Looking at Strategies in the Rear View Mirror

(commentary)

I had an argument with a couple of managers I knew at Nikon back in the 2004-2005 time frame. I had become privy to a strategy that Nikon was pursuing and it was one that I thought would turn out to be problematic.

Hind sight is always far easier than looking forward. I don’t claim to be perfect at looking forward, though I would comfortably stand my track record in looking forward in tech against that of most folks. This article is mostly about hind sight looking back at two conflicting views of the future. 

The trigger for this discussion is the announcement of Capture NX-D. I clearly see the new program as a step backward, yet it is still executing a strategy that I think has now clearly proven to be not so great. 

What strategy is that, you ask? It dates quite a ways back within Nikon, I think, perhaps even back to the original DSLR thrust. But it first reared its visible head in September 2004 with the announcement of the D2x. For those of you who don’t remember the controversy about that camera, let me remind you: White Balance “encryption.” In early 2006 we then got Capture NX. In 2007 we got EXPEED and Picture Controls. 

These things are not unrelated. What Nikon tried to pull off is a locked “Nikon look” to the images from their cameras, a look that would be impossible for others to exactly match and which would be obtainable from only a Nikon DSLR or a Nikon for-sale raw image converter. 

In the sense that Nikon DSLRs produce JPEGs that can’t be easily duplicated in other ways, Nikon succeeded. To date, Adobe still can’t really reproduce Nikon’s JPEG looks, and companies like DxO took a completely different approach, more akin to trying to profile against physical knowns (red should be red). 

I had two complaints about this strategy when I learned of it. First, was what Nikon was doing in terms of color and contrast and tonality really what the user wanted; and second, wouldn’t post processing software from companies with better software and imaging teams eventually render the point moot by finding “better” choices? 

The common thing you’ll see on the Internet these days about out of camera (OOC) JPEGs is that people gush about Fujifilm and Olympus OOC JPEGs. Both have a lot of extra contrast to them, extra saturation, and in Fujifilm’s case a double Hue shift. Nikon picked a more neutral approach, even for their Standard Picture Control (they also have a Neutral Picture Control which is very neutral). Fujifilm, in particular, has a lot of research to draw on in terms of how people respond to images, so you’d guess that they’d have excellent OOC results. So, with these companies “back in the game” my first complaint about the strategy is essentially true: Nikon’s choices aren’t necessarily what the user wanted most. It’s rare to see someone comment on how good Nikon OOC results are compared to a competitor, for instance. Just to be clear, I still prefer the Nikon OOC JPEG results if I’m going to do any post processing, as they contain far less baked-in changes that I’d be fighting. But that’s not my point. It doesn’t matter what I like, it’s what the majority of the market prefers that matters, and I don’t think Nikon nailed that. 

If you’re not a Nikon DSLR old-timer, you probably don’t remember that Nikon originally had a Photoshop Plug-in that did NEF conversion. It wasn’t as elaborate as ACR is these days, but it performed basically the same function. Plus it had Nikon’s baked-in OOC styles. Capture’s appearance also meant that the free Photoshop Plug-in had to disappear, as otherwise you could get most of the cow’s milk for free. (Aside: I love putting idioms like that into my writing every now and then, because it drives the Japanese translators batty; yes, I’m a sadist at times ;~). 

Anyhow, you probably see where I’m going with this: Nikon executed a strategy whereby they could not only lock in the “Nikon look” in the camera but get people to pay for it in a post processing converter. Note that we never got a true Picture Control editor, one that would allow us to create our own new base PCs. Instead, we only have the looks (Standard, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape, Vivid, Monochrome) that Nikon wanted us to have, with some minor tweaking to each.

So what does Capture NX-D say about this strategy? If, as it appears, NX-D is free and will remain free, then the strategy probably failed. Yet we’re still limited to just the Nikon looks that were set in stone sometime in 2006. In other words, both Nikon and its user base gets to suffer some from the fallout of the strategy. Moreover, it appears that Nikon is licensing code from the Silkypix folk in this release, so that has to cost them something additional, too. 

The correct strategy all along was: (1) make sure every software provider and company supporting digital imaging could get the best possible results out of Nikon data; (2) if you want to create for-sale software make sure it continues to fit into the best existing workflow, not change the workflow; (3) find a way to let customers and potential customers dictate look to Nikon, not Nikon dictate look to customers; and (4) build an imaging system that is user configurable and doesn’t require engineers in Tokyo to implement even modest changes (e.g. the D2XMODE Picture Controls). 

Obviously, sometime this summer I’ll need to completely redo my Introduction to Nikon Software book. Given what’s just happened, that book will likely be titled Introduction to Software for Nikon DSLRs, which is a subtle but meaningful change. 

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