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When do the differences between APS-C and full frame sensors matter, and why?

I was doing research in buying the Sony NEX-7 camera, but today the news was all about the upcoming Nikon D600. The major difference between these camera will be the sensor. Nikon D600 will have Full Frame sensor. The price difference between these camera will about around $300

How do you quantify the quality difference between the mentioned sensors? Does the full sensor worth spending the extra $300 or $400?

  • 3
    Keep in mind that the D600's price is unsubstantiated rumor. It may indeed come in that cheaply, but it if it does, that'll be a game-changer. As per the faq, speculation on unreleased equipment is discouraged. Let's wait until we know for real.
    – mattdm
    Jun 15 '12 at 3:01
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    The Sony and Nikon systems are totally different anyway - one a mirrorless compact, one a DSLR. This is not apples to apples, and the question posed about APS-C and FF isn't the only thing at play here. I can't speculate on the D600 obviously as nothing is official, but I bet whatever it becomes will beat the c**p out of the NEX.
    – Mike
    Jun 15 '12 at 10:46
  • If the D600 will indeed priced low enough for an amateur to be able to afford a FF, it will be interesting what Canon will respond with... Jun 15 '12 at 14:00

A full-frame sensor is physically larger than an APS-C sensor. APS-C sensors are 1.5X smaller linearly which is why they are also called 1.5X cropped sensors.

Full-frame sensors are known to have higher quality because they have bigger pixels. Bigger pixels means less noise and higher dynamic-range but of course there are variations. If you compare modern cameras, then full-frame models are indeed better in terms of image quality but if you were to compare older models you will find the latest APS-C sensors to be better than previous generations of full-frame cameras. Full-frame sensors also allow for a more shallow depth-of-field which is seen in classic portraits and abstract photography.

It is also important to know that a camera which has a bigger sensor requires bigger lenses. This means that you should expect to by buying bigger more expensive lenses for you bigger more expensive camera, assuming you compare the same grade of lenses of course.

The D600 has a rumored price as it has not been announced yet but the different in price will most likely be more than $400. If it does come in a a surprisingly low price, expect the NEX-7 and A77 to drop in price soon after.

There are two things to consider when comparing image quality, one is the lenses you use and the other is print size:

  • The smaller you print, the less image quality differences show. A high megapixel count DSLR can make tack-sharp prints which are very large but you only print common sizes, then you wont be taking advantage of it.
  • Lenses are one of the limiting factors of the system and unless you use top-quality lenses which are expensive and relatively heavy you will not see the full image quality your camera can record. So if you think you will just buy cheaper lenses after spending more on the body, that you will cripple your camera.

The crop-factor applies to the field-of-view of your lenses too. So a lens on an APS-C camera has a smaller angle-of-view, just like a longer zoom, than the same lens on a full-frame camera. This can be an advantage for shooting wildlife and other distant subjects by requiring smaller and lighter lenses.

  • Full-frame sensors of the same vintage, and maybe same brand, have higher quality. You can not generalize this to all cases, and older FF sensor may deliver lower quality and lower quantity than a modern APS-C. Jun 15 '12 at 3:16
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    @Pat - That's what I said by if you were to compare to older models except I didn't use the word vintage :)
    – Itai
    Jun 15 '12 at 4:13
  • Full frame does not necessarily require either bigger or more expensive lenses. If you want a fast normal angle of view on a crop you need something like the Nikon 35 f/1.8 or Sigma 30 f/1.4, which are more expensive and heavier than a 50 f/1.8 on full frame. Also compare the "equivalent" EF 85mm f/1.2L and EF 135 f/2.0, which will provide the same field of view / DOF on crop and FF respectively, but the FF lens is cheaper, lighter and sharper.
    – Matt Grum
    Jun 15 '12 at 10:45
  • "So if you think you will just buy cheaper lenses after spending more on the body, that you will cripple your camera." - again not necessarily true. Bigger pixels on a full frame sensor are less demanding of lens resolving power so you can often get better results out of cheaper lenses then with a crop sensor, especially at the normal to short telephoto region where sharpness across the frame is common. Again the $90 50 f/1.8 on FF will produce much better images than any considerably more expensive 30mm lens on a crop body.
    – Matt Grum
    Jun 15 '12 at 10:51

One thing I learnt the hard way: a full frame sensor gives you a wider field of view with the same lens.

So for indoor photography, where you want to make the room look as big as possible, you need a very short lens (but not an actual fisheye) and a full frame sensor. Same lens with a smaller sensor will give much worse results.

I also learnt that architects are both imprecise in what they want and fussy when you don't give them what they were thinking of.

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