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Dream Camera: Big Sensor Fixed Lens

Let’s go the opposite direction from APS-C is the new full frame.

Measuring my old 6 X 6 film at 56 X 56mm, here’s my fantasy camera: a fixed-lens camera with 56mm X 56mm sensor, somewhere in the 80-100 megapixel range. Look, I’m compromising here: the Mamiya 6 X 7 was even larger (56mm X 70mm image area)!

This sensor size is not so far away from what exists today: PhaseOne offers a 53.9 X 40.4 sensor. So one could compromise that down to, say, 48 X 48 which is probably a better size all around for camera bulk and lens size, and yet still 2.6 times the area of full frame. Still, if the sensor can be made 56 X 56 or 52 X 52 would be a unique proposition.

Why a fixed lens? So that it can be optimized to deliver razor sharp corner to corner image quality optimized for the sensor. And so that it can be factory aligned perfectly to the sensor and so that that camera can build in a variety of lens corrections baked into the raw (but not distortion please).

Why a square sensor? Because the lens doesn’t have to be extra large to cover a rectangular shape. An oversize square sensor cropped still leaves a ton of pixels. I remember fondly my brief experience with the Hasselblad 503CWD (see also the Hasselblad 503CWD PDF description). And it only had a 36X36mm sensor.

For this imaginary camera (will it ever happen?), a 50mm f/2.8 lens would be peachy, and would be roughly equivalent to a 28mm f/1.5 on full frame. It would be OK if the lens were f/4 too. The camera would not be small, but it would not be huge either. It would be stunning though, done right and produce images with a unique look.

Sensor sizes compared

Tom H writes:

As a former owner of Mamiya 6x6 and 6x7 Rangefinder Cams. I can confirm that they were not that big.. perhaps the AF electronics could need a bit more place in the lens tube, but all other aspects are crying for a cam like this..

The only major reason why I gave up the great Mamiya Cams (I also had the famous 43 mm superwide) was that the development and the films themselves became too expensive..

Especially a Merrill 6x6 would be a revolution;-), i believe..

The only problem could be, that a fast 2,8/50 mm WA lens could be would be too big/heavy, the former 60 mm lens for the 6x6 only had the "speed" of 4,0.., and the 50 mm for 6x7 only had 4,5...;-((

DIGLLOYD: I owned a Mamiya 7 II with three lenses for some years, what a great form factor for a huge piece of film. I also gave it up for development/scanning reasons.

A digital version might need to be larger to accommodate the battery, card slot and electronics, but it would not need the rangefinder if it had Live View and EVF.

Lens design has come a long way, so f/2.8 in a 50mm might be viable (especially with in-camera correction of certain aberrations), but f/3.5 or f/4 might be a better choice.

Sigma will probably struggle to get to full-frame, so larger than that is not in the realm of consideration.

Tom L:

So if you are dreaming, why settle for a square sensor, why not round? Unless lens glass is carefully inspected and flaws placed deliberately, it is symmetrical and round, the image sensor ought to be too. With EVF the size of the mirror should not be a hindrance, so the only hangup is the cost of producing a round sensor.

DIGLLOYD: The camera I describe could be made today with today’s technology (possibly a slightly smaller sensor would be necessary).

I would not want a round sensor, so I’m not going to wish for one, but it also makes no sense: a round sensor area inscribed inside a square would take the same silicon wafer area: this would be silly to throw away that area, higher cost and fewer pixels. The lens would not vary in size either way very much, nor would I want a low quality “continuous corner” as per a circular image area (which I’d crop off 99% of the time).

Now a spherical sensor is another matter that is very lens friendly, but that is not going to happen anytime soon.

Gregor S writes:

This would be the replacement for my beloved Makina 67 with the Nikkor 2,8/80mm fixed lens !

And don't we miss all the aesthetic tradition of the square format....actually I use the Nikon P310 for leisure photography because it has a programmable 1:1 ratio and would love to have that on my D800.

DIGLLOYD: we “all” are probably not the main market for digital cameras these days (think the iPhone generation), but perhaps we are the buyers for this imaginary camera, just as there are plenty of Leica M buyers. The D800 does have a 4X5 crop mode, but I just prefer to crop after the shot because I sometimes like another variant that what I had intended.

Peter F writes:

I have been following your recent writings on the subject of larger sensors in a smaller form size, not least as a professional photographer who earns his whole living through print sales and has used Rollieflex and Mamiya 7 cameras over many years in the past, but more recently Nikon D700, and now Leica M9P cameras.

The notion of a relatively compact camera not distant in weight and feel to say a Mamiya 7 with a standard lens and a big sensor as you outline, if executed well would be a camera I would be prepared to spend $15,000 on, and surely I wouldn't be the only customer.

What I find tantalising is the thought of camera manufacturers actually paying attention to propositions like yours? You seem to be asking the logical questions that might be on many peoples minds, and of I understand of course the business case implications, but at what place is the interface between what camera designers are thinking might sell and what would actually hugely excite buyers.

I also am very grateful for your tremendously high standards which have certainly influenced my buying decisions and I think more than balance your marvellously irreverent outburst some months back. In each case your desire for honesty triumphs. Thank you!

DIGLLOYD: I think the market is there (if one believes that medium format is a market!), but conversations here and there with various vendors indicate that not much interest exists for this type of product. Still, the landscape is changing fast.

The right company to do it? Zeiss comes to mind. Tons of experience in lenses for all size formats, experience with manual focusing lens design, and one of the few companies building lenses but not cameras (now that IKON is discontinued). Skip all the extra cruft, make it manual everything with a good histogram and high res screen for image review. Make a classic. Something pros and everyone else lusts after for sheer purity of purpose. Such things never go out of style.

For that matter, why does Hasselblad waste its reputation on the Sony NEX-7 “Lunar”—a lipstick-on-a-pig* distraction—when they could be build something exceptional?

* Not really fair to the NEX-7 which is a very good camera in its own market segment, but in context of medium format cameras it is so.

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