Why Canon and Nikon Need to Make a Full Frame Camera With a Fixed Lens

Why Canon and Nikon Need to Make a Full Frame Camera With a Fixed Lens

With sensor prices dropping and given that mirrorless finally has some competition at the top end, it’s time for Nikon and Canon to treat its customers to something classic: a pocket-sized camera featuring a full frame sensor and a fast, fixed prime lens.

My case isn’t a strong one. Cameras with fixed prime lenses are few and far between. Leica makes a couple, with the Q2 its most recent offering and commanding the rather tasty price tag of $4,995, assuming you can get your hands on one. German engineering, precision manufacturing, incredible lens sharpness and its magnesium-alloy body ensures that Leica remains a choice for hardened fans and the mid-life crisis, as well as being the millionaire's point-and-shoot. 47.3 megapixels means that its 28mm lens can be optically cropped to 35mm and 50mm with the push of a button or two, while still achieving reasonable image quality. Hardcore enthusiasts wait with bated breath to find out if Leica will release an identical camera without the red logo on the front at the cost of an extra $500. Stealth mode comes at a premium these days.

Of a similar ilk is the RX1R II, bringing in-lens leaf shutter technology to Sony’s selection of full-frame cameras. Again, this is not a cheap offering but for discrete wedding work and moments where you need to be less intrusive, it offers a solid choice for anyone with a spare $3,298. If that sounds a little ridiculous, no, I can’t imagine that they’ve sold by the bucket-load either. However, as Fstoppers' own Ryan Mense mentioned back in 2015, this is an unfeasibly small camera given its innards, and Nikon and Canon have had almost four years to try and catch up.

The margins and sales numbers for this type of camera are both tiny which goes a long way to explaining why other manufacturers aren’t falling over themselves to produce something similar. The fixed prime body is where you send the dev guys with the biggest beards and the reddest eyes to dream, play, and come up with absurd ideas that somehow make it to market. For example, build a leaf shutter, remove the removable storage, and install Lightroom: Zeiss is still cagey about when the ZX1 will reach the shelves and the price is truly anyone’s guess, though we can be certain that it won't be cheap. This type of camera is never going to be a money spinner but does make for some funky technology and refreshing experimentation.

The Zeiss ZX1. Loveable lunacy loaded with Lightroom.

The Zeiss ZX1. Loveable lunacy loaded with Lightroom.

When it comes to Canon and Nikon, I’m quietly (perhaps stupidly) optimistic. If Nikon can plough resources into developing the rather insane 58mm f/0.95 S Noct, I hereby selfishly demand that they also waste some R&D on a camera that I’d like to see but will almost certainly never buy. Canon has its own array of problems to deal with right now, but that’s not an excuse either; if you go back far enough, there’s plenty of inspiration to be discovered, and one in particular proved very popular.

Canonet GIII QL-17

A Canonet GIII QL-17 from the early 1980s. A public domain photograph by John Kahrs

The Canon Canonet arrived in 1961 and made the perfect pocket camera, its rangefinder technology blending ease of use with practicality alongside a couple of other progressive features. Obviously, with the proliferation of smartphones, there’s no demand for such a camera today but the styling and history offers Canon plenty of ideas for a means of elevating its staid and conservative branding. This will never be a camera that sells; by contrast, this is about creating an audacious product that makes the company as a whole feel as though it offers something special.

So fundamentally, this isn’t simply about me wanting an expensive toy. It’s about me wanting camera manufacturers to step outside of their comfort zones and breathe some innovation into their brands. Company affiliation is built not simply on lens choices and the number of autofocus points, but also on how people perceive a company’s soul. Leica and Zeiss might not be good comparisons, but if Sony can muster a photographic folly that makes us feel happy despite the fact that we may never consider buying it, perhaps Canon and Nikon should give it a go too.

At a time when the battle for the mirrorless market is ever-more intense, I’m probably being unrealistic. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Lead image by John Kahrs.

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60 Comments

Previous comments

The cell phone has killed the pocket camera concept.
They Canonet was a different era . No cell phones.

Spy Black's picture

True. The pocket camera is dead. Only photo enthusiasts like myself invest in them.

Randy Kepple's picture

I was just going to say that! It's great for nostalgia, but it would be hard to compete with my iPhone XR and camera manufacturers are already facing tough challenges with dropping market shares. Let's start talking about dynamic range over megapixels, and professional mirrorless options. Innovate and raise the bar!

Josh Wright's picture

Fuji already made the compact mirrorless years ago

Dan Howell's picture

The Nikon Coolpix A came out as something like that and it was a flop. So much so that they blew out their inventory for 25% of original price which is when I stepped in and got one. I actually love it as an almost pocket-sized camera for scouting, casting, personal shots. Would never have considered it a full price but as a closeout I think it was a bargain. Should they do it again? Probably not.

Clay Wegrzynowicz's picture

Totally agree. Often do I wish for a digital back just for the QL17

calaveras grande's picture

Strange to write such an article and completely ignore the Fuji Elephant in the room.
The X100f has been out for a while. Winning many enthusiastic converts coming from MILC and DSLRs.
Checks all of your boxes, having excellent optics, compact form factor and a Sony sourced BSI sensor, albeit with Fuji's non-bayer CFA.

Benton Lam's picture

X100 series is a bit big to be pocketable for day to day. XF10 is the right size, but the AF...

Ricoh GR II is supposed to be the same size of XF10, and the III has IBIS. I'd like to see mine come in.

I might even consider trading AF for a mechanical MF... don't like the focus by wire on XF10 either.

Michael Holst's picture

Plus, the GRiii is more compact than the GRii.

Lee Stirling's picture

If Canon especially invests resources to essentially re-invent the Canonet QL17, it will be an interesting heritage nod to one of its most popular and still sought-after cameras. But what that will mean is that folks waiting for Canon to finally release a Pro-level mirrorless DSLR that slots in above the EOS-R will go out of their minds. Canon has been putting out a really nice lineup of pro-level mirrorless lenses but their bodies have, by and large, not been of the same caliber. Will this mirrorless Canonet QL-17 be a fixed lens EOS-RP and sell for $1200 or will it be a $4000 super capable unit meant to offer a slightly less expensive option for those eyeing Leica Q2?

Joe Van Wyk's picture

I have owned the RX1RII and the Leica Q. Just sold my Q after 2+ years of heavy use. I'm hoping there is a compelling replacement soon. The Q2 is fantastic, but it sure would be nice to own something that is radically forward-thinking, like this new Zeiss. The incision of editing ability and social media connectivity is brilliant. Sadly so. Why is the Zeiss (albeit a unicorn at this point) the only company embracing a connected camera? How fun would this be? Sick quality, shallow DOF, stellar low light, and the ability to tinker with and upload images right from your camera? Yes! Meanwhile, cell phones are nipping at the heals of higher and higher-end cameras. Heck, I just re-read a blog post I did 1.5 years ago comparing my iPhoneX and my Q for street shooting. https://www.joevanwyk.com/blog/iphone-x-vs-leica-q-for-street-photography It still tweaks my brain to see how compelling the iPhone's images are. I am a sucker for the full frame look. The IQ of my a7R III with fast glass makes me happy. But now, fake bokeh tech is pretty freaking advanced for stills. And now, fake shallow DOF affects are entering the video realm. You know what? I think Sony is great and good for them for ushering in lots of new tech. BUT, they could go soooo much farther. But they, like all of the Japanese camera brands, stay conservative. Meanwhile, phones are fundamentally changing the photography world.

Randy Kepple's picture

Joe, thank you for posting a link to your blog post! Very well written, and a great point of view and voice in your writing. Reminds me of another Austin photographer, Kirk Tuck. I'm right there with ya brother! (you should be writing for Fstoppers!)

Joe Van Wyk's picture

So kind of you buddy. Thx so much. I’ll check out Kirk’s work.

Full frame cameras with fixed lenses are what we've all been waiting for. CIPA prognosis is surely going to prove wrong because of the rise of this type of camera for the year to come. It will save Canon.

Ryan Davis's picture

I think this is a great idea, but I'm still secretly carrying a torch for a high end DTLR, so I might not be the one to ask.

michaeljin's picture

Given how small a full frame MILC can already be, I do not really see the advantage of creating a fixed lens camera at this point. It would make far more sense for these companies to release a smaller line of range-finder style bodies akin to Fuji's X-Pro series that use their normal MILC mount and release a small handful of slower, more compact lenses than it would to create a dedicated fixed lens camera.

I would imagine that a rangefinder style Nikon Z-mount body with something like a 28mm f/2.8 could be quite good.

Adam Palmer's picture

I don't think the sony one sold many units because it's really not that much smaller than an a series with a tiny lens.

Adam Palmer's picture

Also-- cell phones are getting so good that everyone already has a decent pocket camera on them at all times. Just ordered myself a p30 pro after downloading some raw 40 mpx sample files.

Jesse Merz's picture

I absolutely love the idea of a truly pocketable FF camera. I've used the discontinued Nikon Coolpix A for several years and it's been a pleasure to use and has produced some of my favorite photos. I've been dreaming of replacing it with the Ricoh GR-III as this form factor is very useful for my extended travels by bicycle. I've always been interested in small cameras with little to no sacrifice to image quality and a large sensor fixed prime lens compact is always going to be appealing to me.

Oh and here's my Canonet!

Konrad Sarnowski's picture

Full frame-shmuckframe - I'm waiting for Fuji's medium format version of X100 line B)

PS. Ql17 is awesome.

Gary Matson's picture

I agree ! I just tried Fuji ( XE-3 ) very disappointed. I don't see the supposed secondary type of photography as any different than the first. A play camera if you will. If serendipity occurs I don't want a second rate file. There is no reasonable full frame smaller camera for anyone except those with 3-6K to spend.

Michael Holst's picture

Sony makes one for a little over $2.5K

Has everyone forgotten the Nikon 35Ti and 28Ti? Two quirky little cameras I lusted after. Dunno if either churned a profit or brought Nikon any significant notoriety. No matter, the real question is why Nikon or Canon would pay any heed to the above article? It is devoid of any business plan.

Unfortunately, starting with the Canonet illustrates the problem: 35mm fixed lens compact rangefinders were not all that expensive. But today, the compact FF or even APS-C, M43, or 1" cameras actually are, relative to DSLR and mirrorless.

Why? They come complete. Every ILC is available body-only, or with an awful kit lens for $50-$100 more. The kit lens is probably sold at or around cost, but it makes the system sale. But when you pay $1700 for an RX10 or $3200 for an RX1, much of that is the cost of an exceptional lens.

who need pocket camera when you have a smart phone?

Andy: you make a great point that this is a segment Canon and Nikon need to join. But you are far off point when you say a fixed lens, full frame camera would have dismal sales and ultra low margins, that only the strangest or weakest development execs are sent to this corporate segment.

Oliver Kaltner, Leicas last CEO, said in an interview that the first gen Q’s “demand was 3 times the supply” (even into 2017, a while after it’s release). He said it was an “outstanding success”. As a company, it was one of their greatest modern accomplishments at staying relevant. Check the link from leicarumors for the interview by the magazine/blog Infofotografi by Enche Tjin (interviewer).

Marc DeGeorge's picture

I'd sooner buy a Canonet G-III again. Really enjoying shooting with that little camera.

How about a 24-70 2.8 FF VR/VC bridge cam. Doubt any manufacturer has this product out there. Will definitely compete well against many of entry crops as well as pathetic bridge cams if priced right.

I'd love to see a full frame Nikon camera similar to the X100 series with a fixed 50mm lens. I think there should be a market for this.