People Who Buy Lenses are Different...

(commentary)

…than people that don’t. 

The interchangeable lens camera market has a very split personality. But before we get to that, a statistic: as long as I’ve been tracking it (over two decades), the ratio of lens sales to camera body sales each year has remained in the 1.4-1.8x range, and typically 1.5x. In other words, for every camera body a company sells, 1.5 lenses are sold.

That’s a far trickier statistic than you think. Consider my own situation: I’ve bought plenty of bodies over the years as I’ve upgraded, and I’ve bought plenty of lenses. The lenses (mostly) stay, the older bodies get sold. So at the moment I have four Nikon bodies and about two dozen lenses (though I’m slowly cutting both of those down to what I think are my essential DSLR kit). That looks like a 6:1 lens-to-body ratio, not the 2:1 max we’ve seen in sales.

I’m not alone that way. Most of the serious DSLR users have been trading bodies for some time, as we went from film to 2.5mp to 6mp to 12mp to 24mp sensors as the “norm.” We tend to do no such thing with our lenses, as even lenses made prior to the first DSLR (e.g. the 17-35mm f/2.8) work perfectly well on current DSLRs. 

Thus, the serious folk are lens accumulators and body upgraders. 

What about the less serious folk?

They’re the ones that buy all those convenience zooms. We have Tamron mostly to thank for discovering those buyers. Tamron late last year issued a press release highlighting their having sold five million of what I call super zooms over the last 22 years. The original 28-200mm f/3.8-5.6 released in 1992 was definitely first of its kind at the time. Modern Photography magazine gushed about its capabilities, and the convenience rush started. 

Now every camera company has a convenience zoom, and we’ve got bridge compacts with astonishing zoom ranges, too. Nikon alone has sold over one million 18-200mm DX lenses. In my observation, once a super zoom gets on a camera body, it stays on and further lens buying tends to stop (short of buying a new super zoom, e.g. trading in the 18-105mm for an 18-300mm). 

So we have two distinctly different markets. To broadly generalize:

  1. Convenience Shooters. Some buy a super zoom to replace the kit lens, and generally nothing else. A very few buy a fast normal prime thinking they should have one. After all, they have an interchangeable lens camera, so they ought to have something around that takes advantage of that “just in case.” In reality, they tend to just shoot with their super zoom. They don’t tend to buy a new DSLR any more because the current ones are already better than they need. They never buy a new super zoom unless “super” becomes “super duper.” Lifetime lens purchases: minimal, and probably well below the 1.5:1 sales ratio seen overall these days.

  2. Enthusiast Shooters. They keep trying to eek out better results from their shooting. They do upgrade bodies if they perceive any tangible difference when pushing maximum output sizes. They accumulate lenses, and they seek lenses that allow them to optimize output for a given situation or need (e.g. fast prime for low light, long telephoto for wildlife, sharp anything for more acuity). Lifetime lens purchases: maximal, and above the current 1.5:1 sales ratio. Moreover, they buy different lenses as they accumulate, rather than just replacing “old super zoom” with “new super zoom.” 


Now for a straw man: there aren’t enough enthusiast shooters for camera companies to grow and stay healthy with. Thus, the camera makers keep trying to turn to those convenience shooters.

If you look at Nikon DX in particular, you see a clear move from customer #2 to customer #1. From 1999 to 2005 Nikon only made enthusiast or pro DX DSLRs. In 2005 they launched the D50, which was really the first of the cameras clearly targeted at the convenience shooters. Including that D50 launch, we’ve had 8 enthusiast DX models and 12 convenience DX models. From 2010 onwards, the numbers are 2 enthusiast DX models and 7 convenience DX models. The proportion changed.

What all the Nikon D300 (and D7100) shooters are moaning about these days is directly related to what I just wrote. Whether they’ve actually added up the numbers or not, they sense the long shift of DX from Nikon’s most serious offerings to something far more oriented towards convenience. Even the D70 progression (D70, D70s, D80, D90, D7000, D7100) shows a slowdown in updates (1 year, 1, 2, 2, 3, unknown). 

The more serious DX lenses look a bit long-in-tooth and underwhelming: 2009 (35mm f/1.8, 85mm Micro-Nikkor) and 2011 (40mm Micro-Nikkor). The convenience and kit zooms targeted at the convenience DX shooter, however, appeared in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 (FX), 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

So, no, you’re not imagining things when it comes to Nikon’s DX lineup. There was a shift in focus. Coupled with all of Nikon’s activity in the FX world lately, the enthusiast seems to have gotten the message: FX or else. 

My problem with this is that Nikon is slowly ceding a core strength for them: enthusiasts and pros on a budget. The difference between the same camera in DX and FX is about US$750-1000 (depends upon whether it’s early or late selling cycle). In theory, you ought to be able to scale lens costs similarly, though Nikon makes this currently impossible (there’s no 16-80mm f/4 DX, nor 50-135mm f/2.8 or f/4, for instance). 

Let’s say I’m a serious enthusiast and I want the following kit: body, wide angle constant aperture zoom (16-35mm equivalent), mid-range constant aperture zoom (24-70mm equivalent), telephoto constant aperture zoom (70-200mm equivalent), three fast primes (28/35, 50, 85mm equivalent). 

  • With Nikon we get: DX body, 12-24mm f/4, nothing, nothing, 20mm f/1.8 FX, 35mm DX, 58mm f/1.4 FX. None of these lenses have VR.
  • With Sony E-mount we get: Alpha body, 10-18mm f/4, 16-70mm f/4, 70-200mm f/4 (FE), 24mm f/1.8, 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8. All but two of those lenses have IS.


See a problem? I do. Things get worse when you throw in Fujifilm, Olympus/Panasonic, and Samsung as comparison points. 

And then there’s the RX10 (24-200mm equivalent f/2.8) and Panasonic FZ1000 (25-400mm equivalent f/2.8-4). Aren’t those almost the perfect convenience models? Super zoom, larger sensors, collapsing lenses for smaller size than DSLR, and a close equivalent of a fast prime ability for low light.

Nikon has steered DX from enthusiast to convenience, but it feels like they’re slow to make a new steering adjustment as the market dynamics change. Meanwhile, Nikon has also left money on the table by not producing a number of desired lenses. Sigma and Tamron, in particular, have to be thankful that Nikon never bothered to update the large, heavy, and VR-less 17-55mm f/2.8 DX. That gave them an opportunity to come in and seize some of most of those serious DX customers from Nikon, at least in the lens game.

The DX/FX lens question is not a moot one, even if we grant Nikon DX as only consumer convenience and FX as serious enthusiast/prosumer/pro. Cameras will go through another change, whether it be the modest change from mirrored to mirrorless, or something more substantial. Nikon seems to have pulled the rug out from some of their faithful with their consumer DX lens focus, and so now if Nikon ever comes out with a new mount, everyone has doubts about what Nikon will do lens wise (especially since Nikon is the only camera company without an active lens roadmap made public). 

Wait, that did happen! The Nikon 1. And we’re still waiting to see where that goes, as we have this strange mix of convenience type lenses (e.g. 10-100mm) and high-end enthusiast lenses (32mm f1.2). Which is it, Nikon? Is the Nikon 1 line a convenience or a prosumer line? Right now it’s optimally neither.

Nikon has a long history of attacking consumer/convenience and then hitting a wall. The old E series lenses back in the film days, for instance. The sole things that have survived the long history of Nikon cameras and lenses are the enthusiast and pro products. It’s what the brand reputation was built on. Yet it seems that Nikon keeps forgetting this and reaching for high volume sales, only to be burnt. 

Does Nikon need enthusiast/pro DX gear? Absolutely. Are they making any lately? No.  



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