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. 

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What to Make of the Canon 6D Mark II

bythom canon 6d lcd

Canon today announced the second version of their "budget" full frame DSLR, the US$1999 6D Mark II, and on National Camera Day, which at least shows some attention to marketing detail ;~). There are some interesting contrasts in this iteration that are going to generate some controversy, I think.

The thing I noticed immediately is that the Mark II model has shed a significant 5 ounces in weight, and is trimmer in every dimension than its predecessor. Curiously, Canon didn't mention that in their press release. Bu that change is definitely on trend: to compete with the mirrorless models and to continue to cater to the aging DSLR owners, pulling out size and weight without sacrificing anything else is imperative. The 6D Mark II is on target with that. 

The thing that will probably get talked about the most, though, is the lack of 4K video. The time lapse mode of the camera will create 4K video if you want, but the primary video capabilities top out at 1080P/60. And that's a cropped 1080P from the full frame, as we have electronic five-axis video stabilization for the video. 

There's a real question as to whether 1080P/60 is behind trend now or not. For casual video use, 1080P is probably still appropriate, as 4K can run up enormous storage requirements very quickly, is still a pain to edit except on state-of-the-art computers, and generally requires time-consuming and additional storage hogging transcoding, as the still camera world simply hasn't discovered that we serious video folk really want directly editable ProRes and/or raw video capabilities. 

Meanwhile, most of the rest of the 6D Mark II is pretty much the same as the original, within a design wiggle or waggle and a technology update or two. You get WiFi with Bluetooth and NFC, plus built-in GPS, something that Nikon is starting to get all miserly on these days. Some Nikon DSLRs are Bluetooth only, and built-in GPS apparently costs too much money for the Nikon accounting department; I'm tempted to say Nikon is "lost," but that would be a pun-ishment to readers ;~). 

Overall, the 6D Mark II is mostly a "business as usual" update from Canon. Much like Nikon has been "business as usual" in their DSLR updates recently. This is a tricky thing the Canikon duopoly is attempting. Mirrorless cameras are the only growth prospect left in dedicated cameras now. DSLR volume is coming down by 10% a year. Whether the collision course in ILC produces deep impact in 2018, 2019, 2020, or later is debatable, but we're nearing the end of the DSLR reign in terms of sheer dominance in high-end cameras. 

The natural transition point is with the low-end cameras, much as Canon has done with EOS M lately versus their EF-S DSLRs. You update the DSLRs as usual and then undercut them a bit with a wisely designed mirrorless model. Eventually the mirrorless models start to predominate over the low-end DSLR and you begin migrating mirrorless upwards. But you keep iterating your DSLR for the remaining dedicated. That's the simplest and most natural progression, I believe. 

The problem, of course, is that Fujifilm is all-in with mirrorless and highly competitive with low and mid-range DSLRs at the moment. Meanwhile, Sony is throwing the electronic kitchen sink into everything they produce, also putting them squarely in the competitive-with-DSLRs market. Even Olympus and Panasonic—with the E-M1 Mark II and GH5 respectively—are pointed right at the heart of the Canikon DSLR dominance. 

If I'm right about the natural transition, there will be a Canon EOS FM before a 6D Mark III appears. First, try to max out the full frame DSLR sales, next get into the full frame mirrorless line at the most affordable point, then eek out a few remaining full frame DSLR upgraders with a bigger Mark III update, then move the full frame mirrorless camera up into that position or higher. 

The interesting problem for Canon that Nikon doesn't yet have is that the mirrorless world has reverse engineered the Canon EF mount well enough that Sony FE adapters provide pretty decent EF lens compatibility already. Canon doesn't have a lot of time to leverage their lens legacy, as right now that is producing leaks to a competitor. 

I have to believe a Canon EOS FM (full frame mirrorless) will appear in 2018.

bythom canon sl2 lens

Meanwhile, the EOS SL2 (200D in some markets) was also introduced by Canon, and illustrates the point I made above: undercut the DSLR (with EOS M) but keep iterating DSLRs to pick up the committed customers (with SL2). At 453g, the SL2 isn't much heavier than a mirrorless EOS M5 (427g), though it is bigger in every dimension. While the Nikon D3400 is slightly lighter than the SL2, it is bigger and bulkier, and omits things like the swivel LCD the SL2 has. Meanwhile, the SL2 doesn't really have any clear features or performance that put it clearly above the M5, but it also doesn't require an adapter to use EF/EF-S mount lenses and manages more shots per charge on the same battery. All at a lower price than the M5 (US$549 body only). 

Canon, in essence, is telling the crop sensor DSLR users that they can go either way, mirrorless or DSLR, and by keeping the cameras close enough the advantages of each approach are the primary differential. Emptor velit. No other camera maker has really attempted this approach, and I'll bet it's giving Canon plenty of interesting data from which to make future decisions. 

Meanwhile, Nikon's D3400 is an impressive bargain, but it's floundering in sales because it's in no-man's land. It's a bit big like a DSLR, a bit light like a mirrorless. It's defeatured unfortunately, and Nikon has no clear path or choice for someone wanting to get to mirrorless. 

Canon's making the right decisions. Nikon is not. 

And now the ball is in Nikon's court. The D610 is Nikon's 6D equivalent and well overdue for replacement. Nikon has no real EOS SL equivalent and absolutely no EOS M equivalent. These are critical cameras, because they define the bottom end of several lines of ILC cameras. Canon has rationalized that and is moving forward, while Nikon is still struggling to figure out how everything fits together. 

Is it no wonder that Canon took market share away from Nikon last year and probably continues to do so this year? 

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News and Rumors I'll Be Pondering

As I head off into self-enforced withdrawal from the Internet, there are a number of things that came up in the last week or two that I'll be pondering:

  • Serif—makers of Affinity Photo, a Photoshop clone—seems to have added themselves to the "we're going to to build something to compete with Lightroom crowd." Already we know that onOne and MacPhun are headed that direction. It seems that everyone is targeting the Adobe Photography Plan twins now (Photoshop and Lightroom). I'm all for the competition. But what's this going to do to your assets? Can multiple DAM (digital asset management) programs manage to live in harmony or shift your assets from one to the other usefully, or is chaos about to ensue? Meanwhile, not even Lightroom really has an understandable approach to living with Facebook, et.al. And what we really need are things that bridge us from the hardware in hand (camera) to the eyeballs we're trying to reach (generally on the Internet somewhere these days). No one's mastered that.

  • Micron has decided to discontinue the Lexar product business, which includes all sorts of cards, drives, and readers that we photography folk use. This is not good news in a number of ways. There's been a lot of consolidation in the storage business, and it is continuing, maybe even accelerating. Now that type of consolidation is being enhanced by consolidation with the photography industry. While Micron is exploring selling the Lexar business instead of just closing it down completely, the number of companies where there's no middle-man—and thus extra mark up—is down to a number I can count on one hand. XQD shooters, in particular, will be down to one viable brand, Sony. This isn't good for consumers, but maybe it will force the camera companies to revisit internal storage and better communication again, and do it right this time.

  • Light painting is getting banned in a number of places, particularly National Parks. I'm really on the fence about this one. It can be annoying to be somewhere that someone else is trying to paint, especially if they're going large (e.g. arches, climbing walls, etc.). On the other hand, it's essentially a low impact enjoyment of a national treasure. The problem with this type of thing is always the rolling stone aspect. Over time, we've seen more and more restrictions placed on photography, and we're getting closer and closer to the "please only use your handheld smartphone and only in designated shooting areas" level of enforcement. The Nanny State is getting more and more real. There has to be a better way to deal with light painting than just banning it. 

  • What's really happening at Ricoh? (I could have put a number of camera company names in that question, but Ricoh is the latest and most interesting where speculation is concerned at the moment.). The issue for Ricoh isn't in the camera business. The camera business is a low single digit percentage of the overall company in terms of sales at Ricoh. Ricoh, like Sony and Panasonic before it, is facing the same thing a lot of the Japanese tech companies have been facing: low to no growth prospects, lower ROI, and potential for spiraling into a negative cash/profit situation that brings on debt and compounds the issue. The solution is almost always the same: cut out unprofitable businesses, consolidate within the remaining businesses, emphasize profit and not market share, and look for an area you can expand it to start regrowing the business. It's that first bit that has us all pondering the fate of Pentax (and Ricoh cameras, too). While there's some synergy to their main business for Ricoh to own a camera and lens company, the risk is that it is low-hanging fruit to cut and remove costs by just jettisoning assets that aren't producing results. There's simply no prospect of the Ricoh/Pentax camera business managing 10% profit on sales, which is where I'll bet Ricoh's overall target is. 

    The bigger issue here is that it's long past time for most of the Japanese camera companies to look very, very deep into their souls and figure out either how they reinvent themselves or shut themselves down gracefully. Sony and Panasonic have recently had to do that and it's reinvigorated them, though I think they both need even more reinvention than they've achieved. Both still have vestigial appendages they probably need to remove. But Ricoh/Pentax? Is there viability there? 

Where Are We? In DSLRs, That Is

Every year before taking my month-long break from the Internet I like to collect my thoughts on where we are camera-wise. This article tells you my current thinking about DSLRs as I head off into break. Typically when I return back, I start thinking forward, about what is necessary for us to move forward in the future.

In essence, we have two DSLR camera makers now: Canon and Nikon. Between them, they control over 90% of the market, and it may even be over 95%. Depends a bit on how and when you count. But to be clear, this is such a classic duopoly that it may be used in future business school teaching.

But all is not equal between the duopolists. Canon is doing okay, while Nikon is trending clearly downwards and struggling. Overall, DSLR numbers have slid down for four consecutive years, with the current year showing that it will be five in a row. 16.2m units. 13.8m. 10.5m, 9.7m, 8.5m. That's not just a downward slope, but it would require hill descent control on a 4x4 the slope is so steep. 

That said, I see evidence that some that left DSLRs for mirrorless come back. So all is not lost. Well, all doesn't need to be lost, but some is. Some of those that come back return to something like a D500, but they lament the lack of DX lenses (buzz, buzz). 

So while we still have a duopoly, we still have to contend with the fact that this particular portion of the camera market has basically been cut in half in a bit over four years. And is still decreasing in size. 

But volume is falling at Nikon faster than Canon. That's despite some clear channel stuffing that Nikon did in the last quarter of 2016. Because neither company generally breaks out how many mirrorless cameras they sell versus DSLR, you can't get a perfect comparison number, but I'd say that it's clear that the ratio of Canon to Nikon DSLRs being sold worldwide is at least 4:3. It's probably closer to 5:3, but I can't quite get enough discrimination of the number sets to say that for sure. 

The good news is that both Canon and Nikon have consistently kept close to their update schedules with their DSLR products. These days, most DSLRs are on two-year life cycles, some on four. Within a +/-25% time window, it appears that both companies are still on that plan. 

But I note that at the low end of the DSLR lineups—particularly the lower cost crop sensor cameras—the product iteration that is coming in each successive generation is starting to look on the lame side. That was particularly true for Nikon with the D3400 and D5600, but it seems also true of the recent Rebels. It's almost as if both companies have given up trying to push features and innovation in this category and are simply just going to max out whatever revenues they can collect in the segment and move on.

In Canon's case, they have something to move on to: EOS M. If Canon sells fewer Rebels but more M's, I'm sure that Canon will be okay with that. Nikon meanwhile, has nothing to move to, so lower D3400 and D5600 sales are going to hurt. Indeed, it seems that much of Nikon's market share slippage is coming exactly in that product position.

Above the low consumer cameras, though, both companies have done a far better job of moving their US$1000+ cameras upwards in terms of capability recently and getting existing customers to eventually move up to them. Canon will be iterating the 6D (and SL) later this week, so we'll have another chance to see what's happening with new versions of their existing models, though again at the lower end of the crop sensor and full frame DSLR spectrum. 

I wrote that both companies have been consistently close to their update cycles. But there's a caveat there, and it is again Nikon that tends to be the exception. The D610, D750, D810, and Df are all late in their update cycle window. That's most of the full frame lineup. Those are all extremely capable cameras, but Nikon seems to be okay with letting them each get a bit long in the tooth for some reason. Still, even after two years, the D810 may very well be the best all-around interchangeable lens camera you can buy. But one wonders how long I'll continue writing that. The clear edge is now an arguable point, and at some point it will be clear that Nikon has fallen behind if there's not a good update to this camera soon.

The Nikon product team must be scratching their heads. Arguably, Nikon makes the best low cost DSLR (D3400), seriously good mid-range DSLRs (D7500, D750), and competition-beating high-end models (D500, D810, D5). So why are their sales slipping so much? 

Meanwhile, the clear laggard in the Canon upgrade cycle now is the 7D Mark III. The D500 has really taken a bite out the high-end crop sensor customer, and Canon seems slow to respond. The 7D Mark II is now nearing three years old, with no replacement in sight. Unfortunately, it appears to be one of the cameras on a four-year replacement cycle, so I'm not expecting any Mark III version until 2018. It's really too bad that the folks at Nikon didn't rub salt in the wound here by making a full set of DX lenses that line up with the D500 (buzz, buzz again). 

That brings up a theatrical term: stealing the spine. In improv, when someone manages to introduce a line that diverts the skit from where it was going to somewhere new, you're said to have stolen the spine. I actually believe that's a healthy concept to adapt in marketing: steal your competitor's spine. 

Nikon managed to do that with the D500 (versus 7D Mark II). But they didn't actually play that card in marketing, nor did they reinforce the steal with additional bits (e.g. DX lenses). 

In many instances in the past few decades, Canon and Nikon have gone back and forth in stealing the spine. On the Nikon side, the D1, D3/D300, D800/D800E, and D500 have all been strong spine stealers. On the Canon side, the 1Ds, 1D Mark II, 5D (in a couple of iterations, too), 7D, 1D C (which launched the cinema line), and maybe the 5Ds have all been confiscators of the vertebrae. 

This is good. Competition keeps the level of product rising, and that makes things better for us customers. Curiously, neither side seems to really do a lot to mortally wound their competitor when they obtain the spine in a product area. Supplemental product (accessories), rapid iteration, comparative marketing, aggressive pricing, and a whole host of other factors just don't seem to be used by the duopoly. But that's often how duopoly's work. Grab as much as you can, then just let the cash cow get milked for a bit. 

Another visible aspect of the market we need to talk about is not the DSLRs themselves, but the rest of the things that the company behind them is doing. The Canon Learning Center is still going strong as far as I can tell. Canon service doesn't seem to get the same complaints from Canon DSLR users as I hear from Nikon DSLR users. Canon's marketing team is active and sending me new information every week. Nikon's? Invisible. (Over the last ten years I've asked at least four times to be put on their press release list. I have yet to receive a press release from NikonUSA.)

I've written a lot about perception in the past. Here's my current perceptions:

  • For Canon — Despite the downturn in camera sales, still promoting, supporting, and iterating products, as usual. Has defined a transition capability to mirrorless, if necessary. Is highly active in keeping remaining compact camera segment alive. Getting much more active in video, too. 
  • For NikonBecause of the downturn in camera sales, has cut back promotion and support, and has now pushed cost-cutting into product iteration in ways that show. Has no transition plan currently visible for mirrorless, if necessary. Has moved away from virtually all their compact camera ideas to the point of annoying customers. Has lost interest in video.

Note the first word in each ("despite," "because"). That defines management style. Management style defines what the customer sees. What the customer sees is often what determines whether they buy. 

Canon has as many problems with the camera sales decline as Nikon does, and as many problems with keeping DSLR sales levels up. It's not letting that disrupt how they do business, nor how they relate to customers. Nikon is disrupting their business and particularly in how they relate to customers. 

I've watched a lot of tech companies think that they can skimp on the customer relations side. They're pretty much all gone now. Ultimately, if you're a consumer company—and selling cameras is a consumer business—you have to embrace and engage consumers. Where Nikon has attempted this—the recent Show NY Some Love campaign—it has been awkward, indirect, ineffective, confusing, and pretty much totally unrelated to selling cameras. The one technology with which they could have engaged customers—SnapBridge—has been such an under-engineered, under-defined, under-performing, under-promoted disaster that all involved in SnapBridge need to be brought out for a public shaming. 

All that said, when I wrote last week about Stop Complaining, I meant it. At least in terms of cameras. Both Canon and Nikon now make, arguably, DSLR cameras and lenses that should enable you to do virtually anything you'd ever care to do photographically, and with a high degree of reliability and quality in the results. 

We live in special times. As much as I feel that we could have even better products than we do, what we have is far beyond what we'd have dreamed of 20 years ago. Maybe even 10 years ago or less. 

Where we are in DSLRs is this: we have unbelievable equipment available to us. While we still struggle with cumbersome workflows, the results we achieve are amazing. Or they should be. 

I'm not entirely sure why Canon and Nikon are incapable of conveying that to potential new customers. 

Some of you are shouting at me "but Thom, it's the thing you've written about: the cameras just don't work with social sharing." My response to that would be this if I were running a DSLR company: Yes, that's true today. But you can't do better than these cameras can, and what are you going to put on your future 8K video screens in the future, little 12mp JPEGs with noticeable artifacts? But better still, we're aware of what you want and we'll be working to give you the sharing connections you want. So why not start building a system today and grow with it into the future?

And that's really where we are. If the two DSLR makers never embrace the Internet and the way images are shared and displayed today, then sales will keep dropping as the number of people who will tolerate the "hassle" of a DSLR dwindle. The ones that keep using DSLRs will still be producing the best-looking and highest quality photos with the most potential variations via lens choice, though ;~). 


Stop Complaining (DSLR users)

Let's face it, we live in an age of exceptional cameras and lenses.

As happened with High Fidelity back in the 70's, we've somehow managed to argue our way into little nooks and crannies trying to suss out very small—and to most people unnoticeable—differences. Meanwhile, every camera maker has at least one product that 15 years ago we would have regarded as "stellar," and which today and for the foreseeable future can produce exceptional images. 

I'm going to go out on a limb here and define what those cameras are. This article is actually split into two: this article covers the DSLRs and sansmirror covers the mirrorless cameras (duh). 

bythom canon 5Div

Canon's top camera is the 1Dx Mark II, but the camera that I think probably best sums up everything Canon has to offer for photo enthusiasts is the 5D Mark IV. No, it doesn't shoot as fast as the 1DxII, nor does it have the pixel count of the 5Ds. But really, this is a extremely well-rounded camera that does everything well. Given that it's the fourth camera in a key DSLR line for Canon, that is no surprise. Canon's had a long time to learn how to optimize this camera for a demanding audience, and it shows.

Let's face it, if you need more than 6720 x 4480 pixels—basically more than you need for a 19x13" print, the largest size a desktop inkjet printer can create—you're into a realm where you have to consider some very expensive cameras, including medium format ones. About the only two "faults" I can find with the 5DIV are these: (1) the Nikon D810 beats it in base ISO dynamic range; (2) the 1/200 flash sync speed on the shutter is disappointing. 

Truly, what else would I need in a camera? 

bythom nikon d810

And speaking of the Nikon D810. Just as the 5D Mark IV isn't Canon's top camera, the D810 isn't Nikon's (that would be the D5). Yet this three year old (!) camera manages to do everything I've ever wanted it to, and then some. We're up to 7360 x 4912 pixels—still more than I need for a desktop inkjet print—and a sensor that has boggled minds since it first appeared in 2012. All in a camera that was very carefully crafted to fix virtually every small issue in handling that users had with its predecessor. 

Again the "faults" are few: (1) 5 fps is a little slow for action; (2) there's no 4K video, and (3) no built-in GPS like the 5DIV. 

bythom pentax k1

Meanwhile, Pentax has taken that same great sensor Nikon has been using and put it into a technical tour de force that's less expensive than the Nikon: the US$1799 Pentax K-1. The big claims to fame here are the sensor-based IS and the pixel-shift that creates even higher resolution (or perhaps more accurately, more acuity). Faults? Oh, maybe (1) 4.4 fps, (2) no 4K video, and (3) a focus system that is clearly still behind Canon/Nikon in performance. USB 2.0 doesn't seem like the right choice for all those pixels, either. 

Serious DSLR enthusiasts should be in seventh heaven with any one of those cameras. Sure, a new model of something might have a feature or performance that is better than those three DSLRs, but realistically, if you had to shoot for the next three or four years with any of those cameras, I'm not sure what you'd complain about. 

What about Sony Alpha? I can't really call the A99 Mark II a DSLR. It's really a hybrid between DSLR and mirrorless. But if you want to call it a DSLR, yes, it too is right up there in the rarified air with the other really great enthusiast DSLRs, with few faults. 

Meanwhile, DSLR lenses are in a golden age, too. 

I'll start with Nikon lenses, because recent Nikkors have been knocking it out of the park lately. In the FX lens lineup, we'd have to go all the way back to 2011 to find a lens I thought wasn't a top performer in its category (the 50mm f/1.8G). The recent E-type lenses have all been exceptionally good. And Nikon has even surprised us with some more reasonably-priced speciality lenses that work great (e.g. the 200-500mm f/5.6E, or the more recent 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E). Some recent lenses are so good that they defy logic. The 70-200mm f/2.8E FL simply redefines what we should expect out of a zoom: it's prime telephoto lens good, and that's saying a lot. 

Canon, meanwhile, has been a little bit more subdued in the last year or two, mostly iterating lenses that already existed in their full frame lineup. But each of those that I've tried has clearly been a step forward from already good previous lenses (e.g. the 16-35mm f2.8L III). We have to go back a bit further to find some new interesting lenses from Canon (e.g. 400mm f/4 DO, 200-400mm f/4 with built-in TC), but those both rock for certain types of shooting. 

Pentax did redo their 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses in 2015, but I'd say that they're lagging a bit now in terms of state-of-the-art lenses that a serious enthusiast would want with their high-powered cameras. But that's the tyranny of numbers. Canon and Nikon are shipping 90%+ of the world's DSLRs these days, so the demand is EF and F mount for lenses. 

That shows up in the third parties, too, who mostly pay attention to the Canon and Nikon mounts. 

Sigma, in particular, has been a roll with their Art lenses lately. I've not found a single one that underwhelms, especially at the prices Sigma is charging, which tend to be lower than the camera makers for similar optics. Indeed, Sigma's Art primes lately have been exceptionally good—bordering on Zeissdom—and their limited focal range zooms (e.g. 12-24mm or 24-35mm) aren't far behind. 

Tamron, too, seems to have gotten a second wind. Anything marked G2 seems to be very good, and all the full frame primes they've done in the last three years are right up there with the Sigma Art lenses. Bravo. 

So what is it that a DSLR user should be complaining about? Arguably, nothing. Three great, flexible, high performance camera bodies, many great lenses to choose from, all of which are getting better lately. 

Simply put, if you aren't generating great photos from your DSLR and lenses, something is wrong. Very wrong. We've got exceptional products to use now, so make sure you know how to use them to best advantage. 

Most of the Deals Are Gone

Most of Nikon's rebate programs ended yesterday (June 17th). In their place are the following:

  • D3400 US$499, or US$50 off; US$300 off with two-lens kit 
  • D5600 list price; US$300 off with two-lens kit, US$200 off with 18-140mm lens
  • D7200 US$999, or US$100 off; US$300 off with 18-140mm lens
  • D7500 list price; US$200 off with 18-140mm lens
  • D500 US$1899, or US$100 off; US$600 off with 16-80mm lens
  • D610 US$1499, or US$100 off
  • D750 US$1899, or US$100 off; US$800 off with 24-120mm f/4 lens
  • D810 US$2799, or US$200 off; US$800 off with 24-120mm f/4 lens

Lenses with discounts:

  • 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G DX US$799, or US$100 off
  • 16-35mm f/4G VR US$999, or US$100 off
  • 24mm f/1.4G US$1799, or US$200 off
  • 40mm f/2.8G DX US$249, or US$30 off
  • 50mm f/1.8G US$179, or US$40 off
  • 55-200mm f/4-5.6G VR II DX US$149, or US$200 off
  • 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR US$2099, or US$200 off
  • 35mm f/1.8G DX and 85mm f/3.5G VR DX US$499, or US$320 off

More so than usual, these are somewhat miserly offerings from Nikon on the bodies. I can't help but believe that NikonUSA now has very clear sales data that says that the D500, D750, and D810 sell decently at a lower price, but don't sell so well at the current or list prices. I can even see the pattern in my book sales: the body+grip and larger discounts clearly increased book sales every time Nikon has done it. 

Thus, I have to guess that those discounts will come back. One reason why much of the discounting is low at the moment is that we're now in the end-of-quarter inventory counting period. If NikonUSA made their numbers, we'll probably see continued light discounting for awhile. If they didn't or Nikon corporate needs more US sales, bigger discounts will be back. My guess is that Nikon can't sustain their volume without better discounting. The outstanding question is whether corporate is willing to give up their existing price points for volume. 

Meanwhile, because the lens discounts started when I was traveling, I never published my usual "which lens discounts make for good bargains" post. 

The best bargain of the bunch remains the two lens DX pack (35mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/3.5 macro). You get two really good, sharp lenses in that deal for a very non-Nikon price. The 35mm should be in every DX shooters bag, and don't discount that Micro-Nikkor. While it's a little slow in aperture, it's a really excellent performer, even as a general telephoto lens, and it's DX-small and DX-light. Exactly the kind of lenses we should be demanding from Nikon for DX, actually.

The other clear bargain is the 55-200mm f/4-5.6G DX. At US$150 it's a non-brainer if you don't have a small, light DX telephoto zoom in your kit. It seems clear that the older DX telephoto lenses are going away now that the 70-300mm DX has appeared. Yes, the 70-300mm is a better lens, but it's more expensive (though the non-VR version has been included in some kits for very low cost).

Pretty much all the other lenses still on sale are what I'd call conditional bargains: if you need the lens, then yes, those are good prices for them, and Nikon doesn't often do back-to-back discount programs with lenses, so grab them if you need them when they are on sale. 

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Nikon Isn’t Likely to be Bought by Fujifilm

Updated

When did I become the voice of moderation? ;~)

I've just spent a one-week jaunt into the Internet-free woods—actually, mostly waters—where I was performing equipment testing in real conditions and usage. Judging from the emails sitting in my In Box when I returned, apparently the country of Japan is now telling Nikon it needs an elder sister to run its life, and that sister is Fujifilm. 

I’ve been watching this situation since it first surfaced in April. A somewhat gossipy business publication in Japan, Sentaku, published an article back then that conflated Nikon’s stepper business issues with their camera business issues. So let’s start there: while camera volume and sales are dropping for Nikon, the camera and lens part of their business is still very healthy. What’s not healthy are parts of Nikon’s Precision business, most particularly lithography steppers, a Nikon innovation that has long since been passed by an upstart competitor, ASML. 

That Nikon lithography group is the primary locus of cost cutting and restructuring that Nikon undertook at the end of their past fiscal year (ending March 31, 2017). As part of that restructuring, it’s almost certain that Nikon shopped the group to outsiders. There’s asset value there, so you want to get that back in some way rather than write it down to zero. The problem, of course, is that the most likely buyers of such a business would be Chinese, Taiwanese, or South Korean, probably in that order. 

As much as Japan businesses are on a “get your product margins into shape and close down money-sucking businesses” march, Japan is still highly nationalistic. The number of Asian and Western companies that have tried to take over struggling Japanese businesses or spinouts has been high, but in every case both the Japanese government ministries and the shadow keiretsu groups get involved in trying to keep that business in Japan.

Now we have a followup article from Sentaku that indicates the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi and the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) are seeking a partner that would put Nikon under the wings of a larger company. In particular, Fujifilm Holdings. The rationale given in that article is that METI is afraid Nikon will sell out to a company like Foxconn, Samsung, or Huawei, and that this would mean that Nikon's intellectual property leaves the country.

Things get increasingly complex to interpret from there, as the man said to have instigated the whole restructuring is a relatively new Nikon director that comes from, you guessed it, the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. Meanwhile, Sentaku is an unusual publication in that, like the Economist, authors aren’t cited. Unlike the Economist, Sentaku often drifts to total speculation about what is happening behind the scenes in Japan. I’m not dismissing these articles at all: I believe there’s a level of truth buried in them. But again, there’s a conflation between the stepper and camera business that doesn’t belong in those articles and seems to be confusing everyone.

Nikon’s suit against ASML has to be involved in this, too. Nikon appears to be trying to get to where they can claim all the real value in the group that they’re restructuring, thus making it more viable for sale or outside investment.

Still, Nikon is at 700b yen sales at the moment, and that would be really difficult size for Fujifilm Holdings to absorb. Moreover, Nikon overall doesn't seem like the right fit for the companies Sentaku states are interested in buying the company. Which makes me think that the discussion that Sentaku's sources seem to be picking up on must have to do with only a portion of Nikon's business, and that would be the semiconductor equipment side. 

So, what’s this mean to Nikon cameras and those of us that use Nikon cameras and lenses? Probably nothing. 

Well, okay, not exactly nothing. It appears that top management at Nikon is still spending lots of time trying to deal with the collapse of their lithography stepper business, so there is the distraction element to consider. A sale or spin-out partnership of the troubled lithography business—or even all of the Precision group—would allow management to get their full brainpower focused back on their more viable businesses. 

But the rumors now spreading around the web via the Sentaku articles and blog posts that have picked up on those articles have Fujifilm and Nikon combining forces in cameras, which seems so far fetched to be easily dismissed at this point. 

Sentaku claims "Nikon's camera business is compatible with Fujifilm's," for instance. I wouldn't agree with that. Consolidating the X System with the DSLRs wouldn't be an easy task at all, and would almost certainly force the combination to jettison crop-sensor X bodies or DX bodies. In essence, any combination of the two would result in less than the sum of the parts. 

Had Nikon been a Western company without cultural, nationalism, and keiretsu influences, it’s likely that the lithography business would have been folded much sooner. Pressure from Western stockholders would have pushed Nikon to act far earlier than it did, and back when cameras were printing money for them. Nikon also would have diversified into additional growth businesses long ago, too, not step gingerly into forming a money-sucking medical group as they have recently. 

This is not to say that Nikon’s camera business is perfect. Far from it. But as far as anyone can tell from the financial statements, the camera side of Nikon is what keeps it in business. Only Canon and Nikon seem to be able to run such highly positive numbers in a declining market.  

I’m betting that it’s business as usual for Nikon in the Imaging group for the moment. That means more incremental updates as Nikon calculates how they’re going to shift products in the high compact and mirrorless markets. And the next one of those iterations should be the D810 replacement. 

One thing does strike me, though: Nikon hasn't said a peep about the Sentaku articles that I know of, which seems strange. Meanwhile, Nikon's largest stockholder (Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi) is identified as the key player in these rumors. If true, that means there is pressure on Nikon to do something, and that might have started with Nikon shopping a piece of the company.

The disturbing aspect is this: this is very similar to how the Hoya acquisition of Pentax started. Rumors of sale. Active board member lobbying for it. Bank and METI involvement. 


A final note. Sentaku has a strong tendency towards click-baiting headlines and conflation of unrelated things in their stories and analysis. I would go so far as to say to ignore Sentaku's headlines completely, as they rarely line up with contents of the article.  

PocketWizard FlexTT6 for Canon DSLRs

bythom pocketwizard flextt6

PocketWizard this week launched a new version of their Flex TT transceiver for Canon DSLRs. This wireless controller supports over two dozen recent Canon DSLR cameras, as well as Canon’s 430 and 600 model wireless flash units. 

LPA Design, the makers of the FlexTT6 are making a deal about being “forward, backward, and cross-compatible,” which is some pretty gee-whiz wording technology. What that means is the FlexTT6 works with other existing PocketWizard products, and will be updated in firmware to work with future ones. 

Nikon shooters are still a generation behind—FlexTT5—and are still without a third-party yet supporting Nikon’s new wireless SB-5000 radio technology.

You may wonder why I mention the FlexTT6 or why you keep seeing pros using PocketWizards. One thing, really: reliability in flash and camera triggering, even when using high shooting frame rates (up to 8 fps currently). The PocketWizards use the 344Mhz space in the US (433Mhz in Europe) instead of the more congested spectrum space most other devices use. Coupled with a choice of 52 channels over 26 frequencies here in the US, it’s easy enough to find a reliable channel where other photographers around me aren’t triggering my strobes. 


Keeping Repairs Tied Up

Nikon has been notorious for trying to keep the repair situation for their products tightly held. So notorious that The Economist once described how Nikon would put up a tent around their big stepper equipment at semiconductor plants whenever they did a repair, so nobody could see what they were doing.

A few years ago we Nikon camera owners were forced to say goodbye to any independent camera repair company being able to buy parts from NikonUSA. To be a Nikon Authorized Repair Station you now have to buy a costly training and gear package from NikonUSA.

I’ve been quiet about this issue for awhile. But there were two interesting things brewing in the background that impact this closely-held repair policy, and the Supreme Court just decided one of those this past week. So it’s time to bring up the subject again, I think.

The two issues I’ve been following are: (1) do patents restrict what can be done by third-parties after the fact? and (2) can states break the manufacturer monopoly on repairs?

So let’s start with #1, which was decided 7-1 in favor of customers by the Supreme Court (technically, the dissent was only based upon how this might apply Internationally, with Justice Ginsberg basically arguing that the decision applies solely to patents in the US). 

The case in question was Impression Products vs. Lexmark International. While this case has to do with refilling printer ink cartridges, Lexmark’s arguments in this case included very broad patent claims, basically that patents can restrict what happens with products downstream of the sale. 

This is how a lot of companies try to tie up repairs and modifications of their products. Thus it’s not surprisingly that companies and organizations as diverse as the AARP and Huawei filed motions of support on one or another side of this case.

In its decision, the Supreme Court basically reiterated Bloomer v. McQuewan, where a product “no longer [is] within the limits of the [patent]” once sold. Basically, contract law applies, but patent law does not to any product once the First Sale principle is triggered. 

Here’s the downside, though: while the courts have decided that both Copyright and Patent intellectual property law is not a downstream-of-sale protection that allows companies to put limits on what customers can do with the product they bought (e.g. where they get it repaired), in reading the full set of questioning and opinion at the Supreme Court, it seems to be clear that contract law can be used instead. 

Which is why companies like John Deere are making farmers sign end user license agreements (EULA) when they “buy” a tractor. I put the word “buy” in quotes here because there are definitely arguable legal points to be made about whether an EULA can actually be part of a “sale” and even whether it implies that there is not actually a sale, but rather an indefinite, revokable lease of the product. 

Moreover, we have the issue of "shrink-wrap" EULAs (where just using the product commits you to the agreement) versus ones you specifically have to sign or agree to. [Disclosure: I use what I hope is a simple, understandable, and rational one-click-to-agree EULA for my book sales. I do this because Copyright law and Internet practices have created a legal vagary with downloadable product rights, unfortunately. The EULA I use creates a more specific agreement between you and I.]

The question I got in my InBox from several people when the Supreme Court decided Impression Products this week was whether or not Nikon was using Patent IP to constrict who repairs Nikon products in the US. I don’t think so, not directly; NikonUSA’s legal counsel may have used the Patent IP idea as part of their thinking on how NikonUSA could protect the restrictions they made should they be challenged in court, though. 

For the most part, NikonUSA has simply used “access.” Access to repair manuals, access to repair and testing tools, and access to parts. That seemed to be enough to weed out most of the “unauthorized" repair facilities, though someone really trying to get around the restrictions could probably find a copy of repair manuals on the darker side of the Internet, and these days the parts supply stream in SE Asia can pretty much net you anything if you know where to look for it. 

But the hassle of doing that exceeds the benefit of profit from repairs, I would conclude. That, plus the declining camera market and the fairly low failure rates really make the camera repair business one that is tough to profit from at small scale if you have to jump through hoops to get parts.

The second issue that would impact repairs is one that hasn’t been resolved but is ongoing: Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Tennessee all are considering “right to repair” legislation. You can add Kansas and Wyoming to that list if you’re more worried about your farm equipment than camera gear ;~). 

You might notice that all of those are farming states. John Deere’s requirement that people use their proprietary diagnostic software to perform any repair on their farm equipment—said software covered by EULA and not available to anyone—is the second genesis of the right to repair movement (automobile repair was the first, for similar reasons). 

These potential right to repair laws seem to have spawned from Massachusetts Automotive Right to Repair law created in 2012. Many of the proposed laws currently being considered by states derive from a template created by repair.org based on that 2012 law.

These laws actually get to that “access” issue I mentioned that NikonUSA is using: right to repair laws generally all would require manufacturers to publish repair manuals and sell parts, diagnostic software and tools. 

This is where it gets tricky. NikonUSA technically sells manuals, parts, and diagnostic gear. For a pretty healthy five figure number that’s tied to training. So the wording in any state law would have to be fairly specific to keep the manufacturers from keeping the bar so high that they can continue to control the repair market. 

Quite obviously, lobbying plays a part in what will happen. But lobbying obviously works two ways: both sides to an issue can lobby ;~). Repair.org has set up a page where those of you in the states currently considering such legislation can get involved.

Having been in the high tech industry making hardware, I obviously have been on the manufacturer side of the fence and understand their concerns. That said, I think the tight noose on most hardware repairs that is currently in place is wrong and misguided. 

Some of you may remember the days of stickers over a screw that said “open and you void warranty.” I’m fine with that. I’m a grown up and can understand the risks I take by not using “official” repair methods. But these days, I can’t even manage to take that risk, as there’s no (easy) way I can get parts I’d need for such repairs.

Not to make this a partisan or political debate, but I do have to add: those of you who think the US is a “free country” should think carefully about whether you’re actually free or not, or being slowly restricted by very large business entities. I see far too many moves by one political party that says it’s all about freedom that actually take many small freedoms like my right to repair away, all because the ones who lobby them with the most money win. I find that hypocritical and anti-American, myself. 

The alternative to repair is to live in a throwaway world, where any product that has problems just gets jettisoned into the waste stream. That seems wasteful. Surely there is a balancing point in the middle that is better for all of us. 

Three New Nikkor Lenses Introduced

bythom three nikkors

Nikon today introduced two new FX lenses, and one DX lens. Let’s work our way up in excitement by starting at the bottom…

The first lens is the 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-P DX lens with a suggested retail price of US$310. This wide-angle zoom seems to round out the AF-P line for the consumer DX cameras, with 10-20mm, 18-55m, and 70-300mm lenses with stepper motors in them now available. Which gives us 15-450mm effective coverage, with a small overlap and small gap. As I’ve noted in my reviews, the stepper motors seem to help Live View focus performance considerably, though they don’t seem to impact regular focus speeds much, if at all. 

The one surprise to this lens is the inclusion of VR, though Nikon did not specify initially how effective that was in CIPA tests.

It’s a little difficult to get excited by this new DX lens, as it’s not the DX lens most users have been hoping for, and the specs are all pretty low-end (e.g. f/4.5 maximum aperture). Moreover, it overlaps offerings already in Nikon’s lineup. 

Given the low price—and the recent discounting of the D3400—it seems that someone in Nikon is still chasing the entry-level user. Meanwhile, the higher end DX users are still all basically being ignored (buzz, buzz).

Okay, then, can we be more excited about the 28mm f/1.4E ED that was introduced for US$2000? Maybe. But again, we have some head-scratching to do. The new 28mm is the first E-type f/1.4 prime other than the 105mm. We have 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 58mm, and 85mm G-type f/1.4 primes, so are we now getting the f/1.4 line filled in or the start of a new sequence (E-types)? The answer seems to be yes. Yes the line is getting filled in, but yes new versions are transitioning to E. 

That’s not inconsequential. E-type lenses support the fewest number of legacy DSLR bodies, and aren’t supported by film SLRs. 

While US$2000 isn’t inexpensive, we’re talking less than half of Otus level prices, so the real issue here is well the new lens performs. If it gets close to the current Otus state-of-the-art, that price might be considered a bargain. If it has significant optical issues, then it might be expensive. How it fits in the continuum of f/1.8 Nikkor to Zeiss Otus is incredibly important, especially with Sigma Art lenses living in that same territory.

28mm certainly isn’t the most requested prime focal length (in wide angle, 24mm and 35mm are), so it’s not like Nikon is going to sell a flood of this new lens. Still, it’s nice to see the prime lineup getting attention. 

Note to Nikon: the 50mm primes really need updating, some would love a 20mm f/1.4 and a 135mm f/2 or faster, and the 14mm f/2.8 could use an update. So your work is not done here.

Finally, the most interesting lens in Nikon’s introduction today is the 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED Fish-eye zoom. This US$1250 lens matches up against the Canon 8-15mm f/4L. These full frame fisheye zooms replace the old 180° fisheye primes (e.g. Nikkor 16mm f/2.8) but provide more flexibility, as you can also zoom out to get a 180° circular fisheye image. In essence, two fisheye types in one, with some strange abilities in between.

Indeed, one of the strange abilities comes with DX. At about 11mm—there’s a marking on the lens—the 8-15mm becomes a DX 180° diagonal frame fisheye, but one that can also range to an effective barrel-distorted 20mm or so in a pinch. So my curiosity is this: can I replace three lenses in my gear closet with this one lens? (10.5mm DX, 8mm Sigma fisheye, 16mm Nikkor, if you were trying to figure that out.) It looks like I might. And, for Nikon, at a reasonable price (less than the Canon equivalent for a change). 

As with all the big wides with bulbous front elements, the 8-15mm has a push-on lens cap and doesn’t take filters up front (there’s a gel slot at the back, but is there anyone still using gels? One reader reminded me that some underwater photographers do). That said, it’s the first of that type of lens that Nikon supplies a removable lens hood for.

Expect new lens correction firmware for these lenses by the time they ship (current version is L2.015 when you look at the firmware number on your camera). 

All in all, Nikon’s announcements today aren’t going to move a lot of product or change people’s minds about anything. These are “business as usual” lens introductions as far as I can see: fill out the product line (28mm) and match Canon (lower cost crop-sensor wide angle, full frame fisheye zoom).  

The Nikon crowd probably won’t get too excited about these lenses, but they do fill some needs for some, so I expect them to sell decently, at least initially. 

The D810 Replacement Conjecture

While we continue to wait for it, it is still pretty easy to conjure up what the D810 replacement will be, with one critical exception, which takes a leap of faith on one or another path. 

Here are the easy things to figure out:

  • It will have the D5/D500 autofocus system. That includes the less-than-perfect Automatic AF Fine Tune capability, so let’s hope they improve that. You should get a thumbstick for moving the focus point, too.
  • It will have the D5/D500 exposure system. New metering sensor with more data, and all that means. The D5/D500 metering is set to better preserve highlights in raw, and I’d expect that to come along, as well.
  • It will have the D5/D500 touchscreen. It will probably be tilting.
  • It will have an ISO button wedged in behind the shutter release. Otherwise, we’d be starting on yet another moving of the cheese, uh, buttons.
  • It will have the extra Fn2 button that’s so far mostly useless. Again, let’s hope Nikon opens that up to be more useful.
  • It will have the IPTC data entry capabilities. There’s no real reason to leave this off.
  • It will move the same menu options to new menus as we have seen on other recent cameras (e.g. Auto Image Rotation to the PLAYBACK menu, Slot Empty Release Lock to the SETUP menu, etc.). Hopefully they’ll move a few more and get the cheese-moving completely done with, such as File Number Sequence, which shouldn’t be in the banks-oriented CSM menu.
  • It will likely use XQD cards. The second slot might be CompactFlash or SD, but most of us would want it to be XQD, which is unfortunately only a slim possibility.
  • Because of XQD and the usual internal bandwidth improvements, it will have a larger raw buffer. This is one of those “comes for free” types of things. Faster sensor readout necessary for more pixels and faster EXPEED means even with the same physical memory size, you’ll almost certainly get more images in and out faster. Plus, XQD is faster than anything else on the “out” part. 
  • It will have 4K video of some kind. And probably the Electronic VR capability. It still won’t look like a reasonable video camera. 
  • It will be set up to use the SB-5000. That likely also means no internal flash, ala the D5/D500. It means the continued use of the WR-R10 in the 10-pin connector. It means some recent flashes won’t be fully supported again, ala the D5/D500. Ugh.
  • It might have SnapBridge built in, meaning Bluetooth and Wi-Fi ala the D500. This is the only real maybe in my list. Nikon didn’t get the love from SnapBridge it thought it would, and it’s entirely possible that they will use that as an excuse to cut costs in the camera and just leave it out, requiring you to use a WT-6 like the D810 and D5. 

Where things get vague about the D810 replacement are the things that all pertain to the image sensor: megapixel count, frame rates, ISO capabilities, and so on. Most of you would take the above list with just about any improvement at the image sensor. Some of you would take the above without any change at sensor (same pixel count, ISO abilities, frame rates). So Nikon has some flexibility here. They aren’t in a position where they have to do something dramatic to preserve the user base on this update. 

So what are the sensor options? At this point I pretty sure it narrowed to two distinct paths (and I’ll tell you which one I suspect in a moment):

  1. Scale the D500 sensor. This gives you 46mp or so (depends on masking) in a state-of-the-art front-side illuminated sensor. The biggest implications on picking this route are scaled frame rates (more data to move) and a non-full frame 4K video. There’s no dynamic range gain from BSI, no big speed bump from Stacked. This is a “business as usual” decision.
  2. Use the existing Sony 42mp sensor. While this doesn’t move the bar much from the existing D810 sensor, it does have some potential gain, just not anything that’s likely to generate excitement from the Nikon crowd. 

At one point, there were—I believe—three other sensor paths that were considered, one being just iterate the current 36mp sensor, one being a new sensor in the 50mp+ range, plus another new sensor substantively higher than that. Sticking with the current sensor has the problem of how to get 4K video: you’d need to do some re-engineering to accomplish this, so it isn’t a cost-free decision. Higher costs alone would have made those other two choices tough ways to choose moving forward on the D810. Nikon no longer has the volume to push many multiple sensor approaches in their lineup. The highest megapixel option probably would have put the need for R&D cost recovery high enough to distort the D810 followup’s pricing, but I’m guessing there. 

So, if I had to guess today, we’re going to get a scaled D500 sensor (#1, above). It makes the most economic and research sense for Nikon, I believe. It creates smaller engineering challenges to deal with than the big one of trying to pioneer another new sensor design. 

What we really want but probably aren’t getting is:

  • A version of this body with the D5 sensor.
  • On-sensor phase detect autofocus to improve Live View focus performance.
  • A full swivel LCD. 
  • The ability to change the entire camera settings at once (i.e. the tying together of the banks system into something like C1, C2).
  • Any new technologies. The D5 pioneered this round of Nikon technologies. The only place a D810 followup will be different is in the image sensor.
  • Any significant size or weight reduction.


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