News/Views

News and commentary about the Nikon DSLR world and photography in general. This page automatically updates with links for each new news/views story and is a good place to bookmark if you want to see the traditional bythom "front page" type of story. 

Latest News/Views stories (top is most recent):

Sony Throws Some Smack

Sony sent out a press release on Friday that went immediately viral within the photography community: "Sony Overtakes #2 Position in U.S. Full-Frame Interchangeable Lens Camera Market." 

Instantly you saw commentary on this press release everywhere from dpreview to petapixel to all the various brand-specific sites. Cheering, jeering, and leering ensued. 

Unfortunately, the devil is always in the details, and I've seen quite a few misstatements and guesses about what the press release means. Indeed, even within the short press release there is information that appears to be contradictory. 

One common theme going around is that Sony took the #2 market share in the US from Nikon. Sony did not mention the #2 company by name, nor would you be able to know what that company was without having access to the NPD data, which is proprietary and covered by NDA. So first off, people are guessing that it's Canon, Sony, Nikon, in that order. The headlines that state "Sony takes #2 position from Nikon" are all guesses (though I suppose Sony might have whispered something additional to some of the bigger photography news sites). Heavens knows we have enough made up news around to try to wade through. Even if you guess right, you're not actually writing a news story if you're just guessing.

Second, the metric for the press release's claim is dollars, not units. The implication is that Sony didn't reach #2 in unit volume in the US. In other words, Sony may have sold fewer cameras, but they were more expensive is a logical conclusion you can make.

Third, the time period associated with the claim is very brief: January and February 2017 (versus same period last year). Generally the start of the year is a slow sales period. Plus it's just one market that is cited, the US. The period in question comes immediately after NikonUSA's big full frame promotions in November and December 2016 had ended. Remember, NPD measures from cash register receipts, so any promotions, marketing, advertising, and things that customers don't see like spiffs to dealers, all come into play. My observation is that NikonUSA did virtually nothing in those two months to promote camera sales, while Sony was aggressively doing so. And we'd also need to go back and look at January/February 2016 and see what was happening in the sales channels during that time to make full sense of Sony's claims, since they're using data from those months, as well. 

Don't get me wrong. That Sony can say that they're that competitive and growing—even if for a short time frame for a subset of their products—shows that they are not to be ignored. But if you throw smack like this, you can probably expect to see some come right back at you.

Then we have some incorrect statements in some of the analysis some sites have made. One thing I saw in multiple places was that Sony was innovating and iterating faster. Not really for full frame. The A7 and A7r were 2013, the A7II and A7s were 2014, the A7sII and A7rII were 2015. Six full frame cameras in three years. Nikon had the Df and D610 in 2013, the D750, D810, and D4s in 2014, or five cameras in two years (plus the minor change to make the D810A). Canon was actually the least active in full frame camera iteration during that same period.

I wrote of a contradiction within the press release. The press release states "cameras and lenses" while the NPD data cited in support is for "detachable lens camera, full frame."  So one has to wonder if we're not seeing some loose dealing of the cards here, too.

One final point: sales dollars are generally not a great statistic to look at as predictive. The reasons that all of us analysts look mostly at unit volume is that it is more predictive of long-term success. First, there's the implied lens sales that shipping a new camera implies. Second, there's the likelihood of future upgrading by that customer. Unit volume over time also tells us about trajectories, and allows us to be more accurately predictive of future volume. 

Okay, what to make of all this? Simplest analysis: the A7rII and A7sII sold well in January and February 2017. Both are high priced cameras, and both were pushed aggressively by Sony during the period with a number of promotions. The A7sII, though, is generally steered more towards the video shooter than the still shooter. During that period there was much discussion by outlets such as National Geographic about how the A7sII allowed them to get low-light video that they struggled to get in the past.

Still, the A7rII and A7sII sold well. Congratulations to Sony for that: getting any traction in today's declining camera market is well worth noting and celebrating. 

So let's talk about the full frame camera market for a moment. There really are just three small groupings of product that are driving the sales numbers in the ways the camera makers want:

  • Canon 5D models (multiple)
  • Nikon D750, D810 models
  • Sony A7 mark II models (multiple)

The 1DxII and D5 are low volume cameras (though with high profit margin), while the 6D, D610, and bottom A7 (no letter modifier) models may be higher volume, but are lower in price and profit margin. The basic trend line seems like the serious full frame enthusiast wants smaller and lighter offerings, yet with very high performance, which is favoring the top Sony A7 models a bit in that hotly contested grouping. Curiously, both Nikon and Sony both should be updating their products in this group in coming months. Is it a hint that Nikon did their big sales promotion on those models two months earlier than Sony? Or was that just coincidence? I don't know. I expect new D760, D850, and Sony Mark III models in the coming nine months, so we'll see if that changes anything. As both a D810 and A7rII user myself, I'm curious as to what these companies have up their sleeve to get me to upgrade. 

Note that Sony didn't say anything about how the rest of their lineup is doing in that press release. The APS-C/DX sensor scene might not look as favorable to them, especially with Canon now pushing the EOS M successfully. 

I'm also reminded of the 2007-2008 period, where Nikon wrested the full frame unit volume crown from Canon briefly. That was celebrated by Nikon (mostly in Japan), as it should be, but celebrations have this hangover problem. If you get too caught up in small victories, you might miss out on the big one. Canon certainly fought hard and got their market share back. So when Sony throws smack like this, I'm pretty sure that it fully caught both Canon's and Nikon's attention. 

Expect a reaction. It might not happen quickly, but you don't make statements like the one Sony did without getting a reaction from the rest of the market. 

More Thoughts on the D7500

As tough a critic as I’ve been on Nikon, somehow the D7500 announcement has me spending a lot of time defending them. 

If I am to read my In Box, Nikon Rumors comments, various Internet fora, and the shouts I hear from upwind of me, removing one of the two card slots from the D7500 will cause Nikon to experience a huge implosion, kill hundreds of workers, and make Nikon shares be worth negative 1000 yen. It’s a card slot, folks. 

No, it wasn’t a great decision to drop the second slot or leave the slot at UHS-I compatibility. It saved Nikon a bit of money, one of their oft-stated goals (to paraphrase the chorus in an Aeschylus play: cut costs, cut costs, but good win out in the end). I don't consider it a deal breaker, though. Indeed, I consider my D500 a one-slot camera, as using a second card in the SD slot just slows down my fast XQD card in the first slot. Still, removing a feature that distinguished the D7xxx from the lower models is a questionable move on Nikon's part, just not one that I think is going to do anything other than generate angst among a few users.

Nor was it a great decision to take out the AI-index tab, though this has proven to be even more ridiculous in most complaints I’ve been receiving (e.g. “I shoot with a D810 and Nikon’s decision to take out the AI-index tab on the D7500 has me wondering if I want to continue to be a Nikon owner.”). Dude, you don’t use a DX camera, why are you complaining about whether it has a small tab or not? I’m also having a difficult time believing that there’s a huge core of D7xxx users out there that just have to have full—as opposed to limited—automation of their manual focus lenses made three or more decades ago. Let me remind you that the D90—one of the cameras that Nikon hopes they can convince people to upgrade to a D7500 from—far outsold any camera that Nikon made in the manual focus era. The odds are that there are far more likely D7500 upgraders that won’t even notice that the AI-index tab is gone than there are ones who do. I'd think that those potential D90 upgraders are more interested in the addition of the power aperture capability on the D7500 than the removal of the AI-index tab.

In fact, let me dash the whole AI-index tab thing in one line: which would you rather have: (1) the AI-index tab or (2) a fuller set of DX lenses? Doh! If you’re going to complain about Nikon, complain about the right thing!

I’ve been trying to point out in various places I haunt that Nikon these days is going to get slapped by people on the Interwebs no matter what they do with a single product (or even a small group of products, had they shipped the DLs, for example). Photographers everywhere are waiting for a more dramatic move from Nikon than updating one of their better selling cameras. The perception is that Nikon is failing because the market is failing and Nikon hasn’t shown that they can produce something that turns the market around. 

Sine waves. These things go in sine waves. 

Do something great and you’ll get better-than-deserved recognition. Look how the world exploded positively on the PR side for Nikon when the D5 and D500 appeared with their 1m ISO values and focus performance that could track items moving at the speed of light. Lots of praise. More praise than deserved as it turns out (you might want to back off from that 1m ISO setting a bit, and it’ll take you awhile to figure out how to optimize your use of the new focus system [and eventually you’ll complain about something that the new focus system doesn’t do for you ;~]). 

Announce something not so great and suddenly you’re the pariah of photographic world. You won’t get shade, you’ll get full on sun blockage. Also probably not deserved, but I’m sure that everyone felt good applying the darkness.

Nikon’s on a long glide slope downwards at the moment. That glide slope is because there’s less lift than the drag and gravity increases that are happening. Market gravity is pulling everyone in the camera world back to earth, but Nikon’s given themselves a bit of extra downward motion because they’ve introduced some additional drag. Meanwhile, a few other companies have put in some bigger engines to try to gain altitude. Yet no one’s “winning” this battle at the moment (though see next article). Everyone’s coming back down from the dizzying heights, just at different rates. 

It’ll take more than one product to change Nikon’s course. And that product is almost certainly going to have to be something that’s not a DSLR. In the meantime, failing to iterate and maintain the DSLRs would be just like pushing the stick forward and trying to drill a hole in the ground below you. Nikon’s trying to maintain their glide slope as best they can while they design new wings and engines. The D3400 and D5600 didn’t manage to keep the glide slope maximized; I think the D7500 does. Nikon also needs the D750 and D810 updates to maintain their glide slope or at least minimize their altitude loss. Another exciting DSLR product in the middle of that, whether it be a Df done right or a D5x with megamegapixels or something else, might even help flatten out the flight path for awhile. 

But ranting because there isn’t a second card slot or an index tab or a vertical grip option is not observing properly. The D7500 should hold its own for awhile, and the D7200 priced properly below it will suck a few more folk from the D70-D80-D90-D7000-D7100 crowd and lower to opt in. Assuming, of course, that the D7500 shoots like I expect it to.

So what will happen is that eventually the D7500 small-parts flames will die down and probably be completely doused by those that opt for the camera and actually shoot with it and start reporting that it’s quite good. People seem to forget how "bad" the D7200 update was compared to the D7100. Yet despite only small changes, the D7200 shot like a different camera.

Eventually Nikon will announce a D750 or D810 update and we’ll start this whole mess all over again. 

Sine waves. We're currently in a trough of public opinion.

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Nikon Introduces the D7500 DSLR

bythom nikon D7500

Nikon today announced the D7500, the model that replaces the D7200 in a venerable line of DSLRs, perhaps one of Nikon's most important camera lineages. 

To refresh one's memory, here's the way that line has evolved:

bythom nikon d7500


Starting with the D70 in 2004, Nikon has come up with a fully refreshed version of this camera about every two years, and the D7500 is just the latest in that progression. This particular line of Nikon DSLRs sits right at the crossover between true consumer cameras—these days the D3xxx and D5xxx lines—and the true professional cameras—the D500 and the full frame models. As such, it is the "affordable choice" for serious shooters, as it juggles both price and feature sets in a way that arguably sits at a strong balance point for price/performance. This line answers the question "what Nikon DSLR do I buy if I want truly serious performance and features at a reasonable price?" 

So let's take a look at what Nikon has and hasn't changed in this new model. The big changes come at the image sensor and rear LCD. We get the D500's 20mp sensor, which brings 4K video and a faster frame rate. Some may raise eyebrows at this sensor change, though I see it as mostly a smart move on Nikon's part. First, they're getting sensor re-use, which lowers costs. Second, while the D500 sensor doesn't raise the bar much over the D7200 sensor—and lowers it in the pixel count wars—my experience with it tells me it is a very small, but measurable step forward. 

Meanwhile, the tilting LCD is a feature I've never understood why it isn't on every camera. Tilting is a low bar to achieve engineering- and cost-wise, but a useful feature for photographers. Arbitrarily withholding it on the D7200 model seemed wrong to me. Personally, I prefer the full articulation type moveable LCD—as it allows you to put the LCD in a protective state and swivel around to show to front of camera—but tilting is a close second. 

The LCD is a good news, bad news story. Dot count is down. But menus are touch selectable. This is once again Nikon micromanaging parts in their design bin. It appears that they’ve elected to bring the ease-of-setting upwards from the D5xxx models, but eschew the high resolution monitors used in the D500 and D5. 

The viewfinder gets a bit of a tweak, too, with less diopter range and a slightly lower eyepoint (18.5mm versus 19.5 in the D7200). Which brings me to a point: a lot of the changes in the D7500 over the former model are subtle. I don’t think people will find most of those changes problematic, but there’s definitely going to be a relearning curve even for D7200 users, something that didn’t really happen in the D7100 to D7200 transition.

As you might expect at this point, the D7500 also comes with SnapBridge, the Bluetooth/Wi-Fi combo that was supposed to simplify connecting to mobile devices but hasn't really. Still, Wi-Fi connectivity is now a must in cameras, and the D7500 joins the SnapBridge crowd. Let's just hope that SnapBridge isn't locked into a frozen time-warp, and gains stability, simplicity, and functionality over time. 

Strangely, Nikon tends to avoid using the word SnapBridge in their press release and most marketing materials for the camera, opting to first mention Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and low-keying the SnapBridge mentions. Oh, SnapBridge does get mentioned (“Install Nikon’s SnapBridge app…”) in places in the marketing materials, and especially in the footnotes, but Nikon seems to have taken a step backward in promoting that SnapBridge trademark. Nikon got a lot of negative publicity with SnapBridge, and instead of acknowledging that, fixing it, and repromoting the fix, they seem to be all in their old course, but just only want to whisper the name now. 

That said, there’s plenty to like in the update. An even bigger raw buffer (50 raw max at 8 fps and full resolution, or 100 JPEG). There’s a new Auto Picture Control. A slightly slimmer body with a deeper hand grip, and a slightly lower weight. The addition of Group AF mode and Auto AF Fine Tune. Interestingly, the addition of the 180k pixel exposure meter from the D5/D500. The RETOUCH menu gets a raw batch processing option. Unfortunately, there’s one thing to dislike in the new model: only a single UHS-I SD card slot. Oh, and this: there’s no mention of a vertical grip accessory at the moment, and the AI index pin appears to be gone.

Meanwhile, Nikon snuck the price up a bit here in the US to US$1249 for the body only. Shipment is only described as “summer 2017” at this point, not a confidence-inspiring date, as that technically means anywhere from June to August for us Northern Hemispheric types. Nikon risks losing sales if it isn’t out in June. Indeed, they’re already past the mark where some people are doing their summer planning and purchasing, though generally Father’s Day (June 18) is the traditional point where you need bodies on shelves. 

The real question is this: how many folk will update their previous model in this line to the new one? I and others have been researching how often DSLR users are upgrading, with most of us coming up with a median update point between 2 and 2.5 generations. That means that it's critical for the D7500 to pick up some D90 and D7000 holdouts, some of which may have had their camera for almost 10 years. Indeed, the D90 was the top seller in this line and the D7000 came out right at pretty much the peak of DSLR sales overall. There are far more D90/D7000 users to convert to D7500’s than D7100/D7200 users. 

Looked at in terms of that D90/D7000 group, the D7500 has a lot to offer: much better video, better focus, better LCD, better frame rate, built-in Wi-Fi, and more. Of course, the price differential on the the D7500 and the previous generation D7200 now makes that D7200 look pretty good to those folks, too, given the discounted price. So, yes, Nikon should win over a good block of D90/D7000 owners with the new camera. 

The problem is that the specs really don't seem as compelling to D7100 and D7200 owners: the downgrade in sensor pixel count is the biggest thing that catches their attention, and I'd argue that the built-in WMU in the D7200 offers better integration into smartphones than the SnapBridge of the D7500 at the moment. So what would be the compelling feature that gets these folks to update? 4K video? Tilting touchscreen LCD? Frame rate?

The interesting thing is that the D7500 update falls somewhere between the D3400/D5600 updates and the D500 jump from the D300. The D3400 and D5600 were, best case, what would be called lukewarm updates; very little changed, and nothing changed of note. The D500 update was a massive "everything changes" update, and that got the immediate and total attention of those still clinging to hope for a D300 line.

The D7500 update isn't lukewarm, nor is it massive. It's just another strong, progressive step towards keeping the price/performance balance point in the Nikon DSLR lineup tuned with the times. Because of the sensor switch, in some ways the D7500 update has become the "less expensive D500" model. But remember, the line that the D7500 sits in is all about balance. Not only is it less expensive, but it also has a built-in flash unit that the all-performance D500 doesn't. That difference alone makes the D7500 an interesting camera for anyone pondering a D500. 

I'm pretty sure there will be moaning and complaints and guffaws galore on the Internet about the D7500 as people find something to fault that Nikon didn't provide them. But I'm of a different mind here. I think Nikon did a very good job finding the right combination of things that save them cost, but still create a well-balanced product that sits at that important place in their lineup. Shooting with it will tell all, of course, but on paper the D7500 looks about like I expected it to, and moves a proud line another two years forward in time. 

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Not Loving It

Last year's Show Your Love Some Love and this year's Love Letters From the N Line campaigns from Nikon have now had enough time and images behind them to warrant comment. 

Go ahead and browse the two links above and look at some of the images.

Many of the images are extremely good, though some are more pedestrian (yet decently done). It's clear that NikonUSA has been picking and choosing among the many images they've received to keep the visual interest diversified and high on their sites. 

But...

What's this campaign have to do with Nikon?

I mean, are these images even taken with Nikon cameras? How is Nikon gear somehow enabling these images in ways that, say, Canon gear doesn't? 

Of course, there's no good answer for that. Competent shooters can produce good looking images with virtually any gear these days, so making the "this is because of Nikon" connection would be really tough to do. Possible, I believe, but very tough. 

Instead, what the whole "love" thing appears to be is no more than an attempt to proliferate #Nikon hash tags of some sort (e.g. the current #NikonLoveNY suggestion). In other words, it's an attempt at tying into social networking. I'd argue that Nikon really needs to promote a #TakenWithNikon tag more than the #NikonLove ones. They need to better close the gap between the tag and what they want you to do (buy a Nikon). 

If I type #Nikon into the Twitter search engine, I see more images with the plain #Nikon tag than  any of the #NikonLove tags. Some of that is because the Love campaign is US based, of course, and Nikon's are used worldwide. But still, it seems to me that this social networking campaign is just a subset of Nikon's social visibility and still needs more connection to something. 

Moreover, I'd argue a social networking campaign you probably want to go viral needs more pay-off to those participating in it than having Nikon possibly using your image for free on their Web sites. As in "Produced a great image with your Nikon camera? Post it to your social networking site with the tag #TakenWithNikon for a shot at receiving unique rewards from Nikon." Unique rewards don't have to be cameras (though that would be cool). Off the top of my head, even something as simple as "I was taken with Nikon, they were taken with me" T-shirts with the image emblazoned on it or some such. 

Marketing via social networking is tricky and doesn't always have direct payoff. It seems to me that Nikon's approach is simply brand awareness run a bit astray. It's also sad that I don't really see any linkage to Nikon's own attempts at being Internet relevant (e.g. SnapBridge and Nikon Image Space). 

If Nikon weren't struggling to keep its loyal customers loyal customers, the Love campaigns wouldn't seem like a waste of marketing dollars (though I'd still argue that the connection between the image and Nikon gear needs to be made). Unfortunately, what I keep hearing from people is that they don't understand why NikonUSA is spending money on these types of campaigns. Whatever the customers' complaint is today—faster repairs, better customer service, answers to specific questions, a more organized knowledgebase—they see the Love campaigns as wastes of money that could be spent addressing their needs.

Again, it's not whether they are or are not a waste of money. I'm sure that Cramer-Krasselt, the ad agency behind the Love campaigns, is producing some measure of what worth the campaigns are producing to NikonUSA.

But again it's all about customer perception. Nikon users don't care if some agency exec has a spreadsheet that shows how "engaged" people are now with Nikon after the Love campaigns went active. What I keep hearing is that people think Nikon is spending too many dollars in the wrong places, while cutting costs in things that impact the user base. I believe that's the current loyal Nikon enthusiast perception, and these ad campaigns aren't being received as changing that. 

Finally, a simple question: measure the week before and after the posters and images went up in the NYC subway. Did B&H's Nikon sales go up in the week after? 

It isn't just a US problem. As one reader wrote to me from Europe: "Every few weeks I see promotions on Amazon Germany for Canon or Sony cameras, never saw one from Nikon (and I'm a daily visitor to their site). On the websites and newsletters of the biggest photo dealers in Austria I regularly see not only special rebates but also road shows from Canon, Sony and Fujifilm (e.g. for GFX they tour the whole country). Has been a long time I saw something meaningful from Nikon except Cashbacks two times a year."  Right. Don't market much = don't sell much. Plenty of bankers on Nikon's board of directors; are there any photographers on the board? Probably not, because everything at Nikon appears to be a "cost" problem, and no one seems to think that losing photographers' interest in any way influences their results. 

Bets I'd Take

I've moved to Vegas, baby, and I'm taking bets from all the fanboys at my absolutely awesome new book joint on the strip. Just look for me next to the Expensive Steak and Chicken Restaurant at the beautiful Trump Casino.

Oh, wait, there isn't one. 

Nevertheless here are the current posted lines:

  • D5 new model of some sort in 2017 — 1:3 odds on
  • D5x new model over/under: 60mp
  • D5s model by summer 2018 — all bets are off (guaranteed)
  • D810 followup in 2017 — even odds
  • D810 followup over/under: January 4, 2018
  • D810 followup over/under: 49mp
  • D750 followup in 2017 — 1:5 odds on
  • D750 followup over/under — March  5, 2018
  • D750 followup over/under — 25mp
  • D610 followup in 2017 — 1:5 odds on
  • D610 followup over/under — choose one: no change in sensor/change in sensor
  • Nikon J6 — 2:1 odds against
  • Nikon V4 — 4:1 odds against
  • Any new CX lens — 4:1 odds against
  • Any new DX lens in 2017 — all bets are off (guaranteed)
  • Any new DX prime in 2017 — even odds
  • DX prime over/under — 22mm
  • New mirrorless system in 2017 — 1:5 odds on
  • New mirrorless system launch date over/under — March 5, 2018
  • New mirrorless system is DX — 1:3 odds on
  • New mirrorless system is FX — 3:1 odds against
  • New mirrorless system is >CX and <DX —1:3 odds on

The Sensor Near Term

Image sensors are a semiconductor, and as such they're a bit prone to Moore's Law. Not completely, as the photo diode portion of the sensor hasn't tended to gain from miniaturization of the electronics, but certainly the rest of the heavy lifting that an image sensor does benefits from process size reduction.

Process size reduction has helped drive the ADC (Analog-to-Digital Circuit) from off-sensor to on, has increased bandwidth rates, has given us dual and multi-gain, has made changes to read noise and well saturation capabilities, and much more. 

Other semiconductor techniques, particularly those centered on precision and purity as well as yield improvements, have made our sensors very low in PRNU (Photo-Response Non Uniformity, or pattern) noise, and cheaper to build.

While there's a lot of speculation and excitement about completely different sensor approaches—for example, Fossum's Jot experiments, now turned into a startup at Gigajot, that try to capture where a photon came from and when it arrived—the big steps forward happen fairly far apart and don't always give us exactly what we're looking for when they first arrive. 

Indeed, the industry is really still working on getting everything they can out of the switch from CCD to CMOS structures, coupled with moving to smaller process fabs and a few other innovations, such as BSI (back side illumination) and stacked semiconductors. 

In the near term, therefore, we're still in a bit of the "more of the same" type of situation. 

Overly generalized, we're approaching the limits of single sample Bayer-type capture. At the highlight end there's a limit to how many electrons you can store, especially as we size cells smaller, while at the shadow end we're already mostly limited by the randomness of photons. That's not to say we won't continue to see movement forward on dynamic range, but the increases now don't tend to be dramatic, but smaller movements upward, often made by small tweaks to the on-chip circuitry. 

Sony's recent publication of the road map for the medium format sensors—100mp for the smaller size currently used by Fujifilm, Hasselblad, and Pentax, and 150mp for the larger size, with BSI slowly moving into the line—is actually fairly indicative of where we are right now.

Yep, more pixels. More movement towards BSI and advanced chip-making techniques that started with smartphone image sensors.

Those two things go a bit hand in hand. 

In front side illuminated sensors (FSI) some of the top area of an individual photosite is not collecting light due to the way the data and power lines and on-site electronics are created and take up space. Light ends up having to go down a vertical corridor to be captured. In back side illuminated sensors (BSI) you basically make something similar to your FSI sensor, flip it over, and then grind off the extra silicon so that the full photosite area is collecting light, and basically at the surface or the sensor. 

Making smaller photosites (more pixels) generates less light hitting the photo diode in FSI sensors, but making them BSI lets more light hit the photo diode. Or you could keep the same light-gathering area of FSI and put more pixels on the chip using BSI. In other words, if you want to increase pixel count or improve the basic dynamic range capabilities, you need something like BSI. Balanced carefully, you can gain some pixels and some DR (dynamic range) on a BSI sensor compared to an FSI one. 

Thus, when you look at Sony's chart for medium format, you see BSI (they shorten it to BI) slowly coming into the sensor.

bythom sony mf sensors

I suspect we'll see this same move replicated in full frame, as well. Indeed, the BSI 42mp sensor used in the Sony A7RII is indicative that this approach has already started. Couple that with other small changes in the sensor—copper wiring, multi-gain, etc.—and the camera makers are essentially giving us more pixels while keeping or improving the basic capture attributes of the sensor. 

So don't be surprised when we see new 46-70mp sensors appear in full frame cameras in the near future. Maybe we'll hit 100, but I think 70mp is a safe guess of top end for the moment, as it is well within the predicted bounds of the technologies working their way up the sensor size ladder (e.g. BSI started with phone sensors). 

Thing is, the sensors aren't getting less expensive to make. BSI and Stacked designs add silicon and steps to the sensor creation process, increasing costs, at least until careful fab optimization eventually leads to higher yields and faster creation. 

The three primary purveyors of full frame cameras—Canon, Nikon, and Sony—all are moving forward with the more pixels approach, though with some caution. The question is at what point does the pixel count really net you useful gains for your primary customers? Diffraction, after all, eventually takes a bit of a toll, basically putting an anti-aliasing function back into cameras that have had that taken out. In theory, this is something that should keep medium format separate from full frame, just as it did in the film era. A 50mp medium format sensor is going to have a diffraction advantage over a 50mp full frame sensor—though lens choice could impact that slightly, as medium format doesn't tend to have as many very fast lenses.

Still, it seems clear that customers will still snap up more pixels, just as they snatch up more lens reach at both ends, too. More is more, after all. 

So for full frame, the march continues: more pixels and more DR if they can scratch that out. The costs of doing that for a platform that isn't high volume means that full frame prices for state-of-the-art cameras aren't coming down any time soon. We may get simpler sensor designs—e.g. the Sony 24mp that's in a number of products—in cameras that come down in price. But if you're pursuing ultimate quality in full frame, I would tend to say to expect small price increases.

But look at APS-C (DX). 

You'll note that everyone seems to be stopping in the 20-24mp pixel count realm for the moment (Samsung briefly gave us 28mp). First, that gives you some product differentiation for the top end full frame cameras. By not continuing to rapidly ratchet up the pixel count in APS-C, this is giving some breathing room for cameras like the 5Dr/s, D810, and A7RII and their successors.

More importantly, not pressing the APS-C (DX) sensors quite as hard up the technology tree as full frame means that you can keep pricing down.  I believe that the camera companies have finally figured out that they should have flat fours and V6's in their lineup (with a few giving us V8s and V12s). The benefits of making less complicated, less powerful imaging engines give the camera companies excellent lower cost models (APS-C/DX), while there are always those who will buy the "give me all you've got" approach (full frame/FX). Plus, then there's the relatively small group that will opt for the expensive exotics (medium format).  

But there's nothing stopping the same pixel count push from returning to APS-C. You can certainly drive to 36mp or even 54mp in the crop sensor size. It's just that the gains start to be less visible. That can be compounded by the fact that you're trying to keep the crop sensor cameras reasonable in price, and thus have also created "reasonable" lenses, not super high performance ones. 

Of course there are sensors smaller than APS-C/DX. The problem with that, as I wrote over a decade ago, is the knife-to-a-gunfight one. This is additionally complicated by the smartphone makers now embracing multiple-sensor cameras, which gives them larger sensor performance in a smaller sensor, just multiples of them. 

The law of volume works for the smartphone makers. We're now up to billions of smartphones shipped. In the US, we're somewhere north of 55m smartphones sold a year. Compare that to 3.1m compact cameras and 2.8m ILC cameras. Almost an order of magnitude volume difference (and it's slightly more than that because I'm using North America figures for cameras, which includes Canada, but only US numbers for smartphones). 

Simply put, the push for better sensors happens at the bottom now because that's where the money is. Already this has completely distorted the compact camera market. Even the 1/2.3" sensors don't hold up well against smartphones these days if all they're put behind is a plain vanilla camera and lens. Thus, the remaining "market" in compact cameras tends to be in waterproof cameras and cameras with huge lens ranges. And the former will go away within a generation or two of smartphones is my guess. 

We're now in a world where 1" is the minimum size for compacts. Nikon just told the world that they're not sure that even the 1" compact world is profitable and protectable by cancelling their much-anticipated DL series. I think they were a little premature with that proclamation, but certainly a few years down the line it will be true. 

All of which is making 4/3 the smallest viable sensor size. That should scare the daylights out of Olympus and Panasonic. They've already seen their compact camera business gobbled up by smartphones, now they're once again on the front lines of the war. Sony, too, has plenty of troops on that front, though they've been trying to defend themselves by upping the technology ante aggressively. Sony brought BSI to 1" sensors early, and now has added the even more expensive stacked sensor to the mix.

So here's where I think we are:

  • Compacts — Long focal length lenses will soon be the only safe zone, because it's the only "more" the camera makers will be able to claim. The complication here is that making really long zooms is easier and cheaper to do with smaller sensors, so you essentially give up on trying to beat the image quality of smartphones and instead only give a huge optical range to beat them. Note to camera makers: you need something better than SnapBridge to get those images over to the smartphones or else even the long-lens market dies.

    Outside of long lenses, the only rational choice moving forward is APS-C/DX or larger sensors with highly competent lenses. The Fujifilm X100 and Ricoh GR approach, basically. Nikon almost joined the crowd with the Coolpix A, but managed to overprice that product and under equip it. Sony joined the crowd at the highest possible end with the RX1 (and Leica with the Q). What we haven't gotten is a basic 24-70mm (or even 35-70mm) zoom in such a product. In other words, a more flexible large-sensor compact.

  • Mirrorless — If you haven't noticed, mirrorless managed to try everything from 1/2.3"  (Pentax Q) sensors to medium format ones (Fujifilm GFX, Hasselblad X1D). At the moment, only two Japanese makers—Fujifilm and Sony—have a multi-size sensor strategy going in mirrorless. Long term, I think that's the only viable approach: you need a smaller sensor size for "affordable" cameras and a bigger sensor size where you stretch all the technologies to the max for the "high-end" cameras. Anything else and you're a one-horse wonder, and we all know how that story ends.

  • DSLRs — Realistically we've only got two viable entries here, Canon and Nikon, and both have the same problem: they've chosen APS-C/DX for their "affordable" line and full frame/FX for their "high-end" line. Note where I write about APS-C/DX stalling at 24mp. That has to be intentional. Because there's only a one-stop differential between the two sensor sizes, the performance differential isn't obvious unless you start separating the two arbitrarily. That's being done in pixel count at the moment, but it really should be done in all forms, I think. APS-C/DX is already good enough to hold serve in its present form—especially if you get the lens set right, buzz, buzz—while the larger size needs to stretch its advantage out a bit more. 


Here's How You Get Optics Right

I've been writing lately about how Nikon isn't getting "optics" right. Not optics as in lens design, but rather the second definition in the dictionary: the aspects of an action, policy, or decision (as in politics or business) that relate to public perceptions.

Put succinctly, Nikon has a perception problem, and that problem is worst among many of its formerly most loyal users. A whole series of things have piled up that are driving this change in perception by the serious enthusiast and pro photographer:

  • Postponement and then cancellation of the DL series
  • Release of the too-late, me-too KeyMission series
  • Lukewarm D3400 and D5600 updates
  • Problems with making SnapBridge work as advertised
  • No updates or new products in the Nikon 1 line
  • Terrible decisions on the software side (e.g. just punting on Transfer)
  • Introducing AF-P lenses without firmware support, or even much in the way of telling us why AF-P was important
  • Ongoing, intermittent issues with cards and power on the D500

Ironically, Nikon has kind of gotten the optics right on optics: in the last year we received a 70-300mm DX AF-P lens that performs above expectations, we got 19mm f/4E and 70-200mm f/2.8E lenses that are state-of-the-art, we got the wonderful 105mm f/1.4E. 

The net result of all that is that, with lenses, Nikon seems to be plodding along as they always have: a few new releases a year, all of them arguably better than what came before. Sure, there haven't been any DX wide angle or other primes, nor any response to the f/1.8 twins from Sigma. But arguably the Nikkor side of Nikon is still marching as they always have. My perception of Nikon lenses isn't changing, in other words. 

Which makes the camera side raise eyebrows. 

What's that remind us of? Why sure, another company whose users have great angst that their company has taken the eye off the ball they follow. That would be Apple and Macintosh lineup. In particular, the pro user who lusts after a Mac Pro done right.

I wouldn't have written this article if John Gruber this morning hadn't revealed Apple's response to the poor Macintosh optics. Good ahead, read this article at Daring Fireball. Or this one on TechCrunch. I'll wait.

  1. An apology from Apple for the pause in the Mac Pro development.
  2. Acknowledgement by Apple that they've heard their customer.
  3. Acknowledgement by Apple that they haven't changed course.
  4. Acknowledgement by Apple that they are working on the products customers want, with a bit of the game plan disclosed, but no details.
  5. Disclosure by Apple that they understand who makes up their audience.
  6. Willingness by Apple to share the above with a key group of reporters/bloggers who write for the Macintosh audience.
  7. Willingness by Apple to answer general questions about the future that don't get to level of details about any upcoming products. 

I, too, have been wondering about the Mac Pro (and other Macintosh models). My "optics" on Apple aren't as stressed as a few others I know, but I, too, have been wondering what's happening. After all, I've been a Macintosh power user since 1983 (yes that date is correct), and was one of the leading voices in that crowd for over 10 years. 

In one 90-minute session, Apple essentially corrected their key customer optics, and removed any stress I have about where they're going. I suspect others who had been wondering if they needed to move from Apple to Windows are relieved, too.

That's exactly what Nikon needs to do. Read in particular the comments that Apple marketing VP Phil Schiller made. Who at Nikon is going to step up and make the same type of comments?

Or we could just wait to see what Nikon is really up to by waiting for any significant product announcement and then speculating some more. That probably will be a longer wait than most can tolerate. If Nikon does nothing, the penalty to Nikon for not getting the optics right will be losing customers to Canon, Fujifilm, and Sony. Mostly DX users to Fujifilm, FX users to Sony. 

My message to Nikon: can you really continue to lose customers to competitors in a declining market? 

The Camera Design Space That's Left

As a former product line manager and product designer, I think in something that's often called design space. That's a fancy way of saying "segmentation" and product position within those segments. 

If you simply design the same thing over and over again where there's lots of overlap, you can essentially create too many models for the limited customer base. General Motors was notorious for this in the 80's and 90's with their huge swath of "brands" that often had basically the same auto lineup clad in slightly different metal. 

Sad to say, sophisticated cameras are getting that way.

Even not counting the hold-over, previous generation bodies that clutter the dealers' shelves, Canon has SL1, T5i, T6i, T7i, 70D, 77D, 80D, 6D, 7D, 5D (three models), and 1Dx, while Nikon wants us to believe that they need a D3400, D5600, D7200, D500, D610, D750, D810/D810A, and D5 in their DSLR lineup. Add in the two EOS M models, and Canon's at 14 current ILC cameras, and Nikon is at 9. 

In a growing market, it makes sense to proliferate models at small, incremental price points. Being able to point to something at US$500, 600, 700, 800, 900, 1000, 1500, 2000, etc., means that you you have upsells and downsells so that you can capture every last customer, no matter how much money they have in their pocket (read: remaining credit card limit).  

But in a declining market, you'd better have a fully rationalized product line or else you're going to be committing too much R&D spending to too few purchasers. 

Let's talk about those purchasers for a moment. They fall into a few broad categories:

  • A. Buyer of state of the art. Doesn't tend to be truly loyal, this customer seeks out every last nuance they can find either to (1) distinguish their work (e.g. pros) or (2) to brag about. This is actually a relatively small but influential group, and you'd better be designing for #1 because #2 is extremely fickle and prone to just go elsewhere when anything new appears. 
  • B. The committed upgrader. This customer bought into a system at some point, built a small (or perhaps large) set of lenses and accessories, and likes upgrading their base component (camera body) every once in a while to stay current and relevant. These folk don't tend to buy every cycle. If I had to guess from limited survey data, I'd put the median update purchase at every 2 to 2.5 cycles, the average slightly higher. Moreover, the upgrade purchasing cycle length is increasing, mostly due to people having highly competent, mature products already. A few features, pixels, frame rates, or other additions/changes aren't as tempting any more.
  • C. The newcomer. The average age of the two above categories has been fairly high and is trending much higher these days. They got hooked into serious photography gear in the film SLR era and thus, by definition, are at least 30 years of age, typically much more. The reasons those folk all moved from simple cameras to more complex ones are all still present—generally wanting the best possible system to preserve their most treasured memories—so we still see younger folk kicking the tires, and at about the same points in their life cycles (e.g. getting married, having first child, etc.). But this group also tends to have a competent smartphone and is sharing images via the Internet, so the old film-era workflows look antiquated to them. 
  • D. The follower. Things go through fads and cycles. If a product or product category catches on, there's always a group that decides they need to be part of it. This group has no real reason to purchase the product, but eventually feels they have to in order to be one of the crowd. We had a few cycles of this in the film era, and we had another one in the digital era, which now seems to be over. However, there are "small followings," too. The current trend towards buying a Fujifilm GFX or Hasselblad 1XD is a combination of a very few #1's in the very first group I described being followed by some #2's and now sucking in a few extra followers, as well. 

In order of leaving the dealership, D's disappear first, A's go last. We're currently down to mostly A's and B's driving the ILC market, with fewer C's kicking tires now. Cameras aren't hot and faddish products any more, so the D's have moved on. Oooo, does that new smartphone have two sensors and lenses? ;~)

So first things first. Which of the groups are you in? 

For my work I'm an A#1 , while more casually I also have a couple of products in my gear closet where I'm really just a B upgrader. 

I'm going to use the Nikon lineup here for a product line analysis since I'm most familiar with it, but the same applies to any of the camera systems (e.g. Canon EF/EF-S/EF-M, Fujifilm X, m4/3, Sony E/FE). 

So what does the A user want from Nikon?

First, they're probably using a D500, D750, D810, or D5. What we really want are probably a D500s, a D850h/D850x, and a D5s/D5x. The first one (D500s) is the low-cost option, with a compromise at sensor. But why the pairings on the last two? Because we want the same controls and layout of our cameras, and sometimes we need cameras designed more optimally for one job, sometimes more optimally for another. Nikon got this right the first time around: high ISO/high speed is a useful tool, while high quality/high pixels is a different useful tool. Gee, wouldn't it be great if we could just have a D850 and D5 body and two different sensor modules we could plug into them? That would solve the five-body problem and make it three ;~). 

What will the A user get from Nikon?

No update on the D500 until at least 2018, a late 2017 or early 2018 update of the D810, and a 2018 D5s update. That's probably enough to hold serve, but no more. 

The B user is more complicated because Nikon iterated 8 basic models, so there's an expectation of 8 different iterations. I don't think the declining market can provide that many iteration points, frankly. Too much R&D and retooling work for fewer and fewer upgraders each cycle.

So far, the B user has gotten the full upgrade cycle from Nikon. D3000, D3100, D3200, D3300, D3400, and D5000, D5100, D5200, D5300, D5500. D5600, and so on. 

What will the B user get from Nikon in the future?

Slower iterations, best case. You can already see the steam coming off the iteration cycles from Nikon. For quite a while, the low-end consumer camera was an every-year update with substantive differences. Now, it's stretched out much further, and with fewer differences. 

I'd argue that we should have the D3xxx/D5xxx combine, the D7xxx/D500 combine, the D610/D750 combine, and just have fewer models. You point the lower end owner up one step in the product line, basically. Maybe you give them some sort of incentive to trade up to grease the works. Coupled with this, you have to be a little more aggressive with pricing lest you price the lower-end upgraders out of the market. So take 10% off the D5xxx, D750, and D500 prices going forward, or offer a D3xxx, D6xx, or D300 upgrader some sort of extra incentive.

So what has the C user gotten from Nikon?

Nothing since the D50 in DX, nothing since the D6xx in FX. Even the lens frenzy—especially the 18-xx DX lens merry-go-round—has died down. It appears that Nikon no longer thinks there is a customer they could get that they don't already have by just targeting some new products in the gaps, below, or above current models (those of you who just coughed "mirrorless" into your hands, please wait for me to get there...). 

What will the C user get from Nikon in the future?

Mirrorless DX is my guess. But frankly, that's too late and not targeted right in my book (again, please wait for me to get there). 

Finally, the D user: this isn't something you tend to specifically target, they just come along because you got things right for one or more of the other user categories and created a viral hit. The D500 has had a little bit of that going for it, as I clearly see people buying it for something that they see others had success with, particularly the D500 and 200-500mm f/5.6 combo for wildlife. That's turned faddish for Nikon, enough so that they actually made a product kit out of it (Product 13518).

Prior to that, the D800 was the fad camera, as for some reason quite a few amateurs shooting JPEGs decided that they needed a 36mp camera because it was "so great." 

I don't think you plan for D users, but are grateful when you get them. But I will say this: it's easier to get them if you do something extraordinary or out of the mainstream. Fujifilm figured that out with the X100, for instance. They've parlayed that whole initial small-scale fad into a full line of products that still are trending faddish. 

So, let me back into things for that C user a different way? What's really missing in the camera market that they really want? Two things: (1) smartphone-like image sharing; and (2) simplicity. 

Here's my proposal: we need the smartphone-era equivalent of the Pentax Spotmatic. Solid, reliable, basic, easily learned, extendible, and leads to a bigger system once you're hooked. This is the design space that has been mostly unexplored, though I would tend to say that the Canon EOS M5 comes awful close in a lot of ways. It's a design space that doesn't require extending or reinventing feature sets. 

Somehow I thought that Nikon was headed that direction with the Nikon 1. But boy did they mess up a few things with that product. The simplicity was faux, the price was golden, and it simply wasn't in the smartphone era at all, despite having what could have been Internet trendy things like Motion Snapshot. 

Moreover, you really want your low-end ILC be the gateway drug to the high-end stuff. The Nikon 1 failed to be as extendible as we wanted it to be, especially given that Nikon decided it couldn't play with any of the big-boy toys except lenses, and then only using the center focus sensor. 

It's highly likely that Nikon will opt for a new mirrorless endeavor soon, and it's most likely to be DX. That's (APS-C mirrorless) already a space with a lot of competitors: Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Samsung (in and out), Sigma, Sony. It will be quite a challenge for Nikon to enter that market and do well in it. 

Yet consider the Spotmatic-for-the-modern-era notion. Let's put that into play with a Nikon mirrorless design:

  • DX sensor mirrorless system and all that implies, but keep it as small as possible (ala Canon EOS M, Sony E). 
  • Front/Rear Command dials (one for shutter, one for aperture, and labeled as such; no fancy control overloads or reprogramming!).
  • Mode dial.
  • ISO and WB buttons (work with dials, the only overload I allow).
  • Touchscreen controls for all playback options (no Playback menu): swipes, delete, send to.
  • Super simplified Photo Shooting menu (one page, touch enabled).
  • Super simplified Movie Shooting menu (one page, touch enabled).
  • Super simplified Setup menu (one page, touch enabled).
  • Minimal other buttons/controls. 
  • Solid new user price (e.g. not US$1000, but more like US$600). 
  • What accessories it does use are shared with the DSLRs, and if it isn't exactly the DX lens mount, then an adapter to the F-mount that enables all Nikkor lenses to be used.
  • Lenses? Six: 16-50mm kit, 50-135mm kit, 16mm, 24mm, 35mm, 60mm f/2 primes.

About that Send-to thing: that's where the SnapBridge aspect of the camera has to be fixed and made to work. From the camera end. Nikon had this more correct with the D7200 and WU Wi-Fi combo. A bit more work to extend the abilities of that approach, a stable connection, and we're there. 

Now here's the interesting thing: I asked you to identify if you're an A, B, C, or D customer, and I'll bet most of you said A or B. None of you said C and I just defined a product for that C crowd. But you want it, don't you? ;~) 

That's what design space thinking is all about. Trying to find the unoccupied product definition that should be made, but isn't. Nothing about what I defined here is in conflict with A and B products. Indeed, if you want time-lapse or multi-exposure or any of the other sophisticated features we've gotten over the years, you'd have to buy an A or B product to supplement this Spotmatic type product. Yet, it almost immediately set off a wave of D-type desirability in the A and B crowd. 

What that tells me is that the products have gotten too complex. That the real design work needs to go towards simplification and careful feature/control choices, coupled with some work on the living-with-smartphones world we're in. 

Finally, a comment you might not expect: Nikon does this kind of thinking. The Nikon 1 came of trying to think through design space and find something that didn't exist but should, for example. Nikon just got too many of the elements wrong, probably because they were still trying to protect the adjacent camera groups (Coolpix and D3xxx/D5xxx) at the same time. As Nikon has now seen, those adjacent camera groups were their weakest ones, and didn't need protecting, they needed replacing. 

I talked with one of the Nikon 1 designers not too long ago. I think he understood what the Nikon 1 needed to be and could be, but I got the impression that his design space was limited by decisions being made by management that put the Nikon 1 in a fairly narrow box. Coupled with the initial pricing and marketing mistakes, that constrictive space pretty much doomed the Nikon 1. 

We're all waiting for Nikon's next non-B move in cameras. I would argue that there are spaces—multiple spaces; I've only defined one—where Nikon could put a product that would strongly resonate with the market and give them a product that attracts the A#2 and D crowd. The question is whether Nikon will manage to fight through their complicated consensus management system and find the right product(s) space(s). 

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.


Nikon Un-announces More Cameras

Nikon today un-announced a number of camera products, ranging from the lowest Coolpix to apparently not-yet-announced products (e.g. things like a possible D5x).

“We did so well in 2016 announcing products that we never delivered that we decided to go a step further this year,” said Takehiko Go, recently appointed to the new position of Director of Obsolescence at the company. "Our overall product margins increased enormously by not shipping the DL cameras, so we're now taking this to the next level. We expect our gross profit margin for the fiscal year to be the highest it's ever been in the digital camera era."

Along with the un-announcement of more products, it was also revealed that the entire product management team now reports to Go-san, which should facilitate the un-announcement of future products, as well.

Meanwhile, previous generations of cameras now have additional rebates on them in order to clear room for more products that will be un-announced in the future. Also, because unannounced products require less support, Nikon has announced further plans to cut marketing, sales, customer support, and repair services around the world. "With the additional savings from lower support needs, we expect to be highly profitable for some time," said Go-san.

Curiously, Nikon wouldn't identify the models that have actually been cancelled. According to Go-san "announcing which existing products are cancelled would hurt their final sales, and as we learned from the DL situation, announcing then un-announcing a product users never were able to handle actually hurt our reputation, so we also won't be disclosing future models that are going to be un-announced." 

One additional point that Go-san made in his press conference was this: "Nikon is known for legacy lens support. All of the un-announced ILC cameras support all of our lenses dating back to 1959, and all future cameras that will be un-announced will also fully support the F-mount, confirming our desire to keep our loyal customer base happy."

As far as I can tell, the new full Nikon camera lineup is:

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

But I'm not entirely sure about that last one. 

Amazingly, I've been getting people who believe the article and tell me that the bulleted cameras aren't appearing correctly! This has picked up once April 1st passed on by. All I can say is "gotcha." 

Nikon 2017 News

In these folders you’ll find the several hundred news and commentary articles about Nikon and DSLR cameras that appeared on this site in 2017:



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