APS-C vs. full frame – whither the future?

21 Feb

In a previous editorial, I suggested that Nikon had recently focused on full frame cameras, and this is true. Over the last 24 months, Nikon released a number of new models and substantial upgrades. The Nikon D600/610, Df, D750 and D810 were all aimed at what one might roughly describe as the enthusiast market, with the D810 and D750 also being serious considerations for the “professional”. (But see my previous editorial on the value of such classifications.)

The logic in this is sound: “Serious” cameras as a product category are under much less threat than those whose performance can be more easily approximated with a mobile phone camera. But is the market really going to see a long-term shift towards such models? Some indicators suggest this is true. Sony showed with its A7 series that full frame cameras no longer have to be substantially bigger than those from the film era. Furthermore, its cameras are also much more comparable in size to most APS-C models than was previously the case. However, the lesson is also being learned that the camera grip has substantially developed since the film era to give more control to the photographer, and that this improvement cannot be dropped by the wayside, meaning that a major determinant of the size of future cameras will be whether they try to adhere to the needs of the human hand, or those of the human shirt pocket.

However, many seasoned photographers will urge the newbie to invest in lenses, not camera bodies, and they are right. Lenses do not depreciate in value as quickly, and enhance the range of one’s abilities far more. Many general purpose photographers will end up with a number of lenses for various different purposes: the standard zoom, the telezoom, the wide angle or fisheye (or both), the macro, the portrait prime, the walkaround prime, etc. Often, the quality of the lens influences the quality of the final image far more than the quality of the camera does, especially when cameras are approaching the limits of physics as they have been doing recently.

Therefore, advances in lens technology improve our photography more than advances in camera bodies, and can currently be seen as predominant drivers of the industry. So which lenses have improved more, full frame ones or crop lenses? For me personally, some of the most exciting developments are happening in “cropped format” zoom lenses. I’ll pick on three examples. Just under two years ago, the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens created a huge sensation for managing such a wide, constant aperture in a zoom lens, and at such a generally useful range of focal lengths. It is mostly very sharp with minimal chromatic aberrations, something of a Sigma specialty. The year after, Tamron announced its 16-300mm superzoom lens – with a zoom range that is unprecedented among APS-C lenses, and beats anything available for full frame by a very good mile. The image quality is said to be quite good considering this versatility. Then just recently, Samsung came out with its 16-50mm f/2-2.8 standard zoom – monstrously sharp in the centre, although corners suffer more than in other lenses. In all other respects, this lens keeps up flawlessly with the new 28 megapixel Samsung NX1 body – in itself a major, unprecedented breakthrough for superior image quality.

The APS-C format has been broadly adopted for new and successful camera systems such as the Sony E/NEX system, the Fujifilm X and the Samsung NX. Even Canon, with its so far unsuccessful EOS M system, has opted for a 1.5 crop factor rather than the 1.6 used in its Rebel DSLR line. So I think it’s fair to say that APS-C is a safe place to be, with a bright future.

Update 2/2/2017: You may also be interested in my recent piece, Craving full-frame? Read this first.

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One Response to “APS-C vs. full frame – whither the future?”

  1. eduardolibby February 21, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

    Cropped formats have some definite advantages in focal length availability of their lenses…Not to mention the Olympus 4/3 OM-D line…

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