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A Casual Walk Through the NAB Show

Warning: very long article. 

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The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) trade show in Las Vegas each year is one of the biggest, if not the biggest gathering, of both the world of audio and video practitioners and product producers. While there’s no emphasis on still photography at the show, there are always plenty of goodies that are right on the periphery that still photographers might be interested in. That’s especially true now that all of our DSLR and mirrorless cameras can do video. 

Unlike two years ago, where I had a fixed agenda going into the show and some very specific interviews I wanted to do, this year I took a much more casual approach. I scheduled booth interviews with a few companies you might recognize—Fujifilm, Nikon, Sigma, and Sony—but for the most part I decided to spend my two days at the convention center mostly just wandering and seeing what caught my interest. So what I’ll present here will be a bit random.

I’ll cover product announcements, things that sparked my interest, the Nikon booth, and conversations I had. Each has a boldfaced header to identify it if you want to skip over to what interests you.

Product Announcements
Let’s start with product announcements that are close to the interchangeable lens camera world.

Probably the biggest thing of interest that I could hear buzz about was Apple’s announcement of ProRes RAW, and the companies that announced support of it (Atomos, DJI, and Panasonic being the first; but I’m sure there will be more based upon conversations I had at the show, just no announcements yet). 

The video world is much like the still world: lots of proprietary recording formats, and that’s a big burden on the post processing workflow. In video we often have to transcode what was recorded into something else in order to enable real time editing of our work, and AVCHD type compression is insidious on CPU cycles and not something you want to directly edit. A lot of video professionals prefer to shoot in Apple ProRes compressed or Avid’s DNxHD compressed formats for that reason: both those formats are directly editable on the RLEs like Final Cut Pro or Blackmagic Design DaVinci, and don’t have the same CPU/GPU strain. I’ve edited 4K ProRes on my laptop without it burping.

Having a semi-common raw file is going to impact video workflows, for sure. And this applies to Nikon and Canon DSLRs, where you might be recording to an external HDMI box, like the Atomos Shogun Inferno or Sumo 19, both of which are getting firmware updates to support ProRes RAW. DJI’s Zenmuse X7 camera gets an update to support ProRes RAW next month. Panasonic’s EVA1 also is getting a firmware upgrade.

Of course there’s usually a downside to shooting raw video: file size escalates dramatically. That’s one of ProRes RAW's interesting attributes. If I understand it correctly, ProRes RAW requires a fraction of the data rate an uncompressed 12-bit raw video file would. In other words, it preserves the ability to make big grading changes in post (raw) while giving the size benefit of a mostly artifact free compression (the ProRes part). If that didn’t make sense to you, try this: take a raw data stream and compress it and you have ProRes RAW. You haven’t changed bit depth or color retention or scaled anything. The results are not visually lossless, but it’s highly artifact free given the nature of Apple’s video compression algorithms.

As I understand it, there are two ProRes RAW formats: straight ProRes RAW, which is the data rate equivalent of ProRes 422HQ, and ProRes RAW HQ, which is equivalent of ProRes 4444XQ.

Apple themselves updated Final Cut Pro to version 10.4.1, and that program now has direct support for ProRes RAW files. You can import those files directly and begin immediately working on them (no transcoding). 

If you’re interested in learning more about Apple ProRes Raw, Apple now has a white paper you can read.

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Blackmagic Design announced a new Pocket Cinema Camera, now with 4K at 60 fps. Curiously, the new version of the camera keeps the m4/3 active lens mount, but the camera is now seriously pushing the concept of “pocket.” It’s huge.  That does include a very nice and deep hand grip, but overall this is a big ugly duckling of a camera that looks like it was designed in the 1970s, and with a ton of controls all littered on the right side of the camera (as you’re handling it). 

Out back there’s a 5” touch screen (did I say huge?). Inside we get an m4/3-sized, 8mp sensor (4096x2160) capable of 12-bit raw and thirteen stops of dynamic range. There’s no additional crop this time around, so you’re getting the full width of the m4/3 sensor size. The old Pocket Cinema Camera had an effective 2.7x crop, the new one has a 2x crop, just like m4/3.

The camera records 12-bit CinemaDNG Raw or 10-bit Apple ProRes 422HQ. Blackmagic has changed from Nikon EN-EL20 batteries to Canon LP-E6 batteries. As usual, Blackmagic Design isn’t leaving much off the specs: in addition to the usual 3.5mm stereo microphone jack there’s a mini-XLR input with phantom power, something you don’t find in a lot of the low-end gear. Another example: you can hang an external SSD off the USB-C port and record directly to that! Tripod socket (1/4” thread) mounts show up on bottom and top of the camera, though I’m pretty sure I’d either want a cage or hot shoe instead. Yes, I know that the top screw mount can be useful for securing a cage, but for run-and-gun use I’d rather have a cold shoe, I think.

The camera has both a CFast 2.0 and a UHS-II card slot, can be controlled from Bluetooth, and includes a full copy of DaVinci Resolve Studio (normally) US$299. That last part is the way the Blackmagic Design folks are justifying the price increase, by the way, since the new US$1250 price is just about one Resolve Studio away from the old price. The old Pocket Cinema Camera stays in the lineup at US$995.

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In person the new 4K Pocket Cinema Camera feels decent in the hand, though I’m not at all convinced about the way the buttons and controls are strewn about or how cables will interact with holding it. I need more time with the camera to evaluate that. The big touch screen is nice, though. Yes, you can shoot stills with it, though it definitely didn’t feel optimized for that. 

If you’re used one of the URSA cameras from Blackmagic Design, you’ll feel right at home with the on-screen interface, as it’s the same thing (Blackmagic OS). 

What Blackmagic Design didn’t exactly announce is availability. Only “later this year.” The whisper date is September, but BMD often has trouble getting things to final production on their expected date.

bythom sony fs5ii

Sony announced the FS5 Mark II. This is a very serious video camera, but it uses Sony FE mount lenses, so it’s very relevant to Sony A7/9 mirrorless shooters that also want a pro-grade, dedicated video camera in their gear set. 

All of the Mark II changes appear to be internal. Body size, style, layout is the same as the original (a dial changed color). Inside, we get new picture profiles and color science taken from Sony’s Hollywood high-end product, the Venice. Sony made specific claims about more accurate skin tones, so that alone is something the serious video shooters will be looking at closely. You can now shoot four second bursts at 4K/UHD and 120 fps internally (or 240 fps continuously in 2K raw). We get a new Instant HDR workflow. Plus the Mark II incorporates all the other for-purchase firmware upgrades that Sony produced for the original.

The original FS5 will stay on the market at a lower price (without the firmware upgrades that expanded recording options, of course). Shipments for the Mark II will start in May, and the body-only price is US$4750.

Others I talked to after the Sony announcement on Sunday were underwhelmed. Not a lot of tangible changes that are instantly promotable. Personally, I think this is exactly what you do to protect key products: even if you don’t have those exciting and innovating new feature things that get all the Internet hype, you want to continue to keep your products right at the level of what you know how to do. By now having a lower-priced version of the same product, you also distribute your sensor costs over more sales, helping everyone. (And as I reminder, this is exactly the kind of update that I would have suggested for the D5 and D500: make sure all the latest stuff is available in the key models as an “s” upgrade; the D850 has features and refinements not in the D500, for instance.)

There were plenty of new lenses at the show for the cine side. I’ll be adding these to my databases as I get time. None rose to the level that I feel I need to highlight them here (other than a couple, below), but trust me, cine lenses are popping out of the woodwork everywhere.

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Caught this fully automated tripod/head from Edelkrone wandering down the hall. There booth is over there… (I think he got asked that a lot)

Things That Sparked my Interest
One question I get asked a lot is “which monitor should I get?” I have to admit to not having a strong answer for that, as I’m using a Retina 5K iMac these days and I just don’t tend to pay a lot of attention to what’s new in the monitor realm.

But I decided to pay a little attention to monitors, because the NAB show is a good place to see many of the high level monitors that cross over into serious photography use. I’ll cut to my short answer: NEC, HP, and Eizo. Realistically, if you’re looking for something that is pro grade and reliable, you’re not going to go wrong with the right monitor choice from one of those three. 

bythom hp dreamcolor 27

And it so happens that HP was showing their brand new Dreamcolor monitors: Z27x G2 (shown above), and Z31x G2 (27” and 31”, respectively). These have built-in and schedulable color calibration, basically resolve the DCI-P3 color space (same as Apple is doing on the Retinas), and are really nice in terms of all the other bits and pieces (firmware upgradeable by built-in USB, for instance, and yes, HP has been updating the Dreamcolor monitor firmware regularly with new features and capabilities—I even managed to suggest one such thing that the product manager I talked to is going to bring back into the development team, since it will be easy to make that change). 

The 27” sells for US$2000, the 31” for US$4000, a really good price point for monitors this good and with so many features. I spent a fair amount of time looking at them, and was impressed. 

Meanwhile, Eizo was showing a new ColorEdge CG319x monitor (31”) with many of the same attributes, and just as impressive. Including DCI-P3. But no availability date and price yet. 

Hmm, so maybe we should talk about DCI-P3? 

Introduced as a standard in 2007, DCI-P3 is very similar to AdobeRGB in terms of the size of the color space. It’s virtually the same size, it just adjusted to coloration standards that have long been growing out of the digital cinema side: all current digital cinema projectors use the DCI-P3 space. I’ve written about the differences before, but the primary difference between DCI-P3 and AdobeRGB is that DCI-P3 extends a bit further into the reds, AdobeRGB a bit more into the greens. Not really enough difference get concerned about.

But here’s the thing: DCI-P3 won. I see almost no one targeting AdobeRGB any more in the monitor industry. Apple picked DCI-P3 for all their display technologies, even the laptop I’m writing this on. And it’s becoming more clear that the biggest and most interesting monitor companies are doing the same. The bottom line is this: DCI-P3 is a perfect match for display technologies, even Hollywood ones, and it’s a fairly close match for print technologies (and certainly better than sRGB). 

So to expand on my short answer before: pick an NEC, HP, or Eizo, and make sure it is 98% or higher on the DCI-P3 color space compatibility. I’m pretty sure that if you calibrate properly on one of those, you’ll be happy (and that’s despite Lightroom using the larger ProPhotoRGB color space).

Moving on. 

Tokina showed new 11-20mm t/2.9 Cinema ATX and 105mm f/1.5 Vista lenses. The Vista adds to the existing 18mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm prime set and provides the fastest t/stop we’ve seen at 105mm, though it comes in at a hefty US$7499. The primes are all full frame capable, by the way.

Meanwhile, the 11-20mm gets the same cinemafication treatment that the older 11-16mm gets, complete with fully geared rings and very visible markings. The 11-20mm costs US$1999. Both lenses arrive in September.

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Sigma also has cinema versions of the 14mm and 20mm Art lenses I reviewed last week.

Sigma showed me their three latest lenses. The 14-24mm f/2.8, of course, is deeply of interest to Nikon DSLR users, as it represents a less expensive way of getting to that third fast zoom in the triad. In the context of a show you can’t do much, but like the other recent Art lenses, the build quality seems high and appropriate. 

Yes, I asked about where the new 70mm macro in the F-mount is. The Sigma representatives seemed to believe it’s coming, but they couldn’t actually confirm that. The old version is a wicked sharp lens and a great macro choice if you need that focal length. The optical formula in the new versions is exactly the same, so it would be nice to have the build quality improvements and the electrical aperture control. I asked Sigma to try to verify that the Nikon F mount version will finally appear, so hopefully I’ll get that answer soon.

Last, we have the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art. It’s like a miniature 200mm f/2: huge front element and front presentation, a really densely-packed lens that has heft to it. Again, not really a place to shoot with it, but I’ll be reviewing it as soon as I can get around to.

Finally, the winner is…

Wait, what was the race? 

Last time I was at NAB doing a full booth-to-booth walk (two years ago), we were at the Thunderbolt 2 to 3 transition, and it was messy and many vendors weren’t certain of the exact future. Well, they all seem to be sure now. 

Virtually every drive, NAS, SAN, RAID, card reader vendor I talked to was fully committed to Thunderbolt 3 at this year’s show. All in. Some of them will also sell you the same basic product in USB 3.1 form, but they pretty much all want to sell you Thunderbolt now, and they all point to the performance differences of a full throttle Thunderbolt 3 versus USB 3.1, even Gen 2. 

That certainly wasn’t the case two years ago. While the promised speeds of Thunderbolt were enticing, the licensing fees, technical details, and the awkwardness of the generation transition pretty much had all the vendors telling me that they weren’t sure Thunderbolt was the future. It was also unclear if anyone other than Apple on the computer side was really committing to Thunderbolt 3. This year? Thunderbolt 3 is the future. Or wait, it might be the present now. 

It didn’t matter who you asked: Thunderbolt 3 with USB 3.1 Gen 2 fallback. Rugged drive for the outback? LaCie Rugged RAID Pro. 2/4/6/8 bay desktop RAID? Pegasus, Akitio, OWC, et.al., all have you covered.

The Nikon Booth
Okay, you all wanted to know what Nikon was showing in their booth, so let’s do the walkthrough. It’s a wide but shallow booth. At the left end as you face it is a glass case with most of Nikon’s lens and accessory products in it (no 180-400mm f/4; more on that in a bit). The basic trade show “see we’ve got a lot of stuff” presentation, complete with signs indicating that the case was under 24-hour surveillance (a lot of implied dollars sat in that case).

In the middle of the booth we had a faux demonstration of how the Mark Roberts’ Polycam solution works for European soccer. There are multiple cameras doing face recognition to locate players and their position on the field, even as they are moving, and then that position information is conveyed to the remote D5’s to follow them. I asked about other sports, but right now the system is designed and being used for soccer only, it seems.

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I’m standing just to the left of the presenter’s stand (note the time reminder on the floor at right).

On the far right side of the booth the presentation speakers are wedged in behind the big track robots from Mark Roberts (Nikon subsidiary). I watched poor Joe McNally having to try to produce excitement for his presentation over the robot wall in front of him to where those who came for the presentation were situated. It was definitely an awkward arrangement, and felt very “tagged onto” the booth. Or maybe it was the Roberts stuff that was tagged onto the booth. 

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Nikon’s full-page ad in the daily news publication from the show.

Out in the lobby area outside the Central Hall Nikon has one of their robots set up with two additional cameras where you could get your “dance” recorded. The main robot was set up for doing a number of moves and slo-mo passes, and to record the whole 10-second or so thing to video that you could download immediately.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Hey Thom: go record a dance move. 

Do you folks actually know me? I’m so bad at that I’m almost certain that anything I did in front of the robot would go viral, for all the wrong reasons. So you’ll have to just watch their demo reel instead.

Okay, now on to the conversation at the Nikon booth.

Yes, I asked about the XQD to CFexpress transition. See the Conversations section, below, for more on that. 

As it turned out, Nikon didn’t seem to know that the button+AF Area On+joystick control on the D5 was broken with the latest firmware update. That message is now headed back to Japan, and hopefully we’ll get that fixed. I also pointed out a couple of other things that users really want in the feature set that should be easy to deal with. We also talked about the new Focus Shift feature in the D850, and it appears they’ve already heard that they need a final focus point option as well as the initial point one. 

While there were no answers for some of my questions—and I didn’t expect any—we did have a long, good conversation. I believe we re-established the dialogue necessary to funnel useful information back and forth with corporate. 

Meanwhile, as you probably know, the 180-400mm f/4E is basically sold out. Nikon had exactly one at the show, and they were keeping it handy for the one-on-ones, not over in the glass case. I find it difficult to believe that NikonUSA was surprised at how well it sold. From a pragmatic pro’s point of view, it’s one lens that covers a lot of potential ground you might normally carry multiple lenses for, and it’s small and light enough that it can be handheld. I would have bet that there were more than enough NPS members who would instantly pick it up, and it appears that’s exactly what happened.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a lens that you just crank up the production line for. If Nikon underestimated demand as it seems they might have, this lens is going to be trickling in to stores for quite some time and tough to get.  

I couldn't leave the Nikon booth without one pushback. We talked about the D850 Filmmaker’s kit, obviously. Nikon claims that this is targeted at entry filmmakers. Hmm. That didn’t seem right to me. I was carrying my D7500 with me at the time, so I picked it up and pointed to it and said “this is the camera that should be center of an entry filmmaker’s kit." The audio accessories that are in the current kit are much more at the level of the D7500. The D850 really needs to be a higher-end, serious video kit, with upgraded audio and lenses that can be focus pulled.

So when we got to that topic, Nikon basically suggested that I just use a third party one, with no recommendations. As I pointed out, what we want if that’s how video manual focus is addressed by Nikon is that Nikon “do it right” themselves. They said they’re not really in the accessories business; I pointed to the accessories sitting right behind us in the glass case. They said they don’t really do that sort of thing, but…in that same glass case was a cutaway view of the Polycam housing from Roberts with a 70-200mm that had, yes, you guessed it, geared rings for zoom and focus. 

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I mean, I love the video capabilities of the recent Nikon DSLRs in terms of image quality, but Nikon really needs someone on staff that is advocating for populating the rest of the lineup with the right accessories to support that.  Solve user problems, not create them.

As I pointed out to the Nikon execs, that’s one reason why I loved the Mark Roberts acquisition: solving user problems is exactly what MRMC does. We need some more of that spirit to spill out of the UK and back into Japan.

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Don’t want to pay the big money for the Nikon Polycom or Bolt solutions? Something a little more suitable for most of us is the Syrp Genie II. With all the goodies, you can autotrack down the slider, pan and tilt. All externally controllable just like the big Nikon solutions. Ikon will sell you similar capabilities for zoom and focus. If you haven’t figured it out yet, automation of things we used to have to rig manually is all the rage right now. 

Conversations
I also had a long discussion with the founders of ProGrade Digital cards at NAB. To remind you, ProGrade was formed by former Lexar executives when Micron sold off their consumer card division. 

bythom prograde

ProGrade already has state-of-the-art UHS-II SD and C-Fast cards on the market, but the question they (and I, and everyone else) keeps getting is about XQD cards. As I’ve noted before, the follow-up in the XQD technology line is something called CFExpress. CFExpress comes in exactly the same form factor (size, shape, connectors) as XQD and uses the same PCIe technology, so two questions come to mind immediately.

First, why isn’t ProGrade making XQD cards? The answer I got is that there are Sony-specific licensing fees and license issues involved with XQD, which they didn't want to have to deal with for what they think would be a very short term solution with little volume. 

Second, can I put an CFexpress card into a D500, D850, or D5 and it works? The answer to that is no. That’s particularly frustrating because ProGrade is publicly demonstrating 1TB capacity, 1400 MBs (1000MBs+ write) CFexpress cards. It seems they’re ready to roll just as soon as there are devices that can take advantage of it. That card, by the way, is Type B format with a two lane PCIe, which is the same as XQD. CFexpress allows for four lane and eight lane PCIe, as well, for even greater speeds.

So, the next question that comes to mind is this: can Nikon create firmware updates that would allow the XQD cameras to use CFexpress? Both the ProGrade executives and I believe the answer to that question to be yes. Thus, the ball is in Nikon’s court. Obviously, I asked Nikon directly. The answer to that was NikonUSA doesn’t currently know if it will happen or not; they’d need word from Japan about that. 

I pointed out that at PhotoExpo in NYC late last year someone from Nikon NPS was quoted as saying it would happen, but the Nikon executives I was talking to weren’t aware of that (I sent them the exact quote via email so that they can investigate). I also urged them to seriously get some sort of answer out to customers, even if it was “we’re in the process of seeing if it can be done at the quality level we demand of our products.” 

This led us into a longer discussion of reality versus perception. In reality, Nikon has the best products out there in almost every category they participate in. In perception, Nikon users are worried about quite a few things, including the future of the XQD cameras they bought. I think they understood my point, and I hope to hear back from Nikon soon with some message about what’s happening with XQD.

Back to the 1TB CFexpress card that was being demonstrated by ProGrade: while many might want the ProGrade CFexpress card being demonstrated for its capacity, what I really want it for is to speed up workflow. A 1400MBs read via an appropriate reader into a Thunderbolt 3 computer connector would mean all those images I’m shooting get from my camera to my computer much faster. Ridiculously faster.

While I’m on the subject of ProGrade, they already have UHS-II V90 SD cards on the market. These have write speeds of 200MBs and sustained reads of 250MBs, and that V90 rating indicates that they can keep up with video cameras at a 90MBs rate, which is what you need in some of the latest cameras, such as the Panasonic GH5s or AU-EVA1.  These new cards come in 64, 128, and 256GB capacities with a three year warranty, and are available now. 

The other product I’ve asked to try from ProGrade is their High Speed Workflow Card Reader. This small box handles SD UHS II and CFast 2.0 cards and can transfer data to a USB 3.1 Gen 2 computer at up to 1.25GBs (obviously, that’s for CFast; SD is going to run at the max speed of the card). The box comes with both Type A and Type C cables, plus has a magnetic base, which is interesting (you can hang it off the back of a MacBook Pro). And yes, no word yet on a version that’s SD and CFexpress, though they did a lot of wink wink nod nod bits as we tip-toed around that subject. Given ProGrade’s focus on state-of-the-art professional in card technology rather than consumer grade and back-filling lower grade items, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new reader appear the minute CFexpress is really up and running on any camera device.

Meanwhile, over at (the new) Lexar I’m pretty sure that the question you wanted me to ask them is “where are the XQD cards?” Here’s your answer straight from the VPs: Lexar is now out of stock of all XQD gear they inherited from Micron (including work in progress inventory), and so is B&H and Adorama, et.al. Lexar’s new owners have now dealt with all the licensing issues with Sony and have restarted production in China. According to Lexar, they didn’t get any of the tooling from Micron, so they’ve had to build out their factory new for XQD support. But it won’t be until at least June that you see new inventory show up. Apparently this is just-off-the-press news. They weren’t going to invest in and start a new XQD production line until they had the licensing deal in place. They’ve got the licensing now, so they have started the new line.

Now that last bit—and ProGrade’s reluctance to do XQD—might tell you a little something about the behind-the-scenes game going on. Micron easily produced XQD cards (under the Lexar name) because they had a patent portfolio they could leverage against Sony’s. Apparently, to produce an XQD card you not only have to follow the standard, but you also need patent licenses from Sony. Pay to play, baby.

Still, all of you worrying that there is only one supplier of XQD should be able to relax a bit. Things will likely return to normal this summer when Lexar returns to the market with cards. And no, they wouldn’t tell me details like price and capacity. 

Oh, and by the way, Firewire is dead. Done. Toast. Nothing but ashes. 

Here’s what I was told by multiple vendors: they simply can’t buy Firewire controllers anymore. When they run out their current stock of parts, any Firewire device they are making will have to be end-of-lifed. So those of you hoping to keep using your old Firewire drives on new and future docks for your computers, I’m sorry to dash your hopes, but it’s time to move on. 

Never offer the press a free lunch at trade shows. We’ll show up! Actually, when I got the invite to see the Digital Projection Insight Laser 8K close up and in action, I was interested even without the lunch. 

Just as a reminder, 8K is 33mp. Your D8xx and A7r stills are ready for 8K displays as it is (remember Nikon promoting 8K time-lapse with the D850 even though it wasn’t actually in the time-lapse function but just a series of stills?). I was highly curious to see what well curated content looks like on state of the art projection, so I signed up for this small event hidden off in the bowels of South Hall. I’m glad I did.

First, here’s the projector:

Insight LASER 8K-small-with-symbol

It’s a big behemoth and you don’t want to ask about its current cost (six figures). Nor do you want to ask about how to get video content into the thing, as it needs a firehose of front end. I’ve looked around a bit after this presentation: what we were looking at was pretty much state-of-the-art for projection right now.

And wow. Here I am looking at the presentation (220” diagonal screen). 

bythom digital projection 8K insight

The CEO invited us to get close and look for pixels and structure in the output. You’re not really going to see that. I could see pixel structure sometimes in some of the low light samples where moving noise patterns were the giveaway, but not in well lit and well exposed material. That’s actually pretty incredible. At one point I was probably 12” from the screen looking at the display closely. The example above may look like it might be impressive, but it was one of the least impressive content they showed because it was created from a digital zoom and I could see the bicubic resampling aliasing. Still, wow.

So here’s the message to all still and video shooters: up your game. Seriously. Up your game. I could easily see even a pixel of chromatic aberration, any focus miss, diffraction impacts, and even some really minor flaring of point light sources. This projector just revealed any flaw in the 8K content. And, of course, they were showing carefully selected content, so there weren’t that many flaws to find, but boy do you see them if they’re there. 

I’m not sure all of my best content would survive such intense scrutiny. I’ll be working to up my game. 

This brings up the subject of pixel peeping. Yes, there’s a reason to do that. If you’re seeing crud at pixel peeping levels, it’s not going to survive being projected by the Insight 8K. If you think you’re at the top of the still or video practitioner tree and you’re seeing crud down in the pixels, you’re not at the top of the tree. And that will be revealed as outputs get better.

So, just a reminder: Japan is highly focused on making the 2020 Tokyo Olympics the widespread launch of 8K. It won't be mainstream consumer by then, but the chances that you’re going to encounter an 8K display are going to be high by then, and getting higher. 

Final Note
If I had been in a coma for the last two years and woke up to walk this year’s NAB show, I would have guessed that we’re in an economic recession. The South Hall is not full, and parts of it are partitioned off. Companies that usually couldn’t afford to be in the main Central hall (or close to it) are. A cab ride over took less time than usual, even though I did that very close to show opening time. The badge stations didn’t have long lines. Other than a few booths with something new and exciting (e.g. Blackmagic Design), booth mobbing was mostly minimal (Canon, Panasonic, and Sony were exceptions, but they’re the main players); it was easier to get from one side of the show to the other this year. I also saw fewer people wearing suits (fewer broadcast and media executives seem to be here this year). The list goes on.

I’m not sure what that’s all about. I came in on the weekend because of a couple of early press conferences, and strangely Friday and Saturday night didn’t have that usual weekend night Vegas feel, either, let alone a pre-convention weekend night feel. It just didn't feel as crowded as usual here in Sin City, though this is truly a casual observation.

For NAB, some of the slowness is probably due to the fact that we’re off cycle for big things. Two years ago we had many big things percolating through the tech, such as 4K HDR and all the changes to VOIP. This year, there doesn’t seem to be anything like that at the show driving attention, let alone possibly rising up near term. Some things, like Lytro’s pivot into the most super-duper Hollywood camera we’ve seen, are now dead.  It’s too soon for 8K video, there aren’t any new broadcast standards changes of note happening, and of course there’s the whole cable-cutting thing going on, too.

It very well may be we’ve hit Peak NAB. That said, it’s still a huge show, and there’s no way I saw more than a bit of it. 

Finally, the candidate for most amusing message sent to the press during the show: "We are looking for media to help us release press. Please help us release the press if you are interesting about the it.” Consider the press released.


Yesterday's Fool Page

If somehow you missed my April Fools' joke, you'll want to see what the main page of bythom.com looked like yesterday, so click here before reading on.

April Fools' day is for playing practical jokes and attempting to spread hoaxes on the unsuspecting. Those work best when there's an element of believability in them. Apparently I succeeded. Wildly so. Dozens of you wrote to me about my "switch" to Sony, my teaching assistant was asked if he was also going to switch, and forum posts on other sites popped up announcing my switch. 

And that's the topic of today's point about Nikon. The fact that so many people believed that I was switching to Sony is a problem for Nikon. Yes; read that sentence again. Think about it a moment. 

Why would people actually think I would switch to Sony? Because their perception of Nikon is that Nikon has fallen behind in some way, isn't providing something they want, and doesn't have a future (doh! don't read my other article today ;~). 

I should point out that there were a couple of people who thought I was "switching for money." They assumed that I'm subsidized in some way by Nikon (!) and that Sony had made me a better offer. I'll repeat for the umpteenth time: I'm not in this for money, I have no relationship with Nikon other than being a member of their NPS program like pretty much every other Nikon-shooting pro, and if someone did offer me money to be a spokesman of some sort, I'd disclose that right up front.

I've been writing the following for a long time: Nikon has a customer perception problem. They make the best-in-class DSLR in every class. Yet their market share even just within DSLRs declines. How can that be? Well it be because Nikon's marketing is mostly non-existent, non-functional, and non-performing. Nikon certainly isn't spreading the word outside the converted about how good those Nikon DSLRs actually are. As you may have noted from my D7500 review, Nikon doesn't even seem to have a message in response to the Internet frenzy that condemned them for feature removal (from the D7200), yet the camera itself is clearly better than its predecessor. 

Nikon's customer perception problem is amplified by all the cutbacks the company has been making. Some of that becomes an additional problem. Last week I had two people send me an email about a "problem" they had with their new camera and Nikon customer support not being able to respond other than say "send the camera in to be checked." But in both cases, it was a clear misunderstanding by the customer about something, not a camera problem. Those cameras would have gone back to Nikon, been examined, and nothing would have been found wrong with them if I hadn't corrected that customer's knowledge about something. In essence, that would have been a real dollars out-of-pocket cost to Nikon coupled with not appearing to solve the customer's problem. Double whammy. 

You can appear to cut costs (customer support training that would recognize what the problem really was), yet actually increase your costs (unnecessary repair time and shipment costs). In most businesses, what happens when the accountants get power is this: things that don't have an income line (customer support) get cost cutting ad naseum. While things that do have an income line (repairs) get far less pressure as long as the bottom line is positive. Why are camera manuals so poor? No income line, all cost. Why is support so poor? No income line, all cost. The list goes on and on. 

It doesn't actually matter much which perception problem we talk about with Nikon—no prosumer compacts, no updates for CX, no complete DX lens set, apparent non-iteration of new models (D3400, D7500), no competitive mirrorless option, no road map, little visible marketing, etc.—a perception problem is always a huge liability for any company. 

That people were immediately willing to believe my April 1 post that I had switched to Sony—despite all my hints, exaggerations, and even a hidden easter egg—is due to people's perception of Nikon, not to my excellence as a writer of deception. 

Sadly, no one in Nikon's Tokyo HQ seems to understand the extent of their perception problem. Most of the talk I've heard about centers only around what's the right product specs to get people's attention. Yes, it will take a well-specified and executed product to get attention, but there's a friction of discontent that Nikon will be surfing against no matter how good the next product is. That friction grows with each passing day we get no announcements, and with every negative perception boost that comes along. 

This is all playing out against a different set of problems Nikon has: they haven't actually written down the China plant and the collapse of Coolpix, Keymission, and Nikon 1 yet, and thus bad financial news still looms over the organization as they get ready to announce their fiscal year results in early May. They've tried to paper over the problem with dividend increases and other small short term success messages, but anyone paying close attention knows that Nikon has a longer term problem that they haven't yet reversed in their Imaging business. 

To all of you who enjoyed the April 1st post and sent me messages about it, thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. To all those that didn't get the joke, let's hope Nikon does something that bolsters your perception of them soon.


The Upgrade Situation

In doing some basic end-of-quarter bookkeeping, I noticed something in my data, which triggered me to run a quick, deeper analysis: virtually all of the D850 Guide purchasers I'm seeing have purchased a D800 or D810 Guide from me in the past. 

Now on the one hand, this doesn't surprise me. The D800 to D810 to D850 progression has been one of the best camera iteration sequences we've ever seen. The D8xx camera got significantly better at every iteration, enough so that it felt like and shot like a different camera each time. The D8xx sits at the top of the line for all but the dedicated pros needing a speed camera (D5), so it appeals to users who want the best. These folk are not (currently) Last Camera Syndrome users as far as I can see. They're active, serious, enthusiast and pro practitioners. 

Still, we're talking about people who are willing to pay the minimum equivalent of either US$660/year for a camera (D800 upgraders) or US$1100/year (D810 upgraders). That's not peanuts. 

That's not what puzzled me, though. What puzzles me is the lack of new to Nikon users I see in my latest data. Indeed, even new to D8xx. There aren't as many newcomers I can identify in this round as I've seen in the past. That's problematic, because when you don't add to your base you eventually start a slow decline. Even upgraders moving from lower end Nikon bodies now seem to be only a small part of my data set for the D850 Guide. 

The implication here is that if Nikon users have stopped (or at least slowed) moving upwards—the original D800 triggered one such rush I can clearly see in my data—and non-Nikon users switching to Nikon's top camera have also stopped appearing, thus we've pretty much hit peak upgrading for Nikon. To maintain the revenue stream from the D8xx line, Nikon will have to update the D850 in late 2019/early 2020 with another compelling upgrade, because it's mostly catering to the already converted.  

As I noted in my D7500 review, that camera is the eighth in Nikon's key line of serious enthusiast cameras at a popular price point. Nikon let the perception be that it didn't make a compelling upgrade to the D7200 with the D7500 (even though I believe the truth to be different). I can track the D70 to D80 to D90 to D7xxx sales. The D90 was the peak upgrade in that progression. The D7200 held serve over the D7000/D7100, but it's unclear yet that the D7500 is doing so over the D7200. 

Nikon's management has talked about "targeting high-end," but what I see in the sales and upgrade numbers is this:

  • D3 series was the peak for the top camera. D5 selling lower than D4 series.
  • D850 is holding serve, as did the D810 (and technically D800 over the D700).
  • D750 is basically a one-off entrant at the moment; there's no update data.
  • D6xx is similar to the D750, but I can see that it's sales are way down over time.
  • Df was another one-off; fairly low sales numbers, and very front-loaded in time.
  • D500 isn't going to sell as well as the D300 series, even if they sell for as long ;~).
  • D7500 isn't currently out-selling D7200. The D7200 held serve.
  • D3400 and D5600 aren't holding serve: volume is down from predecessors despite sales.

Take off the bottom bullet, and that's Nikon's high end. The products that Nikon says they want to emphasize moving forward. Note the one thing I didn't write in any of those bullets: clearly outselling previous models. That's the thing that worries me most: Nikon's bean counters may think that this is just the price to pay for being past Peak DSLR, but I see it differently: I'm not seeing any strong influx of new customers to Nikon, but rather an outflow that started out weak  a few years ago and is now growing. They need to change that and turn things around, frankly. Otherwise we'll just continue a slow progression of decline in unit volume. At some point, that will trigger additional write-downs and that will only increase the rate of decline. 

Olympus went through something very similar to what is happening at Nikon. At one point early in the century, Olympus was the number three seller of digital cameras (compacts, ILC, everything); and yes, they outsold Nikon in unit volume. That didn't last. Olympus slowly wrote off non-performing assets and downsized while trying to maintain the higher end models. The Olympus mirrorless group now needs about 500k units a year to keep in the black, and they've been right at that mark for the last couple of years. But they're not growing. 

In Silicon Valley culture we call that a Zombie company: not growing, but not cash poor, so able to basically to continue to walk around looking alive. But in terms of ROI? Basically zero, sometimes negative, so it's tough to change the Zombie fate as no one wants to put more money into zero ROI. 

I certainly don't want to see a Zombie future for Nikon. But for Nikon not to suffer the same fate we're going to need to see something change, and change sooner rather than later. The Coolpix and low DSLR feeder system is broken. There's no "Switch to Nikon" message out of the company (let alone a well-marketed reason why). Bean counting decisions, as was made on the D7500, just generate negative friction that the camera then has to overcome (and again, no well marketed message coming from Nikon to do so). And then we have the non-existent DLs, the choking of CX, no new mirrorless plan in evidence, and more. 

Management in Tokyo appears to me to be locking in a future that isn't great for us Nikon users. Yes, we'll certainly get good D6, D870 (or D900), D550, and D7700 updates, plus a small handful of excellent new FX lenses. And that will keep most of us loyal Nikon DSLR users around and upgrading when they do it right, just as they have with the D8xx series. But where's the upside in all that? There isn't one.

Nikon needs an answer that restarts growth. It's not that they haven't been looking for one. They've just been looking for it in all the wrong places (KeyMission, anyone?). We're half way through a RomCom movie and our protagonist is making all the wrong decisions that keeps them from getting what they want. Will we get to Act 3 and the happily-ever-after result, or are we actually watching a Tragedy?

Short term there are few simple things that need to happen:

  • Never cripple an upgrade, as with the features that were removed from the D7500. 
  • Always keep to cycle with all upgrades, as has been done with the D8xx. The missed D5s and D500s mid-cycle refresh are worrisome in this respect.
  • Push an upgrade to the D750. ASAP.
  • Re-attract those serious DX users (D7500, D500) that won't stay without more DX lenses. Show DX some lens love, ASAP.
  • Launch new mirrorless, whatever it is, with a clear road map. Personally, I think new mirrorless should be the new feeder system, as the DSLRs aren't broken (or topped by mirrorless) at the moment.

Nikon still has a feeder/switcher problem longer term. If all Nikon tries to do is hold on to as many of its 10m+ loyal users as possible, the future has a clear ceiling on it. Nikon again needs some better products that catch new users in the lower price ranges and feed them upward, and it needs to convince more people to switch to Nikon than are switching from Nikon. 

So Why's it So Quiet?

Well, for me, I've got 20 lenses sitting in the office needing testing. There's a ton of work to be done there, so if the industry is quiet, I'm going to be a bit quiet as I stare at test charts. 

So why's the industry quiet?

bythom cipa product intros

The above is the chart of new product introductions that CIPA shared at the beginning of CP+ earlier this month. Compact cameras? Yeah, less than a quarter the peak. DSLR and mirrorless cameras? Despite all the Internet frenzy over each new mirrorless camera intro, we're down to about half the introductions we saw at peak. 

Lenses, though, are headed up a bit, as the change in mount positions is keeping the glass blowers busy. 

bythom cipa lenses

Note that the "SLR" category really is mostly about lenses for the Canon EF and Nikon F mount. The "Non-Reflex" category is lenses for Canon EF-M, Fujifilm, m4/3, and Sony FE mounts. I would interpret the increased activity in mirrorless lenses as proof that a lot of the mirrorless camera sampling is turning into long-term users. 

How are the camera companies staying solvent? 

bythom cipa averageprice

By making fewer cameras, but more expensive ones, basically. The overall market value of cameras and lenses sold from Japan in 2017 increased over 2016. But certainly there are players that are hurting more than others. Nikon, for instance, has been swinging and missing with new initiatives lately, and I'm hearing that the write-downs are going to be bigger than previously suggested (they might not all occur in the current fiscal quarter, either). 

The world economy, which had looked like it was finally starting to coalesce around market growth everywhere, now has a tariff fight brewing. Just to be clear: tariffs are effectively a tax on the customers in the country imposing the tariff, and those "taxes" subsidize companies, not individuals. Taxes generally tend to increase wage demand, higher wage demand that is acted on increases inflation, more inflation lowers sales of disposable goods like cameras. And the Japanese camera companies are already trying to sell you higher-priced product. [One reader pointed out that I was oversimplifying; inflation isn't a given as the consumer might just go without discretionary items. True in all points. For a photography blog, I have to oversimplify macro and microeconomics, unfortunately.]

This is a Photokina year, which usually means lots of new product activity. But I think when we look back at the year, the number of new cameras introduced will once again have dropped from the previous year. And DSLRs will be one of the biggest categories in terms of drops. 


Are You a Filmmaker?

bythom d850 filmmakers

Why is there a single shadow below the bunch of items, Nikon? [NikonUSA product shot]


What to make of the new D850 Filmmaker's Kit? First I wanted to see what Nikon themselves said, so I looked for their press release on this new bundle. There isn't one at NikonUSA, though there's a dedicated marketing page for the bundle.

Right up front I have to say: Nikon has no idea what to call something that records continuous motion. In the cameras we have the term "movie," in Nikon's marketing the term is suddenly "filmmaker," but what we really get is video. That alone tells me that there's a disconnect within Nikon about what it is they're doing. At least someone in marketing gets it: "create amazing videos alongside your photos." Yeah, video.

The D850 takes very nice video up to 4K UHD, and at full frame, not a crop. I'm actually pleasantly surprised at the video I get from the D850. Not perfect, but really quite good, especially recorded externally in ProRes HQ (as the Atomos can do). Moreover, the D850 not only restored the Atomos protocols for external HDMI control, but even brought that out as a camera setting. Thus it's no surprise that Nikon's bundle includes an Atomos Ninja Flame. 

Not shown in the photo above, and not called out unless you read the fine print, the Atomos actually comes with some things that are optional (the HDMI cable needed, an additional battery, and a powered docking station). What isn't mentioned is whether you get the AC adapter. It also doesn't appear that you get the travel case that comes with the Ninja Flame when you buy it separately.

It's in these weeds of details that I think Nikon shows the fact that it doesn't quite get "video" yet, nor quite know how to put together a truly compelling bundle. Can I actually record some video with the kit Nikon sells? Well, not quite. You get a caddy, but no drive to record to. Are you going to let Nikon AF those lenses? I hope not; Nikon's Live View AF does that little over-and-back thing when it re-establishes focus on something, and that's annoying in video.

Given that the included lenses run focus from near to infinity in a bit less than a quarter turn of the focus ring, it's tough to nail focus pulls (Nikon suggest touchscreen AF, but see what I wrote above). You'll need a third party grabber to help, and even then these aren't the lenses I'd want to be using for video. Note that they're not t-stopped, and that means exposure change when changing lens in the same lighting/scene. You really try to avoid exposure change in video because even small misses make it more difficult to cut footage together.

How about those mics? Nikon says "Simply connect the ME-W1 wireless monaural microphone to the ME-1 to record stereo sound." Uh, what? Turns out that you do the opposite and plug the ME-1 into the ME-W1 receiver, then "quickly press the power switch twice when turning the receiver on." I'm not sure I'm going to remember that nuance every time I go to record video, and you'd be doing that every three hours when you replace batteries in the ME-W1. Nikon claims that you can then "mix" the sound, but the D850 can't really control individual channels, only the pair together, so technically the mix is not yours to make.

What's more interesting is that Nikon's Ambassadors didn't seem to get the message on the way to use the ME-1/ME-W1. In the video on NikonUSA's site, we hear that we should plug one mic into the D850, one into the Atomos Ninja Flame. So which is it, Nikon? 

Nikon also says that the unit comes with foam inserts that fit a Pelican 1520 case. But you don't get the case, only a cardboard box. So, "ultimate DSLR video outfit," No. The ultimate outfit would be complete, as in "shoot video out of the box."

I mean, I get it. Nikon was able to throw some stuff they had together with a Ninja Flame and create "a new product" that seems to take them into a new realm (filmmaking? movies? video!). But I think we need more from them.

Thing is, Nikon has always done pretty good video in the DSLRs since they pioneered it in the D90. But it's as if they don't quite know what they've done. We get consumer-oriented mics (and the in-camera amps aren't exactly pro grade, either). We haven't gotten a single lens that would be truly useful for video (and t-stopped). The Custom Setting #G components are not particularly extending the camera customization into video very far. The whole "power aperture" thing shows just what a mistake it was to take the aperture ring off the lenses. 

Let's see if we can do a little better. Here's my "bundle."

If you're going to start with a D850, great, it'll do fine 4K video. Let's build out the rest of the kit you'll need to do the best video possible (caution: all links are advertiser links):

  • Atomos Ninja Flame. I have absolutely no quarrels with Nikon's choice here. But get it with the G-Technology SSD kit. There are also 512GB and 1TB versions if you think you're going to be recording a lot of video. You're probably also going to want to get the Atomos Power Kit; video consumes lots of power.
  • Video lenses. A reasonable low cost set is the 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm t/1.5 Rokinons
  • Audio. Beachtek, Marantz, and Saramonic all make XLR-based mixers that are better than what the camera can achieve, and support phantom-powered mics should you need to. Let's keep things on the low cost side and pick the Marantz PMD-602A. It's dual channel, can be mounted to the camera if you want, and it can output to the Ninja Flame (preferred) or the D850. For mics, a Rode RodeLink Wireless for talent, a Panasonic AG-MC200G for on the camera (with a shock mount cage).

To this add your own choice of headphone and carrying case. Without those last two items, the above will set you back US$3700, but you're be ready to shoot. You spend a little more going this route than Nikon's bundle, which I think was Nikon's carefully selected point (along with selling some Nikon accessories), but I think you're better equipped to get the most out the video the D850 can create going my route. The lenses are t-stopped, have long focus throws that are well marked and are geared, the lenses have aperture rings that can be declicked for seamless video aperture changes, and the audio will be far better in quality (less noise, for one), and truly mixable. 

Thom's D850 video add-on bundle wish list at B&H, this site's exclusive advertiser. If that link doesn't work for you (it doesn't appear to work on all browsers), go to your wish lists, look for the search box, then search for D850 Video Bundle. 

Now, I'm not really trying to get you to jump over the B&H and buy all this gear. I'm trying to point out that Nikon's cutting some corners here. You can certainly create good video with what Nikon provides (once you buy some drives for the caddy), but the D850 is a pro camera, and the D850 Filmmaker's Kit feels more not-quite-clued-in-vlogger in level, and you have some difficulties you'll have to overcome to get great video.

To give Nikon some credit, the MOVIE SHOOTING menu and the way it's now being handled is a solid first step in getting over into the video world more solidly.  And Nikon sometimes surprises us there: the D7500, for instance, can do full DX video in 1080P and 4K, or it can do a 1.3x additional crop for the same. Now that's kind of useful (and relatively unique among the ILC cameras). 

But we need more. Nikon needs to have some of the junior optical staff create a few true video lenses from the f/1.8 line. Improve the audio amps. Change the autofocus technique with video to avoid the over and back. Lots of little things.

Dixie Dixon is dead on correct in the Unboxing video on Nikon's site: "on pretty much every job we do, we are now expected to shoot or direct short videos." Yep. That's what's happening with us pros: we have to do both stills and videos for the clients willing to pay us at the levels we need to stay in business. 

I want to see Nikon embrace that more. Oh, and do those clients ask us to shoot film with our stills? Nope. Video. Get the distinction now, Nikon?

Your To-Dos for Nikon

As usual when I ask broad questions like I did in last week's article, I got a lot of specific answers.

But let's start with some of the broader suggestions that came in first. Here are your To-Do's for Nikon in 2018:

  • Become truly global, break the only-Japanese barriers. Here's the arguments I got: The folk both doing the designing and making the decisions are all in Japan. They're kept insulated from actual customers for the most part. The Japanese auto makers eventually figured out that they needed more regional input, and it paid off for them. All true. But even just looking within the camera industry, I see the Canon and Sony executive and design teams more often out in the field than I do the Nikon ones. Ultimately, to be a global company you really do need global outreach, and more than one responder mentioned this.
  • Fix SnapBridge. It was #4 on my list, but it's clear it's on many of your lists, too, and often the primary ask. "All I want is an easy way to mark a photo or photos to be sent to my iPhone" and then have that happen quickly and without all the unwieldy stuff that SnapBridge generates. A number of the SnapBridge fix suggestions also point out that it needs to talk in infrastructure mode, too, which I agree with. Likewise, many of you want SnapBridge to work with Camera Control Pro, too (which would require infrastructure mode). 
  • Go Mirrorless. Number 1 on my list, and on many of your lists, as well. Indeed, so much so that many of you had indicated that you were already sampling other vendors, or had leaked already to a different company's mirrorless product. Given the audience I write for, it shouldn't surprise you that most of the "get a mirrorless system out" requests were for full frame, and they all want full legacy support. And most of those also demanded a lens road map so they could understand how Nikon would prioritize lens development for any new mirrorless system. People want to know where the F-mount is, and where it is going.
  • Fill the DX lens lineup. Buzz buzz folks. I guess I should have expected that to come back at me since I've written it so many times. So why wasn't it specifically called out in my To-Do list? Because I see the Nikkor lineup as oddly shaped now no matter where I look. It isn't just a DX problem Nikon is starting to have. It's a bigger issue: what lenses should Nikon be making and why?   
  • Fix radio flash. This was a multi-parter. But the primary thrust was on how horrible the WR-R10 idea is (I tend to agree). A simpler approach could have been done with the hot shoe itself, and wouldn't be as fragile as the 10-pin connector solution (I've already broken one WR-R10, and I'm sure I'm going to break a 10-pin connector on a body at some point). Where's the SU-800R? And one person whose email to me talked about fixing radio flash also wondered why we don't have Speedlights that take an EN-EL15. Yeah, why?

Now for some of the specific requests:

  • 18-180mm f/4 VR DX. Thom's comment: probably not. It would be as big as the 70-200mm f/4 FX. Lenses that cross over from wide to telephoto end up with the size/weight characteristics of the telephoto end, and tend to have to compromise a lot to get there. A 10x zoom will be highly compromised. 
  • Slower, more pancake-like FX primes. Thom's comment: I think that Nikon thinks they already have this with the very old 20mm f/2.8, 24mm f/2.8, etc. The problem, of course, is that these lenses aren't all that good on the current high-end Nikon FX DSLRs. Moreover, these and even the f/1.4 and f/1.8 primes Nikon has produced have this tendency towards "slow-to-focus." Which seems strange. That has to be a design compromise they're making with the new primes, and it makes you wonder why the f/1.8 primes weren't done with the low-cost AF-P type motor in the first place.
  • 24-70mm f/4. Thom's comment: Yes!  Particularly if designed with compactness in mind. As many of you know I'm using the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 on my D810 for some things, and it's workable, but a constant aperture would be nice.
  • CX revival, DL revival. Thom's comment: I was a bit surprised how many went this route at first, but then I thought about it and found that in some way it mimicked something that I believe Nikon really needs to do: create a compact camera that's clearly Nikon. Nikon, like Canon, tends to pull content out of the lower end models, even when there's no cost advantage to do so. It's the old HiFi CES product line approach so as to create pricing tiers. But that's the opposite of what the true Nikon enthusiast wants. If I want something that's not so contented, I can find plenty of pocket and small compact cameras I can choose from. What I want is what the DL's promised to deliver: a smaller product with a smaller sensor that still has all the Nikon "magic" in it. Lossless Compressed, full Picture Controls, great WB setting, good ergonomics, the high-end touch/tilt screen, interval shooting, and so on. I really don't care if that comes with a well designed V4 or a NewDL18-50 (no, not DL24-80). But right now I and many others are using a competitor's product. 
  • D500 followup in body with fixed vertical grip, D7500 followup just ups into the old D500 point. Thom's comment: long-time readers will know I've suggested this before. Again, look at the auto makers. How much has a Corolla grown over the years? It's a really natural followup to take a satisfied user a little more upscale with a product iteration. It also would have solved the "why did you take that out" problem with the D7500, as you wouldn't have to take anything out at all ;~). 
  • Lenses for video. Thom's comment: I almost wrote something about video in my 2018 Nikon To-Do list. I didn't because Nikon has bigger problems to solve first. But ultimately, Nikon needs to either be in or out with video. The fence straddling isn't helping them. 
  • 200mm f/4E Micro-Nikkor VR. Thom's comment: it's almost criminal that Nikon has ignored the outdoor macro crowd for so long. Yeah, I know that Nikon seems to be able to convince more people to buy a 60mm, which isn't particularly useful as a 1:1 lens (or worse still, a 40mm DX version). But for a company that claims they want to defend the high-end, they're not defending it!
  • Paid NPS. Thom's comment: I've written before that Nikon is paternalistic, and this is one of those things. Nikon I'm sure feels that this is their gift to a handful of their customers. But those of us who are working professionals don't want a gift, we want well-guaranteed service, access to the support we need, occasional loaners for special projects, and we're willing to pay a reasonable sum for that. Nikon's NPS policies mean you have to "qualify" and pass an armed guard for their gift. Canon's CPS policies mean that you only have to apply (and pay for higher levels). Big difference.
  • Matching slots. Thom's comment: sort of a double-edged sword as we're talking mostly about XQD here, and XQD clearly has no support other than from Nikon and a vestigial bit of Sony. But yes. Match my slots if I get two. (And to you other camera makers laughing out there, you need to match the speed of your slots; I'm looking at you Sony.) Moreover, I still don't understand why we have cameras with USB ports on them that I can't plug a USB drive or device into and just download directly to. Oh yeah, I do, the camera makers are worried about power. Okay, make me something like the WD MyPassport Wireless SSD (it has its own battery) and let me plug that into my camera. The Copy function is already built into most Nikon DSLRs ;~).
  • More PF lenses. Thom's comment: I think they're coming. At least one more, maybe two or three. I'll give Nikon a little slack here as this is not simple engineering to get right, and there's still a price/quality barrier they are awful close to with present technology. But yes, the 300mm f/4E PF is a great lens, and unique. And it sells decently. Why you wouldn't want to make more variations on this I don't know.
  • Meet demand on new products. Thom's comment: again I'll give Nikon a bit of slack here. You don't want to get into a "ship massive amounts on day one then shut the factory" type of situation (that's an exaggeration, but I think you'll get my point). But there are two components that I think Nikon could improve. First, the whole regional serialization bit is problematic. Nikon can't shift inventory once shipped to a region. Second, Nikon hasn't done a good job of setting expectations or communicating what is actually happening.
  • Think like a customer. Thom's comment: this was followed by "has Nikon ever done that?" I do wonder just how much management drinks their own Kool Aid. Is top management just a bunch of older guys that sit in offices managing a company that makes things, or do they actually get out and use any of those things themselves? There have been examples of the latter. Goto-san was not only behind the Df design, but was a dedicated Df user. 
  • Fix the D500 battery issue. Thom's comment: this is a bigger problem than that, I think, and Nikon really needs to be forthcoming about why there's a difference here. There also appears to be a deeper and likely related issue: there's at least one way that all the D5 generation cameras, including the D5, can be triggered to go into an indefinite state, and then the only method to fix that is to remove the battery and put it back in. There should be a team on figuring what exactly is going on and fixing this issue, and I'll bet it's power related.  

Finally, I got a lot of "ship has already sailed" comments. In other words, it probably wouldn't matter to those folk what Nikon's 2018 To-Do list actually produces, they've been turned off as a customer. The good news is that a few of those "ship has already sailed" comments were about DX, and those folk went to Nikon FX. But they still had a To-Do list ;~). 

A common email I get these days is "I have to confess I gave up on Nikon a few years ago..." followed by a reason or reasons (lack of DX lenses, missing camera iterations, no mirrorless, customer service, bad quality control, etc.). I got more of those with my request for Nikon To-Dos. 

So perhaps there's a bigger To-Do that should be on Nikon's list: win the customer back. Develop products, programs, and services that make a Nikon customer truly happy with their choice of vendor.  

Nikon To-Do List

This is the time of year that Nikon does a lot of reflection. They've just posted their big top-management promotions, they're looking at what will be the final numbers for their fiscal year (ends at the end of this month), and they're currently deep into discussions about what they'll announce in May as operational and management goals for the coming year. Typically, Nikon would have also made their big product announcements for the year at this point, but we all know that didn't happen.

So let's come up with a To-Do list for Nikon for their fiscal 2019 (April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019). Instead of the "pennies and heads" statements we tend to hear from Nikon (e.g. "we'll cut costs, we have a new management directive"), let's tackle this list from the customer point of view. 

Here's my to-do list for Nikon:

  1. Launch a new mirrorless product. This new product needs to be compelling in some fashion. We also need to understand what the future holds for Nikon's mirrorless initiative, which means that not only do we need a great product launched, but we need a lens road map, and probably even a more general mirrorless road map. Quite frankly, the marketing aspects of this launch are much more important than the actual product definition, which is almost certainly the inverse of Nikon's usual launch tendency.  Let me put it succinctly: lots of buying decisions are riding on what Nikon does here. I've got a huge stack of emails from people saying "I'll see what Nikon is going to do, then make my decision about whether to buy a Fujifilm or Sony mirrorless camera." Not a small stack. A really huge stack. Nikon's faithful has given the company some benefit of the doubt, but they now realize that they have credible options, and are ready to go with them if Nikon doesn't have the right product for them and say the right things.
  2. Return momentum to the lens lineup. Nikkors have been made almost by formula for quite some time: start no more projects than result in four to six new lenses a year; mostly updates of things already done; be reticent to go far from the established line. NikonUSA's lens database shows 99 (!) current Nikkors you can get. Unfortunately, 24 of those are near duplicates or older models of newer lenses, and 12 are still manual focus lenses held over from over five presidents ago. Another 6 are pre-digital holdovers (e.g. the f/2.8 primes). Which means there really are only 57 current and unique Nikkors on the market at the moment. That's decent, but it doesn't represent a lot of change in the historic average, and that has to cover two user bases, DX and FX. Moreover, there are tons of lenses needing updates (the 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor, for example) and lots of holes in the DX lineup. The seven (!) 50mm options have to be a cruel joke of some sort considering that all of them look terrible on a D850. Thing is, there are gems in what Nikon has done in the last ten years (the 70-200mm f/2.8E and the 300mm f/4 PF come to mind quickly). But they feel few and far between. It just doesn't feel like there's a lot of energy coming out of the optical side of a company that is celebrating 100 years of optical excellence. 
  3. Drop the CES approach and adopt a high tech approach. This needs a bit of explanation. The traditional Japanese CES (consumer electronics) approach has been to build boxes and sell them. Those boxes never get updated, they get replaced with next year's model. The high tech approach is to ship early and finish features/performance in updates. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses. But notice that Fujifilm is getting raves for using the high tech approach even when they've shipped something that probably was more a beta product, while Nikon is getting blasted for being late and lame with any firmware updates to address real problems (AF-P VR function, anyone?). If you think you're using the CES approach, you believe you're done with a product when you ship it. Everyone's moved on to something else, and thus, should you discover you need to fix something in the product that shipped, there's no one around to do it. Late and lame will be the fix. Which brings me to:
  4. Fix SnapBridge. Right idea, wrong implementation. Worse, it's in every product now, and it's making some products feel wrong in at least one aspect (e.g. D500, D850 battery performance). Even the D7500 has at least five different menu items associated with SnapBridge (more if you add the i button and some other nuances). Nikon has concentrated on making the initial connection simple and easy. And they didn't really get that right. The current implementation just adds more handholding steps and explanation text, it doesn't make the connection quicker or more reliable. Nikon also isn't tackling SnapBridge from the customer's view. The customer says "I want to send this picture I just took to my Instagram account." Nikon says "use SnapBridge." While technically correct, that doesn't help the customer figure out how to do it. Moreover, once they've turned SnapBridge on, they wonder why battery life is getting sucked out of their camera, and they can't exactly figure out how to stop that. Airplane mode doesn't always do what people think it should. This is a mess, but the way it gets fixed is:
  5. Begin thinking more like a customer. Indeed, I'd go further and say that Nikon needs to do much more to engage and embrace customers. Nikon needs to hear about customer perception and problems directly from the customers, not through sporadic sloppy surveys, tons of intermediaries, and via lots of informal translation.  Nikon tends to be paternalistic. Yes, there's a knowledge database on the Nikon Web sites, yes the Ambassadors go around to trade shows and give talks, yes customer service will attempt to answer your question if you call them. But it's all "the customer has to come to Nikon and then accept what they're given." There's really no customer engagement. I won't publish the exchange I just had with a Nikon employee, as his email makes the claim I can't copy and publish it—almost certainly without legal authority here in the US, but that's his company's wish, so I'll follow it—but it was rude, non-responsive, and indicated no willingness to listen or learn from a customer whatsoever. How do I feel as a customer? Ignored and unappreciated. Is that the way Nikon wants customers to feel? And remember, I'm a customer who happens to talk to and engage more than two million of Nikon's other customers a year.
  6. Get the marketing engine working properly. I can't begin to count the number of Nikon employees whose business cards have the word "marketing" on them. I've got dozens of such sitting in my Rolodex. Heck, given how many have the title of Vice President of some such aspect of Marketing on them, there could be dozens of VPs of marketing walking the corridors in Tokyo. And yet, marketing seems to be a persistent problem for Nikon. I stopped asking to get on a press release list years ago, because it just never happened, despite constantly asking (Canon, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony have me on their lists, by the way). The only Nikon marketing employee that has ever reached out to me about something I wrote was a Nikon Europe manager. He corrected something I wrote, I investigated, I rewrote my piece. Gee, is that the way it's supposed to work? ;~) Or take the D7500. Boy did it get slammed on the Internet when it came out. Mostly because Nikon's marketing did little to correct the impression that the camera was a step backward from the D7200. I'll be reviewing the D7500 shortly, and my review is actually going to be quite positive. Indeed, at times I felt like I must be using a different camera than the Internet perception was describing. That's Nikon's fault. Marketing is about creating, maintaining, and moving customer perceptions. 

The funny thing is that Nikon knows how to create great products. The D5 is the best autofocusing camera available. The D850 is the best all-around camera you can currently buy. The D500 is the best crop sensor performance camera available. Even the consumer DX models are better than their competition when viewed head-to-head. The 70-200mm f/2.8E sets new standards for telephoto zooms. The 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P surprisingly isn't far behind; it certainly sets a standard for consumer telephoto zooms. Many of the recent primes—the 105mm f/1.4 comes to mind—are exceptional lenses. 

In other words, the engineering teams at Nikon are still making really good products. You'll notice I didn't put "fix engineering" on my to-do list, other than the SnapBridge bit. 

I also didn't put "embrace third-party products" on my list, though if I were in charge at Nikon I certainly would be attempting some variation of that. Why isn't it on my list, then? Because I know that Nikon sees themselves as all proprietary all the time and they aren't about to make the change to open eco-system any time soon. If you're not going to do it, it shouldn't be on your to-do list ;~). 

Being proprietary does, however, mean that those other things on the list become more important. That's because Nikon and Nikon alone is responsible for how things end up at the end of the year. 

So let's crowd-source this a bit. Send me your Nikon to-do list for the coming year.

The Post CP+ Wrap-Up

I'm doing things differently this year. Rather than write about products introduced before or at CP+ individually, I'm going to report mount by mount (Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K). That's the way most users think about their systems, and it's the best way to learn about which systems are progressing quickly and which are not.

What products go into this report? Any product launched between the start of the year and the end of CP+. Why? Because this is traditionally one of the most active periods during which the Japanese camera companies update products (the other being late summer/early fall, with another blip in spring).

For mirrorless cameras see the related article on sansmirror.com.

Canon EF, EF-S Mount
Canon seems to be all-in with the DSLR at the same time as being mostly in with their nascent EOS M mirrorless series. What do I mean by that? Canon's extended its DSLR lineup downwards with more entry-level focus recently, much to the surprise of many. They're happy to sell you an entry mirrorless (M) or an entry DSLR (Rebel/Kiss/D). They don't overly care which one, as long as theres a C at the start of the brand label on front and the box is red/white.

Here in the US and most of the world we got the meh entry-level 2000D/Rebel T7, while in Europe Canon busted out an even lower-priced and more meh 4000D at the price of 380Euro (body only, which is less than US$400). As others have noted, that 4000D is the lowest price DSLR we've ever seen at launch (we've seen entry DSLRs hit that price point with sales, particularly at end of generation). 

Unlike Nikon, Canon seems to think that one way to keep DSLRs relevant is to make them imminently affordable. It's interesting that Canon's ILC unit volume has not really slipped recently, but Nikon's has. Nikon seems to be backing away from entry DSLRs, particularly considering the cold iteration and reception the D3400 and D5600 got. 

Ironically, my sources in Europe tell me that Nikon just isn't selling many low-end DSLRs there, yet here we have Canon just blasting away with an entry lower than Nikon's. Which is likely to increase Nikon's pain.

Thing is, I think this is a mistake by Canon. Why? Because they basically have made a complete stripper model of their basic Rebel line, and it clearly shows. It's not differentiated enough. I don't think it's just price that is the driver for these low-entry cameras. Size is as big a factor. By recycling the basic body and many inner workings to save R&D money, Canon has created a somewhat un-compelling product that's small on price, big on physical size. The 4000D really needed an SL-like physical downsizing to go with its downsized price to be truly interesting.

Meanwhile, Canon has been quiet on the lens front for the moment. Fortunately, the third parties are subbing in with lots of interesting items:

  • Samyang — 14mm f/2.8 EF AF, 50mm f/1.2 XP
  • Sigma — 14-24mm f/2.8 Art, 70mm f/2.8 Macro Art, 105mm f/1.4 Art
  • Tamron — 70-210mm f/4
  • Tokina — Opera 50mm f/1.4

That's seven very interesting optical options for EF mount users and only four of those are also available in Nikon F mount. 

Nikon F-mount
Nikon is so quiet in camera introductions recently that it's almost as if we should go do a building check to make sure that something horrible hasn't happened to the engineering staff. 

The last body offerings were seven (D850) and ten (D7500) months ago, and Nikon had their "quietest camera year" that I can remember in 2017. Nothing matches this silence out of the body factories in the digital era, not even the year with a quake, tsunami, and flood.

That's probably the most disconcerting thing for Nikon users. The at best lukewarm D3400, D5600, and D7500 iterations, coupled with no Df, D610, or D750 updates, coupled with no mirrorless iterations or additions have left most Nikon users thinking Nikon only makes D500, D850, and D5 cameras. And as I've pointed out, Nikon really needed modest D500s and D5s updates to help keep those two models in the front of everyone's minds.

Frankly, Nikon's habits with firmware kind of emphasize that upgrade neglect. Yes, we got a plethora of firmware updates recently, but only to make a number of bodies "compatible" with all the recent AF-P lenses Nikon has been making. Sadly, these updates were mailed in, just like the D3400 and D5600 camera updates. The number of bodies that can turn the VR on and off for the DX AF-P lenses is still the same number as before the set of firmware updates. 

That's dysfunctional. Nikon wonders why their lens sales are down. Well, the perception of the Nikon faithful is that those latest AF-P lenses just won't work on their current camera body. I get many emails a day on this subject.

It's not really true that these lenses are "incompatible", particularly for the most interesting of the bunch, the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-P FX version. Still, perception is everything in marketing, and Nikon's fumbling around with firmware isn't helping perception at all.

Note to Nikon: Every camera that's E-type compatible should be fully AF-P compatible, including being able to set VR on and off on the DX lenses without a switch. That would be basically all the post D3/D300 cameras. Anything less is just suicidal and indicates to us close observers that Nikon doesn't have a strong controlling hand that is trying to rationalize a complete camera/lens lineup.

Meanwhile, Nikon did one better than Canon's zero in this period in terms of releasing new lenses: the Nikkor 180-400mm f/4E with built-in 1.4TC. Of course, that's a lens most of us can't afford, and it really only brings the 200-400mm up to snuff with the Canon version,. Still, that's a very desirable spec and a lens I wish I could try.

As noted above, the third party lens makers did a bit of skipping when it came to the F-mount. Here's what we did get:

  • Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 Art, 105mm f/1.4 Art
  • Tamron 70-210mm f/4
  • Tokina Opera 50mm f/1.4

Unlike in the Canon mount, we Nikon users already have had exact equivalents to those two Sigma Art lenses, and great ones at that. Ditto the Tamron. Which really makes the Tokina the only interesting new option. Particularly since Nikon has pretty terrible 50mm lenses (all seven of them! Though one is only a change of band color ;~). So terrible that Nikon themselves don't recommend any of them with the D850. 

But this "fewer Nikon F-mount intros than Canon EF mount intros" thing is a seriously concerning bit. Nikon's insistence on going it alone and providing zero third party help is now isolating them in ways that show in the market. Four new options versus seven is not insignificant, particularly when we're not exactly getting a flood of new Nikkors.

Now I happen think that every one of the Nikkors that Nikon has introduced in 2016 through the present is a really good one, and many are absolutely great (the 105mm f/1.4, 70-200mm f/2.8E, 19mm f/4 PC-E, for example). But there are definitely gaps and lapses in the lens system that need addressing, and if Nikon isn't going to do that, we need third party support to do so. And this CP+ season it seems clear that those third parties are putting more energy outside the F mount than before. Canon EF and Sony FE mounts got much more love from the glassblowers. 

Be careful what you wish for, Nikon. Being 100% proprietary has consequences. And you're starting to feel them.

Pentax
Pentax's big news was a II, as in the K-1 Mark II. As best I can tell, this is the K-1 with three changes that customers might get somewhat excited about: (1) pixel shift shooting without a tripod, (2) better noise reduction; and (3) improved AF algorithms. I can't speak to any of these things, as they are all performance related and a unit hasn't been made available to me to test yet. 

Still, those all seem like they could be "finishing up work on things we wanted to do but weren't able to do before original launch." In particular, the noise reduction pipeline step was acknowledged by Pentax as not being quite ready when the K-1 was first produced, but appeared shortly thereafter with other cameras.

I really want to like Pentax, but they're moving at old glacier speeds and with very few products. The original K-1 was a really solid camera at a decent price, but not near state-of-the-art for autofocus performance. 

The biggest K-mount news, though, was that Pentax will upgrade anyone's original K1 to a K1 Mark II for US$550 (500Euro), but only between May 21st and September 30th. A physical upgrade is apparently necessary because the noise reduction part of the new features requires a new logic board.

I have to applaud Pentax for minding their previous customers here. If I were a K-1 shooter, I'd be very pleased with the upgrade offer. When you're the smallest fish in the big pond, customer retention is important, and Pentax seems to have figured that out. 

Final Words
Canon gets a passing grade, barely. Nikon gets an incomplete, as they apparently forgot to come back in from recess. Pentax gets a gold star for effort. 

The first month CIPA numbers don't look good for DSLRs (red circle, right chart). Worst start to a year in recent past. 

bythom cipa jan2018


Moreover, the trailing year numbers show that DSLRs are still very much on the decline: 16.2m, 13,6m, 10.5m, 9.6m, 8.4m, currently 7.5m. It seems clear that DSLRs are still in free fall with customers, and nothing any of the three DSLR camera makers did in the first months of this year is going to change anything about that. 

I'm surprised that Nikon didn't at some point produce a "DSLRs are better" campaign. It's probably too late now, given that their next new camera will likely be a mirrorless one (actually two). And the lack of protecting the D5 and D500 with modest but important updates to retrigger the marketing with a two-year cycle is telling.

Nikon doesn't seem to know what they're doing. That's on a corporate level. On a product level, things like the D850 and a few of their recent lenses show that the Nikon engineering players know how to knock the ball out of the park. 

But this is the age old problem: you can have good players with great stats and a terrible team record. Management can make bad decisions that cost games, too. 

So far, I see no reversal of fortune at Nikon: 2018 is starting off like a replay of 2017, which really only had a D850 to get excited about. 

Bottom line on March 4, 2018: you want a state of the art DSLR, buy a Nikon D500 (crop sensor) or D850 (full frame sensor) at the enthusiast level. Nothing's changed there. At the top end, buy a Canon 1DxII or a D5. Nothing's changed there, either. If you don't mind de-contented cameras, both Canon and Nikon make a whole lineup of those that aren't as good as the four I just mentioned. 

Nikon Finally Deals with AF-P in Firmware

A number of Nikon DSLR cameras got firmware updates today, basically to give them better
AF-P support:

  • D4 A1.11 B1.11 — Fixed AF-P support and fixed another bug that occurs with Camera Control Pro 2
  • D4S C1.33 — Fixed AF-P support
  • Df C1.02 — Fixed AF-P support, another bug that occurs with Camera Control Pro 2, and corrected exposure for E-type lenses
  • D800 A1.11 B1.11 — Fixed AF-P support and fixed another bug that occurs with Camera Control Pro 2
  • D800E A1.11 B1.11 — Fixed AF-P support and fixed another bug that occurs with Camera Control Pro 2
  • D810 C1.13 — Fixed AF-P support and fixed bugs for multiple exposure and microphone sensitivity
  • D810A C1.03 — Fixed AF-P support and fixed bugs for multiple exposure and microphone sensitivity
  • D7100 C1.04 — Fixed AF-P support, another bug that occurs with exposure for E-type lenses
  • D7200 C1.03 — Fixed AF-P support and fixed bug for microphone sensitivity

Note that some of these cameras are getting their first firmware update in four years. This is Nikon catching up with what they should have already done. Sadly, they did not completely catch up: most of these cameras still have the "no menu item to turn VR off for the DX lenses." So we still have three classes of bodies: compatible, mostly compatible, incompatible.

I've updated my AF-P Compatibility page.

Canon Discounting Older Full Frame DSLRs

Canon has finally joined the fray, placing substantive discounts on older generation models that we haven't seen before. 

  • 5D Mark III [advertiser link]— The basic body of this 22mp full frame DSLR is now US$1999, a US$800 savings. But this site's exclusive advertiser will throw in a free 12-month subscription (or addition to your subscription) for Adobe Create Cloud Photographer's bundle. There are additional bundles available: 24-70mm, and 24-105mm lenses, a printer bundle, or a video production bundle. The 5DM3 is still a solid performer, though it's missing things like 4K video.
  • 6D [advertiser link] — The original 6D is a 20mp full frame DSLR, and at US$999 (a US$700 discount), the first Canon full frame camera I've seen pop below the US$1000 mark. As with the 5D Mark III, there are a bunch of bundle choices to consider, though the US$999 with 12 months of the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan really puts the body price down to an effective US$879, which is just difficult to turn down.

My sense is that everyone has extra older generation gear in their inventories, and as DSLR sales are continuing downward, we're going to see more of this type of discounting, though perhaps not at this extreme a level.


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