A Very Big Year for Full-Frame
2012 has seen a full revamping of the entirety of the traditional Canon and Nikon full-frame product lines. Those two companies have throughout the modern digital era lobbed back-and-forth assaults on one another in two categories: all-purpose models like the D800/D800E and 5D Mark III in the $3000-$3500 range, and supercharged cameras designed for specialty applications like sports and photojournalism at double the price.
Yet, in the past 24 hours, this clockwork-like pattern of incremental updates in defined product categories has seen a massive shakeup. Surprisingly (and admirably), Nikon is one of the disturbers of the peace. This generally conservative company has a lot to lose if it cannibalizes its bread and butter lines. But that’s exactly the risk it’s taking with the D600 entry-level full-frame.
Time after time we’ve seen it demonstrated that if you don’t make your own products obsolete, your competition will for you. Apple famously undermined the very product that led to its resurrection in the early 2000s, the iPod, gambling big on a vision of a new kind of mobile phone, and winning untold riches in the process.
A more common refrain, though, are the missed opportunities monolithic companies make, which compound into a slow, almost imperceptible decline, eventually spiraling into sudden collapse.
Nikon seems to fit the latter mold. The 1 system, while winning over some soccer moms and japanese teens with its cute styling and simple interface, was mocked upon its release as a tepid, underspec’d entrant in the skyrocketing mirrorless market, whose elite members were already going toe to toe with enthusiast and semi-pro DSLRs in much smaller packages. The J1 and V1 seemed cynically calculated not to step on the toes of the traditional product lines. It seemed like a move by a company with too much skin in the game to make truly visionary leaps. Yet today Nikon has revealed a truly affordable full-frame with a killer spec sheet attached.
The D600 is essentially a cross between the D7000 and D800, arguably borrowing the best of both worlds at a price point ($2100 MSRP) smack dab in the middle. The camera body, closer in size to the enthusiast D7000, takes more styling and interface cues from the camera as well. It borrows its AF system, has dual SD card slots and USB 2.0 connectivity. The 24 megapixel sensor (presumably Sony-designed and Nikon-modified) brings it to the top of the megapixel heap, save for the D800.
On most other counts, the camera matches its big brother, the D800, from EXPEED 3 processor to 3.2 inch 920k LCD. In fact, for those who don’t need the billboard-sufficient mega-megapixels of the D800/E, the 24 megapixels on the D600 could provide low-light advantages in the video department, where the D800 languishes at higher ISOs.
Meanwhile, Sony has quietly been working on an entirely different roadmap, consistent with its propensity to forge new categories with an eye to future over present rewards. Yesterday it announced a raft of updates to its lineup, claiming three firsts in the full-frame arena:
- The SLT-A99, the first full-frame camera employing its Single Lens Translucent (SLT)/EVF system
- The NEX-VG900, the first dedicated video camera based around a full-frame chip and first E-Mount full-frame camera
- The RX1, the first fixed lens and mirrorless rangefinder style full-frame
This stout-yet-svelte camera is the long-awaited followup to the almost 4-year-old A900. That camera, while no slouch when pitted against its nearest rivals at the time, belonged to the B.5D. (before 5D Mark II) era of straight photographic devices. The Mark II, which would be announced a week later, held the secret sauce which would, for the next generation, redefine the definition of the camera as a multi-media tool, empowering a new generation of Indie filmmakers and shaking up the entire video world.
The A99 is a thoroughly future-looking update, hell-bent to not be outdone as the multimedia DSLR of choice, and designed to wrest control from the big two with pure bleeding edge technology, leading the way among full-frames in its class for video features, including 1080/60p, an AVCHD 2.0 codec, clean HDMI out, and a multi-peripheral hotshoe allowing for additions like XLR inputs.
The A99 incorporates Sony’s single lens translucent technology, which employs a semi-transparent mirror which allows a small amount of light to be diverted to the always-on Phase Detection AF system. The system also allows for an all electronic viewfinder sending a live signal directly from the sensor to your eye, with a class-leading 2.4 million dot image in place of the classical optical system used in other traditional SLRs.
The EVF has advantages and disadvantages, depending on who you talk to. On the one hand, you get a live preview approximation of the changes you’re making and can have HUD features, such as a live histogram and settings overlayed on your image. On the A77 I played with last year and the NEX 7 I own, this turns out to be a huge advantage. You can even get a preview of the completed shot as you’re shooting. You can get focus assist and peaking for manual focus and video shooting. Removing your eye from the viewfinder becomes a much rarer occurrence. On the downside, despite its industry-leading resolution, the digital image can still not replace the clarity of looking through a large, bright optical viewfinder. It’s getting there though.
At $2800, the A99 is $200 and $700 cheaper than its intended competition (though the D600 surely blunts this coup, somewhat). Still, it’s taken for granted that Sony is in an uphill battle with the Big Two, and must offer more for less to wrest market share and encourage investment in its system.
Sony has finally done it. A full-frame sensor is now in a mirrorless, impossibly compact body. Remarkably, the camera is smaller in width and height than the APS-C based Fujifilm X100. Only the fixed 35mm F2 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens costs it the dimension Triple Crown. Like the X100 this product is definitely niche, especially when its $2800 price tag and lack of viewfinder is taken into account.
The Fujifilm X100 is ostensibly its nearest competitor, though at less than half the price and with a sensor 2.4 times smaller, I doubt there will be much overlap in audience. On the other end of the spectrum, it could give the Leica M9 a run for its money, at a fraction of the cost, with a killer lens and the manual aperture control ring giving a hint of that old school experience, with the luxury of AF and first rate video. The third, rose colored glasses way of looking at the camera is that it has no direct competitors, and will mop up as an unchallenged anomaly designed for an very real, if idiosyncratic, audience.
It’s a tool for street photographers and photojournalists, and I suspect it will find a small but devoted following in that category, those for whom the X100 is too flawed and the M9 too costly for its dearth of cutting-edge technology. I’m tempted myself, as it seems to fit the bill for most of my shooting. In my personal work, I rarely veer from that angle of view, and would love a fast and quiet camera full-frame camera to surreptitiously capture the life of the street.
Sony’s strength has always been incorporating its vast proprietary bleeding edge technology portfolio into its cameras. Its weakness has always been lenses. Its new E-mount, though still experiencing a native lens drought, has the considerable advantage that owing to its incredibly short flange-mount distance, with an adaptor, pretty much any glass can be affixed to NEX cameras. This is especially valuable in the digital cinema arena, where AF is still an afterthought on 99% of shoots anyway.
The main question with this camera is: is there a market for a prosumer camcorder with a full-frame look? I can see an offshoot of Sony’s Digital Cinema Cameras, like the F3/FS700/FS100 incorporating this sensor, though the choice of a run-and-gun style body kind of contradicts the purpose of the unique, super-shallow cinematic look full-frame provides.
The Irony of it all
Fifty years ago, “full-frame,” i.e. 35mm, was the smallest format you could reasonably expect to work with. APS sized sensors are an offshoot of a failed amateur-oriented film format introduced by Kodak in 1996. The digital era has brought us on a long, slow slog back up to parity with the minimum quality of a couple generations back.
Of course, this simplifies the situation. Digital has evolved ease of use, allowed productivity and workflow gains, and provided tangible progress in areas only digital technologies can provide consistent gains, like High ISO performance and noise control. But that we’d be counting our lucky stars to have an affordable 35mm equivalent capture size would surely seem ironic to even amateur photographers of yore, considering Brownie cameras had larger capture area over a century ago. In any case, here we are, back where we started, and full-frame imaging is fast becoming the new normal. And I have to say, it feels pretty good.