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):

Perception is Everything

"Uncertainty from poor Nikon service made me notice the innovation from a competitor.” 

Sometimes I get one-liners in my email and other correspondence that manage to capture a thought perfectly. 

Sony’s introduction of a halo camera—the 20 fps full frame A9 in this case—has the Nikon (and some of the Canon) faithful either circling the wagons or crying out in the wilderness. It shouldn't. There's nothing wrong with Nikon's high-end cameras.

Well that's not exactly correct. There's less wrong with Nikon's high-end cameras than I currently find with Sony high-end cameras. While Sony wins on body size, they lose on control placement/ergonomics, lens selection, and a few other things. So to see so many Nikon folk lauding Sony and complaining about Nikon seems a bit strange.

It's called displacement. Nikon user anger at other things—customer support, clear information about how focus systems work, lack of addressing problems in updates, strange battery/card behaviors, slower and worse repair services, constant stream of quality control issues on new cameras, lack of DX lenses, etc.—is what is causing Nikon users to be so negatively vocal lately. 

Then there's the strategic: what the heck is Nikon doing in serious compacts and mirrorless cameras? At present, nothing. And that's nothing since mid-2015 when you ignore the DL announcement and rescinding. So it seems as if Nikon might be asleep in R&D on top of all the customer complaints that aren't being responded to.

This is now a crisis. A crisis of Nikon management's own making. It didn't have to be this way, but all that cost cutting produced collateral damage that can't be ignored.

What's the crisis? Sampling and leaking from Nikon DSLRs has risen and with perhaps the exception of three models, significant Nikon DSLR sales aren't happening against the competition right now. The data seems pretty clear on these things. 

Funny thing is, the leakers aren't exactly happy. As I was writing this article I got an email from one who was trying a Sony A6000 alongside his D750 on vacation at a beach resort. What was he complaining about? The Sony A6000's viewfinder in bright sun. That's a fairly typical complaint I hear on the mirrorless side: the EVFs are fine as long you're not in very low light or very bright, contrasty light, at which point they can become problematic. 

That'll get fixed (though first on the high-end mirrorless cameras). But what I wrote above is still true today: there are fewer issues on the top Nikon DSLRs than there are on the similar mirrorless cameras from a pragmatic, shooting point of view. Yet leaking and sampling is increasing, not decreasing. 

Simply put, some of the Nikon crowd seems to have lost faith in the Nikon brand. Generalized, we see these five complaints:

  • Nikon isn't producing the product I want — you hear this about serious compacts, about mirrorless, and to some degree about DSLRs; plus you hear it about lenses, particularly DX lenses.
  • Nikon quality has eroded — the D500, D600, D750, D800, D810 all shipped with clear issues that needed fixing, some particularly bad (D600 shutter splatter and D750 vignetting). Even the very minor ones, such as the D810 white dot one, now get amplified.
  • Nikon customer support is poor, and serious support is unreachable — I've been getting more and more complaints at the NPS level lately that mirror the experience of the regular customer, so this isn't just about serving naive D3xxx users.
  • Nikon is uncommunicative about feature nuances — the new focus, exposure, and flash system all have changes to them that impacts how you set and shoot with them, but Nikon hasn't come close to documenting those. And is Nikon ever going to mention focus shift correction, and which camera/lens combinations have it?
  • Nikon's software sucks — SnapBridge, Capture NX-D, even something as simple as Transfer seem to be sub-par these days, and getting more sub and further from par every day. 

So even when Nikon does introduce something great—the D5, D500, 70-200mm f/2.8, 105mm f/1.4, 19mm PC-E all come to mind in the last 18 months—the net positive that Nikon gets from those products is not exceeding the negatives from the complaints I just listed and which are weighing down their customer base. 

I'm of the opinion that a handful of new, great products from Nikon isn't going to solve their problem. I get emails and comments from Nikon users all the time that run along the lines of these:

  • A D810 update with a bigger, better sensor and the D5 autofocus system will help
  • Nikon needs a mirrorless product that will compete with Sony
  • Without a full set of lenses, I'd rather go to Fujifilm than Nikon for crop sensor

Product is not the answer, though it would certainly help Nikon to get the right products to market. 

What would help Nikon far more is in changing how they deal with customers (that includes dealers, who are the more direct customer of Nikon than photographers). All the cost cutting preserved profit margins, but it has a downstream negative effect on sales now. In other words, Nikon solved their corporate short term problems at the expense of long term customers. 

This has to stop. Go back and read that top bullet list of five complaints: three of them aren't about product design or capability. Those three items should be fixable tomorrow without requiring any new engineering. Tomorrow. As in the day after you read this. All it takes is a management decision properly communicated and executed. 

Often the job of CEO is knowing what the right problem is to solve first. 

Let me illustrate that by taking a point argued by someone in Europe who I know and debate with: he is insistent that Nikon needs to introduce a new mirrorless system that's highly capable by this summer. 

Really? Does it really matter if such a product comes in three months, six months, or a year? Nope. Not if the other things I note aren't fixed. Why do I think that? Nikon has a stable of great products already. Arguably the D7200, D500, D750, D810, and D5 are best in class. Ditto with most of their lenses. Yet Nikon is being dragged downhill not by these products, but by public perception of the company. Just having a new mirrorless platform doesn't do a lot to change public perception. Nikon's problem is more fundamental: they have to rally their customer base and tell them that their future is still Nikon and why that's so. Some of that will involve product, for sure. But even a statement like "as we eventually introduce new products, such as mirrorless, we're going to reward those that have stuck with the F-mount since its beginnings" would go a long way. 

Nikon needs to open a dialogue with its customers. With those that cover it in the press. With its committed enthusiast and professional photographers. With the entire photographic community. They need to field the complaints and respond in the following way: "1. We hear you. 2. We will address and fix that. 3. We appreciate your feedback and what you provide us as a customer." 

Failure to do that will be failure in the market, regardless of whether we get a great D810 replacement, a 70mp high-end camera, a new mirrorless system, more DX lenses, or whatever else it is you're wishing for. 

What Still is Useful, What to Upgrade

It's amazing to think that we're 18 years into the DSLR era (almost 30 if you were one of the few shooting with the modified film cameras Kodak made in the 90's). What's even more amazing is that every now and then I run into—or find in my gear closet—an old body, so I charge up its batteries and, yep, it still works. 

"Still works" is different than "useful."

As a quick recap, Nikon users went from 2.5mp to 6mp to 10mp to 12mp to 16mp to 24mp to 36mp. Canon did something similar.  We went from cameras that struggled at ISO 400 to cameras that don't struggle until the randomness of photons becomes the issue. We went from a few frames a second to as many as 14. But most importantly for many we went from very simplistic autofocus systems with only a few sensors—some of which struggled in low light—to sophisticated systems that sometimes can outthink a pro (e.g. D5/D500 in 3D mode in some situations). 

What's happening right now though is that all this camera churn has gotten many users to a comfortable place and they have no real willingness to upgrade. I'm going to challenge that in this article. I'm going to call a line and suggest that you upgrade if you're below it. (A few Nikon executives just sat upright in their chairs reading that line and said under their breath: "Oh Thom-san, we might start to like you again if you can help us sell even a few more bodies.")

First off, be advised that I keep a full set of recommendations for every Nikon DSLR user, which you'll find in the Ultimate Camera Update List on this site. Indeed, this article happened because as I went through updating that series of camera-specific sub-articles I found myself changing my recommendations on a number of cameras. Time (and smartphones) has moved the bar forward. Canon users, keep reading, I'll get to you later in this article.

In essence, I'm now drawing a bar at the 12mp Nikon full frame DSLRs and 16mp DX ones. Smartphones have partly changed this, as my iPhone 7 is handier and very capable with lots of pixels, so the older 6mp and 8mp DSLRs now start to collapse in the logic of owning one for basic stills. 

But hindsight also allows us to see things easier. When we got to DX/APS-C and FX/full frame at 16mp with the Sony-derived and Nikon-designed sensors, we arrived at a point where image sensors were no longer really struggling with read noise, PRNU noise, even things like hot pixel noise. We essentially got to a land where the randomness of photons was our biggest fight, while getting those photons focused where we wanted them was the second biggest fight. 

It's not so much that a camera like the 24mp D7200 is perfect, it's that compared to a D80 it just has us fighting the right fights, not struggling along with fights that have long since been decided. 

So here we go. Here are the Nikon DSLRs I think are clearly above the useful line and aren't pressuring you to think about upgrading:

  • DX — D500, D7100, D7200, any 24mp D3xxx or D5xxx
  • FX — Df, D6xx, D700, D750, D8xx, D3 series, D4 series, D5

If you've got one of those bodies, you need not be in a hurry to upgrade. If something compelling comes along, great, pull the trigger. But you shouldn't feel like you're far behind the crowd. 

If you're using a Nikon DSLR not on that list, you're missing out. Missing out in performance, missing out in features, missing out in control, missing out in virtually everything that matters to getting great image data out of a camera.

You'll note that I left out the 12mp DX bodies, including the D300/D300s. This was a tough decision, but it really boils down to this: DX sensors changed pretty significantly for the better after the D90, and the extra resolution is an additional help to keep you well out of the "smartphone can do that" realm. But frankly, the D500 is so much a better camera than the D300s it replaces, there's a night and day thing happening here. Things you struggled with using a D300s just go away with the D500. That doesn't mean there won't be other things you struggle with using a D500, only that you'll climb up the mountain some more and play at a higher level.

I reluctantly included the 12mp FX bodies here. Technically, that old 12mp Nikon sensor still performs at levels that are competitive. If you don't have to crop. If you aren't printing large. The bodies that have that sensor are well made, fully featured, and have very usable autofocus systems, though not really smart and fast ones like we now have. That said, the D4/D4s runs rings around the D3/D3s at low ISO values in terms of dynamic range, so is a better-rounded camera. And the D5 shows us that focus performance still has much more it can give us. So the D3/D3s/D700 are nearing their last legs competitively, and if you own those cameras, your upgrade time is coming soon, I think. 

How about the Canon DSLRs?

I struggle with this a little bit because I haven't used them all, as I have the Nikon DSLRs. I also struggle a bit with this as Canon's sensor transition is still ongoing. The old large process fab versus the  new smaller process fab made a big difference in things like dynamic range performance recently. Basically any of the dual-pixel Canon sensors are made on the smaller process fab and perform better than most of the ones made on the older larger process fab. But on the flip side, Canon was early at updating the sensor technology to CMOS and using some of the tricks that allowed, and earlier at pushing the megapixel count upwards. So it's a tougher call on the Canon side than on the Sony/Nikon sensor side.

With Canon I'd tend to put the cut line at 18mp for APS-C and 16mp for full frame. That takes us all the way back to 2011 in the Rebel line, and back to the 2009 1D Mark IV in the larger frame line (it was APS-H, not full frame). While I'm confident about the large frame dividing line, I'm far less so about the APS-C one. My anecdotal feeling is that some of those earlier 18mp Rebels just don't hold up nearly as well as the later ones. But I just don't have enough experience shooting the entire Canon lineup to tell where I'd really place the bar. Which is one reason why I don't have an Ultimate Upgrade list for Canon yet. 

Why now? Why bring this subject up today? 

Again, I just updated the Nikon DSLR Ultimate Upgrade List. But probably just as important is that with DSLR sales struggling, we're seeing some incredible bargains floating around out there. I pointed out the US$399 D3400 last week (an even better bargain in the two-lens kit). We're also in the midst of a Nikon sale on the D500, D750, and D810. Given Nikon's financials, I think we're in a bargain hunter's dreamland right now for those hold-out upgraders. Nikon needs volume of some of these great cameras to increase to make their numbers and show they aren't losing even more market share, so we're likely to see sales throughout the rest of the year.

But worse there's this: with Nikon's sagging market share I expect them to have to push pricing up in future generations. They're not getting the parts volume discounts they used to. Thus, while the D810 has a MAP price of US$3000 here in the US and was US$3300 when it was introduced, I'll bet the replacement will sneak up a bit in price, say US$3500 or even higher. Thus, the current US$2500 price (which includes other goodies) looks pretty darned good for such a great camera.

Updated to clarify some Canon points and models.

Cameras On Display at the Tokyo Olympics

I mentioned this briefly at the end of a previous article, but since I found myself following up with lots of folk on what were essentially two sentences, it's probably worth bringing my thoughts out into a full article of its own.

The Summer Olympics will be in Tokyo in 2020. 

For the camera companies, that means that they're playing a "home game." 

We've already heard plenty on the video side, with virtually everyone already talking about 8K video (and VR and Ultra HD and a bunch of other stuff). 4K is going to be the minimum broadcast standard, basically, with new technologies on display in every possible way the Japanese video companies can think of. We've already gotten previews and discussions of this at the big trade shows, such as NAB, so we know video is going to be a monster in Japan in 2020. 

But what about still cameras? 

A few years ago you'd just predict this as being "just another Olympics, with new Canon and Nikon DSLRs duking it out." We'd expect counts of white lenses versus black and counts of how many lenses and bodies CPS and NPS have in the loaner rooms. 

But there's much more on the line this time, and it's a home game. No excuses for not showing up (I'm looking at you, Olympus). 

Sony has already thrown out a challenge, the A9. Silent, 20 fps, no blackout viewfinder, smaller and cheaper than the established favorites. The optics needed out to 200mm are in place (or about to be). Sony has three years to make the camera even better and produce the 300mm+ optics that are needed. Think they won't? Think again. 

But this is just the sidelines of the Olympics. There's only about 6000 accreditations for the sideline sports photographer at the Olympics. So Canon, Nikon, and Sony are fighting over basically 6000 shooters. I will say this: Nikon has their work cut out for them in terms of visibility: both Canon and Sony use white lenses for their telephoto range. Any incursion by Sony into Nikon's usual sideline presence is going to reinforce how small Nikon's presence is. White is the new Black. And if you see a lot of white when looking at the photographer pools while viewing the Tokyo Olympics on your telly, this is a negative marketing point for Nikon. 

But there are two other aspects to cameras that will be interesting to watch at the Tokyo Olympics: (1) what visitors bring, and (2) what visitors see in camera stores. Let's assume that the Tokyo Olympics work out to be about the same size as the Beijing Olympics: about 7m tickets, 11,000 athletes, 100,000 volunteers, 18,000 other media: a lot of extra people wandering around Tokyo. And don't forget the Paralympic Games that follow the main event.

If those Olympic attendees bring any sophisticated camera with them as they visit Tokyo for the Olympics, what will that be? A clunky DSLR or a smaller and more portable mirrorless? It's a given that smartphones will be shooting everywhere, but what will the dedicated camera situation look like? 

Well, if those visitors are Japanese—and a lot of them will be—Olympus should look like a winner (or at least a medalist). They sell quite well in the home market, and they make lots of the small-type gear that the Japanese prefer. The foreign visitors will be sure to note that, as well as what the rest of the foreigners are using.

Meanwhile, if you brought a camera to the Tokyo Olympics, how are you not going to go to at least Akihabara, but more likely one of the big camera shops around town, such as those in Shinjuku? What are those curious folk going to see? I'm told that one of the stores I frequent when in Tokyo now has about as much Sony camera presence and devoted space as Nikon. Will that change by 2020? 

All this is "marketing" of a subtle, but persuasive nature. We're herd animals to a degree. If the herd is showing all white, maybe we should be shooting white lenses? If the herd is all carrying mirrorless cameras, maybe we should be shooting mirrorless? If the herd is all talking about 8K video and looking at huge, impressive screens as they walk around, maybe our living room should go 8K? 

The total wild card in the camera game is this: Canon should have a 1DxIII and Nikon a D6 just before the event. The previous versions of those beasts have been the workhorse at the Olympics. Neither company wants to be caught dead without a new workhorse that pulls out all the stops for the home game. Design work has already begun on both. Sony has already showed their hand with the A9, and you can be certain they're targeting an A9II for 2020. 

The good news is—at least at the very top end of still cameras—we should have a massive initiative to impress us with innovation and new gear from the Big Three. Only 1165 days (or less) until we know what that is and how it fares.

A Quick Analysis

I wanted to take a large set of numbers I have access to and run them against each other to see what it might say about Nikon's position in cameras at the moment.

In particular, I was interested in whether Nikon is selling above the average selling price for units, at average, or below average. The quick spreadsheet answer is this: probably just above average for compacts, but much more above average for DSLRs and lenses. Moreover, it's now likely that compacts account for less than 20% of Nikon's camera revenues.

If we run just the CIPA shipment numbers against Nikon's stated volumes, for instance, we get a value that's only approximately 75% of what Nikon reported for income during the same period. Even accounting for accessory volume, it seems that Nikon is selling many products at above average pricing. My more complex spreadsheet that integrates more data from more sources shows the same thing: Nikon really has to be selling at above the average selling price in each category to make the revenue numbers they're reporting.

The reason why I wanted to do this quick calculation is because my perception is that right now it is Nikon's heavy hitters that are driving Nikon's sales and carrying the weight of the company. Here's how I'd characterize things:

  • The KeyMission series bombed. Did considerably poorer than Nikon expected.
  • Coolpix is bombing faster than Nikon expected. Only the P900 and B700 have any traction at all.
  • The Nikon J5 has minimal sales, and is the only Nikon 1 product moving. 
  • The D3400 and D5600 models are doing worse than Nikon expected, and worse than previous iterations.
  • The D5 volume is minimal at this point, but probably at expectations.
  • Only the D500, D750, D810, and D7200 models are really selling at Nikon's expectations, but then only with discounting. 
  • New lens sales other than all the kit lenses are holding their own (e.g. 24-70mm f/2.8E and 70-200mm f/2.8E).

So the questions this produces are:

  • Will the D7500 hold serve?
  • Is the next expected update, the D810 one, going to hold serve?
  • Can Nikon continue to find expensive lenses to introduce or update in ways that will produce continued sales?
  • Will Nikon add anything to the lineup in the coming year that will pull in better than average results?

Looking at Nikon's forecast for the coming year, the decline in revenue and volume versus the flat profit expectation tells me that Nikon is counting more than ever on the top end of their lineup. They need their high margin products to do well. So Nikon's answers to my questions are probably:

  • Yes, Nikon expects the D7500 will hold serve.
  • Yes, Nikon expects the D810 replacement to hold serve.
  • Yes, Nikon thinks that they can produce a few new lenses with high prices/margins that will sell decently.
  • No, there's no indication of anything coming in 2017 that would change the trajectory at all. For there to be something new and significant in the lineup that would pull in better than average results, then one of the three yeses, above, would have to be a clear no. 

Nikon is becoming a more high-DX and FX DSLR company. D7500, D500, D750, D810. Those are four key, core cameras for them for the foreseeable future. 

The good news is that those are all really good cameras—okay, I'm guessing on the D7500. But where are the lenses to better support the D7500 and D500 better (buzz, buzz)? And what new FX lenses will keep the lens line providing Nikon the high margins they're expecting? 

The bad news is that nowhere do I see anything in Nikon's just concluded financial reporting and press briefings that indicates that we can expect something new and different that extends that small competent core product line in some way in 2017. 

For me and many reading this site, the good news offsets the bad for the moment. The real questions we face are further down the line: what happens in 2018 and 2019, and in particular, 2020 when the Olympics come to Tokyo? But for the time being, it's business as usual in the serious DSLR line. 

Nikon's Year (Financial Results)

Here's the crazy corner Nikon is in: they can claim a modest 7% increase in operating income for the fiscal year that they just finished, but had far lower net sales and with restructuring costs had a significant loss. Nikon predicts that they'll recover to profitability next fiscal year, but with lower sales. They predict the imaging market will shrink, but they'll strengthen the profit of that group. The see saw is bouncing up and down. One end up, the other down, then that end up, the other down.

Most interesting is the way Nikon describes their restructuring process:

bythom nikon restructure

So at the moment, Nikon seems to be claiming that they're still doing re-assessment of cost structures while somehow "enhancing" management. Nowhere in that so-called restructuring plan do I actually see the word "implement," as in "begin doing what we're talking about." I'm sure that implementation has been active from the get go, but this plan, as presented, strikes me as too mild, too late. 

I really don't like this: "Strategic direction for year ending March 31, 2018: Target a profit-structure able to sustain profit in a declining market. Create a midterm roadmap and initiate a fundamental review of costs." Hmm, no wonder Nikon doesn't provide customer roadmaps: they don't have a complete one themselves. 

I'm being harsh and snarky here. In a big business like Nikon, there's the large picture and the small picture. What we're discussing in terms of strategy is the large picture, where Nikon seems to be saying they aren't totally sure what they're doing other than further reducing costs. They've mentioned cost reduction almost every financial disclosure for the last decade, so what exactly do they really mean by "fundamental review of costs"? 

In the small picture, I'm sure Nikon is still executing. But exactly what was that execution during the fiscal year they just reported? This:

  • Unannounced the DL series
  • Shipped the KeyMission series, which failed
  • Announced and shipped Coolpix A180, A300, D3400, D5600, none of which sold well
  • Announced the D7500

Which brings us to the ugly numbers for the Imaging group:

  • Net sales down 26% from 520b yen to 383b yen
  • Operating income down 39% from 45.7b yen to 27.7b yen
  • ILC cameras down 23% from 4.04m units to 3.1m units
  • ILC market share dropped from 31% to 26%
  • Lens sales down 22% from 5.9m units to 4.62m units
  • Lens market share dropped from 28% to 24%
  • Compact camera sales down 61% from 6.23m units to 3.19m
  • Compact camera market share down from 30% to 25%

Yes, ugly. Remember, Canon was pretty much flat in ILC units and gained market share during this period, and even managed to not drop at the industry average rate in compacts.

Wondered why you're not seeing Nikon advertising and marketing? Yep, cost cutting: "decrease [partially due to] controlling costs including advertising expense." Indeed, Nikon clearly disclosed their basic goal in imaging: "similar profitability to prior year excluding [foreign exchange] impact." In other words, they're managing everything to profit levels, not market share or any other factor now. 

If you're wondering about that medical business they are trying to create: 20.2b yen in sales and -4.5b yen in operating income. To put that in perspective, that's a smaller business than Nikon's profit in the camera business, and the loss in medical eats about 1/6th of the Imaging business's profits. 

So what's in store for Nikon going forward? 20b in fixed cost reductions, for one. Headcount rationalization and re-assignment. Review of all costs. Which gives us this forecast for the coming year for the Imaging group according to Nikon:

  • Net sales down 10% from 383b yen to 345b yen
  • Operating income down 1% from 27.7b yen to 27b yen
  • ILC cameras down 19% from 3.1m units to 2.5m units
  • ILC market share drops from 26% to 23%
  • Lens sales down 19% from 4.6m units to 3.7m units
  • Lens market share drops from 24% to 21%
  • Compact camera sales down 18% from 3.19m units to 2.3m units
  • Compact camera market share drops from 25% to 22%
bythom nikon 3yr

Those are bad numbers, folks. As badly as Nikon slipped in the overall market (market share decline) in the past year, they expect the same in the coming year. The duopoly is now more a monopoly. With Nikon at 23% and Canon at 48% for ILC bodies, we have a strong player and a weak player. The weak player is Nikon.

One last comment. Nikon is clearly more interested in the profit margin that you provide them than they are in terms of how many of you there are in total. But another announcement they made today makes that even more curious: they've revised their Shareholder Returns Policy. They used to attempt to provide a "total return ratio of 30% or more." Now they're targeting a "dividend payout ratio of 40% or more." Where are customers in any of this? Apparently not squarely in management's vision. Nikon is managing to appease shareholders, who aren't seeing growth in the company. Now, obviously, businesses exist to maximize profits/value to shareholders. But the way you do that is by producing products and services that appeal to customers. You can't have one without the other. That graph just above tells you that Nikon's products and services are becoming less appealing to customers. That's a warning sign.  

XQD Sale

bythom sony xqd

Not sure how long it's going to last, but sales on XQD cards don't come around very often, so I thought I'd mentioned it, even if this does look a bit like click bait.

This site's exclusive advertiser has the the Sony G and M series XQD cards with instant savings from US$11 to US$50 off [advertiser link].

For D5 and D500 users, I would recommend the 32GB G (US$59) or 64GB G (US$90) cards. Those are the right speed to maximize the camera's buffer performance, and I believe the right sizes to consider; putting too many images on one card is a data jeopardy thing, so I tend to avoid the 128GB and 256GB cards, as there's really no need for them with the 20mp cameras. If you believe the rumors that the D810 followup will also have an XQD slot and more pixels and you think you'll update to it, then perhaps the larger cards are worth considering.

Note that the 32GB M card, though tempting at US$40, has a maximum write performance about half that of the D5 and D500. If you're going to opt for the less expensive M series, pick at least the 64GB, which is relatively close to the performance that the twin Nikon pro cameras can manage. 

Now Here's Something I Can Get Behind

Phase One today announced the IQ3 100mp Achromatic Back. That's 100mp in a medium format, but monochrome. When I say medium format, I mean the 40 x 54mm size, not the smaller 33 x 44mm size of the recent mirrorless "medium format" cameras. That's an impressive 11,608 x 8708 pixels with 4.6 micron photosites on as big a digital sensor as is available (at least at the commercial consumer level). Yowza! 

Why do I like this?

Many, many years ago—at least a decade—I wrote that I wanted a true black and white digital camera. I even polled my site readers and found that almost 20% of them were with me on this. The benefits are these:

  • About a 1.5x increase in resolution/acuity due to not needing to run the Bayer demosaic
  • Typically a stop or more increase in sensitivity
  • In the IQ3's case: no IR cutoff

We've had a few monochrome cameras along the way, most notably the Leica Monochrom. Pretty much every black-and-white image I've seen from such cameras has been mind-blowingly good compared to what you could do with the equivalent Bayer camera of the time. If you want to talk about micro-contrast, whatever that is, I'm pretty sure you'll find it in images taken from a true monochrome sensor camera. 

I don't often get into the black-and-white world these days. Mostly because it just triggers a post-processing parade that I'd rather avoid. But with the right monochrome camera, I might jump back in. Of course, at US$49,900 for the IQ3 back—you still need the camera body and a lens—I don't think the new Phase One offering is for me. 

Still, people ask me from time to time if I'm ever envious of some gear. Yeah, sure. Send me out into the backcountry with an IQ3! Or, Nikon are you listening? Maybe a D5x Mono at 70mp? That would even give me an excuse to buy the 19mm PC-E lens ;~). 

The US$399 DSLR

Back in the days of the Nikon D40x, I reported that one Nikon executive made the following comment: "camera makers need to be ready to make and sell US$399 DSLRs." I commented about that quote several times in 2011 ("no one broke through the duopoly and caused the price drops Nikon had anticipated."), and a couple of times since.

Well, here we are in 2017 [advertiser link if clicked on]: 

bythom nikon 399

Yep, a brand spanking new Nikon DSLR with lens for US$397. 

We have arrived. 

More than anything else, this is a sign that the DSLR duopoly is now under stress. 

First off, I have to tell you that's a remarkably good price for an excellent DSLR (see my review). While the D3400 didn't really change a lot from the D3300, it is a better camera, in my judgment (the D3300 was already a very good camera). Especially with the AF-P lenses, which perform quite well on the latest low-end Nikon DSLRs, including fast focusing in Live View. 

The images you can make with a US$399 camera are remarkable. The sensor the D3400 uses has state-of-the-art dynamic range, produces clean, very usable images even in low light, and at 24mp has plenty of pixels for large prints or cropping, your choice. While we all bemoan the ubiquitous 18-55mm kit lens, it too, is quite capable of excellent imaging. Very surprisingly so for what is effectively an implied US$50-100 lens.

But now we see more where Nikon made mistakes. Nikon has always targeted the low-end DSLRs at casual, convenience-oriented consumers buying their first ILC, and for the most part, price-sensitive ones. As long as those folk showed up at the camera dealer, everything was fine. But these days, not so much. D3400's have been sitting neglected on dealer shelves pretty much since they first appeared. Thus the US$150 off sale.

The big Nikon mistake is the one I've mentioned far too many times in the past: lack of a full and appropriate DX lens set (buzz, buzz). 

You know, even I might be interested in the D3400 if we had things like the Canon 24mm f/2.8 EF-S pancake lens available. A D3400 with three small primes would make a quite compact kit—and even more-so if Nikon had taken the Canon SL1 approach and really squeezed down the camera body size, which would have further helped differentiate it from the D5600. What Nikon shooting enthusiast or pro wouldn't want all that Nikon sensor and shooting goodness in a small package for a backup and travel-light solution in their gear closet? 

The funny thing is that Nikon could have accomplished this without changing the things that made the D3xxx lineup work for them for consumers. The add-on sales from enthusiasts would have been icing on the cake. 

But the bean counters always come into play at Nikon. I'm pretty sure that they would have said that such a tactic—smaller D3xxx body, three or four compact DX primes—would have taken away some sales from the FX thrust that Nikon promoted for the past few years, and might even have harmed things like D7xxx sales. 

I'm not so sure of that. We want FX and higher level DX bodies for real reasons. We also want something for more casual shooting where we don't want to carry the big gear. I don't see those two things as competing for dollars near as much as I'm guessing that Nikon does. 

Recently I've taken to asking virtually every Nikon shooter I meet what they own for shooting when they want to go small and light. LX-100, LX-10, RX-100, EOS M5, G7X, GOM-D E-M10, GM5, A6000...the list goes on, but the name "Nikon" is not in front of almost any of the choices these people are making. The ones that do say D3xxx or D5xxx or even Nikon 1 also start immediately speaking about what's missing in their choice. And number one on that list is small DX and CX primes. 

I question whether Nikon really wants to be the camera maker for all shooters and for all purposes. Oh, some of their initiatives—KeyMission comes to mind, as do many Coolpix initiatives, and even cameras such as the AW1—seem to indicate that they do. But the arbitrariness of their categorization and product line definitions more often than not are too narrow in their thinking. Rarely are these things followed up rationally, either. We have two available AW lenses, as if 28-75mm is the only focal lengths we're really want to shoot with a waterproof camera. When you target narrow, you live and die by the results of how well you actually targeted. 

Meanwhile, we have a pretty amazing deal we would have all jumped on ten years ago (when it would have been US$339 in inflation calculated dollars). And then we would have all asked for more DX lenses, right? ;~)

So if you jump on this deal, be sure to send Nikon a comment about wanting more DX lenses that are appropriate for your needs. Now if there were only someplace to send those comments. Oh, that's the other mistake Nikon has made: they are selling to customers but not necessarily listening to them. 

How to Make an Asset a Liability

Nikon's proprietary and smug nature may have been fine during the duopoly era, but now those things are starting to drag them down. 

Let's talk about lenses.

Basically, camera makers promote bodies (and kits) because of the lock-in effect. Once you've spent US$500+ on a body and then bought a lens or two to double or triple your commitment, you aren't going to quickly switch to another mount, because there's extra cost in doing so. 

Canon and Nikon, the long-time duopolists, both have produced and sold over 100 million lenses over the years. In the case of Nikon, I think that they've made clear mistakes in how they interpret that accomplishment. 

Let me list the things that Nikon has done that are now tripping them up big time:

  • Failed to recognize the mirrorless door — When mirrorless came along, the camera makers tended to promote mount adapters. Indeed, Fujifilm made a couple themselves. Why? Because of the lens lockup problem. You're less likely to switch to another camera system if you can't use your existing lenses. Solution? Convince people that it's fine to use your existing lenses via an adapter. Indeed, make sure the camera has manual focus aids to help people with that. 
  • Failed at their own mirrorless mount — Nikon 1, otherwise known as the CX mount, was intriguing in one sense: small, theoretically inexpensive cameras that might serve as compact camera replacements and DSLR gateways. Only Nikon did neither. They priced CX so it wasn't even close to a compact replacement and more expensive than their consumer DSLRs, and they withheld almost all the DSLR gateways (use of DSLR accessories, poor compatibility with F-mount, which became worse over time). Did they add manual focus aids for adapted lenses? Nope. 
  • Failed to develop a mirrorless system that uses the F-mount — Hey guys, you've got 100m lenses out there. People are buying mirrorless cameras. Put 1 and 2 together. It isn't rocket science. In fact, it's not science at all, but logic. Nikon will have no choice but to fix this failure. But that leads to another thing: Nikon will be last to address this failure. Dead last. Even Pentax was in (and then out) with a solution. 
  • Failed to recognize the crop sensor competition — In particular, DX as a lens set now looks terrible against the Fujifilm X mount (buzz, buzz). Unless of course, you want something 200mm or longer, or maybe an old 18-something zoom. DX is absolutely a gateway to the more expensive and pro DSLRs, but Nikon treats it like consumer compacts: put a slow but long zoom on it. Done. The only good news in this bullet is that Canon and Sony—both of whom have crop sensor competitors of their own—really aren't doing a clearly better job. Heaven help Nikon if one of those two suddenly figures this out. 
  • Failed to acknowledge third party lenses — This is actually an ongoing battle. Features within the Nikon DSLRs, such as AF Fine Tune, require knowing what lens is on the camera, which requires a valid lens ID. Nikon doesn't give those out. Nor do they say what will and won't be recognized. So with third-party lenses we get lens ID duplications, other IDs that aren't recognized properly, and worse. But it doesn't stop here. Nikon keeps tweaking the communications on the lens mount without documenting it. We've had plenty of third-party companies discovering that some small change rendered a feature unusable with their lenses (or worse, left the camera powered on, wasting battery). 
  • Failed to embrace Hollywood and video — This is the most perplexing of all, since at one time Nikon was the darling of Hollywood. Of course, over time, Nikkors were getting converted to PL mount, partly because Nikon is proprietary and not willing to disclose how to build something on either side of the F-mount bayonet. But now things are getting very dramatic. RED, BlackMagic, and others all have active EF mount systems. Rumor at the NAB trade show has it that Panasonic will be going that direction with a new VariCam. Canon, of course, has video cameras of their own that use the EF mount. So there's 100m lenses that can be used on lots of video cameras, but that huge lot of lenses all have a C at the start of their name. 

Here's the thing about proprietary systems: they die. At some point the company behind the proprietary system makes a wrong move, or the market changes, or something better comes along. When you fail to fix that wrong move, fail to change with the market, or somehow make something better yourself, you start the decline. 

Nikon has done all those things with their proprietary lens mount. The Nikon faithful are scratching their heads wondering why Nikon doesn't appear to be doing anything about any of those three things. Wrong moves aren't being fixed. Nikon isn't changing with the market. The closest you can come to a positive statement is that Nikon is trying to design better lenses (105mm f/1.4, 70-200mm f/2.8, 300mm f/4, 19mm PC-E are recent examples). 

But just making three new interesting lenses a year that have excellent optical performance is a rearguard action after the door has been open for far too long. 

Here's my problem: Nikon recently reorganized optics within the company. Everything related to glass is now in a single entity. The problem with that is said entity isn't a consumer-facing group, it's an internal efficiency plan ("...enabling flexible deployment of resources..."). The likelihood now is simply more of the same type of decision-making that got them to their current state, which is one of turning an asset into a liability. 

Thom's optics plan for Nikon:

  • Design a great mirrorless system that takes full advantage of the F-mount
  • Open the F-mount communications protocols to others, via licensing
  • Fill out the DX line so as to stay competitive with crop sensor camera makers such as Fujifilm,
  • Reconnect to Hollywood and the video industry (see second bullet)

Someone's Wrong About Camera Sales

I reported on the first quarter CIPA camera shipments over on recently. I'm now seeing a number of articles on other Web sites that are using words like "modest growth" or "market expands" or other positive indicators about camera sales. 

Since I've been writing about hot or not lately and how words can impact perception, I think it's time to tackle the CIPA shipment gains with the same scrutiny. 

Yes, shipments from the Japanese camera companies increased in the first quarter. 

No, sales of cameras to customers probably did not increase in the first quarter. At least not as far as I can tell in the Western markets from the initial data I have available to me. 

I've now talked with four people with more access to real retail sales numbers in the US and Europe, as well as one large and a couple of small retailers, and they all are talking about mostly stagnant or declining sales. In particular they see that in DSLR sales, but they see it in every category other than for "just released cameras." 

So which is it? Did ILC cameras "grow by 5.8%" in Q1 as CIPA suggest or did they go down by some number? 

I'm guessing they went down.

Which means that the channel is getting slightly stuffed, and if those extra shipped cameras don't sell, we're back to the instant rebates and sales to move them, which will lower everyone's margins (though it's good news for potential buyers).

Unfortunately, there's no easy way to judge this, as the CIPA numbers are a trailing indicator. If what I say above is true, then eventually we'll see camera companies easing off the production and shipment of products. 

There are some analysts who speculate that had the quake not caused sensor shortages last year, ILC camera shipments would have been flat for 2016 compared to 2015, and the increases we've seen recently in 2017 shipments are just trying to make up for that. Thing is, I'm not seeing evidence at the retail level to support that assumption.  

For purely anecdotal evidence, I offer this: I was at B&H earlier this week. I visited the camera area twice during the day between meetings, once in the morning, once in late afternoon. The Nikon, Canon, and m4/3 camera kiosks had zero customers. The Sony kiosk had a couple of customers each visit. Overall, the store was fairly busy, but not in the camera area. Indeed, the lens area seemed more active than the camera area, and it wasn't exactly overpopulated with customers. 

The next day I visited my local Best Buy and our biggest area camera dealer. Same thing. No one at the camera stations looking to buy, but there were some people looking at accessories at the dealer. 

Again, purely anecdotal, and with a mid-Atlantic bias to boot. But the cash register numbers I've seen seem to support the same thing: a weakness in camera sales.

I just don't think we're out of the downward glide yet. Pronouncements of hitting bottom may be premature. 

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