Understanding Canon EF-S, Nikon DX and similar lenses for small sensor digital SLR cameras

Canon, Nikon, Sony and most of the rest of the camera companies, plus the third party lens makers, like Tamron, Sigma, etc., all make two series of lenses, on designed for full frame digital SLRs and 35mm film cameras, and another range designed for use on their smaller sensor digital SLRs. But there is a lot of confusion about these lenses.

Canon call their lenses designed to only work on the small sensor digitals EF-S. Presumably the S is for small sensor. Nikon call theirs’ DX, since they call their small sensors DX and their full-frame sensors FX. For convenience in this article I will refer to Nikon lenses designed for full frame as FX, even though I don’t believe Nikon does.

When a lens is designed there are a number of criteria that the designer must meet. One of these is what’s called the image circle, the area at the film/sensor plane that is to be fully illuminated, sharp and with aberrations well corrected.

Lens coverage area differences with full frame and small sensor digital SLR cameras
Lens coverage area differences with full frame and small sensor digital SLR cameras. Note that is is a very simplified diagram and does not reflect the way camera lenses actually form an image.

The EF and FX lenses are designed to create an effective image circle that covers the full 35mm frame. This has a diameter of approximately 43mm, which is the distance across the diagonal of the 36mm x 24mm sensor/film size. This is why a 50mm lens is considered ‘normal’ on a full frame 35mm camera, as it is the closest common focal length to the diagonal size.

EF-S and DX lenses are designed for the smaller image circle of the small sensor in the 450D, 50D, etc models. The sensor is 22.2mm x 14.8mm, which has a diagonal distance of 26.7mm. This is why if you put an EF-S lens on a full frame camera you get a circular sharp image with a dark outer area.

Designing a lens for a larger image circle is harder. It typically uses more lens elements and more expensive ones because of the need for more aspheric or special glasses to keep the image sharp and evenly lit over the larger image circle. This makes the lens larger, heavier and more expensive. Basically it comes down to this, creating a lens for the smaller sensor is easier and cheaper than it is for the big sensor at the same level of lens performance. This is also the case with lenses for medium and large format cameras.

A 50mm EF or FX lens on a small sensor camera has the field of view of an 80mm on a full frame camera. A 50mm EF-S or DX lens also has the same field of view as an 80mm would on a full frame camera. If you go to the Canon and Nikon websites they clearly state this, for example “Uses optics designed to take advantage of the small image circle to give a 17-85mm (equivalent to a focal length of 27-136mm in 35mm format), 5x zoom ratio” for the 17-85 EF-S.

Canon’s tilt and shift lenses, for example, are designed with an even larger image circle than full frame, so that with the lens shifted off center and/or tilted, part of the image circle will still cover the whole sensor.

8 Replies to “Understanding Canon EF-S, Nikon DX and similar lenses for small sensor digital SLR cameras”

  1. Very useful article since I shoot Canon and Nikon. Your comment on Canon’t TS lens was interesting. I just bought a Nikkor PC (perspective control) 85mm f2.8D tilt-shift-rotate for my D700. I’ll remember what you said about tilting off center. Very helpful.

  2. Greetings:

    You said “This is why a 50mm lens is considered ‘normal’ on a full frame 35mm camera, as it is the closest common focal length to the diagonal size”

    I could not undersatnd the words “closest common focal length” – Why was 50mm chosen rather than 40mm which is closer to 43mm.

    Thanks and regards


  3. Thanks for a great article; easy to understand. Now, only thing I question myself is, how are lenses “designed” to throw either a large or a small image circle? Someone told me that it basically came down to the simplicity of the sensor being closer to the lens producing a smaller image circle (like DX/EF-S lenses behave), or sensor being more far away from the lens (like FX/EF lenses behave). Can you verify this fact Wayne? Cheers!

    1. Hi Carl.
      Ok, two parts to this answer.
      Remember that a lens consists of many elements. To greatly simplify, the front element gathers light from the field of view, the internal elements focus and shape the light front and the rear element ‘fans’ this out to hit the image circle. Now there are two issues with image circles: the actual spread out of light from the back of the lens and how much of this area is well corrected optically and so can be usefully used in a camera. The smaller the area that needs to be sharp, the simpler the lens can be or the more compact, etc it can be made. Small sensor cameras only require a small, sharp and well corrected image circle. The light may well spread beyond that but at a degree of image correction that can’t be used for normal photographic purposes. It is not really the distance of the sensor from the back element, but, if you like, the rear field of view or angle that needs to be covered sharply.

      1. Thanks (again) Wayne!

        This explanation was somewhat complicated, still.

        However, earlier this very evening I found this really satisfying answer to my main question; this by reading on another web board. The following theoretical hypothesis was stated:

        Take two 50mm f/2 lenses. One with an EF design; whereas the other one has an EF-S design. Note that the max aperture and focal length are exactly the same for both lenses, only thing that differs is that one casts a 36x24mm light circle on film/sensor; whereas the other cast a APS-C sized light circle. Now, by these two lenses, the EF version is — by it’s raw nature(!) — thicker (in terms of lens barrel diameter) than the EF-S variant.

        Correct, or wrong? Guys in that other thread verified this as correct. I was really pleased, since it was sort of a great relief to me as well. Now, your verification is the “final nail in the coffin” I need to let go of this much painful and/or mind-itching question.

        1. I’d say, basically yes. And in actual practice probably yes too. It might be possible to make the EF lens fit the same diameter but it is probably easier from an optical design perspective to go larger diameter.

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