Size matters when it comes to cameras: why full frame will die out

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A little while ago I got a message from a friend who is a good photographer and he asked me:

I also wanted to ask you, what do you think about the Sony Alpha A7R III camera? Of all the reviews I have read, it seems like the current indisputable champion amongst mirrorless cameras.

This got me thinking. Sony certainly does some great cameras, and I have some friends who love them. However, this is a full frame camera, while my camera, the Lumix G9, has a smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor. While the two cameras are actually very similar in size and weight, the full frame sensor on the Sony means that lenses are substantially larger and heavier. In general, full frame lenses tend to be twice as heavy, or more, than their Micro 4/3 equivalents.

This is especially a big deal for wildlife photography, which is one of my main interests. I extensively use the Leica 100-400mm lens (200-800mm equivalent), which is outstanding. Being able to easily hand hold an 800mm equivalent lens in the full frame world is pretty much unheard of.

This lens weighs 2.17 pounds (roughly 1kg) and measures 6.76″ long by 3.27″ diameter. At the time of writing, the current going rate is around $1600.

An 800mm lens for a full frame camera is a rare beast. Nikon has one, which costs $16,000, weighs 10 pounds and is 18″ long x 6″ in diameter. I’ve included an Amazon affiliate link in case any passing Nikon users would like to buy one – I would appreciate it!

A less esoteric lens is the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, which is very popular among wildlife photographers who I know. Even though this only has 62% of the reach of my Leica lens, it weighs 5 pounds and is 17″ x 7.5″. It is extremely hard to hand hold, so most people use it together with a tripod, which also needs to be heavyweight to support this sort of gear. More and more I hear people using who are using traditional large zoom lenses grumbling about how difficult it is to manage them.

I could cite lots of examples, but the general story is that full frame lenses are hugely larger and heavier than comparable lenses for micro four thirds cameras. This is the case whether the full frame camera is mirrorless or not.

My complete camera gear, with 3 lenses including the 100-400mm, a 15mm equivalent fisheye and one of a couple of intermediate zooms, weighs about 8 pounds and fits into a packing cube that is about 12″ x 8″ x 4″. I also have a very compact tripod that I use when I travel, though increasingly I don’t need that in lots of situations because the image stabilization on the G9 is so good.

I wouldn’t switch my G9 for a full frame camera

So the more I think about it, my answer to the question above is that I would not swap my Lumix G9 for any full frame camera, even if I could swap for a much more expensive setup for free. The lenses are just way too large and unwieldy, especially large zoom lenses, which means they are a huge pain to travel with or hike with.

Also, mirrorless cameras (including full frame ones such as those offered by Sony) are innovating hugely faster than traditional DSLR cameras. One of my favorite features on the Lumix G9 is its range of fast burst modes, including 6K photo mode, which I’ve written about previously. This let me get multiple outstanding  shots of herons fishing recently, and barn swallows flying, which I wouldn’t have got by other means.

Great Blue Herons in Vancouver

I went out shooting recently with a good friend who is an excellent wildlife photographer, who has a Nikon full frame camera, and she was quite envious of the way I could get flight shots of owls hopping between trees using 6K photo mode that she really struggled to get using a traditional fast burst mode.

Disruptive technology

To me this is a classic example of the disruptive technology, as described in Clayton Christensen’s excellent book The Innovator’s Dilemma. He cites examples from many industries, but perhaps the one with the clearest parallel is the disk drive industry. He talks about how the disk drive industry went through multiple transitions, from 8″ drives to 5.25″ drives to 3.5″ and smaller. In each case, existing customers pushed their suppliers to keep improving the cost per megabyte and the speed of the established disk categories. But in the mean time, smaller drives were introduced that didn’t initially have the capacity or speed of the larger drives, but opened up new markets, like the desktop PC replacing the mini computer, enabled by 5.25″ drives, and the rise of the laptop that was enabled by the 3″ drive. In all of these cases, new entrants to the market built the new generation devices and the incumbent vendors failed to see the change coming in time and ended up losing their market leadership or going out of business altogether.

I see strong parallels with the camera marketplace. Canon and Nikon full frame users push their suppliers to keep making incremental improvements – a few more megapixels on the sensor, a few more frames per second, etc. Those customers don’t push them to make smaller cameras, as it would invalidate their investment in lenses. Plus, there is a very widespread mentality that “real photographers use full frame DSLRs”.

In the mean time, new entrants to the market like Panasonic (Lumix), Olympus (not entirely new but not one of the large established players in digital cameras), and Sony, come in and innovate in multiple ways: partly by focusing on mirrorless cameras, which are clearly where the future lies – mirrors are going the way of film – and partly by focusing on smaller sensors (mainly Panasonic and Olympus), which as I’ve said have huge advantages in terms of reducing the size of both camera bodies and (especially) lenses. Users and vendors of the previous generation of full frame sensors will tend to say “the image quality isn’t good enough, they don’t work well in low light”, etc etc, but the technology is moving quickly and more and more that isn’t the case. In the great majority of situations that I shoot in, it is very hard to perceive a difference in image quality between images I get from the G9 and images that I see from friends with full frame cameras shooting the same subject matter. In many cases I get better shots because of things like faster burst rate, or because I could hold my much more lightweight camera in a position that they couldn’t hold their heavy full frame camera.

There’s an obvious parallel with medium format digital cameras. You can buy a Hasselblad medium format camera for somewhere in the range of $16,000 to $32,000, which will give you theoretically better image quality in a more bulky and much more expensive package. But in the great majority of cases you can’t tell the difference in the image quality, so other factors become more important, like size and other innovations. I feel that we are reaching the same point with full frame cameras versus smaller formats like micro four thirds. I think we will start to see a significant decline in full frame camera sales over the next few years, and I think that Nikon and Canon may well struggle to make the transition to the new world, just as Christensen explains in the Innovator’s Dilemma.

4 Replies to “Size matters when it comes to cameras: why full frame will die out”

  1. Peter, how is the camera for shooting landscapes? The full frame cameras are supposed to have an advantage in terms of depth of field and capturing greater detail in a landscape situation….. What’s your opinion?

    1. Hi Apurv, I think that when people talk about full frame cameras having an advantage in terms of depth of field, they are referring to the fact that full frame cameras have a narrower depth of field than the equivalent lens on a smaller sensor camera at the same aperture. So for example a 100mm lens on a full frame camera at f/2.8 has a narrower depth of field than a 50mm lens (100mm equivalent) lens on a micro four thirds (MFT) camera does at f/2.8. If you are shooting portraits or certain other subjects this can be a good thing. I think this argument is often overdone though. According to a nice little depth of field calculator app on my iPhone (Simple DoF), for the lens and aperture values I mention here, on the MFT camera the depth of field is 12” at a distance of 10 feet, and 3.8” on the full frame. So while you’ll get a different look, certainly you can nicely blur the background in both cases. For a lot of my wildlife photography I actually prefer to have a slightly larger depth of field – it is still nice to blur the background in lots of cases, but you also want to get the key parts of the subject in focus, and have a little leeway if you focus in slightly the wrong place on a fast moving subject.

      However, when it comes to landscape photography, you typically want to have a larger depth of field to get everything in focus, so from my perspective the MFT camera has an advantage there. In addition, one of the other areas where full frame has an advantage is if you have to use high ISO to capture fast moving action in low light. For landscape shooting, typically you are using a tripod with a longer exposure, so there is no need to use a high ISO even if the light is low. And finally I should mention that the Lumix G9 has a cool high resolution mode that lets you capture 80MP images of static scenes, by moving the sensor slightly and combining multiple images, when using a tripod. This works for some scenes but not others (not good if you have trees blowing in the wind, for example, but I have got great results in several situations). So overall for landscape I think that MFT actually has more advantages than in some other areas.

  2. couldn’t agree more. However, particularly Canon is so strong that they could easily keep their old customers who got stuck with half a dozen full frame premium lenses. there are still far t9 many (male) photographers around who will continue believing that size still matters, and lightweight cameras simply are for girls……

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