Nikon Managers Discuss Nikkors

(commentary)

Nikon just posted another in their technology articles on their main Web site, this time with Haruo Sato and Koichi Ohshita, two long-time Nikkor lens designers. There are plenty of interesting tidbits to digest. In many ways, this is one of the more “open” self-interviews I’ve seen Nikon post. 

Some things that caught my attention:

Sato: “In the past things were more casual, with the designers coming up with plans on their own based on design proposals they were sure would work and then trying to lobby the higher-ups.” This is one of the things that got us to where we are today with Nikkors: many of the lens choices developed as pet projects of the lens designers themselves. Note the final sentence: "Some of the proposals that eventually reached the upper management and became products based on orders from the top down went on to be best sellers.” True. However, I’d argue that believing that success was due to internal decisions by individuals is not a great practice. In many cases, we Nikon users didn’t have any better choices other than what was offered us. We accepted something that was close to what we wanted and made it successful, not that we endorsed the product idea itself. As I’ve written before, I think one of Nikon’s weaknesses is that they’re a little too internal focused when it comes to product development. This article didn’t really indicate that such over-internal focus has ended. Note Sato’s " The 58mm came to mind when I was thinking of the ideal photographic lens and became an idea that I wanted to see given form at some point in the future. I'd been thinking of this lens for nearly 30 years since I was a student.” In other words, it wasn’t that the market demanded a 58mm f/1.4, it’s that he wanted to design one.

The 58mm wasn’t designed for performance. That’s not to say that it doesn’t perform well. Actually, I think it performs quite well. But there’s a strong emphasis by Sato in designing the lens for the “character” of how it renders from focus to out-of-focus. Indeed, that’s one of the things I’ve noticed in using the lens. It is indeed rather smooth in its transition, with nothing that really stands out in out of focus areas, as it often does even in lenses with what is considered good bokeh.

Many AI-S lenses perform well on the D810. Very true. But I have a different way of looking at this. The D810 (at least until the A7rII and 5Ds) was the highest method we had of sampling the light coming out the rear of a Nikkor lens. Good lenses still look good. Nikon made much of its reputation early on via their lenses. Sato points out "If you look back over the design records left by our predecessors, you can see that there are entries regarding attempts to design lenses in order to reach theoretical resolutions.” The D810 is the closest DSLR to reaching theoretical resolutions. Thus, those old lenses and new cameras match up pretty well. This is a tricky point for Nikon. On the one hand, being able to say that you can dip into the legacy set of lenses and still get outstanding performance is a big plus. But it also doesn’t sell new lenses ;~). Moreover, what the heck is going on with DX? Great legacy lenses really only help DX with telephoto primes. Couple that first thought up above with this and you get “Nikon isn’t designing a full DX lens set because the lens designers aren’t interested in that challenge.” I strongly feel that Nikon is not executing optimally partly because of discontinuities such as that one. Fujifilm now has a pretty full APS set of lenses, making it tougher for Nikon to sell DX DSLRs against those X bodies. Fujifilm would have been cut off at the pass had Nikon simply executed correctly and fully on DX in the first place. True, Fujifilm’s ILC share is in the low single digits, but my point is this: with Nikon currently struggling for volume, keeping those low single digits from leaking out of DX to a competitor would have made things a lot easier than they now are.

Future: faster zooms, higher-power zooms, reduction of size and price. Well, okay, the future isn’t really here yet, then, right? Or should I say, it is from competitors, but not from Nikon? 

Oshita: “One of the premises behind the development of the 800mm was being able to take it onboard planes.” At 10 pounds (4.5kg), said lens takes up more weight than some airlines now officially allow onboard, and the basic international standard I tend to encounter these days is 7-10kg, which I can’t get to with the 800mm lens, a D4 body, and a bag to put them in. Moreover, at 18” long, that gives you all of 4” for the bag’s structure and padding. That’s right at the current state of the art, and we have proposals from airlines to drop that length dimension down. I guess technically, Nikon hit its goal here, but in practice, I often encounter problems with my 500mm f/4 at 15” and 8.5 pounds (3.9kg). So I’ll give full marks for trying, but the problem here is the erosion at the airline end: the standards are getting stricter and tighter every year, and getting enforced more often.

Recommended lenses: 18-200mm DX, 24-120mm FX. While I have no problems with the 24-120mm recommendation, even for a D810 user, the 18-200mm doesn’t cut it for me. The 24mp DX cameras just show it for what it is: a mediocre performer. The 18-140mm DX or the new 16-80mm DX are simply far better choices. Moreover, the latter matches the FX choice of Sato ;~). 

Oshita: “…we have realized that the expansion of photo culture presented by the widespread use of smartphones represents a great opportunity.” Yes, it does. The question is what will Nikon (and other camera companies) do with that opportunity? While you wouldn’t expect two lens designers to address this in their product designs, the primary opportunity actually lives outside the camera now. Yes, we need lenses that can record things that you can’t with a smartphone. But that doesn’t work unless the camera itself lives in the smartphone world of connectivity and programmability and can keep up with the fast-changing social aspects of imaging. The opportunity is as I presented it to Nikon over five years ago: re-invent the camera. 

Oshita: "Lenses that do not satisfy user needs are pointless, even if they do offer superior performance.” Hear, hear! Now all we need is for Nikon to say “we understand that we’re not satisfying all user needs, and will make a concerted effort to fill those gaps."

As I noted, this was one of the more reflective and open self-interviews Nikon has published. Despite some of my comments above, it shows that Nikon understands that the future isn’t just the past iterated. There was more reference to user needs and experience in this interview than we usually get out of Nikon. So good on that. Now let’s see that delivered in practice. 


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