Where Mirrorless is Headed in 2019

We've come to the end of another year—an important year for mirrorless—and as we kick off the new year it's a good time for some reflection on the market. 

I've previously written quite a bit about where we are now that all the big players are seriously in the mirrorless game. This time I thought I'd use my year-end musings to write about what I think each company will/should be doing in the coming year+. Technology is relentless, so unless a company has clear plans that match up with ongoing customer needs and expectations, it's easy to make a misstep. 

I’m tackling this topic in two articles. This article is more detailed and deals with the technology/specifications side (i.e. product) more thoroughly. My other article today is more about what the photography user needs to be seeing and hearing from each company (i.e. more marketing and positioning). That other article is a more concise list of the biggest issues each company needs to fix, whereas this article is more a general discussion. 

In other words, if you want the long explanation, read this article. If you want the shorthand, read the other article.

As usual on my sites, we'll tackle the companies in alphabetical order:

Canon
Canon's biggest problem is that EOS M and EOS R don't look very compatible, and Canon still has a huge base of EOS EF and EF-S DSLR folk to migrate to mirrorless. 

I've written before that EOS M now seems dead-endish: you can't use M lenses on R, EF, or EF-S bodies even with an adapter, so there's no migration path for folks buying into M. It appears that Canon is thinking somewhat backwards here (migrate EF/EF-S users to mirrorless): we've now got a patent that shows that Canon has been tinkering with a so-called Speedbooster converter to allow EF lenses on the EF-M mount. 

Speedboosters are a type of inverse teleconverter. Instead of adding focal length and reducing the effective aperture, a booster converter does the opposite: decreases focal length and boosts the effective aperture. The goal of such a converter for EOS M would be: make full frame EF lenses work on EOS M as well or better than on a DSLR. The exact patent would make a 50mm f/1.4 EF lens effectively a 40mm f/1.2 M lens. 

I'm not sure that addresses the problem I see with EOS M, which is simple: if I buy into EOS M, there's no way for me to keep some of the system I buy if I decide to later upgrade to EOS R. The M lenses don't transition at all. I suppose if I'm using EF-S and EF lenses on a Speedbooster adapter for M that I can continue to use them with yet-another-adapter with R. But that just doesn't seem like the right approach to me. Even if the number of people who would migrate from M to R is small, it's a clear negative positioning point versus the competition. Sony can simply market "buy our consumer APS-C camera and you can eventually grow into anything we make; your lenses don't become paperweights." Canon product management and marketing is generally smarter than this, not building things that the competition can easily take down with a well-targeted message.

So what's the real solution? Canon says they'll continue to introduce M lenses if customers want them (not sure how they're monitoring that). That still really says M is a end of its own, though: you don't migrate away from it. Realistically, we need an APS-C R camera, and I'm betting that we'll eventually get one, probably at the higher end than the lower end (e.g. 7D or 80D level).

Meanwhile, the R is sort of in no-man's land at the moment. It's priced and speced a bit between the A7/Z6 and the A7R/Z7, and it's missing a few bits (like sensor IS). It really needs companions, call them the 1/2R and the 2R ;~). The 1/2R would be the entry consumer full frame mirrorless (24mp or less, US$2000 or less). The 2R would be the A7R/Z7 competitor (lots of pixels, US$3300+). 

My guess is that these new R's are well under way and will appear in 2019, probably at least one in the first quarter of 2019. My question is this: which UI will they have? I've already written that the current R feels more like an experiment in UX (user experience) than a refined statement of how the future works in Canon cameras. The R has a strange mix of buttons/controls/locations that don't really match anything previous, nor do they feel to me like the answer for the future. If the 1/2R and 2R come out with the same UI/UX as the R, I'd expect some pushback from users.

What seems clear is that we're going to get more R lenses from Canon in 2019. Unlike the rest of the competition, Canon seems reluctant to say what lenses. Even the never-before-have-we-provided-a-road-map Nikon acquiesced on this, but Canon seems to think it's an advantage to keep potential customers in the dark. It isn't an advantage, and coupled with the M mistake, this is the first time I've seen Canon product management and marketing completely out of sorts. Canon's mirrorless messaging right now is poor. That has to have an impact on sales.

Fujifilm
Chug, chug, chug... 

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...

Chug, chug, chug...

Okay, my tongue's in cheek again (yes, sometimes the inside of my cheeks gets sore from all the tongue action ;~). Somewhere in Fujifilm a plan was made, it's been executed, it's being executed, it will continue to be executed. 

That plan was push APS-C for the masses, but compete with the full frame entities by dangling medium format (albeit at market-limiting prices). Unfortunately, the APS-C side now has a clear price ceiling, as the US$2000 full frame cameras aren't exactly strippers. That's already caused Fujifilm to lower pricing on the X-T line to look more competitive. 

Still, Fujifilm is the only one in mirrorless cameras we can say has a full APS-C line: X-A5, X-T100, X-T20, X-E3, X-T3, X-H1, plus all the older models still in inventory. The trick for Fujifilm is to better rationalize that line and remove that inventory backlog. The X-H1 seems an oddity now with the X-T3 improvements. Does the X-E3 really generate demand that isn't taken away from the neighboring cameras in the line? Are the buyers of older models doing anything more than sampling? (i.e. if you buy an X-T2 today at clearance prices, are you really going to stay a Fujifilm regular over time?)

Given Fujifilm's chugging along, it's not to difficult to predict that an X-E4 and X-T30—or some variations on them—are the next trains out of the station. It's still too early for an X-Pro3 or X-H2, I think, and those two cameras really need some rethink as to what they're trying to achieve in the lineup. X-T100, X-T20, X-T3 I understand (even though these are obviously somewhat different generations of designs in the same product line). X-Pro2, X-H1, X-T3 I don't understand, and I don't think the Fujifilm faithful really do, either.

In the Medium Format realm, Fujifilm has relatively clear sailing, with only Hasselblad to elbow aside (but don't count Hassy out now that they've partnered with DJI). Sony Semiconductor has already shown the sensor roadmap we'll see in that sensor size, and Fujifilm has given plenty of warning about 100 and 150mp medium format cameras coming. I suspect we'll see them in 2019. Chug, chug, chug...

Nikon
Despite a far less than perfect and sometimes rocky marketing launch, the new Nikon Z system is alive and well. Nikon didn't do much to focus (pardon the pun) and control the messaging during launch, and it hurt them short term. Longer term, things look more rosy. That's because the cameras and lenses they shipped actually are quite good. Good enough to hold serve and staunch any sustained flow to Sony from Nikon loyalists. 

It's now time to hunker down and get the iterations/additions/changes right. A healthy round of firmware additions would go a long way to fixing the initial messaging, particularly if they addressed some of the continuous autofocus issues that have arisen. This is not Nikon's forte, though: other than the D5 type camera, Nikon really hasn't been known for major firmware update changes in the past. It's time they changed that, and I hope 2019 shows that they figured this out.

That's because the Z6 and Z7 have to stay relevant for a couple of years to recover R&D costs. Those two cameras need to keep selling through to 2021, and the best way to do that is to have a message that says "they keep getting better" (e.g. substantive firmware upgrades). It wouldn't take a lot to create that message, but it will take more than the bug fix updates we've seen so far.

Nikon has already given us a roadmap to lenses for 2019, and that looks fine to me. The 14-30mm f/4 is an important lens, as is the 85mm f/1.8. I'm not sure I want the f/2.8 zooms myself, but knowing that they're right on the horizon line is still comforting information. 

Unfortunately, the next lens out will be the manual focus 58mm f/0.95 NOCT, which is more of of an arrogant, ego-boosting, design-masturbation statement than anything useful to more than a few customers. Frankly, Nikon needs to tell me why I care about this lens. And no, it's not because the "mount allows it." 

What's missing in Nikon's Z lens lineup—even past 2019—is conspicuous: any telephoto zoom above f/2.8. Whether that's a 70-200mm f/4 or a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 or something else, we can debate. But basically the message Nikon is sending is "for telephoto use, you're going to be mounting a big DSLR lens on the FTZ adapter." Good thing the 300mm f/4 and 500mm f/5.6 PF lenses are entirely appropriate for that (as is the bargain 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P). But where is the Nikon marketing messaging saying that to customers? I've now said that message more times than anyone at Nikon HQ apparently has. Hello? Bueller? 

The real 2019 need from Nikon is something completely different, though: what I call DX-M, or I guess would be called something like Z-DX by Nikon. I now know that Nikon more than fiddled with potential crop sensor mirrorless designs: they got to the stage where they had to make a build/cancel/postpone decision. Indeed, the messaging I get from sources within and around Nikon says they went from build to postpone to redesign. 

So if we're in a redesign phase with crop sensor mirrorless, what is that and when does it appear? It's intriguing that we have 8 blank lens listings for Z mount in 2021. Could any of those be Z-DX? Or is the current Nikon lens road map for Z are all full frame and they'd come out with another road map for crop sensor? If you can answer that question, then you might be able to better predict when we'll see a DX Z. 

Olympus
The E-M1X is next and imminent, apparently, and it seems to be a bit of a repeat of what Olympus did with their swan song for 4/3, the E-5: throw the kitchen sink in, promote it as pro, grab as much money as they can. Add some more fast pro lenses like a liberal sprinkling of salt trying to make the meal taste better. 

Olympus is in a tough place. After rushing into early m4/3 success, it's been tough treading lately. The goal a few years back was to hit 600k units a year. Didn't hit it. Didn't hit it. Didn't hit it. Won't hit it. Indeed, are they even at 500k units a year still? Certainly not without substantial sales at the low end of discounted older models.

The problem for Olympus now is sensors. All that custom work is being done on low volume on a small sensor, while everyone else is doing similar levels of work on large sensors with low volume. It's hard to eek out an advantage because of the sensor size difference, so Olympus appears now to be completely playing to the m4/3 converted. Yet they're still maxing out their sensor costs with far smaller volume. 

That m4/3 customer wanting smaller/lighter product used to be me, but lately Olympus is losing me. The full frame bodies have come way down in size, and I'm now starting to find lenses that make for a really small kit. Smaller than my m4/3 kit in some cases, with more and better pixels. Olympus is trying to deliver more pixels through the pixel shift arrangement, which helps for totally static subjects, but not for everything. They're truly in a defensive game here, and they're no longer fielding a full team. 

I can't see how this ends any way other than constrained niche for Olympus. The question is whether that niche is big enough to be sustainable. Maybe. The jury is out on that. 

2019 is the year Olympus needs to tell us what the future is really like for them. Their partner Panasonic has already taken that step (e.g. adding full frame). And I'm going to argue that the E-M1x is not an answer to that question. 

Olympus is now in the back of the pack with Pentax: interesting products, but not mainstream and not producing volume in sales. 

Panasonic
I just mentioned that Panasonic has taken a step towards the future. That step is full frame. 

Personally I think they got a little anxious and dropped the big announcement too early, at Photokina 2018. They still seemed to be in the design refinement stage on the body, and early prototype stage with lenses. There's a lot that can still go wrong for them that would push actual delivery out more than currently expected. Panasonic's latest statement on release is “spring 2019” (previously it was "early 2019” so we’re starting to hear the already vague date slide). I'm betting that Panasonic's definition of spring and mine don't match, but I'll be happy if I'm proven wrong.

The S1 bodies (and lenses) seem to be a little on the chubby side to me (and the existing L lenses are also not exactly svelte). This puts more emphasis on features, performance, and pricing, and that last one is likely to be "above the competition," which puts even more emphasis on the first two.

Panasonic's got a lot to prove with the actual S1 launch. Canon, Nikon, and Sony will all have plenty of actual users by the time Panny's cameras hit the market. There's a risk the Big Three suctioned up almost the entire full frame user base. Any perception of "not delivering" will relegate Panasonic into a distant fourth position in an already small market. Still, this is far better than having nothing in the space, which is where Olympus and Pentax are. 

The S1 also puts pressure on the m4/3 offerings. If the S1 is 4K 60P, why do I want it instead of a GH5/GH5s? Positioning is starting to become everything in the still contracting camera market. With two lines two stops apart—much like Fujifilm—Panasonic needs to have clear messaging telling customers where they should be purchasing and why. 

Many are predicting that Panasonic just left the m4/3 world (i.e. won't be doing a lot there in the future and eventually winding it completely down). I don't think so. Not at all. Like most of the other players (Canon with APS-C and full frame, Fujifilm with APS-C and medium format, Nikon with APS-C and full frame, and Sony with APS-C and full frame), Panasonic looks to be moving to a two-line approach. 

Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it would be what I'd do if I were running product management for any of the Japanese companies. What Panasonic needs to do in 2019 though is begin to rationalize the two lines and communicate who should buy what and why. I didn't see that in the Photokina press messaging. I still don’t see it in the subsequent messaging. Indeed, just the opposite (they suggested that the G9, GH5, and GH5s "gained a solid reputation among professionals and amateurs..."; so why do those pros need an S1/S1R? And if they do need an S1/S1R, what's that say about the G9, GH5, and GH5s?). 

Nothing wrong with Panasonic's product development. Their success in 2019, however, is almost completely dependent upon their marketing and messaging.

Pentax
Incomplete. Hasn't showed up to class since 2014, and then only to turn in a revised homework assignment that didn't change their grade at all.

I'm wondering if Pentax is still a student. Should I put in a missing person's report? 

Less work for me with Pentax absent, I suppose, which is fine.

Sony
Sony is all-in with mirrorless, and has been for some time now. In the full frame arena Sony is now updating/iterating on a regular schedule (basically two year cycles). The A7s is due for its third cycle, and I wouldn't be surprised if Sony penciled in an A9 update in late 2019 given the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. It's also possible that the A7r gets a late 2019 update, as well, and if it does, it'll surely get a pixel boost. 

In terms of lenses for full frame, Sony's in pretty good shape in the wide to short telephoto range, with only a 20mm prime being the glaring hole. Personally, I'd really like to see them bring the f/1.8 primes into the wide realm, too, but frankly, Sony has pretty full coverage from 12-85mm in ways I'm completely satisfied with at the moment. It's above that where we need to see more from them, and I hope that 2019 brings us new optics at the long end. I'm betting on a 200-500mm type of zoom, a fast 200mm or 300mm. Given how good the EF and F lenses are via adapter on the Canon and Nikon full frame mirrorless cameras, Sony needs to plug the telephoto lens gap, ASAP.

It's the APS-C side of things where Sony seems to have completely stalled. We originally started with NEX-3 and NEX-5 offerings, basically a low and mid consumer product. Those iterated rapidly and many times. That was expanded to include a NEX-6/7 higher-end offering. It looked like that would roll over into A5xxx, A6xxx, and A7xxx models, but after the initial 5xxx and 6xxx offerings, we've really only gotten another iteration of the 6xxx. 

The A6500 dates back to 2016, the A5100 is a 2014 model. That's a long time for consumer-pointed models to rot on shelves. 

The rumors, of course, say we'll get an A7000 that's a mini-A9 next for Sony's APS-C mirrorless line, probably in early 2019. In other words, high-end crop sensor. That still leaves a big chunk of consumers looking mostly at Canon and Fujifilm cameras, which seems like a mistake to me. Curiouser still, the last E (APS-C) lens we got from Sony this year was the very consumer (18-135mm f/3.5-5.6), not at all high-end. Prior to that, Sony had gone into a crop-sensor lens hibernation much like Canikon's EF-S/DX. I had to go all the way back to 2013 to find the previous E lens launch. So launching an A7000 without high-end APS-C lens support seems like it has high potential for not hitting the target.

Whether we'll get anything other than an A7000 in APS-C from Sony this year is questionable, I'd say. It appears that Sony is perfectly happy in selling older A6xxx bodies as long as they can get away with it. Plus Sony now has the Nikon DX disease: just use full frame lenses. 

Overall
Mirrorless had a big year in 2018, with many full frame entrants (4, or 10% of all cameras introduced), plus some good energy on either side of that size from Fujifilm. Lenses came in droves for mirrorless this year. I count 27 significant mirrorless-only lenses introduced this year (plus things like the Sigma Art series in FE mount adds quite a few more). 2019 is likely to be more of the same: lots of new lenses now that Canon and Nikon have to get their mirrorless foundries up-to-speed to match Sony. 

Clearly, all the camera makers—other than Pentax, who's still wandering around in the woods somewhere seeing if trees make noises when they fall—are going to be executing significantly in the mirrorless realm in the future. We're now clearly into the DSLR-to-mirrorless transition period. How long that transition will take depends upon how fast the camera makers move. 

So on that note:

  • Canon doesn't want to move fast. They've still got one very large foot completely stuck in the DSLR mud, and don't want to pull that out any time soon for fear of losing a shoe. Their marketing department keeps noting that they'll continue iterating DSLR products, and I expect to see them do just that in 2019.
  • Fujifilm has already made the move and wants people to move from DSLR as fast as possible. That's part of their chug-chug-chug product iteration strategy. Jump on the train, folks, it's moving from the station as we speak...
  • Nikon doesn't want to move too fast. They seem clearly unprepared to do consumer mirrorless (e.g. crop sensor). And like Canon, they're trumpeting the fact that they'll have more DSLR product iterations soon. That said, I'll bet that Nikon makes the all-mirrorless move before Canon. It just isn't going to happen any time in the very near future.
  • Olympus was one of the early movers, but at this point they've been clearly passed by Canon and Sony, and probably will be passed by everyone the way things are going. Which will put them right back where they ended in the film era, and where they ended with their DSLRs. What did Einstein supposedly say about repetition?
  • Panasonic seems to want to move fast, but they're still be playing catch up in the full frame arena, and it's unclear what's next for them in m4/3. 2019 is a year when we learn a lot more about how well Panasonic can execute in the declining market.
  • Sony now seems to be easing off the accelerator a bit. They want full frame to continue to move at a regular pace. That means they have two bodies to iterate this coming year, and two the following year, and two the following year, and so on. Significant innovation on two-year cycles is getting tougher for them to do. The lens side seems to be moving at a fast pace, though, which helps. But APS-C? I have no idea how Sony wants to move and how fast. Right now it looks like they're as stuck in the mud with the A5xxx/A6xxx/A7xxx as Canon and Nikon are with EF-S and DX DSLRs. 
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