What's Risky?

In a couple of conversations I've had with photographers lately, a specific word has come up a number of times that bears discussing. The word? Risk. 

With Olympus divesting their camera group to JIT, for instance, folk are suddenly worrying about the risk that Olympus m4/3 gear will go away, or at least whittle down to a few products that aren't updated often. Every time Nikon posts a loss (market share, profit, whatever), the Internet goes wild with "Nikon will die" posts that portend that it is risky to buy anything Nikon now.

But it's far trickier than that. Moreover, I don't believe either of those risks are particularly risky. I don't really worry about them, as if there is risk to either, it's further out into the future than I can reliably predict. The real question is what do I do today, and is there any risk in that?

Let's start by identifying what's not risky (warning, this will not be a DSLR love fest):

  • Buying anything Sony E. Sony made their transition years ago, and it's clear that they're all-in for both stills and video. You're not worried about any new mount or incompatibility at this point. Third party support has developed well enough to offer additional options. The E-mount bodies, both still and video, are seeing predictable upgrade cycles. Basically, you can buy into a Sony system and expect it to get better with more options over time. No real risk. 
  • Starting into Canon RF. It wasn't clear before, but it is now and will get even more clear once the Cinema EOS announcements begin, but Canon is regrouping with the RF mount. The R5 and R6 and the ever-growing parade of actual lenses and lens patents have made that pretty clear. The only real risk is this: if there's something you need that isn't already announced, you might not see that for awhile. Canon's got their hands full trying to do with RF what Sony did with E. They can't manage everything at once.
  • Continuing with Nikon F at the high end. The D500, D780, D850, and D6 are as good as we've gotten with DSLRs in their respective categories, basically. The lens lineup and third-party support are pretty complete and full. At the moment it appears that Nikon is still committed to further DSLR development, though we almost certainly won't get as many models iterating into the future. These are workhorse systems that currently deliver and should deliver for a number of years moving forward. The risk, if there is one, is that some feature or performance thing you might desire doesn't become available because a camera doesn't iterate, or doesn't iterate with that function. Also, if there's a missing lens you need—I'm not sure what that would be—it might remain missing.
  • Fujifilm Medium Format. I probably surprised you with this. But we have three cameras and eleven lenses in this lineup already. My sense in talking with Fujifilm executives is that not only are they happy with how the GF line has sold, but that it has exceeded their expectations and they expect it to continue to do so. If there's a risk it's this: Fujifilm isn't going to create an exhaustive set of bodies and lenses. You're going to have to be satisfied with whatever it is they produce and iterate.

That's about it, in my opinion. I have absolutely no problems with anyone putting their money into any of those four choices right now, with the intent of fully growing out a full usable system over time. The Nikon F-mount DSLR is the only DSLR in the bunch, though, and I might not be writing the same thing five years from now (or even three), but I'm still convinced that it's a non-risk for the time being and short term.

Of course, if those are the only unrisky ventures, the rest have to be risky, right? Yep, though there's some variability in the risk. Let me step through them:

  • Canon EF. I think the 1DX Mark III was it. Last of the breed. While, like Nikon, the Canon full frame DSLRs and lenses will stick around for some time, I don't hear Canon indicating that they'll do anything to keep the full frame EFs iterating. Instead, I hear them saying "we'll make 'em as long as people buy them." That throws in a risk: you don't know what Canon means by "continue buying them." At what quantity does Canon say "final call"? Unknown, and it could come sooner than you expect. I don't believe Nikon FX has the same issue. Nikon is well known for continuing legacy products. Heck, Nikon still makes and sells some of their oldest manual focus lenses. While Canon EF is a low risk, it is a risk now.
  • Canon EF-S. Crop-sensor Canon DSLRs are about to die off fast, despite having overpopulated the world first. Canon management has to be thinking "whoa, these aren't profitable any more, how can we jettison them quick"? Canon's—and to some degree Nikon's—biggest issue is the dramatic decline in APS-C DSLR sales, and Canon has the biggest lineup of these sitting on shelves at the moment. The risk here is that they fire sale the remainder this holiday season and start shutting down those production lines. Surely they can't continue to have as many models available as they currently do. But here's the real tell: the last new EF-S lens appeared in 2017. The one before it, in 2016. The last year with multiple EF-S lens announcements was 2014. Here's my assessment of the risk: if it doesn't exist today, it certainly won't exist tomorrow. And much of what exists today also won't exist tomorrow. 
  • Canon M. I've been provocative in my statements about EOS M: it's a dead end. Note that I point out that Canon RF is not risky. Unfortunately, M doesn't play well with RF: you can't adapt an M lens to RF should you move from APS-C (M) to full frame (RF). You can't accumulate an RF lens supply (e.g. telephotos) if you start in M. So the risk is simple to see here: Canon's going to figure this out and offer APS-C RF cameras at some point, probably sooner rather than later. Sony's one-mount-for-all simplicity makes marketing M so much harder for Canon's future. I've begun to think of M's as PowerShots with interchangeable lenses, which most people don't bother to interchange.
  • Fujifilm XF. Before the Fujifilm fans start screaming, let me say that this is low risk. But there's risk. Indeed, the risk here is a little different than the others. The current X lineup is six or seven cameras, depending on how you view a couple of the models. Fujifilm's market share is low, and it's not going to climb much, if any. I don't think the full model lineup they've been pursuing is sustainable. So the low risk thing you need to be aware of is that you end up with a model that doesn't iterate. That doesn't sound terrible, but consider that the X-Pro3, XT-4, and XH-1 all use different ergonomics, and you can start to see that you might be relearning a few things in the future. The meat of Fujifilm's lineup is the X-T200, X-T30, and X-T4. Those models are now starting to conform to a single design style and I regard them as not particularly risky. The other small risk with Fujifilm is lenses. Early on, Fujifilm sought third-party help from Zeiss. Today, Fujifilm seems pretty much go-it-alone. Which means that the lens that you want may not appear. If I had a message to Fujifilm, it would be this: <100mm is covered, the telephoto lineup is sparse and not particularly inspiring. Fujifilm needs more emphasis on telephoto and not-another-basic-prime options.
  • Nikon F-DX. Last DX camera, 2018. Last DX lens, 2017. As with Canon, the biggest downturn in Nikon's ILC sales has come with DX (APS-C) DSLRs. I don't think that the mirrorless DX Z50 being placed right between the D5600 and D7500 is any coincidence, it's a signal. 
  • Nikon Z. Ironically, it isn't lenses that are particularly risky with the Z system. Nikon wisely chose to offer a road map for lens development with the original Z announcements, has (mostly) delivered, and has chosen its stable of offerings wisely. Coupled with the excellent FTZ adapter, Nikon Z users aren't exactly worried about lens risk (other than perhaps how soon ones they favor will appear, or whether we'll see any other DX lenses, buzz, buzz). Nope, it's the bodies that are the problem. As good as the Z50, Z5, Z6 and Z7 are, we haven't yet hit the point where we can fully understand where Nikon is headed. We need to see (1) another DX body, (2) Z6/Z7 body updates, and (3) a top-end Z (Z8 or Z9). The risk for each of those categories is that Nikon doesn't quite go where we expected (or wanted) them to go. I do think that's a reasonably low risk, but it's definitely a risk right now. My hope is that we're about to see a six month period where all three questions start to get answered. Until then? Some risk, proceed cautiously. 
  • Olympus m4/3. Olympus corporate punted. No idea how far upfield the new contender JIT will take the ball. High risk.
  • Panasonic m4/3. One of their teammates punted. Another is complaining (Sigma). Both those things added risk to Panny m4/3 fans. The GH6 is overdue, the L offerings look good but are on the high-priced side fighting against the Canikony dragon. Here's Panasonic's real problem: lenses. They built out a nice full lineup, and one of the partners they could be used on, which helped improve the sales, is a complete unknown in the future. Panasonic doesn't make enough body sales to sustain that big lens line investment. So they either have to up their m4/3 game, or...
  • Panasonic (et.al.) L. Safety in numbers is not very effective if the monster you're facing is really big. It's also not very effective if some of the numbers you might be able to muster are off doing something else (e.g. m4/3 or Varicam). When you think of it that way, you can see that Panasonic really only has one choice: rally around the L mount. Okay, two choices: get out of the business. But that latter won't happen because the professional video side of Panasonic is too big to let fail. Someone at Panasonic is going to need to step and say this: "everything must be L." The GH5 replacement needs to be the smallest possible APS-C L mount camera. The current S cameras need some reconfiguring to make product line sense. The Varicam and pro video guys need to be convinced that L mount is what they need to commit to. If you buy into my logic here you can see the risk: how long is it going to take Panasonic to figure that out and get all the troops facing the same direction? They need a bunch of stuff to happen. New lenses, new bodies, new video bodies. Won't happen overnight.
  • Pentax K. Last we saw them, Pentax was marching the same direction they set off in 2003. ist the wrong direction (see what I did there?). A few cadets that weren't paying much attention have wandered off with them. Every now and again one of them staggers back and asks "what happened while I was gone?" If the world is flat, eventually Pentax will fall over the edge. If the world is round, we may someday see them march by us again. 

Another risk that shouldn't be happening but is, happens to do with accessories. Nikon is a great example. Well, not great, terrible. The lack of CFe firmware upgrades for the D500, D850, and D5 are problematic, as CFe clearly seems to be in Nikon's future. A Nikon DSLR user—remember, not risky—can't be fully sure of what Nikon is doing in terms of cards and buy into CFe—remember, Z's risky. If Nikon's Product Managers don't think customers are savvy enough to see that, they're dead wrong. It's one of the most-oft cited complaints I see from Nikon users. The thinking goes like this: "if Nikon can't fulfill a promise made, and we don't know where future models are going, we can't invest in Nikon products at the moment." 

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