Things I Find Strange in the Crop Sensor Mirrorless Market

Now that everyone is playing at the mirrorless camera table, we basically have a duality in product that customers face: (1) full frame and larger sensor models; and (2) crop sensor models (APS-C and m4/3). I deal with what I find strange about the full frame competition in another article. This article tackles the crop sensors. 

Here's a list of some of the items that are confusing me.

Canon M

  • I've written about this before, but the incompatibility of the M and RF mounts in mirrorless is a long-term problem for Canon, I believe. You can't collect a new user at the low-end crop sensor solution (M) and then easily transition them seamlessly to a higher-end full frame solution (RF) later. If an M user has to abandon lenses as well as camera body to upgrade, they can pretty much consider any competitor at that point. And that's doubled by the fact the fact that even the ergonomics don't match from M to RF at this point.
  • Is M solely about the true consumer (lowest common denominator)? Do we ever go beyond where the M5 is today? The M lens selection suggests that we won't. Moreover, several of those M lenses are weak optically compared to the crop sensor competitors, which means that they don't appeal to more sophisticated users. Is M just about picking off people willing to pay US$300-500 for a camera? Sure is feeling that way.
  • The M image sensor is adequate, but not state-of-the-art. This, too, makes the M's look more and more entry-only if not addressed. When does a new APS-C sensor start percolating through the huge Canon APS-C lineup? And will that happen in mirrorless first, or DSLRs? That will send a message to customers, obviously.
  • Overall, I don't get it. The M ought to be the point in the line where Canon grabs smartphone users wanting to move up. But I just don't see the value proposition there at the moment, nor do I see what Canon does with that user once they have them. What is the smartphone user really gaining? That remains clearly undefined in Canon's marketing, but it's also clearly undefined in the product management plan as far as I can see, too.

Fujifilm XF

  • Okay, Fujifilm's all-in with APS-C. They've made that clear with both actions and statements. Moreover, they've made clear that the consumer end is Bayer, the upper end is X-Trans. What I have a difficult time of is exactly pin-pointing which model aligns with which customer and why. At the moment we have: X-A5, X-T100, X-E3, X-T30, X-T3, X-H1, X-Pro2. The lineup doesn't seem fully rationalized to me, and given Fujifilm's small market share, they seem to be pushing too many models. When you couple this with spillover inventory from previous versions (e.g. X-T2), you end up with a huge confusing mess for a customer to navigate through. Yes, I'm aware of the sales techniques that utilize customer confusion, but I'd argue that when you're a distant fourth or fifth in market share, those work against you, not for you. Can Fujifilm clarify their lineup?
  • The APS-C and medium format (MF) combo Fujifilm is promoting is effectively two stops apart, and I'm an advocate of that approach (as opposed to APS-C and full frame, which are one stop apart). While Fujifilm execs are good about talking about this in interviews, their marketing messaging falls far short. In essence, Fujifilm is bracketing the competition. Thus, you need a strong and effective "nearly as good as X [with an advantage X doesn't have]" and "better than X" set of marketing messages. Why those haven't appeared, and why they aren't reinforced after exec interviews, i don't know. 
  • Fujifilm's lens line is now over 30 lenses and growing (though I had to count, as Fujifilm themselves isn't promoting quantity in their messaging very clearly). One thing I'm not seeing from Fujifilm is clear marketing messages helping people understand how to parse all those offerings. As in "we have over 30 lenses and growing: a set of compact lenses for light travel, a set of high performance lenses for high image quality," etc. In other words, logically group things for the customer to understand. I'm not going to be interested in high performance lenses for an X-A5 or T-100, but I'm very interested in compact lenses for light travel. Send me the message that you've got them!

Nikon

  • With the demise of Nikon 1, Nikon no longer has a crop sensor option in mirrorless. Simply put, Nikon failed at crop sensor mirrorless (business wise; how good/bad the products were is irrelevant at this point). Unfortunately, Nikon made their own problems worse by basically ghosting their customers. For several years. Not. A. Good. Thing. So even before we get to them re-entering the crop-sensor market—and yes, they will re-enter because they have to—Nikon has some full on explaining to do. Explaining that's going to run against their cultural instinct (i.e. they are going to have to explain the failure). I have no idea why this hasn't already happened. See my other article on the Nikon 1 today.
  • The fundamental question everyone has is this: what will Nikon's crop sensor products look like? Will they be smaller F-mount DX bodies with a snout? Will they be Z-mount cameras with a massive opening (far bigger than needed for APS-C)? Will there be a new mount (and will it avoid the Canon M problem)? Heck, might Nikon do the Fujifilm thing and pick a sensor size two stops off (e.g. 4/3)? Thing is, I'm not seeing Nikon start to seed expectations at all here. What that does is make the initial announcement require a full-on explanation of why they chose what they chose and how that slots in with their full frame offerings. The previous bullet adds a complication: Nikon has abandoned a lens mount. So if their crop sensor mirrorless isn't F-mount or Z-mount, customers are going to be hesitant unless Nikon can make a clear commitment of what's going to happen. They won't, because that's not their style. They need to, because this is about future customer confidence.

Olympus

  • Olympus execs basically have backed themselves into a corner, and very defensively: "we'll continue to make cameras and they'll be m4/3." Meanwhile, in three short years they've lost 35% of their sales volume and they continue to lose money in making cameras. That's a huge contraction that cannot continue without one of those two clauses in the quote being wrong ;~). I don't fully understand what's happening here. Proper product line management shouldn't be producing this kind of result. So where's the disconnect? Corporate? Product planning? Marketing? Customer interaction? What's strange to me is that—actually for nearly six years—I'm not seeing actions on Olympus' part that show me that they understand how to fix their problem. To wit:
  • Olympus execs also maintain that the unique advantage of m4/3—and I would agree in theory—is "compact and lightweight products that are highly portable." Which of course, is not what the E-M1X really is. To me and many others the E-M1X is indicative of too much engineering and not enough product management. Yes, some 100% dedicated m4/3 users welcome anything better at the top end, but how many folk is that? With barely 3% of the camera market, it's completely unclear to me why Olympus' priority would be a more expensive camera that appeals only to a small subset of those users. Canon and Nikon don't exactly sell 1DXm2 and D5 cameras in high quantities, and I just don't see the E-M1X nibbling into those numbers, so we have bafflement here. Particularly when at the same time the Pen F was discontinued. Olympus needs to explain why they don't have their priorities backwards.
  • Olympus leans far too much on lenses. The usual comment I hear from m4/3 users is that "the lenses make up for the small sensor." Okay, I get that you want to do some of that. I do generally agree that lenses can help compensate for the sensor. Olympus eventually got round to "kitting" (body plus lens combos) that promotes this. For example, the E-M1m2 with 12-40/40-150mm zoom set, or the Pen F with the 25mm/45mm prime set (why no 12mm?). But I don't at all understand the f/1.2 primes they appear to be pushing towards. The 25mm f/1.2 is almost a pound. That's edging far too much away from the "compact and lightweight products that are highly portable" mantra for me. The recent 12-200mm seems like more the direction they need to emphasize (not so much the superzoom aspect, but the trying to build light, portable solutions for any given function, in this case superzoom).

Panasonic m4/3

  • Panasonic came flying out of the gate in mirrorless. They had a top-three market share early on, but that's slowly eroded. And I don't think the SLR-like thrust lately is helping that (e.g. GH5, G9, G85). Those SLR-like bodies all tend to be large for the sensor size (see Olympus E-M1X for the extreme). That's not a problem for one model, but with Canon and Nikon and Sony downsizing the full frame cameras, Panasonic seems to be too close in size while too far away in performance. This is the thing that got 4/3 into trouble eventually. It's a bit like m4/3 has gone an American diet. Where have the more svelte, compact models gone.
  • Panasonic is all-in with DFD focus, as opposed to the phase detect everyone else uses. The problem is that this really works best with Panasonic lenses, so it's one of those lock issues in a mount that promotes unlocked. 

Sony E

  • Sorry, but I don't get it. The A5xxx seems to be gone. The A6xxx has defocused into a messy overlap that makes it impossible to understand model position. I have no idea how to position the crop sensor bodies, and I'd argue that neither does Sony. The A6400 came out as a "vlogging" camera, not as the A6300 successor. What? These are consumer cameras, and they need clear consumer-type of positioning statements. You buy X for Y, A for B, etc. There aren't enough vloggers—and I'm not convinced the A6400 is really for vlogging—for that message to drive camera sales.
  • Lenses, lenses, lenses. It always comes back to that with crop sensors. The big boys (Canon, Nikon, Sony) seem to want to stifle and restrict their crop sensor users so that they are forced to upgrade to full frame to get true lens flexibility. The far smaller competitors (Fujifilm, m4/3) push large numbers and a full line of lenses to compete. When Sony feared Samsung, they were iterating E lenses. Once Samsung went away, so did most of the E lens development, it appears. Sony needs to protect themselves against Fujifilm more if Sony wants to keep crop sensor market share, I think. It's not a problem today because Fujifilm is still not in all shops and not as visible to the casual consumer yet. But as that changes, the problem will be Sony's poor and aging E lens lineup against Fujifilm's growing and excellent one. These are ILC after all, and even the most casual consumer wants more I in the L for the C.  

Almost two-thirds of the dollars taken in by the camera companies for mirrorless this year should come from crop sensor cameras. That's a big number: something just under US$2 billion using estimated CIPA shipment numbers and today's monetary conversion (the actual retail value that the customer pays adds up to a far higher number). 

If you're going to stay competitive in cameras, you need to be taking a substantive slice of that US$2b number. Right now, Canon and Sony are doing just that, while the m4/3 twins of Olympus and Panasonic are sliding. Fujifilm is taking a smaller but growing part. And Nikon will almost certainly be back wanting a big piece.

The funny thing is that everyone seems to have written off crop sensor cameras thinking the market is all full frame. Nope. Full frame is the cream at the top. The bigger portion of the drink is crop sensor, and I'd guess this is the next area that everyone starts to focus on now that they've got their full frame (and larger) aspirations laid out. 

text and images © 2019 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2018 Thom Hogan-- All Rights Reserved
Follow us on Twitter: @bythom, hashtags #bythom, #sansmirror