APS-C vs Full Frame for Wildlife Photography: which one is for you?

Buying a camera for wildlife photography is not easy. There are a lot of things to consider such as specifications, features, and price. But another question that an answer is whether to go for an APS-C or a Full Frame camera.

Both APS-C and full-frame cameras are capable of taking stunning photos. However, there are differences between the two that might convince you to go one way or the other.

What is an APS-C camera?

Before we head on to the comparison, let's discuss APS-C cameras for a bit. These type of cameras have a smaller sensor. This results in the field of view that is 1.5-1.6x closer compared to a full frame sensor. It is also called the crop factor.

Due to the smaller sensor, APS-C cameras tend to perform less when it comes to lowlight conditions. It is also usually found on entry-level cameras.

What is the crop factor?

As mentioned earlier, crop sensor cameras have a field of view that is 1.5-1.6x closer than that of a full frame camera.

This means that the focal length is multiplied by 1.5 or 1.6x to get its full frame equivalent.

For example, a 35mm lens on a full frame camera is just 35mm. But with an APS-C camera, a 35mm lens gives a field of view of 52.5mm.

Basically, if you want to achieve a 50mm look on an APS-C camera, you will need a 35mm lens. If you put a 50mm lens directly on a crop sensor camera, you are getting a 75mm field of view.

This does not apply on full frame cameras as you get the FoV of whatever your lens focal length is.

What is a full frame camera?

A full frame camera has a 35mm sensor, which is close to the 35mm film negative. These type of cameras are often used by professional photographers due to the image quality and low light performance.

Full frame cameras are generally more expensive so prepare to spend extra if you want to go this route.

APS-C or Full Frame for Wildlife

Some of the things that you need to consider when buying a camera are ISO sensitivity, resolution, Image stabilization, and other things. Let's discuss each and how different sensors perform for every category.

ISO Sensitivity and Lowlight performance

Full frame cameras have better low light performance compared to small sensor cameras. This is due to the larger individual pixels found on the sensor.

The 35mm sensor is more when sensitive when it comes to light. Hence, it is a top choice when it comes to wedding and events where lights are inconsistent.

That being said, this translates to a faster shutter speed when shooting wildlife. You are not worried to go with a faster shutter speed because the image quality is top-notch.

This does not mean that crop-sensor cameras are not great when it comes to low light. They are fine, but for head-to-head comparison. Full frame cameras are better for lowlight shooting.

Depth of field

Remember the crop factor mentioned earlier? It also affects the depth of field (DoF). 

This means that if try to shoot with the same f/2 lens on both an APS-C and full frame sensor, the DoF is different.

The crop sensor camera will have a larger depth of field because of the 1.5-1.6x crop factor. 

An f/2 lens when mounted on a crop sensor camera will have the same DoF as an f/3 lens. Thus, the bokeh or the amount of blur in the background is lesser compared to an f/2 lens mounted on a full frame sensor.

If you love shooting animals with blurred background or you want to focus on a subject through bokeh, then a full frame camera is the better choice.

However, using a crop sensor camera to shoot wildlife will still give excellent subject separation even at a higher f-stop depending on the lens focal length.

Image Resolution

There are times where you cannot go close enough to an animal and your longest telephoto lens is still short for a close up image. Cropping is the answer for this.

Cropping an image is common when shooting wildlife. Whether to adjust the composition or to get closer to the subject, it is an acceptable way to produce top notch images.

This is why image resolution is worth considering before making a purchase.

Most full frame sensors have high resolution that allows for cropping when editing. Some models can mimic a crop sensor camera without reducing image quality.

However, using a high resolution camera affects the burst mode as it needs to write tons of data into a memory card. This slows down shooting and fills up the camera's buffer quickly.

On the other hand, crop sensor cameras are getting better. Some have 26-megapixels, which is more than enough for small prints.

But for larger format images, high resolution full frame cameras are way better. Just slap in a fast memory card and you are good to go.

Focal Length

This is where crop sensor cameras shine as the crop factor provides a little bit of advantage.

When using an APS-C camera, a 200mm lens will provide a 300mm field of view. That is 100mm of focal length added just by the crop factor alone.

This is advantageous because the longer the focal length, the higher the effective field of view is.

A 500mm lens when attached to a crop camera will provide a 750mm FoV. This means you can zoom into animals closer without using an extender.

Full frame cameras have something similar. A teleconverter can be added to increase a lens' focal length by 1.4-2x at the expense of f-stop.

Image stabilization

Having image stabilization (IS) helps when shooting at slower shutter speeds. Large cameras are tiresome to hold at times and when fatigue kicks in, IS helps in taking sharp photos.

There are not much APS-C cameras with image stabilization. It is often found on the lens instead. 

Some models with in-body stabilization are a little bit pricey. Often, they are in-line with the prices of entry-level full frame cameras.

That being said, there is no clear winner when it comes to image stabilization because it can be achieved one way or another.

For APS-C, IS lenses are available. The same goes for full frame cameras.

Price

This is one of the biggest factors when searching for a new camera for wildlife photography. 

Ultimately, the question is, what is your budget?

Full frame cameras are expensive and so are the lenses and other accessories. These cameras have premium features and lean towards professionals.

At the same time APS-C cameras are more affordable. Lenses are cheaper too at the expense of build quality or extra features.

Which one is for you?

It all depends on you and how you would balance features, performance, and cost.

APS-C cameras are great for wildlife photography because of its focal length crop factor. It is also a great way for hobbyists to enter the genre without breaking the bank.

However, if you want the best performance and you have the cash to go for it, then full frame cameras are the way to go. 

You get better low light performance and image quality. But you also need to take note that buying a camera is not the end of it. It will be a continuous spending journey so be prepared for it.

In the end, it all boils down to getting the camera you can afford at  your set budget. 

Besides, wildlife photography is not about gear. It's about having fun, getting on an adventure, and taking great photographs.

April 22, 2022

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