What is A Crop Sensor and What Does It Mean?

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So you’re shopping for new photography equipment and you think you’ve got a handle on the basics. The next thing you know, you stumble upon the term “crop sensor”. You read a little further into it and see marketing lingo harping on about the advantages of “full-frame” options.

What is a crop sensor anyway, and should you think twice about buying one? Is there a significant difference between crop sensors and full-frame models? If you’re scratching your head about this aspect of photography, don’t worry — you’re not alone.

This page is designed to clear up your confusion. You’ll leave knowing what makes a sensor “cropped”, the main things to keep in mind when shopping, and how to see through the misleading marketing language.

Read on to learn more.

Crop Sensors Explained

In a nutshell, the terms “full-frame” and “cropped” are simply referring to the size of the sensor your camera is using. Full-frame sensors are larger and the same size as traditional 35mm film.

Back when film photography was in full force, 35mm became the standard film size used most universally. Full-frame cameras became the standard used for this type of photography. Today, full-frame sensors remain larger than their cropped counterparts, but it’s incorrect to conclude that this means they’re always better.

Most cameras are capable of taking phenomenal shots — your specific use case will determine which camera is the best fit for you.

Common Types of Cropped Sensor

When shopping around for cameras, you may see the following formats advertised:

  • APS-C (Canon uses a slightly smaller APS-C format than competitors)
  • Four thirds
  • 2/3”
  • 1/2.5”

APS-C is by far the most ubiquitous variant of cropped sensor currently available, but four-thirds options are also quite easy to find.

sensor-size-comparison

What is Crop Factor?

Another important term to get to grips with is crop factor. In short, it’s used to help photographers understand how a digital camera will perform relative to an equivalent film option. All calculations for crop factor are made in reference to the 35mm film format.

It tells users what their field of view will look like when using their digital camera. Ever used a cheap point-and-shoot and noticed that the image looks super “zoomed-in”? The camera was probably using a higher crop factor.

A camera with a crop factor of 1 is the same size as a 35mm film equivalent. This is what we refer to as “full-frame”. If a sensor has a crop factor of 2, a 35mm film frame is twice as large.

Knowing the crop factor of your camera makes it easier to know how it will perform and what to expect when using it. Manufacturers provide what’s called a crop factor number. Users can take this number and multiply it by the focal length of the lens they’re using.

The resulting figure is the equivalent focal length they can expect relative to a 35mm, full-frame device.

Crop Sensors VS Full-Frame Sensors — Image Quality

We dive into the other pros and cons of cropped sensors vs full-frame sensors below, but we wanted to address image quality first. It’s the primary concern of most buyers. When comparing camera formats, it can be difficult to provide the black and white answers that many people are looking for.

While as a very general rule, a full-frame sensor is capable of delivering a higher image quality than a cropped equivalent, it’s far from being a clear-cut winner. Image quality is a complex concept with multiple factors to think about.

That’s before we even get into other considerations like price and convenience. Some more premium cropped cameras can actually outperform lower end full-frame options, so it’s worth reading further to understand things in full detail.

Cropped Sensor Wins

This section explores some of the reasons why it might be a good idea to consider a cropped sensor over a full-frame option. Keep in mind that there’s a vast amount of choice out there.

It’s important to research any specific camera you’re looking at thoroughly — knowing that a product is full-frame or cropped isn’t enough information on its own.

Price

Cropped sensors are typically much cheaper to produce than full-frame options. This means that a cropped camera can save you a decent chunk of money with even a small amount of shopping around.

Unless your requirements are professional, you’re unlikely to notice a significant difference if you pick a good camera. We strongly recommend considering cropped cameras if price is a priority.

Telephoto Photography (Sometimes)

As we briefly mentioned earlier, a higher crop factor results in an image that appears more “zoomed-in”. In certain applications like telephoto photography, this can actually prove advantageous.

For sports photos, for example, this extra reach can give certain photographers an edge. It’s important to note that this advantage applies to higher end cropped sensors that can still deliver excellent image quality.

Size and Weight

The smaller sensor size associated with cropped products means that they’re usually much smaller and easier to carry around with you. If you value portability, it’s well worth considering a cropped camera.

Add the smaller footprint to the fact that these options can usually save you a fair bit of money, and you’re looking at a pretty compelling package. It all comes down to how much performance you need as a hobbyist and whether you’re likely to need the extra room afforded by the full-frame format.

Ease of Use

Again, this depends on the specific model in question but cropped cameras can often be simpler to use. Their target demographics include more casual users. For this reason, cameras using cropped sensors tend to be easier to get to grips with.

Keep in mind that you should definitely double-check this with any specific model you consider.

Cropped Sensor Losses

While a smaller format isn’t usually an issue for casual users, there are disadvantages that come with cropped models.

Versatility

The smaller size of cropped sensors means they’re less capable of adapting to a range of environments. Low-light performance is one area where this is particularly noticeable. A full-frame camera will typically perform much better in this regard.

Calculating Focal Length Can Be a Headache

The crop factor of these sensors affects the real-world focal length you’ll be working with. Professional photographers who use multiple lenses throughout a shoot can find the calculations involved for determining focal lengths a bit of a hassle.

Less Data For Your Images

The larger size of full-frame sensors means they can capture scenes with far more data. Not only does this make post processing tasks easier, it also maintains image quality much better for large photo prints.

This is one area where cropped products fall short. If extensive editing or printing are important parts of your photography, look into full-frame options.

FAQs – Crop Sensors

This section addresses some of the most common questions we encounter about this kind of sensor.

Is a Crop Sensor Good Enough?

The short answer is, yes — usually. The longer answer is that it depends on your specific requirements. For casual users, the savings associated with most cropped cameras are more than worth it in our opinion.

If you’re a professional, however, a full-frame option is probably the way to go. The increased low-light performance, image data, and overall versatility will serve you well. It’s just that more casual users may not even notice this bump in performance.

Who Should Use a Cropped Sensor?

Any number of people can produce stunning images with a cropped sensor. That said, they’re definitely worth considering if:

  • Price is important to you
  • You do certain kinds of telephoto photography
  • Portability is a priority
  • You don’t need pro-level performance

Our advice is to check out individual reviews for any specific camera model you’re considering. The crop factor alone probably isn’t enough information to go on.

Is a Crop Sensor Better for Wildlife?

In some circumstances, yes. The extra zoom provided by a cropped sensor can give users an edge when capturing far-away subjects. It’s all about the performance of your individual camera, though, so it’s important to consider other factors as well.

Cropped Sensors — Final Thoughts

We hope this page has cleared up any confusion. While crop factor and smaller sensors can appear immensely complex to the uninitiated, they’re less difficult to understand than many people realize.

In short, full-frame sensors are larger, usually more versatile, and come with a significantly higher price tag. Cropped options can still perform very well and can even outpace full-frames in the right context.

Add this to the fact that cropped models tend to be cheaper and easier to carry with you, and it’s easy to see why there’s no clear winner with this debate. It all comes down to the type of photography you do and the priorities that come with it.

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