Selective Focus: Legacy Lenses & Mirrorless Momentum

Selective Focus: Legacy Lenses & Mirrorless Momentum

Barriers and Opportunities


First, some stats. Interchangeable-lens sales did well in 2015, with the summer months showing a near 20% increase over previous year sales (month to month, CIPA stats). In total, there was minimal to no loss in lens sales volume year to year through the end of 2015, including those for both SLR and mirrorless cameras. That’s good news.

On the camera side, mirrorless continues a steady climb and is nearly 15% higher year to year in the U.S., with SLRs only dropping 5%. This shows that mirrorless is gaining ground, with one caveat: The percentage of sales increase does not correlate with overall sales volume, thus consumer popularity and their embracing of the mirrorless concept.

I should note this growth varies greatly by region. For example, according to CIPA stats: In the USA, SLRs still outsell mirrorless by a 5:1 ratio; in Europe it’s 4:1; in Japan, however, mirrorless tilts the ratio showing a near 1.5x plus margin. The fact that mirrorless has hit the 20% overall figure in the USA defies the predictions of various associations that mirrorless would not hit this number until 2020. The question is: Is this a momentum swing that will snowball or are there barriers that lie underneath the surface?

The exciting news is that the continuing introduction of lenses for the mirrorless realm will spur both camera and lens sales. The fact that either format will increase does not necessarily mean one will grow at the cost of the other. We can hope that all boats lift. And any rise in camera sales means accessories will follow.

Lens Intro Acceleration

In the past year and into 2016, we have seen very impressive glass from the likes of Panasonic, Olympus, Fujifilm and Sony. In Micro Four Thirds, there’s a growing list of fast f/1.7 lenses and the Leica-branded lenses from Panasonic; the zooms and primes in the Pro lineup from Olympus; the continued expansion of the Fujifilm line with new WR (weather resistant) glass; and the expanded range of Zeiss lenses from Sony. And new cameras from all of the above offer expanded options and incredible quality for aspiring and pro photographers alike.
SS-Lens-GroupSLR makers certainly have not been asleep at the switch. Pentax, Canon and Nikon have all brought out impressive glass (and cameras). Independents have also brought out new and exciting lenses, but they continue their shyness about jumping into the mirrorless mount line. And recent camera intros have upped the ante on lens specifications, driving a new era of high-resolution lenses to match the enhanced sensors they contain.

The Installed Base

With mirrorless gains and what seems like hesitancy in entry-level SLR introductions, why hasn’t mirrorless blown out the doors in terms of new camera sales? To me, a strong underlying factor is the issue of legacy mounts and the profound effect they have on lens and, certainly, camera sales.

By legacy mounts I mean the previous investment consumers (and pros) have made on lenses and how switching formats may mean relegating past glass to the eBay realm. As I’ve noticed, this does not apply to pros who often see mirrorless as an excellent second body option. But the bread and butter of interchangeable-lens camera makers is the enthusiast realm. And that’s where the legacy issue comes to the fore. When asked my advice about a new camera to buy, my first question is: Do you own any lenses already? If so, what mount are they?

This brings up the classic “installed base” issue. If the buyer has bought lenses in the last 10 years for their own SLR, or was given one by family or friend, it certainly influences their decision about which format to get for their next camera body. It also makes them think about whether switching to another format is a wise and economical choice. True, there are value mirrorless lenses that do not break the bank, but getting a whole new set of lenses to match what customers might already own could easily double their purchase price. And while quality mirrorless cameras are attractive, they ain’t cheap. A typical consumer response might be: “Wait till next year. Let’s see how the economy plays out.”

Selective-Call-OutThere’s also the issue of independent lens makers staying out of much of the mirrorless mount market. Companies like Tamron, Sigma and Tokina have kept mostly on the sidelines. All make very good and even excellent lenses, but primarily for APS-C and full-frame SLRs. True, more expensive lenses from Zeiss, for example, have come out for some mirrorless mounts. But the trio mentioned above offers SLR glass comparable to the big two at often more reasonable prices, a prime factor in today’s market. While the consumer may not be aware of all these subtleties and options, dealers certainly are and may steer their customers accordingly.

It’s common wisdom that buying a new camera body is like buying a new car, at least in terms of frequency of change. Four years plus is a fair estimate for most folks, with pros undoubtedly less so. True photo enthusiasts with deep pockets might be more likely to swap out their camera bodies for the latest and greatest. But overall, I would argue that loyalty for some folks today is based more on what’s already in the camera bag and less on the allure of mirrorless.

The Mirrorless Move

On the other hand, there’s no question that mirrorless is gaining in popularity. Factors in this growth are the incredible features and the larger format sensors in a host of models. Compactness is high up there on the list—perhaps the number one factor for many buyers. In my informal survey of pros and advanced amateurs alike, I always ask mirrorless users what attracted them to the format; size, weight and portability are the chief responses.

To them, even though SLRs (mainly in the entry-level to enthusiast segment) are lighter, the very nature of the reflex mirror box makes the DSLR “bulky.” Increasingly, they see mirrorless as the choice for travel, editorial, art and family photography. True, models like the Nikon D5 and Canon 5DS R remain the holy grail of cameras for some, but I have become increasingly convinced that the once impenetrable fortress of high-end DSLRs will not remain as unassailable as it seemed just a year ago.

For many people, legacy glass will keep them in the SLR realm, but increasingly it seems that the enthusiast and even semipro users will make their move. Remember: In the interchangeable-lens camera market, pros lead the way but enthusiasts pay the rent. Ask those who follow and do photography about what’s on the “buy horizon” and many see mirrorless in their future. But does this mean that the SLR in general will lose its dominance, at least in the USA, or that the high-resolution pro SLR models will go the way of so-called “medium format” digital cameras? Indications are that this will not happen in the foreseeable future, although there’s no denying that mirrorless will continue to grow at a good clip.

I’ve made the point in this column in the past that any format camera buy is good for the industry. I still hold that opinion. But the implications for individual camera companies in this contest are profound. The year ahead holds another photokina show, and by that time we’ll see whether SLR makers become more aggressive in their mirrorless model intros. By the end of this year, we’ll have a better indication of how the legacy versus the mirrorless momentum will play out.