The Crop Factor Explained

By Geoff Harris

Understanding the difference between a full frame camera and its smaller ‘sensored’ siblings

What is the crop factor and why is it important? And why do some cameras have smaller sensors in them the their more expensive full frame cousins?  I’m an avid reader of science books. Admittedly whenever an equation is thrown into a sentence I feel a bit lightheaded. However, it’s a small price to pay for a better understanding of the natural world.

Statue of George Hardwick outside Middlesbrough Football Club's Riverside Stadium, Teesside, Cropping, images, crop, full frame, crop factor, APS-C, Canon, Nikon, sensors, camera sensor, lens, full-frame,

One of my favourite authors is the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould (the late Stephen Jay Gould unfortunately, it’s a sobering thought that I’ve now read all his books and will never see another new one). My favourite book by Gould has the intriguing title of ‘The Panda’s Thumb’. If you’ve not read it you should.

The theme of the book is the idea that the evolution of life is constrained by what’s gone before. Humans will never evolve a pair of wings because there’s no part of our body plan that could be co-opted to the task. One of the analogies that Gould uses to explain his idea is the QWERTY keyboard. The QWERTY keyboard isn’t very efficient. It was originally developed to actually slow typists down. In the days of the mechanical typewriter if you typed too fast you’d jam the mechanism. Unfortunately for everyone who uses a keyboard QWERTY stuck and became a standard.

Photography has a standard that’s stuck and it’s called full-frame (a full-frame digital camera has a sensor which has exactly the same dimensions as a 35mm film frame). The focal length of lenses is invariably described in relation to that of a lens on a full frame-frame camera. I’ve a Canon G10, which has a lens with a focal length range of 6.1 to 30.5 mm. However most people refer to the lens as the equivalent of a 28-140mm full-frame lens. This is largely because 6.1mm means nothing to most people, whereas 28mm, why that’s a wide-angle lens.

This image was shot with a Canon G15 with the lens set to 7.7mm - the equivalent to a 35mm lens fitted on a full-frame camera

This has led to the use of another term. Crop factor. .

A full-frame sensor is a big sensor. Big sensors are more expensive to produce than smaller sensors because fewer of them can be fitted onto a wafer of silicon. (sensors are manufactured on standard-sized circular wafers of silicon. The more sensors you can fit onto the wafer, the cheaper each individual sensor will be). In the Palaeolithic era of digital photography (i.e. ten years ago) camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon started to produce DSLRs with sensors that were smaller than full-frame. These sensors (nicknamed cropped sensors) were the same size as a now largely forgotten film standard called APS-C. This meant that DSLRs could be made more cheaply, to the benefit of everyone.

The course of the Pilgrims' Causeway across to the island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland, Cropping, images, crop, full frame, crop factor, APS-C, Canon, Nikon, sensors, camera sensor, lens, full-frame,

I used a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera for this shot. If I’d used the same lens on an APS-C camera I would only have captured the area within the red box.

Unfortunately there was one problem. The angle of view of a lens is different when fitted to APS-C sensor camera than a full-frame camera. The angle of view of a lens is a measurement - in degrees (°) - of the proportion of a scene that’s projected by the lens onto the sensor. Because an APS-C sensor is smaller than a full-frame sensor the image projected by the lens is essentially cropped more tightly. The practical upshot of this is that a 28mm lens captures more of a scene when fitted to a full-frame sensor camera than when fitted to an APS-C sensor camera (this is a disadvantage if you like to use wide-angle lenses, but and advantage if you like to use telephoto lenses - a telephoto lens will appear ‘longer’ on an APS-C sensor camera).

Blackface sheep on Hadrian's Wall near Housesteads Fort in the snow, Northumberland National Park, England, Cropping, images, crop, full frame, crop factor, APS-C, Canon, Nikon, sensors, camera sensor, lens, full-frame,

This was shot with a 200mm lens on an APS-C camera. To achieve the same image with a full-frame camera I would have needed to use a 300mm lens.

The crop factor figure of an APS-C camera allows you to calculate what lens you’d need that would give you the same angle of view as one fitted to a full-frame camera. The crop factor of most APS-C cameras is 1.5x (Canon buck the trend by using slightly smaller chip so the crop factor is 1.6x on their cameras). Say you want to know what the equivalent to a full-frame 28mm lens is. You’d simply divide 28 by 1.5 to get 18. So an 18mm lens on an APS-C camera will have the same angle of view as a 28mm lens on full-frame camera.

Simple. Though actually I’ve just realised that the paragraph above comes very close to including an equation. I’ll stop there before I get too light headed and faint onto my frustratingly inefficient keyboard.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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