Mirrorless Full Frame Today

While full frame gets a lot of lip service on the Interwebs these days, I’m not sure everyone actually understands what’s available and how all those options cost out. Let alone which option to choose. So let’s take a closer look:

Green is Sony, Red is Canon, Yellow is Nikon, Blue is Panasonic, Purple is Sigma

All the products in the above chart are available new (the prices come from a B&H search done as I write this, and are for body-only). That’s 16 products—there would be several more if I included the very expensive Leicas—of which over half sell for less than US$2000.  Of those 16 almost a dozen are more generic photography tools, while five are unique products that are more niche (fp, S1H, A7S, A9 models). 

Sony has a wide range of product, but only if you count all the previous generation product Sony has left cluttered on dealers shelves. Technically, there are only four current Sony models, but you can find double that number still available.

I’d characterize the full frame market this way for current generation cameras:

  • Entry Consumer level — Canon RP
  • Low Prosumer level — Canon R, Nikon Z6, Panasonic S1, Sony A7 Mark III
  • High Prosumer level —Nikon Z7, Panasonic S1R, Sony A7R Mark IV
  • Pro level — Sony A9 Mark II
  • Specialty — Panasonic S1H, Sigma fp, Sony A7S Mark II

My recommended choices are in bold in the above bullets. Canon will launch a High Prosumer level camera this summer (R5) and what will probably be a Low Prosumer level camera, too (R6). Sony will also update the A7 to Mark IV soon, so consider those things as you consider the current full frame options.

Full frame mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller and lighter than equivalent full frame DSLRs. I keep finding that people are underestimating just how small and light some of the full frame options are. Someone recently emailed me thinking that an Olympus E-M1 Mark III and two Pro zooms would be better for them because "they’re lighter and smaller" and he was aging and having more difficulty carrying lots of heavy DSLR gear. But a Canon RP body weighs 3 ounces less, while a Nikon Z6 weighs only 3 ounces more than the Olympus body.

Yes, lenses can make a difference in size/weight because of the need to cover a larger sensor size, but not always. The lenses the emailer chose for the Olympus were 33 ounces. Similar lenses on the Nikon Z system would be 34 ounces. So he was opting for a system that would have saved him only four ounces, but would have been more challenged in low light.

Which brings us to equivalence. For some reason, applied physics is now a controversial subject. The reason to purchase a full frame system is to have a larger area collecting all those random photons you’re recording as an image. All else equal, full frame is about a stop “better” than APS-C, which is about a stop better than m4/3 (yes, I realize that there are 4:3 versus 3:2 aspect issues that arise in making such a statement, but it’s still a reasonable rule of thumb to start from). So our emailer was picking f/2.8 lenses for m4/3 to make up for the smaller sensor. The Nikon Z lenses I chose were f/4: but he’d still be a stop to the good choosing full frame over m4/3. 

Let’s not read too much into the previous paragraph. There are reasons to buy m4/3 products still, but make sure that they’re rational reasons rather than falling for marketing statements or “Internet wisdom."

Let’s move on to some controversial statements ;~).

If you look at the history of APS-C, you find that Canon, Nikon, and Sony all limited their lens sets (buzz, buzz [that’s my shorthand for being a gnat buzzing Nikon’s DX development team’s neglect of APS-C lenses]). That seems to be repeating itself in mirrorless. Thus, what happens is that the true photographic enthusiast tends to gravitate towards full frame, simply because the lens choices are deeper and broader (or eventually will be for newer mounts like Canon RF and Nikon Z). 

I’d tend to argue that if you’re truly serious about exploring all aspects of photography, full frame is likely where you need to be. As you pick smaller and smaller sensor sizes you start imposing some limitations on what you can achieve, even when the lens set is broad, as it is in m4/3. 

Next, there’s the megapixel thing. Yes, 61 is a larger number than 45, which is a larger number than 24. You’ve been conditioned to think that larger is always better, but that actually may not be true for most users. 

24mp is plenty of pixels for the largest print you’re going to get from even the biggest desktop inkjet printers. A 24” print should look fine off a 24mp camera. Meanwhile, not only is physics being challenged by folk on the Internet, but so is math: a 45mp sensor is not nearly double the resolution of a 24mp sensor, as I keep seeing people write. The Nikon Z7 (45mp) has 27% more resolution than the Z6 (24mp).  Technically, you can print 7” wider with the Z7 than the Z6. 

What I keep finding is that people buying the higher megapixel cameras are using them to do a lot of post processing cropping. In other words, they’re not getting close enough to their subjects or not using the right lenses. I’d argue that you need to do both (distance impacts perspective, and if the subject isn’t filling the frame, you start challenging the autofocus systems). 

Sure, we all miss nailing our compositions a bit under fire. But if you are constantly cropping images by more than 5-10%, I’d argue that you need to re-evaluate what you’re doing. Using pixels as a crutch isn’t close to the optimal technique. 

Okay, considering all the above and the current pricing, I’d tend to steer most of you reading this towards a Canon RP, Nikon Z6, Panasonic S1, or Sony A7 Mark III. All are fine cameras, and the current body-only price ranges from US$1000 to US$2000, right where the prosumer/enthusiast tends to be spending these days.

Finally, now that Canon and Nikon have revealed their hands, I’d say this: Canon DSLR users should start by looking closely at the Canon RF models, and Nikon DSLR users should mostly be looking at the Nikon Z models.

Which brings me to a final “controversial” statement(s):

  • Canon UI, ergonomics, and naming is consistent and (other than the R) easy enough for a previous Canon user to understand and use.
  • Nikon UI, ergonomics, and naming is probably the most consistent of all the makers, and makes transitioning from any Nikon camera to a Z fairly easy.
  • Panasonic UI, ergonomics, and naming tends to seem familiar to Nikon users, less so to Canon users.
  • Sony UI, ergonomics, and naming are entirely different beasts from the Canon/Nikon ones. Moreover, I don’t believe Sony has rationalized their menu system and naming anywhere close to what the rest of the players are doing.

What do I use? A Nikon Z6 and Z7 mostly. For some things I use a Sony A7R Mark IV or Sony A9. But again, any of the bolded entries in the top bullet list on this page are excellent choices.

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