August 6, 2010

Photokina 2010, Pentax and the full frame mystery

Only a few days left until Photokina 2010

Big Pentax

Or why at this year's 2010 Photokina exhibition, Pentax may not get
away with ignoring the full frame conumdrum.

Many users of digital SLR cameras may not be aware that the sensor in their
camera is smaller than it used to be in the era of 35mm film. Most dSLR cameras
use an APS-C sized sensor which does only have about 40% of the surface of
a "full
35mm film frame
", or "full frame" in short.
Of course, this is expressed by the crop factor and users actually do know
about this. They simply ignore this. And they have reason to do so: the image
quality exceeds that of full frame film cameras and therefore, there seems
to be no reason to care about the detail of sensor size for a dSLR camera.

But as always, there is a school of photograhers who do not agree. It can
be shown that a larger sensor -- when combined with lenses which fully exploit
the design options offered by a larger sensor -- delivers superior image quality.
Independent on how great it was in the first place. After all, it's the reason
of digital medium format cameras to exist. Moreover, the lens mount of all dSLRs
with an APS-C sized sensor is desgned for full frame lenses (lenses with an
image circle large enough to use the entire surface of a full frame sized sensor).
Simply because those mounts are from the 35mm film era. And because it is the
mount (diameter and registration distance) which determines the majority of
the size of an SLR camera, a full frame dSLR wouldn't need to be (significantly)
an APS-C
Four-Third sized SLR cameras are an exception as their mount isn't full frame
capable. But we can savely ignore it after the impact of this sensor size on
the SLR market has almost vanished after the introduction of Micro Four-Third.

The opening photo is that of a Pentax APS-C dSLR certainly bulkier
than any full frame Pentax film SLR has ever been. Actually, the famous 30+
year old Pentax MX full frame film SLR is smaller than any digital SLR on the
market today, whatever small be its sensor. A full frame dSLR could certainly
be made more compact than the APS-C dSLR shown on the photo above.

So after dismissing the size disadvantage, we are left with only three arguments against a full frame camera which
all disappear on closer inspection, too:

  1. Full frame sensors are too expensive and only pros
    can afford it. Right?

    Well, from public cost models I computed upper bounds
    2010 manufacturing costs for APS-C and full frame sensrs and the difference is
    less than $100 (*) ! Of course, semiconductor vendors will
    add significantly different margins as long as this
    market doesn't heat up.

    (*) Note: for all claims made in this article, look up the "Furter reading" section at the end of the article for further reference.

  2. The lenses are too expensive, bulky and heavy. Right?

    Well, equivalent lenses (different lenses but such that
    they provide equivalent image quality for different
    sized sensors) have the same size and weight for APS-C
    and full frame. And are a bit less expensive
    for full frame! Which is easy to explain by looking
    at lp/mm resolution requirements.

  3. One needs longer, heavier, more expensive tele lenses
    because one looses the crop factor. Right?

    Well, about heavier and more expensive, read above. About
    longer, that's actually a function of the pixel pitch,
    not the crop factor. There is no reason why a full frame
    camera should have a larger pixel pitch than an APS-C
    camera. Currently and for cost reasons only, most actually
    do indeed. Although the difference is already as small as 5µm vs. 6µm. And it is going away. Read about the cost factor above.

So, we are left with a situation where a full frame SLR
should be a no brainer. But as always, things aren't as
simple as they appear.


Market segmentation

Because full frame cameras can deliver better image quality
they appeal to a higher segment of the market. The so-called
enthusiast and professional photographer markets. There
is a hidden consensus between Japanese camera makers (with
maybe the exception of Sony) to draw excessive margins
from the full frame market. Therefore, full frame dSLRs
are either prohibitively expensive (Nikon D3X, Canon 1DsMkIII) or crippled
in one way or another. Sometimes not voluntariliy (Sony).
And they are all bulky and ugly because they have to show
"full frame inside", right? ;)

But despite all the artificial barriers to keep the
markets segmented, more popular models like Canon 5DmkII
or Nikon D700 have risen to 2-3% unit market share each
(estimated from BCN figures). Adding the many professional models from
and Nikon and the very affordable Sony A850 we have
a unit market share of full frame dSLRs of 5-10%.
Of couse, each new model sends shock waves thru this segmentation
and an upgrade to the D700 is expected
later this year. The figures do also mean that full frame
dSLRs create a significant portion of the vendor's overall
possibly in excess of 30%.

Overall, the dSLR market is in a state like a supercooled
fluid: the right perturbation and the segmentation will
implode and all but the entry-level SLRs go full frame
(the entry-level SLRs go mirrorless Single Lens Digital
(SLD) anyway...). Think of a full frame Canon 7D or Pentax
K-7 in terms of ergonomics and speed, for well below $1800
settled street price ...


Pentax and the Full Frame mystery

Pentax is an interesting special case. They have not offered
a full frame dSLR yet and always denied any plans to launch
such a camera. On the other hand, Pentax is the brand of
the image quality perfectionist and landscape photographers.
Pentax was the first trying to launch an enthusiast full
frame dSLR, back in the year 2000 (the famous 6MP Pentax
MZ-D), three years before they launched their APS-C dSLR.
They were the first to promote weather sealed bodies and
for outdoor photography, the first to offer a 15MP APS-C
dSLR (the Pentax K20D) and they are even first to offer
an enthusiast digital medium format SLR below $10,000
(the Pentax 645D). So, they shoud be predestined to offer
outdoor 20MP+ full frame dSLR in the enthusiast market
segment (~$1200 to ~$1800). This could make
their market share explode.

But there are problems: Pentax burned fingers when trying
to be full frame in 2000. And they burned bridges when
later launching their APS-C only line of dSLRs. Because
for 5 years, they developped APS-C lenses
only and assured the market that their lens investments
are safe because full frame cameras won't come back. In
mid 2008 though, they seem to have changed direction again
and almost no new lenses have been introduced. Two new
lenses, introduced in 2008/2009, the DA*300 and the
DA*60-250/4, are patented as full
frame lenses, actually. So, who knows ... But at least
officially, Pentax is now short in full frame lenses. And
because they never left the decision between APS-C and
full frame to their customers, any announcement about a
forthcoming full frame camera could stall their on-going
business. Well, Pentax may even fear to cannibalize their
new digital medium format business which seems to have
a bright future.

Most importantly though and because they burned fingers
once, Pentax may be convinced that their share of the full
frame market is simply too small, like 5% of 5% or 0.25%

And if deciding to divert development resources, they
may as well decide to invest into the SLD market to protect
their cash cow.

So, when looking at the current or past situation, there
is no reason for Pentax to launch a full frame dSLR camera.
But what about when looking into the future?

This is were the community of Pentax photographers (called
Pentaxians by Pentax) comes into play.


Pentax and the year 2011

2011 will be the year where everybody sells SLD cameras,
Pentax included. Everybody. Pentax will have a genuine
SLD camera. As will Canon and Nikon. But where are buyers
coming from? Well, mostly upgraders from the dying point
& shoot market (in majority shifting to cell phones) and
migraters from equally priced (i.e., entry-level) dSLR.
So, to launch an SLD camera is vital to preserve a market
share in the $400 - $800 segment. Exactly where the Pentax
K-x attracted new buyers to Pentax in the year 2009. But
of this doesn't help to preserve the enthusiast (Pentaxian)
market which is the $900 - $1800 segment.

One may argue that the enthusiast market isn't that important
for Pentax from a point of view of turnover. But according
to my own analysis, K-x, K-7 and 645D each create about
the same amount of earnings. Simply because
the mass markets are always small in margin. But most importantly,
blogging Pentaxians are the most influential group: they
are opinion leaders in forums where magazine authors and
store managers draw their opinion from and recommend some
products or not. Unlike in previous years, this group
of opinion leaders has expressed very clearly that they
either expect to see Pentax going full frame in the enthusiast
segment, or leave the brand. I refer to bloggers like LanceB,
once selected "Pentaxian of the year" and who now test
drives a D700 before taking final action.

Pentax is already seeing that Pentaxians put themselves
onto "hold and wait": The sale of expensive DA lenses has
declined while the market for used (full frame) FA and
A lenses is still healthy. This isn't only due to a lack
of new DA* lenses. It is mostly due to the fact that the
enthusiast market drives lens sales and Pentaxians now
assume that the "never be full frame" claim of Pentax lost
credibility (due to technical arguments as outlined above).
After all, purchasing a lens is much more kind of an investment
than purchasing a camera which is known to deprecate
fast. The full frame conundrum is already destroying half
of Pentax' business.

So, what would be the right actions to be taken by Pentax
in 2011? Well, first, join the P&S and part of the SLR
team into a new SLD department, delivering the world's
first water-proof SLD and making sure a K-mount adapter
with AF support exists. Drop the P&S division. Pentax'
SLD mount should look as close as possible to Sony's E-mount,
35mm SLD cameras. Possibly allowing to sell Pentax lenses
for the E-mount too. I assume the E-mount uses an encrypted
communication protocol. But at least mechanically, there
should be fit.

Second though, form a team from remaining SLR and
645D developers for enthusiast cameras. Their first product
shall be a 24-35MP full frame SLR with Exmor HD
sensor in a K-5* body. Third, release new full frame lenses,
like the DFA 100/Macro relaunched earlier this year.

One may argue that this is infeasible. At least for the
second "enthusiast" team, I don't think so. Assuming Sony
would share their full frame Exmor sensor with Pentax,
all the rest is routine work for Pentax engineers. Moreover,
in June 2008, a Pentax manager said in an interview
that the development of a full frame camera is in its planning
stage. So, if that project wasn't cancelled, it should
be ready to deliver by 2011. Even taking into account that
K-7 and 645D diverted valuable resources in the first 2
years of the 3 year period. Surprisingly, the "leaked"
full frame project coincides with a rush of completed APS-C
DA lenses (2008) and a complete halt to new APS-C
only lens releases from then on and until now (with the
exception of the DA15 lens). Therefore, I guess that Pentax
would have enough full frame lenses to accompany the release
of the camera: FA31, FA43, FA77, DA*55, DA*60-250, DFA100,
DA*200, DA*300. With only 4 additional lenses (DFA28-80
kit zoom, a DFA~18 wideangle prime and two f/2.8 DFA* zooms
70-200)), the lens line up would be fairly complete. Four
lenses developped or optimized in 3 years, why not?


Pentax and Photokina 2010

Photokina 2010 starts September 21 in Cologne, Germany.
It is the event and everybody is watching
Pentax there (if at all). The internet's rumor mill has
a pretty detailed prediction about what Pentax is going
to reveal: A K-x successor (with focus indicators) and
a new camera positioned above the K-7 but not replacing
it. The first camera named K-r, the second K-5. The K-5
would be APS-C but with a 16MP Sony Exmor sensor, faster
fps (7?) and faster AF system in a body similiar or identical
to that of the K-7. At a price spot at the lower end of
the enthusiast market segment. No full frame. No SLD.

But I sincerely fear that this doesn't suffice. Starting
at Photokina 2010, Pentaxians need a roadmap to full frame
and corresponding lenses in order to be able continue to
invest into their system. They have harvested enough money
now to either invest or migrate elsewhere. And Photokina
2010 will be the checkpoint for many to take action.

To stay silent at Photokina on the full frame front may
imply suicide for Pentax in the mid term.

Pentax can wait until 2011 to say anything about SLD.
People waiting for SLD aren't the opinion leaders so letting
them wait doesn't hurt. Moreover, they can buy any other
SLD w/o leaving the Pentax system. But to disappoint the
enthusiasts now is more dangerous than it ever has been
before. Up to the point that a K-5 would only sell if the
roadmap to full frame is sufficiently clear. Which sounds
paradox but isn't. It's all about psychology and the comfort
zone for what appears to be a hobby for most Pentaxians.
Pentax has to make Pentaxians believe into the brand. That's
part of their job, actually!

So, these are my recommended action items for Pentax at
Photokina 2010:

  • Announce K-5

  • Launch K-r

  • Publish a road-map to full frame, with a first delivery
    in 2011.

  • Launch new lenses, maybe one for APS-C and two for
    full frame.

  • Keep the SLD project a secret.

This article may be read as an open letter to Pentax.
Pentax has no plan to say anything about full frame. Which
is a severe mistake. Seize your chance. If you're too late
to the party, there may
be nobody
to become
So, keep
people dancing ...


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