Another Elephant Joins Full Frame Mirrorless

Sony had the full frame mirrorless space pretty much to themselves for five years, with only a few Leica children to shove aside. The Sony family now counts four strong siblings. Then last month Nikon joined the fray and created a tsunami of Internet traffic with their twins. Today, Canon joins with a surprise birth of one, the Canon EOS R, and we're getting another wave of Internet excitement (and paranoia).

But wait, there's more. Panasonic is apparently next, with a development announcement at Photokina likely (currently being previewed under NDA in back rooms at some other important European trade shows) and a 2019 delivery. That would leave Fujifilm straddling the full frame fence with APS-C (Xs) and medium format (GFs), and Olympus and Pentax as the no shows (Sigma has a camera with a sensor between APS-C and full frame size; I doubt we'll see a change there). 

Given that Canon, Nikon, and Sony are all putting highly competent full frame mirrorless cameras into the market at around the US$2000 price point, this is the equivalent to an elephant herd in the camera shop. That's a clear prosumer price point with a lot of buying activity lately. But it now means it will be tougher to sell a US$2000 m4/3 camera now, and it's going to be tougher to sell even a US$1500 APS-C mirrorless camera now. 2018 is shaping up as the Year of the Full Frame Mirrorless Intervention.

Now I'm sure that many will say it was Sony's Mark III models that triggered the elephant stampede, but I'd strongly disagree. It was the Mark II models, which basically was the story of 2015. In particular, it was the A7Rm2 in the middle of that year that seemed to change some of the DSLR buying habits that were well established. You don't do that and not catch the attention of the ILC duopoly (Canon/Nikon). 

Nikon in particular went strangely silent in 2017 with new camera releases. That's about right on Nikon's usual two-year development cycle after Sony's 2015 intros. Nikon clearly looked at what Sony was doing in 2015, stopped, re-evaluated, and made changes. The only two Nikon DSLRs that really survived that process were the D7500 and D850, two highly competent cameras that are key to Nikon's customer base and would have already have been fairly well defined entering the start of their development cycle in 2015. 

That the mirrorless Nikon Z7 comes just a year after the DSLR D850 with much of the same specification shows that a lot of work probably went on in parallel. But again, my point is that Nikon would have to have been changing product strategy in R&D starting in 2015 and certainly 2016 to be able to produce what they did in 2018 for mirrorless. Indeed, in 2015 Nikon was still introducing Nikon 1 models (J5), but you can see now how that line terminated immediately as they started work on the Z system.

With Canon, things aren't so obvious. They're a bigger company with more market share, and thus devote more resources to development than Nikon and Sony. Canon kept iterating pretty much everything as regularly scheduled in the 2016-2018 time frame, but I'd still say that it was the 2015 releases from Sony that probably triggered the full frame mirrorless effort in earnest from them that was just announced. Indeed, it's interesting that Nikon did a D850/Z7 combo move in a year, while Canon seems to be doing a pseudo 5DIV/R move in two years. Both companies want to keep all the DSLR customers they can, but they also want to now start picking up all the mirrorless customers they can and keep Sony full frame at bay, at least at the US$2000+ levels. 

Having all three of the big players in direct competition is highly consequential. It means better products via more competition in the future, it means pricing will probably not hold at the US$2000 level for long, and it means that we have far more choice for high level mirrorless cameras than ever before. 

I just did a quick calculation on interchangeable lens camera (ILC) dollar sales in the US for the last twelve months based on one data set I have available to me. The Canon/Nikon/Sony trio gobbles up basically 92% of the total dollar value. Eek! That's about as high as it's ever been, and all these excellent US$2000+ cameras (Sony A7's, Nikon D750/D850, Canon 5D/6D) were driving a big share of that. The Sony Mark III generation, the Nikon Z series, and the Canon R are going to keep those dollars locked up, I think. 

I've been receiving tons of "is m4/3 viable," "is APS-C viable," "is XYZ viable" emails lately as this swarm of full frame cameras has appeared in the last year (both DSLR and mirrorless). The honest answer? Only at lower prices. Smaller sensor cameras must live in the US$500-1200 range to have any real traction now, I believe. And they need to be really good, too, in order to live successfully above the smartphone and remaining compact cameras (e.g. RX100v6). 

Of course, the usual comeback is that "smaller sensors can create smaller cameras." Yes, true. Look at the Canon EOS M models: they're quite small and light but only drop one sensor size down from full frame. They're in the correct pricing window, too. Canon knows what they're doing. Be careful of underestimating them.

When elephants move, it's best that the small critters get out from under their feet. 

For those of who love elephants, we're getting a fine display of the matriarchs of the herd doing their thing and should just sit back and enjoy the show.

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