The Difference between a Full-Frame and a Crop-Sensor (photo samples)

Let’s take a break from our photography and my media projects to have a TECH TALK!  I’ve been wondering whether a full-frame sensor camera would really make that big of a difference in our photography.  So I rented a 5d mark II to compare to our 7D and other crop-sensor cameras. Hopefully this will help someone else trying to figure out how a full-frame would actually affect their photography.

First, a brief lesson on crop-sensors:
All Canon dSLRs with a model number higher than 5 (ie- 7D, 60D, all Rebels, etc) have crop-sensors. A crop-sensor crops the image of a full-frame sensor by a factor of 1.6. This means a 35mm lens on a crop-sensor camera actually looks more like a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera (35mm * 1.6 = 56mm). The 5D mkII and the 5D mkIII are both full frame cameras.

This is the exact same lens on the 7D, then on the 5D:
5d full frame vs crop sensor 7d

Yeah yeah, I knew that. HERE’S WHAT I WAS WONDERING: “Could I achieve the look of a full-frame camera by simply using wider lenses on my 7D crop-sensor camera? What would be the difference?”

Below, I tried to match the look of a 35mm 1.4L lens on a Canon 5d by using a 17-55mm 2.8 lens on a Canon 7D and zooming in to about 22mm (22mm * 1.6 = 35mm).  Then I tried to match the depth of field by leaving the 17-55mm at f/2.8 and stopping the 35mm down to f/4.0. It seemed pretty close. Here’s the result:
achieve the 5d full frame look with a crop sensor 7d
To some, the difference may be indistinguishable. To me, it was eye-opening… literally, like my eye was never open all the way. Those who have upgraded to a full-frame sensor know what I’m talking about. I was wandering around our condo with the 5D pressed against my face feeling like, “All these years I’ve never seen the world through a camera the way it’s supposed to be seen!”  It was as though I had been wearing horse blinders every time I had put a camera to my face… like someone had cropped off my peripheral!

Do you see how in the second image, everything appears to be very square, and in the first one, it all seems to be a little warped? See how the background is “smaller” in the first one?  This is what happens when you use a wider lens. An extremely wide lens is called a fisheye and does this warping a lot. Using a 1.6 crop-sensor on a 22mm focal length lens does not turn it into a 35mm lens. It just crops a 22mm! You still have the same warping effect of using that wider lens, which is not very attractive on humans. It is impossible to exactly match the focal length look of a full frame camera by using a wider lens on a crop-sensor camera like the 7D.

That said, you don’t always need to match the focal length look of a full frame camera. In our own business, we’ve used mostly longer lenses, and have never used a full frame camera! The wider angle lenses on a full-frame body is just a look that, as we are growing in our style, we personally find beautiful, and we are excited about incorporating it into our future work. Explaining what that “look” is, requires an entire post of its own. This one was simply to answer my own question: No, you cannot achieve the look of a full-frame camera simply by placing a wider lens on a crop-sensor camera.

Do you photo enthusiasts agree?

full frame vs crop sensor comments

  • August 16, 2011 - 10:24 pm

    Life with Kaishon - Interesting : )

    I don’t ever want a full frame camera. I am happy with what I have : )ReplyCancel

  • May 1, 2012 - 5:31 am

    Stacey Sargert Zahn - I have a 7D. Loved my 50mm 1.8 but felt too tight at times so I upgraded to a 35mm 1.4 L. LOVE! Got lucky and found a brand new Mark ii that someone would trade for lessons for their Miii. Really want a Miii but a deal I just can’t pass up.

    Comparing the two speed hasn’t been an issue. Used the Mii for sports once but the reason I went back to the 7D was for the extra reach it gave me with my 70-200. Main issue: I TERRIBLY miss the 19 point focus of my 7d. The Mii’s 9 point seems so old school! Very hard to quickly get the spot focus to the diagonal points, very annoying! I also really miss the pop up flash. I don’t own a big flash because I love wide open apertures with natural light. But when I’m being lazy and want a quick shot while out with friends or at my kiddos school and hate not having access to a flash!

    I have never bought into the full frame vs. cropped issue that you can’t get the same look by using a different size lens. I would just compensate… bought a 35mm for my 7D instead of a 50mm, etc. I actually like always having extra length on the long end so I actually seem to prefer cropped.

    Having said that what I do already see a difference in during the past few weeks of shooting with both is image quality is better on the Mii. And it seems to be so much easier to get it right SOOC with the Mii vs the 7d! Don’t now if I’ve just got lucky but lighting, coloring, skin tone…. all seem like a piece of cake with the Mii.ReplyCancel

  • May 1, 2012 - 5:32 am

    Stacey Sargert Zahn - Steve Bedford, I bought my 35mm L straight from Canon, refurbished. It was like brand new! LOVE LOVE LOVE!ReplyCancel

  • May 28, 2013 - 7:14 am

    Anonymous - so point is FF just looks better unless you match the aperture and focal length then they look exactly the same. Lets replace the words FF in your post with medium format and the words “crop sensor” with FF and your post will be future proof…till 2020. Kind of pointless don’t you think? But I get it, apple is better than oranges because you spent more on an apple.ReplyCancel

  • June 19, 2014 - 5:03 pm

    Tim Bronson - Hey Curtis I have a question about the colors in both of the hands pictures. I can’t seem to figure out how you get the color to look like that. Are you taken the RAW image and applying a filter in lightroom or something? The colors are just so flattering and detailed and I like to know how I can get these colors in my images. I shoot with a Nikon D7000. I don’t know if that part mattersReplyCancel

  • March 21, 2016 - 11:07 pm

    David Hoffman - I completely agree! This is the first article I’ve seen that articulates this fact. Nothing compares to full frame :)ReplyCancel

  • June 6, 2013 - 4:34 am

    Curtis Wiklund Photography - If you match the aperture and focal length, they DO NOT look exactly the same (second to last paragraph). And yes, you are exactly right, this is the same comparison as between full frame and medium format. I shoot a Contax 645 and love medium format for pretty smeary color, but prefer cheap 35mm for black and white to get the gritty black and white look that I like. Keep experimenting and you’ll find what you like regardless of what other people do or whether it’s cheap or expensive. Just try different formats out and go with your gut, experimenting is never pointless!ReplyCancel