What to Expect from Nikon in 2016

(commentary)

As I’ve noted with increasing frequency, Nikon is a company under great stress. Over time, Nikon has undergone a sort of back and forth gyration in terms of its primary products: originally lenses (and then cameras, too), then semiconductor manufacturing equipment, then back to cameras with the digital age. For the second time, however, the collapse of the camera market is putting strong pressure on Nikon. Their primary response to date has been to squeeze costs harder and to use their ability to raise money to invest in what they hope will be a third leg of products: medical devices. 

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from medical contributing significantly to Nikon’s health (pardon the pun), the semiconductor manufacturing market is not going to provide any significant and lasting growth or profit contribution, and cameras are still a declining market. In the first two quarters of the current Nikon fiscal year, Nikon has lost market share to others, and that’s on top of the overall declining market. So one would expect a response from Nikon of some sort. 

Best I can tell, here’s the full response we can expect in 2016:

  • The D5 — The pro camera product continues onwards, as usual and as expected. We get a full new generation with new technologies every four years prior to the Summer Olympics, and we get a mid-term update of that product two years after. The long lead time on making significant changes to the top-of-the-line product and creating new technologies means that decisions about where this product was headed were really made back in 2013 and even earlier. The truly big changes actually come on eight-year boundaries, not four (D1 and D3, not D2 orD4). We’re going to see new technologies in the D5, particularly in the focus arena, but elsewhere, as well.  The real questions are these: (1) how much market is left for the true pro DSLR? (2) will those new technologies make enough of a difference? and (3) can those changes really keep Nikon competitive for four more years? 

    I don’t know. I don’t know all the details of the D5, as prototypes are just starting to circulate, and not many have actually shot with the things that will be new. I do know that the focus system doesn’t cover the full frame, but it apparently covers more of the frame again.

    As to when and what: my best guess is that the D5 won’t ship until March or April. The recent “development announcement” seems unneeded if the camera were to really appear at CES and ship immediately (we may see the D5 in a glass case soon, though). Coupled with Nikon’s change in ad agency and their Spring start date, I suspect the D5 campaign will be that new agency's first, and maybe most important as it needs to set a tone for everything downstream. I’ve already gone on record as stating that I think the D5 will be 20mp. What else? Here’s how to think about it: what technologies does Nikon design from scratch? WiFi? No. The WT-6 that was pre-announced is just going to be an incremental update, I believe.  The core of Nikon’s self-developed technologies are at the sensor, the focus system, and the metering system. To a lesser degree, the shutter/mirror and flash system. Those are the places to expect changes. Will they be substantial? In at least one case, focus, I believe they will be. They need to be.

    Now that we’ve had some photo leaks of the body, we also know that Nikon is moving some cheese around (button and control shifts). Sadly, it doesn’t look like Nikon has recognized the need for camera-wide customization via button/dial, so we’re likely still stuck with banks. Indeed, the controls suggest that very little changed from D4 to D5 other than location. This has implications on other cameras, particularly the other pro body, the D810, which has the old control locations. Suggestion to Nikon: since “mode” (exposure mode) is button+dial, simply add C1, C2, C3 options to PASM and M*. Add the consumer models "Save to C1/C2/C3" function in the SETUP menu. Leave the banks. Bingo. Full programmability that’s easily switched and has depth/breadth.

  • Other DSLRs — If we go by now-established schedules, the D810 should get an update of some sort during the year (probably at Photokina), the D3300 is overdue for an update, while the D610/D750/D300s are all wildcards without a good established time frame for updating at the moment but all certainly in their update window. I’m betting there will be three or four DSLRs introduced in 2016: the D5, D850 (D900) in order to signal the control/technology shift, and one or two of the following: D650, D750s (D760), D9000 (D400). What I can say with some certainty is that the price range from US$1000 to US$4000 is where most of the action outside of the D5 is going to be. Note the naming problems that come into play in this range. Nikon’s messed up this whole range with a lot of somewhat random product (including the Df), and now the old, easily-followed numbering schemes are breaking down. This needs fixing.

    A D850/D900 pretty much needs to be 54mp at this point. It should have D5-derived technologies and controls, too, which is one reason why I’d guess Photokina as the likely drop point, as the D850 needs to follow the D5 to market. A D760 or whatever kludged name Nikon comes up with this time might just inherit the 36mp sensor, which would make it a simple, easy-to-do update. That makes product line sense to me: D850: 54mp, D760: 36mp, D650: 24mp. It would give Nikon the ability to spread the models a bit from their current tight spacing. A D400 (D9000 seems a more likely name to give Nikon some room for a low end FX model) basically has to be a mini-D5 (as the D300 was a mini-D3), or you’re going to hear a ton of complaints. Again, that suggests that this camera has to come later, not sooner. Of course, the real problem is that this has been an on-again/off-again product for Nikon, and one simply can’t predict whether they’re truly committed to producing it. Last I heard out of Tokyo is that it was on-again. But given the changeover in pro generations and the need to keep the D8xx line up with the pro line, I’d now be a bit surprised if the D300s successor shows up prior to Photokina. Those that think that the D7200 suffices: it does to a point, but that camera isn’t due for a change until 2017, meaning that it will look more and more dated over time and once again expose the top of the DX line to competitors.

    Will there be a Df2? I’m thinking yes, but probably not in 2016 unless it is going to use the established 24mp Sony sensor, which I think would be a mistake. If Nikon again uses the Df to build additional sensor volume for something, it’s going to use the 20mp D5 sensor or maybe the 54mp D850 (D900) sensor. Probably the former, as the D850 should have enough volume to justify a sensor on its own.

    The real question people should be asking is this: what of the D3400 and D5600? Will those happen, or will Nikon see the low-end DX has to transition to something else? I don’t know the answer to that. Demand is soft at this level. Nikon’s most successful and money making bodies in the past year have been the D7200 and D750 (the D810 also did well). Personally, I would have thought it logical that a D3400 transition to mirrorless, and indeed if you look at my prediction chart on this site, you’ll see that I’ve been predicting that for some time. The reason is simple: Nikon needs to cut parts and costs out of that camera, and at this point in time I believe you can make a mirrorless version of the D3300 that has the same or similar performance in every aspect. Mirrorless cuts parts and manufacturing complexity, thus it cuts costs. The real issue, of course, is that if Nikon were to do that, the lens mount choice immediately sends out signals about the entire product line, signals that could damage sales of other cameras. That’s one reason why I suggested that they make no change to lens mount. Having a deep throat at the lens versus the narrow one of most mirrorless designs is not a big thing, IMHO. Legacy mount compatibility is. It would be even more important if we actually had a full DX lens set.

    That said, I think it somewhat unlikely that Nikon is ready to make a leap into DX or FX mirrorless in 2016, and if so, that means that the D3400 and D5600 probably won’t appear. There is one alternative scenario that is slightly more probable than mirrorless DX: add the swivel LCD to the D3300 and call it the D3400, and then push the D5500 to a different sensor (that doesn’t necessarily mean 28mp or higher, it might mean 4K video). 

    The problem for any scenario for Nikon at the low DSLR end is simple: this is where their biggest inventory lag is despite the fact that they’ve slowed down releases in this category. Note that during this holiday season the two big sale items are twin lens D3200 and D7100 sets. This has been a Nikon problem for four years now: production is higher than demand at the low end, and we end up with multiple generations sitting on shelves simultaneously. This is why I call the alternate scenario I just outlined as more likely than moving to mirrorless: a mirrorless D3400 makes a mirrored D3300 still on shelves harder to move without additional discounting. A swivel LCD D3400 makes a D3300 at a reduced price look like a better and more long-lasting bargain.

  • Nikon 1 — Yep, a V4 in 2016 would be the fourth attempt at Nikon trying to figure out what a high end CX camera should be like, and any V4 will almost certainly be different yet again. My problem is that they just refuse to do the obvious: make it a cut down D7200 with an EVF. Nobody is going to mistake a V4 for a D7200/D7300. But there are times when you want smaller and lighter than a DSLR, but you still want the DSLR handling and focus performance. That’s what the V series should be giving us. Well, we’ve gotten the latter (focus performance), but not the former (handling). I’m not getting warm fuzzy feelings that we’ll get it this time around, either. Indeed, I’m not getting any hints that a V4 is forthcoming at all. Plus Nikon’s 1” compacts are going to get in the way of CX, I think (see next bullet). 

    Meanwhile, I also can’t figure out what Nikon is doing for Nikon 1 lenses. Apparently, neither can Nikon. At last count, I come up with about 22 different CX lens patents Nikon has filed in the recent past, yet they released none in 2015. There’s no way they’re going to make 22 more CX lenses any time soon (to date they’ve made 12, some of which are duplicates; e.g. AW versions of lenses). But then, if you’re still experimenting trying to figure out what a V4 should be, you’re probably also guessing at what lenses you might need. All that said, I think that if the Nikon 1 series continues we’re going to get a PF version of the 70-300mm, a faster mid-range zoom (something like 9-30mm and f/1.8 to f/2.8 at the fast end), and a wide angle prime (probably the 7.5mm f/2.8).  AW2 and more AW lenses? Seems doubtful. Nikon’s had a terrible experience with flooded cameras. Even though they disclaim all floods, it’s still a customer service nightmare for them (see below).

    One has to wonder if the J5 is the last of the Nikon 1 cameras. We’ve had 11 models now, and none of them have been what Nikon could call successful. At some point Nikon has to come to grips with that. Only two routes out exist: (1) kill the Nikon 1 line; or (2) completely redo and fix the Nikon 1 line. The J1 to J5 progression doesn’t seem to do either ;~). 

  • Compacts — The compact for Canadians, the Coolpix A (eh?), bombed big time. This, like the Nikon 1 experience, has Nikon wondering what would work. Unlike the Nikon 1, where they keep experimenting ad nauseum, there seems to have been far less enthusiasm within Nikon to make new big sensor compact designs, despite the fact that Canon has been cranking out such models with glee. Indeed, the unexpected (!?!?) success of the P900 had Nikon thinking maybe “big lens” is the answer instead of “big sensor.” Sorry guys, the new reality is this: 1” sensors for compacts minimum, m4/3 or APS (DX) sensors for mirrorless minimum, and full frame (FX) for the true photo enthusiast. Nikon’s got the last one covered, but look how they’ve been flailing on the first two. Note that Nikon’s been targeting their mirrorless option (Nikon 1) right where the others are targeting their compacts now (1”). But the Nikon 1 doesn’t begin to look so compact when you have to mount an EVF, add a grip, use bigger lenses that stick out further, and so on. But you want to know what’s coming, not how messed up Nikon’s product line management has gotten ;~).

    Best I can tell is that Nikon is opting for a 1” sensor line of things that will eventually replace the Coolpix P340 to P7800 range, including the P600 and P900. Yep: 1” sensor with a really long built-in zoom as well as at least one competent, more pro-like Coolpix. This will happen early in 2016. The real question is whether these new models will look competitive with Canon/Sony when performance and price is taken into account. I expect yes on the former, no on the latter.

    While they’ve actually run out of numbers in the S line with the S9900, nope, those models will keep coming. Same thing as before: more lens. Ditto L. Ugh. 

  • Lenses — All new lenses will be E’s (with a possible exception of a DX kit lens). Three lenses are now due for the E/Flourite treatment: 200mm f/2, 200-400mm f/4, and 300mm f/2.8. We’ll get two of those in 2016 (either the two primes, or the last two on this list). I believe the 70-200mm f/2.8E III is still due in 2016, too. The prime set is mostly redone for the time being (despite not being E). If we get a new prime, it’s almost certainly going to be a telephoto. Funny thing is that Nikon executives promised more DX action, so what will that be? I believe we’ll get an 18mm f/2.8 or 24mm f/1.8 DX, something in that range (both focally and aperturely). I’m going to throw out another possibility, as well, but only if a D300s replacement shows up: a telephoto zoom f/2.8-4. Yep, a matching lens for the 16-80mm f/2.8-4.  I don’t know if it would be 55-135mm, 55-200mm, 80-200mm, or 100-300mm. And no, there’s no patent existing on this that I know of, but I’m still pretty sure something along these lines has been discussed and considered. Nikon might actually be noting something: all the telephoto offerings they’ve done lately are excellent sellers and sell out in the first production run. Oh, and we’ll get yet another 18-55mm DX kit lens design for some reason. 

  • Software — We’re running backwards at the moment. Nikon’s software offerings are pretty much now down to ViewNX-i, Capture NX-D, and Camera Control Pro. The rest of what they do is mostly helper utility apps that are small and one-featureish. I don’t sense that there are any surprises in store here. Nikon seems to have their hands full just iterating these products to keep up with OS and camera changes. Frankly, the big three should be one product (View/Control/Edit NX). View would be the base app, control and edit are sub-apps within the app (maybe even plugins). But I hear of no project at Nikon that indicates that anything is changing on the software side any time soon. So in 2016 we’ll get three or four point iterations of each of those primary products.

    We will get a new version of the iOS/Android apps, though. And here’s a slightly wild guess: the D5 will introduce that new app, and it will have much more camera control than the current version, and more coordination/handling options for images than the current one. Indeed, I’m predicting that this will be a bit of a tectonic shift in Nikon’s software thinking: the desktop apps are the old way, the mobile apps are the new way.

  • Accessories — Nikon’s already let the cat out of the bag that there will be a new flash system kicked off with the D5. Let’s hope this is more than adding LEDs to the Speedlight. True radio control would be nice. As with the cameras, technologies in the flash system tend to trickle down from the pro model, so the SB-5000 will tell us about what Nikon thinks the future of flash is. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything new here. If the SB-5000 were radio controlled, we would have started seeing the wireless registration statements from open government sources. So I’ll bet that the main thing will be the additional of LEDs for video.

  • Other — Unfortunately, pressures already on Nikon will remain strong through the year. I don’t expect to see Nikon revise its customer service and support systems for the better. Indeed, if you’ve been paying attention, Nikon’s been doing a lot of cost cutting there. They’re consolidating Websites and driving them more from Japan, they’re outsourcing more repairs, they’ve been trimming staff and even offices in a few places, they’ve moved and consolidated warehouses, and more. I think we’re going to see more of the same in 2016. I hope I’m wrong. More than anything else, the customer-facing things at Nikon need improvement, and the cost cutting is leading to loyal users being less inclined to update their gear as they get fed up with trying to deal with Nikon, especially here in the US. 

    I will say this: Nikon has one wild card up its sleeve. Something that involves adding motion sensors to cameras and using that information intelligently. I suspect, however, that the target for that is very low in the consumer side (e.g. Coolpix). And that is exactly one of Nikon’s unresolved problems: are they a consumer company (Coolpix, Nikon 1, low-end DX), or are they a enthusiast company (enthusiast compact, high-end DX, FX)? The big run up in digital cameras that made the camera division the primary part of the company got Nikon hooked on consumer volume. Unfortunately, they missed the iPhone signal—actually, there were earlier signals, and many of those were highly visible in Japan—and now the consumer products they relied on for much of the growth are hurting. But Nikon continues to try to find the consumer product that will reignite that growth. I’ll just say that I think that what they are probably going to launch in mid-2016 isn’t the answer.

How about other camera companies? Well, the short version is this:

  • Canon — Canon seems reasonably predictable: they’re simply on the same incremental iteration plan they’ve been on, at least for the still cameras. We should see Canon offer a 1Dx Mark II about the same time or shortly after Nikon launches the D5, and with much the same kind of changes: new sensor, new autofocus, better video, etc. The wild card is the 5D Mark IV, which given the changes in the other cameras all around it needs a bit of a new role. I’ll bet that the role it gets is A7s slayer. In other words, I don’t expect an upward tick of pixel count but a downward tick instead, plus a strong continued emphasis on being a solid switch hitter (stills and video). More interesting is that Canon has moved from the old sensor fab to a new, smaller feature fab. We’ve seen bits and pieces of that already in 2015 models, but I think we’re about to see the full impacts in the next few models. More dynamic range? Probably, but I’m not sure that’s the primary thing Canon is targeting with the changes given their recent dual-pixel autofocus-on-sensor designs. I’d bet on supplemental during-exposure focus being their ultimate target. The 6D also seems a likely candidate for 2016 update, while I doubt we’ll see any major changes in the crop sensor offerings (maybe a Mark II version of the small body?). Lenses will be getting lots of attention from Canon as they move to automated production. Optical designs might not always change, but manufacturing techniques will.  By the end of the year some Canon bodies and lenses will no longer be hand assembled. That’s going to be a big cost advantage if it works as planned. Every other maker is still using hand assembly, though Sony has seriously lowered the amount of hand assembly necessary in their mirrorless offerings.
  • Fujifilm — The next generation of X. For the mirrorless cameras that means 24mp APS sensors, starting with the X-Pro 2 and migrating to the other models over time. Plus filling out the lens line some more. For the compact cameras, it means 1” sensors. Will Fujifilm do something other than 1” and APS? Wait for Photokina for the answer, but I don’t see Fujifilm trying to compete with itself, so I’d guess full frame is out of the question and any additional camera offering would be medium format. That fits with Fujifilm’s low volume but pro stance.
  • Leica — How many times can they reinvent the same thing, only with a different UI? Thing is, their method of recent success is to just keep coming up with new very expensive things, so that’s exactly what you should expect. Leica has moved from being “buying the best” to “buying the latest.” Personally, I think they’re stretching themselves thin and creating glitchy and overlapping releases, which dents their reputation. But right now everyone’s in a battle for dollars, and that pool of dollars is no longer growing. But isn’t Leica battling with itself for dollars now? Who can afford an M, SL, and a Q? 
  • Olympus — Return of the 60-80’s. The OM-Ds are obviously OMs in mirrorless form, now we’re finally going to get real Pens in mirrorless form. One could say they’re doing what they know how to do (small, feature/performance-laden bodies), but that didn’t exactly work out well for them the first time. Can Olympus really live on a 3% market share making small, competent ILCs? We’re going to find out. Meanwhile, like many others, we’ll see a megapixel bump in 2016 (to 20mp).
  • Panasonic — Yes, it’s starting to seem deja vu all over again with everyone: basically everyone’s executing their same old  strategy, which is to do the same thing they did before, but with an emphasis on higher priced products. So we’ll get a GH5 probably around NAB time, and it’s going to take another tick upscale with the video side (8K?). Everything else gets more pixels and more feature iteration. Lather, rinse, repeat. 
  • Pentax — Another Return of the 60-80’s, this time with a full frame DSLR that’s very late to the market (10+ years late if we measure against Canon, 8 years late measured against Nikon, 5 years late measured against Sony). Let’s see, late to the market with the K series, late to the market with the 645D, late to the market with the full frame DSLR. Sensing a theme? The thing about being late is this: generally you’re only going to pick up your own loyal user base, not win new users. So it’s a strategy that slowly erodes your market share, though you do get a slight volume uptick when your pent-up existing user demand buys the just released upgrade.
  • Samsung — I fail to see how they stay in the camera business now that they’ve begun a country-by-country retreat that started in Europe. 
  • Sony — Sony’s strategy seems clear: they want most of you to buy full frame, just like Nikon. The A7 series won’t stop at Mark II, though it will be a bit before we see any Mark III. I suspect we’ll see a cut-down A7 below the current A7 Mark II, too. Before that, we’ll see Sony push the APS crop mirrorless upward with new models, and yes, one last gasp at the DSLR…uh, excuse me, SLT…market. But if you want to know where Sony is really headed, watch the lens releases, particularly new designs as opposed to updates. That would likely be mostly FE, and it pretty much has to be FE because of the video side of the group (E does cover Super35, but barely). 

The camera makers all think that they’ve got special, buzz-worthy products coming in 2016 that will help them pick up sales. I say meh. What I see at the moment is that everyone is still on the same basic iteration path they were on last year. Yet given how good an XT-1, D7200, A6000, and a host of other affordable current crop sensor cameras are, just why is it that we need the next generation of anything, let alone moving up to a larger sensor? Yes, there are small—and to some meaningful—performance differences to be had. But it’s iteration city as far as I can see at the moment. With less customer support and worse service. Why exactly should we be excited?

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