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.
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.