Stretching the little Canon to the max

There has been these endless discussions among photography enthusiasts on the strengths and weaknesses of various camera manufacturers for decades. It has been interesting to note that as the history-awareness has increased, some of this discussion has moved into a sort of meta-level: rather than talking about the suitablity of certain camera equipment for (certain kinds of) photography, the discussion has partly moved to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of entire philosophy or product-line strategy of various manufacturers.

Canon is an example that I am interested here, particularly as this is the manufacturer whose products I have been mostly using for the past two decades or more. The dominant criticism of Canon today seems to be that they (as late adopters of mirrorless systems camera technologies) are now spreading their efforts into too many directions, and thereby making it hard to provide anything really strong and credible for anyone. The history of Canon is great, of course, and I think that they still have the best user interface for their digital cameras, for example, and the back catalogue of Canon lenses is impressive. The problem today nevertheless is that it is difficult to see if Canon is still committed to continuing the DSLR camera and lens development in professional and enthusiast levels long into the future (as their recent releases of EOS 90D and 1D X Mark III DSLR bodies seems to suggest), or if anyone with an eye towards the future should invest into the RF mount lenses and EOS R series full-frame mirrorless cameras instead. (RF system is the most recent Canon camera family, it was announced in September 2018; Canon’s full-frame DSLR cameras have used the EF mount lenses since from 1987.) And what is the destiny of APS-C (“crop frame”) cameras, and the EF-M mount system (introduced in 2012) in all of this?

I have long used crop frame system cameras and either EF or EF-S (yet another Canon lens family) lenses, due to the nice balance that this combination provides in terms of versatility, compact sizes, image quality and price – which is always an important concern for a hobbyist photographer. Few months ago I made the move into the “mirrorless era”, deciding to invest into the most affordable of these alternative systems, the Canon EF-M mount family (my choice of camera body was the tiny, yet powerful EOS M50).

The initial experiences (as I have reported in this blog already earlier) have been mostly positive – it is easy to take a good photo with this system and some decent, native EF-M lens. And it is nice that I can use an adapter to attach my older, EF mount lenses into the new, EF-M mount body, even while the autofocus might not be as fast that way. But the fact is that most of the new Canon lenses now appear to be coming out to the other, mirrorless Canon system: the full-frame RF mount cameras. And it is particularly the “serious enthusiast” or advanced hobbyist category that seems to be left in the middle. Some, more sports and wildlife oriented Canon lenses and cameras that would suit them are being published in the DSLR (EF mount) ecosystem. Some of the most advanced lenses are coming out in RF system, but the prices of many of those are more in the professional, multiple-thousands of euros/dollars category per lens. But the R system bodies seem to be missing many of the features that true professionals would need from their camera systems, so that is not really working so well, either. And those amateur photographers (like myself) who have opted for Canon EF-M mirrorless mount system are mostly provided with compact lenses that do not have the image quality or aperture values that more advanced photography would profit from. And investing into a heavy EF lens, and then adding adapter to get it to work with the EF-M body does not make particularly good sense. That lens is not designed for a mirrorless system to start with, and the combination of ultra-compact camera body and heavy, full-frame DSLR lens is not a balanced one.

So, the advanced hobbyist / enthusiast crowd is sort of asking: Quo Vadis, Canon?

Some people have already voted with their feet, sold their Canon cameras and lenses and bought into a Sony or Fujifilm ecosystems instead. Those competing manufacturers have the benefit of simpler and more clear mirrorless (and APS-C) camera and lens strategies. They do not have so many millions of existing users with legacy camera and lens equipment to support, of course.

I am currently just trying to make the best out of my existing cameras and lenses. My lakeside camera walk today involved mostly using the Canon L-series 70-200 mm f/4 EF lens with the old APS-C, DSLR body (550D), which has better grip for handling a larger lens. And the landscape photos and detailed close-ups I shot with the new M50 and the sharp 22mm f/2 EF-M lens.

Maybe the third-party manufacturers will provide some help in strengthening the EF-M ecosystem in the future. For example, SIGMA has announced that it will soon port three of its good quality prime lenses into EF-M system: Sigma 16mm, 30mm, and 56mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary. Hopefully there will be more of such quality glass coming up – also from Canon itself. Producing good quality lenses that are also physically small enough to make sense when attached into an EF-M camera, and which have also affordable enough price, is not trivial achievement, it looks like.

SIGMA lenses.
New SIGMA lenses for the Canon EF-M mount cameras.

Mirrorless hype is over?

My mirrorless Canon EOS M50, with a 50 mm EF lens, and a “speed booster” style mount Viltrox adapter.

It has been interesting to follow how since last year, there has been several articles published that discuss the “mirrorless camera hype”, and put forward various kinds of criticism of either this technology, or related camera industry strategies. One repeated criticism is rooted to the fact that many professional (and enthusiast) photographers still find a typical DSLR camera body to work better for their needs than a mirrorless one. There are at least three main differences: a mirrorless interchangeable camera body is typically smaller than a DSLR, the battery life is weaker, and the image from an electronic viewfinder and/or LCD back screen offers a less realistic image than a traditional optical viewfinder in a (D)SLR camera.

The industry critiques appear to be focused on worries that as the digital camera market as a whole is going down, the big companies like Canon and Nikon are directing their product development resources for putting out mirrorless camera bodies with new lens mounts, and new lenses for these systems, rather than evolving their existing product lines in DSLR markets. Many seem to think that this is bad business sense, since large populations of professionals and photography enthusiasts are deeply invested in these more traditional ecosystems, and lack of progress in them means that there is not enough incentive to upgrade and invest, for all of those who remain in those parts of the market.

There might be some truth in both lines of argumentation – yet, they are also not the whole story. It is true that Sony, with their α7, α7R and α7S lines of cameras have stolen much of the momentum that could had been strong for Canon and Nikon, if they would had invested into mirrorless technologies earlier. Currently, the full frame systems like Canon EOS R, or Nikon Z6 & Z7, are apparently not selling very strongly. In early May of this year, for example, it was publicised how Sony α7 III sold more units in Japan at least than the Canon and Nikon full frame mirrorless systems combined (see: https://www.dpreview.com/news/3587145682/sony-a7-iii-sales-beat-combined-efforts-of-canon-and-nikon-in-japan ). Some are ready to declare Canon and Nikon’s efforts as dead on arrival, but both companies have claimed to be strategically committed into their new mirrorless systems, developing and launching lenses that are necessary for their future growth. Overall though, both Canon and Nikon are producing and selling much more digital cameras than Sony, even while their sales numbers have been declining (in Japan at least, Fujifilm was interestingly the big winner in year-over-year analysis; see: https://www.canonrumors.com/latest-sales-data-shows-canon-maintains-big-marketshare-lead-in-japan-for-the-year/ ).

From a photographer perspective, the first mentioned concerns might be the more crucial than the business ones, though. Are mirrorless cameras actually worse than comparable DSLR cameras?

There is the curious quality when you move from a large (D)SLR body into using a typical mirrorless: the small camera can feel a bit like a toy, the handling is different, and using the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen can produce flashbacks of compact, point-and-shoot cameras of earlier years. In terms of pure image quality and feature sets, the mirrorless cameras are already equals to DSLRs, and in some areas have arguably moved already beyond most of them. There are multiple reasons for this, and the primary relates to the intimate link there is between the light sensor, image processor and viewfinder in mirrorless cameras. As a photographer you are not looking at a reflection of light coming from the lens through an alternative route into the optical viewfinder – you are looking at the image that is produced from the actual, real-time data that the sensor and image processor are “seeing”. The mechanical construction of mirrorless cameras can be made simpler, and when the mirror is removed, the entire lens system can be moved closer to the image sensor – something that is technically called shorter flange distance. This should allow engineers to design lenses for mirrorless systems that have a large aperture and fast focusing capabilities (you can check out a video, where a Nikon lens engineer explains how this works here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxT17A40d50 ). The physical dimensions of the camera body in itself can be made small or large, as desired. Nikon Z series cameras are rather sizable, with a conventional “pro camera” style grip (handle); my Canon EOS M50 is diminutive, from the other extreme.

I think that the development of cameras with ever more stronger processors and their machine learning and algorithm-based novel capabilities will push the general direction of photography technology towards various mirrorless systems. Said that, I completely understand the benefits of more traditional DSLRs and why they might feel superior for many photographers at the moment. There has been some rumours (in the Canon space at least, which I am personally mostly following) that new DSLR camera bodies will be released into the upper-enthusiast APS-C / semi-professional DSLR category (search e.g. for “EOS 90D” rumours), so I think that DSLR cameras are by no means dead. There are many ways in which the latest camera technologies can be implemented into mirror-bodies, as well as into the mirrorless ones. The big strategic question of course is that how many different mount and lens ecosystems can be maintained and developed simultaneously. If some of the current mounts will stop getting lenses in the near future, there is at least a market for adapter manufacturers.