There's no reason APS-C can't be a good enthusiast format, with the right lenses.

Full-frame is being touted as the future of enthusiast as well as professional photography. But I’d argue that APS-C is still a highly capable format and one that makes sense for a lot of people. That could be true for an even broader group if it was properly supported as an enthusiast format. And, I’d contest, one company has consistently done more to support the big brand's users than the camera makers themselves.

The past few years have seen a wave of full-frame launches and, from the original EOS 5D through to the Sony a7 series and EOS RP, the falling prices of full-frame cameras have made them accessible to an ever-wider number of people. This focus on relatively profitable models (and lenses) is only likely to continue as the camera market contracts back to catering for a core of dedicated photographers, rather than trying to sell to everyone. But what does this mean for APS-C?

While all the buzz is around full-frame, the industry still sells more APS-C cameras and there are many, many times more of the smaller-chipped cameras in circulation than there are full-framers. Should these countless millions of cameras be seen as a temporary aberration, now being corrected, or can APS-C still be a good fit for enthusiasts?

The aberrant puny stepchild camera

Sony's new a6400 camera has an APS-C sensor and some of the best autofocus performance around. It's also got a decent lens on it in this photo, but it's a lens that costs just as much as the camera itself.

There’s an argument that APS-C is simply a quirk of history: that camera makers only embraced it because it was the largest format they could manufacture affordably enough to actually sell, and that they were always going to revert to ‘full-frame’ as soon as it became cost-effective. But, while much of this is true, it that doesn’t mean that APS-C is too small or can only be a stop-gap. After all, there’s nothing intrinsically optimal about full-frame*.

After all, there's nothing intrinsically optimal about full frame

You could equally make the opposite argument: that full-frame is an arbitrary reference point for comparisons that remained in the imagination because of the popularity of the film format it’s based on, not any inherent ‘rightness’ of it. But, I’d argue, it’s also because the SLR makers didn’t want to give up on all the money they’d invested in designing extensive lineups of lenses for film, so never really committed to APS-C as a serious format.

Serious support?

Way back, photographers could get a Nikon 17-55mm F2.8 'pro' lens for APS-C cameras like the D80. Today, users can get the same lens or newer and more ambitious offerings from Sigma. (And the 35mm F1.8 DX seen here is one of only four DX primes Nikon has ever released.)

To make the most of any format, you need bright lenses. And that will mean different things to different photographers. I'm going to argue that what you really need is a choice of bright primes and F2.8 (or faster) zooms if you're going to make a format useful to a range of enthusiasts.

Look across the ranges of Nikon and Canon and you’ll see a smattering of APS-C-specific lenses: a pro-grade 17-55 F2.8, a wide-angle zoom with a moderate maximum aperture and perhaps a macro or two. That’s often the extent of the support for enthusiasts. Sure there’ll be countless kit-zooms, maybe a mid-market 18-one-hundred-and-something and an 18-200mm for the all-in-one crowd. But look for a decent prime and chances are your options are limited to full-frame lenses.

To make the most of APS-C you really need
a choice of bright primes and
F2.8 (or faster) zooms

Want an 85-90mm equiv portrait lens? Shush! Buy a 50mm and learn not to frame so tight, or accept that you'll have to use something longer, buy an 85mm and SPEAK UP A BIT so your subject can hear you. Looking for a 24mm equiv prime (hardly the most exotic request)? Well, sorry about that.

And it’s this lack of lens support, rather than any shortcoming of the format that I’d argue has always undermined it. Which is odd, as Nikon has, with the D300/D500 and D7000 series cameras, made some very nice enthusiast models. Likewise Canon with its EOS X0D models. But the net effect is the implication that full-frame is the ideal end-point and that APS-C isn’t suitable for enthusiasts: it's purely a stepping-stone.

S for sufficient?

What's that? An 85mm F1.8 equivalent prime? Fujifilm's lens lineup lets you get 'full-frame image quality' when you need it, without having to lug full frame lenses round the rest of the time.

But APS-C can be a highly capable format. Like Micro Four Thirds, it can be small and affordable when you want it to be, but you can extend its capability considerably if you add a bright lens where you need it. Image sensors have improved to an amazing extent over the lifespan of APS-C, with technology improving to push both low light performance and dynamic range to new limits. And, while full-frame chips have gotten better by a similar amount, there’s no reason to think that people’s needs and expectations have become more demanding at the same rate.

APS-C can be a highly capable format: it can be small and affordable when you want it to be, but you can extend its capability if you add a bright lens where you need it

If APS-C has exceeded ‘good enough’ for a lot of applications, then what does it matter that full-frame has gotten even better? (I’ll concede that reviews can contribute to this: we can show which camera is better, but can’t tell you whether you, personally, need that improvement). Finally, it’s worth noting that in the era of mirrorless, there’s no direct connection between sensor size and viewfinder size/brightness, so there are fewer downsides than ever to APS-C.

Sigma to the rescue

Lenses like the Sigma 56mm F1.4 give you great low light performance and subject separation on crop-sensor cameras like Sony's a6500.
ISO 1000 | 1/100 sec | F1.4

But in the end, you just need lens support. And I’d argue that Sigma has done more to support APS-C as an enthusiast format than the big camera makers have. Fujifilm should get some recognition: having picked APS-C as its enthusiast format, it's built the most comprehensive lineup there's ever been (and perhaps Canon's 32mm F1.4 for EF-M is the beginning of something interesting for that system) but Sigma deserves credit not just for its commitment but also for its innovation.

Fujifilm has built the most comprehensive APS-C lineup there's ever been

As a third-party lens maker, Sigma offered some affordable alternatives to the camera makers’ own, such as its 17-50mm F2.8, but it also branched-out to offer lenses that neither of the big two made. Its 50-150mm F2.8 remains one of my favorite lenses of the period: it offered the coverage of a 70-200mm had on film, but was smaller, lighter and cheaper, giving it a real advantage over an actual 70-200. (Pentax also deserves credit for its 50-135mm F2.8, part of the most complete own-brand APS-C lens lineups for DSLR).

But in recent years, Sigma’s commitment to APS-C has been redoubled: creating lenses that extend what you can expect the format to do. The 18-35mm F1.8 is a lens that lets APS-C cameras match the depth-of-field and low-light performance of a full-frame camera with a 27-52mm F2.8 zoom, obviating the need to upgrade, perhaps. On top of this, it’s made a 50-100mm F1.8, letting APS-C match a full-framer with a 75-150mm F2.8. Again, this lets an enthusiast who likes to dabble in sports gain ‘full-frame image quality’ for their sports shooting, without having to bear the weight and cost of full-frame when they’re shooting other subjects.

And onward

Sigma's 16mm F1.4 is a fantastic lens for Sony E-Mount (and, of course, Micro Four Thirds)

Sigma’s continued this trend into the mirrorless space. Sony started its E-mount system with a 16mm F2.8 prime: exactly the sort of lens I was saying was always missing from the DSLR lineups (even if that particular lens is a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’). It's produced a couple of interesting primes since then but now seems to have totally shifted its attention to full-frame. This again risking the door being closed on APS-C as an enthusiast format. But, again, Sigma has stepped in.

Not only has Sigma made a F1.4 16mm for Sony’s APS-C E-mount, it’s also created a 30mm and a 56mm F1.4. It hasn't made any fast zooms for mirrorless, but this trio of primes again allows APS-C shooters to squeeze the most out IQ of their cameras, if they don’t need full-frame performance all the time. Something worth considering if you’re thinking about switching systems.

Another thing to consider might be that the standout lenses for the fledgling full-frame mirrorless cameras are often the 24-105mm and 24-70mm F4s: lenses that could be matched in capability by a 16-70mm F2.8 on APS-C. If anyone feels like making one. Hint, hint.

*Anyone saying it allows an ideal compromise between image quality and lens/camera size clearly hasn’t been keeping track of the increasing bulk of the lenses for the latest mirrorless full-frame cameras.