Divergence Emerges in Crop Sensor Strategies

New mirrorless product announcements have been a little slow in coming due to the chronic parts shortages, but we're now starting to see the log jam slowly break, particularly on lenses. 

This week's and last week's announcements also allow us to now understand a bit more about the crop sensor strategies the camera companies are pursuing in the mirrorless realm. With tongue firmly in cheek, here's my quick assessment:

  • Canon — Hey, look, they're DSLRs!
  • Fujifilm — Hey, we want to have flagships, too!
  • Nikon — Wait, what, APS-C still lives?
  • OMDS — Same camera updates, different names
  • Panasonic — Still executing the same strategy that lost them market share
  • Sony — It's the video that counts

Okay, I need to re-align my tongue in my mouth and do some blog'splaining. 

While Canon still has the compact-style M cameras in their lineup, as I've noted before we've seen virtually nothing really new in the M-mount for what seems like eons. As I've long predicted they would, Canon came to their senses and the latest APS-C (crop sensor) mirrorless cameras from them now pick up on the RF mount. I'll be reviewing the Canon R7 soon, but initial impressions of the R7 and R10 are that they're targeted at the 90D/7D and top Rebel/Kiss users, respectively. In other words, DSLR-like, only mirrorless.

Fujifilm is going to execute the old Nikon dual-product strategy, and it's highly visible in the X/S-like pairing of the upcoming X-H2 (40mp = X) and just announced X-H2s (stacked 26mp = S). It's probably a necessary move on Fujifilm's part to go upscale, but I need to feel more love from the lens side from Fujifilm before I can buy into the X-H2s as being necessary and the X-H2 having appropriate lenses for all that resolution. US$2500 and up is not traditionally the price point for crop sensor, but who knows, maybe that's inflation talking ;~).

Nikon continues to befuddle both the world and themselves with their crop sensor efforts. Clearly, the D3500, D5600, and D500 DSLRs are going away soon (the D500 might already be gone, as B&H is now listing it as discontinued). The DSLRs have been replaced by two near identical cameras that sort of straddle the D3500/D5600 point, one with a DSLR-like design (see Canon), and one with a see-we-can-do-dials-like-Fujifilm design (though note that Fujifilm's recent offerings have all gone away from dial-only UI ;~). Nikon's management proclamation about "only high-end in the future" seems to leave their current crop sensor offerings under the bar, and there's no word yet on when they'll do something above it.

OMDS took over the Olympus development, and they're still executing the Olympus development, only now with their own non-Olympus branding. So the E-M1 Mark IV became the OM-1, and the upcoming E-M5 Mark IV will likely be an OM-5. In the details, it's just more iteration on the same well-established platforms, it seems.

Panasonic also has been doing more iteration on the same platforms. Now, in one way this makes sense for OMDS and Panasonic, as they were ones who really went all-in on mirrorless first. They've got a wide, well-established set of products, and they continue to iterate them. The BH versions of the GH (and S) cameras seem like a good direction for them, but then there's...

Sony seems to be taking the video route. With the A1, A7, A7R, and A9 establishing a solid stills camera line (with good video characteristics, but not necessarily great), the A7C and and ZV-E10 coupled with the A7S and the FX dedicated video cameras seem like where most of the Sony energy currently is. The three new E-mount lenses seem well-matched to the ZV-E10, less so to the A6### cameras that are aging out in their crop sensor line. It feels to me that Sony wants crop sensor to be video, full frame to go both ways. 

Thing is, virtually all of the mid- to high-level crop sensor mirrorless cameras are pretty darned capable. I use the much-maligned Nikon Z50 all the time, for pretty much any work that doesn't need my Z9 or D6. Yes, the Z50 could be a far better camera with a handful of tweaks, but I'm well past that now and just use it the best I can configure it. On my recent Africa trip, the Z50 with the 18-140mm lens was my second camera, pretty much for the entire month (the Z9 being my first). I'm 100% satisfied with the results that little Z50 achieved. I'm pretty sure the soon-to-arrive Canon R10 and OMDS O-M5 would do as well or better. 

No, it's not the crop sensor cameras that need to be talked about, it's the crop sensor lens sets. 

There's over 70 lenses in the m4/3 cupboard just from OMDS and Panasonic. I consider m4/3 to still be the crop sensor mount with the most diversity of lens choice. Get a competent m4/3 camera and buy a small quiver of lenses to supplement it and you'll be fine.

Canon (RF-S) and Nikon (Z DX) are currently at the other end of the spectrum. There's a paucity of lenses that are appropriate to their crop sensor camera offerings. Even considering the full frame offerings you could mount on their APS-C cameras. One tiny bit of good news for the Z-mount owners is that a few third parties have stepped in. Viltrox has a handful of very good autofocus lenses appropriate to the Z50 and Zfc. I've reviewed one of them, and have reviews of others coming up: they work just fine and fill much-needed gaps for Nikon. Moreover, Viltrox just announced an Indiegogo project for a 13mm f/1.4 that fills a really big hole for Zfc users especially. 

Fujifilm, of course, has been puttering along with lenses for some time now. Weeding out duplicates and updates, we get to just over 30 lenses in their current lineup. Some are really good, some are what I'd call mediocre in the current optical design world. The X-H2s user probably has four lenses they'd really want to stick on the camera (unless they're prime users, in which case I wonder why they need 40 fps and the other S stuff). It's unclear how many of the Fujifilm lenses will be able to show us anything useful in 40mp corners. 

Which brings me to Sony. Since I lambasted them a couple of years ago for neglecting the crop sensor lenses in favor of the full frame ones, there seems to have been an adjustment. This week we got three new crop sensor lenses introduced. But...when you look at the E crop mount, you find that one-third of the 21 lenses are really video-oriented. 4 of them are power zooms. The overall versatility of Sony's crop sensor lens offerings seems highly tilted to video, more so than any of the other mirrorless camera makers. 

You're probably now starting to understand my tongue-in-cheek summaries, above. 

But what I find interesting is the divergence in strategies (you knew I'd get back to the headline again, right?). It seems a little remarkable to me that in the crop-sensor world—which after all, is the camera maker's entry market into the Big Boy Boxes of full frame—seems so divergent. The full frame cameras seem much more predictable and similar in what they offer. So how is it that a divergent strategy at the bottom with crop sensor cameras is going to lead to upsells to the full frame models? Other than Canon, I don't see crop sensor playing well with full (or larger) frame in any of the other dual-size makers (Fujifilm, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony). 

It appears rather that we have everyone "casting about," trying to see which consumer fish will bite. I'm curious to see how that plays out.

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Rumors say that Leica has called it quits in APS-C. The CL and TL lines haven't seen updates in quite a while, and B&H shows the CL as "discontinued." The TL2 is still available, but there's a curious huge discount (US$2000) for the camera with kit lens.

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