One format to rule them all? Shall "mirrorless full-frame digital" become the universal photographic standard?
With last year's barrage of full-frame DSLRs on offer, at prices once associated with high-end APS-C bodies, the question started to circulate, whether 35mm digital will eventually overshadow every other system format. The question took the form of a statement in some circles, after Sony announced the a7mk2, signaling the maturity of the format in a mirrorless package. The new mantra is: "there can be Only One: Full Frame Mirrorless".
These assumptions mainly come from hobbyist photographers, which are somehow hell bent on having the latest and greatest in photographic technology. Many of them have, partially or completely, switched to mirrorless and Sony is obviously, at long last, part of the treatment of their inferiority complex against DSLR FF users.
Perhaps thousands of pros in such diverse fields as photojournalism, nature, wedding, fashion, etc, having adopted m43 and APS-C mirrorless, including dozens of Magnum and National Geographic photographers, are all terribly wrong in their assessment of what constitutes a serious photographic tool. The average forum dwelling photographer knows better.
"Go on, throw away your puny little cameras!". "Only "fool frame" (sic!) shall cut it, man! It's cheap now, you have no excuses!"
Wow, hold your horses there...
I take a different approach from that of " Full Frame Junkies" which I'm going to discuss in this post. But first of all let me clarify that I have no way in knowing what will happen; I can only argue on what is rational and not what marketing and the collective consumer gullibility may lead to.
Technically speaking, it's true that the introduction of high-performance IBIS in the a7mk2 is providing Sony with a decisive advantage over the FF DSLR crowd and the mirrorless competition both. It's hard to understand what a difference it makes if one hasn't experienced it in a camera like the OMD.
Indeed, the whole comparative comments in this article, will be between the a7 and the E-M1, because the latter is the "standard" in professional features and overall performance. The exact same hold true for other cameras, of course, e.g. the Panasonic GH4 and Fuji X-T1.
First of all let's speak of the "good enough" conjecture.
This is a point discussed ad nauseam, so let's be brief. Today's system cameras, at least from m43 onwards, but also some high end 1" compacts/bridge cameras , are more than adequate, in every conceivable sense, for 99.9% of what photographers use them for. Period.
I suppose it's a very uplifting spiritual experience to be able to post online photos taken at 256000 ISO but the sad truth is: not one serious photographer really cares. Professionals and high level enthusiasts reached equipment adequacy at least a couple of years ago; anything from that point on makes a difference in the sense of enriching the photographic practice, not making the end result any "better", for all available viewing media.
Having "just one format" reigning supreme was not even a case with film. We all know that medium format was the choice of pros back then, for a variety of tasks. But older readers may also remember APS-C film, which was a modestly popular format also.
In the following years, I suspect we'll see the emergence of medium format digital as a practical and cost-efficient format for professional work. By that, I mean systems with at least a modest selection of lenses and costing less than 10000 $/€ for a "working" system. I suppose we'll then see arguments about the new "full frame" and how we're supposed to calculate equivalence. Whatever...
Speaking of equivalence, I was going to expand this article to include a lengthy and potentially tiresome conversation on equivalence, but, thankfully, Nasim Mansurov already did so (minus the tiresome part) in his absolutely brilliant article on Photograhy Life, thus saving me the embarrassment of making several technical errors on the matter. This is an essential read for everyone, and provides ample dialectical ammunition on any relevant discussion.
Let's start with the obvious: size and weight. While FF mirrorless will be smaller (as a system) than DSLRs, it will never be a compact system.
While comparing different formats for weight/size, I see several "mistakes" in online fora. For example, let's compare the a7ii not with its natural m43 counterparts, like the E-M5 and GX7 (which would be more relevant, since the a7 is in fact a high-prosumer body), but the larger professional E-M1 body. For anyone having objections on the aperture on chosen lenses, please read the Photography Life article again; thank you.
Here is a comparison with standard zooms:
The E-M1 is still smaller/lighter, although the lens goes to 80mm "equivalence" and it is a brighter f/2.8 constant.
With ~50mm "equivalent" lenses:
The E-M1 is significantly smaller and much lighter.
Finally, with telephoto zooms:
The comparison here is much more unfair for the m43 camera; its lens not only goes to 300mm equivalent reach, instead of 200mm for the Sony, but it's also a constant f/2.8.
But the a7ii is probably the smallest a FF-mirrorless can be; indeed it's difficult to imagine making something smaller that could actually work not only technically but also ergonomically. On the other hand, m43 can be tiny, so, just for laughs, let's compare two configurations with very basic "kit" lenses.
Now let's move to cost: The cost of smaller systems shall always be lower overall, for the same photographic assignments. It's quite easy to establish that, if one only compares apples to apples. As an example, camera bodies like the E-M1, GH4 and X-T1 are closer in construction and professional characteristics to cameras such as the D4s, or the D810, at the very least. The E-M1 has the weather sealing, buffer, viewfinder coverage, full controls, etc, of a professional Nikon body costing 4 times as much. Enough said.
Lenses will always be less costly, but, again, apples to apples: only brand, no third party lenses in the comparison please. Fuji, Olympus, et al. surely ask a premium for their branded lenses, but the same is true of Canon and Nikon. In fact I personally believe that very few lenses from the mirrorless companies are particularly overpriced, in contrast with several such examples from the Big Two.
There are some other advantages small sensors will always have. One of them is frame per second rate; always speaking of same category cameras. It's quite difficult technically and extraordinary expensive to make a 15fps full frame camera, with mechanical shutter. Electronic shutter is a solution which has its own limitations, and those limitations will be more apparent with larger sensors.
A noticeable benefit of a smaller sensor is telephoto magnification. Rather, let's say same performance with larger sensor cameras, at a fraction of the cost and weight. Another small sensor advantage is with macro and we've seen some excellent work being done even with 1" cameras lately.
Micro four thirds and APS-C mirrorless are now, more or less, full systems, with selection of native lenses ranging from very adequate to huge. Adapting third party or legacy lenses is also easier, no major problem with inadequate sharpness or corner performance as with 35mm digital mirrorless. The latter is currently at its infancy as a system. An important parameter, especially for m43, is that there are two major manufacturers supporting it.
It's easier to implement new tech for a smaller sensor. We've seen this in practice with camera phones; in fact, some technologies have first been implemented on them before passing on to larger sensors. Just recently, new technologies have surfaced, such as the APCS Sony sensor, or the sensor shift tech in the -rumored- E-M5 successor. These will allow at least a temporary advantage towards larger chips, supported by the established lens lineup.
It may seem that I apparently said very little of the APS-C format. This is not because I believe it's irrelevant; on the contrary. It's just that it falls directly in the middle between m43 and 35mm digital. This is both a good and a bad thing.
My opinion is that, companies invested in APS-C will have to differentiate in some manner. Fuji does so with their X-Trans filter and will advance it with their future "organic sensor" technology, now in development. Samsung is aiming at high-end video and very high performance standards. I think Sony will be the one using their APS-C line of cameras as a "low cost", "secondary system" option for their FF line.
So, what's the take home message from all this?
The message I'm trying to communicate, at least, is: every current mirrorless camera system has its value and specific benefits for the photographer.
A camera system is always a -hopefully- perfect compromise between overall IQ, cost, size/weight, performance, features and adaptability to the job. Anyone has to moderate their needs and plans, but rest assured; you'll have to really try to go wrong with anything on the market right now. Any system will probably outgrow your development as a photographer, except in rare cases or in the case of some major misjudgment. And nothing, except of course practical budget considerations, forbids operating more than one system, if applicable.
So please can we end all these stupid doomsday discussions about the "last system standing"? We live in the most interesting times in Photographic technology; we only have to fear our own insufficiency in exploiting it.