Another Type of User: Samplers

I’ve written about “leakers” from the Nikon DSLR system. By my definition, these are folk that didn’t get updates or products they wanted/needed from Nikon and decided that an alternative system was now better for them. Nikon will have a very difficult time getting those people back, especially those that sold off their Nikon DSLR system to finance the new system. 

Before I move on to the next category of problem users for Nikon, let me point out something else about leakers: they’re becoming “noisy.” As should Nikon’s marketing department, I have a number of Internet “scrapers” that try to find all new articles and posts about Nikon gear. What’s happening now is that I’m getting multiple “why I switched from a Nikon DSLR” content showing up every week in those scrapes. Often from popular photography-related Web sites. 

Nikon marketing needs to counter these “switcher” articles with marketing from key shooters that didn’t switch (e.g. “Why I’m sticking with my Nikon DSLR” types of articles). But right now the switchers are winning the Internet marketing war on Nikon.

Which brings me to a second level of problem for Nikon: samplers.

Samplers are folk with enough disposable income to indulge themselves. If some new product intrigues them or seems to cater to what they desire, they buy it to augment their current gear (i.e. Canon or Nikon DSLR, generally). This problem has become particularly problematic in the “pocket pro camera” category, where Nikon offers the Coolpix P7xxx and Coolpix A as their only real choices. The P7xxx has been fighting from behind for years now, always seeming to be one step behind, while the Coolpix A was just overpriced and poorly outfitted. 

The “pocket pro” category has a long history, dating well back into the film era. The problem it solved was a simple one: most of us serious shooters can’t really carry neck-strap type cameras around with us all the time, but we don’t ever want to miss a possible shot, so we want to carry something. 

The Olympus XA caused a real revolution amongst film SLR users: we all started buying them because it had enough user control, a great lens, and was small enough to carry everywhere. A whole raft of these type cameras started appearing, including the Nikon 28Ti and 35Ti, though both those cameras were a little off the mark, just as the Coolpix A was when launched. 

These days, the pocket pro type cameras that are getting a lot of sampling by DSLR users are the Canon G7X, the Fujifilm X30 and X100, the Panasonic LX100, the Sony RX1 and RX100, and even a few oddballs such as the Leica X and the Ricoh GR. Until Nikon lowered the price of the Coolpix A recently to a more reasonable US$700, Nikon wasn’t really in the game. The Coolpix P7800 doesn’t get a lot of respect in this category, mostly due to its use of a small sensor (12mp 1/1.7”). 

Likewise, Nikon isn’t benefiting much in this category from samplers starting with rival systems. Canon DSLR shooters are just buying a Canon pocket camera, not sampling Nikon’s. 

The problem with sampling is this: it introduces a user to a new system, and if they like that system they’re more inclined to eventually leak to other products that company makes. 

The Fujifilm X100 worked this way, for example. Quite a few DSLR shooters I know decided that having a Fujifilm X100 handy was a great always-with-me shooting option. It was the modern XA equivalent. This introduced them to Fujifilm’s retro controls, high build quality, Fujifilm’s well-tuned JPEG colors, and the X-Trans sensor, which tends to operate above its size class in low light. When Fujifilm then applied much of the same things to a mirrorless ILC lineup, guess what, some of those samplers became full-on leakers. It also helped that Fujifilm clearly was talking to serious shooters and making a steady stream of updates that addressed real shooter concerns.

This, by the way, is one of what I believe are problems with Olympus’ m4/3 lineup: the XZ and Stylus cameras didn’t really get a lot of samplers, the Olympus menus are still poorly worded and complex, and thus the m4/3 OM-Ds didn’t have as much leaker momentum to propel them. Fujifilm’s mirrorless sales are growing. Olympus’ are flat or in slight decline. 

On the flip side, Sony’s RX100 definitely is more like the Fujifilm X100: samplers become leakers because they like what they got with their initial taste of the company’s products.  

I suspect that Nikon hoped that the Nikon 1 would be a great sampler option for them. In fact, a bit of a trojan horse sampler, in that the Nikon 1 was really a bit more directed at the “mom” of the family. Nikon was hoping that if mom was happy, that might carry over to dad and the rest of the family. 

Unfortunately, the Nikon 1 had so many small irritations and way too high a price to foster much sampling. And those that did sample it tended to find something they didn’t like. Worse still, many samplers formed a strong impression of how likely Nikon was to ever produce a successful mirrorless camera based upon their Nikon 1 experience: not.  

I’ve been a sampler, as well. That really started with using the early Olympus Pen bodies for landscape and general shooting on African safaris, but expanded well beyond that over time. I’m going to generalize what I’m hearing from others about their sampling experience, but my own experience tends to agree with them:

  • Canon — A little bit hit and miss. The G series cameras have tended to be quite good, but too large in size to be truly pocketable. The S90/S100 tended to be nicely pocketable, but not as good (small sensor, the Coolpix problem). The latest G7X seems to be an attempt to reconcile those two things.
  • Fujifilm — The X30 still struggles (small sensor problem again), but the X100T shines. The X100T is at the extreme of pocketability, but everything else is positive. 
  • Nikon — Just hasn’t nailed it yet with any product. 
  • Olympus — Like Nikon, really hasn’t nailed it with their pocket pro cameras, though the XZ1 came close for its time.
  • Panasonic — Has always been a contender with the LX series, and the latest LX100 has them once again getting a lot of buzz and a fair amount of sampling. One thing that Panasonic is getting right, as does Fujifilm, is putting control in the photographers fingers, where it belongs. One interesting thing is that Leica’s rebranding of Panasonic cameras has helped Leica with sampling, too ;~). 
  • Sony — The RX100 is now on Mark III and has gotten better with each iteration. Sony still needs to look at how user control works, but if you can get by the compact camera UI, the rest is all just about right. The RX1 gives Sony another option that caters to a smaller niche and also mostly get things right. Now that the RX and A mirrorless lines are fairly alike in features/controls, Sony has the same kind of feeder thing going on that Fujifilm does: samplers become leakers. 

Sampling doesn’t just take place with pocket cameras for serious shooters, though. Sampling has also started taking place in looking for particular attributes that DSLRs aren’t giving users. In particular, two such areas have momentum:

  • Smaller/Lighter — The DSLR user is getting a tired neck and back, especially those of us heading into retirement. The DSLR makers aren’t giving us a lot of options here. Sure, Canon has the SL1, but I again have to harp on lenses: just giving us kit lenses for crop sensor cameras isn’t enough. We want the entire system to be there, and to be smaller and lighter when we pick it up. Nikon is just out to lunch here, with no option at all, really. Moreover, their insistence on pushing longer and longer 18-xx zooms is actually making DX systems bigger and heavier, exactly against the sampling trend. 

    These folks are sampling. And what they’ve tended to sample is m4/3 and Sony NEX-type mirrorless cameras, though Fujifilm has gotten a few, too (Fujifilm’s full on mirrorless, such as the XT-1 and a full set of lenses, doesn’t always come out “lighter”). A few have tried the Nikon 1, especially when Nikon has put them on steep discounts. Right now the ones that seem to leak are those sampling Sony’s mirrorless offerings. The ones that keep sampling are the ones that tried the Nikon 1 ;~). 

  • Convenience — Nikon’s got the convenience zoom thing down with DSLRs. But that smaller/lighter trend I just talked about still applies. A lot of serious photographers, including myself, ask ourselves this: I’m going on a quick trip and I want something flexible, but I don’t want to take a full on DSLR kit with me, is there an answer? Sure, Panasonic has the FZ1000 and Sony the RX10. Ironically, both use the same 1”-sized sensor that Nikon sticks into their Nikon 1 cameras. So why wouldn’t a Nikon 1 apply here? Simple answer: the fast all-around lens doesn’t exist to help the Nikon 1 sensor in low light and the Nikon 1 cameras just don’t have the same directness of control and feature list, for the most part. Moreover, the best of the bunch, the V3, is too expensive. 

    And again, samplers have this way of being leakers. In the Sony world, the RX10 is close enough to the RX100 and A6000 and A7 bodies in features/controls (and even battery, except for the RX100) that it isn’t that big of a switch to pick up one versus another of those bodies.

In particular, Sony is sitting fairly pretty at the moment when it comes to sampling and eventual leaking. You can get really good 1” sensor cameras from Sony, really good APS sensor cameras from Sony, and really good full frame cameras from Sony, and the features/controls and even batteries (except for the RX100) have a great deal of commonality amongst them. 

So the real question for Nikon is this: when will they have a product that truly encourages sampling by users of competitive products? It’s not the Coolpix P series, it’s not the Nikon 1 series, so what is it? Nikon’s DSLRs are fine, there’s not a dud amongst the bunch. But they’re big and heavy, the emphasis in the lower end is on convenience zooms, and Nikon doesn’t really have an answer for pocket, all-in-one, or smaller/lighter. Until they do have those answers, the sampling will continue, and the leaking increase. 

I’ll offer my advice for those thinking about sampling:

  • Pocket — The Sony RX100III is the king of the bunch still, at least if we’re talking about any pocket. It’ll struggle in low light, but it’s just a fine carry everywhere camera. Honorable mention: Canon G7X, but it doesn’t have an EVF, which changes the style of shooting you’ll do with it. 
  • Big Pocket — When we broaden out to jacket pocket carry ability, the Panasonic LX100 and GM5 certainly come into play. Both have some slight downsides, with the LX100’s problem for some being that it’s really a 12mp camera, while the GM5’s problem being that the zoom lens options that keep it small are slower variable aperture ones (though some of the pancake primes are a really nice fit). Fujifilm’s X100T also should be looked at in this category, as long as you’re willing to have a 35mm equivalent prime as your only lens. The Sony RX1 needs a big jacket pocket and it isn’t a really fast focuser (and the EVF is optional and makes it not fit the pocket), but it’s got a great sensor and lens. 
  • Smaller & Lighter — This is where the mirrorless cameras come to play. In particular the Fujifilm X series (though watch what happens with weight with certain lens sets), but especially the Olympus OM-D and Sony A6000/A7 products. An E-M10 with the right lenses is highly competent and very small and light, as is the Sony A6000. My choice would be the Sony if the lenses you want are there. My choice would be the Olympus if you’re going to buy a set of small, fast primes (12mm, 20/25mm, 45mm, 75mm make a darned good set that’s remarkable small and gets you from 24mm to 150mm). 
  • Convenience — I haven’t tried the Panasonic FZ1000 yet, but the Sony RX10 is what I gave my mom (and I miss it not being in my gear closet). The RX10 may be the near perfect travel camera, though I’ll caution you that it’s not as small and light as you can get with the mirrorless cameras I just mentioned. The thing that you’re getting for the size and weight is that highly convenient 24-200mm (equivalent) f/2.8 lens. If there’s some photo you can’t take with that lens, then you needed a specialty camera/lens. 

I’d also be remiss to not mention the Coolpix A. At it’s current US$700 price, it’s a viable big pocket choice. It’s got a very nice 16mp DX sensor/28mm (equivalent) lens pairing that produces remarkably excellent images. The price problem is still there, however. To really use this camera right, you need the optional US$400 optical finder and the optional US$90 filter adapter/lens hood. You’ll need the Nikon lens hood, for sure, if you want to maximize your results with this camera, but I’ll give you a less expensive option for the finder: Voigtlander 28mm (US$210) or Sigma VF-11 (US$140). The Ricoh GV-1 and GV-2 can also be used on the Coolpix A. 

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