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

Previous comments
Anonymous's picture

My only objection to cropped sensors is if you're shooting with a lens that was designed for a full frame sensor. Fuji's professional lenses are designed for APS-C sized sensors. The same can't be said of Canon, Nikon or Sony.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Can you describe what exactly happens that is not good with full frame designed lenses on a crop sensor camera.

Anonymous's picture

It might be subjective, but you're shooting more through the center of a full frame lens which is going to affect the image quality. For sports that might be for the better, more edge-to-edge sharpness since the sensor doesn't actually capture the edges of a full frame lens. For my portraiture though, this wasn't a good thing. I would shoot a 85mm f/1.4 at f/2.8 or f/4 on a cropped sensor to get the DOF and bokeh I wanted. On a full frame sensor I can get the same effect when shooting at f/5.6 or f/8 which is much closer to the lenses sweet spot and give that kind of "3D pop" effect that works well for that genre.

I like shooting longer lenses for the compression effect they give and losing that field of view on an APS-C sensor while shooting a full frame lens does make a difference. If my subject is 25 feet away vs. 15 feet away, camera shake is going to be more of an issue. I've never done a head-to-head test, but I would bet money that one would see a difference. Ideally someone would shoot a Full Frame and an APS-C camera with exactly the same megapixel count. I don't know if that exists.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Taking advantage of the DOF is one of the things I still regret when working on a crop sensor as opposed to being on a full frame.

I also don't know if the test you are describing is available online.

Anonymous's picture

It would be interesting to see. No doubt you can make great images with an APS-C sized sensor. Sensor size is really kind of arbitrary with the exception of how it interacts with the design of the lens attached -- at least as far as the difference between APS-C and "Full Frame" is concerned.

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.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

It depends on your clients, your pockets and your probably your age. As an overseasoned photographer I was trained that bigger is better. 35mm was ok, 645 was pointless (IMO) 6x6 was better but 6x7 was to me, the best for film (not counting LF).
So to carry that over to digital, while I have both crop and full frame if the job has a chance for future stock sales or 3rd party licensing I will shoot FF. If it is an event or something I know is "not a big deal" I'll use the crop or A6000.
I have shot images for PR or Marketing clients and then they need the shots for advertising or in a auto catalog-it pays for me to have that larger file available.
If I shot more video, I would use crop cameras for those projects as sometimes 2 or 3 cameras are needed, and you don't need a A7R2 for b roll.
Crop or FF usually makes little difference...until it does.

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.

Chad D's picture

full frame is just a name and it's actually a crop sensor when compared to med format :) hahahahha

I shot about 75+ weddings with an Olympus alongside my Nikon

I have a small paring knife in the kitchen and a chef's knife

I have heavy jackets and windbreakers

reckon most feel like I do choose the tool to do the job it is like arguing primes or zooms etc..

Chad D's picture

in the 80s I remember photographers saying you had to shoot med format to be serious!

then about the 90s 35mm to be cool med format is for old or stale folks

then about 2000 digital will never replace film !!

then about 2010 we started hearing mirrorless will never replace DSLR

funny the early canon 1d were 1.3 crop but they were the cameras that most wanted :)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks for the feedback.

As for the fresnel: I don't have an idea but after a quick search I found some people use an image projector instead:
https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/220668-REG/SP_Studio_Systems_SPBI...

Scott Cushman's picture

As long as you can control the light, pretty much any camera these days can get amazing results. The point of using a full-frame camera is all those times you don't have enough light. I would much rather shoot with strobes, but the reason I have a D810 is events and sports. I know ISO performance on crop sensors has improved greatly, but it's also improved on full frames, and I can still see a difference in a poorly lit gym or when a bride has decided at the last minute on a candle-lit service.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Straight to the point.

Patrick Skinner's picture

I wonder why people worry so much about $1000 difference between cameras when you can just write off the expenses on your taxes at the end of the year. Of course maybe that's not possible in some countries. But still the client just wants a great photo. Most people don't even know what camera is what. If it's big and black with a flash and a cool looking lens on it they think "wow". I brought a 30d to a real estate shoot and the clients were like all impressed with the look of it. I didn't tell them it was used and could be purchased for less then $100 on eBay. They got there pics and the house sold a week later so it didn't matter what camera I had.

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.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I've been toying with the idea of selling my full frame kit for ages and switching to a D500 with the Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 and the Sigma 50-100 f/1.8. I'm pretty sure That kit could do 99% of what I use my current one for at a lower cost and a lighter camera bag. Only thing that has kept my from doing it is that the 50-100 is notorious for having AF issues still.

Jason Bodden's picture

I use a Canon 60D and I love it. I am of the very same mindset you are. I don't care much about ever owning a FF camera. Nobody can tell if I shoot with a crop sensor or FF unless I tell them so it ain't that deep, as they say. I've never owned a FF and I may never own one. But I'm fine with that.

Joseph Clinton's picture

Do you buy Full Frame lenses or Crop Sensor Lenses and why?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I use both. I prefer full frame glass because of the quality. The only drawback I have it the crop factor which doesn't take advantage from the wider end of the lens (I like the wide angles).

Moreno Tagliapietra's picture

Hi, I am a part-time fine art pro with a main career in engineering. When asked about photography, I am always careful to separate photographers in 3 main categories: the professional who makes a living with it, the amateur who does it out of shear passion, and everyone else (conformity, status, etc.). As someone who loves photography, the third category is irrelevant to me. This is a very pragmatic article written more with the brain than with the heart. Nothing wrong with it but it applies more to the professional than to the amateur whose final goal is to have a really good time taking pictures. Certainly being rational and well informed does not hurt but amateurs are entitled to their personal choices, which they don't have to justify to anyone, as long as they make them happy. I am thrilled with the competence and portability of my Olympus EM5II bodies but would not give up my Pentax APS-C because of how pleasurable it feels handling and working with it. Lastly, there is a universal message here: no matter what kind of photographer you are, don't automatically blame your camera for lousy pics and always agonize after bigger, better and more expensive gear. A Ferrari would not make you a better driver, some driving lessons could.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Indeed the article is written with the brain because gear for me is not about the heart. My heart is in the ideas, in directing my subjects, and in the enjoyment when the results come out.

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.

BIPIN GUPTA's picture

Sir, well written article justifying the use of an APSC camera by a Pro. But somewhere I see something amiss. If money and weight bothers you, may I suggest the wonderfully compact Full Frame Pentax K-1. A true beauty and a technical marvel. And the cost, just around US $ 1700. It is an amazing piece of technology. Please do not get biased by the Canikon chaps. I have used Leica, Nikon, Rollei, Hasselblad, Kiev19, Pentacon, Minolta, Ricoh - and the ultimate choice was the Pentax.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thank you. That's good information for the readers.

As for me, weight doesn't bother me, because the total weight of the gear I'm bringing on set is much more than the camera weight itself. The camera weight is negligible. The fact I'm not using a full frame today is not an issue with money but solely a business decision based on the ROI I would have (actually would not have) with it. My main pursue is video and I'm not planning to invest in a still camera any time soon.

But as I said, your advice is good and the information is valuable for the readers. Thank you.

Adam Blake's picture

Really good article and solid points. I recently "upgraded" to a full frame. The reason being is I shoot a lot of boudoir and we use hotel rooms a lot. I felt I was constantly having to work around the crop sensors limits to avoid distortion and get full shots of my clients. I still use the crop sensor camera though regularly though and don't know how I ever would have gotten started with my initial limited budget if I hadn't bought that first crop sensor.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks Adam. Congratulations for the full frame purchase. Just take the maximum of it and put it in extreme situations that it can handle (like what you've described), so you'd never regret it.

And yes, it's great most of us had the opportunity to buy crop sensor cameras for the first time.

ocube O's picture

This article made me smile... I use a 5d MK3 and decided to get second body. Being a full frame shooter I naturally thought of the 6d but went through most of the same arguments you made in my head and I've decided to get a used 7dmkii... Mostly because of the dual card slot.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yeah, we should buy based on practical priorities, not by trends.

Brett Young's picture

What do you think of the Nikon d7500 for commercial use?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I am not acquainted with the specifics of that camera, but I know that every DSLR on the market can be used to make a commercial-looking image. The differences between the cheaper and more expensive models are mainly in the build materials (which means cheaper ones will not last as long as more expensive ones), weather proofing or dust sealing, low light sensitivity, noise at low light, and some limitations such as highest shutter speed and others.

As long as you have a good glass and well-lit situation, the camera is the least important tool.

Karim Hosein's picture

This article is filled with so many misconceptions, it is ridiculous, starting with the first two sentences, and moving on from there. There are times (few & far between) when I wish I had the 36Mpx F-type, instead of the 24Mpx D-type, but to say that it is always better, based on its sensor size alone, is fallacy.

It is as ludicrous a preposition as a heavier camera must have a better build quality than a lighter one. It just keeps going on and on.

I bought a flagship APS-C at a time when my system of choice did not offer an F-type. When It finally did, I started saving up disposable income to buy it. As time went on, I considered all I would need —new lenses, etc.— and the advantages that would materialise….

That is when it became obvious that the F-type investment was folly. There was no real advantage at all. I have more than enough resolution, more than enough sharpness, more than enough bokeh, more than enough FoV…. I have more than enough.

Do not let people con you into getting an F-type based on the hype that a D-type (or MFT) is somehow inadequate. If you want an F-type, get one, but not to satisfy some superiority complex, and especially not because of what others may think.

Can't wait for [DEL] spring [/DEL] [INS] fall [/INS] of 2020 for the new APS-C flagship to come out. (Oh, and horrors of horrors, it is not mirrorless).

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 $$$.

Gerardo D. Duran Jr.'s picture

Is there a photography contest from Fstoppers that offers, one of their “in-depth tutorial” to the winners?