Why 2018 Was When Nikon Pivoted to Mirrorless (and Canon followed)

Why 2018 Was When Nikon Pivoted to Mirrorless (and Canon followed)

By 2018 Apple was worth $1 trillion, the US-China trade war had intensified, LeBron James reached 30,000 NBA points, and Black Panther starred in the box office. Camera manufacturers finally stopped flogging the dead horse of DSLRs, with 2018 truly the year of mirrorless. But what happened?

The decade had seen a tumultuous start for the development of the mirrorless camera: every manufacturer released a new system, yet nobody knew what form factor would be adopted by the camera buying masses. With sales riding high at 120 million units per year, the money rolled in, during this exciting period. Sony, Fuji, and Olympus went for systems that spanned entry level to premium, Panasonic adopted a unique focus on video, Pentax floundered, and Nikon and Canon pitched for the premium compact to supplement their DSLRs. So where had everyone got to by 2018?

The biggest splash was made by Nikon with the arrival of their Z-mount system in the form of the DSLR-busting Z 6 and Z 7. Designed around the biggest lens mount of any full frame system, the Z 7 was a premium product offering a 45 MP sensor, IBIS, and well specified video offerings. It was a tremendous first camera which was highly competitive in the market. The 24 MP Z 6 was cheaper, but offered the benefit of less noise and faster shooting speeds. It's notable that the only DSLR they released was the entry level D3500. Nikon were well and truly on the mirrorless path with an aggressive lens roadmap planned.

Nikon's main competitor was the well established and highly regarded Sony a7 which had been on an evolutionary journey since it was originally launched in 2013. Indeed Sony made a point of selling all of the models concurrently. Released in three variants, the 24 MP a7 III came to market in 2018, accompanying the a7R III that had been released the previous year.

Canon wasn't about to be beaten to the mark by letting Nikon repeat its 1999 head start with the DSLR, releasing the competent 30 MP EOS R but trailing a distant third to Nikon and Sony. It was a good start to Canon's mirrorless journey but one that was a little lackluster and less than anticipated. By 2020 that slow start is still telling, even if the lens roadmap and teasers for new models are enticing. However 2018 saw Canon release a second mirrorless in the form of the 24 MP M50. Canon has continued to develop it's small form factor mirrorless range that dates to 2012, however this could come back to haunt it: Sony has developed all of it's models around te E-mount, Fuji around the X-mount, and Nikon (having abandoned the 1 system) has the Z-mount. Canon also released two DSLRs in the form of the budget 18 MP 4000D and 2000D.

Fuji continued to fill out it's X-series line throughout the 2010s. They have focused upon the X-Pro (a labor of love street camera), X-Tx (traditional pro spec), X-Txx (stripped down X-Tx), X-E (mid-spec), and X-A (entry level). Other models come and go to test the waters (such as the X-M) and 2018 saw them release two completely new models in the form of the X-T100 and X-H1. They are both interesting for different reasons. The X-T100 is a midrange MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camer,) largely based upon the X-A5. Is this a market test or a direct product replacement for the X-E range? Is it a cost-cutting measure to have two base ranges of camera: the X-Tx and the X-A, with X-Txx and X-Txxx variants? The X-T100 was broadly liked, although criticized for its sluggish performance and AF tracking. The X-H1 was Fuji's first camera to sport IBIS and incorporated video-centric features, although this resulted in a bigger and beefier body at a higher price. Whilst IBIS was a worthy inclusion to the feature set, the move away from a svelte street camera was bemoaned, with the higher price putting it in the same territory as the Nikon D500, Sony a7 II, and Pentax K-1.

Meanwhile Pentax continued it's glacial development pace in DSLRs. The K-1 had arrived in 2016 to some acclaim, so 2018 saw a refresh with the release of the K-1 II. Whilst the IBIS, super resolution, supreme weather sealing, GPS, and astrotracer all remained, it was criticized for overeager noise reduction in the raw files. And that was it from Pentax. Olympus also had a quiet year only releasing the pleasingly stylish PEN E-PL9, marking a hiatus between the mediocre OM-D E-M10 Mark III and top end OM-D E-M1X. Panasonic continued the development of its lineup with the GF10, GX9, and GH5s. The latter was particularly notable for its video centric focus which included a dual-native ISO sensor and the removal of IBIS.

And finally to Leica: late to the mirrorless party, releasing the T (Typ701) in 2014 sporting its new T-mount, the 2010s saw the reinvigorated manufacturer produce a steady stream of cameras to an adoring public. Whilst they had released the M10 rangefinder in 2017, 2018 saw the P and D variants. The M10 was very well received; a real return to Leica's rangefinder roots and a great digital implementation of it. The more expensive P introduced a touchscreen and quieter shutter, whilst the D removed the screen entirely. Each to their own. Of course the big news for 2018 — to some considerable surprise — was the announcement of the L-Mount Alliance between Leica, Sigma, and Panasonic all using Leica's T (now L!) mount.

Images

Is the world ever a boring place? I don't think so and photojournalists continue to show how events spiral out of control as we try our best to bring stability to the ever shifting grounds of globalization. For a long and lingering look through 2018 in the USA, take a look at CNN's coverage, while PA Images provide a well-rounded view of the UK.

World Press Photo for 2018 went to Ronaldo Schemidt for his fire spectacular, showing José Víctor Salazar Balza alight during riots in Venezuela. It's an image of visual cliches: the trailing fire and sinister gas mask. In that sense it is arresting, if a little familiar. Visually, Balza's articulated right hand focuses the attention, before you start to think about what the image is showing. His back is almost completely on fire, the flames having spread around his midriff, whilst a large part of the alley immediately behind him is alight. The wall is orange, indicating the heat. Then you realize the photographer is witnessing the scene, was a part of it, and would have felt the heat of the flames as a frenzied Balza screamed past him. The immediacy is totally gripping.

Street protests were also the theme for Breaking News Photography Pulitzer prize winner Ryan Kelly, with his coverage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville protesting against the removal of Confederate monuments. A counter protest turned violent after the groups clashed. The following day James Alex Fields Jr. rammed his car in to counter protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others with the moment captured by Kelly. Whilst similar in topic to Schemidt's photo, the styles are completely different. Schemidt's image was visually flowing, even graphically pleasing. In contrast Kelly's image is jarring and disturbing. It's a no holds barred visual account of what happens when a car drives at speed through a crowd. At first you see the protestors, then the discarded sneakers before you realize there are bodies upended, still in the air. The enormity of the moment hits you as you try to understand the aftermath. It may make you feel sick. This is graphic, visceral, news reporting .

Postscript

I'm not sure people expected 2018 to be as tumultuous as it was. The birth of mirrorless was largely spread over three or four exciting years of development, witnessing a wild west of experimentation with form factors that rode high on the back of a wealthy industry. However this is almost diametrically opposite to the industry that existed in 2018: camera sales had plummeted as customers bought smartphones in their droves, their compact cameras consigned to the waste bin. The camera industry contracted, sales dropped, and income imploded. The heady heights of 120 M units sold would never occur again: by 2018 sales dropped to less than 20 M.

Canon and Nikon's plan of maintaining DSLRs and using the 1 and M systems to sell to beginners was a flop. Sony had picked the right strategy of one mirrorless mount that could be used on a range of APS-C and full frame cameras marketed across the sector. There was also a focus on high ticket items that commanded better margins. Canon and Nikon needed to pivot and pivot quickly. There was no experimentation, just a straight switch to Sony's model and this finally appeared in the form of the Z and R mounts. More importantly, these businesses need to have other revenue streams. Canon, Fuji, and Panasonic are widely diversified. Nikon, Pentax, and Olympus remain vulnerable. What will the 2020s hold in store?

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13 Comments

The need for Canon and Nikon to go hard on mirrorless was apparent to them after the first month of Sony A7 sales. The fact that they took til 2018 was to ensure that the new products were not a misstep that would taint the brand.

Tony Northrup's picture

My hope for 2020 is that just one camera company builds an Android-based camera OS with apps. Just start there.

Deleted Account's picture

What kind of interface and ergonomics would you need to use for something like that to work, though. I certainly wouldn't want to spend any length of time operating the touch screen on my camera the way I might with a phone or tablet because it would just feel awkward.

Tony Tumminello's picture

Ergonomics and OS doesn't have to be an either/or choice in terms of handling, just because a camera would be theoretically built on Android doesn't necessarily require that all of the buttons and dials would have be removed or made worse to use.

I think the main suckage would be apps that aren't well-suited for the rear screen of a camera. Take the ubiquitous Instagram for example: it doesn't support landscape mode, so what do you do? Hope IG eventually updates for that? Hold the camera sideways while using the app?

I would love to see third party apps in cameras, but I think there are two major issues to overcome. First, people expect cameras to turn on more or less instantly. Even the fastest smartphones on the market with stock Android takes a while to boot. Would you wait 15 seconds every time the camera turned on? Second, battery life. Mirrorless is struggling enough as it is with battery life compared to DSLRs, this would make it even worse.

If there was a lighter version of Android optimized for fast boot times and close to no battery consumption when not in use, that could really be something. We have Wear OS, not unthinkable that we will get an Android IOT in the future!

jim hughes's picture

A complete version of Android that meets the needs of cameras would be an enormous - and endless - software project. Camera companies don't have the resources, and even if they did, such an investment would never be recovered from sales.

Tom Reichner's picture

Mike,

Thank you for providing us a detailed account of the virus manufacturer's mirrorless development path. I appreciate your research and attention to detail.

I especially like the title that you used - an accurate description of the article's contents, without anything "clickbaitish" about it. I like accurate, simple titles that don't have a sensational component to them.

Thank you.

Well Sony A9 killed the DSLR. Nikon a year before was bragging how there cameras outperformed mirrorless as action cameras. Then Sony released the A9 and they started to make new plans. This and next year the major players will all have offerings that good that taste and preferences rules choice of camera. Canon will beat Sony in expensive offerings of premium gear. Hopefully Fuji will make a h2 with flippy screen and a Xt-5 with a screen like Xt-3. We will all be happy and live in peace. Tamron will ad joy to the party by making nice affordable glass.

Nick Rains's picture

Not sure why you'd state that Leica was late to the party. The M(240) preceded the M10 and came out in 2012. It fitted the modern use of the term 'mirrorless' because it had a live view feed and like the M10, an optional external EVF. You could argue that Leica never left mirrorless since all M-mount cameras since 1954 have been mirrorless.

chris bryant's picture

Absolutely, one could say that Leica was “at the party” first, especially the full-frame mirrorless party in 2009 with the M9.

Dan Howell's picture

this article is full of inaccuracies, erroneous conclusions and unsupported opinions.

Mike Smith's picture

I dont disagree... arguably the first mirrorless was the Epson RD1 which used the M-mount and preceeded the Leica M8 by some 2 years, with the full frame M9 coming in 2009 however these were rangefinder designs. The early 2010s were particularly about new mount development for EVF and live view mirrorless cameras (although as you note the typ 240 did have these) which offered wide mount diameters and small flange distances. The M-mount is relatively uncompetitive in this regard which was the reason for the L-mount. Thanks for highlighting this!

Nick Rains's picture

The M-mount is not uncompetitive as such - it's just different. In certain genres there are huge advantages to M lenses, not the least of which is being fully mechanical.