It’s About the Sensor Again

Here’s the state of the dedicated camera market at Photokina 2016: you have a choice of five sensor sizes, all approximately a stop apart from each other: 1” (2.7x crop), m4/3 (2x), APS/DX (1.5x or 1.6x), 35mm/FX (1x, no crop), and small medium format (0.79x).

(Technically, exactly one stop would be 1x, 1.4x, 2x, and 2.8x. But in practical sense we’ve been getting products that tend to deliver about a stop difference due to the progression of sensors. Sometimes this narrows a bit between formats, eventually it returns to the gaps that linear area suggest.)

chart

There are other format options out there still, but the bulk of the cameras—especially the desirable and affordable ones—all fit within that continuum. And that continuum, all else equal (and it never quite is), tends to be a max of a five stop performance spread. With a 20:1 price spread. 

At the bottom we have some ~US$500 1” cameras with minimal lenses and features. At the top we have some ~US$10,000+ medium format cameras with minimal lens choice but plenty of features and performance.

The question is this: where do you want to live? 

I’ve long said I believe that APS/DX is the sweet spot, and I back that up by shooting DX quite a bit of the time. 

Why is it the sweet spot? Because of the price/performance relationship, basically. The smaller the sensor, the cheaper it is to build it. The larger the sensor, the better the low-light performance is going to be (again, all else equal). The problem is that the performance goes up more linearly with size, while the costs go up much more exponentially. 

In the 1” position we have some compromise of dynamic range, plus quantum shot noise at the pixel level is definitely an issue when you’re talking about the small photosites on the 20mp sensors. But a 1” sensor is fairly inexpensive to produce, and now that Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony are all building lots of models with those sensors, there’s the old tech advantage of “higher volume produces lower costs” that comes into play, too. 

Personally, I find 1” a “convenience size.” By that, I mean that the compromises on image quality performance I can live with only if the product itself gives me convenience. The Sony RX100 was a pioneer at this, basically giving us a shirt-pocket camera with good enough performance. Now we’ve got multiple vendors all exploring variations of this option, so competition will drive down price and add features for awhile in this category.

Also in the ‘convenience” realm for 1” is the small camera, big lens design. Sony once again was a bit of a pioneer here with the RX10 (yes, I know that the Nikon 1 fits in here, but Nikon appears to be abandoning that approach, so it’s a dead pioneer). And once again we have all the other vendors doing the same thing. 

Here’s what I say about 1” now: it’s gone commodity already. Buy on price and your preferred features/handling. There’s not a lot of differential in performance between the models you can buy. 

I’m also not sure that 1” is going to hold off smartphones for very long. There’s just too much development money circulating in the smartphone camera market, and that’s driving tech updates for mobile phones and tablets faster and further. The notion of multi-image-sensor phones is now clearly upon us, and that's already making the old small sensor compacts completely irrelevant. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg with multi-sensor smartphones. I expect things to heat up there fairly quickly now. Quick enough that companies like Light have their work cut out for themselves in keeping from getting trampled by the on-rushing smartphone makers. All those multi-sensor patents that have started to appear from the Japanese camera companies also seems to suggest a very big nail going into another dedicated camera coffin as everyone rushes to play.

So on top of thinking of 1” as a convenience camera, think of it as not going to hold its own for very long, particularly the ones with small mid-range zoom ratios.

At the other extreme, we’ve now got Fujifilm, Hasselblad, Leica, Pentax, and PhaseOne playing in the "medium format” market. I put medium format in quotes because most of the offerings that are viable to you and I are really not as big a size as the old medium format film was. Still, they’re significantly bigger than 35mm film was, so the same way that medium and large format had advantages over 35mm in the film era still applies in many ways to the digital era now.

What also applies is “extra price." The low volume of medium format sensor production, coupled with the need to stitch the sensor in place on the fab, coupled with the extra wasted space on the expensive silicon wafer, all means that medium format sensors are just not going to be big sellers in the casual photography world any time that I can imagine. The Fujifilm GFX is a good example: it’s basically an XT-2 sized up for the far bigger sensor. The actual “camera” costs don't go up much, if at all, but boy did the sensor cost drive the overall price upwards. So we end up with something that’s probably 4-5x in cost, but featured similarly (other than the sensor). 

Guess what’s almost exactly in the center of those two extremes I’ve described so far? Yep, APS/DX. That sensor size is big enough to withstand the smartphone improvements for some time, not big enough that it commands a lot of extra price. Sweet spot.

So why the hell are Canon, Nikon, and Sony not shoring up their lens lineups for this sensor size (buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz: yes, I now need three repeats of my buzz buzz poke now that dslrbodies has broadened its coverage ;~)? Fujifilm certainly isn’t making this mistake, though their XF system is still a small player in the ILC market (though growing steadily and fairly rapidly, unlike most other players).  

Indeed, Fujifilm made the point at Photokina that they didn’t design a full frame (1x) sensor camera because they didn’t think the difference between APS and full frame was big enough: they wanted clear separation between their offerings. Message received.

Canikony (Canon, Nikon, Sony) are artificially making separation between their offerings using lens choice. The APS sensor models get mostly consumer zooms, and not a full lens lineup, while the full frame models get a full lineup of lenses, including a wide range of primes. Yeah, that might be good for Canikony’s coffers short term, but is it the right thing to do for the customer?

No, because customers aren’t dumb. They can see that Fujifilm is trying to offer them a clear choice with a clear performance differential (and price differential). Indeed, Fujifilm will sell them the APS camera and lenses they want. They can also see that Canikony isn’t doing this nearly as clearly or as well with APS versus full frame (DX versus FX). 

And here’s the rub: the natural thing for Olympus and Panasonic to do is to expand the same way Fujifilm did: choose formats that are two stops apart. That would be the current m4/3 (2x) supplemented with full frame (1x). Indeed, Olympus should be making m4/3 compacts already and they’d have a very strong case against the 1” flotilla the rest of the Japanese makers are doing. Add to that a return of the 35mm OM type models (very small SLRs), and they’d have a pretty strong and defensible position, I think.

Olympus is already trying to manage expectations upward (their assertion that the E-M1 Mark II will best APS DSLRs in an interview with Amateur Photography). Realistically, they should be doing the opposite: m4/3 compacts versus 1”, full frame mirrorless against APS. Why? Because that’s always been their position: smaller, more highly capable products than the competitor. Selling 2x as better than 1.5x requires a leap of physics or a leap of faith, neither of which is truly realistic.

Pros out there pretty much have to pick a format and stick to it. Sports shooters, for instance, really have to shoot full frame to stay competitive, especially as more and more sports games seem to move to night (e.g. a single Monday Night Football game has now morphed into Many Night Football games). Studio and maybe wedding shooters are probably going to have to go medium format again, if they aren’t already. 

But pros aren’t where the bulk of the sales are, even in a declining market. The primary buyers are becoming more and more what we call the enthusiast market, and they’re going to choose 1”, m4/3, APS, or full frame. A few well-heeled ones will pick medium format to go with their Porsche. 

So where do you want to be? 

  • Inexpensive and 1” because it’s “good enough.”
  • Modestly expensive and APS/DX because it’s the “sweet spot.”
  • Expensive and medium format because it’s “the best.”

I think I already gave things away for my personal stance: APS is my sweet spot. But if I truly had the products I wanted to be on the market, I’d be at m4/3 for my low end and full frame/FX at my high end. Why? Because those are clearly different levels of performance: the m4/3 would give me better than good enough performance in my more casual and less challenged shooting, while FX would handle my wildlife and sports shooting addictions just fine, thank you.

Photokina 2016 helped us all see the sensor spread more clearly. Certainly at the enthusiast level we have four levels of cameras being thrown at us. Each has pluses and minuses to it, so make sure you know what they are before jumping into the pool. 

But a word of warning to Canikony: those sweet spot cameras don’t look so sweet with compromised lens choices (buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz). 

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