When you’re first getting into photography the lexicon of new words can be overwhelming. When I first started shooting with a Nikon D50, a friend of mine (who had actually given me the Nikon as a hand-me-down) tried explaining the difference between full frame and crop frame sensors. He gave me a very technical and thorough explanation. Needless to say I still had no idea what the difference was or how he could tell from looking at a photograph whether it was shot on a cropped or full frame sensor. For months after, I simply wrote it off as something that did not apply to me and happily went along my way, learning to shoot in manual mode with one camera, not concerning myself with any others. But after a while, I kept hearing the terms being tossed around and still had no idea what they meant. So I broke down and learned something.

While it’s not critical for a new photographer to know, like a guitarist learning to play bar chords, even if you never use it, it’s something you really should have knowledge of. So with no further adieu, I present to you, the simple, boiled-down and in no-way-technical distinction between full frame and cropped sensors.

Full Frame Sensors

A full frame sensor is a sensor equal in size to 35mm film. Going back to 1908, 35mm has been the gold standard for film size due to it’s cost to quality ratio.  There are higher quality films (think Imax) and there are cheaper (8mm home video if you remember that), but 35mm is the agreed upon go to for professional imaging. So a full frame sensor is traditional. Aside from that, the benefits of a full frame sensor include a higher dynamic range, better low-light and high ISO performance, and a wider field of vision compared to a crop sensor.

Crop Sensor

A crop sensor is just what it sounds like; it’s a sensor that produces a cropped version of what a full frame sensor will pick up. Another way to think about it is (this): it’s like a full frame sensor that’s constantly zoomed in slightly. It’s not actually zoomed in but just think of it like that to help visualize the difference. Now, if you push in on a long lens, you get beautiful results, but if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, for example, because of the crop, you are only seeing about 31mm of the frame. So you are not actually capturing what you see through the viewfinder. So what’s the advantage of a crop sensor? For one you can squeeze a little bit more zoom out of your telephoto lenses. There is math involved to calculate exactly what your “zoom factor” is, but that’s a bit beyond this explanation. Suffice to say, a crop sensor will zoom in closer than a full frame with the same lens. The other, and often more deciding factor for new photographers is the price. A crop sensor costs significantly less than a full frame sensor to produce, up to twenty times less.

That’s it, in a nutshell. Not too painful. If you’d like to know more, check out this technical explanation on SLR Lounge.

Visual and auditory learners: video below, just for you.

Courtesy SLR Lounge.


You can follow Tom Kray on twitter @tomkray

He also has a website www.the-fas.com