The Canon/Nikon Lens Difference

A site reader asked me recently to give a bit more time to the Canon side of things (apparently I create too much Nikon and Sony content). They wanted to know more about how I felt that Canon fit into the grand scheme of mirrorless.

That happened to coincide with my thinking about the comments I've been seeing about lenses in the new Canon RF and Nikon Z mounts. 

(I'm going to skip over the crop sensor APS-C/DX lenses for the moment, as I don't at all understand Canon's strategy there, and Nikon has just started with that in mirrorless. So what I have to say below is about full frame.)

One thing I keep hearing is that Canon is being more innovative with RF than Nikon is with Z or Sony has been with FE. To a large degree I would agree that's true. 

Here's what I believe is behind Canon's thinking: "our EF lenses work perfectly fine on the adapter, so why don't we spend more time exploring new options." Those options have generated a few interesting choices that weren't expected:

  • The 28-70mm f/2, a "faster" mid-range zoom
  • The 70-200mm f/2.8, a collapsing fast telephoto zoom
  • The f/1.2 primes, a set of faster-than-expected lenses (expected f/1.4)
  • The f/11 DO telephotos

In fact, if you look at Canon's current RF lens list you find that eight of the fifteen lenses so far seem to follow that "let's do something a bit different" strategy. 

With Nikon's Z mount lens offerings, only two of the first twelve FX lenses are outside of the expected lenses norm (the 58mm f/0.95 NOCT and the collapsing 24-50mm f/4-6.3).

Both companies can count on their legacy DSLR lenses working well on their adapters, so it appears that Canon choose a slightly different and less cautious approach than Nikon.

The real question is whether this trend continues as both companies keep extending their full frame mirrorless lens set. That's a more difficult thing to assess, as Canon doesn't have a lens road map and Nikon's only extends out through the end of 2021.

But taking the Canon RF lens rumors and the known Nikon map into account, here's where I end up:

  • Canon — 26 lenses, of which 11 fall into my "unexpected" category.
  • Nikon — 21 FX lenses, of which only two fall outside of expected. You might say that the two compact primes also do, but they mimic lenses Canon did before in the EF mount, so I don't put them in the "trying something different" category. You might.

Now matter how you count, there's clearly something different going on in the Canon and Nikon full frame mirrorless lens approaches at the moment. 

You might wonder how Sony plays into all this. Of the current 32 Sony FE lenses, I'd say only three tend to be outside of expectations, and one of those is a video-related lens. Sony, like Nikon, seems to be taking a fairly straightforward approach to lens targets.

Note that I'm not talking about quality here, but really just the overarching specifications (focal length and aperture, coupled with some build-type decisions). 

One final note about Canon: they eventually have to bring the EOS Cinema cameras over to the RF mount. Sony has this considerable advantage of being a one-mount company, and right now Canon is a three mount company (EF, M, and RF). In full frame, Canon also has five prime and four zoom EF mount lenses in what they call the CN-E (Cinema EF) lineup. So there's a lot of complexity and confusion in the Canon lens corral right now. 

My guess is that Canon will eventually have to rationalize to RF and fill in the "expected" lenses, otherwise risk having to point to older EF lenses against competitors' lineups that are complete and work across all their cameras. 

Nikon doesn't have this same problem, as it has no video division to bring to the new mount, yet Nikon adapted the same philosophy as Sony ("one mount"). So I'd say that Canon still has a lot of work cut out for themselves lest they get into a situation where they're relying on old gear they probably want to stop making to fill gaps. 

I refer to Canon as the Big Battleship in the interchangeable lens camera pond (they have consistently held a 40-50% market share from the 90's onward). It'll take some time to get ship reconfigured and pointed the right direction. Sony's smaller ship was more nimble and easier to change quickly (and they started earlier). The market contraction has forced Nikon to be nimble, too, and it seems like they managed to wake some of the crew who were sleeping. 

This all makes for a very interesting game to watch. All three of the main full frame competitors have different needs and goals at the moment. Canon has the most work cut out for them if they want to hold market share and fight a consolidated video/still competitor with a like lineup. 

And don't forget that there's another fleet assembling trying to figure out if they can compete well enough to take some key territory, too (L-mount). 

To some degree, this all explains Canon's strategic emphasis on looking more innovative. From a branding standpoint, Canon was a bit in danger of the DSLR/EF line defining Canon as your parent's Oldsmobile. They've needed to get attention back by doing things on the unexpected side, and it's starting to look like that's working. 

The R5/R6, DO lenses, and more all point towards a more aggressive, forward thinking company. We should all be happy with that, as Canon becoming more competitive means all the brands have to up their game again. 

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