I See Dead Mounts

There's not a perfect place to put this article on my sites, as what I'm going to write about today spans both DSLR and mirrorless. With all of the recent announcements, it's time to talk about lens mounts. 

No, not in the sense of which is better—Nikon seems to have gone from most restrictive to least restrictive for lens designs—but rather in what the proliferating mounts mean for the photography community. 

Before we get started, let's deal with the elephant in the room: sensor size. People seem to get frenzied in their passion for sensor sizes, making what tend to be overstated rationales. m4/3, APS-C, full frame, and small medium format are all about one stop apart in two photographic ways (dynamic range and focus depth options), all else equal. The real question people need to ask themselves is: do they need that stop (or more)? 

This is not a lot different from choosing between a sub-compact auto, a compact auto, a full-size auto, or even a minivan. You should really choose the one that's right for your needs. Someone who drives by themselves and just needs basic transportation who is also rational about expense is going to pick the sub-compact. You have a big family you need to haul around, you're headed towards a minivan. 

My premise is this: we need a range of choices, but choices that actually fulfill their promise. When an APS-C camera becomes as expensive and as large as a full frame one, that doesn't make sense. Likewise, when you start trying to populate a smaller sensor system with larger lenses (to make up for that stop loss), you're in the same problem area. 

Which brings us to the current state of full frame mirrorless: it's reasonably small. Basically Canon, Nikon, and Sony have made full frame mirrorless cameras that are about the size of many APS-C DSLRs. If you apply my premise, you can see the problem that immediately causes: what's the future of APS-C? Which brings us to the beginning of our mount discussion:

Most of the market at the end of the film era consisted of users in one of four legacy mounts: Canon EF, Minolta A, Nikon F, and Pentax K. Sure, there were some others out there, most notably Leica M, but in terms of the buying public, virtually all cameras the day the Nikon D1 appeared had one of those aforementioned four rings sitting out front. 

Some strange-ish things happened next: Fujifilm glommed onto the Nikon F mount for their DSLRs, Minolta became KonicaMinolta which was sold to Sony. The primary early mount proliferation in digital was the 4/3 mount from Olympus. 

But think about today. If you went into a perfectly stocked camera shop you'd find:

  • Canon EF
  • Canon EF-S
  • Canon EF-M
  • Canon RF
  • Fujifilm X
  • Fujifilm GX
  • Hasselblad 1D
  • Leica M
  • Leica TL
  • Leica SL
  • Nikon F-FX
  • Nikon F-DX 
  • Nikon Z
  • m4/3
  • Pentax K
  • Pentax Q
  • Sigma SA
  • Sony A
  • Sony E
  • Sony FE

Plus the folk behind the counter would be talking about rumors of even more new mounts (e.g. Panasonic full frame). If you're really lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of some lingering inventory of a truly dead mount (Olympus 4/3 or Nikon CX).

So at a time when interchangeable lens camera sales have contracted considerably and appear to be continuing to contract, mounts are proliferating. I'll just state the obvious: they won't all survive. 

Indeed, I've already seen statements appearing on the Internet along the lines of "Canon's new RF mount tells us that EF-S is dead." Just substitute camera maker and lens mount for whatever you think is most vulnerable in that previous sentence, and you'd find some variation of that in a Google search (e.g. Canon EF-S mount dead, Sony A mount dead, etc.).

Put yourself in the shoes of a third-party lens company: who do you design for? Well, you want to grow and thrive, so you look at the mount health first and your competition—or partners, Tamron is partly owned by Sony—second.

Short answer for those third party companies? Design for Sony FE and adapt to Canon RF and Nikon Z (because they would mostly be just a slight barrel extension, not an optical rework). If you design for Canon RF you can only really adapt to Nikon Z; if you truly design for Nikon Z you can't adapt to Canon RF or Sony FE.

So let's separate the mounts into three groups, shall we? Group one will be Growth Potential, group two will be Lingering Potential, and group three will be Languishing Potential.

  1. Growth Potential: Canon RF, Nikon Z, and Sony FE for sure. Remember, these makers control 90% of the ILC market, and these are their latest children and getting lots of love. You can make a reasonable argument for Fujifilm X and GX or Hasselblad 1D to be here, too, but these are much smaller in potential at the moment. 
  2. Lingering Potential: Canon EF, Nikon FX for sure. DSLRs still have their place and those lens lines are wide, deep, and actually help DSLRs stay alive, which the duopoly wants to happen for as long as possible. At a low volume, Leica M just chugs along among the 1%. 
  3. Languishing Potential: I'd have to put the Pentax K mount here, but only because Pentax seems to keep getting slower at every change in the market and there's now not much in the way of camera volume from them to drive sales. The K mount really should be in the Lingering category, but the slow, slightly-behind-the-rest iteration coupled with less market presence in dealers has just driven all momentum out of the K mount. It's not the OK mount any more, it's the 0K mount (fonts being what they are on the Internet, that last one is a zero, not a capital oh ;~). Likewise, Sigma's SA mount has the same problem; I've only seen a Sigma sd Quattro body in captivity, not at all in the wild. (Likewise, the Pentax Q is only sighted in Japan these days.) Sony A mount goes in this category, despite lip service from the GameBoy Masters that it isn't dead. 

That leaves us some mounts where it isn't clear right now what category they're in: Canon EF-M and EF-S, Leica TL and SL, Nikon DX, Sony E, and the physically smallest of the species (outside of the Q's in Japan): m4/3. 

Note how many of those are crop sensor mounts, and what I said above about proper product scaling (e.g. sub-compact, compact, full).

I don't know what Canon was thinking. Four mounts? Sure, adapters work for some of the combinations. But four mounts? No, this is wrong, and something is going to give. Why would you spread incompatibility within your own customer base? The Cinema cameras Canon makes are currently EF—though one wonders if they'll eventually switch to RF—so the two outcasts of the four mounts are the EF-M and EF-S variants. Because of the RF mount dimensions—RF's 20mm flange distance versus EF-M's 18mm seems to preclude an adapter—Canon can't have the same EF-M to RF relationship that they had with EF-S and EF. We don't expect an EF-M to RF mount adapter (or vice versa) therefore, and that seems really strange: Canon has broken their own feeder mechanism. 

Curiously, Canon introduced a new EF-M lens with the RF announcement, so what kind of signal is that? It seems that one or both of the Canon crop sensor mounts is likely to be phased out, most probably EF-S first, but EF-M's life support seems tentative to me, too. (Hold that thought, I have to discuss this again with Sony E and Nikon DX.)

Sony E is in a slightly better position in that many of their professional video cameras are Super35 sensors, which is very close to APS-C, and thus they can use the E mount variation, not FE. I think we'll continue to see some E activity, though mostly to support the video realm or true consumer use (e.g. superzooms). Of course, if full frame sensors ever become the "norm" for pro video, all bets would be off. 

Nikon DX is a huge question mark, as I've written several times in recent months. It's entirely unclear what Nikon will do for crop sensor products moving forward. The timelines now seem to suggest they'll eventually go Z for crop sensor mirrorless, but those timelines also suggest that wouldn't be for 18 months or more. So DX limps along until it gets caught in a trap (buzz, buzz, bzzt). 

You might note that all three of the big players are in a crop sensor mount bind. Canon with EF-M and EF-S, Nikon with DX, and even Sony with E. It's exactly in the crop sensor arena where sales are contracting most for ILC. Nikon's extremely tepid D3xxx updates recently are sending a warning signal of one sort. Sony's not updating the A5xxx models sends another warning signal. Canon's EF-M/RF mount decision leads you scratching your head.

There were rumors that Nikon prototyped a D500-type replacement with the Z mount (call it the Z5). If that were really the direction Nikon was to go (all in on Z for mirrorless), it has implications for the rest of the makers. This would be consistent with Nikon's expressed interest in moving everything up-market and concentrating on high-end gear. But it would also mean the loss of a true lower cost feeder system. 

One thing to remember about APS-C/DX: the installed base is absolutely huge. Canon and Nikon have sold tens of millions of such units, and continue to sell them in the millions/year currently. Consumer closets are filled with APS-C/DX cameras. The real question you should be asking yourself is this: what do Canon and Nikon want to sell that customer as an upgrade in two years, five years, ten years? The further you go out in time frame, the more the answer starts to get very interesting and points away from the current crop sensor lens mounts.

Finally, we get to m4/3. The irony is that this is a mount that has a truly full lens set, and a broad array of providers. Ten years on the market will do that for you. The operative question here is not whether the mount will live, it's whether there's going to be an ongoing viability of new cameras using the mount. Olympus never really got much past the 500k/annual market and is still plateaued at 500k. Many of Olympus' sales are just upgrades to those fewer existing customers. Panasonic started strong, particularly in Asian markets, and lost volume over time. Their real winner in m4/3 is really a video camera (GH5). That rumor of Panasonic having a full frame entry for 2019 that will be introduced at Photokina later this month has already had a chilling effect on some m4/3 users. 

That said, having m4/3 and full frame would be a reasonable combination of product to produce, as they're two stops apart (all else equal) and as much as 12x apart in sensor price (volume impacts this, unfortunately, and I'm not sure the m4/3 cameras have enough volume to get the full cost benefits). But given how small the recent full frame cameras are (Sony A7 series, Nikon Z), you really don't want to be making m4/3 cameras that same size. The E-M10 size camera seems much more appropriate for the smaller sensor than the big G9 body, for example. 

I see some potential for m4/3 to keep being an alternative player that gobbles up half or more of the 10% market share that's available to them, but it's going to take some careful product placement as the Big Three elephants stomp around the camera shop with their new models and Fujifilm looks for growth.

Still, all the mounts I've mentioned can't productively move forward. Yet, by all appearances they will for awhile because of inertia. So don't get confused by that. I see camera inventory in the channels that is two and sometimes three years old still. It takes at least two years to get something new going from scratch, and even then it isn't near complete (e.g. Nikon Z with two cameras and three lenses, Canon R with one camera and four lenses, were both started a couple of years ago in development, and will need a couple more years to get a strong lens set). 

So we're in a market transition when it comes to mounts, and this means that it looks like a plethora of choices to the user. Sony users can partially rejoice, because they've just completed most of their transition (still not sure about the crop sensor, though). Canon and Nikon full frame users can rest comfortably knowing that the full frame EF/F lenses cross over well to the R/Z systems for the time being. 

It's everyone else that needs to be careful, and that's the majority of the market volume in camera units: crop sensor mounts and not-top-three mounts are riskier places to put your hard-earned money today than they were. 

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