In the wake of the introductions of Nikon's first two "full-frame" (FF) (~35mm sensor size) cameras, to add to Canon's two, the internet is awash in prognostications that "full frame is the coming thing" (or "the whole market is moving that way" or one of several other common phrasings).
And that might be true...unless it isn't. It's equally possible that 35mm-size (~24x36mm) sensors will end up as an historically momentary diversion, an evolutionary dead-end; or a constant but smallish niche. In which case(s), full-frame won't have been the coming thing.
So which is it?
Impossible to tell. I mean literally impossible: the uncertainty is epistemologically absolute. No one knows what the future is going to hold in this regard.
That doesn't stop it from being a fascinating question.
The way I see it, there are two aspects of FF that bolster the case in favor of its future. One is its remarkably persistent popularity. I don't think it's true that what the market wants, the market gets. But it's probably true that what it really really wants, it gets.
And so far, the market (or at least a large enough subset to absorb the current FF offerings at an enthusiastic pace) appears to really really want FF.
I confess I personally misread this four and five years ago or so. I don't shoot with long lenses, but I've been working for photo enthusiasts for twenty years, and for that whole time I've observed the lust of the typical amateur enthusiast for long lenses. Everybody always seemed to want bigger and faster superteles. What I misread, I now think, is that I always assumed amateurs liked long lenses because of the pictures they could make with them—that is, they wanted narrower and narrower angles of view, for critter and sports photography and for that essentially voyeuristic kind of shooting that's equivalent to spying on the neighbors with a telescope. All of which seemed to be styles of photography that were perennially popular.
I now think that that was essentially wrong. What amateurs most wanted long lenses for was not for the narrow angles of view, principally, but for the prestige and pride of ownership of owning really big, impressive, expensive lenses. I thought the smaller 4/3rds and APS-C sensors would be seen as a huge advantage by all those tele lovers out there. 4/3rds, for instance, means that you can achieve the same angle of view with a 300mm lens as you used to get with a 600mm on 35mm. Since 300mm lenses are smaller, lighter, faster, and cheaper than 600mm lenses, that's all good, right? Well, it would be if what you were after was a narrower angle of view for the same focal length. But of course if the appeal of the 600mm lens is precisely that it's big and heavy and exclusive and confers great status on its lucky, rich owner, then the 300mm lens is not better.
I overestimated the utilitarian aspect of long-lens popularity and underestimated the status aspect. (Come to think of it, this might qualify as a persistent error on my part: I consistently assume that photography enthusiasts are more interested in pictures than they in fact are. But never mind.)
Depth-of-field issues were similar. For a hundred years, photographers bitched about limited d.-o.-f. Part of the rationale of the famous Group ƒ/64 was widely understood to include front-to-back sharpness as an aesthetic goal. Not having to suffer limited d.-o.-f. was always part of the allure of faster films, artificial light, and smaller formats.
...Until APS-C, that is. Then, photographers started a chorus bitching about the exact opposite! "I can't achieve selective focus unless I have full-frame," yadda yadda yadda. Some of these complaints came from people who actually knew what they were talking about and actually meant what they said, but in general such comments make me want to knock heads together. Set the zoom a little longer or move in a bit, fer Pete's sake. Aperture and format size aren't the only means of controlling d.o.f. (To say that typical photographers don't understand d.o.f.—either theoretically or in practical terms—is a massive understatement. And that's never going to change.)
But enough of that. What's the other appeal of FF? It's that it matches well with existing camera technology—and existing camera technology also appears to have a very entrenched appeal. I've opined elsewhere that one of the great disappointments of the digital age thus far is that, after all the creative furor of its cradle period, digital has settled right back down to where camera design was in 1990—to a norm of Wunderplastik SLRs and dinky point-and-shoots, the exceptions being few and far between (some of the exceptions being the same exceptions that existed then, at least in terms of form—even down to a virtual replica M6, only digital this time). I was expecting, and certainly hoping, that digital would open up whole new vistas in camera design, and create whole new categories of cameras. Some of them I've even defined myself (the "DMD," I mean), to little effect. That very much appeared to be starting to happen back in the early part of this decade. But then it fizzled. The market might or might not be infinite in its wisdom, but it sure as hell is conservative!
When considering the "FF" question, for instance, the fit with 35mm camera body styles and existing 35mm lenses is the only thing that answers this question: why not bigger than 24x36mm? If bigger is better, why stop at 35mm size? Without a horizontally-traversing filmstrip to accommodate, the sensor can theoretically be any shape. Square makes the most sense of all the rectangles as far as lens coverage is concerned. And the square has two other big advantages as far as camera body design goes: it eliminates the need for "vertical grip" positioning, with all the redundant controls that add expense to battery packs and pro bodies now; and that, in turn, opens up viewfinder options.
You could argue that when using legacy lenses and flange distances, a square mirror wouldn't clear if it were too big. Right, but then what prevented the 24x24 format? Nobody tried that. Apart from the mirror issue (and I'll be waiting for the post-reflex-mirror era, like some pundits are awaiting the post-Bayer era), is it really that much harder to make, say, a 30x30mm sensor than it is a 36x24mm one?
I guess I'm fundamentally a grump* when it comes to this question. The Nikon D700 is a wonderful development from a digital-sensor viewpoint: its sensor, which is 70% of the point of the camera, is clearly a beaut. Tried 'n' tested, ably spec'd, very well established as fodder for enthusiast lust, and state-of-the-art in several performance parameters. Let me make myself perfectly clear: not complaining. (Really, okay?) BUT...(there's always that but)...from a camera design standpoint, almost nothing has changed in a decade; the D700 is a digital F100.
So why isn't Olympus making a whole range of point-and-shoot, and pocket, and rangefinder cameras around the 4/3rds sensor by now? Whither Canon's pellicle mirror as a digital solution? Where is the luminance-only sensor? Where is the larger-than-FF integral DSLR? Where are the square-sensor cameras? Where's the DMD? (The DP-1, nice though it is, meets the DMD spec in only a couple of ways, and misses the concept by a country mile in several others.) Where's the digital TLR? (The serious one—yes, I know about the mini-Rollei clone.) Where's the RD-2? The pro cameras with good viewing-screen only VF? Why doesn't the E-3 look just like an E-1 (the latter a brilliant design, I thought)? Why couldn't the D700 have been the size and shape and body material of an FM2 (or, heck an S3), and more clearly a single-shot camera, so as not to compete with the D3?
Where's the creativity?
I hope it's happening, and just hidden in the dens and warrens of the camera company engineering departments. I'm sure those guys doodle at least as much as I do. Maybe someday a few newthink designs will see the light of day, without the "wise" market spanking 'em on the ass for not being the same ol' conservative same ol'.
Digital is obviously a lot more than just camera design. But, folks, camera design is stuck. Think rut, think sticky mud. Think hysterical screams of I will only buy exactly what I've bought before only better. Camera design is stuck. And only as long as it stays stuck will the concept of "full-frame" continue to make so much sense.
Will that be forever? Okay, maybe. Will it be long enough for FF to dominate the whole DSLR market? Possibly, I guess. Will FF dominate over APS-C even if camera design stays in 1990 mode? Hmmph.
I'm sure you have your opinion. Of course, the answer is: nobody knows.
*David Vestal will always be the original grump. I'm just stealing his word.
ADDENDA: First of all, thanks for all the great comments (66 as I write this). I could have plucked any number of them out as "Featured Comments" but really, it's just fun to wade in and read them all. A few additional stray thoughts from me in no particular ranking of importance:
• I actually am not writing primarily about myself in the above post. Personally, I'd probably prefer FF, all other things being equal, simply because I've had problems with lenses in the digital era. Cameramakers in general are no longer updating standard medium-speed single-focal-length lenses, which are the type I prefer. I most naturally "see" in the 35mm-40mm-e range, and 28, 35, 40, 50, and 85mm-e is the extent of the range I use. There just aren't a lot of very good options in these types of lenses in reduced-sensor-size product lines that can really get the best out of the sensors. What do I want? Just a modern, optimized-for-digital and optimized-for-the-format 35mm ƒ/2 or 40mm ƒ/2 equivalent for either 4/3rds or APS-C, not too big. Easy enough to find in legacy versions for FF, virtually non-existent in digital versions for reduced-size sensors. (A few things come close.) What's more, the prospects of getting them in the future don't appear to be good at all, either. So I'd be better off in FF digital than I am in APS-C digital. (BTW, the combination of the D700 and the Zeiss 35mm ƒ/2 ZF lens is going to be killer, mark my words.)
• Related to the above: again, something I've written about in the past: as an analyst, my primary concern is not "what would be profitable for the cameramaking companies," but "what would be useful for photographers to do good work with." So sometimes when I hanker for specific products, I'm not actually suggesting that such products would make good business sense, necessarily. Just that they'd be useful to photographers. A different concept, I admit. Hey, I have my loyalties.
• It's true that there is something historically almost magical about 36x24mm. There have been numerous attempts to move away from it in both directions, especially smaller, and no matter how much "sense" they might make, 36x24mm just forges ever onward, continuing to exert its magic pull. Ironically, the tiny sensors used in digicams are probably the most robust departure from 35mm size in more than half a century. But maybe the resilience of "FF" is due in part to the fact that it really is a great compromise size, very versatile, a sort of convergence "golden mean" when many competing factors are all considered together.
• I also can see peoples' point about the form-factor of the 35mm SLR being a highly developed and well-optimized basic design. That doesn't really change my position on two important issues, both of which I've written about before more than once: 1) that there is currently a "fashion" that dictates that good cameras have to be big and small cameras have to be compromised (i.e., "entry-level," cheapened), and I'd love to have options that break this tyranny, even if the basic fashion continues unabated—specifically at least a few (more) choices of really high-quality, premium cameras that are small (the M8 does qualify). 2) I really do think that some more creative options would be wonderful to have. Specifically:
- The "DMD." I need to revisit this topic on TOP, but basically, a camera the size and shape of a Canonet with, say, a 4/3rds sensor and a fixed 20mm ƒ/2 lens (or an APS-C sensor and a 25mm ƒ/2 lens), made to be highly responsive for single-shot use. This has been, is, and will continue to be a no-brainer. Something like this is needed by many photographers. I'm frankly astonished it still doesn't exist. Cameramakers have so far made one attempt: the Sigma DP-1. Kudos to them, although the actual camera Sigma made was something quite different than I describe. The refusal of all other companies to make something like this doubtless reflects factors I'm not privy to, probably led by the belief that such a product would not be profitable. We still need it. I concede that it's possible that there are technical impediments, although I find that hard to believe. If you can believe this, I actually proposed to Apple that it make such a camera and market it as the "iCamera." It fits their pared-to-essentials aesthetic. No response, but it was interesting to see that several other people suggested that Apple should make a camera.
- The Coolpix 950 was a nifty design. Why is it gone? In general, the digital camera market hasn't even been true to the best designs of its own incunable period.
- Picture an intelligent melding of the Sony F-717 and R-1, with a square sensor and IS. Beautiful.
- Luminance only (i.e., B&W): Another topic I visit and revisit. We had it briefly with the Kodak DCS 760m, and reportedly there was going to be a B&W version of the Leica M8, which was killed by that executive they later fired. There really are significant technical advantages to having a luminance-recording sensor as opposed to converting color Bayer arrays back to B&W. Maybe this would not be profitable or even viable from a business standpoint, but it's a type of product that a subset of the photographic community would find useful and desirable.
- Alternative rangefinders to the M8. It's great that the M8 exists (even though I'm not a particular fan personally), so perhaps we should be grateful for what we have. Given its popularity, it's certainly a great deal better than nothing.
- There's one more camera I think we really could use that we don't have, but I need to write a whole post about it.
- ...And I'm sure other people have other ideas. But the point is that there ought to be room for a few things other than the ubiquitous Wunderplastik SLR. Even if said Wunderplastik SLR is "perfect" and doesn't need to be improved, itself.
• An idle final thought, something I touched upon in the main post. For several years, people have been saying (into their beer, mainly) that it would be nice if Nikon made a digital FM3a. Wouldn't that have made a great form-factor for the D3 sensor in a smaller body? (Even if it were polycarbonate and not metal.) Forget high frame-rate, forget the battery pack, forget all the AF wizardry and focus tracking and all that pro stuff. People who want that could just buy the D3. Just a manual-focusing, single shot little SLR with a great viewfinder and the FF, 12.1-MP sensor from the D3 for people who want the image quality. $2k instead of $3k. And it wouldn't have poached sales from the D3 one iota.
...And it would probably have sold 1/10th as much as the D700 will sell, which would be bad except for the fact that the people who bought it would probably have liked it 10 times as much.
You can see why I'm not a camera company executive. —MJ