Federer and Nadal; Gates and Jobs; Lauda and Hunt; Edison and Tesla – I’m sure you can name many other world-class champions who were made even better by their worthiest opponents (please feel free to nominate yours in the comments section below!).

But you’d probably find little disagreement that in the world of HDSLR’s – and the 35mm still photography industry upon which they are based — the two heavyweights who have made each other better are Canon and Nikon.

Nikon vs Canon

Back in the old days of silver halide, the Nikon F was the class leader until Canon upped the game with its EOS cameras and EF lenses — and then rewrote the rules of the game entirely with the video recording quality of its full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

It took Nikon a long time to offer a truly worthy response, but there’s little doubt that Nikon’s sensors of late have raised the bar altogether, leaving Canon – at least on this front – in catch-up mode.

There’s a lesson or two in there about the attacker’s advantage. With no sacred cows (as, for example, Nikon‘s F mount or Canon’s CMOS sensor), rising competitors have the room and motivation to reconceptualize and reinvent.

Canon hasn’t yet come up with a compelling response to Nikon’s sensor, but they haven’t been asleep at the switch either, introducing their Cinema EOS line, the dual pixel auto focus 70D, the diminutive but highly capable Rebel SL1, and two staggeringly good ultrawide zooms, the EF-S 10-18 and the EF 16-35/4.0.

As filmmakers, we are all richer for this clash of the titans and should offer our thanks to both.

And yet the giants ignore the other players in the field at their peril – most especially Panasonic with their GH4 and Sony with their A7s.

Panasonic and Sony are motivated to innovate through function and price. That’s how they break into the very top rank.

But Canon and Nikon (thus far) are motivated to preserve: preserve their market share; preserve their margins; preserve their manufacturing advantages by using common technology, parts and form factors amortized over a larger number of shipped units (hence continuing to shy away from mirrorless); and preserve their brand cache both by demonstrating time and again how their products are being used by top professionals – and by refusing to give any air time to upstarts (a bit ironic to use that term for Panasonic and Sony, but in the HDSLR world, there you have it).

If the GH1, 2 and 3 were warm-ups (as one might also think of Sony’s earlier Alpha series HDSLR’s), there can be little doubt that the GH4 and the A7s are main events: truly worthy competitors that not only dare the competitors to respond, but demand it.

Camera brand logos

So the question becomes: will Canon still be the undisputed HDSLR leader after its next model is released? Will the 7D Mk II, already reportedly delayed – or perhaps an SL1 Mk II or some as-yet-unannounced new model — show Panasonic and Sony just who’s boss? Or will it be greeted not only with a yawn — but serious defections to Panasonic and

If it’s the latter, then Canon will have proven as so many one-time leaders have (Fisher Scientific, anyone?) that trying to hold on to the market by any means other than superior product and value is doomed.

As a long-time Canon fanboy with not-inconsequential sums invested in lenses and other peripherals, I hope Canon’s next model responds forcefully and brilliantly to the challenge.

As a filmmaker, I applaud and encourage Panasonic and Sony. I believe their latest offerings are truly game changers, and I am looking seriously at making a switch.

But there is one other observation — obvious as it is — worth repeating: it’s never just about a camera body. As the fairly controversial video by Tony Northrup and more recent post by dpreview.com both suggest, the weakness in the crop-sensor HDSLR world is the meager maximum aperture in their lens offerings (Cosina’s Nokton and Leica’s Nocticron are notable exceptions). Canon, Nikon and Sony have a real advantage here, and Panasonic ignores THAT at its own peril.

Then again, it’s never just about the equipment, either. But you already knew that.

Let the game continue!

(cover photo credit: snap from brand manufacturers’ logos)

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh is the founder of Three Blind Men and An Elephant Productions. He and the team write, direct, shoot, score, and edit web-centric films; conduct photo shoots; and write copy, white papers and blog posts. Hugh also writes screenplays (he recently optioned a TV pilot) and just published his first eBook (Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution). If it's about telling stories, it's in their wheelhouse.

And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.