Can You Trust the Camera Makers?


Pro•voke (verb) To stimulate or give rise to a reaction in a person.

Let me first tell you what prompted this article, then let me back into a little history, and eventually I'll give you an answer.

Sony continues to amaze me. Their first "attack" on the Canon/Nikon duopoly in interchangeable lens cameras was buying the Konica/Minolta Alpha team and taking the duopoly head on in DSLRs. The claim Sony executives made was that they would be #2 with more than 20% share within a couple of years. It didn't happen.

How about an FX push? Well, if you can't beat them at crop sensor, maybe you can undercut Canon/Nikon at full frame. Nope. Okay, how about modifying the DSLR design to go back to the old translucent mirror that had been tried back in the film days (Canon's pellicle mirror). Hmm, still no. In fact, during this time, Sony was having a hard time hanging onto their single digit market share. 

Next came NEX. Here was something completely different. Small, light, but still with a big Sony sensor inside. They even tried a radical new UI. NEX got a little traction, mainly because mirrorless was being touted by the press and Internet and other-than-Canon/Nikon camera marketing groups as being "the future." NEX actually reversed Sony's interchangeable lens market share from being on the decline to being on the rise, especially after they addressed the funky UI a bit, broadened the model lineup, and added lenses.

Curiously, the RX1 came running into the fray for a moment. I'm including this here for a reason, which I'll get to in a moment. Here we are back to full frame again, but this time more expensive! Strange. 

Finally, we have Alpha FE, which is really NEX with full frame sensors in yet another style of body and wearing the Alpha name more proudly. 

Did you catch the problem with all this wandering model syndrome? 

Lenses. Lenses are the "apps" of cameras. We could have real apps, too, but short of that, the primary way we change what our cameras are doing is by putting on a different lens. Lots of lenses equals lots of apps. 

What Sony did in a decade is end up with five different "lens sets," none of which got particularly deeper (more apps), and some of which are incomplete. Those sets are crop sensor Alpha (DT), full frame Alpha, crop sensor NEX (E), full frame "NEX" (FE), and the bolted to body things like the RX1 and RX10. So what prompted this article? A comment by a Sony executive on the day they launched the A6000 (NEX E mount) that they were going to concentrate on FE! Say what? 

True enough, Sony didn't announce a new lens Road Map with the A6000, which is crop sensor E-mount. Yet we're still missing some key lenses in that mount, and several of the lenses already extant really need to be redone, especially for the 24mp world we're now in (I'm looking at you, 16mm f/2.8). The comeback I got from Sony was this: you can always use FE mount lenses on E mount cameras. 

Oh dear, we're back in the Nikon DX versus FX problem all over again. 

Okay, so let's go back into history for a moment. Many (if not most) of the things Canon still does across their entire business, and all of the things that Nikon does in their business, are optically related. Nikon started in photography as a lens maker, quickly got jealous of the camera makers and joined in. That said, both Canon and Nikon started building sets of lenses (apps). And once we got into SLRs they both tended to also build lenses (apps) that didn't exist before. For example, just using Nikon: 6mm fisheye 1969, 7.5mm fisheye 1965, 8mm fisheye 1962, 21mm wide 1959, 35mm PC 1962, 300mm f/4.5 1964, 200mm Medical Macro 1962. That's just a few of the lenses (apps) outside the traditional sets that Nikon was iterating early on.

Back in the early rangefinder/SLR days we probably had five lens lines worth noting: Canon, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax. The disruption came with Minolta and autofocus in the mid-80's. Nikon had been experimenting with a different form of autofocus, but once the Maxxum 7000 was introduced and took off, Canon and Nikon were both fairly quick to respond. Minolta was waylaid by a patent suit on the focus system itself, eventually found guilty, and on the hook for a US$128m settlement (in 1991, that was a large amount of money). Basically, Minolta got distracted by legal issues and Canon and Nikon took advantage. By the mid-90's, Canon and Nikon were a clear duopoly, with both broad, competent camera offerings and a huge array of lenses (apps). Leica, Olympus, and Pentax didn't really make it across the jump from manual to autofocus very well, if at all. Olympus, for example, made one true AF SLR camera and eight lenses before deciding to concentrate more on the L series, which were the Bridge cameras of the film era. Leica never made an R series (SLR) that supported autofocus. Only Pentax made it out of the switch to autofocus relatively intact, though it seems in retrospect that the bruising that they took in the 90's trying to compete with Canon and Nikon set up their eventual problems in the camera group. 

So what we had at the start of the DSLR era was this: Canon and Nikon owning the SLR market and with a wide range of lenses. Unfortunately, those lenses were all 35mm frame imaging circles, and the initial DSLRs were all crop sensor, so even the duopoly had to quickly work to get more lenses ready. Nikon was already doing this prior to the introduction of the D1: the 17-35mm, for instance, was clearly designed with the notion that it would front a digital sensor at some point (the way the light came out of the rear of the lens was the tip off). 

The disruption to digital basically killed Minolta and Pentax. They were already weak from the SLR battles, and they were a bit slow and late to DSLRs with too little. Olympus decided to try a different approach than the rest (4/3). Basically, no one could knock off the duopoly, as the duopoly had market share, momentum, and those large lens established bases to pivot on. 

Which brings us back to my story. 4/3, m4/3, E, FE, X, NX, and even Alpha all share one common issue: depth and breadth of the lens set (apps, remember?). To Olympus' credit, while they didn't fully get things right the first time, they doubled up with Panasonic and worked hard on the lens problem with m4/3 from day one. The way I'd characterize things today is this: m4/3 has the third best lens set for interchangeable lens cameras today, with the only real weaknesses being in telephoto and some of the fringe lenses (tilt/shift, for example). 

But Sony? The Alpha full frame lens line seems to have stalled. The Alpha DT line is like Canon and Nikon's crop sensor DSLR lines: extremely incomplete. The E-mount lenses seem to be stalled at the moment, and it's really only in the FE mount that we're seeing lots of new lenses in a Road Map, though this is more catching up with a basic lens set than a deeper or broader exploration of what their cameras can do. 

Which brings me around to the question in the headline. Can we trust the camera makers? Are we buying into lens sets that, like the Canon EF mount or the Nikon F mount, will still work on our cameras of the future? Or are we buying into lens sets that have some risk of being never broadened the way we want? 

The key is in the disruption pivots. The autofocus disruption was a huge one. Automation is a huge consumer demand, so it was clear that autofocus was going to render manual focus out of the mainstream. Canon and Nikon pivoted well with that disruption, and Nikon gained a lot of respect from its user base by never invalidating the mount. We can mount pre-disruption and post-disruption optics on our cameras, which is one of the ways in which Nikon managed to survive the Minolta volley. 

The digital disruption wasn't quite as big. Nothing about switching from film to digital really invalidated the mount. Sure, some lenses weren't well designed to present light to the sensor in the way that it wanted, but that was more an individual lens issue than an overall mount issue. Thus, the two strong mounts managed to just jump right across that pivot from chemicals to electrons very easily. Because Canon and Nikon were quick out of the gate with very competent cameras, they actually put extreme pressure on the rest of the pack. Indeed, so much pressure that I'd characterize it this way: Fujifilm failed (they tried to make DSLRs and just fell further and further behind, eventually abandoning the interchangeable lens camera business for awhile); Olympus failed (small sensors in large bodies wasn't the answer); Pentax failed (they simply ran out of money and had to be acquired by deep pocketed suitors to survive; twice); Konica/Minolta failed (same problem as Pentax and same answer). 

Yet all the failed companies are still trying, virtually all with attempts to force the next pivot (mirrorless). (What Ricoh thinks they're doing with Pentax I have no idea. Either they have something totally hidden up their sleeve, or they just like playing with updating old gear.) 

The problem, of course, is that pivoting to mirrorless requires, yes, you guessed it: new apps (lenses). At least the way everyone decided to approach the problem. While I love a lot of what Sony has done and they make some great cameras, we're now on attempt four to dethrone the duopoly, and my very nice A7r sits on my desk waiting for something other than a 35mm and 55mm lens (the 28-70mm need not apply; it's a kit lens that shows the corner cutting even on the A7). It's as if my new Mac computer came only with TextEdit and Safari, and everyone needed to rewrite their existing apps (or run them in a virtual machine). 

So there are two clear variations of my question here. First, can I trust Sony to fill in the lens line? Based on their lens Road Map, I'll be able to duplicate my basic lens set by the end of 2014, certainly sometime in 2015. But only my basic lens set, and even then with some caveats (70-200mm at f/4, for example). Can I trust that FE will expand further in 2016 and on to eventually fill all my needs? Maybe, though since this is already Sony's fourth try at a lens set, I have to wonder whether or not there will be a fifth. 

Second, will Nikon do what they did with the previous two pivots and just keep the existing mount intact, or will they succumb to the "thin camera" movement? By that, I mean this: the primary thing a mirror box does is make a camera thicker. You can still make smaller DSLRs with a mirror box, just not thin ones. Moreover, I like a strong hand grip, which tends to stick out as much as the lens mount does on a Nikon DSLR. (As I've noted elsewhere, the supposedly "small" Olympus E-M1 has a right hand grip that technically makes that camera "thicker" than a Nikon Df.)

In other words, will we have a Nikon "mirrorless" system that uses the F-mount? I've been betting on "yes" for five years now. To bet otherwise would be to bet that Nikon doesn't understand how they made the last two pivots intact. Yet…

Here's my problem. If Nikon really were going to keep the lens mount intact, where are the DX lenses? It seems clear to me that we're going to continue to have crop sensor and full frame sensor cameras for quite some time. The economics just dictate it. While FX sensor prices continue to drift downwards, we're not going to see a US$500 FX body any time soon. Not even a US$1000 one (at list price; we may see some fire sales that start to approach this if anyone gets desperate to unload inventory, but those would be cameras sold at a loss). 

Nikon is sending mixed signals, which is the most worrisome thing about the company to me at the moment. CX, DX, and FX is really ambitious to start with. But the way DX is being handled is as if no one at Nikon understands the apps (lenses) users want and need. Or, alternative explanation: they're going to change the mount for DX. Before everyone panics and starts posting "Thom says the DX mount will go away in the future" let me say this: I don't expect that at all. My bet is that they don't. But I've gotten progressively more worried about where Nikon sees DX as we get further and further into it. Remember, we're 15 years in now, so seeing so little happening in DX other than some modest iterations is a little disconcerting considering that DX isn't "all there." 

And that's the problem we have throughout the camera business right now. What is all there these days? Consider:

  • Full frame: Nikon's body lineup is a mess and Canon's has fewer options at the moment. At least the lens sets are deep and wide. 
  • Crop sensor: Canon, Nikon, and Sony aren't iterating lenses, no one seems to think there needs to be a pro solution despite that being one of the biggest successes of crop sensor in the past.
  • Mirrorless: No one has a truly full lens lineup, though m4/3 continues to lead the way.    

Which brings me back to my question again: can we trust the camera makers? I think not. Until it's clear that someone can unseat Canon/Nikon in interchangeable lens cameras the others are interesting but not reliably long-term options. Until Canon and Nikon respond in some way either by producing or reacting to a new pivot, I think we have to take the "what you see is what you get" approach, i.e. more iteration of existing things. 

The question that keeps coming across my desk lately can be summarized this way: are we about to witness an extinction event? Compact cameras sure seem to be headed that way. Essentially the remaining compact camera makers are quickly trying to morph them into a new species (small sensor, big lens or large sensor, small lens) to keep them alive. 

I also have to wonder this: are there enough cameras of all types now operating (smartphone, security, Google, etc.) that I could "assemble" a picture of me wandering around a major metropolitan area from the images that are reachable by the Internet?   If so, why would most people even need a camera? Grab the scene in high detail from Google Maps, grab my position and pose and facial expression from images on the Internet and maybe my smartphone, meld those with a high-res map of me stored on my computer, and voila, there I am standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Hmm, if I use the GPS in my phone to let my at home computer assistant track me and work on assembling these things automatically, by the time I get home I should have plenty of images ;~). 

Obviously, that doesn't work for a pro trying to make a living off of taking images of things most people don't see, or in ways that most people don't see. But the pro market is small. Note that most of the camera companies, including Nikon, are essentially consumer electronics companies now. So what will be the consumer pivot? Because that's what will drive the primary camera gear thrust in the future. 

What's the answer for a serious user? Buy a D800E and feast at the vast cornucopia of F-mount lenses. If you're a little strapped on cash, then the D610 instead. Both are reasonable Last Camera Syndrome responses. If you're a Canon user, substitute the 5DIII and 6D. Anything else tends to be placing a bet on whether the camera makers will do what you want them to do in the future. In other words, you're making your current buying based upon a trust of what they'll do in the future. So I repeat: can you trust the camera makers?

Yes, I know this article is provocative. One of my goals has always been to provoke intelligent and useful discussion about photography and the gear we use. Consider that the last paragraph is a Straw Man proposal, not a serious call to just buy a Nikon FX camera and be done with it all. And note that despite what I wrote about Sony, I actually own Sony cameras and like them.

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