The Nikon Dilemma Versus The Canon Dilemma

Canon and Nikon sell about three quarters of all interchangeable lens cameras made. Canon hoovers around a 50% market share, Nikon currently is about a 25% market share. 

Both companies are struggling, though in different ways. 

Nikon's problem is that they've become one-dimensional. As good as the D850 is, the problem is that it impacts both D5 and D500 sales. D5 sales at the moment are near non-existent, and D500 sales also declined significantly after the D850 appeared. By designing the one-DSLR-does-everything D850, Nikon is finding out that that means only one DSLR sells. 

Meanwhile, the D3400 and D5600 sales are off the charts poor here in the US and in Europe. The D7500 has close to a zero level of buzz on the Internet and is limping along, and mirrorless is a place that Nikon hasn't touched with a new product for over two years now. No wonder there's panic in Tokyo about getting a new mirrorless system out stat, and that consumer (DX) was initially chosen as the first target.

Unfortunately, that's looking less and less likely that it'll appear in 2017. Too many balls are still being decided as to how to juggle them, apparently. At this point, the original idea that started to reach consensus earlier this year—get a consumer DX mirrorless product into the Christmas 2017 season—doesn't seem to have actually gotten anything into production yet. In order to make the Christmas season at all, they'd have to be starting up a full production line pretty much any day now. But remember, that's not just for a camera (or cameras—the original word I got out of Tokyo was that there would be an EVF and non-EVF version), but for lenses, as well. 

Meanwhile, the D610 never did manage to recover from the D600 dust storm, and is now four years old; basically a dinosaur in digital lifespans. The D750 is three years old, and just qualified for DSC social security and medicare. 

Despite producing fewer and fewer models each year, Nikon has a product line that is completely in shambles from the KeyMission 80 up into many of the DSLRs. The only exceptions are the D7500, D500, D850, and D5, and maybe the P900. But remember, the D500 and D5 sales were slowed by the D850, and the D7500 has a very slow sales pulse, despite being a very good camera.

What all this means is that I expect Nikon is going to have to use price as its sword come November. 

The irony is that the recent DX AF-P lenses—10-20mm, 18-55mm, 70-300mm—form a really great set of optics for the consumer DX crowd. I can't think of a trio of consumer zooms from any other company that are this good. And quite reasonably priced for Nikon. Yet it appears that Nikon's terrible marketing just doesn't know how to promote their strengths. Those three lenses backed by the 20/24mp DX sensors Nikon are using produce some exceptional image quality at low price. Not just good image quality, mind you, but exceptional. Where does it say that in Nikon's marketing?

Had SnapBridge not been a half-formed thought and an unformed execution, you'd think that Nikon could simply have proclaimed themselves a winner at "logical step up from a smartphone." 

So expect Nikon to be lowering prices on exceptional gear, at least to get that volume moving off dealer shelves at Christmas. If they don't do that, they're just fools riding their engineless plane slowly into the ground.

Canon has a different problem. They've turned into a reasonable facsimile of the late 20th century General Motors: models at every level and price point. Competent models, but not necessarily state of the art in ways that are being more explored by competitors the public perceives to be more innovative. 

In other words: stodgy. 

Aside: I was surprised to find some disagreement among dictionaries as to the primary definition of stodgy. I'll go with "dull, unimaginative, and commonplace." 

I don't have as many problems with Canon products as the Internet seems to suggest I should. I find them all to be quite competent, and they serve their intended purposes quite well. Maybe not always at the leading edge of well (e.g. dynamic range), but the performance of all the Canon gear I've shot with has been well within my needs for that particular product, and that ranges from the GX models up to the 1Dx Mark II, and includes the M5 I carry around with me most of the time.

Canon has actually done a bit better than I think they expected in sales volume—they've beat their original projections of unit shipments a number of times in the overall market decline—but I'd guess that they still have to be worried. As befits the market leader, Canon has a fuller line of products sitting on dealer shelves these days, but I'm having a hard time thinking of any that I'd call clearly "best in class." 

In other words, despite owning half the ILC camera market and more than a quarter of the compact market, Canon is one really good competitor's product away from finding holes appear in their product line. Indeed, Nikon did such a good job on pushing the D850 forward in so many ways, the 5D region of Canon's product line certainly is feeling pressure now. 

What pressure is that? It's the same pressure that Nikon has already felt and starting contracting because of: sampling and leaking. 

Canon and Nikon both had huge legacy advantages entering the DSLR era, and both built those even stronger in the first decade of this century. Nikon was the first to make some iffy product decisions (among others: buzz, buzz*). Coupled with quality control issues, cutbacks in customer relations of all types, a weird temporary abandonment of key products (e.g. no D300 refresh), non-refreshed refreshes (e.g. D3400), a strangely wandering product line (e.g. abandonment of h/x variations at the top, and things like a D7xx line that has no fundamental definition through time), this left Nikon more vulnerable to competitors who had clearer focus and execution.

Fujifilm, for instance. Probably no other company benefited more from Nikon's follies than Fujifilm. I can document more samplers and leakers going from Nikon products to Fujifilm than any other brand changing that's been going on. There are still ways in which Nikon products are better than Fujifilm, yet the sampling and leaking and switching is still going on and growing. And it's coming right in one of Nikon's former sweet spots: crop sensor cameras. 

But I think Canon, too, is starting to feel the sampling problem.

Just as a reminder, it goes sampling, then leaking, then switching. Instead of buying a replacement upgrade unit for the owned camera, the customer tries a competitive product (sampling), and often a lower end or speciality one (e.g. the Fujifilm X100). They like what they find there, so they next start leaking: upgrading to a competitive product rather than the one they started with. Eventually, they just full out and out switch, abandoning their original maker to the point of selling off all their original gear.

Canon's sampling problem is with Sony. The reason for that is that lens adapters have appeared that actually do a decent job of letting Canon EF lenses work on Sony E/FE mount cameras. "Decent" meaning full electronic communication and reasonable autofocus performance. 

Sony is sort of the opposite of stodgy. I'll call them "exciting" for the purposes of this article. Sony is promoting interesting and adventurous aspects of technology, hoping that you'll find them compelling, and even fun. As I'll point out in my review of the Sony A9 on, yes, silent 20 fps with no black-out view is something very new and interesting. And within a few minutes of trying to use 20 fps in practice as Sony marketing suggests we all should, I slowed the camera down to the stodgier 5 fps or 10 fps level and had it make noise. But still, having those additional capabilities there is indeed useful at times, and it's not something you get on the Canon models. 

That and all the other gee-whiz stuff that Sony keeps promoting makes them look fresh to Canon users, and thus has started the sampling brigade. Without a proper response, Canon will go down the same route that Nikon has: erosion of customer base. 

I find it incredibly ironic that both Canon and Nikon don't seem to know what their real strength was. Lenses. Neither has done much of anything in the crop sensor markets to build a stronger lens legacy like they originally had in 35mm film and now have in full frame DSLR. Personally, I'm simply not interested in buying a body for backup and casual carrying, such as the D3400—which is arguably the best APS-C sensor camera you can buy in terms of image quality—because there isn't a full lens set I can use with it. Not a single pancake lens to emphasize the small/light aspect of the camera, not a single wide angle prime. Not much of anything other than three remarkable, but slower aperture, consumer zooms (the AF-P trio). So Nikon, when I need something faster than f/5.6, what will it be on a D3400? Something appropriate please, don't point to a 1.7 pound (755g) behemoth. Were Nikon to produce a full DX lens set, I'd probably go full Galen on it: I'd buy a D3400 body and the widest angle prime and carry that into the backwoods for some quality shooting with minimal size/weight.


Message to Nikon: when you finally bring your DX-based mirrorless to market, you'll need a fully functional F-mount adapter, a small kit zoom, a small wide angle zoom, and at least three primes that are either pancake f/2.8 or small faster aperture ones. Don't bother coming to market with less. And get ready to supplement those, fast. The Fujifilm X-E3 has a full set of lenses already that is continuing to grow, and the Sony A6xxx series bodies are wicked small and full of excitement, though Sony is making the same lens mistake you made with DX. Meanwhile, you still need a full DX lens set in order to maximize the lifespan of the D3xxx, D5xxx, D7xxx, and D500 models. 

Message to Canon: first and foremost, don't let the EF-S and EF-M lens sets languish. You need to protect those lines the same way Nikon needs to protect DX, and you're not doing it. Your consumer optics don't match the AF-P lenses that Nikon has been making lately, so in some ways you're behind the company I've been chiding for some time now (buzz, buzz). But further, you need some innovation in your lineup in addition to the competent upgrading you're doing. New Canon products coming to market just don't tend to get a lot of buzz, and what viralness they do generate lasts about one Facebook refresh. Things like withholding features, such as 4K, make you look more than stodgy. Is there a feature you were first on in your entire lineup of crop sensor cameras? And in the full frame market, Sony siphoning off your lens users is something you absolutely have to stop. 

Message to both companies: Legacy is legacy. Yes, it is getting more difficult to get a customer to upgrade to the latest model. The previous model they own works fine. Two points: (1) you have to generate real excitement with features and solutions that the previous model doesn't have but the new model does; (2) you have to stop sending mixed messages—limited crop sensor lens set is one—about whether the product you want them to update is really going to carry them fully forward into the future. Many of the product updates Canon and Nikon are doing fail at those two points, particularly in the lower end of their lineups. And neither company ever solidified their crop sensor lens sets. The customer that might consider buying the latest Rebel/xxD model or D3xxx/D5xxx/D7xxx model is wondering about that latter bit. 

Sure, they can upgrade their camera, but did the lens set grow with them? Nope. 

Is it going to grow? Looks like no. 

So do they upgrade? No. Doh!

* Just a reminder: I use "buzz, buzz" as a shorthand for saying "Nikon did not develop a full crop sensor lens set." I'm like a bee (or fly, take your pick, I've got a thick exoskeleton) that keeps buzzing around Nikon's ears reminding them that they never got around to defending a key area that they should understand completely conveys them strength against competitors: lens legacy. 

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