The Disappointment of CP+

With CES and CP+ now in the books, the next big show coming up that has the ability to rock the photographic world is the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week. After that, it's NAB in April for TV/video gear. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. As we expected, early 2017 has been a fairly busy season for cameras. The delays in sensor production and availability due to the quake in early 2016 pretty much impacted everyone's plans in some way, with only Canon being immune in the ILC world (though they were hit in their compact line that uses 1" sensors). 

One thing I hear is that the quake gave Sony some ability to shift some sensor focus. Those 1/2.3" and other smaller sensors that tended to be used in compact cameras gave way to increased fab space for 1" sensors, an area where Sony is currently pretty much the sole supplier. At the other end of the spectrum—APS, full frame, and small medium format—the camera companies are moving towards more upscale cameras, and that means not quite as much demand for run of the mill, lowest common denominator sensors (e.g. the 6mp, 12mp, 16mp, 24mp APS Exmor progression), but instead demand for sensors with "special features" or customizations (e.g. Fujifilm's X-Trans layer instead of Bayer). 

I mention all that because at CP+ you saw the evidence of (most of) that. With some very curious exceptions, virtually all centered around Nikon. 

To some degree, CP+ this year was "Photokina Delayed." Products like the Fujifilm GFX or Panasonic GH5, which were introduced at Photokina, are now entering reality at CP+. The Olympus E-M1 Mark II started shipping in small quantities only two months ago and just now seems to be more fully available.

Oddly, Canon seemed to be the only company with actual new camera products you could see at CP+ that weren't available at some previous show. Nikon and Ricoh/Pentax seemed to be the ones missing anything new, though I suppose they'd claim that the D5600 and KP are significant new cameras. 

On the lens side, Sigma's latest offerings and Fujifilm's surprise announcement of zooms for the Sony E mount seemed to be the big news, though Cosina also had new FE mount lenses (some of which are also Photokina Delayed), Tamron had new lens offerings on display, and even Sony managed to bring two new lenses to the show.

Plus we have Sony's new SF-G SD cards, which are claimed to be the fastest available (299MB/s write, 300MB/s read). 

But the question looming over CP+ was this: is the excitement about photography still there? I suspect the answer you'd get would depend upon who you asked. And if you asked a Nikon enthusiast, the answer would probably be no. 

Which is weird. The Nikon D7200, D500, D750, D810, and D5 are clearly some of the best cameras created to date. The last half dozen Nikkor lenses have been wickedly good. So why is it that the mood around Nikon seems to be so funky and downturn at the moment?

The cancellation of the DL models certainly didn't help, but that was just a symptom of the bigger problem: below the D7200 Nikon really has been setting the world on ice (the opposite of fire, get it?). NikonUSA is currently promoting three different D3xxx and three different D5xxx models. The differences between them? Mostly the number of dollars you spend to obtain them. This is an indication that the product sales for these models not only stalled, but so too did the ability to iterate new models intelligently. I believe there's fear among Nikon faithful that this lack of iteration innovation is going to work its way up the model lineup. In other words, the perception is that Nikon is out of ideas. 

Below the DSLR line it does indeed seem that Nikon is out of ideas. Or at least their own ideas. The KeyMission cameras were late to a market that had already peaked, and nothing particularly new. Coolpix seems to have turned into Glacierpix with a side of "mine is longer than yours". Nikon 1 happily sits where it did in 2015 doing nothing. Anything approaching a professional compact camera just died with the DL cancellation, and that was the one place where Nikon was attempting something new (the DL 18-50 would have been a unique product on the market). 

Meanwhile, Nikon has had no response to (1) serious mirrorless; (2) >36mp cameras; (3) medium format. Plus we still have no full DX lens lineup, and any random group of a dozen Nikon users can easily identify a half dozen lenses that Nikon doesn't make that they want.

What the Nikon crowd is worried about is the paralysis that Nikon seems to be gripped in. And that's despite Nikon having two of the most interesting cameras of 2016 (D5 and D500). Imagine how that worry expands if all we see in 2017 is some expected DSLR iterations.

In the midst of all that appeared an article in Japan ostensibly due to a short interview with Gokyu-san, the head of Nikon Imaging.  A lot of Nikon faithful ran to their Internet translation service and got back a garbled interpretation that set speculation afire: multiple Nikon mirrorless cameras coming! Mirrorless only after DSLR sales exceeded by mirrorless! New compact! New lenses! High-end cameras only!

I needed help reading this article myself. My interpreter friend points out that much of what is being cited as fact on the Internet is actually speculation on the part of the original author. In terms of actual new information, there really isn't any (other than perhaps that Nikon still wants to have a compact camera that makes sense, despite cancelling the DL series). In terms of other things Gokyu appears to have actually said, it's that there are no plans to close facilities/factories, and that Nikon remains committed to higher-end cameras. 

At this point I'm very curious as to what will happen first at Nikon this year: (a) management changes after their fiscal year close in March; or (b) a significant new product launch. 

We're on a cycle where many key management shifts would be expected as the usual rotations come up for review. We had some surprises in the last such changing of the guard, and I'd be very shocked if we don't have more with the about-to-happen next shift. After all, given all the things that did or didn't happen in the last year for Nikon—loss of market share, loss of sales volume, poor KeyMission launch, poor SnapBridge launch, delay and cancellation of DL, etc.—I don't think anyone can argue that Nikon's management has been on top of their game. Anywhere. From the very top all the way down into the subsidiaries (though the subsidiaries will all rightfully say their hands were tied by Tokyo). 

I'm betting we get management shifts before new product. But we all need to be worried about that: the DL cancellation was a management decision. I believe an ill-advised one. Just changing management horses may not change the fact that management has been making poor decisions. I worry that it would only change who is viewed as making the bad decisions. That's because Nikon is a management-by-consensus company, so it's not as if any given person has been the clear responsible party for all that's been bubbling up as problematic. 

Nikon's customers are restless. Very restless. Some are so restless they're going elsewhere. I got another message today for a fully-dedicated Nikon pro about adding something non-Nikon to this arsenal. That has to stop if Nikon is to succeed. 

So let me make it simple and clear: The thing that would save Nikon is that they embrace their customers. 100%. 

This runs counter to the direction Nikon has been going. Cost cutting in Nikon's ugly global subsidiary system has cut customer interaction and made it more confrontational. Nikon marketing used to produce full brochures for every camera, now not so much; and the overall marketing campaign has essentially become a mockery of itself (every camera gets a Haiku-like slogan, plus some variation on I AM...). Dealers no longer see reps and are sometimes the last to know about promotions. The list goes on.

Which brings me back to CP+. Nikon mostly highlighted products that aren't working (e.g. KeyMission), their 100-year heritage, and products you can't (or wouldn't) buy (100 unit limited edition D5/D500/lens sets). I've been along for the ride for half of that 100 years, and I'm finding that I have to look further and further back each passing year to find the Nikon that I grew up with, the one I fully trusted, and the one that I could count on to deliver the products I needed and wanted. I want them back.

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