What Nikon Has Done Right

I get criticized by some on the Internet about my critical comments towards Nikon. Often, those making such complaints don’t see the trees for the forest and overlook the things I do praise, so I thought today I’d take the time to point out some of the things that I believe that Nikon has done right. In some cases, very right.

But before we get to that list, let me once again explain something about my personal “bias” in all this. 

I’m a Nikon user. I’m what I’d call an “optimal shooter.” I want things to be perfect. They most certainly are not at the moment in many frustrating ways. My contention has been, and continues to be, that Nikon could clean up in the camera market if they paid more attention to real user problems and less attention to chasing consumer dollars by producing products that are only slightly differentiated, but which they can call “new". 

That last seems to some like it might be backwards, but it isn’t. I’ve spent my entire 40+ year career (mostly) in organizations that understood one basic tenet: get the product or content right and the dollars will chase it. Chase dollars first and foremost and eventually you find yourself in dead ends and falling off cliffs. This, by the way, has been one of my complaints about newspapers, and lately, magazines. You don’t sell ad pages to advertisers. You sell readers to advertisers. You don’t get readers without great content. Thus, good content tailored to the reader comes first and foremost if you want to be successful. 

Nikon seems to be more on the chasing dollars hunt, not so much on solutions for users. This was most clear on the software side (Capture NX, Nikon Image Space, etc.), but it applies across broad swaths of their products. Some of that is in goal definition. Consider these two statements:

  • Sell 20m Coolpix profitably this year.
  • Solve the problems that will attract 20m Coolpix buyers.

The first seems to be Nikon’s approach. Nikon has never really done the second. 

What Nikon Got Right
Okay, here I am criticizing them again, and I said I’ve come to praise Caesar…so what has Nikon gotten right in the digital era? How about these things:

  • SensorsWith digital cameras the defining element is the image sensor and what you do with its data. I’ll get to the second part in a moment, but let’s deal with the first here: Nikon has put a priority on sensors from the beginning. Indeed, they had to convince Sony to make the APS sensor they needed for the D1 series, and Sony was reluctant. To produce those initial sensors, Nikon took Sony’s photon-conversion capabilities and started maximizing them. The initial D1 used binning, for instance. Other optimizations soon followed. 

    Even the much maligned D2 sensors (Nikon’s own LBCAST in the D2h, Nikon’s own CMOS in the D2x) were attempts to push sensor technologies forward in ways that hadn’t been done before. It’s unfortunate that the D2h had a filtration problem on top of the sensor, but we’ve continued to see some of the benefits of Nikon’s IP in those sensors as sensor technology moved forward. I’d argue that the D2x was the best 12mp APS sensor at base ISO ever produced. 

    Moreover, there’s another interesting aspect of sensors that Nikon got right. Originally, the D1 series and D100 were regarded as being “best sensors” by many. Then Canon came along and started iterating and took the mantle away from Nikon in many different ways: more pixels, lower noise, better high ISO, etc. Look at where we are today, though: Nikon has reversed that and now has more pixels, more dynamic range, lower noise, and generally is regarded as having better sensors from the bottom of the DSLR line to the top than does Canon.

    Sensors aren’t easy. Because they’re semiconductors, they can benefit from the things that all semiconductors eventually benefit from. Thus, they’re moving targets. What Nikon’s gotten right is that they’ve stayed on top of that moving target very well, both through their own work and through various partnerships. If dedicated cameras have a future, Nikon has to stay on top with sensors. Fortunately, there’s no sign that they won’t.

    Implication: Sensors will continue to move forward on future Nikon cameras. I expect that we’ll get more pixels, phase detect, and rollover shadow dynamic range in the near term, plus a wider range of goodies in the long term. 

  • Image processingFrom the very beginning it was clear that Nikon had a core group focused just on final pixels. Curiously, Nikon’s approach has been much more towards neutrality and freedom-from-artifacts as opposed to the more saturated and contrasty results and hue-shifted results of some competitors. Personally, I believe Nikon’s approach is the better one: it is far easier to add in effects than try to take them out or adjust them after the fact. 

    More interesting has been the fact that Nikon’s own demosaicing of raw files has tended to be a clear step ahead of third parties along the way. It’s the reason why a lot of people used Capture NX/NX2, even if it complicated their workflow. Simply put, Nikon is spending time understanding what the sensor is doing and trying to maximize the performance out of it, and they’ve done a darned good job of that. 

    The only thing I’d suggest is that Nikon needs to abandon the Portrait, Landscape, and Vivid Picture Controls and work with the same color perception folk that Fujifilm and Kodak did to come up with “better” additional PCs that aren’t merely moving a few simple sliders around. Velvia, Kodachrome, and other classic film stocks had very complex shifts in them that were very tightly coupled with global perception research.

    Still, I’m very happy that my Nikon cameras produce clean JPEGs that are more manipulable than those from other systems. And I’m happy that Nikon still allows us to get very close to the original raw data out of our cameras (little manipulation), and even that they’ve been responsive when we’ve pointed out small flaws in that raw processing (e.g. the hot pixel removal routine that was killing star detail).   

    Implication: for the time being, none. While this has been a large plus in the past, Nikon needs to roll out even better image processing in the future.
  • Prosumer cameras — With the exception of the missing D300s replacement, Nikon has managed to create a wider array of prosumer type cameras than they’ve ever had in the past. This is important, because Nikon’s success in film SLRs wasn’t so much the pro models (F4, F5), but the prosumer models (N8008, N90s, F100). Prosumer has been a big driver of their loyal customer base, and continues to be one of their most profitable areas.

    Right now Nikon arguably has five cameras that fit the prosumer: D7100, D610, Df, D750, and D810. All of these are fine cameras, each with slightly different characteristics. In essence, Nikon has been slowly moving from one prosumer camera (N90s, F100, D100) to multiples. They even were doing a bit of this in the film era (N70/N90s, N80/F100), though this wasn’t quite as successful for them then as it is now.

    Simply put, if you’re looking for a prosumer DSLR, you can find a Nikon one that probably suits you well. I’d even argue—as I have been for awhile—that the D8xx tends to fit the D300s upgrader pretty well, too, other than not quite getting to 8 fps (e.g. 7 fps in 15mp DX mode with grip).

    I’m not sure we need as many models as we have in this space, but it is heartening to see that Nikon sees this space as important to them and is iterating constantly in it. We’ve come a long way from the D100. A very long way. 

    Implication: more prosumer cameras in our future, probably including the missing D300s replacement in some fashion (either via strong update to the D7100 or an additional model).

  • FocusAs much as mirrorless systems have improved over the years, I’ll still trust my Nikon DSLRs for focus chores that are complex and need the fastest response. It was a pain to master the complexity of the Nikon DSLR AF system (probably both for Nikon as well for me and other users ;~), but once you know what it’s doing, it’s highly predictable and highly repeatable. 

    Yes, it could be even better, but we’ve had a long history of adjustments and additions to the basic system over the years; Nikon is indeed trying to iterate it forward. The recent f/8 and -3EV changes are just one result of that. Frankly, I’m amazed that I can still put 30 year old lenses on my brand new camera and get nearly flawless focus performance from them. Juggling the legacy issues while pushing the technology forward can’t have been a trivial challenge for Nikon. 

    Implication: continued work on the focus system pushing at boundaries and incorporating new technologies.

  • FX lensesYes, there are still gaps and lenses that need upgrading. Nevertheless, over time it should be obvious that we’ve gotten a number of very nice things happening in the FX lens lineup:
    • The f/1.8 primes. 20mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm, with a 24mm coming soon. That’s a nice complete set that gives us something we didn’t have with the f/2.8 lenses (speed and modern AF-S/G) or the f/1.4 lenses (completeness of set, affordability). These lenses have been priced reasonably, and there isn’t a dud performer amongst the bunch. Indeed, most are my preferred prime over the other options at each focal length these days. Let’s hope Nikon rounds out the set with a 105mm.
    • The f/4 zooms. Again, not a dud in the bunch now (the old 24-120mm was a dud). Moreover, the f/4 maximum aperture seems to be a magic point for the Nikon DSLR AF system: these lenses have no real focus issues that I’ve seen. I also like the overlapping focal ranges (as opposed to the abutting f/2.8 focal ranges), which has me lens swapping a little less often when I’m using zooms. 
    • The kit-type lenses. One of the biggest surprises has been how well the 18-35mm, 24-85mm, and even 28-300mm variable aperture zooms perform on even the most demanding bodies. You get into diffraction-limited results on the D8xx bodies pretty easily, which does put a top end on these lenses, but Df, D610, and D750 owners shouldn’t ignore these lenses if they need smaller/lighter choices. They’re not without weaknesses, but generally acuity isn’t that weakness. 
    • The exotic iterations. The 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, and now 800mm f/5.6 don’t sell many copies each year. It would be very easy to just sit on your laurels here, but Nikon has slowly added technology into these lenses in useful ways. It would be nice to see some weight diet included in that, but I suspect that’s coming. None of the updates compel me to turn in my old exotic and get the new one, but it’s nice to know if I had to I’d be getting “better", not "the same”.
    • A few updates. The 80-400mm update, in particular, is pretty much exactly what all of us wanted, though a little pricey. More of the same, please.

      Implication: Nikon had a plan for FX lenses and has been slow rolling it. It’s likely that the plan has more elements to it than we currently know.
  • DX Lens UpdatesWhile I’m not a fan of the 18-xx zoom onslaught that Nikon has foisted on the DX market, I will say this: the 18-xx zooms keep getting better. Even the much maligned 18-55mm has been updated enough to keep up with the 24mp DX sensors, which was something I wasn’t quite expecting. The 18-140mm is better than the very sharp 18-135mm it replaced, and has VR added. Even the 18-300mm is better than the 18-200mm in enough ways to make it the better choice for most. If we could only say that Nikon supplemented all these 18-xx choices with a full set of other DX lenses that complement them, I wouldn’t be complaining about DX lenses ;~).

    Implication: DX zooms will be kept current with the cameras.

  • Cost managementOne reason why Nikon has been successful in the digital generation is that the bean counters have been as present as the engineers. Over the years Nikon has used many ways to reduce costs, and continues to do so. That they’ve managed to do this with the very complex DSLRs without taking away function and features is particularly impressive. A simple way to cut costs would have been to take away buttons and controls, for instance, but that hasn’t happened. Indeed, the opposite has happened, as virtually every DSLR model has sprouted new controls over time (e.g. Live View). 

    Every now and again we see brilliance in Nikon’s cost controls. The J1 and V1 models, for instance, are the way of the future: few parts, tightly integrated, easy to manufacture. Too bad about some control removal and the absurdly high retail price they attempted, but my point here is that Nikon proved that they can cost reduce a sophisticated camera better than anyone else to date.

    So when Nikon continues to proclaim that they’ll do cost control to maintain profitability in the future, I believe them. They’ve proven they can do just that. And in doing so, it makes it more possible to believe that they’ll survive the market shift that’s going on right now. 

    Implication: Nikon can and probably will make simpler cameras in the future ala the J1/V1 experiment. As volumes decrease we’re going to see more commonality in use of parts. 

I’m sure I could find plenty more to write about that’s “right” with Nikon, but these bullets are the main points that I think all of us Nikon DSLR users should be thankful for. As I’ve written many times in the past two years (first with the D800), Nikon currently makes the best all-around DSLR you can buy (D810), and maybe the best all-around camera you can buy. That’s something that deserves praise, and it seems like people don’t see me making that praise enough. Yet I’ve had to have written that sentence (“...best all-around DSLR...”) many dozens of times, maybe even hundreds of times since early 2012. 

Just as people can write with a bias, people can read with a bias. I try to make sure my biases are clear (again “optimal” is what I seek). I hope you’re aware of your reading bias. 

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