Analysis: Race for World’s First Mirrorless Full-Frame System Camera — Who’s In, Who’s Out, Who’s Ahead?

Call this a little compendium of what lies ahead in the compact full-frame interchangeable lens camera world. I talked with industry insiders and sources. Well it’s hardly any news that most likely Sony is ahead of the rest. They got the capital, they got the technology, they made clear with the ambitious RX1 that it’s only a matter of time, and not a question of if, that a compact digital full-frame system with interchangeable lenses will become what’s likely to be one of the most successful system cameras ever.

A compact mirrorless full-frame system camera is only a matter of time. Who's at the forefront of development?
A compact mirrorless full-frame system camera is only a matter of time. Who’s at the forefront of development?
So let’s look at each camera maker and their compact mirrorless full-frame plans. Well a mainstream full-frame strategy will become more and more important for marketing reasons as about 60% of full-frame buyers worldwide are amateurs. No serious manufacturer can ignore this trend.

The challenge, it goes without saying, is to overcome the laws of physics that determine optical parameters such as size of lenses, circle of confusion, hyperfocal distance, and so forth. Algorithms can only correct so much. We haven’t yet scratched the surface of what’s possible in the future. Here is the likely scenario how each major camera manufacturer is positioning itself.

(A single + means chances are unlikely the camera maker is working on a compact full-frame prototype, five +++++ mean chances are very likely.)

Olympus +

The struggling Japanese are so heavily invested in their raison d’être Micro Four Thirds that they simply don’t have the means to engage in a completely new setup of optics and lenses. Olympus is about to drop Four Thirds altogether. One can only speculate what the recent Sony tie-up means for Olympus, but for sure strategic investor Sony wouldn’t allow their minority partner to forge ahead with something that’s crucial to Sony’s mid- to longterm strategy.

Fact seems to be that Olympus is completely stopping the low budget point-and-shoot lineup. We’ll only see waterproof and higher class Stylus cameras in the future. Regarding Micro Four Thirds, the OM-D E-M5 is due for an upgrade: the E-P5 will come next and according to my sources we can expect a new real pro Micro Four Thirds camera in October 2013 with Four Thirds adapter and full high-speed autofocus for Four Thirds lenses.

This camera with full metal jacket like the E-5 will be class-leading with top-of-the-line electronic viewfinder. Additionally, expect more prime glass. But Olympus ain’t going full-frame.

Panasonic ++

There is no Micro Four Thirds as we know it without Panasonic and vice versa. Panasonic will continue to refine handling and details and improve its strong video capabilities, but when you hear talk about a mysterious new camera type from Panasonic don’t expect the reinvention of the wheel. They’ll aim at the higher end market by betting on more refinements and premium materials. Many will say anyways that Micro Four Thirds gives them more than good enough IQ to make an upgrade to full-frame redundant.

Canon and Nikon ++

To list the two arch rivals in the same paragraph might sound like heresy, but fact is that both have become followers rather than inventors. Canon and Nikon are good at copying each other without daring to think out of the box. Their more affordable full-frame cameras, the 6D and D600 are still based on the old pentaprism and do not only have a nearly identical name, they’re mainly the result of cheaper imaging chip production rather than truly innovative technology.

A compact Canon or Nikon full-frame interchangeable lens system would only further threaten the two manufacturers’ old profitable DSLR cash cow as well as the EOS M and Nikon 1 systems. For them, compact is synonym for amateur, enthusiasts and point-and-shoot. They simply lack the will to take the lead in this race, and consumers so far confirm their hesitation: with the exception of innovative Japan classic DSLR sales are still relatively solid. For now, Canon and Nikon are sticking to new wine in old skins. The chances of them launching compact full-frame within the foreseeable future are close to zero. A D400 and 4D?! They’re flooding the market with APS-C, and if you want it compact then go for Canon’s mini Rebel.

Samsung +++

Don’t underestimate Samsung. Their NX cameras are well worth a good look, the lens lineup is pretty amazing. Samsung has some of the best performing and smallest primes. But they’re already struggling with the NX series, how could they think about an even more challenging system.

Not too long ago there was talk of a retro Samsung R1 camera — no word about it being full-frame –, but Samsung’s clearly evaluating all possible avenues to expand their share in the heavily contested camera market. They got the cash and means to innovate, so within the next two to three years I wouldn’t be surprised about a surprise by the Koreans. Samsung, in a way, is today’s Apple, and you can only drool over the thought what if Steve Jobs would have designed a camera.

Leica ++++

Since the ascent of the RX1, Leica is no longer offering world’s smallest full-frame package. According to my sources Leica has plans for a new, more compact imaging system in the pipeline.

We all know, those Leica mirrorless rumors have been going on for years. And most will say that Leica is making mirrorless full-frame system cameras for more than 80 years now. Fact is, a rangefinder’s focusing is based on the adjustment of a mirror — not a flipping mirror! — about each of two axes substantially perpendicular to each other. Et voilà, a mirror.

Since the entry of strategic investor Blackstone, the Germans are steadily expanding sales outlets and production capacities, recently with the opening with a new factory in Portugal and the move of their production headquarters from Solms to Wetzlar later in 2013.

Expect great new things to come from Leica. They’re currently positioning themselves for an ambitious expansion, but whatever they do, they’re in no hurry.

Hasselblad +

Talking medium format, how many photographers would be willing to pay serious money for a revival of the V system, but project Lunar buried all hope. No one even knows if the Lunar is still a go, such was the criticism Hasselblad had to respond to. The Swedes look predestined for a compact full-frame system, but they’re making all the wrong decisions. But hell no, the Lunar collection is about to go on sale and you can even register your favorite Lunar. APS-C Tuscan leather anyone?

Pentax (Ricoh) ++

There was lots of chatter about a Pentax full-frame. Fact of the matter though is there is no full-frame body in the 2013 lineup. Pentax is now starting the production of the K-3 with 24MP APS-C sensor with expected announcement/availability in September.

A full-frame concept doesn’t even exist as a prototype. Pentax has studies and plans, but no prototype. Recently acquired Ricoh has its own ideas and a couple of concepts they share with Pentax. Still, full-frame talk is a fact and don’t discount the possibility of something showing up sometime in 2014. A Pentax full-framer might well be on the way according to this Pentax tweet, but hold your breath, it’ll likely be a classic pentaprism DSLR.

Fujifilm ++++

We’re getting closer to the real mirrorless compact full-frame contenders. Fujifilm is a prime candidate not only because they produce sensor and technology in-house. Fujifilm’s whole retro X series concept is based on the classic 35mm film philosophy. A compact Fujifilm full-frame system’s main counter-argument is the excellence of the X series. Apart from the “limitation” of the APS-C sized sensor you’re offered truly outstanding quality. It’s questionable how much a full-frame system would gain in IQ. We’re talking pixel-peeping at 200% on-screen enlargement level, and that’s not what photography is all about.

Fujifilm said in the past they’re “focusing on sensor and processor,” implying that they might go full-frame while not yet naming a product model. But Fujifilm created the niche for such a market, and they could likely come under pressure to act if a larger sensor competitor challenges their X series, this “most full-frame-like” compact system camera yet.

Sony +++++

Now Sony and compact full-frame, that’s a no-brainer and just a question of time. If there is one really innovative camera brand these days it’s Sony. Just look at SLT, them producing sensors for Nikon’s top cameras and Sony having the guts for creating such a little stunner as the RX100, a large 1″ sensor an APS-C compact that replaced many a serious photographer’s big gear. Sony offers a lot of firsts that others try to copy, and what the ambitious Japanese do they do mostly right.

Sony has got the will and technology to go compact full-frame, with the RX1 they already created a market for it and and Sony made clear on several occasions that they’re examining the possibility of an RX1-type kind of camera with interchangeable lenses.

Consider the RX1 to be a feeler to gauge the market potential. Development is expensive, but at the same time highly lucrative as a compact full-frame system represents the dream and aspirations of pros, amateurs and enthusiasts alike.

Additionally, such a serious piece of gear could break the upgrade cycle, meaning with a solid compact full-frame body and expandable lenses a photographer is set for years to come. Sony couldn’t produce enough of them initially. The future riches of camera development lie in such a system, and Sony’s ahead of everyone.

Question is if they follow the NEX form factor, and the NEX ergonomics and menu fiddling are not everyone’s friend. The rumored full-frame NEX-9 would most likely go more classic and offer built-in EVF (who needs OVF in the future?), but at this point in time that’s all speculation. Reasonably sure however is the expected market debut in early 2014 along with new compact Zeiss primes.

Bottom Line

I put my compact full-frame money on Sony and Leica, with Fujifilm not far behind. Just wait and see. Leica will surprise everyone. As pricy as it’ll be, don’t expect a much less Sony full-framer price tag (except for the lenses). Sony will milk a market that’s initially willing to pay a heavy premium for such a premium system. Over time, with production costs sinking and the marketing novelty abating, 35mm will become the standard of choice and quality again, only this time in a digital reincarnation.

  • Frank

    Interesting read … The Sony RX100 is no APS-C compact, it’s sensor is smaller.

  • Slip-up, corrected, thanks Frank.

  • Lee Martin

    Leica won’t do it because it will adversely affect the sales of the existing M series and X series cameras. In the event that Panasonic come up with something of that ilk, then we may see a cloned version, and it has been suggested that they are announcing a totally ” new kind/type of camera” in the near future, Panasonic that is . Despite a new factory in Portugal , huge investment , along with the opening of a whole host of new stores around the world, Leica still can’t produce cameras fast enough, or at least some of the range, to meet demand. Fuji should have waited and put a full frame in the X Pro 1, but the now current X series of lenses won’t be compatible will a full fame sensor, and current investors will not want to invest in another series, and who could blame them. So yes I’m sure Sony will be first, and I’m sure the body will take Leica lenses with an adapter , along with the excellent Zeiss, so will Leica actually have any advantage over Sony in terms of image quality? No, but demand For the Leica will still be enormous, and I’ll still want one.
    It’s all about cameras being tactile, and holding something beautifully made. Bang and Olufsen tv’s are sold the minute you are handed the remote. It’s all a game, but fun to play, so off we go.

  • Schnorrk

    I agree, Leica will not do one because it would cannibalize their non-AF M system. Of course, this kind of thinking where a strange tradition trumps progress reminds me of Porsche. A mid-engine Porsche would be much easier to handle, but Porsche insists on placing the engine disadvantageously behind the rear axle. Meanwhile, their mid-engine models (Cayman and Boxster) are deliberately performance-limited. Kind-of like the M, which has no AF, and the presumably new EVIL which will only have an APS-C sensor :-(

  • Bengt Nyman

    Personally I don’t believe that Leica will ever get back into the market in a big way.
    I don’t think that Sony can or wants to threaten any of the big two. I think Sony will continue to sell licenses to Canon and image sensors to Nikon.
    I agree with your main point. It’s only a matter of time when the rattle of the old mirror boxes is merely a synthesized menu choice in the next generation mirrorless, fullframe system cameras from Canon and Nikon.

  • My Leica analysis is not based on probability, whereas it’s true that the modernized production facilities will first and foremost also lower reject rates and improve tolerances. We’ll see!