It can be hard to make sense of all the information available when deciding to purchase a DSLR camera. If you're struggling to choose between camera bodies, and to understand why some models are more expensive than others, this article will help you figure it out.
The first thing that you need to know in order to make a decision is the difference between full frame cameras and sensor crop cameras (sometimes referred to as entry level cameras).
If you put one full frame camera and one sensor crop camera side by side, used identical lenses and took a photo of the same fixed subject, such as a tree, from the same distance, the result will be different. The picture from a full frame will be wider than a sensor crop, like in the example below:
All images were taken at ISO 1000, f/2, and 1/200. Image by Heidi Stone Photography.
Maybe you are asking yourself: is it just the zoom that matters? It’s actually all about the size of the sensor inside your camera.
Full Frame (FF)
A full frame camera is the one that comes with a 35mm size sensor (which is the same size as movie film format). It means that your sensor can capture everything in the frame without any cropping in the final image. You can control the composition without fear of changing the final look of the photo. If you like to use ultra wide-angle lenses to shoot, a full frame camera is a huge advantage.
With a full frame camera you'll also have more clarity in your photos, because the larger sensor is more sensitive and contains more pixels than a cropped sensor. This makes it easier for you to capture darker scenes, without using flash and high ISOs that produce digital noise.
For these reasons, a full frame camera is more expensive than a sensor crop camera. One of the cheapest full frame cameras available is the Canon EOS 6D, which is $1,500 just for the body, not including any lenses.
Sensor Crop (APS-C)
A sensor crop camera has a sensor that’s smaller than 35mm. Focal lengths for lenses are based on the 35mm standard in full frame cameras, which means images taken on a sensor crop camera will give the appearance of making everything slightly closer than it was in the actual scene (unless you’re shooting with a lens that’s specifically made to be used with a sensor crop camera).
The size of the crop varies depending on the camera brand:
1.3x – Canon EOS 1D/1D MkIIN
1.5x – Nikon D40/D50/D70/D70s/D80/D200/D300/D2XD2Hs Minolta 7D/Fuji S3 Pro Pentax*istDS/K100D/K110D/K10D
1.6x – Canon EOS 300D/400D/20D/30D
2.0x – Olympus E-400/E-500/E-300/E-1
These numbers might not mean much on their own, but they need to be considered with the size of the lens you’re using. For example, if you are taking photos with a sensor crop camera, such as the Canon EOS 300D, with a 50mm lens attached, the focal length is really 80mm because of the crop effect of 1.6 x 50.
This means no matter what you’re shooting, you’ll always lose a little bit of your scene when using a crop sensor camera with lenses made for full frame cameras, but this has advantages when taking photos of sports or other scenes that require zoom, because the cropping brings the subject in a little bit closer.
Additionally, the sensor has a smaller number of pixels, which can affect the overall quality of an image when shooting in low light - it will be less sharp, and digital noise will be more noticeable.
The biggest appeal of these types of cameras is their affordability for amateur photographers. Prices start from $500, and sensor crop lenses are cheaper than the ones you need to purchase for full frame cameras. However, if you own a crop sensor camera and are considering switching to a full frame camera in future, buy full frame lenses only. Crop sensor lenses either don't work or don't work well on full frame camera bodies, and it will save you the time and expense of upgrading your lenses later.
Image by Thomas Ohlsson
Are you still in doubt? Think about what you really need...
Do you need to take photos from long distances, for sports or wildlife photography?
Do you regularly use zoom when shooting?
Do you have a limited budget?
Is photography more of a hobby for you?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, a sensor crop camera is a fine choice.
Are most of your photos taken with wide angles?
Do you need to be close to your subject and shoot with shallow depth of field, such as in portrait or macro photography?
Do you need high quality and more megapixels for printing your photographs, or for editing them with software?
Do you need to take lots of photos in low light?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, it’s worth spending the extra money for a full frame camera.
I already own an SLR. How can I tell what type of camera I have?
Look at your camera manual. You should notice the FF or APS-C letters written somewhere within the name or model number on the cover.
If you also want to find out if you’re using lenses for a full frame or crop sensor camera, you can check on each lens you own what the mounts are, or by doing a quick Google search after typing in the lens details, such as the brand, focal length and aperture range. EF is the mount for Canon full frame cameras, where EF-S is the mount for Canon crop sensors. For Nikon, FX indicates a full frame mount, and DX means the lens has a crop sensor mount.