What Would Thom Do (2019 Ed.)?

From time to time I post articles about camera product management from both my perspective as an analyst of the camera market and as a former product manager. DSLRs are at a critical stage right now as we transition to mirrorless. Planners in Tokyo have been dealing with this for a few years now, and I'm sure that both Canon and Nikon have clear ideas on how they move forward.

But let's assume that I was in charge back when those decisions were being contemplated (and that I have the additional benefit of seeing where we are today ;~). What would I be doing with DSLR products? Is that different than what's happening or will happen?

For Nikon, it's simple, and we have precedents that can be used to help the Nikon DSLR user understand what's happening. In particular, I refer to the "s" nomenclature and the transition from SLR to DSLR. The s addition to a model name has historically meant at Nikon that it's the same camera with some tweaks, and this often was done to extend model life. Also, Nikon replicated the SLR line with DSLR models, and as they did so mostly stopped the SLR updates.

You're probably racing ahead, so yes, I think that the future Nikon DSLRs I'd be thinking about would be mostly tweaks, not complete model redo's. Let's look at the lineup and what that means:

  • D6 — This is a bit controversial to some, but it seems like a done deal to me. We typically get new pro generations every four years, and we're nearing that four-year boundary. Personally, I believe that Nikon must update their primary pro DSLR to a new model. It needs to be a state-of-the-art 24mp tuned for performance. Live View has to be like using a Z6 without an EVF, worst case. Maybe we can tweak the mirror and shutter a bit more, maybe we can get even better performance out of the autofocus system (and perhaps even some new options there). I believe Nikon would have started the R&D—including sensor work—on this model prior to making the commitment to move to mirrorless, so I'm sure all the work has been going on for some time. Thus, I want Nikon to finish it. As do all the other D5-using pros out there. Next generation after the D6, sure, make a Z9 that does everything we want. This generation? Make a D6. (See end of article for more)
  • D850s — This is mostly about using firmware and very small additions in function to keep a top DSLR as current as possible. The changes wouldn't be enough to get a D850 user to upgrade, but there are still D800 and D810 users (and others) that haven't made the switch, plus there's the issue of what happens if you total your current D850 and want to get a new one; you'd like it to be as up-to-date as possible. There's declining demand here (due to the excellent Z7), so you don't invest in new sensor or other critical components. You simply round off some rough edges and make small boosts in performance or features where you can.
  • D750s — Here's an instance instead of  "s" where Nikon could add meaningful things and create a new, updated model (e.g. D760).  Just put the Z6 sensor in the D750 body. That makes Live View the same as an EVF-less Z6, a big win over the current situation. It also provides instant upgrades in video and other things. I'd be tempted to call this a D760, but I think that sends the wrong signal, and with all the other "s"s people will think a D760s might appear. I'll stick with "s" naming and make a D750s. Nikon most likely wouldn't, and if we get a new model here, it will be a D760.
  • D500s — Frankly, Nikon's asleep at the wheel here. Either this should have already been done, or a D550 should have appeared, or a Z50 (e.g. a DX Z) should have appeared by now. Once again the D### APS-C bodies are getting short shrift. It's true that the D500 hasn't sold anywhere near as well as most people think it has, but its still a seminal body for Nikon's high enthusiast, and Nikon's own actions have hurt the D500 demand (buzz, buzz, among other things). My guess is that Nikon won't even consider this option, or if they do, it will be so watered down so as to be not meaningly different than a D500. Sad. (If you believe a DX Z50 is coming, the most likely time for it to come would be coincident with a Z9. In other words, the D3/D300, D5/D500 trick all over again. Nikon is anything if not repetitive, particularly on things "that worked".)
  • D7500s — Nikon has one big trick they could pull off here that justifies an "s": simply put the D500 focus system into the D7500. Nikon being who they are, they wouldn't do that unless the D500 "followup" is a Z50, or the D500 goes away. Yeah, I could live with that. Just as the D7200 held serve for the missing D400, a D7500s would be the final serve for the missing D500 followup.
  • D3500 and D5600 — These models, despite being large volume sellers, have to go away and be replaced by what we're transitioning to (e.g. mirrorless). 
  • D610 — Because of the price pressure on entry full frame, the DSLR version would go away and be replaced by a Z5 or some other lower number mirrorless camera.
  • Df — Much like the FM3a, this was a small niche product with a strong internal advocate. The advocate is gone, the niche would be much smaller today, thus this should be a dead end product.

So, as Nikon's newly appointed VP of Product Line Management I'm happy to announce: (1) we'll create the D5 DSLR followup our top pros want; (2) we'll significantly upgrade the D750 and D7500 DSLRs to "s" models by using parts from other, newer products, plus we'll make some small changes to keep the D850 DSLR current, as well; (3) we'll start transitioning DX to mirrorless now by replacing the D3500 and D500 with mirrorless models. I believe these changes give you the best of both worlds: those enthusiasts and pros that want to stay with DSLR will have strong choices in the D7500s, D750s, D850s, and D6; those of you who want to transition to mirrorless have great choices in the the new Z30 and Z50 DX models, plus our existing Z6 and Z7 full frame models (which themselves are being constantly upgraded in ability and performance via firmware).

That's the camera side. How about lenses? We're still missing a few F-mount Nikkors we would be expecting had mirrorless not come along. Thus, I'd announce this: today we're committed to release one new F-mount lens a year for the next five years. We'll select which one based upon user demand for missing or replacement models as well as new technologies and optical formulae we're developing. The first of those will be the new 12-24mm f/2.8E, which will take the well-regarded but aging 14-24mm into new territory. All existing PC-E, AF-S, and AF-P lenses will continue to be offered, and given our history, you know that could be for a very long time. DSLR owners will thus have 48 existing and 5 new lenses to choose from for as long as we can foresee the future. 

In ten paragraphs I've outlined a roadmap for Nikon users (you also have to know what's currently available to understand how it all "fits"). And in two press release type paragraphs I've summarized it. Stay DSLR. Transition to mirrorless. Your choice. The only place where I'd have Nikon forcing the transition to mirrorless as the only option is at the low-end consumer product (e.g. where the D3500/D5600 lived). With fewer parts and alignment procedures, Nikon should be able to make low cost mirrorless consumer models that outperform the DSLRs, so it's a win-win situation at the bottom of the lineup. 

So let's for a moment examine the two scenarios on either side of mine: (a) Nikon runs with DSLRs as they have for as long as they can; and (b) Nikon runs from DSLRs as fast as they can, similar to what they did with film SLRs. The scenario I'd do, outlined above, is in the middle and we'll call Scenario (c).

Scenario (b) is the historic one. Once the D1h/D1x/D100 set the DSLR off and running for Nikon, the only thing they did for film SLRs at that point was to iterate a final pro SLR (F6) and final low consumer SLR (N75). Coincident with the D1h/D1x was the FM3a release. If Nikon were to repeat that transition, we'd probably get a D6 (final pro DSLR) and a D5700 (final low consumer DSLR), and nothing more. 

In Scenario (a) we've got a number of Nikon DSLRs that would get updates on historically predictable boundaries: D6 in August to January, D760 soon, D860 within the year, D3600, D5700, D7600, and perhaps even D620 and D510 also in the coming 12-month to 24-month window.

To summarize:

  • Nikon Scenario (a) — D6, D860, D760, D7600, D5700, D3600, maybe even a D510 and D620. Plus whatever they roll out on the mirrorless side.
  • Nikon Scenario (b) (historical prediction) — D6, D5700; everything else goes mirrorless.
  • Thom Scenario (c) — D6, D850s, D750s, D7500s; everything else goes mirrorless. 

This actually brings up one of the reasons to write this kind of article: Nikon is a creature of habit and one that tends to be extremely anal and cautious in planning. Most of us who have a long history with Nikon watching would bet on them choosing Scenario (b). That's because not only is that what they've done in the past, it's the most cautious approach that keeps them in the "main" game while playing the new one. 

Following Scenario (a) would indicate that Nikon didn't really see the fork in the road, that they just stuck some Z's there just in case the trail went that direction. 

Let me warn you, though. I think it's highly possible that we'll get at least one false clue, and that's centered around the D750. That camera would have been well into upgrade status in developmentland when Nikon decided to green light the Z's. I suspect we could get a D6, D760, and D5700 as the final new DSLRs, therefore. that's something between Scenario (b) and (c).

More than that and we're probably in Scenario (a). Which means that either Nikon sees that there's money that they'd leave on the table by not doing additional updates, or that they're going to continue blindly updating in some way until the market says Full Stop. 

I think now you can see why I propose Scenario (c): there is some money that could get left on the table and you never want to do that if the cost of scooping it up is low, which is why I suggest the "s" type changes for a few models. Moreover, you're giving your customers clear choice and clear warning in my scenario. They'll vote with their pocketbook, and then you know the final answer. It's easy enough to back quickly out of the (c) Scenario if the data says to do so.

Now, on to Canon, which is more complicated, even if things seem a little more obvious at first glance. As I noted in another article on the full frame choices, Canon at the moment seems to be just replicating the full frame DSLR line with mirrorless: 

  • 6Dm2 = RP
  • 5DmIV = R
  • 5DS = future RS
  • 1DXm2 = future RX.

Here's the slide that Canon management keeps showing; see if it makes sense to you:

bythom canon corporate

I believe that Canon didn't do their full frame introductions in the right order (RP should have been first, R second [and better thought through]). But I'm pretty sure an RS will be next and an RX last. So call this the "slow roll to mirrorless" scenario. Start with the low end and work your way up. Of course, as I've pointed out, they botched this with the known R lens set, which has way too much emphasis on what an RS and RX would need to stand out. 

But what does all this mean to the DSLRs? I'd say that other than the 1DXm3 that's likely to show up in the next six to nine months, Canon may be done with mirrors in full frame. Partly because of sensor re-use, partly because of pricing, partly because Canon is overextended with the number of camera models in a contracting market, I just don't see where they'd likely create a brand new 6Dm3 or 5Dm5. Those models would need sensor work to move forward, and that's expensive. Too expensive for a dying market where you're competing with yourself on price (current 6Dm2 price is US$1500, current RP price is US$1300; see what I mean?).

I suppose you could withhold a new sensor for the RPm2 and put that new one in a 6Dm3 first, but that doesn't feel to me like the right thing to do at this point, as it sends the wrong signal to the mirrorless side. Canon's already considered behind on several aspects centered around the image sensor (IBIS, dynamic range, 4K rendering, etc.), so why would you withhold anything from the camera you want to be your best seller (RP) while giving it to a camera that's declining in sales (6D)? 

Things are further complicated by the crop sensor cameras. Really complicated. On the DSLR side the mount is the same (EF, EF-S) and your lenses still work. On the mirrorless side this is not true (M, RF). Unfortunately, the true consumer buying into the Canon lineup with an M model probably doesn't understand that, and that's going to bite Canon on their rear side some day. Here's the labyrinth Canon has created:

  • EF can use EF-S lenses but not RF lenses (DSLR user)
  • RF can use EF/EF-S lenses but not M lenses (Mirrorless full frame user)
  • M can use EF/EF-S lenses but not RF lenses (Mirrorless crop sensor user)

You see what I mean by simple but complicated? 

Personally, I think Canon needs to send an "all-in" message for RF over DSLR at the full frame level. Canon needs more acceleration in full frame mirrorless to push Sony back down. Iterating full frame DSLRs sends a very wrong message (other than the 1DX). 

Crop sensor DSLRs are a confusing story at Canon as it is. We currently have (as of CanonUSA's site the day I write this) APS-C camera/lens kits at US$400, US$450, US$550, US$600, US$700, US$800, US$900, and US$1200, plus the body-only 77D at US$800, 80D at US$1000, and 7Dm2 at US$1400/1800 (yes, even Canon's own site reflects contradictory info due to bundle rebates). Wow, that's a lot of confusing options in the area where Canon is contracting the most in ILC volume. 

As a former product manager, I know why we've got all these up-sell options, but I also believe there simply isn't enough market left to sustain that broad an approach to a lineup. Moreover, Canon's competing with themselves because: US$450, US$600, US$650, US$700, US$800, US$1000. What are those? Why, those would be mirrorless crop sensor models with kit lenses.

Let's put the two together and you'll see why I cringe as a product manager (bold is DSLR, non-bold is mirrorless):

US$400, US$450, US$450, US$550, US$600, US$600, US$650, US$700, US$700, US$800, US$800 US$900, US$1000, and US$1200.

That's just crop sensor camera/lens kits, and doesn't include body only options. If I'm one of the remaining camera stores, I'm looking at that and going "what the hell? You want me to stock 14 crop sensor camera/lens kits that I have to rationalize to my customers?" And which, by the way, tend to have a moving set of instant rebates the dealers can't always keep up with (a common situation is that a Canon dealer ends up getting less money from the customer than they sent to Canon for the box; theoretically, the dealer gets their profit in the future, but Canon keeps slow rolling them and puts them in paperwork hell).

In case you didn't notice, Canon is all-in on crop sensor mirrorless: six models currently available here in the US. The build-up of older models still in inventory completely distorts the DSLR side: twelve models available. Realistically, there are basically five "current" mirrorless crop sensor Canon's, and eight "current" crop sensor DSLRs. Still out of balance for reality, in my opinion.

Canon, therefore, is in my mind due for a complete house cleaning. Here's where my product line management background thinks they should be today, or at least soon:

  • Crop sensor mirrorless: M100, M50, M5, missing M7 (near 7Dm2 replacement)
  • Crop sensor DSLR: update to create SL3, T7i, update to create 80Dm2
  • Full frame mirrorless: RP, R, missing RS (near 5DS replacement), missing RX (missing 1Dxm3 supplement)
  • Full frame DSLR: 6Dm2, 5Dm4, 5DSR, update to create 1DXm3

But, of course, that's only if I think the M/RF lens mount dichotomy works on the mirrorless side, which I'm on record as saying I don't think does. Thus, move that M7 to the RF mount, move the M5m2 to the RF mount. Given that the M50 and M100 are more compact camera styles, only with interchangeable lenses, maybe M then becomes Compact-style ILC and becomes more G-like, while RF becomes SLR-style ILC.

Yeah, that feels icky to me, too. But that's the box Canon has themselves in at the moment. I used the word labyrinth above, and that's what the Canon marketing team currently finds themselves in: a twisting maze of passages. Or it is a maze of twisting passages? [Yes, a Colossal Cave reference]

Meanwhile, Canon lenses are a problem, too. Canon is getting quite promiscuous with mounts: EF, EF-S, M, RF, PL. Given what I've written about cameras, I wouldn't make another EF-S lens, and depending upon how much I moved crop sensor mirrorless to RF, I might not make another M lens (though I might update some). 

EF has to continue, as it's the common denominator between DSLR full frame, mirrorless, and Cinema cameras. RF is pivotal to mirrorless, so it has to continue and evolve fast. 

So who's shoes would I rather be in? 

Nikon's. They allowed themselves to contract and began the reduction of available models before Canon. While there are several options they can pursue in terms of what new models Nikon can iterate, these are all pretty straightforward: begin to de-emphasize DSLRs, while emphasizing mirrorless. 

Canon's problem is that they're all over the map and a smart consumer can see that. It's much more difficult to predict how Canon will work themselves through the labyrinth they've built. None of their product line options are optimal. The potential for contraction in market share is clear, and Canon's not going to like any path that might take them below a 45% ILC share, if even for a short time. 

Unfortunately, that's sort of what caused the current problem: Canon's used price, model proliferation, channel pressure, marketing, and more to try to keep at or near a 50% market share. It's as if the battleship is trying to turn but keep all its guns focused on a fixed target. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way in real life: at some point during a battleship turn, some of your guns can't be aimed at the target.

If I had to bet, Canon is going to lose some ILC market share. They'll continue to push pricing to try to avoid that. Whether they can walk that plank successfully is a question we'll be able to answer in a year or two. Right now, I'd say that Canon's lineup feels dated and confused. That's when I'd tend to order a full on goal reevaluation and restatement, and then rebuild my product strategies and tactics based upon that. 

What strikes me is that Sony has managed to get to a clear one-mount strategy: the E mount serves Sony's crop-sensor (E), full frame (FE), and video (FS) cameras. The A mount is dead. This gives Sony clarity of what to do. Canon doesn't have that clarity. What Canon has is a huge installed base and market recognition. 

Recently, a top Canon executive went on record as saying digital camera volume will drop another 50%. Meanwhile a Fujifilm top executive is saying no, it will grow. Who's right?

Neither, at least if you're talking about ILC (DSLR and mirrorless). We're down to about the 10m unit a year mark for ILC. That's going to drop another 20%, almost certainly (i.e. to 8m units). But not to 50%, nor to 110%. (And interestingly, Sony's Imaging head seems to agree with me, predicting a 20% drop in ILC.)

Assuming I'm right and the Canikony trio attempts to keep their market shares relatively intact, that means something like this breakout is in the near future:

  • Canon 4m units
  • Nikon 1.6m units
  • Sony 1.3 or 1.4m units

That leaves 1m units for the Fujiolysonicax quartet, almost all of which would be mirrorless.

Here are the real things you should be thinking about rather than who has the best cameras and best product strategy: how many camera stores do you need worldwide to sell 8m units? Answer: fewer than we currently have. How much customer support will we get with only 8m units split among seven companies? Answer: less than we get today. Will the repair and warranty situation get worse? Answer: yes. 

Bonus round: About the same time I was finishing up editing this article last week, NikonRumors posted a "what should the D6 be" list. Since people then started asking me, here's my take:

  • 24mp — This is the correct bump in the D# generation sensor pixel counts. Those that use this camera don't really need more than that, but sensor tech has probably moved just enough to get slightly better results with slightly more pixels, and for a camera that has to last you a long time to justify, bumping to 24mp is the correct decision.
  • Live View is Z-like — Here's a tricky one: put a PD set on the sensor for Live View and silent camera use. Equal or beat the Z6 Live View performance.
  • Flip-out LCD — The above means that we need to see the LCD at all angles. That means a tilt/pivot mechanism. And while we're on the LCD, provide all the additional touchscreen capability that we got on the newer DSLRs, too.
  • Communication improvements — Most of you probably don't know that the D5 runs a small, separate Linux OS to power the Ethernet FTP capability. I'd love to see Nikon expand the capabilities of that second OS, and to extend it to run an optional LTE device, indeed, to give us at least a complete NDI (network device interface; and don't forget to completely document this), though some of the newer IP protocols would be better. We have this ability on a lot of pro video cameras now; it's time that we had it on a still camera.
  • WR support built-in — Enough with the dongles. They just make a bulky camera a little more clumsy. Radio wireless support for release and flash should be built in. If we're going to get a plastic area on the body to accommodate the antennas, maybe WT-6 Wi-Fi should be built in, too.
  • Better video — N-log with 10-bit with Atomos enabling is a start, but there are other aspects of the D5 video capabilities that could use some improvement, too. Nikon is slowly getting video right, so make the D5 the statement that it's all there now.
  • Consolidate bank switching — Been on my list for a long time, along with named saved configurations on the card. Given that we can program a button to do PHOTO SHOOTING menu bank switches, why don't we have the ability to even do something as simple as Front Command dial is PHOTO SHOOTING menu banks, Rear Command dial is CSM menu banks. Better would be full bank consolidation (and more banks), and save/restore to named file on card.
  • A rethink of the workflow savers (IPTC data entry, rating, etc.). Right now it's do some before you shoot, some after you shoot, never together. If I shot an image and have a pre-defined IPTC template, I want to review the image and apply Copyright, IPTC, rating, and more together as I'm going through them, not make sure I pre-assigned an IPTC template to what will be shot, and do ratings later. 
  • I'm sure some of you think that more fps or higher shutter speeds are necessary. I don't think so. I'd rather just have faster card support (e.g. CFexpress Type B at 1GBps or 2GBps).
  • Which leaves us with the elephant in the body to finish up: autofocus. Nikon did a great job with the D5. Even today as I write this I'd say the D5 has the most reliable autofocus system with the highest hit rate among all ILCs (assuming a knowledgeable user). Moreover, it's one of the most configurable and controllable systems. More control over AF Fine Tune would be nice (zoom settings). Even more sophistication to the 3D Tracking seems like the place where most users would like work to be done. Could 3D Tracking be better if we simply told the camera ahead of time that we were shooting sports, birds, or events? Finally, getting rid of the line sensors and going all cross point would be useful. Basically, anything new in autofocus has to be an addition in capability, in customization, or in performance, not a redesign.
  • Don't change the body, don't change control positions, don't change batteries, don't change the eyepiece, etc. There's way too much stuff on a D5 that isn't broken. Don't break it.
  • Don't try to reach for 8K video. 
  • Do add all the little touches that were added to the D850 and Z series (things like focus stacking, Diffraction compensation, new Picture Control bits and pieces, added white balance ability (natural light), additional G# CSM settings, etc.

There's not a single thing on my list that couldn't have been done in the near four year interval between the D5 and D6. Would it be a better camera? Yes. Would it be a perfect camera? No. 

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