The Nikon Customer Leak Problem


"Earlier this year I bought a D7100 to replace my D90, along with the 35mm DX. I had been shooting with the D90 for 4 years and quite pleased with the system and lens (18-105); however, the 35mm lens made me realize how awesome primes are, so I started looking to buy a wider one (a 35mm equiv). What did I find? The 35mm DX is pretty much the widest modern prime for DX. This made me want to switch to mirror-less, and eventually I bought a Fuji (I almost got an EM5 but decided against it since I mostly shoot in low light environments and Fuji does that a bit better than Olympus... albeit with a smaller lens lineup). Now I am Nikon-less with a Fuji 23mm f1.4 and an X-E1 kit instead; quite the happy guy." 

Every day I get another of these emails from customers who are leaking away from Nikon DSLR bodies, in particular DX ones. When Nikon reports their quarterly sales later this week, we'll probably once again see weakening DSLR numbers, and as usual we'll see all the usual blame: economies are weak, camera sales are down everywhere, market in transition, and so on. But I'll suggest another: Nikon didn't close the door and seal the windows. They've got a leakage problem that's of their own causing (as does Canon, for that matter).

Olympus in four years has built small, crop-sensor, strong, nearly waterproof bodies and a full line of both primes and zooms that appeal to the DSLR consumer. 

Fujifilm in less than two years has built retro-styled crop-sensor bodies with highly competent sensors and a deepening line of lenses to match it, including both primes and zooms. 

Sony in less than three years has built a line of modern-style crop sensor bodies with the same sensor technologies Nikon is using and also a deepening line of lenses to match it. 

Even Nikon, in two years has built a compact-style set of bodies (Nikon 1) with a deepening line of lenses.

The reader whose email I used, above, specifically talked about wide angle primes. Let's see:

  • Nikon — over 14 years produced only the 10.5mm fisheye
  • Olympus/Panasonic — over 4 years produced the 8mm f/3.5 fisheye, 12mm f/2, 14mm f/2.5 17mm f/1.8, and 17mm f/2.8
  • Fujifilm — in two years produced the 14mm f/2.8, 18mm f/2, 23mm f/1.4, and 27mm f/2.8 and cooperated with Zeiss to produce a 12mm f/2.8
  • Sony — in about three years produced the 16mm f/2.8, 20mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.8, and cooperated with Zeiss to produce a 12mm f/2.8
  • Samsung — in less than three years produced the 16mm f/2.4, 20mm f/2.8, and 30mm f/2
  • Nikon 1 started with a 10mm f/2.8 wide angle

True, we have the very old and designed before digital 20mm f/2.8 and 24mm f/2.8, and the very expensive 24mm f/1.4G and the more modestly expensive 28mm f/1.8G that could be used on a Nikon DX camera, but that basically gives us 30 and 35mm equivalents and nothing wider. Moreover, those FX G lenses aren't scaled right for a DX body while their competitors are matching lens size to sensor size. 

Nikon seems to want DX users to "leak upwards." In other words, if you're going to buy a big and expensive 16-35mm (24-50mm equivalent) f/4 for your DX camera as your mid-range zoom, that's work just nicely for you as your wide angle zoom if you'd just move to FX. 

But Nikon's missed the whole "smaller is what a lot of us want" trend. Well, technically they didn't miss it as they gave us the "smaller than we wanted" Nikon 1. But as the DSLR population ages they are finding two pound camera bodies with two pound zoom lenses getting a little big and heavy around their necks and less and less like the old SLR systems that attracted them into high-end photography in the first place. But they still want the quality they've been getting. They look to see what Nikon is doing to fix these things, and they instead find "buy the bigger, heavier, more expensive FX" marketing Nikon is doing. 

Olympus seems to know well that there's an opportunity here. Notice that in the last year they moved away from their "sell small cute bodies to women and bloggers" thing to "sell competent DSLR-replacement type cameras to dissatisfied crop sensor camera users." It's working. I know it is because I can see the exact flow: the reader of my DSLR site starts complaining about what's happening with DX DSLRs, investigates mirrorless, and ends up being a reader of my site and sending me new email from there telling me how happy they are now. Just like that email up top.

The leaking may be tolerable to Nikon (and Canon). After all, the cash register receipts here in the US show Canikon with about 84% of the interchangeable lens camera sales this year. But that 16% they didn't get is a nibbling action. Worse still, much of those actual sales for Canikon were older DSLRs being end-of-lifed at discount. You really have to wonder what the situation would be today if Canon and Nikon hadn't first stuffed the channel, then given the market smaller, lighter, more complex crop sensor DSLR systems. I think that would have been mostly "lights out" for a number of players. Instead, they're given hope with modestly increasing sales as they pick up the leaks. 

To stop the leakage, here's the bare minimum Nikon must do:

  • Downsize the D3300. It's bigger than it needs to be, as the Canon SL1 shows. Make sure the handling doesn't suffer and do the expected iterations and we have a starting place. Nikon should have started this downsizing with the D5300. Instead we got a very warmed over update that's not going to compel people to buy it over the D5200 that is still sitting on the shelf that sells for less. If that happens again with the D3200 update, Nikon has certainly not been paying attention.
  • Prime the Lenses. A 16mm f/2.8 and 24mm f/2 would go a long way to solving the problem, as long as they're small. Faster would be nice, and a full set of DX primes would be nice, but those two lenses would start bringing DX back into parity with the systems people are leaking to. 

That's it. Really. Obviously more would need to be done in the longer term, such as a mid-range f/4 zoom, a telephoto f/4 zoom, both scaled right for DX, and driving some changes through the entire DX body lineup, but the key is to telegraph to potential leakers that you understand what you didn't do and are moving to fix those things. A smaller body and two useful primes that are sharp would do wonders to the DX user psyche, even if they don't buy any of the three!    

I've watched tech companies fall into this trap before. The iterate out on a concept that was successful but get lazier and lazier trying to mostly focus on bottom line concerns (cost cutting, parts efficiencies, faster turns, etc.). They see that the concept is coming to some sort of maturation point, perhaps even eventual decline. They might even have an idea of what they eventually have to do to restart a successful line, but they don't then bridge getting from here to there. 

The answer is simple: look at where you're leaking and why. The leakers are picking smaller systems, simpler systems, more complete systems (e.g. WiFi built in, not optional), and ones that have a wider choice of lenses. So downsize your cameras, remove extraneous complexity, build in the most desired options, and fill in a couple of lens gaps. 

Nikon needs to get through to Photokina 2014 next fall. If there's a clear disrupting product coming that they need to respond to (or they have one themselves), it'll show up just before or during that event (to show it far earlier allows everyone to come to the show with their response, even if it's just a FUD-type message response such as "yes, we're working on that and will be announcing something shortly"). But between now and then what are they going to sell and how many more customer leaks can they tolerate?  

The real risk is that leaks have a tendency to become rushes. They start slowly then have a sudden build-up as they gain momentum and erode the dam built to contain them. By the time you discover you have a rush, you usually can't react fast enough to quiet it back down to just a leak. 

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