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Size Matters: Choosing the Right Sensor and Lens Combo

Size Matters: Choosing the Right Sensor and Lens Combo

Full-Frame vs APS-C vs Super 35 vs M4/3: A Comprehensive Guide to Sensor and Lens Compatibility

A film gate is a rectangular opening in the front of a motion picture camera where the sensor is exposed to light. It also has a role in determining the aspect ratio of the final image, which is the width-to-height ratio. Part of the gate is the shutter, this determines how much light the sensor is exposed too over a period of time. So which one is right for your next feature?


What is full frame?

Full frame is also known as silent aperture or full gate, this typically refers tothe size of the image sensor in a camera. A full-frame sensor is the same size as a frame of 35mm film, measuring 36mm x 24mm.

Here are some key characteristics of full-frame cameras:

  • Larger sensor size: Compared to smaller sensors like APS-C or Micro Four Thirds, full-frame sensors capture more light, which translates to better low-light performance, less noise, and higher image quality.
  • Wider dynamic range: Full-frame sensors offer a wider range of tonal detail, allowing you to capture both highlights and shadows without losing information.
  • Shallower depth of field: The larger sensor size enables shallower depth of field, which can be desirable for creating background blur in portraits or isolating subjects.
  • Larger and heavier: Full-frame cameras and lenses tend to be larger and heavier than their smaller sensor counterparts.
  • Increased low-light performance: Larger pixels capture more light, allowing cleaner footage in dimly lit scenes without significant noise, crucial for diverse filming environments.
  • Anamorphic compatibility: Many full-frame cameras support anamorphic lenses, creating the distinctive wide-screen format with elongated horizontal elements, popular in cinematic productions.


    What is Super-35?

    Super-35 refers to a sensor size and lens format commonly used in professional filmmaking. Evolved from Academy Aperture 35mm film format, slightly smaller than the full 35mm frame. Approximately 24.89mm x 18.60mm, compared to full-frame's 36mm x 24mm.

    Characteristics of Super-35:

    • Legacy compatibility: Wide range of existing Super 35mm lenses from film era usable with digital cameras.
    • Cost-effective: Super 35mm cameras and lenses are typically more affordable than their full-frame counterparts.
    • Smaller and lighter: Cameras and lenses tend to be smaller and lighter compared to full-frame, aiding portability.
    • Shallower depth of field: Enables easier creation of background blur for creative effects.
    • Sensor performance: Generally good image quality, especially in well-lit situations. May show more noise in low light due to smaller sensor size.

    APS-C Lenses

    What is APS-C?

    In the realm of digital film cameras and lenses, APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C) refers to a sensor size significantly smaller than full-frame but larger than Micro Four Thirds. Approximately 22.2mm x 14.8mm, varying slightly among camera manufacturers.

    Characteristics of APS-C:

    • Crop factor: Compared to full-frame, APS-C sensors have a "crop factor" of around 1.5x to 1.6x, effectively narrowing the field of view of lenses.
    • Affordable: APS-C cameras and lenses generally cost less than full-frame options.
    • Smaller and lighter: Smaller sensor size allows for compact and lightweight cameras and lenses, ideal for travel.
    • Wide lens selection: Diverse range of affordable APS-C lenses available from various manufacturers.
    • Increased focal length: The crop factor makes lenses appear "longer", potentially beneficial for wildlife or telephoto photography.
    • Smaller sensor: Compared to full-frame, captures less light, leading to potentially higher noise in low-light situations.
    • Limited dynamic range: May struggle with capturing extreme highlights and shadows compared to larger sensors.

    Micro 4/3 Lenses

    What is Micro Four Thirds?

    Micro Four Thirds (MFT) is the smallest of the family of gate sizes. It provides a unique look being 20% smaller than full frame.

    • Crop factor: Compared to full-frame, MFT sensors have a crop factor of around 2x, significantly affecting the effective focal length of lenses.
    • Highly affordable: MFT cameras and lenses are generally the most affordable option among interchangeable lens camera systems.
    • Extremely compact and lightweight: The small sensor size allows for incredibly small and lightweight cameras and lenses, perfect for travel and everyday use.
    • Good image quality: Modern MFT sensors deliver respectable image quality, especially in good lighting conditions.
    • Large lens selection: Wide range of affordable MFT lenses available from various manufacturers.
    • Increased telephoto reach: The crop factor makes lenses appear "longer", potentially beneficial for wildlife or telephoto photography.
    • Smallest sensor: Captures the least light among these formats, potentially leading to more noise in low-light situations.
    • Limited dynamic range: May struggle with capturing extreme highlights and shadows compared to larger sensors.

    Full frame sensor compatibility

    Should you wish to use a different lens frame size to that of your sensor, there are a few things to note. 

    Super 35 Lenses on Full-Frame: Tempting Flexibility with Potential Trade-Offs

    Using a Super 35mm lens on a full-frame camera generally requires some adjustments, as the two formats have differing sensor sizes:


    • Increased versatility: Full-frame cameras often offer "Super 35 mode," essentially cropping the sensor down to match the Super 35 format. This lets you leverage your existing S35 lenses while retaining full-frame resolution in the cropped area.
    • Potential cost savings: Similar to APS-C lenses, Super 35 lenses can be more affordable than their full-frame counterparts, especially for vintage or specialty optics.
    • Potential creative control: Using S35 lenses on full-frame unlocks unique framing options. You can shoot wider than the S35 format allows, then crop in post for a different look.
    • Field of view: Due to the larger sensor size, the effective focal length of the Super 35mm lens will increase on a full-frame camera. This means the lens will capture a narrower field of view compared to using it on a Super 35mm camera. For example, a 50mm Super 35mm lens will act like a 75mm lens on a full-frame camera (1.5x crop factor).


    • Resolution loss in full-frame mode: As with APS-C lenses, using the entire full-frame sensor results in wasted image area and effectively reduced resolution.
    • Potential vignetting and sharpness issues: Similar to APS-C, some S35 lenses might not be optimized for the larger sensor, leading to darkened corners and softer edges.
    • Limited compatibility: Not all S35 lenses physically mount on full-frame cameras. Adapter solutions may introduce vignetting or light loss.
    • Autofocus limitations: Similar to APS-C, autofocus might not function smoothly, especially with older S35 lenses.


    Using Super 35 lenses on full-frame has some advantages, mainly for versatility and cost-effectiveness. However, be mindful of potential image quality limitations due to sensor size mismatch and lens design.

    Using APS-C Lenses on a Full Frame Camera: Worth Noting, But Not Always Wise

    While technically possible in some cases, mounting an APS-C lens on a full-frame camera has both noteworthy benefits and drawbacks:


    • Increased effective zoom: Due to the "crop factor" (around 1.5-1.6x for most brands), the lens acts like a longer focal length on the full-frame sensor. This can be helpful for telephoto or wildlife photography.
    • Potentially lower cost: APS-C lenses tend to be cheaper than their full-frame counterparts, offering entry-level photographers a way to try out different focal lengths on a high-end body.
    • Lightweight portability: Smaller APS-C lenses offer better portability, especially for travel or hiking photography.


    • Reduced image resolution: Only the central portion of the APS-C lens image circle covers the full-frame sensor, effectively reducing the camera's megapixel count and image quality.
    • Vignetting and potential sharpness issues: The lens might not be optimized for the larger sensor, leading to darkened corners (vignetting) and reduced sharpness around the edges.
    • Compatibility concerns: Not all APS-C lenses are physically compatible with full-frame mounts. Canon EF-S lenses, for example, can damage the camera if mounted on a full-frame Canon body.
    • Autofocus limitations: The lens's autofocus system might not work seamlessly with the full-frame camera, leading to slower or inaccurate focusing.


    While the increased effective zoom and potentially lower cost are tempting, the drawbacks of using an APS-C lens on a full-frame camera often outweigh the benefits. You'll be sacrificing image quality, resolution, and potentially autofocus performance. In most cases, it's better to invest in a full-frame lens designed for your camera to get the best results.


    Sensor Size:

    • Full-Frame: 36mm x 24mm
    • Super 35: ~24.89mm x 18.60mm
    • APS-C: ~22.2mm x 14.8mm
    • Micro Four Thirds: ~17.3mm x 13.0mm

    Sensor Area Compared to Full-Frame:

    • Full-Frame: 100%
    • Super 35: ~75%-80%
    • APS-C: ~30%
    • Micro Four Thirds: ~20%

    Field of View:

    • Full-Frame: Widest, closest to human eye
    • Super 35: "Classic cinematic" look, wider than APS-C but narrower than Full-Frame (1.5x-1.6x crop factor)
    • APS-C: Narrower than Super 35 (1.5x-1.6x crop factor)
    • Micro Four Thirds: Significantly narrower than others (2x crop factor)

    Low-Light Performance:

    • Full-Frame: Superior
    • Super 35: May struggle in low light
    • APS-C: Not as good as Super 35 or Full-Frame
    • Micro Four Thirds: Limited, most noise-prone among these formats

    Ideal for:

    • Full-Frame: High-end productions, feature films, demanding environments
    • Super 35: Run-and-gun filmmaking, documentaries, those prioritizing affordability and portability
    • APS-C: Enthusiasts, travel photographers, videographers
    • Micro Four Thirds: Budget-conscious photographers/videographers, travel enthusiasts
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