What Do We Want from Nikon?

(commentary)

I was fiddling around with my Nikon Wishlist the other day and realized in so doing that it is really out of date. Either that or Nikon just doesn’t share any of our wishes ;~). 

By way of historical reference, I started the “wish list” from site reader suggestions probably 10 years ago for logical products that needed updating or that were missing from Nikon’s lineup. Basically I put a “month count” for how long we waited for each item on the list, hoping that Nikon would see that they’re not urgently addressing customer desires. That’s what the Nikon Wishlist page continues at this point.

Unfortunately, the thinking behind such a wish list is now completely out of date. What we—or at least I—want from Nikon now is something much different than just iterating products and filling in a few gaps. Nikon is slowly slipping out of sync with our needs and desires.

What I really want from Nikon these days is this:

  • A clear statement of intent for current lines. Yes, we know about FX DSLRs and that they’re the primary component at the top of the Nikon lineup. But pretty much every other product line Nikon makes seems to provoke giant question marks in user minds. Whither DX? Whither Nikon 1? Whither Coolpix A? Whither Coolpix anything? Wither flash? What’s happening in the near term with lenses?

    Add in the “will there be another mirrorless system” and there’s 90% unknown intent, 10% known with Nikon products right now. Most of Nikon’s competitors do better than that.

    It’s not as if Nikon is likely hiding some giant, super-secret, got-to-be-kept-under-wraps surprise under their tightly wrapped kimono. Yet that’s the way they act. It just makes most of their actual product announcements these days disappointments for most people, as they see no reason for the secrecy if all we get are de facto, status quo iteration.

  • Fix the customer relationship. Worldwide warranties please. NPS that’s more than just “early purchase, quick repair” and a voice mail number you can call and maybe get a return from (but thanks for the 20% repair discount recently instituted). Real interaction between customers and management. No hiding behind voicemail systems, someone real and intelligent answering the phones. A repair database that’s actually accurate and up-to-the-minute. Fewer “you must have done something wrong” interactions with telephone support and more listening to what the problem is, with real fact-finding to look for answers. And let’s stop two abuses in the repair queue: (1) impact damage actually requires impact ;~); and (2) repairs should be done right the first time, not require a second trip to fix the fix.

    Nikon’s never had a great customer relationship, especially here in the US ever since they took over the distributor back in the film SLR era. But it just always seems to get worse, not better. Just once I’d like to write “Nikon significantly improved their customer support today.”  

  • A clear signal that DX is the sweet spot. Because the DSLR weakness at Nikon came in the consumer DSLR line and Nikon themselves are exacerbating the problem with their FX push, the perceived “pullback" in DX now has DX users questioning Nikon’s sanity. Whether DX’s future is mirrorless or DSLR (or more likely, both), Nikon needs to do more than mildly iterate the three consumer cameras with arbitrary feature inclusions (and note that one is behind schedule on its latest iteration).

    To wit: (a) Scale down the design size/weight some more; (b) focus on useful features (e.g. swivel LCD) as opposed to cruft (e.g. new Scene and Special Effects modes); (c) 21st century design (see next bullet); (d) re-establish the pro DX option; (e) lots of appropriate lens love, including full prime and zoom sets at multiple levels. 

  • 21st Century Designs. Files that fit nicely on a modern OS without having to change anything; connectivity that talks to everything we own in modern and automated ways, not manual file-shuffling ways; sensors that add function (see smartphone: accelerometers, thermometers, incline data, etc.); true smartphone integration (no need for a GPS circuit in the camera if you’ve got a good connection to the smartphone and share it’s location data); output that matches output devices; and so on.

    The funny thing is that we’re getting more of the opposite: DSLRs and mirrorless cameras these days are looking more and more like film-era cameras in form and function. The net result of this is that the only audience left for them is an aging group that remembers film cameras. Indeed, that group keeps asking for “retro designs,” which just makes the problem worse and re-engages the circle of death that’s beginning to emerge. 

  • A focus on photographic decision making. In the old days that was aperture dial, shutter speed dial, ISO dial, exposure compensation dial, depth of preview button, etc. In low-end cameras it’s okay to make the decision more about intent (more depth of field, less depth of field) rather than coupling to the old number-oriented ways, as long as you’re also preparing people for the specifics, too (i.e. reporting what was set). That’s one way you can attract new-to-full camera shooters from smartphones, perhaps. The D3300 kind of does this, but not intent is a bit buried and the numbers are presented in graphics, not the way we’d set them.

    The whole “Scene mode” philosophy is much like a Japanese restaurant for Westerners: choose one of the things in the display case that’s closest to something you might want. You might like it, you might not. You probably won’t know what it actually is.

    Closer, further. More depth, less depth. Brighter, darker. More colorful, less colorful. Everyone understands those things and can look at what they’re getting and ask for those differences. Then if you tell them what actually got set, they might learn the number-oriented way of setting their camera, too, and thus be able to grow into a more sophisticated camera later.

  • Do video or don’t do video. Right now video with a DSLR is a compromise situation, especially on the Nikon DSLRs. Aperture activation is an issue for controlling exposure, and all the Nikkors have been optimized for autofocus, which the DSLRs don’t do so well at when shooting video. Essentially, Nikon is executing the Chevy El Camino: car and truck, but not as good as a dedicated car or dedicated truck. (And before I get the emails about that line: adding video features to something that will only be used as a still camera is cruft that gets in the way; more menu options, more controls, more complication, etc.)

    I’m all for a high-end Nikon video solution, but that’s yet another need for new lenses (electronic apertures and geared, long-throw focus/zoom rings). As I’ve discovered doing video, basically you spend a lot of time “fixing” the DSLR weaknesses when it comes to using them for video, what we call “rigging up” a camera. I prefer a dedicated video body when I do run-and-gun video. Plus the audio in the DSLRs basically sucks the big ones due to the use of consumer connectors and low-cost amps. The first thing you have to do with a DSLR used for video is figure out how to protect every cable connected to it and what to do about audio.

    Plus Nikon’s late to 4K (amongst other video things, like high bit rates, log recording, and more). So if Nikon wants to play in the video arena and stop wasting their money exhibiting against people who know what they’re doing at NAB, it’s time to do video right or just back away from it. Yes, that can be done in a DSLR, though I’m not a fan of that approach, as noted above. But it’ll take more effort than Nikon has shown so far. 


Okay, I know you wanted a product list. Okay, here’s my personal product wist list for Nikon right now:

  • Coolpix — Raw file support in anything you produce. Two Coolpix Pro models (lose the A, B, C idea before it spreads). (1) Coolpix Pro Prime: the Coolpix A done right (EVF, swivel/touch LCD, more photographic oriented controls). Whether that’s with a 28mm, 35mm, or 50mm equivalent lens is debatable. Your competitors mostly picked 35mm, but I like the 28mm and would even take 24mm. Stay with DX, but go to 24mp. (2) Coolpix Pro Zoom: 1” or m4/3 sized sensor with 24-70mm equivalent f/fast-as-possible. Again, EVF, swivel/touch LCD, more photographic oriented controls. 

  • Nikon 1 — The V4 needs the J5 sensor, a built-in EVF, and CLS support. We need primes for 24mm and 35mm equivalent, and reasonably fast ones (f/1.8 at least). We need a mid-range zoom that’s better and faster (9-31mm f/4 is the worst case we’d accept, but I’m thinking something like 9-30mm f/2-4), and compact as possible. A 40mm f/2.8 macro would be useful, but it could be anything up to 60mm; this lens has to serve dual purpose as a macro and telephoto prime. 

  • DX — D400, D400, D400, D400. A set of DX primes from 24-85mm equivalent (you’ve got one, now make the other three or four). A fixed aperture replacement for the 16-85mm (e.g. f/4). A smaller, VR-equipped 17-50mm f/2.8. Bring the 12-24mm f/4 up to the 24mp sensor standards so that it shines, not just look good. I can finesse the telephoto side with FX lenses, but the wide angle options are just as important as that D400, which is why they are the only things on this list. 

  • FX — I’ve written it before: rationalize the line again, please. D5 and D5x, D810 and D810h at the pro end. The D610 and D750 need a bit more space in their definitions. The Df could be further simplified (remove the menu cruft), given a better focus screen, and pressed a bit more in the size/weight department, I think. And consider making a 24mp monochrome version (the Dfm). In terms of lenses, fill in some missing primes (24mm f/1.8, 105mm f/2, 135mm f/2, 200mm f/2.8, 400mm f/5.6), re-do the 24-70mm with VR and put it on a diet, and bring back the 70-180mm macro. 


If you’re counting, that’s four sub-FX cameras that need to be created, plus I’ve added three FX cameras (though they’re all variations on existing models, e.g. D5/D5x, D810/D810s, Df/Dfm). Very do-able. 

The lens side is 19 new designs, which would normally keep the optical team occupied for three or four years. That part needs a bit more urgency, I think. Fujifilm is outflanking Nikon DX with lenses, and m4/3 outflanked CX and DX with lenses. Even Samsung is doing better with APS lens options than Nikon with DX. The only reason why Nikon has gotten away with the way its approached lenses is that Canon hasn’t really done any better.

Which brings me to a final point: I want Nikon to outsell Canon. I want to be on the number one team, not the number two team. I used to believe the Nikon management when they said that they had a goal of beating Canon. I no longer believe them. Their actions basically started saying otherwise in the last five years. 

To paraphrase an advertising campaign popular in the US when I was growing up: Nikon needs to try harder. 

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