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Photokina 2010, Pentax and the full frame mystery

Only 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) heavier or bulkier than an APS-C dSLR. 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, we are left with only three arguments against a full frame camera which all disappear on closer inspection:

  1. Full frame sensors are too expensive and only pros can afford it. Right?
    Well, from public cost models I computed upper bounds for 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.
  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. But that difference is going away or already has gone 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) 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 (BCN figures). Adding the many professional models from Canon 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 margins, 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 lenses 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 the first ergonomic 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% only.

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 all 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 its 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, allowing for future 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 (24-70 and 70-200)), the lens line up would be fairly complete. Four lenses developped or optimized in 3 years, why not?


Pentax and Photokina 2011

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 left to become enthusiast about ;) So, keep people dancing ...


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