It’s Getting Crowded in the Full-Frame World

Still too early to write off the DSLR world, isn’t it, especially the DSLR full-frame or FX world or whatever you want to call the digital equivalent to film’s 35mm standard. Who would have thought a few years ago, when smaller mirrorless Micro Four Thirds and APS-C formats were making serious inroads, who would have thought that the larger, clumsier DSLR was about to be reinterpreted. Today, the DSLR is back in full force, mainly thanks to photographers with lots of legacy glass and emerging markets where the classic camera body with pentaprism still stands for seriousness and quality — and no less thanks to the price decline of large sensors. Not too long ago full-frame cost you two arms and two legs. In August 2005 Canon announced the first “affordable” full-framer, the 5D. The real breakthrough came with the 5D Mark II (eBay) announced in August 2008, one month after Nikon’s D700. That was the beginning of the full-frame revolution.

The mirror box is dead, long live the mirror box. By now it’s easy to lose count of all the new full-frame cameras flooding the market, including the mirrorless siblings provided by Sony’s A7/A7R/A7S (Amazon) series. Nikon just announced the D750 (Amazon / B&H Photo / Adorama), something in-between the D6XX and D8XX series. Differences aren’t negligible, but each and one of these cameras is perfectly capable of producing stunning results.

Newest kid on the full-frame block -- Nikon D750.
Newest kid on the full-frame block — Nikon D750.
Within a similar price range is the Df, the only truly unique Nikon full-frame camera that doesn’t (yet) have a Canon equivalent. World’s industry leader currently offers the 5D Mark III and 6D in a similar price range, whereby it’s virtually certain that other full-frame models will follow.

Next player to follow? Maybe Pentax, maybe Fujifilm, maybe Olympus. I personally doubt it, maintaining two imaging system standards is an excessively bold move these days — for Pentax it would even the third system next to its APC-C and the minuscule Q system.

Furthermore there’s Leica with its digital M standard — out of reach for most mortals, yet an object of pure desire that was on the forefront of making the digital full-frame standard become so popular. Marketed as the “perfect understatement,” any Leica camera is in fact a perfect overstatement of technological prowess, but that’s not what this post is about.

These few thoughts are about the astonishing rise of what we commonly call, rightfully or not, full-frame. Right, some people might still think the earth is flat. Doesn’t mean full-frame is any better than the rest. Just ask yourself what you need a camera (system) for. Right, you think all these buyers of full-frame DSLRs and MILCs are fooled by marketing and propaganda…

Canon and Nikon might milk the DSLR cow until it’s dead. Why blame them. They’re not selling old technology. They’re selling a revitalized classic. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • Its way too early to write off the DSLR. Its only competition in the full frame mirrorless with autofocus lenses is the Sony A7 line. But hey, when you don’t have but a couple lenses made for an “experimental” body that I will bet Sony will figure out how to completely change in a year why switch from your legacy DSLR lens system.

  • For Pentax FF would be a 4th system, you are forgetting their 645D medium format system.

  • T N Args

    Writer seems to be misinformed.
    [1] DSLR doesn’t need to ‘fight back’. It is already the boss and has been for many years.
    [2] The APS-C format DSLR came *first*, so you can hardly describe it as ‘making inroads’ into FF format. It is actually the other way around.
    [3] DSLM ‘mirrorless’ full frame cameras are a silly waste of time. They will get market share they don’t deserve because people mistakenly think they are some kind of holy grail of big sensor and small body, but a decent set of lenses is hardly smaller than those currently used for a full frame DSLR, so as a system nothing much is achieved. So the DSLR should stay viable in the full frame sensor market for system cameras.

  • From what I’ve seen during ten days of red carpet at Venice Film Festival, more and more photographers are considering mirrorless systems as at least a back up.
    It’s still too early (I think it’s silly) to bet on a winner, after all it’s not a race.
    But tech goes on, and as you write, think at what you need and then choose your camera.

  • reviveramesh

    by the time the article is thought through and written a few models would have come out, few models taken off the shelves, some totally discontinued and the writer would be thoroughly confused as to how to conclude . and as for me, i remain confused and sometimes amused at the branding, naming and pricing and product strategies of these companies – are they going after a specific market or are they just test marketing or are they just blindly throwing things at the wall hoping something will stick – seems like anyone’s guess? – if you ask me there is a huge market for properly financing these camera options at the consumer level – lease it and love it – I’d like to own a piece of equipment for 1 year say and shoot and return and trade – in or lease another etc – is that not an interesting option – and give it back for another – rather than buying more and more gear and wasting money and and resources and creating more e waste – there must be a smart way – now that’s an idea waiting for a venture capitalist – I admit this comment is totally different from the dslr discussion

  • Andy Umbo

    A couple of points:

    I think that DSLR manufacturers have decided to step up their offerings because mirrorless is making inroads in a lot of markets. No matter the comments on here, the Olympus system, and to some extent the Panasonic system are the heirs to the throne of 35mm film style cameras. The 16 megapixel M4/3rd’s sensor offers better quality than any 35mm film camera ever did, so for getting pictures to the media as a magazine photographer or newspaper photographer would, it’s all they need; with the possible exception of sports, and that’s just because of the focus system, not the IQ. It’s all about the size of the equipment, the IQ has passed 35mm film now for years. Half the photo-journalists and magazine guys I know were interested when the new Oly’s came out, and the rest were interested when the Fuji mirrorless APS-C came out. None of them are interested in dragging the top of the line Canon or Nikon around anymore, unless they do sports.

    Certainly Nikon, and to some extent Canon (although they have good cross-over lenses), never made a comprehensive line of f/2.8 primes for their APS-C cameras; lenses that are at the center of every pro photographers lens kit. For you non-professionals on here, real ‘pros’ shooting 35mm never owned a boat load of 1.4 lenses at all, they’d rent if they needed it, or bought the one focal length they needed to be that fast on (and those lenses were crap wide open too). What the camera companies decided for us, is that APS-C cameras were going to be for amateurs, and they would have to use zooms. Pentax was the only system to make primes “sized” for APS-C. The M4/3rds system has it all, or one needs to move up to FF, hence the proliferation of new FF bodies. Where are my 16mm, 24mm, 35mm, and 55mm f/2.8 primes sized (and priced) for APS-C (a question I’ve been asking for 10 years, Sigma, get on it, and start with Nikon!)?

    If the camera companies actually had made a comprehensive line of f/2.8 primes for APS-C, FF would be a dead format. It’s neither the jaw dropping resolution of the CCD format D120SLR camera sensors, nor the portability of the APS-C and M4/3rd’s format. It seems that we’ve standardized on 24 megapixel, and believe me, it’s plenty for almost any uses (I’ve shot double page magazine spreads with a 12 megapixel Nikon D300s). A 24 megapixel APS-C or FF sensor (or M4/3rd’s if they made them), are interchangeable except for noise and dependent on the lenses. They can freeze it there for DSLR’s as far as I’m concerned, but we’ll never get true “film look” until we up the bit rate on the color space. We need 16 or 24 bit color! I look with askance at the new CMOS large chip in the Pentax, which is not only almost half the size of the actual 645 format, it’s 14 bit color, when most all of the CCD chips in the large cameras were 16 bit. I was in on the dawn of digital, and looked at plenty of early samples from camera that were only 2 and 3 megapixel, but they had 24 bit color, and they looked more like film than anything I see today, blurrier, but more like film!

    Where’s .tiff on everything, not just a few Nikon bodies and one Canon ‘pro’. No comments from the peanut gallery, if you don’t know what .tiff is, then boo on you. There’s a reason they put it on “pro” cameras, ’cause we use it when we can. No comments from amateurs about how RAW is like a negative, we’ve shot transparencies for years, nailing it, we don’t need no stinkin’ negatives!

    If people picked camera’s based on actual needs and usage, the FF market would be dead; it’s all be M4/3rds, APS-C, and large sensor D120SLR!

  • If people picked camera’s based on actual needs and usage, the FF market would be dead.

    Courageous statement! I’ve spent several years with Micro Four Thirds but feel more at home now (again) with “full-frame.” Why? Noise, 3-dimensionality, slimmed down size… In the end it’s about personal choices, not superior quality. Bit-what-color? 24? I wish most people could tell the difference. In teh real world the image matters. not the technology.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Many of us are still looking forward to a quiet, fast, mirrorless camera. But not at the expense of viewing quality, focusing speed or image quality.
    Therefore, the DSLR still rules.
    The image sensor size is a separate issue, where FF still rules.

  • Robert Mark

    There’s really not much difference between 35mm and APS-C. A gutsy move would be for Olympus or Fuji to introduce a mirrorless “full frame” 645 format system, styled like the Bronica RF645. All the usual Oly goodies like the 5Axis IS, etc. Since it would be a mirrorless design, it would allow for much smaller medium format lenses than ever possible before. Of course I’d want quick availability of legacy lens mount adapters. Lots of great MF glass available on eBay.

  • Dillan

    “If people picked camera’s based on actual needs and usage, the FF market would be dead”

    I disagree. Some of us like the depth of field options that full frame opens up for us. I am very happy that full frame is still available to us. I will use it for as long as the option is available. I’m not interested in anything less.

  • Andy Umbo

    “Subjective Focus” (i.e. shallow depth of field) is just this generations fish-eye lens or posterization (both fads in the 60’s and 70’s, for you youngsters). The M 4/3rds systems f/1.8 Olympus lenses are plenty “shallow”, and most pros doing actual jobs need to usually get more than one tiny little spot of the picture in focus. Most pros of the film era didn’t even shoot 35mm (mostly 120 and 4X5, and maybe even 8X10), but when we did, we usually shot everything around f/5.6 (ever hear the line about how to get a good photo? f/8 and be there!).

  • Carlo M.

    This feels like it’s been written by someone with an ADHD…sorry mate this was a real struggle to read and to get your message across.

    Inlcuding punctuations would be a good place to start.

  • JakeB

    “The M 4/3rds systems f/1.8 Olympus lenses are plenty “shallow”….”

    No it isn’t and if you actually used one you’d know.

    And please spare us 40 year plus “youngsters” your historical preaching.

  • callibrator

    True. As a backup, as you said. Very few are actually using the M4/3 etc mirrorless as their main workhorse, regardless what for example Zack Arias and his followers would lead you to believe.

  • reviveramesh

    yes you are right – i have ADHD. so sorry mate that you found it hard to read and understand. i can see why you said that. i will make note and try again – hopefully with all the commas and full stops and colons –

  • Ramesh raises some very good and important points — the marketing and branding confusion. Take Nikon. D610. D750. D810. All full-frame. One with a bit more, the other with a bit less, the last with a bit of everything. Add the confused consumer/photographer who wants to try every new little function and switch in the hope that photographic nirvana has finally come. it’s actually an interesting idea you’re raising Ramesh — what would a user be willing to pay monthly or a year for the latest and greatest gadget? Doubtful that the hardware still has much value after that. Short-term leases could make sense in this our throwaway society, or rentals for holidays. Not a new business model, but something that’s not yet really thought through.

  • Andy Umbo

    I do own the entire system…

  • Andy Umbo

    …and us 60+ year youngsters are still laughing…

  • Dave

    Bold statement, but yes. M43 is amazing. M43 shows, it’s the lens, and the sensor is only 2nd priority. M43 lenses are small and excellent, unreachable small size with FF lenses of equal IQ. DOF and sharpness @ f1.8 is good for macro and close up portraits when FF needs to go to about f3.6 and high ISO. M43 IBIS allows to take pictures @ ISO200 where FF needs much higher ISOs with higher noise levels. Still FF has better colors and sensitivity. If FF becomes smaller, e.g. mirrorless (see Sony A7) the size weight advantage of M43 has gone. If M43 gets better sensor performance (e.g. good noise levels up to about ISO 800) then the FF advantage has gone. It’s maybe safe to say, M43 soon will be good enough for the enthusiast and FF will be the new medium-format. If today Oly made a FF mirrorless with all the qualities Oly shows with its M43 cameras, Oly would rule the market.

  • Andy Umbo

    BTW, not because they don’t think M4/3rds is viable, it’s because most pros have a boat load of legacy lenses for Canon or Nikon. No neew to rebuy everything…

  • very interesting from Dr. Hubert Nasse at the Zeiss blog:
    with many comparing images FF vs MF

    “The term ‘medium format’ evolved historically,” explains Dr. Hubert
    Nasse, Staff Scientist with ZEISS Camera Lenses. “Its origins lie in a
    period when the same film emulsions were used in practically all camera
    formats. Cameras with a larger film surface offered better technical
    quality in a larger positive image. That meant lower visible grain,
    better sharpness of contours due to the smaller enlargement of the
    negative, a higher color saturation, and greater luminosity of the image
    when projecting slides.” The term medium format was coined in the
    analog era when there were different roll-film formats that were larger
    than the full-frame format of 24 x 36 mm, including 42 x 56 mm, 56 x 56
    mm and 56 x 84 mm.

    These technical advantages could only be achieved with a camera
    system that was larger, heavier and considerably more expensive and more
    difficult to master than full-frame cameras. This is still true today
    for digital medium-format systems. Due to the technological innovation
    of sensors and optics, the question arises: Does the medium format face
    competition from high-quality DSLR systems (full frame format 24x36mm)?”

    and here are the images from this post: