How Sony paved the mirrorless cameras road for Nikon and Canon

When Sony first introduced the electronic viewfinder in its SLT cameras back in 2010, there was a lot of ridiculing regarding the EVF going around. It was imperfect system that used a beam-splitter (the translucent mirror inside) to split the light into the sensor and a phase detector, showing the image through electronic viewfinder instead of the regular prism used in DSLR cameras. It was… different. Prisms provide fully natural experience when it comes to looking at the scene, while the EVF introduced all new kinds or problems. On the other hand, the Live view capabilities of the newly introduced SLT cameras were outstanding, beyond anything Nikon and Canon could muster at the time being. It even provided on the move cropping of the sensor (essentially the same as cropping later, but still). What was most important – it still used the traditional AF sensor instead o slow contrast detection.

Sure, the two giants avoided lagging behind, even when we are talking about minor competitor, but their Live View options in the niche were flawed, using clearly inferior mechanism of providing stream to the screen on the camera back by losing access to the phase detection under the prism. They just picked up the mirror and let photons hit the sensor, focusing as most cheap (and not so, remember it was 2010) cameras do.

I’ve jumped the Sony hype train around the release of Sony A65 and A77 (and the V versions, which stands for having integrated GPS, and I’ve decided long ago not to seek logic in product naming). Since I knew they will have A99 with full frame sensor, ad that it would be pretty much out of my league at the time, I got my A77V. I’ve heard plenty of people swearing at the EVF, and that probably continues even today, but I never had a single problem with it. In fact I loved it, and as time went by, I’ve never, never considered that I may feel another high-end camera inferior just because of how the Live View and the EVF worked in tandem. Which I did every time I touched the camera of yet another condescending Nikon or Canon owner. I think Sony should have called it True View or something just to make the other two sweat about it. Doesn’t matter, back then people weren’t into using the Live View so much, referring to it as a feature for amateurs. Even today Google can make me laugh reading something like this:

Essentially, SLRs that support the Live View function allow the photographer to use the LCD as a (bigger) viewfinder. Live View is a real boon for compact camera owners who are accustomed to using a viewing screen, but are thinking of graduating to an SLR (back from Jan 13, 2010)

And I had a had really hard time explaining that the main reason for not using it was that it didn’t feel native. It wasn’t the almighty prism in the viewfinder, it was the inferior solution more adapted to compact cameras with added complications that made them not using it. It was how they handled video (hell, my A77V was shooting 1080p/60, hell of a camera!). It was the lack of rotating and swiveling LCD on the back (another thing Sony may not have invented, but used very well) that didn’t need compromises with the shooting mode in order to show what your lens were seeing. (Since I’m mentioning innovations – we also had a system with sensor-level stabilization that worked with any lens. And by any – I mean even old Minolta lens, bringing new life to all those beercans lying around).

The fact remains that Sony also had their fair share of negatives. It was an expensive system, with limited choice of lens. Sony opened the SLT specifications around 2011-2012, inviting third-party lens manufacturers to jump in, but at that time Sigma was infamous for low quality control (wobbling front elements, really?) and Tamron wasn’t much better either, both having constant front and back-focusing issues. Sure, at the time we already had some adjustment in the camera bodies (with Nikon I had to sell my D80 and get D300 for that and the better low light performance), but more often than not it didn’t do enough. Sony were plagued by what I would call politely “software problems”, but it didn’t end there. Literally everything on their cameras was weird for Nikon and Canon users. And their JPEGs? Noise reduction was so off the chart compared to the Nikon and Canon implementations (which differed greatly at the time) that it made jpeg files useless. The weird (and made of plastic in my camera!) flash shoe, the lacking (and expensive) high-end zoom lens… it was all Sony by heart – innovative and yet somehow… unrefined. Or unfinished.

Yet in the midst of the DSLR vs. SLT camera fight, Sony released the new E-mount, and created a whole small ecosystem build around the NEX series of mirrorless  semi-compact cameras with interchangeable lenses. Laughable stock because of their size, but the E-mount was also use in camcoders, and Sony got a proof of concept – cameras needn’t to be in the form of the typical DSLR/SLT. Nikon tried the same with their 1 system (which is now as dead as the NEXes) of compacts with interchangeable lenses).

3 years or so later the first A7 and A7R full frame mirrorless cameras were introduced by Sony, and while these lacked sensor stabilization and their low-light performance is not on the level of the newer models – they are still popular. Less than a year later Sony also released the A7S, which proved another concept – people weren’t always into pixels, but into low light capabilities. And video that rocked in that regard. Not everything was without issues. The new mount made the A-mount lens obsolete. They still cost a good amount of money (some less so), and come cameras in the new line can actually use them with adapter. In fact the A7R II and onward are considered able to work with almost any lens, giving you the debatable opportunity to create multi-mount system.

“But you can’t do this!”
“Sure, you can, not sure you should.”
Courtesy of

Of course others joined in, finally adopting EVFs, or tilt/swivel articulated screens, etc. Canon actually made it to second place in the mirrorless market share (Sony kept second place in all camera share) just by selling a lousy APC-S system I don’t want to mention because it was meant to steal market and money and it did it well, considering how many people perceive Canon as the top camera brand even when they are buying something entirely unenthusiastic.

Back to Sony

Nowadays the only thing lacking in the Sony’s own system are the lower prices and a some primes on the wide side end and some super-telephoto lens. And I’ve just read they are releasing 24mm f/1.4 G Master lens fo $1400 (much smaller, lighter and may be optically better than the much cheaper Sigma 24mm F/1.4 Art), so you can finally scratch the wide side, considering how good it looks so far. The A7 III and The A7R III (by extension A7R II, using the same sensor as the latter) are fully featured full frame cameras with supreme low-light capabilities that finally led to many photographers expected to happen some time ago:

Canon and Nikon jumped on the mirrorless full frame cameras train!

Mind you – I’m not talking mass-market stuff, this is full frame prosumer market!

Now, I must point out two things – Sony weren’t exactly alone in the mirrorless camera field. Olympus and Samsung were there and contributed somehow too. Second: I have zero experience with Canon and Nikon new cameras, and this will remain so. Neither am I into the Olympus, and that would remain so even more.

What beats my expectations is that Nikon actually made an attempt to make the Nikon Z7 (at some extent the Nikon Z6 too) really good. Much less so when you look at the name, fuck you, copycats! Theirs was the hardest job, as the mount flange to sensor distance is shorter than Sony’s, meaning they had to work hard on making a great adapter for their current line of F-mount lens, which dates some 50 or 60 years back in the past. And, according to reviews – they did it. In my opinion Nikon grasped the situation much better and they will simply start moving to the new mount, releasing even more lens than their current roadmap shows.

Courtesy of PhotographyLife

I also think they left the Z-mount opening so big with the plan of introducing much larger sensors inside, which will open a space for a whole new lens lineup, but may be that’s just me thinking as a greedy Nikonian CEO planing for 50 years ahead. After all – Sony had 3% interchangeable lens system market share back in 2010, 13% in 2014, now they are probably over 15%, and Canon jumps in at the same time? Oh, they must have been drooling over the sales figures they expect to see if they managed to grab some good share, before Canon joined the melee.

What Nikon didn’t do right is not opening the Z-mount specification, which is, well, greedy too. Other than that, Nikon at least made the effort to do (most) things right. Even outside the Nikon Z6 and Nikon Z7 look like brand new line without the sloped shoulders of the old-era cameras. Now Canon… it still looks pretty much the same, as if not to push people back with a new outfit. First of all they didn’t bother as much with the mount, so the Canon EOS R has the deepest flange to sensor distance in their new RF mount, making it less compact. May be has to do with how they can also insert a larger sensor this way. Having a whole set of adapters makes it compatible with a long line of lens, so there you go – you have a full system (sure, as much as any Sony owner has, since we can use Canon lens, lol). People that jump on it now will probably buy the new lens, and there will be a lot more to come. What I deeply dislike is that they also kept the mount specifications closed.

When it comes to Canon – I’m not sue they would replace the whole line with the FR cameras, but we live and see. Both companies are late on this market, and while that worked in Sony’s favor in the past, they are now joined by the wolves. Being the alpha in a pack is all about strength and cunning. Sony obviously has the second, and I’m looking forward to see what innovations we may see from them, but the big guns are not on their side. Well, technically we have a full system while Canon and Nikon mirrorless FF cameras are new to the market, with new lens to come, yet they can also enjoy truly extensive lens ranges (I’m not so sure, I didn’t count their lenses and run an analysis showing who has the best mid to high range). Both are here to stay, so it’s up to Sony to introduce something new, same as they did until now. I don’t believe any of the two other big brands managed to do something great, apart from much late catching up.

Posted by Nikolai Tsekov

My goal is to collect all the “native” compatible autofocus FE lens and review every new one released in the future for as long as Sony keeps supporting the E-mount. Clicking on any of the ads and buying stuff from Amazon following the links in the blog would help me a lot.

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