The Year Behind, the Year Ahead

Now that all the announcements for the year are behind us, it’s time to take a look at what Nikon did for us this year. I keep those announcements on a separate page here on the site for each year for historical purposes, so you can see the quick summary there. As you can see from the summary, we got a little more than anticipated (4 DSLRs instead of 3, 11 lenses instead of 10). What’s different is which lenses and cameras those were.


The 2013 DSLRs
Nikon DSLR users were probably expecting D3200, D7000, and D300s replacements this year. We got only one of those, the D7100. The FX crowd was expecting nothing, but we got the unnecessary D610 and yet another option in the Df. 

I’ve commented on the camera choices this year already: they seem on the weak side, as if Nikon’s junior team was just trying to show that the company is still iterating products. If this year's products were the A team effort, they're no longer an A team. 

The two big DSLRs for the year turn out to be the D7100 and the Df. The D7100 is indeed a very welcome step forward from the D7000, hampered only by its small buffer shooting raw. It was almost enough to make up for the missing D300s replacement, but still falls short in two things: frame rate with big buffer, and pro style build and controls. So the D300 crowd didn’t exactly take to it, while the prosumer crowd moving up from D80, D90, and even D7000 cameras did. In terms of cameras, the D7100 was Nikon’s best launch this year. A solid camera at a decent price with only one real liability (that small buffer shooting raw). 

The Df was a surprise, and is, I predict, going to be a disappointment to Nikon and a refreshing surprise to a few shooters. This boils down to solving the wrong user problem. The biggest user problem for the market that is interested in the 16mp FX sensor isn’t that they needed more dials, it’s that they wanted a lower priced D4. Consider this: would you have been more interested in the Df if it was in the D800 body and had 8 fps? Survey says: yes. Indeed, you would have even paid US$3000 for it, just like a D800. 

Ever since Nikon split the speed and resolution models with the D1h and D1x, I’ve been watching this trend. The high-end serious user wants both cameras. Nikon has incorrectly misinterpreted models that didn’t do as well as expected (D2h, D2x, D3x) as meaning that the “same body different sensor” approach isn’t what they should be doing. They’re wrong. The D2h failed because it was 4mp in an 8mp world. The D2x failed because it was great at base ISO but terrible at everything else, nor was it FX when Canon had moved resolution bodies to FX (1Ds). The D3x failed because Nikon priced it ridiculously. The demand for the h/x body pairings is still there, exactly the same as with the initial pairing. Nikon simply fails to deliver to expectation. 

So instead of a D800h, Nikon gave us a very different Df. The sensor we want in a body we didn’t ask for with specs that don’t match what most users wanted (5 fps instead of 8 fps, 39-point focus instead of 51-point, for instance).

Don't count the Df out, though. It has some redeeming factors, which I'll get to in my review. But it's not the body that the biggest group of buyers was waiting for.  

Okay, what about our other DSLR intros this year? The D610 is an out-and-out mistake. It’s an attempt to put the quality control problems of the D600 behind Nikon without fully admitting them. Wrong answer, and thus we got probably the lamest update Nikon has ever done on a camera. There was nothing wrong with the D600 other than shutters that spew onto the sensor. Just fix the shutter, replace defective shutters proactively, and be done. The user perception of Nikon should be "we make great cameras, and if we goof, we'll fix our goof", not "if you find we make a mistake we'll deny it and change the name to protect the guilty."

The D5300 is a model that needs a bit more explanation. Generally in three-product lines—and consumer DX is currently a three-product line—it’s the middle model that provides the highest gross profit margin for a company. It’s the model that the company really wants you to buy, so they put more features into it to get you to step up from the low end model, and they often even make it distinguished from the high end model in some way (e.g. swivel LCD) so that you can justify spending less if you’re on a budget (“I didn’t give up everything, I got something I wouldn’t have gotten by paying more.”). 

The D5300 update, therefore, is dead on correct with the product marketing approach. The addition of WiFi and GPS basically make it more desirable from a feature checklist approach than the D3200 and D7100. This would make the D5300 pretty much the right update for that part of the DX lineup except for one thing: all the lingering older model inventory. The whole three-product idea (entry lowest profit, well-configured highest profit, high end decent profit) has collapsed for Nikon. They still have D5100, D5200, and of course D3100, D3200, and D7000 models in the lineup to sell besides the D3200 and D7100 that the D5300 should be positioned against. Instead of that classic three-camera lineup, Nikon is fighting themselves with a seven model lineup. 

Still, it was the right model. D3000, D3100, D5000, and D5100 owners looking to update get a nice step upwards by springing for a D5300, I think. They just have to overlook the clutter on the shelves and see things the way they were supposed to be ;~). 

So how do I grade Nikon’s DSLR introductions for 2013? That would be an overall C for the semester. The D5300 and D7100 are okay and probably B performances, though they are hobbled by all the remaining inventory that you have to consider to get true price/performance value. The D610 is a clear F and the Df is a C at best. Overall, not a great year for Nikon DSLRs. 


The Nikon 2014 DSLRs
So how about next year? What are the expectations? Pretty simple, actually: D3300, D9000, and D4x. Failure to deliver those three things will result in a second bad year for Nikon DSLR-wise. (Okay, a truly innovative surprise we aren't expecting could make for a better 2014, too, but I'm not expecting one.) 

The D3300 is easy and a given: add the WiFi (and maybe the GPS) inside, do the basic update you expect at the low end. We’re getting long-in-the-tooth with the DX DSLR line, though. 24mp and stuffed with electronics and features is pretty much the end of the road as we currently know it. The update after the D3300, D5300, and D7200 will be tough, as it will need something novel (most likely a change in how focusing is done, as in dropping the mirror as we know it [note that I didn’t write "dropping the mirror”]). Basically, a D3300 early in the year with the D5300-type changes is what we’re likely to get first.

What’s a D9000? That would be the D300s replacement, I think. Essentially the pro (or at least prosumer) top of the DX line model. I’ve been fending off “Nikon will never do a D300s replacement” comments for well over a year now, as the faithful have lost faith. Nikon certainly gave them no reason to keep the faith, that’s for sure. But Nikon simply can’t let the D300 go into the history bin with no replacement. That would be the most foolish decision they could make. I can’t see how they would make such a terrible decision. It’s bad enough that they skipped an update cycle for the Dxxx product, but it would be far worse for them to never do one.

I’ll make this bet: Canon will update their equivalent product in 2014. That would make a Nikon no show even worse than it already is. Let me put it another way: if Nikon doesn’t put out a D300 replacement (my expected D9000 for 2014), then they’ve so completely lost touch with their most loyal shooter base that they deserve the punishment that will ensue: switchers to Canon, more leakers to mirrorless. I say it won’t happen. Nikon will launch a D9000, and likely before the end of spring 2014, most likely in February.  

I’m a little worried, though. Even if Nikon sees the need to top off the DX lineup with a high-end model, the Df has me concerned that Nikon is off the expected charts in terms of how they’re designing new models. The D300s was a failure. Not just a failure, but a big failure: it really didn’t sell. And of course, it shouldn’t have, because it was one of those make-believe updates (add video and a card slot, call it new). See what I wrote about the D2h, D2x, and D3x above: when something fails, Nikon doesn’t seem to think it was that they just missed something key in the product definition, they instead seem to think that the entire product idea was suspect and try something else. In the case of the D2h/D2x it was “move to FX.” In the case of the D3x it was the D800. So what will it be in the case of the D300s? 

Finally, we have the D4x. Here’s the problem: the D4 was another failure to live up to sales expectations. Changing battery, card, adding an incomplete Ethernet solution that adds wires that those in studios don't want, spending engineering effort on video instead of stills, all added up to an “update” that didn’t really resonate with the pros. Bottom line for most was “what does 16mp give me that 12mp didn’t?” Well, 4mp, basically. Was that enough to spend US$6000 for? No. Especially now with the same sensor with slightly improved performance is used in the Df.

But if the D4 is to be a camera in a pro’s bag, they need a resolution equivalent, the D4x. The D4/D800 answer is two different battery sets, two different card sets (three different card types!), two different sets of controls; in other words, not the ideal solution. The natural solution is to just put the D800 sensor in the D4 body (and not charge an extra few thousand over the D4 for that switch like Nikon did with the D3x in the D3 body). 

As I wrote, I worry that Nikon sees the wrong solution, and will make a D4x that is somehow different than the D4 because, well, the D4 didn’t sell as well as they expected. How different? They might rethink cards (again), they might give us yet another new sensor (54mp anyone? And at US$8000 again?), they might reconfigure the communications (hint to Nikon: stringing Ethernet cables in the studio to the camera is not the preferred solution). Who knows. Maybe they’ll put dials on it ;~). 

So, I expect D3300, D9000, and D4x cameras in 2014. Maybe a D7200, but that seems doubtful unless Nikon decides on no D9000 and thinks they can push the D7100 up to where it could be a D300s replacement (hint to Nikon: pros want pro controls; make a D9000).

Outside chance: the Soccer World Cup is one of those big events that Nikon likes to have a new product out in plenty of time for. This argues for a D4s model appearing early in the year. There's a really outside chance of them going a different way for high performance, but I just don't see that happening this go round.  


Nikon 2013 Lenses
How about lenses, how’d we fare with optics in 2014?

Badly. 

The DX shooter basically got an 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G VR super kit lens. That’s it. Not a bad lens, but not exactly a needed lens. Chances are you already have something that’s 18-something that you are already happy with or have set aside for something Nikon doesn’t make. The FX 58mm f/1.4G also fits into the DX mind set as a substitute portrait lens, though Nikon doesn't seem to be doing much to market that lens to DX users, and it's way too expensive for the DX market to start with.

The FX shooter got a 50mm f/1.8G “special edition” (as in "we added a silver ring and a nicer focusing ring"), that 58mm f/1.4G, an 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G, the long-awaited 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR AF-S, and the no-one-can-afford-or-carry-it 800mm f/5.6. Okay, the 18-35mm fits in nicely for the D600/D610 user on a budget. The 80-400mm is a whopping good lens that definitely fixes a problem in the lens lineup (even for DX). So two useful additions. But the 50mm? A totally unnecessary remake. The 58mm? Actually more of a fix for DX than for anything people in FX have been clamoring for, but not priced DX. The 800mm is probably highly regarded by the 50 or so folk that needed it, but for the rest of us, we’ll be putting that US$18,000 towards a new vehicle before we get that lens. Give Nikon style points for the 800mm, but not much else. 

I suspect that most readers will come to the conclusion that Nikon made only one, maybe two, lenses worth considering this year. 

Meanwhile, Sigma matched or topped that, with several lenses of note (the excellent 18-35mm f/1.8 for DX users, the also excellent 120-300mm f/2.8 lens, plus the announcement of the 24-105mm f/4 lens). When a third party maker that has to reverse engineer the mount is matching or bettering you, you should be ashamed. But I think that’s exactly what Sigma’s been doing lately compared to Nikon in lenses. Moreover, a number of these lenses are proving just how mediocre the Nikkors are. The 18-35mm f/1.8 comes to mind: it’s better than any Nikkor DX zoom at equivalent focal lengths and apertures. 

So you’re probably expecting me to grade Nikon low on lenses this year. You betcha. How poor is the DX lens stream looking? “All of ‘em, any of ‘em that have been in front of me over all these years” to quote someone famous. Of course, I’ve got my tongue in cheek a bit here, but not as far as you’d think. Nikon seems to think the way towards DX world domination is “more bodies iterated more often” and “more 18-xx zooms”. Considering that their primary opponent (Canon) isn’t doing any better, it almost looks like Nikon is winning. Imagine if they had a real strategy. 

So this year’s offerings are not even a C, even though we had two clear A lenses (80-400mm and 800mm). I’m tending towards an “incomplete.” But a D isn’t out of the question.

At least we Nikon 1 users were happy, right? Sort of. We got five lenses, three of which were rehashes (10mm AW, 11-27.5mm AW, 10-100mm non power). The two new lenses were absolutely needed and turned out to be very good, though on the expensive side: 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 and 32mm f/1.2. Ironically, the CX (Nikon 1) user is getting a lens lineup that’s filling out in ways that the DX user isn’t (Nikon 1 users have a wide angle prime! Heck, the underwater Nikon 1 users even have a wide angle prime!). 

I just have to be honest here: Nikon’s claim to fame was as an optical company. Virtually everything they’ve ever made touches on optics. They claim they’re top dog in the optical arena, and that’s what’s made them the company they are today. Okay, here’s my challenge to Nikon: prove it. Because you’re just not living up to the hype these days when it comes to lenses, which if I’m not mistaken, are about optics. 

Zeiss has made better lenses than Nikon in the last year (Optus). Sigma has made better lenses in the last year (18-35mm amongst others). Olympus and Panasonic are filling out the m4/3 lens lineups with gems faster than Nikon is filling out the DX lineup with more mediocrity. Pentax has a nice set of pancakes when it appears that Nikon has never heard the term "pancake." Fujifilm and Sony are filling in their APS lens lineups with options you can’t find in the Nikon DX lineup. See anything wrong with this picture? 

I do, and it’s the reason why I’ve been hammering Nikon lately about lenses. They’re resting on laurels for the most part and allowing others to usurp the high ground. The problem, of course, is that Nikon has gotten hooked on consumer volume over top end quality. The reason why we get all those mid-range zooms for DX is that’s what sells the highest volume. Better to sell millions of mediocre lenses than hundreds of thousands of top notch ones. Unfortunately, that will work more and more against them now that camera sales are sliding. All those D3100, D5100, and D7000 bodies sitting unsold on shelves are also not bodies that are selling additional 18-something lenses. 


Lenses in 2014
Put as simply as possible: likely more of the same. Which isn’t the thing you wanted to hear. Some of you are familiar with my “Missing Nikkors” list (which I’ve just updated for 2014). 

In terms of lenses that we know Nikon has worked on, the most likely to show up are the 16-85mm f/4 DX, a 135mm f/1.8, and an update to the 300mm f/4, I think. You can look at my Patents Predict page to see designs that are known to have been worked on recently.

But it’s not just focal lengths and apertures that you should asking for from Nikon. We have a darned good 24mp DX camera without an AA filter, and a superb 36mp FX camera without an AA filter. Both really shine when you put an optically great lens on them. That would be the Sigma 18-35mm on the 24mp DX camera, and the Zeiss Optus on the 36mp FX camera, not a Nikkor. Isn't someone at Nikon at least a little embarrassed by that? Nikon recently introduced the 58mm f/1.4G, and while it’s a very good lens, arguably the best of the “normal” primes Nikon has produced in autofocus, the Optus just makes it look on the unsharp side on a D800. This is what is making me grumpy about Nikon recently: I know they can do better than we’re getting. 

Of course, that 800mm is said to be of the caliber I’m talking about. Sure, great, only I’ll almost certainly never own one, maybe not ever use one. Who will? 

2014 is likely to not be a lot different than 2013 as far as lenses from Nikon, unfortunately. Maybe we’ll get one or two lenses we were waiting for, plus something none of us really asked for, and the rest will likely be filler that the serious shooter probably won’t be very interested in or lenses for the Nikon 1. I really, really hope I’m wrong about this. This is a prediction I’d be happy to be get incorrect. But it is my prediction: more of the same. In other words, not a lot of compelling action on the lens front.

Longshots: I'll give 200:1 odds that Nikon fixes all their DX lens problems this year. Someone must have noticed the problem by now and that Nikon's DX lineup is slowly being eclipsed by emerging new mounts. Unfortunately, the time from saying you'll do something about this to actually producing lenses customers can buy is typically three years in Nikon's lens group. I doubt they noticed their problem in 2011. I'll give 100:1 odds that Nikon produces a lens that out resolves an equivalent Zeiss lens in 2014. I'll give 20:1 odds that we get more than 6 DX and FX lenses (combined) in 2014.  


Wild Cards
Sony has been coming up with a ton of wild cards in their lineup during the past 18 months or so. Some of those have some sticking power, in particular the RX series. The QX series has potential if Sony can fix their software shortcomings. So what wild cards was Nikon producing during the last year? Basically two: the Coolpix A and the Nikon 1 AW1. Both overpriced to what the actual need/desire is. 

The funny thing is that the Coolpix A was a very good product, just completely mispriced. It also calls out the missing DX wide angle primes, as the Coolpix A actually comes with one and is DX ;~). Why the Coolpix A with a previous generation sensor and a simple prime costs more than a new DSLR with the latest sensor and a complex zoom is just baffling. Ricoh proved just how baffling the Coolpix A was when they came out with their version for US$500 less (the differential is down to US$300-400, but that’s still a huge difference). The GR’s lens may even be a bit better than the Coolpix’s. 

Likewise, the AW1 is a nice idea, but Nikon basically wants US$800 for what a waterproofed version of what should be a US$400 camera and lens, max. Look around, you’ll find that you can get good US$400 cameras and underwater cases for them for less than an additional US$400. Nikon’s really pushing it again on pricing. Caviar pricing for Kmart goods, basically. 

Someone at Nikon must be looking at their wild card experiments (and the Df probably is another that should probably be included in this list) and wondering why they aren’t selling in droves. It’s called user value. It isn’t there, so users don’t buy them. The Coolpix A and Ricoh GR are the perfect example: US$500 extra for the Nikon name on a US$800 product is a reach that’s beyond ambitious. Sure, the GPM looks really good to the bean counters. Unfortunately, the sales numbers don’t. Ask your dealer how many Coolpix A’s they’ve sold. Oops. 

I sure as heck hope Nikon has some good wild cards coming in 2014. It’s a Photokina year, so we’ll see lots of them from the others. But Nikon also needs to be targeting these better, both in features and in price. 

 

Wrap Up
There’s little doubt that the status quo can’t continue for very much longer. If all Nikon does with DSLRs and lenses is what they’ve been doing, the results are likely to be the same as recently: more and more difficult to sell as the market continues to stall and pivot. I wrote earlier this year that I believe that something like 47% of Nikon’s total sales are now attributable to the interchangeable lens cameras and lenses. Let’s just say “half.” If true, any weakness in DSLRs is essentially a weakness in Nikon overall, especially given that another quarter of there sales are in the rapidly declining compact camera market.

Bottom line: Nikon had a mediocre new product year in 2013 and there's little hope that 2014 will be much different. It'll take a really strong D9000, a half dozen or so much needed lenses, and a well thought out (and correctly priced) wild card or two to make 2014 better than 2013, I think.

We won't have long to wait to get our first taste. January is CES (likely D3300 and Nikon 1 announcements), and February is CP+ (likely DSLR and maybe lens announcements). 

© Thom Hogan 2013 / All Rights Reserved bythom.com  @bythom #bythom