Canon and Nikon Interim 2016 Report Card

Those that have taken college classes from me know that I’m a tough grader. A real tough grader. For me to excel means to really excel in actions, not just to show up in class every day and talk a good story. 

From time to time I grade the camera companies on how they’re doing. Today I’m going to do a late mid-term 2016 report on cameras from Canon and Nikon. While I’ll concentrate on DSLRs, we DSLR-users also shoot with other types of cameras at times, so I’ll address those, too.

Canon
Overall, we’ve had six serious cameras out of Canon so far this year.

  • 1Dx Mark II, A. Some might be surprised at my grade here. But let’s start with this: the original 1Dx was a darned good top-end camera to start with. It’s really difficult to keep pushing a flagship product clearly forward, but that’s what Canon did. We got a few more pixels, but better ones. We got Canon’s dual pixel addition which makes Live View and video focus better. The metering sensor and all that it enables is clearly better, IMHO, and now at Nikon-like levels. The rear LCD is clearer, bigger, and touch sensitive. The buffer improved dramatically (at least if you use state-of-the-art Cfast cards), and we’ve got an impressive 14fps from a mechanical shutter now. And while the focus system didn’t change much, it was tweaked enough to make it feel a bit better. Oh, and did I mention that Canon dropped the list price along the way? A really solid effort on improving what was already a camera at the top of the heap.
  • 5D Mark IV, A-. Again you might be surprised at my grade. Hey, didn’t the 5D IV get many of the same improvements the 1Dx did compared to its predecessor? Yes, it did. More pixels and better ones. Dual-pixel AF. A better metering sensor. A clearer, larger, touch sensitive screen. Slightly faster frame rate. The addition of 4K video. The addition of Wi-Fi and GPS. So why doesn’t the 5D Mark IV get an A, too? Because I didn’t feel that the 5D III was an A product, nor has it quite caught the D810 in a number of ways (though it has surpassed it now in others); but we’re talking about a new product versus a two-year old product. You need more to get a full A here, I think. Still, a very nice upgrade, and Canon users should be happy.
  • 80D, C+. You might be sensing a theme here. More pixels, dual-pixel AF, better autofocus system overall, better video (but no 4K). This is a camera that goes up more against Nikon’s D7200 than anything else, and again it’s a new Canon just barely getting up to or beyond where a Nikon DSLR has been for awhile. It really feels like Canon could have done more at this level, but left that for a later date.
  • Rebel T6, C-. It really feels like as you go down the Canon DSLR lineup that they’re putting less effort down low into iterating than up above. The sensor and autofocus system feels sub-par to what others are doing now. I really feel this update feels “mailed in.” 
  • EOS M5, C+ (conditional). I was actually in the middle of reviewing the M3 when the M5 came out, so I had plenty of thinking about okay, what changed? The good news is the addition of an EVF, which really creates Canon’s first mirrorless camera that feels like and shoots like a fairly small DSLR. The issue here is autofocus performance. In the pre-release sample I’ve been able to try—thus the conditional rating—it just doesn’t fell like Canon is close to matching even the older Sony A6300, let alone the latest A6500 or the Fujifilm X-T2, which use the same size sensor. Thus, while the M series has moved forward, it still feels like it’s lagging where it should/could be. 
  • PowerShot G7 X Mark II, D. Okay, here’s where I’m going to get tough. The original G7 X came out in 2014. In the four-and-a-half years that Sony has been iterating the RX-100 the G7 X competes with, Sony has moved the bar considerably with four iterations. Canon’s efforts in this area pale by comparison, and the latest G7 X Mark II really fells like it competes mostly with the original RX100 Mark I, not the latest RX100 Mark V (or even the Mark III or IV). Basically, in over two years all the Canon engineers could really accomplish was a better tilting LCD, faster raw burst rates, and a slightly better but-still-abysmal battery life. 

In terms of lenses we got:

  • EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM
  • EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II
  • EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM
  • EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM
  • EF-M 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM
  • EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM

Focus on updating classic lenses, coupled with throwing some “more super” zooms at the consumer bodies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with what Canon produced—these all seem to be fine lenses—but there’s a lot missing in what they haven’t produced. As I’ve noted over and over with Nikon, Canon is not fully filling in their crop sensor (EF-S) and mirrorless (EF-M) lineups with a set of lenses that’s going to compete well against the mirrorless players that are all-in with lenses. Thus, I don’t think I can give Canon a grade better than C+ on lenses. This is mostly an average (expected) performance.

Overall, Canon seemed to spend most of its attention on the topmost end of its lineup, and the further you go down their serious camera lineup, the more you see the “mailed it in” kind of philosophy that’s going to cause issues with sales volume overall. Yes, defend the top of the line, but hey guys, you need a real story for those that want more than a smartphone and less than a 5D. That story is becoming muddier and the iterations there are less than impressive.

Nikon
Nikon “sort of” had six serious camera additions this year. The quotes are because three of the cameras are no shows.

  • D5, A. Like Canon, Nikon put the A team on their flagship DSLR, and it shows. The focus system is a truly useful step forward in virtually every respect, including controlling it, which is something Nikon doesn’t always get right. They did on the D5. Much like the Canon 1Dx we got more pixels, (arguably) better pixels, a better metering system, more frame rate, a better LCD, and much more. The D5 is the type of move forward we expect from Nikon every four years, and unlike the D2 and D4 generations, there’s very little to complain about this time. Almost nothing, really. 
  • D500, B. I’m tough on the D500’s grade, even though it’s arguably the best crop sensor DSLR currently being made. The problem is that it felt rushed to market when it first shipped, and it still does months later. While the D5 got the addition of 9-point dynamic autofocus in a firmware update, the D500 has not, and it needs the addition more than the D5 did. Slowing the system to deal with card errors feels like the wrong choice, plus it doesn’t seem to have completely eradicated the problems. We still have battery info that doesn’t seem to accurately reflect what’s going on. People are still having their D500 lock up for unknown reasons every now and then (though infrequently). No SnapBridge for iOS for so long made the built-in communications useless to many early buyers. And then there’s the seven year delay in getting the camera at all.   Proper firmware would have pushed the grade to B+/A-, but the longer we don’t get a real update here, the lower the final grade would be.
  • D3400, C-. Is anything really new here? Oh, yeah, SnapBridge. Better Live View/Video focusing. But that’s it. Some features have gone backwards (mic jack, sensor cleaning, and flash output). The GUIDE system now seems like a parallel menu structure that’s just as confusing as the old NEX dual menu system was. And yet…with the new AF-P lenses the D3400 does perform quite well, and the JPEG image quality seems a bit better than its predecessor, too. Better than I found the D3300 as you pushed ISO up. So, yawn, this is an average update at best. Feels totally mailed in.
  • DL 18-50, DL 24-85, DL 24-500, F. No, not an incomplete, but an out-and-out F. When you come to class and brag to me how great your assignment turned out and then later tell me that your dog ate it, well, sorry, that doesn’t fly. Nikon needs to be seriously ashamed of what happened here. That someone okayed the announcement of a major product line before testing had proven that it could be manufactured and sold as described, that’s a management mistake that just can’t be made by a company already under pressure to keep its numbers up as the market shrinks. When they were announced, most of us were excited, especially about the 18-50mm (equivalent) version, since it represented a product that didn’t exist in the market but many of us would snap up in a second. Unfortunately, the delays (both original and now semi-permanent) have given everyone time to rethink just how good these cameras might be, and the lack of an EVF on the two lower models coupled with Sony pushing the RX100 Mark V into new territory means that our thinking isn’t as positive. And now the Panasonic LX10 has squeezed into the market, too. 
  • The Missing 1, F. We have to talk about the Nikon 1 here, even though there’s been no announcements concerning it. Actually, that’s why we have to talk about it. It simply isn’t acceptable in this competitive market to go silent as Nikon has. The broadly held suspicion is that the Nikon 1 line is now considered a dead-end at Nikon, but they don’t actually want to say that because they still have product to sell. Having non-Japanese, foreign subsidiary, mid-level executives as the only ones defending the Nikon 1 lineup at the largest photo show in the world with a lame “there are no plans to withdraw it” is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Indeed, that’s having someone else defend your work, a ludicrous thing to do when basically all design, engineering, and product line decisions are made in Japan by Japanese. You can’t have someone come into my class representing you and say “[The person I represent] is not withdrawing their previous homework but they have nothing else to say.” What!?!?!  

In terms of lenses this year we got only a trickle:

  • FX 105mm f/1.4E ED
  • DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-P (VR and non-VR)
  • DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G AF-P (VR and non-VR

While these are all good optics, that’s a pretty paltry offering, especially when you consider that the AF-P lenses can only be used on a handful of recent DX cameras. I’d have to say that the lens offerings to date from Nikon rate a D, or lower than average, lower than expected.

Like Canon, Nikon did best at the very top of its serious camera line. The D5 and D500 are both fine cameras, I use them regularly, and I like them both, despite the D500’s seeming warts. But beyond those two cameras and the 105mm f/1.4E, Nikon hasn’t done anything to note so far this year for other serious shooters. Is that enough to protect their status as the number two ILC provider? If it continues, I don’t think so.


Final Words
Canon and Nikon have aced the very top of their lineups. Nothing touches the 1Dx Mark II or D5 really, though I’ll be curious to see how the new Sony A99 Mark II shoots when it ships. And from the 80D/D7200 mark upwards, both Canon and Nikon have arguably strong lineups, though they both have models that could use some beefing up.

The problem is this: Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony are pushing the more middle area of serious cameras upward, and to some degree, the lower end (compacts), as well. The A6300/A6500, X-Pro2/X-T2, EM-1II, and GH5 certainly nibble aggressively away at the 80D/D7200 barrier that protects the Canikon DSLR profit base at the upper end. Fujifilm and the m4/3 twins are pushing full crop sensor lens lineups against crop sensor offerings from the Big Two that mostly have just a serious of convenience zooms to point at. 

Canon currently has a more defensible base, what with all the 1” GX cameras and the EOS M5 starting to put a more DSLR-like defense point into their lower lineup. But seriously, the GX models aren’t pushing the tech like Sony is (or even Panasonic when it comes to focus performance). In terms of crop sensor mirrorless, Fujifilm and Sony have far better performance than Canon achieves with the M5. 

True, the M5 is at a lower price point than the X-T2 and A6500, but the thing Canon should greatly fear is that the Rebel through 80D customers they’ve been selling to get more and more marginalized by mirrorless models from competitors. The M5 and 80D Canon put out this year are both not-so-fast-forward updates, and the competitors are hitting dead square in between those, though at a bit higher price point at the moment. Shift in volume would change those price points fairly rapidly. And really, it’s perception that’s everything here: the perception is that Canon is moving slowly.

Nikon, on the other hand, is currently missing in action from 1” compacts all the way through any serious mirrorless effort. The mild D3400 and missing D5500 updates do nothing to defend them from any competitors attacking them from mirrorless. Nikon’s sole protective thing now is price. Just push the hell out of the low-end DSLR products so that their price looks tempting compared to mirrorless products that might compete with them. That works for a while longer, but not very much longer. 

text and images © 2017 Thom Hogan
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