Canon is the most popular camera manufacturer in the world, but it has had a reputation in the past for using sensors inside its cameras that have lagged behind the best of the competition. Why is this and what does the future hold?
Digital image sensors are an expensive business, but with annual sales of smartphones at around 1.5B units, that's an awful lot of sensors, particularly when you factor in multi-camera models. The burgeoning image sensor business doesn't stop there, with industrial vision systems (particularly robotics and automotive, but also medical and science applications) adding to global demand that is continually rising. In fact, demand is such that earlier this year, Samsung announced that they were converting an existing DRAM manufacturing line over to camera sensor production. This isn't unusual (Samsung did the same thing back in 2018), as around 80% of the process and equipment overlaps; however, what gives an impression of scale of the capital and ongoing production costs is that this will still see a write-down of some $815 million to complete it!
In terms of the global image sensor market, Samsung holds around 18% to Sony's 49%, with OmniVision trailing at 9%. In a market that's vastly expensive to enter and — at least for smartphone cameras — has low margins, the scale of production is all-important. Sony has an ability to invest in R&D to an extent that others are unable to. Of course, a single large manufacturer is never a recipe for a competitive sector, and it's for this reason that many camera manufacturers try to spread their risk between different sensor suppliers, although exactly which sensors are used in which cameras can only be surmised after a tear-down, and even then, it might be difficult to ascertain. Nikon has long used Sony sensors, but also produced its own LBCAST sensors and over the years continued manufacturing, although it appears they no longer have a fab facility. They now either source from other manufacturers or have their own designs produced. As a result, they are also quite promiscuous and not averse to using a range of suppliers (Toshiba, Aptina, and the recently rumored Tower Semiconductor).
This brings us to Canon, who is a major manufacturer with a particular focus upon industrial applications, although they make a point of stating that they produce the sensors in their EOS cameras. Holding somewhere around 5% of the market, Canon is an important — although small — player, which is something you don't often say about their business! Sony has dominated the sensor market both in terms of volume and top-end camera sensors for the best part of a decade, with Canon trailing in the image quality stakes. This is clearly something that Canon is aiming to redress: while they show no interest in entering the smartphone sector (which is where the volume lies), they have increased their production capacity and in 2016, announced they would sell to third parties. This began in 2018 (via Phase1); however, these are industrial sensors, which reiterates their manufacturing focus: horizontal expansion into related imaging markets.
EOS-1D X Mark III Image Quality
In terms of image quality, the gap has been narrowing with each iteration of sensor although DXOMark's recent review of the EOS-1D X Mark III again raises the issue of image quality. DXOMark score camera sensors on the basis of testing color, noise, and ISO sensitivity, with the overall score an average of the three. Garnering a score of 83, we could describe DXOMark's assessment of the image quality as "lackluster":
it’s not quite at the cutting edge in our metrics for sensor performance, but there’s far more to it than that.
The nearly two-year-old Nikon D850 and more recent Sony a9 II outperform in these stakes, scoring 100 and 99 respectively. The D850 isn't a direct competitor, although the a9 II is. Perhaps more pertinently, the low-light quality of the EOS-1D X III is only broadly on a par with the Nikon D5, which was released in 2016. Is the 1D X Mark III a miss for Canon in what should have been a superlative Olympic year?
It's still too early to get a consensus on how the camera performs; however, both the DPReview studio test and Photons to Photos dynamic range test paint a different story. DPReview clearly show a significant jump in performance over the EOS-1D X II, whilst ISO dynamic range performance at Photons to Photos shows a stop improvement at lower ISOs. More importantly, it edges ahead of the a9 II and offers significantly better low ISO performance than the Nikon D6, which trades this for very high ISO performance. It's also important to note that DXOMark does not publish their methods, which are frequently called into question.
Future Sensor Strategy
All of which makes the upcoming release of the R5 and R6 immensely important for Canon, particularly given the headline specifications that have been teased so far. Make no mistake, this is an era-defining year for Canon as it transitions its camera business from DSLR to mirrorless. Nikon beat it to market by some considerable distance with the release of the Z 6 and Z 7, although it's as much about the lens lineup as it is about the camera bodies themselves. The lead it has given Sony, both in terms of the time advantage for developing a system and relinquishing market share in the ILC sector, is substantial. It is no longer number one in its home market, a position it has held for a long time. Manufacturers may bemoan the cataclysmic drop in unit sales, but the truth is that this isn't about cameras. It's about companies that produce cameras, and their manufacturing influence goes much broader. The pivot to mirrorless and implosion of camera sales is an opportunity for disrupting the sector, one that Sony has taken advantage of.
Could it be that 2020 will actually be a return to form for Canon that sees its engineering teams not only fill out its RF lens lineup, but produce genuinely world-class mirrorless camera bodies? On top of that, could we also see Canon's sensor fabrication finally leapfrog Sony in terms of image quality?