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The Compact Conundrum

For the purposes of this article I'm going to define large sensor compact as having a 1" sensor or larger.

Michael Johnston over at The Online Photographer and I both in the mid-00's began lobbying for large sensor compacts (here's one variation on the large sensor compact articles I wrote). It took awhile for anything to appear that met our definitions, but eventually such cameras did begin to appear. Strangely, though, it really doesn't seem like any camera company quite got the message that Michael and I were delivering: almost none of the models produced were quite what was being asked for.

Here in 2017, we just had Nikon cancel their latest attempts at producing large sensor compacts. This has been particularly galling to the photo enthusiast crowd because at least one of those models was going to be completely unique and was regarded as desirable by a fairly large group (DL 18-50). Meanwhile, other large sensor compacts, such as the Ricoh GR, haven't seen an update in ages, while Sony rapid-fired five RX100 variations.

What the heck is going on? 

If you ask me, what's going on is random searching for the Holy Grail of compacts. But before we get to that, let's examine what's really available for a moment:

  • Canon — G3 X, G5 X, G7 X, G9 X. All use a 1" sensor, but the body size/styles are considerably different. The G3 X is a soap bar with 25x zoom, the G5 X is a mini DSLR style with a fast 4.2x zoom, the D7 X is a small soap bar with that fast 4.2x zoom, and the G9 X is a smaller soap bar with a more modest 3x zoom. Prices range from US$530 to US$999. 
  • Fujifilm — X70, X100T, X100F. Both X100's use the same 23mm (35mm equivalent) f/2 lens and classic rangefinder design. The older T is 16mp, the newer F is 24mp, and both sensors are X-Trans. Price is US$1299 (the older T version probably will go on sale when the F version actually ships). The X70 is the older 16mp with an 18.5mm (28mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens, but no EVF or EVF option, for US$700. 
  • Leica — X-U and Q, D-Lux. The D-Lux is a Panasonic LX100 in a Leica wrap and uses a 4/3 sensor with a fastish 3x zoom. The X-U is a curious all-weather model with no other real competitor and uses the old Sony 16mp APS sensor. The Q is classic rangefinder design (with EVF), and 24mp full frame. Lens is a fixed 28mm f/1.7 Summilux, a very defining element if you pardon the pun. Prices range from US$1099 to US$4250. 
  • Panasonic — LX100, LX10, ZS100. The LX100 is a 4/3 sensor with that fastish 3x zoom. The ZS100 is a 10x zoom in the basic rangefinder-type body (with crude EVF). The LX10  is a basic soap bar with a fast 3x zoom. Prices all hoover in the US$699-799 range.
  • Ricoh — GRII. Here we have a long soap bar with the older 16mp APS sensor and a fixed 28mm (equivalent) f/2.8 lens. Price is currently US$600.
  • Sony — RX1, RX100. For some reason we have all five variations of the RX100 camera still available for purchase. The lens is basically the same on all these, as are most of the controls and feature sets. The differences were the addition of BSI sensor in the Mark II model, the addition of the pop-up EVF in the III, 4K video in the IV, and faster focusing in the V.  The RX1 is a full frame large soap bar with a 35mm f/2 Zeiss lens and a 24mp sensor, but no built-in EVF. Prices range for US$450 to US$1000 for the 100's, US$2800 for the RX1. A few readers noted that I forgot the updated RX1, the RX1RII, which has a 42mp full frame sensor and a small pop-up EVF (ala the RX100) for US$3900.

Even from this simplification of description you can tell there are a lot of very different approaches to large sensor compact going on. In terms of what comes closest to what I and others originally asked for, I'm going to say that only the Fujifilm X100 and the Panasonic LX100 need apply. Okay, add the Leica Q (but it's in a class, including price, of its own).

Why? Because the premise was a camera that a serious photo enthusiast would use as their go everywhere camera. I specifically asked for DSLR-like level of directness and control, and only these four cameras can legitimately claim that. I dropped the GRII and X70 off the list these days because I'd go further and say that we want at-the-face composing, too (which is why the RX1 drops off the list, too; true, the GRII and RX1 cameras have an optional EVF, but that's not exactly what we want).

Some might claim that the Sony RX100 ought to be in my list, too, but sorry, I've given up on the tiny controls on that camera that mimic the old consumer compacts. Sure, it fits in a shirt pocket and takes very good photos, but these days I think of it as more aspiring to its specs than capable of them. By that I mean that, while the sensor is 20mp, the lens lets that down. In practice, detail is more like that of a 12mp camera, at which point the Panasonic LX100 suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. 

So we're down to X100, LX100, and Q. All three are fine cameras and I can recommend any of them. 

Personally, I really look forward to Panasonic updating the LX100's sensor. It's the weak part of the camera, and about the only weak part. It really needs to get to at least 16mp without messing anything else up. On the other hand, the Fujifilm and Leica cameras require you to buy into the focal length they've chosen (35mm for Fujifilm, 28mm for Leica). 

Quality, control, performance. Those are the three factors most photo enthusiasts are looking for in large sensor compacts. Quality as in "DSLR level lens"; Control as in "DSLR-like direct and complete control; Performance as in "DSLR-like focus and image quality." Add to those three things being able to compose and control the camera at the eye, and you've got the basic formula for a winner.

It's clear that we'll pay at least US$1000 for that, and probably easily into the US$2000 range for the dead-on right camera. But the tricky part is the lens specification. At any given focal length you get a different set of takers. I don't understand why you can't build the basic camera—say the Fujifilm X100 with just an EVF instead of the dual-mode viewfinder—in multiple models cost efficiently: X100-28, X100-35, X100-50. Yes, it becomes a bit of demand and stocking problem, but these cameras, done right, would be on the market for several years. Some people would tend to eventually buy two (maybe all three, especially if the lower length was 24mm). 

It really seems that the camera industry has to figure out how to live with modest volumes of cameras like this. Getting it right means sales. Getting it wrong means no sale. 

The Disappointment of CP+

With CES and CP+ now in the books, the next big show coming up that has the ability to rock the photographic world is the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week. After that, it's NAB in April for TV/video gear. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. As we expected, early 2017 has been a fairly busy season for cameras. The delays in sensor production and availability due to the quake in early 2016 pretty much impacted everyone's plans in some way, with only Canon being immune in the ILC world (though they were hit in their compact line that uses 1" sensors). 

One thing I hear is that the quake gave Sony some ability to shift some sensor focus. Those 1/2.3" and other smaller sensors that tended to be used in compact cameras gave way to increased fab space for 1" sensors, an area where Sony is currently pretty much the sole supplier. At the other end of the spectrum—APS, full frame, and small medium format—the camera companies are moving towards more upscale cameras, and that means not quite as much demand for run of the mill, lowest common denominator sensors (e.g. the 6mp, 12mp, 16mp, 24mp APS Exmor progression), but instead demand for sensors with "special features" or customizations (e.g. Fujifilm's X-Trans layer instead of Bayer). 

I mention all that because at CP+ you saw the evidence of (most of) that. With some very curious exceptions, virtually all centered around Nikon. 

To some degree, CP+ this year was "Photokina Delayed." Products like the Fujifilm GFX or Panasonic GH5, which were introduced at Photokina, are now entering reality at CP+. The Olympus E-M1 Mark II started shipping in small quantities only two months ago and just now seems to be more fully available.

Oddly, Canon seemed to be the only company with actual new camera products you could see at CP+ that weren't available at some previous show. Nikon and Ricoh/Pentax seemed to be the ones missing anything new, though I suppose they'd claim that the D5600 and KP are significant new cameras. 

On the lens side, Sigma's latest offerings and Fujifilm's surprise announcement of zooms for the Sony E mount seemed to be the big news, though Cosina also had new FE mount lenses (some of which are also Photokina Delayed), Tamron had new lens offerings on display, and even Sony managed to bring two new lenses to the show.

Plus we have Sony's new SF-G SD cards, which are claimed to be the fastest available (299MB/s write, 300MB/s read). 

But the question looming over CP+ was this: is the excitement about photography still there? I suspect the answer you'd get would depend upon who you asked. And if you asked a Nikon enthusiast, the answer would probably be no. 

Which is weird. The Nikon D7200, D500, D750, D810, and D5 are clearly some of the best cameras created to date. The last half dozen Nikkor lenses have been wickedly good. So why is it that the mood around Nikon seems to be so funky and downturn at the moment?

The cancellation of the DL models certainly didn't help, but that was just a symptom of the bigger problem: below the D7200 Nikon really has been setting the world on ice (the opposite of fire, get it?). NikonUSA is currently promoting three different D3xxx and three different D5xxx models. The differences between them? Mostly the number of dollars you spend to obtain them. This is an indication that the product sales for these models not only stalled, but so too did the ability to iterate new models intelligently. I believe there's fear among Nikon faithful that this lack of iteration innovation is going to work its way up the model lineup. In other words, the perception is that Nikon is out of ideas. 

Below the DSLR line it does indeed seem that Nikon is out of ideas. Or at least their own ideas. The KeyMission cameras were late to a market that had already peaked, and nothing particularly new. Coolpix seems to have turned into Glacierpix with a side of "mine is longer than yours". Nikon 1 happily sits where it did in 2015 doing nothing. Anything approaching a professional compact camera just died with the DL cancellation, and that was the one place where Nikon was attempting something new (the DL 18-50 would have been a unique product on the market). 

Meanwhile, Nikon has had no response to (1) serious mirrorless; (2) >36mp cameras; (3) medium format. Plus we still have no full DX lens lineup, and any random group of a dozen Nikon users can easily identify a half dozen lenses that Nikon doesn't make that they want.

What the Nikon crowd is worried about is the paralysis that Nikon seems to be gripped in. And that's despite Nikon having two of the most interesting cameras of 2016 (D5 and D500). Imagine how that worry expands if all we see in 2017 is some expected DSLR iterations.

In the midst of all that appeared an article in Japan ostensibly due to a short interview with Gokyu-san, the head of Nikon Imaging.  A lot of Nikon faithful ran to their Internet translation service and got back a garbled interpretation that set speculation afire: multiple Nikon mirrorless cameras coming! Mirrorless only after DSLR sales exceeded by mirrorless! New compact! New lenses! High-end cameras only!

I needed help reading this article myself. My interpreter friend points out that much of what is being cited as fact on the Internet is actually speculation on the part of the original author. In terms of actual new information, there really isn't any (other than perhaps that Nikon still wants to have a compact camera that makes sense, despite cancelling the DL series). In terms of other things Gokyu appears to have actually said, it's that there are no plans to close facilities/factories, and that Nikon remains committed to higher-end cameras. 

At this point I'm very curious as to what will happen first at Nikon this year: (a) management changes after their fiscal year close in March; or (b) a significant new product launch. 

We're on a cycle where many key management shifts would be expected as the usual rotations come up for review. We had some surprises in the last such changing of the guard, and I'd be very shocked if we don't have more with the about-to-happen next shift. After all, given all the things that did or didn't happen in the last year for Nikon—loss of market share, loss of sales volume, poor KeyMission launch, poor SnapBridge launch, delay and cancellation of DL, etc.—I don't think anyone can argue that Nikon's management has been on top of their game. Anywhere. From the very top all the way down into the subsidiaries (though the subsidiaries will all rightfully say their hands were tied by Tokyo). 

I'm betting we get management shifts before new product. But we all need to be worried about that: the DL cancellation was a management decision. I believe an ill-advised one. Just changing management horses may not change the fact that management has been making poor decisions. I worry that it would only change who is viewed as making the bad decisions. That's because Nikon is a management-by-consensus company, so it's not as if any given person has been the clear responsible party for all that's been bubbling up as problematic. 

Nikon's customers are restless. Very restless. Some are so restless they're going elsewhere. I got another message today for a fully-dedicated Nikon pro about adding something non-Nikon to this arsenal. That has to stop if Nikon is to succeed. 

So let me make it simple and clear: The thing that would save Nikon is that they embrace their customers. 100%. 

This runs counter to the direction Nikon has been going. Cost cutting in Nikon's ugly global subsidiary system has cut customer interaction and made it more confrontational. Nikon marketing used to produce full brochures for every camera, now not so much; and the overall marketing campaign has essentially become a mockery of itself (every camera gets a Haiku-like slogan, plus some variation on I AM...). Dealers no longer see reps and are sometimes the last to know about promotions. The list goes on.

Which brings me back to CP+. Nikon mostly highlighted products that aren't working (e.g. KeyMission), their 100-year heritage, and products you can't (or wouldn't) buy (100 unit limited edition D5/D500/lens sets). I've been along for the ride for half of that 100 years, and I'm finding that I have to look further and further back each passing year to find the Nikon that I grew up with, the one I fully trusted, and the one that I could count on to deliver the products I needed and wanted. I want them back.

Sigma Announces Four New Lenses

In conjunction with the CP+ show in Japan, Sigma announced four new lenses, though pricing and availability details were not disclosed. 

The lenses are the 14mm f/1.8 Art, the 135mm f/1.8 Art, the 24-70mm f/2.8 Art, and the 100-400mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary. All these lenses are available in the Canon EF, Nikon F, and Sigma SA mount. The 14mm f/1.8 is clearly something new with no real competitor, the 135mm a close second. The other two lenses appear to be rethinks of earlier Sigma lenses.

At this point there's not a lot more than the press release, product specifications, and press images of the lenses available. I have updated the lens database pages to include all the new lenses, and as the final details trickle in I'll update those.

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About Nikon's Financials

There's a lot of discussion about Nikon's financials still going on, and it's provoking quite a few comments that are incorrect, as well as some bad speculation about the future of Nikon. Call it Fake Views. 

So let's do a bit of a drill down for a moment. If you don't understand finance-speak, just skip down to the boldface word summary, below. 

In terms of fundamental numbers, Nikon has been and continues to be relatively healthy as a company. Some of their regulatory data isn't yet available to me for the most recent quarter, so I'll go back to the previous quarter for some numbers. Because the big news was an "extraordinary loss," many of these numbers probably won't change. 

Nikon's P/E ratio has tended to be in the mid-20's to low-30's recently. Obviously, with a special loss, it's not a meaningful number for the current quarter, but nothing in the underlying numbers seems to suggest that it will be different for ongoing operations. I'd characterize Nikon's P/E as slightly high to the market average, but not meaningfully so. The market in general is somewhat high, too. 

Nikon's Price/Book Value, which is the stock price divided by the breakup value of the underlying assets has been in the 1.1 to 1.2 range, meaning that there's not a lot of speculation in the value of the company: shareholders are paying close to fair value for the underlying assets. Now this may change a bit when the assets that were just written down are taken into account, but probably not much given how high the book value is to the extraordinary loss.

Nikon's been paying a dividend yield on its stock, which tends to vary by quarter, but recently has been in the mid 1% range. Return on equity has been in the mid-single digits, Return on assets in the low-single digits. Those numbers aren't exactly where I'd want to see them for a completely healthy company: they're all indicative of little or no growth. 

If you're wondering about why Nikon is so tied to cost cutting, it's all about that dividend. Nikon has tried to keep free cash flow high enough to sustain a decent (for Japan) dividend. Why? Well, look at their largest shareholder list: they're almost all banks and financial institutions. Banks that are charging 1% interest on bonds to companies like Nikon, but getting 1.5% in dividends ;~). 

Total corporate debt is only about half of cash and equivalents. That's a very reasonable level, and most of Nikon's debt is also at absurdly low interest rates (typical in Japan). 

In other words, we have a company whose financial statements and underlying numbers all seem decent, except for one thing.

Summary: From 2012 to present, Nikon's sales and income numbers have diminished considerably, with Imaging sales dropping by almost half. Nikon is a negative growth company in terms of sales, and because they've managed their costs so close to the vest, they're an equally negative growth company in terms of income/profit. 

The problem for Nikon is simple: they need growth. The current reaction of Nikon camera customers is this: where are the new cameras we want? So put those two things together and you have "negative growth will continue." 

That's why the lack of Nikon 1, the poor decision to launch KeyMission, the cancellation of the DL cameras, and the lame D3400 and D5600 updates is causing so much fuss in the Nikon community. Given that the D7200, D610, D750, and D810 are all due for updates this year, the worry is that the trend of not producing better cameras that the users want could continue if Nikon botches (or withholds) those iterations. 

Still, the D7200, D610, D750, and D810 updates are not Nikon's biggest problem. The problem is that they shot for the moon with the Nikon 1, shot for a moon orbit with the KeyMission, shot for the moon again with DL but had a launch failure, got the D3400 and D5600 off the launch pad but not near the moon, and so on. All the dollars that the products below the D7200 would have brought in have collapsed into the nothingness of space. Negative growth. 

Even perfect D7300, D650, D760, and D850 product launches would only move the growth bar slightly in the correct direction. Plus Nikon has built a wait-and-see attitude into their customers given the D610, D750, and D800 launch issues. So there's no "quick fix" to turn around Nikon sales numbers. 

But will Nikon fail or be acquired or declare bankruptcy? No, no, and no. At present the best guess is that they're just going to get smaller. Have fewer products. Sell mostly high-end gear. 

Until such time as Nikon launches something below the D7200 that has traction, that's going to continue to be the case. 

The Random Nikon Rumors

On top of all the uncertainty that Nikon’s cancellation of the DL produced, now we have rumor mania to deal with, too. 

Consider this rumor that popped up (again): that the D810 update won’t happen because instead that camera will be replaced by a mirrorless model. That way Nikon would have a Sony A7rII competitor. 

Well, they already have a considerable A7rII competitor: the D810. I own and shoot both, and I consider the D810 the better choice most of the time. I’d expect a D810 replacement to retain that distinction. So exactly what would we gain with a switch to mirrorless? I’m not sure we'd gain anything that excites me, especially if this means yet another new lens mount. 

But let’s assume for a moment that this rumor is true and Nikon will not update the D810 but put out a high megapixel full frame mirrorless camera instead. What would that say about Nikon’s product line management? 

To me, such a switcheroo would be just another sign of Nikon product panic. 

Let's see, the F3, F4, D1h/D1x, D3/D3x all worked, and the D5 seems to be working while the F6 worked for the few remaining film-shooting pros. Great products that the pros and high end enthusiasts loved. The F5, D2h/D2x, and D4 didn't quite rise to the same level, but I know plenty of pros that (mostly) love those cameras, too. What I can't understand is why establish the h/s combo and then abandon it? Until the D4 came out we all had h/s twins in our gear closets. Now our gear closet is a bit of a mess. A mirrorless replacement for the D810 would just increase that mess.

The full FX line would have been great if it hadn't been accompanied by recalls and other issues. The D6xx, D750, and D8xx make a strong low-to-high FX DSLR lineup, but really only the D810 got launched without having to make fixes, and this has spooked quite a few folk and kept them from jumping in.

The D500 is one of Nikon's big successes recently—told you so, Nikon—despite the rushed and slightly unfinished feel. There really should be a D500s soon to polish it up, but we don't hear rumors about that, do we? Meanwhile, the D7200 has been a workhorse for everyone that bought it. It'll give a D500 a run for the money in terms of image quality, though not in build or a few critical performance aspects. 

But everywhere else in Nikon's lineup there seems to be confusion. So we get rumors to fill the void as Nikon stays silent. Many of those rumors are simply made up.

For example, that Nikon is working on a new mirrorless system. It's FX. No it's DX. No it's just a refinement and change to CX. I've heard all three. As for those rumors, Nikon would be wickedly out of touch if they weren't prototyping various mirrorless options. With DSLR sales slowly dropping while mirrorless sales continue to stay relatively flat, at some point Nikon will need to have a viable mirrorless system. What worries me most about the multiple rumors on this front and Nikon's recent history of not launching new product lines with any stickiness at all is that Nikon might pick the wrong horse to ride. 

Many of you think that horse should be FX mirrorless. But I don't see how that helps Nikon at all. Note what I wrote about the FX DSLR line above: those are all good cameras, and it's a strong lineup. Probably the strongest part of Nikon's current camera lineup. Do you really think they're going to risk that? I don't. Moreover, it doesn't solve Nikon's biggest problem: negative growth (see today's other article).

Nikon has two particularly sore spots right now: (1) no serious compact cameras; and (2) no APS-sized mirrorless product that slots from below the D3400 space up to the D7200 space. Okay, three: lack of a full DX lens lineup (buzz, buzz ;~). But frankly that last one isn't the giant sized hole that the first two are.

I've heard absolutely nothing about what happens after the DL fiasco. If Nikon is really not going to play in the 1" compact game, the only choice they really have is to build Coolpix A replacements. But Nikon proved they didn't know how to market the Coolpix A. Great camera, bit of a price stretch, terrible name and marketing. 

Meanwhile, for DX mirrorless, I haven't heard a lot. I know Nikon has designed and prototyped such cameras and lenses, but I don't know what their target was or whether they decided to move forward with them. 

What's happening with all these rumors is that customers are trying to build a mental road map for where they want Nikon to be. This is dangerous. If Nikon then produces something that's not in your mental road map, your initial reaction will be negative and marketing it will prove even more difficult for Nikon (and we all know how good they are at marketing ;~). 

Even if Nikon produces the thing that was rumored that was what you wanted, there's still the potential for ship disappointment (e.g. sounds good on paper but actual product has problems; that by the way is the SnapBridge issue: it sounded good on paper but delivered lower than expectations). 

My advice is to chill and take photographs. Eventually Nikon will stop starring at their navel and put some interesting new products into the market. When they do, that's when we should all be discussing them. The chatter at the moment is counterproductive to all of us and to Nikon. 

So, are there products Nikon is rumored to be working on? Absolutely. 70mp, FX, mirrorless, will be good friend with Russian officials, shoots in coal mine and produces heat without pollution or global warming impact...wait, what? 

Right. Rumors are just that. Treat them so.

Two New Canon APS Sensor DSLRs

bythom canon eos 77d w lens

Canon today updated the mid-range of their consumer DSLR lineup with two new models, the Rebel T7i and EOS 77D. The first camera replaces the T6i, while the second seems to be a replacement for the T6s.

Both new cameras sport the 24.2mp dual-pixel APS sensor that also appears in the 80D, the EOS M5, and the just announced EOS M6. A 45-point cross type autofocus sensor is both the new DSLRs, as is a 7650-pixel metering sensor. Both cameras have Digic 7 processors. All these things are steps up from the predecessor DSLRs.

A subtle addition is that of Bluetooth LE, along with a new Bluetooth remote. Neither camera has 4K video, both topping out at 1080P/60. 

The primary differences between the two cameras is that the 77D adds interval shooting, a bulb timer, additional custom settings, an AF-On button, a top panel LCD to see current settings, an internal flash, plus an eye sensor that turns off the rear LCD when looking through the viewfinder. The 80D adds a 1/8000 second shutter, 100% viewfinder, 7 fps instead of 6 fps, and a larger battery. 

The T7i will be available in April for US$749 (body only), the 77D is US$899 for body only.

Both cameras were expected and solid—if not overly exciting—updates to Canon DSLR staples. But they do show Canon’s commitment to the dual-pixel approach, which produces better Live View and video focusing. Moreover, the sensor now in these two models has been proven to be more competitive with the Sony/Nikon APS sensors in terms of dynamic range.

In addition, Canon updated the 1Dx Mark II firmware to version 1.1.3, a small update that fixes an issue with the drive mode icon, plus improves USB communication reliability. 

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Honey, I Shrunk the Company

Here’s the basic premise in the tech business: hook the customer, then keep them; find new customers, repeat. At times all the camera companies have been good at this, at other times all the camera companies seem to have trouble managing to follow this basic prescription. 

What did Nikon really hook people with in the digital era? D1, D100, D70. The modern equivalents of those are the D5, D500, and D7200. Plenty of you reading this have one of those three cameras. 

But some of you have diverged slightly, and that’s because Nikon told you to diverge: in particular, to the D750 and D810. I know quite a few former D1/D2/D3 shooters that went down to the D750 and D810. Plus quite a few D300 shooters that went up. 

During the last Christmas season the big sellers for Nikon were the D500, D750, and D810. Not necessarily the highest volume of sales, but these models pulled the most dollars and profit for Nikon. It's not surprising that many of the presentations at CP+ this coming week will be centered around those cameras (and the D5). Clearly at the discounted prices Nikon had during the season, Nikon picked up a lot of takers. 

But the real question is whether any of the camera companies are picking up new customers below the mid-range DSLR/mirrorless level. For Nikon, that would be Coolpix. But that market has more than collapsed. It’s a giant sinkhole. A hole that swallowed entire groups within some of the other camera companies, and threatens now to do the same at Nikon (and probably Canon, too). 

But think about it for a moment. Does anyone think that any Coolpix owner Nikon hooks is going to be kept? Any KeyMission owner? Any Nikon 1 owner? Well, maybe a few of the latter, but in general this is Nikon’s fundamental problem. They got hooked on growth in the smaller and lower-end cameras (even the D3xxx), but they never really kept many of those customers, and customers for that type of camera are disappearing faster than the ice in Greenland. So there are fewer to hook, and fewer to keep even if Nikon did a reasonable job of keeping them, which they don't.

The good news, of course, is that at the D7200 level and above, Nikon hasn’t really messed up (other than the non-existent D400, lack of DX lenses, and a series of QC issues). If Nikon hooked you on the D70, you’re still shooting Nikon with a D7200 or better. If Nikon hooked you on a D100, you’re likely still shooting with a D500 or D810. So it’s clear that someone at Nikon understands the hook-and-keep scenario and knows how to iterate it. 

Which brings me to the DLs. And the Canon GX and EOS M models. 

Let’s start with Canon, since they’ve just made a series of announcements. It seems that the same external EVF and other accessories works on multiple GX and EOS M models. GX, EOS M, EOS APS, and EOS full frame all are recognizably from the same cut: menu and control similarity abound. You can grow from A to B to C to D without restarting. Heck, now you can even grow into video, too (EOS Cinema). 

No matter where Canon hooks you, they have an answer for you in the future, gave you a reasonable product to start, are iterating regularly, and have push up and pull down options that look familiar to you. 1Dx user needs a pocket camera? Canon’s got that and it’s not too dissimilar or unrecognizable from what they have. GX user wants more lens choice and flexibility? Same accessories work on the EOS M. Of the APS sensor DSLRs.

The DLs were supposed to be Nikon’s answer to the same problem (though there still would have been gaps). I can’t count how many emails I’ve received of disappointment that there won’t be a Nikon DSLR-like compact they can buy (at least for the foreseeable future). The Nikon 1 is our best choice, and those models aren’t as compatible with Nikon DSLRs as they should be, and in far too many ways. Really,  Nikon? A different Speedlight family? 

And here’s a message for Nikon marketing and the folks that made the decision to pull the DL: quite a few of those folk that are responding to me with disappointment already own a Sony RX100. That’s right. They already had the need for such a camera, but had to buy a competitor’s product because Nikon never did the “keep them” thing. They were ready to snap up a DL just as soon as it got decent reviews. Others were waiting to see if Nikon's DL was better, but now they're off to buy the Sony.

Which brings me to an aside: one of the sources that Nikon uses for demand prediction is pre-orders. But given Nikon’s recent QA and QC struggles, my surveys show that about a third of you won’t pre-order anything new from Nikon these days. You wait until the “bugs have been wrung out.” So Nikon is getting incorrect data from the pre-order stream.

I even think Apple gets the product line management wrong from time to time, particularly with the accessories side of things. Why Apple no longer makes displays and seems to be leaving the router market tells me that they have a functional disconnect on how you retain a customer correctly. No, Apple displays and routers aren’t magical. But they work like the rest of the Apple ecosystem, and are virtually plug in and it just works. The Apple ecosystem is stronger because of the glue from these Apple-branded accessories.

And then Apple goes and does it right to prove me right: the AirPods are genius in terms of the plug-in-and-they-just-work thing. So much so that I prefer them and their not-quite-great sound to better sounding third party products that just always seem to need manual Bluetooth intervention to reconnect.

So where I’m confused at the moment is exactly what Nikon thinks they’re doing. They’re a great camera and lens company (as long as you need a D7200 or better and also only need FX lenses, buzz buzz). They seem to have no grasp of how they’re going to find and hook new customers, and the products at the levels where they might do that all have a great deal of suckage of some sort that turns those potential customers off. 

Even a product like the D3400—which is a very good camera, especially at its price point—manages to throw in significant suckage with the SnapBridge application, and that’s almost exactly the feature they could point to and try to get a few people weened off their smartphones for photo taking. “Here, try this to get better and more distinctive images. Sorry the connection thing you need sucks.” 

Here’s the thing. Nikon can’t keep getting this wrong. It won’t matter how good the D7300, D510, D650, D760, D850, Df2, D5s and D5x are. It won’t matter how good the profitability of those products are. These products don’t sell in enough volume now to keep the sales spiral from continuing downward. And should we get a lame update of any of those models, things will be even far worse. 

Earlier today I saw an article on how Wang Computer failed. Not a very good article, but it jogged my memory about how things went down. There are a lot of similarities happening with Nikon at the moment (though not the family ownership bit). 

In the end, it all boils down to management. In the next two years we’re going to see just how good (or bad) Nikon management is. Right now the guess I get from all my analyst, Tokyo, and business friends is that Nikon management is currently in a “Honey I Shrunk the Company” mode. That’s deep in progress, and apparently the shrink ray is still operating. Some manager ought to go find the switch and turn it off, methinks. 

The Nikon Q3 Financials

Nikon this week has put out a series of announcements, including the release of their fiscal year Q3 financials. 

The big news started with a declaration of additional “extraordinary loss,” an accounting term for a loss that is unusual and not caused by operating activities. In other words, a write down of previously declared values. Nikon had already suggested that this write down was coming, but they’ve now not only confirmed it, but increased the amount by 5 billion yen. 

Much of this loss is due to restructuring, particularly in the semiconductor equipment division. The really strange aspect of this is that operationally that group produced 154% in net sales gain during the quarter on a year-to-year basis. So Nikon’s announcement can be confusing: it looks like results for that group are good due to increased sales, but the value of many assets and the restructuring they’re doing in the business is going to basically wipe all that short-term improvement out and then some. 

This was expected, though the level of it is slightly higher than expected.

The shocker in the news this week was the cancellation of the DL model line. Nikon’s own statements about that were slightly inconsistent. In the short post on their site, they mentioned "canceled due to concerns regarding their profitability,” which implies that they would have been unprofitable. But in the general presentation to the Japanese press the wording was slightly different: "Canceled launch of lower profitability products,” implying that there might be profit, but not at the level Nikon wants to produce. More on that in a bit.

Within the same part of the presentation was the official word that the KeyMission cameras were indeed not selling well. Curiously, they were not cancelled. Nor was there any mention of potentially cancelling any Coolpix models.

It’s time to do some comparison of what happened in 2016 with both Canon and Nikon. Here are the basic numbers quarter by quarter:

bythom canon vs nikon quarterly volume

Nikon did a big push for the Christmas season, but still ended up with a reduced market share for the year. Here’s what things look like graphed:

bythom canon vs nikon quarterly graph

The thing that strikes me is that there is probably still bad news in the Imaging business that hasn’t surfaced yet. Note that surge in unit volumes for the last quarter from Nikon: all the evidence I have from the retail channel is that there wasn’t a corresponding sales surge to customers, meaning that this was really push of inventory into subsidiaries to get it off corporate inventory. SG&A expenses keep going up, too, which suggests Nikon is having to discount more heavily to move that extra inventory they’re pushing into the channel.

Despite that surge, the overall numbers for the first three quarters of Nikon’s fiscal year are weak year-to-year for cameras and lenses: net sales down 29%, operating income down 18.4%. Nikon’s still running a high single digit GPM in Imaging (24.2b yen income on 300.8b yen sales), but the size of the pie is getting smaller. 

I’m still trying to analyze the exact numbers, but the thing Nikon didn’t report but is essential to understanding where they are is this: Nikon lost ILC market share in 2016. Thus, their claim that it’s the declining market that defines their problem is not exactly true. Nikon is declining faster than the market in ILC, their primary brand driver. Coupled with no decline by Canon during the same time period, and we have a return to the 90’s: Canon has about half the ILC market, and Nikon about half of the remaining half. 

So before moving on, let me summarize: Nikon is still decently profitable, but shrinking. The extraordinary loss might be a one-time thing that allows them to stabilize at that smaller size; but they might continue to shrink. Everyone worrying that Nikon is going away soon or will be acquired or will stop making cameras should settle down and relax a bit. Things are not dire

That said, I have to tackle the DL cancellation, because if it was done for the reason Nikon suggests, Nikon management is making their problems worse, not better. 

What all of the Nikon presentation in Tokyo reiterated—for the nth time—is that Nikon is filled with bean counters who micromanage. Nikon appears to be looking at products in isolation, which is in my opinion dangerous and has potential for creating new, bigger problems. 

Personally, I thought that Nikon had learned something when they presented their marketing for the DLs at the original announcement. Remember all the “compact for a DSLR shooter” types of comments they made about the design and how they approached creating the product? Dead on. Every serious shooter I know—every darned one—wants a camera that works the same as, uses the same accessories as, and functions the same as their main DSLR camera. But it must be compact and thus able to fit in a small bag or even a jacket pocket so as to be carried everywhere. 

Right now, Nikon DSLR users are picking non-Nikon products to do that with. So the compact camera they choose doesn’t work the same, doesn’t use the same accessories, and doesn’t produce the same results. Not. What. They. Want. Not what I want, either.

The DLs potentially represented a breath of fresh air: EXPEED (same results), DSLR-like menus and controls (works the same), and used the Speedlights (same accessories) among other things. We can argue about whether the two smaller DLs should have had RX100-like built-in EVFs instead of the optional external ones, but for the most part, everything Nikon seemed to be doing with the DLs was the correct product line management decision making. Compacts targeted for the core Nikon user.

First, I think Nikon would have sold more of those DLs than their own antiquated, political, and paternalistic demand analysis appears to have said they would. I can’t speak to “profitability level” a DL might achieve, but I do think the models would have decent sales. I know an awful lot of folk that bought a Sony RX or a Panasonic and don’t like the results. They’re ready to switch back. Plus, the DL 18-50 would have been a unique product that once word of mouth validated the lens probably would have exceeded Nikon’s expectations by a large margin. (I had talks with a couple of Nikon execs about this; they did not believe what the survey of my site readers showed in terms of the DL 18-50 purchase likelihood.) 

But here’s something more to the point: Nikon keeps thinking about cameras, not customers. That was clear with the way the Nikon 1 was handled, the fact that we got the KeyMission series, and even to some degree the way Nikon has been iterating DSLRs. To me, the DLs being a compact extension for a DSLR user was the first statement I’d seen from Nikon that seemed to consider the customer first rather than the camera. Otherwise, the DLs could have just been a J5 with a fixed lens and on the market long ago. 

My fear is that Nikon management is making terrible product decisions based upon the wrong assumptions and reasons. 

Look at Canon: we’re slowly seeing them develop into a 1”, APS mirrorless, APS and full frame DSLRs range of cameras that work similarly, use the same accessories, and produce similar results (DIGIC). Yes, the EOS M5 I’m testing right now has a subset of the Canon DSLR menus, but it’s a well-considered subset and I was able to immediately pick the EOS M5 up and begin using it well because I had familiarity with the DSLRs. There’s only one thing I haven’t figured out how to change on the camera, and that’s a unique feature to the EOS M5. 

Where we are with Nikon is this:

  • An FX line that sells modestly well (and decently against Canon), has mostly strong choices, and is probably on a standard iteration schedule now.
  • A DX line that is starting to sell less well—especially at the low end—and doesn’t have a full set of lenses so can’t defend against crop-sensor mirrorless (buzz buzz). But at least iteration is on a regular schedule again.
  • No mirrorless line with a reasonable-sized sensor.
  • A mirrorless “line” with the smallest sensor, an odd set of lenses, that doesn’t use DSLR accessories, that is overpriced to the competition, which Nikon doesn’t promote any more, and which most dealers won’t stock.
  • No serious compact line. 
  • Action cameras that really aren’t doing well, which were late to market with too little, and which rely on software that is flakey and immature, at best.
  • Some random Coolpix, most of which have no real visibility in the photography market, and certainly none of which match up with Nikon’s DSLR strengths. I’ve written before that Coolpix was hurting Nikon’s brand reputation, and now that’s especially true. 

Last week I offered my product plan for Nikon. That was an attempt to fix the things that Nikon already offers. But if Nikon really wants to shrink and do everything right in a new smaller corporate size, then the plan is far simpler:

  • Continue with FX as I suggested.
  • Rationalize DX fast. Three cameras, build out full lens set. 
  • Create a DX mirrorless that replaces the D3400. Use DSLR-like controls, accessories, performance. Lens road map absolutely necessary.
  • Create what the DLs would have been: one, two, or three serious compacts that are as close to the above three lines, but compact in size and high in performance. Add an AW model.
  • Kill KeyMission.
  • Kill Coolpix.
  • Kill Nikon 1.

But the downside to downsizing is this: every product has to be dead on for that to work. That means that Nikon needs to understand their customers better, and get better feedback on what is and isn’t important. It means that we can’t have more repeats of the D600, D750, or D800 QC problems. It means that we need road maps for lenses. It means that things like SnapBridge have to actually work when they come out. Support has to be there, and marketing has to be on target. 

How much Nikon will shrink is dependent upon those things.

Errata: an earlier version of this article misstated the percentage net sales increase in the Precision division.

DL Turns out to mean Dead List

Nikon today announced that the three DL cameras they announced early in 2016, then delayed for a re-engineering, have now been officially cancelled. The core of the statement:

…everyone involved has worked very hard to develop products with which our customers will be satisfied. However, it has been decided that sales of the DL series will be canceled due to concerns regarding their profitability considering the increase in development costs, and the drop in the number of expected sales due to the slow-down of the market.”

Personally, I call bull****.  What’s really happening at Nikon is that they’re finally starting to understand the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. The “new” initiatives they’ve tried—Nikon 1, KeyMission, and now DL—have all been failures, while their neglect of the consumer DSLRs has now gotten them to the point where sales of them in some key areas are essentially down to zero. 

I have to explain my use of the term “neglect,” because Nikon will point to the fact that they’ve updated the D3xxx four times now and the D5xxx even more often. But all those updates since we hit 24mp have essentially been “reduce costs, ration out a few features” types of updates. Updates that not only don’t inspire upgrading, but also didn’t keep them protected against the slow emergence of mirrorless.

And yes, buzz buzz, the continued limited lineup of consumer zooms for DX lenses hasn’t helped them, either. 

Meanwhile, the D600 was a fiasco and the D610 was an embarrassing attempt to call the fix a “new camera.” People are avoiding that model—despite very low prices for an FX camera—because of the self-inflicted harm Nikon did to themselves. 

What Nikon does manage to sell these days are: D7200, D500, D750, D810, and the “good” lenses. They’d sell even more D7200 and D500 if they had a full, rationalized DX lens lineup. 

So what now, Nikon? I warned way back in 2011 that the push in the consumer models was a distraction that was going to slam you against the wall at the end of the straightaway. And now that the concussion you received is starting to fade, you appear to be abandoning that type of car. 

We’ll see the results in Nikon financials tomorrow, though they’ve already warned of an extraordinary loss. Here’s the thing, though: there’s nothing in anything Nikon has announced that will tell us the pain is over. Nikon is about to become a smaller company. Possibly far smaller. 

Right after the financial announcements Nikon will put on a strong face and introduce what new products they have for CP+. As if that’s supposed to impress us with the future of Nikon Imaging. 

I’m not going to be impressed, no matter which product they announce after the fiscal results. I haven’t been impressed with Nikon’s product management for at least six years, maybe more. There’s no “core philosophy” to what Nikon is doing. It’s all about cost management, for the most part. Yes, you have to manage costs, but that’s a lot easier to do if you produce the right products.

And frankly, at least one and maybe two of the now-cancelled DLs were probably the right product. I wrote when the DL 18-50 was announced that it would be a top seller. Nikon disagreed even then. I ran a survey of my site visitors which produced results that backed that up. Nikon still disagreed. But I don’t see anything that says that they did the due diligence to ask the customers what they thought. 

Now Nikon is saying that they don’t see the demand for product that would make back costs. I’m calling bull****. If they don’t see the demand, then they don’t understand the photography market or their customers (see my other article today). If they can’t make the product profitable at the price they announced, increase the price slightly or fix the internal structure that's producing the problem. Instead, they’re taking a huge loss by absorbing all that R&D expense. I suspect more than anything, they just have cold feet because the Nikon 1 and KeyMission failed and they have no confidence in their ability to see what product might actually sell.,

I’ll have much more to say about all this in a couple of days. Right now I’m shooting and traveling, so I’ve had to squeeze this week’s articles into a little bit of down time. 

Nikon Tried Marketing

Oh dear. First reply I got to the Nikon Tries Marketing article after the streams went live was this: “Watched the wedding presentations. Thought the stand looked cheap and tacky. The presenters dressed very scruffy with no thought of image. Information was SSDD, not biased towards normal weddings more model orientated. Good idea poorly executed.” Oh, and Adobe Flash for livestreaming? 

The question I hear a lot these days is this: why Nikon? I then look at Nikon’s marketing to see what the answer is and often find things like the vague I Am messages (e.g. “I AM SIMPLY AMAZING" [yes, it’s in all caps in Nikon’s marketing]). 

And wait, that’s for the D3400 and D5600. So how about the D7200, D500, D750, and Df? “I AM INSPIRING BRILLIANCE.” The D5 and D810? “I AM ASSIGNMENT READY.” The lenses are “optical masterpieces”, for the action cameras “the storytelling revolution has begun” (I thought I had been doing that for awhile), and the most amusing of all, the DLs that have been missing for a year are “I AM EXCELLENT 24/7.” More like 0/0, Nikon.

These days we have the choice of hundreds of cameras that will all take better images than we got out of our film cameras. Every one of them will net you some very nice photos that print nicely out to 13x19”—the max size of the type of printer an enthusiast might own—and maybe far larger. So what makes you pick one of those cameras (or camera brands) over another?

It’s difficult for me to see what that might be from Nikon’s marketing. Despite the fact that they often tell the home town press that they’d really like to someday be #1 in cameras instead of Canon, do we ever see Nikon tackle Canon directly with marketing messages? Nope. Nikon D810: better shadow recovery, higher resolution, more consistent metering, better in camera cropping options, and much more, than the Canon 5D of the time. Did Nikon ever even hint at any of that? Nope. So why would I choose a D810 if I were choosing a DSLR from scratch? 

Note that to this day I write something that might be considering a marketing statement about the D810: best all-around DSLR you can buyThe D810 is an exceedingly well-balanced camera that produces incredibly good raw data when handled right. It has good ergonomics, its performance at almost anything might not always be #1 but it’s respectably close when it isn’t #1, and it is a camera with a broad and deep feature set that a lot of products can’t match. Did Nikon ever say that to you? Did they ever use a quote in their marketing from someone that did say it? (No I’m not fishing for mentions by Nikon; others have said basically the same things I have, and Nikon can feel free to use those quotes instead of mine. I’m not picky. I just want them to up their marketing game and tell people why they should want Nikon’s products.)

Of course, if Nikon (or anyone else in Japan for that matter) really got serious about marketing benefits and advantages, it works both ways: Nikon could expect Canon to call out where their products might be better, too. And that would be great, IMHO. Because it means that Nikon would absolutely have to keep their engineering game right at the leading edge, where it should be. Ditto Canon. A good marketing war might keep us from getting things like a warmed over D3400 upgrade over the D3300 (I can just see the Marketing VP in a meeting asking "Let’s see, what did we add? Well, a Bluetooth chip and some software that almost works, but did anyone add anything else? No one? Anything?” No wonder they don’t know how to market it.*)

*They did make changes I noted in my review, most interestingly a very dramatic improvement in Live View focus performance. Is that in the Nikon marketing anywhere? Not that I can see.

We gearheads often lose track of the marketing messages. We’re too engrossed in low level details that the average purchaser probably wouldn’t understand. What’s the difference between 13.7EV dynamic range and 14.1EV? How many focus points did that camera have? Wow, the metering sensor is now more than an order of magnitude higher in resolution than where we started. Try: ability to reproduce detail deep into the shadows, lets you control exactly where the focus is obtained, and more accurate metering and auto white balance detection. 

Instead, we get the former set from the camera companies and argue over it on Internet fora, but the person walking into the camera store considering buying a new camera really wants to understand the latter. 

What is the clear benefit to me of choosing this? is a question that should be clearly answered by marketing. More often than not mentioned in the marketing materials. 

I read all the materials from dozens of companies these days. I was actually slightly impressed by the Fujifilm GFX brochure. Yes, there’s a lot of hyperbole and overblown language throughout. But when you get to the specifications, there’s a fairly consistent “what” followed by “what it provides” that pervades most descriptions of features. For example: “The short back focus distance…affords greater freedom in lens design to contribute to the development of fast, compact, and high-performance GF lenses while preventing vignetting…” Okay, I can understand that. Mom can probably understand that. 

I’d still want to see many more user benefit statements than Fujifilm provides, though the simplicity of the Fujifilm brochure approach puts a lot of useful information in a very small space if you know how to speak spec. It just doesn’t close the deal with clear and highlighted statements like “put more resolution in your images and more tonal differentiation from deepest black to whitest white,” “directly set the color results you loved in the film era,” “shoot in any weather and at any temperature you can probably stand yourself,” and “a big, bright viewfinder that shows you exactly what you’re capturing, and that can be customized to do that at any angle.” 

These days I see a lot of trendy things in marketing (social marketing, inbound marketing, content marketing, etc.). But I keep missing the three things that Peter Drucker—who at one time was doing a lot of consulting in Japan—said marketing consisted of:

  1. Know your customer.
  2. Identify the product that serves the customer.
  3. Make the product sell itself.

And that brings me back to Nikon. Does Nikon really know its customer these days? I’m not so sure. I see them reaching to find new customers without totally understanding them (KeyMission, for example, and at least one of the DLs). I find them not reacting to things their classic customer wanted (the missing D400 and DX lenses, for instance). So, probably a no to #1.

Nikon often—but not always—seems to do a good job at #2. We can’t argue against the D7200, D750, D810, or D5, for example. We can argue that they missed with the KeyMission cameras, the Nikon 1, the now non-existent DLs, plus some cameras that were wanted (see #1) but never produced. 

And then we get to #3: make the product sell itself. Nikon too often relies on a big feature or technology to do that, without fully explaining it to the user. The D800, for instance, pushed full frame into a new, high resolution world. A lot of us got that intuitively from the simple notion of 36 > 20. But what did it really mean?

Let me ask you this: anyone remember the poster-sized foldout of a racing motorcycle cornering at a track taken at ISO 6400 that Nikon produced for one of the pro launches? If you saw it, you do. It was one of the most clear “you can’t do this with another camera” campaigns I’ve seen (though you can do it with quite a few cameras these days). That’s what we want more of from Nikon: you buy Nikon because it’s the product that lets you do this…

I can already hear the phone call (or read the email) from NikonUSA: but we do that: "The new Nikon KeyMission cameras are built to withstand the elements with bodies that are waterproof, shockproof, dustproof and freezeproof. Each climb, ride or wave is recorded with such clarity, it’s like reliving your best adventures.” 

Sorry Nikon, that was GoPro’s marketing parroted. And the 170 product looks like a parrot, too, though not with very good talons. Why exactly am I buying a KeyMission 170 over a GoPro? Especially given that GoPro has saturated all the buying channels with lots of marketing promotion that has said the same thing for a long time, so Nikon is coming in as a number two from the get go. 

So we’re back to where I started: why Nikon? 

This is the question not being answered by Nikon marketing. It’s the question that a lot of photo enthusiasts have been asking themselves and then coming up with the answer “not Nikon for me.” It’s the question that a lot of stores are now starting to avoid answering by saying “have you considered Sony?” (Note: Sony has some spiffs in the retail sales channel that Nikon doesn’t at the moment, so of course the sales person is going to promote Sony over Nikon if they can.)

I like the Nikon Ambassador idea, and Nikon has some awesome Ambassadors (Dave Black, Bill Frakes, and Joe McNally are three that I know who have skills that are well beyond mine, and are good teachers, as well), but it seems unclear to me whether they’re helping answer the “why Nikon” question. Meanwhile, one former Nikon user and friend who’s become a Sony Artisan—Patrick Murphy-Racey—has been doing a series of articles and presentations that are clearly his answer to “why Sony.” 

For example, from a recent article on the A6500: "Ok, so Sony calls this 'front end LSI.'  I have no idea what that means as I'm still learning to translate Sonyspeak, but…the new buffer allows you to start and stop shooting long sequences at will, without the camera locking up to process information and write to the card.”

Hey Sony, you could use some user benefits marketing, too ;~). But at least PMR is doing it for you. 

Let me be clear. I love my D5, D500, and D810. Those three cameras let me do pretty much everything I want to do, and as I’ve noted several times recently the lenses Nikon is putting out in the last year or two are superb, getting rid of issues we had with the lenses they replaced.

But will Joe and Jill Consumer know that? What Nikon camera will do what they need? I don’t think they’ll get the answer from Nikon’s marketing. 

So let’s hold a little contest. I’m looking for the best answer to “why Nikon,” as well as the answers to “why Coolpix P900,” “why D7200”, “why D810”, and why pretty much anything else Nikon makes. Let’s see if we can crowdsource some better Nikon marketing messages. Make it concise. Make it describe the benefit. Make the products sell themselves. 

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