Photokina 2012: Full-Frame Cameras Next on the Price Chopping Block

Photokina brings together the biggest names in imaging products in Cologne, Germany where the latest upcoming cameras and camcorders are showcased. The September 2012 event brought out an unusually large and variable array of full-frame censor cameras. Is this a one-off coincidence or part of a macro trend in digital imaging?

A real camera

Digital cameras have countless advantages over their 35mm predecessors in terms of convenience of use and shooting feature sets. One disadvantage shared by the vast majority of digital cameras in the market today compared to their analogue predecessors is that the sensor is smaller than the 35mm film frame. Lens and mirror designs (in DSLR models) have been changed over the years to minimise drawbacks of smaller sensors, but the laws of optics are unforgiving and the smaller-sensor cameras have reduced depth of field and angle of view among other optical limitations, hence professional-grade digital cameras were outfitted with full frame sensors. However, the cost of these sensors has been too high for consumer-grade cameras, and they were featured mostly in large-body, professional-grade DSLRs.

The start of a shift

Photokina 2012, and product announcements preceding it, bore a clear trend that the days of full-frame sensors being reserved for bulky, expensive, professional-grade DSLRs are numbered. Full-frame sensors were featured on models ranging from amateur/prosumer-level DSLRs to a point-and-shoot model. This marks the start of a full-frame sensor integration arms race where manufacturers strive to fit full-frame sensors into smaller form factors and cut costs.

Let’s briefly look at some of the notable full-frame entries from the 2012 Photokina:

  • Nikon D600 and Canon EOS 6D: are far from being the first full-frame DSLR entries from the two companies, but the US$2,099 price is significantly lower than similarly-featured full-frame predecessors. Both models are also the lightest full-frame DSLRs either company has ever produced.
  • The Sony Alpha A99 is another moderately-priced full-frame DSLR entry with an MSRP of just under US$2,800, but the Sony RX1 fixed lens full frame camera is more of an indicator where the camera market is ultimately heading. A mirrorless, fixed-lens compact camera with a full-frame sensor and a rather extensive shooting feature set. However, with pricing on par with the A99 this will be a hard sell for most consumers in 2012, and should be viewed as more of a proof of concept.

The industry is fully committed to full-frame

The integration of increasingly high-quality cameras on smartphones and even feature phones leaves camera manufacturers with an increasingly daunting task of
generating value sales. The integration of full-frame sensors into an increasing number of DSLR, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, and eventually fixed-lens models will emerge as the main avenue for generating value sales and maintaining margins for camera manufacturers over the next five years. A necessary consequence of this will be rapid price erosion for full-frame cameras, and it is entirely likely that most mid-priced DSLRs will feature a full-frame sensor within two to three years. Entry level and mirrorless models are unlikely to lag far behind.

The introduction of low-cost DSLR and mirrorless interchangeable cameras has democratised these products, opening significant opportunities for attachment
and post-sale revenue. The next two-three digital camera refresh cycles will feature an increasingly large number of competitively priced full-frame models targeted at those who are looking to upgrade their interchangeable lens cameras purchased in 2009-2012. Beyond price premiums for full-frame sensors camera, manufacturers and third-party providers will be looking to cash in on lenses and accessories designed for the larger sensors.