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

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!

14 Comments

  1. Hi Jamie, you’re correct when you say that a 50mm lens is a 50mm lens. The physical focal length does not change. But the composition will be totally different from one sensor to the next, and that’s the takeaway. That’s the “apparent” or “equivalent” focal length part, all due to the crop.
    A 50mm lens on a FF sensor will have roughly a 40-degree FOV. On a crop sensor it becomes roughly 25 degrees. Portrait photographers will have different working distances when using the same focal length between a FF camera and an APS-C camera to get the same framing, which will impact the DOF, and that’s the point I wanted to get across here.
    Your point about hyperfocal distance – this is not true. A 50mm lens on a 24MP APS-C camera will magnify a scene more than a 50mm lens on a 24MP FF camera, affecting the parts of the photo that “appear to be sharp”, thus the hyperfocal distance is different. This can be verified in any hyperfocal distance calculator.

  2. One of the reasons I’m attracted to mirror less cameras is the ability to use adapters and my old Zuiko lenses from my OM-1 and 2n. Does this affect the perspective of the lens in terms of effective magnification? I’ve heard that Micro 4/3rds roughly double the effective length of the lens. My nomenclatures is probably wrong as I don’t know all that much, but I hope you get my drift…
    Thanks for a very good discussion of the Sony cameras, I have an old Nex 6 which I enjoy, but I really only scratched the surface with it and now I’m told it’s hopelessly outdated. I’m thinking of the 6400 or 6500 but the Alpha 7 series might be better for my primarily hand held landscape photography I do. I also shoot a fair amount of film as well. Thanks for your time

    • Hi Mark, yes, when you put those old amazing 35mm lenses on an APS-C or M43 camera, the effective focal length will multiply by about 1.6x or 2x, respectively. Imagine the image coming through your lens is projected on a white screen – that’s the 35mm view. An APS-C will only capture a small rectangle within that, while the M43 will capture an even smaller rectangle inside. All of the image outside of those rectangles is “lost” even though it’s still entering the lens.

      • I think gain in apparent focal length results in magnifictmagn of scene from the same distance.However sensitivity is comprised due to less light for same megapixel cameras.However if MP count for full frame is say 1.5 times of that apsc with other things remaining same we get true magnification of a particular subject. Also if the sensitivity and processing engine is better in the spac camera the quality would be same with effective increase in focal length.Is it true?

        • Yes, that’s mostly correct, but at that point you’re having to do some very scientific studies to compare quality. There are so many factors that go into it. All that really matters is that you have a great photo. If you do, no one is going to be zooming in with a magnifying glass or at 200% to study your camera’s noise or color gradients.

          • I use a 21mp Nikon D500 and it is the same size and weight as its full-frame brothers. I have enlarged to 40×30 inches, no problem at all. I don’t crop, preferring to get things right in-camera. I have had no problems with low-light photography or dynamic range, having 14EV to play with. I have taken clean images up to 25200 ISO and really don’t see the benefit of trading up to full-frame when my D500 does everything required of it.

  3. There are two additional (and somewhat subtle) points to consider;

    Most full frame cameras are pro bodies, defined as ‘bodies that make it easy to shoot in manual mode’. For my Sony FF camera, I set ISO to auto, then put it in M mode. The top two sliders are then aperture/shutter, and the Exposure compensation is the change in ISO away from computed.

    This is actually both a very easy way to shoot (with practice!) and gives you the greatest control. Its the mode I use all the time on FF. The only Sony FF body that doesn’t give you this is the new 7C (and possibly the original a7 given it may not have Auto ISO). APS-C bodies almost always assume you will not use manual and simply don’t have enough controls to do it quickly, and you end up chimping looking at soft dials and touchscreens. I’d go so far as to suggest manual mode is the mode that teaches you photography the quickest, and it is often artificially too hard on an APS-C body.

    The other issue is that given an equally rated for noise/quality FF and APS-C sensor, the FF will be significantly better when you use FF vs APS-C lenses. Just check the DxOMarks of FF and equivalent APS-C lenses to see how different they were in the past! Its getting better, but generally only when you consider APS-C primes. I own Sony a7xxx and A6xxx models, and although the sensors may be close, once you factor in lenses, the differences can be surprising if you only look at sensors!

    • Wholeheartedly disagree.

      While this may be true within the Sony system, it’s not just false as a generalization, but the opposite of what you’re saying when looking at Fujifilm APS-C bodies.

      Fujifilm APS-C bodies give me a dial for shutter speed, a dial for ISO, and a lens ring for aperture. This makes working in manual mode far easier than trying to do it with a Sony FF body. I know what my settings are just by looking at the body, instead of having to “chimp” at my screen like you have to do with a Sony to see what your manual settings are. So by your definition of “pro body” – bodies that are easier to use in manual mode – Fuji APS-C is “more pro” than Sony FF. But I do agree with you if you stay within the Sony system.
      (As an aside, you’re not really in Manual mode if you’re using AUTO ISO, you’re in Aperture-Shutter Priority mode, and thankfully my Fuji APS-C cameras have a dedicated ISO dial I can quickly change without going into any menus)

      Regarding the lenses…I compare images I took with Sony FF and Fuji APS-C and don’t see any differences unless I’m zoomed in to 100% full resolution and looking for differences. Even then, it’s extremely subtle. Fuji’s sensors don’t have anti-aliasing filters, which helps increase the sharpness.
      DxOMark lens ratings are like CIPA battery life ratings – they’re only comparable under controlled, consistent conditions. A “lower-rated” lens can be sharper than a “higher-rated” lens under numerous different circumstances, especially how the photographer uses it.

      So yes, FF lenses generally have higher ratings than APS-C lenses as a matter of physics. But practically speaking, it’s a moot point. The general public doesn’t view images at 100% full-res, and they won’t even care if an image is imperceptibly softer if it makes them feel an emotion. Look at the great photographs from the era of print magazines – they’re way softer than what we can do with today’s digital cameras, but are still considered masterpieces for their content.

    • By “just realized this” you mean ten years ago, as I disclosed in the beginning of the article?
      Do you take more issue with me sharing this revelation with new photographers than you do with huge internet photography personalities still saying crap like, “everyone needs to shoot in RAW on a full frame sensor if they want to be successful”?

  4. 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

    • 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.

  5. 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.

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