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. 

Latest News/Views stories (top is most recent):

D5 Gets a Big Update

The firmware coders at Nikon struck first with the D500 and a tiny update that just fixed a visual issue with Language setting. Now they’ve struck again with version 1.10 for the D5, and this time its a big, massive update.

Here are the big changes:

  • D9 is added to the dynamic area autofocus modes. You select a single point and camera can move to any adjacent point. This is different than D25, where the camera can move two points away from where you select.
  • Flicker Reduction gets added to the PHOTO SHOOTING menu, ala the D500. This is a true retiming of the shot to get the full color out of frequency based lighting, not the Flicker Reduction that applies to Live View and video recording.
  • Electronic VR is added to the MOVIE SHOOTING menu, ala the D500. But it unfortunately has a lot of restrictions to it that make it not so useful for high quality shooters.
  • 4K video now can be recorded for up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds. But be aware that this can create as many as eight 4GB files on the card that need to be combined to create one video file (the free View NX-i video editor can do this for you). 
  • Some autofocus functions were tweaked to improve response. In particular, using a programmable button change focus mode restores focus quicker, and Wide 3D-tracking was improved.

In addition to all the additions/improvements, the 1.01 firmware also fixes over a dozen small issues.

Meanwhile, Camera Control Pro also updates to version 2.23.1 in order to support the new D5 features.

The Walls Are Closing In

With Leica’s resurrection, Fujifilm’s incessant retro mirrorless offerings, Sony’s excellently rethink and position with the A6xxx and A7 series, and now Hasselblad’s mirrorless-medium-format-for-everyone announcement of the X1D, all the product planning folk in Tokyo sitting on their butts at Canon and Nikon need to pay more attention. Better still, get off their butts.

Canon and Nikon are slowly dragging their DSLR systems into the modern world (SnapBridge, anyone? ;~). But slow is the operative word. Meanwhile, we’ve watched Fujifilm, Hasselblad, Leica, Olympus, and Sony pretty much successfully reinvent themselves for the modern world of cameras.

Fujifilm picked a retro, DSLR-like mirrorless system with a crop sensor. Hasselblad has modernized their medium format camera into the now very interesting and compelling X1D (if only there were more lens choice). Leica seems to re-invent cameras monthly, even as they iterate the M series to death for cash. Olympus chose impressively small and is sticking to it. While Sony simply gave up the DSLR chase from their third place position and took on mirrorless bottom to top to suddenly be a number one in a new market. 

Meanwhile, Canon and Nikon continue to just iterate DSLRs as usual. We’re now 17 years into the DSLR era, and the latest D500 is recognizably something derived from the D1, only with controls and menus moved, options added, and of course more performance all around. Still, a D500 is far closer to a D1 than it is to the X1D or Leica SL or Sony A7rII. 

We’ve got a similar thing going on with automobiles. While Tesla, Google, Apple, and a handful of other upstarts are trying to make a 21st century automobile that drives itself—remember, the auto is the quintessential 20th century product—a few of the car makers seem a bit more lethargic in moving towards automated driving. Toyota comes to mind.

Every time these big product transitions happen, the question always becomes “when will the top one or two or three makers make the transition?” Transition too early and you just kill off sales of your existing cash cows and the shareholders revolt. Transition too late and competitors take the market right out from under you and the shareholders revolt. 

Thing is, with cameras, we’ve got a lot of players that aren’t going to disappear no matter what happens. But quite a few of them have now carved out space and products that they think will serve them well in the transition to 21st century imaging. Some of them are getting traction with customers (most notably Fujifilm and Sony). Canon and Nikon can’t let that go on for too long, or else they’ll find themselves walled in by all the products that did modernize while they milked the cows. 

High priced, super megapixel DSLRs look less interesting with the Hasselblad X1D sitting at one end of that spectrum and the Sony A7rII at the other. That’s not good news for a potential D850. Small, light, “good enough” cameras now exist in new form from Fujifilm, Olympus, and Sony and make the low-end DSLRs look less interesting (other than perhaps low prices), which isn’t good news for the upcoming D3500. Leica has pioneered some new user interfaces that hold promise (not yet realized, in my opinion), which shows just how clumsy the menu systems with hundreds of options have become.

The walls are closing in on DSLRs, and will only continue to do so.

The way out of the shrinking room? The same as I defined it 2008: communicating, programmable, and maybe modular cameras. Ironically, that could be done with a DSLR. SnapBridge is an amateurish attempt at the communicating part, but has a long way to go to be functionally usable for most.

Simply put, the time for Canon and Nikon to modernize is now.  

Flings Followup

As expected, I got a lot of feedback from readers regarding their flings. I’m going to use a few of those emails and messages to add some commentary to my Flings article.

  • "Thanks to LensRentals.com (a house of ill-repute, if you like), I've had several flings. The most recent were an Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II and a Fuji XT-10, though not both at once. I don't have the stamina for that any more. Although they had attributes that old-faithful (an EOS 60D) lacked, such as being smaller, cuter, less weight, no flapping mirror, etc., they also came with their own set of issues and annoyances: temperamental, expensive, immature -- you know the type.”

Excellent. This is probably exactly how you should have a fling if you’re going to have one: what happens in Cordova, stays in Cordova (LensRentals is in Cordova, TN). 

The problem we all have is “the grass is greener on the other side.” But committing to that side of the fence can be costly, and often we don’t find that we like that new grass at all. The simple answer is what this gentleman did: rent and see just exactly what you’d be getting into. A week with a new digital mistress will tell you all you need to know, I think.

  • "I have had a Nikon 1 fling. I still use a V1 for family events where the pictures will all be looked at on computers, and occasionally for travel where I have very limited time for photography.  I nearly always use the 18.5/1.8 because family events are usually low light and when traveling my photography time is often close of day.  For these purposes the Nikon 1 is truly excellent. I have learned that (1) lots of folk under-rate this system because (IMO) they have it in the wrong niche and (2) I hate the EVF. It is seeing what might be a picture and having to wait while the camera wakes up before you can look through the viewfinder that I dislike, compared to an SLR. One common thread in my flings is low cost: I bought the V1 at a discount just before the V2 came out and all the film gear was bought second-hand and was often absurdly cheap.  I would not have a fling at full retail.”

We’re sensing a theme: many of you realize that a fling could be costly—both monetarily and mentally—so you look for opportunities to minimize costs to justify the fling. 

Also note that flings don’t tend to be “the love of your life.” There seems to always be “I guess I’ll tolerate that” aspect to actual flings. If there isn’t, flings tend to turn into Switching. But I have to wonder: if you relegate your flings to products that are on fire sale at end-of-life, are you picking an ideal fling mate?

At the other end of the scale:

  • "Been shooting Nikon since 2005 and tried Canon twice in the last 5 years, mostly for the superior hardware (lens selection) and ”technical” performance (build/TC/AF performance). Though I never sold all my Nikon gear, I invested over $10,000 in Canon gear each time I “flinged”. Shot the Canon stuff heavily both times for 3-6 months but ended up selling it all and returning exclusively to Nikon. I always loved Canon technology….just but too bad about the sensor performance. You may not think there’s “that” much of a difference between Canon and Nikon sensors, but you’ll never be able to convince me. I’ve come to appreciate IQ over everything else, so I shoot Nikon.”

I won’t get into the validity of the assertions here—everyone has to come to their own conclusions about suitability and usability—but we’re again seeing the “grass is greener” syndrome at work. To a large degree this means that the marketing departments of camera companies are doing their job: loyal users of one mount are falling for claims of superiority in key functions and attributes. Marketing, of course, never tells you about the things you might miss should you hop over the fence for the newer grass. Check for weeds.

As cameras get more and more complex and performance becomes even more nuanced, it becomes more and more difficult to assess whether a switch to B in the bush is better than the A in hand. See the first bullet: rent. 

  • "Had a fling with FX. D800  horrible memories and noisy..D810 love the quiet action but heavy with 28-300  grip and flash flipper. Reduced DOF a problem. May sell the D800 and replace with D7200 and just keep the D810 to use with the 14mm Samyang.

Bet you didn’t think that I’d call out Nikon on trying to get people to Fling within the brand, did you? The 2012-2015 push by Nikon was to try to get more moolah out of their loyal—and mostly DX—customers to upgrade upwards into more costly FX cameras. Quite frankly, I ran into a lot of folk buying D800’s early on who were really way over-buying for their need. 

Just to be clear: the seminal and most likely Nikon DSLR that the majority of people should be considering is the D7200 (and before that the D70, D80, D90, D7000, D7100 models that preceded it). The D7200 is a very well rounded, full featured, and performance capable camera at a reasonable price. You really have to have specific needs to venture beyond that model. Few do.

But frankly, Nikon botched this whole “buy FX” thing they tried. The D600, D750, and D800 all had serious quality problems and frightening (to users) service advisories that required way too many cameras heading back to Nikon repair shops to address (even the D810 had an initial shipment glitch). Many users paid more for something that didn’t live up to the previous quality of Nikon DSLR they had been using. 

So it didn’t surprise me that I received a number of “FX Fling” responses to my article. To some degree, you could add me to that list: I use FX conditionally, not permanently. For a lot of things, I find the top DX bodies—D7200 and D500—more than enough for what I need (see the DX/FX Combo article and my comments about my upcoming wildlife kit).

Personally, I’d rather have the right glass on a slightly less capable body than the wrong glass on the most capable body. Note the 28-300mm in the previous user comment: that’s not at all an optimal lens for a D800/D810. 

  • "My flings are a little less involved.  I haven't played with other brands or other mounts.  Occasionally though, I will scour the archive lists of old, discontinued lenses and then wander ebay to pick up some relic for $50.  None of these lenses have turned out to be hidden gems, but they are still fun to experiment with nonetheless.  The lenses give an interesting glimpse into what photography was like decades ago.”

I loved this response. This reader is trying to keep their gear passion burning, but is loyal to their first love. This is one way to satisfy the quest for “new” gear but not get stuck in the complete replacement problem that happens when you go out of mount. 

A variation on this is just to buy and experiment with a new lens that does something different than your current ones. Macro, PC-E, fast prime, PF/DO all come to mind, but getting something outside the 24-200mm range you probably already have covered could be as interesting to others. DX shooters, try the 10.5mm! FX shooters, try the 24mm PC-E or a Zeiss prime. If you can find one, pick up a 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor, one of my favorite macros of all time.

  • "My fling was with a Minolta XD11.  Aperture preferred, shutter preferred, program, manual! Wow!  But after a few years I realized that I didn't use most of the fancy features and the ones that I did use didn't work as well as they did on a Nikon.  So I sold it and bought a Nikon FE and have been with Nikon ever since.  I've yet to see a good enough reason to dump what I've got and start over. Flings are way too expensive unless you're either making money with your camera (not me) or you've got dollars to burn (also not me)."

Again with the marketing working its wonders on you. You were sold that some new features would make your photographic life magical, then you discovered you didn’t even use those features. 

This is one of the reasons why I often write about “want” versus “need.” Be wary if your buying is directed mostly by “want.” If it’s directed by “need,” no worries; if you need something you currently don’t have then you probably shouldn’t hesitate to acquire it and use it. But when the primary influence on picking up some new gear—especially gear outside your current system—is triggered mostly by “want,” I think you need to do some deeper and better evaluation. 

Here’s what you should really “want”: to take better photos. New and different gear may or may not help you with that. 

  • "I flung with mirrorless for about four years. I wanted something smaller for backcountry skiing, backpacking, etc. Came from a D200 and 17-55mm f/2.8. Used m43 for about a year, liked the size, but being my only personal camera (im a staff photographer/graphic designer, i have many work toys I can use, but didnt want to haul a D800e+lenses on my day off) the sensor size was too small. Moved to Fuji, mainly for the 18-55 2.8-4 lens and APS-C sensor. Used that for two years, first an XE-1, then XT-1. The breaking point came when I wanted to take some tracking shots of one of my ski partners on a deep powder day. The tracking of the XT-1 was horrendous. Before, I had always just prefocused, or tried the continuous mode and got lucky with a keeper or two. But this day it just totally failed due to falling snow. That was the end of it for me. I missed the optical viewfinder a lot more than I thought I would, wanted AF performance that actually worked in a fast moving situation and is capable of tracking. The Fuji was not a transparent tool to me, and really started to get in the way. The lens also needed to be a shade wider and longer to fit what I was looking to capture. After poking around, I tried out the D5500 and 16-85, and for about the same weight as a XT-1+18-135 (the combo I thought about moving too), I have a camera that just works and doesn’t get in my way, doesnt have fussy Adobe processing (still see issues with foliage in my files, even with newest software) the battery lasts seemingly forever, can focus track with reliability, and gives me access to my work lenses if I want.”

Ah, a long term fling that was eventually rejected. 

I see a lot of this lately. To some degree I’m guilty of it myself. I used to use my m43 systems much more than I do today. I probably wouldn’t use them at all if Nikon would simply make the right lenses (buzz buzz) and iron out a few other things in their products (and where’s the equivalent to the Canon SL and pancake lenses?). 

There’s a reason why DSLRs got to where they are today. As complicated as they are inside, they don’t add visual complications at the viewfinder and they perform at state of the art. To really understand that, you need to try a D500 or D5 or 1DxII. The focus performance on these new models is insane when set correctly for the situation, and not close to being matched by the best mirrorless cameras, IMHO. 

Of course, you might not need that focus performance. If you’re mostly taking static shots (e.g. Betty in front of the Eiffel Tower), the mirrorless cameras may actually be better in some respects. Still, there isn’t a do-all, be-all, best-at-all camera system out there. The closest to those tend to be DSLRs, though.

  • "A couple years ago, I spied a swingin' deal on an Olympus µ43 EPM2 body with a 14-42 lens for only a hundred bucks brand new. I asked if it wasn't a misprint, and they said, nope, so I started my fling. I wasn't carrying my camera everywhere and thought an "extra mount" would solve it. I fell in love, and a few months later, sold all the Nikon stuff and got a second Olympus body, OM-D EM-5, and once I learned the menu system (which most dislike and I like just fine), I carry my camera with me everywhere cause it's smaller again! It started as a fling. Ended up being a switch, and I think I won't "go back" unless and until Olympus finally gives up making cameras…"
  • "Being a Thom Hogan fan I have always recommend an entry level DSLR in my beginner teaching blog, but couldn't resist the Christmas deals last year for a X-T10 + 16-50 and 50-230 to take to Alaska in August this year in a tour with 3 other couples (relatives). That I [also] changed [to this] for [a trip to] India is a fling that has set me firmly on the Fujifilm path permanently, my D700 + 24-70 is sooo heavy, one camera instead of two with variable focal length lenses doesn't effect my non-pixel peeping results.  The Fuji operation is so close to my Nikon I can move comfortably from one to the other, I am really enjoying myself, and began purchasing additional lenses. But is this a fling with Fuji or was the original fling with Nikon all along?  I was a Nikon film camera consumer but entered digital with a Fuji S2 Pro subsequently followed up with a S5 Pro - still in operation with one of my daughter-in-laws, I later acquired a Fuji X100.  I really liked the S5 Pro, yes the D700 is better but nostalgia for the experience remained, satisfied with Fuji X-Trans.

Yes, sometimes Flings turn into Switchers. That’s really difficult to figure out in advance, though. Which is why that first suggestion back up at the top of the article makes a lot of sense to me: rent and evaluate. If you just jump in with both feet, you may be jumping back out, minus a healthy chunk of your wallet.

The DX/FX Combo Kit

Since the arrival of the D500 I’m seeing more and more folk opting for DX and FX combo kits. In other words, one of their bodies is FX, the other is DX. Sometimes it’s D810 and D500, sometimes it’s D750 and D7200, occasionally we get something more dramatically "mixed."

I’ll be right up front and say that I don’t like traveling with mismatched sensor sizes. Why? Because it adds a layer of thought to what I’m doing and why. Worse still—unless the two bodies are specifically a D5 and D500—you’re going to have control, button, and UI dissonances as you switch back and forth between bodies, and you just can’t set up the DX and FX body exactly the same. 

One of the things that motivates this DX/FX combo practice is the notion of getting “the most out of any situation.” By most, we mean one stop, basically. One stop better noise handling or dynamic range (all else equal), one stop better DOF (all else equal), or one stop better DOF isolation (all else equal). 

Ten years ago, I would have killed for another stop in dynamic range. Today, not so much. It’s a rare situation where I feel that I’m in need of more dynamic range, and the situations where I tend to want it—landscapes mostly—there’s always exposure stacking (HDR). If I’m truly shooting in low light—outdoor sports at night, for instance—I’ll just bring my 4 and D5. No, I’m not tempted by the D500 in that instance, as one stop is just pushing too far under bad lighting when you’re trying to keep shutter speeds above 1/1000. 

Note: this is not to say that the D500 is terrible for night sports under the lights, it’s just not optimal. Why would I want to shoot with one optimal and one non-optimal body? 

Then there’s the lens issues. Back when the D3/D300 appeared, I often used the 12-24mm f/4 DX on both bodies. It covered at a real 18-24mm on the D3, and it was obviously a good 18-36mm effective on the D300. With 12mp sensors, the 12-24mm tended to look just fine. 

But these days, the high pixel densities we’re pushing (20-24mp DX, 20-36mp FX) definitely start to show the limits of many lenses, so the lens compromises I was using just don’t play well any more. And what that means is, at a minimum you’ll be carrying an extra lens (wide angle DX zoom, likely; the variable field curvature of the 14-24mm doesn’t make it a great candidate for DX use, and it’s hard enough to get it dialed in right with FX).  

So I tend to see a lot of folks trying to carry a kit something like this:

  • D500 body
  • D810 body
  • 11-20mm f/2.8 Tokina (DX)
  • 16-35mm f/4 Nikkor
  • 24-120mm f/4 Nikkor
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 or f/4 Nikkor

That doesn’t do it for me. Too much compromise all around. A better choice is:

  • D500 body
  • D810 body
  • 11-16mm f/2.8 Tokina (DX)
  • 16-80mm f/2.8-4 Nikkor (DX)
  • 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor

That’s as little compromise as I can put into a DX/FX combo kit right now. Well, okay, if we want to sub in a lot of f/1.4 or f/1.8 FX primes in the mid-range, we can really push ourselves in low light (with the FX body ;~). 

As usual I’ll be taking August off this year and spending the month shooting full time. I’ve decided to just take a DX kit with me. For a lot of reasons, really, but the primary one being I’m not too worried about low light work, and I can make a pretty reasonable DX kit that won’t weigh me down these days (though where modern DX wide angle zooms and primes are, I have no idea [buzz buzz]). 

Since I’ll be doing a lot of wildlife shooting, my kit will likely be:

  • D500 body
  • D7200 body
  • 10.5mm f/2.8 Nikkor
  • 16-80mm f/2.8-4 Nikkor
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor
  • 300mm f/4 Nikkor
  • and either the 80-400mm or 200-500mm Nikkor for the big reach (I really want to try the new 400mm f/2.8, but that makes the kit a bit on the heavy side for what I need)

I’ll have to live with the button/control/ergonomic differences, though I can program controls around a few of those. I’ll live with giving up one stop of DOF isolation and potential high ISO. But because I’ll be DX only I won’t be thinking about crop factors or perspective changes or DOF changes as I switch bodies. From an image quality standpoint, the D500 and D7200 are so close to one another that I won’t even be thinking about that. 

And that brings me to my point: are you always thinking about gear, or are you always thinking about pictures? Yes, choosing just DX or just FX puts some minor limits on the pictures I might be able to accomplish, but I just file the limits I’m working with in my brain and shoot. I don’t think about how I’m going to break those limits by switching bodies (and maybe lenses, and who knows what else). I think about the pictures I can take right now. 

Flings

In previous articles I’ve outlined Switchers, Samplers, Last Camera Syndrome, plus several other types of camera upgrade scenarios that have been getting more prominent in recent years. Today I introduce another: Flings.

A Fling is when you get so attracted to something other than the mount that's in hand that you become a Switcher. Only the switch turns out to be temporary, as you find something about the new system that just didn’t work out as you expected, and you want your ex back. 

Fortunately, cameras aren’t like boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses: they’ll take you back without comment or criticism or debate or acrimonious negotiations. Unfortunately, you’ll still pay a price, literally.

Flings are different than Samplers, in that Samplers stay with their mount of choice but add an option of another choice, mostly due to curiosity. Flings are full on abandonment of a system, but with an eventual return when dissatisfaction with the “new” sets in.

Flings are becoming an observable and measurable trend now. Not as big a trend as Switching, Sampling, or Last Camera Syndrome, but measurably significant. I regularly get “I’m back” reports from readers who drifted from a Nikon DSLR to something else, and then decided the something else wasn’t really serving them well.  

The D7200, D750, D810, and now D500 seem to be at the core of the former Nikon Flingers' return, which tells us that most of those who went on these Flings were in the high-enthusiast to pro range. I don’t see many dropping a D3300 or lower end DSLR and returning from a Fling. 

At the other extreme, there’s always been a very low level of constant Flinging at the very top of the DSLR market. Every time Canon and Nikon get slightly off each other’s cycles and have differing performance characteristics with the top end pro gear it seems that some pros have no loyalty to the horse they rode in on. But this is a bit to be expected: pros live in a rarified and highly competitive world where you look for any and all advantages to try to stand out. Small improvements in any kind of performance—dynamic range, autofocus, exposure, frame rate, etc.—might make the difference between delivering better results than your competitor. And pros are hard enough on equipment that they have to regularly update their battered gear. It’s also easy for Canikon to dangle incentives in front of a pro they want to attract and promote, making such pro Flings easier.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the Fling, though I understand the excitement and novelty that it produces. I don’t want to relearn UI and ergonomics, I don’t want cognitive dissonances in the controls as I shoot, I don’t care much about small improvements that will prove only temporary. I just want to concentrate on shooting, not the gear I’m shooting with. I can wait a year or two for my vendor of choice to catch up or exceed another vendor in terms of small improvements. Moreover, there’s the lens factor: I don’t want to be moving back and forth between mounts because of the sheer cost of making lens replacements. 

Still, it’s clear there are plenty of folks that went on Flings out there. You see them from time to time with a “I’ve returned to the fold” type message in any given dpreview fora. I see them regularly in my email stream. 

This is both good news and bad for the camera makers. The good news is that, once acquired and satisfied once, customers do tend to be long-term loyal. Yes, they may Sample or have a Fling from time to time, but eventually if the camera maker keeps iterating well, these folk come back. The bad news is that it is getting more and more difficult to pry a user from one mount to another permanently. This has implications on growth, because the overall sales volume is getting smaller, not larger. The camera companies would love to pry users from another mount and grab more market share, but recent history tells us that this is exceedingly difficult to do, and is measured in low single digit percentages when it does happen.

Finally, the other problematic aspect of Flings occurs within a single brand. A lot of us had a Fling with Nikon 1 for awhile, but ultimately found what Nikon was doing there just didn’t fully satisfy us. This has implications on future mirrorless offerings from Nikon that are different than the Nikon 1: those could turn out to be Fling candidates, too, rather than a permanent transfer from one type of Nikon camera to another.

So. Have you had a Fling? Did you benefit or learn something from the Fling? Are you still prone to having Flings? Are your Flings triggered by superficial or real desires? Step right up and let Jerry Springer interview you about your indiscretion...

The Differing Goals of Camera Companies

I hear a lot of chatter about how the decreased volume of camera sales is going to make some camera makers leave the market, or get absorbed by another company, or worse. Most of that speculation is all wrong for one very simple reason: it ignores the goals of the companies.

Right now we have the following significant camera maker players: Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, and  Sony. That’s about it, though you can still find Casio, Ricoh, and a few other smallish offerings if you look. 

But each of those eight primary makers have completely different goals, so it’s perhaps worth examining what they are and how they influence might happen next in cameras.

  • Canon — A healthy chunk of Canon’s large global business is in imaging. Overall, they hold the number one market share in still cameras, a top two share in photo printers, and have become a top three player in video cameras. Canon’s first goal is simple: remain number one in a declining camera market, and retain their user base as they upgrade. They have pricing, branding, marketing, and a host of other tools in their quiver to protect that, and they will (are). Canon’s secondary goal is how to restart growth in their imaging group. And this intersects with the first goal. For example, they appear to be getting ready to shoulder in more market share in the one area within cameras that shows some growth: mirrorless. When the hippo jumps into the small pond with full force, it’s going to create waves. Canon also very quickly morphed DSLR-type video capabilities into a separate line of EOS Cinema cameras, which are slowly building market share and reputation. Watch them do something similar in mirrorless.

    The risk for Canon? The speed at which they move, and their ability to communicate clearly. They can move fast in terms of iterating designs if they really need to, but when they do they don’t always get things quite right. Canon was first with a full line of 1” sensor compacts for instance, but they’re a bit of a strange group and not terribly rationalized as a product line, in my opinion. And guys, the model numbers are confusing. The price goes upward as the model numbers go down: G9X, G7X, G5X, G3X, and the G1X breaks even that, which shows that they moved engineering faster than they could think through the marketing side of things.

    The overall size of Canon means that they can afford some hiccups along the way. But they’re always going to be looking at three numbers: market share, profitability, and growth. Right now those numbers are: #1, good, poor. 

  • Fujifilm — Very simple goal: get digital cameras to be profitable by growing them with the right model mix. At the higher end they seem to be getting this mostly right, but they’ve not yet really fixed the entry models. Frankly, they have too many of them, and with the old fatal Japanese CES problem: arbitrary feature/performance reductions. 

    But cameras and lenses are such a small piece of Fujifilm, as long as the main goal seems to be within sight, Fujifilm will just keep on plugging away the way they have been. Building the lens mix actually helps them with this, as it attracts users from other crop sensor cameras that aren’t iterating lenses (I’m looking at you Canon, Nikon, and Sony, buzz buzz), so don’t expect them to slow down in bringing out X-mount lenses. 

  • Leica — As a niche, specialty, high-end company, Leica doesn’t really shoot for volume, they shoot for creating new, unique opportunities for their well-helped customers. Their goal is to sustain the brand reputation by doing things the Leica way and getting those customers to buy something new. In other words, continuing to emphasize niche, speciality, high-end products that appeal to their smallish customer base, and maybe peel a few more users from one of the other players. 

    You’ll notice a bit more “churn” at Leica with their products: various M, Mono, T, SL, and more, and that’s likely to stay the case. Couple that with all those special edition cameras they like to do, and Leica is making almost as many camera announcements as the big players. They just don’t sell in volume. But as long as they remain profitable, this churn of product is what we can continue to expect. Personally, it’s making it less likely that I’d be interested in Leica, as each of the recent new models seems to go in different directions; there’s not enough commonality of ergonomics, among other things. 

  • Nikon — Nikon’s corporate goal has always been a ruthless approach to cost cutting in order to keep their financial metrics looking top notch. With the market getting smaller, they seem to have doubled down on that, and some of the side effects are showing (lots of product service advisories, but a too-small customer service/repair group to deal with it).

    Like Canon, Nikon wants to retain all existing users via upgrades to new gear, so don’t expect DSLRs to go anywhere soon. Unlike Canon, Nikon seems to have drifted and gotten lost in virtually everything below the DSLR.  They really need to get it into their heads that they’re not a consumer electronics company, but a premier and best-of-breed photo enthusiast brand. Unfortunately, cameras are still more than half of Nikon’s business and are likely to stay that way for awhile, so Nikon has this other problem in a declining market: how to show any growth at all. That keeps them poking at the consumer devices, but not effectively in my opinion. 

    I think of Nikon these days as a frantic juggler: they’ve got just a few too many balls in the air for what they really can handle. Thus, they sometimes seem preoccupied with the current ball they need to deal with to the temporary expense of the others (witness the missing D400, D4x, D3500, etc.). Their goal seems to be to keep their balls in the air, period.

    Nikon really needs something to break right for them. The three primary things that could help them get re-centered are: the Precision group actually manages to deliver long-term on promised numbers and show some modest growth; the nascent Medical group starts to show positive numbers instead of being a sinkhole for investment; or the camera market gets re-invigorated in some way. They’re pursuing all of those, but to date nothing’s really quite come together. So ultimately, their goal is to keep those balls in the air until somehow they get control back and find a path to growth again.

  • Olympus — The big goal here? Confirm that their pride in engineering is warranted. If Olympus were a Western company, I have no doubt that the camera group would have long ago been jettisoned due to its sustained unprofitability. It’s a bit of a drag on corporate earnings when the company still needs those earnings to get the cash/equity numbers back up to where they really should be for a corporation their size (a US$1.7b hole is a huge one to dig out from under, and the medical side still has other potentially pending liabilities that could make a bigger hole).

    The good news is that the big medical business side of Olympus is a profit/cash generator par excellence if just allowed to do its thing. Time heals all wounds at Olympus, basically. So the camera group believes that it just needs to use that time to generate better and better products, which at some point then distinguish themselves from the rest of the camera pack. So one of the sub-goals is that the camera group keeps trying to pioneer new things (ISIS, pixel shift resolution, etc.) and make better products. 

    You can kind of see their goal in their product line: they keep leapfrogging themselves with their own various m4/3 camera iterations: there are things in the latest lower models that aren’t in the top model yet. But they’ll get around to doing the same with the top model and then work their way back down the line, I’m sure. 

    Meanwhile, the lens group is alive and well and targeting some very ambitious individual lens goals to supplement what the camera side is doing. Overall, the goal is to show that m4/3 is not only “good enough” but a better choice than the crop sensor cameras. Personally, I don’t think that’s truly an attainable goal, as sensor size, once chosen, locks in destiny. Still, it’s a goal. 

  • Panasonic — Simple goal: existence. Panasonic’s CEO a couple years back set out some parameters that every business that Panasonic retains has to meet. You know, that old ROI-centric thing that a good CEO actually cares about. The still camera group got a bit of reprieve from needing to hit those numbers by being welded into the healthy video group. And given the GH4, that was a pretty good marriage for awhile. 

    But the still camera group still has to prove its worth and that it can meet all the internal metric numbers that are being closely watched by top management. That’s their primary goal: make those numbers. That means that projects they might want to do get shifted in priority if it looks like another project might help them meet those numbers easier. 

    Note that “volume” or “market share” aren’t the metrics by which the group is being judged. Don’t look for Panasonic to make a big play for market share. They’re looking for solid products that have excellent ROI for the company, that’s it. As long as they manage that, they’re fine and can continue on.

  • Pentax — Every time I write about Pentax, a handful of the Pentax faithful who seem to have Spotmatic Forever disease get all wound up and agitated.  They seem to see a reality that doesn’t actually exist. Yes, Pentax makes some fine products with unique features. But their iteration tends to be just a step slow, so they often end up being the last DSLR maker to achieve something (e.g. high pixel counts), and in terms of market share, they’re essentially ignorable. Meanwhile, they’re a step behind on some basics, such as autofocus performance. That doesn’t make their products bad, it just makes them tough sells in a declining market. 

    This slowness derives from their primary goal: just keep the camera group working and designing off their base platforms with new iterations. The problem is that they’re a hobby business within Ricoh, and still seem to have internal conflicts with Ricoh’s own camera business. It’s unclear how much investment Ricoh is really providing Pentax, and given the flow of product, I’d say it isn’t a lot. Pentax is essentially a very talented set of engineers that have been cash squeezed (Pentax), acquired (Hoya), and then re-acquired (Ricoh). Their primary goal is to continue their existence on the mounts they pioneered, but their parent organization at any given time is giving them a fairly narrow range in which to operate, and the hassles of working under three different management teams in less than 20 years has had its toll. 

    Basic goal: survive at any costs. Keep loyal user base happy with increments.

  • Sony — Sony is probably the oddest mix of goals of any of the camera companies. There’s the promises made about taking the number two market share made back when they acquired KonicaMinolta that are still unrealized. There’s their CEO’s drive to, like Panasonic, rationalize products to those that have the right numeric metrics for the company. There’s the need to distinguish their own camera products from just the sensor part of the company (i.e. others use the same sensors and often are said to get more than Sony does from them). There’s the need to fit in and play nicely with the video group that the still cameras got integrated into. 

    For a while there, that resulted in huge churn of product as Sony shifted from A mount to E mount emphasis (many of those video cameras now use the E mount). The shift to mirrorless was predictable, as it helped simplify manufacturing and lowered costs in numerous areas, something that a number three company needs to compete against strong #1 and #2 players. It also gave them a mount that can be shared between still and video well.

    The ironic thing is that, despite all the shifting and redesigning and quick iteration of models, Sony still sits pretty much in the same distant #3 position as they did before. Sony, therefore, is one of the trickiest companies to try to predict. They are still scrambling like mad trying to find the thorn (product) that will injure their two bigger competitors. This unfortunately runs counter to one of their other goals, as it takes huge R&D investment to find that new product, but top management wants to see better profitability from what they are doing. 

    I wrote that Nikon was frantically juggling balls. Sony is frantically looking for new, special balls. All while trying to build out their platforms to keep and grow their existing spot. In some way Sony is the most nimble of the camera makers. I’ve watched them make very quick and incredibly tough shifts in strategies and tactics many times now. And I don’t think we’re done with that. 

This year we have Photokina in early fall. You’re going to see virtually everyone with new offerings, a few of them unexpected. But virtually all of those things we’ll see in September will be in pursuit of the goals within each of these companies, not because you the user needed something new. 

The good news is that most of the players all want to keep potential upgraders from choosing to switch instead. Thus, pretty much across the board, we’re going to see the continued iteration of the models that we’ve become accustomed to. What you should be looking at is where companies move into territory that they didn’t previously occupy or did poorly in (e.g. more Canon mirrorless effort, Nikon’s DL efforts, etc.). Those are basically growth pursuits, and at least some of them are likely to have that effect for the company in question. 

To bring things back around to where I started: no, no one is getting out of the camera business. There’s not likely to be consolidation. Because each of the companies is pursuing slightly different goals at the moment, it’s possible that every camera company could come close to or meet their goals and not actually change the dynamics of the market much, if at all. 

Dealers Need Help

The multiple pressures on the camera makers are putting increasing pressures on others. In particular, camera dealers. 

A camera dealer gets a fairly low discount on a product from the camera maker’s subsidiary. While volume and other things can net a dealer more, you need to figure that your camera dealer is only getting a 15% discount from retail on most cameras and lenses. 

But declining volume keeps us in the era of “instant rebates,” and that’s where the camera makers are slowly killing the camera stores. 

Let’s work through the scenario where a dealer is selling one US$1000 camera a month. He pays for the first one by sending US$850 to the camera maker. Before he gets around to selling it, the camera maker offers an “instant rebate” of US$200. You walk in and buy the camera for US$800, less than what the dealer paid for it. He has to file a claim with the camera maker at the end of the month to get a credit for US$170. Wait, why not US$200? Because the camera makers prorate the discount into the credit. It was really a US$800 dollar camera that the dealer should have paid US$680 for. 

Great, now the dealer has a US$170 credit to order another US$1000 camera. (There apparently are some exceptions, like the perpetually discounted D3100 kit, where dealers get the credit on ordering.)

But remember, sales numbers just keep trending down, down, down for most cameras. The dealer has to order another camera to get his “profit” on the sale (he’s unprofitable by US$50 when you walk out the door with it, remember). But cameras aren’t selling well, and he ends up with another box on the shelf that will, due to low demand, probably take another instant rebate to get it off. 

While the camera makers love this scheme as it gets sales on the books for them, the camera dealers hate this situation. Best case they’re a month or two behind on the actual profits from the products they sold, and the only way to get that profit is to spend it on more product. 

Lenses from third party vendors tend to work a bit differently, and more like the old rebate systems. Sigma and Tamron don’t discount the rebate to the dealers, and Tamron just sends the dealer a check. 

As you might guess, this becomes sort of a slow downhill spiral dance. And heaven forbid that the dealer file the paperwork wrong, late, or the camera maker decide to change its mind on how a program works at the last minute. Somewhere in every camera store there’s an accountant buried in paper trying to keep up with all the deals—and especially the fine print that triggers exceptions—and keep the paperwork flowing fast enough to keep the cash flow at the dealer moving well enough so their heads stay above water. 

Every dealer I’ve talked to would love to just tell the camera makers to go shove it, but of course, they’ve got thousands of dollars tied up in future credits that they’ll never get if they do that. 

The general economy has all kinds of these warts in it where the institution with leverage (camera makers) uses it to their advantage and it squeezes the littler guy with no leverage (camera dealers) to the brink (and often past). We’ve gotten into a loopy, somewhat stagnant overall economy, but the rich/big seem to have less trouble with that than the poor/small because they keep leveraging all those under them. 

Our problem as photographers is that the digital camera buying craze is over and the sales numbers just plummet every time you look, putting more pressure on those dealers. We now have four months of CIPA data for 2016. Look at these numbers:

  • Compact camera shipments down 34%
  • Mirrorless camera shipments up 2.3%
  • DSLR camera shipments down 10.1%
  • Lens shipments down 10.5%

That’s year-to-year for the first four months of the year. How many new cameras does that dealer want to order and stock?

If we look at the dollar value of those shipments we get:

  • Compact camera value down 30.8%
  • Mirrorless camera value up 28.9%
  • DSLR camera value down 16.6%
  • Lens value down 12.8%

Obviously, higher end compact and mirrorless are being pushed, and some critical aspect of the DSLR product lineup is collapsing.

But on top of all this, we now have to add another factor: fewer cameras being shipped in the near future period due to the quake in Japan and all the dominoes that then got knocked over in camera company production schedules. 

However, here’s where I’m at: the camera makers may be killing the golden goose. All that pressure on dealers is going to see more of them close shop in the coming months, I think. I really don’t think dealers are going to be able to handle the quake slowdown as well as the camera companies. 

That would mean that really only the truly big would be left to sell cameras (here in the US: e.g. Amazon, Best Buy, B&H/Adorama, QVC, and maybe a handful of regional camera dealers with sustainable volume such as Roberts, Samys, etc.). Now those leftovers will have more negotiation clout with the camera makers because they’re not buying onesies, and I’m sure they’ll use that clout any chance they get. 

I’ve watched this same retail cycle happen in multiple tech areas—one of my earliest jobs was managing a computer store—and the solution is always the same, plus the manufacturers always regret their actions eventually. 

In the run-up of digital camera sales, NikonUSA was actually pretty good in terms of doing what dealers needed: they tended to push customers in the door of a dealership with various promotions and lots of visibility of them (all those newspaper flyers, for example). Now, it’s basically “what’s this month’s rebate going to be” and let the Internet get that word out. Of course, the Internet wants its cut, so Web sites push any rebate via affiliate links, not trying to get you into a camera store. 

The bottom line is that Canon and Nikon especially, but really all the camera makers, need to do something to help the local camera dealers, and soon. They need to get people walking into the doors of the dealerships asking about the latest and greatest, and those dealers need more and better marketing support to help them get the right message over to the customer. 


Nikon Needs a Statement

Today’s small update for the D4s to fix compatibility with the WR-10’s own firmware update brings up a question: what models of cameras are Nikon truly supporting in the prosumer/pro realm.

I ask this because it’s unlikely that a pro moves from a D3 to D3s or a D4 to D4s. Thus, we have a D4 that might have issues with the WR-10’s new firmware and a lot of pros still using it. Actually, a lot of pros are still using D3 and D3s bodies. 

Back compatibility is a problem lots of companies have. Apple is one of the more aggressive ones in not going back and addressing issues and compatibility in older versions of the OS and software. But that’s my point today: Apple has told its customers fairly clearly what compatibility will be maintained, and keeps pages of deprecation so you can actually see what’s being maintained and what isn’t. 

Nikon needs such a statement, and it needs to have as much predictability into the future as possible. We’re in the D5 generation, but now I have to wonder if four years from now when the D6 comes out whether my D5 firmware is still going to be maintained (there will be a D5s in the interim, most likely, which puts the D5 into the current D4 position). 

And due to SnapBridge, we’re now in this funky period where WiFi in some cameras only talks to the Nikon WMU app, while in the new cameras it wants the SnapBridge app. How long is WMU going to be maintained for iOS and Android upgrades (my guess: it isn’t).  

So we need a better proactive statement from Nikon on what their stance is on firmware and software updates and when and how those products get deprecated. I’m sure we won’t like that statement, as it will most likely show things getting abandoned faster than we’d like, but at least we’d know where we are.

The Data Recovery Interview

At NAB I conducted a number of interviews with people in the industry who work in areas that I felt were of interest to this site’s readers. This is the first of what will eventually be a long series of what I hope are useful interviews from that and other shows.

For this first interview, I’m talking with David Zimmerman, CEO of LC Technology, Limited, a company that makes data recovery software and does physical data recovery, as well. Dave’s one of the top data recovery experts. I’ll be reviewing his software product shortly, but here’s the full conversation David and I had at NAB, which is full of small and important things you should know:

bythom photorecovery

Thom: Give me a little background on how you started in the data recovery business.

Dave: I started back in the PC business back in 1982. I used to be a CAD/CAM system seller building out XTs in Canada. I moved down to Florida in 1987 and started building PCs, but also building test products to help people to figure out why machines weren’t booting or were reporting errors on boot. Then in 1997 I was working for another company that did data recovery, and they ended up going out of business. 

Bad management or whatever it was, I have no idea, but two of the owners ended up coming to work for me and I started this company LC Technology, and we were actually the first that released a product that could recover NTFS file systems. That was a product we had called Recover NT. It was interesting to me getting stuff back, because you know, being in the computer industry back in those days losing something was really tough on people.

Then around 2001 when we were exhibiting at CeBit in Germany and we had some people from Olympus come by and they saw we were doing data recovery. We didn’t have a photo specific product at that time, we had a regular file system based one. They gave us a card and we plugged it in and recovered the data off the card for them, and they were amazed. Here’s camera guys, no PC experience, and wow, this is amazing. 

So we developed and released a product called PHOTORECOVERY, and that was the first photo-based product to recover data from memory cards. Shortly after that we got into a business relationship with SanDisk and we made their product Rescue Pro in 2002. So that’s been the last 14 years. And then we’ve progressed into doing physical surface recovery since then. Things have evolved quite a bit since that early product. Initially it was just photos: JPEGs, GIFs, bitmaps, that type of thing. Then we started getting into different cards, different formats, and some of the video formats, as well. A lot of the products that people see on the market come from us.

We’ve been working with SanDisk, plus we have a lab in Florida as well as one in Europe that can do physical surfaces, too. So when a card actually has physical damage, is broken, or has an electronic short, we actually will pull the chips off the card, put them into sockets on our equipment and image the card and pull the data out of that. 

But things are getting a little different because we’re now into lots of different kinds of video formats, especially around here [NAB Trade Show]. So we’re doing a lot of HD, 4K, and 3D video stuff, like some of the RED formats.  

Thom: So you’re recovering compressed video?

Dave: Anything. Anything.

Thom: How’s that work? Some of these compression schemes if you miss the key frame you’ve got a big hole don’t you?

Dave: You do. But we’ve been doing this for a long time. We use two different methods in our products. We use a file system recovery, and if the file system is gone and the card’s corrupt, like when somebody is shooting and they think it’s done writing to the card and they eject the card, they corrupt the file system. 

So what we also do then is enable content based recovery, as well. On all these different file formats, we build templates for all the different file types that are out that. So, for example, when all the raw formats started to come out, we got sample images, we built templates, and we put them into our product so we’re actually able to scan the file system for raw data even if there’s no file.

Thom: So you can just go directly to the data and build your own file system?

Dave: Yep. And pull it out by content recognition. For each file we know what the beginning of the file looks like, we know what end of file markers are, and that’s partly how we know how to extract the data from unformatted media. 

But over the years things have changed, and we’re having to evolve to. Doing a lot of video stuff for the movie industry is challenging. A lot of the high end action cameras like the GoPro, we get a lot of media in from people that have crashed, their camera dies in the process, or there’s electronic failure while it’s writing, so it doesn’t finish writing. Most of this stuff is pretty simple, though. 

Thom: From the standpoint of my audience, there’s kind of two overriding questions. One is how do they avoid ever getting to the point where they have to recover something, and what should they be doing that they’re not doing right now.

Dave: There’s a lot of things. Taking care of your memory cards is the first thing. Don’t delete in the camera. If you’re out shooting and you have a problem with a card, take it out, set it aside, put a new card and continue to shoot. If you run out of room, don’t delete on the camera because typically on a clean card when you’re recording your writing is all sequential. If you start going through the card and deleting this file, deleting that file, then you fragment the card. So when you go to shoot again and you’ve got a little area free and another one over here and another one over here, as the camera is recording the camera’s going to put parts in different places. If you then do have a problem with that card, recovering it is even harder. Because if there is no file system left, the individual file data may no longer be sequential.

[Editor’s note. We were talking in context of the NAB, which is a video show, and it should be obvious that you don’t want a video camera skipping around on the card recording a file non-sequentially. But what a lot of still shooters don’t realize is that image files are not a fixed size. Both JPEG and raw files always vary with detail. So let’s say that you deleted a file that was all sky—an accidental shot with almost no detail. When your camera goes to write a new image in the space you freed up when you deleted that sky image, that new shot may be larger than the space you made, and thus that image file now has to be recorded on the card non-sequentially.]

Thom: So you’d say that data recovery is always easier if the files are almost continuous sequentially on the card?

Dave: Definitely.

You know batteries are a big thing, too. Making sure that you have enough power and battery in your camera because if the camera runs out of power while it’s recording you’re going to have a file system problem, it won’t finish the write.

Thom: One of the things the Nikon cameras do is that they report the number of frames that are remaining on a card based upon an average guess, then as you get down to the end of the card, you’ll see 0 frames remaining, then suddenly 1 will pop up as the camera does some recalculation. Most of the damaged cards I see come from people going right to the end of the card and then trying to force another image on.

Dave: Right, and then they overshoot the card’s storage capacity and that’s it. And another one we see a lot is that people just eject the card before it’s finished writing. Because the camera caches up the data as its writing to the card, and if you’re not paying attention and that light is still blinking when you eject the card, same thing, you corrupt the file system.

Just formatting the card isn’t always a good thing, either. Formatting the card doesn’t get rid of data on the card, all it does is clear off the file table.

Thom: At least the way the camera formats the card…

Dave: Well there are some cameras that do a destructive format and write all zeroes. There are some Fujifilm and a couple of others where there are some models that will write zeroes to the card. That was typical of cameras that were using the old Xd cards. 

The best thing to do is that when you’re done with a card and you’ve got your data downloaded, wipe the card using a utility that will write zeros to the entire card and then reformat it and it’s like a brand new card.

[Editor’s note: One reason for this advice is because if you have a card failure on a card that wasn’t wiped clean previously, there will be a mix of your old image/video files and new ones in the data area: new where you wrote to the card this time, old where it still is around from a non-destructive format from before. That’s why Dave suggests writing zeroes: the zeroes don’t look like data files and makes image recovery quicker and easier. Personally, I don’t tend to do this. It’s another workflow step, and potentially a slow one (and one that you can mess up by formatting incorrectly). Still, I do periodically take a used card and give it a fresh full formatting like this. I should note that PHOTORECOVERY software offers this option in the professional version.]

Thom: How about bad sectors? Generally cameras don’t flag bad sectors, do they?

Dave: No.

Thom: Are bad sectors common?

Dave: I haven’t seen a lot of that on card media. Occasionally you’ll run into cards that do have bad spots on them, and that’s over time. And eventually if you use a card enough, they do wear out, they do have a life span. You can only write to them so many times. The best thing we tell people is if you take care of your cards and you know what you’re doing in handling them in and out of the camera, they should last you a long, long time.

Thom: I have this constant fight with some of my readership and it’s coming up right now with Nikon because of the switch to XQD: “No, I just want to keep using my existing CompactFlash cards.” 

Dave: But how long have been using them? At some point you really do need to replace cards. Especially since cards are just getting cheaper, and cheaper and cheaper. Eventually the price will be come down.

Thom: Okay, so the other question that comes up is this: I know I have an error. I either saw something on the back of the LCD or I know I pulled it too soon, what do I do.

Dave: Pull the card out, set it aside, and if you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, you send it to someone like the manufacturer of the card. But most of the time they’ll probably direct you to us. Most of the camera companies send people directly to us. If you’re using SanDisk or Toshiba media, if the software that came with the card doesn’t work, then you just go ahead and send it to us and we’ll do it manually.

Thom: What’s your success rate on that?

Dave: It’s pretty high. It’s up in the 90’s. As long as the card is functioning. Like I said before if people are deleting on the card or manipulating the image on the card, it does have a tendency to shift the data around and fragment the card, which makes it more difficult to recover. If you’re shooting on clean, fresh media all the time, we generally recover it easily and quickly. If not, it takes longer to recover, or sometimes is impossible. A lot of times with images you’ll see stripes across, even after you recover them, that’s because the data is fragmented, and some of it was lost or not found. 

Thom: That was going to be my next question: one of the most common things that people see is that the bottom section of an image is purple or gray or missing, or there’s streak lines across it, sometimes maybe mosaic blocks at the bottom of the image.

Dave: That’s typically caused by someone using the same card over and over again and deleting files to free up space and taking more pictures. Eventually you fragment the data so much on there it’s a problem.

So you think about it, and all your data’s on there and then you delete a picture, then you delete another picture, and then you’re taking a picture in maybe a higher resolution that doesn’t fit into that, so the camera looks for the first place it can fit that new picture into, and if it doesn’t fit there it’ll stuff part of it there and put the rest somewhere else.

Thom: It’s not that the camera manufacturers are putting high-end parts in there that are faster than the card can be written to.

Dave: Right. But it depends a lot on the cards you’re using, too. There’s fast cards, there’s good cards, and there’s lower quality cards. Depending upon who you’re getting them from, where you’re getting them from—we see counterfeit cards, too.

Thom: I was just going to say, three years ago there was a big trend with counterfeit cards.

Dave: Yes, a lot of SanDisk cards. But if you open them up, it’s not SanDisk at all. Or it’s remarked to a different specification.

Thom: ..and then the customer’s trying to push it as if it’s a fast card, and they do some deletions, and…

Dave: These things all add up very fast.

Thom: So is there a message you really want to get across to the serious camera user? If they did everything right, you’d be out of business, right?

Dave: [hesitates] Uh-yaaaaaa, I guess you could put it that way. But people make mistakes. People should spend the time to understand what it is that you’re doing and the consequences of it. They’re a lot of people that think they’re pros because they have an expensive camera. But taking care of the memory cards, that should be their number one consideration. Always make sure you’ve got enough battery, the other things I’ve already said.

Thom: Okay, so you’ve got an SD card, you’ve forgotten it’s in your pocket, and you ran it through the washer. 

Dave: We get a lot of cards that have been wet.

Thom: My experience is that these cards still work. Should I get rid of them once they’ve been washed like that?

Dave: No, no. If it’s just gone through the wash, that’s not a big deal. Let it dry. Especially CompactFlash with all the pins you’re going to get moisture in there, so make sure that’s dried out. SD cards, MicroSD cards, not really an issue.

Thom: Speaking of that, do you get a lot of bent pin cards?

Dave: Not so much any more. We used to get a lot where the pin was pushed in on the CompactFlash cards, and then we’d just pop the case off, push the pin back, plug it back in and it reads fine. We still see them occasionally, but that’s the user trying to jam it in or put the card in upside down. You’ve just got to be careful in how you treat your gear. Being in a hurry all the time causes problems. Take your time, do it right. 

You know, we do a lot of recovery for wedding photographers. We tell those photographers if you want to do it right, just buy a new card for each wedding. Don’t use the same cards over and over on such high volume situations. They’re not that expensive, and you leave yourself a backup. The last thing you want is to lose a wedding and have the couple sue you. You can’t recreate that wedding.

Thom: Do you send recovery teams to big events, like the Olympics?

Dave: No, we stay back in our offices and are there for the people who discover that they’ve got a problem. 

Right now we’re spending a lot of time working on the video product. You know some of these video cameras have a huge number of actual file types they generate given all the size and compression options. Which brings up an interesting thing: the more file types we add to the program, the more risk of unintentional error in getting the interpretation exactly right, because so many of them are very close. You know, false positives. So we’re doing a straight video-only product now that covers most of the major formats. MP4s are tough, and some products only recover the video, not the audio, or the recovery puts the audio and video out of sync. The formats are getting more complex, the files are bigger.

Thom: How about SSDs? You know, a lot of the external recorders like the Atomos are using them.

Dave: SSDs are a completely different thing. 

Thom: (laughs) You smiled the minute I said SSD…

Dave: Yes. I’ve had that question a whole bunch of times. We make tools for companies that make SSDs. We made SanDisk’s original SSD toolkit, that does a lot of different maintenance type things like Trim, Overprovisioning, firmware updates…a lot of things that SSDs require.

Thom: So if I have a data issue on an SSD, what happens?

Dave: It depends. One of the things with SSDs is the Trim function that does garbage collection, so when you delete files eventually the system will reallocate all those data blocks and consolidate them, which means you have a window of time to recover deleted data, not like on a traditional hard drive. The other thing that we see with SSDs is that when they do die, they’re typically dead. We get them in, but one of the problems is that you’ve got data on maybe 16 different chips, and it’s been scattered there by the way SSDs work. And you’ve got maybe a hundred companies making different SSDs, unlike hard drives where you’ve got like three. The technology really hasn’t evolved as far as it has on traditional disk drives, to be able to recover data. So when those drives have electronic failure, it’s tough to get them back working, to get data off them is even harder.

Thom: That’s scary.

Dave: It is. If you think about it, you’ve got about a hundred companies out there making them. There aren’t a lot of standards, they’re all using different controllers, with different break patterns, so even if you were to pull all those chips out and image them independently, trying to figure out how it wrote the data is a huge problem. We can pull the chips, but figuring out how the data is recorded to put the pieces back together is not simple. What we recommend with desktop users is that if they use an SSD is to put the OS and applications on the SSD, but to put the data on a hard drive, or to use one of the hybrid drives with an SSD cache system. 

Thom: This has been a great conversation, so I thank you for it.


LC Technologies Windows version of their PHOTORECOVERY product can be seen on this Web page. That page also has menus and links to the Macintosh version, the SanDisk software, and to LC Technologies’ data recovery services.

More on Where Nikon Is

Last week’s annual report has additional grim bits to it that show up on closer examination. For one, the core company is unprofitable. It’s only the subsidiary structure that’s somehow produced the positive income numbers we see on the consolidated statements. In the unconsolidated statements, we see some clear issues and problems.

One that stood out is the 25% increase in provision for warranty repair year to year. People ask me if Nikon knows they have a QC problem. Well, yes, if anyone at Nikon is reading their own financial statements, they know. What we don’t know is what they intend to do about it. 

I was also struck by some of the risk assessment pieces, a few of which seemed new or reworded in interesting ways. In particular, one risk I hadn’t noticed before was that Nikon takes big pre-payments on semiconductor equipment but those sometimes need to be returned because the order eventually gets cancelled. Couple that with Nikon's projection of a great expansion year for the Precision group, and you have to scratch your head about why they spent so much time discussing that particular risk.

But before everyone panics, let me say this: what we’re seeing now is a replay of what’s happened before. Nikon doesn’t seem to know how to not repeat its own history. Some of this is institutional. It’s traditional, for instance, to transition the upper management from one group to another as the business mix changes. Which, of course, forces the business mix to change. 

We’ve seen transitions in the upper management team leadership from Imaging to Precision to Imaging and now back to Precision. One problem with this is the politics and the informational awareness that stem from bouncing top management back and forth like that. Semiconductor equipment and consumer cameras are products and industries that are quite different. The skill sets to run one right are not the same as to run the other.

That said, Ushida-san (current CEO, from Precision) has had a couple of years to build his team and get them aligned to the tasks at hand. Any further issues in keeping the company running well are definitely going to accrue to his tenure now. It’s no longer possible for him to say that he inherited the problems. They’re his, and his to fix.

Here’s what I expect to happen next: within a month or two we’re going to hear about adjustments in the upper management team. Those will be re-assignments that telegraph to the rest of Nikon’s employees subtle messages about who was deemed responsible for the problems, and who is charged with fixing them.

If there were any Spring/Summer product rollouts other than lenses planned, they’re not going to happen. We almost certainly won’t hear about new cameras from Nikon until Photokina. I’d also guess that we’ll see two key cameras introduced at Photokina. 

The 1H fiscal 2017 results (April-September 2016) for Nikon are going to be less dismal than projected, I think. Even the 45 day sensor unavailability issue shouldn’t generate such a huge projected drop in unit volume (31% in ILC). So either Nikon lowballed their forecasts to look good, or it very well may be that they’ve decided to take a bullet to the chest in order to move forward again (e.g. cancelled all Nikon 1 and a few other camera’s production)

2016 was supposed to be a “renewal” year for the Imaging business. The year that Nikon abandoned the losers and sought to refresh and extend the winners in the lineup. So far, the results on that are lots of ink, very little action. So Photokina is going to be key for Nikon: it’s their last chance to make 2016 even remotely like they thought it would be. 

People have asked me what I expect at Photokina, so here it is:

  • The DL relaunch
  • The KeyMission relaunch
  • The SnapBridge relaunch
  • A D810 replacement
  • A new mirrorless camera, probably DX to replace the D3300
  • Two new lenses

That’s a lot. A huge undertaking to get right. But Nikon really needs to get it right. It’s possible that they’ll put the relaunches right after Photokina to reinforce the new product launches, but I think they need to go into the show with the full team and take a mighty swing at the ball. 

It’s also possible that Nikon will have a different two new cameras at Photokina. One scenario that seems possible given what we know has been in the works is:

  • D3500 (SnapBridge update)
  • D750 replacement (much the same as a D610 was to D600) or full frame mirrorless launch
  • D810 replacement becomes the Q1 2017 big launch

But if Nikon goes this way instead of what I suggest above, it will show that they haven’t gotten the message yet and are still lingering on an old scenario. In short, Photokina this year will be very revealing as to how far Nikon got in its camera rethink.


Addendum

Let’s not get stuck on the “but Nikon has good cameras” thing. Yes, they do. Three of them in particular excel, while another two distinguish themselves from competition in good ways.

The three that excel are the D5, D500, and D810. Though even in that list the D500 has teething problems, and the D810 is getting near the end of its reign as “best overall DSLR you can buy.” The two that are distinguished are the D7200 and the D750, though the latter one has had more than its share of issues. 

But those five products aren’t enough to sustain a strong number two position in the declining camera market. Moreover, they are all DSLRs, which are now in decline. Nikon has no real viable play in the stable and slightly growing mirrorless market, and the plethora of Coolpix they pushed on the market is about to completely collapse. 

So it’s not really about “but they have good products.” It’s about does Nikon have the right products? Do they have a viable bottom-to-top line? Can they stop the recurrent new product QA issues? Can a feature like SnapBridge actually get across their entire lineup fast enough and with enough capability to be a distinguishing trait? 

For me, I mostly shoot with a D500 and D810, supplemented by a D7200 and D4/D5. So I’m using some of Nikon’s best efforts and enjoying the benefits of that (though not in the DX lens selection, buzz, buzz). Most of this site’s long-term readers are doing the same. 

Still, we have to wonder how much shrinkage Nikon can really endure without changing in fundamental ways we are currently counting on. 

Nikon doesn’t need 40 cameras splattered across nearly disposable small sensor compacts to beyond the current top into medium format. It needs a handful of really well considered, well made, and well supported products from 1” compact to FX DSLR. It also needs those products to live in the modern, not legacy world (though supporting legacy accessories is still one of their key attributes they shouldn’t abandon). But Nikon is still closer to the splatter of products than the well managed set. Their current financial situation is certainly due to not addressing that faster and better.


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