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An Update on VR and IS Systems


Recently there has been some discussion about the vulnerability of VR and IS that was triggered by something my friend Roger Cicala of Lens Rentals said during a recent interview.

So let’s start there.

Well, let’s actually start with the paraphrase that’s been traveling around the Internet since the interview: "You should always turn off image stabilization on your lens before you travel so as to lock floating lens elements in place and minimize the chances of them being jostled and damaged en-route.” This quote first appeared in a PDN Online article, attributed to Lens Rentals.

Curious about that “statement of fact", I contacted Roger directly. Yes, it turns out that Lens Rentals now ships everything with IS/VR/VC turned off. But let me have Roger do the talking:

“In our experience lenses with VR / IS / VC have higher repair rates overall than those that don't have it. Most Canon IS units, for example, have the element floating or sliding in a cage made of 3 or 4 thin plastic bars, and we have seen these bars cracked or broken in some IS failures (other failures are purely electrical).” says Roger. 

"Our conclusion is that it's possible the crack could occur from the element rattling around in unlocked position. We’re not certain of this, but it’s certainly possible. (When the lens is active the magnets keep the lens element from hitting the plastic cage, but with it off they certainly can bang on it; we have seen this in some opened lenses). Our conclusion was that it's better safe than sorry, lock the VR/IS just in case.” 

Roger continues: "We have seen a slight reduction in Canon IS failures since we started making it a requirement that all IS units are always locked. But it's not enough to approach statistically significant.” 

Some lenses physically lock the VR/IS when turned off with the lens still mounted to an active camera before removing the lens. Indeed, Nikon even warns about turning off the camera with VR still active, which made me wonder if Nikon locks VR elements (more on that in a moment). 

On the Canon side, the 100mm f/2.8 IS Macro, 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, and the new 100-400mm seem to lock the IS when you turn it off before removing the lens. But on the Nikon side, it appears that it doesn’t make a difference.  A good rule of thumb is that if you gently shake a removed lens and hear a rattle, then the VR element might be not locked into position. I had Roger do some tests on this with his big stock of Nikkors, and he reported this:

“Nikon’s VR unit rattles very softly, nothing like the Canon, but it doesn’t matter whether you power down VR or not before removing the lens from the camera: the Nikon VR rattle does not change.” 

Moreover, non-VR lenses don’t have this soft rattle, so it must be that the rattle Roger is hearing is due to VR. 

But then there’s this from Roger: “Our data don’t show any reduction in Nikon VR repairs after we started turning off VR before shipping.” He cautions that the number of Nikkors he rents out is far lower than Canon, so perhaps the sample size is not large enough to show a difference yet.

Thus, the thing that PDN “learned” from Lens Rentals isn’t actually quite a completely accurate statement. It’s certainly not a harmful statement, but I’ve gotten enough emails from people with a dash of fear in them about that article that I wanted to follow up on this and get closer to the truth. 

Meanwhile, the dialog between Roger and I moved over to sensor-based IS. Olympus clearly warns users against cleaning the sensor manually as it might damage the 5-axis IS system. Roger hasn’t seen an example of cleaning causing a problem—they clean sensors on all their rental cameras fairly regularly—but he did note that the original Sony design (on the pre A7r Mark II models) had a very high failure rate for them. The IS plate would jump out of its cage. Since Sony changed the design for the Mark II models, Roger says that they haven’t seen a failure, despite cleaning the sensors on those cameras regularly. 

So what do we know at the moment? 

  • There’s no statistically significant evidence that turning off the IS/VR/VC (and potentially locking the lens element) on lenses that otherwise let the element float damages the system in transit. But there is enough anecdotal evidence on the Canon lenses to suggest that this might have reduced the failure rates slightly. In other words, it isn’t a panic situation here, but if you want to play it safe, turn off the stabilization system before powering down the camera and taking off the lens for transport.
  • There’s no evidence at all so far that cleaning sensors with stabilization built in damages them, though there is Olympus’ warning to consider. Personally, I’d be careful in cleaning such sensors, and I’d be gentle in doing so. Force is not your friend, and force isn’t something you should be using to clean a sensor. Indeed, if you’re using anything approaching brute force, you’re probably using the wrong cleaning method.

There you have it. To summarize my VR recommendations for Nikon shooters:

  • If you want to use Lens Rentals’ conservatism, always turn the VR switch to off before removing a VR lens from a Nikon DSLR
  • Always turn the camera off before removing a Nikon VR lens, regardless of VR switch position
  • Only turn VR On when you absolutely need it (see my All About VR article), and the first two recommendations become moot most of the time ;~)

This article will also be posted in the Lens section with the existing All About VR article.

D500 Demand Assessment


I asked those of you reading my D500 Delay article yesterday to answer a snap poll. Here are the results in one table:

bythom d500 demand survey

I should point out that readers of this site fit right into the wheelhouse of the D500: serious enthusiasts and pros that have the disposable income to purchase such a camera. Indeed, the D300 is one of the most often-cited and previously purchased models when I survey my user base. 

I’m mentioning that because any poll that’s not done in a truly random fashion—e.g. n-name sampling—can be biased. But bias towards a pro DX body was exactly what I was hoping for in the poll takers. 

Buried within the set of answers I provided poll takers was a bit of a Trojan Horse. I’ve written before that Nikon’s QC was causing me to get a lot of feedback from Nikon shooters that they would now always wait to see whether there are issues in a product before ordering it. Now look at the answers in the poll:

  • 10% of Nikon DSLR users from my site have pre-ordered a D500
  • 18% of Nikon DSLR users from my site are waiting to see how the D500 fares in testing
  • 22% of Nikon DSLR users from my site are waiting to see if there are any quality control problems before ordering

Now I don’t have a baseline for whether this is a different result from, say, the D800 pre-order scenario in 2012 before all the QC issues became front and center talk, but we do have a potential answer to something else: is the D500 likely to remain difficult to get after the first shipment?

Yes, it will. 

That assumes, of course, that there are no initial-ship QC issues that surface with the product and that the D500 tests as good as people are now expecting from the marketing. Given Nikon’s clear confidence in the D500 at and post announcement, I’d be surprised if the D500 turned out to be a dud. 

So, consider the numbers: four times more people are waiting to see the results of those tests than actually pre-ordered, and we know that the pre-ordering exceeded Nikon’s expectations enough so that they need another month’s worth of production to just deliver first units everywhere. Many of those waiting will stop considering and buy should the D500 turn out to be the camera we’re all hoping it is.

Therefore I see the strong potential for the D800 launch scenario to play out again: the D500 may instantly sell out in first shipment, get rave reviews, and trigger additional pre-ordering for subsequent shipments. If four times more people than pre-ordered actually live up to what this survey suggests, the D500 is going to be in short supply for a long time. 

So expect the D500 to be in short supply unless Nikon has a way to open the faucet and let more production out rapidly (and actually does so ;~). But even then, I’d suspect that it’ll be a couple of shipments before Nikon begins to tamper down the pent-up demand for this camera.

I sent this message clearly to Nikon Japan before the D500 was announced. I guess I’m happy I turned out to be right ;~).  Still, I’d like to know why Nikon didn’t seem to see this coming.

Some of you probably want to know what was in the “other” responses. It was a curious mix of things, including a number of people that just wanted to explain their vote. About half of those in some way indicated they might get a D500 (e.g. “waiting for gray market pricing” and several “waiting until I have the money” responses).

Nikon’s Third Quarter Financials

(news & commentary)

Nikon late last week announced their third quarter financials, and they were pretty much as expected: “Digital SLR cameras and interchangeable lenses fell short of the planned sales volume.”

However, due to price hikes and cost cutting, the operating income improved year-to-year and stayed above the 10% level Nikon seems to target for the group. As a camera company, Nikon continues to shrink, though it is maintaining its profitability levels as it does so. Still, cameras produce 68% of Nikon’s sales, and the operating income of the group is 146% of the company total.

Through three quarters, Nikon produced:

  • 30.7% of all CIPA compact shipment numbers
  • 31.3% of all CIPA ILC shipment numbers
  • 28% of all CIPA lens shipment numbers

To put that in perspective, though, Nikon sold 410,000 fewer ILC cameras (DSLRs and mirrorless) in the current fiscal year than last, 530,000 fewer lenses, and a whopping 950,000 fewer compact cameras.

Curiously, Nikon mentioned the postponement of the D500 launch as one of the reasons for a downward revision of their final quarter (ends March 31st) estimates. Overall, Nikon lowered their estimate of ILC sales in the final quarter by 100k units. See my article on the D500 delay: these statements seem to clearly indicate that Nikon didn’t foresee this delay.

Nikon continues to put a positive spin on things, but the clear evidence is right there in their own report: three years of declining sales and declining operating income for the imaging group in the critical third quarter (holiday season). There is no indication that fiscal 2017 won’t add a fourth year of decline. 

Lest Nikon loyalists get upset by that last statement, be advised that nothing in Nikon’s financials shows that they are in a death spiral. I’d characterize things at Nikon thusly:

  • Precision is no longer a money leak, but nor is it a growth opportunity, plus it still has unpredictable cycle-driven ups and downs
  • Imaging is being managed to profitability as it contracts in a down market
  • Instruments is small and basically breakeven
  • The nascent Medical group is not even close to providing significant growth for the company, let alone profitability

No doubt these are all signs of a dinosaur struggling with a changed environment. But the dinosaur is alive and currently expected to stay that way.

Update: once again people are hitting me with “but if Nikon only sold a mirrorless DX or FX system, they wouldn’t have this problem.” Sorry, but no. If Nikon were to take it’s traditional one-third of mirrorless sales as well as DSLRs, it would increase Nikon’s unit volume by 1m units. Only the DSLR sales wouldn’t stay the same ;~). They’d likely go down by at least the same, if not higher, amount. 

To take 33% market share in mirrorless, Nikon would have to likely make the D3300 update mirrorless. Doing an FX mirrorless solution wouldn’t give them the unit volume they need. But making the D3300 update mirrorless takes away one of Nikon’s highest volume DSLRs. So where exactly is the upside? 

Canon has been trying to finesse this with the EOS M line. By leaving off an EVF they basically created a mirrorless Rebel SL1. This approach makes somewhat more sense, but it still makes for a slippery slope where mirrorless simply replaces DSLR sales but doesn’t really increase ILC sales.

No doubt that both Canon and Nikon will eventually have large sensor mirrorless models that replace DSLRs. The question is when, which DSLR, and whether they can do anything to make that anything other than replacing A with B. 

The D500 Delay Speculations

(news & commentary)

Nikon has announced that shipments of the D500 will be delayed by about a month from the date originally announced (March 15). This has caused the conspiracy theorists to dust off their keyboards and start typing away.

Let’s start with what the delay isn’t caused by:

  • A problem was discovered and Nikon is correcting it before shipment. No. In my long history of following Nikon I’ve never known them to do so without admitting to the actual problem. Indeed, there have been at least two examples where they announced a delay in shipments due to a specific problem they discovered. While Nikon is not always very clear in their messaging, they’re not likely to lie outright, as this conspiracy would require.
  • That the product wasn’t ready. I’d say no, though there’s a small element of truth that feeds this conspiracy theory. That element? The D500 marketing and messaging all feels a bit rushed to me. Either Nikon didn’t originally intend to announce the D5 and D500 together, or the D500 fell off the critical path at some point and prototypes got out late in the pre-announce cycle. But still, I’m confident that Nikon wouldn’t announce a March shipment date if they weren’t already in production and the software weren’t already virtually locked down.
  • The delay is only in Japan. No. It has only been directly communicated by Japan as I write this, but it generally takes the subsidiaries a bit of time to first correctly translate such statements, and then get corporate approval to release the translation. It appears to me that the corporate statement was a hastily made one, and that the subsidiaries are still reacting. I’ll bet that we get subsidiary statements either just prior to or at the D5/D500 launch events that will happen at a wide range of dealers this coming week. I should point out that there will likely be D500’s at all those many events, which would also tend to invalidate the previous conspiracy theory I mentioned (next bullet up).
  • QC didn’t pass the product after inspection of finished products. Well, Nikon asked for that conspiracy ;~). The D600, D750, D800 issues at first ship coupled with the same for a couple of recent lenses are the fodder for this conspiracy. The theory goes like this: Nikon made the first batch and then sampled them so as not to repeat the previous fiascos. And they found a flaw that has to be fixed, so, voila, delay of shipment. No, no, and many times no. First, I’m not aware of Nikon significantly changing their final QC procedures in Thailand. Second, there’s no indication that production stopped and previous production came back to be fixed. I’d hazard a guess that the first shipments of D500’s is either already on container ships or close to that. I particularly like this conspiracy theory because of the wishful thinking that’s implied in it: that Nikon changed and is now making sure that no more first ship problems happen. Guys (and gal or two), Nikon first ship problems date back into the film era (remember the F100 early rewind or the F5 mistaken battery level that produced only a couple of rolls of film on eight, yes eight, AA batteries?). I can name well over a dozen such problems, maybe a couple of dozen if I went back and looked at everything and didn’t just rely on my memory. I’ll only believe that Nikon has changed in respect to first ship issues when I see evidence that they have. No evidence, then sorry, this conspiracy theory can’t be right ;~).
  • Nikon decided to ship them a cheaper way. Another amusing theory. But almost certainly wrong. Generally first shipments have always been a large batch shipped by ocean container ships. The days of airlifting new cameras has been over ever since cost control became the name of the game in Japan and high volumes made doing so very expensive.
  • They didn’t get as many sensors (or shutters, or some other critical part) as they thought they would. Here we have the first almost believable conspiracy.  I say “almost” because Nikon has a pretty darned tight production chain. I’ve never seen them announce a ship date for a product and take it back because of supply chain issues. I’m pretty sure ship dates don’t even get set at Nikon until they’re sure that the supply chain is producing their full anticipated need.
  • Nikon decided to push back the shipment so as to build an even higher fever pitch for the product. Holy conspiracies, Batman. According to this theory, Nikon should keep postponing the D500 every month to build world-dominating demand. Only then they’d have to postpone it some more because they don’t have a factory that could produce world-dominating demand instantly ;~). The funny thing is that there’s a teeny bit of truth underlying this conspiracy. I once remember a conversation I had with a high-level NikonUSA executive who said: “our problem is that we just don’t have enough staff to really do a great job of marketing multiple new products simultaneously.” He went on to suggest that two simultaneous DSLRs was really taxing on Melville, and that they preferred one at a time. I’m not sure in this case that a month delay still doesn’t count as simultaneous, though, especially since all NikonUSA staff and reps are running around this week at various dealer launch events for two cameras.

Okay, so if all these conspiracy theories are wrong, what’s the real reason for the shipment delay? 

Maybe exactly what Nikon suggests: the demand is higher than they can fulfill with their originally scheduled first shipment.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but here’s how it works in the US: two things incumber Nikon when launching a product that turns to be more popular than they anticipated:

  1. US law basically forces Nikon to treat any tier of dealers the same. NikonUSA can’t send two cameras to Dealer 1 in Big City A and no cameras to Dealer 999 in Littler City Z. NikonUSA did establish some tiers to dealerships, and as long as they treat tiers the same, they’re fine under US law. But still, as I write this, there are about 320 dealers in the US on the authorized list, and that counts companies like Best Buy and Target as “one dealer.”  This list is further broken down into two basic tiers: Nikon Imaging Dealer (NID), and Nikon Professional Dealer (NPD). In past situations, Nikon has always wanted to deliver at least two bodies to every dealer in both tiers, and perhaps more to the Professional tier. Leaving out the NID Big Boxes and counting the NPD Big Boxes, I come up with something a bit over 1000 stores that need cameras on day one. At two per store, that’s 2000 bodies, minimum. There will high tier stores under a different NPD contract that want far more than two bodies on day one. 
  2. Priority Purchase (PP) allows NPS pros to pre-order a D500 (and/or D5) and have their bodies delivered via their store on first ship day. This works outside of #1.

The combination of those two things is what Nikon has to plan for. It should be obvious that if Nikon planned to ship 2000 bodies initially into the US, any large volume of NPS PP orders would mean they’d have to steal bodies from the initial number planned for dealers. Remember, Nikon tries to seed enough volume so that a dealer will have “one to show” in the US. After all, people who are still holding out aren’t going to order until they’ve actually played with a camera in their own hands.

But add this in: dealers put in their own pre-orders. I know that my smaller dealer has more than two D500’s on order. He believes he can sell more than two because he already has orders from customers for more than two. 

So here’s what I think happened (in the order it happened). Nikon corporate announced the D500. You and everyone else who saw that announcement started pre-ordering like crazy. Dealers started pre-ordering from the subsidiaries. Nikon corporate told the subsidiaries how many units they’d be getting in the first shipment. The subsidiaries looked at their dealer pre-order lists, the number corporate said they’d be getting, and sent a message back to corporate: not enough. I’d guess that NikonUSA was the big culprit here: we have far more dealers to service than anywhere else. Now Nikon corporate and the subsidiaries engage in a frantic dialogue and negotiation. A minimum number to meet legal requirements is determined. Then Nikon corporate issues the “shipment is delayed” announcement. 

Short answer: Nikon severely underestimated initial demand. 

Here’s the scary aspect to this: I think Nikon may still be underestimating demand. We have the potential for another D800-type scenario here, where some pre-orders took four or more months to fill. 

Why do I say that? Well, I’ll point to a reader poll at dpreview: out of nearly 300 votes, about 55% said “I’m going to wait for the dust to settle before buying…” 

So if you made it this far, here’s a little survey for you (note this is a timed poll and will disappear after 24 hours):

Which of the following best describes your position on the D500?
Not a Nikon DSLR user, so not currently considering purchasing a D500
Not a Nikon DSLR user, but considering purchase of D500 based upon tests
Not a Nikon DSLR user, have already pre-ordered a D500
Nikon DSLR user, but not currently considering purchasing a D500
Nikon DSLR user, but considering purchase of D500 based upon tests
Nikon DSLR user, but waiting to purchase D500 to see if there are any quality control problems
Nikon DSLR user, have already pre-ordered a D500
Please Specify:
Poll Maker

Why do I disable your ability to view results while the poll is open? Knowing how others are voting distorts your vote. I want your unbiased response to the question. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what the results were soon enough.

Sell What You’ve Got


Since the D500 was announced there have been a few mumbles about “hey, wasn’t the D7200 supposedly the ‘flagship’ of the DX line?” I guess that makes the D500 the ‘super flagship’, right?

Nikon is about as tightly wound to secrecy as Apple is, though probably for different reasons. They’ve never released a road map to anything that I can recall. They discourage anyone talking about potential future products both internally, and to some degree, externally. 

To put it succinctly, Nikon is a “sell what you’ve got” company. When they only had a D7200 at the top of the DX lineup, it was a “flagship.” When they only introduced FX bodies above that price point, it was “buy FX.” Now that they have a DX/FX pro pairing, they’re back to selling like they were with the D3/D300. And all those previous generation bodies still sitting around (D3200, D5300, D7100)? Well, they’re marketed as bargains that are almost as good as the current models, which might allow you to buy a D7100 instead of a D5500, or a D5300 instead of a D3300. 

Some of this is cultural. Marching orders come from Japan, always. On occasion a subsidiary will stumble upon something in execution of those orders (the European “I am…” campaign) that corporate will then take over. But the prime direction comes from Tokyo. And that’s basically “sell what we’ve got” with some thoughts about how to do that. 

Loyal Nikon users establish road maps in their head. For example, the D70 to D7200 progression is so clear that it’s really hard to imagine there won’t be a D7300 (or whatever the name turns out to be). Moreover, the approximately two year cycle on that camera makes it somewhat predictable as to when (2017 folks). Likewise, the top pro model (D1, D2, D3, etc.) is moving on very predictable four year major updates, so we can make a mental road map of that, too. 

Which brings us to this: what’s with DX and FX? Why did Nikon say “buy FX” and “the D7200 is the DX flagship” and then pop out a D500? 

Technically, the D100, D200, D300 progression strongly predicted a followup. Those were all very successful cameras for Nikon, so why would they stop making them? I got a lot of flack from people during the “buy FX” era for insisting that Nikon should and would make a D300s followup. That they finally did didn’t surprise me, though the timing of it seems a little hurried (especially now with the one month shipping delay). But I suspect the timing is all about “hey the D3/D300 pairing went well from a marketing standpoint, why not replicate it, since we know how to do that?”

But let’s look at things a different way. Nikon is fairly predictable at iterating successful products. I can’t think of a successful product that sold in quantity that Nikon hasn’t continued to replicate right up to the point where it generated minimal demand. At the D3/D300 introduction Nikon really only had four ILC models:

  • D40x (derived from the D50, D40 sequence, and eventually begetting the D3xxx)
  • D80 (derived from the D70, and eventually begetting the D7xxx)
  • D300 (derived from the D100, D200 sequence, and eventually begetting the D500)
  • D3 (derived from the D1h/x, D2h/x sequence, eventually begetting the D5)

Of these, the D3 did eventually continue on the split with a D3x idea, though at such a high price that it generated minimal demand (see above).

So what do you think Nikon would do in 2007 with four successful models in a still fast growing ILC market? Yep: extend into new products.

And that’s exactly what we’ve gotten since then (besides the continued iteration of the established products):

  • D5xxx (splits the difference between D3xxx and D7xxx)
  • Nikon 1 (adds a consumer option below the DSLRs)
  • More FX bodies (adds higher end options with better margins to up sell)

Of these, the first and third options turned out successful for Nikon. I have no idea what anyone was thinking about the second: why something below your existing line should sell for more than your existing line is something that shows someone got greedy in Tokyo. 

The D5xxx didn’t confuse anything in Nikon users’ minds regarding road maps: it fit in nicely between two existing lines we all thought would iterate, so no problems there. 

It’s the FX addition—starting with a 50% more expensive D800 instead of a D400—that confused the Nikon base. When that was followed with D600, D610, D750, and Df models while DX went completely lacking above the D7200 (both in cameras and lenses), I could hear the screams constantly coming from the enthusiast/pro crowd that no longer understood what Nikon was trying to accomplish.

You can argue both sides of the coin here: (a) that Nikon was successful in its “buy FX” campaign; and (b) that Nikon made a mistake with its “buy FX” campaign. Why? Because many of the faithful just took the hook and bought the D800, which turned out to be a very fine camera (at least if you didn’t get one with the AF defect in those first months). You could use it as a D400 (DX crop at 15mp) in a pinch, though the frame rate was slower than you wanted. Given that the D800 was also the highest pixel count camera for a long reign, that also brought Nikon some new customers, too. 

But you may recall I started writing about sampling, leaking, and waiting about the same time as Nikon started their big “buy FX” campaign. That’s because I was immediately seeing the results of many people being told to do something that they didn’t necessarily want to, right as mirrorless options started to mature and come into play, too. Plus there was always Canon if you wanted FX, and at the time Canon was selling “buy video,” which opened up other temptations.

Personally, I think that Canon and Nikon are now to the point where they have too many options in their lineups. All that push into new product categories and lineup extensions right as the market peaked has now created this ILC product shelf for Nikon:

  • S2, AW1, J5, V3, D3200, D3300, D5300, D5500, D7100, D7200, D500, D610, D750, D810, D810a, Df, D4s, D5

Wow. That’s 18 models that Nikon has to “sell what we’ve got” here in 2016. I would argue that this is not only too many—even without the four previous generation ones stuck in the mix—but that this proliferation also managed to take Nikon’s eye off the critical wheel. I’m happy that we’ve got a Bluetooth Snapbridge on the D500 coupled with built-in WiFi and that it’ll be easier to push images over to my mobile device, but where is that on the consumer cameras where it's been almost insanely necessary but missing for years? 

I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating here: the camera makers are looking backwards at what’s necessary to live in the modern tech world. The smartphone and software makers are constantly looking forward. This has made the dedicated camera look more and more like a dinosaur and less like a Darwin Finch.  

I’d also argue that Nikon isn’t very good at “sell what we’ve got.” Oh, they’re good at doing it for the latest thing to hit the market because everyone reads the marching orders from Tokyo and marches, but the subsidiaries ability to continue to drive customers into dealers to pick up older products is now demonstrably lame, at best. This just guarantees that we’ll continue to have this product log-jam on the shelf there, including those previous generation cameras. It also guarantees that Nikon will end up continuing to dump product into the gray market to relieve inventory pressure from all the units they keep building. 

So, enjoy the new “flagship of the DX line” and “the new era in DSLR photography.” But as good as the D500 and D5 might turn out to be, Nikon is still the same old company doing the same old things. These two products are merely iterations of existing products. To truly grow, they either need to get better at marketing what they’ve got—and so much so that it negates the overall down turn in camera demand—or they’ve got to add yet new product extensions. Well, I’d add a third: rationalize and revise the product line so that we have a J6, V4, D3500, D5600, D7300 that truly provide the low-to-middle consumers’ photographic needs. Snapbridge is a start, but only a start. 

Bottom line: time to sell us something truly new, not another mild iteration.

Where’s the Story?

Recently I wrote about the technical versus the aesthetic. This prompted a lively discussion via my In Box with a significant subset of my readership. But one email in particular asked a question that hits right at the heart of why some images don’t have aesthetic impact.

I refer to such images as “memory snapshots.” These are images you take because you were someplace or doing something that you simply want to later remember. We’re all guilty of this at some point or another. You arrive in a foreign (to you) city and are struck by something so you pick up your camera and take a quick picture. And yes, it’s usually quick and without much thought.

Technically, that image may be fine. It’s in focus, it’s well exposed, the horizon is level, you didn’t cut off anything important. But aesthetically, it’s lacking. Why? Because the story of that image is in your head, not in the photo.

In other words, you see something different in the photo than do others who later look at it, because you know the story behind it but your viewers don’t. Maybe it’s the first time you’ve ever seen a 300-foot waterfall. Maybe it’s the only albatross you’ve ever seen. But we don’t know that, do we?  

There’s nothing wrong with taking this type of photo, but they’re not showable without you there to tell the story behind the image. Indeed, the old stereotype of the couple trapped in someone’s living room watching a multi-hour slide show of their friends’ recent vacation is exactly that: the images tend to do little to keep interest, so it’s up to the story-telling capabilities of the presenter to not bore the audience. 

Let’s be clear here: words are not pictures. If words are needed to explain a photo—particularly of why the photo was taken—then the aesthetic element simply isn’t there. It’s okay for a photo to provoke questions (e.g. “what is that?” or “where is that?”), because the story there is mystery. But if the lack of story causes your viewer to yawn or move on, then you probably have a photo where the story is solely in your head. Such shots should be kept private for your own nostalgic viewing. 

So let’s talk about that “first 300-foot waterfall” memory snapshot. The story is “damn that’s big.” What did you do in capturing the image that says “big”? Did you put something that we can use as a scale reference in the shot? Did you shoot in a way that emphasizes depth (or in this case height)? A lot of people take this shot from far away with a wide angle lens (because the waterfall is big and it needs a wide angle of view to capture it). That’s uninvolving. It’s a reference shot of the waterfall, sure, but it’s not telling a story. 

So here’s the technique tip: get the story out of your head and into your shot. How many pieces of the story can you tell, how many clues can you provide the viewer? 

Of course, the first step in this is to actually bring the story to your consciousness, not just react at a subconscious level. You brought the camera up to your eye almost without thinking, so why did you do that? If you can’t answer that question, you’re not ready to tell the story to others.

This will also be filed under the Technique section, in Improving the Photographer

This Will Be Interesting


With Canon’s announcement of the 1Dx Mark II today, for the first time we actually have a fairly apples versus apples set of products from Canon and Nikon. 

Both the 1DxII and the D5 are 20mp. We’re going to see some very direct sensor comparisons, and someone is going to lose. 

Both cameras have new AF systems, with Canon sticking to 61-point and Nikon going to 151 point (you can only select from 53 though). Both systems have a lot of cross point sensors and both have new tracking and accuracy capabilities. We’re going to see some very direct focus comparisons, and someone is going to lose.

Canon has chosen CFast for fast storage, Nikon has chosen XQD. Someone is likely to lose in direct comparisons of buffer performance. Specs say Canon 170 shots raw, Nikon 200 shots raw, but the more interesting scenario will be buffer clearing time.

This is a bit unusual. We’ve never had two top cameras from the duopoly that are so aligned in specifications and capabilities. Generally there was always something different at the base of the performance aspects of the Canon and Nikon offerings that made absolute head-to-head comparisons not just tricky, but fairly unreliable. We were always testing apples versus oranges, it seems, and we often couldn’t agree on what kind of apple or what variety of orange.

In video, the Canon 1DxII offers some things the Nikon D5 doesn’t, so how you view the two pro cameras might depend upon on how much you value video capabilities.

We’ve also got the 7D Mark II and the Nikon D500 aligned in much the same way. Both are 20mp crop sensor cameras, and both use the pro autofocus systems of their bigger brothers. Canon stuck with CF/SD for the 7DII, Nikon went with XQD/SD for the D500. Again, we’re going to get very direct comparisons of apples versus apples and there’s likely to be a winner and loser. 

Canon skipped over 36mp for their other pro body (5Ds/r variations) and went to 50mp. My guess is that Nikon will be right at the same spot with the D810 followup, so again we’d have a fairly direct comparison between the DSLR duopoly.

This is going to be an interesting year. 

Personally, I don’t think Nikon has a lot to lose here. The somewhat lame D4 and the non-existent D400 have Nikon the underdog going into this round of Battle of the Pro DSLRs. Canon, on the other hand, does have something to lose. The 7DII isn’t going to hold ground against the D500 is my bet, just based on using a 7DII against a D7200 (the D500 has to be better than a D7200, right?). The real question is whether the 1DxII will hold ground against the D5. 

Any perception that there’s more low light ability or faster, more precise autofocus is going to tilt the market shares, I think. 

I came across my pro camera sales tracking data from 2007-2009 as I was researching this article: basically, almost immediately after launch, the Nikon D3 was the top selling pro camera in the US, and basically equalled the total sales of the Canon 1DsIII and 1DIII combined. When the D3x appeared in late 2008, the disjoint between brands got larger. Alas, Nikon didn’t hold serve during the next pro iteration. So I’m very curious to see what happens this time around.

The other interesting aspect is that Canon seems to have done a lot in the serious-compact-through-mirrorless range compared to Nikon lately. We have an interesting potential shift going on here, with Canon shoring up their lower end and just iterating the high end, while Nikon seems to be backing a bit off the low end and going all in at the high end. 

Let the games begin.

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“Regional” Cameras


One thing hidden in plain sight is that cameras are doing different things in various regions of the world. The whole “mirrorless versus DSLR” battle is taking place on differing fronts with dissimilar results. Canon’s recent comments during their fiscal year report clearly indicate that the camera companies are aware of this regionality issue.

Let’s look at the CIPA data for 2015 (through November) in graph form for camera type by region:

bythom cipa nov15 1

Or another view, camera type within regions:

bythom cipa nov15 2

See the clear differences? Europe and the Americas tend towards higher DSLR percentages and lower mirrorless numbers. 

Worldwide mirrorless has risen overall to one for every three DSLRs sold, but not in Europe and the Americas, where the number is one mirrorless for every four DSLRs sold. Hmm. Sure enough, in Japan and Asia it’s almost one mirrorless for every two DSLRs. 

It’s important not to put your own view of the world on various camera models that get introduced. The whole mirrorless versus DSLR has a clear regional component to it. For example, Fujifilm recently revealed that the X-A2 sells quite well in SE Asia, but not at all well in the US. We can chalk that up to only one of two possible (big) things: (1) better marketing in a region; or (2) regional preferences. I think it’s #2, which then drives #1. 

In an interview with dpreview, Fujifilm’s Toshihisa Iida said: “Asian consumers care more about [smaller] size but for Americans the quality and performance are the priorities.” 

So what’s this mean for Canon and Nikon, the duopoly in cameras, or Canon/Nikon/Sony, the overwhelming triopoly? 

Obviously, with their strong emphasis on DSLRs, Canon and Nikon need to watch out or become more regional towards Europe and the Americas. Sony, with its fast dwindling DSLR reliance, is likely to make more inroads mostly outside those two big markets. Companies such as Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic are truly dependent mostly on Asia at the moment. 

The problem for the mirrorless companies, of course, is that Europe and the Americas require a big infrastructure to support. Breaking down the established conventions and preferences towards DSLRs in these markets is costly, as Samsung recently discovered.  But another problem is this: economically, almost everyone is predicting strength in the US for 2016, recovery in Europe for 2016, and serious economic malaise or worse for the rest of the world, including China. Factor in the regionalization of cameras, and you get yet another problem to deal with if you’re a camera maker. 

Which brings me to a statement: regionalization impacts are yet another volume issue for camera makers to deal with. Overall, unit shipments are seriously on the decline, and especially at the two extremes, compact cameras and to a lesser extent DSLRs. But regionalization puts even more trickiness into those declines. Regionally, some declines make for really troubling volume situations. 

I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll do so again: the camera business hasn’t hit bottom yet. Not even close. Having a few regional “wins” sounds good, but the truth of the matter is that the number of dollars being spent on traditional cameras is still declining overall and causing big stress issues on every company. 

The question now is when those declines become high enough to begin killing off the infrastructure in ways that create snowball effects. Pentax, for example, has very little dealer presence now in the US. Hard to recover from that. But as overall camera sales go down, we’re going to see more outlets for cameras shrinking or closing. That has a circuitous impact on sales volume: fewer outlets equals fewer sales equals fewer outlets equals fewer sales, ad infinitum. 

Sadly, there’s not much you personally can do about this. Basically:

  1. Support your local camera dealer when you can.
  2. Don’t put off upgrades too long.

My assessment is that we’re deep into the same type of collapse that HiFi gear went through. Yes, we’ll still have such gear in the future. No, the market for it won’t be anything like it was. Your choices will likely all be higher priced and more geeky. The places you can find such gear will be fewer. Plus companies you’ve been relying upon may disappear or at least shrink.  

Please don’t shoot the messenger. I’ve written for a long time that the camera makers needed to rethink their product. For the most part, they still haven’t yet figured out how dedicated cameras live in a connected world, let alone perfected that. Until (and unless) they do, the message is going to pretty much continue to be a dismal one. 

Yes, Nikon’s use of Bluetooth for Snapbridge on the D500 has some interesting intersection with that previous sentence. But the problem isn’t just enabling another wireless connection, it’s the software that works via that connection that will determine whether Nikon has broken the code and found the right solution to begin turning things around a bit. 

The Final 2015 Shipment Numbers

(news & commentary)

No sooner did I post the previous two articles relating to unit volume and shipments, CIPA released the final year-end numbers for 2015. 

Let’s start with the Big Picture this time. If we add up all the cameras and lenses sold by the Japanese companies in 2015, we get US$1.34b. This isn’t a small industry, though it’s declining. Declining by how much? Well, 2015’s total value shipped was only 93.3% that of 2014. That’s a modestly strong contraction, and it follows on a stronger contraction from the previous year: 2015 is 79.9% of 2013 in terms of dollar volume for the Japanese camera companies.

The notion that “making higher priced products will save the industry” that has been cited all over the Internet and by many camera company marketing departments is mostly inaccurate. Higher prices generate fewer sales. What does happen is that—assuming you can pare down your fixed overheads—your margins get restored. I see that over and over in the Japanese company’s financial reports: lower sales, but profits that are moving back upwards due to cost cutting and higher GPMs. At some point, however, this tactic no longer works, though. It’s a short term response at best.

Put another way, the lake is drying up. Far fewer fish are swimming in the lake, and those fish are bigger and eat more. If the lake keeps drying up, you still have problems. 

Here are the numbers expressed in two ways:

  • 2013 — 17.1m ILC units shipped, US$1.67b total camera/lens shipments
  • 2014 — 13.8m ILC units shipped, US$1.43b total camera/lens shipments
  • 2015 — 13.0m ILC units shipped, US$1.33b total camera/lens shipments

So let’s talk about ILC cameras specifically. That would be mirrorless and DSLR together. Since 2003, 132.2m ILC cameras have been sold. Back in 2003 I predicted that the peak for ILC sales would come in 2011. I was off by a year. How did I predict that? By household penetration curve analysis. I looked at the film SLR household penetration numbers over time, then projected that forward onto DSLR household penetrations. (It’s possible that my “miss” by a year is no more than the Japanese keeping the throttle down for a year; see CIPA estimate comments, below.)

Here are ILC sales graphed for the last twelve years.

bythom cipa ilc 2003-2015

The question that we’ll start to get an answer to at CP+ later this month is this: how is the decline likely to flatten out? Each year at CP+ we get a forward estimate of unit volume and sales numbers. One problem with this estimate is that it is self-interested. More often than not we get the Japanese making close to what they estimate, otherwise the Nikkei stock market will start to react negatively when they are clearly going to miss their estimate.

Now let’s look at the final mirrorless/DSLR breakdown for 2015:

  • Mirrorless — 3.34m units (25.6%)
  • DSLR — 9.7m units (74.4%) 

That 3.34m mirrorless total is divided by seven vendors. The DSLR total is divided primarily by two vendors, with two other vendors having minuscule portions of that volume. 

Put another way, Canon and Nikon still share over 70% of the ILC market. The next closest competitor isn’t even at half of #2 Nikon’s market share (that would be Sony, by the way). 

I’m placing my initial estimates for 2016 at these numbers:

  • Mirrorless — 3.5m units (modest increase)
  • DSLR — 9.2m units (modest decrease)

I tend to revise these estimates in May/June when I’ve had a chance to look at the final fiscal year information from all the Japanese manufacturers, and how they estimate forward. But I should note that all the fear mongering going on right now about the global economy is very much going to have an impact on 2016. The Japanese camera companies got burned by the Great Recession in 2008—see the “notch” in the graph above for 2009 where they finally reacted?—and I suspect they’ll be more cautious going into a headwind this time around. 

What Do the BCN Numbers Reveal?

BCN, the data monitoring company that reports sales in the Japanese home market for consumer electronics, posted their latest full year market share numbers last week. 

Rather than just present the 2015 numbers, I thought I’d share with you the full range of numbers for three categories of cameras from 2005 to 2015. I start with 2005 because that’s when BCN broke cameras down from a single category to specific categories.

BCN has always reported the full year market share for the top three items in a category, which leads to some interesting points with cameras. Even though I have additional BCN numbers for other brands, I’m going to stick to the top three in each category here, as that’s what was published publicly. 

Let’s look at compact cameras first:

bythom bcn compact

Left is current (2015), previous years to the right.
Blue is Canon, Red is Nikon, Gold is Casio, Green is Sony, and Orange is Panasonic

Things to note:

  • Canon has always been strong in this category, but in the last two years has surged to dominance (30.5% in 2015)
  • Nikon emerged from the mass of other contenders in 2012 has grown since (21% in 2015)
  • Panasonic used to be a top three company, but no longer is. 
  • Sony used to be a top three company, but for the last two years hasn’t been
  • Casio has fairly consistently been in the top three (14.8% in 2015)

More interestingly, the “Other” category—which includes all the players outside of the top three—has consistently declined from 2011 when it peaked at 54.1%, to the present when it now only 33.7%. The other players are scrambling for a smaller and smaller piece of the pie, and that’s not sustainable.

Up next, we look at mirrorless:

bythom bcn mirrorless

Left is current (2015), previous years to the right.
Blue is Olympus, Gold is Sony, Green is Panasonic, and Orange is Canon

Pretty obvious, isn’t it? Panasonic has been on a constant decline in its home market. Sony and Olympus have been battling back and forth for the first place spot, with Olympus getting the win in 2015 (34.5% to 24.8%). But look out, note how Canon suddenly snuck into the picture in 2015. 

This brings up an interesting side point. The Japanese market is fairly price conscious. When you look at the low level BCN data, you see a lot of previous generation and discounted cameras pulling large volumes. Sony didn’t introduce a new APS camera in 2015, and the BCN numbers are all market share numbers, not dollar (yen) numbers. Which means the revised A7 models might have brought Sony dollars, but lost them market share. 

Meanwhile, Canon introduced two lower end models (M3 and M10) in 2015. And the market share numbers seem to indicate that this succeeded (13.8%). 

In DSLRs, things haven’t changed a lot in ten years:

bythom bcn dslr

Left is current (2015), previous years to the right.
Blue is Canon, Green is Nikon, Gold is Pentax, Orange is Sony, and the lone Red is Panasonic

Okay, this chart needs some explaining. The emergence of mirrorless in 2009 and 2010 had BCN including all ILC models together in the “DSLR” category for a couple of years. Thus the apparent dip for Canon/Nikon in the middle of the chart and the appearance of Panasonic. 

Nikon has clipped Canon’s wings only once in DSLRs, and that was in 2007 (they also came extremely close in 2008). For the last three years, though, Nikon’s share has fallen (to 36.7% in 2015) while Canon’s has grown (to 56.2% in 2015). Sony fell out of the top three in 2013 and never returned, ceding the distant third place to Pentax (Ricoh) at 6.7%. 

You have to be careful about reading too much into these numbers (they don’t represent 100% of the Japanese market outlets, for example), but still they provide a fascinating glimpse at what the Japanese camera makers are seeing in their own market. When you couple this glimpse with what I wrote about regionalization in today’s other article, you can get a sense of how complex the game being played really is.

Cameras are a mature and declining market that is provoking incredible competition between companies that were used to sharing a rising tide. One thing that is clear from the data is that Canon responds to any and all competition. They don’t like being #2, let alone something worse. Don’t expect them to sit still for anything competitors are doing. 

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