Has Sony Altered the Camera Market Forever?

Has Sony Altered the Camera Market Forever?

The mirrorless camera was an innocuous enough invention that stemmed from Olympus' early innovation, but is it Sony that has managed to change the camera market for good and upset the CaNikon apple cart?

The Single Lens Reflex, or SLR, was the mechanical solution to the thorny problem of framing an image on a roll film camera. Unlike a view camera where you look at the ground screen before inserting and exposing the dark slide, in a roll film camera, you don't get to look through the lens. The simplest solution is to have a view window, however, this doesn't see what the lens sees and if you change lenses then the view changes.

A more sophisticated answer came in the form of the rangefinder which made parallax corrections for the offset viewfinder with different frame lines for different focal length lenses. An alternative was provided by the Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) which had a second lens sat above the primary exposure lens and offered a near-identical view. Unfortunately, neither of these solutions showed what the lens was seeing which is where the SLR came in. Through the relatively complex — and expensive — mirrorbox and pentaprism combination, a photographer could see what the camera saw, then flip the mirror out of the way and release the shutter to expose the film, before returning the mirror into position. It is mechanically elegant which is why it has stood the test of time.

You could probably argue that the advent of digital cameras heralded the demise of the SLR. Manufacturers realized from the earliest designs that with a digital sensor you could view in real-time what the camera was seeing. In short, you are taking a video feed and viewing it on screen. Of course, the technology to achieve this wasn't available in the earliest cameras, with no facility to even view images. On-screen image playback came before the addition of video recording and then "live view". The genesis of the camera was evolutionary, however, which meant encompassing digital workflows within existing designs and so was born the Nikon D1 which spawned the dominant camera design for the next twenty years.

It was not long after the arrival of the D1 that the seeds of the mirrorless revolution were born in the form of the Olympus E-1 and the Four Thirds system. Strictly a DSLR, the design premise was a compact system built around a small sensor with long reach. So while the Epson RD1 might take the plaudits as the first mirrorless camera, it was the launch of the Micro Four Thirds system in 2008 in the form of the Panasonic G1 that spawned a revolution.

Sony Takes Center Stage

While mirrorless might have had a slow burn from the E-1 to the G1, the years that followed immediately after were a melting pot of innovation. Manufacturers fell over themselves to release new systems: Sony in 2010 (NEX-3; APS-C), along with Nikon (Nikon 1 V1; CX) and Pentax (Q; 1/2.3") in 2011, Canon in 2012 (EOS M; APS-C), Fuji in 2012 (X-Pro1; APS-C), Pentax again in 2012 (K-01; APS-C), Sony again in 2013 (a7; FF). and Leica in 2014 (Leica T Typ701; FF). It's perhaps a little disingenuous to classify these systems by their sensor size as there was plenty of innovation going on in their designs, however, it is a good indicator of what their target market was. More importantly, their lens mounts were designed with sensor size in mind and it's arguable that Sony's E-mount was never intended to house a full frame sensor. As can be seen from this list, the APS-C specification was popular as it offered a balance between system size and image quality. System size, more than anything, was the driving force behind these cameras with Micro Four Thirds being particularly portable, along with the Nikon 1 and Pentax Q. In short, while everyone wanted to jump on the mirrorless bandwagon, nobody saw it as a replacement for the DSLR, at least not initially. It's not surprising then that some manufacturers saw increasing scope in mirrorless and Olympus' OM-D E-M5 and Fuji's X-Pro1 are notable for their move away from a primarily consumer-oriented focus.

It was Sony's decision to stick a full frame sensor inside the a7 that permanently changed the sector. So where did that leave everyone else? At this stage it was not a foregone conclusion that mirrorless was the next iteration of the camera, however, the Pentax Q and K01 were already dead in the water. The Nikon 1 built out a consumer system that was liked but it was only ever a niche product, so much so that it was killed off in 2018. Canon still has the EOS M, however, it must remain in a quandary as to what to do about it. Nikon's strategy of producing APS-C and FF versions of its Z-mount system gives it an edge while also reducing production costs. A quiet death seems a likely outcome for the EOS M and it would perhaps be better for Canon to do this sooner rather than later.

Fuji has managed to ply a healthy trade in cameras sales, although it is its analog Instax that is the star of the business show and it's questionable as to whether the digital sub-division makes a profit. Its APS-C/medium format strategy has won it many admirers and it sells well enough for it to continue with development. That leaves Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica. Olympus' sale of its Imaging Division has been met with concern, but new models are coming although sales appear to have dropped making 2021 a formative year under its new owners. The Leica T Typ701 is notable for introducing the L-mount which now ties Sigma and Panasonic in to the Alliance. Panasonic again sells a healthy number of Micro Four Thirds cameras with their video-focused features. Quite how well the FF offerings will do remains to be seen. Will they become a genuine FF alternative to Nikon and Canon?

How the Future Unfolded

As it turned out, Sony was in the right place at the right time with the right strategy when mirrorless was unleashed upon the world. It had recently purchased Minolta and this provided the capability and capacity to produce new, technically innovative, cameras. Minolta was firmly embedded in the DSLR tradition, so this was a genuine choice by Sony. That it took so long for anyone other than Leica to release a FF model is a surprise and Sony appeared to have an unassailable vice-like grip on the market after those 5 long years before Canon and Nikon responded. What's more remarkable is the speed with which Canon has pivoted its sales from DSLR to mirrorless and is now selling almost the same number of mirrorless cameras as Sony.

There are some salient points to take away from this: firstly, technical innovation can take you in unexpected directions. Sony wasn't heavily invested in DSLRs so experimenting with new formats, such as mirrorless and SLT, was easier to do. For Nikon and Canon, income from camera sales and future technical investment was predicated on the success of the DSLR making them less responsive to change. Secondly, Sony is a consumer electronics company and has a different design ethos to Nikon and Canon, and this is clearly demonstrated in the cameras they produce. Is the ability to appeal to photographers one of the reasons behinds Canon's success? Thirdly, consumers are less concerned with the history of the camera industry and manufacturers of all sizes come and go. The last decade has made us familiar with the Sony-Canon-Nikon triumvirate and it's unlikely this is going to change, however, expect there to be a bumpy ride in the fortunes of all manufacturers.

Finally, how long will mirrorless be the defining camera design? Sure, there will be innovations around this such as global shutters and the integration of elements of the smartphone, but will it fundamentally change any further, or are we at the culmination of design for the next century?

Lead image courtesy Aristeas via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons. Body image courtesy Oswald Engelhardt via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons.

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30 Comments
Michael Krueger's picture

I would argue Samsung is responsible for the most change in the camera market. They may have exited the regular camera market but they announced their APS-C mirrorless camera before Sony. They were first to put a camera on a phone. They led the phone camera arms race reaching 5, 8, and 12mp first. Successfully became the worlds number one smart phone manufacturer which is what killed the camera market.

Samsung is largely responsible for the decline of camera sales.

Marcelo Rojas's picture

Since when is Samsung the cause of the decline of camera sales? Premium smartphones in general are. And even then its Apple not Samsung that's responsible. The iPhone changed everything. Literally. And even if you want to argue for Samsung, if I recall every.single.smartphone uses Sony sensors. So much so Sony makes 4 times the revenue per year from smartphone sensors than all of its Mirrorless sales

Also edit:
I don't think you are remembering the Megapixel wars were not a race to 5, 8, 12. The race was who can have the highest spec (again using sony made sensors) by 2013 we saw 20mp /30mp even 41MP with the Lumia 1020.

None of them could beat Apple in quality so the default had been 8MP then 12MP became the default from 2015 because of the iPhone 6S. Not because of Samsung who were still experimenting with 20mp till they gave up only to introduce higher resolutions in 2020/2021 (again with Sony made sensors that had been out for over 4 years at that point). So like your entire argument about Samsung is invalid. Google has even done more for smartphone photography in the last 4 years than Samsung ever has.

John Webb's picture

I wouldn't disagree that Sony , perhaps not being the first, was the company who had the best strategy, products and price points to reshape the market... At the time of their consumption of Konica Minolta ( not just Minolta) allowed them to gain a great deal of technology to match with their well supplied wallet and intent...

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

They go about it like any other consumer good while the competition simple does not have the resources like theirs to release as many models. They kind of brought that smartphone product cycle to the dedicated camera market but I wonder how long will that last as last year model is just as good as the newer ones.

Thomas H's picture

Yes indeed, Sony has changed the market forever.
Camera making transitioned from optical/mechanical aspects into development of algorithmic image processing and its implementation in electronics. Sony had the expertise in all of these areas, and made products changing photography fundamentally. Auto-focus based on image analysis, dynamic tracking: Sony made best of it. Canon matched them almost punch for punch. However, Nikon has been hit hardest by this development. Their software/image processing department did not produce solutions of comparable functionality. They did not transformed into a software house, driven by top mathematicians and programmers. Albeit being close to Sony/Canon in most photographic needs, they failed to convince the existing users to stay with them, and even worse, to attract the new generation of photographers to go with their system. Statistics of mirrorless lenses sold in last year by mount speak a clear language, and that will have a lasting effect on future fortunes of these 3 companies. Personally I would even like Nikon to be swallowed by Fuji, what is a huge organization with deep pockets.

Tom Reichner's picture

I thought that Canon was the first to introduce autofocus based on image analysis. Wasn't their dual-pixel AF the very first of its kind, long before Sony came out with anything of the sort? Remember, AF being based on image analysis is not unique to mirrorless - it was first used on DSLRs, where it works just as well as it does on mirrorless cameras.

Sam Sims's picture

The problem with Canon, if you don’t want, need or can afford their premium L lenses, you are limited to a few so-so non L RF lenses (and expensive lens hood sold separately) or some niche manual third party lenses. Sony on the other hand, opening up their mount, have many lenses now in E mount that will appeal to a wider user base at different price points. Canon only really are close to matching Sony with their L lenses and at some point will have pro bodies too but they cannot match Sony on the sheer number of lens options that appeal to so many non-professionals who don’t have the budget or need for premium, expensive lenses.

Ed Shropshire's picture

As a Canon R5 user I am not limited to L or RF lenses. I have a range of EF lenses and third party Sigma lenses that I use. If actually find my EF and Sigma lenses work better on my R5 than they ever did on my EF cameras.

Sam Sims's picture

Yep, you can adapt EF lenses but I was and should have been clearer, talking about native lenses. Can’t stand adapters myself though. Besides, Canon are still limiting in terms of cheaper lens offerings, unless you want to adapt older EF lenses and possibly look towards secondhand. None of the native manual lenses that sold me on the Sony system are available in RF or EF mount.

Jacob H.'s picture

PS. On a corporate level, Nikon, being part of the Mitsubishi Group is quite a bit bigger than the Fujifilm Corporation...

T Jacobs's picture

You want Nikon to be swallowed by Fuji? Show us on the doll where Nikon hurt you.

Thomas H's picture

:-)
No hurt, happy user of Z6II and my wife simply loves her small Z50 as the "purse camera." I use Nikon since 197x, Nikkormat generation.

Tim Bradley's picture

Sony has been a leader or amoung the leaders on the professional broadcast market for many years, so it is great to see them using their vast video image know-how in their Mirrorless cameras. Its well overdue for a shake up of the stills big players. More competition between the brands is always good for us shooters.

Indy Thomas's picture

This is the sort of post to stir a pot written by someone who is not paying attention to the Asian market.

Marcelo Rojas's picture

The issue was always to take a step forward we had to lose about 5 steps back. To get a viewfinder without parallax errors we had to give up Rangefinder focusing for SLR's. Which increased price, introduced new parts that initially failed easily (Fixed over time). And most still had horrible dim focus screens by the 1990's

To get from SLR to DSLR we had to give up resolution. People acted as if Megapixels were the holy grail when in fact the reason people switched to DSLRs was because:
1: Unlimited free shots
2: Fast shutter speeds that could only be achieved with Winders
3: The ability to see your photos immediately

But to get all that we had to again sacrifice resolution. In fact the sacrifice was so high, even 21 years later we are still only approaching the resolution of 35mm film for most entry level-high end cameras. Nvm 120mm.
Most 35mm film has a resolution of 30-40MP. 120mm has a resolution of 80-100MP. So even now GFX 100's and Hasselblad H6D-100c are the only cameras that match or exceed 120mm film.

Mirrorless sacrifices nothing in comparison to DSLR. In fact Mirrorless is what DSLR's promised 20 years ago. I don't even know if DSLR's will survive as a format 50 years from now simply due to the fact that they were transitionary products in a time where tech had not yet caught up with intent. I'd even argue 2004 Camcorders will be remembered more fondly (and used more) in 20+ years time than most DSLR's

Alexander Petrenko's picture

You sacrifice battery life and realtime viewfinder.

Zé De Boni's picture

Yes! People said the same 50 years ago as the first electronic shutter and auto winder SLRs were released.
Batteries are not a limiting factor as long as you have as many spares you need. Batteries are changed faster than lenses, the electronic functions that they provide cannot be replaced by mechanical parts or paranormal minds.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

Yes, Sony hit the ball out of the park! Looking back is one thing but living through all the changes is another. I started with film in '76 with the Canon Ftb but around '06 found a Fuji point and shoot to take to Hawaii, and a '10 cruise to the Bahamas I got the Canon T2i but only could use Canon SW to process and support faded and the T2i was no longer on site, newer models ect! '14 after research found Sony A7 but with limited lenses BUT with adapters could use the older Sony lenses BUT my Canon FD and EF-S lenses. The added advantage was Capture One from Phase One for just $30, where Lr or PS about $800 with each upgrade. In 2014 HDR was the thing so I went with the A7S, 5 frames at +/- 3ev (Software even today can not handle 3ev) at 2ev was great for sunsets/rises and a lot of other things but needed a HDR program like Oloneo or Photomatix both less than $100 (the start of Lr and PS price reduction). But still needed a tripod but AH! Sony A7ii/A7Rii/A7Sii had IBIS and had better NR with better sensors each with different Pixel numbers to choose from and the 'R's went with the most. Ah! then the all around camera for anyone for anything the A7iii 10fps low noise like the 7s for astro. The great thing is and was lens models grew and faster apertures like the old SLR's like were. Canon and Nikon were late to come to mirrorless giving Sony a big head start with lenses and both have new mirrorless lenses and old DSLR lens do not work so again Sony is on top. But there are dyehard users and will have to by all new and try and sell the old while moving. Lastly to great thing is "ALL" the cameras are great no matter the one you have or plan to get. A young new photographer can go to a yard,estate,Goodwill sale and for a low low start price have a great easy to use camera AND lenses and the best thing is today's software even makes images of 2000 digital cameras look like a $10K camera for the software makes the image (raw). What everyone today fails to see is the in camera jpeg processing for the family people who do not process and just want record family like the film days taking film to a photomat, there has to be info for those who only want that fast image but the cell phone camera has that going on and camera sells will fall because of it. Remember the 110 spy camera models that fit in a pocket that is what the cell phone is today!

Charles Mercier's picture

Oh man, those 110 cameras were horrible. The crappiest cell phone takes much better photos than the 110's!

T Jacobs's picture

They weren't that horrible, I took hundreds of snapshots in the late 70's early 80's with Kodak cameras that shot 110 due to their portability and still have them in albums.

Brent Rivers's picture

If Canon and especially Nikon hadn't held onto their long history of arrogance in long, incremental product cycles they might could have kept up during the transition. The evolution of Sony's cameras has moved at light speed compared to Canikon's decades old minimal design improvements. The ability to leverage solid state chip based functionality that improved year over year is far more appealing to the yesteryear behomoth camera bodies that NIkona and Canon have been producing. A smaller kit to produce better content is winning and the older generations who've held onto the dead weights of Canikon bodies and lenses will not be upgrading forever. And then, Apple and Google with the convergence of chip based image processing will battle it out. If only they could all work together we'd all win

Ed Shropshire's picture

I guess you haven't checked in on Canon over the last 24 months.

Zé De Boni's picture

We have checked and the conclusion is that their delay in R&D is greater than one could imagine. They are struggling to make the promised low Mp count BSI sensor available, their present cameras performance being much below.

Lawrence Huber's picture

Sony led the way. They have been doing mirrorless for over a decade.
In only a couple of years Canon has completely caught up and in some ways surpassed Sony in the mirrorless realm of serious FF cameras.
Also Sony's best A1 barely stays ahead of the Canon third tier R5 at nearly twice the price. Interesting to see what the R1 brings.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Instead of Praising Sony, We Should Be Asking Why the Industry Has Been So Slow To Replace GPS With GNSS

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I don't need GPS/GNSS on my cameras so I think I'll stick to praising Sony. :P

Joe Hogan's picture

Simple answer... no.

Zé De Boni's picture

Great article! Yes, this is just the beginning of a new generation. As in any transition, it takes some time to get rid of formerly established paradigms and break the design rules that were fitted to other platform. Cars took more than 40 years to reach a reasonable shape. The DSLR are still built as if they would carry film. The mirror box was doomed since the beginning of digital era, just waiting for the technological development that could make the process as fast and reliable. Sony invested heavily in this direction and proved that you can get better performance without that boring clacking mirror and even avoiding the limited mechanical shutter.
Next steps will bring us the global shutter, surely. But the main proof of maturity of digital photography will I be the return of the square sensor, free from ancient concepts, with all the advantages we can envision, which I am dearly begging since long.

L B's picture

Like Sony mirrorless camera or not or something in between. Even call Sony a "consumer electronics" company as some sort of pejorative i read often used against Sony cameras. Sony forced a shift in the entire camera industry and to this day the "camera" companies are still trying to catch up.