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Who’s Still Buying DSLRs?

One of the key missions of product management is understanding the customer. Who, exactly, is going to buy your product? Why?

Yes, product management does other things, as well, and determining other things like how much the customer will pay is another important thing to understand. However, to me, everything revolves around “who is going to buy your product and why?” Fail at answering that correctly, and things go south in a hurry.

So: who is still buying cameras, and why? 

Certainly professional photographers still buy cameras. Maybe not as often as before, but the camera is their primary tool and a pro shooter generally is interested in keeping their tool current. Specifically, professionals want the following two things in any new camera (the why): makes the job easier or gives them better results. Both are important to staying competitive and keeping clients happy. 

So, how did Canon and Nikon do on that this round? It’s difficult to tell from marketing materials.  

Both the Canon 1DX Mark III and the Nikon D6 changes from earlier models seem to revolve mostly around focus performance, and that’s very difficult to put into words. It’s difficult for us reviewers to categorize or summarize, too. Neither company is doing a good job of saying “you need to buy this new camera because…”.

I suspect some of that is the small size of the market coupled with the long product cycles. Both companies seem to assume that pros just regularly upgrade, either every cycle or every other cycle, and they don’t have to put too much energy into marketing their product. In essence, they’re ignoring Sony and the A9 Mark II in doing so, which is a mistake. Moreover, whatever mirrorless solution Canon and Nikon come up with to replace/supplement their top pro DSLR is going to have to answer that question, and in so doing, it’s going to hit their DSLR sales when they do so.

What I want: No change in form or controls that isn’t a clear improvement, less viewfinder blackout time, better integration into workflow, and more performance and control of autofocus. Image quality (or size) improvements are welcome, but not particularly needed.

Next up, we have the prosumers. Yes, they’re still buying cameras, although again not as often as before. Prosumers are a tougher sell than pro shooters, believe it or not. They’re fickle as can be, partly because they chase features and “magic”. A true prosumer camera design is a bit like throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. Curiously, the prosumer group tends to know more about camera specs and technical information than the pros.

Look at all the commentary on the Internet. In the prosumer group it’s not uncommon for them to say “but Camera X doesn’t have Feature Y, while Camera Z does.” Focus shift shooting, pixel shift shooting, on-sensor stabilization, 4K/60P, the list goes on forever, it seems. Moreover, many of the features being chased are either somewhat irrelevant or not particularly meaningful to most of their actual shooting. Even a half stop dynamic range difference is not going to make a difference most of the time, and BSI versus FSI sensor tech in and of itself doesn’t do much for fill factor on large sensors.

The prosumer group is highly vocal, highly critical, and not averse to shifting their loyalty. But they’re buying on lots of small things that often don’t show up in their shooting. They’ll read the specifications and debate them endlessly, and they’ll start by defending the brand of their choice right up to the point where some feature triggers them into grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome. 

Moreover, prosumers love “magic.” Eye detect autofocus is one of those magic bits. While I’m not finding any eye detect autofocus system consistently focusing on the pupils where I’d want it to, apparently this group is happy with the current implementations because it gets focus “more right” than they’re used to with their older cameras. That’s because the typical prosumer is not very pro but is very 'sumer. 

This is an area where Canon and Nikon aren’t doing so well with their DSLRs (the D780 being an exception). Canon seems to be about to transition their prosumer base from DSLR (5D Mark Whatever) to mirrorless (R5). That’s likely to set off some who want to stay in the DSLR realm, though. Put more kitchen sink features into the R5 than are in the 5D and the prosumer I’m describing is then given three choices: (1) suffer with what they’ve got; (2) switch to the R5; or (3) switch to another system.

It’s #3 that a camera company can’t afford: brand loyalty in prosumers means significant lens and accessory sales long term. That’s why Nikon’s update to the D780 makes a lot of sense, particularly so if they also make a D880 and a Z8 in the near term. Nikon would be saying to their full frame prosumer base that they’ll sell them a DSLR or a mirrorless system. 

But prosumer DX and APS-C is a different story at both Canon and Nikon. I’d say that the 7D and D500 user probably feels pretty abandoned: no camera updates in forever, no new appropriate lenses, no clear mirrorless transition. I can’t speak for Canon, but I know that Nikon’s thinking is “transition this user to full frame.” I’d call that wrong thinking, but at least it’s thinking.

Moreover, Nikon hasn’t actually told those users what that means. For a D500 user, it means buying a somewhat bigger and more expensive D850. Why? Because you lose nothing—okay, you lose 1mp in the DX crop—while gaining things (e.g. full frame, kitchen sink features). 

It’s interesting that Nikon doesn’t exactly see the D500 user clearly. A company that’s making the Coolpix 950/1000 isn’t seeing the “small but long lens and less expensive” proposition properly. At the consumer side, we have good Coolpix 950/1000 updates to the seminal 900. At the pro side we have the D6 update and the exotics, which were added to recently with the 120-300mm and 180-400mm. In the middle? Not much. The D500 is now four years old and the only D500-appropriate lenses Nikon has produced recently are the 300mm and 500mm PF. And this is just on the wildlife/sports side of things. The D500 user typically also wants a well-rounded camera, just smaller, lighter, cheaper, and with only a little less capability than the flagship. Still, even if we isolate just down to the wildlife/sports shooters, Nikon’s not doing enough to keep that crowd happy. And Canon? MIA for four years, and what little action you can point to appears to attempt forcing the 7D type of user down in capability (e.g. 90D).

What I want: The prosumer models to carry on, as before. Nikon did a decent job of this with the recent D780, but the Canon 5D and 7D, and the Nikon D500 and D850 all need the same attention.

At the bottom of the still-buying customers we have the casual shooter. I hesitate to call them consumer, because cameras are no longer a true consumer item (they’re no longer mass market). 

The casual shooter already has an ILC. It’s sitting in a closet somewhere most of the year, and comes out only for special occasions or vacations. Over the years, it’s begun sitting in the closet longer and being used less, mostly because it isn’t convenient. This is the customer that smartphones have won over, but I hear complaints from this user about things their smartphone can’t do. 

That’s the dynamic that’s important to this customer: convenient but competent. Smartphones are convenient but not always competent at some photographic tasks, while DSLRs (and mirrorless) are competent but not always convenient. 

I’ve pontificated at this dilemma at length in the past, and I’ll again note I began doing so back in 2008, but the camera companies for the most part have never figured this out. The key elements are: smaller and lighter, coupled with ease of sharing images. A solid set of six or so appropriate lenses needs to follow the same guidelines: smaller and lighter, more convenient.

Canon got the smaller/lighter part right with the Rebel SL, but messed up most everything else. Because they tried to set the SL into an already crowded field of Rebels, they only confused the audience that might buy it.  As I was writing this article, I decided to do a comparison on the Canon site between some Rebel models to refresh my memory. Look at this absolute marketing mess:

bythom canon compare

Megapixels are N/A on two of the cameras? What? Look at the other entries—this is just the top of an absolutely befuddling chart, by the way—there’s no consistency in what the crop factor is. Apparently there is no crop factor on the SL3 ;~). And did you notice that in the comparison, the SL3 photo looks bigger than the T7i? This isn’t a comparison at all, it’s a “can you guess what we’re hiding” game.

Remember what I wrote: convenience and competence. Convenience is important in purchasing, too. Canon has totally messed this up in recent years with APS-C DSLRs, and it’s no wonder that the sales of those are collapsing more dramatically than the overall market itself. 

Nikon isn’t exactly hitting anything other than foul tips in the casual camera market, either. The D3xxx/D5xxx cameras are bigger than they need be, haven’t really been improved for years, and still miss a lot on the sharing and convenient side, despite SnapBridge being at least usable now.

What do I want? The smallest, lightest possible DSLR that has a solid set of basic features and controls, and shares images simply, conveniently, and with reliability. A truly appropriate lens set would be nice, too.

So who’s not buying cameras? The young, mostly. Whereas it used to be that college, marriage, or first baby tended to trigger a camera buying event, that’s not nearly as true today. I would argue that there’s absolutely no need to target this customer any more, both in product and in marketing. The best choice is to make sure the casual customers you already have are updating to the latest convenient and competent camera you make from time to time, and that should provide enough word-of-mouth to eventually reach new potential camera buyers (indeed, you can manage this through social media if you were making cameras that shared properly (Nikon almost gets this; SnapBridge has two auto-generated generic hashtag options, #Nikon and #SnapBridge, but doesn’t pick up the model number; e.g. #NikonD3500).

If those are the buying customers, how many cameras do you need to make? I’d say no more than six: two casual, two prosumer, two pro. Over time the DSLRs would drop to three, then when DSLRs finally hit their final phase out, one or none. Let me put the way I’d do it if I were running Nikon into a table:

bythom nikon dslrfuture

The opposite would happen in mirrorless:

bythom nikon future mirrorless

Yes, that does tend to get rid of the D500 type camera, but Nikon already seems not so keen on that product, so I’m just reflecting their current predilections here. 

My approach here adds up to 9 Nikon cameras short and medium term, 8 long term. I’d argue that this is the most the market can sustain and for which each could generate useful revenue and ROI. You could, therefore, try to eliminate some of these models and get down to 4 or 5 products. The problem with that is that you begin restricting one of your key groups down to just one option.

I’d argue that there are three groups you’re targeting (casual, prosumer/enthusiast, and pro), and you need options in each category. So at a minimum, we’re talking about 6 cameras. By contrast, Nikon currently has 9 DSRS and 3 mirrorless cameras, or double my minimum. I believe that’s trying to cut too fine a line on too few customers.

The traditional Japanese CES selling tactic was this: introduce a completely new technology with a high-priced single option, then follow up with cut down versions of it that went down deep into consumer pricing. Get the customer in a store door looking for that low-priced item, and up sell them. This is what generated at one point a series of Nikon cameras that went from US$400 to US$2000, in US$100 increments. 

That’s also what drove Nikon from being a “system company” to being a “push consumer boxes company.” I’d argue that Nikon needs to return to selling a few products with a wide and full supporting system, not just trying to sell as many camera boxes as they can.

Nikon product line 1982

That’s Nikon’s “system” in 1982, back when ILC volume was far lower than it is today. You’ll note a number of things that Nikon no longer makes: bellows, ring flashes, extension tubes, and more. Nikon’s “system” today is basically just cameras and lenses. The flashes haven’t really been updated lately, the WR system isn’t usually in stock, recent bodies don’t get grip options, and we’re down to just a couple of remote choices. “Arca Swiss compatibility” is apparently a term Nikon heard of. One thing we do have more of today is free Nikon camera straps (included with the body). 

The question you have to ask about a “system” is this: is there anything that’s photographically possible that you can’t do with the system? In 1982, no there wasn’t really a missing piece from Nikon’s system; they had pretty much every piece available. Here in 2020, yes, there are some things I can’t do with Nikon’s proprietary gear, and finding compatible gear to do it with my Nikon cameras either produces delays (new protocol not reverse engineered yet) or is still MIA (not possible yet). Oh, and remember the current cameras are also video cameras, which introduces a whole bunch of other “system” things Nikon doesn’t make, or makes poor examples of (I’m looking at you, ME-1). 

So, as sort of a final comment, I have this: if you don’t make it, enable it. There’s a lot of things Nikon doesn’t make now, and they do absolutely nothing to enable it from others. The people who are still buying DSLRs (or even mirrorless) want full system capabilities, not limited ones.

Being Consistent

I’ve been reviewing products for almost 50 years now (digital cameras for 25). I’ve written review guidelines for multiple national publications, I’ve helped train many, many reviewers. 

One problem with reviews is remaining consistent in a changing environment. 

Let’s start with something I don’t do: assign numbers (or even report many from the extensive tests I do in the studio with test charts and scenes). Numbers tend to be meaningless, and they tend to be overprecise. 

For instance, one large camera review Web site uses ratings from 0 (I think) to 100%. Looking at most of their recent reviews, most products seem to be getting an overall rating in the 80’s, with a few sneaking into the 90’s and a few dropping into the 70’s. Has a camera gotten a 100%? Could it? Has any camera gotten a 30%? Could it? And what’s this a percentage of?

Statisticians argue about how much differentiation most people can usefully make, because it is important for accuracy in surveys when you’re trying to ascertain how much someone does/doesn’t agree/disagree with something. Many believe you can only discriminate between a maximum of five levels, most of the rest would say that you can discriminate with ratings from 1 to 7. So an 83 out of a 100 is meaningless discrimination. It gets very difficult to be consistent when you rate one thing 83 and another 84. 

Yet review after review, in both magazines and the Internet, seems to try to reduce everything to one large number that implies really good ability to discriminate between very small things.

You’ll note that I have four basic “ratings” in my reviews: (1) no recommendation; (2) recommended (with reservations); (3) recommended; and (4) highly recommended. I’m pretty sure that my highly recommended products are clearly better than my recommended ones, and so on. Within one of those four ratings, you need to pay attention to your needs and biases, not mine. 

I also use star ratings on some of my pages, from 1 to 5. This rating system is a little different than you’d expect: 3 stars means “as you’d expect”, or average. Fewer stars means “less than you’d expect” and more stars means “more than you’d expect. This is based upon price/positioning of the product. It’s tough for a camera like the D6 to get 5 stars in performance, for instance, because you’re expecting high performance. The Canon 1DX Mark III should get more stars than the Nikon D6 because of the Canon’s infinite buffer and faster frame rates, for instance. 

But even with just those four things I conclude a review with and the five star rating system I use, things change with time. A camera that I might say is recommended in 2012 and got 4 stars then may not get my recommendation today (though it might, since cameras have been quite good for some time now). And it might not deserve 4 stars any more due to expectations at that price point and product position having changed. Thus, I’ve added a set of years during which my recommendation applies (e.g. Recommended (2019, 2020)). I’m in the process of going through and updating my recommendations and ratings on both sansmirror and dslrbodies this month. I have to do that every year, basically, as what would be highly recommended today is different than what I highly recommended five years ago (or even last year). 

Meanwhile, you’re staring at an 88% from site X. Oh, did I mention that they then add a gold, silver, or bronze “rating”? And that a product with a lesser number can get a higher metal rating? What the heck is that all about, and how can you be even close to consistent with their system? But more importantly, this constantly confuses the readers of that site and provokes the question “Why did the X only get a Y?” 

Likewise, I try to use a set of specific words in my lens optical descriptions: poor, fair, good, very good, excellent, superb. That last word has changed from time to time—I’ve sometimes used “exceptional”, for example—but it has always meant the same thing: a lens optical trait that is clearly in the top league and probably state-of-the-art. “Poor” means just that: a real problem, and a problem I’d likely recommend everyone avoid. “Fair” and “Good” are not necessarily problems, but you need to be aware that there are issues that are (often) visible. The last three words indicate some level of excellence, something generally above average expectations. “Very good” is at the bottom of that, while “Superb” is at the top. 

With lenses, too, I’ve had to go back from time to time and adjust my wording. The recent RF, Z, and FE lenses I’ve used are breaking through barriers and providing performance in one or more aspects unlike anything we’ve seen before. What I thought was an superb corner performance for a 20mm focal length in the past—and again, that would be way above average expected performance—is no longer true. (Foreshadowing: that Sony 20mm f/1.8G is really, really good.)

One of the reasons why I haven’t reposted some old reviews (e.g. Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G I and II), is that I have to do a lot of adjusting for current standards.

I haven’t done this word fixing or reposting for lens reviews yet, but I intend to do so sometime this summer.

More Odd Things That Were Written

Continuing with my previous perusal of odd quotes found on the Internet...

"Which lens is better, the 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm f/1.8?" [paraphrased, but I've seen this construct used before.]

This is almost always followed up by a pixel level examination, or test charts, or some other stand-in for "sharpness." 

In photographic reality, the best lens is the right focal length for what you're doing, not the sharpest lens you have. What most of these "which is better" constructs ignore is the thing that a lot of novice photographers ignore: perspective. Ignore perspective and you'll get flat, boring photos that all look the same. 

When you're choosing a lens, here's the order in which I'd argue you should be making decisions: 

  1. Perspective — how close/far you are from the subject
  2. Angle of view — how much of the scene from that spot you take in
  3. Depth of field/Focus Plane — what will appear to be in focus
  4. Sharpness — how good is the lens you're using?

Note that sharpness is the last of my parameters I'm considering. As you raise your game on #1, #2, and #3, then yes, you're going to start considering a different lens that is sharper than the one you have. But here's the catch: you're only going to consider lenses of the focal length dictated by #1 and #2! 

I go back to my late mentor Galen Rowell on this one. He was questioned over and over again about his use of basically two lenses, an old 20mm f/4 and originally the 75-150mm f/3.5 but later some variations of the consumer 70-210mm. In both cases one of the pushbacks he'd get was that there are "better lenses than those." 

Actually, there weren't (at the time). #1 and #3 were important to his use of the 20mm. He wasn't typically using it at f/4, and he was using it close in to a near primary subject. For those two attributes, I don't think there was a better lens than the one he was using. 

Moreover, the critical aspect to his lens decisions totally revolved around perspective. One of Galen's talents was that he could put his body literally anywhere (hanging off a cliff, at the top of a peak the rest of us couldn't climb, in a crevasse, etc.). His images looked different than those of others because of where he put his body, which is all about perspective. But you can't carry a 50-pound pack of gear to those spots! He needed light, rugged gear, and that's what he chose in those two lenses.

As he put it to me one time: "you know, at f/8 or f/11 there isn't enough difference in sharpness between those two lenses [one a big expensive pro one, the other a smaller and lighter consumer one] to justify the extra size and weight."

Beware the comparison makers. They may be making comparisons that aren't relevant to you photographically.

“Q: What feedback or requests have you had on the cameras themselves? A: The number of card slots...vertical control grip." [from dpreview/Nikon interview at CES] 

Nope, wrong answer. Oh, I'm sure they had those requests and they were in large number, but the number one request in my surveys that kept coming up when this quote appeared was to "fix 3D tracking." If Nikon hadn't heard that, they wouldn’t have fixed it. But I’m not sure Nikon fully heard the complaint: the Z50 and D780 both have the older 3D tracking system despite the updates to the Z6 an Z7 firmware. The complaint is still being made, just no longer with the Z6 and Z7.

"Let’s say it takes 110 milliseconds for a mirrorless EVF to catch up to the action in real-time. In those 110 milliseconds, a DSLR with its lag-free optical finder can take 2 or 3 images before the EVF has even displayed the action."

While that may be true, that's not exactly how it works when shooting sports. Most action shooters are pressing the shutter release early and holding it down through the action, whether on a DSLR or a mirrorless system. The only way things would work the way this reviewer is intimating (on a 1DX Mark III) is if the shooter was reacting to action, and the full human response time is typically 200ms+ from event to mechanical action ;~). So both the DSLR and mirrorless shooter missed the shot by waiting to see it. 

What does play a role in the mirrorless EVF lag is being able to follow the action properly. If you stick in a viewfinder blackout period or compose the EVF display as a series of stills—the so-called slide show effect—over time while following the action you'll tend to lose composition on your subject. The same is true for any DSLR that has a long blackout time. But in terms of following action, the best camera right now is actually mirrorless, and that would be the Sony A9 in silent shutter mode. Next best would be the D6, I think (still need to spend more time with that new camera).

"We believe that what the market is telling us is that in the near future, all those video features should be available from high-end to enthusiast-level videographers. That’s the demand that we need to meet." [dpreview interview with Panasonic at CES]

This is not an odd statement from Panasonic, as Panasonic is one of the leading video equipment producers, and thus they have a biased look at the world to start with. However, it is an odd statement from the standpoint of a photographer. 

This is all about development focus. If a developer is focusing primarily on bringing higher end video features down into their products, almost by definition they're not spending as much time making them better still cameras. The hidden idea behind Panasonic's statement is this: still photography features are fully developed and don't need a lot more work.

When you think a path has come to an end, you don't keep going. As a hiker I've stumbled upon what look like path ends before. And then found that they weren't, I had just lost the clues and come to the wrong conclusion. 

I think the still photography industry is at a similar "path end" point right now. They've lost the trail and can't figure out where it goes next. Meanwhile, there's a parallel trail—video—that looks pretty good, so they take it instead. 

We need more companies trying to figure out what's next for still photography. 

"[the MB-N10] hasn’t been as popular as vertical grips for the DSLRs, but some customers really appreciate the additional battery capacity." [dpreview interview with Nikon at CES]

Hmm. You make a product with far fewer features and with awkward attributes for the one feature that's left and it turns out to be less popular? Wouldn't that be everyone's expectation in product marketing? So the question is this: why would you ever want to produce a product that is destined to be less popular than previous products?

"There are two kinds [of DX users]: one is the person who wants a second camera. They’re really [interested in] system size. For those people, APS-C makes sense because it makes the cameras smaller." [dpreview interview with Nikon at CES]

It would also make the non-telephoto lenses smaller (buzz buzz ;~). But Nikon really only has one of those smaller lenses for the Z system (16-50mm). Don't they get it? If the thing that is driving some of their customers to DX is size, it's not just body size that's important, it's overall system size. And that includes lenses. Like the wide angle zoom they don't make and isn't on their Z Lens Road Map. Or DX primes up to about 50mm.  

"We only have so many people, and lots to do, and [making an iPad app] hasn't bubbled up as the next best thing to do yet." [Verge interview with Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri]

Let's see, a US$20b/year operation can't find resources to develop for the third most popular platform they're likely to run on (and one that shares much with one of the two more popular platforms)? Sounds fishy to me. 

“…The aging Fujifilm f/1.4 R…” [Fujifilm Rumors]

So now eight year-old lenses are old? In the time that’s passed, Fujifilm cameras gained about 22% in resolution. A lens that was good in 2012 ought to be good in 2020.

This is a comment that implies a “newer is better than older” bias, something we see from the camera companies because they always want to sell you something new, but when words like this are used in passing to describe an existing product, you need to make sure that they are accurate. 

Many Fujifilm lenses were designed “old school”, for sure. By that I mean that the designers concentrated on strong central area results and let the corners go soft and show astigmatism and coma. The 35mm f/1.4 R is one of those. That’s not aging. That’s designed to a particular, older expectation. However, some people seek out the kind of look that type of lens produces, as it better mimics what we were doing in film last century.  

What Are Nikon’s Development Priorities?

Nikon keeps repeating a few things in their management presentations when it comes to cameras: “ML” (mirrorless) and “mid to high-end DSLR” are the two areas that keep being listed as priorities. Other things that keep getting mentioned are “accelerate the ML lens releases” and “fill out the lens lineup.”

Obviously, Nikon users would like to have more of a clue about the future than Nikon has been dropping. Lately, the emails I’ve been getting are all “where is the X” and “will they make a Y”?

Let’s start with the only known in Nikon's future product scenarios: Nikon has a published Road Map of additional Z mirrorless lenses. Currently we have 13 Z lenses (two of which are having birthing issues at the moment) with 10 more having been defined and said to be available before the end of 2021. With Z lenses, therefore, the only real open question is “what happens in 2022 and beyond?” 

Clearly, one thing seems likely: a series, probably only a few, of f/1.2 primes that will be started by a 50mm f/1.2. Beyond that, the obvious gap is in high-end telephoto lenses, particularly the kind that would be necessary for a sports/PJ camera. Personally, I’m fine with using the F-mount lenses on the FTZ adapter for the time being for long telephoto. But, yes, that delayed 70-200mm is worrying me a bit.

Since I'm starting with the Z system first, the much bigger question is “what new mirrorless cameras will we get from Nikon?” 

Here’s my guess: a Z5 (Z50 body with a full frame sensor) and a Z8 (the first truly “pro” mirrorless model from Nikon). You probably want to know why I write that.

First, the Z5 is what I call a no-brainer development cycle. The camera is basically done. It’s really just sliding an already known sensor/digital board (Z6) into an already known camera body (Z50). You’re probably asking why they’d do that. Here’s the answer: the D600/D610 was the best selling full frame body Nikon’s made. It was a best seller, despite the dust/oil issues. 

The reason for the D6xx’s success is somewhat simple: price coupled with what the installed base had previously. Nikon made a ton of DX DSLR sales over the course of almost two decades. When those folks want to move up in a model, they covet full frame because it’s the “in thing,” but they’re price sensitive buyers. Moreover, they want the consumer-friendly controls they’re used to. That was true in 2012 when the D600 came out, and it’s true today. 

You may note that the 24-200mm f/4-6.3 Z lens that Nikon is almost shipping is…wait for it…VR. Now why would that be? Because a Z5 wouldn’t have sensor stabilization and at 200mm there would be a slight improvement even with sensor stabilization on the Z6 and Z7. I suspect another VR lens or two in the next Road Map that would be suitable for a price conscious customer and which would complement a Z5. 

I guess that a Z8 is coming because I keep hearing bits and pieces about a higher end Z camera—but not an A9 competitor—coming out of sources in Tokyo. As I’ve noted many times, the Z6 is positioned below the D780, and the Z7 is positioned below the D850. There isn’t a true “pro” Z camera, and with Canon now headed the pro direction with the R5, Nikon has no choice but to do the same thing. 

Nikon has two other easy Z camera options: A Z30 that’s a Z50 without an EVF, and a Z70, which would be the Z6 body with an APS-C sensor. The former is more likely than the latter. But neither is a sure thing given. The on-going market collapse means that Nikon is likely planning for a future where they’re only making 800k to 1m interchangeable lens cameras a year. How many models can unit sales that size sustain? Not the plethora of products we’ve been getting from camera companies.

Yes, this means that I think the Z6 and Z7 are likely to stay in the lineup. They’re either going to get firmware updates to make them better, or we’ll see a Z6s and Z7s (Nikon’s way of saying Mark II). I suppose it’s possible that a Z8 would be the replacement for a Z7 and the Z7 would stay in the lineup for awhile at a lower price, but that leaves the Z6 in a strange place where it doesn’t have a number it can move to with a similar update. I’m guessing that Nikon’s already signaled that full frame Z mirrorless will be Z5, Z6, Z7, Z8, and eventually Z9. 

Okay, so what about DSLRs, the thing you’re reading this site for?

Curiously, Nikon management keeps talking about DSLR development. I think the plan was to make a D780, D880, and maybe a D7800 or D580. I’m a little worried that the virus killed so many sales that the D780 doesn’t look like a success. That would make Nikon more hesitant to keep iterating DSLRs, I think.

I know that work on a D880 was already happening, and I haven’t heard anything about that stopping. I am thus still expecting a D880, which would basically be the same formula as the D780: (1) meld the Z improvements into DSLR Live View and video; (2) incorporate customization and refinements like we’ve been seeing in the basic feature set on each new model; (3) side-load some of the D6 features/changes; and (4) otherwise use the well-proven DSLR body and feature set.

The timing of the virus, unfortunately, probably has Nikon management second-guessing themselves. I already mentioned that the D780 sales have been weak, but so is the demand for the just-released D6. In both models, I know plenty of folk who didn’t buy them because their expected income stream is gone or questionable, and so they’re in wait-and-see mode for how fast the economy recovers before making any buying decision. 

Because Nikon is cutting back so much on staff, it’s not likely that product management is doing any significant polling of the user base to figure out what the customer is likely to do in the future. I’ll bet that Nikon is flying pretty blind in terms of customer input for camera development at the moment. Still, I’d be surprised if they don’t have a follow-on replacement for the D850 (e.g. D880), and within the next 12 months.

But anything else in DSLR bodies? That seems unlikely at the moment. Personally, I’d argue that Nikon should take the Z50 sensor and make a D580 using it. You'd get a significant bump in Live View and video, and you'd get the chance to bring that camera into EXPEED6 and add current features and systems. I’m sure there’s still a market for a “baby” D6 just as there was for a baby D5 and baby D3. It’s not a huge market, but it’s a real market that is worth keeping active. Even today, there isn’t another camera that really matches the D500 in capability. When you own a niche like that as Nikon does with the D500, you have to protect it. 

Finally, there’s a slim chance that Nikon actually tries to go “hybrid” with a D7 in 2024. There’s been patents filed that suggest that Nikon has tinkered with such designs. It’s a tough technical problem that adds significant costs, though. I’d think that just transitioning the sports/PJ camera to mirrorless would happen faster, easier, and cheaper.

Which brings us to DSLR lenses. It seems clear to me that some of Nikon's upper-level lens designers are still working in the DSLR F-mount space. A lot of the things they work on and produce tend to be what I call “projects of interest.” In other words, they’re not surveying users and trying to figure out what lens the user needs, they’re picking lens design problems they’d like to tackle and getting clearance from product management that it’s something worth doing. 

Thus, it’s difficult to predict what new DSLR lenses we might get other than they’re likely to be “special” and high end. Look at the few recent F-mount lenses we’ve gotten. In backwards order: 120-300mm f/2.8E, 500mm f/5.6E PF, 180-400mm f/4E, 70-300mm AF-P (which was working on stepper motor focus needed for the Z system), the 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5, and the 19mm f/4 PC-E. All “special” in some way and mostly high-end. 

I suspect that we’ll get a trickle of one F-mount lens a year, two at most, and fitting what I just said: a challenging design issue more than a commonly requested lens.

Trying to put all of that into a short term timeline:

2020: Z5, maybe Z30, 3 or 4 new Z lenses, maybe one F-mount lens

2021: Z8, remaining Z lenses on current Road Map, new Z Road Map, D880, maybe one F-mount lens

Longer term, things shift even more towards the Z system. I expect the 2024 sports camera to be a Z9 (or will Nikon bust their naming system and call it a Z1?). For DSLRs to continue, Nikon’s going to need to see actual DSLR sales are continuing in some significant volume. I don’t see that happening with D3xxx or D5xxx models. It’s questionable even at the D7xxx and D500 level. The D780 is going to have to start selling once the virus situation clears up for Nikon to put more resources into the DSLR side, I think. 

Generic versus Specific

So let’s play a little product management game.

Here are the parameters that limit us:

  • No new competitors (vendors) will enter our market.
  • The market itself is a small-but-useful size, but it's not growing.
  • Most of the customers in the market already have product from an existing vendor.
  • All competitors have pretty much the same parts sources.

So why would a customer in this market buy a new product? 

  • They dropped or broke the one they had.
  • The product they have is very old and missing features/performance new models have.
  • They decided that the product they had wasn’t as good as another that’s available.
  • A new product might do something automatically that they were doing manually.

You might notice that all but one of the above statements apply to the car market (size/growth). You could also say that all but one of those statements applied to the personal computer market at one point (no new competitors). So we have some non-camera markets to examine to see what kept those companies in business and how they produced new sales for new products.

But that’s not the direction I’m going to go today. I want us to be thinking more out of the box. I want us to define a camera that doesn’t exist. 

I and others write often about cameras that are designed for sports (and photojournalism). The Canon 1DXm2, Canon 7Dm2, Nikon D5, Nikon D500, and Sony A9/A9m2 are the ones we usually point to in that context. When their predecessors were first developed, there wasn’t really a “sports camera.” Instead we had a general purpose film SLR to which you could add a sports viewfinder and motorized back. 

With sports cameras we write and talk about specific feature attributes: high frame rate, large buffer, easy image transfer, image annotation, robust and weatherproof camera build, low light and autofocus tracking performance, but not necessarily a lot of pixels at the sensor.

Recently I wrote in a comment somewhere that I didn't think that a sports camera was exactly what a wildlife shooter would want. Immediately, one reader sent me an email with a challenge: what would a camera designed for wildlife photographers look like?

Uh, it would be camouflage instead of black? ;~)

Actually, that's a pretty good starting point. How would the body be different? Camo would actually be a good idea. A lot of wildlife shooters currently use silicone covers that are camouflage designs. Thing is, when you're in a blind or a stationary position, you want to blend in. A lot of prey key in on movement, so anything easily seen of a solid color that sticks out and moves—i.e. you just panned—will tend to push them away from you. Those white Canon and Sony telephoto lenses are particularly problematic with this, but we're talking about cameras here. 

Some attributes of a wildlife camera would certainly be shared with those sports cameras: robust and weatherproof camera build, for instance. When I say weatherproof for wildlife, I also mean dust proof. That's actually the bigger issue many of us wildlife shooters face in the wild. I don't have to clean my sensor nearly as much when I'm shooting sports as when I'm shooting wildlife in the wild. Which also means I want better dust protection or in-camera sensor cleaning capabilities in my "wildlife camera.”

See what I’m doing here?

I’m trying to figure out how to get a subset of the customers I already have to buy again because I’ve solved their specific problems. Heck, if I do the work right, maybe I can get some to switch systems to mine. The design is not going to be: slightly better sensor, slightly better performance, or slightly better focus. What we’re shooting for here is to define something entirely new. 

Let’s talk about the focus system for a wildlife camera, for example. Sony has just added animal eye detect, but that doesn’t include birds. It doesn’t work with a lot of animals with different shaped heads. It doesn’t work with porpoises. You get the idea. But that’s the right direction. Indeed, I wouldn’t mind telling the camera I’m shooting birds and have it optimize for that (recognize beak, eyes, wings, etc.). 

I’m also doing one of two things, panning with the animal or letting the animal move through the frame. Either way, I want the focus system to recognize the subject via the motion. In a pan, the background is moving faster than the subject, so that ought to be able to be distinguished (e.g. never focus on the thing that’s moving faster, focus on the thing it looks like I’m panning with). If I’m letting the animal move through the frame, then I want just the opposite: don’t focus on the static stuff, find the subject motion and focus there. (In both cases, we need to talk about how the camera would decided to prioritize on where to focus on the subject, but that’s detail; I’m working on the bigger picture here. We also would need the camera to recognize when I’ve switched tactics, e.g. go from panning to stationary, which requires that the camera have motion detection).

Meanwhile, if the camera is finding the subject already, why not have a form of autocrop capability? How often am I cropping some sky from BIF shots? Answer: a lot. (And before people complain, you can always set the camera up to do the RAW+JPEG type of thing, e.g. FULL+AUTOCROP, with some sort of parameter on how the AUTOCROP is derived.)

Now wouldn’t it be nice if after I took a shot of an animal I could keyword the shot? One of the things I provide students on my workshops is a heirarchical keyword list of all the places/animals that they might be photographing. Load that list into Lightroom, and you can pick and add keywords really fast, but why does that have to wait until I get to Lightroom? Moreover, if I’m shooting with a guide, s/he’s helping me identify animals (and plants and other things) as I’m shooting, and I don’t want to have to remember all that until I can finally get my images into Lightroom.

So why can’t I load my list into my camera and as I review images, do a quick pick and choose (animal, mammal, cat, lion, done)? 

You might be asking “why not just add all this stuff to the camera already designed?” The problem with that is that we’re making a highly complex product even more complex. That’s okay if you add a way to get past the complexity.

For example, there are certain techniques that I use over and over again in wildlife shooting. To keep this simple, I’ll just mention freeze and flow. In freeze I want the camera set to stop all action (e.g. high shutter speed). In flow I’m going to try to pan with the subject and keep them sharp, but want the background to blur (e.g. slow shutter speed). Often times with these techniques there’s more to it than just shutter speed, so why can’t I just set the camera to my technique in one step? Heck, why can’t I just keep all those technique sets on my smartphone and blast them over the camera using SnapBridge? 

I don’t want to bog down too much and fully define a “wildlife camera” here, I’m just trying to play that little product management game I suggested at the beginning. So the question at this point is: if I defined a really good wildlife camera, would it provoke sales from my existing customers? I believe the answer to that question is yes.

Again, there’s another approach here, which is to give a more generic camera multiple “personalities”: sports, wildlife, BIF, portraits, street, landscape, etc. But that tends to minimize sales, believe it or not. As a seller of products, I really want you to buy multiples (e.g. both a landscape and a sports camera, which is kind of the D850/D6 dichotomy), not a single camera that does everything.. 

So what provoked me into playing this little game?

Well, I’ve been thinking about this product management problem for a long time now. Last week Sony took some sort of step in the direction that I’m suggesting when they took the bones of an RX-100 and came up with a vlogger’s camera in the ZV-1. So someone in Tokyo at least is playing the same game I’ve been thinking about. 

The problem, of course, is that you need to “go all the way” if you’re going to play this game. Sony did a lot of the easy work, but stopped at doing all the work. Perhaps they have a ZV-10 coming that’ll deal with all the elements that they didn’t get right in the first model, but I sort of doubt that. 

Upper management gets very nervous when you do this kind of outside-our-usual-box product management. The annals of Big Business are filled with missed opportunites because the upper management just couldn’t be convinced to make moves outside of what they’ve been doing (Kodak, anyone? Remember the Xerox Alto?). 

Here’s your homework: considering the eight bulleted items up at the top of this article, in your new job as the head of Company X’s camera group what newproduct do you define? What’s your (compelling) argument for making it? How are you going to convince upper management to let you continue?

Citius, Altius, Fortious Claims

So many claims about “more noisy” or “less noisy” or “better focus” or “worse focus” or just “better” versus “worse” emanate from naive or incorrect evaluative positions. Yet these statements are hawked constantly and everywhere on the Internet as the final word by the advocate of any said position. 

Camera X is Citius, Altius, Fortious! Faster, higher, stronger!  

Or is it?

Let me throw some sanity into this world of boastful claims:

  • When I examine most “camera is too noisy” claims in detail I often find one of two things: (1) the image was underexposed; or (2) the noise is mostly the randomness of photons. Technically #1 means that both problems are present. Put simply, in any short exposure you make in very low light, the randomness of photons will likely become the gating factor for noise, not the sensor. At least these days. In Ye Olden Dayes of Sensoring we had electronics with high read noise and high fixed position noise. So sure, what the camera was doing was a huge factor in low light back in 2004. Today, however, not so much.
  • When I closely examine most “poor focus” claims I tend to find that the person doing the focusing was either: (a) controlling focus points manually and not keeping up to the action, or (b) letting the camera do it “automagically.” In the former case, yes, the tools built into the camera may or may not help you do a better job, though it’s amazing to me how many Nikon DSLR shooters don’t actually move the focus sensor or look at the focus indicator at the bottom left of the viewfinder. In the latter case, more often than not I find that the person making the claim doesn’t know how to optimally use the autofocus system, let alone make changes to the controls pursuant to the situation at hand. Worse still, some of the AF Area modes are sensitive to not keeping the subject steady in the viewfinder, so camera/lens handling techniques make it so the camera can’t do its job. The initial—and still current in some circles—claims that the Nikon Z’s aren’t fast at focus and can’t follow action is simply not true. What’s true is that the person making that claim hasn’t figured out how to use the focus system. Or perhaps they’re expecting the Sony “I guess close to right most of the time” automagic, which is better than what they’re used to, because they weren’t learning and controlling their previous autofocus system.
  • When I examine most “another camera has better color” claims by actually looking at what they claim is wrong, I tend to find that the person making the claim is shooting JPEG and accepting the camera’s defaults and automatic adjustments. Or worse still, only looking at camera reviews done hastily using the camera defaults ;~). Even when they are shooting raw, they’re using raw converters where the converter isn't “perfect” at understanding that camera’s color nuances at its default settings, and they’re not following color references through their complete workflow chain. In particular, Adobe converters with Nikon NEF files tend to need manual help rather than just accepting Adobe’s choices. Sony cameras need a slightly different set of help in the Adobe converters.
  • When I examine the “I need more resolution” claims I often discover that the claimer doesn’t actually know what “resolution” is, but is making some sort of vaguer assessment of how sharp the edges are or how contrasty the result looks to them. Again, defaults often fall into play here, as Nikon DSLRs are notorious for using extremely low levels of sharpening in defaults, which leaves edge acuity a bit on the soft side. And then there’s this: are you printing larger than 20” on the long axis? If not, you probably don’t need more than 24mp. (The comeback is usually “but I need some cropping ability”. My comeback to the comeback is that if you’re cropping more than 10% of your image all the time, you’re simply using the wrong lens. Indeed, I’d argue that you should be trying to get your framing within 5% of final whenever you can.)

This is not to say that every Citius/Altius/Fortius claim made on the Internet is wrong. Rather, I think you have to take into account the claimer and what they’ve done to optimally capture and optimally render their images before you accept such claims. Years ago I remember one fellow telling me that Kodak film was “less sharp” than Fujifilm film. Turns out he was comparing his drugstore’s prints from Kodak negative film to Fujifilm slide film projected. Oops. 

So perhaps it’s time for me to split out each of these things and dedicate an article to “what’s optimal” for each thing we’re looking at. I’ll get cracking on that. 

Bonus: here’s the kicker, I wrote the first draft of this short article back in 2016. That got set aside as I had other things I thought more important to write about before I got round to doing a final edit on it here in 2020. Moreover, I’ve touched on this subject often, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to publish this as a short subject. Still, back in 2016 I wrote the same exact things that I present here. All I’ve done four years later is edit the article, and add a couple of comments.

We’re always going to have camera makers saying their cameras are “better.” And maybe they are in some way. But we’ve had extremely competent cameras for a decade now. What you should be chasing is better photography, not better cameras. I know quite a few pros still using D3’s, D4’s, D300’s, D700’s and D800’s, all doing great work their clients like. 

Here’s something you should ask yourself: which year did you stop saying “you know those photos in the magazines I subscribe to look like hell?” Right, you didn’t, because you never said that. As I’ve noted before, Sports Illustrated readers didn’t even notice the transition from film to digital, let alone from 2.5mp to 20mp. 

Don’t get me wrong: I always will take more. But the question is whether you actually need and can take advantage of more.

I haven’t done this for awhile, so sing along with me:

Don't be angry, don't be sad/
Don't sit crying talking 'bout the good pics you could have/
Well, there's a camera sitting right next to you/
And she's just waiting for something to do/

You’ve got to love the one you’re with...

The View Looking Forward

Robin Wong, a photographer and writer I respect, recently published his views on how the COVID-19 virus is going to affect the photography industry. For the most part, I agree with everything he wrote. But there is some nuance missing that I'd like to fill in.

Let's start with the part about professional photographers. Indeed, they are probably the hardest hit by the virus. Pretty much everything is shut down in the wedding, portrait, event, and sports categories. No one in editorial is buying much at the moment, as publications are also hit severely by the economic downturn caused by the virus. 

No one knows when that will change, though it most certainly will. Maybe some sports come back this fall in a way that gets that group back on the sidelines with paying gigs. Maybe some portrait and small event work comes back in late summer and fall. But it's tough to predict exactly when and how much any of the pro paying opportunities will return. It's completely possible that jobs won't return in the volume that supported however many pros were working previously. 

If you are a pro photographer relying upon what you shoot for income, you've been hit hard, and you don't know when the pain will end.

Old-timers realize that we've gone through (more limited) versions of this before, though. The changeover from film to digital and the rise of the Internet Disruption Engine basically killed stock photo income sometime around the turn of the century. I know photographers who had incomes well into the six figures from stock in the 90's who saw it drop to the low five figures in a very short time around or soon after the turn of the century, and that income never returned back to a higher level. 

Some of those affected by the collapse of stock left the active scene and are near invisible now. Others pivoted. The primary pivot was towards teaching workshops and doing seminars, which, ironically, increased the amateur contribution towards stock photography and locked in the change.

Video is pressing another aspect of pro work, too. You see this particularly in the advertising and large client world: requests for bids are no longer just for stills; almost every RFQ I've seen requires both still and video components to be created. Those photographers who stuck to the notion they were still photographers found that work declined rapidly after the turn of the century, and that trend accelerated this past decade. To survive, you needed to pivot. 

All of us would love for the world to stay the same and predictable. But that's not the way it works. Every day brings new challenges. New challenges bring new opportunities. 

To the pros out there reading this, I have three suggestions: (1) downtime like this is when you spend time and effort to improve your portfolio, your presentations, your facilities and offerings, plus work on personal projects that extend your work into new areas; (2) take some risk by identifying and getting ready to take on new opportunities (e.g. pivots); (3) make sure you're in constant communication with past clients and that they know you're ready to help them again when the economy opens back up; and (4) use the extra time to identify potential new clients and make sure they know you exist. 

I also hesitate to sound too much like Suze Orman, but if you didn't build a savings account big enough to get you through a few months of hard times, make sure you start doing that as business returns. That's because COVID-19 won't be the last challenge facing your pro photography business.  

Next, let's discuss what happens to the "related business" industry. That includes trade shows, large group events, festivals, and things like Sony Kando. 

This one is easy: most people will try to associate the decline of these things with things like the rise of the Internet and the ban on large groups due to the virus. Not really. "Shows and Gatherings" are on the decline because the popularity of the category is in steep decline. The camera business is becoming more incestuous, with most of the sales volume going to people who already have cameras. As that group declines and buys less frequently, the urge to gather large groups to create flash points for new sales goes away. There are better ways to reach the already converted.

To that end, Sony Kando is more the future than is Photokina. Why Canon and Nikon haven't already jumped on the Kando approach, I have no idea. Likewise, while not the massively twice-a-year huge conventions they used to be, things like Photoshop World will likely return to health, too. 

The thing to look for here is this: is this mostly a gathering of "already converted" folk that love to reinforce their self-worth together, or is this the old lame gathering of a bunch of sales folk trying to sell to whoever shows up? The former will survive, the latter likely will not. 

Humans are highly social animals that prefer to aggregate into and meet as groups. So while some "gathering" type interactions may go online temporarily due to the virus, I'm certain the right ones will return to physical gatherings when they can do so safely.

Next, let's talk about the camera makers. Because the market was already shrinking, the camera makers have been dealing with decreasing demand for some time (peak was 2011/2012). The virus just accelerated an ongoing contraction. I wrote previously I thought we'd get down to only 4m ILC units a year, and I now would double down on that and suggest it might happen faster than I thought. 

At 4m units a year, there's really only room for two or three makers to be in the business for real profit with some reasonable level of volume. At the moment, that would be Canon, Sony, and Nikon, in that order. The rest of the camera makers would be more like hobby businesses. Of course, in the case of Olympus and Pentax, they're already clearly there. Even Fujifilm and Panasonic sort of fall under that categorization, as the size of their camera groups are minuscule compared to the overall company and likely pulling down overall corporate ROI somewhat.  

Hobby businesses don't tend to go away as long as the overall fundamentals of the parent company are okay. A hobby business may get very lean, though, making fewer products and not making large marketing splashes.

Pentax is a good example of the future of hobby business in cameras: no full line, concentrate on your best captive user base(s), slower development and release cycles. But not going away

But here's another prediction: the camera makers will try to force sales to return to previous levels towards the end of 2020 if the virus situation lets us return to anything close to normal. There are so many real and implied commitments in their manufacturing chains that they're going to want to push iron just as soon as they think they can. I suspect they'll give up product margin to do so, because the demand just isn't there for a sales push. 

What I hear out of Japan is this: the camera makers are hoping to unload much of their slowly building inventory sometime this summer, and believe they can have a reasonable and successful holiday season. That's optimistic, for sure, but when you want something to happen, you have a better chance of making it happen. Still, I expect camera sales in the second half of the year to be somewhat under what the original CIPA forecast was for the year. 

No, it's not the camera makers that will go away with lower sales. It will be some (many?) camera dealers that disappear. I'm aware of about a half dozen camera stores here in the US that "closed temporarily due to not being an essential business" who are not planning to re-open. There are probably more, particularly in the smaller markets. 

That's a problem for the camera sales push that the manufacturers will want to do in summer and the holidays, though. First, the camera makers won't have as many outlets to shove inventory into. Indeed, the camera markers are going to find inventory coming back their way, I think. Which speaks to lots of refurbished units becoming available, too. Second, the camera makers may have to be more lenient in load terms to get dealers attention. Third, and most importantly, the camera makers are going to need to get bodies in the dealers door, a type of marketing that they've mostly abandoned (other than simple instant rebate price changes).   

We've seen this dealer contraction play out in every recession this century. This time, it will be worse. 

However, here's the thing: as I've indicated before, nothing's really changed that should lower your love of photography. You're reading articles on this site because you're one of the committed. You're hoping the photography industry survives (it will). You want new gear (it will appear, soon enough). You want to gather together again, whether it be for a lecture, workshop, a club, or a big show (you will be able to). 

So don't despair. We're just a smaller group than we were before.

Bonus: One place where I somewhat disagree some with Robin is "Any product launches that were planned for any time now or near future will most likely be postponed until further notice."  Canon and Nikon, in particular, are in the middle of a transition (DSLR to mirrorless). Postponing a lot of product now would be a big mistake on their part. There's still buying going on, though not on the level of before, and the most critical of that buying is happening in full frame mirrorless, right where Canon and Nikon need to transition their serious user base. Sony has the advantage of being first mover, with a full product line, lower-priced last generation product still available, and a healthy lens set. Canon and Nikon have to act faster than the rest of the industry, I'd argue, and even if that means announcing into the virus slowdown.

My guess, however, is that Canon and Nikon will try to micromanage their R and Z releases. In other words, they want to try to time the "new stuff" for right when buying returns. Good luck with that. I'd argue that it's better to just get that product out and make sure it's available the moment you and others return to buying gear again. That day may be a little sooner for some of you, a little later for others. Trying to micromanage that is an exercise in futility, in my opinion. 

Further, I'd note that quite a few very successful products launched in recessions. The original Apple iPod, for example launched right in the middle of the Internet 2.0 recession, the iPhone launched at the front edge of the Great Recession. There's an advantage to being bold and launching good, new product in down times: your competitors are quieter and less bold. It's easier to grab the headlines, and headlines are remembered. 

More Your Questions Answered

"What do you think about the sky replacement feature that everyone seems to be running around touting now?"

I'm not a big fan of it, mostly because people are using it completely wrong. Basically, what you're doing when you replace sky is something called compositing. In Hollywood, where compositing mostly originated, there's great care taken about two things in the scenes being melded: perspective and lighting. 

Topaz has been running an ad recently that features a sky replacement at Arches National Park, for instance. The results look completely artificial. That's because the light is hitting the rock from one direction and the clouds from another. Moreover, the lens used to take the two photos was different, so the clouds don't appear to be the proper distance from the arches. 

If you're going to use sky replacement to "take photos" that didn't exist in real life, you'd best be collecting cloud shots that allow you to match lens perspective and lighting cues. Otherwise, your images will call out "fake" to anyone that lets their brain actually work at deciphering the image.

Landscape photographers—for whom sky replacement has the most appeal—have long been messing with reality. I've seen famous photographers whose name you'd recognize pull up a blooming plant from where it was and place it in a different spot in their image. In a National Park, no less (and yes, I reported this to the park service). Cloning out RVs and beer cans and a host of other "defects" is well established now. The list goes on.

It used to be that those of us in the editorial process at a number of key magazines—National Geographic being the leader—policed manipulations of all kind. At least until NatGeo moved a pyramid on their cover ;~). We had a policy at Backpacker while I was running it to label any manipulated image as "Photo rendering" or "Photo composite," and we wouldn't use such an image unless it was necessary for a point. 

The Internet (and two recessions) has broken that. I don't know of anyone in the media that's doing a good job of labeling photos "photos" and manipulations "manipulations" any more. A few still give lip service to that, but I keep finding exceptions they don't label correctly. 

I'm not "anti-art." I believe that a great photograph can go beyond just rendering the scene in front of someone perfectly. But I'm not a fan of "bad art." So, if you're going to do sky replacement, learn the basics of compositing and do it right.

"When companies say '5 stops CIPA' for an image stabilization method, what does that mean?"

Excellent question. If you want to know the full details of how such testing is done, you can read the CIPA stabilization standard

Measurements are made on a standard test device at 20x the focal length (full frame equivalent). For a 50mm lens, that's 1000mm, or only 40 inches! For a long telephoto like a 500mm, that would be 10,000mm, or 33 feet. 

What the standard actually measures is white/black boundaries on a standardized test chart (though, curiously, not at the angle that most MTF measurements are done; that's because they're not looking at contrast, they're trying to ascertain specific movement [change of angle]). Moreover, the white and black levels are "normalized" in processing to 0 and 100%, which may not be the way you represent tonality in your image. No aperture is specified (surprisingly), but the shutter speed is supposed to be "around" 1/focal_length ("around" is not the kind of specification you'd like to see in standards testing).

The baseline measurement (no vibration/camera movement via the special shaking platform used) is done taking at least ten images, and then the vibration testing takes ten images twenty times. This is then repeated by taking shots at reduced shutter speeds. (From a technical standpoint, your baseline and vibration results should probably use mean values for the same number of shots done the same way, but that's not true of the CIPA standard.)

From there, things get into some complex math derived from white/black transition data. But the critical element being looked at is the deviation from the "average vibration angle" without stabilization. In other words, at 1/focal_length the white/black transition had some measured value, while with the stabilization turned on it had some other measured value. The "stops CIPA" value is created by using the shutter speed difference between two "equal" shots.

So, if 1/125 had X amount of vibration without stabilization and 1/60 has the same X value with stabilization, the stabilization would be said to have 1 stop CIPA improvement. Values are rounded to half stops, so that means that two cameras saying they have 4 stop IS capability could actually vary by almost one stop! 

Note further that the actual vibration used by the CIPA test devices only produces movement on two axes (yaw and pitch). The waveform (vibration) is slightly altered for light cameras (<400g) compared to heavier cameras (>600g) due to mass differences (for devices at 400-600g both vibrations are used). 

All this is a long-winded way of saying "CIPA testing is no more accurate in the field as is the EPA mileage estimate for your car." 

"I'm a Nikon DX DSLR user and want to go both full-frame and mirrorless. Should I get a Nikon Z or a Sony A?"

I might surprise a few of you with this answer. 

The answer: it depends upon what kind of shooter you are. If you're an all-automatic-just-use-the-defaults type of user (and can get past Sony's menus for what you do want to change), then I'd tend to say the Sony (current A7 or maybe A7R). The reason for that suggestion is simple: Sony does a slightly better job handling focus when set to all-automatic shooting, though I'd advise you to tune your JPEG settings a bit. 

Too many people want a camera that "mostly does the right thing." It's that mostly that gets the sophisticated shooter into trouble, but doesn't prove calamitous to the truly casual or beginner photographer. Simply put, the Sonys seem a bit more likely to figure out the right subject when you set them to "let the camera do all the control" autofocus. But they also sometimes don't always nail the focus precisely if the subject is moving fast in those all automatic modes. 

If you're a more sophisticated shooter and/or like being more in direct control of things, the Nikon Z's are a better choice, in my opinion. Not only is the Z UI much like the Nikon DSLR you're used to, but the Z's also have a well thought out approach to simplifying and organizing that UI. As I've noted, in terms of command-and-control neither the Z6 or Z7 is exactly at the level of the D850, or even the D780. But what Nikon did implement in the Z's is understandable and simple to use in practice. 

But the changes to the autofocus system on the Z's are just enough that you will need to relearn things in order to maximize their capability, even with the new firmware updates. I still get "but it doesn't focus as well" complaints that turn out to be a misunderstanding of something that Nikon changed in the Z cameras from the DSLRs. As I've noted many times, I have no problems shooting sports or wildlife (even BIF) with the Z's, but it took me a bit to figure out what changed and how I had to adjust what I was doing. 

I could, of course, point out a ton of things that one brand does better than the other. For instance, Sony simply hasn't mastered compression in raw files; a Sony raw file with no embedded artifacts can be 2x the size of a Nikon raw file, for instance. On the flip side, Sony allows configurable buttons to be pretty much set to any menu item, while Nikon is much more restrictive (though thoughtful about that for the most part). That list of differences would go on forever, but it wouldn't help you make a choice between brands. 

Indeed, there's a type of marketing and sales presentation that depends upon you being confused by all the small differences. You can almost always tell who's using that by how many people seek out "expert opinion" to "inform" their decision. Happens with cars, electronics equipment, even insurance policies. 

So choose your poison well. A Nikon Z is a more natural upgrade path for a Nikon DSLR user that isn't just going to shoot on defaults all the time. A Sony A may seem better out of the box and on defaults, but can be a real head-scratcher once you have to dip into the menu system.

The COVID-19 Q&A

I've been getting a few camera gear questions that relate directly to COVID-19 in some way. I'll treat these like I do other email questions I get where I believe a group answer would be useful. So here goes:

"How do I sanitize my camera? I put it up against my face, after all."

No one knows for sure what the survivability of the virus is on various surfaces, so if you're concerned about your camera being up against your face and possibly transferring the virus (or bacteria, or fungi, or whatever), the general practice most of us use is pre-wet Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) wipes.

This is where it gets a little tricky. Alcohol is most effective at killing a coronavirus with some water content. That's why everyone recommends Purell-type sanitizers for your hands, which are 60-75% alcohol. A little bit of water (or gel) content breaks down the outer surface of the virus, the alcohol does the rest. You can get 60%+ IPA wipes, but they'll have water moisture in them, and you definitely don't want any of H2O getting into the camera where it might touch the electronics, so be much more careful when using them. 

Personally, I use Klex Technical Cleaning Wipes, which are 99% IPA. Not as effective at disabling the virus, but also not likely to cause water damage to anything. 

No matter which wipe you use, you don't immediately dry the camera off. Let the wetting dry on its own. If that leaves streaks, use another wet cloth and dry immediately. Obviously, don't over wet things if you're using a diluted IPA that has water.

I suppose you could also use a UV-C sterilizer light, but these are pricey, aren't usually standards tested or rated, and UV-C isn't something you want to be fooling around with, as improper exposure can have the same effect on your skin as it does to viruses (e.g. penetrates the cell walls and damages the thymine molecules in the DNA). 

Finally, remember that one way that the virus might be transferred to your camera (and eventually to your face) is your hands. Wash your hands frequently, preferably using soap and water for 20 seconds+. 

"What about packages I receive? Particularly stuff coming over from Asia."

Again, we don't know the exact surface survivability rates of COVID-19. There does not seem to be any anecdotal evidence that the virus is spreading via packaging. That said, you'll note that all the package delivery services have their employees using gloves now. If you want to feel safer, wear your own gloves before handling the package, open and dispose of the outer packaging quickly (it's more likely to have been handled by multiple people on its way to you). If the item you received is washable, consider washing it (or consider the IPA wet wipe method noted above). Generally, most camera gear is cleaned at the factory before boxing, so I'm not worried if I skip the last step. When done with unpacking and have disposed of your gloves properly, wash your hands thoroughly.

"Why did the government shut down the National Parks and other lands? I wouldn't be anywhere near another person while taking landscape photos."

The important words here are "an abundance of caution." And it's not caution about you catching COVID-19 while out in the middle of a field photographing. Instead it is caution concerning two things: (1) availability of local health resources; and (2) the "pollination" effect of people moving around between areas. 

No matter how hard you try, you're going to be interacting with people on your way out to the woods and back. Gas stations, drive-throughs, bathrooms, officials at gates, etc. The whole notion of self-isolate is simple: stop the movement and interaction between as many random sets of humans as possible. The more you control that, the faster the virus dies out. If we all truly self-isolate to the max, the R-naught is driven down well below an R-effective of 1, and as close to 0 as possible. 

Thus, the government doesn't want you to be a bee that can cross pollinate. Moreover, if you think you're healthy but actually are carrying the virus, you're pollinating into those remote communities that simply don't have the level of healthcare they'd need to deal with a severe crisis like this were it to spread there. Seriously.  

I understand that some people want someone, something to be mad at. I'd say this: you should turn your anger at your government for not having following established pandemic plans and having resources in place when they knew this was coming. Most governments ignored the early warning signs and didn't follow their long-established procedures. It's almost like your Fire Station didn't train for and then follow procedures at a fire, and, oh, by the way, they also didn't have enough hoses for a big fire. You'd vote out the folk that caused such a problematic fire response, and you should vote out the folk that are badly fumbling the COVID-19 response in our governments. 

Moreover, you should now be realizing that this global pandemic virus shows us just how unready we would be for actual climate change. Climate change will likely also be a full-blown global crisis at some point if we don't start acting more responsibly. Elect officials that know how to prepare and plan, and have shown they know how to execute plans.

"At least this virus will stop all the cross-border wildlife trafficking."

Nope. Not even close. While I believe the so-called wet markets in China need to be completely shut down—and not just for food, but more importantly for all the faux medical uses—doing so will just drive the market underground. Prices would go up, and because of that, the potential payout to poachers would go up, too. 

Unfortunately, this is already happening. With the tourism trade completely shut down in Botswana, for example—I'd be there teaching a workshop right now if it weren't for the virus shutdown—the poachers have gotten more aggressive. That's because the tourists aren't there to see them. Poaching was already happening more extensively in Botswana in 2019, mostly along the Northern border. According to local sources, the poachers are even more active at the moment. The BDF (Botswana Defense Force, which does the primary poaching patrols) engaged in a gunfire exchange with poachers within Chobe National Park. Meanwhile in the Okavango Delta, a black rhino apparently was killed by poachers. This was after an earlier incident where both a BDF officer and a poacher died in a shootout at a rhino poaching on Chiefs Island, one of the more famous tourist locations in Botswana. 

To stop wildlife trafficking of any sort, we need stronger regulation and enforcement, and we'll need to chase the practitioners down into the black markets when the easier to see commercial markets are shut down. If anything, getting the remaining trafficking shut down will take more effort, not less.

Nikon 2020 News

In these folders you’ll find the several hundred news and commentary articles about Nikon and DSLR cameras that appeared on this site in 2020:

text and images © 2020 Thom Hogan
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