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Full-frame cameras are much more expensive than APS-C ($2000 vs $500). How does this price difference break down into:

  1. The per-unit cost to manufacture an APS-C vs full-frame sensor?
  2. Smaller market size?
  3. Increased profit margin?

I'm just looking for ballpark numbers here, like: it costs $50 to manufacture an APS-C sensor and $500 to manufacture a full-frame sensor.

To keep this question focused, let's ignore lenses and focus on the bodies.

Let's also ignore the higher expectations of full-frame photographers. That comes from the price. If a full-frame camera were sold for $700, buyers would not have the same expectations they'd have from a $2000 camera.

(Moderators, feel free to close this question if it's viewed as off-topic.)

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    "Because they can" is a significant factor. – Russell McMahon Sep 14 '14 at 2:54
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    You can't really ignore other features included in full frame cameras, because the price of the camera reflects the cost of including those features as well. There is a larger price difference between the fullest featured FF cameras (Canon 1D X, Nikon D4, etc.) at around $6,000 and the lowest priced FF cameras (Canon 6D, Nikon D600) at around $1,600 than there is between the 6D/D600 and their APS-C counterparts. – Michael C Sep 14 '14 at 3:03
  • Without knowing the real reason, my intuition tells me its #2. Volume can reduce the price of most chain-produced item much more than the difference between component costs. You will see that there are even compact cameras which cost more than APS-C DSLRs and those are usually premium models which sell even fewer units. – Itai Sep 14 '14 at 4:01
  • @kartick-vaddadi - please remember that market price is only partially related to the cost of making and selling the product. The price is always determined by what the market can bear. You could make this an purely academic excercise assuming that manufacturers want to limit their profitability on each different product. For example, both the APS-C and FF cameras only have 10% profit over COGS. However, that wouldn't be based on reality, it would only be an academic question. Or, are you really asking what is the difference between the mfg costs of a FF and APS-C camera? – B Shaw Sep 14 '14 at 8:50
  • I'm asking both -- what's the difference in manufacturing cost (item 1 in my list), and profit (item 3). – Vaddadi Kartick Sep 14 '14 at 14:23
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The cost of manufacturing the larger chips is not simply the difference in the surface area of the two sensor sizes. This is the case due to the rejection rates of each for the same number of defects on a wafer from which the chips are cut.

Assuming an APS-C sensor is 44% the surface area of a FF chip (Nikon, Sony, etc. Canon APS-C is slightly smaller at 39%), if you could get 10 FF chips from a specific sized wafer, you could get 23+ APS-C chips from the same sized wafer. Now consider that the wafer has eight defects. That potentially knocks out all but two of the FF chips (10-8=2), but at most eliminates 8 of 23 of the APS-C chips. So in reality you are getting a yield of 15 APS-C chips or 2 FF chips from a wafer with only eight defects out of room for enough sites for several hundred million transistors!

Then you must factor in other features as well, because they are included in the camera. Higher tolerances and more exotic materials that allow for longer shutter life and faster shutter transit times even though the distance covered crossing an FF sensor is 1.5 times further than the distance across the short side of an APS-C sensor, magnesium alloy housings versus polycarbonate cases, more direct control buttons, etc. all factor into the higher price of an FF versus APS-C camera.

  • Thanks, I'm aware that these are the factors that matter. What I'm unaware of, and what the question specifically seeks out, is a ballpark estimate of how much each factor contributes to the price difference between FF and APS-C. If you need it to be more concrete, let's compare a $500 APS-C camera with a $2000 FF camera (I'm not talking about $6000 flagship cameras here). – Vaddadi Kartick Sep 14 '14 at 3:28
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    Then your question can probably not be answered in any meaningful way. Since most camera manufacturers produce most of their components in-house, only a handful of executives at each manufacturer truly know the cost to make each component of specific camera models and the cost of assembling those components. Those people are generally very well compensated and sworn to non-disclosure agreements which make the potential personal cost of leaking such information far greater for them than the benefit that could be gained by doing so. – Michael C Sep 14 '14 at 3:51
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    I see. I thought that the cost of making a FF sensor is well-known, since millions of those are made every year. Like, say, an iPhone display is estimated to cost 41 dollars: allthingsd.com/20130924/… – Vaddadi Kartick Sep 14 '14 at 4:44
  • Displays are cheaper than sensors to make by several orders of magnitude. You might find a quote for the price of the sensors Sony sells to other manufacturers, but not with any degree of confidence in the number. That still leaves all of the other costs associated with a larger sensor. The shutter mechanism must travel further across a larger sensor in the same amount of time with a higher degree of reliability. The price difference for a shutter replacement in an APS-C camera with slower transit times vs. a FF with faster transit times is several hundred dollars just for the shutter. – Michael C Sep 14 '14 at 8:00
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    @KartickVaddadi As has already been said: The only people that know aren't saying. But why would you ignore the fixed costs? Don't you think the additional capabilities of the more expensive camera requires more R&D, code (both software and firmware), etc? Better, more durable materials? After all, the expectation is for superior performance across the board, not just in the sensor. A buyer expects the $2000 camera to have more features, be able to take shots in scenarios the $500 can't, and to last longer. It is all pert of the package. – Michael C Sep 14 '14 at 16:10
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In the "Canon's Full-Frame CMOS Sensors" whitepaper, dated August 2006, you can read the following, which kind of answers your question, although the manufacturing technology and the costs have probably changed to some degree since 2006:

Thin disks of silicon called “wafers” are used as the raw material of semiconductor manufacturing. Depending upon its composition, (for example, high-resistivity silicon wafers have much greater electrical field depth -- and broader spectral response -- than low-resistivity wafers) an 8" diameter wafer could cost as much as $450 to $500, $1,000 or even $5,000. After several hundred process steps, perhaps between 400 and 600 (including, for example, thin film deposition, lithography, photoresist coating and alignment, exposure, developing, etching and cleaning), one has a wafer covered with sensors. If the sensors are APS-C size, there are about 200 of them on the wafer, depending on layout and the design of the periphery of each sensor. For APS-H, there are about 46 or so. Full-frame sensors? Just 20.

  • Good answer - immediately remembered that as well when I saw the question. It does bring up an obvious question though - why not manufacture different sensor sizes (of the same generation) on one wafer to make the most use of it... – DetlevCM Sep 15 '14 at 20:03
  • There's something terribly wrong with the passage quoted from Canon's paper. If you look at the photograph of the 8" wafer with 20 full frame sensors on it, the idea that you could fit 200 APS-C sensors in that space is ridiculous. 60 perhaps. Maybe they meant 200 1/2.3" sensors. – podperson Mar 1 at 17:45
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Besides the cost of making the sensor larger, consider also that it will need a larger (and heavier) mirror, a larger pentaprism, and therefore a larger body. All this maintaining equal or higher construction standards, since full frame users spend more and thus expect more.

Also, typically FF cameras sell less units, therefore the costs for engineering the whole system are distributed on a smaller number of cameras compared to consumer grade ones.

One important thing to consider as well: APS-C cameras start at 3-500$, but can easily get over 1000$ for more advanced models, closing the gap with 'entry-level' full frame bodies.

  • Fair enough, I was just trying to simplify things by listing out just the sensor. Maybe I should have said "body" instead. – Vaddadi Kartick Sep 15 '14 at 14:55

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