Thursday, June 14, 2012

Canon, Nikon, and Sony Are All Building Cheap Full-Frame Cameras... Why?

The Nikon D600
Oh the insanity. Photos of the supposed Nikon D600 have hit the web -no surprise, at xitech- all but confirming the existence of the cheap, full-frame camera. This combines with rumors that both Canon and Sony also have sub-$2,000 full-frame cameras in the works.

I'm sure that many people see this as shrewd behavior on the part of the entrenched players to keep their market shares secure. I think that it represents something much more pathetic... and puzzling! What this really indicates is that all of the major players in the traditional SLR industry have abandoned the APS-C market, even though it still has a great deal of interest in the enthusiast demographics. The fantastic performance of Sony's newest sensors, and the era-defining performance of the Fuji X Pro 1, confirm this.

Why do I see this as an abandonment? First, let's look at some points.
  • I was puzzled when Canon and Nikon didn't double-down on their compact, entry-level cameras in response to Micro 4/3's early success.
  • Nikon's most exciting APS-C camera is the near-entry-level D3200, with 24-thundering-megapixels. I think that this is obviously targeted at Micro 4/3.
  • Nikon's DX lenses, though, are mostly crap. Canon and Sony are similar, with their APS-C lenses playing an absolute second fiddle to the FF gear.
  • Canon and Nikon have a complete aversion to prime lenses, with their 28mm primes being some two decades old.
  • Instead of releasing an APS-C mirrorless system to compete with Sony, Nikon releases the "1" and Canon releases the G1X.
  • Canon's 7D and Nikon's D300 haven't been refreshed in three years. And in that time, not a single APS-C lens has been released.
  • Sony's been rumored to have been working on a sub-$2000 full-frame camera for some time to replace the Alpha A850.
  • Sony has announced increased development of the NEX line, with an accelerated lens release map and cameras coming out every eight months.
  • The Olympus E-M5 is a break-out hit, becoming Olympus' most popular camera on Flickr after less than a month on the market.
  • The E-M5 has made the important step of reducing the performance difference between it and the APS-C competition to a level that doesn't much matter. To achieve a significant performance increase, users would need to upgrade to FF or the X Pro 1.
  • Fuji's amazing X Pro 1 has had the enthusiast community all a twitter in ways that Nikon and Canon haven't in years. I should know, every page I post on the X Pro 1 garners hundreds (and in a few cases, thousands) of page views. My posts on Canon and Nikon: no more than a few dozen in some cases.
All of these points taken together make it seem that the major three, perhaps in response to Fuji and Micro 4/3, are relegating APS-C to the sub-$1,000 market. Anything even remotely desirable to enthusiasts will thus be full frame.

This makes no sense to me. Cheap full-frames are great, but APS-C makes more sense in almost every way for products in the sub-$2k market. People who will be interested in this price range are also people who will be sensitive to lens prices and FF lenses cost more. And if people who have the money for FF are in the market, they won't be willing to downgrade on the camera since they desire the best out of their already-expensive glass.

There are those who desire something other than absolute image quality, such as myself, and instead desire other things. This is the thing that Olympus and Panasonic seem incapable of understanding: their Micro 4/3 cameras became super-popular among enthusiasts who already had gear because they were so damned small. Some people desire discreteness and portability. A company cannot provide that with FF equipment, especially the gigantic zoom lenses that Nikon and Canon love. Micro 4/3 has obviously proven to be the best at this, but Sony has shown that APS-C can definitely give them a run for their money. And if Sony can provide more lenses to go along with their Zeiss 24mm, many pros will simply skip the low-level FF gear.

Full frame will never compete with Micro 4/3 or APS-C in size. I would wager that the Leica M9 is as compact as FF could ever go, and the M9 isn't exactly petit, nor is it light. The M9 weighs 600g with card and battery. The NEX-5n weighs 269g. The NEX-7, 353g. The Olympus E-M5 is positively porky at 425g. The Nikon D800 weighs in at 900g, while the heaviest current APS-C camera that I could find was the Sony A77 at 732g. The heaviest APS-C camera that I could find is over 160g lighter than the lightest FF camera.

I ranted about how Canon should have shifted the EOS 7D successor into the APS-H design, and perhaps they are doing this. But that was because Canon's sensors are terrible in comparison to the newest generation of Sony/Nikon/Fuji, not because I thought that APS-C was fundamentally limited.

All Canon and Nikon had to do was stop treating their APS-C camera market like second-class customers. That's it! I always thought that they should have doubled down on their compact APS-C cameras, push out some high-quality primes, and call it done. Micro 4/3 would have been effectively competed with. But, no. Instead they gave Olympus and Panasonic enough time to actually manage some semblance of market share even though both companies are run by bumbling idiots.

I'm so angry, I don't even know why I'm angry. We are getting cheap full-frame gear, which is great. I think. I think that I'm pissy because they are fragmenting the market even more. Nikon produced the stupid "1" series of cameras, and that's annoying because it means that money that could be put into the development of better APS-C and FF lenses was instead put into an over-priced, glorified, point-and-shoot intended for soccer moms.

I also find this irritating because it appears that, based on these actions, that Cankon do not treat Micro 4/3 as legitimate competition for them. Nikon sends the crippled D3200 to do battle with the GX1 and E-M5. Is the sensor better? Yes. Is absolutely everything else worse? Also yes. And by disregarding 4/3, they are by connection disregarding those who use it. We see similar arrogance in Canon creating the Cinema series of cameras and ignoring the SLR market, because who cares about filmmakers who are on a budget? Fuck'em.

Again, I give Sony credit since they are actively trying to merge their systems with the NEX adapter for their Alpha lenses. It's obvious that they are treating the compact, APS-C market as a legitimate playground for enthusiasts. They are pushing video technology forward, keeping prices down, and creating innovative, exciting products.

All companies must increase value to survive. This behavior is increasing value through price alone. They can't just say "Hey! We made a camera that's rather similar to this more expensive camera, just worse in a few key ways! But it's cheaper!" The cameras need to provide something different. That's why the far-and-away most popular Micro 4/3 camera was also the most expensive: the GF1. It cost nine-hundred-dollars when it launched in 2009. That's a lot for a camera that was pretty soundly outperformed in most ways by the competition. It immediately became a monster hit, though, because it provided something different.

DPReview even said of the GF1,
Another clue as to how much we liked the GF1 is that people in the office have actually been shelling out their own money to buy them, something almost unheard of in an office with cupboards full of all the latest cameras.
That is the power of different.

There is one way that Cankon could blow my mind: a mirrorless full-frame camera. I seriously, seriously doubt that this will happen, but it would be very cool. It would provide the power of FF, be more compact than full-sized SLR cameras, and provide whichever company produces it an excuse to actually make some decent, compact primes. A compact, FF camera for under $2,000? That would sell very well indeed, and be complimentary to existing FF hardware.

That's what I want. I want entry, middle, high, and top-pro. Complimentary segments. Currently there is chaos. These actions will inject even more chaos because NONE of the companies will be willing to back up their cheap FF cameras with good glass. And if Cankon produce some mirrorless cameras, the lenses for those will be absolute crap as well. All we'll get is more goddamned zooms.

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