State of the Camera Industry: How much trouble are Canon and Nikon in?

Two years ago, I surveyed Improve Photography's hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans and did a poll as to what camera brand they shoot.  Over 98% of them shot Canon or Nikon.  I held the same straw (very unscientific) poll today and that only 2 years later, only 73% of my audience shoots with Canon or Nikon (Canon 42%, Nikon 31%, Sony 11%, Fuji 9%, all other brands under 4%).  These are interesting numbers to me because they capture a higher percentage of SERIOUS photographers, whereas the industry numbers we see are ALL photographers (predominantly consumers who buy a camera at Best Buy and may or may not even research their choice before buying).

Picking a camera system is a big choice.  It often means investing thousands of dollars and hoping that the manufacturer stays in the lead for a long time so that your gear does not become obsolete, and your gear basically worthless.  Remember Kodak?  Photographers who bought a Lytro Illum last year for $1,600 are kicking themselves now when they see them selling for less than $600.

So I did some digging into Canon, Nikon, Sony, and the other major camera manufacturers for a “State of the Camera Industry” report.  I've removed as much bias as possible from the report, and just stuck with the numbers wherever possible, but adding in commentary to explain the numbers as I see it.

Source: Personal-view.com via Photography Life
Source: Personal-view.com via Photography Life
Source: PRNewswire
Source: PRNewswire

Is Mirrorless Taking Over the Industry?

In mid-2014, research firm NPD reported that mirrorless camera sales were up 16.5%, while overall DSLR sales fell 15%.  Both Nikon and Canon cut their sales estimates in recent years, and for the first time since the digital SLR camera was invented, they saw a reduction in DSLR sales volume in 2013.

Mirrorless cameras are being adopted most quickly by younger photographers, with a whopping 41% of first-time mirrorless camera purchasers being 25-34 years of age.  This is curious, given the prevailing belief that millennials are predominantly interested in only cell-phone photography.

But despite the prevailing belief that mirrorless camera sales are flying off the shelf, the latest numbers don't seem to support that view.  In fact, mirrorless camera sales seem to have stagnated significantly over the last year and a half, according to the most recent numbers published in January 2015.  I could not find any data for mirrorless camera sales over the last 10 months.

Yet Nikon, and especially Canon, have shown very little interest in mirrorless camera development, which has been a puzzling move to photographers around the globe.  However, according to the above graph, mirrorless camera sales have really only stagnated, which is only slightly better than the decline seen in DSLR camera sales.

It seems that mirrorless cameras are just now reaching a tipping point.  Though many well-known photographers were early adopters to the technology, for most photographers the auto focus systems and resolutions of mirrorless cameras are just now getting to the point where the average photographer can consider it a reasonable alternative.  For me personally, it wasn't until a couple months ago when I decided the Fuji XT1 was a better fit for my photography than my Nikon D810.


Infographic created by the author - Jim Harmer
Infographic created by the author – Jim Harmer.  The Nikon D610 wasn't included in this graph because it was really only released to fix the oil problem.  It's not a reasonable example of refresh time.


Canon: How long can it hold the lead?

Canon is still outselling every other camera manufacturer in the DSLR world at 54.7% of the market (compared to 39.1% for Nikon), but reasonable minds could certainly argue whether they are leading the technology war.

The sensors on Canon cameras work differently than the sensors on nearly every other manufacturer.  Their sensors are not ISO invariant, their crop sensors are slightly smaller than Nikon's, and the question remains if Canon will be able to keep up with the likes of Sony, which is investing far more in R&D than Canon could ever dream.  However, Canon still holds its own against Sony for the time being.  DxO ranked the Canon 5DS as the best Canon sensor yet, but even the 5DS was far behind Nikon and Sony's similar offerings.  But frankly, I've never seen DxO rankings to even roughly correlate with my real-world findings.  I don't put much stock in what DxO says.

[x_blockquote cite=”Jim Harmer” type=”left”]Perhaps the biggest threat to Canon is the slow speed at which it is releasing updates to its cameras.  The Canon 5D Mark III is 1,328 days old, which is ancient in camera years.  When the 5d3 was announced, Mitt Romney was likely to be the next president of the United States and you were talking to your friends on an iPhone 4s!  The 5D3 is an excellent camera and perfectly capable, but with this incredibly slow pace, it's difficult to believe that Canon will remain on top of high-end camera sales for long.  This is beginning to show up in sales numbers, after Canon cut its forecast from 9 million units to only 8 million units in 2014.[/x_blockquote]

Because Canon is only relying on its own technology and development to create sensors, it often is re-using the same sensors in multiple cameras.  The prime example of this is the Canon T2i, T3i, T4i, Canon 60D and Canon 7D, which all used the exact same basic sensor design which Canon tried its best to describe as “new” with each camera release.

But while Canon still holds a lead in DSLR camera sales, its prospects for a successful mirrorless camera are slipping away.  Canon released the odd but capable Eos M3 earlier in 2015, but did not even bother to release the camera in the United States.  The bizarre selfing-taking M10 will come to the United States, though.  If Canon thinks we are buying expensive cameras to take selfies with, they are delusional.  Although the M3 has received mostly positive reviews, it is nowhere near the competition.  Canon is not poised to make any dent in the mirrorless camera world in the near future.

Nikon: Will it ever seriously compete in the mirrorless arena?

Nikon continues to hold strong in the DSLR camera market with 39.1% market share (compared to Canon's 54.7% share).  Nikon has benefitted greatly by using well-regarded Sony sensors in its cameras.

Probably the biggest advantage that Nikon has over Canon right now is that it is releasing cameras at a much quicker pace than Canon, which means that its offerings are more up-to-date and often beats Canon spec-for-spec until Canon finally releases a new body.

Nikon's published financial forecast for the fiscal year ending in March 2016 reports that its imaging product sales are expected to fall 9% over sales from the previous year.  This is a huge loss in revenue, but the imaging division remains to be profitable for Nikon and is the largest segment of its business.

Over the course of the last 5 years, Nikon has made the exact same investments in research and development of its photographic equipment, while Sony is increasing its R&D spend dramatically, and even spinning off the imaging division into a separate entity.  Nikon benefits from Sony's R&D by implementing their sensors in Nikon cameras.  However, Nikon has done very little in terms of inventing new features on the cameras themselves.  They have been slow to implement connectivity features as well as making any effort to reduce the size and weight of their gear.

Nikon's mirrorless offerings are significantly better than the laughable offerings from Canon, but still far behind the sexy mirrorless cameras offered by Sony, Fuji, Olympus, and Panasonic.  I was unable to dig up any actual sales figures of Nikon's mirrorless cameras, but I did find several quotes from Nikon executives who were “disappointed” with the sales of their latest offering.

Sony: Will sensor technology rule?

Sony's mirrorless camera offerings are winning photographers' hearts, but it still only holds a 34% market share in the competitive mirrorless camera market.  But that number seems to be on the rise.  While overall mirrorless camera sales increased 16.5% over the last year, mirrorless camera sales at Sony shot up 66%!

In the Improve Photography straw poll, I found that in response to the question, “If you were to switch camera brands today, what brand would you choose?”, over 50% of the respondents said Sony.  That is a staggering number, given the fact that 75% of the Improve Photography audience still shoots a DSLR as their primary camera body.

Sony's approach to the mirrorless market is to infiltrate the lower-end of the market with extremely inexpensive but high-quality cameras like the $500 Sony A6000 (buy it on Amazon here) and at the same time go after the high-end consumers with pricey full-frame models like the A7RII (buy it on Amazon here).

It's difficult to argue with the fact that Sony is the king of image sensor technology right now.  In 2014, 40% of ALL CAMERAS had an image sensor made by Sony.  Sony is dumping billions of dollars into research and development of image sensors, which seems to be paying dividends.  That also translates into camera sales, because they often prevent other companies from using their imaging sensors until Sony has used the sensor for 6 months in their own cameras.

For me, Sony is not yet a good fit.  The reason I left Nikon was because the cameras and lenses were extremely heavy and expensive.  If you compare Sony's f/4 lens lineup (since they still don't have an f/2.8 lineup) against the Nikon f/4 lineup, you'll see that the weight is the same, and the prices of the lenses are also about the same.  But for photographers who don't mind the weight or price, it's tough to argue with the fantastic image quality of Sony's full frame mirrorless cameras.


Source: Fujifilm Holdings 2014 Financial Report
Source: Fujifilm Holdings 2014 Financial Report

Fuji: Far behind, but on the rise?

Fuji has won over a lot of photographers (including myself) by treating their customers right.  While most companies are releasing cameras and forgetting them, Fuji has invested significant effort to improve cameras after they are released through firmware updates.  In fact, it was the fourth major firmware update to the Fuji XT1 that convinced me to switch to Fuji.  Free major firmware updates are a tempting feature to gadget-hound photographers who don't want to feel like their one-year old camera is out of date.

However, Fuji has a long way to go before it could even touch mainstream.

As a company, Fuji's imaging division only produces 15% of the company's revenue, and half of that 15% is from imaging products other than photographic imaging (medical imaging, for example).  So Fuji's investment in cameras is less than 8% of their total business, according to its annual stock report.

Source: Pentax.com
Source: Pentax.com

Pentax: Investing in a dying DSLR market?

Pentax is always the brand that surprises me.  It has grown to have 4.5% of the global DSLR market share, which is quite impressive for a company that gets very little press.  Their users seem to be quite passionate, and I can pretty much count on a tweet or Facebook message about once a month that essentially says, “Jim, you're an idiot.  You talked about XYZ on the Improve Photography podcast and didn't even mention Pentax.  I'm never going to your website again!”  So their users seem to be quite passionate in my experience.

Pentax has been teasing the new “Full Frame by Pentax” camera for several months with shadowy images and not much else.  Given that the camera is set to be released in “Spring 2016”, it's likely that the new camera will use Sony's 40.2 megapixel sensor currently found in the A7RII.  Sony restricts third-party companies from using some of their sensors until 6 months after Sony has used it in their own cameras, and that spring timeline would seem to fit that.  But frankly, what can Pentax offer in the 6 month-old sensor that Sony's mirrorless full frame A7RII doesn't?  We'll find out in the Spring, I suppose.

But if mirrorless truly is the wave of the future (and that point is debatable), Pentax's future does not look bright.  Despite several releases in 2012 and 2013, the offerings as of late have seemed half-hearted.

Olympus: Is micro 4/3 big enough to go mainstream?

Olympus currently holds 22% of the mirrorless camera market.

After struggling with scandals and operating losses for several years, Olympus began to turn a profit in 2013 which has seemed to continue through 2015.  This is certainly due to the increased sales numbers, but also because Olympus has higher profit margins than many other camera manufacturers, despite being relatively low-priced.  This is due to the lighter cameras, smaller sensors, and significantly smaller lenses that it produces in the micro 4/3 format.

Sony owned a large stake in Olympus until recently, when it sold half of its stock for cash.

But Olympus is a large company with many other endeavors (like with most of the imaging companies on this list).  Camera sales account for less than 20% of the company's revenue.

Panasonic: Is micro 4/3 big enough to go mainstream?

Panasonic is fully invested in the micro 4/3 format with Olympus.  The m43 sensors are very small compared to a full frame or even an APS-C sensor, which is a dramatic change for most photographers.  But Olympus and Panasonic have both proven that they can produce professional results in this format.

Panasonic has targeted video shooters more than Olympus, and Panasonic has now become synonymous with videography.

In Japan, Panasonic controls 11% of mirrorless camera shipments.  But in my own survey of the Improve Photography audience, it was only a tiny fraction of a percentage who shoot Panasonic cameras.

I haven't spent a ton of time with Panasonic cameras.  My limited testing showed a very capable still and video camera, but somewhat buggy software.


It's interesting to see the changes in the industry. While overall sales numbers around the world show a sliding DSLR market and a mirrorless market holding steady, the sentiment that I see from passionate photographers is a strong trend toward mirrorless and specifically to Sony.

For some photographers, mirrorless has already come of age and the switch has taken place for many passionate photographers.  But for other photographers, especially those with demanding action autofocus needs, mirrorless may be several years away still.

Your choice of camera is obviously a personal decision.  But I hope that this background information can help you to make a more informed decision with your dollars.



43 thoughts on “State of the Camera Industry: How much trouble are Canon and Nikon in?”

  1. Hey there! You can find data on mirror less sales via Cipa.jp.

    TL;DR – mirror less sales has been stagnant ever since it was calculated in 2012

  2. I was commenting about this on my Google+ page. I’m switching from Canon to Sony because at their different price points the Sony cameras absolutely blow away the Canon cameras (mirrorless or DSLR). I was tempted by the Fuji cameras but, I love the sensor quality, features, and the fact that I can now get lens adapters for different lens systems at about $110/system. This means I can just use the lenses I already have.

    1. lol.. such a BS.

      sony lenses cost 30-40% more than their canon counterparts (if there is a counterpart) and they are often not even close to canons performance.

      the whole sony system lacks so much….. from flash to support.

      but people think pushing shadows 5 stops make them better photographer.

      1. so true.

        just look at the sony GM lenses.

        they are hyped by sony fanboys but i testesd them and they are not some miracle lenses.

        but they cost 30% more than theri nikon or canon counterparts.

  3. Jason Konarzewski

    The biggest reason I have not even considered mirrorless is because of the slow auto focus. I have a 3 year old that seems to only stop moving when he’s sleeping. Until this is on par with the DSLR, I won’t be switching. Also, I believe I heard it on one of your podcasts that just because a new camera comes out, it doesn’t mean your camera starts taking worse pictures. My camera is meeting my needs. I have a Canon 6D and the only thing I wish I had was more focus points.

    1. Have you tried any recently? Both of my Olympus mFT cameras are very fast to focus, and using the touch screen to choose focus point AND take the shot makes for very easy shots of moving subjects, although I generally prefer to use the excellent EVF, which is much nicer in low light than my old DSLR.

    2. Things have changed radically since the period you mentioned. My fastest focusing ones on my SONY (A7SII series) often takes just a fraction of a second to focus, and my testing of the latest GH5, which is still beta and subject to change, with even the most difficult shallow lenses I have for it, such as my F1.2 42.4 Nocticron, a F1.4 25mm Summilux and an F1.8 100-400MM) focus times range from maybe 0.3 to 1.0 seconds respectively. The amazing thing though is how tenacious many of my M43 mirrorless combos are, in that I can typically stay on rapid size/distance changes consistently and without overshoot, catchup or searching , such as a dog running right at me at full speed. I could never do that on auto before (let alone manually with these lenses, despite years of manual skills development), even with my best FF cameras, although I would assume some other FF’s probably could do that consistently as well.

      Now the caveats. First, these are basically computers with lenses and sensors, driven by complex software that is often under a constant state of evolution. Given that, it is important to both understand your cameras programming and related features, as well as its limitations and bugs at any given software/firmware revision. It is a far day from my old Nikon F1 film camera or even a Nikormat FT2. I have seen people with not just M43/mirrorless, but many modern DSLR’s complain about a range of performance issues, from focusing to automated modes that they are trying to use– and these are generally avid prosumer users to seasoned professionals having problems. Similarly, I have read reviews that are having the same issues that I have had, but who do not know how to address it, so they assume it is the camera or mode that just doesn’t work well or correctly.

      In virtually every case, these are easily addressed by the correct settings or a firmware/software upgrade. This will definitely be the case with many for the Olympus EM1 Mk2 and the Panasonic GH5, where for better or worse, reading the manual will be just the start. Being a geek, both professionally and at heart, I am happy to make the effort to learn how to use these amazing testaments to creative features and computer-enabled performance. I figure, if they are willing to spend many millions on R&D to enable these features, I can at least take the time to learn how they may or may not be of use to me. I do wish some things would “just work”, but I am mostly just happy to be able to do things in terms of shot types and conditions that I could not of imagined even 5 years ago.

      Also, you generally need enough light to get the best out of many of the M43 mirrorless autofocus systems. For example, my A7S2 is capable of showing a huge amount of color and object detail that my eye would perceive as far too dark. However, that does not always translate to good, fast autofocus. Depending on the M43, you may find that you have to be able to see the objects fairly well to rely upon automatic settings acquisition to work well.

  4. I read yesterday on a website, that Canon will be using Sony sensors in the 5D Mark IV. Of course, this may or may not be true, but since there are a lot of complaints re the lack of dynamic range in Canon’s DSLR’s, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  5. For me owning any SONY products is a no no, in years past I did buy some of their stuff and very shortly after the warranty expired the equipment failed the cost to repair was more then the cost to just by it new again so my take on this is they (SONY) would rather you by new products! Plus the service center in Orange County California were rather rude on two or more visit’s. So I will never ever buy a product of their’s again.

    1. I feel luck my Sony A6300 dies while in warranty could be at the repair-center longer that I have had it If buy Sony get the extended warranty plan

    2. This.

      It’s interesting seeing that these manufacturers also have sales in other genres beyond photographic imaging. I used to use Sony audio products when I was younger. They were glossy but more expensive than other products. Though the sound quality was nice, they products always broke just after warranty expired. I learned after about the third product fail and just tried other brands. Never touched a Sony product since and never will. Maybe Sony will win the mirrorless wars. But, I won’t be helping them.

      I’ve moved to the Fuji X system from Canon only as of the last 3 months or so. Never thought I’d switch. But I am pleased so far.

  6. I’ve been with Nikon since earlier film days and I have no desire or intentions of switching to any other manufacturer. My Nikons’ have been very reliable and capable cameras. Nikon’s customer service is terrific and Nikon’s lenses are top notch. There are certainly other fine camera manufacturers such as Sony, Canon, Olympus ect. , but none of them offer anything that has caused me to consider switching from Nikon. Nikon is a great company and they manufacture great cameras and lenses.

  7. I switched to Fujifilm and the quality of the camera and the lenses and the image results are outstanding, plus I can actually carry my camera around with me!
    With my Fuji X-E2 , I mainly use the 35mm prime lens and the IQ is exceptional.
    Sold my Canon gear, and so pleased with the switch to Mirrorless / Fuji

  8. It’s really cute how your article starts out with “…two years ago…” but there is not a date of publication. ..which in my estimation is pure click bait, spam, advert, affiliate click seek….I cannot and would not and have not I’ve step my time into an article about timelessness that itself insults my by failing to post prominently the day of publication.

  9. Corrected grammar:
    It’s really cute how your article starts out with “…two years ago…” but there is not a date of publication. ..which in my estimation is pure click bait, spam, advert, affiliate click seek….I cannot and would not and have not invested my time into an article about timelessness that itself insults me by failing to post prominently the day of publication.

  10. I think Canon will have Nokia’s fate ! Little to late ! All people around me switched from Canon to Fuji or Sony mirrorles. Me, I loved Canon cameras but there is no way I can have it with me on the daily basis. Canons other then dslr cameras JUST AS JOKE. Powershot G or any other similar look the same as it was in 2005. Is it that difficult for Canon or Nikon to take some retro body like Leica and put in current tech like Fuji X series did? If they do so me plus other 50 people I know would return to Canon without thinking a minute . But for now, its too heavy , all the same every new model,nothing lighter,nothing hip about Canon cameras,just doesn’t have this trend like Fuji does.

    Sorry Canon it was my pleasure to know you but you don’t change for the better,same all old Canon will retire together with Nikon and Nokia !

    1. lol.. canon is doing better that any other camera manufacturer and already has a big userbase.

      your have no clue at all.

  11. And here I am… The obligatory Pentax diehard. The Pentax FF K1 is being released around April.
    Utilising the pentax in-body shake reduction it will also use pixel shifting for sharper images (worth several stops) and as an option for anti-alias to reduce moire on demand.
    The other great feature is it will accept both FF lenses and digital CMOS designed lenses so keeping the fantastic backward compatibility with all pentax lenses.
    Pentax strive to not be a ‘me too’ brand and provide bang for buck.
    I don’t think they’ll ever be a major brand again but hopefully a good niche player.

    1. I was waiting over a year for the K1. I am so disappointed. This camera will weigh over 2 pounds with no lens. I have been renting cameras to see if I really liked using them. I just rented Nikon D600. Great camera, too heavy. The D600 is lighter in weight than the K1. I have written off the K1, and I have 6 Pentax lenses from the past. I loved my ME Super. It was lightest SLR of its era. For me it will either the Fuji or the Sony mirrorless cameras. DSLRs are just too heavy, especially full frame ones.

  12. Richard Powell

    After being Canon SLR shooters for 20 years, my wife tried switching to an EOS M. She wasn’t happy with it even though on paper it met all her needs and ended up selling it. I think the limited range of lenses and the outrageous price of the EF lens adapter showed that Canon didn’t really want this model to succeed.
    She now has a Sony A7II and loves it. I borrowed it one evening and didn’t want to give it back.

    1. yeah because the price of an adapter is so much more expensive compared to buying a a7II….

      a sony fanboy fiction story.

  13. Muthana Aldoory

    After several years of using Nikon and Sony FF and APS-C, I switched to Fuji X100. X Pro1 and XE-1 for their image quality of the JEPG, light body, color brightness and little or no need for post processing and continuous software updating.

    1. I also bought a Fuji and love it. However, I recently grabbed my DSLR that I hadn’t used for a year and realized how much I miss it. The Fuji has great image quality and colours, but TERRIBLE ergonomics.

  14. I think there is a market for every brand – always peoplewill havetheir own preference and Nikon and Canon will continue to fight it out for supremacy. They are both excellent brands but for me the Nikon look is more real than the canon and canon has a very slight painting appearance to its images. As to me the sony cameras are pushing out images that all appear to be shot in HDR which gives them a unique edgy feel but it depends on the look your trying to create.

    1. the camera market is shrinking.

      the day sony shareholders think cameras are not a good idea they will drop cameras.
      sony will still produce sensors… but not cameras.

      as they did with high end hifi, tv´s, notebooks.

  15. If there was no demand for DSLRs, neither Canon nor Nikon would continue making them. They are not stupid.

    What other posters have said about Sony lenses is certainly true. It was one of the things which dissuaded me from looking at Sony.

  16. I just bought a Canon EOS M3 as I have a number of lenses for my DSLRs and wanted to see how it would work with them all. It was fine with everything but one older Sigma branded 120-400 which would not focus but shutting off focus still gave me image stabilization and with zebra focussing it is adequate. The main thing is that all my canon lenses and my Tamron zoom wide angle worked perfectly and the image quality was stupendous!!! I am a user of a 5D SR so I am not talking as if I just went up from a ten year old digital cam. The fine noise level, sharpness of the kit lens makes it an absolute gem of a camera. With the adapter everything just works fine.mtje worst part of the entire purchase which by the way I also bought the wonderful EVF was that canon North America had a terrible page to download the software required for Raw and after trying for four hours I wet to canon Europe and there was a modern page with the software and I was able to register and download all I needed from there. That is absurd as can be Canon..pull,up your website! No wonder Canon hardly sells this super camera in North America!!! It’s the software..stupid!!! By the way once I got it I find that they really have improved their professional software hugely and it gives better rendering of RAW than did Adobe using DNG to translate it. I want to emphasize the lease quality as contrary and fast focussing so I wonder what others found with it as I surely have no problems with it. It is not the fastest in saving to cards as others but I am comparing it to a professional DSLRs as well..no fair.mtje Evf is superb…the ergonomics are fine even for a ham handed person such as I and that is what steered me away from any small camera body in the past. If you can find the M3 give it a try. You will be very pleasantly surprised and if you have Canon lenses ..it is a no brainer.

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