I'm Confused. So Are You.

The mirrorless camera market is in a tizzy at the moment, despite being the only dedicated camera market that looks like it is sustainable (the pandemic notwithstanding).

Let's take it maker by maker:

  • Canon — I'm sure you all know by now how I feel about EOS M: it really feels like a dead end due to its mount. Plus its lack of lenses (buzz buzz ;~). One thing that's becoming clear is that the M is coming out of the PowerShot group, not the DSLR and video groups, which are clearly headed to the RF mount. But is this what you really want, Canon? Cameras aimed at less sophisticated and more all-automatic users that don't have an upgrade path to the top ones? I don't think so. 

    Meanwhile, RF has taken some puzzling turns of its own. The experimental UI of the R and the lets-lowball-the-market RP didn't seem consistent with the DSLR group's needs long term. Fortunately, the R5 and R6 look like two "right" models, but...really, taking out a battery or leaving out the card "solves" the R5 overheating problem? It's now appearing that FeverGate is really just a software nanny that's been given too much power. By whom? And why?

    And then there's EOS Cinema, which has yet to complete a transfer to the new mount. I've noticed that more and more of the Hollywood/Netflix continuum is solidly using Arri and Sony these days. It doesn't feel like the Canon engineers have quite hit the nail on the head yet. Sony's solidly one mount, Canon's weakly three mounts at the moment. 

    So, here's my question to Canon marketing: which Canon do you want me to buy and endorse? It feels like there's six competing entities at the moment, all of which share different personalities. (That would be PowerShot, EOS M, EOS EF, EOS R/RP, EOS R5/R6, and EOS Cinema.) I don't think the camera market is big enough for that much differentiation, and here at the pro level I want a simpler gear closet than you're proposing I have.

  • Fujifilm — For their market share, Fujifilm sure has a lot of model choices. And they often work out to be confusing ones, as the X-T3 versus X-H1 choice was, or now the X-T30 versus X-S10 choice is. Moreover, Fujifilm isn't completely consistent with their adherence to dials and how they work. It's as if Fujifilm engineers keep trying new ideas thinking that those will be the things that catapult them into a larger market share. 

    Four APS-C models and two medium format models are enough, and they should be consistent in UI by this point. We're eight years in on X's, and we're still seeing that the UI and ergonomics is unsettled (and this isn't Fujifilm's first rodeo). Other than the top X-Pro and X-T models, it's impossible to predict what "refinements" Fujifilm might be working on. I have a real difficult time recommending the X-S or X-E models because of that, and even some of the X-T models seem not fully predictable. It's one thing to refine product, it's another to change your design mind. 

    I'm also a bit unclear about lenses now. We're getting repeats and refinements of the lenses we had, without filling the lineup. In particular, I wonder just how much Fujifilm is committed to telephoto. Fujifilm wants the X-T4 to be the D500 replacement for many, but the lack of suitable telephoto lenses means that won't happen. 

  • Nikon — Nikon has two basic problems at the moment, and none of them are the actual Z mirrorless cameras or lenses they've delivered so far!

    Problem number one is that Nikon has been losing market share while trying to transition from DSLR to mirrorless. That simply means that they're not being quick enough in their transition, and they haven't convinced their installed base that it's worth it. One is a pace of engineering issue, the other a marketing one. I get it. Nikon is totally reliant on two businesses, semiconductor equipment and cameras, and both are cyclical. This time the down cycles coincided, and that increases the risks involved with trying to innovate and move forward. The real choice facing Nikon recently has been this: get smaller fast or gamble the company. They chose smaller. Still, I see issues with their execution that could have been avoided. Those need fixing, stat.

    The second problem is that they can't deliver the products that they've announced to the customers. D6? Out of stock. 70-200mm f/2.8 S? Late and out of stock day one. 24-200mm? Out of stock unless you buy a kit. 180-400mm f/4? Out of stock. 500mm f/5.6 PF? Out of stock until just recently. D780? Some versions out of stock (too much incorrect kitting, Nikon). WR-R10? Out of stock and the replacement isn't available yet. 85mm f/1.8 G or S? Drifting in and out of stock. Not delivering products that are desirable to key customers is not the way you halt market share slide. As I was writing this I got one of those periodic emails from a long-time Nikon user ("When should I just call it a day and move to Sony?"). You should never have that issue with your customers.

    Thing is, all the product engineering so far with the Z system has been pretty darned good. Nikon came out of the gate with their first generation right hot on the tails of Sony's third generation. The lens parade just continues to produce great choices and fill in gaps (though note problem #2). I suppose the DX side of the Z system looks questionable, but at least a Z50 user can grow into a Z5 or better without finding they need an entirely new lens set. 

    Nikon just needs to move faster, deliver more, and find a way to leapfrog Sony for the still photographer (realistically, that's not going to happen for the video customer). Still, I'm confused by the problems I'm seeing from Nikon. It's not like those aren't predictable, thus why hasn't there been a fix?

  • Olympus — Punt! But first, put on several razzle dazzle plays and see if that works. I hate to say "I told you so" on the train wreck that has been Olympus m4/3. The E-M1X won over what, a hundred users? (Okay, it might have been 10 thousand, but still, that's not a sustainable product at the price point, particularly when you were sending out emails to your user base offering them a refurbished model for less than a new E-M1 Mark III.)

    Just before writing this, I was reading one fan proclaiming that Olympus has 40% of the Japanese ILC market so far this year. What were the cameras driving this? The E-PL9 and the E-M10 Mark II, neither of which are current cameras. Olympus' problem has been similar to the one that Canon has been dealing with: they can sell volume, but only at the bottom, and often only discounted previous generation product. And in Olympus' case, that really only happens in the home market. In a contracting market, Olympus was left with operations designed for far bigger sales, and "best selling" products that sell with little or no GPM to speak of. Certainly not a GPM that would sustain the group.

    Olympus also has some of the Nikon problem. By that I mean that the engineers hand over nice products to the marketing group, who then fails to be able to define them to customers. On the Olympus site right now, there's a rotation of five products: E-M1 Mark III "No limits. Break free"; E-M1X "Absolute Confidence"; E-M5 Mark III "All you need to break free" (wait, wasn't I supposed to break free with the E-M1?); and no top level message at all about the E-M10 Mark IV and E-PL10. If you didn't know anything about the Olympus models, what would that messaging tell you? 

    Olympus' overall message probably should have been "small, light, no tripod necessary." But then exactly how are the five models lined up from there? I'll give you a hint: E-M1 Mark III: unbeatable in inclement weather. Yet when I look at Olympus' summary page, I get no strong sense of how the models really differ and why I'd want one over another.  That gets muddied further because three generations of some models are presented simultaneously, and I'm not really told how they really differ.

    I really like the E-M1 and E-M10 models, and I can see how some might find the E-M5 a reasonable compromise. But that knowledge came from use, not marketing message. This brings up a point I haven't seen discussed much: now that Olympus has divested the camera group to JIP, will they improve the marketing? Because if they can't, it's a slow fade into obscurity, I think.

  • Panasonic — Like Canon, I think Panasonic has a mount problem. I can even buy a Panasonic video camera with a Canon EF mount ;~). Actions speak louder than words, and the only true action we've seen from Panasonic lately is a stream of L-mount product centered around full frame mirrorless cameras. That's sending a warning signal to both their m4/3 and the pro video customers, as, at the moment, neither benefit from all that action. 

    I think Panasonic will eventually bring their pro video over to the L-mount. The single mount strategy really is the correct strategy for a market that's smaller than it was before and not likely to grow much, if at all, anytime soon. Resource spread is a giant friction for companies. Heck, note that Apple is trying to get all of their product onto Apple designed silicon now: concentration in one engineering realm allows faster progress than diluted focus. 

    All of which makes m4/3 users nervous and confused, even though we got two new Panasonic m4/3 cameras this year. With Olympus bailing, Panasonic concentrating on establishing L-mount, what's that leave us? Not much, though the recent BGH1 is interesting, the G100 was not. 

    So Panasonic has a similar problem to Nikon and Olympus: what is the marketing message? It needs clarity, stat.

  • Sony — Sony had the benefit of total commitment early to the E-mount. People seem to now have forgotten the A-mount abandonment, and even Sony's pro video users now find themselves on the E-mount, too. Early to act, aggressive to act, consistent in action: all good things. And it's why Sony has done well and remains the one to beat in mirrorless at the moment.

    But it's getting trickier for Sony, and I'm not sure they've yet to prove they can get the UI/ergonomics right. This year we only got three video centric still cameras from Sony (ZV-1, A7S Mark III, A7C). And Sony didn't dot all the i's and cross all the t's on two of those cameras, by any means. The whole "vlogging" camera category still needs a clear winner, though Sony doesn't yet have a lot of competition there.

    Meanwhile, many of the mainstays of Sony's line (A7 Mark III, A6xxx) feel like they've prematurely aged against the competition. The rumors about the next A7 update would have Sony pushing it far closer to where the A9 currently sits (stacked sensor, high bandwidth sensor). This is the problem that Canon and Nikon ended up having in the DSLR world: that top model that fetched high prices started getting undercut by their more affordable models because pushing the high-end faster and further is much more difficult than bringing the middle of the lineup upwards.

    But one thing Sony has to be scratching their heads about is this: the six-year-old A6000 is still their best-selling mirrorless model, and some of their other best-selling models are also previous generation cameras. That won't be true in 2021. The A6000 body only is already discontinued, and once the stock of body+16-50mm lenses is exhausted, the best-selling A6000 will become history. Sony really wants you to (currently) pay US$200 more for the A6100. That nets you 4K video and a microphone jack, basically. The fact that the A6000 is the best seller tells you that people don't want to pay US$200 for 4K video and mic jack. 

    Sony's basic premise has been "we're engineering ahead of the rest." Lots of technical gains that are overhyped by Sony's effective marketing department. The reality is that the race is much tighter than it was now that Canon and Nikon are all in, and it's starting to "out" the things that Sony didn't get right in their 10-year head start and still haven't fixed.

The bottom line is this: none of the major camera companies are nailing it. They all have issues and problems that confuse their existing and potential user base. The overall market has contracted, so the camera buyer now is more and more in the driver's seat, and they're saying that price is the biggest factor, not technology, consistency, or anything else. 

I'm watching for which company understands this and starts getting their issues under control and the right products to market.  

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