Why I Use Crop-Sensor Cameras in My Professional Photography Career

Why I Use Crop-Sensor Cameras in My Professional Photography Career

Full-frame cameras are superior to the crop sensor ones. There's no doubt. Most of the professional photographers out there are making a living with full-frame bodies and thus those cameras are considered professional. What if you shoot with smaller sensor cameras? Let me share my own story.

First Encounter With a Camera

I never had photography as a hobby. I started it as a business. In order to justify my expenses I taught myself the basics buying books and video workshops. I did that even before I owned a camera. For most of you that's not the case. For me, I needed to know what I was getting into before spending thousands in gear. I had to understand how the camera worked: what were the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I didn't know anything about cameras less than 10 years ago. I even searched the web if I could change the aperture of an f/2.8 lens or it was always constant.

As I went deeper in knowledge, I became fascinated with lighting. I wanted to do a specific type of images and I found it was the lighting that I liked the most. But first of all, I had to buy a camera being the basic tool in the craft.

Pool game

Cost

My main criteria was the cost. I wanted to spend as little as possible on a camera that could get the job done. I started my investigation comparing the differences between the mid-priced and high-end DSLRs. I had to be aware what I was paying for if I didn't own the most expensive machine of them all.

Running girl

Weight

I come from a music background where the weight of a musical piece of gear is proportional to its build and sound quality, whether that's a piano, guitar, microphone, amplifier, or cable. A common sense for me was the more a camera weighs the better the materials and the more hardware perks it had. I wasn't far from the truth. It turned out a heavier camera felt more stable in the hands and images had less blur at lower shutter speeds. My first consideration was to buy a camera that feels solid. Imagine myself going into the store and comparing the weight of cameras and buying the heaviest. I did not have that joyful experience because I chose and bought it online.

Ad for the Sensata company

Sensor

After deciding I wanted a heavier camera body with a better build quality I looked at the sensors. Budget was still an issue, so I chose a combination of a crop sensor with a good dynamic range and a tank-like body. My only drawbacks then were the small image resolution and noise starting to get quite visible even at 400 ISO. A quick calculation showed me I could have big enough prints for commercial use out of 10-megapixel files. For the noise I comforted myself that I'd use lights and most of the time I wouldn't need to shoot at high ISO values. I made my choice and bought a Canon 40D.

Guitarist

Lights

With lights, the price was not my main criteria. I spent much more on lights than on the camera and the lenses. I look at images the same as I look at paintings. I focus on the story, the light, and the nuances. I don't care if the painting is big or small, if it's photorealistic or not. That's the reason I chose to spend my budget ot lights than on sensor pixel parameters and resolution.

Back from work

Do I Know What I'm Missing?

Yes. I'm fully aware I'm missing a fat pixel that absorbs more light which means less noise at high ISO. The field of view is so much wider that I could shoot with higher focal range in tight spaces avoiding the distortion I have with a crop sensor and wide-angle lenses. If I shot architecture, a full-frame or medium-format sensor would definitely be my choice. The sharpness with full frames is usually better because of the sensor pixel size and the (often) bigger resolution.

Athlete

Do I Care That I Miss Full Frame Features?

Most of the times, no. Lots of my clients rarely print their images and it's often at a maximum size of 8x10 inches. The majority of my clients use their files online. In cases when I know the files will be displayed as bigger prints or the project calls for a higher resolution images, I would rent a full frame. Most images of mine printed in magazines were from those humble 10-megapixel files from the crop-sensor camera.

Do Clients Care About Full Frame?

No. They just need certain types of images for certain purposes. They care to see nice sharp results. I can deliver them with a crop-sensor camera. Can you see the difference between full-frame and crop-sensor cameras in these images?

Headshots side by side

No? Then what, pixel peep? But why? To prove which is which or to tell me there's an striking obvious difference?

Do Fellow Photographers Care About Full Frame?

Definitely, yes. Not only that, but I have clients who hire me and own more expensive camera bodies than I do. Lots of aspiring photographers wonder why I don't use a full-frame body. Others are maybe looking down on me.

Fashion portrait

My Second Camera

After working with just one camera body and risking it a lot (except for the times I rented a full frame as a primary camera) I bought a second camera. Guess what it was? A crop-sensor camera. Now my primary criterion wasn't the price. I sat down and took time to estimate if full frame would bring my business more profit than a smaller sensor. The answer was no. I know what I'm missing but nobody really sees the difference, so why should I pour money into a something that won't return my investment faster? Instead, I spend money on knowledge (workshops, books), additional gear such as computer hardware, and in the last several years, on video equipment. If I need a full-frame body on a shoot, it's cheaper to rent it than buy it.

In the Future

I still don't know if I would buy a bigger-sensor camera in the future. Maybe if I need the resolution I'd spare more on a camera body. Until then I better get a few more lights and modifiers. There can never be enough lights whatever camera I use.

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83 Comments

michael buehrle's picture

and now you can get a quality used full frame pretty cheaply if you need one.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, but I'm not a fan of used cameras. Although it's an option, I'm working on more and more video projects today, so stills camera is not a priority. It's not about the money anymore. It's about priorities and ROI.

Spy Black's picture

"Can you see the difference between full-frame and crop-sensor cameras in these images?"
Whether the image on the right is full or cropped, it is soft. Looks like either a focusing issue or an older lens shot wide open.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks for giving it a try. The lens is the same. The settings are the same. Yes, the lens was wide open here and that's why it's soft. It's almost impossible to guess which is which at this resolution and as you saw, sharpness or bad focus could be an issue regardless of the sensor size.

Other than that, the right one is with a full frame. And yes, it appears soft indeed. It seems the one on the left has been sharpened more than the one on the right (these have been shot in a span of about 1 year and I don't remember how much I sharpened them).

Lenn Long's picture

Confession - I'm a lifetime professional photographer and I have NEVER owned a full frame digital camera. It's not a requirement. Will I in the future? Maybe. However many of the points you addressed are the exact same reason I haven't needed one. In my studio, I control the lights and the majority of my studio portraiture is done at f5.6 - f11. When I'm at events I need the additional range that my crop sensor adds to my 70-200 2.8 a lot more than I need a wider angle of view or shallower depth of field. And I've always been a photographer that wants to have a backup camera that matches the primary so controls are consistently set and I don't have to think "what camera am I holding now?".

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who decided to go in this direction.

David B's picture

Thats another great story explaining spending more on the most expensive gear doesn't matter. I had the budget for a full frame camera, but with ISO performance getting better every year, any camera would be an improvement. I have a personal gripe about using large aperture tele lenses on a crop body, but thats just the engineer inside me talking.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, you are right about the ISO performance. The only major advantage of the full frame today is the sensor size and thus the larger field view.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

As I'm shooting a lot of events, it gives me that extra working ISO, which I could miss if I use the crop. As for the reach - you can crop in post.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, full frame is quite essential for events.

Gerardo D. Duran Jr.'s picture

I’ve always found that it’s all about quality and acceptance (Q&A) and who is doing the acceptance, of the quality.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Nice work! Your photos look really good. I think you're correct that the people that care most about full-frame versus crop sensor cameras are other photographers.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks and yes, photographers care the most, especially beginners.

Richard McNamee's picture

Old Fuji S2 files still look nice. I've borrowed or rented full frame from time to time, very nice but not essential. I watched a young man with a Phase 1 rig and wondered how many jobs to justify a $40K investment? I'm thinking about the Sony as I can use my Canon lens. We should work on composition, lighting and marketing. A 24 meg crop sensor goes a long way.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, a 20+ megapixel file on today's crop sensors is more than enough for almost anything.

Medium format is way better than full frame in terms of sharpness and field of view. Architecture and landscape photographers can take a great advantage of the size of the sensor without the need to use ultra wide angle lenses or make panoramas. These expensive cameras are also great for portrait work but there needs to be a solid ROI in order to spend those $40K.

James karczewski's picture

Who cares wtf you use. If you are more concerned about what other people think of your equipment you have bigger problems to deal with in your life. I was shooting my little 1dx and 70-200/2.8 with 1.4xtc on next to a guy using a 400/2.8 and a slew of d3's. We both got what our client wanted. So my big lens was in the shop, so what. Do the job you were paid to do and move the hell on. If I need to shoot an assignment with a cell phone I wouldn't turn it down. It's a tool. Tools are just like cars, there are a ton of them out there and everyone has their favorite.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, just a tool.

K SANDMANN's picture

I've likewise stuck with cropped sensor myself. Anyhow the 70mm range lol very often frustrates me being just a bit two long. Meh the grass is always greener -

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I feel you. That's one of the tiny disadvantages of the crop sensor with nice lenses such as 24-70.

Kang Lee's picture

I went from full frame Nikon D750 to Fujifilm APS-c, no regrets there. My wallet and my back are happier.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I'm glad I'm not alone (at least from wallet's standpoint).

Alexander Petrenko's picture

What do you usually shoot?

Kang Lee's picture

Portraits and weddings

Korey Napier's picture

Kang, I, too switched from the D750 to Fujifilm over a year ago. I haven't regretted it at all.

Indy Thomas's picture

I have used both and I have to say as a working pro there is no real difference to clients in deliverables.
Some clients like high end beauty products will insist on MF and then if you have FF you are SOL anyway.

The only reason I still use FF is for the Canon 17TS-E. I shoot architecture and products so the issue with low light performance is immaterial.
However I would note that I have used sensors as small as µ43 and still had deliverable product at ISO6400 for event work. People forget that in the days of film ISO 400 transparency film was being crazy bordering on reckless while 1600 color print film only became passable in the waning days of film.

I would note that the article is incorrect in stating that there is more distortion on wide angle lenses on cropped sensor cameras. The distortion (more importantly geometric distortion) is a factor of AOV and is exactly the same irrespective of sensor size.

Anonymous's picture

Regarding your last paragraph, are you sure that's correct? To get the same angle of view, you obviously need a wider lens with an aps-c sensor and I would think the optics are what matters, more than the resulting AOV. In either case, I doubt it's significant. But I don't have much experience with aps-c cameras so this is all just me thinkin'.

Indy Thomas's picture

Perspective is determined by where you place your camera in relation to the subject. Angle of view is determined by focal length.
Thus, I always tell my students, choose where you want to stand first, then choose your focal length.
This also points up the weakness of "zooming with your feet". You can change your AOV but you also change the perspective that can change the entire feel of the image.

Anonymous's picture

I see your point. What about the affect of the lenses ability to correct distortion? I know this is a bigger problem for wider lenses and, again, an aps-c sensor requires a wider lens for the same FOV.

Indy Thomas's picture

Think of a 300 mm lens as a 15mm with a mad crop.
The perspective problem of wide angle lenses is a factor of the proximity of image elements that appear larger or stretched at the edges.
If you crop out the offending bits the perspective is very "normal".

In APS-C a 35 mm lens gives the AOV of a 50 of FF. The perspective is precisely the same in both cases assuming one is standing in the same position.
If you get "distortion" on an APS-C camera because your 10mm lens needs to be used to get in all the subject, your FF image of 15mm will look exactly the same.

Anonymous's picture

While I understand the concept, you can't ignore the fact you have to change your relative position in order to achieve the same AOV with FF vs APS-C. Maybe we're saying the same thing from different perspectives (pun intended). :-)

Indy Thomas's picture

Nope.
If you use a 50mm on FF you will get the same AOV from the same position with APS-C and a 35mm lens.
The official specs for a Fuji 35mm F2 lens state the AOV is 44.2 degrees.
The official spec for the Canon 50mm f1.8 is 46 degrees.
So if you stand in the same place and use these two lenses on the appropriate cameras you will have virtually identical images except for DOF.
Go to a camera store and try it.

Anonymous's picture

I understand that but, won't the 35mm have very slightly more distortion than the 50mm. Once you get to 12mm vs 18mm, I would think the distortion would be more significant.
This is all very interesting but I really don't care enough to test it out. Talking about it is a lot easier! ;-)

Indy Thomas's picture

The distortion you are thinking of is the perspectival "distortion " that occurs at the extreme edges of a wide angle view.
As I have said before this is a function of angle of view which is dictated by focal length and sensor size.
Here is a link to a visual comparison:
https://photographylife.com/sensor-size-perspective-and-depth-of-field
and:
http://imaging.nikon.com/lineup/lens/simulator/

Note that they use one image and crop in because that is precisely how it works.

No one EVER mentions distortion because it is a non-issue. AOV is the only determinant of the apparent distortion caused by perspective stretching.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Let me clarify what I meant about the distortion:

There were times where I used to rent a small studio where I had to shoot full length portraits of people. For that reason I had to use wider lenses on my crop sensor which meant more distortion in the periphery of the frame. If I wanted to have less distortion I had to leave a little margin around the person and eventually crop the file even more. While with full frame I could use, le't say, 50mm for a full length shot in these spaces without any distortion whatsoever.

C D's picture

It amazes me how a lot of people still don't understand the distortion of lenses and sensor size. If you were standing in exactly the same place when taking your full length portrait using a 50mm on FF and then the equivalent lens on crop sensor (approx 32mm on APSC, 25mm on M43) the view will be exactly the same including the distance of backgrounds etc. The difference is in depth of field when the FF will have a more out of focus background if you're using the same aperture value. It's only when you physically move position that you get distortion and different distances in relation to subject and background, for example if you used a 24mm lens on APSC and moved closer to the subject to get the same size subject.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Most people are aware of the depth of field thing but I am talking about distortion here. Not only about distortion at the end of the lens but also if you shoot at eye level the feet of the person will look quite small because of the optics. If you shoot on a white background the wider the lens the smaller the background will appear and you may have to manually cut the person on a full length shot.

If you shoot with a full frame, say on a 50mm you will have less distortion and you will be able to bring the background closer so you don't have to cut them out in post.

You said things that were mostly true but it's the distortion I'm talking about, not depth of field.

C D's picture

I was also talking about distortion - carry out the test I was talking about where you stand in exactly the same position and swap cameras with the lens equivalents and you'll get the same image (except for dof). The reason why your backgrounds are smaller or further away is because your shooting position in relation to your subject is different

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Actually you are correct about the distortion. It will be the same indeed.

Kent LaPorte's picture

Having used crop sensor cameras early in my amateur/hobbiest pursuits I can honestly say that incredible photos can be accomplished and the art of photography definitely relies more on the craft and sensibilities of the individual than the equipment. However, I think it fails the community to suggest that crop sensors can be a budget minded entry. It truly depends on what type of photography you want to achieve. Landscape is an obvious area which can be unforgiving to crop sensors (keeping in mind that even a point and shoot or smartphone can get a good picture).

Yes, one should think about lenses and lighting and balance their budget accordingly, but I would recommend based on my experiences that you should buy up as much as you can because you will eventually become frustrated with the limitations of your equipment or outgrow it and find yourself owning both a crop and full.

Admittedly I am somewhat suspicious about this post as I have come to realize that the camera industry has a vested interest in constantly upgrading you and telling you there entry levels are "good enough". In full transparency is the author or website affiliated with are camera manufacturers. I'm not suggesting any impropriety; I just not sure I understand telling aspiring photographers that there may be acceptable shortcuts. Rather we should be telling them there are trade-offs and compromises. I know that you are sorta of saying this, but it needs to be made clear.

Bottom line- as a landscape photographer I woul buy at minimum a full. For that fact, a medium format may be arguably even better.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I stated that for architecture photography (which is basically the same) the bigger the sensor the better. You don't have to use wide angle lenses that would a) distort the view; b) make objects further away than they are. Also you don't have to make panoramas and this saves you time and accuracy in post. I'm very aware of the limitations of the crop sensors but in my case my main pursuit is video and that justifies my financial decisions.

It's a personal thing and I agree that if you can afford a bigger sensor, you won't regret it.

Gerardo D. Duran Jr.'s picture

I’ve always found that it’s all about quality and acceptance (Q&A) and who is doing the acceptance, of the quality.

stewart sykes's picture

crop sensors get a bad rap. I love my D7100. I think the lens choice is more important than the sensor.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Glass is the most important thing almost all the time but it depends on the type of work a photographer does. For example if you shoot full length portraits in tight spaces you better have a bigger sensor at hand than a wide angle lens that would distort the perspective.

Sam Hood's picture

Correct me if I'm wrong but surely your whole gripe over distortion can be fixed in post once you apply lens correction?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Correcting you: I'm lazy when I'm working in post.

Otherwise, yes, you are right.

Anonymous's picture

Every repair in post comes at a cost. Most of the time it's so minor you wouldn't notice but it's there and they add up. Some of us are perfectionists and others get a good night's sleep. :-)

Anonymous's picture

Im not a professional, but I had a fullframe. A year ago I sold it and bought a crop sensor camera(mirrorless). I was tired of det big heavy body, it was hell to bring around, and took the joy out of photography.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

If you carry around several cases with gear weight of a single body won't matter. But if you carry around just the camera, that's a natural decision: to get a lighter body that shoots high quality images too.

Yoav Karmon's picture

All nice and good and i also use a crop camera for pro uses, but when you said your camera have problems dealing in low ISO there's your problem. if you shoot journalism or landscape you need to take in consideration available light and you'll need to use high ISO. I think investing in a good camera that will hold for a few years and by taking profitable projects you can return your investment in no time.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's correct.

My other cameras deal well with high ISOs. My first one (the 40D) still holds pretty well in low ISO situations but I have it as a backup most of the time. Although high ISO is not that of an issue for me anymore, I rarely go beyond ISO 800 on commercial shoots.

But for everyone who tends to use high ISO values and this is critical for the output quality of the project a better ISO crop sensor camera or a better ISO full frame camera is essential.

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