The Camera Chess Match

On second thought, the games being played by the camera makers are not exactly a chess match as the headline suggests. The pieces don't seem to move in logical ways, and the moves don't always take turns. The current market game situation reminds me more of Magic: the Gathering, where things take more bizarre twists and turns sometimes seem to never end, yet somehow the momentum can swing 180° with a single card play by any player.

One thing the pandemic seemed to do is whittle down the lower end product offerings considerably. While Canon (R10) and Nikon (Z30) are still active trying to re-establish volume where they just gave it up with the demise of consumer DSLRs, most of the action has been at the top. Witness the Canon R3 and even R7, Fujifilm X-H2/2S, Hasselblad X2D, Nikon Z9, OM Digital Solutions OM-1, and most new cameras all the way back to the Sony A1. 

We're seeing a lot of action in high-capability cameras, and it's causing both a lot of excitement as well as confusion among the photography community. To help resolve the confusion, it's probably worth looking at the high level strategy/tactics that each of the players are currently pursuing.

  • Canon — The Big Bully seems to be trying to replicate its previous long-term strategy now. The M experiment is over. The R UX experiment is over. EOS is now squarely RF and RF-S, and we get full frame at the top (R1, R3, R5), the new RF-S Kiss/Rebels at the bottom (R10, upcoming R100), and enough in the middle to fill out a complete lineup (R6, R II?, RP II?, R7). Third party lens makers will be scared from making autofocus lenses by missives from the Canon lawyers. The old EF lens lineup will be mostly duplicated in the RF mount, with a handful of slightly interesting deviations.

    That said, I still see disarray at Canon, coupled with a bit of a panic and a lot of insecurity. The legal bullying is just one aspect of that. Note that the RF naming is not particularly clear, which means product marketing is also is still a bit in play within the company. Unlike Nikon, who's gone to single digit for full frame, double digit for crop sensor, Canon has been willy-nilly throwing numbers out there, with some letters thrown in to confuse everyone. Marketing also hasn't found a technology "spine" on which to base any claims of superiority. To me, Canon still feels like they're turning the battleship and not yet sailing in a clear direction. The only ones yelling "make way, starboard rights" are the legal team. 

    I'm pretty sure that Canon thought they just needed to launch full frame mirrorless and they'd catapult to leading market share there. That didn't happen. It's not even clear if they are doing better than Nikon in becoming #2 for full frame. The R7/R10 combo seems to have done a better job of re-establishing Canon in the APS-C market, but that's going to come at the expense of the dying M-mount. What I think I see with Canon is that while Canon RF is now the plan and fully underway, the RF sales aren't up to the old EF sales, which is a problem for a company that wants to hold a 50% market share. 

    Here's my question for Canon executives: What's the clear reason someone should buy a Canon RF camera?

  • Fujifilm Finally, a direction, though it might not be the direction that their original base wants. The GFX cameras and the X-H2 cameras share something: a consistent user interface and user experience (UX), and one without all the dials that got so much attention early on. I've long said that going back to a retro dial-based design, while seemingly appealing to many in a nostalgic sense, was ignoring things that became mainstream for photographers who truly need to be spontaneous yet still control the camera. Canon and Nikon long ago established their basic UX, and Sony finally got around to that around the Mark III generation or so. Fujifilm? The differences between the Pro, A, E, H, S, and T models were pronounced, and haphazard to me. That was one of the things that bothered me about the Fujifilm mirrorless cameras. They went from Frankencamera DSLR designs to a prolonged period in the labs while not making any ILC, to a series of very mixed designs. 

    The good news is that the X-H2 and X-H2s suddenly show a different side. Coupled with the GFX bodies, Fujifilm suddenly has a core UX. What's amusing about this is that Fujifilm is now following a familiar Nikon pattern (speed/pixel combos), as well as becoming a little more button+dial Nikon-like. Of course, what happens to the Pro, E, S, and T model lines remains to be seen (A appears to now be abandoned; the A's along with the T### models were actually externally developed, so that makes sense). My prediction: drop the E, make S the intro model(s), and keep the T as the dials camera. The Pro will probably be kept going due to its unique hybrid viewfinder, but it's not an important model to Fujifilm's success in the market.

    To me, the thing that isn't working for Fujifilm is lenses. Not that they don't have a lot of great lenses. However, most of those are primes. I'm not feeling as much love with the zooms, and we're in an era where zooms dominate. Of the lenses that Fujifilm themselves listed as "get[ting] maximum benefit from...40mp", only seven zooms show up. The good news is that the f/2.8 trinity is there, but things like a 24-120mm equivalent f/4 are not. 

    I think Fujifilm's fairly well situated to compete with the full frame cameras, but only if they solidify the UX in upcoming XF models and produce more zoom lens choice. The US$2000/2500 pricing of the X-H pair is in a good spot for them, but does pit them against the R6, Z6 II, S5, and A7 Mark IV, which is a darned credible crowd.

    Here's my question for Fujifilm executives:
    How are you going to build out the other XF models and zooms?

  • Hasselblad — After sitting out a few games, Hasselblad appears to be coming off the injured reserve list with a mended offering, the X2D, plus another attempt at lenses. On paper, they look competitive again. Moreover, they're concentrating on their strengths while completely ignoring video. It'll take some time with the new camera and lenses to see if they've just leaped over the GFX100s. 

    Fujifilm left the medium format open to competition, in my view. Their lenses just don't seem to be up to the need level of 100mp. I've seen too many misaligned and underperforming Fujifilm GF mount lenses, and I'm not the only one to find that. In the studio, the leaf shutter of the Hasselblad camera/lens combos has a large benefit, as well. I wouldn't be surprised to see reviews that say that the X2D has put Hasselblad back on top of the studio medium format game. If so, bravo, a game of leap frog properly jumped. 

    Here's my question for Hasselblad executives: Is one camera and a handful of lenses enough?

  • Leica — Leica's been a little quiet as of late, with only the 60mp and slightly simplified M11 appearing in 2021 or 2022. That's okay, as they're not a high volume producer and have a clear clientele that doesn't exactly play the main game. I am curious, however, as to what happens with the SL. The SL2 split into a not-really-speed and not-really-pixels combo in 2019/2020. I'm not sure what that's all about, but it would seem that we ought to see a 60mp SL3 at some point soon.

    Leica's other duo, the CL/TL combo that crossed the full frame and APS-C lines seems to have dead-ended. The TL2 is now selling at closeout prices that are absurdly low for Leica (<US$1500). The CL's five years old, which in dog, uh digital camera, years is a lot. Meanwhile, the S2 (medium format DSLR) is over a decade old. During the CL/TL/S2 rest period there are so many variants of M's I'm not sure I can count them all. 

    It appears that Leica will continue to be Leica, popping out morsels they believe their gourmand audience will quickly order and obsess over. But the camera chef seems a bit aimless and the lenstender seems to have taken a break, with a sign at the counter that says "see Sigma." 

    My question for Leica executives: Do you really have a clear plan, or are you just randomly executing?

  • Nikon — The Z9 is not a camera line. I would tend to say that Nikon has not caught up to Sony (other than the Z9, where they might have passed them), and is not out of the woods yet in terms of getting a solid bottom-to-top camera lineup established. The Z5 does hit it out of the park for an entry full frame camera, while the Z9 does that at the top, but everywhere else in the Z System you'll find products that seem more like placeholders than industry-leading. Historically—and I believe this to still be true—it takes a full line of industry-leading products for Nikon Imaging to get a complete head of steam and restore its place in the camera market. 

    The weak points are currently: (1) high-end APS-C (DX); (2) US$2000-2500 full frame; (3) high pixel count camera(s); and (4) no truly video-centric cameras (the Z30 vlog camera is not what's needed, though a nice product at the bottom of the video parade). Canon is going to get potential Z70 buyers, Fujifilm is going to get potential Z90 buyers, Sony is going to get Z6 buyers. That's three key product categories that need shoring up, and fast. It doesn't help that the clear user demand (clamor) for a Z8 indicates that the Z9 can't do it all by itself at the top. Nikon's going to be the last to launch in #1 and #4, and maybe #2 and #3. Again, they'll need industry-leading products to get themselves out of their now third-place position, let alone hold off the fourth place player. 

    At the risk of sounding click-baity, I think Nikon Imaging is more in more danger of being spun out of Nikon today than ever before. Nikon's future growth is clearly in other arenas, ones that are not based on consumer-facing products. So the only reason to keep the Imaging group around is if they can reliably produce profit without downsizing more. So far, that's been true, but having four weak points is not a good sign. Those need to be addressed, and quickly.

    Okay, you want good news. That would be that the Nikkor side of the Z System is swinging for the fences and delivering, and doing so consistently. I was skeptical when Nikon management a while back said they wanted to increase the lens sales rate to 2x the body rate (called the Attachment Rate, which traditionally for the industry has been 1.5-1.6x). Well, if they keep hitting it out of the park and can get their supply chains moving faster, they're not only going to hit that, they're going to exceed it. But it'll also take the right cameras in #1-3 to maximize their Attachment Rate. 

    My question for Nikon executives: How fast will (can) you address #1 to #4 in my list?

  • OM Digital Solutions Okay, so the Vaio strategy sort of works. I say "sort of" because it's clearly working for the vulture capitalists in charge, somewhat less so for the customers. One camera and two lenses a year would be a worse problem than Nikon has: you fall out of relevance at that pace, and then can only cater to the established base. Fortunately, the established base is a reasonable size for the moment, but everyone is still wondering what the "real" size of the ILC market is once the pandemic and supply chain issues have been worked through. And I see clear erosion of the m4/3 base.

    OMDS is probably going to have to be happy with a three or four model camera lineup long term. OM-1, OM-5, OM-10, and maybe Pen. Not that Olympus had all that many more products when it passed the baton (add PL, 1X). I actually think the additional camera answer for them has been clear ever since I pointed it out a decade ago: m4/3 Tough. As I've indicated several times before, I believe that each camera maker has to have some element of the market that "they own" compared to the rest. Tough would be the natural one for OMDS, as it was for Olympus before them. So give us the Tough 1 (great name, by the way, if I don't say so myself ;~).

    My question for OMDS executives: How's that customer base holding up? 

  • Panasonic — Panasonic still has all four of their feet in four different buckets. As long as they try to keep that balancing act going, they won't make any progress in any market, is my guess. The buckets are m4/3 stills, m4/3 video, full frame, and video centric. With four feet, you'd think they could run faster ;~).

    Beyond the spread out location of their limbs like a giraffe drinking water, there's Panasonic's insistence on keeping DFD autofocus going. Geez, even the smartphones went to phase detect on the image sensor. So four buckets and NIH thinking has Panasonic stuck. If they're going to insist on DFD, they need to just make video cameras, where absolute crazy fast autofocus isn't something you actually want. Trying to survive in the full frame mirrorless world with DFD is a bit like trying to make a performance sports car to compete with a Corvette using a CVT (continuously variable transmission) that's poorly tuned. 

    Meanwhile, Panasonic in a recent press release and interviews states that they're going to work in "collaboration" with Leica (above and beyond the L-mount alliance. So what does that actually mean in terms of cameras? And yes, they've once again said they're looking at phase detect autofocus, but that all seems to be in some sort of blurred future.

    My question for Panasonic executives: When are you going to really give up on DFD?

  • Sigma — Foveon sensor technology is out there somewhere. In a new fab somewhere, apparently. In the minds of a very few customers, unfortunately. Sigma tinkers in cameras as a hobby mostly in honor of the father of the CEO. Given that, they're entitled to do whatever they please. But that also will have a result that is mostly random and not reflective of the overall camera market. Thus, I have no questions for Yamaki-san. 

  • Sony — Once you get on top of the hill, you find it harder to stay on top of the hill. Sony has a lot of territory to defend now in mirrorless: APS-C, full frame, video centric. That's actually the order in which they need to put in more effort, too. 

    After years of rapid iteration, the current Sony A6xxx APS-C cameras find themselves...well...behind. And oddly behind not just in technology, but in UX, as well. We need a A7000, A7300, and A7600 that restate the lineup with the current Sony UX design and using state-of-the-art technologies. We don't need another video-centric model for vloggers. 

    The problem for Sony is that Canon and Nikon are attacking them head on in full frame and making inroads, while Canon and Fujifilm are attacking them head on in APS-C and making inroads. Meanwhile, I'd argue that Nikon's Z30 did vlogger righter than Sony (too bad it doesn't have the lenses, buzz, buzz ;~). 

    On the good news side, the A1 is holding up against the Z9 for the time being, and the A7 Mark IV has moved the marker in a key full frame category. Lenses, as with Nikon, are being knocked out of the park consistently (though we still have focal length gaps that need to be filled quickly). Sony might be able to defend the hill, after all, but it's going to be a far tougher battle than it looked as little as only one year ago. 

    My question for Sony executives: Just how much will you attempt to hold off the APS-C competitors, and when?

For customers, we're in an era where we have a large number of excellent choices. I'm happy with my gear at the moment, and am backing off any new gear purchases because of that.

The good news is that it appears that all the camera companies weathered the pandemic and supply chain disruptions in a way that they are currently profitable and have at least some growth. However, it's unclear how much of the current demand is simply pent-up demand and postponed buying. 

Which leads me to my greatest fear about the camera market today. Too much of the 5m unit sales I'm seeing today are from Hyper-Sampling and Hyper-Switching customers, who are like a dog chasing its tail, and who keep chasing the latest marketing line touting Today's Top Toy. At some point, just as with a dog, they'll wear themselves out (or run out of credit line), and where's that leave us? With a reliable ILC sales rate of 3-4m units a year? That's too low to sustain all the players, above. Even a 5m annual sales rate moving forward would mean that the only way to grow would be to steal share from someone else (no wonder Canon is looking scared ;~). 

On the other hand, it appears that the camera makers have finally found—at least temporarily—a new, younger customer. For lack of a better word, they refer to these customers as "creators." That's a euphemism for YouTube, Tik-Tok, and Instagram millennials+ who have taken to producing content onto which Google, Facebook, et.al. attach their mighty advertising engines, providing a small slice of the proceeds to the creators doing all the work. While there are an estimated 2m such creators pulling in six-figure incomes, I wonder just how viable it is to rely upon the behemoth middlemen now being targeted by antitrust and other legal actions. Moreover, once you have a 4K-viable setup to create with, what more do you need? Most of the creators' output is actually watched at 720P or 1080P, not 2160 or higher. 

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