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Did Canon Get Its Mirrorless Strategy Wrong?

The photography news channels have been awash with announcements from Canon over the past few weeks and rightly so as it had a lot to talk about with the release of two new mirrorless cameras. But has it got its mirrorless development strategy wrong?

To understand Canon’s current predicament you need to place their current offerings — and roadmap — within the context of the development of the DSLR and mirrorless camera markets. At that point you can assess how they are performing against their key competitors.

The dawn of the DSLR was a largely predictable affair. Kodak had been in the sensor fabrication business for some time before eventually selling (from 1991) it’s range of hybrid DCS SLRs: butchered film cameras designed to take digital backs, they were a stop gap. It would take until 1999 before Nikon was the first to market with an integrated single brand DSLR. Everyone largely followed suit with Canon (2001), Pentax (2003), Olympus (2003), and Minolta (2005) all releasing models. It was a period of intense technical innovation as engineers sought to integrate digital sensors and image processing in to their existing film designs.

The next obvious structural design change was to remove the mirrorbox from the DSLR. This was arguably as significant a change, if not more so, than the integration of digital sensors with two major elements. Firstly a physical redesign of the camera body was needed. With the mirrorbox gone, the single biggest constraint to the depth of camera had been removed, meaning that ILCs could be much slimmer. This meant a complete refactoring of the lens mount and the introduction of new lens systems.

Secondly, it required a step change in the processing capabilities of the camera to solely use contrast detection autofocus. Whilst such systems had been around since the early 1990s (and in DSLRs since the mid-2000s), requiring an ILC to rely on them was difficult as they were slow. Improved processors, software, and sensors, particularly the innovative development of on-sensor phase detection, has brought them to parity with DSLRs.

The early 2010s saw manufacturers pursue a range of different MILC form factors as they rode the back of historically unprecedented camera sales and large cash surpluses. What’s certain is that neither Nikon nor Canon saw, or wanted, to see the mirrorless camera to replace the DSLR. Their offerings were superior and offered a stable cash base to their camera divisions.

Sony arguably developed the best strategy by shifting its focus to mirrorless. It was early to market with the NEX-3 in 2010, following this up with the a7 in 2013. Whilst the a7 takes the plaudits, it’s important to remember that it was one of a triumvirate: the a7, a7R, and a7S (the last in 2014). These have gone through regular updates to the current fourth iteration. Not only that, but Sony re-wrote the sales book by offering all models concurrently, rather than replacing them. Even now, only the original a7 has been discontinued. How else has it filled out its range? Not much is the answer, with the a5000 and a6000 ranges and of course the a9. Again, all largely sold concurrently. Their roadmap was aggressive and by 2018 they were the second largest manufacturer of ILCs, becoming the number one seller of full frame cameras in Japan in 2019.

Meanwhile, Nikon made the expensive mistake of investing in the 1 System. Not wanting to cannibalize DSLR sales and pitching in the same vein as Panasonic and Olympus with Micro-Four Thirds, they based their system around the small CX sensor (2.7x crop factor). Whilst technically innovative at the time, the collapse of camera sales from 2013 vaporized the market they thought existed. The company was also in the unenviable position of relying in large part on its imaging division for income. It’s likely that by 2015 they knew their mirrorless strategy was wrong and DSLR sales were contracting rapidly; they needed to pivot and pivot quickly, whilst at the same time engineering a world class system that could conceivably last as long as the F-mount. In 2018 the 1 system was killed off and the Z system was announced to the world with the release of the Z 6 and Z 7. This duo of cameras filled the same role as the a7 and a7R in Sony’s range and were well received, being competitive in the sector.

So where does Canon fit in to the emerging mirrorless marketplace?

Canon’s foray in to mirrorless cameras to this point has been more successful than Nikon’s, releasing the APS-C based EOS-M in 2012. This remains in active development and was originally pitched to prosumers, as a street camera, and as a accompaniment to a DSLR. Like Nikon, they would have been in the same position come 2015 and so also started factoring a new lens mount and roadmap for development.

Roll on October 2018 and having been pipped to the post by Nikon, the EOS-R was announced. The press had been hoping, even expecting, a mirrorless equivalent of the 5D Mark IV but Canon under delivered with a good camera undone by a lack of of IBIS, single card slot, and unconventional layout. It was underwhelming and more expensive than the competition. Surely Canon would deliver with the next iteration. The EOS-RP duly arrived in 2019 which was almost bizarrely an entry level camera. This flew in the face of the aggressive lens roadmap that was producing some high quality optics, launching with four workhorses.

Of course, the recent release of the R5 and R6 brings Canon in to line with the “normal” and “high resolution” models of Nikon and Sony, introducing IBIS, as well as the groundbreaking 8K video. Two years after the event, Canon have scored a home run with their 5D equivalent, whilst upping the ante. At the same time they have rapidly filled out their lens lineup leaving Nikon trailing in third place, although both are well behind Sony’s offerings. Of course, Sony has had a significant head start in filling out its lens range, however the limitations of the E-mount may provide Nikon and Canon with greater leverage in the future to offer more exotic (such Nikon’s 58 mm f/0.95 Noct) or more efficient designs.

Meanwhile, Nikon already has its first APS-C model in the form of the Z50 which formers a cornerstone in its development strategy. Establishing a prosumer line of mirrorless models is arguably as important financially, if not more so, than the full frame professional range, something that Sony has understood from the beginning. They service a sector that is willing to pay premium prices with good margins and who, ultimately, might get weaned on to the full frame models. Again, Canon’s development lag is noticeable, making the earlier release of the EOS-RP even stranger.

The recent announcement of the Z 5 demonstrates the direction Nikon intends to take whilst we wait for Canon’s response. Of course new camera systems are as much about the lens lineup as the camera body and Canon is well advanced in this regard. However its also a salutary reminder that you can shoot on a new system with a body and a few lenses. The same can’t be said if a camera body isn’t available. This is all the more perplexing given the impressive mount adaptors that both Canon and Nikon have developed.

This brings us back to the release of new mirrorless systems at the beginning of the 2010s. Sony got it right, whilst Nikon and Canon got it wrong. The future is undoubtedly mirrorless. That’s not to say DSLRs won’t continue in some form; they will and Sony’s A-mount is a good example of this. All of which begs the question as to exactly when Canon changed strategy, throwing its weight behind the RF-mount. At that point were they ahead or behind Nikon and how did they envisage the parallel development of lenses and bodies? Interestingly they have prioritized the release of high quality lenses, with the EOS-R and EOS-RP almost acting as teasers for the main event: the R5 and R6. Appearing nearly two years after Nikon, that is some considerable delay. Did they switch to mirrorless later than Nikon? Have they been hampered by their own sensor development and fabrication? Nikon have seemingly taken the opposite approach of vigorously developing the Z6 and Z7 with a range of good, but not great, lenses.

In the tick-tock world of camera release, will we see Nikon take the next step in filling out their mirrorless range? Will those lost 2 years of development prove costly for Canon? What will their APS-C strategy be? And can the Sony juggernaut be stopped?

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