In the film world we had an array of lens mounts that became large enough to consider as being widespread:
- Canon FD
- Canon EF
- Leica M
- Minolta Alpha (other names outside Japan)
- Nikon F (with variations, ala AI, AI-S, D)
- Olympus OM
- Pentax Screw
- Pentax K
Plenty of other mounts existed, but because of camera market shares these mounts themselves pretty much whittled down to: Canon EF, Leica M, Minolta Alpha, Nikon F, and Pentax K. All of those are still going—with varying degrees of success—here 15 years into the DSLR era.
The re-appearance of Olympus in interchangeable lens cameras and the eventual push towards mirrorless added a bunch of other mounts to the madness:
- Fujifilm XF
- Leica T (also S in MF)
- Nikon CX
- Olympus/Panasonic 4/3 and m4/3
- Pentax Q
- Samsung NX
- Sony NEX/E/FE
Couple that with variations within mounts (DX/FX, EF/EF-S/EF-M, etc.), and we’re probably at or near a historical high level of active mount variations.
But mounts have “gravities.” Canon recently announced over 100m EF mount lenses have been produced, Nikon over 90m F mount lenses. Moreover, these gravities exist both as what I call “closet gravity” (lenses already acquired) as well as “dealer gravity” (lenses available on a dealer’s shelf new).
The theory is simple: higher gravity translates into more camera purchases using those mounts. Put another way, it is difficult to unseat the established leaders unless you can change the gravity situation enough to get someone to consider you.
In terms of closet gravity, I’d put it this way:
- Nikon F mount
- Canon EF mount
- Minolta/Sony Alpha mount
- Pentax K mount
- Leica M mount
This is one reason why some companies try to support one or more of those mounts via lens adapters when launching a new camera (e.g. Fujifilm’s support of the M mount, including in-camera lens corrections for many lenses). If you’re launching something new, having good closet gravity support helps people ignore the current gaps in your lens lineup. Even Canon, Nikon, and Sony gave heed to their closet gravity when they introduced mirrorless cameras: all of them not only have lens adapters, but those make-supplied lens adapters attempt to make those closet lenses work just as they did on SLR/DSLR cameras.
So one of the things I always think about when people suggest that Nikon has to produce a DX-sensor mirrorless system is this: what’s the closet gravity situation? If Nikon in any way telegraphs that old F-mount lenses aren’t perfect for any new mirrorless system, they’ll hurt themselves badly. Note that this makes one of the things people talk about with mirrorless systems—smaller size and weight—a critical attribute to look at.
If Nikon were to come out with DX-M (DX mirrorless) with a short flange distance ala all the other mirrorless systems, and they also trumpeted the smaller size/weight of lenses, in effect they’re marketing against their closet gravity. “Oh yeah, those work, too, but they won’t be as light or small.” Tricky problem, and one they share with Canon.
Personally, my target would be to keep the existing DX mount and also target making smaller and lighter DX lenses ;~). Best of all possible worlds, IMHO.
Which brings me to dealer gravity. Here’s how things look to me at the moment in terms of what dealers are actually stocking:
- Canon EF and Nikon F mount
- Sony Alpha mount (historical inventory, not much new)
- Sony E/FE mount (may soon be #2)
- Fujifilm XF mount
- Olympus/Panasonic m4/3
Wait, what, m4/3 in fifth? Doesn’t it have the largest lens lineup in mirrorless? Yes, it does. But both Olympus and Panasonic have cut back on dealers—at least here in the US—so much that it’s impacted their gravity. I haven’t been to enough places in Europe this past year to say whether that’s clearly true there or not, but my casual observations based on a few stops is that the same thing is true there. Asia may be a different story.
If you’re in the mood for a new interchangeable lens camera, you know your closet gravity (lenses you already own) and you walk into a retailer and assess the dealer gravity and those then influence what you buy in terms of a camera.
Of course, the Internet doesn’t necessarily play by the same gravity rules. For example, I typed “interchangeable lens cameras” into Google and got a Google-supplied ad for five cameras, only three of which were actually interchangeable (Canon Sx500, Olympus E-P1, Canon EOS-M, Fujifilm X100S, and Nikon J1). The other sponsored ad was for Sony Alpha DSLRs. Your results will vary ;~).
Which brings us to the question of just how valuable are those gravities these days?
Historically, lens gravity was what determined the winners and losers in SLRs. The introduction of autofocus upset the gravity of the time, enough so that Canon came out with an entirely new mount. Nikon played the gravity game well by using their MF weight to bolster their AF weight when they kept the basic mount intact (Nikon has made a lot of small changes to aspects of the mount over the years, though it remains that most older Nikon lenses have at least minimal compatibility even with the latest cameras).
It’s not by chance that the market shares at the end of the SLR era were amplified into the DSLR era. Canon and Nikon made the transition mostly seamlessly. Minolta, having been slowed by the Honeywell patent suit, stalled in film SLRs and then got a slow start towards DSLRs, plus the Konica merger and the eventual sale to Sony slowed them further. Pentax had been withering in the film era and then was sold first to Hoya and then to Ricoh, which killed any mount momentum they had. Leica chose not to build a DSLR (at least until the Medium Format S appeared). Olympus reentered the interchangeable lens camera market with something non-OM, the 4/3 camera, and then changed course again with m4/3. Thus, it should come as no surprise that here we are 15 years into the DSLR era and in terms of DSLRs, Canon and Nikon basically own it. No one else has a double-digit market share in DSLRs. DSLRs are a duopoly.
Wait, you’re saying, what about mirrorless? Unfortunately at current rates mirrorless will not overtake DSLRs in volume for some time (mirrorless sales are flat, DSLR sales are declining). Given Sony’s recent projection and the CIPA numbers for the past few years, you’d have to guess that, unless something big changes, mirrorless and DSLR will probably equally split the remaining ILC market sometime about 2017.
So what’s that mean for lens gravity?
Not a lot is changing in terms of closet gravity, though people are slowly giving that less weight than they used to. In terms of dealer gravity, the Sony Alpha mount is sliding down while the Sony E/FE mount is moving upwards. Here in the US, those are the only three competitors with substantive and reasonably ubiquitous dealers across the US. In virtually every country I’ve traveled to in the past year, that seems to be the case there, too, though I didn’t travel to Asia this year so can’t really say what I think might be happening there based upon personal observation. I can say with some certainty that Olympus, for instance, is down to under a 5% market share in ILC cameras. Hard to keep pushing a dealer program with so small a share compared to the Big Three.
Which brings me to a statement: Canon, Nikon, and Sony control the ILC marketplace now, much as Canon, Minolta, and Nikon did in the autofocus SLR era. They’re the only ones that can really benefit from closet gravity plus are the only ones positioned to change dealer gravity. Everyone else would probably be wiser to abandon brick and mortar and go completely the online route, ala the original Dell. You need money to market against those big gravitational forces, and the only way you’re going to get that cash is to cut out the middleman.
Curiously, early last year Olympus offered me an affiliate program to their online store that was 40% higher than the highest one I’ve seen from any other player (other than for a few oddball products with very high margins). Because of my exclusive advertising arrangement with B&H, I had to decline. But it does indicate that someone at Olympus is thinking a bit the way I just suggested: cut out the middle player and get back that margin so you have money to market.
Does any of this have to do with what product is better than another? No, not at all. Great products can be failures. The question is whether you know why your product is failing and what your are doing to counteract that. So far, most of the camera companies seem to be reluctant to try going it alone for distribution. But I’ll bet you that one of them eventually decides that’s the best approach.
Meanwhile, mount gravities still pull at us.