The Big Nikon Leak

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the primary leak point in Nikon’s lineup is the D300. After building a solid foundation of high-end DX in the D100, D200, and D300 ramp, since 2007 this position in Nikon’s lineup has gotten very little love. 

D3000 users? They don’t need to be loved, they buy on price/convenience. D3 users? They demand “the best” and Nikon has iterated three times, twice significantly, to this group.

No, it’s the D300 buyers that feel unloved and have been leaking. 

As things stand today, a D300 “leaker” goes one of five places:

  1. Downgrades to a mirrorless camera. Most likely this is the Fujifilm XT-1 or Olympus E-M1, but almost any EVF-equipped mirrorless body with reasonable focus speed and high build quality qualifies (e.g. Panasonic GH4).
  2. Downgrades to the Nikon D7100. It’s a downgrade in the sense that buffer, body build, and even frame rate performance are lower than this customer wants. On the other hand, the sensor and video are clearly better, and the other things not terribly different. I call these folk the “hold-out leakers,” as they are hoping that a D400 type of camera appears and they switch back.
  3. Sidegrades to the Canon 7DII. This is a new option that just popped up, and it should be the scariest one for Nikon, as Canon is the company Nikon clearly targets the most with its products. Note how many pros have been talking about the 7DII. Yes, pros leak, too.
  4. Upgrades to a Nikon FX body. As I’ve written, this is what Nikon wants you to do, as that’s the primary options they have that come closest to what the D300 user wants. Only problem? It’s more expensive for the same thing (essentially only a D810; the D610 and D750 don’t have the "reach capability" the D300 did, as they produce 10mp DX crops). Moreover, this upgrade requires that some lenses be replaced, which means that #1,#3, and #5 don’t look so problematic as alternatives.
  5. Upgrades to full frame. At the moment, this basically means a Sony A7s, A7, or A7r. Remember, if #4 is an option, then Sony’s pricing on the A7 models coupled with their use of the same sensors and smaller size/weight, can be enough to swing someone out of the Nikon world. 

Based upon an analysis of now thousands of email messages to me from leakers (!), the primary leak is to #1, with #2, #4, and #5 all trailing, in that order. #3 is an unknown at the moment, as the 7DII is just now shipping. 

Note that I’m a leaker given this definition. I chose a combination of D7100 (for reach) and D810 (normal use) and no longer have a D300. The net impact of that was that I sold off a lot of DX lenses and bought some new FX ones, which means that getting me back as a DX user—should Nikon come out with a D300 replacement—will be tough. I’d consider that a side grade from my D7100, best case. My D7100 is adequate for my needs is this respect as it is, so it’d take a really good D300 replacement to get me to upgrade for shooting reasons.

Let’s look more closely at some of the leaks.

Leaking to Full Frame
What I didn’t write about in yesterday’s comments on Heiner’s “just buy an FX body” was that it also enables leak #5. I’m seeing more and more folk make this leap instead of going to Nikon full frame. 

The lure of full frame is strong. Things us old-schoolers learned in the film era are back to where they were (e.g. depth of field, angle of view lens choices, etc.). Top that off with larger photosites (all else equal) and potentially more pixels (A7r, D810), and there’s a lot to like. 

Sony, however, is undercutting Nikon. A Sony 36mp A7r is US$1200 less than a Nikon 35mp D810. That difference pays for a Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 lens, a lens that Nikon can’t currently match in DX (IS, fixed aperture, mid-range zoom). A lens that would be right in the wheelhouse of the target user here. So the calculation goes like this: sell off all my Nikon DX gear for X, then pay Y for either a Nikon D810 body or a Sony A7r with 24-70mm lens. If X>Y, the Nikon lens legacy is broken completely, as now the customer sells all their Nikon lenses and just buys the 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm f/4 Sony trio and is done (those additional two lenses add US$2800 to our switch scenario). 

So what did the leaker to Sony A7 gain and lose? They got a smaller, lighter camera kit with the assumed equivalent image quality. They lost some (but not all) focus performance and body resistance to the elements (though read on). They gained a more modern camera with fewer potential complications and easier repair. They gained a long-term family of cameras with exactly the same controls.

Consider this customer comment from an email:

  • "I recently went on a workshop to Iceland. I left the Nikon bodies at home and took my a7r, a7s and a6000. I was the only one in the group not using Nikon or Canon. Despite limited (or non-existent) weatherproofing of the Sony's, my gear held up fine in the rain. Better than some of the DSLRs that were babied by their owners. I took virtually no precautions. Came home with great images.” ldk]

Is Nikon likely to get this shooter back or sell him an FX body? Probably not. That’s the danger of leaks: they can cause permanent damage.

Leaking to Mirrorless
Much of the leakage, however, has been to Fujifilm and m4/3 cameras, with a few Sony APS mirrorless, as well. Generally, though, the Fujifilm X-T1, Olympus E-M1/5/10, and Panasonic GH4 are the primary leak points, as they are designed like the DSLRs the user is leaving. In the case of the X-T1 and E-M1, they’re even touted as basically all-weather.

Consider these comments from emails:

  • "Bought an OMD E-M1 with the 12-40 f2.8 Pro and absolutely love it. I am shooting much more and my photos have improved as a result. Love the EVF, IBIS, Size, Weight, Configurability, Affordability and LENS CHOICE is outstanding.” [rs]
  • “I too have gone to the 'light side' by mostly using my Olympus EM5 & EM1. I still use my Nikon D700 tethered to my laptop when the need arises to shoot for commercial clients that need to see exactly what I'm shooting. However, I've just downloaded the Olympus tethering software. Not quite ready for prime time but in a pitch I can use it.” [cd]
  • "I sold my D800E yesterday and the last of my Nikon lenses today. Frankly I have a queasy feeling in my stomach, this is the first time in 15 years I haven't owned a Nikon DSLR system (started with a D70). I bought an OMD E-M1. [js]
  • "I sold all my DX gear and bought m43 ... and for the last two years all my purchases (save a deeply discounted 16-35 VR) have been m43.” [pl]
  • "If Nikon does not make a mirrorless nikon '2' compatible with the existing DX DSLR system I will not further invest in nikon material.” [mb]

I’m not going to go on with these as this page would be scrolling forever; you should get the gist from just this sample. As I’ve noted, I’ve received thousands of this type of email. I’ve kept over 300 around as reference points and for future follow-up with the writers. 

Leaking to Canon
Yes, I’m getting that type of email these days. Ones like this:

  • "I shall be selling off upwards of $7k of gear (I hope) and dropping around $15-20k over the next two years, starting with a 7D Mk ii and 600mm.” [ms]

These are probably the toughest leak to assess, as they’re not typically “already done that” but rather “this is what I’m going to do” types of assertions (one of the reasons why I’m keeping some of the emails around for future follow-up). Still, it appears that Canon is going to have at least a two month clear window on selling 7DII’s against aging D300s’s (if you can even find one). Right in the midst of prime selling season.

Downgrading to D7100
One of my recent workshop students said it best: "I would've loved a better-sealed DX camera with a deeper buffer than my two D7100s for my trips to Africa the last two years. But it'll be at least a year or two (or three!) till we take another ‘destination' trip like that, so the urgency to upgrade is simply no longer there. And the fact that Nikon has yet to produce a small(ish) and/or fast(ish) wide DX prime means that I'll likely sell a couple of no-longer used AF-D lenses and maybe my oft-used but too slow 16-85, just get the Sigma 18-35 1.8 and then sit tight. That means, once I get the Sigma lens, I likely won't buy any new gear for at least 1-2 years."

Leaking to FX
This is what Nikon wants you to do, but consider these comments:

  • “I own the D800, am very happy with it, but don't like to travel with it or my heavy Nikon lenses.” [ts]
  • "I reluctantly ordered a D750 today. But it’s not the camera I was waiting years for.” [rl]
  • "So where does that leave me as a long time loyal Nikon customer? It leaves me out in the cold. It leaves me being pushed to go FX and pay a substantial premium for that which I neither want, nor need.” [rs]

That first comment resonates with me. Some of you may remember that I picked up an m4/3 camera in the first place to use on really long hikes instead of my heavy FX gear (back in 2009). The same reason Apple makes iPads, MacBook Airs, and MacBook Pro Retinas is the same reason Nikon needs to rationalize their ILC lineup more than they have. Nikon shouldn’t care if I buy an “Air” or a “Pro” (or even a “Pad”), as long as Nikon’s name is on the thing. Indeed, I’m more likely to buy multiples as I discover that one item is best suited to one use, another to a second use I have, and so on. But I certainly don’t want to pick up my “Air” and find that it has a completely different set of controls than my “Pro” or that there’s something I can’t do with it at all because something’s missing (e.g. lenses). 

The thing that I note about this category of writers is this: they switched to FX, but they weren’t totally happy about it for some reason. The gains (image quality, body build, whatever) aren’t completely blowing away the increased costs for this group. Nikon should want totally happy users, not partially happy. “Partially” means something failed in the conversion, and the big ones I keep hearing are price and size/weight.


Final Words
I sometimes get criticized for writing this kind of article, as some people think I’m being “harsh” on Nikon. Let me clarify something: I’m reporting what I see happening as best I can. That’s why this section of the site is labeled News/Views. I’m not making “leaking” up, nor am I making up reasons for it. 

Leaking is really happening, and in growing force that’s easily measured. It’s not totally showing up in the CIPA shipment numbers yet, as low-end DSLR sales tend to distort the interchangeable lens camera numbers, but it’s clearly there (DSLR sales are going down, and per unit costs are going up across the board, indicative of enthusiasts buying higher end products, yet Nikon’s unit volume isn’t going up). 

As I’ve tried to convey in the past, what’s happening with Nikon’s marketing and sales is very relevant to all of us who use Nikon gear. Fewer folk buying D300-type cameras from Nikon means for a higher likelihood of fewer Nikon choices for those in the middle in the future, I think. It also makes us have to seriously ponder Nikon’s own words ("just go buy an FX body"). In reality, if we consider doing that, we’d be foolish not to consider our other options at the same time. There might be a better one, after all. 

More and more people are deciding that there is, indeed, a better option. And they leak. 

Simply put, Nikon needs to stop the leaks from the high-DX position in their lineup. That means a D300s replacement (or a very well-considered D7100 update), and perhaps as many as a half dozen DX lenses:

  • Update the 12-24mm f/4.
  • Update the 17-50mm f/2.8.
  • Introduce a 16-70mm f/4.
  • Introduce a 50-135mm f/4.
  • Introduce a 16mm prime.
  • Introduce a 24mm prime (could be f/1.8 FX).

The good news is this: Canon needs APS lenses, too. So the leak to Canon can be easily cut off by just creating what I note, above. Whether the other leaks are staunched depends upon how good that new DX DSLR really is and how fast those lenses will appear. The whole DX kit needs to be a bit smaller and lighter than a D300s with the 18-105mm+, it needs to be really well weatherproofed, and it needs a deep buffer and a high frame rate. 

Finally, I’ll note that Heiner also spoke about DX being more of an “entry” into Nikon DSLRs. Nikon needs to rethink that, too. Hooking someone on a DX D3300 and then trying to flip them all the way up to an FX610 on their next purchase is one heck of a huge jump. Nikon is much more likely to take a D3300 user and move them to a D7300/D9300, then some day move them to FX. That’s another reason why I keep harping on lenses. All that D3300 purchaser can buy is basically bigger DX convenience zooms and FX telephotos. The very core of enthusiast shooting is just missing in DX. So, in case anyone at Nikon is listening, here’s the sequence:

  • Hook them on a consumer DX DSLR and convenience (e.g. D3300, D5300, 18-xx, 55-xx lenses).
  • Keep them buying with lenses that take them up a notch (e.g. solid primes and high-quality fixed aperture lenses in the right focal range targets).
  • Move them to a high-end DX DSLR (e.g. D7300/D9300), which pulls even more out of the lenses they just bought.
  • Entice them with a further quality move to FX.

Thom’s forecast: Nikon’s leakage problem will pick up steam this holiday season due to Nikon inactivity at the top of DX. Nikon will announce things in February that they hope plug some of the leaks, likely something between an expected D7100 and D300s replacement, and maybe two DX lenses (one wide angle prime, one mid-range zoom). Would that be enough to stop the leakage? Not without further comment and commitment from Nikon about the future of high-end DX. Road map, anyone? ;~)

I think I’ve pretty much exhausted this topic for the time being. But it’ll come up again with the CES and CP+ announcements in January and February 2015, I’m pretty certain.   

Update: I got an amazing amount of email on this article in only a few hours, but one email struck me as something that should have been mentioned in the article: “re-leaking.” Here’s the relevant portion: "I had a D300s and moved up to a D600. I bought one of the very first ones, happy to move to FX. Image quality is excellent, but the bulk of the camera and lenses bothered me especially in public places. Furthermore, I got really annoyed with the sensor oil splashes on my camera, and even more when the D610 appeared. In two years, my D600 was worth nothing. I took advantage of the D600 free shutter replacement recently, but just to make sure my camera would have a bit more re-sell value when I sell it. I have re-leaked, to an A7s.” [ga]

Also: one reader took me to task for not mentioning Heiner’s statements regarding DX. For example: “we’re still giving just as much attention to the DX line as we are to the FX line.” To me, it’s not completely clear what the context of that is. In practice, the last two years have been heavily weighted towards FX releases. DX has to consume much of Nikon’s attention for one reason: it’s their biggest selling line of product. “Attention” does not mean that users are getting what they want. 

Further, Heiner mentioned lenses: “You’ll see some very exciting lenses in our entire range coming.” That “in our entire” range qualifier is part of the problem Nikon currently has. Consider the 20mm f/1.8 FX just launched. Nikon has promoted this as also being useful for DX. Sure, we get a 30mm equivalent. But it’s FX-sized and big. My argument has been and continues to be that the DX lineup needs to be DX. There needs to be a clear price/size/weight advantage for picking the same thing in DX (e.g. D7100 with lens set) than in FX (e.g. D610 with lens set). Nikon’s competitors are building complete new lens sets, and you can now leak to a better crop sensor lens set than Nikon makes. Heiner’s “future lenses” statement also has a hint of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) in it. Promising something that you’re not currently delivering is the Business School 101 product management recipe. Given the two year drought of DX products and the flood of FX ones, I’ll believe that the DX line is fleshed out when it actually gets fleshed out. 

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