1” Is the New Bottom

(news & commentary)


Panasonic today announced the FZ-1000, their response to the Sony RX-10. 1” 20mp sensor? Check. 4K video? Check (30fps at 100Mbps bit rate). Lots of lens? Check (25-400mm equivalent f/2.8-4). At US$900 it’s far less pricey than the Sony, which is surprising given Sony’s recent aggressive pricing moves. 

Other things you might want to know about the FZ-1000 are that it uses a DSLR-type styling, has 5-axis lens stabilization, gets the popular 2.4m dot OLED EVF used in the high-end cameras, can shoot 1080P at 60 fps (though only at 28Mbps bit rate), and features some of Panasonic’s recent optical advances. That last bit is courtesy of the Leica Vario-Elmarit lens that uses Panasonic’s new aspherical lens production technique, which removes the onion-effect on out of focus highlights, plus the use of Panasonic’s DFD autofocus system, which uses the characteristics of the out-of-focus regions to predict where focus should be. 

Of course, all of this turns out to be DSLR-like in another way: 1 pound, 13 ounces (831g), and a size that’s not close to pocketable. In many ways, the FZ-1000 is after that “everything but the kitchen sink” spot that Sony tried to hit with the RX-10. The “kitchen sink” in this context is interchangeable lenses. 

A lot of folk got excited by the Sony’s 24-200mm (equivalent) f/2.8 lens. But realistically, once you factor in the sensor size, that’s really much like having a DX (APS) camera with an f/5.6 lens. (Note to Nikon: 18mm DX is not nearly wide enough for all those super zoom lenses you’ve been creating; they should be 16-xx mm). So what are you gaining from the all-in-one approach? Not much, really. In some ways, you’re losing (pixel count, battery life, price compared to DSLR, etc.). Thus, it’s the things like 4K video that’ll get played up in the ads, I think.

Still, Sony just got some wind taken out of their sails (I almost wrote sales ;~). This is much like the Nikon Coolpix A followed by the Ricoh GR: bigger company prices too high, hungrier company comes at them with a similar product at a much lower price. So, if you were interested in the RX-10, you have to now take a long look at the Panasonic FZ-1000.   

But the big thing here is 1”. We’re getting more and more camera makers using 1” in their systems: Nikon, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony are already there, with more cameras and companies about to join in. Most are using the Sony Exmor BSI 20mp sensor, but there are other sensor variations around, including the 10, 14, and 18mp Aptina ones that Nikon has used. By the time Photokina is over, we could have a majority of camera companies offering some form of 1” sensor product. 

This, of course, makes for an interesting problem (opportunity) for Nikon. While they were ridiculed for using a 1” sensor when they introduced the Nikon 1 series a few years ago, that wasn’t their problem, in my opinion. They were simply ahead of the game. The problem was the product design and price, neither of which actually matched up well with the likely market for such products. 

Which brings me back to one of the topics I’ve been writing about for many years now: the squeeze. Let’s face it, pro DSLRs are pretty much the top of what the market is going to buy in any manageable quantity for the camera companies. The US$5000 price point is one that is dangerous to cross, as elasticity of demand plummets beyond that (and it’s already low by the time we get there). Meanwhile, the march of the smartphones has pushed the floor considerably upward, almost eradicating the under US$500 camera market. Meanwhile, the US$500-1000 range was the meat and potatoes range of the DSLR makers (and still is). 

Frankly, we haven’t seen the end of this. 1” is the current new bottom of the camera sensor market (it used to be 1/2.3”). But it’s competing with larger m4/3 and DX (APS) sensors in the same price points now. The Nikon 1 is actually starting to look more interesting, because when you equip a 1” sensor like a DSLR as Sony and now Panasonic have, you get a far bigger camera than the still small Nikon 1’s, and you lost the interchangeable lens.I can already get the 1” all-in-one type of camera cheaper and with a better sensor from Canon and Nikon in their DSLR lineups. So we’re going to see the next step being even larger sensors in these all-in-one cameras, I think. 

The bottom line is this: there isn’t a lot of room to differentiate now when all is said and done. In the US$500-1000 market we currently have high end compacts, all-in-one compacts, mirrorless, and DSLRs. Something tells me the DSLR makers aren’t going to sit still. Well, they shouldn’t sit still, though they kind of appear to be doing so at the moment. 

What’s the proper response if you’re Canon and Nikon? US$500 DSLRs that match the performance and feature sets of all these upstarts. But here’s the kicker that Canon and Nikon haven’t seemed to understand: more crop sensor lens choice. The whole thing about interchangeable lens cameras is that, well, the lens is interchangeable. Making 18-infinity zooms effectively renders an interchangeable lens camera as a fixed lens camera. You have to deliver convenience and flexibility. Right now we mostly see the DSLR makers targeting convenience. Well, if you don’t remove the lens from the camera ever, then the all-in-one cameras are just as good as your DSLR, aren’t they? ;~) 

I really hate to sound like a broken record, but I just totally fail to see how Canon and Nikon missed this: make more crop sensor lenses so that the full range of options are available to your DSLR users. That’s the only way you defend the DSLR. 

Meanwhile, I’m scratching my head a bit with Panasonic, too. It seems clear that the G6 type of camera is not going to be extended, though it was popular with owners. The GM1 (shirt pocket) and GH4 (DSLR with video) are the standard bearers of their m4/3 lineup now. But why not just stick the m4/3 sensor into the FZ? The answer basically boils down to lens: to get to the marketing number of 400 (mm), you need to use a smaller sensor or else you’re going to have a big camera. Yet imagine if the FZ had the m4/3 sensor and a 12-100mm f/2.8 lens (24-200mm equivalent). Trumps the RX-10 with a bigger sensor. 

Which brings me to why people are using the 1” sensor: price. Sensors are generally the most expensive component in a digital camera. Sensor price scales somewhat exponentially with area. So 1/2.3” sensors these days are cheap, 1” sensors more expensive, m4/3 sensors even more expensive, and so on right up to medium format sensors, which are hugely expensive. (Ironically, this was true of film, too: the cost per shot went up with the capture area. The only difference was that this was a variable user cost, not a camera cost. Thus, a medium format body could be made as cheaply as a 35mm camera body, and some volume 35mm users were paying more for film and processing a year than medium format users.)

Note: in PAL countries you get 25 and 50 fps, not 30 and 60 fps.

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