Playing From Behind

(commentary)

With the National Association of Broadcasters convention in full force this week in Las Vegas, it's easy to see another of Nikon's problems: they're playing from behind in video.

To put this in context, the D90 was the first large sensor DSLR to have a video capability, back in 2008. In tech, that's like the Paleolithic age. Here in the modern era, large sensor video has moved in so many directions and blossomed in so many ways it's stunning. The NAB show each year is the place where most of the pro video stuff shows up first. When I first attended an NAB convention back in the mid-80's, the convention floor was mostly stuff I'd never have a chance to individually afford in my lifetime short of inheriting a profitable TV station. Today, the portable aspect of video creation is omnipresent at the show, from GoPro through RED and Arriflex, with just about everything you'd expect in between, and the costs are getting down into the range where even students can afford quality gear. Amongst all the usual noise and fanfare at the NAB this year is a modest-sized Nikon booth.

It's probably a good thing that the Atomos booth is kitty corner to the Nikon booth, because the D800 and D4 aren't close to complete systems if your goal is to record high quality video for broadcast: you need something external to grab that uncompressed HDMI stream and do something with it, such as an Atomos Ninja or Samurai (just updated to the Samurai Blade with a true HD LCD, while the Ninja was just dropped in price to US$700).

Thing is, the buzz is long gone from the uncompressed data stream of the Nikon DSLRs. That apparently was Nikon's complete video salvo for the foreseeable future, and it's falling short. Canon and Sony are showing dedicated large sensor video lineups. 4K video capture is ubiquitous, with everyone from GoPro on up showing it (except for Nikon). High speed captures are now up to 1000 fps (at 4k). RED has a clean room (!) on the show floor where they're upgrading older cameras to 6K state-of-the-art. Everywhere you find things that Nikon isn't even doing as basics yet, including something as simple as a lens designed for video usage (focus pull and true stepless apertures, and marked in actual t/stops, not theoretical f/stops).

The buzz of the show, if you haven't heard, is Blackmagic Design's US$1000 Pocket Cinema Camera (PCC), which has an m4/3 lens mount (and I cover over on sansmirror.com; click the link). So for about one-fourth the cost of a D800 and the Atomos Ninja necessary to get high quality ProRes 422 HQ video output in 1080P, the PCC is turning heads. Or, if you'd rather have a Super35mm sensor 4k rig that has a built-in solid-state drive slot, Blackmagic also just introduced one of those for less than the price of a D4. It's the usual thing in tech: innovative state-of-the-art, design-to-function suddenly establishes new price points that legacy systems have a difficult time dealing with. Assuming the PCC is even remotely close to delivering on its promise, the "let's use a DSLR for high quality video" premise has basically fallen on its face. From birth to deathbed in five years.

This is exactly why just after the D90 appeared I started writing that Nikon needed a true video system if they wanted to play in this market. Thinking that a DSLR with video solution was going to hold serve was a terrible bet, and even Canon and Sony knew better than making it, and they were better positioned to do DSLR video than Nikon from the beginning. The Canon 5DII was not an end in itself, but a fast response to swing to where they needed to get (the EOS C series).

It's not just cameras where Nikon has been making mistakes, but lenses, too. Back when I started in film and video in the 70's, it wasn't unusual to find Nikkors sitting in front of Hollywood production cameras. These days, not so much. Why? Well, dropping the aperture ring and moving to AF-S with short focus ring turns weren't good choices for film/video production. When you do find someone using Nikkors on their video gear these days, it tends to be older legacy lenses, not the stuff Nikon is making these days. I asked someone at RED recently how many Nikon mount systems they're selling these days compared to PL or Canon mounts, and the answer was "not many."

So how's this affect us DSLR users?

Nikon is playing from behind in video, and since it doesn't appear that they've got a video system up their sleeves (it'll be very late now if they do), yet they still seem to aspire to be considered in the video world (otherwise why have a very expensive booth presence at NAB?), I suspect that we DSLR users are the ones that are going to bear the brunt. Again. The critical path timelines for upcoming Nikon models are probably now filled with video feature dependencies (e.g. "when can we get to 4k?", "how can we stuff broadcast quality compression into EXPEED?", "can we remove the rolling shutter effect?", and so on).

To what end?

Let's assume for a moment that Nikon (and Canon) was right about the photojournalist of 2012: that the demands of their job meant that they needed to be able to shoot stills and video. None of these folk wanted to carry a full still rig (D3) and a full video rig (say something at least at the capability of the Canon XA10, probably higher). Beyond the extra stuff (microphones, batteries, cables, etc.), having one big hunk of a camera to carry around was already a burden. Today (okay, in July) they could shoot stills with a D4 and carry a Blackmagic PCC in their jacket pocket for the video. What they probably want is a smaller D4 next, maybe something like a D400? ;~).

It seems to me that Nikon has put themselves in a box. The semiconductor equipment portion of the company has shrunk to being only a small piece of their revenues (and not always a contributor to profits). It shrunk because Nikon failed to see the market maturation correctly and blithely kept running terrible service and support at their existing customers until things were so bad an upstart startup came and took the majority of the market from them (sound familiar?). Smartphones are killing the low end of the still camera business. With no real presence in the growing video business, that leaves Nikon with just a still camera business, one that is under intense pressure to produce. Meanwhile, the cost to Nikon to exhibit at something like NAB is going up due to the depreciating yen. Indeed, running all those foreign subsidiaries is getting more costly, and much of the world is still in or near recession, so goosing still camera sales further upward via brute force of price reductions isn't going to be as effective as usual, I suspect.

If we look closely at what Nikon's done in the past decade photography-wise:

  • Iterated their main lines of cameras. Yep, they know how to do that. They're darned good at it, though any given iteration doesn't always move the bar particularly far. Still, I'll give them full marks here. As long as there are loyal Nikon DSLR users, the DSLR line should continue to iterate, even as growth moves to flat and eventually declining.
  • Tried a new type of camera. The Nikon 1 took some of their best engineering team and put them at work to produce a "different" kind of camera. Parts turned out great (focus, ease of manufacturing) and other parts didn't (wrong sensor choice, too high price). At the moment, it hasn't added tangibly to Nikon's bottom line. Partial marks.
  • Tried another new type of camera. The Android Coolpix is a mess, expensive, and doesn't really sell to customers that know better, which is most of them. It's a Frankencamera problem, basically. You have a smartphone without the phone, you have a Coolpix. Put them together and you have a Coolpix bolted to a non-phoning phone. Why not just have your regular cameras talk to phones? Seems simpler. No marks.
  • Failed at the software business. Farmed out a key software product, brought it back, took too long to iterate it to 64-bit, haven't added anything useful to it in a geological era (in Silicon Valley time frame), can't keep it up to date with OS system updates, has an update notice system that fails to send out timely update notices, and…oh, I'll be typing all day if I keep iterating this list. Oh, and did we mention the encryption system for images whose encryption was easily broken? Or the fact that Nikon is slowly removing cameras from the support list on some of their software, like Camera Control Pro? The Keystone Kops have a more consistent software business than Nikon. Negative marks.
  • Failed at the social network and image cloud business. Came out with a modest, lightly featured cloud-based social network, didn't manage to get many to use it, figured out that it needed an update, and then produced an update that had fewer features and worked worse. More negative marks.
  • Took forever to iterate some lenses, still hasn't iterated others that need it, didn't bother to make some. There seems to be no sense of urgency in the lens business. No cohesive thinking as to how to build three lens lineups that mesh well. Not much interest in doing anything other than clearly exotic products (PC-E, longer telephotos) or things that sell in the highest quantity iterated ad infinitum. Best grade they'll get: incomplete.
  • Dabbled at video. Which brings us back to the current NAB: any clear-headed person walking around the show would have to come to the conclusion that Nikon is dabbling, not committed. But look at all the committed companies producing interesting things? Which will you really place your attention (and dollars) on?


Don't get me wrong. Now that we've got video in virtually all still cameras, it's not likely going to go away. It's a useful adjunct to the main function of the camera and not that difficult to execute at the current levels. The problem is the "what next?" syndrome. Nikon has no clear what next. What they have in place is a still camera iteration system that works, and not much else. And much of the still camera iteration these days is dabbling in video.

Does that sound like a sound strategic plan to you? 

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