Lens Mounts No Longer Matter
Yes, I know…. hegemony isn’t a word that we use every day, and writing that “Lens Mounts No Longer Matter” is somewhat provocative. But, hear me out.
In the first half of the 20th Century there were a few different lens mounts for 35mm cameras, some of which were non-proprietary and eventually all of which outlived whatever patent protection they may once have had.
But with the advent of electronic mounts, beginning in the 1980’s, the mainstream bifurcated, with Nikon and Canon electronically coupled mounts becoming predominant. With the advent of ubiquitous autofocus most photographers eventually became locked into one mount or the other. Occasionally, out of either boredom or sometimes need, photographers would switch mounts and brands. This was always a very expensive proposition. Indeed, once one had bought into a system, this usually meant sticking with it for many years, or even decades.
Of course there are third-party lenses from the likes of Sigma and Tamron. These companies reverse engineered (or licensed) the camera maker’s lens mount protocols, offering photographers alternatives which usually we less expensive than camera maker’s lenses, and more recently which can actually offer better performance (as in the case of Sigma’s ART lens line).
Nevertheless, there were no third party camera bodies. If you shot with Nikon lenses, you bought a Nikon camera, and if Canon lenses were your thing, a Canon manufactured body was what you used.
In the past few years though a couple of innovative technologies have come together to change this paradigm. These are, firstly, full functionality lens mount adaptors, and also the advent of so-called mirrorless camera systems, especially the Sony A7RII and A7II models. These are full frame cameras, which because of their lack of a mirror box and also very short back focus, have room for a lens adaptor for just about any existing DSLR mount.
Metabones has been a leader in this area, and their Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Smart Adapter (Mark IV) allows almost any Canon EF lens to work with full exposure automation, and autofocus utilizing these camera’s phase detection AF system. And since these cameras have sensor-based stabilization, even non-stabilized Canon and third-party lenses offer stabilization when mounted on one of these Sony cameras.
As this is being written a company called Commlite has started to ship a Nikon F-mount to Sony E-mount with claimed full AF capability. And where one starts, others are sure to follow.
I have no experience with the Commlite. But while the Metabones IV had a bit of a rocky start in terms of lens compatibility, over a very brief period Metabones has released a series of firmware upgrades (there is a USB plug on the adaptor for this, and the user can easily do this themselves in minutes), which now allow virtually all Canon brand and also third-party Canon EF mount lenses to function fully on a Sony body.
For the first time the owner of lenses for one of the major brands can choose to use them freely on another maker’s camera and do so with full feature functionality.
This is a big deal to my mind, because it breaks Canon and Nikon’s camera body monopoly among existing as well as future customers. Now, not only can photographers choose to buy third party lenses in their preferred mount, but also third party camera bodies.
It should be mentioned that there are also adapters for Micro Four Thirds cameras, but the 2X crop factor will likely be an issue when it comes to wide angle coverage. This is why the exciting option is Sony’s A7 series, because full frame Canon and Nikon lenses keep their effective coverage and focal lengths.
What I find so fascinating about this is that when Sony announced their new cameras mid-2015, they had Metabones adaptors and Canon lenses available for journalists to test. This was a bit audacious, and some wondered at the logic. Why tout the fact that you could use Canon lenses? Doesn’t Sony want to sell you their lenses?
Of course they do, but they are as crazy as foxes. While Sony may lose some lens sales, they will gain body sales, and my guess is that not only are the margins better on cameras than on lenses, but they are also gaining brand converts. Once a Canon or Nikon user has started to use a Sony body with their existing lenses they will likely buy a native Sony, or Sony /Zeiss lens at some point if there’s a gap in their collection.
It’s Wake-Up Time
I’m not the only pundit in the industry who has marveled at how sleepy Nikon and Canon have been in recognizing the mirrorless revolution. I think everyone who fancies themselves as something of an industry observer has commented on this over the past several years.
But now the Big Two are being threatened in a new way – not just with losing new camera sales but with losing their camera upgrade and model renewal business. This has got to be a challenging proposition for them, and one which they continue to ignore at their peril.