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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.