Who Wins The Mirrorless Wars?

Short answer: we all do. 

It seems that paranoia reigns everywhere on the Internet. Sony fan boys have angst now that Canikon has appeared alongside them in the full frame market. Canon users are still worried about how good an R is versus the competition ("what, no IBIS?") and what happens with EOS M ("what, no adapter?"). Nikon users are trying to figure out what's happening with lenses, as Z is markedly different than F, and that has implications for the future. Plus they still don't know what's happening with crop sensor Nikons.

It seems to me that we have people who've already pre-bought a camera they've never handled (pre-orders) arguing with people who will never buy it (brand loyalists).

But you know, it really doesn't matter how you feel. It matters what's happening in the market with product. 

Quite simply, the products are getting better, more refined, adding features and performance, and getting better handling and battery use. If you started with an E-PL1, you can get a better m4/3 camera today. If you started with the NEX, you can get a better Alpha camera today. If you were a Canon or Nikon user, you can finally get solid mirrorless choices that are familiar. No matter what your brand bias, you have more and better choices today in mirrorless cameras than you ever did before. 

So why the angst? 

bythom trend

Data is 12-month trailing shipment volume (so 2018 is August 2017 to July 2018, and the other years are accordingly matched). 

That chart tells you why the camera makers might have angst. Overall ILC volume is continuing to go down overall. So what's happening from a camera maker point of view is that they're all—other than Pentax—trying to squeeze into that blue line at the bottom (and hopefully grow it). 

So where we're at today—and will be for a few years, I believe—is that we have a highly competitive market in mirrorless. Sony isn't going to slow down their iterations and technology pushes. Fujifilm obviously isn't slowing down, either. Canon and Nikon are now trying to muscle customers at the top end, and coming in with first generation cameras that are highly refined already and only going to get better.

Here's what I'd say about the sub-markets within mirrorless:

  • Medium Format (44mm) — we still don't have anyone pursuing the larger medium format size, but the smaller one has two strong mirrorless entrants that are adding features, performance, and lenses. Given the small size of this market, that we have a real, strong competition going on is an excellent sign. Even though it is still pricey, Medium format has never been so accessible. Rejoice.
  • Full Frame (36mm)it's now a pile-on of competition, with Canon, Leica, Nikon, and Sony all present with strong competitors now, and this will actually heat up even more in the coming year(s) as more and updated models launch. The initial lens choices from Canon RF and Nikon Z promise things optically we haven't seen before, too. If you can't find a full frame mirrorless camera you like, you don't need a full frame camera, or you don't need a mirrorless camera. Rejoice.
  • APS-C (24mm) — Canon, Fujifilm, and Sony are the significant players here, with Fujifilm being the most active at the moment. This is turning out to be a tricky format, as it really should serve as a feeder to a higher format, and thus should be highly price sensitive. Sony's A6xxx line is closing in on full frame pricing and pushing technology over form/function, I believe. Where are the refined A5xxx models? Canon's EOS M line seems like an odd step child now after the RF announcement, as it doesn't play into the new mount at all. But the M line is in the right price/feature range for a smaller format. Fujifilm relies on the X line for the bulk of their sales, and it shows in how competitive they're being. That the X-T3 came out at a lower price than the X-T2 despite all the new tech inside tells you something about that pricing model that has to apply for APS-C with full frame sitting at US$2000. Still, this format is probably the area where there's less direct competition between those offering options than there is in the other segments, and that's a bit surprising to me. Rejoice if you're a Fujifilm user. You've got some questions if you aren't.
  • m4/3 (17mm)Both Olympus and Panasonic have long been in coopetition in this format, and it's a mature format with plenty of camera and lens choices. m4/3 is really where mirrorless kicked off, as Olympus in particular was looking for a niche that it could "own" away from the duopoly (Canikon). That niche was small, light, portable, functional, and modest to medium priced. Over time, both Olympus and Panasonic have tried to take the format up-market (E-M1 and GH series), and that's problematic now as it puts them in a price category against larger sensor models, plus both Olympus and Panasonic have moved away from the small, light, portable notion in many of their bodies. And now the duopoly that they were trying to avoid is right on the shelves with them. That said, these are mature products with deep feature/performance sets, so if you've already in the m4/3 realm, you can still Rejoice (with some reservations).

As smartphones nibble away at convenience and basic image quality from the bottom, the ILC market is moving mostly towards mirrorless, and it's the L portion of that acronym that's probably most important (e.g. Lenses). 

It's really the range of lenses that are available and useful that defines ILC now, and particularly mirrorless. Look how that's shaped up:

  • Medium Format — slow roll of basic lenses. Hasselblad has five with three coming, plus some ability to use older Hasselblad lenses. Fujifilm has seven with one coming, and again has the ability to use some older Hasselblad lenses via adapter. Medium format was never the format with the best lens choice, and that's continuing in the mirrorless era. Rejoice if you're a medium format user.
  • Full Frame — Sony's up over 25 native FE lenses with plenty of third party support. Canon and Nikon both appear to be starting with four native lenses. But in both cases, it also appears that most of Canon's and Nikon's broad and deep DSLR lens lineups can be used without any real penalty other than needing the adapter. Rejoice (with minor reservations in the Canon/Nikon case).
  • APS-C — Canon has eight lenses plus the EF adapter. Fujifilm has 30 lenses with three more coming. Sony has seventeen lenses (plus the FE ones). Rejoice.
  • m4/3 — Olympus has 28 lenses, Panasonic has 36 lenses. I've lost track of how many third party lenses there are. Rejoice.

So. We have multiple choices of boxes (cameras) with multiple choices of sensor sizes to capture our light. We have a plethora of lens choices.

Simply put, if you can't find a strong solution for your photographic needs in mirrorless now, I'd like to know why not. Lose the angst. We're in peak times for mirrorless, and it's going to stay that way for a while as the makers compete for your money. 

text and images © 2018 Thom Hogan
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