Sure, coincidence is likely to be playing a fair role, but the last few days have left me feeling more confident about APS-C’s survival as a standalone format than I’ve felt in a while. As a primarily APS-C shooter myself, it comes as a promising reversal of the way things appeared to be trending.
Since mid May we’ve seen Canon introduce mid-enthusiast grade APS-C bodies built around the mount it’s most committed to. We’ve also seen Fujifilm launch an ambitious range-topping APS-C model: a high-speed stills and video model that brings Stacked CMOS capabilities to a more affordable point in the market (in relative terms, at least). Then, yesterday, Sony announced three APS-C lenses for its E-mount system, following several years of almost exclusive focus on full-frame.
This feels like something of a turnaround. Following the production suspension of several a6x00 cameras in response to chip shortages, there were suggestions that Sony’s APS-C efforts were being wound-down. And, notwithstanding the existence of the Z50 and Z fc, it seemed that Canon and Nikon’s focus would primarily be on full-frame users.
So is this the beginning of a wholesale APS-C revival? I don’t think so, but there are positive signals, nonetheless.
35mm film to full-frame, via APS-C
The suspicion was that APS-C was an evolutionary detour set to become a dead-end, and one whose fate was built-in from the start. In the early days of DSLRs cameras were built around the APS-C and APS-H sensors that could be made economically but fitted into ‘full-frame’ mounts to allow the continued use of designed-for-film lenses. This meant systems developed with multiple formats using the same mount, but with an inherent incentive for the manufacturer to get back to the original, well-supported format if they could.
And, with very few exceptions, this story played out the same way: there’d be a couple of standard zooms (one or more kit option and a premium F2.8), a wide-angle zoom (12-24mm F4) and that’s about it. Want a 35mm equiv? use the old, large and expensive 24mm, want anything wider than that? Let me point you back to that 12-24mm F4. Want a tele lens that gives the reach of a 70-200mm but without the size and weight? You’ll probably have to rely on third parties for that. Or pay for the size and weight of an actual 70-200mm and find yourself wondering if you’re seeing its full potential.
Of course this treatment of APS-C as the red-headed stepchild just got worse once full-frame sensors became affordable enough to sell beyond the pro market. Manufacturers could promote their focus on full-frame (/neglect of APS-C?) as if it were a benefit, and that the really nice (/expensive) APS-C camera you’d just bought was only really a stepping-stone because you were on an ‘upgrade path.’
Whether you wanted to be or not.
APS-C need not be a stepping stone
As someone who spent decent money on an under-served APS-C system, I’ve always been more than a little skeptical of the benefits of a ‘one-mount’ solution: it’s always felt like a great excuse to under-support mid-range users and try to sell them a bigger, more expensive camera, as if APS-C weren’t a perfectly legitimate end-point in itself.
As an enthusiast photographer I’ve always found the size, price and image quality balance of APS-C works suits me rather well. However, with full-frame bodies becoming less expensive and smartphones getting better, I can understand why lots of keen photographers, as well as manufacturers, are focusing on the larger format, even though the lenses are as expensive as they’ve always been and in many instances are becoming bulkier than ever.
But the latest launches suggest APS-C needn’t be squeezed into an ever smaller, non-enthusiast niche.
Is there a future for APS-C?
Perversely enough, I think what are likely to be the best selling of the recently launched models are the ones that tell us the least.
The Canon EOS R10 and R7 will presumably sell well: they’re competitively priced mass-market cameras (in as much as there is a mass market for cameras these days) with a well-trusted brand name on the front. They appear to bring the latest AF advances to part of the market that will benefit from them. Lovely. But I find it hard to believe Canon is going to make a lot of effort to support enthusiasts with affordable lenses. Like Nikon’s Z50 and Z fc, they look like cameras destined to be used only with their kit lenses or to become stepping-stones to full-frame.
But enthusiast APS-C?
It’s noticeable that the EOS R7 isn’t a fast-shooting, big buffered semi-pro sports camera like the EOS 7D series cameras were, and there’s no obvious gap in the naming system to fit such a model between the R7 and R6. Likewise, there’s no sign of a mirrorless D500 replacement with tech from the Z9. Nor anything like a mini a1 from Sony.
But that doesn’t mean the end of high-end APS-C. Fujifilm’s X-H2S brings Stacked CMOS technology and performance to the format. $2500 looks expensive compared to entry and mid-level full-frame cameras (you can get the extremely capable Canon EOS R6 or Sony a7 IV for the same money), but it’s only the X-H2S and OM System OM-1 that offer the latest sensor technology, burst shooting and video technology in a camera with a launch price under $4500. Like Ricoh’s Pentax K-3 III, Fujifilm’s X-H2S suggests a belief that a top-quality APS-C camera will be a better fit for some people than a mid-level full-frame one, especially if backed up with an extensive range of appropriate lenses.
A new niche, perhaps?
Yet it’s Sony’s three lenses that I found most intriguing. Its trio of wide-angles suggest it sees APS-C’s niche not as one for enthusiast photographers but more for vlogging (and perhaps a bit of gimbal or drone work, where size and weight benefits of APS-C are critical). This makes sense; a smaller sensor can be read-out faster and stabilized more easily than a larger one, so lends itself fairly naturally to video. And let’s not forget that APS-C is essentially a 3:2 version of the Super35 format that has been used for professional film and video for many years, so there’s no reason for concern about quality limitations.
Some kind of future
As someone whose ‘one-mount’ skepticism seemed to be confirmed by Nikon, Canon and Sony’s focus on full-frame lenses, I’m pleased to see such a diverse range of APS-C launches. Even if you’re not into vlogging, the addition of a 22.5mm equiv 15mm lens, on top of the work of Sigma and Tamron (and 2019’s 16-55mm F2.8) makes E-mount look more like an APS-C system you could live in, without feeling forever strong-armed into having to ‘upgrade.’ Then there’s Fujifilm’s promise of three new primes and another high-end body for X-Mount before the year’s end. And, who knows, maybe Canon will surprise me by expanding the RF/RF-S ecosystem enough that APS-C can be an end in itself.
As I was writing this piece, I heard that Sony has re-started some APS-C camera production: yet more reason for APS-C users to feel positive.