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We don’t want smaller cameras, we want SMALLER LENSES (or even bigger cameras)

Small camera, big lens
(Image credit: James Artaius/Digital Camera World)

It’s almost as if camera and lens designers somehow got split into two separately-evolving species somewhere around the year 2010 (a date we plucked from the air).

Camera designers have decided the key to survival is to make cameras smaller and lighter, and then smaller and lighter still. It worked for mammals, somewhere around the end of the Cretaceous period.

But then lens designers have gone a different way, producing the best and most powerful lenses possible, regardless of size. This worked pretty well for dinosaurs (though we know what happened to the dinosaurs).

Here's a Canon EOS R, a full frame mirrorless camera that's actually quite small, with a standard RF 24-70mm f/2.8 lens that isn't. (Image credit: Canon)

Mirrorless lenses aren’t smaller

Doesn’t it feel like they ought to be? Mirrorless camera makers make a big song and dance about how much smaller and lighter mirrorless cameras are than DSLRs, but that does not apply to their lenses.

There are exceptions. There are some neat and compact ‘pancake’ or power-zoom or retracting kit lenses for some mirrorless cameras, and some nice compact prime lenses from camera makers and third party lens companies. 

The Sony FE 24-70mm f2.8 G Master is a beautiful lens, but big. If only we had a bigger camera to put it on. (Image credit: Sony)

But the minute you get into professional constant-aperture lenses, which is what we all aspire to, all of that goes out of the window. Professional lenses for mirrorless cameras are just as big, heavy and cumbersome as their DSLR equivalents. 

We’re told by camera makers that mirrorless mounts allow bold new lens designs never possible before. True. But you can also add ‘bigger’ to that list of adjectives.

Here are two inconclusive tables.  (The fact that they are inconclusive is maybe the point.)

9 top 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses, heaviest first

DSLRNikon 24-70mm f2.8E AF-S ED VR1070g
DSLRSigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG OS HSM Art1020g
MirrorlessCanon RF 24-70mm f2.8 L IS USM900g
DSLRTamron 24-70mm f2.8 Di VC USD G2900g
MirrorlessPanasonic LUMIX S Pro 24-70mm f2.8935g
MirrorlessSony FE 24-70mm f2.8 G Master886g
MirrorlessSigma 24-70mm f2.8 AF DG DN Art835g
MirrorlessNikon Z 24-70mm f2.8 S805g
DSLRCanon EF 24-70mm f2.8L II USM805g

• Read more: Best standard zoom lenses

Nikon is the big winner in the mirrorless swap. Its almost comically long 24-70mm f2.8E AF-S ED VR DSLR lens is also the heaviest at over 1kg, while the Nikon Z 24-70mm f2.8 S mirrorless lens is 200g lighter and almost 30mm shorter. Nikon has really made the mirrorless mount work for both camera and (in this instance) lens size.

Canon not so much. Its RF 24-70mm f/2.8 mirrorless lens is almost 100g heavier and over 12mm longer than its EF 24-70mm f2.8L II USM.

Of the rest, you would probably say the the mirrorless lenses were broadly lighter as a group, but not by much.

9 top 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses, longest first

DSLRNikon 24-70mm f2.8E AF-S ED VR154.5mm
MirrorlessPanasonic LUMIX S Pro 24-70mm f2.8140mm
MirrorlessSony FE 24-70mm f2.8 G Master136mm
MirrorlessNikon Z 24-70mm f2.8 S126mm
MirrorlessCanon RF 24-70mm f2.8 L IS USM125.7mm
MirrorlessSigma 24-70mm f2.8 AF DG DN Art122.9mm
DSLRCanon EF 24-70mm f2.8L II USM113mm
DSLRTamron 24-70mm f2.8 Di VC USD G2110mm
DSLRSigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG OS HSM Art107.6mm

Again, the extraordinarily long Nikon 24-70mm f2.8E AF-S ED VR leads the pack with a design that undoubtedly had to be built for the rather narrow Nikon F lens mount – OK in its time, but a limiting factor for today’s more exotic lenses.

Apart from that, the mirrorless lenses as a group are actually longer than the DSLR lenses. If you combine that with the generally smaller and lighter mirrorless bodies, it’s not hard to see how the balance of the camera will shift forwards.

Small camera, big lens

The Fujinon XF 16-55mm f/2.8 is a great lens, but big, whereas the flagship X-T4 is a great camera that's not big. Adding a grip will help, but now it's not a small camera system. (Fujifilm does, however, make a wide selection of smaller lenses that match the size of the camera, so you do have a choice.) (Image credit: Fujifilm)

Lens size and sensor size go together

To cover a big sensor, you need a big lens. Optical science is pretty intransigent in that respect. You can make smaller lenses if you compromise on zoom range, maximum aperture, AF actuator speed and optical performance, but right now the camera buying public seems in no mood for compromise. We don’t want the smallest, we want the best.

If you want a small and portable camera system, you need to look at smaller and more portable formats. Olympus (and Panasonic) have had to put up with constant sneering over the years about the smaller dimensions of the MFT sensor (about half the area of APS-C), but the fact is that this does allow smaller lenses. These Micro Four Thirds cameras really do deliver on their promise of a smaller, lighter system in a way that APS-C and full frame cameras do not.

Small camera, big lens

Say what you like about the Micro Four Thirds format – you do actually get a compact system camera. (Image credit: Olympus)

If you can’t make the lenses smaller, can you make the cameras bigger?

The problem with big lenses isn’t necessarily their size or weight on their own. It’s the imbalance between a small mirrorless body and a big professional lens that’s the problem. 

Even a lens weighing a kilo, or even two kilos, isn’t necessarily a problem if you can get a good grip and good muscular leverage on the camera body.

A 24-70mm f/2.8 pro lens on a Nikon D850 body doesn’t feel so bad because the D850 is a pretty hefty camera. But a 24-70mm f/2.8 pro lens on a Sony A7R IV feels front-heavy and imbalanced (just an opinion – sorry, Sony). With a heavy camera-lens combination, you need a good grip area and good leverage with your hands and fingers to take the weight properly, and with a small body/big lens combination you just don’t get it.

Paradoxically, if you have smaller hands, you sometimes need a bigger camera to spread the strain better through your fingers, wrists and forearms.

So that’s our message to camera makers. Do cameras really have to be so small, and do lenses really have to be so big?

The new Nikkor 120-300mm f/2.8E AF-S FL ED SR VR is massive. Thank goodness the Nikon D6 is massive too.

Read more:

Best professional cameras
Best mirrorless cameras
The cheapest full frame cameras today
Best standard zoom lenses

  • danielnaca
    admin said:
    How did we get to the point where cameras got so small and lenses got so big? It's not just about weight, but balance...

    We don’t want smaller cameras, we want SMALLER LENSES (or even bigger cameras) : Read more
    I read an article a few years ago about advances in material sciences and developing new techniques for making glass that can bend light more efficiently and thus be thinner/smaller. Unfortunately lens manufactures are currently limited by the laws of physics with modern manufacturing techniques to make lenses that are fast but still somewhat affordable.
    Reply
  • Marc Synwoldt
    Hm, as if they didn't already exist: relatively small cameras that can be paired with smallish lenses, making for excellent balance, but also with bigger, constant-aperture zooms if need be. How about Pentax APS-C? The K-7/K-5/K-3/K-? form factor isn't particularly big and offers exceptional ergonomics, and the KP is tiny. The DA Limited lenses are tiny, too, and even the "pro-grade" DA* lenses are less bulky than their FF counterparts. APS-C well and meaningfully done, not just with a few alibi lenses, is arguably not the worst compromise between IQ and portability/balance that a photographer could make.

    And here's another thing: Human hands only come in so many sizes. Hence, for cameras/lenses supposed to neatly fit them, neither too big nor too small is ultimately desirable. Just saying.
    Reply
  • WiltshireMoonraker
    I had an Olympus OMD EM10ii for a while, with the 12-50mm & 40-150mm budget lenses, that were incredibly compact and lightweight but I went back to Pentax and bought a Pentax KP and my favourite lens is my 16-85mm f3.5-5.6 . The KP is not much bigger than the Olympus body but much more comfortable to hold and the lens is fairly compact although quite heavy but not as big and heavy as a f2.8 lens. Unless you are a Pro photographer which I am not, I see no need for a fast lens. I leave my KP on Tav mode, which allows me to set whatever shutter speed and aperture that I want and the camera adjusts the ISO accordingly and because the KP has such a good dynamic range, I still get very good results at higher ISO settings
    Reply
  • Ed Aux
    What happened to lens size was LAZY FINGERS!!! I still use my Canon FD lenses BUT on a Sony Mark 2 and above camera IBIS, best thing to happen to a camera. What has been added to today's lenses - IS and Fast Auto focus AND FAST Glass. Old film lenses are so Small and Really, Really Fast Glass and great right out of a small bag and today very low in cost. I also like Fast AF and lens IS but but without it the lens will not sell as good. Can you imagine the size of a 200mm f/1.8 or 300mm f/2.8 today compared to the old Canon/Nikon.
    Reply
  • fpink3
    The author says "we need smaller lenses" but his real complaint is "balance". The author's solution is larger camera body size, even though that's a small portion of the total words.
    You can always make any camera body larger by adding add-on grips (usually supplied by vendors with extra batteries inside). Few people are going to support the "make the camera size bigger aftermarket", so those solutions are always going to appear costly. You have to make lots of something for it to enjoy low production cost.
    Bigger sensors make for bigger lenses. For a given sensor size, the "big lens" issue simplifies to "High quality/cost, Small Size, large maximum aperture--pick two".

    So this is a cry for a very high quality, small sensor camera with big body. Good luck with that...
    Reply
  • steveb
    Smaller lenses ? Doesn't quite fit with most comments on bodies / lenses I've seen - it appears there's a big demand for everything to be f1.4 to f1.0 with silent and quick AF and weatherproofing - the basic physics say that such a beast cannot be small and of course, not cheap, and that is where the wanna's will back out. Taking a slightly wider view though, there wouldn't be such a demand if 'influencers', reviewers and the media didn't concentrate on making such an issue of how fast a lens is and concentrated more on the quality of the image created.
    Reply
  • KanedaLasers
    admin said:
    How did we get to the point where cameras got so small and lenses got so big? It's not just about weight, but balance...

    We don’t want smaller cameras, we want SMALLER LENSES (or even bigger cameras) : Read more

    Your data on theNikon F-mount lenses are completely wrong. It shouldn’t be at the top of the weight or size limits so I went and looked it up. Nikon’s F-mount 24-70 2.8 not the heaviest or longest.

    Correct weight: 900g (not 1070)
    ” height: 133 mm (Not 154.5mm)

    https://www.nikonusa.com/en/nikon-products/product/camera-lenses/af-s-nikkor-24-70mm-f2.8g-ed.html#tab-ProductDetail-ProductTabs-TechSpecs
    From their main site:

    Tech Specs
    Focal Length Range
    24 -
    70mm
    Maximum Aperture
    f/ 2.8
    Format
    FX/35mm
    Nano Crystal Coat
    Yes
    AF-S (Silent Wave Motor)
    Yes
    Approx. Dimensions (Diameter x Length)
    3.3 in.
    (83 mm)
    x 5.2 in.
    (133 mm)
    Approx. Weight
    31.7 oz.
    (900 g)
    Reply