QA Sooner or Later

(commentary)

Nikon has recently been tripped up by what I’d regard as a series of QA (quality assurance) failures: not catching things that should be dealt with before products get to customers. 

It’s appearing that the D750 banded flare issue has a hardware component issue to it. More than one person who would be in a position to know has indicated to me that they believe that Nikon is using more than one supplier for the condenser lens component that sits above the autofocus sensors, and that this is what is causing the issue to be prevalent on some cameras while mostly ignorable on others. If the condenser lens is a little taller, it produces obvious and clear banded flare, if it is slightly shorter, it doesn’t. The QA issue here would be that nothing in Nikon’s processes caught the difference, or that the difference was assumed to be not problematic. 

Nikon has had component supply issues before. Both the D2h (meter) and D70 (blinking green light of death) had electrical components that eventually caused cameras to completely fail. At least five Nikon DSLRs that I know of have had clear component issues of some sort, and I’ve encountered those problems on three of my own cameras. Fortunately, we didn’t have many of those types of problems until a few big ones recently resurfaced (e.g. D600 shutter). 

Some of you are wondering why I’m even writing about the D750 banded flare issue and whether it’s a problem big enough to even worry about, let alone write about. 

Well, first, if I’m going to claim to cover Nikon DSLRs in depth on this site—as I do—I can’t be editing out things that might make Nikon look bad. I’ve got to cover not just the good news of the day, but also what Nikon users are saying and reporting about the products, as well as what I find out myself (both through use and through investigative-type reporting). 

Problems come in all kinds and sizes. The D2h metering problem was a real bummer and a huge problem. You’d be shooting with the camera and bingo, the meter would go dead and not resurrect. The camera needed to get back to Nikon repair to replace a part. That’s a big problem. First, it means that you might be in the middle of an assignment or shooting session and suddenly have to find another way to set exposure. Second, when you learn that others are experiencing that issue, you start wondering whether you should even take your D2h on an assignment that’s important. That’s a brand confidence killer.

Ditto the D70 BGLOD problem: the camera would simply die and blink that green light at you, and needed a trip to the shop to repair. Not good for whatever you were doing at the time, and definitely made you wonder when your D70 that was working perfectly fine if it was going to get the disease. In essence, these were major problems that triggered distrust of the gear. 

So were the D800 left focus problem and the D600 accumulation of dust problems, though in these cases the cameras were still functional, you’d just be getting less than quality results from them. You could avoid the D800’s focus problem by not using anything other than Single Point AF in the central area, but that made the camera not nearly as flexible for focusing (plus focus-and-reframe has geometry problems that mean you get less than perfect results, as well). You could clean the D600’s sensor before a shoot, but you didn’t know exactly when the shutter would start spewing more junk into the frame that you’d need to later clone out, let alone exactly where it would spew it. 

Moving down the list of the QA problems that we Nikon DSLR users have been challenged with we get the D810 white spotting problem and the D750 banded flare. The good news is that both these problems are triggered by very specific shooting techniques (long exposures on the D810, shooting into the light on the D750). If we avoid those things, we don’t encounter the problem, simple as that. (Note: you can also get around the problem on the D750 by framing more loosely, so that you can crop out the band in post.) 

But I should point out that the D750 banded flare problem went viral for a simple reason: you can’t see it when you’re shooting (except in Live View). Thus, if you’re shooting something important, you’d better be chimping (looking at each shot after it’s taken), because you won’t see the problem in the viewfinder. This is one reason why the wedding photographers got all aggravated by the banded flare: they didn’t see it until after a non-repeatable shot was taken. To that, that was a real and unexpected problem that caused them grief.

Still, I’ve noted on this site that the D810/D750 problems are not what I’d consider major issues, but more minor ones that you can tend to avoid. Yet they’re still problems, and I need to report them on this site if I’m going to provide you with as much information as I know about each Nikon DSLR. Knowledge is golden. With proper information you can make informed decisions. Without it, you’re at the whim of the fates.

Here in the US we have something called Warranty of Merchantability (also sometimes referred to as "suitability to purpose" and similar phrases). In essence, this says that there is a implied warranty that a product will work for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are sold. Indeed, you’ll see manufacturers disclaim certain things in fine print so as to get around this legal construct (e.g. “may not be suitable for….” clauses). 

I’m pretty sure Nikon didn’t write “May not work as expected when shooting backlit subjects” anywhere in their disclaimers. Shooting contre-jour, as the French call it, is an established style that comes in and out of popularity every now and again. It’s not surprising that wedding photographers were the first to notice the D750 issue, as contre-jour is one of the primary styles some such photographers use to set their work apart from others.

So I’m stuck with this: some D750’s are not reliable for shooting contre-jour via the viewfinder. That’s not something I’d expect. Sure, I can avoid that if I know my camera doesn’t do it perfectly, but it’s not something I was expecting to have to avoid. This is the reason why I’ve been following this problem since it was first described in a YouTube video and on some Internet fora (e.g. dpreview). And it’s the reason why I’ve now written about it once I was able to verify that the problem was real and what the likely cause was. 

I’ll give Nikon full marks for quickly acknowledging the issue, and I’m assuming that they’ll have a satisfactory response at some point soon to those that experience it. 

Nevertheless, I’m still troubled by the fact that we have quite a few of these QA-type issues happening with virtually every high production FX model that’s coming out of Nikon these days. Given their intent to move as many Nikon DSLR users to FX, it gives one pause about whether or not Nikon has everything under control that we’d want under control if we’re going to accept that shift. 

What’s really problematic for Nikon is this: the D750 was the king of DSLR sales this holiday season. Every dealer I’ve spoken to says that the D750 was their big seller and profit driver this holiday season. Now Nikon is getting friction on further sales due to this issue, no matter how trivial you think the issue is for your style of shooting. And the next camera from them is just going to get scrutinized with even more intensity as worried customers look closely for any problem. The likelihood that they’ll find one is high, as no complex product like an FX DSLR is going to be 100% free of bugs and birthing pains on day one. 

In fact, I’d say that because of Nikon’s previous problems with FX DSLRs, when the D750 problem surfaced, the news probably went more viral and got more coverage than it would have. People were looking for a flaw. Well, now they found one they could latch on to and use to criticize Nikon for. 

Hey, wait, aren’t I criticizing Nikon? Yes, I am. But I believe that I’ve been consistent on that. I praised Nikon for the handling of the D1x problem because it was dealt with quickly. I had to repeat and extend coverage of the D2h, D70, D600, and D800 problems before Nikon finally responded. Note that I’m initially praising Nikon for reacting to the D750 issue so fast (but we still don’t know what the conclusion will be). 

So here’s what I’m really looking at: is this a “new” Nikon in terms of responding to issues? That’s certainly true when we look at the speed with which they acknowledged these smaller D810 and D750 issues. But any upcoming D750 “fix” still needs to be quick, complete, and as convenient to consumers as possible. 

Beyond that, I’m also looking at Nikon’s relationship with component suppliers. Too many problematic components in the last decade have snuck by into products in consumer hands. Something about Nikon QA isn’t catching that. You can never take that problem down to 0%, but it would be nice to see a string of totally new products that don’t seem to have such issues. 

Which brings me to my last point: why don’t the DX DSLRs iterations show this same level of QA problems? Well, they’re iterations. The control over the iterative process seems better at Nikon; it appears to be the totally “new” things that have been more problematic, the Df being an exception. 

This is a classic conundrum. Nikon needs to move faster in the future. But running faster can generate more QA issues. Just running the old iterative processes at the same (or slower) pace will eventually cost Nikon in lower product volumes. Most of us Nikon DSLR users have perfectly competent cameras in our bags these days (Last Camera Syndrome), so what really will provoke us to upgrade is something different and new. But it’s those different and new products that pose the biggest QA issues, as the QA is no longer just iterative, but has to be more expansive and potentially test new things. 

That’s why I’m a little worried about the trend with Nikon QA. We had a period where it was somewhat problematic (D1x to D70). We had a period where it wasn’t (D3/D300 era). In the last two years we’re back to a period where we’re seeing problems surface again. I’d like to report that we'll enter another quiet period again, but at present, can't. 

In terms of serving this site’s audience, I believe I have a expectation to meet: people want to know about how well Nikon DSLRs perform, and they want to know whether or not they can get the photos that they desire from them. 

So let me state clearly and emphatically: the D750 is one heck of a good DSLR. Some copies of it, however, will produce banded flare when shot into the light at a certain angle, and you won’t know that if all you do is look through the viewfinder. I assume you’re an adult and can figure out whether or not that’s a major problem for you or a minor one. Personally, it would be a problem I could “shoot around,” but I don’t like shooting around things, because it’s another thing I have to remember to do.   

My D750 is staying in my gear closet and will serve as my D810 backup body. My rating of the D750 will stay at Highly Recommended (though I might decide to change that or at least annotate that if Nikon’s eventual response to correcting the problem is lacking). 

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