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Multi-source vs proprietary: photography case studies

The longstanding tug-of-war between vertically integrated companies and multi-supplier ecosystems is something I’m sure many of you are already familiar with, whether related to whatever industries your companies are involved in, and/or regarding the various devices (and software they run) you use in your professional and personal lives. Examples include:

  • Computers: Apple’s MacOS and the sole-sourced hardware for it, versus the Microsoft Windows-based application and hardware ecosystem (and from there by extrapolation to the open-source Linux world), and
  • Smartphones: Apple (again) with iOS and the various devices that run it (and its derivates, such as tablet-tailored iPadOS), versus Google’s open source-derived Android and its ecosystem of smartphone hardware suppliers and application developers.

These aren’t the only examples, of course. Here’s another: in recent months I’ve come across numerous tug-of-war case studies related to another technology-rich product category—photography. As long-time readers may recall, I’ve been using Pentax gear for a “few” decades now, ever since I was a teenager. One key reason why, neatly summarized in a recent writeup I came across, applies equally to Pentax’s 35mm and medium format product lines:

A ridiculous dedication to lens mount compatibility from film to digital cameras.

The only significant lens mount transition that Pentax ever made in 35 mm, for example, was when it shifted from the original M42 screw mount (initially developed by Practika, actually):

to the first-generation Pentax K bayonet mount (which, I didn’t know until reading the Wikipedia entry just now, was originally developed in partnership with Zeiss) in 1975.

To be clear, the K mount has continued to evolve since then, in both its mechanical- and electronic-interface aspects. But to this day, it’s possible to mount a first-generation PK -based lens on a latest-generation Pentax DSLR body and successfully take photos with the combo, albeit absent support for autofocus, autoexposure and the like. Key to the PK mount’s popularity was not only its longevity within Pentax’s own product line but that a number of other camera manufacturers also leveraged it. Plus, I suspect that Pentax was liberal in its approach to cost-effectively and litigation-free allowing third-party lens and adapter suppliers to license and otherwise adopt the mount, too.

By the way, conceptually similar mount compatibility was retained when Pentax evolved its 645 medium format bodies from film to digital. And although Pentax’s 6×7 medium format product line remained film-only through its life, all P67 body variants were lens mount-compatible, too.

Pentax’s (now owned by Ricoh) conscious corporate stubbornness to be the last DSLR supplier standing has, however, had the seeming side effect of hampering its efforts in two other (and related) product categories; DSLR-alternative mirrorless cameras and still cameras that do double-duty as credible video capture devices. As such, after accepting that my Pentax K-1 not only (big-picture) wasn’t 4K video-capable but (specifically) wasn’t meaningfully usable with my Zhiyun gimbal (as already mentioned in my initial coverage of it), I came across a lightly used Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 kit on eBay and promptly fell down the mirrorless rabbit hole. It’s this most recent product suite acquisition, additional information on which I’ll share in future posts, which has revealed the case studies I’ll discuss in the remainder of this two-writeup series.

Lens mounts

Panasonic’s GH5 uses the Micro Four Thirds (abbreviated MFT, and commonly also referred to as Micro 4/3 or, for short, M4/3) lens mount system, a derivative of the earlier DSLR-focused Four Thirds system developed by Olympus and Kodak. FT- and MFT-based cameras share a common image sensor size and 4:3 aspect ratio. In the latter case, however, space for the DSLR’s mirror box and pentaprism has been eliminated. MFT is therefore solely intended for mirrorless cameras; the upside of this simplification, quoting from Wikipedia, is that it:

facilitates smaller body and lens designs via the shorter flange focal distance of 19.25mm. The short flange distance, when combined with an adapter of proper depth, allows MFT bodies to use almost any lens ever made for a camera with a flange distance larger than 19.25mm. Still-camera lenses produced by Canon, Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax and Zeiss have all been successfully adapted for MFT use – as well as lenses produced for cinema.

By the time MFT came out, Olympus’ former partner Kodak was effectively out of the camera business, save for as a brand name licensee (aka, Polaroid). But in exchange, Olympus snagged a credible alternative development partner (Panasonic), along with a host of other camera and lens suppliers (notably, IMHO, Blackmagic Design and Panasonic’s longstanding partner, Leica). Conceptual analogies to the PK mount, thereby rationalizing why I went the MFT route, are apt. That said, to date a notable percentage of third-party lenses are only mechanically compatible with the MFT mount; in-lens stabilization, auto-focus, auto-zoom, aperture control and status, and other electronic interface features aren’t available (although this situation is changing).

Although the MFT standard affords a reasonable degree of commonality to ecosystem suppliers and customers alike, opportunity for differentiation still exists. Panasonic camera bodies, for example, work best with Panasonic lenses when both include image stabilization (IS) support, since the two systems—optical (OIS) for the lens and in-body (IBIS) for the camera itself—are then capable of functioning collaboratively. Still, any time credible competitive options from other suppliers exist, they result in price and profit margin pressure for any one supplier.

To this point, I’m reminded of a recent article I read about Sony’s path to entering the camera market. Back in 2006, Sony had acquired the former camera division of Konica Minolta (itself formed from the merger of two legacy camera brands three years earlier), and initially the acquiring firm seriously considered joining Olympus and Panasonic’s MFT alliance to give it a quick springboard into the emerging compact digital mirrorless camera market. However, quoting from a Nikkei interview with Shigeki Ishizuka, Sony Group Vice Chairman:

There is the problem of whether or not the camera will be small, light, and attractive enough to differentiate itself from other companies. If you do it with Micro Four Thirds, it will definitely be smaller. But if you do that, you’ll be completely on the same playing field as your competitors.

Instead, Sony went it alone with the proprietary E-mount, a gamble given that it followed in the footsteps of the underperforming A-mount predecessor, but an ultimately successful strategy that remains in effect to this day.

This situation is also reminiscent of Canon’s relatively recent change in its lens mount approach. Both Canon’s initial mechanical FD mount, introduced in 1971, and its all-electronic EF mount successor were broadly licensed to third-party lens manufacturers. With the latest RF mount, however, Canon has so far gone it alone from an optics standpoint. Any third-party RF mount lenses that initially appeared also quickly disappeared, presumably from Canon legal pressure.

More “enlightening” examples to come

I have more multi-source versus proprietary photography case studies to share with you, but I’ve run out of available wordcount in this particular writeup. Stand by for part two of this series to appear soon; until then, I welcome your thoughts in the comments on what I’ve so-far covered!

Brian Dipert is the Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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