The Walls Are Closing In

With Leica’s resurrection, Fujifilm’s incessant retro mirrorless offerings, Sony’s excellently rethink and position with the A6xxx and A7 series, and now Hasselblad’s mirrorless-medium-format-for-everyone announcement of the X1D, all the product planning folk in Tokyo sitting on their butts at Canon and Nikon need to pay more attention. Better still, get off their butts.

Canon and Nikon are slowly dragging their DSLR systems into the modern world (SnapBridge, anyone? ;~). But slow is the operative word. Meanwhile, we’ve watched Fujifilm, Hasselblad, Leica, Olympus, and Sony pretty much successfully reinvent themselves for the modern world of cameras.

Fujifilm picked a retro, DSLR-like mirrorless system with a crop sensor. Hasselblad has modernized their medium format camera into the now very interesting and compelling X1D (if only there were more lens choice). Leica seems to re-invent cameras monthly, even as they iterate the M series to death for cash. Olympus chose impressively small and is sticking to it. While Sony simply gave up the DSLR chase from their third place position and took on mirrorless bottom to top to suddenly be a number one in a new market. 

Meanwhile, Canon and Nikon continue to just iterate DSLRs as usual. We’re now 17 years into the DSLR era, and the latest D500 is recognizably something derived from the D1, only with controls and menus moved, options added, and of course more performance all around. Still, a D500 is far closer to a D1 than it is to the X1D or Leica SL or Sony A7rII. 

We’ve got a similar thing going on with automobiles. While Tesla, Google, Apple, and a handful of other upstarts are trying to make a 21st century automobile that drives itself—remember, the auto is the quintessential 20th century product—a few of the car makers seem a bit more lethargic in moving towards automated driving. Toyota comes to mind.

Every time these big product transitions happen, the question always becomes “when will the top one or two or three makers make the transition?” Transition too early and you just kill off sales of your existing cash cows and the shareholders revolt. Transition too late and competitors take the market right out from under you and the shareholders revolt. 

Thing is, with cameras, we’ve got a lot of players that aren’t going to disappear no matter what happens. But quite a few of them have now carved out space and products that they think will serve them well in the transition to 21st century imaging. Some of them are getting traction with customers (most notably Fujifilm and Sony). Canon and Nikon can’t let that go on for too long, or else they’ll find themselves walled in by all the products that did modernize while they milked the cows. 

High priced, super megapixel DSLRs look less interesting with the Hasselblad X1D sitting at one end of that spectrum and the Sony A7rII at the other. That’s not good news for a potential D850. Small, light, “good enough” cameras now exist in new form from Fujifilm, Olympus, and Sony and make the low-end DSLRs look less interesting (other than perhaps low prices), which isn’t good news for the upcoming D3500. Leica has pioneered some new user interfaces that hold promise (not yet realized, in my opinion), which shows just how clumsy the menu systems with hundreds of options have become.

The walls are closing in on DSLRs, and will only continue to do so.

The way out of the shrinking room? The same as I defined it 2008: communicating, programmable, and maybe modular cameras. Ironically, that could be done with a DSLR. SnapBridge is an amateurish attempt at the communicating part, but has a long way to go to be functionally usable for most.

Simply put, the time for Canon and Nikon to modernize is now.  

text and images © 2017 Thom Hogan
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