Choosing the right camera sensor

If you’re in the market to purchase a new digital SLR, or ready to upgrade the one you already own, you’ll have to do a little research and find out what type of camera sensor is right for your style of shooting.

Camera manufacturers have created two kinds of sensors—full frame and cropped. The debate on what sensor is better has been ongoing for some time now, and it appears that some of the professional and serious photographers out there have both types of cameras in the gear bag. This proves that there is value in both of these sensors. Of course, buying two camera bodies is way too expensive for most of us, so let’s take a brief look at the differences to help you make a choice.

The full frame sensor is roughly the same size as the 35-mm film we used in the past. It takes high quality pictures, allows a wider angle of view, and offers the ability to use higher ISO values. The full frame sensor is physically larger in size and has less pixel density. This allows the camera to produce images with less noise, or grain as we used to say in the film days. This large sensor is great for wide angle landscapes or if you often find yourself trying to shoot moving subjects, like wildlife, in low light.

A camera with a 1.6x cropped sensor, also known as an APS-C sensor, has higher pixel density so it doesn’t produce the highest quality image at increased ISO levels. The trade-off however is the image crop factor. This allows your subject to appear much closer than if viewed through a full frame sensor. An APS-C sensor is great for bird and distant wildlife photography. For instance, if you have a 200-mm lens mounted on a small sensor you’ll be shooting at an effective 320-mm. A cropped sensor can be found on consumer and professional camera bodies with Canon and Nikon being among the current leaders in the industry.

This image of a California bighorn sheep was taken with a 1.6x cropped sensor camera. If I had used a full frame sensor camera, you would see much more of his body in the photograph.

Making the decision on what type of sensor would better suit your photography is one of the most important choices you’ll make as you research that new camera. Both sensors have their place in the camera body market, and if you’re lucky you’ll get the opportunity to try both. The light gathering qualities of the full frame sensor can really improve the detail and quality of your images, but you’ll love the extra reach available with the cropped sensor while trying to capture small birds and wildlife. This subject is rather extensive and I encourage you to learn what you can about the current camera bodies and the sensors that power them.

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