“Full Frame” Unfulfilled

August 10, 2010

If you put any faith in DxO Mark scores (and I do understand their limitations), today’s best $500 DSLRs make better images than all of the sub-$4000 cameras sold until 2008. Largely that’s thanks to some good recent APS-C sensors from Sony.

So I’m not sympathetic towards certain Pentax users, who bleat that they can’t make adequate photographs—not until the company delivers a DSLR with a 24×36 mm sensor. (With pre-Photokina Pentax rumors swirling, the issue is once again a hot topic for discussion.)

Full-Frame Pentax?

Full-Frame Pentax?

Yes, many long-time Pentaxians do have investments in full-frame “FA” lenses, ones that could cover the format.

But keep in mind, over the history of photography there have many camera mounts which died out entirely—obsoleting numerous fine lenses. How about Contax/Yashica mount? Minolta MD, or Canon FD? (Or even earlier systems, such as Exakta or the superb Zeiss Contarex?)

By contrast, any Pentax lens made since 1983 can at least be used on a modern DSLR—metering automatically, and with the benefit of built-in shake reduction. So the handwringing that some great lenses have been “orphaned” by Pentax can get a bit exaggerated.

Some point out hopefully that not long ago, Pentax introduced new telephoto lenses bearing the FA designation. Ergo, full-frame is coming!

But truthfully, no decent lens design even breaks a sweat in covering an image circle much smaller than its focal length. With a telephoto, full-frame coverage is basically “free”—so why not go ahead and use the FA labeling? It allowed Pentax to finesse the format question for a while longer; and maybe even sold a couple of extra lenses to Pentax film-body users.

I do agree with the complaint that the viewfinders of most consumer DSLRs are puny and unsatisfying. The view through the eyepiece of a full-frame body is noticeably more generous.

However, the electronic viewfinder of an Olympus E-P2 neatly solves this problem too—at a price savings of about $1400 over today’s cheapest full-frame DSLR. And the EVIL wave is only gathering momentum.

The perpetual cry from full-frame enthusiasts is that Moore’s Law will eventually slash 24x36mm sensor pricing. To me, this seems like a wishful misunderstanding of the facts.

The shrinking of circuit sizes which permits faster processors and denser memory chips is irrelevant to sensor design—the overall chip dimensions are fixed, and the circuitry features are already as small as they need to be.

Also, figuring the costs of CMOS chip production is not entirely straightforward. It costs money to research and develop significant new improvements over prior sensor generations; it’s expensive to create the photolithography masks for all the circuit layers. Then, remember that all these overhead costs must be recouped over only two, perhaps three years of sales. After that, your sensor will be eclipsed by later and even whizzier designs.

Thus, there is more to a sensor price than just the production-line cost; it also depends on the chip quantities sold. And full-frame DSLRs have never been huge sellers.

If APS-C sensors prove entirely satisfactory for 95% of typical photographs (counting both enthusiasts and professionals), a vicious circle results. With no mass-market camera using a full-frame sensor, volumes stay low, prices high. But with sensor prices high, it’s hard to create an appealing camera at a mass-market price point.

Furthermore, let’s consider the few users who would actually benefit from greater sensor area.

For the few who find 12 megapixels inadequate, nudging the number up to 24 Mp is not the dramatic difference you might imagine. To double your linear resolution, you must quadruple the number of pixels. Resolution-hounds would do better to look to medium format cameras, with sensors 40 Mp and up—which conveniently, seem to be dropping towards the $10,000 mark with the release of Pentax’s 645D.

The last full-frame holdouts are those who need extreme high-ISO potential. There’s no doubt that the 12Mp full-frame Nikon D3s makes an astounding showing here, with high-ISO performance that’s a solid 2 f/stops better than any APS-C camera. This is a legitimate advantage of class-leading 24×36 mm sensors.

Yet aside from bragging rights, we have to ask how many great photographs truly require ISO 6,400 and above. ISO 1600 already lets us shoot f/1.7 at 1/30th of a second under some pretty gloomy lighting—like the illumination a computer screen casts in a darkened room.

A day may come when sensor technology has fully matured, and every possible sensitivity tweak has been found. At that point, a particular sensor generation might hang around for a decade or more. So might those long production runs permit much lower unit costs for a full-frame sensor? There will still be a full-frame surcharge simply from the greater surface area and lower chip yields.

But who knows, perhaps it’s possible? By then we may have 40 Mp, 24×36 mm chips that are our new new “medium format.”

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