Cameras

Canon, Pentax power forward to lure high-end camera buyers

Trying to coax consumers toward a world beyond smartphones, camera makers at the CP+ trade show reveal plans for dramatically better premium products.

Canon 5DS R camera
The Canon 5DS and 5DS R (pictured here) boast a 50.6-megapixel CMOS sensor. Lexy Savvides/CNET

Canon and Pentax just put on a burst of speed in the race to attract well-funded camera buyers.

The smartphone camera has proved to be a mixed blessing for the photography industry. With a smartphone, people always have a camera on hand and can share the shots immediately, and people are documenting their lives visually like never before. But it's a lot harder to persuade somebody to buy an ordinary point-and-shoot camera -- even though it produces better photos than a smartphone, it's an extra expense and often something left at home.

For that reason, the camera industry has been pushing toward high-end compact cameras -- those with image quality, zoom ranges or ruggedness that smartphones just can't match -- or toward models with interchangeable lenses for even more flexibility. The trend will be evident this week at the CP+ camera trade show in Japan, with Canon and Ricoh subsidiary Pentax already laying out their premium strategies with new cameras. The new cameras underscore a change in tactics amid a shrinking market, with the two companies taking different approaches.

For Canon, the choice was to surge ahead in the megapixel race, announcing its 50.6-megapixel EOS 5DS and 5DS R cameras set to arrive in June. These two new SLRs have more than twice the pixels than Canon's previous leader, the 22-megapixel 5D Mark III, and vault over Nikon's 36-megapixel D810 .

For Pentax, the surprise was the news that it will release later this year its first "full-frame" digital SLR. That means the image sensor is the size of a full frame of 35mm film, 36x24mm, for better light-gathering abilities than is possible with the 23.5x15.6mm "crop-frame" sensors in Pentax's earlier digital SLRs. The move signals new high-end ambitions for the company, following full-frame makers Canon, Nikon and Sony.

Camera shipments have been steadily declining for years, but the higher-end segment of models with interchangeable lenses, shown here in orange, have fared better than those with lenses built in.
Camera shipments have been steadily declining for years, but the higher-end segment of models with interchangeable lenses, shown here in orange, have fared better than those with lenses built in. Data from CIPA; chart by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Also ahead of the show, Olympus and Samsung announced higher-end models: the $1,100 Olympus EM-5 Mark II and $800 Samsung NX500 . Nikon's CP+ news hasn't emerged yet, but you can bet it'll also try to coax well-funded photography customers into its domain. That's because increasingly, they're the only ones left.

Plunging shipments

Since 2010, the camera market has been steadily shrinking. Shipments plunged from 121 million that year to 43 million in 2014, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association. But higher-end models whose lenses can be swapped have fared relatively well, accounting for about one in nine cameras shipped in 2010 compared to one in three shipped in 2014.

Samsung's NX500
Samsung's NX500 Samsung

Traditionally, those interchangeable lenses have been SLRs, named after their single-lens reflex mirror that bounces light from the lens into an optical viewfinder. The mirror flips out of the way when the shot is taken, letting the light strike the image sensor. Canon and Nikon dominate this market, though Sony has been making a go of it, and Pentax remains a player.

A newer interchangeable-lens camera type has arrived, though, called mirrorless because it lacks the SLRs' reflex mirror. Instead, the light shines directly on the image sensor, which is why photographers compose shots either with a screen on the back of the camera or a smaller electronic viewfinder screen.

Some of those interchangeable-lens cameras are "mirrorless" models that are more compact than traditional SLR cameras. Mirrorless models, more compact and often handling video with aplomb, have encroached on SLRs, now accounting for 31 percent of interchangeable-lens camera shipments.

Interchangeable lenses are nice for customers, but they benefit camera makers too: once a customer has committed to a particular company, they're more likely to stick with it since one company's lenses don't generally attach to another company's camera bodies.

Canon's megapixel madness?

The new $3,700 5DS and $3,900 5DS R, though, keep still photography as the top priority. Their video features are a bit hobbled compared to the 5D Mark III, but their still photo abilities have the potential to take Canon into a higher-end realm. Though most people don't need dozens of megapixels, some markets have an insatiable appetite.

For example, commercial photographers shoot extremely detailed photos of subjects like jewelry, watches, fashion models and cars for high-end printing. And landscape photographers make large, detail-rich posters. For these customers, the 5DS R offers a slightly sharper image if a slightly higher price tag.

Canon's Rebel T6s, sold in many parts of the world as the 760D.
Canon's Rebel T6s, sold in many parts of the world as the 760D. Lexy Savvides/CNET

Today, some of those photographers buy even more expensive medium-format cameras, which shoot images that are larger than 24 mm by 36 mm, but smaller than 4 inches by 5 inches. High-end camera maker Phase One's products, for example, reach up to 80 megapixels with sensors measuring 53.7x40.4mm. Lower-end models from it and rival Hasselblad offer 50-megapixel sensors.

Canon is a major competitive threat, especially since customers can start with vastly cheaper cameras and lenses and gradually move up the line.

Phase One, responding to the 50-megapixel rivals, argues that not all pixels are created equal: "A Toyota and a Ferrari are both great cars, and even if they both have 12 cylinders, a Ferrari satisfies a whole different set of needs for quality and performance."

A greater number of megapixels doesn't automatically mean better photos. One problem is that older lenses often aren't sharp enough to resolve details. Another is vibrations caused by camera shake and internal camera workings are more likely to blur the shot. To fix the latter problem, Canon has beefed up camera hardware and added the ability to delay the photo capture for a user-definable pause after the reflex mirror flips up.

Canon's main competition remains Nikon. There, Canon has responded with new midrange models, too: the 24-megapixel $750 Rebel T6i and $850 T6s , which also represent a big step up in megapixel count from their 18-megapixel predecessor. The T6s offers some refinements like a top-mounted status screen, HDR video mode and better video autofocus.

Canon also announced a new mirrorless model of its own, the 24-megapixel EOS M3, designed to address shortcomings like slow autofocus of earlier models. It'll only be on sale in Europe and Asia since North American customers haven't shown the same enthusiasm for mirrorless models. Other Canon developments include the ultrawidest of ultrawide zoom lenses, the $3,000 EF 11-24mm f4L USM, and plans to release a higher end compact camera, the G3 X, with a relatively large sensor but also a very long 25x zoom range.

Pentax ambitions

Pentax long has trailed the SLR kings, Nikon and Canon, but it hasn't given up. So far, though, it's stuck with the smaller "crop-frame" sensors. At CP+, Pentax said it'll ship a full-frame SLR by the end of the year.

Pentax announced a full-frame capable 70-200mm lens.
Pentax announced a full-frame capable 70-200mm lens. Pentax

In case anybody is skeptical Pentax will fulfill the promise, the Ricoh subsidiary also announced two new lenses adapted to full-frame shooting, the $2,300 HD Pentax-D FA* 70-200mm F2.8ED DC AW and $2,500 HD Pentax-D FA 150-450mm F4.5-5.6ED DC AW, both slated to ship in March. Those prices illustrate why Pentax decided to push into the premium market.

Full-frame digital SLRs once were exotic, but with the lower-end market crowded with mirrorless contenders, full-frame cameras are now an attractive way for camera makers to pursue a more profitable premium segment. There's a complication for Pentax, though: it's already got an even higher-end model, the medium-format 645Z, so it'll take some finesse to tout one line without undermining the other.

One problem for customers moving from crop-frame cameras to full-frame cameras is that existing lenses designed only for the small sensor simply aren't able to illuminate the entire full-frame sensor. To take full advantage of a full-frame sensor, full-frame lenses are required. For customers making the full-frame transition, Pentax will let people use the older lenses on the new camera, but only in a mode in which the full-frame camera in effect acts like a lesser crop-frame model.

Other contenders

Samsung, one of the newer electronics companies that's elbowed its way into the older camera market, unveiled its new flagship camera in September, the NX1 , and many of that machine's innards now are coming to the more step-down NX500 . This mirrorless model comes with a smaller body and shucks the NX1's electronic viewfinder, but keeps high-profile features like advanced autofocus and the ability to shoot 4K video. The $800 price includes a basic 16-50mm lens.

The OM-D E-M5 Mark II
The OM-D E-M5 Mark II Lexy Savvides/CNET

Olympus, one of those older players from the film era that have struggled to find their way in the digital era, has found a good recipe with its OM-D family of higher-end mirrorless cameras. The new E-M5 Mark II member of the family replaces its three-year old namesake with modernized movie mode, autofocus, image stabilization, and Wi-Fi networking. For steady subjects, it can use a new High-Resolution Shot mode to take 40-megapixel photos composited produced by slightly shifting the image sensor across several individual frames. These shots are then combined into a single photo.

Nikon, Panasonic and Sony have been mum so far for the CP+ trade show. Recently resurgent Fujifilm, with a highly regarded mirrorless line, announced the unusual XM-FL high-end lens cap for about $100 that actually functions as a lower-end, fun lens with a handful of filter effects. It's not clear where beyond Japan it'll go on sale.

None of these CP+ products are enough to establish dominance, but they're all necessary to keep camera makers from being swept aside by history. They've had a rough time chasing a shrinking market, but the flip side of that has been a bumper crop of good products for consumers with a few hundred or thousand dollars to spare.