Sony Rumor - No more full frame - smaller is good enough

There is a rumor that Sony is ending production of their “full-frame” 24x36mm photo-sensors. I don’t know if it is true or not, but it is not surprising, in fact it brings Sony back in line with the trajectory of photographic technology and innovation, a trajectory which took a slight detour in the past couple of years as photographers wrestled with the transition to digital photography.

The truth of the matter is that cameras are always going to be as small as practical. Having a sensor size which matched the size of 35mm roll film might have seemed to be the ideal – if you accept that 35mm was optimum. But there is nothing intrinsically optimum about that size. It was just around for a long time.

Prior to that film was bigger, and before that it was even bigger. As this 1944 quote from Margaret Bourke-White illustrates, photographers have been looking for lighter, smaller and faster for decades:

It took a torpedoing to make me really appreciate a Rolleiflex, that admirable, compact, featherweight camera. … The paring of my film size from 3 1/4 x 4 1/2 I had used on previous voyages to the 2 1/4 x 3 1/2 size used on this trip shaved two hundred pounds off the weight of my raw film stock and supplies. All told, my seven cameras with their thirty-odd lenses, their infinite repair parts and accessories, along with sufficient quantity of film and peanut flashbulbs to last half a year , weighed 250 pounds. This was an improvement over the 450 pounds I had carried to the wars the year before, and a great reduction from the 800 pounds which I had taken across China into Russia at the outbreak of the war.

The next wars – in Korea and Vietnam – furthered the shrinking of formats and we ended up with 35mm film being a standard for another 4 decades. One could probably say that the current wars in Afghanistan and surrounds mark the beginning of the digital era and photographers are still struggling with the transition. It was originally assumed that the new cameras had to be the same as the old cameras. Same lenses, same body size, same sensor size, anything less would be a compromise. But the fact is that that ALL photographic formats are compromises, and now it appears that Sony recognizes that the best compromise for current technology is to make smaller sensors.

It appears that photographers – whether they realize it yet or not – are more interested in compromising image detail in favor of smaller, faster and cheaper cameras. It is about time.

Of course, this does not signal the end of the niche markets for very high resolution cameras. Large format film cameras are still being built and are actually experiencing something of a renaissance due to inexpensive Chinese labor. But that market will never regain the dominance it once had. And in 40 years we will look at these digital cameras in 35mm clothing as quaint examples of transitional technology.

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