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Why did camera manufacturers create crop sensor cameras? Was there a business reason? Did they figure that crop sensor cameras are cheaper to manufacturer, which would in turn lower prices and make it easier to penetrate the amateur photography market?

I'm under the assumption that full frame cameras were created first and crop sensor cameras have come along only recently (relative the entire life of cameras).

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

There were economic reasons, but they were not about getting to amateur market; it was more like getting any market. The main merit seen in early digital photography was speed of delivery (no need to develop films), so news agencies were the first targets.

During the dawn of digital photography, a full frame sensor would have been enormously expensive to produce. The technology was just not ready to produce perfect silicon wafers of that size; even the smaller ones were the price of a really nice car (or a top-notch medium / large format system). The first commercially available dSLR, Kodak DCS (1991, a.k.a. DCS100), managed to sell 987 units (with 1.3MP 1.8 crop factor sensors, some of them monochrome) priced at $20k...$25k (almost a median US household income). Provided that most professional photographers were convinced (and correct) that digital image quality was significantly worse than film, the market would have been too small for full frame cameras at their enormous price.

The first FF dSLR, 6MP Contax N Digital, came 11 years later at $7000, a sixth of average US household income. 11MP Canon 1Ds was announced at $8k the same year.

Smaller sensors were (and still are) several times cheaper, and with the 1.5 or 1.6 crop factor, the quality difference was (and still is) not that big to justify the cost difference for most people. At the same time with 1Ds, APS-C Canon 10D was announced at only $2k.

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How far we've come in under 10 years! Amazing when you think about it. Now wheres my ISO 102,000!? –  dpollitt Oct 27 '11 at 23:20
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@dpollitt I edited and added another 10 years, you can certainly get your ISO and some nice lenses for $20k ;) –  Imre Oct 27 '11 at 23:45
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you forgot another technical reason: the higher energy consumption of larger sensors, combined with the lower performance of batteries at the time, would have meant an unacceptably low number of shots before changing batteries. And possibly the larger file size produced in combination with the small maximum capacity of CF cards at the time would have meant switching those far more often (most cards were only a few dozen megabytes at most in the late 1990s, and cost hundreds of dollars at that capacity, an 8MB card costing around $50). –  jwenting Oct 28 '11 at 5:52
    
@jwenting the Kodak DCS had a separate module for hard disk and a camcorder battery; they could have easily made it slightly larger to use more batteries, so I don't think power consumption was a primary reason. I have a Thinkpad from 1993, the batteries were not that bad (mine is dead by now though). –  Imre Oct 28 '11 at 6:35
    
used to have a Toshiba laptop in '96, battery life was about half an hour on brand new batteries... Company bought one around the same time for field work, they ended up lugging a backpack full of spare batteries around because they needed 6-8 hours of field (literally) time without access to a charger. –  jwenting Oct 28 '11 at 8:32
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Quite a few reasons:

  • Much cheaper to manufacture
  • Smaller and lighter designs
  • Less expensive telephoto option

The business reason would be because the market demands the option. The same reason that many companies now produce micro 4/3rds camera bodies.

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