Disclaimer: I am not an electrical engineer and have no special knowledge about any of this.
Some time ago Thom Hogan estimated the cost of an FX camera sensor to be around $500 (I don’t have the reference, but I’m pretty sure this is true since he said as much recently in a comment thread). Similarly, E. J. Pelker, who is an electrical engineer, estimated an FX sensor to cost around $385 based on industry standard cost and defect rates in 2006. So it seems like there’s this general acceptance of the idea that an FX sensor costs more than 10x what a DX sensor costs (Pelker estimates $34 for a Canon APS sensor, which is slightly smaller than DX, and $385 for a 5D sensor).
My assumptions can be dramatically off but the result will be the same.
I don’t mean to be mean to Pelker. It’s a great and very useful article — I just think it’s not that the assumptions he knows he’s making are off, it’s that he’s made tacit assumptions he doesn’t realize he’s made are completely and utterly wrong.
The assumption is that if you get an 80% yield making DX sensors then you’re get a 64% (80% squared) yield from FX sensors (let’s ignore the fact that you’ll get slightly fewer than half as many possible FX sensors from a wafer owing to fitting rectangles into circles).
Here are Peltzer’s “unknown unknowns”:
Sensors are fault-tolerant, CPUs aren’t
First, Peltzer assumes that a defect destroys a sensor. In fact if all the defect is doing is messing up a sensel then the camera company doesn’t care – it finds the bad sensel during QA, stores its location in firmware, and interpolates around it when capturing the image. How do we know? They tell us they do this. Whoa — you might say — I totally notice bad pixels on my HD monitors, I would totally notice bad pixels when I pixel peep my 36MP RAW files. Nope, you wouldn’t because the camera writes interpolated data into the RAW file and unless you shoot ridiculously detailed test charts and examine the images pixel by pixel or perform statistical analysis of large numbers of images you’ll never find the interpolated pixels. In any event (per the same linked article) camera sensors acquire more bad sensels as they age, and no-one seems to mind too much.
Sensor feature sizes are huge, so most “defects” won’t affect them
Next, Peltzer also assumes industry standard defect rates. But industry standard defect rates are for things like CPUs — which usually have very small features and cannot recover from even a single defect. The problem with this assumption is that the vast majority of a camera sensor comprises sensels and wires hooking them up. Each sensel in a 24MP FX sensor is roughly 4,000nm across, and the supporting wiring is maybe 500nm across, with 500nm spacing — which is over 17x the minimum feature size for 28nm process wafers. If you look at what a defect in a silicon wafer actually is, it’s a slight smearing of a circuit usually around the process size — if your feature size is 17x the process size, the defect rate will be vanishingly close to zero. So the only defects that affect a camera sensor will either be improbably huge or (more likely) in one of the areas with delicate supporting logic (i.e. a tiny proportion of any given camera sensor). If the supporting logic is similar in size to a CPU (which it isn’t) the yield rate will be more in line with CPUs (i.e. much higher).
This eliminates the whole diminishing yield argument (in fact, counter-intuitively, yield rates should be higher for larger sensors since their feature size is bigger and the proportion of the sensor given over to supporting logic is smaller).
(Note: there’s one issue here that I should mention. Defects are three dimensional, and the thickness of features is going to be constant. This may make yields of three dimensional wafers more problematic, e.g. BSI sensors. Thom Hogan recently suggested — I don’t know if he has inside information — that Sony’s new (i.e. BSI) FX sensors are turning out to have far lower yields — and thus far higher costs — than expected.)
To sum up — an FX sensor would cost no more than slightly over double a DX sensor (defect rates are the same or lower, but you can fit slightly fewer than half as many sensors onto a die owing to geometry). So if a DX sensor costs $34, an FX sensor should cost no more than $70.
Just before Christmas I got a pretty good deal on the Nikon V1 (I paid more than I need have since the price dropped even further after I got mine). I ended up picking up the V1 with the 10-30mm kit lens (which is a pretty decent macro lens in case you’re wondering) and the FT-1 adapter, allowing me to use my F-mount lenses — notably my 70-300mm VR — with the V1.
My previous blog post shows three photographs I took with the V1/70-300 combination at the zoo, but this was all hand-held and pretty terrible. I’m actually surprised any of the pictures were usable at all (a few of the red panda pics were lovely). On my second excursion I brought my new monopod (a Christmas present). Definitely better but (a) I need more practice with a monopod and (b) an 810mm (effective) lens probably needs a tripod.
When I pixel-peeped at the unretouched image I noticed some chromatic aberration. Loading the image in iPhoto fixed it automagically. So I added a tiny bit of saturation, retouched two tiny blemishes (not the camera’s fault — the cheetah had some gunk stuck in its fur), and performed a single unsharp mask.
To my eye it’s sharp — not quite tack sharp, I think the pixel density of the V1 sensor is beyond the lens’s resolving power (but it looks like the 70-300VR should do just fine on a 24MP FX sensor) — and the background looks fine. Not bad.
My current camera bag is pretty hefty. It’s the size of a large laptop bag, divided into compartments and pretty much full with two Nikon bodies (D5000 and D7000), and five lenses (35mm f1.8, 18-200mm, 11-16mm, 70-300mm, and a Lensbaby Composer). There are a few other small items, such as an SB-400 flash and an IR remote shutter release. Sometimes I carry a compact tripod. The D5000 usually has the 35mm or the 18-200 and sits in the “quick access” compartment — the D7000 is barely able to pass through quick-access compartment’s opening.
If I were to rank the lenses in my order of preference, it would be:
35mm (also great for my daughters, since they don’t know how to deal with zooming)
11-16mm (I have no clue how to use this lens, but it is great fun)
18-200mm (even though it’s second from the bottom, it’s a damn fine lens)
The Lensbaby is a stupid toy.
I’m not that serious a photographer — I don’t need a “backup body”, but I don’t tend to sell my old stuff so it just accumulates. Even so, the D5000 is hardly the bulkiest item in the pack, and I really like it, especially for odd-angle shots. Also, my daughters can manage the D5000’s body (kind of) but the D7000 is just a bit too big and heavy for them. Also, I don’t want them to drop it.
So, I’ve been sorely tempted by Micro four-thirds, and having seen several Olympus OM-D E-M5’s in the “wild”, they’re very small, neat, attractive, and apparently well-made cameras. And they’re tiny. The idea of switching to M43 has become very tempting. I even resigned myself to an EVF.
So: how much will it cost to switch? Let’s start with a “fast prime” system, since fast primes are what makes Micro four-thirds so compelling.
Olympus OM-D E-M5 $999
Zuiko 12mm f2 $800
Panasonic (Leica) 25mm f1.4 $540
Zuiko 75mm f1.8 $900
Not bad. When I mentioned this to a colleague who is also an avid photographer, he said “wow, about the price of an FX body”. My thoughts exactly.
Let’s compare the cost for Nikon.
Nikon D600 $2100
Nikon 24mm f2.8 AF-D $360
Nikon 50mm f1.4 AF-D $330
Nikon 85mm f1.8 AF-G $500
Let that sink in for a second. A D600 with three very credible primes costs a total of $50 more than a similar Olympus / Panasonic system.
Clearly, this is going to be a lot bulkier than the Micro four-thirds option, but it will be much smaller than my current DX kit and, frankly, pretty awesome. It actually makes simply going for a D800 (with the same set of lenses) seem like a pretty reasonable idea.
While we’re at it, here’s the cost of the equivalent Canon system.
Canon 6D $2100
Canon 20mm f2.8 $490 (the 24mm f2.8 is twice the price and not especially well-reviewed – go figure)
Canon 50mm f1.4 $360
Canon 85mm f1.8 $370
That’s not much more.
You’d think that for fast zooms the advantage would be more decidedly in favor of Micro Four-Thirds, but not really.
Certainly the Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 zoom is $1100 is far cheaper than $1900 for the 24-70mm f2.8 Nikon (and even more for its Canon counterpart). But there’s no f2.8 ultra-wide zoom for M43, and the Panasonic 7-14mm f4 is $900 versus $1300 for the far more versatile Nikon 16-35mm f4 (and $850 for the Tokina 16-28mm f2.8). Finally, the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 isn’t available yet but Amazon has it listed for $1500 — less than the $2400 Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR II, but more than the $1000 Nikon 80-200mm (without VR).
So, M43 comes to $3500 versus $3750—$5600 for Nikon FX depending on your choices, but no matter which options you take on the Nikon side you end up with better glass and more DOF control. The M43 options are far less bulky, though.
But there’s no way I’m going to buy $3500 or more worth of lenses, and certainly not all at once.
Finally, I like to have a long telephoto lens and the options for Micro Four-Thirds are actually quite depressing. The two longest lenses are the Panasonic 100-300mm (200-600mm equivalent) f4-5.6 which is pretty poor and doesn’t focus close at all. Then there’s the Olympus 75-300mm (150-600mm equivalent) which is a bit sharper, focuses somewhat closer, but is slow (f4.8-6.7) and $900. Now, it’s pretty hard to find inexpensive lenses beyond 300mm for full-frame DSLRs, but the IQ of even a cropped image from the FX camera will tend to exceed that of a M43 camera and it will be easier to frame the shot. (A 400mm lens on an FX camera cropped to APS-C is effectively 600mm.) The Nikon 80-400mm is around $1700, but the Sigma 150-500mm is around $1100 and is better regarded than the M43 options.
I should also add that the Olympus has in-body image stabilization, whereas the D600 doesn’t and neither do any of the primes listed. Even so, the Nikon is a freaking FX camera with a DxO sensor score of 94 and a giant 100% coverage optical viewfinder. And judging by how often I end up resorting to the 18-200mm for difficult shots, I’ll probably end up getting either the 28-300mm or the 24-120mm Nikons, and — again — the Micro four-thirds equivalents are not inspiring.
Quick Dismissal of the Other Options
Probably my favorite alternative is the Fujifilm XE-1.
XE-1 Body $1000
18mm f2 lens $520
35mm f1.4 lens $520
60mm f2.4 lens $600
I think it’s pretty astonishing that an XE-1 system (or an X-Pro1 system for that matter) ends up being considerably cheaper than the comparable M43 system.
The problem is that there’s not much more to the lens range (and no serious telephotos for the foreseeable future, to begin with), autofocus is the weakest feature (and I have high-speed twins), and RAW-processing remains an issue. No question the cameras look great and Fujifilm is definitely making great choices in terms of lens rollout (compare it to Nikon 1!) but in the end I think it’s just too limited (and then there’s the whole EVF thing). I guess the X-Pro1 has an optical viewfinder (and I cut my teeth on rangefinder-style 35mm cameras) but do I really want parallax and glowing crop lines?
There’s always Leica. Haha. Not bloody likely.
The Panasonic GH-3 looks like a great body, but in the end it has the same pros and cons and will probably be more expensive than the OM-D E-M5.
The Sony A99 is the ugliest damn thing I’ve ever seen, costs almost as much as the D800, uses that accursed translucent mirror technology, and has a borked lens selection. Also, I’ve been burned by both Minolta and Sony in the past. On the other hand, the RX-1 is almost the camera I was pleading for in Full Frame or Bust, but it’s also $3k, has a focal length I don’t care for, an orange ring with advertising on it, and no viewfinder. The sample shots I’ve seen on dpreview aren’t exactly tack sharp either.
So, despite everything, it looks like Nikon (or perhaps Canon) wins this round. Once you realize that you can turn a D600 into a complete FX system for about $1200 it simply makes all the other options seem ridiculous. The only real question is whether to upgrade to the D600 or wait for a successor with built-in GPS and WiFi (or a successor to the 6D with a 100% viewfinder and — hopefully — a better sensor).
I should really cost the Sony NEX system as an option.
NEX-6 Body $850, but I’d be inclined to pay an extra $150 for the folding 16-50mm “power zoom” kit lens. (The NEX-7 is $1200 for the body; I don’t care for the $1350 kit lens option.)
16mm f2.8 Prime (and it’s a pancake) — $250
35mm f1.8 Prime — $450
50mm f1.8 Prime — $300
And there’s a 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 telephoto zoom — $350
Total (strict apples-to-apples) for NEX 6 and three primes — $1850
Total (strict apples-to-apples) for NEX 7 and three primes — $2200
Add the compact zoom and telephoto zoom — $2350
Perhaps I should stop dismissing Sony’s NEX cameras out of hand. The lens selection remains limited, but it’s less limited than Fuji’s and they’ve got their bases covered now (there’s even a 10-18mm ultra-wide zoom now), and Sony has by far the best video capability (60p) along with every gimmicky feature you can think of.
It’s beginning to look like Sony is positioning itself as the Kodak of digital photography. Or perhaps the Intel.
Virtually all the exciting new cameras around are sporting Sony cameras — including Sony’s own RX-1, the Leica M, the Olympus OM-D EM-5, and the D-600. The new Leica is almost certainly using a Sony sensor. Fuji’s XF system seems to be based on the 16MP APS-C sensor with a custom color filter. Does the GH-3 use a Sony sensor too? And, if not, will it be competitive? I’d suggest that Panasonic relying on Sony sensors would be pretty disturbing given that for a long time Panasonic has been Sony’s only credible rival in video.
Now and for several years Sony’s sensors have dominated DxOMark’s rankings (perhaps Sony has cottoned onto DxOMark as the most cited sensor benchmark and is optimizing its sensors accordingly).
It’s also worth noting that Pentax’s K5 and K30 both use the same Sony sensor used in the Nikon D7000. And, for good measure, Sony has just invested a bunch of money in Olympus, giving it some kind of stake in Micro Four-Thirds. The camera module in the iPhone 4S is known to be from Sony, and it’s highly likely that in the iPhone 5 is also. (Who makes the camera modules in Nokia’s various “PureView” branded phones?) It seems like the only major holdouts are Samsung (who I assume are busily trying to clone Sony’s sensors) and Canon (and I for one am not going to buy a Canon DSLR to help prop them up until they give up on their ridiculous control layout).
The digital photography market is not an easy place to be right now. Smartphones with ridiculously good camera modules are eating out the ground beneath it, and at the high end Sony is cheerfully selling very nice sensor modules to everyone and letting them all kill each other. Sony (and Minolta) have never managed to dominate this market (aside from a brief period where their high-end point-and-shoots were all that enthusiasts could afford), so a chaotic melee where everyone ends up weakened and dependent on Sony suits them just fine. In this context, Sony’s injection of $400M into Olympus makes a lot of sense. In a world where Sony were trying to make NEX dominant it wouldn’t make sense to prop up NEX’s most credible competitor, but in a world where Sony just wants everyone else weak or dead it makes perfect sense.
Of course, Sony has been losing money for a couple of years now, so in order to capitalize on its success in the camera market (where it still makes money) it needs to get the rest of its house in order.
Compared to a year ago, the idiots who claim to weigh up everything really carefully and then simply buy the camera with the most megapixels are now buying Nikon D800s (instead of Canon 5D Mk IIs) while the people who want a serious DSLR that handles well and has “good enough” resolution and IQ are buying Canon 5D Mk IIIs (instead of Nikon D700s). Similarly, Nikon has the only 24MP DSLR on the market (unless you count Sony SLTs, but in any event Nikon’s 24MP camera is its entry-level while Sony’s are its top-end models — go figure).
The funny thing is, I think the D600 is perhaps the least interesting thing happening right now. (Assuming it’s happening.)
In the mirrorless world, Olympus went from being the company that defined the category and then couldn’t build a body with a decent sensor to the leader of the pack — with the estimable (and — in person — astonishingly small) OM-D M5 whose sensor looks to be at least on par with the D7000 (which may not be the best APS-C sensor around but is damn close). The only fly in Olympus’s ointment is that Fuji has just announced a price-competitive smaller sibling to the X-Pro1 that seems to be better than the OM-D M5 in every respect but video (and if you really care about video you’re waiting for the Panasonic GH-3).
So, my low noise compact table has morphed. I’ve replaced Leica’s M-system (which Fuji has reduced to something with no plausible use case) with Fuji’s XF system. Not only did Fuji announce an incredibly compelling new body (along with a firmware fix that makes the X-Pro1 seem a lot more attractive) but they announced two news lenses, a fast ultra-wide prime and a one-stop-faster-than-typical kit zoom (18-55mm f2.8-4). If you look at Fuji’s lens roadmap you’ll see that it also plans wide and telephoto zooms, again faster-than-typical. At. Freaking. Last.
The Panasonic column is kind of empty right now because its obvious exemplar hasn’t been announced. I’ve replaced the GX-1 with the G4, but the G4’s apparently somewhat superior sensor hasn’t been graded by dxomark. (Note that the GH-2’s sensor is by far the best rated M43 sensor dxomark has published results for, and the OM-D M5 looks significantly better based on what I’ve seen.)
Despite all the turmoil, some things remain unchanged.
There are still no great lens options for the NEX family unless you like buying Zeiss glass (and focusing manually). To my mind, this makes NEX appealing to gadget nuts (not a small demographic!) but leaves the enthusiast market to M43 and Fuji.
There’s still not a single compelling lens or body option for the Nikon 1 family, even though Sony has shown us that it can get people excited by sticking a faux fast zoom on a sensor with the same size and double the pixels. Imagine if there were an f1.8 lens for the Nikon 1 at launch? Or if one were announced at Photokina? Sigh. How about a Nikon V1 but with more control dials and a proper hot shoe? The more I’ve thought about it and compared pocketable cameras, the more it seems to me that Nikon’s choice of sensor size was visionary, it’s just that its execution has — thus far — been deeply flawed.
Based on the lenses it’s adding to its range, Samsung gets it too. I think Samsung’s biggest obstacles are (a) that it gained an early reputation for crappy sensors, and photographers have long memories and (b) all the good lens brands are taken (Panasonic has Leica, Sony has Zeiss, and Fuji, Nikon, Canon, and Olympus (Zuiko) are credible in their own right), and photographers love their lens brands. Samsung might consider cutting a deal with Voigtlander (or perhaps buying Pentax from Ricoh).
Something else worth thinking about is the importance of video as a feature. I suspect the still camera makers who are trying to chase the videographer market are shortly to discover that specialists will eat their lunch. In the end, workflow is an even bigger issue for video than still photography, and a dedicated video camera offers ridiculous advantages over high-end still cameras with a ton of crap bolted onto them — the Black Magic Cinema, for example, simply records video directly onto an SSD (housed internally). I’m not sure a the GH3 (when it’s finally announced) is going to look too compelling next to one of these (especially if, per typical, it’s hard-to-find and overpriced).
Sensor Size (mm2)
Sensel Size (µm2)
Guesstimate 65-70 (looks over one stop better than NX-100)
Burst Shooting without interrupting view, focus, or exposure
Burst Focus “pray and spray”
60fps (for 1s)
60fps (for 0.5s)
It’s like a Leica (or the X-Pro1), only better, smaller, and cheaper
IQ, Sweep Panoramas
Does everything, no real weaknesses.
In-body image stabilization, weather sealing
Phase Detect autofocus on sensor
Weak video spec
Lens and sensor quality
Poor focus tracking
Lens options, controls, no bracketing
Looks, metal construction, hard controls
Novel UI that you love or hate
Pro video shooting
Hard Controls on a Retro Body
Notes: I’ve made a number of edits, fixing typos and making other minor corrections, and updating entries in the table, notably the Samsung NX lens options. (Later edit: I’ve entered the scores for the OM-D EM-5, which I have to say were a tad disappointing, and entered the X100’s scores for the XF system since it’s likely the exact same sensor.)
Canon has announced the 6D, its own $2000 full frame body. Unfortunately, while they got the memo on WiFi and GPS (yay) they seem to have lost the plot when it came to viewfinder coverage (97%), autofocus system (11 focus points, one cross-type), and continuous shooting speed (4.5fps). It’s also vaporware. While the “one-liner” is that it’s a full-frame 60D (the way the D600 is a “full-frame D7000”) it lacks the 60D’s flip-out rear LCD. I wonder if this is a product Canon started rushing to market when the D600 rumors began coming thick and fast. Canon also announced the G15 — the latest in the G-series ever-so-slightly-larger-sensor premium compacts with a fast-throughout-the-zoom-range lens. (That said, the Nikon P7700 holds its own in comparison — its lens gets a bit slower at the telephoto end, but its telephoto end is 200mm vs. 140mm equivalent.)
Olympus has announced two new micro-four-thirds bodies at entry-level prices but with the OM-D E-M5’s apparently top-notch imaging core. Olympus also announced the XZ-2 — a successor to its well-regarded XZ-1 ever-so-slightly-larger-sensor compact.
Sony has managed to confuse everyone by announcing a full frame NEX video camera (but no still-oriented sibling), a $2800 (body only) full-frame pellicle SLT-A99, the NEX-6 (16MP and two dials vs. 24MP and three dials for the NEX-7), and $2800 full-frame compact with a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens. This latter seems to me like a vanity project, and I don’t think Sony has the brand caché to pull it off — after all the Leica X2 is $2000 and has more brand caché, while the Fujifilm X-series cameras are probably better and cheaper in objective terms. Meanwhile, Sony continues to release bodies like crazy, while having a pretty spotty selection of lenses (although frankly the full-frame lens options for the SLT-A99 look pretty good to the lens options for the NEX cameras). To its credit, Sony has finally released a folding kit zoom for the NEX bodies meaning you can actually have a pocketable camera vs. a tiny body with a huge lens.
Pentax has announced a new K-5ii (minor revision of the K-5) and Q10 (minor revision of the Q).
Out of all this, the interesting points for me is that Olympus is seriously raising the bar for Low Noise Compact system image quality (and bear in mind that all its bodies have sensor-based image stabilization), Canon is continuing to cede the mid-to-high-end DSLR market to Nikon, and Sony continues to produce great pieces of engineering without really having a clue what it’s doing.
Oh, and Panasonic announced the GH-3 — weather-sealed for $1300. The price, at least, is right. I’ve updated the big LNC table to reflect what’s now known about the GH-3 (weird resolutions for both its EVF and rear panel).
Leica has announced a successor to the M9, called simply the M. (Their cameras are timeless!) It boasts a 24MP sensor which is speculated to be the same Sony sensor being used in the Nikon D600 (which has a DxOMark score of 94). So Leicas remain the top of the heap for “low noise compacts” if you’re willing to pay and focus manually.