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Is APS-C/Full Frame the Best Sensor Strategy for Camera Manufacturers?

Is APS-C/Full Frame the Best Sensor Strategy for Camera Manufacturers?

Manufacturing a product range focused upon APS-C and full frame (FF) ILCs is one of those strategic decisions that seems set in stone. If Canon and Nikon think it's a good differentiator for consumers, then it must be an industry standard that is broadly followed by everyone. However, the camera market is more nuanced than this and has some surprising origins. So, what is the best strategy?

To understand the digital sensors used inside ILCs, you need to understand film cameras. We take the 35mm industry standard for granted, although recognize that 60mm (in a range of aspect ratios) has played its part. Of course, we are talking about roll film here, whereas sheet film's most popular sizes include 4"x5", 5"x7", and 8"x10". So, where does 35 mm (and its peculiar 3x2 aspect ratio) come from?

35mm Film

George Eastman was one of the first to manufacture 35mm film using the new celluloid roll film format; however, that doesn't explain why it became the film standard. William Dickson's creation (while working for Thomas Edison) of the precursor to the movie camera — the kinetoscope — was the impetus for 35 mm with its 18x24 mm frames. Remember that the film strip was 35mm wide (possibly cut down from 70mm), or rather ​1 3/8". In the kinetoscope, the film ran vertically with four perforations on each side for the film feed, giving an actual image width of 1" or ~24mm. Why was it 18mm high? Again, sticking with imperial units, Dickson appears to have experimented with 1", ¾", and ½". The square format would compositionally have been out of the question, while ½" would have been too small a frame size. It would seem that ¾" was the most logical choice for quality and was close to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the Golden Section. It also gave 16 frames per foot of film and so possibly 16 frames per second.

It was Leica's Oscar Barnack that really defined the format for stills cameras by cleverly turning the camera sideways to give a wide image frame (the 1913 Ur-Leica). The standard movie frame was doubled, creating a 36x24mm negative with eight perforations per frame. This was probably to simplify film transport using existing hardware but had the effect of changing the aspect ratio to the less than perfect 3:2. In the 1940s Nikon briefly tried the "correct" 32x24 mm with it's Nikon 1 rangefinder but saw little success.

Early DSLR Sensors

The earliest DSLRs, such as the Kodak DCS 200 onwards, actually used standard SLR bodies, replacing the film back with a digital version and then providing connections to the processor and storage. The camera doubled in size but was portable for journalists. These were top-shelf products (the DCS 100 started at $20,000), with the sensor one of the most expensive components, meaning that there were cost implications. This had to be offset against the crop factor this imposed relative to the 35mm lenses that were being used, alongside the resolution of the sensor. The 1991 DCS-100 had a 1.3 MP sensor measuring 20.5x16.4mm, giving a 1.75x crop factor. It was succeeded in 1992 by the smaller (13.8 x 9.2mm) 1.5 MP DCS-200 with a 2.5x crop factor. It would take until Canon's release of the 1Ds in 2002 for a full-frame sensor to appear in a DSLR (excluding the Contax N Digital), at which point Kodak followed suit with the DCS Pro 14n, which was also higher resolution and cheaper. Late to market, it signaled the beginning of the end for the DCS line.

This was a time of experimentation for DSLR manufacturers. Nikon's 1999 D1 (and subsequent D2) series went with APS-C sensors and had the advantage of being early to market. The writing was on the wall for Kodak, so what would Canon's move be? In 2001, it went with the low-key prosumer-oriented EOS-D30 using an ASP-C sensor, following it in 2002 with the pro-spec 1D featuring an APS-H (28.7x19.1mm) sensor inside (a small 1.3x crop factor). It went full frame in the form of the 1Ds in 2002, at which point its APS-C/FF lineup was set. Nikon wouldn't follow suit until the release of the D3 and D300 in 2007, using its so-called FX and DX sensors.

Meanwhile, Olympus released the Four Thirds system with Kodak, using a 18x13.5mm sensor, giving it a 2x crop factor, while both Pentax (with the *istD) and Fuji (through the FInePix S Pro range) went APS-C. Minolta's early entry into the digital market with the RD-175 had stuttered and the APS-C Maxxum 5D didn't arrive until 2005, then morphing into the Sony Alpha range.

Medium Format and Mirrorless

It might seem from the above that the APS-C/FF standard was already set in stone, but two seemingly distant developments shifted the focus. The first was a digital medium format which developed out of the emergence of medium format as the choice of many professionals where image quality was paramount and perhaps best exemplified by cameras from Hasselblad and Bronica. Using a modular design, it was relatively easy to retrofit a digital back; however, they remained relatively bulky compared to their 35 mm siblings. Pentax is notable for introducing the 6x7, a pro-specification medium format system that is still in production today; however, it was the prosumer level 645 that formed the basis for its transition to digital. Pentax wasn't the first to market with medium format digital — Leaf released digital backs in the 1990s, while Mamiya was the first to market with the ZD in 2004 — however, the 2010 645D was significantly cheaper than competitors and produced high-quality images. The 44x33mm sensor was becoming mainstream.

By 2000, the entire camera industry was about to pivot toward mirrorless beginning with Micro Four Thirds (MFT). Sony and Samsung quickly followed with the APS-C NEX3 and NX200 respectively, joined by Fuji (X-Pro1), Pentax (K-01), and Canon (EOS M) in 2012. There were two notably different product lines released in 2011. Nikon's 1 system used a CX (1") sensor (13.2x8.8mm), which was positively gargantuan compared to Pentax's first MILC, while the Q that had a 1/2.3" IBIS sensor (6.17 x 4.55mm). Both were compact systems with both manufacturers opting for systems smaller than MFT.

Why APS-C?

In reviewing the history of sensor sizes used in DSLRs, APS-C has dominated the market place and it's useful to remember that the name is derived from the ill-fated Advanced Photo System "Classic" negative that was introduced in 1996 and barely survived to 2011. The 25.1×16.7mm frame size has the same 3:2 aspect ratio as 35mm but takes us back closer to the original dimensions of the kinetoscope.

So, why APS-C? The dominance of 35mm is paramount here, as photographers' expectations and existing lens systems were built around it. It's therefore pertinent to summarize the impact crop factor has on the resulting image. For a standard 35mm lens, the image circle will extend beyond the sensor, essentially cropping it and so reducing the field-of-view, hence the name. For APS-C-designed lenses, this has the benefit of focal reach at the sharpest part of the lens and generally lighter optics and cheaper sensors. Depth of field also increases, which can be beneficial for certain styles of photography. However, the penalties include depth of field (if you want bokeh), the availability of wide angle optics, the greater impact of diffraction, and broadly noisier sensors.

APS-C is therefore sufficiently different from other sensor sizes to offer dual usage. Firstly, the smaller size benefits sports, wildlife, and street photographers amongst others. Secondly, it provides a lower barrier to entry for amateur photographers wanting to buy into a full camera system, yet can begin to approach the creative opportunities that full frame systems offer.

What Is the Right Strategy?

Sensor size is as much about differentiating markets as technical competencies. The FF/APS-C has existed for obvious reasons: it provided a reasonable compromise between capabilities that could be differentiated on price and segmented in to separate markets. Canon embraced this from the beginning with Nikon and Sony (Minolta) both following suit.

However, the search for commercial success has seen the exploration of a range of sensor sizes. Olympus and Panasonic have championed MFT as a better compromise, particularly for video and street/travel photography. With Olympus' future now in flux and Panasonic also championing FF, the future of MFT is uncertain. Nikon and Pentax both went smaller with the 1 and Q systems, which made a lot of sense at the time; with large, profitable, consumer sales, offering specialty cameras targeted at this market was obvious. Little did they know it would be usurped by the smartphone, which led to the demise of both systems.

Pentax stuck with APS-C for a long time, although we shouldn't forget the successful 645D (and 645Z), which appears to have been orphaned. It was late to market with K-1, which shows reluctance at embracing full frame. This brings us to Fuji, which has long stuck with APS-C from its early DSLRs through to the X-series line. As an early chip manufacturer, it has also tried to differentiate its offerings through the likes of the Super CCD and X-Trans sensor. It's therefore interesting that it chose to eschew full frame and go directly to medium format with the release of the GFX 50S in 2017.

Going forward, what is the right strategy? Crucial for camera manufacturers at the moment is the ability to stay relevant within the marketplace. Traditional users appear satisfied with the APS-C/FF orthodoxy. It suits current needs based upon their past use. However, that isn't how a market develops, and this is the reason to question Olympus' commercial viability. It's also why Nikon has canceled the 1 System and rapidly developed and released the Z System. Sony pivoted at exactly the right moment to capitalize on the changing market, while Fuji has been successfully low key.

Does this mean a small format is gone? Quite possibly, not because the systems aren't technically excellent, but because the traditional marketplace of consumers has evaporated and only MFT filling the gap. That leaves prosumers (high ticket toys), professionals (such as the Olympus E-M1X), and video sectors; it remains to be seen what Panasonic will do. Having joined the L-Mount Alliance will it pursue a dual-sensor size, video-focused, strategy?

The bigger question to ponder is how much of a future APS-C has. If quality is the primary differentiator for manufacturers then offering larger sensors could be a means of achieving this. Fuji looks set to stick to their APS-C/MF strategy, but could we see any other manufacturers change? I have already mused about the potential for Nikon to offer MF in the Z-mount and while the E-mount is restricted, could Sony also offer MF within a new mount? Canon is perhaps the most embracing manufacturer and its entry into MF could spell an exciting era of development. Of course, there is one manufacturer that makes cameras across the three main sensor sizes and that's Pentax: has it got the foundations for future success?

Lead image (sensor size) courtesy of Rodrigo.Argenton via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons. Body image courtesy of Leica Microsystems via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons.

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18 Comments

Kim Ginnerup's picture

The combination for me would be MFT for travel and all outdoor. And a medium format at home. I had a medium format film camera a long time ago that that could shoot 6x4.5 to 6x9.
I would love to have a digital version. I much prefer 6x6 and 6x7 and 4x3 to 2x3 I have always found the 2x3 and odd size.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

These systems are rather extreme, excellent in some situations, really bad at others. The presence of a compromise in between, acceptable in most cases, would be great.
In your world, there would be mft, ff, and 645. I'd sign for that.

Ibrahim Jadoon's picture

I'll give one (literally) huge reason why it's no question MFT/1" are one side, while APS-C/FF are on another:

Lenses.

APS-C lenses are just as impractical, unwieldy, and expensive as full-frame, when we talk about lens flexibility & usability, for consumers. Try to find a single APS-C lens at 12mm to 70 equivalent with a size commensurate to the smallest, most compact ILC. It looks like someone glued a can of fruit to a diary.

Smartphones can offer 12mm to 70mm equivalent in a tiny package: people like that flexibility, especially at the wide angle. Hate it as we might, dedicated camera market growth will be from slowly converting portions of the multi-billion smartphone user base.

Whatever zoom lenses you buy for APS-C/FF, they are hunking, heavy, uncollapsible, and it's now "an event" to take a photo. You need a bag or adjust your wardrobe, you need a strap, and when you pull it out, you're a conspicuous photographer. Before we hear, "Just buy fast primes: some are pancakes now!", consumers feel the downgrade and the price tag, "This lens is 10x the thickness of my phone, requires a dedicated bag when attached to the body, is heavy as can be, cost me nearly 50% of the price of a flagship smartphone by itself, and it can't even zoom in to the bird in the tree over there?" Or "That lens costs more than my phone. Add the body price tag and I'm easily paying over $1000. In what economy is that still rational? I think I'll just wait for smartphone cameras to improve..."

For 10% of smartphone users to ever want to pick up a dedicated camera, bridge cameras seem most likely to find success in the 1" or MFT market. But, as MFT has shown, it's not the sensor that decides the consumers: it's the companies that back it and the *quality* of the camera they make *around the sensor*.

Make excellent 1" cameras and they'll beat out APS-C cameras for usability, features, price, and relative performance. It seems most photographers aren't pixel peepers these days, but many do want to take better photos than their smartphones. The improvements they look for are focal length flexibility, dynamic range, excellent autofocus, good computational/stacking for night photography, etc.

These all seem much more possible at the 1" / MFT size than anyone has done at APS-C, esp. for size.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

If I read right, you are arguing in favor of a kind of mix between a smartphone and a good camera.
A smarphone and camera brand could join to make that, with an op system that allows you to link into instagram, a cloud, and other stuffs, there could be a market to this.

And that leaves aps-c's and bigger sensors to "real" cameras, with huge capabilities, for pros.

I'm shooting on a mft camera, but I agree there are few advantages to such a small sensor. Olympus makes gold, but they could do at least as good with an aps-c.
Canon launches f/11 tele lenses. They probably won't be bigger than those you find on mft. That's one less argument to mft.

Steven Weston's picture

APS-C zoom lenses are big and heavy because most have OIS. All those little OIS motors come with a literal price and weight and bulk. As IBIS capable bodies replace older bodies, OIS lenses will become history. It's for that reason APS-C will continue.

The next step will be IBF, in body filtration.

Greg Conquest's picture

Searching Google for:
IBF "in body filtration"
gives precisely one hit: this page.

What is it?

Steven Weston's picture

I don't see the link, but this is what I have in mind. Since light is light, what difference does it make if the filter is attached to the front of a lens or processed by the sensor? Well maybe polarization is an exception. If Fujifilm can provide film simulation, maybe they can perform B&W contrast enhancement among other things? Anyway, just thinking.

Greg Conquest's picture

Oh, you made the technology up, gave it a name, and gave it an abbreviation?! Why didn’’t you say so?

As to your idea, unless the sensor passes on the full frequency mix for each pixel, not just a weighted RGB value (IIANAEE), then post processing either in camera or on a computer can’t do what an optical filter can. Light filters can filter out narrow bands of frequency. I don’t think this can be done from a sensor readout; someone corect me if I’m wrong.

Steven Weston's picture

I have to agree with the full frequency requirement and that's why Fujifilm provides some ND filtering in the X100V -- which is trick I'd like to see in more cameras. And maybe shooting in a monochrome film simulation could be modified by the camera's processor to provide the equivalent GYOR contrast filtering. I'm certainly thinking out loud here, but I think some of this is doable. Sure would be neat!

Sorry to mislead you. I should prefix some of my thoughts with "What if...".

Tony Northrup's picture

All our testing has shown that small sensors can produce the same results as big sensors, provided they have the right lens attached. Going forward, though, I think that economies of scale and the shrinking size of the camera market will make the most popular sensor size the least expensive, and it looks like that size is going to be full frame. Note that full frame hasn't historically been the most popular in the era of digital cameras, but in the future where only enthusiasts and pros buy dedicated cameras, I think it will be. Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Panasonic also seem to be putting most of their energy into developing and marketing full frame cameras.

I think APS-C and Medium Format will continue to be around for many years, but I think they'll eventually become disproportionately expensive compared to FF. That will probably apply to lenses, too, especially when you consider that third-party lens manufacturers put most of their energy into the most popular formats, and a single 3rd-party FF lens can be quickly adapted to every FF mount.

jim hughes's picture

That's an interesting take: ultimately, the real advantage of FF is just the cost-reducing economies of scale made possible by the fact that so many bought the pitch about image quality.

Are cameras the only technology that doesn't want to be as small and light as possible, consistent with function?

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

I sure don't want my professional camera to be small and light like a phone. The ergonomics would be a nightmare.

I actually don't like to shoot lenses like a 50mm or 24mm pancake for long because of their small size my left hand doesn't give me all the support I like. When using something like a 105mm or a bigger zoom I can have a better ergonomics posture. At least IMO.

I prefer to shoot a 6D + 24-105 f4 all day than a m50 + 22mm f2. Even if the first is several times bigger and heavier.

Michael L's picture

This article needs to go back for editing.

Fuji doesn't have a 135 system to protect so a 127 medium format and APS-C small format make a lot of sense. The 127 frame sensor that Fuji uses in medium format is 4x the area of the APS-C sensor, so 2 stops of size difference.

Canon and Nikon had 135 systems to protect, and APS-C was a way to reduce the cost of sensors greatly (iirc semiconductor manufacturing equipment wasn't designed to handle chips as large as a 135 frame - the APS-H sensor was as large as could be made using a regular production process and 500 mm^2 is still considered a large die). But because they were using 135 size everything else, they couldn't take full advantage of the smaller sensor for smaller bodies.

That said, as manufacturing costs have come down, 135 goes back to being a good compromise in sensor size vs camera portability vs camera usability vs optical performance. 135 has had a lot of challengers over the years, both larger and smaller. It beat all of them.

Smaller formats need faster glass to match the image level quality, but 135 has lots of f/2 and faster primes and f/2.8 and faster zooms. Smaller format lenses often outpace the size of 135 format lenses on an equivalent basis.

Larger formats use slower glass The lack of fast glass for medium formats cameras seems (to me, at least) due to the inability of faster lenses to have an image circle that can fully cover the larger frame size. So you give back most of the advantage of that larger frame size.

Then there's all sorts of ergonomic considerations - the screen size, number of buttons, grip, etc, of a camera leads to a certain minimum body size anyway. Might as well use that space available.

For all of those reasons, 135 has come to us after the trials of 100 years as a compromise for quality, portability, usability, and cost.

Robert Edwardes's picture

APS-C and Full Frame are both produced because APS-C came out first then Full Frame was developed and while that worked in the beginning over the last 6 or 7 years the difference in MP is gone and the sensor technology is good in both which is why you saw the D7500 be a de-tuned version of the D7200. Also the two newest systems both skipped on of those whether it's Fuji APS-C to Medium Format or Panasonic M43 to Full Frame, and nikon should have just tried to come out with a M43 system with an auto focusing speed booster for their lenses

Steven Weston's picture

Thank you for this informative and thought provoking article. As I've commented before, still photography and videography are two very different things. Bear with me a few moments.

Videography inherently has what I call a frame rate fudge factor, or FrFF (pronounced like it looks). Most of the nuances and artistry of still photography are unimportant. What remains important is capture resolution, sensor processing speed, recording speed and capacity, camera body form factor, and heat dissipation.

I don't think hybrid still cameras will be the main path. Their video capabilities are nice to have for recording snippets using a still camera's form factor, lenses, and sensor sizes.

I think the main path for videography will employ MFT in a body that can carry the processors required while dissipating the heat generated without mechanical fans. That's where FrFF comes into play.

So, MFT will remain for video; APS-C, FF, and MF (probably 645) will continue their race. IMHO.

Steven Weston's picture

I forgot to mention focus tracking which is very important for video.

Timothy Roper's picture

It's more of a lens strategy, with companies not wanting to have to completely redesign them for digital. As for APS-C, that's very close Super-35 film and was a logical choice for a smaller, less expensive silicon size.

Momchil Yordanov's picture

Up to maybe 2 years ago, the best compromise (because there is no perfect system that give you everything) was MFT as the smallest format that gives "proper" IQ and the full frame as the professional format, that is not insanely expensive and not crazy big. With the shrinkage in size and price of the full frame cameras and lenses (the lenses only lately, but the current FF primes by Samyang and zooms by Tamron are good example), the smaller formats will get less and less attractive. When you add the tendency the whole market going back to where it was before the explosion of the digital point-n-shoot, namely the dedicated hobbyists and the professionals buying ILCs, I think we are about to see a total domination of full frame in the next couple of years.