Nikon Swimming Wrong Direction

So here’s the takeaway from today (and the other pre-Photokina announcements):

  • Canon: swimming slowly upstream with the 5D Mark IV, new significant higher end lenses, the EOS M5.
  • Fujifilm: swimming way upstream with the medium format GFX and a half dozen lenses for it.
  • Leica: swimming upstream with a major commitment to SL lenses.
  • Olympus: swimming upstream with three new pro lenses and a look at the future E-M1 Mark II. 
  • Panasonic: swimming upstream with RX10 and RX100 competitors, a better G, and a peak at the future GH5.
  • Sigma: swimming upstream with three new significant lenses, all of which poke at Nikon staples.
  • Sony: big reach upstream with the re-emergence of the SLT, this time in 42mp, 12fps A9II form, but in a more crop-sensor sized body.

And Nikon?

  • Swimming downstream with a D3400 that isn’t really different than the D3300 in any meaningful way, new low-end DX lenses for that, and an action cam lineup that enters the fray after even Polaroid and runs right up against a GoPro refresh. The DLs still missing, too.

All I can say is that Nikon is in for a rough patch on the Internet. A very rough patch. They’re simply swimming the wrong direction. 

Unfortunately, they asked for this. Their first reaction to the downturn in cameras was to push FX, and they got plenty of takers. But those cameras aren’t the kind that are going to get updated often, and so after the initial frenzy, things have cooled considerably. It didn’t help that the D600, D750, and D800 all had significant issues when shipped, either. 

The problem is that previous management had the petal to the accelerator all the way into the wall at the end of the straightaway, and quite a bit of that happened at the low, consumer end. Nikon got addicted on growth in consumer products, yet they’re not anything close to being a class low-end consumer company. In essence, they overproduced Coolpix and low-end DSLRs well after peak camera occurred, and have been paying for it ever since. 

The simple problem is this: they can’t afford to drop consumer volume. Doing so makes the entire company a smaller entity in terms of sales and profit, takes away all the growth they had during the digital decade, and probably would trigger a number of covenants on loans and bonds if they got significantly smaller. So more so than the other camera companies, we’re still seeing Nikon making a lot of effort to make noise at the low end (<US$600 products). 

I don’t think this works. Oh, you can “make” it work by pressing your distribution channels and squeezing costs and discounting to keep the volumes up for awhile, but those are weak and short-term crutches, not a permanent solution. 

Nikon really needs the DLs, but they’re nowhere in sight. These were looking strong when they were announced, but now we’ve got even more 1” products hitting the market from competitors right into the same price points and spec sheets. That likely means having to discount them quickly when they eventually do appear. 

SnapBridge really needed to work, but it’s clearly still not all there yet. It actually works decently on the D3400 for driving 2mp images from the camera to the smartphone, but the smartphones are now 12mp instantaneously, so exactly where is the advantage in a slowish wireless transfer of small pixel count images? Ah, yes, lenses. Hmm, can I crop 12mp to 2mp? ;~) Plus the D3400 kit lens is slow and wastes a lot of that advantage right out the chute. 

Meanwhile, as we Nikon users digest all this continued consumer product and what it might mean, all the other players are at Photokina pushing stuff higher and offering things that Nikon doesn’t. 

One of my common pieces of advice to startups over the years (including my own) was this: pick something and own it. Own it in ways that others can’t duplicate, and keep owning it lest someone else take it away from you. If that means you cannibalize your own products, so be it. 

Nikon isn’t really seeming to “own” anything at the moment. The did a “different” mirrorless. They announced a “different” compact line they haven’t delivered. They’ve joined the action cam market with something that’s different in not so good ways for the dedicated action junkie. The D3xxx line seems to have stalled in terms of ideas at the D3100, the D5xxx line at the D5300. 

The things they “sort of own” are enthusiast/pro DSLRs, but even there we have DX missing lenses (buzz buzz) while competitors just keep rolling them out, and the FX lineup that was highly logical in the D3/D3x/D700 era is now D5/D810/what? I’m not getting the sense that Nikon owns anything. 

Don’t get me wrong, Nikon makes some fine products, and I use them, daily. The D5, D500, and D810 are great cameras, and the D7200 and D750 are near great. The FX lens lineup doesn’t need much to make it the best lens lineup out there, and recent FX lenses have been excellent.

Still, one wonders where the focus is at Nikon. 

Long ago (now 18 years) I started writing that Nikon was losing their connection to the actual customer of their camera products. That’s become more and more pronounced over time and I got progressively more shrill in voicing my concerns, though small groups of talented engineering teams have managed to keep a few of the top products aligned well enough that Nikon hasn't lost us long-term users yet.  

I don’t like saying “I told you so,” but more and more the things that I’ve been predicting about Nikon’s (lack of) direction and customer understanding are coming true. They seem completely unable to get their product line from bottom to top under control, and the bottom looks different than the top, and the middle isn’t exactly the same as either.

I thought that the 1-2-3 punch of D5/D500/DL at the start of the year might have been a sign that Nikon was starting to get a connection back to their user base and hone in on a clear mission to win true photo enthusiasts. I’m not so sure now. 

What I am sure of is that Nikon looks like its swimming the opposite direction to the other camera companies at Photokina this year. Let’s hope that they turn around and face the other way...

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