How Companies Pick Lenses to Make

Fujifilm apparently had a recent change of mind about lenses, postponing the expected 120mm f/2.8 and deciding to go with a shorter focal length. At least if we’re to believe rumors. Why? Size.

But this brings up an interesting point. Why would Fujifilm make that change? Because something in their user surveying told them that really large lenses aren’t as welcome as small ones. For Fujifilm, which has very small unit volume still, putting their limited resources into something that’s less desirable to the small-but-loyal user base is a real ROI killer. 

Why am I not writing about this on the site? Buzz, buzz (;~). Yep, it’s effectively another missing Nikon DX lens complaint. 

It seems that product management future planning in Japan consists of:

  • Look at what others are selling
  • Look at what’s sold best in the past
  • Simplify the audience into picky pros and convenience-oriented consumers
  • Look for single lens hits
  • Design fewer lenses that do more as opposed to more lenses that do less

Couple that with not being in clear contact with the actual user—both established and potential—and you can probably guess that Canikon ended up doing the same lenses over and over. At least while Canon and Nikon were selling far more of anything than anyone else in the industry. 

The vulnerability is this: as Canon and Nikon shrink back down in size, if competitors get the lens questions right and Canikon doesn’t, the shrinkage will be higher as those competitors steal customers. Note the word “potential” in the previous paragraph. More and more that potential customer is going to one of Fujifilm, Olympus/Panasonic, and Sony. Size is part of the reason. Lens choice is another part of the reason. 

Look, Canikon pretty much have the true consumer convenience customer tied up. I wouldn’t argue that Nikon should stop producing a Nikon D3300 type camera and a superzoom for it, though it should probably be mirrorless by now. But that customer is getting rarer, and the prosumer customer trying to fill specific needs is getting to be a larger proportion of the camera buying population. And they aren’t overly happy with what Canikon is offering them, which is why you see some of them getting siphoned off to the smaller competitors.

Not that Nikon actually understands this that I can see. Given how isolated the design decisions in Tokyo are from the actual customers, changes in customer patterns don’t end up getting reflected in Nikon products very fast, if at all. Canon’s doing slightly better at this, but only slightly. 

Fujifilm, meanwhile, is spending lots of time trying to hear what the customers are actually saying, and has a nice set of professional photographer advisors they proactively listen to that can speak ergonomics and modern photographic style and inform the Fujifilm design process. Part of that input clearly has had to do with size/type of lens. At present, Fujifilm is the only APS-sized sensor company that has 10 primes in their APS-sized lens set (with a rumored three more coming in the next year or so). This is on top of 9 zooms, two of which are APS echoes of the full frame holy trinity (14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm f/2.8 in Nikon FX). 

Why is that important? Because the APS size makes all the wide angle through low telephoto lenses smaller than full frame lenses. Fujifilm has correctly picked up on “size” being a factor in future camera system decisions. 

Indeed, there’s a Goldilocks thing that is happening, though the Three Bears (Canon, Nikon, and Sony) aren’t really responding to it well. The 1” and m4/3 systems are on the “too small” side. The full frame/FX systems are on the “too big” side. Guess where the “just right” size is based? Yep, still APS, just where Nikon started and built on for eight years before branching out. But which they never finished with a full lens set (buzz, buzz). 

But you wouldn’t know this if you weren’t connected to the customer base and surveying it constantly, looking for trend lines and strength points. 

So, does Nikon know what lenses people want? For the most part no. Oh, sure, Nikon knows a few lenses that have strong demand both historically and contemporaneously. As I’ve written for decades, you absolutely need a fast mid-range zoom for any competent ILC system. But do you need seven 18-xx zooms? No. Do you need small lenses? Yes. Can those be (should be) primes? Yes. Will they be used in video? Yes, though minimally for most still shooters. 

The trick is to get close to the customers. You need to know what problem they’re trying to solve, and then solve it for them. I believe Nikon thinks they’re solving the “small” problem. To Nikon, that means a consumer DX DSLR and a superzoom. How is this small? Well, it’s just one thing to carry, even though it weighs several pounds and sticks way out from your body when carrying. Nope. Hit the edge of the dart board, but didn’t score. Certainly didn’t hit a bullseye. 

Moreover, the hilarious part of this is that if the new DL series ever gets here and proves popular, Nikon will have solved the problem with something other than an ILC ;~). So the ILC market will shrink some more, and the user problems will continue to evolve. Indeed, they’re already evolving, and it isn’t about just “size” any more, but “size with competence.” 

For some reason I’ve gotten a lot of “what would Galen be shooting today” questions via email lately.

Galen Rowell was an adventure/landscape shooter known for carrying a small grip F4 with a 20mm f/4 lens most of the time. It was a “size with competence” choice. It’s possible that Galen would still be shooting Nikon were he alive today, and that he could cobble together some acceptable “go anywhere” package with current Nikon bodies. But I can’t help but think he’d look at a Fujifilm X-T10 and 14mm f/2.8 lens with envy. Small but competent.  

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