Another Problem for the Duopoly

Korean optics manufacturer Samyang and German optics maker Zeiss are starting to show a new problem for the "closed shops."

What do I mean by that? Well, neither Canon nor Nikon have ever really shared their mount communications and complete specifications with others. Canon's EF mount has been reverse engineered with some reliability, but Nikon's F mount has proven much more difficult to lock down. For a long time in the DSLR era, having those closed mounts meant that Canon and Nikon not only dominated the camera body volume, but also the autofocus lens volume as well.

Thing is, Samyang, Zeiss, and many others used to be pretty much just manual focus lens makers partly because of that. They didn't have access to the secret juice that made the Canon EF and Nikon F lenses focus so well and reliably (let alone provide the EXIF data and manage advanced things like AF Fine Tune), and thus those third-party lens companies didn't ever enter into the competitive AF lens arena for the two major DSLR makers.

Yes, some companies managed to play the reverse engineer game successfully. In particular, Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina. Tokina had several former Nikon optics engineers in its lens group, though, while Tamron has apparently had a few OEM lens deals with various camera makers, including Nikon. It's not difficult to guess how the genie got out of the bottle for those two. Meanwhile, Sigma has been the one doing the most exhaustive reverse engineering, and with the Nikon bodies in particular you can see how very small communication changes in the mount often caught them with an incompatibility they had to fix.

But all that is changing in mirrorless.

The m4/3 partners were the first to allow others to openly license mount information. Then Sony did the same thing with the E mount. Fujifilm seems to be a bit more restrictive, but has apparently shared information with Zeiss.

The result is that Samyang—formerly a company that only made manual focus lenses—now has five autofocus lenses for the FE mount, with another about to be announced. Zeiss—formerly another company that only made manual focus lenses and primarily for the Canikon DSLR duopoly—now has four autofocus lenses for the FE mount (and Fujifilm mount) with another about to be announced.

Whether Canon and Nikon like it or not, the mirrorless push has finally put a dent in their dominance over autofocus lenses for ILC cameras, and this problem is only going to get worse for them.

The irony is that Nikon really started with lenses, not camera bodies. Indeed, Nikon supplied glass for early Canon cameras. Canon quickly got into the lens business themselves, and eventually the two dominated ILC cameras and lenses, with as much as a 75% market share between them. At this point, Canon has produced over 100m EF-mount lenses, and Nikon nearly as many F-mount lenses. That's a huge installed base of lenses that tends to keep people "in the mount."

But again, all that is changing now.

It started with mount adapters (e.g. using a Canon EF lens on a Sony FE body), which helped ease the financial pain for some in transitioning to mirrorless. But now we're seeing large lens sets develop in the mirrorless world, and they're not exclusively from one manufacturer for the m4/3 and FE mounts.

I'll be curious to see how long the duopoly lasts, and whether they can break through the competition that mirrorless has enabled. Lenses, like everything in the camera world, have been experiencing a drop in volume (CIPA shipment numbers):

  • 2013: 26.7m units
  • 2014: 22.9m
  • 2015: 21.7m
  • 2016: 19.2m
  • 2017: 19.2m

That decline has not been as steep as the camera declines, but that's partly because it's also been fueled by mount switching as some people have moved from DSLR to mirrorless. Plus those pesky third-party lens makers now are showing some leverage in the market as they produce autofocus and more sophisticated lenses for the mirrorless market, which is not currently declining in volume.

Advantages and disadvantages accrue to the last players to transition in a market switch. The advantages tend to revolve around being able to see what works and what doesn't. The disadvantages tend to resolve around the fact that the early movers can establish footholds that are difficult to displace.

Lenses are one of those footholds in mirrorless. As I've pointed out before, we're piling up quite a few mirrorless lens options now. Not so much at the telephoto end or more exotic designs such as tilt-shift lenses, but it likely won't be long before those things tend to completely fill in, too.

Yet today we have Canon sitting on just seven EOS M consumer lenses, most of which are targeted very low, and Nikon sitting on nine CX lenses, none of which are likely to be useful to them in the future as they abandon the Nikon 1 lineup that uses them.

If I were an executive at Canon or Nikon, I'd be worried silly about lens availability as I try to move into the mirrorless ILC market. I'd be worried that proprietary won't cut it against the more open systems that are now well established. In particular, I'd be worried if I were a Nikon executive that the very foundation of the company—optical engineering—doesn't seem to be really coming to play in a market they need to do well in (mirrorless).

We live in interesting times. The next year or two will tell us a lot about what we need to know about mirrorless lenses. Let's hope that Canon and Nikon actually have a story to tell there.

text and images 2018Thom Hogan
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