News/Views

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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Nikon Cuts Back on Third Party Repairs, Again

No sooner had I posted my Profits over Progress article I received an email from iFixit and a pointer to an article on Nikon repair they were posting.

The gist of the article is this: NikonUSA is no longer going to support Authorized Repair Centers with official parts—and by implication, testing gear, training, and tools—after March 31, 2020. This is a further retrenchment from NikonUSA's previous policy change in 2012 (which stopped selling parts to any repair shop, and in some cases, even individuals).

As I write this, I know of 15 Nikon Authorized Repair Centers here in the US, plus, of course, NikonUSA's own two repair centers. The irony is that many of the repairs NikonUSA claims to do themselves are actually not done by them, but are farmed out to others. The Nikon LA repair center even ships some product across the border to be repaired in Mexico.

It's highly unclear how things are going to work in the future, but I note that I get regular and steady email from users who are having issues with NikonUSA's own repairs. As I've documented before, NikonUSA's database can't even keep up with what it going on with repairs, and talking to anyone via phone is a lesson in Kafka-like bureaucracy. 

Lest Sony owners get any joy from this, things seem worse over in the E/FE world. At the moment, only Canon is left providing repairs pretty much as they've been done in the past, and even there I get emails about issues and problems that happened when someone tried to get their camera or lens repaired. 

If NikonUSA's moves are about money, then they're making bad decisions. Part of that bad decision comes from the paternalistic attitude towards NPS (Nikon Professional Services), which corporate always touts as their gift to the serious, dedicated shooters and insists must be free. Virtually all of us pros aren't looking for free, we're looking for good (or better still: great). We're more than willing to pay for that. 

Part of the problem also derives from Nikon's policy of prix fixe repairs coupled with work only done on officially imported cameras. 

So let me put that into context: Nikon corporate and NikonUSA think of support and repair as a cost center. Such thinking is 1970's Big Company Beancounting. The real problem that's being ignored is this: support and service are the one place where Nikon actually engages with customers. Sales are through third parties (e.g. the dealer is NikonUSA's customer, and they don't treat that dealer very well, either). 

Note what I wrote in my recent articles: if you want to stay in the camera business, you're going to have to fully engage with customers. When the repair system now clogs up and the complaints get louder, just exactly how is that one customer engagement NikonUSA does going to help it? ;~)

Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, Nikon corporate is spending huge sums buying back their stock. I don't think that's because they think their stock is undervalued and a good bargain. It's because their board is trying to consolidate control as they inevitably downsize. 

Funny thing is, I've been writing about NikonUSA's issues when it comes to repairs for 25 years now (yes, I checked; that's the right number). In that time, there was only one short stretch where things got better, and that's because the person in charge started reaching out to some customers who had the biggest problems. Overall, things have just gone disastrously downhill to the point where, when you send something in today, you don't know if it will need one, two, or three trips to be made right, and it will be like pulling teeth to try get any useful information out of the company. 

This will not play out well for NikonUSA, and the fact that they tried to make this change outside the view of the people who buy their cameras is just going to heighten the user paranoia. Bad move, NikonUSA. But that's what you're good at: bad moves ;~).

Disclosure: I'm a member of NPS, and I've had very good service from NikonUSA. They know who I am and how many of you read what I write: I'm pretty sure that my servicings get special handling within Melville. I'm not a member of CPS or SPS, though I've had products repaired by both. Canon was the best in this respect, in one case providing a complete refurbished camera replacement for a repair that would have taken more time. Sony shipped my gear to another vendor to repair, and that took extra time. The repairs were reasonable in cost, but I was without that gear for a longer time than I'm used to.

Fighting All Trends

It’s common among those trying to explain the collapse of the dedicated camera market to ascribe this solely to the rise of smartphones. No doubt that the progress companies like Apple and Google have shown with the cameras built into their yearly updates coupled with the ease of sharing the photos those phones take has had a large impact on whether people might opt for a dedicated camera, but it’s really only one of the factors that come into play (careful, strong generalizations ahead):

  • Disposable Income. You might not have noticed if you’re in the 1%, but the other 99% isn’t really managing to get ahead lately. Throughout the world you see the masses starting to rebel against the class disparity, and they’re not in a mood to buy cameras. Buying cameras—at least the bulk of the market that the camera makers need to be healthy—is a middle class disposable income function, and that middle class is under stress. Everywhere. With new interesting full frame cameras checking in at US$2000 or more, and new lenses worth putting on those cameras ranging upwards from US$750, that’s a lot of disposable income the camera companies are counting on. Yes, some still can afford that—the higher up the class spectrum they are, the more likely they can—but I’ve noted more and more folk around me delaying their upgrades lately. Some of that has to do with monetary stress. With items like cable/TV bills now running at a couple of grand a year now for many and a cellular plan piling on even more expense to that, consumables are chewing into the middle class budgets in big ways now. I just don’t think you can expect to sell any expensive cameras into the lower and even middle class any more. They can’t afford them, even if they want one. But even the upper middle class is slowing their camera buying as far as I can see in the numbers.
  • Aging and Changing Demographics. The unspoken thing about digital cameras is this: the Baby Boomers hit their career and buying strides right around the time that the D1 came out. Many had grown up with film cameras and found the digital cameras solved their biggest issue with film (e.g. “did I get the shot?”). The innovation of digital came at the right time and solved the right problem. And we were off to the races. Today? The following generations are struggling more than the Boomers did (see Disposable Income), and didn’t have the closet full of film lenses they could resurrect. Some might not have even participated in film, but started with an early digital camera. Unfortunately, the Boomers are all at retirement age now. If they’re still interested in photography they have a tendency to buy at the very top and make that their Last Camera. When that Boomer buys a D850 today, what camera, if any, would they even consider next? Also, remember that traditionally, (first) marriage, first home, first baby tended to be the trigger events that caused someone to purchase their first interchangeable lens camera. At the other end of the generation spectrum, the Millennials are marrying later, not necessarily buying a home, and having a family later. So all across the demographics there are things changing that don’t favor the camera makers. Current smartphones are getting good enough that First Baby photos don’t require a sophisticated high-end camera any more, too. 
  • No New Innovation. Let’s count the big innovations that made people buy cameras: (1) interchangeable lenses; (2) automatic exposure metering; (3) autofocus; and (4) digital (chimp to see the image you took). Some might add (5) mirrorless allows you to preview your photo. #5 wasn’t as big a revolution as #4, but I’d tend to argue that it was a necessary step. Unfortunately, EVFs weren’t up to the job early on, so it’s been a slow roll from DSLR to mirrorless. To trigger a new Mass Buying Event—that’s where everyone decides that what’s in their closet is obsolete and they need the new thing—you need a big Innovation that solves a Big User Problem (BUP). Unfortunately, the Japanese camera makers have no idea what a BUP is until it hits them on the head and gives them a concussion (and it takes them time to recover from the concussion). Nikon R&D was very early to things like image stabilization and autofocus, only they didn’t commit to either to make a big BUP type move. Instead, Canon saw Nikon’s VR research and eventually ran with that, while Minolta (correctly) saw autofocus as the way they could unseat Canikon (too bad about the patent violations ;~). To some degree, Sony’s early commitment to mirrorless is a bit of BUP, but it took a long, long time to play that out, and that really didn’t generate a big buying spree, it just started siphoning market share from Canikon in a declining market. 
  • Completely Built Out, but Not. Related to the previous point is this: cameras as we now know them are highly competent. Indeed, pretty much any dedicated camera built in the last seven years or so is able to take great photos when used properly. So look at what camera companies have been adding as “features” to new models. A lot of that has been small things (everyone tinkers with their JPEG rendering a bit each generation, but I’d defy you to pick out the differences between, say, EXPEED 4 and EXPEED 6 while looking at a NIkon JPEG). Other things that have been added tend to be incomplete (e.g. focus stacking and pixel shift, where not a single implementation to date is what I’d consider complete and fully usable without hurting your head). Nothing really compelling is happening with the current level of engineering updates. Not compelling? Then there’s no need to buy it. (See today's other article.)
  • Overbuilt Inventory. If the new cameras aren’t exactly overly compelling and older cameras are still capable of taking great photos, then by keeping that older camera inventory around longer, you get into a different problem. You end up discounting the older product, sometimes excessively, and that in turn then lowers the sales of your newest product. Doh! As far as I can tell, every camera maker has excess manufacturing capacity now. Moreover, I believe that many of those older cameras in inventory are the result of committing to a volume of sensors they weren’t actually able to sell. In other words, everyone was overoptimistic in how easy it would be to sell product, and overextended themselves in parts commitment to try to squeeze more profits out. One thing that doesn’t get talked about in business is that you can make ten right decisions but one wrong one can undercut everything. Or 9 and 2, 8 and 3. Every business thinks that they can nail all eleven decisions perfectly, and they’re always wrong. How much wrong determines whether they can recover or not. I currently count three Japanese camera makers that clearly made a wrong decision somewhere, and three that are in some jeopardy with their current decisions. Yeah, that leaves one, and that would be Sony. But I’m not at all convinced that Sony won’t undercut themselves in this tough, contracting market. That’s the other thing that isn’t talked about in business enough: you have to keep making decisions, so you’re always playing the game and can always end up making a mistake. When I saw the 2019 CIPA estimates—which come from the consolidation of Japanese company manufacturing plans for the coming year—I was pretty sure that more inventory was going to be added to the already overbuilt inventory. In other words, those estimates were high. So what’s happening with overbuilt inventory is this: Tokyo keeps overestimating, year after year, which means inventory never goes away. That’s a wrong decision that can undercut every other decision.
  • Inability to Integrate. Making cameras (and lenses) is a business that seems to believe that it stands alone. That you don’t need to integrate cameras with anything else. I ask you this: what camera today helps you with your eventual output, whether that be sharing over the Internet or making prints? Why, for instance, do so many cameras set the DPI field at 72? What printer do they think we’re printing to? Worse still, the camera makers really don’t want to integrate with the program you’re going to print from (e.g. Lightroom). Or help your printer understand the color profile the camera maker baked into the JPEG. Heaven help you if you want to post to Instagram (square photos baby). Frankly, the camera makers just don’t give much of dang about anything that isn’t a camera or a lens that they make. Nikon can’t even put out batteries and needed accessories in the aftermarket at the same time the cameras they introduce. Nikon is so bad at integration, they can’t even integrate with themself! Funny thing is, these same camera companies all talk about their “system.” That word is used over and over in marketing materials and manuals. But that system doesn’t work very well with the Internet, with modern Wi-Fi, with image sharing services, with your computer, with your software, with…well, with anything other than the lenses the camera maker makes for the camera, and even then you run into things like Canon EOS M being in a land all of its own. Want to have a bigger market? Be part of something even bigger: integrate with the modern world.
  • Added Complexity. My books on some recent cameras are now pushing out over 1000 pages. You might dismiss that by saying “they’re downloadable books, so that’s not an accurate page count.” Nope. It’s a very accurate page count because I express that number as if the book was printed in standard trade paperback format. To accurately and completely describe any enthusiast camera product these days takes a lot of verbiage and illustration. The products have become extremely complex and nuanced. All that’s a bit in contradiction to what you want to do: observe a scene in front of you and reduce it to a simple two-dimensional moment-in-time capture. Even at the simplest level (exposure, composition, and focus) you’re juggling a lot of variables, and you need multiple buttons and dials to control those. One of the not oft noticed things about smartphone cameras is that they just do a lot of the heavy lifting and leave you to composition and moment in time only. It’s not just that smartphones know how to share images, but that they also automate and simplify so much of the process of taking one (e.g. HDR is done automatically now). And they also make modifying (using filters) on an image simple, too: review the image, pick and choose. Nikon cameras allow you to modify images in lots of ways, ala smartphones, but it’s done via another menu and another workflow. Why can’t I directly access cropping and filtering options while I’ve viewing the image just after I took it? Nope, I have to leave playback, go to another menu, pick what I want to do, pull up playback again to pick my image (!), and then perform my action. Golly gee, Mr. Salaryman, have you not used a smartphone? Did no one ever tell you about direct UX? Cameras are partly complex because so much of what you have to do is indirect. That’s one reason why a lot of photographers get excited about shutter speed and aperture and ISO and exposure compensation dials. Direct. Change dial position, things change accordingly. Everyone understands direct UX (other than Mr. Salaryman designing your camera ;~). 
  • Travel Restrictions. It’s never been fun to travel the world with a DSLR and a bunch of big lenses, particularly wildlife capture beasts like a 500mm f/4 or bigger. Unfortunately, traveling with cameras keeps getting worse and worse. To the point where you couldn’t even manage to get a basic system packed into the weight allowances on some airlines, let alone that 500mm f/4. The aging photographer demographic can’t carry 50 pounds any more, either. So there’s been a long growing demand for smaller and lighter. As much as those that claim the Sony A7’s are too small, I think Sony’s approach is correct: smaller is better long term. What Sony got wrong initially was hand position and controls. They’ve been slowly fixing those, to their credit. Nikon’s got it right with their Z cameras. My mirrorless kits these days are smaller and lighter than my previous DSLR kits, and just as competent (arguably even more competent in some ways). But this is a never-ending quest. The Nikon PF lenses are a revelation, and we need more of those (or similar). 
  • Self-Fulfilling Cycle. If all you ever do is increment, eventually you hit a roadblock: each iteration gets less take up by customers. Less take up by customers means you cut back on your iteration (longer cycles or less change). Cutting back on your iteration gets less take up by customers. The Japanese consumer electronics industry is notorious for this insidious cycle. Find a market, rush to dominate it, fractionalize it (low cost, moderate cost, and high cost options), then iterate, iterate, iterate. And for some reason, that market goes away. Hmm. Wasn’t anything we did, was it? ;~) TV makers, for instance, wanted 3D to take off, then 4K, now HDR, next 6K or 8K. Why? Because it ends the cycle and starts the next new BUP. But note that 3D wasn’t a Big User Problem. Failed. 4K isn’t really a Big User Problem when users have no 4K content. Slow take-up. HDR isn’t a Big User Problem. Will fail. Put another way, the Japanese CES companies, including the camera companies, are good at the iteration cycle, way less good at triggering a new buying cycle and generating higher demand again. Unfortunately those mild iteration cycles are destined to generate smaller and smaller returns.

You might notice how many of these trends interact in some way. The cumulative sum of the problems is actually greater than the parts, unfortunately. Give me one way to ignore buying a new camera and I can probably dismiss that. Give me ten ways to ignore buying a new camera, and I can’t dismiss that. 

Realistically, there’s no way any camera maker survives unless they figure out how to address all of those trend lines. They need to go 11-0, not 9-2. The longer that they don’t find the solutions, the worse the problem becomes (e.g. Self-Fulfilling Cycle just flies the plane into the ground). 

Some trends are outside the camera makers’ ability to address directly (e.g. Disposable Income, Demographics). Others have potential costs that the camera makers would rather avoid (e.g. Innovation and Integration). 

Nevertheless, as a business that wants to stay a business, you must get in front of all these things and rebuild your products and organizations so that they can survive. That’s not happening fast enough in Tokyo. Not even close. I'm not sure that (mostly) having bankers in charge they will ever see or understand that.

I’m going to suggest that there’s a bigger issue here, too: the camera companies just want to sell boxes, not build relationships with customers. I’ve been a big fan of Sony’s Kando (and mini-Kando) events because they at least partly speak to this. But even with Kando you see inefficiencies that just shouldn’t be carried on (example: if you buy a Sony “box” do you get any clear marketing message about Kando and how to participate? Did you become a member of the tribe and welcomed by the chief? Is there a daily advantage to being in the tribe?).

Sony’s actually using Kando more for influencer-type promotion than they are trying to get closer to their entire customer base and keep them happy. I would suggest that you can and should do both simultaneously.  

Every camera company executive in the US is going to complain about what I just wrote. “But Thom,” they’ll say, “we send sales reps to do mini-events in stores all the time.” I see. What’s the point of those events? Sell more product, not get closer to the customer. The fact that it’s sales reps that are being used should tell you something. 

The bottom line is that Tokyo is fighting a lot of battles, and is doing so poorly. That’s why they’re seeing a healthy business slowly decline and wither away. 

I’m not saying that the camera business could ever be 18m interchangeable lens cameras again. Not even close. But I’d like to think that my 4m unit market bottom call could be improved upon by playing the game right (or that a player that gets the decisions right could break out compared to the others). Worse, failing to address the trend lines and get closer to customers could see us falling through even my pessimistic bottom.

I’d hate to think that a few years from now my best selling book will be The Complete Guide to the Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max Ultra Bionic

The Kit

We're deep into the big buying season now, and I'm constantly answering my email trying to help guide many of you to the best new gear decision for you. Thanks for your questions, I hope my answers are helping.

But all that product contemplation has made me pull back a bit and do some soul-searching. Knowing what I know, if I were starting from scratch today trying to build a "full" and "flexible" system, what would I buy?

We have some additional questions to deal with here. What am I going to shoot? Do I need crop sensor or full frame? One body or two? What brand? What lenses?

Let's start with the last bit first, because without the lens support, I shouldn't be making the other choices ;~). I've been reasonably consistent with my comments on this for years. To sell a completely viable interchangeable lens camera system, you need:

  • The zoom lens trio. In full frame terms that's the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm trio. We can argue whether you need fast (f/2.8) or can get by with slower (f/4 or variable aperture versions), but we need a base set of zooms at the core of any flexible system. 14-200mm gets you a long, long way towards flexibility in shooting. Shooting outside that range tends to only happen with specialties (see third bullet).
  • Fast (and/or small) prime options. Generally 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 105mm would make for a reasonably complete set. Again we can argue about aperture (f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.8). But most people can get by with some subset of those seven primes at the faster two apertures.
  • Specialty options. These don't need to exist when you buy into the system, but you need to know that they will exist in the future so that you can extend what you do. Macro, tilt-shift, long telephoto all fit into this category.

With that list, I pretty much eliminated DX DSLRs and EF-S DSLRs from consideration (buzz, buzz!). I also eliminated EOS M. Doh!

So working backwards in my question list, how about brands? Given the contraction of the camera market, Canikony is really the only safe bet moving forward, and even that is not completely safe. Hate to say it Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Pentax fans, but those companies are going to have a very difficult time keeping all they currently do on the market. It's not just a profit thing—as all four camera groups are supported by huge, conglomerate companies that can tolerate losses—it's a distribution and marketing thing, as well. Where can you go today locally to see a Pentax camera, for instance? What's the repair situation for these brands like now?

What's the safest? Well, this is where all the Canikon folk will protest my conclusion: Sony FE (and E) is "safe." I put that last in quotes because Sony corporate has been known to abandon markets completely when they fail to provide the ROI they demand. I see no sign that we've even remotely close to that with Sony Imaging, but the world can throw new challenges at companies unexpectedly. No one can rule out a strong global recession (or worse), and that means that you can't rule anything out down the line. 

That said, Sony FE would be a pretty safe bet, and personally, I'd opt for:

  • Sony A9 m2
  • Sony A7R m4
  • The f/4 zoom set as a minimum, the f/2.8 GM set for maximum capability
  • A couple of primes, possibly Tamron or Samyang
  • Fill out the specialty items as I understand what I'm trying to do photographically and they start getting produced

Same body (almost), one built for speed, one built for pixels, the traditional Nikon s/x thing that Nikon stopped doing for silly reasons.

I'd also say that Nikon Z is a reasonably safe bet. Nikon seems to understand they need to fill this system out if they're going to have a future. While the lens set isn't complete enough yet, the ease with which the FTZ adapter brings over anything else you need for the time being makes me have to conclude that things will be fine in the Z mount. So I'd opt for:

  • Nikon Z6
  • Nikon Z7
  • The f/2.8 zoom set if it's all available at purchase time and you need f/2.8, otherwise, sub in the f/4 S's (yes, there's a missing 70-200mm f/4 in the road map at the moment; I can get by with the 70-300mm AF-P)
  • The 24mm and 85mm f/1.8 S for sure, probably the 50mm f/1.8 S (not because it isn't good, but because it isn't a focal length I use or recommend that much)
  • Fill out the speciality items with the FTZ adapter (the PF lenses, any AF-P lens, the 19mm PC-E are all excellent choices)

Same body, one built for speed, one built for pixels, though not quite as clearly so as Sony. 

Clearly, I'd be waiting for more from Nikon than I would from Sony in terms of making my all-mirrorless system, as Sony had a five year head start with lenses and incentivized third parties. Still, I'm convinced that the Z mount will get there fast enough, and so far Nikon has been hitting it out of the park with the quality of their Z lenses.

Would I be concerned that Nikon will get out of the camera business? No, not really. If Nikon goes, everyone will be struggling and trying to get out as fast as they can. The good news on the Nikon side is that you have a massive near 100m legacy lens set to buy on the used market to keep your Z kit going ;~).

As I use the Canon mirrorless cameras and lenses in testing today, I'm finding a problem: I can't build the all-around system I'd want at the moment. I think I might be able to in the future, maybe in 2020, but not today. In particular, Canon is using last-generation sensors in cameras that are consumer (RP) or are oddly thought thru (R). So, no, for now RF can't fulfill the needs I count as minimum. 

Which for full frame cameras leaves us only two other options: Canon EF and Nikon F DSLRs.

Again, I find myself having an issue on the Canon side: Nikon (and Sony) clearly passed Canon by with full frame sensor capabilities, which is one reason why Canon is no longer a clear number one in full frame. I just can't find myself recommending the current EF DSLRs because of that. Not that they're not "good enough" for most people, but because they're not "as good" as you can get for the same or similar price from others. Ouch.

Can I say the same for Nikon DSLRs? No, I think the Nikon DSLRs still have some leg life left. As of today, the D850 is still the best all-around camera you can buy, though the gap has been closing (even the Nikon Z7 is close). The problem is that the Nikon DSLR speed/pixel set is a little pricey:

  • Nikon D5 (soon D6)
  • Nikon D850
  • The f/2.8E lens set, for sure
  • Whatever f/1.4 or f/1.8 primes fit your need (love the 105mm f/1.4E)
  • Pretty much any speciality lens you ever wanted (particularly when considering third party and legacy support)

Different body, one built for speed, one for pixels. Plus I suspect that the D850 will get a bump in the near future, too, keeping that model line relevant.

Okay, we're down to the full frame or crop sensor question. Realistically, we're trying to build out a solid, flexible system that will serve my photographic needs in the future, so full frame generally gets the nod. That extra stop of capability opens up photographic realms that are locked in with the crop sensor cameras, particularly when you start considering the lens sets you have available in APS-C systems. 

This is not to say that I couldn't consider APS-C, only that I'm only going to do so if I allow convenience to take some level of precedence over flexibility. Moreover, I'd find myself dipping outside the maker's box to try and get what you want. Consider what happens when we try things in Nikon DX:

  • D500 body
  • D7500 body?
  • Nikon's 16-80mm f/2.8-4 zoom, Tamron's 10-20mm f/2.8, Sigma's 50-100mm f/1.8
  • You won't find all the prime choices you'd likely want to consider
  • As long as telephoto is your game, the specialty lens set is vast

I think you can see what's stopping me from adopting Nikon DX here. First, we don't have the speed/pixel body thing to choose from. Thus, you tend to end up just duplicating body capability to have a backup. Second, the lens set is a bit of a mishmash. Not optically bad at all, but odd focal lengths, mismatching maximum apertures, and three makers involved to get a good zoom set. Sure, I know some of you will just say add the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8, but I find that a little on the long side as my base telephoto zoom. And it's a big lens, so I'm losing some of DX's charm as being smaller/lighter than FX, all else equal.

I'd have similar problems with Sony E and Canon EF-S, but I'll let you do the detail work there.

So I'm really stuck with three choices I'd tend to recommend to that mythical me starting out from scratch today: Sony FE, Nikon FX, and Nikon Z (FX). Curiously, that's what you find in my gear closet as permanent members. Everything else comes and goes ;~). 

Finally, a lot of you don't need or want really full systems capable of great flexibility, thus you probably do have other options you can consider. But I'd tackle that choice in this way:

  • Is the lens set there for what you want/need to do? If not, stay away.
  • Are you giving up one thing for another (low light light capability for smaller size/weight would be a common one), and are you truly comfortable with that? 
  • How often will what you choose actually get out of the closet? If the answer is "not much," than you probably don't need much, and you almost certainly don't need a full system. Consider going for convenience over flexibility.

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Before the "what about m4/3" and other complaints start flying into my In Box, let me again explain: I'm writing here about camera makers that are highly likely to continue on in the declining market, and that have what I'd call full kits that don't make me compromise my photography in some way. 

I'm pretty sure I need to put my Canon hard hat and bulletproof vest on ;~). While Canon is in some sort of transition, I'd say they're botching the transition so far. The best sensor they currently make is in two of what I see as dead end cameras (M6 m2 and 90D). The worst sensors are in the products that have a full set of options (EF). I'm sure that Canon will rectify all this down the line, but today as I write this, that's a leap of faith you have to take, and trying to buy into something today might mean you're replacing it tomorrow (e.g. R or RP). 

The other most likely complainant to my limited list of acceptable systems will be the L-mount users. But as much as there's safety in numbers—Leica, Panasonic, and Sigma all working together—I'm not perceiving that to be a very safe choice at the moment. I'm also not sure what my speed camera in that mix is. The S1, I suppose. Despite three players, my choices feel incomplete in the L mount at the moment, and are not as compatible in UX as the others are (e.g. S1 and SL2 versus A9 m2 and A7R m4).

Profits Over Product

If you've been getting a signal from much of what I've written lately, it should be this: the camera makers went for profits over improving their products. Instead of pressing hard on every real gain they could at the product level, most of the time the camera makers have been trickling out predictable, small incremental things while stripping out costs every place they could find.

Sure, the internal bandwidth gets upped a bit, new video features get added, maybe the pixel count goes up, a couple of mild still photography features get added, plus the whole image quality chain gets a slight tweaking as a new generation of ISP chip is made. But there's been no sense of urgency at creating the greatest-ever product that delivers compelling and useful surprises to the camera user.

To a modest degree, one of Sony's successes has been their fast run from being well behind Canon/Nikon in performance and feature set, to parity, to in a couple of cases, moving ahead. But even that comes with complete neglect of lots of functional details that aren't getting done. Sony raw file sizes are abysmally large. They've not yet bothered to add a lossless compressed file format that comes close to matching Canon and Nikon. Things like focus shift are ignored. Pixel shift is an incomplete implementation. PlayMemories came and went. The Sony menu system is still the poorly organized and strange worded mess it has always been. The list of things that Sony's engineering team is neglecting that would make their cameras really exceptional is just as long as Canon's list and Nikon's. 

Moreover, Canon and Nikon seem to be thinking that they need to protect their DSLR sales as best as they can, which makes them water down what they have done in mirrorless so far. 

And we haven't even yet gotten to the thing I most often get up on my soap box to proclaim (that would be "lack of 21st century communication and Internet integration"). 

I call this lazy iteration. I call it sloppy and mismanaged product development. I call it mismanagement.  

The Japanese call it cost reduction and profit improvement. 

Who's looking after whom here? 

Clearly, the Japanese camera companies are not looking after their users. Then they wonder where those users went. That's one of the clearest forms of self-defeating practices I've seen.

Anyone that knows me and has talked to me about cameras knows that I can tear apart every camera on the market and show you all the things that the camera makers missed and should fix. I'm not the only one that does this. I note that Lloyd Chambers just did a subset of this on his Web site recently. There are plenty of photographers that understand exactly where the Japanese have been short-changing us.

Worse still, we get the camera makers changing things that don't need to be changed. Buttons/controls move, disappear, appear, or get modified, and overall things are no better than before. Card slots get added, then get dropped. Lots of "shoot with heavy-handed filter" presets get added, tweaked, changed, redone, moved, and overlap with other functions in ways that can't be resolved (e.g. want to add a "bleached" look to the Picture Control you've been using? Nope, can't be done. You have to pick Bleached and start from scratch). 

Put succinctly, there's a lot of engineering flailing going on that doesn't make cameras better. Meanwhile, features that might make a camera better, such as raw exposure tools or a well thought out focus stacking facility just don't exist. Can you set a 47.5 second exposure if you want? Nope. Even though your camera is a computer that understands time in milliseconds and has a dial you could twirl to set a value with. And, oh, by the way, is a 30 second exposure actually a 30 second exposure? Nope, it's nearly 32 seconds. Whose crazy math world are we in?

There is so much not done, not completed, and not refined in our cameras that it boggles my mind every time I pick up a new one to find that, no, we still have the same problems in our gear.

This is only possible because: (1) the engineers and decision makers designing our tools are not photographers; (2) corporate bean counters (accountants) are more important than customers; and (3) the Japanese camera companies simply don't talk to enough photographers, in any form, to understand what we want. Wait, no, that last one should be "talk and listen to..."

As much as some malign Apple for constantly pulling older features and pushing really hard at the leading edge of tech, you know what? They make good products, and one reason they do is because they use them themselves. If they screw up an iPhone, an iPad, or a Mac, they know it just as much as you and I do, because they use them every day just like we do. Granted, their uses don't perfectly match up to ours, but it's close enough so that they know when they've put too much form over function into a product. 

I actually don't mind Apple pushing hard on the leading edge, because they've proven to understand where tech is going and what it should be like when it gets there. I'm not sure that I can say that about any camera company. 

It's time that we customers hold the camera companies nose to the grindstone. Mild and phoned in updates? Avoid them. Don't buy them. Not the lens you need? Don't buy it. Totally braindead UX, like Nikon's 3D Tracking in the mirrorless cameras? Pepper their Websites, Twitter feeds, emails, et.al., with demands to fix it. Make Tokyo realize that we're the customer, we've mad, and we're not going to take it any more. 

The only way that any camera company is going to survive long term is to figure out what the smaller number of remaining customers actually want and need and to provide that. If they can't do it all at once, then they need to say so and show us the plan they have to get to the promised land of the perfect photography product. Anything short of that is just suicide on their part. 

/RANT OFF

The US$1000 Camera Buying Dilemma

One way of looking at what's happening in the camera market is to slice it in a way that is more consumer-facing. I've chosen price as my slice mechanism today. Not sensor size, not camera type, not anything else other than price.

Jack and Jill Consumer tend to agree that they have a fixed amount of money they'd be willing to put into getting a new camera—at least the Jacks and Jills that still want a camera—and they walk into a camera store (or maybe a Big Box) thinking that's their primary decision mechanism: price.

In particular, for this article I've picked a price that I believe to be a key one to the industry's survival: US$999. Why that price? Because it's low enough to generate volume, high enough to allow gross profit margin. When we get down to the US$500 point, margins are really tight. When we get up to the US$2000 point, volume is fairly low. So US$1000 is my stake in the ground to see what's happening in what should be a meaty part of the market.

Technically, I've added a small range to that US$999, so I'll be writing about cameras that you can buy today at B&H (and most US dealers, stores) for US$900 to US$1100. Warning: you're going to see all the issues of the industry pop up in this sampling.

Let's first look at the "best sellers" (based upon B&H's current rankings at this price point as I wrote this):

  • Sony A7m2 with 28-70mm f/3.5.5.6 OSS lens. An earlier generation 24mp full frame mirrorless camera with a kit lens. Sensor is fine, ergonomics and lens are not. Features are missing from current generation.
  • Nikon D7500 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and 70-300mm f/4-6.3 VR lenses. A current 20mp APS-C DSLR with two kit lenses. Other than the fact that Nikon removed some features from the D7500 when it came out after the D7200, this is a current camera with excellent performance.
  • Canon EOS RP body only. A current 28mp full frame mirrorless entry level camera. While the camera price rises the eyebrow, the quick question becomes what lens are you going to use with it? The only ones that will really buy into this at this price point are those who already have EF lenses and want to start to transition to mirrorless.
  • Sony A6400 with 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens. A current 24mp APS-C mirrorless camera with kit lens. Solid sensor, typical A6### ergonomics, which you may or may not like.
  • Panasonic G9 body only. A current 20mp m4/3 mirrorless camera. Full featured camera, but with a smaller sensor. Like the other body-only choices in this price range, it's going to appeal first and foremost to those already with existing lenses they can use, otherwise it jumps up into another price range.
  • Fujifilm X-T30 with 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS lens. A current 26mp APS-C mirrorless camera with slightly better than kit lens. Really solid sensor with a body that has features/quality cut down from its bigger brother. 
  • Nikon Z50 with 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR lens. A current 20mp APS-C mirrorless camera with kit lens. Solid sensor, solid feature set, lens well beyond expectations. Note that this is going up against a near-identical DSLR from the same maker.
  • Sony A6500 body only. A generation old 24mp APS-C mirrorless camera. This is where things get a little dicey for Sony, as they have a lot of gear all stuffed into this price point, some current, some older. The marketing message is dulled because of that. (Note also that the version with the 16-50mm kit lens fits just into the top of my price range.)
  • Canon EOS M6 m2 with 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS kit lens and EVF. A current 32mp APS-C mirrorless camera. Excellent sensor, poor lens is not a good match in my book. The removable EVF will be a plus for some, a minus for others.
  • Fujifilm X100F. Hey, something different! A current 24mp APS-C compact camera with an excellent fixed 23mm f/2 lens.
  • Ricoh Theta Z1 360 camera. Something really different! a dual 20mp 1" sensor 360 degree camera. 
  • Sony RX100 mVI. A current 20mp 1" sensor compact camera with a decent 24-200mm f/2.8-4.5 lens. The only thing in this price range that fits in a shirt pocket.
  • Canon 80D with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS kit lens. A previous generation 24mp APS-C DSLR. 
  • Nikon Coolpix P1000 compact camera. This is a small sensor compact camera that's not compact, because it has a 24-3000m equivalent f/2.8-8 lens that makes up most of the product. 

What a mishmash, right? Think about this from a more naive customer perspective walking into a retailer and saying they've got a US$1000 budget. You can buy everything from the superzoom to end all superzooms to a current full frame camera, but with no lens. 

If we throw out the compact cameras and stick to body+lens kits that are current, we get a much more restricted choice of:

  • Canon M6 m2
  • Fujifilm X-T30
  • Nikon Z50
  • Sony A6400
  • Nikon D7500

All the most recent ones mirrorless, all APS-C. Plus something that a lot of folk seem to forget or ignore: all image stabilized, though this is done in the lens, not the camera body. Of that group, I can recommend any of them, but:

  • The Canon M lens lineup is very short and not up to the new sensor.
  • The Fujifilm kit lens doesn't get you to 24mm equivalent.
  • The Nikon Z DX total lens lineup is two, even shorter than Canon's.
  • The Sony body design is a love it or hate it one for most.
  • The D7500 has a limited lens lineup and is by far the oldest in this list

In other words, a dealer is going to be able to steer a naive buyer by pointing out something negative right up front on any model. I should point out that spiffs—a hidden dealer selling incentive—are absolutely in play right now (Nikon just increased theirs on the Z50), so that dealer is usually steering Jack and Jill towards a sale that benefits the dealer. The dealer will maximize their profit, in other words.

But we're a long way from done. Plenty of other cameras, mostly older generation, fit into this same price range as I write this:

  • Canon 77D with 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens + 77D with 18-135mm and 55-250mm lenses
  • Canon T7i with 18-135mm and 55-250mm IS lenses
  • Canon T7i with 18-55mm lens and inkjet printer
  • Canon T7i with 70-300mm IS
  • Canon G1 X
  • Canon G3 X
  • Canon G5 X (also with Connect Station)
  • Canon G7 X with Pro-100 inkjet
  • Canon M6 Video Creator Kit
  • Fujifilm X-T30 with 15-45mm and 50-230mm OIS lenses
  • Fujifilm X-E3 with 23mm f/2 lens
  • Fujifilm X-T20 with 16-50mm and 50-230mm OIS lenses or 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS lens
  • Leica C-Lux
  • Leica V-Lux
  • Nikon D750 body only (refurbished)
  • Nikon D5600 with 18-140mm VR lens
  • Nikon D7500 with 18-140mm VR lens
  • Olympus Pen-F body only
  • Olympus E-M5 m2 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens
  • Panasonic FX1000
  • Panasonic FZ2500
  • Panasonic LX100 m2
  • Pentax KP with 18-55mm lens
  • Pentax KP body
  • Ricoh GR III
  • Sigma sd Quattro H body only
  • Sigma dp1 Quattro
  • Sigma dp2 Quattro
  • Sigma dp3 Quattro
  • Sony A6400 with 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS lens
  • Sony A6100 with 16-50mm and 55-210mm OSS lenses
  • Sony RX-100 VA
  • Sony RX10 m2
  • Sony RX100 mIV

Dear lord, we now have a really confused consumer if they're presented with all those options. Technically, we have:

  • 3 full frame choices
  • 23 APS-C choices
  • 4 m4/3 choices
  • 14 1" or compact sensor choices
  • 17 mirrorless choices
  • 11 DSLR choices
  • 20 compact choices

And this is in just one narrow US$200 price range. Any pricing slice I make tends to result in the same thing: one heck of a lot of product available to a dwindling pool of consumers. Plus the mishmash of older/newer product muddies the selection choice. 

In a rising tide lots of consumer choices works just fine. In the siphoning of the pool that's happening with camera market contraction, this extreme proliferation of choices at each price point is going to kill all players if things don't change soon.

Right now I see the three biggest players—Canon, Nikon, and Sony—all trying to do the same thing: (1) jettison older generation product at bargain prices to clear inventory and meet their sensor commitments; but (2) getting ready to launch plenty of new product right into the same targets. The likelihood that I can write this same article next year this time with the CIPA numbers showing even more distress is near 100%. 

When I wrote my proposal for Nikon's future product line, an unstated assumption was that all previous product inventory was completely cleared out. Moreover, I wanted my products to be compelling above and beyond the previous ones. Let's look at how compelling those four products I called out before are today:

  • Canon M6 m2: The sensor is finally a very compelling upgrade for Canon users (ditto for the 90D, which also uses this sensor but is a price point above). The ergonomics have been decently honed. But the initial "no 24P for 4K" was a total head-scratcher. Why was Canon taking features away when they needed to compel users to upgrade? The big downside here is that the Canon lens team gave us nothing. Zero. Nada. That great sensor resolves just how meh virtually all the M optics are. Grade: C
  • Fujifilm X-T30: Compared to the X-T20, Fujifilm gave us a slightly better sensor, plus better video capabilities and better focus performance. Not a big, compelling upgrade, but at least everything was moving in the right direction. Grade: C+
  • Nikon Z50: As Nikon did with the Z6/Z7, they aimed slightly lower than an equivalent DSLR in their lineup in order to protect the DSLR. This is exactly the thinking that I believe is wrong-headed. If the Z50 were the D5600 of the mirrorless world, Nikon would be on the right track. But unfortunately, Nikon seems to be more targeting the D7500 crowd, and thus took a swing and fouled the ball into the stands. Grade D
  • Sony A6400: Sony added a touchscreen capability to the A6300. Okay, there's some focus and feature changes that can be said to be improvements, but this feels like a "firmware upgrade" to me, not a model change. Grade D

So let me put this out there: if this round of "new" products is grading in the C's and D's, how likely are these models likely to be lingering around next year with sale prices? ;~) Sure, they'll drop a price point down when they do, but that just puts the same pressure on another group of cameras and buyers. 

I'm going to say this: the cost/profit panic that's going on in Tokyo right now at every camera company is producing self damaging results now. While the camera makers are putting out new cameras on somewhat the same schedule as before, the progress bar is being moved very little forward. Which means that fewer existing users see an upgrade as worthwhile and what new (or late-to-upgrade) buyers that are left in the market then get hit with the confusing medley of ill-distinguished product I just presented. 

This is the dilemma that the Hi-Fi industry faced: it didn't embrace the new world around them, while it iterated indiscriminately and poorly. That drove many to ruin and out of the market. Note that the Hi-Fi market still exists today. You'll find Denon, for instance, supporting Amazon Music and Alexa directly, as well as Apple AirPlay2 and Siri. They support Dolby Atmos and a whole host of other modern technologies, as well. In other words, they play well with modern music/audio standards and expectations, just as you'd expect a "system" to do. And yes, the specs and capabilities can go quite high end still, but still embrace lower end consumers. Denon's Receiver line currently runs from US$279 to US$3999, for instance. 

I don't know how many Japanese camera companies can get to the place Denon did. Maybe three, four? But right now they're all executing the Japanese Consumer Electronics Death Script (JCEDS) exactly as many before them have in other product categories. JCEDS is not the execution pattern you want to be in, because the key word there is "execution." Of you, the maker.

Those that don't learn from history repeat it. The Japanese camera industry hasn't learned anything from history. 

 

Internet Declares Sony the Winner

We’re coming up on that time of year when some early sales statistics are thrown out, generally in support of some contention. BCN—a company that tracks a large chunk of retail sales in the Japan home market—has this habit of being controversial in this respect, each year putting out near year-end charts that tend to rile up the “any number is good is along as it supports my bias” crowd. 

Let’s see if I can get out ahead of what will be the latest claims flying around the Internet. Here’s the summary information from BCN rounded to the nearest percent that shows how full frame cameras are doing (both DSLR and mirrorless):

bythom bcn 2019

Again, this is in Japan only, and with a slightly non-representative store sampling that can be gamed by manufacturers. 

There’s little doubt that Sony has gained market share in full frame (not just in Japan; my US market figures show a closer three-way race, but similar). 

Let me share the first headline I saw citing this information: "BCN reports that Canon and Nikon have lost their full-size war agaist [sic] Sony this year.” If by lost they mean Sony and Canon switched positions but are still close and that Nikon lost some market share, sure. But note something: this is definitely a three horse race, and has been for awhile. Canikony is dominating full frame camera sales (~98% of market) in Japan and elsewhere. This is not news.

As I’ve pointed out previously, a lot of Canon and Nikon enthusiast/pro shooters are in a wait and see pattern at the moment, as neither company has quite produced the product that will motivate significant upgrades, let alone a stampede. In Nikon’s case, they aimed a little lower than their top DSLRs with mirrorless and still have a lens catch-up situation to fix. In Canon’s case, they aimed really low with full frame mirrorless bodies but really high with full frame mirrorless lenses, which has people scratching their heads waiting to see what the real mix will look like. Sony, meanwhile, has a pretty full lineup of updated bodies and a rather complete set of lenses now, and is more on cruise control at the moment. 

Put another way, for full frame:

  • If you’re considering Canon, you’re not sure what’s happening with camera bodies. How long will Canon DSLRs stay relevant and updated, and what will the mirrorless enthusiast and pro mirrorless bodies really be like?
  • If you’re considering Nikon, you’re slightly underwhelmed by the Z7 versus D850, though the lenses so far intrigue you in how good they are. Dissonances like that are not good for creating sales. Meanwhile, DSLR updates other than the D6 seem to have stalled.
  • If you’re considering Sony, you pretty much know what is and will be available, and you can make that decision with reasonable confidence today. Couple that with broad third party lens support, and things look good in the FE mount.

So it’s not surprising to me to see Sony gaining in full frame. Canon and Nikon are in the midst of a transition, and they haven’t handled it particularly well, let alone perfectly. They’re big companies with plenty of analytical and engineering prowess, though, so they’ll figure things out.

The usual conclusion I see from stats like those that BCN posted tends to be something more like Sony will continue to gain and eventually completely dominate what remains of that market. I’d caution people to avoid that type of naive conclusion. 

Certainly if Canon and Nikon continue to fumble the ball in their transitions they will continue to lose momentum. But if they slowly pull their acts together, there’s a huge base of Canon EF and Nikon F users that have not transitioned to a more modern camera. If both companies hold their faithful, things will almost certainly stay as they have for several years: three companies dominating full frame camera sales, each with at least 25% of the market, none with more than 45% of the market. I call that a triopoly. 

If you’re one of those saying that Olympus should just introduce a full frame mirrorless camera, you should be able to see now that ship has sailed. They stand no chance. One has to wonder what Panasonic was thinking. 

Meanwhile, another stat was published in that BCN article that’s about to get so much attention: the ratio of full frame to APS-C sales in Japan. For DSLRs and mirrorless together, that works out to 10.4% full frame, 89.6% APS-C. 

Every time I point out that you need to make APS-C cameras (or other crop sensor sizes) to survive, people jump on me from all parts of the Interwebs. Consider the following chart for the last twelve months in Japan, according to BCN:

bythom bcn ilc

Note that Japan is a majority mirrorless country these days. That does not apply globally. The US market, for example, is still DSLR driven, though this is slowly changing.

That’s far worse than my Market Bottom projections in the slant towards smaller sensor ILC, yet people still claim I’m underestimating full frame’s sales. No, dear reader, I’m not. I’m predicting further market contraction, and most of that contraction is going to occur in smaller sensor cameras. Otherwise, my full frame projection would be even worse than it was.

What BCN didn’t say in their statistics post is this: in the two one-year periods they reported, ILC unit volume in Japan dropped almost 19%. I don’t have enough information to say specifically that was more in APS-C than full frame, but that’s my suspicion based upon the numbers I can see. 

If you’re into full frame, I think you’re fine no matter what brand choice you make (at least for the foreseeable future). You’ve got three strong companies fighting hard over a smallish, but profitable user base. That’s going to continue for some time, and competition like that is good for all of us, no matter which mount we choose (EF, F, FE, RF, or Z). Nikon seems to have a clear transition plan now, and Canon will figure it out. Sony reaps short term benefits by already being there (and everyone seems to forget when they were losing market share when they were making their own transition from DSLR to mirrorless). 

APS-C, however, is another question. Canon and Nikon still have piles of consumer APS-C DSLRs they need to unload, which is a double-edged sword, as they’ll have to unload them via lower pricing, and lower pricing establishes new price points they will have to meet in the future. 

I’m still a naysayer about Canon’s APS-C plans going forward. EOS M just seems like a dead end because it doesn’t lead to RF and Canon’s doing the “no lenses” thing I’ve been rallying against for years now. Which is a shame, because the new sensor in the M6 m2 looks really good, and more good lenses would make it really shine. I strongly suspect that internal fights are crippling what EOS M could have been or will be. 

Nikon, on the other hand, has a winner in the Z50. Not a perfect camera, to be sure, but it fits squarely with their full frame mirrorless strategy, so much so that moving my shooting between a Z50 and Z6 in a session is actually a little less jarring than moving between a D7500 and D750. Nikon needs a lot more product in APS-C to be competitive, but they’ve put a nice strong marker in the territory.  

Despite all that, we’re going to see lots of “Sony Wins” articles and posts shortly. In Japan. In a subset of stores. By a small margin. 

I’m not sure how that’s supposed to change your thinking about what to buy, but that seems to be the implication of many of those articles/posts. Make rational decisions for you, don't waste time becoming a partisan brand advocate trying to convince others to do what you did (or might do). Even if you believe that there’s “safety in numbers,” the numbers currently say you’re safe buying into Canikony full frame.

Will the Grinch Steal Christmas?

Here’s the scenario the camera makers all fear this year:

Twas the month before Christmas, and all through the store

Not a camera was selling, not even an R4;

The discounts were hung by the products with care,

In hopes that motivated buyers soon would be there.

As you partake on all the Black Friday and Cyber Monday offers, remember this: holiday shopping is a longer-term event. Between Cyber Monday and Christmas there are 22 other shopping days this year, and everyone in the chain that sells—dealers, distributors, makers—really needs to see sustained buying, not just a couple of spurts of splurging. 

It’s been a pretty abysmal year up to this point in terms of sales for the camera makers, despite a record number of new mirrorless camera launches. Couple that with a still unsold inventory of older product, and I came up with:

  • Canon 9 mirrorless, 17 DSLR models on sale
  • Fujifilm 13 mirrorless models on sale
  • Nikon 3 mirrorless, 19 DSLR models on sale
  • Olympus 8 or 9 mirrorless (depends on area)
  • Panasonic 12 mirrorless
  • Pentax 3 DSLR models on sale
  • Sigma 3 mirrorless
  • Sony 16 mirrorless, 3 DSLR models on sale

So, just from the Japanese camera companies: 65 mirrorless models to chose from, 42 DSLRs you can still buy new.

That seems adequate, don’t you think? Over 100 choices for an interchangeable lens camera body to purchase. There must be something in that long list of available products that you’ll buy, right?

Yet so many of you are sitting on the sidelines waiting for something you’re obviously not getting. 

If the camera makers would agree to clean up their mess and start truly end-of-lifeing product, I’d make a suggestion here. 

Actually, I’ll make it anyway. 

This may be the perfect time to pick up a beater system. A brand new beater, at that:

  • Get a simple camera with a good sensor and have it converted to IR (my suggestion: Fujifilm X-A5 or similar).
  • Likewise, get a full frame sensor camera that’s good and have it converted to H-Alpha for astrophotography use (a D750 would be a good choice here).
  • Get a camera for that remote position where it might get splashed, crushed, or eaten (my suggestion: something Olympus that is small and water resistant).
  • Get something you can carry around all the time in a jacket pocket or small bag to make your photography a full time pursuit (the Z50 with the kit lens works very nicely for that, as do a lot of the smaller mirrorless models).
  • If you haven’t sampled before, now’s a good time to do so, just make sure you’re sampling something relatively current—e.g. a Sony A7R m3, not a Sony A7R m2—otherwise you’re eating stale bread.

An alternate strategy is to commit your current camera to one of the above uses, and to buy the latest and greatest to replace it (e.g. convert your D750 to IR, and buy a D850 or maybe Z7). 

Here’s the holiday season the Japanese camera makers want:

Dealers spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,

and fulfilled all the orders, and even added some perks.

Then we all heard Japan exclaim, as it avoided its plight,

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!


How to Buy

Yes, it’s that week. Black Friday is coming. Cyber Monday will follow. Holiday savings will blossom. Everyone wants you to buy. 

So today’s thought is this: have a plan on how and why you want to buy. They’ll be plenty of companies dangling offers in front of you this month that are impulse tempting, but resist the impulse and go with a plan instead.

Let me outline the reasons to buy:

  • Upgrade/Replacement. What you have is old and missing key features or performance you’d like to have. If none of those things apply (old, missing features, lower performance), then you shouldn’t be in this buying category at all. You’d just be throwing money out the window to a ravenous pack of desperate dealers and camera makers. Generally, my advice has also always been that you should stay within a brand you like (upgrade) rather than switch (replacement). This isn’t like replacing a refrigerator, where the doors will still open the same and food still goes in basically the same spot. Changing brands/mounts means you’ll be spending a lot of time retraining yourself, and while you are, you’ll be missing shots. 
  • Augment/Extend. You have an existing system you like, but you haven’t yet filled it out to all the things it can do. If you have an interchangeable lens camera, you might want an additional lens or two that augments and extends what you can do with it, for instance. Lenses, Flash, Remotes, Support, Carrying, all fall into this category. Don’t just add randomly, though. Have a specific plan, like “I want to be able to shoot in lower light.” Random augmentation is basically an unnecessary mutation ;~). It’ll be rare that you discover something beneficial such as penicillin when you take a random approach.
  • Explore. Open up an entirely new type of photography you haven’t done before. Maybe it’s macro (close-up) work. Maybe it’s portraiture. Maybe it’s street photography. Maybe it’s astrophotography. Maybe its just post processing raws instead of shooting JPEGs. Specialized types of photographic work often require some very specific products, and are often best done with something you probably don’t have. If you’re a full frame DSLR user with a whopping 24-120mm sitting out front, that’s not very discrete, and thus not particularly appropriate for street photography, for instance. If so, maybe it’s time to try out that Fujifilm X100F or Ricoh GRIII and see why street photographers like them so much. Key here is to clearly define the new area you’d like to explore.

Here’s my recommendation: pick one of those things to do this holiday season, and only one. Don’t buy anything that doesn’t fit into your plan in that one area. 

My In Box shows that there are a lot of folk out there taking a random walk trying to discover nirvana, that the grass is always greener on the other side, and they always imply that they’ve gotten everything out of what they already have (they haven’t). 

You don’t get rich by spending money. You might get better at something by spending money the right way.  

Then there’s this: Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony will all be introducing new products soon, possible less than 45 days away. If you don’t go into holiday shopping with a clear plan based upon one of the three reasons to buy I outline above, you’re going to be slapping your forehead in January or February and saying “dang, I should have waited.” 

I’m not saying don’t buy. I’m saying buy responsibly.

My Proposal For Nikon's Product Future

The following article has been in progress for quite some time (more on that at the bottom). I've had several people whose opinion I trust look at it. 

One thing that came up out of that review process is something that people aren't quite fathoming yet: no matter what Nikon (or Canon) does, the number of camera models they can truly support is likely to be far, far less than peak. For some reason, that surprises people. Many of the article reviewers have responded with "but what about X model" type of questions. Simply put, there isn't room for as many models as we currently have, you can't make the economics of that work in the smaller future camera market.

The temptation among the camera makers has been to keep older models in circulation and to perform minor updates to "fill the gaps." I believe this is a tactic that works only for a short time and has now over-lived its usefulness and is counterproductive to making a solid, small, profitable camera lineup. Why? Because you want people to transition to the cameras you know you'll continue to make and boost the volume on those models. Spreading updating users among too many models means that your GPM will go down, and you can't afford that, either.

Finally, I publish this article as a thought piece. There's no way that what I propose here could actually be done, partly because you can't just jump in at one point in time, wave your hands, and make models appear/disappear. What you will be able to do over time is compare what I write here to what Nikon actually does, and get some sense of how they saw the same problem.

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The benefit of being outside looking in is that you can see mistakes more easily and you don't have to fight the in-house political battles that characterize any large organization trying to make a big change. Thus, I'll be honest right up front: I doubt Nikon can or will do what I propose. 

First, I need to set some metrics. My goal will be to take a 15% market share of a near-future 4m unit market. I believe I could do better than that, and the 4m market bottom is still a guess, but I'm trying to be conservative here. Given the way the market is collapsing, you're better off planning for a very bad case (15% of 4m units) than a more optimistic one (20% of 6m units, which is about where I think Nikon's planning is). 

My planning number thus works out to 600,000 interchangeable lens cameras a year. Of those, I'd guess that at least half have to sell for US$1000 or less, two-thirds of the remainder have to sell for US$2000 or less. So as a gross approximation:

  • 300,000 cameras at US$1000 or less
  • 200,000 cameras at US$1000 to US$2000
  • 100,000 cameras at US$2000 and up

If I were actually in charge of the product line, I wouldn't be this crude in my price planning (and there's of course the issue that everything is a moving target; I can't do everything with a snap of my fingers, though for the purposes of this article, I'll make my crude three-point assumption). For the purposes of commentary on a photography Web site, I think that's appropriate. But again, when you do this in-house at the manufacturer, you are much more nuanced than I'm going to be.

You're probably guessing that it will be tough to fit Nikon's current 12 cameras into 600,000 units. Correct. Won't happen. Even considering body-only, that's far too many SKUs (stocking units) for the expected volume. 

The problem, of course, is that Nikon still has a DSLR lineup and is growing a mirrorless lineup. Most of the conflict in how to proceed comes in that implied transition coupled with the contraction that is still to come. 

So first up, Nikon needs to make a clear declaration about DSLRs (it might do this only internally, but I'm for transparency, so I'd do it externally, as well). I'm also going to try to be consistent in my own previous positioning here in presenting this proposal. Which means, effectively, Nikon needs to declare that there will be no more DX DSLRs. End of line. Done deal. Liquidation begins. 

The reasoning behind this is, you guessed it, lenses. Given the fact that Nikon never filled out the DX lens lineup means that cameras like the D3500, D5600, and D7500 just shouldn't be in Nikon's future. They're dead ends without lenses. Nikon's DX DSLR lens lineup doesn't hold up against m4/3, Fujifilm XF, or Sony E, which it would be competing with. Even the D500 would have a difficult time living in a lens-starved world. As Nikon probably has discovered, D500 users mostly own the 16-80mm f/2.8-4 and a bunch of FX telephotos. If they have a wide angle DX zoom, it's likely not a Nikkor. And they wanted some fast DX-sized primes. Oops. 

So carrying any DX DSLR forward becomes a problem. One of the issues you face in product line rationalization in a contracting market is that you have lots of problems, but you have to jettison products based on the scale of their problem versus the scale of the potential future market. The scales for DX DSLRs are (1) the things you'd have to do to fix the problem are big and expensive and have long lead times; and (2) the size of the potential market downstream is far smaller. Thus my decision to stop DX DSLR development of any kind. Note I didn't say DX development ;~).

Well, with one burst on the keyboard I've eliminated 4 of the 12 current camera models ;~).

The next part is easy: in FX DSLRs we currently have five cameras. Three of those are very old models now (6, 6, and 4 years old). Gone. 

That leaves only two: the D5 and the D850. I'm with Nikon on the first one: a D6 is absolutely necessary still. It's not going to be a big seller or a game changer (pardon the pun), but it sits at the top apex position with some of Nikon's most important customers. Besides, given Nikon's four-year replacement cycle for the high pro DSLR, that work is already done. So the D5—technically its replacement—stays. You'll see it in January or so.

I think the D850 spot in the lineup stays, too, but it needs some help to do so. First, I believe this model should get the 60mp sensor. Second it needs dual CFexpress slots. Third, it could use IBIS and pixel shift. Finally, the funky features, such as focus shift shooting, need to be cleaned up and made more useful. All those things would make for a pretty incredible DSLR with long legs. One good enough to keep a lot of those D7xx/D8xx folk updating. The marketing approach is simple: "If you like DSLRs, you'll love the best one ever built."

The goal of the two DSLRs I'd carry forward is this: let those that prefer the DSLR ILC choice have the best possible iteration of a speed (D6) and quality (D900) camera available that they can update to. These would be top-end cameras, period, and they're going to live far up on top of that US$2000+ pricing, meaning that they won't have a lot of volume, but it will be important volume to keep. They're also going to live for a number of years, much like the F6 has lived in the film SLR world for the last few that want a competent camera there.

Oh, one more thing: yes, there are a couple of F-mount lenses that should still be done. Many DSLR users will stand put as they have quite competent cameras already, but can be enticed to pick up useful lenses still. Thus, I think as part of the DSLR line simplification announcement you also introduce a lens road map that discloses those future DSLR lenses. 

Wait, what about the D750? After all, there are well-established and long-running rumors that Nikon will roll out a replacement for this model soon, possibly with the D6. To me, that speaks to "milk run." In other words, what's the easiest thing we can do to hold a product position we think might be important. My problem is that the D750 runs dead square against a huge group of mirrorless cameras, as it's in the middle of the lineup and that's where most of the action is taking place at the moment, including from Nikon. I'm not one to send mixed signals, and I really don't care about mopping up a few extra dollars in transition, I want to make sure what we transition to creates to-die-for products. 

Worse still, the current rumors about the D750 replacement basically says it'll use the same 24mp sensor as the Z6 but slot in extra features than the Z6, like dual card slots. Oops. Doesn't Nikon really want people to buy a Z6? You really don't want to be coming out with a product so close to the product you really need to work downstream, undercutting its sales. I wouldn't make a D750 replacement, myself. Sends the wrong signal. Note my message for the D850 replacement ("best DSLR ever built"). What's the tag line for the D750 replacement, "somewhat better than our mirrorless camera"?

Which brings us to mirrorless. What I kept in the DSLR lineup is maybe 40,000 units a year, so we still have 560,000 units to fill!

We're sort of at the question of "how many camera models should we produce?" We have two so far, and I'd guess that those DSLRs will eventually taper to zero in four to six years (e.g., ultimately a mirrorless model replaces them directly).

 We want clear positioning and model choice, without a lot of confusion and clutter. We need cameras with price points of US$600, US$1000, US$1500, US$2500, US$4000, US$6000, or something similar. (That's a pricing simplification, but again, a Web article has to stick to the simplification side. There's a lot more MBA-type math that would go into specific positioning points, and that target changes constantly over time. If I were writing a business plan, there'd be statistics and prediction models. For now, we'll just use those price points as markers.)

Which brings me to another point: Nikon's biggest success has been with serious enthusiast and professional shooters, people who are willing to pay a reasonable price for performance and features using a proven UX. Those are the folk that bought multiple Nikons along the way and want to stay with the brand. They're the ones with the biggest lens closets. Porsche doesn't make a entry-level Kia competitor, and I don't think Nikon should, either.

Those target Nikon users are, at a minimum, D70 type of users (current model D7500). Many moved up to the D300/D500/D700 level at some point. Some went all the way up to the D850/D5 level. 

The current Z50 actually hits slightly below the D7500 level, which I find a bit of a problem (similar to the Z6 being just underneath the D750 replacement). I have no idea why Nikon thought that simplifying and removing features was the right thing to do, but overall the Z50 hits a level slightly below the Nikon user I'd want to continue to attract and retain. Thus, you won't see me do a Z10, Z20, Z30, or Z40, at least not until I could verify that those models would actually grow my market. Thus, I'd add back in some of the things that Nikon took out of the Z50 and push it higher in several areas of performance. The Z50 Mark II becomes my entry camera.

It's not a bad entry camera, actually, even as it is. It's also the closest Nikon is going to come to giving us top-end serious users a pocket camera, I think (the Z50 and kit lens does fit in my jacket pocket). This is also a camera that has potential for firmware and modest hardware upgrades that will make for a clear Mark II model. If I were in charge, I'd also roll all the firmware upgrades that fit to the existing Z50 user base as I was introducing a Mark II. Make users happy and they'll keep with your brand. Send the right message!

What Nikon really needs is a new US$1000 camera that's more sophisticated and slotted above the Z50. I'm going to call it the Z70 because, well, the D70 was so seminal in Nikon's DSLR success. I want to try to replicate that by mimicking the name. "You started with a D70 because it was the best all-around camera of its generation. Well, we've done it again, witness the Z70."

The Z70 needs the 26mp BSI APS-C sensor, more shutter performance, a better choice in rear LCD, dual SD card slots that are UHS-II, the full firmware feature set Nikon is capable of (e.g. all NEF choices, Focus Shift shooting, etc.), and "something extra." I'll leave that last bit in quotes for another discussion, but I have some serious ideas about that. This camera needs to be US$1000 body only, and reek of solid performance. It needs to be so good that D500 users want it.

And then there's this: the Z70 is DX, so it (and the Z50) need a fuller set of Z DX lenses. And those lenses should not be the consumer-fodder specs we've gotten so far. Those lenses shoot too low for long-term success. Remember, we're competing with other crop-sensor cameras with full lens sets. 

That means we need a DX-sized 10-20mm f/4, 16-80mm f/2.8-4, and perhaps a 50-135mm f/2.8-4 lens, as well as a scattering of DX-sized primes in the wide to normal end (14mm f/2.8, 16mm f/2, 24mm f/2, 35mm f/1.4). I'll concede the rest of the lens lineup to the excellent Z FX lenses, because I'm defining a smaller, leaner Nikon here and don't believe I have the option to define twenty camera bodies and eighty lenses. 

I'm keeping the aperture specifications slightly conservative here because a Z DX lens clearly has to be Z DX sized. The whole point is to put together a reasonably complete system that's small, light, and highly competent. One that caters to serious enthusiasts and pros. Any compromise to those things makes it less likely Nikon could hit future sales targets and retain gross profit margin (GPM).

Yep, my Z DX lineup is just two bodies and ten lenses (that includes the three known kit/convenience lenses, which is all we need of those ;~). And Z DX probably has to account for half of my projected sales. That means I can't make targeting, omission, and simplification mistakes in the DX product line. The Z50 Mark II body has to come up a bit in capability while going down in price, the Z70 has to come in like the D300 did years ago: a highly desirable product at the right price, and one that tops all competitors.

Of all the things I outline in this article, the DX side of mirrorless will be the most difficult for Nikon to get right. That's partly because, beyond the market volume collapse that has happened, we've had a price collapse, too. Nikon put the Z50 body out at US$860. That's too high for what it is, given that there is a plethora of older generation cameras on fire sale all around it and you have to get fence-sitting Last Camera Syndrome folk off the fence. 

To survive and re-capture those old customers, you need an incredible product at US$600 and a super-incredible product at US$1000. Don't try to fill the gap in between, don't try to finesse the GPM down to the last penny at the expense of attracting that customer, don't leave room for the competition to out-shoot you. Don't let your loyal user have any excuses to switch brands.

Unfortunately, Nikon has almost five decades now of "missing" at the bottom of their lineup. The build a great high end, then think that they're a consumer company and put out chaff at the bottom, expecting it to hold serve and gather new customers. Every time, they overextend and end up having to regroup, just as they are right now in Tokyo. I suspect that there are too many folk in Nikon that still are shooting too low, and will think that Z DX is some sort of simplified consumer product compared to sophisticated DSLR products. That kind of thinking is dangerous right now. 

I kid you not, the ultimate size or fate of Nikon in the camera business depends upon the "low end", which is Z DX. But note I put that in quotes. "Low end" for Nikon should be a higher-end target than the competition. Navigating that problem correctly—doing more at lower cost—is ultimately the thing that will define Nikon's successes or failures moving forward.

We have two other existing cameras to talk about, the Z6 and Z7. Yes, they should continue, and they should be Mark II'd very quickly. Where are the pain points that have to be fixed on these cameras? (1) Add back in the things that were simplified or removed from the D850. That's a no brainer. (2) Dual card slots. While I don't actually think this is a necessity from a product definition standpoint, the backlash that Nikon got against a single XQD slot at launch has to be addressed, and the easiest way to do that is to just do what the plebeians asked for. That would also serve the purpose of being able to say "see, we listened," something Nikon isn't so good at appearing to do. (3) Fix the add-on grip situation. The current solution looks like a quick-and-dirty MBA student summer school project that didn't get completed before they had to go back to campus. It seriously cripples the perceived upside of the camera. This is another of those "see, we listened" things. (4) Resolve the focus. We need a realistic 3D Tracking mode, and we need the ability to switch focus modes easier. The cheap thumb stick needs to be a heftier thumb pad (ala what Sony did with the A9 m2), as well. Add rear LCD touch-to-position focus capability and better tracking targeting. (5) And remember my "something extra"? Yep, add that. There's probably some small stuff I'm missing here, but again, I'm trying to keep this short and just hit the big bullet points.

All these things would make the Z6 and Z7 Mark II's prove that Nikon can do what Sony did with the A7 models. The Z6/Z7 already hold their own well against the Sony Mark III models, so it shouldn't be difficult to keep them in the lineup and selling. But it will take a solid iteration to weed out poor initial decisions Nikon made with the two models and hasn't yet addressed.

I'm going to ultimately create two other mirrorless cameras. The first is going to take the Z50 Mark II body and features and stick an FX sensor in it. Call it the Z5. This is a product that has to get down to the Canon RP pricing level. It's also a product that's going to require one or two new Z FX lenses (no IBIS means we need kit lenses with VR). Why an entry full frame? Because without the D610 and D750 on fire sale, Nikon doesn't have a solid full frame entry unless they care to fire sale the Z6. Remember, my Z50 Mark II definition is upscale from the current model, so a Z5 still packs a lot of punch, only with a bigger sensor.

The second new model would be the inevitable transition of the D1/2/3/4/5/6 line to mirrorless. Call it the Z9. I think we have until the 2022 Winter Olympics for that product to appear, so I'm not going to detail it out at the moment other than to say Nikon needs to make D6 users salivate when they see it. Instead of a D6s, Nikon pros will want a Z9 on the two-year cycle, that's how I'd know the new model was properly defined. 

That's eight cameras, with a strong tilt towards mirrorless and an emphasis on core enthusiast and up-scale from that. Let's see what that gives us.

In the following, note that the pricing I list is where the price point has to get to. If you get the products perfectly right, you can sell the first shipments at a slightly higher price and then use discounting to adjust volume, a very common marketing and sales tactic. For the purposes of planning, though, you need to know where these products are designed to sell at for most of their product life and what their GPM was calculated from, thus my pricing points.

From bottom to top, my product line definitions gives us:

  • Z50 Mark II — entry-level crop sensor camera at least at the sophistication level of a D70 and its successors. Going to have to sell for US$600, though. 
  • Z70 — top-of-the-line crop sensor camera with the sophistication and performance level of the venerable D100, D300, and D500 lineage, ultimately selling at US$1000, a price that's half what the D500 came out at. 
  • Z5 — the Z50 Mark II body and capabilities, but with the 24mp FX sensor. Needs to be at the US$1200 price point (2x the Z50) with potential for discounting.
  • Z6 Mark II — a serious update to a current camera that's selling decently, so the update needs to be significant and meaningful to hold the price point (US$2000 with periodic discounting). This camera also needs to be the one that D610/D750 users would get, so it needs to be at or above their D610/D750 update expectations.
  • Z7 Mark II — this is a trickier one, as the Z7 isn't selling as well as the Z6. It may very well mean that we need to add quite a bit to this model to get it to sell back at the US$3500 price point (ultimately discounted). The Z7 Mark III will be eventually targeted to replace the D900.
  • Z9 — (Two years out) The first iteration of this product has to live in a world where the Sony A9 m2 is probably US$3500, and it has to compete well with it and the inevitable A9 m3. So I've put the Z9 at the US$3500 mark in my lineup, but that will be really tough to do. This is a bells and whistles camera, but it's going to be under immediate pricing pressure. This camera needs to be Nikon's best effort in 2022, and clearly so.
  • D900 — the pixel counting DSLR user's last stand. We've got everything thrown into the box for this one, literally, as I'd likely include the vertical grip, and our goal is to get as many of the remaining D7xx/D8xx/D#x holdouts to upgrade. At US$4000, this product has to be top-notch and extremely well-rounded, just as the D850 was before it.
  • D6 — the speed DSLR's last stand. Let's hope that Nikon got the definition of this US$6500 camera right, as it really has to hold its own for two or three years against the Sony A9. Eventually, Nikon's own mirrorless answer (Z9) will replace it.

So why are the mirrorless cameras less expensive than the DSLRs? Well, from a manufacturing standpoint, they're cheaper to produce. But there's a hidden plan in my lineup here: I'm encouraging people to move from DSLR to mirrorless because the mirrorless options are cheaper, yet equal or better. Yes, they aren't as high level as the two top DSLRs in some ways, but how many people actually are going to buy at the very top? Not many. I want to encourage as many folk as possible in that tasty middle to transition to mirrorless, while continuing to please the highest-end DSLR user.

Ultimately, I also want to encourage upward migration in my user base: Z50 user to Z70 or Z5. Z5 user to Z6 Mark II, Z6 user to Z7 Mark II/III or Z9. 

All this also means that while I've outlined eight cameras here, ultimately I'm headed to a line of just six. I'm also not trying to stuff new models in between clear product points, slot stuff to try to attract unsophisticated consumers, or think that Augmented Reality cameras or some other business I'm not yet in will be my savior.

Six solid cameras targeted at enthusiasts and pros. A full set of lenses for Z DX and Z FX. That's the core. With so few cameras, that means that the products must meet or exceed user expectations, period. The days of feature removal, over simplification, and making the user give in to the bean counters' demands need to be over at Nikon. I'd be looking very carefully at solving more user problems, too, even ones that the user doesn't yet know they have. (Again, I've left the discussion of entirely new, desirable features out of the discussion for the moment, as they deserve an article of their own. Suffice it to say my entire eventual lineup would have that "something extra" I mentioned earlier. This is key to keeping Nikon appearing to be a leader rather than a follower.)

So finally, how do you extend that core? Ecosystem partnering. Yes, the lens mount and flash mount will be licensed under my product line management. I'd cooperate with any software developer as much as possible. I'd work with accessory makers to extend what the cameras can do. [Side note: I'd ship lens hoods and batteries and other things at the same time as the product they're for if they're not included in the box; small things matter ;~]

I can just see the NikonUSA and Nikon corporate managers all bemoaning: "but if you open up the mount we'll sell fewer lenses." Uh, guys? Aren't you supposed to be a 100-year old optics company that's better than anyone else? If you're telling me that you can't compete and create compelling, unique optics that people want, then I think you need to get out of the consumer lens-making business. Simple as that. Maybe a little less chutzpah and a lot more time in the design shop?

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As I noted above, this article has had a very long gestation period. Several times I've been tempted to publish it. The genesis was my product line thinking in late 2017 as I became aware of all the prototyping that was going on at Nikon and the discussions among top management about what products should be produced in the future. Nikon's introduction of the Z50 and Z DX actually fit in well with the models I had "planned" back in late 2017, early 2018. I've only had to change a few things overall and re-center my lowest end camera around the Z50. Likewise with the Z6 and Z7. 

Nikon 2019 News

In these folders you’ll find the several hundred news and commentary articles about Nikon and DSLR cameras that appeared on this site in 2019:



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