The L-Mount Alliance: Too Little, Too Late?

The L-Mount Alliance: Too Little, Too Late?

The L-Mount Alliance marked the culmination of a remarkable period in the history of the (digital) camera. However in five years time, will we look back and see this as the beginning of the end? Was the L-Mount Alliance simply too little, too late?

The Mirrorless Backstory

Whilst the mirrorless form-factor kicked off in 2004 with Epson's RD1, it wasn't until Panasonic's G1 in 2008 that the party really got started. Perhaps this is the way that revolutions happen — from left-field — however at the time Micro Four Thirds format was where the innovation was believed to lie. Removing the mirrorbox was a cost cutting measure that imposed some severe performance issues. Nobody expected the subsequent pivot away from DSLRs. But pivot they did with Sony's release of the Alpha 7 in 2013, a large commercial marker in the sand. Performance remained pedestrian, but Sony's business model of rapid product iteration, as well as their experience and expertise in both image sensors and smartphones, suggests they believed it was a better alternative to DSLRs.

Full Frame Mirrorless

The hitherto nascent full frame mirrorless market expanded rapidly at a time of contracting camera sales. The release of the Alpha 7 II was the milestone, the point of no return, the moment when mirrorless reached parity with the DSLR. DPReview said at the time:

Sony is a stone's throw away from having a mirrorless full-framer that can compete with big boys' DSLRs

It's likely that Canon and Nikon already knew the writing was on the wall at this point. They had both experimented with mirrorless, but in the same vein as Panasonic, using small sensors targeted at consumers. They were never intended to replace DSLRs as that would cannibalize sales and, more pertinently, require the re-engineering of their professional lens product lines.

With Sony largely having had the full frame mirrorless market to itself, 2018 turned in to a remarkable year with the formal release of Nikon's Z 6 and Z7 along with Canon's EOS R. These were expected and had been in the rumor mill for sometime. It was two other announcements that took the market by surprise. The first of these was the Zeiss Z1, teasing with the specifications for a (possible) smartphone-type platform with direct Lightroom editing of raw files. It is yet to see the light of day as a final product some 18 months later. The other was the announcement of the L-Mount Alliance.

The L-Mount Alliance

The Alliance is based around Leica's L-Mount which was introduced to some fanfare in 2014 (although it was originally called the T-mount) and initially sported on the Leica T (Typ 701). The camera was Leica's first real foray in to compact mirrorless and received favorable reviews: hewn from a single block of aluminium it is a thing of beauty and, helpfully, it takes pretty decent photos too! The L-mount has a small flange distance (20mm; to make the camera smaller) and a large diameter (51.6mm) allowing latitude for future lens designs. This is comparable to Nikon's Z-mount (16mm and 55mm), Canon's RF-mount (20mm and 54mm), and Sony's E-mount (18mm and 46mm). It's worth noting that Nikon has the biggest incidence angle at 41.19° which gives it the greatest latitude for future lens designs (Sony has the smallest at 28.58°).

The (Rebel?) Alliance is an interesting, and perhaps unlikely, triumvirate: a specialized high end manufacturer (Leica), a volume consumer manufacturer (Panasonic), and primarily a lens manufacturer (Sigma). It's worth considering what the benefit of the Alliance is in and of itself and then what each of the members has to gain.

First and foremost, the Alliance is not Sony, Nikon, or Canon, each of whom are ploughing their own furrow with proprietary mounts. It's worth remembering that the lens mount provides the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, imposing technical constraints on their design. As a result, consumers are locked in to lenses that use the mount. With the digital camera sector moving wholesale to mirrorless, a viable lens mount is important for success. By opening up the L-mount to Sigma and Panasonic, the Alliance benefits by being able to bring more products to market, faster, so offering a wider choice to consumers. Leica already has the SL, whilst Panasonic has brought the S1 to market and Sigma the fp. In addition, Sigma has also announced its first full-frame Foveon based camera (which has since been indefinitely postponed due to technical difficulties). On the full-frame lens front, Leica currently has eight, Panasonic has four, and Sigma has 13 (from its Art lineup): all three have active lens roadmaps.

So what of each individual member? To all intents and purposes, Leica has nothing to lose from co-opting L-mount manufacturers and everything to gain. Panasonic and Sigma users are in a different market segment to Leica, and whilst there will always be a little bleed of lens sales, it does open up cross-sales in the opposite direction. If you are a pro using the S1R, then why not invest in some Leica glass?

Likewise, Sigma are focused upon high quality lens production that sits in a lower price bracket to Nikon, Canon, Sony, Zeiss, and Leica. Joining the Alliance allows them to easily expand production to L-mount users. They can also continue their Foveon mission and develop a full-frame model using the new mount, with a lens lineup readily available.

That leaves Panasonic, possibly the oddest member of the group. They founded the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system with Olympus in 2008 and have implemented a range of innovative features with a focus upon video. However the release of the S1 (and S1R) indicates their ambition for a dual prong approach in the form of a full frame and MFT lineup. In particular, leveraging the low-light and depth-of-field benefits of full-frame will enable Panasonic to produce an even more compelling range.

The Future?

All of a sudden the full frame mirrorless market has gone from Sony, to include cameras from Leica, Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, and Sigma. It's an exciting time to be a consumer as there is a plethora of choice of high quality cameras from a range of great companies. Maybe the market has be lulled by a lack of system developments over the last decade as Nikon and Canon continued to push DSLRs and compact cameras whilst sales were high. Retrospectively there have been three key changes. The first has been the step-change technical improvement in digital cameras over this period. Where the early 2000s were about producing usable digital cameras, we have since seen the introduction of higher resolutions, better AF, image stabilization, wireless communications, and much more. The second has been the mirrorless camera, with increasingly compelling offerings from MFT, Sony's a7, and Fuji's X-series. The final aspect has been the combination of video features in to a hitherto nascent stills market. Where video was once the realm of the wealthy, camera manufacturers have woken up to a new sector of customers.

However, manufacturers are clearly moving to full frame mirrorless and battling for the best mount to support their customers whilst producing ever-more sophisticated cameras. The latter on increasingly rapid iteration cycles, in-part driven by the smartphone sector.

So is the L-Mount Alliance a smart move? It doesn't change Leica's strategy and they will continue to command a premium price for a premium product. Panasonic have taken the same approach used for MFT: offer greater choice to consumers through all the Alliance members whilst selling more video focused cameras and lenses. Sigma are committed to producing niche cameras and the L-Mount makes that easier. They can also sell lenses directly to Leica and Panasonic users.

However none of the manufacturers have a significant portion of the ILC market and I don't see the L-Mount changing that. Sure it offers another choice to consumers but it doesn't enable Alliance members to sell more cameras. Is it a case of too little, too late, in the face of the Sony, Nikon, and Canon juggernaut? Is it a vain attempt at persuading the market that they have a viable alternative? Or has the Alliance managed to craft a clear strategy that plays to the weaknesses of the big three? Does it offer you a compelling view of the digital camera future?

Body image courtesy of justinc (via Wikipedia), used under Creative Commons.

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21 Comments

Stephen Kampff's picture

Great to see all that history in one place! Completely agree. The S1H would sell twice as many units of it was EF mount.

Mike Smith's picture

Thanks - it was interesting doing the more detailed research about what happened when. The incidence angles of the mounts is particularly interesting: Nikon have given themselves a lot of latitude in lens design, whilst Sony are restricted by the inheritance of an APS-C mount.

If it were EF mount? When has Canon ever licensed their mount? Sigma uses EF protocol in the SA mount, but I don't know whether it was their choice to make SA and EF mechanically different, or a legal requirement.

Regardless, the S1H is targeted mainly at video. It seems likely that video performance would have suffered if Panasonic were constrained to using an SLR mount and protocol. I think they would have had less sales in this case, as the target market cares more about the functionality of the system than they do about being able to use their EF lenses without an adapter.

Stephen Kampff's picture

Panasonic's EVA1, and their Varicam series, can have native EF mounts. If Panasonic's gunning after the video market, they're not doing it with congruency in mind.

Gary Pardy's picture

Classic clickbait, but there's a grain of truth. The decline of interchangeable lens camera sales means the field can only be spread so thin. The established juggernauts (Canon / Nikon) and the first to go all-in on mirrorless (Sony / Fuji) are best positioned to ride out the decline to an eventual plateau. L-mount appeals to a very small audience, and sales are certainly cannibalized by Sigma manufacturing lenses across competing mirrorless systems.

The first ones that got all-in on mirrorless was Panasonic followed by Olympus.

Peter House's picture

I am personally considering the L-mount at the moment.

I currently shoot with Nikon gear, and its a fine piece of kit, but I've never been fully happy with it. I'm also not completely sold on the Z7 as an upgrade to my D850 yet. I've been waiting on Nikon to offer something that would make me switch, especially now that video is of interest to me.

The Leica SL2 has caught my eye. It seems to have a great balance of all my current needs in a quality package. It has plenty resolution for what I shoot, nice ergonomics, great color science, great build quality, and the video specs are fantastic. Its like the best of the S1R and S1H, which I was hoping for.

In terms of lenses, panasonic has been releasing some real winners. Leica glass would be nice I'm sure, but the Panasonic stuff seems quite solid at half the price. I'm just waiting on the 85mm release to see how it stacks up (focus breathing particularly). I shoot 90% of my work on an 85mm so I am primarily concerned with finding the right glass. Its the only thing holding me back from jumping to the L-mount at the moment.

Well, that and the Canon R5 announcement. That seems like a potentially fantastic option on par with what I am expecting out of the SL2 setup. Just not enough info on that yet to make an educated decision. So I am waiting on Panny's 85 release, and Canons R5 to decide the route I will go.

I think the L-mount offers a unique proposition, but you are right, it might be too late.

I'm nearly perfectly happy with my Nikon gear.
Lack of 4K60 has me looking at the S1H.
I've been doing more 3 camera shoots and the Z6 complements the D850. But my D800 is showing its age for video.
I'll consider the S1H after the ProRes release (hopefully it's better than Nikon's line skipping), but I may just buy a Z50 to hold me over until Nikon releases something with 4K60 (client requests).

Spy Black's picture

You left out how cellphones pulled the rug out of camera sales. At the rate things are going, the 2024 Olympics will be shot with iPhones...

I got the S1 last April and used it for the majority of 2019 for wedding photography. Other than Sony, the Panasonic S cameras and the Leica SL are the most feature rich of the FF offerings at this date. It’s a terrific system unless you need a full stable of lenses RIGHT NOW, but the mainstay lenses have been released. Macros, super telephotos, other exotics will come later.

Too little too late and too expensive

Really? Leica is always expensive, but the Panasonics are pretty competitively priced.

I'm not interested in 35mm, but if I would need to buy one the Panasonic S1 is the first one I will seriously consider. Sure a bit more expensive than the Z6 or A7III but so much better build. A real workhorse that is comfortable to hold with bigger FF lenses.

Justin Coe's picture

I currently own the Panasonic G9 and the S1 and they both complement each other, if you want a well built thought out camera with more features you can even work out the G9 and S1 are the cameras you need.

I must admit I have been tempted by canon RF glass but they haven't had the body to match, If canon had the S1 body canon, canon would be out selling it's competitors and DSLR'S would be history.

Anyways is you want a rugged well well organized menu and good quality handling camera pick up a S1 or a G9 which I use a lot for telephoto work. 👍👍👍

The vaporware Zeiss is actually labeled ZX1, not Z1. https://zx1.zeiss.com/

Tony Northrup's picture

I think the L-mount alliance won't be profitable for Panasonic and Sigma, and at some point in the future (maybe 3-5 years out), they'll have to abandon it. Over the last year, the Panasonic L-mount cameras have about 15% the interest of comparable Nikon & Canon mirrorless cameras and only 5% the interest of the comparable Sony E-mount camera. Regardless of the capabilities of the equipment, sales are low in a declining industry and a segment that's increasingly competetive. I think it's smart for them to focus on higher-profit video gear, which might be able to keep the platform alive (especially as they share R&D resources with non L-mount video equipment). Video often adapts lenses from other mounts, anyway.

You and others have to varying degrees spelled the room for Olympus and Panasonic with MFT mount for many years. It seems these predictions are hard to make. Sigma kept their SA mount alive for God knows how many years with virtually no market. Panasonic can easily be profitable by keep creating great bodies and lenses in the mid-high price tier as you do mention, while Sigma doesn't have much cost in supporting L since their older lenses are basically just built with an integrated EF type adapter(to simplify..) and their new lenses share 95%design with FE mount. They also want to keep making their esoteric cameras.

Rk K's picture

Considering the size of their cameras it's more like too much, too late..

All these comments seem to focus on the camera body, which today maybe both expensive and disposable. What I like about the L-mount alliance is the ability to take the same, very high quality glass and put it, without adapter, onto a wide range of bodies. The philosophy seems to maintain the value of the lenses in an era of ever increasing technology and capability in the body, and of having flexibility as to which company is sourcing that body. To me, as a consumer, I can now invest in high end glass with some degree of comfort that the investment can be used on a variety of camera bodies over time.

The current S1 line of cameras ist not for everybody. A G9 body would be big enough for a FF sensor and the L-mount and could be some kind of entry level body.

There are six current Panasonic L-mount lenses, not four.