News and commentary about the Nikon DSLR world and photography in general. This page automatically updates with links for each new news/views story and is a good place to bookmark if you want to see the traditional bythom "front page" type of story.
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- Frictions Revisited
- Attempting SnapBridge Professionally
- Nikon's Slow Failure in Japan
- When 100 is Actually 99.5
- Photography Has Become Bipolar
- What I Want to Still Do Photographically
- What's With the US$2000 Cameras?
- Nikon Professional Services Renewals
- Nikon's New Year Resolutions
- An Assignment for the New Year
- 2017: Glass Filling or Emptying?
- 2016: Glass 3/4s Full or 3/4s Empty?
- Catching Up on News
- Nikon Says You Want 360°
- How Bad is It?
- Whoop There it Is
- New Nikon Lens Rebates
- Nikon 2016 News
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- Nikon 2013 News
- Nikon 2003-2012 News
I'm mentioned this before, but in my management days one of the things that I kept very high in my visibility were "frictions." I define a friction as being something that keeps a business (or product) from reaching its highest potential result.
I've long believed that Nikon is making their life more difficult by increasing frictions in their business and products rather than eliminating them. Some of the other camera companies do similar things, though not as consistently or unilaterally as Nikon does.
So let's talk about frictions and how they work.
Let's imagine a simpler time. You've just invented the camera. You're the only maker of cameras. At the moment you have no competitors. There, we've just identified a possible friction: competition.
One reason why companies love monopolies or duopolies, is that competitive friction is near zero, if not actually zero. As much as the Pentax and Sony folk want to believe that their DSLRs and SLTs are competitive, in point of fact DSLRs are a strong duopoly. Canon and Nikon together own about 95% of the DSLR market. For quite some time the market shares of these two companies didn't vary much, rarely changing more than two or three percentage points one direction or another.
While Canon and Nikon were wary of each other in DSLRs, and tried to match each others' products over time, competition wasn't really a serious concern between them. Indeed, what competition there was between the two simply improved each others' products as they tried to match features or performance.
But as I noted in yesterday's article on Nikon's slow failure in Japan, something is changing. Nikon's ILC market share is going down due to lack of a serious mirrorless offering, but so is Nikon's DSLR market share. What's happening?
Well, other frictions have appeared and are taking hold.
Let's list some of the key frictions I see in Nikon's recent efforts:
- Quality Control. With D600, D750, D800, DL, SnapBridge, and numerous lenses all having birth pains due to quality control issues, customers now have a wait-and-see attitude towards any new Nikon offerings.
- Customer Service. I've long documented Nikon's deteriorating customer service, and at some point customers noticed and are responding by not rewarding the company with purchases. The whole "won't repair gray market" thing is just the tip of the iceberg, but it's a huge iceberg now that Nikon is dumping so much product into the gray market.
- Communication. Want to know what Nikon's doing with the Nikon 1? Sorry, no information since 2015, and that was just a product launch. The D3400 and D5600 were launched with press releases, and those didn't say anything useful. The lack of communication from Nikon corporate is now obvious to consumers. Consumers want to be talked to...which brings:
- Marketing and Advertising. Over time Nikon has slowly been cutting down the amount of this that they do. They've also become extremely clumsy in the stuff they actually do, as in the TV spots that were promoting the social aspects of SnapBridge at a time when half the US market couldn't even load a SnapBridge app on their smartphone. It didn't help that the ads were just bad and didn't actually outright say "buy our camera and you can send photos socially." Nikon also keeps getting hung up on trying to reach millennials in their advertising, but without features in the products that those same millennials would want. Waste. of. time.
- Repairs. I've also long documented NikonUSA's declining repair satisfaction. We're now to the point where almost one-fifth of NikonUSA repairs don't happen right the first time the gear is in their hands, requiring a second trip. This creates a new friction: time without camera.
- Missing Products. Buzz, buzz, need I say more? Okay, I'll say more: there are plenty of things that a photography-oriented customer might want that Nikon is simply not supplying. Even when Nikon does supply it—the SB-5000 comes to mind—you discover that critical accessories aren't in stock (e.g. a WR-R10 with the right firmware).
The list actually is far longer than that, and many of those frictions have or create sub-frictions within them, as I note in the Repairs bullet. But the interesting thing is that virtually all of the frictions Nikon is creating for itself come in the company-to-customer relationship. Customers are going elsewhere (leaking, sampling, switching) because they've had enough of that bad relationship are looking for a better relationship.
Moreover, the genesis of all those Nikon frictions is one simple thing: cost cutting. Nikon management thinks of cost cutting in the same overly simplistic way that IBM once thought about the mythical man-month (look it up, or better read the book about it). As it turns out, neither cost cutting nor man-month hiring practices actually do what you think they do. Both are not the metric you should use to produce better results. In the case of man months, the problem is that you increase the internal communication n ways, and this slows down the process of completing products. In the case of cost cutting, the problem is that you either make your products non-competitive by taking out key parts/features/performance—Nikon hasn't done that, fortunately—or by not marketing or supporting the products properly.
Nikon management perceives their biggest friction as being the bank shareholders wanting some fixed numeric markers being hit. They're managing to keep that friction from getting worse (which is why cost cutting keeps happening). Why? Because it's the key source to their access to capital. If Nikon could ever discover a real path to growth in their overall business—I don't believe the medical initiative is going to see any meaningful growth for Nikon for years, if ever—they'll need capital to expand to meet that growth. Heck, they need capital just to stay in place, really. That's because the technology world doesn't stand still. What sufficed with steppers 10 years ago is mostly a dinosaur today. The film camera business pretty much had to be written off in 10 years, too. It doesn't help that quakes and tsunamis and floods have impacted their production facilities and required re-investment, either.
I use the word "friction" for a reason. Yes, you can overcome frictions, but only with force, lubricant, or with removal. What is not happening at Nikon is that anything is being applied directly to the frictions they've created in order to overcome them. Thus, business slows down because the frictions lower the business performance.
The problem is simple: frictions left unaddressed mean you sell fewer product. Selling fewer product may also create new frictions (lack of resources via profit). More frictions slow you down faster. This all becomes a giant tail-spin that eventually has you hitting the ground.
Just once I'd like to see Nikon remove a friction. Any friction. Making a great product (e.g. D5 or D500 or D810) doesn't do it. The frictions are still in place, so the great product produces less result than it could.
If you're managing a product, a group, a business, then take some time today to figure out what your frictions are. Then figure out what you can do to remove them, or at least lower them. You'll be a better manager tomorrow when you do.
Warning: long article, lots of ranting
Back when the D500 and SnapBridge were first introduced, I wanted to test the notion that Nikon had finally delivered something useful to the professional photographer who wanted to be timely.
Part of this desire derives from the presentation I made to Nikon executives back in 2010 and the suggestions that I made to them then, several of which centered on photojournalism and sports shooter workflow. I wanted to find out if Nikon delivered what I asked for (not just for myself, but on the behalf of many others). Early last year I scheduled a sports shoot for shortly after my D500 was to arrive only to find that SnapBridge wasn't all there yet.
True, I was able to get SnapBridge limping along back then with an Android phone, but the two words in there that I didn't like were "limping" and "Android." I'm an iOS boy, and have been since the original iPhone in 2007. So I gave up on the idea to try to post directly from an event for the time being. I decided to wait until SnapBridge came out on iOS and Nikon had a chance to update software at both ends.
Last weekend I resurrected my original idea at a collegiate ice hockey game. Again, the goal was to share images from the shoot as contemporaneously as I could, using only what Nikon has supplied in the D500 and SnapBridge app for the camera-to-phone transfer.
First off, let me explain that this isn't the way I'd prefer to work. While I may seem like a one-man band in all the things that I do, a real pro shooting on assignment is going to have someone backstopping them at the receiving end.
What do I mean by that?
Well, let's get in the Wayback Machine and dial in 1973 (yeah, dig those plaid, bell-bottom pants). I was a stringer for ABC Sports back then. I'd get a phone call from New York telling me what they wanted, I'd go out to the Washington state venues I was shooting at and click off some rolls of film based on their instructions. Immediately after shooting, I'd run to the airport and put my unprocessed rolls of film into a bag that flew overnight to NYC.
At the New York end there was a photo editor. Actually not just a single photo editor, but a large photography team that was looking at all the images that came in front the hinterlands and did selects based upon the stories they wanted to tell. All I had to do was concentrate on shooting.
One time the assignment was "just shoot Bill Walton." That's how I came to get the shot of Walton going down and getting critically injured. No one else really got that image because the injury occurred far away from the play. I barely got it. But the reason why I did was that I wasn't diluted in terms of trying to do other things. I had one assignment, I was concentrating on it, I had no distractions, and so all my energy was focused on "getting shots."
Even when I was just shooting for the University, I didn't think about anything but the photography I was doing until after the game. At that point I'd walk back over to the Edward R. Murrow building and go into the darkroom to process my film. Most of the time I just handed the results to another person or team that picked and chose which images were going to be used, and for what reasons.
What I attempted to do this past weekend is a one man band thing. Shoot, select, transfer, annotate, and communicate to the world, and all in real time.
That's not optimal. While I do "chimp" my shots from time to time during a sporting event, I'm doing that mostly to confirm that settings are correct, that I'm getting focus where I want it, that the equipment is working as I expect, and sometimes to evaluate the angle I'm taking. That chimping takes place in down time. In a football game, that's between plays and during timeouts, of which there is a lot. This weekend's hockey games weren't televised, so didn't have any real downtime except during the intermissions between periods. That means that you risk missing shots while you're trying to deal with the logistics of selecting and posting images as I was.
So let's start at the beginning. That would be gear selection.
To some degree, that's already determined by my experiment conditions: I want to test the D500 and SnapBridge in battle. So right up front I've got two D500 bodies, and two iPhones (more on that in a bit).
First things first, so I need to make sure all software is completely up to date, and in terms of the D500's there are two additional things that are important: (1) use the Save Settings function to match my settings between the two cameras, including (2) entering IPTC data for the events.
From there, it's all about lenses and a few accessories. Since I'm always juggling lots of self-assignments, I'm bringing along the two Sigma f/1.8 zooms as I need to finalize a few things for my reviews of those lenses. The full lens kit is:
- Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye
- Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 wide angle zoom
- Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 normal zoom
- Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 telephoto zoom
- Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom
- Nikon 105mm f/1.4
All of the gear fits into a ThinkTank Airport Advantage rolling bag (the size that fits regional jet overheads; see second Tweet, below). I've got a bit more than I need, but again, I'm doing multiple things at once so I've brought extra gear I might or might not use.
Short Aside: for sports shoots there are different schools of thought, and it depends a bit on the facilities where you're shooting, too. Where there are good, separate press facilities where you can lock down your bag I prefer a roller, as I'm getting up there in age and hauling stuff around on my back all the time is getting a bit on the wearisome side. But generally the best approach is to be 100% mobile, which means minimal gear and a backpack. I sometimes do both: roller for the air/car travel, backpack for the game. Security, mobility, and flexibility are a strange intersection of things that you have to always rationalize to get right.
The Big Aside
Note that I didn't enter into this test of SnapBridge lightly. Currently SnapBridge iOS has 329 user ratings on the App Store, and manages a paltry 1.5 stars out of 5 overall from those customers. Moreover, Nikon seems to not understand how to keep their software current. Nikon's own support staff tells me "iOS 10.2 compatibility is not confirmed." Apple started shipping betas of that version to developers back in late October, and shipped the final version in mid-December. A month later and I'm being told Nikon doesn't know what the compatibility situation is. Yet from a smartphone user standpoint, the security changes along mean that any iOS user is going to be pretty fast to update to new versions.
Just a word of warning to Nikon Japan: if you're going to live in the mobile world, you'll have to work by mobile world timeframes. That means that you're exhaustively testing every beta release of an OS before it's released, and scrambling to address any problems that might appear within days of the final release, and preferably even before the final release. And good luck with the yearly hardware changes Apple, et.al., are iterating. Keeping up with Silicon Valley is not a 9-to-5, five-day-a-week job. It's 24/7 and a fire drill every hour.
That should be the Japanese companies’ mantra too: building hardware/software solutions that keep up with the world means you have to constantly be tinkering, updating, fixing, and yes, adding, to your products. SnapBridge is now almost two years old as a Nikon initiative, and it’s nine-months old in terms of being out in the wild. Any new features? Nope. Fixed the major problems? Nope. Lots of iterative updates? Nope. Nikon is trying to use old school tech product cycles in a world that lives on last night’s build. And tomorrow it will live on tonight’s build. Nikon’s still trying to get last year’s build to work.
Moreover, as I've written before: the Japanese companies are letting down some of their best and closest customers. One of my pro photojournalism friends asked me the other day why the pro video cameras now had cellular options that allowed them send video live to their stations/networks but that the still cameras were still struggling to get Wi-Fi working right. The answer? Tokyo is asleep at the wheel. Despite being yelled at several times in the past decade about it. It's criminal that Canon and Nikon don't have clear and flexible solutions for photojournalists and sports shooters yet. Solutions that don't require an IP staff to set up and maintain, that allow both selective and mass uploads, that understand differed and temporarily broken connections, that don't break on OS updates, and that provide options to the photographer that don't require them to change their workflow. You want to know why news organizations didn't upgrade their D3's and D4's, Nikon? You didn't solve their biggest problem. (Hint: their biggest problem has nothing to do with pixels.)
Okay, so what exactly is it that I intended to do?
- Shoot with the camera
- Pick some images immediately after taking them and mark them for transfer to the smartphone
- Let SnapBridge do the transfer
- In SnapBridge, use the “share” feature to attach the photo to a Tweet
- Enter some text, maybe the location and a hashtag or two, and send
- Let the smartphone do the upload to Twitter
Obviously, I have a Twitter account. First order of business: make sure all my Twitter software is up to date on the phones and the account information entered. Second order of business: make sure that the cameras are paired to the phones via SnapBridge. Easy peezy.
Well, okay, the SnapBridge pairing isn’t exactly click-here-and-you’re-done. With an NFC-equipped phone—which rules out iPhones—you can sort of skip a step, but there’s a lot of tap here, click OK stuff you have to do on both devices, and you need to be paying attention during those steps or else forgetting to tap or click at any given point can just put you in a time out (didn’t pair). As I’ve written elsewhere, Nikon’s developers were quoted as wanting to make this part a one-step process because they believed that was the true goal, the real user problem to solve.
I don’t share that view. I actually don’t mind if I have to tap or click 10 times. As long as I only have to do that once (caution: foreshadowing).
I said I’d explain why I was using two phones. Simple: what I’ve found so far with SnapBridge is that it gets mighty confused when you try to pair multiple cameras with one phone. I’m not even sure that ever works correctly. Even if you try to pair one camera with your phone today and then a different camera tomorrow, I’ve had SnapBridge just choke and force you to forget everything and start over.
So in the late afternoon before the night game, I did the basic things to make sure each camera was connected to a smartphone, and performed a simple test to make sure it was working. Great, everything seemed to get from camera to phone just fine.
Next, I made sure I was shooting NEF(RAW)+JPEG. In particular, I picked JPEG BASIC Small, as I wasn’t overly concerned about the final image size for tweeting. SnapBridge can do one of two things: make a 2mp version of a JPEG file and squirt it via Bluetooth, or pass the entire JPEG via Wi-Fi. No need to shoot 20mp JPEGs, as I’d just be using up card space for nothing.
But Nikon, what were you thinking? Why can’t I shoot just RAW as I usually do? There’s an embedded JPEG in every raw file, after all, so are you telling me that your idiot SnapBridge programmers can’t find that image and use it to create the 2mp proxy from? “Idiot” is the appropriate word here, I’m not going to mince words and play nice. But even if there wasn’t an embedded JPEG in the raw file, the camera has the ability to create JPEGs from raw files built-in, too. So the same idiot programmers couldn’t find and use that facility, either? Incredible. This leads me—and others who’ve commented on the SnapBridge (and former WMU) programming—to conclude that the Android and iOS apps and the firmware in the camera are being programmed by first-year college interns in their spare time during a month-long stay at HQ.
Failure is shameful in the Japanese culture, and admission of failure is exposing yourself to public shame, something you try not to do. Well, whether Nikon wants to recognize it publicly or not, they should be ashamed of their SnapBridge programming efforts, and those of us on the other side see your failure whether you acknowledge it or not.
We’re indoors, in an arena built with a lot of metal, with hundreds, maybe thousands of smartphones active, with Wi-Fi floating around inside, and more. There are a lot of radio waves being bounced around. While Lawler Rink is not huge and thus not a massive test of radio robustness, it’s definitely a challenge.
As I enter, I tweet a couple of shots directly using the smartphone cameras.
Why did I use the smartphone camera for these Tweets? Because it’s easier.
Those three words should cause every camera engineer in Japan to panic. "Because it's easier." It’s not that I didn’t have lenses for my D500’s that would net me those shots, it was because it was just far less convenient to use them. I’m not the only one who thinks this. By coincidence, another professional photographer just wrote an article about how he earned more from shooting with iPhone than with his main gear last year.
So panic in Tokyo would be good. Indeed, the panic is overdue. The panic needs to put gears into motion. Fast motion. Overdue motion.
Okay, I sidetracked again. Back to the game in progress.
The nice thing about Lawler Rink and one reason I chose it for the experiment was that it has a small ledge behind the glass where I’d be shooting that I could set my iPhones down on. I was shooting with my two D500’s hung from a dual BlackRapid strap. Thus, I could drop the cameras to my side after shooting, and concentrate on the phones in front of me. Then when I was done with the phones, I could leave them where they were and pick up a camera and start shooting again.
The big issue of the night started to appear almost immediately:
By the time that pre-game image showed up on my iPhone, the game had already started. Thus I didn't type much of a tweet. Nor did I include the location or any hash tags. I was too busy shooting.
In the first period there was a sequence that resulted in a score:
There was a several minute delay before those images got to my smartphone, and action had restarted by the time they did. I'm not sure why the delay happened. Several times during the course of the evening I saw SnapBridge seem to stop for a while and send nothing new to the phones.
(Yes, I know the images are a little on the dark side. Some of that is due to using fast shutter speeds in frequency-based lighting, some is intentional because of the way the JPEG and raw files get created in the D500 and how I have to sit in the middle with exposure to optimize both, some of it was because I wasn't set optimally at this point in the game. Colors shift between images in frequency-based lighting pretty dramatically, too, which poses additional issues. Sure, we can turn on the frequency detection feature in the latest Canon and Nikon DSLRs, including the D500, but then we lose the guaranteed frame rate and get unwanted shutter lag at times.)
All total, I tweeted fifteen images from the first two periods of the game. I even took the time to do a quick in-camera crop of an image between periods (hint: RETOUCH menu, Trim menu option):
But why did my Twitter feed end in the second period?
Simple answer: battery dead, changed batteries, pairing lost.
First, this is terrible battery life. By comparison the next day I shot two hockey games without SnapBridge active and finished with battery life at 75% (670 shots). Yet in the Merrimac game I ended up at 0% and something less than 400 shots. If we're measuring SnapBridge performance in hours, it was between one and two hours of it being turned on, which I think is the real metric here, not number of shots. Yes, the batteries started with full charges. Yes, the batteries are all current Lion20 versions.
Frankly, that's terrible performance, and it mimics what I found with the D3400 when I tested it with SnapBridge. My D3400 actually managed to transfer slightly more images than the D500s did in the time before its battery died, but again it was was only a couple of hours to full battery depletion. I was expecting the larger capacity battery of the D500 to do better. It did slightly worse.
Then there's the fact that for some reason pairing got lost during the battery depletion. I'm not sure what that was all about, as previously I've found that the D500/iOS pairing seemed to be preserved when changing batteries. Indeed, even after the camera had been without a battery for some period of time measured in days. But then again, I was in an all metal shed with lots of radio waves blowing around inside.
In the end, I sent one last Tweet:
Why did I send that message? Because I wanted to keep shooting the game, not fiddling with gear.
And that brings me pretty much to the conclusion of the experiment: we pro photographers don't want to be fiddling with gear, we want to be shooting. We'll tolerate some level of one-time fiddling with gear to get things set right. But fiddling while a shoot in progress, that's a no-no.
Now amateurs doing casual photography may not be so concerned. So my next experiment with SnapBridge will be to test that assumption. Unfortunately, I'm not expecting any better results, because something is seriously wrong with the power management in the cameras if they're powering down completely off the big EN-EL15 battery after less than two hours of Bluetooth usage. My wireless headphones last 5x longer than that, with constant data transfer.
I can only conclude that SnapBridge isn't ready for prime time yet. So if the executives in Tokyo are expecting SnapBridge to be a distinguishing feature of the Nikon products, they'd better get snapping at making it actually distinguished.
Odds and Ends
- Ever try deleting images in the SnapBridge Gallery? First, you have to set the app in Select mode, then you have to tap on each and every image you want to delete, then tap the trashcan, then confirm the deletion (twice). Are you left in Select mode after that? No. So if you sent your firehose (D500) filling up the iPhone with images, guess what your next pain will be? Yep, getting them off the iPhone.
- At times the Twitter application would allow me to attach the location to the Tweet, at other times SnapBridge was not getting the location.
- I was originally going to test the D500+SnapBridge against my D5 using the WT-6. Only trouble? My dealer has been unable to get a WT-6 out of NikonUSA.
BCN has released their year-end retail sales rankings for the Japanese market for 2016. While the mirrorless numbers get written about a lot, the DSLR numbers are even more illuminating. A reminder: BCN is an organization that tracks cash register receipts in Japan. Their data is based on actual sales to consumers. Let's take a look, shall we?
In their home market Nikon is losing market share to Canon, and fairly convincingly over the past four years. Coupled with Sony's total slip with the Alpha series, Canon has now surged to almost two-thirds of the DSLR sales in Japan. Pentax, meanwhile, is bouncing around in a fairly narrow single digit market share, dictated a bit by when they launch new consumer-oriented DSLR products.
The less-than-lukewarm model updates that produced the D3400 and D5600 aren't going to help in 2017, as much of the market share is price sensitive: the D3300 and D5500 were already not holding serve in Japan, and adding SnapBridge isn't likely to change that.
As readers of this site well know, I'm strongly negative about Nikon's relationship with its customers here in the US. We've had a long erosion of customer service and support, while customer outreach has essentially turned to zero. A lot of that has to do with the pressure on the subsidiary to cut costs. But meanwhile, the corporate entity is culturally isolated in Japan and gets virtually all of its product feedback from a subsidiary that no longer has a good customer interaction. Bad news.
But what's the excuse in Japan? ;~)
Canon's now outselling Nikon 2:1 in their home market. Is the Japanese management at HQ not hearing the customers that surround them every day and speak their own language? Quite obviously, Nikon is failing to connect to customers, and not just in the US, but at home, too. Whether that's due to price, product, or promotion I can't say for sure, but something isn't working, and it's not working right in front of Nikon management's eyes. All they have to do is hop on the Hibiya subway line and walk into the stores in Akihabara and they can watch the disaster unfold in real time.
Meanwhile, Nikon doesn't show up in the top three for mirrorless cameras according to BCN, which means that Nikon's ILC market share is going down in the home market, too. Somehow Nikon has managed to retain the number two market share in compact cameras—though remember that market is getting much, much smaller every year.
But let's look at lenses: oops, Sigma now has moved into second place and pushed Nikon to third in the Japan market. Again we see strong erosion. Nikon had 23.2% of the interchangeable lens market in 2009. Let's look at the yearly numbers since: 20.4, 19.7, 19.6, 18.9, 15.2, 15.2, and last year 12.5%. That look like a strong showing to you?
Note that I mentioned three factors earlier: price, product, and promotion. Some combination of those things is making Nikon fail in their own country, and it's not a sudden failure, it's a trend that has been going back as far as we can measure it.
The bigger problem, of course, is that the camera market itself is shrinking. Thus, when you perform poorly, even if you are able to eventually fix those problems, you might not grow overall. The market shrinkage might eat up the volume growth. But what's happening to Nikon is far worse: they're losing market share in a shrinking market. While I don't have retail numbers for the US and Europe for 2016 to look at yet, you can verify that this is a worldwide trend for Nikon just by looking at the CIPA shipment numbers coupled with Nikon's own detailed financials: Nikon is losing market share in ILC cameras and lenses.
So enough is enough, I say. It can't be that Nikon corporate doesn't see the problem, as they've just had a major entity in Japan show them the embarrasing numbers, making public their failure, even though no one in Japan is using the word "failure" yet. The question is this: what are they going to do about it?
Almost exactly 99.5 years later Nikon has chosen to begin celebrating their 100th anniversary. Nikon now has their 100th Anniversary Web site active, though it really has very little on it other than two movies, a simplified product timeline, and a few additional pointers at the moment (plus it seems to try to ignore the years 1934-1945).
I'm not a big fan of self-congratulatory celebrations. Sure, be proud of what you've done, but if you have to spend a lot of time and bombast reminding people of what that is and commission symphony works in the process, either you have low self esteem or you didn't accomplish as much as you thought.
Don't get me wrong. Nikon has made a ton of important contributions to imaging over the years and continues to. But personally, I'd be more interested in how Nikon believes that their past informs their future. What did they learn from those 100 years that imply products for the future?
Perhaps we'll get that as we get to year 99.6, 99.7, 99.8...100.5 in the anniversary celebration. I hope so. But I wonder exactly who this Web site and celebration are for. For customers that buy Steppers from Nikon Precision? I don't think so. For photographers that buy cameras and lenses from Nikon Imaging? Nope, not unless we've suddenly all gone nostalgic.
Personally, I still don't know what the Nikon brand means these days. The press release for the new Web site says "...unique value based on opto-electronics and precision technologies." Wow. That's a lot of corporate buzzwordiness. Drill down a little further and you find "Grounded in the latest opto-electronics and precision technologies, our products and solutions help build a better society. Get to know the real Nikon." Would that we could, Nikon.
Nikon goes on to make a point that the anniversary logo was designed by "our own design department." Okay. Did Nikon's own design department look at the corporate logo while doing so? ;~) The two logos side by side are a little jarring.
I'd have to say that Nikon isn't sure of themselves at the moment, but are trying to act sure of themselves. Many of their messages have gone dull, vague, and repetitive, using buzzwords instead of clear customer benefits. We still have the same "Meeting needs exceeding expectations" wording in the corporate messaging, but when was the last time that Nikon marketing actually told you what need a product actually met and how it might exceed your expectations? Some of you would say that many recent Nikon products didn't meet your expectations, let alone exceed them.
Words are fine, but deeds are better. Nikon customers are expecting a lot from Nikon in 2017. They'll want more than a fancy Web site outlining past successes.
That said, congratulations Nikon. Sincerely. Many of us wouldn't be where we are today without your products. But office parties should last an afternoon, and then everyone get back to work. That's what we really want you to do: get back to work and make the next century another one of developing complex technologies into useful products.
I’m amused by the bipolar nature that’s becoming more and more clear on the Internet regarding cameras. It seems there are two schools of thought:
- Bring on the iteration and innovation. This is mostly eptimized in the mirrorless world, witness Sony pushing the A6500 with so many technical advances over the recently introduced A6300, and most Sony fanatics rejoicing with each new push (though a few are wondering why the A6500 came so soon after the A6300 at such a higher price).
- Stop the merry-go-round I want to get off. This is often voiced with the “it’s good enough” and “I don’t need a new camera with more features I’ll never use” complaints, and made real by the Last Camera Syndrome folk. A lot of those people are higher end DSLR owners who just aren’t seeing what any new fangled tech or spec would provoke them as a useful incentive to upgrade.
But let’s be honest. Both ideas, pursued to the extreme, are problematic.
While I like that Sony is pushing technology rapidly forward, they’re doing so at a pace that becomes expensive for anyone wanting to stay even close to where Sony is at today. With the exception of 2015, someone shooting at the A6xxx level of mirrorless would have had their camera obsoleted every year since 2010 (NEX-5, NEX-5N, NEX-5R, NEX-5T, A6000, A6300) and now twice in the same year with the A6500. Some of those iterations were more minor, but many were meaningful differences, and the pace of meaningful differences has picked up.
This encourages purchase of new bodies, of course, but that also means that people are putting their available money more into bodies than lenses. Or more into bodies than into training, photographic travel, or accessories, etc. That doesn’t necessarily move a person’s photography forward all that much. What it does move forward is their bragging rights (“heh heh, I’ve got more pixels than you have”).
Meanwhile, the other extreme tends to get voiced most often by the long-established DSLR buyers. We’ve also had nine DSLR iterations at the bottom of Nikon’s lineup in 11 years, which is a lot. But the last few have been very mediocre changes, and it’s still very normal to see people using one of the earlier models. At the top of the line, we’ve had five major generations of pro body in 15 years, and in the last several, a mid-term refresh as well. So again, a lot of changes. Yet you’ll still find a lot of pros are a generation or two behind. At US$6000 it takes a dramatic change to get an upgrade purchase out of a customer.
I’ve written about Leakers, Samplers, and Last Camera Syndrome folk before, but the pace is faster now at one end (Leakers and Samplers) and slower at the other (Last Camera Syndrome).
It’s illustrative to note that the companies pursuing rapid technological advances—Fujifilm, Olympus, Sony—tend to be the ones that have made their bets on mirrorless. They need mirrorless to catch up to and exceed DSLR capabilities if they really want to make inroads into the Canikon ILC market share. Don’t expect these companies to stop iterating rapidly or stop pushing upscale. They covet the huge volumes Canikon have in DSLRs and the high DSLR prices, and will stop at nothing to try to get them.
Meanwhile, Canikon have long-established iteration cycles with more modest advances per cycle. They need DSLRs to stay viable above and beyond mirrorless to prolong their dominance in the market. They also need to iterate regularly to have any change to replace some of those older DSLRs in customers’ closets.
All the camera companies have excess inventory of previous generation product—though the 2016 earthquake did change that for a number of ILC products—Canon and Nikon (and now Sony) have made this into a strategy, whereby they end up with more pricing levels as they slot older products between newer products (e.g. D3400, D5200, D5300, D5500). For Nikon, that strategy got shook, literally, when the Kumamoto quake damaged a critical Sony sensor factory. That factory didn’t return to full production for three to four months.
So now Nikon is in the following situation: the D3300 remains in the lineup, but they weren't really been making them due to sensor shortage. The D3400 was introduced, but, it, too, was only in modest supply due to sensor shortages, though it received the bulk of the 24mp sensor input from the factory.
Say what you will, but camera buyers are price sensitive, and it shows in the data when you look at it closely. Having so many price points between US$500 and US$1000 allows Canikon to pick up marginal sales, plus upsell or downsell as necessary to make the sale.
But I expect this, too, to change as volumes continue to decline in the camera market. I expect to see longer product cycles start to show up soon. No one still has the volume to make so many significant advances every year. That’s a lot of R&D expense with declining payback. Better to do longer cycles, move product upscale, and pick up the R&D expense with lower volume at higher price over a longer time.
Olympus is a good example of the problem. Here’s their annual volumes for their m4/3 bodies since 2012 (with the 2017 fiscal year prediction from Olympus): 590k, 510k, 500k, 510k, 550k, 460k. All that product iteration they’ve done—nine new models since the 590k number—isn’t moving the volume marker for them. They have moved the average selling price up by emphasizing the OM-D models over the Pen models, and additionally moving the price of the top OM-D model upwards. Still, quite a bit of R&D effort to paddle in place.
Thing is, we camera users should be benefiting more from the camera company’s problems. Price should be going down as demand drops, or we should be getting far better gear with some serious use advances. We’re not exactly getting either, though we’re closer to getting the latter than the former.
Funny thing is, every MBA program teaches a microeconomic model of supply and demand, where in a competitive market there will eventually be equilibrium in supply and demand at a normalized price. The camera market seems to defy that assertion in pretty much every respect. But as many economists have begun to note, the rationality of a market isn’t always as expected, nor are markets particularly efficient and predictable via equations.
And so I don’t foresee any difference in what’s happening in the camera market as we move from 2016 to 2017. We’re going to see camera sales continue to decline overall, we’re going to see camera makers continue to try to push price-per-camera up. Canon and Nikon are defending, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony are on offense. (Pentax still seems to be suiting up ;~).
It’s that time of year when you should be thinking about what you managed in the past year, and what you want to accomplish in the current one. If you haven’t read my article “What’s Your Goal,” you should probably start there. There are other articles in that Improving the Photographer section you might want to look at, too.
For me, I’m trying something a little different for 2017. I’ve tried to come up with a different photographic situation for every month of the year. For example, in January I’m going to take my second whack at figuring out how to shoot ice hockey, and in September I’m going to head to my old stomping grounds in the Sierra and shoot a Spartan Challenge.
I’ve also got Botswana in July and Galapagos in December, which leaves me with just eight other months to find my own personal photographic challenges for ;~). As I noted, I want each month this year to be a little different in what I’m doing, so you’ll probably see everything from landscape to sports, macro to wildlife, events to portraits from me.
That said, I’m also thinking longer term. I’m considering what I want to do in the next four or five year period, which is probably my last as a truly active photographer given my age. This list is of things that would keep me challenged and actively shooting with high interest.
Here’s my list so far:
- A Regular Sports Gig — it would be nice to get back into a regular schedule with sports, rather than subbing in from time to time. I’m taking sports photos fairly regularly now, but I’m not learning one set of players and am not yet into trying to tell any particular story; my shots are all pretty much catch as catch can, with different sports and different teams every time. We’ve got both active minor league teams and college teams in the area, so I’ll be looking at my options here in Lehigh Valley to start with. But I’m certainly not averse to travel, either, as you can probably tell, and I’m within commute distance of both New York City and Philadelphia. It’s possible I could hook up with one of my alma maters, too.
- Olympics — This is a bit pie in the sky, but the Olympics are the ultimate challenge for a photographer. First, there are so many of us covering these events every four years there’s the challenge and competition of producing something that no one else managed under the circumstances. Second, it’s a bit like a photographer migration: where else are you going to find as many of us gear-obsessed image nerds in one place to associate, gossip, and commiserate with? The problem with the Olympics, of course, is that you almost always end up with a singular assignment—you can’t really be following much in the way of multiple sports, athletes, or venues—and photography is a ways down the list of priorities to the organizing committees. It’s quite possible you’ll get stuck in a photography pen with far too many other folk in not a particular great location. Still, if you get away from the main sports and the prime-time TV sports, it seems to me it could be very interesting and fun to attempt. Winter or Summer? Ugh. I grew up partly in a ski resort, so I guess I could go either way. But then there’s the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. It might be interesting to cover the Olympics from a different standpoint. For instance, how Nikon is involved with and supporting the games. In other words, a behind the scenes story.
- Going Animal — Spend a full season in one area of Africa as the National Geographic Pros get to. Side note: while the TV cable channels are hot on cats and other predators, I’d think I'd love to do something less exotic, such as follow an elephant family for a season and tell their story instead. Season in the African sense is generally end of the wet period to start of the next wet period, and more than a half year in length. If this gig happens, I might not be blogging for a while.
- Other Travel — I travel a lot as it is, but I’d like to take on a couple of real travel assignments for a magazine or client, but to places that are emerging as the next place to go rather than places that have already been over-covered to death.
- Events — I almost wrote “shoot a wedding.” However, I’m smarter than that ;~). I actually wouldn’t mind the challenge of trying to compose wedding photographs my way to see what that way might actually turn out to be. Do I see a wedding enough differently that I could produce a style that people might ooh and aah over? But you can’t go in cold on that one. I’d have to either (a) stage a fake wedding; or (b) be a third, unimpaired shooter at a wedding that’s got two pros already covering it well. I don’t like (a), because it also means that I have to direct the actual spirit and moments that mimic a real wedding; in other words, direct actors while also doing the physical shooting, something that even Hollywood avoids. I’m not sure (b) is possible to do without interfering in some way with the main shooters. We’ll see. But a big non-sport event is definitely something I want to tackle soon.
- DP Something — Video isn’t exactly “photography,” but I was trained as a filmmaker. I’d love to find one last big video project to be the director of photography (or perhaps director) on. Not editor, not producer, not talent, not anything but the person (or persons paired with a director) that determines how the video actually looks on screen, coupled with the challenge of pulling that off.
Yes, these bulleted things are all sort of day dreams right now (as opposed to my 2017 plans, which have firmed up pretty well). Still, if you can’t imagine the road ahead you can’t steer a course.
Steer your course. Set some goals. See if you can make them happen.
US$2000 seems to be the go to enthusiast price point for the Japanese camera makers. D500, GH5, E-M1 Mark II, the list goes on, and in the last year it seems like every high-end enthusiast camera gets that pricing. Even cameras like the A6500 and X-T2 are sneaking up towards that point and bound to get there.
Funny thing is, US$2000 was the original target point for a truly competent, non-consumer DSLR. Canon and Nikon both tried to make that point US$3000 in the early DSLR era, but the quants in the backrooms quickly figured out that this wasn't going to work. US$2000 is the price point that the D100 attempted to get to (and missed by a bit), as well as similar offerings from Canon and Fujifilm. Not that they quite got there on first release, but they were all aimed at the same point.
Quite obviously, something in the economics of cameras has everyone targeting the price point at or near US$2000. The extra parts and manufacturing costs compared to the lower end consumer cameras isn't all that much more, so in all likelihood the GPM (gross profit margin) is very nicely high. On the other end, customers are obviously willing to pay that much and demand seems reasonably high at that price point. My guess is that—at least for the dedicated camera enthusaist—something near US$2000 is right at the sweet spot of the MBA-type calculations for supply/demand/price/volume/profit.
When you look at gray market prices, sales prices, and end-of-life prices, the US$2000 type of cameras seem to get pretty hefty discounts at times. For a long while I kept a database of DSLR pricing in the US, and the average discount maxed out at 25% over the life span of the product. But with the US$2000 cameras lately I've been seeing something more like 40% maximum discounting, and I don't think that's the end of it.
Some of that extra discount is the fact that the demand part of the equation is going down. The D300 sold many more units in its first year than the D500 did this past year, and held its price accordingly. But the other part of the equation that allows the higher discounting is most likely that the GPM is enough higher on these products to allow price drops to keep demand higher. More to the point, I'm sure that all these companies have a cadre of accountants that are predicting and measuring "how many buy at full price over what period" versus what the eventual maximization of profit at the end of the sales life for the camera should/could be.
Back in 1979-1980 I had a protracted and long fight with Adam Osborne about the pricing of the Osborne 1. I lost that fight, despite many spreadsheets in my defense. My contention was (and still is), that pricing the Osborne 1 at US$1999 would have had zero effect on the number of units we sold. Adam was insistent on pricing the computer at US$1799. The problem with his price was there was no established price point at US$1799 for computers back then. Indeed, any comparison of what the Osborne 1 provided versus any consumer computer competitor at the time would still show the Osborne 1 as the lowest cost complete system at US$1999, and by far.
Crossing the US$2000 barrier would have been a different thing. Because of the way people think about prices, they tend to start grouping anything in the two thousand range together. Drop that first digit to 1 instead of 2 and they think differently, now grouping that price will all the ones that start with 1. There weren't any complete personal computers at the Osborne level in the 1's at the time ;~).
To Osborne, the difference in my pricing and Adam's would have resulted in US$130 more dollars to Osborne per unit. Over the first year of Osborne's sales, that would have amounted to US$7.5 million more in revenue if I was right. Considering that the real reason why Osborne went out of business was not as is stated all over the Internet, but rather lack of capitalization, that US$7.5 million might have made the difference. Maybe not. By my calculations, Osborne needed an additional US$8 million in capital above and beyond my extra US$7.5m to truly run up the sales ramp the way it did and survive the cash crunch rampant sales growth caused.
So why an aside for a 37 year old computer story? Because within the Japanese camera companies there are teams of people trying to do the same sorts of calculations that I was doing back in 1979. Any time you have large sales increases or decreases, those calculations become critically important to corporate survival.
You'll note that we have most of the consumer camera gear priced in the US$500-1000 range, and have had it there for quite some time. Nikon executives themselves said they needed to be prepared for US$300 DSLRs almost a decade ago, but that hasn't really happened. Why? Because the Japanese companies are fearful of dropping below the US$499 threshold. It could trigger a real race to the bottom that no one would win. The Japanese consumer electronics (CE) product management scenarios only work if you can continue to innovate and advance at the top, collect as much money as you can there, then progress down into lower pricing levels that you tightly control.
Thus, you see a D500 at US$2000 trying to maximize the extraction of enthusiast dollars. Meanwhile, you see the D3400 trying to keep it's head above the US$499 water line.
I'm not sure how long the hull will hold on the camera ship, there seems to have been a fire and we just hit an iceberg. Through November, the CIPA numbers are mirrorless at 90.1% of last year, DSLRs at 85% of last year. We saw Nikon deeply discount the D500 at the end of the year, and I can attest to the fact that this moved the bar on D500 sales considerably just by looking at my eBook sales (I don't do any promotion or marketing of my books, so any sudden uptick in sales of a book can always be sourced to something else). Now NikonUSA has tried to move the D500 back to US$2000 from its calculated Christmas body implied price of something near US$1600. I predict the return to US$2000 will essentially slow D500 sales back down to a trickle (though the D500+16-80mm lens package still being discounted does net you a very nice lens for an implied US$600).
There are some—and many in Tokyo—that are looking at the Q4 CIPA shipment numbers as indicating that we've hit a bottom in ILC camera sales. I'm not convinced of that. Note the heavy discounting that Nikon did during that quarter: a large percentage of the CIPA DSLR shipments in the quarter were those discounted cameras. So saying that "the bottom has been reached" when there was clear manipulation by Nikon to reach their own quarterly sales number goals is a mistake. The Q1 shipments may very well tell a different story for DSLRs.
If you look at the 2016 shipment numbers, January and February were very weak for DSLRs. The same thing is likely to be true this year as nothing new has been launched and the prices have been reset upward. We're on track for total ILC unit shipments being significantly under 12m units (2015 was 13m). If I had to predict 2017 at this point, I can see that falling another 5% or more, which puts us into the 11m units range.
NikonUSA has issued emails to NPS members asking them to renew their membership. Normally they do this in December. This year it got pushed into early January. If you're an NPS member and haven't gotten your renewal email, you should go to the NPS Renewal Web site (once logged in, you should be taken to the renewal page, but if you aren't, look for the "Check Renewal Status" button on the main page).
A few changes appear to be in effect, one of which you need to know about. In addition to the usual "two pro body and two lenses" requirement, there are now points assigned to gear you own, as well. These point values decline over the year (as products age), so it's possible to have a qualifying set at the start of the year, but your membership is in jeopardy if you fall below the 1000 points minimum threshold. Note that the My Camera Bag information you might have entered on the main NikonUSA site does not spill over to the NPS site; you have to re-enter the information.
Another strange anomaly is that NPS members receive a repair discount, but not for D7xxx models. I'm not sure what that's all about.
NPS is a free program for professional photographers.
Management at Nikon is hopefully waking up from a dismal 2016 and realizing that they have to change something. Here are my suggestions of things that should be on their 2017 Resolutions List:
- Make DX Relevant. Yes, this has been a common theme of mine lately, mainly because, with the exception of the D500, Nikon seems to have mostly ignored DX development and turned in lame update after lame update. While Nikon persuaded some DX users to spend more money to get FX bodies, they lost as many users who want to m4/3, Fujifilm X, or Sony E/FE. The strong reception to the D500 ought to have told Nikon something. Unfortunately, a great body by itself just points to how lukewarm the DX line had gotten. No new wide angle zooms since forever. No DX prime lineup. Treating DX more as a price-sensitive only option in marketing. The list goes on and on. Simple advice: either DX becomes more relevant to the future of photography or it slowly goes away. That's Nikon's choice. You'd think they'd pick the former.
- Fill Out the Pro Ranks. The D1h/D1x/D100 trio established a reasonably full lineup of cameras for pros to pick from. The D3/D3x/D700/D300 quartet embellished that. Seems we're back to a trio again, and a bit of an odd one in D5/D810/D500. What we really need is D5/D5x/D810h/D810x/D500. While some of you balk at this notion—as does seemingly Nikon—I'll remind folks that Nikon's reputation was gained at the top end and through being compatible-oriented (legacy support, et.al.). Today, Nikon's got a smaller spread of pro gear that means that I'm usually making a compromise when I choose which body to pick up. The big bodies (D5) and small bodies (D810) have different strengths, for sure. Why I can't get pixel count in one or speed in the other is a head scratcher considering that's where Nikon seemed to have started the DSLR revolution. Meanwhile in lenses, it at least appears that we're getting a slow roll of better optics to replace the older good ones. So maybe the lens guys should be running the body group? (And speed up ;~)
- Deliver With Quality. The DL cancellation, I hope, was an internal wakeup call. We've been getting a long sequence of products that have "defect when shipped" issues. Lenses that needed firmware changes to work properly. Bodies that had clear defects. Software that wasn't ready. In 2015/2016 I sent more products in to Nikon for fixing than all of my previous 30+ years of Nikon use. Only thing is, every one of those products I sent back to Melville to fix were brand new out of box. Every one. So was it worth it to cut QA/QC costs, Nikon? Nope. You've paid for it in repair costs and in reputation.
- Invest in Software. Nikon's software consists of enhancing a relabeled product (Capture NX-D is really SilkyPix under the skin, and View NX-i has a lot of licensed frameworks in it), or things that look like College freshman programming projects that were never finished. Thing is, the digital world revolves around software, not hardware. That's especially true for things like cameras, which are not complete, standalone devices. The purpose of using a camera is to preserve or share images. It's going to be software that does both those things in the end; the camera is just the input device. Unfortunately, cameras are slowly becoming isolated from the world in which their output needs to live. To fix that is going to take some hardware design, sure, but it's going to take much more software than we currently get.
- Realize Cutting Costs Has Costs. As both a businessman and an investor, I've never seen a long term mandate to reduce costs work. Companies that constantly announce that they're cutting costs—as Nikon has been for almost a decade now—eventually cut themselves out of business. The proper mantra is "control costs." There's a big difference between "control" and "cut." When you cut something actually ends up missing. You cut quality, you cut process, you cut parts, you cut features, you cut customer service, you cut service centers (and thus increase cost to users), you cut R&D, you cut silly things like hot shoe caps. Cut, cut, cut and things disappear, including eventually, your customers. Control costs and you actually may spend more to make more. There's no doubt that inefficiencies crop up in any large company that's been around as long as Nikon (100 years). The number of inefficiences that show up is directly related to lack of good management. That said, the ultimate customer couldn't care less how efficient or inefficient you are, they just want complete, well thought out, quality controlled products. As I noted in an earlier bullet, QA/QC cost cutting is impacting customers, and they noticed. They won't accept that for long.
You might note that I'm not writing anything about needing a new mirrorless system. Certainly Nikon needs an answer for mirrorless, but making DX relevant is part of the answer and a more important thing to get right short term. Indeed, Nikon could go the route that Canon has, which is essentially making their mirrorless offerings sit at the bottom of the crop DSLR using essentially crop DSLR designs made mirrorless. That, too, would make DX more relevant.
But those of you who only think in mirrorless versus DSLR terms are missing a point. With the right work—mostly size and control related, plus proper marketing—a D3400 could easily hold its own against many, if not all, of the mirrorless offerings. With a little more work, a D3400 could easily be made mirrorless. To me, this isn't Nikon's biggest issue for 2017, though it certainly becomes one if Nikon manages to first fix the things I've identified above.
The Nikon faithful really want to see that someone is awake at the wheel and that the company has been taken off the "cut costs" autopilot. They want to see a full, well-supported line. They want quality products everyone, not in just a body or lens or two.
I can’t take credit for the idea, as the original assignment suggestion came from Adobe wizard and evangelist Russell Brown last year. But as usual, Dr. Brown had a very valid reason behind his idea.
Here’s the assignment:
- Go out and shoot for a day, but only with your iPhone (or whatever other smartphone you may own).
The latest iPhones have very good cameras, as do many other recent smartphones. Very, very good. That’s especially true if you don’t mind springing for an app that gives you a bit more control over what’s going on during the shooting process.
I'd tend to add to Brown's simple instruction this: intentionally shoot with your smartphone the types and kinds of things you'd normally shoot with your camera. This isn't an assignment to just use the camera in the smartphone, it's an assigment to use the smartphone as your camera.
Now here’s the second part of the assignment:
- If this assignment triggers any Aha! type moments on your part, I want to hear about them. Use the contact form on this site to send them to me.
- Pick your very best shot from the day and send it to me from the smartphone. Only one shot allowed per person participating in this assignment.
Okay, I need to make a few additional comments about that last bullet:
- I don’t care if you make cropping or other post processing edits to the original image. You can even watermark it if you want. As long as you do everything in terms of capture and manipulation on the smartphone. Also, please do not (intentionally) strip EXIF data from the image.
- You must include in your email message the following statement: “I fill-in-your-name give Thom Hogan, bythom.com, and its entities permission to display this image without remuneration on any of the bythom.com Web sites in conjunction with any article Thom writes in January or February 2017.” If you require attribution, make sure you include exactly what that attribution should be: e.g. “Photo by fill-in-your-name.”
- Please send such images only to this email address.
- Nothing in the above guarantees that Thom Hogan, bythom.com, or its entities will actually use your image on a bythom.com Web site in conjunction with an article.
- You understand and accept that I may comment about your image, and that said comment may be positive, negative, or anything I choose to write.
- I won’t be responding to requests for image critique in your email. Any critique I might choose to offer would only appear on the Web site (see #2 and #5).