Canon, Nikon and Sony

If we look at the three systems, each has cameras that produce excellent images. So, how do you decide?
Let’s take a quick look at the heritage of the three companies.
All three are Japanese based companies. After World War II, Canon focused on business machines, although they also had a background in optics. Nikon concentrated on cameras and other optics. Sony started after the war, and made a lot of products like rice cookers, before they hit their stride with transistor radios and tape recorders. This history is important, because the heritage of the companies demonstrates their approach to their product.
Nikon was the premiere camera until 1986, when Canon came out with the AE-1 with the EOS focusing system. Autofocus was new, but Nikon had a big history with their F mount lenses, and did not want to change. However, the F mount wasn’t designed to easily take advantage of autofocusing capabilities. Canon leaped ahead, especially with sports photographers. Nikon finally gave in and came up with the FX mount, which put it on even footing with Canon. However, Canon had made inroads, and because we’re talking about systems, not individual components, once someone selects a system, getting them to change is tough. When Canon came out with the 5D in 2005, they started another revolution in photography. The 5D was a still camera, but it also took video. Once again, Nikon had to catch up. The 5D took video in HD well enough that some professional videographers started using it. After that, the field was Canon, Nikon and everyone else. The lens systems, professional acceptance and reliability of those two systems were too much for other systems to overcome.
In 1996, Sony came out with it’s first camera, the Sony CyberShot, which was digital. They had been making camcorders for nearly ten years, though. They were mostly competing in the point and shoot market, which got devastated by smart phones. Neither Canon or Nikon saw them as a threat, and mostly kept their eye on each other, mirroring each others moves. In 2013, though, Sony started their Alpha series of full frame cameras. The first versions had issues. Sony made great sensors, but their controls were laggy and unintuitive. They also didn’t have lenses to compete. Canon and Nikon continued to ignore them, and thought that digital cameras had reached a point of maturity where they could evolve rather than have another revolution like the one that killed off film. Sony continued to work on the Alpha series. By 2017, Canon and Nikon realized Sony was for real in the professional camera market. Although Sony was still behind in lenses, they focused on the big hitters, and developed professional quality glass in most categories. Their cameras also had features that made Canon and Nikon shooters go “Wow!” Their video capabilities made them handy for “gig” photographers, who might have to photograph an event and then do a video interview. When I go to cover a sporting event now, the over 30 guys are all shooting Canon and Nikon. The under thirties have a lot of Sonys.
So, here are the things about these companies.
Canon and Nikon already had a significant history of 35 mm cameras. This is their legacy, and they have a significant number of lenses that transfer easily to the DSLR format. That lens eco structure made them logical choices when they went into digital cameras, but their legacy is film. Canon also has a history of office equipment, and the key feature people want in office equipment is reliability. For Nikon, image is the key factor. They’re primarily an optics company. Sony has no history with 35 mm film cameras. Their heritage is with camcorders and recording equipment. Therefore, their solutions are much different.
35 mm film cameras, were, at their hearts, incredibly precise mechanical devices. There’s a lot to be said for them. The mirror system in the viewfinder is instantaneous. The shutter mechanism is precise. There are limitations, also, that cannot be overcome without completely changing. The mirror system can tell you if an image is in focus. It can’t tell you if it is properly exposed. It can’t do anything about the viewfinder blacking out when the mirror flips up to expose the image. The shutter mechanism has a limitation on the number of frames per second it can take, and on how quickly it can activate. As an example (mid 2018) the Canon flagship camera, the 1DX MII, has a 20 megapixel sensor, maximum frame rate of 14 frames per second, and the fastest shutter speed is 1/8000th of a second. Street price is $5500. The Sony a9 has a 24 megapixel sensor, maximum frame rate of 20 frames per second, and fastest shutter speed of 1/32000 in silent mode. It costs $4,000. The Canon has some advantages, and is a great professional camera. The Sony is still quirky in some respects, but by abandoning the DSLR heritage of Canon and Nikon, it shows possibilities that far exceed what is possible in the DSLR mindset.
Here’s the Sony explanation of the difference. Remember, this is a Sony advertisement.

Back in the 1980s, I interviewed a guy that ran a business doing traditional typesetting for books. He told me his business would never go away, because the results from computers didn’t have as high a quality as the old method. In the early 2000s, I talked to many film photographers who were certain digital would never replace film. In both instances, these people had several things in common. They had a significant investment in the old way, both in money and expertise. They were comfortable, and had their niche. They did not want to change. They also feared the onslaught of new people, who had not paid their dues in the old ways.
One thing is clear. The landscape is changing.