The Full Frame Game is Fully Afoot

Sony’s announcement of the A7Rm4 seemed a little early—cameras won’t be available for almost two months—but that’s not totally unexpected. The full frame mirrorless game now has six players, and trying to get a quiet period where you can garner all the attention is going to get tougher and tougher. 

That’s because it’s also clear that we’re going to have full lines of full frame mirrorless cameras: Sony 4, Nikon 2 (eventually 4), Canon 2 (eventually 4), Panasonic 3, Sigma 1 (eventually 2), and Leica some random number depending upon how many times you count all the nearly alike M models  :~). 

With a standard two-year development cycle, that means that we’re also close to the point where we could have a new full frame mirrorless camera announcement every month. Add in lenses, and that’s definitely true.

Sony’s A7Rm4 announcement was a bit unusual in that Sony seemed to neglect trumpeting their “we’re winning” numbers (e.g. “#1 in full frame value). Overall, it appears that the announcement might have been pulled away from another event for some reason. Sony Kando 3 is coming up in a month, for instance, and for a late September release camera, that would have been the right time to do an announcement given that there are both press and public days to Kando 3.0, with a ton of social media activity coming out of that event (Canon/Nikon: have you caught onto that, yet?). But then, Sony has lots of balls to juggle right now, and they are probably planning on juggling a different ball at Kando. 

Still, get used to the whiplash. We just had the “smallest full frame” camera announced (Sigma fp) and now we get the “highest pixel count full frame” camera introduced. More quick change announcements are coming.

The Canikony triopoly sells three-quarters of the dedicated cameras bought each year. No way are they going to stay quiet now as the market continues to contract. And each is going to look for windows in which they can get their announcements out without the others stepping on them. We’re in Sony Time right now, but this fall I fully expect there to be a Nikon Time and also a Canon Time. 

Why? Well consider this: of the twelve dpreview news posts in two days, six were about some aspect of the Sony A7Rm4. If you look carefully at Google or Twitter hashtag trends, you see the immediate blip of attention that happens if you get your launch strategy dialed in with the right sites and influencers. But if you overlap with another competitive announcement, the blip is smaller.

Meanwhile, from a sensor standpoint, it’s difficult to keep up with what’s going on, partly because Sony Semiconductor hasn’t been quick to update their sensor pages and some sensors have disappeared from what’s left. We used to have 24mp, 36mp, and 42mp choices (plus Nikon made some changes to produce a 45mp variant). Now it appears that officially we have only the 24mp IMX410 (used in the Nikon Z6, Panasonic S1, Sigma fp, and Sony A7m3) and the new 60mp IMX455 (used in the Sony A7Rm4). 

This is, of course, not exactly true. Sony Semiconductor will make just about anything for a price; their published list of available sensors is simply an off-the-shelf set of choices that conglomerate all the recent Sony Semi intellectual property. And making a previous sensor—e.g. the old 36mp sensor—continues to happen until no one is buying it any more. That said, there’s rumor of a new 36mp version that brings it up to Sony Semi’s current IP, but I can’t find official acknowledgment of that.

Is there something different in the 60mp sensor from the 42mp and other full frame sensors? Yes, a couple of small things. The ADC supports 16 bits (though at full frame rate the sensor only supports 14-bit). It also uses the improved dual gain mode first deployed in the 26mp APS-C sensor (used as a base in the Fujifilm X-T3 and X-T30). 

Meanwhile, Canon supposedly is hard at work on a complete redo of their sensor lineup, but we’ve yet to see what that means. The M, R, and RP use older DSLR sensors; Canon’s next technology doesn’t yet exist in a camera, though I’m pretty sure it’s still progressing for deployment soon.

Still, as intriguing as all this sensor iteration and attention is, I’m going to say this: it’s more important that the new cameras get more attention to their ergonomics/haptics/menus and to “useful” photography features. 

Why? 

Because 60mp is only a 20% resolution increase from 45mp. That’s just above the borderline of any visibility to most people. If you were moving from a 24mp camera, you get a 48% resolution increase, which is significant and should be easily seen by most (assuming you’ve got good lenses and shot discipline). But the people buying 24mp are buying it for value, while the “more megapixel” folks are a smaller base and buying to “have the best."

Overall, the pixel count numbers may look bigger and bigger, but the benefits are getting smaller and smaller. The pixel shift capability intrigues me more than the megapixel count, frankly, as when that is done properly you get noise, acuity, and resolution gains all rolled into one, and without added diffraction impacts from increasing the pixel count (assuming your subject is still; I don’t need 60mp+ for a moving subject ;~).

But think about it for a moment: with your current camera can you combine HDR, interval shooting, focus shift shooting, and pixel-shift shooting to build an incredible database to process an image from? Nope. The camera makers aren’t thinking photographically, they’re thinking about how many photons they can collect and convert in a smaller photosite. Not the same thing. 

It’s the serious photographers that are left still buying equipment these days. We need to be demanding more photographically-useful features over pixel count, in my opinion. A 36mp camera that combined HDR/interval/focus-shift/pixel-shift would run rings around a straight 60mp camera for landscape photography, for instance. Which are we more likely to get? ;~(

That said, from the announcement I believe that Sony Imaging made a lot of right decisions. Plenty of detail was paid to things that many of us had complained about on previous A7 cameras. But whether that adds up to a true step forward I won’t be able to tell you until I’ve tested the A7Rm4 this fall (because of my travel schedule, I’d need a camera in early August to do anything sooner, and that’s not happening).

Meanwhile, get ready for more announcements. Many more announcements. At least three full frame bodies and plenty of lenses from everyone in the next six months. 

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