Second Digital Decade Top 10

I’m a little overdue on writing this—the second digital decade for Nikon ended last year—but it’s still worth taking a look back at the things that Nikon did right and wrong in the second decade of digital cameras.

The first decade, 1999-2009, was all about rapid growth. Digital camera sales peaked in the 2011/2012 and started almost as quick a decline as the growth ramp was. Thus, the priorities began to change in this second decade as Nikon tried to find products that would drive the Imaging group moving forward. Clearly, that wasn’t going to be consumer DSLRs.

Here’s my selection for the Top Ten products Nikon produced in the second digital decade. These products defined Nikon’s new situation and future, and thus ours:

  1. D800/D800E (2012). The earthquake, tsunami, and floods of 2011 actually pushed back a lot of product introductions, and the D800 benefited from this. The extra time in the development cycle meant that the D800 came out with a lot of refinement and, I believe, a 36mp sensor instead of a 24mp one. This camera really got the attention of the Nikon faithful, and became a better seller than I think even Nikon expected.
  2. D600 (2012). Yes, the shutter/mirror problem where oil and dust kept peppering the image sensor was a problem, likely caused by too rapid deployment of a new shutter by their Thailand supplier after the floods. But the camera was a solid performer otherwise, and key to Nikon’s “move to full frame” strategy. Looking back, we can see that the D600 and quick D610 fix were a second big success for Nikon in FX, as the overall unit sales volume was possibly the highest of any full frame camera until recently. You can still pick up this seminal camera at a consumer-friendly price, and its image sensor is still competitive for still photography (not so much for video).
  3. Coolpix P900 (2015). Small Sensor Big Lens is one of the few compact camera constructs that still sell. The P900 featured really good glass, and got a reputation for being the one to get if you wanted something in this category (now followed up with the even better and longer zoomed P950 and P1000). People forget that Nikon is really an optics company, and the P900 is all about optics, and showcased what they could do that the other makers hadn’t quite mastered.
  4. 300mm f/4E PF ED VR (2015). We’re five years in and this lens—and its bigger brother, the 500mm f/5.6E PF—are still really unmatched by anyone else. PF is definitely something that’s uniquely Nikon, and needs to be pursued more in their telephoto lineup.
  5. D5/D500 (2016). In a repeat of the D3/D300 success, Nikon once again managed to produce two cameras that defined state of the art. Even today, the D5 is a beast that is still at or very near the top of the sports/PJ needs. And the D500 mimicked that with a DX sensor and hasn’t been matched by any other APS-C camera introduced since. These two cameras really show just how much Nikon can do when it puts its mind to it and shoots for the top.
  6. 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR (2016). In 2015 pretty much everyone thought that 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms had reached their limit. We all thought that the then-current versions from all the vendors were top notch. Then the f/2.8E came out. It’s really a night-and-day difference compared to the previous state-of-the-art, the new version is so good. Most people can see the difference without pixel peeping, which I would never have guessed would have been possible. From time to time, Nikon ups their optic design game. While we had been getting some really good lenses, the 70-200mm f/2.8E marked a point at which things really started to pop for Nikon lenses. 
  7. D850 (2017). It’s really hard to believe that Nikon took a truly seminal camera (D800), improved it enough to make a really strong update (D810), and then really improved it yet again to make it the best all-around interchangeable lens camera you can find (D850). And they did that with a pair of two-year development cycles. You’ll note a theme in the #1, #4, and #5: when Nikon really pushes forward, they create incredible products that are tough to ignore. Why they “mail in” some of their other lower-level updates instead of using this same critical honing they show at the top end is something Nikon needs to address. Better is better, period, and customers see and understand that. It’s why cameras like the D850 still sell well today, but cameras like the not-much-different-or-better-than-two-previous-updates cameras such as the D3500 just stop selling.
  8. Z6/Z7 (2018). Nikon did the right thing re-entering the mirrorless market: they played to their strengths while learning from what Sony had done. Despite the fact that some think the Z6/Z7 are high-end cameras, they’re not. They’re really mid-level cameras done right. While I—and probably many of you—want some high-end mirrorless out of Nikon (e.g. Z8, Z9), I’m perfectly happy with what we got and they were very nicely product managed. Not too much, not too little. Correct size. Standard Nikon ergonomics. A lot of people expected Nikon to botch their transition to mirrorless. I don’t think they did, though I wish they were pushing into mirrorless faster.
  9. 24-70mm f/4 S (2018). The very first Z lens turned out to be a very good lens, period. One of the best kit mid-range zooms, ever, if not the best. Coupled with the other S lenses Nikon has introduced, particularly the 50mm f/1.8 S and 24-70mm f/2.8 S, Nikon began the return to mirrorless with lenses that are a clear step up from the DSLR lenses that we had all been using.
  10. 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 Z DX VR (2019). Finally surprised you, didn’t I?  It’s not that this is a superb lens—it’s merely a very good one—it’s that for once Nikon understood and correctly balanced all the design parameters on what is an entry lens. The 16-50mm mounted on a Z50 results in a remarkably small package, yet one that performs remarkably well. This is exactly what is necessary to stand out in the crowded consumer market where sales are tough to make (it’s the part of the market in the most severe decline).

What, no NOCT? That’s right, I don’t see it as a seminal product. I see it instead as some optical designer’s “see what I can do” statement. The NOCT isn’t a reasonable lens for 99% of Nikon users, and I have serious doubts about the other 1%. As a practical product, it fails, and in multiple ways (price, size, MF, etc.).

Also missing in my list is the 200-500mm, which arguably is a candidate, as it’s probably the best consumer, long telephoto zoom on the market, and sells for a very reasonable price (which is very unlike Nikon).

And now for the Bottom 10 products Nikon produced in the second digital decade. Only I don’t have 10. 

  1. 16-35mm f/4G ED VR (2010). Surprised? Don’t be. On paper this lens sounds like the right product (slower wide angle zoom, better consumer price, takes filters). But I think it mostly misses the mark. First, it’s big and bulky for reasons I don’t understand (many other f/4 wide angle zooms are smaller and lighter). Second, someone decided that lens corrections are the way of the world so who cares how much barrel distortion this lens has. Optically, the lens is only on the good side; not one of Nikon’s better efforts. 
  2. 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 CX PD-Zoom (2011). Someone was thinking video, but not understanding video. Moreover, the size and weight of this lens is a total mismatch to the Nikon 1 bodies, even before they downsized the bodies.
  3. 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 CX (2012). Let’s see, a consumer lens, so we can cut corners. No VR, a weird, not really what anyone wanted focal range, but at least its smaller than the more proper 10-30mm. I have no idea what Nikon was thinking here. They were really rushing to the bottom with this lens.
  4. Nikon 1 AW1 (2013). There’s nothing wrong with the idea: a compact, underwater capable ILC. What is problematic is that this camera just gets flooded too easily, and thus destroyed. And no, it’s not people forgetting to close the door seals properly as Nikon constantly suggested, it’s just a design that seems to be too easily compromised. I saw multiple cases of where the camera was sealed and used properly where water breached the barriers somehow. Indeed, the camera seemed prone to developing internal condensation, a sign that it wasn’t properly sealed. It also didn’t help that Nikon didn’t make a wider lens for the AW1, so when used in the water with the available two (!) lenses, the camera really is quasi-wide capable at best case.
  5. Coolpix A (2013). I have mixed emotions about this one. There was much to like about the A, as it used an excellent 16mp APS-C sensor and had a strong 28mm f/2.8 lens up front. Image quality was never my complaint. Unfortunately, it was too much Coolpix and not enough Nikon. The exposure compensation button is in a not-Nikon place, for example, probably because someone thought that the left thumb was the way you make control changes. The price of the A just made all the design decisions wrong, too. At US$1100, that was a clear prosumer price for what turned out to be a poor consumer UI. I’d rather that Nikon had charged another US$100 or two and added  more usable controls, and maybe a tilting LCD.
  6. Df (2013). I’m sure I’ll get flack from Df lovers on this, but the Df was mostly a vanity design project, and to get it to market Nikon made a ton of compromises. Let’s see, take a D610 body, insert the D4 sensor, and then do an homage-to-dials interface on top. One of my problems is the Frankencamera aspect of the Df means that the dials can (and do) lie to you sometimes, which pretty much defeats the purpose of the dial-and-no-settings-LCD idea. The concept—a simple, stills-only camera with a classic interface—is something I was asking for as far back as 2007. But I was also asking for an all-in approach, not a big set of compromises. 
  7. Nikon 1 V1, V2, V3 (2011, 2012, 2015). While the J series tended towards just mimicking top consumer compacts, which was appropriate, the V series never hit a (the) mark. The fact that each model in this series was a complete rethink shows that Nikon didn’t really know what they were trying to achieve. 
  8. KeyMission 80 (2016). Wait, no 170 or 360? Nope. Those KeyMission cameras were competent, with one being basically a better built GoPro, the other being a more useful Ricoh Theta. In other words, the 170 and 360 were near clones, where the fatal flaws were late to market, not enough differentiation, too high a price. No, the KeyMission 80 was the total swing and a miss. Not only wasn’t there a market there, but the product was wrong for the market that did exist. Overall, KeyMission was product management failure more than a product failure, the 80 notwithstanding.

There’s a theme in the camera failures of the second decade. Put simply, Nikon needed to do one thing, and do it right. That would be a line of solid, Nikon DNA, prosumer and pro cameras. Almost every camera mistake in the second decade deviates from that. The AW1, V1, V2, V3, Df, and KeyMission cameras didn’t hit high enough with enough of Nikon’s design philosophy established decades ago with the N8008. The dozens of Coolpix I haven’t bothered to write about also fail at this: they’re not recognizably Nikon

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