Is Full Frame Actually Better than APS-C?

Gold Coast Blooms – Laguna Beach, CA – Fujifilm X100V – upcoming Film Simulation Recipe

The announcement of the Nikon Zf seems to have rekindled an old adage: full frame is better than APS-C. Some are saying that full frame cameras have the minimum sensor size necessary for serious photography, and APS-C and smaller are for amateurs. But is this actually true? Is full frame superior to APS-C? Can APS-C cameras be just as good or perhaps even better than full frame? Does the size of the sensor actually matter all that much? Why even buy a Fujifilm APS-C camera now that Nikon has the full frame Zf?

At the core is the physical size of the sensor. Full-frame is 50% larger than (most) APS-C. The size of a full frame sensor is the same as a 35mm film frame, while the size of an APS-C sensor is the same as an Advanced Photo System Classic film frame. In the film days, no respectable pro or enthusiast photographer used Advanced Photo System cameras. Why should they in the digital age?

Misty Saguaro – Buckeye, AZ – Fujifilm X-T5 – Pacific Blues Recipe

Back in the early days of digital, when dynamic range and noise control were much more critical than nowadays, full frame had a clear advantage, as one needed to squeeze the absolute most out of their files and full frame allowed that. APS-C was more affordable and smaller, so it was popular with amateurs and enthusiasts on a budget. This is where the stigma originated that APS-C is not for those who are serious, and to an extent it unfortunately remains to this day, despite so many incredibly talented and successful photographers utilizing APS-C models.

Since APS-C sensors are smaller than full frame, there is less physical room for light sensitive sensor elements (pixels). There are two options: smaller pixels or fewer pixels. Smaller pixels will allow for increased resolution, but at the expense of low-light capabilities and dynamic range. Fewer pixels allows for better low-light capabilities and dynamic range, but at the expense of resolution. Resolution is resolution, and 24mp on full frame is the same as 24mp on APS-C, yet the pixels on the APS-C will be smaller than those on the full frame sensor. 61mp on full frame is more resolution than 40mp on APS-C, yet their pixels are similarly sized. It’s easy to see the advantage of full frame! Except that most photographers don’t actually need 40mp of resolution, let alone 61mp. It looks good on paper, and it’s great for pixel-peeping and bragging rights, but in practical use, the majority of photographers don’t actually need more than 20mp, and everything above that is overkill. Yes, there are some who do need more, because they crop deeply or print huge, but most people who say they need that much resolution don’t actually need it. Megapixels sell cameras, though, so camera makers keep pushing higher and higher. My argument is simply that there is plenty of real estate on an APS-C sensor; while the increased room on full-frame sensors does offer advantages, those advantages find themselves on a diminishing returns segment of an inverted U curve.

Shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R

Improved dynamic range and high-ISO are often overstated on full frame. The dynamic range of, say, the APS-C Fujifilm X-T5 and the full frame Canon EOS 5DS R are quite similar, and not much different at all in real world use. There are some APS-C cameras with more dynamic range and some with less dynamic range than the X-T5; likewise, there are some full frame cameras with more dynamic range and some with less dynamic range than the 5DS R. But even if we’re talking about an APS-C camera with less and a full frame with more, in practical use, that difference is fairly insignificant (outside of some extreme circumstances). Same with digital noise. Full frame might be cleaner with less noise—particularly as the ISO climbs—but a camera like the X-T5 has a film-grain-like rendering to the digital noise that is much more tolerable than the noise from the 5DS R. In other words, the more noisy X-T5 might be preferable to the less noisy 5DS R at the same ISO. For the most part, full frame does have the advantage with both dynamic range and high-ISO, but it isn’t nearly as big nowadays as many might think.

Now let’s talk crop factor, which is often given as a reason to choose full frame. Because full frame sensors are 50% larger than APS-C, there is a 1.5x crop factor for APS-C focal lengths. For example, a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera will have the same focal length as a 75mm lens on a full frame camera. If you are trying to reach far, it’s a little easier on APS-C than full frame, and if you are trying to go wide, it’s a little easier on full frame than APS-C; however, there are plenty of long telephoto and ultra-wide lens options for both sensor sizes. Crop factor also affects depth-of-field, as f/2 on APS-C has a larger depth-of-field than an f/2 on full frame. If you want a shallow depth-of-field, it’s a little easier to achieve on full frame than APS-C, but if you want a large depth-of-field, it’s a little easier to achieve on APS-C than full-frame; however, it’s still very much possible to get a small depth-of-field on APS-C and a large depth-of-field on full frame. One often-overlooked advantage of APS-C is that, to achieve that shallow depth-of-field, you’re likely to use a larger aperture, allowing more light to reach the sensor, which means shooting at a lower ISO.

Shot on a Canon EOS 5DS R

Perhaps the biggest advantages that APS-C has over full frame—and likely the main reasons why most choose APS-C instead of full frame—are size and price. APS-C cameras are often smaller and weigh less than full frame. Smaller gear can be preferable, especially when traveling, and it can potentially provide a better user experience. Because the sensor is smaller, the price is often lower, sometimes much lower. Your money often goes further with an APS-C system than full frame.

While APS-C cameras can have some advantages over full frame, and some of the strengths of full frame can be overstated, bigger sensors obviously do allow for more and/or bigger light sensitive sensor elements, which generally speaking is better. My point is not to diminish full frame, because they serve important purposes, and can be preferable; instead, my point is only that the stigma that APS-C is “less than” and isn’t for serious photographers is outdated and inaccurate. Full frame has advantages, and APS-C has advantages, and you might find one more preferable than the other, but they are both very capable sensor sizes. My personal preference is Fujifilm X-Trans APS-C, as it works quite well for my photography. You have to decide for yourself what works best for you. I just hope that the stigma can finally be put to rest, as it’s simply not true.

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Fujifilm X-T5 in black:  Amazon  B&H  Moment
Fujifilm X-T5 in silver:  Amazon  B&H  Moment

Fujifilm Full Frame Reflections


Morning Coffee – South Weber, UT – Fujifilm X-T30

As I was sitting on the coach, sipping my morning coffee, with Transatlantic’s epic Kaleidoscope album playing in the background, my thoughts drifted to Fujifilm and sensor sizes. This might seem like a strange line of thought for the environment that I was in, but sometimes that happens. You are probably aware that Fujifilm makes mirrorless cameras with APS-C sized sensors and medium-format sensors, but they skipped right over full-frame. I began to consider why this was and wasn’t a good strategy, and what the consequences might be for it. What should Fujifilm consider for future sensors? What can they do right now?

The reason why I believe Fujifilm jumped into the APS-C market to begin with was because, with the intended market and available technology ten years ago, APS-C made the most sense. There was a demand for high-quality, mid-budget, retro-styled mirrorless cameras intended for advanced enthusiasts. It was an under-tapped market, and Fujifilm even surprised themselves with the success of their X series. Fujifilm made the right products at the right time and sold them at the right price. Full-frame wasn’t practical for them at that time and they wouldn’t have experienced the same success if they had gone that route instead.

A lot of people were surprised when Fujifilm decided to skip full-frame and jump head-long into medium-format. The argument was that the full-frame market was overcrowded, and it was better to be #1 in a small market than #5 or #6 in a large market, because you can always grow the small market. That strategy seems to be working, as not only did Fujifilm quickly set themselves as the leader in the medium-format market, but they’ve been growing it at a rapid pace. By all indications, Fujifilm GFX has been a smashing success.

Should Fujifilm consider making a full-frame line? They’re well established in the APS-C market, they’re currently king of medium-format, so why not go full-frame? Wouldn’t they be successful there, too? There are a lot of questions that can be asked, and surely Fujifilm has asked themselves these questions, yet they insist that they will not make a full-frame camera line.


Magic Beans – South Weber, UT – Fujifilm X-T30

In my opinion, X-Trans IV (and even X-Trans III) cameras already deliver full-frame image quality, but in a smaller package. For example, the Nikon D700, which is a 10-year-old full-frame camera, doesn’t compare to the modern Fujifilm X camera, which produces better image quality pretty much across the board. If you compare it to a five-year-old full-frame Nikon D610, the two cameras are pretty close in image quality. If you compare it to a new full-frame camera, the full-frame camera wins. The big difference is resolution. There was a time not long ago that conventional wisdom stated 24-megapixels was overkill. Now if you’re not close to 50-megapixels, you don’t have enough. Sony just announced a 61-megapixel camera, and APS-C cannot compete with that. Full-frame also has a dynamic range and high ISO advantage, but that gap has narrowed, and it’s not nearly as big of a difference as it once was. It’s still an advantage for full-frame, but modern Fujifilm X camera aren’t far behind at all. To summarize, Fujifilm’s recent X cameras have better image quality than 10-year-old full-frame, as good as five-year-old full-frame, and not as good as the latest full-frame, which most significantly have a resolution advantage. Remember, it wasn’t very long ago that cameras like the D700 and D610 were touted as pro gear capable of capturing amazing pictures, and modern Fujifilm cameras are just as good as those, if not better.

Unless Fujifilm uncovers a need within full-frame that other brands are overlooking and they believe they can fulfill, I really don’t see them making a new line of cameras and lenses. Fujifilm is going to focus on X and GFX, both of which are doing pretty well. But there is a way that they can close the gap a little between the two systems. This wouldn’t require too much development or expense on Fujifilm’s part to create. What they can do to appease those who want full-frame but won’t go medium-format, without actually creating a new system, is to put a larger sensor, perhaps an APS-H sized sensor, in an already existing APS-C camera. Sigma did something like this with their Quattro cameras, so it’s not completely unheard of.

APS-H sensors are about 15% larger than APS-C. They fit in-between APS-C and full-frame. If Fujifilm took the X-Trans IV sensor and increased the size of it to APS-H, they would suddenly have a 30-megapixel camera with identical image quality to their 26-megapixel cameras. They could put it in an X-H1 or X-T3 body. My guess is that most Fujinon lenses would cover the bigger sensor, and only some of them won’t have full coverage, which isn’t a huge deal. For those lenses that don’t fully cover the sensor, the camera can be programmed to automatically crop it to 26-megapixels. By increasing the sensor size a little, Fujifilm could offer a higher megapixel option without sacrificing image quality and without creating a new system.


Coffee Beans – South Weber, UT – Fujifilm X-T30

While 30-megapixels doesn’t sound like a huge jump (because it’s not), it would allow slightly bigger prints or deeper crops. It’s not a large leap, but it is a leap nonetheless. Looking ahead to future sensors, which are likely to have more resolution while maintaining or improving image quality, it’s not improbable to think that a future X-Trans V APS-H sensor might have 36-megapixels, and that 40+ megapixels aren’t out of the question within the next five years. In this way those who are attracted to the high resolution offerings of full-frame, who can’t afford medium-format, might consider staying with Fujifilm instead of switching brands.

I’m not suggesting in the least that Fujifilm should abandon APS-C for APS-H. I’m merely suggesting that to close the gap a little (and it would definitely be a little) between APS-C and medium-format, where they hypothetically could have a full-frame camera but don’t, they should consider offering one or maybe a few camera models with a little larger sensor. It seems like they could add them to already existing models, such as the X-H1, X-T3, X-Pro3, X100V (the latter two cameras are coming soon), without too many modifications, and without increasing the cost all that much. Whatever would be the easiest camera to put it in, they should give it a try and see how it does. Heck, do it to the X-H1 and call it the X-H2. I think it would attract some who like the idea of Fujifilm X but wish the sensor was larger, and it might keep those itching for full-frame Fujifilm from jumping ship because it’s not happening.

The coffee was good but soon the cup was empty. The music ended with what’s probably the best Nights in White Satin cover I’ve had the pleasure to hear. I’m very happy with the Fujifilm X system as it stands today, yet I know that it will only get better as technology advances. Fujifilm has a history of making good business decisions, and whatever they decide to do or not do is probably going to work out well for them. As for me, I will be using the tools that I have to the best of my ability to create my art.