How Well Will Your Current Lenses Work on Any New Canon or Nikon Mirrorless System?

It seems like a matter of when, not if, Canon and Nikon will enter the high-end, full-frame mirrorless market. But will any system they release accommodate legacy lenses?Last week I wrote an article in which a supposed “internal document” from Fujifilm suggested Canon and Nikon will lose 50% of their market share within three years. Naturally, this created a lot of healthy discussion among Fstoppers members and the article has had almost 100 comments to date. Many of the issues brought up in the comments related to mirrorless systems and what will happen if and when Canon and Nikon enter the mirrorless market.

Currently, the likes of Sony, Fujifilm, and Olympus are at the forefront of the mirrorless market and have a good head start on the two traditional giants. However, it seems a foregone conclusion that both Canon and Nikon will produce a high-end mirrorless system sooner rather than later, perhaps as early as next year if rumors are to be believed.

But what drove a lot of discussion in the comments to last week’s article was whether or not any high-end mirrorless system that Canon or Nikon release will allow for full integration of legacy lenses that owners have been using on their DSLRs hitherto.

The Current Need for Adapters

At the moment, if you want to use DSLR lenses on a mirrorless system you need to use an adapter, such as the Metabones T Smart Adapter. That is simply to account for flange distance - the distance between where the lens mounts and where the sensor sits in your camera. Obviously, the distance is different when you compare a mirrorless system with a DSLR system that has a mirror, hence the need for an adapter.

Depending on the adapter you use, you might not be able to use automatic focus or auto aperture with your current lenses. Naturally, the adapters that couple legacy DSLR lenses with mirrorless systems most effectively are at the more expensive end of the market, and don’t always guarantee a perfect transition. Which brings us to our current dilemma.

When Canon or Nikon release a high-end mirrorless system into the market, will those cameras have the capacity to allow for perfect use of lenses currently used on DSLR systems? Now that might seem like a ridiculous question considering they are two completely different systems but I will put my hand up and say, perhaps naïvely, that I had assumed that the two makers would provide such a feature without a shadow of a doubt.

From a Business Perspective

I did some looking at it purely from a business perspective. If you look at Sony, for example, it has had its a7r series out for about five years and is now on its third iteration, the Sony a7riii. That means Canon has had almost five years to sit back and look at how developments have played out. During that time, the two traditional giants have seen a number of people move over to mirrorless systems, albeit with the need for them to use an adapter for their legacy lenses.

So in reality, that means that the likes Sony and Fujifilm are ahead of Canon and Nikon by about five years in their Research and Development for high-end mirrorless systems currently on the market. So surely, when Canon and Nikon do finally release a high-end, full-frame mirrorless system to compete with the current market leaders, it won’t just be something similar to what’s already available now with other brands? Surely it has to be something significantly better?

If it isn’t, don’t you think they risk alienating loyal users who have sat back and waited for them to release a system that competes with the likes of Sony, and hopefully outperforms them?

From a Personal Perspective

In my case, for instance, I have put years and years and thousands of dollars into building up my lens collection, mostly with Canon. I am perfectly happy with my current 5D Mark IV and batch of lenses, but of course, if I could use them all on a native Canon mirrorless system that was a significant improvement on my current camera, then of course I’d jump at the chance. However, if Canon releases a full-frame mirrorless system that still requires an adapter for legacy lenses and doesn’t guarantee full integration of all lens features, then I will have to think seriously about which way I go, for two reasons.

First, I’ll probably be angry that I’ve put so much time and effort and love into curating my current collection of lenses yet they may potentially become redundant on a new, mirrorless system. That's a sentiment that many people have expressed. You might say I could simply go out and buy an adapter but there is enough current evidence out there that they are not always successful and do not always guarantee seamless integration of all lens functions and features.

And it would be pure speculation at the moment as to the success of any adaptor because neither Canon nor Nikon have released a high-end mirrorless system. But if they did come out and release a full-frame mirrorless system with the caveat that I needed to start my lens collection again from scratch if I wanted to benefit from all the features of such a system, then I wouldn’t be a very happy camper. And it’s something I hadn’t even contemplated until last week.

Follow the Leaders

Secondly, if that scenario were to play out then I’d have to think seriously about following many others and moving over to a different brand. Why? Simply because of position in the market. If Canon, for example, released a full-frame mirrorless system that was essentially on par with the Sony a7riii and didn’t offer a significantly better experience, then why would I not go to the market leader?

You’d imagine the likes of Sony and Fujifilm and Olympus etc are already researching and designing upgrades for their next release. So if Canon couldn’t give me an irresistible reason to remain loyal (such as full integration of legacy lenses), then I’d be heavily tempted to go to a system that already has 1,000s of users and advocates and proof of worth, rather than hope that Canon’s first iteration was a blinding success (albeit potentially without use of my legacy lenses).

I put this issue to both Canon and Nikon on Twitter, but am yet to hear a response. This doesn’t mean anything really, but it would have been nice to get some information about what’s on the horizon.

How do you feel about it? Do you think Canon and Nikon will find a way to integrate legacy lenses with new, mirrorless systems, or do you think it’s a pipedream? And if you’re a Canon or Nikon owner, will you stay loyal if they release a mirrorless system that requires an adaptor to use legacy lenses, or will you jump to brands like Sony, or Fujifilm?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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88 Comments

Previous comments
Chad D's picture

yeah will be curious what canon and nikon do for the glass if when they come out with a proper mirror less setup ?
but if they make it so they wont support the old glass properly will many stick with it ? will be curious to see where we are in 10 years with pro cameras

much like apple phone announcement most thought NO WAY everyone wants physical buttons and nokia is to huge and it will never happen and they changed the phone market for sure

like land lines will dslr be all but dead and gone ? same as flip phones button phones etc..

Pieter Batenburg's picture

@ David Kinnear You left it on your desk back home, 3 hours from here. LOL

Iain Stanley's picture

It's so true that I can't bear thinking about.....we already have enough gadgets and bits and pieces to worry about as it is. Can you imagine getting out into the field at first light and realising your adapter was still on the desk? Probably next to your spare SD card....

William Downs's picture

I am waiting to see the final product. I don't see the obsession with some in the mirrorless crowd with small size. I love a hefty camera. Plus I have big hands so small camera are more of a pain to use. I for them to use a normalish size body and focus on the performance. let me use my ef lenses and give me the speed, dynamic range and a few other cool features that mirrorless has and I am down for it. Its about time to replace my 5d markII and I am waiting to see how this pans out to decide if I will stay with a canon body or go with sony and get an adapter.

John Buford's picture

This is all countless speculations. A supreme waste of time in fact I am sorry that i even read this article. I am going to log off and go take some pictures with my current equipment.

John Holloway's picture

I have been shooting Nikon for years and recently have added to my collection a few Nikon manual-focus film cameras. I have also shot Canon and Olympus film cameras. One of the reasons I prefer Nikon over these other brands is consistency. I can more-or-less use any of my Nikon lenses with any of my Nikon cameras thanks to the F-mount that has not changed since the 1960s. When Nikon introduced AI in the early 1970s, they included the ability to use non-AI lenses with these first cameras. Nikon has always taken into account their loyal customers. I was stunned to hear that Nikon was considering migrating away from the F-mount for the mirrorless system that will be debuted later this year, if the rumors are to be believed. I also shoot Olympus MFT mirrorless. I love these cameras and the images they produce. I love the availability of glass from Olympus and Lumix. If Nikon, and remember, I am a fan, produces a system that does not allow me to use my F-mounts, then I have absolutely no reason to invest in the system. What would the point be? I am already invested in a quality system that is giving me great results. Of course, I will probably continue to purchase SLR bodies and lenses from Nikon. Maybe that's Nikon's strategy. Anyway, it will be interesting to see. Competition is a good thing and Sony, Fuji, etc., will eventually have to compete with the new Nikon and Canon systems, though probably not during the first few generations.

Hassan Zaki's picture

I think they absolutely have to find a way to keep their lens lineup work. I see a lot of people saying that it's not really about the camera and they have no reason to go mirrirless. It's true that it is not all about the camera, but at some point you will upgrade. I am a food photographer and a Canon shooter. I shoot a Canon 6D. I was thinking about upgrading to a 5dsr because I like large prints and detail in the food. I decided to wait to see what the 5d mark iv will look like. It's definitely better than the 6d, but is either of them better than the Sony a7r iii. The answer is a solid No. Canon is just behind. What if I want to take a recipe video? Which one would I rather use? Which frame rate would I rather use to capture food motion shots? The Sony does 10 frames at 42 MP. Why can't I have an electronic view finder? And it's the fastest camera to tether. Let alone better sensor. It's not really about size and weight anymore. Sony is just making better cameras and when it's time for a pro to upgrade and the time will come, if it wasn't for the lenses, it's a no brainer. I am now giving Canon their last chance to see what they will do. If their new camera doesn't match up or the lenses don't work, I am gone.

They could come up with a new mount and and an ef adapter. That would be be a valid option still because I think Canon will be in a much better spot to provide adapters that always work. They make the lenses and the cameras. It's different when a third party is trying to decipher Canon proprietary lens-camera communication.

I am hoping I won't have to switch but if Canon's history is to go by, it's not looking good.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yeah I'm pretty much in the same boat. I use a Canon 5Dmkiv and a Canon 7Dmkii for sports. Most of my lenses are Canons and I certainly hope they find an efficient way to integrate legacy lenses. Otherwise, as you said, there's no reason to stick with them when other brands are making bodies that are simply better.

Kat Gregory's picture

I think they will almost certainly come out with a new mount. There is rumor that one is already on some versions of their test models. And a full frame mirrorless will naitivly have it's own lens system regardless of adapter. One key point of mirrorless, and why I switched, is weight and size. That said they already have asp-c mirrorless with an ef-m mount and they created an adaptor that works with EF lenses. I don't see why they wouldn't follow that same pattern.

Iain Stanley's picture

when you say "weight and size" are you talking body only, or coupled with lenses and adapters and any filters you might use? Undoubtedly, when you hold just a mirrorless camera body in your hands the reduction in bulk is clearly evident. But when you put all the necessary parts on it, is it really any lighter or less bulky? I mean a Tamron 150-600mm is still a big, heavy lens no matter what camera body it's on......

Phil Bautista's picture

I won't have a problem with a system that requires an adapter as long as that adapter allows full functionality of the lens with the camera. There are already several adapters out there that provide very good performance of EF mount lenses on Sony E mount so Canon will have to top that. It would also be nice if they could provide the features Sony is providing on their cameras. If they can't beat Sony (or other mirrorless makers), then I see no reason to go back.

Iain Stanley's picture

That's exactly right. You can't come out with a system 5 years after the market leader and then just release something that's simply on par with what's already out there. It has to be significantly better. One way to do that would finding a way to seamlessly integrate legacy lenses

Ralph Hightower's picture

<QUOTE>First, I’ll probably be angry that I’ve put so much time and effort and love into curating my current collection of lenses yet they may potentially become redundant on a new, mirrorless system.</QUOTE>

I am sure that Canon ticked off a lot of photographers when they switched their mount from FD to EF. But Canon was looking to the future when they designed the EF mount. I have some FD glass that I use with my A-1 and F-1, but I can't use them on my 5D III; I don't have any exotic glass, other than the Macrophoto 20mm f3.5 that requires the use of a bellows.
With Canon, you have EF lenses, EF-S lenses, and EF-M lenses.

Iain Stanley's picture

Fair point. But I'm going to hazard a guess and say that tens of thousands more people have invested in cameras and equipment today than they had back in 1987. There's a lot more to lose in 2018 than there was in 1987, in my opinion.

Deleted Account's picture

Interesting article, I would say this debate is starting to generate a lot of thought amongst working photogs in recent times. Most working photogs are going have reasonably up to date Canon/Nikon lenses in their arsenal so any adapter will almost surely work with few limitations.

From my view point, I'll be phasing out my battered D800E for a D850 in the next few months, the D850 is the best camera you can buy right now (hang on while I get my shield...) and likely will have a easy 3 to 5 more years working shelf life and I can use it with 50 year Nikon lenses should I desire. I can see a lot of pro's keeping their SLR gear and popping a new mirrorless body with a lens to trial in their bags. Actually that is already happening now, the only difference is that it's a mixed bag of Nikon/Fujifilm or Nikon/Sony, Canon/Olympus etc instead of Nikon/Nikon etc....

When Nikon (and Canon) bring out high end mirrorless bodies in the next year or so I'll be as excited as anyone to see them but I wont be selling any SLR bodies in a hurry. Exciting times to be a photographer!

Jim Cutler's picture

Derek I can say without hype that the D850 is stellar. I came from the D800E and then the D810. You will love it.

Iain Stanley's picture

I'll add a caveat on to your last sentence and say exciting times to be a photographer if legacy lenses can work beautifully on any FF Canon/Nikon mirrorless release haha

Anonymous's picture

Both manufacturers will probably use a new mount and provide an OEM adapter, which ought to preserve full functionality and performance.

Canon will have an easier time of it since Nikon would have to make a decision as to whether they want to go through the trouble of engineering an adapter that can operate their older screwdriver auto-focus lenses. Either way, people who own "AI", "AIS", "G" or the newer "E" series lenses should be fine in the Nikon system.

The only potential compatibility issues I see on the Nikon side would be AF functionality on pre-"G-series" auto-focus lenses and "non-AI" manual focus lenses.

Jim Cutler's picture

It's a jolt for me to look at the lenses I've taken a decade to collect and update with newer versions and think I will not have them relatively soon. Having to move to a new mount. However,

1) If the CaNikon lenses most of us have no longer work on their new mirrorless then for people who want mirrorless there is no reason to stick with Canikon. People can go right to Sony for mirrorless and get a proven product and now a choice of lenses. The ramp up for CaNikon to get a big mirrorless lens lineup will take years and years. For this reason alone, the current DSLR lenses will work.

2) A new mount as the future for CaNikon would make a vast number of people sell their treasured DSLR lenses, thus shooting themselves in the foot for their lens division. For that reason the DSLR lenses will work with the new mirrorless system.

3) The best scenario for me as a hardcore Nikon guy is for the new mirrorless body to be just like any other Nikon body and take F mount with no adapters. I don't need the PRO mirrorless body to be smaller than a D850. I'd just like 5 axis stabilization in body and blazing autofocus for video. I would then continue to use my DSLRs AND the new Nikon mirrorless with my beloved shelf of many lenses. But this is probably hoping for too much. I think some mirrorless lens patents are already in the wild. So I guess a Nikon adapter might indeed be coming.

Iain Stanley's picture

I'll second all of that and just change Nikon for Canon. Users of both brands would be ecstatic if your wishes came to fruition....

Slim Pickens's picture

"If Canon, for example, released a full-frame mirrorless system that was essentially on par with the Sony a7riii and didn’t offer a significantly better experience, then why would I not go to the market leader?"

Your identification of the market leader is bass ackwards.

Iain Stanley's picture

You think so? You're saying Canon is the market leader in mirrorless systems?

Keagan De Villiers's picture

I think it will be very disappointing for the thousands and thousands of Nikon and Canon shooters who have invested thousands and thousands of dollars in pro native lenses over the years to have to buy an entire new line of lenses OR for them to have limitations when it comes to autofocus or loss of quality etc. I bought a lens for my Canon a few weeks ago and for the first time (even though I really wanted the lens) I felt like "Should I be doing this now?" knowing that mirrorless is on the horizon. I think that whatever Canon and Nikon decide to do with lenses for their mirrorless systems will make ore break them.

For me, if there are any significant drawbacks to using my legacy Canon lenses with the new mirrorless system then I'll probably switch to Sony. The only reason I haven't switched to Sony yet (besides already being invested in the Canon system) is the lack of midrange/pro affordable glass.

Jim Cutler's picture

100% agree. I felt the same way buying a lens last month. Never felt that way before.

Iain Stanley's picture

Exactly right. And it's a sentiment many people feel. In fact, I was going to talk about the release of some lenses Canon has in the pipeline, but for brevity's sake I didn't. But if you're going out now to buy a recently released Canon lens, of course you're thinking "is it really worth paying $1,000s now if this thing doesn't work on any mirrorless body in couple years?" Canon and Nikon have surely thought of such scenarios with their customer base....?

Keagan De Villiers's picture

Hi Iain

Yeah that's the thing. Usually I was able to convince my wife (and myself) that a pro lens is an investment because it can last for decades if looked after well but now... that's not the case.

I really want to switch to Sony but financially it doesn't make sense right now.

Iain Stanley's picture

I think in the short term (2-3 years) it would probably pay all us Canon/Nikon users to just wait it out and see what happens. I don't think there's any point switching to Sony/Fujifilm/Olympus etc right now because Canon/Nikon may come out with a solution that is outstanding and betters the mirrorless brands above.

If that happens, happy days for us (as long as we can integrate our current lenses). If not, then we can make a decision about which way we go. But until the time that Canon/Nikon do release high-end FF mirrorless systems, I think it's just best to sit back and wait, and perhaps hold back on shelling out for all the legacy lenses we've always yearned for!

In any case, current DSLR bodies with current legacy lenses still produce outstanding images. The world won't end if we have to stick with our current setups for the foreseeable future. I'm not losing any business right now just because I'm not using a mirrorless system....

Stephen Schwerdfeger's picture

The reason 3rd party adapters don't work well is because they are.....(wait for it).... 3rd party adapters. When Canon and Nikon make an adapter for their legacy lenses on a new mirrorless body, you can bet it will work perfectly, with full functionality....otherwise...why do it. Either they make a mirrorless body with a big ugly built-in flange spacer which will accommodate legacy lenses, but eliminate the option of a new native lens system... or... as is the MOST LIKELY scenario.... mirrorless body, new native lens system, native adapter for all legacy lenses.

ask yourself....there are over 100 MILLION Nikon F-mount lenses in the world...do you really think Nikon will walk away from all those loyal owners????

Iain Stanley's picture

Yes they'll have to come up with something. I have no doubt about it. What that "something" is I don't know yet but as you say, there are just too many invested people in both brands to walk away from

Lee Stirling's picture

Why is there all this assumption that lots of Nikon and Canon shooters are going to suddenly bail on their DSLR platform just because Nikon or Canon offers a full-frame mirrorless option? Are we talking about thousands and thousands of professional shooters who have held off moving to Sony in anticipation of a great mirrorless option from Nikon or Canon? I'm not sure I understand this kerfuffle.

Iain Stanley's picture

Well if they release a mirrorless system that produces vastly improved photos (big IF) and is priced relatively affordably, then I think most current DSLR users will at least consider it. But just because they release a FF mirrorless system...? That's of no interest to me. Naturally, the performance is key

Tim R's picture

Not only would it be stunningly stupid for Canon to force its customers to have reason to see switching as no harder than staying, they have already set the pattern of compatibility. The M series of crop sensor mirrorless cameras already has full compatibility with both EF and EF-S lenses via a simple (if radically overpriced) adapter. I see no reason why they would change this. Mechanically/optically, it should be a simple exercise in spacing like on the EOS-M adapter. Electrically they are Canon and know how Canon interfaces work.

Frankly, I think the more interesting question is what might they do with a new lens series? With the M series, they've made lenses for that mount which take advantage of the closer flange and crop frame to be compact. Granted, it's a very limited (and 'slow') set of options. Will they do the same for full frame? Is the current EOS-M mount big enough for full frame? I haven't tried measuring it but it just might squeak in. But then again the current M lenses are unlikely to have a full frame image circle.

Iain Stanley's picture

All very good points. I'm kind of limited to 1,000 or so words so it's hard to explore all the conundrums.

Lars Sundin's picture

Todays adapters are from 3rd party manufacturers. Since Canon, Nikon, and others don't reveal the protocol used to communicate between the camera body and the lens, adapter makers have to do guess. If Canon and Nikon make adopters for there coming mirrorless cameras they know exactly how. They can even upgrade firmware in lenses to improve performance with an adapter. Hence, I don't think you can judge from your current experience with 3rd party adapters how they will perform.

Iain Stanley's picture

Very valid points. Perhaps all the stress we're currently having will be absolutely unnecessary. I certainly hope so, but I hope any native adapters they might release aren't ridiculously overpriced....

Dennis Johnson's picture

canon, lets move on, nothing to see. Nikon. problem with DSLR giants is that they are indeed 5 years behind sony. sony shown that it is difficult bringing out a new system with new lenses. nikon shows 71 fullframe lenses on their website. replacing them to fit a new system would take years. putting them further behind. an adapter is a workaround. but they both are lightyears behind sony with their system and their lens lineup. as a Canon and Nikon shooter i am considering jumping to sony. first i will buy my D850 and in three years i will see. but for my video work im jumping to sony, both video camera as a A7-3.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

You know, I remember the days when the fax appeared. Some people were really, really upset that the fax went out of fashion. Some people just can't get used to new tech. It doesn't matter what it is.

Iain Stanley's picture

True. Except email's free....haha