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Is Lack of Competition Slowing Camera Innovation? Who’s to Blame?

Competition is one of the main causes of innovation, but camera innovations have been stalled out for years, and I think Sony could be to blame. 

First things first, I want to be very clear that this article is only about the stills side of camera tech. I don't pretend to be up to date on the bleeding edge of video, but from the stills side, I'd like to think I'm pretty up to date. And well, that's because arguably not much has really happened. 

Sure, some impressive higher-megapixel sensors have arrived, autofocus speeds and tracks have been greatly improved, and average camera high ISO/dynamic range capabilities have crept up. But I'd argue that much of it is iterative instead of innovative — natural progressions.

When Sony went all in with its plan to develop its full frame mirrorless system, the other big hitters dragged their feet. Nikon and Canon clung to DSLRs and looked at the mirrorless market as a small blip on the global industry radar, instead of the steadily growing signal cutting through the noise of a million clacking mirror boxes. Through it, all Sony stuck to their plan, and things began to shift. 

When Sony released the a7 III, it became more and more clear that the mirrorless market wasn't a passing storm, but a new norm, and Canon's and Nikon’s reluctance to recognize and embrace that would become a root cause for the two pillars of the industry to shed a ton of users and fail to inspire new ones.

Now, the reason I think this has led to a stall in innovation is while the other companies spent their time and resources trying to extend the appeal of the end-of-life DSLR, Sony was sprinting toward a pro-level mirrorless camera. And just like a foot race, if someone has a multi-year lead, the effort required to catch up is enormous, and if you’re far enough behind, you probably aren't going to try very hard, because the alternative is easier. Your fate has been sealed. And so, Canon and Nikon tiptoed into the mirrorless race at a snail’s pace with prosumer grade cameras: single card slots, slow functions, and quirky ergonomics by design made sure no one would trade their DSLR in for their mirrorless offering, and they didn’t: they traded them in for a Sony. 

Now that Canon has found their footing and decided to take the market seriously by releasing two new pro-level cameras, you would think that the race would be back on, but that doesn't seem to be the case. While the R5 matches the a9 in terms of shooting at 20 frames per second, it’s missing the real ingredient that makes 20 fps a game-changer in the a9 as the sensor readout speed is significantly slower in the R5, so it’s power at a price. This means the R5 will suffer from rolling shutter when using the electronic shutter, which makes it almost useless when photographing fast-moving subjects, which is when you need it. So yes, the R5 has some great focus tracking, a high-resolution sensor, good ergonomics, and much more, but in terms of innovation, it’s barely on par with the now three-year-old a9. 

As for Nikon, their decision to only include a single card slot in their initial releases simply shows they were not ready to let their mirrorless offerings truly compete with their bread and butter DSLRs. Even their latest and greatest mirrorless offerings only adds a second card slot, as overall, the cameras remain largely the sam. It’s the D600 to D610 and D800 to D810 all over again: selling you a second time what you paid for the first.

And while there are other big names in the mirrorless market such as Fuji, they have chosen to stay out of the full frame fight by simply concentrating on crop sensors and medium format, the latter of those two being a realm I wish there was more competition, but maybe that will happen as time moves on. 

Now, I'm not affiliated with Sony and have no access to behind-the-scenes knowledge of what is or is not in the release pipeline, but if it were me running the show, I wouldn't want to reveal all my cards until the deck had been fully developed. This leads me to believe that they have a lot of things under the vest and are simply waiting until there is a need to unveil the latest tech. Because why release a race car that can go 300 miles per hour when the competition is still racing go-karts? And I’m obviously being a bit dramatic with that statement, but in reality, we have no idea what can be accomplished when you have a multi-year headstart on your competition.   

Likewise, a lot of camera users have waited and waited for Canon and Nikon to release a truly competitive mirrorless camera, clinging to their old and worn DSLR for hopes of a brighter future. But as these new mirrorless cameras finally arrive, the lack of innovation has pushed these users over the edge. While they now finally have a mirrorless system they can rely on in a professional environment, they can easily see they would be investing in technology that has been around for years. So, if they have to invest in a completely new system anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to invest in the ecosystem that everyone else is trying to catch up to?    

Ultimately, however, this lack of innovation is two-sided. Yes, the fact that Sony had such a large headstart in the mirrorless market has caused a lack of competition, but the other big players are equally to blame for not starting the race sooner.

Or is there something totally different going on here? Are we at a point in stills tech that is generally as far as we want to go without the camera and computer doing it for us? Computational photography, as recently highlighted in the new iPhones (also using Sony sensors), relies more on the chipset than the lens and sensor. They really are innovating, using machine learning and AI, Deep Fusion, and so on to bring greater capability. But do we want that? Is that where the next step in innovation in cameras will take us?

So, as I remain very partial to my Sony kit and all it can do, I'm excited for Nikon and Canon to start innovating once again instead of using all their time and resources to try and catch up. And this isn't just because I want what they come up with, but because I'm excited to see what happens when Sony has to open the floodgates.

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Rk K's picture

The camera industry is dying, sales dropped off a cliff after the human malware, how do you expect this innovation to be funded? We'll be lucky if 2-3 proper camera manufacturers survive at all...

Timothy Roper's picture

And why no mention in this article about the innovation going on in large format film cameras? Intrepid, for example, has as gone from a small Kickstarter campaign to a full-blown company by now. Lots of new, young film shooters out there, with lots of innovations going on!

David Blacker's picture

How is starting a new company innovative?

Troy Straub's picture

Sorry didn't mean to down vote your comment. Accidental click,

Charles Mercier's picture

Sorry, I shot film for decades. I would take photos, wait weeks before I finished the roll and by then I was long gone from places I couldn't return to take a better one after looking at what I didn't do correctly. I couldn't take (moneywise) hundreds of photos per day, plus storing all those prints. If I wanted cropping or changes made, I had to describe to the developer exactly what I wanted, then I had to wait days for it to come back.

With digital, I can take an infinite number of photos - and get instant feedback. My skills have improved SO much more than the painfully slow process of doing film. I can now make multiple crops and variations and other experiments with digital that I NEVER could have imagined with film.

Charles Mercier's picture

I did take lessons so I did some printing. It's a lot of slow work. One still didn't have instant feedback. You still had to go back home to an expensive developing and printing setup using lots of toxic chemicals and waste. Taking up tons of time and space.

It's great if anyone loves to shoot film and enjoys it but to jump on digital as a destroyer of creativity is completely incorrect.

Troy Straub's picture

If you want to shoot film and it makes you more creative that is great go do it. But to act like everyone who doesn't is wrong and you are better than them for doing it your way is just crazy talk. Also I cloud never bring myself to wearing a $2000 hat just for the bragging rights when a $10 one will do the same job just as well. But we obviously come from two different worlds. Most importantly if your way is so much better why not a single upload to show this amazing work?

Troy Straub's picture

I agree with what you say about people need to slow down and learn. Just not sure why you seem so against shooting with a digital sensor instead of film. At least that is the way your post seem to be coming off to me. You can shoot digital with out just spraying and praying and or using AI for processing.

Troy Straub's picture

You're not making a point. Finding interesting subjects, composition and story telling are far more important and artistic than knowing how to read a light meter, and do your own calculations for exposure or how to mix chemicals and check temperatures. You can easily shoot digital without relying on A.I. to do the work for you. I'm personally not a fan of A.I. There is a lot of room between shooting film and letting computers do it all.

Charles Mercier's picture

Again, digital has really has nothing to do with it. I don't do too many things fast. I go through my digital shots in my computer and contemplate the better ones. (I don't do fast food, etc. I also do oil painting which takes a lot of time.) I take my time and learn and reflect upon my digital camera photos. It doesn't speed up my life and make me go faster. Digital and computers don't control me. I set my own pace. I make the decisions my photos with a lot less toxic pollution without having to develop the ones that aren't great.

Charles Mercier's picture

I'm glad because you only make me roll my eyes because you can't see that your point is putting the cart before the horse. Moving, thinking or acting quickly and people's connection to computers don't cause the destruction of creativity. Correlation is not causation.

Charles Mercier's picture

Seriously, dude. Stop telling me about me, which is all WRONG. Everything I own outside of some used furniture, could fit into a car - if I owned one! Most of what I own is books and art works... my own.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Ahhhh.... PARAGRAPHS...

I beg of you. :)

Seems you got the hang of them later, but that 1st post makes my head spin.

Troy Straub's picture

Agreed. I didn't shoot much film and most of what I did was point and shoot or at least auto settings. I would have never had the time and or money to learn how to shoot in manual and take control of my shots if I was shooting on film. Now that I know more or less what I'm doing I may try to shoot a few rolls through an old film camera I was recently gifted. Just for fun, and I don't expect to get as good of results as my fairly modest digital kit.

David Moore's picture

Yeah, my camera is the same as my camera from 16 years ago wait no it isn't this is a stupid article. lol

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Lack of innovation is not because of Sony racing ahead and innovating in one aspect of camera technology, but because the other big players got complacent and stopped doing any real innovations, instead iterating on features they already got or adding small comforts that were easy pickings, low hanging fruit, like various bracketing modes.

Meanwhile nobody looked at what is happening in the mobile space, where camera apps were liberated from the traditional ideas of how a camera is supposed to operate.

Which brings me to another point: it's not just camera manufacturers failing to innovate, it's also is users / buyers holding back innovation into non-traditional directions because we would loudly scream murder if our pro cameras would start doing some of the things that smartphones now regularly do to get better picture quality...

We obsess over specs and demand full control over what the camera does and outputs, which is at odds which computational photography and all other innovations happening in the smartphone space (where there's necessity to do these creative innovations to make lower fidelity hardware give better pictures).

Adam Rubinstein's picture

Jason doesn’t understand business or markets very well. Why would Sony push the envelope when they are maximizing their ROI? Even with the innovation the camera market as we understand it whether MILC or DSLR is contracting.

Rey H's picture

I created an account to agree with you. BUT, the internet would be a lot quieter place if most folks had corporate decision making experience and actually understood matters of sales, supply chain, revenue and ebitda. So much content and opinions out here, so little knowledge.

Francis Drake's picture

I am not sure you can tell Sony is deliberately waiting.
If you could launch a game changing camera just when your opponent is about to build a captive user base with a lineup of lenses, wouldn't you do it?

David Blacker's picture

While you've outlined the symptoms fairly well, I find it hard to see how you imagine the cause is a lack of competition. Competition has been fierce in the last half a decade. There may have been complacency among the big DSLR manufacturers before Sony popped into the game, but that wasn't for a lack of competition either. It's just that it's not a technological competition so much as a marketing one. On one hand DSLR technology had reached its peak in the last decade; there was nothing groundbreaking to add that would revolutionise the DSLR (except improvements in video), and new cameras were simply coming in with features that made life more convenient for the photographer.

Then Sony brought mirrorless into the upper reaches of the game (they didn't invent it); and they did it based on convenience. Technologically, however, mirrorless isn't groundbreaking either, particularly not for the pros. Yes, there was some weight and space saving (not a huge amount mind, especially not at the pro levels), but this mostly appeals to amateurs. It is marketing, not technology, that has really convinced us that the cameras we already own are not good enough. Right now, the top end mirrorless cameras from Sony and Canon are as technologically good as the equivalent DSLRs, and it's just a matter of making them more reliable (durability, weather proofing, battery life, viewfinder, etc) and usable for professional photographers. Mirrorless doesn't offer anything technologically better for a still photographer with a DSLR system. But marketing has convinced us that they are better. It's a classic tried and tested marketing strategy; if there is no gap in the market, create one; then fill the gap with your product.

So now the photography world has been overrun by the demand for mirrorless, and Canon and Nikon were forced to move to the upper end of mirrorless (even though mirrorless doesn't offer any substantial improvement over DSLRs) simply to safeguard their user base from moving to Sony on the basis of perception. All the new incremental technological steps being taken by mirrorless manufacturers are ones that could (and would) have been taken anyway with DSLRs. All the shock and awe we feel for the new Canon RF mount lenses are because Canon has now moved their technological progress into creating a range of RF lenses to match their EF one. What we're seeing is the next generation of EF lenses, but built as RF ones.

So competition is very strong; it's just a brand competition for the hearts and minds of the consumer. There is no real technological advances to be had. It's the same with petrol-driven cars, or rifles, or so many other products. Technology is now simply being used to make things lighter, more efficient, and more convenient. There is no groundbreaking technological innovation to be had anymore than there is with a kitchen knife. The end result, however, is that Canon and Nikon will now place their technological development on the mirrorless branch because the market isn't big enough to sustain two branches of full frame cameras and, more and more DSLR users will be forced to move to mirrorless when they next upgrade, because that's where the upgrades will be. DSLR use, when it dies, will die not because it was technologically surpassed the way film SLRs were, but because marketing convinced us that it has.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

I think that mirrorless adds a lot of small improvements and conveniences which do all add up, but nothing revolutionary like film to digital indeed.

What are now considered innovations are all software developments, and they're all to some degree based on the premise of giving up more control over the photographic process -- control which we all love to retain, thus collectively as manufacturers and as buyers of camera gear, it's a kind of innovation we ignore and resist until it has eaten up most of our beloved niche -- that is, until about now.

David Blacker's picture

I disagree that those small improvements and conveniences have been added due to the cameras being mirrorless (bar weight and size). The other additions are things that we would have seen anyway eventually if we'd asked for them. They weren't important enough, particularly at the pro level. But now that they've been introduced via marketing strategies, we want them, and even think they're essential.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Well on a traditional DSLR you'd need to have the mirror up all the time for those features but yes, they're not impossible to implement.
Mirrorless designs make them more natural to use because there is no mirror.

And one thing that you don't need with a mirrorless camera is micro focus adjustments.

Malcolm Wright's picture

I'm not sure there has been a lack of innovation. You could claim a lack of innovation in any product line if you define the parameters tight enough. For example there has been a lack of innovation in satellite navigation systems in that they still show me the same old roads..
Pictues are, in the main, still represented as flat, possibly due to 3D technology giving a significant number of long term viewers unpleasant side effects, migraines, headaches and temporary after vision issues.
There are infant technologies out there like flat lenses, that are yet too take off.
As a manufacturer you invest millions in research, facilities and inventory. The longer you're in business the more that facilities and inventory investment drags on future innovation.
Possibly the blame for lack of innovation in any product is customer loyalty to the old products or fear of buying a dud product.
Even mobile phones could be claimed to be stuck in a rut, in that they're still predominately hand held.
Whatever became of Google glasses, why didn't that become the pictorial recording device of the future?
The list could go on with innovations which didn't play out too well, so if you develop a product which sells well , you milk it like a cash cow to fund those innovations that will flop or be rejected by the consumers.
So the consumers in the end, are to blame. They should all be buying the latest innovation even if it is a useless dud and taking one for the team..
Very few new products gain traction and succeed.

ignacy matuszewski's picture

It's quite amazing when you're comparing A9 to R5 in favour of A9, when one is lowres sports camera and the second one is hires fashion/studio one. From innovation point of view only thing i'd want would be 35-70mm TS-E zoom with autofocus or maybe better HDR computing.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

I am not sure that the R5 is really a fashion/studio camera. With it's fast and accurate autofocus, it is also a great camera for wildlife and birding. And that's where that rolling shutter comes to bite you.

And I'm sure it has a lot to offer for landscape photographers as well, but there the rolling shutter is not an issue.

Stig Nygaard's picture

Above article says:

> it’s missing the real ingredient that makes 20 fps a game-changer in the a9
> as the sensor readout speed is significantly slower in the R5

But is that a verified fact or just an assumption by the author?
There might be differences between video performance and electronic shutter stills photography performance, and I haven't tried either camera so I have no idea. But I find it interesting that R5 according to DPReview video testing has faster readout than A9II in 4K videomode. Even 8K on R5 has faster readout than 4K on A9II. In FHD/1080 R5 is a bit behind, but still very good:

4K/24p: 23.2 ms
4K/30p (1.2x crop): 17.9 ms
FHD 60p: 6.3 ms

8K/30p / oversampled 4K: 15.4ms
Sub-sampled 4K/30: 9.7ms
4K/60p: 9.7ms
1080/60p: 8.7ms
4K/120p: 9.7ms

According to DPReview video test page "there is essentially no rolling shutter to speak of on the EOS R5"...

Earlier in the review of R5, they say about the electronic shutter for stills photography:

"The EOS R5 also has a fully electronic shutter option, which drops the camera to 12-bit readout mode. This keeps rolling shutter largely at bay, but results in increased noise in the very deepest shadow regions"

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Interesting, I hadn't checked these things in other sources!

Only reinforces that the R5 is not just for fashion / studio photography!

Jason Vinson's picture

You're listing and referring to video specs. This article is specifically in relation to stills. And I have numerous confirmations that the R5 is not on par with the A9 when shooting with the silent shutter and combating rolling shutter.

Stig Nygaard's picture

But as mentioned, DPReview also addresses stills:

> "The EOS R5 also has a fully electronic shutter option, which drops the
> camera to 12-bit readout mode. This keeps rolling shutter largely at bay, but
> results in increased noise in the very deepest shadow regions"


So conflicting reports I guess, though DPReview doesn't directly compare to A9 (Which I also guess is a special case with its stacked sensor which costs something in dynamic range - and thus are not ideal for all purposes).

I have no personal experience with any of the mentioned cameras, but I see a lot of "rolling shutter" claims for R5 that seems just to be assumptions based on the high pixelcount and performance history of older Canon sensors.

Steve White's picture

You say: Because why release a race car that can go 300 miles per hour when the competition is still racing go-karts?

Recall that Apple killed the iPod Mini. How? They released the iPod Nano. They had better technology and chose to kill their own product, rather than sit back, milk that product to recover their costs, and let someone else get in the game. It worked; no one else was near that level, and Apple kept the music player market to themselves for quite a while (in fact, until they released the iPhone, which did the same thing).

So forgive me but your suggested roadmap for Sony is nonsense -- you don't hold back because that gives the competition a chance to get back into the game. The R5 and R6, and the Z6 and Z7, after all, are selling. No, if Sony has a competition killer, bring it out now and bury that competition. Make the Sony a9 and a7 so compelling that the Canon and Nikon mirrorless cameras look like amateur toys. Drive a stake into them.

If Sony is simply milking the a9 and a7 they are making a huge mistake. Canon and Nikon are slow but they aren't stupid. If Sony has the opportunity, bury them now. But my bet is, Sony doesn't have that ability, and that's why they are behaving the way they are.

Rey cisneros's picture

Well how I see it nikon will alway be last when it comes to sony and canon at lease canon trys to keep up with sony I guess nikon likes being their

Deleted Account's picture

Simply looks like a worried Sony user to me.

Jason Vinson's picture

😂 😂 😂

Ed C's picture

The stuff people come up with to whine about is always entertaining. If camera manufacturers never innovated anything new ever again how does it negatively affect you? If you can't capture technically great photos with the gear available now then you are the problem, not lack of innovation by manufacturers.

Deleted Account's picture

Exactly!! I starting with film in the mid 80s. I think that gives me and other older photographers that started with film a different perspective than someone that started in the past 15 or 20 years and only knows digital. Send them out with a couple of rolls or 24 exposure 200 speed print film and a manual focus SLR and they would be happy have any DSLR from any time period! But the goal is to keep us clicking and to that he has succeeded. We commented didn't we?! ;-)

Jason Vinson's picture

Where in the article am I whining and where am I referring to being negatively affected. Also, I'm pretty happy with my work... ☺

Lee Christiansen's picture

Go to be one of the silliest things to have as an article - and we get some daft ones...

In recent years:

We've removed the mirror mechanism.
Given us higher and higher resolution viewfinders that have better and better colour rendition with less and less flicker.
Allowed us to shoot almost in the dark
Focussing systems that can track an eyeball, recognise when a head has turned away.
Cameras that can tell the difference between animals and people
New formats beyond 8-bit JPEG
Higher and higher resolutions with better high ISO capability
In-camera stabilisation.
Micro focus adjustments on mirrored cameras
Lighter bodies, lighter lenses
Sharper - everything
Higher capacity batteries
More info in the viewfinder than we can shake a stick at
Now we can shoot video at resolutions we don't even know what to do with yet
Stuff just gets cheaper and cheaper or better for the same £££
Optics are faster, longer, cheaper and sharper, (and for those with deeper pockets - EVEN better optics).
Faster buffers, more shots per second, higher capacity cards, faster processing...

Now I realise that after the film era when tech was somewhat slower, we all got a bit impatient and now we want everything new before we even got the last version - and we want it all at less than cost price...

And we want everything to be easier - until it is, because then it is too easy.

And we demand developments NOW, but moan when those early practitioners don't give us the version we'll get in 5 years from now - because, heck "NOW...!"

But really? Given that not so many of us are developing cameras or producing them or building them, we do seem to have a really good handle on just how the world should be in our cotton-candy coated worlds where we can have everything we want, whenever we want it and for whatever price we want it.

I'm still waiting for those darn flying cars I was promised 30 years ago. :)

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

The complaint is, that this is all incremental improvements over existing featureset.

There's no radical new features built in to new cameras.

All the incremental improvements taken together could enable some radical new improvements such as night-vision and "computational photography" as now seen on smartphones.
(Question is if we want to have such features, but that's something else).

Of course I don't know what radical new innovations the author of the article has in mind.

David Blacker's picture

Like I said, perhaps this is as good as it gets. As a photographer, what I would consider a game changer is a camera with a universal mounting system; whether that is technologically even possible, I don't know. And if it isn't so be it.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Yes we all want those "radical improvements" but then we complain when we don't like them.

Developments are almost always incremental, otherwise those radical improvements would be further apart. We can't have our cake and eat it just because we say we want it.

The second all these complainers invest their careers and time into actually developing these radical improvements themselves, then I'll listen. Otherwise we should assume there are people better at doing this stuff than we are - when all we get is back-seat drivers complaining the world isn't how they want it to be.

Jason Vinson's picture

One I specifically have in mind that would be a game changer is global shutters. The ability to have a sync speed at any speed instead of resorting to high speed sync and the like would completely change the way we use off camera flash.

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

I think the auther suffer from the condition of having "the attention span of a goldfish".

Two years ago, in Aug. 2018 the world had nine (9) SLR style mirrorless FF cameras, all Sony.
Today we have twenty-five (25) SLR style mirrorless FF cameras from Canon, Nikon, Leica, Panasonic, and Sony.
It took Sony 5 years (2013 - 2018) to make the first nine (9). It took the camera industry two years to make the next sixteen (16). If that is not innovation, I don't know what is.

Jason Vinson's picture

I'm a goldfish, so I may be off base.... But you're equating numbers of cameras to innovation? So a company releases a bunch of consumer level cameras that can do as much as their point and shoot offerings, and you think that is innovation?... 🤔

Hans J. Nielsen's picture