sometimes it can make a significant difference.

Oh yeah - definitely a lot of variables that help determine the optimal choice for a photographer. I thought the tests in the video were interesting though, for an often asked question.

There's also a matter of the image format. The Hasselblad (which uses the Fuji sensor) has a different aspect ratio than full frame. One of the reasons I like the Fuji GFX 100s is because of that ratio, it's closer to what I'm familiar with and used for decades. I don't know about the Hasselblad, but the Fuji has great in camera masks for other ratios (without actually losing any of the pixels).

It's impossible to take a 4:3 sensor and mask it into any other aspect ratio without losing some pixels at the sensor level.

Fuji just adds a mask to both the viewfinder and embedded jpg. Lightroom also understands the mask. That's what makes the Fuji so nice, you can change the aspect ratio in Lightroom simply with the cropping tool.

That's what pretty much any camera that offers multiple aspect ratios do. Fuji is in no way unique in that respect. Neither is anyone else. If LR doesn't understand the mask from the EXIF info, that's on Adobe for ignoring the aspect ratio tag in the EXIF "maker notes", not on the camera maker. Not everyone uses LR, either. Capture One, On1, and DxO are also very capable raw image convertors. Not to mention that any of the manufacturer's own raw conversion apps tend to read all of the EIXF info and apply in-camera settings when first converting and displaying the information from a raw image file.

Most of us who shot 135 format for decades before going digital are more comfortable with the 3:2 aspect ratio. It's also a good via media between the most common display device ratio of 16:9 and the 4:3 ratio of old-fashioned standard TV.

It's a good format, but I shot 4x5 for decades and love the look.

I like both 16:9 and 3:2 for landscape orientation, 2:3 and 3:4 for portrait orientation. So a 3:2 sensor works best for me. It's right between the two extremes of 1.777:1 and 1.333:1.

Well, he's comparing 45.7MP to a medium format camera; he could have also compared it to a Sony 61MP.


I think someone mentioned in the comments on the video that doing a compare with one of the Fuji APS-C with higher MP would have been interesting as well. So many variations to test!

He is a Nikon ambassador after all ....

He's desperately trying to see that 'medium format magic' 🤣

Pretty telling considering a $2400 zoom vs a $5500 prime.

Print size and viewing distance are everything.

Yeah - I think print size and viewing distance are often overlooked as an important variable.

From some portrait work I’ve done in the past, I have a team photo done on a 12MP file that to this day is used on a half-sized billboard. Given the viewing distance is never that close, and add in it is viewed from cars traveling down the rural highway at speed, it works. I am sure it would miserably fail the close inspection as far as IQ.

Conversely, some of my images have been printed at 48" by 32" and are hung in 10' by 9' rooms and 6' wide hallways. So the viewer is going to see them from a distance of 2 to 3 feet. Plus, with wildlife images, no matter how big the room is, people always walk right up to them and get as close as possible ... I guess it's done subconsciously, as many people can't help but want to see fine detail or expressions in wild animals.

Just because something is printed large does not mean that it is necessarily going to be viewed from further back. That is a common misconception that needs to be dispelled.

Oh - totally agreed. I see the two items viewing distance and print size as two variables. Big doesn’t always mean viewed far away. You have to factor both variables - and sometimes those variables are set to big and viewed close up.

I used to watch his videos, but stopped as they became more "click bait". I own and use both a Nikon Z8 and the Fuji GFX 100s and print my work. I can tell the difference, but then again, I'm an old 4x5 photographer and used to looking close at the details.

I’ve never photographed with a medium format camera. M43, APS-C, Full Frame, and 35mm film - but not medium format. Maybe one day!

Perhaps, different tools for different uses. I started out with 35mm film, but I've also used 6x6 film, 6x12 film, 4x5 film and crop sensor. When I'm shooting landscapes I tend to use the Fuji, but the Nikon for travel. The biggest issue going from the Nikon to the Fuji is that the controls and the way the cameras operate is opposite one another.

I’m finding I have a harder and harder time (or maybe just more reluctant) switching between camera brands, mainly because of menu and controls differences. I have a small M43 setup for travel, but I don’t use it nearly as often so I am frequently struggling with settings, whereas with my Nikon cameras I am way more familiar with controls and menus so I’m much more efficient.

I think there's just outright trolling and flame-baiting on a large part of folks out there, especially when they look at some system that they can't afford. I don't quite have the cash for a GFX100s, but I can certainly appreciate the photos that people take with them (in particular those that take advantage of the shallower field of depth).

There is probably an element of that! It is easy to get lost in gear discussions and “what is best” when talking photography between times of actually being out in the field practicing photography. I know I often find myself talking about gear, but really, it is mainly to fill time between actually being outside practicing.

Agreed. I actually tend more towards the act of enjoying photography regardless of what camera system or brand. I read about gear and will even talk about gear, but I don’t agonize over gear. Gear talk to me partially fills the gaps between actually being out photographing.

Ha! I can relate to the “kids get off m lawn!” I’m reaching that point myself!

So you take a very low resolution apsc camera and compare it to high resolution ff and medium format cameras.
You forgot that a 32 mp apsc for birds at a distance needs no cropping vs ff and medium format can't even get the shot including any sort of meaningful action.
So go out and take some fast far action shots and compare each using a 32mp sensor which is equivalent to over 80mp ona ff camera.
How blurry will medium format look and same for heavily cropped ff photos.
Each have a purpose and strengths.

Yep - different camera formats for different things. Just have to pick one that fits the majority of ones photography and go from there. So definitely different purposes and strengths.

I bought my Canon A-1 in May 1980, which still works today. July 2013, I bought one of my "bucket list" cameras, a Canon New F-1. My wife and I were traveling back from Charleston, South Carolina and I mentioned "KEH has a used Canon F-1 kit (with the AE Motor Drive FN, and the AE Finder FN) for $400." She asked "Is that their flagship camera?" I answered "Yes, for the 80's." She said "Buy it."
She bought me the EOS 5D III in December 2013.
Other bucket list cameras are the Mamiya 645, Mamiya RB67 or RZ67, and a 4×5 monorail view camera.

Sounds like a fun list of cameras! Hope you keep making progress on the bucket list of cameras!

I need to get the purchases approved by the CFO, my wife. The medium format cameras will be expensive. I checked a few years ago, my Canon F1 kit is holding its value.

I always wanted a Linhof 6x17 and the RB67, but never got either. I still have my Chamonix 45N1, which replaced a Toyo 45A2.

100 megapixels would be good to have, especially for larger prints, though in the video the print size is too large even for a 100 megapixel camera (the A1 size). At that size, you are looking at something in the 400 megapixel range at a minimum (if the scene is still enough for pixel shift).

Though with 24 megapixels, and a really good lens and base ISO, you could scale things up to a 8.5x11 or an A4 print without things falling apart too much.

Gonna need bigger disks or SSDs.

For me the most important difference is handling and carry. I shoot aps-c because it's smaller over all. If that stops being the case I wouldn't bother. Seeing the fullframe sized micro four-thirds G9II or the fullframe sized aps-c X-H2 boggled my mind until it realised that wildlife and sports shooters usually want a counter-weight to their giga lenses. 😂

Now my criteria is any aps-c camera I buy has to be smaller than the fullframe a7CII or I can't justify it. Luckily my GRIII limbos under the bar with no trouble.

So many folks don’t put enough value on choosing a camera or cameras system that handles well and carries well for them.

I end up talking about gear semi-frequently in my videos, but I always try to make the primary recommendation when choosing a camera as one starts to get their basic choices narrowed down to go to a camera store and pick up the cameras and hold them. What feels good, which has dials and controls in convenient locations, size for use, etc, etc.

Excellent point.

Photogs really like debating the same question again and again for years. Another one of these. Just... Wow.

We really got to introduce some new topics into the streamer and website community. This is insane. :0

I think it is one of those topics bound to be repeated. One, just as the technology changes in various camera systems causing people to ask how big is the difference now. And two, there is always an influx of new photographers asking questions that many of us have asked before. It is a cycle that I suspect will inevitably repeat itself.

If you're tired of reading about it again, just scroll on. No one is forcing you to read anything.

Sorry, I couldn't give 29 minutes to a subject I know well. Resolving detail is different than sharpness. In the last segment where he is comparing the X2D to the Nikon, if the X2D isn't sharp enough, that's on the Mr. Danson. Why is Mr Tadlock claiming paper prints are the "real tests"?

It is not clear from these results whether the differences seen are due to the change in sensor size or resolution. A test comparing something like the 40Mp APS-C sensor in the Fujifilm X-T5 with a 48Mp full frame would have better shown advantages of full frame. Similarly a 50Mp medium format camera would have been a better choice for this test.

That is a good point! Tests with the cameras you noted would have been informative to help make it more about sensor size than resolution.