APS-C Vs. Full Frame: Can you Guess Which Photo Came from a Crop Sensor?

Fujifilm X-T4

If there’s one single item on a camera’s list of technical specifications that indicates image quality, it’s the image sensor. Yes, the processor plays a role here too, but the sensor is the biggest determining factor in how images from the camera body look. And, more important even than megapixels, is the sensor’s size. But, just how much does size matter? Can you tell when a photograph was taken with a crop sensor and when it was taken with a full-frame sensor? Without looking at metadata, can you pick out APS-C Vs. full-frame just by looking at the resulting images?

Editor’s Note: A very big thank you goes out to LensRentals who helped with this project. More to come on that soon. Obvious words of thanks also go out to the manufacturers.

I’m in the middle of jumping ship from DSLR to mirrorless. But, unlike when I first held the Nikon D850 a few years ago, I haven’t had that this-is-the-one feeling. As the Reviews Editor at The Phoblographer, I’ve shot with more camera bodies than the average photographer. But, I hadn’t tested the mirrorless bodies with the lens that I would use. And, well, the lens is half the equation when it comes to image quality — if not more. Since I hadn’t fallen deeply in love with a particular camera, I decided to speed date, for cameras, that is. I rented five camera bodies and portrait prime lenses. Most were from LensRentals, but a few I had on loan from the manufacturer.

One of those bodies is the Fujifilm X-T4. The remaining four are full-frame mirrorless cameras: The Canon EOS R6, Nikon Z6 II, Sony a7 III, and the Panasonic S5. The first and most obvious question, of course, is how much does that smaller sensor matter? I started my career with a crop sensor DSLR. I’m not pretentious enough to think that professional photographers can only use full-frame cameras. But, it’s a valid question. One of the things I looked at was whether or not using the X-T4 with a bright prime would be enough to compare with the D850 and my most used lens, the 24-70mm f2.8. When you consider that some crop cameras have brighter lenses, does the APS-C vs. full-frame gap shrink?

I asked The Phoblographer staff if they could guess which photo came from which camera. I also asked some non-photographer friends which photo they liked better. Let’s see if you can guess correctly.

Since I hadn’t fallen deeply in love with a particular camera, I decided to speed date, for cameras, that is.

Photo 1

Unedited
Edited
Cropped to show bokeh

Photo 2

Unedited (Yes, I know that it’s out of focus.)
Edited
Cropped to show bokeh

Photo 3

Unedited
Edited
Cropped to show bokeh

Photo 4

Unedited
Edited
Cropped to show bokeh

Photo 5

Unedited
Edited
Cropped to show bokeh

Can You Tell the Difference?

What’s your guess? Which one was shot on a crop sensor?

Let’s make this a little easier. To be clear, this is a test I did for myself. I used each camera how I would typically shoot, including stopping down the aperture on some of the lenses that aren’t quite as sharp or are difficult to get fully in focus. This isn’t exactly what you would call a fair test, since the lenses and settings aren’t 100 percent equal. I was testing each one how I would use them for each setting. The exception is that I would often — but not always — use a flash in a backlit portrait like this. These were all shot with natural light.

Here are the settings that I used, in no particular order:

Using that information, you might be able to match up more photos to their camera correctly. The Nikon Z6 II, for example, was shot with a 50mm while the other full-frame cameras were shot at 85mm. (And a 50mm on a crop sensor is going to look like a 75mm). You can correctly assume then, that photo 5 was shot on the Z6 II.

The Answers

Alright, I’m sure the anticipation is killing you. Here’s what cameras took each of those photos:

  • Photo 1: Sony a7 III
  • Photo 2: Panasonic S5
  • Photo 3: Fujifilm X-T4
  • Photo 4: Canon EOS R6
  • Photo 5: Nikon Z6 II

Did you guess correctly? Even Editor in Chief Chris Gampat, who’s spent more than ten years reviewing cameras, didn’t guess correctly. However, he nailed it on another series. I printed out my favorites and showed my friends, who have no idea what bokeh is. They were leaning towards the darker colors of the Sony image, until I told them the cost difference of the X-T4.

My point here isn’t that the sensor doesn’t matter. My point here is twofold. First, photographers spend a lot of time worrying about things that non-photographers don’t even see. We’re pixel peeping the sharpness of lenses in an era where people are Snapchat-filtering their faces into poreless oblivion. My portrait and wedding clients have no idea what bokeh or full-frame is. They want images that are flattering and creative.

Second, the lens matters just as much as the choice of the camera body. I can’t afford the Nikon Noct 58mm f0.95. But, if I choose the X-T4, I can put the cost savings towards better lenses. I photograph weddings and portraits. I’m not shooting sports where I need top-of-the-line performance as long as it can focus on a dark dance floor. Using great lenses and a good camera body may make more sense than using just good lenses and a great camera body.

I’m still finalizing my pros and cons list of the five different cameras. But, looking at these images, I don’t think I’d be doing myself a disservice choosing a crop sensor camera if I pair it with bright primes. The X-T4 requires the least amount of color editing (just white balance, in the photo above) and is least likely to give me hand cramps at a 12-hour wedding. I may have just fallen in love before this camera speed dating round is even finished. Stay tuned for my final thoughts on how each of these options compare.

Let me know in the comments if you guessed correctly — and which image is your favorite.

My point here isn’t that the sensor doesn’t matter. My point here is twofold. First, photographers spend a lot of time worrying about things that non-photographers don’t even see. We’re pixel peeping the sharpness of lenses in an era where people are Snapchat-filtering their faces into poreless oblivion. My portrait and wedding clients have no idea what bokeh or full-frame is. They want images that are flattering and creative.

Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a photographer and tech writer based in Michigan. She shoots weddings and portraits at Hillary K Photography. A mother of three, she enjoys hiking, camping, crafting, and reading.