“Were I to die this moment, ‘Want of Frigates’ would be found stamped on my heart”Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson
With apologies to Britain’s greatest sailor, most APS-C systems are missing their eyes, as the Royal Navy was when Admiral Nelson wrote the above. As frigates were the eyes of the fleet, lenses are literally the eyes of our photographic systems. It is unfortunate that camera manufacturers often ignore the available lens selections when designing bodies – a trait shared by most APS-C systems. In the eyes of every major manufacturer except Fujifilm, APS-C is an adjunct system to their full-frame offering or a low-end system for beginning photographers, not a serious system in its own right. APS-C is capable of exceptional image quality, but like any camera, especially modern high-resolution digital systems, the sensor is only as good as the lens you put in front of it. The bodies are often excellent, but are held back by their lens systems. While it is possible to use full-frame lenses on an APS-C body, either directly or through adapters, you wind up with odd focal lengths and lenses that are big for the body, giving up the major APS-C advantage of compactness.
If you look at any APS-C lens catalog (mirrorless or DSLR) except Fujifilm’s, the result is basically similar – it starts with several variations on the theme of a kit normal zoom around 18-55mm give or take a few mm, around f3.5 or f4 at the short end, no faster than f5.6 at maximum focal length. There may be a stabilized and a non-stabilized version, or perhaps slightly different focal lengths, maybe a power-zoom pancake lens. Then we have a couple of inexpensive, slow 55-200mm or 55-300mm lenses and a selection of travel zooms from 18-135mm to 18-300mm or so. None of these zooms have a maximum aperture faster than f5.6 at the long end. There will probably be a handful of faster, higher-end zooms – but nothing resembling a full line of them, and some of them may be unnecessarily heavy. There will be a few lightweight, inexpensive primes (oddly, often including a very short macro lens), but, again, there are major holes in all of the lines.
The new mirrorless bodies released In the past few days by Canon and Sony do very little to change this situation. Canon released one of the oddest cameras I’ve yet seen – the EOS-M6 mk II is a 32.5 megapixel body that demands high-resolution glass, but there is not a single higher-end lens available for it. Every lens has a list price under $500, and there are only three with maximum apertures faster than f5.6 – all primes with focal lengths between 22 and 35mm. No matter how good Canon’s new sensor is, those lenses aren’t going to show it off. It’s also a viewfinderless camera, although Canon includes the accessory viewfinder if you buy the body and a lens together. What good is a high-resolution camera equipped only with low-end lenses? The only other lens option for it is EF DSLR lenses on an adapter.
The cheapest way to buy the EOS-M6 mkII, the lens adapter and the viewfinder (which also includes a very basic 15-45 f3.5-6.3 zoom lens) is slightly more expensive than a very capable, weathersealed EOS-90D DSLR (the M6 II Frankenstein’s monster isn’t sealed), also released this week with the same sensor, a much larger battery and very similar specifications.
If Canon’s new sensor is a beauty, or if I were looking to update a body while owning Canon lenses, the EOS-90D seems far more appealing than a three-piece aberration that serves exactly the same purpose. If it’s anything like previous upper-end APS-C Canon DSLRs, it’ll be a really nice camera to hold and shoot, and it doesn’t look like they’ve changed a lot about the handling. Viewfinderless cameras hold very little appeal to me – a full-sized camera is simply too heavy to hold at arm’s length like a smartphone. If any of the native lenses were at all appealing, the M6 II would make a lot more sense – but there is simply not much point to a relatively expensive platform for a bunch of cheapie kit zooms and a couple of modest wide to normal primes.
At first glance, the Sony A6600 looks like it makes more sense than the EOS-M6 mkII. It’s a higher-end Sony APS-C camera with in-body image stabilization. It’s expensive (at $1400, it’s actually more expensive than a similarly featured full-frame Sony A7II if you find a fairly common sale on the A7II). Unfortunately, there really isn’t a lens lineup to go with it. Even something as basic as a midrange zoom features several unappealing options. The kit lens is an 18-135 travel zoom, a decent example of the breed, but nothing any more special than other travel lenses. The other current Sony midrange zooms are the awful little 16-50mm power zoom, the $900 16-70 “Zeiss”, which receives mixed reviews, and the brand-new 16-55 f2.8. Even if the 16-55 f2.8 proves to be an excellent lens, which it very well might, it’s $1400 – and there are many full-frame body and lens combos for less than the $2800 combined cost of body and lens, including several options from Sony themselves and the Nikon Z6. The 16-55 f2.8 is heavy enough that the combination is almost the weight of a Z6 with the excellent 24-70mm f4. Staying in the world of APS-C, even excluding the present fire sale on the X-H1, a Fujifilm X-T3 with the sharp and compact 18-55mm f2.8-4 sells for $1899, and is sometimes cheaper on sale, with a much broader lens lineup than Sony offers for APS-C.
Once you get beyond the odd lineup of midrange zooms (a lot of options, but the 16-70mm “Zeiss” that comes closest to what many users might want on a compact, but higher-end body is an expensive older lens with mixed reviews), there’s not much depth to Sony’s APS-C lineup. There is a very compact, very good 10-18mm f4 zoom, an expensive and excellent 24mm f1.8 prime and a few inexpensive primes under 50mm, most of which are older, and several of which are optically questionable.
All the rest of Sony’s APS-C lenses are various versions of kit and travel zooms with f5.6 and f6.3 maximum apertures. There is only the one new 16-55 f2.8 zoom with truly high-end aspirations (Fujifilm makes 4 ranging from an 8-16mm to a 100-400mm). There is at most one upper-midrange zoom (the “Zeiss” 16-70mm) to Fujifilm’s 10-24mm, brand new 16-80mm, 18-55mm and 55-200mm. There are only 6 primes ranging from 16-50mm – and three of those are a 30mm macro lens and older, optically questionable 16mm and 20mm pancakes. Fujifilm offers 16 primes, ranging from 14-200mm, very few of them of less than very good quality, while many are truly excellent. There are often two aperture options at the same focal length.
Nikon and Canon make the same mistake with their APS-C DSLR systems that Sony and Canon make with mirrorless – plenty of bodies, some of them extremely capable, but very few lenses above the kit level. Nikon makes an inexpensive 35mm f1.8 DX prime, a 10.5mm fisheye and two macro lenses, one of them useful (there’s a very short working distance 40mm macro plus an 85mm that is a more useful focal length). As far as higher-end zooms, there’s a well-reviewed 16-80mm f2.8-4 and two elderly lenses (12-24 f4 and 17-55 f2.8). Everything else is a variable-aperture zoom that is f5.6 or f6.3 at the long end – the usual collection of kit and travel lenses plus a good 10-20mm wide angle. Canon is similar, with only three primes (a 24mm pancake, yet another very short macro lens (35mm) and a more useful 60mm macro). Higher-end zooms include a 10-22 f3.5-4.5 and a venerable 17-55 f2.8. Everything else is the usual inexpensive zooms with f5.6 and f6.3 maximum apertures. Sigma adds a few useful lenses to the Canon and Nikon lineups – a couple of heavy f1.8 ART zooms, a 30mm f1.8 prime, and a few medium-speed wide and normal zooms plus an exotic circular fisheye.
To put the depth of the lens issues in perspective, all three of the brand-new full-frame mirrorless systems (Nikon Z, Canon RF and L-mount) actually have more complete lens lineups for the serious photographer, at least below 100 mm, than any APS-C system other than Fujifilm – and the APS-C DSLR systems have been around for decades, going back to the early 2000s.
All of the new full-frame systems offer excellent fixed-aperture midrange zooms in a couple of apertures, at least one wide-angle zoom, and several very useful primes. Both Canon and Nikon rely on adapted DSLR lenses for length, and L-Mount has nothing at all above 200 mm except for a $6400 90-280mm Leica zoom. None of the new systems are yet free of holes in their native lens lineups, but all have more lenses of interest to the serious photographer than APS-C systems other than Fujifilm.
I suspect most readers are saying “that’s not fair, all of those bodies accept broad lineups of full-frame lenses” by now. Yes, they do – and in all cases except the EOS-M6 mkII, they even take them without an adapter. The problem is that full-frame lenses are larger, heavier and often odd focal lengths on APS-C bodies. A full-frame 50mm lens is a nice short portrait lens on APS-C, and a full-frame 35mm lens is a good APS-C normal lens. On the other hand, a full-frame zoom that starts at 24mm is awkwardly long at the short end, and full-frame wide angle lenses get big, heavy and expensive before they become usefully wide on APS-C.
If you’re going to use full-frame lenses on an upper-end APS-C body, why not use them on the body they were made for instead? The new a6600 is actually more expensive than a full-frame Sony A7 mk II body on sale. The new EOS 90D or the EOS-M6 mkII with the adapter are both within $100 of a full-frame EOS 6D mk II. Nikon hasn’t released any new upper-end APS-C bodies in quite a while, and there is a more significant price difference there – $900 for a D7500 and $1500 for a full-frame D750. The compactness differences in all three cases are minimal if you use the same lenses, and the slight bump in image quality and more significant advantage in matched focal lengths is generally worth it.
Except for the lens situation, APS-C would be the sweet spot for most serious photographers who use desktop printers. Micro 4/3 has an excellent lens lineup, but significant image quality drawbacks in many cases due to the smaller, older sensors. APS-C sensors are under active development, and camera bodies with the best modern sensors are relatively common, compact and reasonably priced. Full-frame’s image quality advantages often require big roll-fed printers to take full advantage of. Full-frame in the 24 MP range would make very little sense against modern 24 MP APS-C in most applications, except that the lenses give full-frame a huge advantage against non-Fujifilm APS-C systems with lens selections composed primarily of slow, variable-aperture zooms.
Fujifilm sees that sweet spot, and has been innovating in it for years. Will anybody else release the lenses it would take to make APS-C attractive to photographers who care about image quality? The bodies are out there from a wide range of manufacturers, and this week’s introductions only add more of them. Who will make the lenses?