Thom's Product Plans for the Camera Companies

I've been getting incredible feedback from my articles so far this year. As I've noted in the past, my audience skews mostly towards high enthusiast and pro photographers. I do get a constant stream of low-end consumer folk who poke around the sites for a bit and then disappear, but there's a hard core group that keeps coming back that currently numbers in the tens of thousands. And they have opinions ;~).

Okay, so I've been in this dialog with a wide variety of readers now for a long time. That led me recently to think through what it would be that I would do if I were the product manager at each of the four largest camera companies. Herewith are my thoughts on cameras (lenses are a different story for a later date):

Canon

I get the sense that Canon panicked and is going to panic again when they see the result of their panic ;~). They've sort of announced that EF is over, they've strongly hinted that DSLR is dead, they haven't really done anything much to move M forward, and their most recent move is all-in on RF full frame to replace DSLR. 

The wave of emails I got last week that basically said "why did Canon abandon DSLR, I still want one" was extremely telling to me. None of those want a Rebel (Kiss in some markets). They want a 7D Mark III or 5D Mark V for the most part, maybe a 6D Mark III. They were saving up to buy one and they feel that Canon slipped a wrench into that by essentially saying "buy a more expensive R5/R6 and new lenses." That's a no-fly zone for the crowd sending me emails, it appears. Which means that RF might have fewer full frame customers long term than EF. Or at least customers that wait longer than Canon wants them to wait.

Here's my plan for a "perfect" Canon 2021-2022:

  1. Quickly reduce Rebel/Kiss to the S3 and let it die from there.
  2. Let M die a natural death by replacing with RF models. Yes, the low end can be called Rebel/Kiss. Or New Rebel, Lasting Kiss. 
  3. Launch a pair of high-end APS-C cameras simultaneously: 7D Mark III and RC7 (C for crop; Canon can come up with their own naming scheme, I'm not partial to mine). 32mp, fast frame rate, performance oriented. 
  4. Launch the 5D Mark V using the R5 internals. 
  5. Launch the R1 to match the 1DX Mark III and compete with the Sony A1.
  6. Replace the R and RP with one or two lower end RF full frame models.

Total lineup — DSLR: S3, 7D Mark III, 5D Mark V, 1DX Mark III; Mirrorless: Rebel RC1/2, RC7, R1, R5, R6, R8, R9. Twelve cameras max, two mounts (EF and RF). 

Biggest problemMaintaining volume. Canon must keep DSLRs going or else lose that market to Nikon. Meanwhile, Canon must get plenty of mirrorless traction to pass Sony. Failure at one of those things is problematic, but failure at two of those things means a dramatic change for Canon.

In my scenario, you transfer the lower end of the market to the mount you'll use from here forward (RF). Before some of you complain that this will make the camera bigger, please look at the Nikon Z50, which has a bigger mount but is still ridiculously small. It would require, however, that Canon transfer the EF-S/M lenses to RF, but that shouldn't be a big problem. 

For the enthusiast and pros, you basically say: choose your poison; we make the same basic camera in DSLR and mirrorless, so you can transition now or later, your choice (better lenses become the carrot to transition). You could even say something like "DSLR iterations will become fewer and take more time in the future, we suggest everyone move to mirrorless at some point, but we're not abandoning our DSLR customer." 

The thing about product categories that die off is this: you either need to be first and completely out of there and first to the new product category, or you need to let the category die a natural death. The first clause doesn't apply to Canon (or Nikon), so the second clause is what you have to do. When I wrote Canon "panicked," this is what I mean. Once they figured out that they had to have a clear transition plan, they yanked the chain on DSLR and went all in on mirrorless. The reason why that is wrong is that their customers didn't do the same thing or plan to do the same thing. The ones that really wanted mirrorless already bought into Sony Alpha. The rest wanted to manage a transition at their own speed.

My fear with Canon is that the R5/R6 are a short-term win, but the rest of the line doesn't get enough momentum to keep Canon from contracting. 

Fujifilm

I still like the two-stop straddle that Fujifilm is doing with sensor sizes (APS-C and MF). At this point, they're pretty much all in on that, as it would be near impossible to make any change of commitment and keep their smaller user base intact. 

The problem I see with Fujifilm is that they're not very settled on their body designs. There's too much of a scattershot and changed-our-minds approach going on there (Pro, T, S, E, H, and sometimes A). Camera bodies (and the control systems on them) should be mature, well thought-thru, and highly nuanced at this point. And you don't want to be changing them all the time. For the number of units Fujifilm is selling, they have too many consumer choices. That adds R&D costs they shouldn't be putting into body/control design at this point. 

With the Medium Format (MF) cameras, there's a little less confusion, but bodies are still unsettled there, too. So before I get to the specifics, I'd say this: whatever the X-T5 is, that should inform every one of the other cameras Fujifilm makes. It's okay to do one simplification for the lower end, as Nikon does, but six different styles is four too many. Moreover, the MF bodies should be on the same plan as the APS-C ones. 

So, my plan for Fujifilm:

  1. T is the high-end body design, S is the low-end body design. 
  2. Quickly remove the A's and the T-200. Replace both with a single low-end S-derived body.
  3. Don't iterate the E or Pro. If you just have to have an offset rangefinder style body, only have one, and make it all-enthusiast driven. (Of course, they just iterated the E, so they're already off the rails.)
  4. Faster and more aligned iteration of the T#, T##, and T### bodies, which also need to have a clear differential between each. The problem I see is that Fujifilm can't really get to 8K video with the current sensor. So maybe X-T5 is new sensor, X-T50 is old sensor with some feature/performance drops, X-T500 is old sensor with basic features/performance.

Total lineup — APS-C: X-T5, X-T50, X-T500, X-S10, X-S100; MF: GF-S50, GF-X100. Seven cameras, two mounts (X and GF). 

Biggest problemThe market isn't getting bigger, so they're losing market share while iterating too many products. That's asking for a GPM problem. It's possible that they can grow in the post-pandemic year due to pent up demand, but that still doesn't solve their long term problem. Lean and Exceptional. That should be the Fujifilm product line mantra.

Nikon

Similar to Canon, Nikon has to navigate the DSLR to mirrorless migration carefully. They have too many DSLR-loyalists who want another DSLR iteration rather than be forced to mirrorless. 

Nikon seems a little less panicked than Canon, and slightly more organized. I hear from some contacts within the company that they have at least talked about something similar to what I'm about to suggest. The problem Nikon has is that they can't figure out how to communicate with their user base (both directions). They seem to be more fearful than panicked. Fearful that they'll make a wrong choice. Better communication with customers would lessen that fear.

Okay, so here's my choices for Nikon to consider:

  1. D3xxx, D5xxx are end of life already, transition them out quickly. 
  2. D7500 is last call; phase it out of production. It's not high enough in the enthusiast/pro market to survive as is, and it's too close to the level that will carry forward.
  3. D780 is probably last iteration. Lower the price a bit, tell people that it will be maintained as long as demand warrants.
  4. Bang #1: D570 and Z70 simultaneous announce, slightly staggered ship. Essentially the same update using the new 20mp sensor (yes, there's a newer version coming, though it won't be a dramatic change). Eventually transition to a new sensor in the 30-36mp range.
  5. Bang #2: D880 and Z8 simultaneous announce, slightly staggered ship. Essentially the same update using the new 8K capable 45mp sensor (yes, there's a newer version coming, though again it won't be as dramatic a change as some want). Eventually transition to a new sensor in the 80mp range.
  6. Put some love into firmware updates. The D6, D780, Z5, Z6 II, Z7 II, and Z50 all would extend their lives very nicely with a solid set of updates.
  7. If you just have to have a lower, more consumer end to the product line, then the formula is this: Z30 and Z50 II. The Z30 is just under the current Z50, the Z50 II is just above (maybe IBIS?). But don't shoot for US$500. Let someone else have that customer.

Total lineup — DSLR: D570, D780, D880, D6; Mirrorless: Z30, Z50 II, Z70, Z5, Z6 II, Z7 II, Z8. 11 cameras, two mounts (F and Z).

Biggest problem — Timing and communication. Every Nikon launch or announcement these days is read by hundreds of thousands of palm readers trying to figure out what it means overall. Somehow you have to say this: cost-conscious consumer should be mirrorless; high-end enthusiast and pro can choose DSLR or mirrorless and get a great product either way.

Sony

Sony, of course, went through all the angst of transitioning from DSLR to mirrorless long ago. Note what I wrote above about being first to the product category transition. Sony just never could get leverage on the DSLR Duopoly and decided their only choice was to try to dominate a smaller pond that should become the larger pond eventually. Wise decision, and as I've pointed out many times, classic Ries and Trout

Moreover, Sony decided to fully leverage, so they transitioned their existing pro video line to the same mirrorless mount as the still cameras. Another solid move, and one that's now positioned themselves as the one to beat in "imaging".

Of course, just because you're the one to beat doesn't mean you can't be beaten. My problem with Sony is that they haven't fully fixed some of their UX issues while some of their products now seem long-in-the-tooth. Sony wasn't able to keep the "new technology!" hype machine running quite as effectively as they did at one time (A1 notwithstanding), and some of their hype is now looking misplaced. It's tough to race ahead and then stay ahead. I also sense another break that's starting to hamper them a bit: Nikon seems to be relying upon Sony Semiconductor less, and if that continues, then it means that some shared sensor costs suddenly go away for Sony Imaging. 

Sony has a mature lineup, so adjusting it is really just doing correct iteration. Here's my plan:

  1. Make up your mind about A5###. It's either the entry point and needs iteration, or it should be end-of-lifed permanently.
  2. Reduce the A6### lineup to two models. With the four biggest players all in APS-C mirrorless, you need faster iteration of key models. That would be the A6100 and A6600. The problem with those two models isn't so much the performance, it's the UX. It's time for a A6200 and A6700 rethink to bring them more in line with the A7 models.
  3. Sony needs an A5. Badly. You can't have Canon (RP now, R9 later) and Nikon (Z5) price undercutting you so severely in current full frame and expect to hold share. Selling older A7's at prices that kill the GPM isn't going to cut it. The Nikon Z5 is a better camera than the Sony A7 Mark II, even though Sony is giving up dollars selling that older A7 at extreme discount. Goal: hold serve.
  4. The A7 needs to iterate to Mark IV as soon as possible. It probably needs to sneak higher in specification/performance. Call it 30mp and 6K video.
  5. The A7R Mark IV needs a rethink. Is it a generalist camera or a specialist camera? In its current iteration, I'd argue specialist. I think this is firmware/UX mostly, but I could be wrong.
  6. The A7S Mark III is fine for now. The A7C isn't. It's too high priced for what it is, and it suffers from the #2 problem since it's based on the A6###. 
  7. The A9 Mark II is fine, as is. Some more firmware updates would help. 
  8. The A9R should be next, as Canon has stolen the 8K mantle and Sony probably doesn't want to do 8K in an A7 line camera. 45mp/8K is the goal, the R5 (and Z8) is the target. (Sony's launch this week is basically my point here, just labeled A1 instead of A9R.

Total lineup — APS-C: A5100?, A6200, A6700; Full frame: A5, A7 Mark IV, A7R Mark IV/V, A7S Mark III, A9 Mark II, A9R (maybe A7C Mark II). 10 cameras, one mount.

Biggest problem — Playing defense on all fronts now. When they entered APS-C mirrorless, they were mostly alone. Then Fujifilm came on strong. Then Canon poked a toe in the water. Today? Sony has to defend APS-C against Canon, Fujifilm, and Nikon. I suggest a lean lineup and fast iteration. Meanwhile, when Sony entered full frame mirrorless, they were also mostly alone. Then Canon and Nikon poked a toe in the water. Then Panasonic (and even Sigma). Now Sony has to defend full frame against Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic. The full frame market is where the profit dollars are (APS-C is where the volume dollars are). I say that Sony is a bit vulnerable in the part of full frame that has the biggest group of users at the moment, and they need to quickly fix that.


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