Where Are We? (End of 2019)

Amazingly, we still have a straggler or two in terms of mirrorless camera announcements before year's end (I'm looking at you SL2). Still, for the most part things are well established for the coming holiday season from most makers, so it's an appropriate time for some year-end commentary on where the mirrorless camera market actually stands.

  • Canon — Canon is mostly attacking the low end of mirrorless and is doing so with price. The M200 and M6 m2 are the crop-sensor cameras they want to sell you in the US$500-1000 range; the full frame RP has hit US$1000 with rebates, and the R is US$500 off its list price as I write this. True high-end models don't exist in either the M or RF line yet, though I'm sure they're coming. So for the time being, Canon is starting low and being aggressive with price.

    My problem with Canon's strategy is this: the M mount seems to be a dead-end mount with very little good lens support. The M6 m2's new 32mp sensor shows just how poor many of those few M lenses really are. Meanwhile, the RF mount has some really impressive lenses in it—with the 70-200mm f/2.8 being the latest addition—but these lenses all cry out for a better RF body than we've gotten so far. 

    So, I have a hard time recommending Canon except to the price conscious who aren't seeking exceptional results (e.g. buy an M with the three good lenses in the mount, or buy the RP with the 24-240mm lens, as that's a good kit at low price). 

    I suspect Canon will sell a lot of M's and RF's this holiday, but mostly to unsuspecting customers buying through Big Box and other non-specialized channels who are price sensitive. I think a lot of the Canon EF faithful are still waiting to see what's next. The top-quality RF lenses are, I hope, a good indication.

  • Fujifilm — Fujifilm has a very nice, complete, and excellent performing XF line that runs X-A7, X-100, X-T30, X-T3, X-Pro3; plus they have the X-H1 and X-E3 holdovers, as well. Fujifilm's XF lens lineup is good-to-excellent optically, broad, and deep for the most part, with only the long telephoto side still needed work. Fujifilm tends to be aggressive in pricing in spurts, with instant rebate sales popping up often.

    Thing is, as good as everything might be in the XF lineup, I still have a hard time recommending any XF body other than the deeply-discounted X-H1. At the current US$999 price (with extra batteries and grip), the X-H1 and its sensor-based IS just seems to be a better choice than the more expensive X-T3 or X-Pro3. At the current X-H1 price a potential X-T30 customer likely should stretch for the X-H1, too (unless they're going solely for small/light). 

    Of course Fujifilm also has the GFX medium format system, too, where bodies currently range in price from a 50mp rangefinder design at US$4000 to the 100mp big body GFX I recently tested at US$10,000. I have to say, there's real appeal in the GFX lineup if you're someone who can really make use of the pixels, but you're in pricey territory if that's you. 

  • Nikon — And now we have Nikon's initial mirrorless work fully revealed: "we'll start in the middle." As I've noted, the Z6 and Z7 slot in the middle of Nikon's full frame camera lineup, and now the just-introduced Z50 slots in the middle of Nikon's DX camera lineup. 

    I think Nikon correctly identified their strongest core user base: serious long-term photographers, but not necessarily the very top-end prosumers, let alone pros. The cameras are good enough to appeal upwards, though; I find myself using my Z7 as much as my D850 now, simply picking the camera that (slightly) better fits what I'm shooting. I suspect that same thing is going to happen now between the Z50 and D7500 (yes, I still shoot sometimes with the D7500, for reasons that have to do with size of kit). 

    Nikon's been aggressive with pricing with mirrorless, as well they can be, as they've automated factories and reduced parts in these new mirrorless cameras compared to their DSLRs. I expect them to stay aggressive as they try to bring their long-term shooters over to mirrorless. I can pretty much recommend all the Z models to the folk that fit in the D70 to D700 realm.

    While the Z FX lens lineup is starting to shape up decently and every lens Nikon has made so far pretty much gets the label "best x focal length Nikon has ever made...", my concern with Z DX is the same as it was with DSLR DX: where are the lenses? The two kit zooms make a very nice, very small, 24-375mm equivalent kit, smaller and better than the D3500 two lens kit, but we need a lot more than that to drive Z50 (and later Z DX) body sales. Even Canon's dead-end M series has more (poorly performing ;~) lens choice. Oops. I think I should buzz, buzz ;~).

  • Olympus — Olympus started strong with mirrorless, being one of the first to market and putting a lot of interesting engineering and design effort into their early products. They iterated quickly and constantly, too. But...

    Today the iteration feels very small and unambitious. Key technologies are now lagging (e.g. no BSI sensor, focus performance not as good as competitors, etc.). Like Nikon, the fact that Olympus is not a true consumer-oriented company but rather a business-to-business one is starting to have impact on whether Olympus can stay on top of and ahead of consumer desires and trends. 

    Don't get me wrong. The E-M5 m3 is a nice, mild update to the E-M5 m2, which makes it a pretty desirable small camera. But it's overpriced for its performance, and there's nothing in this latest model that makes me think Olympus engineers have actually been listening to consumers and finding new problems to solve. Even the E-M1X feels more like "old tech" than "new tech" to me. It's just a different distribution and iteration of that tech than the E-M1 m2. 

    Thus, Olympus models are starting to feel a little stale to me. That disappoints me quite a bit as Olympus was the mirrorless camera system I began supplementing my DSLR kit with ten years ago because they were pushing the limits. Now? Not so much. With only the E-M10 and whatever the current E-PL is in your country being the only easily affordable cameras in the lineup, it feels like the mirrorless camera market is passing Olympus by now. I find better choices in other company's lineups now.

  • Panasonic — I guess I hadn't really understood how much Panasonic is still trying until I saw all 12 (!) of the current mirrorless cameras they're still selling together at once. It's an impressively broad lineup, but I'm confused by it, and you probably are, too.

    Let's start with the easy part: the full frame cameras. We have an S1 and S1R that match up well in features and performance against the Nikon Z6/Z7 and Sony A7/A7R. What they don't match up well on is price. In fact, they match up very badly on price. As I write this, the S1 is US$2500 body only, the Z6 is US$1700, and the Sony A7 m3 is US$2000. An argument can be made that these are relatively close products that don't justify that much price differential. It makes me say this: Panasonic isn't going to sell many unless they adjust their pricing.

    The full frame S1H and the m4/3 GH5/GH5s are what I think of as the highlights of the Panasonic line, the thing that Panasonic is doing better than everyone else. And that's making a camera that performs exceptionally well for video while performing very well for stills. Most of the other makers do that the other way around (exceptionally well for stills, very well for video). The GH5 at its current US$1400 price is a no-brainer to recommend to  a student graduating out of one of my broadcast school alma maters (Murrow School of Broadcasting at WSU or The Media School at IU). You can shoot pro quality video with a small, affordable, expandable kit in a way that's harder to do with anything else, and currently at a price that's tough to beat.

    I know there are a lot of folk out there that like the other G's (m4/3) cameras in Panasonic's currently extended lineup, but I'm not a big fan. I think there are better choices available elsewhere now, and I find many of the G's just too big (a small sensor should equate to a very small overall kit first and foremost, not a DSLR-sized body). It doesn't help that Panasonic's DFD autofocus just doesn't hold its own against state-of-the-art phase detect focus in competitor's products for any moving object, either.

    That said, Panasonic has a broad, deep line of both cameras and lenses that you can't ignore. Just make sure it's the right choice for you.

  • Sony — Now that Sony has come back and shown (a little) love to APS-C, there probably isn't another mirrorless maker that's got as solid a "current" mirrorless camera lineup as Sony: A6100, A6400, A6600, A7 m3, A7R m4, A7S m2, and A9 m2. Three solid and differentiated APS-C cameras, four solid and even better differentiated full frame cameras. Add in the fact that Sony will sell you pretty much any of their older mirrorless cameras at strong discounts, and I'd guess that there has to be something in there at the right price for anyone reading this.

    Moreover, six years of full frame lens introductions and nine years of crop-sensor lens introductions have produced a pretty broad set of lenses that almost rival what the Canon/Nikon duopoly was able to do with SLRs/DSLRs over several decades. 

    Sony today pretty much sits in the cat-bird seat for mirrorless because of this, though I don't think it will be long before Canon and Nikon are matching or exceeding Sony. Sony is using their position in an interesting manner: not being particularly aggressive about pricing of the most recent models, but leaving older models on the market at very aggressive prices. This, I think, is going to hurt them long-term. While the latest generation of cameras is addressing (most) handling issues, those older models have a lot of pain points in them, so Sony is attracting customers that will discover those issues and not be happy with them. Be careful that you know what you're really getting and can live with it if you shop outside the current Sony lineup.

On a more high-level view of the mirrorless world, you have three basic choices:

  • Full Frame — (1) 12mp, (2) 24/26/30mp, (3) 45/47mp, (4) 60mp, the middle two from multiple players (and likely #4 from multiple players soon). #1 and #4 are really specialty cameras, in my opinion, and you really should make sure you need their specialness before committing the money to them. Most folk will do quite fine with #2. That's enough for the largest print you can get out of a desktop inkjet printer (13x19") and there's really not a dud in that group (though there is a difference in feature sets). Full frame has made it all the way down to US$1000 (#2 from Canon, old #2 from Sony), so it's within the reach of most serious photographers now.
  • APS-C — With Nikon's entry, we now have Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, and Sony all playing in the APS-C crop sensor game with very competent products (20 to 32mp, similar to #2 in full frame). You give up a stop or so of ISO performance for something smaller and lighter, and sometimes very small and very light. While Fujifilm is trying to push APS-C all the way up to the US$2000 price point (X-Pro3), realistically the price range is at most US$500-1500, and obviously anything above US$1000 needs to have performance/feature capabilities that the US$1000 full frame cameras don't. APS-C can make for a small, light, and excellent quality travel camera kit. When I make my holiday buying recommendations soon, you'll see a lot of APS-C in the small, light category. 
  • m4/3 — The first (well, technically the extremely low-volume Epson R-D1 was first) of the mirrorless entrants is now the smallest. Smallest in sensor size, smallest in ILC sales volume. These cameras can be smallest in travel kit size, too, with the right camera and lens choices. As smartphone camera quality keeps creeping up, the products at the small sensor end of the camera world keep getting marginalized. That used to be 1/2.3" sensors, now it's starting to be 1" sensors, and I can now see Apple and Google may eventually begin nibbling at m4/3 in the future, too. So it's feature set, performance, lens choice, coupled with manageable size that will keep m4/3 in the running, and that's where you should spend your time investigating whether an Olympus or Panasonic m4/3 camera is for you. 

I've written the following before, but it also should be considered now that all the camera makers have mirrorless options: if you've been shooting a particular brand, you probably ought to stay with that brand if you decide to transition from DSLR to mirrorless.

That's particularly true for Nikon, as Nikon has managed to make their mirrorless cameras so similar to their DSLRs in handling, menus, and performance. It's somewhat less true for Canon as they've taken to more experimentation. 

Finally, at PhotoPlus I had a discussion with someone that went something like this: mirrorless may be causing the contraction in camera sales. The reason? People can now clearly see how the future of ILC is mirrorless, not DSLR, but they can also now see exactly what they're likely to get for what price. Many see the DSLR they already own as being fine. The cost of selling off the DSLR gear and buying new mirrorless gear that performs similarly is very high. In other words, the benefits are not outweighing the costs for a lot of people, so they're just staying put. Ironically, having more options to upgrade to is causing fewer people to upgrade.

Meanwhile, as I've pointed out many times before, the camera makers are still not making sharing of images as quick and easy as they could, and that puts off the potential new young buyers of dedicated cameras. They don't want to give up the ease of sharing to carry another piece of gear that, sure, might give them some new capabilities, but is too complex and disconnected for them. 

Put these two things together and you have this:

  1. To get existing ILC owners to update or upgrade their gear—particularly those at the upper end of the camera spectrum—you need to give them much more useful features, far better performance, while not costing them an arm and a leg to get those benefits.
  2. To get new ILC owners to grow the market—particularly those that might buy a lower end or simpler camera—you need to make image sharing easy and not slap on confusing user interfaces they have to take a lot of time to learn.

Camera makers aren't exactly doing either. And thus, the mirrorless may be causing the contraction in camera sales, as mirrorless is the newest thing that should be attracting both those customers.

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