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Coming in new to the whole SLR world, I am yet to find a conclusive answer to a question that's been bothering me: why are Canon and Nikon the big two? My wife has gone down the Sony route because she has some good old Konica-Minolta lenses from a film SLR but I was wondering whether that's a bad thing.

Is their dominance because Canon and Nikon have the best image technology today? Because they have the biggest range of cameras, lenses and other accessories? Because they have a bigger install base? Or they were just in the right place and the right time with technology advances?

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I think this is potentially answerable in a reasonable way within the broadly-construed charter of the site, but it's also a minefield. I hope any answers are well-thought out, well explained, and take a responsible, historical view backed by objective references. –  mattdm Nov 7 '11 at 21:39
    
It sounds like historical reasons, so I feel less concerned about tethering ourselves to the Sony bandwagon since we already have a few lenses on the a-mount. –  dlanod Nov 8 '11 at 2:08

5 Answers 5

up vote 1 down vote accepted

The biggest single factor I would suggest is the autofocus systems that both manufacturers introduced in the 1980s. This brought professionals to the brands, which demanded more lenses for versatility and thus, today we have very wide reaching lines of autofocus lenses that no other company can currently match.

Once a professional jumps on the ship of one of these brands, it can be quite difficult to switch. The lenses are for the most part not ones that you are going to use on a different brand body. The cost to switch becomes such that you need a compelling argument to switch to another brand.

New photographers often get hooked on the brand by a point and shoot, compact camera, or the less expensive entry level DSLR bodies. Upgrading to the professional or enthusiast lines is more comfortable if we have already been using that brand in some capacity.

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Like much of the history of technology, the rise and fall of various photographic giants is an interesting thing. In the mid-1960s, the market for SLR cameras was utterly dominated by Pentax. Pentax owned more than 50% of the SLR market and were driving innovation and change, such as TTL metering. Then they blew it... Well, not entirely, they still produce really good equipment, but they lost market dominance. I think some factors played a role:

  1. Pentax was slow to abandon the M42 screw mount (also know as the "Pentax Mount") in favor of the bayonet style. They've been historically reluctant to drop legacy support which, in some senses, has now probably kept them alive since their modern lens lineup is lacking. Anyways, Nikon beat them to the punch on the bayonet mount and introduced the first real camera system, much more interchangeable in areas like focusing screen, etc. Big innovation, drew in the pros in a large way for the first time in the 35mm segment.

  2. Canon beat them all to the punch with the A-1 in the late 70s, the first with, what amounts to, an amateur mode and that baby sold like hot cakes. It basically brought SLRs to the masses and the masses bought it. Pros didn't so much, but cash helps fund innovation and the A-1 would give them cash.

  3. Pentax couldn't get their head around the idea that 35mm was now a professional format. They really clung to the idea that medium format was professional, 35mm was, at best, advanced amateur. Whoops. Not surprisingly, professionals aren't always shooting on a tripod in the studio or on a tripod shooting that mountain scene, they do other stuff, and lugging around a medium monster with lenses isn't a lot of fun. You could just see the newspaper photographer popping up the Pentax 6x7... Nope. Net effect, Canon and Nikon started building systems to attract professionals, Pentax did not, not in the 35mm space in any event. So, when these pros give camera advice, the advice is going to be on what they know, kind of like it is today. You tell two friends, they tell two friends...

I didn't mention Minolta, Yashica, and others in all of that. They certainly played a major role in the development of the SLR, but in a lot of ways you can trace the rise of Canon/Nikon with the fall of Pentax, the others were just kind of there, taking their slice in a kind of constant way. Much, in some ways, as it is for Pentax and some others now.

So, I think the end effect on this one is a combination of a whole lot of factors, which isn't surprising. In some sense, the answer to most of your questions in your last paragraph are: yes. I don't think they necessarily have the best technology though, but they certainly don't take a back seat there either.

That's my take, in very much synopsis form, of what I see as a big piece of the history behind the resulting dominance of the big two.

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There are already some great answers on the history of cameras so I'll answer the technology part of your question, which is what I think greatly influenced the market we see today.

Compared to film cameras, digital cameras are extreme complex devices and require expertise in mechanical parts, optical parts, image processing, chips, displays, etc. Many of these components require years of research and billion-dollar plants to manufacture. This actually makes it difficult for any company to develop all the key components. Only Canon and Sony (yes, Sony not Nikon) can produce cameras without sourcing major parts.

Particularly to DSLRs, there are only three makers of sensors remaining: Canon, Sony and Panasonic. Nikon and Pentax both get their sensors from Sony. Olympus gets their sensors from Panasonic, which no longer produces a DSLR ironically. So when it comes to image quality and processing, it is pretty much a two horse race with the leaders leapfrogging each other every couple of years. Presently, this is in Sony's favor but a few years back it was Canon.

Through good marketing and consistent products Canon and Nikon have managed to stay in the lead in terms of sales. Being relatively large has helped them keep producing the largest lens lineups of the industry. They were also first with full-frame DSLRs which appeal professionals. This helped them keep good traction among buyers. Sony too has full-frame DSLRs but they haven't pushed much in that front, luckily for the big two.

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Canon & Nikon both were/are primarily lens companies and also make a gamut of devices from the cameras to the microscopes. Minolta introduced AF first, but Canon & Nikon were the ones who took the concept to the masses. The fierce competition between them meant that they always are trying to outdo the other in terms of price/performance.

Check out Ken Rockwell's writeup for some historical perspective on this.

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Canon and Nikon have been around making cameras since the 1930s. Sony is in comparison a new company, not really becoming Sony as we know it until the 60s, and not getting into the SLR game really until in purchased Minolta a few years ago. While Sony has a strong presence in Point and shoots, it was never a SLR vendor in the film era, unlike Minolta. Minolta lost its way and could not keep up, at least in marketing in the digital age, and was acquired by Sony some years later.

I think today the issue is who made it successfully to the digital age, since you can argue that Pentax, Minolta, etc did not capitalize on their success in SLR as well as did Canon and Nikon. This I think it the biggest factor, as Nikon and Canon just outspent and out developed the others, creating large product ecosystems. Olympus was among one of the most innovative camera companies, responsible in a large part for the SLR, but it has never regained the strength it had in its film days, and remains niche and somewhat unique.

Also note that Canon and Nikon are huge companies, and with Nikon especially having a strong business in other areas where their lens technology is big (microscopes, optics, medical etc)

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protected by mattdm Nov 9 '11 at 1:28

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