If you’ve spent any time sitting around with grizzled old photography veterans, you’ve probably sat through more than your fair share of “Canon versus Nikon” debates. Boring and pointless as they are, they were indicative of an industry where there were two major players and a bunch of also-rans. This week, reports suggest that Nikon might be bowing out of the Single Lens Reflex (SLR) race. If true, it’s hard to understate what a tremendous shift this is for the photography industry.
Over the past decade and a half, a number of things happened in quick succession. The compact camera market — which at one point represented more than 80% of camera sales by value — was utterly destroyed by smartphones. The increasingly capable smartphones, and the shift in how people relate to photography in general, started eating into the SLR market as well. With the vast majority of photos taken only finding their way onto social media, speed-to-share became more important than the overall image quality. And then a whole new type of camera came along.
Back in 2009 Olympus came along and launched its EP-1 digital mirrorless camera that changed everything. And in 2013, Sony completely re-invented the genre with the launch of its full-frame mirrorless Sony A7 camera system, which put both Canon and Nikon on the defensive. The first-generation cameras were slow and cumbersome, but delivered extraordinary photo quality in a small package. Fueled by arrogance and a profound misunderstanding of the market, Nikon had already launched a mirrorless camera in 2011, but it was deeply underwhelming, and Canon did the same a year later, with the equally uninspiring EOS M. Meanwhile, brands like Sony, Olympus and Fujifilm — unhindered by their SLR histories — were able to innovate on technology.
Canon and Nikon eventually gained market share in the mirrorless markets, but by then the reputational damage was done.
This week, a report from Nikkei suggests that Nikon is throwing in the towel for its SLR lines of camera to focus on mirrorless cameras instead; a brave move if the company decides to go ahead with its plans, and it would mark the end of a 60-year streak of delivering professional tools for photographers of all stripes.
Update: Nikon refuted the ‘speculation,’ but did so in a way that asked more questions than it answered.