Micro Sized Full Frame: Fad or Fantastic?

Micro Sized Full Frame: Fad or Fantastic?

Full frame photography was once the preserve of the hefty DSLR, but as the mirrorless bandwagon gains traction, we are now seeing a number of full frame mini marvels emerging on the market. Offering the same sensor — and so image quality — of their bigger brethren, but in a much smaller and lighter package, are these fantastic additions to the product lineup or just the latest fads?

It may seem strange but we appear to be at the point of a paradigm shift in photography. Perhaps one of the most enduring aspects of camera hardware — and sources of frustration — is the lens mount. It offers the ultimate flexibility in the optics you can affix to the camera body which is what has made the ILC a standard design option. That flexibility comes at the cost of integration which has a knock-on effect on size, weight, cost, and interoperability. Integrate the lens in to the camera and you simplify the design which allows you to make it smaller and lighter than an equivalent ILC, whilst also benefiting from cost savings in production. At that point you have no choice but to use the lens in the camera. It's what made Olympus so successful at selling bridge cameras from the 1990s and also what appealed to so many shooters with the original Fuji X100.

Where Have We Come From

Integrated lens cameras therefore have their place, but market demands, particularly those of professionals, dictate the need for ILCs. DSLRs followed in the SLR tradition, utilizing the same lens mount to give the greatest flexibility and selection of the best optics. It was Olympus' foray in developing the Four Thirds system that started the slow journey to mirrorless, culminating in the seminal release of Panasonic's Lumix G1. Mirrorless, in the form of Micro Four Thirds (MFT), had arrived. So began an intense period of innovation that saw every major manufacturer design a new lens mount and range of cameras. What is interesting is that none of the manufacturers released a full frame (FF) model until Sony's acclaimed a7 in November 2013. It's worth acknowledging Leica's 2009 M9 which was FF and whilst they were late in releasing the L-mount (2014), the FF SL arrived in 2015.

Both Sony and Fuji were intent on, and ultimately successful, in developing a range of professional mirrorless cameras. Interestingly, both preceded these professional ranges with the release of a fixed lens model: Fuji with the aforementioned X100 (APS-C) and Sony the RX1 (FF). Canon and Nikon's ultimately failed attempt to separate and differentiate the DSLR and mirrorless segments has made them late to market — it is clear that future technical DSLR developments will be limited, with resources being plowed in to increasing the capabilities of mirrorless bodies and expanding lens lineups. This has led to an exciting market of FF and APS-C camera releases from Sony, Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Sigma, and Leica, not to mention Fuji's push in to medium format and Hasselblad's market expansion. Whilst 2020 might be remembered for the impact of COVID-19 on camera sales, the net effect will have been the shift of manufacturers primary revenue streams to mirrorless.

Micro Full Frame

In the spirit of the original Sony RX1 (113x65 mm, 482 g), we now see a number of small mirrorless bodies hitting the market, including the Sigma fp, Panasonic DC-S5, and now the Sony a7C. Sigma's fp (112.6x70x45 mm, 422 g) was their first L-mount model and surprised many by being so small and highly video centric. The diminutive size was intended to allow the fp to form the center of a "rig" setup and, of all the cameras released, it is the only one that is genuinely smaller and lighter than the RX1. However it's not primarily intended for stills photography.

The release of Panasonic's DC-S5 (133x97x82 mm, 714 g) at the start of September was an interesting arrival as it continued the strong video credentials of the DC-S1, but in a much smaller package. In fact it was smaller than the MFT DC-GH5. When you compare the S5 to the S1 it is much smaller, the latter being 149x110x97 mm (1021 g), however the S1 isn't a small mirrorless by any standard. In fact the Nikon D850 comes in at 146x124x79 mm (1005 g) which is pretty comparable, whilst the Nikon Z 6 is only 134x100.5x68 mm (585 g). So, Panasonic should be commended for producing the S5, but it actually fits in to the far more profitable market segment occupied by the Sony a7 and Nikon Z6. It's no mini-marvel.

The big news announcement has been the release of the Sony a7C which does genuinely fall in to the small and svelte class, coming in at a very respectable 124x71x60 mm (509 g). That's both wider and deeper than the fp, but it is still noticeably reduced in sized compared to the a7 III at 127x96x74 (650 g).

Fad or Fantastic?

So where are those size and weight savings actually coming from? Ergonomically CameraSize.com is helpful with comparisons, such as the Z 6 to the a7C. It's obvious that the biggest sacrifice is the central EVF, which is now corner mounted and smaller. It's an understandable change and one that the Sigma fp completely eschews for its compact size.

So is "micro full frame" a new class of camera? Yes, in the sense that we haven't really had full frame sensors in really small interchangeable lens camera bodies before, although Sony has a strong direction of travel in this area. A better description of the a7C is that it is an a7 III fitted in to the body of an a6600. The other camera that falls in to the micro sized class is, of course, the RX100. Its history of EVF experimentation — no EVF, hot-shoe EVF, and pop-up EVF — all show it as a great testbed for compact camera development. This comes at a price though as the RX100 (102x58x43 mm, 302 g) and a6600 are both $1,200, with the a7C at $1,800.

Perhaps what's more interesting about the a7C is that it breaks out of Sony's established "normal", high res", and "high sensitivity" market model. Are we seeing an expansion of the product line or a re-shuffling of it? Will the APS-C lineup be simplified as the differentiation from FF is now smaller than ever? Of course there is one other camera that Sony is able to draw upon which brings us back to Sony's RX1 and the 2015 follow-on the RX1R II. This utilizes a pop-up EVF and is genuinely smaller and lighter than the a7C and that's including the Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f/2 lens!

One final thought is that making a compact 35 mm camera is not a new problem. Indeed it dates back to the creation of the 35 mm camera in 1913 and, in particular, the release of the Leica II in 1930 which incorporated an interchangeable lens mount and rangefinder. This is the bare design that Sony has followed, with the current Leica M10 also relatively small at 139x80x39 mm (660 g), albeit at a higher price.

The release of the Sigma fp and Sony's addition to the a7 lineup has expanded the capabilities of small cameras. There will always be a need for the "full-sized" MILC, however are we seeing a convergence around FF that is creating a premium travel camera with much stronger video capabilities. Will we see Nikon and Canon release similar models? Micro full frame: fad or fantastic?

Body image courtesy of Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons.

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Chris Rogers's picture

It really depends on who your asking.

Les Sucettes's picture

I would jump on this camera but whats with that silly eye piece? And that P-Dial? Such an insult! It should be Shutterspeed, the Aperture ring should be on the lens and add a dial Front back that are programable for ISO (and Aperture should the lens not have its own).

Oh Sony you are so close! But once again the camera looks and operates like a PlayStation

Smaller and smaller, but where is the Evf/OVF hybrid? Honestly what is the point of a rangefinder without rangefinder abilities? A rangefinder means that you can see outside of the frame in the eyepiece that’s the key advantage.

Why does everything need to be about video too? Just have the a7iii for hybrid and focus the a7c on photography and make it really photography focused!

Why is it so hard for any manufacturers to take a Leica and just copy it! Or a Fuji xpro ..

At least during Analog days there were options. Now you either have to fork out $8000 for a camera without AF or go ApS-C. Ironically there’s more offering in the Medium Format World due to the GFX50r than there is in Fullframe!!!

When will Canikon and Sony finally understand that the dimensions aren’t only pro and entry level or big and small.

Give the right camera body for the right purposes! A SLR type body that does everything and a Rangefinder that is focused on photography! Sizes don’t matter that much! The lenses are the determining factor!!

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Neither. Just a smaller camera. No big deal but evidently some will want it over the extras a larger body offer. As far as Sony’s A7c it’s a nice addition to the rest. If price drops 500 dollar it could be a great back up camera and maybe for travel.

A big deal would be If they made a rx1 type of camera with interchangeable lenses fitted with leaf shutter. Some small nice primes. That could be so small it really would be something.

jim hughes's picture

"Full frame" started out as an anachronism, became a marketing term, then crazy hype, and is now a religion.

What is "full frame photography" and how is it different from "photography"?

Kirk Darling's picture

When I started, "full frame" was an 8x10 view camera.

Robert Edwardes's picture

The sigma is more of a piece of a larger rig that includes things for video, and the Sony a7C exists because they didn't feel like marking down the a7III and making a a7III mk2 where everything is just a little better.

Charles Mercier's picture

Sony is going to sell tons of a7c and other companies will follow.

Yin Ze's picture

what's the point of this camera when most Sony are humongous? m43 was a perfect blend of small camera and small lenses and i used it often to get intimate moments without being noticed. this takes away important viewfinder capabilities without the benefit of a small set of affordable lenses.

Michael Krueger's picture

I'm not interested in these, I'll keep using M4/3 when I want compact.

davidlovephotog's picture

When will the cameras for kids trend end? Cameras getting smaller, lens seem bigger so how does that maker sense. Are people really hiking 80 miles and their camera is weighing them down? How about they add all the features they want to add, make them work, then put them into whatever size housing that works with all the features?

Charles Mercier's picture

When I go traveling, I generally start around 10 and then return for dinner before spending a couple more hours walking around. So yes, I don't want to carry a super heavy camera around all day long.

davidlovephotog's picture

What lens are you using with your camera?

Charles Mercier's picture

A year ago I had a Lumix DZM-200 which had a super-wide range lens. It was great in terms of weight. Last year, my friend convinced me to get a Sony a7. I bought it with the kit lens (28-70 f3.3-5.6) It is noticeably heavier. :-( I'm not a big bulky guy. It's fine but I'd prefer something lighter.

Vic Roman's picture

I think its dope.

Hunter Chan's picture

I love compact stuff! Waiting for these to get cheaper :D

John Nixon's picture

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks pondering whether to sell my D850 and buy a Sigma FP. The ‘smallness’ of it is just part of it. To be honest, if I take the battery grip and the 70-200/2.8 off the Nikon and replace it with a 50/1.8 it’s small enough for me. It’s not like the Sigma will drop in a shirt pocket so, in practical terms, it isn’t meaningfully smaller.
It isn’t like Sigma have miniaturised the camera, they’ve just taken a lot of things off it. Well, maybe just a couple of big things but the result is a camera to which you can add just what you need.
It certainly isn’t a Nikon D850 substitute but that’s not what I’m looking for. It’s not even versatility - the D850 will shoot anything you want. For me, it’s that it will force me to work in a different way and at a different speed. It’ll be interesting and that’s the key - I’m not a full-time pro photographer so my motivation for getting out and taking photographs has to be that there’s nothing else I’d rather do at that moment. The Nikon produces the pictures I want but I don’t particularly enjoy the process of taking them...
Are people building smaller full-frame cameras? Deliberately? If the customer wants versatility they’ll buy an interchangeable lens camera, if they want to drop it in a pocket, they’ll buy a fixed lens compact (or a jacket with bigger pockets!). If people had really just wanted tiny, interchangeable lens cameras, Nikon would still be making the Nikon 1.
I think Sigma just built the camera they wanted to build and it happened to end up that size.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Fad? Definitely not.

Fantastic? Definitely could be.

Trey Mortensen's picture

No love for the EOS RP apparently. Sure, it has the sensor of the 6Dii but it's still lighter than either the a7C or the Sigma fp (and cheap at $900 refurb). As a bonus, it's actually really nice to hold in the hand too! If Canon put a more up-to-date sensor in that package, I think it would be a pretty compelling travel body.

Personally, I really like the smaller designs. There will always be those who prefer bigger cameras and I think those need to be around as well, but for me, it's really nice. I think as bodies shrink around the components, ergonomics will jump to even higher importance. For me, my a7iii is incredibly comfortable to hold AFTER I added a pinky grip. Others probably like it as is. So there won't be a perfect size for everyone, so it will be interesting to watch.

Tom Reichner's picture

I greatly prefer a large camera to a small one. A large camera is so much more comfortable to hold and to use.

It's weird how manufacturers keep trying to make cameras smaller and lighter, when small size is a very uncomfortable DISADVANTAGE - while large camera size is a very big ADVANTAGE.

Some people's thinking and preferences are all screwed up and backwards.

dale clark's picture

Small and portable is not a fad. Who wants to lug around large , heavy gear if they do not have to?

Les Sucettes's picture

But you need the lenses to go with it and also the a7iii already is small and portable...

Brian Carver's picture

It depends on the application. I have a Cannon EOS-M, while it's been a great camera for videography, not so much for shooting stills. Mostly because a viewfinder is essential for focus and composition. I just bought a Panasonic DMC-85 because it's a view finder and has stabilization. Now have a lighter/smaller camera body for a video rig makes sense when everything else is heavy. Or when you need to do astrophotography.

David Nelson's picture

Greetings. This product exploration interests me because I travel a fair amount. I would prefer less obtrusive equipment because I am in sensitive places and airlines are getting very picky about carry-on size and weight. I have not held any of these cameras and do not have easy access being in under-developed setting. I understand this article intends to address the size issues and not the quality of image. But can someone tell me how the images of these kinds of cameras compare to images of the upper mid-range DSLR category of the last 6 years. I've owned a Canon 7D for quite a while and thought about upgrade to Mk2 version or even 6D. Have been satisfied with the images and some lens upgrades have helped there. But to make this move would mean new lenses, etc... Will I get same quality photos, better photos? Is there any article that anyone knows of that does a relatively comprehensive comparison regarding image output differences between the camera categories. I have read head to head comparisons between say Sony DSLR v Canon DSLR, but not DSLR v Mirrorless. My interests are people and nature photography, video is of secondary importance (but is useful). Hopefully I will hear back some useful knowledge to decide to explore viability. Thank you in advance if you provide thoughts.