The dpreview Nikon Interview

dpreview posted an interview with Toshiaki Akagi, an executive in Nikon’s development organization. They’ve also posted interviews with Canon, Fujifilm, and Sony executives, as they usually do post-Photokina. 

The Japanese companies tend to be accused of not having their executives out there answering questions enough, but frankly, when they see the reactions generated by the interviews they do give, they probably get even more reluctant to say anything. Basically, every word is scrutinized to the nth degree for hints of actual future product specifications—which no executive is ever going to leak, by the way—and then bashed to death when those answers aren’t revealed. 

I’ll give dpreview credit for asking relatively tough questions for a change, but that just makes the likelihood of a satisfactory answer lower. In my experience, you can’t ask tough questions in a short interview and get more than the standard party line. You have to have enough time to actually develop a real conversation in which a few tough questions are snuck in, in order to get better responses. 

So what’s the problem with what Akagi-san said? I’ll get to my key takeaway in a minute, but it seems that the Nikon faithful are upset that he didn’t tell them when a D300s replacement will appear. Indeed, the use of the word “studying” in his answer seems to have them all thinking “Nikon must not have even taken the first step towards actually building a prototype.” 

Wrong. Very wrong.

To my knowledge, Nikon has prototyped a D300s replacement more than once now, maybe even as many as three or four times. It’s clear from information I hear out of Japan that they’ve been working on a follow-up product for some time. While I’ve had harsh comments about some of Nikon’s camera products—in particular the Nikon 1 lineup that seems to be still trying to find its place in the world—I’ve not known Nikon to take a DSLR update lightly, and other than creating an FX log-jam, I’d have to say that their DSLR iterations have been pretty good. 

Clearly there’s something about their process and prioritization that we don’t know about that has gotten us to the place where a very seminal camera has undergone almost no tangible replacement for seven years. In retrospect, the very minor D300s update was probably a mistake when it wasn’t followed up with a real update a year or two later. Now with Canon updating the primary competition after five years, the pressure is on Nikon to respond or else lose a niche that they once owned. To think that executives at Nikon don’t realize this would be a mistake. 

So let’s be clear. Akagi-san wasn’t going to announce anything in a quick Photokina interview, though he kind of did when he mentioned 4K video, new DX lenses in the future, and “didn’t deny the possibility” of larger sensor mirrorless cameras. Had he said “we’re working on a D300s replacement” this would have been no more satisfying to those complaining about the lack of said camera than his “we are studying that demand.” 

Generally, there’s careful nuance in Nikon executives' answers, often giving hints at future products, but definitely not details. Many years ago, Nikon’s President made a comment about not making a full frame camera, for example. Many interpreted his actual remark incorrectly as meaning that they weren’t going to respond to Canon’s full frame camera. But the full context was something along the lines of “until it’s economically viable.” That to me was a hint. Nikon thought it would be economically viable for them in the future, we just didn’t know when that future would be at the time (turned out to be 2007). 

In this case, Nikon is certainly considering the D300s followup, we just don’t now when it will appear. In other words, the answer tells us nothing we didn’t already know. The real issue here is that a D300s successor is seriously late. It should have appeared in 2011 or 2012 at the latest. It didn’t. At the moment, I don’t believe it could appear before early 2015, but who knows, Nikon has launched important cameras in November/December before. 

As I’ve noted before, D300 users have been ready to upgrade to something. Nikon caught a few of them with FX cameras, for sure, but my email is filled with what I call “leakers”: people who decided to wait no longer and tried other cameras—mostly the high-end mirrorless ones—and found something better than the options they got from Nikon. Once they start buying into an alternate system, it’s tough to win those folk back, as they have a large sunk cost in new lenses and accessories. 

Worse still, without the right DX lenses, a D300s successor would be a bit of a dud, as having a camera body that’s what you want but not the lenses to match it is now highly problematic. We’re getting pretty full basic lens systems from all the cameras Nikon DX users are leaking to. At the least, the DX system needs a 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm equivalent prime (preferably fast and as pancake as possible), and fast constant aperture zooms in the mid-range and near telephoto (e.g. 16-50mm f/2.8, 50-135mm f/2.8, both with VR). The longer stuff can be handled by the FX lineup, and the 12-24mm f/4 just needs a refresh. 

The real issue for Nikon is this (and is implied by the “studying” comment): the longer the D300s replacement takes, the more problematic the definition of that product becomes. That’s because the niche it lives in is a moving target and one which will eventually be replaced by mirrorless if they delay too long. 

The good news is that Canon’s 7DMarkII moves the bar, but not particularly far. Certainly not out of the realm that Nikon could do today (basically 24mp, 10fps). The bad news is that things like global shutters, faster sensors, and phase-detect-on-sensor are pushing us quickly above the 10 fps territory. Witness the Samsung NX1 at 28mp and 15 fps. So the risk is that a D300s successor done like the 7D successor might have a short shelf life, just as the D300s did.

But all of that D300 angst being delivered by Nikon fans on Internet fora and social media is not the message I took away from dpreview’s interview. I think there’s something more revealing and key in the answers.

Go back again and read Akagi-san's words carefully. There were two components to virtually all of his answers: (1) listening to customers; and (2) need to match competitors. The first was prevalent, though often because of the way dpreview phrased its questions. But what kept sneaking in was the second (“we should aim for the same level of functionality in order to compete,” “thanks to products from manufacturers like Sony,” but most illuminating: “a new product might come out from one of our competitors and everything might change”).

Personally, I’d feel better if there was a stronger sense of “leading our customers.” Both the listening to customers and watching competitors notions are both backwards-facing. What’s missing in the camera business right now is the foward-facing “new and better ways to solve customer problems.” 

So if you ask me, the big takeaway is that Nikon is looking externally for answers (customers and competitors). What’s missing from Akagi-san’s answers are a clear indication that Nikon knows what the future of photography will be like, and how it will be different.

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