What Happened? 


I want you to look closely at the following table of Nikon DSLR introduction dates:


Okay, that's a little small on this page’s narrow margins, but I really want you to look at the part in gray, so here it is in a bigger size:


Up until this time period, Nikon was slowly expanding its model lineup. The 1999-2006 period started with pro cameras (D1, D1h, D1x), expanded to prosumer DX cameras (D100, D200), eventually gained the High Consumer enthusiast DSLRs (D70, D70s, D80), and finally was rounded out with entry consumer DSLRs (D50, D40). The final addition came in 2009 with the mid-level consumer DSLR (D5000). 

But again, look carefully at the 2007-2009 lineup. Nikon’s first FX DSLR. Nikon’s highest megapixel DSLR (FX). Nikon’s twin prosumer offerings (FX and DX). Nikon’s first video-enabled DSLR. And a constantly iterating low end. 

It was during this period that Nikon reversed its decline against Canon amongst serious shooters and began to reinforce the duopoly that essentially knocked everyone else out of contention. Canon and Nikon essentially locked up DSLRs at that point, and at the end of the period in question we started seeing the first mirrorless entries as competitors tried to find a niche away from the two Goliaths. 

But now let’s look at the period after that:

  • Nikon updated the D3s to the D4, with what most of us regard as a modest update. 
  • Nikon didn’t update the D3x.
  • Nikon didn’t really update the D700, it replaced it with a functionally different D800.
  • Nikon added consumer FX.
  • Nikon didn’t update the D300s. 
  • Nikon continued to iterate the consumer models on a similar schedule as before.

Here in 2014 Nikon has essentially reversed its model lineup. In 2007 and 2008 Nikon’s lineup was strong at the top. From the D90 on up Nikon had solid, well-thought out, well-specified, high performing cameras that were sparkling new. And exciting enough to pull some folk back from the white stormtrooper lenses of the competition. 

Today, however, Nikon has an exceptionally strong consumer DX body lineup (note the use of the words “DX body” and not “DX” ;~). The D3300, D5300, and D7100 are all 24mp consumer cameras with pretty stunning potential image quality for the prices, and you can even have that in FX if you’d like. Strong. 

But now the heart of the serious camera lineup for the Nikon faithful is the opposite: weak. Okay, I suppose I can take the D800 as a replacement for the D3x, though the D800 is way more fragile a camera. But the D300/D700 pairing is gone, and neither really have a replacement (now in the sixth year post introductions). At the edges of this group of cameras the D4s is an okay update for a declining group of shooters and the D7100 makes do at the bottom despite its lack of buffer, but still: in 2008 Nikon was enormously strong across the board for a serious shooter, while in 2014 Nikon is now what I can only describe as weak.

Thus the headline: what happened? 

It seems obvious at this point that this switch of attention is intentional. But even that leaves me scratching my head, because the push to consumer DX was accompanied mostly by 18-xxx lenses. Buy a kit with a lens, now buy a lens that goes longer at the telephoto end. Strange. 

Some have insisted that Nikon wanted to move everyone to FX, but I’m not sure that’s fully true. The D600, Df, D800 all lumped into a narrow price range with three very different design goals doesn’t seem like a lineup to me, but more like a fishing expedition to see what they can catch. 

Did Nikon think that the D300, D700, and D3 models were so good that almost no one would replace them? Seems unlikely given what Nikon must have known about where sensors were headed. I personally believe you could take the D300s body as is and dump in a state-of-the-art 24mp sensor with supporting electronics and get a stampede of folk upgrading their aging D300’s. Add what else has happened since 2007 in Nikon DSLRs and the stampede would be a little more impressive. 

What saved Nikon in the days of film SLR decline were the N80 and F100. Those would be equivalent to the D7100 and D300s/D800 today. These are the folk that continue to buy additional Nikkor lenses, update their bodies with some regularity, and are the serious hobbyists. 

Let me exaggerate a bit:

  • Low and mid consumer DSLR: these are “closet" cameras. They get purchased because people think they need a quality camera but then discover how complex and big and heavy it is and it only comes out of the closet for special occasions. This group isn’t all that interested in features, just convenience and performance.
  • High level consumer to prosumer DSLR: these are the “hobby” cameras. They do get used with some regularity, often on vacations and a few special photography outings. This group are gear heads and will immerse themselves in the details of features and performance and any other comparison point they can glom onto. 
  • High prosumer to Pro DSLR: these are the “work” cameras. They are used regularly and often abused. This group values performance and quality to anything else. 

Nikon’s bread and butter has traditionally been in the last two groups, with the middle group being its largest and most loyal. I would guess that the group that Nikon has been chasing the most since 2009 (low and mid consumer) is the most unloyal and most likely to jump ship. They will be the most difficult to continue growing. First, because they’re not loyal, second because they don’t buy all that often, and third because other options are looking better and better. 

I worry that Nikon has pushed all this change of customer emphasis past a tipping point. With so much of their revenues and attention now tied to Coolpix through D7100, how much attention can they really apply to the higher end? To some degree, the Df is a good sign. The Df most certainly doesn’t appeal to the consumer type of customer; it appeals mostly to a very specific long-term Nikon loyalist. So it’s not that Nikon has completely lost sight of its core user base. Still, a properly done D400 would have outsold the Df by a huge margin, so I have to question whether Nikon is prioritizing correctly. 

I proposed the solution to Nikon over a decade ago: split the Imaging Group into consumer and pro/prosumer divisions. This isn’t just about drawing a line, there are a lot of things that can and should be done when you make such a finite distinction. When I first proposed this change, I had two specific things in mind for the high end:

  • Better user/designer communication produces better products
  • Improved support produces more loyal users

I even noted that most of us would be willing to pay for those things. A pro/prosumer group within Nikon could have tiered support/service: (1) regular support and repair as done now; (2) paid access to better and more responsive support and repair; and (3) a higher priced but far better NPS type of support and repair. 

Right now the “split” at Nikon, if there is one, is between Coolpix and everything else, and even then there’s not a lot of difference. Everything from a US$99 Coolpix to a US$7000 D3x gets pretty much the same type and level of support from Nikon, with very few exceptions. Most D3x purchasers really have no more access to giving Nikon feedback than the lowest Coolpix user. That’s just wrong. And now that we aren’t getting all those 2007-2009 prosumer to pro cameras updated, our loyalty is waning. Rapidly. 

There’s not a day that goes by now that I don’t get “that’s it, I’m done” emails from people who had made substantive purchases of Nikon gear. I’ve called this “leaking” in previous articles, but leaks have this nasty habit of causing collateral and substantive damage if left untended. 

Let me put it another way: I don’t think Coolpix, Nikon 1, or D3xxx/D5xxx cameras are going to save Nikon in the long run. I don’t think the folk buying those products are all that loyal to Nikon, either, which means that any mistakes in catering to them will just be met with moving to something else. 

If the prosumer/pro side of Nikon was looking fully maintained and healthy, I wouldn’t be so worried about them long term. It’s what got them through the film SLR and film camera declines. The D4s and Df aren’t enough, and they’re both niche products to start with. We need to see Nikon fully iterate a great D7200, D400, and find a way to bring back the D700 type of camera. That’s the heart of the serious user Nikon Imaging has lived off of for years. Does it matter if Nikon keeps the legacy F-mount if it’s not producing a D7200, D400, and D750? Probably not. 

So, beyond needing an answer to “what happened?” we Nikon faithful also need an answer to “what happens next?” Revert to form, or explore something else? That seems to be the position Nikon is in today. I know what my vote is for.

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