Sony's new SLR adds heft to full-frame market

Sony's flagship SLR, due later this year, will make the electronics giant the third camera manufacturer to bet on the full-frame camera market.

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With a Thursday announcement about a flagship SLR due later this year, Sony has become the third manufacturer to bet on the full-frame camera market. Stephen Shankland/CNET Networks

LAS VEGAS--The heyday of 35mm film SLR cameras is long past, but one foundation of the technology is staging something of a comeback with new help from Sony.

The vast majority of digital single-lens reflex cameras today use an image sensor that's smaller than a full frame of 35mm film, which means lenses behave somewhat differently than on a film camera. For years, only Canon sold SLRs with a full-frame sensor, but Nikon entered the market with its top-end D3 late in 2007. At the Photo Marketing Association trade show Thursday, Sony announced its forthcoming "flagship" Alpha-branded SLR will follow suit.

"We will commercialize this model by the end of this year," said Toru Katsumoto, senior general manager of Sony's digital imaging business group. "This model uses a full-frame size, 24.6 megapixel, CMOS censor with Exmor technology"--specifically, Sony's full-frame sensor, he said.

Sony hopes the company's flagship SLR will appeal to professional photographers, but Katsumoto said in an interview that's not the main thrust for the camera.

"It's not for the real professional," Katsumoto said of the flagship model. "We'd like to make this camera of course for professionals, but also for enthusiasts and high-end amateurs."

Sony's move helps the full-frame remain relevant and perhaps spread it a bit more widely. But don't expect the full-frame format to dominate the way it did in the 35mm film era.

Full-frame economics
It's much more expensive to manufacture larger image sensors. Other SLR makers--Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic, Leica, and Samsung--use smaller sensors only, and Nikon and Canon say their small-sensor camera lines are here to stay. Camera makers also have been selling lenses that are geared specifically for small sensors and that sometimes don't work on full-frame models.

Sony SLR

Smaller-sensor SLRs are a much larger market. Of the 2007 SLR market, fully 23 percent cost $600 or less, according to data released Thursday by NPD Group. For comparison, the cheapest full-frame model today, Canon's 5D, costs about $2,100 with no lens.

And chip-manufacturing improvements that could lower the cost of full-frame sensors help with smaller sensors.

"Any advance...would apply to both large- and small-format sensors. If CMOS suddenly got less expensive, then small-format would have an even smaller cost per sensor," said Mike DeLuca, a market segment manager for Eastman Kodak's professional and applied imaging group, which designs both small and very large image sensors.

From entry-level to flagship
That Sony is willing to tackle the difficult economics of the full-frame SLR market with its new Alpha provides further evidence that Sony is serious with its SLR push.

"This year, Alpha will proceed to its main stage," Katsumoto said. "We will address the whole spectrum of digital SLR segments this year ranging from entry-level to flagship."

Full-frame cameras can offer greater sensitivity for a given megapixel count because individual pixels are larger and gather more light. Sony's flagship Alpha, just shy of 25 megapixels, puts pixel count in the driver's seat. In contrast, Nikon's 12-megapixel D3 emphasizes bigger pixels with good low-light performance.

Another advantage of full-frame cameras is that lenses owned by 35mm film buffs work the way they were designed to. Small-frame cameras crop out the outer portions of the frame, making it harder to achieve wide-angle views. That could be relevant for customers who own lenses from Konica Minolta, whose camera assets Sony purchased to jump-start its SLR push.

"Full-frame still has advantages," said InfoTrends analyst Ed Lee. "It'll get you back all the wide-angle viewing."