Canon executives (L-R) Yoshiyuki Mizoguchi, Group Executive of Imaging Communications Business Group, Go Tokura, Chief Executive Officer of Canon's Image Communications Products Operation, and Naoya Kaneda, Advisory Director and Group Executive of Canon's Optical Business Group.

At this year's CP+ show in Yokohama, we sat down with senior executives from several major manufacturers, including Canon. Topics covered during our conversation with Go Tokura, Yoshiyuki Mizoguchi and Naoya Kaneda included Canon's ambitions for high-end mirrorless cameras, and the importance of responding to changing definitions of image capture from the smartphone generation.

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Answers from the three interviewees have been combined, and this interview (which was conducted through an interpreter) has been edited for clarity and flow.

How important is it for Canon to add higher-end mirrorless products to your lineup?

At Canon we have what’s called a ‘full lineup strategy’. This means that we want to satisfy all of the demands in the market, so we have mirrorless and also DSLR, which combined makes an EOS hierarchy. We want to fill the gaps to satisfy customer demands across the board.

The new M50 is an entry-level model, because that’s where the high-volume sales are. We want to establish ourselves in this market, and then move forward [from there]. In accordance with the full lineup strategy, we will be tackling [the mid-range and high-end mirrorless market] going forward.

The EOS M50 offers 4K video and Dual Pixel CMOS AF, but not at the same time. Is there a technical reason for this limitation?

With the EOS 5D Mark IV, we do offer 4K video and Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus, so technically it is feasible. But given the position of the M50 in the lineup, we can’t include all of the features available in a product like the 5D IV. Given the position of the product, we wanted to achieve the optimal balance [of features] in a camera in that range. We’ve optimized the M50 as best we can [for its market position], and within those parameters, the combination of 4K video and Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus was not possible.

Canon's new EOS M50 offers limited 4K video capability, making it the first of Canon's mirrorless cameras to go beyond HD video capture.

Another manufacturer that we spoke to estimated that Canon would have a full-frame mirrorless camera within a year. Is that realistic?

That would be nice, wouldn't it?

The Tokyo Olympics in 2020 is coming up - when we look at photographers shooting with Canon at Tokyo in two years time, what will we see?

The Tokyo Olympics is a very important opportunity for us. If we look at the professional camera market, we would like to introduce a professional model at that time. Having said that, we take reliability very seriously. So when we talk about [creating] a model for the Olympics, we’re not just talking about performance. We’re also want to make sure that we can achieve the same level of reliability that we’ve always delivered [in our professional DSLRs].

The Tokyo Olympics is a very important opportunity for us

We also want to raise Canon’s presence overall, with camera products and also events and services. We have been instructed [by our senior leadership] to maximize the opportunity!

Canon's gear room at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Major sporting events like this have always been a major focus for Canon, and have often served as showcases for new professional cameras and lenses. The next Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo, in 2020 and is sure to be a major event for Canon.

In your opinion, what is the most important quality for an entry-level camera?

We are always looking for speed, ease of use, and maximum resolution. We’re also thinking about how we can deliver better image quality than a smartphone. So it’s about really focusing on speed, ease of use and image quality. Small size and weight comes into [the calculation] as well, and also the GUI.

Looking beyond the entry-level class towards cameras aimed at high-end amateurs like the 5D class, those customers need even better image quality, and they also want to take more control over operation. They want to expand, and express their creativity. Reliability also comes into play.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV offers both 4K video capture and Dual Pixel autofocus - not a combination available lower down in Canon's ILC lineup (for now).

Do you think that 4K video is a more important feature at the entry-level end of the market, or the enthusiast / professional segment?

We believe that 4K video is important for all market segments, and all users. Given that we have a range of products, we always have to think about how best [to implement 4K] in that class of camera. And you can do more with 4K video in a higher-end camera than in an entry-level model.

Why is that?

The cost required to introduce [features like 4K] into cameras dictates the kind of features that we can introduce [in products of different classes]. 4K is important to offer in all market segments, and in the M50 we’ve achieved 4K at 25 fps, and that’s the best we can do at this time. We can’t introduce all of the features [in an entry-level camera] that we could in a higher-end model. Another point is that consumption of 4K footage in terms of devices to view 4K video – the penetration of those devices in the market, and their adoption, was a little faster than we expected.

In the past, you’ve said that you won’t introduce a high-end mirrorless product until there would be no compromises compared to DSLR technology. Are we getting close?

In the EOS hierarchy we have cameras from entry-level to professional with different features. When it comes to mirrorless cameras, we have entry-level models, and we’ve just about started on the mid-range class. What that tells you is that Canon is confident about mirrorless technology within this range of products.

We still believe there’s work to be done before we can achieve the level of satisfaction that our users are looking for before they could confidently move from DSLR to mirrorless

But if you look at the enthusiast and high-end product class, in terms of both autofocus and viewfinder [experience], we still believe there’s some work to be done before we can achieve the level of satisfaction that our users are looking for before they could confidently move from DSLR to mirrorless. That’s where we are right now. We’re still on the path to development.

So far, the EOS M5 is the nearest thing Canon has made to a high-end mirrorless camera. The M5 is a great product, but a far cry from some of the industry-changing cameras that Canon has been responsible for in the past.

Having said that, it’s not like we don’t have the components required to create a mirrorless model that would be on a par with DSLR models. For example Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus, lenses that can focus quickly, and optical components like the EVF. We have the technology required to create a camera that would be satisfactory. It’s just a matter of combining [those components] together. So you can look forward to our developments in the future.

There’s still a perception among our readers that Canon is a little conservative. Where is Canon innovating right now?

Rather than some of the very novel features that some of our competitors have been introducing, we believe that it’s really important to deliver the basics. Speed, ease of use, and good image quality. Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus is representative of that [philosophy]. It’s not only important for stills photography, but also for video. Only Canon is pursuing this area [of development] right now. We also have Dual Pixel Raw, and we’re looking for new ways of applying [this technology] currently.

Canon's schematic of its Dual Pixel CMOS AF sensor structure. The top layer illustrates the light-gathering micro-lenses and conventional Bayer-type color filter array. The lower layer shows how each pixel is split into two photo-diodes, left and right, which are colored blue and red respectively. (Note that this does not indicate different color sensitivity.)

With lenses, we introduced the EF 70-300mm [EF70-300mm F4-5.6 IS II USM] zoom lens, and the EF-S 18-135mm [EF-S 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM] which both have Nano USM focus motors. This makes three focus actuators: ring type, stepping motor and Nano USM. This gives us more options when it comes to optical design. For a super wide lens like the 10-24mm L [EF11-24mm F4L USM] for example, we offer ring-type USM, which provides higher torque. Our optical technology is a strength that we’re proud of.

Maybe Canon lenses don’t look that different to our competitors, but in terms of performance, we’re able to create lenses that are superior

We also have a range of [special] optical materials, and methods to process these materials. If you just look at specs, maybe Canon lenses don’t look that different to our competitors, but in terms of performance, we’re able to create lenses that are superior. It’s also about post-purchase support. Durability, reliability, and the ability to withstand extreme temperatures. Our users are able to enjoy this level of performance and they appreciate that.

We also have a new product – our new Speedlite 470EX-AI flash, for automatic bounce photography. So we believe that we can provide innovation across the system of cameras, lenses and accessories. Our customer base is also diversifying, particularly generations ‘Y’ and ‘Z’. They’re looking for new things. We were just at CES in Las Vegas, where we showed some new concept models. We got a lot of feedback, and we want to turn [the concepts] into a marketable product pretty soon.

When we look at trends in mirrorless technology, we’re considering the technical advancements that are possible.

Clearly, the transition to mirrorless will be a big challenge, technically. When you look ahead to further mirrorless development, are you envisaging a new lens system?

It’s been more than 30 years since we launched our EF lens mount, and we’ve sold more than 130 million EF lenses during that time, so we can’t simply ignore that many lenses in the market. At the same time, when we look at trends in mirrorless technology, we’re considering the technical advancements that are possible. It’s a difficult question to answer, but maybe let your imagination suggest some possibilities!

The move from FD to EF in 1987 was bold but also controversial given the legacy of FD lenses and the lack of compatibility between the two platforms. Do you think that situation will happen again?

That’s a difficult question to answer. There was a lot of discussion and debate about that shift, in 1987, and we’re going through the same thing now. We want to nurture and support our [existing] EF customers and we’re in discussion about that at the moment.

Canon's recently-announced EF 85mm F1.4L, showing the electronic contacts which are a defining element of the EF lens system, first introduced more than 30 years ago to replace the all-mechanical FD lens platform.

In 1987, the shift was from a mechanical interface to an electronic interface. That [precluded cross-compatibility]. Despite that shift, the change provided significantly more value for our customers, which is why we went ahead. If it turns out that [the introduction of mirrorless] will create a similar situation, this might be a decision that we would take [again]. But we’re not sure yet.

Because we’re already using an electronic interface, the shift will be more gradual [than it was in 1987] so [we would better able to] maintain compatibility.

Looking ahead, what is Canon’s main priority?

We want to improve our product lineup, including lenses. We just released an entry-level model (the EOS M50), and because young people are really getting into photography more actively, the entry-level segment is one that we always need to make sure to tackle.

The entire concept of capturing images has changed over the past couple of years

When it comes to maintaining market share and ensuring growth, what is the most difficult challenge that Canon is facing?

We’ve been producing cameras for a long time, but the entire concept of capturing images has changed over the past couple of years, and we need to engage with this new style of capturing images. The first stage is our new concept cameras. It’s important for us to relax and expand our concepts of image capture.

This is of the several concept cameras that Canon has been showing this year - an 'intelligent compact camera' designed to automatically capture images, and intelligently learn about the kinds of pictures you want to take.

Now, maybe the camera can be beside you, or maybe even away from you, and still capture the image that you’re looking for. We need to have the technologies to respond to [these new ways of capturing images] in the way that Canon should.

For a very long time, Canon and Nikon dominated the professional market. There’s a lot more competition these days. Is more competition good for Canon?

More players means more activity in the industry, which is a positive thing. Having said that, of course it’s tough.

Does this pressure generate better ideas? More innovation?

Very much so, and it goes both ways. For all players, to be stimulated by increased competition allows us to level-up across the board.

Is it more important for camera manufacturers to design cameras that behave more like smartphones, or that they communicate the benefits of a dedicated camera to smartphone photographers?

I think we have to do both. We have to continue to evolve the traditional benefits that a camera can provide, and at the same time we have to consider the diversification of image capturing tools, including smartphones, and what they have to offer. Our mission is to pursue both approaches.

Editor's note:

This interview was the fourth time I've spoken to Mr. Tokura in recent years, who has become more senior within Canon since we first met back in 2014. Our conversation at CP+ covered some old ground (the perception among some industry-watchers that Canon is a little conservative, increased competition from the likes of Sony, etc.) but this year I really got the sense from talking to him that Mr. Tokura and his team will have some pretty interesting products to show us in the not too distant future.

We know from previous conversations with both Mr. Tokura and his boss Mr. Maeda that increasing the speed of product development has been a priority at Canon in recent years. Since then, we've seen some solid refreshes at the top and middle of Canon's DSLR lineup (along with some truly excellent new lenses), but a lot of the company's energy seems to have been directed towards the lower-end, especially within the EOS M lineup. This focus on the entry-level segment of the camera market ('where the sales are', as Mr. Tokura said in our interview) makes sense, but I've expressed my own disappointment in the past about such a 'slow and steady' approach in the face of increasingly fast-moving competition.

Canon has the technology for high-end mirrorless - it just has to put all the pieces together

It's been a long time coming, but in this interview Mr. Tokura came pretty close to at least hinting that higher-end, perhaps even full-frame mirrorless is imminent – and maybe even within the next 12 months. As he said, Canon has the technology – it just has to put all the pieces together.

Possibly even more exciting is the possibility of a professional model to come by 2020. Back in 2016, Mr. Tokura reminded me that Canon likes to launch flagship models in Olympic years, and the fact that the next Olympiad will be held in Tokyo is likely to present an irresistible opportunity. You heard it here first.

Canon has shaken up the photography market several times in the past, and has the potential to do so again.

Speaking of the future, the Canon executives I spoke to at CP+ were very keen to show me the mockups of a range of concept cameras that were first unveiled at this year's CES show in Las Vegas, in January. While none are finished, marketable products (yet) it's clear that Canon is keen to explore products that respond to what Mr. Tokura calls 'a new style of capturing images'.

Canon is sometimes criticized for taking a conservative approach to product development, and in some cases this is true (although it isn't always a bad thing). It's important to remember though that Canon has shaken up the photography market several times in the past, and there's every chance it could do so again.

Previous interviews with Canon executives:

An interview with the heads of Canon's L lens factory (2017)

CP+ 2017: 'We want to be number one in the overall ILC market'

CP+ 2015: 'Every day I'm saying 'speed up!'

Photokina 2014: Mirrorless 'in the very near future'

CP+ 2014: 'We don't see the smartphone as an enemy'

CP+ 2013: Interview with Canon's Masaya Maeda