Early morning in the blindEarly morning in the blindGet my free Darkroom & Fine Art Newsletter and never miss another article again. The Burning Question: Is it better to crop an FX camera to the DX area - or just use a dedicated DX camera for wildlife photography? 

To be clear, we want to try and resolve if using a crop sensor camera will produce higher quality photos versus cropping the image from a full frame camera to the same field of view.  It is a common misconception that when mounting a lens on a crop sensor camera that the focal length is increased.  That simply is not the case; it just appears to be larger because the sensor is smaller.  

The easiest way to visualize this effect is to picture an apple sitting on a nine-inch plate versus sitting the same apple on a 6-inch plate.  The apple “appears” to look larger on the smaller plate (crop sensor), but in fact, the apple is the exact same size (full frame sensor) on both plates.  

As wildlife photographers, we are concerned about image quality which includes sharpness, resolution, and noise management among other characteristics.  The question, if a crop sensor is better than a full frame camera for wildlife photography is a complex query, and there are different answers for different photographers, even when your budget isn’t an issue.  I don’t think asking if a crop sensor is better or worse than a full frame sensor is a useful way to invest your time because it suggests that one is better than the other, and it isn’t that simple.  

Bottom Line Up Front: If I can fill the frame with my full frame camera or if I think I will be cropping less than the equivalent of the crop sensor camera, then I will choose my full frame camera every time.  If I am going to crop the full frame camera image to the same field of view that my crop sensor provides, then I will choose my crop sensor camera for superior results. Read the rest of the article to find out why.  

For me, the highest pixel density wins for my style of wildlife photography, and this is the basis of why I will use my crop sensor camera over the full frame D5 in many scenarios.  

It was -4F (-20C) at sunrise photographing Bald EaglesIt was -4F (-20C) at sunrise photographing Bald EaglesGet my free Darkroom & Fine Art Newsletter and never miss another article again. I own the Nikon D5 full frame camera and the Nikon D500 crop sensor camera, and I use them for different reasons.  It is irrelevant that I own Nikon equipment for the purpose of this article. Since I use these cameras extensively, I mention them in this article to help me illustrate the important concepts that I want to communicate about full frame and crop sensor cameras for wildlife photography.  I could have easily used Canon, Pentax, Sony, or other cameras to help convey the critical points, but I wouldn't have been able to provide the level of detail that I wanted to share with you.  

I have found a place in my style of wildlife photography where I can use the strengths of both types of sensors in specific scenarios.  

In general, I find my full frame D5 to give me 1 to 1.5 stops better ISO performance over the crop sensor D500.  This can be critical in many scenarios.  The extra two frames per second on the D5 and the lower noise levels make the D5 my first choice until there is a compelling reason to use my crop sensor D500.  I share some of my scenarios below of when I think the crop sensor D500 is the better choice for me.  

Selecting a crop versus a full frame camera is not always a clear choice because there are many variables involved.  If you have a lot of experience with other brands such as Canon, Sony, or Pentax, I would love to know your thoughts on the performance of your full frame and crop sensor cameras for your style of wildlife photography.  

I always consider the lighting conditions that I am dealing with and AF performance can be critical too.  It also depends on your intended output (large prints, small prints, online publishing, books, etc.).  

For example, when I need the absolute best low-light performance in a long telephoto scenario and that is the top priority, then the full frame D5 is a clear choice.  However, if I needed to create large prints in this scenario, I would likely select the crop sensor D500 because I have more pixels available to me versus cropping the full frame D5 image.  This can play out in a number of ways, especially with bird photography and photographing smaller mammals.  For larger animals, it is easier to fill the frame with the full frame camera, and when that is the case, the full frame is my choice.  

In that same scenario, if my top priority were being able to make large prints, I would probably select the crop sensor D500 and trade off the one stop of ISO performance when compared to the full frame D5.  Cropping the full frame D5 to the same field of view as the crop sensor D500 only leaves me with about 9MP of the original 20.8MP versus potentially getting the 20.9 MP from the D500.  This is the key reason why I will use the D500 over the D5 in some situations.  The extra pixels can make a huge difference in being able to make larger prints.  If I were going to publish the photos online or in a book, I would use the full frame D5 because I get a superior camera and the loss of resolution isn’t a factor that matters in this scenario.  Your choice for output is a critical part of your full frame versus crop sensor question.  

If this type of detailed information is helpful and valuable to you, consider supporting the development of more content like this for only $2 per month.  It only takes a couple of minutes, and your support helps me to continue to create more things like this for you. 

MY PERSONAL TESTING/RESULTS

Black Bear - Great Smoky MountainsBlack Bear - Great Smoky MountainsIf you enjoy this photo, subscribe to my Wildlife Photography Newsletter today and never miss an update again. In my tests of downsizing the crop sensor D500 images to the cropped size of the full frame D5 and also upsizing the D5 to the D500 images, the D500 won in both scenarios.  Other photographers that I trust have also come to the same conclusion. This is largely in part because the D5 and D500 are very close to the same resolution (~21MP). More pixels equals better details when properly exposed.  

I decided to crop some photos from my 36MP D810 to the same field of view as the 21MP D500.  It was closer in these tests, but the crop sensor D500 prevailed again.  

The biggest factor that makes the D500 crop sensor win in these scenarios is in the fine details.  I don’t want or need resolution charts to help me decide which system is better for my wildlife photography.  I care about how my images look and how they print.  

I haven’t yet tested the D850 at 46MP, but I think it will likely equal or edge out the crop sensor D500 when it comes to comparing the cropped 46MP files to the same field of view of the crop sensor D500.  The crop sensor D500 is equal to about 47MP, which is very close in resolution to the new D850.  

The trade-off for me includes the 7 PFS of the D850 vs. the 10 FPS of the D500, and the ISO performance remains an open question.  Based on my initial use of the D850, I think my ISO tolerance is about 1/2 to 1 stop less than the D500, making this a complex and difficult choice for some photographers.  Here again, we are balancing features and performance of the things that matter most within the context of a given scenario.  Until there is a significant increase in resolution (future D850 replacement in 2+ years) and equal or improved frames per second, the crop sensor D500 will continue to hold an important place in my wildlife photography bag for several more years.

SUMMARY 

Elk - Boxley Valley - October 2017Elk - Boxley Valley - October 2017If you enjoy this photo, subscribe to my Wildlife Photography Newsletter today and never miss an update again. If you can fill the frame with a full frame camera, then that is a clear and easy choice.  You are generally going to get a higher quality image with more details, and you will enjoy better features of the more expensive full frame camera.  

Filling the frame with a 46MP D850 that is properly exposed is a chilling and exciting thought for me.  However, since the pixel density of the cropped D850 is effectively about the same as the D500, it isn’t quite so easy of a choice as it may appear. Based on initial field tests, I think the crop sensor D500 is a better performer in the very important low-light conditions over the D850.   

When you can’t fill the frame on your full frame camera, and you need higher resolution files from the crops, then the crop sensor is a good choice with trade-offs in other areas (e.g., slower FPS, loss of ISO performance by 1 stop, etc.).  Often times I am willing to trade off one stop of ISO performance for more pixels because I want those fine details in my prints.  

In the case of the D500 (crop sensor) and D5 (full frame sensor), both are more than acceptable for any type of wildlife photography in my opinion.  The same holds true for the Canon equivalents (1DX Mark II and 7D Mark II).  The new Nikon D850 is starting to force us to ask new questions and balance additional pros and cons when selecting the best tool for the job, but it isn’t a slam dunk just yet.   

As I stated above, if I don’t need to crop my full frame image or crop less than the equivalent of the crop sensor camera, then I will choose my full frame camera every time.  For me, the higher pixel density wins for my style of wildlife photography, and this is the basis of why I will use my crop sensor D500 camera over the full frame D5.   

Think of it this way.  If you can fill the fame with your subject, pick the full frame camera and when you need to crop your image significantly, the crop sensor camera is going to provide better images.    

Only you can decide which equipment will work best for your style of photography and within your budget, but I hope that I have given you some real-world input for you to consider.  

However, if I could only afford one camera for wildlife photography today, it is would the Nikon D500 without even any thought.  The D500 has no peers in the industry at this time when balancing the wide variety of variables that come into play with wildlife photography.  

It will be interesting to see what Canon is going to release to replace the aging 7D Mark II.  Since their flagship 1DX Mark II has an inferior AF system as compared to the D5 and even the D500, I am anxiously waiting to see what Canon decides to do with their flagship 1DX Mark II and their premier crop sensor camera, the 7D Mark II.  

More time with the D850 will help me understand the true ISO performance and how it compares to the D500 and if the lower frame rate (7fps) is worth it or not when compared to the D500 (10fps).  Some wildlife does not move very fast, and this is where the slower frame rate won’t matter nearly as much.  

If this type of detailed information is helpful and valuable to you, consider supporting the development of more content like this for only $2 per month.  It only takes a couple of minutes, and your support helps me to continue to create more things like this for you. 

You can subscribe to my 2018 Wildlife Photography Bundle and take your wildlife photos to the next level. Subscribe by 12/31/17 and save a whopping 60% discount for only $99 vs. $250.  Use discount code EARLYBIRD18 at checkout to get your special discount.