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Followup on Nikon's Financials

It's always fascinating to watch discussions of hot topics. Last week's hot topic was Nikon's surprise financial presentation projecting a loss for the imaging group for the year. Before I get back to what Nikon said, let's first clear up a couple of the discussion points that keep coming up.

  • "Smartphone connections (sharing of images) won't save cameras." Those of you with long memories will recall that I pointed out that cameras needed do this as early as 2007, and became rather persistent about the requirement starting in 2009. Now perhaps I'm wrong—though I don't think I am wrong on cameras needing modern connectivity—but if making cameras live fully in the 21st century instead of the mid-20th century fails to make a change in the buying pattern of potential customers, then the dedicated camera market is pretty much going to die. At least I have ideas. Do those that are posting flat out dismissals of someone else's ideas have any or their own ideas and any support for them?

    Right now, that pro/hobbyist [sic] user that Nikon seeks out over the non-pro/hobbyist [sic] user—geez, Nikon can't even get their market descriptors right—is yes, stable in size, but is also growing older and older in average age. My thesis has been that you won't attract someone who grew up with the notion that cameras share images by making cameras that don't. On top of carrying another gadget, you now add shooting and workflow complexity that is, to be frank, now getting to be ridiculous given what the right 21st century tech allows.

    I might also point out that "stable in size" as new geographic markets were added and population increased is not a positive statement in and of itself. A stable buying population of 3m as suggested by Nikon's odd, not-even-MBA-wannabee-quality charts implies would mean that cameras get less relevant over time. Either that or we're going to have a population die-off we weren't expecting ;~(.

    For the camera business to have any traction moving forward it has to find elements and areas of product improvement that will trigger some sort of growth, or at least attract users new to the market. The industry must find and capture more younger users. I've posited connectivity as one attribute that might develop that, but it's not the only one. The common theme among all the things I can think of to attract new users as opposed to catering to the same, aging subset is this: 21st century tech applied correctly. 

  • "Thom wants a job at Nikon." Nope. And I'd turn one down if offered. These days I write, photograph, and teach. That's more than enough for my quasi-retirement. That doesn't mean I don't have an informed opinion about what's happening in an industry I've followed for decades.

    I simply want my favorite photographic tool company—one I grew up with starting 50 years ago—to gets its head out of a posterior position and do the right things. If you've been paying attention, I don't give Canon, Fujifilm, Olympus, or Sony any slack on this, either. Indeed, as consumers, I don't think we should ever give corporations slack on making sure that their products solve real user problems, live in the current world we do, and do so well. 

    So one comeback I hear about the things I'd like to see changed/fixed/added is that Nikon might not be able to show a profit if they invested in what I—and I believe many others—want of them. Well, if you can't make a profit doing what customers want and need you to do, then you shouldn't be in that business, simple as that. The way companies die is that they get disconnected from their customers. The companies start looking at cost cutting instead of product suitability to "grow the profit" in flat and down-turning markets. That turns off customers, and it begins a downward spiral that some companies never escape.

    Everything I've pointed out where cameras have issues tends to be an area where the camera company did something that was convenient or cost-effective for them, but overlooked something that a customer trying to use their product might have issues with. I don't sugarcoat my writing. If I think something wrong, I write that I think it's wrong. 

  • "Nikon said mirrorless isn't doing well." That's not exactly what Nikon said. They said their sales plan for mirrorless turned out to be over-estimated and the shift towards mirrorless didn't generate significantly more full frame sales as they expected. Meanwhile, of course DSLR sales are down, as everyone has long expected. (Okay, they're down more than most expected, but no one predicted they'd stabilize or go up.) [I also suspect that some of Nikon's phrasing was a culturally-approved form of public spanking. The over-estimators are probably looking at offices with a window soon. That's not a good thing in Japan.]

    I'd argue that many of the issues Nikon points out as problems all boil down to poor product line management on Nikon's part, coupled with letting the marketing message get away from them. On the DSLR side, for instance, only the D6 appears to be on schedule (let's hope its specifications push that product forward again). A D5s or D5x never showed up, the D850 didn't iterate on the usual two-year window they'd established for D8xx, the D750 is over four years old, the D610 even older. In the DX realm, in addition to never filling up the DX lens lineup (buzz, buzz), the D3500, D5600, and D500 are beyond their past-due iteration dates, and the D7500 update is due now. 

    What that says to me is that Nikon took their eye off the DSLR ball and started down a "no or mild" update path for DSLRs, and that customers saw through that. Of course they won't buy outdated cameras or mildly updated ones at full list price. The D7500, if you recall, even had several things taken out of it from the D7200, while dropping in pixel count. Hmm, that doesn't look like an update, does it? (Which is one reason why I say the marketing message got away from them.)

    Meanwhile, to protect the DSLRs, Nikon has made all the Z's land under the higher end DSLRs they slot against (what happened to that pro/hobbyist they want to retain?). The Z7 is missing things the D850 has, the Z50 is missing things the D7500 has. Well, that's not going to get anyone accelerating into mirrorless now, is it? And that's not exactly catering to the "pro" part of pro/hobbyist. 

    The question is whether Nikon actually sees that contradiction between their own actions and presentations. They claim to want the higher end, more stable customer—what I would call pro and serious enthusiast—and then they shoot slightly lower and don't hit projections. Duh. Or they don't update a camera or phone in the update. Again, you're not going to hit projections with that kind of tactic.

Meanwhile, everyone seems to have missed a key element in Nikon's presentation: a 5b yen write down in a 10b yen loss, all on 25b yen lower revenue. Moreover, another 5b yen write down in the next fiscal year.

The actual numbers you need to see are that sales will go down a total of 25b yen this fiscal year, while 
operating profit will drop only 17b yen (the write-down adds another 5b yen to that, though). That sounds good at first, as it seems to indicate that Nikon must be saving money somewhere. But it's more problematic than that: the way to look at things is: a 25b yen drop in sales (approximately 10% drop in dollars taken in) takes Nikon from a profitable position in operations to a loss. As I noted many months ago, there are only so many costs Nikon can cut. They've cut a lot in the past couple of years trying to scramble to stay ahead of this problem. It wasn't enough. 

And that brings me back to where I started: Nikon needs growth in some of their products now. What do I mean by that? Well, if DSLR sales continue to slide and mirrorless isn't replacing that revenue 1:1 or better, the sales will continue to go down, and the loss will widen (again, there's not much more room for outright cost-cutting without starting to cut off needed limbs, and we already need 5b yen in additional cost cutting to get back to breakeven before sales drop any more).

What is the model(s) that's going to grow billions of yen in revenue and get Nikon out of the hole? Olympus never found it. Pentax never found it. It's quite possible that as time goes on and the entire camera business continues to not find a 21st century product that resonates that no one will find it, and we'll just slowly watch each camera maker's head drop below the surface of the water, one by one. 

While that all sounds pessimistic, I'm actually not pessimistic overall. I believe that there is a course of action (e.g. products) that can stabilize camera sales (and grow one company's camera sales if competitors don't respond). Simply put, dedicated digital cameras don't live in the 21st century yet. Yes, it will take more R&D, more cooperation, and better understanding of the technologies that will emerge on the near horizon to fix this. But I believe it to be a possible task rather than an impossible one as some suggest. 

More pixels, more dynamic range, faster frame rates, more dots in the EVF are not the things that fix the fundamental issues with cameras. Ergonomics and workflow are putting off potential new users. Complexity is putting off casual users. Size/Weight is putting of aging users. Meanwhile, the phone makers are concentrating on their cameras, as they, too, are seeing contraction in overall market size as most people now have a more than capable mobile phone. So the bottom of the camera market keeps getting nibbled away while the top of the camera market is iterating so narrowly that it only caters to a small, committed few who'll put up with the workflow, complexity, and size issues.

This is the "squeeze" I predicted back in 2009. Had I been running a camera company back then, my Job One would have been figuring out how to find the right middle in that squeeze that protected me from the contraction. Not a single camera company has managed to do that. 

So, will a camera company figure things out in this new decade starting with 2019? So far, the answer seems to be no. But that doesn't mean it can't be done. So call me an optimistic pessimist (e.g. it can happen, but it isn't).

I won't reveal details, but all of the businesses I talk to in all aspects of the camera business are busy beavers at the moment. They're all planning lots of sales, specials, bundles, whatever, to try to bolster their holiday sales numbers (as I was typing this, I received an email from Nikon about a one-day 11% discount on refurbished items). So, market contraction has now led to price erosion. The thing I don't hear anyone talking about is what happens in January ;~). Everyone's bailing out water, but no one's fixing the boat. 

Nikon's Financial Issues Persist

Long ago I pointed out that there was a fan "over there" and that mildly iterating the same old thing and not paying attention to your key customers was the equivalent of fecal matter. You probably shouldn't throw the one at the other. For Nikon, as I expected, those two things have now clearly met.

Things with Nikon aren't quite what others are writing. Nikon's actual unit volume forecasts have only dropped 5% or so overall from previous forecasts, so it isn't sales collapse specifically that's the problem. 

The problem shows up in the forecast of a 10b Yen loss for the year in Imaging. That number clearly shows that Nikon is going to restructure again (it has previously closed a Chinese plant). Nikon also says it will take another write down in their next fiscal year. Put pointedly, Nikon overbuilt infrastructure to support sales that would never be there given their execution. Not that they were alone in that. Olympus clearly did that, too. Canon, Panasonic, and Sony have probably done it, but it hasn't shown up yet as a clear number in their Imaging group financials because of their broad product lines and some internal ability to repurpose plants and materials.

The key number in Nikon's 2020 1H financials isn't actually a number that Nikon controls. It's the drop in "market scale" from 8.5m units to 7.8m units. That's a big adjustment on the CIPA forecasts, and it shows that the overall industry is smaller than anyone expected at the start of the year. Nikon claims they'll hold a 19% share of the ILC market through the entire fiscal year, which is actually a bit better than I was predicting. The problem is that the market is getting smaller much faster than the camera makers thought it would, which is something I also have been writing about.

To put that in perspective, the overall market size for ILC is now predicted to shrink 22% in one year (and that's with the camera companies pushing some excess inventory into the sales channel). Five years of that and the market hits my 4m unit "bottom" within a year of my prediction. That would be about 760k units a year for Nikon at the current market share. Compare that to the production capacity of somewhere over 6m units, and you see why Nikon is going to have to take a write-down of existing facilities soon. According to the current forecast, that'll happen probably in the first calendar quarter of 2020. And that will produce a loss for Imaging.

bythom nikon financials

Meanwhile, Nikon is holding the dividend unchanged and still buying back stock (about 5.5% of the company this year). As I've said before, Nikon is being run for the benefit of the primary shareholders, who are almost all Japanese banks and financial institutions. Nikon stock is a better bet than loaning money at a negative interest rate in Tokyo at the moment, though barely so.

Nikon was somewhat candid in the challenges they face:

  • Market deterioration is worse than expected
  • Mirrorless camera sales were overestimated
  • Both planning and execution have been too slow

Nikon produced charts indicating how the market rolls out to them. Basically, they claim strength in what I call the pro/enthusiast part of the market, which is holding steady (and by the way, is running at about 3m units a year). Nikon claims the decline is solely in the consumer/amateur side of the market.

Okay, Nikon, you didn't listen to me for years, so listen up closely now

Nikon in their presentation said they will "focus on the professional and hobbyists segment [and] strengthen marketing focused on loyal customers." That includes "enhancing customer satisfaction [and] lens lineup expansions."

Yeah, what have I been writing you should do for two decades now? You didn't do that, Nikon. Customer support and service got worse, far worse. You didn't come out with a D500 until it was too late, and then you didn't support it with lenses (buzz, buzz). You took features out of a key product (D7500) from its predecessor. Actually, you did that with the Z7, too. You failed to predict which products would actually resonate with your professional/hobbyist users and produce them in appropriate volume (e.g. D850, 500mm f/5.6E PF, etc.). 

Thing is, my books sell exactly to the market Nikon now claims they want to concentrate on. I have the names of well over a hundred thousand of those customers (no: I don't share or market them to others). When I survey my user base, I see all the things that Nikon isn't doing right (according to their best customers, not my guesses). It was actually easy being right about things that had to change, because I probably saw that better than Nikon's product management team.

Now we have the Nikon "plan":

  • Enhance customer satisfaction
  • Expand lens lineups
  • Reconstruct the Imaging Business Unit
  • Be more selective in product development
  • Drastically revise sales strategy

Yeah, I've written about every one of those things in the past 20 years, many more than once. One problem with Nikon's plan? That third bullet also includes "enhance Board of Directors' governance" of the Imaging group. Uh, right. The Board includes only one person with three years' experience in the Imaging group a decade ago. The rest are people from the semiconductor equipment side of the company, plus bankers and others with financial institution background. 

The problem in the Imaging Business Unit is simple: it's a consumer business that's disconnected from its customers now. It's a Japanese culture paternalistic business, at that. I see no one on the board with the experience to fix that. Which makes me doubt that the directors will actually see the problem correctly, let alone apply the appropriate fixes. 

I'll have more to say on this later this year. Putting together a plan for a business under this much stress takes some time to generate and get all the details lined up. But it's time for me to do just that, and do it publicly. Maybe one of the non-consumer product board members can read or understand English...

Lest people panic. I didn't write that Nikon was going to get out of the camera business. It hasn't come close to that yet, and Nikon is actually doing one thing very right: they're trying to get ahead of their upcoming financial problem, essentially by downsizing and repurposing plants while they have the chance to do so. Cameras were 41% of their entire business in the first half of the year (down from 45%) and profitable. They've clearly identified that they can't continue to execute the same and stay profitable, which is what all the restructuring and upcoming write-down loss is all about. 

Moreover, those of you with other brand loyalties should not get any joy over what Nikon disclosed today. One reason why the Black Friday sales and huge discounts started so early this year is the belief by every camera maker that this could be a terrible holiday season in terms of unit volume, and thus overall revenue. Despite lower production during the first half of the year, inventories still built up. Every camera maker has the same problem, with maybe one or two models not showing real decline. 

Every camera maker needs a plan of how it could live in a market where there's only 4m or so cameras sold each year. Nikon has indicated that they're aware of the issue and working on that. You'll see the same thing from other camera makers as their results don't add up, either. 

The "In Stock" Holidays

If you want an indicator of just how healthy the camera business is, check store inventories of cameras and lenses. 

It used to be that recent, still hot camera products would either (a) be perpetually on backorder and you needed to be on a wait list to get one; or (b) the item flashed in and out of stock as new supplies trickled into the US.

In terms of camera bodies, those days seem to be over. It's too soon to tell for some of the just announced cameras (e.g. Nikon Z50, Sony A9 m2), but you don't have to go back more than a couple of months of camera intros to see recent cameras fully stocked and waiting for you to stop by and pick them up (e.g. Panasonic S1H or Sony A7R m4). 

This—plenty of stock available—is the main reason why prices have just cratered on many models and the significant discounts are widening to more cameras than usual. The fact that CIPA shipments are significantly down from last year means that the camera makers aren't stuffing the channels, either. Supply is down, but demand is down even more. 

With some very low volume, high priced recent lenses, I still see some of (a) and (b) happening. The Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF and the Sony 400mm f/2.8 being two such lenses. Neither company is going to be too aggressive about generating more inventory as the market for these lenses is small to start with. They're not going to rush to meet what is overall still low demand. Otherwise, with lenses it only seems to be just released lenses that are in short supply.

Frankly, I'm a little concerned about this holiday season. The sales started early. The inventories seem overly plentiful. Other incentives such as free shipping, future credit, or extra included items are becoming more prevalent. Yet we're still almost four weeks away from Black Friday and Cyber Monday. 

The problem is this: if you aren't in a buying mood and camera/lens demand continues its steep decline, we're going to see more and more casualties in the side businesses that support the industry. We've already had plenty of consolidation in the industry, some behind the scenes. Some trade shows have disappeared or gotten smaller. Some retailers have closed. Printed photo magazines have been going away as fast as they can be recycled. We're getting closer and closer to the point where some highly visible and long-established players you might count on start to disappear., for instance, looks like it will closing down or at least strongly downsizing. The much-used and cited comparison testing they did will probably disappear.

One of the costs the camera makers and the rest of the industry are trying to control is marketing costs. That means advertising money is continuing to trend downwards, starting at the top with TV/print advertising and working its way down to the smaller side support businesses, such as Web sites.

The good news is that there is some incredible equipment on sale right now at reasonable prices. I try to point the most interesting of the bunch out on the top of the front page each week, and I write longer articles here and on when I see significant sales within a brand where I can add value as to which items might have moved to bargain or good value status.

The bad news is that camera makers have scaled back production. They're running at lower manufacturing rates while trying to clear inventories. It's unlikely that if the inventories start to balance out better that they'll continue to have big fire sales other than on items at product end-of-life. That's the case the camera makers are hoping for: lower supply meets lower demand. Of course, if inventories don't balance out, we'll see more of the same and the entire industry will be more in jeopardy, because that means that lower supply still isn't as low as demand.

I'll say this, too: if there's a software vendor you want to see stay around—and yes, that includes Adobe—you need to be keeping your license current. Adobe is easy, since they want their small tithe every month and many of you are locked into that. But the others competing with Adobe are doing yearly updates that cost between half and full Adobe pricing, and if people don't update those products regularly, those Adobe competitors just won't have the resources to compete in the future. 

The camera market needs a critical mass to function. I outlined recently how I thought the "bottom" might hit 4m ILC units a year soon. Anything lower than that and I don't think we have a critical mass any more, and all bets are off as to what happens next. But even at the 6m unit mark you'll see companies and products go away, I think. 

Personally, I'm at an age and place where I could just walk away from the new product market and use what I've got for however long I still can reliably shoot. And that's the other problem with the camera market: too many of those that have been buying are getting up in age and buying less often if at all. 

I've said it before and I'll repeat it here: the camera industry really needs to connect to the younger crowd and show them that there's something they want that does more than a smartphone. The longer the camera industry waits  to try to come to grips with the "images are shared" world, the less likely they'll have a compelling story that rises above the smartphones.

Maybe dedicated cameras are the horse of the 21st century (it took awhile for autos to fully replace horses in the 20th century). I'd like to think that they aren't, that there is still a real role to be played by high quality image capture. But that has to live in an images are shared world to live. 

This site's exclusive advertiser, B&H, tries to use consistent wording in their pages. "In Stock" means it will ship immediately. "More on the Way" means that they've gotten information from the maker that they'll receive more units that would fulfill your order within two weeks. Sometimes they use the words "Back-Ordered" instead when they can't reconcile future shipments from the maker with order demand. "Released in Limited Quantity" is the (a) or (b) scenario I noted in the second paragraph of the article: the supply from the maker simply won't meet current demand. "New Item — Coming Soon" means that it's a just-announced item for which B&H's initial order hasn't yet been met by the maker, and B&H often doesn't yet know what actual demand might be.

The Right Answer to the Wrong Question

I think everyone pretty much missed some very clear signals lately. Let me explain.

One of the most frequent questions I get is "when will sensors get better?" This is the wrong question, but let me answer it first before answering the right question.

Sensors, like most semiconductors, will tend to always get better with time. The relevant question isn't whether they'll get better, but how they'll get better. What happens is this: every once in awhile you get a big bang where things move rapidly forward into a new realm due to a technology breakthrough, but most of the time you just get minor improvements through iteration and extension. 

We're in the iteration and extension realm right now. In particular, new sensors are mostly trying to lock down slightly more accurate DNs (digital numbers, the bit values in raw files) and faster off-load of data from the sensor. 

"What about dynamic range?" you ask? Done deal for the time being; we're about at the edge of what can be done with current technologies, and that's more than we need for any output we use (of course if you miss exposure or think that moving shadows up six stops looks good, all bets are off ;~). Worse still, most current APS-C and full frame sensors are pretty accurate at recording the randomness of photons. What that means is that the "floor" of the dynamic range is pretty close to as good as it'll get. We'll see very small gains there as a few odds and ends get cleaned up in the transistor-level electronics of photosites, but nothing dramatic. 

So-called organic sensors actually try to get to a different solution than electronics: collecting more of the light due to filtration layer changes and efficiencies. Top sensors right now tend to be about 60% efficient at collecting light, so even if organic sensor technology can improve that, it's less than a stop to 100% efficient. We'd still be accurately recording random photons, just doing it a little deeper into the shadows. 

Which brings us to rollover techniques at the highlight end: just flip a bit to indicate a photosite has saturated and start collecting new data again, right? Just like adding 5 + 6 and having to roll over the 1 to the next digit in math (1, carry the 1). The problem with this is simple: collecting more highlight information doesn't necessarily give you anything—you're still going to have to condense it to the reduced dynamic range of your output device to make it useful—and you have the issue of subject motion if you're keeping the capture going longer to collect that extra highlight information. (If you're not keeping the capture going, then you're burying the shadows more, and we can't pull much more out of shadows.) Worse still, keeping electron storage around in the sensor tends to impact the noise floor, so you might gain at the top and lose at the bottom.

No, it isn't the sensor technologies that enable "better imagery" at the moment. You're asking the wrong question. 

The right question is "how will we get better images than we've been getting?"

Surprise: the camera companies (and smartphone makers) have already answered this question! I told you that you've missed some pretty clear signals.

Canon and Nikon specifically said "better lenses" make better images with their RF and Z mounts. They're correct, and they've already proven that with even just the initial lens output from each. For example, a Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G on a D850 simply doesn't produce as good a pixel level result as a Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 S on a Z7. Not that the D850 result is bad, but the Z7 result is clearly better, all else equal. 

As pixel counts have gone up (and continue to) what's happening at the pixel level other than dynamic range is actually incredibly important, otherwise we really don't need those pixels, right? At base ISO, it's not dynamic range that's the biggest issue, it's edge acuity and the removal of anti-aliasing. 

So, removal of spherical aberration, coma, and other optical defects becomes very important, and those are lens design things. Meanwhile, Bayer pattern filtration and the interpolation that it requires is also an issue in terms of getting accurate pixels with strong integrity, and that ends up as camera design features (e.g. pixel shift). 

Thus, one of the things you should be looking at more closely is optical designs and whether those are moving what's presented to the sensor forward (they are; even in DSLRs, Nikon's most recent F-mount lenses have been far better than the ones they replaced, e.g. the 70-200mm f/2.8E). It seems that everyone has upped their lens game recently. Canon (RF), Nikon (F and Z), Sigma (Art), Sony (G and GM), and Tamron have all started producing lenses that are extremely difficult to review because their optical faults are far smaller and more nuanced than the lenses that came before these. 

The other side of things where better pixels is happening you need to pay attention to is something that you see in some high-end cameras now as well as in the iPhone 11 Pro's Deep Fusion capability: some form of multiple exposure processing used to essentially pull out more detail and bust the Bayer bastardization of edges. 

By way of introduction, here's one-tenth of an iPhone 11 Pro's output (1.2mp) with the exposure equivalent to f/2 at 1/13 second at ISO 200 (it's impossible to exactly tell what the iPhone used in Deep Fusion mode, as it varies settings for the multiple exposures it uses, so this "exposure" is what I measured with an ILC I had handy):

bythom deepfusion

Note the detail in the wood grain, despite low light. Note the lack of noise. This is Deep Fusion at its best (it can be wonky, and it doesn't work for some things, like the very wide angle lens on that phone). I see similar gains when using the pixel shift capabilities of some of the ILCs, too. 

Indeed, I've started shooting landscapes and some architectural shots with multiple exposures and running median processing to get back some of what the Bayer filtration takes away (as well as to remove noise, which helps reveal detail). Coupled with a great lens, the integrity of the pixels looks far, far better. Similarly, the four-shot pixel shift on the Sony A7R m4, shot and processed well, does the same thing. 

Do I think we need better sensors? Not particularly. I'm all for any gain that can be made at the photon-to-electron-storage conversion, obviously, but in looking at images made with better lenses and multi-processing techniques, I'm seeing more progress in those that is useful at the moment in making better images. 

Of course, almost all this progress I just noted is only useful and visible for one of two things now: (1) immense cropping; or (2) really large output. If all you're doing is staying within the realm of what you might display on a 4K screen (8mp) or print to 13x19" (24mp), then you probably don't need a high megapixel camera or a better sensor than what we have today. 

Epilogue: All that said, one thing that's missing when you go for absolute pixel-level integrity is dismissal of long-accepted style. Those optical aberrations in older lenses produce a "look": an old-school look. Perfect pixels with no Bayer anti-aliasing produce a different "look": modern precision. One argument I get into all the time with others is with lenses like many of Fujifilm's: that company tends towards old-school looks with their current optics. Thus, the Fujifilm's tend to have clear coma and spherical aberration that slightly distorts outer areas, plus they render focus-to-out-of-focus in a way that looks like what we got in the film days. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not accurate to reality.

We've had the same discussion in filmmaking, too. Filmmaking runs at 24 fps because we're used to the "look" of interframe blur. When filmmakers like Douglas Trumball tried to move to something else—Trumbull's version in the late 80's was Showscan, large format 70mm film at 60 fps—they met a lot of resistance, which persists to this day (note the more recent controversy over Peter Jackson's use of 48 fps and the subsequent higher shutter speeds in the Lord of the Rings). With film, making something look too real can be quite problematic; pans look wrong to us, the suspension of disbelief can be lost. 

With stills, the opposite is true, I think. Removing antialiasing and lens defects is a bit like lifting a veil that was over a painting: you can see the detail and intent better. I do think some people go too far and remove critical depth cues (e.g. focus stacking a landscape from two feet to infinity and then cranking up sharpening and saturation as many are doing these days is eye-jarring, and very unreal). But getting pixel-level integrity is a good thing, I believe.

I remember the first time I was using a top lens on a top camera at a sporting event and then ran deconvolution sharpening on the raw file along with some other careful processing tweaks. The threads on the player's jersey were clearly visible. The photographer in the press box next to me looked at the detail in my image and said "how did you do that?" I looked at his images: JPEGs with too much noise reduction and some wonky style that was pushing saturation so uniform colors weren't right.

And that's the trick: optimal capture with optimal processing. Our sensors are already excellent. What's happening today is that we're able to use better lenses and do multi-image processing easier. What the iPhone proves is that the latter can be done in camera without you noticing any processing delay. What the Canon RF and Nikon Z lenses (as well as others) prove is that even the sensors today are able to collect clearer and better data when you improve the thing that is rendering the scene on the sensor (i.e. lens). 

And all that said, it's still the moment and the composition that drives the most impressive images you'll see. Don't get lost in the weeds looking for the tree. 

Nikon DSLR Discounts

NikonUSA had fall discounts that were supposedly available only for a few days last week, but now they've decided to extend them through November 27th. 

In the interest of helping you keep track, here are the current DSLR offers (all links are to this site's exclusive advertiser, B&H). First, the DX (APS-C crop sensor) products:

  • D3400 — US$100 savings on kit, US$350 savings on double and triple lens kits. Not all dealers have D3400 inventory left, so you may not be able to find this offer locally. B&H, for example, does not currently have D3400 inventory.
  • D3500 — US$100 savings on kit, US$400 savings on double lens kits (extra US$50 from November 7 to November 10!). If you want a highly competent DSLR kit for under US$500, this is the one to look for. Image quality is excellent, feature inclusion is limited, the usual Japanese low-end formula. Note the 70-300mm lens is without VR.
  • D5600 — US$200 savings on body, US$250 savings on kit, US$550 savings on double lens kit. I'm kind of meh on the D5600. It's a "straddle" model whose one big claim to fame is the swivel rear LCD.
  • D7500 — US$200 savings on body, US$400 savings on body+18-140mm kit, US$670 savings on body+16-80mm kit, US$500 savings on double lens kit. If you're a D70 type of shooter, this is the current camera for you. Highly competent, and a better set of features than the D3500/D5600 consumer cameras get. The current body price is mind-bogglingly low.
  • D500 — US$200 savings on body, US$670 savings on body+16-80mm kit. A great camera, but Nikon has offered better discounts in the past on it (including the battery grip, for example). I still think that the D500 is one of the clear options for someone coming out of college who wants to shoot sports (or wildlife) and not get stuck with even more debt. 
  • 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G VR — US$30 savings. A surprisingly competent lens for a very reasonable price. This lens is small, light, and brings VR to the table. All good things for a DX user. Yes, optically the corners are a challenge, but they are on almost all the alternatives, too. Stop down.
  • 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G — US$100 savings. Basically my third choice among Nikon DX wide angle zooms, and even further back when you consider the Sigma and Tokina offerings. So for far more money than the 10-20mm, you get a barely better lens. Not interested.
  • 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR — US$60 savings. Sorry, but if you have a 16mp or higher DX DSLR, you're going to find this lens a little on the wanting side. I don't know why you'd buy it. This is a popular lens for the convenience crowd, but frankly, there are better options.
  • 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G VR — US$100 savings. A better choice than the previous one if you're looking for a true convenience lens, but still not the kind of top performer than 20/24mp sensors are looking for.
  • The 18-140mm (US$200) and 70-300mm DX lenses (US$150) have an additional discount if purchased with a body. 

Next, the full frame products:

  • D750 — US$500 savings on body, US$1100 savings on body+24-120mm f/4 lens. A surprisingly old camera that performs surprisingly well compared to current models. This is Nikon's new "entry" full frame camera with this aggressive pricing. Compare this to a Canon 6D or a discounted RP, or a Sony A7 m1, basically. In that case, I'd pick the RP or the D750. 
  • D810 — US$1000 savings on body, US$1600 savings on body+24-120mm f/4 lens. As I've written recently, the D810 still is a convincingly good choice for many with an excellent 36mp sensor and plenty of feature/performance capability. Nikon's pricing the remainder of the D810 inventory very aggressively for its capability vis-a-vis the competition.
  • D850 — US$500 savings on body; you also get a free MB-D18 Multi-Battery Power Pack. Still the best all-around ILC you can buy, mirrorless or DSLR. This is a Last Camera for many that throws in the vertical grip at a very discounted price.
  • D5 — US$1000 savings on body. If you need it, you need it. At this point, though, all eyes are on what the D6 will add/change/improve when it comes out in early 2020. 
  • 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E — US$150 savings. If you do any kind of fisheye work, this is the lens you want in your gear bag. A truly solid performer at a thankless task, and capable of excellent results even on the D850. 
  • 14-24mm f/2.8G — US$300 savings. A solid performer on the DSLRs, though it's starting to be eclipsed by some of the mirrorless equivalents. Still, the price is compelling for those sticking with the F-mount. 
  • 16-35mm f/4G — US$100 savings. I'm not a big fan of this lens. While it's fairly recent, it's feeling outdated compared to other wide-angle zooms that have appeared since. On the other hand, it is the curtain "bargain" wide-angle zoom for full frame F-mount. Read my review carefully. Linear distortion is the big drawback to this lens.
  • 20mm f/1.8G — US$80 savings. Probably my favorite of the f/1.8G's. A nice solid performer at a focal length I use a lot.
  • 24mm f/1.8G — US$70 savings. Like the 24mm: solid performance, this time at a focal length a lot of people use.
  • 24-70mm f/2.8E VR — US$ 500 savings. A monster of a lens physically, it does deliver the goods optically, plus it includes good stabilization. Like the 14-24mm, this lens is compelling for those sticking with the F-mount that need a fast aperture zoom.
  • 24-70mm f/2.8G — US$350 savings. While this lens used to be a workhorse in the F-mount, that ship has sailed. Nikon's proved that they can make far better mid-range zooms now (in all their mounts). I'd say that the Sigma and Tamron offerings should be looked at before buying this lens from Nikon.
  • 28mm f/1.4E — US$200 savings. A lot of people like this lens, but it's an expensive optic in a focal length that isn't what a lot of folk want. I do like this lens a bit better than the 35mm f/1.4G, though. 
  • 28mm f/1.8G — US$70 savings. Focus shift is the downside of this otherwise good lens. If you can live with that and need a 28mm prime, you'll like the lens.
  • 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G — US$100 savings. Notice that all the convenience zooms show their issues on the newest, higher megapixel cameras. Back when a D700 was state of the art, this lens didn't look bad. On a D850, well, be prepared to see that it's not up to the levels of the other lenses you use.
  • 35mm f/1.4G — US$150 savings. I wanted to like this lens more than I did. It's an expensive optic for "just a little bit better," in my opinion.
  • 35mm f/1.8G — US$30 savings. This lens feels appropriately priced to me. A decent performer that's somewhat better than the venerable 35mm f/2, it would be my choice of Nikon 35mm primes on the DSLRs at the moment.
  • 50mm f/1.4G — US$70 savings. After seeing what the 50mm f/1.8 S does on the Z bodies, this lens should be whimpering over in the corner asking for a remake. 
  • 50mm f/1.8G — US$40 savings. If you really need a fast normal lens for the F-mount, this is the lens you should probably get, and it's all about price/performance. You pay little to get some. Which is better than paying more to get little. 
  • 58mm f/1.4G — US$150 savings. This lens is an acquired taste, it seems. I use it as a short portrait lens, and I really like the way it renders. But it's an old-school rendering, not a crisp Zeiss Otus type rendering (which is why I like it as a portrait lens). A pricey lens, so it's not for everyone. Still, I haven't been able to let go of mine.
  • 70-200mm f/2.8E VR — US$650 savings. Just buy it. It's the best 70-200mm f/2.8 I've ever encountered across any mount. It works fine on the FTZ adapter, too.
  • 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P — US$50 savings. This is a great lens that was already well valued, so the discount just makes it even more of a bargain given its performance. It works fine on the FTZ adapter, too.
  • 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR — US$200 savings. This lens is showing its age now. While it's a convenient telephoto zoom, I prefer the 70-300mm AF-P coupled with something like the 500mm f/5.6E PF if you truly need more reach.
  • 85mm f/1.4G — US$150 savings. I wasn't impressed by this lens. Not to say that it isn't good, but you pay an awful lot for that extra part of a stop compared to the next lens.
  • 85mm f/1.8G — US$50 savings. No, it's not quite as good as the f/1.4G when you're shooting wide open, but still this is the portrait lens most people should be buying, as its still quite good and very appropriately priced.
  • 105mm f/1.4E — US$300 savings. Like the 58mm f/1.4G, this is another F-mount prime I just don't want to let go. It renders really, really nicely. My only complaint, and its minor, is that I wish it would move all that focus glass a little faster. This lens is appropriate for some sports, but it's also more sluggish than the 70-200mm f/2.8 in initial focus lock.
  • 105mm f/2.8G VR — US$90 savings. The classic macro lens that should probably be in every Nikon DSLR users' gear closet. A solid performer.

My Nikon DSLR current camera reviews can be found here.

My Nikon DSLR older camera reviews can be found here.

My Nikon DSLR lens reviews can be found here.

Canon's 1DX Mark III Development Announcement

Just in time for the opening of PhotoPlus Expo in NYC late last week, Canon decided to put out a development announcement regarding their future DSLR flagship, the 1DX Mark III. 

bythom canon 1dxiii

I have to put this one in the realm of serious FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt marketing). FUD in that no such camera is available yet while Sony is running around selling the A9 m2, while Nikon has already made a vague development announcement of the D6 competitor. Canon doesn't want people to forget about them, thus the FUD aspect of the announcement.

Still, there was some serious detail in the press release and additional comments made by Canon executives:

  • Enhanced autofocus — a claimed 28x resolution improvement of the central area of the regular focus system with better low and bright light capabilities, plus dual pixel capability in Live View. The OVF phase detect area is supposed to be slightly larger than before. The AF-On button now can control focus point used. "Deep Learning Technology" supposedly helps focus tracking.
  • Faster frame rates — 16 fps with mechanical shutter in regular shooting, 20 fps in mechanical or electronic shutter in Live View.
  • Faster cards — dual CFexpress slots and a promised 5x improvement in buffer during burst shooting.
  • New processor — DIGIC gets to 9, apparently.
  • New format — Supports 10-bit HEIF.
  • Better video — Supports 4K at 60P with 10-bit 4:2:2 C-log on the internal cards.
  • Better communications — both built-in basic Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but also an optional WFT-E9 for more range and speed.
  • Better battery life — still the same LP-E19 battery, but supposed "dramatically improved" battery life.
  • Odds and Ends — Canon finally joins Nikon in providing illuminated buttons; a faster Ethernet connection.

All, of course, in a mostly familiar 1DX body (with minor modifications). A couple of prototype cameras seemed to be at PhotoPlus Expo, but I didn't get a chance to go hands on. What we know so far sounds good, but as always, the proof is in the shooting.

The ball's back in Nikon's court, as Nikon didn't really provide any details about the upcoming D6 in their announcement. We've already got the Sony A9 m2—which will likely be improved by firmware updates between now and the Olympics—and now we have some clear details about the Canon 1DX m3, so it's only the Nikon D6 for which we (officially) know almost nothing now. 

Should You Buy The Previous Model?

We've got the holiday season coming up, and this question tends to always come up, as camera makers use this selling opportunity to push older model inventory as well as new.

In the DSLR world, this has been going on for some time, starting when Nikon overproduced and was essentially forced into having multiple generations of products on the market at the same time (at one point, three generations of some products). What Nikon generally did was to use older models to put new price points between newer models. One holiday season, we had a plethora of Nikon DX models almost exactly US$50 apart from about US$600 to US$1100. 

Nikon's a lot less in that position today, at B&H today only the D5300 still lingers as an "old" new possibility, though there are a few refurbished choices of other older models still available. Even the D7200 now seems to have gone to discontinued land (though we might see some refurbished units pop back up). 

In Nikon FX, only the D810 still lingers as a previous model, with a US$2000 price.

So, in the Nikon lineup would I recommend buying a previous generation model new/refurbished this year? 

Probably not, with two exceptions. I still need to see the full set of NikonUSA discounting that will be active through the end of the year as that could potentially affect the answer, but the current D3500, D5600, D7500, D500, D610, D750, and D850 models are going to be at appropriate pricing and are arguably a strong lineup of DSLRs.

The two exceptions are the D810 and D5. The D5 isn't quite yet a previous model, but we have a D6 already pre-announced, so it's definitely going to act like one this holiday. The D5 is a great camera, so I don't think you'll go far wrong picking one up at this late point in its life. I'd just try to bargain that dealer a little harder for some extras, because US$1000 off isn't quite enough, IMO. 

The D810 is a little tougher call, but you know, I shot briefly with it again recently, liked it, and for many of you, the D810 is way more than enough camera. If you're coming from an older <24mp or DX body, you can make a strong case that it's a Last Camera Syndrome purchase, given the US$2000 price. 

Anything else that's older, especially refurbished due to the reduced warranty, and I'd say that you probably are better off buying the new model. Of course, price could alter that, so pay attention to what I write around Thanksgiving, as there may be an option or two there that defy that logic.

Canon's a mess. They're currently where Nikon was: still offering multiple generations of many cameras simultaneously. We've got the 80D/90D, the SL2/SL3, and the Rebel 6*/7* models all cropping up (oh the puns) this holiday. That makes EF-S look amazingly broad, what with 18mp, 20mp, 24mp, and 32mp cameras in the mix. But that's a false sense of broadness. What we really have is older models and new models. 

Canon's already been doing a lot of discounting in the crop-sensor DSLR world, and it's going to get bigger soon, I think. Moreover, we already have some creative conundrums Canon conceived: SL2 with a lens, or SL3 body? They're the same price. This is marketing at its most manipulative. Canon really needs to move boxes, stat. Like Nikon, they'd like to get to their future sooner, but they can't unless they get rid of the deadwood inventory of older models.

Yeah, I knew you'd ask: what future is that? A modest number of high-end DSLRs and lenses iterate as usual, but most of the effort shifts to new mirrorless offerings. I have more to say in today's other article.

Thing is, with Canon's crop sensor DSLRs, I'm starting to think that there's only one that's a sensible choice at the moment, and that would be the 90D. Given Canon's sensor re-use, a model like the EOS M5 looks like a better choice to me than opting for one of the many aging low-end DSLRs in their lineup. 

Canon's full frame lineup is clean, though. Only new models now still stand in the big dealers like B&H: 6Dm2, 5DS, 5Dm4, and 1DXm2. Like Nikon, I expect that top pro model to iterate soon (before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo), so maybe we should consider the 1DXm2 much like the D5 at this point.

So you see what's happening, right? 

For DSLRs, both Canon and Nikon have relatively clean lineups at the moment in full frame. The lower ends of those lineups will just wither away to mirrorless (e.g. 6Dm2 to RP, D610 to Z5?). The top two models will likely do full upgrades soonish (e.g. 5Dm4 to 5Dm5, D850 to D860, plus 1DXm2 to m3 and D5 to D6). Both companies are already well poised to make that happen. 

With crop sensor, things are still a mess. It's in the <US$1500 part of the market where camera buying has collapsed the most, and that's where crop sensor lives. Yet there are still plenty of new DSLRs sitting in that rapidly depleting pond. What that means is that the fire sales have just begun. While Nikon is in better shape here, both companies need to clean house with the low-end DSLRs and transition that market to mirrorless. 

Which brings me to my usual comment about Canon: EOS M, their crop sensor mirrorless mount, is a dead-end. Yes, it can adapt EF/EF-S lenses, but those are going away in the future for RF. Nikon, meanwhile, can say that Z DX is the same as DSLR DX: it's the same mount as with full frame, and the adapter makes the new mount remarkably able to use virtually all Nikon's existing legacy lenses. Nikon has a cleaner, simpler transition message: still works with our past, lives in our future. Canon's message: still works with our past, but we have diverging futures, so pick carefully. 

All that said, there's nothing wrong with current DSLRs. We've got amazing cameras that cost as little as US$450. And they'll continue taking great photos for a long time into the future. I'd just suggest that you be careful about buying too far back in the DSLR lineups. The D850 is an exceptional camera, and still arguably the best all-around interchangeable lens camera you can buy today. The D610? Yeah, takes very nice images, but uses outdated technologies and is cut down in features. It would take a really great price to make you want to buy one a D610 (or any of the oldest DSLRs still available).

So. Be prepared for bargains, but think through your DSLR buying strategy carefully. If you're into DSLRs for the long haul, you probably want to look more towards the tops of the lineups. If you just want a competent camera, shop carefully on price as the holiday sales start.

The Canon/Nikon "Solution"

Canon and Nikon have both taken an interesting approach to creating mirrorless models while still putting out DSLRs. Simply put, mirrorless models don't exactly line up with DSLRs.

I'll start with Nikon, because I'm most familiar with their cameras. Here's the way it works, from top to bottom of their full frame lineup at the moment:

  • D5 (DSLR)
  • D850 (DSLR)
  • Z7 (Mirrorless)
  • Z6 (Mirrorless)
  • D750 (DSLR)
  • D610 (DSLR)

I'm not including the Df here, as it's an old model that never really had a clear fit in the lineup. Given that it doesn't have video, it's more of a specialty camera.

Note how Nikon snuck the two mirrorless models (so far) between the top pro DSLRs and the lower consumer/prosumer DSLRs. The Z7 is clearly derived from the D850, but has several missing features/settings. The Z6 uses the same feature base as the Z7, which puts it above the aging D750. 

Nikon didn't immediately obsolete any DSLRs by doing things this way. As I continue to write, the D850 is still the best all-around interchangeable lens camera you can buy. It really reaches well into professional use of all types; as I've shown, it's even quite competent at sports, though not quite as good as the D5.  

It's a little early to fully make this call as I don't have a Z50 yet, but so far I'm thinking the Nikon DX lineup looks very similar to the full frame lineup from top to bottom:

  • D500 (DSLR)
  • D7500 (DSLR)
  • Z50 (Mirrorless)
  • D5600 (DSLR)
  • D3500 (DSLR)

One thing comes across: Nikon is starting in the "middle" with mirrorless. Middle for Nikon tends to mean serious enthusiast/prosumer. So far, Nikon has stuck mirrorless in the middle of their DSLR lineup without exactly duplicating a DSLR in specs, performance, features, and controls.

The US$60,000 question, of course, is where does Nikon go from here?  

Well, we know one piece: the D6 is coming next at the top of Nikon's ILC offerings. This seems to suggest that Nikon believes that the top two tiers of their full frame lineup will remain DSLRs for the time being. The question has been whether or not Nikon will put the 60mp sensor in the Z7 body. I suspect not. I'm guessing we'll see it appear in a D850 update first. 

The other end is more interesting, though, as it's where the volume is. I've already noted that Nikon could simply take the Z50 body and stick a full frame sensor in it and come up with a more consumer entry for full frame mirrorless. That would punch in exactly between the current D610 and D750 given the known Z50 design and specs. I'm more and more convinced this will happen, and Canon's aggressiveness at the bottom of full frame is one reason why.

So let's put this all together into a "future Nikon lineup":

  • D6 (FX DSLR)
  • D860 (FX DSLR)
  • Z7 (FX Mirrorless)
  • Z6 (FX Mirrorless)
  • Z5 (FX Mirrorless)
  • D500 (DX DSLR)
  • Z70 (DX Mirrorless) — straddles D500/D7500
  • Z50 (DX Mirrorless)
  • Z30 (DX Mirrorless) — true entry, replaces D3600 directly

Yep. I'm predicting that the lower end DSLRs go away quickly, but the top ones remain for the time being. That D500 sitting there between the FX and DX lines is the most interesting and unpredictable point. I'd argue it should be a Z90. Nikon might (a) offer a Z90, (b) just drop that position; or (c) offer a lame D500 update.

Of course, things being what they are in the industry right now, we'll have older models still lingering in inventory until they're all sold off, which makes the positioning more difficult, but I think the nine models listed above pretty much describe where Nikon wants to be short term.

How about Canon? Oh boy, don't get me started...

Currently, things look like this in full frame:

  • 1DX m2 (DSLR)
  • 5DS (DSLR)
  • 5D m4 (DSLR)
  • R (Mirrorless)
  • 6D m2 (DSLR)
  • RP (Mirrorless)

The distinction between the 5Dm4 and R or the 6Dm2 and RP are tough to deduce, as the sensor re-use and base features are near identical. It's really in the ergonomics and UI that I distinguish those models at all. Canon has placed their full frame mirrorless entries closer to their DSLRs than Nikon did. The primary difference is that Canon appears to be starting from the bottom of their full frame lineup, not the middle.

Curiously, we have three widely-leaked future full frame cameras from Canon running around the rumor mills. There's a mirrorless R-something that looks like it's to the 5DS what the R was to the 5Dm4. There's a 5D Mark V and a 1DX Mark III also being talked about.

Again, that looks like continuing to work from the bottom of the lineup upwards. Essentially saying the top of the Canon ILC lineup will remain populated with DSLRs, while mirrorless slowly (mostly) duplicates the lineup moving upwards over time. 

APS-C is a serious mess at Canon. Canon's still selling a lot of four and five year old cameras in the crop sensor market. I'm going to arbitrarily limit myself to 2017-2019 models to try to make a little better sense of things. Again, from top to bottom we have:

  • 90D (DSLR)
  • 77D (DSLR)
  • SL3 (DSLR)
  • T7i (DSLR)
  • T7 (DSLR)
  • M6 m2 (Mirrorless)
  • M50 (Mirrorless)
  • 4000D (DSLR)
  • M200 (Mirrorless)

I'm not sure I have that perfectly aligned, and there are significant models that fall off because of my three year limit (e.g. M5 and 7Dm2), but again note that mirrorless is starting from the bottom at Canon. 

With APS-C in particular, I believe Canon has another issue: the crop sensor mirrorless gear just isn't compatible with full frame mirrorless gear. I suspect that Canon will continue to have two crop sensor mounts in the future for mirrorless: M and RF. In other words, their lineup would be EF, RF, M, with EF-S going away. A 7Dm3 type camera would have to become an RF crop sensor mirrorless camera in such a scheme, I'd think, which clouds things up considerably.

As I wrote, Canon's APS-C lineup is a mess. As I wrote this, B&H currently lists 18 current Canon APS-C cameras for sale, in a mind-boggling nearly 200 kits (update: that got pruned down some by the time I edited this article). But then overlapping the full frame DSLRs with very similar mirrorless models seems to just create even more confusion. Canon clearly is not picking a lane. 

I'm not sure I can predict a future Canon lineup because they haven't rationalized their product offerings very well. But a wild guess would be:

  • 1DX m3 (FF DSLR)
  • 5DS m2 (FF DSLR)
  • RS (FF Mirrorless)
  • 5D m5 (FF DSLR)
  • R (FF Mirrorless)
  • 6D m2 (FF DSLR)
  • RP (FF Mirrorless)
  • 90D (APS-C DSLR)
  • 77D (APS-C DSLR)
  • SL3 (APS-C DSLR)
  • T7i (APS-C DSLR)
  • M6 m2 (APS-C Mirrorless)
  • M60 (APS-C Mirrorless)
  • M200 (APS-C Mirrorless)

Look at the mount situation if I'm right: M at the bottom, EF-S next up the ladder, then a pairing of EF/RF bodies above that. That makes no sense to me, as it confuses everyone as to what the future upgrade path is. 

And that's important. Nikon's been slowly plugging their sales leakage to other mounts. The Z50 introduced another plug in the dam (though I must say, LENSES!!!, buzz buzz). Canon, meanwhile, is still leaking quite a bit, mostly to Sony given that the EF lenses adapt to the FE mount reasonably well. I can't see where Canon's possible future lineups stop that. Okay, maybe the high quality RF lenses help a bit at the top of the full frame market, but there's not a body out yet that really makes those lenses fully shine. So the RF lenses seem to be more of a promise from Canon that "we'll get there." 

Of course, if you're reading this article (and got this far), you're probably one of those wondering about whether DSLR or mirrorless is in your future. 

Canon and Nikon are both quick to say that they will support both. At least for the near term, I believe that to be mostly true, particularly at the tops of their lineups. 

Realistically, a lot of you reading this are Gen X or Baby Boomers or older. In other words, you've probably been using a DSLR for awhile and you may have even made the SLR to DSLR transition, too. The question is "what should you do today?"

Frankly, every full frame camera you can buy today is quite good. If you're not one of those "must have every iteration" folk, I think you buy on what you know, what you use, and most importantly price. Any of the full frame cameras currently offered could be your Last Camera Syndrome purchase and you'd be (mostly ;~) happy with it. Like having a viewfinder that works when the camera is turned off and batteries that last forever? Stick with DSLRs. Like having the viewfinder show what the image will actually look like and don't mind charging batteries? Go mirrorless. 

It's difficult to go far wrong with a full frame camera decision. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all make excellent full frame cameras, and offer a range of options. 

Unfortunately, it's APS-C/DX that's the area that's most confusing. Of course, it's also an area with some extraordinary bargains. A refurbished D7500 is US$600 at B&H, and that's just an unbelievable price for such a highly competent and well featured camera. And we haven't even gotten to the holiday bargains that are going to crop up (pardon the pun). 

You're going to see some Canon and Nikon APS-C/DX offerings dip below US$400. And frankly, that, too, is amazing. The Nikon D3500 may be a simplified and stripped down camera, but in terms of the images it can produce, even with the kit lens, the sky is almost the limit. That 24mp sensor inside the D3500 is quite good. Nikon pros know that if they've got a remote camera position that will put the camera in harm's way, the D3500 is an inexpensive choice to get the shot. 

What's the Market Bottom Look Like?

I actually wrote the following article several months ago. I've been dithering on whether to post it or not, as it has the potential for kicking off a wave of negativism about cameras, as well as the usual hate mail I tend to get when I'm being provocative. 

But I keep getting the same basic questions coming into my In Box, and this article answers those, so I've decided to go ahead and publish. Please note that this is my long-term prediction, not reality. On the other hand, I did call the top of the market ten years before it happened, and within a six month window of the actual date and within 10% of the actual maximum number shipped. But note my comment about it being easier to predict tops than bottoms.

The camera market is in continuous decline now, pretty much everywhere except in the average mirrorless camera price, which has been going up due to so many full frame and high-end cameras being introduced. 

So the operative questions are: is there going to be a market bottom, and what will be that bottom? 

That's not as easy a projection as it sounds. I've always found that projecting market tops within a reasonable +/- is far easier than market bottoms. That's because market tops tend to follow well-established patterns. The slope of the highest growth cycle coupled with a projection of per household adoption tends to give you a very good idea where the top is. (Okay, the math is a little more complex than that, but the point is the same: you're using some known data points, which have tended to do well in predicting market tops.)

Market bottoms, however, are much more difficult to predict, as often there's disruption—technological and/or economic—that comes into play, plus a market may not absolutely die. Add in demographic factors, how fast the big players transition or respond to market trends and other technology, plus more, and you have a lot of variables in play, and many of them are contradictory. 

Records (LPs) were projected by many to die. They're analog and awkward in size, expensive and difficult to produce, plus necessary suppliers were cut to the minimum. For awhile, the thing you needed to play them couldn't be found to be purchased new in many markets. And yet, here we are in 2019 and LP sales are growing and may actually rise above the rapidly-declining CD sales this year. That's not really because LPs are doing so well, it's that they found their market bottom and then started to build a modest growth from there. CDs, unfortunately, will likely die off, as if you want digital and convenient, streaming just works better. And frankly, having no physical product is less expensive for everyone when the product is digital. 

In the interchangeable lens camera world, we have film SLR, DSLR, and mirrorless to think about. Film SLRs have absolutely hit bottom, and it's a very low bottom of less than 10k new units/year. That's not enough to sustain an industry, though it might be enough to sustain a very small piece of a larger company. Growth seems unlikely for film SLRs, though so does death. Which is probably why the Nikon F6 is still available new. Also: film SLRs are dependent upon film continuing to be produced, so the camera makers aren't in charge of their own destiny here.

In projecting a market bottom for DSLR/mirrorless cameras, you need to predict several things:

  • Size of overall market
  • Distribution of sensor size 
  • Distribution of market share

Obviously, the last two derive from the first, so let's tackle overall market size first. 

ILC shipments went 20.2m, 17.1m, 13.8m, 13m, 11.6m, 11.7m, 10.7m from 2012 to 2018, and 2019 is looking like it could be as low as 8m (though likely closer to 9m). That's units being produced by the Japanese camera companies, and as you might have noticed from the build-up of inventories at dealers, the camera companies are probably being optimistic as to what the actual market size currently is. You can manipulate that some with extra sales and marketing efforts, but eventually the "keep last generation on market at lower price while introducing new models" strategy tends to produce worse and worse results. 

Most forecasts I've seen project a 10% average decline (in units or value) through the foreseeable future. I think unit collapse will probably go higher than that. The reason is simple: camera companies have not proven that they can bring new buyers into the ILC market. Existing buyers are mostly an aging population that's diminishing in size, and those folk are not updating as frequently as they used to. 

I'm going to put a stake in the ground and predict ILC volume will be 4m units in 2023. It's possible that isn't the bottom, that we go all the way down to 3m units. It's possible that 2023 isn't the bottom year. However, market size is such an existential problem at Canon, Nikon, and Sony that they're going to have to find a way to keep the market from slipping below 4m units. That means that they have to embrace the 21st century with their products and start attracting younger users again. I believe that's possible, but I also don't see clear signs that any camera company has figured this out. (Sure, the average buying age of a Sony purchaser is lower than that of the average Nikon purchaser at this point, but that age is still in the Gen X/Boomer realm. They're not making any more of those models ;~).

Okay, next, what sensor size is going to be in those 4m cameras? Here's my "best case" scenario:

bythom future size

That's right, APS-C doesn't go away (m4/3 might if it can't find a way to swim to a protected area of the pond in the market size contraction; the GH-5 sort of does that, but what else does?). Thing is, if there's going to be 4m buyers at bottom, most of those are still going to be spending <US$1000. 

Though full frame sensors are getting easier and cheaper to produce, I've written since the beginning of digital that there's enough cost benefit to smaller sensor sizes that they will continue to have a place in the market. Remember, every US$50 in manufacturing cost is US$175 implied in consumer price. APS-C gets cost benefits at the sensor and shutter, for sure, but by making additional reductions (lower quality EVF, etc.) US$50 savings or higher are more than possible. 

Indeed, the difference between a US$1300 Canon RP and a US$900 Sony A6400 body can mostly be explained by manufacturing costs, despite Canon's sensor re-use. Moreover, from a consumer point of view a price point below US$1000 is very different than any price point above it. Realistically, a lot of the entry camera volume is currently in the US$400-700 range, a range that full frame simply can't get down to. I don't see that changing. 

But there's another factor here: maintaining profit. As market volume contracts, all of the Japanese camera companies want to sell more expensive cameras. That's the way they believe they'll survive. Thus, if one maker really wants to go all full frame and get down below that US$1000 price point, they'd be doing the opposite: giving up profit for volume. But there's nothing that says that volume would go up. So what they'd really be doing is giving up profit.

Thus, I'm forecasting that, at bottom, most of the market is still APS-C. If it isn't, the bottom is going to be far, far lower, because full frame's costs will keep it from dropping below a certain price point to maintain profit, and therefore won't expand volume. 

Next, there's the issue of who is making those 4m units. 

bythom future marketshare

I see Canon and Nikon getting weaker than their strongest market shares in ILC to date, with Fujifilm and Sony getting stronger. That will, in essence, swap the Nikon and Sony positions. Thus, two of the top three supplier positions will be lower than their max in my prediction (historically Canon hit 51% max, Nikon hit 38% max, Sony hit 18% max; since that adds up to more than 100%, something has to give ;~).

I don't think Canon can hold 50% of the market as they seem to think they can. Not without lowering their gross product margins (GPM) to the point where it would impact their stock price. I think that Canon will find that they can hold a 40%+ share, but they'll have to back off from tying to completely tie up the market. All that chaff they have in the APS-C DSLR side has to be completely re-rationalized to get the GPM back up. And the initial lower-end foray in the full frame mirrorless isn't going as well as they hoped. Canon is going to lose market share soon, the only question is how much.

Nikon apparently decided several years ago to stop trying to hold onto market share, but to rationalize their product line and focus on higher GPM at lower volumes. We're still in the early stages of that change in strategy. I think they might slide all the way down to 16% ILC market share before getting back up to something approaching their current position. They just don't seem to have the product stream coming that would keep them from sliding some. But that also seems to be by design. Here's what to watch: does Nikon Imaging's GPM bottom out and start to recover? If so, their plan is working and I'm pretty sure they'll hold a substantive chunk of the market and stay in the Big Three.

Sony, of course, is the winner in my predictions. At their worst point, they may have slid down to 12% market share, but 14-18% is a realm they've spent a lot of time in. That's begun to change as Alpha mirrorless has matured into a full product line from consumer APS-C to full frame to professional video. Sony has the advantage of being earliest mover—and by quite a few years—to a one-mount, all mirrorless strategy, and that should pay off for them as we head to market bottom.

A lot of you might not remember this, but a bit over a decade ago I wrote that Nikon and Sony had formed an unseen and informal alliance behind the scenes. The goal of that alliance was supposedly to take market leadership away from Canon. Take a close look at the market shares I predict in the above chart: Canon 43%, Nikon/Sony 43%. That was exactly what I was referring to: the combined partnership beginning to erode Canon's dominance. 

My observation (based on conversations with several Nikon/Sony executives) back in 2006 was this: Nikon's sensor expertise was melding even more with Sony's. Note that the Nikon-designed D2x sensor showed up in both Nikon and Sony cameras, and really kicked off the transition at Sony Semiconductor from CCD to CMOS for large sensor cameras. Nikon since then appears to have been at minimum a pollinator and at maximum an originator/backer of quite a few technologies we take for granted with Exmor now: column ADC, dual-gain, and on-sensor phase detect. 

At the time, I think that Nikon thought that the ideal result of such an informal relationship was going to be Nikon #1 in market share, with Sony fighting with Canon for #2. But at the time, the Imaging executives were in control of Nikon, not the current Precision and banking industry leadership, who seem much more leery of true consumer products. I believe in 2016 the changeover in Nikon's top management decided upon a different outcome: not worry about market share as long as the prosumer/pro market could be retained profitably and that the Nikon/Sony "partnership" could eventually unseat Canon's dominance. 

There's a word that is used often in Silicon Valley that describes what Nikon and Sony have been doing: coopetition. Note that Canon is for the most part a loner: their dominance has allowed them to not have to really share research and technology exploration, and to develop everything from sensor to camera themselves. In this respect they are much like a company such as GM or Ford used to be in the auto industry (these days, almost everyone is in coopetition relationships in the auto industry and no longer going it alone). 

The dirty little secret is that Nikon has always valued outside research as much as their own, they just didn't often trumpet or admit their adoption of it. About the closest they ever did to that was to say that they'll always choose the best sensor technology for each camera, regardless of origin. Sony Semiconductor, meanwhile, has turned into the dominate force they are by licensing, purchasing, and adopting technologies from everywhere. Yes, a number of their technologies are home grown, but you'd be surprised at how many aren't. 

Thus, a Nikon/Sony coopetition arrangement is somewhat natural for both companies. Moreover, here's something that doesn't get talked about much: Add up the top 10 intertwined shareholders for each and you get: 24% of Nikon's shares and 23% of Sony's shares accounted for (you also get 17% of Canon's stock accounted for that way, too). There's strong overlap in shareholder interest in seeing Nikon and Sony coopepeting.  

Okay, that's my basic prediction of market bottom. It might happen in late 2021, or 2022, or 2023. Come back in four years to see if I'm right.

The Latest Ask Thom Q&A

From time to time I try to answer questions I'm getting multiples of in my In Box with a quick post here on While I continue to try to answer individual questions I get, sometimes broadcasting an answer is the better way to go.

I really want to get to 1000mm. How well does the TC-20E work on lenses like the 500mm f/5.6 PF?

I'm not a fan of the pursuit of this. You're simply not close enough to the action, whatever it might be. Not being close enough is going to cause all kinds of other issues. Ambient air temp may be varying between you and the subject, and if so it won't matter if you can focus well or fast enough when that happens, you'll get odd or poor results. You'll have a terrible time keeping 1000mm aligned and on target with proper support. You're stealing light from the focus system. You're adding glass—and in particular air/glass transitions—to an already complex formula, and you never get "equal" let alone "better" optical performance when you do so. Veiling flare will increase. You'll be tempted to turn on VR to solve the support issue, and that, too, may start stealing acuity from your result. 

A couple of sub-questions come out your question, so I should probably answer them. I don't own a TC-20E any more—which should tell you something—but I do have the TC-14E. My experience with three different 500mm PFs and three different TC-14E's is that this combo works better than expected. With a caveat. It works better than expected on the Z6 and Z7, which can autofocus at f/8 just fine in reasonable light. On a D5, D500, or D850 the problem is that the lack of light getting to the focus sensors is a real issue. You'll lose some focus capability even in good light, as IIRC you only have five cross sensors and a maximum of 15 available sensors being used (out of 153).

But optically, the 500mm (and 300mm) PF with a TC-14E seems to work respectably well. And focus performance stays good on the Z6/Z7 until you're in low light.

One reason why amateurs always want to find the magic "more reach" combination has to do with their approach. To get close with wildlife takes an investment of time, energy, and good guiding. Yes, there are times when I can't get to where the animals are doing something interesting. That's why I spend a month at a time in Africa and keep going back (or Alaska, or any other place I shoot wildlife). It's not "go once for a short period on a budget tour and get the shot of a lifetime." Oh, that happens by chance sometimes, but it really is by chance, not by the equipment someone is carrying. 

Realistically, you have to go to somewhere where the likelihood that you can get close is higher (e.g. not the Serengeti, but maybe the South African private preserves instead), you need to spend more time in the right positions and not chase after the shot, plus you need to understand and anticipate animal behavior. You may need to create a bird-friendly area within your yard and/or build/use a blind. You need to find where the lions are hunting, understand how they'll hunt, position yourself properly, and sit. 

1000mm to me indicates an impatient photographer. Personally, I'm very patient and perfectly happy with 400mm ;~), as in the following shot: 

bythom INT Africa Bots ChobeSavuti 7-2017 D500 28579

Or 70-200mm ;~)

bythom INT BOTS Savuti 2019 Z6 74383a

You get images like these not by buying more expensive equipment and then adding TCs to it, but by spending more time where such images can occur, being patient, and learning what the animals are likely to do and how to properly approach them doing it.

Nikon needs a 60mp camera. When will they introduce one?

I'm not sure you need a 60mp camera ;~). Having now spent some time with one (and a 100mp medium format one), for most people we're well into the declining improvement range with 60mp.

This question is sort of related to the first question: some people want 60mp to have way more cropping flexibility. They could get the same pixel density from a 24mp APS-C camera if they're looking at 60mp for "more reach", though. 

One of the things I wanted to look at with 60mp was just how much benefit that really produced in landscape photography. (Caveat: landscape photographers will always claim they can never have "enough". Of anything. Pixels, dynamic range, you name it. That's why we used to have folk wandering around with 8x10" film cameras and larger. ;~) 

My current favorite landscape lens is the Nikkor 19mm PC-E, not just because it's sharp, but also because it is flexible. Pano stitching is simple with that lens, and the plane of focus and perspective point can be controlled, too.

So what does the 60mp Sony A7Rm4 and 16-35mm f/2.8 give me over my D850 with the 19mm? Basically, a more impromptu, less workflow intensive capability with some very modest enlargement capability. Even that latter is a bit tricky, as I find Sony ARW files a little more difficult to fully optimize processing for than Nikon NEF files. 

But let's start with the premise that you're looking at making large prints. I've updated the table in my How Big Can You Print? article to now include 60mp and 100mp. Using the criteria I established over ten years ago after a lot of deep testing and examination, 60mp gets you to "good+" compared to "good" for a 45mp camera when you print at 36" maximum width. It takes a 100mp camera to get you to "excellent" at 36" print size.

Coincidentally as I was writing this response, a new question popped up in my In Box from someone asking if they should sell their 36mp D810 now before it lost any more value. Uh, why?  The D810 is a remarkably capable camera even today. Was this person planning on printing beyond what the desktop inkjet printers are capable of? No. Then they don't need to sell their D810 and wait for a 60mp Nikon.

I think I've been clear about this for a long time, maybe even the entirety of this century: I personally will always take more pixels because it gives me more sampling of the subject. However, the pragmatic benefits of more sampling is going down with each generation of sensor. And we're not tending to output large sized images as much as we used to. That combination means that pixels alone is no longer a huge motivating factor for someone to upgrade. 

I haven't released my Sony A7Rm4 review yet because I'm still working on it. But personally I had to make a decision: upgrade from my Mark III model? My answer was yes, but it was not even remotely influenced by pixel count. The real decision came because of handling changes to the body design and some EVF, focus, and write performance benefits. Sony fixed or improved a number of things that frustrated me with the previous model. The extra pixels was a side benefit of upgrading.

I suspect that a lot of Nikon shooters are going to fall into that same category when Nikon upgrades the D850 and/or Z7 models to 60mp. It won't be the pixel count that is the compelling upgrade feature, it will be other things.

Why do we need yet another card type (CFexpress)? SD cards work fine.
Why do we need yet another connector (USB-C)? What we have works fine.

I've grouped (and rephrased) these questions together because they derive from the same notion (status quo is okay). I could probably add a whole bunch of other similar questions (e.g. why do we need 4K or 8K?), but I'm going to concentrate on these two.

One thing I've noticed more and more about others in the Baby Boomer generation—which is the group most of the serious photo enthusiasts belong to—is this notion of "enough is enough, stop all the improvements" is now in full bloom. You'll note that all of the questions today revolve about trying to do more, which is the opposite.

So let's start with that last word in the quote, improvements. Yes, CFexpress is an improvement. Indeed, CFexpress Type B is an improvement over XQD, and the smaller CFexpress Type A (not yet available) is an improvement over SD (Secure Digital). 

What most don't realize is that cards have been mimicking ongoing internal personal computer engineering improvements for quite some time. CFexpress brings cards up to the PCIe 3.0 level, which means they can be quite fast, as fast as what's happening inside the bus of your PC. 

299MBps (Sony SD Tough UHS-II card) seems like it should be fast. It is, at least compared to where we started with SD. However, I've noted two things about SD versus XQD (and eventually CFexpress) that don't get talked about a lot. First, that 299MBps generally doesn't hold up under sustained writes. Fill the buffer, and you're in sustained write mode. This is one reason why SD isn't necessarily the right choice as we move to faster cameras with more pixels. 

The other has to do with getting those images off the card. The fastest current SD cards tend to be 300MBps read speed, and you can buy readers that can get that from the card in sustained reads to your PC (but not with USB 1.x, and often not with USB 2.x ;~). Current XQD cards tend to be 440MBps read speed, and CFexpress can double that (two-lane PCI instead of one). That means that you'll get those big 60mp images from your camera transferred faster to your computer. Those of us that shoot large quantities of images appreciate higher transfer speeds.

Which brings us to the USB side of things. Let's be clear, USB is a confusing mess. Some standards committees work decently to make clear the progression of tech and what will work with what. Others don't. USB is one of the better examples of total consumer confusion. 

We have USB 1.x, 2.x, 3.x, and yes, 4.x (not yet available). We have multiple "gens" (generations) with USB 3, which have different capabilities. We have naming conventions that were rendered meaningless ("Full Speed" is not at all what most people would call "full" these days, nor is "High Speed" actually all that "high"). We have Thunderbolt overlaid on top of USB. And we have a whopping 10 different USB connectors (plus some additional proprietary ones!). There's even two different power delivery options that can get in your way. None of this is clearly labeled, nor is it well understood by customers. Plus all this messiness happened in a bit over 20 years.

One of the goals of USB was to "simplify the interface between computers and peripherals." Yeah, didn't happen. 

Nevertheless, the need for what's happening in the underlying tech behind USB was indeed necessary. You may know about Moore's Law—the idea that the number of transistors doubles every two years—but there's been a similar trend in storage, often referred to as Kryder's Law. Our computers have been getting faster and beefier on predictable paths. Moreover, there's been a huge cost reduction curve, too. My original 5MB hard drive was the very first made by Seagate, literally, as in serial number 00001, and cost US$1500—$4600 adjusted for inflation—while today I can find 5TB drives that cost US$100.

While I was in the 0.01% with my desktop computer in 1980 (2MB RAM, 5MB drive), my needs grew exponentially as I did more with writing, photography, graphics, video, and publishing. Considering that a typewriter was considered state-of-the-art and had limited household penetration when I was in high school, the march of tech has been relentless in moving that bar upwards. 

The files that run my Web sites are nearing 20GB. And that's using small, compressed JPEGs. Put another way, I couldn't have fit these sites in 1980 onto my personal computer even if the Internet had existed then. 

Personally, I'm glad tech keeps moving the bar. It's allowed me to do more things, do it at higher quality, and in less time. I don't see that changing any time in the future. So I'm going to do what I've always done, and stay near the forefront of what's possible. If you want more beyond what you've got today with your cameras, you need to embrace this constantly moving progression of cards and cables, too.

If status quo is okay for you, then you're probably on Last Camera Syndrome. I'd advise you to purchase extra accessories and disposables now (such as batteries and storage cards), before you need them in the future and new ones are more difficult to find. Maximize what you get out of your current gear and be happy with it. No need to complain to others about standards moving on. You got off at a station and have decided to only explore its surroundings. 

Realize, however, that things change. In tech, they change pretty dramatically, fairly quickly. Once cameras started embracing electronic technology with auto metering and focusing in the 60's and 70's, it was inevitable that they'd have to be on the fast track to keep up with the rest of the world. As it turns out, the cameras companies are now running a slow train on a fast track, so are actually falling behind other competing and complimentary technologies. Some of us pros are struggling to keep up with our clients because of that. 

Aside: Note I wrote "[tech allowed] me to more things, do it at higher quality, and in less time." Let's apply that to recent cameras. More things? Uh, it seems that the imagination of the camera engineers is dwindling. Sure, we got focus stacking and pixel shifts recently, but it feels like these are not-quite-polished capabilities and we should be getting more of them, and more fully fleshed out. Higher quality? Yes, that's probably been the thing that the camera makers have done the best job on, though for the mass market there's the question of how high a quality is enough? We're above that bar. Which is one reason why MP3's ate CD's and now smartphones are eating dedicated cameras. Finally: in less time. The camera makers are failing big time on this. Menus sprawl. Communication standards lag our computers and mobile devices. Image processing workflow is still stuck in the one-hour processing lab. Even camera customization sucks big time. Why can't I store multiple "camera settings" on my smartphone and blast one over to the camera to instantly change the way the camera works?

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