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In part 1 of this series on the best camera for food photography, we learned about DSLR sensors. Now let’s take a look at how a full frame and a crop sensor camera impacts shooting and output.
The size of a sensor in a crop sensor or full frame camera is going to impact the following areas:
- Cost & photo quality
- Available Space & Choice of Lenses
- Depth of field
- Light sensitivity
Let’s go through each area to understand the details.
Cost & Photo Quality
Full frame cameras are more expensive. They use larger sensors made with higher quality materials, and therefore, cost more money. As a result, full frames create better quality images.
This was one of the first things I noticed when I upgraded. The photos from my full frame looked more crisp and sharp than anything I had produced on the crop sensor.
Does this mean images from crop sensors will not be crisp & sharp? Not at all; but you should be aware that a more expensive sensor produces higher quality images.
Available Space & Choice of Lenses
In part 1, we learned that the crop factor changes the effective focal length of your lens.
The crop factor is going to impact your shooting in two ways:
- It will require more space to shoot the same subject.
- It can change which lenses you choose to purchase.
A Simple Example
Let’s set up a simple example with a common food photography lens – 50mm.
On a full frame, the 50mm remains true to its focal length; remember, there is no crop factor on a full frame.
However, if you put the 50 mm on a crop sensor, you have to account for the crop factor. Let’s say our crop factor is 1.5. So a 50 mm would behave more like a 75 mm.
A crop sensor camera with a full frame lens requires more available space to shoot
Sticking with our 50mm lens example, to get more of your subject and scene in the frame, you need to move farther away from your subject. This holds true for whether you are shooting straight on or overhead.
Take a look at the image on the left, which was shot with a crop sensor. In order to get more of the cupcakes in the frame, you would need to move further away.
If your shooting area is small, a crop sensor can make it difficult to get wider shots. One of my reasons for upgrading to a full frame was lack of space.
I constantly found myself working around furniture or balancing at the very top of a step ladder to get wide shots. As a result, I spent more time figuring out where to set up the camera than I did shooting.
Since a full frame doesn’t have a crop factor, you will naturally be closer to your subject (depending on your lens choice). This means you can shoot more effectively in smaller spaces with a full frame.
Crop sensor cameras can benefit from using a wider lens
If you can’t make adjustments to your available shooting space, you can use a wider lens.
Switching to a wider lens on a crop sensor is the same as moving your camera with the 50mm farther away from your subject.
Why? The crop factor! Instead of a 50mm, you choose to use a 35mm. Your crop factor is 1.5, so the perceived focal length of the 35mm lens is about 52.5.
52.5 is pretty close to the full frame focal length of 50mm. At the same distance from your subject, you will be able to fit roughly the same amount of the scene in your frame.
Depth of Field
Depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects that are in acceptably sharp focus in an image (Wikipedia). It’s a powerful concept that can set the mood of your photo.
Aperture and distance to the subject are the two main aspects that affect your depth of field.
At the same aperture, positioning your camera closer to your subject will create a thinner depth of field, meaning less of the image will be in focus. Shooting further away from your subject will create a wider depth of field.
How does the camera sensor impact depth of field?
It doesn’t, at least not directly. The size of your sensor will not change your depth of field. Let me repeat that again: the size of your sensor has no impact on your depth of field.
However, your sensor will impact where you position your camera in relation to the subject. It’s your sensor’s impact on distance from the camera to subject that will indirectly affect your depth of field.
The picture on the left was shot with a crop sensor, while the picture on the right was shot with a full frame. Both pictures were shot with the same settings and distance from the camera to the subject.
Take a close look at the depth of field and bokeh in each photo. Can you see a difference? Not really. Since the photos were shot using the same distance from the camera to the subject, the depth of field is very similar. Remember, distance impacts depth of field.
Now let’s move the crop sensor further away from the subject. The picture on the left was shot with a crop sensor camera that was moved back to get more of the subject in the frame. The picture on the right is shot with a full frame. The settings for both images remain the same.
Can you see the difference in the depth of field?
The cupcakes in the image on the left are more in focus, while the image on the right looks more out of focus. The aperture remained unchanged, but the crop sensor was further away from the subject resulting in a wider depth of field.
How can you replicate the depth of field from a photo taken on a full frame with your crop sensor camera?
Change your aperture. A lower (wider) aperture on a crop sensor results in a photo with more bokeh.
When I adjusted the aperture on the crop sensor from f/4.5 to f2.2, I was able to increase the amount of blur in my photo. The bokeh in the final photo was then similar to that in the photo taken on the full frame.
This was a big change for me when I upgraded to a full frame. On my crop sensor, I typically shot around f/2.2 to f/2.8 to get a nice blurred background. But on my full frame, I found myself stopping down to f/5.6 to f/7 to achieve the same amount of blur.
Keep your distance and depth of field in mind the next time you shoot. Changing your aperture could make all the difference in creating the mood you envision for your photos.
Full frame cameras have a reputation for being better in low light. Not only is the sensor in a full frame larger, but the pixels in a full frame are typically larger as well. The larger pixels are able to collect and process more light, making them more light-sensitive than those in a crop sensor.
If you were to compare a photo from a crop sensor and full frame side by side, taken with the same settings, you won’t see a difference in the amount of light in the photo. Camera manufacturers account for this when building cameras.
A camera’s ISO range is where you will see a difference in the sensor’s light sensitivity. ISO is a camera’s sensitivity to light. If you need more (or less) light, and you aren’t able to adjust your aperture, shutter speed or light source, you would adjust your ISO.
The obvious pro to ISO is the ability to introduce more light, but increasing your ISO introduces noise into your photos. A photo with a lot of noise will look grainy and pixelated.
As you increase your ISO, the amount of noise will increase at a faster rate in a crop sensor camera because its pixels are smaller and less sensitive to light.
At any ISO, a photo taken on a crop sensor will have more noise than a photo taken on a full frame. Since full frame cameras have larger, more light-sensitive pixels, you can increase the ISO on a full frame with sacrificing image quality at the same rate.
The set of photos below shows the increase in noise between the two cameras. Photos taken with the crop sensor are on the right and full frame photos are on the left. For any ISO, you can see that the full frame image shows less noise.
It’s important that you identify the ISO value that creates too much noise. I never shot above ISO 400 on my crop sensor. I didn’t feel comfortable with the quality of the photos above that value, and if I ever had a client that wanted to print the photo, anything above 400 could produce a print that was too pixelated.
If you are already using a crop sensor or are set on purchasing one, there are a couple of things you can do to create more light without adjusting your ISO:
- Shoot on a tripod and use a slower shutter speed. Utilizing a tripod will eliminate camera shake from hand holding, and allow you to lower the shutter speed to let in more light. Note: this is only an option if you aren’t incorporating motion into your photo.
- Shoot with a speedlight. A speedlight is an off-camera flash. You can increase the output of the flash, meaning you can increase or decrease the amount of available light. So in low light, you can increase the output of your flash instead of increasing your ISO.
In part 3 of the best camera for food photography series, I’m going to guide you through questions related to your goals and provide suggestions on which camera will help you meet them.
New to food photography? Check my blog post on 6 Tips to take Seriously when Starting Food Photography