Competition is one of the main causes of innovation, but camera innovations have been stalled out for years, and I think Sony could be to blame.
First things first, I want to be very clear that this article is only about the stills side of camera tech. I don't pretend to be up to date on the bleeding edge of video, but from the stills side, I'd like to think I'm pretty up to date. And well, that's because arguably not much has really happened.
Sure, some impressive higher-megapixel sensors have arrived, autofocus speeds and tracks have been greatly improved, and average camera high ISO/dynamic range capabilities have crept up. But I'd argue that much of it is iterative instead of innovative — natural progressions.
When Sony went all in with its plan to develop its full frame mirrorless system, the other big hitters dragged their feet. Nikon and Canon clung to DSLRs and looked at the mirrorless market as a small blip on the global industry radar, instead of the steadily growing signal cutting through the noise of a million clacking mirror boxes. Through it, all Sony stuck to their plan, and things began to shift.
When Sony released the a7 III, it became more and more clear that the mirrorless market wasn't a passing storm, but a new norm, and Canon's and Nikon’s reluctance to recognize and embrace that would become a root cause for the two pillars of the industry to shed a ton of users and fail to inspire new ones.
Now, the reason I think this has led to a stall in innovation is while the other companies spent their time and resources trying to extend the appeal of the end-of-life DSLR, Sony was sprinting toward a pro-level mirrorless camera. And just like a foot race, if someone has a multi-year lead, the effort required to catch up is enormous, and if you’re far enough behind, you probably aren't going to try very hard, because the alternative is easier. Your fate has been sealed. And so, Canon and Nikon tiptoed into the mirrorless race at a snail’s pace with prosumer grade cameras: single card slots, slow functions, and quirky ergonomics by design made sure no one would trade their DSLR in for their mirrorless offering, and they didn’t: they traded them in for a Sony.
Now that Canon has found their footing and decided to take the market seriously by releasing two new pro-level cameras, you would think that the race would be back on, but that doesn't seem to be the case. While the R5 matches the a9 in terms of shooting at 20 frames per second, it’s missing the real ingredient that makes 20 fps a game-changer in the a9 as the sensor readout speed is significantly slower in the R5, so it’s power at a price. This means the R5 will suffer from rolling shutter when using the electronic shutter, which makes it almost useless when photographing fast-moving subjects, which is when you need it. So yes, the R5 has some great focus tracking, a high-resolution sensor, good ergonomics, and much more, but in terms of innovation, it’s barely on par with the now three-year-old a9.
As for Nikon, their decision to only include a single card slot in their initial releases simply shows they were not ready to let their mirrorless offerings truly compete with their bread and butter DSLRs. Even their latest and greatest mirrorless offerings only adds a second card slot, as overall, the cameras remain largely the sam. It’s the D600 to D610 and D800 to D810 all over again: selling you a second time what you paid for the first.
And while there are other big names in the mirrorless market such as Fuji, they have chosen to stay out of the full frame fight by simply concentrating on crop sensors and medium format, the latter of those two being a realm I wish there was more competition, but maybe that will happen as time moves on.
Now, I'm not affiliated with Sony and have no access to behind-the-scenes knowledge of what is or is not in the release pipeline, but if it were me running the show, I wouldn't want to reveal all my cards until the deck had been fully developed. This leads me to believe that they have a lot of things under the vest and are simply waiting until there is a need to unveil the latest tech. Because why release a race car that can go 300 miles per hour when the competition is still racing go-karts? And I’m obviously being a bit dramatic with that statement, but in reality, we have no idea what can be accomplished when you have a multi-year headstart on your competition.
Likewise, a lot of camera users have waited and waited for Canon and Nikon to release a truly competitive mirrorless camera, clinging to their old and worn DSLR for hopes of a brighter future. But as these new mirrorless cameras finally arrive, the lack of innovation has pushed these users over the edge. While they now finally have a mirrorless system they can rely on in a professional environment, they can easily see they would be investing in technology that has been around for years. So, if they have to invest in a completely new system anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to invest in the ecosystem that everyone else is trying to catch up to?
Ultimately, however, this lack of innovation is two-sided. Yes, the fact that Sony had such a large headstart in the mirrorless market has caused a lack of competition, but the other big players are equally to blame for not starting the race sooner.
Or is there something totally different going on here? Are we at a point in stills tech that is generally as far as we want to go without the camera and computer doing it for us? Computational photography, as recently highlighted in the new iPhones (also using Sony sensors), relies more on the chipset than the lens and sensor. They really are innovating, using machine learning and AI, Deep Fusion, and so on to bring greater capability. But do we want that? Is that where the next step in innovation in cameras will take us?
So, as I remain very partial to my Sony kit and all it can do, I'm excited for Nikon and Canon to start innovating once again instead of using all their time and resources to try and catch up. And this isn't just because I want what they come up with, but because I'm excited to see what happens when Sony has to open the floodgates.