Why Canon and Nikon Might Crush the Life out of Sony in the Full Frame Market Place. Blame Engineering and Physics.

I don't know how many people remember all the discussions way back in the mists of the distant past when Canon ABANDONED their long time, FD, bayonet lock lens mount and put all their chips and bets on the new EOS EF lens mount. It was a crazy brave thing to do when they were locked in what was basically a two way sales contest between Canon and Nikon. But do you remember all the white papers and marketing rationales for this cataclysmic change? No? Let me do a refresh...

The old Canon mount was close to the size of the Nikon mount and both worked very well as long as super fast lenses were not required. Remember that back in the mid-century film days an f2.8 lens was a routine and daily user. People generally accepted that lenses performed best at two or three stops down from wide open so speed wasn't the obsession it is today and photographers were happy to get great images at a relatively low cost per lens. Photojournalists and others who worked in low light pushed camera makers to get faster lenses but mostly because having more light pouring into the dimmer DSLR viewfinders meant it would be easier to achieve quicker and more accurate focusing; even if they eventually stopped down to f5.6 to take the photographs.

With Canon and Nikon competing head to head,
and with Nikon having a longer tenure in the market, Canon decided that the key to remaining competitive, or pulling ahead, might lie in making a series of faster lenses that also performed well closer to wide open. Faster lenses that might even be usable near their new, super-wide maximum apertures. But the small diameter of the existing lens mount one their FD series cameras made designing these fast lenses (especially wide angles) a very, very tough engineering challenge. Early attempts at fast glass and small lens mount diameters made for lenses with high vignetting and too many other optical compromises.

Canon, seeing the rise of autofocus realized that it was the last real opportunity to change the lens mounts and not lose out on their market share entirely. They envisioned the new EF lens mount as being much bigger and much better suited to all sorts of esoteric autofocus lens designs. Stuff like the legendary 50mm f1.0 EF, the 85mm f1.1.2 EF and faster wide angle lenses than had been seen in the SLR markets before. It also eliminated the expensive and troublesome mechanical lens linkages for aperture sensing and stop down.  The faithful FD mount owners bitched and moaned but eventually either fell in line or switched systems. But it was the change to the much better engineering solution that gave Canon a 20 year leg up over Nikon when it came to optimizing lens designs for modern (give me more speed! Give me more wide angles!) consumer demands. The bigger mount was/is a better solution and offers companies a much more flexible platform. It also made the progression to using full frame sensors much easier.

Now, as Nikon comes to grips with the idea that mirrorless cameras really might be the next move forward in consumer demand they seem (according to the rumors) to have adapted the same philosophy Canon used decades ago. If all the stuff is going to change anyway then this must the the "jumping off time" in which changing to a much superior mount will provide the least damage to market share and the brand while providing the most leverage in making tasty, fun optical products in the near, and distant, future. The predicted "Z" mount is going to be BIG. Really BIG.

But what does this have to do with "power house" Sony and their current rampaging market share gains in the full frame space? That's really the question for all three full frame camera makers going forward. If Nikon really sees enough advantage in changing mounts to take the risk of pissing off millions of embedded Nikon F mount users then those advantages have to be pretty damn HUGE.

So, Sony has been killing it in the FF mirrorless space. People seem to love the smaller bodies. And it's tough to design and build a smaller body with a big lens mount. People love EVFs, and frankly, who doesn't? And Sony has really good video, right? Well........now that the D850 has been launched Nikon has delivered a huge upgrade in the quality and flexibility of their video features and the image quality difference between the two brands, at least at the flagship level, is now more a matter of taste than any contest with a clear winner.

But let's circle back to that Sony Nex lens mount. It's a mount that was originally designed for consumer, cropped frame cameras. Its forté was helping to keep systems small by keeping Nex lenses small and cute. The bigger, Alpha mount, used on the a900, a850, a99, etc. was intended to be their professional mount for full frame cameras but the engineering intent got destroyed by listening too closely to the ill-informed demands of an army of "give me mini-cameras" consumers. They wanted a full frame system that was as close in size as Sony could make it to the existing Nex APS-C cameras. And mob demand has dictated now three whole generations of Sony A7x camera design. The mount in an A7Riii is barely big enough to fit a full frame sensor and requires much magic mechanical and optical engineering to deliver an image edge to edge onto the sensor. The worst of the geometric compromises are dealt with by in-camera software hocus-pocus.

BUT...Sony have rushed countless cameras to market and positioned themselves as the presumptive future leader in the full frame space....with a lens mount that is clearly not up to the task of delivering the kinds of fast and compromise-free lenses that consumers (and professionals) will, no doubt, demand. They have the automobile equivalent of a fixed 15 inch wheel rim size in a market in which people are recently demanding 20 inch rims. In fact, the rush to implement a small camera with a small diameter lens mount may have unwittingly doomed Sony to a dead end system which will require a wholesale redesign of lenses and bodies in the not too distant future. Not a very promising proposition for the legions that are currently switching systems away from Nikon and Canon to Sony.

My one disclaimer is that the new Nikon is not yet here so we can't really measure the lens mount and prove its engineering advantage. But, imagine you traded in all your Nikon/Canon gear and bought Sony only to find that you might never get super fast lenses for the system or that you may have to dump it all for salvage value in short order as Sony comes to grips with the need for a "new and improved" mount earlier than later... I think I know how I would feel.

If Sony maintains the small mount it gives even advertising tone deaf Nikon a huge marketing advantage and one even Nikon might be smart enough to leverage. At least with the change of the Nikon mount to one that is bigger and shallower Nikon is more or less guaranteeing that adapters will fit and older lenses with smaller mount diameters will be able to be adapted. That's got to make a transition for Nikon users easier.

Me? Oh, I keep thinking Canon is the real grown-up in the room. They just keeping making stuff and selling it to hordes and hordes of advanced amateurs, sports photographers, moms with cameras, wedding photographers, baby photographers and, well, the main stream users. Think "larger numbers." I haven't used one but I'm betting that the 5Dmk4 is a nicely mature and eminently capable photograph generating machine. Probably Canon is the company for people that don't give a rat's ass about the usual photo drama. Maybe that's why the review site hipsters are loathe to spread some market joy in Canon's direction. Reminds them too much of their mom's Buick and they'd rather drive a Vespa.

I love all the intrigue about "earthshaking" camera changes and introductions. I talked about it at my attorney's law firm yesterday. Nobody knew what the hell I was talking about and even fewer cared. I'll probably end up getting billed for that discussion. Ah well.



joel said...

Maybe. I had similar thoughts when I saw the size of the Nikon 'Z' mount but I think you're overstating the difficulty of the Sony E-mount. I'm not an optical engineer but I think the bigger issue with Sony was the decision to go with a thick cover glass. Again, compromises. Thick cover glass helps in other ways but it necessitates very retrofocal lens designs. Lecia gets around the small mount, small lens problem by uses symmetrical designs (to some degree).

Remember E-mount already has some very compact wide angle lenses are very fast lenses. I'm not convinced the mount diameter is really holding the camera back that much. I guess we'll see when we have the Nikon to compare it too.

Don Karner said...

"Maybe that's why the review site hipsters are loathe to spread some market joy in Canon's direction. Reminds them too much of their mom's Buick and they'd rather drive a Vespa."

You know Kirk, I think you hit the nail on the head with a very large hammer.

Thanks for more great thoughts.

Ol' Don

Hugh said...

Having used the 5D series continuously since the 5D1 came out, the 5D4 is a significant improvement over the 5D3 - nothing flashy, just the sum effect of a lot of subtle changes.

Pretty much a classic example of "Kaizen" - continuous improvement.

I agree with you... wait until Nikon and Canon decide the time is right to act, and watch the market turn on its head.

Tony said...

Sony's not going to redesign its mount and I don't think Nikon's extra 3mm of width and 2mm of flange distance is going to be a meaningful advantage outside of some exotic lens designs. For a DSLR to mirrorless FF switcher, it'll be a decision between large lens selection today with all the flaws Sony has or live through the growing pains of Nikon and Canon as they move to mirrorless full frame and the promise of a better / more familiar system. I think Nikon would have to deliver a really spectacular product to get Sony FF users to switch due to the investment made so the fight is really for existing DSLR switchers.

That said, I can see a future mount by Sony or others that takes advantage of breakthroughs like curved sensors that promises smaller and faster lenses but will require another re-design. I'm excited for that future breakthrough.

Craig said...

Kirk, you may well have a better grasp of the issue here than I do, but it doesn't seem to me that throat diameter is really the main issue here. Full-frame images have a 42mm diagonal; I'm sure there are good reasons to make the throat a bit larger than that, but the 46.1mm diameter of Sony's E-mount seems adequate. Canon's EF-M throat is somewhat larger at 46.5mm, but it's still much smaller than the original EF mount's 54mm, and I think you can use even Canon's fastest EF lenses on EOS-M cameras with a glass-free mount adapter, can't you? I very much doubt that Canon intentionally designed EF-M to never be able to support full-frame sensors with fast lenses. That would have been an incredibly stupid thing to do, and Canon is rarely stupid.

I think Canon had a number of good reasons to ditch the FD mount back in the '80s. Going to an all-electronic interface and ditching the legacy mechanical connectors was a big one. Going to a true bayonet mount was another (FD was a breech-lock mount, much less convenient to work with; while you sometimes see the claim that the later "New FD" lenses used a bayonet mount, this is not true, and could not possibly be true since they still had to attach to the same breech-lock mount on the camera). The payoff for Canon was immense: the EOS system didn't have to support any legacy features, and was perceived as more advanced, more forward-looking technology than what Nikon had to offer. The compatibility matrix was also simpler: EF lenses, and only EF lenses, worked on EOS cameras, and FD lenses only worked on FD cameras. In contrast, some Nikon cameras work well with the old AI manual focus lenses, but some don't, and Nikon confused matters further by first putting the AF motor in the body and later moving it to the lenses, while continuing to provide body-based AF motors for backward compatibility, but not in the lower-end cameras... and there are even some vintage F-mount lenses that will physically damage some modern cameras that lack the ability to lock the mirror up. It's a bit of a mess.

Mirrorless finally gives Nikon another opportunity to work with a clean slate. They have no choice but to introduce a new mount, since existing F-mount lenses won't work right on cameras with a shorter flange distance. This is, therefore, an ideal opportunity for them to finally create a new all-electronic mount that obsoletes all the F-mount's old mechanical connectors, the body-based AF motor, etc. By the same token, though, this means backward compatibility will be harder for them. Compatibility with electronic AF-S lenses via a smart adapter won't be hard (it's the same problem Canon had to deal with), but fully supporting manual-focus lenses will be trickier. They may simply not bother, or they might take a page from Canon's book and make the camera function in stop-down metering mode when a mechanical lens is in use.

I'm looking forward to seeing Nikon's new mirrorless system. For me to switch from Fuji, they'd have to offer something not only excellent but also more affordably priced than their full-frame DSLRs. That would come as a surprise to me, but I'm open to being favorably surprised.

Eric Rose said...

I'm just waiting for the GH5's to come onto the used market. It will do everything I need a camera to do. Might pick up a used D810 or D800e to replace my D700. Boy I loved that D700 .....

Gato said...

I well recall when Canon dropped the FD mount -- I think it was about 3 days after I maxed out my credit card to buy a 300 2.8 in FD mount. (OK, it was several months, but it sure seemed like a short time.)

But overall it was a good move and set them up well for the future. And I got a lot of good use and made some money with the lens, then got most of the original price back when I sold it years later.

I'm hoping Nikon succeeds with their next generation, mostly for sentimental reasons. I don't see myself switching from Panasonic anytime in the near future but I'd hate to see the Nikon brand go the way of Kodak.

Edward Richards said...

I started shooting DSLR in the 60s with a Pentax Spotmatic, then a Canon EF. When Canon moved to the new mount, I followed and shot Canon until the D700. I would have stayed with Canon, but my camera equipment was stolen so I got to start afresh. At that moment, the D700 was much better than the Canon non-professional digital offerings. I quickly ended up with more money in lenses than cameras, so I have not seriously thought about moving back. Everything you say about Canon makes a lot of sense. The mount is certainly part of the reason they have been selling more DSLRs than Nikon for years.

You have me thinking about third party lenses - I wonder if the Nikon mount stifles the development of third party lenses for Canon? Think about the fast Sigma Art lenses - they make exactly the same optics for both Canon and Nikon, ending up with HUGE wide angle and normal lenses that could probably be smaller and better if they took advantage of Canon's mount. (The 12-24 Art comes to mind.)

Andrea said...

So my comment in the last post about bigger Nikon body remains valid. And please, remeber that a big part of CaNikon shooters REALLY buy in the mantra "old style reflex=big camera=pro camera", ask to any amateur and they still says that mirrorless are not pro because pros uses mirror+ovf cameras... It was the Nikon CEO that this first quarter said to the investors " Don't worry, we will sell as usual because no real pro uses Pentax, Sony or Olympus"...

Robin Williams said...

Don't you think it's a marketing and numbers question rather than an engineering one? Sony has the muscle and sensor tech to pitch FF at a lower price point than Nikon, which is probably terrified of cannibalizing its 'classic' line. Canon has the most market clout overall and can learn from the others' mistakes, an advantage of being 'late'. My money is on the tortoise beating the hare!

Anonymous said...

It'll come down to the lenses. If Sony make and price some killer lenses they will maintain their lead. At the moment their top top lenses are expensive, and big. I've not been paying close attention ,but they seem to be heavily reliant on adapted lenses.

Nb - I'm talking about lenses that aren't just good, but which bind you to a mount. There's one or two (the 20mm and 45mm) on m43 that will bind me into the system longterm. I get the results I need for my projects with them.

I get the vibe you feel the same about the 12-100 pro.

If Canon and nikon can make these kind of lenses early, they'll win out. But I think it might be tough, as they are a long way behind.

Interesting times.

Although to be honest, I think late adopters (as you highlight in your previous post) are the real winners as we're so far past the point of sufficiency that I'd struggle to see the point of early adoption these days, unless you are a blogger or techy and more interested in the kit than the art.


TMJ said...

I went against the flow and bought Canon FF in November 2016, which was a great move. The bodies fit nicely in the hand, even when wearing gloves, and there are so many lenses to choose from, from specialist to everyday.

Plus Canon will not be going away, which is something I wonder about when considering Sony. A bit of a bad run and Sony could jack it all in and concentrate on their other activities.

Chris Malcolm said...

If Nikon are indeed going to go mirrorless with a usefully larger lens mount this could be Sony's cue to do what I have long suspected they've been thinking about, while waiting for on-sensor AF to catch up with the separate AF sensors of A-mount -- revising the oddly old-fashioned Sony A-mount to a B-mount which will include options for electronic aperture control, electronic zoom control, and other useful future options, plus either backwards compatibility with the existing A-mount, or a lensless adapter for existing A-mount lenses. The extra lens-to-sensor distance provided by the now absent SLT mirror could be used by new whizzo technology, such as more sensor movement to accommodate in-camera tilt-shift.

As you point out, the existing popular FE-mount is stuck with its awkwardly compact compromises.

Heidfirst said...

As far as I know the only thing that Minolta AF/Sony A-mount can't do electrically at the moment is aperture control (the main reason that A-mount cameras have an fps limit way below E-mount is that the aperture mechanics can't keep up with 11/12+ fps).
Minolta launched electric zoom lenses (Xi series) on that mount in 1991...

tnargs said...

Given that Nikon's latest f/1.4 lenses are priced at $2000 to $2200, I would say an f/1 would be at least $4000 if the wide open optics are good.

Ray said...

I wasn't aware until this morning there was any sort of controversy about the size of the Sony E mount vs. Nikon's upcoming camera, then Andrea at Sony Alpha Rumors posted his debunking of this myth, and somebody in the comments mentioned there is already a native mount F/.95 50mm lens. It seem like that kind of ends the debate, doesn't it?



Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Ray, Sorry but you are WRONG. That link decides nothing other than a Sony fan who runs a rumor site asked about a specific lens and lens speed. As I wrote the smaller diameter of the mount causes the need for more complexity in lens design. You can put whatever lens you'd like in front of a sensor and that doesn't mean it will work well. For decades retro focus wide angle designs for SLRs and DSLRs caused multiple compromises in performance for those optics. The compromises affected geometric distortions, created "mustache" distortion and played havoc with corner sharpness as compare with symmetrically designed (true, not retrofocus) wide angles. That didn't stop people from buying the lesser lenses and using them. It just stopped the lenses from matching the superior performance of lenses that didn't need to be designed to clear a mirror. I'm sure Sony can make super wide lenses that will FIT on the cameras but I'm equally sure that a bigger mount allows for fewer lens/optical design compromises. I'm equally sure that no one from Sony went on record to actually say, "Bullshit" in response to what actually was a very reasonable question. Yes, according optical engineers a bigger mount is easier to design to (assuming the same overall format and focal length). Just because Sony seems to have been caught with their pants down doesn't make my argument wrong.

Terence Morrissey said...

Interestion information Kirk, thank you.

Jason Hindle said...

My thoughts on Canon are pretty much the same. The dpreview crowd complained about the dynamic range Canon’s sensors. Canon responded with dual pixel AF and some superb updates to its L lenses, addressing dynamic range later. I think Canon is playing the longer game, focusing on getting the important things right first. On the smaller format side of things, I think EOS-M is something of a sleeper. All the technological and optical pieces are falling into place.

Jeroen Pulles said...

I'm interested to see if Zeiss will release their FE-mount Loxia line (e.g. 25mm f/2.4) for the new Nikon mount. The Loxia's are nice, compact, manual focus lenses and would probably more interesting to me than anything new and autofocus from Nikon. I'd think that Zeiss, just like the new Tamrons for FE-mount, has thought the possibility of multiple mirrorless mounts in advance.