Another Thom Q&A

(commentary & speculation)

I tend to get repeating questions via email and this site’s contact form. From time to time I’ve created articles to disseminate my responses more broadly. This is one of those articles.

Let’s start with lenses this time.

Q: Will we see more PF lenses?
A: Yes. It takes a unique lens need to make this viable, though.

Q: So we’ll see it the exotics?
A: No, I don’t think so. Nikon’s goal with the exotics (200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, 800mm f/5.6) is to produce the very best image quality they know how to create. The Phase Fresnel technology does have some compromises to it, so it doesn’t fit Nikon’s goal for those exotics. A more likely move with the exotics is to go to lighter glass with regular elements coupled with careful barrel lightening, ala the latest 400mm f/2.8. That said, Nikon is missing a more affordable 400mm option (Canon sort of has two, the f/5.6 and the f/4 DO), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see PF pop up there some day. But not in the top exotics. 

I also expect to see PF show up in some of the long focal range zooms (e.g. 18-300mm DX, 28-300mm FX) with the goal towards making the big convenience zooms smaller and lighter. Curiously, the rumored 24-70mm f/2.8 replacement is another place we may see PF, probably in an attempt to downsize and lighten that lens.

Q: How about E versus G? Are we going to get more E lenses?
A: I think that’s a very safe bet, especially with Nikon moving more and more towards high-end video aspirations (at the pace of a tortoise, though). Currently, the most “mainstream” E lens we have is the 300mm f/4E just introduced, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 24-70mm f/2.8E pop up, and it might be the logical next step for the 70-200mm, as well. I’m a little surprised that the f/1.4 lens series wasn’t E, by the way. Only a little, though. Where the aperture resides in the lens optics plays a bit of a part in whether Nikon wants to use mechanical or electronic capabilities, I believe.

Q: And Sport VR? What’s that? And what happened to Active VR? 
Excellent questions for which I don’t yet have a good answer from Nikon. First, let’s make sure that everyone knows what “Active VR” is all about: you use it when the platform from which you’re shooting is moving (car, plane, boat, helicopter, etc.). When Active VR is turned on, the VR system is looking for a different kind of vibration than those typically caused by handholding gear. Active platforms tend to have small but high frequency components to their motion, whereas handholding tends to have large but low frequency components to the motion. In essence, Nikon is trying to optimize the motions they’re looking for to remove. The mechanical switch provides a hint about what kind of motion the system should concentrate on.

Nikon’s own VR Web micro-site still doesn’t say anything about sport mode. Nikon has said very little about it: “normal VR slows the frame rate, while VR Sport enables high speed continuous shooting.” It appears to be a mode that recognizes panning, much like Image Stabilizer Mode 2 on Canon lenses. It appears to me that the re-centering of the VR element isn’t being done just prior to the shot in some cases, as well. Nikon specifically recommends Sport VR for panning with a subject, even though Normal VR should also deal with that. I’m still waiting for answers from Nikon Japan for several key questions that came up when Sport VR mode suddenly appeared on recent lenses. 

The most interesting question is this: why is Active and Sports an either/or thing (no lens has both)? It seems to me that we’re losing something useful, but without further information out of Japan, it’s unclear what was lost and why.

Q: Will we see a new 24-70mm? 
A: Yes. It’s the usual “but when?” question that’s the problem. Nikon has a long history of iterating sets of key lenses. The 24-70mm is as key as it gets. It’s definitely showing its age and the 24-70mm hasn’t been through Nikon’s recent optimization program that tries to balance all the traits of the optics to new, higher targets.

The problem with lenses is…well…lenses. First pour of glass to final polished element is a very long time, as much as a year. Each time Nikon switches to new glass technologies, such as ED a while back or recently fluorite or phase fresnel—note that one patent for a new 24-70mm is phase fresnel—I think they basically put themselves in a box where they can’t produce the quantity of glass they need to do everything quickly. When lenses prove more popular than expected, it puts backlogs into the glass production that affect future lens production schedules. The power supply issues in Japan after the 2011 quake didn’t help matters any. Most high end glass production needs constant power, and the power blackouts in 2011 and 2012 had Nikon and others scrambling to add additional on-site power capability to keep equipment running.  

Q: Are new DX lenses just not coming?
A: I’ve learned to trust certain types of answers by Nikon executives over the past few decades. We’ve had multiple Nikon executives say “more DX lenses are coming.” The problem, of course, is that this answer is so generic, and many might interpret that to mean “yes we’ll continue to do 18-xx zoom variations.” In looking at the original Japanese of question and answer and asking a Japanese friend to confirm my impression, I’d say that the answer was somewhat responsive to the question “will there be new types of DX lenses coming?” 

Thus, I’m going to go out on the limb a bit and say that we’ll see some new, non-18mm-to-x zoom types of DX lenses in the future. Maybe not a lot of them, but enough to quiet the “Nikon doesn’t make DX lenses other than convenience zooms” complaint. I believe we’ll see 16-xx become the new bar for the zooms, too.

Here’s the problem, though. Those quotes were mostly made around Photokina 2014. Assuming those executives were talking about what they knew was coming, that “coming” could be anywhere between now and Photokina 2016 due to the way that lenses work in Nikon’s R&D. So us DX users will all be holding our breath (and buying third party lenses) until something actually does show up.

Q: Are f/1.4 primes done? Are f/2.8 primes a thing of the past?
A: Maybe. The f/1.8 prime set only needs a 24mm and 105mm to functionally complete it, and that seems to be where Nikon’s focus is at the moment. The only missing f/1.4 prime is the 28mm, which isn’t as popular a focal length these days and already has a perfectly fine f/1.8 version available. I suspect we’ll see another f/1.2 optic before an f/1.4 one, if for no other reason than to remind us that you can do such a lens in the F-mount ;~). At the slower end of primes we haven’t seen an f/2.8 optic in forever, though the pressure on smaller/lighter may make Nikon rethink their avoidance. I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see a 35mm f/2.8 FX prime pop up in near pancake form at lowish cost, but I’d be somewhat surprised.

Q: Why are the mirrorless makers filling their lineup gaps better than Nikon?
A: Because they have to. Nikon’s continued use of the F mount gives them more than 50 years worth of lenses in the used category to fill gaps, and a surprisingly high number of those work just fine even on cameras like the D810.  Plus by keeping some of the older lenses available new, Nikon currently lists 89 possible "new" lenses to put on your Nikon DSLR. Of course, depending upon how we define it, only about 30 of those lenses are up to Nikon’s current “modern” standards. Still, there’s a lot of choice available to a Nikon DSLR user, especially FX users. If Nikon continues their 5 or 6 yearly DSLR lens introductions, that’s basically matching pretty much anybody else, so the ecosystem stays healthy. 

Q: How many lenses do we actually need from Nikon?
A: I’ve written it before: the classic perspectives of photography really require a fairly small subset of lenses: 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm fast primes, 24-70mm, 70-200mm fast zooms. Everything else is either convenience (e.g. slower zooms with different ranges) or extension to specific needs (e.g. wider and longer primes, longer zooms). So let’s apply that to Nikon at the moment and see what we get:

DX: oops. We have the 50mm fast prime equivalent and almost have the 24-70mm fast zoom equivalent (17-55mm), plus we can probably live with the FX 70-200mm if we have to, but are missing all the others. Serious deficiency here, especially with Fujifilm fast filling in their lineup and now providing a clear APS (DX) alternative.

FX: We’ve got them all, plus in the primes we have both f/1.4 and f/1.8 choices (other than at 24mm and 28mm). Indeed, we have nice extensions on either side of what I wrote. You’d be extremely well served just with the following lenses:

  • 20mm f/1.8, 24mm f/1.4, 28mm f/1.8, 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8, 58mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 200mm f/2 primes 
  • 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 200-400mm f/4 zooms

Extremely well served. If you don’t need fast zooms, you can substitute f/4 ones between 16-200mm. Still, it would be nice to get a revision of the 24-70mm zoom, and maybe a new fast 105mm or 135mm optic. 

Okay, on to cameras.

Q: Do I still need to manually clean my camera’s sensor?
A: At some point, yes. Maybe even right when you get your camera. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this lately, as the D600 dust/oil problem has everyone looking more intensely for problems these days. They see a splatter or two on their new camera, or several on their years-old one, and panic. Let me state it emphatically: the reason why I wrote the first article on cleaning your DSLR’s image sensor back in 2000 is still active, though things are somewhat better now than they were then due to the dust avoidance systems designed into current cameras. 

At some point, though, your sensor is going to get something on it that the automatic shake-it-off system won’t remove. Given that the automatic system works pretty well for simple, common dust, the most likely things that are going to drive you to clean are: lubricant splatter, moisture (humidity), pollen, and larger and stickier “dust” and hair. 

I still believe that every DSLR owner should have a basic cleaning kit handy and know how to use it. The only thing that’s really changed is that a blower bulb is less likely to remove anything (the shaker does that job pretty well) and you’re more likely to need a detergent-based solution than methanol than you used to (because lubricant splatter isn’t easily removed with alcohol). But the basics of my recommendations really haven’t changed in over a decade.

Q: Is that true of mirrorless, too?
A: Yes. Though the smaller sensor mirrorless owners don’t tend to see the problem as they don’t often use very small apertures due to diffraction. Still, anything on the sensor reduces contrast. 

Q: What about the Sensor Gel Stick for cleaning?
A: Variations of that approach have been around for awhile. I’m a little leery of any “sticky” product that doesn’t clearly state its propensity for leaving residual material after cleaning (there are standards for this in labs, after all). What I found when the first of these solutions came out six or seven years ago is that it made it more difficult to later do a wet clean of the sensor. Will you ever need to do a wet clean? Yes, if you get lubricant splatter or pollen on the sensor. 

Thus, my recommendations for sensor cleaning really haven’t changed in now 15 years: (1) blow/shake easily removed dust/debris; (2) use a sensitized brush to remove stubborn dust/debris; and (3) use a liquid (wet) cleaning if you have what I call “welded” problems on the sensor. Indeed, if you’re trying to clean up lubricant splatter, I recommend one of the Visible Dust detergent-type liquids on a swab followed after a complete drying by a traditional methanol cleaning via swab. 

I’m currently looking closer at the Sensor Gel Stick. I might change my cleaning recommendations, I might not. I realize that for a lot of you a full wet cleaning is not a trivial process. Thus, perhaps the recommendation might be use something like a Sensor Gel Stick, and if that doesn’t take care of your problems, send you camera to a professional who knows how to do a full, thorough cleaning. Perhaps. 

Q: Since you’re talking about sensors, will they get significantly better than current sensors?

A: I suppose I ought to have you define “significantly better,” but I’ll skip that modifier and just say yes, sensors will get better. Dynamic range will improve, pixel counts will go up, readout speeds will improve, and so on. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say “be careful what you wish for.” 

It’s hard to imagine why you need more pixels than we currently max out at. Sure, more sampling is always better than less in the digital captures, but the gains are turning more and more minimal now. With dynamic range I suspect that there will be disappointment as it improves, too. First, random photons don’t get less random just because someone made a better sensor, so the “noise floor” isn’t really going to improve in low light with current sensor technologies. Second, the most likely way we’ll get more DR is by breaking the saturation limit, and the most likely way of doing that starts to introduce time-related issues if we collect highlight information only during part of the exposure but shadow information for the full exposure. Plus we don’t have an output system that even matches what we can capture today, so I hope you like the camera maker’s HDR routines or don’t mind applying your own. 

But here’s the real kicker: those darned smartphones. That’s where all the sensor R&D money is going, and that’s where new things will show up first. Which means that smartphones will continue to eat into higher and higher image quality space previously reserved for dedicated cameras while dedicated cameras will move forward more slowly. 

In particular, the whole multiple sensor, multiple aperture thing is going to happen in smartphones first, and that’s going to give them another burst of image quality into the camera realm. Why? Because these multi- options build depth maps, and those enable a whole host of improvements (post image focus selection, lower noise, additional detail, virtual zoom, etc.).  

Q: Are you certain we’ll get a D300s replacement?
A: As certain as I can be without someone at Nikon telling me yes point blank. There’s certainly an interesting story behind why it’s taking so long, but I’ve never doubting that Nikon would get around to it. The only question in my mind has been when, and that question got to be the primary question when the quake and flood happened in the 2011-2012 update cycle.

Q: You’re really certain?
A: Again, as certain as I can be without straight out acknowledgement from Nikon.

Q: When?
A: Logically, the next two historic windows for significant product releases come in July/August 2015 and then again in January/February 2016. From what I’ve heard, I’d bet earlier rather than later. If Nikon doesn’t hit the first date, they will lose even more customers. If Nikon doesn’t hit the second date, they’ll lose most of their potential D300s replacement customers and have fumbled away one of their best success stories in DSLRs.

Q: So DX stays alive?
A: As alive as DSLRs stay. I’ve been repeating this for some time now: DX is Nikon’s bread and butter. It would be a bit like Toyota saying they weren’t going to make Corolla’s any more or Honda canceling the Civic line. Too many sales in those products that lead to life-long customers.

Q: What's with all the FX Mirrorless rumors?
A: What, you already forgot the DX Mirrorless rumors? 

Let me take you through what I’ve written first. (A) Nikon will eventually have to move from DSLR to mirrorless for their consumer cameras simply from a cost standpoint. Maybe for the pro ones, too. They need to remove parts and costs. If you compare the Sony A7 to a Nikon D610 you’ll see a huge increase in parts and complexity in the DSLR design. Long term, that can’t stand, as Sony would have a huge competitive cost advantage. (B) Mirrorless hasn’t yet proven that it can equal DSLRs at a number of things, most particularly focus performance and long lens suitability. (C) B will eventually change and force A. But we’re not there yet. DSLRs are still long for the world, and I suspect we’ll always have them on the performance camera side. Even small amounts of additional performance in a narrow area are useful to high-level practitioners. You can see this in the small-but-still-with-us Medium Format products. 

After I wrote that a couple of years back (and again since), I started hearing rumors out of Japan of a DX Mirrorless prototype slotted under the D3300. Indeed, for some time now I’ve predicted that there won’t be a D3500 DSLR.  Since at the time it didn’t seem to have a name, I called this the D2000. Along with the camera prototype, there is a known 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 mirrorless lens patent, as well. Call it DX-mirrorless, or DX-M. The prototype I heard about had an EVF, by the way.

Now we’re hearing rumors (and reports of spottings in Europe) of an FX Mirrorless camera, and again we have a matching lens patent (28-80 f/3.5-5.6 mirrorless FX lens, which I’ll call FX-M). Only this time it supposedly doesn’t have an EVF, yet has a full F-mount (the mirrorless lens appears to stick into the empty mirror box area to keep it compact when mounted on the camera).

It appears to me that Nikon’s approach may be to try to transition the consumer bottom of their DX/FX lineups to mirrorless first, leaving the top end DSLRs as performance toppers. 

Thing is, just moving from DSLR to mirrorless doesn’t really change much. Image quality doesn’t change. Camera features generally don’t change. Focus performance is evening out at the consumer end. Lens sizes won’t change for a given sensor size all that much, if at all. So all those who think that such cameras will reignite the sales of cameras I believe will be proven seriously wrong. We might eventually reach the valley floor, but I’m not seeing anything that will enable a climb back up to a new peak. 

In essence, mirrorless is more a strategy about staying in business (reducing costs) than it is growing the business. I still hold that the camera needs to come into the modern, connected, programmable world. Until it does, I don’t see sales going up. 

Q: So how small will the camera industry get?
A: A good question that those of us who analyze the business aspects from amateur-prognosticators to pro specialists at companies like Goldman-Sachs have been arguing about for several years now. (I just came across the Gartner Group’s forecast from 2011 while doing some file cleaning, and boy did it turn out to be wrong.)

The current range of ILC type camera sales forecast by the bulk of the analysts is that the future is going to hit bottom anywhere from 6m units/year to 10m units/year. To put that in perspective, film ILC basically flat-lined just above the 4m unit/year mark in the 90’s, and last year’s digital ILC shipments were about 13.8m. 

So the general prognosis is that things won’t be as bad as the last decade of film, but they’re going to be significantly worse than they are today. Even the CIPA (Japan camera industry) forecasts say that now.

A number of you ask why I’ve been writing about this for so long now. Simple: the lessons of history are useful. In the 90’s when film camera production had basically dropped and then flattened, we lost a lot of contenders along the way. Bronica, Contax, and a host of others started dying and disappearing. But even some of the main providers retracted: Olympus got out of the OM business, while Minolta and Pentax eventually got to the point where they could only survive with a bigger savior company acquiring them. 

We’re nearing that same situation today, and I believe we’re going to see some of the same things happen again. However, since this site predominantly covers Nikon, I think we have to pay a lot more attention than those using other mounts do. In the film era, Nikon’s semiconductor equipment division became bigger and the primary driver of the company. Today, the camera business is over two-thirds of Nikon’s business and the reverse is true. Thus, Nikon is more exposed to the downturn in camera sales than any other Japanese camera company, as it is the only one that derives a majority of its sales (and currently virtually all of its profit) from cameras and lenses.

The good news is that Canon and Nikon are essentially a duopoly when it comes to ILC gear. Add in Sony, and you have a really strong triopoly, with well over 80% of the market. I think that the other players are essentially forced to be niche owners unless one of the three really mess up.

Still, there are things to watch out for long term:

  • Fewer sales means the companies will chase higher-priced sales. We’ve already seen Nikon and Sony try to convince you to buy full frame, which is one aspect of this. 
  • Iteration cycles will have to increase. These 12 to 18 month upgrade cycles aren’t sustainable in a smaller market. We’re going to see some upgrades stretch out longer than expected.
  • Costs to make the products have to drop. That means we’ll see simplification in some areas, more parts consolidation, and fewer new emerging technologies in future gear. Frankly, on that latter point, the camera companies are already lagging significantly: how many cameras have even USB 3.0 ports on them? 
  • A possible tendency to accessorize. Built-in flash might disappear on more models, for example. Basically, you want to remove parts (see previous bullet) while raising price (first bullet). Imagine a D3500 without flash or WiFi, no external connectors, and made mirrorless. That might actually push more people towards a D5500 if done right.
  • Pressure on sales outlets. That huge camera section at Best Buy has already retracted in size. Independent camera dealers are dealing with declining sales, too. 

As I’ve been trying to say for a long, long time now, mirrorless would not be the way I’d tackle the dying interest in geriatric cameras: instead we must completely re-invent the camera for the modern world, and especially how it connects to the modern tech world.  

But don’t take all this news negatively. There’s one silver lining. Right now we’re in the hey-day of ILCs. You can get an incredible camera incredibly cheap (all things considered). A camera you would have paid a heck of a lot more for just 10 years ago, could you have even bought one as capable. The rapid decline of camera sales wasn’t matched by the camera companies at the factory: they overproduced right into the decline, and thus today we’re in the midst of excellent deals everywhere we look. Three years from now, I doubt you’ll think that there are any great deals around, as by then the camera makers should have readjusted their output downward to match demand. 

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