Is Canon DOOMED?

As I write this, one of the world’s largest video and photography events is taking place in Cologne, Germany – Photokina.  Photokina is one of a few annual events where manufacturers like to trot out new products and give industry pros some hands-on time with their latest and greatest offerings.  The event has really just started, but several exciting announcements have already taken place: notably, Panasonic and Samsung have both announced compact digital cameras with 4K video capabilities.  The Samsung NX1 is an interchangeable lens APS-C-sensor camera that will record video to the efficient (but high quality) new H.265 codec.  It will retail for $1500 (body only).  The Panasonic LX100 is a small camera with a built-in lens and a micro four-thirds-sized sensor.  It looks to pack a lot of the functionality of the highly-regarded GH4 into a smaller package, with a proportionally smaller price tag – it will sell for around $900 when it launches in early November.

Photokina happens to fall during the tail end of IBC (the International Broadcasting Convention), where Sony announced their enticing new dedicated video camera, the FS7.  The FS7 looks to combine all the benefits of a pro camcorder into a small package with 4K capabilities, starting at around $8000 – a very reasonable price for a full-featured professional-level video camera of this caliber.  Sony has already enjoyed considerable success this year with the launch of the acclaimed A7S, an interchangeable-lens full frame camera that can output 4K to an external recorder.  The A7S has made a name for itself with its incredible low light capabilities and beautiful image quality.  When you factor in the aforementioned GH4 – the brilliant micro four-thirds camera that launched earlier this year – there are suddenly a lot of 4K-capable cameras either available or soon-to-be-released.

Canon also announced a new camera this week – the highly-anticipated 7D Mark II.  This is the follow-up to the now-legendary 7D, a camera that became a mainstay in the independent film community because of its flexibility and (relatively) low price.  I didn’t mention the 7D in my list of the best Canon cameras for video (largely due to the fact that the Mark II’s announcement has been described as “imminent” for months now), but it’s a great camera, especially when paired with Magic Lantern firmware.  The Mark II was seen by many as Canon’s chance to reconnect with the many video pros who are starting to be swayed by the ever-increasing 4K options being offered by Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Blackmagic, and others.

However, the official announcement of the 7D Mark II – and its specifications – have been met with a collective shrug from the filmmaking community.  The Mark II will capture 1080HD video at up to 60 frames per second.  It also sports the continuous autofocus abilities pioneered by the 70D.  It has dual card slots, a headphone jack, and a few other nice features.  All in all, it looks to be a perfectly adequate camera.

However, when you compare the 7D Mark II to the recent camera options coming out of Sony, Panasonic, and others, it seems woefully under-equipped.  At $1700 for the body alone, the Mark II is more expensive than the Panasonic GH4, the LX100, and the Samsung NX1 – all of which feature 4K recording.  Andrew Reid, over at EOSHD calls the NX1 in particular “the camera I had expected Canon to make with the 7D Mark II.”  The Mark II is cheaper than the A7S, but Sony’s camera uses a full-frame sensor and it’s very doubtful that Canon will be able to match its image quality or low-light performance.

At the end of the day, it’s simply hard to make a case for buying the 7D Mark II – especially at $600 more than Canon’s own 70D, which packs in a lot of the same features.  Manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic, and Blackmagic seem to be locked in a race to see who can cram the best video quality into the cheapest camera.  Canon, by and large, seems to be doing its own things – ignoring both market trends and customer wishes.

A very natural question arises:  Can Canon stay relevant in a marketplace that seems to be changing much faster than they are?  After all, Canon essentially launched the so-called “DSLR revolution” with the 5D Mark II and grew to prominence with inexpensive cameras like the 7D, the 60D, and the T2i.  If you look at Canon’s current line up, there isn’t really a true successor to any of these cameras – there is nothing that captures the excitement and possibility of an industry-wide sea change in the way they did.

So:  Is Canon doomed?  The (somewhat surprising) answer is no, at least not yet.  Why?  Lenses.

Canon probably has the largest, most diverse, highest quality, most widely-adopted collection of lenses of any major manufacturer.  Every time a new camera is released by Sony or Panasonic, video professionals ask if, when, and how they can adapt their Canon glass for use on it.  The company Metabones has really come into its own by making quality adapters for this very purpose – many shooters now consider a Metabones adapter an essential accessory for cameras like the GH4.  The reason is that Canon lenses are simply everywhere.

Canon actually seems to be acknowledging this with its new “Glass First” campaign.  Canon just launched a new website emphasizing the notion that “It all begins with glass.”  Canon also just added three new lenses to its already impressive lineup, two of which – a 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 and a 24mm f/2.8 – seem to be aimed squarely at the mid-range DSLR video market.

Most photographers buy into a family of lenses, then periodically replace their camera bodies.  Canon’s been at the top of their game for long enough to be the system of choice for a lot of photo and video professionals.  Heck, I’m one of them – I’ve been buying Canon cameras and lenses for well over ten years.  Switching to a new system would be challenging and expensive, to say the least.

The real danger Canon is facing is not so much the immediate loss of major market share, but a broader, slower shift in the industry as a whole.  The manufacturers currently producing the most exciting new cameras – Panasonic, Sony, Blackmagic, and others – have proven themselves to be very adaptable in terms of adopting new technologies and meeting changing consumer demands.   As a result, customers are demanding more and more of manufacturers – which is fantastic!  There are more great, affordable camera options now than there have ever been before.

During this explosion of new options, however, Canon is moving at a comparatively glacial pace.  They have become infamous for using the same image sensor across multiple camera bodies – the T2i, T3i, T4i, T5i, 60D, 7D, and EOS-M all use the same sensor.  There have been minor changes and upgrades from model to model, but it’s been a long time since Canon introduced a new feature as exciting as the GH4’s internal 4K recording, the A7S’s low-light capability, or the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera’s cost-to-performance ratio.

The ability to record 4K video is not an essential feature for video cameras at the moment.  It will be several years before 4K TV and monitor adoption levels really build up (if they ever do – I’m still not convinced the market will demand it).  However, it’s hard not to see this missing feature as symbolic of a broad disconnect between Canon and the professional video community.  Canon can continue on their current path for a long time – that’s probably part of the problem.  At some point, however, Canon will need to start adapting in a major way – and when they finally do, they may find that their place in the world of video production has diminished significantly.

Canon is still making very nice cameras.  Canon’s existing cameras are lovely – I still shoot on Canon cameras and will likely continue to do so for some time.  What Canon has lost is a sense of excitement in their new products.  While other companies are bringing new creative possibilities to consumers, Canon is making cameras that are good – better than good! – but painfully predictable.  I sincerely hope that they can bring that sense of excitement back.

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