THEY SAY A WEEK IS A LONG TIME IN POLITICS
– and there’s a string of Australian PMs who can attest to that – but a month can be a very long time indeed in the camera industry. From when Nikon announced its Z mount mirrorless system in late August to the start of Photokina 2018 (by which time both Canon and Panasonic had joined the fray), everything changed quite dramatically. The D-SLR’s fate was sealed. Sony suddenly had a whole lot more competition than it probably had bargained for. And questions have to be asked about Micro Four Thirds now that Panasonic has bigger fish to fry.
Firstly, D-SLRs. It’s not going to happen overnight, but the D-SLR’s day looks to be done because we just don’t need the reflex mirror any more. It’s not so much that consumers will suddenly stop buying D-SLRs (new models will still come in the near future), but that development is going to slow as Canon and Nikon – the main protagonists for the last few years – put more of their effort and resources into their mirrorless systems. Canon, of course, has two – EOS M and EOS R – but it’s clear Nikon’s Z system can go down-market as well as up. There will be more affordable non-S Line Z mount lenses and there’s no reason why there can’t be ‘APS-C’ format Z bodies (although it’ll be a waste of that big mount).
It’s telling that both the Canon and Nikon firstborn full-35mm mirrorless cameras are essentially repackaged versions of each’s best-selling D-SLRs – Z 7 and D850, Z 6 and D750, and EOS R and EOS 5D Mark IV. But while the specs and features may be similar, the external dimensions are very different and dramatically illustrate the key benefit of deleting the mirror box and optical viewfinder. The D750 – which we’ve always thought of as a compact full-35mm D-SLR – looks truly massive alongside the Z 7 or Z 6. The greater lens choices will keep D-SLR sales ticking along for now, but both the Z and R mount adapters work so well, changing bodies is made less challenging. I already know of a few photographers who, for example, are buying the Z 7 or Z 6 in the body-only kits with the FTZ converter to use exclusively with their F mount lenses… acquiring any Z mount lenses can wait for a little while.
Should Sony be worried? In a word, yes. It’s done brilliantly up until now and the current line-up of A7 III, A7R III and A9 is formidable, but the badges on the front don’t say either Canon or Nikon. For most dyed-in-the-wool devotees of these ‘traditional’ photo brands that’s very important. If Sony hadn’t made converts of them before now, it isn’t going to now, even if it’s offering superior products. Just knowing that a competitive mirrorless option is available will be enough to keep the brand loyalists firmly in the fold, even if they don’t dump their D-SLR bodies right away. Sony is now going to have to work a whole lot harder to acquire any more market share in ILCs.
What are the implications of Panasonic’s decision to launch a full-35mm mirrorless system as well? Phew! This is possibly bigger than either the Canon or Nikon conversions. It changes the dynamics of the mirrorless camera market quite dramatically, creating a very powerful ‘big sensor’ camera grouping of Canon, Leica, Nikon, Panasonic and Sony (plus Sigma as a signed-up member of the ‘L Mount Alliance’)… versus everybody else. Fujifilm probably also gets to play in this space because of its digital medium format mirrorless system (now expanded with the highly-desirable GFX 50R model), but where all this leaves Olympus isn’t immediately obvious, and what might Ricoh be planning for Pentax?
Like Nikon, Pentax believed the mirrorless camera market was going to be all about much smaller sensors – and for a while it was – but now the emphasis is back on the 35mm format and this could mean that even ‘APS-C’ won’t cut it in the future. OK, so both M43 and ‘APS-C’ have proved that size isn’t everything, but in the end, the physics of imaging sensors means it sort of is… especially if you want resolutions of 30 megapixels and beyond while maintaining reasonable sensitivity and signal-to-noise ratios.
Some big decisions will need to be made by many photographers when they next come to upgrading their camera bodies. Global camera sales have been slowing because, essentially, many of us are quite satisfied with what we’ve got right now, and small updates to either specs or features haven’t really been enough to warrant making a change even if they’ve looked attractive. Soon there will be plenty of compelling reasons to make some big changes, including investing more in a camera system than you’ve ever done before.