What We Can Learn About Mirrorless Camera Market From Canon

The photographic site DPReview.com has run another excellent interview with the head of a Japanese camera company, this time, Mr. Masaya Maeda. (Disclaimer: I’ve been a contributing writer to DPReview.) Maeda is Managing Director and Chief Executive, Image Communication Products Operations. I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Maeda on several occasions during my career and he’s a friendly, straightforward professional.

Before I launch into thoughts on where mirrorless is going, based on this small interview, I want to comment on the strangeness of the camera market, so— hop over to DPReview and read the interview, as it will provide some context on these next thoughts.

The Japanese photographic world has always felt to me like a secretive and powerful world that somehow is a bit muddled by translation problems.

In the the DPReview article, Maeda is asked what Canon learned from their competitors about large-sensors in cameras. He replied:

There’s nothing in particular that we learned from Nikon or Sony, but as I said before, we had many demands from photographers all over the world not to sacrifice image quality, so that’s what we placed emphasis on and our main priority [during the design process of the EOS 5DS and 5DS R] was to satisfy those photographers.

Here is where I think some translation problems are at play. I think that Maeda literally meant they didn’t learn anything from Sony and Nikon (as in—Sony and Nikon didn’t come to their headquarters and teach them anything).

Often in America we’d answer a question like that with the shortcomings of other systems. “We learned that people wanted better performance than the D810” or more modesty “we looked at the competitors to see what their strengths and weaknesses were and built a camera that provides the strengths without the weaknesses.”

Obviously, tech companies are good at posturing. Part of the game in the industry is to let you customers know you’re working on something without tipping your hand to your competitors. And a lot of what Maeda says is posturing designed to maintain the Canon brand effectively.

As the conversation turned toward mirrorless photography and Canon’s development of future mirrorless systems, some interesting tidbits come out, perhaps unintentionally.

Canon released a mirrorless system in Japan, the EOS M3. While not a pro-level system, it’s Canon’s first real entry into an EOS-lens mirrorless shooter. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale in the United States. DPReview asks Maeda about the decision not to release the camera here and he replied:

“I’m speaking for Canon Inc. The global headquarters. We offer a full lineup of products from compacts to mirrorless and DSLRs. We offer this full lineup to our sales and marketing divisions in each region. They decide which products they want to introduce into the market, so the decision not to launch the EOS M3 in America falls to Canon USA, not Canon Inc. I’m saying “sell it!” but it’s their decision whether they want to or not.”

I find this particularly interesting because it shows the complex relationship between Japanese camera companies and their American divisions. Canon has developed a mirrorless system and the U.S. team has decided not to sell it. It’s not clear exactly why the global divisions get to choose what to sell (probably it comes down to marketing vs. potential revenue) nor why Canon USA thinks the camera wouldn’t do well here, but it means there’s something about the EOS M3 that Canon USA thinks wouldn’t do well here.

Maybe Canon USA thinks that the mirrorless market is saturated here with cameras from Sony, Samsung, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji and others. Or maybe it’s because they’re waiting for something more targeted at the pros. But in any case, it’s clear from sales data that U.S. customers are interested in mirrorless, and Canon Japan is interested in mirrorless, but the EOS M3 won’t be sold here.

DPReview then segues into the question “what type of mirrorless camera would sell best in the USA. Madea responds “To be honest I don’t really know – I’m not that close to the US market so I can’t speak from first-hand experience. However I get the feeling that users in the US don’t really take a liking to small cameras. That’s just my sense. ”

This reply made my jaw drop when I read it. As a reminder, Maeda’s title is “Managing Director and Chief Executive, Image Communication Products Operations.” Granted, his position is at Canon Japan, not Canon USA but that he says he doesn’t know what kind of mirrorless cameras would sell well in the U.S. market boggles my mind.

This either means that there is no communication between Canon’s executives in the U.S. and in Japan about consumer demand for the products that Maeda is in charge of, that Canon Japan isn’t actively trying to find out or develop mirrorless products for the U.S. market, or that Canon is working actively on the products and Maeda is trying to not tip his hand.

Generally I’d have thought that it was the latter option, but then DPReview asks Maeda a two-part question about the threats Canon perceives from competitors in the mirrorless space, especially as mirrorless systems gain better focus and subject tracking. DPReview correctly surmises “we wouldn’t be surprised if they catch up to DSLRs at some point.”

Here’s the most telling answer Maeda gives regarding their internal development of mirrorless systems.

“We acknowledge and respect the fact that our competitors are innovating in the technology that they’re introducing to the market. But at the same time we are also innovating. Our efforts towards the development of mirrorless cameras are very serious. But to be honest when we’re looking at mirrorless cameras, and entry-level DSLR cameras, and high-end compact cameras, we don’t know which of those will become mainstream.”

Some important things in this first part of his answer. This indicates that Canon is positioning their mirrorless development on par with entry-level DSLR and compact cameras. This is in direct contrast to companies like Sony and Samsung, who are putting a lot of development into replacing the professional DSLR with a mirrorless system. The recent Samsung NX1, for example, captures images faster than the top-of-the-line Canon EOS 1DX, for less than half the price. The Sony A7Mark II provides better focusing than its predecessor and five-axis stabilization—something that’s not on any pro camera from Canon or Nikon.

So now we know that Canon is currently looking at mirrorless on par with an entry-level DSLR. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a division trying to make a pro-level mirrorless system, but that’s not where they’re focusing their attention.

This point was driven home by the next part of Maeda’s answer to this question, which was:

“So rather than looking at our competitor’s mirrorless cameras and regarding them as a threat, within Canon, our team who’s working on mirrorless should view the DSLR team as a threat. They should view the high-end compact cameras team as a threat. The threats that our mirrorless cameras team face aren’t from other companies, they’re from other divisions within our company.”

Aside from the fact that he’s incorrect about this (competition should always be a threat, that’s why it’s called competition) it shows that the development of mirrorless systems at Canon isn’t being done by the same people who work on their DSLR team, and it’s not entirely collaborative. This might be a semantic difference to him, but I think it’s something else entirely.

Can you imagine if Apple’s iPhone division saw the Mac division as a threat? What if laptops saw desktops as a threat?

In order for a professional level mirrorless system to come from someone like Canon, it should be part of the division making pro-level cameras. If Canon is perceiving mirrorless to be a threat to their DSLR business and vice versa, it stands to reason that they’re not collaboratively working on a professional DSLR-ish system without a mirror.

This can be seen as either a good thing or a bad thing for the mirrorless world. There is little that helps push development like competition. I’m certain that Samsung and Sony’s work on higher-end mirrorless systems are holding a fire under Canon, despite what Maeda says publicly. Not having a Canon pro-level mirrorless system on the market might prevent other companies from moving as quickly on advances.

But the slowness with which Canon is known to react to market changes (even Maeda acknowledges this in the interview) gives Sony and Samsung some breathing room before the largest player in photography launches an all-out assault on the mirrorless space.

It also means that photographers selecting a Sony system for professional mirrorless photography won’t have to worry that their investment in glass and accessories will be made less attractive if an EOS-mount Canon system came to market.

Again, I think a lot of what a professional at a major company says is obfuscation so take all of his comments and my analysis with a grain of salt. There’s no way to tell if Canon has a team of DSLR engineers working hard at overcoming the challenges mirrorless systems face. But it means that Canon is certainly putting more resources on developing their pro DSLR offerings than they are at mirrorless systems, and that they might leave the heavy-lifting of pro level mirrorless development to Sony—if only for the time being.


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