I'm getting more and more "what would you do if you were starting from scratch?" type questions these days. The number of these questions I get seems inversely proportional to the camera unit volume shipped by Japan, which is indicative of a restlessness in the dedicated photo enthusiast. It's as if they're asking "is that all we're going to get?"
I've dealt with these types of questions before, most notably in personal computers. There have been clear plateaus in the PC world where companies were still iterating, but the iterations weren't clearly resonating with customers.
To put it bluntly, when tech companies are producing new products with lots of innovations, features, and performance that exceeds customer expectations, no one starts talking about switching to a different brand. So before moving on, let me address where that stands with the various brands:
- Canon — Somewhere in the middle ground at the moment. They were getting a lot of "where are the sensor improvements" questioning, but recent cameras have started to address that. Likewise, there were a number of "where is Canon in mirrorless" questions, but again recent developments have started to address that. Canon's in transition from being behind in expectation to being ahead.
- Fujifilm —Partly because they started from scratch with the X series, Fujifilm is riding the general expectation that the "next product will have/do more." No X user is trying to get off the Fujifilm train because of that, and it's attracting more customers. It helps that Fujifilm is one of the more open Japanese companies and does actually solicit and use information from the customer base to improve their products. However, I think they're nearing the end of where customers can help them with that, as customers think in terms of existing things, not possible things. To continue their positive roll, Fujifilm is going to have to get better at internal innovation that solves real user problems that the users don't know how to solve.
- Leica — Let's be honest, there's a bit of a snob appeal to Leica products, and no one has really come along and out-snobbed Leica yet. It helps that Leica seems to be moving forward with each generation, but frankly the S, SL/TL, Q, and M lines aren't moving all that fast. Marketing messages are moving faster than features/performance. Some products aren't moving at all (S). I would say that Leica is in transition from being ahead of customer expectations to being behind.
- Nikon — Nikon is all over the place and no place simultaneously. KeyMission is part of the all over the place, DL delivery, Nikon 1 and DSLR updates are part of the no place. Nikon is clearly behind customer expectations now. Despite delivering some really excellent products (e.g. D500, D810, D5). The perception of Nikon driving key technologies, features, and performance in dedicated cameras has eroded significantly, and it's not surprising that their market share is eroding, too.
- Olympus — Kitchen Sink seems to describe the Olympus engineering motto: throw in the Kitchen Sink. In this respect, they're still seeing customers perceive their top efforts—at least in the technology and performance bits—as being ahead of expectation. Funny thing is, this isn't really translating into sales for them. Effective marketing and wider distribution would help, I suppose. But I tend to perceive Olympus as a leader in the discussion of new cameras, but somehow trailing in the sales of cameras.
- Panasonic — It's interesting how Panasonic has taken a sly tactic and made it work for them: video. They've made over two dozen mirrorless camera models in eight years, but people mostly talk about them solely for their video aspects. Bravo. That's classic Ries and Trout implemented correctly. But like Fujifilm, I think Panasonic is now at a point where they've exploited the roll up of their video aspects as far as it's going to take them near term, so they need to get better at internal innovation that solves real user problems that users don't know how to solve.
- Pentax/Ricoh — They make fine products, but the perception of their position in the market seriously lags. As with Olympus, it probably comes back to marketing and distribution issues. Nowhere can you see this more than the Pentax 645Z versus the recent Fujifilm GFX. Fujifilm generated far more excitement from basically the same announcement (small medium format at a reasonable price), despite Pentax having been there over two years earlier.
- Sony — Probably the most interesting camera company. Why? Because if you were an old Alpha or SLT user you have a different perception than if you are a new Alpha (A6xxx, A7) user. Sony has done something interesting, trading their established market share in DSLRs for a similar ILC market share using mirrorless. With a price increase thrown in, too. (Before any of the fan boys start their knee jerks, let me say that if I were in charge of Sony I very well might have picked the same strategy. I like the way Sony has integrated their video and still products, I like many of Sony's choices, such as putting three different sensors in the same body and letting the user choose. I think they're well positioned for the future, but they still have to execute on that future.)
So let's return to that "what would you do if you were starting from scratch?" question with the above in mind. It's hard to get on the Leica, Nikon, or Pentax/Ricoh bandwagon, isn't it? It's easy to say you'll join the Fujifilm armada. No one's going to question you if you pick Canon (and Panasonic if you have strong video needs).
But is popular perception the right choice?
I'd tend to say no. Right now there are quite a few amazing ILC choices you can make:
- Canon bottom to top. The EOS M commitment at the bottom coupled with the EOS Cinema gear in the high-niche top pretty much has Canon covering every base. You may argue that some aspect of some Canon product isn't "state-of-the-art," but Canon has proven over decades that they continue to advance everything, and now they have a rationalized lineup across the board. If IBM was the old IT standard where choosing them was never a mistake, Canon has that role in cameras now.
- Fujifilm X. X100F, X-T2, GFX. That's a strong three-camera bag. Really strong. Still missing a few lenses and maybe some flash abilities, but Fujifilm has risen from a DSLR-converter (e.g. S3Pro, S5Pro) and random digital compact maker to a focused-for-enthusiast camera maker.
- Nikon DX (with a caveat). More and more I find myself falling back on D7200 and D500 bodies for a lot of work. They travel well, shoot well, and have little to dislike. From normal through telephoto you've got lens choices galore. Which brings me to the caveat: Nikon still treats their DX lens lineup as if the only thing anyone wants are consumer kit-type zooms. Serious wide angle to mid-range lenses are mostly missing in Nikon's lineup, and you have to get relief from third party lens makers (buzz, buzz).
- Nikon FX (with a caveat). There's simply no questioning how good the D750, D810, and D5 are. Don't even bother. That's despite the fact that the D750 and D810 are two years old and are due for replacement soon; they're so good that at the end of their life they still kick butt. If you gravitate to a full frame DSLR, the case can be made that these three models are "best in class." Coupled with Nikon's deep and broad F-mount lens lineup, there shouldn't be anything you can't do. The caveat this time has to do with Nikon support. There's been clear erosion in the company-to-customer relationship with Nikon.
- Sony FE. While not perfect, the Mark II versions of the A7 models are arguably great cameras, and the lens set has been filling out nicely (with the help of third parties, too).
- Honorable mention: (1) the top m4/3 models and their great lens lineup; and (2) the Sony A6xxx series if you can tolerate the lens lineup.
The popular perception wouldn't put Nikon in that mix, and it probably would not include everything from Canon, either. But certainly if I were choosing an interchangeable lens camera (ILC) system from scratch right now, it would be from the five (or seven with the honorable mentions) choices I just listed.
And that brings us back to perceptions of direction (the first bullet set). Two of my choices—the Nikons—currently are getting clear push back in terms of current public perception. Some of the Canon products are, too. So if you were just going by all the Rah Rah on the Internet, you'd be picking Fujifilm X or Sony FE. Both great product lines, but frankly, still not quite matching what the best DSLRs do.
See how hard it is to answer this question? Many people are discounting the "now" and anticipating the "future." But the future can and will turn out to be different than you expect. Just get in the Wayback Machine and ask any Nikon user in 2008 what Nikon's future looks like (great, as we just had the D300, D700, D3, D3x launches, not to mention the first DSLR with video, the D90). Predicting the future is tough, tough, tough.
All the choices I noted above have futures (at least for as far out as anyone can foresee). What that future might be is impossible to predict. We've seen quakes, tsunamis, floods, depressions, and yes, innovations, change the camera-making landscape.
So I'm going to turn this around on you. What is it you really want to do, and can you do it today with any of the existing product lines? My guess is that the answer to the second part of that question is yes. And the products that can therefore should be your choices if you were starting from scratch today.
To put that into context, let's say you want to do perspective-corrected and deep-focus landscape photographs. You will want a wide angle tilt-shift lens. That means your choices are Canon and Nikon DSLRs, period. Oh, I'm sure that I'll hear from lots of you who say "I can adopt a lens to my camera' or "I can find a third party tilt-shift adapter" or "I'm sure my maker of choice will get around to producing such a lens." But these are less-than-satisfactory answers in my book.
Likewise, you want to shoot wildlife deep in the wild. That probably leaves out Sony FE at the moment due to lens choices.
Make your choice based upon reality, not an as-yet-unknown eventually. While it's great to have bragging rights to the "most recent Hot Camera of the Month as told by the Internet," when push comes to shove you have to actually go out and shoot. Today. Not tomorrow.
Final note: many of you reading this are in the "good enough" mode. You just need something that's good enough for your basic needs. Congratulations: choose anything that reaches that bar that exists today that you like and can afford and ignore all the "best at..." comments you see. There's not a lemon in the ILC bunch at the moment, though I'm tempted to call the Nikon 1 one given Nikon's recent disinterest in it. But even the Nikon J5 can create "good enough" images for most people, so: there's not a lemon in the ILC bunch at the moment.
My take is that everyone is trying to make such "from scratch" decisions too difficult. Moreover, it's a rare person that needs to start from scratch, anyway.