The Second Front: What We Know About Canon and Nikon Full Frame Mirrorless Cameras

The ‘Big Two’ are finally, reportedly, taking mirrorless seriously – but are they too late?

Canon and Nikon were, for the longest time, the ‘big two’ of the photography industry. In many ways that is still the case, by default, but the tide has been turning. This is in large part due to the rise of mirrorless camera systems, primarily Sony’s full frame E Mount, but also from Fujifilm’s X-Series and the Panasonic/Olympus micro four thirds partnership. Canon and Nikon’s response to mirrorless technology the last decade has been the equivalent of a 5yr old sitting in the corner of the room with their fingers jammed in their ears and humming and chanting, “I can’t hear you… I can’t hear you!” over and over.

But it appears the Big Two have finally warmed up to the idea of mirrorless, and both are looking to enter the full frame market in a big way (potentially as soon as later this year if the latest reports are to be believed). Even Sony, who has been dominating the mirrorless market and clearly has the hearts and minds of many in the industry, thinks Canon and Nikon will be entering the full frame mirrorless market within the next year.

So here is what we know so far about Canon and Nikon’s mirrorless ambitions, and what we think may be coming down the pipe.

Nikon Full Frame Mirrorless

The information in this section has come primarily from various reports on Nikon Rumors, and Mirrorless Rumors; in addition to our general industry knowledge.

We are going to start with Nikon because they have been on the record longer than Canon in regards to officially admitting to working on a professional mirrorless system. In fact, some industry people were somewhat surprised when Nikon did not launch their long-awaited mirrorless system at CP+ last month. For a long while the big question was about whether Nikon would try and find some way to utilize the F Mount on their mirrorless system, but that faded since a January 2018 report about a new Z Mount, which is expected to be what Nikon bases their full frame mirrorless system around.

This new Z Mount will reportedly feature a flange distance of just 16mm; a far cry from the 46.5mm used on their current F Mount, and 2mm shorter than Sony’s E Mount (18mm). Other reports indicate that the camera utilizing this Z Mount may even feature two AF motors, each of which would control separate lens elements; in theory, allowing for faster and more accurate AF performance. That performance bit would, obviously, not be known until after this system launches.

In terms of the sensor in the Nikon offering, this is still a big question; though patents have surfaced showing that Nikon is working on their own BSI (Backside Illuminated Sensor) technology. That would be the sort of tech they will need in order to compete with Sony in the full frame arena. Some have said the sensor will be the same as the one in the D850, but that would be an odd choice given that sensor’s age by the time this mirrorless system is launched.

Nikon has also, according to reports, focused a lot of their R&D on EVF technology. The company wants the transition from their DSLR system to their mirrorless system to be ‘seamless’ for their DSLR users. They want their EVFs to look and perform the best. If you think about it, this is a smart move, as one of the big complaints you always hear from DSLR loyalists even to this day is about how they can’t get on board with EVFs. Well, if Nikon can manage to crack this nut, and release a full frame mirrorless body with even moderate performance, but with an EVF that makes these DSLR users forget about their OVFs – they will have scored a major victory. Major.

The consensus is that, since CP+ has come and gone with no announcement, the full frame announcement from Nikon is being held until Photokina this fall. Which would make sense; Photokina is always the place where big announcements are made. It is the world stage for the photo industry and if you want to make a splash, Photokina gives you the best potential for that.

Canon Full Frame Mirrorless

The information in this section was primarily drawn from various reports over on Canon Rumors, Canon Watch and Mirrorless Rumors; in addition to our general industry knowledge.

Canon has been doing the mirrorless thing better than Nikon so far, but that doesn’t say much. Their EF-M based cameras are very capable cameras in their own right, but Canon continues to price them into competition with mirrorless cameras that not only outperform them, but that also have access to lenses and technologies that would make a Canon engineer cry. The EF-M system on its own could be so much more if they would just launch some half decent lenses for it. But instead, they have just refreshed their budget zooms over and over. A strategy though that has reportedly changed!

In addition to a rumored fast prime on the EF-M system to be announced around Photokina, it has also been reported that Canon is jumping on board with the idea of full frame mirrorless as well. The company has been working on it for a while, and the wait could be much shorter than many thought it would be. Unlike the Nikon reports, most of what we know about the Canon mirrorless system is that it is being worked on and that there may be multiple options being considered right now.

On the Canon front, we don’t know what mount the system will use – if they will try and do what Sony did and get their EF-M mount to work for full frame sensors as well, release a new mount altogether, or pull off what would be the engineering feat of the century and somehow get their full frame mirrorless to utilize their EF mount without looking ridiculous or being too big.

The latest reports indicate that an announcement from Canon on this front could also come as soon as Photokina, though if it comes that soon we would most likely be looking at a ‘development announcement’ with little substance. The more realistic point for an actual announcement and launch is in early 2019. This will be the ultimate test for Canon, who has no problem throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at their high-end flagship cameras, but who also struggles greatly with juggling price to performance at lower price points (case and point, the 6D Mark II).

Whatever happens, it is shaping up to look like the second front could be opening up towards the end of this year and into early next year. The question is, will the DSLR-makers’ response in the mirrorless arena be more analogous to “The Empire Strikes Back”, or “The Clone Wars” in regards to how it is received. The future of Nikon and, to a lesser extent, Canon hinge on how they pull off these launches. Will they be blockbuster hits or big budget bombs? Only time will tell.

Anthony Thurston

Anthony is a Portland, Oregon based Boudoir Photographer specializing in a dark, moody style that promotes female body positivity, empowerment, and sexuality. Besides The Phoblographer, he also reviews gear and produces his own educational content on his website.