Full Frame or APS-C for Wildlife Photography – Which is Best?

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Choosing between a full frame or cropped sensor camera for wildlife photography can be a tough decision. Both options offer their own benefits, so choosing between the two can cause quite the headache. Lots of photographers have their opinions, but choosing what’s right for your own use will largely come down to your personal style of shooting. So let’s break it down.

FX full frame and APS-C - Full Frame or APS-C for Wildlife Photography - Which is Best?

The Basics

Most modern camera companies use either full frame or APS-C (crop) type sensors in their DSLR (and mirrorless) cameras. The former is often classed as the professional standard, with the sensor size being a close replica to that of a 35mm film negative.

APS-C on the other hand, is roughly two thirds the size of a full frame sensor, resulting in the field of view being multiplied by a factor of 1.5-1.6x that of a standard full frame model. These sensors feature mostly in the lower tiered offerings by camera companies, with the chips being less expensive to produce.

Full Frame or APS-C for Wildlife Photography - Which is Best?

Working with APS-C means you can travel lighter.

Crop Factor

For APS-C models one of the largest benefits for wildlife photographers is that of the additional crop factor. The 1.5-1.6x magnification of your optics can be hugely beneficial when working out in the field, trying to photograph small birds or distant wildlife.

The crop factor also allows you to get a similar angle of view with a far smaller lens, helping to reduce the gear you need to carry while still giving you great telephoto reach. This is something a lot of photographers find as a huge benefit, as they can minimize the size and weight of the gear they need to carry out into the field.

For example, a 70-200mm lens on a 1.5x crop-factor body gives you the equivalent of a 105-300mm lens. A perfect compact wildlife setup.

APS-c cameras crop factor can be a great benefit for wildlife photography - Full Frame or APS-C for Wildlife Photography - Which is Best?

APS-C cameras crop factor can be a great benefit for wildlife photography.

ISO Sensitivity

One of the large benefits of a full frame camera is that of better image quality when shooting at high ISO. The larger sensor means in the individual pixels (and light sensitive photo sites) are larger than those on an APS-C type camera. This means as a general rule they are more sensitive to light, allowing cleaner noise-free images at high ISO settings, something that is fabulous when trying to work and photograph wildlife in low light conditions.

Now with modern sensor advances, APS-C models of the past few years have come up leaps and bounds in terms of ISO performance – easily being useable to ISO 6,400. But, if low light usability is key for the subjects you’re working with, a full frame camera is still king.

Full Frame or APS-C for Wildlife Photography - Which is Best?

APS-C cameras can still make great results at a high ISO.

Depth of Field

When comparing that of full frame sensors with APS-C models, one extra thing to consider is the depth of field characteristics and how areas are rendered out of focus.

With the smaller sensor in APS-C models, they give the effect of having a larger depth of field at equivalent apertures when compared to a full frame camera. This means that if you are going after images that render clean bokeh and have a very restricted depth of field to isolate and direct your viewer’s attention to your subject, a full frame model will be better suited.

Full Frame or APS-C for Wildlife Photography - Which is Best?

Full frame cameras are great for shallow depth of field effects.

Of course, if you do a large amount of macro work and want to maximize the depth then an APS-C camera might be right up your alley.

Resolution

In the past few years, technology has advanced in resolution steadily, with cameras being introduced that have high 36-42 megapixel sensors. For the most part, ultra high-res sensors have been used in the realms of advertising and commercial photography for years. But of course, now having been brought into DSLRs they offer photographers more flexibility.

The high resolutions models are mainly full frame sensors, as packing huge numbers of pixels onto small sensors can heavily impact their quality. The FX models that have high resolution offer a unique advantage, as they make the most of the benefits of full frame models, yet offer the ability to crop heavily to replicate the crop factor of those advanced APS-C DSLRs.

Often a disadvantage is that these high-resolution cameras are slower in terms of frames per second, due to internal data writing limitations. But this is advancing all the time, especially with new forms of storage media offering faster write times.

 

Full Frame or APS-C for Wildlife Photography - Which is Best?

High megapixel full frame cameras offer great all-around performance.

The full frame camera with a high-resolution sensor can be somewhat of a perfect compromise for those wanting the ISO performance and bokeh rendering benefits of full frame, combined with the ability to crop. Providing, of course, that they aren’t to hung up on needing blazing fast frame per second shooting rates.

Cost

One factor that always plays a part when looking to buy new gear is that of cost. Full frame bodies by their nature are more expensive, with the chips inside being harder to engineer and more expensive to produce. APS-C cameras are often found at lower price points, but this depends on the body design and extra features such as speed, construction, and technologies implemented.

Some full spec APS-C cameras are significantly more expensive than full frame models due to the advanced autofocus features, frame rates, and build quality.

So what to choose?

For wildlife photography, it largely depends on your target subjects.

If you love photographing birds and small creatures, a high-end APS-C body that combines the crop factor with speed will serve you well. The crop factor is also a huge benefit if you want to get a longer telephoto reach without having to shell out for ultra-expensive super telephoto lenses. Meaning you can have a small set up that offers a good compromise for most situations.

If you want to truly get the best performance and quality, full frame models are where to look. The high-resolution sensors and excellent low light performance make for great image quality. However, of course, you’ll also need to invest in the best optics to make the most of them.

These are both costly and a large burden to carry around. However, if you want the best quality imaginable that’s what it takes. For those starting out investing, an APS-C model would be my recommendation. Save your funds to buy decent quality lenses, as these will largely make more of a difference to your images than a single stop of ISO or a slightly higher resolution sensor.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Tom Mason

is a professional nature photographer and content creator from the UK. Passionate about the natural world, he aims to document and share stories from the wild. A professional lecturer Tom loves engaging and enthusing others about wildlife photography and helping them to achieve their own goals. Check out his website here.

  • I strongly support Tom Mason’s conclusions. As the author of the Cruises & Cruises website (www.cruisesandcameras.com) where I review many cameras for use on cruises and other travel photography situations, the cameras I buy and keep are mostly Fujifilm, Sony, Olympus and Lumix (brands) with APS-C-sensors, Micro Two-Thirds sensor and a Sony’s most-recent 1″ sensors.

    Especially if most of your work appears on the web and in 13×19″ enlargements (the largest paper-size for affordable home printers), I think everything that Tom says about about cameras with APS-C sensors, applies equally to the the best Olympus, Panasonic and Leica cameras with Micro Four-Thirds sensors, and to the one-inch sensor built into the Sony RX100-V.

  • In my local camera club, I see a trend towards more people choosing mirrorless cameras. Olympus and Panasonic with their Micro Four-Thirds are the most popular, with Fuijifilm not far behind. Some also choose the full-frame from Sony, but this camera is at a price range out of reach for many amateurs.

    What I find surprising is that some websites, like DPS, very seldom even mention CSC’s like Olympus. It’s like they don’t exist. I would think that the added reach and compact size would be very beneficial for wildlife photography, albeit at the expense of typical lower performance in low-light and somewhat lower image quality compared pixel to pixel.

  • Nice article, but for folks who venture far off trail into the back country you also need to discuss super zoom / bridge cameras. If your birding or wildlife photography takes you miles off road from a trailhead, both the full sensor and aps-c are not very pratical due to both size and weight. While I own a Sony A6000 which I defintely use for wildlife photography, my Canon sx-60 with its 65x optical zoom is fantastic for when I am bike touring, mountain biking the backwoods, or just plain hiking into the wilderness. Obviously the small sensor means poor low light performance, but if one learns any camera well one manages to adjust. I have found the use of an inexpensive monopod which does not add significantly to the weight of my kit helps dramatically in terms of getting the shot. Yes, I need to understand my camera’s limitations which means on dark days the idea of taking flight shots is only a dream, but the super zoom camera goes places my other cameras can not dream of!

  • Chuck Baker

    Well written article, however please stop helping to spread the misinformation that an APS-C sensor provides an additional magnification factor. It does not.
    A 200mm focal length is a 200mm focal length on full frame and APS-C. It does not miraculously become a 300mm focal length on a crop sensor.

  • sly

    Great article. However some remarks 🙂
    1- A missing portion would be a comparison of FF with a 1.5x teleconvertor vs APS-C. The size difference is not that big in this case because most of the size is coming from the focal length difference at a given aperture, not too much on the body. Specialy for whild Life where telephoto are needed. Reach would be the same, depth of field will be the same, light collecting power and therefore image quality (noise) will be the same. You can keep the versatility of a ff by removing the teleconvertor, however with a teleconvertor you are degrading the auto-focus and of course the price will be higher.

    2. The idea that a ff is better in low light because it has bigger pixel is completely outdated. Now, 4 smaller pixels gather almost the same quantity of light than a big one of the size of the 4 (see micro lenses, bsi detector). We now have ff of 50Mpix showing amazing performances but this idea is still copy pasted everywhere without further thinking. FF have globaly better performance because they are bigger.

    3. not easy to write a post with a one month old baby sleeping in your harms 🙂

    Hope I will not be banned for bringing alternative/ complementary informations.

    Cheers.

  • JustAGuest

    May I point out you misspelled the name of your website?

  • Jim Singler

    Call it what you will. A 200mm shot on my D7200 shows a 35mm equivalent of 300mm in the EXIF data. And the same shot taken on both my 7200 and D750 shows “magnification” on the DX shot.

  • Akay

    Like every clever adviser you too did not advise conclusively.
    Ha Ha Ha ;-p ;-D
    BTW wildlife is my favourite and I have both category cameras of Canon.
    Regards

  • Akay

    If you are really a good learner, I suggest you read a few articles on Google about camera sensors which include sensor sizes for cameras ranging from mobile phone camera sensors to medium format sensors and even above the medium format ones.
    These articles will give you basic insight about huge variety of “frame sizes” ! Larger than full frame , smaller than crop frame (APS-C or APS-H)
    Also read articles on Full frame vs Crop Frame comparisons..
    You will get fairly a good idea about sensor size and its effect on image, size as well as quality. To supplement sensors do read articles on pixels.
    I have read above mentioned articles.
    Am I any wiser ?
    Yes but only vee bit.
    The ocean is too vast and too deep.
    Regards

  • Akay

    Well said.
    I wonder from where did our dear friend Chuck Baker pick this theory !
    Does he know that every possible parameter gets changed between full frame and crop frame?
    I’m a Canon user having 3 cameras, both full frame as well as APS-C crop, with a fairly silly collection of lenses, both EF and EF-S mounts .
    Regards

  • Kyle Wagner

    in truth though, sony is the number one mirrorless option right now. Even overtaking Nikon in sales this year.

  • Akay

    Dear friend Yngve Thoresen , our dear author of this article Mr.Tom Mason has very carefully avoided any conclusive advice about the ‘sensor size’ of the camera i.e. whether full frame or APS-C or APS-H cropped sensor camera. Same approach is valid for four thirds cameras. I hope U must be aware that four thirds offer crop factor of about 2.0 depending upon ‘exact’ sensor size with respect to full frame sensor.
    The pros n cons associated with APS-C(1.6 crop factor) are applicable fully in case of four thirds and other similar smaller sensor cameras.
    YES one may like to look into other advantages of such mirrorless cameras which may counter adjust cons of crop factor sensors..
    I guess the smaller sensor can get compensated by larger camera pixels, though partially only ! Ofcourse I’m open to correction if needed.
    During my limited experience I have noticed that most people are reasonably ‘happy’ to shoot wildlife with mobile phones, share them on social media, earn plenty of ‘likes’ and their day is made.
    BTW , my arsenal includes Canon Legria HF M300,5D III, 7D II, 70D with wide variety of lenses from 10mm to 600mm, zoom as well as prime. And other accessories to match.
    Regards

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