Crop Sensor vs Full Frame Digital Cameras

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Back in the days of film most “better” cameras were full frame or larger.  In the days of film most people just said, “35mm” cameras.  Millions were sold and we all got used to what field of view a 50mm, 35mm, or 135mm lens gave you.  You shot either print film or slide film.  Most lenses were fixed format.  Meaning they were primes.  Most 35mm interchangeable lens cameras came with a “standard” 50mm f1.8 lens.  Zooms were few and mostly not as good as primes.  My first digital camera came along about the year 2000.  It was a Sony Mavica.  I have no idea what size image sensor it had.  Here is a picture from it.


My next three digital cameras were all Sony compacts.  They all came with zoom lenses and I paid attention to the mega pixels they had and not sensor size.  I took thousands of work photos with the Sony compacts.  At the time I had written a web site to buy and sell large printing machinery all over the USA and internationally.  I took many thousands of still photos with cameras from about 5-8.1 mega pixels.  The camera put out jpegs that were reduced from 5-8.1 mega pixels down to about 1 1/2 – 3 mega pixels.  I then edited them to the size I wanted for the web site in either Photoshop, Picasa, or iPhoto.

About 2010 I started taking a lot of photos using cell phones.  First I used a Motorola Droid Razr, then another Motorola, after that a bunch of iPhones.  Again, I can remember the mega pixels, but sensor size no.  Here is a photo from 2012 that was taken with the Droid Razr.

First day of the trip.  An August moon.

And about this time I started looking for my first more serious interchangeable lens digital.  I must have spent six months looking and finally bought a Nikon D3200 crop sensor DSLR.  Here is a shot from that camera on one of my first trips with it.


I took this shot with a kit 18-55mm lens using the back screen and moving the lens around till I saw the light I wanted.

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And I took this with the 3200 a few days later.  Back then I just shot jpeg and edited in iPhoto.

Here is another shot from the D3200

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When I originally bought the Nikon crop sensor D3200 I read a bunch of Ken Rockwell’s blog and he said this was the camera most people should get in this price range.  I liked this camera a lot but wished for something a bit easier to use.  Nikon came out with the D5500 with a full featured touch screen and so I went and bought one.  It was basically the same camera as the D3200 but with a very easy to use touch screen that flipped out and around.

Nikon had also recently come out with the D750 full frame DSLR.  I read carefully the reviews and was influenced again by Rockwell’s comment that with the full frame D750 you got a bigger brighter viewfinder and shallower depth of field.  I went to the camera store.  I had them put on the counter a Nikon D5500, D750, Fuji XT?, Olympus EM5.  I bought the D5500 because I already had an 18-55, 55-200, and 35 f1.8 for it.  Plus it was way smaller and lighter than the D750.  The Fuji and the Oly were about the same size as the D5500, cost a lot more, and I already had Nikon glass.  So Nikon it was.

I right off loved the D5500.  It was super easy to use and I got very good still photos with it.

bodie barb bldg 2


The D5500 plus the 18-55, 55-200, and 35mm f1.8 all fit into a small sling lowenpro bag.  It was light, easy to use, fun to use, and gave very good results.  Weaknesses, small viewfinder and slow live view focus.  Video was poor.  But the focus system was super easy to use and quite capable.  I found you could put the D5500 on a tripod and touch the back screen where you wanted it to focus and the camera would wait until it was perfect and then shoot.

As an ominous trend for the future of cameras vs phone cameras here are two shots from 2014.  One is with the D3200 and my Motorola Maxx.  First one is Nikon.



2018.  At that time full frame is now what everyone was talking about.  I had, had the Nikon D5500 for 3 years+ and was itching to buy something new.  Nikon keeps sending me ads and so I get a D750 + 24-120 & 50mm f1.4.  I keep the D5500.  Right away I liked the viewfinder in the D750 a lot better.  I was amazed at how quickly the D750 focuses.  But the photos are only a tiny bit better than D5500 shots.  And when I put the FX lenses on the D5500 it is hard to tell the photos apart.  The grip from the D750 fits my hand well but the rig of D750 plus the zoom lens is a lot heavier than the D5500.  The D750 with the 50mm f1.4 is very good.  I get very good photos during that summer with the D750.



The top one of Bryce Canyon is the D750 with 50mm f1.4 and the second one is D750 with 24-120mm f4.  These are both very sharp detailed shots.

That summer I got very good results over and over again.  Sony at that time is introducing body after body of mirrorless full frame.  Nikon introduces the Z7 and Z6.  I went in to buy a Z 7 and they did not have one.  At the last minute I changed my mind to getting a Sony A7iii with 50mm f1.8 lens plus a Sony adapter for Minolta lenses.  What was going through my mind was that I had had good luck with Sony compact cameras for years, Sony was getting better press than Nikon for mirrorless, I have five lenses I liked that were AF Minolta and would work on the A7iii.  The experience with previous Sony’s and the lenses were the real deciding factors.  I have posted what happened after a year.  Nikons work better for my hand, I much prefer the full function touch screen as it matches my style of settings on the fly, and I just like the menus and controls better on Nikons.

Crop Sensor VS Full Frame.

I bought a Nikon Z 50 and two days later a Z 7.  So now once again I have a crop sensor Nikon and full frame Nikon like I did back in 2018.  However, the new Z 7 is 46 mega pixels compared to the D750’s 24.  So for fine details the Z 7 is a new level up.


So which are which.  The first four are the same camera and so are the second four.


All 8 of these photos were shot in raw and edited in Lightroom Classic.  The Nikon raw images are so simple to use with the latest LR that I just shoot raw.  Unlike the Sony A7iii Lightroom always automatically recognizes the lens and removes distortion.  Plus Nikon seems to add a little secret sauce that is many times the only edit you need.

  • Both cameras have fantastic color.  To my eye a cut above the Sony colors.  With the two new Nikon bodies both have great color.  Maybe the Z 7 has just a little edge.  The files are so smooth with so many pixels.  I shoot 14 bit raw on both.
  • The Z 50 is half the weight of the Z 7 with lens.
  • The Z 50 with lens is about 1/3 the price.
  • Both cameras have similar ergonomics with screens, buttons, controls, and so on.  But of course half the weight means the Z 50 carries much better.
  • Both cameras have video that just blows away the DSLR bodies I used to have.

The bottom line is that if you want a light reasonably priced camera that is easy to hold and operate you will love the Z 50.  You can carry a complete kit around with both kit lenses and room in your bag for when Nikon gives a 35mm f1.8 prime you can add it.  But if you want more detail and sharpness than the kit lenses offer you will have to upgrade your lenses for the Z 50.  This is exactly the same situation as I had with the D5500 and D750.  And then if you need an even higher level of detail you will need to go up to more pixels that you get with the Z 7.  If you have the budget get both like I have and then you can select the best body and lenses depending on the shoot.  And if you are going out on a photography trip or event you been a back up body.  So the Z 50 and Z 7 make a great duo.  If you want to start with one and you have not had an advanced camera start with a Z50 and both lenses.  See how that works for you and sometime in the future you might add a full frame body.

So which is better?  For general family, travel, and events the Z 50 crop sensor is what you want.  If you want to get the most detail Nikon has at this time full frame is best.  In my opinion stick with lens that are made for modern 2020 bodies.  Meaning f1.8 and higher is fine for both crop and full frame.  F1.4 meant something when you were using film and only had a limited ISO, but those days are no longer with us and there is almost no reason to carry around the huge high speed f1.4 on lower lenses.  Nikon knows this and that is why all the initial Z lenses are f1.8 or higher.

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