Mirrorless Hype


Lensvid.com has issued a short article about what happened to the photo industry in 2014. They note something that may be a bit shocking to those who have been reading or listening to advocates of mirrorless ILCs:

Mirrorless cameras (despite all the hype) are still just 7% of the entire camera market (up from a mere 5% in 2013).

Advocates of mirrorless systems have been so good at imposing their narrative on the general consciousness that these numbers come as a bit of a shock. Hype indeed! Lensvid continues:

Predicting the future of the camera market proved challenging in the past – IDC (the American market research, analysis and advisory firm) failed to predict what will happen to the mirrorless camera market. In 2012 they concluded that in 2014 we will see no less than 13 million mirrorless cameras sold worldwide. Only 3 million mirrorless cameras were actually sold…

The fact that even "experts" can be so wrong should make us all a bit weary of making confident projections about what's going to happen in the future. But even when granting the difficulty of making such projections, how could these "experts" have been so wrong? Why did mirrorless fail to live up to these lofty (and in retrospect grossly unrealistic) expectations? I can think of several reasons.

  1. In discussions of mirrorless, there's way too much emphasis on cameras, while lenses are often ignored. Yet it is precisely the lenses that give Canon and Nikon DSLRs a huge advantage over their mirrorless rivals. And not merely because Canikon offer so many more lens options (many of which are too large to be used comfortably on small, mirrorless cameras), but because many professionals and enthusiasts have already invested in Canikon glass and are therefore reluctant to sell of all their gear and start afresh with an unproven system. This built-in inertia would have slowed down the progress of mirrorless even under the best of circumstances.
  2. To sell 13 million cameras requires a fairly substantial sum of consumer purchasing power. Where are all these consumer dollars supposed to have come from? Mirrorless cameras, being new and exciting, would appeal especially to younger photographers. But it is precisely the younger demographic that tends to be the most cash poor. Did any of the experts who predicted 13 million sales of mirrorless cameras ever stop to think about any of these economic realities? Probably not.
  3. The firms primarily occupied in developing mirrorless are, for the most part, companies that took up mirrorless after they failed in their DSLR ventures. If these companies failed with DSLRs, why should we expect them to succeed in mirrorless? Olympus and Sony in particular, both of which developed fairly robust DSLR systems, demonstrated an incapacity to compete with Canikon. It's not enough to have talented engineers and to make exciting products. It is also necessary to be well managed. Through poor management, mirrorless companies (particularly Olympus and Sony) have lost millions of dollars developing their mirrorless systems, and now find themselves cash poor and vulnerable to any severe economic shock. Ever wonder why Olympus is dragging their feet on filling out their pro line of lenses, or why Sony is taking so much time filling out its lens lineup? Losing million of dollars and piling up huge debts has consequences for the future of the brand. No way to get around that. If there is to be any sort of "mirrorless revolution," it will likely be led by companies that haven't run up huge debts through poor management. In short, it is likely to be led by Canon and Nikon.

Another thing to note is the lack of forward vision by some of the mirrors companies (again, with Sony and Olympus being the prime culprits here). And I’m not talking about technology. Undoubtedly, no one does technology better than Sony, and Olympus has done well here as well. But despite what the gearheads who dominate review sites and internet photography forums might say, technology is not necessarily always the prime determinant of whether a given product succeeds (think how well Canon has done with technologically “inferior” sensors). You can add all the technology you like into a camera (and the camera tends to be where concern about technology seems to be most intense), but that won’t do you any good if you don’t have the right lenses to go with it. In the micro-four-thirds system, you can get just about any of the more common type of lenses you might wish, with one glaring exception: the slow mid-range zoom. Instead, you have choice between, on the one side, a large number of compact, slow aperture consumer grade lenses, and on the other, larger, heavier pro-caliber fast zooms. There is absolutely nothing in the middle: no slow aperture, compact high end (or even mid-range) zooms. This is particularly baffling when you consider: (1) that the slower, high quality compact zoom would fit quite well with the “smaller is better” mantra that supposedly governs mirrorless ILCs; and (2) that slow aperture mid-range lenses tend to be quite popular among APS-C DSLR shooters. Consider the number of DSLR lenses for which there are few, if any, mirrorless counterparts:

  1. Nikkor 16-85 f3.5-5.6
  2. Nikkor 18-70 f3.5-5.6
  3. Nikkor 18-105 f3.5-5.6
  4. Nikkor 18-140 f3.5-5.6
  5. Canon 17-85 f4-5.6
  6. Canon 15-85 f3.5-5.6
  7. Canon 18-135 f3.5-5.6
  8. Pentax 16-85 f3.5-5.6
  9. Pentax 17-70 f4
  10. Pentax 18-135 f3.5-5.6
  11. Pentax 20-40 f2.8-4
  12. Olympus 12-60 f2.8-4
  13. Olympus 14-54 f2.8-3.5
  14. Sony 16-105 f3.5-5.6
  15. Sony 18-70 f3.5-5.6

Now while not every lens on this list constitutes prosumer or mid-range offerings, many of them are. Moreover, they offer ranges that are hard to come by in the mirrorless world. The main exceptions? Sony offers a 16-70mm f4 Zeiss labelled zoom and Fuji offers an 18-135 f3.5-5.6 zoom. The Sony lens, however, costs around $1,000 and many complain that it suffers from weak corners. The Fuji lens weighs over a pound and doesn’t balance well on the smaller Fuji cameras.

Why do the mirrorless companies tend to avoid the popular slow aperture mid-range standard zooms that appeal so strongly to enthusiasts shooting with APS-C DSLRs? I honestly have no idea. But if mirrorless cameras really are going to replace APS-C DSLRs (as the mirrorless narrative, propagated by neophiles and gearheads online insist), then you would think a necessary component of this would be making equivalents of the very lenses that the APS-C photographers are most often using on their APS-C cameras. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that making these mid-range/prosumer type lenses would necessarily jump-start mirrorless sales and allow the mirrorless companies to make serious inroads on DSLR sales, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Moreover, the refusal to go after one of the meatier parts of the enthusiast market demonstrates the essential cluelessness of the mirrorless manufacturers. It makes one suspect they are spending too much of their time reading online reviews and forum sites, which tend to be dominated not merely by the gearhead crowd, but also by the fast-lens-über-alles crowd, who seem to believe that the only type of lenses that should ever be made are fast lenses, and that it is a crime for any company to make a slower, variable aperture zoom, particularly one that costs a bit of money and isn’t meant to be sold as a cheap kit lens. The vast majority of users are neither gearheads nor fast lens fanatics. Such enthusiasts don’t write photography gear reviews or bitch and moan on forums about slow glass and flapping mirrors. Why should they? They’re happy with the cameras and lenses they already have. Perhaps such enthusiasts would be more open to exploring the mirrorless option if mirrorless companies would merely deign to make lenses like the ones they are using on their APS-C DSLRs.