Can You Really Produce Professional Results With Crop Sensor Cameras?

The debate between Full Frame vs Crop Sensor cameras and their ability to produce professional results have been around as long as digital cameras have.

Let’s face it, Crop Sensor cameras have been getting a pretty bad rep for some time. By and large, you have the Full Frame or bust crowd to thank for this stigma. Full Frame cameras were the de facto standard for a long time thanks to their performance advantage over their Crop Sensor brethren. This was certainly true during the nascent days when the industry was just beginning to adopt digital. Fast forward to today, however, the performance differential between Crop Sensor and Full Frame bodies is borderline negligible.

In fact, Crop Sensor cameras are amongst the best bang for the buck available on the market. As a professional photographer who also reviews photography equipment for a living, I’ve had the privilege of shooting with just about every camera commercially available. The fact is, professional results are absolutely achievable regardless of your camera’s sensor size. The key lies in mastering the fundamentals of how to properly utilize a camera and understanding the relationship between sensor size and its real-world applications.

Depth of Field and Field of View Aren’t Everything

Whenever Crop Sensor cameras are compared against their Full Frame cousins, the subject of Depth of Field will inevitably rear its head. For example, let’s take a Full Frame lens with a focal length of 35mm and a maximum aperture of f1.4. Depending on the crop factor of your particular Crop Sensor camera, this same lens will render an equivalent field of view of a 52.5mm lens at f2.1 (1.5x crop factor) or a 56mm lens at f2.24 (1.6x crop factor). Crop Sensor cameras from Fujifilm, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma, and Sony sports a crop factor of 1.5x while those from Canon have 1.6x crop factor.

While it’s true that Full Frame cameras have a shallower Depth of Field and wider Field of View, that’s not the whole story. It’s important to remember that your exposure value will remain constant regardless of sensor size. In fact, it’s possible to achieve “Full Frame” quality results when shooting with Crop Sensor cameras when you apply the following principles:

  • Reduce the distance between you and your subject
  • Increase the distance between your subject and the background
  • Opt for brighter apertures
  • Utilize longer focal lengths

Below are some examples of images shot using Crop Sensor cameras that could easily be confused with those produced by Full Frame cameras:

Check out this handy cheat sheet that we’ve put together for an in-depth look at how crop factors affect Depth of Field.

The Low Light Dilemma

Having put the Depth of Field issue to bed, let’s look at the low light capabilities of Crop Sensor cameras next. Conventional wisdom dictates that Full Frame cameras will typically perform better than their Crop Sensor counterparts in low light shooting scenarios. While there’s some truth to this statement, it’s based heavily on the historical performance of Full Frame versus Crop Sensor cameras. The truth is, camera manufacturers have made great strides in sensor development in recent years. The latest Crop Sensors cameras can definitely hold their own in low light situations. In some cases, Crop Sensor cameras may even outperform Full Frame.

Take a look at the above images that we captured during an Ataris concert. All of these images were shot at ISO 6400 using a Fujifilm X-T2 with the Acros film simulation applied. At the time of this concert, the X-T2 was already two years old. Fujifilm has since released the highly popular X-T3 and will begin shipping the X-T4 (provided that the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t severely delay production). The Full Frame Nikon Z7 had just been released around that time and we also shot with it during this concert. You can read all about our informal comparison here. In this instance, the Fujifilm X-T2 absolutely destroyed the Nikon Z7 in terms of low light results and autofocus performance. As you can see, Full Frame doesn’t automatically equate to superiority. Nowadays, you can as easily pick up a Crop Sensor camera and expect to create professional results.

The Size and Weight Advantages

Finally, one of the biggest (no pun intended) benefits when choosing Crop Sensor cameras over Full Frame is the size and weight savings. The laws of physics govern all things in life. A larger sensor means that Full Frame cameras will naturally always carry size and weight premiums over Crop Sensor bodies. This translates to lenses as well. Crop Sensor lenses are almost always smaller than Full Frame ones of equivalent focal lengths and maximum apertures. For photographers that travel often and want to keep their kit as lightweight and compact as possible, Crop Sensor cameras are hard to beat.