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):

Nikon Did Not Say “Mirrorless Full Frame”

I guess it was a weekend for Nikon to generate lots of forum discourse across the Internet ;~). The corporate types in Tokyo must be having conniption fits about the deeds and words coming out of SE Asia this week. 

The interview by a Chinese Web site of Tetsuro Goto, launched a plethora of “see, Nikon is going to make a full frame mirrorless camera” remarks all over the Internet, some of which even went so far as to say “only full frame.” Goto-san is currently an advisor to the Nikon Imaging business.

There were other misquotes and misstatements wandering around the net after the interview starting going viral in the Nikon world, including things like “full frame is the trend,” and especially Goto-san’s apparent arrogance in dismissing Fujifilm, Olympus, and Sony as not being used by professionals.

But nuance and accuracy is everything. The interview did not say what many suggests it says. First off, you need a more accurate translation, not the google-ish one I linked to above. Second, you need to pay close attention to the details. 

Goto-san was a key executive at Nikon, and highly influenced things in the D3 and D4 generations of products, including the design of the Df. But I believe he’s currently only a special advisor to the Imaging Business, not Director of Development as dpreview's headline reported. Thus, even if we get the translation and nuance right in his words, I’m not at all sure that you can say they represent Nikon’s thinking.

Indeed, I’m going to simply say that everything I wrote in my article They’ll be Back (Nikon) on sansmirror.com is still accurate to my thoughts and what my sources tell me. Elsewhere I elaborated a bit on that and hinted that I believe DX mirrorless might be first from Nikon before FX, partly due to lenses. I’m not going to change my mind on that, either. (Just a reminder: in that article in those thoughts I’m not reporting “news,” I’m passing along what I’ve heard from sources in Japan.)

So what did we really learn from the interview?

  • The Df was probably regarded as a failure within Nikon, and a followup model is not a given.
  • Goto-san added third-party accessories to his personal Df. In particular, he added a split-prism focus screen from a third party, apparently because he doesn’t regard the focus screen supplied with the camera as good enough. 
  • Goto-san has the opinion that Nikon should bring to market a full-frame mirrorless camera. He seems to believe that full frame “is a trend.” *
  • Goto-san took a dismissive view of Fujifilm's, Olympus', and Sony’s professional adoption. 

That’s about it. 

* I personally take this as a bit of a self-serving remark. Goto-san peaked in the executive suite at Nikon during the time that the D3, D3x, D700 moved Nikon away from being an all-DX DSLR maker. Add in the subsequent FX models plus the big “buy FX” push that Nikon marketing made, and you could say that Nikon was trying to create a trend: upgrade from DX to FX. I have to believe that was Goto-san’s initiative. As I wrote on one forum in response to this supposed trend: in 2016/17 the camera maker with half the ILC market (Canon) introduced 8 APS-C models and 3 full frame models while increasing their market share. That doesn’t seem like a trend to full frame to me.

Oops I Did it Again...

It’s tough to defend a company that keeps making unforced errors. I’m not going to try.

The latest gaff by Nikon is a whopper. Nikon-Asia posted a page with their D850 photographers. Take a look at them:

bythom nikon no women

Notice anything?

32 men, but no women in the roster. And this just after Nikon management admitted in their annual meeting that they don’t have nearly a representative sampling of women in their employment, then professed that they would take steps to address this. “Address” apparently means slowly hiring a few women at the lower levels of the company so that they end up with 25% instead of 12% women employees.

Now, to be fair, Nikon-Asia did post a page with the four “global Nikon D850 campaign photographers": three men and one woman. I guess that meets Nikon management’s 25% guideline, but one has to wonder how sincere Nikon is. (NikonUSA has 24 ambassadors, 7 of which are women, or 29%.) Nikon-Asia also pointed out that they “invited” some women to join them for their presentation that kicked off this promotion, but those women couldn’t make it. 

I’ve called Nikon paternalistic in its decision-making before, but it should be abundantly clear to everyone now. A ring of lost-in-translation older men sitting in offices in Tokyo are making decisions that endorse their own career paths, but they don’t really care much about women, about their customers, or what the social perception of Nikon and its management decisions are.

Now I’m an old white guy, not exactly the sort of person you’d think would be writing about equality for women. But I’ve watched mothers, wives, and daughters struggle to be perceived equally when they produce equal work, and discriminated against in ways that keep them from even getting that work in the first place.

I’ll say this: the best managers I’ve had have been women (I’ve had a couple of bad ones, too, but then again, we’re talking about equality here, and the women pretty much match my record with men managers in terms of good and bad, too ;~). I believe that my hiring record over my career actually is very close to 50% women, even though most of that career was in Silicon Valley. Many of the best employees I’ve had were women, and I hope that I managed to treat them with equal respect and consideration as I did men along the way.  I apologize profusely if I managed to mess that up somewhere. We all make mistakes from time to time, but it’s what you learn from those mistakes and how you handle yourself when confronted with them that’s the real important thing.

I simply can’t fathom how Nikon can be so clueless. But this isn’t the first time they’ve been clueless.

Remember 2011, when the Nikon 1 was supposed to be the ILC camera that women would like? (Yes, they actually said that in one press conference; I had to go back and look to make sure my memory was correct on that.) After all, you could get one of those Nikon 1’s and its accompanying lenses in a fashionable pink. Well, let’s hope Nikon doesn’t try that approach again, because they just pissed off 50% of their potential customer base. Big time. How do you grow sales when you’re dissing half your potential buyers?

Nikon’s initial statements regarding the issue don’t help any. They’re as non-specific and irritating as a politician caught liking an embarrassing tweet. “This unfortunate circumstance is not reflective of the value we place on female photographers and their enormous contributions to the field of photography” was the leading part of the initial response to the criticism that’s appeared. Okay. The unfortunate circumstance should have been detected and easily avoided by simply not being a bunch of men sitting around trying to sell cameras to customers they never meet. This was not an apologetic statement at all, as it doesn’t actually admit Nikon made a mistake. “Unfortunate circumstance” really refers to the situation that Nikon finds itself in.

Nikon also claims that they invited women to this group, but they couldn’t travel to be present at the introduction of the photographers. Really? You can’t introduce people virtually or via teleconferencing? Plus the 32 men are now celebrated on a Web page, what’s to keep Nikon from adding the invited women in?

“We know the conversation happening is an important one,” the statement continued. “We appreciate the need to continue to improve the representation of women, and recognize our responsibility to support the immense create talent of female photographers.”

There’s no conversation really happening. There’s a backlash happening. The conversation that needs to take place is between Nikon and its customers. A conversation that needed to take place a long time ago with many different types of customers, but never did. “Here’s our latest, buy it” is not an effective corporate strategy. Nikon’s apparent blindness towards woman photographers is just more of that paternalism in a different form. It needs to end. Today.

Virtually all of Nikon’s problems begin with the top management. It’s time someone, probably multiple someone’s, be relieved of their irresponsibility. If there wasn’t a directive issued by Nikon top management to all levels in the company, to all subsidiaries, to all associated partners, that says...

Women, minorities, and foreigners will henceforth be treated equally and with full respect. Any program, promotion, statement, or practice that continues a Japanese-only, male-dominated workforce and messaging will result in those responsible coming up for immediate review and possible termination. We are an equal opportunity employer, and our customers come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, countries, and more.

...then Nikon is already doing the wrong thing.

This starts with the board of directors. Older Japanese men with long-term, back-room kereitsu relationships. Paternal. It continues with upper management that is all older Japanese men who perpetuated the board’s desires by continuing that nationalistic and paternal approach. But it continues downward in the organization everywhere. It’s rare that a subsidiary CEO is not Japanese. That’s because that’s how Nikon grooms those paternal upper managers in the first place. It’s the old IBM management shuffle approach, but  far, far worse, and much more insular because it only applies to Japanese men.

I write about frictions in business. I believe that one thing good management does is identify frictions and remove them. Well, Nikon has so much friction in its business approaches and products now that maybe they should shift markets and make brakes for big diesel trucks and trains.

Insulting women the way Nikon just did is a friction that’s not easily removed. Worse, it occurs in the D850 marketing message, which up to the posting of that page, was going fine. This will be remembered by at least half of Nikon’s prospective customers for a long time. Especially since Nikon hasn’t exactly made a full apology, nor have they indicated how they’ll keep the same thing from happening in the future. 

Hey, maybe Nikon only sells 1% fewer cameras when all is said and done. But 1% is 1%. Does Nikon’s board of directors really believe that Nikon’s management is delivering optimal results? Apparently, as nothing much has changed at the top in the entire time I’ve watched the company closely.

Thing is, the cat’s well out of the bag now. Even the New York Times got into the game with an article on this. So did CNN and the BBC. So has virtually every other big photography and even tech Web site now. Even non-photographic Web sites are picking up on this (even smaller, but influential sites such as Daring Fireball picked up on this).

The world is watching, Nikon. Make a real apology. Show us how you’re going to change your practices so that this won’t happen again. Embrace your customers. Join the rest of us in the 21st century.

Okay, before someone sends their email: yes, I know that the current demographics of ILC camera users tend towards male domination. You see numbers anywhere from 60 to 90% male ownership and use through much of the industry. 

However, this is not an excuse to then simply ignore the minority. We have far too much of that happening everywhere in the world, and it’s wrong wherever it happens. What happens is that things become self-discriminating when you start by saying “we won’t consider both sexes equally because they’re not currently equal.” And again, why would you even want to turn off even one potential customer? 

Men photographers aren’t better than women photographers (or vice versa). I can tell you firsthand that I’ve seen men photographers given opportunities more quickly and easier than women photographers. For no reason other than they’re women. That’s wrong. A company that really wants to make customers for life should be leading the charge to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be a great photographer and recognized for that. That’s the lesson to be learned here. 

Dumb Things The Camera Companies are Still Doing

As much as we talk about the lack of true innovation in the camera market, particularly when it comes to integration with the Internet and social media, every day I keep encountering cameras that have the same "hey this is the way it used to be" design philosophies underlying them. 

I call it "lazy engineering." Someone up top in management keeps screaming "cut costs," and one of the ways you can cut costs is to not redesign something you've already designed. Just go with the solutions you've been using. Just use the parts you've been using. Buy cheaper, not-leading-edge parts.

But the real problem with lazy engineering is that user problems just stay unsolved. Solved user problems sell cameras. Unsolved ones don't.

What's the first thing most of us do after buying a new camera? Accessorize it properly.  So let's start there.

Lack of Arca Swiss mounting
The 1/4" tripod socket at the bottom of the camera has been there since our ancestors evolved off into a new species millennia ago. Okay, maybe not quite that long. Ever since the Bible says the world started. Nope, still a bit too long. I can say this: the first camera I ever saw as a child now about 60 years ago had a 1/4" tripod socket on it. 

When was the last time I used a 1/4" tripod socket to mount to a tripod? Over twenty years ago. Did the camera companies notice? Nope. Someone in accounting just keeps ordering 1/4" tripod sockets and sends them to the factory. 

But we don't use those things for mounting to a tripod because it takes too much time to mount and unmount a camera, plus screwing in doesn't exactly secure the position of the camera on the tripod (it eventually rotates). The camera makers all used to put a rubber layer on the bottom of cameras to help with the latter problem, but the rubber layer would then just get torn and needed repair, so now companies like Nikon just use a plastic body surface with some indents in it (which doesn't work for keeping the camera from slipping and rotating in the socket). 

Because cameras tended to transition to plastics for body, there's even the issue of how the companies mount the tripod socket securely so it doesn't break, get misaligned, or come out. Lots of screws and frame position gets involved in that, and I've still seen plenty of tripod sockets break on people trying to actually use them.

The pros long ago moved to Arca Swiss style plates on their cameras, and the enthusiasts followed. First, there's the near instant on/off ability that they provide. But more important, a well designed Arca Swiss plate doesn't ever swivel on the camera body. Most importantly, well designed Arca Swiss plates provide a near solid metal-to-metal bond between our camera and support system. That's important, because if the bond isn't 100% solid, you introduce a vibration point in your support system. Trust me on this, I've seen so many camera-on-tripod-via-tripod-socket connections that create a vibration point that if I had a grain of sand for each one, I'd own a beach. 

A couple of camera companies have sort of caught on to this. Fujifilm has made extension grips with Arca Swiss dove-tailing, and Olympus has been putting the same on the tripod mounts of their long lenses. The most recent Tamron announcement (100-400mm) has a tripod collar with Arca Swiss dove-tailing. Bravo, guys. Now do it for everything!

User's solution: buy RRS or Kirk plates for everything, at huge extra costs. Why didn't we upgrade our camera every generation? Because it wasn't just the cost of the camera that we had to figure in to our calculations. New batteries, new vertical grip, new plates, lots of extra expenses. 

Tripod collars braced only at or near the lens mount 
Related to the Arca Swiss plates are tripod collars for long lenses. Oh dear don't get me started. 

Again, the whole point of having a support system is that you eliminate all vibrations from the system. Nikon got notorious for having tripod collars that introduced vibrations to the system. The whole idea of making a removable collar, putting that right at or near the mount, then extended it down while making a 90-degree turn in some skinny metal just invites issues. 

Simple test: put your telephoto lens on your strongest tripod with the tripod not fully extended (e.g. make it as steady as possible). Now tap hard on the top front of the lens hood. Nothing should move. Not even one tiny bit. Out of the factory we've been seeing a lot of tripod collars that violate that little standard and introduce significant vibration with just this simple test.

The RRS Long Lens Support and some of the Kirk replacement collars do the right thing: they add in a second support position forward on the lens. The lens then sits more in a cradle than balanced off the front of the lens mount, and thus distributes weight properly. And yes, this makes for real and meaningful differences in use. Enough so that, had the camera makers actually been paying attention to the customers buying their top gear, we'd have had this type of collar already coming in the box with the lens out of the factory. 

But camera makers don't really pay all that much attention to users. Moreover, they all have the really bad habit of discounting the serious user: "hey, we don't need to add that change because it costs money and that might lose us some of our low-end customers." Gee, what happened to getting users hooked on your quality at a low level so that they'd become loyal customers forever? 

This omission falls into the "what we do is good enough" category that's driving the camera industry in a race to the bottom. No, what you do is not good enough. Your serious user base discovered that long ago and they're still waiting for you to figure that out.

Let me put it differently: any lens that sells for US$2000 or more and fails on the tripod collar test—and most do—means that the camera makers don't care.  Further, not offering said accessories as options means that the camera makers can't see. Almost no one I know who owns an exotic actually uses the supplied handles/feet, and they all lament the collars. True of some US$2500 lenses, and true of US$12,000 lenses. And has been for years, maybe decades. Talk about dumb. How they could ignore this for so long just shows how disconnected the camera makers are from their user base.

User’s solution: again, third-party solutions, though they tend to only to apply to a limited set of lenses.

Optical remotes
Let's move on. Television seems to have pioneered the widespread adoption of the consumer optical (IR) remote. Okay, I get that. And so many of those remotes have been made and the costs of making them driven so far to the bottom, it's almost a no-brainer to add a little receiver and a simple one-button remote. But remember, we’re facing the TV and the TV is facing us when you use that remote.

So we got pretty much every consumer camera (and a lot of professional ones) with an IR remote receiver installed (and some include the transmitter, though most camera companies are so cheap and disconnected from solving user problems they don't). Lately, though, some companies have taken to going backwards here. Nikon, for instance, took the rear IR receiver off the D7500, leaving only the front one. 

What that means is that Nikon thinks that D7500 users only use the optical remote for taking selfies. I'll bet, however, that more of them are standing behind tripods and trying to figure out why their wireless remote isn't triggering the camera. Awkward hand-over-camera ensues. 

But you're going to see me rail on optical remotes for a different reason: they're old school technology. Indeed, as we progress in this article, you're going to see case after case where the camera companies just buy cheap, older technology that doesn't keep up with where the modern technical device should live. Optical remotes are just one of them.

Bluetooth fixes the "transmitter must be pointed directly at receiver" problem. It fixes the "someone else triggered my camera" problem. It fixes a lot of things. With the minor complication of it having to be set up (paired). But not only does using this more leading technology fix a lot of the problems of the old technology, it enables new things. I could now trigger my camera from any Bluetooth-enabled device (assumes useful apps). 

I'd love to mount my camera in my vehicle and trigger it from the steering wheel. Put it behind a goal or on a bar above me and trigger it from my iPhone. Trigger my camera on a tripod no matter where I'm standing or pointing. Trigger it in the studio from my Mac. Trigger it on my drone. Heck, trigger the shutter release anywhere, anytime, from any device that's using modern technology. Heck, maybe I want to set up a bullet time situation and have multiple cameras triggered a small fraction of a second apart (or simultaneously; but I like the slightly staggered approach visually). Oh wait, multiple cameras, that's a thing? ;~)

What I've been writing about for a long time is that new technologies enable solving new user problems. The camera companies think that the only user problem you want solved is that you want to take a picture. They don't look at how you want to take that picture, what you want to do with it, or the way that picture was enabled by or interacts with your other devices. 

Bluetooth triggering should be a thing built into every camera, and accessible to any Bluetooth app on any device. Simple as that. 

User solution: eBay and Amazon for a cheap, Chinese, radio-controlled remote set.

Slow Wi-Fi
Old parts? Did I mention old parts? Of course I did. I'm about to do it again (I'm looking at you Nikon).

Wi-Fi isn't just one thing. There are an incredible number of subtleties to it. 2.4Ghz versus 5Ghz. 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac. Overlapping channels versus non-overlapping. Ad-hoc versus Infrastructure versus Direct. MIMO. Single antenna versus multi-antenna. 

What all those things enable is a device that isn't limited to a single type of use. Yet that's exactly how the camera makers have tended to make them, probably because it's not a simple task to make a state-of-the-art Wi-Fi hardware/software system that is completely configurable to user need. 

Nikon even went out the way to say that the primary design goal behind SnapBridge was to make it as one-time simple setup as possible. They then went on to include all the more complicated setup things in the menu systems of said cameras, making what the customer sees when they have a problem even more complicated than it need be.

But more to the point, Nikon is using old parts in their cameras. Very old parts. You have to look deep into the manuals to see: 802.11bg, 2.4Ghz only. And the software really only supports Ad-hoc mode. 

This is another problem the camera industry keeps having: lowest common denominator (LCD). LCD is what happens when you chase large consumer volumes and have to drive pricing down. It's always a race to the bottom. Well, I'm here to tell you that Nikon hit bottom and went splat. Not that they're alone in that, but for someone promoting the heck out of SnapBridge as being the solution to sharing images, well, it isn't, and the parts built into the camera and the software that supports those parts are the reason.

Oh, and the smartphones Nikon wants to talk to? Pretty much all 802.11ac, dual waveband, MIMO support. So 1300Mbps theoretical maximum versus the Nikon cameras' 54Mbps. No wonder Nikon is sending 2mp images via SnapBridge.

User solution: They turn off the Wi-Fi (Airplane Mode) because it uses battery, and they use antiquated methods to get images where they want them. Or better still, they just buy a smartphone with a better camera and make do.

Slow card writes
Old parts? Did I mention old parts? ;~)

As I get older I feel like I repeat myself a lot. But in this case it's the camera companies that are repeating themselves. There's only one reason not to include state-of-the-art UHS-II, CFast, or XQD slots in your camera (one, or two matching slots, too): you want to save costs. You're essentially saying to customers that "a few extra frames in the buffer be damned, you've got a big enough buffer already." Oh, and "see, you won't have to buy new cards."

That may be true of the lower-end users. Or it might not. I think we'd have to go out and see them in action to verify. They may just think that 10 frames in the buffer is state of the art and live with that. It's probably true that they actually are using non state-of-the-art cards. And in the field I keep encountering folk who are stifling the performance of their cameras by sticking in a generic brand card they bought eight years ago on sale for a couple of bucks. 

Still, you see companies making bad decisions here. The D7500 has only one card slot, so you'd think that Nikon would have gone for state-of-the-art with that slot. Nope. It's UHS-I, which puts a top end on the buffer performance on that camera that it shouldn’t have. Moreover it sets those users up for future failure, because they're going to see that there's no need to buy a state-of-the-art card, so they'll buy a generic UHS-I one. When they update in the future, they're going to find that card will be their new bottleneck. 

I mention the D7500 for a reason. I can see not worrying too much about performance in the low-end consumer cameras (though wouldn't it be something uniquely marketable if the did the opposite?). Those customers aren't likely to understand the tech or want to try to optimize. But the D7500? That's right at the core of Nikon's biggest enthusiast camera base. What's Nikon telling them? Sorry, state-of-the-art isn't for you. One small change and we could have made this camera better for sequence shooting. Nikon didn't bother. Heck, it even took out the second card slot while it left the first card slot crippled to current standards. 

Enjoy the beans, those of you counting in the finance department. Hopefully that type of decision doesn't render the company you work for an also ran.

I singled out Nikon here, but they're not the only guilty party. Not by a long shot. 

Sony A9? Supposedly the fastest horse in the race, if you're to believe Sony marketing. Just don't use the second slot then, because it's only UHS-I. Seriously? On a US$4500 camera? You really needed to save that extra few pennies, Sony? (Sony's marketing department twists this: "Lower card slot supporting UHS-II...is available for fast transfer speed." Oh, so it's a benefit, then?)

User solution: none.

Slow serial connections
Looked at your latest laptop? Well, you're probably seeing USB 3.1 ports. Looked at your latest camera? You very well may be still seeing USB 2.0 ports. 

This is much like the Wi-Fi specs: not typically state-of-the-art. Okay, let's go back and ping Sony for a moment. Their Wi-Fi on the A9? Oh, it's supports 802.11ac. But only at 2.4Ghz, which limits the top end transfer speed possible. See, even when camera companies do look a bit more progressive, they aren't typically anywhere near state-of-the-art.

And nowhere do we find that more often than in the USB connection.

RANT ON
Okay, we hit it with Wi-Fi and now we're hitting it again with USB: the speeds at which you can transfer data off your camera are limited by the camera companies' choices. Uh, the 21st Century happened guys. And with it came a change in the way images move from one place (camera) to another (social media, which is also a change of place from where they used to go): it all happens in the Internet world, which is half wired for speed, half un-wired and prefers speed. 

But cameras aren't optimal in moving images at all. Camera companies still want you to do it the old sneaker net way. Taking the card out of your camera and bringing it to your computer is not a heck of a lot different than taking the film out of the camera and taking it to your one-hour lab. Okay, so now we have the virtual lab in our home, but still, when all is said and done the camera companies simply haven't noticed that things changed. 

People shoot more images today than ever, and the vast majority of them are moved from camera (smartphone) to social media virtually immediately, with little user interaction, and very quickly via wireless communications. The smaller and smaller minority still using dedicated cameras: the camera companies are reluctant to put a part in the camera anywhere that would help you be competitive with that smartphone user. Not Wi-Fi, not USB, not anything. 

/RANT OFF

Okay, so now USB.

USB 2.0 gives you 480Mbps. USB 3.0 takes you up to 5Gbps. USB 3.1 doubles that (as will USB 3.2 yet again). In other words, the camera makers who insist on using USB 2 parts are penalizing you. You could move your images 10x faster at a minimum if they'd just use even a rather recent part (USB 3.0 was November 2008 ratification, I guess we can still call that recent). 

Okay, so sure, you can take your fast card out of your slow card slot and slow camera and put it into a fast USB reader connected to your fast computer. Apparently the camera companies never heard of tethering. Or wireless image sharing. 

In the tech world, lack of performance-minded, problem-solving solutions generally means that you get fewer and fewer takers for your products. Sound familiar, camera industry? Yeah, you did that. 

User solution: Fast card readers, but that’s not really a solution. I’ve watched a few studio shooters simply move to cameras that “tether fast.” But that list is still pretty small, and there might not be a camera in the brand you prefer that accommodates your needs, so you switch brands.

No Qi-type power option
Cameras and batteries have a long history of user-abuse. In the beginning, there was the ever changing camera battery specification. New cameras meant new batteries needed. Then came the ever tightening third-party lockout batteries, where a third signal line was used to communicate "brand authenticity" to the camera. Even that doesn't seem to work all that well, as the EN-EL15/15a/15b saga seems to suggest (I get different camera battery capabilities with each of the same official batteries in this line with the D500, despite the same basic battery spec). 

Next up was the "we don't supply a charger" thing, though often you'd get a USB-type charger that would connect to the camera and charge your batteries at tortoise speed. 

Technically, the batteries we use are all pretty much made of the same set of only a few size cells from only a couple of makers, and with only a couple of optional specifications. Only a few cell types and sizes are actually produced for Li-Ion. So while Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony batteries may look different on the outside and respond differently at the pinouts, inside they're pretty much all two-cell batteries from the same factories. In other words, just like there are only a few sizes and configurations of replaceable alkaline batteries (e.g. AA, AAA, C, D, etc.) there are only a few sizes and configurations of what's glued together inside camera batteries in a proprietary package. 

First response: yeck! (that would be the sound of a cat ejecting a fur ball)

But the real issue lying underneath all the battery machinations is this: what's optimal for the user? 

Well, that would be a Qi-like wireless charging solution. You know, the one that Apple just endorsed and Ikea has been making nightstands that include it for over a year now. Heaven forbid, Ikea is leading technology faster than the consumer electronic camera companies? 

Yep. And that's not just an insult, but it's a condemnation of those boys in Tokyo designing your state-of-the-art cameras (and yes, it's almost all boys). 

Seriously, there are two things I want in battery charging for my cameras: (1) a wireless set-my-camera-down-and-it-charges solution; and (2) USB chargers that take two or more batteries. Tokyo hasn't given us #1, but China has provided plenty of generic #2's. 

Why USB charging? Because you can plug it into AC if you have to, but you can also then transfer charge from a big portable battery (like the Omnicharge ones I use [affiliate link to order here]) to not just your camera batteries, but to pretty much any other device (that charges by USB) that you've brought. Next time a hurricane wipes out your AC, you're going to want some big batteries and a solar panel to charge them. 

I'll repeat: users want problems solved. The trick is to find the problem before the user does. Consistently, the camera makers are actually behind the user discovering the problem. In many cases, the camera makers never actually notice that the users discovered and are complaining about a problem that's easily solvable. Go figure.

User solution: eBay and Amazon for USB battery chargers for a number of mainstream batteries. Dual battery chargers (like the Watson from B&H) for heavy users. 

Vulnerable cable connections
A picture is worth a thousand words they say, so first a picture, then my thousand words:

D850 24 70E WT7

What you might not notice in that mess at the side of Nikon's supposed best-ever digital camera is Nikon's new HDMI/USB Cable Clip, which is supplied with the D850. It's there to protect the potential for tripping over a cable interrupting communications (and possibly damaging the camera, as undue pressure on the cable connections has proven in the past to break cameras). 

Elegant, isn't it? Makes holding the camera so easy, too!

Connectors on cameras are located where it's convenient for the camera designers to put them. No space on that side, well put one of the connectors on the other side (e.g. EOS M5). Users never actually hold their cameras at the sides, do they? 

Yes Georgia, they do. 

The funny thing is that the terrible wireless capabilities of these cameras make it more likely that you're going to plug a cable in. Talk about one problem compounding another. If I want to tether in the studio, it's not going to be by wireless (that image above is exactly Nikon's intended solution for me in the studio; not!). 

If you're starting to understand why I call a lot of camera engineering these days dumbass lazy, well, you might be getting the point by now. One lack of problem solution leads to new problems caused by terrible other solutions. 

Basically, I have to conclude one (or both) of two things: (1) the camera companies are inherently lazy in engineering solutions; or (2) they never actually use their products (or even watch others using them). Sad.

User solution: None that are elegant. The video guys buy rods and cheese plates and rig out their gear so much that it’s nearly impossible to see (or hold) the camera inside. The still studio folk tend to suffer with what we get. 

No focus information in viewfinder
Okay, let's move on to another topic: lack of useful information. It took the camera makers a few years to figure out how to put aperture, shutter speed, and exposure information in the viewfinder. Apparently they thought they were done when they managed that in the 1970’s. 

Sure, they've moved to newer technologies to display those things in the latest DSLR viewfinders. And they've moved some icons from the top-of-body LCD into the viewfinder. 

Conspicuously missing in all that is useful focus information.

Yes, I know that modern low dispersion elements in lenses mean that perfectly exact focus information isn't possible due to changes that happen in different temperatures. But we don't even have any focus information. Indeed, sometimes even the actual focus point used isn’t displayed because, well, that would take a bit more horsepower in the supplemental chips to do and you know, cut costs.

Do I need to know that I'm focused at exactly four feet, three and half inches? Not really. If things are requiring me to be that precise, I'm in a controlled situation with the camera on a tripod and lots of measuring and calculating tools handy. Would it be nice to know that I'm focused at four feet and that at my current aperture everything from two feet to seven feet should have some level of acceptable focus? You bet it would.

Alone the way we’ve gotten a few cameras that do this. But most don’t. That’s a shame, because “getting subjects in focus” is one of the primary things that many struggle with using their cameras. 

User solution: Estimation and app-based calculators.

No raw tools
The ability to shoot raw must be there for a reason, right? And what reason would that be? Perhaps so that serious users can get the very most out of their systems that is possible? 

Right up at the top of the list of “getting the most” is making sure your exposure is optimal. I won’t get into the esoterics of Expose To The Right (ETTR), but in a general sense, you want the very brightest detail you retain to be at right about the saturation point of the sensor. That’s where you’d maximize the dynamic range between your bright point and darkest detail captured. 

Okay, how do we do ETTR in a camera shooting raw? 

A lot of folk look at the histograms that the cameras supply. Only problem? That histogram comes from demosaiced, white balanced, and tonally conditioned JPEG data. And that’s if you’re looking at the histogram for an image already taken. For histograms in real time, as some of the mirrorless cameras provide, it’s worse: the histogram has all the faults I just mentioned plus it’s from a subset of the sensor provided by a video stream from the sensor that doesn’t match the dynamics of what the actual shot will attain.

Okay, maybe we should look at the blinkies (highlights display). Again, that’s derived from the JPEG data, but now we have the additional problem that most camera companies don’t even tell us when those blinkies are triggered (hint: on Nikon cameras it seems to be at an 8-bit value of 248). 

Why can’t we have raw histograms and blinkies? Because no one in Tokyo sat down and designed such a thing in the imaging ASICs. It would have to be in the imaging ASIC, because given the megapixel counts we have these days the counting would go on forever if it wasn’t done with a dedicated algorithm-in-hardware. But personally, I’d be willing to wait a moment—only a moment mind you—for a true raw histogram or highlights display to be generated on playback. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Nikon’s latest metering system has a tendency to preserve highlight latitude. Only we don’t know how much that latitude they’re trying to preserve actually is. Years ago, it was common that I’d be shooting with my exposure compensation starting at -0.3EV as a general rule on my Nikon DSLRs. With the D5, D850, and D500, that tends to be +0.3EV now, although I’m still evaluating this: the meter also tends to be a bit more variable with high contrast versus low contrast situations. Also, with matrix metering there’s that 16.3 EV cutoff that comes into play.

Still, there’s clear highlight latitude going on in the metering system, which is the antithesis of ETTR. Moreover, your raw converter may be playing games with you, too. Adobe applies unseen exposure compensations that come into play (0.5EV in the case of the Nikon D5). 

No, we’re still not done. 

While sensors are generally linear, they’re definitely not perfectly linear. So where does that highlight non-linearity begin, and how much is it? Silence in Tokyo. While Bayer is defined as red, green, and blue, what are the actual filtrations being used in the sensor? Silence in Tokyo. Is there white-balance pre-conditioning going on in the raw data, and if so, how does that change the data? Silence in Tokyo. At what point does actual shadow detail disappear into noise in the bit values for 14-bit? Silence in Tokyo. Where are gains changed or other sensor-based strategies used to control noise? Silence in Tokyo. Okay, maybe not complete silence: some will tell you in their marketing documents that they use a two-gain strategy, but no details of what that actually means and how it might impact your data.

I’m just getting started here. And I’ll think that I’ll stop here. Because if we got ETTR, raw histograms and highlights, definable highlight triggers, and actual spectral information out of the Japanese camera companies, we’d all be happy for a very long while.

User solution: UniWB, which is just one of the many things we have to reverse engineer to get useful raw information. RawDigger as a post analysis tool that we can use to analyze controlled situation tests with. Experimentation.

Minimal or incomplete help systems
It’s not help if it doesn’t help. Might as well put a big bright yellow Help button on the camera and display the message “Did you try turning it on and off” when the user presses it. 

Yes, I know we have very small displays that we’re dealing with here. The handiest camera to me as I write this is a Sony A9. Close examination says that the textual engine they’re using in the menus produces something like 40 characters on 8 lines. That’s a bit more than two tweets. (Aside: hmm, interesting project. Can I tweet a menu help system for a Nikon DSLR? One tweet per menu item, one tweet per choice within the menu item. Yes, I think I can. I think I might even try that. What do you think? Should I?)

So we don’t have a lot of real estate to deal with before we trigger scrolling, which I think we want to avoid, and we have to deal with translating into 70 or so languages, certainly at least 35 to say we’re a global product. 

But you know what I think the real problem here is? Wait for it…wait for it…wait for it…

Costs. 

The Japanese camera companies probably wouldn’t even pay what we’d call minimum wage for help system text to be generated. They’d off-site that to the lowest bidder, or they’d just add it to some salaryman’s list of things to get done ASAP, and he’d spend minimal time on it.

Another hidden cost is in the background, though. Let’s say that we have 100 menu items with an average of 5 choices that are to be done in 35 languages. And each is 320 characters (40 chars on 8 lines). That’s potentially 5MB characters. While memory is relatively cheap, we need this memory to be flash memory so that firmware upgrades can fix errors, and flash memory is more expensive and will be limited in any camera design. Almost all the camera companies probably have fixed size targets for all the firmware and help to fit into. As you start adding more features, you lose help space, which is why you see some Nikon menu features without help: someone prioritized which ones should have it in order to fit.

Yes, I know that there are ways to compress text, potentially in very dramatic ways if we limit the vocabulary, but that increases engineering costs ;~). 

And since we have cameras that don’t talk very well to smartphones, we can’t even have a smartphone app that would provide real-time help as you scroll through the menus on your camera (that would solve the space issue, but doesn’t mitigate the other cost issues). 

User solution: Don’t use features you don’t understand, lots of sleuthing through Web sites, YouTube videos, books, etc. Ask a friend. Call technical support. 

Gotta stop somewhere
I’m not nearly done. I’ve barely touched the surface in how the camera companies aren’t hearing users and aren’t delivering state-of-the-art. But I have to stop somewhere, or I’d just spend the rest of my life typing additions to this article. 

I think my point is made. 

The camera companies say they want more sales, more profit. But they’re not even close to providing a fully satisfactory experience for their existing customers, so where do they think these additional sales and profits will come from? Just plodding along with what they’re doing? That’s always a scenario that has a bad ending.


The Pros Versus the Amateurs

Sometimes interesting things happen near simultaneously. 

Today I had the experience of sitting through two live high technology product announcements (thanks to streaming, because they were on opposite coasts so I couldn't possibly attend both). One was Sony's New York City unveiling of the RX10 Mark IV. The other was Apple's Cupertino unveiling of the Apple Watch Series 3, Apple TV 4K HDR, iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, plus the iPhone X.

Both companies are high tech powerhouses. Both are throwing lots of new core technology into the electronic guts of their products. 

One plays like a pro. The other seems like an awkward teen trying to play like a pro.

This is a marketing difference, a message difference, an integration difference, a user solution difference, and a product line difference.

Apple, having done this for decades now, is the polished pro. They're not quite firing on all cylinders—the fact that the Air Power system was only sneaked instead of announced shows that they're juggling way too many balls to get everything perfectly coordinated—but they sure are putting together an impressive experience. 

Disclosure: I use Macs, iPhones, iPads in the business, and own an Apple Watch and Apple TV. I also own and shoot with Sony cameras.

Handoff almost works. What that means is that I can answer calls while sitting at my computer (or now via my watch), or pass photos or other documents I'm working on between devices. I say almost because there are still some glitches. The other day I didn't get any phone calls and couldn't make any. That's because Handoff got confused about something. It took turning it off and back on to restore my phone ("Did you try turning it off and on?" ;~). 

But the thing that was clearly apparent in Apple's two-hour presentation was that they're just running pedal to the metal. While you sometimes see a lot of writing about all the sensors and cameras that are starting to be added to try to build a smart car, guess what, the iPhone X is pretty much showing everyone what you do when you have  tons of cameras (regular, IR, depth), projectors (dot projector!), and sensors all coordinating together. 

As silly as the animoji feature might seem, that really brought things together for me: you just can't do that without all that cutting edge tech inside. Oh, you could try, but it would be a pale imitation, at best. Apple doesn't just go all in with the tech, they really try to carve out how it can be used in ways that trigger the imagination and spirit of the user. Just a quick random thought: if Face ID can do that for my face, what might that do for researchers trying to assess, say, subtle animal cues that they might have missed?

Apple is seriously pushing the boundaries with their tech. And they're relentless in identifying and adopting any emerging tech that allows something new, like Qi. Why the heck doesn't any camera work with Qi yet?

Sony, too, is seriously pushing the boundaries, with some of their tech. 

The RX10 Mark IV announcement gave us another of Sony's Stacked Sensor cameras, this time a  US$1700, 1", 24-600mm f/2.4-4 all-in-one camera that now can shoot almost 300 images (JPEG or raw) at 24 fps with phase detect autofocus that should be similar to what the A9 manages.

But the thing that struck me in watching the two roll-outs almost back-to-back was this: Sony's presentation missed the heart and reverence for their tech, and it relied too much on Spec Wonders as opposed to putting things fully in a user perspective. Sony's press conference was amateurish when compared to the Apple gathering.

Look, the RX10 Mark IV sounds great, but I want it instead of an A9 why? Or an A7? Or an A6500? Is the only thing I want a huge stack of images that fill my card almost instantly that are a pain to get through a workflow and out to social media, my Web site, or my client? Oh, and battery charging? Yeah, that still sucks (the RX10 Mark IV, like many Sony cameras doesn't come with a "charger," but rather with a cord and an AC Adapter so you charge it via USB. Yes, that's nice as an option, but since these cameras suck down more than one battery a day if you really use them at 24 fps, it's just not the way I want to charge. Indeed, I want a multiple, separate battery charger, like the US$11 Newmowa dual USB charger [advertiser link] you can pick up on Amazon (yes, it works with the RX 10 Mark IV batteries)). 

The funny thing is, Sony is for the most part better at this marketing game than the rest of the camera makers. Certainly better than Nikon. But I still couldn't be helped to get that amateur-competing-with-a-pro feeling watching those two product introductions back-to-back.

Fredric Filloux wrote on Monday Note last week "Memo to camera makers: put Android in your device or face extinction." Funny thing is, the Sony cameras have Android built into them. That's how the PlayMemories stuff works. 

It's not an OS that will solve camera maker's woes, it's solving user problems. That might take an OS behind the scenes, but frankly, I don't want to be burdened by an OS to do something.  Most of the time I'm using the things that the OS enabled to get my work done. 

And that's where the camera makers are amateurs. They just aren't connecting to customer needs. Yes, it'll take great tech, and Sony's sensors are certainly great tech. But that soccer mom that Sony probably would like to target with an RX10 Mark IV: just how easy was it for her to get their child's goal captured and posted on Facebook? Please don't tell me that she had to browse through 300 images in the sequence to find the right one, then toggle into another mode on the camera, chant some mumbo jumbo correctly so that it works, and then...oh wait, PlayMemories doesn't have a Facebook app. Which means that she'll have to learn how to use PlayMemories to send the image over to her smartphone and do the heavy lifting there. Oh, and since she's got Wi-Fi enabled on the RX10 Mark IV to do that, there goes the battery...

Come on guys. Apple is designing the pants off you. And presenting their offerings better. And solving real user problems. 


The Sensor Battles Continue

An interesting followup to the sensor wars article: not quite noted yet by most of the Web, the new Canon XF405 Camcorder has a 1" sensor. It's not a Sony sensor ;~). 

It appears that Canon has brought their dual-pixel technology down to 1", in an effective 8mp sensor for video cameras. I'm not sure why Canon targeted 8mp. That would imply that the sensor is actually 3920 x 2160 in photosite count, meaning that every pixel has Bayer interpretation to get the additional two color data points. It also means that you have fairly large photosites (something on the order of 3.5 microns, compared to the 2.5 micron size of the Sony 1" sensor).  

That Canon is apparently now fabbing its own 1" sensor has implications on the lower end of Canon's still camera lineup. The PowerShot models still in Canon's lineup currently tend to use Sony-supplied sensors. I'm guessing that Canon is going to reign that in.

Meanwhile, dpreview published an article based upon their recent visit to Japan that should put to rest the "only Sony Imaging gets Sony sensors in the future" myth. Well, almost put it to rest, had they not added their speculation to one point.

The critical quote: "...any manufacturer can approach Sony Semiconductor and ask for their own design requirements, often building on Sony’s own sensor advancements that are made public." 

This explains the "Nikon designed D850 sensor" pretty clearly. As most of us believe, it's likely Sony Exmor technologies with Nikon changes and additions, and fabbed in the old Toshiba plant that Sony bought. 

Unfortunately, dpreview decided to mix their own assumptions with what they learned in their meetings: "Although Sony tends to hold its proprietary sensor technology for its own cameras for roughly two years..." This sentence is footnoted, at least, that says "While we weren't explicitly told this, one might surmise it from the fact that the sensor in the a7R II has not appeared in any other manufacturer's camera since its launch over 2 years ago." 

Okay, dpreview, the key word there is "explicitly." This implies that your were implicitly informed of this. Which means that the second clause ("one might surmise...") is now somewhat contradictory. The first clause indicates you heard something from Sony, the second clause indicates you didn't and are guessing. Which is it? (I'm betting the latter.)

Moreover, I'm not sure what exact technology Sony Semiconductor would have been providing Sony Imaging exclusively for two years. About the only unique thing in the A7rII sensor is BSI. BSI has been available for awhile from Sony, though no one other than Sony put it into a full frame sensor until Nikon did with the D850. And I'm pretty sure that Sony Imaging didn't develop BSI ;~). 

This is the crazy thing about these soft interviews with the Japanese executives: either no one is asking the hard questions—probably for fear of losing access—or they're just taking the company line as it is handed them without truly critical analysis. 

That last has real implications. If Sony Semiconductor did indeed withhold large sensor BSI from other players for two years, that implies that they'll withhold Stacked large sensors from other players for two years. And that completely destroys the "we make our technologies available to others" aspect that Sony Semiconductor seems to want others to believe. 

Sony introduced another stacked sensor camera today, the RX10 Mark IV, which shoots 24fps for 292 frames (raw or JPEG) and has the basically the same tech in it as the A9. 

These two things—Canon making 1" sensors, Sony Semiconductor's actual policy—are not unrelated. Nikon is Sony Semiconductor's biggest large sensor customer. With the rumors that Nikon has its own dual-pixel technology headed to a new mirrorless entry, that puts things in an interesting place. Yes, I'm aware of dpreview's "Sony Semiconductor is not allowed to communicate any intellectual property it gains to Sony’s camera division" comment. 

That's called a Chinese Wall, and rarely are such walls actually effective. Indeed, I know firsthand that Sony Semiconductor's ability to withhold information is not even close to perfect. 

Thus, Nikon has an interesting choice to make: do they continue to just play off of Sony Semiconductor's technologies for most of their cameras, mixing and matching and adding as they see fit? Or does Nikon begin to take the Canon approach? 

Sony fan boys are probably saying that they couldn't care less, good riddance Nikon. But they should care. Sony Semiconductor's ability to build those Sony Imaging sensors, particularly at volume and at lowest cost, are partly driven by the fact that Sony Semiconductor has multiple customers absorbing costs and driving yields.

I take Nikon's insistence on describing and even promoting the D850's sensor as "Nikon designed" with no mention of partnership to be a warning signal to Sony.  

The Sensor Wars, Cost Versus Tech

I started out writing a different article—which I may yet complete—but got side-tracked on something that struck me: Canon is using Nikon's old sensor strategy. 

What am I talking about? Well, Canon now has three mirrorless cameras and as many DSLRs all using basically the same 24mp APS-C dual-pixel sensor. There's rumor that the GX compact line will switch to that sensor soon, too. This is similar to when Nikon fixated on repurposing the 6mp DX sensor across quite a few models.

The reason to do this is simple: cost. Canon is now in the position of making millions of basically the same sensor, potentially reducing their sensor costs both from an R&D standpoint as well as benefiting from yield improvements and a single inventory item to stock/track. 

Nikon, for some reason, abandoned this approach, and at one time had different sensors in every one of their APS-C cameras. We've seen them back-track a bit with the 20mp sensor in the D7500 and D500, but you have to wonder what Nikon is doing here. By my count, we have six different sensors in their ILC bodies (20mp 1", 20mp and 24mp DX, 20, 24, and 45mp FX). And that's being generous, as it seems that Nikon has kept a few older models still in production—perhaps to use up sensor commitments. In terms of what Nikon currently sells as new, there are at least five different DX sensors in play, but strangely, not particularly differentiated.

Sony Imaging, meanwhile, seems to have gone fairly all in on the sensor tech side, with by my count at least nine different sensors in their RX through Alpha models, very differentiated by technical engineering changes in each one.

This is the conundrum.

Canon is clearly looking to optimize volume. By consolidating sensor use in the lower end products and developing automated factories, they're tackling the broader consumer market with some prodigious cost cutting. They've already got 45%+ market share in this realm, but now with even clearer cost advantages. They can use price as a lever to maintain that share. 

Sony, obviously, made a choice after NEX and SLT to back up and pursue high margin over volume, and they decided that meant that they had to be continuously vested in upping the sensor tech. They've been first to a lot of things on the sensor side, but their camera prices had to go up in order to do that. 

Nikon seems to have tackled a similar approach as Sony on a couple of bodies (D500 and D850 are definitely sensor R&D projects with new payoffs, while the D5 was really more of a simple refresh of the D3 sensor), but not all. The problem for Nikon is that their lower end products are just not selling. They made one of the most lukewarm update cycles with the D3400 and D5600 I've ever seen, and there wasn't really anything at the sensor driving those updates. The Nikon 1's haven't been updated in two years. The DLs were cancelled.  So what's Nikon's strategy here?

Of course, there will be those pixel peepers that chime in about differences in dynamic range, frame rates, and a bunch of other stuff. But frankly, I think Canon has got this right. There's a reason why the Canon EOS M5 is my pocket camera and not a Sony. The 24mp Canon sensor may not knock it out of the park in signal-to-noise ratio, but frankly, it's more than enough for almost any use I'd make of a smaller camera. 

Indeed, at the 1" to APS-C sensor sizes, people aren't really buying those cameras for deep dynamic range, but usually for something else. Which brings up a point: where is "entry level" for sophisticated compact and ILC now? 

Hmm. Right where Canon seems to be aiming: 24mp APS-C with excellent but not perfect image quality. 



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:


Nikon 2016 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 2016:


Nikon 2015 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 2015:


Nikon 2014 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 2014:



text and images © 2017 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2016 Thom Hogan-- All Rights Reserved
Follow us on Twitter: @bythom, hashtags #bythom, #dslrbodies