New Baby Elephant Enters Market

Leica, Panasonic, and Sigma have formed a new development group centered around Leica's L-mount (used by the Leica CL/TL crop sensor and SL full frame sensor cameras). This safety-in-numbers move is apparently the way some of the remaining dwarfs intend to take on the triopoly of Canon, Nikon, and Sony, each of whom has their own separate mount. 

This nascent L-Mount Alliance believes that building a full frame system together gives them a better chance at keeping up with the big elephants in the room. 

The Leica-Panasonic relationship goes back a long way, with Leica having supplied a lot of lens design and technology to Panasonic over the years, while Panasonic has built re-badged lower end cameras for Leica (and manufactured a few of Leica's higher end products, too). So that part of the alliance is easy to understand. 

Sigma joining in, however, brings a new element (pardon the lens pun) to the game, as it will be far simpler to build out the lens lineup with three partners—one of which is a volume lens producer—than two. 

All this centers around the Leica-specified L mount, which has 6 full frame lenses and 7 crop lenses already in production from Leica (Leica also updated their road map with five new f/2 prime lenses). Add in Panasonic's three announced full frame lenses and ten+ eventuals, plus a likely bevy of converted Art lenses from Sigma, and the L mount will go from being a small island of expensive and big Leicas to a much larger continent with a range of lenses fairly fast, I'd guess. 

Still, this is a big ask for the consortium. In full frame, Canikony currently has an over 90% market share. Leica will likely remain higher priced, and more of a luxury item. Sigma has yet to produce a digital camera with convincing UI, focus, and low light performance. Panasonic is the most interesting in this group, as if they can scale a GH5/G9 into a full frame camera well, that would be a competitive product.

Funny thing is, when I wrote a piece a brief time ago titled "I See Dead Mounts" I wouldn't have guessed that Sigma SA would have been the first to look like it may go. I can't really see Sigma continuing to invest in SA when they need to put the pedal to the metal with L. And if they don't rapidly accelerate into L, then why are they part of this coalition?

How does the L mount stack up against the other mirrorless full frame mounts?

  • Canon RF — 20mm flange, 54mm throat
  • Consortium L — 20mm flange, 51.6mm throat
  • Nikon Z — 16mm flange, 55mm throat
  • Sony FE — 18mm flange, 46mm throat

If you're to believe Canon's and Nikon's technical descriptions about how a bigger mount is better for future new optical designs, Nikon has the most flexible mount with Canon a bit behind that. The L-mount and the FE mount have some liabilities when it comes to ray-bending at the back. 

As one site has pointed out, one good way of looking at the mount difference is to draw a line from the mount throat to the edge of the image sensor. That forms an angle (to the center axis of the lens/sensor). The lower the angle value, the more light is being delivered near parallel through the rear of the lens. The more parallel the light needs to be, the less flexible you can be in your optical designs.

Will that make a difference in practice? Difficult to say for sure, but both Canon and Nikon are optimistic it will. 

Finally, there's one slight oddity about this new alliance: they're all targeting very different customers. Leica, of course, is a high-end product that caters most to the luxury goods consumer, and commands a price in doing so. Panasonic has had most of its higher-end success—and remember, full frame by definition is higher end—centered around video, not stills. While Sigma relies on its oddball-but-very-interesting Foveon sensor, the only one in production doing RGB at each pixel site.

There's not a lot of overlap in those customers. So the new L-mount alliance is probably more about generating lenses fast enough to keep up with the Joneses. In particular, Sony, who has a commanding head start. Remember, Sony owns part of Tamron and has a Zeiss partnership, which coupled with being first to market has helped them steam to a solid lens lineup lead. But Nikon's lens road map seems particularly aggressive for them, so it won't be long before Nikon has a fleshed out lens lineup, too, at least below 200mm. 

So this L-mount announcement is all about locking in a lens customer, not so much a camera customer. Three camera producers will up the number of people needing L lenses, thus up the opportunity in the mount. 

One thing to note about this new alliance: only Leica is shipping anything at the moment, and that's all large, high-cost still photography-oriented. Panasonic announced development of cameras that won't appear until spring 2019. Sigma's entries are mostly unknown as to what they are and when they'll appear. 

So while some Web sites are promoting the "Canon and Nikon are in trouble" notion, they're doing so on no evidence and basically with fanboy-level rah-rah cheering. The Leica/Panasonic/Sigma announcement is classic FUD marketing: try to get people to hold off committing to competitive products because of something that might be better. Or not. Or delayed. Or the competitors are faster at coming up with their lenses and iterating their products than people expect. 

Personally, I like the idea of the alliance. We don't need seven or eight mounts all trying to do the same thing. Four is already probably more than we need for reasonable competition and diversity. The problem with mount proliferation is that eventually you have a lot of orphan lenses in people's closets. 

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