Four Vendors, Similar Models

Here's the observation to note today: we have four players in the full frame mirrorless market today, and they all seem to be opting for a similar model lineup:

Canon Nikon Panasonic Sony
entry RP Z5 (A7C)
basic R6 Z6 II S5 A7 IV
pixels R5 Z7 II S1H A7R V
flagship R3 Z9 A1

So is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Historically, attempts to dislodge the Film/DSLR Duopoly (Canon/Nikon) didn't work. But that was because it's just difficult to build a full line of product quickly while the duopoly is iterating theirs, so most perceived any new competitor to not be complete, to not have as many useful options, and possibly not ever able to fill in those addition models. Competitors that hesitated with autofocus back in the film SLR days quickly found themselves outgunned once Canon and Nikon went all AF.

With mirrorless, Sony had a many year head start, so had already built out their line—including many niche models not listed above—prior to Canon and Nikon making their DSLR to mirrorless move. So things changed a bit. Effectively, today we have a Triopoly in full frame mirrorless, and I'm happy we do. Three strong competitors force everyone to be a little more responsive to customer needs and make them all a little more innovative in their iterations. We've seen glimpses of that already (e.g. removal of the mechanical shutter by Nikon), but I'm hoping we'll see more. 

With a fourth competitor lurking (Panasonic), this, too keeps the competition heated and everyone trying to avoid self-inflicted wounds and mistakes. I think the Panasonic cameras are quite fine, it's just that they don't have any legacy they're playing off of, so you technically have to abandon what you've been using to go with the Panasonic full frame mirrorless system.

However, there are questions we should ask. For instance, are these the right four standard full frame models to define? As you might note, the Sony A7S, and A9 don't show up in that simplified table, and I've got the A7C in brackets because it's really more of a vlogging camera. Cameras such as the Nikon Zfc suggest that there might be yet another position (e.g. an eventual Zf), and we haven't even gotten to the dedicated video options (Canon Cinema, Sony FX models). 

Since this is primarily a still photography-oriented Web site, I'll stick with the stills-oriented cameras in my comparisons. 

One thing to note is this: Canon is in first generation of their basic, pixels, and flagship cameras, Nikon is in the first or second generation, and Sony is in their first, fourth, or fifth generation. While this might seem to be an advantage to Sony, the late entry of Canon and Nikon to mirrorless full frame gave them the chance to see how Sony iterated before producing their own models.

Take the Nikon Z6 versus the Sony A7 models, for instance. The original Z6 came in just slightly behind the Sony A7 Mark III in terms of ability, in my opinion, while the Z6 II now exceeds the A7 Mark III and is just behind the A7 Mark IV. We all expect Nikon to iterate to a Z6 III in the next six months, and it's possible that will move it ahead of the Sony model. So don't get too hung up on generations. We're definitely already in a leap frog game with the basic and pixels models, and probably eventually will be with all four model levels.

Here's what I think overall: most enthusiasts would be quite happy with any of the models I label as "basic." As we enter the holiday season, I'd put the Sony A7 Mark IV a bit ahead of the other basic models from the competitors, mostly due to the upped pixel count and many small refinements. But the Z6 II is US$1900, while the A7 Mark IV is US$2500. That's a US$600 difference that could pay for a very good lens. Sony dealers will try to talk you down to an A7 Mark III if you're price sensitive, but I don't judge that older model to be as good as the Z6 II. 

I mentioned lenses, and that's becoming more of a distinguishing trait than the camera bodies at the same level. Let's take 24-105mm or 24-120mm, for instance (current pricing in US):

  • Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS (US$1300) — A very decent lens, but not at the level of the Nikon and Sony offerings, in my opinion. Also at the top end of the price range here.
  • Nikon 24-120mm f/4 (US$1100) — In my optical testing, the best of the bunch, though it doesn't have lens-based IS as the others do. I haven't found that omission to be a meaningful liability on the Z6 II body, which has effective body IS.
  • Panasonic 24-105mm f/4 OIS (US$1300) — A solid lens with one feature the others don't have: a real macro capability (though the Nikon does focus near the macro range).
  • Sony 24-105mm f/4G OSS (US$1100) — My goto mid-range on the Sony bodies, it's a really good performer optically, and like the Nikon, tends to be priced at the bottom of the range.

So, you can save a couple of hundred dollars and get "better" lenses. I believe that you now have to think about camera body and lens simultaneously if you're just now opting into the full frame market. To use a baseball metaphor: Nikon and Sony are hitting triples and home runs with their S-line, G, and GM lens lines, while Canon is hitting singles and doubles with most of their L lenses. If the choice is between a great lens on the worst body or the worst lens on a great body, I'd pick the former. 

That said, my long-held belief still stands: stick with the brand you've been using. That's particularly true at full frame. So Canon EF users should stick with Canon RF, Nikon D owners should stick with Nikon Z, and Minolta/Sony A owners should probably stick to Sony FE. Nomenclature, menus, buttons/controls, accessories, and much more all tend to be similar within brands as they switched from DSLR to mirrorless (Canon has more exceptions to this, particularly the R and RP models). 

What I primarily want to reinforce with this article is that we have very direct, intense competition between four brands at two of the positions, and between three of the brands at three positions in full frame. Competition is good for consumers. You can already see Sony trying to paddle faster to keep their bow ahead of the old DSLR duopoly. We're going to see a lot more activity in these camera lines in the next 18 months. Lots more. 

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