The Battle Between Camera Brands is Once Again Focused on Lenses

The mark of a mature camera system is the breadth and depth of lenses that are available to it. The most recent news about Canon, its RF mount, and third-party lens manufacturers demonstrates the main battleground between competing mirrorless brands.

Camera sales are much more than just cameras. One of the reasons for the success of the original Nikon F system was the ready availability of a wide range of lenses which was fleshed out into one of the widest systems on the market. This highlights a key selling point for consumers: they want to see a wide range of accessories, and especially lenses, available. This not only means they can get the lens they want – be it a 50mm f/1.8 or a 58mm f/0.95 – but underlines the potential success and longevity of a system, which means that their investment in a camera and its accompanying lenses is not short lived.

However, if you reverse that thinking, it highlights a key imperative for manufacturers. Lenses lock a photographer into a particular camera system, which means not only do you get repeat business, but profit margins can be high on increasingly expensive items.

We can clearly see this market structure when we look at the CIPA shipping data (see chart below) for Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILCs) and lenses. This shows that ILC shipments peaked in 2012 in units and value. And while the total number of ILCs shipped continued to decline, their value was much more stable as the cost per unit increased, due to fewer low-cost items and a choice to target the top. market range. On top of that, it’s interesting to note that the relative value of lenses to ILC shipments has remained remarkably constant, hovering around 43%.

This last point highlights a key aspect of the market today. First-party lenses can be – and are – expensive, making them a major source of revenue and profit for manufacturers.

In fact, Nikon wants a 1:2 camera-to-lens sales ratio (the “lens attachment ratio”) simply because lenses earn nearly as much as cameras. Its goal of a 50 lens range will take time to achieve because the turnover of lens designs is much slower than that of cameras, which means the R&D invested now will pay off in the longer term (and potentially better) than cameras. To get an idea, just look at how much your D800 is worth compared to a 70-200mm f/2.8 from the same era.

Camera and Lens Expeditions

What the table above is slightly misleading is the volume of the lens market – it is actually larger. Although camera shipments are broadly accurate, it means that the ratio of lens to camera sales is higher. Unlike camera manufacturers that are almost exclusively Japanese, those reporting lens shipments include Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Tokina, Tamron, Sigma, Panasonic, Cosina, Fuji, Ricoh and Zeiss. Manufacturers from China and South Korea are excluded, including Viltrox and Samyang, with suggestions they could account for around 20% of sales currently.

It’s about the system

To misquote Bill Clinton, it’s about the system. The system attracts consumers with lens availability and long-term support. Building scale in your system is important because it attracts camera sales and tracking lens sales. It also binds your customer into a long-term relationship with you. Filling out a lens system is time-consuming and expensive, however, which is painfully evident as Nikon and Canon expand their offerings since entering the full-frame mirrorless market in 2018.

There are three approaches to fleshing out a camera system, all of which we’re seeing right now. The former was embraced by both Fujifilm and Sony who tested the mirrorless waters and slowly built up a range of amateur and professional lenses to offer an enviable range that covers a wide range of bases. This generated a loyal following of photographers with repeat lens sales. The success of these systems has also encouraged third-party manufacturers.

Mount L Alliance

The second option – a variation of the above – is to quickly create a range; it’s something that Canon, in particular, has tried to achieve. This is a riskier and more expensive option, as you need to invest in research and development up front before the success of the system is guaranteed or significant revenue is generated. In Canon’s case, that’s not much of a problem as it’s been able to shift its DSLR market dominance into the mirrorless realm.

The third option is to form a consortium of manufacturers around a lens mount to produce both cameras and lenses that support each other and – overall – do not compete with each other. We’ve seen Leica attempt this with the L-Mount Alliance originally comprising Leica, Sigma and Panasonic – DJI has since joined. All have produced full-frame cameras – in very different styles – that sit alongside complementary lens ranges from Leica and Sigma. This has the significant advantage of filling camera and lens offers quickly, as long as a single member does not want to monopolize the system. At first glance, the L-Mount Alliance seems to have struck a good balance.

The final option is to bring in third-party manufacturers relatively early on to expand lens offerings to quickly fill and accessorize a system at the expense of ownership.

In a way, we’ve seen it with Fujifilm and Sony. While PetaPixel has confirmed that Fujifilm licensed its mount, Sony did so several years ago, resulting in a glut of first- and third-party optical options. Since the X-Mount and E-Mount both have APS-C variants, third-party manufacturers have achieved market scale, at minimal cost, in ways that an own brand could not. Full-frame lenses had more limited appeal when only Sony was in the mirrorless market, but with the new Nikon Z and Canon RF mounts, now is the time to offer a range of lenses.

Latest developments

Some recent developments in the lens market have highlighted the differences we see above. First, low-cost brands have moved from manual lenses to autofocus lenses. This requires a much higher degree of development, but the breadth of the market is clearly worth it.

Second, we’re now seeing high-end third-party manufacturers, especially Sigma and Tamron, expanding their mirrorless mounting offerings. This is particularly notable with Tamron’s recent announcement of the first third-party zoom lens available for the Z mount which we have been able to verify is licensed from Nikon. This is important for Nikon, at a time when its market share is low, as it increases the visibility and viability of the system, while for Tamron it potentially expands an exclusive offering. It is also similar to the approach taken by Nikon with its strobe system.

Canon lenses from 2021

Third, Canon recently confirmed that it ordered Viltrox to stop producing autofocus RF lenses based on patent infringement. It is possible that the reverse engineering of the lens communication – as opposed to the physical mount – may have infringed Canon’s intellectual property. Either way, it suggests that Canon will use its market dominance to protect both the RF system and the sales it represents. Either way, it’s a bad look.

It’s also possible that we’ll see Nikon seeds taking the opposite strategy and trying to expand the diversity and appeal of the Z mount. If – as PetaPixel reported – Nikon is repositioning its imaging division to take a back seat in the business, so this could well be a pragmatic approach to maintaining the long-term survival of camera manufacturing.

The future

Consumers are, in general, spoiled by lens offerings from own-brand manufacturers, however, there has long been a demand and a market for third-party manufacturers. This is particularly the case for current focal lengths, of good quality, at competitive prices. With the continued development of hybrid systems, we are witnessing the rebirth of new lens lines in a highly competitive environment.

Only time will tell which approach is ultimately the most successful, but ask yourself this question: if you weren’t allowed to buy third-party lenses, would you accept this camera system?


Picture credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.

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