From DSLR to Mirrorless

Let’s make the assumption for the moment that I’m correct in believing that Canon and Nikon have to move at least their low end DSLR lineups to mirrorless. This is not a simple problem for either company, as Canon has already found out with the EOS M. 

Three basic possibilities exist:

  1. Use the existing mount and lenses (EF-S, DX). The thickness of the body at the mount would be as deep as the current DSLR handgrips, though as the D750 proves, you can thin out the rest of the body and drop some bulk and weight. 
  2. Use a “compatible" new mount and provide an adapter for those legacy lenses (what Canon tried with EOS M). This solves the body thickness issue and potentially makes for smaller lenses designed with short back focus (ala what Leica has been doing forever). 
  3. Create a completely new mount that is only partially compatible with existing lenses (what Nikon tried with the Nikon 1). This gives you complete freedom in design with the limitation being that you’re not catering to legacy users: they get whatever “compatibility” you can engineer via adapter.

For Sony the third choice was perfectly fine, as they just didn’t have enough in the way of continuing sales of the old Alpha mount cameras to worry about whether or not they were abandoning those users. Once the Alpha market share dropped well below 10%, basically none of the above choices was ruled out. The result was that Sony tried a variation of #2 and #3 with the NEX E-mount, and has now even used method #1 to come up with the FE-mount. Yes, they partially disrupted their legacy users, but they were losing them fast, anyway. Once NEX got going with a new user base, Sony was careful to do the DX/FX thing that Nikon did: any FE mount lens works fine on an E-mount camera, and any E-mount lens works in crop mode on an FE model. 

But the problem for Canon and Nikon is that they have very large volumes of DSLR buyers that have accumulated large numbers of legacy lenses they don’t want to replace. They continue to sell large volumes of DSLRs and DSLR lenses, even though the Web seems to have proclaimed mirrorless “the winner.” In reality, about one-third of the interchangeable lens cameras sold today are mirrorless. Hard to be a winner at 33% ;~). The other two-thirds are basically Canon and Nikon DSLRs. There’s a lot more at stake for these two companies in making the transition.

As I noted, Canon tried #2 with the EOS M. I’m a little surprised it didn’t work better than it did (in the market, not as a camera, which I thought worked mostly fine). My perception is that the EOS M is basically a very compact Rebel. But there were two problems: no EVF and slow focus performance. In other words, the product had all the capabilities of a DSLR in terms of image quality and most of the features, but it handled and focused like a big compact camera. 

While I was one of the first arguing for large sensor compact cameras over ten years ago, you’ll note that in the actual market that appeared for them that the truly successful ones have viewfinders. The hands-out shooting position is not what the sophisticated photographer wants. That, coupled with the price and size of the EOS M meant that the group that was buying small m4/3 mirrorless cameras, especially previous generation ones on sale, just didn’t embrace the M. 

So Canon still has the DSLR-to-mirrorless transition to make. And I’ll bet they’ll make it with the EOS M mount, but fix the two things that have held it back: focus performance and lack of an EVF. In essence, that defines a mirrorless Rebel, so it has to sell in the Rebel price range, too. What I’m suggesting boils down to this: at the point where an EOS M equals the entry Rebel in all manners, Canon will simply move the entry Rebel to mirrorless and begin the progression in their lineup upwards.

Nikon, on the other hand, has a tougher transition. They already have three interchangeable lens mounts: CX (Nikon 1), DX (consumer DSLRs), and FX (prosumer/pro DSLRs). They failed to establish CX as the future, while DX is clearly fading for them if you go by their lens introductions. All the FX activity they’ve been doing is fine at shoring up the high-end of their line, but they really still have to make something work below that if they want any volume in the future. Moreover, the more FX lenses Nikon makes, the more the legacy lens problem becomes an issue in their transition to mirrorless. It would be incredibly foolish to tell 100 million Nikkor owners that “those lenses are no longer viable.”  

So what do they do? Personally, I’d pick #1 myself (coupled with lots more DX lenses). Why? Because you really do want a deep hand grip on an interchangeable lens camera that someone is going to hold to their eye—your customers are eventually going to stick a telephoto lens on it and need the stability the grip will impart—so the depth of the lens mount area isn’t really that much of an issue. Just make the rest of the body slim and trim, which is quite possible. There’s at least a half inch that can be lost in height, for instance, in the switch from DSLR to mirrorless, all else equal. The removal of the mirror also means you can move some things into the “space” the mirror box gobbles up, so you can easily cut the width of the product a half inch, too. 

From a marketing standpoint—assuming we lose nothing in focus performance—it’s a no-brainer: you’ve just made your current products smaller, lighter, simpler, and ready for the future. If the EVF is done right, it can be marketed as an improvement on the viewfinder, too. (High-end purists will doubt me on that, but in the consumer DX market being able to see your exposure prior to taking the photo would be a big thing. Plus there are other things the consumer market would like about an EVF.)

If Nikon were to choose method #2, it still means yet another lens lineup to start from scratch, and they haven’t proven they can fill out two of the three lens lines they’ve already got. Nikon would have to release a lens road map, too, something they’ve never done before and which would commit them to delivery. Failure to do that would simply let the already negative word-of-mouth they’ve generated from lack of DX lenses overwhelm their marketing efforts, I think. 

Choice #3 is unthinkable for Nikon. First, they tried it with the Nikon 1 and mostly failed. But much more importantly it would be an indication that they don’t know what made them successful in the past. Most serious and long-term Nikon customers have remained so because of the legacy support. Crippling legacy support moving forward in any way just means that those customers are free to choose any system in the future.

So when does this future arrive? My sources in Japan tell me that both Canon and Nikon have been targeting early 2015, though they also admit that there are hurdles both need to still solve, so that date may slip.  

Finally, I should point out one thing that those of us who have been buying and using high-end cameras for decades keep forgetting: while we’re a reliable subset of the camera companies’ business, we don’t offer them anything in terms of growth. If every DSLR user bought every second generation of the camera they have (or traded up), the camera industry would essentially go into a long glide slope downwards. Consumer cameras that attract new users are what the industry needs. Badly. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think that just making smaller, lighter, mirrorless DSLR-like cameras really taps into any new user base. I’ll have more to say about one thing that could re-ignite the camera business later in the week. The real issue is that the camera makers seem to believe that their only selling point above smartphones is “image quality” (and maybe flexibility). They seem reluctant to tackle the real issue head on: convenience in solving the user problem. Again, more on that coming up.

Update: one reader had a clever idea for what to do with the deep barrel that would occur by keeping the existing F-mount on a true mirrorless camera: use that area to add an electronic aperture ring! 

One engineer I correspond with reminded me that the CX lens mount is big enough (barely) to create DX-sized lenses. He refers to my #1 option as “mirrorless DSLRs” and my #2/3 options as “DX mirrorless” and believes that Nikon will create #1 first as a transition. The question in his mind is whether or not Nikon will use the CX mount for a DX-sized mirrorless camera in the next transition forward. 

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