With Sony’s big week coming to an end (they’ve announced more new products than other manufacturers, with all of them being quite exciting), we’ve missed a couple of announcements, which haven’t been directly relevant to this photography-centered website (at least for now). Both of these announcements were of their new NEX series camcorders, the NEX-VG30 and NEX-VG900. The former is a successor to the great NEX-VG20H camcorder and packs a 16 megapixel, APS-C sized sensor found in many of Sony cameras, such as NEX-6 and SLT-A57. Both new camcorders come with rather advanced video capabilities and will likely be very popular among videographers – I’ve had to trade ergonomics in favor of technical and aesthetical quality of DSLR video for a while now, and so have a couple of my close friends. With the great NEX camcorders Sony offers, both new and old models, you can get everything and for a relatively low price.
But, again, we are photography-centered at this time. Which, ironically, brings us to (the more expensive of the two) NEX-VG900 camcorder.
Why? Because it’s the first NEX mirrorless camera (which it is, only put in camcorder casing) to pack a full frame sensor, same one used in RX1 compact and A99 SLT cameras (and possibly the already immensely popular Nikon D600). And it does bring a thought. I’m not usually one to speculate, or spread rumors for that matter, but photography community has been waiting a long time for a logically priced Leica M9 (and Leica isn’t about being logical, which, strangely enough, makes sense in today’s viciously competitive market).
So.. How about a NEX-9 instead?
1) The Market is Waiting
No one offers a large-sensor mirrorless camera yet (but Leica, of course).
Micro Four Thirds
Mirrorless started with m4/3, but we knew what it was – a 2x crop, 4:3 aspect ratio sensor with no choice of any other size, not now, not ever. The mount was small, and the whole system was designed to be small (and, with lenses like Olympus Zuiko 35-100mm F/2, which is an equivalent to 70-200 in 35mm terms, pretty fast), verging on a thin line between larger-sensor compacts and small sensor DSLRs of that time. It hit the sweet-spot between size, quality and large sensor aesthetics, and if Olympus DSLRs didn’t work out, their mirrorless offerings are very popular. Rightly so. No one expected more – no sensor revolution, no Olympus D3, and neither was given.
Pentax has always been a bit quirky. They had character. They weren’t mainstream – it just didn’t work out, and so they stopped pretending. More than that, Pentax has been sold and bought more times than I care to count, and it doesn’t help unite their strategy. Many seem to hope for a Full-Frame Pentax DSLR camera, especially after the relatively affordable medium format (though a cropped one) 645D came out, and especially knowing how many of their lenses actually cover a 36×24 sized sensor. Mirrorless, on the other hand and at least from what I’ve seen, has escaped such hopes. Pentax didn’t prove majority wrong and launched a mirrorless with a tiny, point-and-shoot sized sensor, the Q system (and then the K-01, which is, essentially, a toy-like DSLR without a mirror box and OVF, but the same flange distance and K mount of your regular K-5). Again, no full-frame compact camera with interchangeable lenses (knowing Pentax, though, then could still crank one out at a least expected time – having two mirrorless systems is ok, why not a third?).
Then there’s Nikon with its CX Nikon 1. Like m4/3, it strikes a (less noticeable) balance between compactness and quality, and there’s basically no hope left for anything more substantial, at least for a while. I wish someone proved me wrong (hint, Nikon), because Nikon 1 is not that compact, nor that cheap, no matter what such a small sensor should imply. Nor does it have hugely fast lenses to compensate, or anything faster than your regular f/1.8, to be fair (while Canon has a 50mm and 85mm lenses with an aperture of f/1.2 for full-frame cameras!). Rather underwhelming. It’s not that the cameras are bad, the V1 and J1/J2. No, those are quite wonderful, in fact, and very popular. But all the advantages you get with a small sensor don’t seem to apply just yet. What’s the point of CX, then? Something needs to change, either the pro-oriented price, or consumer-oriented package.
Samsung and Canon
Then there’s Samsung. They have a competitive NX mirrorless system, and, having had a lot in common with Pentax and being an electronics giant with large amount of resources, bringing desirable products is a walk in a park. But there’s a big but. While Samsung makes sure to cover (twice and then some) each segment in other areas, such as mobile phone market, they have never targeted professional photographers with their cameras, limiting themselves to point-and-shoots and now mid-level mirrorless offerings. Everything’s possible, especially knowing that some of their NX lenses should cover 36×24 sensor image circle, but it’s not exactly expected of them, and with good reason. Even after D600 was announced, Full-Frame is still mostly pro’ territory. That’s unexplored land in Samsung camera department. It’s also unknown (at least I’ve never heard) if NX mount can accompany a full-frame sensor.
Canon is as much of a mystery as Pentax or Samsung. They’ve only just brought their first mirrorless, and it’s far from being targeted at professionals – quite the contrary. Also, Canon has been skeptical of the new market for a long time. Only time will tell how they want to position their mirrorless cameras – it’s too early to tell.
2) The Two Likables
Fujifilm is the first to jump to mind. They released the ground-breaking X100, and many photographers have been eagerly awaiting for a full-frame mirrorless device. The compact X100 was already called “Leica killer” offering amazing image quality for its APS-C 12 megapixel image sensor (a sensor very similar to that of Nikon D300s, in fact), not to mention the handsome retro looks. It’s tough, it has analogue controls and a fast, sharp prime lens. Surely the oncoming mirrorless was supposed to be full-frame?
Yes, it wasn’t. Like with Samsung, I’m not sure if Fujifilm X mount even supports such a large image circle. It is somewhat smaller than Sony E mount, which, on NEX-VG900, is already stretching it a little, but diameter is not everything.
As it happens, however, with the launch of X-Pro1, Fujifilm has been bravely stating that their special design X-Trans CMOS sensor performs at least on par with regular full-frame sensors in terms of sharpness and noise handling. And, surprise, it does. While we can try to imagine how good a larger X-Trans sensor would be, it seems like Fujifilm states there’s no need for more expensive piece of hardware – the only area where Fujifilm X-Trans looses to a larger, 36x24mm sensor, is depth of field. Is it worth a $1000 or so addition to an already hefty price of Fujifilm X system? Not for most.
And so we are left with Sony. Not to say I’m disappointed.
Again, I’m not usually one to spread rumors and simply prefer to see and wait – there’s no rush. But the following points did make me somewhat curious, as if teased by Sony – “what do you make of our clues?” Lets see.
E Mount Compatibility
Before NEX-VG900 camcorder, which can also take full-sensor and full 24 megapixel resolution images just like your SLT-A99, it has always been a kind of a question if E mount is full-frame compatible. After all, Sony never chose to bring out NEX lenses with a larger image circle (the NEX-VG900 will work very well with a Sony A mount adapter until someone does manufacture full-frame NEX lenses, be it Sony or some third-party lens manufacturer). And now, that question seems to have been answered, to most user delight.
Launch of a Compact Full-Frame Camera, the DSC-RX1
They made a bold move, launching a compact camera with a none-removable prime lens and full-frame sensor for $2800. Without an OVF/EVF. Let me repeat that – two thousand eight hundred dollars. And you know what? It’s likely going to sell, even being that much more expensive than the recently announced Nikon D600. It’s compact, has a fast-ish 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Sonnar on it (we all know how impressive CZ lenses are) and, very likely, darn good image quality under all circumstances (Sony is, after all, one of the best digital sensor manufacturers).
Now, they also have that same sensor in a camcorder, as well as a SLT Alpha line-up camera. Sony is confident with their grand full-frame move. And, if we take a close look at their camera offerings, only one is missing – a full-frame mirrorless.
APS-C Indication on NEX-6 and NEX-5R
While it may sound somewhat silly at first, none of the NEX cameras announced before NEX-5R and NEX-6 had such an indication, not even NEX-7. Why put it on now? The only reason I can think of is to distinguish APS-C and full-frame cameras from one another. Problem is, there is no full-frame NEX camera. Yet?
4) What to Make Of It?
Not much, actually. While there’s likely a decent probability that such a camera will happen sooner or later, it’s best not to dwell on the thought too much, simply because it might not. With DSC-RX1 costing as much as it does and APS-C E mount lenses already big as they are, Sony is faced with a challenge of making not only capable, but also affordable camera that makes sense and 35mm compatible lenses on top of that. Right now, it’s a little hard to imagine such a feat happening, unless the price is actually above $3000, which will be out of reach for too many photographers.
For the time being, it’s probably best to sit back and relax – one way or the other with full-frame image sensors fighting for mainstream, things will happen eventually.