Did Canon Get Its Mirrorless Strategy Wrong?

Did Canon Get Its Mirrorless Strategy Wrong?

The photography news channels have been awash with announcements from Canon over the past few weeks and rightly so as it had a lot to talk about with the release of two new mirrorless cameras. But has it got its mirrorless development strategy wrong?

To understand Canon's current predicament you need to place their current offerings — and roadmap — within the context of the development of the DSLR and mirrorless camera markets. At that point you can assess how they are performing against their key competitors.

Historical Backdrop

The dawn of the DSLR was a largely predictable affair. Kodak had been in the sensor fabrication business for some time before eventually selling (from 1991) it's range of hybrid DCS SLRs: butchered film cameras designed to take digital backs, they were a stop gap. It would take until 1999 before Nikon was the first to market with an integrated single brand DSLR. Everyone largely followed suit with Canon (2001), Pentax (2003), Olympus (2003), and Minolta (2005) all releasing models. It was a period of intense technical innovation as engineers sought to integrate digital sensors and image processing in to their existing film designs.

The next obvious structural design change was to remove the mirrorbox from the DSLR. This was arguably as significant a change, if not more so, than the integration of digital sensors with two major elements. Firstly a physical redesign of the camera body was needed. With the mirrorbox gone, the single biggest constraint to the depth of camera had been removed, meaning that ILCs could be much slimmer. This meant a complete refactoring of the lens mount and the introduction of new lens systems.

Secondly, it required a step change in the processing capabilities of the camera to solely use contrast detection autofocus. Whilst such systems had been around since the early 1990s (and in DSLRs since the mid-2000s), requiring an ILC to rely on them was difficult as they were slow. Improved processors, software, and sensors, particularly the innovative development of on-sensor phase detection, has brought them to parity with DSLRs.

The early 2010s saw manufacturers pursue a range of different MILC form factors as they rode the back of historically unprecedented camera sales and large cash surpluses. What's certain is that neither Nikon nor Canon saw, or wanted, to see the mirrorless camera to replace the DSLR. Their offerings were superior and offered a stable cash base to their camera divisions.

What Did Sony and Nikon Do?

Sony arguably developed the best strategy by shifting its focus to mirrorless. It was early to market with the NEX-3 in 2010, following this up with the a7 in 2013. Whilst the a7 takes the plaudits, it's important to remember that it was one of a triumvirate: the a7, a7R, and a7S (the last in 2014). These have gone through regular updates to the current fourth iteration. Not only that, but Sony re-wrote the sales book by offering all models concurrently, rather than replacing them. Even now, only the original a7 has been discontinued. How else has it filled out its range? Not much is the answer, with the a5000 and a6000 ranges and of course the a9. Again, all largely sold concurrently. Their roadmap was aggressive and by 2018 they were the second largest manufacturer of ILCs, becoming the number one seller of full frame cameras in Japan in 2019.

Meanwhile, Nikon made the expensive mistake of investing in the 1 System. Not wanting to cannibalize DSLR sales and pitching in the same vein as Panasonic and Olympus with Micro-Four Thirds, they based their system around the small CX sensor (2.7x crop factor). Whilst technically innovative at the time, the collapse of camera sales from 2013 vaporized the market they thought existed. The company was also in the unenviable position of relying in large part on its imaging division for income. It's likely that by 2015 they knew their mirrorless strategy was wrong and DSLR sales were contracting rapidly; they needed to pivot and pivot quickly, whilst at the same time engineering a world class system that could conceivably last as long as the F-mount. In 2018 the 1 system was killed off and the Z system was announced to the world with the release of the Z 6 and Z 7. This duo of cameras filled the same role as the a7 and a7R in Sony's range and were well received, being competitive in the sector.

So where does Canon fit in to the emerging mirrorless marketplace?

What is Canon's Strategy?

Canon's foray in to mirrorless cameras to this point has been more successful than Nikon's, releasing the APS-C based EOS-M in 2012. This remains in active development and was originally pitched to prosumers, as a street camera, and as a accompaniment to a DSLR. Like Nikon, they would have been in the same position come 2015 and so also started factoring a new lens mount and roadmap for development.

Roll on October 2018 and having been pipped to the post by Nikon, the EOS-R was announced. The press had been hoping, even expecting, a mirrorless equivalent of the 5D Mark IV but Canon under delivered with a good camera undone by a lack of of IBIS, single card slot, and unconventional layout. It was underwhelming and more expensive than the competition. Surely Canon would deliver with the next iteration. The EOS-RP duly arrived in 2019 which was almost bizarrely an entry level camera. This flew in the face of the aggressive lens roadmap that was producing some high quality optics, launching with four workhorses.

Of course, the recent release of the R5 and R6 brings Canon in to line with the "normal" and "high resolution" models of Nikon and Sony, introducing IBIS, as well as the groundbreaking 8K video. Two years after the event, Canon have scored a home run with their 5D equivalent, whilst upping the ante. At the same time they have rapidly filled out their lens lineup leaving Nikon trailing in third place, although both are well behind Sony's offerings. Of course, Sony has had a significant head start in filling out its lens range, however the limitations of the E-mount may provide Nikon and Canon with greater leverage in the future to offer more exotic (such Nikon's 58 mm f/0.95 Noct) or more efficient designs.

Meanwhile, Nikon already has its first APS-C model in the form of the Z50 which formers a cornerstone in its development strategy. Establishing a prosumer line of mirrorless models is arguably as important financially, if not more so, than the full frame professional range, something that Sony has understood from the beginning. They service a sector that is willing to pay premium prices with good margins and who, ultimately, might get weaned on to the full frame models. Again, Canon's development lag is noticeable, making the earlier release of the EOS-RP even stranger.

The recent announcement of the Z 5 demonstrates the direction Nikon intends to take whilst we wait for Canon's response. Of course new camera systems are as much about the lens lineup as the camera body and Canon is well advanced in this regard. However its also a salutary reminder that you can shoot on a new system with a body and a few lenses. The same can't be said if a camera body isn't available. This is all the more perplexing given the impressive mount adaptors that both Canon and Nikon have developed.

What Does the Future Hold?

This brings us back to the release of new mirrorless systems at the beginning of the 2010s. Sony got it right, whilst Nikon and Canon got it wrong. The future is undoubtedly mirrorless. That's not to say DSLRs won't continue in some form; they will and Sony's A-mount is a good example of this. All of which begs the question as to exactly when Canon changed strategy, throwing its weight behind the RF-mount. At that point were they ahead or behind Nikon and how did they envisage the parallel development of lenses and bodies? Interestingly they have prioritized the release of high quality lenses, with the EOS-R and EOS-RP almost acting as teasers for the main event: the R5 and R6. Appearing nearly two years after Nikon, that is some considerable delay. Did they switch to mirrorless later than Nikon? Have they been hampered by their own sensor development and fabrication? Nikon have seemingly taken the opposite approach of vigorously developing the Z6 and Z7 with a range of good, but not great, lenses.

In the tick-tock world of camera release, will we see Nikon take the next step in filling out their mirrorless range? Will those lost 2 years of development prove costly for Canon? What will their APS-C strategy be? And can the Sony juggernaut be stopped?

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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Is Sony's A-Mount really the "DSLR future" you want to point at? Their last new body was announced in 2016... just a year after the last Nikon 1 body was out.

No one announced their system is cancelled until well after everyone pretty much knows it. So sure, the A-Mount hasn't officially been cancelled... oh, wait, it kind of has been. Sony didn't precisely cancel A-Mount, but they did discontinue the last remaining body, the α99 II, over a year ago. Sony's one of those weird companies that's smart enough to keep making what sells. Thus, all those older models still sold new. Very CE-thinking there, one of their superpowers in a world of camera companies. But Sony had only a tiny, if local, base of A-Mount users.

The problem with the Sony α99 II is that it never goes down in price. I have a couple of A77 IIs and wanted to upgrade but was never able to.

"No one announced their system is cancelled until well after everyone pretty much knows it. "

Sounds like Nikon 1. Died in 2015, obituary in 2018.

Sony brought all the mirrorless features to a dSLR system (and its legacy lenses) via their SLT bodies. It was and still is ahead in that regards. Sony abandoned it to focus on getting the lead in pure mirrorless.

we'll talk about this when the sport shooters like me wil have to spent 2 hours with the eye on a screen... someone forgot about ergonomy and confort of this thing

Well, I was shooting entire 2019 season of GKA Kite World Tour with mirrorless (Fuji X-T3 with 100-400mm) (edit: and that means abouta week at viewfinder nearly non stop), and now switched to X-T4 (yet season is screwed up due to covid thing), and find it way more efficient than 1DX Mark II due to really great pre-shoot and 30fps countinuous high speed shooting. Only issue was a battery, but with triple battery grip that arg is just void. I do not see any substantial advantage of being on pure optical viewfinder for my type of action (which is quite fast paced).

Did you have any issues focusing with the X-T4, Yury?

Well, the only case I have focusing issue is Sigma 60-600 lens adaped with Fringer. Other lenses are same as with X-T3 or better. Faster AF for sure. And Sigma focuses damn great at 600 and 300mm, but at 400 it misses a focus 100 of 100 shots. Manual focus is just perfect, yet it is no go for fast paced action. I tested 3 lenses, as I have friendly Sigma dealer here in Gibraltar, but all the same. And X-T3 behaving just the same as X-T4. I have 3 bodies - X-T30, X-T3 and X-T4, so I do not have to switch the lens during entire event. Typically paired as 16-80 with X-T30, 50-140 with X-T3 and 100-400 with X-T4.

You can find some of shots in Instagram: @go2kite.team - all shot with X-T3 or X-T30 last season.

I'm talking about ergonomy and not about the "technical" object, I tried to use it for a single match an R given by Canon, at the end of first half using the eye viewfinder my eye had signs of fatigue, i decided to switch to the lcd, and due to the position at the end of the match i had problems with my cervical.

Nikon lenses are great, not only good.
They are not 1.2 for now, but are pretty amazing in every aspect.
Canon move was great. Sony is very solid. Nikon will release the second generation of Z mount cameras soon, and will begin with more expensive/"exciting" lenses soon. I actually believe now that the three major brands offer awesome products and it's just a matter of preference by this point.

I couldnt agree more. The lenses are magnificent and practical. The only move I dont understand is why to develop the Noct that nobody is going to use, instead of developing a set of more interesting and usable lenses for the common people... like a 15, 20, 105, 135 or 200 primes, a 24-120 f4 or the 24-70 2.8. I think that is the only thing preventing them of selling more cameras.

People complained for years about Nikon not changing their mount like Canon did .However has Sony backed themselves into a similar problem?Canon(54 mm and 20 mm) and Nikon(55 mm diameter and 16 mm flange ) both revised theirs with the new systems?Will we see specialty lenses offered by Sony or will there restriction drive up their costs to produce competitively and/or add more weight thru complex designs?
You could throw 3 pictures up on a wall (shot with Canon ,Sony and Nikon and probably other manufacturers)and most consumers could not tell what system was used and don't really care ,they just like it or they don't.You can chase this forever ,all the manufactures care about is another sale and they probably balance their portfolio's in the market by all owning each others shares.

One thing to think about is since Sony is the leader in mirrorless, lenses are being designed with their mount in mind first. Even new designs by Sigma are made to project through the E-mount first, then ported to L-mount (which Sigma belongs to/is first party in). Same for Samyang, who's begun porting their AF E-mount lenses to Canon.

And remember, just because E-mount is smaller, doesn't mean things can't be aligned to properly project through it. Sony's been making some of the best optical designs of late, despite people ragging on their mount. The 135/1.8 is one of the sharpest lenses ever tested, and the 20/1.8 beats out Nikon's own version in sharpness, despite Z-mount's "advantage".

People want the most out of almost every electronic gadget these days. Unlocked Iphones, rooted phones, overclocked PC's with water cooling and so on. Here we have Canon taking the guess work and hackery out and giving it to us. I want a great mirrorless camera and really don't use video. But who doesn't like to have the best. Even if it's only for 2 minutes...lol It gives us something to look forward too and play with in the mean time. Anyone wondering about an overclocked EOS R? If someone had a hacked firmware enabling no crop 4K who wouldn't want it, even if it only would record for 5min? lol I like the new goodies on the R5 and R6. Looking forward to more cutting edge pushing other manufacturers to also push the envelope.

Yeah it’s almost like some sort of sadistic game people want to play with tech, demanding that they run it at its limit for as long as possible... almost like they are trying to break the thing, then whining when they actually do.

Actually , those Nikon Z 1.8 lenses are great .

I wonder why Nikon could possibly be a benchmark for a successfull mirrorless strategy.

Maybe they are. Maybe there is room for more than on "successful" strategy. I have owned both Sony and Nikon FF ILC cameras and to me they are both very good cameras. Nikon with their lens strategy has gone for the middle of the road so far, but isn't that the right path for the most sales. On the other hand Sony has done things to make their strategy work really well too. I have never owned a Canon so cannot comment on them.


Really though. 7 is at least 6 whilsts too many.

I shot Canon for 19 years (Wildlife and surfing) until 2017, when the Sony A9i burst onto the scene..The specs seemed too crazy to be true, so before I purchased one, and of course a few Sony GM lenses, I wrote to Canon to ask if they were going to compete, and match/better the Sony A9i, but they never bothered to respond. (I was shooting the 1DXMKii / 5Div / 7Dii plus the 200mm-400mm f4 with built-in 1.4xTC plus their other white lenses with much success so was really torn between Canon and looking at this...

The specs of the Sony A9i were such a radical inflection point, with radical focus acquisition/tracking etc, that I was compelled to purchase one.. I started on surfing and then wildlife, but after a trip to photograph the annual nesting spectacle of the Carmine Bee-eaters on the Zambezi River (Namibian side), I was totally blown away by the performance of the A9i, even though I only used it with the 70mm - 200mm f2.8 + 2xTC (The 100mm-400mm GM was not available to me at that stage)

I came back to my base in South Africa, and again wrote to Canon to ask if their roadmap included a mirrorless body which could compete favourably in the near future... All I needed was some re-assurance that they would be doing so, and that would have been enough for me to hang in there... But, again, all they could say was that the A9i couldn't use a flash with the electronic shutter, and generally tried to play down the Sony A9i without any indication of what the future held... My recent personal experience on the Zambezi told me that Sony were onto something special, so I sold every single bit of Canon gear I had, and replaced it with a second A9i body, the 100mm - 400mm GM and a 24mm 70mm f2.8 GM, and then later added an A7Riii which was just awesome... I have since moved on, added a 400mm f2.8 GM, to the A9ii and A7Riv which are even better...

IMHO, I feel that because CANIKON felt that they were the kings of the castle, they could continue to dictate to their market, and secondly, they had a major following who owned a huge investment in legacy glass, and it would need a series of adapters to even reach a compromise in performance, if they pursued the mirrorless trend with any seriousness.

Sony were indeed fortunate that they could start out making very high performance GM lenses, specifically designed for their high performance, Full frame, E Alpha mount bodies... It was significant that they also have stuck to the E mount as a standard, meaning they could maximise performance, without having to use adapters which just add cost, and be a big schlep.

Of course Sony chose to keep their bodies all lower priced than CANIKON, but allow the lenses to be on a price par with CANIKON high end glass... They gambled that Sony users would choose to use proprietary Sony native lenses.. *Sigma have come out with some very useful glass to pair with the FF Alpha bodies, which in reality, compliments Sony, because the price advantage of having the FF Alpha body, and some very useful, cheaper cross-over lenses, keeping their rigs affordable.

Sony's next genius move was to launch the A7iii, jam-packed with many features, at an unbeatable price point, under what CANIKON tried with their offering of mirrorless bodies. That must have rocked CANIKON very badly...

Sony leads the world on photographic sensors, as it makes huge sense... Just ask Apple, NIKON, Fuji etc... They can't all be wrong.

Canon's super-annoying teaser marketing got people salivating big time, but when the Canon 1DX MKiii finally came out, it still couldn't match the Sony A9i in speed and performance... Don't get me wrong, it is a great camera, but I have heard from more than one Canon 1DXMKii user that the 1DX MKiii does not do very much more than the 1 DX MK ii, and the extra price certainly isn't justified, so they never upgraded.

To answer your question... Can Canon get back to "Top Dog"? The EOS R5 and EOS R6 are prime examples of another major blunder after huge marketing hype, then an embarrassingly damp squib! Sony again have been really cute, by delaying the launch of the new A7Siii...

At this stage, Canon senior management needs a major shake-up, get some new blood, refreshed thinking, and make some hard decisions, because in recent times, every time they bring out a new camera, they get slaughtered!

Let's hope they wake up soon, because the photographic world really needs healthy competition to keep the likes of Sony on their toes...

Great article Mike... Keep up the great work.

Sony had nothing to lose.

CanNikon had a large and established base that could be lost by an ill judged product launch. Nikon in particular has fewer resources than Canon or Sony and thus had to be especially careful.

I still don't understand what the market is for 8k.

Bragging rights.

I feel the same way, although I'm clearly not the target market for an 8k video camera. I have no way to display 4k, let alone 8k, and I very rarely shoot any video at all.

The 8k market is same as the HD market was some years back, not quite there and yet now 4k is becoming the new standard. If you want to shoot broadcast, that's how you now capture. In a few years 4k will be the norm and 8k will be starting to be the new standard.
As for it's use. Shooting in higher 4k and outputting to 1080p is better than shooting 1080p natively. Netflix have demand 4k for delivery for a while now and their 1080p output is so much better than everyone else's.
You can also crop/zoom in if need be with higher res sensors which is handy for both stills and video.

People complaining about a product/feature they will never use and is not aimed at them is a bit daft really. Those who do use such things will simply buy it and get on with shooting.

That's kind of my point. The average consumer is not trying to get their videos on Netflix, and if you are a pro, you are probably using a cinema camera.

In regard to complaining about a feature they never use, well, if I buy a car with a sunroof, but never use it, I still want the sunroof to work.

As we can only speculate as to what Canon's strategy may be, the issue remains firmly in the webosphere realm of endless chatter.
Sony has made great cameras, Nikon has made great cameras and Canon has great cameras.
Whatever decisions they make in the future will be affected by a lot more than just consumer enthusiasm despite the narrative that the market is smart.

I wonder why authors always seem to look ONLY at the RF glass line-up when comparing mirrorless systems, as if all of Canon's EF line-up, which is fully compatible with a simple adapter, didn't exist, or was worthless. This isn't the same as the transition from FD to EF systems. EF glass works very well on R-mount cameras, and should be counted as an asset.

Canon is depending on it. Leveraging the EF line-up is an essential part of Canon's strategy. The EF lenses fill the many holes in the current RF line-up, and effective adaptation of EF lenses makes the transition from EOS to R-mount much easier for Canon's existing customers. For example, the launch of the EOS RP isn't "bizarre" at all, when you consider the number of relatively inexpensive lenses available for it when you mate it with an EF adapter. All this is true, yet this author, and many others, completely discount this aspect of Canon's strategy. The EF glass on offer is still one of Canon's greatest strengths, even for R-mount cameras.

You can use EF lenses on Sony, as well, and have been able to for nearly an entire decade. The current experience is better on Sony, at least vs the EOS R. Hopefully the R5/6 can keep up better with AF.

Canon played it right. They telegraphed their intentions perfectly on day one and followed prior precedent precisely. In the first batch of lenses was the 28-80 f2. With that lens out at first they announced to the world we're fully behind this system and this lens proves it. They started with lenses and the cameras followed in time. Never has Canon released a flagship style camera first. Whenever new major technology is released Canon starts with a smaller less featured camera a la the D30, D60 before the EOS 1D. When Canon released Dual Pixel AF it wasn't with the 1Dx Mark II it was the 7D Mark II.
Nobody will buy the R5/R6 and EOS 1R next year without a robust RF lineup already in place and lenses are Canon's bread and butter so it makes sense to throw all their weight behind building up the lens lineup first.

I had to haul around a big heavy DSLR for work, but I ended up leaving my personal DSLR at home and retreated from the hobby. Photography may have skyrocketed with smartphones, but I wanted better images and more control than what they could offer. Sony came along with their small and light APS-C mirrorless cameras that produced images as good (and some cases better if DR is important) as the big heavy offerings from Nikon and Canon and rekindled my interest in the hobby.

Simply disagree the future is mirror less. Don't enjoy evfs as much and they still look artificial and less classy than a quality slr viewfinder. Additionally the element of discovery of how your sensor image worked out is largely gone.

The Z7 in not in the same league as the A7R IV.
Nikon's mistake was not coming out of the gates with a FF mirrorless pro camera.
It thinks its customers will accept its near-enough-is-good-enough approach.