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When Does Panic Set In?
Dec 29 (commentary)--The Japanese camera makers see their own camera market (i.e. sales in Japan) very well. Too well. They often over-rely on it to gauge what they should be doing next.
Well, if that's the case, there must be some panic afoot in Japan. Consider the top 20 selling interchangeable lens cameras in Japan from Jan 1 through Dec 23 (camera models ordered from best selling to worst within brand):
- Canon 37.9% (Kiss2, Kiss3, 50D, 5DII, 7D, 1000D)
- Nikon 28% (D90, D5000, D60, D40, D3000)
- Panasonic 8.5% (G1, GF1, GH1)
- Olympus 4.3% (E-P1, E-520)
- Pentax 4.3% (K-m, K-x)
- Sony 4% (A300, A350)
Those 20 cameras account for 87% of the DSLR sales in Japan. Nikon and Canon do pretty well in the 13% of cameras I haven't identified so far--add those in and Canon tops 40% and Nikon nears 35%.
Still, we've got four m4/3 cameras grabbing 11.5% of the home market. Think that got anyone's attention? And Pentax's two low-end models outselling Sony's. Think that got Sony's attention? That 5DII being the lone FX body to break the top 20 (at #13 and 2.1%), think that got Nikon's attention? Or how about the D3000 not living up to its potential (14th and 1.8% for a half year of sales isn't matching what either the D40 or D60 did)?
Oh, and does video sell DSLRs? #13, #17, and #19 are highly competent HD video cameras (1080i, variable frame rate, etc.). Hard to say, but it doesn't really look like high end video is truly selling DSLRs en masse yet.
No, the camera companies are atwitter with nervousness. Which is why they should read the following article.
The Inverted Razor Blade
Dec 24 (commentary)--Okay Nikon executives, can I get you out of your box for a moment? Come on out, don't be afraid. It's the holiday season and no one's going to hurt you. There you go. Feeling a little less constrained? Now, just read along with me...
Most business people are aware of the old Razor Blade idea: giving away the Razors and selling the Blades is a time tested method of building a business. The more Razors you give away, the more customers you have for Razor Blades. The basic premise has worked in quite a few markets. Heck, you could even say that Google's business model is a twist on the old Razor Blade idea: give away the searches and sell the results. The more searches that you give away, the more eyeballs you have to sell to those advertisers.
It's bad enough that the Japanese companies don't fully understand how to profit from the Razor Blade tactic. Sony has used it with the Playstation, essentially taking a loss on every game console in order to sell software. But showing that they don't fully understand the underlying idea, they kept making decisions that restrain the Razor Blade market, and they keep making the hardware more complex to create Blades for and adding things to the hardware that they weren't ready to provide Razor Blades for (that BluRay drive has been begging for ubiquitous media, but Sony's movie division wasn't ready to cut prices to exploit it, let alone figure out how to piggyback on the hardware sale).
But the Japanese really don't understand the Inverted Razor Blade. The biggest Inverted Razor Blade company? Apple. Yes, that Apple. Indeed, much of their recent success is so dependent upon the Inverted Razor Blade that they've even post-applied it to the Mac ("we have a store for that").
So what's an Inverted Razor Blade? Drive software that's free and ubiquitous, which sells hardware. Lots of hardware. The first taste of this we got from Apple was the iPod, where the "free" was all those MP3's we ripped or were floating around the Internet. Even buying a song on iTunes is essentially a "free" pass along by Apple: they're not making money on the sale of a song to you, they're just passing along the bare bone costs that media creators impose. This worked well enough that if you go to the Apple Web site, you'll find a Downloads tab, which is essentially a place to find free and ubiquitous software for your Mac (plus for sale software, too, though I don't understand why they haven't pushed that to include an iTunes-like store for the for-sale applications).
The iPhone is another Inverted Razor Blade, and one more relevant to cameras (you're still reading, aren't you, Nikon executives?). Two billion application downloads, a heavy dose of them free, and the rest often trivially priced (I can't count the number of 99 cent apps I've bought...hmm, maybe I should...looks like a bit over 50 low cost apps in my repository).
For months after getting my initial iPhone (I was one of the first day purchasers, though not intentionally, but that's another story), I would show others something I was doing with it and someone else would immediately be hooked. (Apple, if you're reading this, you can send my commission now.) Indeed, Apple now has a slogan for the effect: "There's an app for that." There is. Literally. And it's driving iPhone sales so dramatically that every cell phone maker and carrier has taken notice. The world will be filled with Inverted Razor Blades in the cell phone marketplace soon (iPhone, Pre, Droid, Android, etc.). Heck, even the "hey, we should copy that" folk at Microsoft have taken notice and are trying to figure out how to follow along.
So what's this have to do with cameras? Well, consider this quote from the Financial Times: "History had shown that this kind of freedom was what drove the more profitable 'ecosystems' of computers--where sales of hardware were dependent on a wide variety of useable software." Yep. Been there, did that. (Indeed, remember the Osborne Computer? Remember what I did there? That's right, I made sure a huge range of modest cost software was available for it (plus we gave away a few Blades, too). That low-cost software business grew from nothing to US$9 million in sales in nine months, and that was back in 1981. And it drove Osborne computer sales, which grew from zero to US$73 million in twelve months. At the time Osborne was the fastest growing manufacturer of consumer items ever (now surpassed several times by...you guessed it...other Inverted Razor Blades).)
Okay, so here's the thing: I now have the ability to do Photoshop, pano stitching, HDR, and a host of other things on the pictures taken by my iPhone, many of these in real time. Say what? I can do things in-camera with my iPhone that I can't do with my professional Nikon DSLRs. See anything wrong with that statement?
Oh, Nikon, you try so hard, but you will fail if you keep pounding on the same wall. Yes, you've added things like being able to do a raw conversion in camera, and video editing, but let's face it, you're not a software developer, Nikon. Not even close. You can't even keep your regular software updated for operating system refreshes that are telegraphed more than a year in advance. Meanwhile, Apple has proven that there are tens of thousands of capable programmers out there ready to work 24/7 to cause a piece of hardware to fart (and much more that's actually useful). You see, the answer is not to try to do it yourself. Invert the Razor Blade, Nikon, invert the Razor Blade.
Open the inside of your cameras to the world. Open firmware. Extensible firmware. Customizable firmware. Documented EXPEED. Documented Bayer filtration. Can you imagine how many pieces of software would be available to the world in a matter of weeks? Don't panic, you can still force a base set to remain untouched, much like the iPhone has its protected framework. But by documenting everything and providing the framework to tack on, your cameras would become the "must have" cameras. Done right, and with surprise, you'd own the serious camera market in a matter of months. Seriously.
Yes, I know you just started a subsidiary to write proprietary firmware. But that keeps you just like every other camera company: locked into your own solution.
Yes, I know it's scary to contemplate. It's a different world I'm pushing you towards. But it's a better world. One in which you'll profit handsomely. And you won't have to keep flogging your programmers.
So, as you sit back and enjoy the holidays, think about the future a bit. Think about a different future. A future that'll send your stock skyrocketing and lock up Nikon as the visionary, technology solution to serious imaging.
p.s. You'd still be designing cameras. Great cameras. Great cameras that'll be made even better by the best programmers in the world.
p.p.s. You can go back to your box now. But consider going somewhere else instead.
p.p.p.s. And to all, a good night...
Dec 18 updated (news)--Updated Software:
- Apple released Digital Camera Raw Compatibility Update 2.7, which adds D3s, D300s, and D3000 support to Aperture, iPhoto, and the OS.
- Nikon released Capture NX2 2.2.4 for Windows, which improves Windows OS support, includes minor feature tweaks, and fixes some bugs.
- Adobe has released ACR 5.6, DNG Converter 5.6, and Lightroom 2.6, all of which include support for the D3s.
- FDR Compressor 3.0.1 is mostly bug fixes.
- Iridient Raw Developer 1.8.7 adds D3s support.
Nikon's December (January) Surprise
Dec 10 (news)--Nikon announced new versions of the 300mm f/2.8G VR lens and the TC-20E teleconverter today. Both will be available very late next month (essentially at the end of the January).
The 300mm lens gets the newer VR seen in the 70-200mm update (known as VRII) and some optimisations for focus performance. A new A/M mode on the focus switch (not to be confused [!] with the M/A mode) offers a more secure return to autofocus from tweaked manual focus for those that move between the two types of focus. Cost of the new lens is US$5899.
The new teleconverter is said to be the first that uses aspherical elements. This is done in an attempt to improve corner performance, especially coma and abberations. Rubber seals at the mount also improve its weathersealing. Finally, the end caps have been redesigned (finally!). The TC-20E III will sell for US$499.
Dec 7 (commentary)--It seems most of the forum commentary on the Web at the moment centers around Nikkors, not Nikon DSLRs (the D3s's "see in the dark" capabilities notwithstanding).
Nikon themselves have just published a new tool that allows you to see the available Nikkors graphically. I wish I had thought to lay out my own lens graphs the same way, as it is quite revealing. Start with FX and Primes selected, for instance (and turn off the thumbnails for the moment). What you see is essentially four "lines" of lenses: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, and f/4. The f/2 line is particularly interesting: it has no recent lenses other than the 200mm, just a series of older lenses. The f/1.4 line is one new and one old lens. The f/2.8 line is two recent macros and two recent teles, but everything else is older. The f/4 line is the most up-to-date, but still could use replacements at the low end.
I'm predicting 24mm, 35mm, and 85mm f/1.4 lenses to be introduced shortly. That would completely refresh the f/1.4 line: it would be the only line to be all current lens designs if I'm right. This still leaves a lot of FX primes that could use updates, but at least the FX prime lineup would be remarkably full with a wide range of options.
So now click over onto DX primes. Where'd all the lenses go? You can see a bit of Nikon's thinking here. The lenses are actually in order of introduction, left-to-right. Wide. Then normal. Then telephoto. Still, a very random set of lenses. I think the next DX prime will tell us something very useful. Given the pattern on both axes so far, one might predict a 60mm f/1.4 being next. By the way, the 85mm f/3.5 DX Macro started shipping last Friday and should be in stores as you read this.
Okay, let's go to DX zooms. Well, that's pretty clear: the variable aperture zooms cover a wide range and have lots of overlap. We don't really need anything there. But look at that lone 17-55mm down on the f/2.8 line. Sure could use a 55-150mm f/2.8 VR sitting next to it.
Now pop over to FX zooms. Like DX, lots of overlap, though on close examination we find a lot of older lenses (17-35mm, 24-85mm, 18-35mm, 24-120mm, and 80-400mm stand out). The f/2.8 line has continuity of new lenses across the board (14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm). I'd bet those lenses are now set for awhile (that means I'm guessing that a 24-70mm VR is not coming). But I wouldn't be surprised to see a new lens range hit that mark (e.g. 16-36mm).
The chart masks the fact that Nikon doesn't have any constant aperture zooms other than the f/2.8 ones and the 200-400mm f/4. And click on the AF-S button to see what happens to this chart. See the problem? The aging and not-so-great 24-120mm is the sole provider for a big chunk of the chart. That lens needs a replacement (or replacements) stat.
Meanwhile, it seems that the number one topic of discussion on the net at the moment is the new 70-200mm VR II. Lower vignetting. Sharper in the corners. Better VR. But it loses focal length as you focus closer. That last bit has a lot of folk howling (at the closest focus distance the new lens is apparently about 128mm in equivalent focal length). There are pluses and minuses to that last bit. The VR II is sharper close up than the VR I according to reports I trust. But it does mean that you have to move closer and change perspective to get the same "subject size" at the 200mm marking and closest focus distance. How much closer? Well, if I'm calculating correctly, no more than 2.5' in any condition (but again, perspective will change if you move).
Let's deal with one aspect of the howls of protest: that Nikon is marking the lens deceptively. No, they're not. The standards that all the camera makers use for marking lenses states that focal length is defined by the distance from the rear nodal point to the focal plane when focused at infinity. The standards also allow for a lot of rounding, which means you can claim a 190mm lens is "200mm." This is why we can pick up five lenses marked "200mm" and get five slightly different results, even at infinity.
Things get worse at closer distances. Optically, you have lots of decisions to make. It appears that one of the decisions the Nikon designers made was to try to improve close focusing performance. In doing that, they also shortened effective focal length by an amount large enough that a lot of people have noticed (much like the 18-200mm controversy a couple of years back--it does the same thing at close focus distances).
At issue is whether the design change between the original and new 70-200mm is significant in practice. I can't say for sure yet, as I haven't fully tested the new lens and won't for a bit yet (I've got too many other things that you've been asking for me to finish first). It strikes me, though, that the primary thing that is being compromised here is perspective. For very close subjects, you're simply going to have to move a bit closer with the new 70-200mm. That's going to give you better sharpness, brightness, and less vignetting, but it's also going to change your perspective. The unanswered question is whether this is enough to cause real issues for most shooters. My guess is no, but it's only a guess at the moment. Bottom line: the new 70-200mm is going to change some shooting habits somewhat (you're going to get closer to near subjects), but that doesn't make it the terrible update that some seem to think it is.
Dec 7 (news)--Speaking of lenses, Sigma has introduced the 17-70mm f/2.8-4 lens with OS (optical stabilization). Full details, as usual, are on my Sigma lens page.
Dec 7 (news)--Dawn Technology has announced a new version of their GPS system, the di-GPS Mini 3L. The big new feature is the ability to provide a GPS position at power-on (last fixed position). That means that all your pictures will be tagged with a position in the EXIF, though that position may not be accurate if you've moved since the last satellite acquisition. Dawn has versions for the 10-pin connector cameras as well as the D90 and D5000.
Dec 7 (news)--Akvis Enhancer has been updated to version 11. This detail enhancing plug-in and applications adds a new UI, 64-bit support, compatibility with Snow Leopard and Photoshop Elements 8, plus Smart Filter support in Photoshop.
Graphic Converter now is at version 6.6 and adds import/export of lossless JPEG, import of 12/16-bit medical JPEGs, and updated PhotoRaw import.
Camera Control Pro 2.7.0 and Capture 2.2.3
Nov 26 (news)--Nikon released Camera Control Pro 2.7.0, which allows control of a camera via wired or wireless connections. The new version adds support for the D3s, Mac OS X Snow Leopard (10.6.1 specifically), and Windows 7. While the software runs in the 64-bit environment of the latest OS versions, it still remains a 32-bit application.
Nikon also released version 2.3.3 of Capture NX2. Again, D3s support has been added. But the primary focus of the update is bug fixes in the GPS and flash data, recognition of image profiles, and unexpected application termination. Note that this version only brings Mac OS support up to 10.5.8 (Leopard); this is not the Snow Leopard update promised by the end of the year.
NikonUSA's Official Black Friday Deals
Nov 26 (news)--I'm not sure why you're spending time to read this site on a holiday, but in case you missed Nikon's ubiquitous flyers here in the US, here are the official deals good through Saturday:
- Coolpix L20: US$99.99 (US$20 discount)
- Coolpix L100: US$199.99 (US$30 discount)
- Coolpix S70: US$299.99 (US$50 discount)
- Coolpix S570: US$149 (US$50 discount)
- Coolpix S630: US$229.99 (US$20 discount)
- Coolpix P90: US$299.99 (US$100 discount)
- D90 with 18-105mm: US$1149.99 (US$50 discount)
- D300s body: US$1699.99 new official price
- D3000 with 18-55mm + case + Nikon School DVD: US$499.99 (US$100 discount)
- D3000 with 18-55mm + 55-200mm + case + Nikon School DVD: US$649.98 (US$200 discount)
- D5000 with 18-55mm + case + Nikon School DVD: US$699.99 (US$150 discount)
- 70-300mm lens with purchase of D90, D300s, D700, or D5000: US$399.99 (US$200 discount)
- 55-200 non-VR lens with purchase of D3000 or D5000: US$99.99 (US$100 discount)
- 55-200 VR lens with purchase of D3000 or D5000: US$149.99 (US$100)
Similar rotating discounts will be in effect each week through the end of the year, but usually on a smaller group of product.
As far as I'm concerned, the two best offers here are the D5000, which is a very competent camera now at a price enough underneath the D90 to be meaningful, and the 70-300mm buy-a-camera-and-take-US$200 off offer. The 70-300mm is a darned good lens, and at US$399.99 it's a bargain.
OS Support for Nikon Software
Nov 22 (commentary)--Nikon has released a timetable for releasing software that will work with the current Mac OS (Snow Leopard) and Windows (7). First the Snow Leopard (version 10.6.x) schedule:
- Camera Control Pro: by the end of the month (Nov)
- Capture NX2: by the end of the year
- View/Transfer: by the end of January 2010
And the Windows 7 schedule:
- View/Transfer: already work. Full compatibility by end of January 2010
- Capture NX2: by the end of the year
- Camera Control Pro: by the end of the year
Time to Flog Thom Again
Nov 22 (commentary)--It's that time of year when I hoist myself up like a giant pinata and let everyone take a whack at me. Yes, my 2010 Predictions page is up, so let the swinging begin.
I use annual predictions to give me a sense of where the industry is and where it might be going. Many years ago (might have been as many as six) I wrote that 2010 was going to be a crossroads year. My prediction was that DSLR market segment growth would hit 10% or less in 2010 (at the time I wrote my prediction it was in the hundreds of percent). Well, things pretty much played out as I expected: 2009 saw perhaps 10% growth, a new low, and most sources predict more of the same moving forward. Meanwhile, compact camera growth really flattened several years ago.
So, the big question moving forward is "how do the camera companies grow?" It won't be by iterating the same formula over and over. Doing that would lead to the same thing we saw happen in the film era: declining SLR sales dominated by only a couple of companies. The areas that seem to have potential to build any growth moving forward are these: (a) sensor disruption, (b) same quality at much smaller size, (c) much higher (MF-like) quality at lower prices, (d) multipurposing (e.g. adding true pro video), (e) photographer-centric redesigns, (f) modularity, (g) truly customer-friendly companies, (h) direct sales, (i) system completeness.
So here's my mini report card for Nikon:
- Sensor Disruption: solid B. The D3s shows that Nikon has some tricks up its sleeve. The real issue is deploying these across the lineup.
- Smaller size: D-. The only "small" camera in the lineup is the D3000, and it's just a re-hased D40x. The FX push has increased camera size for Nikon, unfortunately, something that ultimately needs to be addressed.
- MF-like quality: B. The D3x certainly achieves this, but the pricing is still a bit too close to MF territory. We need that sensor or something similar in a D700 body and near a 5DII price for Nikon to get an A.
- Multipurposing: C. Yes, we've got video, but it's not as good as my GH1 achieves. In some respects, my Flip HD does better, too. Nikon still has a long way to go to get video fleshed out the way the videographers want it.
- Photographer-centric: B-. Nikon's never been really bad at this, and the consistency from body to body is good. But there are still things missing and we've got too many buttons and menus to be able to call it truly photographer-centric.
- Modularity: F. When the same flash operates ever so slightly different on a different body, even the crude modularity that we do have is missing something. Curiously, Nikon did work on a truly modular camera this decade. Where it disappeared to I don't know.
- Customer-friendly: D. Every now and then I get hints that some within Nikon get it and try to help customers, then something happens that makes me lose hope again. The problem is that it isn't a company priority.
- Direct Sales: F. Nikon does everything through dealers, even NPS priority purchases. I understand why they do that, but as margins get hammered more and more, someone is going to break out of the pack and cut out a distribution piece to reclaim margin (and/or lower prices).
- System Completeness: B-. We're missing too many things--mostly lenses--to give a higher grade.
As I've written many times, Nikon's a technology-based company. It's going to be technology changes that they look to in order to find new growth and profits. As I write in my predictions, we'll see a bit of that in 2010. But 2011 is when I expect to see what Nikon really has up its sleeve, technology-wise.
Cameras as Objects II
Nov 18 (commentary)--Well, I knew what was coming when I wrote my original piece (below). By the way, neither Canon nor Nikon had a camera ad in that issue of the magazine, so those of you who interpreted my comments as a criticism of Nikon are wrong. But let's go through some of the responses I got and deal with the points they bring up:
- Popular Photography isn't exactly where serious photographers would go, and it's not much about photography any more. I'm not 100% sure I'd agree with the latter part, though the latest redesign and editorial shift has me rethinking this. But that's besides the point: you advertise a camera in that magazine because you want to sell it to potential customers. Even if we accept the premise that the magazine is now mostly about selling things and describing the latest and greatest, the bottom line is this: what do you expect that new camera will do for you? Let you take nice pictures of it?
- Images can be faked. Well, yes (though I'd tend to say phase it that they can be manipulated to better show what you want to show). But advertising text can be misleading too. Thus, I dismiss this assertion out of hand. The viewer of an advertisement always has to come at it with some skepticism, regardless of whether it is an image or text. Egregious manipulation or overstatement is eventually called out, either by neutral third parties (e.g. consumer organizations) or by competitors.
- Most people who buy cameras aren't actually all that interested in how good the pictures are. There's some truth to that, of course. And some people just want the latest and greatest, even though it might not make any large contribution to their image quality. We buy new vehicles long before our old ones wear out, after all. But if all you need to sell cameras is to put a "new and improved" sticker on the replacement model, then we've gotten to a very dark place. I believe it is incumbent upon a product's maker to tell me why I need it. Show me the benefit. Yeah, louder. Show me the benefit! Yes, but brother, you got to yell that ****! Show me the benefit!!! (Yes, that's another movie reference.).
- Without photos in the ad, the implication is that the camera can do anything. Right. And without roads in the ad, the implication is that a car can go anywhere. Sorry, I don't buy this argument. The ultimate reduction of such logic is that a plain white box with no markings must contain a better product than a box that actually highlights or describes the product, because obviously, the plain white box could contain a product that does anything. Call it Schrodinger's Camera.
- Cameras as objects has been a common theme for a long time. Yes, it has. Indeed, it's now to the point where it's a cliche. Do cliches really sell products? One of the most effective ad campaigns for cameras recently were from Nikon. First, there was the "we gave a D40 to everyone in a small town and this is what they did with them." Then we got the D80 follow up: "we gave a D80 to a group of photographers on Flickr and here's what they did with them." Both campaigns provoked discussion and new buyers coming into the store. Indeed, my next door neighbor got so hooked by the D40 campaign--she figured that if Joe Average in small town could take such nice pictures, maybe she could too--that she acquired a D40. Then there were the Sandro ISO 6400 motorcycle posters with the D3 that proved the camera could (a) shoot big and (b) shoot fast. It's no coincidence that most of Nikon's market share gains came during the period when they were doing such direct "here's what it does" ads. These we so contrary to all the "look at this nice camera" ads that they stood out. As much as I've complained about various aspects of Nikon's marketing, they got their advertising right for an extended period and it helped. Canon, too, has been successful with benefit ads. Indeed, their original rise with the original Rebel came about due to showing cameras at sporting events and implying that you could get pro results, too. Canon's long had a successful ad campaign in National Geographic where they show exotic or endangered animals caught with those big white lenses.
- It's the advertising companies' fault, not the camera companies'. Sorry, no winning argument here. The marketing message comes from and is controlled by the manufacturer. If you buy an inferior product (ad) and get inferior results (no gain in market share) then you either hired the wrong advertising firm or approved a poor campaign or both. I'd say that the real issue is economics: the camera makers aren't spending enough to get really good ad campaigns. Indeed, this gets back to one of my common themes (why do I feel like I'm turning into a Lou Dobbs-type character?): most of these companies aren't top tier in terms of their marketing abilities, and they also fail to act both globally and locally as well as they should. It's not a coincidence that there were no Nikon or Canon ads in the issue I was looking at. The slip of the dollar against the yen has cut into margins and the knee-jerk response of these two companies has been to cut back on marketing costs (Canon isn't going to PMA 2010, for instance).
- Any camera will give great image quality. True to a point, but there are still plenty of differences that show up in images. Frame burst rates, autofocus accuracy and speed, tilt-shift abilities, large optical range options, high ISO capability, fill flash capability, the list goes on and on. And most of those things were mentioned at some point in the text of the ads I was looking at. Not really shown, just written about.
- Foreign ads are sometimes different. True. Though as several International readers pointed out, also often lacking a clear benefit display. One wrote about an advertisement in a European magazine for the Panasonic GF1: sexy, fashionable lady holding a GF1. As he pointed out, the message was about a different kind of image: "If you're cool, if you look good, if you're in sync with fashion, you should get a GF1."
Finally, one email statement resonated with me: "The camera makers aren't selling cameras any more. They're selling lifestyle." Yep. And a lifestyle that actually doesn't seem to include taking any pictures (though it'll allow us to shoot movies if we want ;~).
Cameras as Objects
Nov 17 (commentary)--So I'm browsing through the latest issue of Popular Photography last night, still trying to shake a head cold that's plagued me for the last couple of weeks when I notice something. Pentax (page 8), Sigma (p 11), Sony (p 24), and Panasonic (p 36-37) all use the same approach: picture of camera(s) + text. Only the Fujifilm (inside front cover) and the Pentax ad on the back cover had images in them, and even then, only the Fujifilm ad had examples that spoke to image quality I might get with their product.
Compare this to the lens makers: Tokina (p 4), Sigma (p 12), Tamron (p 19, 27), and Tokina (p 61) all at least use an image representative of what you could do with the lens as well as a shot of the lens itself. (We won't get into how well those images are in illustrating the unique properties of the product being advertised--that's another can of worms. At least they used images that connected to what the product can do.)
Given that the purpose of these products is to take images, you'd think that images would be important in marketing them. But the camera makers are getting to be like auto makers were for awhile: it's all about the bling of the object, not how it performs (which is another reason why really ugly autos, like the Pontiac Aztek, didn't do so well).
Not that I'm hoping that the camera makers can ever aspire to great ad campaigns, but you'd think that they'd be a little better at selling what it is the product will actually do for you.
For example, let's quickly conjure up a basic ad for the D3s. Text at top: "Problem: Dimly lit gym requires ISO 6400." Text at bottom: "Answer: D3s. Any Questions?" And in small text: "more answers can be found at WebURL." The rest of the ad would be some impressive sports photo taken under those tough conditions with the camera in question. Simple, straight to the point, and offering up a result, not the object.
Throwing text at users that is basically just specifications expressed in sentences instead of bullet points seems, well, pointless. More to the point, the magazine itself tends to be running plenty of specifications about products. How much was the copy writer paid that wrote this gem: "All of the control of a DSLR--shake reduction, lens flexibility and aperture control--in stunning HD video quality." Or this perfectly vague line: "takes its dedicated image-processing engine to the next level." What level was it at? What level did it achieve? And are we talking levels in a parking garage or image quality?
The ironic thing is this: when professional photographers get together these days we talk about having to scramble harder to get meaningful money from our work. Magazines still pay the same day rate they did 20 years ago but want all rights in perpetuity. Stock sales are way down. And camera companies aren't even bothering to use images in their ads. I guess cameras aren't for taking pictures any more. Excuse me while I go to my gear locker and admire my bling collection. Maybe I should build some lighted pedestals and put them out where everyone can see them...
Zeiss Updates Lenses
Nov 16 (news)--Zeiss has added CPUs to its line of Nikon F-mount lenses, making them compatible with more Nikon DSLRs. The new lenses are marked as ZF.2. Users of Nikon DSLRs that don't have a NON-CPU DATA setting, such as the D3000, D5000, and D90 will now be able to meter with this new version of the Zeiss lenses. Users of Nikon DSLRs such as the D300s, D700, and D3 series will no longer have to set NON-CPU DATA lens parameters manually before shooting.
The 18mm, 21mm, 35mm, both 50mm, and 85mm updated lenses will be available in late November. The 28mm and 100mm updates will be available in spring. The 25mm lens is being completely reworked and has no set timeframe to appear.
Nov 12 (commentary)--We need to do a better job of teaching financial information in our educational systems. Every time Nikon posts a loss and I write about it, I get a string of emails asking "is this the end?" or "who's going to buy Nikon?" or "I guess I should switch now, right, before I get stuck?"
There's a big difference between posting a loss and being in financial difficulty. Indeed, even the mainstream press business writers seem to be getting confused with profit and loss gyrations lately. First, to answer all those that wrote me: I don't see Nikon in any particular financial difficulty. Much of their loss is in write-off of assets. In the camera business, which is 72% of Nikon's business now, they are profitable and holding market share. The underlying financials--debt ratio, cash flow, etc.--all are not critical at the moment, though they could be better (as in no debt at all and plenty of cash on hand). Nikon is not going to go out of business tomorrow, nor is it really a takeover candidate.
Nikon's big problem is a tough one, though: where does growth come from? I suppose a rebound in the semiconductor equipment marketplace might quickly bring in critical additional revenues and large profits, and this could turn the weaker part of Nikon's financials around faster than you could blink an eye. But that would only restore Nikon about to where it should be. It's not "growth" if all you do is return to previous levels of sales. (I'm sure the business press will report it as growth, though ;~).
The Imaging division is getting growth in unit volume, but not in sales and profits. That's the critical issue for not just Nikon, but the entire camera industry. In other words, the market is mature. Even in good times (no worldwide recession) the strong companies in a mature market have a difficult time achieving growth. To truly achieve respectable growth in a mature market, you need one or more of several things: (1) disruptive technology that invalidates previous products; (2) entirely new product lines (e.g. video cameras for Nikon); (3) a close connection with current customers that you can use to leverage into additional, related sales (e.g. lenses and accessories); or (4) acquire businesses.
Historically, Nikon has relied upon #1. They're a technology-driven company, after all. Interestingly, despite tough times on the bottom line, Nikon's R&D spending has not changed a lot: it's slightly down from it's peak but still historically high as a percentage of sales. The numbers say Nikon is betting on #1. Traditionally, #4 is the easiest to do, but very difficult to get right. But personally, looking closely at where Nikon is today and what they need to accomplish to keep from getting relegated to a niche company with no large potential future gains, I think they need to do all four things. And they need to do it soon.
The end of the current Great Recession is going to give the camera companies a short bit of a respite, I think. They'll see sales inch upward and pricing pressures ease a bit, and all that accrues pretty directly to their bottom lines. They'll think everything is copasetic and business-as-usual. The only problem is, it isn't. We're still at near saturation on camera sales, there can't be price rises without technology breakthroughs, the overall market is still low-growth, and none of these companies is exactly customer friendly, so they're not firing on all cylinders to start with.
What Not to Do
Nov 12 (commentary)--We have a couple of DSLR companies pushing colored bodies as some sort of new wrinkle to try to goose sales. The trend is very visible in Japan, which is a faddish country to start with. Apparently if you can't sell a black DSLR body, you can sell a red one. Or a white one. Or a pink one. Hello Kitty?
Really? When markets start producing different results on purely cosmetic changes, then you're in a different business than the technology business. You're in the fashion business. Heaven knows how many companies have missed turns in fashion. Now combine the two: miss a turn with fashion and miss a turn simultaneously with technology and you're...well, standing about five feet beyond the edge of the cliff and you're about to have one of those Wile E. Coyote moments.
We've already had one interesting illustration of this. Panasonic apparently brought near equal quantities of black, blue, and red G1 bodies into the US at launch. While blue and red DSLR bodies might be selling in Japan, they aren't in the US. What happened was that the black bodies sold out and the blue and red ones had to be discounted to sell. Moreover, having only blue and red bodies available actually lost potential G1 sales here in the US. By the time a black G1 was again readily available, other cameras had come to market. Cameras, like most tech products, have short half-lives. If you don't optimize the sales on day one, you never optimize the sales. Lost sales on day one due to a mistake (not enough brought into the country, wrong styles brought in, etc.) are never fully made up by subsequent moves.
Some of the high-tech style fad is driven by successful products, such as the iPod Nano, currently available in nine colors. But the iPod is a ubiquitous product. When everyone has one, yes, people want to differentiate their's from yours. When you sell 11 million of something in a quarter, you probably ought to have more than one style. I seem to remember a study about this from my MBA program, but my memory isn't serving it up at the moment. Basically, below a certain market penetration, don't differentiate; above a certain market penetration you have differentiate to fully realize potential sales.
My point is that DSLRs simply don't fall into a high enough volume worldwide to try color and paint schemes as a way of producing more sales. Curiously, the Japanese culture may be getting in the way. They differentiate by buying the same thing, but customized in some way. That's one way they show their individuality in a group culture. But as the US Panasonic G1 sales showed, that doesn't play everywhere. Here in the US we'll take our Model T's in basic black until the point where everyone has one. Then, and only then do we think much about differentiating cosmetically.
I've written this before, but the camera companies are just not global companies yet. They sell things globally, but they don't act like global companies.
Nikon Financial Update
Nov 5 (news)--After doing their usual last minute "loud whisper" update earlier in the week, Nikon today announced their financial results for the first half of their fiscal year (ended 9/30/2009). Sales and income came in above forecast, though they still showed a loss for the period (compared to a profit the previous year).
Overall sales were 192.9b yen for the quarter, with net income of -13.7b yen. The Precision Equipment division has been writing down inventory and consolidating plants, which had a big impact on the final numbers, but Precision's real issue is simple: it sold 34 steppers in the first half of this year versus 69 last year. Currency exchange also continued to be an issue for the company overall, with the dollar/yen exchange falling lower than expected and the euro/yen exchange coming in higher than expected.
The Imaging division did better than forecast, in basically all aspects. It sold 275.3b yen of equipment for the first half, and made a 26.5b yen profit. 1.66m DSLRs, 2.45m lenses, and 5.13m Coolpix cameras were sold in the first half of their fiscal year. All those numbers are up from Nikon's last forecast, which was in early August. Moreover, unit volume in interchangeable lenses and Coolpix cameras hit a new high for the first half. Unfortunately, sales dollars per unit is dropping. In terms of sales, Imaging now represents 72% of Nikon's business.
As always at the half year mark, Nikon updated their full year forecast. This will sound like deja vu: Precision continuing to struggle and lose money, Imaging making a small profit on slightly declining sales. Some numbers were intriguing: DSLR unit sales of 3.55m (on a market size of 10m, so a 35% market share). This reflects an increase of 14% more DSLRs sold in the second half of the year (the part we're in now) than the first half. Lens sales are now estimated at 5.15m for the year (and second half estimates are up 10% over first half). Finally, Nikon expects to sell a remarkable 6.37m Coolpix cameras in the second half (remember, they sold 5.13m in the first). That's a 24% increase.
Nov 2 (news)--The latest round of updated software:
- Akvis Noise Buster 7.0 adds Now Leopard Support, compatibility with Photoshop Elements 8, and better noise reduction.
- Capture One 5 adds a new focus mask tool, a better skin tone enhancer, vignetting control, more IPTC metadata fields, and more.
Nov 2 (fantasy)--One site reader had a line in their email to me that resonated: "it seems simple: manufacturers just need to make something that resembles a Leica but costs less."
Hmm. Yeah, that's about right. We had a few stabs at that with film cameras, but for some reason none really with digital. Cosina, where are you? The recipe is simple: FM-10 body functionality, Leica M size but Nikon F-mount (yes I know that increases camera depth--Leica M mount would be okay, too, but this is a Nikon site so I want F-mount ;~), and a 12mp+ digital organ transplant. Don't get too hung up on making a rangefinder: since you're targeting your existing F-mount lenses (20mm, 40mm, 58mm, 180mm, etc.) and the customers for those, just make sure optional optical viewfinders are aligned properly (hot shoe over the lens center). No autofocus (but MF help), no fancy metering systems (centerweight, spot), no crazy deep menu systems, etc. Heck, you can even make life simpler for yourself and use a monochrome sensor so you don't have to build a complex imaging ASIC. Price it at US$2999 and it would sell decently and instantly sell out your lens line, too.
Painters and Paint
Nov 2 (reaction)--Another site reader had a very interesting point in reaction to something I wrote, and I think it's worth presenting it and my answer to it here rather than keeping the dialog private. First, an excerpt from his email:
"I have a hard time imagining Van Gogh or Monet getting all excited about some new paint brush that was on the market. I have it on good authority, though, that they did get excited when a new set of paints, based on advances in chemistry, became available. The excitement, however, was directed at what they could now paint and not at the paint itself."
This gets to the very root of some of the things I've been writing, but without quite being as direct as I probably should be. When I write about an inconsistency or problem with a tool (camera, lens, software package, etc.) it's because it is in some way getting in the way of me spending time thinking about what I can photograph and how I can get that photograph to express what I want it to. I'm pretty sure that if Monet's brushes got limp too fast, he'd complain about them on his blog, too.
By constantly writing about flaws in the tools, I do potentially distract from the ultimate goal: to create a great photo. This actually comes up a bit in the E-P1 and GF1 reviews. The E-P1 has autofocus that inhibited getting a picture I wanted in Africa. The GF1 has slightly less desirable image quality (with a strong emphasis on the slightly). Which is the bigger flaw in terms of my being able to achieve the best possible photo? Well, the autofocus I can do something about (use manual focus, use depth of field, learn to better anticipate the Oly's focus speed, etc.). The image quality, however, is brewed into the sensor and digital aspects of the camera in ways that I can't change (though I can sometimes compensate for some problems, like the oversharpening of the GF1, by using a different setting and doing more post processing work).
Still, I think the reader's point needs to be remembered: don't lose sight of end goal, creating pictures, by getting too distracted with the small failures of the tools. I've produced great pictures with any number of cameras, some of which had some strong liabilities. Nevertheless, I think it's very important to understand those liabilities before you get into that once-in-a-lifetime photographic situation, lest you get caught out by them.
Be Careful What You Wish For -- The Cattle Logjam
Oct 26 (commentary)--For five years now I've been writing about wanting a compact camera with a large sensor. If we take just a tiny bit of liberty on what "compact" means, it seems that my choices are multiplying like rabbits.
I tried the Sigma DP-1/2. The camera holds back the sensor. I've been using an Olympus E-P1. The autofocus is its liability. Olympus round two is coming. I've got a Panasonic GF1. That solves the autofocus issue but, unfortunately, is a slight step backwards for usability for Panasonic. Still, close. Leica has announced the X1. At fifty cents a horizontal pixel it's just a wee bit pricey. Samsung has announced and announced and announced the NX. We'll see when it gets here. Ricoh has talked about their upcoming entrant. Fujifilm appears about to take EXR into the fray. Sony says they'll have one, but it sounds like a rush effort to not let all the above get too far ahead of them in the next hot camera market. Nikon has been quiet publicly, but the rumors have them with, surprisingly, the smallest of the "large sensor" compacts. Canon, well, they're "investigating" the idea. Nine known large sensor compacts, one probable. And the leading camera company missing in action ("can we interest you in a G11 instead?"). Yep, the tweener market between compact cameras and DSLRs is about to get just as cluttered as the other camera markets as the herd moves to new grazing grounds in hopes of finding higher margin grass.
Funny thing is, it doesn't seem like anyone is really getting these designs quite right, which means they probably don't understand the real demand. Okay, Leica is relatively close to what I wrote I wanted in 2005, but US$1999 is out of the mainstream. But one dead-on design would pretty much knock out the rest very quickly. Or at least turn them back to the drawing board.
Let's hope someone dials it in soon. Simple. Small. Photographer-centric. Excellent image quality. Really only four targets to hit, so why is it so difficult?
They all can't win in this game, it's already too crowded. But so far no one is really close to winning. The herd is just in another pasture doing the same thing as before. Oh, and each cow seems to have a desperate need to announce that they're changing pastures before they get to the fence. All that does is attract more cows, I think.
Looking Forward Towards Christmas
Oct 26 (commentary)--While there's been a lot of moaning about price increases lately, here in the US it doesn't look like the Christmas buying season is going to be much different than last year: rebates, both longer term and rotating.
Nikon appears to be readying a program whereby pretty much everything has an instant rebate on it at some point between now and the end of the year (sometimes just for a week, and sometimes very modest in amount). As with last year, the Nikon coop ads change each week, promoting different products. If you remember what your local dealer was doing last year, this year should be pretty much deja vu.
Canon, too, seems to be moving the same direction, only slightly more chaotically. Dealers can tell me pretty much what Nikon's rollout of incentives is going to look like through the end of the year, but seem to have more trouble following what Canon is up to. As one dealer put it to me "Canon's advertising support usually shows up two to three days after the program begins." The 50D and Xsi prices have already been adjusted. Other models seem to be destined for reduction, as well.
Bottom line: if you're thinking about buying a new product between now and the end of the year, you might want to wait a bit and look closely at the local dealer coop ads that should start appearing any day now.
Still, a word of warning: the currency situation is still highly volatile, and no one knows how "hot" or "cool" the US economy is going to be this Christmas, so there's a good chance that whatever the camera companies already have planned, they may have to adjust those plans. A really hot selling season coupled with a drop in the dollar's value would tend to get instant rebates cancelled or lowered in value. A really cool selling season with a relatively stable currency exchange would tend to increase the size and frequency of rebates. Still, the planning required to get coop advertising into the field means that the basics of each company's strategy is mostly predetermined. For Nikon, that means a different set of products being promoted each week between now and the end of the year. The Black Friday promotions are probably already locked in stone.
Nikon Software Updates
Oct 21 (news)--Nikon Transfer 1.5.1 adds D3s support, support for 64-bit versions of Vista (though the app is still only 32-bit), and OS X 10.5.8 support (last version of Leopard, not Snow Leopard). Nikon View 1.5.0 adds the same things but adds a GPS function that allows you to move log data to image tags, and support for Epson E-Photo.
Oct 21 (news and commentary)--Today I'm announcing the availability of the 2nd Edition of the Complete Guide to the Nikon D700, but with a twist: there's now a limited edition option, and boy is it a doozey. If you've got a D700 and are looking for one-on-one time with me, you need to check out that option. Especially since only 25 people are going to be able to take me up on that option. It's first-come, first served. Update: for those looking to update from the first edition, I've added a link to the main D700 Guide page.
But this is a good opportunity to comment about some of the changes I've made to my book offerings. Both Nikon and I are in mostly update season. As Nikon introduces updates, so, too, must I. As I make those updates, I'm adding options. To wit:
- Each updated book now has a professionally printed and bound option available. Many of you requested this. It took me awhile to find a local vendor that lived up to my high standards at a reasonable price. Printed versions are now available as an option for the D40, D60, D5000, and D700 Guides. More are on the way.
- Most of the eBooks (all the current cameras) now come with 96 to 128-page printed, spiral bound (for flat use in the field) ToGo Guides. These are an included part of the D80, D90, D300, D700, D5000, and D3 Guides, and will be a part of any refresh of the Flash Guide, too.
- Starting with the D700 Guide update and likely with any eventual D300 and D3 Guide updates, I'm offering a special limited edition bundle, and that includes much sought after and valuable one-on-one time with me.
- eBook Reader compatibility: due to the complexity of the formatting and the special Nikon icon font I created and use, any portable Reader needs to fully support PDF in order to be able to use my works. This has been tested and works on the Amazon Kindle DX, Sony Reader, and B&N Nook. But it does not work on the original Kindle or the Kindle 2. While some have gotten the eBooks to work on smartphones with PDF applications, I don't recommend it, as the formatting just doesn't work with such restricted screen space.
I continue to listen to my customers and try to provide options that they ask for within the constructs that a small, one-man business can support. If there's something else I should be doing, please don't hesitate to let me know.
Here We Go Again
Oct 21 (commentary)--the recent announcements of the Canon 7D and 1DIV seem to have revived the old sawmill. Basically, the email I receive goes something like this: "I'm upset with Nikon. Canon now has six bodies with more than 12mp while Nikon continues to come up with new 12mp bodies. Nikon is falling behind." These emails almost exactly mimic emails I received a few years ago, with the only difference being that the complaint was about Nikon being stuck at 6mp (obviously, they weren't). A few comments:
- More megapixels don't necessarily mean better images. That's not a knock on Canon bodies, actually. In the right hands, used the right way, printed the right size, more megapixels might make a difference.
- Too many people are still "cropping later." They use extra pixels to be lazy. Remember, perspective is about where you put the camera relative to the subject. Not controlling perspective is one of the things that make amateur photos look amateur.
- 12mp prints quite nicely out to as big as you can put on a desktop inkjet. Ask yourself (a) how many prints larger than 19" you've actually made; and (b) whether you've actually tried upsizing a 12mp image to 24" or even 36". If you answer of a0 or b0, then extra pixels aren't in your future.
- More pixels mean more computer. Try this: convert a 6mp image and a 24mp image on your current computer.
- Nikon isn't hung up on numbers. They eventually move upward in pixel counts. But Nikon seems much more focused on other aspects of image quality, particularly noise handling right now. If the market really demands and needs more pixels, Nikon will get there.
Obviously, at any given point in time, any camera maker seems to be lagging at something. It's a giant gain of leapfrog, and there are plenty of factors that have to be "jumped" (autofocus performance, noise handling, pixel count, etc.). Canon's major product cycles are still almost exactly offset from Nikon's, even though they seem to be a tiny bit faster. That means we see Canon make a move that makes something Nikon look a bit behind, then Nikon makes a move that makes something Canon look a bit behind, then the cycle repeats. I have no doubts that by the time we get to the D400, D800, and D4 things will look differently.
Thus, as I wrote last time this happened, you have to make a decision. Either you're going to ping-pong between brands to get the latest and greatest every two years or so, or you're going to settle on a brand overall that accomplishes what you need, and stick with it. Jumping ship at every major announcement is the only way you can take advantage of "the latest and greatest." That's a costly way to update equipment, though.
December Surprise Again?
Oct 21 (commentary)--The missing lenses (I've just updated my most recent article on the subject with some third party suggestions) have me very perplexed. I believe that there are three lenses in production (two primes and a zoom) that have not been announced. I also believe there are several more that have been designed and may be ready for production.
Nikon's recent camera body announcements were strange: we got a mostly FX announcement for a future lens (70-200mm II) with DX bodies, and we got a DX lens (85mm Micro-Nikkor) with an FX body. That seems a little silly to me. I suspect it's a simplistic "see, we're not forgetting or other customers" tactic, but a simple "we'll announce additional FX lenses with our next FX body announcement" would have sufficed for the 70-200mm (especially since the lens will ship about the same time as the D3s does).
So the questions remaining are these:
- Will Nikon announce more lenses this year? My answer: most likely. We're two lenses shy of "normal" expectation for the year, and we know there are some unannounced ones in production. I doubt these will wait for PMA announcements in early 2010.
- Will lenses be announced without a camera body? My answer: possibly, but I think unlikely. Nikon has done that in the past, but normally in periods where no camera body was announced (the 2002 to 2005 period where there were only three camera bodies announced had three lens-only announcements, for example). When there are short gaps between body announcements, lens announcements don't tend to be done separately. I think we're in a short-gap timeframe at the moment.
- What camera body would new lens announcements come with? My answer: the most likely ones would be the missing D700x-type camera or yet another low-end body (D4000). Even though bodies delivered late in the year are the bane of camera stores, both would make sense for Nikon. They need better consumer bodies to stay competitive (10mp, no movie mode doesn't cut it). They need a D700x to compete with the 5DII/A850/A900. Both would help stall switchers making Christmas decisions. I give another body this year a slightly better than 50/50 shot, with the DX consumer choice being the more likely one due to how easy it should be (in which case we once again get FX lenses announced with DX body--sense a pattern?). But a D700x body would be the better choice for where Nikon's strengths are right now, and better match the lenses about to pop. Personally, I want the D700x-type body for my upcoming trip to Japan.
Additional Announcement Facts and Comments
Oct 14 (news and commentary)--A few more tidbits that I didn't manage to report late last night when I was quickly finalizing what I had written earlier in the week (yes, my D3s and 85mm story, below, were prewritten and waiting for Nikon's official release):
- The D3s video is improved over Nikon's previous iterations. In particular, the rolling shutter effect is minimized by about half. Unfortunately, all CMOS-based sensors are going to have some rolling shutter artifacts, but at least the D3s has minimized the worst of the problem.
- The video user has control of aperture and shutter speed, and the ability to select an Auto ISO barrier. Moreover, the exposure flickering we sometimes see on previous Nikon DSLR video implementations seems to have improved (these flickers were caused by using the ISO to change exposure).
- Ignore the US$5199 price. NikonUSA is being clever. Most dealers are still going to (unofficially) price the D3s at US$4999 to their users, is my guess. That's because of the psychological barrier that exists at US$4999. What's really going to happen is that dealers are probably going to eat that US$200 difference. Both Canon and Nikon seem to be getting more creative at finding ways to push the pricing pressure onto the dealer, not themselves.
- The 85mm DX has one of the most impressive MTF curves for any Nikkor lens. If you get a copy of this lens that isn't edge-to-edge sharp wide open, then QC is the problem, not the lens design.
Most of the response that has appeared on the net and in my In Box so far all centers around one of four things:
- The D3s itself. While the camera was expected, most of the comments seem to be expressing disappointment in the video (720P 24 fps). Few are seeing that the still side of the camera has had a number of small irritants removed and its image quality pushed a bit higher in a very critical ISO range (3200-12,800). I'll repeat: the still portions of the update were welcome, well considered, and responded to some (but not all) user frustrations with the original D3. And being able to shoot 9 fps still raw files for almost five seconds before filling the buffer is a large improvement (more than double). Heavy D3 users really need to look at whether the new still functions make it worth trading in the old model for the new. If I were a sports shooter, I would.
- The f/3.5 on the 85mm DX. Some seem to think that maybe this is a "portrait" lens for DX. It isn't, and it wouldn't be even if it were f/2.8. We'd need to get to f/2 at least at that focal length to really be a portrait lens. Thus, I don't see the f/3.5 versus f/2.8 a real issue. It appears that Nikon was looking for a way to provide a modest cost, low weight/size, consumer macro lens with decent working distance. They succeeded. The only real issue I have is that I don't see 85mm as where the heaviest demand is for new DX lenses. I worry a bit that someone at Nikon tried using the 60mm Micro-Nikkor on their DX body, discovered that the working distance wasn't large enough, and decided to invent the solution for that problem. But a better solution for that target user would have been to simply create a new 55-200mm with a macro capability.
- The "missing" D700x. Missing is in quotes because it really isn't missing yet. It's only missing in context of the Canon 5DII and the Sony A850/A900. But in that same context, the D700 was missing for quite some time while the Canon 5D ate up the 12mp FX audience. Put another way, Nikon has been last to market, but with the best. The more important question is whether Nikon goes D700s or D700x in their eventual offering. A D700s would get the same benefits the D3s did (better low ISO capability), a D700x the same benefits as the D3x (more pixels). Nikon won't do both, so which they do will tell us a lot about Nikon's priorities.
- The missing lenses. Let me state this up front: we pretty much know there's new 24mm and 85mm primes in the pipeline. Heck, so far into the pipeline that the specs are well known. But for some reason we're suddenly getting US patents filed for lenses prior to announcement. I think that indicates that Nikon has slowed putting lenses into production (more on that in a bit). I know of at least three other lenses that should be in production, as well, but that we've had no announcement for. The funny thing is, the great companies keep product cycles cranking through recessions. Indeed, they often introduce entirely new product lines (consider Apple introducing the iPod during the previous recession). So a message to Nikon: if you've got the goods, deliver them. The users are waiting. A new 85mm AF-S VR would sell out the first production run, so what's with the caution? So far this year, Nikon has announced fewer lenses than expected (5 announced, 7+ expected). This leads us to believe one of three scenarios is active: (a) there's another announcement coming late this year; (b) Nikon has slowed launches, probably due to economy-based cautiousness; or (c) Nikon's glass production is once again constrained, and putting sold-out lenses back into production has pushed back the introduction of new lenses. I personally think it's mostly C with a bit of B thrown in, which means we may actually see A late in the year.
The D3s Announcement
Oct 14 (news and commentary)--Nikon today announced the D3s, a follow-on tweak to their successful D3 model. The basic changes are:
- Some additional fiddling with the internal structure of the D3 sensor to improve efficiency, plus a new HI3 ISO added (102,400)
- Incorporation of the larger buffer (previously an option)
- Addition of built-in sensor cleaning
- An addition crop mode (1.2x, making the D3 a 10mp camera, and a 300mm see an angle of view of a 360mm lens)
- Basic video and the accompanying changes (720P 24fps Motion-JPEG, mono internal microphone plus stereo external microphone input, in camera editing)
- Dedicated Live View and Info buttons
- Addition of the recent Quiet Mode shooting (mirror lift is separated from mirror drop)
- Multiple exposure can be performed multiple times by assigning to a button and virtual horizon is available in Live View.
The camera will be available in November at a price of US$5199 (a US$200 increase over the D3 price at introduction).
As I wrote some time ago: "a modest update to the D3." With s models, Nikon generally makes only modest changes and improvements and tries not to break any of the things that made the original camera so successful. The D3s is exactly that: small changes and improvements without breaking anything.
There's no doubt that we'll see complaints about the D3s specifications on the Internet forums ("Is that all there is?" or "Nikon is falling behind again" should prove popular). I look at things a bit differently. I look to see if Nikon correctly responded to criticisms of the original model and addressed them. To wit:
- The expanded buffer is long overdue. The D3 is a speed camera, and many of those using it don't ever want to be slowed down. The original buffer was good, but with NEF shooting in particular, it was quite possible to get "didn't catch that action" due to the hiccup that occurs when the buffer fills and the frame rate drops from max to one or two images a second (depending upon card speed). My opinion: making the optional buffer expansion standard is the right move.
- Adding sensor cleaning plugs a hole. These days, all cameras should have some basic dust management capability, something that gets basic dust off the sensor automatically. The D3 was notoriously lacking that. But there's another issue here: the primary problem with sensors that D3 shooters have had is the shutter throwing lubricant at the sensor. The addition of dust shake off isn't going to address that issue. My opinion: welcome addition, but we'll still be cleaning sensors.
- Adding video makes the D3s join the fad club. There certainly is a smallish group of photographers that are demanding that they have some video capability in their still camera. I'm not one of them. And the emphasis is on "some video capability," because the D3s doesn't go very far with video. Indeed, we can say that the D3s is an exceptional still camera and a marginal video camera. Hmm. Anyone else see the problem with that conjunction? If the D3s is a pro tool, it should be a pro tool, period, no matter what it's doing at the moment. That means 1080P/24/30/60, manual audio recording capabilities, and headphone monitoring at the least. Indeed, I can think of about a dozen ways that the video side of the D3s still falls short of "pro." Nikon's positioning of video is somewhat revealing: press users can get a 1280x720 pixel still on the fly while shooting video. The basic claim is that newspapers don't need high resolution stills. Of course, shutter speeds might be a bit of a problem for action stills taken out of the video sequence. My opinion: a poor choice by Nikon. Either they should have added better video capabilities, or none at all. The mismatch of top-of-the-line still features with bottom-of-the-line video features is clear and reeks of design-by-fad instead of design-by-use.
- Added in-camera cropping flexibility. The 1.2x choice is strange to me. Moreover, why only the single addition? Where's 16:9, 4:3, 1:1, 1.3x, and 2x? My opinion: nice to have something additional, but it really seems like Nikon's engineers have no idea what photographers might want. To make it clear: size flexibility (1x, 1.3x, 1.5x, 2x) and format flexibility (3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 1:1, 16:9). And we want both together (e.g. 1.3x + 16:9 crop). This feature has the smell of "maybe something close to Canon's 1.3x will attract some more Canon shooters" to it. That's bad product management to me. I wouldn't accept such a proposition from someone working from me in PM.
- Quiet mode makes it all the way from the lowest end camera to the top, finally. Shouldn't that progression have worked the other way round? Unfortunately, "quiet" doesn't actually mean quiet, it means "less noisy." My opinion: not nearly good enough.
- HI3 ISO value feels like just another stretch. The improved sensor dynamics are nice. But Nikon now thinks that they can produce a useful ISO 102,400. My opinion: Useful to whom? They used to think they could provide a useful ISO 64,800, and I think that was a stretch, too. The real benefit here is in the ISO 3200-12,800 range, I think. Basically, the best high ISO camera got better. But don't be misled by the super high numbers.
- The Live View button and other minor changes are part of what we've asked for. Both are areas where quite a bit of user comments have collected over time, especially the fact that putting self timer, mirror up, and live view all on the same dial meant that some desired combinations were impossible. My opinion: the changes just show that Nikon does sometimes hear user requests. It seems silly that there's no mechanism by which such desires can be directly communicated to Nikon, nor that Nikon ever acknowledges that they did something specifically to user requests. But that's a different story. We'll take real improvements any way we get them, and these are.
What's the bottom line on the D3s? A modest but competent update, with consumer quality video thrown in for good measure. There wasn't anything really wrong with the D3 for its primary target user, and now there's even less wrong with it. The D3s also manages to do something that nobody expected: push high ISO results to even higher levels of quality, almost enough to make D3 users jealous.
But Video enthusiasts now have strong evidence that Nikon doesn't fully understand their needs.
Show Me The Lenses
Oct 14 (news and commentary)--Continuing with their very odd lens announcements, Nikon introduced a DX lens with the D3s (they introduced an FX lens with the D300s, even though it wasn't ready to ship--does anyone else think they got this 100% backward?).
The new lens is the 85mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor AF-S VR ED DX. This US$529 lens is a curious entry, but shows Nikon's continued efforts to provide DX support. We now have modern 60mm, 85mm (DX and FX), and 105mm Micro-Nikkors, but the question remains: where is the 200mm? Personally, I don't get the need for another Micro-Nikkor crammed into the short working distance crowd. But it is an affordable lens for DX users. The lens is expected to ship in December.
A bigger question is where are the other lenses? I know of at least two zoom and two prime designs that should be in production by now. Heck, we've even seen patents for one of those lenses, and I know of at least one photographer who's used another. So the unanswered question is where are these other lenses? It's possible that Nikon is keeping some behind for the next camera announcement, but I think the more likely scenario is that Nikon has slowed putting lenses into production due to the economy. If so, that's the wrong decision, in my opinion.
The Nikon V1
Oct 14 (fantasy)--Okay, Nikon, it seems you need some help designing a video camera. You're not alone. While Panasonic (GH1) and Canon (5DII) have made better strides than the constant Nikon 720P efforts, no one has hit it out of the park. And I somehow doubt anyone will until they embrace the concept that a good video camera needs to be designed as, you got it, a video camera.
RED is trying to get there with the Scarlet, but pricing is still an issue with RED, even with their upcoming products. When you option out a fully functional RED product, you end up spending a lot of dough. But at least RED has some good ideas: modularity + raw video + large sensor + interchangeable lens mount is very, very attractive to the serious videographer (and the "raw video" bit extends appeal up into the feature film production crowd). But frankly, it's the large sensor + interchangeable lens that are the Big Wishes from the videographer crowd.
So let me outline the basic target:
- Max US$5000 target price (usable body only; by usable body, I mean add only a lens and you're shooting)
- Max 5 pound (with lens) target weight
- Large sensor (DX or bigger, specifically low-light capable)
- Interchangeable F-mount
- 1080P/24/30/60 capability (anything above that is gravy), plus 720P and 4:3 options as well
- dual, stereo XLR balanced inputs for audio, with manual levels
- headphone monitoring
- S-video and composite video in and out
- fold-out, 3"+ rotatable video monitor (900k dots, daylight viewable) and/or large electronic viewfinder
- multiple storage options (built in SD/CF card slots, USB drives, direct to pro decks, etc.) preferably with multiple formats (AVCHD, MPEG, direct Final Cut Pro, etc.)
- Stabilization (through body or lens or both)
- Shoulder mount design, but configurable with optional kits for different shooting styles
You also need autofocus lenses with geared manual override to do this right. Preferably, you'd also have a LANC input on the camera and LANC-enabled lenses.
Nothing in the above list is particularly special. If you look at the US$5000-10,000 pro HD video camera market, you'll see a lot of commonality to those specs. What would make a new video offering from someone like Nikon special is one simple thing: the sensor. Whether it's DX or FX isn't 100% important: the large size of the sensor should offer better low light capabilities plus the faddish DOF isolation that videographers are seeking right now. Indeed, there's more gain to be made than the 5DII has given videographers: once you drop the high pixel count still capability, you can use very large photosites. Indeed, I'd be tempted to go to the DX size for that reason: we could still use a large enough photosite size on DX to get noise-free low-light HD video results. The smaller sensor keeps the price down and potentially helps us produce a smaller overall package.
So, put together a nice D3-derived DX video sensor with the above specs and you get: the Nikon V1. With those specifications it would cause a splash in the video crowd that would not go unnoticed. 720P on a D3 with limitations? Unnoticed.
Camera Envy Redux
Oct 12 (commentary)--Deja vu all over again. Despite my recent Sony Envy article, now I'm starting to get Leica envy emails, as in "isn't the M9 really the perfect landscape camera?"
Since several of you have asked for my comments on the Leica M9 (18mp full frame rangefinder), I'll make a couple. First, note that I haven't yet shot with an M9--the places from which I get gear don't have one available yet. So my comments are dependent upon using an M8 and projecting that experience forward onto what I know about the new camera.
- Rangefinder is not DSLR. The M9 is a manual focus camera that is focused via rangefinder (or guess). In my experience, the rangefinder system is quite good between 24-70mm. Outside that, you tend to rely more on hyperfocal or DOF when you shoot wider, and you're more hit or miss if you shoot longer. So one question you have to answer is what focal lengths do you shoot at. If it's outside the 24-70mm range, I strongly suggest that you spend a lot of time trying the M9 before you decide that it's going to do what you need it to.
- 18mp without AA filter is a big plus but comes with minuses. There's no doubt that 18mp without AA filter puts the resolving ability of the Leica M9 in the big leagues (certainly up with the 5DII/1DsIII, possibly with the D3x). That's a 17" print at 300dpi, and if you use my rule of thumb, that means you should be able to get 36" prints out of the camera that are quite impressive. Unfortunately, it's going to be rare that you actually use all 18 megapixels. That's because you're not composing through the lens, so you need to frame a little loose to make sure you get what you want (especially true if you've got a hood on a wide lens). Moreover, the lack of the AA filter means that you have to worry a bit about moire. Ironically, it's in people pictures I'd worry about it most (due to tight fabric patterns), and the classic use of a Leica is...yes, people pictures.
- You probably drive a BMW. Okay, this one's a little tongue-in-cheek, but there's truth here. Just as a BMW is a high-priced performance line, that's what Leica is producing, too. You pay for the engineering. You enjoy the direct control. An all-Leica single lens solution is going to set you back almost US$10,000. It's very easy to double that by adding a full set of good Leica lenses. And you're driving a manual transmission, so you'll never be able to sit back and "let the camera do it."
Don't get me wrong. Based upon everything I've read about the Leica M9 and what I've heard so far from other photographers I trust that have tested it, I expect the M9 to produce excellent images. Indeed, since I still have a few Leica lenses in my collection, I look forward to trying an M9 myself and getting back a functional M system (the M8 sensor crop simply didn't work for me and the lens set I have).
But in many of the comments I've received there just seems to be a bit too much envy (small 18mp camera!) and not enough clarity in thinking about the M9 (how do you precisely frame a 20mm landscape shot?). I believe that you should choose the tool to the task at hand. For some tasks, I have no doubt that the M9 will be the tool of choice. For other tasks, I have no doubt that the M9 will be an inferior choice. I'm pretty sure, though, that the M9 is not the perfect all-in-one camera. The camera that comes closest to that is still the D700, in my opinion: more than competent at everything, incompetent at nothing.
October 12 (news)--The following products have been updated:
- DSLR Camera Remote Server 1.2 adds D300s support and improves performance with the D300. If you have an iPhone, DSLR Camera Remote plus this server on your laptop or desktop make for a remote Camera Control Pro-like capability.
- Iridient RAW Developer 1.8.6 adds D300s support and improves the D300 profile.
Did I Hit a Nerve?
Sept 25 (commentary)--Apparently. My In Box is overflowing with comments on several of my recent posts, as are some of the Internet fora. Heck, even Ken Rockwell decided to drop me a line. So, I thought I'd give you a little peak into my In Box the past couple of hours. Italics are a phrase from an incoming email, while the non-italics are my response:
- "Why on earth would a company with as successful a history as Nikon be dropping the ball on things as basic as communicating with customers?" I've answered this before: it's the culture they've created. Apparently intentionally. If Nikon only looks at their sales numbers, then they see no reason to change (yet). But this is one of those problems like those that the American auto industry ended up facing: they didn't recognize that they needed to change something until after it was too late. And once they did change it (e.g., quality issues), they couldn't get those customer's attention back.
- "In the last years I interacted with Japanese companies and got the impression that usually Japanese engineers are very conservative and rarely start something risky and totally new because if it doesn't work the first time, their entire career is compromised and they don't change job as often as in the USA." Yes, there definitely is a cultural component to the problems I see. As long as the other camera companies all were doing the same thing, that wasn't a particularly large issue. But Sony and Samsung see this from more of an entrepreneurial challenge, and are willing to take chances. Olympus and Panasonic now are targeting a different course, too. Other than Olympus, these are huge companies that have the potential to buy markets, if necessary. Nikon does not have that luxury: Nikon needs to get everything right from here on out. That's even more true because:
- From a company that makes equipment for DSLRs: "it has become apparent that Nikon's reps are absolutely dismal at keeping [us] in the loop. For example, they let [us] know about the new D300s, D3000, and lens announcements AFTER dpreview and others had already published the announcements and specs online. This is just pathetic. Canon by contrast keeps [us] appraised of at least the shape of the roadmap, as well as internal changes within Canon USA." Customer support comes at all levels. It's a cultural and systemic thing, whether done right or wrong.
- "I belong to a local user group that happens to
be affiliated with a large retailer that happens to sell a lot of Nikon cameras. The Nikon rep was invited to present to us. Having never met the face of an iconic camera brand, I was looking forward to his presentation. His talk was fairly interesting but he made several obvious misstatements and it became obvious to me that he knew less about Nikon cameras and photography in general than I did. He could not get live view to work in the D700. Basically admitted that he was a point and shoot photographer. Very surprising that a company would let someone like this represent them." I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard a variant of this story. Simply put, the face of Nikon that the public sees is not very good, especially here in the US, where we account for over a third of Nikon's sales. I'll bet that Nikon is losing 25% or more of its potential sales here due to its customer handling ineptitude. As one well-known Nikon user put it to me recently: "They get along solely because they make great stuff. They have no idea how fast we'd all move on if they didn't."
- "Why don't you suggest that Nikon set up a US-based design shop like the automakers did, and why don't you offer to head it up?" Nikon themselves needs to recognize that they need such a thing and then find the person they think can lead it. With the Japanese, you can't do it the other way: culturally they are averse to outsiders coming in and saying "you need to do this." The Japanese auto makers didn't do this until their initial attempt to break into the US market failed. Right now the camera companies don't think they've failed, so why try anything different? But I'll point out there are different levels of failure. One is outright failure, and that's not happening to Nikon right now. Another is failure to achieve what they should, and Nikon is failing at that and has been for some time.
- "It is unbelievable to me that Nikon, or some other major camera designer has not hired you as a consultant." I have worked with other camera companies on occasion, though none in the last three years. Nikon's documentation group approached me a couple of years ago about working on their manuals to make them better. The offer they made worked out to less than minimum wage, no credit, and would have impacted my ability to write about Nikon independently.
- "I think that Nikon could [dominate] Canon. They have everything going for them technically, it's just that they don't seem to be brave enough to push the boundaries out a bit further." See above. I basically agree. Nikon needs to be the BMW of cameras. But to do that, Nikon would need better marketing and customer outreach. It's never been the technology that has held them back.
- "True or not, it seems like Canon is listening. And that matters." (This was accompanied by a list of things that are things customers have expressed they wanted.) Nikon listens quietly. Perhaps too quietly. I've been surprised several times when things I mention in footnotes in my books--like a poor wording choice in the menus--become exactly what I suggested in the next camera iteration. But the most important word you used is "seems." To the average Nikon user, it doesn't appear that there is anyone doing any listening. Every day I get a complaint about some issue at a subsidiary where the bottom line is "Nikon didn't listen to me and just did what it pleases." Simple things like "I asked them to clean the sensor and it came back dirtier than when I sent it in." That sounds like not listening (even though it might be a simple miscue in the repair shop). Impressions matter. Brands have value. Nikon should have a better-than-size-indicates value, like Apple or BMW. They don't.
- "Why the %^%$$# are we stuck at 12-megapixels?"Well, one answer might be that we don't have the lenses to support much more. I always get a kick out of someone showing me their 20+mp image from another brand's DSLR but apparently not noticing how poorly the corners are faring in their shot. Those of you with long memories will remember that I started harping on missing or less-than-perfect lenses well before we got to 12mp on DX and 24mp on FX. As much as I like my 17-35mm, I don't like it on my D3x.
- "[I often discover] 'motifs within motifs' sitting at home, after the fact, viewing the images I got. This makes me wish to be able to crop more aggressively than a 12MP image will cope with happily." I'm a big fan of getting the images right in the field, but I understand this sentiment, too. It may be the thing that's really driving the demand for the D3x sensor in D700 body. The only thing I'd say is that, without high-end lenses, the value crowd isn't going to like cropping out of the corners of a 20+mp image. And the really big f/2.8 lenses seem a bit out of place on a D700-sized body for more casual use. In other words, if a D700x type body existed today, we'd be scrambling to find the right lenses to use on it.
- "Something in the 16-18 mp [FX for D700x] would be fine." I'd tend to agree. The only problem is that this means another new sensor, and probably a Nikon home grown one. Not that I don't think they could make such a sensor, but it would need to be in other bodies if Nikon were to keep its practice of minimizing parts inventory (see next story). New sensors mean R&D costs need to be recouped, and if the repayment is attempted with only one body, that means higher costs for the body.
- "Delaying the 'D700x' is stupid." A common complaint, but not necessarily an accurate one. Could Nikon have come out with a D700x at the same time as the D3x? Absolutely. It wouldn't have had sensor cleaning, it wouldn't have had video, and the 24-120mm isn't up to the sensor's capabilities. So the more likely scenario is that Nikon is trying to address things that they think would be seen as vulnerabilities to competitive products. The more accurate complaint would be to say "the D700x is [about to become] overdue."
- "The 150 dollar iPod Nano has more advances than
Nikon can show me." Apple sells 22 million or more iPods a quarter, Nikon sells 4 million cameras in that same period, and more than three-quarters of those are Coolpix. With quantity comes the ability to iterate. But there is a point to be made here: Apple successfully made the transition to being a high volume consumer products company. Nikon has not.
- "Too busy selling 32 buck 77mm lens caps [that are] six cents of Chinese plastic." Don't get me started on accessories. Nikon's accessories line has long been a confused, random mess. It's almost as if they keep forgetting that people are buying a system, not a camera. I don't actually have problems with anyone making a reasonable profit off of accessories, but you are right, US$32 for a 77mm lens cap is too much. So let me send you to a better place (US$7.99 generic, or US$21 for original Nikon).
Nikon Financial Update
Sept 25 (commentary)--Nikon issued a little-noticed renewal statement about its financial condition earlier this month. There are some interesting comments in it. For example:
- The goal for the current fiscal year is to lower the break even point. That's corporate code for downsizing, plant consolidation, and lower capital expenditures. The Precision division seems to be the biggest target of this, but one has to wonder how it is impacting Imaging. Nikon's direct statement on that is "establish a production structure better able to withstand further appreciation of the yen." That's code for more lens production in SE Asia, and perhaps even less production at Sendai (which currently makes the D3s, D3x, and D700 models).
- "Nikon anticipates...the yen will continue to rise [until] March 2012." The yen has already risen over 5% from Nikon's last predicted figure for the current period. Bottom line: price increases are ahead (Canon is about to raise prices 10% in the US on lenses, more on accessories). And those price increases may be substantive if Nikon doesn't get the production costs down.
- Nikon believes that they will be unprofitable during this fiscal year, partly due to "intense competition." They believe they will return to profitability next fiscal year (April 2010 to March 2011). Given that Imaging now dominates Nikon's profitability results, that's tantamount to saying that no cameras between now and at least mid 2010 are going to turn the profitability around.
- Take a look at this Nikon information page. While listed as updated, most of the things on this page were published over a year ago. A couple of annotations I have:
- Note the dip in the Shipments of DSLR Cameras market share that was boosted back up to 40% in 2007 (mainly by the D3 and D300). I've written elsewhere about the dips Nikon goes through between pro generations. We're in another one right now. My calculation is that Nikon's current quarterly market share is back down to just below 33%.
- Note the strategy bullets. While there's a commitment to reduce compact camera lead time, there is not one for DSLR or lens lead times. Thus, I still don't expect a D4 until 2011. Second, note that nowhere in that strategy are customers really addressed ("to satisfy customer needs" sounds a bit like feeding cattle to me, not really listening to the customer, and "marketing practices in line with regional characteristics" was first written 18 months ago and has yet to actually turn into anything visible). Now go back and read some of the things that came into my In Box in a matter of hours above. See any problem? I do. Nikon thinks that they can just develop technologies to get their way out of their problems. I'd argue that their customer relationship is dragging and will continue to drag them lower than they would otherwise have gone on the financial side.
Sept 22 (commentary)--Less than two years ago Nikon was hitting on all cylinders in the DSLR market. Everything from the D40 to the D3 was putting in impressive sales numbers, and Nikon market share eventually hit 39%, putting it in a tie with Canon for DSLR volume for the first time in...well, my detailed records don't back that far, but it would have to be pre F4, I think. Today, however, things don't look so hot. I calculate that Nikon's market share has slipped to 33%, and it is almost certainly headed down from there.
One problem is that we're in the middle of one of Nikon's historical dips. These come because the main technology changes come with the pro platform every four years. 1999 (D1), 2003 (D2h), 2007 (D3). We've still got almost two years remaining before we get the next look at what Nikon thinks is the future.
In the meantime, we get these "s" releases (D300s, D3s, probably a D700s) and can-you-tell-we-changed-anything low end iterations (D40x, D60, D3000). Meanwhile, Canon and Sony are offset against Nikon's cycle: Canon is in the sequence where we'll see new sensors and models (the 7D is one example, the 1DIV is coming soon); Sony is now a sensor ahead of Nikon in the DX cycle, and about to pop its big D300 competitor, the followup to the A700. So Nikon's mid-term offerings are going to look weak comparatively, we're going to hear more and more of the "I'm going to switch" chorus, and Nikon is going to lose DSLR market share.
Three possibilities that aren't "s" releases or minor reworks exist:
- The high-rez D700. For convenience sake, I refer to this as the D700x, though I do not expect a camera with a high-resolution FX sensor and D700-like body to be called that. Failure to produce this model in a timely fashion just exacerbates the strain that Nikon's DSLR group will come under and increase the need for a D4 to be a real game changer.
- The APS Compact. The E-P1, GF1, G1, and GH1 have made a huge impact in Japan, and it's clear that all the other makers are looking at that success and planning their own entries in the mirror-less DSLR or APS compact realm. Heck, even Leica has announced one (the compact APS X1). Nikon had but fumbled a real opportunity here. As I once outlined, they could have stripped a D40x down into an E-P1 like camera pretty easily. Now if that's all they do, it won't be enough. We'll know soon enough. I expect Nikon's answer will show up at PMA 2010.
- The retro cam. What happened to the anniversary retro camera remains unclear. Nikon used to do this type of one-off, low volume projects with regularity, and I know there was a special digital version of an older camera planned for a mostly-Japan release. It seems to have disappeared off the radar, and for what reason, I don't know.
The bottom line is this: I think we're in the classic Nikon mid-term doldrums. Unfortunately, we're also at the point where market saturation has hit the DSLR sales. Most every one that wants one has one, so the big opportunity is to get an existing user to step up to a newer model. That makes those three possibilities I just outlined even more critical for Nikon than usual. The D3000, D5000, and D300s aren't exactly "gotta step-up" cameras for D40x, D60, D80, and D300 users, after all.
Message to Nikon: you need an outside-the-box group working at counter cycle to your pro generation group.
Response to How Bad is Nikon
Sept 22 (commentary)--You weren't expecting me to say Nikon responded, were you? No, as usual, my In Box and phone line continue to be devoid of any communication from Nikon itself. No, I meant your response to my short article (now on the 2009 Archive page). One response in particular got my attention, because it so perfectly describes the Nikon customer experience:
"A couple of years ago, I went to a high end microscopy course. The students were a mix of techs, postdocs and faculty so this was a crowd that either had purchasing authority or a large influence on people who had purchasing authority. The course was made possible by the microscope companies who brought millions of dollars worth of equipment to the course (a fully equipped laser scanning confocal microscope can hit a million dollars). The four companies represented were Zeiss, Leica, Olympus and Nikon. The Zeiss and Leica people were absolutely great.
They brought some very senior and very knowledgeable people. The Olympus people were young but very knowledgeable and when the really expensive stuff was being shown, they brought in their more experienced people. The Nikon people were pretty useless and when the really expensive stuff was being shown, they had even more junior people doing the presentations. Finally, when they were presenting the up and coming experimental stuff, Olympus and Zeiss showed impressive cutting edge stuff while Nikon showed some cheap almost useless equipment. I certainly came away thinking that I would never buy Nikon equipment. Luckily for Nikon, I had already bought my D80."
Now, the interesting thing is that I was traveling with someone recently who sold microscopes to this audience (and may well have been one of the ones presenting to this customer). What they told me corresponds with the above pretty well word for word.
So, Nikon, you have a systemic problem.
This Week's News
Sept 16 (news)--A few small announcements for Nikon fans:
- Samyang 14mm f/2.8, announced early. Won't appear until November, I think, but here's another wide prime option that covers both DX and FX frames about to arrive. No front filter ring.
- The Hartblei Cam. This is a hybrid: you mount DSLR lenses (Canon, Nikon, others) on the front and a MF back (most) on the back. The Hartblie site and literature is still quite confusing on what you can do with this unit. It does not convert a regular DSLR lens to tilt and shift, for instance (but you can use the Hartblei DSLR, Canon, or Nikon tilt/shift lenses on it). Hartblei touts it as a way to get very wide angle onto MF backs, but unless the lens covers more than the FX frame (e.g., the Canon 17mm TSE or Nikon 24mm PC-E), you end up cropped on most MF backs. Hartblie hasn't published clear information about what you do get with various combinations (hint: they should), which leaves things up in the air for now. Still, it's an intriguing option for someone with any of the DSLR tilt-shift lenses.
- ACR 5.5 and Lightroom 2.5 have been released, so run the update check in these programs to get the latest version. Supports D3000, D300s, and E-P1, plus the Lightroom version fixes a couple of minor issues.
How Bad is Nikon?
Sept 16 (commentary)--Let's see, I've been using an Olympus E-P1 for exactly a month now. Olympus yesterday announced a firmware update for the E-P1, and guess what, I got an email directly from their PR firm to that effect. In 15 years of covering Nikon, the only contact I've had from their PR firm (or in-house PR staff) is when I published the D70 specifications before announcement and they asked me to take them down because "they are wrong" (they weren't). What makes me think that when Nikon introduces their compact APS camera they won't even send me a press release? Oh, I know: despite asking more times than I can count, they've NEVER sent me a press release on anything.
Note that I didn't make any contact with Olympus (I'm not a registered user, either). They obviously found my posts and reacted. And they obviously figured out my email address (how can they not, it's all over this site). I hope that they'll continue to keep me up to date on what they're doing, even if it is through their PR agency.
I've written it before, I'll write it again: Nikon is slowly distancing themselves from all their supporters. If they don't reverse this trend, they'll find it more and more difficult to market and sell their products. The bad news for Nikon is that someone else is going to get both their product and their handling of it with both press and users dead on right pretty soon. That it won't be Nikon says a lot about the current state of the Nikon brand.
After the Aha! Moment #53
Sept 16 (commentary)--It's sometimes a surprise to me which things I post draw the most comments. The following story triggered a huge number of comments. First, if you haven't read Aha! Moment #53, skip down to the next item and come back. Here are a couple of things that came from readers:
- "Ever since I got my D700 I've been thinking that shooting in the FX digital format feels like shooting 2-1/4 film did for me back in the day." [thom: a lot of folk wrote in about perception versus actual image quality performance, which surprised me.]
- There are photographers who've carried large format film equipment to the Wave. As if on cue, one of them reports that they've moved to MF digital.
- "I am a D200 shooter who would love to have a smaller lighter SLR system. I, myself, have no interest in ever moving to FX cameras." [thom: a number of people expressed this desire: smaller, lighter cameras with the same level of quality they currently experience. That's why the E-P1, GF-1, and X1 all represent a potential shift away from Nikon if Nikon doesn't make their own mini DX camera.]
Aha! Moment #53
Sept 14 (commentary)--I had another Aha! moment this morning answering emails. One of the most common things I see in my In Box is the statement "I'll eventually get an FX body." This usually comes in conjunction with the "all I can afford now is DX" and "but lens choices are problematic" statements. People worry that by buying DX now they're committed lens suicide, as they won't have the right stuff when they move to FX.
First, even if you buy a DX lens today, it's not as if its value plummets to zero tomorrow. We've got almost 9 million DX users already, and that number is growing. Just as Nikon lenses have always retained some value over time, I think DX lenses will do the same. So consider that you'll lose 20-40% of the value of the lens as a rental charge.
But that wasn't my Aha! moment. While I've long told people that I didn't think shooting with FX in the future was inevitable--sensor pricing means DX will always be more affordable than FX--what I realized this morning is that quite a few pros I know have downsized from what they were shooting with film and are perfectly happy. I know 4x5 and 8x10 film shooters who now shoot MF digital. I know MF film shooters who now shoot FX. And I know plenty of 35mm film shooters who now happily shoot DX.
Digital downsized us all. In retrospect, it's easy enough to see why. ISO 800 was acceptable with 35mm film, but more than acceptable with DX digital, for example. At the high end where "size matters," to get the best quality prints most folk had moved to using digital scanning. While you can scan large format film quite high in terms of pixel count, above a certain point you mostly start resolving grain (which does hold some additional information, but which is difficult-if-not-impossible to make into grainless information). Moreover, the cost of scans starts running very high, so you per-image costs run extremely high. Thus, very high pixel count MF backs started to become appealing to the LF film crowd at some point.
I'd say there's a built-in bias towards smaller, not larger, at least if the image quality doesn't suffer much. My mentor used to get asked a lot about why he didn't shoot MF film. His answer was simple: because I can't get MF equipment into the places where I take images (he was an adventurer and climber). Most of us have a built-in bias for smaller. Large format film landscape photographers, for instance, were notorious for taking one shot a day, and never very far from their vehicle, as the equipment was too big and bulky. I'm sure someone must have done it, but I don't know anyone personally who took an 8x10 film camera to the Wave (a famous scenic point in the US that's accessible only on foot over tough terrain). But I know MF digital photographers who have.
No, I don't think we're all going to be shooting FX bodies in the future. I'll bet we all end up at least one size smaller than we were with film, maybe more.
I Think I Know...
Sept 10 (commentary)--I think I know what's bothering Nikon users lately. The influx of "What's wrong with Nikon?" and "I'm switching" emails has once again risen in my In Box to levels I haven't seen since the D2h came out. But how can that be? Current Nikon offerings are quite good in terms of producing images.
Well here's the scoop: this has been a relatively exciting year for photography, with many interesting new developments happening. But Nikon seems to be missing all of them. To wit:
- FX value trend. The Sony A850 and A900, plus the Canon 5DII, established aggressive FX (full frame sensor) price points. Meanwhile, the D700 remains at US$2999. With the dollar slipping against the yen again, one wonders whether Nikon will ever adjust that price. So Nikon's 12mp is competing at a higher price than 21 and 24mp bodies.
- Micro trend. Olympus and Panasonic have interesting new prospects with their m4/3 bodies (four, and counting): smaller bodies without the complex mirror mechanism. Samsung and Leica both have micro bodies coming (NX and X1 respectively). Sony has even loudly proclaimed they'll be in the same market in 2010. Nikon, meanwhile, is absent and silent.
- Retro trend. The Leica M9 and Olympus E-P1 are attractive to long-time photographers who just want a small, direct control camera (the Leica lives up to that premise better than the Olympus does, but it's the "retro" bit that's sparking much of the interest in the E-P1). Nothing retro seems to be coming from Nikon at the moment. Indeed, Nikon's going the other way (care for a digital projector built into your camera?).
- Hollywood trend. 1080i or better, full manual control over video, autofocus, plus a few other odds and ends set a high bar. Nikon's jello-ish 720P doesn't play in this realm, though the marketing department has shown that they're wannabees.
- Pancake trend. Well, okay, not exactly a trend. But the emergence of smaller bodies has increased the interest in the Pentax pancakes and both Olympus and Panasonic are bringing out pancakes for their micros, as will Samsung. Many Voightlander lenses on a Leica could also be said to be pancake. Meanwhile, the smallest Nikkor we get is the 35mm f/1.8G DX, which is decidedly un-pancake like.
- High ISO compact trend. The reversal of pixel count on the the Canon G11, the m4/3 sensor bodies, the Fujifilm EXR sensors, Sony's promise of Exmor R sensors with backlighting, all these things point to "we need better low light capability in our small cameras." Nikon's response? More 12mp Coolpix, though their ISO knobs do go to 11.
- Bigger is better trend. Hasselblad and Phase One keep pushing up the pixels in medium format, but Leica's surprise S2 puts medium format into a D3-sized camera.
- Waterproof trend. Pentax, Panasonic, and Olympus all seem to like playing in the water. Funny that Nikon, who was first in the water way back with the Nikonos, apparently has been scared out of the ocean. Was it a shark or just a rock?
So it's easy to see why Nikon users are upset: none of the cool things seem to coming our way. Instead, we get ubiquitous Coolpix models we can't tell apart without a massive number chart, revisions of existing cameras with only modest changes (D3000, D300s), much talk of lenses that never appear, plus we seem to be stuck at 12mp for everything (Coolpix through FX bodies). Okay, I get it. So while I'm waiting for something interesting from Nikon this year, I think I'll just go out and take pictures.
Don't Worry, Be Happy
Sept 10 (rumor)--Given the above, I thought I should report that I have once again gotten word from a reliable source that there are more Nikkor lenses about to pop. A couple of long-overdue ones, actually. If my source is correct, a couple of things may actually end up getting knocked off my Waiting for Nikon List (see left column). The unofficial word is "this fall." Fall seems to mean anything from September to November in Nikon marketing parlance, but I'm betting early October. Why? Because Nikon always announces things when I'm on a plane. Fortunately, that's not a plane to nowhere this time--just a quick visit to see how mom is doing. Also, it appears the D3 is history as you can't find it anywhere, so we're likely to get the D3s I've been predicting for long while now.
I know you want specifics, but I only have one source for the specifics at the moment. Besides, I don't think we'll be waiting too long now. With Canon making a big announcement later this month, I don't think Nikon wants to hold off much longer with their next announcement set, even if it means that some things won't ship at announce.
However, this brings up a curious bit: why did Nikon think they had to pre-announce the 70-200mm replacement (due in November) if they had another lens announcement set coming before then? That doesn't make any rational sense to me. It's not as if the 70-200mm replacement was something that DX users were coveting (the July announcement was with the D300s, D3000, and 18-200mm version II). It's as if Nikon thought they had to drop an FX bone to placate the user base. A simple "we'll have things of interest to FX users in a future announcement, today we're talking DX" would have sufficed. Of course, Nikon users can't sit still (see above), so "future announcement" would have generated enough forum speculation Phil Askey over at dpreview would probably have to had to add another server.
A Curious Announcement
Sept 9 (news+comment)--Nikon today announced that they've produced 50 million Nikkor lenses. 50 weeks ago, they announced they had produced 45 million Nikkor lenses. I say the announcement is curious because the number produced seems slightly higher than the number shipped (by 4% to be specific). I write "seems" because there is a bit of disparity in the dates that make such bookkeeping a bit difficult to track, but there has been nothing to indicate that Nikon has bumped up shipments in the past couple of weeks. I suspect we've got another lens announcement coming soon.
For those trying to keep track, here are the dates of significant milestones for Canon (EF mount), and Nikon (F mount):
What You Missed
Sept 5 (news)--Here's the new product and update announcements that occurred while I was out on a mental break:
- Nikon introduced new versions of all their software to work with the D300s and D3000 (plus bug fixes and some performance improvements): Capture NX 2.2.2, Camera Control Pro 2.6.0, ViewNX 1.4.0, and Transfer. Unfortunately, they didn't work on Snow Leopard compatibility (the new Mac OS version). Nikon has posted a short note indicating that Capture NX2, ViewNX, and Scan all have known problems with the new OS and not to update to the new OS. Nikon's official stance is that they are an ISO 9000 software shop and can't perform tests until an OS is released. Perhaps they ought to note that other companies don't seem to have that problem. As someone who ran one of the leading Macintosh software company engineering efforts in the 90's, I don't accept Nikon's answer.
- DSLR Camera Remote 1.1, a nifty iPhone application that allows you to control your DSLR remotely, was approved and started shipping. Meanwhile, Epson produced a firmware update (2.05) for the P-6000 and P-7000 that allows them to be used as tethered storage. Makes you wonder why the camera makers aren't thinking of these things.
- Aperture 2.1.4 appeared, mostly bug fixes and performance improvements.
- Photomatix 3.2.2 added Snow Leopard support for the Mac.
- Adobe introduced a Photoshop Raw 5.5 release candidate that supports the D300s, D3000, and Olympus E-P1.
- Horseman announced the VCC Pro, a technical movement platform that allows you to mount a Nikon DSLR to it. You can use the bellows for tilt/shift, and an up to four frame pano stitch is directly supported.
- Nikon introduced a new FSA-L2 DSLR fieldscope attachment, which coupled with an EDG Fieldscope provides you focal length choices from 400 to 1750 (at apertures from f/5.9 to f/22 depending upon scope and focal length). It's a relatively inexpensive, though slightly cumbersome, way to get to very long focal lengths. A full EDG 65 kit will set you back almost US$3000, but it'll also get you a usable manual focus 400-1400mm f/6.2-22 lens that can be used in Aperture priority or Manual exposure mode.
- Tamron introduced a redesigned 17-50mm f/2.8 lens, this time with VC (vibration control, Tamron's equivalent of VR).
- Sigma introduced a redesigned 70-300mm f/4-5.6 lens, this time with optical stabilization.
And a Few Articles
Sept 5 (news)--I said I'd have some new articles for you when I returned, and I do. Here they are:
And a Book
Sept 5 (news)--I'm now taking orders for my Complete Guide to the Nikon D5000. Shipments should begin the first week of October. The main work consists of the usual eBook on CD plus 128-page printed portable D5000 ToGo Guide. If you wish a (black and white) printed version of the eBook, I offer one for an extra US$30 plus any additional shipping that's incurred. These printed editions look just like a professionally produced paperback. That's because they are professionally produced.
And a Comment
Sept 5 (opinion)--Canon's recent introduction of the 18mp cropped sensor 7D has generated a lot of snarky comments from one side and many wrong comments from the other. While I too would rather have a solid 12mp cropped sensor body than an 18mp one, it's not so much noise that I'm worried about. We still have a ways to go before we top off on noise handling with sensors, and 4 micron photosites with continuous microlenses should be perfectly okay, noisewise, at least at the ISO values I tend to use.
Long ago I calculated that DX (and Canon's APS-C) would top off at somewhere just above 20mp, certainly by 24mp. The reason is that as you push pixel increases you run into a number of other factors where you are either getting to the flat part of the increased performance curve or actually over the peak. Diffraction is certainly an issue with so many pixels, and this interplays with lens quality. The actual gain in true resolution once you get beyond about 14mp starts to flatten below the curve we were on from 6mp to 12mp and eventually nears zero as you get above 20mp. Note that Canon has introduced new EF-S lenses with the 7D. I suspect that they might have had to. I'm not sure the old mid-range EF-S zooms would be fully up to 18mp with increased diffraction stealing a bit of MTF (i.e. the old lenses would show less than the expected resolution increase from pixels alone).
Another comment I've seen is "more pixels are great for cropping." I'd rather have fewer pixels with the right lens than more pixels and crop. Moreover, those that trumpet the "just crop it" mantra don't understand perspective, a key element in photography. Ironically, such statements make an 18mp camera more of a beginner's camera than a prosumer's. Still, there will be a few wildlife shooters who value the extra pixels, at least if they're shooting with quality lenses wide open.
Back in 2003 I wrote that I believed that the cropped sensor cameras would probably top out at around 24mp. I still believe that. For cropped sensor cameras a 12mp non-Bayer (three-layer) camera would outperform a 24mp Bayer camera, so I suspect that we'll see a reset just about the time we get to the limit. Then again, we've seen electronics go past meaningful limits before, mostly because bigger numbers are easy to market ("it's got more!").
byThom is Closed
Aug 3 (news)--By the time you read this, byThom will likely be closed for our annual summer Mental Health Month. This year, we'll be closed from August 4th through September 4th. Unless something extraordinary happens, I'll be off the Internet for the month, I won't be bothering my shipping assistant or workshop assistant about anything, we won't be shipping book orders you make during that period, and I probably won't answer email questions I receive (sometimes I can't help myself). The one exception: I'll probably write a short comment about Nikon's financials shortly after they're posted on August 5th (it will be below this story, so scroll down to find it).
I use this period to forget about the day-to-day things that consume me trying to run a one-man shop, to get some work done on long-term projects, to play with images, to think about what I ought to be doing in the future, and generally anything that isn't what I normally do each day. While it sounds like fun, it's actually hard to do. It usually takes me a week or so to get the Web site, books, reviews, scheduled shoots, and other byThom bits off my mind and get into what I call "contemplative mode." It then takes another week before that mode actually starts to get into full gear and I can manage to enjoy a day without doing anything or thinking about anything that is connected to the business. That usually gives me just one week of completely thinking in another space, followed by another week where I have to start transitioning gently back into the reality of having to earn a living. I've turned down some interesting assignments due to my "mental vacation" in the past, but I'm always glad I did, because the brain needs to get away from it all and enjoy some spa time once in a while, too. It makes those other 11 months of the year more enjoyable and productive. The reason I usually choose August for this offline exercise is that it is usually my slowest month: many of you are on vacation, Nikon's announcements usually come in July, my clients don't usually schedule shoots in this period, and starting with Labor Day (an American holiday) in early September, things start to get hectic again leading up to the big holidays at the end of the year.
Don't worry, I'll hit the ground running when I get back. Yes, I've sandbagged a couple of things that won't appear until I restart the site updates on September 5th (otherwise all you'd see that day is a post along the lines of "I'm back, and boy is my mind fresh"). Yes, I know this month-off thing sounds all very European. But have you ever talked to a European at the end of August? Some even have smiles on their faces ;~).
Finally, a word of thanks. Your continued support of this site and my work is what allows me to take these mental health days and try new things. So thank you. Ultimately, we both benefit from my taking time off, as a fresh, pampered brain is a productive one. So, until September 5th: stay healthy, be safe, and enjoy yourself. That's what I'll be trying to do.
Aug 4 (news, then opinion) The expected Coolpix refresh has been made. Nikon introduced four new Coolpix models:
- Coolpix S70: a basic 5x folded lens design camera (i.e. no lens extension when turned on). 12mp. 28mm to 140mm f/3.9-5.8 equivalent. 3.5" OLED touch screen. US$399, September, four color choices.
- Coolpix S570 (replaces S560): a midrange 5x collapsing lens design camera. 28mm-140mm f/2.7-6.6 equivalent. Gets some added people-photo features (Face Priority, Smile Timer, Blink Proof, and Skin Softening). US$199, September, four color choices.
- Coolpix S640: the higher end 5x collapsing lens design camera. 12.2mp. 28mm-140mm f/2.7-6.6 equivalent. Faster autofocus, short shutter lag, and Quick Retouch are the big new features. US$249, September, four color choices.
- Coolpix S1000pj: Basically an upscale S70. 12.1mp with that 5x lens. Gets some added people-photo features (Face Priority, Smile Timer, Blink Proof, and Skin Softening). The big addition is that of a projector (projects out the front of the camera, up to 40" in size). Includes a remote control to operate camera and projector. US$429, September, black only.
Other than the S1000pj, all the new Coolpix have several color choices (what the heck is "Calm Black" as a color? Is there an "Excited Black" option waiting in the wings?).
Two things come to mind in looking at the latest Coolpix:
- Most of the Coolpix models now have a simple, look-alike nature to them. It's difficult to distinguish one from another, and the same basic design seems to be iterated over and over, with the main changes coming internally. On the one hand, this is good, as it means that time and money aren't being wasted on style, even in the so-called Style (S) lineup. But at the same time, it doesn't appear to me that much is happening functionally, either. More and more the Coolpix lineup feels like "placeholders," cameras that are expected to sell just because of the Nikon name and give Nikon a presence across all cameras. I now count almost two dozen Coolpix models that have had the same basic S570/S640 design. So if I have an S600, why would I buy an S640? It's not as if there's a huge pent-up demand for people buying their first camera. And the minor tweaks don't exactly make for much in the way of upgrade demand, either.
- Nikon has long had someone in the Coolpix product management team with a gimmick fetish. Indeed, gimmicks date back all the way to the original Coolpix models: the Coolpix 300 had the ability to write on an image displayed on the screen with a pen. The long-forgotten SQ was like a piece of jewelry to be worn. And innovation happens every now and again with the Coolpix, the 900 being the start of a long line of twist-and-shoot cameras. But the interesting thing is that none of these things seem to last long--they make a big splash at introduction, mainly because Nikon gives them a big splash. But public acceptance isn't exactly all that great. So the addition of a mini-projector in a Coolpix seems to fall in this tradition: interesting, but not exactly something that's going to shake up the market (even more so because the technology is available to anyone, so if Nikon really has found something that people want in their pocket cameras, it'll be copied by everyone within a year). Worse still, the mini-projector is already available as an add-on, and many of them will work with multiple items you own: phone, camcorder, camera, netbook, etc. Thus I don't see a built-in projector being anything except less flexible.
#2 is indicative of a theme I've been harping on as of late: the Japanese camera makers have lost the pulse of the real camera user. While I don't object to having a video capability in my camera, that feature doesn't make my camera a better still camera. Meantime, it still doesn't appear that they understand simple needs, like true raw histograms, a "freeze all settings" button for panos, bracketing that actually works for HDR, and a host of other simple things that would make our camera a better still camera. Of course, asking for such things in a Coolpix would probably get the Japanese engineers laughing all the way to the Salaryman bar, but um, hey guys, all those things would have been better additions to the P6000 than an Ethernet interface that is only usable for MyPictureTown.
I don't mind seeing Nikon try oddball things like putting a projector into a Coolpix (see my "play" comments below the picture at the top of the page). I do mind that things that should be high on the list of functional improvements don't seem to be on any camera's update list. My own personal list of needed still camera improvements--many of which could be done easily in firmware--now sprawls to several pages, even in bullet list form.
You might wonder why I'm using the latest Coolpix introductions to repeat this particular design rant. That's because nowhere is it more obvious than in the Coolpix line that Nikon's products are just more me-to designs. How do you sell a Nikon over a Sony or Canon compact? Brand name? Price? Ubiquity? How about trying "it's a better camera, silly!" There was a time when that was true of many Coolpix models. It is far less true today, if it is even still true at all. In the Coolpix line Nikon has transformed themselves from "the better camera maker" to "we're a consumer electronics company, too." An obvious question to ask is this: at what point will that happen with DSLRs, too?
One reason why the Coolpix models all look so me-to is that Nikon uses "reference design" bases created by another company, as do many of the compact camera makers. There are perhaps a half dozen providers of these reference designs, of which three seem to be getting most of the action. Essentially, what happens is that you get much of the camera part pre-done for you (CPU, memory, display, flash, sensor, ADC, SD write mechanism, etc.). Around that you wrap your own lens, case, battery, and menu system. Some base designers have allowances for imaging ASICs, like EXPEED and DIGIC, while some go further and provide lens and other goodies. But just as with film, it's actually the user interaction that makes or breaks a camera. Getting the camera set for what you want it to do, then feeling that it "performs" as you do it. That's within Nikon's control, and that's the part they keep failing at for me.
Sorry, Nikon, still no Coolpix for me. Ironically, a true consumer electronics firm, Panasonic, seems to make a better camera than you do.
July 30 (news)--Replacement D5000's for dealers that returned their inventory for fresh and which won't be affected by the Service Advisory should hit most US stores early next week. I've also heard that B&H already has some.
Meanwhile, I'm surprised nobody has asked "where are the Coolpix?" I expect Nikon will introduce "new" Coolpix on August 4th, just prior to releasing their latest financial information on August 5th. I put new in quotes because the biannual Coolpix intros have long provoked a "so what's new besides the model number" reaction. I'm also curious to see what the Coolpix sales were last quarter. Canon's P&S sales tanked, and I suspect Nikon's did, too, which also may explain the lack of urgency in announcing the Coolpix line: the previous inventory isn't exhausted yet.
July 30 updated (news)--Nikon today announced four new products of interest to byThom readers:
- D3000. This new entry level DSLR basically is an updated D60, not a cut-down D5000 (it uses the D60's 10mp sensor). It does get the D5000's focus system, though, but not the video or Live View. Available August 28th, US$599 with kit lens.
- D300s. A modest update to the venerable D300, adding video, 7 fps, and an SD slot (in addition to the CompactFlash slot) to the mix. Available August 28th, US$1799 (but dealer margins were cut!).
- 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G DX VR AF-S II. This revised version of the popular Nikon superzoom gets a fix for zoom creep and a zoom lock switch and improved coating. Available September 4th for US$849 ($60 increase).
- 70-200mm f/2.8G VR AF-S II. The long-expected update to the mainstay pro telephoto zoom. Surprisingly slightly heavier, yet slightly shorter and simpler in optic design, we get Nano coating and better FX edge performance. Available in November for US$2399 (also an increase).
For more information on the new products and my extended comments on today's announcements, click here. (I've added a few details and comments in that article, too.)
Why We Don't Always Trust Nikon Software
July 29 (opinion)--For some reason, a number of questions about Nikon film scanners have been popping into my In Box lately. And most of them end up with the "I can't get the software to work" comment.
Here's the story: Nikon Scan doesn't officially work with Leopard, and requires a special version to be installed for Vista. Nikon still advertises these products on their sites. Indeed, the tech specs for Nikon Scan on the NikonUSA site state "Mac OS X (10.1.5 or later)," which really should be "Mac OS X (10.1.5 to 10.4.x only)". The devil is in the details, and you have to drill quite far down into the Nikon site to find a note that says "10.5.x not supported."
But there also isn't a good answer about how much longer Nikon will update Nikon Scan. With Windows 7 and Mac OS 10.6 coming this fall, we have two more chances for Nikon to support their existing products, but it's unclear whether they will. Nikon has dropped software products before because of the inexorable march of OS versions. This is the fear many of us have about Capture NX2: at what point will Nikon get tired of constantly updating it? Not that I think this is imminent or that other converter options won't face the same fate one day. Still, when you see a product like Nikon Scan just stop dead in the water, you wonder about that company's other products.
So what does a Nikon scanner owner do? Well, you have two choices: Vuescan and the more expensive Silverfast. Both support all current Nikon scanners and all current OS versions (Vuescan already supports OS X 10.6 and Windows 7!), and both do a very good job of handling scans, though Silverfast better supports the advanced features of the Nikon high-end scanners.
If You're in the Market for a D5000
July 27 (news, opinion)--I mentioned that Nikon hasn't officially notified dealers about the problem in my original article below. I've now had the chance to talk to a couple of dealers this morning. Yes, there's still no official notification from NikonUSA as I write this (there's a dealer Web site, amongst other methods of communication, but nothing specific on that Web site, and no email notifications yet, either).
However, dealers that were concerned about their current inventory apparently are being proactive. NikonUSA is issuing return authorizations for a dealer's existing D5000 inventory as long as it is matched with a new PO to replace the impacted cameras. The replacement cameras should be into dealers sometime next week.
Thus, if you're in the market for a D5000 at the moment, talk to your dealer about whether their inventory has been checked for cameras affected by the Service Advisory. This is one place where having a good local dealer makes a difference. The good ones are on top of this and are already replacing their inventory.
D5000 Service Advisory Update
July 24 (news, opinion)--We now know why Nikon didn't provide a list of serial numbers with the original Service Advisory for the D5000: they're not going to tell you, at least not directly. The new service advisory page has a link in it that allows you to enter your serial number and see if your D5000 is impacted. For the 30xxxxx serial numbers (official US imports), it appears that tens of thousands of cameras are impacted. I had two dealers who did a serial number check of all models they sold to date, and all were in the affected list. (This, by the way, is one way you know you have a good local dealer: they saw the advisory, went to their database, did the lookup and called anyone who had bought a camera that needed the fix. Now here's the rub: Nikon hasn't actually told the dealers directly about the service advisory as I write this--the dealers found out the same way you did, via other Internet sites. You'd think Nikon might want to pull back the existing inventory and fix it, too, but no, they appear to want a bad customer experience instead.) My own D5000, which was bought the first day of availability in the US, is on the list, as was one a friend bought a week ago.
What happens when you enter an impacted serial number on NikonUSA's site is this: you're presented a form to fill out with your name, shipping address, phone number, and email address. This information is used to generate a UPS shipping label to a temporary repair site in Connecticut (for US users; International subsidiaries use different techniques). You remove your battery and all accessories except for the front body cap from your D5000, pack it into a box (you supply the box and packing materials), put the label you printed into a clear plastic envelope you attach to the box (you can get those envelopes at UPS shipping centers), then drop the package off at a UPS pickup point. Note that since Nikon is using UPS for shipping, you shouldn't use PO Boxes as your address.
Unfortunately, I can see some grief coming. First, some people are going to be tempted to ship their camera back in the original box. DON'T DO THAT. If you do, you won't get your original box back. Nikon doesn't really give you much in the way of directions ("enclose the product in a plastic bag and pack it in a sturdy box with several inches of a quality packing material on all sides"), but it does cover the basics. The camera goes into a plastic bag that you should seal up. This keeps the camera from getting water damage should the package get rained on, dropped in puddles, whatever. I personally use bubble wrap around that, then some additional packing material around that. Also note that once you generate the UPS label, it is only good for 10 days. Don't delay getting the camera sent off once you go through the paperwork phase.
Here's the thing that caused Nikon problems the last time they tried this recall method: the serial number is the only method by which a body is identified. If you mistyped a digit in the Web form, didn't supply a printed copy of the Web form inside the box, or someone was just in a hurry to match up repaired cameras with customers at Nikon's end (imagine what happens if that person is even a bit dyslexic), the system starts to break down. We're talking about what looks to be tens of thousands of units that have been recalled (without an actual list we can only guess based upon entering a number of known serial numbers into the system and seeing what happens, but I'm sure this recall is extensive). Personally, I always tape a business card to cameras I send to Nikon, and all my equipment is also marked using a Brother P-Touch labelmaker. I don't trust the "serial number is the way we identify things" method Nikon uses because, as you might note from a few of the user repair experiences I've reported over the years, that doesn't always seem to work.
Curiously, the program is actually being called a "D5000 Inspection Program." This leads me to believe that Nikon isn't necessarily repairing every camera but instead is looking at a specific part in the camera and only replacing that if it fails a test or has a marking on it that Nikon has determined indicates a failure-prone part. Another curious thing is that the recall isn't a news item on the Nikon Imaging site, nor on many of the subsidiary sites. Even on the NikonUSA site there is no press release on the recall as I write this, and you have to be looking closely to find the service advisory (it comes up as one of the Nikon News Ticker items on the front page, but since that list goes all the way back to early this year, it takes almost a minute for the advisory to come up if you hit the ticker at the wrong point, and it is only up for 4.5 seconds, which makes it easy to miss; who sits on the NikonUSA main page for a minute?). In fairness, the support sites do have the information if you search for product support on a D5000.
But given that the D5000 is a consumer camera and those folks don't tend to be dropping down into the support sites all the time I wonder how many of the D5000 purchasers know there's a recall on their product? And how many of the ones that don't are going to be upset when their camera fails, probably just as they're getting ready to take that once-in-a-lifetime vacation photo? Is that any way to build brand awareness? (See "I'm not the Only One" a bit further down the page for another take on how Nikon's doing in building brand awareness.)
Something's Gotta Give Redux
July 24 (opinion)--Well, that struck a nerve. While I was off at B&H all day meeting with management, having a nice birthday lunch (thank you Zoltan), and giving my seminar at their Event Space, my In Box was filling up with responses to "Something's Gotta Give" (now in the 2009 archive). Many of the responses were from dealers. But virtually all of the responses were of the "you hit the nail on the head" type.
Just to be clear, it's not that I like driving nails (otherwise I'd be a carpenter). With any popular product we get a long cycle that drives it towards commodity--commoditization happens to all popular products. There are two types of winners when that happens: (1) the two or three companies that establish the economies of scale and branding to win the category; and (2) the companies that take the opportunity to splinter off and create new, highly profitable niches.
In the case of Nikon, they're taking on three of the leading consumer electronics companies, which have massive experience at commodity products AND vertical integration (Panasonic, Sony, and Samsung). Plus they're taking on another company that has much more mass than them that extends into areas of imaging that Nikon currently can't reach (printing--the company is Canon). Actually, I'm impressed that Nikon has done as well as it has. Still, past success does not imply or necessarily forecast future success. My current view of the world for DSLRs is much like last year's auto industry collapse. A number of factors reduced new US auto sales from 16m units a year to more like 10m, which not only changed the game, but eventually changed the players. It may be different factors that pummel the camera business, but the same thing is likely with DSLRs in 2009 and 2010: significantly lower unit volume. As the headline said: something's gotta give. As one person wrote me: if one loses, everyone loses. Thus, the loss of more camera dealers isn't good news for anyone, including high volume camera makers or even one-time-purchase customers.
A few folk have decided from both my most recent article as well as a few other recent ones that I must be anti-local dealer. I'm not, actually. But it's been clear to me for a long time that camera dealers have to change more and faster than they have so far in order to survive. If the Big Box stores are selling boxes, you have to sell something other than just a box, because you can't win the game of price matching (or even inventory matching sometimes). My local dealer, Dan's, is a good example of one that has tried to push forward and ahead of the curve. They are very proactive in marketing, and they're very strong on education and support, both before and after the sale. And I'm still not sure that's enough to keep them going, as the camera market gets trickier and trickier every year.
Which brings me to another point that hasn't been written about very often yet: we're in the middle of another disruption, this time in the compact market. Apple is pushing cameras into iPods, and cameras are already ubiquitous in phones. The sub 10mp camera market is now almost entirely cameras in another device. What happens when we've got 6mp+ cameras in our phones and iPods and that's well integrated into our Web-based world? Realistically, does 90% of the world need more than that? Apple understands that these built-in cameras aren't used for shooting for National Geographic, but rather things like Facebook and Flickr. And as iPhoto, iTunes, and the iPhone have proved, Apple understands that it takes more than a camera to satisfy this audience. How does a Coolpix compete with that? Nikon has tried repeatedly to be a one-stop player with Nikon PictureTown, but there's no Apple-like customer clarity there, and proprietary solutions at the content end are not what the customer wants. Indeed, all the Japanese companies need a more global view of how hardware and software integration really should work. How much you want to bet that an Apple camera at the Coolpix level will get it right?
Instead of innovation and serving real customer needs, what we're getting is mostly variations on decades-old designs that are renewed by looking at what the other players are doing and iterating sensors. We've got design incest going on and not much else. That, coupled with the things I wrote about in the Something's Gotta Give article, don't bode well for the camera makers' future.
And no, I'm not suggesting that all the camera makers will go out of business. Even lopping off one-third of the auto sales couldn't kill Chrysler, after all. It's difficult to kill a company. But it's not difficult to get it into perpetual trouble with little prospects for growth. That's where the Japanese camera makers are headed right now. And it's their own fault, not the recession's.
Something's Gotta Give
July 21 (opinion)--A recent conversation with a camera dealer friend reminded me that the conflict between camera maker, camera retailer, and camera consumer is still being quietly but viciously fought. There will be losers.
To understand what's happening, you have to understand dealer pricing. A rule of thumb has been that dealer margins on equipment have tended to be a maximum of about 15%. By paying cash and committing to volume and taking advantage of every last little incentive you might goose that by a couple of percent. 15% is a good starting point for determining what your dealer paid for what you bought from them, but remember, some dealers and some products will be closer to 10%, though. (Accessories often have better margins, but they're also lower priced.)
The recession has caused a few wrinkles. More and more point and shoot cameras now have 10% margins, and many companies, Nikon included, have been using customer incentive programs that temporarily "break the register" for dealers (put another way, the dealer paid more for the item than you paid the dealer, and only by filling out the proper paperwork will get any profit back, and sometimes less than the 15% or so they normally expect).
The incentive to the dealers to be part of these programs is cooperative advertising: they get local advertising support from the camera companies, but that's not a free lunch. And the Best Buy down the street gets that same support (or better).
The thing that got me thinking was this: what would camera makers want to sell most, what would dealers want to sell most, and what cameras should customers want to buy most? When my dealer friend and I compared dealer and customer lists, there were some clear differences. For instance, one camera I put on "customers should want" list my dealer friend pays more for than other retailers he competes with who are selling for (a big dealer like a Best Buy may be factoring in quantity discounts a local dealer can't match). Two others on my customer list my dealer friend won't carry because there are no support programs from the camera maker. Two that weren't on my customer list made it onto the dealer's list because of maker support (spiffs, advertising, tech support, etc.).
Let's look at this from Nikon's viewpoint. Which models would they really want to be their best sellers? The D90, D300, and D700, probably. Those three models have the most margin in them, and can be substantially profitable if sold in any meaningful volume. The D40, D60, and D5000 are must-have-lots-of-volume cameras: they are indeed very profitable for Nikon, but only if they move substantial units (measured in the millions a year). Ditto with the entire Coolpix line. The D3 and D3x are prestige cameras and targeted towards pros, and when they get long in the tooth, most of their margin disappears, too, as dealers try to unload overstocked inventory. But, in essence, my point is that everything except the pro gear has turned into commodity products: products that are not highly differentiated and must sell in large volume to be profitable.
Note where Nikon puts its advertising coop dollars and forces Instant Rebates on the dealer: mostly Coolpix and D40 through D5000 (the D700 is an exception because of the 5DII--if Nikon weren't aggressive here, they'd lose some volume right in the heart of where they want to sell). But these models are exactly where the dealer ends up not making any real money. So let's think about that for a moment. If the usual retail price is US$799 for something and Nikon throws a US$100 instant rebate at it, the dealer nets exactly US$20 on the initial sale, plus then a month later gets a credit for US$85 (the dealer's portion of the Instant Rebate, the way Nikon's program works). Put another way, where normally the dealer would get US$120 profit for the sale, instead he gets one-sixth of that plus he extends at least a one-month without interest loan to Nikon of US$85. Pretty sweet deal for Nikon. Not so much for the dealer (yes, I know there's some coop advertising thrown in, but as my dealer friend pointed out, you can easily get upside down when you add up your advertising costs and foregone discounts compared to your increased sales and coop ad dollars).
- Customers in the recession want lower prices.
- Camera makers in the recession want more unit sales.
- Dealers in the recession don't want to lose the lease.
See any problem with those conflicting demands? The party with the most flexibility is actually the camera maker. Many DSLR products have 25% and higher gross profit margins for the corporate parent. The party with the least flexibility is the dealer: they have little or no say in the programs that are thrown at them: it's take it or leave it, and both choices mean fewer dollars, so it's a choice of the least evil. Customers have the flexibility in delaying decisions.
Here's the thing: you know all those stats that say auto sales are down 30% or more? As I've been predicting for some time now, DSLR sales are now down year-to-year. For example, in the January to May period of this year versus last, unit volume is 84% of what it was, and dollar value is only 63% of what it was for DSLRs. On a value basis, the camera companies are hurting as much as the auto industry. Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic, Samsung, et.al., can't really live long in the DSLR market without growth, so they have to steal share from somebody. Canon, Nikon, and Sony don't want that to be them. Even modest successes like the Panasonic G1 and Olympus E-P1 send shivers down the back of the big players, and it'll show up in price competition in the lower end lineups. You, the consumer won't notice it at first, because the first place the prices get squeezed is in the subsidiary costs and in dealer margins (one of the big three just reduced all P&S margins to 10%, by the way).
Long story short: something's gotta give. Best bet right now is that many of your local camera dealer will amongst the casualties. After all, most of the cameras on both my customer list and my dealer friend's retailer list are available at Best Buy already. The commoditization of cameras has happened. 100%. Just as mass HiFi and then TV dealers were driven out of business by commoditization and price reductions, so to will be the camera dealers. Their only sane alternatives are to go upscale or close the doors. It's hard to see how they'll go upscale in this economy.
But the next wave of casualties will be even more eye-opening. First, you're going to stop upgrading so often (if you haven't already). If cameras are really commodities-- even DSLR cameras--you don't need a new one every 18 months. This just drives nails in the coffin lid for more folk up the chain, I think.
Here's the scary thing: the single company that is still primarily a camera company and has little else to fall back on is...Nikon. We're nearing the point where three-quarters of Nikon's sales are camera-dependent. No, I'm not predicting a Nikon bankruptcy or worse. But the pressure is really on Nikon now. As long as the semiconductor equipment business continues to languish, Nikon is dependent upon the Imaging Division to keep the company healthy. I think that means that we're going to see a more unpredictable and more aggressive Nikon.
But my message to the Nikon board is different: Nikon needs to find ways to rise above the commodity camera. It's okay to keep producing more Coolpix looks-like-the-competition siblings, but in high-end compacts and in DSLRs, that's not going to win the day against commoditization. The words Photographer Inspired (or maybe Photography Inspired) come to mind. Stop the me-too feature creep and hanging more exotic post production junk on the menu system. Get real photographers involved in the decisionmaking. Build that modular, never-obsolete camera. Commodity cameras? That's a tough place to be when you're fighting the world's largest and most efficient consumer electronics firms. Dare to be different. Think different. Design different. And, oh, by the way, don't kill the folk that helped make you successful (dealers).
July 17 (news)--Nikon has put out a service advisory indicating that some D5000 cameras will not power up when an unspecified part fails. And apparently a significant number of D5000's are experiencing this failure in the field, some upon being pulled out of the box. It's an either/or thing: your D5000 either works, or it will no longer power up when the part fails. Later this week the details of the recall should be available, including impacted serial numbers.
July 17 (opinion)--For those who don't know, we've had field fixes of just-shipping cameras before. The one most of us participated in was for the initial D1x shipment, where cameras shipped from the factory but needed a final engineering tweak. This involved sending your camera to a central location in the midwest (near all the overnight hubs) for a quick part swap. Nikon will apparently do the same thing for the D5000 recall: pay for prompt shipping to and from a central repair location, and do the repairs as quickly as possible. If my memory is correct, I was without my camera for a total of five days last time this occurred.
I understand and appreciate that Nikon is trying to appear responsive and proactive, but because no one will know the effected serial numbers until later this week (July 23rd), all D5000 owners are currently wondering if they have a defective camera and were left wondering that for a full week from the initial announcement. Any sane camera store should have stopped selling the model. Unless the recallinvolves all D5000's--that's possible, but the implication of the service advisory is that it does not--the "early warning" is essentially causing anxiety amongst those that might not actually have a problem. To play it safe, you have to not take any D5000 on shoots without having a clear backup, even if your D5000 isn't one that is affected. I don't fully understand the delay between announcing the problem and revealing the serial numbers. Almost certainly the parts batch that is causing the problem is known to have been used in a particular serial number build.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't point out that something is amiss in Nikon's part QC. We've now had known and widespread part failures on the D70 (BGLOD), D2h (Dead Meter), and D5000 (Dead Camera). These are outright failures, and I don't think any other manufacturer has had so many in their DSLR lineup. One we can forgive. Two gets our attention. But now three has our undivided attention. Unfortunately, given the track record so far, we can't rule out future such problems.
Again, it's good that Nikon steps up and does the right thing by users. But this sort of thing has already happened too often. Fix the underlying problem, Nikon, don't keep pushing defective parts out to users and offering to repair them. Basically, you're starting to condition users to wait to buy your equipment to see if you've got all the defects ironed out.
July 13 (fact)--I've put together two new, short articles for your enjoyment (at least I think you enjoy them ;~):
- Shot Discipline: all the things that lead you capture optimal data for your photos.
- A Better Road Map: why trust fan-inspired wish lists when you can just analyze the past and make a solid prediction for the future?
Where to Spend US$2000
July 13 (opinion)--I get a constant stream of "I have an X body and I'm thinking about updating to a Y body, what do you think" questions. Here's my answer.
First, a few quick things to weed out the want from the need:
- The Progress Bar. If you've got a body that's more than two generations old, things have changed enough that perhaps it's worth considering updating. But if you have a D40x, D60, D80, D90, D200, D300, or D5000, I have strong doubts that you'd see much image quality difference by moving up. If you have a D700, D3, or D3x, you're nuts if you think you need a newer body.
- The Pursuit of Pixels. See my previous comments on this site: 12mp is probably more than good enough for most people. A few complain "but I tend to crop a lot." Not a valid excuse, as this is usually a lens or photographer problem, not a camera issue: keep reading.
- The FX Lust. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most people lusting after FX are using excuses to justify wanting it, not showing real need. Can you really say that you're hitting diffraction, ISO, isolation, or viewfinder brightness limits with DX? Right, most of you can't. Most of you would be better served by the D300's cover-the-frame AF, frankly. DX has advantages, too--cost being a huge one--so don't overlook them.
Most of the folk that ask the "should I upgrade" question fail one of the three tests, above. You have to be careful. There's a real difference between wanting the latest equipment and wanting to create better images. If you just want the latest gear, you fall into the Photographer Wannabe category. If you want to improve your images, congratulations, you probably are a Real Photographer.
So let's take a case in point. You own a D200 and an 18-200mm lens and you've got US$2000 to spend on your hobby this year. There are four broad categories you can spend that money on, so let's examine them:
- Upgrade the body. For US$2000 you can certainly afford a D300 (or a D300s Real Soon Now) and have a few dollars left. Sounds good. But what did you gain photographically? Well, you gained 2mp, which is not enough to make a real visual difference on most prints you'd do on a desktop inkjet. You gained perhaps a stop higher usable high ISO value--though I immediately wonder if you know how to optimize the shooting you're currently doing at high ISO. Anything else in image quality? There's a small dynamic range difference, but not enough for most people to worry about. So we're left evaluating the camera features. Yes, the D300 has better AF, plus adds Live View and AF Fine Tune. Will any of those really elevate your photographic quality? And are any of these improvements worth US$2000?
- Upgrade the lens. US$2000 buys a lot of lens. That 18-200mm user would get a modest-but-real boost in image quality and a significant increase in reach by buying the 16-85mm and 70-300mm VR combo, for instance. This gets us into the question of the convenience shooter versus the quality shooter. My thesis is a convenience shooter isn't really much interested in image quality, thus I'm not sure why they're spending US$2000 at all! The quality shooter has a lot of options with this much money when considering lenses. A 35mm f1.8G and 105mm Micro-Nikkor fit this budget, too, and both are lenses that are better in optical quality than my presumed current lens at their focal lengths and do things that the kit lens couldn't. Almost any way I slice things, I can see meaningful potential image upgrades through lenses in this scenario. Even more so if we...
- Upgrade the photographer. US$2000 can buy a lot of training. That's perhaps two or three local workshops, or one exotic location workshop, or virtually everything that Scott Kelby's Photoshop User group produces (books, CDs, training videos, plus a local seminar or two). The problem here is in evaluating in advance whether the training will be useful for you or not. There are thousands of photo workshops each year, but they seem to be of quite variable quality. Before spending lots of money on a workshop, you need to try to find out about the style and commitment to teaching from the instructor. There's a big difference in workshops where the instructor is actually teaching most of the time versus ones where they're shooting most of the time. Unfortunately, there's no good source for evaluating this ahead of time. So all you can do is query the instructor before signing up and see what kind of responses you get to your questions. Still, good instruction will take you further in image quality faster than camera upgrades or lens upgrades. Thus, it's worth spending time trying to figure out how to evaluate instructors. One good indicator is repeat students. So try to find others who've taken workshops from someone you're considering and see if they'd take another. And one question to ask a former student: did their shot discipline improve?
- Upgrade your support. This one gets overlooked all the time because it's both a hassle to carry more equipment, using tripods slows you down, and good support equipment is expensive. Still, to get tack sharp images, you need to take out camera movement. VR isn't always the answer, and indeed, I find that most people's over reliance on VR tends to make them sloppy in terms of shooting discipline (see #3).
So, here's my formula: upgrade the photographer first. Once you're comfortable that you really know what you're doing and that you're optimizing what you can get out of your current equipment, then upgrade your lens and/or support system. When you find you're shooting with a body three generations behind the current state-of-the-art, then you can consider upgrading the camera. If you've really optimized the other things (lenses, photographer, support), you can consider updating when your camera is two generations old. But don't update every body generation: you're wasting money you could spend usefully elsewhere.
That's my answer to the most common email I get, as concisely as I can put it.
Not Everything on the Internet is True
July 9 (opinion)--Having been active on the Internet before it was the Internet (e.g. ARPANet, and a few other early iterations), I've watched the crowd mentality do its reality distortion thing every now and again. Once in awhile the silliness hits the Nikon world. Case in point: the so-called "Nikon Road Map".
A quick read of the specifics of the document should be enough to convince you that it is almost certainly not a Nikon document, let alone accurate. Yet it seems every photo-related site now quotes the document or has a discussion of it (now including this one). You'll note that I've taken to identifying items on my main page to make it clear what type each one is.
My opinion of the Nikon Road Map? Fan fiction. In the details you'll see that many things just don't align with reality very well. For example, a CAM380 AF sensor would indicate a focus sensor with significantly less focus sensing area than even the D40, D40x, and D60, which have three AF sensors. Since the same document says the D3000 is a seven-sensor part, this would mean really, really tiny focus points, smaller than anything Nikon has ever done. Thus, the details are not believable (nor do I believe that the D3000 uses a seven-sensor AF part).
A Few More Words on the Sweet Spot
July 9 (opinion)--I can always tell when something I write resonates with readers, as I get a corresponding spike in my In Box. My comment that we're in a Sweet Spot seemed to strike a chord with you, though it's clear from some of the responses that I need to elaborate on a couple of points.
I mentioned that most of my complaints about "Nikon gear would be small things, essentially nits." I need to modify that slightly: I meant Nikon bodies, not all Nikon gear. There are a lot of small things that need addressing in the bodies, but they are all small things. In terms of overall features, image quality, build quality, and even megapixels, all Nikon bodies introduced in the last two years are arguably quite good. That was my point in my comments: I wasn't fighting the camera in trying to get the sports shots I wanted.
However, the recent separation of the firmware group into a separate subsidiary worries me a bit, as I don't see how that new entity has any tie to those of us who are using Nikon bodies, and many of my nits have their genesis in the firmware. I'll repeat something I've said many times: Nikon is organized as an engineering-centric company, not a global customer-friendly company. This latest reorganization just emphasizes that even more, and makes it even more likely that things like separate and unlinked shooting and custom settings banks don't get resolved the way we shooters would like them to. Moreover, I have little trust that Nikon's usual product marketing practices and surveys are going to show them the best answers to address those nits, either.
Meanwhile, lenses, flash, accessories, and customer support are all areas where Nikon has bigger problems than "nits." I just want to make that clear: nice cameras, not so great elsewhere. Fortunately there are enough legacy and third-party lenses that Nikon can limp by with their currently unbalanced and incomplete lens lineup. Fortunately there are lighting solutions other than Speedlights. You should get the idea: the bodies are a nice base and Nikon has executed them well, though not perfectly. Most complaints I hear about these days are outside of pixel counts, noise, image quality, body quality, or even body features (not to say that there aren't a few of those, too ;~).
So, anyone who took my use of the term "nits" to mean that I have nothing left to complain about in terms of Nikon products or policies should rest assured that bythom hasn't turned into a "love fest" for Nikondom. I continue to call them like I see them.
Predictions Update Updated
July 7 (speculation)--After writing about my updated predictions (now since moved to the 2009 News Archive page), I received a lot of feedback, plus several new hints from people I trust. I'm pretty sure of the D3000 and D300s, as I mentioned. But people I trust now tell me that a D700x won't be as late in the year as I suggest (I mentioned November). Wow. If Nikon has a D300s, D700, D700x, D3, D3x lineup by fall, that's one amazing pro lineup. Which leads me to...
July 7 (opinion)--Spending a week actively shooting with some of Nikon's best products has reinforced something I've felt since the D700 came out: we're in a sweet spot with DSLRs right now. If we get a D300s and D700x later this year as I expect, I'm not sure what I'd ask for in terms of pixels and basic camera choices in future generations: the choice of 12 or 24mp in small or large bodies coupled with the current metering and AF system is, well, pretty darned close to nirvana. I've been shooting sports (swimming, wrestling, judo, bicycling, and a few other sports in addition to what you've seen on the site recently), and most of my complaints about my Nikon gear would be small things, essentially nits.
Let's start with 12mp. The D3 and D700 just excel in available low light situations, at least if you're optimizing things while shooting (missing a white balance and exposure is a no-no in indoor lighting conditions). Shooting at ISO 6400 in some of the poorly lit Olympic Training Center gyms I was still getting exteremely usable results with the D3. Dialed down to ISO 1600 in some of the brighter venues, the D3 is simply amazing. A D700 really only suffers a tiny bit in frame rate compared to the D3 in these situations, and makes for a more affordable approach if you don't absolutely need the 9 fps and bulletproof body of the D3. Even the D300 was handling ISO 3200 well in some of the strange light sources I was working with, but you have to be even more careful to nail white balance and exposure
So here's the one question you need to ask yourself these days: is 12mp enough? I'll hazard a guess that it is for most of you reading this. You should be able to easily get to a 13x19" print (largest size the desktop inkjets support) at ISO 1600 on a D300 and ISO 3200 on a D3/D700. You can push a little bigger at lower ISOs, and even push the ISO up at those sizes if you're very, very careful about camera settings and post processing. Do you really need more? I'd be surprised if you did. Certainly many of the sports shooters I met this past week don't.
Okay, how about the 24mp D3x? I shot with that some, too, even in low-light gyms. With the D3x high ISO work is a little more risky, but certainly still possible up to about ISO 3200 if you're willing to use a little noise reduction. The D3x raw files still impress me every time I pull one up: that's one heck of a lot of pixels done very well. Could I imagine going to a camera with even more pixels? Not really. I suppose there are some landscape situations where I want to go huge (48" prints or larger), but I'm already tackling those with stitching, so all more pixels are giving me is fewer stitches. Not to be sneezed at, but also not exactly worth spending an extra US$5000 for, either.
Meanwhile, the D5000 and D90 actually are JPEG savants, producing slightly better out-of-camera images than the D300 using the same basic sensor technology. Again, that's 12mp that can go to ISO 1600 easily and another stop in a pinch. And 12mp is enough pixels for most anything you're going to do outside of the very occasional poster-sized image.
So I think we're in an era where the cameras are more than good enough. This doesn't mean I wouldn't turn down future sensor improvements. But those future image quality improvements are likely to be small in nature and not worth spending large bucks chasing. There are very few folk I'd suggest getting a D3x over a D700, for instance. VERY few. Thus, future, smaller improvements aren't exactly going to generate a stampede towards new cameras, IMHO.
That's not to say that Nikon shouldn't take a long, hard look at camera features and ergonomics. Next week I'll be updating the User Suggestions page with many more requests, and it just goes to point out how many small things are escaping the Nikon engineering team. Do we really need video in almost every new camera, or would still photographers be better served by embracing true HDR (both in camera and out)? My answer is the latter. And there are many, many more small things like that need to be brought to our DSLRs. I'll have more to say about this soon.
In the meantime, consider where we are: 12mp is plenty of pixels for most people. Every current Nikon DSLR from the D5000 up produces very good images at that resolution or better. A D5000 user is not at a severe disadvantage to a D3 user in terms of image quality--yes, there's perhaps a stop or a bit more of difference at the highest ISO values--so the real difference is in the build quality and features of the cameras. And you've got plenty of choice there: D5000, D90, D300, D700, and D3 form a pretty nice little ramp up the feature and camera build mountain. Beyond that we've only got one camera right now, the ultra expensive D3x. By the end of the year we'll have a lower cost version of that, but is that really what you need? I'll hazard that most users would be better off served by buying one of the 12mp cameras and a better lens than by spending more bucks on a 24mp body.
As the title indicates, we're in a sweet spot with DSLRs. While I can imagine better cameras with better quality and features, I've been extraordinarily happy shooting thousands of images this past week with what I've got. Do I really need more? No. I'd rather spend my money on getting to places where the photos I like to take are, and perhaps on some additional lenses. For awhile now, some of you writing me about "should I upgrade to Latest-and-Greatest-DSLR-X" have gotten the answer "no, you'd be better off putting that same money into instruction or trips or lenses. None of the things I'm predicting coming down the pike from Nikon are going to change that.
So get out there and shoot this summer. Spend a little time getting better with what you've got and you might be surprised. Put another way: if someone had handed me a D700 back in 1990 to shoot with, I would have blown away quite a few of those folk I was competing with shooting Velvia, and I wouldn't have needed another new camera, even today. Think about THAT and digest it for a moment. Truly we are in a wonderful time when it comes to equipment: we've got plenty of quality and plenty of features. Let's go out and shoot, folks.
D3000 and D300s Leaked--Predictions Updated
June 30--We’ve been getting a lot of clues about upcoming products lately from Nikon, partly because they underestimated demand on a number of items, partly because Nikon has let things leak. So I thought it worthwhile to update my 2009 predictions for Nikon.
Let’s start with bodies. I predicted five Nikon bodies. The D3x (though I thought it might be called something else) was introduced as expected. None of my other predictions have come to bear (yet), though we got a bonus body in the D5000, which I wasn’t expecting. That leaves four others, and I’m reasonably certain at this point we’ll get three of them. Why? Because Nikon cut back production so severely late last year and early this year that when they halted production on certain models but demand continued higher than expected, they ran out of cameras to distribute to the subsidiaries.
Normally Nikon tries to have a very small supply of cameras remaining when a new model replacing it is introduced. But I’ve now received numerous reports from dealers worldwide that Nikon is no longer taking new orders in some regions for two models, the D60 and D300. That corresponds to two cameras that I predicted would be replaced, and I believe that we’ll see those replacements announced at the end of July or early August.
The D60 and maybe the D40 will be replaced by a D3000, while the D300 will be replaced by a D300s. Neither update is groundbreaking, but both push both the quality and feature levels of these cameras upwards. I say maybe to the D3000 replacing the D40 as there still seems to be some D40 inventory availability for the moment, unlike the D60. Both of these predictions aren’t much of a prediction any more: I’ve now received information from plenty of sources on both to say that they’re a lock to appear in the next set of announcements.
I also predicted a D700x at the end of the year, and I still stand by that. I’d guess November announcement.
That leaves only the special interest camera, which seems to have gone missing in action. Since it was targeted for the home Japanese market, I wonder if it has been put off due to the recession.
I’m going to add a camera to my predictions: a minor update to the D3, called the D3s. I don’t know when that will happen, though. It could happen as early as the D300s announcement, though I really doubt it. I think it's more likely early next year. But it will happen.
Here’s the new expected Nikon DSLR line summary as I see it:
Will be retired when inventory clears
Announcement end of July
Replaces D40 and D60
Likely to remain in the lineup through 2010
Likely to remain in the lineup through 2010
Announcement start of August
A D300 with the addition of video, better IQ, minor feature additions
Likely to remain in the lineup through 2010; another candidate for “s”
Announcement in November
The D3x sensor in a D700 body, with the expected changes (sensor cleaning, video)
Announcement uncertain; best bet early 2010, but perhaps in November 2009
Added buffer, sensor cleaning, minor feature changes to bring up to current models; replaces D3
Likely to continue in lineup through 2010
Remember, this is my current prediction, and is not a certainty. Still, I’m more confident of this than what I wrote my predictions early last November. I don’t know about you, but that looks like a very robust lineup at the top (D300s, D700, D700x, D3s, D3x). The only thing missing is a top-of-the-line DX body in the D3 frame, and you’d have a super strong pro lineup that no other maker could match.
What looks a bit weak in the expected lineup is the D90. The D5000 is so close to the D90 that the D90 looks a bit strange in this lineup, especially when you consider that the D5000 seems to produce better JPEG image quality than the D90 out of the same sensor.
Meanwhile, lenses seem to be going out of stock, too. Some of this seems like it is just planned obsolescence (the elimination of many manual focus lenses, for instance). Some are hints of something to come.
Lenses are harder to predict than cameras, as the process used to create them have a bit more date variability in them, the individual designers have a bit more leeway in specification, and the testing and preproduction process they go through doesn’t expose them to the same leakage as the bodies most of the time (though lenses made in SE Asia do tend to leak into the Chinese press early). Glass in some pro lenses takes as much as a year to go from start in the kiln to finished, polished glass ready to stick in a lens. That’s probably why there are no 600mm f/4 lenses to buy: Nikon underestimated demand, they sold out what they made, and it takes a long time to get new glass ready to restart or increase production of that lens.
I’m not going to change any of my lens predictions at this point other than to say I expect to see a number of lenses introduced at the D3000 and D300s announcements. At least one DX zoom (again), a couple of primes, plus a couple of the things we've been waiting for (see left column). Someone I trust told me that we’d have more lens announcements this year than in most years, but so far we’re behind the normal pace.
The real question, of course, is why is Nikon consistently underestimating demand lately? End of life products are running out of inventory before the new ones appear, and all the highly regarded products seem to have spates of low or no inventory available.
I’ll offer a conjecture: the serious shooter that is buying those highly regarded products is typically either a pro or a hobbyist. The pros have to keep up with the Joneses: the competition for images at the top is so intense that submitting 12mp images when your competitor is submitting 21mp images puts you at an immediate disadvantage, just as not being to shoot at ISO 3200 with decent quality puts you at disadvantage. So, the pro is still buying. The image quality bar keeps rising, and the only way to keep up with it is to keep iterating equipment. Reluctantly, and more cautiously, but still buying.
The hobbyist looks towards their hobby as the thing that keeps them happy during depressing times. Moreover, the thing I keep trying to point out to people is that the current recession is highly regional and highly targeted. If you assemble cars or build homes, you’re likely out of work. Professionals, who comprise a fair portion of that photography hobbyist market, are the least likely to be out of work right now. That’s not to say they too aren’t more cautious in what they buy, but they, too, are still buying if they see the quality and features they desire. Maybe their budget this year is only US$2000 instead of US$3000, but that simply means that they don’t three lenses, they buy two instead.
I don’t see this changing any time soon. There’s no miracle recovery around the corner, though we’ve probably bottomed out. Nikon seems to still be keeping the lid on production. So we’ll probably continue to see shortages of popular items.
Bottom line: three (possibly four) body introductions still coming this year, and at least six lens introductions are due as well. Plus you’ll still have a hard time getting popular items as stock levels won’t be high.
Open for Registration
June 26 (updated)--Converting Africa: Getting the Style you Want out of your Raw Data. Photographer and writer Thom Hogan will present images from a single trip to Eastern Africa that look different than you usually see from that region of world. Thom will share with you the choices he made during his photographic workflow, and explain the reasoning behind how he executed his post processing. Next, he’ll repeat his slideshow in a different style. This is a rare opportunity to see how one of the pioneer digital shooters approaches the data he captures. This presentation is not about how to emulate Thom’s unique style of images, so no step-by-step instructions are going to be provided, but rather a discussion of how your photographic instinct should influence your decision making processing right through your entire workflow.
Sign up here.
Update: filled in a few hours (maybe minutes, I wasn't keeping track). While it will cost me some extra dough, I'm considering staying overnight and doing a second session (who knows with me, it may or may not be the same as the first ;~). If that happens, you'll find out about it here first.
Nikon D60 Sold Out?
June 26--It appears that some dealers in the US are being told that there are no more D60's to be had. Dealer backorders for the model appear to being cancelled. This is a bit strange, as D60 is still in the July Instant Rebate program if I'm not mistaken. This lends more credibility to a D4000 introduction at the end of the month. Also, one dealer I talked to believes that the Coolpix S60, S620, and P6000 are on short-life now. I expect new Coolpix models to be introduced within the next 60 days, too. Historically, the high-end Coolpix models have been introduced either in February or August (P6000 and P5100 in the past two Augusts). My only problem is that I can't really see what Nikon would do to create a recognizably different P6100 (from a P6000). I doubt we're ready for a new sensor yet, so lens and feature set are the only two items that come to mind. Perhaps we'll just get a modest update this time.
Aperture and Capture NX Live Together
June 26--If you're an Apple Aperture user but wish you could use a different raw converter, BrushedPixel has something coming you might want to take a look at: Catapult. This Aperture plug-in acts as a go-between for Aperture and your raw converter and, through a workaround, even preserves side cars or Capture NX's edit information for future use. It's not a pretty system, as it involves Drop and Pickup folders and you'll have to set your converter to deal with those folders if you want to batch process images, but the idea looks workable.
Adobe Recognizes D5000
June 24--Adobe has introduced updates to both Lightroom (version 2.4) and Camera Raw (version 5.4) to support the D5000 (and provide some other minor fixes).
More on More on "Beyond NPS"
June 21--NPS Germany: one cleaning free per year (including sensor cleaning), normal repair is one day. On the other hand, there is no NPS in New Zealand (there is CPS, though, so no wonder you see so many Canon pros there).
It finally dawned on me that Nikon needs three levels:
- D3, D3s, D3x, D3xs: premium price, premium support.
- D300, D300s, D700, D700s, D700x: prosumer price, prosumer support.
- D3000, D4000, D5000, D90: consumer price, consumer support.
It's as simple as that. All Nikon needs to do is come up with a consistent and clear definition of what those three support levels mean and how they're accessed. As should be obvious, Nikon doesn't currently have that kind of clarity in their support system right now.
June 21--After a lot of build-up, the first Olympus micro 4/3 camera has finally been announced, and it's a PEN. For those not as old as I, the Olympus Pen F was a defining small camera in the 1960's. While it didn't last all that long (the original Pen was introduced in 1959 and the last model in the line, the FT, in 1966, it nevertheless was one of Olympus' shining moments: a quality SLR in a very concise package (they often advertised it inside a shoe to demonstrate how small it was).
With the E-P1 the Pen is back. At least that's what Olympus wants us to think. While Panasonic chose a modern design (complete with colored bodies) for their first m4/3 camera (the G1), Olympus chose a retro design that is quite reminscent of the Pen F model.
So why am I writing about an Olympus product? Those of you who remember my Compact Challenge know why: the E-P1 is one of the first cameras to come along that could be said to fit my description (compact sized camera, DSLR sensor features and image quality). To be fair, Sigma was there first with their DP-1 (and now DP-2). But both Sigma models just don't quite cut it as a camera for me, and their lenses, while exceedingly good, aren't choices that work for me either.
So the question is whether the Olympus E-P1 will. First, a couple of things to get out of the way. Sizewise, the E-P1 body isn't a lot larger than the Panasonic LX3 that I've been carrying lately. Call it "large pocket" sized. But the E-P1 has a 12mp 4/3 sensor in it, which is much larger physically than the LX3's small sensor. In theory, there's potential for much better image quality.
The big issue for the E-P1 is this: lenses. The initial lenses are decidedly consumer: 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (that's 28-85mm equivalent) and a pancake 17mm f/2.8 (35mm equivalent). But it's an interchangeable mount, and one that should be able to retrofit almost ANY interchangeable lens via adapter. I'll give you a little advice: think Leica. As in M and screw-mount lenses. Quite a few small lenses for the Leica M series exist, and adapters are already available for M to m4/3. The only thing to pay attention to is the 2x magnification factor: divide the effective focal length you want by 2 to find the lens you should use. Want a 50mm equivalent? Then get something in the 24-25mm range. Lenses in the Leica mount go all the way down to 12mm, so this isn't as big a problem as it first appears. True, these are MF lenses, but they'll get you by until Olympus and Panasonic flesh out their lens lineups.
The real question is whether Nikon has gotten the wake up call yet. There are quotes in the business press in Japan from Nikon executives indicating that they're aware of m4/3 and watching it closely, but that they don't currently have development plans for anything similar. If true, that's a huge mistake, Nikon. Huge. As in "risk losing the consumer DSLR market" huge. Meanwhile, as Oly has proven with the E-P1, the high-end compact market may be at risk, too.
All it really takes for Nikon to start moving is to (1) define the lens/sensor relationship for a no-mirror camera; and (2) develop two or more lenses and an F-mount adapter for that definition. The rest is just cutting flab from the D5000 body. Well, okay, that's the crude way of getting there and Nikon needs a better contrast AF system. Better would be to do a full bottom-up rethink.
But I'm serious about Nikon being behind the eight-ball. First, you have to ask yourself where growth comes from. Well, one place is transitioning P&S users to something with higher quality and a bit more sophistication. Panasonic targeted that group with the G1 and Samsung is targeting them with the NX. That's two very large consumer electronics firms getting there first, and with very respectable offerings. The G1 made it onto a lot of top-ten DSLR model selling lists for extended periods of time since its introduction. By the time Nikon has any offering, Panasonic will have a G2, almost certainly. You can't allow a serious competitor to refine and dominate a new market before you even get a single offering out.
The other place for growth is to sell something to everyone you've already sold something to. That's what my Compact Challenge was all about: every serious shooter I know--not some, but EVERY--is looking around for their Everywhere Camera and not quite finding it. We try new compacts like the P6000, G10, and LX3 when they come out and pick the one that comes the closest to what we want (another Nikon problem, it isn't the P6000). But we're not happy. We're still shopping. We looked at the DP-1 (and DP-2) and passed. We're looking at the E-P1 now and finding something that looks like it might pass muster.
Seriously, Nikon: you've executed your DX/FX strategy reasonably well and are now at the top of the hill. But for how long? Time to think outside the narrow line extension thinking you're using. What does it really cost you to create a Coolpix DX? Seriously. If it's successful it bolsters the bottom of your DSLR line and fixes the "no decent Coolpix anymore" perception. It if fails, it's a Coolpix! ;~)
The sad thing is that the Coolpix innovation of the past (e.g. the 900 twist-and-shoot) is gone and has been replaced by OEMed me-too cameras. Unfortunately, Nikon perceives this as success because they sell more Coolpix today than they used to. But this has also made them a commodity producer, not a premium producer. Commodity producers have this tendency to die if they aren't #1 or #2. Nikon is barely #4 or #5.
June 15--For the past week I've been surveying site visitors on their Nikon DSLR experience. As usual, I've learned a lot of interesting information. For example, you D300 users are a bit clumsy (compared to other users): 1.3% of you have dropped your camera in a way that required you to send it in for repair. That's higher than the numbers for most of the other Nikon models. Since Nikon is about to introduce the D300s, I'll give them a morsel for free (companies usually pay big for this sort of information): 63.5% of D300 users said they'd certainly buy the same camera again, 20% would possibly buy it again. Only 3.6% said they'd absolutely buy something else, which shows that Nikon might be right: just refreshing the D300 to bring it up to date may be the correct thing to do.
It's going to take me awhile to fully analyze the results. Unless, of course, one of you is a statistics student in need of a summer project and wants to help out.
What Was Apple Thinking?
June 11--As much as I love my MacBook Pro (15", a couple of generations old), I've always felt that it was just a shade shy of being perfect. You'd think that with two new generations having been introduced since I bought mine, that Apple would have dialed in those imperfections and gotten the product "right."
Well, my assistant called this morning and reminded me that they haven't. You see, he's been holding off replacing his banged up (dropped) MacBook Pro for awhile, and was hoping that a new iteration would give him everything he wanted. Would that it were so.
I understand the compromises that you have to make in fitting a lot of components into a small space. Sometimes you just can't fit the pieces together. Nevertheless, it sure feels like a game of "you may gain something but we'll take something away" now.
The good news: faster processors and most importantly, more memory (though US$1000 for a 4GB upgrade, come on Apple, that's so far out of whack your price basically says you don't want anyone to take you up on it). 8GB running Photoshop is better than 4GB (or 6GB if you've got the right memory modules) running Photoshop. Ditto with a few other key applications for the traveling graphic artist, photographer, or videographer. And, yes, getting Firewire back on the 13" model was nice too. Better battery life, yes, another welcome addition. It was mentioned several times at the introduction that the new 15" model has a bigger color gamut, though absolutely no detail on that has been released. I'll count that as a plus, though it's an unknown plus at the moment.
But the bad news: the ExpressCard slot is gone. In its place is a SD card reader. This is not a good trade, regardless of the fact that you can now carry an SD card as an emergency boot drive (yes, you read that right: repartition a standard SDHC card into GUID and you can make it bootable). But the problem is that the real pros that are buying the MacBook Pro need the slot for its bus access. It's what allows videographers to use extremely fast eSata drives, audiographers to use real digital input, and photographers to get decent external drive performance (for backups of images). There is no alternative available. "Use a Firewire card reader," says Apple. Apparently they don't come back to the hotel at the end of the day with several 16GB CompactFlash cards to download and to create backups of. If Steve Jobs had to sit in my room and chat with me while I waited for cards to transfer with the new machine and then to an external drive, there'd be a new model with the ExpressCard slot restored in days, I think.
Thing is, I thought us pro designers, illustrators, videographers, and photographers were relatively core to Apple's success. The message they're sending is "we don't design for you much any more." Great. The message we might send back is "we don't buy from you much any more, nor do we tend to recommend your product as much."
Couple such decisions with the now unswappable battery--what does Apple have against user-swappable batteries?--and the glossy-only screens, and the slower internal SATA bus (back to 1.5Gbs from 3, which slows any really fast SST drive you might want to use) and it seems we get as many steps backward as we do forward. But then, maybe Apple really wants to sell more to the masses now. Funny thing is, the masses want lower prices first and foremost. Us pros, we'll pay for the features we need.
I know, "just get a 17". Sorry, but the extra size and weight don't fit my bag needs or those of other pros. Personally, I don't need a new laptop yet (though I would have liked to address more memory), so I'll just skip another generation of update. My assistant? Well, he's been limping along for awhile hoping that Apple would do it right. I'm not sure what he's going to do. Well, I know one thing he did: phone me and complain ;~).
More on "Beyond NPS"
June 10--Back on May 26 I wrote about Canada offering free periodic service on pro bodies. I've since heard from several of you in other places around the world:
FotoVideo in Norway includes a 3-year check and clean by Nikon Norway on all D300, D700, D3, and D3x bodies sold.
Nikon Austria NPS: free check and clean once a year on all pro equipment, free loaner if repair will take more than 48 hours, free sensor cleaning.
In Denmark, any Nikon body can get a check, clean, and firmware update once a year for the three years following purchase.
Numerous NPS organizations worldwide attend periodic public events and do free cleaning. This ranges from the Olympics to, apparently, the world body painting festival.
So this just begs the question: why the inconsistencies? Why not just do as I originally suggested and establish a worldwide customer friendly policy?
June 8--I've got several important announcements.
Annoucement #1: Thom in Person. First up is one that I know I'm going to regret. That's because it's a one-time, limited space, not-to-be-repeated thing that most of you are going to miss. On July 22nd from 3 to 5pm at the B&H Event Space in New York City I'll be presenting "Converting Africa: Producing Different Styles." This free, two-hour presentation starts with a four-minute slide show of images from one of my trips to Eastern Africa. A few of those images have appeared on this site, and you might have noticed that they don't look like "normal" DSLR images. That's because I've been converting and processing them differently. During the bulk of this presentation, I'll step you through processing a couple of the images in different ways, outlining the choices I make and why.
As most of you know, I don't show my work often these days. That's partly because I've been spending a lot of time working on different approaches to try to achieve the look and style I want to be associated with. Much like any artist, I've discarded a lot of different techniques and still continue to play with many aspects. Some day, I'll have a grand coming out party, but until then, this seminar is the only glimpse anyone will get for the time being of how I go about exploring some of the possibilities.
Why did I say I'll regret it? Well, because B&H's Event Space has limited seating capacity so not everyone who wants to will get in. Plus, of course, those of you not in the tri-state area that's convenient to NYC have no chance to see the presentation. So I expect I'm disappointing more of you than I'm making happy. To keep from disappointing too many of you, I've asked B&H to let me announce the event first so that those of you who are interested can start watching the B&H site for the July event signups and try to grab up the first-come, first-served spaces (hint: use the Event Space RRS).
Announcement #2: Nikon Book #20 appears, plus another updated. The D60 Guide is now complete and has moved into production, and I've also updated the Introduction to Nikon Software companion piece a bit to bring it up to date (mostly which camera needs which version, as the features have been stable since the last update). Since there was a lot of overlap, this was a perfect time to update the D40/D40x Guide, as well, so I've completed a 2nd Edition of that book, too. You can find the links to the new eBooks in the right column. If you already own the D40/D40x Guide but want an update, that's possible, too--again, just follow the link for that book. But there's something a bit more special about these eBooks, which leads me to...
Announcement #3: Printed eBook Trial. Many of you have asked for printed copies of my works, or at least a more convenient method by which to get your eBook printed. After looking at a number of options, I've found a local solution that can provide me with reasonable quality, perfect bound, printed copies of my eBooks in small quantities at a cost that's affordable. Thus, for the D40/D40x Guide 2nd Edition and the new D60 Guide, starting today I'm going to offer the option of also purchasing a professionally-produced, bound, black and white copy of the eBook in paperback size. You'll still need the eBook itself, as there are a great number of color references and image samples that simply don't print well in black and white, plus the eBook CD has the Introduction to Nikon Software, the videos, worksheets, and other tools I include with my works on it. Thus, I consider the printed copy I'm offering a "convenience printout" of the main work. It's your option whether to order it with your eBook or not (for an additional cost to cover my expense of producing it). I'm offering this same option to those updating their D40/D40x eBook, as well. If the print versions of these two eBooks are well received, I'll start doing it for all future books and my existing ones as I update them. However, at the present time only the D40/D40x Guide 2nd Edition, and D60 Guide are available in printed form. One further note: I won't start actually shipping these printed versions until June 17th, and, if demand is very high, it may add a week to my shipping your order until I get a better sense of what demand really is.
Just to be clear, this announcement is just what I labeled it in the heading: a trial program. As you might guess, adding printed copies into my inventory becomes a logistics and space problem (I need to write shorter books!), and also means that I have to commit money up front to acquring sufficient copies to meet likely demand. I really don't know how well this will work and how it will be received. But because you, my customer, asked for it, I've tried my best to come up with something that should work for both of us. The first samples I've gotten look quite good (though I did notice a couple of minor things I'm going to change for future editions).
Don't let this trial keep you from ordering my other eBooks because you think you'll miss something. If the trial works out okay, I'll be offering printed versions to existing customers via updates.
I hope you like this new option. Your feedback on it will determine whether I proceed with doing other eBooks this way. And please continue to let me know what it is you want. I may be a little slow--after all I'm just an overworked one-person company nearing retirement--but I do listen and try to respond.
Announcement #4: Spring Cleaning 2009. Yes, it's once again time for some Spring Cleaning. I don't have a lot to offer this time around, as like many of you, I'm hunkered down during the recession and not accumulating stuff that I don't need. But my assistant is moving to a smaller place and needs to get rid of a lot of things. So check out what's available here. As always, this is a first-come, first-served process, so don't hesitate too long if you're interested in something that's posted for sale.
Announcement #5: Workshop Update. The Patagonia and Botswana workshops are full, and the South Africa one is nearly full as I write this. Don't let that dissuade you. If you're interested, keep the dates blocked and make sure you talk to the appropriate person at Wilderness Travel and get on the wait list (it's free). As far as these are planned in advance, we usually have a last minute cancellation or two. Those on the wait list get first crack at any cancellations. And I just might be convinced to repeat my "Converting Africa" lecture during those workshops ;~).
Announcement #6: Nikon DSLR Survey: What? You think there should be more? That I'm capable of an infinite number of announcements? I'm a writer, not an autoscribe. (Yes, that was a Star Trek reference.) But since you want more, I'm conducting one of my periodic surveys about Nikon DSLR use. If you've like to add your voice: click here to enter the survey.
Bottom Drops Out
May 26--Nikon has issued a service advisory for CL-L2 case users (that includes all 200-400mm lens users, as that case came with that lens). Basically, the bottom of the case may crack and eventually allow the contents of the case--your precious lens--to fall to through.
Unfortunately, Nikon uses the word "affected" over and over again in the service advisory, which makes it unclear to some whether you have to wait until you see signs of a crack before returning the case for replacement or not. Apparently, the use of the word "affected" is meant to separate out cases that don't have the letter T on the bottom from the ones that do. A T on the bottom of your case means you have a case that meets Nikon's standards. No T on the bottom of your case means that you should apply for a free replacement. US customers can apply for the CL-L2 replacement here or call the usual Customer Service number (800-645-6687). Nikon will pay the shipping costs both for the return of your potentially problematic case and your replacement one.
In the meantime, if you're using the CL-L2 soft case to carry your 200-400mm, 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm lens, you should inspect the integrity of the bottom immediately. If the very bottom has a T stamped on it, you're fine and should just continue using your current case. If it doesn't have a T on it, don't continue using the case unless you've verified that there are no problems with the bottom.
May 26--At least one Nikon subsidiary is trying something similar to what I suggested back when the D3x came out. Who would have guessed it would be Canada? To wit:
"Thank you for purchasing your new Nikon D3/D3x camera. In appreciation, and at no charge to you, Nikon Canada Inc. ("Nikon") offers an initial Service Program (the "Service Program") described below for your new Nikon D3/D3x. Services:
- Unlimited preventative maintenance cleanings -- Image Sensor Cleaning
- Two comprehensive check-ups and cleanings; one in the first year of ownership and one in the second
- Routine adjustments as necessary resulting from normal usage excluding cosmetic "wear and tear"
- Firmware updates that may be available from time to time from Nikon"
Now was that so hard, Nikon?
Well, apparently it is, as at the moment Nikon Canada is the only subsidiary I know of that's trying this. And the idea still needs a lot of tweaking and augmentation to make it work for both parties.
A better choice would be to develop a better NPS (Nikon Professional Services) program. In that, all pro equipment would get a comprehensive checkup each year, a better and more guaranteed system of loaner equipment would be made available (especially when equipment is in for repair), plus a handful of other useful things I'll restrain myself from writing about for the moment (this is, after all, not a full article, but a short commentary). Such a program would have a yearly (reasonable) cost. If you buy a new D3/D3x you'd be enrolled in it for free your first year. (Or even six months; just make it a good program and give us a taste, we'll bite.)
The point is this: create something of value, then associate it with buying that high-cost pro body. You take a small bit of the sting out of the initial cost of the body, you get the purchaser hooked on your service, and you eventually generate an ongoing revenue stream from that user.
The funny thing is this: the subsidiaries all complain about the fact that they live off of low margins and strict warranty policies from Nikon corporate, thus their hands are tied. That would be invisible rope that's tying those hands, guys (and gals). If you think you're restrained, you are. The thing is, it's the subsidiary that has the customer relationship, not corporate. Thus, if the subsidiaries don't get the relationship right, corporate doesn't have a chance of building a better brand. This has long been the Achilles heel of many Japanese "global" companies. I applaud Nikon Canada for taking a stab in the right direction. Now, my message to all the other Nikon subsidiaries: Ten-hut! Bout-face! Stand easy.
Fraternize with that customer, soldier.
More on Nikon Inventory
May 22--As noted in the next story, Nikon's inventory of some DSLR bodies appears to be tight. Several sources are now reporting the Nikon Sweden is out of D60 and D300 models and no longer selling them. Curiously, the D60 will go back on rebate in the United States for the month of June, and all the dealers I've talked to say they're assured by Nikon that more shipments are coming. As far as I can tell, both the D40 and D60 are no longer produced at the Thailand plant, so we're living off of inventories of both now. This is common--most cameras are produced in batches, not in a constant trickle. The important questions are these: how much inventory is left and what replaces these models when the inventory runs out?
Meanwhile, the 35mm f/1.8G DX lens is also in short supply around the world. But I don't think that's due to production cutbacks. There's just a huge pent-up demand for DX primes, but more importantly, people are discovering that this is an extremely good lens, especially considering its price.
Did Nikon Cut Too Much?
May 19--Strange things are going on with inventory of various Nikon products, especially the DSLRs. As I reported earlier, the D300 came off rebate and is in short supply. But if you hunt around enough, you discover that the D40, D60, D90, and D300 are all in short supply and out of stock in some outlets.
When this first started happening, I thought it might just be dealers cutting back on their orders. But given that B&H and some other large volume dealers seem to be having the same problem, there has to be an issue of supply from Nikon involved. As I noted in my report on Nikon's full year financials, as recently as early February Nikon was estimating lower sales volume than they actually achieved by the end of March.
I've always expected at least one additional Nikon DSLR announcement in the late spring. Given the pricing of the D5000, it isn't a replacement for the D40 and D60. Thus, one of the models I'm expecting is a new low-end model, as the D40 is really showing its age, and the D60 is also using parts that are no longer being used by other cameras in the lineup. So it's possible that Nikon was trying to phase out these two cameras for a replacement and didn't quite get the forecasts right due to overestimating the impact of the recession. With other companies introducing new low-end models, notably Sony, this puts Nikon in a vulnerable position, at least for the short term.
Of course, the question is what would a new low-end Nikon DSLR look like? The D5000 doesn't exactly have an abundance of features that can be cut, after all. The pivot LCD is one, but then what? A D4000 can't really be a D5000 without the pivot display, can it? I don't think so. The best I can come up with is: 3-sensor AF instead of 11, no pivot display, no viewfinder overlays (grid, etc.), no bracketing, no GPS support, some simpler settings (no choices other than On/Off for Active D-lighting). Is that enough to carve out a lower model? Something doesn't feel right about that, so there's something I'm missing, I think. Still, I think a D4000 is more likely within the next two months than not.
At the other end, we have the D300. From what I hear, there is another boatload of D300's on the way to distribution. Thus, we should see some easing of shortages for that model soon. I've always predicted that a D400 model would appear in 2009. My best guess was in fall, which gets me back to the "did Nikon cut too much" thought. If indeed we're now down to the last production run of the D300 and I was right about a fall introduction, then D300's are going to be scarce during the summer months.
Nikon is predicting 1.7m units sold in the first half of their new year (started April 1st) versus 1.87m units sold in the first half of the same period last year. That was a period during which the D60 and D700 had impacts on the numbers. After analyzing Nikon's numbers closely, there have to be at least two new cameras (the D5000 is one) being built and sold during the Apr through September time period for the estimates to make sense. The question is whether a D300 replacement is one of those. If I'm right and a D4000 appears soon and a D400 before the end of the summer, I'll bet that Nikon's estimates are once again low.
The critical element for a D4000 is, well, nothing unless they change the sensor again, which I wouldn't expect. Thus, there's little holding a D4000 back and I would estimate it to be launched sooner rather than later. The critical element for a D400 is the sensor, period. While there may be body and feature tweaks--mostly due to Live View and video changes, I'd think--it's the sensor where a D400 has to distinguish itself. And I haven't heard much rumbling about new DX sensors maturing in Sony's R&D, so that leaves three possibilities: (1) we wait for Sony, (2) the D300's sensor will be tweaked for video, or (3) Nikon has their own sensor up their sleeve.
I would also point out that Nikon hasn't had a "big" announcement yet this year. By that I don't mean a high-end product, but rather the type of hyped event that Nikon likes to do to roll out multiple products simultaneously. Note that the lens announcements have been one at a time, too. Historically, summer has been a time when Nikon seems to do this type of multiple product event. If I were paranoid and self-centered, I'd say that Nikon likes to do these events when I'm traveling ;~). So, the question is, when is my next long travel session? August (though I'm doing shorter trips before that). But I'm betting we'll see more announcements before then, though. I'll even pull a date out of my hat: fourth week of June.
And, no, before the rumors start flying that say that I know something about what's going to happen that week, no, I don't. "Out of my hat" means I made it up. It's a wild guess. But I don't see how Nikon is going to make their estimated numbers for the half year if there are no announcements until August, so something needs to happen before then. I've planted my stake at June 23rd.
Down, But Not Out
May 13--Nikon announced their year-end financial results, and they're interesting in a number of ways. Obviously, the global recession has caused a great deal of stress for all companies, but Nikon's report reveals some very interesting things about how Nikon approached the problem.
First, inventory is down to its lowest year-end level in several years. Nikon apparently started making big production cuts late last year, and made a further cut this past quarter. But the interesting thing is that they probably cut too far. Demand has been higher than their estimates. By the end of March they sold more Coolpix (by 330k units) than they expected as recently as early February. They sold more DSLRs (by 120k units). (Nikon had a market share of 37.5%, by the way.) And they sold a remarkable 4.87 million lenses through the year (270k more than expected as late as February).
Of course, all is not perfect. While these late sales pushed year-to-year Imaging sales above last year's numbers (596b yen versus 586b yen), year-to-year profit declined 52%. As much as everyone is complaining about Nikon's price increases, the bottom line is the bottom line: Nikon is feeling profit pain. More demand than expected and less profit than before are one reason why D300's are in tight supply and the rebate on them was removed, I suspect.
Curiously, Nikon seems to have taken a plain vanilla strategy for the coming year. This is the first time I can remember where they have adapted a "just do the same" type of attitude. Their official line is "target the same level of sales units as previous term." Such an approach will likely once again lower overall sales and profit for the division. But it seems clear that Nikon is reluctant to turn the factories back up or make any waves with some unexpected product. They don't seem to be looking to buy market share. They don't want to lose market share. The estimates for the coming year all look like the results for the past year (3.4m DSLRs in coming year versus 3.42m sold in past year, for example). It does seem that Nikon must have some new products in the DSLR and lens lines for the coming six months, because of the way they broke out the half-year estimates. For Coolpix, we clearly see a Christmas back-loading, by comparison. Either Nikon thinks that DSLR sales are flat through the year, or they have another product in the pipeline that'll produce decent volumes in coming six months (D400 or D700x anyone?).
Some other interesting bits: Japan in-market sales for imaging products have been dropping as a percentage of their overall volume. Nikon is predicting a new low of 13% sold to the Japan market in the coming year (in the past that has been as high as 20% of cameras sold, and was 15% last year). It appears that Nikon is targeting the other Asian countries for imaging products in the coming year, as that region is projected to grow from 18% of their sales this year to 22% next. Look out Nikon India. All other regions are down in the projections.
R&D expenditures seem to still have a high priority, despite the fact that Nikon went to a negative cash flow position this past year (debt and bonds increased, too). Thus, you wouldn't be surprised to see that "cut fixed costs" is one of their big goals for the year. That includes "global restructuring of business locations" and "cut...advertising expense." Some of the problem is, of course, the Precision Equipment division, which makes steppers. There, the prognosis for the coming year looks fairly grim, and that's driving what the rest of the company can do now.
Still, the bottom line is this: Nikon pulled in the reins in time. There's nothing in their figures that indicates that they're in trouble, at least as long as the sales environment doesn't deteriorate much more than it has. Don't expect high demand items to be plentiful--production and inventories are being kept restrained. Don't expect any huge fire sale--Nikon is trying to preserve a modest profit in the Imaging division. We may see some sales on items where inventory isn't getting reduced, but that's about it, I think.
When I get a better translation of the Tokyo presentations Nikon made, I may have more to say, but for now the headline says it all: sales down, but Nikon isn't in any real trouble at the moment and hasn't lost market share.
How to Sell a D5000 for More Money
May 10--Nikon thinks of customers in a naive, stepwise fashion. A consumer wants a small, light, friendly, simple camera with lots of automation. A pro wants a big, sophisticated camera with lots of control. Thus, Nikon makes a range of cameras from bottom to top. Thing is, there are consumers that want more of something (FX sensor and low light capability instead of DX, but with the same body complexity) and pros that want less (lighter, smaller, simpler, with top level DX or FX sensor).
So every time a new consumer Nikon DSLR comes out, we pros look at it as a possible "light kit" candidate. And for the most part, we get something not quite what we want. So here's a thought, Nikon: give us what we want. It actually shouldn't be all that difficult, and we'd even pay more for it. Here are the minimum changes that would be required on a D5000:
- Give us a one-group Commander mode, ala the D70.
- Add support for MF lenses (Non CPU Lens Data).
- Add Load/Save settings (including CSM).
- Add some weather sealing. (I'm tempted to say put better body materials on the outside, but I really don't want Nikon to spend a lot of time engineering such a camera for a small, but important market. I can live with the composites the current body uses if the whole thing is just a bit more resistent to water and dust incursion.)
- Add direct Kelvin setting.
- Convert the top Info button to Mode.
- Remove the Mode dial completely.
- Put a higher quality LCD on the back (e.g. 900k dot).
Call it a D5100P and add US$100 to the price and I'm happy. Now, if you want to put a real grin on my face:
- Remove the antialiasing and Bayer filters.
- Give us new Picture Controls for monochrome (different mid-range contrast selections).
Call that the D5100M and add another US$500 to the price and I'll still buy it, as would about 20% of my customers if I'm reading my surveys correctly (are you asking the right questions of your customers, Nikon?). Note also that this does something to the video market, too: true monochrome, large format video would be absolutely unique, I think.
The fact that I bring this up should tell you something about my initial use of the D5000: it's everything the D90 is in terms of image quality--which is to say, quite good--yet smaller and with that swivel display that makes Live View much more useful.
There's another reason why I bring this up: DSLR market growth may be gone. The whole upgrade every generation momentum is also gone (and remember, I've written several times that it doesn't pay to do that: skip a generation before upgrading). So how do you get those of us that already have perfectly fine cameras to buy more cameras? Well, you segment out the market and provide niche products like monochrome cameras. Some large proportion of serious shooters who have a perfectly good color camera would spring for a monochrome addition to their bag. Especially after they saw what gains there are to be had from that (higher ISO sensitivity and higher resolution, using the same base sensor).
This Week's Surprise
May 10--One of the things I was curious about with the new 10-24mm DX lens was whether it would lose one of the features that kept the 12-24mm in my FX bag: a big enough image circle to let the lens be used as an 18-24mm lens on my FX bodies. Well, surprise, the 10-24mm seems to cover the FX frame at somewhere just under 15mm. That's right, this DX lens might actually be the 14-24mm FX lens that accepts filters! Of course, I don't expect the same edge performance...
Desert Island Full of Photographers...
May 10--Be careful what you wish for. When I posted my Desert Island Lenses article I asked for your choices. I hope that I see the bottom of my In Box again. I've processed as many of these as I could into a separate User Experience article, which you'll find here.
The Missing Test
May 6--Originally I had hoped to post a test of the low-cost Korean 85mm f/1.4 along with my Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D review. Unfortunately, as I got deep into the testing, I discovered that my Bower 85mm sample had a clear manufacturing defect that precluded it from getting consistent or accurate exposures. Pity. Other than the fact it didn't work, the build quality seems quite good ;~). Optically, I was only able to accurately test at f/1.4, where it is slightly softer in the center and corner than all other 85mm's I've used, shows significantly more vignetting than the Nikkor that I just completed testing, but has about the same distortion numbers (i.e. nearly none). I'm not going to retest it.
10-24mm Now in Stores
May 4--The Nikkor 10-24mm shipped last Friday to stores, which means it should be showing up today. This means that all Nikon announced products so far this year are currently available.
May 4--NikonUSA's rebates changed a bit on May 2nd. The D300 has dropped off the instant rebate bandwagon. While there are rumors that the D300 has been discontinued and the cancellation of rebates adds fodder to those, both the D300 and the D60 actually seem to be in short supply due to Nikon's previous production cutbacks coupled with slightly stronger than expected demand. That doesn't mean that a D400 couldn't appear soon (I still think August is more likely), but I don't think the paucity of D300 supply has to do with an imminent model change. When Nikon announces their yearly financial results later this month we'll have a better handle on new product timing, as it's usually reflected in their forward estimates and re-inforced by "whisper information" in the Japanese business press.
April 28--Nikon provided a quick snapshot of their expectations for their fiscal year just ended (they'll report on the year fully sometime next month). The bottom line: things turned out a bit better than their last forecast in February. How much better? 2.2% better net sales and 16.7% better net income. Nevertheless, Nikon saw about a 10% drop in overall sales from last year (and a far bigger drop in profit).
The footnote to the tables was interesting: imaging sales produced more revenue and profit than expected, while the precision equipment business is still deteriorating. Nikon is more and more becoming mostly a camera company.
April 28--Nikon Camera Control Pro version 2.5.0 was released, and now supports the recently introduced D5000. Likewise, the NEF Codec for Windows has been updated to version 1.7.0 and also supports the D5000. (Macintosh users have to wait for an OS support update from Apple.)
D5000 Now in Stores
April 27--Best Buy stores got a bit of a jump over the weekend for some reason, but the remainder of the US Nikon stores and outlets should have their D5000 kits in stock starting today.
April 23--Some recent imaging software updates of note:
- Pixelmator released version 1.4.1 which fixes some performance issues and adds a noise filter.
- DXO added 100 new correction modules to their DXO Optics Pro, including 22 new Nikon ones and handful of Fujifilm S5 Pro ones.
- Since I've been mentioning Nik's Silver Efex recently, I should point out that their Color Efex, Silver Efex, and Viveza products have been updated to support Lightroom 2.3.
- Iridient RAW Developer 1.8.3 makes a number of changes, including better D3x profiles, better white balance presets for Nikon bodies, recognition of Capture NX2 white balance changes, and GPS metadata export.
- Photomatix for Aperture has been introduced, giving Aperture users access to HDR facilities.
Thom's Grading Curve Just Got Harder
April 23 (updated)--Those of you who partake of the latest lens reviews I've posted will notice something: I'm getting tougher on my grading. I've prepared an article that dictates how I'm doing my lens ratings moving forward, and you'll find it here. Please note that these ratings only apply to lenses reviewed after 4/1/2009 at the moment. It'll take me a bit to go back and redo the ratings for the existing reviews. I'll let you know when that has happened. Also, I've provided a quick summary of my DX lens opinions with the consumer zooms re-rated using the new system.
April 15--Apples' Aperture goes to 2.1.3 with a significant fix for Nikon tethered shooting. The D40/D40x get a firmware update to allow correct use of the new EN-EL9a battery introduced with the D5000. The slightly more powerful battery should give a 10% or so boost to number of shots on the older cameras. And I've been fixing a number of typos and minor issues on this site (at present, I've updated 23 pages), and will continue to do this for the next week or so in order to get everything clean for a later move of the site to new servers.
D90 Gets a Mini-Me
April 14--As expected, Nikon has released a new consumer-level DSLR, this one positioned between the D60 and D90 and called the D5000. Think D60 with some D90 parts. The big differences between the D60 (for which I just posted my review) and the D5000 are:
- The D5000 gets the D90's 12mp sensor and supports the D90 video capability (720P, 24 fps).
- The D5000 gets the D90's CAM1000 autofocus sensor, but, like the D60, doesn't have an internal autofocus motor to drive older lenses.
- The D5000 gets a positionable color LCD, though it is a 2.7", 233k dot one (smaller and lower resolution than the D90's).
- The D5000 adds GP-1 GPS support the D60 doesn't have.
- A few additional wrinkles: 19 scene exposure modes, some new post processing wrinkles in the RETOUCH menu, exposure bracketing added.
While Nikon is touting this as a new camera positioned between the D60 and D90, this seems more like a refreshed D60 and an indication of the future of Nikon consumer DSLR naming (now with more numbers!) than anything else. I like the D60 and D90, so I'm sure I'll like the D5000 if Nikon hasn't broken anything in the translation.
DX Goes Wider
April 14--Along with the D5000 announcement comes a curious lens announcement, the 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S DX Nikkor. At US$899, it's the same price as the 12-24mm f/4g AF-S DX Nikkor, so it's not entirely clear whether the older lens will continue in the lineup. If you want the specs for the lens, they're in my Nikkor DB.
The Modern FM2
April 9--For a long time the gripe has been that there isn't the modern equivalent of the FM2 (or FM2n, or FM3, or fill-in-the-blank from Nikon's long legacy of small manual cameras). While you can't get quite to the same all-metal body build quality in digital, if what you're looking for is small, light, manual control, you can do it today. My recipe:
- D60 (or D5000) body with Katz Eye focus screen. Small, light, competent, with good image quality. With a Katz Eye installed, you're ready for:
- Voigtländer 20mm f/3.5. Really small, really good on DX.
- Optional: 35mm f/1.8G DX Nikkor or 30mm f/1.4 Sigma HSM. Both are fine lenses and would make a nice "normal."
- Voigtländer 40mm f/2. Incredibly small, incredibly good on DX.
- Tamron 60mm f/2 Macro. Not yet out yet, but if it's anything like the old Tamron macro standby (90mm f/2.8), it'll be just fine.
- Optional: If you really need more reach, either the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D or the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 will do just fine in manual focus. But for lots of reach, the Voigtländer 180mm f/4 is the choice. Again, really small, really good.
Keep the 18-55mm VR kit lens for when you need all automation, and you've got the small, light, total control kit. The whole thing fits in an incredibly small bag with a bit of planning. I can fit everything mentioned above, all the optional items including my laptop, into a ThinkTank Urban Disguise 50 and still have room for more (may I suggest an SB-600?).
Still, I wish Nikon would do the right thing: take the D60 and offer a version with the following attributes:
- Sturdier build ala the FMs.
- Viewfinder optimized for manual focus. (Live View helps, but isn't a perfect solution.)
- Support for AI and AI-S via a CPU setting feature, ala the bigger cameras.
- Add a real mirror lockup.
That's it. Those little things are worth several hundred dollars to many of us. I believe there's enough market and enough profit margin to justify producing it. But if you really want to distinguish it and grab a market no one else is in, take out the Bayer and AA filter. A 10 mp monochrome camera done right resolves better than a 14mp Bayer camera. Add a user-selectable IR filter and you've created nirvana for a huge group of photographers. And it probably comes at no expense to your regular markets, as for almost everyone who wants one of what I describe, we one of your mainstream cameras, too. It's called growth, Nikon. Get it before someone else does.
Capture NX2 Update Appears
April 1--NikonUSA has posted the update to Capture NX2, version 2.2.0. The main attributes of this release are NRW support (for the Coolpix P6000), axial chromatic aberration correction, and linear distortion correction.
More Reader Experiences
Mar 31--I continue to update the user repair experiences page, but my comments last week about foul weather use of a Nikon have provoked another set of reader responses, so I've added a user weather experiences page.
A Look Backward
Mar 30--As part of a project that I'm working on, I've just spent a lot of time in my digital image archives, which pretty much covers the full spectrum of Nikon mount DSLRs since the D1 appeared. A common question I get via email is "if I were to buy a used Nikon body, which one should I purchase?" Well, I think I have a pretty good handle on that answer today.
First, I'm going to remove from contention all DSLRs that can be bought new, so the D40, D60, D90, D300, D700, D3, and D3x all are not considered in my comments. That leaves the Nikon D1, D1h, D1x, D2h/D2hs, D2x/D2xs, D100, D200, D40x, D50, D70, D70s, D80, Fujifilm S1, S2, S3, S5, and the Kodak Pro 14n, SLR/n. Of those, I'd say there really are only six that truly make the grade and provide image quality good enough to consider against some of the current Nikon offerings: the D40x, D200, D2h/D2hs, D2x/D2xs, S5 Pro, and SLR/n. And of the ones that stood out, only two really distinguish themselves, but only when shot optimally (which means keeping the ISO at or near base): the D2x/D2xs and the SLR/n.
And I mean stand out and distinguish themselves. It isn't just that the D2x/D2xs and SLR/n have more pixels than some of the others, like the classic D100 or D70. It's that small things like micro contrast make it obvious when one of those images come up on my screen. The Achilles heel of these cameras is different: the D2x/D2xs just stops being very usable above ISO 400, while the SLR/n is very lens sensitive. But at base ISO with the right lens, both produce shots that'll hold their own against anything except a D3x.
At the other extreme, the D100 and D1x stand out as cameras that had clear issues that I can pick out quickly. That's not to say that I don't have any excellent images from those two cameras, but in direct comparison they just wouldn't be my first choice. The D100 had noise issues even at the base ISO (especially skies, meaning it was a channel noise issue), and produces soft JPEGs; the D1x tends to have very muddy shadow detail (micro contrast is fair overall, but poor in shadows).
So, if you're looking for bargains and don't need high ISO much, the D2x/D2xs would be my choice amongst used offerings. The D200 is probably the best "bargain" amongst the group due to its all around decent image quality, and you can find new in box samples of this camera for substantially less than you'd pay for a new D90; the D200 performs quite well overall. So much so that I had one converted to IR and it's my main IR camera now.
Another way of looking at things is "is it time to upgrade?" Here, I'll look at each body and make a judgment about whether it's time to move to a newer generation:
- D1, D1h, D1x: yes, to any of the FX bodies.
- D2h, D2hs: yes, to a D3 for more pixels, better really high ISO values; otherwise no.
- D2x, D2xs: no, unless you're moving to a D3x or need high ISO regularly.
- D100: yes, to a D300.
- D200: no; I'd wait for a D400.
- D40: if you need more pixels, yes, to a D60; otherwise no.
- D40x: no; present bodies don't provide enough more unless you move upwards in the lineup (e.g. D300).
- D50: yes, to a D60. (But note you may lose AF on some lenses, which may bring you back to no.)
- D70, D70s: yes, to a D90.
- D80: probably, to a D90.
- S1, S2: yes, to almost anything from a D90 up.
- S3, S5: yes, to a D700.
- Pro 14n, SLR/n: no, unless you need high ISO (D700) or lots more pixels (D3x).
A Step Backward
Mar 30--NikonUSA has apparently outsourced most of their customer support, as I'm receiving quite a few comments and complaints about what now happens when you call the Nikon technical support hot line. (Note to NikonUSA: you might want to invest in English lessons and a spell checker for your Internet responses. The text of responses I've been copied on lately by users is, to put it politely, embarrassing.) It appears that not only are the new folk not exactly fully up to speed on Nikon equipment, but they're also not linked into any of NikonUSA's customer databases, don't have familiarity with many of the high-end products (DSLRs, etc.), and have no easy way of escalating things to someone who might have the answer.
I was criticized late last year by many on the net about my comments that Nikon needed to up their support game if they expected people to pay US$7999 for a new DSLR (the D3x). But, if anything, the situation is now worse, and it has the potential to impact everyone using Nikon equipment in the US. I watched a lot of personal computer companies play this game when the market got saturated and the economy got tight, and the ones that made the most cutbacks on customer support are no longer with us.
And yes, I'm going to harp about Nikon marketing again. Marketing is all about customer perception. The perception right now for Nikon users in the US is that prices have gone up and service has gone down. For example, NikonUSA was the last to get downloads for the latest software up on their site, and some of us had trouble getting them initially. Why is it that the country that's currently nearing 40% of Nikon Imaging's sales is making steps backward?
It doesn't have to be this way, and it shouldn't. Fortunately for Nikon their products are good and their competition hasn't knocked the product or customer service ball out of the park yet. Perhaps there's a belief at Nikon that they can just ride things out. But cameras below the D300 level have become commodities now. The great companies rise above commodity levels with their products, and they do that with both great products and great support. Nikon's playing with half a deck right now, and all it takes is a product miscue or two and they won't have many cards left. Putting product support for everything from a US$100 to a US$7999 camera in the hands of an outside group is not a smart move, IMHO.
I know times are tough--we're all seeing the economy hitting us in ways that hurt. But I fear that a lot of companies are using the econolypse as an excuse to take the easy ways out, to prune where they don't necessarily need it, and to cover up real cutbacks to customers. My experience is that cutting once is just a prelude to cutting again and again until there's nothing left to cut. Businesses require growth and forward movement to thrive. What I'm seeing from Nikon, especially here in the US, is exactly the opposite: a clear step backward.
I'll reiterate the point I made when the D3x came out: provide real support, even if you have to charge for it, and the user base will be happy. Keep the current trajectory going, and the entire user base will be unhappy. Simple as that.
Want to be the preeminent camera maker in the world, Nikon? Then use the recession as a time to up your game. Everyone else is cutting back. Don't join them, rebel! Be the company that showed everyone what to really do when the times are tough.
What Goes Up...
Let's see, first the dollar had the worst year against the yen, now the yen has had the worst month against the dollar. The currency exchange guys are losing hair rapidly, I think. However, after seeing price hikes in the 15-20% range for Nikkor lenses due to currency changes when the yen appreciated 24% against the dollar, don't you think it's about time to see the flip side of that with the dollar having rebounded 9.2%? I do. If the currency reversal stays for even a short period of time, I think we'll see the return of lens rebates out of NikonUSA. I don't think we'll see price drops because the volatility of the currency rates is very high still; we'll see short-term rebates on products that have experienced inventory build-ups is my guess. And soon.
Mar 26-- It appears that Nikon Japan jumped the gun on something. They've had a post about a new version of Capture NX2 (that supports the Coolpix NRW file format) on their site for a couple of days now, but the update did not appear on the subsidiary sites nor has the update itself appeared. This is a head-scratcher. Normally, I'd say such a delay might imply that a new camera is about to pop and the update was delayed so that the camera would have raw file support from day one. But then how do we explain the new version of ViewNX, which also would need an update?
Tamron 60mm Macro
Mar 25--Tamron has introduced an interesting lens, the 60mm f/2 SP Di-II Macro. I say interesting because it is exactly a DX equivalent of a very popular long-time full-frame favorite, the 90mm f/2.8. To be exactly equivalent, a lens has to have a 1.5x reduction of focal length (90 / 1.5 = 60) and a stop faster aperture (f/2 is a stop faster than f/2.8). Those two things are required to allow you to frame the same and get the same depth of field choices. We often get a lot of "near equivalents" of traditional lenses, but this is pretty much an exact equivalent.
So what's the excitement about? Well, the old Tamron 90mm was a dual-purpose lens. It was an inexpensive macro lens that was quite sharp for that use (see the end of my Nikon 105mm VR review for a mini-review), and it was a reasonable portrait lens choice as it was just a bit soft at normal distances at f/2.8. If the new lens emulates these traits, it, too, will become a low-cost cult favorite.
There are a couple of things not to like. The working distance is a small 100mm (about four inches), a bit less than the original, which was already tight in working distance. Also, the deep indent to the front element on the original acted as a secondary lens hood: the original was nearly impervious to flare issues, even without the hood attached. The new version has a front element right up at the front of the lens, so needs the lens hood in place. Still, this looks like a welcome addition to the miniscule DX prime lens lineup available. We now have a usable 35mm f/1.8 from Nikon and a 60mm f/2 from Tamron. We still need two more wides to round out a solid DX prime set (e.g. 17mm f/4 DX and 24mm f/2 DX). (If you don't mind manual focus, the Voightlander 20mm f/3.5 is an interesting alternative for the time being.) Telephoto options don't really need DX, so I don't expect to see much design action there; most expected future telephotos would cover FX as well as DX.
Nikon Software Updates
Mar 25--View NX and Transfer got minor updates (to 1.3 and 1.4 respectively). View NX now supports Coolpix P6000 NRW files, GPS support has been enhanced, a number of revert and restore options have been added, plus several small changes, fixes, and additions are also present in the update. Transfer changes include some additions for Picturetown users, and some clarifications of what happens with file names and a strange new quirk that disables some of the automatic after transfer options if you've elected to transfer new photos only.
Mar 20--Tokina has quietly announced a 16.5-135mm DX lens to be available in late spring. DxO Optics Pro version 5.3.3 Elite now supports the D3x.
Post PMA Blues
Mar 20--With nothing new on the Nikon horizon other than the release of the latest Coolpix brood to the wild, it seems that virtually anything that's said gets blown up into "news" proportions. The interview with Nikon Imaging's marketing director by DC Watch (a Japanese Web site) is an example, even though it didn't really say anything newsworthy. Nikon is still developing DSLR cameras at basically the same rate, the direction is basically what you'd guess. The translations and summations I've seen actually attribute more to the words than was spoken.
One question I get a lot lately relates to this, though: will the camera companies cut back on R&D? The answer to that is no, they will not. First, development for many products, especially the higher end ones, is a multiyear process, thus any really substantive change to R&D wouldn't normally be felt for more than a generation of camera. The Japanese camera companies have been through down cycles before, and they realize that cutting back R&D actually makes it tougher to recover when the market eventually heats up again.
What does happen sometimes is that the roll-out of a product in development is moved from its original timing. This can work both ways. Sometimes the roll-out is moved up because the thought is that a new product will improve short-term sales. But more normally the product will be moved slightly further out for launch to a time, situation, or platform where the company thinks they can get more promotion.
The question is this: what's that platform going to be? For example, Japan's Photo Imaging Expo is coming up starting on the 26th. Could the Japanese companies like Nikon withhold an announcement at PMA simply to do one a few weeks later at a local show in order to save some money? Perhaps. The Japanese Camera Industry Association also runs a show in spring each yer that could provide the same type of benefit. Note that Japanese market camera sales are down substantially. I'm pretty sure that the camera makers want to do something to help revive the local market, so I wouldn't be surprised to see low-to-midrange offerings to be done with some sort of local announcement at PIE or JCIA.
That said, I still think we're not going to see another DSLR from Nikon until May or June, and that is most likely to be a low-end replacement for the D40 and maybe the D60. For more sophisticated cameras (e.g. D400), I still say that late summer is a more likely time period. Of Nikon's 21 DSLR announcements, 6 have been in the first quarter, 4 in the second quarter (which we're about to enter), 7 in the third quarter (all D80 or higher), and 4 in the last quarter of the year.
How Sealed is Weather Sealed?
Mar 20--A common question I get concerns the weather seals on Nikon's equipment. The usual question concerns whether the pro-level bodies can be used in rain, snow, and sleet. Probably for legal reasons, Nikon seems to no longer publish their specifications for ingress rejection. I seem to remember somewhere that it was about a quarter inch of rain an hour, but don't quote or trust me on that; my point is that Nikon has some level of expectation of what the cameras can resist. The issue has always been trying to figure out how that works in real life.
I can only tell you about my experience. But shooting bison last month in Yellowstone, at one point I left my camera for a few minutes and this was the result:
In case it isn't obvious, we're in near white-out conditions (thus the lack of background when the camera is properly exposed). Here's a closer look at a portion of the picture (50% view):
And, yes, the camera still functions fine. I did, however, dry it off immediately upon re-entering the snow coach, and I did a thorough cleaning that evening just to make sure there was no lingering moisture.
My rule of thumb on the Nikon pro equipment has always been this: if I can keep the eyepiece and lens free from moisture and condensation enough to frame and focus, then the camera is likely to survive whatever it is I'm shooting in. If I'm having to clear the lens and eyepiece at regular intervals to keep shooting, I'll put the camera and lens in some sort of protection (usually my lightweight Kata waterproof bag). Normally, it's the lens that stops me. In blowing or heavy rain you just can't keep the front element of the lens clean enough to keep taking pictures. The only way to shoot in that kind of situation is via heavy-duty rain covers, ones that extend well out past the front of even the lens hood.
All that said, my recommendation to you is tougher. I've seen LCDs get damaged by even light drizzle on the D200 through D700 type bodies (water seeps in behind the outer glass), and I've heard of NikonUSA rejecting repairs on weather-sealed cameras that show corrusion inside. It's not that difficult or expensive to get some inexpensive protection. I usually have a lightweight non-camera specific rain cover clipped to my bag (Tamrac, Tenba, and others make inexpensive models, many of which come with small carrying pouches that can be easily clipped to the bag), and I can always use the rain cover for my Think Tank bag in an emergency (assuming, of course, that I can keep the bag itself in a vehicle or out of the rain). If it's more than mist (i.e. even a light drizzle), I'd recommend you use a simple cover like these. Also, if the mist is not pure water (e.g. sea spray or volcanic mist), I'd suggest that you use protection. Better safe than sorry. Corrosion inside the camera can be very expensive to repair (if it can be done at all).
Ditto for lenses. On my long lenses (that's the 400mm f/2.8 in the shot, above) I keep LensCoats on them, which helps, but once the moisture is constant I'll usually put on my heavy duty Aquatech cover.
Maybe you're worried about less weather worthy cameras, such as the Canon G10:
Similar answer, with a twist. The G10 seems to survive the elements well, except the lens is very vulnerable when extended.
Bottom line: carry protection and use it.
Tamron Next to Raise Prices
Mar 3--In the US, Tamron has let dealers know that they will be raising lens prices on March 20th in the US. The increases seem to range from 5 to 11%. The yen appreciation against the dollar is cited as the cause.
Nikon at PMA
Mar 3--As I hinted at last month, there are no new Nikon DSLR announcements at PMA. If I were a betting person, I'd put the highest odds on June being the date for the next significant announcements from Nikon, but there's an outside chance that we'll get something announced sooner than that.
PMA Related Announcements of Relevance
Mar 3--The mood at PMA (the Photo Marketing Association trade show held early each year) has been somewhere between somber and subdued. With so many retailers disappearing, trade reps being let go, and prices going the wrong way during a recession, there isn't much to be happy about.
Product-wise, there isn't much new for the Nikon faithful. Here's the primary things of interest at the moment:
- Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 EX DC HSM. Essentially a new version of the lens I've been using for some time at the wide end for DX. Unfortunately, we lose as much as we gain (faster, fixed aperture). The lens is now 82mm for the front threads and focuses a little further away. Thom rating: not exciting unless it's performance in the corners is better than the one it replaces.
- Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8-4.5 DC OS HSM. Sigma's version of the low-end kit lens. Basically the draw is a faster aperture (compare to the Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6). Focuses with the D40/D40x/D60 bodies and has stabilization. Thom rating: not exciting, but I'm happy we have another option here.
- Sigma 50-200mm f/4-5.6 DC OS HSM. Sigma's version of the telephoto kit lens. Focuses with the D40/D40x/D60 bodies and has stabilization. Thom rating: definitely not exciting, but again, nice to have another low-end option.
- Lightroom 2.3 and Camera Raw 5.3 have shipped (no longer beta). Supports D3x. Thom rating: a little over two months from camera ship to full Adobe support is too much (blame Nikon, not Adobe), but this restores many photographer workflows to normal so I'm happy.
- Apple Digital Camera RAW Compatibility 2.5 is available. Supports D3x. Thom rating: nice to see Apple a little tighter on getting support out than previously; again, restores many photographer workflows to normal.
- LensBaby .42x adapter. If you've got a recent LensBaby and want to do wide angle with it, this is what you want, as it takes you to 21mm and lets you now blur over really wide angles of view ;~). Thom rating: too wide, I think, but finally gives us a useful option.
- Coolpix P6000 firmware update 1.2. Bug fixes plus a power consumption improvement. Thom rating: download and install it immediately.
High End Compact, Low End DSLR?
Mar 3--It seems to me that every camera company has turned their attention on the middle ground between compacts and DSLRs. The basic compact cameras are now commodities, require updating every year, have extremely low price (and profit) points, and are selling in lower numbers now than last year. There's not enough room for everyone to play in that market. I expect long term we'll see only six viable makers in that arena (Sony, Canon, Panasonic, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Samsung), and only two or three of them will be profitable.
In the traditional DSLR realm, the barrier to entry is now high and the volume growth is all gone. Sales outlets are disappearing and prices (and thus profit) are under extreme pressure. I expect we'll end up with four viable DSLR makers long term: Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Panasonic/Olympus.
But the area between these two seems to be where the current action is at. Basically the segment between the Coolpix S6xx/S7xx and the D60 is what seems to be the current design target for everyone. I can't think of a company that isn't pursuing this. Two basic thrusts seem to leading the way: (1) DSLR-like small sensor designs with a fixed lens of considerable range (the Pentax X70 just announced hits 26-624mm); and (2) mirrorless removable lens systems with big sensors (right now only Panasonic, Olympus, and Samsung are showing any, but they won't be the last).
The way I see it, neither of those choices give you low-end DSLR performance. The all-in-one designs have sensors that are too small (though I'll admit that I've been impressed with Fujifilm's S100FS, which has the best sensor performance of any I've tried). Both types use contrast based focusing systems, which just don't have the snap of even a D60 with the 18-55mm. What both do give you is a smaller size and weight for a complete package (though not always by much).
Meanwhile, there are quite a few reasonable-sized niches that simply are going unserved. The camera companies all seem to think that only markets with the most unit volume are worth pursuing, and frankly, more than a few are going to get burnt by that. A recession is a perfect time to innovate and fill those niches, yet I see no real evidence that anyone is doing so (the Panasonic G1 and Samsung NX notwithstanding; they are the closest we've got to innovating into a niche we've got).
I was with a half dozen other photographers for the last week in a snow coach in Yellowstone. What struck me then and has been on my mind for a long time now is how much we serious shooters have been complaining about what we're offered. The cameras we get these days are often too much (in terms of complexity, size, and price). Cameras we'd buy in a heartbeat don't exist (e.g. black and white). Things that have been wrong with our camera systems for a long time are still wrong--doesn't matter if you're a Canon, Nikon, or Sony shooter--as if the makers haven't actually heard a thing their customers have said. What I see everywhere in the industry is extension of what has been done in the past, and virtually no rethinking about how it could be better done differently.
As a long-time veteran of Silicon Valley, I recognize that for what it is: opportunity. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing anyone that can do something about it jumping at the opportunity. (Before I get a flood of emails about RED, let me just say that while there's innovation there, it's not well directed, IMHO. It's still too early to tell since all that seems to exist are drawings and marketing hype from the billionaire owner, but what I've seen to date looks far too cumbersome to supplant DSLRs, and a bit self-indulgent to boot.)
Thus, I, too, am somber and subdued about the camera market. But not because of the economy like most of those attending PMA. Instead, I'm saddened to see that the camera market is getting more and more like the car market and less and less like the high tech industry that revolutionized things in my working life and which I was proud to be part of.
Yes, there will be more Nikon DSLRs this year. As far as I can tell, all three of them will be extensions of the current philosophies. As such, they'll be competitive with the offerings of the other companies, but they won't be what I've been looking for.
Bythom Site News
Feb 16--I've got two new consumer zoom reviews for you today, and I'll have more soon. My goal is to try to get all the many consumer DX lens reviews done first, so that's what you'll see initially, including some third party lenses. I'm trying to balance all the things I'm working on, so the remaining pending lens reviews, including the FX ones, will probably dribble out over the next two months. Thanks to my assistant Anthony for getting the image prep done. Hopefully he'll stay ahead of me and not become another bottleneck like me.
I've also updated my NikonUSA warranty page. Besides tweaking the information, I've added a three-item Nikon User Bill of Rights that really needs to be addressed by Nikon corporate. If they're serious about "Meeting needs, exceeding expectations" as their corporate vision, it's about time they met some real needs and even simply gave lip service to some real expectations.
The Bottom Line
Feb 16--The economy still occupies the minds of many, as evidenced by many postings on the various fora, the messages in my In Box, and complaints about things like Nikonians now charging for accounts and Nikon raising prices.
Much of the complaining is just frustration, and to a lesser degree a lack of understanding about what is going on. I understand frustration. So go ahead and let it out, then quickly move on. Anything else is just asking for a stress attack.
One common theme among the complaints is "I'm cutting back, so why are prices going up?" After all, conventional wisdom says lower demand should generate lower prices. The short answer is this: what you need to do to survive the current economy and what someone else needs to do (say, Nikon) may be different. And to some degree, these things may be at odds with one another. The appreciation of the yen has been a double whammy for the Japanese companies, as it makes dealing with the falling demand even tougher. But Japan isn't alone in this. US exports are suffering, too, as our currency is appreciating against a lot of currencies, too.
Here in the US it's a little easier to see Nikon's strategy for surviving the downturn than it is elsewhere. Basically, Nikon raised prices the most (to adjust for currency fluctuations) on lenses that were in short supply and in high demand. They did not raise prices on camera bodies and most consumer items, regardless of demand. In no case did they raise prices enough to fully match the currency slide. Thus, it appears to me that they've chosen to bring down demand on the short supply speciality items and absorb losses on the mainstream products. Yet, even with that in mind, they are projecting that they'll sell about half the unit volume this quarter compared to last year's comparable quarter, partly because there are many economies where they had to do across-the-board price increases to keep from losing money on every sale (the UK, for example). Will they have to adjust more? Who knows for sure, but probably. This recession will be long and deep, and at this point it appears that you can't make a single adjustment that'll get you through it.
But that's what Nikon is doing. The real question is what are you doing? The answer to that question depends upon whether you rely upon photography for your income (i.e. are a professional), use photography as your primary escape or hobby (the so-called prosumer or serious amateur), or are just casually interested in photography. It also depends upon whether your economic fundamentals are in good shape or bad.
Let's assume for a moment that you're a serious amateur that doesn't have much debt, that your job is reasonably safe (though your annual raises and bonuses are gone), that you have some savings for a safety valve, and that photography is primary non-job outlet. Has anything really changed for you? Sure, that 200-400mm f/4 lens you wanted just got more expensive and will take a little longer to save up for (remember, you're basically economically sound). But this summer's trip to Yellowstone probably got a little less expensive, too. Now's a good time to make sure that your skill sets and knowledge are up to snuff, and that you're using your current gear optimally. But realistically, the slower economy just slowed you down in gear purchases, which frankly, isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The working pro's big issue with the economy is keeping and adding clients while trying to hold the line on discounts. If you give into the demands for lower prices and charge less, you either have to make it up with more work or you have to accept that you'll bill less this year. But it should be obvious that your primary focus this year needs to be on your marketing and sales. Not just the quantity of them, but the quality of those two things. Don't wait for the clients to call you; call them and find out what they need, then try to figure out how to give it to them. Like the serious amateur, the working pro is also likely to slow down their gear purchases. Indeed, it isn't better gear that will get you through the downturn, it's better client relations.
That leaves the more casual, low-end photographer: the group that can take-it-or-leave-it completely. Now it should make more sense why the Nikon low-end products didn't change price here in the US and continue (mostly) to have the pre-Christmas incentives in effect: these folk aren't committed to photography, per se, thus raising prices on them will absolutely make them go away. As it is, a lot of them will go away until their paychecks get bigger and they know what their home is worth.
Are Nikon's US tactics the right ones? Hard to say, though it does seem as if they're in better shape than some of their competitors at the moment. As I noted above, however, getting through this recession isn't going to take one change in business practices. We'll certainly see Nikon make other adjustments as we get further into the downturn. Those adjustments may or may not be the ones you want, though, as Nikon is having to adjust globally and in Japan, and you, only locally (and likely not in Japan if you're reading this).
If I had to read the tea leaves, though, I'd say this: Nikon will certainly have more DSLR models and lenses coming, probably in spring. (Okay, I'll go further: we'll see a low-end DSLR to replace the D40 and eventually D60, and a high-megapixel FX DSLR to compete with the 5DII better in spring, along with three more lenses; later in the year we'll see a D400 to replace the D300.) I don't see Nikon stopping the product stream or even slowing product cycles. If anything, recessions reward companies that can innovate in downturns and that don't turn off their product pipeline. I also think we'll see a return of instant rebates on targeted items as it becomes clearer to NikonUSA which items still move at the higher prices and which are piling up too fast.
The New Normal
Feb 9--Today Nikon finally introduced the lens that should have been available ten years ago: a basic fast prime for DX. I was amused by the press release quote: "...natural focal length that has been the staple of photography since its inception." Unless, of course, you were a DX user for the past decade, that is. Perhaps Nikon finally got tired of seeing Sigma selling so many 30mm lenses to D40, D40x, and D60 users.
Officially, this new lens is the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX. There's nothing especially exciting about the specs other than the US$199 price. The lens is basically what you'd expect, with perhaps the exception of only a rounded seven blade aperture opening (NikonUSA's press release says nine, incorrectly). Available in March.
This new lens officially cancels the "any DX prime" entry on my Waiting for Nikon list, however I've renamed it to "any DX wide angle prime" as we're still waiting for something wider than 35mm.
Nikons at PMA?
We're getting close to PMA and the question many are asking is what DSLRs will Nikon launch at PMA. My guess at an answer is "none." I'm guessing that we won't see another camera introduction from Nikon until late Spring at the earliest. The DX lens introduction just made doesn't make sense as a separate announcement if there is another DX body imminent. That leaves only FX bodies as a potential announcement at PMA, and it seems a little too soon for another one.
Nikon Financial News
Feb 5--Nikon has reported their third quarter financial results (Oct-Dec 2008), and the news isn't as grim as many companies have reported, but is still not the kind of news you want to see. Overall, Nikon remains profitable through their fiscal year, but had a small loss in the third quarter. The Precision division (semiconductor equipment) was the major contributor to that loss, as was a loss on investment securities. The Imaging division (cameras, lenses) still was profitable.
But the numbers are still disturbing. While Nikon sold more cameras and lenses than last year, profits were considerably down. Some of this was pricing pressures due to competition, some of it was due to the "sharp appreciation of the yen."
In the 3rd quarter (again, October to December of last year), Nikon sold 1.05m DSLRs, 1.42m lenses, and 2.79m Coolpix. DSLR body and lens volume was up 23% and 18% over the previous year's third quarter, respectively. Coolpix volume was up only 3% over last year's numbers. But the grim part of the forward forecast was this: "estimated net sales of [the current quarter] will drop to half" that of the previous year. All those folks saying that Nikon's price increases would drop demand: well, Nikon is expecting demand to drop in half. As I wrote in at least one post elsewhere, I didn't think that Nikon would raise prices due to the currency fluctuation and expect demand to remain near normal. The comment at their results presentation seems to confirm that. I had guessed that Nikon could sustain a 50% drop in demand at the new pricing and remain profitable. I'm off by a little bit: Nikon's prediction is a slight loss, though apparently some of that loss has to do with furloughing production capability.
Inventories are up a bit, though Nikon says they expect the camera and lens inventories to be back down to "normal" levels by the end of March. Nikon expects to lose money in the Imaging division for the current quarter, by the way, due to "deterioration of Cost of Sales ratio because of production adjustment."
Nikon's new estimates of market share for their entire fiscal year (ends March 31, 2009) are 35% of the DSLR market, 46% of the interchangeable lens market, and 9% of the compact camera market.
At least one reader asked me if Nikon would stop R&D in the current environment. They have indeed scaled back on some R&D, though it continues to run at historic highs as a percentage of sales.
One thing to watch: Nikon is now working with the assumption that the yen will be 90 to the dollar, and 115 to the Euro (the old numbers were 95 and 125). If the yen stabilizes at these numbers for awhile, prices should remain at the new current levels or even drop if demand goes down. If the dollar and/or Euro recover against the yen, we'll see rebates again. But if the yen continues to appreciate, as some expect, prices may not yet have reached a peak. So, here in the US, take a peak at the yen/dollar exchange rate from time to time. From 87-93 probably means no change in pricing other than due to demand. Outside that range likely means pricing changes. But Nikon warned: "calm-down of yen appreciation in the short term is not expected." Echoing my "bumpy year" post a couple of weeks ago, Nikon expects "stormy weather will continue" in the foreseeable future.
The Biannual Coolpix Refresh (or is it Restale?)
Eight new Coolpix, no new excitement. In the low-end Life (L) series, we get updates of the L16 and L18 (the new L19 and L20, respectively). For some reason, Nikon thinks these cameras will compete without almost any wide angle ability (41mm and 38mm respectively). The L100 is something new and seems at least a little better positioned and featured, almost like a P80/P90 baby brother. All three new L cameras use AA batteries. Still, I think Panasonic will continue to move forward in market share against Coolpix in this category.
In the middle we have the Style (S) series updates. The S210 gets replaces by the S220 and the S610 by the S620. The S230 and S630 seem to be slightly new branches of the line, though they might simply be a modest repositioning of an existing product to see if it holds more traction than previous or current models.
Finally, at the Performance (P) end we get the P90, which replaces the P80. Big news is more telephoto zoom (now 24x!). Still no raw.
Overall, not an impressive set of updates. In a lot of cases I see trimming of costs or features. Battery lives on some of the cameras are somewhat down (the P90 battery life is only about four-fifths of its predecessor for some odd reason). "Rounded" seems to be a new design theme as each new generation of Coolpix seems to lose more of their previously boxy shapes in some way or another.
I'm seeing nothing in this batch of Coolpix to get excited about. Nikon's been just to the lower side of average for almost all their compact cameras for quite some time now, and this set of launches does nothing to change that. That really leaves them competing on price, which is, of course, still eroding in this market. Personally, I like what Panasonic is doing best. There's more innovation and performance in the latest series of Panny compacts than I see in, oh, the last three generations of Coolpix. Nikon has about 9% of the compact market, and I just don't see that budging much, if any.
Review Do Over
Jan 26--I've completely rewritten my D3x review. Why, you ask? Because it became clear that the original camera I received was sub-par in more than one way. As I compared my results with other pros, I found that many things we agreed on, but some things didn't seem the same between my camera and theirs.
In particular, noise levels on my original D3x were not the same as three other bodies I've now tested against. That amp noise I saw, for example, wasn't present in the other three bodies. Moreover, when I received a replacement D3x via my dealer, it was clear that the noise levels I measured on it were better than the original body I received. This sample variation has forced me to go back and retest everything, then rewrite the review.
I've already heard from more people with problems with their D3x than I heard from people with D3 problems the first month it was out. Considering that the number of D3x bodies that have shipped is considerably lower than the number of D3 bodies that shipped in the same time period, this isn't a good sign. Let's hope that my experience and that of others I've heard from are a short-term anomaly or just a result of the higher price producing more complaints.
Jan 26 (updated)--I'm working on catching up errata on the Web site this week. I've added the D3 Guide and D90 Guide errata pages and updated the D700 Guide page. I'll continue to work on others as I get time.
Nikon Updates D700, D3 Firmware
Jan 20--The D3 firmware has been updated to 2.0.1, and the D700 firmware to 1.0.1. Many of the changes are small fixes or naming to conform the cameras to the naming used for functions or places in the other current Nikon DSLRs. But there are a few functional changes to note: the behavior of the AF-ON button during image review is changed (it now cancels image review, as does the D3x), low light autofocus performance has been improved for continuous servo AF, and the dreaded black dots of Long Exp NR have been banished. Also, a critical bug with AF tracking on the D700 has been fixed. The updates should now be available on the Nikon Web sites worldwide.
Jan 20--PMA is six weeks away, and I'll be attending this year. I'm considering doing some sort of daily report from the show, so let me know what it is you want to hear about and what questions you want answered and I'll see what I can do.
But the interesting thing is that we haven't yet heard any believable rumors about new products to be introduced at PMA by Nikon. One would expect at least a D60 replacement, the usual half dozen biannual Coolpix, and a smattering of lenses. Nothing shockingly exciting in that list. I'll add one thing I fully expect: at least one new flash, probably a SB-900-inspired replacement for the SB-600 and, if a D60 replacement does show up, probably a replacement for the SB-400, too. Still, not very exciting.
The question on everyone's mind is the potential for a D300 replacement. Six months ago, I would have said, no, PMA is too soon for a D400. Today, I'm not so sure. Nikon certainly has motivation to introduce new DSLRs sooner rather than later. Why? Because of the currency changes. It's easier to mask currency-caused price increases if you have a state-of-the-art product to change price points with. That may explain the D3x price point, for example. Basically, Nikon needs to get the D300 model back up to the US$1799 price point and increase that price point by as close to 25-30% as possible to make up for the currency losses.
So a 14 or 15mp D400 with a few new wrinkles (1080i 24fps video anyone?) and superb image quality at somewhere from US$1999 to US$2299 would go a long way to shoring up a key product. But at those prices, it has to perform, and there's the conundrum: has their been enough time passed to have created a true D300-beater? Like the D3x is to the D3, a D400 would have to have enough additional pixels and better image quality at the base ISO to clearly hurdle over the D300 while re-establishing a price point. I haven't heard any specifics on the D300 replacement, so what I just wrote is informed speculation. In times of economic stress, you need to decrease your product cycle time and increase your product differentiation. That's a tall order.
Personally, if I had to place a bet, I'd say "late spring." There are three logical camera intro times: PMA, late spring, and early fall. (I should point out that this hasn't stopped Nikon from trying mid-summer and end-of-year more than once, probably due to schedule slippages.) PMA is where you stake competitive claims. If you've got the new goods that make the other companies' new goods look weak, you announce there and dominate the show talk. Buzz out of PMA can change the dealer buying and eventually the customer buying. Late spring is critical for father's day, graduation, and summer vacation sales. Early fall is critical for the ramp up to Christmas. The D400 seems like an important father's day and summer vacation camera, which is why I'd bet late spring if Nikon can pull it off.
Based upon past Nikon schedules, we really don't expect a D400 any sooner than fall, and maybe even not that early. The x00 DX models have iterated on what looks like a two-year product cycle to me. Since the D300 was introduced in August 2007 and shipped Thanksgiving week of that year, my guess would have been that the target would have been the same for a 2009 introduction of the D400: announce early fall, ship before Christmas.
But pushing that schedule up--as long as it doesn't harm the product quality--has to look really tempting to Nikon. It really would help get their product margins back in line.
Jan 20--From a reader: "I will NOT upgrade my D3, NOR buy the next one, even if it's a D700x or so. The LIFETIME of all these DSLR are VERY (too) short and quite impossible to resell for a reasonable price."
Therein lies the dilemma for both camera user and maker. We're headed towards an auto-like market, I think, where new model introductions are regular and predictable events, but only a fraction of the customers update each year. If, as I predict, the DSLR market has flattened and reached near peak size (~10m units a year), this implies a full penetration number of somewhere less than 50m units (possibly significantly less if more of those previously sold units were upgrades than I thought). Thus, if the total DSLR user base is 50m users and these folk update once every five years, the current sales volume will never improve. If they update every two-and-a-half years, the maximum annual sales is 20m units, roughly 2x the current volume.
But let's put that "five years" in perspective. That's roughly the time period from D100 (2002) to D300 (2007). I've long suggested that skipping a generation is the most logical update cycle for most users. For many DSLR models, that puts us at or near the five year mark, thus the 10m annual unit shipment mark wouldn't be budged unless something changes.
From a user standpoint, now that most DSLRs are capable of doing excellent work up to the maximum size of the desktop inkjets, the urge to update in the future is low. The number of users that need to print larger than 11x19" is few. The burden is thus on the camera makers. They have only a few choices to change volume in that scenario: shorten product cycles, increase product improvements each generation, or add/change things that attract new users to the DSLR world.
More Tethered Options
Jan 13--Breeze Systems now has reconfigured their tethered option into one package, NKRemote 1.0, which now also supports additional cameras: D90, D200, D300, D700, D3. Capture One 4.6 also now supports tethered cameras.
A Bit More on Expected US Price Increases
Jan 13--A little birdy tells me that NikonUSA actually has several changes coming in terms of pricing on, I think, February 1st. Most interesting is that lenses now all seem to have MAPs (minimum advertised prices). This is going to change the ball game almost as much as price changes, I think. And it seems to imply that we may see the same things with lenses that we saw with camera bodies in Q4 of 2008: periodic Nikon/dealer cooperative advertising with temporary instant rebates or other incentives. Also expect a lot of "add to cart for lower price" disclaimers.
Curiously, it doesn't seem Nikon is changing camera prices (though camera+lens kits should change). The price increase seems primarily targeted to lenses, and should typically be in the high teens in terms of percent at street prices. When you think about it, keeping camera prices steady but raising lens prices makes some sense. Cameras have very short sales lives and depreciate quickly, lenses don't. Moreover, many of those lenses have had the same list prices since the yen was 125 to the dollar (as I write this, we're at 91.3, a 27% drop).
The bottom line: if you've been putting off buying a lens, you might want to consider taking the plunge. I see a maze of twisty passages ahead.
Price Increases Ahead in US
Jan 12--I'm expecting at least Nikon lens and accessory prices to go up substantially in the US in the not too distant future. If you look at when some of these items were originally priced, Nikon has suffered very large product margin hits on many of these due to the currency exchange difference. I think it reasonable to expect a list price bump soon, then rebates again to move any inventory that sits around too long.
Ironically, here I am writing that I expect to see Nikon increase lens prices while at B&H we now have 10% instant rebates on the entire Sigma lens lineup (and free shipping for most of them, too). So what gives? Well, as I said in the last post, get ready for a bumpy ride. Inventories that have already piled up in the US due to our economic downturn need to be cleared. Incoming restocking of inventories need to be repriced to deal with the lower value of the dollar to the yen. Thus, we're currently seeing some deals that probably won't repeat soon.
Welcome to a Bumpy Year
Jan 5--The economic meltdown in 2008 that affected most of the known universe didn't seem to hurt a handful of companies much. Wal*Mart. McDonalds. And yes, Nikon. While Nikon is almost sure to report lower profits for the last quarter of 2008, it'll still be a reasonable profit on the imaging side and unit volume held up quite well. Here in the US, that was helped by a very aggressive coop marketing campaign with dealers during the holiday season.
The question is: will Nikon's unit volumes hold up in 2009? I think the answer is no. That's because we're on the front edge of what will be price increases. Nikon Australia, for instance, has already preannounced that they'll be raising prices next month, and some of those increases range in the 20-30% realm, which will certainly impact volume.
Here in the US I also expect price increases, too. Nikon's financials are currently based on a hedged relationship of 95 yen to the dollar. The actual values have been ranging from 88 up to 93 for since December 17th. If that continues, the implication is a 6% price increase is in our future. But when the current cameras were designed the yen/dollar relationship was more like 110. Indeed, part of the high D3x price may simply be a re-positioning manuever that gives Nikon more flexibility in an economic world where most currencies have dropped in value against the yen. Basically, if your currency is dropping in value against the yen, you're likely to see price increases in 2009.
The D3, and a lesser degree the D700, have seen price collapses in the US that indicate waning demand. Raising the price on them at this point would certainly lower demand. Fortunately, they're not high volume products, so lower demand there would have little impact on Nikon market share. The D90 and D300 have held price about as you'd expect for the point they're at in their life cycle. As I've always said, Nikon's forte is in the serious amateur and prosumer niche that these cameras serve, one that started way back with the N8008 and has produced solid hits with virtually every camera in the progression (I've updated my Nikon lineage chart, by the way, if you want to see the primary relationships over time of the Nikon bodies.) Still, I wonder how long D300 demand will flourish. It's not an inexpensive product, and with the holidays gone, you have to wonder what the demand for it will be between now and, say, summer vacations.
But it's the low end where Nikon needs the most change to get through 2009 healthily. The D40 is over two years old, and overdue for replacement. The D60 seems underspecified against the competition and not much of a step from the D40. And don't get me started on Coolpix models. Yet, most of Nikon's sales volume, and thus market share, comes from these cameras. Price increases here would be very problematic, especially without new models that meet or exceed expectations.
But never fear, PMA is just around the corner (first week of March). We'll get the usual Coolpix new model onslaught and, I hope, something new in the low-end DSLR game. But if the yen/dollar relationship continues, these things will either need to be increased in price to consumers or de-contented to reduce production cost. Given the economy worldwide, that doesn't bode well for sales in the first half of 2009. I suspect we'll see Nikon contract a bit in the first half of 2009.
And PMA is likely to be a less busy show than usual. Dealers are under pressure, and I'm more worried about their financial health than I have been for some time. I suspect quite a few will cut back on sending staff to Vegas for PMA, and they'll be ordering fewer products for inventory, at least for the short term.
Meanwhile, I've taken "Lens Production Meets Demand" off my Waiting for Nikon list (see left) after 15 months. While there are still some small scale shortages here and there, it appears that the economy has taken just enough demand out of the market that Nikon is producing just about at what the actual demand is. A few exotic lenses that get produced in very low volume (really large telephotos and PC-E lenses, for example) will likely come and go in and out of supply, but that's relatively normal behavior.
But readers of this site probably already have a good camera and a reasonable stash of lenses. From the D90 to the D3x, Nikon's current DSLRs are capable of producing excellent images, so if you're already an owner in that league, I suggest you pay a little less attention to gear this year and a lot more attention to getting everything you can from what you've got. I'd even add you D80, D200 and D2x owners to that list.
To that end, you'll see me try to address that a bit in some of my articles on this site. To get you started, check out what I wrote about my recent experience at Bosque del Apache. While I took my more exotic 200-400mm f/4 lens, I got a lot of excellent shots using just my D90 and 70-300mm VR. So put your energy a little less into worrying about whether you've got the "right" or "best" equipment and a little more into making sure you can maximize what you've got. It'll save you a few bucks this year and make you just as happy.
So, welcome to 2009. May your stay here be enjoyable.