Are Crop Sensors Done?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: Yes.

(Technically, that is a longer answer, as it has one extra letter in it. ;~)

I’ve had to adjust my answer to this question over time, and will continue to have to as we move forward. 

A decade ago the answer was predicated largely due to economics. Right up to the peak of interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) in 2011/12, it was all about price elasticity of demand. The biggest part of the ILC market was in cameras that companies needed to produce for a couple of hundred dollars in direct costs, so as to sell them at US$500+. The only way to do that was with a crop sensor. 

There was a time when I wrote that a US$1000 full frame camera was impossible at the current parts costs. It’s barely possible today, but with the sensor being used having to be a non state-of-the-art, high yield one (the Z5 image sensor is really the old D600 one repurposed, for example; Canon does similar things with the RP).  

Since 2011 the crop sensor ILC market has cratered, while the full frame market has stayed relatively level, or even has grown for some makers. One reason is that most people aren’t buying sub US$1000 dedicated cameras any more, but the more dedicated photographer is buying an upscale product now. 

The problem that’s impacting camera sales has a lot to do with convenience versus quality versus price. At under US$1000 you can buy a new smart phone with a pretty good camera. The convenience is better than a crop-sensor ILC, the quality is getting closer to the ILC, while the price is in the same range. The Japanese camera companies never developed a valid response to this. In 2007 I began writing that it was all about communicating and programmability, things that the smart phones now do in spades and the ILCs still limp along with for the former while they ignore the latter.

Imagine that you could buy a Z50/M6-sized ILC for US$750 and that it had: more pixels than the smart phone, computational abilities, internal IS, the ability to directly post/transmit images, while it kept the UX simple and direct. I could market that product today against the smart phones. But that product doesn’t actually exist. 

Oh, we get more pixels from the bigger crop sensor. That’s the part the Japanese understand, though they don’t know how to market that (hint: study Kodak, it’s all about emotional response). We did get some attempts at computational types of things. Nikon had “Live Photos” before Apple, for instance, but with an awkward UX and gimmicky output. Internal IS tends to live at a price point above US$750, because no one managed to cost reduce it down enough. Directly dealing with image transfer and social networks is generally a half-hearted attempt on ILC (hey, we added Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and some broken app!). And the UX got more complicated and less direct. 

When you fail at solving the user problems, you fail to get the user. 

Which brings us to today. 

The recent OM-1 announcement is a very good illustration of where we are with crop sensors. At US$2199 you can buy an OM-1 or a Nikon Z6 II (with some change left over). Technically, you’re probably in the US$2000-2500 buying range, so we should add in the Canon R6, Sony A7 Mark IV, and a few other highly competent cameras, as well.

So what is OM Digital Solutions selling you with that crop sensor? What user problem are they solving that the full frame cameras don’t solve?

The answer is pretty simple: size and weight. But even there, it’s not the body that’s producing the clear advantage, it’s the cropped lenses. 

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the OM-1, though they changed the menus, but didn’t fix them ;~). The OM-1 should be a fine camera for most purposes. But the crop sensor size advantage (again, mostly lens size) isn’t really big enough to overcome the potential image quality disadvantages, particularly with Sony at 33mp without having to invoke a mode that requires no motion in the frame (the way the OM-1 gets above 20mp). 

Fujifilm this spring will attempt the D500-type product: an APS-C camera that can (mostly) keep up with the flagship full frames. The advantage for Fujifilm is that they’re likely to be selling the X-H2 for a price well below an equivalent full frame camera. The problem for Fujifilm will be that they don’t have the necessary telephotos that crowd would ask for. 

What you should glean from those two examples is that the advantages of crop sensor are drying up and becoming more singular (as opposed to being multiple). 

You might also notice that Canon and Nikon for sure are aware of those advantages and are slowly eradicating them. The two upcoming Nikon Z PF lenses, for instance, start to nip at that m4/3 lens size/weight advantage, and we already have two others that we can mount on a Z. More are coming. So over time, the telephoto lens/size advantage of m4/3 start to go away (unless, of course, they make their own PF/DO type lenses, which at the moment doesn’t seem likely). 

The R, RP, Z6, Z7, and A7R will be getting better within twelve months, which starts to attack the Fujifilm X-H2 thrust, too. And if either Canon or Nikon move forward with a RF 7D or Z D500 crop sensor alternative, that, too would dull Fujifilm’s initiative. However, I’m not sure either company feels they will need to do that. It would mean putting a crop sensor camera into the middle of their full frame price range, which makes marketing tougher. 

To get back to the headline: the answer 5-10 years ago was a clear “no". The answer 5 years ago to today is a muddy “no" trending towards “yes". While it’s possible that we’ll see a resurgence of crop sensor cameras once the semiconductor shortage begins to clear, I believe for that to happen and be successful will take the camera companies nailing the advantages of crop sensor. Those would be:

  • Price
  • Size and weight
  • Convenience and simplicity
  • Getting the image quality clearly better than phones
  • Available everywhere (e.g. Big Box stores)
  • Clear marketing of the above

Even then, there’s the on-going tech progression that can intrude. Simply put, those full frame cameras are going to get better while also getting less costly to produce. 

I called the problem for crop sensor having to live between phones and full frame “the squeeze” way back in 2009. So far, I’ve been proven correct, and the squeeze keeps getting tougher. Phones aren’t going away and take most of the world’s photos these days. Full frame has proven to be hardy and highly capable, with a solid following that’s kept sales levels reasonably consistent, and even sometimes, growing. It’s the crop sensor cameras in between that have been squeezed, the squeeze is ongoing, and the squeeze is putting more and more pressure on every year. 

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