News - APS-C vs Full Frame: The Key Differences and Key Strengths - Looking Glass Photo & Camera

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Canon — 31 Jul 2022

APS-C vs Full Frame: The Key Differences and Key Strengths

APS-C vs Full Frame: The Key Differences and Key Strengths

What are the differences between APS-C and full-frame?

The main difference between APS-C and full-frame is the physical size of the image sensor – full-frame sensors are larger than APS-C sensors – and other differences between the two types of cameras flow from that. But as with most things, bigger isn't necessarily better, and each format has its own key advantages.

The EOS R6 alongside the EOS R7 both cameras with no lens attached.

Looking at these two EOS R System cameras without lenses attached makes the difference in sensor sizes clear. Left, the full-frame EOS R6; right, the APS-C EOS R7. The RF lens mount is identical on the two models.

 

An APS-C sensor in front of a full-frame sensor, showing their relative sizes.

 

A full-frame sensor and an APS-C sensor compared. The difference in sizes helps explain why APS-C cameras can often be made smaller and more compact than full-frame cameras.

What is APS-C?

The APS (Advanced Photo System) format was originally introduced in 1996, as a new type of photographic film cartridge. In most film cameras of the day, you could also choose different aspect ratios while shooting, including C (Classic) with the same 3:2 aspect ratio as conventional 35mm film cameras, H (High definition) with a widescreen 16x9 aspect ratio, and P (Panoramic) 3:1.

APS-C also corresponds to the Super 35 video format and became a popular choice of image sensor size for Canon EOS digital SLR (DSLR) cameras.

 
Two flamenco dancers wearing long ruffled dresses pose for the camera in a colourful forecourt with multiple arches.

 

At the same aperture and focal length, APS-C cameras such as the Canon EOS R10 typically will give a wider depth of field than a full-frame camera. This is ideal for producing front-to-back sharpness in an image. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with an EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 10mm, 1/320 sec, f/5 and ISO1600. © Diana Millos

 

A portrait of a young woman with long dark hair against a blurred background.

 

A full-frame camera with a fast lens characteristically produces shallower depth of field, enabling you to isolate the main subject within a scene by blurring the background. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1600. © Javier Cortes

What is full-frame?

Full-frame image sensors have an active surface area of 36x24mm, the same size as a frame of 35mm film.

The 35mm film format dates from 1889, when it was introduced as a standard width for movie film. It soon became the norm for still photography, and was carried over into full-frame digital cameras including Canon's full-frame EOS DSLRs and EOS R System mirrorless cameras.

Both APS-C and full-frame sensors produce images with a standard aspect ratio of 3:2, and APS-C sensors can have the same number of megapixels as full-frame sensors. However, a full-frame image sensor is physically about 63% or 1.6x larger than an APS-C format image sensor.

 
A view overlooking the city of Seville with the tower of the Church of the Annunciation in the mid-ground.

 

The "crop factor" of an APS-C sensor makes your subject fill more of the frame, in effect giving your lens greater reach. This photo looking towards the Church of the Annunciation in Seville was taken on a full-frame camera, a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM lens at 84mm, 1/400 sec, f/8 and ISO200.

 

A view overlooking the city of Seville with the tower of the Church of the Annunciation closer in the mid-ground

 

This image was shot from the same position, using the same lens, focal length and settings, but with an APS-C camera. The smaller sensor captures a smaller section of the scene, which has the same effect as zooming in on the tower. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM lens at 84mm, 1/400 sec, f/8 and ISO200.

Crop factor explained

This physical size difference between the two sensor types determines what the camera "sees". All lenses produce a circular image, which means that a full-frame compatible lens needs to have a large enough circumference for the image to overlap the corners of a rectangular full-frame image sensor. If you use the same lens on an APS-C format camera, the smaller image sensor will utilise only a smaller region in the centre of the same image circle. In effect, compared to the image on a full-frame sensor, the image is cropped.

Because the APS-C sensors in Canon cameras are 1.6x smaller than the sensors in Canon full-frame cameras, the "crop factor" is 1.6x. This means that shooting with a 50mm standard lens on an APS-C camera gives you the same field of view as shooting with an 80mm telephoto lens on a full-frame camera (50 x 1.6 = 80). In the same way, using a full-frame 100mm lens on an APS-C camera gives the same field of view as a 160mm lens on a full-frame camera. For this reason, crop factor is also sometimes known as "focal length multiplier", telling you the effective focal length of the lens you're using.

Crop factor applies to all full-frame lenses used on APS-C format cameras, including both EF and RF lenses. EF lenses can be used on the EOS R7 and EOS R10 with any of the range of EF-EOS R Mount Adapters.

A large body of water surrounded by hills and mountains, in low light.

Benefits of APS-C compared to full-frame

Because APS-C sensors are smaller, cameras can be made more compact and lighter, which is ideal for street and travel photography. Since a smaller image circle is required from a lens designed for APS-C cameras, the lens can be smaller and lighter, and consequently can be more affordable.

The crop factor of an APS-C sensor makes smaller or more distant subjects larger in the frame, which in effect increases the effective focal length of any lens by 1.6x. This can be a major advantage in genres such as wildlife, action and sports photography. Using a high-performance yet affordable lens such as the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM on an APS-C camera gives an effective zoom range of 112-480mm, taking it into super-telephoto territory. The comparably-priced RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens gains an effective focal range of 160-640mm on an APS-C camera. You'd need a larger, heavier and more expensive lens to give the same reach on a full-frame camera.

You could crop images from a full-frame camera to create the same effect, but the megapixel count would be reduced, so the resulting images would be smaller and hence less sharp when enlarged again. Shooting with an APS-C format camera also saves the time and effort of manually cropping images at the editing stage.

 
A coal miner working on the ground in a dimly-lit mine, with two other miners looking on.

 

Full-frame image sensors are generally preferred for shooting at high ISO settings because they have larger photosites than APS-C sensors with the same number of megapixels, which means they can capture proportionally more light with less noise. This picture was taken in a coal mine by the light of the miners' lamps using the full-frame Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/2.0 and ISO12800. © Daniel Etter

 

A night-time cityscape showing tall buildings with street lights reflected in a body of water in the foreground.

 

Even so, image noise is well controlled in the 32.5MP EOS R7 and 24.2MP EOS R10, which can capture stunning photos with minimal grain in very low light conditions at very high ISO levels. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF-S 18-45mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 22mm, 1/40 sec, f/8 and ISO25600.

Benefits of full-frame compared to APS-C

Because a full-frame sensor has a wider field of view, a full-frame camera is ideal for sweeping landscapes, ultra-wide architectural interiors and astrophotography, and for creative effect when you want to exaggerate the perspective between foreground and background areas.

As a general rule, especially at wider apertures (lower f-numbers), full-frame cameras can produce a narrower depth of field than APS-C cameras, meaning that a smaller part of the image is in sharp focus and more of the background is blurred. This is often ideal in still life and portrait photography, and in any other shooting scenario where you want to isolate the main subject by throwing the background out of focus.

One further advantage of a full-frame sensor relates directly to its larger size. Other things being equal, the individual photosites or light receptors on a full-frame image sensor will be physically larger than those on an APS-C sensor with the same megapixel count. They therefore have more light-gathering potential and can capture more information, with less image noise or grain, particularly at high ISO settings in low-light conditions. This is a great asset in indoor portrait and wedding photography, as well as for handheld shooting at twilight, nigh-timecityscapes, and any time you need to keep shutter speeds sufficiently fast to freeze motion in poorly-lit scenes.

 
A Canon EOS R10 with RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM lens rests on the lap of a woman wearing a bright yellow dress.

 

With their compact build and lightweight companion RF-S 18-45mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM and RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM zoom lenses, the EOS R10 and EOS R7 make great travel cameras, whether you're off on a local break or journeying to the other side of the world.

APS-C vs full-frame

Full-frame cameras are sometimes said to be more "professional" than APS-C cameras, and certainly they are usually larger, making them better suited for use with big telephoto lenses. However, thanks to the increased reach you get with an APS-C camera, you might not need such a big telephoto lens in the first place. APS-C can remain the best choice for travelphotographers, as well as for sports and wildlife photographers who need powerful telephoto reach coupled with freedom of movement.

As wildlife photographer Dani Connor commented after her first shoot with the Canon EOS R7, "It allows me to get closer to my subject without having to use a big, heavy lens. It's the perfect sort of camera if you're a bird photographer, because birds are often quite small and quite far away."

Full-frame cameras might be well suited for shooting ultra-wide landscapes but, conversely, because of full-frame's narrower depth of field, it can also be easier to achieve front-to-back sharpness in a landscape shot using an APS-C camera. Plus, although full-frame cameras typically produce shallower depth of field and thus can help a portrait subject stand out against an attractively blurred background, other factors such as aperture also come into play – the APS-C EOS R10 and EOS R7 will work well for portraiture with a lens such as the compact Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM, which has an ideal 80mm effective focal length and a fast f/1.8 aperture.

 
A Canon EOS R7 alongside three lenses: RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM, RF-S 18-45mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM and RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM.

 

The RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens, shown here on the left, has an effective focal length of 160-640mm on the EOS R10 and EOS R7. If you were to use a Canon Extender RF 1.4x or Extender RF 2x on a full-frame EOS R System camera to get a similar boost in telephoto reach, you'd lose either one or two stops of aperture respectively, resulting in a drop in shutter speed that makes it harder to avoid motion blur and camera-shake. The RF-S 18-45mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM (middle) delivers a 35mm equivalent effective focal range of 29-72mm, and the RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM (right) 29-240mm.

 

Written by Matthew Richards

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