Photokina 2012 had a rather interesting theme that permeated the announcements. The theme, or at least that which I felt was the strongest was that of the sudden growth in Full Frame equipment. This swelling of FF equipment happened both in the upper end and middle to lower end of the market with announcements by Nikon, Canon, Leica and Sony. On top of real announcements there were whispers and rumors that rapidly became internet chatter as pundits and manufacturers mulled over the possibilty of mirrorless FF. Fujifilm were slow - I'd say purposely slow - to dispel the rumors that there X-mount can support a FF sensor. Finally they came out with the fact that it can't. Then there were Sony who have announced the high end NEX VG900, the first full frame video-camera. The kicker though is that it has a NEX mount. Does this mean we can expect a FF NEX stills camera at some stage. I'd say it's likely? Read on for my biased, partisan, completely thumb suck, but maybe educated reasoning.
Sony brought out the the RX-1 at Photokina. This is the world's first digital full frame compact camera. Note that I underline the word 'digital'. Not everyone has forgotten the halycon days of the prestige 35mm compact camera such as the Rollei 35, Nikon 35Ti, Minox GL, Ricoh GR-1 and more. These were all tiny compact cameras with superb fixed prime lenses, full manual control and bomb-proof build that was in a word, svelte. Sony is trying really hard to get back to that kind of camera with the RX-1 and its Zeiss 35mm f2 lens. It certainly has the price tag to match. At US$2800 is by far from being described as 'cheap' or even affordable, especially when you consider the fact that the new Canon and Nikon SLRs are both around the US$2000 mark - a good deal cheaper than the RX-1.
Now if Sony can leverage out the RX-1 ans we know that the NEX mount can support a FF sensor ala the NEX-VG900, then it's likely that a FF NEX mount stills camera is on the cards. Whether this comes out before the completion of a full system for the current NEX line is another question entirely. Sony have a very interesting product in the NEX line, that they almost don't realise how successful it could be. Instead we see the new A99 launched, which is to me, less interesting than the NEX 7 and NEX 6 (also just announced). i.e. small rangefinder like cameras with excellent image quality, a viewfinder, albeit electronic, and a system of compact, crisp optics.
Which brings me to the point of this article, the Nikon D600 and the Canon 6D. I have not played with either camera yet, and can only really discuss what others have written. So I'm not going to expound on their abilities, or magnificent traits. Rather, it is what these two cameras represent that interests me. Because, in a nutshell, they form a very strong marketing message from the big two camera players (and Sony's offering compounds the message) that serious and enthusiast photography takes place in the realm of Full Frame. Is this true? Not at all! But it's what the camera manufactuerers are selling us now. Prior to this the race was all about resolution, who had the most megapixels. We veered towards high ISO ability and have now turned towards the size of the actual sensor.
It is interesting that the Nikon writer Thom Hogan just written a month of articles discussing the state of DX (Nikon's term for their APS system) and how dire it looks. APS, which brings in the greatest sales for both Nikon and Canon is almost side-lined by the larger framed, but lower selling full frame cameras. The D600 and 6D are supposed to be the affordable FF cameras, although again, at just over US$2000, 'affordable' is a relative concept. They are still very expensive. Especially if one considers the much lower priced APS alternatives. As Thom Hogan, with the current state of electronics and fabrication, you cannot build a much cheaper FF SLR without seriously eroding profit margins. So don't expect a US$1000 FF SLR any time soon unless it happens to be on the used market.
I personally am a FFF, a Full Frame Fan. My first digital SLR was a Nikon D200, which although I enjoyed I felt frustrated with. Possibly if I had an effective set of equivalent lenses to my film setup - a F100 and F4s - I wouldn't have been as frustrated. As it was, I only really felt at home with digital after I bought my first D700. Suddenly I was getting the perspective that I wanted and was used to (yes, I am averse to some kinds of change - it is a fault of mine). So is there is a part of me that is very excited about the the D600 and 6D. BUT, what does it mean for my students.
A number of the students that I have worked with have yearned to go Full Frame, again buying into the propaganda that FF is better than APS (why camera manufacturers imply this in their marketing is beyond me as they are only shooting themselves in the foot here). Equally so though is the fact that there are also a number of students who are very happy with the APS systems that they use. The Canon 7D is a very good example. It is a stellar camera. Even though it is getting on in age it is still one of the best cameras available. So why is it that Canon cannot build a pro body with a similar sensor. The message that buyers are getting is that APS is no longer viable for enthusiast and professional photography. The continual slide that the xxD series of Canon cameras has had towards the lower spec range (look at body build in particular) over the last few iterations has also pointed towards this trend of: APS is for amateurs and FF is for serious photography. As for Nikon, shame on you for crippling your lower end cameras by pulling features from them. The D3200 is actually a really formidable little camera. But why can't it have a DoF preview button? Or for that matter a bracketing function?
At any rate the two new offerings from Canon and Nikon take some genetic bloodline from their semi-pro and APS siblings. So the D600 looks something like an enlarged (moderately) D7000 body, some guts from the D800 and a sensor akin to the D3x (which is looking increasingly anachronistic). The 6D steals some sensor goodies from the 5Dmkiii, a lot of body from the 60D (sans the pop-up flash and articulating screen of course) and some smatterings like focus etc from the 7D. This means for tough body shells with state of art sensors. Great, so where's the compromise to bring the cost down?
For a start both cameras have magnesium chassis' with polycarbonate shells. The Canon's top shell is even flimsier - made of plastic. It has to be though as it has an included GPS and WiFi unit. This is really nifty though! So people will probably not holler to loudly. Then there's the crippled flash sync speed. This is a deal breaker for many professional shooters looking at these cameras as backup bodies. The Canon syncs at 1/180th of a sec and the Nikon at 1/200th. As far as I know, and I could be mistaken, Nikon's FP mode doesn't get the flash sync any faster (although internet post I read said it could get the sync up to 1/320th - I'll have to wait until I have a student with this camera to confirm). For most people though this isn't really that serious a problem. If it is find a used D700 or 5Dmkii and you will be happy (and still have some money to change your lenses as APS lenses don't work on FF cameras).
From my biased point of view, I always felt that the market was going to veer towards FF eventually. There's a lot of complaints about size and the legacy of APS and whether it's dead or not. The thing is a lot of the camera buying public, and certainly those with money, remember working in film. Film was 35mm and people want to use something that they felt they could trust. It was interesting talking to photographers when we crested the 12megapixel mark. Although the image quality was comparable if not better than fine-grained 35mm film, they still tended to say things like, "it's not 35mm but...". There was continually this comparison with 35mm. So it was inevitable that 35mm would become the norm once more. Only now that people have seen cameras like the NEXs and the Olympus Pens, they want that size again. Like we used to get with cameras such as the Nikon FM or the Olympus OMs. Maybe, that's the next big advance. So I'll jump on the bandwagon and throw my 2 cents in. DX (or EFS) is not dead, but Full Frame will be the dominant paradigm. It's not that Full Frame is the future. It's a continuation of the past.