What 8K Does to Us

On sansmirror.com I pointed out that the Canon R5 as well as the expected Sony A9 update and Nikon's new high-end Z cameras are likely to be 45mp or so. Why that number?

In a word: video. 

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Specifically, 8K video, which requires 7680 x 4320 (33mp) for UHD 8K, and 8192 x 4320 (35mp) for DCI 8K. Hey, look, the Canon R5 is 8192 pixels wide, and gives us the extra 3:2 aspect ratio pixels on the vertical axis (5464), for a total of 44.7mp (call it 45 ;~). The reason why I say the Nikon high-end Z camera will be 45mp is that Nikon already has a 45mp sensor (8256 x 5504), so their only real chore was making it "faster", which is a lot easier to do than create an entirely new sensor from scratch. 

Because sales volumes are down, at the high end R&D dollars need to used wisely, and thus the confluence of still and video needs has essentially come to be. This was a bit determined by engineering hurdles. In terms of light collection (and what most of you would probably refer incorrectly as dynamic range), BSI full frame sensors already push against some hard boundaries that have little additional benefit to explore. Yes, you might increase efficiency of the sensor a bit (probably at the expense of color information), and you can tune the voltage conversion gains some, but those of you looking for large-scale noise reduction aren't going to get it because the randomness of photons is already being fairly accurately recorded. 

On the other hand, bandwidth is an area where gains are still possible. If you map the amount of data moved off image sensors over time (bandwidth), you get a fairly predictable plot of increase, and we're not really hitting boundaries yet in what can be done (though heat becomes an issue, as Canon has discovered). While you might prefer a lower pixel count sensor that runs more globally (global shutter as opposed to rolling shutter), the camera makers have currently picked higher pixel count with faster data processing (i.e. rolling shutter, but more data or faster roll). That's because it allows them to sell a camera that's an all-rounder: same light collection, higher still pixel count, ready for future video needs.

I expect in the coming years that 45mp will become the new 24mp for full frame. 

Ah, but what about APS-C? 

Yeah, there's the rub, and every camera company is scratching their heads over this. We have 32mp APS-C sensors (Canon), but that doesn't quite net us 8K. 32mp might net us a very nice oversampled 4K or 6K. But if you're promoting 8K with your flagship products, can you get away with promoting 4K/6K for your lower products?

Personally, I believe you can. Indeed, I'd make that a clear calling card: full frame is superb stills and future proof 8K, APS-C is excellent stills and today's 4K at a lower cost. Pros and futurists would prefer 8K, everyone else should be happy with APS-C. 

If you look back at the first two decades of digital ILC, you find that Canon and Nikon specifically low-balled APS-C over time (eventually near consumer-only) while promoting full frame (pro and prosumer). So this 8K/4K marketing dichotomy isn't exactly something that would be new to them.

The problem—as I've pointed out now for over 12 years—is that smartphones keep gobbling the bottom of the camera market. Good stills and 4K video is something Apple, Google, Huawei, Samsung, et.al., already promote. Thus, a 4K APS-C camera looks "harder to market" against that ever-upward progression from the phone makers. Which—as I've also pointed out for over a dozen years—makes the core difference in ILC, the lenses, a key part of the selling (or not selling) point. An APS-C consumer camera with 24mp and an 18-55mm (slow aperture) lens doesn't appear to sit very much above the smartphone ceiling. A full on APS-C system would (as Fujifilm can claim). There's another failure here, too—as I've also pointed out for those same dozen years—the camera companies simply don't seem to understand how to market their products, and get overwhelmed by the big dollar campaigns Apple and Samsung, in particular, keep throwing at the market.

This is a key moment for the camera companies. I think we can all see how excellent full frame, 45mp, 8K video products might net the camera companies users at the highest price points. But the top potential volume for that is maybe, and I mean maybe, 1m units a year. That's not enough to justify staying in the camera business when it gets split at least three ways. 

To survive, it's the lower end of the market that has to thrive. And APS-C (and perhaps the older 24mp full frame) is where those products will live. Here it comes...wait for it...you can't "thrive" without lenses. Full lens sets that offer a wide range of options. Lenses that are priced, sized, and perform to that lower end customer's expectations. Yes, that means a 24-200mm convenience lens, but not 10 convenience lens choices. It means small travel-ready primes and key zooms. It means strong telephoto options (a place that smartphones will have difficulty reaching). It means a bigger lens lineup than Canon has given us with EOS M or EOS EF-S, that Nikon gave us with DX, or that Sony has given us with E. 

It seems silly that here, twenty years into the digital DSLR and now mirrorless era, I have to remind the three largest camera companies that they're spending too much time and energy on C, and not enough on IL. 

I had a Japanese executive recently say to me "but we only sell 1.6 lenses for every body, and that's never changed" (the actual number these days tends more towards 1.7). I told him this was looking at the market incorrectly. Many of those bodies, perhaps even most, were upgrades. If you look at the camera maker's "best customers," they don't have 1.6 lenses, and they're still buying bodies (and lenses). In the last survey of my site readers, the median was over 10 lenses. So which 10 Canon M-mount lenses would that be? (there have only been 8 M mount lenses produced ;~)

It's ILC. The Japanese camera makers are in the ILC market. That's: Interchangeable. Lens. Camera. You won't get ahead by making only expensive full frame cameras with entirely new sets of lenses. If anything, the trend in camera sales is self-fulfilling: you don't sell it, so we don't buy it. 

Each maker has a different problem moving forward. While their full frame products are on course, their crop-sensor ones aren't:

  • Canon — needs to drop EOS M and make RF cameras with APS-C sensors, and bring out a set of lenses to support that.
  • Nikon — needs a higher-end DX body and more Z DX lenses. Wouldn't hurt to have a Z50 II. 
  • Sony — needs a reimagined A6### lineup, the redesign of a number of key lenses (e.g. 16mm), and to introduce new E lenses.

 Looking for gear-specific information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: dslrbodies.com | mirrorless: sansmirror.com | Z System: zsystemuser.com | film SLR: filmbodies.com

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