Having just reviewed two of the biggest cameras on the market at the moment – Nikon’s D4S and the Pentax 645Z – I’ve been thinking again about the whole question of camera size. Recently I took the plunge and bought a mirrorless camera – yes, I’ve held out this long – and travelling to Photokina a month or so back was the first time I’ve left the D-SLR kit at home. Did I miss it? Nope. Travelling lighter was a joy and I even ditched my laptop in favour of one of those nifty hybrid notebook-cum-tablet thingies.

So, me being me, I wanted to hedge my bets with lenses and packed two extras to supplement the CSC’s standard zoom. Guess what? They didn’t come out of the bag for the whole trip. I could have travelled even lighter. Every so often along the way I felt I might be missing something by not sweating harder – both metaphorically and literally – over my photography… no gain without pain and all that. OK, so many of you may already have got over that guilt trip – continuing healthy sales of mirrorless cameras is probably the confirmation – but to be honest with you, it’s hard not to equate big with better. That’s because big… is… er… better, especially when you see what the Pentax 645Z is capable of in terms of image quality or check out the performance of the D4S at ISO 6400. Of course, both are essentially professional cameras so they’re specced (and priced) accordingly, but if you have a need for speed – in the case of the Nikon – or want superlative image quality – as delivered by the Pentax’s impressive sensor – then doesn’t ‘big’ just come with the territory? The 645Z is a lot easier to handle and use than you might think, but I’m daunted by the idea of lugging a full kit around, especially if it had to be carried any distance (like through any major international airport). You’d have to use a roller-type case because it’s just too much weight to suspend off your shoulder, and it’s hardly inconspicuous either, which is why a little mirrorless camera makes so much sense when you’re on the move.

With film we always had more image quality than we mostly needed (the tiny formats like 110 aside), but with digital imaging it’s easier to avoid the overkill. That said, the best Micro Four Thirds or ‘APS-C’ systems are probably still delivering more image quality than is mostly needed, although it’s always nice to have something in reserve. Smaller sensors – or, more precisely, smaller pixels – have inherent limitations (in terms of dynamic range, etc), but these can mostly be worked around either in-camera or post-camera.

So are big cameras destined to become dinosaurs? No, because as both the 645Z and D4S prove, they do perform at a higher level in one or more areas that are demanded by certain applications and certain users. Which is really just the way it was with rollfilm too, and it’s why there will always be digital medium format cameras even if the sector is comparatively tiny. And, interestingly, it looks like we might be finding a size-versus-performance ‘sweet spot’ in mirrorless cameras with full-35mm sensors. Sony has pretty well proved it with the Alpha 7 models and the rumour is that others will follow… how much sense would it make for Canon and Nikon to follow this route? Or what about a medium format sensor in a mirrorless camera?

Interestingly, at Photokina this year, it was the cameras that are also exploring the idea of small-size-but-big-performance which attracted the most attention… among them Panasonic’s LX100 (and its Leica clone), Samsung’s NX1 and Fujifilm’s X30. In camera design, small has always been beautiful, but the digital imaging technologies are slowly but surely eliminating the performance compromises… so it’s hardly surprising it’s the predominant design trend right now. But until somebody finds a way of putting the 645Z’s sensor in, say, something the size of the Olympus OM-D E-M10, a truly big performance is still going to require a big camera. T’was ever thus.

Paul Burrows, Editor