2020 has been a strange year for the camera industry – the pandemic has exacerbated trends that were already underway, and there are new trends emerging. We are probably going to lose a camera manufacturer or two (no, not Nikon or anybody else big like that). We’ll see further attempts to reconcile the type of photography many LuLa readers love with the rise of computational photography on cell phones. Hopefully, 2021 will be a recovery year, as COVID vaccines let us travel and live our lives again, we’ll be dusting off our cameras.
In terms of camera and lens technology, the most interesting trend to follow may be smaller and lighter cameras and especially lenses, followed closely by more innovative lenses, then by a continuation of the trend towards higher-resolution cameras. Video continues to be a focus, with 4k60p being expected in any mid-range or higher camera in 2021, with the possible exception of medium format or ultra-high-resolution cameras. Exotic video modes like 8k and 4k120p will continue to appear, although 8k video will continue to be very difficult to display.
We’ll see a mainstream replacement for the ubiquitous Sony 24mp full-frame sensor, which has gone through at least three or four generations since it first appeared in Nikon’s D3x in 2009. It’s certainly no longer the pixel count champ, but a tremendous percentage of higher-end cameras sold today have a direct descendent of the D3x (and Sony a900) sensor in them… Sony uses the sensor in one version or another in the A7 III and A7C along with earlier A7 models, while Nikon uses it in the D610, D750, D780, Z5, Z6 and Z6II. Sigma’s fp is probably using a version of the same sensor, and some Leica, Panasonic and other cameras may well be. Remember that, when the sensor debuted in the D3x, it didn’t feature video at all (it could do live view, but it couldn’t record video). The latest iteration is capable of 4k 60p (or it will be once the Z6 II gets its firmware upgrade). It’s a fantastic sensor, but it’s been around forever. The expectation is that we’ll see a replacement, probably in the Sony A7 IV first, sometime in 2021.
The other sensor that is very overdue for replacement is the Micro 4/3 Same Old Sensor. We first saw the Same Old Sensor in the Panasonic GX8, introduced in July 2015. Unlike the 24mp full-frame sensor, It hasn’t gone through generational change since then – as far as anyone can tell, the very latest E-M1 mk III uses the same sensor (with new processing and “toppings”) as the GX8. If it isn’t exactly the same, it’s a very, very similar performer. Micro 4/3 had a dynamic range and noise disadvantage against APS-C sensors in 2015 due to sensor area, even when technology was similar. The fact that Micro 4/3 is still using a 2015 sensor while Fujifilm and others are using much-improved APS-C sensors has only widened the gulf. Whether or not we see a replacement for the Same Old Sensor will be an important part of whether Micro 4/3 is viable in any way going forward.
We’ll be seeing some interesting movements in printer technology, as the definition of a “print” becomes ever more flexible. I’m excited to work with dye-sublimation printing onto cloth, ceramic, wood and metal this year, as the equipment to do so has become ever more affordable. I’ve been using an automatic print cutter this year, which has allowed me to produce greeting cards myself – sending out 12-color prints as an item that will get passed around, hopefully generating interest in larger prints. In addition to rectangular items like greeting cards and business cards, I’ve been able to produce nonrectangular stickers from some of my wildlife images – a real hit with the kids in my life.
Among items related to photography, but not directly in the image chain, there are a couple of big stories. One of the most important is the Mac’s transition from Intel processors to Apple’s in-house chips. Initial results are showing an enormous speedup – double the speed of a comparable Intel machine or more on some applications. The initial Apple Silicon Macs are very power-optimized, rather than performance-optimized, but if they can keep that kind of speed differential as they work on more powerful Macs, it’s huge news. The second notable computer story of 2020 and 2021 is going to be the continuation of SSDs replacing hard drives. 8 TB SSDs have appeared at vaguely practical prices (under $1000) – still much more expensive for bulk storage than a hard drive, but the differential declines from month to month. It won’t be long until hard drives are obsolete for most storage needs.
Early in 2021, the Consumer Electronics Show (virtual this year) news will bear watching for signs of more (and more affordable) 8k TVs. As of New Year’s Eve, the cheapest 8k TV is around $2000, and that’s an older model on clearance. The cheapest 8k OLED TV, offering the best display quality along with the highest resolution, is more like $20,000. 8k projectors, for all practical purposes, do not exist. 8k displays are interesting to photographers because they more or less match the resolution of high-resolution cameras on the long axis. Since the TV aspect ratio is 16:9 and the camera sensor is a squarer 3:2, either the top and bottom will be cut off, or the image will be displayed with black bars on the sides at somewhat less than full resolution. 8k isn’t quite print resolution in digital display form, but it’s getting there, and its widespread adoption would mean that there will be more options for truly high quality digital image display.
One arguably non-technological development to watch is the legal landscape around the big online platforms. Progressive and conservative politicians in the US are both much more interested in regulating Internet and social media companies than either was a few years ago. The European Union and a few US states are already well ahead of mainstream US political thinking on this issue. For better or for worse (in my personal opinion, it’s mostly for the better), the days of social media having nearly unlimited reach and ability to shape opinion without regulation are over. People are tired of unlimited advertising using micro-targeting, tracking and algorithmic fooling with our minds. What form the regulation will take is still very uncertain, but I’d expect we’ll all be paying for photo hosting and distribution within the next few years – in return, your photos will actually reach the audience you intend, rather than an audience chosen by Facebook (who owns Instagram as well), for Facebook’s benefit. Whatever platforms emerge will be better suited to help people focus on your work, rather than the platform actively trying to move eyeballs from art to advertisements.
In a related question, how tired will we all be of the virtual world in 2021? When school, work and travel all moved online due to the coronavirus, we were all forced into a life that revolved around a huge, and possibly unhealthy, amount of screen time. In 2021, we could see either a further acceleration of the “onlining” of our lives or a backlash. My suspicion is that we’ll see some of both, but quite a bit of backlash. Online education in particular is widely acknowledged to have largely been a failure (except by deep-pocketed tech companies, which will be interesting to watch). Zoom fatigue is a very real phenomenon – many, even most of us simply don’t enjoy sitting in front of a screen for hours on end. My big gear acquisition for this winter is a long telephoto lens, not a computer – this clearly shows optimism about moving to a world where I can use such things…
As we move towards an increasingly vaccinated world by the second half of 2021, photography will likely be a beneficiary. I would expect demand for photo workshops and photo trips, for example, to go up, even beyond 2019 levels. Many of us are ready to get out from behind our computers and back into the real world. Personally, I’m planning a hike of many hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, and I think I’ll be vaccinated in time. My plans also include a lot of other explorations, both backpacking/landscape photography and wildlife based. Hopefully, we’ll carry our cameras to document those moments, and we’ll be interested in printing those images to have a real, non-screen-based memory of our reemergence. I think 2021 will be a great year for photography as both a source of memories and an art form, especially toward the second half of the year, and probably a good year for the industry as well.
Looking at some of these possibilities in more detail (in the same order), my best guess on industry consolidation is that we lose Pentax, either to leaving the market altogether or into even further irrelevance. If Pentax somehow survives 2021, it’ll be limping even more than it is now into 2022. How long can a company selling 40,000 cameras annually, with a substantial share of those being profitless entry-level models, survive? The real value of Pentax is in the huge amount of vintage Pentax glass around – while many of their most recent lenses have essentially been rebranded Tamrons (often good lenses, but easy enough to buy from Tamron in another mount), there are many unique Takumars through the years.
The Pentax product I’d most like to see is a truly good, first-party adapter to a viable mirrorless mount. Nikon and Canon both have their own DSLR lines and lenses to protect, so Nikon Z and Canon RF seem like unlikely choices. L-mount is wide open, so Pentax could do a first-party adapter there without involving anybody else – the problem is whether L-mount itself is truly viable. The best choices are Sony or Fujifilm. Neither one has great legacy DSLR glass – Fujifilm has none at all, while Sony’s old Minolta lenses are not a huge consideration. A Fujifilm adapter would preserve more of Pentax’s approach to body design, but it would mean that full-frame lenses would all get cropped (unless they introduced a GFX mount adapter that would crop the sensor instead of the lenses). They’d certainly need to do an X mount adapter as well, since GFX bodies are both uncommon and expensive. Sony offers access to great full-frame sensors as well as APS-C, but it means relearning controls that are more different from where Pentax shooters are coming from. Either one is a great choice for Pentax shooters looking to move forward with their glass – I hope we see one or the other.
Beyond Pentax, I know this will be controversial, but I think Micro 4/3 is likely to be on its last legs. The Same Old Sensor gets older and older, while other sensors improve. The Panasonic GH series are no longer uniquely distinguished video cameras – they still shoot great video, but they can’t do anything that many cameras offering much better stills cannot. A GH6, to be worth a premium price, would have to be a pure video camera that exceeds the video capabilities of the Sony A7s III. Even if it was $500-$1000 cheaper than the A7s III, it’s not part of a system that’s nearly as appealing, and it’s not going to match the low-light capabilities of the massively larger-sensored Sony. It would also have to contend with Panasonic’s own S1H if it went that route. Alternatively, it could continue the GH-series hybrid tradition – but it would have to match the still capabilities of the Fujifilm X-T4 while offering significantly better video. The Same Old Sensor isn’t going to cut it, even if it shows up in a 4k 120p guise, or one that records raw video (the dynamic range performance of the Same Old Sensor isn’t good enough to take maximum advantage of a really good raw implementation).
Olympus (now JIP) seems to be focusing on sports and wildlife – in some ways, a very logical direction given their prowess in image stabilization and weather sealing. They have three problems there… One is that their AF isn’t up to snuff compared to the best systems from their competitors. Part of the problem is that the E-M1 mk III is a $1800 camera that, because of its unique positioning, is competing against $4500-$6500 cameras. It’s actually more competitive against the D6, EOS-1Dx mk III and A9 II than it is against the likes of the X-T4, Z6 II, A7 III (and soon A7 IV) and EOS-R6. Its image quality deficit matters less, and its special features matter more, in the sports market – but its competitors are 2-3x its price, and it’s up against the best AF in the world. The second is, of course, the Same Old Sensor – when you can crop away ¾ of the image from an A7r IV and have a Micro 4/3 sized sensor with nearly the same resolution and far better performance beyond resolution, there is simply no comparison.
The third is lenses. Olympus just introduced their 150-400mm f4.5 zoom. Due to the crop factor, it’s effectively a 300-800mm f9 lens on a full-frame camera. Canon’s, Nikon’s and Sony’s closest competitors are all between 2/3 and 1 1/3 stop faster in effective aperture, although none is as long in effective focal length (before accounting for the massive croppability of the other sensors while still beating the Same Old Sensor’s performance). Sony offers a 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 that is about the same size and weight as the Olympus lens, and is a truly superb performer and our Lens of the Year – I had one in for review (see my recent wildlife article), and just bought my own. Put a 1.4x teleconverter on it, and it goes up to 840mm (yes, it’s f9 with the converter, but the Olympus is effectively f9 as well). Of course, it’s an 840mm f9 on a modern sensor with choices up to 61 mp, not a 5 year old 20 mp sensor!
Nikon offers two options – a 200-500mm f5.6 and the amazing 500mm f5.6 PF (which is much smaller and lighter than the Olympus lens). While the 1.4x teleconverter only gets either Nikkor to 720mm instead of 800, the sensor performance of any modern Nikon is sufficient to allow cropping to compensate (in the case of a D850, Z7 or Z7 II, much more than that) while still handily outperforming the Same Old Sensor. Canon’s most recent offering is a 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 that is much smaller than the Olympus lens. I haven’t used the Canon lens or the Nikon zoom (both of which get positive reviews), but both the Nikon prime and the Sony zoom are great lenses – my choice to buy the Sony came down to price (owning both systems), and could change if I got a really fantastic deal on the Nikkor. Even if the Olympus lens were a competitor in this group, the price is absurd. The Nikkor zoom is the cheapest of the lot at $1400, the Sony is $2000, the Canon is $2700 and the Nikkor prime is $3600. The Olympus lens is more than twice the price of its most expensive competitor at $7500! It’s almost certainly the worst performer in the group when you include sensor and lens together – even if it’s the best lens (and it has tough competition). It’s almost in the price range of exotic fast telephotos like a 400mm f2.8 or a 600mm f4, and it’s effectively more than 2 stops slower. Against the medium-speed telephotos, it’s two to five times the price, and it’s still at the slower end, comparable in speed to the others with teleconverters. It’s only 2/3 of a stop faster than Canon’s little 600 and 800mm f11 oddities, and it’s much larger and heavier, not to mention 8-10 times the price. Sensor performance probably means the Canon f11 lenses will yield a better overall image?
Where Micro 4/3 could compete best is in size and weight. The problem is that the better Micro 4/3 bodies and lenses are not especially small or light, with the exception of a few tiny primes. The really small and light Micro 4/3 bodies tend to be fragile and feature-deficient, while many of the smaller lenses are not great. If either JIP or Panasonic wanted to produce a really small, weather sealed body with good controls, along with some tiny, high-quality lenses, and could get ahold of a modern sensor, it might well sell as a secondary system for travel. The present small, light and cheap bodies seem to sell better in parts of the world where their compactness is prized – they have much better sales rankings in Japan and elsewhere in Asia than anywhere in the West (the same is true of Canon’s EOS-M system). I think the right combination of features could add at least some Western sales while maintaining their appeal in Asia. I’m not sure where (or if) the larger, higher-end gear is selling.
Are we going to lose another camera manufacturer beyond Pentax and likely one or both Micro 4/3 makers in 2021? Leica, Hasselblad and Phase One release very little sales data. All three are privately owned – Leica and Phase One largely by private equity firms, and Hasselblad largely by drone maker DJI. All depend on small numbers of high-margin sales, and each has markets well beyond conventional photography. Leica sells a significant number of cameras to collectors, many of whom never open the box. Phase One sells quite a few to the aerial photography and art/document reproduction markets. How do these markets compare in size to what we think of as their conventional camera sales? I’ve never been able to find out. Hasselblad is probably more valuable to DJI as a brand name than anything else – but they might need to keep making medium format cameras to keep the brand name’s value.
L-mount is probably the most vulnerable of the remaining mounts. Its advantage is that it has a number of manufacturers supporting it, while the problem is that there really isn’t a fully mainstream L-mount camera. The Leica bodies and lenses are very expensive, heavy and quirky, barely registering in sales at all – the SL2 is by all accounts a great camera, but it’s twice the price of a comparable R5, Z7 or A7r IV, without Sony’s large system or Canon or Nikon’s compatibility with legacy equipment. Panasonic’s heavy, bulky S1 series never seemed to catch on, while the Sigma fp is a quirky, specialized little camera – maybe pointing at some of where camera design is going, but not mainstream right now. The Panasonic S5 is the closest thing there is to a mainstream L-mount body, but it entered the market years after its major competitors, and the distance is going to be hard to make up in a shrinking market – why would someone choose Panasonic? If you have Canon, Nikon or Sony gear, you’re going to stick with them. If you have none of the three, moving up from a phone or a compact camera, L-mount will be the least promoted and supported of four full-frame mounts.
Fujifilm has enough of a cult following to hang on, and they have a significant advantage over Canon, Nikon and Sony. For a given level of body and lens performance (apart from the full-frame pixel monsters, which they don’t compete with), Fujifilm is going to be the smallest and lightest option. They also have a just plain fun control layout. Even more so than Nikon, who is the closest runner-up in my opinion, just picking up most Fujifilm cameras feels right in the hand. For any use other than really big prints, a great 24-26 MP APS-C image is big enough. The performance of a modern Fujifilm setup is going to be very, very close to 24 MP full-frame, significantly behind only the 40+ mp bodies with a good lens.
To get that great image, you need a capable body, and more importantly, a great lens. For every other “APS-C is an afterthought” manufacturer, your lens choices are very limited – all other APS-C lens lines focus on cheap kit zooms and travel lenses with very wide zoom ranges. There may be a nice prime or two, and perhaps even a couple of premium zooms, but there’s not much. Sure, you can use full-frame lenses, but, if you’re paying the weight penalty of carting those around, why not bring a full-frame body and get the focal lengths the lens was designed for? Fujifilm has a full line of excellent APS-C lenses, with focal lengths that make sense in APS-C, and taking advantage of the potential to make them smaller. They have a very nice line of APS-C bodies to go with them, too.
Their other line, in sort-of medium format “superslide” size, is also interesting. It’s really not much more expensive to get into than the pixel monsters it competes with. The problem is that the lenses are substantially bulkier, especially anything outside of a standard range prime. The old 50 MP sensor in the affordable bodies is competitive with the very best full-frame sensors, but it’s not a class above. The only way to get a sensor in a different class right now is with the huge, expensive GFX 100 (which is also the only Fujifilm camera I’ve used that ISN’T a real pleasure to handle). They desperately need that sensor (or something else that creates some distance from the Z7/R5/A7r IV group) in a smaller, more affordable body. If they release a $5000-$6000 100 MP body (for example), it will offer performance no smaller format can match for a 30-50% price difference. In the current market, the GFX 50R is in the same price range as its full-frame competitors (depending on discounts at any given time), but also performs very similarly. The GFX 100 is a substantially better performer, but it is triple the price and much larger. Fujifilm needs to keep the GFX line significantly ahead of the best full-frame cameras for it to matter, which means keeping up as the high end of full-frame gets better.
This leaves us with Canon, Nikon and Sony, the “big three”. I would be absolutely shocked if any of the three pulls an important mount off the market in the next couple of years. We could easily lose EF-M, Canon’s low-end APS-C mirrorless mount, although more likely to very limited distribution in the US and Europe than to actually going away. Like the small Micro 4/3 bodies and lenses, it is much more popular in Asia than elsewhere, and I would be surprised to see it go away entirely because of its Asian market. Will Canon USA bother much with it?
Photographic prognosticators have been saying for years that Canon will start releasing APS-C mirrorless cameras with the RF mount. While it hasn’t happened yet, I’d put it somewhere between possible and likely for 2021. The bodies would need to be a bit larger than the EOS-M bodies to accommodate the RF mount. Some EF-M lenses should be able to accommodate the slightly longer RF flange focal distance, providing entry-level kit lenses with very mild redesigns. If Canon has any significant commitment to APS-C, they will also design higher-end APS-C lenses. If we don’t see something like this, it’s a message from Canon that full-frame is where serious photography is going, an important turn from their history of offering relatively high-end APS-C gear along with full-frame. EOS-M is not viable above the entry level, with almost exclusively low-end lenses and no migration path to RF.
Neither EF nor RF is going anywhere, although new EF lens designs may be few and far between, and we may not see any new EF bodies (or perhaps only a Rebel or two). There will be no shortage of support for existing EF gear for years yet, nor should there be any problem getting EF bodies or lenses, either new or used. Even assuming that Canon releases no new EF designs from 2021 on, many of the existing bodies and lenses should be available for five to ten years, with the Rebel bodies and kit lenses being among the first to go, while specialty lenses that work well on the RF adapters will remain in production the longest. Why redesign the tilt-shift lenses, when they work fine on an adapter and sell only thousands of copies per year, if that?
Canon has done a really nice job on the RF mount – in the months since I last took a look at the industry, they’ve been releasing more lenses, including a lot more midrange lenses, and they’ve got a really nice pair of bodies out there in the R5 and R6. I still haven’t been able to land an EOS-R5 test sample, but I look forward to trying one out. Their lens design group has been very innovative (more on that when I talk about trends), and the RF mount system makes more and more sense with each passing set of introductions.
Nikon is in a similar situation to Canon, with one additional complication and one complication missing. The additional complication is that Nikon is by far the most likely of the big three to be sold – they are a much smaller company than Canon or Sony. A sale is quite unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, in 2021. Even if they ARE sold, it won’t be to a risky buyer like JIP – unlike Olympus, Nikon’s camera business has real value, and anyone who buys it will want to continue not only making cameras, but designing new cameras and lenses. The likely buyers for Nikon would be a large, consumer-facing electronics company – would it be Samsung, Apple, or someone else?
The most disruptive (but perhaps not negatively disruptive) scenario would be Apple buying Nikon. It’s not terribly likely, but it could happen. Apple gets millions of people into photography each year, but has no option for people who want to go beyond what the iPhone can do – they want a longer lens, or they want more than 12 mp, or they want better low-light performance, or manual control. If they want to offer that upgrade path, they need a camera company – and buying one is far easier than starting one when there are already too many. Nikon (or Fujifilm’s camera business) is pocket change for Apple.
If Apple DID buy Nikon, what would it look like? The closest analog we’ve seen is Sony buying Konica-Minolta’s camera business, and THAT one worked out well for photographers despite initial concerns. We’d see Nikon software improve right away, especially on the computer and phone side. Apple does not deliberately make hardware they buy hard to use with competitors’ hardware. While they’ve put a lot of effort into making Beats headphones work well with Macs and iPhones, they work fine with Windows and Android, too – don’t worry that there will be no way to get photos from your Z7 II to your PC. We’d probably see real improvements in the software on the camera side, too. If there’s one company in the world that does good menus, it’s Apple – they stole the idea from Xerox PARC nearly 40 years ago, and they have been working on it since.
Any camera company acquired by Apple would immediately get the benefit of the leading computational photography team in the world. Imagine what the iPhone can do, applied to a really good sensor with a top-end lens. Hopefully, they’d allow a high level of manual control over those features, which the iPhone historically hasn’t done (but it’s getting better, and Apple is good enough at listening to creative pros that they’d probably get it right, at least by the second or third iteration). They make Final Cut Pro (and ecosystem) and Logic Pro, and those programs are not automatic-only.
The camera hardware would be little changed at first, and the lenses pretty much unchanged. Apple doesn’t have optical designers, and they’d tread lightly with Nikon’s excellent team. Eventually, we might see “Apple-ified” camera interfaces with more touch and less physical controls, but Apple is pretty good at not messing with what works (at least most of the time – butterfly keyboard notwithstanding). When Apple changes a control scheme, they often improve it.
Any (more likely) buyer other than Apple would change Nikon’s cameras even less – it would be a matter of putting Nikon’s business in the hands of a larger corporate parent . They would probably keep the Nikon name – it’s much more valuable than Konica-Minolta’s was when Sony renamed that camera business. Both the F and Z mounts are valuable ecosystems that will stay around.
Like Canon EF transitioning to RF, the long-term plan for Nikon is a gradual transition to the Z mount, but this does not mean that the F mount goes out the window in the near term. Unlike Canon, Nikon made the right move on APS-C mirrorless – it’s all Z mount, with easy transitions both from DSLR to mirrorless and between APS-C, full-frame and a mixed system. Like Canon, Nikon is in good shape going forward with the Z mount, and has huge legacy value with more than 60 years of F mount gear. The one fly in the ointment is whether a possible sale is disruptive – and I tend to be optimistic about that.
Sony is probably in the best shape of anyone – they have their user base already transitioned to mirrorless, and they control the supply of sensors not only for themselves, but for Nikon and others. They finally made progress on their poor menus with the A7s III, and they have the best pure mirrorless lens line in the business (Canon and Nikon’s excellent first-party adapters make overall lens lines a more interesting question). Sony has been in the full-frame mirrorless game for nearly a decade, when their main competitors got in a couple of years ago – since much of the growth and profit in cameras and lenses is in full-frame mirrorless, that’s not a bad place to be.
There are two weaknesses in Sony’s position, with their full line of cameras and lenses. One is that their APS-C line is neglected. They really don’t offer a great way to get into the Sony system short of full-frame. They have plenty of APS-C bodies, but they are all (relatively slight) variations on 2014’s a6000, which was finally discontinued in November of 2020. Their 16-50mm power zoom kit lens is one of the worst lenses currently made, and they don’t have a lot of great dedicated APS-C lenses. Pick up a current APS-C Sony and a Fujifilm X-T4, and you’ll see the difference in body and lenses right away. Of course, one could say the same of Canon, whose APS-C mirrorless line offers no upgrade path to full-frame, and no better bodies or lenses at all (and I criticized them for exactly this earlier in this article).
There are only two manufacturers who are doing better integrating APS-C and full-frame… The more mainstream is Nikon, who haven’t yet gotten enough APS-C Z mount lenses out, but do seem to have an integrated strategy for the Z mount. The Z50 is a modern body with a very nice transition to full-frame Z – and a lot of FF Z lenses are compact enough to make sense on APS-C. Nikon may be bungling the PR, but the Z mount is technically really well handled. The other one is Leica, whose CL and TL lines integrate nicely into the L-mount world (of course, this all happens at Leica prices). Fujifilm is doing much better than anyone else (including Nikon and Leica) in APS-C, but they aren’t trying to integrate APS-C and full-frame.
The other worry in Sony’s world is a low-probability, but high-consequence possibility of a particular kind of sale. Sony is a very big, very diverse company, half of whose revenue comes from their three huge entertainment businesses – PlayStation, movies and music. The other half is a mixture of consumer electronics (headphones, TVs, A/V receivers, etc.), professional electronics (broadcast gear, pro audio, healthcare and others), electronic components (including image sensors) and, oddly, a bank and insurance company (primarily in Asia). The camera business is a prestige business that fits somewhere in the consumer and professional electronics range and integrates nicely with the image sensor business. It’s a great fit for Sony, and they’re doing well with it – no worries there.
Sony doesn’t have an interest in selling the camera business, and there’s no other company that would be terribly interested in buying it to separate from the rest of Sony. The concern is about one particular kind of sale focused on the entertainment businesses. Sony is a big company, worth about $125 billion on the stock market as of the end of 2020. Most companies couldn’t buy Sony – but some of the few that could are the tech giants, with anywhere between six and fifteen times Sony’s market capitalization. The tech giants are extremely content-hungry – any of them would love to own a movie studio and a bunch of record labels, and most of them would be interested in the PlayStation business as well. Rule out Microsoft, because there is a huge antitrust problem with Xbox and PlayStation landing in the same hands (and they don’t do much with music or movies).
Sony is a big, but not prohibitive acquisition for Facebook, Google (Alphabet), Amazon or Apple. Any of them except Apple, who’d be interested in the hardware as well, would be focused on the entertainment businesses. They could go one of three ways. Perhaps the most likely is to buy just the businesses they want and leave the rest as a large electronics company that (oddly) owns a bank. If Sony refused to sell just the entertainment businesses, they could buy the whole thing and either keep or sell the businesses they were less interested in.
The first scenario, where the entertainment businesses are sold, but the electronics business stays together, is fine and perhaps even beneficial for Sony Imaging. They’re a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and they have more synergy with the rest of the company. If Apple buys all of Sony, it’s a lot like the “Apple buys Nikon” scenario – Apple is a somewhat disruptive, but likely positive, steward of a camera company. The only concern is if a tech giant other than Apple buys all of Sony to get the entertainment businesses. None of Facebook, Google or Amazon has any track record with expensive hardware, nor do we have any reason to think they’d be interested. All three use their limited hardware businesses as a way to build customer databases to sell other products (Amazon) or track people for advertising (Google and Facebook’s tiny hardware business). High-end cameras aren’t a logical fit for that business model, and those owners might either neglect Sony Imaging or spin it off to a JIP-type private equity owner.
Such a deal would take a long time to go through – probably not finished by the end of 2021. Sony could very well remain independent in the long term, or the electronics business could separate from the entertainment business – either of which is fine for Sony Imaging, Aside from watching for rumors of a Sony sale, the other companies to watch are Disney and to a lesser extent ViacomCBS. If any of the tech giants buy either one, the rest will be after their own big content companies (Universal is already owned by Comcast, and Warner by AT&T), and Sony’s entertainment businesses are in play, with potential consequences for the rest of Sony.
Sigma is not really a camera company (the fp notwithstanding), but is in a great position as a family-owned lensmaker. It’s worth mentioning in a roundup, but I think it is very unlikely to go anywhere or be disrupted. Like Canon, but on a much smaller scale, Sigma will be there, doing what they do well – in their case, making lenses. One place where Sigma could impact the rest of the industry is if they were to choose to leave one mirrorless mount out of their future plans. They are part of the L-mount consortium, and they make Sony FE mount lenses as well. If they were to support RF mount, but not Z mount, or Z but not RF, that could alter the balance between the two.