What You Must Know About Full vs Crop Frame Sensors Before Choosing a Lens
DSLRs have either full frame or crop frame sensors. Whichever you have will make a big difference on how you should go about choosing your lenses. Here, you will learn what the difference is and what it means for your photography.
“I got a new DSLR and I want a new lens. What should I get?” This was my aunt and, after a series of questions, I was able to narrow down what lens would probably make her happy based on her camera model. If you’re unhappy with the lens you have (or don’t have one at all) and you don’t know what you should use, find guidance in my straightforward suggestions below for new Canon and Nikon DSLR shooters. You must be equipped with this knowledge because not all lenses work as intended on all DSLRs, even within the same brand.
Narrowing down what lens you need can be divided into 3 steps:
Step 1: Identify Your Camera
Step 2: Identify Your Lens Type
Step 3: Pick a Lens (With Some Recommendations)
Let’s get started!
Step 1: Identify Your Camera
The model of your camera is important to knowing what lenses you should and shouldn’t use. Not every Nikon lens works well with every Nikon camera. There are some Canon lenses that simply will not work at all on certain Canon cameras!
Ignoring a few rare exceptions, Nikon and Canon DSLRs fall into 2 camps: APS-C Crop Sensor Cameras and Full Frame Sensor Cameras. There are lenses designed only for crop sensors and lenses that work fine with both. Here’s some Q & A to help explain the difference.
What are full frame sensors?
Every DSLR has an image sensor inside it. It is hiding behind a mirror and looks like a green rectangle. This is what conveys information that results in an image. It is what we popularly use now to make pictures instead of film. In fact, that is what a full frame sensor is – it is a digital version of a 35mm film frame. They are the same size!
What are crop frame sensors?
It’s a smaller sensor – smaller than 35mm. That’s it. That’s all it is. Imagine a 35mm piece of film, crop the edges down, and that’s your crop frame sensor.
Why would anybody crop a sensor?
The cynical answer is money. You can fit more cropped sensors on a silicon wafer during production than full frame-sized sensors so the yield is higher, making the cost lower. But there are other benefits. Crop sensors are smaller, which means the cameras they go into can be smaller. Crop sensors also have a narrower angle of view (they simply aren’t as wide as full frame sensors), which enhances the telephoto effect while reducing the wide angle affect. We’ll talk more about that later.
If full frame sensors match 35mm film, then exactly how big is a crop frame sensor?
Most crop sensor DSLRs use the “APS-C” format, which is a 3:2 ratio, as is full frame, but approximates the size of Advanced Photo System Classic film, which is closer to 24mm rather than 35mm. It was popular in the 90s in point-and-shoot cameras. In the digital age, APS-C sensor cameras occupy a formidable presence among pros and amateurs alike.
I heard crop sensor cameras have crop “factors”. What is a crop factor?
In the digital photography world, the 35mm size is our reference point for all imagery. We have all of these lenses available that are designed to work specifically on a standard 35mm frame size. But not all cameras have 35mm size image sensors! Many DSLRs have the APS-C sized sensor, which is closer to 24mm. When you mount a lens that is built for a 35mm size and stick it against a sensor that is 24mm size then the edges of your pictures are going to get cropped off. How much they get cropped is different on Nikon and Canon. Nikon APS-C sensors crop your image by 1.5x. Canon crops it a hair more, by 1.6x. This crop reduces your field of view through a lens by a factor proportional to the ratio between the 24mm size and the 35mm size.
Ok, so I’m going to see less on the edges of my scene through a lens on a crop sensor camera than on a full frame sensor camera. But how does that affect my lens choice?
When you cut off the edges of a scene, your field of view is narrower. If you’re a big fan of wide angle lenses because you like shooting wide scenes, you are going to lose some of that width on a crop sensor camera. How much? Simply multiple the length of the lens by the amount the sensor is cropped. In Nikon’s case, it is 1.5x – for Canon, 1.6x.
Let’s say you want to use a Nikon 16-35mm lens on a Nikon crop sensor DSLR:
16 x 1.5 = 24
35 x 1.5 = 52.50
Your 16-35mm lens will produce imagery on your crop sensor camera that looks more like what 24-52.50mm would look like on a full frame sensor camera. This is your focal length multiplier. You take your crop factor (in this case 1.5) and times that by the focal length you want to use. The result is how your crop sensor camera sees the scene in a world dominated by lenses designed for full frame fields of view. This will help you better choose a focal length that matches what you intend to see through your camera and not just what’s printed on the lens barrel.
I’m still a little confused.
Another way to think about crop factor is this:
Full frame sensors measure approximately 43.5mm diagonally. So a baseline lens for full frame sensors, one with as “normal” of view as possible (not overly wide, not overly telephoto) is about 45mm-50mm. But for the smaller crop frame sensors, the diagonal is only about 30.5mm.
So a quick way to think about it is if you have a crop frame camera and your friend has a full frame one, you will have to use a 30-35mm lens to get the same approximate field of view as they do using a 45-50mm lens. If you are both using 50mm lenses, then your friend’s focal length is 50mm. But your apparent focal length is closer to 80mm. This is why it is really important to know what you’re shooting with before choosing a lens. You don’t want to purchase or rent a wide angle lens only to learn that your field of view isn’t going to be as wide as your expectations.
How to Tell Full Frame from Crop Frame Sensors
The specs will always say what kind of sensor you have. It will say either Full Frame or APS-C. It will usually tell you the crop factor, too. (1.0x, or no multiplier, for full frame and either 1.5x or 1.6x for crop frame – there are also cameras with 1.3x crops, but they are uncommon). Our own camera body listings on BorrowLenses.com will also note the sensor size. Here is a list of the most popular models for you:
|Canon 7D & 7D Mark II||X|
|Canon 5D, 5D Mark II, 5D Mark III, 5D Mark IV||X|
|Canon 60D, 60Da||X|
|Canon 1D X, 1D X Mark II, 1D C||X|
|Canon 5Ds, 5Ds R||X|
|All Rebel Series Canons||X|
|Canon 6D & 6D Mark II||X|
|Nikon D3*, D3s*, D3x, D4*, D4s*||*Crop Mode||X|
|Nikon D5*||*Crop Mode||X|
|Nikon D7000, D7100, D7200, D7500||X|
|Nikon D700, D750||X|
|Nikon D300, D300s||X|
|Nikon D5100, D5200, D5300, D5500, D5600||X|
|Nikon D3200, D3300||X|
|Nikon D800*, D800E*, D810*, D850*||*Crop Mode||X|
|Nikon D600*, D610*||*Crop Mode||X|
Step 2: Identify Your Lens Type
Now that you know what kind of sensor you’re using you can begin to choose the right lens for what you want to shoot.
For the most part, modern lenses (like their camera counterparts) fall into 1 of 2 camps: lenses for full frame sensors and lenses for crop frame sensors. One of the benefits of shooting with a crop frame sensor DSLR is that you can use full frame and crop frame lenses. But if you have a full frame sensor camera you should avoid using crop frame sensor lenses. Full frame cameras should only use full frame lenses. Crop frame sensor lenses are designed specifically to match the smaller size of crop sensors. The image coverage on these lenses is designed for a sensor smaller than full frame. If you try to pair a lens built for crop sensors onto a full frame camera then your images will have black edges around them. Full frame lenses work just fine on crop sensor cameras because the image coverage is 35mm, which is more than enough to cover the crop camera’s approximate 24mm sensor. You get image cropping, sure, but you can still shoot great images!
Here is an analogy to help you think of this in a different way:
Imagine you have a picture frame. If the frame is larger than the picture you want to put inside it, then you’re going to have weird empty space surrounding your picture. This is like the black vignetting you get when trying to use a lens designed for crop sensors on a full frame camera. Conversely, if you try to use a frame that is smaller than your picture, you have to crop your photo down – but at least you fill the frame!
Q & A time:
Ok, so crop sensor lenses have image coverage that is too small for full frame cameras so I should only use them with crop sensor cameras. But full frame lenses work just fine on both. Why would I ever use a crop sensor lens?
You still have to consider your focal length multiplier even on crop sensor lenses. Whether you opt to shoot with a lens designed for full frame sensor cameras or a lens designed for crop frame sensor cameras, the effective focal length of that lens will be either 1.6x more or 1.5x more when paired with a crop sensor camera. Lenses designed for crop sensor cameras don’t do the math for you and list it on the barrel. You still have to do your own math to get your effective focal length.
The major benefit of using lenses built for crop sensors is their size, weight, and price. Because they use a smaller image circle, it takes fewer materials to make long-range zooms. This is great for traveling and keeps these lenses relatively affordable.
Crop sensor cameras come with a lot of “lens math”. Do I have to do this with full frame cameras?
No. Full frame lenses are built for the 35mm size sensor so what it says is what you’ll get. You don’t have to compensate for cropping. This is why some people prefer full frame cameras (among other reasons not pertinent here). While full frame sensor cameras can’t use crop sensor lenses, they also don’t come with any need to calculate your focal length multiplier so long as you stick to the full frame lens inventory.
How can I tell if a lens is for crop sensors or for full frame sensors?
For Canon, full frame lenses are expressed as “EF” lenses while crop frame lenses are expressed as “EF-S”. If a lens has “EF-S” in the title, it is for crop frame sensor DSLRs and cannot be used on full frame cameras. If the lens’ title has “EF” (no S) in it, then you can use that lens on either full frame or crop frame sensor cameras.
For Nikon, if you see “DX” in the title, the lens is for crop frame DSLRs only. If it has “FX” in the title, the lens was designed for full frame (but can also be used on crop frames). Some Nikon cameras, like the D800 and D810, have a “DX Mode”. These are full frame cameras that can mimic crop frame sensors when you attach a crop frame lens to the body. Sensor modes are becoming more common, which is great news for people who see the virtue of both modes and don’t want their lens choices to be limited.
Step 3: Pick a Lens (Some Recommendations)
This is a lot of information to process. I remember my mind being blown at the discovery that some lenses read differently on different cameras because of sensor size. If you’ve come this far and understand most of what you just read but still feel a bit out-to-sea, fear not! I have some lens recommendations for new full frame and crop frame sensor DSLR owners. The first list is for zoom lenses, or lenses that cover a range of focal lengths. The second list is for prime lenses, or lenses that only have 1 length and do not zoom.
Introduction to Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors Plus Great Sensor Comparison Resources
My Zoom Lens Recommendations for Full Frame and Crop Frame Sensors
Remember, everything I recommend for full frame cameras can also be used on crop frame (or APS-C) sensor cameras. If you have a crop sensor camera, the APS-C recommendations below will emphasize portability and affordability while the full frame counterparts provide ultimate quality but are larger, heavier, and spendier. A few lenses I recommend in the APS-C category can also be used on full frame cameras, especially among primes since there aren’t as many crop-dedicated primes as there are primes already compatible with both. Be sure to click on the item to read more details about it before committing.
|Subject||Nikon APS-C||Nikon Full Frame||Canon APS-C||Canon Full Frame|
|Wide – Interiors, Vistas, Crowds, Landscapes||Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G (15-36mm Equivalent)||Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G||Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 (16-35mm Equivalent)||Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L|
|Normal – Events, Landscapes, Traveling, Family, Products||Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G (25.5-82.5mm Equivalent)||Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR||Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS (27.2-88mm Equivalent)||Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II|
|Long – Sports, Events||Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II (82-300mm Equivalent)||Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II||Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM (88-400mm Equivalent)||Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II|
|Super Long – Safaris, Stadium Events, Birding||Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR (120-600mm Equivalent)||Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR II||Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II (160-640mm Equivalent)||Canon EF 200-400mm F4L IS|
The benefit of using a zoom is that you get to have many lenses in 1. This is great for traveling and events where you might not have the room to carry around, or the time to change out, multiple lenses.
My Prime Lens Recommendations for Full Frame and Crop Frame Sensors
|Subject||Nikon APS-C||Nikon Full Frame||Canon APS-C||Canon Full Frame|
|Wide – Interiors, Vistas, Crowds, Landscapes||Nikon 20mm f/1.8G (30mm Equivalent)||Nikon 24mm f/1.4G||Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 (32mm Equivalent)||Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II|
|Normal – Events, Landscapes, Traveling, Family, Products||Nikon 35mm f/1.8G (52.5mm Equivalent)||Nikon 50mm f/1.4G||Canon EF 35mm f/2.0 IS (56mm Equivalent)||Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L|
|Long – Sports, Events||Sigma 180mm f/2.8 HSM (270mm Equivalent)||Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II||Canon EF 180mm f/3.5 (288mm Equivalent)||Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II|
|Super Long – Safaris, Stadium Events, Birding||Nikon 300mm f/4E VR (450mm Equivalent)||Nikon 500mm f/4E VR||Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS (480mm Equivalent)||Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II|
The benefit of using prime lenses is that they are designed to produce beautiful out-of-focus backgrounds when using wide apertures. They also, generally, have wider maximum apertures, which lets in more light. While you’re limited to only 1 focal length, your are forced to actually physically move your body in order to change perspective. This goes a long way toward teaching beginners some of the fundamentals of good image making.
I recommend zooms to people who plan to shoot a lot of family events, vacations, or a larger variety of subject matters. I recommend primes to people who have a stronger fine art interest, or who plan to shoot the same subjects over and over, and want to teach themselves the fundamentals of composition through restriction while still using a high quality lens.
This blog post is dedicated to all my friends and relatives who just got their first DSLR. If you’re also a beginner, I hope this helped. If you are a seasoned shooter, please share this with anybody you feel would benefit from it, along with your own lens recommendations based on your own experience.
Going to buy a full frame canon 5d mark 4 Thankx for the info .
Going to buy a full frame canon 5d mark 4 Thankx for the info .
Thank you so much for the article. I learned so much about my camera and the lens that goes with them.
I would like a general purpose lens or maybe I need two lenses. I take a lot of photos of flowers, old buildings (barns mostly), landscapes and close ups of flowers. I do this while traveling. Don’t want to have to keep changing lenses, but want something that can do a good job on both.
Is the 24-70mm or 24-105mm lens a good one for this or do you recommend something different?
Great article. Do this on a vlog
I have canon 7d and lenses 17/55 2.8 is 70/200 f4 and10/22 wide which total or use on travelling or going to safari in Africa also have canon extender 1.4
Hey there Alexandria. Good explanations, thanks. I have a question. Would you recommend a 70-300mm without VR? I know they are alot cheaper but is it really worth it?
What you don’t say is that the sharpness of a Canon full frame lens will be severely compromised on a crop body (see DxO Mark data). The greater cost will be mostly wasted. EF-S lenses are needed but Canon overwhelmingly caters for EF
Thank you so much, I’ll have a look at your website.
Hi Alexandria, Thanks for prompt and helpful reply. I am inclined towards Mirrorless for the same reason you suggested. Are there any specific lens (type) I should be looking for.
One is for closeups (with all band members) and other from bit far but taking the whole stage and audience.
Thank you so much for the brilliant article. I go to lot of concerts as my other half is musician and hence I get entry to back stage and front rows etc. I am interested in Concert Photography. I have been using Panasonic compact camera (very basic) for still snaps and Canon GF25 for Videos.
Please could you suggest me which type of frame will be good for me. I am planning to do this bit seriously, but buy a used camera anyways.
One photographer suggested me to buy Fuji X-e3 but didn’t get time to ask him about lens.
Is the full frame like used Sony A7, Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D610 good for me or Fuji X-e3 or used Nikon D500 or Canon 800D?
Please suggest me the lens that suit the concert photography.
Hi I am planning to buy Canon 80D with Tamaron 18 – 400 mm Lens. Please suggest whether its a good combination or not? I mostly prefer travel friendly camera/set up with natural and also portrait. I am a beginner in DSLR, earlier used to use Compact cameras like Sony HX series. Thanks in advance.
Hi! I am mostly a travel/portrait photographer (shooting seniors, families, couples, etc). I have a either a Nikon D2700 or D7100. I am hesitant to get a prime lens vs a zoom. Either way I want a better lens for portraits. While I want a nice lens, I am looking for something that is slightly more cognitive of my bank account. After reading your article and from my limited prior knowledge I was thinking the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX looked like a good option. What do you suggest?
Thank you for this excellent information. I’m about to purchase a Nikon D750 and have been stumped with the complexity of lenses! This helped a lot!
Thanks for the information, …never knew what it does exactly…I appreciate it
Thanks so much!! That is a good article. Everything is opening my eyes up to amazing information!! And yes, there will be props in the background so I see what you mean, I think….I might try renting the Canon 17-40 to start with for the extra width. Thank you Alexandria!!
Hello! I think I had trouble posting my original comment…but I wanted to say thank you!! This explains so much and it all makes sense- I even took notes. I do have a question though. I identified my Canon Rebel as APS-C. I am wondering what would be a good lens to use for taking pet portraits (portraits in general). Do you recommend a prime lens, and if so, would the Canon EF 20 mm or EF 35 mm be appropriate? My camera came with a standard 18-55 mm but the photos seem so “blah”. (also, would that equate to more of 28-88mm ?) Thank you for any help!
I have the T5i and bought the EF 70-200 L f2.8 a few months ago. I LOVE IT! Takes amazing pictures with preset settings and really makes my photos look like a much more expensive full frame was used. No regrets!
First, thanks for a terrific explanation. Yours is not the first article I read but it’s clearly the best. And you really helped me make my choice for a new zoom lens. I have only one question. You stated – as have others – that, “Crop frame sensor lenses are designed specifically to match the smaller size of crop sensors. The image coverage on these lenses is designed for a sensor smaller than full frame.” Since the lenses are “designed specifically” for the sensors, why don’t the manufacturers just go ahead and recalibrate the focal length numbers and make the full frame owners do the math!?
I am in the process of buying a camera for real estate photography, lots of interior room shots. I totally understand the difference between DX and FX Lenses, but the one question I have is would a DX camera produce the same quality wide angle images as an FX camera? (with appropriate lens) Or am I better off with an FX camera for this type of work?
Absolutely the best explanation of crop frame and full frame sensors I’ve come across, and one of the best written explanations I’ve ever read for anything I’ve ever researched on the web. I’m an ESL teacher getting into astrophotography as a hobby, and the majority of the ‘help’ given on many of the forums I visited make me roll my eyes. But not this article! I finished it with a smile! Bravo!
A great article Alex! Have been reading a lot lately reg this topic, but this is by far the best and simplest of all. I don’t need to look any further. Thanks again.
Thank you for the lens recommendations! I am going to rent to pick the best for my Canon 80D.
I’ve heard so much good about the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens. Even though I have a crop sensor, I want to try it. Will the f-stop be the same on a crop sensor, even though it’s made for a full frame? Will I end up with more bokeh?
What an outstanding article–I learned a tremendous amount–THANK YOU!! I have a Canon EOS Rebel T5i which I use for family and “event” photos–I am the unofficial photographer for a regional economic development coalition so do photos for board meetings and large conferences (have a EF-S 18-135mm lens which provides a nice, flexible range). Consequently I am always trying to improve my photography skills (finally using Lightroom in conjunction with Photoshop)–in particular with lighting for events. Any suggestions on event photography would be appreciated. Thanks very much. George
I have reached out to Borrowless with re: to lens purchase and would like your opinion as well. BL has been amazing. I have a Sony A6000 and noticed you only featured Canon and Nikon so am not sure if you are familiar with Sony. What lens would you recommend for whale watching and what lens would you recommend for action shots in low light. I am torn between prime and telephoto. Thank you in advance.
I was asked by friends what lens they should take for their Canon (APS-C). As I have a full frame Canon, I was a little lost giving an answer. Considering them to be nice People, I at least wanted to give them SOME guidance. With this in mind, I found your article and can only congratulate you. Very well written, very helpful, and smart. Thank you from Switzerland, and thank you in the name of others that need such help.
Thank you very much for this article..it really really helped me to clear “burst” of confusions regarding lenses on APSC and full frame DSLRs…
Thanks a ton…
What wide lens (to achieve full frame) do you recommend for canon 70d? I will be using it mainly for astrophotography so i kind of want a f/2.8 or f/1.4 aperture to capture some things on the sky . Thank you in advance! I really need opinions.
A 35mm film frame measures 36mm x 24mm. The 35mm measurement is the total height of the film strip, including the area used by the sprocket holes. There’s 4.5mm at the top, then the 24mm height of the imaging area, and then another 4.5mm at the bottom.
Most Nikon APS-C sensors measure between 23.5×15.5mm to 23.7×15.8mm so the exact crop factor is between 1.52-1.53X but everyone just rounds it to 1.5X. Most Canon APs-c sensors measure between 22.3×14.7mm to 22.5×15.0mm. The exact crop factor is between 1.6-1.61X but everyone just uses 1.6X.
This is quite good. But I think it’s more correct to stick to angle of view. When you start talking about “effective focal length” people think that the focal length of the lens is actually magnified.
Thank You. Great article for beginners like me to understand the world of photography.
I just purchased a nikon d750. I have the Nikon 50mm 1.8g lens. When my camera is in fx mode I see a black spot in the left hand corner and some banding. I switch it to crop and it’s not as bad… im confused and aggravated. I know this camera has had recalls but my serial number doesn’t fall under the category. Is it the lens or the camera???
This was EXTREMELY helpful!
The only question I have is that if my lens doesn’t have DX or FX in the title how do I find out if it strictly for cropped dslrs or full frame dslrs?
Hi, thanks for the article. I was able to identify my Canon T3i 600D as an APS-C camera with your chart, but I wanted to point out that I couldn’t find any mention of “APS-C” or “Full Frame” in the specs. In fact, I searched the entire manual, and “APS-C” didn’t show up once.
Is there another term or another way this would be described in the specs?
Excellent article with really clear and educational information. Thank you! I’ve printed and saved this for school.
Thanks for this article. Explained in great detail at the same time taking care not to cause confusion.