So What's Up With Nikon?

Earlier I wrote about the August doldrums, but Nikon is having a 2017 doldrum. The year isn't over, sure, but we're getting to the point where another significant camera beyond the D850 announcement is becoming less likely. So where are we with Nikon this year?

  • 2 DSLR announcements (D7500, D850)
  • 0 mirrorless announcements
  • 1 Coolpix announcement
  • 3 DL cancellations
  • 0 KeyMission announcements
  • 4 lens announcements (2 FX, 1 DX, 1 FX/DX)
  • 0 accessory announcements

If you go through Nikon's previous years, you'll see that 2017, to date, is at the very low end of new product introductions. Gone are the dozen+ Coolpix announcements. Even the two DSLR announcements are at the low end of what Nikon's done in past years. Lens-wise, we're a bit lower than average, but lenses were the only thing so far this year that was even close to Nikon's previous averages.

So what gives?

We've seen this pattern before, though probably not for the same reasons. 2011, for instance, had only one DSLR introduced, but that was the year of the Japan quake that crippled Nikon, and 2012 followed with five DSLRs, an above average offering. 

Still, something clearly has changed. The D3400 and D5600 updates were trivial, while the D7500 update was clearly more centered on cost reductions on Nikon's part than on pushing that body series further forward. We didn't get a D5x, plus the D610, D750, and Df cameras are getting long in the tooth. Finally, we still haven't had a mirrorless anything introduced since April 2015. 

So again, what gives?

The curious thing is that we got the D5, D500, and D850 in the past two years, all arguably excellent cameras. But all are at the very highest-end of what Nikon does. Pretty much everything below the D500 is now suspect, and not selling in the quantities it once was. 

Note that the eleven months following the D3/D300 (mid-2007) was also a weak time for new cameras for Nikon, so pivoting on new technology isn't something Nikon tends to do fast.

Frankly, this is a disaster of Nikon's own making. Think about it from a dealer's standpoint: what is Nikon doing that will drive a customer into the store? That would get someone to buy into a product line or brand? Not much. Would you want to stock new Nikon gear when the company is doing things like cancelling something you actually had pre-orders for (DL), iterating a low-selling body with virtually nothing new of interest (D3400), forcing a line that didn't sell down your throat (KeyMission), and ignoring the one portion of the market that's growing (mirrorless)? 

The answer is no. So one of Nikon's problems is that they've not only slowly annoyed their customer base, but now they're annoying the dealer base, too. It doesn't help that Nikon seems to be retreating in Coolpix, KeyMission, 1", and low-end DSLRs.

Clearly Nikon is going through an internal reorganization and rethink. It's overdue, but it's not going well, and it's coming later than it should have. The outside world currently has no clear idea where Nikon is headed, and that's driving customers away.

Well that's pretty pessimistic, isn't it? ;~)

Rumors are starting to float around Japan of Nikon trying to get a new mirrorless camera out before the end of the year, but certainly no later than the start of 2018 (e.g. CES to CP+ timeframe). Clearly testing of some sort is going on in and around Tokyo. We'll see if this hypothetical new offering does better than the DL stillbirth. 

Looking through all the patents Nikon has been producing, there's no clear evidence of which path they're taking: it seems that they've pretty much got intellectual property vested in every mirrorless approach I can think of. So no, I can't tell you exactly what's coming, just that at least two people that would know have indicated to me that something mirrorless is percolating, and sooner than the rumors have suggested to date (most rumors have said mid-2018 for any new Nikon mirrorless, and that's what I've believed would be the case until recently). 

So I guess the optimistic side of this is that Nikon has a full court press going on in R&D trying to figure out the mirrorless side of things. And, while doing that, they've managed to produce exceptional D5, D500, and D850 products, keeping the high-end of their base happy, and mimicking the D3, D300, and D700 trio of almost a decade ago.

Another rumor floating around Tokyo that came to me from two different and unconnected sources is this: a series of low-cost Nikon pancake lenses (not sure for what). Could it be that all that belly-button gazing Nikon has been doing might actually be about to produce some things we've been waiting for? Could be. Of course, those are only rumors.

Also, the recent DL experience still needs to be fully explained by Nikon. There was clear demand for at least two of those models, one of which would still be completely unique in the market. All three models seemed fully developed and ready for production. Yet Nikon seems to think that those DLs would have been a big bust in some way and cancelled them at birth. 

I still worry that Nikon doesn't clearly understand their primary and most loyal customers. I was excited when Nikon announced that the DL design ethic was a pocket camera that would have D800-like controls and personality. Yes. That's exactly what we want: we want more portable, carry-everywhere solutions that work like our high-end gear. 

It seems clear to me that whatever hand is guiding Nikon's camera efforts, they understand the high-enthusiast and pro market requirements reasonably well, and have managed to bring out three cameras that arguably are best in class. But that guiding hand seems to not at all understand what has happened to images in the smartphone era, and has no idea how to find anything in the consumer realm that has some stickiness, other than perhaps the superduperwuper zoom (Coolpix P900). 

That's problematic because most of the buying action is still in the US$500-1000 price range, and certainly in the <US$2000 range. Consumer. There's only so many US$2000+ cameras you can sell, and that puts a huge cap on Nikon's business. (Sony fans should note the same thing, by the way: one reason why Sony's unit market share isn't growing is that Sony has clawed its way upscale, leaving only much older generation products in the <US$1000 range.)

So to answer the question the headline asks: Nikon is still trying to figure out their under-D500 range of offerings. There's no clear answer there yet. 

Not just from Nikon, but I believe Sony and others have a similar problem now, too, as I noted in my doldrums article. Canon is about the only company that seems to be iterating the same compact, mirrorless, DSLR full line they've had for awhile, and that has any resonance at the moment, and even there you can find clear weaknesses. 

The whole "let's move upscale" tactic the camera makers have been pursuing is a dangerous one. The risk here is that they trigger even more Last Camera Syndrome as they pursue getting just a few more updaters/switchers. 

Back in 2008 when I first outlined the Communicating/Programmable/Modular approach I would have been taking towards future ILC camera designs, I wasn't thinking about Last Camera Syndrome. The interesting thing about my observation then is this: you need to keep your customer buying something from you. Completely replacing a body (or worse, system) is getting less satisfying. I mean, really, I've got a D810, do I really need a D850? No. It's not going to win me any new assignments or clients. But buying new modules to keep current with advancing communication abilities (5G is coming [as is winter;~]) and programs to improve the product I already have are something I would absolutely spring for.

Nikon has proven they can continue to sell D500 and D810 bodies, and to a lesser degree D7500 and D750 bodies. That's not enough to keep their heads fully above water, I believe. I would not be surprised to see that whatever new mirrorless thing that comes from them targets an area below that. That's where Nikon has no traction at the moment and most certainly needs some. 

I suspect that by this time next year we'll have a reasonably full answer to the headline. It's pretty much necessary for Nikon to stay relevant in the camera market. Until then, all we have is endless speculation, and more waiting.

In the meantime, enjoy the D850. 

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