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Full Frame vs. APS-C Sensors for Travel Photography: Does It Really Matter?

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Ten years ago I would have scoffed at APS-C sensors. Amateurs. Pros use full-frame sensors and nothing else. Therefore I only looked at cameras with full-frame sensors.  I didn’t really know the differences between full-frame sensors and APS-C sensors, I just knew that pros used full frame and that’s all I cared about because that’s what I was told by people selling cameras.

In my “choosing a travel camera” article I touched a little bit on how my “needs versus wants” changed over the course of my career. And I saw that my long-held beliefs about full-frame vs. APS-C weren’t right.

I wasn’t printing giant wall murals.  I would print a 12″x18″ every now and then but I was mostly selling stock photos for magazines & digital publications. 

A number of these were made with the APS-C Sony a6000 & a6300 because I liked traveling with those smaller cameras.  I made these sales based on the image, not the sensor.

Just take a look at Ken Kaminesky. This dude has had a few National Geographic covers. He’s a Fujifilm X-Photographer, one of the elite brand ambassadors for Fujifilm. He was one of the first to field test the X-T2, a 24MP APS-C mirrorless camera, after regularly using the 16MP X-T1.

I’ll answer the question now: No, full-frame sensors are not “better” than APS-C sensors. They generally have more capability, but does that matter to what you do?


What are the differences between Full Frame and APS-C sensors?

Don’t confuse megapixels, or pixel count, with sensor size.

Sensor size is the physical dimensions of the sensor, not how many pixels are on the sensor.

  • A full-frame sensor measures 36mm x 24mm – the traditional size for 35mm cameras.
  • An APS-C sensor size is smaller, measuring 23.6mm x 15.7mm.

You can have both a 16-megapixel full-frame camera and a 24-megapixel APS-C camera. The smaller APS-C sensor in this example crams a lot more pixels onto that smaller space. Which isn’t always better.

full frame vs aps-c sensor size
Sensor size comparison. Wikimedia commons.

Advantages of Full Frame vs APS-C

Better light sensitivity & dynamic range

So we’ve established that full-frame sensors are physically larger than APS-C sensors.

Say you have a 24MP camera. What happens when you take the 24 million pixels on a full-frame sensor and cram them onto an APS-C sensor?  You have to shrink the pixels to fit them in this smaller space.

Think of these pixels as buckets, that’s a common analogy. If you put 24 million buckets on a full-frame sensor then they can be physically larger than the 24 million buckets on an APS-C sensor. There’s just more room for them.

That means that they can collect more water – or in this case, light. If you have a given pixel count, those pixels will be able to gather more light on a full-frame sensor than they would be able to on an APS-C sensor.

This is why most full-frame cameras have a higher dynamic range than APS-C sensors – the pixels are usually larger, thus they can give you a larger tonal range.

There are some APS-C cameras, however, that have a higher dynamic range than their full-frame counterparts due to technological advances.

It’s not about the size of the sensor, it’s about the size of the pixel and the technology associated with it.

Shallow depth of field

I didn’t even want to bring this up because it can get messy with all the math.

Yes, the same 50mm f/1.8 lens will have a different hyperfocal distance between a full-frame camera and an APS-C camera. You’ll get a shallower depth of field – or background blur – out of the full-frame camera.

But it’s apples and oranges by this point. You can still get an incredibly shallow depth of field with an APS-C camera, it just takes a different lens.

Accurate focal length & wide lenses

A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera has a focal length of 50mm. There’s no conversion involved.

An APS-C camera crops the image by, normally, 1.5x. So that 50mm lens will give you an apparent focal length of roughly 75mm on an APS-C camera.

Now think about this in regards to that 16mm super-wide lens you bought for those amazing skyscapes. Put that lens on an APS-C camera and now you have a perspective equal to a 24mm lens. It’s wide, but not the super-wide view you bought the lens for.

In fact, it’s tough to find super-wide lenses for APS-C cameras because of this.

Higher resolution

Because of the larger image area and the larger lens in front of it, you’ll generally get higher resolution with full-frame cameras.  And I’m talking about zooming way in and looking at all the fine details.

Have you tried zooming in on images from a compact point-and-shoot or a compact drone that uses a 1/2.3″ sensor?  Yeah, they’re crap when zoomed in because the sensors are about the size of a fingernail, not a Post-It note.

If you’re a pixel-peeper, this will be important to you.  If you just want to get published in some magazines, it doesn’t matter.

full frame vs aps-c cameras
A full-frame body (left) next to two APS-C bodies. From camerasize.com

Advantages of APS-C vs Full-Frame

Smaller cameras & lenses

That smaller sensor doesn’t need as large of a camera body to fit in. The camera also doesn’t need to be as robust to hold those large lenses required for full-frame cameras. Thus, they can be made smaller and lighter.

APS-C sensors can also take smaller lenses. Because the image area is smaller, the overall lens can be smaller, requiring less glass.

All of this will cut down on the weight of the camera and lens.

Lower costs

The sensor is one of the most expensive things in a camera.

So it should go without saying that the smaller one is cheaper to produce (given it has the same technology).

And as we just saw, the camera bodies and lenses can be smaller. This generally means that they will be cheaper too, barring some other kind of super-fancy technology found on the camera.

Zoom your lenses

This was a disadvantage to APS-C cameras in the previous section, and it’s an advantage here.

A 300mm lens for a full-frame camera is going to be large and expensive. To get that same equivalent focal length on an APS-C camera you only need a 200mm lens because the crop factor will multiply it.

Oh, and that lens will also be cheaper and smaller because it’s for an APS-C camera.

Deeper depth of field

Landscape photographers will be able to get more foreground & background elements in focus at larger apertures thanks to the effects of depth of field, which was previously a disadvantage for those looking for an extremely shallow depth of field.


Conclusion

I’m not trying to talk you into APS-C cameras or say that they’re better than full-frame cameras in general.

There are certainly photographers who, based on their business, need full frame vs APS-C. Or you just have a thing for full-frame cameras. That’s totally fine, I did too for the longest time.

All I’m trying to say is that generally, for travel photography, I’d argue that an APS-C sensor will meet your needs.  And there are a number of good ones for under $500. In fact, if you don’t regularly make prints larger than 36 inches, an even smaller micro four-thirds sensor might do you just fine.

For those of you who still say, you need a full-frame camera because APS-C sensors are inferior, then let me ask you, why don’t you get a medium-format camera because full-frame sensors are inferior to those?

If you haven’t considered an APS-C camera because of the things you’ve heard from armchair photographers in the forums, I’d urge you to consider them.

And remember that when someone looks at your pictures in magazines, they won’t be asking, “I wonder what sensor size they used.” They’ll just be awed by the photo because you’re a good artist who can make the best of the camera you have.

What are your thoughts on all this?  Please leave them below!

Tim

Monday 11th of October 2021

Bit disingenuous to say that modern apsc cameras outperform older full frame, when the 10 year old d600 still leaves every apsc camera in the dirt for dynamic range and signal to noise ratio.

Also disingenuous to say crop is lighter\cheaper, as you get the same dof from lenses a stop slower on full frame, and you don't need a retrofocal section on wider FF equivalent lenses until you get much wider, f2.0 lenses on FF tend to be much cheaper and lighter than f1.4 lenses on crop.

Also disingenuous to say crop gives you more reach, when in nearly all circumstances it's identical to just doing digital zoom on full frame, in fact that's all crop really is, full frame with a 50% digital zoom applied.

John Peltier

Monday 11th of October 2021

And you've been a bit disingenuous by distorting the words I wrote and the point I was getting across. Sony APS-C sensors' DR is within a third of a stop of the D600 and I would challenge any photographer to be able to just look at a picture and notice that without scientific testing. Other prosumer and consumer FF bodies from the last decade don't even come close to the DR of the current Sony APS-C sensors. A Fujifilm X-S10 w/ 50-140mm f/2.8 is still smaller, lighter, and cheaper than a Canon 5DIV with 70-200mm f/4 II, if that extra stop matters, which it doesn't to many photographers. A 50mm lens is a 50mm lens on any size sensor - but it allows you to get a tighter field of view on an APS-C sensor, compared to a FF sensor where you'd typically need a larger lens to get the same optical FoV. Some photographers would prefer to have the physically smaller lens and get that cropped image than carry a larger lens and digitally crop on the computer. We can pick which cameras and lenses and sensors we want to compare to support our side all day - the point is, the technology has caught up, and the things that matter to some photographers do not apply to all photographers. The folks who broadly say "FF is better than APS-C" are doing photographers a disservice because they don't consider that last point.

gregory davenport

Sunday 5th of September 2021

I transitioned from 35mm film to an APS-C sensor camera. This sensor size fulfilled my needs for generic photography. It was the transition to Full Frame sensor and Medium Format sensor cameras that kicked up my image delivery quality several notches. Ultimately it's what floats YOUR boat [not someone else's] that matters. I happen to use cameras with APS-c sensor, Full Frame sensor and Medium Format sensor as tools, in varied environments. I own a a diverse group of camera equipment - and use it all. I have clients that require not just a second shooter, but a third - and fourth shooter at locations on occasion. I have a family owned photography business - and everyone has been trained by me on how to use the equipment I purchase.

My advice is, if you’re new to digital photography - there is nothing wrong with starting out with small sensor size camera like an APS-C.

John Peltier

Tuesday 7th of September 2021

Amen to that - what floats your boat and not anyone else's! Beautifully stated! I love my medium format but it just doesn't work in situations where APS-C is better suited, and vice-versa.

john

Sunday 4th of April 2021

yes you are correct

Andre Beukes

Friday 8th of January 2021

In response to Terri Russell;

I recently made the switch from a Canon 5D2 with pro-grade red badge lenses, "down" to a "mere" Fuji X-H1 and mid-range lenses. Multiple reasons for the change, but price was one of them.

In your situation I would actually trade in the camera bodies you have for either the Canon EOS RP, or the Nikon Z6. Either can be had for under $1000, plus whatever you get on trade-in. This keeps your lenses, and 'system of comfort', while giving you full frame (but note that EF-S lenses won't work without showing vignetting).

If you are keen on Fuji, make sure you understand these are more about the image than about the gear. Fuji's get out of your way and let you capture what you are seeing, and make pretty good JPEGs without needing to faff with post-processing.

I'd recommend the X-S10 or used X-T3, or the X-E3 if rangefinder is your style. At a lower price point the X-H1 comes in, along with the slightly older bodies. Note that all these are 24+ mp so compete with the bodies John mentions.

Terri Russell

Friday 1st of January 2021

Hi John, I really appreciate what you have shared in comparison of the Sony and Fuji. I do not yet have a mirrorless camera. I have standard Canon and Nikon camera and lenses. I like my cameras. I would love full frame. My challenge is the price. And the weight.

I have been looking at the mirrorless camera for awhile. It is not as heavy, a huge positive. I have been looking at those cameras and iPhones. It is a difficult decision. I like macro and zoom photography. I am not shooting for a magazine. My approach is more as an artist. Some of the sites I would like to make my images available to might require the print size to go as big 48 inches.

I do know there is software that helps with this. I do think that it is best to start with the best possible image first, build on that. With all that in mind I do wonder if a full frame might be a good choice for me eventually. I also wonder if it might be good to start with a mirrorless APS-C camera first. I like resolution and depth of field. I very rarely shoot automatic. I like the control that manual gives. I always shoot raw. I don't mind investing time in processing or developing my images. For me the image is the first step in the creative process. I like playing with them, altering them.

I am also a sculptor. I have to photograph all of my sculptures for entry into shows. My Canon can do this, but I would also like to photograph some of the process during the sculpting and firing. That might require video. I have not been impressed with the video from my Canon. That might be operator error. I have had more success with the iPhone.

With all this in mind which Fuji mirrorless would you suggest. I assume Fuji does not make a full frame. If I am wrong I would appreciate info on both. I would appreciate a range of pricing. Do you have a comparison between Fuji and iPhone 12 pro max? I would appreciate your feedback.

Thanks Terri

John Peltier

Friday 8th of January 2021

Yeah I've been thinking of how to answer this without getting too into the weeds. You're correct, Fuji skipped full-frame format and went from APS-C to Medium Format. The new X-S10 is an amazing little camera, but even the older used cameras still have plenty of life in them. If budget is a concern, and you don't want to drop too much money getting into a system you don't quite know if you want to stay in, then I'd recommend buying a used X-T2 or X-T3 or something like that from B&H or Adorama.