What Is Happening in Tokyo?

Generally I only hear from a couple of reasonably well-placed individuals in Japan about what's happening there, and then often somewhat ambiguously or in ways I have to interpret. Recently, I've gotten additional unanticipated and anonymous contacts with more information.

I can tell you this: these contacts aren't the only reports I've heard about arguments going on within Nikon top management. And note that Goto-san in a recent interview in China made his pitch from his window-with-a-view adviser role (to whit: mirrorless must be FX). Arguments about what to do abound at Nikon these days it seems.

That's good news. It shows that management is aware they have a problem.

I've written before that Nikon has prototyped pretty much every mirrorless option. By that I mean both DX and FX sensor sizes, as well as new mount versus existing mount in both sizes. That's four distinct possibilities, and as far as I can tell, all are still proceding towards manufacturing. There are two questions that are apparently contentious within Nikon: (1) whether they should do both new mount and an existing mount mirrorless cameras; and (2) in what order do you release new mirrorless products?

The four possibilities:

  • New DX with new mirrorless mount: This is the Canon M5 chaser. Canon's success with the M series, at least once they tweaked a few things and released additional lenses, certainly got Nikon's attention. The problem with this entry will be lenses. I only know of two that are going to be ready when the camera is (again mimicking Canon).
  • New DX with current F mount: This is the D3500. It gives Nikon a do-over on the D3xxx line, which they need to sell better. The recent AF-P DX lenses are a clue here. The problem with this entry will be price. It has to stay at or near the current price point to succeed, I think, and with a new mirrorless mount DX camera also in the lineup, there is price point contention that has to be resolved. The other thing is that any D3500 mirrorless needs to be even a bit trimmer and lighter than the current D3400.
  • New FX with new mirrorless mount: This is the Sony A7 chaser. Nikon can't shoot at the A7rII, A7sII, or A9 with their first shot, so they have to aim lower and hope that works to get traction. I believe that there's also a goal to make this camera a bit more traditional (e.g. retro in style). The problem with this will again be lenses, and given that Sony will soon enough introduce the Mark III A7, keeping up in the features race.
  • New FX with current F mount: This is the anticipation of a Canon entry, and the D610 potential replacement. The problem with this product will be both price and size.

As far as I can tell, all four of those options are in progress towards introduction still, with various 2018 dates for each. As I indicated above, there appear to be heated internal arguments about which of these options should really be pursued. I'll have more to say about that in a bit.

I'm already on record as saying I believe that a new mount DX mirrorless product will be first out the gate. I stand by that, though the date slipped from "late 2017" to "early 2018" recently. I also believe that at the moment it will be launched with only two lenses on day one, with a YAETS kit lens as one of them. Wait, what? YAETS? 

Yes, that's my shorthand for Nikon's DX fetish: Yet Another Eighteen To Something. 

YAETS is actually one of the many self-induced problems at Nikon. 18mm simply isn't very wide. And 18mm to something has been so overdone by Nikon that these lenses plague the used market like the aftermath of a locust swarm. A 16-50mm would be more useful. And more likely to be retained.  

But DX has a bigger problem these days than just YAETS: Fujifilm. Fujifilm thinks that they'll eventually be the number one producer of APS-C (DX) cameras, and they're continuing to beef up their lens lineup (was that a buzz, buzz I heard in the background?). Remember, they've already produced 14 prime lenses and 9 zooms. That's what a Nikon DX mirrorless camera will be competing with, whether it has a new mount or not, and that's where Nikon is going to come up short, whether it has a new mount or not. 

Yes, I know that Canon came out of the chute with only two lenses. But be careful about interpreting that correctly. The initial EOS M thrust wasn't particularly successful. It's been the third try—now with seven lenses—that finally gave Canon momentum in the mirrorless market. And I'd argue that if Canon had at least three and maybe four additional lenses that slotted into holes, the EOS M products would really be flying off shelves. (Okay, you want to know which three or four: 15mm pancake, 32mm pancake, 55mm fast, and a 15-40mm f/2.8-4, all designed for compactness.)

Now, back to the debate within Nikon. Here's Nikon's real success of late: D500, D750, D850, D5 (and the D5 is a very low volume success). At the prosumer to pro level, the DSLRs are doing okay and Nikon has iterated well (other than DX lenses for the D500, buzz, buzz). It's everything else that's a mess now. 

Thus, proceeding with all four mirrorless options isn't necessarily a mistake, as long as each is targeted well to different weaknesses in Nikon's lineup. Indeed, I'd add a fifth: resurrect Nikon 1 (stop intentionally making it incompatible with the rest of Nikon's lineup and accessories, price it appropriately, and finish the lens set). Too many that the mirrorless/DSLR debate is an either/or problem. I don't believe that's true at present. Both can and will coexist for quite some time. Thus, if you're a camera maker, you want to be doing your best with both types of products, and you need to understand the appeal of each to make the right products.

So again, having four (or five) different mirrorless options going isn't really a problem.

The problem is always lenses. Always. It's what makes an ILC an ILC, after all. When you try to starve the lens production for any reason you're always making a mistake. That starves your camera body sales eventually. 

I really don't understand just how seriously off track with that the top management at Nikon has gotten. They survived the film armageddon because of one thing: lenses. And they almost botched that by being last to a full autofocus lineup. But they got there, they didn't invalidate the lenses Nikon users already had, and they managed to even survive a not-well-received F5 launch. How would be it be any different in any other transition?

So what seems to be the problem at Nikon? 

Bean counting. 

Nikon wants to improve their profitability while launching all these new initiatives. Things like IBIS tend to get axed by top management when they see it in the proposed designs because it adds costs. More lenses quicker? Costly. A brilliant and well-coordinated ad campaign? More cost. Everyone I talk to at Nikon has a story about cost reduction ad absurdium (it's CRAA at Nikon ;~). 

So here's my message to Nikon management: it doesn't matter if you make one new mirrorless camera lines or five. In the end the feature sets and performance will work themselves out in any product you do, though it would be nice not to have to sit through some embarrassing iterations to get what we want.

What does matter is lenses. There's simply no urgency in your lens production. None. And yet to win the ILC game you quite obviously need IL ;~). Stop ruminating on the details of the C and pay more attention to the IL:

  • Any new mirrorless lens mount needs: a kit lens, a wide angle and telephoto zoom supplement to the kit lens, a trio or quartet of well thought out primes, and a fast lens option for the kit lens. You can announce with a subset only if you promise the full set and show an urgency to get there. 
  • DX DSLR still needs a full lens set: the 16-80mm f/2.8-4 was a nice addition, but it's about the only addition lately. The rest has been essentially reworking the established (e.g. AF-P iterations of existing lenses). Primes and pancakes are still missing 18 years after introducing DX, and old standards were never updated (12-24mm f/4, 17-55mm f/2.8). Appropriate fast lenses for the D7500 and D500 are completely missing, a gap that most of us are filling by buying Sigma lenses. You don't want that, do you Nikon management? ;~)
  • Even FX DSLR has some odd things that show you have no urgency: where's the 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor update? Or a 180mm f/2.8 update? A new 135mm prime? Any really good 50mm that matches your other prime optics? The "fixed" PC-E's? The 300mm f/2.8E FL? The 200-400mm f/4E FL? Any new PF lens? Three new FX optics a year isn't showing any urgency at all. 

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