Canon Might Be in Trouble, and It's Not Just the Nosedive in Sales

Canon Might Be in Trouble, and It's Not Just the Nosedive in Sales

The camera industry is waiting for Canon to announce its mirrorless flagship sports shooter, but even three years after the Sony a9 was released, Canon might still be struggling to keep up. With the a9 Mark II on the horizon, they might be in trouble. Here’s why.

In February 2016, Canon launched the EOS-1D X Mark II, its flagship camera and the choice of sports and wildlife photographers around the world, not to mention countless photojournalists who rely on its tank-like build to perform consistently out in the field. I’ve rented this camera on numerous occasions, and despite owning a Sony a7 III, I might do the same again if the right job came along. The way it sits in the hand and the way it performs makes me feel something that my tiny a7 — which I love — simply doesn’t. Furthermore, while I hate the idea of a sausage-measuring party, clients are often reassured when you turn up hauling a massive camera. Their confidence feeds my confidence, making jobs run that little bit smoother.

The behemoth that is the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II.

It’s with this in mind that I started to wonder why Canon has yet to release a mirrorless equivalent and started digging into some of the details. The 1D X Mark II shoots a tasty 14 frames per second, and if you’ve not experienced this yourself, I highly recommend giving it a go. It’s just really nice.

Last year, I had the pleasure of shooting the insanely talented Erik Mukhametshin. The 1DX Mark II and its predecessor have been my go-to for many of my bigger jobs.

What makes this remarkable is that this is all done with its huge mirror and mechanical shutter flopping around. If you switch to live view (thereby locking the mirror out of the way), the 1D X II squeezes out 16 frames per second, albeit at the price of autoexposure, autofocus, and the fact that you have to rely on the rear LCD display.

Pesky Laws of Physics

When it comes to the 1D X II’s DSLR successor, the mechanics might be a limiting factor. The mirror is quite big and has a long way to move, and though Canon may well take us by surprise, 14 frames per second might be close to its limit. Locking the mirror out of the way is not necessarily a solution either: the mechanical shutter — the leaf-like blades that control the light hitting the sensor — is still a physical element that has to slide around incredibly fast, and pushing that beyond 16 frames per second might be another barrier to boosting the camera’s specifications.

So given that there are potential limitations and that 14 frames per second in itself is probably plenty fast enough for pretty much everything any sports or wildlife photographer is going to shoot, why should Canon care so greatly about improving this aspect of the camera? The 1D X Mark III will be perfectly functional if it packs similar specifications and the mirrorless equivalent will no doubt be equally beastly.

Let's Measure Some Sausages

The answer lies in the shape of the Sony a9 and that sausage-measuring party that we all pretend to hate. Arriving just over a year after the 1D X Mark II, the a9 turned a few heads by boasting 20 frames per second of blackout-free shooting and a buffer of more than 200 raw shots. I don’t recall the last time I felt the need to hold my shutter button down for more than one second, never mind 12 continuous seconds, but no doubt that’s useful to some people. However handy that may or may not be, it’s impressive.

The Sony a9. If you have a sausage that needs measuring, it might be a great choice.

The approach taken by Sony was a quiet revolution in terms of sensor technology. While Canon was busy developing DPAF for super-fast and accurate video autofocusing, Sony was directing its research elsewhere: the Stacked Exmor RS sensor. One of the big steps forward in sensor technology has been the shift from front-side illuminated to back-side illuminated. If you’re not familiar with how this works, you are far from alone (click here for some help). Essentially, it means that a lot of the circuitry in a sensor that used to sit in front of the bits that collect the light has been moved to the back, meaning that more light can get through, thus making the sensor more sensitive. The other huge advantage — and one that Sony has exploited massively — is that you can add more circuitry to a sensor without affecting its light sensitivity. Suddenly, Sony has a stacked sensor that has RAM modules attached to the back of it, speeding up readout, sucking the images into a buffer and immediately freeing the sensor to keep taking images.

Read-out times from the sensor are 20 times faster, and the maximum shutter speed is 1/32,000 of a second — a marked increase on the 1/8000th of a second found in other full-frame flagships. Other advantages emerge. In the Canon 1D X Mark II, the sensor remains “live” throughout a series of shots, relying on the mechanical shutter to control the light. With its extra circuitry, the sensor on the a9 is able to switch the sensor on and off, eliminating the need for the mechanical shutter and making shooting almost completely silent. In most ILCs that use an electronic shutter in this way — whether APS-C or full-frame —  the line-by-line readout of the sensor gives rise to rolling shutter. By contrast, the readout on the a9 is so fast that the rolling shutter is almost completely eliminated.

In addition to this, the Sony can do all of this while maintaining autofocus tracking and offering a view through the EVF that doesn’t black out in between individual frames, as there’s no mirror or mechanical shutter to get in the way.

Playing Catch-Up

Sony gave itself a massive headstart, and Canon has some hard work to do. For its mirrorless sports/wildlife flagship, not only does it have to find a way of matching Sony, it also has to do it when Sony is not far from releasing the updated version of its own flagship camera, which will no doubt have improved specifications. In addition, Canon has to find a means of incorporating its DPAF technology into whatever it creates to take on not only the a9 but whatever Nikon — which is already using BSI sensors in the D850, Z 6, and Z 7 — also has in the pipeline.

The D850, Z 6, and Z 7. Three Nikon cameras that use sensors from Sony.

No doubt Canon has been working hard on some new sensors for some time, registering numerous patents for stacked sensors over the last couple of years. What’s worrying is that its research and development has not manifested in their initial forays into the world of mirrorless, and as of last week, there’s now another elephant in the room in the shape of the Sony a7R IV. This is no sports/wildlife shooter (though with ten frames per second, some would beg to differ), but it does demonstrate the terrifying speed at which Sony is developing its sensors. Furthermore, it shows how few qualms it has at aggressively pushing out its new technology when, I would argue, it would be better off adding refinement rather than megapixels.

The Sony a7R IV. Weather sealing and 61 megapixels is great. The user interface is not.

To make matters worse, the rumors suggest that Sony is not hanging on to this new technology: there’s said to be a 61 megapixel Nikon Z8 coming next year, and guess which sensor it will be using. If Sony wants to undermine Canon's position in the camera industry, giving its sensors to Canon's traditional rival is potentially a very shrewd tactic.

Fortunately for Canon, the sausage-measuring game is only a small part of what makes a successful camera, and those predicting the company’s demise might want to wind in the melodrama. With that said, Sony’s deep pockets and loss-leading camera bodies are certain to shake up a market that is undergoing some notable changes. If you’ve any thoughts on what’s to come — and whether photographers genuinely want or need more than 20 frames per second — please leave a comment below.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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Canon will release a camera, it will feel good in your hands and the menu system will be nice to
Use, and lots will still prefer it over Sony no matter the tech differences.

I like Canons ergonomics, it feels better. Sony cameras actually feel like they were made by someone who didn’t use cameras, I simply do not understand it.

I am a Canon user, and I don't use Sony, so I can't comment on that. But I read online (maybe here, or maybe PetaPixel) an article on how Canon had a great touch LCD interface back in 2012.

I don't really agree with them being design by someone who didn't use a camera. All the buttons are placed the same as most other cameras. I do use hand straps myself so I'm not gripping the camera as much while pressing buttons which leaves some fingers free more often. That and I have smaller hands so I don't notice much of the ergonomics people talk about. It is a boxy camera though.

If they just redesigned the A99 II body and made it mirrorless, no one would complain anymore. Sony has a comfortable design and people seem to forget it exists. I'll also note that even though it's a different mount, it's actually a pretty good camera. Similar sensor to the ar7ii. Why it's still $3200 for the body is beyond me though.

Canon mirrorless need to match or beat Sony's AF. Sony's eye AF is great, and now they even have animal eye AF.

Canon's DIGIC 8 Imaging Processor was the first to offer Eye AF, and it's "just okay". There are rumors that we will have cameras with dual DIGIC 8 processor. CanonRumors report a rumor about EOS M6, with a new DIGIC 8+ processor that does 30fps RAW burst mode ad 4K with no crop. As a Canon user, I have to thank Sony for pushing other brands to be more competitive. We now have Nikon, Panasonic/Sigma, and Canon full-frame mirrorless all thanks to Sony :)

Nikon has been buying sensors from Sony for a while now so that's not really a new development. Nearly every company in the industry buy their sensors from Sony and have done so for quite some time...

Let's be real. Canon doesn't have to match Sony. They just need to release something acceptable for use and it will sell like hotcakes even if it may not better the a9 in any area of a spec sheet. "Good enough" has been the standard of Canon cameras for the past decade... They may have squandered a lot of good will associated with their brand name in that decade, but there's still plenty left as can be evidenced by the continued strong sales of their current crop of technically inferior products. Feeling good in the hand and having a strong support network go a long way toward user forgiveness.

Put a battery grip on a Sony and it's about the same size and weight as full frame DSLR's. Here's my Sony A7R2 with a grip beside a friend's Nikon D810, both with 16-35 lenses.

That's kinda dumb. What exactly is the point of this? Why would put a battery grip on the Sony and not the friend's Nikon? Either do a grip for grip comparison, or do a no grip to no grip comparison.

I’ve been showing people my A7Riii with a grip since the first day I got it and they all think it’s a DSLR until they see “Sony” on it.
The ergonomics argument is an odd to me but then again, so is the menu system one because I read manuals and most don’t...

One camera may be better than the other but nobody on the job is ever giving a damn what you’re using or judging you for it.

The photo editors behind the scenes are. I'm one of them. As long as it's not a Canon, I'm having a good time.

It's like when (old) Top Gear would review a car and Clarkson would go on about how "difficult the radio is to use". Well yes, if you're reviewing a car for a day you might not have time to get familiar with the menu. I bought a Sony in January and within a week knew where everything was, within 2 weeks I'd set up the shortcut menu. It's really not a good reason to decide not to buy something.

It’s an excuse for people to justify their bias.
Once I set up my Sony custom buttons (All buttons are basically customizable but specifically C1-4) I don’t bother with the menu anymore. Some just don’t understand that concept.
I’m a former Canon user and don’t miss it a bit.

I really don't have a bias, I've had two Canons, two Panasonics and two Sony's. I'm relatively new to photography so don't have any nostalgic attachment to brands.

Hugh Brownstone of Three Blind Man and an Elephant posted recently a delightful video comparing Canon-Sony sparring to the raise of Muhammad Ali. The upstart was underestimated, Liston seemed invincible, and yet, we know how it turned out. He compares Canon to Liston: Bets 7:1 in Liston's favor, older hegemonic player, not training too well, underestimating opponent. They thought Cassius Clay has merely fast mouth, like Sony now: "only hype."
I think Nikon is done indeed, a Number 3 now. Sony has now only Canon in their visor. Their super Tele-primes show whom they target in conjunction with the A9 or A7 and these lenses: Canon users in the reporting pit, their core business.

Or you could enjoy Sony sensors and Nikon ergonomics and affordable high quality lenses. Nikon ergonomics might be a close second to Canon 5D series, but they are close unlike Sony. Z6 is an amazing shooting experience. Every ex-Canon shooter shooting Sony owes him or herself the chance to find out what mirrorless with good ergonomics is like.

Nikon's current lenses aren't exactly cheap...

You can use very competitively priced F mount lenses on Nikon Z to excellent effect. I happily shoot a 35mm f1.8G, a 70-200mm f2.8E FL and a 200-500mm f5.6 VR on my Z6, both with and without teleconverters.

F glass performs as native on the Z cameras.

@Christian Fiore...neither are Canon, Sony, Panasonic full frame lenses.

Nikon lenses are more expensive compared to Canon, at least last time I checked .. but with Tamron being pretty much better than Nikkor with latest lenses there is always a way to save some bucks and get more ...

I shot Canon for a decade. I moved to Nikon a few months ago. There's little difference in lens prices, at least in terms of price-performance. The Nikon F 1.4 trinity is badly dated though. with very heavy chromatic aberration wide open and not particularly sharp. So no, they don't represent particularly good value.

Fortunately the f1.8 trinity is astonishingly good and very affordable. The Nikon Z f1.8 primes are fantastic as well, every bit as good as most of Canon's L glass and at about one third the price at the same focal length (albeit f1.8 and f1.2 or f1.4. I need the quality of the image and the great bokeh not the crazy wide aperture so that suits me well.

One may also recall Churchill's great quote "Some chicken, some neck." when referring to the presumption of British surrender in WWII.
It took a while but the Allies finally won over adversaries many felt had won by late 1941

Gene Lower or Yonathan Kellerman?

Sure, there are (at the moment) consistently more Canons and Nikons at pro events but that doesn't mean it will always be that way. Most sports photographers at that level have been doing this for a while so it makes sense that they would be using a system that has worked and is well supported by Canon and Nikon.

Not to mention it’s not so easy to spot the Sony shooters. Same color big lenses, and some photographers adapt the a9 to their Canon lenses so you can’t tell at all from some angles.

Ah you’re right. Of course because your friend only saw one sponsored Sony photographer at one event that means that there are no Sony cameras in all of professional sports. My mistake.

Sample size of one

Lol, you sound like a broken record. You brought this up last month. Your friend is barely .001% of the professionals out there.

Do I have to screenshot this same tired ass argument you make on every thread AGAIN to prove how ridiculous you are?

“My friend who’s a professional counts Sony bodies”... Jan, com’on man. Just stop with the bullshit.

Your fake “friends” that are photographers aren’t counting Sony’s at events. Nobody that shoots professionally cares what other people are using at an event.

Take it easy. Just look at the models used to take professional award winning photos. That effectively demonstrates the weakness Sony has amongst professionals.

Please, enlighten us to who these photographers are that don’t deserve respect in their field.

Using your logic: there are more 2019 cars out there than 2020 cars, so 2019 cars are much better.

Reality: Pro DSLR users have had exponentially more time and models to choose from in the history of pro digital cameras. So there are more out there, just by the fact that there are around 20x more models available, and have been available for literally 10x as long. Change doesn't happen overnight, but it happens. And by the time it does, you'll be like "hey, what happened?".

I shoot professionally, any music festival ive gone too its rare to find a canon or nikon, i shoot events, i see more and more sonys every year, all major sports photographers unless independent work for publications that provide the gear. Those companies do not hot swap all of that gear like non shooting people on social media. Most ppl that complain aboht sony cameras never used one a day in their life or never learned one to actually use it. With the original models with everyone complaining about battery life on those cameras... ive personally shot 13 hr days at festivals on 2 w batteries registering in well over 2000 photos. The z battery forget it im out all day shooting video and photos on a single battery. My peers ive shot with using canon have envied my smaller more equipped setup, my body appreciates my camera choices and im perfectly content with approaching a professional environment with my sony cameras. This article is a perfect example of the stupidity behind dslr vs mirrorless. The dslr is dead period gone done period flatlined. The 1dx II shows the limitations of the highest quality full frame offering from canon an all of its short comings are fixed in mirrorless bc mirrorless is the evolution of the dslr. Only a bloat would wanna carry heavy gear to look cool or impress a client. I dont care what a client thinks about my gear. You saw my work? You liked my work? You hired me based on my work? This is what i use to make that so move out of my way. If you are shooting professionally theres a good chance you arent just showing up with a camera and a lens i would HOPE. The internet needs to get over these useless posts move past the comparisons and get more into the realistic differences between brands and stop making excuses for crap production by these companies.. you’ll forever put sony through the ringer and make excuses for canon an nikons... im glad to see people realize dual pixel isnt faster than sonys focus system... which is a relief ... if you people want to shoot with inferior products bc of the name LET them... just stop coming online and acting like Sony cameras arent professional... just because some cant produce high quality images with them or video, doesnt mean pro level users cant.

Ah remember when there were no or nearly no Canons in the professional sport fields? Then EOS changed all that. Times change. Sony is being very aggressive.

Sorry, but you couldn't be more wrong. I'm mostly in the architectural side of things and some of the best in the field shoot Sony. Throw a Zeiss lens on a Sony and it's a beautiful experience. my kick around travel camera is an a6000 with the 18-105 f/4 G, and I've got some stunning stuff with it.
Not sure where all this is coming from. Cameras don't make the photographer, their ability to compose and light does. I can still produce a kick-ass shot on really old gear.

You didn't get banned for trolling yet?

He’s just an angry old man. Let him drool and spit all over himself in the comments.
Most of us have stopped paying attention unless we’re calling him out on his BS.

Why haven’t you been banned for posting a comment that is at best an insulting and needless personal attack, and at worst, something which reveals your ugly hatred and ageism?

Yes, you are a hateful and spiteful person. You can only trash Sony and insult every person using a Sony camera. You seem to be the utmost stubborn and pigheaded Canon fanboy who can only insult everything Sony and everyone using Sony. What is your problem? Can't you accept that your favourite brand isn't the hottest anymore. Is your ego so seriously linked to that brand? Get a life man.

Comment histories are available to show why I responded that way. There is no ageism, stop digging for sympathy.

Jan, I've been shooting NHL, NBA, and MLB for several years. What you are saying is just not true. It used to be 90% Canon, 10% Nikon shooters, but now I'm seeing more like 60-70% Canon, 20-30% Sony, and 10% Nikon shooters.

Canon's one advantage was having the fastest AF you could get, making their EOS system perfect for sports. Nikon has always edged them out in image quality and has become the go to brand for wildlife photographers.

The a9 changed the game, now I'm seeing Sony cameras at sporting events, concerts, the White House Press Corps. From what I've seen, Nikon is holding ground while Sony gobbles up the market share that Canon is losing. Sales figures near this out as well.

Lol, 30% Sony usage by pros at a sporting event? LOL, closer to 3% more likely, if that.

I think you mean “piccies”

Just got back from the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach last weekend. Of course smart phones dominated but of the hundreds of more serious photogs on the beach, I was stunned by the number of A9s A7RIII's surrounding me. The sale of a A7RIII to a pro or a serious amateur still provides the same amount of money to Sony unless they gave it to the pro for free.

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