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‘DSLR Camera, Full-Frame, Crop Sensor’- Just 3 terms which are prevalent in virtually every discussion involving photography. The two terms in use to classify sensor sizes of a DSLR camera are ‘Full-Frame’ and ‘Crop-Sensor.’ A Full-Frame camera contains a sensor size equivalent to a 35mm film format whereas a Crop-Sensor camera has a sensor size smaller than a full-frame sensor or a 35mm film format.
Micro-Four-Thirds (4/3) is a relatively new format (and term). First introduced around 2008, this sensor is slightly smaller and compact in nature. However, owing to a variety of factors, this format is now considered almost equal to, if not better than, the Crop Sensor format.
Apart from the physical size difference, there are several other points of difference between a full-frame sensor, a crop-sensor, and a micro-four-thirds sensor. Let’s take a look at a comparison between them under the following characteristics, to get an accurate understanding of their differences.
As mentioned above, a full-frame camera has a 35mm sensor based on the old film-format concept. Whereas, a crop-sensor (also called APS-C) has a crop factor of 1.5x (Nikon) or 1.6x (Canon). Micro-Four-Thirds are even smaller sensors having a crop factor of 2x.
This crop factor also directly affects our field of view. Simply put, an APS-C sensor would show us a cropped (tighter) view of the same frame as compared to a full-frame sensor, and a Micro-Four-Thirds sensor would show an even tighter (more cropped) output of the same frame.
The focal length obtained by different sensors is also directly associated with crop-factor. The focal length measurement of any given lens is based on the standard 35mm film format. Whenever we use any crop-sensor camera, its sensor crops out the edges of the frame, which effectively increases the focal length. However, this is not the case with any full-frame sensor, as there is no cropping involved with a full-frame field of view.
For example, in the Nikon eco-system, a crop-sensor camera such as the D5600 has a ‘multiplier factor’ of 1.5x. Thus, if I mount a 35mm f/1.8 lens on my Nikon D5600, it would multiply the focal length by 1.5x, thus effectively giving me a focal length output of around 52.5mm. If you mount the same lens on a full-frame Nikon body such as the D850, it gives an output of 35mm.
Similarly, if you mount a 35mm lens on a Micro-Four-Thirds sensor, which has a crop factor of 2x, it effectively doubles the focal length obtained to around 70mm.
Similar to focal length, the aperture or f-stop measurement of a lens is based on the full-frame 35mm format. Similar to focal length, a ‘multiplier effect’ gets applied to the f-stop when using crop-sensors. As we know, the f-stop or aperture is the singular most important factor that affects the Depth of Field.
Thus, a Micro-Four-Thirds camera gives us less (shallow) Depth of Field at similar focal lengths when compared with a full-frame camera. For example, an image shot at f/1.8 on a Micro-Four-Thirds camera would give an output similar to an image shot at f/3.6 on a full-frame camera, and f/2.7 on a crop sensor camera. This is assuming that the effective focal length, and other shooting conditions, are the same.
Generally, full-frame cameras provide not only better low light & high ISO performance, but a better dynamic range. These factors combined eventually produces a much better image output than any crop-sensor camera can achieve.
Full-frame cameras are capable of capturing the most light and will almost always out-perform an APS-C or Micro-Four-Thirds camera body under low-light conditions. Micro-Four-Thirds sensors don’t perform well under low-light conditions where the ISO needs to be cranked up to say, above 2000.
For these reasons, despite full-frame camera kits being expensive, bulky and heavy to carry around, they are still industry-standard and the preferred cameras for virtually all professional photography work.
Thus, while full-frame DSLR’s remaining the industry standard even today, we cannot ignore the undeniable advantages of the Micro-Four-Thirds cameras. Micro-Four-Third cameras, such as the Olympus EP-5 & the Panasonic GH5, are affordable and easy to carry around. Thus, enabling a much larger group of people (who are hobbyists and enthusiasts but not professionals) to have access to DSLR-like shooting conditions at a fraction of the price.
Ultimately, factors such as your budget, use and other criteria define whether you choose either Full-Frame, Crop-Sensor, or Micro-Four-Thirds cameras.
Read more info on sensors here.