What We Wanted versus What Nikon Gave Us

We’re pretty deep into the D4 generation now. At this point, one can make some conclusions about where Nikon drove that generation of cameras versus previous generations. 

Before we move on, let me point out why consistency and predictability of product generations is important to users: they want to plan. Most of us photographers don’t just dump everything we have and buy a whole new set of gear every time we “update” our gear. Instead, we budget money each year for replacing old gear and augmenting our existing set with some new options. 

One nice thing about being a Nikon user has been that Nikkor F-mount lenses have been useful over an enormous time period, meaning that we can “collect” a set and augment it from time to time. Most old Nikkors still perform quite well, even on demanding bodies such as the D810. The D800 did make some of us make a few adjustments to our lens sets—as did the D7100 for the same reason—but for the most part there has still been predictability in our future product acquisition. 

I contend that Nikon has been messing this up somewhat in recent times. Predictability has gone down, while consistency in the Nikon product line is lower than it has ever been before (try picking up a Df body, then a D750, then a D810: different controls in different places, for one thing, yet they’re all advanced FX bodies that a serious user might want more than one of for various reasons, such as backup or different sensor use). 

First, let’s recap where we’ve been. The very successful D3 generation was:

  • D3 (then D3s) speed, low light FX pro camera 
  • D3x pixels, studio FX pro camera
  • D700 speed, prosumer FX camera
  • D300 speed, prosumer DX camera
  • D3000, D5000, D90 consumer DX cameras

The D4 generation has been:

  • D4 (then D4s) speed, low light FX pro camera
  • D800 (then D810) pixels FX prosumer camera
  • D750 speed FX camera in consumer body
  • Df low light retro FX consumer-based camera
  • D600 (then D610) entry FX consumer camera
  • D3300, D5300, D7100 consumer DX cameras

The two anchors at either end stayed the same (D3 -> D4 top pro body and the three-model consumer DX line at the bottom that incremented a digit or two). Everything in between changed significantly. Predictability was broken for the upgrader (especially the D300 or D700 user). 

What I think most faithful Nikon users wanted was something more similar to the D3 generation. The full embodiment of that today would look like something like this:

  • D4s speed, low light FX camera
  • D4x pixels, studio FX camera 
  • D800s speed, low light prosumer FX camera
  • D800x pixels prosumer FX camera
  • D400 speed, prosumer DX camera
  • D3300, D5300, D7300 consumer DX cameras

Sometimes I have to wonder if Nikon is reading user surveys too closely, coupled with being too worried too much about what Canon is doing and then micromanaging those things to death. For example, take the missing D4x versus the D800/D810: the only real customer gripe about the D3x was price. Well, Nikon fixed that with the D800 ;~). By making the pixels oriented studio FX camera into something much less pro in body build. Couple that with the complaint that the D700 was only 12mp and Canon had upped the 5D to 21mp, and suddenly the 36mp micromanaged D800 solution looked like it addressed all complaints simultaneously. User complaints solved.

Not really. The number one user complaint about the D800 quickly became that it didn’t use the 16mp D4 sensor nor have as much speed as did the D700 it looked like it replaced in the lineup. Files were too big for some, too, due to the huge leap in pixel count. So here we are in 2014 and Nikon seems to be trying to address those complaints with things like the D750 and the sRaw option in the D810. But with the D750 we have a body going downscale—this time to consumer grade. The D750 still doesn’t quite address all the user complaints, just as the D800 didn’t, either. 

Then we have the Df, D600/D610, and the missing D300s update to deal with. The entire prosumer part of the Nikon DSLR lineup has been mucked with. Which brings me to a complaint I’ve had for awhile now but need to repeat here: the D3/D300/D700 generation basically saved Nikon’s bacon vis-a-vis Canon. It reversed a slide that was mostly downwards in market share with the D2 generation, despite the fact that these new bacon-savers were 12mp cameras at a time when Canon already had a 21mp one and was constantly pushing upwards in pixel count. One has to wonder who in management thought that “oh well, the D3 generation was a mistake and thus we shouldn’t repeat that?” The D3 generation wasn’t a mistake, and it should have been strengthened in the next generation, not bifurcated and weakened in the middle.

What I’m guessing is that Nikon knew what sensors Sony had in the pipeline and that Sony was going to use them themselves. With 24mp and 36mp Sony competitors on one side and Canon at 21mp on the other, 16mp might have looked lame for even a D700-replacement type D800. But, again, one could have said the same about 12mp in 2007.  

While sensors are a defining element in a DSLR, it’s not the pixel count that’s the primary defining element at the high end. It’s what you can do with the sensor. It’s the images that are produced. Plenty of design dissonances are apparent when you begin to analyze the market. Look at the demand for “more pixels” versus “more fps,” for example. Nikon originally choose “more pixels,” and not just a few more, but 2x and 3x more. Meanwhile, many Nikon D300/D700 users wanted “more fps,” even if it didn’t produce much additional pixel count. (Note that I’m not one of those who wanted “more fps;” I’m looking at information I collect from other Nikon users and analyzing that, not expressing my own wants/needs. I was perfectly happy with the D800, though I still miss the D3/D4 style body.) 

How about the Df? It has the 16mp sensor, after all. I fear that I might have played a small part in the Df approval process. At the time I met with Nikon management a few years back, the Df wasn’t yet approved for production. There was great debate within Nikon about whether to produce it or not. Along I came with surveys of 20,000+ Nikon DSLR users that said that a “retro style” stills-only camera—specifically what I called the FM3D—would be popular with the faithful. What Nikon produced in the Df is more hybrid retro/DSLR than pure retro. But not long after I met with Nikon executives it got green lighted, and I suspect that my data might have helped tip the internal debate. 

Yet the Df landed square in the “what the heck” questioning the Nikon faithful have been repeating on each new product introduction in the D4 generation. No D700-style body with the 16mp sensor but rather a hybrid retro body in mostly consumer cladding? What the heck. No D300s update, but consumer-oriented D600s and D7100s? What the heck? Pushing the apparent D700 followup all the way to 36mp? What the heck? Coming out with yet another FX model “in the middle” with the D750? What the heck?

Don’t get me wrong. The D8xx cameras are quite fine cameras. They became my primary camera beginning in 2012 and to a large degree the D810 remains so today. The D7100—as I wrote earlier—is good enough to be a primary camera on my wildlife trips. So it’s not so much that Nikon is producing “bad” cameras as it is that the Nikon faithful are wondering why we’re getting deviations from a solid lineup that are never quite what we expect. 

In short, Nikon is making it difficult for their loyal users to predict and plan their purchases over time. 

Meanwhile, Canon seems to be on the Mark II/III/IV path with most everything these days. No real surprises, sure, but someone who was using an earlier version knows pretty much what they’re getting with the new version: same body style with performance and feature improvement. 

There seems to be two kinds of problems in the camera company kitchens these days: (1) cooks that only know how to make what they’ve made before; and (2) too many chefs, most of which aren’t actually tasting their own fare before they serve it. Canon appears to fall into category 1, while Nikon seems to be clearly a number 2 these days. 

We watched this same type of battle happen in the PC business. Slowly, innovation and true technical achievements seemed to be replaced mostly with dishes made for mass consumption at lowest possible price, seasoned with minor innovations and slight performance tweaks, plus attempts at “tweener” and slightly different product definitions in order at the higher end to find something a customer would buy. 

At the point where people’s word processor didn’t run faster or do more, the average customer stopped buying PCs except to replace ones that died. That’s where we’re at with cameras: many people have now found that their snapshots don’t come out better, so they slowed or stopped their DSLR replacement. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons why updaters leak: at least by going to one of the very capable mirrorless cameras they’ll get a smaller, lighter package that can make basically the same photos. 

Nikon's choice has been to hunt for short term boosts of sales at higher prices (e.g. Df, D750) as opposed to updating existing products in predictable fashion for their current user base. Yet those new products aren’t exactly well differentiated and introduce new predictability problems for their user base. Really? Yes, really. If you’ve bought a Df or D750, what do you think the next iteration of your product will be like? Will it be an expected upgrade (new sensor, added features), or will it be another side-venture into something even more different (different controls, different body style, different mix of components/performance)? 

For me, I’m happy. The camera I’ve been using (the D800E) got a decent refresh/upgrade that was predictable and didn’t mess anything up for me (e.g., the D810). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I get a D850 (or whatever the number) that continues that trend. But unfortunately, I can’t make that statement at the moment about the D300s, D700, D3x, Df, or even D750. Thus, for a lot of Nikon users, these are frustrating times. 

Nikon is making great DSLRs, no doubt about it. From the D3300 up through the D810 there’s not really a dud in the bunch. But the way the bunch is being shifted and managed means that we’ve gotten pretty much only three predictable serious cameras in the last three years: D7100, D810, and D4/D4s (and one of those, the D810, was a predictable change to an unpredictable change ;~). 

The problem, of course, is that most of us are now expecting a bigger change to occur (from DSLR to mirrorless). So, coupled with the unpredictability of the model line management in the middle of Nikon’s DSLR lineup in the last few years, we have the unpredictability as to when the mirror box goes away. So yes, Nikon users are an unsettled bunch at the moment. 

Here’s the thing: Nikon wants to sell us lenses and accessories as well as cameras. But when we start hesitating on camera purchases due to unpredictable line management, we also start hesitating at everything else, too. 

The good news is this: if Nikon were to make a pivot of some sort and restore predictability, I suspect that the Nikon faithful will go back to being the loyal upgraders they’ve been. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve argued for even a modest road map from Nikon: we customers want to understand and plan our future purchases more than just guessing Nikon will make something we want. It’s darned difficult to put any money into any new DX product at the moment because it seems Nikon is neglecting that format.

The bad news is this: at the moment, Nikon is mostly unpredictable as to what happens next. One of my focuses has been on trying to get more information from my inside sources about what’s really happening with the D5, due in late 2015 or early 2016. I think that product is really key to understanding where Nikon thinks they’re going. The D1 and D3 generations were seminal signals about Nikon’s future (the D2 and D4 more mid-term updates on the ideas). I believe that the D5 was scheduled as Nikon’s next big stab at moving cameras forward using technology. But at this point, it’s impossible to predict what that is, other than it’s an FX camera. I really hope I’m not finding myself writing a similar article in the middle of the D5 generation as I am here in the D4 generation.

And therein lies the issue for Nikon users: we’ve had high confidence in the past that Nikon will produce what we want and need (late D2 generation excepted). Recent camera introductions, however good the camera has been, seem more random than we’re used to, and everyone has gotten a bit paranoid about where we’re going. We certainly are having more troubles planning out our upgrade buying future. 

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