Sony continues to crush Canon and Nikon

This press release from Sony says that they are now #1 in sales of full-frame digital cameras in the U.S. The Alpha mirrorless system was launched only in 2010 (photography history timeline). The first Nikon-brand camera was produced in 1948. The first Canons go back to the mid-1930s (dpreview).

Sony is not all that gracious when it comes to their competition:

As DSLRs fade into the history books of photography,

but maybe that’s because the competition was not sufficiently diverse to survive?

The “Be Alpha” campaign will also feature programs that are designed to foster growth in both the current and next generations of imaging professionals, the most notable of which being the flagship “Alpha Female” program. This multi-tiered, female exclusive program is Sony’s thoughtful response to the imaging industry’s well-documented diversity challenges. It will include a variety of grants and mentorship opportunities for female photographers and videographers, as well as the production of several large-scale industry events.

[If the program is “female exclusive” and the opportunities are limited to “female photographers and videographers”, does it exclude the gender non-conforming? (see UC Berkeley list of terms)]

How did Canon and Nikon let this market get away from them? Ford and GM were eventually able to bounce back and meet the new competition (okay, it took $70 billion in taxpayer funds to prop up GM, but Ford didn’t get a bailout).

Can it be that these companies were locked into obsolete technology? The Nikon F lens mount (1959?) has some well-known deficiencies (so they scrapped it for their own late-to-the-market mirrorless effort), but Canon’s EOS mount was new in 1987. What does it lack compared to the Sony E-mount other than the short flange focal distance? What would have stopped Canon from making a mirrorless mount (they already did a half-assed APS-C one, EF-M) and throwing in a bunch of adapters for legacy lenses?

It can’t be that these companies lacked the ability to engineer a “mirrorless” digital system. They were making “mirrorless” rangefinder cameras with interchangeable lenses back in the 1950s. The compact digital cameras that they’ve been making for nearly 20 years are essentially the same as a Sony mirrorless body plus lens, but without mount/unmount capability.

It can’t be that making high quality sensors is impossible for anyone but Sony. Toshiba makes some excellent high-dynamic range sensors. Nikon was able to buy sensors from both Sony and Toshiba. I think that Samsung makes its own sensors for cameras such as the NX500 and DxOMark testing shows that these have excellent dynamic range. Presumably Canon could have partnered with Samsung if they couldn’t figure out how to tune up their own sensor design.

Readers: What’s the answer? How does Sony walk away with it all?

13 thoughts on “Sony continues to crush Canon and Nikon

  1. Sony has historically been technologically ahead of their peers. Betamax, Walkman, TV’s, Minidisc, Play Station Portable, etc. Despite that, they manage to botch their products with terrible business decisions. Money grabs like the wildly overpriced proprietary Memory Stick format. Their current cameras suffer from awful ergonomics and UI, despite there being a market full of fantastic examples to emulate. The $4,000 Sony A9 doesn’t have an intervalometer! Nikon and Canon are victims of their own success, much in the same vein as IBM and Kodak. They have an enormous user base with lens collections and that was their biggest asset. Nikon is apparently throwing that away by taking a chance on a new, incompatible lens mount for their new full frame mirrorless camera. It will be interesting to see that decision is accepted. Photographers are obsessed with image quality and Sony has the best sensors. Nikon has been fortunate to get Sony’s best technology with minimal delay. Olympus and Panasonic have made some fantastic innovations(in body stabilization, best video cameras respectively), but I get the sense that Sony has throttled their success in mirrorless by withholding or delaying sensor technology. Perhaps there’s a future anti-competitive action here. Micro 4/3 seemed like a good idea–sensors are getting better and at some point the smaller form factor will be more than adequate and appreciated while full frame systems seem unnecessarily huge in comparison. People will forgive a bad user experience but they will not forgive poor dynamic range, megapixels and low light performance. Sony made that part of their strategy.

  2. I don’t know much about photography, but I own a Sony Alpha and decided against Nikon and Canon. Why? Because my understanding of DLSR is that you can’t view your motive on the screen all the time, which is what I want 90% of the time, and the viewfinder also doesn’t show the ‘real’ image. From a usability perspective that’s just ridiculous. I don’t care that there may be historical reasons for it, I want an expensive camera to be at least as usable as a mobile phone. If Nikon and Canon can’t deliver, they deserve to lose the mass-market.

  3. I got the impression that Canon & Nikon were simply being lazy, trying to ride their existing mirror technology all the way to the end. Mirrors have been obsolete for years now thanks to digital rangefinders, but from what I’ve seen in camera discussions a sentiment has persisted that “real” cameras have mirrors and mirrorless is for small-format amateur cameras. Canon & Nikon were happy to capitalize on that sentiment, apparently thinking it would shield them forever from Sony’s high-end competition. They are only now investing in full-frame mirrorless because it’s obvious this strategy has failed.

  4. Sony was the only one to release a new full-frame camera in the last 6 months, hence the slightly weasely announcement. Somehow Canon is holding on to its leading market share despite not having any innovation in the last 10 years and having the worst cameras in the market. I don’t buy the theory that lens lock-in drives that, as most people only own one or two. The inescapable conclusion is that camera buyers are sheep susceptible to marketing.

  5. Sony walks away with it all because “all” has become “people who need a better camera than their phone” and that is on its way to becoming a niche. Though I will say that a fair number of the teens I see traipsing around Boston with their parents (presumably somewhat well off tourists) are carrying starter DSLR-type cameras. Maybe Instagram has created some social value for being able to shoot more creative stuff where a “real” camera gives you more capability.

  6. Sony is winning the sensor game because Sony can afford to throw billions of dollars at it. As an owner of the A7RII (and nothing much has changed with the R3), I can say that full frame Sony Cameras are a combination of great sensors and RETARDED ergonomics. The UI is worse than 1st Gen BMW iDrive, no kidding. And, I had to buy a hotshoe mount LCD just to see myself when making videos since the LCD won’t flip around. Transitioning to Sony was no more difficult for me than going with say Nikon or Canon, because I didn’t have to give up on the use of an existing system. I came from the Contax film system which was already dead.

    The ENTIRE PARADIGM of a full-frame mirrorless camera with an 18mm flange is retarded. The E-mount format is optimized for APS-C, where a standard focal length is about 32mm and that is the “natural” distance between the back element of the lens and the sensor plane. On APS-C that 18mm flange affords a compact combination of body and lens. With Full Frame they end up making lenses which adds length to their back end in order place the optics in the optimal position or end up making retrofocus designs out of focal lengths which typically do not have to be. All the Sony and Zeiss 85mms, 50mms and whatever are far bigger than their SLR counterparts negating the size advantage of the Sony bodies. They are also expensive as shit.

    What does it all mean? It means that I end up shooting with four primes — 25/2, 55/1.8, 85/1.8 and 135/2.8 — none of which are particularly fast, all of which are a little oversized, all of which are kinda pricey and that is to avoid carrying bazooka primes or zooms. And, it means that I carry a bullshit HDMI LCD monitor which I really shouldn’t be. Yeah, so much for the compact E-mount.

  7. Sony survived some nearly fatal years to become #1 again. In 2001, while the others were hanging on to Japanese traditions, they were dumping employees left & right & closed their only silicon valley office. They also copied Chinese pricing while the others hung on to a traditional definition of a Japanese camera: something real expensive that has a $500 flash, $80 cable release, a $100 battery, no USB charging, uses a mirror.

    There’s still much tradition keeping them behind the modern phone cam. The internet abounds with photos of viewfinders because Japanese cameras can’t do the basic function of a phone cam. They can’t even implement a minimal bluetooth paring, so every photo taken on the SLR transparently shows up in the phone photos.

  8. Given 99.9% of my pictures are now taken with an iPhone, with a tiny sensor, I am not all that sure that “full frame” is necessary, unless you are a professional or have special needs. And most of the professional photographers seem to all be headed for the unemployment line or are very low paid. How can they afford full frame bodies and lenses, while still making a decent living?
    It would be interesting to see the raw numbers of sales, for each brand. Like financial performance, timeframe is everything!

  9. It’s similar to the whole Kodak thing. They invented digital cameras, but were eventually killed off by them, because they couldn’t bring themselves to develop a technology that would eventually replace film.

  10. Sony hasn’t walked away with it all, yet.

    None of their designs are truly weatherproof, something that is very important to landscape photographers (Olympus mirrorless and Pentax DSLRs both have cameras that are truly weatherproof, and some of the lenses are too).

    That said the results from the RX10 , with a far smaller than full frame, tiny sensor, are quite amazing – the only Sony I have used.

  11. I think this is a bit premature. As of your blog post Nikon was 5 days away from unveiling their first full-frame mirrorless system with an all-new (and conspicuously large) lens mount.

    Sony FF mirrorless hasn’t sucked (by DSLR standards) only for a year or so. The early Sonys were the equivalent of the original Tesla Roadster. Nikon and Canon were selling better cameras at that time, to a much larger share of the market.

    In this particular market, Sony is the upstart. The had to abandon DSLRs out of necessity. Now that mirrorless is tech more viable, I suspect the new Nikon (and whatever Canon has coming) will be extremely competitive.

  12. DSLRs out sell mirrorless cameras globally by a wide margin. They’re ahead in Asia, sell 2:1 in Europe, and sell 3:1 in the Americas.

    Sony is doing a victory lap because they hit the #1 sales position in one niche market segment (full frame sensor ILCs) and one geographical area (the US) during one short time period when their competitors had released no new full frame bodies, DSLR or mirrorless.

    To put this in perspective last year Sony was #3 in MILC sales (all sensor sizes) behind Olympus (#2) and Canon’s ‘half-assed’ EOS M system (#1) in Japan, the only market where mirrorless out sells DSLRs.

    Forget mirrorless releases. If Canon or Nikon had released new FF DSLRs in the past 6 months this would not have happened. Nikon just released new FF MILCs, and Canon is poised to release new MILCs and DSLRs throughout 2019.

  13. Note: when I say “mirrorless” in my above post it should be understood as MILCs.

    Cell phones are “mirrorless” and dwarf everything else.

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