How Sony Broke the Canon and Nikon Stalemate

How Sony Broke the Canon and Nikon Stalemate

Sony is rapidly rising as a leading camera manufacturer. This article explores how their innovative E mount system and bold approach to features have challenged the Canon and Nikon's duopoly in the photography industry.

The A Mount Experiment

When Sony introduced the A-mount system in the early 2000s, it was more of a tentative step into the DSLR market rather than a groundbreaking entrance. The market, firmly in the grips of Canon and Nikon, didn't exactly hold its breath for Sony's foray into this territory. With the A mount, compatible with a variety of lenses, Sony was testing the waters in the professional and enthusiast photography sectors, but without the fanfare of great expectations.

The A mount's centrepiece was the Single-Lens Translucent (SLT) technology. This was a departure from the conventional DSLR mirror setup, employing a fixed translucent mirror that promised faster shooting and smoother autofocus in videos. On paper, this was an interesting innovation, but in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a game-changer.

The reality was that the A-mount system didn't make much of a splash. The SLT technology's light loss issue was a significant misstep, undermining the camera's performance in low-light scenarios – a critical factor for any serious DSLR user. While Sony is known for pushing the envelope, the A-mount didn't quite hit the mark. It lacked the disruptive impact necessary to draw photographers away from the established leaders.

In hindsight, the A-mount system was not a resounding success. It struggled to carve out a significant niche in a market dominated by more established brands. Sony's venture into the DSLR market with the A-mount was an important learning experience, though. It highlighted the challenge of entering a market with deeply entrenched leaders and the importance of aligning innovation with the core needs of users. The A-mount story is a modest chapter in Sony's history, one that shows a more cautious approach to innovation, without the dramatic flair of transformative success.

Sony a7: Pioneering and Problematic 

In 2013, Sony released the a7 and its E-mount system, which was the first ever modern full-frame mirrorless camera to hit the market. Honestly, this wasn't as big of a deal as it might sound. Mirrorless cameras had been around for a while, The Leica M series can be considered mirroless cameras and even some medium format technical cameras could be described as mirrorless too. And if we're talking modern mirrorless cameras, then Fujifilm produced a mirrorless camera several years before Sony did. The a7 was just Sony's version, but with a bigger sensor.

Additionally the first a7 models had some serious issues. The E mount was described as being too small for a full frame system, which was supposedly a design flaw. This limitation raised doubts about its compatibility with larger, professional lenses. Then there were other significant problems: the battery life was just abysmal, the EVF was widely disliked, the menu system was a confusing mess, and the autofocus was barely passable. On the positive side, the image quality, especially seen in the a7R with its 36-megapixel sensor, was actually pretty impressive. But overall, the camera felt like it wasn't built to professional standards.

Many people thought Sony's full frame mirrorless efforts would flop, similar to the A mount system – a couple of cameras and lenses appealing to a niche market but not making a real dent.

In 2014, Sony did catch some positive attention with the a7S. This model showed that Sony was trying to cater to specific photographic needs, a step in the right direction. But even with this, they hadn't made a significant impact in the market – not until 2015 with the release of the a7R II.

Features Over Fundamentals

The Sony a7R II was a groundbreaking camera in the industry, marking a significant milestone for Sony. With its impressive 42-megapixel sensor, greatly improved autofocus capabilities, and exceptional image quality, it garnered widespread attention from photographers and enthusiasts alike.

What truly set the a7R II apart from its competitors was its pioneering feature: 4K video recording using the full width of the sensor. This innovation was a game-changer, as Canon and Nikon were mainly offering incremental updates to their models at the time. Sony's strategy with the a7R II was clear – prioritize exciting and attention-grabbing features over delivering a completely polished product. They knew they could address any issues and refine the camera in subsequent iterations.

This approach paid off, as the a7R II generated significant buzz and firmly established Sony as a major player in the photography market. Sony's focus on offering specifications that customers genuinely desired was a departure from the industry's norm, where incremental updates often overshadowed true innovation.

The a7R II's 4K video capability, complete with log profiles and an efficient autofocus system, was revolutionary. Even issues like overheating didn't deter customers, as Sony's primary focus was on delivering feature-rich cameras that made headlines. Ergonomics, menu systems, and other factors took a back seat initially.

Over time, Sony addressed stability and usability issues, leading to their cameras being considered some of the best in the market today. They continue to innovate, introducing features like 4K 120p, 8K video recording, blackout-free high frame rate shooting, and exceptional autofocus capabilities.

Sony's dedication to leading in camera technology and meeting the evolving needs of photographers is evident in their continued success. In summary, the Sony a7R II's innovative features and Sony's commitment to prioritizing customer desires over incremental updates played a pivotal role in their rise to prominence in the camera industry.

The Latest and Greatest

Sony has once again showcased its prowess in the field of camera innovation with the release of the Sony a9 III. Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Alpha full-frame mirrorless cameras, the a9 III marks a significant technological advancement in Sony's illustrious history. This camera, primarily aimed at professionals in sports, wildlife photography, and photojournalism, boasts a series of features that push the industry's boundaries​​.

The most notable breakthrough in the Sony a9 III is its use of the world's first full-frame global shutter image sensor. This 35mm Exmor RS CMOS stacked sensor, although offering a megapixel count similar to its predecessor (approximately 24.6 megapixels for stills), provides profound benefits due to its global shutter mechanism. Traditional electronic shutters read the sensor line by line, but the global shutter captures the entire sensor's data in one swift motion. This eliminates rolling shutter effects in videos, minimizes distortion in fast-moving subjects, and significantly reduces flicker and banding under artificial lighting. The global shutter also enables an unprecedented shutter speed of up to 1/80,000th of a second, ensuring flash-sync at any shutter speed and flicker-free shooting, even at high frame rates like 120fps​​.

The a9 III further enhances its appeal with features like a 240 fps electronic viewfinder, 4-axis LCD screen, and robust in-body image stabilization (IBIS). Its dual BIONZ XR processors support sophisticated AI-based autofocus systems. These features, coupled with its capability for 6K oversampling for 4K 60p and 120p video recording, position the a9 III as a powerful tool for both still photography and videography. The camera also introduces a new Composite Raw shooting mode, enabling the capture of up to 32 images to significantly reduce noise, a boon for handheld shooting scenarios​​.

While Sony's leap to a global electronic shutter is commendable, it does bring certain trade-offs. The native ISO range of the a9 III starts at 250, higher than the more common base ISO of 100 found in many cameras, including its predecessor, the a9 II. This higher base ISO is a characteristic of the global shutter sensor. Although the range is expandable to 125-51200 for stills, it's narrower compared to the a9 II's range of 100-12000 (expandable to 50-204800). This could potentially impact the dynamic range, particularly in low-light conditions or when shooting scenes with a high contrast ratio​​.

Sony's approach with the a9 III underscores a strategy that prioritizes innovative features over traditional fundamentals. This approach seems to be paying off, as evidenced by the industry's enthusiastic response to this new release. Sony has successfully transitioned from being a relatively unknown player in the a-mount system to a leading force in camera manufacturing, driven by its commitment to pushing technological boundaries and redefining what's possible in digital photography.

Final Thoughts

Sony's emergence as a key player in the camera industry, challenging the long-standing dominance of Canon and Nikon, is a story of strategic innovation and audacious risk-taking. Initially entering the market as an underdog, Sony quickly established a firm foothold with its Alpha series. This bold approach to prioritizing advanced features over traditional design has enabled Sony to redefine the digital imaging landscape.

Transitioning from the early A mount to the advanced E mount system, Sony demonstrated a relentless commitment to pushing technological boundaries. The a7 series, particularly the a7R II, marked a pivotal moment for Sony, showcasing their capacity to integrate high-resolution sensors with robust video capabilities. These innovations appealed to a wide spectrum of photographers and videographers, shifting the industry's focus from incremental upgrades to significant, innovative leaps.

Ultimately, Sony figured out fairly quickly how to market itself to the industry. Focus on features that catch the headlines and fix any issues after the fact. Although this strategy may frustrate some, it continues to garner results leaving no incentive for Sony to operate differently. The rise of Sony is impressive, has benefitted the industry at large and should be celebrated. 

Usman Dawood's picture

Usman Dawood is a professional architectural photographer based in the UK.

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The Panasonic G1 was one of the first mirrorless cameras it was in 4/3 mount. It came out in 2008. Once again 4/3 is neglected by the full frame fan boys.

MFT has been an amazing platform with many unique advantages, but I don't think anyone would describe it as challenging the 60+ year battle between Canon & Nikon. Sony, OTOH, objectively displaced Nikon in 2nd place for sales, and I believe it was the success of Sony's full-frame mirrorless that finally pushed Canon & Nikon to move to mirrorless, not MFT.

Who said it was challenging? Merely pointing out that m4/3 was one of the first with this innovation along with a long list of others such as dust removal, in camera ND, live comp, precapture, etc. I have been reviewing the work of some of the master photographers from the 20's to 70's. Out of focus, blown highlights, subject and camera movement and a whole list of other ailments. But boy did those photos have impact. It is not always about the camera having the best image quality.

You are deviating from the subject of this article and this article is about how Sony became one of the big players in photography, thanks to it's move to mirrorless. It points out Sony was not the first with a mirrorless and you could argue not even the first with a FF if you count Leica but certainly the company to get Canon and Nikon to sit up and notice and Sony has become the company to break the Canon/Nikon dominance.

I would argue that Sony not only forced Canon to move to mirrorless, they forced Canon to put the Cripple Hammer back in the drawer for a generation or two.

Unfortunately any company dominating in a particular industry is likely to slow down innovation and produce mediocre updates to their products when they can practically guarantee selling enough products anyway. Yes, Sony with their FF mirrorless really helped to break that complacency.

Just a brief correction: the A mount had not been introduced by Sony but by Minolta back in the 80s. Sony bought Minolta's (or then Konica Minolta's) camera technologies in 2006 and, with it, the A mount system.

You're absolutely right, I forgot about that. Thank you for that and apologies for the mistake.

You "forgot" about that? That's a pretty important detail. I know this is an opinion piece, but did you do any actual research for it?

Can't even apologise anymore....

Your apology needs an apology while the keyboard warriors scream "shame!". :D

I didn't mean to come across so harshly, but it seems to me that if you're going to write an article about Sony's history and contribution to the camera industry, you need to understand where it came from.

Maybe it is I who should apologize. I'm well aware by now that FStoppers is a clickbait site, and the goal is to simply have people read the "articles" on the site. Registering, signing in, and commenting is just icing on the cake. I should know better than to expect any reasonable journalistic standards. That's a commentary about FStoppers as a whole, not specifically the author of this piece.

Doesn't mean to come across harshly then doubles down on it...


Actually the frist Sony DSLR was A100 released in 2005 based on the Minolta Maxxum 5D camera and build in Konica Minolta factory. 2006 Sony purchased the tech Minolta had in respect of cameras. From that time Sony started to work towards building up there own products and I guess the first E-mount camera was a milestone. The semi translucent mirror made for fast action shooting, and was tech developed by Minolta. Actually Canon made a 35 mm film camera with translucent mirror, the Canon RT.

Looking back the Sony A7 was in deed a limited camera but not worse then other mirrorless at the time.

In my mind the release of the Sony A9 - the first version was the final nail in the coffin of DSLR. Only a year or so before Nikon was bragging over the speed of there DSLR and kind of mocking mirrorless. But was put to shame with the release of the original A9.

With the mark3 now, they have made a new leap forward.

They toke over a failing camera manufacturer and there products, and turned it around to be be a great success. Sony keeps developing and make sure there are high end high tech expensive gear for us all :)

The problem with Sony development is multifold for the photographer.

1. Sony builds cameras which just barely last three or four years in the field. Sony cameras are more fragile. Not as fragile as the hard core anti-Sony crowd say but nothing like as sturdy as either Canon or Nikon in the 5D/D750/Z6 class and up. One's investment is a Sony camera is not a long term one, it's very disposable electronics.
2. Sony does not do firmware updates, they just release new cameras. Want the new features? Pay and pay again. Nikon has done four major firmware updates for the Nikon Z6 and significantly improved it. Nikon Z9 has had four major firmware updates in a much shorter period of time. And no it's not because the cameras are worse at release. It's a different relationship to the photographer's investment. Nikon honours its users by giving us three or four years of use of our cameras with making them obsolete within a year.
3. The ergonomics are rough, especially for left eye shooters with prominent noses. Buttons and screens get inadvertently pressed while trying to use a standard Sony body.

This comes at the price of some of the newer features arriving a bit later than Sony. But how impatient are we? Can we not wait six months for Sony's good ideas to end up in a Nikon camera and for the bad ideas to end up in the trash bin. I don't have the stomach to buy a new camera every year to have the latest features so I'm not cut out to be a Sony shooter.

PS. I've shot lots of Sony cameras and have a recent one to hand to play with now (ZV-E1, it's smaller than anything full frame Nikon has to offer and includes gyroflow data). This is not just empty speculation or partisan skirmishing.

Another good thing about Sony is that they have forced the other brands to develop similar cameras. That way you can choose.

It’s true about firmware updates. But also it’s like this that firmware updates are required when you release a new camera before the firmware are finished. I think Fujifilm are not updating as much as they did but now have more mature cameras.

about quality I don’t know but I don’t feel my camera is fragile. But I do have a hammer and use that when I want to hang up pictures or something :)

Don't give FUJIFILM a pass on abandoning firmware updates. Yes, their bodies are more mature, but in the heady days of the X-T1 and X-T2, Fuji would maintain feature parity within a generation. Their best bodies always received the features that were added later to lower end bodies. That practice largely died with the X-T3, a brilliant camera that never received the kaizen attention given to earlier bodies.

Yes. Xt1 was released with beta firmware in my opinion, and Fuji was developing the firmware after release. Eye detection was added long time after release. Bugs where fixed. They don’t do that anymore. Most likely they feel it’s all ready good and are looking at the competition.
Nikon and Canon most likely will not do updates beside bug fixes when they have more mature cameras. Just like Fujifilm.
Sony did grace the A7iii one firmware update that added new functionality. But the sold that camera like 5 years before new model.

Button line: they are all the same.

In my mind, there's no better authority than Roger Cicala at LensRentals. Anyone who has followed what he has written over the years will notice a pattern: engineering failures tend to involve Sony more than any other company. Weather resistance failures? Sony. A company without a de-centering spec to test a lens against? Sony. Frame cracks around the IBIS mechanisms in high end bodies? Sony. Of course, I am not arguing that other brands are perfect but rather that Sony seems to invest more time on advanced features and less on creating fundamentally solid, reliable designs than either Canon or Nikon.

I hear how Sony's are fragile from Canon fanbois all the time. I have 5 Sony cameras since I switched from Nikon in 2018. 2 a9, 1 a7riv(a dud IMHO) and now 2 a1. All are perfectly functional(knock on dawood) after hundreds of thousands of photos in sometimes harsh environments. Treat your equipment right and it will take care of you. I use a brush to remove dust at the end of day, a small blower for dust on the filter, and use zeiss wipes to clean viewfinder and lens filters. Only issue I've had is rubber near SD card slot coming off and I was able to glue that back on.

Ask nick page and gavin Hardcastle about the reliable Sony cameras

I've had the A7 (took it to Inner Mongolia with my Nikons at temps down to -50C, kept it in my pocket and took it out when needed, it did just fine), A7r, A7r2, A9, A6000, A7r4 and now A7r5 (as well as Olympus OM1 - another superb camera).

I've never had any sort of failure despite using them in tough conditions over 10 years (Iceland, China, Mongolia, Norway, Kyrgyzstan and in hot and humid conditions in Malaysian rainforests and Thailand etc etc). Used in wind, rain and snow and freezing conditions - never any issue, maybe I was just lucky. Maybe.
Ditto my many Nikons (D3s, D800, D800E etc.), in fact the only camera failure I've ever had was a CPU failure on a Pentax K5 (never an issue with any other Pentax camera).

So if people want to point to failures then look at the stats (and I mean official not Roger Circala - who I really enjoy reading but he has tens, not millions, of units) and failure rates of electrical units from Canon to Sony to Nikon to Pentax are roughly very similar (between 4 and 7% with some sort of issue), though I'd expect a modern ML to have a higher failure rate (more electronics) than a DSLR.

None of my E-mount cameras ever broke. I don't sell my obsolete cameras and my first E-mount NEX3 is still functional.I have about 160000 pictures taken on my SONY cameras and never had any problems. Not to say that nobody had the problems, but my personal experience tells me that SONY makes good reliable cameras.

Canon had several pellicle mirror cameras. The first was the Canon Pellix in 1965. They also had the high end 1D-V, the first pro film camera to hit 10fps. My first Canon DSLR was an EOS Rt.

Canon had been playing with "Pellicle" mirrors even before the RT, starting in 1965 with the "Pellix" SLR. They rolled out the F-1 High Speed for the Olympics in 72, and then Nikon matched with the F2H pellicle body for 76, both because the frame rates were crazy fast for the time.

There you have it :) I owned the RT myself, and I loved it.

The A100 was the first interchangeable-lens DSLR from Sony, not their first DSLR.

The E mount existed already in the Nex5 that i bought in 2011

If you're going to write about camera history, how about actually learning it first.

The A-Mount was introduced by Minolta in 1985. Yeah, like most DSLRs it began life as a film system. It was the first ILC system designed from the get-go for autofocus. Sony bought the A-Mount from the company, then called Konica-Minolta, in 2006.

The E-Mount was introduced by Sony in 2010, only the second mirrorless system after Micro Four Thirds. It was originally APS-C, which matched both the "it's for consumers" belief sold by Nikon and Canon with respect to mirrorless, but it also fit in just fine with Sony's plans for large sensor ILC video and cinema cameras. You are correct about Sony adding full frame with the A7 in 2013. Canon and Nikon still believed mirrorless was for consumers only, despite Panasonic, Olympus, Fujifilm, and Leica having other ideas.

Sony was uniquely anle to push the envelope at a crazy pace, soon revealing that mirrorlees had significant advantages, and ultimately getting Nikon and Canon on board for mirrorless in 2018 and basically throwing in the towel on DSLR by 2020.

E-mount was the third mirrorless system. Samsung NX was the second.

"When Sony introduced the A-mount system in the early 2000s," which is entirely wrong and misinformation, it should say "when sony continued the A-Mount system from there Minolta Acquisition"

Minolta A7, and A9 were there pro film line last gen bodys which the A99 took its frame from, sony continued there namesake with the mirrorless lineup, the major thing also forgotten apparently is there IBIS mech was from the Minolta acquisition as well since it was first deployed in the Minolta 7D and 5D APS-C CCD body’s there last SLR cameras before selling off the devison, sony also outsourced there shutters to Nidec Compal hence the 10fps kneecap.

What's annoying to Minolta users is the fact Sony have been dragging their feet with the A-Mount system for over a decade now, LA-EA5 should have video AF, we all know its firmware not hardware.

Same for basic body design, where is the left hand side securing pin on the grips? A basic thing that even 1970s compact cameras knew was essential, but not have your base plate be sheared and your grips powdercoat be cracked off….

The Gen 4 Rev 2 body is nice with proper o-rings but they dropped the ball again here and pushed a new grip that is no better than the past Gen 4 ones.

Minolta α7 (2000) Minolta 7D (2004) Sony α7RIII (2016) - Example of Sonys failure to make a proper grip pin layout dispite the decades of standard functional design choices from everyone else.

Well I am not going to say that Sony isnt worth of talking about innovation, but I find really funny how ppl talking about Sony in the way that they were actually first to introduce full frame mirrorless system. To be honest if Canon had one camera at the time of 70D and 1Dx was released without mirror it would change the whole discussion. Not only was a7 absolute toy and useless camera for anyone depending on AF performance, but it was possibly the nightmare of all of us who were using DSLR for some time. When Canon came with dual pixel AF at the time of a7 was released they had all the technology already to build fullframe mirrorless camera. They were holding it back because of EF lens line up which was huge investment and everyone who is a bit of a business man knows that it will be as stupid as jumping of the bridge if Canon introduced mirrorless earlier than they did. So I would like to thank Sony for pushing Canon to release mirrorless earlier, but I can't give Sony the credit for mirrorless as they were just trying to find hole on the camera market and full frame mirrorless was the only way to compete with other camera companies. But at the end of the day.. well done Sony and please keep up the great work! It has been a great experience to watch you pushing others forward!

One would think an editor would Fact Check out the "Sony introduced the A mount" part. Pretty common knowledge. Fanboy journalism.
Shoddy all around.

I confess, I did not ready the article. I came here just for the comments. :)


The new A9 is sooo expensive that becomes a digital junk in 3 months..good for the Mirrorless brigades...I snatched dlsr in mint conditions and abundant of choices..once only in my dreams that i would be able to afford a 5drs..4000 shutter count like new condition for 1000 usd? Go ahead you with Mirrorless...

Great strategy.

Sony broke nothing. They were just lucky that Canon and Nikon didn't take Sony's developments and the mirrorless trend seriously. Sony's quirky translucent mirror technology was way behind contemporary DSLRs at the time. And Canon was reluctant in the mirrorless market, only offering the experimental EOS M line. Sony on the other hand, had to put millions into development and needed 3 generations of mirrorless cameras to even surpass Canon's technology. And still, most professionals consider Sony a toy. On the sidelines of football games, one can still see more Canon and Nikon cameras than Sony. And that although Sony is trying hard, even sponsoring Associated Press photographers with Sony gear.

Usman, seriously, you need to google some things before writing an article.

"The A mount's centrepiece was the Single-Lens Translucent (SLT) technology" SLT technology was introduced in 2010, but Sony had been making A mount cameras since 2006.

"In 2013, Sony released the a7 and its E-mount system" the E-mount was introduced in 2010 with the NEX-3 and NEX-5.

"Fujifilm produced a mirrorless camera several years before Sony did" is not even remotely close. Panasonic, Olympus, and Samsung released mirrorless cameras before Sony, then after them was Pentax, and Nikon, and then Fujifilm.

In general, with lots of rounding error, Canon has 48% of the market, Sony 24%, and Nikon 12%. I remember when Nikon planned for a smaller market and now, they have a smaller market share.

Loved the A7Rii. If it weren't for the shallow buffer, single card slot, and piddly battery life I'd likely still be using it for event shooting. Truly a beast for the time, still a fantastic sensor.

IDK Man, the a7R II (and a7s II) was a step forward for Sony, but I’m not sure about writing an article about Sony disrupting the camera market and neglecting to mention their single biggest camera generation the a7r III 2017/a7 III 2018 (and the a9) - Z batteries, finally competitive autofocus, better ergos, and a bunch of other little tweaks. It was by far the most important generation of Sony cameras as far as gaining market share (I mean look at the sales of the a7 iii for the three years after its release).

Also, don’t forget Minolta. Who am I kidding, we’ve all forgotten Minolta. 😂

Entertaining article! Thanks.

The third generation A9 still has better AF better than many cameras :)

The Sony A9 III is the latest Sony camera.

Fuji cameras have the base ISO of 200 for quite a while and no body actually cares.
The ISO 250 of A9iii would not be a problem at all likewise.

For the target audience, a global shutter is definitely more important than higher starting ISO and the associated penalty in dynamic range and noise. For the hardcore landscape photographer, an a7Rv makes more sense, where resolution and maximum DR are paramount.

I don't think it's a huge deal either, but still needs to be discussed. I have to mention any potential drawbacks.