The 2019 Mirrorless To Do List

In my other article today I outline many of my thoughts about what the camera companies are likely to do in 2019. You'd think with all the press and hype and new mirrorless products of 2018 that all the camera companies would be basking in their successes. Thing is, every last camera company has serious challenges in the coming year. 

To put that into perspective, I also put together a succinct To Do list for each company of things I believe they need to do, demonstrate, improve, fix, state, or solidify in the coming year. 

Canon

  • Rationalize M versus EF-S versus EF versus R for the consumer. Too many dead ends in the lineup, too many overlapping models, too much confusion. The Canon marketing message is so confused at this point that when I talk to Canon personnel they can't actually make sense of it themselves. There's a 70's GM-like bloat happening in the Canon lines (and I didn't mention the Cinema stuff, which is EF in what will become an R world). 
  • Add EOS M lenses. Canon and Nikon made the "few lenses" mistake with EF-S and DX, basically opting for just some consumer zooms. Sony's now decided to follow suit by mostly ignoring E. This has enabled a new competitor (Fujifilm), and is making previously loyal users grumpy at best, angry at worst. Your best possible future customer is your current one. Screw the current customer and you lose a future one. 
  • Rationalize RF lenses. We currently have four very different lenses targeted to three different customer sets. The only clearly hinted at lenses (f/2.8 zoom set) and the 28-70mm f/2 and 50mm f/1.2 all cater to a higher end customer than the R body is likely to attract, in my opinion. Is high-end, high-performance, high-price lenses the reason for R, then? This gets me back to my first point. 
  • Find the IBIS. Nikon has it. Panasonic will have it. Sony has it. Canon? Where's the IBIS? The fact that two high end RF lenses don't have IS is telling: sensor IS must be coming. But that implies a higher-end body. We keep coming back to that first bullet. So the low-end R doesn't have IBIS and most of the lenses don't, either? How's that competitive?
  • Technology catch up. Canon's behind on more than IBIS. They're also behind on full frame 4K video, they still haven't completely closed the dynamic range gap, they're not really ready for faster cards...the list goes on.

The good news is that Canon seems to have slowly been awoken. For awhile there it was looking like we'd get to Rebel Mark 10's before we saw Canon start to free themselves from DSLR boundaries. The bad news is that Canon's pivot is turning out to be somewhat clumsy and confusing. That's okay as long as they start removing the clumsy bits and begin limiting the confusion. 2019 is the year they need to show us that they get that and are engaged in doing it.

Fujifilm

  • We could use some model rationalization. In particular, I don't understand the X-H1 versus X-T3. Which one am I supposed to buy, and why? The full frame onslaught is putting pressure on the high-end APS-C line, and Fujifilm has three models that feel that pressure (X-Pro2, X-H1, and X-T3). Perhaps the answer is that you throw out a marketing line such as "you could buy a stripper full frame camera or choose between three top-of-the-line APS-C models from us." But to do that you need to rationalize who buys what and why. 
  • Fill a few more prime gaps. In particular, we've got a gap between 90mm f/2 and 200mm f/2. Seems like a 105mm and 135mm should fit in there. It also feels like we could use a couple of additional f/2.8 (small and light) primes, most notably at 16mm and 20mm (and I wouldn't mind a 70mm pancake, too). Fujifilm needs to market against up (full frame) and down (m4/3). Fast lenses help with the up, pancakes help with the down, particularly on bodies like the X-T100. 
  • Are we going exotic? We have the 200mm f/2 (300mm f/2.8 equivalent). And it's another fat boy like the Nikon variation. Are we going further? Will there be a 300mm f/2.8 (450mm f/4 equivalent)? A 135mm f/1.4 (200mm f/2 equivalent)? 

As most of you know, I'm not a fan of X-Trans (other than for monochrome work). It complicates the demosaic in ways that just sometimes get in the way. The X-A5 and X-T100 use straight Bayer in their sensors, and I get the same "Fujifilm color" without the pixel-peeping angst. Does X-Trans really gain us much over Bayer? Well, we can now do some relatively apples-to-apples comparisons, and I'd say it's a bit less than a third of a stop (unfortunately, that only apples-to-apples comparison only applies up to the dual gain boost point, as the X-Trans sensors use dual gain, the Bayer sensors don't). Still, that's enough of a data set to make the conclusion from.

So I wonder why Fujifilm is still continuing with the X-Trans complication. It makes their sensor costs higher, it's difficult to market, and you'll note that they didn't use X-Trans on the Medium Format cameras ;~). 

Things like X-Trans make Fujifilm a little more "eccentric" than the other camera makers. Perhaps that's a marketing plus when you're a small player in the game, but I'd tend to argue that it's one of the things that holds Fujifilm back, too.  

Nikon

  • Where's the crop sensor? Let's state it simply: so many more people buy crop sensor cameras even today that the total revenue from a good crop sensor model tops the best full frame sensor model (e.g. the D3500 DSLR brings in more dollars for Nikon than the popular D850 DSLR). Put another way, Nikon needs a mirrorless option that is far less than US$2000 in list price. The longer they don't have that, the more Fujifilm just takes the serious crop-sensor customers out from under them, and the more Canon's dead-end M manages to stay alive.
  • Where's the firmware? Nikon needs to give up on the "fixing and adding features goes into new models only" mantra they had in everything other than the D5 type models on the DSLR side. We won't see Z6 and Z7 Mark II models until late 2020, but there are things that need improving today to stay competitive. That means firmware upgrades with not just bug fixes, but clear performance and feature enhancements. I listed quite a few of those in my Z7 review, but if Nikon needs a longer list, I'd be happy to provide one.
  • How fast are the lenses popping? Good on Nikon to give us a Road Map for Z lenses. That alone was one of the more positive signs of life at Nikon corporate that I've seen in a long time. There's an understanding in Tokyo that Z lives or dies by lenses in many customer minds. Now we need to see the delivery schedule. If what we get is the NOCT in early 2019 and the 14-30mm in late spring, that's not a fast enough schedule. We've got six Z lenses scheduled for 2019: we need to see urgency in getting them out. And the order in which they come out is important, too. The order should be 14-30mm f/4, 85mm f/1.8, 20mm f/1.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8. With the NOCT not being a meaningful lens to most Z users it could come at any time in that sequence, but we really don't want to see it push anything else back.
  • Where's the knowledge? I've written about how Nikon has come up short on describing how the Z autofocus system works, but that's not the only thing. It turns out that highlight-weighted metering works differently on the Z's than it does on the DSLRs, too, and as I keep drilling down, I keep finding more. Why am I finding these things and not reading about those differences from Nikon? Simple solution: assign each changed system to an Ambassador, have that Ambassador go to Tokyo and meet with the engineers that know what's really going on, then have the Ambassador promote that knowledge to the shooting community. That's not rocket science folks. 

I've never had issues with Nikon engineers. They make good decisions, they execute well, though sometimes more slowly than I would hope for. It's everything that happens above the lens/camera designers that tends to be Nikon's problem, because the bean counters run the shop looking for every penny they can find, and literally nothing escapes them. They don't care if what they cut might lose a customer if it keeps the overall gross profit margin (GPM) on target.

But every now and again, the engineers win and manage to convince upper management to run around blowing horns. That's happened with the Z system. I'll bet that Nikon corporate thinks they overspent on the Z launch (they did for what they achieved). I'd argue they could have spent a bit more and they certainly could have gotten better results. Still, unlike Canon's big battleship-like attempt at a turn, Nikon is looking more like a modern cruiser and turning very nicely. They just need more ships (lenses, APS-C mirrorless, etc.).  

Olympus

  • Do more than an E-M1x. Making a bigger, more advanced, more expensive E-M1 may very well make a small handful of dedicated m4/3 pros happy, but it fundamentally fails to address Olympus' biggest problem: market share. Their declining m4/3 volume in an advancing mirrorless market is putting them back into a familiar position. One they ended up in during the film era, and one they ended up in during the DSLR era. In essence, they keep declining into unprofitable and unsustainable states. More than anyone else, Olympus needs a "wow" camera in 2019, and as much as the E-1Mx might wow some, it's not the camera that will wow the consumers Olympus needs in order to right the ship.
  • Embrace and market small. E-PL1: 115mm wide, 10.4 ounces. E-PL9: 117mm wide, 13.4 ounces. In seven generations, one of the smaller cameras grew a bit of a beer belly. The Pen F is basically bigger (125mm wide, 13.2 ounces). The E-M10m3 is 121mm wide and 12.8 ounces. Hmm. We have three models at nearly the same size, and none are trimming down at all. Now, that size is indeed smaller compared to full frame, but not a lot smaller (Sony A7m3 is 127mm wide). It's mostly in weight that the m4/3 cameras do better now (the Sony is 23 ounces, or ~2x). Small and light is the Olympus heritage. Just for the heck of it, I went to the Olympus product pages to see how they pushed that. Nope, small and light is not a ubiquitous and strong message. It's the third marketing message ("unparalleled excellence," "sharp in all areas" being the first two). But even in the "perfect size, perfect shot" messaging Olympus is behind the times: they're marketing against DSLRs still. And the small and light message is mostly just a vague statement, not a specific set of measures. Basically Olympus is missing the most basic of marketing forms: feature/benefit clarity. 
  • Fix the menus. This was on my To Do list for them in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and now 2019 (I note that dpreview is now doing To Do lists, too, and this is on their Olympus To Do list, too ;~). Making menus prettier, changing fonts, and changing colors is not "fixing," it's slapping a coat of paint on a pig and calling it pretty. Long ago I wrote "every time I have to configure a new Olympus my head ends up hurting." Still true, and I'm not the only person who thinks that. I'm a pretty geeky guy, but the product manager in me says someone needs to help those engineers speak "customer." Note that I'm not arguing about taking features or options out. I'm simply talking about making things easily findable, totally understandable, and well organized. 

Do I think it's problematic that Olympus isn't doing full frame? No, not at all. While physics are against you in smaller sensor use versus larger, that didn't stop smartphones. The real issue for Olympus is "solving user problems." Real user problems. A small, light, highly competent system (e.g. m4/3) has a place in the market. But you absolutely have to make sure you're solving the real user problems and that you market in ways that the potential customers understand this. The E-M1x is not solving the right user problem. And it's likely to be marketed wrong if the past is any indication. 

Some of Olympus' problems are also tied to sensor. Not size, but the fact that in order to get pricing right on the sensor, they're hanging onto old sensor technology far too long now. I still don't get why we don't have a Tough camera with an m4/3 sensor. Or an LX100 (and RX100) competitor from Olympus that's m4/3. They don't have enough well thought out model spread to reuse sensors wisely, IMHO, and that's hurting them.

Panasonic

  • Answer the question “why?" Panasonic's marketing team has the biggest challenge of 2019. They're late to the game (full frame mirrorless), and they're coming from a different sport (m4/3). They really need to explain why we should pay any attention. The L lens decision was a good start, as an alliance of lens makers is something that Canon and Nikon can't claim. But my initial impression from Photokina was "late, large, and pricey." I believe many others share that view. So Panasonic marketing has its work cut out for it to change initial perceptions. It doesn't help that in a country like the US, Panasonic doesn't really have the dealer base that could help them with that. So Panasonic is going to have to do it through events, advertising, ambassadors, and more. 
  • Answer the lens challenge. 48.8/19 versus 52/16. The lens throat is smaller (first number) and the flange distance is longer (second number) than the most flexible mount (currently Nikon Z). This puts more constraints on optical design. And we've already seen that the Z lenses are very good for their price points. So not only do we need a road map from Panasonic on lenses, we also need to see how those lenses are going to stack up size-, price-, and performance-wise. I'm not saying Panasonic can't compete, I'm saying that they have to tell us how they compete. 

I've always felt that Panasonic had some of the most photography-centric engineering teams in Japan. I keep meeting Panasonic engineers who actually are photographers. It shows in their products. 

The L alliance is another bold move for Panasonic (the m4/3 alliance and the original Leica alliance being others). The problem is that it isn't clear that these have paid off as well as you'd think they should. m4/3 had the issue of launching right at the tail end of the digital photography growth period, which didn't help. Now they're the last into full frame mirrorless (okay, Pentax will be in actual last place, if they ever get to the starting line). Timing hasn't helped Panasonic. Still, it's nice to have another competitor, and a photo-centric one, at that (yes, they're video-centric, too, which earns them two gold stars).  

Pentax

  • Fast forward 10 years or more. Each time they were acquired, they fell further behind the competition. They'll be last to a significant mirrorless offering, which is pretty amazing given that even Sigma managed to move from DSLRs with their cameras. Had Pentax done at Photokina 2018 what Panasonic did, we'd all be marveling about how "Pentax is back." Instead, we got nothing, and the mirrorless hole still exists at Pentax. (Don't tell me about the Q. B&H, who carries everything, no longer has the Q available. Moreover, the Q was always a bit of a novelty, using a compact camera sensor but having a couple of interchangeable lenses, some of which were labeled "toy".) The brand name still has value, but the product line mostly doesn't. And in mirrorless, there is no product line.
  • Is it Ricoh or Pentax? I can't believe that we're still in a world where Ricoh-labeled cameras and Pentax-labeled cameras still exist from the same company. This tells you how little corporate management cares about the photography bit—and it is a very small bit in relation to the overall company—of the business: they never rationalized the two groups and the branding. Makes you wonder why Ricoh bought Pentax.

Being acquired never goes the way you think it should. New management, new policies, new procedures, new...well, just about everything, including the big one: priorities. Pentax has had to go through this ritual twice, once as Hoya stripped out all the "good pieces" that they wanted (mostly medical), then as Ricoh came in to keep a brand alive and jobs in Japan. 

The problem is that word I used in the last paragraph: priorities. What are Pentax's priorities now? There's no outward sign of what those might be other than to slowly iterate things they've already got. Meanwhile, the camera market has gone through one transition (growth-to-contraction) and has entered another (DSLR-to-mirrorless). 

Sony

  • Resurrect the APS-C (E) side of mirrorless. Right now, Sony is just using old generation bodies to do the heavy lifting. Sure, an A6000 kit at US$500 looks kind of reasonable until you realize you're buying a four-and-a-half-old camera. The recent dearth of E lenses is the Canon/Nikon mistake all over again, too. The strongest rumors are about a new top-end, an A7000 that's a crop-sensor A9, and that's a fine product to have. But it doesn't solve the problem of having the older generation A6xxx's holding serve. Sony needs entry, mid-level, and high-end crop sensor cameras that are not boxes that have collected dust on shelves. And they need more APS-C lens options.
  • Get the A7Sm3 right. This is trickier than it seems. The A7m3 is a perfectly fine video camera, so any change to more than 12mp means there has to be a lot more in the A7Sm3 than pixel changes or EVF change. I know Sony knows this, but it's still a fairly narrow plank they're walking with this model. They don't want to lose those that bought into the "low light wonder" or confuse those trying to figure out where they should be in the A7 lineup. 
  • Start retiring things. Yes, I know an original A7 or even A7m2 for under US$1000 looks like a sweet way to sample full frame. But frankly, the game has moved a lot since the A7. The risk of keeping old models in the lineup is twofold: the purchaser is disappointed in autofocus and other performance, or the purchaser is perfectly happy with it and goes into Last Camera Syndrome on Sony after paying Sony next to nothing. Money eventually gets left on the table either way. But here's the other problem: the fact that those older models are still available across almost all dealers indicates an inventory pile-up at retail. As Nikon discovered, it gets more difficult to make your numbers on the latest and greatest camera when you're dangling discounts on older ones that are "almost as good." Inventory overhang is inventory overhang no matter where it occurs in the chain. 

Sony made a strong pivot that started with the NEX models. That pivot actually rationalized everything in the Imaging group, from pro video gear all the way down to consumer still cameras. As Sony often does, it has thrown leading-edge technology at their problems, as well. 

The results show. They're now a very credible third major camera company, and the Canon and Nikon pivots that are now in progress were triggered by Sony's re-emergence. Thing is, now that the real battle is on, making further gains is going to be tougher and tougher for Sony. The Z7 shut down much of my own A7Rm3 use, for instance (because of the lenses I own versus what I'd have to buy). I've also seen the number of "I'm leaking/sampling/switching" comments from others go way down, which means the days of Sony gaining by easily stealing Canon/Nikon customers is coming to an end.

That's probably okay for Sony. They've got enough of a user base they can work with to keep the pressure on, and any fumbles by Canikon will tend to go Sony's way (as long as they fix APS-C, otherwise some of those fumbles will go to Fujifilm). 

Final Comments
I mentioned it a few times in the above bullets, but it's probably worth revisiting one of my contentions generally instead of within the individual brands. And that contention is that you shouldn't cripple a consumer line of interchangeable lens cameras with a lack of a reasonably full set of lenses. The camera makers are entirely too eager to up sell you to a completely different camera (full frame) and its entirely different lenses. 

What I've seen this do is open up significant movement to competitor products. Sampling, leaking, and switching all occur when your current customer isn't happy with the options that you've offered them. I've been doing survey measurements on this for awhile now (mostly with Nikon users), and I can see clear mid-single digit volume impacts, drifting higher. By that, I mean 5-10% of folk didn't upgrade in brand, but sampled, leaked, or switched.

I have a ton of business experience in "renewal" markets: newspaper and magazine subscriptions, software updates, refresh of hardware. I've long observed that your retention number is the one most predictive of your future success. At Backpacker, for instance, when I left we had a two-year subscription retention of well over 70%. That means that people who had subscriptions for two years or more were still renewing each year in very high numbers. Even back in 2001 that was an extremely high number (today it would be to die for in the magazine business). 

It doesn't matter whether a customer buys an update for their camera body every year, every two years, every four years, or every eight years. You want to do everything in your power to make sure that when the time comes to buy new, they buy your brand again. Plus they keep buying your lenses. But if you've been sending out signals like "we'll only do consumer zooms for this mount, and then only a few" when your direct competitor is sending out signals like "we're going to keep building a large, wide, and deep lens set," guess how hard it is to retain that customer? 

Internet sites and services also all talk about "customer acquisition costs." It's the number one metric that investors look at to understand your growth ramp. How much did it cost you to get an order from a customer (marketing, advertising, direct solicitation, co-branding, etc.)? The camera companies seem to have no real clue what their customer acquisition costs really are any more (let alone their customer retention costs). Couple that with not being efficient at customer retention, and you have a problem.

I'm not even sure any of them are really tracking customer acquisition and retention all that closely. They need to. 

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