Canon’s big gamble

In this week’s Sunday Morning Photographer, Mike Johnston talks about Canon’s introduction of the 5D.

A little history about film sizes

For those who are not familiar with digital SLR photography it is important to take a step back to understand what this is all about. In the days of film, cameras take photos on films of various sizes:

  • “Large format” which covers film sizes from 4″x5″ to 8″x10″. These are known as “view cameras”: Think Ansel Adams, when asked, “What camera do you usually carry?” responded with, “the heaviest one I can.”
  • “Medium format” which covers film sizes where the long dimension is greater than 35mm but less than 4″. These are the cameras you might see a wedding photographer carry who specializes in portraiture, studio photographers, or retro-bufs
  • “35mm” This can be a “point-and-shoot” or “rangefinder” (a rangefinder is a pre-electronic point-and-shoot). It can also be an “SLR” camera: which is synonymous with “the camera a pro or serious amateur carries” but actually just means “Single Lens Reflex”: there is a single lens that both the film and viewfinder share via a mirror and a pentaprism (to fix the image reversal that occurs). It can also mean something in between the two: (an SLR with a fixed lens).
  • “APS” A film format introduced in 1996 that is like 35mm but is 24mm wide. It was killed off by digital cameras.
  • Even smaller formats for pocket cameras usually given as toys. My first camera shot onto 110 format which is 17mm wide.

The two important things to note about this list are:

  • Over time people have moved to smaller formats. This is a function of improvements in film chemistry and the convenience of having a smaller camera. A smaller format mean smaller components. The only way to make good optics cheaper has been to make it smaller.
  • The smallest formats were overtaken first by digital cameras.

dSLR film sizes

You might think that a digital SLR camera would be just like a film one but with a digital 35mm back. This is not the case because historically 35mm digital sensors were too expensive. Instead all manufacturers except a couple have sensors that are closer to APS, than 35mm. Thus digital SLR’s with a a full 35mm-sized sensor were called “full frame”. The notable holdouts were:

  • Kodak made a series of dSLR full-frame cameras using a Nikon-mount
  • Canon’s 1Ds and 1Ds Mark II

The issues here is Kodak stopped manufacturing these cameras and the Canon 1Ds and Canon 1Ds Mark II are mostly only used by wedding photographers. Digital 35mm is dead.

And then Canon introduces the 5D. The Canon 20D and the Nikon D200 occupy the same class and retail for $1500 for the body only. The 5D is basically the 20D with a bigger sensor. It’ll sell for around $3500 for the body only. Well it’s actually a little worse: the Flash sync is down to an almost-unusable 1/200 sec.

Canon’s and Nikon’s world views

The 5D is useful to a Canon 1Ds or 1Ds Mark II user as a backup body. It is useful for those who switch between film and digital bodies and must have it look exactly the same. It is a niche. Canon is gambling that that niche grows.

But at what cost?

If I get a Canon then I can use the old EF lenses or I can save money and bulk on my zooms and get digital-specific EF-S lenses. The problem is these are designed for the smaller format won’t work on my Canon 1Ds, Canon 1Ds Mark II. Furthermore, because of a design-decision quirk on Canon’s part, these lenses won’t work on the Canon 1D, Canon 1Ds, and Canon 10D.

In Nikon, if you buy the same type of lens (called, in Nikon-speak “DX” lenses), they will work on every dSLR Nikon ever made: D1, D1H, D1X, D100, D2H, D70, D2X, and D200. Furthermore they will mount on even the Nikon film bodies (but you will get vignetting because they are designed for smaller sensors).

Nikon’s approach is basically to say, “You buy a Nikon lens now and you can use it on a Nikon camera in the future.”

The same is true for Olympus’s 4/3-system. Similar things can be said for Minolta and Pentax.

Canon’s approach is to segment the market it two. They force you to make a bet on both your body and lens purchases on either full-frame or APS-C.

If anybody can pull it off, it’ll be Canon though. Other than the brief aberration due to Nikon’s D70 Canon has worked their way up the ladder in both marketshare and quality. They are now the the #1 seller of digital cameras worldwide and deservedly so.

But that’s why I’m glad I don’t own a Canon. I think this is the height of hubris to want it both ways. It showed in their introduction of the Canon 300D “Digital Rebel”: a ground-breaking camera that was smacked-down hard when Nikon introduced the D70. Canon cut corners in build-quality and usability. They left the door open as they diverted camera/lens development resources and marketing muscle to the 1Ds Mark II and the 5D. Nikon pounced hard and they were rewarded by the market. (If you go to the store and pick up a Nikon D70s and then pick up a Canon 350D, you will know what I mean immediately.)

But this article wasn’t supposed to be about that. In fact it’s about quite the opposite. But I’ll address that in my next entry.

11 thoughts on “Canon’s big gamble

  1. Uwe Steinmueller, the author of the Camera RAW section of Peter iNova’s PDF book on the D70 reviews the Canon 5D and the Nikon D2x in the field. This is an interesting view because the Steinmuellers use both Nikon and Canons often and own both cameras they review. For their particular needs (nature photography, especially animals), it sounds like the Nikon comes out on top, but only marginally so.

    One interesting point is how the longer depth of field provided by APS-C sensors actually is a bonus in their style of nature photography. I would think that the fuller frame is usefully, but I forget how a important DOF is. These are the sort of people who live and die by hyperfocal distance.

    Reading the review, you can really see how the 5D is really the better camera for wedding photographers transitioning from film (who need lower DOF and don’t need 8 frames/sec) assuming that they spring for the vertical grip.

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