The Future Is Full-Frame Mirrorless

Simulated images
Simulated images

We always like to spot trends at Photoxels and see which direction the camera industry is heading. It’s a fun activity and, more often than not, we are not always right, but we did correctly predict that “The future is mirrorless” and that mirrorless technology would dethrone DSLR technology way back when mirrorless AF (auto focus) was still struggling, and the mirrorless EVF (electronic viewfinder) could not quite stand up to the DSLR OVF (optical viewfinder). DSLR technology was then at its zenith.

Why did we fearlessly (and in many eyes, foolishly) proclaim that mirrorless technology would eventually come out on top?

Simple: 1) With the improvements in image sensor Live View technology, we saw that the mirror had simply become redundant. While the DSLR mirror allowed the photographer to see what came through the lens (but not necessarily what the camera was capturing), the mirrorless image sensor Real-time Live View allowed photographers to not only see what was coming through the lens, but more importantly exactly what the camera was capturing. 2) Technology improvements in EVF, LCD and AF would eventually catch up with — and even surpass — DSLR technology. We knew it was just a matter of time before mirrorless technology would catch up with — and eventually surpass — DSLR technology. It has taken a good ten years, but that seems like only yesterday.

But that is looking back in the rear-view mirror. If we look forward to the trends in the camera industry, we believe that “The future is full-frame mirrorless.

What trends? New models are increasingly full-frame models. Take the following two examples:

1) The full-frame Panasonic S5 (rumors) is slightly smaller than the MFT Panasonic G9, though about 56 g heavier.

2) The Sony A7c (rumors) is the entry-level “compact” rangefinder-style version of the A7 III. It is full-frame, not APS-C like the previous compact models are (e.g. the A6600). Interestingly, a new range of more compact and lighter lenses will apparently be introduced for this new model.

Yes, it’s still early in the game, and we are already predicting that Micro Four Thirds (MFT) and, eventually, APS-C will both become a thing of the past. Not that they would necessarily completely disappear — just like film has also never completely disappeared — but going forward, more and more mirrorless cameras would be full-frame models, until full-frame (FF) would once again become the de-facto camera standard.

Now, why do we say this?

Simple: 1) With the improvements in technology, we can see that FF cameras are now the same size (and even smaller) than APS-C cameras — and even MFT cameras, go figure! So, as far as the body size and weight advantage that smaller image sensors conferred, that’s gone. 2) Technology improvements and innovation in lens design will eventually allow for more compact and lighter lenses, especially long telephoto lenses. Canon has already done something like this, and now Sony seems to be doing the same. And, 3) FF allows incredible low-light photography (as in the ability of the camera to lock focus at very low light situations, almost darkness, without compromising on image quality. This makes anytime photography possible, and a camera that you can take with you anywhere daytime and nighttime without having to worry about the light level.

(And, as an aside, I might add that every non-photographer dad and mom would love to have such a camera that can allow them to take indoor pictures of their babies and kids that are sharp, in-focus, with no noise, and with auto curves that automatically brighten the shadows.)

APS-C mirrorless cameras will not disappear overnight. They still have the distinct advantage of more compact and lighter lenses than their FF counterparts. Also, a smaller sensor means faster read-outs, faster continuous shooting, ability to keep the camera cooler during high resolution video shooting, etc. So, this competition forces FF camera and lens manufacturers to innovate in camera and lens design and manufacture so they can nullify those advantages. This will take some time, perhaps another 5 – 10 years. So, that gives the one company that is still making only APS-C mirrorless cameras (excellent ones, for that, matter; I know, for I own one) some breathing room to also continue to innovate and perhaps seriously think of a FF future. But it has to start now. Five years down the road, it might well be too late.

With all the advantages of a smaller APS-C sensor gone, FF will once again become the de-facto standard. Even now, photographers are choosing the advantages of a larger FF sensor even if it means a slightly larger and heavier lens. The size and weight differences between FF lenses and APS-C lenses are not substantial enough to become a determining factor in choosing a camera system, unless you are talking about super long telephoto lenses. But, then, how many people shoot with super long telephoto lenses?