Back in September, just after major Sony announcements, we predicted an upcoming full-frame Sony NEX mirrorless camera. We are not usually ones to speculate and spread rumors, but this time evidence was rather convincing. First of all, NEX-VG900 35mm sensor camcorder, the first of its kind, was launched. As it packs NEX E mount we now know it’s compatible with full-frame image circle. This cleared out any technical reasons why a large sensor NEX would be out of question. Secondly, with the launch of latest NEX-6 camera, Sony decided to specifically write “APS-C” on the front of the camera, something they have never done before. And the only reason for such an indication we can think of is the existence of a larger or smaller sensor. Now, a smaller than APS-C size sensor doesn’t make all that much sense, of course, and recently many other photography websites have been reporting rumors of the upcoming full-frame Sony NEX camera.
Of course, it’s hard to say for sure. We can only guess it will be a sort of a merge between Sony NEX-7 and RX1 full-frame compact camera. Expect 1080p/60 video, 24 or more megapixels, great screen and small size despite the large sensor. Hopefully it will have a hybrid AF combining both contrast- and phase-detect systems. And please, please let it have a good EVF! RX1 would have been it for many photographers if it wasn’t for the silly and irrational omission of a viewfinder, be it an optical one or an EVF.
Sony’s had a difficult start when they first tried with Alpha DSLR lineup. Cameras weren’t all that popular compared to the established Canon and Nikon offerings, and they lacked many modern lenses, too. Not to say they haven’t been learning. They’ve started playing bold with the launch of cheap-ish full-frame DSLRs, the A900 and A850. Now, we have innovative SLT cameras and popular NEX series, the great RX100 and RX1 compacts. Sony’s betting on technology. After all, it’s what they are best at and, given the relatively weak brand name in camera industry, it’s their best chance at attracting customers. Expect some solid specs.
One would think putting fewer parts into a smaller and cheaper to make body would make it less costly to buy. Given the $2800 price of a brand new Sony SLT A99, it would be quite reasonable to hope the price of a full-frame NEX camera to be a few hundred dollars less. But is it realistic? There’s a chance that, if such a camera does eventually show up, it will be the first one. And, as proven by Fujifilm X100 and the RX1, exclusivity comes with a price. Unless Sony decides to put the new NEX up against recently announced budget full-frame DSLRs, Nikon D600 and Canon 6D, expect its price to be up there with the rest of high-end 35mm sensor offerings.
In theory, such a camera could be cheaper than existing DSLR alternatives. Unfortunately, price is not only determined by manufacturing costs – it’s part of marketing strategy. Sony has a lot of technologies up its sleeve, but only has to bring out enough to tempt you from your current system. Saving the rest of advancements, among which is the lower price, for a later product when more competition is brought to the market pays off. It took a while for “budget” full-frame DSLRs to appear, it may be the exact same situation with full-frame mirrorless.
One word – lenses. From the very start, Sony has barely managed to produce any serious lenses in terms of specifications even though they now offer the very capable NEX-7 camera. But specifications – focal length and aperture – are one thing, making sure optics deliver expected results is entirely different. On the whole, Sony offerings for their E mount are average at best and in many cases simply dismal, well below the expected for such a manufacturer. Average is not good enough for 24 megapixel APS-C sensor. Designing full-frame lenses is an even more difficult task.
Sony produces a small number of lenses, ranging for standard kit zooms, to ultra-zoom lenses, to a pancake wide-angle and fast-ish 50mm lens. The 16mm pancake, while a very desirable lens (Nikon hasn’t got one for their DX cameras!), suffers from terrible vignetting at basically any aperture. Most lenses perform very poorly at the corners of the image, too. I have a strong suspicion this may be due to the very short flange focal distance (distance between lens mount and sensor) of just 18mm. On the other hand, Fujifilm’s X-mount cameras have a FFD of 17.7mm – even less, and Fuji’s managed to produce some very impressive lenses. I’ve heard complaints that even Sony’s E-mount 35mm macro lens is very poor at the corners, which is unacceptable.
Having all that in mind, the lenses are actually rather big, and even more so when you consider them to be fit for APS-C sensors only. How big would full-frame compatible lenses be? Already it is hard to see Sony NEX as a compact solution unless you go for the 16mm f/2.8 lens. All would be well if they were fast aperture-wise. But the widest Sony managed is their 50mm f/1.8! Smaller sensors and shorter flange focal distance should mean smaller and/or faster lenses. Neither is really found in the NEX system.
That is not to say there’s no hope. Quite the contrary. Sigma, having produced some stunning full-frame DSLR lenses lately, namely the 35mm and 85mm f/1.4’s, is taking a close look at E mount. Also, Carl Zeiss is said to produce some lenses for the mount, too. Those with autofocus no less, which is very welcome. One such lens is already available for purchase, and it’s the 24mm f/1.8 Sonnar. We haven’t yet reviewed it, but users seem to praise it – no surprise there. After all, CZ has been one of the best optics manufacturer from the very start and worked closely with Sony before producing likely the best available lenses for A-mount cameras.
Apart from this, however, things aren’t looking too good. Poor lenses is one of the reasons why I’d not consider a Sony NEX camera for my needs, even if it had a 35mm sensor. If Sony is in fact preparing a full-frame mirrorless camera, they have a lot of work to do where it matters.
UPDATE: Sony now has several promising lenses for its E mount. This includes the 10-18mm f/4 OSS, 35mm f/1.8 OSS and 16-50m f/3.5-5.6 OSS lenses. All of them are stabilized. The last one offers standard zoom range in a much more compact body than the older 18-55mm lens. We are yet to review these optics. Hopefully they are much better than earlier E-mount lenses from Sony.