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.
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.
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.
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.Jim Harmer
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.
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.
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.