Nikon's 2018

Last week I described what I expect from Canon in 2018, it's time to do the same for Nikon. Whereas Canon's year should be mostly iteration with one big new reveal, Nikon's should be the opposite. There might not be an iteration at all for Nikon this year; just big reveals.

Before we move on, Canon Rumors says they don't think a 7D Mark III will appear in 2018. I do, but it's going to be late in the year, I think. Canon has other birds in the nest they need to get flying first, and the 7D Mark III will need a new sensor, I think, to stay competitive, which lengthens the development cycle.

Here's Nikon's dilemma in a nutshell: they need to get people to stop buying m4/3, Fujifilm X, and Sony E/FE lenses. As long as that continues to happen—and worse if the trend grows any more than it has—then Nikon is failing in interchangeable lens cameras. Simple as that. 

For the time being, Nikon needs to take its eyes a bit off of Canon and look more closely at the Seven Dwarves, and the answer Nikon produces has to be strong enough to topple the Dwarves again. 

Nikon is an optics company. Says so right on their site ("Grounded in the latest opto-electronics..." and "pioneer of optical technologies to the world."). That means that they should be a leader in lenses, right? ;~)

And there's the rub. In the last 16 years Nikon has introduced an average of 6 lenses a year. That sounds like a lot until you realize that those are split over CX, DX, and FX; that many of those are iterations of earlier lenses; that many are reworks of low-end kit lenses; and that some are just splits of VR and non-VR versions. 

So Nikon can make 6 lenses a year (their peak was 11, but that year included a lens where only the band was changed in color [Special Edition!], and two were AW versions of existing lenses). So let's call their real peak 9, their average 6. 

Why am I talking about lenses in an article purporting to predict what Nikon's camera plans for the year are? Because it's important. Indeed, it's the more important thing than the cameras when it all comes down to it. How many lenses will Nikon introduce this year, and for what models?

As it turns out, it appears that Nikon themselves are asking that question. Back when a new mirrorless launch was going to be rushed into a very late 2017 launch (or at least CES 2018, which is now over), that question apparently stopped management in their tracks. The answer for that particular camera at the time was 2, with another to appear later in the year. 

Clearly, a new mirrorless camera with only 2 lenses was not going to stop people buying m4/3, Fujifilm X, and Sony E/FE lenses. Olympus/Panasonic have 61 m4/3 lenses, Fujifilm has 25 X lenses, and Sony 41 E/FE lenses. Two against dozens. Not going to work in stemming the leaks in the DSLR dike. And we're not even counting third party lenses for those other mounts. 

I've written before that the Nikon plan was still nebulous. They had both F and new mount versions of mirrorless cameras in both DX and FX sensor sizes that had been developed to some level. Some time in 2017 they had to make a decision on what to actually produce in 2018. And lenses almost certainly became the center of discussion right up front in trying to make that decision. 

I believe that the decision finally reached was "new mount." Solely new mount. And, of course, an F-mount adapter for that new mount. So Nikon's 2018 just became a lot more complicated. 

Let me back up for a moment. 

Using history as a guide, here's what would have normally been expected in Nikon's 2018 schedule:

  • D5s (modest update to D5)
  • D760 (full update to D750)
  • D500s (modest update to D500)
  • D3500 (full update to D3400)

We can argue about the D610 and Df. These are the oldest cameras in Nikon's lineup (approximately five years and counting). Really long iteration delays in Nikon's history tell us that they have issues with those cameras and are changing their minds about something. In the case of the Df, we know that it sold less than expected, especially after the initial surge of prosumer enthusiasm. Management has been clearly rethinking those two FX models. 

So let me first describe why 2018 probably won't be an iteration year for Nikon. 

The time for a D5s iteration has already come and gone. It needed to be at the Winter Olympics to have any energy, and thus should have been announced at CES if it was coming. It's difficult to come up with things Nikon could have done to add to or enhance that camera. Particularly after the A9 came out and upped the game for performance cameras in terms of silence and frame rate. That implies completely new design, so is likely to wait until the D6 in 2020.

A D500s update is easier to imagine, particularly since the D500 doesn't yet have D9 or the HL/VL group autofocus capabilities or D850 focus stacking, plus still seems to have small glitches in the power/card system that could use a good flushing out. Just clean that camera up to give it a longer life. But the engineers that are likely to be able to do that seem to be working on other things already, so that probably won't happen, either. 

Don't get me wrong. Both the D5 and D500 should get updates. I've outlined my reasons why before. I don't care if they're modest updates and things I wouldn't sell my current D5/D500 to get, Nikon needs those DSLR models to have as long a life as possible, because it's going to be awhile before they have enough mirrorless lenses. Yep, we're back to that, again. 

The D3400 and D750 updates have a different issue: I believe these model levels is where Nikon was targeting their mirrorless thrusts. An entry DX type mirrorless system, and a serious but not over-the-top FX mirrorless system. A Canon EOS M5 competitor and a Sony A7 (not R) competitor. 

Goto-san in his widely quoted comments was lobbying for that A7-like competitor to be more traditional and Df like (for self-serving reasons). But he's not part of the decision chain any more.  

So there we have Nikon's 2018: two mirrorless systems. One launched soon (late February, likely for CP+), the other launched in the Photokina window (late summer to early fall). 

My only problem? I don't truly know which launches when. Until not too long ago, neither did Nikon, apparently. 

Frankly, the least risky strategy for Nikon, especially given the lens situation, would have been to launch a DX mirrorless first. The lens situation is less complicated for a consumer-level product. You can launch with a handful of lenses and a Road Map and get away with that. Say, 18-55mm kit, 55-200mm kit, a couple of really compact primes (23mm, 35mm). Those plus a decent F-mount adapter would work. (Some will say "what, no wide angle zoom?" But the latest AF-P wide angle zoom is small enough that it can hold the fort for awhile with a good adapter.)

I know Nikon had the 18-55mm and 35mm prime for that DX mirrorless camera ready enough for a CES launch. So they weren't far from where they needed to be. So maybe what we will see first is the DX mirrorless launch. That's what I would do. One source says yes, it will be launched at CP+ at the start of March. Curiously, another source says that Nikon has multiple DX mirrorless sensors in the development queue. 24mp and up. Now that would be interesting to push DX mirrorless above 24mp. 

But I keep hearing conflicting information and that the FX mirrorless launch is currently being considered more important by Nikon management and they'd really like to move it up (after all, the consumer buying season the DX version would cater to is over until June/July). As I noted elsewhere, we already have two FX mirrorless producers (Leica and Sony), and I expect five by the end of the year (Canon, Leica, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony, with Pentax still being a bit iffy). Getting early into that group is better than being last.

But now we're back to the lens problem. 

Nikon has a lot of known patents in this area, the most interesting of which are:

  • 24mm f/1.8
  • 36mm f/1.2
  • 52mm f/0.9
  • 24-70mm f/2.8-4

Those are serious lenses that speak to a highly capable FX mirrorless and more expensive product, not a D6xx-type entry camera. Indeed, those patents all say "low light camera," which is sort of where Goto-san was trying to push Nikon. 

So why did I say that this was not an iterative year for Nikon? Well, add everything up on the mirrorless side I've mentioned so far:

  • DX non EVF camera (late in year)
  • DX EVF camera
  • 18-55mm DX kit lens
  • 35mm DX prime
  • FX camera
  • 24mm f/1.8
  • 35mm f/1.2
  • 50mm f/1
  • 24-70mm f/2.8-4

That's about an average year for Nikon: three camera bodies, six lenses. 

You can see how Nikon is a bit boxed in. If they just produce the average number of new goodies they produce in a year and they're all mirrorless, there's no room for anything else. Yet, even in that scenario Nikon DX mirrorless isn't yet fully competitive with Canon EOS M (fewer cameras, fewer lenses) nor even close to Sony FE (one-quarter the cameras, one-sixth the lenses). 

So even if those are all of Nikon's offerings for 2018—and there's a good chance they aren't, that there's been continuous drift and change in the actual product specifications as management debates what to do—Nikon still has a lot to produce to get those two new mirrorless systems fully up to speed, and virtually no time for DSLR iterations at all. Nikon is mostly pathetic about marketing lots of stuff simultaneously, so any DSLR iteration in the midst of all that mirrorless gear is going to get lost. Probably not worth doing.

So here's what I'm actually predicting from Nikon in 2018:

  1. A new DX mirrorless system, with consumer-oriented lenses and a price point that fits near the D3400-D5600 range. Likely to launch at CP+ or by the graduation/vacation time period (late Spring, early Summer).
  2. A new FX mirrorless system that's at least D750-level in terms of sophistication and feature set, and a set of primes and one or more zooms that complement it. This may be a US$3000 camera and US$2000 lenses, but highly capable. I don't expect it to approach the D8xx pixel count. Launched no later than Photokina, but expect it far sooner if it can be pulled off.
  3. (Likely) Surprise! Perhaps two F-mount lenses that have been lingering in that three-year development window that Nikon typically uses, likely iterations of existing lenses. This will be random announcements in between the major launches.
  4. Second (Potential, but Not Likely) Surprise! A full frame compact with a curved sensor. Everyone's been developing in this space. It's a bragging rights problem, as get the sensor/lens combo right and you'll have edge to edge image quality like you've never seen before. 

If that's all we get and it's all good, Nikon will have a good year. If Nikon can put another F-mount lens, DX lens, and maybe a simple DSLR body iteration in there, they'll have a great year. 

But a warning to Nikon: don't try a year full of mirrorless intros without issuing at least a short-term lens road map and making those cameras fully F-mount compatible with adapter. Don't even try. You'll be more than a couple of dozen lenses behind Sony, which is not a stationary target. You've got to give users a strong idea of where you're going with lenses. 

Some want more details on the mirrorless systems Nikon is likely to introduce. It's in the details that I'm hearing lots of conflicting information. Dates, specs, features, sensors, pricing. Thus, I'm simply not going to go there. What I'm 100% comfortable with predicting at this point is that Nikon is readying two mirrorless variations to ship in 2018, one crop sensor, one full frame. 

Update: There's a post on dpreview that claims I wrote "[Nikon is] effectively killing all FX DSLRs below the D850." Not exactly. Nikon simply won't do much to update the FX line below the D850 this year is my best guess. They'll use sale pricing on the D750 to keep it moving through stores as needed. I'd be surprised if the D750 updated this year in any significant way. A better choice for Nikon is get the mirrorless cameras established and then update the D750 to the current DSLR technologies (e.g. autofocus system). 

As I've outlined over and over, Nikon put themselves into a tough position. They effectively only had two choices: (1) launch mirrorless at the expense of some DSLRs, thus sending a signal about those DSLRs; or (2) update DSLRs fully and thus send a signal about not transitioning to mirrorless. I don't believe Nikon is capable of doing both simultaneously and succeeding with marketing messages. Moreover such a high R&D/launch budget would fly against all their cost-cutting initiatives. #1 appears to be what they're now committed to doing. #2 seems out of the question when you look at recent actual camera sales numbers.

My point remains: Nikon has to stop the shrinkage. If they don't, then they'll be doing a lot more than closing the China plant in the near future. Nikon needs ILC volume, and the only place to get that is consumer DX and FX. As much of a success that you think the D850 might be, I'll bet that it accounts for only around 100k of Nikon's 2.6m units in this fiscal year. Nikon needs a US$1000 (or less) hit, and a US$2000 (or less) hit. That would be a Canon EOS M5 competitive camera and a Sony A7 Mark II competitive camera. Preferably with some advantage over those products. 

And that just brings me back to lenses: lenses are Nikon's clear potential point of failure. The new cameras need to be good, but Nikon also needs a lens story for the future. 

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