2017: Glass Filling or Emptying?

If you haven’t read the companion article about 2016 first, please do so now. My arguments and metaphors plus what I write in this article about what I think 2017 is going to be like flow from that.

Nikon
Once again I’ll start with Nikon. 

Other than the D5, much of what appeared in 2016 for Nikon was what most of you would call “delayed.” The D500. The wider PC-E to match Canon. The DLs were obviously delayed, but so too was the KeyMission 360. Even the lukewarm D3400 update was later than would be expected from previous updates for the bottom DSLR.

I’m not going to make excuses for Nikon, but I think two factors have gotten them a bit behind the eight ball: (1) camera sales continuing to collapse faster than expected and Nikon had to rethink how they wanted to proceed (they finally took their foot off the accelerator, to use my old metaphor); and (2) the big management change from a former camera company executive as CEO to a semiconductor equipment executive taking over as CEO. Much like we Americans go through periodic reviews of everything as new administrations come to power, so too does Nikon when they make the Imaging/Precision CEO changeover (this is not the first time). I don’t think Nikon’s management changeover went smoothly.

So 2017 still has Nikon in catch-up mode. Here’s what I believe that means in terms of products we can expect:

  • The D3x and D700 replacements are back on the table. I actually expect a D5x and a, well let’s call it a D900 because the 7’s are already taken by something else. Said D900 would be a D810-like body with the D5 autofocus system and the 20mp sensor, I think. I wouldn’t necessarily expect 12 fps, so something between 8-10 fps seems logical. The internal flash will disappear. Just as the D300 and D700 made a nice DX/FX pair, I think we’ll see the D500 and D900 be the replacement for that. The D5x is a beast I’m still trying to get my head around, though. Technically, Nikon will want to compete with the 50mp medium format cameras. But 50mp FX isn’t enough to truly do that. If I were Nikon I’d be shooting for 72mp, especially since recent lenses seem easily up to that. That would also give the D810 update some breathing room.
  • The D810 will get updated. This could go either of two ways: minor or major. It sort of depends on that D900, doesn’t it? In the minor category we get the new autofocus system, SnapBridge, et.al. In the major category we get a big sensor change, as well. But Nikon pretty much needs to make the major move with the D810, as good as it is. Canon now has a higher pixel count DSLR than Nikon, the older autofocus system is showing some age, and this is a very important camera for Nikon. The D8xx has really been the lynchpin of Nikon’s getting well-heeled, serious enthusiasts to move to FX. As good as D7200 or D500 are, you still want to give those DX users a reason to move up. 54mp with the new autofocus system seems like a pretty compelling step up, as long as the frame rate doesn’t drop much, if at all. 
  • The D610 or D750 will get minor updates. Given the above, these are just going to be small steps, mostly centered around getting SnapBridge across the line. I know this isn’t what some are expecting, but if Nikon really does the three cameras in the first two bullets, this is the right approach for Nikon: build a consumer FX line at lower price points that can establish new FX users that they can later upgrade into the high end. Notice that I wrote “or” in the header for this point. I don’t think Nikon will do both. The camera most in need of an update is the D610. The camera that most would want updated is the D750. Still, I’d bet D610. The D750 can make it through another year in its current form, I think, and that allows the followup to be something more substantial than “added SnapBridge."
  • The mystery Anniversary product. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Nikon will make a 100th anniversary camera. The question is this: what will that be? The range of possibilities is huge. Everything from a fancy gold-plated, limited edition version of something in the line up to a brand new thing we’ve never seen before. In between we have a lame Df update ;~). Personally, I’m guessing at something that reaches way back and is more Leica-like. A limited edition, high-priced, rangefinder style digital camera—Nikon S—with a relaunch of a couple of key lenses maybe? What we get really depends upon when the project was started, if it started before the new management team took over, and whether it survived that. I think it did, which points to the brand new thing we haven’t seen before.
  • The D7200 will get minor updates. Sensing a theme? If you haven’t, then here it is laid bare: Nikon’s put all their dream teams on the high end (D500, D8xx, D5, D5x, new), and they’ve got the junior teams trying to consolidate all the recent technology into the other bodies so they stay reasonably up-to-date. 
  • Lenses will be more of the same. We’re getting a slow refresh of the old G’s to E’s. Nikon’s design standards are very high now, so don’t expect a flood of new lenses. I need to update my Missing Nikkors article again, but most of what I have to say about possible new lenses can be found there. The most obvious of the update candidates are currently the 14-24mm, 200-400mm, and 300mm. The most obvious totally missing lenses are DX primes. 
  • Anything else? The above is a pretty massive undertaking for Nikon, and remember they still have to relaunch the DLs and get the Key Missions established. If I’m right, we’ll get seven ILC camera updates in 2017. That’s more than Nikon has ever attempted in the past (peak was 5 DSLRS in 2012). Note that there’s no mirrorless on this list. I believe 2018 is Nikon’s mirrorless year (and one or two of the seven I mention above may end up slipping to early 2018). At this point Nikon can’t re-enter the mirrorless world without something that’s on the mind-blowing side, and given all the above work I’ve outlined, I’m not sure Nikon’s got the ability to do so in the same year. But note that mystery Anniversary product. It’s the wild card in all this. I wouldn’t put it past Nikon to re-enter mirrorless via that direction. Indeed, it would be a very interesting way of standing out in the now crowded field.

Overall, Nikon’s got more on its plate for 2017 than it has ever had before. Given recent failures—QC on D600, D800, D750, botched engineering on the original DLs, not quite right SnapBridge—one has to wonder if they’re up to the challenge when management is also screaming for more cost-cutting. Moreover, you’ll note that I once again referred to senior/junior engineering teams. The early retirement offers on the table could impact those senior teams. Many of the exceptional individuals I know in Nikon engineering are as old or older than me, and I’m retirement age myself. 

To return to my overall metaphor, I think Nikon has to refill the glass in 2017. Or at least keep it 3/4’s full ;~). The fact that so much is likely to happen this year, expect it to be spread out in terms of launches, which means plenty of time for the Internet to gripe about how “behind” Nikon is when the model they want redone isn’t the one that is launched. 

I don’t believe that we need to gripe much. Nikon has models that need work, but their ILC technology and image quality is not behind anyone’s. Indeed, they tend to be at the forefront if not the clear leader on these things. Too bad Nikon’s marketing department isn’t as good as the competitors that make claims that are beyond realistic, but are getting believed by customers.

Canon
Canon’s in a slightly different spot than Nikon. Much of Canon’s high end camera line is fairly current. The 7D Mark II could use an extra I in its name, but that’s about the only thing in the upper Canon ILC lineup that feels dated at the moment. 

We already know that the Rebel side will going 7 early in 2017. We’ll get additional EOS M’s, as well. Finally, the 6D is long in the tooth. Thus, from a body standpoint I think we’ll mostly see Canon working on shoring up the lower end of their lineup. That coupled with some new video cameras ought to be enough to keep them where they are. And no, the 6D won’t be replaced by a full frame mirrorless camera, as some rumor sites have gotten all rabid about. We’ll get a 6D Mark II that’s a DSLR.

Like Nikon, Canon is running through their lens lineup with updates that are pushing lens quality into previously unheard of levels for those volume leaders. Plus Canon seems set on selling exotics with built-in TCs, so we’re going to see a number of future lenses taking the approach that was used on the EF 200-400mm f/4L. But if I see anything different on the horizon for Canon than is being predicted by others, it’s more redone primes. I think Canon really is a bit behind on rethinking their prime lineup. 

Meanwhile, on the EOS M front, we’ll see a fair number of new lenses pop up in the coming year, I think. At least a couple more zooms and a prime (probably “normal”). But those zooms will all be variable aperture and more consumer oriented. Canon wants the M to be a gateway drug to DSLRs. Personally, I still believe that the Japanese are getting this wrong. Building out another set of crop-sensor lenses that is mostly large range variable aperture zooms (convenience lenses) and stifling the full lens set just makes the competitors more competitive. It leaves a weakness on the table that can be, and is, exploited. 

Oh, and expect a lot more happening the EOS C line (cinema). I wouldn’t be surprised to see the high end go 8K soon (partly because of the nearby upcoming Winter Olympics). What I hear is that Canon is very busy trying to shore up the gains they’ve made with the cinema camera line and get those models as competition resistant as possible.

The Dwarves
Sony is due for another active year. But if you haven’t already gotten the message, Sony is moving more up-scale. I’m beginning to think the A5000 will never be updated. That’s especially true since Sony left the A6000 in the lineup as the low-cost entry mirrorless entry camera. 

That brings up a weird thing. Sony is still making and selling virtually all the Mark I’s (and intermediary models up through V in the case of the RX100). I think the RX10 Mark I may be the only casualty where production has actually ceased. I’m not 100% sure what to make of this strategy. It’s starting to confuse the customer. I can’t tell you how many “which RX100?” questions I’ve been fielding (the answer: II/III typically because of price/performance, though there is some variation based upon what you really want to do).

One reason you pursue a generation-bridging approach like that is to establish more price points, so that you have more natural upsells and downsells. It also allows you to spread R&D expenses over more units and time. But we’re in a declining market with no end in sight. I just don’t see this strategy working all that well other than to the delight of a bunch of accountant’s (yay, more work!). 

Oh, you wanted me to talk about new 2017 cameras from Sony. Well, all the old ones plus

I believe the main shots Sony will fire are in full frame mirrorless and at the opposite ends of the spectrum. We’ll get an affordable A7 Mark III, methinks, plus a new high end for FE, probably named the A9 (hey, it’s not the A7r Mark III!). It’s possible that we’ll see a new A7s, but I’m not hearing anything that indicates it is coming soon. 

Sony will continue to push on lenses (but please, no more 50mm lenses!). Zeiss and others have certainly helped Sony get the FE mount to a respectable showing now, and that will continue as third party support just grows and grows. But Sony themselves seem to have all the boilers running, with Konica/Minolta, Tamron, Zeiss, and their own group working new designs to bring to market under the Sony name. They’re a bit behind their stated goal for FE, but I think that some of that is just that a few lenses didn’t make it into 2016. They’ll be here in 2017 soon.

But before you get your hopes up too high, at least two of those FE lenses that are coming soon are designed primarily for video work, ala the 28-135mm f/4. And that indicates another thing: we’re going to see some updates in the dedicated video camera lineup. I wouldn’t be surprised if an FS3 showed up to get a lower entry point (well, fix the VG-30/900 entry point).

In the rest of the dwarves, Fujifilm will deliver the GFX, then spend most of the year producing lenses for it and doing more minor lineup updating in the rest of their mirrorless cameras. We’ll see a new X100 very early in the year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new X30 replacement soon, either. Overall, I think it’ll be a bit quieter year for Fujifilm.

That’s true of Olympus and Panasonic, too. We’ll see the GH5 soon, of course. And Olympus is sure to take some of what they added to the E-M1 and use it to next update (probably) the E-M5, but the big changes were the E-M1 Mark II and the GH5, which sort of spread from 2016 into 2017 products. The big question mark in the m4/3 game is whether Panasonic is going to roll a GM type very small camera replacement (they should). I haven’t heard enough to say that this is going to happen in 2017. Oh yeah, and Panasonic’s m4/3 dedicated video camera really never managed to make its presence known in the market, which is weird because Panasonic video has been doing really well with the GH at the bottom and the Varicams at the top. I expect Panasonic to take another whack at that middle ground with an m4/3 dedicated video product. But not until the GH5 dust has settled some.

The lens front is another story, though. Panasonic has a series of f/2.8-4 zooms coming that look like they’ll be worth looking at closely, and Olympus seems to be on yet another round of trying to take their lenses into higher territory. 

Sigma is now ready to ship the Quattro H. Sigma is moving a bit like a snail, but they’re still moving, which seems to be more than I can say for Ricoh/Pentax. If Ricoh/Pentax really want to play in the mirrorless game, they really need to get in the game. I know the Pentax fanatics all pounce on me every time I report on Pentax falling slowly out of the game, but the last two years have produced exactly two new Pentax cameras each year (down from their traditional 10-12, though that included compacts). Nice cameras, sure (particularly the K-1), but generally last to the game, which doesn’t change the outcome. 

I’ve pretty much written off Pentax as a “we’ll keep iterating a few things for our current customers” kind of company. I’d love to be proven incorrect on that, but the evidence is continuing to build that Ricoh is tackling the smaller and more innovative cameras (things like the Theta) while Pentax just serves out the old Pentax customers with some updated DSLR offerings.

Leica is probably the small fry with the biggest set of news for 2017. The M will be getting a full update (from 9 to 10), and it seems it will also get some redesign, too. Early talk says it’s smaller than the existing digital M’s, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Leica move towards consolidating their menagerie of menus/UIs. The giant SL lenses continue to roll out. But I hear talk of another biggish announcement from Leica later in the year. What that is I’m not yet sure. Maybe an S update?

Outsiders
Light will deliver their much-hyped “DSLR replacement” in 2017. US$1700 puts it squarely up against the high end of crop sensor DSLRs/mirrorless and low end of full frame DSLRs/mirrorless. My prediction is that this ambitious Silicon Valley light field approach will fail and need to pivot, just like Lytro before them. 

Meanwhile, smartphones are in a bit of a hiatus camera wise. Sure, Apple has the dual camera iPhone 7+ shipping, and we’ll see much more of that approach in 2017. The problem is sort of the same one that Light has: the computational aspects of multi-sensor cameras still need more time (and more processor) to mature. You don’t want to slow down and complicate the process of taking simple snapshots. On the other hand, you want to extend the quality. The balance isn’t right yet, and I don’t think it’ll be solved in 2017. Maybe 2018. 

But that brings me to the bad news: 20, 17, 14, 13, probably 11, maybe 10 if we’re lucky. That’s the total unit volume for ILC shipments out of Japan since 2012, with 2016 and 2017 estimated. Yes, the falloff of the curve seems to be flattening, but the trend is still down. Coupled with the fact that camera companies now want you to buy more expensive cameras to make up the difference in sales dollars to them, there’s strong potential that there’s just a built-in on-going decline in place. 

Compact cameras are worse. There’s no real sign of flattening in that decline at all. We seem to be on a path ranging from 25% to 35% decline each year now, with nothing indicating that trend will end. 

The big thing to watch in 2017 is whether the selling channels survive all this downsizing of the camera market. We’re continuing to lose retailers, and big boxes like Best Buy have mostly downsized their camera selling spaces. What we need to pay attention to is whether that trend accelerates or stabilizes. If the former, it’s not going to make a lot of difference what the products are, there just won’t be places to go see them and that will stall out the ability to find new customers. 

Remember, the ILC customer base is fairly old and getting older. Part of the decline in ILC sales is due to just that factor alone. So the more ILC cameras become niche objects that don’t appear widely in stores—and fail to solve the Millennials’ desire for instant sharing—the more the decline simply continues. 

Summary
So I would say that the prognosis for 2017 should be this: if your camera maker gives you something interesting and great during the year, be thankful. 

I think Nikon will be doing just that for us F-mounters, so I’m anticipating 2017 will be a repeat of 2016 for us: a set of very nice cameras and lenses to consider adding to our gear closet, plus a few lukewarm things that probably don’t interest us much.

So if the glass was 3/4 full in 2016, it’s still going to be 3/4 full in 2017. Enjoy.




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