Has full-frame finally killed off smaller sensor cameras?

With news of a strategic partnership between Panasonic, Leica and Sigma now official, the mirrorless camera format has celebrated turning ten with arguably its most significant year yet.

Even just a few months ago, anyone after a full-frame mirrorless camera had only Sony and Leica to turn to. Sony may have worked hard to get to its third generation of full-frame Alpha mirrorless models already, but these were still the exception to the APS-C and Micro Four Thirds norm. Now, with Canon and Nikon having confirmed three new full-frame mirrorless models in the shape of the EOS R, Z6 and Z7, and Panasonic launching two rivals next year, something that was just recently still considered to be unique now rapidly appears to be becoming standard.

Panasonic has pledged to continue its G-series series of mirrorless cameras alongside its new full-frame models, but if even the most prolific proponent of the Micro Four system has joined its rivals in the full-frame arena, it does make you wonder about the future of smaller-sensor cameras.

Why full-frame?

By now, digital camera systems have encompassed all kinds ideas, from the sober and successful to the decidedly peculiar.

This was particularly the case as manufacturers battled against each other for a bigger slice of the now-diminished compact camera market. Samsung released a few compacts with LCD screens built into the front for selfies – which fast lost appeal to flip-out screens – and Nikon had a short run of cameras with projectors built into them. Pentax has perhaps done the most split itself from its peers, not least with its retina-punishing DSLR casings and its more unusual first forays into the mirrorless market.

But throughout it all, we’ve remained somewhat anchored to the 35mm format

But throughout it all, we’ve remained somewhat anchored to the 35mm format. The most successful systems have maintained the same (or similar) mounts to their film ancestors, and the industry has always translated focal lengths of lenses developed for other formats into 35mm terms so that their scope can be more easily understood.

Now, full-frame cameras are cheaper than they’ve ever been, partly thanks to previous-generation models still being available to buy new, but also through the support of a huge second-hand market filled with older options. If you know where to look, you’ll find an older full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera now costing as little as a new entry-level APS-C DSLR. So as long as you’re not fussed about having the latest tech, these options are no longer as prohibitively priced as they once were.

Full-frame cameras are still desirable, as many people appreciate the benefits of having a larger sensor, be it for greater control over depth of field or certain aspects of image quality. But these aren’t the key considerations for everyone – and such cameras have their own limitations too.

Not everyone wants one

Price, for example. Full-frame sensors are still expensive to manufacture, and this is reflected in the price of the bodies in which they are found. Sony’s cheapest current-generation full-frame camera, the A7 III, arrived with an RRP of £2000/$1999 for its body alone. Nikon’s Z6, the cheapest of its two full-frame mirrorless options, will set you back £2099/$1995, and the company’s most affordable full-frame DSLR, the D610, still commands four figures too. 

Clearly some of this cost is down to economies of scale, better build quality and so on, but it remains the case that not everyone wants to spend this kind of money on something that still requires you to buy a lens before you can start to take any images.

Lenses themselves need to produce an imaging circle – a cross section of a cone of light the exits the back of the lens – that can cover this large sensor area, and this typically means a larger optic than an equivalent one developed for a smaller-sensor system. Full-frame users expect lenses with relatively wide apertures too, which only adds to the weight of the setup as a whole.

Size itself is arguably the other main aspect to consider

Size itself is arguably the other main aspect to consider. While we’ve had painfully small cameras such as Pentax’s Q-series models and Panasonic’s GM1 and GM5 pair, these were arguably developed specifically to prove how small such a camera could be made. 

More recently, there has been a shift towards slightly larger, more DSLR-like bodies, and this has allowed for bigger and more powerful batteries and better handling among other things. Smaller bodies are still found at the entry-level end, but size isn’t the priority it used to be when manufacturers were desperate to differentiate their new systems from those of their rivals.

Watch what happens next

Manufacturers know that they need to offer a range of options to entice as many people as possible into a system, and you may have already noticed that neither Canon nor Nikon is describing its respective new system as “full-frame” in itself. They are simply new systems whose only constituents right now happen to have full-frame sensors.

So it’s very likely that we’ll see these ranges evolving to offer cheaper and more compact alternatives with smaller sensors, most likely APS-C in size, in the same way that Canon and Nikon have fought to deliver increasingly cheaper, pared down DSLRs that lubricate the way towards it pricier offerings. Clearly the temptation to stay with one system grows stronger as you expand your kit bag, so the manufacturer that makes this process as easy as possible stands a better chance of winning more people over.

The desire for small and affordable interchangeable-lens cameras should ensure that APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras continue to be developed, even in the face of more affordable full-frame systems. Quite whether these cameras will be in well-established ranges or ones that are just emerging, however, remains to be seen.

Photokina is the world's biggest photography show, and TechRadar is reporting live from Cologne to bring you all the big announcements, plus hands-on reviews of new cameras and kit. Keep up with all the news here.

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