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):

Long Term Versus Short Term Planning

It's the end of the year, and this year has shaped up to be a real log-jam of new products. All the major players are playing majorly right now. 

What all the hype and PR coming out of a busy trade show like Photokina does is focus consumers on the short term. There's a great deal of FOMO going on in the photographic community. (That's Fear Of Missing Out for those of you over 35. Heck, maybe even over 25 ;~)

Something I've seen in recent articles and posts about recent camera introductions is that, for example, Canon and Nikon were rushed into adjusting their plans. That the Canon EOS R, for example, was a rush job. A corollary to this kind of thinking is that "the DSLR is over. Dead. Kaput."

I'd caution people to think that way. Particularly with Nikon, who I know to be a careful organization that makes and follows long term plans (almost to their detriment, as the late rush in broadening Coolpix and the release of KeyMission came right into the decline of both markets).

To think that the camera companies didn't think about what's happening in the market and how they'd likely transition to mirrorless in time is incorrect. The players that couldn't dent the Canikon duopoly in DSLRs had nothing to lose by transitioning early and fully to mirrorless. Canon and Nikon did have something to lose if they made an incorrect or premature transition. 

Neither company rushed their basic ideas here; you can see evidence in that in how both Canon and Nikon made very strategic changes to their lens mounts for mirrorless. Both companies realized that there was an opportunity here to make their mounts more flexible to new optical designs as well as provide higher communication bandwidth between camera and lens. The trick was in balancing the change with the legacy past, and both seem to have done a very good job of that.

What I'm saying is this: the camera companies have all been deep in long-term planning, and they'll also be deep in long-term execution to that plan. But what about you? Are you just succumbing to "camera of the day" or do you have a long-term plan of your own?

When I first identified Last Camera Syndrome, I wondered how that would play into a market transition. We're about to find out. (Last Camera Syndrome is someone who has bought what they believe to be their last camera upgrade/update. They believe they can be happy with that camera for the rest of their photographic lifetime (or at least a very long time). That doesn't mean they don't buy new lenses, though ;~).

The D850 is a pretty stellar camera, and it's a DSLR. It's a solid all-around performer, which is what most enthusiasts and pros really want. It's going to take a lot more pixels to provide visible gains. It's difficult to imagine significant features that the D850 doesn't have. It's built well and holds up to abuse well. It's a Last Camera Syndrome candidate for a lot of folk. And it's a DSLR.

Nikon knows that, and they have to cater to that. People keep asking me if we'll continue to see F-mount (FX) lenses from Nikon. The answer to that is a pretty solid yes, though we won't see them in high quantity. The FX lineup is already pretty filled out, with few gaps. Nikon won't stop making the FX lenses that are already in the lineup, either (they still make AI lenses from the 1980's, if you need some verification of that). 

I wrote elsewhere that now was the time to be making up your mind about what you're going to do. The number of excellent cameras on the market that are probably fully capable of doing what you need them to is long and deep. Ditto lenses. Ditto accessories. 

It's not like you can't make a long term decision, just as the camera companies are doing. For me, for instance, I'm going to have to sit on the fence for awhile. For sports and wildlife, I don't really see a mirrorless camera topping what I can do with the DSLRs for awhile, and the native lenses really aren't there in the Z mount yet, either. Thus, the D500, D850, D5 DSLRs still are solid in my visible future, as is the FX lens set I've built.

It's where small/light/portable comes into play—travel photography, hiking, etc.—where I'm re-contemplating my future, and it was already shifted towards mirrorless. The D7500 looks less interesting to me given that the Z7 is almost the same size and weight (ditto the Sony A7Rm3). It does get a little tricky with lenses on the Nikon side, but Nikon never delivered a full set of great DX lenses, did they? (buzz, buzz)

My point is that—for my shooting, not necessary for my Web site product reviews—I'm heavy into a long term plan for what I'll do over the next few years. I've got enough information now from the camera industry that I can make that plan and likely stick to relatively close to it.  Am I interested in a 70-200mm f/2.8 mirrorless lens? Not really. My long term plan has that covered with what I already have (the really great 70-200mm f/2.8E on a D850 or D5). Would I be interested in a 14-30mm f/4 mirrorless (or the 12-24mm f/4 Sony I already own)? You bet. 

But to get to those decisions I needed to generate a use pattern and a long-term plan. 

Use pattern meaning I understand what I carry and use cameras for. Shirt pocket for casual stuff (RX100), where image quality is not the driving characteristic. Lightish and convenient for travel, hiking, event (mirrorless). Image quality is important there, but carrying fatigue is to be avoided. Heavy duty for sports and wildlife (DSLR). Image and focus quality absolutely predominate here, and I'll deal with the size and weight.

My long term plan says—notwithstanding a surprise product—I'm set with all my DSLR needs. I'm not likely to be buying more DSLR lenses or bodies. Indeed, I've been winnowing down my gear closet quite dramatically based upon that plan. My long term plan also says—notwithstanding a surprise product—that the two RX100's I have deal with the casual use quite fine. So in those areas, something dramatic would have to happen that's unexpected for me to worry about those needs and use patterns.

It's in the middle where all my transition happens, and that's still playing out as I assess options. I'm not in a hurry to make that transition, either, as there's enough gear in the closet as it stands to cover those things for the time being anyway.

So:

  1. What's your use pattern? Are you really sure you know what it is you shoot today and what gear is really needed for that? And are you confident that use pattern will stay the same, or will it change (due to retirement, or family, etc.)? Have you ever examined which focal lengths and apertures you actually use? Are you over-equipped for what you actually output (e.g. shooting a 45mp camera just for Facebook and social media posts)? If you can't answer these questions, you can't make a plan.
  2. What's your long-term plan? Not what you're going to buy this holiday shopping season, but what you think your gear closet will look like two or three years from now, and why. Some of you can probably look out even longer than that (those of us who shoot professionally have to stay on the leading edge of what's possible in order to keep clients, but someone who's just retiring probably has already thought out further about what they will be doing with a camera in the future as they don't want to keep using their retirement dollars on camera gear if they can avoid it). Are you going to shoot more, or shoot less in the future? Will what you shoot change?

If you can't answer all those questions, it doesn't matter what the camera companies did or didn't introduce this year. You have more important work to do than study press releases and Web posts on near gear. 

More Nikon Lens Rebates

We have six Nikkor lenses with rebates starting December 9th:

As always with Nikon rebates, I try to give you my advice about them.

First, these are I believe the first rebates we've seen on the 24-70mm and 70-200mm E lenses. Both are superb lenses, with the mid-range zoom being arguably among the best you can get, and the telephoto zoom being simply the best 70-200mm I've ever seen from anyone. Both are bolded in the above list as I can unequivocally recommend them.

I have to wonder about the rebates on these two lenses, though. I suspect they'll be recurring from time to time now. Why? Because demand for them is down now that Nikon's road map shows 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms for the Z mount. As people start migrating from Nikon DSLR to Nikon mirrorless, the lens demand will shift from F to Z lenses, too. That's going to be particularly true if we find those Z versions have some benefit that using the FTZ adapter with the old lens doesn't have. 

So. If you're in the DSLR camp and going to be there for awhile, take advantage of these rebates on the Big E lenses when they appear. Those are two really good lenses that are clearly better than their predecessors, and either near or at state-of-the-art for their focal lengths.

The two DX lenses are a little tougher to recommend. I've written before that I don't like short macro lenses: to get to 1:1 you just are too close to the subject to light it. But the 40mm f/2.8G DX is a sharp lens. Thus, if you think 60mm effective is a focal length you need, the rebate is an un-ignorable 14%. Meanwhile, if you don't need VR but want a small, light telephoto, the 70-300mm is now a paltry US$150. That's a good price for a pretty decent lens. Be sure you know your DX camera can use AF-P lenses, though.

The 16-35mm f/4 is an okay lens, but it really needs more of a discount to get my attention. You've got the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 and the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 sitting US$300 above the Nikkor in price, and both are arguably a better choice, even considering the price differential. Then there's the recent Tamron 17-35mm f/2.8-4 at significantly less than the Nikkor. I haven't tried that lens yet, but I don't think you can ignore it.

I'm also not a fan of superzooms like the 28-300mm. As superzooms go, the Nikkor isn't a bad one at all. Certainly on the 24mp bodies it looks pretty good. Is it US$275 better than the Tamron? I'm not sure, since I haven't tried the Tamron, but if I were you I'd figure that out before springing for the Nikkor. Just be very aware that 300mm isn't really 300mm. This lens has a huge amount of focal length breathing. So as you focus closer, that 300mm eventually becomes far less than 200mm and eventually less than 140mm at the closest focus distance, which sort of negates its superzoom ability. Too many people get caught up in that one number (300) and aren't aware that the 24-120mm actually comes far closer to what the 28-300mm gets at closer focus distances than you'd think. But if you take all your shots at infinity, sure, the superzoom is about 285mm by my measurements.

Sony Sensor Announcement Versus Rumor

Sony Semiconductor recently posted a new list of sensors available to camera companies, updating their long-existing public list with some new items.

The "official" Sony Semiconductor sensor list tends to postdate actual sensor use, not predict future sensor use.  

For example, the "new" 26mp ASP-C IMX571 appears to be the base sensor used by Fujifilm in the recent XT-3 (the XT-3's sensor had some Fujifilm changes, of course, particularly due to the X-Trans filtration; any big customer can take one of the available sensors as a base and have their own changes made to it). This is pretty common to see in the Sony Semiconductor list: a sensor that premiered in a camera finally makes its way into the official list of publicly available sensors. 

Another example of that was Nikon's use of a 36mp full frame IMX084 sensor. That sensor technology wasn't in the official sensor list for a couple of years (it's now gone). Likewise the 24mp full frame IMX410 sensor in the new list is likely the one behind the Sony A7m3 and Nikon Z6 (those two cameras seem to differ in how the phase detect pixel rows are created, another of those customizations camera companies are doing on base sensors). 

So what officially available sensors are there? Strangely, the list seems very incomplete at the top:

  • MF 4.2 — 150mp BSI IMX411
  • MF 3.4 — 100mp BSI IMX461
  • Full frame — 24mp BSI IMX410
  • APS-C — 26mp BSI IMX571
  • APS-C — 24mp FSI IMX271

There's also m4/3 and 1" sensors on the list, but just look at those last three sensors in my bullet list: where are the 36mp, 42mp, and 45mp full frame sensors, and where is the 20mp APS-C sensor? Those are all used in current camera models. And looking at the MF sensors, Fujifilm and Hasselblad are using an MF 3.4 sensor that's 50mp, where did it go?

The implication is that while Sony Semiconductor may still be producing all the sensors I mention in the last paragraph for the companies still using them, they're no longer selling—or at least promoting—them for future designs.

Which brings us to the rumor. More than one source is now reporting two upcoming Sony Semiconductor sensors in a fair amount of detail: a 36mp BSI full frame that provides both 16-bit ADC output as well as high frame rates (10 fps at 16-bit), and a 60mp BSI full frame sensor that's capable of 8K video at 60 fps. 

Right now in full frame we have 24 and 36-45 megapixel counts as our "regular" and "high pixel" sensors. The implications of the rumor are that the future of full frame may be 36 and 60mp: moving each full frame sensor up a full step. 

What's a step? Something near a 20% increase in linear resolution, and something near or exceeding a doubling of bandwidth (moving of data off the sensor). 

The camera makers have all professed that they want to (need to) go further "up-scale" as the ILC market continues to shrink. These rumored sensors are right in line with that idea. Imagine a Nikon D750 replacement that's 36mp and 10 fps and a D850 replacement that's 60mp and 10 fps (14-bit), for example. Ditto to produce a Sony A7m4 and A7Rm4. Those would clearly be steps up from the current cameras. 

That would also provide full frame a bit of headroom above APS-C. Note that the Sony Semiconductor APS-C world is 24/26mp, with no rumor beyond 28mp that I know of. Easy enough to produce with current technologies at cost effective prices, and it keeps APS-C below full frame in capability. At least until someone decides push the envelope (it's no surprise that Fujifilm is the first to use the 26mp chip: they're not going to be able to keep up with full frame pixel counts soon). 

Of course, as I pointed out in my pushback article on sansmirror.com, many of you are balking at the current pixel counts. Suddenly a 16GB storage card is looking mighty small with the high megapixel count cameras, and your aging desktop computer is going to be slow at processing images that have lots more data in them. 

This puts the camera companies in a Double Whammy. Wham one is that they want more money for a higher-end camera from you. They don't want to sell you a US$1000 camera, they want to sell you a US$3000 camera. 

Wham Two is that if they do sell you that expensive camera, you suddenly are spending several thousand more to upgrade your computer and storage, and maybe your software. 

Buying a 60mp camera very well could turn out to be a US$6000 proposition for some customers when all is said and done. Demand goes down with price, remember. And aren't the camera companies trying to deal with declining demand? You can see how this could go off the rails for them very quickly.

If you're not ever thinking about printing your images above 13x19" or displaying them on anything other than a phone or tablet (or even computer), you're probably already in pushback territory. You don't need the pixels. As I've been writing for over a decade now, convenience—ability to share images easily from the camera—is likely to be more important to most photo takers, not insane levels of image quality. 

The devil in the details is your television, though. As I've pointed out before, 1080P is really a 2mp image, while 4K is about 8mp. 8K, though, is 33mp. If people were really sharing to their TVs—which I believe will eventually happen—and if those TVs become 8K devices, then suddenly the difference between how a smartphone image and a high-end dedicated camera image looks would be clearly discernible (at least with today's smartphones and cameras). 

Clearly we're in a dangerous zone for the camera companies. We're already heavily into a photophile era, and as with Hi Fi gear (audiophile) when the consumer market collapsed, this is being pushed higher and higher by the Japanese companies. The question is where does the price/volume stabilize? Or does it?

The answers to those questions are unknown, but Sony Semiconductor seems to be feeding the upward scramble with business as usual at the moment. 


Lens Anxiety

Nikon issued a press release this past week claiming 110m Nikkors have been produced (see my charting of the lens growth here), which found its way into my InBox via a content scrapper I use. Along with that email came a whole bunch of what I call “lens anxiety” emails from site readers.

Basically, the anxiety goes like this: “Nikon (or Canon) changed their mount so that they can sell more lenses. My existing US$X,000 worth of lenses will now become worthless.” 

This is the old “lenses are an investment” idea in a different form. 

While it’s true that some lenses tend to hold their value better than others (primarily the exotics and pro glass), in only one case have I ever gotten more for a lens than I paid for it when I decided to sell it. They’re not investments, they’re tools. You should buy and use tools rationally, and economically you justify them by what they gain you in the time you own and use them.

Those of us who have photography businesses already knew that, because we’re depreciating our lenses in our taxes. That forces us to understand the underlying economics of buying something and using it over time. 

Meanwhile, how much your lens is actually worth on the used market is a simple supply versus demand calculation. 

I mentioned Nikon’s press release for a reason. In the last 20 years, Nikon has sold a little over 800,000 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. That’s a lot of supply into the new market, despite it being spread over three versions of that lens. A new 70-200mm f/2.8E is going to cost you US$2800. Used ones of the previous model (G, II) are currently going for US$1600 in excellent condition (and would probably have cost you US$2400). Not. An. Investment. But a tool that does retain some of its value over time.

The problem—as I’ve written about before—is that people tend to look only at sunk costs. That’s the cost they paid for something, not what the item is actually worth. 

So it’s easy to go to the gear closet of a serious photographer of any sort and find US$5000+ worth of sunk lens costs sitting there, maybe even US$10,000+. Somehow this sunk cost thought then gets hooked up with a quasi-conspiracy theory (Nikon, or Canon is rendering older lenses useless on purpose), and next thing you know you have lens panic. 

I’d like to point something out for a moment: on both my Nikon Z and Canon R systems the two camera companies make a perfectly acceptable lens adapter that makes (almost*) all my existing lenses perform just fine. Those existing lenses aren't worth any less to me at the moment.

Thus, I actually have the opposite position of all of you who are panicking and sending me lens anxiety emails: I’m exceedingly curious as to how Nikon (or Canon) is going to convince me to buy a new 70-200mm f/2.8 when the one I have works extraordinarily well on my Z (or R) cameras. Heck, I just shot a football game with the Z7+70-200mm combo:

bythom sports CU vs WSU Nov10 2018 Z726526

Thus I’m not at all concerned about what happens to the “monetary value” of my lenses at the moment. They’ve provided me great shots in the past, they’re working for me now, and I expect them to keep working just fine for the foreseeable future. 

Nikon got me picking up the first three Z lenses because they actually fill holes in my current setup, and allow me to rely less on my Sony A7Rm3. Indeed, if the 14-30mm f/4 S is anything like the 24-70mm f/4 S, I might be able to give up my A7Rm3 entirely, as that Sony camera is primarily my small full-frame travel kit emphasizing wide angle. The question will be whether that new NIkkor lens will also make me willing to give up my 14-24mm f/2.8, too. Probably not. 

That said, I recently did what I’d encourage all of you to do from time to time: make a complete log of what you’ve got in terms of existing lenses, look at what you’re actually using, and then consolidate down to just the lenses you find useful. You can always rent a lens you need only one time or sporadically. But you’ll want to keep a useful kit of lenses for what you’re shooting today, tomorrow, and into the foreseeable future.  

So, Don’t Panic and always remember to carry a towel.

*The exception on the Nikon side is lenses that use a screw drive for autofocus. Nikon started rendering them out-of-date back with the early consumer DSLRs. Today those lenses only work on the current D5, D500, D610, D750, D850, and D7500 models. So the warning about the long-term viability of the screw drive lenses was sent a long time ago by Nikon, and the FTZ adapter is basically just another event to emphasize that those particular lenses don’t really move forward. So yes, the value of a screw drive lens might go down further, but it was already considerably lowered by past Nikon actions. 

What Thom Wants for Christmas

Yeah, I know. This article might seem a bit like a five-year old who's just got the Christmas toy catalog and goes into full parental persuasion mode. But bear with me a bit. I think there's useful information here.

Let's start with existing products I don't own:

  • Nikkor 180-400mm f/4E. If you haven't seen my "quick review" of the lens based upon only a short period of time with it, you might want to check that out. Yep, this lens is a whopping US$12,400. But it's probably worth it if you have the 180-560mm focal length need in one flexible optic. The problem for me is I can't justify the cost given what I already own in this range, so I hope I've been good this year and Santa is being generous. 
  • Sony A9 and a Sony 400mm f/2.8. Another of those things I don't need because I've got it covered already with existing gear. Still, my experience with the A9 shooting sports was that there are times when I could really appreciate its silent 20 fps with no viewfinder blackout. And if I'm going to ask for the body, I might as well ask for the lens I'd want, too, right? Fortunately, I've got a D5 and a Nikkor 400mm f/2.8, so this is just a pure lust-for-one-more-little-bit-of-performance-in-one-particular-area request. (Note: B&H has the A9 at US$1000 off as I post this.)
  • An unknown video camera. I'm in the midst of replacing all my video gear, so now that the old stuff is gone, what do I replace it with? That's a good question to which I don't yet know the answer. Blackmagic, Canon, Panasonic, RED, Sony? All make something right in the level I'm targeting. I'm slowly going through the options and attending events to get hands on experience with each. Maybe Santa knows better than I?

Next, let's move onto products that don't exist, but should. Maybe the elves at the North Pole have been working overtime on things that will pop up as surprise presents under the tree?

  • Any Wide Angle DX prime. I see Nikon's still selling DX cameras. I see that they also haven't  had a DX lens announcement in a year-and-a-half, and no DX prime announcement in seven years, oh my. Did some of the elves take a long nap? Are they missing from the workshop? Do we need to send out a search party? 
  • The 12-24mm f/4 DX update. See above.
  • The 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor update (or the return of the 70-180mm). Macro ends at 105mm for Nikon these days, but not for the rest of us. 
  • A 400mm f/4E PF. Loved the 300mm and 500mm, now let those who need 400mm enjoy the show, too. 
  • Firmware updates. Add D9 and Group H/L to the D5 generation cameras that don't have these modes, add Infrastructure Wi-Fi support to the D7500, D500, and D850, fix the Z6/Z7 AF-C modes, and that would be a good starting point from which Nikon could probably sprinkle a few additional morsels to make us happy. 
  • m4/3 in a compact body. Hey Olympus elves! Hope you're working on a new compact camera. Call it the TG-Max. Stick your m4/3 magic into a new Tough body and lens combo and try to keep that from running away in price and you've got a hit (and Santa can just drop it from the sky down the chimney rather than having to carefully place it under the tree ;~). Something everyone would want in their bag for those wet occasions where the ocean keeps rising on their shorefront property, too. Seriously: almost every photographer would want one under their tree at Christmas if this existed...
  • a Vlogging camera that was actually designed for vloggers. Elf-size small, because it has to be able to run on a small, light gimbal. ILC to support changing lens needs. Long battery life, because we're vlogging all day. Connectivity that works, because we want to vlog in real time or as close to is as possible, so give us streaming capability and fast Wi-Fi transfer. A ready-to-cut compression, like ProRes. A twist and flip LCD, because we aren't always behind the camera. Better in-camera amps, because we're tired of hearing hissing when we speak. Headphone and mic jacks, for sure. 4K top end is enough, and 60P would be nice with that. If not, make sure that the 1080P gets to at least 120 fps. Smartphone remote control (of everything) a big plus. Sensor size? 1" to APS-C is probably enough, but error on the larger side if you can. 
  • A DSLR-like Sony A7xxx. Yes, I understand the A6xxx series bodies. I just don't feel like they're the ones I want. The really small offset rangefinder style just exacerbates the Sony UI/ergonomic issues for me. Just scale the DSLR style correctly and give me everything else I expect in the top-end APS-C camera and I'll be happy. A mini A9, basically. If the Sony elves need direction, have them talk to the Fujifilm elves.

I could probably go on infinitely about products that need to be developed, as every camera and lens maker has plenty of gaps and needs. But the above list would make me happy for at least a few days after Christmas. 

Finally, I would like some more generic things; let’s call them stocking stuffers:

  • Four hours in Tokyo with the Z series autofocus designers. 
  • Four hours in Tokyo with the Sony A7 series UI, menu, ergonomics designers.
  • Some clearer idea of what Canon and Nikon will be doing with DSLRs for the next few years.
  • Shooting Wazzu football at a bowl game, preferably a championship game.
  • A winter tour in Yellowstone with all my new gear (see above ;~). 
  • Time to finish all the dangling projects still sitting on my desk...

Dead Versus Zombie

I’ve written about this before in passing, but it seems with all the recent talk about “dead” companies, mounts, and cameras in the photography press—and yes, including from me—we need to present some elaboration to be clear about what we’re talking about.

Pretty much every camera company is now reporting volume declines, except for perhaps Fujifilm where they’re proliferating models to fill out lines and are still so small that any new model equals some growth. 

It’s clear that we’re in a world where the number of dedicated camera sales still hasn’t found a bottom. 

This year, my projection is that ILC units will finish right around the 11m mark shipped (CIPA numbers), but overall we’re down ~5% again. That’s despite what’s a record number of new significant camera models entering the market (with more right around the corner). 

Everyone is reporting weakness in their 2018 numbers, some more than others, but still the problem is universal enough that we can’t say that we’ve reached bottom with camera sales yet. 

Which is one of the things that is generating “X is dead” talk. We have too much diversity (cameras, mounts, companies) for the market size. Something's got to give.

This is not the first time this has happened with cameras. The tail end of the film SLR era looked a lot like we’re seeing today. Indeed, everyone jumped into digital from film because they all saw the market completely resetting and they all wanted a share of that predicted-to-be-rapidly-expanding growth. For awhile, all was well, as the growth was strong and dramatic for over a decade.

No such thing is on the horizon at the moment. We have no true reinvention of cameras visible that would re-trigger rapid market growth. The areas where I’ve long felt that could be achieved (e.g. modern communication, user/app programmable, workflow) just don’t seem to be happening.

And so people look at those declining numbers and the long line of disappointing quarterly financial statements—Nikon’s lost almost two thirds their volume and half their profit in a bit over five years—and start speculating.

So let’s attempt some definitions:

  • Dead — The company completely self destructs into Chapter 7 type bankruptcy. This won’t happen for any of the camera players for a variety of reasons. First, most have other businesses, often significantly bigger than cameras and strongly profitable (e.g. Olympus). Nikon is perhaps the most vulnerable of the bunch, but even it has enough other business and has done enough restructuring of everything to be substantively profitable despite all that decline. Nope, no dead camera companies.
  • Euthanized — The companies where cameras aren’t adding significantly to the overall corporate bottom line while chewing up internal investment dollars—Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Ricoh/Pentax—could if they wanted simply close up shop and that would likely create a small positive impact on the company financials long-term. Note the word “small.” Also note that we’re talking about Japanese companies here. Culturally (and due to business law in Japan) it’s difficult for them to just close up a unit’s operations as we often see here in Western companies. In many cases, that can actually cost more than just continuing to operate a group at modest losses. I don’t think anyone’s going to close down their camera group. The one most likely to—Ricoh—appears to have no interest in doing so. (We have seen this in the past, for example HP and Samsung both shut down their dedicated camera divisions.)
  • Exiled — Pentax and Minolta have gone through this, both twice. This is typically the most common solution in Japan when a unit’s operations turn south: get a bigger player to acquire the unit and merge it with an existing one, and also do some pruning as you do. One problem here is that the market has declined so much that there aren’t a lot of possibilities left. I suppose Panasonic could gobble up Olympus cameras. Fujifilm could potentially gobble up Nikon cameras (though that would mean someone else would have to gobble up the rest of Nikon, as the remainder wouldn’t self sustain). Canon wouldn’t attempt this, and Sony would have a great deal of difficult swallowing something as large and directly competitive as Nikon. But realistically, there’s not enough market and not enough players for much additional consolidation to happen. It would only happen because Japanese financial institutions in the background forced it to happen, and there’s no longer any sign that this is in progress anywhere. 
  • Zombie — This is is what happened to some of the players before in the late film era. In Silicon Valley we call this “walking dead syndrome.” Basically, the company can sustain operations on cashflow (walk)—perhaps while continuing to downsize and constantly restructure—but it’s not really investable (dead). With care, you can keep the sales running to support some new product development (but you’d better not have a complete dud). Thus, the process of slow contraction just continues in these companies. You may have noticed that some camera companies have just increased their shareholder dividend recently (e.g. Nikon). Since the company’s stock can no longer be seen as a “growth investment” based on sales increases, increasing the dividend is a way the Japanese companies keep their banks and other financial institutions holding onto their stocks. If they didn’t do this, there would be potential for investors outside of Japan to put the company in play, which isn’t culturally acceptable. 
  • Healthy — To me, this category requires not only a strong customer base and large market share, but also market growth. It’s that last bit that’s the problem for camera companies: there’s no market growth, and continued market decline. You might be able to grow within the market by taking someone else’s market share, but that’s a costly endeavor and it might not win you a lot long run. There’s also a risk that everyone tries to play this game and no one wins. During the DSLR run up (1999 to 2011), we had several healthy players, most notably Canon and Nikon. Post 2013, those healthy players have been dropping out of health one by one. Canon was the last and the most recent to start showing true weakness and inability to maintain volume. 

Technically, the big three—who together own between 85-90% of the ILC market share and thus are the bulk of the interchangeable lens camera choices people are considering—are somewhere between Zombie and Healthy. Two of them were healthy, one had been a bit of a Zombie until they completely changed strategy. Now, however, they each exhibit some common traits: strength in the new strategy products (mostly full frame, and now mirrorless), weakness in the old strategy products that comprise the bulk of their unit volume (mostly crop sensor and DSLR). 

And to me, that’s both the problem and the opportunity: in the US$500-1500 price point you need to create a compelling product that would stop smartphone users from just shooting with their phone. To put it in plain terms: a well done post-to-Instragram button/automation on a small, light, travel-worthy, and highly competent US$800 ILC might very well change volume from decline to growth. 

Of course, that’s not really electronics, which is what the camera companies are good at. Instead, that’s mostly workflow (software). Which means that every one of the camera companies needs to acquire, develop, or license new core competencies. They needed to do that 10 years ago (when I first started writing about this). They needed to do it five years ago (when growth was peaking). They need to do it today. 

As I look around, no one is really doing it. So Zombie it is for the time being. 

You can apply the same labeling to individual product categories and individual products instead of companies. There, things get very interesting. 

For example, in terms of product categories compacts are dying off, DSLRs are going zombie, and only full frame mirrorless is healthy. The Nikon DL series was euthanized at birth.

New Nikon Lens Rebates

As I always do with Nikon lens rebates, here’s my advice about how good these lenses and new prices are:

  • 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-P VR DX — US$20 off (US$297). I still haven’t completed my review of this lens and you won’t find a lot of other reviews out there. It’s actually a very good lens for the DX bodies, and at the price a definite bargain if you’re looking for a wide angle zoom. There’s been clear sample variation, though, and the VR isn’t overly impressive, perhaps giving me only two stops extra handholding space. Still, I’ve been impressed by its basic sharpness and most other attributes, and that's especially true given the price. Definitely something D3xxx and D5xxx owners whose cameras support AF-P should consider. And that last bit is important: please read my Understand the AF-P lenses article before purchasing.
  • 14-24mm f/2.8G —US$200 off (US$1697). This is probably the right price for this lens, as its now getting a little long in the tooth and would be the last of Nikon’s main trio to get an update, if it ever gets an update. Still a great performer, though, even on the 45mp bodies. Just be aware of the field curvature and learn how to recognize/use that and you’ll be very happy with this lens.
  • 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G DX — US$100 off (US$597). Nah. Not interested. I suppose some true convenience shooters who are only interested in “good enough for Web work” types of shooting are very happy to use a superzoom like this, but they don’t read this site. 
  • 24-70mm f/2.8G — US$100 off (US$1697). Not enough discount on an older, less capable lens. I really see no point in buying this new any more. The E version is clearly better, and the third party options are also better values.
  • 50mm f/1.4G — US$70 off (US$377). I really don’t like any of the Nikkor 50’s any more. While some of them get into the price range where people think it’s worth the dip—as happens now with the f/1.4G—I think the third party options that are available just show you how bad the 50mm Nikkors are now. If you’re looking for “inexpensive normal” and have a 24mp+ body, consider the Tamron 45mm f/1.8. It’s a fine lens, often on sale, and includes image stabilization.
  • 85mm f/1.8G — US$40 off (US$437). Not much of a discount, but this is often the portrait lens I recommend to people. It’s optical quite good, does the job well, and is less expensive than most of your other options. Great price for a very good lens. And yes, this lens works well on a Z body with the FTZ adapter.
  • 105mm f/2.8G Micro-Nikkor — US$80 off (US$822). The classic macro that most people own. Personally I think Nikon has fallen a bit behind in the macro wars. The Tamron 90mm f/2.8 is a strong contender, for example. Plus now we’re getting companies like Irix coming in with MF macros that are less expensive, have better working distance, and probably are the right choice for a lot of work. But still a good price on a good lens.
  • 200-500mm f/5.6E — US$200 (US$1197). Bingo! Here’s the bargain of the bunch. This lens was already a considerable bargain at its list price, offering better-than-expected optical performance at a very non-Nikon price. At US$200 off, it’s not just a bargain, it’s almost a “must buy” if you don’t already have a good lens in the post 300mm range. 

The 10-20mm is also offers in kit with the 40mm f/2.8 DX macro for US$150 off.  Meh. The 40mm is sharp, but it’s working distance for true macro is nil. Makes a decent—maybe too sharp—portrait lens for DX, though. 

These rebates extend through November 24th. 

Support this site by purchasing from the following advertiser (most include a 4% extra reward and a Zeiss Lens Care kit):

bythom nikon lenses

The Decline Continues

One now has to wonder what the Japanese camera companies are actually hiding. In particular, both Canon and Nikon in their financial results are seeming to understate the likely market size (Nikon just said it's 10m units; the actual 12-month trailing value is 11m units, so cooked into Nikon's numbers is an implicit strong collapse of the ILC market in just two quarters). Either that or they're overstocking inventory by large numbers (e.g. CIPA shipments are far above actual sales).

I've already done a brief overview of Canon's Q3 results. Let's break into Nikon's.

Overall, the Imaging Group was down 14% in revenue and 2.2% in profits for the year-to-year comparison for the first half of the fiscal year. Revenue actually came in a bit higher than forecast, while profit was lower than forecast. Nikon's explanation was that the profit change was due to two things: (1) the high cost of introducing the new mirrorless cameras, and (2) "more customers than expected refrained from purchasing existing products." I take the second one to mean that DSLR sales stagnated while customers waited to see how good the Z6 and Z7 actually might be.

How big was that effect? It's difficult to say, as Nikon didn't previously present a volume forecast for 1H (now ended), only for the complete year. But unit volume of DSLR/mirrorless cameras decreased by 240,000 units from last year's same period, an 18% drop, and considerably larger than the overall market drop. Nikon is predicting that the second half of their fiscal year—ends March 31, 2019—will produce slightly more volume (1.18m units versus 1.07m). 

Meanwhile, in Japan retail sales analyzer BCN is reporting that Nikon is #3 in the full-size sensor mirrorless camera market share now that the Canon R is shipping. In September, Canon captured 22% of the market with a single unit, Nikon 5%. Sony has the remaining 72.9%. What most other sites reporting those numbers don't tell you is that over 16% are older Sony cameras selling at (often deep) discount. Sony has used that strategy in the US to its advantage, as well, trying to build a strong base before the Big Two get fully up to speed. 

The real trend that's going mostly unreported is probably there in the Canon and Nikon numbers: lower-end DSLR sales continue to be the real issue, particularly the crop sensor DSLR sales. Personally, I'm 100% confused as to how Canon and Nikon think they're dealing with that. 

In Canon's case, the EOS M models really don't align with the EOR R models, certainly not the way the EF-S cameras lined up with the EF ones. I've written that I believe their feeder system to be clearly broken, and that's where Canon is reporting their weakness in sales. Pricing and marketing can only do so much to pull up volume, and we're now seeing those things nibbling away at Canon's overall GPM numbers, too. 

I don't know how to say this politely: Canon needs to take all the EOS M and EF-S DSLRs and firesale them into oblivion, and come up with a better entry position. I was amused to hear a Canon spokesperson say at PhotoPlus Expo that the new R mount really won't work for APS-C. Really? I'd think that it would work just fine and open up new potential lens ideas and designs. 

In Nikon's case, the D3xxx and D5xxx are now past their sell-by date. And because of Nikon's total lack of commitment to DX lenses—buzz, buzz, bztt (the bztt being the bug hitting the zapper, which will now be my new shorthand)—that's probably about to be true of the D7500 and D500, too. 

Nikon got the full frame mirrorless transition basically correct (very DSLR-like handling with mirrorless' bonuses). Bravo. Someone was awake in Tokyo. Let's hope that same person or group is now responsible for ZDX. But don't go bzzt with ZDX lenses, Nikon!

Finally, there's always the "they're all going to go out of business" cry that goes up every time we hear that the dedicated camera decline news continues. 

Nope. 

  • Canon — certainly might contract, but still very profitable, and has plenty of other business to lean on as they work things out in imaging.
  • Fujifilm — digital cameras are still far too small a part of the overall company for them to worry about, and they believe that they're continuing to make progress towards their goals.
  • Nikon — continuing to contract, but they've done massive restructuring that has actually produced a higher gross profit, indeed a record one for the past 10 years when measured to sales.
  • Olympus — probably the most vulnerable to something dramatically changing, as they didn't meet the stated goals yet again, and by a huge margin this time. Still, the imaging group at Olympus is sheltered by a far bigger and highly profitable medical group, and nothing's seemed to change in their attitude towards building cameras.
  • Panasonic — the GH5/GH5s has been a big success for them, the rest less so. The full frame initiative is representative of what I wrote in the past ("I see them changing their direction"), and that's a big investment, so they're not going away.
  • Pentax/Ricoh — digital cameras are barely a footnote in their financials, as they are part of a far bigger "Other" group that's only 9% of Ricoh's sales. As a Japanese company, they're not going to try closing the camera groups any time soon because that would be a bigger hit on the bottom line than just letting them run their current course. Ricoh's management has bigger problems to deal with than cameras.
  • Sony — probably the one camera company that "turned the corner" early. While their volume continues to go down, their average selling price and profits are headed the other way, and the group has pretty much succeeded at restructuring and reinventing themselves. 

What's that all mean?

Every camera company is following Sony's pattern: increase average selling price, leave older models on the market to have something to sell at lower consumer cost, and push mirrorless as a reason to buy. Canon and Nikon need to fix their entry model lineups to align with this, but seem like they're on that course. 

A lot of folk don't remember the early days of DSLRs. The D100, for instance, was a US$2100 camera, and most of the competitors were around that same US$2000 mark initially. Everyone's resetting to that mark and just taking the volume hit. 

For the 2,897,254th time I'll repeat: the mistake that the camera makers continue to make is that their products live (mostly) in a standalone world. They are pitiful when it comes to trying to do what the smartphones do in their sleep. The volume market for cameras is right there for the taking: be better than a smartphone as a camera, be equal (or 100% compatible) to a smartphone for sharing images. 

As much as I nag at SnapBridge, Nikon actually took some of my advice there and it is actually now usable, though slow and fiddly. You can actually shoot raw on a Z7 and squirt 2mp JPEGs of selected images via SnapBridge over to a mobile device as you need to. Of course, the transmission speed doesn't even come close to what the smartphones do (thus my word "slow").

You can almost see how the camera companies might get some volume back, but you're not sure if they can see the same thing. So the decline continues...

Are DSLRs Still The Best Choice?

I'm going to do one of my end-of-year assessments a little earlier this year. Many of you will be struggling with buying decisions this holiday season because of all the higher-end mirrorless cameras that appeared in and around Photokina. I've now had the chance to use virtually every new camera—some for less time than others, obviously—and I am ready to deliver a quick assessment of The State of the ILC.

Full Frame
This is where all the hoopla has been lately, first from Sony, but now from virtually everyone except Fujifilm and Olympus. 

Let me state right up front: the best all-around full frame camera you can buy at the end of 2018 is the Nikon D850. Still. 

Yes, it's larger and heavier than the mirrorless options. It's also better at more things. While the D850 is nowhere near optimal at this, you can even shoot it silently if you need to. But in terms of all-around? Nothing tops it. You've got a state-of-the-art sensor, focus system, UI/ergonomics, viewfinder, feature set, and a biggish buffer on a fast card (XQD). If I were pressed to make a better camera than the D850, I'd be fixing or improving very small things.

I should note that best all-around to me means the ability to go from high resolution shooting to high speed shooting, among other things. The 24mp cameras don't really manage the first, so to even qualify for my "best" categorization, I'd say we need to be at least at 30mp, probably far more. If you're willing to compromise down to 24mp, then you're not looking for "best overall." You're looking for a more lowest common denominator camera (keep reading).

I've never been disappointed with the images coming out of my D850. Pretty much the only time I want to pick up another body is (a) when I need a "faster" camera, in which case I pick up the D5; and (b) when I want a smaller, lighter camera to pack small for casual travel, in which case I pick up the Nikon Z7 or the Sony A7Rm3.

You'll probably be surprised to hear me say the second-best all-around full frame camera you can buy at the end of 2018 is the Sony A7Rm3. The downside is the Sony UI/ergonomics, which is flawed. But in terms of sensor, focus, viewfinder, feature set, buffer? Right up there near the D850 within the margin or error of my assessment ability. It's also a better choice for those that require silent shooting, and do so often. 

Beyond those two, you're clearly "living with compromise" (though note my comment about the Sony's UI/ergonomics, which is also a compromise for many). 

The Z7's big drawback is its continuous autofocus capability, coupled with some simplification from the D850. The simplification many of you may actually approve of, the continuous autofocus performance you won't (compared to the current alternatives; it could still be better than what you're using). Couple that with a more fixed buffer and some other warts when trying to use the Z7 for fast moving objects you want to shoot continuously and the Z7 starts to fall out of the "best all-around" consideration.

Canon's R and 5DIV both check in at the minimum I'd call high resolution, and with a sensor that just doesn't have the shadow-end punch that Nikon and Sony can produce. I think they're both really good cameras, but the R feels a bit more like a UI experiment to me, and the 5Dm4 just doesn't match the D850 in so many ways it has to fall below it. The 5Dm4 was much more competitive with the Nikon D810, and back in 2016 the Canon/Nikon gap wasn't large at all.

The Canon 5DS (and 5DS R) push far into the high resolution end, but then fail at the high speed end. Moreover, in looking at my 5DS images versus my D850 images, I'm not sure I can say the Canon matches the Nikon, despite more pixels. 

Some of you will be chanting "medium format" at this point. Yes. Okay, I'll grant you that at the high resolution usage end that medium format might be the choice for some. But like the Canon 5DS, the Fujifilm GFX and Hasselblad X1D aren't exactly competing in the fast camera end required to be an all-around champ.

DX (APS-C)
Our four best all-around contenders here end up as the Canon 7Dm2, Fujifilm X-T3, the Nikon D500, and the Sony A6500. 

I don't want to seem like a Nikon shill—anyone who knows me knows I'm not—but it's another win for Nikon with the D500, though this game is closer than it used to be. 

Nikon has three times paired a top pro camera with a really solid more consumer camera (D1/D100, D3/D300, D5/D500). Each time that's produced a truly winning DX/APS-C body for the masses. Yes, at 20mp the D500 is a little short on photosites compared to the others, but its sensor performs really well at base ISO for resolution, plus handles pushes up into high speeds (ISO and frame rates) as good as we get in DX/APS-C. 

The D500 is a mini D5 (and D850), so: rich in features, high in performance. What it doesn't have (buzz, buzz), is a full lens set. You can fix some of that with third-party offerings, but...

...that brings us to the close runner-up, which I'd claim is the Fujifilm X-T3. Fujifilm continues to narrow all the gaps to Nikon in APS-C, though I'd still say the Fujifilm focus system is still somewhat behind. Fujifilm, though, has a pretty full and appropriate lens set up through 200mm that the D500 doesn't. And for some, that may be enough of a tipping point now (again, keep reading). 

The Sony A6500 has the usual Sony problems (UI/ergonomics), plus some additional ones due to its attempt to stay super small. But it's a very good camera choice where portability is concerned, and very close behind the other two if you don't mind some gimmickry and the small, slightly awkward rangefinder style.

Canon? Sorry Canon fans, last place again. What was a pretty competitive option in 2014 just doesn't match up to what the rest of the pack have done since. Canon needs a new sensor and some new technology in whatever the 7Dm3 turns out to be, but it's not looking like that's coming soon.

Final Words
You really can't go wrong with pretty much any current interchangeable lens camera, though. At least in terms of image quality. 

Most of you reading this are probably more in the "good enough all-around" category, not searching for the "best all-around" one. "Good enough" these days is pretty much any 24mp+ sensor in pretty much any current body, and certainly full frame 24mp is more than enough for most folk. Likewise, most of you never really need to shoot at even 5 fps, let alone the higher speeds we see out of the best bodies these days. 

The Sony A7m3 gets a slight nod from me here. Other than the UI/ergonomics issues, it's a really nice combination of capabilities with an excellent full frame sensor. The Z6 slots behind it because of the same reason the Z7 fails to win best overall: continuous autofocus. 

You can't discount the still-available-but-aging Canon 6Dm2 and Nikon D750, either. I'd give the nod to the Nikon over the Canon if you go DSLR for a "good enough all-around" camera, and Nikon's likely to be pretty aggressive on price this holiday season.

A couple of things struck me in thinking back over digital camera history as I wrote this article:

  • Modern lenses really do tackle low-level problems well. It isn't so much that the latest and greatest lens designs are "sharper" in the central area—even though many are—it's that coma, spherical aberration, chromatic aberration, and corner to corner optical performance are all improved. Improved acuity coupled with more accurate optical corrections is a bit like lifting a veil on your imagery. The best of the most recent lenses have a bite and clarity to them from edge to edge that older lenses don't. Maybe you don't want that, but lenses today are closer to what those with 20/10 vision with few spherical aberrations see naturally: high acuity, high contrast, little elongation or spread of light. 

    In the context of this article, if you're seeking "best all-around" camera, you really also need to consider what lenses you're putting up front, too. Indeed, you can start to cripple a "best" camera a bit by putting a poor performing lens on it.

  • Sensors have lifted a visual veil, too. If I look back at my early DSLR work and what I'm doing today, it isn't really the pixel count that impresses me. Many of us were producing two-page magazine spreads early in the century from our low pixel-count cameras and generally happy with the results. No, it's other things about the image sensor than pixel count that have really made today's cameras tangibly better.

    In particular, shadows are dramatically better. Talk about lifting a veil. The D1 series cameras had blocky, mushy, and inaccurate shadow detail that was near impossible to put useful contrast into. Every Nikon/Sony generation of sensor since has improved on the tonal range below middle gray, to the point where today we can lift detail out from many stops below the exposure and not get anything other than the randomness of photons as an unwanted side effect (i.e. quantum shot noise). 

    Highlights are also better, though not as dramatically. Nikon, in particular, is taking advantage of a non-linear shoulder effect in their sensor response to provide a little highlight recovery, and our computer software has gotten better at dealing with all those data bits in the highlights and pulling them apart gracefully for proper highlight contrasts. 

We're going to start pulling hairs soon (if we aren't already doing that). If you handed me any current Nikon DSLR or mirrorless camera, any Sony mirrorless camera, or any Fujifilm mirrorless camera and asked me to go out and "shoot professionally," I could do it. Ditto for any Canon ILC. How happy I would be would have little to do with sensor size or pixel count. It would solely have to do with whether I was fighting the camera's controls to achieve a desired result or not. 

Which brings me full circle to something I started to write about just over a decade ago: your comfort with the handling of the camera means something often much more important than the details about dynamic range, bit depth, or any other measurement you want to examine. 

Personally, I want the best all-around camera in my hands because I shoot a wide variety of subjects and photographic genres. I don't want to be fighting my camera when I do that. The capabilities (frame rate, pixel count, etc.) have to be good and flexible, sure, but so does the feature set and the handling. 

Nikon is getting that last bit—feature set and handling—"more right" than the others. Sony tends to be more emphasizing the first—capabilities, particularly technical ones—than the others. Canon seems to be lagging both the other giants, but following along. Still, it's difficult to go far wrong with selecting any of their current cameras.

And that takes us to the last point this buying season: with camera sales still on the decline, pricing is going to be used as an incentive to goose sales and lower inventories. As I write this, Sony has lowered the price of the A7m2 kit (a mediocre 28-70mm lens is included) to US$1000 [advertiser link], at least temporarily. That's a price less than half what you'd pay for the current generation equivalent (Nikon Z6, Sony A7m3). Are you really getting double the value by buying the current cameras? Probably not. 

So, take my advice with a grain of whatever mineral you wish to add. I strongly believe I can defend my choices (D850, D500) as "best all-around," but that doesn't mean that they're the right choice for you. Consider buying a generation back or a runner-up to save money and then put what you saved into a better lens, for example. Make sure the camera doesn't get in your way when you're shooting (UI/ergonomics; and a corollary: that it's not too complicated for you to understand all that it can do). 

We actually will live in a world of plenty—other than perhaps Nikon dealer inventories for certain items ;~)—this holiday season. Plentiful great cameras. Plentiful excellent lenses. Plentiful deals that come and go quickly. 

That's actually the reason why I'm writing this article before the buying season rather than after it this year: with all the new additions and temptations, I think you need a strategy for GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) before we get to the big discounting that will occur. Make sure you know what you're looking for and why. And don't be afraid to pick up just about any interchangeable lens camera if it meets your needs.

Both amateurs and pros can take better photos today than they could five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago. The equipment has gotten better and gives you more options than ever before. You can obsess about the details if you want, but for the most part that won't usefully improve your photography.

Canon Joins Canaries in Coal Mine

For the first time recently, Canon reported financial results that indicate a stronger weakness in their camera business. Year to year, the third quarter was down 15.6% in sales, and 45.3% in profit. 

More ominous: "temporarily curtailed shipments due to a pause in entry-class DSLR purchasing." 

Whereas the first two quarters of the year were relatively flat (0.07m ILC unit difference year to year, or -3% change), the third quarter suddenly dropped in a big way (0.25 ILC unit difference in one quarter, or 019% change). Overall, Canon's projections now show ILC's dropping 8% for the year and their market share dropping a couple of points (by my calculations, to 45%, which means that Canon is losing about 5% market share this year to the competition; Canon says they'll only lose 1%, but they've also used overall unit volume for the year than the CIPA numbers are indicating). 

While the EOS R should do well, remember it's at a higher price point where volume isn't nearly as high. It's the lower end products that are giving Canon fits right now, much like the problem Nikon went through recently. It's no surprise that the EOS M models are on deep sale right now.

Meanwhile, compact cameras continue to crater with a full year drop of -26% anticipated.

Much more worrisome is that Canon's camera inventory went from a 49-day supply earlier this year to a 69-day supply during the quarter. This implies some sales coming soon.


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