Supersonic Man

September 6, 2018

the last SLR holdout

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Photo,technology,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 11:41 am

Mirrorless cameras are officially taking over; everybody wants the slim camera bodies and short lens registry distances that are made possible by electronic viewfinders. Nikon has come out with a new Z mount and almost simultaneously, Canon has come out with a new RF mount (which looks to me like it will be a real “RF” of people who bought into their smaller and older EOS-M system, as it is not at all compatible, and it might not even be possible to make an adapter to mate them). Meanwhile, in the medium-format world, Hasselblad also came out with a mirrorless camera sporting a new short-flange lens mount a while ago — I think they call it XCD — and Phase One put together a mirrorless bodge setup branded as Alpa, which must have something that counts as a lens mount. This means that almost every camera company that didn’t already have a short mirrorless lens mount (Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, and formerly Samsung) has now added one to their product line. As far as I can see, there is only one holdout which still offers only a long-flange lens mount and traditional SLR cameras: Pentax. As it happens, I’ve got Pentax.

Does this mean that Pentax needs to do a me-too and come up with their own short mount, to keep up? It does not. There are lots of reasons why it might make perfect sense to offer a mirrorless camera without changing the mount. They’ve already updated their existing mount so it can operate in a fully electronic fashion with no legacy mechanical linkages. Lenses made for mirrorless use can still have their back end close to the sensor; they’ll just have the mounting flange further forward, with some of the glass hiding inside the body of the camera. This will create a pancake-like appearance for lenses that are not actually thin. Another possibility is that filters can be placed into the gap. Or the protruding barrel can be a place to mount a control ring. I think it’s a perfectly viable way to do mirrorless, though for some it won’t win aesthetic points.

Doing this would mean that if Pentax goes mirrorless, it would have a far bigger native lens lineup for the camera than any newcomer system — in fact, bigger that a lot of the old-comers have. And it would allow them to finally fill some of the awkward gaps in their lens lineup, such as fast wide angle lenses, especially something like a 24mm f/2.0 or thereabouts. A fast 18mm would also be nice, and the aging 14mm f/2.8 could be replaced with something a lot more compact, probably with less distortion.

If they have a range of cheap and advanced mirrorless models, maybe support for older lenses that use mechanical aperture and autofocus could eventually be dropped in the cheapest ones, giving it a restricted lens lineup in order to save weight and money, while the more expensive ones handle the full range.

This is not a new idea… ten years ago, when mirrorless systems with electronic viewfinders were brand new, and I had just bought into Pentax (after using OM mount gear with film), and people were talking about whether Pentax should climb onto the new mirrorless bandwagon, I took the same position I’m taking today: keep the old long mount, and find new uses for the empty space in it.

Normally, whenever someone comes up with a new shorter mount, they also make an adapter so you can still use your long mount lenses. Some claim that this is a good reason to not need to maintain any direct compatibility. But my position is that adapters suck, and if you doubt this, go out and try to find examples of people making use of them in real photography. If they work well, why do we so seldom see them being used? A lens mount has to live or die by the lenses that are fully and directly compatible with it, and in my opinion, adapters are only a temporary stopgap at best. They make wide angle lenses too long, and telephoto lenses insufficiently rigid.

There is one camera company that did go mirrorless with an old SLR mount, but it’s one that basically doesn’t count: Sigma. Everyone buys their lenses but no one buys their cameras, because their one selling point is a unique sensor technology which has failed to keep up with advances in conventional mainstream sensors. Also, their prices are way too high. But they do in fact sell two mirrorless cameras which use a mount compatible with their older SLR cameras. (It’s derived from the Canon EF mount, tweaked just enough so the fit is incompatible.)

I’m kind of surprised that neither Nikon nor Canon went the route of keeping the long mount. I suspect that at least one of their two new mounts is going to end up struggling for market share, and whichever one that ends up happening to is going to wish that they’d been more conservative and maintained more compatibility. Quite a few tech companies have had to learn the lesson that market leadership doesn’t mean much if you try to break compatibility with the products which gave you that leadership.

(The PC industry gives us examples from IBM’s PS/2 to Microsoft’s Windows RT… Intel alone has three such failures: the iAPX 432, the i860, and the Itanium series. They don’t like being shackled to 8086 compatibility any more than I do, but without it, they might as well be upstart nobodies.)

Sony, being the established leader in the new segment that Canon and Nikon just entered, is probably hoping to crush them both. But I don’t think that will happen, because Sony has never quite been a credible alternative to the real camera companies. Their try but never quite get there, and have no understanding of what they lack. The winner will probably be whoever provides the best support for the most demanding professional customers at the very top of the market, and the odds favor Canon as they have deeper pockets than Nikon. But Nikon has some advantages and might have the opportunity to get back the #1 position they once had. But whichever of those two might win, there is no guarantee that the other will take second place — the world might well conclude that one new system is necessary but we don’t need two. And Sony might even prove me wrong.

It will be many years before these new mirrorless lens-mount systems become predominant over the old SLR systems with optical viewfinders, but now that the leading camera makers have both offered that option, it’s bound to be the eventual outcome. Mirrorless is clearly better for some kinds of shooting. But the transition will take longer than enthusiasts expect. Some shooters will always prefer a traditional optical viewfinder, some will not have a sufficient reason to change systems, and many will not even see a need to upgrade old equipment. The camera industry is coming out of a very fast-paced period of change, but things are slowing way down now. New cameras are now barely better than older ones, and overall sales are dropping as five year old gear is no longer being rapidly obsoleted. The whole industry is shrinking, painfully.

There will always be a place for the traditional SLR camera and its optical viewfinder, and there will be some customers who will even pay extra for it once it starts disappearing. And this gives camera companies a choice: either maintain two awkwardly incompatible systems at once, or cut off part of their own loyal customer base. Sony has done the latter more than once, which is one reason why they’ll have trouble earning the loyalty of high-end pro customers. Canon was already doing the former, with their compact EOS-M system and their SLR EF system, and now they’ll have three. (Plus two different sensor sizes in the SLR system, and some lenses compatible with only the smaller size — an issue that Nikon and Pentax both share.) Canon did once, back in the eighties, abandon an earlier SLR mount to introduce their current one — a risky move which ended up being very successful.

Nikon has mostly done very well at maintaining compatibility, but they did abandon their miniature “1” system not long ago. Likewise, Pentax has decades of upholding compatibility on the SLR, but they abandoned the tiny Q system. One company with an arguably worse record than Sony is Olympus, which abandoned its primary mount twice in one decade… though Sony has fought back with moves such as creating and then abandoning nonstandard flash mounts, creating and then abandoning proprietary memory card slots, and so on.

Supporting two or three systems at once is much easier for a big rich company than for a small one. That’s why Pentax should probably avoid adding one. They already have a pricey medium-format system in that secondary role (which now has a direct mirrorless competitor from Fujifilm), and they are already struggling to support two sensor sizes in their existing SLR mount with new lenses, having re-entered the full frame market later than everyone else except Panasonic. Maybe they should just forget mirrorless entirely, and cultivate the niche market of those who will never want to switch. But probably not… by using a long mount for mirrorless cameras, they can do both.

Maybe Nikon also should have avoided splitting into two systems, and kept the long mount — I don’t know. In hindsight, Canon certainly made a mistake by making their EOS-M mount too small to expand for full frame, so RF had to be incompatible with it. (Sony avoided this mistake when they created their E mount. So did Leica with their L mount, which is now going to be shared with Panasonic as they enter the full-frame market. Both were originally sold in compact cameras but then expanded to full frame while remaining compatible. Leica planned this… Sony reportedly did not, and was just lucky that they were close enough to fake it.) That mistake will help even the playing field for Nikon, but Canon is the company that could most easily get away with making a mistake like that, and succeed in spite of it.

All of this change leaves the camera customer in a very uncertain position. If you want to choose a system to buy into, which is the right one? Which one will be most favorable today, while still being a good choice fifteen years in the future? It used to be that choosing any of the lesser companies like Pentax or Fujifilm or Olympus or Panasonic or Leica was something of a gamble, but you knew than Canon and Nikon would always be safe. You might pay more, you might wait longer for some advancements, and you might settle for generic products instead of something more personally appealing, but you’d be secure for the long term. Now, though, there is no safe option. Both of the leading SLR systems are now marked for decline and obsolescence, but both of their replacements are fragile and uncertain. And as for the minor brands… in a shrinking market, there’s a high risk that some will give up the ghost. It’s a bit surprising that so far, only Samsung has quit the game — a deeper shakeout looked likely for a while, and may still happen. In the next few years we might well lose another brand or two, such as Olympus or Pentax or even Hasselblad. If someone comes to me and asks me to recommend a camera brand, I honestly don’t have a good answer. I certainly can’t recommend Sony — they’re too fickle, they see everything they make as faddish disposable gadgets rather than tools (an attitude which sometimes manifests as flimsy construction), and their camera division is often a money loser for its parent company and might get its budget cut without warning. Also, because they use a mount that wasn’t designed for full frame and is not quite large enough, all their full frame lens designs have to struggle to avoid dark corners, which has to affect the cost or quality in other areas.

The recommendation problem gets even more complicated for someone who doesn’t want the bulk and expense of full frame. All three of the dominant companies give poor lens support to those who buy their cameras with smaller APS-sized sensors, expecting you to either make do with full frame lenses, or buy lenses from Sigma that they have no equivalent of. If you look just at lenses designed for APS sensors, suddenly the leaders are Pentax and Fujifilm, with Sony still in third place. Even if you include long lenses, on the grounds that sensor size doesn’t affect lens design once you’re past 100mm, the big two barely catch up, because almost all of their short primes are sized for full frame.

Among mirrorless APS systems, Canon’s is clearly in last place. Fuji’s is a better bet than Sony’s, I would say. For SLRs, budget-priced bodies are getting less and less attention from all three makers; the whole category of crop-sensor SLRs may be slowly dying. Fuji may be the safest bet here, but it’s also the only one with no full-frame migration path, so you have to be dead certain you will never want more than APS.

What about the Micro Four Thirds sensor size? In my opinion it’s small enough to noticeably degrade picture quality, so I could recommend it only for those who plan to stick to the most affordable budget gear… but the models available don’t save any money relative to APS competitors. Small sensors can be advantageous for shooting video, but I am not going to make recommendations for video shooters — I only know from still photography.

What am I going to do with my own camera setup? Basically, my plan is to keep using my existing gear until it wears out, which hopefully will not happen for many years. By then, things may be clearer. If Pentax is still viable, I’ll most likely continue with them, as switching is costly. But I do have to replace one lens a lot sooner than that, as it’s going bad mechanically… so spending more money on a system that might go bust is something that can’t really be avoided. (The bad lens is a Sigma — it’s ten years old and has taken its share of knocks.)

Who would I root for to come out on top, assuming Pentax has no chance? Well, I’ve always liked Nikon better than Canon, so I guess I’m hoping that their Z system is a success. Maybe if Pentax dies, that’s where I’ll end up — even back when I first bought into Pentax, Nikon was my close second choice. They do have the lens I currently covet more than any other: a super-lightweight 500mm f/5.6, which is expensive but not completely out of reach. I’d also like to see Fujifilm do well, though their approach so far is not well suited to my personal needs (no 500/5.6 for you, Fujistas). As for Sony… I think my best hope for them would be that the parent company spins them off so they’re independent. They might become a real camera company that way. If not, well, better Canon on top than them.

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7 Comments »

  1. As an addendum, there’s been a smaller battle for mindshare going on in parallel with the contest between SLRs and mirrorless cameras: namely, in-lens vs. in-body image stabilization. The former group included Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Samsung (now discontinued) — the latter had Sony, Pentax, and Olympus. I went with the in-body camp, and with these latest changes, it looks like this is the side that has won. Nikon has adopted in-body stabilization with their new mirrorless line despite their in-lens heritage. Panasonic made the switch some years ago. Sony dropped out of the in-body camp but then dropped back in again. Fujifilm recently also started using it. That leaves Canon as the only major choice to support in-lens stabilization only. (Some of their cameras have software stabilization when shooting video — that doesn’t count.) Leica has dabbled with in-lens stabilization lately, so I guess they also count if you’re shopping in their luxury price range.

    It is possible to support both in the same camera. The ideal, I would say, is to offer in-body stabilization for all lenses, but add in-lens stabilization to a few lenses that are especially demanding, such as giant telephotos.

    Comment by Supersonic Man — October 26, 2018 @ 2:08 pm | Reply

    • Now there’s a rumor that Canon will add in-body stabilization to a future EOS R, along with a super-high megapixel count.

      Comment by Supersonic Man — January 13, 2019 @ 6:21 am | Reply

      • Canon has confirmed in-body stabilization will happen in the future. Meanwhile they’ve come out with the EOS RP, which adds a new sub-$1500 price bracket to the full frame mirrorless market. Nikon is rumored to have something similarly cheap coming along… but they’ve got a more immediate way to fight back, and it might be an effective one: they are now including the adapter for free with every camera.

        Sigma is now selling an adapter to let any Panasonic or Leica L-mount camera get full use out of Canon EF lenses. L-mount looks like the most open standard in the full frame world… Maybe some more of the smaller brands can unify on it.

        Comment by Supersonic Man — February 14, 2019 @ 2:49 am | Reply

  2. Reviews are coming in for the new Nikon and Canon mirrorless full frame camera bodies… from what I’m seeing so far, the Nikon is perfectly decent and respectable, but the Canon has some significant flaws. DPReview, for instance, graded the Nikon Z7 at 89% but the Canon at 79%, saying it “comes up short”. On Imaging Resource, one guy who liked the Canon had to take a defensive tone, disputing those who called it a bad camera.

    Comment by Supersonic Man — November 19, 2018 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

    • Unfortunately, it appears that the Nikon Z series bodies are suffering a lot of early quality control issues.

      Comment by Supersonic Man — June 10, 2019 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

  3. Despite an early lead in getting better reviews for their initial bodies, it appears that Nikon is now the one that’s flopping in this market segment. Canon is going from strength to strength in their lens lineup while there’s a perception that Nikon’s remains limited and unbalanced, though the actual number of lenses available is about the same. I don’t know how true this perception is… the most concrete facts I can find say that both Canon and Nikon are experiencing a substantial downturn in sales of their existing products as buyers wait to see how the new mirrorless offerings mature.

    But whether or not they are falling behind in the present, Nikon has always had far more limited access to capital than Canon — or Sony, or even Panasonic — and this transition may be the crunch where that limit bites them hard, impairing their ability to keep up as Canon pumps out a broad range of lenses. Within three years we may see Nikon fading and Sony becoming the clear #2 camera maker, despite Nikon probably still having the superior product when comparing lens to lens and body to body. Now that may be overly pessimistic; if Nikon bears down, they may be able to keep up, and have a fairly complete lens lineup two years from now, just as Canon does. Their first half dozen lenses were not a well-rounded selection, but the next half-dozen might balance it out pretty well. So things might work out fine… but I’m getting a feeling they may not; it’s looking like Reagan vs Gorbachev here.

    This capital shortage also probably has a lot to do with Nikon’s weak position in the video and cinema market, where they may currently be no better than #4.

    Comment by Supersonic Man — June 25, 2019 @ 11:11 am | Reply

  4. It’s clearer and clearer that nobody agrees with me about the viability of mirrorless cameras using old mirror-compatible mounts. Sigma just departed from their long-mount history by announcing a new camera called the “fp” using the Leica/Panasonic L mount. It’s very compact, with a lot of features being add-on modules instead of built in. It’s at least partially intended as a cine camera rather than for stills. It’s also their first camera with a conventional sensor, though they say their Foveon technology still has life in it, so maybe they’ll have conventional and foveon variants of the fp sold side by side. Another innovation is that it relies entirely on an electronic shutter.

    If I’m wrong, I guess if Pentax has any future it’s only in serving the holdouts who want a true SLR.

    Comment by Supersonic Man — July 11, 2019 @ 11:26 am | Reply


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