An appeal for open cameras

David Siegel, author of the excellent new book Pull, shares with me an abiding frustration with all major camera makers — especially the Big Two: Canon and Nikon: they’re silos. They require lenses that work only on their cameras and nobody else’s. In Vendor Lock-in FAIL David runs down the particulars. An excerpt:

If you have a Canon body, you’re probably going to buy Canon lenses. Why? Not because they are the best, but because they are the only lenses Canon bodies can autofocus. Canon keeps this interface between body and lens proprietary, to keep Canon owners buying more Canon lenses and prevent them from using third-party lenses. A company called Zeiss makes better lenses than Canon does, but Canon won’t license the autofocus codes toZeiss at any price, because Canon executives know that many of their customers would switch and buy Zeiss lenses and they would sell fewer Canon lenses. The same goes for Nikon. And it’s true – we would.

I didn’t know that Canon froze out Zeiss. Canon doesn’t freeze out Sigma and Tamron, both of which make compatible lenses for both Canon and Nikon (many of them, in fact).  Zeiss makes three lenses for Sony cameras but none for Canon and Nikon. I had assumed that Zeiss had some kind of exclusive deal with Sony.

In any case, photographers have long taken camera maker lock-in for granted. And there is history here. Backwards compatibility has always been a hallmark of Nikon with the F-mount, which dates back to 1959. Would Nikon photographers want the company to abandon its mount for lens compatibility with Canon and others? I kinda think not, but I don’t know. I’ve been a Canon guy, like David, since 2005. I shoot a lot, but I don’t have a single lens that a serious photographer would consider good. For example, I own not one L-series lens. (Those are Canon’s best.) All my lenses I bought cheap and/or used (or, in one case, was given to me).  I was a Nikon guy back in the 70s and 80s, but my gear (actually, my company’s gear, but I treated it like my own) all got stolen. Later I was a Pentax guy, but all that stuff got stolen too. Then I was a Minolta guy, and which I stayed until Minolta went out of business (basically getting absorbed into Sony, a company that could hardly be more proprietary and committed to incompatibility). I decided to dabble in digital in 2005, with a Nikon point-and-shoot (the CoolPix 5700, which had great color and an awful UI). I went with Canon for my first (and still only) SLR, an EOS 30D. (I also use a full-frame EOS 5D, but I won’t consider it mine until I’m done paying for it. Meanwhile none of my old lenses work right on it –they all have vignetting — another source of annoying incompatibility.)

Anyway, I do sympathize with David here:

While Nikon and Canon will both say they need to keep their proprietary interfaces to make sure the autofocus is world-class, they are both living in an old-world mentality. The future is open. Some day, you’ll be able to put a Canon lens right on a Nikon body and it will work fine. And you’ll be able to put a Zeiss lens on and it will work even better. But that day is far off. It will only come when the two companies finally realize the mistake they are making with their arms race now and start to talk openly about a better long-term solution.

Stephen Lewis (who is a serious photographer) and I have talked often about the same problem, [later... he says I got this (and much else) wrong, in this comment)] and also look toward the future with some degree of hope. As for faith, I dunno. As companies that are set in their ways go, it’s hard to beat the camera makers.

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13 comments

  1. rjh’s avatar

    I’ve worked standards with some of those companies. In some respects they may be set in their ways, but regarding open standards they are probably more sophisticated than the average “open” advocates. They’ve learned to evaluate the purpose of a standard. From their perspective, it’s good to standardize interfaces that are either between companies or in areas where they do not desire to compete. A standard must offer value to the vendor, not just the customer.

    An example where there is no desire to compete is the standards on photometry. There is no value to a vendor or customer for proprietary measurement techniques or color standards.

    Examples of desired inter-vendor standards that the camera vendors drove or participated in are:
    – 35mm film shape and mechanical characteristics
    – CF cards (physical, electrical, and file structures), and follow-on smaller formats
    – JPEG, EXIF, and IDPT standards

    They see corporate value from having multiple vendors there. It enhances the camera from both the vendor and customer perspective.

    To get an open lens standard will be hard. It’s highly intimate with mechanical body design. You’ll need to show them a large value to their business before they would consider such hard work.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, rjh. I realized that I didn’t know enough about this topic, but I liked David’s concerns about it. Now I’d like to unpack more about how companies like these actually work together. I really don’t know that either.

  3. david siegel’s avatar

    Doc points out correctly that Canon and Nikon both license their format to Sigma and Tamron, and that’s because these lenses only compete with these companies’ low-end lenses, which are low margin products designed to sell camera bodies. More lenses sells more bodies, so improves market share, especially if your competitor is doing it. Once photographers get tired of these low-end lenses, they head for the high end. The reason neither company allows Zeiss a license is that Zeiss lens sales would take away from their high end, and they don’t want another company upstaging them. If Canon would give Zeiss a license, Nikon would have no choice, and vice versa. Both companies prefer the current condition to losing sales to Zeiss at the high end.

  4. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I think that
    computational photography
    is eventually going to eat all of this for lunch.
    Sometime in the future, the tightly integrated combination of imaging sensor and
    computation will allow synthesis on the fly of desired optical properties on the fly.
    The idea of waving a camera around
    to take a photo sounded outlandish
    the first time I heard it, but now it makes a lot of sense, because I understand
    that you don’t have to have one image per shutter button… you can literally take
    hundreds of them in a second and then merge them into a sum that is better than the parts.
    Combine this with some good motion estimation, vibration reduction, and 3d modeling,
    and you could have amazing photos in almost no light, without lens flare, or distortions,
    and you would even be able to change the lighting
    and focus of the photos at a later point, if so desired.
    It used to be that you needed a university budget to even attempt to experiment in this field,
    with projects like the large camera array at Stanford… but
    some of us have taken the basic ideas and are
    experimenting with far smaller budgets and less equipment.
    My own experiments involve a single Nikon D40 handheld.
    I’ve got 2
    years worth
    of results up at flickr for you to browse through.
    I edited this one off line… hopefully for a better result. I hope you like the links, and
    I hope the spam trap doesn’t eat all the links. I also hope you found this comment relevant and helpful.

  5. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I think that computational photography is eventually going to eat all of this for lunch. Sometime in the future, the tightly integrated combination of imaging sensor and computation will allow synthesis on the fly of desired optical properties on the fly.
    The idea of waving a camera around to take a photo sounded outlandish the first time I heard it, but now it makes a lot of sense, because I understand that you don’t have to have one image per shutter button… you can literally take hundreds of them in a second and then merge them into a sum that is better than the parts.
    Combine this with some good motion estimation, vibration reduction, and 3d modeling, and you could have amazing photos in almost no light, without lens flare, or distortions, and you would even be able to change the lighting and focus of the photos at a later point, if so desired.
    It used to be that you needed a university budget to even attempt to experiment in this field, with projects like the multi-camera array at Stanford… but some of us have taken the basic ideas and are experimenting with far smaller budgets and less equipment.
    My own experiments involve a single Nikon D40 handheld. I’ve got 2 years worth of results up at flickr for you to browse through.
    I edited this one off line (twice now)… hopefully for a better result. I hope you like the links, and I hope the spam trap doesn’t eat all the links. I also hope you found this comment relevant and helpful.

  6. Derek K. Miller’s avatar

    But Zeiss does make SLR lenses for Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and screw mounts!

    http://www.zeiss.com/c12567a8003b58b9/Contents-Frame/6a535387747a6e18c12576bd004ffb52

    None are autofocus, but the Canon (ZE) and newest Nikon (ZF.2) at least do offer electronic interfaces and aperture control. I’m not sure what licensing or technical reasons exist for the lenses’ remaining manual focus, but otherwise they’re fully compatible with current (and past) Canon EOS and Nikon F-mount film and digital SLRs.

    It is true that the only autofocus Zeiss lenses for consumer cameras I know about are the ones Sony (and Nokia) uses in its compacts, and lenses for Sony’s Minolta-derived A-mount DSLRs. But it seems like things are more complex than they appear at first blush.

    These lens mounts are so well established it’s hard to imagine how to undo the lock-in now. If the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds standards were more technically comparable to the larger-sensor technology of Nikon and Canon, maybe something might have happened there. It seems to be happening with Micro Four Thirds for small mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras.

    But if you’re like me and have a bag full of Nikon-mount lenses, some more than 35 years old and still working fine, that’s a lot of momentum. I tend to buy camera bodies based on my lenses, rather than the other way around, and a lot of photo enthusiasts are the same.

    It’s interesting that other camera interfaces such as flash shoes, film formats, memory cards, interface cables, and so on have not been so proprietary. It would be nice if maker-brand lenses were the same, but they’re not, and it’s difficult to see how they can become so in the short to medium term.

  7. Michael’s avatar

    I didn’t know that Canon froze out Zeiss. Canon doesn’t freeze out Sigma and Tamron, both of which make compatible lenses for both Canon and Nikon (many of them, in fact).

    Neither Tamron or Sigma officially make lenses for Canon (or Nikon I guess). Instead, they have reverse engineered the protocol and produce their EOS compatible lenses.

    Canon has (and again I presume Nikon) and will continue to “break” these old lenses by changing the software in an ever so subtle way.

    Zeiss recently started releases Canon lenses though. I am tempted.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Michael.

    I have one Tamron lens I’ve used so much it finally failed on me. It was an 18-200 zoom. The main problem was poor dust isolation, resulting in many dust deposits on the sensor.

    I’ll be curious to see what Zeiss does.

  9. Derek K. Miller’s avatar

    Another interesting data point is that in 35 mm rangefinder cameras, the Leica M mount became the effective standard decades ago, and remains so. It’s a small, exclusive, and expensive segment of the market, but if you want lenses, you can buy them from Leica, Zeiss, Voigtländer, and numerous other makers, and mount any of them on a Leica, Zeiss Ikon, Voigtländer, Bessa, or even Epson rangefinder camera, analog or digital, brand new or 50 years old.

    Partly that reflects the fact that rangefinder lenses have not kept up with the autofocus and electronics trends in SLR lenses. But Canon and Nikon did make competing rangefinder camera mounts decades ago, but bailed out of that business in favour of SLRs. The Leica M (and older screw mounts) remained the only game in town, and that’s benefitted the choices of cameras and lenses for the tiny proportion of photographers who use that type of camera.

  10. south wales wedding photographer’s avatar

    you can mount a nikon lens on a canon using the Version 3.0 Nikon G Adaptor by Novoflex. This is certainly an interesting idea and workaround. I work with both nikon and canon users in my team and the frustration up until now is that we are unable to share lenses, this adapter though I may check out http://www.16-9.net/nikon_g/

  11. Stephen Lewis’s avatar

    I am commenting because my name was mentioned in your post. While I thank you for the mention, I do not recall any conversations with you on this subject. The subject you discuss is a non-issue. Incompatibility of lenses emerged in the 1960s when camera manufacturers of 35mm slrs introduced through-the-lens, open-aperture metering with automatic stop-down. (As much as I liked old screw-mount Exaktas, I don’t mourn their passing.) The more complex the engineering challenges, the greater the chances of proprietary solutions it seems. Buy into autofocus, let alone all the superfluous features manufacturers build into their newest cameras, and you support this. Zeiss makes excellent lenses for full-size 35mm-format sensors for those of us who prefer, as I do, fixed focal-length, manual focus, manual aperture, lenses, ever (or especially) on top of the line full-sensor digital cameras. One can sidestep the entire (non-) problem you raise, however, by using digital and film-based range-finder cameras, all of which use Leica m-mount lenses (Voigtlander, Zeiss, and Leica) or, as I used to do, by carrying around a 4×5 inch format field camera and whatever large-format lenses made by whatever manufacturers I preferred (my own favorite was and remains Rodenstock). Better yet, switch to using a fixed-lens medium format Rolleiflex as I still do. As to complaining that lenses designed for an APS format sensor cause vignetting when used on a full-size sensor 35mm digital body: If you don’t understand why, your expensive Canon 5D should be taken away from you. To wrap up, If the fellow you quote really understood the limits of present day digital cameras as well as he pretends to, he might have focused his rant on why cameras with interchangeable sensors are not being brought to market (that is, other than Ricoh’s odd GRX). A suggestion: You once posted with with pride that you have 25,000 images on Flickr. If you shifted your priorities from quantity to quality, you’d probably discover a two or three favorite lenses and would be far less interested in the interchangeability of scores of lenses that you’d never even be tempted to buy, let alone use.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Hi, Steve. Thanks for the corrections. I made a note in the text of the post pointing to your comment. Hope that helps.

    I do understand the reasons for the vignetting. As for the quality/quantity distinctions, I understand those too. And my lens purchases for the 5D, once I make them, will all be primes. Meanwhile I mostly use the 30D, with the lenses that work best with it. (Though the camera has lost much of its ability to read light correctly, even after three trips back to Canon.)

    To sum up, this is probably the worst post I’ve made in years, just given the ways I got facts wrong. Still, I learned a few things, and hope readers have too.

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