Why Canon is Winning Full-Frame Mirrorless

When the mirrorless race began in earnest at the end of 2018, nobody knew who would come out on top. Three years and more than 10 full-frame mirrorless camera bodies later, the answer is obvious: Canon is winning big, and they’ve done it by going “all in” on the RF Mount.

To understand how and why Canon has done so well, let’s turn back the clock to mid-2018 and unravel the options that lay before Canon and Nikon on the eve of the full-frame “mirrorless revolution.” Sony was entrenched in the segment after 5 years of fast-paced innovation, and both would-be competitors for the full-frame crown chose to challenge them in a different way.

Nikon: All Function, no Flash

Despite all the crap they’ve taken over the past couple of years, Nikon clearly came to play. Single card slot aside, in August of 2018 the company released two great first-generation cameras, at two different resolutions and price points, with two very different and well-defined functions. The Z7 was to be the high-res stills camera for D850 owners who wanted to go mirrorless, while the Z6 attempted to make inroads to the video community.

It was an abundantly pragmatic plan. So pragmatic, in fact, that it failed to truly entice either audience that was critical to the Z Series’ success outside of Nikon’s established userbase.

  1. The professional shooters and technical camera review community found the Z7 lacking when compared to the workhorse Nikon D850. The autofocus wasn’t up to par, vintage screw-drive lenses were not supported by the FTZ adapter, and the single card slot was a genuine deal breaker for event shooters who are accustomed to using that second card as a fail-safe.
  2. The young, Sony-, Canon-, and Panasonic GH5-toting influencers and aspiring YouTubers saw nothing there that was sufficiently exciting to pull them away from the brands they had already bought into. This was always going to be a tough audience for Nikon. Almost no established YouTuber shoots with the brand, and the company has never really tried to win over that audience until now. So despite excellent video specs on the Z6, there was no “wow factor” like 6K video, a built-in ND filter, or a piece of coveted glass that could set them apart.

In other words: Nikon played it safe. They released a perfectly adequate pair of cameras and a set of very practical lenses that were highly functional, but lacked sufficient “flash” to draw anybody away from the brands they were already using. As first generation products, the Z6 and Z7 successfully prevented many Nikon stalwarts from jumping ship as they awaited the improvements coming to the Mark II and (eventually) Mark III variants, but nothing more.

In the years 2018, 2019, and 2020, camera makers are competing on the battlefield of eyeballs and emotional appeal, not logic. This is a lesson Nikon has yet to learn. While they continue to waste resources developing full-steam-ahead for two mounts at the same time, they’re losing more and more ground by the day.

Canon: Going All In

From the very beginning, Canon understood that if you’re going to steal market share from a company as established and popular as Sony—or at least stop the bleeding—you need to give people something exciting… something to brag about.

This is tricky, because looking strictly at camera technology, Canon wasn’t ready to compete yet in 2018. The first EOS R, though perfectly fine for the average consumer, was the weakest full-frame mirrorless debut of the bunch. Too expensive for its feature set at launch, useless function bar gimmick, 1.7x crop in 4K, slow continuous shooting, single SD card slot; in retrospect, the EOS R was primarily released to buy Canon some time as they finalized the technology that would go into the EOS R5 and EOS R6.

But Canon didn’t catch any flack on YouTube. They didn’t get crapped on by every influencer looking to tell you “the TRUTH about the CANON EOS R and why Canon is FAILING.” How did they release an objectively worse camera than Nikon—by a wide margin—but somehow avoid getting raked over the coals for it?

Three reasons: understated marketing, a very large user base that’s pot committed to Canon and Canon products, and—the biggest driver of their success—they immediately began releasing flashy, exciting, wow-factor glass to get people excited about the future of the RF Mount.

Unlike Nikon, who is still announcing plans for more DSLRs and F-mount glass in 2021, Canon went all-in on the RF Mount, shifting all of their resources over to RF lens development and releasing the kind of glass you usually only make once you’re confident the mount is here to stay. While Nikon was saving most of its f/2.8 zooms and all of its fast primes for 2020 and 2021, Canon came out with the kind of lenses you can brag about to your friends (and enemies) who shoot Sony: they immediately released a 28-70mmm f/2 and a 50mm f/1.2, then followed those lenses with *two* variants of the 85mm f/1.2, and a 70-200mm f/2.8 that’s different than anything we’ve ever seen before.

Complaints that there wasn’t enough affordable glass were muted, because everyone was too busy gushing over the foundation that Canon had just laid for its RF Mount for many years to come. And in case you haven’t heard, they’re planning to release 14 more lenses in 2021.

Two Strategies, One Winner

To be sure, Canon had other advantages going into 2019 and 2020. For several years, the company disappointed its user base with mediocre DSLRs that fell short of expectations, relying on the solid performance of Dual Pixel AF for video to staunch the bleeding, even when Sony was releasing objectively better cameras. You could say Canon woke up just in time

But the story of Nikon and Canon’s full-frame mirrorless debuts is the story of two entirely different strategies, only one of which had the desired effect.

Canon’s success in full-frame mirrorless—both objectively in terms of sales, and subjectively in terms of excitement for its mirrorless products–is the result of an “all in” strategy that paid off big. They realized that nothing short of a full-frontal assault on Sony’s territory would do and put all of their R&D dollars into making the RF Mount the future of Canon cameras—first with exciting glass, and later with crazy specs like 8K video. DSLR and the EF mount development would suffer, and Canon wasn’t afraid to say so on the record.

Nikon’s so-so performance—not an abject failure by any means, but certainly not the success they were hoping for—is the result of a tentative strategy that’s forcing them to split their limited R&D budget between pacifying DSLR/F-mount shooters and enticing would-be mirrorless converts. As if to underscore my point, just as I was finishing this column on Tuesday morning, 11/24, Nikon Rumors published a report on the company’s plans for 2021: two new DSLRs and “several new F mount lenses.”

Canon is winning because they chose to go all in. Nikon will continue to struggle until and unless they do the same.

About the author: DL Cade is an art, science and technology writer, and the former Editor in Chief of PetaPixel. When he’s not writing op-eds like this one or reviewing the latest tech for creatives, you’ll find him working in Vision Sciences at the University of Washington, publishing the weekly Triple Point newsletter, or sharing personal essays on Medium.

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