No Full-Frame for Fujifilm
Until the Fujifilm GFX 50S, Fuji stuck with APS-C sized sensors much to the frustration of some. They said they’d not be exploring Full-Frame (FF) and stuck to their word. Instead, their first medium format digital camera will hit the market very soon and FF is still nowhere to be seen. To me, this makes perfect sense. In fact, I think they have made a very smart decision. Here’s a very quick run down of why:
Sticking with APS-C instead of FF: By the time Fujifilm really got going with competitive digital cameras, the FF market was already well-developed. Taking on Nikon and Canon would have been very tough, especially considering Fujifilm’s lack of recent legacy lenses. Canikon digital users have decades of modern EOS EF-S mount lenses to plop on their FF digital bodies. Full-Frame Fujifilm adopters would have to have bought afresh. Besides, APS-C was more affordable and nestled better with the then buoyant consumer and prosumer markets. It all made perfect sense, but the question was where to go from there. With falling sensor prices and advancing mirrorless designs, a slightly larger than FF format has real appeal, especially considering the lack of (affordable) competition. Here are some thoughts.
Leaping FF for 44x33mm: If you’re going to ask people to buy new lenses to get going, it makes more sense to do this with a genuinely premium and unique product. Fujifilm full-frame success would have been highly challenging , as Pentax has found out with the K-1. I love the K-1 and applaud Pentax for making it, but many have been put off by the limited lens options and this is despite having a much more advanced legacy K-Mount lens line up.
Arguably, the GFX is exactly the product needed to offer something unique, while priced in the still lucrative premium segment. Sure, the Hasselblad X1D is smaller and ‘more unique’, but it is also more expensive and likely to be dramatically more expensive to flesh out a full outfit. If you know Hasselblad, you’d be a fool not to fear the price of the as yet unannounced lenses. The body and kit lens may well be affordable (to some), but they may not be indicative of what it will cost to add the ultra-wides and tele-zooms (the £3300 price of the 30mm f3.5 gives a clue). One also suspects that Fuji will flesh out their line more quickly.
But 44×33 is so expensive! Is it? The 44x33mm sensor is a relatively smaller leap over FF than FF is over APS-C and nobody leaps up and down about production cost for FF sensors any more. You can buy a Sony A7 (Mk I) for well under £1000 now. A Nikon D750 is under £1500 at full-blown UK prices and just below the Nikon APS-C flagship, the D500. With huge 100MP sensors knocking around, 44x33mm is old hat. It isn’t exotic any more. What it is is just enough bigger than FF to make a difference in terms of noise, depth of field and potential resolution. It’s also close enough that you don’t have to recompute your entire thinking, which those new to ‘truly medium format’ sensors would have to do. It is also financially accessible to many more people. Some have criticised Fujifilm, Pentax and others for using a 44x33mm sensor that isn’t ‘real medium format’, but this is daft. Bigger formats would have dramatically increased prices across bodies and lenses (and their size), while diminishing the number of potential buyers considerably. 44×33 is where the action is going to be…..
44×33 is likely to become a new standard format. It is ‘Full Frame Plus’ and eventually will be priced accordingly. The Pentax 645D and 645Z led the vanguard and now Fujifilm will solidify this. By leapfrogging FF, in my view, Fujifilm has signalled this intent. They know what will happen in terms of 44×33 costs and they will come surely down dramatically. Just look at the size of sensors going into mobile phones now. Remember the surprise when so-called 1″ sensors appeared in small compact cameras? Five years from now, the greater cost of 44×33 sensors won’t matter much in the context of a full system. Fujifilm is being shrewd. The FF market is already saturated and sales of ‘proper cameras’ are falling. Yes, the GFX range is a smart move. However, before you expect to pick up 44x33mm cameras for a song, there is one notable snag.
The cost and size of the lenses. As anyone dealing with high resolution full-frame will know, getting lenses to really shine at 36MP or so, is tough. This usually means larger and more expensive optics. The problem with 44x33mm is that the lenses need to do this over a larger area at even higher resolution. Unfortunately, this tends to mean they’re also expensive regardless of brand, especially for wide angles. The lenses are themselves physically larger and of course they have a smaller sales volume, so they are significantly more expensive at retail than their FF counterparts. This premium is a roughly 100-200% increase in price over FF at present. This again makes me think of Fujifilm. For the GFX to really work, it has to connect with the upper end of FF or even eat down into FF territory from a pricing perspective. To make this meaningful, this must include the lenses. I therefore suspect that we will see a gradual shift downwards in the price of GFX equipment, causing a shift in the wider market. This could be achieved by pitching the lenses at a less professional level. Back off a little on weather sealing and absolute build quality (hello GFX again) and substantial cost shavings should be possible. The new GFX 50S is only the first body of a whole new line and I doubt Fuji would be doing this if they did not think they could tempt significant numbers of buyers with relatively affordable lenses. Some have criticised the lack of phase focusing, the consumer build quality and the lack of top line weather sealing, but Fujifilm knows the importance of getting their price point low enough to pick up FF sales.
I commented on the Pentax 645Z in light of the Hasselblad X1D, but what about now, with the GFX?
Well, the Pentax 645Z still remains a much cheaper proposition when you look at a full kit. My used 80-160mm FA zoom is optically superb, but cost me roughly £450. The same kind of lens for the Fuji (when eventually released) will likely be dramatically higher than that (new of course, as there are no used GFX lenses around). Sure, I’d expect the Fuji lens to be a bit better, with greater contrast and saturation. However, get a decent copy of the Pentax 80-160mm and it leaves little to be desired at 50MP, assuming you’re open to a few tweaks in post (CA, colour and contrast). As for the Hasselblad 30mm f3.5 at £3300, my Pentax-A 35mm prime cost me £280. Again, the Hassy will be better in every way, but how much better? My 35mm A is super-sharp and draws beautifully. CA is its only real Achilles heel, if you don’t mind lower contrast and saturation. Pentax does of course have some new 645 D-FA lenses around (like the amazing 28-45mm and 90mm macro, which are amazing), but they still haven’t released the replacements for the 45-85mm or 80-160mm. Pentax needs to pick up the pace on lenses that were on their roadmap at the release of the 645Z – a camera that is now at the end of its life. There’s now major competition.
Like we have discussed before, anyone expecting lots of small 44x33mm covering zooms from Hasselblad or Fuji will be disappointed. It’s the format that matters here and its the reason why Hasselblad seems to be focusing more on compact primes for the X1D at the moment (something I wish Sony had done for the FE mount). The Fuji/Hassy zooms equivalent to the Pentax 28-45mm are unlikely to be much smaller and lighter, assuming they also include stabilisation. The only way of cutting size (aside from stabilisation) would be to accept and increase in vignetting and cross-frame wide aperture performance.
So how does Pentax stay in the contest? The size and mass of the body (think almost twice the weight of the GFX and 2.5 times the weight of the X1D) is a problem going forwards. Because the 645Z uses the old mount from the original Pentax 645 film cameras, they are now stuck with its major limitation: a long flange focal distance (the gap between the mount and the sensor. This means volume, if not mass. It also means they have two choices: 1) stick with the DSLR design and retain the weight of the pentaprism and associated gubbins, or 2) go mirrorless, but without the option of making a dramatically smaller body. These may both seem to be highly limiting, but I am not sure it’s as bad as it first looks….
A Pentax 645 mirrorless design will allow for weight savings, but still come in larger and heavier than the X1D or GFX. There’s no way of getting around the fact that the ‘box’ has to be bigger, due to the lenses. If you look at the diagram below, showing the inside of the 645Z, it appears that there is actually a big space behind the sensor.
It looks like they could chop a good inch off the back of the camera and, I’d guesstimate, that with a mirrorless design and new materials they could get down to the 1Kg mark. Just. 1100-1200g should be easy (says the bloke who isn’t an engineer!). Thats only a touch more than the GFX. While we are on this subject, lets talk about size a bit more.
Some people have suggested that the GFX is over-weight and over-size and I can only assume that this is in comparison with the X1D. I disagree completely. While the X1D will make a perfect handle for little (slow) primes, it will be no better with larger lenses than the Sony A7 is. The GFX occupies a Goldilocks zone (IMHO) for a camera that is designed to cope with smaller primes and also much larger telephoto and zoom lenses. The Pentax is in the ‘could do with being quite a bit smaller without losing anything’ zone. the X1D remains totally amazing, but its diminutive size won’t suit everyone or every application. A shaved down mirrorless 645(X) will still be OK in terms of size and weight, while retaining some of the advantages of the 645 Pentax system (bucket loads of affordable legacy lenses available now at prices often much lower than second-hand FF Nikon and Canon L lenses).
So what may be next for the Pentax 645? I’d guess a smaller, lighter mirrorless body of 1000-1100g with a 70-80MP sensor. I also suspect that the new 45-85mm and 80-160mm lenses (probably both stabilised) will be released when the new body is announced and well before the Hassy X1D or Fuji GFX get a higher resolution sensor. The existing D-FA lenses will easily keep up with 70+MP and many of the ‘FA’ and ‘A’ legacy lenses will too (the Pentax FA 645 150mm f2.8 IF , as an example, would probably be perfectly comfortable at 100MP). If they stick with a DSLR design, I think they would have to add a high-resolution mode and In Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) to really give people a reason to choose so much additional bulk and weight over the GFX. With a 70-80MP sensor this would make the camera a resolution monster. They’ve produced the K-1 with IBIS and I see no reason why the next 645 couldn’t have it. 44x33mm isn’t massive in comparison with FF. IBIS would be a super addition, because it would boost the utility envelope (without tripod) of some of the legacy lenses.
Here’s a quick recap on what I paid for my legacy 645 lenses, which are in all cases roughly 5-10 times cheaper than new digital Hassy or Pentax lenses would be).
35mm A – About £280
45-85mm FA – £370
75mm f2.8 FA – (new) at £375 or so
120mm f4 A Macro – £200 or so
150mm f2.8 FA – £350 or so
200mm f4 FA – £250
80-160mm A – £150 or so
80-160mm FA – £450 or so
So how do I see the choices in the 44×33 market over the next few years?
The Hasselblad X1D is for people who have large budgets and/or who prioritise small form factor and the use of primes over zooms. Hiking landscape photographers who feel happy with 2-4 primes and maybe one wide zoom will see lots of appeal here (if they can afford it). It’s the simplest camera of the lot and perhaps closest to a Mamiya 7 or ‘Super Leica’. Right now there is still quite a bit that’s unknown with regard to the lens roadmap, although we do know Hasselblad is very serious about the line up. A slight leap of faith is required here and you’d better not need image stabilisation, because I’m not sure that it’s planned in the lenses. It may arrive in future bodies, however. For anyone who owns H series lenses, there will be an adaptor, so you’ve done the financial heavy lifting already!
The Fujifilm GFX is for those who expect to add a good range of lenses over time and whose budget is not in Hassy territory. It is also for anyone who really wants to shoot wider than 28mm (because Pentax hasn’t got anything even on its roadmap wider than this). This is a great choice as long as you don’t want lenses longer than 120mm anytime soon and aren’t worried about the lack of lenses in the 65-110mm range. That’s 54mm to 92mm in FF terms, which is quite a hole if you love the gentle effect of slight telephoto lenses (á la 210mm on 5×4″, or the 75mm Leica primes). I am sure Fujifilm will have a lot more lenses 2-3 years down the road.
The Pentax 645 system is for photographers who want the most 44x33mm performance possible from the lowest investment possible, but who still hope to come out of the deal with a wide range of lenses at the expense of more weight and bulk. This is the only system of the three that is remotely mature now. It is also the only one with a slew of stabilised optics (or expected ones). The 28-45mm is stabilised, as is the 90mm Macro. I would also expect both the 45-85mm and 80-160mm replacements to be stabilised too. While you will have to carry the extra mass, it will remain an excellent hand-held tool as compared to the X1D and GFX systems. There is also reason to expect great things in the 645Z’s replacement…. one way or another.
Lets see how things shape up in 2017, because there is of course a risk that Pentax will simply pull the plug and bow out. I hope that’s not the case for obvious reasons, but also because it will reduce competition to the detriment of us consumers! Assuming Pentax stays in the game, lets hope they produce a lens significantly wider than 28mm and a 110mm f2 portrait lens. I don’t personally feel a need for the latter (though many people do), but the former would be a welcome addition to the promised 45-85 and 80-160 replacements.
All three systems are amazing, but with their own quite different pros and cons. Thanks to Pentax, 44x33mm became vaguely accessible to mortals, but it is Fuji who is promising to bring this wonderful standard format even closer to the mass market. Well done Fujifilm!