Sigma 50mm F1.4 Lens, Nikon D90, Exposure: 1/125 seconds, F9, ISO 200, Glamour Female, Black and White, Red Head, Blue Eyes, Tear, Tears, Head Shot, Beautiful Girl

Full frame vs crop sensor what is the future for DSLR’s?

Sigma 50mm F1.4 Lens, Nikon D90, Exposure:  1/125 seconds, F9, ISO 200, Glamour Female, Black and White, Red Head, Blue Eyes, Tear, Tears, Head Shot, APS-C, Sensor, Beautiful Girl
Sigma 50mm F1.4 Lens, Nikon D90 with APS-C Sensor, Exposure: 1/125 seconds, F9, ISO 200

What is the future of crop sensor and full frame ( 35mm x 24mm ) size sensor formats for digital technologies?

Will the full size sensors dominate the professional digital photography world for always, or will the crop sensors push them on out, much as 35mm film pushed out the large box cameras of years past?

Sure the large sensors currently have better signal to noise ratios.

What are the other larger sensor inherent advantages?

And what is this thing with called APS-C anyway … ?

APS-C is from ‘Advanced Photo System type-C’ a film size standard of about similar size to todays current crop sensors.

The actual sensor sizes vary a bit from brand to brand…

Nikon’s designations for their crop sensor format is “DX” and for full frame is “FX”.  I have heard this is because their first Digital SLRs (DSLR) were the smaller 24 mm x 16 mm versions, hence the “D”.  Then when the Full frames came out, “F”.  At least if you remember “F” for “Full”, you might remember which is which …

All digital camera sensors are made today using semiconductor technologies and devices.  These are used both in their design and in their manufacturing processes.

Moore’s Law,” according to Gordon Moore who co-foundered Intel, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit ( aka IC or semiconductor device ) will double every 18 months.

All kind of technological walls in semiconductors keep getting punched through to keep this law alive.

Moore’s Law thus remains a valid driving force in technology development for over 40 years now and with no real end in sight.

The effective point is …. digital semiconductor technology keeps driving innovation and improvements in digital camera sensors, by effectively doubling performance every 18 months.

This is why a digital camera body bought today, regardless of price, is obsoleted by even a low-end camera body within five years, and is technically at least, no longer a leader within two years.

The other point that is lost, or largely unknown, outside of semiconductor manufacturing circles, and in which circles I have as an Engineer been involved for over 25 years,

… semiconductor processes are most effective in high volume production settings.

Custom and low volume are anathema in the semiconductor arena.

It’s easier and cheaper (per each) to make a million of only one thing, than ten thousand of something else…

Not only do things get cheaper just because of the volume, in semiconductors the quality also improves dramatically with volume.  Special handling usually makes things only worst.

The short reason is because one learns how to make the thing in volume much more effectively… kind of like, if you are going to have eye surgery, do you want the average eye surgeon who does 20 of these eye operations a week, or the “best” general surgeon, who does one of these every three months?

If you answered the best surgeon… when is the last time you tried to use a feature on your DSLR that you haven’t used in a while?

It’s tricky, yes?

Then again, you probably know how to turn the camera on and off pretty good.

Well this kind of thing is causing the higher volume, lower cost crop sensors cameras to evolve even faster than the larger sensor, more expensive full frame DSLRs.

What this means practically is:  the full frame DSLRs will continue to grow to be ever more expensive than the crop sensors, and at diminishing quality and performance differentials.

This will drive ever more R&D (Reasearch and Development) to be focused, in both time and money spent, on the crop sensors.

Eventually this circle will drive the crop sensors to a point where they actually will be better than, in almost all practical regards, the full size sensors.  All at much much lower costs and pricing…

While the large sensors may still be out there for this or that special application, the cost premium, and the fact one must throw the full frame sensors out every two years (at a minimum), will drive the entire market down into the crop sensor arena.

Only thing you really lose with a crop sensor is narrow DOF ( Depth of Field ).

DOF is narrower on larger sensors.  Something to do with the physics.

If you love more Bokeh, go full 35mm, get a Hasselblad, fix it in post, or some such …  we just will not have such narrow DOFs natively in smaller sensors.

There are huge advantages to glass made specifically for smaller sensors, other than increased bohek, which the large formats win.

So as we see, the smaller crop sensors are winning the DSLR race driven by manufacturing economies of scale and improvements in performance of the semiconductor technologies on which they are based.

Even if the 35mm is somehow better, it will lose to volume driven improvements in the crop sensors.

That is, the crop sensors are through economies of scale, evolving faster than the larger sensors.

What about the Lens?

More volume higher quality sensors is driving shifts toward lens developments for crop sensor cameras.

Any potential real advantages of the large sensors are being lost to advances in the crops.


  • Cheaper
  • Lighter
  • Faster improvements to technology, due to R&D budgets and buckets of money
  • Better Quality Possible

Why is better quality possible?

because when the lens diameters themselves are generally smaller (until we get to tiny sizes, where small defects become a relatively huge percentage of the lens surface ), the lenses are easier to make.

That is, it is easier to make a near perfect 30mm diameter lens, than a 100mm diameter lens.  Though one spot the size of a pin head , on the 100mm lens, will have less effect than the same size spot on the 30mm lens.

In reality, what you end up with is having more spots on the 100mm lens, as spotting tends to be a function of area of glass, manufacturing volumes and extra quality care taken.

The manufacturing volumes here mean, the more pieces you make, the better the quality.  Like the specialized high volume eye surgeon example.  In effect the cheaper or more popular a lens, the more easy to make it at a higher quality.

Currently, the pro glass is largely, or almost all made for full frame sensors.   This requires more glass diameter for a given angle of view and F-stop combination.  (Think how little glass is required for a cell phone camera.  It is because the sensor size is so small and thus needs less glass diameter.)

The reason pro lenses are so sharp is because of all the design, money and manufacturing care that goes into their production.

This is why an 85mm F1.4 is typically sharper than an 85mm F2.8, at the same F stop settings.

The F2.8 could be made better.  It isn’t.

Why?   Because the person buying the F2.8 is paying cheap.

The person buying the F1.4 is buying dear and is demanding the utmost in performance.

So, the F1.4 is made better.

The thing is, why did the 35mm format win out over the higher quality middle format cameras?

And before these, 8″x10″ was the standard in Hollywood photography.

The introduction of cheap 35mm film camera, at a quality almost so good as the medium formats pushed the medium formats into the realm of serious professional.  Made the 10″x12″ format disappear as all but a curiosity, enthusiast or specialist camera today.

With the introduction a few years back of main stream high quality digital cameras and crop sensor DSLRs have all but pushed the mid format into a curiosity, enthusiast or specialist role.

Today most pro shooters using full frame (35MM) DSLRs, with ever-increasing numbers using high-end crop sensors cameras, like the Nikon D7000 as a primary or back up camera.

Once the glass demand catches up with the bodies, the wave of the future will be smaller better lens…

For instance, the image of Ashley, taken here with my Sigma 50mm F1.4 Lens, made to be used with full frame or crop sensor cameras, is rated as one of the sharpest 50mm lenses available in the market at any price.

I love my fast and sharp Sigma 50mm F1.4.

Yet this monster piece of glass has a 77mm filter ring and weighs over a pound at 505 grams.

They sell for about $470 on-line when you can find one.   So, no specifically crop sensor offering for fast prime glass yet..

Nikon definitely hasn’t stepped up yet with a crop sensor offering in Primes, or Zooms …  oh, they will…

This is only the beginning.

Imagine how much lighter and cheaper, and sharper the Sigma glass could be if designed for a crop?

The market is ripe to be stolen.

I’m betting a generic lens maker, like a Sigma or a Tokina will steal the show by filling this vacuum first.

Then Canon and Nikon will have to follow.

"Alice" Tokina 11-16mm Zoom F2.8 Nikon D90
"Alice" Tokina F2.8 11-16mm Zoom Lens on Nikon D90 APS-C Sensor Camera

Already we are seeing this effect in zoom lenses.

Made specifically for crop sensors, the Tokina 11-16mm F2.8 Zoom , what a lens!

No surprise, this well built beauty has quite the loyal following.

The Tokina 11-16mm is a bright, sturdy and sharp piece of glass.  Silky smooth in the hand, it takes fabulous images on the wide end.

I love wide as seen like here on an image of “Alice.”

What this lens does on the wide end is just Wow …!

  • To view details of or to purchase the photo of “Alice” click here.

A similar lens offering would have cost a fortune, and been heavier, if made for a full size sensor.

If the Nikon’s and Canon’s wish to maintain glass leadership, they will have to step up, and step down to better lens quality selections for their APS-C sensor cameras.

Stepping away from a Nikon or Canon lens was unthinkable a few years back.

Today these big two are leaving many easy to fill gaps too big to remain unfilled with the demand for higher quality APS-C sensor glass.   Easy pickings for the likes of Sigma and Tokina.

At current rates of change, it will not be too long before the huge dinosaur glass is replaced with smaller, lighter, cheaper, sharper and plain just better glass, all made specifically for crop sensor cameras.

Already the shift to digital is all but complete.

The shift to smaller is well underway.

Or, maybe I have it backwards … thoughts?



6 thoughts on “Full frame vs crop sensor what is the future for DSLR’s?”

  1. I have just purchased a Canon 60d with 15-85mm lens. How many of us reall enlarge our photo’s to really take advantage of this performance. ” A picture tells a thousand words “, if we do this regardless of the number of pixels then we have succeeded. I have seen some brilliant shots taken by my wife on minolta 5D. Sometimes too much detail is not necessary (Soft Focus Lens’s). Lets face it the bigger the print the further we stand back to look at it. APS has advantages in as much it is easier to make a Zoom Lens for this format than a full frame sensor. Lets enjor photography for its a frozen microsecond in time preserved for eternity.

  2. I am eagerly anticipating Nikon’s replacement to the full-frame D-700, which I hope to buy.

    In many studio situations, I find myself restricted by the width of the 9 foot paper backdrop. If the model is 10-12 feet in front of the backdrop (necessary to achieve the lighting separation I seek), and I am shooting with a normal-length lens, I often find that the backdrop is not suitably wide.

    The wider perspective of the full frame camera would make this less of a problem for me. Of course I could always step back with my current camera, and use a longer lens, but that damn wall keeps getting in the way!

    Of course the primary drawing feature of the full frame camera is their low noise. I already enjoy the luxury of the D300’s noise performance, but who doesn’t want a couple more stops from time-to-time?

    So, sometime this year, Nikon will extract a few more dollars from me. I doubt it will be that last time. How surprising that Moores Law found it’s way into my bank account!

  3. A few things you forget ; for larger prints a bigger sensor makes a tremendous difference !
    And people like to pay a lot for bigger .
    Better bokeh .
    Better for landscape and interior pictures
    Better lowlight photos

  4. About five years ago I went from 35mm film cameras to the Canon 20D. I learned to shoot on full frame, which is probably why I hate cropped sensors so much, the reason being: that when it comes to depth of field – that thing that the author has seemingly trivialised – full frame cameras out perform cropped sensors.

    The reason why this is such a significant point, is that when it comes to many genres of photography, having a narrow depth of field is the aesthetic look that the industry demands. Think of food photography, wedding photography, photojournalism, portraiture, etc.

    The reason why I think that cropped sensors even exist, is because when the first digital cameras that were priced within the reach of the average consumer, they were only able to be sold at that price because they were made with a smaller sensor, hence cheaper to make.

    At the moment I am UPGRADING to the old Canon 5D (12megapixel). I don’t need 24megapixels of the 5D mark II, how often do we print larger than A3? There is nothing wrong with the cropped sensor cameras I currently use, I’m getting a full frame for the depth of field, and for that reason only.

    The other point I would like to raise is this: why are us photographers being asked to pay so much money for the 5D Mark II, when we dont use video, or need 24 megapixels? There is a niche in the market at the moment that the author has not recognised. Imagine how well a digital camera would sell, that was full frame with maybe 12 or 15 megapixels, with no video feature. Imagine how cheap that camera would be to manufacture, and imagine how many people would buy it over the 5D mark II. Maybe thats why they added the extra resolution and video features to the 5D Mark II, they needed to inflate the price for some reason.

  5. I doubt that full frame will ever go away completely but I suspect it’s going to be relegated to a smaller and smaller niche at the high-end of the market. If the difference is small enough, lots of people are going to choose size over quality but there will always be people (like me) who would rather give up a little convenience for a little better quality.

  6. Thank you all: Firstly for such a thought provoking and, in my opinion, thoughtful article.

    As a 70 year old (eyesight not perfect) I will stick with my Nikon D7100 and NOT be tempted by Nikon marketing to go for the D750. Let progress continue.

    Thank´s again to all.

    Regards, Shane

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