March 4, 2024 ·

Dan Wells

Dan Well’s continuation on the state of still photography sensors… (Part 1 if you missed it)

100 MP Sensor

A slow ~100 MP full-frame sensor, rumored since 2020, would be easy enough to build if any manufacturer choose to pursue it.  
This sensor would essentially be an upscale of the 40 MP APS-C sensor, put the same pattern on the wafer in a full frame size and you’re done, similar to the 2019 Standard Pixel sensors which range from all the way APS-C to 54x40mm medium format..

Why hasn’t Sony released that sensor’s successor in any size except APS-C? 

The 40 MP APS-C sensor is noticeably slow, giving it substantial rolling shutter issues in video and e-shutter modes. A full-frame version would be slower, perhaps giving up a lot of video functionality.

If the per-pixel readout speed was identical to the 40 MP sensor, we would be looking at a ~6 fps camera. This is not fast by modern standards, although certainly fast enough by the standards of a few years ago.

Perhaps more importantly, its video modes would feature enormous rolling shutter, very significant line-skipping or both. It would have the resolution for 12K video, but probably at 15 fps. 

  Would a sensor that dense and that large almost HAVE to be a stacked design in order to provide the readout speed expected from a general-purpose camera?

Many of the last generation of pixel monsters were relatively slow, but speed expectations weren’t as high overall, and medium format wasn’t as big a factor. 

Nobody really expected great video from an A7R IV or an original Z7, but cameras like the Sony A1 and Nikon Z8 and Z9 rewrote the rules.

Another factor affecting what cameras are released this year is the Paris Olympics in July and August. Manufacturers tend to time the releases of very fast cameras to the Olympics, especially the Summer Olympics.

Canon, in particular, needs to get a speed-focused EOS-R1 out in time for the Games. I suspect we’ll see a development announcement sometime between now and the Olympics (possibly around CP+ in late February), with a full announcement either before the Olympics, although with wide availability afterwards or in the fall after “semi-announced” cameras are present at the Olympics. 

I would be surprised to see the EOS-R1 break any new ground on resolution or other areas of image quality. It should be a very fast camera (at least with a stacked sensor, maybe with a global shutter), probably with a resolution between 30 and 50 MP and good, but not groundbreaking dynamic range and color.

Nikon and Sony are both in better shape with their speed cameras, and could easily go in to the Olympics with firmware updates. Sony just released the groundbreakingly fast A9 III with its global shutter (see the accompanying 2023 LuLa Awards article and Lula’s Sony’s A9III writeup), and is entering the Olympics with the fastest “standard” camera in the world by a significant margin (ignoring oddities like the Phantom line of super-fast movie cameras). The three year old resolution/speed hybrid A1 could use a firmware update, but I am not hearing any major rumors of a replacement.

  The most likely new Sony camera seems to be yet another vlogger special. It will most likely be an APS-C interchangeable lens camera, possibly derived from the Sony A6700, but with a better microphone, some vlogger-friendly firmware and no viewfinder.

Sony has released a bewildering variety of video-focused models in recent years, ranging from fixed-lens vlogger cameras to nearly full-fledged cinema cameras hiding in still camera bodies.

Sony just announced the release of the Sony Burano – an 8.6K Full Frame Video camera with both E and PL mounts. It shoots in both full frame and super 35mm modes. The new Sony Burano has variable ND’s and Autofocus with Sony Lenses. It looks like it’ll run about 25k.

 The most interesting Sony camera from the viewpoint of any new ground in still photography image quality would be a replacement for the A7R V, but that camera is barely more than a year old.  Nikon’s Z8 is brand-new, while the Nikon Z9 is a couple of years old. I don’t think Nikon is likely to replace the Z9 before the Olympics (it could get another firmware update, especially since it has had a couple of major ones). If there is a new Nikon Z9, it would almost certainly not break any new image quality ground – it’ll be even faster and focus even better. The most likely new Nikon is a replacement for the venerable Nikon Z6 II, probably a reasonably priced ~24 MP camera that sacrifices resolution for speed. 

Sony A7R V

The Nikon Z6 and Z7 were released together and then updated together, so talk of a Z6 III rasises the question “what of the Z7III”? It might come with the “Z6 III”, or it might come later. It’s intriguing because it’s the most likely Nikon to break image quality ground.  The most likely sensor (especially if it comes soon) is probably a “Nikonized” version of the 61 MP Standard Pixel sensor. This probably WOULD be the highest-quality non medium format sensor ever, just judging by Nikon improvements to previous Sony sensors. It won’t be a significant resolution upgrade, but it IS likely to fiddle productively with things like dynamic range, noise and color depth. 

Nikon Z6ii

What about a manufacturer that hasn’t been in the full-frame high-resolution market? Neither OM System nor Fujifilm has access to a full-frame lens mount. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fujifilm pull farther ahead with an even higher resolution GFX before the full-frame market catches up to the 100 series, possibly in resolution but especially in overall image quality.

I half expected the GFX 100 II to be a GFX 160 instead of a faster camera, and I was surprised how much speed they got out of it. OM can’t take the image quality crown from the back of the pack without a VERY major strategic shift (joining the L-mount and putting out a resolution first camera, for example). I think that’s extremely unlikely. I don’t know a lot about L-mount plans, but my best guess is that neither Panasonic nor Leica has the volume to get ahold of a unique sensor that Nikon, Sony or somebody else hasn’t used first. 

There are three upcoming cameras that have the potential to make the first significant move since 2019 on overall full-frame image quality… They are the successors to the Nikon Z7 II, the Sony A7R V and the Canon EOS-R5. I don’t expect any of them to be announced before late 2024, with widespread availability in 2025. The Nikon and Canon have some realistic pathway to an earlier introduction (if not availability), although it’s likely to be a smaller move (an improved 61 MP sensor for Nikon, a sensor in a similar range for Canon) if it’s early.

My advice to the photographer whose overriding consideration is image quality, rather than speed or cost, is to check out Fujifilm GFX and possibly Hasselblad (if you’re not already using one or the other.) Full-frame will continue to emphasize speed and agility over maximum image quality – the era of the pure pixel monster is over.

I’d give Fujifilm a 50/50 chance of moving the medium format bar even farther ahead BEFORE any of those three cameras come out with a ~100 MP sensor, and an excellent chance of covering any move within weeks or a few months. The original GFX 100 actually predated the A7R IV by a couple of months. 

Is the era of the Pure Pixel Monster Over?

Yes, we’ll see a 100 MP full-framer someday, and it is likely to be more versatile than the one we envisioned in 2020.  It may not  be coming  soon and it will probably not arrive without medium format quality also improving.

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Dan Wells, "Shuttterbug" on the trail, is a landscape photographer, long-distance hiker and student in the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School. He lives in Cambridge, MA when not in wild places photographing and contemplating our connection to the natural world. Dan's images try to capture the spirit he finds in places where, in the worlds of the Wilderness Act of 1964, "Man himself is but a visitor". He has hiked 230 miles of Vermont's Long Trail and 450 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with his cameras, as well as photographing in numerous National Parks, Seashores and Forests over the years - often in the offseason when few people think to be there. In the summer of 2020, Dan plans to hike a stretch of hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, focusing on his own and others' spiritual connection to these special places, and making images that document these connections. Over years of personal work and teaching photography, Dan has used a variety of equipment (presently Nikon Z7 and Fujifilm APS-C). He is looking for the perfect combination of light weight, ruggedness and superb image quality.

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