What Nikon Got Wrong

(commentary)

(I reserve the right to change my mind as to some of my comments after using the new Nikon Df camera, but some broader things can be examined and debated at this point before my review unit arrives. Also, note that Df pre-orders seem to be running higher than D600 pre-orders did last year. So there are some people buying the camera. ;~) 

As I expected, the Internet is blowing hot and cold on this camera. Lots of emotional reactions to price, features, and design. I'm very tempted to write that what Nikon got wrong was not to have a wood grip carved from exotic species, but it's really those three things that we need to discuss—price, features, design—and I think in that order.

So let's start with price. At US$2750, the Df is very close to the D800 in price. Close enough that, for this level, many people will dismiss the price difference when trying to choose between the Df and D800. Yes, US$250 isn't trivial, but for the people buying at this price point, small price differentials like that fall much further down their consideration list than features, design, and performance. The stake in the ground I'd put here is this: the D800 is the best all-around DSLR currently made. So to sell another expensive DSLR for US$250 less it needs to be something special.

Back in 2010 I delivered to Nikon the results of a poll I had done of 10,000 byThom site visitors. Effectively, it showed that there was equal demand for followups to the D700 that split into the h/x thing just like Nikon had done with many products in the past (D1h/D1x, D2h/D2x, D3s/D3x). Let's ignore the Df's dials and retro design for a moment. In one respect—sensor—Nikon has now given us the two D700 followups the users asked for. The Df is the D700h and the D800 is the D700x. But the Df then goes on to cripple aspects of the D700h-to-be. Indeed, more crippling than implied by a US$250 difference: 5.5 fps top speed, 39-point AF sensor, consumer accessories not the pro 10-pin ones, 1/200 flash sync and lower rated shutter, removal of second card slot, removal of the flash, removal of video, and so on. 

So I'd say that the first thing Nikon got wrong is not making the Df truly a D700 followup. The Df should have been 8 fps, 51-point AF sensor, 10-pin connector, and 1/250 flash sync. We can quibble about removal of the flash and video. If doing those things would have made it US$3000 like the D800, no big deal I think. The demand is still evenly split between the options (high speed camera with low pixel count, low speed camera with high pixel count). 

To me, it looks like Nikon's infamous "cost cutting" mantra has gotten in the way here. They cut costs a little too much for a US$2750 camera, and it shows when you lay out the D610, Df, and D800 specifications side by side. The Df is much closer to the D610 in spec but at a much closer to D800 price. 

Sure, those dials up top add some cost to do right. Not enough to justify the other cost cutting, though. 

So let's talk about those dials. They're on the wrong camera. 

What do I mean by that? Again, take the premise that half the D700 crowd (which was a big crowd) and maybe even some of the D300 crowd moving up to FX want a speed camera, the others want a camera with high resolution. The old-style dials-with-interlocks interface is slow for a high-speed camera, but just fine for a resolution-oriented camera. Imagine if the Df were 8 fps, 51-point, and the better shutter but with the D800 controls at US$2750, while the D800 was just as it is but with the Df controls at US$3000. Works, doesn't it? Indeed, you could probably press both those prices up a bit (US$3000 and US$3500) and it still works fine. 

The slower, "pure photography" notion that Nikon is pushing works for the D800 crowd, not so much for the mini-D4 crowd that the D300/D700 users would be. 

Instead, Nikon chose not the D700-upgraders for the Df, but some nebulous base of closet AI gear hoarders who haven't made it to digital yet. Unfortunately, I don't think they'll like what they get in the Df. (To use the aperture rings on their lenses, they'll need to set a custom setting on the camera.)

So what we have is a confused small body FX lineup that doesn't quite satisfy everyone and has this strange retro thing at the heart of the controls. What I don't see is continuity of vision in the Nikon offerings (or those of Canon or Pentax, either; Sony has continuity in the sense that they'll try anything ;~). There seems to be more chasing after users not already committed than pleasing the base constituency. 

In the FX line we went:

  • Speed Pro (D3)
  • Speed Pro (D3), Speed Prosumer (D700)
  • Speed Pro (D3s), Resolution Pro (D3x), Speed Prosumer (D700)
  • Speed Pro (D4), Carry-over Resolution Pro (D3x), Resolution Prosumer (D800)
  • Speed Pro (D4), Carry-over Resolution Pro (D3x), Resolution Prosumer (D800), Consumer (D600)
  • Speed Pro (D4), Carry-over Resolution Pro (D3x), Resolution Prosumer (D800), Consumer (D610), Retro Something (Df)


See the non-linearity and inconsistency? We should be at:

  • Speed Pro (D4), Resolution Pro (D4x), Speed Prosumer (?), Resolution Prosumer (D800), Consumer (D610), and maybe after those are done a smaller all-retro body (Dfm2)


Moving on. The teaser campaign Nikon used for the Df seemed hurriedly made and not very focused. Moreover, we're basically talking about Nikon trying to go viral with a product claim to fame of "retro controls on a modern high-consumer DSLR." 

It doesn't make a lot of sense to me to go the direction Nikon went with the teasers. The lack of actual content in the six video teasers worked against them as the Internet just ran with their imaginations and imagined far more than Nikon was going to pull off in the actual camera. The real message here should be "some of you have been missing something in the digital era, so we thought we'd give it back to you." Yeah, dials again. This whole notion of "pure photography" probably comes from the fact that they took out the video, but Nikon's marketing got caught in a place where they were, by implication, asserting that their current DSLRs can't be used for "pure photography." Pure nonsense.

Now let me propose something different. What if Nikon had made two retro DSLRs, one DX and one FX. Let's imagine the FX one with a few different features (51-point AF, better shutter) and the DX one the same thing based on the D7100 body. Leave the FX one at US$2750 and put the DX one at US$1800. Oh, and introduce two DX wide angle prime lenses (16mm f/2.8, 24mm f/2) to go with the DX one, not the lame 50mm they gave us. That makes much more sense to me. First, we no longer have the "loner" body that doesn't seem to fit in. Second, we fix a DX problem and generate renewed interest in high-end DX. Third, we mimic the D3/D300 launch that was so successful: people just buy into the line at the level they can afford. Fourth, we've start another line in the DSLR realm so now things look more consistent (consumer DSLR, retro DSLR, prosumer DSLR, pro DSLR). We still have the price problem, true. But we also now have something we can explain to customers much more easily.

But Nikon's marketing seems to be struggling to do that. For some reason we now have Nikon marketing videos only posted on Amazon at the moment (McNally, Krist, Goldsmith). I suggest that you watch all three. There's a lot of talk about film, a lot of talk about feel, a great deal of nostalgia, and not much talk about why the Df would be better than another.

I'm written that I'm unsure of which camera Nikon wants you to buy. A few folk have poked back at me suggesting that Nikon just wants you to buy a camera, any of them. Well, sure, that's true. But is there really enough space for three FX DSLRs with a lot of common parts and capabilities in the US$2000 to US$3000 price point? To put that in perspective, the D3200 is about half the price of the D7100 with one camera in between, and the features and performance increase as you pay more money. With the three FX bodies the D610 is only 33% less expensive than the D800, and Nikon's marketing doesn't have a clear message to tell you why you choose one over another. That's why I'm asking "which camera does Nikon want you to buy?" They seem unsure themselves.  

I'm not going to write about specific features and handling at this point. The camera is close enough to launch that we're not all that far off from a real review of it, where we can get clinical about what works and what doesn't and why.

The big problem Nikon made for themselves with the Df launch is much simpler. It's a marketing problem: where do the Nikon faithful think Nikon is going with their products? Where do the potential Nikon users think the company is going with its products? In a perfect world the company is going one place with its products, and the customers want to go to that place. 

Back in the days when we had D3, D300, D700 and iterations of the consumer DSLRs that took the bottom down to very low cost and simple and the top up to a very capable camera, everything seemed logical and aligned. In the last couple of years, the signals have been head-scratchers: Nikon 1, Coolpix A, no D400, no true D700 update, AW1, and now Df. Shots on target: 0. Shots at different targets: 4. Even the D800 could be considered a shot at a different target, as it makes a D4x tougher to sell down the line and it didn't solve the D700 upgrade problem. 

It feels like Nikon has lost its center. That's the real mistake Nikon is making. 

Tomorrow: What Nikon got Right

Also: Nikon has put up a user survey for the Df and the 50mm lens. You can take the survey at the Nikon Imaging site.

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