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Full frame vs cropped sensor for bird photography – which is better?

Ralph Lightman
Is it better to use a full frame or APS-C sensor to photograph birds? (Image credit: Ralph Lightman)

Bird photography might be considered a more niche genre, but it has a dedicated community of shooters and provides the nature lovers among us with so many shooting opportunities. Bird species come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and display such a wide array of behaviors to capture – and they can be seen around the world.

Although we've said before that great wildlife photography doesn't need the latest kit (opens in new tab), bird photography can still get pretty expensive. For stunning results you'll need one of the best lenses for bird photography (opens in new tab), likely a long telephoto lens with a fast maximum aperture.

Of course you'll also need a decent camera, but when it comes to choosing the best camera sensor, things are less clear. If you're wondering whether a full frame or cropped sensor is better for bird photography, then you've come to the right place!

full frame vs crop sensor

(Image credit: Future)

Full-frame or cropped sensor?

Whether you're shooting with a mirrorless or DSLR, camera sensors come in different physical sizes, and two common ones are full frame and cropped (often called APS-C). While the best full frame cameras (opens in new tab) sensors will generally offer greater dynamic range and low-light performance, they’re not always the best choice for bird photography. 

This is because the ‘crop factor’ of a smaller sensor effectively multiplies the focal length of a lens, making it easier to fill the frame with faraway subjects. As an example, an APS-C camera with a crop factor of 1.6x would give a 400mm an effective focal length of 640mm – that's a lot of extra reach and very handy when you want to get "closer" to your subject at a given focal length.

Lenses are more important than the camera

High-quality lenses are arguably more important than the camera, and if you can only afford one optic, choose a super-telephoto zoom lens such as a 100-400mm over a prime, as this will provide more flexibility when it comes to composing your shots. Consider lens weight too, as you might end up carrying it long distances when stalking subjects in the wild.

If you need to save money, remember that you can always rent out big ticket items for planned shooting trips, and only buy kit that you know you’ll use frequently.

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Lauren is the Managing Editor of Digital Camera World, having previously served as Editor of Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) magazine, a practical-focused publication that inspires hobbyists and seasoned pros alike to take truly phenomenal shots and get the best results from their kit. 

An experienced photography journalist who has been covering the industry for over eight years, she has also served as technique editor for both PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and DCW's sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)

In addition to techniques and tutorials that enable you to achieve great results from your cameras, lenses, tripods and other photography equipment, Lauren can regularly be found interviewing some of the biggest names in the industry, sharing tips and guides on subjects like landscape and wildlife photography, and raising awareness for subjects such as mental health and women in photography.