Nikon Pre-announces the D6

bythom nikon d6

Someone's getting a little antsy in Tokyo. 

Announcing the development of the D6 by press release seems like another of those Nikon "we need to announce something" announcements. The marketing department has always seemed a bit paranoid that if they're not constantly making some sort of noise, they'll be forgotten. It doesn't help, of course, that Sony discovered the "announce every month" tactic as is using it aggressively, even when the actual product timing doesn't quite work out to match the announcement timing. 

Still, it seems that there's a bit of self esteem lacking in Nikon's Tokyo headquarters and that they worry that Nikon pro (and prosumer) faithful take any quiet time as an indication that London Bridge has fallen and it's time to think about a new destination (e.g. camera brand). Unfortunately, a short, five-paragraph press release in which there are no details doesn't exactly say much. 

Moreover, it appears that Nikon finally got around to recognizing that this was not only the 60th anniversary of the F-mount, but the 20th anniversary of the game-changing D1 (a fact that it seems only I had pointed out prior; Nikon missed the actual anniversary by two months).

Nikon's real problem isn't at the top end of their lineup. As I write this, the D5 is still the best action/sports camera you can get (the Sony A9 being a close second, though). As I write this, the D850 is still the best all-around camera that you can buy (the Z7 and Sony A7Rm3 being a close second; I haven't evaluated the A7Rm4 yet). The Z6 holds its own against the third generation of the Sony A7 and against Canon's two mirrorless full frame cameras. The D500 is still probably the best APS-C camera you can buy, despite being hobbled with an incomplete lens set. Heck, the D750 is still holding up well despite being five years old, something that's remarkable in the digital camera realm.

No, it isn't in the high end that Nikon needs more strength, though none of us high-end Nikon users are going to turn down better gear. Moreover, cameras like the D6 (e.g. D3, D4, D5, etc.) don't sell in large quantities. They might have a few months of sales in the 5K unit range before settling down into numbers that sometimes are measured in three digits. Nikon's bottom line won't get any real punch from the D6, though their reputation might.

Which brings us back to point.

Clearly, the Z9 isn't ready yet and Nikon is worried about the Sony A9 or A9 Mark II stealing away some of the long-time Nikon DSLR users. The D6 is basically a statement that Nikon won't stand by for that, though it's a lousy statement with absolutely no details of how that will happen. Whether or not the D6 will hold the fort until the Z9 is ready is a story for a different day, a day after we've had some real experience with a D6 in battle. A day which none of us knows when will happen.

Nikon's real problem is at the bottom of their lineup. Again. 

This is not the first time that Nikon has struggled to hold onto "consumer market" sales. We had at least three episodes of that in the film era, plus some minor lapses in the DSLR era (I'm looking at you D80). 

What Nikon doesn't have at present is a smaller sensor, affordable entry point product line (e.g. DX or APS-C, or something else). On top of that, dedicated prosumer compacts are gone (though Canon and Sony still sell such things), action cameras are gone, and all that's left at the very bottom of the camera line are some reheated leftovers. The Coolpix-with-the-long-lens trick has pretty much played out. I can't off the top of my head tell you the difference between a D3300, D3400, and D3500 (ditto the D5xxx line), which says something about how poor the product iteration in that line was. 

In my article on recent APS-C mirrorless cameras over on sansmirror.com I wrote APS-C is for the masses, who don't want to spend a lot, carry a lot, or set a lot. To that I'd add: and who want to share images easily instantly. That all pretty much defines the cameras that are missing from Nikon at the moment. Call them the Z30 and Z50 (please don't drop everything to all single digit numbers, Nikon!). Something that has all the positive attributes of the Z6/Z7, but doesn't cost as much, is yet smaller and lighter, and gets automation and sharing right without compromising anything else.

That's not a simple task. No one's mastered it yet, though Canon and Sony are nibbling at the edges in different ways. 

Thing is, without establishing a healthy entry base, there's probably not enough upper market (pro/prosumer) to maintain the number of camera brands we have. If the camera market collapses all the way back to the 5m units/year level it was pre-D1, there's simply not enough money left on the table for everyone to keep playing full hands. 

What Nikon's marketing department needs to be antsy about is not whether people know that a  D6 is coming, but whether Nikon has an answer for what happens beneath the Z6 point. 

Aside: Sony didn't really answer that question for themselves with the recent A6100 and A6600 announcements, in my opinion. Despite all the hype, the A6600 is really just a recombination of things already existent in the Sony APS-C line (IBIS from A6500, focus from A6400) coupled with an A7 battery and as high a price as anyone is likely to get from an APS-C camera now. The A6100 is a de-contented A6400, so not exactly exciting, either. The A6xxx lineup seems confused, gadgety, and unimaginative now. 

Meanwhile, the interesting part of Nikon's five-paragraph announcement was a lens. Specifically, that a 120-300mm f/2.8E FL SR VR lens is in development. We never got an updated version of the 300mm f/2.8. It looks like this lens will be what we get instead. If it's as good as the 180-400mm f/4E is, then we've got another winner, though I'd expect this lens to be priced higher than the current 300mm f/2.8. (And no, I don't know what the "SR" stands for, either.)

Frankly, I find "development announcements" to be non-useful. As I've described before they're a form of FUD marketing; an attempt to get you to stall buying decisions when considering alternatives because something "better" might be coming down the line. I've not seen any evidence that Nikon's previous development announcements changed sales any, but apparently the folk in Tokyo have nothing else to do with their time while they wait for new product to come out of the development side.

What Nikon should have done is this: in July on the 20th anniversary of the D1 they should have had a big compendium of how the D# series changed photographers' lives, pointing out all the things that Nikon pioneered in those cameras, and showing off the best photos that were obtained from them. As part of that, then you add "and coming later this year we'll do it again when we introduce the D6." 

MBA students that aren't getting A's in their marketing classes can write better press releases than Nikon did for the D6 announcement. Fortunately, the development team still has top practitioners in it, but they must be wondering why they're paying the salaries of all those non wordsmiths...

Oh, and bonus points for this: the nikonimaging.com Web site is no longer. All those links are now broken and need repointing. We now only have nikon.com (corporate/global) and the individual subsidiary sites, though we do still have nikonimglib.com for some reason. Looks like a make-work project to me, but it wasn't announced that I know of.

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