Back in 2008 the Canon 5D Mark II was a photographer’s dream. The camera revolutionized the industry and opened new creative horizons for many professionals. The low light performance, dynamic range, and image quality were unheard of. This technological wonder was a huge hit in the photography world and beyond, especially in the indie filmmaker community. Later in 2012 came the 5D Mark III, with a solid body but somehow conservative specifications. Since then, it seems that Canon has decided to freeze progress, and lately, take a few steps backward.
Before going any further, I’d like to emphasize that I have been a long-time Canon user since the 90s. I own several Canon cameras and an extensive collection of EF lenses. I don’t mean to trash Canon for no reason, but truth be told, I’ve found the 5D Mark IV and 6D Mark II to be huge disappointments.
Ever since the launch of the 5D Mark II, Canon has been extremely conservative in every aspect of its products. The only exceptions being the great Dual Pixel Autofocus technology (DPAF) and the high resolution Canon 5Ds body. However, the DPAF is a video feature designed to be used in live view mode, not for stills photography. Unfortunately, the video modes on Canon DSLRs are so crippled that there is no point on giving us a nice autofocus system if everything else fails.
Finally, the long-awaited 5D Mark IV came in August 2016 but the dynamic range at base ISO was only matching the entry-level crop-sensor camera from 2011 and lagging far behind its direct competitor. A little bit embarrassing for new a $3,500 flagship camera. The rest of the features were nice but nothing that could justify the upgrade from the Mark III, at least in my case.
At this point, many photographers were expecting miracles for the 6D Mark II, but the first reviews of this new camera show a worrisome trend. Not only are the specifications underwhelming but the image quality is not even matching that of the previous version. The test results from camera tester William J. Claff of Photons to Photos shows that the dynamic range of the 6D Mark II is slightly worse than the Mark I at low ISO, and significantly lower than the Canon 80D crop-sensor camera.
DPReview confirmed these results and revealed that “almost as soon as you start to push the image or pull detail out of the shadows, you risk hitting the camera's electronic noise floor and hence you won't see the advantage over the smaller sensor 80D that you might reasonably expect.” Continuing, “The EOS 6D II should have a 1.3EV image quality advantage over the 80D, when the images are compared at the same size, since its sensor is so much bigger. Despite this, the EOS 80D's images shot with the same exposures look cleaner, when brightened to the same degree.”
On the video side, the situation is even worse. After creating the DSLR video revolution back in 2008 with the 5D Mark II, Canon constantly crippled its DSLR. Basic video features like peaking and zebra never made it to any DSLR of the brand. The 60fps mode was sadly missing on the 5D Mark III. Was it a hardware limitation? Absolutely not, the Magic Lantern team demonstrated that the Mark III was capable of 1080/60 in raw recording and gave us all the video assist features via their firmware hack.
Another issue that consistently plagues Canon bodies is the image softness and moire. Video Specialist Andrew Reid from EOSHD noted about the Canon 100D/SL1 magic lantern hack: “Forgive the conspiracy theory, but I thought moire was a result of pixel binning on the sensor itself. But now we have unfiltered direct access to the sensor output in video mode with raw, it seems the sensor isn’t so much to blame as Canon’s image processor. In the stock Canon video mode it is as if the sensor is doing a nice output, but the processor is resampling the image to purposefully hobble it with moire and soft detail.”
But as if holding features and crippling image quality were not enough, Canon decided to take a step backwards with the new 6D Mark II. The video All-I mode has been removed, leaving us with lower video bitrate compared to original 6D.
When it comes to 4K, the new 6D skipped it entirely. Sure, the 5D Mark IV has 4K, but with a 1.74x crop and completely huge and inefficient 500 Mbps MJPEG codec from the 90s, the 4K mode is just unusable.
Want to film in 4K at 24mm equivalent? You’ll have to attach a 14mm lens to your camera. And by the way, be ready to buy a substantial amount of memory cards because at this rate, a 128 GB card will be full after only 30 minutes of recording. I hope you like to transcode. But for real, the Dual Pixel Autofocus is great.
Perhaps remorse struck Canon a few month later when it decided to issue an update to enable the LOG mode on the 5D Mark IV. However, LOG is not available at this time on the top-of-the-line Canon 1Dx Mark II. I’m sure that loyal Canon customers will appreciate being left behind after spending $6,000 on this professional body while cheaper versions are being upgraded.
“Why don’t you buy a damn video camera?”; “DSLR are not made for video.”; These are usually the kinds of comments we get when we dare asking for decent video features on Canon professional cameras in 2017. Let me answer: No, I do not want to buy a damn video camera. The reason is not due to the hefty price tag, but due to portability and versatility. Even if the C200 was available at $900, I would not buy it. Video cameras are big and bulky, and I cannot afford to carry a C100 Mark II that weighs twice as much as my current 5D. As a run-and-gun shooter I want to take photos and videos and be able to switch conveniently between the two. Another point is that professional cameras are fitted with S35 sensor giving a 1.5x crop factor. But I like to maintain the full frame look and non-cropped focal range of my DSLR.
By the way, DSLR can and has been used for video for years now, even in Hollywood movies. We are not asking for extravagant video features in DSLR. Built-in ND filters, XLR connectors, ultra-high frame rate, and uncompressed output are reserved for professional cameras and we know it. What we want is decent video specifications contemporary of the era with reasonable image quality. If the 5D came without 4K crop, clean 8-bit video, and codec from this decade I would have bought two already.
The reason behind Canon’s choices is called market segmentation, which is the art of distilling camera specifications among the product range in order to force customers to purchase the different versions. You want 4K video? Then you’ll have to buy the $6,000 EOS C200 camera. Want high resolution? Get the 5Ds. Swivel screen on a full-frame camera? Get the 6D Mark II. LOG mode? You’ll have to drop the 1Dx Mark II and buy the 5D IV.
The folks at Canon think they can get away with this because their loyal customers are being held hostage by their EF lens collection. Switching brands is not easy when you have invested thousands of dollars over the years to build a nice assortment of lenses.
But the breaking point is coming. For the reasons explained previously, I need a small video camera. One than can fit in a portable gimbal and does not weigh a ton with cables and handles coming out from everywhere. I got the Panasonic GH5 with a few lenses. Close to $3,500 lost for Canon thanks to its nonsense market segmentation strategy. Dear Canon, people are not buying products they do not need; they’ll just stop buying from you, especially if the competition is offering alternatives. This brings me to my next question: Is Canon too big to fail?
Too Big to Fail?
Back in 2013 at the CES show in Las Vegas, most people were filming the event using a Canon 5D Mark II or III camera. A few editions later, these bodies almost disappeared from the alleys, replaced by Sony or Micro 4/3 cameras.
However, impressions can be deceiving. At the moment, Canon remains the leader of the digital camera industry. Far ahead of Nikon and Sony, with the lion’s share of the market. Facts must be stated and the vast majority of photographers are only taking pictures.
Various estimates show that the DSLR video crowd only represents 5–10 percent of the market. But is the camera business doing so well that Canon can ignore this minority of users? The latest CIPA report shows that the shipment of digital cameras have been free-falling over the last 10 years, eaten up by the smartphones even though the interchangeable lens camera market shows some signs of resistance.
But video aside, the photo features of the new 6D are not encouraging: stagnation or decrease of the image quality, lack of dual memory card slots, and concentration of the AF point to the center. This is not appealing for potential buyers. Sure, the 5D Mark IV shows some sign of progress on the dynamic range front but still lags behind three years old entry-level crop-sensor cameras from the Nikon.
Unfortunately for Canon, the competition has been extremely active lately with Sony’s massive level of innovation (albeit not always functional) and fast release cycle. Fujifilm cameras are also delivering impressive image quality with the X series, while the Micro 4/3 consortium is uniting many manufacturers under the same hardware standards. Even Pentax is hunting in the full frame market territory.
In this context, Nikon had to celebrate its 100-year anniversary with humiliating news. Canon’s traditional competitor is facing important financial losses and is seeking help from Fuji at the demand of the Japanese government, which wants to prevent the yellow company to fall under Chinese or Korean control. Canon is not there yet, but Nikon has been overtaken by Sony for the first time in history early this year. Sony now finds itself in the number two market position for full-frame interchangeable lens cameras in the U.S., ahead of Nikon and behind only Canon.
Personally, I’m afraid that Canon may face a similar fate if the company refuses to respond to the fierce competition in a stagnant market. Falls can be quick; The drone maker DJI was founded a little over 10 years ago by a Chinese student, yet it became the main civilian drone manufacturer and joined the Micro 4/3 consortium. DJI has hurt GoPro’s business and entered into the photo market with the Osmo camera. The Shenzhen-based company recently acquired Hasselblad, another legendary name in the industry, and who knows what they are going to do next. What if DJI decides to tackle the photography market head on? History shows that DJI will not hold the specs.
Another reason of concern is the lens business, a traditional stream of revenue for Canon. Again, more and more Chinese and Korean companies are stepping in Canon’s turf with aggressive commercial strategies. Rokinon for instance is now making autofocus lenses. In Japan, Sigma has seen success for its Art series lenses, which cost up to 40 percent less than the native Canon equivalent.
Every day, more and more photographers are jumping ship to the likes of Sony, Fujifilm, Pentax, or Nikon. Yet, Canon remains the leader in terms of market share thanks to its captive customer base. Some will call them “Canon fan boys” but the truth is that dynamic range is not everything, and Canon products are extremely solid performers. Lovely colors, legendary reliability, perfect ergonomics, and flawless customer service is what professionals need and Canon knows it. No need to be condescending with Canon users. They are not dumb.
At this point, what are the alternatives? If I do not opt for Canon, who else produces full-frame cameras with cutting-edge technology, decent video performance, and a solid selection of lenses?
Sony would be an obvious contender, yet the overall reliability, battery life, and color science is preventing me to switch. Sony lenses are extremely expensive but things should change soon with Sigma jumping in the FE mount wagon (another sign that Sony’s market share is growing). The new Sony a9 also showed some signs in the right direction in terms of battery life and ergonomics.
Nikon cameras have the best dynamic range, their lens selection is on par with Canon, but this brand also lags behind in terms of video features and is somehow as conservative as Canon. I don’t expect any radical changes from Nikon with the D810 successor that will be announced soon. However, Nikon recently shared its ambition to take the mirrorless market seriously and delivering the ultimate camera. Time will tell, but with their current financial situation the future of the company is at risk. There might not be another opportunity to impress.
Then, the Micro 4/3 segment is extremely dynamic thanks to Olympus and Panasonic. As I mentioned earlier, I bought a GH5 to cover my video needs after the 5D Mark IV disappointment in this area. By the way, Panasonic proves that a company can propose ground-breaking DSLR-like cameras but still offer professional video cameras at the same time. Take note Canon.
Unfortunately, I find the Micro 4/3 sensor a bit too limited in terms of high ISO performance and dynamic range. Hence, the GH5 will not completely replace my Canon camera for photography.
Finally, I have no other option left than to wait. Canon does not want to deliver and the alternatives are not completely satisfying. Canon is its own enemy. I’m still satisfied with my current 6D and 5D Mark III. They serve me well so unless an upgrade opens new creative options or facilitates my workload, why should I spend another $2,000 or $3,500 to get a slightly improved version of my actual camera?
Therefore, I’ve stopped investing in my EF system completely. I am keeping an eye on the future Sony a7R III and a7S III cameras. If Sony puts itself together and fixes its well-known issues, I may make the switch once and for all.