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Why are full-frame digital cameras huge, heavy, $6000 beasts when 35mm film cameras fit in a pocket and cost $6?

Are full-frame cameras getting smaller, lighter and/or cheaper? If not, why?

If there are the technological or physical limitations, what are they?

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Keep in mind that the effective cost of the film camera is much larger; both in shots you lose due to reloading film, and because you've got to pay to develop and print the film. At one night of one event I took ~500 shots. Assuming $2 for a roll of 24 shots, 2*(500/24) = $42, just for one night. If you use DSLRs towards the end of their useful life (~150,000 exposures), that would be about $12000 in film costs, not even counting developing. $6 camera isn't the whole story. –  Billy ONeal Aug 28 '11 at 5:06
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Also keep in mind that a decent camera will have decent ergonomics. The size and shape of the 35mm SLR has evolved over the decades to where its ergonomics are about perfect. A DSLR will follow those same shape and size formulae for that very reason, and thus be about the same shape and size. It seems however that you're comparing a DSLR with a micro-mini film compact, a completely different beast aimed at a completely different market segment. –  jwenting Aug 29 '11 at 9:32

7 Answers 7

up vote 12 down vote accepted

When comparing film to digital cameras, you need to compare apples to apples. I searched for the EOS 1, EOS 1Ds and EOS 1DsMk3 and found a surprising fact: the EOS 1, when equipped with the battery and motor drive extender (grip) which brings it to about the same physical size as the EOS 1Ds/1DsMk3, becomes almost the same weight and even heavier!

More modern materials enable the built of lighter bodies. OTOH, more bells-and-whistles add somewhat to the weight. I assume the greatest contributor is the introduction of BIG LCD backs.

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There's no technical reason a full-frame camera has to be bigger than the equivalent film camera: just look at the Leica M9 for example. A DSLR needs a battery but that just goes where the film canister would be in a film SLR, so those level out.

However, full-frame sensors are more expensive than cropped sensors and require bigger, heavier lenses. This means the main market for them is among professional photographers so they tend to come loaded with professional features, including a large body that's comfortable to hold all day (maybe also with a portrait grip).

So the size is all to do with other things a full-frame user is likely to want: it's nothing to do with the sensor itself. Or put another way, if digital had never happened I think today's film cameras would look just the same as our DSLRs because of the way ergonomic design has moved on. A big, curved, rubber grip is a lot more comfortable to hold than a Nikon F. :)

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From a cost point of view, a digital camera will always be more expensive than an equivalent film camera simply because of the sensor. A digital sensor is a high-precision piece of technology, and requires a hefty processor to handle the image files and compress them to JPGs and/or RAW files. The processor in a film SLR handles exposure controls and that's about it, so doesn't require as much grunt and won't be as expensive.

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The reason film camera body is fundamentally dirt cheap is that it requires no hi-tech parts at all. If we rule out lens, lens mounts hardware and mirror box (which could be 1:1 the same for both film and digital), a film camera is essentially at light-tight box that holds film at fixed distance from lens. The part of the construct that captures and stores light information is film, the part you replace regularly. Apart from holding film in place in consistent manner, everything else is just convenience extra.

Digital camera on other hand needs image sensor which is very high tech part containing millions of details that must match at with nanometer level precision, and then signal processor and buffer memory needed to scan, cache and store the image.

Ultimately electronics will keep getting cheaper, because of economics of scale and continued engineering, but still, the default value is that it's very much more expensive to manufacture high tech components than a rail for holding film.

Also, if you look at film SLR cameras, they never costed $6 to make. The reason you get them at that price today is that people prefer digital cameras and want to get rid of old film SLRs.

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B&H sell a Nikon F6 35mm film camera for $2,449.00, it weighs 975g
B&H sell a Nikon D700 full frame DSLR for $2,699.95, it weighs 995g

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Just as I can find you a man with gigantism to be as tall as a giraffe with dwarfism. You just answered the titular question literally... :) –  William C Aug 31 '11 at 15:34

Another thing to keep in mind is that a digital camera has higher up-front costs, but a lower cost of consumables (i.e.: film).

It also has a lower cost in terms of time (i.e.: developing, retouching).

So, while the cost of the body is higher for digital, the cost of the system is probably closer to film -- especially if you use it a lot.

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The point about cost of consumables is spot on, I am not sure about the cost in terms of time. Just how easiear is to process a colour image with respect to developing a colour film? And no need for a dark room or for specific chemical substances (and of waiting for the related times)... so I share your conclusion but I would venture that the cost of the system is even lower! –  Francesco Aug 28 '11 at 12:43
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@Francesco: I was intending to convey that film has higher time costs... but didn't realize that I had last referred to digital. I've edited my answer to correct then. –  Craig Walker Aug 28 '11 at 16:03
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ok then we are in complete agreement :) –  Francesco Aug 28 '11 at 16:09
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@Francesco: as to cost over time, I did the calculation for my particular shooting pattern before making the switch from film to digital and came to the conclusion I'd recover the investment in the camera in under 2 years when taking into account just the cost of slide film and processing (never mind that I'd also need to buy storage boxes, slide frames, and a new slide scanner to replace my low res one had I stuck to slide film, with digital that's be a bunch of DVD-R disks and a storage bin for those which is both smaller and less expensive than the ones for slides). –  jwenting Aug 30 '11 at 5:27
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@jwenting and since you don't need a darkroom you have regained a room of your house :) –  Francesco Aug 30 '11 at 6:41

As other have mentioned, the current state of full-frame digital cameras has something to do with the current relatively high cost of sensors. Since the price of full-frame sensors alone make for rather costly cameras, the camera bodies used to house full-frame sensors tend to be used in fully featured SLRs (the Leica digital M models are a notable exception) that are typically larger than even the average SLR and significantly larger than compact cameras.

With this being said, there is a trend towards making more compact cameras with largish sensors. The batch of micro 4/3 cameras, the Fujifilm x100, and Sony NEX cameras are notable examples of this trend. None of these cameras have full frame sensors, but theirs are still much larger than those used in typical compact cameras.

Even with the current trend towards more compact large sensor cameras, I'm not sure that we'll ever see them get as compact as film cameras, since digitals' sensors and the electronic and power sources that they require take up space. You cam create a matchbox pinhole film camera that is nothing more than box around a piece of film. Digitals just simply require more stuff to be inside the body, so they will always have to be at least a little larger than the smallest possible film cameras.

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