Choosing Your Next Camera: Full Frame, M43, APS-C, or Medium Format?
It’s a wonderful time to be considering a new camera. There are so many options for camera type, features, prices, and sensor sizes that the choices can seem overwhelming. For this conversation, we’re going to focus (pardon the pun) on the sensor sizes you might consider for your next camera.
Full disclosure: I photograph with a Fujifilm X-T4 camera, which is a mirrorless camera with APS-C sensor size. I have been using the Fujifilm X series cameras since 2014.
I’m going to base this article on the options available in mirrorless cameras, as there are many more options available as well as there are many more planned future cameras for mirrorless than DSLR. Additionally, I’m going to limit the scope of these comparisons to physical properties and specs, as all the currently available cameras will produce images with incredible quality. Currently, there are four different sensor size systems available, from smallest to largest they are: micro four-thirds (M43), APS-C, full-frame, and medium format. Let’s start with a comparison of the size, weight, and cost of the various systems.
Size, Weight, and Price Comparisons
For these comparisons, I’ll be using the camera I own, the Fujifilm X-T4 (26-megapixel), as the baseline camera. Obviously, these comparisons are far from exhaustive. I tried to find a couple of representative cameras in each category as a point of general comparison. Please watch the embedded video above for visual representations of these size comparisons.
Starting with the smallest sensor size, M43 (17.3mm x 13mm) cameras offer the potential for drastically smaller cameras and lenses to work with the smaller sensor. For example, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV (20.3MP) is 122mm wide versus 135mm for the X-T4 and it weighs 335 grams versus 526 grams for the Fuji. Additionally, it is much less expensive at $700 versus $1700 for the X-T4.
Not all micro four-thirds systems prioritize size, weight, and price in their design. The Panasonic Lumix GH5 II (20.3MP) is a bit larger physically than the X-T4, and much heavier at 727 grams, while also retailing for the same price. The reason for the extra size and cost in the GH5 II is that this camera is engineered to excel at video and utilizes the extra space for system cooling during video recording sessions.
Comparing APS-C systems (23.6mm x 15.7mm), will find several distinct options available. Sony’s Alpha 6600 (26MP) rangefinder-style (versus the more traditional DSLR look) offers a compact system that is slightly smaller in width and much smaller in height than the X-T4 for about $1400 and weighs about the same at 503 grams. On the more entry-level end, Nikon offers the Z50 (20.9MP) in a DSLR style body that is slightly smaller in width and height compared to the X-T4, and significantly lighter at 395 grams versus 526 grams for the X-T4 at a price of $860.
Moving up to full-frame systems (36mm x 24mm) provides the most options, by far. At the entry-level, Canon offers the EOS RP (26MP), which is about the same width as the X-T4, while being smaller, lighter, and less expensive at $1,000. The next comparison will use the Canon EOS R6 (20MP), which is very similar in size to the X-T4, but heavier at 680 grams, and more expensive at $2500. Currently, Sony is the only manufacturer to have a flagship full-frame mirrorless camera, and that is the Alpha 1 (50MP). This camera is actually a little bit smaller than the X-T4, but heavier at 737 grams and much more expensive at $6500 USD. Canon has released some details on its next full-frame mirrorless, the R3, but it won’t be the company’s flagship quite yet. It will be impressive though, and the rumored specs include a 24MP sensor, body style and size similar to the current 1DX MK III, and likely a similar weight of about 6000 grams and price of over $6,000.
There is one last sensor size to compare: medium format (44mm x 33mm). Currently, only Fujifilm and Hasselblad offer this sensor option for mirrorless users. For this comparison, I’ll use the latest Fujifilm medium format camera, the GFX 100S (100MP). With its considerably larger sensor (about 180% larger than APS-C), it’s amazing how relatively compact the GFX 100S is. It’s only 15mm wider and 12mm taller than the X-T4 and about 300 grams heavier. However, it is significantly more expensive at $6,900.
Crop Factor and Lenses
Any discussion of a camera system must also include a comparison of the lenses available for the system as well as an understanding of crop factor. Crop factor is a function of the relative size of the camera’s sensor to the “standard” sensor size, which is full-frame (36mm x 24mm) to determine the relative focal length and field of view of a lens.
A sensor that is 50% smaller, as APS-C is, its crop factor is 1.5x. That means a 24mm focal length on an APS-C sensor camera will have a (cropped) field of view of 150% compared to a full-frame, resulting in a focal length “equivalent” of 36mm. Medium format works in the opposite direction, as its sensor is larger than full-frame, and its crop factor is 0.8x. The short version is this is, the larger the sensor, the “easier” it is to get a wider field of view, while a smaller sensor makes it “easier” to get a narrower and more telephoto field of view. Depending on the photographer and type of desired photos, both have advantages and disadvantages from a practical standpoint.
The physical specifications and prices for lenses generally, but not always, increase with sensor size. There are far too many lens options to compare in detail here, so I will compare a common zoom lens of 24-70mm (full-frame) to give a general idea of the variances in lens specifications in the different sensor sizes. See the image below for the size, weight, and price comparisons of these lenses.
- Lenses compatible across manufacturers. Any of the lenses designed for this system will work on any camera from any manufacturer.
- Able to be smaller and lighter.
- Can be engineered for excellent video capabilities due to smaller sensors.
- Lens sizes can be dramatically reduced.
- More depth of field at a given aperture results in the use of faster apertures and shutter speeds and potential less use of a tripod
- Less choice – only two current major camera manufacturers in Olympus and Panasonic (and perhaps Blackmagic).
- Generally poor performance at higher ISO settings with more noise.
- Not many wide angle lens options (wider than 18mm full-frame equivalent).
- More depth of field results in less background blur and subject separation if desired.
- Future uncertain. Olympus (now OM Digital) has been relatively quiet on future plans. Panasonic has also been relatively quiet about future plans for photography-focused M43 systems.
- Generally smaller, lighter, and less expensive than full-frame options, especially when it comes to lenses.
- Excellent image quality, even at higher ISO settings.
- Choice of established mirrorless systems that are at least 10 years old.
- 1.5X crop factor results in more ease in getting a narrower (more telephoto) field of view.
- Can be engineered for excellent video capabilities due to smaller sensors.
- Less background blur at a given aperture, means less subject separation.
- Approximately one stop loss of high ISO performance compared to full-frame.
- Less choice of mirrorless systems. Sony is rangefinder-style only in their offerings. Canon does not offer an APS-C mirrorless system and lenses but has its M system that is similar in sensor size, but which has an unclear future.
- Less size, weight, and price difference than full-frame than in the past.
- Mirrorless allows for size and weight reductions.
- Excellent image quality, including at higher ISO settings.
- Most options for current cameras and lenses
- Easier to get a wide angle field of view in lenses.
- Easier to get background blur and subject separation than smaller sensors.
- Higher resolution options of 40 to 50MP.
- Generally, larger, heavier and more expensive than smaller camera sensors.
- I’ve got nothing else to list here…
Medium Format Advantages
- High-resolution sensors: 50 to 100MP
- Exceptional image quality and detail
- Shallower depth of field than full frame for more subject separation from background
Medium Format Disadvantages
- Generally, larger, heavier, and more expensive than smaller camera sensors.
- Generally not engineered for video or fast-paced performance.
- Fewer options of systems and lenses.
- Generally not engineered for low noise at high ISO settings.
When I started writing this article, I expected to say something like, “most folks should strongly consider APS-C for their next camera” at this point. However, after this research and with the new choices in both size and price available in full-frame cameras, I think for many photographers, that might be the system to beat. I’m not sure what system I would choose if starting anew today.
If possible, visit your local camera store and get your hands on the cameras on your shortlist. A huge part of using your camera is how it feels to you, and how easy it is for you to interact with the physical controls and electronic menu systems. Another advantage of your local camera store is talking to someone who really knows the gear, and will ask you questions that can help refine your choices and guide you in a more specific direction.
It is a Great Time to Be Considering Your Next Camera
Deciding on your next camera can be a lot of fun. It also can be a lot of stress. One way to deal with the stress of so many options and choices is to remember: first, there are no perfect cameras; second, any new camera will let you create amazing photos (in most situations.); and third, there will be a new, “better” camera released soon.
To paraphrase a famous saying, “The best time to buy a camera was yesterday. The second best time is today.”
About the author: Michael Sladek teaches digital photography at Highline College near Seattle, Washington. He enjoys dad jokes, doughnuts, and helping others discover the fun of creating photos they love. Stay connected with Michael on his website, YouTube channel, and Instagram.