2010 News and Comments

Items are copied here when I move them off the front page.

Front-page articles from 2009 are here
Front-page articles from 2008 are here
Front-page articles from 2007 are here
Older articles (2006 and earlier) are here

Time Heals all Internet Complaints
Dec 28 (commentary)--Just for the heck of it I've been doing a little informal study of several Internet forums. According to my latest weekly statistics, the D7000 now overexposes 78% less than it did two months ago, back focuses 70% less, and hot pixels are down an amazing 85%.

Say what?

It happens with virtually every new product release. A huge rash of complaints come almost immediately upon those first users receiving their cameras. Everyone rushes out and does random tests without first fully understanding the product, and they post "my D7000 overexposes" or "I see hot pixels" when they encounter something they don't understand or didn't expect. Hidden within all these complaints sometimes is a real issue (the P5000's tendency to punt on focus and put up a Lens Initialization error in some situations, or the hot pixels in D7000 video, for instance, both of which we have "firmware fixes" for already).

In the interest of getting those complaints down to 0% here are the real answers:

  • D7000 Overexposes. I haven't yet found one that does. Indeed, install a UniWB on the D7000 and you might decide the D7000 underexposes. The default camera settings set a very bright gamma, use high contrast settings, the camera has a too-bright LCD, and the metering isn't as aggressive in bringing down highlight detail in high contrast scenes like older Nikons. But the camera does not overexpose. Users overexpose.
  • Hot Pixels are a Problem on the D7000. Not on any I've tested. At exposures longer than a 1/15 of a second and shorter than one second at high ISO values, the D7000 often will produce some minor hot pixels, especially when hot. But when I ask people to provide me with an image that produced hot pixels for them, I mostly get ISO 6400, 1/2 second exposures at f/11 of a lens cap. Not a common photo situation (even without the lens cap: why would you be at f/11 and 1/2 second at ISO 6400?). As I write in my review, the D7000 is sort of mid-pack in Nikon cameras as regards hot pixels. Not the best, not the worst.
  • The D7000 Back Focuses (or Front Focuses). This is the trickiest complaint to track down. All modern AF systems have tolerance built into them, so getting dead on repeatable results is tough to do in the first place. But more often than not I see mistaken assumptions in the testing that produces such complaints. The D7000's AF sensors, for example, are larger than any previous Nikon (the 4800 in the CAM4800 part number refers to the sensing area of the detectors, which is higher than that of the CAM3500 on the D3s, D3x, D300s). Unless your test focus point is on a flat surface that is equidistant from the camera across the area of the focus acquisition, you can get misleading results.

Meanwhile, things that maybe we should be discussing aren't getting much attention: much tighter cut off of near IR, changes in the red/blue channel balances, and more. Of course, those aren't "problems" either; those are just things you need to know to understand how the D7000 is rendering a scene, and you'd only need to know those things if you've gotten the exposure and focus right ;~).

So, as we head into the heart of winter and the wild and random first reaction posts all disappear from sight on the Internet fora, let's just all go out and shoot with the camera, shall we?

Healing a D7000
Dec 28 (commentary)--If, on the other hand, you got a D7000 for Christmas and feel that all the Internet posts can't be wrong, let me help you with some Japanese New Year's traditions to keep your camera healthy and productive for the coming year:

  • Just prior to the new year, pratice osoji. Clean your camera, inside and out. Get the sensor clean, and make sure there is no dust clinging to the outside.
  • Get some straw and make a rope out of it. Hang this rope in front of the lens to help ward off evil focus spirits and hot pixels.
  • Set the camera to Beep (High) for joyano-kane. At exactly midnight, fire the shutter 108 times to free the camera from any sins of manufacturing made during 2010.
  • Don't shoot the same thing twice in the first two weeks of the year. In Japanese tradition, you need to practice a series of "firsts," or hatsu. So shoot your first multiple exposure. Your first intervals. Your first low light shot. Your first UniWB shot. Use lenses only once during this period, making sure to exchange the lens between each shot. Use any focal length only once (ditto apertures and shutter speeds). And don't forget to shoot the first sunrise of the year, as this lets in the most favored light and will condition your sensor in ways Nikon repair can't.
  • Post a (positive) haiku about your camera on an Internet forum. Bonus points for a haiku that celebrates one of your camera's firsts.

When you complete this sequence after two weeks, you can now retest your camera. You will find that it will not overexpose, you will not see hot pixels in your images, and the focus will be neither back nor front, but just right. I'm not sure why Nikon doesn't put this stuff in the manual.

Dec 25 (commentary)--It's not just actions that can send wrong signals to a customer, but words, too. From an email from a Nikon employee to a customer: "Compatibility and support for our NEF Codec running on Windows 64 bit system is under review by the Nikon Quality department in Japan. At this time we do not have any time table on when we will or if we will issue drivers and software support for this new system."

If? That gets read by the customer that Nikon is considering no longer supporting the clear future of an operating system (and not just the future, but the present, too, as systems are now shipping with 64-bit support enabled). Now, there may be something more interesting behind that statement--for example, Apple is now supporting raw file formats themselves in their OS--but the customer reading such a statement literally almost immediately sees something potentially sinister in it: that Nikon might never support the OS their new computer now runs by default.

The situation isn't made any better by the fact that Nikon has stopped supporting current OS versions in some of their products, like Nikon Scan.

I've written before about the need for certain "roadmaps." This is one of them. As in "Nikon currently is committed to supporting both the Windows OS and Macintosh OS-X in our software products." And within that statement would need to be a further statement. For example, how long can a user expect to see Windows XP supported by Nikon software? Is support for Windows ME now dead?

Of course, there's a liability that goes along with such a statement. But the liability is far smaller than the positive message it sends to customers it's not a significant issue, IMHO.

While NikonUSA and Nikon Europe may agree with what I just wrote and want to do something similar to what I suggest, they're dependent on Nikon Japan to clearly state their policy.

D7000 Firmware Update
Dec 22 (news)--Nikon today made available 1.01 firmware for the D7000, which reduces the visibility of hot pixels in Live View and video recording

NPS Renewals
Dec 22 (news)--It's the end of the year, so those whose three-year NPS membership was up for renewal have been sent renewal notices. Despite complaints to the contrary, nothing much has changed in terms of the requirements other than the fact that a consumer body, the D7000, can now count as a one of your two pro bodies. Nikon has required a credit card and shipping account on file for some time now. It saves time and expedites the process for NPS priority repairs. A lot of people who were getting courtesy renewals or were grandfathered never noticed that, but now that they have to actually fill out the renewal form online, you can't get past all the specific requirements.

And speaking of requirements, NPS members need to read the headings on that online form carefully (as do some Nikon employees, who apparently didn't notice the format, because they couldn't explain it to at least two pros I know of): There is one pop-up menu at the top from which you select all qualifying cameras and lenses, and multiple pop-ups down below from which you can select "other registered" equipment. People are getting confused because they pull up the bottom menu for Zoom lenses, for example, and don't see the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, or 70-200mm on it. That's because those are qualifying lenses and they're on the qualifying popup at the top (at the bottom of a long list, which makes it easy to miss that they're there).

I was amused at one email response from Nikon to a pro that I was forwarded. I was able to explain what Nikon couldn't (that pop-up thing), so I guess I'll now refer to my Nikon user email support as "suitable for consumers and NPS pros." ;~) Just kidding. I simply try to make sense of a confusing world without creating too much additional confusion myself.

Dec 20 (lesson)--"The D7000 overexposes." I'm still getting a ton of feedback making this assertion, many of whom are quoting reviews on other sites to me to tell me I'm wrong. I don't think the D7000 overexposes. So where's the disconnect? In a word: exposure.

"Exposure" determines the collection of data, the number of photons that get converted to electrons. That's all "exposure" is. Aperture and shutter speed determine how many photons get through to the sensor. ISO changes how the electrons are counted.

The big disconnect comes on what you do with the collected data. Nikon has changed their minds a few times over the years in that regard, and they appear to make slightly different choices depending upon whether the camera is set "consumer" or "pro". Once we have an electron count, the question is "what does that count (exposure) represent?" This is were we start doing things like applying gamma and other interpretations to the data. Beginning with the D3, Nikon switched to Picture Controls. The default Picture Control produces a strong gamma boost (compared to previous Nikons), higher contrast, and a color shift. Such an image can look bright, have blown out highlights, and seem "overexposed," especially on the overly bright LCD on the camera. But is it? Try switching to Neutral with -1 Contrast in that same high contrast situation and use the same exposure. Still too bright with blown highlights? Didn't think so.

So, instead of saying the "D7000 overexposes" perhaps you ought to say the "D7000 overdevelops." Even then I'm not 100% sure I'd agree with that assertion. Moreover, there's another aspect that comes into play that doesn't get enough mention: the Nikon metering is relatively consistent (at least once you figure out what it is doing in Single Area AF). More consistent, in my experience, than competing matrix metering systems. On my m4/3 cameras, for instance, I find that I'm more constantly altering the camera's settings. Ditto the Canon DSLRs I've used. Even if I were to agree that the D7000's metering is "hot" (and I don't), it is consistent. Consistent problems are easier to adapt to (and the D7000 has several ways you can address that, including a permanent way via CSM #B5).

That said, I don't like Nikon's tendency on the consumer cameras to increase exposure emphasis on the focus sensor when the camera is in Single Area AF. I think Nikon made an assumption there that is not very true in practice (the assumption is that things you focus on are always mid-toned). The D80 was the worst of the offenders, and they've toned down the exposure emphasis on the focus point in Nikon cameras since, but it still is not producing quite the consistent results that most people want. Inconsistency is much more problematic than being slightly off.

Apologies to Adobe
Dec 19 (news)--The "Photoshop failed to initialize due to a program error" message I reported earlier and have heard from others about can be traced to a single item: Nik's HDR Efex Pro. Uninstall it and Photoshop works as expected. The hint was watching what was being fetched in the dialog box updates as Photoshop loads.
I've sent messages into Adobe's customer support staff to alert them to the issue.

Nik seems to be aware of a problem and has posted a troubleshooting page for HDR Efex Pro. However, it doesn't work for me because...oops, "Too Many Activations." FWIW, Nik Customer Support did not get back to me as they promised (now five days and running). It's incidents like this that make me reconsider my recommendations (right now Nik's Complete Suite is one of my recommended software products).

D7000 Review and Guide
Dec 19 (news)--My D7000 Review is now posted. The Complete Guide to the Nikon D7000 is delayed. I've discovered some problems with the latest versions of Microsoft and Adobe software I use in building it, and due to my travel schedule don't anticipate being able to fix those problems until I return from Patagonia.

Site Going Mostly Silent for the Holidays
Dec 18 (news)--bythom will be taking it's usual time off from posting over the holidays. Don't expect anything from December 21st through January 2nd, and postings will be minimal until mid-January.

Dec 17 updated (news)--Apple released their Camera RAW Compatibility Update version 3.5, which includes support for the Canon G12, Nikon D7000, and Coolpix P7000. Note that Apple has published a Tech Support note that indicates that shots made with Multiple Exposure on the D7000 may be rendered with incorrect color. ShutterSnitch for iPad is now updated to version 2.0. DxO Optics Pro version 6.5.2 adds Sony NEX support and several new Nikon DSLR/lens combinations.

Although I don't point to beta versions of products, in the last week I've received beta releases of about six other software products of significance to Nikon users, so we're getting a little unexpected end-of-year surge in development.

Pick and Choose
Dec 16 (commentary)--I've had a long correspondence with one particular reader over the years, and she often makes comments that trigger something I feel I need to write about. Today's topic: "Have we all fallen into pick and choose post processing artists?"

Lightroom has presets. Nik Silver Efex Pro and several of their other plug-ins have presets. Photomatix has presets. Topaz's plug-ins have presets. Everybody has presets. All these presets seem to be presented these days as small thumbnails so that you can visually select them. So, all the post processors out there are encouraged to turn into pick and choosers.

More often than not these presets are ugly as sin. Many don't work for any image I've taken, so I have to wonder what images that they do work for. But the notion is simple: just browse through all the visual choices and pick the "right one" (I hope your monitor is calibrated ;~). And now you're done with post processing.

What would Ansel do? Well, he'd think about the image he would be trying to produce and the necessary small changes he'd need to make to the data. Not overall data, as the presets encourage users to do, but small slices of data, like what's happening in Zone 9 over here in the right corner of the image.

A few minutes after I got the email from my long-time correspondent, I got one from a first-time writer: gee, do I always spend so much time post processing as the caption on the Cracked image, above, seems to indicate? That seemed like the wrong approach to them. (For the record, I believe I spent less than five minutes on that image, from start to finish.)

Well, I was actually thinking about how I would post process the image when I took it. Indeed, that changed how I set the camera a bit, as I knew I'd be shifting the data considerably later. In particular, I was worried about the dark areas in the crack and whether they'd have any detail in them. Exposed normally, they would not. Exposed with consideration of what I would do with the image later, they would. Whether I showed that detail or not was a decision I'd make on individual areas within the crack. No presets or pick and choose here. Six layers and some careful independent adjustments.

Now, if I were shooting a basketball game for the local newspaper and on a tight deadline (e.g. tonight's game for tomorrow's morning paper), none of the above would be relevant. I'd be setting the camera the best I could for the situation and submitting the results without post processing. Those pictures would be okay, but they certainly wouldn't represent the best I could do. The only picking and choosing I'd be doing is in the Picture Control settings (which, thankfully, don't force me to pick them via small picture samples).

And that brings me back to yesterday's discussion: good enough versus best tool. All those presets tend to distract people into choosing good enough. All those that try to avoid post processing at all are highly into good enough. Neither group will get everything out of their camera that's possible, in my opinion. Which makes you have to challenge what level of camera they really need (the good enough bar).

Find your bar or go for the best tool. It's your choice. I'm a best tool user, myself. Pick and choose doesn't work for me.

P7000 Update
Dec 15 (news and commentary)--Nikon released a version 1.1 firmware update for the P7000 earlier this week. I've got good news and bad. The good news is that raw shooters will find the camera far snappier (pardon the pun). Much more like what we expected. The bad news is the "focus fix" doesn't really seem to be a fix. As far as I can tell, the "lens initialization" message now is simply missing. Previously if the camera was having troubles focusing on something, it put up an error message after (I think) three miisses on focus. Now it'll just happily miss for as long as you care to let it. The problem is easiest to see when trying to focus through glass. I've always been curious about this, as some contrast AF cameras seem to have no problems with that while others do. The GXR I'm testing is another that sometimes balks at focusing through glass, especially thick glass at an angle. Yet I've got other compacts that don't have problems with the same test. So it's clear that some camera companies must have a way of pulling off contrast veiling caused by reflections that the others aren't using.

Random Wednesday Comment
Dec 15 (commentary)--One email that came in about the "Resisting the Urge" article (below) made me repeat something to the responder that I don't remember writing here but is pertinent to the discussion. Here goes:

The two (and really only) appropriate ways to buy something based on need are to buy a "good enough tool" or to buy the "best tool." It should be clear that if you don't buy something that's good enough, you'll be back purchasing again real soon. It's a common problem for many hobbiests, who think that they can just sneak up on "good enough" and end up spending more in the long run than if they had even bought "best tool" in the first place. "Good enough" shoppers need to be especially careful. Sometimes a product sounds like it is good enough but isn't. Sometimes you just think it's probably good enough but isn't. Sometimes someone else talks you into thinking it's good enough, but they were wrong. If you're a "good enough" shopper, you need to do your homework. Carefully and thoroughly.

You'd think that buying between good enough and best tool would be okay, but it really isn't. You paid more than for good enough, yet you still have compromises hidden somewhere in the tool. If you don't find them, you overbought and wasted money. If you do find them, you either mistook where the good enough line really was or you really needed the best tool in the first place and thus underbought and now have to buy again.

Early this year, the good enough line for most people in Nikon DSLRs was at the D5000 (the D3000 didn't make it above the bar, IMHO). The best tool was the D300s, D3s, or D3x, depending upon what you needed the tool for. I'm still trying to figure out the good enough bar today and whether the D3100 gets above it, so I'll punt on that for the moment.

With the compacts I've been writing about (and more reviews are coming), most of us set the bar a little differently. With a compact, my focus bar is different, my pixel quality bar is different, and my noise bar is different. There's also a "good enough" bar for things that I'll carry in my shirt pocket (and the Canon S95 is the best tool there), and a "good enough" bar for things that I'll cary in my jacket pocket. For a jacket pocket, all the mirrorless cameras I wrote about get above my good enough bar, which makes it a bit tougher figuring out which one to actually use, as none really get far beyond that bar. The best tool to date has been the GF-1, but only by a smidgen, and it's still close to the good enough bar.

So my advice is this: if you're a "good enough" buyer, you need to pay very close attention to where you set the bar, why, and whether the product(s) you're considering actually exceed that bar. You cannot impulse buy "good enough." You have to research it. If you're a "best tool" buyer there's little research you need to do. Just define the things you need a tool for and it should be clear what the best tool is. Need to shoot in no light? Get a D3s and some f/1.4 lenses. Period. You can buy on impulse.

Does all this mean that you only need a D5000 if you don't need a D3s? Sort of. There may be specific features or needs that the D5000 doesn't have that might raise your good enough bar higher, but in terms of pixel quantity and quality, you had to go quite a ways higher in the lineup to beat it until the D7000 came along. And not everyone needs a D7000, so, yes, for many people a D5000 is indeed "good enough."

The D7000 murkied the waters vis-a-vis the place of the D300s in the "best tool" category. In terms of pixels (quality and quantity), the D7000 exceeds the D300s. In terms of some features (e.g. video capability), the D7000 exceeds the D300s. But beyond that, the D300s still may be the best tool. Bigger buffer. Better build. Better AF. But like I said, it's murky, because while there are things that the D300s is better at than the D7000 and vice versa, neither scores a knockout punch. Transitions to new technology (in this case sensor) are like that: they sometimes temporarily disrupt the bars. We had that happen before in exactly the same way: the D70 was in many ways (but not all) a better camera than the D100, yet it clearly was targeted lower. The same thing is now true with the D7000 and D300s, but the same thing will happen on the other side: the D300s update should restore order to the bars.

Resisting the Urge
Dec 14 (commentary)--Every now and again I get an email that hits right at the heart of something I've been preaching for quite some time. The following email was short and to the point: "I have a D300 and a D700. What would be the advantages for me of having a D7000?"

To put it in another context: "I have a 2008 Honda Civic and a 2009 Honda Pilot; what would be the advantages of me having a 2011 Honda CRX?" See the problem?


The question really needs to be flipped. It's not what will a new something do for you. It's what is your old something not doing for you? If you can't answer that question, then not only do you not need the new item, but you don't even have the foundation for determining whether the new is better for you than the old. Is it slow focus you're having trouble with, noise at high ISO values, lack of dynamic range--the list goes on and on of potential things that you might want your equipment to do better at. But without being able to enumerate that list, you can't evaluate a new product's potential for fixing your problem.

Heaven forbid that we go around in public shooting with "old cameras" (or driving old autos). What would others think of us? "Oh, look, there's a poor soul shooting with a D70 and driving a 2005 Camry. He must have fallen on hard times." Well, either that or he likes the photos he's getting from his D70 and hasn't had any problems with his car. ;~)

New is not necessarily better. It's one of the reasons why I rail at "faddish" changes in cameras, like putting them out in colors. A red camera is not better than a black one (unless, of course, all you really want is for people to notice you, not your photos). 16mp is not necessarily better than 12mp. A camera with 9 stops of usable dynamic range is not necessarily better than one with 8.5. Those last two things might prove better for you if you've already hit a wall with your current equipment that you need to break through. If you're printing 3' images, then 16mp starts to look better than 12mp, all else equal. But have you truly hit that wall, or are you just anticipating that some undefined day in the future you might like to walk up to it and see what the wall looks like?

I'm always amused when I'm lumped into the bunch on the net that are "just trying to drive traffic to their sites so that people click on ads." First, what ads? Second: I spend a lot of time and energy telling people not to buy something. Bottom line here: new does nothing for you unless you know what you're currently lacking and the new thing fixes that.

Giving in to the Urge
Dec 13 (commentary)--I've tended not to preannounce products or take orders in advance. But all the "when will your D7000 book be ready" emails are making me nervous.

Let me explain: I use just-in-time production for my works. If sales outstrip what I've produced, it typically takes about two weeks for me to get new materials to fill those orders. With existing products, I try to keep one or two weeks of extra product around, just in case there's a bump in orders, and I can look at order history and come up with a reasonable production schedule that keeps them at the ready.

With a new product that's potentially in hot demand, if I incorrectly assess demand I can get into a situation where it's difficult to catch up (a problem that Nikon has had recently, and I don't wish to repeat). So: when I publish my D7000 review, probably later this week, I'll be opening up the order process for the Complete Guide to the Nikon D7000. But the book itself will not ship until January 19th (assuming nothing gets messed up in the production).

Yes, that means the book is written, though I'm still doing some last minute proofing and fine tuning before putting it into production.

Tamron Updates the 18-270mm
Dec 9 (commentary)--The 18-270mm gets three more initials added to it's nomenclature (18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD) with the addition of a Piezo AF motor to replace the older standing wave motor. I've noted several times recently that Tamron's in-lens motors aren't as fast as the Nikkor or Sigma ones, so let's hope this brings them up to speed, if you pardon the pun. I understand that the lens should be in the US just prior to Christmas (Dec 20 or thereabouts).

Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Shooting People's Dogs
Dec 8 updated (commentary)--I've gotten a lot of responses to the following post; in fact, my In Box overfloweth. No need to tell me that you appreciate what I do. I get enough feedback to know this is true for most of you reading this. But thanks to those of you who took the time to do so.

When I go off-ranch and write about equipment other than Nikon, the fanboys come out and do their thing. It's like I shot their dog, or something, and now they want to shoot me back.

Of course, they don't always read what I wrote before posting, and I noticed a couple of posts on several fora today where some were guessing about what I'll write about cameras they know I'm still testing. I'm also always amused by the "he's just trying to get more site traffic so he can sell more ads" comments, which shows that those people never actually made it to my site.

Still, it sometimes stings. I'm not infallible, nor am I ever 100% consistent in my comments. Sometimes what I write doesn't quite come out quite the way, or with the context, that I intended it. When I discover that, I try to go back and "fix" what I wrote. More on that in a moment, as it's the reason for this little commentary. But first:

One of the interesting feedback points from the last few days seems to have to do with "pocketability." There seem to be a lot of people that say I can't possibly (or shouldn't be) be walking around with a camera in my pocket all the time. Trust me. I just got back from a six mile hike with three cameras I'm testing in my pockets (for those who are curious, it was a vest with very large and deep pockets). One person wrote me in shock about how you can never do that because the lens cap might come off in the pocket and the lens get scratched. I was tempted to write back "get a UV filter," but you faithful site readers will know that I didn't and the reason why.

In truth, in over a year now of carrying my Olympus camera all over the world (three continents and counting) and submitting it to a world of abuse, the only time it's sustained any damage at all is when I dropped it. Pros don't coddle equipment, they use it. And we often find that it's a lot more hardy than people expect. That's not to say that you can't damage equipment carrying it casually like I do. You most certainly can. But it's not high on my list of things to worry about, and somewhere along the line I figured out that I shouldn't be bumping into rocks and walls and doorways when I'm carrying a camera in my pocket. It's called adaptation, and I highly recommend it.

But none of that's the real reason why I'm writing today's entry. I want to remind everyone that the compact comparison reviews are a work in progress, not yet finished articles. I'm currently at an undisclosed location doing more testing (thus today's hike). I'm trying to balance all those requests ("I'm going to buy a compact camera this Christmas, what should I get") with my available time and other projects. At the moment, I don't anticipate truly completing the series and polishing all the articles into completeness until late January.

So, read with a bit of care. And feel free to come back to the complete set when I put the final touches on everything next month (there will be more in the meantime, never fear).

In the meantime, if I accidentally shoot your dog, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to.

Adobe Updates
Dec 7 updated (news)--Adobe has rolled out their updates for Adobe Raw Converter, DNG Converter, and Lightroom that include the D3100, D7000, and P7000 support. They've also issued a bug-fix update for Photoshop (12.0.2). However, that update installed correctly on one of my machines, but on my main (and very stable) production machine I got one of those absurd error messages:

If you can't read that: "Some updates failed to install." "Please fix the problems below and retry:" and the problems below were "Done with errors." Photoshop still works (though the ID box doesn't say 12.0.2, it says 12.0). Photoshop says that the program is up to date. The updater doesn't see the update any more, so it's impossible to "retry." Using the separate downloader (patchinstaller), the message for the problem I'm supposed to fix is simply "Installation failed." Using the Adobe Support Advisor, which inspects the log file, I get "The module found no issues to report for the selected log file."

Don't you just love modern software?

p.s. The screen shot was run through the "failed to install" version of Photoshop.

Went through Adobe's recommended customer service. Was promised a callback. As of this update, it has been 28 hours and no callback. I wonder if this happens to Scott Kelby? ;~)

Mirrorless Continued
Dec 6 (news)--I've made a number of updates to my review of mirrorless cameras and have added a quick summary of how I see the available m4/3 lenses.

D7000 Hot Pixels
Dec 6 (news)--Nikon Japan issued a statement at the end of last week that they would produce a firmware update for the D7000 to reduce hot pixels that might appear in video captures. My review of the D7000 is coming soon.

Mirrorless Cameras Reviewed
Dec 3 (news)--Part two of my multiple part review frenzy is now ready for consumption, though like the first batch, there are still some rough pieces and missing images to add. So if you're in the market for an Olympus E-PL1, Panasonic GF-1, Samsung NX100, or Sony NEX-5 camera, you'll want to take a close look at what I wrote.

I'm Sure This Won't Last Long
Dec 2 (news)--B&H tells me that they just got a shipment of imported TC-20E III converters. I've verified that they are listed as "In Stock" as I write this (which is why the headline is what it is). For TCs, I don't judge buying an import to be a large liability. They don't have a plethora of proprietary parts that can't be obtained by non-authorized repair centers (though if you scratch an element you might be out of luck). If you'd like to support this site, purchase your converter by starting with the B&H link at the top of the page.

It lasted less than 30 minutes...

Dec 2 (news)--Some new software products have appeared just in time to distract you from Christmas shopping:

  • Capture One 6.0. The big change is non-destructive edits (including not changing the original raw file). But perspective control is another useful new feature. Comes in Express and Pro versions, and both are 64-bit compatible and use OpenCL/GPU for acceleration if you have a compatible graphics system. Buried in the announcement was the release of an early version of Capture Pilot, an iOS application that allows you to wirelessly view, zoom, and pan images from various DSLR and MF cameras.
  • Topaz InFocus. A new Photoshop plug-in that does image sharpening and blur reduction using a new deconvolution technology. Introductory price of US$29.99 is good through tomorrow.
  • DxO Optics Pro version 6.5.1 adds Nikon D7000 support.

Nikon DSLR Rebates for December
Dec 2 (news)--It appears that NikonUSA's DSLR-related rebates will remain the same through January 2nd. A few Coolpix rebates will increase, but not for any higher-end model. I write "appears" because Nikon has been making mid-course adjustments every now and again to the their rebate programs.

Pocket Wizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 Shipping
Dec 1 (news)--The new Nikon-compatible PocketWizard wireless transmitters and transceivers are now shipping to dealers in some areas. They're expected to be available to users in the US sometime by the middle of December. The MiniTT1 sits in the camera hot shoe and the FlexTT5s are used at each remote flash, and enable i-TTL via wireless radio connections. The radio communication tends to be more flexible and reliable than the IR-based wireless built into the Nikon Speedlights. There's much more to the new system than at first meets the eye, as it supports some other new flash capabilities, including HyperSync, or faster-than-sync-speed syncing. Serious multiple flash shooters really need to take a close look at this new product.

35mm f/1.4 Ships
Nov 30 (news)--NikonUSA started shipping the 35mm f/1.4G to dealers this week. But don't get your hopes up. My understanding is that almost no one is getting their full order. We're in the same situation as we were with the initial 24mm f/1.4G shipments: probably 2000 units or less came into the US in the first shipment, and that won't come close to meeting demand.

What Your Camera's Color Reveals About You
Nov 29 updated (commentary)--Since we're heavy into the days of camera as fashion accessory, determining which color of camera to buy is as important as any other feature on today's cameras. To help you decide, here's my Guide to Camera Color:

  • Black. You believe that nearly 50 years of decision making by camera designers can't possibly be wrong. You're a conformist. You scoff at people who would even consider another color, and believe that metal is naturally black. Moreover, black matches (most of) your lenses in color, and it's important to have a matching ensemble. You may have been influenced by women's fashion trends in New York City, but you'd never admit that. All this despite the fact that heat is the enemy of digital, and black absorbs heat. At least your camera will be warmer when you pick it up outside in the middle of winter. Assuming it's a sunny day, of course. But you only photograph on sunny days because you've been told it takes light to make a photograph.
  • White. You're a progressive, maybe even one of the intellectual elite that forgot to vote in the last election. You correctly realize that white reflects heat and heat isn't what you want your camera collecting. Unfortunately, you didn't think it all the way through. Every time you set down your camera on something or use it in the dirty outdoors, it seems to collect dirt and grime, and now it looks a lot like your white 1996 Volvo wagon: beaten and bruised. The good news, though, is that you're going to drop your camera into a deep snow drift this winter and not be able to find the white object in a white pile. Feel free to pick another color.
  • Pink. You're probably using a camera that you originally intended for your teenage daughter. She rejected it because it "doesn't do Facebook." Either that or you realized that what you bought her this year is better than your three year old dinosaur in almost every way, so you decided not to give it to her at all. Unfortunately, you're now embarrassed to use it outside, so you've decided to specialize in indoor macro photography so that no one else will see you using it. Either that or you seek attention.
  • Red. You aspire to owning a Ferrari. Or maybe a Corvette. But you don't yet have either. So you photograph with your red camera and when people ask, you just nonchalantly say "it matches my wheels." You also carry this camera in a Ferrari-logoed camera bag, which you think helps with the ruse. At least until those around you watch you get into your silver Honda minivan in the parking lot. Also, you are almost certainly male.
  • Silver. You're over 60 years old, and remember when cameras were made of metal and not covered with faux leather that falls off. Unfortunately, you discovered that all the "silver" on your latest acquisition is actually painted polycarbonate, and it produces terrible-looking dings every time you bump it against something. Instead of a nice proud dent, the scuffed "silver" reveals that underneath your camera's silver surface is black plastic, just like that front bumper on your car. Well, at least it looks traditional. Until you use it for a few weeks and it no longer looks shiny and new. Fortunately, you haven't used this camera yet, so now you're going to just stick it in a display case somewhere in the den and let everyone who stops by admire your metal camera from afar.
  • Blue. You got to the store late, and only the blue model was left. That makes you a pragmatist. Or a procrastinator. You're definitely not an early adopter or someone who gets up before the stores open in the morning. Fortunately, you don't care what others think, so you just use your blue camera as if it were "normal." Every now an again someone asks you about it, but you just reply "I don't know, it came that way." You're a little worried that the blue model is inferior in some way to the black or white version, but this is just your insecurity kicking in. Keep shooting. You'll be okay.
  • Green. You're a liberal. You believe that anything green, is, well, green. Or at least represents your intention of being green. You'll point out that you recycled your old camera to get this one (read: you sold it on eBay). It looks really nice sitting on the hood of your green Ford Escape Hybrid, too, though it doesn't seem to take any pictures when you do this. Because you felt guilty about buying something new, you planted a tree in your back yard. But it'll die soon because you're too busy driving your Escape Hybrid to great photo locations and placing your green camera on the hood to spend much time maintaining your yard.
  • Camo. You had to carefully disassemble your camera to get the plastic panels off so you could apply camouflage paint to them. (It just shows you how poorly the Japanese understand the US market that they haven't produced a camo-colored camera yet.) You did this while wearing your camo t-shirt and sweat pants in between sessions of playing Call of Duty: Black Ops. The final results sure look more American than Japanese, which you'll point out to anyone that will listen to you, which basically means your spouse and your two friends. You also tell everyone that you'll get better wildlife photos by "blending in with the environment", and indeed you do blend in, just enough to get shot by a hunter next fall.

Couple of reader comments:

"You were remiss in not including cameras with school football colors, such as garnet and gold (for FSU—my favorite), blue and orange, red and white, etc."(from DG). Correct. This is an extension of my "how poorly the Japanese understand the US market" comment. Once you get into fad-based marketing, there are all kinds of things you can do to highly goose overall volume, at the minor expense of customization of the external body panels. In fact, a very viable extension of this is to not brand your own company on products, but to do vanity branding of the same basic unit. I'm really surprised that no camera company has picked up on this at all.

"You should set up your own Homeland Security Color Scheme (HCCS). (from another DG)." Ah, why didn't I think of that one? I could have written: "The TSA today announced that only cameras with the appropriate Danger Level Color scheme will be allowed through airport security starting in the middle of the Thanksgiving holiday travel season (which ensures that people who traveled with "dangerous" cameras on outbound flights can't repeat that returning home). Since the current security advisory is Orange, only Orange and Red cameras will be let through the TSA screening stations until further notice."

"I used to own a small camo Mag-Lite and just about every
time I put it down sowewhere I had a hell of a time finding it, until I finally *did* lose it for good while camping someplace in Utah. So maybe a camo camera is not such a great idea after all..." (from SM). Actually, this is good news for camera makers. Loss of camera leads to natural upgrade possibilities and continued sales. In fact, between selling white-only cameras in winter and camo-only cameras the rest of the year, the camera companies should be able to increase unit volumes by 20% or more just from the needed replacement market. Better still, this gives a giant boost to metal detector sales, too, so it offers a logical sideline business for the camera companies: "Camera Finder--attaches easily to a tripod or monopod leg so that you can sweep an area after shooting to look for lost equipment. Now available in camo cladding to match your camera!"

First Compact Camera Review Article
Nov 22 (commentary)--I'm not really done with my shooting tests, as I need to have one really good day (when I'm free of other obligations) to drag all the cameras I'm reviewing to a location to do an apples-to-apples real scene shoot. So I'm going to post the first of my comparisons today without a full set of sample images. When I get that perfect day, I'll go back and add some more to the article.

he "Long Term"
Nov 22 (commentary)--Because the run-up to Christmas is the biggest buying season for cameras, this is usually when we get the most questions along the lines of "how long will this camera last?" and "is DX/FX a good investment?" or "will prices come down any time soon?" or "will this model be replaced soon?"

Let me tackle those in reverse order:

  • "Will this model be replaced soon?" Unless the model you're referring to was just released the answer is yes. Compact cameras are on one year cycles now, DSLRs are on 18-36 month cycles, depending upon the model. Cameras are now no different than autos, refrigerators, computers, or iPods: they go through regular refreshings, some modest, some major. There's no end in sight for adding more image quality, but each generation now tends to have less discernable gains, especially for Web or casual print work.
  • "Is DX (or FX) a good investment?" No. Cameras are not good investments. They are purpose built tools (and narrow purpose at that). Like autos, refrigerators, computers, or iPods, they decline in value the minute you buy one, and the eventual decline can be quite high if you pick poorly.
  • "Will prices come down any time soon?" I'm tempted to jump into an economics lecture, but I'll try to keep my answer short: probably not. Certainly here in the US the most likely economic scenario says that all imports are going to get more expensive. The question then becomes whether the manufacturers can remove cost fast enough to counter that trend. To some degree, yes, but the rise of other economies (e.g. China, India, Brazil, et. al) give them an out: they can simply target other markets more heavily. The trend with the type of Nikon equipment this site mostly deals with is that prices have risen slightly in absolute dollar terms. There's nothing I know of that's likely to change that any time soon. However, we've been through big yen/dollar pricing waves before, and it's the old "what goes up must come down" thing. Unfortunately, that tends to happen over decades, not months.
  • "How long with the camera last?" Compacts aren't built to rugged standards, even the high-end models. Abuse them and they'll become paperweights within a year or two. Handle them with care and they'll last longer. But they have a couple of strong points of failures: lens extension seems to be the most common death symptom, and it's happened to about half of the compacts I've used over the years that have extending lenses. Unfortunately, the cost of repair is greater than replacement. DSLRs tend to be built more rugged, but they don't survive drops and being flung into solid surfaces via a swinging neckstrap. Rough handling can lead to subtle issues (lens mount misalignment, for instance), but it's a lot tougher to kill a DSLR. The most common death syndrome I've seen is electronics: some component on a board in the camera dies and now the whole camera is (mostly) inoperative. Cameras without weather sealing exposed to high humidity, sea salt, and other pernicious threats to electronics are more vulnerable, but I've seen pro cameras succumb, too. Depending upon initial cost, it may or may not be worth repairing such camera failures. Right now that cut-off seems to be about up to the D70 generation (i.e. you could buy a used D70 for the average price it costs to repair most failures). So, my answer tends to be: two years for compacts, five years for consumer DSLRs, longer for pro DSLRs.

That said, there's another aspect to most of those questions that needs to be contemplated. Even non-photography sites have finally caught onto the trend I've been harping on for some time: the days of the traditional camera as a mass market item are numbered. Apple, once again, has shown the way, and the Japanese companies, once again, have totally missed the turn. Heck, they might not even have a steering wheel.

The iPhone has proven to be the most flexible camera out there. It's connected, it's programmable, and it integrates into a user's workflow very easily. Not that companies like Nikon haven't tried bits and pieces of Apple's strategy. The Coolpix P6000 had a built in Ethernet port that enabled connectivity. To one thing: Nikon's myPicturetown. Not Facebook. Not Twitter. Not email. Not anything any large group of users would want. And Ethernet? Too clumsy. It requires a cable in these days of wireless.

Unfortunately, the Japanese companies tend to take the wrong messages away from failures like the P6000. The P7000 has...no connectivity at all!

So, if you think you're buying a camera for the long term, you might not be. I'll bet that the majority of photos taken five years from now will be taken on "connected cameras." Whether that's a cellphone with camera or a camera with bluetooth/WiFi is uncertain at the moment, but the longer the Japanese camera companies ignore the trend, the more likely it will be the former and not the latter. We can put larger sensors in cellphones that don't get much larger than the current models. Maybe not FX sensors ;~). But certainly larger, more capable sensors that'll give you 10mp or more with reasonable performance at ISO 800 and probably higher. And those won't require a computer as workflow intermediary.

Buy what you want or need this Christmas season, but don't fool yourself into thinking this will be your photographic solution for the next decade. It won't.

Software Updates
Nov 18 (news)--The full Nik Software suite of plug-ins has now been updated to 64-bit compatibility. DxO 6.5 is shipping, and includes a new feature called single-shot HDR. Photokit Sharpener 2.0 has been announced by Pixel Genius.

Nikon Supplies Nikon Before Dealers?
Nov 18 updated again (news and commentary)--Perhaps you were one of the ones who got the "Nikkor Super Telephoto Lenses--Limited Availability at the Nikon Store!" email last Friday. A day on which there weren't any 500mm's in stock at three dealers I checked that I know try to regularly carry the item. Okay, I'll check those dealers later today and again tomorrow and update this note--it's possible that Nikon did ship 500mm lenses to dealers who had outstanding orders on Friday when they sent that email to Nikon customers.

But still, it's not going to please the dealers to see the Nikon Store directly solicit customers with an in-stock notice before the authorized dealer network manages to even get their shipments and update their inventory status. This is not a trivial thing Nikon is doing. A 500mm sale made at Nikon Store but not at a dealer nets your dealer about US$1200 less profit and NikonUSA about US$1300 more profit. That's a pretty big slap in the face.

I have to question what NikonUSA's motive is with the online store. Every Nikon authorized dealer I've talked to since it first appeared has spontaneously griped to me about it, without me having to ask a question. At least they aren't undercutting dealer prices. Oh wait, Nikon Store sometimes is with those refurbished products they're hawking without disclosing the warranty for.

Sure, Sony has an online Web site that sells products. So does Olympus, Canon, and a number of others. (The Olympus reconditioned cameras, by the way, have an explicitly stated "with two year extended warranty" on them, by the way, and it's in big bold print. ;~) That doesn't make starting a store and competing with the dealer base that built your brand the right thing to do. Moreover, if you don't want to anger your dealers, you definitely don't want to send out mass emailings to those people who bought cameras from the authorized dealer network (!) about in stock items that you haven't shipped to those same dealers yet. Yikes! Which of the Three Stooges is manning the tiller at Nikon? Of course, the other ones are running the stores at the other brands. At one point Canon's online store ran a sale of one DSLR at what effectively was US$4 over the cost to the store.

I know I harp on Nikon's practices a lot*. I do that not because I'm a grumpy curmudgeon who doesn't like anything. I do it because I'd sincerely like to see Nikon have the "best practices" and "best customer handling" of any camera company. They're a long way from that, and now they're handling their other customer, the dealer, poorly too. So, yes, I poke them a lot, hoping we'll see a change in practices. I know they read this site. They don't have to respond to me, though. NikonUSA should read this and instantly realize they need to send an apology to every authorized dealer in the US. And not repeat the mistake. But what makes me think that Nikon is considering something along the lines of Apple? Nikon Stores in big cities, Big Box stores for the low-end stuff, Nikon online for the rest of us. Considering Nikon's customer service handling, that idea should be dead on arrival. Something tells me it isn't.

*So what would you write about a company that produces great products but has poor practices dealing with the majority of its customers?

Update 11/16: No 500's or 600's have made it to dealers yet that I know of since Nikon's sending the email. A few of you think that I'm being hard on Nikon, but consider the following email I received: "I have been on the waiting list with my local dealer for months and recently, at the advice of a photographer friend, added myself to the Adorama waiting list. When I saw the e-mail and checked on availability for the 600mm, I immediately placed an order but half expected that I'd get an e-mail response that said the item was backordered. I received a shipment confirmation notice the next day." So a local dealer didn't make a US$1500 profit. How many times does that need to happen before you don't have a local dealer any more? Is a decline in local dealers what we as Nikon users really want? I don't think so, thus my harsh comments.

Update 11/18: B&H and one other dealer I monitor today show the 500mm to be in stock (possibly only temporarily). So Nikon appears to have dribbled some more units out to dealers shortly after they sent their email soliciting customers for the Nikon Store. A couple more reader comments: "Your description of Nikon’s business practices reminds me of Circuit City’s treatment of their salespeople who generated the highest volume sales a few years back – they fired their best salespeople because Circuit City was having to pay too much in commissions!  Well, now Circuit City doesn’t have to pay any commissions…" and "I think most people don't care. I have long given up on my local dealers- its not worth it anymore. I can get the info I need from websites like yours to determine whether in item is for me or not." This latter comment requires a comment of its own: yes, some local dealers are no longer all that great and can be lived without. But this is a chicken and egg thing. As dealers get more and more squeezed by the manufacturers, they cut back on support, inventory, and start pushing only things they make good margin on. We've seen this game before, and it doesn't end well. For anyone.

Botswana Blog Restarted
Nov 15 (news)--I've started week two of the delayed Botswana workshop blog. See right column for link.

D7000 Accessories
Nov 12 (news)--Just got word that Nikon has put the EN-15 battery and MB-D11 grip into the pending shipment category for US dealers. This usually means that the product will show up in the next week or two.

Nov 12 (news)--Apple updated Digital Raw Compatibility to version 3.4, which now includes support for the D3100. RPP has updated to version 3.1.9 and includes support for the D3100 and D7000.

1:1, Is That All We Get?
Nov 12 updated again (commentary)--Since there's no easy automated way to keep up with changes on all the various Nikon Web sites, I periodically do a thorough perusal of the main sites. What struck me this time is that the bellows are gone. No more PB-6. Somewhere I missed its discontinuation.

With the emphasis and focus these days on consumer products and G lenses, we're slowly losing the ability to shoot real close. The close-up lens sets are gone. The few remaining extension tubes are all AI-compatible only. The bellows are gone. In essence, Nikon is saying to users "1 to 1 is all you'll get from us, and even there we haven't gotten around to updating all the macro lenses or providing you with a lot of different options."

So what's a serious macro afficionado to do? Fortunately, the high-end gear (D7000 and up) all still understands AI, so you could stock up on the remaining used macro gear pieces while they're still readily available. A more modern approach for some is to use Kenko extension tubes, I suppose. But things are getting trickier for macro users the further we get into the digital era. Canon users, by comparison, still have the 65mm MP-E that gets them to 5:1 (5x).

One of the things we lose as companies get hooked on volume is flexibility. Apple recently decided to discontinue its Xserve (rackmount OS-X server) because, as Steve Jobs put it "people weren't buying them." Nikon's doing the same thing with items in their lineup. But "not buying them" to these companies really means "the volume and profit are too low for us to pay attention to."

Thing is, the reason why we buy a DSLR is that it is part of a "system." Sure, most people buy a small subset of the items offered in the system, but the depth and breadth of the system is very important. It's one of the reasons why Sony has had a difficult time taking market share away from Nikon and Canon, for example: Sony's "system", partly lens offerings, but other things as well, is still weaker than that of the Big Two. If you allow your system to shrink to just the most popular items, you also make it easier for your competitors to get into the game.

Long ago (I think I first suggested this 14 years ago, and then elaborated on it a few years ago) I wrote that I felt that Nikon needed to seriously consider breaking their efforts apart into Consumer and Pro groups. As I noted, I'm quite willing to pay more (not a lot more, though!) for a deep, wide, well-supported, and thoroughly documented set of products. Consumers generally don't need that and are driven by price. But imaging pros need more than consumers. We're about to see a reminder of that in videography: Sony and Panasonic are driving many new large sensor video camera projects and systems forward to the light of day, and the "I'll use a DSLR because that's all there is that does the Hollywood look" user will likely migrate back to a dedicated video camera.

If you're not going to make all the deep and broad elements of a system, the other alternative is to openly and actively solicit other companies to fill the gaps. I'm sure there are third-party companies that would jump to make an automated bellows, automated extension tubes, and much more, but they aren't going to tackle that without some help from Nikon and some assurances that it'll remain viable for some period of time. Forcing everyone to reverse engineer all your protocols and tolerances is tantamount to "limiting the system." But the Japanese companies are bastions of NIH (not invented here) and like keeping a fortress around the information that would be needed by others to help make a better system.

Funny thing is, four or five serious system extender companies providing additional authorized F-mount, iTTL, and other extensions to the Nikon system would make Nikons even more compelling to the Canon user considering switching. Can you say "missed opportunity?"

You know, I watched Silicon Valley discover, tackle, and solve all the issues I've written about on this site regarding the camera companies (not every SV company solved every issue, obviously ;-). Sometimes I wonder if the Japanese companies have even discovered the problems yet, let alone tackle and solve them.

So, Nikon, in case you're reading this: I'm a dedicated pro and I have a job that requires me to get beyond 1:1. Exactly how do I go about that using Nikon equipment?

Update: some of you reading this have suggested the Novoflex bellows or the BR-2a reversing ring. In the case of the former, it's difficult to obtain in the US and, if I understand correctly, still is a mostly manual system. In the case of the latter, yes, that works if you have the right lens for the reproduction ratio you need. But it, too, will be a manual system. Nothing wrong with manual, of course, but it seems that we've allowed one aspect of photography to wither away and not get updated for the current digital and auto era. Curiously, Nikon does sell--through their Microscope division--the Naturescope Fabre Photo EX, which can provide high magnification using a DSLR (29:1 and up), but it isn't available in the US ;~). But even if it were available, it's that 1:1 through 5:1+ range that seems to have disappeared from Nikon's lineup.

Second Update: Nikon's answer is to use the the 105mm Micro-Nikkor AF-S and a TC-xxE to get to >1:1. Yes, that works. But it adds optics to the equation, and when I checked that with the older TC-20E, it wasn't good enough for me. True, I haven't checked it with the new TC-20E III, so I'll have to try that test later.

NPS Goes Global (Sort of)
Nov 9 (news and commentary)--Nikon this week went live with a global NPS (Nikon Professional Services) site. This is good news, as the former sites were getting a bit stale and not updated well, nor did they provide a complete picture of worldwide events having NPS support. A quick perusal of the new site pulled up a few eyebrow raisers, though:

  • "Digital products are not currently covered by 'The Nikon Worldwide Service Warranty' but NPS Global Support and Services will apply a one-year service warranty from the day of purchase at the NPS Global Support and Service Network to them, even if they are registered in a different country. Proof of warranty and purchase date should be presented." So, continuation of the same old non-global policies, with an exception for NPS members. But there's still the same old gotcha: in the US, camera bodies don't come with proof of warranty ;~). Moreover, it's unlikely that pros travel with warranties and receipts for all their equipment. Who exactly is thinking out the logistics of these initiatives? My advice to all pros: scan all that paperwork and carry it with you on your laptop. So much for the "ease" portion of "Our goal is to keep NPS members shooting with certainty, ease, and a feeling of security that comes with dedicated support."
  • Non-NPS members currently have access to all of the site except for a couple of articles. But that means that you have access to the D3s Technical Guide and D3x Technical Guide PDFs. If you own those cameras, download them and read them.
  • Apparently NPS South Africa doesn't count, as they're not in the Americas, Europe, or Asia/Oceania.

Overall, it's an odd mix of global (the new site is hosted at the global nikonimaging.com site) and non-global ("There is no common global NPS membership system apart from the NPS membership systems operated and managed by individual countries or regions."). In other words, standard Nikon operating procedure: subsidiary differences abound.

Botswana on Time Out
Nov 9 (news)--
Week two of the Botswana Workshop delayed blog will start later this week. Watch for the link to appear in the right column, probably on Friday.

DxO Hysteria
Nov 7 (commentary)--Now that DxOmark has "rated" the Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000, the nutty interpretations and spirited discussions have begun in earnest.
But let me introduce a completely different idea: I don't care what DxO's number is. It's meaningless to me, and probably should be meaningless to you.

No one--not even DxO--has ever given me a seriously considered argument of how their single number summary applies to my shooting. I regularly shoot with cameras that have numbers ranging from a low of 47 to a high of 88 on the DxOmark scale. Do I care? Not really. Are my photos with the camera that scores a 47 terrible and my photos with the camera that scores an 88 great? No, it doesn't work that way. Not even close.

DxOmark's numbering scale is 100% arbitrary. You could use the same underlying data to come up with another scale, which would produce "different" results (i.e. cameras would move relative to one another). But worse, some of the underlying data itself is open to debate. The "dynamic range" (DR) test, for example, I believe defines DR as full well to SN Ratio=1, all derived from a single step wedge test. This doesn't reflect how I use a camera and says nothing about the character of the noise itself.

Don't get me wrong. I've long said that every serious photographer should measure his camera, understand how it produces images, and come up with a strategy for optimizing their shooting using that camera. What I fail to see is how the DxOmark overall number gives me any useful information or method to do just that. Some (and I emphasize some) of their underlying measurements are indeed useful in understanding how a camera captures data from a scene, but you still need to understand what those tests are measuring and how they might apply to your shooting.

Nikon Shipments
Nov 6 (commentary)--I've received word that dealers in the US should be getting another round of D7000 bodies this coming week, probably starting on Monday. Meanwhile, Amazon has sent me a notice saying that the P7000 lens adapter orders have been cancelled. Really, Nikon? You have trouble making a metal ring and getting it out to users in a timely fashion? Really? [Thom stops before he goes into an extended Saturday Night Live style rant.]

I Predict...
Nov 5 (commentary)--I've posted my 2011 predictions page (actually, it's been hanging out on the site for awhile, but no one noticed; today I completed my edits so am posting the live link). Short answer for those of you too lazy to read: D4, D800, D400, D5100, and Coolpix mirrorless should come our way in 2011. You never know about Nikon, though. They seem to think launching a new product in December is a good practice, so one of those (likely the D5100) might sneak into 2010.

Just How Bad is the Capture NX2 Update Problem?
Nov 4 (commentary)--I continue to receive a steady stream of "can't update my Capture NX2 due to rejected serial number" messages from readers. If I'm getting a steady stream, Nikon must be getting a much larger number of these. But consider the following example:

"Having upgraded to latest version, could not open without a product key code.  Called Nikon twice and requested temporary but to no avail.  Sitting here with $4000 or Nikon equipment and can’t open a RAW picture. It someone handed me a Canon right now I would trade I am so aggravated.  This started when I bought a D90 and NX1 would not support it and Nikon would not upgrade me to NX2 without paying for full version. So I have actually paid for it twice and being forced to consider paying for it a third time by buying a new product registration.

Earlier this year I wrote that I no longer recommend Capture NX2 as a raw converter. Nikon's latest gaffe--and it's a huge gaffe that needs immediate and complete resolution--just reinforces my recommendation withdrawal. So I repeat: I do not recommend that you use Nikon Capture NX2 as your raw converter. It's not just the software itself, the problem now also includes the policies of the company behind the software.

Nikon Isn't the Only One That Can't Market
Nov 4 (commentary)--Panasonic announced the GF-2 today. Let's count the marketing mistakes:

  • Higher numbered product is aimed at a lower target market (GF-1 is for enthusiasts, GF-2 is for compact user upgraders)
  • Product won't be out until after Christmas, so all you do is tell people to not buy the GF-1's sitting on shelves.
  • Bait and switch with compactness, one of the camera's main themes. Note that the first thing that the user does in Panasonic's launch video is to take the huge kit lens off and put a pancake prime on the camera. Hey, now it looks small! Sure, but now the person goes to the store, picks up the body with kit lens and thinks the camera is too big and the videos lied.
  • I'm amused at the Customize the Quick Menu example they show: the user is creating a Quick Menu that is multiple screens wide! Not so quick if you have to scroll it to find what you want. Might as well use the regular scrolling menu.
  • If the key feature of the camera is "small," then you need to show the benefit of that feature, not just proclaim the feature. As it turns out, the GF-2 isn't all that much smaller than the GF-1. Not enough to actually make for a tangible benefit once you put that kit lens on it.
  • The pancake lenses appeal to the photo enthusiasts, not the compact camera switches, who want flexibility all in one package. Having a 28mm (equivalent) "kit" is targeting enthusiasts, not consumers. But adding a touch-screen is targeting consumers, not enthusiasts. There are wild contractions in the design decisions, and they show up visibly in the marketing.

Let's hope that Nikon's mirrorless camera, when it finally arrives, has a little more consistency in design and marketing messages.

Nikon Q2 Financials
Nov 4 (news and commentary)--Nikon announced their results for the first half of their fiscal year today (April to September results). The big news is that, as I predicted, Nikon overestimated the dollar/yen relationship, and this had a tangible impact on their sales and profit numbers. With nearly a quarter of their overall sales coming from cameras in the US market, missing the yen appreciation impact has immediate influence on overall corporate numbers.

That said, it still was a decent quarter for Nikon. The Precision (semiconductor equipment) division didn't rebound quite as much as expected, but it came close to meeting the forecasts, which means that the division is not dragging down overall company results anywhere near as badly as last year. The Imaging division (cameras and lenses) actually beat most of their forecasts, with only DSLRs being slightly behind what they expected. I suspect that last bit has to do with the fact that the D7000 was later than originally expected. It missed having a small impact on Q2 by a couple of weeks.

Nikon sold 1.9m DSLRs, 2.95m lenses, and 6.7m Coolpix cameras during the period. The Coolpix number is tangibly ahead of expectations (by 8%). Inventory for the Imaging division is up a bit from late last year, but still quite low compared to previous years. One thing that I didn't see mentioned by most press reports is that the Imaging division's net sales year to year is down for the second quarter (not by a lot, but it immediately stood out to me in looking at the results--this is unusual in Nikon's recent history). This is almost certainly due mostly to the missed currency guesses.

Nikon lowered their estimates for sales and profit for the full fiscal year slightly, mostly due to currency issues and lower dollars per sale in the Imaging division (declining prices). Overall, the unit volume estimates have been increased. Nikon expects to sell 4.25m DSLRs (33% of market) and 14m Coolpix (12.5% of market). They also expect to sell an astounding 6.35m lenses for the full year.

Nikon lowered their future dollar/yen expectation to 80 (today it is at 80.7) and Euro/yen expectation to 110 (today it is at 114.6). There's been speculation elsewhere on the net about whether Nikon will be pushing US prices up because of this change. I believe the D7000 price already reflects most of that change, as do most recent lens prices. So, yes, future product announcements may see "replacement" products coming in at slightly higher prices than we're used to, but it also appears that Nikon is willing to accept some exchange rate fluctuation as long as unit volume is increasing. They didn't say it specifically in the formal press conference but I noted a comment in one Japanese business press interview that there's also an expectation right now of driving some more manufacturing costs out of products.

The fiscal year includes the first calendar quarter of 2011. So the question is this: is there anything in the estimates that indicate that the "new generation camera" that the executives have been talking about will ship in that time period? No.

WT-4 Utilities Updated
Nov 2 (news)--Nikon has updated the WT-4 Setup Utility to 1.2.0 and Thumbnail Selector to 1.2.0. These extend compatibility to Snow Leopard for Mac users, and 64-bit versions of Windows. Support for the D7000 and minor other changes are also included.

Africa, Part Two
Nov 2 (news)--I've started up the tape delayed blog of my Botswana workshop. Today is day two of the workshop. Warning, there may be a few days of hiccups in the next week or so, as I'm on planes a lot and can't always get the site updated in as timely fashion as I'd like.

Nov 1 (news)--A few software updates and items:

  • NX Tooey attempts to make using Capture NX2 better integrated with Lightroom 3.x.
  • DSLR Camera Remote HD for iPad from onOne has been announced. Not yet in the App Store, though.
  • onOne also introduced the free Perfect Presets for Lightroom. Additional free products include Perfect Presets for ACR, plus reduced set free editions of PhotoTools and PhotoFrame, the full versions of which are part of the onOne Suite.
  • Boinx introduced a simple image review program for the iPad called PhotoBox.

Crunch Time
Nov 1 (commentary)--It's that time of year when the buying questions start coming in a frenzy. I don't usually publish schedules of what I'm going to do on the Web site, mainly because I rarely meet them ;~). But this year I thought I'd give you a heads up on my likely publishing schedule for a few things is for the holiday season:

  • Week of Nov 15: High-end Compact Shootout #2. This will cover the Canon G12, Panasonic LX5, and Nikon P7000. Those of you asking about the S95: the camera is basically the same as the S90 (see my review) but the with the modest imaging/video updates of the G12, so I won't be looking at it separately.
  • Week of Nov 22: Mirrorless Compacts: the Olympus E-PL1, Panasonic GF1, Sony NEX5, and Samsung NX100.
  • Week of Nov 29: Miscellaneous compacts: Nikon S8100, Fujifilm F300EXR, Ricoh GXR, possibly a couple of others.

I'm prioritizing my D3100 review higher than my D7000 review at this point, so expect it to appear before the D7000 review. Why prioritize the D3100 over the D7000? Because I'm guessing that you'll have a hard time finding a D7000 between now and Christmas, so adding review fuel to the fire isn't going to help anyone at this point. Suffice it to say that the D7000 is an excellent update to the D90 and the D90 was a very good camera. That's either enough to get you in the long order queue for a D7000, or you don't mind waiting. Meanwhile, the D3100 can be found in stores, so it seems that I should make sure people know how good it is or isn't.

It's doubtful you'll see any lens reviews from me before Christmas, though I suppose I might do some short takes. Lenses will be a big focus of mine (ugh, the pun) after the holiday as I've got a lot of catching up to do.

Nikon Illegal Product Key Messages
Oct 30 (news and commentary)--I keep hearing from more and more people hit by the Illegal Product Key message when upgrading their Capture NX2 or Camera Control Pro software to the versions released this week.

This doesn't actually mean that your Product Key is an illegal one. It means that installations using your number have exceeded some unknown limit or triggered something in your install configuration. Unfortunately, there are legitimate reasons to install software more than once: those of us who do clean installs of our OS and applications periodically to insure muck-free computers will run into that limit at some point. If you're an aggressive systems upgrader (e.g. get a new computer every year and retire your old one), you'll hit the limit, too.

Rather than do what other state-of-the-art software companies do (e.g. have interactive Activation servers and allow users to activate and deactivate products on their own), Nikon has a simpler system: go over the activation limit bar and the software won't install, period. The number can't even be reset by Nikon ;~).

The solution, unfortunately, is that you have to call Nikon support and prove that you have legitimate copies of the product. This usually involves providing both an image of the product case with the serial number showing and a copy of your sales receipt. If you upgraded from version 1 to version 2, apparently Nikon wants documentation for both those purchases. Upon doing that, Nikon will issue you a new serial number, and you can install using the new number (at least until you exceed the unknown installation limit again ;~).

But there are all kinds of sub-variants on a theme going on, unfortunately. Some of them are very customer unfriendly. For instance, I know of users who bought a legitimate version 2 upgrade from Nikon who are now being denied a new serial number because the version 1 that Nikon sold them an upgrade for was from an illegitimate source. In other words, Nikon is just now getting around to policing a problem they had a couple of years ago and you're out your upgrade money because they didn't do the right thing in the first place. That's so customer antagonistic, it's pitiful. Let's hope they change that policy fast.

I've seen numerous dismissive comments of my "Nikon is not a software company" post (see 2010 Archive Page), but to those people I ask this: is this really how you all expect a professional software company to run? Really? Be careful what you wish for, because if Nikon's policies are the expected norm, a lot of other software companies can lower their standards quite a bit and still keep you happy.

Think About This
Oct 30 (commentary)--As of yesterday, there were an estimated 6.88 billion people on the planet. Here are some other estimates to compare that with:

  • 1.7 billion imaging sensors sold this year (~one for every four people)
  • 250 million smartphones with 5mp+ sensors sold next year (~one for every 30 people)
  • 100 million compact cameras sold this year (~one for every 70 people)
  • 12 million DSLRs sold this year (~one for every 575 people)

Put another way, in my little town of 11,313 people, there should be at least 2800+ imaging devices deployed this year, 377 new smartphones sold, 161 new compact cameras acquired, and 20 new DSLRs bought. There are about two orders of magnitude more people in what we call Lehigh Valley than there are in my town, so that implies ~2000 DSLRs sold by one Best Buy store, one big local camera store, and all other sources (various local stores, mail order, etc.).

Lying with Statistics Note: the numbers in the previous paragraph should be obviously higher, as the approximately 1 billion people in Africa aren't consuming high-end goods at the speed we are in the US. For instance, DSLR sales for Africa might make not even make it to 2% of the worldwide sales, but there's 15% of the world population there. I'll leave it to you to fine tune the numbers as you see fit. The point remains pretty much the same.

Nikon IS a Hardware Company
Oct 29 (commentary)--I know many of you are dying to hear what I've got to say about all the new Nikon products that have appeared since I headed off into the African wild, so I'll give you a little tease:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

The top image is a 100% view of a straight Capture NX2 conversion of a D7000 NEF taken in my test gym. ISO 3200, no noise reduction, default sharpening, all the usual parameters for my test shots. The bottom is the same file processed via ACR 6.3 Beta about as best as I could come up with using Adobe's sharpening and noise reduction controls plus a bit of other adjustment to make up for the deliberate slight underexpose I set in my tests (curiously, the camera wanted to set something close to my underexposure as its actual exposure, but that's a different story for a different day and is easily explained). Yes, there's some noise reduction smudging going on (the camera actually does slightly better in JPEGs than this).

Still, this is the best cropped sensor low light results I've seen to date (and yes, I've tested Sony and Canon cameras in this environment). Remember, we've got a lot of pixels here (16mp). For the 12mp cameras we've been seeing about this much of the scene at 100% view (image shown below is resized D7000):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

So you're wondering if the D7000 performs decently in low light? Yes, it does. But don't believe all the bull you see on some Internet forums: this is not D700 let alone D3s level of performance. It's quite good performance, though, enough to bring DX shooters into the low light. In particular, if I were shooting a basketball game with a D90 and D7000 side by side and displaying the resulting images at the same size, the D7000 wins hands down. It's got cleaner color, more detail, and less noise when I clean both up and print them. To refresh your memory, here's the D90 (this isn't quite an apples-to-apples comparison--remember these are frequency based lights, and there's some slightly misleading resizing going on here --but it's close enough to give you an idea of what to expect [note the loss of color in the ball, especially on the shadow side]):

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

So, Nikon? Please leave software to others (see next story). But please continue making hardware.

Nikon is Not a Software Company
Oct 29 (update)--What I wrote below sure hit a nerve. Oh my did I get complaints about Nikon software in my In Box. Did you know, for example, that Nikon will disclaim support on any custom built computer? That's what one reader claims they were told. Given that many of the other emails I got were about crashes...oh, it much be the hardware's fault. Such a 1980's software company attitude that. Shame on you, Nikon.
Oct 28
(commentary)--Nikon is proving once again that they aren't a software company. The recent updates of View NX2, Capture NX2, and Camera Control Pro just reinforce this. It's not just about timing (late) or lack of 64-bit support. It's the little things that raise eyebrows.

For example, let's start with Camera Control Pro 2.8. The little things here start immediately upon pulling up the installer. Since Camera Control Pro no longer has an internal viewer, you'll need to also load View NX2. The installer says that in the splash screen and even has a button for the View NX2 installer, but it says nothing about whether there's an order dependency (there isn't, but it would be nice to know that up front). The buttons themselves are odd colors. The Install button is green, the other buttons initially black, which makes it look like Install is "selected." They change to silver when you roll over them, but the Install button is still green. Generally, you want one highlight color only so as not to confuse users: the Install button still looks like it is selected to some users, even when you rollover a different button, and that's because it has that different color.

Clicking on the Install button results in a 10 second plus delay on my Macs where nothing appears to be happening. It is, but you don't see it. Eventually you get an Activate Utility message. When you dismiss that, those of us upgrading an older version get a warning about updating. That dialog box is mislabled (says "Contact Us" instead of "Older Version Detected, What Would You Like to Do?"). From there things are more normal (but really 378 items to install?). Think things are still hunky-dory, once installed? Nope. Little things in the new version tell me that there's little quality control going on. "Movie" is spelt "Moive" in the Storage tab, for example. And why is the application so slow to respond to the mouse and buttons now? Seriously slow.

View NX2 2.0.3 has some of the same issues (long pause before seeing the "downloaded application" dialog). Curiously, the previous version found dialog is named "Question" in this updater. That's better than the Camera Control Pro dialog's name, but still not what a mature software developer would name the dialog. (Guess what, Capture NX2 2.2.6 gets it almost right: "Capture NX 2 Already Installed" is the dialog title.) So now we have a consistency problem to add to the others. Another small nit: View NX2 now installs Nikon Movie Editor and Nikon Transfer 2. Good installers tell you this up front, and really good installers give you the option of not installing additional components. Of course, they're not really additional components the way Nikon has designed their software, they're required components. That's almost the definition of bloatware. If I don't care to shoot and edit movies with my Nikon DSLRs, why am I wasting storage on my laptop's space-limited hard drive to install Nikon Movie Editor? (Think what the MacBook Air user wants.)

View versus View NX versus View NX2 is also a long sequence of "who moved my cheese?" Nikon seems to have no clear direction for the design of their software as far as I can tell. As I've written before, it appears that Lightroom gave them some ideas of how to reorganize the display (hey, Nikon discovered Panels; oh, wait, they didn't discover that Panels aren't always fixed in place in Adobe designs ;~). But overall, things just seem to get moved and renamed without a clear reason.

But the real controversy centers around Capture NX2. Nikon has again changed something about their digital rights management (DRM), and once again it seems to be catching a handful of updaters by surprise. If you're not running a tight firewall, you might not see it, but when you elect to update Capture NX2 2.2.6 is running an activation lookup to Nikon's server, which sends your serial number and looks to see how many times you've updated. Apparently either some people are exceeding Nikon's undocumented update limit, or Nikon tightened the limit. The limit is apparently there because of people passing around legitimate serial numbers. So, instead of the update going normally, you're hit with the illegal sale/distribution of software dialog that Nikon recently wrote about in their support system (Answer ID17027 in the NikonUSA knowledge base). To resolve that, you'll be contacting Nikon Technical Support and will have to convince them that you have a legitimate copy (everyone's keeping all their invoices when they buy anything with the Nikon name on it, right? ;~). At which point you'll probably get issued a new serial number.

Obviously, this is a pain if you run into it (I didn't). I've never been a big fan of complicated DRM systems, and I'm not sure that they actually work to prevent real theft of software any better than loose or no systems do. This argument started back in the 70's. I remember having a conversation with Seymour Rubenstein about DRM vis-a-vis WordStar (Seymour was the founder and owner of MicroPro, the producers of WordStar). Seymour's take was that you couldn't prevent illegal copying and that some of that illegal copying eventually led to sales that you wouldn't have otherwise gotten (usually at an update cycle back then, as we didn't have the Internet to provide instant access). My own experience with DRM in Silicon Valley was similar. Indeed, I'd say that all heavy-handed DRM does is increase your Customer Support costs. But all this just masks the real problem: Nikon's software costs too much, does too little, and is poorly updated and maintained. So adding tight DRM to the product just pisses the customer off even more when they get hit with it incorrectly.

One final bit: the View NX2 update installed Picture Control Utility and Nikon Message Center 2. Why does Capture NX2 install them, too? Are the installers not looking to see what was installed? Bottom line: Nikon is not a software company and it shows.

Nikon Loves US
Oct 27 (news)--US dealers received more D7000 kits earlier this week, and I'm told by two dealers that they received body-only boxes today. Meanwhile, the rest of the world seems to still be waiting. That wait should end later this week.

View NX2, Capture NX2, Camera Control Pro Updated
Oct 27 (news)--Some of the expected Nikon software updates have appeared. View NX2 has been updated to version 2.0.3 (version 2.0.2 only appeared on the CDs that shipped with some recent products) and includes some fixes, plus of course D7000 and P7000 support. Camera Control Pro 2.8.0 adds Mac Snow Leopard support (finally), D7000 support, and has some fairly major changes that some will like and others won't (internal viewer has been replaced by View NX2, D3s and D7000 can record to memory cards in the camera though this complicates transfer of images, and D1 series support has been removed). Capture NX2 2.2.6 adds D7000 support, Message Center 2 support, and some bug fixes.

While I don't usually mention beta software, I'll mention that Adobe has release candidates for both ACR and Lightroom that support the new Nikon cameras.

Best Buy Breaks the MAP
Oct 25 (news and commentary)--Over the weekend two different dealers sent me emails about Best Buy's D3100 price. Every source I talked to says the MAP (Minimum Advertised Price) for this camera is still US$699 for US camera dealers. If an individual camera dealer were to violate this, they would be immediately threatened with losing NikonUSA advertising support. That's a significant threat, as the coop advertising program support from Nikon are what most dealers rely upon to put ads in local newspapers, something that's critical this time of year.

So the question is: did Best Buy lose NikonUSA advertising support? Somehow I doubt it. Note that B&H has matched Best Buy's price, but they've honored the MAP agreement by not directly advertising it: you have to add the product to your shopping cart to see the price, the usual way online dealers skirt the MAP. Amazon, too, has done the same thing, and you can see their explanation here.

According to my sources, the D3100 is scheduled for a US$50 instant rebate soon, but NikonUSA reps are also telling dealers that the camera will be in short supply and that they may not be able to meet all their orders. So which is it, Nikon? You shouldn't need to rebate a camera that's going to go out of stock. And will NikonUSA do something about Best Buy's violation of the MAP?

But this is not just about Nikon any more. One of the dealers in question revealed to me that he's going to take money that he was going to commit to Nikon advertising and inventory and instead put it towards a bigger commitment to Sony for the upcoming Christmas season.

I've seen this game before: a manufacturer gets a little to heavy-handed with and a bit unfair amongst their dealers and next thing you know some dealers start reducing their stock of that maker's equipment and put their money elsewhere. Right now I'm told by dealers that their profit margin on a US$1000 sale of Sony gear works out to as much as five percentage points higher than if the sale was for Nikon gear when all the paperwork behind the scenes gets done right and the various kickbacks and support moneys get paid. Considering how slim the profit margins are to start with, that's a significant difference.

So if you or someone you know goes into your local dealer this holiday season looking to buy some Nikon gear and gets cross-sold to another brand, you'll know why. It all starts with dealers getting mad at a vendor for not enforcing their policies equally and fairly. First Best Buy jumped the gun on D7000 sales. Now they've jumped the gun on discounting the D3100. What's next?

Animals, Animals, Animals
Oct 25 (news)--Week two of my delayed workshop blog finishes up today with the final full day's blog, plus tomorrow I'll have a wrap-up entry. Later this week I'll post some background info about equipment, and next Monday I'll start the Botswana workshop blog. My apologies for spreading this out a bit, but I'm deep into trying to finish a couple of other projects, and editing and adding images to the journal I wrote during the trips is taking me more time than I thought it would.

Let's Get Real
Oct 21 (commentary)--Consider the following statements together: "I'm thinking about upgrading to the D7000" and "I also need a new lens because my 70-300mm VR doesn't produce sharp results on my Dxx." Does everyone see the problem here?

No, they don't. Because I got three variants of this in my InBox yesterday. It's the "a magical new camera will improve my photography" chant all over again. Let's start with the second statement: if a 70-300mm VR doesn't produce sharp results on your current camera, you either have a bad sample that needs fixing, or your shot discipline (technique) is wanting. In both cases, you need to deal with that problem first. Updating to a camera with more pixels may actually compound your problem, not fix it.

People just want a new camera, so they look for reasons to justify it. Unfortunately, the reasons they propose should usually lead them to the opposite conclusion, though the fog of marketing lure seems to make them unable to see that. It's new! It must be better! If it's better, it'll make me better!

This isn't to say that the D7000 isn't a good camera or that it won't improve some photographer's lives. I imagine professional travel photographer Bob Krist is in love with his D7000, for example, as there are plenty of features and qualities for him to exploit that go beyond what he could do with his D90. (Yes, some pros use consumer cameras. Don't act shocked.)

So be honest with yourself. You either need or you want a new camera. If you need it, you'll know why and the questions you should ask me and others should be very pointed to the specific thing that you need to be better. If you want it, you don't need to ask me anything. Just buy the darned thing and get your lusting over with (assuming you're not piling debt upon debt to get it). Then get yourself to a Consumer Anonymous meeting and start the twelve-step stop-buying-everything program before your closet fills up with unused gear and your spouse locks you out of the house.

Strange Release Pattern
Oct 20 (commentary)--So the D7000 is in the wild in the US, but nowhere else. Capture NX2 doesn't yet support the P7000 or D7000, but View NX2 does. The 35mm f/1.4G was announced with everything else, but no signs of shipment have appeared yet.

What I see is a system under stress. And one that is trying to use old world project management and marketing timelines in a new world. Using trade shows as mileposts is old school and a waste of money, in my opinion. You try to drive hype at the show and then maintain it into the marketplace immediately afterward, but when your shipments start to lag the show, you begin to lose the momentum you gained. Meanwhile, you've got moving parts that need to fit in, too (those pesky software updates, for one), so you ship a product without availability of extra batteries or necessary software. Add to this the fact that you don't make many useful public statements (e.g. "we expect to ship batteries within a week or two after the camera"), and the customers have no real idea what's going on. That's more momentum killing.

FWIW, I just received word that Nikon has put the EN-EL15 battery and MB-D11 into the dealer order system today, which implies that they're not far off from shipping.

Also, I'm going to update my availability predictions as follows:

  • D3100: spotty availability through end of year (previously only November). Why Nikon thinks they need to put rebates on this model I don't know (see updated story, next).
  • D90: increasingly spotty availability through Christmas selling season (previously available, but gone by end of year).

Nikon November Rebates
Oct 19 (news) updated--The D3000 kit and D5000 kit will all have US$50 instant rebates beginning 10/31 and lasting until Thanksgiving week (don't know about after). The D90 body and D90 kit will have US$100 or US$150 rebates during the same period. The D3100 will get a US$50 rebate starting the week before Thanksgiving. The 10-24mm will have a US$200 rebate when purchased with a D300s or D700 (!?!?). The 14-24mm, 16-35mm, 18-200mm, 24-70mm, 24-120mm, 28-300mm, 55-200mm, 55-300mm, 70-200mm, 70-300mm, and 85mm f/3.5 Macro will all have instant rebates from US$100 to US$400 when purchased with a D7000 (!), D300s, D700, D3s, or D3x. Add the D3100 to that list for the DX lenses (other than the 10-24mm for some strange reason).

Broken Record
Oct 19 (commentary)--Yes, I know that sometimes I sound like a broken record, but the D7000 questions popping up in my In Box also seem like a great deal of deja vu.

People seem to believe that a new camera magically makes their photos better. I would say that this is typically not the case, and for many reasons. Here's just a few:

  • We're in the age of declining returns. While more megapixels sound great at the simplest level (Act Now! 16 is better than 12! 14 is better than 10!), it actually takes 4x the pixels to double the capture resolution (e.g., to double 12mp's resolution, you'd need 48mp). When you subtract out diffraction impacts, the actual change in measured resolution in the new cameras is relatively modest, about at the threshold of what can be perceived at 100% view. The simple fact of the matter is that many people want more pixels because they have the wrong lens and need to crop more. If you can't see that this problem is more easily fixable by getting the right lens or spending a little more time on your composition, a new camera isn't really going to help as much as you think (and is going to increase your workflow if you're cropping everything after the fact).
  • Noise isn't really measurable, it's mostly perceivable. Yes, technically we can "measure" noise, but the measurements you see posted all over the Internet are mostly meaningless. You can have the same noise measurement from two cameras and one will simply look better than the other to most viewers. Beyond that, luminance noise isn't all that objectionable in the first place, and Nikon bodies have long been good at banishing color noise. One of the primary drivers of "I want better high ISO capability" is again using the wrong lens. If you're using a kit lens that's at f/5.6, you're two stops worse than you'd be with the f/2.8 fixed lens. The latest cameras aren't two stops better than the last generation. You may be better off buying the right lens than a new camera.
  • Your images should already be better than film quality. There hasn't been anything wrong with DSLRs for some time (I'm tempted to say going back to the 6mp cameras, but certainly since the 12mp generation). I've long preached that if images you print at the maximum size of a desktop inkjet (13x19") aren't good, then it isn't the camera that's the issue. The problem is how you set it or used it. When I say that, the claim usually becomes that newer camaras should set themselves better. Really? In what way? Exposure in Nikon bodies has always been quite good (and you D80 users only had to move to center-weighted metering and learn to use that, so the exceptions haven't been all that problematic). We've had Active D-Lighting and other "magic" settings in our DSLRs for awhile now. No, it's the gross user errors that people are expecting to be fixed, but people who aren't willing to fix those themselves probably shouldn't be using DSLRs--they're buying a lot of buttons and controls for nothing.

This isn't to say that there aren't people who should upgrade. (Yes, I too had to read that sentence a few times to make sure the double negative was right ;~). But you have to be realistic about what it is that you're getting by updating. I'll take marginal improvements over no improvement any day, but if I had to pay for them directly, I'd be skipping generations along the way. For example, a D40 user moving to a D3100 will likely see quite a bit of meaningful difference. A D3000 user moving to a D3100 is going to see far less.

But the hype now surrounding the D7000 seems mostly to provoke the following quandry in people's minds: D700 or D7000? If you don't already know the answer to that question, my guess is that the D7000 is the camera you should get ;~). I'm going to go out on a limb a bit here: buying into a DX system or an FX system is a bit like buying into either Canon or Nikon. You need to be happy with the ecosystem surrounding the system, not just the body itself. The notion that you'd buy a D700 instead of a D7000 only because it has lower noise (or that you'd buy a D7000 instead of a D700 only because it has noise properties that are "close enough") is a fallacy, short and simple. Need wide angle tilt-shift? Then DX isn't your answer. Need smaller, lighter, less expensive equipment? Then FX isn't your answer.

I don't like "mixed" DX/FX systems for that very reason: you end up duplicating ecosystems (lenses in particular, but often other things like chargers, batteries, remotes, and so on).

So, if you're a DX user, you have to evaluate the D3100 or D7000 as they sit amongst other Nikon DX bodies, or you need to evaluate whether you should be shooting DX or FX. Once you know that answer, choose the best camera in that format. It's that simple.

D7000 Deliveries
Oct 18 (news)--NikonUSA started shipping D7000 kits to its regular dealer base last Friday (typically via UPS). They should start showing up on dealer shelves today. Best Buy jumped the on sale date at many of their stores (Best Buy distributes from their own central warehouses, and had already started to do so late last week).

So, technically, the D7000 kit should be available today, though due to UPS delivery schedules that could be early in the day in some places, late in the day in others, and may spill into tomorrow in still others (plus some stores need some inventory processing time before it shows up in their database as available, especially if they get their deliveries later in the day).

If you're waiting for a body-only version, I'd say expect to wait another month, as that's the typical lag between kits and body-only versions for Nikon. If you can't manage to grab one of these first shipments, I'd say expect to wait at least a couple more weeks, maybe more. If you're outside the US, it appears that Nikon is staggering initial deliveries amongst subsidiaries, probably because the Thailand plant hasn't been building D7000's for long, and there's no inventory build-up to ship simultaneously with.

My current estimate is that only about 10,000-12,000 D7000 kits are being distributed in the US by Nikon at the moment. Given that there are a bit over 3000 authorized places that sell Nikon gear in the US, that suggests that the average store is going to get less than half a dozen to sell (I'm accounting for some who don't get any because they're on credit hold or for other reasons). By the end of the week I should have some better numbers on this.

The good news? If you're looking for an 18-105mm lens there should be a lot of new ones hitting eBay this week, so you should be able to get a decent bargain on one (the implied price of the lens in the kit is US$300, while the street price of the lens has typically been about US$350). In the US, make sure that you get warranty paperwork and 4-year warranty extension form with the lens if you buy it from someone splitting a kit. While technically Nikon warranties aren't transferrable, I don't think NikonUSA has any way of tracking lens+body together, so if you file the 4-year extension card the lens will likely be associated with you, not the kit purchaser. No guarantees here, but it doesn't hurt to try.

New Stuff: Panasonic LX5 Short Take
Oct 18 (commentary)--I'll eventually have a complete update to my Compact Shootout article (originally P6000, G11, LX3, this time P7000, G12, LX5), but I thought to be fair, I'd do short takes on each as I've had a chance to use them a bit. I've already written about the P7000 (now on the 2010 Nikon News archive page). Today the LX5.

There was a lot to like about the LX3, and I'm happy to report that Panasonic apparently understood what that was and stuck with it. Going from a LX3 to an LX5 is almost a no-brainer, as the new camera and it's controls are near identical to the older version.

So what's different? The lens is 24-90mm instead of the previously restrictive 24-60mm (but still a fast f/2 at 24mm, and only f/3.3 at 90mm). The joystick has been replaced by a command dial. There's a 1/4000 shutter speed added. And there's now the option of adding the GF1's EVF viewfinder. Plus, of course, the sensor has been updated, with the claim of an expanded dynamic range. There are other small changes, too, but none that are particularly significant to our discussion.

The body looks the same, but actually, it's a teeny bit different, which a redesigned grip that makes it easier to hold. The LX5 is also slightly heavier than the LX3, but you'll still find this an incredibly light camera (lighter and smaller than the P7000 and G12). Overall, this is a very photographer-centric camera: while it's not at all retro and doesn't have all the dials and buttons of the P7000 and G12, it takes only a few minutes to understand how to get quick access to the things you want to change frequently. The only complaint I have is that, like virtually all Panasonic LCD displays, the overlays are so busy that it becomes a bit problematic for framing, so you end up turning the overlay information off and on a lot (including the histogram, which needs a bit of work of its own). Panasonic needs to carefully rethink what information the shooter needs, when they need it, and how it is displayed.

As before, people want to know about image quality. Pretty darned good, actually. The LX5 definitely is a step forward from the LX3, which was pretty good itself. But it's that fast lens that really shakes things up in the serious compact race: f/2 is already a stop faster than the f/2.8 of the Coolpix (at 90mm, the Coolpix is only down two-thirds of a stop, though, at f/4). Put another way, the Panasonic sensor could perform one stop worse than the Nikon's in low light and the image should still come out about the same if you used aperture to compensate. But from what I see, the sensors are pretty close, so that extra stop on the lens does indeed give the Panasonic an advantage, I think. I'll know more when I've managed to go through all my testing procedures.

The LX5 is no speed demon shooting raw, but it's faster than the P7000. And a full buffer flush appears to be about three times faster (5 seconds instead of 15). Focus speed generally is faster with the LX5 than the P7000, but not always--the P7000 seems to do better when the AF Assist light is needed, for instance.

Overall, the LX5 feels a bit more like what I want a compact camera for than the P7000: wide to moderate telephoto, usuable in modest low light, small enough for a shirt pocket, and simple enough to fully control in the heat of battle. We'll see how that all stacks up against the competitors soon, but I'm carrying the LX5 more than the P7000 at the moment, which should tell you something.

Africa on Tape Delay--A Two-fer Day
Oct 16 (news)--I starting the delayed blog of my two workshops in Africa on Monday. Today I've posted days six and seven of the South African workshop. I'm going to take a break for a day or two, then begin posting new entries again on a daily basis.

The delayed blog gives the flavor of the pace of the workshop and what happened each day during our travels. When the South African workshop blog wraps up in a couple of weeks, I'll start the delayed blog of the Botswana workshop. Thus, you'll pretty much get the day-by-day reports at about the same pace as I wrote them at in Africa. When the blog portions wrap up some time in November I'll have some overall comments about what worked and what didn't, so be sure to stick around through to the end.

For those that are interested, I'm currently in the early planning stages of repeating the Botswana workshop in July 2012 (probably with another southern Africa-based workshop back-to-back, either Namibia or perhaps a 100% wildlife South African workshop). The fact that I'm repeating a workshop should tell you how much fun it was and how good the wildlife shooting was. If you want to be the first to get information about those workshops, drop me an email and I'll add you to a notification list.

I'm Interested in...
Oct 16 (query)--...anyone who ordered the D7000 from Amazon who receives a camera on Monday or Tuesday of next week. Let me know if you do.

D7000 Is In the Wild
Oct 15 (news and commentary)--It appears that Best Buy busted the on sale date embargo in the US. A number of their stores are already selling the D7000 kits they've received, so a few customers in the US have started getting the camera in their hands. Officially, NikonUSA started shipping cameras from the main warehouse to dealers today, which means that they should show up in most camera stores for sale on Monday or Tuesday. The official US on sale date is October 18th (Monday), so those Best Buy stores are jumping the gun.

While I believe everyone is going to sell out of their initial shipment so they won't be too upset by the early sales, I'm sure NikonUSA is still going to get flack over this from the dealers. This is a pattern that has repeated several times now. It happens because Best Buy has to sub-distribute to its stores (items go from NikonUSA to Best Buy warehouses to individual stores), and in order to give them the same shot at the on sale date, that means that NikonUSA has to distribute to the Best Buy warehouses prior to shipping to camera dealers. Coupled with some occurances of big box stores offering things like Instant Rebates a few days earlier than dealers could, it feels like NikonUSA and the big box stores are on the precipice of violating FTC fair trade policies.

D7000 Price and Currency Fluctuations
Oct 14 (commentary)--Several people have pointed out to me that the D7000 prices are higher than the D90 prices, and they then use that to make the assertion that the D7000 is a model higher in the lineup than the D90. I'm not so sure that's actually true, even though Nikon themselves are implying that at the moment.

In the US, the D90 came out at US$999 at a time when the yen/dollar ratio was 106.71. The D7000 was announced at US$1199 at a time when the yen/dollar ratio was 84. The increase in US price of the camera is 20%, the increase in the value of the yen during that same time period is 21%. Coincidence? I doubt it.

The Brits are definitely getting hit a bit hard, as the price of the new camera is up 57% but the pound is only down 34% during the two year period between the D90 and D7000 intros. But those using the Euro seem about where the US is: 28% change in currency, 23% change in camera price. Update: a few people have calculated slightly different numbers than I did. I was in a hurry when I did the math, so I may be slightly off in the actual apples-to-apples percentages, but I don't think it makes a lot of difference: the overall price changes are in the ballpark of the currency changes. Given NikonUSA's proclivity to use xx99.95 prices, there would also be some rounding apparent, anyway.

Availability Predictions
Oct 14 (commentary)--I've been writing about supply issues with Nikon for some time. Here's my latest predictions on what would happen if you wanted various Nikon products in the near future here in the US:

  • D3000: Available now, but gone by end of year.
  • D3100: Spotty availability until Thanksgiving. Availability after that depends upon demand. But I suspect that once reviews start appearing, demand will increase, so it could stay spotty through the end of the year.
  • D5000: Available, but will become spotty towards Christmas.
  • D90: Available now, but gone by end of year.
  • D7000: If you're not already in the order queue, you might not get one before Christmas.
  • D300s: Available.
  • D700: Available.
  • D3s: Spotty availability, and this isn't going to change any time soon.
  • D3x: Available, though every now and again it gets spotty for a short time, probably because the camera is being made in batches very close to demand.
  • f/1.4 lenses (24mm, 35mm, 85mm): Produced in very small batches, so when a batch arrives, they are typically available for a short time, but then they sell out and everyone waits for the next batch. The 24mm should transition to available with the next arriving batch (though there are still a few sitting on dealers shelves in the US at the moment), the others will still quickly sell out each batch.
  • f/2.8 lenses (14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm): Available. Rare spotty availability, but usually quickly corrected as these lenses are mainstream production for Nikon.
  • New lenses (24-120mm, 28-300mm): Should be readily available soon, if not already. Word of warning: will quickly go to spotty if Nikon introduces a new prosumer FX camera.
  • Exotic telephotos: the 200mm, 300mm, 200-400mm tend to be available, with rare spotty availability that usually gets fixed quickly. The 500mm has spotty availability at best, as it appears to be selling out quickly as each newly made lens comes into the US. The 400mm is in between the 300mm and 500mm in terms of availability. The 600mm appears to only be available to NPS members, and even there it's hard to get. I know of backorders that are a year old for the 600mm.

More Nikon Supply Information
Oct 13 (commentary)--I'm slowly catching up with some of my usual sources after having been out of the country for over six weeks (see above story). Here's what one dealer told me, which I've now verified with another: NikonUSA was telling dealers in September that if they wanted D3000's for the holidays, they needed to order them by the end of September, otherwise they wouldn't get any more the rest of the year. I take this to mean that D3000 production is probably now closed down in Thailand.

The dealers were also told that because D3100's would also be constrained in supply until November, that having some D5000's in stock might be a good idea. Curiously, the D3100 is being added to the instant lens rebate program in two weeks, so perhaps that indicates that the initial rush for the camera should be over by then. Or maybe Nikon just likes having things sold out.

Meanwhile, those of you still waiting for the new 24-120mm and 85mm f/1.4G lenses should know that a new batch has arrived in the US and being released to dealers. I also noticed that a few more 500mm f/4 lenses showed up this week, too.

It's Happening Again
Oct 12 (commentary)--Every time new equipment gets announced, especially a camera with promising new features or abilities--my In Box starts filling up with the "should I upgrade" questions.

The answer is quite simple: you shouldn't upgrade unless you've exhausted an important ability of your current camera and know that the new one will clearly surpass it in that ability. As we get deeper and deeper into the digital era, each generation of new cameras tends to produce smaller and smaller improvements, or improvements that are difficult to distinguish in "normal" prints and use.

As poor as the camera companies are at marketing overall, NikonUSA's press release on the D7000 used the words "exceptional," "unprecedented," and "stunning" just in the first two sentences. Add "innovative," "revolutionary," "enhanced," "groundbreaking," "amazing," and "striking" in the second paragraph, and you can start to see how people might get the idea that the D7000 might be something they need to look into.

Don't get me wrong, the D7000 looks like it might be a real winner, specification-wise. But since I don't yet have one in hand and won't until Nikon actually ships the product to customers, I can't yet make any statements about image quality and performance, and those are generally the things you need to know about in order to make a considered decision rather than an emotional one. That said, as the next article notes, if you want a D7000 in the next two months, you'd better have already gotten in the queue at your local dealer.

But what's happening right now on the Internet is mostly subjective hyperbole, as usually happens prior to a new release. Just how good the D7000 is or isn't is still unknown. If you've been waiting for awhile to upgrade from a D40, D50, D70, or D70s, I've no doubt at all that a D7000 is a big step forward. But if you're thinking about ditching your D90 or D300 for a D7000 (or getting a D7000 instead of a D700, as some people seem to be expecting that the early hype that the D7000 was as good in low light as a D700 is true, when it most likely is not), the jury is still out.

Meanwhile, I can say a few things about the D3100, since I've been testing it since arriving home from Africa. For still images, I'm quite impressed. Despite the push to a new 14mp sensor, it seems to beat the old 12mp sensor cameras in my low light tests (but only by a small amount). Someone thinking about moving from a D40 or D50 to a D3100 would be moving quite a ways forward in terms of still image picture quality. Those moving from a D40x, D60, or D3000, would still be moving forward (especially at critical higher ISOs like 1600 or 3200), but not particularly far in terms of resolution. The video side, however, leaves much to be desired. I'll have much more in my upcoming review.

Nikon is Production Constrained
Oct 11 (commentary)--Let me throw a few numbers at you and you'll see that the next few months in Nikon DSLR-dom is going to be a bit different.

The D3000, D3100, D5000, D7000, D90, and D300s are all made in the Thailand plant. That plant has a maximum capacity of somewhere over 3m units a year. Let's be generous and say 3.6m. That's 300k units a month.

So, how much demand do you think there is for D3100 and D7000 DSLRs at the moment? 300k units a month? I'm betting that the initial demand is going to be higher than that. The D90 was Nikon's best selling DSLR, and the D7000 is, on paper, clearly better. Meanwhile, the D3100 is better than the D5000 (except for the positionable LCD of the D5000) and is currently selling for about the same price. Guess which one will sell more?

Full D3100 production started last month, and full D7000 production started this month. How much do you want to bet that these two models consume virtually all of the plant's production capacity (300k units/mo) in October, November, and December? The initial D7000 units are going to sell out immediately is my guess, which means the plant will be scrambling to catch up on that model. Meanwhile, the D3100 is selling briskly enough to put another big demand on the plant.

So what happens to the D3000 and D5000? Well, I think they go away when the current inventory built up of those models is exhausted, which could be before the end of the year. That's because there's not a lot of ability to build more with the plant trying to catch up on the other two models. Ditto the D90 inventory, especially if Nikon brings its price down any more (currently US$899 for the body).

And so the Nikon "out of stock" problem is about to get worse. Come early November, we'll certainly be adding the D7000 to the growing Nikon inventory management problems, as the initial month's production won't come close to matching demand.

Meanwhile, all of you are asking for Nikon to come out with their mirrorless system, a D300s replacement, a D700 replacement, and more. The manufacturing gurus at Nikon are already working overtime trying to meet demand. Don't expect anything to change for the better soon.

Will The Complaints Ever Go Away?
Oct 9 (commentary)--Short answer: no. Oh, wait, you want to know what complaints I'm talking about!

For years now one of the primary type of emails I get has been "when will Nikon catch up to the 5D [5DII]?" These days there's even a new variant: "can the rumored D800 catch up with the expected 5DIII?" Implicit within such questions is a lot of ill-considered brand envy. While Nikon users complain about "no 5DII," "no 1.3x," "no high-end video," and a host of other things they perceive to be good about Canon, Canon users meanwhile are complaining about "no D3s," "no D700-type body," "no Nikon-level matrix metering," and a host of other things. The grass is always greener on the other side.

These days things are complicated by the fact that people are evaluating products as (1) a stills-only camera, (2) a videos-only camera, or (3) a stills-and-video camera. Personally, I'm not seeing much indication that Nikon understands video needs. The overemphasis on 24 fps is ultimately disastrous for true video use, but there are plenty of other missed specs in Nikon's video implementations, too. Thus, I can pretty much say with conviction that no matter what Nikon's next few cameras are like, they're going to fail to satisfy as #2 or #3 when compared to the offerings of other companies. Nikon has a lot of catching up to do, and remains several steps behind where they'd need to be if #2 or #3 are truly important.

On the flip side, no one's come close to matching Nikon on #1 lately. You see it in the DxO Mark sensor score ratings, for instance. Take out the PhaseOne medium format backs and the top four cameras are: D3x, D3s, D3, D700. Drop down to APS/DX sensors and the top two cameras are the D90 and D5000 (with the D300s in fourth). Based upon what I've seen so far with the D3100, it's going to top that list, and we all have high hopes for the D7000, as well.

If you're a still shooter using Nikon DSLRs, especially high-end Nikons, I'm not sure what more you'd really want (yes, I know, a lower cost D3x ;~). But complaining because a camera doesn't match each and every specification of every possible competitor is nonsense. If you're a Nikon still shooter, you should be pretty happy these days. If you're a Nikon video shooter, you should be using a Canon 5DII with a Nikon mount adapter. Simple as that. And I don't think either thing is going to change any time soon.

New Nikon Stuff: P7000 Short Take
Oct 6 (commentary)--I'm slowly getting a bit of a handle on all the new goodies that Nikon has shoved into the sales channel while I was incommunicado. First, up, some comments on the Coolpix P7000:

Somehow the words must have got botched in translation. The early word from Japan on the P7000 was that it would be a "G11 killer" when it came out. More like G11 impersonator. Size, shape, retro-knob bits and pieces, even the flush on/off button behind the raised shutter release, user defined custom sets on the Mode dial, all cry out "Canon G series." Given that Nikon uses the same sensor in the P7000 as Canon uses in the G11/G12, it's difficult to imagine how Nikon thought the camera might be a G11 killer.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

There's much to like about the new camera, though it is missing some G11-ness (positionable LCD and a dedicated ISO dial, for example). It's got a nice rugged build, has a very nice 920k dot 3" LCD, and is faster at focus than the P6000 it replaces. I would have preferred a dedicated ISO dial and the traditional exposure compensation button myself, but the alternatives on the P7000 work fine.

The Av/Tv button is just bizarre. Apparently a stray Canon engineer got into the Nikon facility or someone at Nikon noticed the Av and Tv nomenclature on the Canon cameras and decided that this too needed to be copied in some way, even if they didn't know what it meant. The button doesn't do Av (aperture priority) or Tv (shutter priority) at all. Nominally it just changes which command dial to use for controlling the aperture (or shutter). But it can be programmed for other things, like putting a histogram on the screen, so the button itself is useful, just not labeled particularly well. It's essentially another function button (there's also a dedicated function button, and a button whose function is changed via the dial that surrounds it--in other words a lot of user configurability, which is a good thing).

Unfortunately, there are steps backward from the P6000. First, the P7000 is bigger and heavier. No real need for that, the P6000 was a good size and sturdy enough in actual use. Second, the GPS is gone. To some that was one of the defining elements of the P6000, but it's history now. We've got yet another new battery (though at least you get a battery charger with this one). The tripod socket is offset from the lens center, a bad thing that shouldn't be in a high-end camera design, as it makes simple things like getting pano alignment tougher. And what's with a Long exposure noise reduction system that has settings of only Auto or On? Basically that means On most of the time, doesn't it?

Many of the old mistakes are still present, too. 80% view optical finder, NRW instead of NEF for a raw format, for instance.

We know Nikon did a tear down of the G series Canon's when they were contemplating this camera, but I have to wonder if they were accurately assessing why Canon made some of the decisions they made. The LCD, for example. There's a reason why it articulates and flips on the G11/G12: this protects it when you carry the camera as a pocket camera. That's a big miss by the Nikon engineers, especially since the LCD on the P7000 is so high rez to start with.

What people really want to know, though, is how it performs in terms of image quality. Short answer: about the same as all the other cameras using this 10mp sensor do: pretty darned well. ISO 400 is definitely usable. How much higher you'll tolerate depends upon whether you're shooting JPEGs with NR (or doing NR on raw files) and how much you like absolute edge acuity.

But image quality is the P7000's problem as well as its plus: my old S90 (now replaced by the S95) gets basically the same image quality, and it was a less expensive camera and much more portable. In fact, I kind of prefer the S90's controls better, too. And the G11 (now G12) basically give you the same size and build as the P7000 with the same image quality, but a few better details (that positionable LCD, for example).

Unfortunately, the big issue with the P7000 is lack of responsiveness when shooting raw. It takes almost three seconds to write a single NRW to my Class 6 card, and the camera isn't available to take another shot during that time (if you shoot bursts, you can get five images before the camera hangs, but then it'll be ~15 seconds before it comes back and allows you another shot).

The short story is that Nikon didn't move the bar. They simply got close to it.

I'll have a lot more to say about small cameras in the near future. More than a half dozen pretenders to the crown all sit on my desk taunting me to finish a review on them. But since so many of you have been asking about the new high-end compacts, I thought you'd want to know what I've found so far.

The Rumors Returneth
Oct 6 (commentary)--
The 24mp replacement for the D700 rumors have returned (see Nikon Rumors). I know Nikon did work on such a camera, but the lack of video in the original Sony sensor and the 5DII's video success may have scuttled it.

I still think Nikon has a tough choice with the D700 update: a D700s makes a lot of sense, and there's no other sensor that does what that D3s 12mp sensor does--we'd all hate to see it die away. But as much as many disclaim it, the crowd demands megapixels, so a 24mp update also makes sense, especially if it can improve on the D3x and add video. It's one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't quandaries that come up with product progressions every once in awhile.

Some might say "just do both," but I think that's a bit of a stretch for Nikon. Three FX bodies have pretty much pushed them to the limits as it is. Adding more models isn't going to make supply/demand issues any better, and it also introduces all sorts of marketing problems that Nikon hasn't historically been good at getting under control.

So I think Nikon will do a single D700 replacement and probably initially a single D3 series replacement. Call them the D800 and D4. As I've written before, putting the D800 at 24mp and the D4 at fewer megapixels introduces all sorts of problems of its own: the D4 at, say, 16mp, would have to perform like a D3s or better at high ISO values, and that's a bit of a stretch to imagine sensor-wise. But putting the D800 at 12mp with the old D3s sensor and the D4 at 16mp isn't all that much better.

One of the problems is that we're in the land of diminishing returns now. Doubling sensor pixel count (12mp to 24mp) is not a doubling of resolution. It increases resolution 40%. Most studies have shown that the majority can't see increases of less than 20%, so 40% is a modest visual impact, not the "double" that the numbers imply. And don't forget to throw in diffraction and noise impacts, which will whittle a bit more off the end result.

On the other hand, lower noise levels are relatively easy for most people to see, and you don't need to "double" noise reduction to have high visual impacts. It's one of the reasons why the D3s shines. Unfortunately, while sensors continue to move forward in terms of noise (and/or dynamic range), the D3s was already above the expected progression there, so the prospect of a 24mp sensor with D3s-like noise properties is well off the prediction curve.

There's no easy answer here. A D4 is a given, as Nikon uses the new pro bodies to introduce new technologies into the DSLR line. The question is what Nikon will do in the gap between the D7000 and the D4. Right now, two cameras sit in that gap, the D300s and D700, and both need updating to remain competitive. For the high-end user, 2011 is going to be an interesting year, as it could produce three pro bodies (D400, D800, D4). We're all waiting to see how Nikon sees the differentiation between these products.

Questionable Nikon Policy Statements
Oct 5 (commentary)--
While I was out of the country last month several emails hit my In Box that ask about particular Nikon policies.

Let's start with the old bugaboo: subsidiary repairs. Nikon Canada now has a pretty prominent statement on their Web site that says "[cameras] purchased outside of Canada...do not qualify for warranty service..[and] Nikon Canada will not accept for repair [such cameras]." Here we go again. I believe that the statement, as written, is not Nikon's corporate policy. If I were to marry a Canadian and move there, Nikon Canada should indeed repair all the equipment I bought here in the US while I resided here. The problem underlying the policy comes solely from the way Nikon corporate sets up and measures subsidiaries. With most Canadians living close to the US border, Nikon Canada doesn't want to absorb possible repair costs associated with equipment bought in the US. Gee, the only way that should be a problem is if corporate didn't completely cover warranty repairs, isn't it? I've written it before and I'll write it again: Nikon is fooling itself if it thinks it's operating as a global corporation. Instead, it sets up feifdoms overseen by Japanese executives on temporary assignment, and holds them to performance standards that make the company overall very unglobal.

The real corporate policy has always been that if you can show that you've bought a product in the country it was officially imported into, any subsidiary should uphold the warranty and repair it. Unfortunately for Canadians, it's so easy for most to drive a few miles to get into the US and buy an official NikonUSA import. Now you are in a Catch-22. NikonUSA won't send repaired product to a non-US address; Nikon Canada won't repair it. Nikon is fooling itself if it thinks that this doesn't hurt sales. It does, especially since their largest competitor no longer has the same policy. It's long past time for Nikon to fix this problem.

The second questionable policy statement is actually a non-statement, and regards "refurbished" equipment at the NikonUSA outlet store. Previously, most refurbished equipment from Nikon went through the traditional Nikon dealer network, and it was clearly indicated by those dealers that the product was not warranteed the same way as new (90 days versus one year). I cannot find any such claim on NikonUSA's site, which I would take to mean that the refurbished products have the same warranty as new products bought elsewhere. Indeed, under US law, I'm pretty sure the lack of information regarding warranty status would cause a court to hold that the regular warranty should apply, as no indication has been given the prospective customer of any difference in the way refurbished and new equipment would be treated. Regardless of what the real answer is--and why do I suspect that the real answer is a 90-day warranty?--NikonUSA should list the warranty information on their outlet site, one way or another.

RSS via Google
Oct 5 (news)--I know many of you use the Google "track changes" feature that creates an RSS feed for a site in order to get my site changes into your newsreader. Unfortunately, Google is cancelling this service. You can instead use page2rss to do the same thing, though.

We Have Modular, We Have Communicating...
Oct 5 (news and commentary)--Ricoh last year with the GXR proved that a modular camera is possible (and interesting, though not as interesting as it could be). Yesterday Panasonic proved that a communicating compact camera is possible (Lumix Phone). Now all we need is for someone to come up with a programmable camera (coming by end of first quarter 2011, I think) and then for some Japanese company to realize that putting all these things together produces something greater than the sum of the parts. It really shouldn't be that hard to figure out, but the camera makers are engineering in such small increments now that it'll probably take them forever to get to the end result most of us desire.

Unfortunately, the Lumix Phone proves one of my points: modularity, communications, and programmability all need to come in the same package. Because the communications is hard-wired into the Lumix Phone just like it is in most dedicated cell phones, this means that we're now headed further into the "disposable camera" era: every time the cellular communications upgrades, you'd need a new camera to take advantage of it. Worse still, you need a different communications module in different parts of the world (which is why modular is important not just for sensors, but for the communications side, too).

Now consider what the Lumix Phone is communicating with. If it's just an OS and file system, well, that's relatively stable now and should be for awhile. But the user wants to communicate with Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the like. Those things are not at all stable. Today's API for Facebook is not tomorrow's, and that's why programmability comes into play. Without it, any time there's a change in where or how the sites you want to communicate with, you need a new camera (or at least new firmware).

One problem is that the camera companies are now fully engaged in the "consumer electronics" business of the past. That business requires constant iteration so that yesterday's gizmo needs to be replaced by this year's. They want to sell a new gizmo--in this case cameras--every year or two to the same customer, thus they have to make the older one seem outdated or obsolete. That's wasteful any way you look at it. Worse still, building dedicated cell phone technology into a camera means that the camera will become obsolete in no more than a few years. Today 3G, tomorrow 4G, soon 5G. By hard coding the cellular function into the camera, any change in technology requires starting over with another phone-enabled camera.

Nikon, for example, now seems hooked on unit sales growth (with the goal of keeping dollars per unit as high as possible). It wasn't that long ago that Nikon sold less than 5 million units a year out of the Imaging Division. These days, the number is approaching 20 million units, and growing at double-digit rates. I personally doubt that this is sustainable, as cameras themselves are being marginalized by other products, such as cell phones. Sure, Nikon could get into the cell phone camera business, much like Panasonic appears to be headed, but I'm going to get on my pedestal and shout real loud here: DESIGNING INDIVIDUAL CAMERA PHONES MEANS CONSTANTLY ENGINEERING ON CELLULAR CHANGES, NOT CAMERA IMPROVEMENTS. This is the same wrong track as adding video to DSLRs has been: by diverting nearly all engineering energy to non-central features, the still camera part of the product becomes frozen in time. This in turn leads to people deciding that they don't need a new camera. Which then leads to the camera makers putting even more effort into the non-still camera functions to stay afloat.

I'll say it as directly as I can: still photography is at a crossroads where someone could completely and totally reinvent it and dominate the future. Adding video to a still camera or still cameras to phones (or vice versa) is not what I'm talking about.

The Big Question Everyone Asks
Oct 4 (commentary)--
The D7000 announcement has triggered a huge swell of emails with a question that was already on a lot of minds: will there be a D400? And if there is, what will it be like?

The first question is easy to answer: yes. Simply put, Nikon isn't going to have a US$1800 gap between the D7000 and the D700 replacement when it eventually comes. That's actually a bad place for Nikon to have a gap, as that's the one place that has been an anchor for Nikon's DSLR success. The D90 and D300 were profit machines for Nikon, and clearly distinguished Nikon from Canon in the serious amateur and prosumer market.

The better question to ask is this: will there be a D90 replacement? After all, Nikon has said that the D7000 is not a D90 replacement. Many people have interpreted that as the D90 will stay in the lineup for awhile, then go away. But what if there really is a D90 replacement coming, too?

What seems like a really long time ago, I wrote in a newsletter that I thought that both Canon and Nikon would add models to their DSLR lineup. At the time, I think both had five models, and I was guessing they would extend to six or seven. At present, Nikon has nine (D3000, D3100, D5000, D90, D7000, D300s, D700, D3s, D3x)! In that context, those of you worried that the D300 line will go away are hypothesizing that Nikon will have only five DSLRs in their lineup (D3100, D5100, D7000, D800, D4), or maybe six (D4h and D4x instead of single D4). No, Nikon won't go so far backward to have only five DSLRs, as that would cause some serious price gaps to open up and allow competitors to "split the difference" on them.

My guess is that Nikon's lineup by the end of 2011 will be at least this deep: EVIL, D3100, D5100/D6000, D7000, D400, D700x/D800, D4. The D5100/D6000 and D700x/D800 naming confusion depends upon when the new models arrive. Once the D4 is out, all models should start with an even number again. Until then, we're in the odd number generation. (Yes, Nikon is that precise about naming. Apparently marketing doesn't get a say in names.)

So if I'm right, what would a D400 look like? Well, to fit into the price gap it will have to be DX, I think. I know of nothing that really allows the camera makers to get healthy product margins on FX bodies at the expected D400 price point. To be differentiated from the D7000, a D400 would have to have a feature set that is compelling beyond the D7000. That means 8 fps minimum, either an integrated vertical grip or a better optional grip system (think F4s), better focus system (from the D4), stereo sound, and more. I don't think it needs more than 16mp, so it could probably use the sensor from the D7000, only faster at data transfer (for that 8 fps+). Frankly, that's enough--especially if the focus system is the D4's rumored one. And such a camera would immediately become a wildlife shooter's favorite, I think.

Short answer: there will likely be a D400, and it should be an impressive camera. I could have used one in Africa last month ;~).

The Train Has Left the Station
Oct 4 (commentary)--
When the D90 first came out and included video in what is ostensibly a still camera, I was quite vocal in saying this was not what most users wanted, and that this was going to divert significant R&D resources from still photography to video.

Well, that's what happened. If you look at most of what Nikon has done since then (D5000, D300s, D3s, D3100, D7000) you find that only two models didn't really put any effort into video (D3x and D3000), and virtually none of the others really pressed the still photography front forward. True, the D7000 has more still camera features than the D90, but they are features we already had in higher end cameras. Put simply, R&D hasn't been doing much still photography work as far as we, the customers, can see.

I've become less vocal about the video craze over time, mainly because it is clear to me that the camera companies are lemmings: once one (Canon) went the route of going all video in the lineup, they all would. It's darned difficult to get those lemmings to follow another track.

The camera makers believe that video is selling more cameras. That's debateable, but it's also asking the wrong question. The real question is what would sell more cameras, adding video or really pushing still photography forward? Unfortunately, we won't know the answer to that, as no one is doing the latter, so we have nothing to measure.

So the R&D train has left the station on the Video track. Okay, now what? We've got plenty of "full HD" (1080P/24/30) video implementations now, and the video makers are now responding with even better video cameras. So are we destined to watch the still camera makers keep trying to win people over with new video capabilities? Oh dear, that doesn't end well. To keep the train on the tracks the still camera makers would have to be adding 2k, 4k, 4:2:2 color, higher bit rates in the compression systems, slow motion, and a host of other high-end video capabilities, virtually all of which aren't all that interesting to the majority of DSLR users. Thing is, my iPhone 4 is a perfectly fine HD video camera for most situations, and more convenient in many ways than my DSLRs.

So I think the train is on the wrong track. While I've come to appreciate having a video capability in my still camera, at the D7000 level we're about as far as I want to ever go with that. Yet there are still hundreds of still camera capabilities, functions, and features that elude us users.

So, if you're a camera designer in Japan reading this, please read my Camera Redefined article as a starter and see what you can do to put the still camera train back on the right track. Please? Pretty please? Pretty please with Hello Kitty on top?

Anyone Else Notice...
Oct 4 (commentary)--
...that Nikon hasn't yet supplied their usual 16-page brochure for the D7000? Normally for a camera that's been announced and is this close to ship, it would be out by now.

Nikon Sensors
Oct 1 (commentary)--
I speculated (from Africa) that both the D3100 and D7000 sensors were solely Nikon sensors (based upon comments made to me earlier by Nikon personnel). I'm going to backtrack slightly.

First, the D3100 sensor is clearly fabbed by someone other than Sony and represents an entirely new sensor entry. Nikon's claiming it's completely their design, so I'll run with that unless someone can show me otherwise. In terms of image quality, it's pretty darned good for still work. For instance, it's clearly better than the equivalent 14mp Sony sensor (in the NEX5 I've been testing). I'll have more to say on that soon when I reveal some testing I've done, but it's definitely a modest step forward from, say, the D5000/D90 sensor. The drawback? Video sucks. The rolling shutter problem in this sensor is about as bad as I've seen in a DSLR. So panning or moving objects tend to get the "leans" and back and forth panning is like looking into a bowl of Jello during an earthquake. That's a real shame, as the D3100 was looking pretty darned good in both features and performance until I discovered that. The strange thing is that the previous Nikon-designed sensor--that for the D3s--definitely addressed rolling shutter, so perhaps the D3100 sensor designers didn't get the memo.

The D7000 sensor is almost certainly fabbed and assembled at the Sony factory. Nearly everything external about the sensor has Sony written all over it. The packing style is Sony. The wiring to the sensor internals is Sony. The specs (I've now corrected them in my charts) are downright Sony-like. Except...Nikon is claiming this, too, is a Nikon design. There do appear to be some differences in low-level specs (besides the obviously different masking, which Nikon has always done with Sony sensors). Two things in particular stand out: video differences and ADC differences. Thus, for example, one might hypothesize that Nikon used the existing Sony sensels and put their own electronics alongside. Hard to say without more evidence, and because we don't have cameras in hand yet, it's impossible to yet dissect things and try to figure out the differences, if any.

Someone asked me why Nikon would do their own 14mp sensor for one camera and hedge for the 16mp camera and sensor. One possible explanation: Nikon was hedging all along. One speculation I heard from a sensor expert I talked to is that Nikon made the decision to go all Nikon in the future, but because that's a huge undertaking of unknown outcome and could impinge on product design cycles, they hedged their bets by making the new Nikon sensors very similar in specification to what they could get with off-the-shelf Sony ones. The hypothesis goes like this: for the D3100 Nikon created production plans for both their own 14mp sensor (if it made it to their quality levels in time) and Sony's. Thus, if they failed with getting their own first DX sensor fully up to speed, they would have a reasonable fall-back position. With the D7000 the guess from the sensor expert was that there may perhaps have been as many as three 16mp sensor initiatives for the camera: Sony-only, Nikon-modified, and Nikon-only. We seem to have gotten the Nikon-modified version, which would mean that the Nikon-only one didn't clear some hurdle to production. Again, these thoughts are speculation, though they are speculation by someone close to the Japanese sensor makers.

So I stand partly corrected about the D7000 sensor. I'll continue to sleuth around and see what I can find out.

More Thoughts on the X100
Oct 1 (commentary)--
Some people have taken me to task for my condemnation of the Fujifilm X100 user interface. After all, it has dials, right?

Sure, but are they the right ones? For example, how do you set ISO? Oh, wait, there isn't even a dedicated button for that on the thirteen button back of the camera! Indeed, why are there even 14 buttons and two extra dials (other than aperture, shutter speed, and EC) on a "retro" design camera? The overall design doesn't seem consistent, focused, or operating under one single design concept. Instead, it seems like a kludge of "what we do with digital compacts" and "what we did with film cameras when we didn't have to set much." Out of such compromises comes user nuisance, in my opinion.

What the X100 looks like is a pet side project that got far enough along that someone okayed it to go public as a test. If that's the case, Fujifilm should go back and create a common design goal that's fully retro and fully photographer centric.

Beyond the obvious Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde personality of the design, I also wonder about the holding position. Cameras with far left viewfinders have always been a bit of a problem. Left-eyed folk end up with their nose jammed into the center of the camera and the camera angled off to their left. Right-eyed folk end up with the camera not being supported against their face during shooting. This makes the right-hand grip hold very important, but the X100 doesn't really have one, a common compact camera design flaw. What happens is that you start to brace your wrist into the back right side of the camera and there's all those buttons sitting there, which get pressed randomly when you're not paying attention. That's one of the big flaws of the Olympus m4/3 models, for instance, and I suspect it will be with the X100, too.

And exactly what is the command dial for? If Fujifilm is really going to include it, they need to look at the Panasonic and Ricoh implementations of push-and-dial (e.g. push to bring up commonly set items, dial to choose one). Even the Coolpix P7000's implementation seems better chosen.

As I've already noted, the offset hot shoe and tripod mount are no-no's, too. All in all, it seems like a kludge of old and new in the simplest possible way to put together.

Finally, one should note that Fujifilm's marketing materials are decidedly subtle in wording. The camera doesn't even use a Fujifilm sensor, apparently ("EXR Processor newly developed" not "EXR sensor"). (By the way, what does "more responsive reproduction of the image" mean?) Nor does the camera have Fujifilm's phase detect AF implementation, and Fujifilm seems to have skipped over telling any of us how we're going to focus it manually (that, after all, is part of the joy of "retro").

The niftiest feature of the X100 is the viewfinder display, which nicely melds optical with electronic. Funny how no one else figured out the correct combination previously (the technique for overlaying electronics with optical has existed for years, and is used in most Nikon DSLRs). Fortunately, the Japanese are great copiers, so if the X100's viewfinder really turns out as good as it seems in the prototype on display at Photokina, other makers will emulate it quickly enough.

I want to like the X100 very much. After all, I've been asking for a good large sensor compact for quite some time. But I'm not feeling it from the X100 so far. Too many missed points in the design decisions for me. Let's hope Fujifilm addresses them before the camera is set in stone.

Other September Announcements
Oct 1 (news)--A few Photokina and other announcements were made while I was off the Internet and wandering around Africa:

  • The Sigma EF-610 DG Super and DG ST flash units were announced. Both feature TTL wireless, FP, rear sync, 17-105mm coverage, Max 200 ft/61m GN at 105mm. The main difference is the control system, with Super having an LCD and push button control, the ST having very little manual control over settings and no LCD.
  • The Samyang 14mm f/2.8 now is available with a CPU that allows exposure control on lower-end Nikon bodies.
  • The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 was renewed with OS and weather resistant construction.
  • The Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro was renewed with OS.
  • Two new Schneider-Kreuznach tilt-shift lenses: 50mm f/2.8 Super Angulon and 90mm f/4 Makro Symmar. 12mm shift and 8 degrees of tilt, can be independent.
  • Photoshop Elements 9 for Mac OS X includes Photomerge Style Match, Guided edits, layer masks, improved panos, and more.
  • Lensbaby Tilt Transformer is an adapter to use Nikon F-mount lenses on m4/3 and NEX cameras and allows tilt-shift focus with them. US$250.
  • DxO added 41 additional Nikon camera/lens combinations to their optics modules. They also announced plans for well over a hundred other additions in the coming months.
  • Silkypix updated Developer Studio Pro and Basic to support the Nikon D3100.
  • Photomatix Pro 4.0 adds manually de-ghosting, previews for presets, improved noise reduction, and more.
  • Pixelmator 1.6.1 adds Aperture support, improved photo browser palette, a revamped Stroke feature, and more.
  • Foolography introduced Bluetooth modules (for wireless GPS) for the D3100, D5000, D7000, and D90 models (previously only the 10-pin connector Nikon's were supported).

Nikon's September Announcements
Sept 24 (news and commentary)--
One nice thing about being completely offline for a long period of time is that you don't get caught up in the day-to-day discussions that tend to deep end in amazingly small details that aren't necessarily important. I've known about most of the D7000 details for quite some time, but have kept quiet on them until after the official announcement. Better still, during the weeks leading up to the announcement when the buzz and hype were the highest, I was in remote Africa just shooting. My mind is pretty clear at the moment in regards to product performance and product line differentiation. Thus, I think I can speak about Nikon's new offerings in a relatively detached way that isn't caught up in the usual Internet chatter.

I'll just state up front that I think that the D7000 is the most important camera Nikon has introduced for consumers since the D70 (and perhaps the D700 if you consider it a "consumer" camera; it's certainly a camera that a lot of consumers purchase). The 7 numbers have been important to Nikon in the digital generation. The D70 was what got them significant consumer momentum. The D700 stole the full frame momentum from other companies. The D7000 will…well, it should turn out to be right in the sweet spot of where the advanced amateur wants to be. The only thing the D7000 doesn't have that the target audience might (think they) want is full frame.

In case you missed the announcement details, the D7000 is a 16mp DX camera, 6 fps, 100% viewfinder, more metal and sealed than the D90, and has a number of features previously found only on the pro bodies (exposure measuring with older manual focus lenses, for instance). The D7000 also gets 39-point autofocus, double the pixels in the metering sensor, twin SD card slots, 1080P/24 video, and a new shutter tested to 150k activations, amongst other things. The D7000 is not the D90 replacement according to Nikon, but will slot in between the D90 and D300s in the lineup. That last is a wee bit of marketing chicanery: Nikon has a sufficient inventory of D90's still and has continued to make them as the D7000 started production. Still, I have no doubt that the D90 will be out of the lineup within a year, probably less. The D90 will likely be featured heavily in those weekly deals that Nikon does pre-Christmas, and once production shuts down and those cameras are gone, the D90 will be history.

As with the D3100, Nikon is slowly distancing itself more from off-the-shelf Sony sensors. And as with the D3100, the sensor specs are a little curious. Nikon seems to have decided that some slightly smaller variant of DX is correct, but I'm not sure what's motivating the very slight loss of real estate (e.g. 1.55x versus 1.52x). None of that is important, though. The only thing that is important is how the new DX sensors perform versus the competition. From the sample images I've seen so far, I'd say the image quality is promising. But short of actually putting the cameras through fairly comprehensive testing, it's unclear where the weak points are. (All sensors have weak points, some weaker than others.) I'll leave the image quality discussion until later, when I've had a chance to use the cameras in the field.

The 16mp decision is a good one, I think. It's not going to make a dramatic difference to those currently shooting 12mp DX, as the bump in pixels is slightly under the threshold where most people can see a difference (even at 100% view). But in terms of compromise between pixels for cropping or printing large versus lens performance versus noise and dynamic range, I think 16mp is probably a better choice than Canon's recent 18mp choice (on an even slightly smaller sensor: 1.6x). It does seem a little strange to me to be putting effort into both 14mp and 16mp sensors, though. I don't get the point of doing two sensor designs so close in spec, but with clearly different sensels. There can't be a pricing difference (other than the extra cost to design two sensors). There isn't likely to be a lot of performance difference. The only thing I can think of is that there are significant yield differences, probably due to the on-sensor electronics (the D7000 sensor is 14-bit and faster frame rate, the D3100 is 12-bit and slower frame rate). Still, you could do two variants of a 16mp sensor easier than a 14mp and 16mp sensor. Sometimes I think the Japanese get too caught up in the old HiFi product model: many small feature differences designed for easier upsell. Features are not necessarily functions. Function differences are easier to upsell than feature differences. And the D7000 has plenty of function differences.

Nikon's DSLR lineup is now decidedly old/new. The D3100, D7000, D3x, and D3s are definitely pushing state of the art and are (mostly) very "current" in capabilities and performance. The D5000, D300s, and D700 are now looking a bit dowdy. It seems clear to me that the D5100 will take the D3100 sensor to update the tweener camera. Given Nikon's design propensities, the D5100 will likely stay a bit oddball, with a few features of its own (positionable LCD) while stealing from its neighboring models (sensor from D3100, a few features from the D7000). The D700 has a couple of ways it can go, but the most likely to me still seems to be to grab the D3s sensor and capabilities. Nothing wrong with the D3s and 12mp, though perhaps Nikon will move that sensor design up to 16mp, too (well, okay, the video needs work, too). That leaves the D300s replacement (D400) as the big question mark. Nikon has given themselves a bit of design room (18mp, 8+fps, powered grip, etc.), but not much. A D400 needs more than the obvious to take a slot between the D7000 and the D700 replacement, as the D7000 picked up a number of things (such as working with non-CPU lenses) that were previously the domain of the Dxxx bodies. But Nikon needs something between the D7000 and D700 replacement, as the price gap would be too big, otherwise. So we all wait to see what the D4 and D400 will bring to the table.

Oh, the other announcements? Coolpix P7000, which is basically a Canon G11 with a longer focal length zoom and a Nikon nameplate. Okay, that's a bit harsh, but it seems clear that Nikon looked at the G9, G10, and G11 and finally realized why Canon was selling cameras and they weren't. Unfortunately for Nikon Canon wasn't sitting still (G12 just announced) and Panasonic has made a very nice update and produced the LX-5. Something tells me that when I redo my compact test (previously P6000, G11, LX-3) the results will be about the same.

Nikon also introduced the long-expected 35mm f/1.4G (which takes it off the Waiting for Nikon list) and the minor update to the 200mm f/2G to give it the latest VR system. Rounding out Nikon's mid-September announcements was the SB-700, which is the to the SB-600 what the SB-900 was to the SB-800. Better user controls, more thermal protection annoyance ;~).

Photokina 2010
Sept 24 (commentary)--
So what to make of Photokina 2010? Not a lot, actually. All the trends that have already been observed in the market seem to be in full blossom. Compact cameras keep getting iterated, though not in any manner that's going to generate more sales or a larger market. The Japanese companies seem oblivious to the fact that compact cameras are getting marginalized very rapidly by competent cell phones at one end, and their own mirrorless offerings at the other. Mirrorless continues to be pushed forward, but slowly and without any clear directive other than "the mirror must go and we need to make it small." DSLRs continue iterating on the megapixel and video fronts, as if that will solve all problems. And medium format pokes its head up to say "we're not dead yet" once again. As usual at Photokina, we see both retro and futuristic trends in designs, neither done all that well. It also appears that plenty of companies got the "3D is the next breakthrough" memo, though the origins of that memo are in question and the assertion in it is obviously incorrect.

In short, a typical Photokina.

There was no modular, communicating, or programmable in evidence, so it appears that the Japanese still haven't gotten my memo, or they are choosing to ignore it.

Meanwhile, the amount of money spent at Photokina is staggering. And misspent. Big trade shows really aren't very useful in these days of the Internet (another memo ignored), and a colossal waste of money. You could send multiple people into every camera store in the world for a portion of the costs of these exhibits and trade show presence. And you'd get better information about what's actually happening at the sales and customer end of things than you get from a rep network that is two, three, or more steps removed from corporate. In short, the Japanese camera companies are executing the past formula as if nothing has changed, nothing is wrong, and they're wasting lots of money doing so.

Most of the Japanese companies are actually large bureaucracies now. And like all bureaucracies, they prefer to keep the status quo intact instead of challenging it and being efficient. Nikon has 26,000+ employees (by comparison Apple has 35,000+, but sells more than five times as much as Nikon in a year). So small iteration is the name of the game, and that was very much in evidence at Photokina this year.

Let's take it maker by maker:

  • Canon: Canon came with a quiver of recently updated and new products, most notably the 60D, the G12, and the S95. It's not surprising that video is a big part of the new offerings, and the 60D seems like a strong competitor to Nikon's latest. It's interesting that Canon fixed a couple of minor points on the G12 to make it a better-handling camera in a pro's hands, but they didn't catch their primary mistake with the S90 in updating the S95: gripping it (fortunately Richard Franiec is busy fixing that for them). Sometimes you wonder if the design teams at a Japanese company ever talk to one another. Overall, Canon seems to be trying to execute on the same product plan as before: iterate, iterate, iterate. So we get more megapixels, better video, more features, and sometimes some user interface refinements, but nothing completely new (e.g. mirrorless). I guess that Canon thinks that's nothing broken in their product plan. Evidence shows slightly to the contrary, though. I find it curious, though, that no one seemed to notice or report on the missing camera: the 1DsIV. It should have been at Photokina 2010 if Canon was still on their old product schedules. The fact that it wasn't seems to indicate that something is amiss in the top pro products for Canon. Normally, this would be the point in the timeline when Canon leapfrogs Nikon again, but the D3s and D3x are mightily tall things to leapfrog over.
  • Casio: Casio has always been a curiosity in the camera business. They keep executing like they were a top five compact camera maker, but they aren't. I guess they sell enough cameras to be profitable since they have so many models being re-developed simultaneously over and over, but their margins must be relatively low. Casio's big announcement at Photokina was integration of maps and other data with the GPS built into some of their cameras. Sigh. Compare what the iPhone or Android phones and Google Maps do (some of it via apps) versus what the Casio cameras do, and then consider all the engineering and resources that went into achieving what Casio managed. Seems like doing things the hard way to me. Why not just make the camera a communicator (WiFi, Bluetooth, or even Cellular) and leverage the massive amounts of location data and resources already available? Oh, right, that wouldn't be proprietary.
  • Fujifilm: the X100 is an interesting idea, but so was the Sigma DP1 and the Leica X1 (as is my original Large Sensor Compact article that predates them all by several years and Michael Johnson's DMD articles). The execution is what makes a product work or not work. Given that we're still six months away from Fujifilm's expected launch date (and they have a history of missing those on complex APS bodies), it's difficult to assess the viability of the product. Everyone seems to like the retro notion behind it, but there are numerous design flaws I see in just looking at the prototype. Indeed, the front looks overly retro, but the back looks like a very busy and poorly thought out kludge between digital and retro rangefinder. Little touches, like the tripod socket and flash shoe being offset from the center of the lens shows that the engineers who designed it don't actually shoot much or think about what users might be interested in. 35mm f/2 is also a relatively conservative choice that isn't exactly where the sweet spot of the market would be, either (either wider or 50mm would do better). But the big problem is that the bar is set high for these fixed-lens, large-sensor compacts: the m4/3 and the Sony NEX bodies do quite well and are much more flexible. Fujifilm's other Photokina offerings are also off the mark, I think. 3D isn't going anywhere soon, and the user interface on all the new FinePix cameras seems to imply that Fujifilm doesn't think there was anything broken with their old menu systems (hint to Fujifilm: there was).
  • Kodak: well, Kodak never really was a great camera company (perhaps Brownies excepted). They seem content on proving that over and over. Nothing to see here, let's move on.
  • Leica: Despite all the hubbub about Leica at this year's Photokina, I found the offerings a big yawn: you can spend even more money to get your M9 in Titanium, the X1 now comes in black, and the Panasonic-rebadging gives us more expensive equivalents with the V-Lux 2 and D-Lux 5. In short, a lot of press releases, not much new.
  • Nikon: I'll deal with them later in the article.
  • Olympus: the E-5 seems like a warmed over E-3. The 4/3 pot was therefore stirred, but it didn't produce a sauce any different than before. No new m4/3 bodies, though some lens action was visible. The big story was the prototype of YALSC (Yet Another Large Sensor Compact). Or is it a large sensor compact? Hard to say from what little info was revealed, but the use of the Zuiko name on the lens and the way it was discussed, the prototype is at least in the G12/P7000 category, perhaps better. Personally, I'd rather have seen Olympus concentrate on fixing the user interfaces on their m4/3 bodies (especially after another trip to Africa with them and constantly fighting the controls, which tend to set random things when you're not looking). I suspect Olympus is in a lull between major offerings. They spent a lot of engineering energy on the E-P1, E-P2, E-PL1 set, and it'll be a bit before the true second generation of m4/3 bodies appears. Shame, that. As Panasonic and Sony seem to be slowly getting more momentum in the arena that Olympus pioneered.
  • Panasonic: the big news was the GH2, which looks like a winner (disclaimer: I'm shooting almost all my video these days on a hacked GH1). Coupled with new lenses, the LX-5, and a the other new Panasonic compacts, and taken together with the recent G2, Panasonic seems to be running engineering at full tilt. I'm curious, though. 18mp in a m4/3 body seems a bit ambitious. I'm hoping that Panasonic has made a noise breakthrough at the sensor level, not taken to more post processing noise reduction. I've always thought Panasonic's engineers seem more like actual camera users than those at other companies, so I have high hopes for their new offerings. I just wish they'd quit crippling certain aspects in their designs (like video bandwidth).
  • Pentax: The recent K-r and K-5 plus a couple of new lenses keep Hoya in the DSLR game. Yet it's still unclear how Hoya expects to build on sales in a declining market. Executing the same small iteration plan over and over isn't building share, just churning their current user base. Pentax is building a lot of competent products, but other than the 645D, which isn't being built to demand, it isn't clear how they expect to differentiate themselves long term. As we saw with film bodies, once the peak sales year is past, it gets harder and harder to stay in business just catering to your mount faithful.
  • Ricoh: Finally, another APS lens module (28mm f/2.5 equivalent) for the GXR. Considering that Ricoh made some of its reputation off of wide angle compacts, the choice of 28mm seems rather modest. It should have been 24mm in my opinion. And an 85mm should have been created at the same time (then we'd have 24, 50, 85mm). But what everyone really wants is a Leica M-mount module. Until that appears, the GXR will be the also ran it is today, which is a shame, because Ricoh has a very good overall camera design that feels comfortable in a photographer's hands.
  • Samsung: the NX100 extends their mirrorless line, and we've gotten some much needed new lenses, as well (20mm f/2.8, 20-50mm f/3.5-5.6, both small). Now if Samsung could only get their image quality level up (I find their APS sensor models about equivalent to the m4/3 models of competitors, while Sony's APS sensor NEX models do better). Is it really that hard? Usability, Image Quality, Consistency, and Photographer-centric should be the four corners of camera design. It's amazing how often we don't get all four corners.
  • Sigma: The prototype SD1 certainly is interesting. A new Foveon sensor, this time in 1.5x instead of 1.7x size, and with a true 15mp count (45mp in Sigma marketing parlance). As someone else noted: finally a really nice 15mp B&W camera ;~). But one has to wonder if Sigma has upped their game in the noise tendencies of the sensor (not likely given the Foveon's limited DR) and in the actual camera body itself. As I've written elsewhere, Sigma's cameras feel a bit like they belong in the late 1980's or early 1990's (performance and ergonomics wise).
  • Sony: Sony announced most of their wad well prior to the show, with the A560 and A580 being the most recent announcements. I think the jury is still out on Pellicle Round 2, but I like that the Minolta, uh, excuse me, Sony, engineers are still trying to push the box into another shape. NEX dominated their booth, as it probably should. I was heartened to hear that Sony will coming out with a firmware update to address many of we users' complaints about the user interface, but it's unclear exactly what is changing other than some video changes. At least they heard the complaints, which is more than I can say for some Japanese camera companies.

So let's talk about Nikon in context of what I've written so far. Photokina turned out to have a lot of Nikon noise and visibility for a change. Normally, Nikon announces very early before Photokina and is relatively low-key at the show. This time they pushed some announcements right up before the show and seem much more like they're trying to leverage that on the show floor and in their marketing.

Both the D3100 and D7000 are important cameras for Nikon. First, the D3100 needs to establish that Nikon can produce a fully featured, relatively high performance entry DSLR. The D40 to D60 to D3000 progression basically petered out, as each new camera didn't really raise the bar. The D3100 definitely raises a number of bars, not the least of which is that it had Nikon's best video offering to date when it was introduced. The image quality looks good so far (I'll have much more to say on this soon), so it very well may be that Nikon can truly go toe to toe with Canon at the bottom of the DSLR line for the first time in some while.

The D7000 is in the anchor position of the consumer line. The D90 was Nikon's most successful consumer DSLR, and the D7000 has to go a long way to take over that mantle. Fortunately, it seems to be ready to do just that (though I haven't yet seen image quality from it yet, and that will be the final important leg for it to stand on). If the image quality holds up, even D90 users are going to be tempted to upgrade, which means the camera should do exceedingly well for Nikon.

Meanwhile, the Coolpix P7000 looks mostly promising, though it also seems much like a Canon G12 with a slightly longer lens. But the price is silly. Apparently Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic are colluding, as the prices for the G12, P7000, and LX-5 are aligned perfectly at US$499. Now exactly how did that happen? These are US$399 cameras, in my opinion. At best.

So Nikon came to Photokina with plenty of new ammo in the box. Combine the D3100 and D7000 with the D700, D3s, and D3x, and you have five cameras that are hard for anyone else to top. That leaves the D5000 and D300s looking a little weak, but only a little. In short, Nikon's DSLR lineup is as strong as it has ever been, and that probably bodes well for them as they've been successfully tussling with Canon despite previously weaker overall lineups.

The funny thing is that none of this is enough for the Nikon faithful. Cries of "where is the D400", "where is the D700 replacement", and "where is the affordable D3x" can clearly be heard. The answers are: next year for the first, and we'll eventually get one or the other for the latter two (probably in early 2011).

Overall, Nikon is a good position when measured on traditional offerings. The DSLR lineup is as good as it has ever been. The Coolpix lineup is mostly competent though not exciting. But those are all cameras as we've come to know them in the digital age. As I've outlined in my Camera Reinvented and as we've seen with large sensor compacts and mirrorless cameras, there are alternatives. Nikon is staying the course of iterating current designs, and not venturing far from the middle of the stream. Kimura-san has been making a lot of statements lately about reinventing the camera (at least one statement seems to have been lifted from a presentation I made in Japan to Nikon executives in March, though a bit misappropriated), but it remains to be seen whether that's just code for "we'll have a mirrorless camera, too" or amounts to something more substantial. I'm actually guessing that it'll be somewhere in between: I suspect that Nikon will have a mirrorless camera with a couple of surprises, including some modest programmability and perhaps a display option that is unique.

But I think we're still quite far from any camera company, let alone Nikon, reinventing the camera the way it should be done. Photokina 2010 was basically a show of "more of the same," with little offshoots extending a few minor new trends.

Quick Hits
September 1 (news)--Nik announced their HDR Efex Pro plug-in. Capture NX2 was updated to version 2.2.5 to support the D3100 and fixes a few items. Adobe updated Lightroom to version 3.2 and Camera Raw to version 6.2, plus Photoshop had a minor bug fix update. Tamron has announced that it will create and support lens correction profiles for the Di and Di II series lenses in Photoshop and Lightroom. Zeiss has announced that the new 35mm f/1.4 Distagon will be chipped and available in 2011.

New Lenses Shipping
September 1 (news)--All of the new Nikkor lenses except the 24-120mm are shipping from the NikonUSA warehouse now. They should show up in stores shortly.

The Puzzle
August 21 (commentary)--The puzzle with Nikon recently has been "where is it?" As in "where are the lenses?", where is the inventory?", "where are the new cameras?", "where is the video?".

Some of the pieces are coming into place now, particularly on those last two questions. Some cameras weren't here quite when expected because Nikon has apparently moved to producing their own sensors. The video wasn't quite all there because Nikon hadn't yet moved to producing their own sensors. The year-long gap between the D3000/D300s and D3100 was the longest DX body announcement gap we've had since Nikon started iterating faster with the D70s back in 2005. And I suspect that the gap was as long as it was because of the shift in sensor use.

That the D90 replacement is due next month and now likely to also have a new sensor in it would tend to signal to me that Nikon thinks that they've "made the transition." At this point, Nikon appears to have two sensors in production (D3s and D3100) and possibly a third is now entering production (D90 replacement). In the coming year one would expect a D700 replacement and a D4 sensor to also get added to the mix. If the D5000 and D300s get updated, they're likely to use one of the first two DX sensors that exist at the time (e.g. the D90 replacement sensor). So by the end of 2011 we can imagine all Nikon DSLRs using Nikon sensors, and there being either four or five such sensors in production. If I'm right about this, that represents an aggressive move by Nikon.

Taking this further, an eventual D4x could be somewhere around 38mp using Nikon's smallest sensel design, a figure that starts to exceed what most lenses can resolve.

Still, those of you who have read the full series of articles I've been writing about sensor possibilities in the past months know that there's one really perplexing puzzle piece: the D3s sensor. Nothing Nikon is currently working is likely to achieve the same levels of low-light performance that the D3s does. As I wrote earlier, if Nikon could product such a sensor with more pixels, it would indicate another D3 level breakthrough when none is expected. No photographer I know of wants the D3s sensor to die off. We all want it available in a future body as well as the current one. But that's the puzzle piece I can't figure out. Other than possibly making a D700s, there's no clear scenario I can see that would have the D3s sensor live past the D4 introduction. So our puzzle is not yet solved.

Meanwhile, the D3100 also introduced Expeed 2, and not a lot of people have been asking questions about that. My guess? The 2 in Expeed 2 is mostly centered around H.264 compression and other video needs. The question is how far Nikon took that. The 1080P/24 in the D3100 isn't enough for the pro ranks. Hopefully they've thought this through and are prepared to go at least as far as 1080P/60 plus 4.2.2 color with EXPEED 2. But one would really hope that a D4 would be 2k or 4k video, which would require even more from that EXPEED chip.

The puzzle is still missing pieces, obviously, but it's clear now that Nikon is pushing further into controlling the core of their imaging engine. Good for them. And so far, good for us users, too. Just don't let that great D3s sensor die off, Nikon.

Additional Comments on New Lenses
August 20 updated (commentary)--Much of my mail after this week's Nikon announced was filled with comments about the 85mm f/1.4G AF-S. The common denominator: "seems like film-era design." I would tend to agree. Indeed, all the recent new FX primes (24mm, 50mm, now 85mm) seem to be design dinosaurs. My sense is that Nikon saw all those old primes as superb performers not in need of much change. That's especially true since even the lowest body (D3100) now does chromatic aberration correction. There's definitely a bit of "if it isn't broken don't fix it" going on in these designs.

Still, one can't help but feeling a little underwhelmed that the only key addition in the prime lineup is turning out to be AF-S (and on the 50mm, not particularly fast AF-S).

Much of the discussion on the 85mm appears to be about why there isn't VR in this new lens. I've seen multiple instances of people saying that "you can't do VR for an 85mm," but that is clearly incorrect. What they should be writing (or saying) is that if you pick a particular optical design to use, you may find that you can't stick VR into that design. This appears to be exactly what happened with the 85mm. Yet Nikon themselves have designed and patented alternate designs, one of which does have VR in it. So the more appropriate question is why did Nikon choose to do a more modest update than an aggressive one?

Hints are in the Nikon marketing materials. If I read the words "portrait" and "bokeh" one more time today, I'm going to need to go out and use a wide angle lens on a scenic to get perspective back ;~). It simply appears that Nikon thinks the 85mm is mostly a studio lens, and a narrow-use one at that.

One thing that's becoming clear is that the way Nikon is updating primes, all those old manual focus AIS primes are getting more valuable ;~). Optically, the new versions really don't push the boundary very far, if at all. Having a true infinity and well defined DOF markings starts to look better and better every day.

Other quick hits:

  • I don't know for sure, but I'm thinking that the AF-S on the new 55-300mm is more like that of the 55-200mm and not the 70-300mm. Slower focus motor, no manual override without using the A/M switch.
  • My dealer reports that all the new lenses will be on some form of allocation to dealers initially. So much for my optimism that Nikon might have actually gotten a handle on supply versus demand. All but the 85mm should be available in September.
  • Nikon learned from the 18-200mm: the initial 28-300mm has a zoom lock switch on the barrel.
  • US prices: 28-300mm is US$1049, the 24-120mm is US$1299, the 85mm is US$1699, the 55-300mm is US$399. (Originally, NikonUSA had the prices for two of the lenses inverted, and thus so did I.)

Further Comments on the D3100
August 20 updated (commentary)--People need to learn the difference between meaningful data and noise. Not in the image quality of a sensor, but in things like product release announcements. Everyone is rushing to make statements about "what is Nikon doing" and "where is Nikon going" and "Nikon has given up on high end DX" and all other sorts of insane speculation based upon one random data point, the D3100 specs. This is akin to betting on the long-term value of the Dow or S&P 500 based upon the daily fluctuation of a single stock. (If you want an in-depth analysis of why that is, read Taleb's book "Fooled by Randomness").

The broad trend in digital is that Nikon has done well in pushing the envelope, especially at the pro end. That started with the D1 and continues through the D3s/D3x today, with the main hiccup being the D2h (which was still better than most people gave it credit for).

When the D2h came out we heard the "I'm switching to Canon" chorus at full volume. On one short-term data point, people made large-scale economic decisions for the long term (selling off their Nikon gear to buy Canon gear). Then the D3 came out, followed by the D3s. What do those new data points say? Why, sell Canon and buy Nikon. This is classic sell low, buy high foolishness.

Single product introductions, even multiple ones, can be meaningless noise in evaluating future prospects. I love how Taleb puts it in his book (again "Fooled by Randomness"): run a Monte Carlo simulation on the same investment strategy and look at the probability of being successful on different time scales: 1 year, 97%, 1 day 54%. In other words, by getting too caught up in the day-to-day noise of individual events, you'll be less satisfied with the same portfolio the more you try to analyze it on short-term events (the day's stock prices, or in the case of Nikon, today's product announcements).

There are trends in Nikon's D3100 announcement that are observable: the D40x->D3000 line continues to evolve, video is becoming more important and getting more features with each new release, neither the basic Nikon button-and-dial user interface nor the menu structures are changing. But to start discussions or send me emails with "the D3100 is now the highest pixel count DX camera Nikon makes" is nearly absurd in terms of using it to predict the future. More likely is this: if Nikon's lowest end camera has 14mp, the future higher end cameras are likely to have more. And the pro cameras will continue to have better pixel data (less noise, more dynamic range, etc.). But if you try to predict the future from a single data point, don't expect to beat the market ;~).

Put another way, the D3100 announcement is only meaningful in terms of where it sits in the low-end DSLR market historically. First, there's a progression (D40x -> D60 -> D3000 -> D3100). Second, how it stacks up against similar competition (low end Sony, Canon, and Pentax cameras, for instance), for which we'll need to see some real performance data, not just a feature set. Third, that Nikon continues to spend a lot of time integrated video at the expense of not doing anything much on the still side that's innovative. In other words, not a lot of "news" in the announcement. Everything may still pretty much be the same as it ever was in low-end Nikon DSLR land: slightly laggard feature set, slightly better performance, (eventual) aggressive price. Thus, I see nothing that indicates Nikon will suffer much with this new camera. Just the opposite: the sane conclusion is that the D3100 will simply take over from the D3000 the role of being one of the most popular DSLRs in terms of unit volume.

What's really happening with all the angst over the D3100 (and probably over the upcoming D90 replacement) announcement is that people are displacing their frustration that they still can't buy a 24mp FX body at a reasonable price with the Nikon name on it. If you can't get what you want, then bitch about something else. Wow, that's a mature approach to life.

One curious aspect of the D3100 is the sensor. "Nikon developed" appears in the marketing materials, and the sensor is indeed not the same one as in the Sony NEX5 (as originally speculated) in several key ways, one of which is physical size, the other pixel count. The Nikon 14mp sensor has slightly more pixel count in a slightly smaller area than the Sony. Indeed, the area is no longer what I'd call DX. The D5000, D90, and D300 have a sensor area of 23.6 x 15.8 (28.4 diagonal), while the D3100 has a sensor area of 23.1 x 15.4 (27.8 diagonal). This represents a loss of about 2% in image circle coverage needed. We're now at 1.55x crop as opposed to the old 1.52x. It's an unusual change, but the bottom line is that the Nikon and Sony 14mp sensors are indeed different in important ways. But I'll repeat: the proof is in the pudding. We need to test the new sensor on live subjects before making any useful pronouncements about it.

Update: I've now heard even more details about the D3100 sensor and from a few sources closer to Nikon Japan. It does indeed appear that Nikon has moved to producing their own sensors. They may be licensing or cooperating on some of the underlying technologies, but it appears that Nikon has decided that Nikon DSLRs will in the future have Nikon-controlled and Nikon-exclusive sensors. That they haven't chosen to make a bigger deal of this is strange. And some parts of Nikon appear not to have gotten the memo on this, as I've seen quotes from Nikon personnel in some subsidiaries that say "Sony sensor."

Nikon D3100 and Four Lenses Announced
August 19 updated (news and commentary)--The second round of Nikon's three fall announcements produced the expected D3100 (US$699), 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR DX lens, 24-120mm f/4 VR FX lens, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR FX lens, and 85mm f/1.4 lens. All the lenses are G and AF-S, with the 24-120mm and 85mm also having Nano coating. I've updated my Nikon lens database with the details on the new lenses, and I'll have a bit more to say about them at the end of this article.

The camera Nikon announced, the D3100 follow-up to the D3000, is sure to raise a few eyebrows. At 14mp and DX, the D3100 now (temporarily) takes the top of the line in terms of pixel density for Nikon bodies. Put another way, for a short time the D3100 will have the most pixels of any Nikon DX DSLR.

The D3100 is a direct replacement for the D3000, though I understand that D3000's will remain in the line up as the entry body until they sell out. In most respects, the D3100 is simply a continuation of the D40x, D60, D3000 lineage. No screw drive for older AF lenses, a small, light body with a clear subset of Nikon DSLR features, and so on. The 3" display of the D3000 remains, as does the CAM1000 AF module (11 points).

What's new really centers around the sensor. The 14mp CMOS sensor is "Nikon designed," though no details about what that really means have been given. The D3100 gains Live View and video capabilities with the new sensor, and the autofocus system has been updated to provide continuous focus for Live View and video. The video capabilities of the D3100 also temporarily top those of other Nikon DSLRs. We now have 1080P/24 and 720P/24/25/30, in H.264 compressions, with a 16-bit mono 24Khz audio file, all saved in a .MOV file container. It's sort of a weird "we'll do it our way" conglomeration of choices, but usable. One real issue is that 1080P/24 isn't really "broadcast quality" here in the US, so the highest resolution provided is most likely going to be used for Web distribution only (720P/30 would be fine for some broadcast purposes).

The menu system I disliked so much in the D3000 has been updated some, though until I have a chance to use it in the field, I'm not sure how much improvement it'll be. On paper, it looks better and more usable, but I thought that of the D3000 until I started using it. The confusing "GUIDE" mode is back, so it'll take some delving into it to figure out if Nikon discovered all their mistakes and odd wordings. At first glance, the GUIDE system has been improved, though.

Overall, the D3100 seems like what the D3000 should have been. Yes, this camera should have surfaced a year ago, with exactly the same specs (and there's really no reason why it couldn't have). How well the camera will sell is going to be mostly down to image quality and autofocus performance, I think. Based upon what I've seen from other cameras using similar sensors, I'm expecting far better image quality than the D3000 produced. I won't be able to guess about the video because we're entering new territory here with Nikon's first true video codec. Video can be quite variable in quality, mostly dependent upon how much bandwidth you provide and preserve in the codec.

The body does get a few much-needed extras: GP1 GPS support, wired remote support (but wireless remote support is removed), and HDMI output. Automatic chromatic aberration correction was also added.

As for the lenses, the only surprise here is the 55-300mm DX. There was a fairly large leap from the 55-200mm to the 70-300mm, so the lens definitely fills a slight gap in the lineup.

Well, okay, I lied. The other surprise was that the 85mm didn't have VR. I really don't get Nikon's decision making on lenses lately. The 16-35mm gets VR, the 85mm doesn't. The quickly retired 28-200mm regenerates a 28-300mm while the 80-400mm remains a sore weak point in the "consumer" FX lineup.

To put it bluntly, the new 85mm f/1.4 has its work cut out for it, because optically there wasn't a lot wrong with the old one. I doubt anyone is going to upgrade just for AF-S or Nano coating (after getting a few emails on this, it appears I might be wrong; some say they need faster AF than the old lens provides; my own take is that the old lens focuses just fine). This feels worse than the 50mm f/1.4 update on the face of it: a lens redesign that doesn't need it.

Meanwhile, the 24-120mm and 28-300mm are lenses that will appeal to consumers and prosumers with FX bodies. That would be the D700 user base. The old 24-120mm showed its weaknesses on the D700, so a new optical design is good, and the constant f/4 aperture gives us all an extra stop at the long end. Nice. The 28-300mm seems to be trying to resurrect the 18-200mm DX experience for FX users. Let me remind everyone what that experience was: we were all at first impressed with the fact that the elephant could tap dance, but after attended a lot of performances, we decided that the elephant wasn't that great at dancing. As I wrote some time ago, the 18-55mm and 55-200mm DX combo could equal or outperform the 18-200mm DX in all respects but one: avoidance of lens changing.

I suspect we're going to find the same thing happens with the 28-300mm. Initially, there will be those that laud it because it "does everything," but they'll eventually get around to comparing pixels and find that the 24-120mm and 70-300mm combo do a better dance. And actually "go to 300mm." ;~)

That said, Nikon will sell a lot of 28-300mm lenses to the masses and we'll see them hanging off D700's at vacation spots for years to come.

View NX 2
August 17 updated (news and commentary)--A new version of Nikon's free browsing and raw conversion program is available. View NX 2 adds basic movie editing and still extraction functions as well as a few new still editing features (resize, straighten, file conversions). Tighter integration into Picturetown, Nikon's online storage option, was also included, but they've taken out emailing, which overall means the product is less "social" than before (note to Nikon: Facebook, Flickr, Hotmail, Gmail, and about a zillion other things are more important than Picturetown; proprietary is old-think). Printing got some much needed love. Not mentioned by the press release or most sites, Nikon Transfer 2 is also included in the View NX 2 package (and installed in the Nikon View NX 2 folder instead of a separate Transfer folder). Likewise, Nikon Message Center 2 is also loaded and used by View NX 2.

Many of the changes Nikon has made appear to be arbitrary and an attempt to copy some of Lightroom's style. For example, we're now given a dark neutral gray background and have accordion slide panels on the left and right side. The left side is, yep, folders and navigation. The right side is develop and metadata. Very Lightroom-esqe but without anywhere near the polish. We do get more functions in the "develop module" (e.g. chromatic aberration control), but Nikon still needs a UI expert: just stacking a bunch of sliders under headers shows just how far from Lightroom View NX 2 actually is.

Many of View NX's annoyances still exist, and new ones have appeared (if you select transfer from within View NX 2 you get the new version without your old preferences intact). I'm amused that the defaults for XMP/IPTC presets include a suggested 2009 Copyright date (and an incorrect Copyright notice form, at that). A "Customize Toolbar" option that really only allows you to remove things from the toolbar isn't very interesting. On the plus side, View NX 2 does seem as if performance in some areas has improved, despite the fact that this is still a 32-bit application on both Macintosh and Windows (note to Nikon: 64-bit has been ubiquitious for some time now, didn't you get the memo?).

Unlike many previous software announcements, the software is available everywhere simultaneously. But this appears to be because the entire release is being hosted out of Japan (the nikonlib.com site). This seems to indicate that Nikon Japan is taking complete responsibility for software releases now, not the subsidiaries.

I'm happy that Nikon is continuing to try to refine View. But they still seem clueless as to how to build a tight and powerful user interface. The "scatter" of UI elements is insane in this version and looks like a hodge-podge collected from partly copying a half dozen other products rather than a well-thought out integrated approach of their own.

The Coolpix Announcements
August 17 (news)--Nikon today announced two new Coolpix models:

  • Coolpix S5100. Another in the 12mp S lineup. 28-140mm.
  • Coolpix S1100pj. The updated projector camera, now with a 14mp sensor, touch screen, more RETOUCH functions, and 720P video in a slightly different body.

While a lot of writers keep proclaiming projectors a thing of the future in cameras, I'm not convinced that they are. The trend is away from real social get-togethers (parties) and towards virtual ones (Facebook, et. al). Yes, it's an ice-breaker, but is it any more than that? I don't see the staying power. After all, I've got a perfectly fine little stand-alone pocket projector right now, and I'm not exactly running around trying to get people to look at my unedited pictures with it by connecting it to my camera. The real fad is the coming tablets. Now if that Coolpix automatically brought my images up on my iPad...

...I'll give you a moment to think about that last bit...

...Okay? Ready to move on?

A wireless and fully integrated connection with an iPad trumps the projector thing in virtually every way. First, there's the immediacy: touching is better than standing back and viewing, and more intimate. Second, there's the quality: an iPad's image display just trounces the little projectors. Third, there's the editing possibilities (applying styles, using Faces Wild on a portrait, and much more). Projectors are so one-way and so limiting. Imagine that programmable, communicating, modular camera I keep writing about. Where's the projector fit into that? It probably doesn't, because the Camera Redefined doesn't need a built in projector, does it?

Still... I'm not quite sure how they achieved it, but Nikon has taken a mediocre Coolpix lineup and grabbed more market share with it. But serious Nikon DSLR users don't seem to use Nikon compact cameras as their walkaround camera. This exposes a problem for Nikon: those that buy Nikon's excellent DSLR products tend to do so because of quality; those that buy the Coolpix tend to do so because of name and price. Traditionally, you want a brand to stand for one thing, but over time the Coolpix/DSLR split has got to come back to haunt Nikon. Those that buy into the Nikon brand at the Coolpix end don't see the quality and performance necessary to get them to jump to a Nikon DSLR. Those with a Nikon DSLR sample one Coolpix and jump ship to another brand for their low end camera. This is not the dichotomy I would work towards if I ran Nikon's product line.

From the Coolpix 900 about up through the Coolpix 8800 Nikon enjoyed a reputation that was similar in both the low end cameras and high: quality, performance, unique. But Nikon was losing compact camera market share during that time to the ubiquitous undistinguished compacts. So Nikon started down the path that has brought us today's L, S, and P cookie cutter models. Meanwhile, Canon continued to iterate its G series well, and added some other decent compacts, too (the S90, for example), while Panasonic upped its game. The best compact cameras are no longer Nikons.

To me, the Coolpix line has long felt like "filler." It's empty calories served blandly. Nothing in these announcements changes my mind.

(Very) Temporary Inventory
August 16 updated (commentary)--I regularly monitor Nikon inventory in the US. It's clear that NikonUSA released a handful of 500mm lenses this past week, but they mostly got gobbled up as fast as they hit the shelves. A couple weeks previous to that NikonUSA released a handful of 200-400mm lenses, and a few of them remain in stock around the country, though I suspect they'll disappear soon, too. What it looks like to me is that Nikon has a monthly rotating system of exotic lens production. I wonder what we'll get next month, the 300mm or the 600mm?

But here's the key to getting out-of-stock lenses, I think: find a local dealer that carries Nikon Pro gear and that doesn't have any outstanding orders with NikonUSA for the product you want. Get them to place an order with NikonUSA for the lens. This order generally has to not just be one of the typical online orders, but has to be upgraded to the store's Nikon rep's attention. Why does this work? Legally, if Nikon gets 200 lenses they can't distribute them all to Dealer Z and none to Dealers A through Y. While a few high volume, high commitment dealers do get extra distribution, NikonUSA has always allocated relatively evenly amongst dealers of the same rank. The reps control the last bit of allocation. Those allocations first go to stores that the rep knows actually have an order in place. In the current economy, many dealers won't order the really expensive goods for stock unless they know they have an order in hand to ship to, thus, the hard-to-get lenses rarely show up on a dealers shelf waiting for a buyer.

So. Make friends with a good dealer. Establish a buying relationship with them. Make sure that they don't have other orders already in the queue (it's unlikely that your local dealer would get three 500mm's all at once to fulfill their outstanding orders when an item is still being allocated).

If you want to play the Amazon/Adorama/B&H Lottery to get hard-to-find lenses, try www.nowinstock.net and be really fast on the click-through. But a local dealer is a better bet right now until Nikon gets things back in balance (which, of course, currently appears to be "never" ;~).

Things at Home
August 16 (commentary)--It's always interesting to watch the camera race from the local Japanese perspective. BCN publishes weekly information about sales of cameras in Japan with interchangeable lenses and from time to time summarizes them. Here's the first half of 2010 graphed versus the full 2009 year in terms of unit sales:

Yep. Nikon and Canon have switched places again in Japan. Canon's loses come at the gains of Panasonic, Olympus, and Pentax. Sony also slid (this was before the NEX sales started).

More interesting in light of Nikon's upcoming product announcements is that the number one model in terms of sales share in Japan was the D90. Nikon's order of sales went D90 (13% of market), D5000 (10.6%), D3000 (7.9%), D300s (1.3%). That's sort of top outselling bottom. But look at the Canon numbers: T1i (11.5%), T2i (9.7%), 7D (3.5%). That's bottom outsells top. You can see why Nikon might think that the upcoming D3100 intro is a big thing: the bottom two Nikons sell 18.5% of the market at home versus Canon's bottom two getting 21.4%. If Nikon wants to pull more share away from Canon in Japan, they need a "hotter" low end camera.

Meanwhile, in the distant Group of Four, Panasonic has shown a marked uptick, with Olympus and Pentax having modest ones. Sony slid backwards. Here's that grouping in a little better detail:

No doubt all these numbers will change in the latter half of the year. Panasonic is rolling out more followups to their original m4/3 bodies, Sony already has the NEX twins boosting their short-term share, and there are plenty more new cameras to come with the Photokina trade show happening late next month.

Note that the Japanese sales numbers don't exactly line up with the global ones. While m4/3 grabbed nearly 17% of the Japanese market sales in the first half of the year, sales worldwide are far more sluggish as traditional DSLRs are still doing better in the US and Europe than they are in Japan.

One thing is clear, though: mirrorless may be performing well, but it hasn't really changed the dynamics of there being a Big Two and Lesser Four. We have two different battles going on here: a supremacy dual between Nikon and Canon, and a breakout battle amongst the rest of the players. So far, Panasonic is the apparent breakout champion in Japan. But they haven't yet replicated that globally.

D3000 Review Posted
August 14 (news)--I've got a couple of odds and ends sitting around unposted. Here's one, my overdue D3000 review (just in time for the camera to be replaced ;~).

And So It Begins
August 13 (news and commentary)--You'd think that in 50 years of dealing with the printed press that someone at Nikon would know how to do embargoed information right by now, but the German magazine Foto Digital has managed to jump the gun and get issues to readers with information about next week's Nikon DSLR and lens announcements. Since the information could have only come from Nikon, you have to wonder if anyone at Nikon checked to see when the magazines they were releasing information to actually went to press. It's not the "on sale date" that matters, Nikon, it's the "off press date." I'd actually argue that it's the "on press date" that should be looked at, as that's the first date that someone who hasn't directly signed an NDA starts to see the material.

So, the D3100 is mostly official at this point: the newer 14mp Sony sensor (with HD video support and Live View), new EXPEED 2, AF during video, and some much-needed menu changes.

More interesting are the lenses. In order from least expensive to most:

  • 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX. Appears to be slotting in between the 55-200mm and 70-300mm.
  • 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S. The return of the superzoom to FX territory.
  • 24-120mm f/4G ED VR AF-S. The long-needed replacement for the old, underperforming 24-120mm, this time with a fixed aperture (bravo).
  • 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Nano. Surprisingly, no VR, though Nikon patended one design with VR.

This, of course, is an odd bunch of things to announce together, and, on examination, even odder than at first glance. We get a DX telephoto zoom with more reach, okay that everyone can understand: keep it smaller, lighter, and less costly, but give us more than the 55-200mm. Great call (assuming it lives up to expectations optically), though it seems like it should have waited for the D90 replacement announcement.

The 24-120mm f/4 also makes sense, as the D700 has long needed a "standard zoom" that better matches it in performance and cost. But, of course, the D700 is pretty long in the legs at this point, and due for replacement itself. It's the 28-300mm that raises eyebrows. This indicates that either Nikon thinks the D700 and D700 followup target user is decidedly consumerish, or there's a consumer FX body down the pike. I vote for a third: they saw that Tamron sold a number of FX superzooms after Nikon left the market (the very short-lived 28-200mm). These lemmings, they just keep following each other. Fortunately, none has gone off the cliff yet ;~).

And the 85mm without VR seems like a redesign that wasn't necessary. The old non-VR was fine for its intended purpose (mostly handheld portraits and low light use). It really only needed Nano coating and VR, and it only got half that. It'll have to have some incredible optics or else the market for used 85mm's is going to be hot.

Nikon's nowhere near done with their announcements (of course not, they haven't made any yet! ;~). But what I mean is that next week's D3100, four lens, and Coolpix announcements are only the tip of the iceberg. We've got another set of announcements that will hit just prior to Photokina at the end of September. And I think one more smaller announcement after that before the end of the year. Thus, we'll have plenty to talk about when I get back from Africa. (And before anyone starts speculating: no, Nikon hasn't given me any new equipment to try in the wilds of Africa.)

I'll have more to say about the D3100 and the lenses when the official announcements are made. Then I'll be silent for awhile (my annual month long break). Then Nikon will announce some more goodies and I'll be back with more comments.

Now I Know
August 11 (news?)--Now I know why women don't find me attractive. An analysis of the EXIF and survey data from the dating site OkCupid has found a few interesting things about how prospective date pictures are perceived. The statistic that keeps getting reported on the rest of the Web is that iPhone users get more sex than Android users (who wants to have sex with an Android? Oh, right, fetishes).

What isn't being reported as much is that the brand of camera you use has an impact on how you look in your pictures. Survey says, use a Panasonic GF1 or GH1. Next best choice, a Leica point and shoot. Followed by Canon DSLRs, Pentax DSLRs, and finally Nikon DSLRs (Sony DSLR users fell behind the Nikon users). Well, there's my problem right there. Oh, and those of that use flash? Adds seven years to your attractiveness profile. Still with me? Well, f/1.2 makes you more attractive than f/22. Don't take your picture midday (3am and 4pm seem to produce the best attractiveness results ;~). Whatever you do don't let your picture be snapped by a Kodak EasyShare, Windows phone, or Motorola phone.

So I've set my GF1 on a timer to take a picture of me tonight at 3am while I'm sleeping, with no flash, and at f/1.2. That should do the trick...

Panos, Part One
August 10 (technique)--Since I do a lot of panorama work, I get a lot of questions about how to create them. The answers are both obvious (you take a bunch of overlapping images and software figures out the final image) and unobvious (geometrical, physical, and lens issues intrude), so it's easy to get tripped up. Today I'm going to just address the "capture" side of panoramas.

Over time, we've developed a pretty large array of ways to get a sequence of overlapping image data. I'll tackle these from simplest to most advanced:

  • Casual. Just take overlapping pictures! You can do this with any camera in any situation, but it works best with compact cameras and subjects that are more distant from you. The trick is to make sure there's enough overlap. It's better to have more overlap than less.
  • Casual crop. The camera just visually crops out top and bottom of the frame to create the impression of a pano. But you lose a lot of pixels this way, so it's not for large pano prints.
  • Casual plus help. Many compact cameras have "pano helper" modes, where they suggest the overlap you should make for each picture by putting a ghost of part of the previous image over the LCD as you're lining up the next image. You don't have to be absolutely precise in lining things up, but this takes care of the "how much overlap" question.
  • Casual spin. Fujifilm and Sony both have higher-end compact and/or mirrorless cameras that create a panoramic image from a continuous slow pan. The downside is that getting the timing of the pan down takes practice and the resulting shot doesn't take in the full resolution of the camera (to give the internal software some leeway with the casualness of the data).
  • Aligned rotation. Here you set up the camera and lens to rotate around the center of the optical path. This means you have to find that center first, then use the proper equipment to place the alignment at the center of your rotation (e.g. tripod). The reason why "alignment" is in all these advanced capture modes is due a problem called parallax, which I'll get to in a bit. But we're back to the "make sure there's enough overlap" problem.
  • Aligned shift. Using a shift lens, you keep the front of the lens stationary, and shift the camera back to achieve the overlapping images.
  • Aligned rotation in rows. Here you not only rotate on the horizontal axis (to get the width of the pano) but you do multiple rows that are rotated on the vertical axis (to get the height of the pano). The overlap problem is now extended in both axes: you need to overlap horizontally and vertically.
  • Motorized aligned rotation. A number of motorized rotation mechanisms have appeared, the most common of which is the GigaPan. Once set up, you enter the lens and sensor parameters and all the rotations and overlap is handled automatically.

Hmm, doesn't seem so simple once we get past the casual methods, does it? Unfortunately, it gets worse.

Even the casual methods have the problem of parallax in them. It's not quite the same kind of parallax, but here's how to see what parallax is: hold your finger up in front of your face and align it with a distant object. Now close one eye at a time. As you move between eyes notice how the alignment changes between your finger and the distant object.

The same thing happens to light rays in a lens. I'm going to grossly simplify here. Remember, the classic thing is that lenses reverse the world, kind of like this: 7 >< L. A light ray at the top crosses over to become the bottom, one at the bottom crosses over to become the top. Well, if you rotate right at the point where the light rays are crossing, everything aligns properly between near and far. Rotate at any other point and parallax starts to sneak in.

Compact cameras make decent casual panorama devices because the lens to sensor distances are so small that even casual rotation means you're rotating probably close to the no-parallax point (on a tripod, less so handheld). Moreover, most people usually casual methods aren't standing close to the nearest object when doing a pano, so parallax isn't a huge issue to start with. But stick a full frame DSLR with a wide angle lens in the classic landscape scenic position of being close to a near object (to achieve visual depth via perspective) and try a pano and you'll get massive parallax issues that make the resulting images unstitchable.

That's why we go to the aligned rotation techniques for serious DSLR work. So we have two things to deal with: how to find the rotation point, and how to do the rotation.

Since we need a good rotation rig to even made use of the right rotation point, let's deal with that first:

  • Level base. If you've ever stitched an un-level sequence, you'll immediately recognize that this is our number one requirement. Without a level base we're not going to have a result that fits in a rectangle, it'll instead need a diagonal parallelogram frame ;~). The simplest solution here is to use a tripod with a leveling base. Done. You can do it with any tripod and some bubble levels, but if you watch me set up with a leveling base while you struggle with leg positioning to get a level base, you'll switch. It's a couple of seconds of setup versus many seconds, perhaps minutes. If I ruled the tripod world, no tripods would have centerposts and all would have leveling bases. (Okay, that's a bit of a stretch: sometimes centerposts are useful.)
  • Rotation base. You can use the rotational base of a ballhead, but that means that you need to get the top platform on the head level, too. Doh! Better to just stick something like a Really Right Stuff PCL-1 on the tripod itself to do the basic horizontal rotation. Since you leveled the base, voila, a PCL-1 will do level rotation.
  • Positioning plate. You're going to need something that you mount the camera to that allows you to move the position of the lens so that the rotation point we'll eventually set is exactly above the center of the rotation of the base. In Really Right Stuff's cryptic jargon, that's something like an MPR-CL (there are many ways to do this particular offset though--I sometimes use a focus rail). If all you're doing are basic horizontal panos, this and the previous two things (and some people cheat by using their tripod and head for the first two at the expense of setup time) are all you need. Really Right Stuff sells the last two as the "Pano Elements Package."
  • Vertical rotation setup. If you're going to capture rows of aligned images, you need more, and it gets complicated enough here that I'll just point you at Really Right Stuff's explanation and their Omni-Pivot packages.

Plenty of other options exist for setting up aligned panoramas. I've already mentioned the automated GigaPan, and if you're doing things manually Novoflex and others also make competent bases and plates. As I noted earlier, I sometimes use a focusing rail as a plate, as having things that have multiple purposes cuts down on the number of things you're carrying and the weight.

So, how do we find that no parallax point? Assuming you've got your base leveled, you do the same thing as we did with our fingers, earlier: sight a near and distant object, align them at the center of the frame, and rotate slowly while looking through the viewfinder. Good near objects are things like a pole or narrow tree trunk. If the near object moves relative to the distant object as you rotate, you're not at the right point. Keep moving the camera/lens forward/backward until you find the point where the near object stays fixed to the distant one. Now lock everything down. Some of us go so far as to engrave our plates with our favorite lens positions so we can just align everything via marks.

When taking the sequence of images to make the final panorama:

  • Lock down. Manual white balance, manual focus, manual exposure (usually based upon the brightest portion of the overall scene), and make sure you're not using any Picture Controls that have an "Auto" setting in them.
  • Overlap. The wider the lens used the more you should overlap. 25-33% overlap is usually enough.

Here's Something to Think About
August 6 (commentary)--With the P6000 replacement being announced in the next two weeks I was fiddling around with my P6000 to get reacquainted with it when I noticed something: the P6000 body size is almost exactly the same as the NEX5. Oh dear.

The rumor is that Nikon is still stuck on the 1/1.7" sensor in the upcoming replacement (and downsized to 10mp), yet here we have a DX sensor sitting in a competitor's body of the same size (and remember, the P6000 was the smallest of the "luxury compacts" I tested over a year ago). Technically the P6000 is ever so slightly taller and not quite as wide as the NEX5, but the differences are small enough that they're not meaningful. Without a lens, the NEX5 fits perfectly in the leather case Nikon supplied with the P6000 kit the sizing is so close.

Of course, where the difference comes is in lens size, as DX needs a bigger imaging circle. Still, I can imagine (in fact partially designed) a lens solution for DX in the P6000 body size without a big lens bulge. Still, I think you can guess which camera is headed to Africa with me this time. If you guessed the one that has an I in its name, you guessed wrong.

For those of you playing along, here's the scorecard of things to watch for to see if Nikon got the replacement design correct:

  • Dropped the proprietary Ethernet port or made it useful for connections other than myPictureTown. Bonus: switched to WiFi.
  • Goosed up the battery so the GPS doesn't wind it down faster than you can fill a card.
  • Either dropped the optical viewfinder or made it useful.
  • Aligned the tripod socket and hot shoe with the center of the lens.
  • Upgraded the LCD and made it positionable.
  • Dropped the NRW nonsense and just gave us NEF (DNG would be better, but that seems out of the question to "it has to be proprietary" Nikon-think.).
  • Finally realized that a lens hood is a useful thing.
  • Made the on/off control a switch instead of a button next to the shutter release.
  • Did a better job of controlling chromatic aberration.
  • Gave us something wider than 28mm equivalent at the wide end.

Thing is, serious photographers would want all of those changes. My best guess? Nikon gave us none of those changes. So let's hope that they didn't mess up the good things about the P6000 (image quality, most of the controls, size/weight, etc.).

More Software Updates
August 6 (news)--
This week's software updates included:

  • ImageIngester on the Mac now has the ability to extract the embedded JPEG (coming soon to the Windows version).
  • Apple Digital RAW Compatibility Update 3.3 added raw support on Macintosh systems for a number of m4/3 cameras and the Sony NEX systems.
  • Akvis Retoucher 4.0 adds algorithms to detect and remove larger objects.
  • Topaz DeNoise 5.0 doubles the speed and increases the size of image it can handle, plus provides shadow tone restoration and dual-direction debanding.

Nikon Q1 Financials
August 5 (news and commentary)--Nikon's first quarter results (April-June 2010) have been published, and are mostly being reported as good news (yes, I'm the guy who always sees the other side of the picture).

First off, the semiconductor equipment side of Nikon recovered during the quarter. If you can say that coming close to breakeven is recovery. Still, net sales were up 48%. Nikon Precision went from delivering 10 units last year in this quarter to delivering 30 units this year. But note that implies the units are selling for less money.

Imaging's growth was a little less impressive, but still a bit surprising: about a 10% rise in sales and slightly more than that in profits. Nikon sold 1.05 million DSLRs in the quarter, 1.56m lenses, and 3.46m Coolpix models, all big changes over last year. But again, declining prices are clearly evident.

Nikon increased their estimates for the full year in pretty much every area except one: profit. They expect to sell more and profit the same. That'll be the third time I mention declining prices in this short article; sensing a trend? Surprisingly, in one document Nikon has increased their estimation of the dollar (from 90 to 91) and not surprisingly decreased their estimation of the Euro (from 120 to 110 or 112 yen per; they have both figures in their various reports so it is unclear which one is the right one; I think it's 110). Nikon appears to be betting on the dollar opposite to what I would at this point (see two stories down).

For the year, Precision plans to ship about 330 units (up from 196 last year), and just clear a profit (mostly in the second half of the year sales--they are forecasting a continued pickup in semiconductor equipment business. through the year.

Imaging has increased their sales estimates, too: 4.25m DSLRs, 6.2m lenses, and 13.5m Coolpix. However, even with these additional unit volumes Nikon is forecasting a profit slip due to...yep, you guessed it, lower price per unit, mostly due to exchange rates. But let's look at those Nikon estimates a little more closely. They expect to sell:

  • 35% of all DSLRs sold worldwide.
  • 31% of all lenses sold worldwide.
  • 12% of all compact cameras sold worldwide.
  • 15% of all cameras sold worldwide.

R&D and Capital expenses have been trending down for the last two years. Cost cutting is suggested as the primary focus for dealing with the yen appreciation problem driving lower revenue per unit.

Overall a very healthy quarter for Nikon, though not a spectacular one. None of the new information seems to indicate that there is anything imminent to ship. The first place I see where there could be any change in volume due to new products is in the October to December quarter, and even there it's not obvious that there are new DSLR or lens products driving that quarter (it seems obvious from the statements that they expect at least a couple of new Coolpix models to sell well).

August 4 (commentary)--We're about a month-and-a-half away from Photokina, the largest of the photo industry trade shows. Photokina is held in Germany every other year, and because of it's every-other-year aspect, tends to be a fair predictor of what the camera companies are really up to.

So what's up this year? It's mostly about the space at the high end of the compacts and low end of the DSLRs (mirrorless). Quite a bit of the action right now is in this space, and that's because of what I've written about previously: cell phones are gobbling up the low-end casual camera market and high-end DSLRs are a smallish market. Everyone's decided that most of the money to be made is in the range from about the Coolpix S8000 to the D5000. Mirrorless, as you probably know, fits almost dead square in the middle of that range.

The problem I have is that I'm not convinced that the user target the camera companies are designing for is quite the right one. They look at the weaknesses of the cellphone cameras, which is mostly centered on lenses and low light performance now, so at the low end we get big lens ranges with "better" low light capability. But the camera makers are still mostly targeting the casual user with not a lot of photographic expertise, nor a lot of interest in developing much. These are the "wants magic" users.

Every camera I test in this range leaves a serious photographer wanting in some significant way. Yet it still strikes me that the most likely purchaser of cameras in this range is the serious user looking for something they can carry with them all the time. The camera companies are afraid, I think, to do something that exactly targets these users. That's because they fear that a "perfect" small camera might have them abandon their big cameras.

So we're going to get another round of near misses soon. That's okay by me as many of the near misses (E-P2, GF1, GXR, NEX5, etc.) have found ways to be useful to me. But I'm still in search of the one that'll completely satisfy me as a pocket camera. I'm pretty sure that won't appear at this year's Photokina, but there will be a lot of contenders that try (LX5, G12, P7000, and more).

August 4 (commentary)--Here's a sequence of numbers for you to contemplate: 96, 93, 90, 86. If you recognize that as something related to the yen/dollar relationship as it has impacted Nikon recently, you're correct (first half of their last financial year, second half of their last financial year, end of their last financial year, and currently). The forecast for the dollar/yen relationship for the next nine months in the Nikon's financials is 90 yen to the dollar. But the yen is currently at 86 to the dollar, an approximately 4.5% drop. Nikon sells about a third of their cameras and lenses in the US. If that trend of numbers continues, camera and lens prices will be going up in the US.

Yes, a lot of the production is done in Thailand and China now, where the currency fluctuation isn't as volatile. Unfortunately, many of the key parts are still cost in yen. Plus many of the higher quality lenses and three of the pro bodies are made in Japan. Let's just say that the pricing pressure continues to be in the wrong direction for those of us in the US. This is one of the reasons, for example, that the price of the new 200-400mm lens is up about 10% in the US over the one it replaced.

So where does this end? In 1971 the yen was at an average of about 348 to a dollar. The yen appreciated pretty steadily until it bottomed at around 100 in 1994, then bounced around in the low hundreds until 2007. Since then, the yen has resumed its downward trend (which again, is appreciation against the dollar). I'm betting the yen will go still lower, perhaps as low as 82 before pulling back up a bit (if I were truly a betting man I'd put real money on that, because if I'm reading FOREX futures quotes right and I'm right about the trend, I could make a healthy amount of money off that bet). We're already in dangerous ground for Nikon, who's been banking on 90. How about this: I'd gladly pay Nikon for a D4 today at the 90 rate ;~). Anyone in the Tokyo headquarters reading this and want to take me up on it?

News That Isn't News
August 2 (commentary)--Microsoft demonstrated something at Siggraph that other sites are picking up as "news." It's "Image Deblurring using Inertial Measurement Sensors." (the actual published paper can be found here). I'm not sure I'd categorize it as news, though I do highly respect the work that went into the research paper.

A very long time ago some of us began having a discussion on the Web about all the image problems that we could see being corrected automatically, and how. One of the things that we wrote about was using using inertial sensors to correct camera blur. If you know what the motion is in the capture device during image recording, you can use deconvolution algorithms to back out the resultant blur. But as I discovered when I outlined such a system back then, some of the spook agencies had long ago started using such systems, especially in those side-view aerial systems. There's a lot of prior art.

So it's going to be interesting to see what happens next. Almost certainly the Japanese companies will put full gyroscopic motion sensors in cameras soon (the iPhone 4 has one). The necessary sensors are small and cheap now. The image improvement is potentially more dramatic than VR at less cost. The question now is what you can patent to give you a little bit of intellectual property breathing room from your competitors. The scramble is certainly on.

The D3x as Digital Back
August 2 (news)--We've had other examples of this along the way, but Sinar has just introduced the p-slr. This is an adapter that allows you to connect your DSLR to a Sinar view camera body and lens and use it as the "capture mechanism." It's a little pricey, and you'd need a Sinar system to use it, but it does give you a full tilt/shift capability that's precise and repeatable. Doesn't make much sense for any of the 12mp Nikons, but I can see someone in a studio doing product shots using this with a D3x, especially since Live View turns out to be a useful tool for tilt/shift.

Photokina Coming
August 2 (commentary)--Photokina starts on September 21st. This is the every-two-years show that's the biggest of all the various photography trade shows. You might not see the top execs out in the booths, but they're in private rooms and hotels briefing their best customers and subsidiary managers on all the latest and greatest and even upcoming products.

Here's the usual scenario: from mid-August until the show starts we have a fairly constant stream of announcements from the major players. Basically, they're trying to make announcements that'll establish their basic booth announcements and position them vis-a-vis their competitors. Once the show starts, we usually don't get any additional product announcements, per se, but we often get the "behind glass" quasi-announcements. In other words, when you get to the booth you discover some future camera and/or lenses sitting behind glass where you can't touch them or try them. The ultimate tease. (In those private rooms, though, the special guests are usually getting a closer look.) After the show closes, everyone is in how-fast-can-we-get-it-shipped mode. So: Announce, Show, Ship, in that order.

Nikon has announcements scheduled for the week of August 16th (I believe there are two days of announcements: the 17th and the 18th, but I'm never invited so I don't know for sure, I'm getting those dates second hand). As Nikon Rumors has reported, we're going to get the fall Coolpix line (including a new P camera), a low-end DSLR (the D3000 replacement), and some lenses. Conspicuously missing from that list are the D90 replacement, the D700 replacement, and the mirrorless camera. I sort of doubt Nikon would make another announcement prior to Photokina (historically, Nikon doesn't do big announcements that close together--it overtaxes their subsidiaries, amongst other things).

So, we either have Nikon about to do something they usually don't do (lots of announcements close together), or we're going to get the D90 and D700 replacements after Photokina. The mirrorless camera? Well, it either is the Coolpix P about to be announced, or we'll see it under glass at Photokina for a much later release (e.g. first quarter 2011). I can't give odds on any of these possibilities. With the recent turnover in high management, it's possible that we'll have some changes in announcement timing and style, too. Or maybe the new execs will just keep the old pattern intact. There's no track record to predict from at the moment.

As I usually take September off from doing this near-daily Web thing, Photokina always gives me fits. Fortunately, it's only every other year ;~). Suffice it to say that I'll cover Nikon's August announcements, but then probably go silent for a long period (I won't be in reliable Internet access, anyway). But come October, expect a lot of commentary. Who knows, I might even have had some hands on with something by then, too.

200-400mm Round Two
August 2 (commentary)--Today I'm doing a small update to my 200-400mm f/4G AF-S VR review to add comments about the new version. Short answer: nothing changed of substance, other than the either version of the lens with the TC-20E III actually performs quite well, which was a surprise.

Clarifications on Capture NX2
ly 29 (commentary)--Capture NX2 still does what it always did (unless, of course, you moved to a new version of your OS, in which case new issues may have turned up ;~). Thus, if your workflow uses it and you're happy, then keep using it. Nothing I wrote should change that. I didn't write "stop using Capture NX2," after all.

Some people over-interpret what I write (usually putting their own agenda on it). What I wrote was "I no longer recommend Capture NX2." Simple as that. I do not believe it to still be the product that stands out above the rest for a working Nikon NEF shooter. For someone choosing from scratch, Capture NX2 is likely to cause them more grief and problems in the long run than other choices. But if you've already built a workflow around Capture NX2, then nothing changed just because I stopped recommending it. If I had that much power over you, I'd have written "send me a check for US$100..." ;~).

However, some items need to be clarified:

  • I was specifically referring to the latest ACR (CS5) and the latest beta camera profiles (get them from the Adobe Labs site). If you're using CS4, of course you don't get lens profiles, vignetting and chromatic aberration correction in ACR.
  • U-point technology was unique when Capture NX2 first appeared, but Nik themselves have built plug-ins that bring it to Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture. On the other hand, U-point is part of the US$179 Capture NX2, but adding it to the Adobe software is going to up the Adobe Tax considerably (see Plug-ins, below). However, in this particular article I was not writing about economical solutions, but rather about best solutions.
  • "Photographer-centric" seems to be a point of contention. If you're a low volume shooter and work only on one image at a time, Capture NX2's workflow and speed probably don't intrude. Shoot a wedding in raw and try saying the same thing ;~). Shoot a pano or HDR or long-exposure stack set and try saying the same thing. True photographer-centric workflows work for both the one-shot cases and the many-shot cases without forcing you to change what you're doing. If you're a serious photographer, you will encounter both cases.
  • The "lock factor." Capture NX2 only works with Nikon NEFs. Bought a Canon S90? A Sony NEX5? A m4/3 body? Any camera that shoots raw to be your carry-everywhere camera? (For awhile, that even included Nikon's own Coolpix P6000, as Nikon originally said they weren't going to provide NRW file support!) Capture NX2 in your workflow essentially locks you to Nikon DSLRs.
  • Stability is variable with Capture NX2. I've always had a stable install on my desktop. But on my laptop it took repeated reinstalls and deep file system sleuthing and cleansing to get Capture NX2 stable. The historical pattern has been relatively consistent: OS changes, even point releases, seem to cause issues with Capture NX2 more regularly than they do with any other product I have installed on my systems. And I deal with people asking me about how to fix Capture instabilities every week, so I know I'm not alone in that. Also: a lot of Capture's stability problems stem from the installer itself and the many subfiles that it works with, including .NET on Windows machines. It's really difficult to recommend to someone that they potentially start down a path that may have them iterating installs and searching directory-by-directory for files to get a stable system.
  • Performance of Capture NX2 is okay, as long as you have enough memory. But many of you saying that Capture runs "fast" are doing single image conversions at a time and/or haven't seen what current state-of-the-art really is when you've got 64-bit software using multiple cores done right. Unfortunately for Nikon, 64-bit multicore is now what ships from both Apple and Microsoft in pretty much everything except perhaps netbooks. It's the new standard. Thus, Capture's "performance" is now lagging what I'd expect to get with any new machine, and well behind state-of-the-art.

Some of you are holding out hope that Capture NX3 solves many (or all) of the current issues facing Capture. Let me remind you that Nikon's software record is not strong. Photo Secretary? Dead when they didn't update to USB (I managed to get it working on USB). Nikon Scan? Dead because they couldn't muster up resources to make minor changes for new OS versions even though they still sell the scanner that requires it. PictureProject? Dead. View? Dead, then resurrected with a new and different code base. Capture? Dead, then resurrected with a new and different code base and with features taken out. There's simply no continuity or clear vision in Nikon's software efforts, and there's far too much whim factor in Nikon's software dealings than continuity. Users want continuity. For a company that's been doing digital photography software for 15 years now, Nikon hasn't gotten very far.

More Conspiracy Theory
ly 28 (commentary)--Sigh. I really didn't think what I originally wrote was going to be that big of a deal, but it's taken on a life of its own, with the latest theory being that the rumor was maliciously timed to coincide with the launch of two full frame lenses from Sony.

Nonsense. If you follow the thread of what I've been writing about on my site for the past couple of weeks, I've been speculating about sensors. In particular, which sensors Nikon is likely to use for its coming cameras. That's because we have a lot of Nikon unknown sensor questions at the moment: what sensor will the D3000 replacement use, what sensor with the D90 replacement use, what sensor the D700 update will use, and the thing that provoked this whole train of thought on sensors in the first place: what the heck will the D4 sensor be like? After all, it needs to up the ante on the D3s or else the rest of the camera is going to have to be simply amazing.

In poking around asking questions about sensors in the pipeline I ended up with a real head scratcher when it came to FX (full frame): if the D4 is between the D3 and D3x (higher resolution than the D3 but less high ISO capability), then what happens to the D3s and D3x sensors come next summer when the D4 is launched?

Note the following: even though Nikon has had four FX bodies and Sony two full frame bodies, each has only really had one sensor. Nikon's own sensor gave us the D3, D700, and D3s. Sony's sensor gave us the A850, A900, and D3x. If Nikon chooses, say, 18mp for the D4 sensor and that's of its own design, it no longer needs the D3x sensor, I think. Most (but not all) Nikon shooters would rather have an 18mp sensor close or equal to the D3 performance than the current 24mp D3x sensor: the missing 6mp is far less important than the extra ISO bumps.

So, there are three possible paths:

  • Nikon designed sensor. The most likely path. Nikon has to not lose the D3s crowd with the D4, so high ISO capability comes first, but we need more pixels, so we'll get that, too. Nikon can probably deliver D3-like noise handling at 18mp. It'll be close, but it's do-able.
  • Sony designed sensor. Even when Nikon takes this route for the high end bodies, they tend to tweak (D300, D300s, D3x). But for this to work, Sony Semiconductor would have had to have committed to Nikon's schedule for the D4. That is possible, but Nikon depending upon someone else's for their flagship timetable is risky. I'd bet that they wouldn't do that again.
  • Cooperatively designed sensor. To my knowledge, we've never had full cooperative designs, though the D2x sensor did show up in both Nikon and Sony products and thus might have been. Given Nikon's need to succeed in cameras now (it's too large a part of their overall business), I'd think they want to have proprietary advances at the top. So I consider this improbable.

Okay, so now run the thought process forward on the Sony side in that first, most likely scenario: Sony is left with one sensor (24mp) driving really only one current camera (A850). Sure, they can do replacements or higher end models using that sensor, but if the sales were disappointing with the A850 and A900, what exactly would another model fix? It can't be less expensive. That was tried and didn't generate the volume Sony expected. With Nikon's D3x volume leaving the mix, there isn't enough volume to run that fab machine for a single low-volume product, especially one with really tight profit margins. So Sony would have to figure out a way to sell lots of A850's or come up with new full-frame cameras that have more features, and then video starts to raise its ugly head, meaning Sony would have to redesign the sensor. For one or two low-volume cameras. Remember, too, that Sony Semiconductor and Sony Imaging will have slightly different goals. It's Sony upper management that would look at those differences and arbitrate.

That's where my thinking was at when I started hearing rumors of an impending Sony decision. That the rumored decision corresponds to well with the way I think things are headed was one of the reasons I reported the rumor. It added information to my guess that Nikon was going to do their own D4 sensor and probably not update the D3x or come out with a D700x using the Sony sensor.

So I repeat: I have nothing against Sony. The A850/A900 are very good products, if a little lens starved. Personally, I'd like to see Sony be more aggressive and innovative with their full frame lineup because it would keep pressure on Nikon and Canon.

Conspiracy Theorists
ly 27 (commentary)--Since posting the rumors I've heard regarding Sony considering dropping full-frame sensors, the Sony fan boys have proceeded to do the opposite of what Sony probably wants them to. To the fan boys it seems that the rumor must be a conspiracy on my part and unnamed others to get Sony out of the professional camera business.

Let's get a few things straight. The more competition Nikon has, the more Nikon has to perform to stay competitive. That's the way I'd like it to be. Neither I nor other Nikon users get any benefit from Sony exiting the business (and we may have gotten a loss, as it would probably mean no D3xs or D700x). Loss of a competitor in full frame allows Canon and Nikon to relax a bit and just watch what the other is doing. Pricing pressures are eased as well, so we Nikon users will be paying full price. Why would I want all that?

As I noted in the original article, Sony itself is at the heart of these rumors. My interpretation is that there are (perhaps many) within Sony that don't like that they're being pressured to drop full frame from above. Squashing the rumor, as some Sony fan boys say they want to do, is the exact opposite of what would be useful if what I've just written is even remotely true. If the rumor is true and its origin is from within Sony as I suggest, then the intention seems obvious: to get a riled up public to petition management to reconsider the impending or future decision to abandon full frame. Instead, the fan boys want to shoot the messenger and ignore the rumor. Fine. Consider the messenger shot. Now what happens if I was right? ;~)

Note that I'm not the only one who's reported this rumor. Mirrorlessrumors is reporting something similar. So there are more messengers to shoot, fan boys.

I'm going to speculate a bit on what may be happening. If you get in the Wayback Machine and dial it back to Sony taking over Konica/Minolta, you may remember the executives in Sony's Imaging division saying things like they'll get a 20% market share in DSLRs within a couple of years and become number 2 in DSLR sales (exact quote from Kakagawa-san in a Sony press release: "...target for at least 20-25% of the world digicam market, and even a higher share as far as DSLRs are concerned."). Didn't happen. Not even close. Sony even went the opposite direction last year as Olympus and Panasonic broke out with their mirrorless cameras. As I pointed out when those original Sony assertions were made, the executives making them were putting their butts on the line. When you make public pronouncements like that in Japan and don't deliver, you eventually end up in a world of shame that requires punishment. Underpromise and overdeliver is the normal way things are done in Japanese management. What may be happening now is that upper management is asking Imaging to tighten their belts and show more return on investment. And I'm sure they're going to use that 20% promise against those that made it. What you're likely seeing in the rumors is an outgrowth on an internal political struggle. If pressure is coming from above to improve performance and come close to the original prognostication, where should Sony put R&D? The answer seems obvious at the moment: NEX and a revised APS lineup that embraces pixels and video. Full-frame (hasn't and) isn't going to increase Sony's market share or bottom line.

Let me go on the record here as saying that dropping full frame would be another mistake for Sony. To survive long-term as a "camera company" you need to do one of two things: go intensely niche like Leica, or participate in the full spectrum of cameras, from cellphones to professional gear. Sony, ironically, is one of the few that could actually do that (though adding the Alpha or NEX brand to the Sony-Erickssen cellphone cameras doesn't do much, does it? See, the brand as a camera company hasn't been built strong enough yet).

Finally, note one other thing. Let's say that Sony did make a decision to drop full frame today. Would that stop full-frame products from appearing tomorrow? Not at all. Cutting off R&D doesn't immediately cut off product production. The camera companies build sensors far in advance of cameras. What appears about to happen is that R&D gets directed elsewhere. That's the danger that Sony users need to fear. Because if that happens, then the full frame product line will just fizzle out. That would be a shame, as the products Sony has created are actually quite good. If you've got a closet full of Minolta lenses, you should move now to get digital full-frame cameras that can use them to their fullest. Oh, by the way, the last camera I bought was a Sony ;~).

So now how exactly is what I wrote an anti-Sony conspiracy again? I just suggested that people buy Sony full frame cameras and ask for more. Fan boys are a lot like politicians: they don't think very clearly.

Mid-Year Predictions Update
ly 27 (predictions)--I've gotten a number of questions about what I still expect from Nikon in the way of new products this year. That's partly because I've offered some contradictory information and opinions lately about bits and pieces of the puzzle, especially in my recent comments on sensors. To help, here's a mid-year update of what I expect during the remainder of 2010 (note that I'm not changing anything else that appears elsewhere on this site, like my predictions page):

  • D3000 replacement. We've had almost yearly updates in the low-end DSLR, and this year's is overdue. Moreover, the D3000 didn't exactly blow anyone out of the water. So expect a video-enabled update, probably with a new sensor and more. I expect this sooner rather than later. What changed in my prediction? Nothing other than the date got pushed back.
  • D90 replacement. Absolutely due for late summer or early fall announcement. This is a flagship for Nikon, so they'll do it right even if it means sliding a date back a bit. But it's coming sooner rather than later. What changed in my prediction? Nothing.
  • D700 replacement. At this point I'm expecting it in late fall and with the D3s sensor. There's a much slimmer chance of a higher resolution sensor, enough for me to say I don't expect that any more. What changed in my prediction? I no longer expect a high resolution version of the D700 in this cycle. There's no sensor for it. The perfectly good D3s sensor would extend the D700 life.
  • Coolpix. The basic mid-year Coolpix refresh, with no surprises. No G11 killer. What changed in my prediction? The G11 killer is no longer in it.
  • Lenses. Three lenses: 85mm f/1.4G, 24-120mm f/4 (or something close to that specification), 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6. A fourth is possible: a 55-300mm replacement for the current 55-200mm. Two other lenses, the 35mm f/1.4 and any higher end long telephoto zoom seem more iffy to me for this year. What changed in my prediction? Fewer new lenses will appear than I previously thought.

That's about it (an SB-700 remains a possibility, as do a few other modest accessories). While the mirrorless camera is getting talked about, if it gets announced this year I doubt it will ship this year. We may get something behind glass at Photokina, for example, but not much more until early next year, at which time I think it'll be shipped.

Sony Sensor Shakeup?
ly 26 (commentary)--I've heard from multiple sources now that Sony Semiconductor is about to drop FX sensors from their lineup. What I'm hearing is that high management in Sony is saying that full-frame cameras and sensors aren't bringing the payback necessary to make them long-term profitable. This is essentially forcing Sony Imaging to consider dropping future plans for full-frame cameras (A850, A900, and follow-ups), though I'm sure we'll still see some FF products from them that were already in progress before the stream of sensors dies out. Some of the sources for the rumor appear to be Sony employees who are lobbying for keeping full-frame in the lineup. They seem to hope that news of the impending decision on the Internet will generate a wave of protest that Sony management can't ignore.

But this has a Nikon component, too. I've been wondering why I'm not hearing rumblings on a D3xs model (the D3x uses a Sony sensor at its base). It would be due later this year (and I'm on record as predicting it to arrive in December). It very well may be that there's no new sensor for a D3xs (one would have expected video capabilities to be added). Thus, there's almost nothing else of major impact that could be added that would distinguish a D3xs from a D3x. Most of the other proposed additions could simply be firmware updates to the existing model. If we don't get a D3xs by December, we won't get one, as the D4 generation is too close at hand. Thus, it looks highly likely that Nikon's FX future is in their own hands creating their own FX sensors. Given the D3/D700 and D3s sensors, that doesn't sound like a bad thing, but it will put more pressure on Nikon to produce a high-resolution sensor, something they have not yet done (to date, all of Nikon's sensor development has been mostly targeted at low light improvements).

I think this also answers one persistent question that keeps coming up: "is there any future in DX?" Yes, there is. The reason why Sony would drop FF is rooted in the economics, because the dollar amounts don't really change with sensors like they do with most semiconductor chips. In CPUs, for instance, cost gets driven out by making the CPU chip smaller and using smaller transistors (process size). That doesn't really apply to sensors, as the sensor size itself is not changing, and the light detection mechanism doesn't particularly benefit from smaller transistors (the supporting circuity does). It's just very, very costly to do FF/FX sensors. This puts them into the prosumer and pro categories only, which means there's not a lot of volume. Not having great volume makes it more difficult to reduce costs, and the circle just repeats.

As I've written before, if an FX sensor costs US$500 then a DX sensor probably costs US$50. And a cellphone sensor these days costs less than US$5 (including lens in many cases). The two ways to get lower sensor costs (other than size) is to increase the wafer size (200mm -> 300mm -> 450mm) or increase the yield somehow. But both of these tend to yield small changes at a time and would produce proportional benefits to each size (e.g., if you could reduce FX costs to US$400, then a DX sensor is going to cost US$40). Moving to smaller process (e.g. going from the current 65 nanometer sizes to 45 or 28 or even smaller) doesn't reduce FX sensor cost. But it might benefit noise handling on smaller sensors. This may be why Sony appears about to concentrate solely on DX-sized sensors at the big end. They may see that they can get to FX-type performance with DX-sized sensors, in which case the cost benefit of doing so is huge.

So, yes, there's a future in DX. Certainly a Sony future ;~).

The Quiet Fixes
ly 21 (commentary)--I've been mostly quiet about a number of quality control issues floating through the Nikon world lately. Instead of being an instigator, I've chosen to wait and see what Nikon's response would be.

The latest problem regards the 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S: on a number of lenses, the DOF scale lets light into the optic chain that may cause a light streak artifact if you take really long exposures and/or shoot at extremely high ISO values. For 99.9% of your images, it isn't an issue. But for that other 0.1%, it could be a killer. Short answer: Nikon will look at your lens and address it if you've encountered this problem.

There's a fairly clear pattern emerging: new products are being delivered with some (mostly) hidden liability or unknown problem. Internet forums buzz with reports of people encountering these things. After a time, Nikon makes a "quiet" official statement and does on-demand fixes where they think it appropriate. We've seen variants of this pattern now with the 70-200mm VRII (baffle flaking), the 24mm f/1.4G (bad focus), the D3s (low light random failure to focus), and now we've just been made aware of the same thing with the 24-70mm (light leak). I'm sure there are many more recent examples, but these are the ones that have gotten the most visibility lately. None of them have risen to Toyota levels or concern (other than perhaps the 24mm, where if you encountered the problem it rendered the lens unusable).

Try to find any acknowledgment of those things on NikonUSA's Web site and what they'll do about it if you encounter those issues. If you know how to use the Knowledge Base system, you can find some acknowledgements (e.g. this), but I'd say that Nikon is doing a good job of burying their QC problems even when they do acknowledge them.

To me, that's the wrong approach. You don't want to have to go through exotic search requests just to see if the problem you think you've seen is a real one or not. What you want is to know that your vendor of choice is on top of all issues, reports them visibly and accurately, and is active at making customers happy. It's counter-intuitive, but being up front and proactive about problems is better than trying to push them under the rug, as Toyota has discovered the hard way.

The way things have been dealt with historically, it always looks as if Nikon is the last to know about the problems with their products. I have to guess that in a number of cases, they knew of the issue prior to it generating enough Internet buzz that they had to respond. The whole report-to-Japan-and-wait-for-official-response aspect to the Nikon global structure also is problematic. Everything goes through translation two ways, there's not enough local ability to respond, and the whole process takes too much time.

In Japanese culture it's regarded as shameful to have to admit to a failure of any kind. In American culture, we thrive on the fail-and-try-again ethic. A global business has to be transcend its cultural leanings, though. I've long argued that Nikon needs an ombudsman in every subsidiary, and one who's communicating regularly and widely. In situations like these QC issues, the perfect ombudsman response is: immediate acknowledgement that someone has encountered an issue, full disclosure of how the issue will be/was evaluated (or why it was ignored during production if it was known about in advance), and a full explanation of what Nikon will do to correct the problem if someone encounters it.

The funny thing is that Nikon does (mostly) the right thing behind the scenes. In the case of the 24-70mm light leak, if it's really a problem for you, Nikon will look at the baffles on your lens and make corrections to them, if necessary. In my long experience with Nikon, that's always been the case: they fix real problems (maybe not always on their first try ;~). But they don't get enough credit for that because of the way they handle issues in the first place.

Buy the Best You Can Afford
ly 20 (commentary)--We're off on a tangent today.

Since we're stuck in the middle of marketing messages and the hyper-amplified wants that get driven by those, we need to be more pragmatic. Things aren't quite as simple as "you only need 12mp" as I might have implied last week.

Most of you reading this site aren't casual photographers. You're serious. Photography for you is either your primary hobby or perhaps even your personal aspiration. I've been there. During most of my high tech career, photography was secondary to my vocation. That didn't mean that I ignored photography, only that I had to temper the time, energy, and money I put into creating images.

One of the things I learned during that period is this: buy the best you can afford. This is related to the "needs/wants" discussion last week. You have to be careful not to buy the best you want, but rather buy the best you need.

Underbuying something (say a top-of-the-line compact when your needs are really in the DSLR realm) just postpones the inevitable and costs you more money and time in the long run. You get frustrated with the compact and replace it with a low-end DSLR. You get frustrated with that and replace it with a high-end DSLR. You end up buying three cameras instead of one. Meantime, you spent lots of time and energy researching products, not shooting pictures.

Same is true of lenses. You might buy a third party consumer zoom, then a better consumer zoom, then a pro zoom. Three lenses instead of one, and all that goes with that.

Same is true of support. You buy a cheap tripod, then a better one, then a carbon fiber one with a great head. Three tripods instead of one. But you've already read my article on that ;~).

I could go on ;~). Worse, some of you don't stop at just three. I've seen people consume six, seven, or more choices before they reach what they should have gotten in the first place. It wastes money because you end up spending thousands more to get to the same place. It wastes time because you are constantly researching and learning new equipment rather than shooting. It wastes energy because you're constantly shopping. It helps banks get bigger because you're triggering a lot of fees for them along the way (even if it's only the credit card transaction fees that the seller pays).

I see some variant of this issue in all the "I want Nikon to come out with a..." discussions on the net (including the ones I've contributed to. ;~(. The implication in most of those statements is that they won't buy today's best (e.g. a D700) because there will be a better best tomorrow (e.g. a D700s, D800, or D900). That's likely to always be true, though, so taken to the logical extreme, you'd never buy anything.

Here's the way you have to approach things: I need X, and Y is the best X available to me. Example: "I need a good low-light, professional body camera that can print to the max of a desktop inkjet and use my existing film lenses. Today, that's a D700, so that's what I'll buy." Simple. Just requires that you know what you need and evaluate what's available to determine what the best is that fits that.

People get distracted from that in three ways:

  1. The future. The future will always have a better house, car, camera, TV, dishwasher, phone, and everything else you can think of. The future will always have new features or quality. The future will offer you more options. The future might even bring less expensive things that do everything you need and more. But you can't buy the future. You also can't really predict the future with enough certainty to make rational decisions about it. The future has a tendency to slip ship dates and underperform its promises ;~).
  2. Knowledge. Figuring out what the best is isn't always quite so simple. We're talking about complex products. They aren't perfect, and there are small variations in many areas that can become distractions to the bigger picture. For example, the D90 and D5000 technically produce a slightly cleaner image than the D300 and D300s in my testing (emphasis on slightly). Does that make them better cameras? No. The D300s, on analysis, has more features, better build, more options, and allows more control than the D90. Should you buy a D90 or D300s? A D300s, if you can and you need any of the things it adds. The slight difference in pixel quality is so minimal to be insignificant in practice. The other differences are big enough to be significant in practice to many.
  3. Self-assessment. We're back to that "need" thing again. A lot of people lie to themselves about what they really need. They get caught up in status or keeping up with the Joneses or something other than a true photographic need. Hey, if it makes you happy to buy a D3x--arguably the best DSLR made--go ahead and get it, but you you may be a long ways from being practical. Don't blame me if you don't end up with what you need.

Note that there is a caveat in the headline: "...that you can afford." All of us have constraints. As much as you might think I have everything Nikon has ever made, I don't. You'll note that I have regular sales of gear. I keep only that which I really need. And if someone told me that I wouldn't have to write books or maintain this site tomorrow, but take only pictures, the gear closet would probably drop in half from its current modest proportions.

Normally I try to avoid using the word "investment" around photography gear. Too many people take that to mean "retains value for resale." A few things--mostly the big exotic lenses--do tend to retain a good portion of their value for a longer period of time, but you're not investing in equipment for monetary gain, you're investing in it for photographic gain. Buying a top-of-the-line tripod and head, for instance, costs a lot of money. But it also completely removes a problem from all your future photographic excursions. That's a photographic gain. Choose right and you buy one expensive set of legs and head once and only once. Yes, that may cost you US$1000 you don't have today. But it's an investment in your photographic capabilities that probably won't have to be remade. You're not spending US$200 every few months to try something else (and wasting time and energy doing the long comb through the possibilities of such products).

But to "invest" like this, you need to know what you're really trying to accomplish. If that is "take the best possible shots and become proud of my photographs," great. If it's "get some snaps of my kids on vacations as they grow up," well, maybe you don't need a tripod, at all.

One issue that last bit raises is "justification confusion." You see, what you really want is equipment (and time) that allows you to pursue your aspiration: great photography. What most of you do to justify the money you spend is promise things like "I'll be able to take better vacation pictures for the scrapbook" to your spouse. Somewhere in that justification almost always comes compromise. Your spouse isn't going to let you buy a US$7999 D3x to take better vacation pictures because that doesn't make any sense at all, but they might let you spend US$1499 on a D300s. So you settle.

Let's face it, hobbies are expensive. In order of expense: retirement, children, house, hobby. Not much else comes close if you were to honestly add up all the numbers. It doesn't matter if you're into boating, photography, model planes, sports memorabilia, or whatever--you're going to spend a lot of money on your hobby over time. The best way to deal with this is to let each spouse have free reign of choices for their hobby, but with an agreed upon budget each year. If you know that you've only got US$3000 to spend on your hobby each year, you can save for three years and buy a D3x, save for two years and buy a used D3x, or you can buy a D700 today. Simple as that. Still need 24mp? ;~)

But when you take that approach, note that things turn very rapidly a different direction. You're no longer really worried about pixels or noise levels or feature X. You start thinking about what is really useful to you right now, what the best of that is, and whether it fits in your budget this year. I'd argue further that on that fixed US$3000 budget, you'll rapidly discover that bodies, lenses, software, and training all have different paybacks to your enjoyment of the hobby. Spend that money wisely and your hobby gives you great joy. Spend that money pursuing the wrong gains and you'll grow frustrated and start posting fanboy rants on Internet sites ;~).

And that's how I get to: buy the best that you can afford. The best of what you've verified is the most important thing you need. Since you're on a limited budget, this forces you to prioritize what you need. That gives you a simple "buy" sheet:

Priority One Cost X
Priority Two Cost Y
Priority Three Cost Z...

Buy the best you can afford of the top priority things that fit within this year's budget. Next year, make a new budget and refresh your list of priorities. Funny thing is, you'll see some of your priorities change price each year, usually downward (but not that 600mm lens ;~). That means that time alone may solve some of your perceived problem.

Meanwhile, spend the majority of your effort on shooting. After all, without doing a lot of shooting, how are you going to even know how to prioritize what you need?

Prioritize need.
Buy the best you can afford of what you need.

That's the manual for serious shooters in a nutshell. Heck, that'll even fit on an iPhone display.

ly 19 (commentary)--Because I constantly review Nikon gear, I have a lot of it available to me. One of the persistent comments last week was that I was being a bit hypocritical about "12mp is probably enough for most folk" since I obviously have and shoot with a 24mp D3x.

While true, I don't shoot with the D3x as much as you might imagine. As I prepare for summer and fall trips I thought I'd give you a taste of how tough it is for me to figure out what to use these days. I often have conflicting needs and goals and sometimes get caught up in the "latest and greatest" craze myself while trying to resolve those conflicts.

Note that many pros have things pretty well settled for their work. I know of at least four big name pros whose names you'd recognize that pretty much shoot this: a pair of pro-but-not-highest-megapixel bodies (e.g. D700 or D3), a wide zoom (e.g 14-24mm or 16-35mm), a midrange zoom (24-70mm), and a telephoto zoom (e.g. 70-200mm or 70-300mm). If the subject requires it, they'll add a long lens (e.g. 200-400mm or maybe 300mm). That's basically it for camera and lens, though I do see them slip one additional lens in from time to time (e.g. 24mm PC-E). Art Wolfe on the Canon side uses a similar kit (obviously with Canon equivalents). One well-known Nikon pro does basically the same thing, but with DX instead of FX. The basic kit described above pretty much does the work for any job those pros encounter. The common denominator is no D3x, no 400mm f/2.8 or bigger lens unless the circumstances absolutely dictate it, no Zeiss primes or other oddball stuff--just a basic core of Nikon pro gear, usually centered around the D3 (now D3s) and the f/2.8 lenses.

You've seen thousands of images from that basic set of gear in everything from newspapers to magazines to ads to big prints. The gear is good and it works.

So, here I sit with a gear lockup that's got the D300, D300s, D700, D3, D3s, and D3x in it. I'm headed to Africa next month, so which bodies do I take? Well, usually the D300 bodies. That's because they're competent, small, light, and have a high pixel density that works well for wildlife photography. But as I take the D300 bodies out of lockup and put them into my bag, I look back to the shelves and see the superb high-ISO capability of the D3s and the nothing-beats-it pixel ability of the D3x just sitting there doing nothing for me. Guilt (and a bit of greed) floods my thoughts. Maybe I should take them to Africa this time just to see what new opportunities they open up?

And so I vacillate a bit. Higher ISO would be nice to have at the edges of the day (early morning and late afternoon drives when the sun isn't up). I've never put 24mp on an elephant or a lion before, and that might just open up detail I'm not capturing now.

This is a continuation of last week's discussion. I feel the urge or want to have more, but in practice I've never really needed it. Back when I shot film I never used higher than ISO 400 in Africa, and even that rarely. I got along just fine, though, yes, there were sometimes things I missed or had to adjust technique on. "More" in this context causes some other issues of its own, though. The places I go and the transportation I take often requires that I minimize size and weight. That D3s and D3x add a couple of pounds and considerable bulk to my bag by themselves, but they might also push me off the 200-400mm and to a longer, heavier lens. The D3x starts me down the path of thinking about whether a lens that works fine on the D300 might be struggling on the D3x (70-300mm, for instance). Again, there can be size and weight consequences.

Some people suggest that I go D300/D3x or D300/D3s. No. This doesn't really solve a problem and introduces new ones. I don't like switching back and forth between DX and FX bodies--it complicates my previsualization routine because I have to distinguish between angle of view differences while thinking out shots. It also introduces battery differences (and those that then say "just use the MB-D10 grip on the D300 really aren't getting the trade-offs: I might as well bring the D3s instead of the D300, then, as size and weight get bulked up adding the grip).

I can compromise a bit by bringing a D700 as a third body packed away in my duffel (well protected). This keeps me on the same battery set and gives me the option of high ISO should I decide that I need it. But I'd still be choosing lenses for DX, so that low light option really only benefits me with the shorter lenses.

Too many choices actually confuses the mind and forces it to ask additional questions as it turns out. Study after study shows this. Many of those new questions end up nonsensical and don't actually provide you with useful information to differentiate by. This is one of the tricks that high tech marketing departments know: the more information they present, the more confused you get and the more questions you'll ask.

Camera makers hope you eventually ask a question that'll make their product stand out from another. "Does it have sensor-based stabilization?" is a good example. As I wrote in my article on VR, stabilization should be off unless you need it. But "logic" tells you that sensor-based stabilization has to be better than lens-based, because then everything has stabilization, right? Not really. And that sensor-based camera, does it have a 600mm lens for birding where you might really need stabilization? Confusion reigns supreme in marketing, and it's to the advantage of the marketer, not the buyer. A good sales person will eventually find a lever that gets you to decide. In practice, that thing that triggered the decision will almost always turn out to be something you didn't really need or don't use much. Right now it tends to be thinks like megapixel count, low noise ability, or some new feature that isn't on every piece of equipment (nor does it need to be).

You see this "too much information" problem on the Web, too. I've been trying to figure out how to lower the amount of information I present, but usefully. (That's not working yet. ;~) When you get to a site like dpreview, which has zillions of facts and samples and tests from zillions of cameras for you to compare, you see what happens: brains get confused because they pick up on some single detail (e.g. 2600 lpm resolution instead of 2450) and then end up getting lost in the forest by trying to argue about subtleties in the branches of two trees.

Which brings me back to my packing dilemma and slight vacillation. I know that the D300 bodies and my lens selection works fine in Africa. I've used that two years running with great success. But those D3 twins sitting on the shelf call out to me. "More pixels, less noise" they chant as I close the cabinet and lock them back up. How can I resist "more pixels, less noise"? More pixels is better, and less noise is better, too. "Overweight and underlensed" chant my D300's in response, sensing my equivocation.

I haven't actually completely resolved what I'll take yet. I need to test the new 200-400mm and the TC-20e III with some of my other lenses and all of my cameras before I'll know if anything has changed that might impact my thinking. Right now I could go D3s/D3x/500mm/70-200mm with TC or D300/D300s/200-400mm/70-200mm. Both achieve slightly different objectives I need to consider a bit more. That said, I also know that no matter what I take, I'll have plenty of image quality.

And so it goes, right up to the final day of decision. (I won't even drop into the discussion about those of you who are waiting for something new to pop up at the last minute before you head out on your once-in-a-lifetime trip other than to say: big mistake. Go with what you know.)

Those of you who only have a sole D300 in your gear closet hear the chant differently. It's coming from your local camera store or some Internet site: "Buy me, I've got more" call the gear on their shelves. All you have to do is get out your credit card and click and you'll have more. Sounds great, doesn't it? Wait. You just paid off the credit card from the last time you fell for the siren call of new stuff. And have you really exhausted what you can get out of that?

A lot of you thought last week that I wasn't empathetic to your thoughts. No, I'm quite empathetic. I go through much the same sort of second guessing about gear. We're conditioned to that by a lifetime of constant marketing messages and consumptive behavior rewards. Just remember this: all those messages and rewards have nothing to do with taking pictures. You can take a picture with a cell phone or your old Polaroid. That image still has value (at least if you're not being totally random and actually think while taking your picture). So you have to come to grips with the notion of "better." What really constitutes a "better image": better gear or your use of the gear you've got? (Don't worry, I'll eventually get off the topic of gear itself and back to techniques.)

But tomorrow? Be prepared for a zigzag. Better gear is sometimes better. Those of you who've read my tripod article may have an inkling about where I'm headed. Until then, shoot with what ya' got and be happy.

Boy Have You Been Sending Emails...
ly 16 (commentary)--...and my fingers are tired from typing responses. Today you're going to get some more random thoughts.

  • Why not an all-raw DSLR? One email made me realize something that I've known for a long time: the camera makers are really optimizing to JPEG. That DIGIC and EXPEED chip are all about taking what the camera makers know about the sensor and its filtration and coming up with what they think the best solution is for the JPEG user. I'd actually pay more for a camera that has less. No AA filter. Published Bayer spectral characteristics. No JPEG (implies no image review!). RAW exposure controls (way beyond UniWB). Huge gamut (and documented). Highly refined ADC for noise control. Small, simple, direct control body.
  • One great 12mp image is worth millions of mediocre 24mp ones. Think about that for a moment. Process it. Embrace it. Practice it.
  • Did you buy the right camera the first time? This is something more people should be asking themselves. Back in the film days many of us shot with the same camera for more than a decade. If digital has truly equalled film, which most of us believe it has for some time now, then why do you need another camera every two years? It's fear of not having the latest and greatest. You've been programmed to consume, consume, consume. There's a reason why I get new gear, as I've built a business around that, but you might be startled to know that I often shoot with my older cameras. They still work just fine.
  • Instead of more, different! As one reader reiterated the megapixel and noise chases are one of those pursuits of smaller and smaller returns. Same expense to achieve a smaller advantage. It's the law of diminishing returns we've seen time and time again in tech. But this is why I asked Nikon to do something different and reinvent the camera itself. There's not a single photographer I know of that doesn't think that we could have better cameras with the same sensors. None. Sounds like an opportunity to me.
  • KISS (keep it small, stupid). At this point I have well more than a thousand responses to this week's posts (I even hit MSN's 250-a-day response limit one day). One thing I noticed recurring in response after response was this: "enough with the big DSLRs, I want a small, simple one." Yes, we all do. We've driven the Cadillacs and the three-quarter ton trucks, now we want a sports car. Hear that, Tokyo?
  • It's the privileged that are complaining. Americans don't travel enough. Until recently less than 20% had a passport and even most of those never made it past the Caribbean, Mexico, or Canada. We live in our little narcissistic, self-gratifying, super-consumptive world and want more. So let's hear from someone else. Here's the whole text and you'll see what I mean:

    "I have perhaps a different outlook from many of your readers, since I live in Kenya. Even most professionals here cannot afford some of the cameras that your readers are apparently tired of - most shoot on Canon Rebels or Nikon D40's. I am privileged in that up to a few weeks ago I was the proud owner of a D200, recently upgraded to a D300. It blows my mind that someone would dream of whining about the D300 - it's absolutely fabulous. and 3 weeks ago, I felt the same about the D200. Maybe if they knew what others used they would appreciate what they had and actually get out there and take some pictures instead of blaming the problem on their equipment. As the Swahili proverb goes 'Mtu asiyejua kucheza dansi analalamika kwamba bendi haijui kucheza muziki' - meaning that 'a person who doesn't know how to dance blames the band.'"

    Blame the band, indeed. Thank you Musa for putting the proper perspective on things. I'll be sending him a copy of my D300 Guide in thanks for his email.

More on the Sensor Commentary
ly 15 (commentary)--Yep, the email really has been piling up on this one. Did I hit a nerve? Sorry, I meant to put some Novocaine in there before drilling ;~).

  • Would the D3s sensor go away with the D4 intro? No, I think not. But some might not like the answer: it'll be in a D700s. If you think about it, launching a D700s later this year and a D4 next year allows the D3s sensor to live past the D4 intro and still provide Nikon with a "low light champ." This would also explain why the D700 follow-up is a bit later than we all originally expected. Think about this progression:
    • 2007 D3
    • 2008 D700
    • 2009 D3s
    • 2010 D700s
    • 2011 D4
    • 2012 D800
  • What's the best overall camera body? This came up in one email conversation. The emailer said D700. I say D300. Every camera design is a range of compromises. In looking at my use statistics the D700 is the least used of my Nikon prosumer/pro bodies (if I were a wedding or event shooter that statistic might be different). The D300 is a little smaller, has a wider AF array, has higher pixel density, and basically all the features of the D700 (and these days, with the D300s, has some features the D700 doesn't have, like dual card slots and video). This actually may explain why the demand for a more 5DII-like D700 body exists: the D700 is perceived as missing a few things in today's world. Add the slot, video, and the D3s sensor and I suspect most of the demand would be filled. That would really only leave megapixels as the thing the 5DII has the D700 series doesn't. And you know what I think about megapixels ;~).
  • Will sensors go the way of music, where no one is really interested in more sound quality any more? Yes. That's sort of my point with megapixels and high ISO noise. Who really needs 24mp and ISO 256,000? Each press upwards removes a few more from the "need better" roster. At some point you satisfy 90%+ of the market, and for companies shooting at large volume (Nikon makes 14 million cameras a year, that's large volume), pursuing the last bits of sensor physics has smaller and smaller payoffs. Note that modular, communicating, and programmable don't have this restricting aspect. If anything, they restore providing new things to the mass market.
  • Big prints redux. Okay, let's say that you do print big. And by big I mean 36" or more on the long axis. You need 24mp, right? Mostly wrong, I think. Portraits for instance: with 24mp at 36" you're going to be post processing out facial pore detail, big time. As long as you can achieve reasonable hair edge acuity you don't need more pixels, they only get you into trouble. Something similar happens with macro shots. I'd also say that you need focus stacking more than you need pixels in macro. And landscapes? 24mp probably isn't enough. Here's the one area where detail is important. MF and panos win over 24mp. And if you're doing panos, the only thing 24mp gives you is fewer images to stitch. Put another way, having 24mp doesn't necessarily mean that you're now "big print enabled" when you weren't with 12mp.
  • "Any problem with the pictures is due to my use of the camera, not the camera itself." I just had to run this little quote from one of the emails I received, as in it resides the truth for most of us (amateurs and pros alike). Note that if the camera companies were to agree, they wouldn't manage to sell you a new camera, would they? For ten years now I've been writing about the difference between "need" and "want." Make sure that you don't blithely believe marketing claims and have that well up into a "want." Instead, evaluate your needs and look at specifications and performance to make sure that something achieves what you "need." On a related note: one of the primary roles of marketing is to make you fall in love with something. A product. An idea. A design. A fad. Something. Save the love for your spouse and family. Get real with your purchases.
  • Four years is better than eight. With film, we got a new pro generation every eight years. With digital, we're getting them twice as often. What's wrong with that? Are we really that impatient?
  • Want an 18mp D700 so that the complaints will stop. One emailer didn't want a camera at all, he just wanted all the Internet discussion about Nikon's missing camera to stop. Well, it won't, even if there's a D700x in our near future. The people that are hung up on brute number/feature comparisons will always be hung up on it. They'll just start asking why Nikon doesn't have something else (and given that Canon has some new announcements coming up, there will be plenty for them to choose as their next argument target ;~).
  • "Pros seem to be more dispassionate about their gear." You bet they are. From what I've seen, more pros switch back and forth between Canon and Nikon than do amateurs. If a pro needs something and they can only get it in one place, they go there. It's the amateurs that are doing most of the complaining, as they perceive themselves to have an "investment" in lenses that they can't afford to abandon. Thus, when Canon doesn't deliver a D3s or Nikon a 5DII, they complain and write Internet posts labeled "When will X come out with a Y?"
  • "I'm competing with pros that shoot with higher megapixel counts. Clients don't buy that you don't need such high pixel counts." While true for some subsets of clients (e.g. ad agencies), note that the client is usually the one with the problem here. They've bought into something that maybe isn't true. Even in film we saw this ("unless you shoot MF we're not interested," and this from someone who was using photos at about 4" wide on not-state-of-the-art magazine press/paper). Some clients use size or some similar "requirement" to weed out the non-pros. They can just reject you by saying "you don't shoot with the right equipment." Funny thing is, even if you shot with the "right equipment" you'd probably be rejected ;~). There's another aspect buried here, though. Most people who write me saying they need 18 or 24mp to "compete" are missing another point. Do they have a unique style? One that stands out from the crowd? Probably not, otherwise the client wouldn't care what you shot with. Do you have exceedingly fine presentation, always? Also probably not, otherwise the client wouldn't care what you shot with. Someone who cares about images, cares about images. Yes, sometimes they have plans for an image that might require going big, but frankly, most of those clients are actually used to paying for going big. Note that Annie Liebowitz has been shooting with a D3 a lot lately. Think her clients complain about her not having 24mp?
  • "Places go away. We need to capture them now with as much resolution as possible." True. Almost everywhere I've been in the wild world over my career is less wild today. Things I captured on film or video in the 90's in some cases aren't possible to re-capture. However, if you're really into that argument, then you shouldn't be waiting for an 18mp Nikon DSLR with 1080P video. You should be using a MF camera for stills and a RED shooting 4k video. "But that's not affordable!" Right. It isn't. Thus, what you want to do may be out of your ability do actually do. An affordable no-compromise solution isn't possible. And no maker will ever have all the choices that you seek at any given time. You either pay or your compromise, your choice. Right now one of the compromises is that you switch to Canon if you need the 5DII's resolution in an affordable body.
  • The list: lenses can't handle more pixels, aberrations cross more pixels, DOF and diffraction may change, shot discipline has to be higher, crop isn't the same as perspective. Thanks Tomas. I've written about these things before. Just having more pixels isn't all that changes. Other issues flare up and need to be dealt with. Some people use more pixels to bury pixel-peeping ("hey, if I can't see it in my 4x5" print, it isn't there!"). But those of us who do venture into the more pixel territory because of need realize that we trade off other things.
  • "If I'm satisfied, what else is important?" Thank you Allen. Nail hit on head. This is really the key to all the complaints, isn't it? What exactly is it that the complainers are not satisfied with? 18mp instead of 12mp? Really? The satisfaction should be in the images you shoot, not the equipment you use to shoot them. There are times when I look at an image and wish that I had something else, but it's rarely "more pixels" or "better noise handling." My images have enough pixels and the noise is controlled well enough, thank you. Of course, having to use UniWB to understand what the camera is recording instead of the camera maker giving me the tools I need, well, that I'm not satisfied with.
  • And I learned a new term. Gou Pi. In literal Chinese translation it probably means "dog butt" (some say "dog fart"), but apparently the Chinese use it as their equivalent to our BS. Ah, the joys of the Internet! Where learning new gou pi can be fun...Hmm, I'm wonder if you can teach an old gou new pi tricks?

Just as I expected
ly 14 (commentary)--As I hypothesized in yesterday's commentary, the pros don't seem to have much disagreement with my assessment, but the consumers jumped all over me. In fact, it really all boiled down to one type of consumer who vehemently disagreed: the 5DII wannabe consumer.

Basically, everyone wants a cheap D3s or D3x. Who wouldn't? Well, Nikon for one ;~). If all you do is provide a lower cost version of the same thing, you kill your margin for volume. Nikon doesn't need more volume, per se. They need total growth (sales and profit), not market share growth.

So I started answering back to all those who emailed me in disagreement. I wanted specifics as to why Nikon needed to do a 5DII-type camera. Yep, it all came back to the same word: affordability. Specifically, the things those people wanted "affordable" all seemed to boil down to high megapixel count, high ISO capability, and pro HD video features. So I challenged them on each of these things. Let's listen in, shall we?

"Why do you need high megapixel count?
"Enlarge and crop."
"How often do you enlarge beyond 24"?"
"Haven't done it lately (or yet), but I want that flexibility. Also, that means I can crop aggressively."
"So, if you need to crop aggressively that means you don't have a long lens or can't get close to your subject, right?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Do you know what perspective is?"
"I think so."
"Shot and edited any video productions lately?"
"No, but I might want to."

I could keep going, but that's the gist of a number of email conversations I had yesterday. So let's go to the facts.

Need more megapixels. I challenge this assertion. Yes, there are some people who may need more megapixels, I won't deny that or the fact that I have some cameras with "more megapixels." But we're talking about an affordable camera here for the masses. Do they need more megapixels? My question to each one who said yes was to ask them what types of things they shoot. Landscapes (learn how to do panos, it's easy). Portraits (will your subject really like to see their zits in detail?). Kids playing, casual stuff (are you really going to blow that up to 48"?). Not much else. Sorry, I'm calling a BS on this claim. Not a single person I challenged has yet given me an exact scenario where those extra megapixels buy them much they don't already have.

Need low light work. So, my challenge here is this: the D700 is worse at low light than the 5DII? Just the opposite in my testing. Usually when I trip the person up on this they say "but the 5DII has more megapixels, so I can get 18mp at ISO 6400." Okay, what the heck are you shooting at ISO 6400 that needs 18mp? Oh, they're downsizing their images to get less noise. Oops. Again, I call BS.

Need pro HD video features. Okay, the D700 doesn't have video, the 5DII does, and it has very capable and flexible video. The question is whether or not you actually need it. What manual focus, low light, shallow DOF video have you been shooting lately? Uh, none. Again, BS. People seem to be afraid that if their camera doesn't have those pro features on it that they'll never really use that it isn't good enough. Nonsense.

Okay, there are people who need or can use what the 5DII provides. Obviously so. The 5DII sells in decent (but not huge) volume. Nikon does not currently have an equivalent, so those particular people--and you already know who you are--find the lack of a Nikon equivalent problematic (for video, I'm not sure why, since you can mount manual focus Nikon lenses on the 5DII, and manual focus is what you'll be using for video ;~).

No, the problem I have is that most of the people protesting the loudest about Nikon's "missing cameras" don't actually need them, they just want them. I might even go so far as to say that they want them because they think that numbers indicate state-of-the-photographic-art. It doesn't help that the camera makers pathetic marketing campaigns have hammered that home over the years. In the meantime, the savvy photographer is looking at far more than just pixel count or if the ISO setting goes to 11. Personally, I'd rather have Nikon fix their broken hot pixel suppression routine than add more pixels that are still broken on long exposures.

What makes me think that most of the people asking for a US$1999 24mp FX HD video DSLR are driving cars with 400 cubic inch engines on roads with speed limits of 35 mph? More isn't better.

And So it Starts
ly 14 (news) updated--Sony today announced the NEX-VG10E video camera, to be shipped in September. Why am I writing about a video camera? Because I predicted this transition when the D90 first came out: the video companies are going to eventually stifle the video-enabled DSLR.

The new video NEX uses the same lens mount as the NEX3 and NEX5 still cameras, but is a video camera all the way: video-optimized lens (28-300mm equivalent), video-optimized audio (quad capsule spatial array stereo, mic jack, plus headphone monitoring), both rear and viewfinder LCDs, AVCHD format (full 1080i at 24 Mbps bandwidth and 60 fps max). US$1999. Oh, and it takes 14mp stills.

So, you want autofocus? Check. You want video and audio control? Check. You want shallow DOF capabilities? Check. You want to use your existing lenses? Check.

Panasonic will be filling in the details on its new entry shortly, and I believe that they've moved their delivery date up to match Sony. So suddenly we face the fall with the prospect of two dedicated large frame video cameras from the majors competing with video-enabled DSLRs. All that extra work the DSLR makers have been doing "fixing" the video side of their DSLR is going to get a real challenge. If you've ever shot a production with both a DSLR and a real video camera, you'll know what's about to happen: the minute we have competent video cameras, the urge to spend US$3000+ to convert a DSLR (Redrock, Beachtek, etc.) so that it's usable for shooting is going to start to go away.

The future is this: dedicated still cameras that can do some video in a pinch, and dedicated video cameras that can do a still in a pinch. Worse still, with cellphones like the iPhone 4 and compact cameras proving that they can do competent HD video for casual situations, the need for "casual" video in DSLRs is lessened, too. I hate to sound like a worn record, but I've been warning for two years that diverting engineering resources to add video to DSLRs came at the expense of still work. We're beginning to see the impact of that poor decision, and it's only going to get worse. Imagine, instead, that a solely still camera company--Nikon comes to mind--had simply put all that engineering into a modular, programmable, communicating still camera. As the video-enabled DSLR craze starts to dry up, such a still camera would dominate the still market. Just so I'm clear, the still camera market is far bigger than the video camera market. See the problem?

The Japanese makers don't understand Apple's laser-like focus on new product definition. Apple understands the 80/20 rule. The Japanese seem to think every product needs everything. No. It needs 80% of the right things.

ly 14 (news)--Pixelmator 1.6, a Photoshop-like product for the Mac, has added 64-bit support, layer groups, and more.

The Problematic D4 Sensor
ly 13 (commentary)--
A number of you sent comments regarding my best guess for a D4 sensor. Everyone is going to be looking at three key attributes of that sensor (beyond how well it does video ;~): megapixel count, dynamic range, and high ISO capability. The D3x pushed the bar way up in megapixel count and I expect Canon's upcoming 1DsIV announcement to do the same. The D3s pushed the bar way up beyond where anyone expected it with high ISO capability.

The problem, of course, is that you can't exactly push both bars substantively higher simultaneously, and there are physical limits to one of the bars (electrons captured minus noise has caps on both ends). Megapixel count and high ISO capability are in conflict with one another, so if you push one aggressively, the other usually suffers.

I think that everyone believes that Nikon will add more pixels to their flagship camera. Even Nikon executives are on record as saying that we should see more pixels in the future. Unfortunately, trying to predict just where Nikon ends up with the D4 has two problems: (1) we don't have a lot of data points to plot with, and (2) the D3s sensor is above the noise progression trend we've seen through the history of sensors so far.

Canon on the other hand, has had a bit more history to draw data points and a plot line from (never mind the wizard behind the curtain or what he's showing you at the moment; I'm using a magical blend of numbers that I don't want to get bogged down in ;~):

That line is interesting. It predicts that a 1DsIV in late 2010 would only make it to about 27mp and would only be marginally better in high ISO capability than the current 21mp camera (at best case, assuming that they make full progress on everything that line implies). Or Canon could produce a 32mp camera with almost the same noise levels (again best case).

So where will Nikon end up? Short of assuming that Nikon has some additional big D3s-like breakthrough, I end up having to guess that Nikon can only produce a moderate move forward in pixels by moving slightly backwards in high ISO capability. Whether the pixel count is 16, 18, or 20, these all seem to imply that the high ISO capability has to step back from where the D3s currently is, and that's going to cause a lot of grief with some Nikon pros, I think, many who have just latched onto a D3s because of its high ISO capability for their work (e.g. PJs and sports shooters). There just won't be enough time for the slow improvements we've seen over the lifetime of digital sensors to deliver D3s quality at anything approaching the pixel counts that most expect.

Thus, the danger is this: we move from having the best high ISO, fast frame rate camera (D3s) and the best high pixel count camera (D3x) to something that's a hybrid in between: neither as good as a D3s at high ISO nor as good as a D3x in resolution. Of course, that hybrid would be better than a D3s in resolution and better than the D3x in high ISO.

That last statement is what provoked most of the comments to me. The common denominator seems to be this: something else on that D4 had better be so compelling that they can overlook the compromise in the two key components of the sensor. Hey, I'll vote for modular, communicating, and programmable ;~). Indeed, that would solve the whole problem, wouldn't it? Because with a modular D4 you could get a D3s-like sensor module (noise control), a new D4 sensor module (hybrid), or a D3x-like sensor module (megapixels).

Not that I'm predicting that's what Nikon will do. But it is a clear answer to the dilemma facing Nikon. Whether they saw it in time is another story.

However, That Said...
ly 13 (commentary)--
I'm beginning to think that Nikon users are like Philadelphia sports fans: they'll boo at anything less than perfect.

The longer the space between Nikon camera announcements, the more those boo birds come out and start hitting the Internet forums with "what's Nikon up to?" and "Nikon better do X" posts. Let's differentiate the boo birds from reality for a moment.

In the professional lineup, the D3s stands at the top of the high performance DSLRs, the D3x at the top of the high resolution DSLRs. Period. No doubts about it, and sales records show that Nikon has taken the lead from Canon in pro sales. This is not to say Canon cameras are bad, by the way, only that Nikon is producing arguably better pro equipment in terms of image quality at the moment. There were times when it was the other way around and there will be times in the future when that's true, too. But today--a day in which there are many posts claiming that Nikon needs a D4 today to compete--Nikon has a clear hold on the top spot. Wanting more sooner is just greedy and ignoring current reality, IMHO.

Here's where I'll likely start to get hammered with comments: most consumers really don't need more than the D5000/D90/D300s 12mp they've got now. We'll get the D90 replacement soon, too, and that will answer some of the (mostly unwarranted) concerns some have. I mean, be realistic: does a D300s take bad pictures? Worse pictures than a Canon 50D/7D? Do you really need 18mp, or do you just have pixel envy? We need to replace the consume, consume, consume mantra with shoot, shoot, shoot.

But most of the "noise" about Nikon's "failure" is centered in one arena: the 5DII. Worse still, most of that "failure" is specific to one feature: video. Meanwhile, the D700 continues to sell well, and in terms of build quality and features, it's arguably a better camera. Difficult to see how Nikon has failed there, as they're not a video company and they're likely to address some of the issues shortly.

I find most of the complaints about Nikon's current products fall under Consumption Addiction. Meanwhile, Nikon's sales, service, and support practices are in dire need of rework. If you want to complain about something, complain about current products not available for purchase, the inability to distinguish which used products might or might not be repaired by NikonUSA, and the fact that no one at NikonUSA seems to know what a telephone is or has a published email address.

So boo the lack of new products if you want to, but I won't be booing with you. I'll be on the field shooting.

Exchange Rates
ly 11 (news and commentary)--
Nikon has restated their expected currency hedge rates for the current fiscal year (90 yen to the dollar, 120 yen to the Euro). This morning as I write this the current exchange rates are 88.635 and 111.3477, respectively, which means that Nikon expects the yen to depreciate against both currencies sometime during the year.

As I noted right after Nikon posted their year-end results, Nikon's expected currency rates looked wrong to me. As it turns out, the dollar has slid about 5% and the Euro almost 20%. Any swing greater than 5% seems to be about the point where Nikon reprices in the US (in other words, Nikon will tend to keep prices steady for Yen appreciation in the 0-5% range, change prices as the appreciation goes above that). For those keeping tabs, the Thailand Bhat has appreciated about 3% against the dollar this year. That's significant because almost all the consumer DSLR gear is coming out of Thailand.

At the moment I don't expect price changes in the US, though the rebate programs will probably get thinner. But I do expect that the currency fluctuations are going to impact the next iteration of Nikon products coming into Europe. That D90 replacement, D700 follow-up, mirrorless entry, consumer zoom, and two more primes that everyone expects as the next announcements are going to be stiffer in price for the Europeans, I'm afraid.

The Mirrorless is Coming, the Mirrorless is Coming
ly 11 (news and commentary)--
Last week in an interview with Bloomberg and reiterated in additional interviews with other Japanese business press, Nikon's incoming CEO did the FUD leak thing, stating that Nikon will have an entry in the mirrorless lineup "...any time this fiscal year or the following year." Technically, that gives them until April 2012 to ship it. I think I could design one from scratch in that time ;~).

Personally, I had expected this camera in September, but it appears it has slipped to the January-March time frame, probably not to get lost in other camera announcements we'll see later this summer (the D90 replacement being the biggest of those).

Because Nikon has filed so many patents in the mirrorless area (some of which I haven't seen referred to yet), it was a foregone conclusion that such a camera was being worked on. But I'll repeat something I wrote before: Nikon still has a surprise camera up its sleeve (in other words, it's not the mirrorless model), one that I've not seen much, if any, speculation on so far. I don't know if it has been dropped from release consideration or if Nikon is just keeping it in their back pockets for a real surprise.

When I was in Japan earlier this year I met with Nikon executives to present my ideas on the Camera Redefined. The conversation around my presentation let slip a few other details that I haven't seen anywhere. I'll not repeat them here out of respect to those at the meeting (I was not under NDA nor paid by Nikon as many have assumed). However, at least one of the details of the mirrorless camera will be a surprise, I think. Nikon has picked up on some of the wording from my presentation, by the way: Kimura-san said in one of the interviews "Redefinition of photography may become necessary." (I didn't use the words "may become," I used the word "is".)

Specifically, photography has always been a linear process with a narrow workflow. In film that was easy to see: exposed film went to the processor, then the printer, then the customer. The digital world has long mostly mimicked that workflow. My contention has been and continues to be that the camera must be redefined so that it is (near) the center of the workflow, not just the start of it. Obviously, I've compiled lots of details and use scenarios about what that means. For a hint, see Camera Redefined. (Put another way, the Camera Redefined article is only the tip of the iceberg of what I put together. Indeed, what I presented to Nikon was only a bit more of the iceberg, not everything I'd come up with.)

One thing I want to reiterate from Camera Redefined is this: future cameras have to be modular, communicating, and programmable. It's probably not good enough to be just one or two of those. Each requires the others to completely fulfill the premise of a long-term solution that reinvents photography. It's easiest to see with communication: if you build a camera with 3G or 802g communications, it becomes obsolete quickly as the communications platforms change. Thus, modularity into the communications capabilities is required. Cellphones get away with not being modular because their costs are subsidized by the carriers. The act of constantly replacing them every year or two plays to the carriers need to lock you into their service. Likewise, if you program Facebook or Flickr or PictureTown or any other social media into the camera, it can't be locked code because these sites change (nearly constantly). Such capability almost certainly has to be separated out into an app, thus the camera has to be programmable.

Meanwhile, from leaked documents I've seen that appear to be real Olympus Japan internal publications, it seems clear to me that Olympus will likely be the first to present to the market a truly modular camera similar to what I suggested for sensors in Camera Redefined. The scale of leaks out of Olympus in recent months indicate a pattern to me of controlled and intentional leakage. Perhaps Olympus is looking to road test aspects of their upcoming camera designs to see how they play with the general public. If not, then Olympus R&D is being very sloppy right now.

Sensor Speculation
ly 11 (commentary)--
At present, I can think of five sensor questions that involve Nikon at the moment:

  • The D90 replacement. Even if the D90 replacement were to stay at 12mp (it won't), Nikon would need a new sensor here. State of the art has moved past the old 12mp Sony, especially where it concerns video. But where is the 60 fps, 14-16mp, state-of-the-art noise level sensor that's really needed to come from? Sony doesn't have one that I know of. Best guess: 16mp Sony-derived, 24/30 fps.
  • The D700 follow-up. Is it a D3s sensor in the D700 body or is it something new? While I'm betting the former (and this would explain the D3s scarcity), there have been clear rumors of the latter. I don't believe we'll get both. Best guess: D3s sensor.
  • The mirrorless choice. The speculation here has been on a smaller-than-DX, smaller than m4/3 sensor. Much of that speculation has come from lens patents, which show a 17mm image circle. One caution: some lens patents these days are getting filed at smaller, disguised sizes, and then scaled. If Nikon chooses a smaller sensor size, this introduces multiple issues. First, there is no third-party sensor of that size that I know of, so this would tend to indicate that Nikon has their own sensor planned. Second, it's unclear how Nikon would expect to compete with third generation m4/3 sensors and highly mature APS sensors on the other mirrorless entries. Best guess: If it's not DX with the D90 sensor, it'll be a new Nikon sensor.
  • The D3000 follow up. Can we finally move beyond 10mp in the entry lineup? Sure, how about 12mp? ;~) Best guess: the old Sony 12mp standby goes into the bottom of the line.
  • The D4 generation. The D3s and D3x set the bar really, really high. The D4 almost certainly has to have more megapixels than the D3s (or it needs to be non-Bayer at 8mp or greater). That's because the D3s seems to be "above the expected performance bar" for sensors as it is--I really don't see another generation of 12mp sensor with more high ISO gains in the making for 2011. Here's where I think Nikon needs to be with the D4 sensor: 16-18mp, D3 (not D3s) level of high ISO quality, 60 fps or higher frame refresh (Live View, HD Video), full pixel binning for video (no subsampling and interpolation on line data), 2k or 4k video capability with 4:2:2 color. Best guess: 16mp, near D3 level of high ISO quality, 24/30 fps, 720/1080P only.

Jim Jannard Quote
ly 6 (commentary)--
I can't say that I've always agreed with things said by the founder of Oakley (sunglasses) and RED, but one recent quote from Jannard resonates fully: "No one in this industry [cameras] seems to move unless they are forced to." He cites that as one of the reasons why he started RED (Jannard formerly used Canon equipment in his work--amongst other things, he shot most of the Oakley sunglass ads along the way). As much as Nikon and Canon and others all claim to be innovators and pushing the technology envelope, in terms of things that are useful to shooters that open up new capabilities, the camera companies generally wait until someone proves something is necessary before moving towards it. The CHK hacks for Canon and PTool hacks for the Panasonic cameras are just two examples of where the user knows best.

The question has always been this: what do you have to do to force the industry to move off its own engineering agenda and onto that of the user? It appears that the answer is: build a better mousetrap. The fear of being left behind or losing their key audience is what motivates the Japanese companies, not anticipating what the user actually wants or needs. In retrospect, perhaps I was mistaken in not accepting to lead a startup alternative F mount competitor when it the idea was floated a couple of years ago.

What Jannard's RED designs are provoking is that we'll soon see DSLRs that shoot 2k/4k/5k raw video in 4:2:2 color, mainly because someone else (RED) showed the Japanese companies that's what the pros wanted. Will Nikon provide that soon? No, I doubt it. My guess is that any such major changes would wait for the D4 generation. We'll probably get some 1080P and optional frame rate options on a model or two between now and then, but I'd be surprised if we got any more advanced video features before Nikon's next flagship appears. (That should be sometime in July or August of 2011 for those not paying attention.)

Tokina FX Wide Angle Zoom Announced
ly 5 (news)--
Tokina announced their previously leaked 16-28mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro FX zoom, which will be released in early August in the Nikon F mount. Like Nikon's 14-24mm, this is a big, heavy lens (slightly over two pounds) and can't use filters due to both the large front element size and the built-in petal hood. Likely price will be in the US$1400 range. Other details are on the Tokina Lens Database page.

ly 2 (news)--
Remember, byThom will be silent next week (unless there's something important and timely that needs to be addressed). I'll resume regular writing again on July 12th.

Canon Professional Services
ly 1 (news
)--"Along with enhancing service, Canon U.S.A. will now extend its CPS hotline service to provide 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week technical support to all CPS members. A separate international customer support number will also be made available to US-based professionals traveling and working abroad." That's direct from their press release announcing this and the addition of a third repair facility here in the US. I don't think I need to comment, you can guess what I'd write ;~).

Shooting Fireworks
ly 1 (technique
) updated--With the big US fireworks demonstrations about to begin, here's the quick and dirty technique advice:

  • Camera on a tripod. Find your spot early. Consider foreground silhouette possibilities (option: light foreground with flash). Be aware of potential platform vibrations! Decks and buildings aren't necessarily fully stable, especially when you start putting lots of people on them and those big bangs start rattling things. That translates into "squigglies" in the tails of the fireworks.
  • Lens that has a manual focus to infinity on camera. Note that most ED lenses focus past infinity. Use an older lens that you can reliably focus to a fixed distance (usually at infinity or near it). It's almost certain that you can't focus via the viewfinder. Live View helps some, but I prefer to use a known focus distance via the lens ring.
  • Use the base ISO on your camera. Turn Auto ISO off.
  • Do not use enhanced Picture Control settings (JPEG shooters). Use Neutral, -1 contrast. Believe me, you'll have enough contrast and color saturation. If you use enhanced settings you may just start blowing out channels.
  • Set camera to manual exposure.
  • Aperture should usually be between f/8 and f/16. Which aperture you use depends upon how close you are to the fireworks (smaller apertures for close work, larger apertures for far work). The aperture determines the "exposure of the burst."
  • Shutter speed determines the length of the trails. Often that means Bulb or long exposures to get full sets of trails or multiple bursts. Since we're talking exposures measured in seconds here, you have a problem: hot pixels. The temptation is to turn Long Exp NR on, but this means that a four second exposure needs another four seconds to process on most of the Nikon bodies. Thus, you miss some bursts. Instead, turn Long Exp NR reduction off. At the beginning and end of the show take a couple of noise reference shots (lens cap on) at the shutter speeds you used. That way, if you have hot pixel or other noise issues in your shots, you can post process that noise out.
  • Use a remote instead of jabbing at the shutter release. If you're close enough to hear the mortars being fired, open the shutter just after you hear the mortar, don't wait for the fireworks to appear! You want to capture the initial burst as well as the tail, so don't wait until you see the fireworks.
  • Verify all of the above by chimping your first few shots. In brightly lit urban areas you may have to deal with foreground exposures. Your choices: silhouette, lit artificially, use aperture/shutter speed adjustments to bring in foreground. Also, since some fireworks shows go off just into twilight, the foreground/sky exposure may change during the course of the show.

China Syndrome, the Sequel
30 (commentary
)--Surprisingly, I got a lot of email from China about my comments yesterday. Most of them all said the same thing: I'm wrong. That's certainly possible, maybe even probable, as my direct exposure to what's happening in SE Asia is sporadic at best. Certainly not up to the level of my experience in/with Japan.

So what was the point on which the responders said I'm wrong? The notion that the Chinese will be more like Japan than the US in their selection of cameras (small versus large). This was usually pointed out with some sort of anecdote coupled with a variation of "the Chinese want to show off their wealth and status, so they buy big."

I'm sure that's true in many parts of China. And it may be true of the visible middle class emerging in Shanghai, Beijing, and the other large cities. But my comments were based upon the actual sales numbers seen so far in China, and that suggests that smaller cameras are moving at higher than expected ratios to large DSLRs. "China" is a huge country with a very large population, and it's tough to generalize because what's happening in some cities is not the same thing that's happening in other districts.

It's possible that we're both right, that the current sales trend reflects price rather than size. Remember too that size is not exactly the same thing as price. The Chinese will lap up things like Leica M9's if I'm right, because it's a status symbol but it's not particularly large. Even an Olympus E-P2 should do well there, as it looks like a status/fashion symbol. You can have small high-end products. Note, though, that Nikon's statements specifically talked about emphasizing low-end DSLRs, which could be potentially construed to fit both views of what China wants, but probably misses on the "status" component necessary to win in China.

One thing that many who wrote also said: Canon's already there and highly visible, Nikon is not. Nikon seems to know this, but it's unclear yet what they'll do about it.

Regardless of whether I was right or wrong in my contention, I think my underlying point is still important: Nikon has a lot to do in China, and China will be an important market for them. What is worrisome is that Nikon isn't fully serving their existing large markets at the moment, so one hopes that China isn't a distraction that makes things worse in the other subsidiaries.

China Syndrome
28 (commentary
)--If you know how to read tea leaves, you'll know that Nikon is now obsessed with China (and to a smaller degree, India and other SE Asian countries). The reason? Growth.

I posited earlier on this site that Nikon needed a strong growth plan because overall camera sales were flattening. Well, they have one, and it's China. Simply put, Nikon will continue to just do what they've done in the past, but with an emphasis on getting cameras and lenses into the hands of the Chinese, who aren't yet market saturated with cameras. And those cameras are highly likely to be mostly Coolpix and low-end DSLRs.

Evidence is present in many places, so let's catch you up on some other sources of information. First, consider China Daily's headline last March: "Canon says China may become top camera market in 2015." Simply put, the expected unit volume growth in China should exceed the unit volume growth in the US or Europe, the two traditional "big markets." Eventually this means more sales in China than the US. This is an increasingly common bet amongst global companies: everyone sees China's unrelenting GDP growth during the last recession as a clue that China is ready to supplant the US as the driver of the world economy.

I have a couple of problems with that viewpoint. The first is that China has artificially boosted their GDP to the point that there's almost certainly a few bubbles in their economy now. Bubbles eventually pop and bring things back down to their reality. This isn't to deny that consumerism hasn't risen at a fast rate in China, only that there are questions about both sustainability as well as where the real growth in GDP is being put. On the flip side, it's clear that consumers in China are buying things they didn't only ten years ago, and the overall demand is certainly there for things like electronic goods, and specifically cameras.

However, I think that most companies are underreading the US economy. While we're in no way out of the woods from the last recession yet, the primary problem in the US is not demand, it's jobs. If you've been paying attention, you'll note that for the Fortune 500 companies in the US, quarterly profits just hit their highest level since just after World War II. That indicates that companies have pared to the bone, probably overreacting to the recession itself, which admittedly, was a very scary one. The US really only needs two things to happen to ramp up some very scary growth curves of its own again: get past the mortgage mess with real estate markets at realistic levels, and create more jobs.

But let's assume for a moment that China is the future for cameras and Nikon. What kind of cameras? There, the answer is interesting: compact and mirrorless, I think. I expect China to mirror the Japanese market in terms of camera purchasing, not mirror the US. In the US we seem to embrace the "more is better" philosophy in our camera purchases. While things are changing here, if you go to a US National Park this holiday weekend, you'll see a lot of big body cameras at every photo opportunity. In Japan, not so much. More like camera phones, compacts, and mirrorless these days (mirrorless is over 20% of the interchangeable lens camera market now in Japan). Small is beautiful in Japan, and I think that same thing will play in China, though mirrorless cameras will have to come down in price to make the real inroads I expect.

Thus, in the Q&A from the recent Nikon Medium Term Management Plan we get a statement that needs some parsing: "Although we considered a variety of so-called mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras for the digital SLR camera market, we discern the appropriate timing for the launch of our new-generation digital cameras based on the direction of the market demand."

As opaque as Japanese business-speak sometimes can be, if you go back to the original Japanese and look at the other clues, that statement appears to say to me "we have a mirrorless camera ready, and we're likely not to launch it until we have better marketing and sales functions in place in China."

What? How'd I get B from A? Like I said, you have to learn to read business Japanese, both in actual content and in intent. There's a consistency to Nikon's comments, statements, and answers lately. Note that up higher in the Q&A is this: "...contribution from Asia to total sales will continue to rise in the future...plans for business expansion [by Nikon in Asia] have not all been efficient." What that essentially says is that Nikon need to put in place a better, more cohesive, more visible sales effort in China. ASAP.

I think we'll see Nikon China subsidiary news almost simultaneously with any new low-end DSLR or mirrorless products. In fact, I'd say that they probably shouldn't announce a mirrorless camera before they have the Nikon China subsidiary ready to execute big. And let me go even one step further: I'll be that such a camera will be made in China, too.

That leaves one other thing to parse in Nikon's recent statements: "We are committed to further improving our marketing capabilities by building on best practice examples from the past on a global scale." The key words there are "from the past" and "global scale." If I read the context right, those words should actually be "from Nikon's past" and the "global scale" means replicating successess in the US and Europe in China.

But the big news is this: Nikon thinks they know how they'll grow as a company: more sales in China and SE Asia. The question of course then becomes: can they keep their existing large customer bases happy while doing that? Hard to say since the details are not yet visible. However, I do know one thing about American consumers: they don't like it if they think that they're playing second fiddle. American's embrace foreign products (and far too much so for our own fiscal good), but they also tend to abandon brands that don't play to their ego. Nikon still needs to solve a lot of problems Nikon users in the US keep facing: chronic inventory shortages, foolhardy gray market policies, chronic quality control issues, and more. So I'm all for Nikon getting growth out of Asian markets, but we still need "best practices" here in the US.

Upcoming Schedule
27 (news
)--I've been updating the site five or more times a week for almost two months now. A lot of you have noticed and sent me your comments and opinions on that, thank you. It's not a pace that I can do 52 weeks a year, but it is something I'm going to try to do more often than not. That said, with a big holiday week coming next week, byThom is going to take a rest for the week of July 4th unless there's a news event (unlikely) that warrants posting. Hopefully that'll give me enough time to put some energy into other things site readers have been asking for.

Designing the D90 Replacement
25 (commentary
)--Everyone expects a D90 replacement in the next three months, so let's see take a look at the expectations. Nikon has had a full 24-month cycle on this design, so pretty much anything was possible. Let's try to figure out what's probable ;~):

  • Sensor. Everyone I've talked to or received messages from thinks the days of 12mp are over, and that the D90 replacement will signal that. I suppose it's possible that Nikon might do 12mp again, but the only way they'd get away with that in the marketplace is if they could produce D3-like low light capabilities in a DX sensor. I say that won't happen. The 90% probability is that Nikon will introduce a 14 or 16mp DX sensor. The surprise factor here really is only the "who." Sony's 14mp sensors haven't exactly been dramatically different enough to justify moving from the existing 12mp ones. So either Sony has a sensor we haven't seen, or Nikon is going it alone. 4:1 odds: Nikon 14mp sensor. 3:1 odds: Sony 14mp or 16mp sensor. All other bets seem like longshots.
  • Video. The D90 kicked off the video-enabled DSLR craze. Unfortunately, it's been lapped in almost every respect. The list of what needs to be changed is daunting: 1080 support, multiple frame rate support, higher bit rates, more manual control, better audio support, no rolling shutter artifacts, no sub-sampling artifacts. The D3s didn't tell us that Nikon really gets what's missing, as only a few of these things were addressed. But it should be clear to them now. The only question is whether they got that message in time to have the D90 replacement address all those things. 720P/24/30/60: 1:2 odds. 1080i/24/30: 3:1 odds. All other bets seem like longshots (more on that below).
  • Autofocus. While there's nothing wrong with the current system, it doesn't "market well." There's a big leap from the 11-sensor D90 system to the 51-sensor D300s system. I look for this to be addressed. Expect something in between, like a 21- or 36-sensor version of the D300s system. New autofocus system: odds almost certain.
  • Features. This is a tricky category. The existing D90 has a lot of features. But if the replacement only has the same feature set, a lot of people would be disappointed (not sure why, though). The question is how does Nikon appear to be extending those features without getting too far into D400 territory? I'm going to guess that we'll see more "programmability" in the D90 replacement. Even something as simple as "remembered settings" that can be triggered via a button or dial is a step forward, and falls under this category.
  • Special sauce. One important aspect of the D90's success was its "special sauce" (video). No doubt the D90 would have been successful without video, but certainly less so. I expect Nikon to have noticed how important it was early on to have that advantage over their competition. So the question is what the new special sauce might be. Perhaps a built-in GPS. Perhaps Bluetooth communication to other devices. Let's hope it's not the repeat of the Ethernet connection devoted to MyPicturetown (ala the P6000)! Odds of built-in GPS: 6:1. Something else as dramatic: 10:1.

The question, of course, is whether some combination of all that is enough. For the Nikon faithful, no doubt. The minimum expectation seems to be something like this: a 14mp, better video, 21-sensor AF DSLR with a couple of "extra" features over the D90, at the same or slightly lower price point. That's probably enough, as long as the 14mp image quality is a step forward. At the upper end: 16mp, full video capabilities, 36-sensor AF DSLR with a built-in GPS (and possibly more), same price point, would almost certainly catch the interest of the current D90 user, but again, only as long as the image quality is a step forward.

Here's the kicker, though: the D90 replacement needs to live about a year with the D300s as the model just above it, and it needs to last two years in the market. Thus, Nikon won't go too far with it, I think, but has to go far enough to give it legs. If it goes too far the D300s sales suffer. Something tells me that we don't get 1080P/24/30/60 video until 2011 and the D400/D4 launches. But if it simply stays at 720P/24 that's not far enough to be competitive until 2013.

I should point out that even if a D90 replacement did appear with 1080P/24/30/60, there's still 4:2:2, higher bit rates, plus 2k and 4k video formats that a D400/D4 launch could trumpet. This brings up the important issue for Nikon: they have perpetually appeared to be "behind" Canon on most things since about the time of the D1h/D1x. More recently, the D90 video, D3 low light capabilities, and D3x image quality put them clearly ahead of Canon in a few categories. But D90-style video was an area that Nikon almost instantly fell far behind on. Nikon absolutely needs to catch up between now and the D4 launch. But will they? Canon's quick iterations in video features is not making it easy for Nikon to do so.

So, for me, the first thing I'll look at on the D90 replacement is not the megapixel count or changes to the still functions. It's the video specifications that will telegraph just how aggressive that Nikon was in development, I think.

24 (news)--
It appears another batch of 24mm lenses are headed to the US in the next week or two. D3s inventory, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be changing for the better, with several dealers I'm in contact with saying that they still have no scheduled deliveries from Nikon at the moment.

When Not to Buy Gray
24 (commentary
)--Just a reminder to the US readers tempted to deal with NikonUSA's perpetual inventory problems by buying an import: if you buy a gray market product in the US, NikonUSA will not repair it under any circumstances or at any price. Things are a bit different in some other parts of the world. In Europe, for example, gray products have a different status these days, so you can usually get them repaired by Nikon in Europe.

I generally recommend that people in the US avoid gray sources for several types of products: AF-S or VR lenses, and current DSLR bodies, especially for items over US$1000 in price. That's because NikonUSA also restricts parts, tools, and training on a lot of the more recent, complex, and expensive items. Thus, while there are a few places that will repair gray market Nikon equipment in the US, their ability to do repairs on some products is somewhat limited. I have little or no problem suggesting gray for simple items and accessories: remotes, less expensive older AF and MF lenses, and maybe even teleconverters. But as the expense and complexity of an item ratchets up, your aversion to buying it as a gray import should, too.

Most reputable places that also offer gray market versions of products (B&H lists these as "Import", for example) provide their own warranty with them. But even this can be tricky. For items that are in low supply, like a 500mm f/4 VR, one of B&H's options for dealing with any needed "warranty repair" is to simply replace the item, but the lack of supply may mean that doesn't happen as quickly as you might want it to. And, of course, once the warranty expires, obtaining parts to repair a complex lens can get tricky. Given the prices on some of these items, it may actually be simpler to just get on a plane to Japan or Canada and buy the exotic item there and bring it home. That doesn't qualify as "gray." As long as you have the receipt that shows you picked it up in the country it was imported to, NikonUSA will honor the warranty and repair the item. Mail ordering from another country and having it shipped to your US address, however, doesn't count. You have to take delivery in the country selling the item. Of course, US Customs will want to charge you for the privilege of buying out of country, too.

I've written about this before, but the current Nikon policies (worldwide, not just NikonUSA) show a strong basic contempt for customers. NikonUSA's official statement as to why they don't repair gray market products includes a large section that tries to imply that they do what they do because the products have to meet certain safety regulations and certificates. Yet, the products are all made in the same plant, to the same standards, and a Nikon product bound for the US market is now no different than one bound for any other market other than perhaps the manuals and accompanying documentation (and with many lenses, not even that, as Nikon uses multi-language manuals for most lenses now). In short, their statement is pure hogwash.

NikonUSA's justification is essentially that they don't know what's in the box or where the box has been. But that's true for the official products you buy, too. Once a product leaves NikonUSA's warehouse, they have no control over it. Nikon does not even seal most product boxes, so even an authorized NikonUSA dealer can do all the things they accuse gray market importers of doing.

Let's talk about the real issue here: money. Amongst other monetary benefits to Nikon, Nikon's corporate policies effectively reduce their warranty repair costs, mainly because they make it near impossible for some people to get warranty repairs. (An example of Nikon's disingenuousness: "refer to the warranty cards included with the product" to obtain service on gray market products. Only problem? Cameras don't come with warranty cards, and they are often pulled out of gray market products. Nice Catch-22, Nikon!)

Nikon's corporate policy is in direct contradiction of their own written Corporate Social Responsibility Charter. When products get discarded because they can't be repaired, how exactly does that promote "protection of the natural environment," for instance? Do I even have to mention the "Respect for human beings" statement? (Yes, I know that statement is mostly directed at human rights issues, but still, how are Nikon's policies really implementing "all persons receive fair treatment"? Note that Europeans get different treatment than Americans at the moment, but only because European law forces Nikon's hand. Apparently "fair treatment" means "what we can get away with under the law.")

Unfortunately, we Nikon users don't have any say in the matter other than to perhaps switch to Canon, which now appears to unofficially repair gray products in the US (I can't find any official acknowledgment of this, though I know of many cases where they have done so).

So, while it's tempting to buy gray for some of those perpetually out-of-stock products, please do more research and think about the possible consequences before doing so.

Nikon Rebates?
24 (news and commentary
)--Some sites are reporting that NikonUSA rebates will be extended another month, but that's not quite right. While there's another month of rebating in store (pardon the pun), the rebates are changing, mostly for the worse at the DSLR end.

Here's the basic 411 for DSLRs:

  • 16-35mm, US$300 rebate with D300s or D700 body.
  • 18-200mm, US$250 rebate with D300s body.
  • 24-120mm, US$200 rebate with D300s or D700 body.
  • 24-70mm, US$300 rebate with D300s or D700 body.
  • 55-200mm, US$50 rebate with D3000 or D5000 body.
  • 70-200mm, US$400 rebate with D300s or D700 body.
  • 70-300mm, US$100 rebate with D90, D300s, or D700 body.
  • SB-900, US$100 rebate with D300s or D700 body.

The D3000+18-55mm gets a US$50 rebate most, but not all, of the month. The D5000+18-55mm gets a US$50 rebate every other week. The D90 or D90+18-105mm gets a US$50 rebate the week of July 4th. Overall, slim pickens, and you have to watch carefully on the dates for these last few. So even the D90 body, which is near end of life, isn't seeing much discount love. Summary: fewer rebates overall, tighter body purchase requirements, and lower rebates on a few items.

It appears that Nikon is mostly "happy" with their current sales levels. Just a note to Nikon: "happy with" and "optimal profit" are not the same thing. Just a thought...

Reverse Geocoding (Updated)
23 (commentary
)--Another product that can return place names from GPS LongLat data (called reverse geocoding) is PhotoLinker, a Macintosh only program. After some review, it appears that Google and Microsoft maps have APIs that allow programs to do reverse geocoding. So I suspect that we'll see more and more programs support this over time. A number of you pointed out that geosetter will perform EXIF->IPTC reverse geocoding.

23 (commentary
)--We handled focus yesterday (see Focus Subtleties article). Today, let's tackle exposure the same way.

As I've written before, there are no "magic settings." Exposue is probably the second most "unmagic" of them all, as leaning on the automatic abilities of the camera will cause you either major or minor problems, depending upon the situation.

That said, there are some common things that get lots of people in or out of trouble. Let's look at a few of them:

  • If the light doesn't change, the exposure shouldn't either. My friend Chas Glatzer (www.shootthelight.com) teaches this right up front in his workshops, and you should listen. If you're shooting in a situation where the light isn't changing, then your exposure shouldn't change. Yet virtually all of you are using matrix metering, which evaluates subjects and changes exposure based upon unpublished and highly complex evaluations. In some cases--the D80 is well known for this--matrix metering actually overcompensates for subjects (what's under the focus sensor being used). But in all cases, two successive shots with matrix metering may very well be exposed different in unvarying light. Warning Will Robinson, Warning!
  • Subjects do move in and out of light, though. If your subject is moving from shade to sun or vice versa, then perhaps the exposure should change. There are reasons to use an automated exposure method like matrix metering, but make sure that the sitaution you're shooting is one of those where the reason applies.
  • Old methods still work. Most of us who shot slide film used spot metering on a midtone object to establish exposure. This still works, though the definition of "midtone" is a little more complicated than it used to be because gamma is now involved in how your image looks (that's the Brightness setting in Picture Controls for you JPEG shooters). But, assuming you know what you're doing and what your camera will do with what you set, spot metering midtones still works. On digital, I'd say you should also spot meter highlights to verify that you're keeping them where you want them, too, but that's starting to get a little too far down the expert path for this short article.
  • Don't 100% trust your histogram. Unless you're using UniWB, the histogram the camera presents is showing channel values that have been swung via blue and red channel compensations, not the underlying raw data itself. Thus, the histogram may tell you that you've blown out highlight data when you haven't, or that you're preserved highlight data when it isn't. The more you deviate from Neutral, Contrast -1, and a white balance of somewhere near 5000K (actual value varies with sensor), the more likely that the histogram is off enough to mislead you (and it can mislead you with those settings, too). On the flip side, the histogram is one of the few tools you have to evaluate your exposure decisions, so spend the time to learn what it is that it really tells you. It's a useful function, just not 100% reliable. Understand that difference.
  • White balance is important for exposure. Note what I wrote above: the red and blue channel data is changed to adjust the white balance. So if you meter with the wrong white balance, you're definitely getting skewed data in the histogram. It may not seem overly important, but just as setting white balance comes before exposure in the workflow for raw file conversion, so should it be for taking the picture in the first place. Thus, for JPEG shooters: set white balance first, then exposure, not vice versa.
  • Flash requires two exposure calculations. And both have to be "right." Nikon's bodies do a terrible job of telling you what's going on when using flash, and the restrictions imposed on shutter speed and aperture get in the way, too. The metering bar is only showing the ambient (background) exposure, for instance. The flash will light only one distance (subject) correctly, and generally that distance will be the focus distance. Just make sure you remember to evaluate both those things separately.
  • Know the locks. Most consumer compact cameras tend to "lock" exposure when you partly press the shutter release. Nikon DSLRs do not do this unless you've used one of the Custom Settings to change this behavior. Thus, if you're moving between a compact and your DSLR all the time, it behooves you to know when and how exposure locks are being applied on all your equipment. It's likely to be different! Likewise, there are some subtle differences in how the AE-L button works on Nikon DSLRs. The button can be programmed to do several different variants of exposure locking (e.g. only during press, starting with press and lasting until shot, starting with press and staying until cancelled). Moreover, there is a timeout involved in the AE-L button for some settings. Make sure you know which function you've assigned to this button before relying upon it.
  • Vignetting is not really exposure. One common complaint I get is that two lenses of the same focal length and same aperture give "different exposures." Any number of possibilities can produce this (keep reading), but if you're basing things off a histogram, vignetting sometimes can shift the histogram values enough so that it looks like an exposure change. I've seen as much as a one-and-a-half stop difference in the corners between some otherwise equivalent lenses, and that difference is going to show up in the histogram. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the exposure should be different for the two lenses. This is another area where matrix metering can get tricked a bit (and the reason why center-weighted metering existed in the first place instead of frame-wide metering).
  • f/stops are not t/stops. If you rely upon on a handheld meter to set exposures, this one will catch you. The 200-400mm f/4 is marked f/4. But in terms of the light it transmits all the way to the sensor wide open, it's more like 5, and we label that t/5 (the t is for transmission). This doesn't really come into play for in-camera meters, because they're metering through the lens, so any light loss is already present before it gets to the meter. But, again, if you use handheld meters, you need to know the t/stop value of your lens, not the f/stop.

Capture 5.1.2
(news)--Phase One has introduced a new version of Capture that has tighter integration with their recently acquired Expression Media product (formerly Microsoft's, and iView Media before that). The free converter (for Expression Media and iView Media users) or free browser (for Capture One users) is still active until the end of the month. And Capture One itself is currently only US$64.50 until June 18th (you must use voucher code CO5OFFER). Thus, you can get an excellent converter and browser/cataloger for not very much money. Those on a budget could add Photoshop Elements and have a pretty strong and complete set of imaging tools for significantly less than US$200.

Thom Does Nebraska
(news)--Those of you in the Midwest need to mark these dates on your calendar: February 25-27, 2011. I'll be giving the opening keynote Friday evening at the annual Photograph Nebraska Symposium in Hastings, Nebraska, as well as delivering my Everything I Know About Photography lecture on Saturday. It's one of those rare chances to see me in person, plus it's a great time to photograph the Sandhill cranes on the Platte.

The Cycle
11 (commentary
)--Another pro sent me a short summary of what he's learned over the years. I've re-adapted it and call it the "cycle," and it's a version of what I've been writing about in recent times:

  1. We start with a simple, uncomplicated, small camera.
  2. We yearn for bigger, fancier cameras.
  3. We earn enough to buy a series of bigger, fancier cameras until...
  4. We have the biggest, fanciest camera.
  5. We get tired of lugging heavy stuff around and learning hugely complex controls, so...
  6. We yearn for smaller, simpler cameras.
  7. We buy progressively smaller and simpler cameras until...
  8. We end up shooting with a simple, uncomplicated, small camera.

It seems that most of the camera companies got stuck producing products for Step 3 and 4. They don't see the value in producing the product we want for Step 8 (e.g., FM3D or 28TiD). Meanwhile, the truly small cameras (e.g. iPhone through Coolpix) get progressively better and are cheap.

Make Time on Your Vacation
June 11 (commentary)--
To wrap up this week's focus on upcoming vacation photography, I'd like to address an issue that comes up regularly: the family quickly gets bored with you stopping to take pictures and taking so long at each stop. You feel compelled to not use a tripod, not bother to move around to find the right angle, and basically start rushing your shots. So what do you do?

Two things:

  • Make time. If photography is important to you and you're on a vacation where you want to spend some time working on your photo skills, then you simply have to carve out time to do that. Get up early and take dawn and sunrise photos before the family gets in gear. Plan to be back at the hotel by a certain time and have a period where you can do your thing until dinner (e.g. sunset photography). Obviously, this sort of thing requires spousal buy-in, which means you may need to grant them time of their own away from the family, too. Frankly, I think that makes the best vacations, anyway, because mom and dad both come back to the full family groupings with stories about what they did and saw, and this helps everyone see the place a little differently than if you all do everything together.
  • Make it fun. Okay, classic problem: you get to a geyser basin in Yellowstone, the family dismounts the mobile home (RV), and everyone walks the boardwalk path from beginning to end, gulping it all in like fast food. Every time you stop to try to take a picture, you find the rest of the family has moved on ahead and is complaining "Come on, dad" (or mom). Well, you've got something to do: take photos. Your family doesn't: all they have to do is walk through the exhibit, and today's Sesame Street/MTV/Ad-driven 15-second attention spans mean that everyone barely stops. Solution? Give them something to do! Hand them each a simple camera and challenge them to take a better shot than you. Or a shot of something you didn't see. The possibilities are actually endless here. But if you just let the family walk through without an assignment of some sort, I'll guarantee that you'll be the laggard and get the grief for that. In most families, the other spouse is usually happy to help because anything that makes learning fun is promoting childhood growth, and any parent ought to support that.

Both these things require you to begin the vacation with a plan. It's difficult to do either of them if you haven't figured out how you're going to do them prior to the vacation starting. What I see in most vacation questions is that people are spending a lot of time planning the where and when, but not the what and why. Frankly, the where and when are easy. I've got a bucket list that fills a file cabinet and all the answers to that are in there. It's the "what" that consumes my thinking. Lately I've been working on an Africa project, which is why I'm ending up over there each summer. The "where" is easy, it's dealing with the "what" that consumes my thinking.

So think a little more about who's doing what on your vacation, and how. Example: dad gets up early most mornings and the family gets up late. That gives him some photography time alone in nice light. Dad manages the kids during the day but occupies them with targeted (and fun!) learning experiences as you wander about sightseeing. Mom gets as least one break during the day to chill or do something on her own. Back to the hotel or RV park early enough so that Dad has a bit more photography time before dinner. Family night reviewing all that happened during the day. If mom's the photographer, switch the roles.

Time to crowd source. So, the question is this: what are those targeted and fun learning experiences? Let's see if we can help each other out here. Send me your best ideas and I'll see if I can package them together into a giant suggestion article.

Those of you already on vacation? Well, there's always next year...

More On the 18-200mm
(news)--As I guessed, my 18-200mm comments yesterday stirred up a firestorm. Most of it was in defense of the maligned lens, citing things like no sensor cleaning, not carrying extra lenses so no bag to deal with, being free to do any type of photography on the spur of the moment, "better" DOF capabilities, and so on.

My personal observation was best summed up by one of you in this comment: "I've come across so many people saying that their DX camera kit does not produce any better photos than their previous compact." Which ironically, leads them to want an FX body (hey, keep going upstream until you catch a fish).

So right up front let me say that if you really know what you're doing and you really think the 18-200mm is your answer, then don't let what I write stop you. The 18-200mm is a good lens, perhaps even very good still (time exposes weaknesses in any product). But it's not a solution for everyone, and the all-in-one mentality starts you down the compromise path that often leads to snapshots instead of photographs. The primary point I was trying to make is that if you go far enough down the compromise path (single thing to carry, light, small, convenient), then perhaps you're better off looking beyond downgrading your DSLR via a superzoom.

People often get caught up in the marketing messages ("DSLRs provide better image quality, are faster") and don't look enough to the practical application. For some, there's even justification at work, as they don't want to explain to their spouse why they spent so much for that D300s and seven lenses, but are taking a modest price compact or bridge camera on vacation with them. Most of the responses I received were defensive in nature, and many of them had some aspect of that last point to them.

But again, if you think you know your needs better than I do (and you should), bring what you want to on your vacation. As I noted earlier in the week, this little mini-series of articles was more about trying to pre-answer the question that I get from so many this time of year. People asking the "what should I bring" question don't understand their needs. At that level of photographic understanding, a competent compact or bridge camera may be a better choice than running up the credit card to buy a DSLR and 18-200mm lens (just to remind everyone, a D5000 and 18-200mm represents an expenditure of US$1400 at the moment).

This last point starts to drive home the cost of convenience: a D5000 with the two kit lenses (18-55mm VR, 55-200mm VR) costs about US$1000. So the cost of the convenience of not changing a lens during your trip is US$400. Worse still, the 18-200mm isn't as good as the 55-200mm in that range, so you're paying a slight penalty in image quality, too. I'd also argue that having to switch lenses to go from wide/normal to telephoto also makes you think a bit about what you're trying to do, as you don't swap the lens unless you perceive you need to.

That out of the way, let me take the defenses one by one:

  • No sensor cleaning needed. Maybe. Personally, I haven't found that much difference between swapping a lens every now and then and not on the recent cameras with the anti-dust shake function. But worse, what happens if you anticipate no dust problems and encounter one on the road? The 18-200mm user who thinks no dust can get in there is going to have no way of dealing with it. Be prepared.
  • No carrying extra stuff. Yes, one lens and one body means that you can just hang the camera around your neck and don't need a bag to hold other items. Be careful, though. When you slip off the trail or steps and the camera goes swinging, it just might hit something. Usually it's the lens that sustains the real damage in such situations. But you only brought one ;~(.
  • Spur of the momentness. Does carrying an extra lens or two really shut this down? Someone measured me once during a sporting event. Three second lens changes, on average. And those lenses were in my bag. (Lens off the camera, in the bag, cap off the new one, onto the camera; and yes, you have to have a ritual for this if you want to do it fast. Not that I'm advocating that you do it fast, as that leads to occasional problems of its own. It's only that most people overestimate how much time and effort really goes into switching lenses.)
  • Better DOF. The claim here was that you could isolate subjects better with the 18-200mm on a DSLR than a bridge camera. Yes. And you can get more DOF with the bridge camera. There's no clear winner here, though I'd point out if you think your photographic style is even occasionally about isolating subjects off backgrounds, a lens that's f/5.6 with so-so bokeh is not the choice you should be making. At the least, carry one of the fast 50mm lenses with you for that, but that brings us back to carrying multiple lenses again, so the all-in-one approach is right out the window from the start.

Make a considered, reasoned, rational decision about what you take with you on vacation. If you're trying to convert your expensive equipment into a point-and-shoot, you might be better off with a real point-and-shoot is all I'm saying.

One thing I noticed, both with myself and with other serious shooters is this: when the 18-200mm first came out, it was a good choice and it stayed on my DX bodies a good part of the time. Then we started seeing lenses like the 16-85mm and some small, AF-S primes show up. They're optically better than the 18-200mm, and give us some additional options (wider, faster, etc.), so the 18-200mm went into the closet. And it hasn't come out for me. That's because it is indeed a "compromise lens." Yes, it's a good lens, nothing has changed about that, though we've got some optically better choices now (I'd personally pick the 18-105mm VR over the 18-200mm VR for a big range all-in-one lens, then add something really telephoto for those times when I really needed more than 105mm). The 18-200mm is a "compromise lens." So make sure that you know what the compromise is and that you're 100% comfortable with that before you opt for it.

Bibble 5.1
(news)--Bibble Labs has added healing and cloning, plus a new one-touch optimization called Perfectly Clear, to their raw converter. This is a free upgrade to 5.x users. In addition, Bibble 5.1 Lite is now available.

Iridient Raw Developer 1.8.10
June 9 (news)--
This minor update is mostly a catcup up for support of a number of recent cameras (none Nikon--the software is current for Nikon products), plus some bug fixes for certain cameras (again, none Nikon).

Photo Mechanic 4.6.4
June 9 (news)--
While I think that Photo Mechanic's menu system needs reorganizing and rethinking, the product remains one of the few that is responding to virtually every little professional request (which adds to that menu sprawl and complexity, thus the need for some rework). This new version adds support for the Olympus E-P2 and E-PL1 cameras. Much faster browsing performance, support for LO and HI ISO values, and the ability to split stills and videos during ingest via new programmable features should be enough to keep the Nikon pros happy.

The 18-200mm Question
June 9 (commentary)--I'm not sure if it's my emphasis on vacation travel this week or it's just that time of year when we get people considering moving up to a DSLR, but I'm getting the usual spring run of 18-200mm lust in my In Box at the moment. Several of these emails are from people wanting to move up to a DSLR for the first time, and I don't think they like my response.

The attraction of the 18-200mm is the so-called "one lens solution." It goes wide. It goes telephoto (except up close ;~). It has VR. It covers all the focal length range that a new DSLR user has probably ever used (28-300mm equivalent). So it's a natural, right?

Not so fast. Essentially, all you're doing by buying a DSLR with an 18-200mm and never changing lenses is buying a somewhat better "bridge camera." Every maker seems to have one these days. The question is this: what are you really gaining by foregoing a bridge camera for a DSLR with one lens? A fair amount, as it turns out. I've got a Fujifilm HS-10 sitting on my desk at the moment, so let's do some closer analysis (I'll compare against, say, a D5000 with 18-200mm):

  • Pixels. The DSLR wins by a small margin. But most people seeking all-in-one camera solutions shouldn't be all that interested in pixel count. 10mp is usually more than enough for their purposes.
  • Low light. The DSLR wins, but not by as much as most people think these days.
  • Lens. The bridge camera wins, hands down. It has more focal length range, usually a faster aperture at wide angle, and almost certainly does credible macro.
  • Size/Weight. Another win for the bridge camera. It almost certainly is smaller and lighter. If all you're carrying is one camera/lens, you're already thinking about this issue from the beginning.
  • Autofocus. Usually a DSLR win for motion, but I'd say the bridge camera is the winner for non-motion. That's because a contrast-based system shouldn't miss, while a phase detect focus system has tolerance and needs to be mastered to be accurate. Face detection also tilts the game towards the bridge camera, too.
  • Speed. Start up speed and shutter lag go to the DSLR, though bridge cameras are getting better.
  • Cost. The bridge camera wins hands down. And the further up the DSLR lineup you go (usually to get better high ISO results or faster AF), the more the difference becomes.
  • Video. Dare I say it? Most bridge camera video has more features and resolution than the majority of Nikon DSLRs.

It seems to me that the reason to buy a DSLR is the flexibility it affords. Of course, when you're on vacation with the family, that flexibility could lead you to carrying too much and taking too much time to get your photography done at each stop. Thus the temptation to reduce the DSLR to essentially a bigger bridge camera via the 18-200mm lens.

My solution is in between something like the HS-10 and the D5000 with 18-200mm: an m4/3 body with one to three lenses. Same pixel count, closer to the DSLR on low light ability, no difference in lens (Olympus now offers a 14-150mm lens, which is pretty much the same as an 18-200mm), big reduction in size and weight, and closer to the DSLR on focus ability. The silly thing? It might cost more than a DSLR! I hope Olympus has milked the price for all its worth, because long term it won't hold up. The m4/3 solution should be priced between the bridge camera and DSLR solution, but isn't. That puts it more into the "luxury" category than the m4/3 products actually manage.

But back to my main point: I'm not a fan of reducing a DSLR into a one-lens pony. It's not that difficult to find and carry a handful of useful lenses that start to show off how a DSLR can take your photography into new territory. So I say be careful about taking this route. You're buying high and using low.

Where Not to Go
June 9 (news)--Just in time for your city-based vacation planning, Flickr user Eric Fisher has provided maps of the most popular places locals and tourists photograph for a number of major cities. If nothing else, it'll tell you why your photos look ones you've already seen ;~). It strikes me that so many people are geotagging these days that you may no longer need a GPS! All we need is image analysis software, which should be able to use existing geotagged images on public sites to locate with modest precision where you took yours. That certainly should work for city locations at this point. Hmm, crowd-source geotagging.

Zeiss 25mm Gets Connected
June 8 (news)--
The Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Distagon T received its expected ZF.2 upgrade. This basically takes it from being an AI-S compatible lens (exposure works on any Nikon DSLR with CPU Lens Data function) to a P-type lens (exposure works on any modern Nikon body). This is no big deal for D300, D700, and D3 series users, but D3000 through D90 users now will find this lens a better match to their camera.

Lightroom 3 Ships
June 8 (news)--
Adobe started shipping the Lightroom 3 release today (US$299 new users, US$99 updates; if you want a cheaper price, a number of organizations like NAPP have discount programs for their members with Adobe, and it includes updates).

As usual with Adobe products that have public betas, things have been changed or added in the shipping release. Most notably profile-based lens corrections, geometric lens corrections, perspective correction, plus a host of new templates and presets. That's on top of the already known new features, like the redone conversion engine.

Someone asked me why I don't usually write about pre-release products or make beta product announcements on this site. Simple: they're not products yet. Moreover, it's usually very difficult to predict exactly what their performance will be and when you'll be able to get them. Witness the Pentax 645D, which had a longer gestation period than any mammal. And in Adobe's case, they always leave things out of the public beta.

We have enough crazy hype about current products without resorting to building up more hype about them prior to release. When we can actually put our hands on them and use the final product, that's when any commentary about them starts to be both believable and useful. That said, the shipping version of Lightroom 3 at first glance looks to be a solid update to an already good product. As I get more experience with it, I'll add more commentary.

Travel Tripod?
June 8 (commentary)--
So, you've let Auto Pack select your lenses for you (see yesterday's commentary), do you also bring the tripod on vacation?

Since I wrote my support article a few years ago, a lot has happened and nothing has happened in the tripod market. By "a lot" I mean there are many more competent options these days, including some lower cost carbon fiber pods. By "nothing" I mean that everything that I wrote in my article is still true. If you want rock stable photos with mind boggling acuity--especially with that D3x you snuck by the spouse--you need a rock steady set of legs and head.

Since we're tackling the vacation questions this week, one of the inevitable ones I get is this: "can I get away with the Gitzo Traveler?" (Substitute any of the super light, five-legged wonders that fold back on themselves, since every maker seems to have one now.) It's interesting to me how many people use those exact words: "...get away with..." I think they know the answer but are hoping that I won't put on my wizard coat and get behind the curtain and give you the "you don't need a new leg" answer, but simply say "yes." Sorry, the answer is "no."

I've got a Benro C-069 M8 traveler tripod with the matching B-0 head, which is as good as any of the species. The head is actually very good for a small, light ball head. Assuming it's on a very stable platform of some sort, it'll work just fine with most DX bodies and modest sized lenses.

But those legs. Let me just say, I'm a leg man, so I appreciate good legs. The problems with the traveler designs are multiple. First, they have a centerpost that you can't remove (otherwise you lose the fold-back-over-itself capability that defines the category). Do not think you can extend the centerpost. The Benro's centerpost is as good as any I've seen on this type of tripod, but it still has potential for flex or vibration in it when extended. Yet it's not the weakest point. The weak point are the legs themselves. Five sections, oh my.

One extension from the top works fine, the whole system is still pretty stable (mostly because there's so much mass still inside the first extension). The top two sections extended also works okay for relatively light cameras. The reason I have this pod at all is the m4/3 cameras I've been using. I can keep the Benro steady enough to get meaningful results with the E-P2 and virtually any lens I use with only two sections extended. the whole kit combination is incredibly light and compact. Two extensions brings the camera up to about waist height, by the way.

It's that next leg extention that starts to make the whole platform have flex, and that's a bad thing. Don't even bother pulling out the fifth section. Simply put, you're not going to get anywhere near eye level with a Nikon DSLR mounted on this thing and be able to avoid support movement. I'd suggest a good, light monopod before the traveler tripods for most vacationers. Of course, you can't perform long exposures or self-timer shots to get you in the picture if you're using a monopod.

So my advice really stands the same here as it's always been: get a good tripod.

If you use a tripod on vacation, one thing you need to pay attention to is packed size. This is actually one of the things that makes everyone run to the smaller, less adequate tripods: if your suitcase can only handle a 22" long item, a lot of the better tripods won't fit in it. Personally, I bought my big duffel based upon my (at the time) Gitzo 1325's packed length, and my small duffel based upon the Gitzo 1228's packed length.

Bottom line: Auto Pack says bring a tripod, but make it a good one.

Latest Versions
June 7 (news)--
A few things to catch up on:

  • RPP Version 4.1.4 was released. For Nikon users, some improved color management and bug fixes.
  • Camera Raw 6.1 was released. The primary new bit of interest to Nikon shooters is the Lens Correction feature.
  • DXO 6.2 added about 40 new Nikon lens correction modules.
  • OnOne Plug-in Suite (Genuine Fractals, PhotoTools, PhotoFrame, FocalPoint, PhotoTune, MaskPro) has been updated to 64-bit support for CS5. New users can get a US$150 discount, updaters from version 4.x US$50, for a short time. 5.x users get updates for free.
  • Topaz Photoshop Bundle (Adjust, DeNoise, Detail, Simplify, Clean, ReMask, DeJPEG) also gets the free 64-bit update. They also have a US$30 discount for new users active.

The Vacation Question
June 7 (commentary)--
It's that time of year. With everyone planning their summer vacations the questions coming into the my In Box change a bit, and the number one question tends to become "I'm going on vacation to XYZ, which lenses should I bring?"

I hate to sound too much like a grump (especially after last week's series of articles on Nikon's inventory problem), but if you have to ask this question, you're not ready for your vacation. In this auto-everything world, asking that question is just another auto-question, in this case I'll call the feature Auto Packing.

At its extreme, Auto Packing can be depressingly funny. Most photo instructors have stories about persistent workshop students who wanted to know exactly what the instructor was bringing to a workshop, finally gave in and sent such a list, only to find that the student shows up on the first day with brand new, never tested, copies of everything on the list, sometimes still in boxes. "Now just show me how to use it and what to point it at." At this point, everyone but the instructor will break into laughter.

Why do I write "you aren't ready for your vacation" if you have to ask this question? The main reason is that for most popular locations this means that you haven't done a lot of research. Do you know what you'll be taking pictures of? Where you'll likely be in relationship to those things? For the big, popular locales (Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc.) there's been plenty written about the photographic opportunities and what you'll need to take advantage of them. If you're planning on spending two weeks or more at any of the well-known locales, you should have already done at least that research. Thus, your question about lenses should be far more specific than "which lenses should I bring?"

But there's more to it than this. Most people have a classic conflict on vacation because they're doing it with their family in tow. This leads to the "only have a couple of minutes for photography at any locale before the family wants to move on" syndrome. My cynical answer if this applies to you is to only take your lightest, midrange all-in-one lens, something like the 16-85mm VR say, as you'll never have time to set up a tripod, never have time to wait for the distant animal to get the position and pose you want, never have time to get another lens out of your pack and change to it, and never have the time to wander far from the car in search of the perfect super wide angle perspective. So you have to be realistic as well as having done your research.

Finally, there's another element that seems to get forgotten. I happen to like very distorted perspective, so rarely use mid-range lenses. You might be the opposite. Yes, we're back to that "you" question. What do you want to photograph and how? Only you know the answer to that question. Maybe you like throwing backgrounds out of focus, so fast lenses should be in your bag. If you're not the tripod carrying type, maybe they should be VR (or vice versa). Maybe you like reaching out and photographing things you can't quickly get to from the roadside turnouts, which means you want a long telephoto. Thing is, I don't know the answer to the "you" question, so I can't correctly answer the Vacation Question for everyone without more back and forth than either of us have time for (the fact that you asked tells me that you don't have time; I know I don't have time ;~).

(Yes, for workshop students I often do this back and forth, and am quite willing to do so. But that's the nature of the teacher/student relationship. And as those students know, some of my questions get very quickly to the "you" question. In other words, my answer for Joe isn't always the same as it is for Jill.)

But at the risk of ruining your vacation, I pulled down the Auto Pack function from my Shoot Preparation Pro software's menus, and this is what it came up with:

DX User

  • Something wide. The weight conscious should try something like the 10.5mm, otherwise any of the 10-24mm or similar zooms is more than enough.
  • A very useful midrange. The 16-85mm VR is the most versatile of the bunch, in my opinion, but the 18-105mm VR is another good choice. Even the 18-55mm VR kit lens is fine, though a bit restricting in focal length range.
  • Portable reach. The 70-300mm VR (or 55-200mm VR) fits the "keep it small and flexible" tendencies of Auto Packing. Bonus points for an extension tube or CU lens for quick and dirty macro work. (Auto Packing Note: avoid the 18-200mm as an all-in-solution. The focus breathing of that lens means you have much less reach than you think.)

The problem should be apparent to anyone who's a serious shooter: there are a lot of potential shooting situations where that trio of lenses will let you down. It's pretty averse to low light, for instance, with f/5.6 being the maximum aperture you'd have for many situations. That's two to four stops slower than you could be with some other lens choices, so you'd better be shooting in bright light or be satisfied with ISO 1600 and 3200 on your camera. And for places like Yellowstone, 300mm isn't usually enough for catching some of the wildlife well (unless you're really lucky and they're licking your toes).

FX users fare less well unless they just go with primes. Nikon doesn't really provide modest size and weight zooms with high performance in their current lineup, so Auto Packing dipped into the older lenses, third party, and used market:

FX User

  • Something wide. The weight conscious should try something like the 16mm AI, otherwise the lightest reasonably competent choice is the 18-35mm.
  • A very useful midrange. The old 28-105mm matches a D700 very nicely and gives you a bit of macro, or you could opt for something like the Tamron 28-75mm.
  • Portable reach. The 70-300mm VR again gets the nod at the top end.

Hey, don't shoot me. I'm just reporting what the Auto Packing feature in my software told me. Use at your own risk.

Micro 4/3 (Briefly) Revisited
June 2 (commentary)--A recent email from someone who had previously corresponded with me about my experience with m4/3 and who decided to go the E-P2 route along with the 7-14mm, 14-42mm, and 45-200mm lens route reminded me that I haven't written much about the m4/3 bodies since my reviews of them last year. On top of that, last week's "getting back to basics" assignment and this Monday's talk at B&H intersected with my thoughts as I responded to the email.

Digital has spoiled us on a whole bunch of fronts. Today's top of the line DSLRs are Ferraris compared to my old F3HP and Tri-X film. The D3s and D3x in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing produces stunning images in ways that weren't possible before. But they're heavy, expensive, complicated, and require great discipline.

A m4/3 kit with a handful of carefully selected lenses is like going back into the past. You give up some of the things that we take for granted, but it's smaller (by far), lighter (by far), and less expensive (by far) than picking up either of the D3 twins and the pro glass they work best with. What I find when I'm wandering the wilds with my m4/3 kit is that I'm mostly back into the old film world. To wit:

  • Limited dynamic range. I'm almost back to the old slide film DR with the m4/3 cameras, where I had to pay careful attention to exposure lest I produce clear or completely opaque acetate. So the old fill flash, graduated ND, and other tricks came back into play. Put another way, I spend more time controlling contrast in the field, just like I did in the days of film.
  • Limited ISO. In the film era, ISO 400 was the basic top of reasonably good film stock, and with some (like later versions of Tri-X) you could push to 800 with reasonable results. This pushed us towards using faster lenses and opened up the world of selective focus. And we're nearly back to that with the m4/3 cameras, too: ISO 400 is fine, ISO 800 is starting to be a stretch, ISO 1600 you probably want to avoid. And lenses? Make sure you have the 20mm f/1.7 and/or some old fast Leica M primes to play with.
  • Limited focus tracking. Birds in flight, active sports, and a whole host of other things are pretty much beyond the autofocus tracking capabilities of the m4/3 cameras. Yes, you can get some keepers, but your keeper rate is far lower, so you start reverting back to techniques you used with the old manual focus film bodies: preselected focus zones, for instance.

So what we end up with by carrying an m4/3 kit into the world with us instead of, say, a D300s-based DX or D700-based FX kit, is a slightly slower, more considered form of shooting, much like what I was asking everyone to try out last week in the You assignments. Instead of the cameras solving everything for you (auto exposure, auto ISO, auto focus, auto flash, auto everything), the m4/3 cameras force you to think a bit more, to slow down and use more manual techniques to overcome problems than relying upon camera "intelligence" to make decisions for you.

To some, that slower, more considered world is a blessing: you get back to the roots of photography and you find that one decision impacts another and that putting dedicating your brain power to those domino-like decisions really does impact how good your image will be and have much fun you have capturing it.

The camera makers, though, don't get this. It's as if they've all decided that the world only needs auto transmission, auto steering, auto speed monitoring, auto braking, auto everything. Where are the camera equivalents of Porsches or BMWs that try to bring back the joy of shooting? (In that context, the m4/3 cameras are a bit like Mini Coopers: some of the joy is back, and it certainly is smaller and lighter!)

So, yes, I continue to use my m4/3 cameras for those photo opportunities that are appropriate, and I find that I enjoy using them despite their limitations. And yes, I still pull out the D3s and D3x with all those massive lenses for most of my work. But I'm also finding that the more I use the m4/3 cameras, the more I'm turning off features of the D3 bodies. I want to control my decisions more, and I think this shows up in my images.

May 25 (commentary)--
iView Media Pro has left its temporary home at Microsoft where the softies apparently didn't know what images were, why they might be important to Windows and Office users, and why they might want to manage them. As of yesterday, iView has a new home at Phase One, the makers of the Capture One raw converter
. Phase One has a temporary offer of US$49 for Microsoft Expression Media 2 (normally US$199). Just use the code XMOFFER on checkout.

The trend for photographic software is to provide a full workflow experience: transfer, digital asset management, conversion, and export/print/show. Capture One already had a lot of that in the product, but this moves Phase One closer to being a Lightroom/Photoshop alternative (there are still some parts missing). Likewise, Bibble 5 did much the same thing, expanding their raw converter into something that can work for a relatively full workflow. But Phase One's acquisition of a very robust DAM product seems to indicate that they're going after Adobe here with a complete and top-of-the-line workflow system, not trying to flesh out a few features in their raw converter.

The gauntlet has been dropped for the other players to respond. In the future we're going to have only a handful of successful players at the full workflow game. Adobe's already there. Phase One appears to headed there. If you're a Mac user, Apple's mostly there. For big, robust, full featured solutions, there can only be three or four winners. So the table is already filling up.

One might say that Nikon has a workflow solution (Transfer, ViewNX, CaptureNX2), but it's highly idiosyncratic, awkward in UI, missing many needed features, is Nikon-specific, has unnecessary duplication, and has a long history of performance issues. It's not a solution I'd suggest as a first choice to anyone, even an all-Nikon user. Nikon will need a massive effort that's extremely well managed to keep up with the Joneses: Aperture 3, Bibble 5, Lightroom 3/Photoshop CS5, and Capture One 6 (my guess) set new levels of capability and consistency.

That's not to say that these four workflow solutions just mentioned do everything that's needed. I still find big issues with each for certain tasks, but at least they're closer to the mark than Nikon (or others) have managed. Photographer-centric, photographer-controlled, integrates-with-everything is the design goal. In that respect, you can see how the current Nikon solution fails: it's not photographer centric or controlled. It's tightly controlled by Nikon for what Nikon sees as needed. And they're not seeing broadly or deeply enough, let alone seeing the actual workflow photographers are using. That integrates-with-everything bit is another failing for Nikon. Simply put, Nikon's solution is Nikon centric. I don't care what Nikon thinks I need, I care about what I actually need. Nikon's software solution so far fails in so many ways, I'm not sure where to start in ticking those problems off. We'll see what Nikon manages to do with Capture NX3, but it's starting to fell more and more like Nikon's software will once again be a dead end. Nikon Photosecretary: dead. Nikon Scan: dead. Nikon PictureProject: dead. Sensing a theme here?

Meanwhile, if the core workflow products get substantially better, the does-one-thing software products have to get better, too. If you're selling just a raw converter, it has to be better than the converters in Aperture and Lightroom/ACR, which are now setting a pretty high bar to get over. Likewise, a panorama or HDR package needs to clearly excel over what Photoshop can do. The list goes on. Personally, I'm finding more and more of my specialized tools starting to look less interesting as the main core products rise higher and higher in capability.

What's going to happen is that we're going to see more and more consolidation on the software side, plus more players fall by the wayside as their specialty products don't outperform the main workflow ones. Is there really room for four third-party noise reduction programs long term? No. Is there room for a dozen or more stitching programs long term? No.

We're in a period where the software performance bar is up fairly high and getting higher. Large scale programming efforts like Adobe's have a momentum that keeps them pushing that bar higher. That puts pressure on the garage-shop and individual programmer types to find new unserved niches, consolidate into larger entities, or simply give up the struggle.

Where Do We Really Stand?
May 21 (commentary)--
The angst of the Nikon community has always been a bit on the paranoid side of reality, but lately it's gotten a bit out of hand. The long wait for another new Nikon DSLR is raising the anxiety levels of the faithful to new heights, to the point where the native drums are beating the "switch me gonna, me gonna switch" pattern at increasing volumes
. (You have to admit, it's got an almost hypnotic rhythm to it: duh-duh-dunna, duh-dunna-duh, duh-duh-dunna, duh-dunna-duh...)

But is reality anywhere near the frenetic drumming? Let's take a look. I'm going to restrict myself to just Canon and Nikon here, as these are the two bully players in the DSLR market. Yes, there's some nibbling happening at the low-end by mirrorless, but we've yet to see all the players there, so it's too early to comment. So, in the Big DSLR Race between The Two:

  • Low-end consumer. The winner here would have to be the low end Kiss in the Canon lineup. This is the category where Nikon seems to have lost all reason. They've simply taken a D40x and iterated almost nothing meaningful on it for two more generations (D60, D3000). Nikon's product feels outdated, out-of-place, underspecified, and unremarkable compared to the competition. This is a trend that has been continuing for some time. The T1i started to move the bar significantly in Canon's direction.
  • Middle consumer. The winner here would have to be the Canon T2i. Nikon's D5000 is a bit idiosyncratic. It tries a little too hard to be different than both the D3000 and the D90, creating a bit of buying confusion in the lineup. The Canon, on the other hand, is a well-specified and thought out model that has the kitchen sink built in, just like the bigger brothers.
  • High consumer. A tough call. There are things to like on both the 50D and D90, but both are a little long in the tooth and need updating. Based upon sales figures and customer satisfaction, I'd have to guess that the D90 won the race up to this point. Still, a close race that will be renewed shortly.
  • Prosumer. An even tougher call. The Canon 7D has some big marketing check boxes ticked off that the Nikon D300s doesn't: more pixels, better video. Up until the appearance of the 7D, Nikon was winning this category hands down. But since Canon's update cycles are offset from Nikon's, Canon has the advantage for the coming year. Next year's D400 needs to leapfrog ahead again.
  • High Prosumer. The companies are running two different races here. Canon has clearly won the high megapixel, video-enabled race with the 5DII. But the Nikon D700 has clearly won the high build quality, high ISO race. Both products sell well, but for different reasons and to different audiences.
  • Speed Pro. The Canon 1DIV did not dislodge the D3, especially given Nikon's D3s tweaks. There's less difference than before, but I'd judge the D3s the better choice here--it's simply a remarkable camera that's holding it's own. Too bad that Nikon hasn't fleshed out the video side more, though, as that remains one area in which Canon stays ahead.
  • Pixel Pro. The Nikon D3x still holds reign here, though we should find out about Canon's next generation 1Ds by Photokina.

When you look at it in these terms, the high end of Nikon is holding up pretty well. The D3s and D3x continue to sit atop the pro still camera market. Even those in the market for a D300 or D700 level of camera are mostly only displeased with the lack of fully fleshed video capability. Those with the Resolution Virus still hear the siren call of "more megapixels," but Nikon certainly will take steps forward there in the next generation. Note that the D300s, D700, and D3s would all be due for a new version between now and the end of summer 2011. Assuming Nikon doesn't make any fundamental mistakes in those updates, I'd judge Nikon's high-end rolling stock to be and stay "competitive."

As I noted, the D90 is due for its update. It will be one of the next cameras announced by Nikon. So the jury is out on the high consumer race until we meet all the players.

To me, Nikon has two big liabilities in the DSLR game right now: the video isn't yet up to competitive snuff, and the low end of the consumer line is weak and misguided. That's where Nikon is losing sales at the moment. And it's never really recovered the momentum of the D40/D50 in this space, in my opinion. I have an idea of how Nikon thinks they might try to shake up this space after my talk with them in Japan. And I support the basic premise. But the devil is in the details. Consumer cameras have always seemed to confuse Nikon engineering. Nikon's history is filled with consumer camera corpses. Nikkormats, Nikkorexes, E's, G's, and many more are just one visible sign of Nikon's various attempts, the best of which was only successful for fairly short periods of time. Nikon has also conducted "user experiments" in the consumer space. The N70's funky "sliced LCD" comes to mind, as does the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aspect of the D3000's latest Scene modes versus Guided Scene modes. None of these experiments have ever stuck around in the lineup. None.

Thus, to me the biggest issue for Nikon moving forward is not more megapixels or better video or any of the chants the Internet chorus seems to know, but rather: when will Nikon figure out how to make a low end DSLR that resonates and drives the future of low end DSLRs? That's where we stand. On a junkyard of discarded and forgotten Nikon consumer bodies, shooting with our state-of-the-art Nikon pro ones.

More on Inventory
May 20 (commentary)--
Several European individuals emailed me to tell me that some of the items on my "out of stock" list are in stock in their country.

It's true that this Web site is Americentric. Well over half the visitors to this Web site come from North America (and another 10% comes from England and Australia). That's to be expected, since I write in English.

North America represents over a third of Nikon's sales. That number is likely to grow a bit as long as the Euro/Yen relationship continues on the wrong trajectory. Funny thing is, no sooner had I written that a number of items were perpetually out of stock in the US when I received word from two sources (caution: there's a small possibility they could be linked to the same original source) that Nikon is trying to shift some inventory out of Europe to the US. Unfortunately, the Icelandic volcano is disrupting and slowing air freight movement, so you can no longer exactly count on packing something up and having it arrive on the other side of the pond the next day. The last day for which I can get figures (Monday), air traffic in Europe was down 4%, but there apparently is also a small backlog of freight generated due to the complete shutdown last month.

Still, one has to wonder why Nikon's largest market is seeing a steady stream of product shortages. As one dealer put it to me, the current "pay as you go" system means that dealers don't want to stock up on much because they're paying cash up front for inventory. When they get orders from a customer for something they don't have in stock, NikonUSA can't ship it to them in a timely fashion. When you add last minute rebate changes, suddenly the dealer sees real demand coming in the door but has nothing on the shelf to fill it with. They can't get Nikon to deliver it to them quickly to save the order, either. It's really an insane situation right now.

If there are any Authorized Nikon dealers with an inventory of D3s, TC-20E III, 24mm, 500mm, or 600mm lenses reading this, send me your contact info. We'll see if we can suck the last of that Nikon inventory out of the corners of the country ;~).

The best way to find an "out-of-stock" product here in the US is to look to the stores in the tweener markets. The big city stores run out because they have large markets to serve and they sometimes don't get their full allocations on popular items. The small city stores never order the exotic stuff in the first place unless they have a up-front customer who paid a deposit for it (because they can't afford to tie up the cash). It's the medium markets where I often find products that are in high demand and low supply. So instead of Chicago, try Rockford, Aurora, Peoria, Elkhart, or Muncie, for instance. Instead of San Francisco, try Reno or Fresno. You get the idea. Still, some things will just be plain out of stock everywhere.

The World Cup Soccer matches coming up in South Africa don't help the supply situation, either. Like the Olympics, the World Cups are a photo-heavy event that increases demand on much of the pro equipment supply.

One comment I had to make repeatedly in answering emails on my essay: sales lost due to underestimating demand and not producing enough of a product have this tendency to be lost sales. The selling cycle of a D3s is two years. If you underproduce for the first year of the cycle, you don't generally make those sales back up later, when you finally up supply. Some folk will start waiting for the D4, instead. Others will have already gotten something else. If you're going to be wrong on estimating production for a high tech device, you're best to be wrong on the high side, not the low, all else equal. That's because you'll never get back those dollars you lost to unfulfilled demand. But you can probably get back the dollars you devoted to excess inventory by having a clearance sale. There's conservative, and there's fearful. They are not the same thing.

When it Rains...
May 20 (news).
Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the Nikon China factory shut down last week. More than 50 workers at the Wuxi plant took ill, apparently due to chemicals from a neighboring plant.

And a Comment About My Comments
May 20 (commentary).
One site visitor wrote me to express their displeasure that my comments on the Bangkok situation were centered solely on the camera supply situation.

This is a photography site, not a political site. How I personally feel about what is happening in Bangkok (or China, note story above) would be easy to add to what I write, but I think it would also be inappropriate. My primary expertise these days is photography, high tech, media, and business. I believe that's why you come to this site. I'll happily write about those things as they apply to the subject of this site: obtaining and using (mostly) Nikon equipment for photography. But to use my expertise and visibility to promote my social and political views is just plain wrong, IMHO.

Those that know me personally can tell you that I worry and care a lot about what's happening in the world. But I'm not going to do the Hollywood thing and use my tiny bit of fame to promote my personal views on everything under the sun. If I choose to be more active in commenting on or promoting any particular social or political agenda, I'll do so elsewhere, not on a site dedicated to photography. If you desire me to write more on subjects other than photography, I'd be happy to oblige (I think ;~), but again, it won't be done here. That should become even more obvious when I update the site design.

Someone Doesn't Understand Their Best Customer
May 19 (commentary).
Nikon is pretty conservative fiscally; they run a tight ship. But the ship is hunkered down for a typhoon when we only have a strong trade wind. Consider this (mostly) out-of-stock list at the moment: D3s, 17-35mm, 18-105mm, 16mm f/2.8D, 24mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4G, 60mm Micro-Nikkor, 105mm f/2 DC, 200mm Micro-Nikkor, 300mm f/2.8 II, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, TC-20E III. Seriously short supplies of these products are currently being experienced, and some of those have been long-term shortages. (Some dealers are also reporting to me that a few other products, including the D90, are starting to get harder to get their full orders on, too.)

While I'm not going to let Nikon off the hook, let me first explain why the exotic lenses are so slow to get restocked: it takes as much as a year to create these lenses from first glass pour to final box-and-ship. The glass has to be cured and polished, and for the level of quality demanded and size of the glass, this is a long process that involves a lot of hand work and assessment. Think of the glass in these lenses as making wine: they need to cure to the right age before being polished up and bottled.

You'll notice that a lot of the products in short supply are pro-level products. When Nikon introduced the D3, we got a flood of pros snapping those bodies up. Some of those were coming back to Nikon from Canon, some were new to Nikon. But they all demanded top notch lenses. With the Beijing Olympics being the biggest photographic event following the D3 launch, and given how dramatically the Canon/Nikon ratio switched between the Athens and Beijing games, it's no surprise that the big long lenses got snapped up in late 2007 through mid 2008.

But what's the excuse now, Nikon? Had Nikon done a big run of new exotics starting in mid-2008 to respond to the initial D3-caused order crush, we should have had plentiful supply from about mid-2009 on. Certainly by now. Instead, there are almost no exotics to be had (other than the 200-400mm, which is being replaced soon).

In short, Nikon has misjudged and underestimated the demand for a number of products very badly in the last year. One wonders how long such shortages will go on. Given what we've seen in the past two years, I'd say "until demand for the D3s and D3x goes down substantially." (That's sarcasm, folks.)

A lot of Nikon users are waiting patiently for the D700 refresh. Many are hoping for a D700x type of update, as well. But think about what a high-megapixel count D700x type of body offering would do to the rest of Nikon's inventory: the top performing lenses would all be out of stock. Perpetually. You can't shoot 18 or 21 or 24mp with the 24-85mm or 24-120mm and get any tangible benefit from the megapixel bump. No, the appearance of a D700x-type of body would cause a run on the "good" glass that would make everything be hard to get. So be careful what you wish for, Nikon shooters. (Hint: stock up on the glass before new cameras arrive ;~).

Something is seriously wrong with Nikon's relationship to the pro and serious shooter ranks. First, they're badly underestimating demand. Second, they do not appear to be responding to product shortages in any urgent fashion. Third, we've not gotten follow-on products that have large pent-up demand (D700x, pro DX body, etc.). Fourth, some products need some more attention to minor issues (overheating on the SB-900, for instance). Fifth, if we're going to have video in the products, it has to be professional grade, too, and right now 720P/24 is too restricting.

There is a common denominator here: Japan. None of these issues seem to apply to things coming out of the Thailand plant or China. The problems are in things that are right there in the home market. Can it be that the Sendai plant really isn't capable of keeping up with D3s demand? Is Nikon really afraid to up glass production for the long lenses? (Hint: they could always use that extra glass for some more new lenses that people want, such as a 100-500mm, a 400mm f/5.6, and so on.) Are the designers so overwhelmed with trying to come up with complex projects like the D3000 that they can't push the high-end products up a notch? (That last was more sarcasm folks.) Is Nikon so afraid of the yen appreciating still more that they're unwilling to actually build to demand?

All of those things seem like silly, irrational, and problematic management practices. But if the issue isn't one of those, what is the issue?

I've written this before and I think it's time to once again bring it up: Nikon needs to cleave its Imaging division efforts into two distinct entities: serious and consumer. From the planning stages right through to the sales organizations there needs to be a pro division that focuses on the core and most important Nikon customer, the pro shooter. Basically take the D300 and up, the f/2.8 and faster glass, the 300mm and up glass, and bring it all into one group that is managed and monitored for performance separately from the consumer group.

Further, reinvent NPS worldwide while you're doing this, Nikon. As I indicated the last time I wrote that, the serious and pro shooter group would be willing to pay more, but only if they're given more. More supply, better products, loaners during repair, strong attention to demand, an open dialogue with this constituency, more training, and better service and support would constitute "more" in my book. If that raises the price of a D3s to US$5999 from US$5199, so be it. At least I'd be able to buy another one off the shelf and know that it's got strong support behind it.

All of this is not to say that the consumer side of things is all peaches and cream. But at least those products seem to be in stock.

Is Thailand an Issue?
May 19 (commentary)--
Things in Thailand just took a big turn downward with the latest escalation between protesters and police/military. For the first time in 18 years Bangkok is now under a restrictive curfew. The scary aspect of yesterday's fighting was that protesters starting burning symbols of authority and money--banks, shopping malls, and the stock exchange were targeted by Red Shirt protesters.

The Nikon-related aspect of this is that the plant that makes the D3000, D5000, D90, an D300s is less than an hour from downtown Bangkok. Certainly the chaos now ensuing in the capital must be having some small impact on Nikon. With two new consumer bodies likely to be in or near production in the Ayutthaya facility, one has to wonder about whether on-going disruption will impact Nikon's ability to launch these products in a normal fashion.

For instance, the US State Department this week issued a travel warning that suggests "US citizens should defer all travel to Bangkok..." I'm not aware of a similar warning from the Japanese government, but the Japanese embassy in Thailand closed on Monday. Normally, engineers from Japan would be traveling to and from the Thailand plant as a new model nears introduction.

We can only hope for the safety of the Nikon employees and that any disruption Nikon might experience is short-lived.

Blame the Messenger
May 17 (commentary).
Since posting my Sigma 30mm f/1.4 review, I've gotten a number of "you must have a bad sample" emails from people. Others just challenged my testing. One of the reasons that review came a bit later than my two 35mm reviews was that I was indeed worried that I might have a bad sample, so I quickly arranged to check another sample. But I got virtually the same results from it, so either Sigma's quality control is quite bad or my results were correct. You can form whatever opinion you'd like to about that.

As to the testing methodologies, I do not simply fill the frame with the chart, and I don't simply trust the phase detect AF to get things right. My assistant and I work hard to get proper chart alignment and focus.

However, the images I publish in reviews are without any post processing or sharpening, which is probably what is throwing many of you. You can't actually get real, comparable resolution numbers by running things through post.

Let me illustrate. Here's the same image: what I posted below in the Results section of my review is on top; what you can obtain from that same image with careful post processing is on the bottom.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Pretty dramatic difference, right? All I've done is correctly position the white and black points and add a modest Unsharp mask. Still think I got a "bad sample" of the lens? This illustrates something that a lot of people don't get about the Web and why I don't put a lot of numbers or images in my reviews: it's really easy to accidentally make things into something they're not. It's also very easy for people to come to an incorrect conclusion based upon a post processed image.

Everyone would say the bottom image is sharp and contrasty, but the top image is unsharp and has low contrast. But they're the same image from the same lens. Consistent and correct testing reveals relative differences between lenses, and the only way I can even begin to show that on the Web is via unprocessed shots. One tenet in testing is that the more variables you throw into a test, the more things that can go wrong, and the more likely it is that you draw incorrect conclusions.

As I replied to one person, there is a difference between a "good enough" lens and a "good" lens. The Sigma can be used in ways that make it "good enough" and will create images wide open that people find good, but it is not a "good" lens optically at f/1.4 in my testing the way I rate lenses. When I look at the raw numbers out of Imatest, it is down significantly in MTF in the central area compared to the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX, and way down at the edges. It simply isn't as sharp a lens as the Nikkor wide open, and until someone can show me otherwise, I'll stand by that statement. But if you're running contrast and sharpening in your end results, you may not exactly see how or how much the Sigma is underperforming the Nikkor, as the post processing starts to mask the differences and your results are suddenly "good enough." Moreover, you're starting to test the camera's post processing or yours, not the optical ability of the lens.

The funny thing is that absolute newcomers to digital have the opposite reaction to their initial digital images. They're often not good enough. That's because the aliasing robs them of sharpness until they run them through proper capture sharpening and contrast tweaks. Even great lenses tend to look a bit weak on a test chart image that hasn't been processed in any way.

What is Modular?
May 17 (commentary)--Within the next few months I'm pretty sure we'll get the second "modular" camera to be announced (the Ricoh GXR being the first), and no, it's not coming from Nikon. But given the design of this upcoming camera, I have to wonder if the camera makers are thinking clearly. The reason people buy new serious cameras is mostly because of the sensor and digital logic. That's the part that needs to be modularized. (In the film days it was lenses, and the companies correctly figured out how to modularize that.) Moreover, camera companies are missing out on added sales: who amongst us serious shooters wouldn't buy one or more other sensor modules (FX, DX, HiRez, LoNoise, B&W, IR, etc.), and who wouldn't keep updating the sensor module with each generation if we didn't have to buy a whole new body with it?

Here's a tip to the camera makers: package the whole sensor modularity thing as a Greener way to keep your camera current and mock your competitors for making you throw away perfectly good camera bodies in order to get the benefits of a new one.

May 17 (tip)--You may have noticed that I've been updating the site pretty regularly during the work week and not on weekends this last month. If you were really paying attention, you would have found that previous to that I spent a short period where I was updating centered around the weekend and quiet mid-week. Yep, I've been looking at the site visitation logs and trying a little experiment. Turns out that updating during the week and going quiet on the weekends looks to be a better fit to your visitation pattern. Thus, that's what I'll be doing for awhile to see how it works as a regular process. Maybe I won't have to work 24/7 for the rest of my life, after all ;~).

Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Review Posted
May 14 (news)--I've added the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 review to the other two "DX Normal" reviews I've done recently. Bottom line: buy the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX if you're going to stay in DX for any length of time. Consider the Nikkor 35mm f/2D if you're in DX now but thinking about FX. The Sigma? Well, you'll need to read my review to understand why I didn't say buy it (for something).

May 13 (commentary)--The Japanese camera companies are predicting an approximately 10% growth in unit sales of cameras with interchangeable lenses this year. Is that realistic? Yes, absolutely. But it's also a double-edged sword. Much of the action will be in the low-end, mirrorless cameras, which last year took right around 10% of the market with only two real players (we now have four major players).

I'd say there's more than a good chance that the best case for DSLR sales is to remain relatively flat this year versus last (somewhere just above 9m units, or about 75-80% of the interchangeable lens category total currently estimated at almost 12m units). But I'm also unsure that mirrorless cameras are showing very strong growth. Recent retail outlet reports all seem to show that the initial burst of m4/3 sales has slowed a bit. That's probably due to the high prices of the these products compared to low-end DSLRs. Sony's recent introduction sets a new, lower price point for mirrorless cameras, and it'll be interesting to see how that plays and whether Olympus and Panasonic respond, and how aggressively. Mirrorless is likely to turn into a cat fight, but the two big cats have yet to awake from their afternoon nap.

Consensus versus Leader
May 13 (commentary)--I've written about the differences between Japanese and American engineering before, but one thing I didn't note in previous discussions is something that is a bit more subtle, yet terribly important to the outcome. Some, like my old boss Adam Osborne, refer to it obliquely as "the Golden Gut." Others refer to a difference between consensus decision making versus autocratic decision making. Personally, I refer to it as the need for a clear Guiding Hand.

In complex projects, there are leaders and workers, in various assortments, and in varying ability. And in those projects, there will be many decisions that need to be made. The relevant questions here are how do the decisions get made, and by whom?

In the consensus style, everyone of any importance relative to an issue shares their thoughts, and the group attempts to come to an agreement on what should and shouldn't be done in the project. If there's more than a low level of dissension, that needs to be resolved before the project can move past that point. In some cases, resolving issues ends up watering down some aspect of the product, while in others it helps correct something that users would have found to be a problem.

In the autocratic style, there's a final decision maker at the top with complete control. Apple is a very good example of that. Important products don't get released without Steve Jobs approval, and that approval tends to look at every decision, from aesthetic to functional. Flaws in Apple products--and yes, there are many flaws--tend to reflect flaws in Steve's thinking, not in engineering efforts. And in some cases, Steve is clearly thinking about FUTURE users, not present ones (e.g. removing floppy discs from a design long before floppy disc use ebbed).

Interestingly, both consensus and autocratic design teams tend to talk about "Best Idea Wins." Both would be wrong about that, in my view. Consensus decision making rarely finds the best idea, it finds the idea that is most palatable (just look at the US Congress). Autocratic decision making doesn't manage to get to the best idea, either, as the lone decision maker at the top is fallible. That's why I like Guiding Hand, better. Essentially, you have a top level decision maker who's making decisions about the decisions, not the features themselves. Decisions that head towards "most palatable" are revoked and forced to be reconsidered. But decisions that look like they may be "best idea" are allowed to live, regardless of where they came from in the organization.

So what does this have to do with cameras? Well, the Japanese tend to use consensus decision making. Worse still, in making decisions, they look more strongly at what their competitors are doing rather than what their customers need (notice I didn't write "want"). I believe that it's getting more and more rare to find a single person in the Japanese camera companies who is the clear Guiding Hand let alone an Autocratic Decision Maker. This wasn't always the case. In the old Japanese system, there were master designers, junior designers, and apprentices. Obviously, the master designers were the decision makers. For an amusing look at the traditional Japanese way of master and student, rent The Ramen Girl.

But as the Japanese companies became more global, they also found that they needed offshore production, subsidiary management, and broader marketing and sales efforts. As companies grow in size and breadth, more decisions need to be made and more decision makers start to appear. The Japanese culture was already broadly consensus driven (though it looked to elders for confirmation or clarity). So now we have design split from development. Development split from production. Production in a foreign country (Thailand for Nikon DSLRs from the D3000 to the D300s). Marketing efforts in at least three different major markets (US, Europe, Asia). That's a lot of decision makers, and a lot of consensus that needs to be done, and it's driving camera design and marketing to the middle. That's a perfect time for an upstart to appear, but who would that be?

The "Simple" Trend
May 12 (commentary)--More and more cameras these days are skimping on the controls. The Sony NEX series, for example, relies mostly on three buttons and a dial. Canon just introduced the SD4000 Powershot which has a similar three-button-plus-dial configuration.

While I've been harping on UI configuration for some time now (the D3000 is notably wrong in design, IMHO, as I'll outline in an upcoming review), the trend towards fewer controls isn't driven by trying to help the user. No, the trend is driven by cost control in manufacturing. Fewer controls mean fewer parts and less labor, and fewer points of failure, which means lower costs. With camera prices continuing to drop, the yen still appreciating, and competition still intense, the camera makers have no choice but to simplify and remove costs out of the cameras.

But here's the problem: the makers are ignoring a simple design tenet in product lines. When you have a line of products from simple to complex, you really want your low end product to help a user learn things that would be useful if they ever pick up a higher end product. Indeed, if you care about brand loyalty, you want the user to start low in your line and buy their way up. But if the user has to learn things over at each level, well, you're shooting yourself in the foot.

The Sony NEX UI is a good example. They correctly reduce aperture change to something the user would be using it for (depth of field), but they never tell the user what the aperture actually is while making this setting! Use a NEX and you set depth of field with a "depth of field" control. Use an Alpha and you set depth of field with aperture. Hmm. That doesn't sound right, does it? (I'll have an example of what I mean by appropriate "training design" later on this site.)

When you simplify an interface for novices, you should usually give them the option to see the "advanced" method or result, too. That's how they'll grow from one product to another. This, by the way, is the reason why I don't recommend Photoshop Elements to anyone who may eventually need to grow into Lightroom or Photoshop CS5. The way you learn to do things in Elements doesn't always exactly help you learn how to do them in the full package. Elements is more Photoshop Simpler-but-Different than it is Photoshop Lite. Likewise, Scene Modes in most cameras do nothing to help the user figure out how to progess beyond them, let alone tell the user what it is that they're doing.

Hasselblad does NEF
May 12 (news)--In announcing Phocus 2.5 for Macintosh, Hasselblad also announced that they are supporting more than 150 DSLR raw formats with their program, including all Nikon DSLR models. This is done through the Mac OS X raw support mechanism. The reason for the change? To support the same workflow for Hasselblad users who use both their big MF cameras and someone else's DSLR.

Bravo! A camera maker finally gets it: workflow cannot be camera specific. We can and do use multiple cameras, and thus workflow has to be camera agnostic. So, if you're a camera company writing software, you need to make sure that you don't lock your software down to your own cameras. Did you hear that Nikon?

Question for Site Visitors
May 12 (query)--I'm trying to nail down some final details on the upcoming site change. One thing I'm considering is moving the site from its current 820-pixel width to 900. I'd like to hear from anyone who thinks that's going to be an issue on computers (on Smartphones I'm going to try to put a different "smart style" in place eventually, so I don't need to hear from iPhone or Android users). Don't send me an email if you're okay with 900. But if that's going to make things difficult for you, I'd like to hear about it, and why.

Nikon's Year
May 11 (news and commentary)--The numbers are now out and the major press conference over, so it's time to report how Nikon did for their last fiscal year (April 1, 2009 to March 31, 2010). As usual, Nikon did slightly better than their last forecast (made in February), but overall the numbers were down from the year previous. Sales were down almost 11% and Nikon went from profitable to unprofitable. Nikon attributes much of that swing from profit to loss to the appreciation of the yen, but their Precision division business continued to be weak and large write-downs were made there early in the year.

Just how weak was Precision? A -59 billion yen loss on 150 billion in sales, though again much of that was inventory write-down. Still, the number of stepper units sold plummetted by 43%.

Meanwhile, the Imaging side (cameras, lenses) acheived a reasonable result, with a 9% operating profit on 570 billion yen (which represents a drop of about 5% year-to-year). Nikon sold 3.67 million DSLRs (13% more than last year; Nikon attributed it to strong sales of the D3s, D3000, and D5000), 5.45 million lenses (12% more than last year), and 11.5 million Coolpix (11% more than last year; Nikon attributed this to the S220). Nikon calculated its market share in DSLRs last year at 34%, and its Coolpix share at 11% of the market. Still, the continued pressure on prices takes away some of the sheen of the reasonably strong unit volumes sold. Simply put, Nikon is selling more and getting less. As you might have guessed from product shortages, Nikon has been reducing inventories, too. The Imaging division's inventory at the end of the year was only about two-thirds the size it was two years ago. Nikon is running very lean at the moment.

I haven't seen the Imaging division's geographic breakout yet, but overall the company relied even more on North America for sales last year than it did in the past (31.2% versus 29.7%). Asia/Oceanic is declining, Europe showed smallish growth, and Other grew quickly, but is still small (2.1%).

Nikon's goals for the close term are simple: become profitable again this year and achieve a sustainable growth beginning next fiscal year. But what does that mean in terms of cameras? Would you believe 15% growth in unit volume of DSLRs? A bit unbelievable given the current lineup, isn't it? Looking closer at the estimated numbers, we must have at least two new DSLR models coming before October rolls around, otherwise the numbers don't make sense to me (remember, we've already made it through half of Nikon's first quarter). Moreover, the numbers are back-loaded in the year (partly because Christmas falls in their third quarter). Nikon's guess at market share for the coming year is 35%, or basically the same as last year. They'll need several more great products to achieve that, I think.

Nikon also expects a 13% growth in lens sales and a 9% growth in Coolpix sales. How does Nikon suggest they'll achieve all this growth? "Development acceleration of new generation..." and "rapidly growing emerging markets." Oh, and one other factor that's important to most of you reading this: Nikon expects the dollar to be 90 yen and the Euro to be 120 yen during the year. Strong fluctuations off those numbers and either profits or prices have to change.

One thing that struck me in reviewing all of Nikon's filings and the press conference transcipts is that Nikon's statements of "risks" seem boilerplate and dilluted. There is much more at risk to Imaging than is stated (see next story).

Sony NEX(t)
May 11 (news and commentary)--As expected, Sony today announced their two mirrorless cameras, the NEX3 and NEX5. Very similar in body size to the m4/3 E-PL1 and GF1, these two new cameras use a bigger sensor: APS (Nikon's DX size). The sensor itself is a Sony Exmor 14mp sensor with a base ISO of 200 and support to ISO 12,800. One nice attribute of the NEX5: a 920k dot tiltable 3" LCD, which is a notch better than what we've seen on the m4/3 cameras so far and should help manual focus users. The NEX5 supports 1080i or 720P, the NEX3 only 720P video. Bodies come in black, silver, or blue. The base lens choices are a 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom (28-80mm equivalent), and a 16mm f/2.8 prime (24mm equivalent), and Sony calls the new mount the E mount. An 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom is also available. Image stabilization is done in the lenses, not the body. Estimated price is an aggressive US$649 for the NEX5 with the 16mm lens, US$50 more with the 18-55mm lens. The NEX3 is expected to be about US$100 cheaper. the cameras should be available in June.

As always with new cameras it's difficult to speculate how they will perform. But given Sony's experience with the Alpha cameras, one would have to expect A450/A550 levels of image quality. The real question marks at the moment are those of lens and focusing performance. Also, given the large lenses and petite nature of the body, I'd say there are some ergonomic issues that need to be explored, too. The design seems a little too right-handed to me (left handers and left-eye dominant photographers are constantly neglected in camera designs).

We've now got three major consumer players (Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony) and one traditional camera player (Olympus) in mirrorless bodies. As I've reported before, I'm using an Olympus m4/3 body (currently E-P2) for my "compact" shooting and a Panasonic m4/3 body (GH1) for my video work. I'm not the only one that's discovered the joy of small, competent cameras. Worldwide, about 10% of DSLR sales in the last year have been mirrorless. The question, of course, is how long can Nikon and Canon continue to let the big consumer electronics players play alone.

Worse still, Sony has announced that they'll make a video-oriented version of the NEX that uses the E mount lenses and APS sensor. Thus, the window for video-wannabees like Nikon is rapidly closing. The video players have figured out that large sensor video is the next step, and they've already started moving their legs.

Only 120%
May 10 (commentary)--In the release of their first quarter financials, Panasonic has chimed in with one of those "we want x% of the market" statements (in this case, 10% of DSLRs). Couple that with other stated desires--Olympus's 20%, Sony's 20%+, Nikon's 35%+, and Canon's 40%+--we're well over 120% of the market now. Obviously, someone is wrong.

We've played this game before, with compact cameras. Many of the stated goals for that market never came close to fruition (though curiously many of the failures are still hitting their heads on the wall trying).

One word to Panasonic management: keep up the way you're working in the US market, and that 10% will have to come from some other region of the world. Indeed, management must already know this, as overall corporate sales outside Japan were only 72% of goal.

Next Week Preview
May 7 (commentary)--The two big events next week are Sony's introduction of their mirrorless twins, the NEX3 and NEX5 (14mp APS), plus Nikon's year-end financials.

Canon Financials
May 7 (news and commentary)--Canon is on a different fiscal year than Nikon, and they've already reported their first quarter results for 2010. This gives us some numbers to compare against next week's Nikon numbers.

Short version: on a year-to-year basis, Canon sold 11% more cameras in the first quarter of 2010 than 2009. 19% of those cameras were DSLRs, and DSLRs represent 62% of Canon's revenue in cameras. Canon also increased their projection for camera sales for the entire fiscal year from their estimates one quarter ago. (Canon does not report specific unit volume breakouts as does Nikon.) From their report: "...demand for digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras displayed solid growth throughout global markets, whereas demand for compact digital cameras maintained growth in emerging markets, such as those in Asia, but remained relatively sluggish in developed countries." Canon specifically pointed out growth in sales of the T1i, T2i, 5DII, and 7D cameras.

The question is whether Nikon matched that growth. Note that the specific cameras Canon mentioned as having significant growth are basically equivalent to the Nikon D3000, D5000/D90, D300s, and D700. I don't think Nikon had solid D3000 or D5000 sales during this period, and the D300s and D700 have needed price drops to keep volume moving. Early whisper numbers out of Japan say that Nikon increased DSLR unit volume over their estimates, but I don't think this came easily for Nikon. Moreover, it's still unclear how Nikon will top their just finished fiscal year in the coming year. At least three, and probably four, of those key cameras need replacing with substantially better products to remain competitive, in my opinion (D3000, D5000, D90,and D700). It's been six months since Nikon introduced a new DSLR, and that was a high-end one. We're nine months removed from the last non-pro DSLR announcement. And we still don't know what Nikon's responses to the S90, G11, E-P1, E-P2, E-PL1, G1, G1H, GF1, G2, G10, NEX3, NEX5, NX-10, or X1 is going to be. So Nikon users are nervous.

The European Problem
May 7 (commentary)--The recent financial crisis in the EU has potential for real impact on photographers. Canon, for instance, reported late last month that they were anticipating exchange rates of 125 yen to the Euro for the year. That seemed about right two weeks ago. But the current exchange rate is down to 118, an almost 6% move in less than two weeks after Canon's report. (By comparison, Canon is anticipating 90 yen to the dollar, but the current rate is 92.5 yen, a favorable change for the Japanese companies). When large currency fluctuations happen like this, several things tend to happen.

The Japanese companies hedge against modest fluctuations, so small or temporary changes don't tend to impact their business results or their product distribution. But larger and long term changes do. If the Euro continues to weaken against the yen, camera companies will import fewer items into Europe and more into other areas, like the US or SE Asia. Ironically, prices may increase in Europe but fall in the US if the Euro continues to slide. Why would the US prices fall? Because moving inventory originally destined for Europe to the US would require incentives in order to get it off US dealer shelves. But even a 5% discount in the US would beat a 10% loss in the European markets.

So if things continue as they are I wouldn't be surprised to see a wider rebate program hit the US market in an attempt to "move iron." The question, however, is this: how likely is that the European debt problems continue to push down the Euro? My personal assessment is that there is a bit of market overreaction in the short term, but the long term isn't exactly positive at the moment.

Topaz Denoise 4 Available
May 5 (news)--The Topaz Denoise plug-in has always been a little different, as it uses a different pattern recognition scheme than most noise reduction programs, one that attempts to preserve and rebuild image detail. The latest version (4.0) now supports Aperture and Lightroom as well as Photoshop.

So Use What in the Field?
May 5 (commentary)--My iPad-isn't-quite-there comments (see story now on 2010 News Page) provoked a number of "so what do you use in the field?" questions.

We need to separate this between casual shooting and serious shooting. Casual shooting means what the name implies: you're not trying to document anything specific, you have no substantive quantity to deal with, and we're not talking about a once-in-a-lifetime trip. My simple recommendation for casual shooters (and even many trips)? Just get more cards, a secure way to carry them, and don't worry about backing up. When you fill up a card:

  • Remove it from the camera.
  • If it's an SD card, flip the lock switch.
  • Place the card face down in your card holder.
  • Take a face-up card out of your card holder.
  • Check to see what photos are on it (this is a sanity check just in case you goofed up one of the above steps).
  • Erase the card and start shooting.

You don't need to (and shouldn't) make it any more complicated than that. If you do, you've gone beyond "casual shooting" in my opinion. Don't worry about image review in the field; just make sure you have plenty of cards with you at all times. Cards are cheap these days. If you're a real skin flint, buy a bunch of previous generation cards (Extreme III instead of Extreme IV, for example) when they get discounted. Keep doing that at every generation.

Serious shooters and once-in-a-lifetime trips require more thought and gear. Most professionals I know who travel use a two-backup rule, meaning that they want at least two copies of every image tucked away safely, and usually separated from one another (one in luggage, one in backpack). For me on most trips, that means bringing my lightest computer and an extra drive. A product like Photo Mechanic or Lightroom allows me to ingest images from a card and simultaneously save them to both the computer's drive and an extra external drive. The full ritual:

  • Remove card from the camera.
  • Place card face down in card holder.
  • Take a face-up card out of the card holder.
  • Check photos on face-up card.
  • Erase card in camera and start shooting.

Later, when I'm in my room/tent/vehicle/yurt I:

  • Remove a face-down card from the holder and put it in card reader.
  • Use the ingest of Photo Mechanic or Lightroom to rename, input batch metadata, and put copies both on my laptop's drive and external drive.
  • Remove card from reader and put it face up in the card holder.
  • Use PM's or LR's browsing feature on images on the laptop version of the files only and:
    • Delete the no-keepers
    • Rate the keepers
    • Fill in specific metadata that applies to a single image
    • Review my ratings and refine them

Technically, I do a lot more than that. My system of putting things in the card holder is more refined. I can tell the difference between cards that have been downloaded versus ones I haven't used yet, and I don't use the former until I've run out of the latter, effectively creating another backup unless I'm really chewing through cards (rare).

If I don't bring a laptop (perhaps because I'm climbing or well away from civilization), I sometimes bring a device like the Epson P6000 with me to do backups on. In that case, I don't do any image review until I get home.

So, given the above, how does an iPad fit in?

  • It doesn't have enough capacity to sub for an Epson P6000 or similar photo backup drive. You're best off just buying extra cards if all you need is 64GB of backup.
  • It can't do the rename, rating, or metadata of the laptop solution.

Which means that all you can do is review them and possibly delete the ones you don't want. But I should point out that even this right now is a bit problematic: the iPad does three things with images brought over from a camera: (a) it uses only the embedded JPEG for NEFs; (b) it strips much of the EXIF data from view (it doesn't actually remove it); and (c) it resizes the images from most recent cameras because it only supports 3mp sizes max. Thus, those people thinking that they can import from the camera and then email the image will find that their 12mp images become 3mp ones. Curiously, if you later hook the iPad up to a computer running Lightroom, you'll be importing the original file (NEF, EXIF intact, original size).

As I noted in the previous article: the iPad is not quite ready for serious photographers.

iPad in the Field?
May 4 (commentary)--I've had my iPad since the first day and have been playing with using it for many different things. Lately, there's been more and more "can I use the iPad to field review images?" questions floating around the Web and into my In Box. Now that Apple's shipping the Camera Connection kit, these have mushroomed.

My answer? The iPad is not quite ready for that sort of use.

First, if you're traveling with a laptop, I'd say the answer is an outright no. Using an iPad for initial review and culling just adds a workflow step, and right now, a slightly cumbersome one if you're using CompactFlash. I'd say if you've got the laptop, use Aperture or Lightroom in the field and get all your culling, metadata, renaming, and rating out of the way with a reasonably straightforward and seamless process. Yes, there are things I'd still like these programs to do for field use that would help me even more, but as one photo editor recently wrote: 3 photographers, 9 cameras: 25 captioned images sent by halftime of a playoff game via Aperture. You just can't have that kind of efficiency without using a laptop and highly productive software.

Even if you're not a pro trying to get images to press ASAP, a laptop with Aperture/Lightroom is still going to probably be a timesaver over just about any other process I can think of other than brute force archival (e.g. importing cards to a portable hard drive image importer and not doing anything with them until you get home).

The iPad, for instance, at first glance appears like it might take over that archival role plus give you the ability to review/cull. But the problem I find is that the workflow and software is cumbersome. Part of the problem is that the iPad doesn't really have a file system. Plus the Photo app that will "import" your images from a card is pretty minimal. The good news is that a product like Lightroom will recognize the iPad when it is mounted and offer to download any of the images stored in the Photo app. The bad news is that this really isn't much better than using a portable hard drive reader to store your images.

Memory (both kinds) also comes into play. You've got a maximum of 64GB of image storage (and it's going to be less than that if you've got any other apps or media on your iPad, which I'm sure you will). And you've got a maximum of 256MB of RAM. Those two things taken together have implications for a prolific raw shooter: this isn't the platform for dealing with raw images in its current configuration.

Some help is on the way. If you've got an Eye-Fi card there's an app called ShutterSnitch that can act as an ftp server and directly download your JPEG images as you shoot them and allow you to browse them. But the program needs much more capability to make it fully useful to a serious photographer, I think. Moreover, I worry when I see mismatching marketing messages for a program. One of the touted features is the ability to "warn you" when an EXIF parameter like shutter speed is outside an expected range. On the other hand, they tell you to hand your iPad to your client so they can get a good look at what you're shooting. Great. So these two things taken together mean: client knows when you're making mistakes! So we turn that feature off and...well, we don't have many other features, so we're back to just a browser again.

As much as I enjoy my iPad, I've yet to find a photographic usage that I'd carry it to a shoot for. If I need backup storage, I'll use a portable hard drive image importer. If I need to cull, rename, rate, and caption images I'll use my MacBook Pro. If I need to know the sunrise time or location, I'll use my iPhone.

This, by the way, is one of those "third device" complaints. There was much speculation when the iPad was announced that there wasn't really a useful portable device between a smartphone and a netbook/laptop, and that no one would carry all three. I think that conclusion is somewhat wrong. For many uses--such as a prolific, serious photographer--it's certainly true that we wouldn't carry three devices into the field with us, at least with the software and storage we have so far. But for other uses, I'm pretty sure that the iPad becomes either "the one" or "one of two" devices many people carry.

Bottom line: the iPad needs expandable storage (removable SDHC cards), more RAM for applications, plus applications need to get more sophisticated and workflow friendly, before it becomes an indispensible photographer's gadget.

D3, D3s, and D3x Book Update
May 3 (news)--I had hoped to get ordering up for the new, improved 2nd Edition last week, but equipment issues here at the byThom offices have had me scrambling to do hardware fixes first. My apologies for the delay. However, none of that changes when the books will start to ship, which should be either May 12th or 19th, so you didn't miss anything by my not posting the ordering link earlier.

The 2nd Edition covers all three D3 bodies: the original D3; the D3s and its enhancements, including movies; and the D3x. It's interesting how many small differences there are between the cameras, though they share the same body and virtually the same controls (not quite completely as the D3s has a couple of new buttons). The printed To Go Guide has expanded to 140 pages (from 128) in the new edition, reflecting just how much some of those small differences forced even my basic reference guide to grow.

To order click on the link in the right column for the book and follow the instructions.

Lee Filter for 14-24mm
May 2 (news)--I normally don't write about products prior to release, however I've gotten enough requests for information about filters for the 14-24mm that I'd be remiss to point out that Lee has recently updated their page on their upcoming filter system. They also sent an email out to those that had previously inquired about the system that had a few additional points in it: they aren't currently planning on producing a polarizer for the filter holder, the 150mm filters will be available in the US in June or July (they're apparently available in the UK at the moment), plus the system will be sold with a filter holder, a collar for the 14-24mm, and a hard edge 0.6ND graduated filter.

Aperture Change
May 2 (news)--I hadn't noticed this note, but an observant site reader (thank you) pointed it out to me. It explains something I saw when I pulled up some images in Aperture 3: the new version of Aperture is processing exposure a bit differently for different ISO values than the previous one. Other Apple Knowledge Base notes for Aperture 3 with references to Nikon include Mac OS-X 10.5 not rotating images correctly, pixel dimensions being different, and the fact that you'll be switched to 32-bit mode when you use older 32-bit plug-ins such as those from Nik. Aperture 3 was indeed a major update. Not only did the feature set and observable performance change, but so too did some of the plumbing underneath.

Photoshop, Aperture Updates
April 30 (news)--Adobe CS5 shipped today. That means that Photoshop CS5 is now available with all of its new features for photographers (better HDR, lens corrections, new raw converter, etc.). Meanwhile, Aperture 3.0.3 was posted by Apple earlier today, and has a large number of minor bug fixes and tweaks.

Where's the D3 2nd Edition?
April 30 (news)--I had hoped to announce taking orders this week, but dealing with a drive failure and some video work I'm doing on the side for a local group has taken up far more time than I anticipated. I hope to have information on Monday when I do the next site update.

All About VR
April 29 (article)--I've been brewing this article for awhile now, and I think it's ready to taste: everything you need to know about VR. But the short answer is: VR should always be off unless you specifically need it. Always. Update: I've corrected a few things in the article. Nikon tells me the sampling frequency is 1000Hz, but this just is another verification that 1/500 is the limit to VR's overall usefulness.

Lightroom 3, Camera Raw 6 Lens Corrections
April 28 (news)--Tom Hogarty at Adobe has revealed some more about how lens corrections work in the next iteration of Adobe's products and what we can expect. Short answer: some common Nikon lens profiles will be provided by Adobe, and a Lens Profile Creator utility for creating your own will be provided. A lens profile can correct chromatic aberration, linear distortion, and vignetting. Beyond the preset controls, there are also manual controls to do the same thing if you don't have a profile.

Mirrorless will be like Netbook
April 28 (commentary)--While all the camera makers are piling into the mirrorless market (Sony should be the next to announce, on May 11th), I expect in the end most of them will be a bit disappointed. The reason: it'll be a short trend.

IDC this week is showing CPU shipments for netbooks having declined as a percentage of Intel's deliveries this quarter, which would indicate that personal computer makers are scaling back plans for future netbook models. Other figures previously reported show that the big growth surge in netbook sales has already disappeared. Thus, netbooks may have hit their saturation mark in only a couple of years. Given that some of those Atom CPUs that IDC is tracking probably are going into tablet clones chasing the iPad, the trend may actually be worse than first appears. What's that have to do with mirrorless cameras? Keep reading.

It always struck me that netbooks weren't exactly the future of personal computing. Netbooks were different things to different people. They were a low-cost solution during economically tough times. They were a "lighter, smaller, more portable, good enough" solution for people who already had decent computers but wanted something convenient to do basic tasks like email and word processing on the road or in the living room. They were an entry point to computing for students. And let's face it, they were cute (at least as far as laptops go). But users of netbooks discovered they definitely had an upper end in terms of performance and ability.

Mirrorless cameras will follow that same course, I think: a brief rush as they lap up several overlapping and pent up demands: small, light, convenient, cute, and ultimately inexpensive. When Panasonic first announced the G1, they made claims about a large "new market" that sat between the compact camera and DSLR. Indeed, there were significant gaps between the most competent compact camera and the low end DSLR at the time, but that was an artificial gap: the camera makers simply hadn't pushed compacts or DSLRs hard enough to meet in the middle.

I wrote many years ago that I wanted a large sensor compact. Where is it? Still not here. I also wrote many years ago that Nikon and others needed small, low-end DSLRs that were essentially stripped of features, not full of auto-everything support for novices (e.g. the FM2n for digital, not a D3000). We still don't have those either. Basically, the camera makers missed the user need for smaller, lighter, more convenient cameras that were highly competent.

The mirrorless cameras we're seeing today basically bridge that gap, much like netbooks bridged the entrance gap between a Blackberry and a full-fledged notebook. Mirrorless cameras are small, light, and competent. But as it turns out, Panasonics "gap" is not as large as many in the industry think it is, and once every DSLR user has a highly competent "compact," much of the demand dries up.

The rest of the mirrorless demand comes from compct users who want more performance. Here, too, the camera companies got greedy and missed a key product slot. You can easily see it in today's Nikon lineup. Top Coolpix model? An S8000, which will run you about US$259. Bottom DSLR? A D3000, which is currently being discounted to US$499. Gee, I wonder why? The gap was too big. Both in terms of price and in terms of product size.

My guess is that we'll see the high compact, mirrorless, and low-DSLR markets merge into a more continuous spectrum of cameras at each company, perhaps even with a bit of overlap. But that will be overkill: there isn't enough demand there for every company to have a high end compact, two or more mirrorless models, and two or more low-end DSLRs and get volume growth for more than a year or two.

Pretty much like what happened with netbooks. Big surge because there really was a hole that needed to be filled. Surge ends the minute it is filled and people once again look at the performance they really need.

Another New Lens Dribbles Out
April 27 (news)--Nikon continues their one-or-two-lenses-at-a-time announcements with the replacement for the 200-400mm f/4. The replacement is mostly centered on bringing Nikon's latest technologies into the venerable lens: VR II, Nano coating, and an A/M mode added to the focus switch. The new lens is expected to be available in late May, with an estimated selling price of US$6999. It seems clear that as new production runs happen on each of the exotics they'll likely be updated in similar fashion.

What Matters Most in Lens Selection?
April 27 (article)--Since I've embarked upon a streak of lens reviews that will continue for a bit, it's time I made a few comments about what you should be looking at when evaluating the optical quality of a lens.

Most people tend to look for a lens in terms of its focal range and features first. That's because these things define the "function" of the lens. If you need a wide angle lens for your DX body, you don't shop for 300mm and up lenses ;~). In general, focal range and features tend to be the things that narrow your choices down to a few lenses. Once you're down to a handful of lenses, it's the optical qualities that become the attributes that finalize your choice. And that's what we're looking at in this article: what optical qualities matter most? Continue reading here. Note: article has been updated.

35mm Reviews Continued
April 26 (site news)--The 35mm reviews continue today with the Nikkor 35mm f/2D. The three lenses we're looking at (Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, 35mm f/2, and Sigma 30mm f/1.4) are all candidates for a prime "normal" lens on DX cameras. The Sigma is by far the biggest of the three, the f/2D is the smallest.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

D700 Surprise
April 26 updated (instruction)--Here's one I didn't know until someone emailed it to me. Pick up your D700. Press the Info button to see the Information Shooting Display. Pay close attention to the lower right corner as you press the Zoom Out button. Yep, you can quickly see what the button+dial functions are set to. The UI is a little screwy, though. If you want to set those two other functions from that screen, you have to wait until the screen tips are up before pressing the Zoom Out button. If you don't have button+dial functions set, you won't see it.

Mounts are Locks
April 24 (commentary)--Consider this question: if the Sony A850 had a Nikon F mount instead of an Alpha mount, would you buy it? The answer to that question is almost universally yes amongst the Nikon faithful. An A850 with an F mount would basically mean a simpler D3x at a US$5000 discount. Who wouldn't want that?

But this little example shows you just how much lens mounts are locks to customers. First, the Nikon user generally won't buy an A850 because it either means lens duplication (which probably puts the cost back up to D3x territory), or worse still, a complete abandonment of investment in the Nikon system to make one in the Alpha system. Then what happens when Nikon does something that you want, but Sony doesn't? Do you flip back and forth?

But lens mounts are locks to the competitors trying to dislodge Nikon and Canon, too. Currently, Sony simply doesn't have the total lens kit available to compete with the high-end users that Canon and Nikon do. Yes, I know that we can use older Minolta lenses on the current Sonys, but even with that used lens emporium you're still probably going to find something you want that you can't get. Plus dipping into the used lens market is a risk in and of itself. So Sony's ambitions to dislodge Nikon and Canon in the high-end market are also stymied by the mount.

Now consider the micro 4/3rds cameras. One of the things that is pushing their success amongst current DSLR users is that you can get a mount adapter for virtually any mount. I've got ones for my Leica and Nikon lenses, for instance. The interesting thing is that many people discover that they actually prefer the m4/3 lenses that are available and don't use their adapted lenses as much as they thought they would, but it's the perception that they're not locked in and won't be duplicating lenses that allows them to make the leap.

Okay, so what about Samsung? Well, they don't quite get it, and they're not experiencing the same DSLR user flood looking for a small, compact body that Olympus and Panasonic are. They simply don't see the mount issue that's holding them back. Where Olympus is quietly encouraging mount adapters, Samsung isn't.

So we're back to Sony. In May they launch their mirrorless cameras, which will have a new lens mount. Sony will have an Alpha mount adapter for those cameras, but see above: the Alpha mount adapter isn't exactly going to open up the floodgates. It will encourage Sony Alpha users to buy the Sony mirrorless instead of the Olympus and Panasonic and Samsung offerings, but that's not enough. If I were Sony, I'd be spurring on the makers of Nikon, Leica, Canon, and other adapters too.

Nikon is still basically silent on mirrorless. But I'm betting that they'll not be very interested in the thought of putting anything other than their new lenses on that camera when it appears. Too bad. Proprietary mounts can harm you as much as help you. Being late to the game means you have to have a better story than those that preceded you. The mount is going to be one of the things people look at to see if you've got a better story. By emphasizing only your mount, you keep your faithful from leaving the ship, but you don't necessarily win over new users.

The camera makers are mostly locked into the same game they played with film SLRs, and we know how that turned out: it's a game of keeping losses to a minimum to slow the contraction that happens after market saturation. I know I'm repeating the same thought, but the solution is simple: redefine what a camera is. Right now, Panasonic and Olymus are closer to doing that than Nikon and Canon. But no one has gotten it right yet.

Speaking of Mounts
Apr 24 updated (commentary)
--You have to wonder what the camera companies are thinking sometimes. Take a very simple question I was trying to answer yesterday: which 4/3 lenses are fully functional on a m4/3 camera? Seems like a simple enough question. Seems like the camera companies ought to know that answer. So let's go to their Web sites.

Panasonic actually has a chart for this. Actually, charts, since the recently announced G2 and G10 are different. But take a look at that chart. It amuses me no end. All the Panasonic lenses are identified by model number (you know the model number of your lens, right?). Apparently the Panasonic employee putting together the chart didn't have the model numbers of the Olympus lenses handy, so they referred to them the same way you and I would look for them: by focal length and aperture. Fortunately, focal lengths are buried in the Panasonic model numbers (H-F007014 is the 7-14mm f/4, for example), so you can muddle your way through the chart. Still, I find it ironic that Panasonic couldn't put two and two together and figure out that we don't look for our lenses by model number. Panasonic gets an A for effort, C- for execution.

The Olympus chart is difficult to find. It's on the Japanese site. The Olympus chart is a bit confusing, and it takes a moment to decipher it. First, CDAF isn't supported ("...the camera operates as in S-AF mode"). Second most of the lenses have a footnote about preferring S-AF+MF mode, probably due to the slow speed at which these lenses autofocus on the m4/3 bodies. Here I'll give a C for effort (really, only on the Japanese site?) and a C for execution (the English needs a fair amount of rework).

i7 and MacBook Pros
Apr 23 (correction)
--The i7 processor is an option on the 17" MacBook Pro. I wrote yesterday that it was standard (and have corrected that on the archived news page). Someone also asked if clock speed was the reason why you wanted the i7. Not exactly. The i7 has a larger on-chip memory cache than the i5. For photographers, it seems that raw conversion is one of the places where the new processors excel over the old Core 2 Duos (which have higher base clock frequencies). But as Lloyd Chambers points out, Capture NX2 is not a converter that benefits much.

Why Modular?
Apr 23 (commentary)
As always, your emails continue to provide interesting food for thought. Here's a simple one that ought to provoke great thought: "would anyone be interested in a cross-breed between the X and S sensor, say 18mp with ISO ability close to the D3?"

Well, yes, someone would be interested.

Think about it for a moment. In just Fujifilm slide film we've got Sensia 100, Sensia 200, Sensia 400, Velvia 50, Velvia 100, Astia 100F, Velvia 100F, Provia 400x, Provia 100F, and T64. That's today, when nobody is supposedly still shooting film. Add in negative film, other film producers, black and white films, and specialty films and the list runs over a 100 choices, even ten years into the digital revolution.

Compare that to your DSLR. One choice. If you want the new choice (D3s and its better high ISO) then you have to either give up your old choice (D3) or duplicate the entire camera. Of course, the camera companies are addicted to this "upgrade everything" notion, because it makes their average sale so high and it means you retire camera bodies well before their time. The problem is that fewer and fewer people are interested in such mindless and silly obsolescence as the sensors got competent. The "do I need more than 12mp?" question comes to mind. Indeed, I've been getting a lot of people pondering the "should I really sell my D3 and get a D3s?" question lately. And the answer for more and more people is starting to become "no, the cost of upgrading doesn't justify the image quality benefits."

Consider what would have happened if we had a modular D3: you would have bought a US$2500 body. You would have then bought a US$2500 sensor module (D3 sensor), probably a US$5000 sensor module (D3x sensor), and probably another US$2500 sensor module (D3s sensor). You'd consider that 18mp sensor module that the emailer asked about. I know 20% of you would have bought a US$2500 monochrome (B&W sensor) module. Perhaps 5% of you would have bought a US$2500 IR module (D3 sensor with different filtration). It seems to me that there is more profit and more "lock in" by doing modular than there is doing it the way the companies are currently doing it.

Nikon executives have said several times that they pick "the best sensors available" when they are developing a new camera. But what about the concept of picking "all the available sensors"? In that case we'd also have an 18mp Kodak sensor module choice for our D3 bodies right now. Which would you rather have: the current system where you have two bodies with different sensors, or one body and six sensor module choices? I know where I stand. And I'm pretty sure that I could make the business case where it would actually make more money for Nikon in the long run, too.

It's ironic that a film shooter has more choices of true core "image quality difference" today than does a digital shooter. I'd really have thought it should be the other way around, but we're just not even close. Yes, I know you can process your raw images different or make different camera settings, but it's not quite the same thing. If you don't understand why not, try pushing a D3 image as hard as you do a D3s image, or try converting a Bayer image to monochrome. Changing RGB values is not the same as changing core image quality fundamentals.

Misquoting, Misconstruing, Misstating, and Mistranslating
April 24 corrected (commentary)--Earlier this week an executive for Nokia made some remarks that have now spiraled out of context on the Web. Perhaps some of you saw a post or article somewhere that said that "Nokia says that cellphone cameras will replace DSLRs." Actually, I've seen it even more tightly constructed in a headline: "Camera phones obsoleting DSLRs." Yes, and my SmartCar will be racing on the Formula 1 circuit this year, too.

But the whole web of Web viralness shows a remarkable problem that's getting more and more common these days. First, we have misstatement and hyperbole. This is then misconstrued by many into something even more outrageous. At which point we eventually end up with complete misquotes that enhance the misconstruction. Lord help us, isn't anyone teaching English, logic, clarity, or fact-checking these days? Have all the reporters in the world disappeared and been replaced by bloggers who don't have time to actually check the source?

As best I can tell, Anssi Vanjoki's comments were made completely in the context about how fast camera phone technology was progressing. So far, so good. Camera phone technology is progressing rapidly. Some of the current sensor enhancements being explored have their biggest benefit to the smallest sensors, like BSI (back side illumination). Thus, yesterday's 1mp frontside sensor cellphone camera will be spectacularly eclipsed by the upcoming 5mp and 8mp BSI-equipped cameras in the next generation of phones. Indeed, I've written that I expect that upcoming cell phone cameras will essentially take over from low end compact digital cameras. But when I wrote that I didn't put this purely up to image quality. It's the lowest common denominator thing: this next generation of cellphone cameras is going to be good enough for most casual picture taking. People won't want to pay for and carry another small camera just to take casual photos once their phone does a good enough job. For a dedicated camera to succeed against upcoming phones the dedicated camera is going to have to bring capabilities well beyond what the cellphone camera can do: lens flexibility (really wide angle and strong telephoto), fast autofocus on action, superb low-light capability, things like that.

Will the next generation 8mp cellphone camera outshoot, oh, an 8mp Coolpix L18? Probably not, but it will get close. Close enough that most people wouldn't want to pay the US$129 extra for the Coolpix if they already have such a phone.

Like I said, so far, so good: cell phone cameras are getting better. Dramatically better.

But Vanjoki tried to emphasize his point, and much like a politician speaking on just about any subject, he went too far. Gesturing to the press photographers in the room he said "[soon] there will be no need to carry around those heavy lenses." Oops. Now we're into a bit of misstatement. He reached to far. Had he said "for a lot of people, they'll be able to give up larger and heavier cameras" he would have been just fine. But he overstepped. Maybe he's running for office in Finland ;~).

Vanjoki also said "[camera phones] will in the very near future revolutionize the market for system cameras." In some places on the Internet "system cameras" got correctly translated into "DSLRs," while in others it was apparently googled into "system cameras." But the real problem was that "revolutionize" got changed into "kill." Now we have people misconstruing what he actually said. A more accurate transcription is the blog of the photographer who was being addressed. Translated from the Finnish he claims Vanjoki said "the performance of DSLRs will become completely useless, when we can take exactly the same photo with a tiny mobile phone." This is, of course, a complete overstatement. We can take a similar photo with many mobile phones, but not the same picture as the 5DII with 70-200mm lens that Vanjoki was pointing at.

I'd point out that you can actually revolutionize the DSLR market without killing it. Indeed, it's already happening: the mirrorless cameras are certainly changing the DSLR marketplace, and I'm guessing that we'll see upscale compact cameras (which are themselves trying to escape the onslaught of cellphone cameras) pushing the mirrorless cameras shortly. Put another way, it would indeed be revolutionary if cellphone cameras simply displaced so much casual photography and pushed compacts into more serious territory that DSLRs no longer get used for casual photography.

Another of the things Vanjoki said was "it will not take long [to where] phones can record HD quality video and you can transfer it to your HD television set." Indeed, the future of casual photography is 1920 x 1080 pixels (that's 2mp, by the way). That's because that's the highest common resolution supported by the things that we'll be likely sending those casual images to in the foreseeable future. Having 5mp or 8mp actually gives you some cropping flexibility, which many casual users need. If your intention is to send stills or video to a monitor or TV, those next generation cellphones are going to look very tempting, as they'll be easily capable of the feat and produce decent quality in doing so.

The Internet is great for many reasons, but you have to be on a constant lookout for misstatements, misquoting, and misconstruing. In this one example we got all three. Caveat lector.

Thanks to my Finnish friends for providing additional information and non-Googled translations.

Not Enough Bags in Your Gear Closet?
Apr 22 (news)
--ThinkTank has a solution to those of you who feel Bagless in Boston, or Biloxi, or Bloomington or... Basically, they're promoting their new Airport Logistics equipment case by sponsoring a contest. You give them a list of the ThinkTank bags that you think can be stuffed into bags into bags into bags, all of which has to ultimately fit into the Airport Logistics. Think of it as the photographic equivalent of the Russian matryoshka (nesting dolls). One randomly drawn winner wins the items on their list (at least as much of it as actually fits).

As many of you know, I use and recommend ThinkTank bags. I'vebeen dragging my Airport Antidote and now Airport Ultralight around the world and into the backcountry with excessive loads for some time now, and these bags work well for their intended purposes.

And, no, I'm not entering the contest, as I already have a pretty full set of ThinkTank bags. But if someone can tell me which ones to stuff into which ones so that it all fits in a smaller space in my gear closet, I'd be grateful ;~).

Macs Done Right
Apr 22 (commentary)
--Lloyd Chambers has had a Web site that helps Macintosh users understand how to get the most performance out of their computers for some time now. He's gone a bit further, though, and hooked up with one of the better Mac accessory dealers, Other World Computing, to provide built-to-order computers configured to maximize performance. You can, of course, do this yourself by following Lloyd's suggestions and doing all the disassembly and replacements yourself, but this new service basically gets you the Mac you want without breaking out the Torx set and playing find-all-the-screws-and-plugs.

Short answer to maximizing Mac performance: replace any 5400 rpm drives with 7200 rpm server-tested ones, strongly consider using an SSD for the boot drive holding OS and applications only, maximize RAM, and for desktops get an eSata card for external drives plus use a small fast drive for Photoshop scratch space. If you're going to max out the drives in a MacPro, consider double-RAIDing them (two RAID 0s that are linked as master and backup). The performance differences in doing the above tend to far exceed faster CPUs or even updating an older Mac to a newer one. In other words, do these things first before thinking you have to buy a new Mac.

And speaking of new Macs, yes, there are performance boosts with the latest iterations, though they are in some ways modest in nature. Raw conversion seems to be one place where substantive gains can be made, though. MacBook Pro users should also seriously consider the i7 processor option instead of the i5.

More Updates
Apr 22 (news)
--FDRCompressor tone mapping is now at version 3.0.2. FocalBlade for Windows has just been updated to version 2.0, with higher performance, full scripting, and smart filtering support amongst the other new features.

Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX Review Posted
Apr 21 (news)
--I've posted my review of the 35mm f/1.8G DX review. I'll also have reviews of the older 35mm f/2 and the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 shortly. I'm going to try to clear the review queue in logical groups, so that you can do some comparison between similar lenses rather than wait for the missing reviews.

Adobe Updates
Apr 21 (news)
--Adobe has released Camera Raw 5.7 for Photoshop CS4, which has the new improved conversion engine that was introduced with Lightroom 3.0 beta. Lightroom 2.7 was also released.

Changing of the Guard
Apr 20 (news)
--Nikon yesterday announced changes to their management team, both at the board level and in the top levels of the company, as well. Former Imaging President Makoto Kimura (famous for his designing the F3 and later launching Nikon's digital camera business in 1994) has moved to President, replacing Michio Kariya (who was known for his involvement in creating ED lenses, which were critical to both the stepper and camera businesses). Former NikonUSA President, Yasuyuki Okamoto replaces Kimura-san as the new head of the Imaging Division.

In his first press conference as President, Kimura-san talked about the challenges to find growth in the camera business in the next 10 years, a theme that long-time byThom site readers will be familiar with by now. The changes in directors and officers take place on June 29.

(Commentary) It seems that some people are not sure what to make of Kimura-san's statements and even challenge some of the underlying assumptions. Let's break out a few important concepts in what he said to make sure everyone understands it:

  • Saturation. How many DSLR users are there per household, on average? While an American house may have multiple TVs, radios, cars, and phones, it has far less than one DSLR, on average. Even more interesting is that it appears the number did not change from film SLRs to DSLRs: both peaked at about the same value. Thus, the DSLR market is said to be saturated.
  • Upgrades. A common response I've seen is that Nikon should just do more compelling upgrades more often. Nope. Doesn't quite work that way. If the market is saturated, that means that upgrades are your primary sales. The maximum number of Nikon DSLR households worldwide is less than 10 million. Even if you had compelling upgrades every two years and everyone upgraded (not even remotely likely given how competent current DSLRs are), your maximum unit volume is going to be 5m units. Nikon is already at 3.5m units, and much of that is already upgraders. No, the expectation is that the same thing will now happen with conventional DSLRs as happened with film SLRs: a slowly declining market.
  • Growth. Kimura-san didn't say "no growth," he said that it will be tougher to achieve the kind of growth Nikon had in Imaging in the last ten years. That's because every one of Nikon's products are in saturated markets: steppers, DSLRs, digicams. As I pointed out in my presentation to Nikon, there are only two logical ways out of the product saturation problem: new product categories and redefining product categories and forcing the game to start from anew. My Camera Redefined is an attempt to restart the DSLR market from scratch. Video cameras would be a new market for Nikon.
  • Openness. Some are surprised at Kimura-san's openness in admitting that he's inherited a company that is in stress. I'm not. One thing I've long admired about Nikon is that, at least from the financial standpoint, Nikon is transparent and open. They're the only camera company that breaks out product volumes in their regulatory statements. The don't tend to sugarcoat things at their quarterly results announcements. For as long as I can remember, Nikon has been open and candid about their financial position and future prospects. Note that other companies are running around saying "we're going to get 20% of the market" with little to support that other than enthusiasm and a slight bit of momentum. Nikon, on the other hand, tends to just say it like it is. Thing is, time and again the Nikon executives' viewpoints and statements have turned out to be correct where the grandiose statements made by other companies have turned out to be mostly dreams.

Photoshop and Lenses
Apr 20 (news and commentary)
--Sigma announced that they've provided Adobe with information to do lens correction in Photoshop CS5. When the proper CS5 Lens Correction filter profile is selected, it should correct distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting based upon Sigma's information. This, of course, makes one wonder whether Nikon has provided information to Adobe about their lenses. I believe the answer to that question is no, though CS5 will still ship with a number of correction profiles for common Nikkor lenses. It is still unclear how new lens profiles will be created and shared (there is a Search Online button in the Auto Correction tab, which seems to indicate that Adobe will be maintaining a database of lens profiles, and that this will grow after CS5 ships).

I would point out that Adobe is late to the game with this feature, and it still isn't in the conversion module where it belongs (which implies it won't be in Lightroom 3). Capture NX2 has done this since introduction, Bibble Pro has this ability, DxO is of course known for making lens corrections, and there are plenty of third-party options, with the most commonly used being PTLens. Differences exist between corrections, too. PTLens and DxO are the only ones I know that fully remove complex mustache or wave distortions.

The Coming Big Box Mirrorless War
Apr 20 (commentary)
--The Olympus E-PL1 has made it to Best Buy (US$599 with 28-85mm equivalent lens). Technically, a few other Olympus DSLRs are carried by Best Buy, including the E-P1, but when I mean "made it to Best Buy" I mean that it showed up in the hands-on display at my local store, which is a pretty good indication that it's been "mainstreamed" and not a "special item."

Next month two Sony mirrorless (APS) cameras will be coming to your Best Buy, and word in the alley (as opposed to "on the street" ;~) says that the lower end of these will sell for less than the E-PL1, but with a 16mm (24mm equivalent) f/2.8 pancake lens. A very good choice on Sony's part, if true. Meanwhile the Samsung NX-10 is US$699 and rumors of a lower priced version coming soon are also rampant. Panasonic and Olympus have both begun lowering prices on their original m4/3 offerings, and Panasonic has announced that the upcoming G10 will be...yes, wait for it...US$599 (the new G2 will be US$799).

In other words, we're about to have a big fight for the low-end consumer DSLR amongst the newer players, with the starting price point being US$599 to US$799.

The question, of course, is where does this leave the traditional players and their mirrored cameras? The D3000, for instance, is right at the bottom of that price point (any surprise why it's being discounted heavily right now?). My guess? Big price wars are coming again at the low end of the DSLR range.

Remember, Best Buy has both a regular discount and a regular rewards program. About once a month Best Buy Rewards card members get a 10% or 12% discount coupon that usually includes cameras. Couple that with the Best Buy Rewards themselves, and there will be people walking out the door having paid far less than US$500 for a camera and lens on a regular basis. Put another way, if the regular Best Buy price is US$599, then the street price is already effectively US$539.

A lot of bean counters at the camera companies are sharpening their pencils. 1000 cameras at US$799 is the same as 1333 at US$599. Put another way, you need to sell 33% more at the lower price to come out even with where you were at the higher price (it's not 25% because the camera maker doesn't get all the dollars you pay). Basically, the same things that happened in the compact camera market have been happening in the low-end DSLR market and will probably accelerate. Nikon said a couple of years ago that it felt it had to be prepared for the US$399 DSLR. It's coming. And it's all being done without smoke and mirrors. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Nikon's Upcoming DSLRs
Apr 19 (commentary)
--The rumor mill is heating up again. At least elsewhere. Nothing I've heard recently has changed the big picture.

About that big picture: it's been posted in a couple places on my site for over six months. First, there's my 2010 Predictions, which I made in November of last year. But a simpler summary has been on my Nikon Announcements page for about the same period of time. I invite you to look at the third chart on that page very carefully, because it clearly shows the regularity with which Nikon's DSLR development proceeds.

With near 100% certainty we'll get four things between now and the end of the year:

  • A D3000 replacement. The lowest DSLR model has been on about a one-year cycle for some time now. That's made even more important because the D3000 was not the success for Nikon they thought it would be. (Hint to Nikon: don't mess up the UI again, don't forget video, use the 12mp sensor, and you need more small lenses like the 35mm f/1.8G DX.) Likely timeframe: spring.
  • A D90 replacement. D70->D80->D90 was on two year cycles. This summer we're another two years past the D90, thus it's time for the D90 replacement. This is a critical product for Nikon to get right, as it reflects a large portion of their user base and helps drive profits for the division. New sensor, new AF, and better video are easy enough to predict. Likely timeframe: spring through summer.
  • A D700 followup. This is the wild card of the bunch, as we have no history to base development time guesses on. At times Nikon has looked like it could go one of two ways with this model: add pixels and video and create the 5DII competitor; or add the D3s sensor and parallel the D3 development. Both have surely been prototyped. I've been writing about my lens surveys recently, but hidden in that last survey was a question about what proposed cameras you'd purchase in the future. I was a bit surprised by the results: an equal number wanted a D700s (D3s sensor in D700 body) as wanted a D900 (high resolution D700). Dead Equal. As in 41.8% (D700s) versus 42.7% (D900) for those who said they'd buy a new camera. More interesting, this was by far the highest Intend to Purchase ranking of any possible existing or new Nikon DSLR in the survey. Basically, byThom site visitors want D700-type bodies, and they want more than one choice. We'll see just how conservative Nikon is. If they introduce only one variant (especially if it's the D700s), they made too conservative a call, IMHO. Likely time frame: spring through summer.
  • A D3xs. The pro body pattern is very clear now. Even if it doesn't come with video, Nikon should do a D3xs. A dedicated Info and Live View button, 1.2x crop, Extended Menu banks, and BKT button customization are enough to justify an iteration, plus Nikon probably has a thing or two that wasn't ready for the D3s update they could add and push to the D3s firmware. Likely time frame: fall.

One question is whether we get more than those four. Maybe. The real question is how much priority Nikon has given to developing their mirrorless camera. My on-the-record-since-November guess is that it will be called a Coolpix, not a D####. And my guess has been that it'll show up in fall of this year, though given Sony's two mirrorless camera intros scheduled for May and Panny/Olympus' continued success with m4/3, someone should have lit a fire under that development team. Fall is "late to the game." When you're late to the game, you'd better be better or have an excellent twist.

What we shouldn't get in 2010 is a D300s or D3s replacement. Those would come in mid-2011 and should also represent big changes in design that would then be trickled out through the next four-year cycle. Likewise, I don't think a D5000 replacement is in the cards for this year, either. The D5000 market is "don't quite want to buy a D90," so it doesn't make sense to update this camera until the D90 gets its update first.

Finally, one comment about possible intro dates. Nikon has a predeliction towards announcing new cameras prior to their financial reports. That's because they give future forecasts of unit volume with those reports, and any significant change in volume in those forecasts needs to be explained. If it's due to "upcoming product announcements" the forecasts aren't really believed if the cameras aren't known. Nikon reports its year-end results on May 11th, at which time we'll get both sales numbers for the first quarter of this year plus a forecast of sales in both the current and future quarters. Without some new product deliveries before the end of May, it would be difficult for Nikon to have a successful first fiscal quarter. Interestingly, we've never before had a May product announcement in the digital era. Normally we get April announcements that preceed the year-end results meeting. Likewise, we tend to get late July and early August announcements before the August first-quarter financials and January/February announcements before the February third-quarter report.

One thing always amuses me about the constant "next DSLR" speculations, though. There will be next DSLRs. Always. Thus, you should never be asking "will there be a followup to the DXX?" Of course there will. You should be asking "when will the DXX followup come?" My answer to that question is simple: look at that third chart on my announcements page. If a followup doesn't happen on that schedule, it's BIG news, because it means that Nikon is breaking a pattern they've established and followed pretty much since the N8008/F4 decades ago. The last unexpected change in that chart came in 2008 with the D700 intro, which basically introduced a new category of camera for Nikon (prosumer FX).

Like More, Like Less
Apr 19 (opinion)
--One thing I've noticed in bringing older reviews over into my new database is that my opinions sometimes change over time from when I first started using a product. Sort of like this (I'm only going to cite a few currently available pieces of equipment here):

Like Less Like the Same Like More
D3000, D5000, 24-70mm, 50mm, 105mm Micro-Nikkor, 12-24mm DX D90, D300, D300s, D700, D3, D3s, 24 PC-E, 14-24mm, 200-400mm (!), 16-85mm D3x, 70-200mm II, 70-300mm VR, 400mm

Don't get me wrong. This is not to say that, for example, the 105mm Micro-Nikkor isn't a good lens. Only that I'm less impressed with it having used it for awhile than I was when I first got it. That's a tricky thing about reviews. Some of you think that a review can be objective, but there's no such thing. Even objective (measurement-based) reviews tend to be only be "accurate" at one point in time: you can't compare a review done five years ago with one done today. One of the things I'm still grappling with in the site refresh is how to capture that time-based variation. After all, I've got reviews on this site that date back over a decade now. Things change. I need the updated site to reflect my current opinions, but I also don't want it to lose its historic perspective, either. It's another tricky little hurdle for a reviewer to clear.

Apr 14 (commentary)--Earlier this year I again surveyed byThom site readers about Nikkor lenses. You probably are wondering what it was you said (collectively--I hope you remember what you said individually). The survey had slightly over 7100 responses from Nikon DSLR owners before I closed it down after a few days.

Today we're going to look at a few overall results from that survey. Later we'll look at DX and FX subsets to see if this changes any of the responses.

Overall, the survey takers split about 66% DX users versus 33% FX users (this site tends to attract D90, D300, D700, and D3 users more than low-end DSLR users).

The top four DX lenses that survey takers currently own are the 18-200mm, 18-70mm, 35mm f/1.8, and 12-24mm f/4, in that order (ranging from 17% to 22% ownership). Of the existing Nikkor DX lenses that people say they will purchase in the future, only three lenses had over 10% response. From lowest to highest: 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6, 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5, and 35mm f/1.8. If you can't see it already: the 35mm f/1.8 DX was a big hit. Meanwhile, the 17-55mm f/2.8 is not so loved (10.6% currently own it and 6.1% once owned it but sold it).

The top four FX lenses that survey takers currently own are (from highest ownership rate to lowest) the 70-200mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8D, 24-70mm, and 70-300mm VR, with the 105mm f/2.8 VR close on the latter's heels (ranging from 20% to 32% ownership). Future purchases for existing FX lenses were also interesting. In ascending order, all with 20% or more "will buy" responses: 24mm f/3.5 PC-E, 105mm f/2.8 VR, 50mm f/1.4G, 70-200mm f/2.8, and the real surprises 24mm f/1.4G at 26.2% and 16-36mm at 30.2%. Other current lenses that just missed out on being in that popularity contest are the 85mm f/1.4D, 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 200-400mm f/4, all in the high teens.

One of the surprising things to many people I show the full set of numbers to is how many lenses (both existing and proposed) fall in the "single digits." When you consider that ~20-30% of you have bought nine specific lenses and that 30 other existing lenses are in less than 10% of your bags, you start to see some of Nikon's problem: there are a few clear winners everyone wants, and then things break down into lots of small groups that want specific things, but those things are different for each group.

So I decided to go back to my previous large lens survey, taken back in 2006, to see if it showed the same thing (remember, at the time, there were no Nikon FX bodies, though there was the Kodak Pro 14n, which only 0.8% of the 6000+ respondents said they owned).

The top four DX lenses owned four years ago? 18-200mm, 17-55mm, 12-24mm, and 18-70mm, in ascending order. Notice something interesting? Yep, the 17-55mm ownership basically dropped in half between the first and second survey. Obviously, a lot of this is the FX effect (people replace it with the 24-70mm when they move to FX), but it doesn't explain the whole drop. The four DX lenses people said they'd buy in the future were the same four (all with over 25% saying they'd buy those). Curiously (;~) I proposed several (5) DX lenses that came to pass. Two of those are now on the current will buy list and were high on the old will buy list (10-20mm, and 35mm [technically, I proposed a 30mm]).

Top FX lenses owned four years ago? 50mm f/1.4D, 70-200mm f/2.8, and 50mm f/1.8D all far outrun the others (26-40%!). The primary "will buy" lenses four years ago were the 85mm f/1.8, 105mm f/2.8 VR, 70-200mm f/2.8, 300mm f/2.8, and 200-400mm f/4.

By now you're probably getting the same feeling I do from these lists:

  • DX User
    • 10-24mm or 12-24mm
    • 16-85mm or 18-200mm
    • 35mm
    • 105mm macro
    • 70-200mm
    • 200-400mm
  • FX User
    • 14-24mm or 16-35mm
    • 24-70mm
    • 70-200mm
    • 200-400mm or 300mm
    • 24mm or 24mm PC-E
    • 50mm, 85mm, 105mm macro

Yep, that's the core of your lens buying past, current, and future. Of those lenses, only one isn't current (the 85mm f/1.4D needs to be an 85mm f/1.4G VR AF-S, but that's coming very, very soon now). Also note which lenses have been getting updates or alternatives that many of you thought were unnecessary (10-20mm, 16-35mm, 70-200mm, 200-400mm, 300mm, 24mm, and 50mm). Everything else is small potatoes compared to that set of lenses. Thus, the "Nikon should revise the XX lens" complaints that you see around the net pose a real problem for them. While there's demand for perhaps another 50 or so different lens specifications, all of those lenses are small fish to Nikon: the level of demand for any given lens beyond those in the above table all falls down into a long tail. Picking one over another to do based upon "demand" is nearly futile, as the demand is mostly low and near equal on all the other lenses on the list.

For example, there's been a constant call for an 80-400mm update (it needs AF-S). I agree with those folk, I think it's a lens that strongly needs updating. I want one. Now. But I'm in the minority here. Only 6.6% of you own the lens and only 6.7% of you say you'd definitely buy it if existed. Even the "would consider buying" response was mid-pack for this lens at about 28%. Curiously, more of you would want a 100-500mm f/4-5.6G VR AF-S (though I don't think the survey respondents knew how much more that might cost, which would probably change the results).

Looking at the overall results of the survey, it seems like Nikon has been making reasonably wise decisions about where to put its lens design/redesign focus. But what happens when we look at the subsets (DX only or FX only)? Well, stand by, we'll be looking at those numbers soon.

Meanwhile, the survey tells me I need to prioritize my 10-20mm, 35mm, 16-35mm, 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 300mm, and 24mm PC-E reviews. I might not get to all of these before a few others, but I've pushed things around on my To Do list priorities based upon your responses.

It's (Not) a Small World
Apr 14 (commentary)
--The predominate comment on my Camera Redefined article appears to be some variant on: "yes, I want your redefined camera, but I also want a smaller, lighter camera. If I can only have one, I want smaller and lighter."

As I noted somewhere in the midst of the series, size and weight are actually not directly linked to modularity, programmability, and communications. Indeed, Ricoh has built a (strange) modular compact camera. We've had compact cameras with built-in WiFi and other communications. In short, you can do what I ask in camera design and produce anything from a P6000-sized camera to a D3-sized camera.

However, a number of the emails I've been getting are forgetting one thing: lenses. If you want an FX sensor size and a reasonable zoom, you've got a fairly large lens hanging off the front of the camera. You could do a smaller FX system with limited zoom, no telephoto, and simple primes (e.g. f/2.8). Try hanging a 400mm f/2.8 off a m4/3 body, for instance. You don't save a lot of size and weight by making the body smaller and lighter in that situation.

That's not to say that we shouldn't have smaller and lighter bodies. We should. But I think that we still need a range of bodies. At the pro FX end, for instance, it would be nice to have an FM3a type of body, a slightly smaller D700 type of body, and a D3 type of body with all the bells and whistles.

The Announced Announcement
Apr 13 (commentary)
--In the second of Adobe's series of three announcements announcing CS5, we've now been given the full feature set of the latest updates, plus pricing information. (The third announcement will be "we're shipping CS5." Or maybe it will be the fourth. ;~)

From a photographer's viewpoint, the star of the show is Photoshop CS5. Basically, we get content-aware fill, puppet-wrap transforms, lens correction profiles, improved noise reduction and sharpening in the Camera Raw converter (which in itself seems improved), an improved HDR function, and 64-bit support on both Mac and Windows. A number of other small changes are in the update, as well, but if those first five I mentioned didn't whet your appetite, then the smaller changes aren't going to get you to update, either. Mac users should see performance increases due to the 64-bit and Cocoa-aware aspects (especially if you have plenty of memory), but this also means that PowerPC users are no longer supported: you need an Intel-based Mac to run CS5.

Coupled with the upcoming Lightroom 3, it appears Adobe is still giving photographers lots of love. I'm still not seeing real support for non-Adobe converters, though. Apparently Adobe wants to be the only one to touch your bits.

Photoshop CS5 is anticipated to be shipping in mid-May, with updates from CS2 or later costing US$199 (US$349 for extended version, even more for full suite updates). If you've got an earlier version of Photoshop (or Creative Suite), be prepared for paying full retail (US$699), as Adobe's current policy is to upgrade only going back three versions.

Apr 12 (commentary)
--As you might expect, I received plenty of reaction to my "Camera Redefined" essays last week.

First up, noted Nikon Pro and celebrity photographer John Ricard wrote to tell me "when I want to send a D3 image to Twitter while I'm on a shoot, I use my iPhone to photograph the D3 screen. Then I use Photoshop Mobile to adjust, PhotoMarkr to add a watermark, and I send the iPhone image directly to Twitter with another app. It's insane that I can't do these things with my D3--especially when you consider that the iPhone has one button, but the D3 over 20." John gets it. I guess I can add him to the wait list for my redefined camera along with dozens of other pros. Note that some may think this is a simplistic or silly thing to want to tweet from a pro camera. It isn't. Today's pro needs to stay connected and market themself constantly. By keeping his clients aware of what he's working on today, John is keeping himself at the forefront of their minds, not waiting for them to call with work. John's example is but one of hundreds I'm collecting (by all means, let me hear your idea of what a modular, programmable, communicating camera would do for you).

A few more comments about your comments:

  • Complexity. Some of you worried that modularity, programmability, and communications adds complexity to the product we're using today. Yes and no. DSLRs by definition are already modular (but not in all the ways we want them to be), programmability doesn't necessarily mean that a user needs to program it (though I would advocate that we should be able to if we want to), and setting up communications can be a real chore (witness the WT-4). In my career in high tech, I took such things as challenges to solve, not hurdles to stop me from trying. Indeed, as part of the process I went through prior to writing these essays, I took the D3000 user interface and rebuilt it to accomodate my proposed future camera changes. I'd argue that my design is actually more direct and simpler than the existing D3000. Simply put (pardon the pun), complexity is only there if you put it there.
  • Price. Some of you worried that prices for a modular system would be higher than a non-modular one. Yes and no. First, modularity itself shouldn't add any tangible cost to the higher end products (though it might to low-end ones). Connectors and packaging are inexpensive components compared to sensors and electronics, though a sensor/digital module would have to be precise to keep alignments correct. But consider the following: a D3s for US$5300 versus a D3m body for US$2400 and an S sensor module for US$2900. Suddenly, body backups or upgrades seem less expensive and more desirable. (If you wonder where the body price comes from, check the price of the F6.) Basically, modularity gives the user the choice of when to upgrade basic camera capability versus image quality capability.
  • Viability. A few of you questioned what was in it for the camera makers (a good question, actually, because if there's nothing in it for them they won't do it). This one's difficult to answer without a very complicated spreadsheet and a raft of survey results to refer to. But there's one simple answer, I think: camera prices are headed down. I know it doesn't seem like that from the price of the D3x, but if you look at CIPA's average revenue per unit figures over the past few years you see it immediately. The normal Japanese company reaction to declining revenue per unit is to engineer out cost. An alternative approach--and a better one in my book--is to find a way to increase unit volume and add incremental sales based upon that volume. In other words, instead of selling a widget for US$100, you sell a widget for US$80 and widget accessories for US$40. Modularity doesn't work exactly like that, but it's a relative to the strategy. Done right, you end up with more revenue and more profit on the same basic camera unit sales volume.
  • Capability. As I noted, the Japanese camera companies haven't exactly distinguished themselves in software, and what I proposed requires a clearly competent software capability. I don't know how to answer this one other than to say that perhaps the Japanese companies need to look more outward for software expertise. The Nikon-Fujitsu firmware venture is just "more of the same." A Nikon-Silicon Valley venture might not be. Put another way: the software expertise required is out there, it just isn't currently where we need it to be.
  • It's not really open. "Open" comes in many forms. I'm not advocating open source, however. I simply don't think the camera companies would even consider it. Moreover, since we're dealing with a real time base system OS here (think multitasking), it's important for the manufacturer to have full control over what is going on at the hardware level. What I mean by Open Kamera is a system that is programmable and extendable, and that those functions are well documented, well supported, and available to third parties. We can talk about open source later. Right now we need a big step towards a basic kind of "open." Without it, the camera makers are going to find themselves playing in smaller and smaller ponds.

Tempers Flare
Apr 12 (commentary)
--Since we're on the subject of software and platforms, it's not often that you see multi-billion dollar companies throw temper tantrums in public. Today is Adobe's big day (CS5 announcement), and it comes shortly after Apple's big days (iPad, iPhone 4.0 announcements). It seems that some at Adobe don't seem to understand where they are in the food chain. In the case of Flash they built (well, actually bought for 3.1 billion dollars) a platform that lives on top of other platforms. When a platform they sit on top of moves, they should expect quakes. Sometimes big ones. To whine that there shouldn't be quakes shows a level of immaturity you don't usually see a big company displaying in public.

I've never been a fan of platforms on platforms (Flash, .NET, etc.). The goal is usually to "deploy everywhere," but in so doing you introduce Least Common Denominator tendencies and slow down progression of advancements in the underlying platform(s). And anyone who's had problems with Capture NX2 knows that .NET often is the real issue, as various installed programs fight over which version of the DLLs are the right ones. Let's face it, shortcuts are shortcuts, and sometimes they end up causing more problems than they solve.

Thus, I'm make an slight addition to my Camera Redefined essays: programmability needs to come at the core level (i.e. as close to the camera components as possible and without an intermediary platform that's not directly controlled by the camera maker). Put another way: I'm not interested in writing Flash applications on a Nikon OK1.

It's Just Photoshop
Apr 12 (commentary)
--It seems that Adobe is in the line of fire a lot lately. One of the features of the new Photoshop CS5 is "content-aware fill," an ability that makes it even easier than before to remove, replace, or modify things in an image. Already commentary about how that is good or bad for photography has started brewing.

But I'm pretty much on Adobe's side on this one. If you're using Photoshop, you're modifying things. So having another tool to modify with is just that, another tool. I say welcome.

The downside is that a number of issues we already have in the photography business are just going to get worse. Intentional copying of images is already rampant, and the ability to remove and combine elements leads to "new images" that have a less defined Copyright status. But this isn't a Photoshop problem, it's a societal one.

As for reality in photo journalism (pictures accompanying news articles): maybe the publications ought to look into Nikon Image Authentication. It is possible to verify that an image you receive hasn't been modified from the one taken by the camera, after all. I know if I were a working PJ these days I'd be using image verification.

The Window Begins to Close
Apr 12 (commentary)
--With Panasonic announcing a professional video camera (AG-AF100) this weekend at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention that uses a large sensor (4/3), the window for the DSLR video craze has begun to close. It was only a matter of time before the big video players made their move to protect themselves, and Panasonic is just the first of many such announcements we'll see in the coming year. So, the DSLR makers can up the ante and really turn on the burner of video features to try to stay ahead and piss us still shooters off completely, or they can get back to what they used to do: innovate in still photography.

The Interesting Thing Is...
Apr 2 (commentary)--...everyone who looked at my Web site yesterday recognized that the out of focus picture was of elephants. (If you haven't seen the April Fool's page, I've left it on the site, you can access it here.) But think about what is implied by this: it takes very little actual information for the brain to form conclusions. Indeed, hold your fingers over the image so you can't see the ears and you'll still recognize it as an elephant, only you'll probably think you're looking at the back end. (By the way, this is a real photo I took, only cropped. Darned that Olympus E-P1 autofocus system...)

I've written about this before: we're easily fooled by our own brains. Quick: how many megapixels does your camera really need to have if two vauge brown flaps are all that it takes to say "elephant"? This "fooling" works both ways, actually. If all we have is 6mp worth of information, our brain will fill in information as long as we don't do anything to call attention to the lower detail level. And if we have 24mp, we can look at our images close enough these days that we clearly see that something's missing, so we demand more. Ironic, isn't it?

This makes evaluating images difficult. You can't let your brain fill in missing detail or let it start asking for more. You need to assess the image you have, and only the image you have.

What I want is a "speed evaluator." Instead of looking at images manually in my browsing program (usually Photo Mechanic or Lightroom) and assigning the star ratings after careful consideration, I want something that'll throw the images up automatically for very short periods of time in random order (and repeating them at least three times). If I rate the same photo consistently, I trust that rating. If I rate it inconsistently, I want to take time to evaluate why that might be. Moreover, I want a room where I can put a dozen other people all with a rating control doing the same thing with my images. I then want to compare their ratings with mine.

Nikon Rebates Continue
Mar 31 (news)--After a weekend of confusion at dealers, who were receiving different information from different contacts, NikonUSA has finally communicated the update and extension to their expiring rebate program. Basically, the body+lens rebates continue with some substractions and additions.

The subtraction is the "any DSLR body" part. The rebates now only apply if you buy a D300s or D700 body along with the lens (or Speedlight). Also, the 18-200mm DX lens is no longer rebated if you buy a D700 (FX) body. The addition is that 10-24mm DX is added to the D300s body+lens rebates (US$300), the recently introduced 16-35mm lens is added to the D300s and D700 rebates (US$300), and the SB-900 Speedlight is also added to both bodies for rebate (US$100).

One in 76
Mar 23 (commentary)--It seems that my 1 in 76 frames comment in the Steller Blur notes (currently above but will be gone when this rolls over to the 2010 News page) has provoked a number of "thank yous."

Why? Because it appears that some of you (used to) think that pros just go out and shoot 100% keepers. A good pro will generally have a higher keeper rate than a good amateur, but it's still not 100%. And that's for "normal" shooting. Throw in an animal moving randomly and an attempt to do something aggressive like pan blur, and the keeper rate for even the best pro will be low. If I recall correctly, Art Wolfe used to say that he shot hundreds of rolls of film (thousands of shots, perhaps more than ten thousand) to get the 125 images for his book Rhythms of the Wild.

Once when Galen Rowell and I came back from one of his photo tours I discovered that I had shot the same number of rolls of film as he had during the three weeks (we were dropping our film off at New Lab since it was on the way home for both of us from the airport). That provoked me to ask him how many keepers he thought he had. For 120 rolls of film his response was "maybe a 100 that I'd put in my A files; probably less." So 1 in 36 at best case, though that number is a bit deceptive. Galen often shot in-camera duplicates when he thought he had one of those images he had a great shot. Still, the point remains: pros don't shoot 100% keepers.

Indeed, I'd tend to say that anyone who is shooting 100% keepers isn't pushing themself very hard. I'll bet that they've "perfected" some basic shot and just keep repeating it. I actually don't like it when I come home and find lots of decent shots, but nothing that shows that I pushed myself. As Susan Sontag suggested in her book On Photography, time works against photographers. The first person to take a picture of Half Dome, for instance, had an advantage over the rest of us: at the time, almost no one had actually seen the rock in person and thus even a representative shot was a "keeper." Over the years, it gets more and more difficult to take a unique shot that includes Half Dome, as the others that came before you have polluted the waters with virtually every easy variation. It's no longer good enough to just frame Half Dome well plus get the exposure and white balance right, even in dramatic end-of-day light: it's not a "keeper" any more because it's been done to death.

So don't be afraid to try new techniques and fail at them. I failed 75 times before I got something I liked. Actually, I failed 450 times and got 3 images I liked. And yes, it took me longer to get the first interesting image than the second or third. Practice works. That's why I do it as much as possible.

We Announce That We're Going to Announce that...
Mar 23 (commentary)--Anyone else think that Adobe's marketing and PR department has entered into some other dimension? Today Adobe announced--with big fanfare--that they'll announce CS5 on April 12th. At which time they'll probably announce CS5 but not ship it. Which means we'll get an announcement of the day that they intend to announce when they'll ship it, and then an announcement of when they'll ship it. But the blogs and Web all seem to be soaking this stuff up (just like the next story, below). Is it a slow news day or what?

Not So Fast
Mar 22 (commentary)--The latest overhyped technology, InVisage Technologies' just announced "quantum dot" sensor seems to be provoking a lot of not very diligent reporting, as we have multiple sites stating that it will change cameras and imaging dramatically. It reminds me a lot of the original hype surrounding the Foveon sensor.

Consider that these venture-backed companies have to make noise. Otherwise no one notices them. The big sensor companies already have a lock on most product designs out through mid-2011 at this point, so not only do you have to make lots of noise if you're the newcomer, but you have to do it early. And early it is: the technology InVisage is talking about isn't even going into early production sampling until the end of the year. In other words, if you wanted to stick something into a development product today you couldn't. To put that in perspective, that means that their technology won't likely get into an iPhone two generations downstream. (For those that don't understand that, we've got a new generation of iPhone coming this summer, already committed to with a 5mp BSI sensor. Plus the generation after that, likely launched in the summer of 2011, would need to have a sensor decision lock down before InVisage can deliver production technology.) Worse still, what InVisage announced today will have to compete against next generation BSI sensors from the big fabs.

But it strikes me that most of those reporting this "breakthrough" are just regurgitating the marketing materials from InVisage and making some errors in conclusions while doing so. The biggest issue with small image sensors right now is the color filtration. This removes as much as 2/3 the light. If you note the InVisage sensel design, it still has a filtration layer on top of the quantum dots. Thus, their gains are coming post filtration (i.e. on the 1/3 of the light that's left). Moreover, at least one of the documents they've provided makes the claim that the current state-of-the-art is a sensor that converts 20% of the light getting through the filters. That's not what I hear. Some sensor companies are already claiming 50% efficiency with current sensors, which suddenly knocks a big chunk off that 4x claim. Put another way, it appears that InVisage is comparing a future technology against a past technology.

This has all the earmarks of Foveon all over again, with one slight difference: since the InVisage technology appears to be a coating layer that replaces the photo diode, they may be able to license it to existing sensor makers if they can convince those makers that it has enough impact. Indeed, if it were my US$30 million invested, I'd be pursuing that as Job One. Why? Because there's a lot of IP in the rest of the sensor, and it's moving fairly rapidly at the moment. To think that a venture-funded startup can catch up to the big sensor makers in the rest of the sensor design and fab techniques without stepping on IP at the same time as coming up with an entirely new process that layers on top is a little bit beyond expectations. (I should note that no one seems to know how InVisage is getting the electrons out of the quantum dots, so perhaps there is more going on in the overall sensor design than I'm guessing. Still, a sensor is not just about light capturing. It has to store and read, and communicate the data, too, so readout noise, cross-talk, and other things in the sensor need to be state-of-the-art, too, thus my comment.)

Indeed, if you read the press release and other materials carefully you don't see InVisage claiming that they've got a sensor. They mention QuantumFilm (the layer) extensively, but the language regarding sensors is much more opaque and vague ("the first QuantumFilm-enabled product, due out later this year..." my emphasis added).

Meanwhile, the reporting on this technology announcement is doing exactly what InVisage probably hoped for. "...could potentially ditch the Nikon and rely solely on your HTC" reports Gizmodo. Yeah, right. Also, how did they get "four times sharper...with double the dynamic range"? They appear to be guessing the 4x efficiency claim means that you can have 2x the pixels (no). Even if that were true, where does the double the dynamic range then come from, Gizmodo? Sloppy math, at best, but also a misunderstanding of sharpness, resolution, area, size, efficiency, and dynamic range, all in one nice compact misstatement.

I wish InVisage well (yes, I really do). If they can increase efficiency of small sensors in any meaningful way (it doesn't have to be 4x) then we have something worth pursuing. But having played the Silicon Valley startup game many times in my career, I'd suggest that coming out in total hype mode that you can't live up to and letting the blogosphere run wild with that is going to come back to hurt InVisage, not help them.

Basically, it boils down to this: QuantumFilm increases the cost of producing a sensor by some factor and it increases the efficiency of the post-filtration light detection by some factor. If cost is too high, the efficiency increase too modest compared to other technologies that are in development, or they have to trade off any other sensor metric (e.g. readout noise), the idea will get passed by like most tech innovations. Simple as that. Silicon Valley graveyards are filled with such ventures.

The Instant Rebates
Mar 22 (commentary)--Now that I've had a chance to look through all that Nikon has been doing worldwide in terms of promotions during the past month and check some sales numbers, I've come to a conclusion: Nikon was in danger of not meeting its DSLR body shipment estimates for their fiscal year (which ends on March 31st). (Note I wrote "was." Still, we won't know if they were successful for another 45 days or so when they report results.)

Consider the US instant rebates (remember, the US is just over a third of Nikon's sales). Note that they all have a body requirement in them. Note further that NikonUSA really doesn't care which body you buy. I've even heard reports that some Nikon reps are suggesting to their dealers to just sell a D3000 with an expensive 70-200mm lens, then buy back the D3000 at some discount and sell it as used. The 70-200mm purchaser still gets a discount (though not US$400), some lucky future purchaser will find that they can get a very cheap D3000 that's essentially unused and warrantied (Nikon wouldn't be able to trace the faux sale). Nikon wants camera bodies off their inventory, that much should be very clear.

If you look at the most recent sales numbers of sell through at retail that are available, you see some indicators as to why: the D3000 and D5000 are not holding up the lower end volume. In particular, the D3000 doesn't seem to be holding the volume that the D40x and D60 established. The D300s is weaker than the D300 was. The D90 is finally showing signs of slowing down (it should, it's coming up on two years old).

So why not just discount bodies (as with the cash back offers in the UK), or perhaps extend dealers better terms if they order more inventory? I'll deal with the latter first: the danger of loading the channels with inventory this late in Nikon's fiscal year is that this spills over into a lack of orders in the first fiscal quarter of next year. It's a classic tech inventory problem: stuffing the channel generally only works to improve one quarter's numbers (unless, of course, you do the not-so-legal stuff-and-buy-back repeatedly). You'd only do that if you knew that you had new products that would help you make your next quarter's numbers. (Yes, you can read between the lines that I'm guessing that there aren't any new blockbuster Nikon products that'll ship in enough quantity to goose their April-Jun quarter numbers.)

The question about why not just discount bodies seems to get to another issue: NikonUSA may have a bit more inventory of those four lenses than they expected. The 70-200mm VR II lens sold well for a brief time prior to the Olympics, but issues with things like focal length breathing may have stalled sales (it shouldn't have, the new lens is very, very good). It also doesn't help that the exchange rate has pushed the prices of the 24-70mm and 70-200mm up. The 18-200mm sales have pretty much run their course. We're not seeing large influxes of new users who might be tempted by it--most who want or need a superzoom already have one, and the II version of that lens didn't really do anything to make us want to trade our old for the new. And the 24-120mm? Well, that lens just doesn't live up to expectations of the FX user and needs replacing.

In short, the promotions Nikon used in March worldwide all have the classic characteristics of "end of year inventory reduction." I'd go further and say that this doesn't appear to be about dollars of profit, it appears to be about holding market share (which is calculated on unit volume). This, of course, brings up the question: if sales are weak now, what is going to fix that and when? I'm betting that Nikon will have a rough first fiscal quarter in terms of DSLR market share and that the types of products that might get users primed for new purchasers won't be shipping in quantity until their second fiscal quarter (July-September).

One final thought: the fact that Coolpix promotions don't seem to be showing any signs of last minute change (or any change at all) would tend to indicate to me that Nikon thinks they'll make their Coolpix numbers just fine. The problem is mostly concentrated in DSLR bodies.

Curious Decisions
Mar 20 (commentary)--Nikon continues to make curious decisions with their compacts. I've been looking at Nikon's recent Coolpix cameras, for example. The S8000 once again has a slightly questionable charging choice: no true battery charger is supplied, instead you get a wall wart that plugs into the camera and charges the battery while it is in the camera. The good news is that this time Nikon used a wall wart with a USB connection, so you could simply plug the supplied cable into your computer (or any other USB wall wart you're carrying) to recharge.

But the whole notion of "charging the battery in camera" is a bit problematic to start with. First, there's the "don't handle it so much" factor. Plugging a cable into the camera and having it hang out on your desk (or whatever furniture is in your hotel room) while a charge completes is asking for a bit of trouble in my book. Too easy to trip over or otherwise engage the cable and send the camera flying. Don't laugh. It happens more often than you might expect. But more to the point, Nikon's choice means that the camera is unavailable any time you need to charge a battery. Some may argue that this is a reasonable trade-off for a compact digital camera, but frankly, I don't buy that argument. (Yes, I know you can buy an optional charger to actually charge the battery out of the camera. But forcing users to buy options that they deem necessary isn't exactly a good practice, either.)

Compact digital cameras are being rapidly disenfranchised by cameras in cell phones, and the S8000 is a top-of-the-line camera. Nikon shouldn't be making any compromises. Dozens of similarly-specified cameras exist now, so it is in the details that sales battles will be won or lost. Too many details are wrong on Nikon compact cameras these days. I understand that they need to drive costs out, but perhaps supplying thick paper manuals in multiple languages that don't tell you much might be a better place to look for cost reduction.

Weighty Advice Update
Mar 20 (commentary)--I received lots of comments about this article starting almost the minute I posted it. I've added a few bits in response, but wanted to call out one thing in particular. In the article I said to avoid BA. About half the people who wrote to me about that particular comment agreed, the other half disagreed, pointing out that BA at least has an "if you can lift it into the overhead bin, you can carry it on policy." One person did note that you should probably carry a copy of their policy printed from their Web site with you, as some BA employees don't seem to know it.

One I Missed
Mar 20 (news)--A few emails didn't manage to make it with me on my recent trip, so I forgot to mention Catapult has been updated for Aperture 3.0 in my last software update list. Now in version 1.0.7, Catapult allows for a very unique and desirable workflow for Nikon users: you can round trip NEF files to Capture NX2 and back and thus still manage them with Aperture's usual library functions. This is unlike the Lightroom/NX2 experience, where you have to jump through hoops and do manual labor to use NX2 as your raw converter and Lightroom as your library browser. The most recent update also improves compatibility with DxO sidecar files as well as NX2's.

Another I Missed
Mar 20 (news)--While I was overseas NikonUSA introduced a set of rebates on some popular lenses (other Nikon distributors have different discount, bundling, and rebate programs running). Basically the US rebates are "buy a DSLR and a lens and get a rebate." US$400 with a 70-200mm, US$300 with a 24-70mm, US$250 with an 18-200mm, and US$200 with a 24-120mm. You can combine lenses to get up to US$700 rebates. This program ends March 27th.

The March 27th date isn't a coincidence. Nikon appears to be aggressively pushing inventory prior to the close of their fiscal year (March 31st). With the start of their new fiscal year on April 1st, the investor pressure to produce good looking business numbers tapers for a bit.

It very well may be that Nikon is trying to once again micro-manage releases and inventory to manage their financial bottom line (e.g. make it look more stable and growing at a constant rate rather than volatile). The 85mm revision, for instance, has been ready for a quite a bit according to my sources, but I'll bet you we'll see it in the first quarter of Nikon's fiscal year (i.e. April to June), and probably earlier in the quarter rather than later. We also haven't had a new non-pro DSLR body since the D3000 (which in itself has been a sales disappointment), so I'll bet we get something in the high-Coolpix to sub-D300 range during this quarter, too. Finally, the D700s is likely in this coming quarter, as well.

70-200mm II Further Thoughts
Mar 20 (commentary)--After shooting a few thousand more shots with the 70-200mm, many with the TC-17E, I just have to reiterate what I wrote in my review: "no complaints about sharpness with this lens, even on a D3x, even wide open, even in the corners once we close down a stop or two." If anything, I'm slightly more impressed after this latest round of shooting: even the stuff I shot with the TC-17E looks quite good (as usual, Nikon's newest goodies, such as the TC-20E III, didn't make it to me in time for my trip).

I was also impressed with the way the lens performed for focus, again even with the TC-17E attached. I threw some tough situations at the combo and didn't really notice any degradation in focus performance. Indeed, I was surprised in a couple of situations where the camera didn't switch to busy backgrounds while tracking motion diagonal to me.

For FX users, the new version is pretty much a dream come true (except for that focal length breathing up close). If you've got an older 80-200mm or 70-200mm on your FX body, you should try the new one--I think you'll be surprised at how clear the difference is. On the other hand DX users won't see a big gain, if they see any gain at all. So if you're still shooting with the older 80-200mm or 70-200mm on your D300, don't get jealous, just keep shooting and think about the money you saved. But FX users need to take a long look at the new lens even if they are happy with their old one. The differences really do jump off the screen at you with a D3x.

Where's Thom?
Mar 16 (commentary)--It appears to be popular to speculate on my whereabouts whenever I don't post new things on this site every day. People seem to think that I only update my site when I'm at home, but that's not actually true: I often update my site while traveling. Thus, my whereabouts rarely matters to how frequently I'm adding things to the site.

The truth is that I go in spurts with my articles and reviews, as do companies with product announcements. Sometimes the lulls in those cycles coincide and it seems somewhat quiet around here. Other times the opposite happens and we have lots of things being added and items falling off the front page quite rapidly. I'm not interested in churning content for content's sake. If I have something to say and I'm ready to say it, you'll get an article. If not, I can promise you that I'm probably working on something and it will appear soon.

Still, just to make sure you don't fall asleep I've posted a new article (see left column).

Mar 11 (news)
--Raw Photo Processor 4.1.2 was introduced. I hadn't noticed the Lightroom module for it before, but don't know that it's been added in this most recent version. Apple issued Aperture version 3.01, which fixed a number of small problems with the 3.0 release. Bibble 5.0.3 adds support for some new cameras, including the Olympus E-PL1.

Tamron Lens Announced
Mar 11 (news)
--Tamron announced a new version of their 70-300mm lens, this time with a ultrasonic focus motor (lens-based motor). The SP AF70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD (can we get any more acronyms in their guys?) features a faster and quieter in-lens motor than previous Tamron models, and is the first lens to feature this new system. Essentially this is an update to a lens announced last year, but with a faster in-lens motor, more optical coatings, and loss of macro abilities.

What's Happening?
Mar 11 (commentary)--
Post PMA tends to be a slightly less busy time of year, as most companies tend to try to get their new product announcements into the period just prior to PMA so that they can talk openly about them to dealers at the show.

This year has been a little unusual, though because the big Photokina show is scheduled for later this year (it alternates years), some companies are clearly waiting for that show to launch some products. There wasn't all that much new and certainly nothing unexpected that popped up at PMA. What's more interesting is what didn't make it to PMA:

  • The High-End Coolpix. The P6000 is history but the replacement hasn't appared. Nikon appears to think that the new model will be better than a G11 (not that high a hurdle, but a hurdle nonetheless), but the rumor mill says it didn't make Nikon's original schedule for announcing it. In other words, it's late. How late remains to be seen.
  • The Pentax 645D. Not surprisingly, Pentax chose a Japanese show, CP+, to announce their long-awaiting MF digital camera. That's because Pentax is only going to release the camera in Japan initially. Given the price point (under US$9000) and specifications (40mp), I don't get the hesitancy to do a worldwide launch, but perhaps it just takes them forever to hand assemble the things.
  • The Panasonic G2 and G10. Again, the home Japanese market seems to be the motivator here. The m4/3 cameras have indeed been quite popular in Japan, grabbing 12% of the interchangeable lens market share last year. Panasonic claims that they want 20% of the DSLR market share, but if they keep prioritizing Japan over global, I can tell them that they're not going to get that. Moreover, the G2 shows that Panasonic is mostly just tweaking UI, not pushing these cameras into new realms.
  • Canon. Canon seems to have cut back on much of their traditional marketing presence for the time being, though they still do interesting things (like creating a fleet of red Mini-Coopers loaded with Canon gear and logos for pros visiting the Vancouver Winter Olympics; you couldn't miss those vehicles rolling around town, while Nikon's large presence was pretty much invisible by comparison). But they didn't even have a booth at PMA, which is unusual. I guess they don't want to talk to dealers.
  • The Sony A700 followup. Long overdue and still not here. One wonders if it's a sensor thing. Both Nikon and Sony seem stalled in the high-end DX format bodies and this seems to be due to no new sensor that significantly ups the performance. I don't expect that to last that much longer. A new sensor will take flight before the end of summer.

Sigma Lenses Announced
Feb 22 (news)
--Sigma announced several new lenses, some tweaked from previous versions, one new:

  • 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM: Basically an optically stabilized version of the older lens, now with FLD (low dispersion) glass.
  • 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM: If you're tired of waiting for the Nikon refresh, here's an alternative. Unfortunately, no OS.
  • 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM: Another update with OS and FLD. Sigma also claims it is slightly wider than the previous model.
  • 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM: for DX bodies, basically their equivalent to a 12-24mm.
  • 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM: another OS addition, though no FLD glass. Filter ring is now 95mm.

A Compact Compact Review
Feb 22 (news)
--I've posted a short review of the Canon S90 compact camera.

Updates/PMA News
Feb 22 (news and commentary)
--It's one of those busy times of year for camera, software and accessory announcements due to the Photo Marketing Association show going on this week in Anaheim.

  • Bibble 5.02 is available, which adds support for 26 additional cameras. But the big addition is that the program now features Soft Proofing.
  • onOne Plug-in Suite 5.01 was published, providing a number of performance and stability enhancements.
  • Capture One 5.1 now supports the Nikon D3s and adds a few new editing tools, including a better color editor and a clarity function.

Canon isn't at PMA (and announced it's new cameras prior to the show). Nikon is at PMA and showing the previously announced Coolpix cameras and lenses. Sony has gone into preannouncement mode, talking about their future mirrorless camera (a lot like a GF1 or E-P2, only with a bigger sensor) and future DSLRs (the inevitable A700 replacement, which will get video).

This last bit may explain some Nikon inaction, as well. It seems clear from Sony's non-announcements of future cameras that they will be using a new APS Exmor sensor of unspecified properties. I suspect that Nikon will be, too, for cameras such as the D90 update expected later this year, and perhaps for others, as well. What's holding up Sony's newest sensor? Probably video. The game has been seriously upped: new sensors need less rolling shutter impact, higher frame rates, and you want to back that with better video formats (AVCHD, for example). It's clear that's what Sony is doing for the A700 replacement, so the question then becomes: is Nikon still going to use Sony sensors below FX? And if the answer to that is yes, then there really aren't any appropriate Sony sensors for better Nikon models currently available--they're due shortly.

Personally, I suspect that Nikon is still going to use Sony sensors for DX bodies (and of course Coolpix). The economics of shared sensor production are just too necessary to keep costs down. The higher-priced FX bodies can support non-shared sensor costs.

Nikkor 200-400mm Review
Feb 15 (commentary)
--Seven years in the making. So much for snap judgment. But if you want to see what I finally have to say, the link is over there on the left. [Update: I've now received 200+ emails that say I'm right about the distance and TC issue, 5 that say I'm wrong.]

Which 16?
Feb 15 (commentary)
--A few of you took me to task for saying that the DX user is at a disadvantage to the FX user when it came to the 24mm (equivalent) focal length. We do have a few ways to get to 16mm: 16-85mm VR DX, 10-24mm DX, 12-24mm DX, and the FX 16-35mm and 14-24mm. So it's not that we don't have lenses that'll get us the 24mm equivalent for DX that prompted my comment, it's that they're all sub-optimal in some way. Take out the huge, filterless 14-24mm and all the options are slow (even f/2.8 isn't exactly fast). Thus, anyone who needs to get to 24mm on DX in low light finds that they don't really have a good DX option (and remember, the D300s is already a couple of stops worse than a D3s at high ISO values).

The only shooters that are reasonably happy with the 24mm equivalent in DX are the landscape and casual shooters. That's because the landscape shooters will all stop one of those zooms down to f/11 or so anyway, and the casual shooters will simply like the VR on the 16-85mm and put up with the maximum aperture being somewhat restrained. That leaves the event, sports, architectural, and night shooters all unsatisifed, which is why I wrote what I wrote about DX in the next article.

But to answer a question that did come up: if you had to have 24mm equivalent on DX, what should you use? Casual users: 16-85mm. Landscape shooters: any of the available options.

Which 24?
Feb 9 (commentary)
--Let's just make an assumption for a moment that you're an FX user and you shoot at 24mm a lot (I do). It's a natural focal length for getting depth into your pictures (foreground/background) without going "too wide." Indeed, I'd say that 24mm is the modern "wide angle go to focal length" (it used to be 28mm; long before that it was 35mm).

With Nikon's recent introductions, the FX user is now presented with a plethora of choices of how to get there: 24mm f/1.4G, 24mm f/2.8D, 14-24mm f/2.8G, 16-35mm f/4G, 17-35mm f/2.8D, 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D, 24mm f/3.5 PC-E, 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G, 24-85mm f/2.8-4D, and 24-70mm f/2.8G. Holy motherload, Batman, what should we put on the Batcamera?

Let's do some pruning right up front. I don't believe the 24mm f/2.8, 24-85mm f/2.8-4, and 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 cut the mustard. All are optically inferior to the other choices at 24mm, in my opinion. That still leaves us seven choices, so we need to winnow the list more. The sad thing is that, even with all these choices, not all types of shooters are going to be satisifed with their choice! Let's take a shooter's look at the options:

  • Landscape shooter. The clear choice is the 24mm PC-E. It is sharp edge to edge even on a D3x (non-shifted), plus gives you the ability to control DOF more. You don't need fast apertures or AF, and the lens has filter rings. Slam dunk. Honorable mention: 16-35mm f/4G, 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D, and 24-70mm f/2.8G.
  • Event shooter. Here's the unsatisifying choice: 24-70mm f/2.8G. The satisfaction falloff comes because of the lack of VR. While not always necessary, it would be handy to have and make this lens a slam dunk. Honorable mention: 24mm f/1.4G for helping remove backgrounds.
  • Sports shooter. Split decision: 24mm f/1.4G or 24-70mm f/2.8G. Depends upon the venue. Inside and dark? The 24mm f/1.4G. Outside or decently lit? The 24-70mm f/2.8G, mainly for its versatility to do other things. Honorable mention: 14-24mm f/2.8G.
  • Street shooter. No clear choice unless we're talking about night shooting. Technically, you need a good, accurate DOF scale and a long focus throw to do "zone focusing." The Zeiss 25mm starts to look better than the current Nikkors in that respect. Honorable mention: 24mm f/1.4G (especially for low light street work).
  • Star trails, Aurora, other night work. Probably 24mm f/1.4G due to coma correction and fast aperture. Needs to be tested to be sure.
  • Architectural photographer. 24mm PC-E.
  • All prime shooter. 24mm f/1.4G probably. Honorable mention: 24mm PC-E.

The interesting thing to me is what happens when I need to do multiple types of photography on the same trip. I end up carrying multiple 24mm options. This was already true (I carry the 14-24mm and the 24mm PC-E much of the time). Do I now add a 24mm f/1.4G to the bag, too? This just goes to show how tricky lens selection can sometimes get.

There's no perfect lens for every situation, thus you often have to carry something that is a compromise for some of the things you might photograph. The question is where you compromise.

For me, the compromise I tend to give up is autofocus. That's because I find the 24mm PC-E suitable for much of the wide angle work I want to do. So the question for me is whether I continue to carry the 14-24mm or replace it with either the new 16-35mm. It'll all depend upon the far corners with a D3x and whether my thin filters vignette on the new lens. For others (event and night street shooters, for instance), the 24mm f/1.4G is a clear "put in the bag."

So, good job Nikon: you've given us FX shooters plenty of 24mm options to consider. There's still DX to consider (they have almost nothing at 24mm equivalent), though, plus a lot of other focal lengths to give us more choice at.

Coolpix Announcement Aftershock: New FX Lenses
Feb 8 (news and commentary)
--After Nikon's business-as-usual Coolpix announcements last week comes a minor aftershock: two new FX lenses.

The first of the new lenses is the long-expected 24mm f/1.4G AF-S. This lens is expensive (US$2199), but this new lens opens up a new avenue for FX shooters looking for that wide but shallow focus look. Designed with a strong consideration for bokeh, the new lens is a lot larger than the existing 24mm f/2.8, but also produces out of focus areas with a very natural look. I am amused by one line in the press release: "Perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated lenses in recent memory." Well, sure. Nikon themselves began leaking information about this lens as far back as summer of last year. Most of that anticipation has been "where is it?" The lens will be available in March.

Second on the list is the first in what we hope will be a series of Nikon f/4 aperture zooms, and it's likely to be a best seller: 16-35mm f/4G AF-S VR. Yes, you read that right, VR (Nikon's recent II type). The addition of VR in this lens makes the lack of it in the 24-70mm f/2.8 even more curious. Indeed, I was slammed on many Internet fora when I chose the lack of VR on the 24-70mm as one of Nikon's worst decisions in the first digital decade. All I can say is that I stand by that statement even more now that we've got VR in a zoom lens that'll end up in most pro's kits and that needs the stabilization less. Not that VR in this lens won't be useful, it's just that you really ought to be able to handhold a 16-35mm lens at 1/30 second or slower on an FX body as it is. This lens will be available at the end of February for US$1259.

I predict that the 16-35mm will be a complete sellout, so get in line soon if you want one. The fact that it accepts filters, is smaller and lighter than the 14-24mm, and that it is at a lower price point will have most pros and D700 owners wanting one. If this is the start of an f/4 cycle of zooms for Nikon, look out, these are going to be tremendously popular.

I've updated my Nikon lens page with details on the two new lenses.

It may seem unusual to some that two lenses like this would be released via press release separately from their press conferences last week. This seems typical Nikon to me. They wanted the Coolpix announcements to stand on their own, plus they wanted something they could excite DSLR users with prior to PMA and other upcoming shows (PIE in Japan). This also means that a DSLR (or DSLRs) release is still a month or two away. The fact that there are other lenses that are known about likely means they're being held back for the DSLR announcement. Recently, the head of Nikon's marketing in Japan stated that there would be primes (plural) coming, so the 35mm and 85mm updates are likely waiting for a new body announcement.

D3s Bugfix
Feb 8 (news)
--Nikon has introduced a firmware update (1.01) for the D3s that fixes a handful of items, including one that stopped movie recording, errors in the Chinese menus, and an issue that caused CHA to appear when certain cards were used in the camera.

Website Updates
Feb 8 (news)
--I've added my review of the new 70-200mm and older 80-200mm (see links at left), and I'll be updating my old 70-200mm review shortly. Note that I've decided to take a dual approach on ratings for reviews: I'm rating on both an absolute scale and a value scale now in response to user requests. I'm updated my Lens Rating article (also see left column) to reflect this.

I think I've also caught up to emails that pointed out typos or problems on a number of pages. I've updated the Current DSLR and cleaning the sensor pages, for instance, as well as the Flash comparison page. Let me know if I've missed anything.

Besides now using Twitter (@bythom) to do major book and workshop announcements, those of you wanting RSS feeds can use Google Reader to set up your own quasi-feed.

Are You Up and Coming?
Feb 8 (news)
--Photocrati has a US$5000 fund for grants to non-professional photographers working on important humanitarian and environmental projects. Deadline for applications is March 15th.

Software Updates
Feb 8 (news)
--Bibble 5.0.1 adds E-P2 support, newly calibrated lenses, and a new black/white point tool. DxO 5.3.7 for Mac adds Snow Leopard support. Nikon introduced a new version of the Nikon Message Center (update notifier within their software products).

Is it My Imagination...
Feb 8 (commentary)
--...or has Nikon marketing gotten lazier? It used to be that each new camera came with a short slogan (D90: "engineered for artistry") and that slogan ran throughout the marketing materials. Recently I got NikonUSA's email about the new Coolpix models, and instead of the usual slogans, we are down to one- or two-word descriptors: S8000: "Hi-Res LCD"; S6000: "Fast"; S4000: "Touch"; S3000: "Sleek". Boy, that didn't excite me. A tenth grader could have picked out those words.

The Web pages give the full marketing lines for the cameras. S8000: "Super Slim. Stunningly Close. Clearly Brilliant." S6000: "Need the Speed. Love the Style." S4000: "Touching Memories" (nice pun). S3000: "Style Setting. Image Making."

So Nikon is shorthanding their own shorthand. It's all starting to feel a bit old and recycled, and the shorthand to the shorthand just reinforces that. Time for Nikon to rethink how they differentiate their products. Hint: words aren't doing it.

Nikon Financial Results for Third Quarter
Feb 4 (news and commentary)
--Nikon's third quarter financial results have been announced, and the news, as expected, is mixed.

For the year so far, Nikon sales are down 16% from the year prior, and the company is now reporting a loss. Hidden in that bad news is that this year's third quarter is better than last year's (hard not to be, given that the Great Recession was hitting about its heaviest during that period last fiscal year). The Precision division (semiconductor equipment) continues to collapse, with year-to-year comparison now off 39%. That, of course means that the Imaging division (cameras and lenses) is doing better, with sales off 9% and profits off only 4% from the previous year-to-date (three quarters).

Indeed, one of Nikon's bullet points for the quarter was that DSLRs, lenses, and compact cameras all achieved their highest single quarter volume to date: 1.2m DSLRs, 1.75m lenses, and 4.1m compact cameras were "sold" in the last three months of 2009. For the full fiscal year (ends March 31, 2010) Nikon expects to sell 3.5m DSLRs (35% of the global market), 5.1m lenses (32% of the global market), and 11.5m compact cameras (11.7% of the global market). Japan is now down to 12% of Nikon Imaging sales, the US down to 34%, Europe holding steady at 32%, with the remainder being Asia (22%). Imaging's percentage of the overall company sales continues to grow, having risen to 76% in the three quarters so far (but expected to drop back to 73% for the full year).

R&D expenses as a percentage of sales is still increasing (and has been for most of the decade), though the overall spending has dropped a bit (about 4% year-to-year).

Nikon's current estimate for currency exchange is 90-94 yen to the dollar, 130-133 yen to the Euro (the actual rate is at about 91 and 127 as I write this).

Overall, Nikon's continued strong performance in Imaging is driving the company. The good news is that this performance currently shows little signs of weakening. On the other hand, Nikon can't afford to make significant mistakes with cameras and lenses in the coming months, as doing so would send the financial picture back into the red (they predict a profit for the coming year).

Looking beyond the numbers looking for clues to the coming quarter, Nikon did not change their estimates for camera, lens, or Coolpix sales in the current quarter. That pretty much means that nothing that's been announced (see next story) or will be announced shortly is going to have a meaningful impact on this year's financials. Despite selling 1.2m DSLRs last quarter, Nikon currently expects to sell only 700k DSLRs this quarter. Note the the Coolpix models announced below only have a couple that ship in March. If Nikon expects to beat their 2010 fiscal year numbers they just posted in 2011, and every indication is that they do, that means that we've got quite a few new products coming in the next two quarters.

Feb 3 (news and commentary)
--Sorry for the late coverage, but we had equipment issues here at Officia de byThom that needed a lot of attending to today.

So, Nikon's first 2010 announcement: the expected Coolpix refresh. Here in the US we get 7 new models:

  • S8000: 14mp, 30-300mm (10x) zoom, 3" 921k dot LCD, 720P/30, VR, US$299, black, red, bronze, silver.
  • S6000: 14mp, 28-196mm (7x) zoom, 2.7" 230k dot LCD, VR, US$249, silver, red, black, or bronze.
  • S4000: 12mp, 27-108mm (4x) zoom, 3" 460k dot LCD, 720P/24, VR, US$199, black, silver, red, pink, plum.
  • S3000: 12mp, 27-108mm (4x) zoom, 2.7" 230k dot LCD, VGA movie/30, VR, US$149, silver, black, plum, blue, green, orange.
  • P100: 10.3mp backside illuminated sensor, 26-678mm (26x) zoom, 3" 460k dot LCD, 1080P/30, multiple VR, US$399, black only.
  • L110: 12mp, 28-420mm (15x) zoom, 3" 460k dot LCD, 720P/30, dual VR, US$279, black, plum.
  • L22: 12mp, 37-134mm (3.6x) zoom, 3" 230k dot LCD, VGA movie/30, US$129, silver, black, blue, plum.

The sarcastic crowd would say: more numbers in the model names, some heavy anorexia in the body size coupled with big zooms that stick way out, plus more colors.

More seriously: it's nice to see BSS (best shot selector) making a wide appearance again, and Nikon is claiming fast startup and focus. The back side illuminated sensor makes its way into the performance line (it was badly needed), and Nikon seems to still be playing the "more pixels" game at the low end of their lineup. There's a lot of mumbo jumbo in the press releases about low light ability, but we need to see the cameras in action at high ISO values before we get too excited about that. I'll be very surprised if any of these cameras can match a Canon S90.

What's interesting are some of the sub-choices: more 720P movie capabilities, though mostly at 30 fps, with the P100 becoming Nikon's first 1080P camera! Yes, that seems strange, but it's mostly due to sensors and the base designs that Nikon is using. The dot-pitch on the LCDs is all over the board, but I suspect that is attempts at hitting price points while still trying to use as few parts as possible.

I have to say, though, for a line that's labeled "Style," I'm just not seeing it on Nikon's new compacts. If anything, the overly large lettering on the casing around the lens on the two high-end models looks cheap to me. Also, the last time I looked, "rectangular box" was the most basic shape I could pull up on my CAD program. Just because it's "slimmest in its class" doesn't mean much. Indeed, I suspect these new models have the same problem the Canon S90 has: you need a grip point on the front of the camera and don't have it.

Welcome to Announcement Week
Feb 1 (rumors and commentary)
--This is the week that traditionally we start seeing the pre-PMA announcements begin to fly. But first, one other key upcoming announcement: on Thursday Nikon updates their third-quarter financials.

But you want to know about product goodies. Well, Olympus will have their latest, even smaller, m4/3 camera plus they're probably finalize real prices and availability on the two lenses they announced earlier. Hasselblad is going to come downmarket with the H4D-40, a 40mp medium format camera that's targeted between the D3x and Leica S2 in price (and if I'm right, it's closer to the D3x). Fujifilm won't announce a m4/3 camera, but continue announcing all-in-one variants that look like small DSLRs but aren't. Nikon is...well, Nikon is going to obsolete the Coolpix L20, L100, P90, S230, S630, and S220 and announce their latest replacement models. Plus, to keep the rest of us awake, we'll finally get the 24mm f/1.4G, plus another wide angle lens, some accessories, and a surprise. At least I think we're still getting the surprise at PMA. I'm a little surprised that nothing has leaked about the surprise. In fact, if it's in production already I'm stunned that we haven't seen anything about it, so maybe it isn't in production yet.

What, no DSLRs? Well, not many from any of the makers. This may be the lowest key PMA for mid- and high-end shooters in recent memory. But worry not, between March and August we'll be getting a pretty big helping of products we're more interested in.

Meanwhile, the Japanese companies seem to be pulling marketing subtleties out of a party hat. Consider this assessment from Panasonic's marketing department of how to explain their huge lineup of similar compact cameras:

  • FZ: for outdoor action
  • LX: performance and beauty
  • TZ: for world travel
  • ZR: for day trips
  • FT: sea and mountain leisure
  • FX: portraits and weddings
  • FH: for family memories
  • FP: daily photography
  • F: Parties

Well, I guess that's one way to sell more cameras. Let's see, I do both day trips and world travel, sea, mountain, and outdoor action shots, and I want performance, so I need to carry an FZ, LX, TZ, ZR, and FT camera with me. Really? How many dealer sales people do you think will use that in their sales pitch to prospective customers? Uh, zero? So why even say it? Certainly there isn't an engineer designing "mountain leisure" features into only a subset of cameras.

Nikon Software Updates
Jan 29 (news and commentary)
--ViewNX has been revised to version 1.5.3 and Transfer to 1.5.2 (Windows) or 1.5.3 (Mac). This brings full support for Windows 7 and Macintosh Snow Leopard to the final main Nikon software products.

WT-4 Setup Utility and Thumbnail Selector have been updated to version 1.1.4, but wouldn't you know it, that doesn't include Snow Leopard support.

So, Nikon, if you're listening, just getting software updates out the way you have been isn't solving everyone's problem. Indeed, those of us who use multiples of your products end up in situations where we're still stuck, even after you've made an OS update on one of the products we use. For the last month I've had two systems running, one on Mac OS-X 10.5.8 and one on OS-X 10.6.2. This isn't exactly helpful (and not everyone can do it).

Basically, it all boils down to this: you still don't respect photographers' workflows. In my Introduction to Nikon Software book I outline three common workflows. You know which one has proven to be the most problematic? That's right, the all-Nikon one. If you rely upon Transfer to ingest images and Capture NX2 to process images, then having Transfer be the last program to get OS-based updates simply kills the entire workflow for some. Kills it. As in "the person so affected looks for another solution for ingesting," which means that they end up abandoning the all-Nikon software solution.

So, if Nikon wants to stay in the software business, they need to: (1) get their updates closer to those of the OS foundations they sit on; and (2) do all their updates together. What this last round of updates has revealed for the world to see is that Nikon simply doesn't have enough resources nor enough coordination in their software groups.

Jan 29 (commentary)
--I've been writing for some time now that I believe that Nikon will have a "surprise" at PMA. Now a Nikon executive on record as saying "you can expect surprise(s)."

This, of course, has set the Nikon community abuzz with speculation about what I and Hiroshi Takashima might mean.

First, note that what I mean by a surprise and what Nikon thinks is a surprise are two different things. To me, a surprise is something you think Nikon wouldn't do. I don't know what Nikon thinks a surprise is, but I wouldn't be surprised (!) to find out that it mostly means "some features or specifications" that go beyond what we've done before.

But for the sake of argument, let me list some things that would be surprises to most of the Nikon community:

  • A compact-sized camera with an APS sensor. Despite the rumor that Nikon designed the Leica X1, most people still don't think that Nikon will go this route.
  • Lower prices. Starting with the D3x, it seems like everything is being pushed up in price (and yes, most of this is yen appreciation, but not all). Any Nikon product that comes in lower cost than a direct competitor would be a surprise, for sure.
  • A full line of FX bodies. That means D700s, D900, D3s, and D3sx at a minimum.
  • Nikon sensors everywhere. A Nikon sensor in the D90 replacement and in all other models introduced during the year would be a surprise.
  • Medium format. After the MX scare a year ago, and after Nikon executives downplaying medium format, any move upward would indeed be a surprise.
  • More than 8 lenses announced. Let's face it, Nikon just hasn't managed to get the lens wagon on a roll (7, 7, and 6 announcements, in the last three years, in order). And most Nikon users can identify more than a dozen gaps or updates needed in the lineup. So the surprise would be that Nikon actually managed to ramp that up.
  • Doing something unexpected. Like joining the m4/3 group, endorsing DNG, documenting the EXIF maker's fields, or a host of other things.
  • Non-camera related. Tethered hard drives, for example.

But if what Nikon announces is just more cameras with more pixels or better high ISO capability or additional features, no, most Nikon users would say that Takashima's "surprise" didn't come to pass.

That, of course, leaves a mirrorless camera. Unfortunately for Nikon, that would not be a surprise to anyone. With Olympus and Panasonic on their second generation of mirrorless cameras and making strong inroads in market share while doing so, everyone and their brother will announce a mirrorless camera in 2010. So, to surprise, Nikon's mirrorless entry needs to be 100% unique.

D300 and D300s Guide
Jan 25 (news)
--The Third Edition of my Complete Guide to the Nikon D300 and D300s is here. I'm going to ship it starting on Wednesday, February 3rd (the date of Nikon's next big press conference, by the way; no, they're not announcing my Complete Guide ;~). Beginning today I'm opening up orders again for the work (start by clicking on the link in the right column).

As with previous editions, I've done a full pass from front to back on the previous book, plus I've now added all the D300s differences, and there are some subtle ones, such as how Auto ISO works. I've also had to tighten my font and image use to fit everything into what can be bound in a single volume (though this doesn't really impact the PDF file). So, yes, there will be a printed copy option (black and white only) for those who choose to buy or update. These have been very well received by those that bought them for the D5000 and D700 Guides, but they are expensive to produce in low quantities at this quality.

My goal in my works is to provide "more and better," which I believe I deliver in spades. But this also means my works cost more in the end, too. If all you want is a "the D300 is a great camera and has some nifty features" kind of book, the bookstores are filled with them now. But if you want the definitive, complete, thorough, and exhaustive tome, then you'll pay a little more to get my work. That's just how it is. If I charged less, I wouldn't do the level of work I do in researching and putting together these books.

One thing off my "Waiting for Thom" list. Another two items closing in on the finish line. Stay tuned...

Tweet Tweet
Jan 25 (news)
--You might be surprised to find that bythom has a Twitter account. And that it tweated recently. While I'm not interested in sending short messages telling everyone what I'm doing right ("Thom is typing in Dreamweaver..."), I did realize that I could use Twitter for a real purpose until the new Web site is up and running (and maybe even after). When I finish a book (or the Web site ;~) or open a new workshop, I'm going to tweet. I might even tweet on posting reviews. So, if you follow bythom on Twitter you'll get essentially a "something important just got done" message from me. Once the new site is done, I'll have RSS feeds, so the need to tweet will disappear. Until then, it's the only proactive announcement tool I'm going to use. So, if you want announcements, follow @bythom.

Nikon 2010
Jan 25 (commentary)
--I don't normally do this, but I've updated my 2010 predictions a bit to reflect a slight bit more information and some additional second-guessing on my part. Basically, I've added a couple of cameras to the upcoming Nikon expectations.

Probably the best way to think about what Nikon likely will provide in 2010 is to consider what is likely to be available to customers at the end of the year. In terms of interchangeable lens models, my new and best guess at Nikon's end of the year looks like this:

Top Level (pro, prosumer) FX


Mid Level (serious amateur, prosumer) DX
D7000 (D90 replacement)
Low Level (entry consumer, family camera) MX/DX

Yes, three lines of camera and three sensor sizes, I think. This is a serious gambit if it is attempted, and it's going to require some real clarity in Nikon marketing that currently isn't there even with DX/FX (MX and M models in the chart would be mirrorless cameras with a smaller-than-DX sensor; and no I don't know that Nikon has selected MX as the designate, I'm just using it here as a placeholder).

The top level is easy to understand: 12 and 24mp options in small and large bodies. While others don't think that you can justify the price differential of the dual models, I do. This is basically a pro versus prosumer approach. I would say, however, that Nikon needs to get better at defining those two terms. For example, it's easy enough to say that a pro probably isn't that interested in a pop-up, on-camera flash, but a pro is interested in on-camera remote flash control. The prosumer bodies have that, the pro bodies don't, so Nikon hasn't truly gotten their pro/prosumer definitions clear in product development.

Nevertheless, I doubt many would have any real issues with the top level if it works out the way I've shown it. All four cameras that fit into this block look like they'd be real winners given Nikon's recent introductions. Note that all of these cameras are made at the Sendai plant in Japan. Also, at this point I don't think we'll see any of the missing models in that lineup announced until late March.

The mid-level as I envision it feels a bit anemic to me. Part of that is the 12mp sensor Nikon uses is nearing its last legs. Part is that Nikon seems a little unsure what the definition of a camera in this group is. Nikon's approach has been that it has to be stripped down from the top level (e.g. fewer of the features found in the top level). Moreover, these models generally don't push state-of-the-art, but more state-of-the-affordable. I've moved the D300s down from the pro/prosumer category because I think that with the complete stable of FX bodies apparent by the end of the year, the D300s is going to be more clearly the "pro-like" camera at the top of the consumer heap rather than the low end of the pro lineup. This, too, adds confusion to this middle level. Note that as I envision the end of the year, the three models in this category all have different "personalities." They are less like a low-to-high range of cameras than they are a scattershot from a shotgun in terms of design. Note also the gap in price between this group and the group above it.

Finally, the low level cameras. It's clear to me that the future of low-end DSLR-like cameras is mirrorless. The Panasonic and Olympus m4/3 efforts are good enough to prove that not just to me, but to the buying public, too: despite higher prices, they took significant market share last year. But the funny thing is this: the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1 are actually targeted too high! A lot of their sales appeal has come from higher end photographers grabbing them as "more competent compacts." The true place for mirrorless is in the gap between something like a Nikon P90 and a Nikon D5000. And that's exactly where Nikon appears to be targeting with their mirrorless entry. That means smaller sensor, smaller body, smaller price.

It's also clear to me that the D3000 (and the whole D40x, D60, D3000 progression) disappears out of the Nikon lineup at some point, making three clear classes of interchangeable lens cameras distinguished by sensor size and lens mount (MX, DX, FX). I'm also not sure that such an approach actually works, as it completely violates one of the long-standing premises in Nikon's success: compatibility. Sure, the DX and FX share the same mount, but someone buying DX and eventually growing to FX is going to be obsoleting a lot of their lenses and buying new. The problem is even bigger between MX and DX.

I see Nikon having no problem defending FX. Everything seems reasonable well with FX if Nikon produces what I think they'll produce this year (well, okay, we're missing a lot of FX lenses still ;~). The DX middle seems okay, too, other than the fact that the middle will get smaller in coming years (FX will proceed downward, mirrorless will proceed upward, essentially neutering the DX category). So the question I have is whether MX can function as a feeder to FX. Without details, of course, I can't answer that. But my gut says no based upon what I know so far. Let's hope I'm wrong.

Nikon Capture 2.2.4
Jan 20 (news plus commentary)
--Nikon has finally released the Snow Leopard compatible version of Capture NX2, almost five months after Snow Leopard final discs were shipped to users and approximately 17 months after first releases were given to developers.

Nikon still has a lot to do to clean up its software act. I'm moving to a new computer (which runs Snow Leopard), so I'm installing things from scratch. Like many Nikon updates, this requires that you do a two-fer: first install Capture 2.2.0, then the Capture 2.2.4 update. Guess what? If you download both to your desktop and open the DMG files, they look identical! There's no visual indicator in the DMG itself as to which version is being installed, so you don't know which one is the 2.2.0 that needs to be installed first. Moreover, when I do install 2.2.0 followed by 2.2.4 I get a Nikon Message Center dialog that says that "a new version of your Nikon software [is] available" (yes, even after 2.2.4 was installed). Clicking Get Update starts a download, the update partially loads, then eventually you get a "Could not download the software update. Please try again later."

This is the sort of confidence killing detail that Nikon continually manages to get wrong with their software. Not that any other camera maker has all that inspiring software--I've encountered clear bugs and problems with Canon, Panasonic, and Olympus-supplied software, too. But Nikon is charging for their software, and not low prices, either.

We users of Nikon software deserve both more timely product updating and more attention to detail.

The New 70-200mm Controversy
Jan 20 (commentary)
--When the new version of the 70-200mm came out, the first round of angry forum posts on the Internet centered around focal length breathing (the tendency of a lens to lose focal length as you focus closer). Shortly after that settled down there started a new round of "physical defect" assertions. Some of these included photos through the front of the lens of what looked like a ring in the lens that had defects in its structure. The premise of most of these posts was that this ring was a functional part of the lens and thus the lens needed repair.

That would be incorrect. The "rings" that people claimed to see defects in are actually light baffles: by not having a flat edge just outside the internal element that moves forward and backwards during zooming, less light is reflected into the edges of that element, which increases contrast. Most Nikon zoom lenses have a variant of this baffle design.

Apparently this baffle is a cast part (metal poured into molds), and some of the casting is less than precise or has molds that aren't holding up to repeated use. The ring doesn't have to be perfect, though, as the sole purpose of the "rings" are to not present a flat surface for reflections. I've not commented thus far about this controversy as I thought that Nikon would quickly realize the bad word-of-mouth circulating and issue an official bulletin that explained what people were seeing. Unfortunately, that hasn't really happened--a few Nikon tech centers have responded to individuals with a variant of what I just wrote, but no "official" response has been made--so the controversy still exists.

Nikon just doesn't seem to be very quick at seeing or clear in responding to net criticism. Thus, I continue to see discussions of "the problem." It is disconcerting to someone who paid US$2399 for something to see surface irregularities on the product, after all. But it isn't a functional problem, only an embarrassing cosmetic one.

The Dip Versus the Hump
Jan 14 (news plus commentary)
--BCN's final year-end sales numbers for the Japanese camera market are in. For compact cameras, Canon (19.6%), Casio (18.6%), and Panasonic (14.6%) continue to eat up more than half the unit volume. Canon's market share there has held steady, Casios has been growing (mostly at Sony's expense), and Panasonic's has been sliding. But together, those three represent 53% of all compact camera sales in Japan.

In DSLRs, there are two stories. First, let's look at the Nikon versus Canon rivalry:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

I've smoothed the curves slightly to better show the trend: Canon dipped as Nikon surged, then Canon flattened at about the 40% share. Nikon surged from a strong-but-distant second place position to take the lead in 2007, only to dip back to their more historic 30% share by 2009. The third place position in the market was Pentax from 2005 to 2007, then Sony in 2008, now Panasonic in 2009. None of those third place finishers broke the 10% mark, though micro 4/3 cameras as a group did. The top three makers hold about 80% of the market, down from a historical high of 90%. Put another way, Canon and Nikon continue to hold the dominate positions in DSLRs in Japan, but that dominance has eroded a bit with more competition.

Remember, these are Japanese-only market numbers, based upon unit volume sold at retail during the calendar year. Japan-market shipments have dropped considerably as a percentage of overall sales, now representing approximately 9% of worldwide sales overall, and about 11% of DSLR sales worldwide. However, since the camera makers are highly conscious of their home market, you have to bet that these numbers are watched closely and used to formulate future plans.

I think it is safe to say that the Big Three camera makers in Japan are Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic, in that order. That has to represent major disappointment to Sony. Olympus continues to fail to break into the top three in either category of camera--the Pen nostalgia play didn't quite move the market as much as I think they thought it might.

Minor Updates
Jan 14 (news)
--Nikon released Camera Control Pro 2.7.1 to update that program to match the firmware updates of the D3 and D700. FDRTools released version 2.3.2, which dealt with a few bug fixes.

Picture This
Jan 11 (news)
--Apparently when the used price of her small, inexpensive book Picture This started rocketing into the stratosphere (as I write this, US$73 here in the US for a paperback that sold originally for US$12.95), author Molly Bang decided to figure out what the heck was causing this phenomenon and found me ;~). Picture This has been on my recommended books page for some time, and last week I highlighted it in the photo caption on this page and apparently triggered another mad rush for it.

I'll quote from Molly: "It is only temporarily out of print. This week Chronicle is sending 150 copies to Amazon, and they're printing another several thousand that'll be available in a couple of months."

So, don't succumb to the rush, folks. Wait until it comes back into stock and you'll save a fair chunk of change. And while I'm at it, don't buy my original Nikon Flash Guide, either. It doesn't cover the digital flash systems and isn't worth the US$39.95 to $100 it is going for right now.

Firmware, Software Updates
Jan 6 (news)
--Nikon today released a slew of firmware updates (for the D300s, D700, D3, and D3x). All of the updates fix the 64GB card problem some of us have noticed. The D700 and D3 updates add some small bits and pieces (including at least one thing that was on my User Feature Requests page: clock set via GPS), including more selections for Auto ISO and Focus Tracking with Lock-On. Note that these options don't show up in Camera Control Pro 2.7, which was just released, which shows the level of Nikon's coordination between software teams. A Camera Control Pro 2.7.1 is expected shortly to fix that.

Also note that the D300 and D3s weren't updated. I believe the D3s already supports 64GB cards correctly, plus it already had the menu changes in it. Thus, the D700 and D3 firmware updates are merely getting the D3s additions into the earlier cameras. But that doesn't explain why the D3x didn't get those same additions. Nor does it explain why the D300 didn't get a firmware update to support 64GB cards. Either there are more firmware updates in the wings, or Nikon has just made a faux pas in keeping their pro cameras in sync.

Meanwhile, in other software news:

  • Bibble has finally shipped version 5. Fast, multi-CPU conversion support, a new UI, and much more bring this converter back to the forefront for consideration.
  • FDRTools 2.3.1 fixes four bugs, including one that caused D700 images to take on purple highlights.
  • FocalBlade 1.07 for windows is also a bug fix.
  • ImageIngester 3.3.05 incorporates two new utilities of interest to GPS taggers: GPSBabel and ExifTool.

A New Year
Jan 4 (commentary)
--Well, we all made it to another year, another decade, and through another holiday season. This is a time when we look forward, not backward, so what does 2010 have in store for me and this site?

  • I will deploy a new Web site. I'm still working out one big problem that came up, but we'll get there this year, really.
  • Updated Guides are coming. Observant amongst you will have noticed that D300 Guide is temporarily unavailable. That's usually the signal that a new guide is about a month away. But no promises!
  • I'll clear my Waiting For list this year. Yes, I will. I really will. Plus some things that aren't on it will appear, too. Think of it like a juggler dealing with 10 balls. Getting them up into the air is easy, keeping them juggled without dropping them is difficult, but all the ooh's and aah's come with the dismount: can he finish with a flourish?
  • New Nikon goodies are coming. Some time in the first two weeks of February we'll have lots to talk about. Lots.
  • Survey results and more surveys are coming. I haven't forgotten about the surveys I've done, especially the last big one, on camera reliability. The results are interesting. And I've got more data than JD Power bases their camera maker rankings on!
  • Reviews are coming. D3000, D300s, D3s, plus 16 lens reviews. We'll do this one at a time, but with some urgency. In the meantime, look below for some quick comments.
  • As usual, I'm traveling a lot. East, West, South. But not North this year.

The thing I'm still stuck on is workshops. I don't think four-person, three-day workshops like I used to do will satisfy the pent up demand, nor are they economically viable at the prices I charged. Long-form exotic photo tours aren't the answer, either, as not everyone can afford the time or money. And I don't like 16-person workshops--not enough one-on-one time. So, I'm stumped. Suggestions welcome.

On a related note, I've narrowed down my new domicile search to Colorado, Washington, and Wyoming. (Previously I was also considering Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah.) Obviously, some of my trips this year will be targeted towards those areas, so I'm curious to hear from you about suggestions. Wherever I end up will also likely be where I retire.

Some Quick Takes
Jan 4 (commentary)--
Since I'm late on a number of reviews, I've been getting prods in the InBox (ouch!) about various Nikon products I'm overdue in writing about. Here's some quick takes on several recent products:

  • D3s. Wow. If six months ago Nikon had said to me that they could improve the high ISO output of the D3, I would have said maybe. But if they had said they could do it by a stop or more, I'd have called them nuts. Well, the joke's on me. I've been shooting in my gym at ISO 12,800 and liking the results. Yes, liking. The D3s is a game changer (pardon the pun). We sports guys always used to have to shoot at maximum aperture and find faster lenses. For the first time we can actually think about using a smaller aperture for a bit of depth of field. That's new. And useful. And welcome. Nice job, Nikon. And the little changes also improve the D3 experience, too. If there's a category above Highly Recommended you'll find that I give that to this camera when I review it.
  • D300s. It's a D300 with video and some minor differences. I was a little disappointed in that I don't see any image quality change two years down the line. But I do like the small UI changes (moving Live View off the Shooting Method dial, for example), and the extra card slot is potentially useful. Still, it doesn't really matter to me whether I pick up the D300 or D300s off my gear shelf to shoot with. That's not a strong endorsement of the "s". Fortunately, the original was a dang good camera, and Nikon's done nothing to mess that up. The D300 is still a near state-of-the-art DX camera, so the D300s inherits that. I would have liked to see a little more IQ progress, though.
  • D3000. An interesting idea that doesn't quite live up to its promise. Basically, like the D300s versus D300, the D3000 doesn't represent any change in image quality from the original D40x that started the 10mp lineage that the D3000 is in. Yes, the D90 autofocus sensor is a step forward, but it's about the only step forward. The "GUIDE" aspect of the camera is an interesting idea, but perhaps next time they ought to have a photographer who's also a teacher think this through for them. When you set Easy Operation/Distant Subjects the camera reports "The camera is now in 'Sports' mode. Choose for fast shutter speeds with low blur." What? Likewise "Sleeping faces" sets Child mode. Are you kidding me? That's supposed to be useful help? The thing about help guides is that they should actually help you learn how to get to the next level. If they don't, well, you're stuck in those modes forever. But beyond that, I don't really see how the GUIDE setting does anything except confuse you about the Scene exposure mode icons that are already on the Mode dial. Apparently the engineering interns were allowed to play with the menu system. The D3000 gets the first Not Recommended rating I've given to a Nikon DSLR.
  • 35mm f/1.8 DX. A nice, affordable, competent standard lens for DX. Think of it as the DX version of the 50mm f/1.8D.
  • 60mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor. I never really understood the 60mm for macro work. There's just not enough working distance. Yes, back in the days when we used our 55mm Micro-Nikkors on copy stands to duplicate flat works, the focal length made sense. But not for general close up work. Still, it's a sharp lens, just like it's predecessor. I just don't know what I'd use it for. The Tamron 60mm f/2 Macro seems more promising. At least it substitutes as a reasonable portrait lens, too.
  • The PC-E lenses. Superb optics. Having both tilt and shift are a step forward from just shift. The only problem is that Nikon didn't quite hit the mark with build quality or flexibility. You absolutely need to tighten down tilts and shifts with these lenses--there's a bit of slop in the mechanism otherwise. That's disappointing, as it would have been nice to be able to leave the positioning mechanism loose for fine adjustments between shots. But doing that risks both vibration and slight alignment changes. Also, what's with the restriction of tilt only being on one axis relative to shift? No, I don't want to send my lenses into Nikon to have the axis changed. I want to do that in the field. Absolutely great lenses otherwise. So great lenses marred by sloppy execution of detail. These optically fine lenses already need updates!
  • 18-200mm II. Nothing to see here, move along. Oh, okay, one thing to see here: no more zoom creep during transport. Otherwise, it's the same lens as before. Doesn't deserve a II. More like a I.I.
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S VR II. Oh, the controversy! Nikon giveth and Nikon taketh. It giveth us far better optics on FX bodies, including but not limited to better corners, less vignetting, and even better central sharpness. But it taketh away magnification and focal length when used at close focus distances. Sorry, but after shooting with the lens a bit, I'm simply going to say it's a better lens than its predecessor. If you're shooting with only a DX body, it's not worth the upgrade because you never saw the corners of that lens. But if you're on an FX body and you value edge to edge performance, this lens is a must try. Just get a 12mm extension tube for close work ;~).



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