2011 News and Comments

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

Front-page articles from 2012 are here
Front-page articles from 2010 are here
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

Reminder: since October 2011, all news about mirrorless cameras, including the Nikon 1, is now posted on my other site, sansmirror.com: Mirrorless camera news.

Capture NX2 Update
Dec 21 (commentary)--A lot of comments coming back from folk who've downloaded the 64-bit update. First things first: if you use the Color Efex 3 plug-in with Capture NX2 you need the absolutely latest version of that (I believe that's 3.003); earlier versions won't work. Moreover, you can't use the Color Efex 3 plug-in if you're in 64-bit mode, you must be in 32-bit mode. As one reader wrote: "I guess the customer gets to pick faster or features." Why not both?

The fact that we don't have coordinated schedules from Nik and Nikon seems to indicate that this relationship isn't exactly solid. Nik says that changes would have to be made to the plug-in capability to get Color Efex 4 to work, and that they've discussed this with Nikon but there's no timeframe on when anything might happen. That's a shame, as the promise of plug-ins never really materialized in Capture NX2 other than Color Efex Pro, and now even that is broken.

Mac users can switch Capture NX2 to 32-bit/64-bit mode by using Get Info and changing the way it operates there.

Windows users must install the new Capture NX2 as a 32-bit application if they want to use Color Efex 3.

All this is not optimal, of course, but at least you can make the new Capture NX2 work with Color Efex 3, albeit with awkward workflow (Thom repeats for the 4,237,915th time: the camera makers need to get real about workflow--disruptions there cause us more grief than anything else).

I also have reports that infrared-converted NEFs are not showing up in the new version.

Which opens up another repeated complaint: when the Capture NX2 user finds that a new bug makes them want to revert to their previously more stable version, guess what? Yep, they end up using one of their Product Key credits to do so. Talk about double jeopardy for the user.

Stocking Stuffers (aka Software Updates)
Dec 20 (news)--The big news is Capture NX2 version 2.3 is out, and it's a major update. First, Capture NX2 now supports 64-bit versions of both the Mac and Windows operating systems, and this has given it a substantive speed boost. There's a new noise reduction type for night photos and an option for disabling full resolution JPEGs in NEFs. Plus lots of fixes for small problems and a few bigger ones (like a couple of known crashes). You'll find it on all the Nikon sites at this point, and it should show up in your Message Center updates now, too.

Adobe released Camera Raw 6.6 and Lightroom 3.6, both of which feature raw support for the Nikon J1 and V1 models. Plus there are new lens profiles and some bugs have been addressed.

DxO Labs released version 7.1 of Optics Pro with new camera support and many new lens modules. FotoMagico Pro 3.8.3 (Mac) adds some new output choices, including improved YouTube support. Neat Image 7.1 for Aperture (Mac) adds a number of performance optimizations. PhotoLine 17 adds a number of small features to this image processing program. Picasa for Mac 3.9 adds direct sharing to Google+, plus some new photo effects. HoudahGeo 3.0.1 (Mac) fixes a problem with connecting to Bluetooth GPSs. Vowl 1.3 (Mac) is now compatible with Lion. AKVIS NatureArt 4.0 allows you to add things to transparent areas, plus has a better fire effect. HDR Expose 2 has a new engine underneath to provide faster previews. Oloneo launched HDRengine 1.0 (Windows), which they claim is the fastest HDR rendering program, allowing real-time tone mapping.

In the IOS world, iLightningCam 1.2 captures lightning strikes on the iPhone 4S, using analysis of a video stream to grab lightning images. Silkscreen 1.1 allows you to see images you're working on with your Mac on your IOS device (works with Photoshop, Illustrator, or Fireworks). iStopMotion for iPad is Boinx Software's IOS version of a popular Mac product, and includes a companion app that allows you to use your iPhone as the camera. Pixel Blend is another of the "filter" apps that have become popular.

All that updating should keep you busy between now and January 6th, when I'll resume coverage.

More on Pixels
Dec 19 (commentary)--The increasing D800/D4 rumors and my commentary last week (Amateurs Need More Pixels, see below) produced a rash of emails (and posts on various forums). One thing I should reiterate: I wrote that "Nikon and Canon came to a similar conclusion," not "I believe that amateurs need more pixels."

In retrospect my thought process in that article was a bit difficult to follow, but I was trying to point out that the two biggest camera makers seem to have settled on a differentiation between the high-end pro camera and the next camera down in their lineup (which appeals more to enthusiasts, partly because of price). The headline wasn't a statement I was making, it was a deduction on my part of a statement the camera makers are about to make (and Canon has been making for awhile).

I've not changed my position on pixels. All else being equal (which isn't always the case) more pixels have some advantages over fewer. In the D3s/D3x duo, it's clear that we can pretty much take out the body in evaluating them: the body is absolutely equal (though frame rates are changed by the sensors used). It seems clear to me, though, that the sensors of the D3s and D3x aren't equal in some ways, thus, I've found less use for the advantages of the extra pixels of the D3x than I originally thought I would.

This was a surprise to me when I recently evaluated my use of the two cameras on assignments where I was carrying both: I shot more with the D3s than the D3x. That doesn't mean--as several of you seem to have concluded--that I didn't shoot with the D3x at all or find it didn't have advantages in some situations. It certainly did.

The thing I was trying to address in my article was what the camera makers--specifically Nikon and Canon--had concluded about pixels versus target customer. My conclusion: they think that the amateur/enthusiast will respond more to pixels, the professional more to low-level pixel integrity. Thus, we'll get more pixels in the lower cost bodies.

Does that mean no pro will buy a 36mp body? No, it doesn't (unless of course the camera makers botched the implementation ;~).

Dec 19 (commentary)--You might have noticed that I'm not making a separate predictions article this year. Part of that is that many of the predictions for this year got pushed out to next by a quake, tsunami, and flood.

Nikon recently admitted in Japanese interviews that the big launches they had planned for August 2011 were postponed due to all the disruption of plants and supply chains. Logistically, Nikon has had to completely rework all their non-China resources and manufacturing. Not some. All.

It makes me wonder if the Nikon 1 got changed in announce date to end up where it was so that Nikon had something to announce (though I predicted a "Coolerpix" that turned out to be remarkably like the Nikon 1--but I thought it would be announced earlier than it was).

Let me back up a bit. Nikon traditionally tries to trickle SLR/DSLR camera announcements so that no more than two occur at a time. They also prefer that at least two (and preferably more) months lapse between announcements of more than two cameras. A lot of that has to do with the inefficiencies of their global subsidiary system and getting marketing and support materials prepared and distributed worldwide. The tightest period they've ever achieved was in 2008 and 2009, when they managed to launch eight DSLRs in 22 months. That came to a screeching halt in 2010 with only two. But 2011 was supposed to be another at least four-launch period (we got two: D5100, Nikon 1). Indeed, Nikon's goal for 2011 was to try to wrest away the #1 market share in interchangeable lens cameras from Canon.

Three of the five interchangeable lens cameras I predicted Nikon to launch in 2011 never appeared. Two, the D4 and D800, were postponed and should launch in early 2012. The D400 I haven't heard a peep about since the Thailand floods, and given that Nikon doesn't expect the plant to be at full capacity again until the end of March and Nikon doesn't like to announce more than two cameras in a short window...well, the D400 or whatever ends up in the gap between the D7000 and D800 will be a bit longer in appearing, I think. And yes, to answer your question, there almost certainly will be something between the D7000 and D800. The price gap of US$1200 (D7000) to US$4000 (D800 est) is way too big and could be exploited by Canon and Sony. Even if the D800 comes in at a lower price than I estimate, there would still be a large gap. Nikon needs something in the US$2000-2500 range.

Likewise, the lens situation--at least lenses that get produced in Japan--isn't easing quickly, either. One source who works for another lens company in Japan says the entire industry is still trying to recover full operating capacity. The big glass seems the hardest hit (takes longer to cure and polish, for one thing).

So it's difficult to make useful longer-range predictions at the moment: even those in the industry aren't 100% sure when things will be 100% back to normal. What I do hear is this:

  • D4 and D800 are going to be announced soon (but I think separately, one in January, one in February), and probably will ship soon, too. Nikon Rumors' reports on specs of both cameras are close to what I'm hearing, so just stop by that site if you want more.
  • Lenses will continue to trickle out of Nikon, rather than in one bigger announcement.

Meanwhile, the reports of other new products to be launched is getting quite large. So just a general prediction here: between January and September we're going to see an onslaught of new products. Some of this is just natural updating (7DII, 5DIII, etc.). Some is late-to-the-game (Fujifilm mirrorless, Canon large sensor compact). Some is stuff pushed back by the big events (e.g. Nikon D4 and D800, but many more products). Some is previously announced stuff finally showing up in quantity (NEX-7 high on that list). Some is new opportunity (Pentax lens module for Ricoh GXR, for example). Some is product line expansion (Olympus m4/3 DSLR-style camera, Leica mirrorless model).

In short, 2012 is going to be a very busy year product-wise. So have a happy holiday and get ready for some fast and furious action in early 2012. See 'ya then.

Some New Articles for You Readers
Dec 13 (news)--I've posted my Nikon J1 review over on sansmirror.com. Here on bythom.com I've finally posted my long overdue "quick guide to finding JPEG settings" article I promised last month but life conspired to keep from actually getting to.

Amateurs Need More Pixels
Dec 11 (commentary)--I've been quiet about the upcoming DSLR offerings from Nikon, but it seems clear to me that Nikon and Canon came to a similar conclusion: Amateurs need more pixels, pros probably don't.

Sometime in early 2012 we're going to have the full FX body updates from both Canon and Nikon. In the case of the 5DII and D700 follow ups, there will be substantive pixel increases (the rumors put both in the 30's). In the case of the 1D and D3 follow ups: 16 to 18mp is enough. Canon has already said as much with their 1DX launch, and most of the D4 predictions (including mine for the past two years) say 18mp for it, as well (though Nikon Rumors now says 16.2mp).

Sony already seems to be there, with 24mp APS cameras already pushing pixel counts high for enthusiasts, with a 36mp FX sensor (and likely cameras) coming.

What gives? Why are we getting more amateur-oriented equipment that pushes the pixel counts up and up, but pro gear is being more modest?

Because enthusiasts are asking for it, mostly. I suspect that it is a combination of factors that come into play:

  • Crop happy. Amateurs tend not to get the image right at acquisition. They'll take the image and hope they can crop it to something satisfactory.
  • Overly ambitious. Enthusiasts think that if they take a great picture every once in awhile and can blow it up to a 36" print they can wave in their friends' faces, that their friends will now think they "professional."
  • Driven by marketing. 24 is better than 16, 36 is better than 18. More is always better in the marketing world, which apparently doesn't play much golf.
  • Obsession with testing. While I advocate everyone, even pros, test their equipment to know what it can and can't do, the enthusiast crowd has spawned sites and communities where testing is pretty much the sole pursuit. They get caught up in the details and miss the big picture.
  • Technology always moves on. This is related to some of the previous points, but there's an underlying sense that products that don't increase key metrics are somehow behind the technology curve. I thought the D3/D700 disproved that with their 12mp sensor magic, but the thought lives on in a lot of users.

Yes, my tongue is a bit in cheek here. As I often do, I'm exaggerating details a bit to make a point: Nikon and Canon clearly think of dedicated pros and serious enthusiasts differently. They've been prioritizing design decisions accordingly, and that includes sensor choices.

Personally, I use my 24mp D3x much less than I thought I would, and my 12mp D3s more than I thought I would. Both are fine cameras, but "more resolution" turns out to be less important to me than other factors at the pixel level, and to some degree, most pros seem to voice the same thoughts (though we always say "I wish I could have more resolution with the same underlying pixel tendencies.").

Just remember that with more pixels come more downstream issues: you'll need faster computers with more memory and a lot more storage to keep your digital darkroom performance at acceptable levels. Fortunately, that technology keeps moving forward, too.

Still, my living room wall didn't get bigger to accept bigger photos, and my HD TV is still just 1080P, so I'm not sure where I'm going to display all those new pixels we've got coming. Maybe the enthusiasts who keep pushing for them can tell me* ;~).

*Okay, more tongue in cheek here. More pixels isn't necessarily a bad thing, despite a lot of underlying issues that start to creep up: shot discipline, diffraction, overall light sensing area (due to more data/power lines), etc. Think of it as a higher "sampling rate" for the data, which tends to be a good thing in digital.

Future Shock
Dec 9 (commentary)--Earlier this week the CompactFlash Association announced the next generation of storage cards, the XQD. Again with the X. Last year would have been great for X, but this year is XI, after all. And if you take out the Q we have the failed XD card. The imagination is running thing in Japan this year, it seems.

But bad naming practices aren't what has a lot of you raising your eyebrows. The question is: is CompactFlash done?

The short answer is yes. Beyond the issue of bent pins, which has plagued CompactFlash from the beginning, the reality is that we need faster bandwidth everywhere. The old CompactFlash design has managed to push along further than everything thought in this regard without breaking anything, but the XQD (Ex-Cutie) basically builds off PCI Express, the spine of most current computer systems. You may remember that many computers had PCMCIA slots: that was typically direct to PCI bus connections. CF is based on that, but hasn't got to the same level of bandwidth as the bus is capable of.

The question is whether we truly need a new card or not. After all, SD cards have hit 96Mbps now and don't have bendable pin problems (and yes, those that don't believe this is a problem haven't seen the repair lists at a manufacturer making CompactFlash equipment--it's way up there on their list of common problems).

Here's the thing: now that CF and SD cards are ubiquitous and there are plenty of parties driving costs down and taking small profits, the major players would love to have something to reset prices and grab market share with. Their co-conspirators: probably some of the camera companies, who need some new "technology" to point to that they can say their competitors don't yet have.

So, sure, XQD will happen. Do we truly need it? Not any time soon.

Software Updates
Dec 9 (news)--All the software coders must be working hard to finish up things so they can take a long holiday, as the volume of new software and updates continues at an above average rate lately:

Tiffen DFX 3.0.5 adds support for a number of Sony cameras as well add some new minor controls and compatibility with the Avid video editing products. PictoColor released iCorrect Portrait 2.0, which makes it 64-bit compliant. Irridient RAW Developer bumps to version 1.9.3 with lots of new camera support, including the Nikon P7100 and Nikon 1 models. XRite ilProfiler 1.2 adds a bunch of new features to the calibration program. Exif Editor 1.0.1 (Mac only; App Store) adds support for new cameras, including several recent Nikon models. Apple updated Aperture to 3.2.2 to fix a problem with Photo Stream. iWatermark 1.1 adds iPhoto and Aperture integration to its ability to add a watermark to photos.

In the iPad world, we got Silkscreen 1.0, which is an interesting way to preview your image on an iOS device while working on it in Photoshop (Mac only; App Store). Big Lens was updated to add an HDR function to its faux tilt capabilities. Filterstorm Pro is another interesting product, as beyond the layering abilities in processing, it can batch process metadata and set up export destinations for images from the iPad. PiRAWnha is a raw file converter for the iPad. For those of you on the edge (that would be coastal locations, not mentally), TideTrac 1.0.1 is a useful free app for predicting tidal events in the US. FX Photo Studio is another in the long line of effects and filtering programs for the iPad.

And, just in case you missed the next story, Nikon issued a couple of firmware updates for Nikon 1 lenses. But I no longer report that type of thing here (usually): you can find the full details at my Web site for mirrorless cameras: sansmirror.com.

Wait is Nearly Over
Dec 7 (news)--
Today I'm happy to announce that I've taken the first step in redoing this Web site. Wait, nothing seems to have changed!

Yes, it has. Beginning today, you're going to find that bythom.com just became two Web sites (and those of you paying close attention to the new site will notice that there will be further bifurcation shortly). The new Web site is sansmirror.com, and that's now the home of all current and future news, commentary, reviews, and information I write about small system cameras. That includes the Nikon 1, the Olympus Pens, the Panasonic G's, the Samsung NXes, the Sony NEXes, and a number of other small systems cameras. For the time being, the site is headed "byThom sans Mirror" so that you know it's still me, but eventually this will just be "sans Mirror."

One of the issues I found when trying to revise this site is that it was sprawling, and rapidly. We're talking about hundreds of long-form articles and thousands of short-form ones. My interests in photography and high tech are wide and deep. Yours probably aren't. Moreover, your requests for even more articles and information from me dot a horizon from one end of tech to the other. Thus, more and more, people were having to wade through a lot of things they weren't interested in to find what they were.

Beyond that, everything needed at least a Web 2.0 makeover, if not Web 3.0. You'll note that sansmirror.com has RSS, social sharing, separate formatting from content, and a host of other modern features, which many of you have been asking for. Despite what it's actually produced in (Sandvox), the site content actually lives in a database, which makes it easier to maintain and expand.

If you're interested in compact systems cameras that aren't DSLRs, you'll want to check out sansmirror.com thoroughly and keep coming back to it, as it's now a live site that gets as much of my attention as this one. If you're not interested in such cameras, you can just ignore the site (though I'd strongly suggest you take a look--there's more going on with these cameras than you might think, and most DSLR users are going to want a competent compact system if they don't already have one.)

For the time being, I'm keeping the reviews and articles that have already appeared about mirrorless systems on bythom.com intact; I've removed nothing from the bythom.com site at the moment. But as I continue working on my Internet presence, these will eventually go away so that this site has a more clear focus.

So what else is in store? Obviously, a lot. I'll be rolling site changes out in manageable pieces for the foreseeable future. There's an awful lot left to do. As I finish a new piece, I'll announce it here (and on my Twitter/Google+ accounts). One thing you'll note with sansmirror.com is that there is new material there. Lots of it. Yes, I've been collecting and writing tons of new material for my entire Web presence, including this one. However, rather than rolling that into the now tired bones of this site, I've been keeping it for the rollout of the new sites and the complete re-do of this one.

To be clear, sansmirror.com will be where all news, reviews, commentary, and information about the Nikon 1, Olympus and Panasonic m4/3, Sony NEX, and a host of other small interchangeable lens cameras (Samsung NX, Ricoh GXR, Pentax Q, etc.) will be found in the future. You won't find those articles cluttering up bythom.com in the future.

I'll have additional announcements soon. Trust me, it should all make more sense when I've made the full set of changes to my Internet presence. You'll be able to drink from the fire hose (everything I write), or find the drinking fountain with the water you prefer (individual sites).

One thing that all this Internet rethink does allow is for me to consider adding other voices and contributors. Your continued support will help me do that, so please don't forget those Support this Site links.

Olympus E-P3 Review Posted
Dec 7 (news)--
For the time being, here's how I'll be handling things that used to appear on this site, but instead now appear on the sansmirror.com site: I'll provide an announcement here, as well as on my Google+ and Twitter accounts.

Olympus E-P3 Review on sansmirror.com.

Stop Overthinking
Dec 5 (commentary)--
It's that time of year again. My In Box piles up with people's tortured analysis of what they think they should buy and why. Just this morning I got one with an accompanying spreadsheet that integrated four or five different sources of information in an attempt to come up with a decision. Of course, the reason why the sender included me in on his little analysis was that he didn't like what the analysis revealed (or didn't reveal).

Camera makers love the fact that you're confused. Ironically, it makes it easier to distract you into buying something you actually won't like or need (i.e. make the wrong choice and have to buy again).

Part of the problem is that everyone is chasing "the perfect camera," something I've written about before. There is no such thing, so just stop trying to fudge data to prove that there is. There isn't even one camera that's necessarily just better than all the others after all analysis is done. The notion that there's "one winner" out of the hundreds of options available is also wrong.

For every "the D3s has the best sensor of any digital camera" statement you can come up with, I can come up with "the D3s is an expensive, heavy, and complex camera that works best with expensive, heavy, complex lenses" type of statements. Everything has pluses and minuses.

The trick in trying to decide what to ask for (or reward yourself with) this Christmas isn't to get lost in the details, but to truly understand what it is that's holding you back. It might not be equipment at all (e.g. ask for a workshop for Christmas, or a book explaining something you don't know perhaps). Low light problems are solved in multiple ways: bigger, better sensors, or faster lenses, or addition of light (flash).

So relax, folks. Don't over analyze. Instead, prioritize. What's the one thing that's keeping your photography from being better in 2012 than it was in 2011. The answer isn't likely "a D800" (or "a D4" or a "D400"). Those are things we want, not need.

I should also point out that most of my audience is looking at making choices that involve a system (FX, DX, m4/3, whatever mount you're interested in). Here things get more complicated, but can still be handled. Over time, things like sensors will change for the better. It's entirely appropriate to pick a system that you can grow into, even if all the elements you need aren't there today. Of course, you need to a pick a system that you guess will eventually have all those elements.

For example, m4/3 has a wide range of good lens choices with more appearing every day. I'm not worried about lens choice in m4/3. I'm also not worried about body choices: I've got more than enough already, and even though none is absolutely perfect, I can finesse that issue by buying two different bodies so that I have what I need when I need it. Sensors worry me a bit in m4/3, as I believe that the Panasonic sensors are lagging the Sony/Nikon sensors a bit, but time heals that wound.

Likewise, DX seems to have its foibles for most. Certainly not in the body, where we've got some great choices, both old and current. Sensors are great. But where are those lenses we really want? In the meantime, I can get my wide angle fix via a zoom instead of primes, but here, too, I suspect that time will heal the wound.

The thing you have to worry about are dead-end systems and ones that don't appear to be growing rapidly enough to provide all the goodies you'll eventually want. I hesitate to mention the Ricoh GXR, as I actually like that camera a lot, but as a system choice, you need to be absolutely sure that what's there and what's likely to come in the near future (only one more lensor, the 28-70mm APS), is enough to sustain you. Indeed the whole lensor thing (lens+sensor in a single module) is one of the things that should make you hesitate before picking up a GXR: you buy lenses locked with sensors. So you can't buy sensor today, lenses tomorrow, or lenses today and sensors tomorrow. It seems entirely likely that the 28mm 12mp APS lensor will be replaced by a 28mm 16mp APS lensor some day. In other words, it's not much of a "system," as you keep replacing much of what you've already got.

Your homework for today is simple: what's your photographic priority? What's the one thing, should you get it for Christmas, that will make you a better photographer with the rest of the stuff you already have. I'd guess that it's rare that the answer is "a completely new system."

Marketing Now
Dec 2 (commentary)--Now that I'm back home and can tell you what day and time it is, I've been catching up on some of the smaller bits and pieces I track, such as Nikon's marketing messages. I have to say, I'm a bit confused. Or perhaps it's Nikon that's confused.

The latest marketing messages are mostly centered around Nikon 1. As usual, here in the states we've got Ashton Kutcher hawking the thing, now both in TV ads and in print. Let me throw a few of the tag lines that Nikon seems to randomly throw out:

  • A Nikon the world has never seen...
  • Great pictures made easy
  • Revolutionary in size, design, and capabilities
  • A breakthrough in technology and design
  • Nikon revolutionizes imaging with Nikon 1
  • Focus that's as fast as you
  • Get the best of what's seen
  • Nikon 1 breaks visual barriers
  • Share a richer experience
  • Moments that deserve more
  • Huge is explosively fast
  • Huge is a still photo that's set in motion
  • Huge is shooting full HD video and stills simultaneously
  • Huge is a Nikon the world has never seen and it happens to be very very small
  • Small is now huge

That's a lot of tag lines, and I've barely scratched the surface. Moreover, there are some glaring issues with how these statements are used. For example, in the brochure that's nearly ubiquitous, the words "...and it happens to be very, very small" are followed by "10.1 megapixels" and "3-inch LCD monitor." Yeah, that sounds small.

Personally, I fail to see the focus (pardon the pun). There's an implied "get Nikon DSLR quality and performance in a friendly, small package," but no explicit statement of that. Moreover, even that implication is highly indirect. If the target is compact camera users moving up, the message should be "we've made small cameras way better. The Nikon 1 is as small as some compact cameras, but it takes better pictures (bigger sensor), focuses faster, creates better video, has lens flexibility, and does things no other camera does (Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector). You might not need a DSLR (but if you do, we make the best of those, too)."

What I see in the Nikon 1 campaign is an attempt to not mention DSLRs. Nikon seems afraid of the "we took the performance of our DSLRs and put it into a small package" message, perhaps because they're afraid they'll stop selling DSLRs. I'm not sure why they'd be afraid of that. The gross profit margin on a V1 has to be higher than that of the D3100 and D5100. Moreover, if you're going to sell Coolpix, Nikon 1, Nikon DX DSLRs, and Nikon FX DSLRs, then at some point you have to tell customers why you have four lines of cameras and which one they should pick for what reasons.

Unfortunately, Nikon doesn't yet have that message figured out themselves. The product line has some very disjointed bits to it: the Coolpix P300 and P7100 have a higher level of user interface and a lower level of performance than the Nikon 1. The D3100 has weaker autofocus and video capabilities than the Nikon 1. In short, not only are the marketing messages all over the place, so is the current product line.

One wonders just what kind of powerhouse Nikon would be if they could just put all these pieces together into a coherent, complete, and compelling product and message set.

Marketing Two Years Later
Dec 2 (news and commentary)--
Nikon finally appears to be getting around to trying to tell the world why a projector in a camera is a good thing. This week they launched a Coolpix Picture Book Web site to tell the world what to do with a Coolpix S1200pj. Short version: create it, project it. Complete with exclamation points, just in case you missed what was so exciting about the idea.

No New News
Dec 2 (commentary)--
The news stories that appeared this week on many sites concerning Nikon's resumption of camera building in Thailand are basically due Nikon's releasing an official statement. There wasn't really anything in that press release that wasn't already known and reported here earlier other than the the projected loss of sales due to the flooding.

As I reported last month, Nikon resumed some DX DSLR and lens production at a temporary plant in Thailand and has begun work on restoring the main plant, which should begin building cameras and lenses again in January and be at full capacity again by the end of March.

In terms of DX DSLRs, it appears that D3100 inventory is meeting demand. NikonUSA seems to be delivering D5100 bodies of late, though supply of that camera is slightly restrained. The camera that's in short supply is the D7000--most dealers I talk to report not getting their full orders of this item in the past month, but are getting some. The D300s appears to be completely out of stock and not in production; I've heard no reports of D300s bodies being delivered from NikonUSA recently.

That's likely to remain true through the end of the year: D3100 will remain available, D5100 will be a little tight, D7000 will be very tight, and D300s will be MIA. DX lenses seem to be in slightly better shape at the moment, but we could see some tightness in supply there, too.

At this point I don't expect any new DX products from Nikon before March or April of 2012, though there is one lens that was about to be launched at the time of the flood who's status is now unknown.

SB-900 RIP, SB-910 To the Rescue
Nov 29 (news and commentary)--
Nikon today replaced the SB-900 with the SB-910. The primary change? Instead of shutting down when thermally challenged, the new version will slow down instead. Other changes include replacing the Zoom button with a Menu button, and the addition of two hard plastic fllters instead of gel. The plastic casing has been ever so slightly reshaped, but I don't see this as as a meaningful change--the new flash is still as big and bulky as its predecessor. Nikon also changed the LCD, which they describe as an improvement, though in early press photos it seems less contrasty (perhaps due to the use of backlighting).

Despite those minor changes, Nikon's press release used more than a dozen over-the-top adjectives ("revolutionary", "exceptional", and even "enhanced"). For what's essentially a minor point release update, the press release instead gushes like it was boilerplated out of the SB-900 release. Nikon could have simply written: "In response to user demand, we've made three small changes to create an SB-910 that should provide a better flash experience for everyone." Then outline the changes. Instead, the changes are buried in the details that are the same for the SB-910 as they are for the SB-900, leaving it to Web sites like this one to try to ferret out what changed.

The button change is going to please most, as the flash is a little quicker and straight forward to set up now. The filter change is welcome, as gels have a habit of getting unusable quickly. It's the thermal protection change that most will be looking at the closest, though. Like the SB-900, you can turn it off (at your own risk). But "slowing down" is not going to prove satisfactory to the shooter that's pressing their Speedlight to the max, I think. In an absolute sense, slowing down is better than shutting down. But it still likely means you'll miss shots. It's a shame Nikon didn't use their own patent for head cooling techniques, which would be a more welcome approach.

Tax Update
Nov 29 (commentary)--
The next article provoked a lot of responses, not a single one of them supportive of Adobe's decision. Some of the highlights:

  • Things can be worse overseas, where Adobe prices higher than the conversion rate in many areas.
  • High prices with restrictive update policies may provoke more piracy. Personally, I don't think any pricing or policy justifies piracy. What it justifies is finding an alternative. Photoshop is not a monopoly.
  • The primary things that bring photographers to Photoshop appear to be speed, layers, plug-ins, and color management.
  • Other alternatives that were mentioned a lot:
    • PhotoLine, a simple Euro$59 program out of Europe.
    • GIMP, the free open source alternative that originally appeared for Linux but now has Mac and Windows builds. Still a bit geeky and rough on the edges for some, but performance wise it's fine.
    • Pixlr is a free cloud-based Photoshop look alike, complete with layers. Haven't really tried it much myself, but it looks promising.

Congress Can't Raise Taxes, But Adobe Can
Nov 27 (commentary)--
I get it. Adobe wants to move to a subscription model where everyone is on the current version. There's only one problem: ultimately, their pricing is too high to justify mass consumption and those users balk at the subscription model due to cost.

What am I complaining about now? Adobe recently decided to change their update policies for their major products: you can only get upgrade pricing if you have the most recent full point release (i.e., to get next year's CS6 as an upgrade you'll need to have CS5 or CS5.5). With Adobe approaching a one year update cycle, this means you'll need to pony up an upgrade fee of hundreds of dollars at least every two years, or else be forced to buy Adobe products at list price when you do upgrade.

The question all Photoshop users ask--which includes plenty of photographers--is how often do you really have to update and what's that cost going to be? Adobe's answer is basically now "give us US$100 to US$200 a year." Of course, they do offer specials from time to time, like the 30% off for Black Friday they announced just following their update policy change. Should you miss an update, though, Adobe will now be happy to essentially charge you for the update you skipped. Net result: a faux subscription model.

Other net result: business opportunity for competing companies. Mac users have the very good and low cost Photoshop-like Pixelmator, which has the whopping price of US$49 (intro and special offers get that to US$29). Expect more such choices to appear the harder Adobe tries to extract a yearly tithe from us. If you've got Aperture or Lightroom (and you should have one or the other), the primary thing Photoshop gives you is pixel-level editing and layering/masking. Thus, those of you balking at the update change need to start looking at products that give you those things you don't want to pay the Adobe tax for. I've already mentioned Pixelmator on the Mac. My usual recommendation on the Windows side is to look at Picture Window. It's not a direct Photoshop replacement as it tackles pixel-level changes in a different manner, but there's not a lot you'd need Photoshop for if you have Aperture or Lightroom plus something like Pixelmator or Picture Window.

Of course, one thing that locks a lot of us into Photoshop is our use of plug-ins (advanced layering, especially with Smart Objects, is another one). Worse still, the plug-ins themselves tend to need upgrading with major Adobe releases.

As much money as we have in our acquisition system (camera and lenses), the downstream system can be a larger investment. Even back in the early days of personal computers, I noted that people eventually spent far more on software, support, and output than they did on the computer itself. Consider this:

  • Yearly implied update to keep Lightroom/Aperture and Photoshop up to date: US$200-300
  • Plug-in Suites costs averaged to yearly: US$100 a suite

So, if you've got Lightroom, Photoshop, two plug-in suites, Capture NX2, and maybe another two or three software programs, the likely ongoing yearly investment for you is likely to be something on the order of US$500 or more to just stay current. That's on top of the US$1600 or so that you spent in the first place (I'm being kind and have you shopping on sales).

Who says film and processing were more expensive?

Don't get me wrong. I'm a computer geek at heart, so I have a high-end computer and a massive suite of software tools at hand to deal with virtually any pixel problem or technique I want to handle. I've willingly paid my Adobe tax, my Nik tax, my OnOne tax, my...well, you get the idea. Still, had I spent so much on the back end during the film era, my darkroom would have had a hand-carved slate counter, black carbon fiber walls, a ceiling mount titanium enlarger with an automated film/paper loading and holding system, fresh water imported from a distant glacier, and an air filtration system that the CDC would be jealous of.

Adobe needs a bit more user focus here. Scott Kelby wrote a thoughtful and intelligent response on his blog last week, and it shows that it wouldn't take much change in attitude on Adobe's part to institute a policy like the one-revision update in a better and more user-friendly fashion than they did. Here's the thing: every time you do something that pisses off your existing and loyal customer you make it easier for that customer to go somewhere else if something even remotely equivalent comes along. I've watched software company after software company make that mistake, some more than once. Just this year I've abandoned two tools I've used for years for that very reason. In doing so, I lowered my software taxes.

Samyang 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye
Nov 27
The Samyang 8mm f/3.5 fisheye for the F mount has been updated to include the necessary electronics to provide exposure information on all Nikon DSLR models.

Software Catchup
Nov 20 (news)--
Lots of software has iterated while I've been attending to other things, including getting my roof fixed.

Phase One released Capture One 6.3.2, which improves color and noise defaults for some cameras and adds a few more models to the supported list. Graphic Converter 7.4.1 (Mac only) adds reverse geocoding plus some other new functions. Adobe has released Photoshop Elements 10 as a Mac App Store application, which has (good) implications for multiple machine users. Apple updated OS-X, Aperture 3, and iPhoto 11 to support a number of new cameras, including the Nikon 1 models and all of the recent Olympus PENs and Sony NEXes.

Nikon has been busy iOS beavers, updating the myPictureTown Pad application to version 1.01 and adding support for the Nikon 1 special features. Nikon's iP-PJ Transfer App (just who is naming these things?) is a new free program that enables you to use a Coolpix S1200pj compact camera as a projector for your iPhone or iPod Touch. Finally, Nikon ViewNX is iterated to version 2.2.3, which fixes some small issues.

DxO Labs released Film Pack 3.1, which emulates various film stocks. PhotoStyler 6.0 (Mac only) adds new filters, a perspective took, and much more.

The "real time photography on an iPad" duo of Shuttersnitch and Eye-Fi cards have been updated. Shuttersnitch goes to version 2.1.8 to fix location bugs and adds a Tweet option. Eye-Fi firmware goes to version 4.5174 to add support for Samsung raw files and improve the wireless compatibility. The Eye-Fi Center application that sits on your computer also gets an update to version 3.4.23, which also fixes a few bugs.

The End is Near(er)
Nov 20 updated (commentary)--
After selling off the digital sensor business and shopping the photography patents, Kodak is now shopping their image gallery software and shutting down some more of their film production and packaging options (several 120 black and white stocks are no longer available in single rolls, as well as stocking units of a few of their 35mm films; Elite Chrome is going away). Given that they've also stated that they're scaling back their digital camera division, you have to wonder how much longer that there will be a Kodak name on anything that's directly photographic in nature.

Kodak's new marketing slogan? "We're like Xerox, only smaller, less profitable, and more poorly managed."

Bumpy Ride Ahead
Nov 10 (news)--
My apologies. The last month has been a whirlwind of unexpected problems and issues popping up, including our freak snow storm and resulting multi-day power outage. As a result, I'm behind where I thought I was going to be and won't catch up for awhile. Thus, this site and my email responses will suffer a bit until sometime around Thanksgiving as I deal with a bunch of things I wasn't expecting to. I had promised some articles on color this week, but they'll be postponed a bit as I take care of other business.

The good news is that I have some big surprises in store (now for after Thanksgiving, I think) once I can get the other things that come up taken care of. But until then, this site will have fewer updates than usual, unfortunately. Again, my apologies, but sometimes you have to get through a squall or two to get to clear sailing.

Nikon Updates
Nov 11 updated (news)--
Nikon introduced a couple of important updates this week: View NX2 2.2.3 fixes a couple of bugs. Firmware 1.03 for the D7000 and 1.01 for the D5100 also fix bugs. Nikon also issued version 1.12.0 of the Windows NEF Codec to support 64-bit Vista/7 and Nikon 1 files.

Not a Good Day for Photography Companies
Nov 7 (news)--
Kodak today sold its sensor business to a company that buys distressed assets, Platinum Equity. The amount of sale was not disclosed, but Kodak last week was looking for US$500 million in financing in order to continue operations. Ironically, Kodak announced some new CCDs today (e.g., 16mp full frame with some unique properties) but that news got buried by the sale announcement.

Meanwhile, the Olympus scandal took a dark, nasty twist when the company today announced that the US$1.3 billion in deals that were challenged by the new and now former CEO were actually the result of funneling money to cover losses on security investments the company had made as much as 20 years ago. Essentially, Olympus has now admitted that they made false entries that cover an almost 20-year accounting period, which is simply stunning, both in size and scope. The stock immediately plummetted further--now losing almost 70% its value from before the scandal started to unfold--putting Olympus into the possibility of being delisted on the Nikkei, or at least suspended for trading.

One very real issue for Olympus is whether there is anyone in higher management that can now escape blame. If this was done with board knowledge, that's bad. If it was done without board knowledge, that's worse. The way Japanese company boards are made is almost exclusively from inside executives, including the current CEO (third this month), who was on the board when these deals were done.

Bottom line: two of photography's long-term players are in dire straits at the moment.

Quality Control
Nov 7 (commentary)--
Both a blessing and a curse of the Internet is that quality control issues for products are easier to see than pre-Internet. It's a blessing in that the ease with which you can search coupled with the high visibility of postings on some social sites gives you rapid access to "my X doesn't Y" type of complaints.

The curse is that, when you've got a company like Nikon selling almost 20 million widgets a year, there's bound to be some products that slip through the quality control cracks and arrive in a user's hands with defects. Indeed, the common benchmark that most manufacturing companies shoot for is something the single digits, say 5% out-of-box defects. Given that this would mean Nikon produces 1 million units a year with problems out of the box, and that most of those buyers are Internet savvy, it's easy to see that you'd get a lot of quality complaints on the net.

The trick, of course, is figuring out what in your search results and forum browsing constitutes a real problem you should watch out for and what are probably more isolated incidents you're not likely to encounter. One thing to note, of those presumed 5% bad out-of-box experiences, some of them are not actually a problem, but user error or misunderstanding. For example, a lot of focus issues turn out to be misunderstandings of how a new focus system works.

Let me point out just a few of the Nikon quality control complaints I've seen in the past two years:

  • D3x viewfinders are misaligned to the sensor
  • D3s low light autofocus freezes
  • Color LCD or Top LCD show water behind it in high humidity
  • SB-900 overheats and shuts down
  • Dead Battery Syndrome with some camera/lens combinations
  • 70-200mm has flecks inside barrel
  • 70-200mm has defective ring inside barrel
  • 24mm f/1.4 has focus inconsistency issues
  • plus numerous Lens X is "not sharp" and "back/front focuses" complaints

FWIW, the first five on the list I've personally encountered. The first was fixed by swapping out the body for a new one by my dealer, the second is still under investigation but appears to be a common trait in certain low-light and low-contrast situations, the third is a clear DESIGN defect in recent Nikon bodies, the fourth is another design defect (the SB-700 doesn't shut down under the same stress pattern), and the fifth appears to be a conflict in a third-party lens.

The reason I point these things out is that one needs to distinguish between a manufacturing problem (product you received wasn't made to Nikon's QC goals during manufacturing) versus a design problem (all products were made with the same underlying issue). If you know which you're dealing with, your action should be pretty straightforward:

  • Manufacturing defects: either have your dealer swap out the copy you bought for a new one, or have Nikon fix it under warranty.
  • Design defects: return the product for credit if you can, or learn to live with the defect, or wait for Nikon to come up with a repair solution for the defect (which may be never).

Take that Color LCD and Top LCD issue, for instance. In high humidity situations, especially where you're going in and out of extremes, I've seen isolated case where one or both displays "cloud up" because moisture got behind the protective glass. Simply put, Nikon needs to seal the displays better. But there's not much that sending the camera into Nikon will do for you: they can remove excess moisture and remount the glass, but it's almost certain you'll have a recurrence down the line if you shoot in high humidity situations. So you either return the product for credit or learn to live with the issue (and figure out how to best avoid it when possible). And you hope that Nikon comes up with a solution some day (it's four years and counting, so I'm not holding my breath).

Issue #1: There is no mechanism by which users can complain about or even comment on design issues like this. In theory, the subsidiaries are supposed to collect such information anecdotally and pass it back to corporate, but given that many of the design issues I've seen persist, either that information isn't getting back to corporate or they're ignoring it. Worse still, there's generally a "deny until proven" element to the support at most of the Japanese companies. I talked with one NikonUSA representative who denies there is any condensation issue with the LCDs. Perhaps I'll drag him down to a swamp in Louisiana and see what happens with his camera ;~).

One piece of good news is that Nikon has a pretty good history of fixing real design problems when they become aware of them. But the question is still: how are they becoming aware of them? Why aren't they being caught prior to production? The answer to that question is: not enough time. Even the pro cameras with their major component and technology changes are iterating on four year cycles, which is relatively fast considering all the technology changes inside. You basically have some of the most complex products in the world being redesigned from almost scratch every four years. Even the auto industry has had problems with that.

Okay, then why doesn't Nikon know about some things that more than one user has encountered more than once? Well, they don't listen well (or perhaps a better phrasing: they listen selectively). As I noted, all the things I mentioned above and many more are highly visible to someone who knows how to do a Web search with any degree of sophistication. So why isn't Nikon seeing them and responding quickly? I hate to harp on the same subject too many times (I try restrict myself to once every couple of weeks if possible ;~), but it's mostly the result of the structure and incentives that Nikon Japan has set up. You can't find gold (or mold) if you don't look for it.

Couple that with the Japanese reticence to admit a problem or failure, and we have an additional issue to deal with. Last year's Toyota debacle is a good example. Clearly, Toyota knew they had some issues. But the purchaser of their vehicles never learned about them (nor the government agencies, apparently). It took a high degree of user chatter and actual data that could no longer be ignored to get Toyota to admit to problems and fast track fixes. In something like a camera or computer, which aren't likely to kill you if they're defective and don't have direct governmental oversight, fixes tend to get quietly put into future revisions of the product, what we in the business call Silent Updates.

Nikon is well known to do this. Even back in the film days, cameras like the F4 got Silent Updates: eight that I know of. This continues today, and some companies even do Silent Firmware Updates (firmware labeled the same externally, but with something different in the binaries). Thus, sometimes things get fixed in our cameras and users don't know about it, which means that those that had the problem prior to the Silent Update probably never get it (they often do, without knowing about it, if the product goes back to the maker to be repaired or serviced after the Silent Update is available).

All of which makes writing about product defects, whether of the manufacturing kind or the design kind, difficult. Nikon could have fixed the condensation problem on the LCDs and I might not know about it, as the fix could have been silent and come after my D3s and D3x were made.

But what I mostly wanted to write about today isn't product defects, but manufacturing defects. I get a regular stream of emails that go something like this: "I just bought an X and it doesn't seem to do as well at Y as I've seen others get from it. Do I have a defective sample? Should I return it?"

Short answer: yes, you probably should return it. At least once you've established it isn't user error or a misconception on your part. In the recent past, it appears that returning and getting a replacement is a faster and more reliable way of dealing with a manufacturing defect than sending the product into Nikon for repair. Given that Nikon's repair facilities do the same QA testing that the manufacturing plant does, if it got past the manufacturing plant, there's a good chance that it'll get by the Nikon repair facility, too. I've heard far too many reports of something sent in for repair and it coming back with "it works fine" when in the end it turns out it doesn't. If you do use the repair route instead of the replacement route, be sure to document, document, document. As in "doing X reliably and repeatedly produces incorrect behavior Y," complete with image samples to support that.

Issue #2: Nikon, like most manufacturers, would love to reduce their repair/replace rates by some percentage, because it reduces costs, so they don't make it particularly easy or well known on how to deal with a problem that occurs. It's not like with Apple, where you can walk into an Apple store and have a well-trained repair expert take a close look and make a quick repair/replace decision and you typically walk home with a working product. A good Nikon dealer will do swap-outs without much question, but that, too is hampered sometimes by Nikon's inability to keep products in stock. If you buy a D3s today, for example, your dealer may not have another to swap out for a defective one should you find that's what you've got.

The reason why I'm writing about manufacturing quality control right now has to do with what's happened this year in Japan and Thailand. I keep getting emails from people asking if they should be leery of post quake (FX bodies and many lenses) or post flood (DX bodies and lenses) products from Nikon. My answer might surprise you: no, you shouldn't worry.

One thing Nikon has been very good at over the years is having a fairly high degree of control over product quality. They've been able to start new facilities and establish their same basic high level of control from day one. That's exactly what's going to happen in Thailand when they restart (and has already happened in Japan): damaged facilities are redone, so they are essentially just like starting up another new factory. Nikon's record with that is excellent. I really don't expect more manufacturing defects just because they build products in a new plant or a redone plant, whether it be with new or existing workers. If anything, the manufacturing defect rate might go down, because Nikon is going to be looking for issues harder than usual.

Of course, that doesn't help us with design defects.

Financially Speaking
Nov 4 (news and commentary
)--As expected, Nikon's first half year results announced today showed strong gains in sales (22%) and income (375%) over the first half of last year.

The Imaging division sold 2.73 million DSLRs (1.9m a year ago), 3.93 million lenses (2.95m a year ago), and 7.86m Coolpix (6.7m a year ago). Sales were up 15% and income 76% in the group.

The big news was that Nikon expects to restart DSLR production in December at alternative facilities and hopes to gradually begin restoring the flooded Thailand facility to operation in January (full scale production in March). The net negative impact on sales of the Thailand flooding is expected to be US$833 million. Given this and other factors, Nikon has revised downward their full fiscal year estimates. Instead of 5.4m DSLRs/ILCs, they predict they'll sell 4.7m for the full year (that's still up from last year by almost 10%, and represents 31% of the market). Lenses also take a hit, with the new estimate 6.7m instead of 7.6m, probably because a lot of those are DX lenses made in Thailand. Meanwhile, Coolpix production, which wasn't impacted by the flooding is expected to hit 16m for the year, an 8% increase in a market that shrinks 7% during the year.

Overall, Nikon said they did not expect to get back to "full" DSLR production until April 2012.

We can now make better guesses via the figures Nikon presented as to just how integral the DSLR sales were to the unit and how they thought they were going to reach their stated goals in market share. With the Nikon 1 added into the "DSLR" numbers now, we see a slip from mid-30 percent market share to low-30 percents during the Thailand factory downtime. The numbers are a little murky, but it appears that Nikon was targeting the Nikon 1 to take up about 15% of their "DSLR" unit sales without cannibalizing them (e.g., adding the Nikon 1 would boost unit volume by 15% or so).

Meanwhile, news out of other camera companies is not so good. Panasonic is still losing money on cameras (though just how much and how is unclear from the numbers they released). Sony doesn't break out a lot of numbers from cameras, but one that they did, compact cameras, shows just how well Nikon is actually doing. Sony is predicting compact sales dropping 4% to 23m units while Nikon is predicting compact sales increasing 8% to 16m units (in an overall market of 100m units). Sony is also hedging currency at a different rate than Nikon in the coming six months: 77 yen instead of Nikon's 75 yen to the dollar, which seems risky (today the yen is at 78 to the dollar).

As if that weren't enough, Kodak is now saying that unless they sell their patent portfolio or get additional loans, they may not have enough cash to continue business going forward.

Ya Shoulda Been in Movies
Nov 4 (news and commentary
)--Quite some time ago I suggested that Nikon needed to produce a video-only camera, what I called the V1. Nikon did produce a V1 and it does do remarkably good video, but it isn't a video-only camera.

Canon, meanwhile, got the message: today they announced Cinema EOS and the first of what are likely to be multiple large sensor video cameras based on their existing lens mount (you can get it in PL mount, too). The result looks a bit like some alien tinkerer hacked up an EOS 1D, but it's most definitely a video camera, not a hybrid still/video camera. Almost exactly what I suggested Nikon do (it's missing a higher than 1080P format, though).

Meanwhile, RED finally announced Scarlet is shipping. So here we have two high-end and highly anticipated large sensor video cameras and they come in Canon or PL lens mounts. Hollywood's love for F-mount lenses is coming to an end, apparently, and it isn't Hollywood's fault.

A Year to Forget
Nov 1 (commentary
)--On Friday Nikon will release their first half fiscal year results, and I expect it to be a very interesting and confusing report. On the one hand, I believe they'll announce record results for the first half and point to strong sales across the board.

On the other hand, this has not been a great year for Nikon imaging, despite sales numbers: (1) they under anticipated demand in DSLR body and lens sales and have had long-lasting and persistent outages of key products; (2) the Sendai quake shook up more than the factory floor--it disrupted the whole FX body transition; and (3) the Thailand flood has now submerged the DX body lineup and probably two important upcoming models there, too. Demand for Nikon DSLR product is at an all time high. Nikon's ability to produce it is at an all time low. And it's not just Nikon: many of their parts suppliers are co-located, so have suffered through the same disasters. For example, Sony hasn't said what sensors were produced at their flooded Thailand plant, but given their actions, I wouldn't be surprised if it was sensors that they and Nikon use in DSLRs.

NikonUSA at this point appears to have cancelled all holiday promotions in the DSLR range. Traditionally, Black Friday later this month has been the start of a period in which Nikon aggressively markets DSLRs. Probably not this year (and Sony is in the same boat). Canon, meanwhile, appears to have realized that they might have a temporarily advantage here, so expect them to ramp up their late year promotions.

For Nikon DSLR enthusiasts--which includes most of you reading this story--it's already been a meager year at best: D5100, 40mm DX, 50mm f/1.8G. 2010 wasn't exactly a hot year for new Nikon gear either (2 DSLRs, 9 lenses), but 2011 has proven (so far) to be almost forgettable in terms of product.

I still expect to see new product announced, maybe even before the end of the year. Basically, Nikon will likely announce things just as soon as they have a real handle on when full production would begin on an item and stock would reach users. We may see a trickle of announcements for lenses and perhaps a body announcement later this year. Perhaps we'll get a better general idea about that in this week's financials press conference, though I doubt Nikon will say anything about specific products. Whatever does get to stores between now and the end of the year is likely to sell out and be in short supply for some time, though.

It hasn't been all that great a year for me, either. While I was traveling this fall the byThom offices have been flooded twice, and now that I am home I've been treated to a three-day power outage (due to the unusual October snow storm). So I'm with Nikon on this one: let's just work our way through with all the problems 2011 presented us and just gear up for a better 2012. 2011 turned out to be a real trick. Hopefully 2012 will be a real treat.

A Plethora of Software
Nov 1 (news
)--A lot of new or updated software dropped in the last week, so pay close attention.

Starting with the big stuff: Phase One released version 1.1 of Media Pro, their image cataloging program. It has faster imports, a new raw rendering option, improved integration with Capture One, plus catches up on raw support for a lot of recent cameras.

OnOne released Perfect Suite 6.0. Four new products are aboard: Perfect Portrait 1, Perfect Layers 2, Perfect Effects 3, and Perfect Mask 5. The Perfect Resize 7, FocalPoint 2, and PhotoFrame 4.6 parts are still there, too. This is a major rework of one of the three plug-in suites I consider part of my essential extended software toolkit, but it also works as a standalone product, too. Many of the bits now work as Smart Filters in Photoshop, which is another welcome touch.

On the Mac-only side, Apple released Aperture 3.2.1, a maintenance release that addresses quite a few small issues. Likewise, iPhoto 9.2.1 does the same. Meanwhile, Pixelmator, the best of the Photoshop clones, took a big leap forward to version 2.0, adding vector tools, a healing tool, content aware fill, burn/dodge tools, and a host of other things that make it seem more and more like a solid Photoshop alternative.

Silkypix Developer Studio version (and Pro version gets some added raw support, mostly for the latest Sony cameras. Alien Skin introduced Blow Up 3.0, which is now compatible with Lightroom. AKVIS Chameleon 7.5 gets a host of small changes, including Mac Lion support. Retrographer is a new Photoshop plug-in trying to bank on the latest vintage retouching fad.

In the tablet/phone realm we have Camera- 1.0, yet another iOS camera app on steroids. Snapseed 1.3 adds new language support and two new filters. Camera Multi-Lens is an odd contraption that tries to give you DSLR-like "lens choices" on your iOS device. Camera Gloss HD has--and I have to quote here because I can't make these things up--"a built in Gloss filter to take professional looking photos."

Meanwhile, you Android folk might be interested in Lapse It, a time lapse application for Android devices.

Finally, Adobe Carousel, the subscription-based photo syncing product announced at Photoshop World in September, is now live for iOS and Mac users. Windows and Android users will have to wait until 2012.

Nikon Sued Over Sensors
(news)--Intellectual Partners, the patent aggregating entity backed by former Microsoftee Nathan Myhrvold, has sued Nikon over touchscreen, sensor, and virtual reality patents. The two sensor patents are a 2000 Motorola patent (US6,221,686) and a Hynix 2002 patent (US6,979,587). Canon was earlier sued over these same patents (plus others). The Hynix patent has to do with supressing dark current, the Motorola patent has to do with the light efficiency of a CMOS sensor.

Zeiss 25mm f/2
(news)--Zeiss has introduced a new 25mm Distagon lens, this time f/2. This manual focus lens is "chipped" (ZF.2) so exposure meters in all Nikon DSLRs will work; you don't need to have a camera that has a Non-CPU Lens Data function. Filter size is 67mm, and close focus point is a bit under 10" (0.25m). The lens should be available by the end of the year.

Good News?
(news)--I received word this morning that Nikon Thailand has rented new space in an area just outside Bangkok and has asked workers to return to work next week. That doesn't necessarily mean quick resumption of production, nor is the entire area exactly free of water, which makes transport of both workers and goods problematic, but it does seem to indicate that Nikon is being highly proactive in getting things restarted. I'm sure all of us wish Nikon and Thailand the best of luck in getting back to some form of normalcy.

Touchfire for iPad
(news)--I generally don't do this (disclosure: the inventor of this product and I worked together at one of the seminal Silicon Valley startups), but I know enough of you have opted for iPads and you'll see me doing more coverage of the photographic aspects of that product in the future, so...

Touchfire is a clear overlay that makes the on-screen iPad keyboard feel like a real keyboard. I don't know how to say it any simpler. At one ounce and iPad Smart Cover friendly, it's sort of a no-brainer if you do any significant typing on an iPad, as you don't need to add an external keyboard to your kit. The screen area is still visible and active underneath the transparent plastic that provides you the tactile feedback, and you can easily flip away the Touchfire if you need to.

We're slowly getting photography software on the iPad that takes advantage of keyboard access. For example, imagine a scenario where you're in the field and you've imported the contents of your SD card directly into your iPad, at which point you use a Lightroom Lite type of application to do your edits and entry of your metadata. A keyboard would be a big help in that instance, but it sort of defeats the purpose of going light with an iPad if you end up with an external keyboard that makes the combination as big as a MacBook Air. Thus, I can see the Touchfire's utility being of interest to us photographers soon.

Since it's currently a Kickstarter project, the Touchfire is not yet available, but I have little doubts it will jump over it's low funding barrier and become real, very soon. If you want to be an early adopter, you can check out the story at touchfire.com and sign up for one of the very first units (US$45).

As I wrote, I don't usually step outside of a narrow set of boundaries in terms of product coverage, let alone one with a potential conflict of interest. I always disclose when I do, as I am here. The inventor and I go way back, and we've had discussions about missing software products that we may yet just act on. I'd love to see Steve go over the top of his Kickstarter campaign, mainly because I want to get my own Touchfire sooner rather than later.

Flood Update
(news)--Nikon issued a second press release about the flooding situation at their Thailand plant. The gist is this: Nikon is looking into ordering of new equipment and possibly moving manufacturing of some products to other facilities while waiting to learn more about the fate of their flooded facility.

Software Updates
Oct 24
PhotoSweeper is a new Mac program that finds duplicate images. Available for US$5.99 in the App Store. TouchRetouch 3.0 is now available for Android devices, and adds removal of objects, a new user interface, faster performance, support for full-resolution images, and a clone stamp.

Picturetown Gets its own Pad
(news)--Nikon has announced the myPicturetownPad application for the Apple iPad and iPhone. It should be in the Apple App Store shortly. It's basically a viewer for myPicturetown users, complete with book views, Motion Snapshot support, and GPS mapping functions. You can also send images directly to Facebook and Twitter from the app.

Enter the Light Field in 2012
(news and commentary)--Lytro continued their slow roll towards seeing the light of day, yesterday doing the traditional full Silicon Valley mega-announcement thing.

If you haven't seen the news from that mediafest: two models of camera, one 8GB and one 16GB, both with an 8x f/2 zoom lens, both oddly shaped as a fat, rectangular tube with only three basic controls: the on/off button, the shutter release, and the zoom slider. The 8GB camera has a non-removable battery that lasts just long enough to take the 350 pictures its 8GB internal storage (no card) can handle. The 16GB ditto, but with 750 photos max. There are no dials, no modes, no tripod socket, no filter ring, and of course, no focus (Lytro is a Light Field camera and allows changing focus after the fact). The camera has a 1.5" LCD at the back of the box for reviewing composition and images, and apparently to also do a little exposure override, though this latter bit is unspecified in the materials I've gotten to date.

A couple of details to note: you can order now, but it's Mac-only and you won't get your camera until 2012.

What's missing in the details are a couple of things: angle of view of the lens, the number of focus zones, and the final pixel count of the images. What we get instead is a new marketing term: 11 Megarays. What that means in real pixels is currently unknown, but my best guess so far is something like 8 focus zones at a resolution of maybe 720x720 pixels.

Wait a second, what's a focus zone? Well, the way a Light Field camera works is by collecting information about how the light gets to the final sensor. A microlens set far forward of the sensor is the primary manner in which that information is obtained. But it means that you have multiple photosites on the sensor that are getting information from a microlens. The number of photosites that collect a microlenses information determines how many light angles you capture, and that number will determine how many discrete focus positions you can mimic, what I'm calling focus zones. My 720x720 guess comes from looking at sample images and what was said at the announcement ("equivalent to HD"). The math says an 11mp sensor would have 16-20 photosites per microlens, and a 16-photosite Light Field array makes sense to me.

But all that isn't overly important. The basic premise is that we're looking at relatively small final images (0.5mp) with the ability to post process focus.

Lytro is obviously shooting for the "social camera." Part of that is evidenced by the lytro.com image player and the upcoming plug-ins for other sites, including Facebook. Lytro does have the Silicon Valley thing down to a science. Their announcement had all the key media players in attendance, the product has a lean, "think different" design, and all the right marketing buzzwords are in clear display.

But don't forget to check out the Terms of Use. A couple of the legal bits are potentially an issue to me (emphasis is mine):

  • "Modifications, derivative works and printing for non-personal use (for example, commercial or political) require our explicit prior consent."
  • "Unlisted pictures can be viewed and shared by the user who uploaded them and by others who know the link to the pictures"
  • "but only by using our light field picture player or another player approved by us."
  • "Display the Lytro trademark with such content."

Here's my problem: given a 1mp final image size, could I design a compact camera with virtually no controls that has some "focus magic" to it using a conventional design? Yes. So if there's a need for 1mp or smaller "social images" Lytro will end up with considerable competition. I'm actually surprised no one has gone there yet. I guess all that customer demand for more megapixels was a distraction ;~).

Lytro continues to be an interesting experiment. I'm still not convinced it's an experiment that will work the way they expect it to, especially given how hard Lytro is working to keep you in their ecosystem (you have to use their software or software approved by them). In browsing through images on their Web site, refocusing isn't exactly something I find myself wanting to do more than once (e.g., get a focus point selected), nor does the image quality strike me as special. Would I have picked the Lytro over my iPhone to take any of those photos? Likely not.

So Lytro better have something else up its sleeve. Right now, it feels gimmicky, at best.

It's Probably Worse Than We Think
Oct 1
more updates (commentary)--Two sources have told me that Nikon Thailand is still dealing with water in the manufacturing plant. Workers have not been told when work will resume. Update1: Asia News Network has a report that says the Sony and Nikon plants have "no prospect of recovery." Nikon Thailand produced a news release late last week that says "the first floor of all buildings...are presently submerged." Generally, equipment that is submerged would need to be completely replaced. Update2: as of the moment, 843 factories in Thailand have been damaged by the flood. The Ayutthaya area where Nikon is located is still flooded, and 610 factories in the five business parks that make up that complex are impacted. Seagate and Western Digital produce hard drives in this region, for example. The flood is continuing to surge South towards Bangkok, so it's likely we're going to be hearing about more tech companies being disrupted. To put things in perspective, an area of 5500 square miles--approximately the size of Connecticut--is under water. Update3: Sony has cancelled the introductions of the A65 and NEX-7 models due to the flooding situation. Two of Sony's three plants in Thailand are flooded, and the semiconductor operation there is currently suspended due to inability to source supplies.

Here in the US, it appears that NikonUSA is preparing for the worst. Promotions for Black Friday and beyond appear to be on hold. There seems to be a sense that supplies of things coming out of Thailand that they would normally promote for the Christmas season are going to get very short between now and the end of the year.

So what things are made in the affected plant? D3100, D5100, D7000, D300s bodies, plus the 18-55mm DX, 18-105mm DX, 18-200mm DX, 70-300mm, and I think, 60mm Micro-Nikkor lens are assembled there, as well as the 24-120mm and 28-300mm. That's basically the bulk of Nikon's consumer DSLR sales, plus a large chunk of the low-end FX optics.

As if that weren't enough, slowly but surely we're hearing about other high tech plants and products that were hit by the same problems. Western Digital, a key maker of hard drives, has not only their assembly plant but several component suppliers in the same area as Nikon's plant. I'm also told Sony has stopped production of the A65, A77, and NEX-7.

3, 2, Nikon 1...
Oct 1
(commentary)--NikonUSA has started shipping Nikon 1 models (both J1 and V1) to dealers. Expect to start seeing them as early as tomorrow in US stores. The Nikon 1 is made in Wuxi, China, so isn't impacted by the flooding in Thailand.

X Sure Seems Popular
Oct 1
(news and commentary)--Canon has joined the X frenzy, with the X this time representing the "crossover"--don't they mean combination? Oh, right, they're stretching to justify the X--of the 1D and 1Ds models.

One thing struck me in looking at the specs and information on the new Canon 1D X model: a lot of Nikon DNA seems to have leaked in. Multiple exposure, an RGB metering system, a Nikon-like autofocus layout complete with 4 and 8 cell Dynamic patterns (instead of Nikon's 9 and 21), chromatic aberration reduction, in-camera raw, and more. Makes me wonder how much Canon DNA will leak into the upcoming Nikon D4.

The basics are this: Canon is dropping the two model, two sensor-sizes of their pro lineup for a single full frame model, now named the 1D X. The 1D X is an 18mp, 12 fps, 61-point autofocus model that has a standard ISO range of 100 to 51,200. We get two pairs of function buttons on the front, a Gigabit Ethernet connection, and a bunch of other additions and changes, too. One interesting thing is the inclusion of a new system expansion terminal (a new port on the side of the camera into which the new GPS and WiFi options directly plug). If you're interested in the full iteration of feature details, I suggest Rob Galbraith's site for a good summary. But you'll have plenty of time to get over there, as the camera isn't scheduled to ship until the end of March 2012 (wouldn't that be April?). Price is US$6800, which is a significant bump for all those 1DIV upgraders, about the same as what most 1DsIII users paid.

Since this is mostly a Nikon site, the question is this: what's the 1D X feature set imply about the D4? I suspect it will be a lot like the Canon, actually. I'm still hearing 18mp for the sensor, which, if true, would mean that the two pro models go pretty directly head to head for the first time. I don't expect Nikon to announce the D4 before the end of the year, though.

Which is strange. It appears that Canon decided to announce 1D X first, the 5DIII later. Nikon, on the other hand, appears to be preparing to announce the D800 first (next week), the D4 later. Exact announce dates don't mean a lot, though (especially given the likely actual ship dates). Still, it appears that for the first time the high-end schedules of the two companies are coming within the same six month window. Previously, there was a lot of leapfrogging. This time, they're both jumping (almost) together. Frankly, I think that's good. It'll likely stop a lot of the near random switching that has been going on (or at least threats of switching ;~). Moreover, the debate switches to comparing the same generations of product.

One thing that strikes me is that the 1D X represents a smallish move. The 1D is getting polished and some new underlying hardware applied, but in terms of the overall camera and what it can do, it's likely to be evolutionary to the target users, not revolutionary. I suspect the same thing will be true of the D4. Short of there being something magical about one of these next generation sensors, I suspect the rush to upgrade will be more subdued this time around. Of course, a great sensor tends to trigger a mad rush, as we found out with the D3.

One final thought: getting a camera in April is cutting it awful close for the Olympics. Basically four months to get accustomed to it and your workflow tuned. Let's hope Nikon can do a little better.

Lens Population Explosion
Oct 18
This week both Canon and Nikon announced new milestones in lens production: Canon has produced its 70,000,000th EF lens, Nikon has produced its 65,000,000th F-mount lens. Between the two, that's nearly one lens for every 50 people on the planet.

Video, the Killer
Oct 1
(commentary)--Filmmaking is officially dead. Newspaper video reporters are dying.

As of five years ago, there weren't many film camera makers left: Arri, Panavision, and Aaton were the few that remained. As reported on Creative COW, all three have now ceased making film cameras. Film labs are closing. Hollywood camera rentals are more and more digital these days. Over 50% of the theater screens in the US now have digital projection.

All this, of course, puts pressure on film labs, which in turn puts pressure on Kodak and Fujifilm. We're seeing dominoes topple very quickly now, and cameras like the RED and the CineAlta are pushing them harder.

As someone who spent many an hour deep in film clips in the editing room, I miss the physical contact with my creations. While the virtual editing world of video has many advantages, it's not the same as manually pawing through a world of visuals hanging all around you to find the thing you want. We've lost the ability to actually touch and see our work directly. Video killed that, too.

Meanwhile, I wrote many times over the last decade that I thought that newspapers were insane to believe that major video pushes would "save them." I was right.

The notion was a convoluted one: the Internet was competing with newspapers and the Internet was competing with television and the Internet had video, therefore a newspaper needed to have a Web site with video. I argued that this was really abandoning the role of a newspaper and starting a news television outlet, replete with untrained videographers and on-air folk. I also argued that it was a complete misunderstanding of a newspaper's customer.

The way you consume news in a newspaper is different than video. Video is a one-way street where the time line is controlled by video editor. Once someone clicks on it, they're pretty much stuck in that time line. Even being able to fast forward, pause, or rewind doesn't really give you the same experience as reading a newspaper.

Newspapers allow you to glance among many stories and pick what interests you most. It allows you to jump around. It allows you see balance between stories (i.e., where does the New York Times put what the editors believe is the most important story of the day? What other stories are on that page?). There are a lot of subtle things that are going on when someone consumes a newspaper. Some Web sites can come close to this, but most don't. Web sites tend to "chunk" lots of small bits and force you elsewhere or to actively click on them to consume them, as the economics behind the site (ads) tends to force that construct. Even USA Today, which started out as "small chunked news" has reverted to longer form stories. Why? Because that's what a newspaper reader wants. And they don't want video.

If you look at eye-tracking studies you see differences in the way someone consumes a newspaper, articles on an iPad, and on the Web (on the Web you read the first two lines, then scan down quickly to see if anything else catches your eye on the visible page--i.e. you don't scroll--what's known as the F pattern). Simply put, someone who reads a newspaper (or most magazines for that matter), is actually trying to read the content. In other online media, there's a tendency to skim (you did make it this far, didn't you? ;~). With video, there's a tendency to do other things while the video is playing--you use the audio from the video presentation to alert you when to focus back on the screen. Do you think these differences cause different subscriber bases? I do.

So what happened to all those newspaper video endeavors? As of 2007, over 90% of the top 100 US newspapers had video presence on their Web site, and this was propelling requests for video in the still cameras newspapers bought. But an AP study of 100 US newspapers earlier this year shows that most are cutting down on their Web video presence and laying off video journalists.

This week, Assistant Professor of Journalism Barbara Selvin at Stony Brook University got widespread notice when she wrote "Newspapers should jettison most of their web video efforts." She bases part of her argument on yet another study that reports that less than 10% of unique visitors to newspaper Web sites are watching the videos. Duh. A newspaper subscriber wants to read. They want to read a tight, dense, fact-checked stream of words. Probably words that give them deep knowledge and not the trivial talking head crap that you get from video reporters standing in front of a place where something happened.

So video tried to kill newspapers, too. The smart ones are fighting back, and a few still live.

Expect Some Delays
Oct 13
The flooding in Thailand looks like it will cause a bigger disruption of Nikon's DSLR business than the March earthquake did. Mother Nature has been hard on Nikon this year, and they have my heartfelt wishes for the best possible resolution (and hopefully a respite from such events in the future).

As of this morning, friends in Thailand report that the record flooding still hasn't peaked in the business park where the Nikon Thailand plant is located, and local news is apparently reporting that it's unclear how fast the waters will recede or when companies with facilities in the area (Nikon, Sony, Canon, Honda, and more) will be able to get workers in to deal with the damage, let alone resume operations. I'm betting that cleanup, replacing lost equipment, dealing with supply chain issues, and the like will take more than a month to deal with. Some people I know who manage such things say two months is more like it, assuming that there isn't specialized equipment that can't be re-created quickly.

Bloomberg Japan is estimating that a two-month suspension of production at the plant could cut Nikon revenue by 30 billion yen and profits by 5 billion yen. The plant makes D3100, D5100, D7000, and D300s cameras, as well as some consumer lenses. The D7000 was already in tight supply before the flooding shut down the plant on October 6th.

I've been trying to get further information about the situation since it first became clear that there would be a problem, but the situation is ongoing and not a lot of concrete information is available yet. The situation is made more difficult by two things: the upcoming holiday selling season and the fact that NikonUSA was about to put into place some additional incentives on many of the items made at the plant. In other words, we've got a swelling demand for product looming at a time when there probably won't be any new stuff arriving for awhile. I'm pretty sure Nikon is going to have to reset its plans for consumer DSLRs in the pre-Christmas run-up, at least here in the US.

I had also forecast that the D300s follow up was likely to hit some time in early 2012 (my guess would have been February). If true, that date is going to be in doubt now.

Bottom line: if you're in the market for a D7000 between now and the end of the year, you'd probably better get it now. I strongly suspect stocks of D7000 models will dry up first (they were already tight). D3100 and D5100 purchasers probably have some leeway, but the scramble behind the scenes at NikonUSA tells me they're worried about availability of those models in the coming months, too.

Future Lenses
Oct 12
I believe that we'll see two to four new Nikkor lenses announced later this month. The question that I keep getting is this: which ones?

Nikon's patent activity has long been a source of likely upcoming products. Not all products patented get launched, but quite a high percentage do. So, here's what we've seen in the patent files over the past couple of years (I've already covered the upcoming Nikon 1 lenses in an earlier post):

  • 10mm f/4, 18mm f/3.5 DX, 24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.2, 105mm f/2, and 800mm f/5.6 primes.
  • 24-70mm f/3.5-4.5 and 28-145mm f/4 mid-range zooms.
  • 55-300mm f/2.8-4, 70-200mm f/4, 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6, 100-400mm f/4-5.6, and 200-500mm f/4.5-5.6 telephoto zooms.
  • 200mm f/3.2 macro.

Of the lenses I think are most likely sooner rather than later: 70-200mm f/4, 200mm f/3.2, 50mm f/1.2, and 18mm f/3.5 DX. But predicting Nikon lens launches is difficult, as glass is a variable that sometimes impacts launch decisions. In the extreme example: if you started up a batch of glass for the 800mm f/5.6 and got through to the polishing process and discovered that you weren't getting the yield of high quality glass you needed, you might delay the launch and restart the glass process, which can take as long as year. Even with the smaller lenses I'm sure that glass prioritization is a sticky issue. Strong demand for the 70-200mm f/2.8 might have you prioritizing that over a 70-200mm f/4, for example.

In short, we rarely know about a Nikon lens launch until first samples start to hit the field, and sometimes that's not right until prior to launch.

I think it's a safe bet that we've got a handful of lenses still coming this year, despite the four Nikon 1 lenses.

Speaking of Supply
Oct 11
(news and commentary)--
I've just received word that Olympus is about to quietly price the E-PL1 kit at US$399, but with a US$100 rebate (Black Friday special). It probably won't be advertised at this price, but your dealer should be able to sell it to you for this price sometime in November. If you really want to see what an m4/3 camera can do, this will be a relatively painless way to do so.

The big drawback to the older E-PL1 kit is autofocus performance. It's decent, but not as snappy as the E-PL3. Things that it doesn't have that the newer models do: better, larger LCD, ISO 6400 support, remote cable release option, 1/4000 shutter speed (E-PL1 is 1/2000), and use of the optional powered accessories. The old kit lens also doesn't support the new add-on lens converters, but that's not a big loss.

Still, I don't know of a compact camera that sells for US$299 that could match what an E-PL1 can do.

Nikon Coolpix P7100 Review
Oct 10
I've just posted my Nikon Coolpix P7100 review. Short answer: same great image quality, most everything else that we complained about on the P7000 has been improved except for one thing: raw write speeds. That's a little frustrating, because the target user of this camera probably shoots raw, at least some of the time. That's a real shame, as it means that Nikon is still missing the mark with their high-end Coolpix design.

Oct 11 updated
Nikon has released a statement concerning the flooding in Thailand where their consumer DSLR plant is located. The plant has been closed since October 6th and the first floor is completely flooded. It is unknown how much damage was sustained or when the plant will return to normal operation. While many lives have been lost in the flooding, it's unknown yet whether that also included any Nikon employees.

The Thailand plant has been in operation for a couple of decades now, expanded many times, and is where Nikon builds their consumer DSLRs (currently D3100, D5100, D7000, and D300s). Some consumer lenses are also assembled there. Of Nikon's 4 million plus DSLRs made a year, most of them are made in that Thai plant, which is located in Rojana Industrial Park. Sony makes some Alpha cameras at a nearby plant, and Canon also has an assembly facility there. Quite a few Japanese electronics (and auto) manufacturers have facilities in that park.

Of the Nikon cameras made in Thailand, only the D7000 has been in very tight supply lately, so it's possible that the actual disruption to inventory in stores around the world may be small and temporary. That said, Nikon almost certainly lost a lot of work in progress and parts in the flooding. The plant has a production capacity that has to be approaching 300,000 camera units a month, so considerable inventory would have been in the plant, especially considering the time of year. We could see shortages of any or all Nikon DSLRs in the coming months.

Suffice it to say this has been a difficult year for Nikon. They started with tight supply of product and high demand, and they've been through a series of serious natural disasters in both Thailand and Japan that impact their ability to maintain supply, let alone increase it. Once again, we offer our heartfelt sympathy to our Nikon friends and wish them much success in their recovery efforts. Likewise, to the Thai people: our thoughts are with you in this time of crisis.

Oct 10
Meanwhile, NikonUSA has been tightening up their policies surrounding minimum advertised price (MAP). Later this week any dealer that violates that agreement will face severe penalties, including NikonUSA cancelling shipments to that dealer for a period of time. This is not Nikon trying to raise price, but rather trying to enforce price. Still, it comes at a time when supplies are still very tight (see above), so the net effect will be that it looks like some places--for example Amazon--are raising prices. (I'm not picking on Amazon, but I note that they have a number of Nikon products currently advertised at under MAP.)

But what Nikon taketh away they sometimes giveth back: it appears that we're going to get a broader set of products covered by instant rebates later this month and continuing into the fall/Christmas selling season. Products that haven't had instant rebates for awhile, including some pro bodies and lenses, will be getting them back.

Software Updates
Oct 10
Last week's software updates include: PocketWizard firmware for the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 has been updated again to version 3.003 to correct a bug that caused TTL errors when the flash was more than 10' (3m) from the subject. ShutterSnitch 2.1.7 for the iPad added a zoom to fill screen option and fixed some bugs. Nik came out with compatibility and bug fix updates to HDR Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro.

Fujifilm Locks in on X
Oct 5
(news and commentary)--
Fujifilm used to be all about S (S1, S2 Pro, S3 Pro, etc.). Then it was F (F30, F300, F550, etc). Well, get ready for X, probably due to the fact that the X100 sold 300,000 units already and is their first real hit in awhile (and which is about 300,000 more than Fujifilm thought they'd do prior to last Photokina show, where the camera was demonstrated to see whether people were actually interested or not).

Now, the X monicker is permeating through the lineup. We already have the compact sensor X10 that should be popping out any day now. Next up will be the bridge camera X-S1 (still with a compact sensor size, though). Finally, we have X??, a new mirrorless mount system that will appear in prototype form at CES next January and would be slated for spring 2012 production. If I'm interpreting correctly, X really means "better than the crummy F models we've been releasing lately."

The new mirrorless camera has a number of interesting elements to it. I'm still trying to fully decipher the materials from the Japanese press conference where Fujifilm made the announcement, but these things seem vaguely clear: (1) a new lens mount (i.e. not m4/3); (2) a larger than APS/DX sensor, but not as big as full frame/FX; (3) higher resolution and better noise handling than any existing FX sensor (which means more than 24mp and better than D3s); and (4) non-Bayer in nature. While some are thinking that this might mark the appearance of Fujifilm's three-layer organic sensor, I'd bet otherwise; I'm guessing non-filtered photosites coupled with quasi-Bayer.

Of course, this could easily be interpreted as a "wait for me" announcement, as only Canon and Fujifilm have nothing they can point to as "mirrorless." And won't, for almost a year, given Fujifilm's dates.

Apple's iPhone Camera ASIC
Oct 5
(news and commentary)--
Whether you're excited or disappointed about yesterday's iPhone 4S announcement, there's one little bit that the camera makers can't be happy about: Apple is building their own dedicated camera ASIC and adding it to the iPhone.

From Apple's statements it appears that this initial iteration is not focused on image conversion or final pixels, but on improving the acquisition itself: shortening the shutter lag and improving things like face detection autofocus. Still, now that the barrier has broken, we're going to see more and more things get stuffed into the ASIC and removed from the main (now dual core) CPU, I think. HDR, sweep panorama, distortion and other corrections may end up in the province of that chip, making the iPhone line more like a compact camera inside a phone than just an imaging sensor inside a phone.

At 8mp with BSI technology, the image results are going to get closer to some of the low-end compacts, too. Wait until the phone makers start to figure out folding optics: that'll allow larger sensors and more sophisticated lenses. The nail is on the coffin and being hammered now. It's only a matter of time.

Should Nikon buy Kodak?
Oct 3
(news and commentary)--
Short answer: probably not. But there's opportunity there, too, at least for a clever company that's mostly about imaging.

First, the news: Kodak shares dropped precipitously on Friday after news that the company was drawing down a substantive portion of its available credit line. This was taken as a sign that cash flow may still be a problem at the company, which had almost US$1 billion in cash at the start of the summer (though that was down by over a half billion dollars from the start of the year). At Friday's close of US$0.78 a share, the market cap on Kodak approached US$200 million dollars, a fairly pitiful sum for the former giant, and a very small amount for a company producing US$7 billion in sales a year. (This morning shares are back up just above US$1 a share, but the market cap is still very low.)

So put a nice premium on that and for almost US$500 million what would you get? Well, a patent portfolio that supposedly is pulling in about that much a year and worth as much as US$3 billion according to some, for one. A digital camera division that's weaker than I was as a 90-pound teen. Some interesting Flip-like video cameras that used to sell well. A group producing digital picture frames. A line of consumer all-in-one printers. The Easyshare software solution, plus Kodak Gallery print services. A professional and business-oriented group that produces printers, high-end document and printing solutions, motion picture film, and the remaining film and developing goodies. Plus a lot of miscellaneous stuff, including sensor design and digital R&D groups, plus products such as branded memory cards and batteries.

How well do those things fit with Nikon? Pretty well, actually. The low-end digital cameras basically overlap with Coolpix, so you would mostly jettison that business, cannibalizing only those things that would help Coolpix long term. The Easyshare/Gallery stuff would need to be integrated with myPicturetown (or rather myPicturetown should be subsumed by Easyshare/Gallery ;~). Nikon doesn't have printers, nor commercial document groups, yet they compete against companies that do, so this business would be an interesting expansion (and the consumer printer group is one of the few areas of strong growth within Kodak). Basically, it's hard to find something within Kodak that wouldn't fit well with or supplement Nikon's current imaging division. Buying Kodak would significantly bolster Nikon's intellectual property, move it strongly into the image output business (printing, display, sharing), provide it a great deal of additional people, property, and products to cherry pick from, and basically give Nikon an even stronger focus on imaging than it already has.

Of course, Kodak's last reported quarterly numbers were sales of US$1.5 billion with a loss of US$179 million, and everyone is now expected the quarterly numbers to be announced later this month to indicate things have gotten worse (or why else would they need a large cash infusion?). So there's a high likelihood that a lot of painful choices would have to be made, and fast. Spin out the film and high-end document businesses, for example. Kill most of the existing camera products and make the rest Coolpix. Downsize Rochester until it barely shows up on a map, basically.

The reason why Nikon probably wouldn't buy Kodak has nothing to do with what I've written so far, though. The simple problem is that Nikon isn't an overly acquisitive company, and I doubt that it has the management skills necessary to take on such a huge reclamation project and make it work. Basically, they couldn't pull all the decisions out of Rochester to Tokyo quick enough and make that work. They might actually slow the decisions that Kodak needs to make to survive at all. Someone else would need to come in and prepackage the deal and all the sub-decisions for Nikon, I'd think, and that's not going to happen.

On the other hand, opportunities like the one that Kodak now represents don't happen very often. And many more months of driving the Kodak plane towards the ground will result in it completely crashing and leaving only embers to pick up. It's like watching a car wreck in progress right now. We can't take our eyes off it, but we don't want to see it.

So what's Kodak's own plan? It appears that Kodak wants to sell off the digital camera patents for a huge sum (more than the market cap of the company) to raise short term cash. Then they want to use that cash to keep the printing and document businesses growing. The film and digital camera businesses are barely profitable and are being managed for end of life, as far as I can see.

Frankly, Kodak's survival strategy is not one I'd endorse. Essentially they're trying to make a strong brand mean something different than it used to. Might as well start another company if that's what you want to do, as then you don't have to bring along any baggage.

Lots of Software News
Oct 3
A lot of software news happened last week. In case you missed it, Nikon updated both Capture NX2 to 2.2.8 and View NX2 to 2.2.1 to support their latest announced cameras. Raw Photo Processor 4.4.1 (Mac only) also adds Nikon 1 support, as well as support for recent Sony bodies. Elements+ 4.0 (Mac only) is an add-on for Photoshop Elements that unlocks undocumented advanced functions within the program and supports Elements 10. ACDSee Pro 5 and ACDSee version 14 add more image editing tools, and some geotagging and metadata options. Nik Software released Color Efex Pro 4.0, which brings new effects and stackable filters, as well as improved performance. Lightroom 3.5 adds P7100 and E-PL3 support as well as fixing bugs. Adobe Camera Raw 6.5 and DNG Converter 6.5 also all support for the P7100 and E-PL3. ExifChanger (Mac only) allows you to view and change almost any EXIF and IPTC metadata. From the same company, Proof Sheet (Mac only) provides a quick and easy way to generate proof sheets from images, including the ability to put metadata with each image.

In iOS news: PiRAWnha 3 is a new version of the iPad app that does raw conversions, and apparently sped up from previous versions. QuickDoF Pro 1.2 for iPads and iPhones was released, another of those tilt-and-focus shift products that seem to keep popping up. Photosmith 1.1 addresses several bugs and improves stability as well as iOS 5 support.

Large Frame Coolpix Retired
Oct 3
I've removed "Any large sensor Coolpix" from the Waiting for Nikon List (bottom left column), as I interpret the Nikon 1 to be essentially that camera. That's especially true since the J1 appears to be smaller than a P7100 ;~).

I've added the D4, D700 followup and D300s followup to the list, as well as the patented but missing Nikon 1 lenses and a Nikon 1 model for enthusiasts. Other additions include 64-bit and OS-X 10.7 support.

Lack of Equivalence is a Tool
Sept 29
Just as in the film world, we have a lot of people not fully understanding how format choice impacts photography. The usual way to get to understanding this is a notion called "equivalence." We're going to short cut the full description of equivalence with this one: essentially the same shot visually.

To get equivalence you need:

  • Same position relative to the subject (i.e. not closer or further away)
  • Same angle of view captured
  • Same DOF captured

You'll also hear people talking about photons in equivalence. Smaller sensors need faster lenses to capture the same number of photons and have the same signal-to-noise ratio as larger sensors. But I'm going to skip past this notion for this discussion and just assume that we're shooting at base ISO with very good sensors for their size (i.e. noise and dynamic range aren't going to really impact our image).

So, we take five photographers all shooting with different formats: FX, DX, m4/3, Nikon 1, Coolpix P7100. I'm going to round the numbers a bit in values, so don't get all picky on me here--I don't think the small amount of rounding is anywhere near as important as the basic concept. Again, we want equivalent photos as I've defined it above. So:

  • FX shooter is at 300mm f/8
  • DX shooter is at 200mm f/5.6
  • m4/3 shooter is at 150mm f/4
  • Nikon 1 shooter is at 110mm f/2.8
  • Coolpix P7100 shooter is at 64mm f/1.8

Of course, we already have our first casualty: the Coolpix shooter doesn't have 64mm or f/1.8, their fixed lens only goes to 42mm and f/5.6.

As we try to increase the angle of view, we start losing other formats:

  • FX shooter is at 50mm f/8
  • DX shooter is at 35mm f/5.6
  • m4/3 shooter is at 25mm f/4
  • Nikon 1 shooter is at 18mm f/2.8

The Nikon 1 shooter is down to some strange lens choices (14-24mm f/2.8 on the adapter, for example). Let's go into a lower light situation and even wider:

  • FX shooter is at 24mm f/2.8
  • DX shooter is at 16mm f/2
  • m4/3 shooter is at 12mm f/1.4
  • Nikon 1 shooter is at 9mm f/1

We've now completely lost the Nikon 1 shooter and we're losing the m4/3 and DX shooters, as they don't really have the lenses to come close.

So, if our goal is to take pictures "that look just like we took them with 35mm film," then the equivalence notion starts putting restrictions on us, especially as we go wider and faster. We just can't get to equivalent (and again, I'm not trying to bring photons and dynamic range into this discussion).

But the opposite is true, too. Let's turn things around and say that we want lots of depth of field:

  • Coolpix shooter is at 6mm f/2.8
  • Nikon 1 shooter is at 10mm f/4
  • m4/3 shooter is at 14mm f/5.6
  • DX shooter is at 18mm f/8
  • FX shooter is at 28mm f/11

Narrow the angle of view and try to keep a large DOF:

  • Coolpix shooter is at 11mm f/5.6
  • Nikon 1 shooter is at 19mm f/8
  • m4/3 shooter is at 25mm f/11
  • DX shooter is at 35mm f/16
  • FX shooter is at 50mm f/22

Hmm, the Nikkor 50mm lens only goes to f/16, so we're starting to lose the FX shooter.

The simple fact is that there are looks you can't get with small formats that you can with large formats, and vice versa. The trick is to pick the right tool for the right job, and therefore to understand the underlying differences of your tools. I don't use m4/3 to replace my FX equipment; I use m4/3 to supplement my FX equipment. Yes, there's sometimes overlap, in which case I can pick small/light or phenomenal dynamic range/noise properties (but not both ;~).

Today a lot of Nikon users are getting upset over a statement Nikon made on their Facebook page: "A photographer is only as good as the equipment he uses," which they subsequently apologized for with a further statement that included "...the right equipment can help you capture amazing images." That second quote isn't far from what I'm trying to say here: you choose equipment based upon what you want to do.

Everything in photography is about balancing decisions. Everything. You may make hundreds of decisions to get a single good photograph, and one of them is to choose the right tool for the job. I see the Nikon 1 as just another tool. I wish the tool were better targeted towards me (more direct control, for example), but it does potentially offer me some options I didn't have before, so it's welcome.

I think a lot of the heat in the discussions about mirrorless cameras is the "I want something that can do everything" notion. People want small, light, inexpensive, high image quality, flexible, robust, and a few other things all in one package. But there's a simple fact of life: the more things you require from a tool, the more compromised and/or expensive it is. Moreover, some combinations are impossible (or at least improbable): small, inexpensive, and high quality, for example.

Nikon View NX 2.2.1
Sept 28
As you would expect, Nikon has issued an update for ViewNX2 to include Nikon 1 and P7000 support, including support for Motion Snapshots and Smart Photos.

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan
Really, Nikon? Would this have been that difficult to produce?

Photoshop Elements Heading towards Teens
Sept 26
Adobe announced Photoshop Elements 10 (both Mac and Windows versions), and adds "guided edits" along with a number of other enhancements.

Nikon 1 and Done
Sept 26
I wrote a huge amount about the Nikon 1 last week. You can find it on the 2011 Nikon News page if you didn't see it. This week I'm going to try to move on to other things. We'll come back to the Nikon 1 when it actually ships or there is something spectacularly new to discuss about it.

Google+ Now Open to All
Sept 26
In case you didn't notice, Google+ is now open to everyone. You no longer need an invitation to join. Just go to www.google.com/+ and start your account, then add Thom Hogan to a circle (of people you want to follow) that you create.

If you're a fan of my teaching points (image plus commentary at the top of the page), you should probably join Google+ and follow me. Most of the images I've posted so far have fairly long and interesting discussions. Please don't use those discussion threads to go off-topic or ask unrelated questions of me, though. One nice thing about how it's worked so far is that the discussions are actually just that, and I'd like to keep it that way.

And Finally, the Nikon 1 Z1
Sept 24
In looking at everything we know about the Nikon 1 and the comments from now literally thousands of Nikon users, it seems pretty clear: we need one more model: the Nikon 1 Z1.

Instead of hiding the the controls, the Z1 model exposes them a bit: PASM on the mode dial. Give us a front "dial." Make one of the buttons programmable or add a button that's programmable. Add the P7100's pivot screen. Improve the turn on time. Add (programmable) highlights and live histograms. Add 24 fps to the video. Create a new wireless controller flash unit, the SB-800N. Finally, put a grip on the thing. Voila: instant Z1.

Phase Detection on the Sensor
Sept 24
A few of you have noted in emails that you thought I had been hinting at a change to Nikon's phase detection autofocus system for some time. Indeed I have, though I've tried to be subtle about it. That's because I couldn't figure out how the changes played into what might be the D4. I don't expect a D4 to be mirrorless, after all.

But let's make a really simple jump: what if Nikon took Quiet Mode and Mirror Up and combined them into "mirror out of the way mode"? Camera still shoots normally with the mirrors and optical viewfinder, but if you're willing to go to Live View/Video, it also shoots quietly with an electronic shutter and no mirror action. There are pluses to both approaches, so it's really the best of both worlds. Indeed, it answers a lot of user requests all in one package, doesn't it? Truly silent shooting (not just quiet). True mirror-up shooting (no need to bring mirror down). Full time video autofocus that's usable. Optical viewfinder in normal use. The list goes on.

Of course, since this technology is Nikon's and requires a Nikon sensor, that implies that Nikon might also move to all Nikon sensors at the high-end, too (they're already close, with only the D300s and D3x being Sony sensors).

Note that the D7000 (and now D5100) moved a step closer, too: they no longer return the mirror down in Live View unless flash is involved (to get the flash exposure). So if we put all the pieces together with the Nikon 1 technology, we should get close to, if not completely, to a workable hybrid system that has big benefits to the user. This also makes the leaks that I heard last year make a lot more sense, as now they have a context that better supports them.

That said, this isn't a prediction, per se. It's simply a statement that many of the sub-pieces are all slowly pointing towards a common possible end-point: the mirrored/mirrorless DSLR. It's just a hypothesis on my part at this point that this is where Nikon is headed. Personally, I hope it proves true.

Nikon's Problem
Sept 24
As I noted, I think one liability for the Nikon 1 is its pricing: it's overpriced here in the US, and wickedly overpriced in some other parts of the world (the UK, for example). That's not just in relationship to competitor's products, it's in Nikon's own pricing, too. To wit, if we graph price on the X axis and capability on the Y, we get a graph that looks something like this:

It's a big step up from top Coolpix to low-end 1 (that name is just terrible for media--it disappears in text, and I'm not going to write Nikon 1 every time I refer to the model), and it's a backwards step down from the top-end 1 to the low-end DSLR. I still say this pricing won't stand up in the marketplace.

Sept 23
Seems that my comments about legacy lenses has provoked a number of responses, some correct, some not.

To refresh, I wrote about considering, for example, what the 35mm f/1.8 DX enables on a Nikon 1 with the mount adapter. Technically, it's still a 35mm f/1.8. But it's suddenly a reasonable (but not optimal) portrait lens on the Nikon 1. The equivalence police, however, seemed to jump on a different point to the one I was trying to make. I was making a simple assumption that the Nikon 1's noise handling was adequate for what it will be used for and who's using it. Yes, I know that the signal to noise ratio can't be as good as a larger sensor. That wasn't my point: the underlying signal-to-noise ratio for a Nikon 1 remains the same no matter what lens you put on it. Thus, if it's adequate for purposes 1 through 5, putting some different legacy lenses on it should make it adequate for purposes 6 through n. That's all I was trying to say. This is no different than what DX shooters keep trying to figure out in respect to FX.

Unfortunately, some think I was breaking some laws of science with my casual approach to discussing this. So, to keep those folks happy, here is some real equivalence to consider (warning, lots of rounding of numbers and underlying assumptions ahead):

  • Standing at the same position, the equivalent focal length for a particular angle of view is X, 1.5X, 2X and 2.7X. Put a different way, an FX shooter would be using 300mm, a DX shooter 200mm, an m4/3 shooter 150mm and a 1 shooter 110mm.
  • Standing at the same position with the equivalent focal length lens for the same angle of view, the equivalent DOF also changes: FX = f/4, DX = f/2.8, m4/3 = f/2, 1 = f/1.4.
  • Standing at the same position with the equivalent focal length for a particular angle of view and the same number pixels (and the same fill ratio), about the same amount of photons should be captured by FX at f/5.6, DX at f/4, m4/3 at f/2.8, 1 at f/2.

Other things come into play, which explains my equivocation on the third point. We're assuming the sensors are made the same with the same sized process and have the same fill factor, that microlenses don't change collection properties, that the Bayer filtration is equivalent, and much more. But I'll stick with my original point: some legacy lenses on the Nikon 1 should allow people to do things that they aren't doing today without very big expensive systems, assuming that the basic noise properties are adequate in the first place.

Will the Nikon 1 shooter get "noisier" results than the DX shooter all else absolutely equivalent? Likely. But that's the thing about tech, the bar has moved. Ten years ago you couldn't have gotten adequate results with such a small sensor. Now you can. I'm reminded of what my old boss Adam Osborne used to preach: "adequacy is sufficient, all else is superfluous." (You had to know Adam and that he was referring to consumer goods to fully understand the quote. But it strikes me that Nikon has achieved that.)

The Future Lenses?
Sept 23
Since Nikon's ultimate product seems to follow closely the patents they've been filing, we can make some guesses at future Nikon 1 lenses:

  • 14mm f/2.8 (~35mm equivalent)
  • 18mm f/1.4 (~50mm equivalent)
  • 32mm f/1.2 (~85mm equivalent)
  • 40mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor (~105mm equivalent)
  • 60mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor (162mm equivalent)
  • 7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 (20-35mm equivalent)
  • 9-43mm f/2.8-5.6 (24-120mm equivalent)

There have been a few other patents for oddball things, and some of the patents obscured format and actual focal length, but these are the ones that seem to best match up against the unmarked lenses Nikon was showing at launch.

Quick Survey
Sept 23
Last night I ran a quick Snap Poll in an attempt to get a better understanding of how my site visitors viewed both Nikon's new mirrorless camera, but the state of the mirrorless market itself. A couple of things before we get started with the results:

  • I poll my site visitors both randomly and openly on a regular basis. At this point I have hundreds of thousands of responses and a pretty good idea of who they are. To over-generalize, they tend to be what these days are called enthusiasts: serious shooters who are looking to improve. I do get some more casual followers from time to time, but most people reading my site are both active serious shooters and active buyers in the camera market.
  • I broadcast the availability of the poll on my Twitter and Google+ accounts, and on my Web site only. While my Tweet and post were retweeted and reposted a handful of times, looking at the timing of responses I doubt that those influenced the results greatly, if at all. I arbitrarily set a 3000 response limit and that almost filled before the first retweet. Overall, it took only a couple of hours to hit the limit, and considering that was late night where most of my readers reside, a fairly impressive response.
  • Yes, I know I closed off some possible options. I didn't allow a "maybe" response in terms of buying the Nikon 1 for a reason: I wanted to force people into a quick yes/no opinion, not let them equivocate. Again, this is a snap poll, what I call a "testing the waters" type of survey, and I was trying to see how many were really committed to what they had or what was about to appear.
  • Despite being only four questions, there's a lot of cross analysis that can be done (for example, do current m4/3 owners think another camera is the most compelling?). I'm not going to report that here. I'm only going to give the base results for you to ponder. But the cross analysis was actually more interesting than the base results ;~).

Without further ado, the base results:

Question 1: Do you own a mirrorless camera? 2461 no, 639 yes. That's 21% of those surveyed owning a mirrorless camera. I'll bet that's a higher number than you expected.

Question 2: Which mirrorless camera do you own (assumes yes in first question)? 552 m4/3, 138 NEX, 16 NX, 6 X100, 12 other. Of the 21% that owned a mirrorless camera, 86% owned an m4/3 camera. Given that I've reviewed and covered the three major mirrorless cameras, that m4/3 number is a bit higher than I expected, but it could be readers mirroring my own preference at the moment.

Question 3: Will you buy the new Nikon 1? 2692 no, 408 yes. That's 13% yes. I suspect that's a higher number than you expected, too. It's significantly higher than the result on the Nikon Rumors poll, for instance. Given that we have serious photographers coming to my site and that the Nikon 1 is targeted at a different user, this is an eyebrow raising statistic. Yes, it could be somewhat jaundiced by my reporting of the Nikon 1, but based upon email and Google+ comments by poll takers, I'm not sure it is. (By the way Nikon, your choice of brand name is really, really bad. You can't effectively Google the term Nikon 1. Google seems to have caught this fast and put in a fix, but it's still a bad search term and going to cause problems with cruder search engines.)

Question 4: Which is the most compelling recent mirrorless camera? Hold onto your horses folks: 995 (32%) NEX 7, 802 (26%) Nikon 1 V1 model. Do I need to go further? The next best showing was the Olympus E-P3 at 385 (12%). Everything else (J1, E-PM1, E-PL3, GF-3, G3, GH2, NEX 3C, NEX 5N, NX200) was down in the single digits, and way down in the single digits, including the Nikon 1 J1 model (ugh, that name just grates).

Given the make up of my site visitors, it shouldn't be surprising that they favored the NEX 7 and E-P3, which target them directly. The Nikon V1 number has to raise eyebrows though. Some people are seeing something in the announcement that others aren't.

Sept 23
The trend on traffic on my site has been gradually upward, but not nearly as far upward as the Nikon 1 announcement seems to have taken it.

Say what you will about the camera, there's a tremendous amount of curiousity about it. My site hit a new peak in daily visitors yesterday, with over 21% being new to my site (welcome; I'm [mostly] friendly ;~). Even the D7000 announcement day didn't top the Nikon 1 announcement day.

Don't Undersell What the Nikon 1 Can Do
Sept 23
It's been interesting to watch the sine wave in action. WTF is Thom talking about now? For 40 years I've been aware that press/public opinion tends to run in sine waves. Products are either over-hyped at launch (think the original iPhone, which didn't apps and wasn't all that great a phone), or underhyped (the Nikon 1 is coming to mind at the moment ;~). As reality starts to set in, the overall opinion center usually starts to shift towards the opposite pole. If the product is bad and the initial hype was over-bad, well, the sine wave goes flat. But if the product is good and the initial hype is over-bad, we see the full sine wave in action and eventually the just good product becomes better-than-good in opinions.

So let me throw you just one example of something that ought to raise a few eyebrows: consider that you shoot for a sports Web site. Consider that you never post anything bigger than 800 pixels. Now put an 85mm f/1.4G on the Nikon 1 and go to your next event. You're shooting two stops faster than the 70-200mm guy and 52 frames per second faster. Say what? Could that be useful? You bet it could be. Now think about sports coverage that is mostly Web based, as in Extreme Sports. Hmm, carry some GoPros and a Nikon 1 with the right lenses and I'm set.

Or consider the #1 question from soccer moms: what DSLR and lens should I get to shoot my kid's sports? Let's see, they've got a 1080P TV, the Nikon 1 shoots 1080P stills at 60 fps, it's got reasonable low light credibility, stick some fast F-mount lenses on it and it suddenly becomes a camera you might be able to shoot from the stands with.

The world isn't about just big behemoth SLR-type cameras any more. Not everyone needs 24mp (actually, very few do).

Frankly, I'm not sure Nikon actually understands the world they're enabling, as their marketing materials simply suck at driving home why you might want a Nikon 1. But they'll figure it out eventually. Right after the customers do.

The Necessary Updates Begin
Sept 23
Nikon has released Capture NX2.2.8, which supports the P7100 and Nikon 1. A new Nikon ViewNX2 can't be far behind.

The C Mount Dilemma
Sept 23
Most of the complaints about lenses is easily solved: create a C-mount adapter and use C mount lenses. The imaging circle is almost perfect for CX. The problem is that Nikon doesn't want you to do that. C mount lenses are manual focus, and we don't have the abilities in the Nikon 1 that we'd want for manual focus, like peaking.

Neverthless, the smart enthusiasts are going to see an opportunity with C mount lenses on the Nikon 1: really small lenses. Wide lenses. Fast lenses. I've had a small handful in my closet for a long time now. Like a 6mm f/1.2 that's less than 2" long, which would be a 16mm equivalent. In a word: wow. But Nikon won't want to encourage C-mounting. So it remains to be seen whether the camera will even shoot with a non-automatic lens, let alone be usable in manual focus.

Oh Dear
Sept 23
The Japanese/English pronunciation thing bit Nikon once again. The URL for announcing the establishment of the new "1" brand is labeled: nikon.com/news/2011/0921_bland_04.htm. Bland? Oops.

Why I'd Buy a Pink J1
Sept 23
I pick up one of my cameras and start shooting and people immediately think I'm a pro. Maybe with a pink camera people will dismiss me and think I'm just some fool that got snookered by Nikon.

You Can Quote Me
Sept 22
"Everyone's looking for redemption in a new camera. The old ones work pretty well." --Thom Hogan, 2011.

Yes, I mean you. Quick, how many different cameras have you bought in the past two years? Is your photography any better?

Second quote: "If you want a sports car, buy a sports car; if you want a econo-compact car, buy that. Don't tell me that everything has to be a pickup truck or SUV." --Thom Hogan, 2011.

The Nikon 1 is not a sports car, pickup truck, or SUV. If you need one of those, buy the appropriate model of your choice, but it isn't a V1 or J1. Those are econo-compact cars.

Third quote: "Why not watch the movie before you write the review?" --Thom Hogan, 2011.

It seems that not only is the Nikon 1 the worst thing since sliced bread (and not a sports car or SUV ;~), but now all future Nikon cameras are suspect, too. Yep, you heard it here first: the D4 will be a dud. The emails coming into my In Box say so, and they must be right.

If you got one of the above lines in my email response to you yesterday, you need to calm down and actually evaluate what Nikon has on the market: adequate compacts, an interesting mirrorless product of still unknown capability, and six damned good DSLRs that'll go head to head with their competitors. The Nikon 1 announcement only changed one of those things. The appropriate response if the Nikon 1 isn't interesting to you is "ho hum, I wonder what they'll introduce next?" (Hint: it'll be an update to one of those damned good DSLRs, and it should be soon.)

Oh, and one more thing: if you're a guy (and most of you are), you weren't really the target (especially for the J1). Complaining about the product just confirms that Nikon didn't accidentally hit innocent bystanders while aiming at their target.

Things That Surprised Me
Sept 22
With the uproar over the Nikon 1 still lingering and me seeming like the calmest and sanest person in the mix for a change, let me add a few bits to the roar. The things that disappointed me about the Nikon 1 are:

  • Price too high. Nikon would have sold many boat-loads of 1's if the price was right. Both prices are about US$150 too high initially. I predict we'll see Instant Rebates on these cameras before year's end.
  • No fast lens. Just one f/1.4 lens would have been nice. Even f/2. I suspect we'll eventually get this, but the apertures on the announced lenses are distinctly compact camera consumer crowd. The problem here is that we have 1/1.7" compacts with f/1.8 lenses. Which, in theory, means they should perform better than the J1 with the kit lens.
  • Lens size. The 1 mount lenses are too big. I doubt this makes a lot of difference to the compact user moving up--they'll pick between a GF3, E-PM1, NEX C3, and Nikon 1 on other factors--but it is a very important thing for those who are looking at a mirrorless camera to replace a compact camera as something more capable (e.g. the enthusiast's second or third camera).
  • It's not a Coolpix. I don't know what Nikon is thinking. They have a hard time marketing two lines of cameras. Adding a third is beyond their ability, I believe. Moreover, the 1 would make a nice cap on the Coolpix line and still allow the DSLR line to extend downwards. Instead, we have three camera lines, three lens mounts, pricing overlap the wrong way, and a host of other issues that are all marketing problems.
  • Speaking of marketing. The last minute countdown (I Am Coming) and big hands promotions were, well, hideously bad. Nikon breached their own countdown by half a day (and it wasn't time zone aware, apparently). They didn't actually identify themselves or set people's expectations about what might be coming. And the big hands thing just seems wrong, wrong, wrong. Nothing about the "big hands" scheme says or reinforces anything unique about the Nikon 1. You could have used that same promotion for any camera. Indeed, if anything, it seems to imply that the Nikon 1 is just another camera. And this was too last minute to make any real impression. The hands should have been up for a week (assuming that you could find a unique message by which to use them).
  • Crappy sample images. No, the underlying pixels aren't all that bad (I see some deep corner softness with the 10-30mm and some CA on blown highlights), it's that the photos themselves aren't marketable. I'd have hit the delete button on all these samples, for various reasons. This is a great vacation camera, so send a great photographer on vacation with the damned thing and let them shoot some real shots that are compelling. I suspect too many marketing and advertising guys were standing around directing the blah we got. Fire them. And stop cutting off elbows and having random arms in the shot and a haze of cyan/beige overall. Or maybe it was a product manager's samples trying to save money on marketing. Fire him and the decision makers. You only get one chance to make a first impression. The Nikon 1 samples didn't make a great impression. (The brochure pictures were better. However, the seagull image in the brochure shows that it was strongly post processed over the sample on the web [just look at the sky color alone] ;~).
  • There's a lot we don't know. Where it is made (China, I think). When it will be delivered (the camera is in the US dealer ordering system already, though, and the rumor is October). What the time line on the other lenses is (as much as three years according to sources in Japan, which is bad news). Who actually designed and made the sensor.
  • Still not social. This camera needed to be connected. To the social Internet, that is. Nikon myPicturetown won't cut it. Put a WiFi into the accessory shoe and let it talk to the world. Just don't botch it like Olympus did with their Bluetooth accessory.

And the things people need to pay more attention to:

  • Phase detect sensor. Think DSLR. Think Nikon having their own sensors for half their DSLR lineup. Think Nikon getting rid of the mirror in future DSLRs. A better solution than Sony's, IMHO.
  • V1 to D3100 gap. There's still a pretty large gap between the two models. The question is, will they fill that gap with a 1 model upwards or a DSLR model downwards (and consider the previous point before you answer).
  • Sensor/Expeed bandwidth. The Nikon 1 is running extraordinarily high data rates internally, higher than many of the DSLRs manage. This bodes well for next generation Nikons higher up in the lineup.
  • Sensor pitch. Without getting too deep into the bigger is better arguments, note that the photosite size on the Nikon 1 is about the same as on the NEX-7 (3.4 microns versus 3.9). Also, it's not tremendously far from the XZ-1 (3.4 microns versus 2.2). The implication is that Nikon could size up this sensor to DX and have 24mp+. See first point.
  • The camera can be silent. As in completely silent while shooting. That's the benefit of the electronic shutter, another aspect of this new sensor that is being not noticed as much as it should be.
  • Certain DX lenses now look more interesting. The 40mm Micro-Nikkor, for example, is a 108mm equivalent on the Nikon 1. Wait, that's a lot like...OMG, it's a 105 macro! The 50mm f/1.8 (yes, I know, not DX, but a recent of-interest-to-DX-users lens) is a 135mm (though not DC ;~). True, we're still losing out on the aperture game, but it just seems like there are a lot of recent Nikkors that have come across my desk that seem somewhat interesting on the Nikon 1. Almost to the point where I might be more likely to carry a Nikon 1 along with my D7000 instead of a m4/3 camera.

Finally, here's one more thing that's food for thought: it's time for a lot of people to start throwing out data. The Smart Photo Selector mode on the Nikon 1 does this directly, but there are other hints in the Nikon 1's design, as well. What the heck am I talking about? Let's say I'm a casual shooter and shoot the heck out of my weekends and vacations. Maybe 10,000 images a year. Do I want 24mp images? No. 10mp is more than enough for Facebook 2011 and even Facebook 2015. Maybe I want to analyze my golf swing at 1200 fps. Do I really want a full 16GB card of that? No, 120P is probably enough for me. Casual consumer shooters think differently than high-end shooters. They're not interested in how many bits they can get (24mp x 14), but rather in just enough bits for their purpose. Knowing which group you're in--pixel collectors or image collectors--is probably a good thing to know. There are more of the latter than there are of the former, by far. Most of you reading this site are probably in the former category, though.

Gotta Love Google Translate
Sept 22
Trying to piece together what's being said elsewhere without spending too much time agonizing with my rusty language skills, I turned to Google Translate. One article produced these wonderful quotes:

  • "Beginning of the presentation, the bacteria were greeted President Makoto Kimura Nikon."
  • "she said [actually Kimura-san, a he] the world has ever asking what." [I think I asked just that question yesterday]
  • "Foil machine was developed on behalf of others less mirrored."
  • "Mirror-less aircraft in Europe and American have gradually come." [Wait, are they black and silent and only come at night?]
  • "Probability of Field is the number one industry." [I wonder if they're hiring?]
  • "Americans love a great red." [Really? Does he mean wine or camera?]

I did enjoy the picture of the pink prototype carrying case for the "Pink Special Double Zoom Kit Kit."

But seriously, Nikon apparently views the market this way:

Compact users upgrade to Nikon 1 (probably J1 model, especially for women); Nikon 1 users upgrade to DSLRs; DSLR users supplement with Nikon 1 (probably V1 model). Unfortunately, what they probably heard from their serious user base today (based upon what I've seen on the net and received in my In Box) is that the current Nikon DSLR user thinks the Nikon 1 isn't the supplemental camera they were looking for (if that's you, please review Quote #3, two stories above).

By the way, Nikon, now that you're shooting videos with your cameras, please stop by the offices of someone who knows how to grade video and have them teach you how. All of the Nikon 1 promotional videos are above 100 IRE, gamma-ed (or exposed) too hot, and have jarring changes across cuts. Not that I always get this right at the moment in my own videos, but I'm also not trying to sell products with videos made with the products.

Reaction to Reactions
Sept 21
Dealers aren't enamored by the Nikon 1 (see next story). Not because of the camera itself, but because it represents a stocking nightmare. We've got two cameras in as many as five colors (with more coming), lenses in five colors, accessories in multiple colors, the list goes on and on. Maybe a big dealer can stock everything, but even Best Buy is going to have a hard time keeping the full mix of this stuff in stock. You could end up with a red camera with a black case with a white lens.

Meanwhile, I'd characterize the overall Nikon photographer reaction so far as "you didn't give me what I want so the Nikon 1 sucks." In other words, a fairly childish reaction (though Nikon marketing really only has themselves to blame for missed expectations). First thing first: we don't know if the Nikon 1 sucks. It most likely doesn't suck. In fact, I expect it to be the most competent Coolpix since, well, since a long, long, time ago. "Wait a second," you say, "it's not a Coolpix!" True. But it fits into the top of that lineup very nicely and forms a reasonable bridge to the DSLRs.

No, most of the reaction we're seeing is just anger. Anger that there's no D300s, D700, or D3s replacement in sight. Anger that a new consumer model should take the showplace late summer introduction spot over some professional camera. Anger that the number 24 wasn't mentioned anywhere (heck, not even in video frame rates ;~). Anger that Nikon would make a pink camera (hint: they have for some time). Just anger, anger, anger.

Rationally, Nikon filled a gap in their lineup. We can argue about whether the gap is fully filled (no) or whether Nikon's target for filling that gap is too low (maybe) or whether the price is too high (yes). But concluding that "Nikon has lost all reason" (as one emailer put it to me) is not a rational conclusion. Nikon is a camera company (two-thirds of sales). They are one of the very few left (Leica is another). They need to make cameras from bottom to top of the lineup that can withstand the competition or else they're likely to cease to exist as a company. They cannot live off of D4 sales (or D800 sales, or even both those plus D400 sales).

Personally, I welcome the Nikon 1. It probably won't replace my m4/3 system, but it at least gives Nikon a player in the small system market. The name, as I've already noted, indicates that Nikon thinks this is a start, not an end. We'll see how that goes.

Now, if you want to get angry about Nikon not having D700's and D3s's in stock, or you want to vent your anger after the D300s, D700, and D3s replacements are announced, that's another thing. But frankly I'm a little tired of this "you're only as good as your last announcement" sentiment that seems to pervade the Internet. Nothing has changed that makes the D3s or D3x non-competitive with other products out there (and arguably, that applies to the D7000, D300s, and D700, too). All this "Me want 24mp" bitching that's going on is easy to deal with: switch to Sony if that's what you want and you have to have it today (well, tomorrow, since it's not shipping just quite yet ;~). But then look in the mirror and realize that you're just a little self-centered and demanding. And don't complain if that 24mp isn't quite what you expected.

Meet the One
Sept 21
(news and commentary)--
Nikon today introduced their mirrorless camera, the Nikon 1, with two variations (the V1 and J1). One thing they can't be accused of is copying any of the current players. From basic design to details, you'll find a lot of unique bits. Overall, this is a rather full system announcement (two cameras, four lenses, flash, GPS, and F-mount adapter, with a number of additional future lenses and accessories also disclosed).

The unique bit that everything revolves around is the sensor. Nikon has produced a new 10mp 8.8x13.2mm (2.7x crop) sensor, and it has a few tricks up its sleeve. Video formats supported include 1080i/60, 1080P/30, and 720P/60. But wait, there's more: 240P/400 and 120P/1200. Yes, as in 400 frames per second and 1200 frames per second. Those new sizes are curious, though, as neither are anything close to a standard, meaning that they really only play well as windows on computers. There's also a 1080P/60 "motion snapshot" mode (no sound).

The two camera models are the US$899 V1, which has a built-in half-inch electronic viewfinder (EVF) with 1.44 million dots and eye detection plus a 920k dot 3" LCD, while the US$649 J1 replaces the EVF with a built-in flash and has a 420k dot 3" LCD. One additional difference is that the V1 has a mechanical (100k rated) shutter and a shake-it-off dust reduction mechanism; the J1 is solely electronic shutter and uses a dust shield. Both units use a non-standard accessory port for external flash and GPS support. The V1 comes in black or white, the J1 in red, pink, grey, white, and black. Both prices include the 10-30mm kit lens (see below). The J1 uses a new EN-EL20 battery, and MH-27 charger, while the V1 uses the EN-EL15 battery and can use all the standard accessories associated with that, including the EH-5b AC adapter.

Controls are rather Spartan, but straightforward. There's no PASM on the four-position mode dial (still, smart, movie, and motion snapshot), but you can set PASM in the menus. All the things you associate with Nikon DSLRs--Active D-Lighting, Picture Controls, etc., are present. Curiously, the V1's mechanical shutter syncs at 1/250, but the electronic shutter of the V1 and J1 have a flash sync of only 1/60. On the flip side, the electronic shutter goes to 1/16,000 of a second, which has to be a record for mirrorless cameras, and potentially useful if you're trying to do wide aperture shots outdoors. The V1 has front and rear IR detectors that work with the Nikon ML-L3 remote, the J1 only a front detector.

Along with the cameras we get four new 1 mount lenses: 10mm f/2.8 pancake, 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR kit lens, 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 VR super zoom, and 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR telephoto zoom. Applying the 2.7x crop factor, that gives us 27mm, 27-81mm, 27-270mm, and 81-297mm equivalency. Nikon also will be supplying an F-mount adapter that will allow auto focusing with AF-I and AF-S lenses.

As I noted, there are lots of small details, and the lenses are one point where you see that. With collapsing lenses like the kit lens, if you extend the lens, the camera turns on--you don't need to turn the camera on and extend the lens. But more importantly, phase detection sensors are built into the imaging sensor: this is the first mirrorless camera with a 135-point direct phase detect system for fast initial focus (Sony's NEX achieves this via the Alpha lens adapter).

Future lenses include a wide-angle zoom, a super telephoto zoom, a macro lens, a portrait lens, a normal lens, and an even smaller kit zoom lens.

Of course, the question everyone has is "what the?" I think Nikon's making a statement here. DX is going to continue to hold the fort in highly competent system cameras, while FX will continue to stay at the top of the heap. Nikon 1, therefore, is Nikon's answer to "what is logically below a D3100-type of camera?" Moreover, the "1" designation seems to indicate that Nikon sees this as another seminal product that kicks off a new long-term system (as in F1, D1).

Technically, if the sensor ratio of DX to FX is a correct scale, m4/3 should have been the answer, as it stands about the same distance from DX as DX is from FX. Nikon, however, has taken a full step below m4/3:

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan.

Nikon 1 also represents about a full stop step up from the largest compact sensor size commonly used, so it does indeed fill a missing gap in the stop-by-stop sensor progression. The question, of course, is whether that gap needed filling. I'll go out on a limb here since I haven't had a chance to use the new camera and say yes, the gap probably did need filling. Or maybe I should put it this way: Nikon needed something more competent than they've done so far with Coolpix but which doesn't cannibalize their DSLR lineup.

Unfortunately, this is Nikon once again aiming at the consumer electronics market, not the photography market. While the camera has some very respectable enthusiast touches to it (it shoots raw, for example), Nikon appears to be targeting the person not satisfied with camera phones and compact cameras more than they are the photo enthusiast who wants a camera they carry around with them all the time. That the controls are more P300-like than P7100-like are one giveaway.

I know there will be a lot of push-back on Nikon in the coming weeks. The missing D300s, D700, and D3s replacements are what the loyal Nikon user really wants to see. The 10mp count seems low, even with all the video who-haw. Another new lens set when we're still missing a number of DX lenses doesn't bode well for that problem going away. Plus there's this (wrong) perception that Sony now has lots of 24mp goodness and therefore trumps everyone.

Let be clear about a couple things. First, in terms of mirrorless systems, there's really only one reasonably complete system at the moment, and that's m4/3. An m4/3 user has a wide choice of lenses, accessories, and cameras. They perform quite well, and if you buy during the occasional Olympus or Panasonic fire sale on previous generation product, they cost less (and perform better) than a serious compact compact (G12, XZ-1, etc.). Sony's NEX system is let down by its lens choices, while Samsung's NX system is let down by its sensors (though I haven't tested the NX200 yet).

Yes, I know that you can put a legacy lens on a NEX-7. I can put legacy lenses on my D3s, too, but I don't do that a lot because there is an advantage to having full automation available. If someone wants to argue that the NEX-7 is total goodness when coupled with, oh, say my 58mm NOCT and a Nikon F-mount adapter, by all means make your argument. But it's not everyone's cup of tea. The majority of camera buyers are looking for complete, self-contained solutions that don't have any caveats or special dependencies. It's only the pixel freak, gotta be able to make 36" prints from my Flickr gallery crowd that needs 24mp.

The interesting thing about Nikon's new V1 and J1 cameras is this: they don't really have any direct competition. The Pentax Q is smaller (in sensor and form). Both m4/3 and NEX/NX are larger (in sensor and form), and tend to compete with low-end DSLRs more than high-end compacts. Nikon has managed to produce something different. Whether that sticks or not is another question. On paper, however, the V1 has a lot going for it that the P7100 doesn't.

I Am Past Ready 2
Sept 20
Sometimes I wonder about what companies are really thinking with their marketing. It appears that Nikon is running a countdown promotion towards tomorrow's announcement, called I Am Coming. I use the word "appears" because the site is not a Nikon site, has no Nikon identification (other than the yellow and the "I Am..." phrasing). For a product that's expected, you don't run blind (no ID) countdowns, at least not in my book. If you do get a viral pass around on the countdown (not sure why you would, since it's just a counter, and countdown counters are ubiquitous on the Web these days), you risk the "oh, it's just another camera from Nikon" reaction when the product is revealed.

In essence, the only thing that's being teased is the company involved, and that's not really hidden given the trade livery used. Now, if said new product had some very unique attribute, it might be useful to tease that. But given the use of the word "coming," which has sexual connotations in the West, I somehow doubt that Nikon is teasing a feature.

My overall take? Too many chefs who don't know the recipe were involved.

I Am Past Ready
Sept 19
Did Olympus hire the ad agency that Nikon used back in the D40/D80 days?

On the day I was flying home, Olympus partnered with Jet Blue and gave everyone on a JetBlue NYC to Fort Lauderdale flight an Olympus E-PM1 (complete with a cute Olympus bag and I'm Pen Ready t-shirt (and is that phrase just a conjunction of Nikon's I Am campaign? Nikon: I am fill-in-the-blank. Olympus: I'm fill-in-the-blank.). You can see the--I hope preliminary--results of the project here. Had I been on the flight, I'm not sure what I'd have done with another Pen--I was already carrying three ;~).

After criticizing Olympus recently for not having a tangible marketing slogan that gets across the m4/3 difference, it appears that they appear to now have one (and it's not I'm Pen Ready): Pack Small. Shoot Big. Finally, and just in time for Nikon to announce a smaller camera that'll likely hit the same buttons.

As for the hyperbole on the penready.com site, no, it is not a project that's never been seen before. Giving away cameras to see what happens has been done at least three times that I know of, and I'm sure plenty more times than that. I also think Olympus should have started hyping this--excuse me, building exceitement--before they started the giveaways (although apparently there are more to come), as in "Are You Ready to Pack Small and Shoot Big? We're giving away 1000 Pen cameras to find out. Are you Pen Ready?" You want people hoping they'll be one of the chosen few and looking to see what's happening, not just learning about what the chosen few did.

So far the resulting images from new users aren't quite the level of Nikon's Flickr giveaway, but one can hope. I can report that it isn't the camera that's the problem ;~).

The Impact of the Summer of Mirrorless
Sept 19
This is apparently announce week for the Nikon mirrorless camera. I'll save the details on the new gear for when Nikon makes their formal announcement on Wednesday, but I did want to point out something: the game is now officially on.

By the end of the week, the only significant player without a mirrorless interchangeable camera should be Canon. Consider the top ten camera maker list:

  • Canon: no entry.
  • Sony: NEX 3c, NEX 5n, NEX 7 (APS)
  • Nikon: two models (2.7x)
  • Samsung: NX100, NX200, NX20, etc. (APS)
  • Panasonic: GH2, G3, GF3, etc. (m4/3)
  • Kodak: no entry.
  • Olympus: E-PM1, E-PL3, E-P3, etc. (m4/3)
  • Fujfilm: no entry.
  • Casio: no entry.
  • Ricoh/Pentax: Q (compact), GXR (APS)

Six of the teams are playing in this new mirrorless league, four aren't. Of the top five camera makers, four are playing, one is not. Of the four that aren't playing, Kodak is slowly getting out of cameras, and Fujifilm is rumored to begin playing--they've certainly tinkered at the margins, and the X100 gives them something to point to while they consider their position.

Put another way, once Nikon enters, camera makers that claim 57% of the camera market will have mirrorless entrants (the four non-players represent 35% of the camera market, with the remainder of the market split amongst quite a few smaller entities, and one of those, Leica, technically has a mirrorless system).

So we have three very distinct choices:

  • Samsung and Sony have chosen a large (APS) sensor. While the cameras are compact, the lenses tend to be the same size as those for consumer DSLRs. These competitors have chosen a quality advantage for a size disadvantage.
  • Nikon has apparently chosen a small (2.7x) sensor. This should result in an advantage in size at the disadvantage of quality. (Pentax also picked small, but they picked "too small." )
  • Panasonic and Olympus, who really kicked off the craze, are right in the middle, with a sensor (m4/3) that is one notch below consumer DSLRs in size but one notch above Nikon's choice. Technically, that position compromises size and quality compared to different competitors, but represents a possible Goldilocks choice ("just right").

What we have here is a marketing opportunity. Each group has something that they can point to that distinguishes them from the others. The question is thus "who's going to be the best at marketing their advantage?"

Olympus and Panasonic had two years to establish a clear marketing position. I'm still not sure what that position is. Sony seems to be making NEX into "smaller SLTs," so they're not exactly driving a clear position even within their own cameras. Nikon historically hasn't been a great marketer, either.

Someone's going to have to deliver a clear marketing message to win this contest. If they don't, here in the US the game will depend upon the same thing it's always depended upon: who has the best shelf space and dealer coop program (that would imply Nikon followed by Sony).

Software Updates
Sept 19 (news)--Photo Mechanic 4.6.8 is now available, and includes support for the E-P3, E-PL2, GF-2, GH2, as well as some improvement to handling for Sony formats. MacPhun introduced FX Photo Studio Pro 2 for the Mac, with 150 different effects (now available in the Mac App Store). BeLight's Mac-based Image Tricks 3.0.4 improves relaibility with Lion. Tiffen introduced Dfx3, with several new features including color shadow, deband, deblock, and denoise, amongst others.

The US$399 DSLR
Sept 14
A few years ago, during the middle of the D40/D40x/D60 progression, Nikon executives made a statement that essentially said "camera makers need to be ready to make and sell US$399 DSLRs." The implication was that those days were not far away. So where are those inexpensive cameras? Today we pretty much have the same US$599 price for low-end DSLR kits as we've had for years.

First, consider this: towards the end of film SLRs we had many models under the US$399 mark. True, film SLRs didn't have as much complex electronics in them, but they also had absurdly complex hand assembly issues and some fairly complex mechanical components, as well. It's difficult to reduce costs with difficult hand assembly. Yet somehow that's what we got. Indeed, the cost of assembly was one of the reasons why the consumer film SLRs started getting built in Thailand by Nikon: lower hourly wages and benefits.

Personally, I'm amazed at the intricate designs we're still dealing with in today's DSLRs. There's still an enormous amount of hand assembly involved, and your Nikon DSLR may have a couple of thousand parts or more in it. Is that necessary? No, it isn't. If you disassemble a NEX-3C and compare it to a D3100 you'll see that there's a big reduction in both parts and intricacy of assembly.

So why haven't we seen the camera makers push that and prices at the DSLR level?

Simple answer: they didn't have to.

At the time Nikon executives made their statement, Olympus was trying to push 4/3 DSLRs downward in price to try to build some meaningful market share. Seeing a US$499 kit from Olympus was a regular thing, even if it was not the latest and greatest camera they had launched. Since the most expensive part of a DSLR is the sensor, and since that cost increases logarithmically with size, the smaller Olympus sensor should have given them a pricing advantage, all else equal. Thus, one way to take the Nikon executive's statements was "we're going to match or beat you on price, Olympus, even with our sensor cost disadvantage."

But Olympus made no in-roads to beating the Canon/Nikon duopoly with their 4/3 DSLRs and about three years ago put their eggs instead into the m4/3 basket. Every now and again we see older m4/3 cameras on clearance hitting the US$399 kit price, but interestingly, even at that price those cameras don't climb to the top of the interchangeable camera sales list. What sits up there? The low-end Nikon and Canon models most of the time. Even in mirrorless-happy Japan that's the case.

In short, no one broke through the duopoly and caused the price drops Nikon (and likely Canon, as well) had anticipated. Even the Great Recession didn't break the price point. So is that a good thing or bad? It has attributes of both. On the good side, it means that Nikon retained product margins and probably even improved them at the low end. Things like CDs, manuals, straps, cables, etc., didn't disappear out of the box in an attempt to cut costs (okay, part of the manual disappeared to PDF form on the Web). Both Nikon and Canon seem to iterate the low-end cameras on yearly basis now, and we've seen them blossom from completely bare-bones, stripped down models to something somewhat more substantitve. The old iterate-slightly-upscale-but-keep-the-same-price-point methodology seems to be intact for the entire consumer DSLR lines. Nikon and Canon know how to do that quite well--it's one of the things that created the duopoly in the first place. The bad side is that we get small steps and no real rethink on the DSLR idea itself. A D3100 is recognizably a D40 with some new guts and features. The latest low-end Rebel is recognizably a Rebel with some new guts and features.

Two sources of DSLR buyers exist: new and upgrading. The new user is slowly declining, just as happened in film SLRs. Will every household have a DSLR? No. DSLRs aren't like TVs, radios, cell phones, or cars: they don't tend to sell in multiples per household. Thus, once the threshold of adaptation is neared, sales slow and mostly become due to our second DSLR user, the upgrader. Here, DSLRs have done better than film SLRs. With film SLRs there really was only one big advance that demanded updating: autofocus. The N8008s to N90s to F100 progression, for instance, was fairly subtle and centered on smaller advances. But the D100 to D200 to D300s to Dnext progression is making substantive, measurable leaps. Sensor size and performance, the addition of video, buffer capacity, in-camera processing, and a host of other things have all made substantive changes with each generation. So there's slightly more urge to upgrade amongst DSLR users than there was amongst SLR users. However, as I've pointed out previously, the gains are getting less tangible. Do you really need 16mp instead of 12? How often do you really need a 100 frame buffer? Are you really using the in-camera post processing capabilities? Or are you just taking pictures?

A lot of photographers dismiss the mirrorless cameras, but they form a pretty strong bridge between the small but less capable compact cameras and the big and highly capable DSLRs. As the answers to those questions in the last paragraph become "no, I don't need those additions" the next question becomes "well, would a smaller, just as capable camera be of interest?" The answer to that question will eventually be yes for a lot of the current DSLR upgrade crowd. For example, I use my Olympus E-P3 far more than my D3100. Curiously, the entry price in mirrorless is tending to be, you guessed it, US$599-699, somewhat the same range as the low-end DSLR. No wonder every camera maker (except for maybe Canon) wants into that market and for that market to eventually succeed: the price point is the same but the costs of producing the product is less. Profits are increased.

So prepare for more mirrorless cameras. As I've noted previously, it's been a mirrorless summer already (Olympus with three, Panasonic with two, Sony with three, Samsung with one new model announced and/or shipping). But don't prepare for the US$399 interchangeable lens camera. The camera makers haven't been pressured to get there yet. The price of entry is pretty much US$599, same as it ever was.

Software Updates
Sept 12 (news)--DxO Labs released Film Pack 3, another collection of photo effects designed to simulate various films of the past. Topaz Labs released B&W Effects, a Photoshop plug-in for converting images to black-and-white (also works in Aperture and Lightroom). This week it is still available for US$29.99, the intro price. Serif released PhotoPlus X5, which has a new organizer and adds some of those "in" controls (e.g. vibrance and clarity). Corel introduced PaintShop Pro X4, with over 75 new and enhanced features plus improved performance. Shuttersnitch 2.1.6 got some minor tweaks and fixes.

Death of the DSLR
Sept 12 (commentary)--
It seems that the latest trend in commenting about digital cameras is to proclaim that we're seeing the death of the DSLR. Analysts, reporters, bloggers, and even Joe and Jill Consumer have been repeating that phrase for a while now.

Some reality: even film SLRs aren't dead. They're still being made, though in limited quantity and from only a few dwindling vendors. It's darned hard to kill a successful product platform. Instead, they tend to only fade with time. Really popular products are kept alive by a handful of diehards who are willing to pay more to keep what they know and like (witness the LP crowd in audio). Death, it seems, is over reported for product categories.

So are DSLRs dying? First you have to ask "what constitutes a DSLR?" Is a Sony A77 a DSLR, or because of the non-optical viewfinder should we consider it something different? Maybe we should call it a DSLE (Digital Single Lens Electronic ;~). Clearly, most people don't regard the NEX and Pen cameras as DSLRs, yet in Japan they're counted in the same category (interchangeable lens cameras). So if we use Japanese statistics, interchangeable lens cameras are actually growing in unit volume. Of course, the "growth" in those numbers comes entirely from mirrorless cameras and not traditional DSLRs, whose sales have been flat or slightly declining.

The thing driving the "DSLR is dead" mantra is the (incorrect) perception that some mirrorless cameras have gotten to the point where they can do everything a DSLR can and will completely replace them. For example, we have the Sony NEX-7 with a 24mp DX sensor, which puts it higher in resolution than a D7000, right? And we've got the Olympus E-P3 with the "fastest autofocus of any interchangeable lens camera," which makes it faster than a D3s, right? Plus we've got the GH2, which has better video than the 5DII or the D5100.

What's happening is something a bit different than what most people think is happening. As sensors and imaging have gotten to very high levels of performance, it's starting to allow us to choose our cameras for purpose. A similar thing happened with computers, where we eventually got tablets, netbooks, laptops, all-in-ones, and desktop systems. In other words, we're seeing choice appear rather than have only two basic choices (low-end non-performing compact camera and high-end high-performing DSLR). Today I can make a choice of camera to carry with me and use. For truly casual images it might be the Olympus XZ-1. For convenience over ultimate performance it might be the Olympus E-P3 or E-PL3. For ultimate performance over convenience it might be my D3s and D3x. Ultimately, the images I shoot with all these cameras are all "good enough" because I've chosen the right camera for the right task.

Frankly, I do the same thing with computers as I do with cameras: use the one that's best suited for the purpose at hand. For travel where weight and size are a concern, my computer of choice is a Macbook Air. For other travel I use a Macbook Pro. In the office I'm using an older MacPro that's been upgraded to death. So are desktop systems dead? No, though they don't sell in the quantity that they used to--most of the action is in portable devices these days (laptops and tablets).

The same thing is happening with cameras: DSLRs will continue to be a mainstay of pros and those who require ultimate performance. DSLRs aren't dead, and they aren't dying. Will mirrorless cameras outsell DSLRs? Quite probably, though we're still a fair way from that happening.

Be careful of the messenger, too. Panasonic doesn't make DSLRs, so they want you to believe the DSLR is dead message. Olympus, too, has basically transitioned from a DSLR company to a mirrorless one, so they really would like you to believe the DSLR is dead. Sony, well, they just want to sell something and have taken the tact of making everything to see what sticks. If you buy a Sony NEX thinking DSLRs are dead they'll be happy. If you buy an A77 thinking that a DSLE is better than a DSLR, they'll be happy. If you buy one of their few remaining DSLRs, they'll be happy. Just buy something with Sony written on the front seems to be their current message.

The DSLR is not dead. It just has siblings.

The Strange September Situation
Sept 9 (commentary)--It seems pretty clear we'll have some sort of product announcement from Nikon on September 21st. If it's anything like business-as-normal for Nikon, we'll get a single camera announced (plus lenses). Coupled with the recent articles by Reuters and Nikkei Business Daily, this is about to put Nikon into a rather strange situation vis-a-vis its loyal customer base and its marketing against competitors. Let me explain.

Nikon followers are waiting for four things from Nikon: the D4, the D700 follow up, the D300s follow up, and the mirrorless system. Consider what happens if the Sept 21st announcement is any one, and only one, of those things:

  • D4. Pros and organizations would be happy that they could finally do a bit more planning on replacing or augmenting their systems, but the general din of complaint would be overwhelming, because the D4 would actually be interesting to far fewer people than any of the other three. A D4 announcement is important as an announcement of future technology platforms, but not so much as a product that sells in large quantities and satisfies customer demands. Moreover, a D4 announcement is not likely to be quickly followed by shipments, so basically nothing would change in the Nikon DSLR world. Those waiting for any of those other three cameras would be extremely let down and likely we'd hear another round of "I'm switching" complaints, though this time mostly to Sony instead of Canon.
  • D700 follow up. Tremendous cheers and excitement would ensue (assuming it was a well-considered update), buying queues would fill up fast, Nikon's credibility as the choice for enthusiasts would be renewed, and all would be right with the world (sarcasm filter now off). But pros and organizations would wonder why Nikon missed their four-year update cycle on the pro product.
  • D300s follow up. Probably the second most hoped for scenario, as the expectation is that this product would dull the Sony A77 parade that's been making a lot of noise lately, and it would give serious DX users a camera they've long been waiting for. However, those longing for an affordable FX body update or the pro FX body update would wonder if Nikon is ever going to get around to giving them some love. Still, probably the second-best thing that could happen on September 21st from a Nikon user viewpoint.
  • Mirrorless introduction. Amongst Nikon users there's not a tremendous demand for a mirrorless offering, especially one that's likely to be something like a Coolpix P300 with a larger sensor and interchangeable lenses. Here in the US, mirrorless still hasn't taken off, so the problem with this scenario is that a big announcement of mirrorless might play well in Asia, but most of the rest of the world would be wondering where their D4, D700 follow up, and D300s follow up were. Riots would form, Nikon stores attacked...oh wait, I turned sarcasm off, didn't I? (sarcasm about sarcasm filter now turned off).

The only single camera announcement that would have a nearly completely positive response from brand loyalists is the D700 follow up. Moreover, that would put Nikon ahead of Canon's 5DIII introduction, something that's important for them to do, I think.

Now let's flip away from the type of person reading this site (brand loyalist, serious enthusiast, whatever you want to call yourself). Consider what the general market response would be to each of the four possible announcements:

  • D4. Yawn. Expected, and not important in the grand scheme of things. When the heck is Nikon going to take on mirrorless and the Sony threat?
  • D700 follow up. Interesting. Should position them well against Canon in that smallish-but-important market. But when the heck is Nikon going to take on mirrorless and the Sony threat?
  • D300s follow up. Wow. Nikon moved fast to dull the Sony A77 threat. Good. But where's the mirrorless camera, and why are the high-end Nikon users all complaining?
  • Mirrorless. This proves that mirrorless is the future, as one of the Big Two have finally made a move. Wait, isn't it kind of small and expensive? And why are all of Nikon's DSLR customers all in an uproar?

September is now a marketing problem for Nikon because it's all about perception. The issue is that, almost no matter what Nikon does later this month, they won't have correctly managed the perceptions of enough of their current and potential customers. As it is, Nikon is making bad moves even before the announcement(s): last night we got a Spartan two sentence statement out of Nikon apparently in response to the Nikkei Business Daily report about the mirrorless camera. That Nikon statement basically said "we haven't announced anything." Gee. We hadn't noticed, thanks for the update.

So, place your bets (and let's hope that double zero doesn't come up).

The Slow Death of Proprietary Color
Sept 8 (commentary)--Think film for a moment. Back in those wonderful days of perfect color (cough), you had your choice of Fujifilm color or Kodak color. Maybe Agfa color and a few variations on the Big Two's colors, as well. Camera makers had no say in the matter. There were no controls on a camera that could change the color you ended up with.

Digital, of course, changed all that. Someone had to pick the filtration for the Bayer layer, which impacted color, and someone had to figure out how to demosaic (convert) the raw data into color RGB pixels. The sensor/demosaic choices dictated a color palette, and further camera controls (contrast, saturation, white balance, etc.) then gave you even more choices.

Early on in digital DSLRs, we had three very distinct color choices: Fujifilm, Canon, and Nikon all went different routes with their early decisions regarding color. Fujifilm was known for a double hue shift (greens and reds shifted towards yellow), Canon for a red/orange emphasis, and Nikon for a coldly neutral, perhaps with a bit too much magenta.

Over time, however, we've slowly seen the makers on a convergence path. This was partly caused by all the testing we do these days. DxO and Imatest are happy to report color divergence errors to known targets. The assumption is that if the camera reproduces a test target color wrong, there's something wrong with its colors. Frankly, I'm all for that, as starting with dead on neutral colors and making changes is easier than starting with colors that are off and trying to make changes. Put another way, I want to control color, not let my camera maker dictate it.

Not that there aren't still small color differences between the makers. Nikon's choice of Standard for Picture Control is actually a small shift from neutral. Fortunately, they provide a Neutral Picture Control, too. But one thing I've noticed is that the differences have slowly been reducing between makers. Some of this is common use of sensors (same Bayer filtration), some is the dread of getting dinged for not being color accurate in lab tests by organizations reporting to potential buyers, some is probably just a better understanding of how to control color correctly.

So I have to ask myself: what's the point, then, of camera makers not sharing information on how to convert a raw file to match in camera JPEGs? Indeed, either way I can't understand the point of non-disclosure:

  1. Highly Proprietary Color (e.g. Fujifilm's double-hue shift): if 90% of users are using other raw converters, then 90% of your raw shooters aren't getting your proprietary color!
  2. Neutral Non-Proprietary Color (e.g. Nikon's Neutral Picture Control): why make it difficult for someone to get non-proprietary results? That's just making life difficult for your customer.

Of course, part of the answer is "we want to sell you something else." In Nikon's case, that would be Capture NX2. In other words, "if we make it hard for others to do, you'll have to buy our software product." Yeah, that goes over well with customers: force them to do something they don't want to do. Then don't update the product to 64-bit or current operating systems in a timely fashion and make them feel even more pain. Doesn't exactly make for happy customers, does it?

Frankly, we're at the point now where the camera companies need to make a choice (or choose both): clearly proprietary color or neutral color. And either way, as I note above, it makes full sense to disclose exactly what that is and how it is achieved.

Small footnote: I shoot with cameras from at least five camera makers. Ever notice that you can tell which camera I used from what I post? No, didn't think so. I have my own values when it comes to color, and I process to those, not something dictated to me by a camera manufacturer.

Nikon Sees Red
Sept 8 (news)--Big DSLR news coming out of Nikon: at the end of the month you'll be able to get a D3100 in either black or red (at least in Japan and Europe). Yep, Nikon has succumbed to the colorization fad. Well, technically, they succumbed to it several years ago in the Coolpix line. Because Nikon didn't exactly plan for color in the DSLR lineup, the thing looks pretty ugly with lots of black buttons, dials, and other parts arrayed on the red plastic body. Next step: college and sports team logos. Color me indifferent, but it really does seem like Nikon has now joined several other camera companies in jumping the shark.

Adobe Extends ACR Again
Sept 7 (news)--At Photoshop World this morning, Adobe announced Carousel, a new software initiative designed to provide access to your photographs everywhere, on (almost) every platform.

In the Photoshop World demo that introduced the program, Adobe showed acquisition from both an iPhone camera and from files from more traditional cameras brought from the desktop. Once images are in Carousel on one platform, they become available to you on any other platform you have (with some delay in building thumbnails and moving the full set of data over if you want to look at or manipulate the image directly). All edits, as in Lightroom, are non-destructive. The photos themselves live in the cloud, thus this is a subscription service (intro price is US$59.99 a year or US$5.99 a month, though the eventual price will be US$99.99 a year and US$9.99 a month; early adapters are price protected for three years).

But Carousel is more than just having access to all your photos on all your devices: it's really a social media platform. Your Carousels can be shared with others (and yes, you can have private and multiple public assets). Carousel can further share via Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Much more functionality is going to be unlocked in the future according to the product manager for Carousel, so I assume Google+, Flickr, and other connections will also appear. I couldn't get a clear answer as to whether Carousel is extendable by third party developers ala Lightroom, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was.

The interesting aspect of Adobe's photographic endeavors is just how many ways in which they're managing to package the same basic core engines into different (and interesting) products. The same raw conversion and image developing routines that sit under ACR (Photoshop) and Lightroom are also behind Carousel's manipulation controls.

Carousel will be available on the Apple platforms (Macintosh, iPad, and iPhone) in this month. Windows and Android are promised for first half of 2012. Since this is a subscription service, there is no extra charge for additional devices you wish to access Carousel through (i.e., you can have all your computers and portable devices active with Carousel for no extra cost).

Once again we have a Silicon Valley company understanding what users really want to be able to do with their photos (collect them in one place and access them anywhere with anything). The Japanese camera companies still don't seem to get the Internet-connected world of images, though many keep dabbling at the edges. Unfortunately, they get caught up in proprietary platforms and never get to the common solution in the middle. Then they get upset when companies like Facebook, Apple, and now Adobe fast become the new Kodaks of the world instead of them.

Three solutions for the camera companies:

  • Make every possible camera users want and make sure they are enabled with every connection to where the user wants the photos (e.g. "send to Facebook, send to Carousel," etc.).
  • Fully understand what users want to do with photos and become the primary hub for that (oops, Adobe just got there first). Build devices, conduits, and connections that feed the hub and pollinate from the hub.
  • Just continue to do what they've been doing. Unfortunately, there will be 2.2 billion camera enabled devices sold this year, and less than 150 million of them are actually cameras. Oops, redux.

Now read the following story again and think about what Adobe is trying to do versus what Panasonic is trying to do.

I Had to Laugh
Sept 6 (commentary)--First, you need to watch a video. This video is part of an attempt by Panasonic's marketing to look connected with their Web audience. Basically, people asked questions via email or social networking, these were then cherry-picked by Panasonic and answered via a live streaming video broadcast from Panasonic's booth at the recent IFA trade show. Nice idea, and I give them full marks for trying (if you look at all the videos you'll find that they used on-screen interviewers that didn't know much about cameras, which is just one of the small issues of why it doesn't come off as cleanly as it could have).

But my chuckle comes from the workflow involved. The answer to the question "Why doesn't Panasonic come up with a camera that lets me upload pictures to social networks?", it appears, is "use an iPhone." Which, of course, can do the same thing by itself without needing a Panasonic camera. (Also, it looks like Panasonic's answer is that Facebook is the only social site worth uploading to, but that's a different problem.)

Basically, take a picture with the Panasonic FX90 WiFi-enabled camera, have it transmit that image to the iPhone via a Panasonic iPhone App that basically builds an AdHoc WiFi network, then have the photo sent via the phone's 3G to Facebook. The steps: (1) start Panasonic iPhone App (may require WiFi settings be turned on); (2) take picture; (3) press Playback; (3) press the WiFi button; (4) press Yes on the screen; (5) click OK when image is transferred. Oh yes, and have some "technical difficulties" in the process (gotta love live shoots).

People wonder why Apple is doing so well. Of course, they make very fine products, IMHO, but here we have a competitor, Panasonic, using an Apple product to do the heavy-lifting. Funny thing is, Panasonic makes cell phones with cameras in them. Why wasn't that the answer? Of course, Panasonic is going to say "well you use our camera instead of the iPhone's because we have more features, like a zoom button." This is insane marketing. Why? Because you're completely enabling and endorsing a competitor! (Which is one reason why Apple is doing so well: others are doing their advertising for them.) How long do you think it will be before the iPhone camera zooms? It already does HD video, autofocus, and a host of other things, after all. So by saying "buy a Panasonic camera to get some features that the iPhone doesn't have" now you risk also saying "you don't need the Panasonic camera once Apple adds the few missing things to their product" in the future.

I've written many times that I feel that the Japanese camera company marketing leaves a lot to be desired. Here we have a company doing many of the right things (bringing a trade show live to their Web followers) but then making some blunders in doing so (enabling a competitor). Worse still, if you look at the picture that was taken, there was no need for the Panasonic camera: the iPhone can take that same photo! In other words, the one reason why you might want to use a Panasonic camera instead of your iPhone in this instance wasn't even demonstrated. I had to infer it, and from things that weren't even said by the demonstrators.

Of course, there's a school of thought that says ANY marketing is still marketing and useful. Apparently Panasonic's execs went to that school. My former marketing instructors at the Kelly School of Business might have something different to say, though.

P7100 Dives
Sept 6 (news)--Fantasea has announced their underwater housing for the Coolpix P7100 will be available in early 2012 and use the accessory line already developed for the Coolpix P7000 underwater housing.

Hasselblad Gets it Right
Sept 6 (news and commentary)--Hasselblad isn't punishing owners of earlier bodies: they're rolling all the firmware additions and changes they made for their upcoming H4D-60 model into updates for H4D-40 and H4D-50 owners. Bravo. Brand loyalty is a two-way street. First, you do something to earn it, as Hasselblad has just done. Then you get it back from your users.

Nikon Rebates
Sept 6 updated (news)--Nikon's existing DSLR+lens rebates appear to have been extended through the 24th of September or through the end of the month. I've gotten conflicting information from different dealers. The dealer I trust most tells me that he thinks it's only the D3100 related rebates that expire on September 24th and the rest extend to the end of the month. That's an interesting date, since we expect new equipment to be introduced on the 21st. One would guess that if the new mirrorless system is being introduced, that it'll slot under the D3100 in price, thus keeping the D3100 price down via rebate will probably end for at least a short period to create some pricing differential.

More Updates
Sept 6 (news)--Iridient Digital's RAW Developer 1.9.2 (Mac) has improved demosaic and DNG support, plus support for several new cameras, including the D5100 and E-P3. Noise Control from The Plugin Site is now available in a Mac OS X version.

Sept 5 (news)--Apple released Digital Camera Raw Compatibility Update 3.8 (no new Nikon updates, but covers many of the latest Olympus and Panasonic releases). Version 3.0 (for Nikon) of the PocketWizard software for MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 is now available, and has several simple but useful additions and changes. For those looking to get maximum recycling speed, the MultiMAX's SpeedCycler has been added (allows you to sequence remote units so that the resting units can recycle). Silverfast has updated their scanning software to version 8, which includes 64-bit and Mac Lion support and has an updated interface with real-time preview.

Mirrorless Summer 5 (and much more)
Sept 5 (news)--Samsung announced their much anticipated NX200. This follow-up to their small mirrorless camera now has a 20mp sensor (APS sized) and 1080P/30 video, 7 fps frame rate, and 3" OLED LCD all wrapped in a metal body. Compared to the earlier NX100, the new model is a little thinner and not quite as tall. It's expected to ship in late September for US$899 with the kit lens and included shoe mount flash. As a reminder, sometime later this year we should see the 16mm f/2.8 pancake, 60mm f/2.8 macro, 85mm f/1.4 portrait, and 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 superzoom for the NX system to go with the lenses already released (see my Mirrorless Lenses page).

Meanwhile, Fujifilm engineers have continued their assault on the 1960's with their announcement of the X10. This 12mp compact camera has a lot of X100 design flavor to it. Yep, there's an optical zoom viewfinder (not a hybrid like the X100), a metal body, and semi-retro controls outfitting this new camera. A 28-112mm equivalent f/2-2.8 lens sits out front, while behind it you'll find a large (for compact cameras) 2/3" 12mp EXR sensor (which can create raw files). This appears to be a resurrection of the sensor technology that was in some of Fujifilm's earlier bridge cameras, which bodes well, as until Fujifilm got on a megapixel count craze, most of those EXRs were very competitive. No price or official date yet, though November is the expected drop date.

Those of you who picked up an Olympus XZ-1 after my review should note that Olympus has produced a lens converter for it: the TCON-17X is a 1.7x converter that gets you to 190mm equivalent, while still at f/2.5. As with the old Coolpix converters, you need an adapter ring (CLA-12) to mount the adapter on the camera. The ring also provides a 55mm filter capability for the XZ-1, which is useful.

About Sony Sensors
Sept 5 (news and commentary)--Sony Semiconductor has been giving some interesting presentations lately about their current and future sensor business. A few things stood out to me, like this statistic:

DSLR sensors are 1% of SS's production, 27% of SS's sales. By contrast, cell-phone sensors are 81% of production, but only 36% of sales. Sony claims 11% of the cell-phone camera sensor market, 64% of the compact camera market, and 38% of the sensors for DSLRs.

Some of the more intriguing statements came in the presentation on new Super Reality sensors that are coming. Sony is presenting a new filtration idea (seems awful close to one Kodak patented a while back): a WGWB GWRW WBWG RWGW 16-pixel filtration block (W is "no color filter"). This represents a Bayer filter at 45 degrees interspersed with added no filter areas, and provides improved signal-to-noise (dynamic range) at the expense of color discrimination.

Still Coming
August 25 (commentary)--I think I've said from the beginning that a D4 wouldn't ship until the end of the year. I still expect that we're talking about Dec/Jan ship, no matter when it is announced. Anything else means that Nikon missed a cycle, yet nothing I've heard from any in Nikon or who might have some idea about it has even hinted that might be the case.

FWIW, here's where I stand in expectations at the moment:

  • D4 announce unknown, ship around end of year (Dec/Jan/Feb).
  • D700 replacement announce soon (Sept), ship late in year.
  • D300s replacement I don't expect until 2012.
  • Mirrorless I expect to be announced in September, ship soon thereafter.

I would also point out that Nikon is currently still following one of its typical patterns, only in a more dragged out fashion than usual. That pattern is: financial results announcement, Coolpix announcement, system cameras announcement. Often that tends to be a three-week roll. This time we had an extra week between financials and Coolpix, so I suppose we now have some time before systems camera. So, for all those who think Nikon has completely gone off course, no, it doesn't yet seem so, it just seems that they're sailing a little slower this year.

The Throwaway Kitchen Sink
August 24 (commentary)--We seem to be in the Throwaway Kitchen Sink phase of cameras now. The notion that a higher-end camera is a high quality tool has given way to "add more features" so that the user throws away a perfectly fine camera and buys the new. Sometimes these things are disguised as useful additions, but the relevant questions are "why wasn't that feature important before?", "why are we getting it now?", and "did this really obsolete my current camera?"

This is the way the Japanese-driven consumer electronics business has always run since the early days of HiFi equipment: start with a relatively simple but well-defined product, and when the steam runs out on that add bells and whistles and convince the public that they need them so much they should give up their old one.

It's tricky, because sometimes the additions are useful (though why they weren't on the original model is a good question). Let's take the Coolpix P7100, for example. The additions are a new front control dial (useful), a tiltable LCD (useful), AE-L works in Movie mode (the P7100 is not very good at movies, so not particularly useful), and some new special effects modes. We also get (claimed, at least) better performance in basic things like focus, menus, and writing to cards.

There are a couple of ways to look at the P7000 to P7100 progression:

  • New Model Year. "New" is a term that has specific legal meaning. You can't claim a product is new after a certain predefined period of time (varies a bit around the world). New is a magical marketing word, so you want to be able to say something is new even if it's not. Auto makers claim a vehicle is a 2012 "new" model even if there aren't any visible or tangible changes from the 2011 "old" model, for instance. Even one significant change makes the word new available. The P7100 has an extra control and a tiltable screen, so it must obviously be a new model.
  • Iteration. With product cycles so short (12-18 months in the consumer models), some things don't get done that the company might have wanted to do. So they push them back to the next iteration of the product. The P7100 is claimed to write faster when shooting raw files, focus more reliably, and respond faster in the menus. Obviously, someone worked on the P7000 firmware in the last year.

My problem is that neither of these ideas work unless the potential user can learn to rely upon them. We have to intuit from what the companies do to predict the future. Nikon's been all over the board with their high-end Coolpix in the last five years, with the P5000 to P7100 transition telling us different things with each generation. Go further back, and gyrations are even more pronounced.

Meanwhile, the user is faced with a choice: keep what I've got or buy something new? When the iteration is low between models, it makes it easier for a user to consider alternatives, and at the P7100's price point, there are a lot of alternatives. Nikon is doing nothing to establish brand satisfaction (I hope I'm wrong on this). For example, since much of the difference here is down to firmware, why not have a US$19 firmware update option for existing users? Oh, right, they didn't think about how that would work when they did the original, so they have no real way of doing it. Okay, how about a US$49 "checkup" that updates the firmware? That, plus a more predictable future for the P#### cameras would solve a lot of the dissatisfaction issues.

Meanwhile, Sony, too, is practicing the Kitchen Sink approach. Is there anything missing in the A77 (other than an optical viewfinder)? This is a top end camera, and so obviously it should have a top end level of features, but one thing that struck me in reading all the Sony marketing material was that there was a lot of emphasis on the bells and whistles and not nearly as much on the quality side. When quality was mentioned, it was obviously hyperbole ("flawless image quality"). I counted ten trademarked marketing names in their short press release and I lost track of the buzzword count because I ran out of fingers and toes to count them on, even though I had rounded up all the neighbors and their pets to use for this purpose.

The overall impression I get from Sony's marketing is "more," not "better." That's despite the fact that they use terms like "comparible to much more expensive professional-class DSLRs." Don't get me wrong, Sony's marketing is doing what they were designed to do. The geek crowd is salivating over all the acronmyms and faux combo words (e.g. TruFinder, TruBlack, TruHype). But the bottom line is whether the camera actually performs in a way that's better.

The jury is obviously still out on that one, as we only have preproduction samples floating around until October. A few people with preproduction cameras have sent me image samples to analyze, though, and what I see is a lot of noise reduction in the JPEGs, which pretty much rules out the word "flawless" in my book.

But I'll keep an open mind. Despite my cynicism over where we are in the digital camera era (again, Throwaway Kitchen Sink), on paper the A77 has a lot going for it. To switch metaphors for a moment, Sony has put more tools into their Swiss Army Knife than the competitors. My question, though, is do we need Swiss Army Knives or something else?

I had a small epiphany the other day while talking with a team working with a major camera company. I'll eventually get around to writing something about this, but suffice it to say that all this emphasis on features is missing the point of how photography works in the future. It's time to get out of the kitchen and over to where the real work needs to be done.

August 24 updated (news and commentary)--Nikon today announced eight "new" Coolpix cameras. At the top of the heap is the P7000 replacement, the P7100: basically same sensor lens and body style, but the LCD goes tiltable, there's now an ND filter, plus one interesting wrinkle, which is a 9-zone histogram/highlights display. I guess Ansel's estate wouldn't let them have the 10th zone. US$499 in black only.

The new Coolpix line is the AW (probably for all weather), and this waterproof and rugged line kicks off with the AW100, which features Sony's 16mp BSI sensor and a 5x Nikkor zoom (28-140mm). The 10m waterproof certification doesn't even make it to PADI certification depths, and there's no raw unfortunately. You can shake the camera to change settings, though (really). A GPS with compass and map display is built in, apparently so the camera can find its way home after you drop it in the river. US$379 in white, camo (to make it easier to lose), blue, black, and not-quite-Nikonos orange.

From there it all goes remarkably downhill. The S1200pj now connects to an iPhone or iPad (apparently Nikon thinks we want to buy a camera/projector for our Apple devices instead of just a decent projector). This third attempt to establish the projector camera is likely to fail just as bad as the first two. Comes in non-iPad pink, and black. Rounding out the disappointments are the 16mp S8200, S6200, and S100 models.

What's up with Nikon's naming scheme? Did someone forget the odd/even protocols? It appears that Coolpix do and don't follow the convention of odd/even based upon pro generation. Some seem to (P7100 comes in D3 generation and is all odd numbers), some don't (S8200 comes in D3 generation and is all even numbers).

FWIW, that's 16 Coolpix this year. This continues to feel like churn and burn to me. Look for ubiquitous Instant Rebates on Coolpii, because that's the only way Nikon is going to move more than 15 million Coolpix this year and 20 million in two years (their stated goal).

What, no Nikon DSLR?
August 24 updated (commentary)--Don't worry, the cameras are coming. Since the quake I've not expected any new DSLR to ship before mid-October (three different reliable sources say D4 ships in January or February of 2012, by the way), so it's not as if announcing them today would make them any more available. And as I've indicated in the past, I'm perfectly happy with the high end Nikons we have (D3s, D3x) and if I had to cut down to only one camera, it would be the D700.

Still, it's a little unusual that we're breaching the end of summer without one of the four systems cameras Nikon has to be working on (mirrorless, plus D300s, D700, and D3s replacements) making some sort of appearance. I've long expected the D300s replacement to get pushed into 2012, but I'm a little surprised we haven't seen the mirrorless or D700 replacement yet.

Sony As Expected
August 24 (news)--I'll keep it brief, because we've already heard this news 20 times before due to the deliberate leaks at Sony: today Sony announced the 24mp A65, A77, and NEX 7 cameras, the NEX 5n update, the 16-50mm f/2.8 Alpha mount lens, 3 new E-Mount (NEX) lenses, and a host of other accessories. These items have various ship dates between now and the end of the year.

Of course, all the Nikon fan boys are jealous of the 24mp number and probably threatening to jump ship now, but the jump from 16 to 24mp isn't a very big linear increase.

Announcement Week
August 22 (commentary)--For reasons I've never fully understood (they violate what I learned in marketing), the last week or two of August is a busy time for camera makers. We have at least three of the major companies making announcements this week: Canon, Nikon, and Sony. Plus we'll have some small announcements from Fujifilm and Panasonic, as well, I believe.

We pretty much know what Sony is announcing, as Sony themselves have been leaking official information for quite some time. Indeed, it appears to be a concerted effort to create pre-hype for their announcements in an attempt to steal thunder from the other companies. It appears that we'll have two APS DSLRs from Sony announced (A65 and A77), two mirrorless (NEX 5n with an optional EVF and NEX 7 with a built-in EVF), plus lenses, converters, and more. The A77 and NEX 7 are 24mp cameras, though what lens you'd use on the NEX 7 to really deliver on those 24mp I have no idea. The video-oriented VG-20 appears to be a follow-up announcement next week. Sony has been open with dealers about what's coming,trying to get them to commit to product in the fall and Christmas seasons.

Canon won't be introducing any DSLRs, I think. Their announcement is likely to be all compact cameras and maybe a lens or two. I'm guessing that the overdue 1DsIV and the 5DIII won't pop up until later this year and/or early next.

Which brings us to Nikon. They're obviously talking about some new products on the 24th (same day as Sony). There are three possibilities, I think: (1) Coolpix only; (2) Coolpix plus the new mirrorless system; or (3) FX DSLRs. No one knows which it will be, but I wouldn't get upset if what they announce this month isn't what you wanted them to. Nikon is not done with announcements this year. As for me, I'm still betting that we'll get #3 in this week's announcements.

That Nikon has managed to stay fairly leak free during this round of product announcement is certainly interesting. We've had a few specifics leak that seem reliable (GPS coming back into the high end Coolpix, the mount photo of the mirrorless system and its small sensor, and so on). I believe that we've actually heard a few specifics about the FX bodies, too, but the information was so third- and fourth-hand that no one trusts it. But the numbers 18 and 24 keep coming up, as do two FX bodies, as does the name D400. I suspect in all the rumor noise there was some real information. We'll know for sure within the next 45 days or so.

Panasonic will be announcing that their m4/3 lenses have really gone video: a power zoom button appears. Fujifilm is announcing the X10 (or is it X50?), something of a cross between a compact camera and the X100. We also still have Samsung's NX200 and new lens announcements coming, too.

Should be an interesting week, no matter what.

Sigma 150-500mm Lens Review
August 18 (news)--Continuing in the vein of budget lens reviews this week, today I've posted my
review of the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 telephoto zoom. People keep asking whether a low cost option is really viable for long reach. Well, here's my answer.

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G Lens Review
August 16 (news
)--My review of the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G has now been posted. Nikon shooters now have a choice of three pretty decent "normal lenses" (f/1.8D, f/1.8G, and f/1.4G) in an affordable range (plus, surprisingly, three other 50mm's, two of them manual focus). Ignore those other three and concentrate on the three I write about in this review, as they are the clear winners so far (plus the f/1.2 is rumored to be in for an AF-S redesign).

Nikkor 55-300mm DX Lens Review
August 15 (news
)--My review of the AF-S Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G DX VR has now been posted. Nikon DX shooters now have a choice of three pretty decent telephoto zooms (55-200mm, 55-300mm, 70-300mm) in the consumer affordable range.

Last Week's Software
August 15 (news
)--Shuttersnitch 2.1.5 for iPad adds the ability to add music to slide shows, Zenfolio uploads, and mirrored output to external displays. Shuttersnitch Backup is a new free app that makes it easier to copy iPad collections to a Mac. Raw Photo Processor 4.4.0 is now 64-bit and has a new leaner interface.

This Recession
August 12 (commentary
)--This week's extreme market volatility and Nikon's expected announcements in the coming two months have a lot of you asking me about what I think will happen to prices. Unfortunately, I don't think the news is good. The dollar peaked against the yen at a little over 85 in April. It quickly fell down to bounce around 80 for an extended period before beginning another slide in July that now has us down to 76.84 (as I write this). The trend has been relentlessly downward since early 2007.

The bad news is that 76.84 is already 4% lower than Nikon has estimated for the rest of their fiscal year (which ends March 31, 2012). That's awfully close to the kind of slide where Nikon typically has raised prices. (Nikon's Europe forecast was downgraded to 110 yen to the Euro, and we're already under that, too, though not by nearly as much.)

I try not to get into political discussions here, but the inability of the US Congress to act even remotely responsibly is essentially forcing the Fed into a position where they will continue doing things that weaken the dollar. Things don't look great in the US (though they're nowhere near as bad as the press and the politicians make it out to be): we need at least a trillion dollars in short term stimulus directed entirely at job creation, and we need to then come up with about 5 trillion dollars in medium term fiscal changes (increased revenues, less spending). I'm betting that Congress will do neither, at least not directly (e.g. the Bush era tax cuts expire again on 12/31/2012 if they are not extended; conveniently, that's right after an election, so if America votes in more Republicans, we'll get in an extension; if America votes in more Democrats, the tax cuts will just expire).

So at this point, I expect price increases in many of Nikon's higher end products. The good news is that Nikon's profit has been rising, so they have some additional flexibility to absorb short term currency fluctuations. But they'd be acting irresponsibly to their shareholders if they didn't react to any continued weakening of the dollar.

What kind of price increases? Well, the pro Nikons (e.g. D1x, D2x) used to be all priced at US$4999 at launch. Lately, that moved to US$5199 with the D3s. I suspect it'll move to US$5499 with a D4. Likewise, the D700 was US$2999, and I'd now expect its replacement to be priced at US$3299 or US$3499 in the US. It's possible that Nikon will show restraint and be more aggressive. After all, there's still plenty of competition out there for your business. But I'd expect Nikon to price higher initially and use Instant Rebates to adjust if sales volume doesn't meet their goals.

What Recession?
August 11 (news and commentary
)--Nikon late yesterday reported its first quarter results and announced that it had revised substantially upwards its sales forecasts for its current fiscal year (which runs April 2011 to March 2012). DSLR sales are expected to grow 26% year-to-year, Coolpix sales 9%, and lenses 20%. The semiconductor equipment division is mostly sticking with its previous forecast, adding one LCD stepper to the projected total to be sold, though that division, too, will show year-to-year growth. This should push operating profit to over US$1 billion. While much of the change is being attributed to faster recovery from the March quake than expected, one of the things likely driving the results are that Nikon will have pushed essentially five new interchangeable lens cameras into the market during this fiscal year (D5100, D300s replacement, D700 replacement, D3s replacement, and the new mirrorless system). The first and last of those will account for millions of the now-expected 5.4 million DSLR sales. Coupled with continued hot sales on the D7000, it's easy to see how they get to the 5.4m number.

As for their first quarter results: 1.36m DSLRs, 2m lenses, 3.95m compact cameras, which represent year to year increases of 29%, 28%, and 14% respectively. Amazingly, put that with Nikon's forward expectations and Nikon looks like a hot growth company all the sudden.

One amusing thing in the English handouts (I'll have to look more closely at the Japanese and see if it's just the translation): "[DSLR and lens sales] satisfied robust demands." Really? Are your demands satisfied? Or are you still waiting for your camera or lens? ;~) I think they mean "[DSLR and lens sales] experienced robust demands [and we emptied the cupboards]."

Finally, the market shares:

  • DSLR 2011: 30% (actual)
  • DSLR 2012: 34% (estimated)
  • Overall cameras 2011: 15% (actual)
  • Overall cameras 2012: 18% (estimated)

Which Exotic?
August 9 (commentary
)--Just to repeat a few things that are scattered through my exotic lens reviews and put them all in one place:

  • Most Travel Friendly: (1) 200-400mm f/4, (2) 500mm f/4, (3) 400mm f/2.8, (4) 600mm f/4, in that order.
  • Best optically: (1) 400mm f/2.8, (2) 500mm f/4, (3) 600mm f/4, (4) 200-400mm f/4.
  • Hand-holdable: only the 200-400mm and 500mm, and only for short periods of time.
  • Most Teleconverter Friendly: really only the 400mm f/2.8. All the others provoke immediate compromises even with the TC-14E.
  • FX users: you often need more reach, so the 500mm and 600mm tend to get prioritized above the others (though watch the corners wide open).

A 300mm (either f/2.8 or f/4) is the fallback position if you need fast focus and reach. While the 300mm f/2.8 is optically equal to the 400mm f/2.8 (i.e. superb), I do not believe it to be the right lens for anyone unless 300mm is what you're going to shoot at. The notion of buying 300mm and always shooting with a teleconverter to get reach at a lower price and weight is a false economy in my book. In most cases you'd be better off with the 200-400mm f/4 than the 300mm f/2.8 with TC-14E.

Last Two Week's Software
August 8 (news
)--Microsoft now has a Microsoft Camera Codec Pack, that allows Windows Vista and 7 users to view thumbnails of raw files and deal with them in Windows Live Picture Gallery. Unfortunately, a couple of Nikon's most recent cameras aren't included in that pack at this time, but most of the oldies are.

Akvis updated ArtWork to version 6.0, adding a pastel style. Photosmith for iPad was updated to version 1.06, mostly addressing bugs and performance issues. onOne's Camera Remote Professional was updated to version 1.4.1 on iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. The Nikon D5100 is now supported, and video features are now free.

Finally, EyeFi released firmware update version 4.5157 for their Wi-Fi enabled SD cards, mostly for improved camera and router compatibility. I found it to produce slightly faster uploads on my Nikon DSLRs to MacBook Pro.

Not Exactly News, But...
August 3 (rumors
)--I continue to get small bits of information on the upcoming Nikon mirrorless camera. I'm pretty certain of the 1" (~2.7x) sensor at this point, and since I can't find anyone else making one that makes sense for the camera, I continue to wonder if this will be another Nikon designed sensor. That certainly would be an interesting development. As I noted last week, you don't have to get very far forward from the D3100 sensor to get something that could be 10-12mp and highly credible at 2.7x.

I've now been told by three different sources it will launch before CES, probably in late September, and it'll launch with three lenses (wide angle prime, kit zoom, telephoto zoom). The lenses are reportedly "quite small" in nature, along the lines of fat C-mount lenses.

July 30 (rumors)--
Okay, I'm gonna take a few things back. Trying to read the tea leaves in Japan about what's coming and when is always difficult. All the disruption that's occurred due to the March 11th quake has just made it harder to make sense of some of the bits and pieces that do leak. Some suppliers have changed, some manufacturing has been moved around a bit (some mounts now made in Malaysia, for instance), so the knowledge of various sources has also changed a bit, too. I lost one source and gained a new one. Coupled with hectic and changing management decisions, I've gotten quite a bit of conflicting information in the past few months.

Basically, the crowd reading this site is interested in five cameras: the expected new Nikon mirrorless, and the replacements for the D300s, D700, D3s, and D3x. I believe I've called some of this wrong, so I'm now going to try to correct my predictions:

  • D700 replacement: August 24 announce, October delivery.
  • D3s replacement (D4): August 24 announce, December delivery to NPS pros.
  • Nikon mirrorless: January CES announce, February delivery.
  • D300s replacement: February announce, delivery shortly thereafter.
  • D3x replacement: not predictable at the moment, but late 2012 seems to be the earliest plausible possibility.

Yeah, I'm a bit surprised, too. Do I have 100% confidence in those five statements? No. But I have more confidence in them than I do my last prediction. I do have near 100% confidence that we've got two more DSLRs coming in 2011, though, and that one of them is the D4. It's been that other product that's been pesky to pin down. But one of my Japanese friends let something slip that has reversed my original thought (D300s replacement in August).

In many ways, that makes sense. The successful D7000 has taken pressure off producing a D400 (or is it D8000 now?), and announcing a pair of next generation FX bodies together has more punch than the FX/DX combo, plus it finally addresses the perceived 5DII gap (with Sony now about to open a DX gap, though; see below).

There's no real pressure on Nikon to launch the mirrorless product, and I believe they'll try to make a splash (as will Canon) at CES in January, where they have two booths and are rumored to be lobbying to change to a larger presence. It's a consumer product, after all, and that's a perfect launch forum for it, especially with the PMA trade show being right next door this year. A D300s successor in early 2012 and a D3x followup at the end of the year puts them back at about their yearly 3 serious cameras rate, which they fell dramatically off of in 2010 (2; maybe they were counting the P7000 ;~).

Okay, so my predictions have wobbled back and forth across the highway like a drunken driver. Let's hope I don't crash.

Meanwhile, the August 23/24 dates are starting to look like a freeway pileup of their own. Sony will be announcing two APS DSLRs (including their A77 competitor to the D300s, and rumored to be 24mp), two NEX models, three NEX lenses, at least two Alpha lenses, and a new fast focusing adapter for Alpha lenses on NEX cameras (incorporates phase detect).

As Nikon Rumors has suggested, Nikon will preceed their DSLR announcement with Coolpix announcements, including a GPS and tilt screen equipped P7100 followup to the P7000, kicking off a new line of rugged and waterproof Coolpix, and their third attempt to make a Coolpix with a projector stick in the market (not).

July 29 (commentary)--
It seems from responses to my post earlier this week that there's a lack of awareness about a number of things involving sensors. So here are some things to think about:

  • Large sensors have been on a long march very similar to Moore's Law. In other words, every so many months there's a predictable improvement achieved. I've been trying to track this now for about 15 years, and I'd generalize it this way: every 18 months or so we see enough efficiency increase or noise reduction to create a tangible visible difference, all else equal.
  • The 18-month rule is not quite as perfect in predicting as Moore's Law has been. I see variability across makers. For a long time, Canon was making the largest, most regular gains. Today that baton has passed to Sony. My point about the m4/3 sensors was that I'm not seeing any tangible gain over what amounts now to almost three 18-month periods. So some sensor makers move above the predicted gain line for awhile, some fall below it. Over time I suspect they all revert back close to the line, though we don't have enough data periods yet to fully back that prediction.
  • We sometimes get sensor gains that aren't associated with still image quality. Besides all the other things that are happening, power usage, signal speed and integrity, plus better ways of addressing data for video are all going on. The m4/3 sensors seem to be progressing more on those last two areas (120 fps offload, changes in rolling shutter, etc.) than in image quality changes.
  • BSI (back side integration) works better for small sensors than big. The reason is simple: in traditional sensor designs, the power and data lines are on the same surface as the light-collecting photo diodes. The process used to produce the sensor determines how small those lines can be, and sensors tend to be made on older equipment that have large process sizes (though this is changing). Even with small process dies, a cellphone sensor that isn't BSI is going to have large amounts of the surface area devoted to power and data. But the power and data lines don't get bigger for larger sensors, so the photo diodes do. The larger the sensor, the less gain you get from BSI.
  • BSI has made it to the compact camera sensors. It could make it to Nikon's 2.7x sensor and make a difference. But each leap upwards in sensor size brings less gain, and it's not a trivial process without cost, so it gets less likely the larger the sensor size.

July 29 (news)--
From an email to NPS members: "Nikon Professional Services recognizes that more and more professionals are using D-SLR cameras to shoot high-end video and we think this area has the potential to grow exponentially over the next few years. As part of our ongoing efforts to meet the needs of our members, we are creating ways to help professionals showcase their work and support Nikon photographers exploring and currently shooting video."

D5100 Review and Book
July 26 (news)--
I've posted my D5100 review and the links for my Complete Guide to the D5100. The review is available immediately (duh) while the book will have first shipment three weeks from today (there's a chance it will be two weeks).

Short take on the review: the D5100 is a very competent camera. The changes to the swivel LCD (position and resolution) are highly welcome. Once again Nikon has pushed the feature specs up a bit from the camera it replaces. Image quality is essentially identical to a D7000 shooting 14-bit Compressed NEF (no lossless option). Video finally supports 1080P/30, but this is a mid-range consumer camera so there's no manual exposure control for video. The D5000 was a good camera, the D5100 is clearly better. It fits very nicely between the low end D3100 and the high end D7000.

The D5100 book took a bit longer than expected because I've moved away from using Microsoft Word. This has its pluses and minuses. The big minus was all the work necessary to get what I'd originally written about the D5100 out of Word into a new word processor, and to learn the new product's nuances. The big plus is that the PDF is now better: fully cross-referenced, right down to the Index page numbers. And I'm no longer fighting Word's nasty bugs, of course ;~). Hopefully I won't be quite as slow the second time using this new workflow.

How to Support an OS Release
July 26 (news and commentary)--
Got an Epson printer and a Macintosh? Here's how that company supports the new version of Apple's OS: updated supported printers list, step-by-step instructions on how to update, and a useful FAQ.

Ah, But Which Sensor?
July 26 (commentary)--
Yesterday I wrote about Nikon's upcoming mirrorless entry and suggested that the 2.7x crop rumor may be correct. I tried to point out why Nikon might have picked such a size.

A few of you managed to anticipate today's post: so what sensor is that?

At present, I don't know of a 2.7x crop sensor. Other than the m4/3 sensors, there's a huge gap in available sensors between the high-end compacts and the APS/DX DSLRs. Pentax punted and just used an existing compact sensor for the Q. Meanwhile, Sony picked APS for their mirrorless. So let's look at who has already chosen and doesn't need a 2.7x sensor: Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Ricoh, Samsung, and Sony. Canon could use one, I suppose ;~). As could Nikon.

The implication is that Nikon has something up its sleeve and that the sensor may be home-grown. A D3100 sensor scaled to 2.8x would be about 5mp, for what it's worth. That's getting very near the point it would turn a few heads. Imagine an 8-10mp camera that fits in your pocket with D3100-like performance. That would certainly get some attention, though I doubt that Nikon has progressed that far that fast.

But here's the thing: m4/3 sensors haven't moved the bar since they first started being produced. DX/FX, both from Nikon and Sony, has moved the bar quite far and will be moving it further soon. What if--and please, this is a what if, not a will--but what if Nikon was able to put a 10mp+ sensor into a Coolpix P7000-sized body that had an m4/3 level of image capability? I believe that's in the realm of possibilities.

Size Matters?
July 25 (commentary)--
Nikon's upcoming mirrorless camera is rumored to be a 2.7x crop (m4/3 is 2x, DX is 1.5x, FX is 1x). Do I believe that rumor? Basically. I'm not sure if the exact final measurement is 2.6x or 2.7x or 2.8x, but I'm pretty sure it's in that range. Yet I'm seeing a lot of people just dismiss that notion out of hand. I think everyone needs to think a bit more about how products differentiate themselves in the photography scene.

Let's step back for a moment. In the film world we long had 35mm and 120/220 sizes. 35mm was 36mm across, and the larger file size when shot as 645 was 56mm across. You might notice that this is about 1.5x difference across the long axis. Eventually we got a new film type called APS, which had aabout a 1.5x difference across the long axis, but in the opposite direction. Does that 1.5x number sound familiar?

Small differences in imaging size don't produce a lot of tangible difference. In the digital world, we have DX, APS-C, and Foveon, which range from 1.5x to 1.7x. While even the small difference between 1.5 to 1.7 makes for some annoying reduction of angle of view at the very wide end, tangibly there isn't a lot of difference in terms of the number of photons hitting the sensor. (1.5x often turns out to be 1.55x, and 1.6x turns out to be 1.62x, etc., but that just reinforces the point.) The equivalent Nikon (DX), Canon (APS-C) and Sigma (Foveon 1.7x) cameras are basically dealing with the same light capture (and you can make that even more even by just using the same Sigma lens on each, thus cancelling out any lens differences). In theory, sensor differences between such cameras is a lot like film differences were back in the 35mm days. Yes, one or another may be slightly more efficient, or have more layers, or have some other slight difference, but you'd expect such cameras to have similar capabilities.

Likewise, there are no real advantages in system physical size with 1.5x versus 1.6x versus 1.7x. You're not going to make tangibly smaller and lighter cameras and lenses with that small of a physical capture difference. So again, things start to look about the same.

So how much change does it take to make a real difference that gets noticed? The number 1.4 is meaningful in photography in so many ways. Turns out, that something around that number makes a lot of sense for capture size change, too. Each 1.4x change doubles the area of light captured. Hmm, that sounds an awful like a "stop." (It isn't always, exactly; but in practice, all else equal, we see stop-like differences between such systems.) So if we were to make cameras about a stop apart, what would we get: a progression close to MF, FX, DX, m4/3, and whatever Nikon calls their 2.7x product. (Please don't send me detailed calculations telling me that .92 is not close to 1; my point is not that we have exact formats that are 1.4x apart, but that it is logical that formats be something near that number apart.)

Let's look at things a different way:

  Canon Nikon Sony Pentax Olympus Leica
MF       645D   S2
35mm 1Ds/5d FX A850, A900     M9
4/3         m4/3, 4/3 coming
sub 4/3   ??        
Compact Yes Yes Yes Yes+Q Yes Yes

When you look at where the competition is, you start to see some interesting things. Everyone has compacts, so we can discount that group. Canon has tried to own the APS-C to FX sizes. Sony likewise, though they don't have a "tweener" like Canon does. Olympus placed all their bets on Black, uh, I mean 4/3. Pentax went Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear. But there's one competitor between Compact and APS. That's a long, long gap. The largest compact sensors are 1/1.7", which is 4.7x. If one stop differences are meaningful to establish a functional format, and I think they are, then we should have something like MF, FX, DX, m4/3, ??, ??, and 1/1.7". Why is it that Leica is the only company so far that seems to be filling out that line?

In theory, you trade light collection for size/convenience in cameras. That was true of film (APS, 35mm, 645) and it's true of digital. The camera companies, as I've noted many times, are playing the same script over and over. Personally, I believe that they should be playing by a different script, but yeah, i'm just an eccentric nobody that knows nothing about how tech works.

So about that difference, what does it mean for signal to noise ratio? Inverted, it looks like this:

FX = 1
DX/APS-C = 1.53
m4/3 = 1.96
new Nikon = 2.72
1/1/8" compact = 4.76
(BSI and a few other factors can change those numbers a bit, but not enough to distort them 1.4x ;~)

So where is Nikon targeting their new format? Somewhere almost exactly midway between DX and Coolpix, it seems. That sounds entirely logical to me, as long as they get the camera/lens size right, too. I'm not sure that it needed to have interchangeable lenses, as the audience that's likely to be interested in such small cameras is likely to buy less than two lenses total. But, then again, with margins being what they are, selling 1.4x of something is better than selling 1, especially if the margins on the .4x are higher ;~).

The problem for me is that Nikon isn't really seeing physically smaller than the current DX DSLRs as anything serious. The high-end Coolpix offerings are, well, lackluster in comparison to competitive products. We continue to get gimmicks and almost-but-not-quites in the Coolpix designs, and I don't think this new format is going to be any different. How much do you want to bet that Nikon is targeting the same market Panasonic and Olympus are targeting with the GF3 and E-PM1, respectively?

As a truly serious brand, one that delivers what Nikon made its reputation on, I'd argue that we're now down to the D5100, D7000, D300s, D700, D3s, and D3x. Not a bad spread, but other than the D5100 there's an issue of too much size/weight; and except for the D700, D3s, and D3x, there's serious lens neglect. Of the 20 million widgets Nikon made in the last year, I'm betting that less than 2 million represent products that the brand reputation is based on.

But the 2.7x number is a different issue. Could Nikon build a wickedly innovative and top end "compact" with that format? You bet they could. Will they? That's the question everyone is dreading the answer to. A Coolpix P300 on steroids isn't a product that most of you reading this Web site would be interested in, is it?

My point, however, is that all this discussion that a 2.7x size choice is irrational is incorrect, IMHO. Having three very different choices with clearly different and increasing performance at each size is on its face a rational decision. If Nikon can deliver a stop+ better performance than the best compact camera but keep the overall size close, that represents a gain to photographers. We'll get another useful arrow in our quiver. That's why I'm more worried about Nikon's target customer. If it's truly the casual shooter, said arrow comes to us broken.

How Week now Separate Article
July 25 (news)--
You can link to the How articles now, since I'm incorporated them into a separate How Week article.

How Many Lenses Do I Need?
July 22 (commentary)--
"Dear Thom: Nikon currently lists 76 lenses on their Web site. How many of them is it realistic to own? I've got the money. Should I collect all 76? Signed Nikkor Fanatic"

Dear Fanatic: The economy is hurting, so buy them all, preferably through 76 different dealers. But first you need to figure out how to carry them all. Signed Thom.

This is a tough question to answer and an easy one. Let's start with that seemingly joking "how are you going to carry them" comment.

Seriously: how many can you carry? The average pro tends to carry perhaps five lenses (14-24, 24-70, 70-200, couple of fast primes), and supplements those from time to time with a handful of others when an assignment specifically calls for it (200-400mm, 16mm fish, macro lens, PC-E lens). But even the basic five lens kit (add 24 and 85 f/1.4) is 10 pounds of optics. Add two pro bodies, some flashes, some support gear, batteries, etc., and the pro is already carrying 30 pounds around with them.

So right up front we have the wanna-versus-will thing to deal with. Will you actually carry 30 pounds of gear around with you? The answer for a majority of folk is no. Which is why they buy some or all of the top set, then add some lenses for "those times when they don't want to be burdened." So they buy a 24-120mm f/4 and a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 (3 pounds), or a 28-300mm (1.5 pounds). And they end up using those almost all the time, because there's rarely a time when they don't want to be burdened.

But two lenses and three pounds produces a compromise: no fast apertures. So they start trying to sneak in some fast primes at a pound+ per. Next thing you now they're almost back where they were. So they notice that a third party lens is lighter and decide to pick it up. Have we hit 76 yet?

You'll note that I've been using an FX example. So now that mythical user takes a closer look at DX and says "I'll pick up a lighter DX system for those times when I don't want to be burdened." And low and behold, we lose a pound here and there. Maybe the top end DX kit weighs in at 12 pounds instead of 20 (leaving off the tripods and flash, which are going to be about the same weight no matter what). (And by the way, this is one of the reasons why I constantly harp about missing DX lenses: you can't go from the basic high-grade FX kit to a basic DX kit in Nikon's lens lineup.) So now our user has 10 to 11 lenses, and is still complaining about weight. Should we check out m4/3?

One thing that keeps happening in this downsizing is that photographic compromises are being made while trying to achieve a flexible system that you'll carry around with you all the time.

And there-in lies our true answer: do you know what you're trying to do photographically? Do you understand the compromises and are you willing to make them? For 90% of the photos you take, what do you really need and use?

Many people chase lenses like they chase pixels. Because they don't know what they're trying to achieve, they keep buying more lenses hoping that by having a "complete arsenal" that they'll have the right weapon handy for every photographic possibility. Then they leave most of those at home when it really does come time to go out and shoot.

I mentioned this before, but a good basic enthusiast's kit is really five basic lenses: mid-range zoom, telephoto zoom, wide, normal, moderate telephoto fast primes. With those five lenses and a couple of accessories (e.g. extension tube, teleconverter, etc.), you can do 90% of what you need to. Some very well-known pros got by with less. We can achieve that basic list in Nikkor FX: 24-70mm or 24-120mm, 70-200mm, plus 24mm, 50mm, 85mm primes. We can't quite achieve that in high quality with Nikkor DX: 16-85mm, no perfect telephoto zoom, no fast wide prime, 35mm, and 50mm primes.

I'd tend to stick with that answer, though: you need five lenses. You can stay with the basic enthusiast kit or modify it slightly to fit your specialty needs, but that gets us back to the do you know what you're trying to do photographically question. If you do, you don't need me to tell you how many lenses to get. You already know. You might want my opinion about whether X or Y is the better choice for Z. That's fine, and I'll try to do a better job at answering that question on the site in the coming year. But you already know how many lenses you need, and probably have them already.

There's a side note to the lens chase/collection issue: some people think that lenses will make their photography stand out: "If I shoot with an X and everyone else uses a Y, then my images will be better." Well, no. They might be different from what you've done before, but there isn't a lens you can buy on the market that hasn't been used to death by some pro seeking to make a style statement. For example, the full-frame fisheyes (10.5mm DX, 16mm FX) are now a mainstay of mountain bike and extreme sports photographers because it changed perspective from the usual stand-offish telephoto renderings and made someone's images stand out. But now everyone's doing it, so it looks "normal." Don't fall into the trap of thinking that "lens = style." A lens is just another tool. You define your own style, and lens choice is only one small part of that.

So let me close with some questions for you:

  1. How many lenses do you own?
  2. How many of those lenses produce 80% of your images?
  3. Do you have the best possible lens(es) for #2?
  4. Will a new lens change #2?

And because I'm not grading in my usual tough way today (extra credit if you know why), here's the answer sheet:

  1. No more than six.
  2. Two or three.
  3. Yes.
  4. Usually not. It will if the answer to #3 is no. It probably will if the answer to #1 is 1.

How Do I Keep Up?
July 21 (commentary)--
"Dear Thom: I've only got a couple of hours a week to devote to photography, but it seems like I can't blink and things change on me. How do I keep my head above water?" Signed DrowninginTechnology

Dear Drowning: don't fight the current. Swim across it and find an eddy. Enjoy the rest before trying to get further upstream to spawn. Sincerely, Thom.

It's now 12 years post-D1. In that time we went from a modal, 2.7mp camera whose batteries died quickly to a highly functional 24mp camera whose batteries last for days. Photoshop has been through at least five versions, and even Nikon's Capture is on it's third major revision (but see next story ;~). Memory cards went from 1GB being huge to 1GB being almost a throwaway. Many of you now have terabytes of image data. In short, it's been a constant stream of new, new, new, better, better, better, bigger, bigger, bigger.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired just watching that parade marching by.

So there's a really important question embedded in that constant progression of technology: how do you keep up?

Well, let's get the most important part of the equation out of the way first. Remember that D1h you shot with 10 years ago and occasionally sold two-page spreads to Sports Illustrated with? Well, it still takes the same pictures. It didn't get pixel rot or faded Bayer filters and the shutter curtain didn't get moth eaten. It still takes mighty fine 2.7mp images (assuming you cared for the camera properly and have a fresh battery). Cameras don't get worse with time. Your perception of how they perform gets worse with time.

Those shiny new toys are always beckoning. New, better, bigger. You're conditioned to want that new-fangled camera (lens, flash, tripod, whatever) because the Marketing Gods have so ordained it and have spent years mind-washing you.

Let me remind you of something: in 1995 most of us were maxed out at ISO 800, and even that looked like dog excrement most of the time. Our film didn't stay flat, it got scratched by random things (including bad processing), diffraction was a real and dreaded acuity robber, chromatic aberration was permanent, and we had virtually no control over post processing unless we also had a darkroom that we kept up to snuff (which meant water at perfect temperatures and distilled, to boot). Yeah, things were that bad. Yet we still shot great images and sold photographs to publications, and those publications looked darned good most of the time.

Do you need to keep up with cameras? Not really. I actually learned that from Galen back in the mid-90's. He got a new F5, used it for one shoot in Fiji, got tired of replacing 8 AA batteries all the time, went back to his F4. He got a new F100, used it on one shoot for Backpacker for a matter of minutes before it started early rewinding his film, borrowed mine for the rest of the shoot, then went back to his F4. True, those cameras didn't have sensors in them. But the same was true for film. Once you found something that worked for you, you just bought a refrigerator full of bricks of it and shot it over and over. So what if Fujifilm or Kodak came out with New and Improved Velprokodaektachrome?

Things are a little different in the digital world, but not a lot. As I've written before, it probably pays to upgrade your camera every two generations or so. Less than that and the gains are minimal: you'd be better off spending the time, money, and energy on improving your skills. (To those that say "but my competitor now has a SliceDiceMultiMegaPixel camera I need to compete with I say this: if you're selling your camera to your clients, you're not a very good photographer. You should be selling your photos to your clients. Yes, I know some clients say they want more pixels or absolute state-of-the-art. But you know what? They don't reject a McNalley image shot on a D3 or a Krist image shot with a D90. Why? Because they're insanely great images, you dolt!)

So stop spending four hours a day on dpreview and the rumor sites and B&H trying to figure out just what the latest widget is and how many of your children you'll need to sell to afford one.

What I see is a lot of people chasing rather than planning. They chase more pixels. They chase higher ISO. They chase more MTF. They chase a new Photoshop layer ability. They chase, chase, chase, always looking for the easy fix. New, better, bigger will deliver that last thing they need to be successful, and they're sure of that.

But you know that's not really how it works. The successful plan what they need next and know why they need it and when they'll get it. All they have to do is wait for it to appear. That's it. No need to spend 100 hours a day wrapped up in Twitter/Google+/Facebook/Flickr/et.al. looking for it. I'm pretty sure if you know what you're looking for it will be obvious to you when it appears.

So ultimately, the way you keep up is that you plan. If I've got a camera that's a generation old or less, I should be working on my skill sets: shooting and post processing. I know that I need at least X more pixels (and that's a big number) or Y noise or Z feature for me to even consider something new, and I really don't need it for awhile so I'm in no hurry to jump on anything that comes along that's close but not quite there.

Because here's the thing: if you keep using up all your 10,000 hours learning new camera, new software, new workflow, you're becoming an expert at change, not an expert at photography. Last time I checked, my D2x still takes pretty awesome landscape shots. Last time I checked, my D2Hs still shoots indoor basketball just fine. More to the point, by devoting my time, money, and energy on shooting and post processing skills, both would be generating better pictures for me today than they did four years ago. Let's see, four years times 40 hours/week = 8320 hours. I'd be a long way towards being an expert using that equipment.

How to Say Not Much at All
July 20 (news and commentary)--
Nikon announced, well, not much. With Apple Lion (OS X 10.7) out today, Nikon at least issued a short notice on their sites about it, but the notice didn't tell you anything you probably didn't already assume. Worse still, it seems to verify that Nikon still doesn't understand much about what customers expect of them in the software business.

First, the announcement: Nikon plans to test their current software under Lion. When they find out how it works, they'll "announce our plans regarding full compatibility." Some people are assuming that means that Capture NX2, View NX2, Camera Control Pro 2, and the WT-4 software will be made compatible. I don't think the statement says that at all. All it says is "now that Lion is out, we'll start testing. We'll tell you what we found out later." In other words, business as usual at Nikon.

What should Nikon have done? The same thing every other reasonable software company did: when Apple started distributing Lion betas to developers, you test your products with it. When Apple distributed final candidates to developers, you start announcing to users what you know about compatibility and what you're going to do about it. Nikon is two steps behind.

But more to the point, Nikon almost certainly isn't going to act like most Macintosh software developers. I don't expect Nikon to even remotely consider adding Lion's Autosave capability into their apps, for example. All Nikon is likely to do is try to get things to run on the new OS. Nikon does not embrace new features or capabilities (hey Nikon, where's 64-bit?). They run their software business as if it's in the back room of a restaurant staffed by waiters in their down time. "Your order should be out sometime soon" reads Nikon's latest notice. But they're still using the same three-week old dough and no one has noticed that anyone has invented and popularized new toppings in the last five years. My advice remains the same: find another restaurant.

One Point About Hours
July 20 (commentary)--
It isn't just spending 10,000 hours (see next story), it's how you use those 10,000 hours. Most of those who excel had mentors for much of that time. But even without mentors there's still this: you have to be 100% self-critical and 100% no-BS about where you stand during those 10,000 (and beyond!).

You will fail for many of those 10,000 hours. Maybe not big failures, maybe only intermittent failures, but you will fail. I believe failure is good. Failure tells you something about what you don't know or see and gives you a place to start working. Now, some of that is my Silicon Valley upbringing. Failure is a rite of passage in Silicon Valley. Indeed, venture capitalists often tend to prefer those that have failed. As long as they're self aware about it.

When you fail you must do a number of things. First, you have to admit you failed. This is a bigger hurdle for most people than they think. The natural position is to just get defensive. When it becomes clear that that won't work, they'll try to point to a positive small bit in an otherwise big failure. Or worse still, point to someone or something else as contributing to the failure. No. You failed. Acknowledge it. Accept that your mentor, your co-workers, your advisers, your investors, your peers, your friends, your family, or whoever is telling you that it failed have a clear and reasonable view that you failed. Accept that even if you think something about what you did worked. If you can't accept the failure notification, you can't get to the next thing: analysis.

What exactly did you fail at? How big was the failure? What could you have tried differently? What paths did you reject in doing what you did that you need to go back and re-examine? Make sure you absolutely understand why others are judging what you did as a failure (if this is a self-judged failure, make sure that you're right!).

Finally: fix failures before moving on. If you keep failing at getting focus and acuity spot on, for example, it makes little sense to try to improve your post processing skills. You'll be fighting your previous and continuing focus failure in the pixels you're trying to nudge and improve. You don't build successes by trying to stack something on a failure.

So, if you spend 10,000 hours just doing the same things over and over and failing in the same ways, you won't become an expert. Find a mentor or peer to help keep you focused. Push yourself to fix things as you discover they're broken. Build on successes, not failures.

How Many Hours?
July 19 (commentary)--
"Dear Thom: I just got my first serious camera. How long until I can shoot like a pro? Signed FuturePro."

Dear FuturePro: Longer than you think. Signed Thom.

As you might have figured out, this is "How" week, where I'm tackling some of the how questions I get in my In Box. This particular question is a tricky one, as there are hidden bits and pieces as well as a not perfect answer.

The not perfect answer is the 10,000 hours rule, which comes from studies by Anders Ericsson, et.al., and was discussed at length in Gladwell's recent book, Outliers. The 10,000 number actually comes from something like "gifted performer...before they win international competitions," so it is setting a very high bar, basically one of top performer. Obviously, not all pros are top performers, they're just better and more consistent performers than most (but not all) amateurs.

Still, I think most people underestimate just how much time it takes to really achieve very high levels of competence at something. 10,000 hours is five years of full-time work. Hmm. A truly dedicated college student who figures out what they want to do by the end of their sophomore year isn't going to achieve that by the time they graduate. Which is one reason why they get entry level jobs: they need more time. But often not a lot more time.

In photography or videography these days there's a double-edged problem: you not only have to learn what to do in the field, but these days you need to usually have competence at the computer, too. You might have to put in a large number of hours shooting and post processing/editing. In other words, become expert at two things. One of the dirty secrets of a few pros is that they don't spend their time at the post processing/editing side. They either have employees that do much of that work for them, or someone else in their organization that does it. Thus, they can spend their time concentrating on and becoming an expert on the capture.

I don't think it's surprising that the incoming wave of high-competency photographers tend to split into two groups: the young and the old. The young usually have had cameras in their hands for most of their life, early on decided that's what they wanted to do, and spent huge portions of their time practicing at it. They come out of their schooling with high passion and closing in on those 10,000 hours. All they have to do is keep those two things moving. Keep the passion alive, and keep practicing.

At the other end, we've got folk who often have flexible professional jobs, a reasonable retirement account, and post-children free time. They know how to spend their time wisely, aren't distracted by 100 possible hobbies, and build that 10,000 hours regularly right into retirement, where the hours pile up even faster. They have the means, both financial and time, to do accelerated learning. My only caution to them is that you can't take long breaks from it. You must shoot and process regularly, even if it's only for a few hours a week. That's because the corollary of the 10,000 hour rule is that you can't maintain the expertise with 0 hours. It's sort of like running: you can take days off here and there, but once you take more than two weeks in a row off, you're generally going to step far backwards in ability and have to rebuild.

It's the folk in between, trying to juggle the raising of a family and working 40+ hours weeks at a non-photo job to try to make the mortgage payment that have the biggest problem with the 10,000 hour rule. They just don't have 10,000 hours. Not in five years, not in ten years, often not in twenty years (which would be ~10 hours a week).

You shouldn't read into that last statement that you can't get better at photography. But the question was "shoot like a pro." That takes real commitment of time, resources, and energy. (As a side note, the four basic things you have at hand are money, time, energy, and skill. You can often use one or more of these to help generate one that's missing, like money and time to generate skill, which is exactly what we're discussing here. But time is the tough part. You can borrow money. You can get motivated in some way to increase energy. You can develop skills. But you can't invent time you don't have and you can't buy more at The Apple Store or Walmart or amazon.com.)

There's one other important other side note to this discussion: don't get flustered. Overnight successes take at least five years, at least in my experience. And that correlates with the 10,000 hour rule. You will have ups and downs in that time. The downs can get you emotionally down and rob you of much needed energy, which in turn may cause you to not commit more time.

It's a really tough hill to climb. But it's not Sisyphean. You can get the rock to the top. Just don't expect to do it quickly.

How Much Better?
July 18 (commentary)--
"Dear Thom: if the upcoming D400 really has twice the pixels of my D90, how much better would my pictures be if I upgrade? Signed PixelChaser."

Dear PixelChaser: if you have to ask that question the answer is that your photographs will either be about the same or possibly even degrade in quality. Yours, Thom.

It seems like forever that I've been answering this question. I, too, at one time thought more pixels always meant more better. Of course, my first digital camera was .3mp (that's point 3, not 3). I don't mean to be mean in my answer, but in practice, it's proven to be mostly accurate. If you don't know what it is you're chasing and why, you won't achieve it.

Serious shooters basically fall into one or both of two categories: (a) They are pushing every last pixel they've got into very large print work; or (b) they are looking for low-level pixel integrity because they realize that gives them more and better choices in post processing. If you're in one or both of those categories you know exactly what more pixels should provide you.

Category (a) wants pixels of at least similar integrity to what they've got, just more of them so they can print bigger. If they think their current camera is maxed out at prints of 24", then they want the same abilities, but with enough extra pixels to print 36". In the end, many of the people in this category end up doing the same thing they did with film: they go up size. If they were shooting DX at 12mp, they go to FX at 24mp. If they were shooting FX at 24mp, the move to MF at 40+mp. The reasons to do this basically are the same as they were with film: the bigger capture area comes with a built-in advantage when you're basically chasing maximum print size: it decreases the magnification (all else equal). We've had a good run with digital sensors, where today's 16mp DX is arguably giving us similar or better pixel integrity to the old 6mp DX sensors, but it's often quicker, easier, and more productive to just buy a bigger camera.

Category (b) wants their images, usually of some (relatively) fixed size--perhaps they shoot for a magazine--to look better. This is a trickier situation than (a) because "better" can come in a lot of different forms. For instance, if you were shooting inside NBA arenas, low light performance improvements were more interesting than more pixel improvements, which is why the D3 and later D3s won so many converts. If you're shooting at a fixed size (13x19" from your desktop printer, magazine page for your photo editor, 8x10" print from a lab, etc.), more pixels on their own doesn't always give you more better.

To understand that last remark, you need to understand all the meanings we usually cram into the word "resolution." True resolution is measured in line pairs per millimeter, which is a linear measurement. (True resolution is also a chain of resolutions--sensor, lens, etc.--but that's out of the scope of this article.) Thus, the linear change in pixel count is important:

3mp: 2000 pixels on long axis
6mp: 3000
12mp: 4000
16mp: 5000
24mp: 6000

I've been a little loose with those numbers because it makes it easier to see the thing I want to relate. When we went from our 3mp D1 with 2000 pixels on the horizontal axis to our 12mp D3 with 4000 pixels, we got a probable doubling of resolution (all else equal). We don't get that when we go from our 12mp D3 with 4000 pixels on the horizontal axis to a D3x with 6000 pixels. Instead, we get a 50% increase. Now consider the 16mp D7000 to 24mp D400 leap: 20% increase. Different sources come up with different figures, but I generally use 15% as being the minimum necessary for most people to see any difference in resolution, so the D7000 to D400 is just barely above that bar.

Meanwhile, we've got other factors potentially fighting us. One of the reasons why some of those old 3mp and 4mp images look pretty good these days is that we weren't really recording diffraction impacts. Diffraction wasn't hitting far enough away from an individual photosite to get well recorded into adjacent resulting pixels. It's another area of debate (there are many in this discussion), but some of us use 2x the diagonal of the photosite for the "diffraction impact" mark. Below that, diffraction doesn't significantly lower resolution test numbers. Above that, it does. So as photosites have gotten smaller, diffraction impacts have gotten more visible.

I used the term "pixel integrity" earlier. What are the components of that? A pretty long list, actually, of which here are just some:

* diffraction impacts
* microlens spillover (another light adjacency issue)
* Bayer consistency
* AA filtration level
* consistency/linearity of ADC
* electron migration
* on-board noise leveling (neighbor pair assessments, etc.)

The list goes on and on.

I have little doubt that the camera makers will continue to push forward for both the (a) and (b) shooter. We'll get higher pixel counts, and we'll get a continued devotion to better pixel integrity. The reason is simple: without those things, it gets pretty tough to sell a new DSLR at all. Let's face it, from the D5100 on up Nikon's DSLRs have a pretty long list of features that'll let you do most anything you need to, plus these cameras run from pretty good performance at all things they do to excellent. So without sensor improvement, it would take a big change (did I hear someone say CPM?* ;~) to sell any of us a new camera.

Nevertheless, even though we're getting strong gains in (a) and (b) in sensors, the return is getting lower with each generation. We're very near the point where it should become obvious to everyone that the real choice for tangible gain is to go up size.

*For those with short memories, CPM is my short-hand for communicating, programmable, modular, which is what I've been suggesting for several years now that our cameras really need to be.

Last Week in Software
July 18 (news)--
RPP 4.3.1 went 64-bit and added E-P3 support. iPhoto 9.1.5 made a number of stability and performance enhancements. Aperture 3.1.3 also got a number of reliability and performance changes. VueScan 9.0.50 fixed a number of problems with specific scanners and fixed the problem of installing the plug-in with the latest CS5 changes.

About Those Missing DX Lenses
July 13 updated (commentary)--
A few of you (including some Nikon employees) are a bit defensive about my comment yesterday regarding DX lens neglect. But let me try to illustrate my point. Consider the following table (telephoto is left off because you don't tend to get size and weight advantages for smaller sensors once you get past a certain point):

  m4/3 DX FX
wide zoom hi 7-14mm 12-24mm 14-24mm
wide zoom lo 9-18mm 10-24mm 16-35mm
wide prime fish 8mm 10.5mm* 16mm
wide prime 20     20mm f/2.8
wide prime 24 12mm f/2   24mm f/1.4
wide prime 28 14mm f/2.5   28mm f/2.8
wide prime 35 17mm f/2.8   35mm f/1.4
normal prime 25mm f/1.4 35mm f/1.8 50mm f/1.4
normal macro   40mm f/2.8 60mm f/2.8
normal kit 14-42mm 18-55mm  
normal zoom hi   17-55mm f/2.8 24-70mm f/2.8
normal zoom lo   16-85mm 24-120mm f/4
superzoom 14-140mm 18-200mm 28-300mm

*No AF-S: doesn't focus on half of Nikon's DX bodies

No, it's not a perfect comparison, but it illustrates an interesting point: FX is, as you'd expect, pretty full of options (and there are even more lenses than I put in the table), with only a "kit" type normal zoom missing in the lineup. That makes sense because we don't have a consumer FX body. Meanwhile, the big gap for m4/3 is in higher-than-kit normal zooms (and the 70-200mm f/2.8 equivalent, for that matter, but DX is also missing that ;~). Specifically, we need at least one faster fixed aperture lens for m4/3, like a 12-36mm f/2 or even a 14-40mm f/2.8. (Why didn't I include the 24mm f/2.8 as a possible DX substitute for a 35mm? Well, first it's not a DX lens. Second, the old f/2.8 FX primes don't tend to perform all that well on digital bodies in my experience.)

But look at that big gap in DX: no wide angle prime. Why is m4/3 catering to that group when DX isn't? Because of size. A m4/3 body (especially the latest E-PM1 or GF3) with a prime wide is a small little devil, and quite capable. Of course, a D5100 with a 16mm f/2.8 would be a pretty small package, too. But apparently Nikon wants to concede the "small package" market to the mirrorless companies. Note this: Nikon has had 12 years to come up with one wide angle DX prime. The m4/3 makers have come up with two in two years.

A more likely explanation is that Nikon thinks that their upcoming mirrorless "solves" the small package problem and will hold off all those m4/3, NEX, NX, and whatever comes next bodies. If so, that logic is severely flawed, and again because of the lens issue: Nikon isn't likely to have nearly enough lenses on launch to satisfy the market. Meanwhile, the m4/3 consortium seems well on the way to replicate the basic lens set enthusiasts want covered. Three well chosen primes and a couple of high-end zooms will finish their task. So where does that leave the serious DX user? Well, they move to m4/3 or FX, I guess. Nikon is one good m4/3 sensor away from having DX suddenly look like a bad choice.

Two-thirds of Nikon's business is cameras and lenses. Unfortunately, they are now in a really tough place. They need to sell 20+ million cameras and lenses this year just to stay in place. The 40mm Micro-Nikkor, at the low price it's being offered at, will sell a nice chunk of units, I have no doubt. But to what end? Nikon's brand reputation is built on high-quality, high-performance, pro and prosumer products. It's the serious shooter and enthusiast that has made their brand reputation. If some of those customers start feeling like they're not being catered to, they'll migrate to other mounts. What happens when you don't have any serious shooters telling their friends about how great Nikon is but instead how much they love their Panny, or Oly, or Sony, or heaven forbid, Samsung?

It doesn't take a lot of love, Nikon: a 16mm f/2.8 or faster wide prime, a 60mm f/2 or faster portrait lens, a 50-150mm f/2.8, and a rework of the 17-55mm would keep your faithful DX users happy, I think. Until then, the love is fading.

Update: a lot of comments coming back to me in email have questions or comments in them that indicate that the notion of "photographic equivalence" isn't fully understood. If I'm standing in the same spot with the same subject at the same distance away from me, the question is "can I take the same exact picture with different formats?" The answer is yes, but it's not just about focal length. DOF also comes into play, for example. (By specifying the same spot and subject, I've kept perspective constant.) Three "equivalents" would be:

  • 300mm f/2.8 on FX.
  • 200mm f/2 on DX.
  • 150mm f/1.4 on m4/3.

But I didn't ask for absolute equivalency in my chart (we don't always shoot at maximum aperture, after all). I was actually just suggesting that it would be nice to have similar tools in the bag for the different formats. Using a large zoom lens in place of a small prime is not similar enough for me, or, as it turns out, for quite a few of you.

About Body Pricing
July 13 (commentary)--
One reader mentioned that I should have graphed the prices in "What's Coming in August 3" (below) using a logarithmic scale. Why? Because it reveals more about pricing trends. I actually considered doing that, but decided not to get into that. After being chastised, it's worth pointing something out that isn't obvious from the method I used: the price steps between the four lower models are regular. They work out to about 30% per step. The price steps between the top four models is slightly less regular (likely due to some unusual supply factors), but come very close to 70% per step.

As this eagle-eyed reader pointed out: that's useful information worth knowing. To move up a consumer model, it'll cost you 30%. I think you clearly get 30% in value in the D3100 to D5100 step, but you currently don't get 30% in value at the D7000 to D300s step, for example. The 70% steps in the prosumer/pro models force you to really ask yourself what it is you need/want. You're paying a premium for differentiation, so what do you really get out of that?

Finally, note that historically bodies tend to fall as much as 25% off their initial price by the time they're in End of Life promotions. Thus, we find the top consumer DX D90 fell relatively close to where the the new middle consumer DX D5100 entered. If features are valuable to you, but not 30% more valuable, just wait, a consumer body will come down closer to your expectation over time. This sort of thinking only works well on the four lower-priced bodies. At the high end, even a 25% drop doesn't come close to equalizing two models.

Another Unexpected Nikkor DX Lens
July 12 (news and commentary)--
Nikon today surprised everyone with a lens announcement, this time the 40mm f/2.8G Micro-Nikkor AF-S DX. This new macro lens is essentially a DX version of the 60mm Micro-Nikkor, and features both flat field (CRC) and 1:1 magnification. Price is US$279.

The question, of course, is why? Of all the things we don't currently have in DX lens sets, a full set of macro lenses is nearly last on the list (we now have the 40mm and 85mm, which are approximately the 60mm and 105mm equivalents, though not in equivalent aperture). Yet we're still missing any wide angle DX prime, several significant DX zooms, a mid-range f/2.8 with stabilization and truly sized to DX, and even a truly fast DX normal lens. As far as I'm concerned Nikon has completely lost the script in DX lenses.

Let's go to the charts:

  • Wide Angle: 10-24mm, 12-24mm zooms.
  • Normal: 35mm f/1.8.
  • Mid-range zooms: 16-85mm, 17-55mm, 18-55mm, 18-70mm, 18-105mm, 18-200mm.
  • Telephoto zooms: 55-200mm, 55-300mm.
  • Macro: 40mm, 85mm
  • PC-E: none.

What's still missing 12 years into the DX era are:

  • Wide Angle: 16mm, 18mm, 24mm.
  • Normal: 35mm f/1.4 or faster.
  • Mid-range zooms: 16-50mm f/2.8 VR, any f/4.
  • Telephoto zooms: 50-150mm f/2.8 VR, any f/4.
  • Macro: 135mm.
  • PC-E: 18mm.

My personal take is that Nikon thinks they're chasing volume. This explains eight of the thirteen existing DX lenses. Yet Nikon's historical strength is in the D7000 and D300s market. For those folk, arguably only five of the existing DX lenses really appeal to them, and I'd further argue that Nikon has been giving them short-shrift in lenses pretty much from the beginning. It's not enough to say "just use FX lenses." We do. But we'd rather have an optimized kit. It's also not proper to say "but DX users buy FX lenses because they think they'll move to FX some day." While true, that's an indictment of Nikon's marketing and positioning of the top DX models. If a D7000 is good enough for well-respected pros like Bob Krist, does everyone need FX? No sir. Essentially, the lack of high-quality DX lenses is a statement by Nikon that they don't think all that highly of their to DX models in terms of image quality.

The introduction of multiple DX Micro-Nikkors seems to suggest that Nikon is mirroring the FX lineup. The only problem is that, no, they're not. I've identified six DX lenses (above) that have been missing for years and are more important for "equivalence" than the 40mm Micro-Nikkor just introduced.

It's far past time for Nikon to get serious about DX. As mirrorless nibbles away at the D3100 and even D5100, serious DX is going to be more and more important to defend. So far, Nikon defense is porous and ineffective.

What Happens in August 3
July 11 (commentary)--
Let's jump over to the other expected camera in August, the D400. Why will there be a D400? For a number of reasons. Nikon's not going to terminate a product line unless it's completely uncompetitive, and the D100/D200/D300/D300s has been far from that over that cycle's life. The D300s (along with the D700) serves as a solid bridge between consumer cameras (D3100/D5100/D7000) and pro cameras (D3s/D3x). And if you look back in history, after the long D100/D200 time gap, Nikon's been consistently iterating this product at two year intervals. Guess what, the two years are up.

As a reminder, Nikon has the following price points at the moment: US$699, US$899, US$1199, US$1599, US$2699, US$5199, US$7999. Graphing them is interesting:

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

If you take the D300s out, you get a long gap between the first three and second three (jump from US$1199 to US$2699, and the first two are with lens, the last ones are not). There's a reason why this curve is regular and has more data points on the lower slope than the upper: price elasticity of demand: you'll buy more of the lower ones, fewer of the upper ones. By having models with smaller gaps between them, you can sometimes upsell someone to the next higher model. That's more important at the consumer end where the product is likely more of an impulse buy than at the pro end, where the purchase is a "need" buy. If the consumer gaps get too wide, upselling becomes impossible.

The sweet point these days for DSLRs is US$700-1500. If you look at the cameras stacked in that region (and the D300s was, too, until supplies got scarce), you find a remarkable array of very competent cameras. All those cameras sell decently and have high profit margins. Below that, the lower-end cameras also sell great, but have lower profit margins. Above the sweet spot the cameras sell in much smaller quantities and have very high profit margins.

So just on that alone, Nikon needs a D400. But there's also that competition. Canon already has the 18mp 7D. Sony, if we're to believe all the rumors, will have a 24mp A77 this fall. The Canon is priced in the D7000 to D700 gap. The Sony is expected to be priced at nearly the D7000 level. Even if you don't price the same as your competitors, you can't be a credible market leader if you have to say to customers "no, we don't have a camera like that." Especially in the sweet spot for DSLRs. Heck, even Olympus has a very nice camera that's in that gap (the E-5).

So timing, pricing, and competition say a D400 is due soon, and August is Nikon's traditional next launch window.

When I wrote earlier that the D400 would be 24mp, I got a lot of emails asking if I had written the number wrong (or if I was just plain crazy). Neither. First, we know that a 24mp DX sensor exists (or is about to exist in production form, from Sony). Second, back in 2003 I pointed out that the math said we'd get to about 24mp on DX before we exhausted the easy-to-see gains and started outshooting the best existing lenses. Third, at 16mp the Nikon would be trailing its two primary competitors in that market. Fourth, there's the "it's a mini D3x" notion that many will have when they see the D400. So, yes, we'll go there. 24mp is a done deal at some day in the future, so if that Sony sensor is good, the future is just about here. (Beyond 24mp I think things get much more fuzzy, and that's not just a pun on diffraction impacts.)

Now for the part that, I'm guessing, could be Nikon's surprise in August: binning. Binning isn't new. The D1 was a 10.4mp sensor that was permanently binned (four underlying photosites to one pixel). Nikon has played with binning since then, too, with the oddly binned D1x (two side-by-side photosites to one pixel). The answer to the "why 24mp question" suddenly becomes simple if you add binning to the mix: you potentially get a D400h and D400x all in one package. I do know that Nikon and Sony have been working on binning recently. That would make some sense for both stills and video and could lead to a jack-of-all-trades DX body that excels at everything: low noise, high resolution, video without artifacting, etc. And it would explain pursuing 24mp in DX and 36mp in FX.

But I'm only guessing at the binning thing. Without binning, and especially without BSI, we just have more pixels which means more data and power lines cluttering the sensor, meaning less light efficiency. Thus, even with the normal expected gains of a new generation of sensors, 24mp wouldn't really get us much further than the 16mp DX capabilities we already have, if any. Plus 24mp by itself really is pushing the full recording of diffraction into most image data.

With that, I'm going to take a pause on product speculation and jump back to something else for the rest of the week.

Last Week in Software
July 11 (news)--
The summer slump is upon us. Only release of note to the bythom site audience was Phase One's Media Pro 1.0.1, a bug fix update of that professional photo manager.

What Happens in August 2
July 8 (commentary)--
I'm starting to think Nikon loves video simply because it gives the engineers something to increment. Every Nikon DSLR since the D90 has had a "bit more video." The D5100 finally hit a complete basic set of HD support: 1080P/24/25/30 and 720P/24/25/30. As a reminder, the D90 started the whole DSLR-video thing with 720P/24 support only. So in three or so years we went from "whoopee I can do something that's a lot like a video camera" to the basics you'd expect from a consumer video camera.

I sincerely doubt Nikon is done incrementing video. I didn't catch any details, but someone said to me in passing to expect some frame rate other than 24/25/30. I wouldn't be surprised to see a D4 with some ability to overcrank and undercrank (that's videospeak for slow motion and speeded up motion). After all, 8 fps in stills is really a movie business undercrank of 3x. But the more obvious thing is 1080P/60. Basically gives you a 2.5 overcrank (slow motion) for all those motion picture junkies out there shooting at 24 fps. Note that most recent Sony cameras, even compacts, have started sporting 1080P/60, so it's something that the Sony sensors must be supporting.

If Nikon's really thinking ahead (and has engineered enough internal bandwidth in the new model), we have larger-than-HD formats, a no line skipping crop (ala Panasonic's GH2), plus raw video to consider, too.

NHK (Japan's public broadcaster, which has been instrumental in many of the video standards creation and testing in Japan) has defined two formats larger than 1080P, and we have RED and others now providing some variant of what is called 4k raw video. (Aside: if you ever want to get confused, just look at video formats. 1920x1080 = 2mp but 2k = 2048x1080 while 4k = one of four different formats depending upon the aspect ratio, but is essentially 12mp at 3:2!)

I think a more likely addition for Nikon is simultaneous video/stills, though. Simple description: start the camera recording video, as usual, which provides a 1080P stream to the second EXPEED chip (did I forget to tell you that the D4 will have two EXPEED chips? ;~) at the normal 1/50 or 1/60 shutter speed. But if you press the shutter release while that stream is flowing, the sensor "grabs" a full frame still in between the video frames and sends that to the first EXPEED for processing. This presents both an engineering problem (which Nikon loves), and a user interface problem (which Nikon doesn't do so well on for new things). The engineering problem is a tough one, but I think solvable. The UI problem is even more difficult. We don't necessarily want (and we can't always grab) a 1/60 second still. There's going to be a low-end barrier to shutter speeds for stills captured this way, but what's the high end? Do you use Auto ISO techniques to drive a faster shutter speed for the still, do you let the user set the shutter speed, or what? I can just see the extra sub-menu in the Auto ISO sub-menu and my multi-page explanation of what's really happening already.

Dare I mention a Nikon proprietary video format? NVF (video raw) is absolutely going to rear its head at some point, with Capture NX3 being the only thing that comes close to understanding it when it's finally launched. That doesn't sound like something Nikon would do, is it? ;~) Oh right, yes, it does sound like something Nikon would do. Too bad they won't provide a Premiere or Final Cut Pro codec at the same time, though. Let's see, the D2x introduction would tell us NVFs will be encrypted in some way, too, right? (Yes, this paragraph is mostly tongue-in-cheek. But it hits awful close to home, doesn't it?) Nikon raw video probably won't show up in the D4. It all depends upon what Nikon thinks Canon will have in the 1DsIV and 5DIII.

Audio is part of video, and I'm pretty sure we'll see changes there. Prepare for mini-XLR. XLR is too big a connector for even the pro DSLR bodies, I think. But two mini-XLR connections will fit under the current connection doors and solve the problem. That's what it's going to take to be "pro" in the video realm moving forward (let's hope Nikon didn't miss that memo). Plus a headphone out jack is a given. These changes would also imply manual audio controls, which could mean more external controls are needed. I personally expect the ISO and WB buttons to move to the top deck (replacing the flash and Lock buttons) and audio control buttons to take their place on the camera back. Oh my. Bonus feature: the D4 then also becomes a digital audio recorder. We already have Voice Annotation on the D3 series, so it's easy enough to see that feature blossom into something even more useful. The modern pro photojournalism DSLR: jack of all trades. It shoots stills, it takes video, it records audio, it queues up for you at Apple Stores for the next iProduct... (well, maybe not that last one ;~).

Whatever the actual changes in video abilities, I think it almost certain that a D4 will have video features that go beyond what the D5100 gave us. If not, then Nikon has completely lost the thread. (That would be the Canon and Camera Industry thread, not necessarily the "right" thread.) Minimum I expect in video changes:

  • 1080P/24/25/30/50/60 support.
  • Stills while shooting video.
  • Dual audio input, possibly some form of XLR.
  • Headphone monitoring.

"But wait a minute," you're saying, "where are the photography features?" More soon.

What Happens in August
July 7 (commentary)--
I've been trying to get my head around this ever since I promised last week that I'd write more. But I keep coming back to a question that haunts me (and may haunt Nikon soon): what do I need in a D4 that I don't have in my D3s and D3x?

The answer I keep coming up with is "nothing, maybe some more lens choices." Realistically, if you're a pro and not making money with your current Nikon gear, it's not your D3s or D3x that's the problem. I believe I'll be able to write the same exact line in six months, in a year, in...well, see the problem? At what point in the foreseeable future would a pro still photographer with the current Mega Twins suddenly need something new from Nikon?

The twin problems are these:

  • To make a D3s obsolete, a camera is going to have to shoot cleanly at ISO 12800 and do something else the D3s can't (say, 11 fps with autofocus). Even though I have a wonderfully open and creative mind, I can't imagine a sensor that's going to do that or what that extra feature would be. (And by inference, you should guess that means I haven't heard about something that would fulfill either of those two requirements.)
  • To make a D3x obsolete, you'd need 36mp+ and preserve dynamic range above base ISO better than the D3x does. Now, that sensor I can imagine (a marginally better D7000 sensor at FX size), but I can't imagine how it'll help me sell any more images. Once we get into the megapixel stratosphere, the temptation is to jump to MF. 50% more pixels doesn't really give you a lot of visible difference--we want 100-200% more to create a tangible distance between what we were doing and what we're doing next. Some might say "give me a D4 with 24mp and better high ISO capability than a D3x (the mythical 24mp D3s). The problem I have with that is that the number of times/places where I felt I needed high ISO with high pixel count is relatively small. If I'm carrying my D3s/D3x combo, I just switch to the D3s and am usually happy with 12mp.

So as I try to suss out the bits and pieces I've been hearing about Nikon's upcoming product launches, I keep asking myself whether a new sensor is going to change anything, and my answer keeps coming up "not really."

Tomorrow I'll deal with the first part of those changes, the one we mostly all dread. Yes, I'm talking about video capabilities.

Fujifilm Pronouncement
July 5 (news and commentary)--
Reuters Japan is quoting Fujifilm's camera division head Takeshi Higuchi as saying that they aim to be the world's fourth largest camera maker by next March and number three a year later.

To put that in perspective, Fujifilm is by many counts number eight today and is outsold by number three Nikon by 2.5x at retail. To fulfill Higuchi's promise, he'll need to sell 10 million more cameras in 2013 than customers are buying today (or hope that Nikon just completely self destructs). Of course, Fujifilm doesn't count themselves as number eight, they claim they're number five in camera sales with 11 million units sold. I suspect "sold" means "distributed to subsidiaries" though, as actual cash register receipts have never showed Fujifilm that high in recent times. Unfortunately, it's difficult to tell the exact numbers, because Fujifilm in particular has shifted a lot of its sales efforts to places like India, where sales monitoring isn't so hot.

It seems like we get one of these "we'll be number X with Y market share" statements every six months or so from one of the camera companies, and we've gotten them for years and years now. To my knowledge, not a single one has proven true yet.

I fail to see the purpose of such comments. If they reflect a renewed investment in product development, increased production, shameful self-promotion, or even a potential technology breakthrough, all they're doing is putting competitors on notice. If they're trying to prop up stock, it doesn't work. If they're setting divisional goals publicly, well, that has not appeared to help achieve the goal in the past.

I actually think it's mostly the latter that's involved, though. By having the head of your camera division announce these "reach goals" it's mostly a rallying cry to the troops. In essence, a public statement of confidence by the chief executive.

More interesting were other comments by Higuchi: that Fujifilm may re-enter the interchangeable lens camera market. Quite a few of us have been waiting for Fujifilm to do that, with an m4/3 entry that has a built-in EVF. The product has been prototyped and tested. The question is whether it would be built and sold. It's looking more and more like it will.

Another eye-raising statement was the apparent disinterest in increasing production in China. Fujifilm made a big fuss about moving production (of everything at the time; the recent X100 is made again in Japan) to China a few years ago. Now it appears they're looking to move that production out of China to somewhere else in Southeast Asia. That was quick.

The Week in Software
July 5 (news)--
Ohanaware updated HDRtist Pro to 1.0.3 with much faster performance and better color profile support. It's available in the Apple App Store. Shuttersnitch for iPad updated to version 2.1.4 and added conditional actions and better metadata support. Capture Pilot, also for iPad, updated to version 1.2 and added remote control of numerous cameras, including many Nikon DSLRs. X-Rite released i1Profiler 1.1.1, which adds compensation for screen glare and ambient light amongst other things. FocalBlade released a faster version 2.02 of FocalBlade with, ironically, support for version 1 settings ;~).

July 1 updated (news and commentary)--
First up was the notice that Hasselblad had been sold again (for the sixth time, this time to the Ventizz Capital Fund IV). The medium format (MF) seems hot in one respect--a continuing flow of interesting new high-end products--but we continue to lose bodies in the war of attribution as sales in the MF market simply don't have much in the way of legs. The estimate, after all, is that the MF market is measured in the low 10's of thousands of units a year. Nikon alone sells 14 million+ cameras a year.

The Hasselblad news was followed by Hoya's sale of Pentax Imaging to Ricoh. Over a year ago I predicted that Hoya would sell the camera group. Hoya originally wanted Asahi (Pentax) for its medical products, and when the Pentax camera sales continued to slide after the acquisition a few years ago, the handwriting was on the wall.

So now we have another conglomerate, Ricoh, with a camera division that needs some healing. (Ricoh, by the way, is sort of a Japanese Xerox, very heavy into documents and document management). Cameras at Ricoh will now be about 5%+ of their sales if I'm calculating right.

The question everyone is asking is "what will a combined Ricoh/Pentax look like?" There is overlap in their business, but mostly at the low end. I predict that the Ricoh compact cameras will be what survives at that end, and the Pentax DSLRs should survive at the other end. Three products need some thinking: Q (see Mirrorless Summer 3), GXR, and the 645D.

If the 645D survives the transition, it will because someone thinks it is a halo product. Ricoh specifically spoke about "profitability" as part of the motivation behind the transaction, and the 645D doesn't sell in enough quantity to drive that at the levels they need to pay back the US$124m investment they just made. A few thousand 645D's aren't going to generate enough cash to make a dent in that.

The Q is pretty much a one-and-done deal now I think. It'll be a novelty buy in Japan where both Pentax and Ricoh sell well, but I see Ricoh having an even tougher time of selling this overseas than Pentax was going to have. Again, not enough sales to make a dent in the investment outlay.

The GXR is a different story, though. Flip the M-mount module to K and suddenly those Pentax pancakes and near pancakes (15, 21, 40, 70) look mighty interesting. Of course, that'll be a relatively deep K-mount module. Still, if nothing else there's optical expertise that should be able to generate more and more interesting GXR options.

So, we end up with Pentax GR series and Optio WG series (water/shockproof) compacts, GXR in the middle of the lineup with more and more compelling modules, and K-series DSLRs. Would I have spent US$124 million to build that lineup? No. But it's still a very interesting lineup.

Here's the thing that intrigues me most about the match-up: both Ricoh and Pentax have well-designed cameras that appeal primarily to serious enthusiasts. That's where the overlap definitely comes into play. With the combined assets of the two I would definitely drive them towards trying to become a moderate volume, cater-to-the-enthusiast brand. Enthusiasts like primes. Enthusiasts like manual control and overrides. Enthusiasts like image quality. Enthusiasts like the camera to get out of the way.

If Ricoh can cater to the enthusiast group with the right products, then things will be fine. If not, count how many times Hasselblad has changed hands and now project what happens to Pentax.

Update: it seems every time I write about Pentax people start attacking things I write, but usually misinterpret what I've written or read too much into it. Just so that I'm clear:

  • 645D. I doubt it will go away soon. Partly because it will take time to transition to the new management and make all the decisions that need to be made. There's no downside in continuing to build and sell what they've designed. But I'm doubtful that much investment would go into extending its life unless it's decided that Ricoh wants the halo product. With the MF market so small, I think that's an unwise invesestment (see three bullets down).
  • Q. If I'm not mistaken, Ricoh has experimented with a C-mount design very similar to what Q is. The problem is that these will turn out to be specialty items, I think. The real problem with the Q is the price. While Ricoh camera pricing has not been bargain-like by any stretch of the imagination, US$799 for a compact camera is a real stretch, and the product is from the beginning a speciality/novelty item. Speciality items do not become mass market and tend to have short sales spans unless you continually find some way to make them unique and near collectible, as Leica has with the M series.
  • Pentax demise. Almost eight years ago I predicted the demise of Pentax. Perhaps I was too strong in my wording back then, which I eventually tempered. However, the company has now sold twice in four years for declining dollar amounts and if you look at the Imaging division sales and profits, they're nothing to write home about. I predicted that Pentax was in trouble and I was correct. Pentax has been and continues to be, a marginal brand in terms of economic viability. The question now is whether Ricoh management can fix that. With Hoya in charge, it was always clear that they really wanted the medical and some of the parts components of Pentax, not the struggling camera maker side. Ricoh appears to have the aspirations to try to build a viable camera business, and they've said all the right things about this deal so far. It appears that they truly intend to invest in the acquisition, not pull off the pieces they want. That's one thing Pentax needs. Moreover, Pentax/Ricoh are a good match in terms of customers they target (the serious enthusiast I mention above). If Ricoh can rationalize the product line with that in mind and make the right adjustments in terms of selling/support practices, then perhaps Pentax has finally found a home. We won't know the outcome of that until some clear product decisions get made.
  • Pentax+Ricoh. Under Hoya, Pentax's sales have continued to drop, and market shares have declined. They are a distant fourth in DSLRs (a declining market), not really a player yet in mirrorless (a growing market), a distant ~10th in compacts (a declining market). Combining that with Ricoh's sales doesn't actually change those positions. Pentax has been cutting back subsidiary staff and support. Ricoh doesn't do camera support in the US (they use a third party for all service, for instance, and have no US "digital camera support local contact"). Ricoh HQ in the US is in New Jersey, Pentax in Colorado. So besides the challenge of building a competitive product line, there's the issue of getting distribution, marketing, and support right worldwide.

Mirrorless Summer 4
June 30 (news and commentary)--
Olympus today made their expected announcement of new m4/3 cameras and accessories. We have three new cameras, the entry level E-PM1, the E-PL3, and the E-P3. The last two cameras are updates to existing Olympus cameras, the first is an entirely new model. All three models have Olympus' new focus system and utilize the same new 12mp sensor (more on that in a bit) and TruePic VI image processor. Here's how things stack up:

  • E-PM1 (Pen Mini): the new basic, entry-level camera with a simplified user interface, 3" 460k dot LCD, comes in six colors, price and availability to be announced.
  • E-PL3 (Pen Lite): adds a tilting LCD and extra controls to the E-PM1. Considerably modified from the E-PL2, including a slimming down despite the tiltable LCD. But it loses the flash in the process. Comes in four colors. Price and availability to be announced.
  • E-P3: adds a pop-up flash and 3" 614k dot touch-sensitive OLED LCD to the E-P2. Supports 1080i/60 video. While the camera looks like an E-P2, it's a complete rework from bottom to top. Also, the front finger grip comes in a couple of different sizes, for different sized hands. US$899 includes new kit lens or 17mm pancake. Comes in white, silver, or black. Available in August.

There's surprisingly little differentiation in key features of the three cameras. They all use the same sensor, have basically the same core feature set. The LCD varies between the three, the flash sync (and internal flash) varies, and the frame rate is different (5.5 fps for the lower models with IS off, 4.1 with it on, 3 for the higher end E-P3!). How you control the cameras is basically the same in the menu system, but each model up the line has more external controls and user-customization capability.

Olympus' press releases and Web sites aren't much help in differentiating the models, and I found a couple of mistakes on them, as well. Worse still, OlympusUSA is now in the confusing position of marketing six different Pen models (three incoming, three outgoing), and the best different at or they really provide on their site is simply price. Of course, none of the three new models are available yet and apparently won't be for a couple of months, further confusing customers. Olympus, like most of the camera companies, seems to be of the "keep the customer confused" mentality in terms of marketing (yes, there's really a type of marketing that utilizes customer confusion). Either that, or they're just confused themselves.

I like the way one person put it: Olympus has released the same camera in three different bodies. Basically true, and the body differentiation, other than the flash and LCD on the top-end model, isn't particularly big.

Three new lenses were announced, all supporting the new FAST autofocus system (again, more on that further down):

  • 12mm f/2 MSC (24mm equivalent) at US$799. Metal construction. 11 elements in 8 groups, one ED element, one aspherical. First Olympus m4/3 lens with focus and DOF markings (when pulled out to MF position), minimum focus is 20cm.
  • 45mm f/1.8 MSC (90mm equivalent) at US$399. 9 elements in 8 groups. Metal construction.
  • 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (28-84mm equivalent).

The big news, though, is that Olympus has taken the Panasonic Live MOS sensor and modified it. The exact modifications are still unknown. One person I trust who apparently has an E-P3 under test says he sees a one-stop improvement.

The new autofocus system is called FAST. FAST stands for Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology, an awkward nomenclature to get the marketing buzzy acronym. The name doesn't exactly describe what's going on in the technology. Someone in marketing got their back slapped by management this week. Olympus touts FAST as the "World's Fastest AF," which of course is followed by an asterisk. Like Olympus' last claim in this respect (E-5), they're talking about Single Servo focus, not continuous autofocus. And they're talking about "with new lenses." Plus the speed claims do not extend to low light performance. The first distinction is important, because Olympus also hasn't provided sensor blackout times (even mirrorless systems have blackouts due to their double-shutter). They did provide a shutter lag speed of 60ms, which is about the same as a D7000. Noticeably absent in the Olympus announcement information are technical details on any of the sensor and focusing changes.

Do these new cameras acquire focus quickly, much like a DSLR? Yes. Do they retain focus on moving subjects like a high-end DSLR? Unknown, but unlikely. Are they better than previous mirrorless models? Absolutely.

I'm sure we'll hear more about the new Olympus models in the coming months as early units trickle into reviewer hands and the company releases more technical information.

Overall I judge this to be a nice set of products from Olympus. Focus is improved, lots of small things have been addressed, fixed, or improved, the two new lenses fill in some gaps for enthusiasts, and I'm excited to try them out. As many of you know, I've been using a Pen for some of my work since my Africa trip in 2009. I'm sure that will continue, given the new models' features.

Does Nikon Feel Mirrorless Pressure?
June 29 (commentary)--
Short answer: probably not.

If you browse around the net enough you'll see lots of people claiming that Olympus or Sony or Panasonic or Samsung are doing well because their mirrorless sales have some significant percentage of the interchangeable lens market (where their DSLR products did not).

The market that has most accepted mirrorless cameras is the Japanese home market, and interestingly, it's the market for which we can easily get fairly reliable weekly, monthly, and annual sales numbers for interchangeable lens cameras bought at retail (as opposed to "shipped by maker"). You find four mirrorless cameras in the top ten list (E-PL2 at #3, GF-2 #5, NEX-5 #7, E-PL1 #9).

Nikon believes they should see all three of their consumer DSLRs in the top ten. And they do: #1, #6, and #10. The #1 D3100 sells twice as many units in Japan as the #3 best mirrorless camera, at least in/thru May of this year. Overall, the D3100, D5100, and D7000 account for 22.5% of the interchangeable lens camera market in Japan. Add in the other models and we're pretty close to Nikon's traditional 30% share (the quake hurt D700 and D3s/D3x sales, as there weren't enough to sell for at least one of those months).

Canon, on the other hand, ought to be seeing real trouble in this year's numbers. They've only got two models (both KISS/Rebel) in the top 10, and command only a 16.3% share with those models. In other words, Nikon's consumer models continue to do decently, with only a bit of erosion from where they've traditionally been, but Canon appears to be losing ground to the mirrorless boys. Someone has to be panicking at Canon headquarters, while at Nikon they're looking at those same numbers and not worrying that they have to rush into mirrorless.

Still, the trend--at least in Japan--is very clear. If you run a moving average on mirrorless sales' share of interchangeable lens cameras in Japan, the slope of the line is relentlessly upward. Not at a fast rate, but one that is nevertheless scary to the two traditional DSLR leaders. Throw things like the fast focusing Olympus mirrorless models to be announced tomorrow and the Sony A77 into the mix for the second half of the year, and we're going to see plenty of market share movement, I think. Nikon will counter with a D400, and eventually a low-end mirrorless. The big question is what will Canon counter with?

Speaking of the D400...
June 29 (commentary)--
With the rumors starting to heat up again, it seems that some of you have missed my statements earlier this year about what to expect from Nikon in 2011 (not my predictions, but my updates to those). Today I'll just summarize what I think is coming (pretty much all of it to be announced in August while I'm off shooting in the jungle somewhere), later this week I'll share more information:

  • D400 (DX, 24mp)
  • DX Lenses: new 18-200mm (!), wide angle prime
  • D4 (FX, 18mp)
  • FX Lenses: 80-400mm, 200mm Micro-Nikkor replacements (or close substitutes), 50mm f/1.2, maybe one or two other lenses from a list of about four that have been worked on (17mm PC-E, one of three or four different prime updates, other medium zoom, other tele zoom)

It's possible some of the lenses will be in a delayed announcement, as the quake definitely impacted Nikon's ability to produce some of them in quantity in a timely fashion. And yes, this means no D700 replacement until 2012. At least that's the way I'm hearing the back room scuttlebutt at the moment. This all seems to correspond reasonably well to what Nikon Rumors is reporting, too. Could be we're getting information from the same sources, though.

Full Disclosure
June 28 (commentary)--
I've asked this before, but it's time to reiterate the request: camera makers need to disclose more information about their digital systems. In particular, the frequency at which the AA filter is tuned and the spectral information on the Bayer filtration that is used.

I'm sure that the original reason for not disclosing this information was "competitive advantage." Early entrants into the digital sensor race slowed others from getting fully into the game by not helping them understand the details of what they were doing in their sensor configurations. But is that still the case? No. First, all the competitors that we're going to have for traditional systems are pretty much here (we might get disruptive competitors, but they don't need to know the information I'm asking for ;~). Second, every maker pretty much disassembles and reverse engineers their competitor's products within days of release, so there really isn't a secret at all.

Of course the third reason is the whopper: that some other company could steal "the look" their cameras produce if they had that information. Back in the days when this subject first came up, Nikon Capture produced a much different and better conversion than any raw converter at the time did. Today? Not really. But I'm going to cry "complete and utter lie" on the notion that withholding filtering information gives the computer maker's converter an advantage over the competition. The simple matter of the fact is that the vast majority of images aren't being converted by the maker's converter any more. Despite the advantage of knowledge about the sensor, those camera makers converters still lost the converter wars. I don't see any chance that anything will change in that respect, either.

Sure, Nikon will have a Capture NX3 some day. It might even be 64-bit (several years late). It might even be non-buggy (okay, I wrote this in a dream ;~). But what real advantage would it have over what we've got? None. Adobe reverse engineers the spectral information, as do almost all the other converter makers. (Tip to Adobe: you need to do it with more than two lighting sample values, though. You're missing some of the subtleties of the way the camera makers color and gamma correct.)

Essentially, the camera makers have deluded themselves into thinking that they have some magic ingredient that, if they withhold it, will give them some sort of competitive advantage. They are wrong. What they're doing instead is penalizing their customers. We pay a bit more for the converters we use because of the extra reverse engineering those companies have to do, we wait a bit longer for a camera to be compatible with the converter we're using, we have to spend extra time being a detective to figure out that the blue or red filtration changed and is impacting a technique or action we use. Why penalize your customers? Why not enable them instead?

Tokina 17-35mm f/4 Announced
June 27 (news)--
Tokina today announced a competitor to Nikon's 16-35mm f/4. Tokina's AT-X 17-35mm f/4 Pro FX should be available in September, has a built-in focus motor, and has a rubber weatherseal gasket at the mount. The listed Japanese price translates to about US$1200.

Weekly Software Update
June 27 (news)--
DxO updated their software to version 6.6, including a new de-noising too. Nik Snapseed for iPad has already updated to version 1.1, adding more features and better raw support. Fujifilm introduced firmware 1.1 for the X100, which has almost two dozen changes and fixes, enough so that they had to revise and republish the manual for the camera (about half my complaints with the X100 seem to be addressed).

A little outside the scope of this site but still something I know some of you are interested in: Apple released Final Cut Pro X, a major redesign of their seminal video editor, and a change that has the video professional community in an uproard. It's a major example of "who moved my cheese?" Everything is changed. Much for the better (performance, metadata handling, automatic and integrated fixes, clarity of design, etc.). And much for the worse (dropping of all kinds of function, including tape support, EDL support, multicam/multiclip editing, many others).

Since I'm doing more video work these days, I have a few thoughts about Final Cut Pro X. Even though they removed the one feature (multicam) I could use most for the video I'm currently working on, I'll take Apple's word for it that this will reappear soon in an update. I understand how hard it is to completely redo the foundation of a software program and get all the things that were hanging off it back up to speed. I think people are also missing the fact that Apple has moved Final Cut Pro X down in price to the point where we're going to get more people using it, and thus, more third party support in the future. That we don't have it today is a problem for some pros, true, but nobody told them they had to stop using their older Final Cut Pro version.

That said, what I don't like about FCP X (or Aperture or Lightroom for that matter) is how the original files are getting tougher to handle. The benefit of having a database on top is undeniable, sure, but it's starting to impose limitations on the files at the bottom of the database. Moving from one system to another, updating drive arrays, and other physical chores, are becoming a real issue as our original files get buried deeper under a metadata database structure. FCP X is fairly inflexible in that it requires an Events folder to be in one spot (you can pick the spot, but as needs grow, that spot needs to move). Moreover, every video I touch ends up in that Events folder, which is a problem, too, as I can't split it by client and share it with the client (you can by project, but what if you have multiple projects with a client?).

Lytro in Numbers
June 24 (commentary)--
Some of you are having trouble figuring out exactly what is and isn't possible with Light Field processing as proposed by Lytro. I thought Ng's dissertation was reasonably clear, but let me step through one simple example to give you an idea of what you gain and what you give up.

Let's take the typical 10mp BSI compact camera sensor at the moment. In front of that we're going to put an 4 by 4 array of microlenses to do the Light Field type collection. We'll use an f/2.8 lens with a fixed focal length of 8mm. This gives us the equivalent of an f/11 depth of field (you multiply the aperture by the square root of the array pixels, of which we have 16). By prefocusing the lens at 3 feet we get 1'5" to infinity in focus. That's theory. In practice Ng claims to be getting half that, but still, it's clear that we should be able to get a wide focusable range with a fairly small array. The downside? We've got images that are about 700 kilopixels. Decrease the array to 3 by 3 and we have an f/8 lens focus equivalence and 1.1mp camera.

Some people have predicted that the megapixel race will end, that we're out of gain for the effort. Light Field technology says no, it will not. We get noise reduction benefits from collecting so many samples for a single pixel, plus we get focus benefits, as well.

The question being raised is whether this is a disruptive technology or not. Like the Foveon sensor, which effectively increased pixel count per photosite, there appears to be an immediate potential gain over traditional Bayer if you scale it big enough. The question is whether Bayer can continue to brute force its way to market dominance. At the high end of camera range, probably. But Light Field is much more interesting at the cell phone camera size. It's not difficult to imagine an 8mp cell phone sensor with Lytro's array producing very high quality, no focus necessary images for Web use (Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Flickr, email, etc., which is where most camera phone photos are going).

As one reader wrote in an email to me (thanks Martin), the most likely disruption is to the lens makers. This is certainly true at the cell phone end, where we've got people trying to cram zoom and focus systems into very small spaces. But Light Field has potential to disrupt a lot more than that. One of Nikon's primary claims about Coolpix cameras, for instance, is that it is their lens that makes the difference (a huge number of compact cameras share sensor and sometimes even more internal design). What happens when you don't need as complex a lens and have additional data (the Light Field array information) that can be used to correct lens problems?

Half-Way Through (Yawn) 2011
June 24 (commentary)--
We're coming up to the halfway point of the year, and while there have been a lot of new cameras introduced, what exactly was the highlight?

To refresh your memory, here's the list of serious cameras so far:

  • Canon: 600D, 1100D
  • Fujifilm: X100
  • Leica: M9-P
  • Nikon: D5100
  • Olympus: XZ-1, E-PL2, E-PM1, E-PL3, E-P3 (last three coming next week)
  • Panasonic: GF3, G3
  • Pentax: Q
  • Sigma: DP2x, SD-1
  • Sony: NEX C3, A35

Of these, the X100 and SD-1 were announced at last year's Photokina in the fall and finally made it out this year.

Pretty dismal lot, eh? The X100 and SD-1 are the two most interesting and polarizing entries, and definitely the most talked about in terms of their impact on serious photography. I regard the X100 as a work in progress (Fujifilm today released a huge firmware change, one so massive it required them to revise the manual for the camera). The SD-1 has an intriguing sensor at a non-intriguing price in a non-intriguing body. But at least both cameras moved the bar and opened up new possibilities for serious photography.

Olympus seems to be on a iteration intensification drug of some sort. What else can explain launching a E-PL3 to replace a six-month old E-PL2?

Of the shipping cameras so far, the XZ-1 turns out to be my leading candidate for Serious Camera of the Year so far. It pushes compacts in a nice way to some new levels of usefulness while maintaining a simple, straightforward approach. The X100 probably should have taken that spot, but despite its very excellent image quality, I just keep tripping over things in the firmware and handling of the camera that really needed to be fleshed out before shipping.

That's not to say the D5100 or E-PL2 or NEX C3 aren't good cameras. But each of them is a small step forward of something that was already at a high level. They don't stand out as something new we have to pay attention to as serious shooters, just nice incremental pushes forward of something that we've already taken note of.

The second half of this year is likely to be insane for serious shooters, though. I'll wager a very large bet that my final Camera of the Year hasn't been announced yet. Here's just some of what is expected in the second half:

  • Canon: 1DsIV, maybe 5DIII
  • Fujifilm: X200, mirrorless?
  • Nikon: D4, D400
  • Panasonic: GH3, G?1 (the true GF-1 replacement)
  • Pentax: APS mirrorless
  • Samsung: NX20, NX200
  • Sony: A77, maybe NEX-7

So take heart serious gear junkies: the second half of the year should prove to be very, very interesting.

Mirroless Summer 3
June 23 (news and commentary)--
Pentax today joined the mirrorless (or ILC) market with what can only be regarded as an oddball entry: the Q is a very small interchangeable lens camera with a 1/2.3" sensor (same as many compact cameras). It also costs more than any compact camera at US$800, and that's with just a 47mm f/1.9 equivalent lens.

Some of you may remember the old Auto 110 system, where Pentax (and Kodak) tried to invent a small, new film format. Why the folks at Pentax think it's worth repeating that mistake, I don't know. When 4/3 was originally announced, I accused Olympus of bringing a knife to a gun fight. Pentax has now officially brought a pea shooter slingshot. Or a paper weight.

The problem is that if you use the compact camera sensors, you're competing against...wait for it...compact cameras. Pentax gave the new Q (is the naming department on vacation or watching Bond movies?) five lenses, a "normal" f/1.9, a kit-zoomish f/2.8-4.5, a fisheye, and two lenses labeled Toy Lens that cost US$80 each (again, what's with that naming department?). Let's see, they're competing against some compact cameras with longer focal length ranges that are f/1.8-2.2. To what end is the "interchangeable lens" aspect helpful in that if you're already starting at a deficit?

Someone will surely bring up the "cute" or "retro" aspects (it looks a bit like a toy film-era camera), but as I've written before, if you go for fad-dominated design, you've completely lost the thread of camera making. Meanwhile, we've got startups like Lytro (next story) breaking entirely new ground. Who do you think is more likely to win that dance? At least the Pentax Q has a new Scene exposure mode we haven't seen before: Forest. Apparently Pentax designers can't see the trees for the forest.

dpreview called the Pentax Q "ever-so-slightly eccentric." No, it's not slightly anything. It's over-the-top bizarre. Bizarre enough that Pentax will sell a few to people who are more interested in being able to pull a mini-mini-SLR out of their pocket to impress others ("Name's Bond. Thom Bond"). Meanwhile, the rest of us will be taking better pictures with an Olympus XZ-1 for half the price.

Meanwhile, over in Germany Leica has a new camera they announced this week, too: the M9-P. What's new? Well, the red dot and Leica identification on the front has been removed and the glass over the LCD is back to being sapphire-based. Yeah, that deserved a "P" all right. As is "we can issue another Press release saying we have something new when we don't." But Leica, at least, has always been like that. They seem to want very few people to have the same exact camera, even though it's the same exact camera. Maybe the P stands for Pretentious.

FWIW, I believe this series will make it all the way to Mirrorless Summer 7 before we're done with all the announcements. Maybe 8. Let's hope that one of those is something more substantive that a photography enthusiast can get really excited about.

A New Way of Imaging?
June 22 (news and commentary)--
When you start soliciting coverage from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, I guess you're looking for attention. And that's just what Lytro got. The question is this: why?

First, let me dismiss some of the "can't be done" or "impossible technology" comments that have been made by some on various Web forums. Light Field capture has been a hot research topic for some time now, and is moving from labs to reality. If you want some nitty gritty, read Ng's PhD dissertation (Ng is the founder of Lytro).

As a Silicon Valley native (born and raised) and practitioner (~20 years), I'm happy to see the Stanford-to-startup connector still working. Lytro claims to have raised US$50 million for their venture.

That plus the early publicity engine has me scratching my head, though. Lytro expects to launch a camera with the technology later this year. I expect said camera to be relatively low in pixel count compared to other cameras. If we're to believe the hints from what they've posted to date, it will also be a square image format, so it will be decidedly at odds with current compact cameras just in those two aspects already, without the Light Field aspects even considered.

It's that Light Field bit that is intriguing, and it may be a Trojan Horse. Is the aim really just to refocus pictures after the fact and then treat the image normally from there, or to come up with a new after-the-fact photo browsing experience? I strongly suspect we're headed towards the latter, especially considering all the "play with me" images on the site. How much do you want to bet that there's going to be a Web Gallery aspect to Lytro's offering, and that the real money will be made there? I'll take that bet.

The problem with pure hardware startups is that you need a lot of sales volume to recover initial capital outlays. At US$500 and a gross profit margin of 40%, you need to sell 250,000 units to just pay back the initial US$50m in VC. And VCs want 20x and 30x recovery. So we're talking 5m units to satisfy the investors already in place (to put that in context, that's more than 5% of the current compact camera marketplace per year and a bigger market share than some very established brands). But I'll bet the GPM isn't 40% and the sales price can't be US$500. Halve those numbers and the payback bar becomes 20m units. It's just tough to make hardware from scratch work. I've tried it three times in my career and succeeded once, got undermined by other factors in the company once, and failed once.

But here's what I really wanted to say: Silicon Valley gets this "tease early" strategy wrong far more often than they get it right. I believe in sine waves. Everything happens over and under the logical "norm." When you first announce something that is incredibly new and innovative, you get over-hyped, especially by the press, who are constantly looking for positive stories. When you deliver a 1.0 product, you get over-criticized. And these swings can be incredibly large. Remember the Segway and what was said about it before it was announced? ("Might hit US$1 billion in sales as fast as any company in history." We're still waiting 10 years later.)

If you're going to play the hype game, this has to come incredibly close to launch, what I call Hype-and-Sell. The longer the hype is out there without a product to support it, the larger the hype tends to build (re-tweeting isn't going to help that problem, and I've already gotten many emails today asking "have you seen this?"; yes, I have ;~), meaning that the actual product will almost always be a let-down. So you get panned by reviewers right at the time you're trying to sell to your first customers. All it takes is for some customers to reinforce that pan and you're toast.

You might ask, "but wouldn't the customers be let down if you hyped and immediately sold them an under-performing product to those expectations?" Perhaps, but you should already have a plan for that, too. That plan consists of fast and constant iteration, each addressing known issues. That, of course, means spending more money on R&D, which makes the hardware gamble all that much bigger. Big, existing companies can make this bet easier, as they aren't betting the company, but they don't tend to because they get complacent.

So what's the hype here? After-the-fact focusing. What's the downside? Well, the prototype required a 16mp sensor array to produce a 90kp image. Some similar relationship is expected for a production camera. The good news is that using so many photosites per pixel (256 if I read the papers right) also means that a number of noise-related issues go away, The implications, however, are that we need one heck of a lot of megapixels to get large sized images. Their samples appear to be no more than 360kp images.

Don't get me wrong, the Hype Early strategy can work. But it's a big gamble for a startup. It makes everyone look very hard at what you do eventually release. Are you still going to be enthused if the camera shoots 600x600 pixel images?.

Nikon Falls Short in Final Cut Pro X Support
June 21 (news)--
Only the Nikon D90, D3100, Coolpix P500, and Coolpix P9100 make the list of supported still cameras on Apple's just released Final Cut Pro X (a strange selection to be sure: it should have been D90, D7000, and D3s IMHO, which would have also given implicit D5000, D5100, and D300s support). For Canon, they list 5DII, 7D, T3i, and PowerShot G12 and SX230HS. For Olympus, nothing. For Panasonic, the G3, GH2, and LX-5 make the list. For Sony the NEX-5 and VG10 are there. That doesn't mean that other cameras won't work, it only means that Apple hasn't tested them. It's likely that this list will grow over time and that issues with particular compression schemes in individual models will be added to Apple's support list.

Final Cut Pro X is turning the serious video world upside down at the moment. It is so radically different, it's a bit like replacing Capture NX2 with Lightroom. Oh wait, we did that. Essentially, all pro work flows centered around FCP 7, the previous version, just broke if you update. The whole workflow design is different, as FCP X is based upon a metadata focus (like Lightroom and Aperture are for stills). Plug-ins and other goodies need to be redone, too.

On the good news side, it does look like Apple did their Apple simplifying thing to something that was getting seriously complicated. While I'm sure there will be people who complain about missing, broken, and just-plain-different features, my quick take is that this was a much-needed rethink of how a serious video workflow should be handled. Still not perfect, by any means. But better in many respects.

The Second Great Shootout
June 21 (news and commentary)--
Zacuto, a maker of filmmaking and video accessories, has once again helped produce and distribute a test of video and film camera capabilities. As with last year's tests, they've included a number of DSLRs, including the Nikon D7000. You can see the 30-minute first episode here.

Even if you're not into video, there are things to be learned from these tests, things that I've been writing about on DSLRs pretty much since the beginning. Let me just mention one of those, which is part of the test in question: the balance of highlight versus shadow detail. (Note: the video in the test was fully "graded," meaning that it has had post processing applied to it to bring color, highlights, shadows, and overall exposure curves into what you'd present in a final film or video. That process is a little different for video than what we do in post processing still images because the final viewable product is displayed a bit differently, for example, prints versus projection.)

One thing that a lot of new DSLR users don't always figure out very quickly is where "middle gray" gets rendered versus the brightest highlight or the deepest shadow detail. It's usually a shock to them when they do find out. You'll see several bar charts of how the various different cameras did in Zacuto's Shootout and it should become more clear. With Nikon DSLRs, for instance, I've been generally saying that they record about three stops above middle gray and five stops below (on a camera where I say there's eight stops of usable dynamic range). You can see that clearly in Zacuto's graph of the D7000 range, which shows a disproportionate capture below the mid-tones compared to above.

Not all cameras are the same. The Fujifilm S5 Pro, for example, was very balanced in the above/below realm, mostly due to its unique dual photosite relationship that recorded more highlight information. (Another important thing to note: the DSLRs in this test run the captured data through their imaging ASIC to produce video, much like producing JPEGs. Some of the video cameras in the test, such as the RED One, can output raw data to be converted later. That difference is important. When you rely upon the camera to allocate where the raw data goes into the pixel data [video output and JPEG] you get the camera maker's interpretation of how that data should be converted into highlight and shadow detail. If you output raw data, you can make a decision on where middle tones are and how the rest of the data is curved around it.)

But again, the important thing to note from this test is the way the D7000 distributes its data in normal recording (video and JPEG): less above mid-tones, more below. In general, all DSLRs have tended to be a bit like this when recording video, and it shows that they're coming from a still world bias (we tend to like brighter mid-tones in stills than their actual relative position in reality, and that probably has something to do with the way we display our images).

The big thing to be gained from looking at tests like Zacuto's is simple, and more than one of the cinematographers alludes to that in their comments on seeing the test footage: know your tool. As was said several times during the test, hand those cameras to a cinematographer making a film and he'll make them all look pretty much the same. That isn't the goal of Zacuto's tests, nor should it be the goal of your testing or your analysis of other people's tests of still camera equipment. What you want to know is how the camera responds to different things. Simply put, a Hollywood cinematographer would light a set differently for a D7000 than he would for the top-of-the-line Alexa. He'd light the range just below the mid-tones brighter and make sure not to push the exposure high enough so that you got channel clipping in the highlights (which produced that yellowness in the AG-AF100 highlight test, for example).

Bottom line: Know Thy Tool. The Zacuto shootouts are helpful for both still and video photographers in that respect (though obviously the video guys will tend to get more out of it).

June 21 (commentary)--
Yesterday Canon announced that the T3 Rebel will...wait for it...come in three new colors (red, brown, and some sort of ugly gray). As long-time readers know, I believe that when makers start trying to put fashion or fad into a product category, the product has pretty much run its course in terms of technology driving sales. It was one thing when Pentax went with the "any color you want" skinning of their DSLRs. It's another when the market leader does it. Low-end DSLRs are looking more and more like dinosaurs, about to turn into an evolutionary dead-end.

How Thick is Your Skin?
June 20 (essay)--
[This article has gotten so much reaction I'm not able to respond to all of it.] A new photo site, dpaddict.com, brings up another subject that doesn't get discussed a lot in photography: who are you shooting for?

I've angled around this subject before. But perhaps it's time to take it head on. The way I see things, there's a clear hierarchy in reasons for taking a photo. For lowest to highest order:

  • because you're expected to
  • to collect a "memory snapshot"
  • because it's an interesting hobby
  • to mimic others (collecting images that you've seen that have been shot by others)
  • to impress others (including to make money)
  • to capture and create something uniquely yours

Since we've just completed Father's Day, the "you're expected to" often comes along with that. Often the triggering event of both "expected to" and "memory snapshots" is the birth of your first child. For some reason, it's usually Dad's job to start documenting the child (it was my mom in my household, though). If you're expected to take photos or are taking memory snapshots, you get quite pragmatic: just do what the other people around you expect of you. When they tell you that your image is out of focus, or underexpose, or doesn't look like the Smith's, you simply deal with that particular problem and keep shooting (or you stop shooting ;~). This is basically elementary school: you listen to what the teacher says and try to address the problems they point out.

The interesting hobby shooter is often focused as much on equipment as photos. They're the ones that would rather have a nice filter protecting their pristine lens rather than getting a better photo. They collect the latest gear and obsess over it rather than worry too much about their images. When they do worry about their images, they get into insane arguments over pixels on Web fora rather than actually stand back and look at the image on a wall. This is basically high school, where you form cliques and groups and belonging is more important than anything the group might produce.

Mimicking others comes because at some point you see great images and you wonder how and where they were taken. You're starting to get away from the hobby approach and the trivial fora discussions of your chosen group and find a mentor, even if only in absentia. You start studying carefully, maybe even obsessively, but you're not thinking independently yet. Welcome to college.

At some point it dawns on you that mimicking is just that. All you've proven is that you can do what someone else already did. Maybe you even read Sontag and got depressed ;~). You may have already attempted this new level--impressing others or making money--while you were mimicking, but you're finding that this doesn't impress or make you money. The ship has already sailed on that and the person you mimicked is the one who captained the boat. This is grad school at its best. You're trying to become. You look to others to measure whether you've actually moved the bar. Go ahead, put that shot on dpaddict.com and see what happens (more on that in a bit).

Finally, you come to realization that all the great images came about because the photographer was trying to do something unique, that fit their own interests, interpretation, and goals. Most of the pros being hired by others do this. You don't hire Annie Liebowitz for any reason other than she's figured out she likes to do portraits, likes to do them in ways that reflect her notion of the person, and likes to do it by capturing more than a face or an expression, and does them better than most everyone else. You don't tell Annie what to do. You hire Annie to do what she does.

So let's talk a bit about "what others think of your images." Should you care? I'll come back to that question in a moment, but first a word about me. Do I care what others think of my images? Not really. My level of photographic competence is high, and I shoot subjects I want to shoot the way I want to shoot them. I do strongly care about what I think of my images. I listen to what others think of my images when they do see them because I'm always checking to see if I've gone completely delusional (though I'm not sure what I'd do if that was what I learned had happened ;~). I try to be open minded. Sometimes others see things I don't see, and that might adjust my thinking going forward, but it's my thinking. I'll own up to my images. They're mine. Like Annie and others, I do what I do.

While I don't display a lot of images on my site, I do get lots of responses about the ones that I do post. The current image at the top of the page, for instance. A lot of people, including my mother, have expressed their like for this image. Technically, it's okay. I don't regard it as one of my better shots and was a bit surprised when people responded positively to it. I picked the image to illustrate a point, not because I thought it was good.

So let's come back to that question: should you care what others think about your images? My answer is mostly no, partly yes. The yes part I dealt with: listening to what others think of your work is a sanity check. Sometimes others do see things you didn't and they provide you a useful insight moving forward. A good image critique from a peer or mentor sometimes does that, too. But if it's mostly that Facebook Like thing you're seeking, you're not at the top level of image making in my mind, you're seeking validation.

I haven't entered a contest or sought out an award since I figured out the difference between validation and self-awareness. That's a period of almost 30 years now. Funny thing is, I have won some awards along the way, but you'll notice I don't mention them anywhere (even though many of them are relevant to how other people might perceive my work).

In the end, what you think of my work or what I think of yours doesn't matter. It's what I think of my work and what you think of yours that does. Sure, it's nice to get validation once in awhile, and it's fun to have intelligent conversations about one's work with peers, but all those hundreds of decisions that get made while taking a photograph are yours. You need to have a self-aware lamp lit inside you guiding you when you take images, not wonder what decision someone else would make.

The Week in Software
June 19 (news)--
Here were the major software announcements of the past week:

  • Photosmith, an iPad app for sorting, captioning, and keywording images, was updated to version 1.04 (with support for more raw file types).
  • Nik software introduced an iPad image editing app with their U-point technology, called Snapseed.
  • Automata is a Windows-only program that performs, you guessed it, automated image adjustments to a group of photos (and can watch folders).
  • Photo Mechanic got a some additional raw formats and some additions of Nikon-related metadata when flash is used in version 4.6.7.
  • DxO introduced a new plug-in for Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, and DxO Optics Pro called FilmPack 3, which emulates the look of a number of different films.
  • DxO Optics updated to version 6.6 and includes D5100 support as well as support for some new Nikon lens/camera combinations.
  • Oloneo PhotoEngine (Windows-only) finally came out of beta. This raw converter and image processing application works as both a stand-alone product and as a plug-in for Lightroom.
  • OnOne Software launched Perfect Layers for Lightroom or Aperture. They also announced that owners of their Perfect Photo Suite 5.5 get Perfect Layers for free.
  • FotoMagico (Macintosh only) added new transitions and a new HD output format for their slide shows.

NikonUSA Cleaning the Shelves
June 17 (commentary)--
The end of fiscal quarter is coming up, and it seems like NikonUSA is doing everything in their power to make their numbers. Besides making sure every new shipment from Japan or Thailand doesn't spend any time in the warehouse, it appears that NikonUSA has done a look through every nook and cranny and refurbished ever last item that was sitting around anywhere in any NikonUSA office or warehouse.

To wit: B&H just sent me a list of refurbished equipment NikonUSA has sold to them. It runs seven of B&H's normal pages long and includes things like D200 and D60 DSLRs! There's a 400mm f/2.8G in there, as well as some other more sought after things. Act quick, as many of these items are onesies. (As with all "news" related links, I no longer put my affiliate code on them. If you wish to support this site, do so by clicking on the button at the top of this page. If you just have to see the same list after doing this, type "Nikon Refurbished" in the Search bar.)

But B&H isn't the only one getting refurbished equipment. I've noticed upticks in refurbished Nikons in at least five different outlets lately. I sure hope the cupboard isn't bare when we get to July and the start of the next fiscal quarter.

To those bemoaning the fact that there aren't any D3s or D700 bodies out there to be found. Yes, there are. If you need to find one, let me know and I'll point you to someone that has them in stock.

Hollywood Only Embraces Legacy Nikon
June 17 (commentary)--
Nikon has a long, storied relationship with Hollywood. When it came to picking lenses, Zeiss and Nikon had more than their fair share of wins with Hollywood DOPs, Bollywood DOPs, and all the other woods' DOPs (DOP=directors of photography, or cinematographer). There was even a cottage industry of modifying standard Zeiss and Nikon lenses with focus puller gears and calibrated t/stops.

Today? Well, everyone still loves putting their old AI Nikkors on even their latest and greatest digital video cameras, but modern Nikkors? They don't play so well. It has nothing to do with optical quality, which hasn't gone down. It has everything to do with G and AF-S.

The G-type lens doesn't have an aperture ring. You can find mount adapters that allow you to "adjust" aperture with G lenses, but the days of tight calibration and repeatable results are gone. In Hollywood, those things are important because you need to exactly match exposure both between shots made at different times, but also with scenes shot with multiple cameras. Unless you use a G lens at maximum aperture there is no certainty with which to work with. Even very small differences in exposure make for visually glaring changes across cuts between cameras (and a lot of extra work for the Footage Grader).

Likewise, AF-S pretty much kills the focus pulling. The old Nikkor primes had long rotation on the focus ring, which allowed you to gear it up and pull focus both precisely and with very fluid changes. AF-S lenses, by design, try to limit the movement of the focusing elements, and thus tend to have very short rotations. Gone again is the precision, and it's tough to get a gear small enough to do slow, fluid pulls.

So today we're in a world where every still camera is also a video camera. How does that work? Well, most of us who use a Nikon DSLR for video ultimately ditch the G/AF-S lenses and get out our old AI and AI-S lenses (on some bodies that's the only way we can even get close to any manual video exposure control, anyway). Those of us who are shooting video on bigger formats (I use a large sensor Sony video camera for serious video work) do the same thing.

Those buying new lenses for video often opt for PL mount Zeiss lenses. Zeiss still makes lenses with long focus throws and real, calibrated apertures, after all. Plus the PL mount pretty much can be used with any of the video camera choices.

So wither Nikon and its relationship with Hollywood? History, it appears. As in "use one of our historic lenses." I alluded to this more than a year ago when I suggested that the right approach for Nikon was to make a dedicated video camera and lenses. With Sony and Panasonic now bridging the gaps in their still/video lines and Canon likely to do so, Nikon is left as an odd man out. Sure, they've got "video capabilities" in their still cameras. But when it comes to the things that serious videographers and Hollywood desire, they don't have the goods.

This implies that Nikon's pursuit of video in DSLRs has been a quick-and-dirty patch that won't hold up with time, at least for serious video work. Which brings me back to one of my oft-repeated comments: why bother? Put all that work into differentiating the still aspects of the still cameras.

The Dummy Bar
June 16 (commentary)--
What's it been now, 15 years? That's how long I've been supporting Nikon users on the Web. And it just seems like I see the same complaint over and over. Got two more of them yesterday, one from Canada, one from Europe. My proposed solution for Nikon is still basically the same, but maybe I can make it more modern and trendy so that Nikon will be more likely to copy it.

Nikon needs a Genius Bar at their repair facilities. Not the Dummy bar they have now. What's prompting me in writing this (this time)? Autofocus system adjustments.

The last two times I've surveyed Nikon DSLR users (now over 20,000 responses) I've gotten the same results: about 7% of all Nikon DSLRs end up back at Nikon because of "a focus problem." I don't think Nikon is any better or worse here than the other brands. Focus is one of the most common things to complain about, and way back in the early 90's Herbert Keppler at Modern Photography (at least I think it was still Modern Photography then--it's Popular Photography today) wrote a seminal column about "accuracy of SLR autofocus systems." In short, they weren't. Perfectly Accurate, that is.

The "why" behind that is full of technical issues, but two things have always been clearly part of the problem: alignment and tolerance. We can't do anything about the tolerance bit. It's built into the systems. Once a phase detect AF system thinks it's within some percentage of error of where it's supposed to be, it stops. The only alternative would be to constantly hunt, and we don't want that. So one problem is that a focus system will often stop at a slightly different point coming from infinity than it does coming from close focus. That difference may be really small in physical terms (a millimeter difference in focus distance, for example), but it is a difference that makes that can make problems for some photographers.

But that's coupled with manufacturing alignment tolerance. Remember, light is getting to most of these autofocus systems by going through a mirror (lots of light siphoned off), bouncing off another mirror, getting into the AF subsystem, and often bouncing off yet another mirror before being split by prism to get to the AF sensors themselves. Oh, and your lens mount could be slightly skewed, causing sensors on one side to get light that had traveled less or more than the other. Some cameras were notorious for issues (the D2 series) because they actually had three separate AF modules, and it's tough to align all three exactly the same.

A really well-trained Repair Genius at the front desk of the repair facilities could isolate these alignment issues very quickly. First, you have to figure out if there's user error involved. Then you check cleanliness (two mirrors, hole in the bottom of the mirror box). Once those things are removed, you step through a sequence to figure out which of the pieces is the likely cause of the problem (side-to-side usually doesn't implicate mirrors, but mount and AF sensor position, for example. A Genius would target the necessary fix fast, and doing it in front of the customer would instill confidence in the repair system.

Only problem is that not everyone can get to a Nikon repair facility, Nikon discourages interaction with customers at those facilities, and then there's the dirty secret that some work is farmed out to other repair facilities. Still, my original suggestion years ago was for an ombudsman, and a reachable Repair Genius would be a good substitute.

The Wall Street Journal had an article yesterday on what makes the Apple Stores so successful. They pointed to the Apple Store training manual: "sales associates are taught an unusual sales philosophy: not to sell, but rather to help customers solve problems. "Your job is to understand all of your customers' needs - some of which they may not even realize they have."

Help customers solve problems. That's exactly what Nikon needs to do. If 7% of the units they're seeing at the repair centers are there for focus, and many multiple times, there's a customer problem that needs solving, too. Unfortunately, that customer problem often turns out to be Nikon itself.

Pixels Redux
June 15 (commentary)--
It's interesting how one topic so naturally leads to another in photography. We're juggling so many decisions and issues, and they are all interrelated.

In answering one person's question about yesterday's article, we veered into one of those relationships. When I was writing about pixels yesterday I was just assuming "perfect pixels." In other words I was writing about, oh, 12 million perfect pixels versus 24 million. In other words, I was in the abstract (it was an article focused on an abstract notion, after all: forest or tree?).

In the real world, we get real pixels, not perfect ones. And here's where things get interesting. While sensors have certainly improved in the 12 years of the Nikon DSLR era, something else has actually improved pixel quality more. I'm referring to the imaging ASIC, or what Nikon calls EXPEED these days.

Go back and grab a D1h/D1x and shoot with it on a JPEG setting. Dial up some sharpness and JPEG compression. Oops. Nasty things start happening at the pixel level. Now try that with a D3s. Heck, I can dial up as much compression as the camera allows and barely see a difference. It isn't the sensor that's doing that (though starting with a less noisy signal is helpful), it's the JPEG processing engine.

I see this all the time in my testing. I've had several competitive models through my lab that used the same sensor but have very different looks and results. Let's take m4/3, for example. From the same sensor, the Olympus E-P1/2/PL-1/2 and the Panasonic G/GF-1/2/et.al get very different JPEG results. From the raw data out of these cameras, I can get nearly identical results, which is why I'll take the camera that gives me the right set of features and other performance. The difference in JPEG? True Pic (Olympus) versus Venus (Panasonic). Olympus has Panasonic beat, hands down. In maturity of imaging ASIC and its ability to create excellent JPEG images from underlying raw data, I'd rank the DSLRs this way:

  • Canon Digic. Say what you want, it's mature, creates impressive final images from even questionable data, and has a bit of contrast tweaking and edge sharpening missing in Nikon's.
  • Nikon EXPEED. Not far behind, but Nikon has chosen to go for smooth data rather than abrupt edges for some time now, resulting in what people say are slightly soft JPEGs. But they withstand added sharpening and don't have that hint of falseness you see in some other imaging ASICs.
  • Toss-up: Sony Bionz, Olympus True Pic. Olympus might get the nod here because they're working with crummier data, and Sony is often using the same data as Nikon and getting lesser results. That speaks to the maturity of the Olympus routines.
  • Also-rans: Panasonic Venus, Samsung ???. Both need some work on improving their JPEGs. Panasonic clearly isn't getting what Olympus is from the same sensor, and Samsung's results, while good, have some minor issues in them, too.
  • Can't Rate: Pentax Prime. I don't have enough experience with their DSLRs to get a good handle on where they stand. What little experience I've had would put them somewhere at or near Nikon in this list, I think. But I just haven't used enough Pentax DSLRs, especially the latest ones, to judge.

For JPEG shooting, the imaging ASIC makes a huge difference. That's because JPEG is actually throwing away enormous amounts of pixel data. We reduce from 12- or 14-bit to 8-bit, for example. We further reduce as much as 100MBs of RGB pixel data down to 6MBs of formula. If you don't think there are better and worse ways of doing all that data reduction, well, I have some land alongside the Mississippi River I'd be happy to sell you right now.

When we talk about real, post JPEG processing pixels, we're no longer talking about perfect pixels. JPEG engines can (and most do, though not so much Nikon) artifact, they can apply noise reduction that smudges acuity, they can alter contrast curves in ways that boost one area of contrast versus another (usually mid-range), they can halo on edges (though not generally Nikon), and much more.

If you're shooting JPEG, getting "sand" instead of "shape of the coastline" is going to be more difficult, and on some cameras, near impossible.

June 14 (commentary)--
I came across an interesting passage in a book I was reading (Cracking Creativity, the Secrets of Creative Genius): "A very detailed description of a beach would include every position of every grain of sand. Viewed from a higher vantage point, the details become smeared together, the grains become a smooth expanse of brown. At this level of description, different qualities emerge: the shape of the coastline, the height of the dunes, and so on."

In those three sentences is something that people often ignore in the constant discussion about megapixels and resolution: what problem are you really trying to solve?

If, for example, you really are trying to show your audience every sand grain's position and form, then more megapixels you'll be seeking for a time that is long (stop it, stop channelling Yoda, Thom). In essence, you'll never be satisfied, because you can never get enough pixels to resolve every grain of sand on even a small beach, let alone a big one.

I see a lot of people chasing the individual sand grain. Bird shooters looking for "more definition in the deep in the feathers," portrait shooters chasing "every last strand of hair," sports shooters looking to resolve the logo on the distant golf ball, and so on. If you fall into this category, I have bad news for you. You will be buying new cameras and lenses every time there's even a marginal increase in ability. And don't forget printers and output technologies: you'll need the latest and greatest there, too, otherwise you might lose some sand.

It's usually about this point that I get a Two Defense punch from my readership: "I print large", and/or "I need to crop". The large print defense isn't especially effective because in general the larger the print the further the "normal viewer" is from it. Yes, you can get close and count pixels, just as you could get down on your knees and count sand grains, but is that still a photograph, or are you into some other discipline at that point? I'd argue the latter. The crop defense usually boils down to one of two things: laziness or inability to purchase/carry the right lens. But, it, too, begins to look like the counting sand argument, because when you crop you increase the magnification of the capture area and end up in the pixel peeping category all over again. The reason people that crop want more pixels is to try to avoid the magnification issue. Why not just solve the problem correctly in the first place rather than keep buying new cameras?

What gets missed in all this pixel pursuit is "shape of the coastline" and "height of the dunes." It's the old forest versus trees problem all over again. If all you look at is a tree, you never see the forest. Yet I find that more often than not it's the forest that intrigues me. (If you're into trees, think tree versus branch; if you're into branches, think branch versus wood grain, and so on.)

Let me put it a different way: if you're using a 10mm lens on your D7000, is what you're after the grain of sand or the shape of the coast? That's what I thought your answer would be. When you go after the grain of sand what do you typically do? That's right, you get closer and/or use a longer lens. You don't just turn the Pixel Dial to 11.

"But wait," you say, "there's something about having both the shape and the detail. That's why people use medium format." That sounds reasonable on the face of it, but I'm not 100% convinced of that argument. I've seen a lot of big prints from MF equipment, both film and digital, and in the best ones it's not the pixels that are important, it's the overall increase in acuity. Edges get clear definition. The way our eye-brain system is built, we respond most to changes in luminance (loosely: dynamic range), next in edge definition (contrast), and to a much lesser degree color (hue/saturation). Our brain does not isolate individual rods and cones (loosely: pixels).

Thus, a pixel by itself isn't terribly meaningful, it has to be in support of one of the things that our brain does interpret (luminance, contrast, color). I don't rule out "more pixels," but I also don't tend to over value it. (Note: pros often pursue more pixels to get an advantage over amateurs; they can use any help they can get in these days of ubiquitous imaging.) Be careful that you're actually getting a meaningful benefit if you pursue the more pixel strategy. Foveon users, for instance, will be quick to point out that the acuity is higher for their cameras despite a lower pixel count. If acuity is what you seek, adding pixels isn't necessarily the right solution.

Personally, I try to not look at the individual bits of sand, but try to find the thing I'm really photographing, which is rarely buried in the sand. It always amuses me that some photographers spend enormous sums of money to capture more pixels for portraits, then spend hours removing what was captured from the skin of the subject (without destroying any pixel of hair that might overlap, of course). It's true of landscape photography, too: if you resolve every last little twig and stick and errant candy wrapper, you'll be cloning that last one out. Indeed, more pixels generally means more post processing work involving taking what was resolved that you don't want out.

If you want a real shocker of an experience, try this: take your best image and correctly reduce it to 1920x1080 (~2mp) and throw it up on the 48" LCD or plasma TV in your living room (unfortunately, doing that correctly is an article all in itself). You might find you've already got a camera that can "display big." Sure, you can walk up and put your face up to the display and see the wizard behind the curtain, but at the distance you would normally view that screen from, you're going to be mighty impressed by how it looks. I recently got a chance to do this on a Digital Cinema display (4096x2160, or about 8mp). At the 20/20 vision optimized viewing point, this throws an approximately 55 degree field of view at you. Damned if those 8mp didn't look good, a 55 degrees is huge.

I'll always take more, of course. High tech has this habit of giving us more because the background technologies just keep improving at a constant rate. But I'm no longer pursuing it. Each generation, I pick up a few more details on the grains of sand, but I'm concentrating more on the shape of the shore.

Of Camera Phones and DSLRs
June 13 (commentary)--
For an article (link removed for browsing safety) that appeared in Malaysia, apparently one heck of a lot of you saw it and forwarded it to me, so I'm going to comment on it here rather than answer a lot of individual emails.

Cameras started appearing in phones in the late 90's, about the same time we got some hybrid digital SLRs. They share a fairly parallel history with DSLRs in many respects. Yet from the beginning they've had a difference: the ability to communicate what they shoot. Way back in 1997, one of my Silicon Valley compatriots Philippe Kahn (of Borland fame) shared a camera phone image from the birth of his daughter with his friends and acquaintances. Virtually all of us who saw that photo went "Aha!" I've been thinking about modular, communicating, and programmable pretty much ever since then.

The questions at hand, though, are several of managing director Tsunoda's statements, including "Nikon had been discussing the matter over the last 10 years and found that mobile phones actually helped to increase the company's business." In one sense, this is correct. Digital resurrected photography and digital cameras resurrected Nikon's imaging business. But a number of you are attributing causality to Tsunoda's statement (as was Tsunoda, I think), and that would be incorrect. Digital sensors are the triggering element in the rise of digital cameras of all kinds, in phones, compacts, and DSLRs. The switch from film and its dependence on chemicals to digital and its dependence on computers changed all cameras. It wouldn't have mattered if mobile phones did or didn't exist, DSLR sales still would have rose to where they are today.

"...mobile phones could be the starting or entry point for people" is indeed a valid statement. It isn't could, it is often is. As with any product that gets mass market awareness, smaller subsets of that market later demand higher capability and quality than the mass product provides them.

But that's where I'm going to push a different direction than Tsunoda and disagree with Yiak's statement ("the Facebook phenomenon [helps] sales of DSLR cameras"). Today's youth is the mass market for cell phone cameras. A cell phone is usually their first camera. They are driving images to their Web sites and friends directly, both through the programmable and communicating aspects of their cell phone cameras. As they realize that they want more performance from their camera, where do they go?

Two larger cell phone makers also make cameras: Samsung and Sony. Those are the most likely brands they would go to if they needed more camera (Apple, Nokia, and RIM would also succeed with a dedicated communicating camera, I think.)

Nikon and Canon, who dominated the camera market, have no visible presence in the products or image sharing technologies that are driving future camera demand. Thus, Nikon would be counting on a "brand leap" to continue growing their camera business, and that's going to get more and more difficult to achieve, I think. Especially if there's an easier alternative. Fortunately for Nikon, to date there isn't.

Oy Vey
June 13 (commentary)--
I just received details from multiple sources about Olympus' upcoming Pen announcements at the end of the month (three cameras, a new lens). Let's get the good part out of the way first: the 12mm f/2 (24mm full frame equivalent) looks good. Real good. A much welcome lens many of us m4/3 users have been asking for since Day One. Not quite a pancake, but still reasonably small (46mm filter threads to give you an idea).

The cameras, on the other hand, I think are going to underwhelm. I won't go into detail about them, as the feature sets will come out soon enough, but I'm scratching my head over what Olympus was thinking. The Mini isn't really smaller than the Lite, and the Lite isn't lighter than the Mini or even the current E-PL2. Talk about some naming confusion. At least Olympus is moving away from the confusing letter/number combos (though they're still present: E-PM1, E-PL3).

The real problem I have is that Olympus hasn't moved the Pen very far with all this iteration (these are the fifth, six, and seventh models, after all). There's really not anything that would compel me to move from the Pen I started shooting with in August 2009 to one of the models that will probably now have to last Olympus through all of 2012. Same basic sensor, same basic features, modest internal and control refinements, some very modest option in model design. Given the original development time, that means they'll be executing on the same basic core for at least five years. Nikon is turning over consumer DSLRs with significant changes on 24 month boundaries. These new Pens feel a lot like General Motors at its worst: slap some new sets of sheet metal on the same chassis, change the color and interior options, and call it a new model. Meanwhile, Olympus is back to offering the remaining stock of the E-PL1 for US$399, a price at which I believe it's a real photographic bargain: basically a near-DSLR camera at compact camera price.

Thing is, I really want to like what Olympus is doing. After all, I've been doing a lot of shooting with a m4/3 body for two years now and basically enjoying it. Plus the XZ-1 is one of the best compacts on the market right now and has found a way into my pocket. But Olympus just isn't iterating fast enough or with enough clarity to make meaningful progress towards reclaiming their previous strong lock on the "small, quality, innovative" camera market. I'm rooting for you, Oly, but you're still falling behind the other horses and are not going to Win, Place, or Show with this later round of Pens.

Mirrorless Summer, Part 2
June 13 (news and commentary)--
Panasonic was second up in the announcement queue (the Sony NEX-C3 was first), with the GF3 announced today. I just criticized Olympus (above article) for iteration without moving the bar, and Panasonic is almost as bad.

The US$599 (with kit zoom) GF3 is basically a downsized GF2 with many of the external controls removed and even more reliance on the touch screen. The hot shoe is gone (but the built-in flash isn't), and we're down to a total of four buttons plus control dial, pretty much like a Sony NEX (only the buttons are used differently). The GF3 is still using pretty much the same 12mp m4/3 sensor as before, with image quality improvements being generated mostly by the Venus imaging ASIC changes (JPEG only improvements, of course).

The GF3 and the upcoming Olympus Mini are targeting compact camera users moving up. But it's feeling more and more to me that all that's really happening with m4/3 at the low-end boundary is that it's adding an interchangeable lens. Consider this comparison, for example: a GF3 (m4/3) versus an Olympus XZ-1 (compact):

  • GF3: You get a 28-85mm lens that's f/3.5 at the wide end and f/5.3 at the telephoto end. You get a sensor that struggles at ISO 1600.
  • XZ-1: You get a 28-112mm equivalent lens that's f/1.8 at the wide end and f/2.5 at the telephoto end. You get a sensor that struggles at ISO 800.

So while the compact camera struggles at at good stop or more lower than the interchangeable lens camera, its faster lens more than negates that difference. Score one for the compact (I'll have a review of the XZ-1 shortly, but the quick take is: I like it, a lot).

Put another way, Panasonic (and soon Olympus) are taking m4/3 pretty much down into compact camera territory. One advantage to them in doing so is that the overall margins are better doing it that way (higher initial price and more accessory sales). But to the customer there's not all that much gain. Compare this to the Sony NEX or Samsung NX, which are taking the size and complexity of their mirrorless cameras down into the compact realm, but is doing so with APS sensors that work well up to ISO 3200. Samsung in particular is one to keep an eye on (they announce their next NX NEX competitors in July), as, like Olympus, they are using collapsing lenses to keep overall size down.

The Camera Redefined
June 10 (commentary)--
Just opened my latest Shutterbug magazine to see Fujifilm using a familiar phrase as the headline for their X100 ad: "The Camera Redefined" (if you've not been following the plot, look through the article names in the left column).

Nice try Fujifilm, but the X100 is really The Viewfinder Redefined. The camera? Well, you still need to work on refining that part.

However, since many of you think I only write negative things about Japanese camera companies, and especially their marketing, I should mention that FujifilmUSA at least seems to be attempting to resurrect benefit marketing as a core in their campaigns. They actually present a feature and tell you why you need it. Bravo. A refreshing change from all the acronyms, letter/number names, number dominated feature lists, and other drek we've been seeing.

Even NikonUSA gets it right sometimes now, too: "Shoot beautiful low-light images even without a flash. Nikon's High Performance Sensor Technology provides exceptional low-light performance." Hey, and they didn't reduce that to "HPST inside." Go figure.

The Flyers are Back
June 10 (commentary)--
NikonUSA is returning to their old ways of pitching product: weekly (or semi-weekly) product advertising at the local level. Just in time for Father's Day (strangely renamed to Dad's Day in the Best Buy flyer). There are fewer promotions at the high end (five DX lenses generate Instant REbates when bought with consumer bodies) and the D3000 and D90 still linger in inventory apparently. The one new thing that caught my attention was the coupling of the P7000 with a DSLR. Buy a DSLR and get US$100 off a P7000 bought at the same time (making it a US$399 purchase). If you're interested in a one-page summation of the DSLR deals, B&H has it nicely formatted in one place (note: this B&H link is not linked to Support this Site; when I use a link for purely informational purposes I do not attach my affiliate code).

June 10 (news and commentary)--
In Japan Sanyo just announced two new versions of the Eneloop, the Pro and the Plus (in the US, it appears that the Pro may be named XX). Both are likely to work their way into Nikon Speedlights soon. The Pro version adds juice: it's now a 2400mAh battery, up 20% from the usual Eneloop (2000mAh). More power storage means longer lasting batteries in a flash unit. But...Speedlights like the SB-900 are quick to overheat. The Eneloop Plus adds a thermistor to keep the battery from overheating. While that won't reduce flash head temperatures from rising, some of us have noticed in our SB-900's that if the batteries start overheating due to constant use, the SB-900 shuts down sooner than it does if the batteries stay a more normal temperature. No word on when the new models will make it across the Western Pond, but the Pro isn't available until July in Japan and the Plus comes in December. For those not in the know, one of the reasons why the standard Eneloop is often preferred by flash users is that it is a very consistent, heavy duty battery: it handles up to 1500 full charging cycles, it retains a good 75% of capacity after three years of storage, and it seems to recharge up the same predictable level for most of its life.

One Picture Says a Lot
June 9 (commentary)--
Consider the following image:

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

From left to right: 50mm f/1.8D, 50mm f/1.8G, 50mm f/1.4G. Notice anything? Yep, the new f/1.8 is basically the same size as the f/1.4: you're not gaining any substantive size advantage in opting for the f/1.8G over the f/1.4G. So just what advantage do you gain? Preliminary testing says that the f/1.8G is in most optical respects slightly better than the f/1.4G. The f/1.8G is also significantly lighter than the f/1.4G and less than half the price. The f/1.4G's advantage? It's two-thirds of a stop faster. If you're trying to stay compact (say, trying to build a D3100/D5100 small prime kit), the new 50mm f/1.8G is a bit of a disappointment: adding AF-S nets you a 10%+ gain in length and a 20% gain in weight while taking another US$90 out of your pocket. It's likely that the f/1.8D is no longer in production, so if you want a truly small 50mm from Nikon, get the f/1.8D while you still can. But remember, it doesn't autofocus on the low end Nikon DSLR bodies.

Welcome to Mirrorless Summer
June 8 (news, rumor, and commentary)--
Today Sony introduced the not-so-secret NEX-3C (plus a 30mm macro lens), a follow-up to the NEX-3. If you want to details, you can find them all over the net, but the 411 boils down to this: new 16mp sensor (lower power, less heat, which was a minor problem with previous NEX models), some expanded panoramic modes, a few new tweaks to the user interface that are welcome, and a slightly smaller body. Nothing sensational, just a quick rework to knock some of the rough edges off the initial NEX-3 design.

But the NEX-3C is just the first in what is going to seem like an endless series of mirrorless announcements over the next month. Next up is the Panasonic GF3, which is an LX-5 sized camera with the m4/3 lens mount. Curiously, each GF model has aimed at a lower, more mass market than the one before it. That'll be followed by the Olympus E-P3/E-PL3 announcements towards the end of the month. And bringing up the rear will be Samsung with their third generation NX announcements.

Let's put that in perspective: Panasonic, Olympus, and Samsung are introducing their third generations of mirrorless products, Sony its second, while Nikon, Pentax, and Canon are still missing in action. That MIA thing is becoming more and more of a problem, as it's becoming clearer that lens availability is one crucial component holding back mirrorless from making even further inroads on DSLRs. But that's changing, too. Panasonic and Olympus have the advantage here, with 15 lenses between them, five more coming, and some additional support from third-party makers. Samsung is up to five lenses with five more promised later this year. Sony trails with four lenses currently and four more scheduled for this year, and a now open lens mount specification that should attract third parties.

So the question becomes: when Nikon/Pentax/Canon do enter this market, how many lenses will they have? My bet: no more than three each, with more promised. But that'll look a bit weak compared to the competition, almost an inversion of the normal scheme of things, where the F-mount, EF mount, and K mount have dominated so much that it wasn't considered "safe" to pick something with another mount. (I leave out the Alpha mount here because of the many years of uncertainty that occurred with the transition from Minolta to Konica to Sony, now hopefully resolved for good.)

Lack of anything but basic kit lenses at launch will mean that Nikon/Pentax/Canon have to have something "better" up their sleeves. I suspect that Nikon and Canon believe they can just compete with "brand name." Nikon and Pentax also are rumored to have decided to go small (smaller sensor than m4/3, the current small champion in removable lens cameras). Canon, well, they're not rumored to be doing anything (though certainly there must be some panic internally that's prompted R&D).

If you haven't read my reviews of the second/first generation of mirrorless cameras, it might be time to do so. For more casual shooting, I now mostly use one of these cameras as they're simply smaller and more convenient and don't give up as much image quality as traditional compact cameras do. If I were headed on vacation with my family this summer it's what I'd take, not my D5100, D7000, or heaven forbid, D3 bodies. Yes, you have to work a little harder in some situations to get the same quality of shot, but not that much harder.

Meanwhile, Nikon, Pentax, and Canon have missed another Father's Day, another Graduation present, another summer of vacationers. So expect to see more Panasoni, Olympi, Samsungs and Sonys this year. Many more. The other companies appear to have missed the turnoff. Maybe they'll catch back up. Maybe they won't. But they certainly aren't leading the tour any more.

Tablets and Photography
June 7 (commentary)--
A common question that's increasing in frequency lately is "can I use my iPad/Xoom/Galaxy/etc. tablet for field work in photography"? I'll have a longer article on iPad use for photography soon complete with application suggestions, but the answer to the question is usually another question: "how much do you like to live on the (b)leading edge"?

Let's turn things around for a moment and ask ourselves what we would really want from a field device in tablet form: (1) easy ingest with renaming/metadata; (2) convenient tagging/rating; (3) raw conversion; (4) basic editing functions (cropping, modest corrections, cloning, etc.); (5) output to any size and anyplace through both wired and unwired capabilities of the tablet.; (6) alignment with our desktop image systems (e.g. Lightroom, Aperture) or Web systems (e.g. Flickr).

The first five things sound like Lightroom iOS or Aperture for iPad. Both referenced products are currently very sophisticated and large scale desktop applications that do all those tasks well. The problems we run into with those five tasks on a tablet are: no file system (iPad, though iCloud might come to the rescue) or no common ingest system (others), no monitor calibration, no raw support by the system OS itself, not enough internal memory available to the CPU for large image processing, and often a lack of applications that do exactly what we want. Yes, you can actually scrape by with an iPad to do what the original question suggests, but you'll end up with a hodge-podge of applications and a convoluted workflow, and it won't be particularly fast. On other tablets, the answer is currently a bit worse: some of the apps you'd want either don't yet do all the tasks you'd want them to, or don't even yet exist for your tablet. But even where they do, you end up with many of the same problems you have on the iPad. With Android, the UI keeps changing, too, which is a bit intimidating to consider.

To put it succinctly: it's still early in tablets. It took eight years into the DSLR age before we got Lightroom. And even then it didn't fully solve all our problems. We're going to go through a similar thing with software on tablets, too. That said, the two things that I think are the big bottlenecks for really using a tablet in the field for everything are lack of easy monitor calibration and lack of memory available to the CPU. The former means that you have to be careful about making changes based upon visual examination while the latter means that performance on large image files will be slow at best.

We'll get there eventually, but right now someone attempting to do a full workflow on a tablet is going to be a pioneer, and like all pioneers needs to be ready for any and everything. Things will break, things will change, some things can't be done easily or at all, some things aren't worth the time and energy you put into them. You only need to compare a tablet against an 11" MacBook Air these days to see just how far the tablets still have to go. They'll get there, no doubt, but they're a long ways from where we'd need them to be.

So I'll use the Magic 8-ball answer: "Ask again later."

And Now You Know Why I Mentioned the iPhone...
June 6 (news and commentary)--
If you weren't paying attention--and I'm pretty sure the camera companies weren't--Apple just solved another of the dreaded problems we photographers face. Simply put, Apple devices put all photos, whether taken just this minute with your iPhone, iPad, iTouch, or built-in camera on your Macintosh into the cloud. Apple iCloud to be particular. (I'm sure someone at Nikon will say today "we already have My Picturetown, we're safe". That person should be fired.)

What problem does iCloud solve? Well, the concept of Ingest is gone. Go on vacation with your iPhone as your camera, take pictures, and they've magicly showed up already in your Macintosh's iPhoto (or even your PC's Picture's folder) when you arrive back home. You don't do anything other than take pictures. Your device will automatically transmit them to the cloud. iCloud doesn't act as a permanent storage repository, though: you have to save them to an album within 30 days, but that's a one button process. No more keeping track of cards, loading them via a card reader to your computer, storing them somewhere. Basically a tedious manual process is reduced to a single button back home. While only photos were mentioned in today's WWDC Keynote by Steve Jobs, I suspect that videos will end up the being clouded the same way. If not immediately, then not too far into the distant future.

So, virtually all regular cameras still don't even have a real-time communication capability and now they also don't have an automatic ingest ability, either. As I've been saying for several years now, the camera companies are looking more like the car companies and turning into dinosaurs that are getting seriously in danger of extinction if the don't start evolving.

In a non-related (but absolutely related) development last week, we learned about the first practical demonstration of quantum dots on small sensors (where they'll make the most difference). The specific number that was interesting to me was this: 12,000 electrons in a 1.4 micron photosite. To put that in perspective, a top APS camera might capture 30,000 electrons in bright light. If I'm not mistaken, this would put 8mp cameras on smart phones well into the compact camera realm of image quality capability.

Those two things taken together mean that, instead of taking a Coolpix on a future vacation or trip, you'll just take your future iPhone and when you get home, find all of your photos waiting for you on your home PC or Mac. Waiting for you. Not you waiting for them (to ingest). Or you could have reviewed them on your iPad in your hotel rooms along the way, again without doing anything other than just opening up the Photo App on your iPad.

So, if you're working at a camera company reading this, wake up! I've been warning you for over two years now. You don't have a lot of time before you lose a good portion of your customer base, and worse still, that's the younger crowd that should be feeding your sales for the next 50 years you're about to lose. 35mm film had a ~100-year run (1892 to 2003 or so). "Compact" digital cameras have had a ~30 year run (Sony Mavica in 1981 to present), but as often happens with technology, the runs get shorter with each new generation. We're rapidly moving into a nebulous storage medium, the cloud, and given Apple's introduction today, photos will be at the forefrount of that, not waiting to be admitted at the pearly gates of bit heaven at some later date. The change happened today.

Still not convinced? Consider this: you and I are the first two people to show up at some spectacular news event. You've got a new D4, I've got an iPhone 5. Whose images do you think will show up on CNN first? Oh oh. That's not a good answer for the camera companies, is it? (update: some people think I wrote "photojournalist with a D4". I did not, I wrote "you." If a photojournalist is on scene at an event, their images will show up quickly on their associated service, then spread to other outlets. A modern PJ carries some device--not made by the camera manufactuer ;~)--that allows them to get their images uploaded to their service quickly. Most of us don't carry such devices with us, and the camera makers aren't exactly helping themselves by making PJs jump through hoops beyond the camera, too.)

Why is the iPhone Photographer-Centric?
June 6 (commentary)--
Not too long ago I wrote "It also seems interesting that the iPhone got to HDR, pano-stitching, and more, faster than most compact cameras. Photography-centric." One of you wrote me an email that provoked a further thought there.

Just why did the iPhone turn out to be photography-centric? Not because Apple wrote a great iPhone camera application. Obviously, they didn't, otherwise we wouldn't have the constant flood of improved versions from others. Apple in this case is an enabler (imaging sensor that can be reached by programs). It's the community of users that is generating the improvements, extensions, and new features. In some cases, literally a user. You find a few of the apps for the iPhone are written by a user who has some knowledge of some algorithm or technique photographically, and enough skill to write some program code. Voila, something they wanted and a way to share it with others and profit from it.

Likewise, we have companies with core technology (algorithms, processing tricks, knowledge of imagers, etc.) who quickly saw that there was customer demand for more and simply created an app for it.

The key element here is the customer (a photographer). You can call it customer-centric or photographer-centric, but it amounts to the same thing: the customer is a photographer and wants something, while a few companies and individuals have figured that out and are providing it.

The camera companies are not only slow to realize this, but aren't building expertise to deal with it, either. Take something like pano-stitching or HDR. For how many years have camera users been doing these things? Let me shock you on this one. Back in 1994 I was approached by more than one software vendor that had capabilities to do both things, much of it still under patent at that time. So I've been doing those things for 17 years now. Yet there's only one Nikon DSLR that has something even remotely approaching what was possible in 1994 built into it (the D5100's HDR ability). One. In 17 years. That's 17 years of ignoring a growing customer demand.

When the Japanese companies do finally get the notion that a photographer might want one of these features, they license it. While you may think that all those imaging ASICs out there are carefully and meticulously designed full of camera maker-specific goodies, they aren't. One dirty secret of the Japanese camera industry is that a lot of imaging processing they do is licensed or in a few cases reverse engineered. The key post-sensor imaging processing bits have come from outside the camera companies. Those image processing ideas mostly started with American secret programs, like reconnaissance programs in the military and NRO dating back into the 70's, and quickly migrated into Europe and Russian programs of a similar nature. From there many of these things fell into the public domain at some point, and then as sensors proliferated, we got more and more commercial and scholarly R&D as well. But not so much from the camera companies.

The fact that the iPhone rapidly proliferated a huge number of photography apps (currently 4100+ as I write this) indicates how broad and diverse the customer demand is for a variety of imaging applications not being served by the basic "press shutter release get image" camera notion. The fact that the camera companies slowly add some of these customer-demanded features to their cameras shows that the camera companies eventually recognize the demand, but are slow to fill it. Plus they're not filling it from inbred R&D, they're doing so from mostly outside sources.

This poses the question of what a camera company really is. Does it just assemble some hardware and software from other sources, or does it drive the market and future of imaging? Unfortunately we're getting the former, and not the latter more often than not.

The iPhone is customer-centric because new customer demand is met with multiple organizations trying to serve something up to meet it. It's customer-centric because when something new and unique does appear, customer demand immediately drives it to be visible (and possibly even viral), helped along a bit by the App Store.

Traditional cameras are not so customer-centric. It takes huge customer demand to eventually get a maker to add a feature. New and unique things happen irregularly, and thus increased customer demand also follows an irregular path.

The awful truth is that the camera makers think they're good at both recognizing and driving customer demand. They aren't. They're terribly inefficient at both things. What they are good at is recognizing when a competitor stumbles upon something that customers like and copying it soon after the competitor's product starts selling better than their's. Stumble Upon is not a good product design strategy. It's vulnerable to a complete disrupter coming in and stealing all your customers.

Oh, wait, that's already happening with the iPhone, Android, and other smart phones at the mass consumer end of the camera spectrum. Oops.

50mm f/1.8G Shipping
June 2 (news)--
NikonUSA began shipping the new 50mm f/1.8G to dealers today. You might find it at your local store this weekend, certainly no later than Monday.

Change in Inventory
June 2 (commentary)--
I've temporarily removed the Exotic Telephoto Lens from my Waiting For Nikon list (bottom left column). In the last two weeks NikonUSA seems to have supplied even the 600mm f/4 to outstanding dealer orders, and if you look hard enough (e.g. beyond B&H) you can find pretty much all of the exotics in stock somewhere in the US at the moment, albeit in low quantities that probably won't last long. We'll see soon enough if the resupply Nikon just did is a one-time thing or not. I suspect one-time, but I'll give them credit for now, at least until we run out again.

Smoke 'em If You Want 'em
May 27 (news)--
NikonUSA just released a lot of inventory to dealers. As I write this (probably won't last long), B&H has the 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm lenses back in stock. Ditto the D700 body (they had some D3s and D3x bodies for a brief time yesterday, but they were gone before I had time to post). If your local dealer has any of these products on order, it's likely they got or are about to receive a shipment from NikonUSA, too, so check around. Houston Camera Exchange tells me that they've got a 200-400mm, 500mm, and several 600mm in transit from NikonUSA, for example.

May 27 (commentary)--
I wonder how long it will be before the camera makers finally wake up and realize that build to order (BTO) will make them more money?

Here's the thing: product margins keep getting slimmer and slimmer. Let's consider a US$1000 camera. Let's further assume that it costs you US$600 to build. Let's sell that item to dealers for a 15% discount (the current "norm"). So if you're keeping track: camera maker gets US$850 less the US$600 in costs, or a US$250 profit (~40% GPM). The dealer gets US$1000 less the US$850 in costs, or a US$150 profit. So far, so good. But what happens when the price at which you can move the item drops to US$800? Your GPM drops like Donald Trump's Presidential poll ratings. One way to try to mitigate that is to charge the dealer more.

So let's lower the dealer margin to 10% on the new price. The camera maker now gets US$720 less the US$600 in costs, or a US$120 profit (~20% GPM). The dealer now gets US$800 less US$720 in costs, or US$80. That 20% drop in price to you cost both the dealer and the camera maker over half their profits. The camera maker, of course, has a method of recourse: they can cut the costs of producing the product somehow. Unfortunately, that doesn't work for products already produced and there is a finite limit to how much they can cut costs. Expensive imaging sensors don't grow on trees.

So where does BTO fit into this? Simple, it eliminates the dealer for some of the sales. If you want the camera today you can buy it from your local dealer (if they have it in stock). If you want it tomorrow, you can get it from one of the online dealers and have it overnighted. But if you want it with certain interesting and manufacture-only options, well, you'll have to wait a bit (often less than a week) and get it directly from the maker. That's exactly what Apple and others do. Indeed, they usually offer certain high end options only through BTO.

You'll note that all of the camera makers now have online stores that will sell you most, if not all, of their items. Why? Not for your convenience, but because if they can get someone to order from them they get to keep the discount a dealer would normally get. For that US$1000 camera, that's another US$150 in profit (or an increase of 60% in profit) without a lot of extra expense.

The problem, of course, is that you the customer don't see a lot of reason to buy at a camera maker Web site. For example, B&H is reliable, often cheaper, and it helps out small Web sites like mine in the process (a big thank you to all who've used the affiliate link at the top of this page to buy something, by the way). Online stores like Amazon (the other affiliate link at the top of this page and another thank you to those that have used it) have return policies that are highly generous. Still others such as Best Buy may have a loyalty program that nets you a tangible future discount. How does the camera maker's Web site compete with those things? Well, right now they don't.

So consider BTO. What if you could customize your camera? We don't need much to make this work. For example: stock D4 is US$5499. Double the buffer via BTO for US$500. Add internal Pocket Wizard support for US$500. Add a dedicated 64GB internal storage option (essentially an internal third slot filled with a 64GB card) for US$500. You don't actually even need to "build to order." With only three options like that you only have eight models you'd have to stock (ABC, AB, BC, CA, A, B, C, and none). Do it the BTO way and you only stock one model with the back removed so that a technician can insert one to three of the options per customer request and put the back on before shipping it to you. I don't know about you, but double the buffer and an internal PW sounds pretty good to me, even at those prices, so I'm going to buy my D4 via BTO. Voila. Instant 15% in Nikon's pocket.

It works at the low end of the market, too, though it gets a bit trickier: stock Coolpix P310 is US$349. User selectable body panels (color and grips) for US$49. Enable RAW support with Capture NX2 bundle (;~!) US$149.

You get the idea.

Of course to pull this off the camera makers would have to get their acts together. Big time. After all, they're still assembling cameras with 200 screws in them because that's the way they've always done it and the gnomes doing the assembly have evolved to having miniature screwdrivers instead of fingernails. And the subsidiary repair facilities can't seem to keep track of lens caps, so how the heck can they keep track of user options? Plus companies like Nikon can't even keep the camera body in stock, let alone a bunch of optional BTO accessories.

So maybe it's not such a good idea to suggest BTO to the camera makers ;~). It's just another thing for them to not quite get right.

Cue Emily Litella. "Ne-ver mind…"

It's been pointed out to me that Leica already does this (but only for the M7 and MP). Learn something every day. Keep sending those cards and letters folks.

US$2805 Instant Savings!
May 26 Updated (commentary)--
Okay, so the street price of the Sigma SD1 is only US$6895, not the US$9700 MSRP announced earlier in the week. Does this change anything? No. At a D3x price you're getting a lesser LCD, no Live View, a smaller buffer, no 100% viewfinder, slower flash sync, lower-rated shutter, less capable AF, no second slot, and a host of other omissions (e.g. GPS support). You do get a pop-up flash.

Frankly, I don't understand Sigma's handling of this product launch. It's not just the unexpected price (at the original announcement last year, the Sigma execs were hinting that the likely price would be more in the D700 price range, not D3x range). For example, the sample images Sigma has now presented are beyond terrible. Very high in contrast, with highlights often pushing up into lack of detail range, the landscapes look like 1980's amateur slide film exposures, in one I see a slight edge-to-edge lens problem, one is clearly not focused correctly (slight front focus), the Foveon magenta/green hue issue still seems present in a few of the images, and overall Sigma seems to have picked images solely to try to emphasize lack of moire over everything else. Moire isn't an issue I encounter all that much on the D3x, even with the AA filter removed. None of the images make me want to run out and try the SD1. And at US$6895, the bar is raised on what it would take for me to want to run out and try a camera to start with.

I must admit, the first two paragraphs of Sigma's SD1 "philosophy" introduction read like they've been paying attention to my complaints about photography. The problem with Sigma's conclusion, however, is that their "radical technology" amounts to resizing an existing technology, the Foveon sensor. They claim 30mp equivalence. I'm sure that those are the numbers that they get from test charts, but test charts aren't what we take pictures of. The problem with the 30mp number is those sample images. I don't see a single one that looks like it equals what I get out of my D3x, let alone better it. Heck, most of the Sigma images don't look better than I get with my D5100. So, the published sample images are not the way to sell an expensive DSLR.

Then there's the issue of Live View. When Foveon originally launched their sensor technology, one of the key selling elements was how video-ready it was. It did VGA video using binning for low noise at 30 fps and full frame at 5 fps. The original Foveon demonstration I saw was actually a tethered use, which was part of the original Foveon SDK. It seems that Sigma, after nine years of using the Foveon technology, still doesn't know how to produce Live View in a camera implementation, and you'd think that would be an important feature when trying to obtain critical focus on a very high resolution camera. I know I use it a lot on my D3x when nailing focus is important.

Still, the elephant-in-the-room issue for Sigma is actually no longer the price, the image quality, or even the features of the camera. The issue is the backlash that the price generated. If you're of the mind that even bad news is better than no news at all, then Sigma is far better off than before: it got a ton of bad press on the Internet this week, and as this article indicates, it is ongoing. So, hey, if you didn't know that Sigma made cameras, you do now. Woo hoo! But I'd say that the price issue is far closer to a PR crisis than a PR opportunity. Like every business crisis, it needs to be responded to, directly and quickly. Waiting to see what change in PR the first sales might bring would be a mistake, IMHO.

You may remember that a similar problem happened when the D3x was announced. Everyone expected it to be the same or slightly higher price as the D3. The "x" tax of 60% seemed excessive to most users, and it caused highly negative PR for Nikon for some time. The good news for Nikon was twofold: first, Canon's similar camera was the same price, and the D3x produced visibly better results. So they got away with it. Consider, however, what might have happened if Nikon had priced the D3x at US$5499. The D3 was already causing a Canon-to-Nikon migration as pros flocked to the better D3, a lower priced D3x would have made that migration into a near riot.

Things aren't quite the same for Sigma, though. The SD1 isn't equivalent to the high-end Canons and Nikons in body, features, or most areas of performance. Sigma is counting solely on the sensor to justify the price. They've posted images that don't make that case, IMHO. So unless there's some magical surprise in the SD1 that no one yet knows about, the actual shipment of SD1s probably won't dull the negative PR buildup that's occurring right now.

I never quite understood why Sigma got into the body business in the first place. Sigma was started in 1961 as a company to produce accessories for major camera lines. From 1961 to 1976 it only produced lenses. In 1976 it took a stab at a camera, which didn't last long. They then went another six years before they introduced another camera, the SLR-style SA-1. Then another six year break before the Zoom-Super compact cameras. To give them credit, they've persisted in trying to get a competent, competitive camera to the market for some time now. But in every case, it was too little camera too late. Something is wrong with this picture. If I had started producing cameras when I left college and was still trying to break through as a serious player today…well, that wouldn't happen, I don't have that much patience. I would have decided that I didn't have what it takes to be competitive in the camera market a long time ago, or I would have fixed whatever the problem was holding me back from succeeding. Some analysts think Sigma's overall DSLR sales have yet to hit six figures in units. Best case, it's in the low six figures, and that's after nine years of trying, a time when tens of millions of DSLRs have been sold.

That illustrates the real risk to Sigma. They risk another perception of failure. Each time you over promise and under deliver, the hurdle you have to jump next time to be successful gets higher. Until eventually it's an unclearable barrier. Some people were already dismissing Sigma as a camera maker. The pricing just announced gives them more reason to do so.

Thing is, Sigma makes a lot of very good and creative lenses, especially ones that fill gaps in the big makers lineups. They get that pretty much right, though the consistency of their quality control isn't as high as it should be. The NEX, m4/3, and NX mounts give them room to grow. The camera thing is looking more and more like an ego play, not a mainstream part of their business that will make them more successful.

As I noted, there are industry experts that believe that Sigma has shipped fewer SLR/DSLR units in their entire nine-year history than Nikon made D3's in two years. Now we find that Sigma's also got a Nikon patent suit on their hands that risks their primary product line. Their manufacturing plant is in the Fukushima prefecture and right at the center of Japan's quake-stricken area. It's rough times in the Sigma world at the moment. And this all comes not all that long after the US$7.3 million alleged embezzlement by a Sigma executive in the US (a whopper of a story all by itself, including the day in which the accused's wife and mistress combined to post bail, or the fact that the accused apparently quit by leaving a resignation letter in his company car, which he left in the Sigma USA parking lot).

So, I for one would like Sigma back to its core business and get things 100% right there. More lenses please, with better quality control. Settle with Nikon and get the round of lenses announced in February into user hands. Work on creating an affordable high quality 400mm solution, then duplicate it at 500mm (what ever happened to the 500mm f/7.2?).

Update: a few people miss the point on my comments on the sample images. Yes, I know they were taken with prototype cameras and processed with prototype software. But if your only real selling point for a product is image quality, you don't post sub-par image samples, even from prototypes. Sigma isn't the only company that's been guilty of this. Most of the camera companies, including Nikon, have been guilty of posting inferior image samples prior to release of a camera. In Sigma's case, such a mistake absolutely generates comment because there's a perception (whether supported by fact or not) that they've taken a US$999 camera (SD-15), added a new sensor and upped the price ~US$6000. In other words, every is looking to the image quality samples to see if the US$6000 is justified. Even before I posted my comments here I was getting emails from people who were trying to figure out why those samples justified the price. Simply put, Sigma needs to put out image samples that support the price, not erode it. Nikon did something back with the D3 intro that Sigma now needs to do. If you remember, Nikon inserted a large poster into every photo magazine of an ISO 6400 shot of a motorcycle rider taken at twilight. That shot was an eye-opener (at least compared to most image samples we get from camera companies). No one thought a 12mp ISO 6400 shot could look that good at that size. But it also was an expensive and time-consuming shoot, with careful post production, done by one of the best in the business.

Further update: the COO of Sigma tweeted what appears a reaction to the Internet commentary: "Sorry. We tried our best, but could not implement the price range that we had targeted" and "I know the responses from our loyal customers. SD1 price is solely due to my lack of capability, but the camera is really great." This doesn't reveal anything other than Sigma is aware of the reaction of both current and potential users of their products. The apology is nice, but still no explanation, which is more important. I have a theory about this. At the gross risk of oversimplification, Sigma's costs for both the Foveon technology and the creation of the new sensor came out to X. Sigma's production capabilities are Y units. You can divide X/Y to get a payback number. Sigma isn't really capable of increasing Y (amongst other reasons, the quake), thus if X gets out of hand the only variable that can move to recapture costs is the price of the camera. Couple this with something like a lower yield or a higher fab cost than planned, and X gets harder to recover. Sometimes in product development, the numbers in the spreadsheets hit walls. You can lower the recovery cost of R&D per unit by producing more units, but what happens if you can't produce more units? Something seems to have hit a wall in Sigma's spreadsheets.

Well This is New
May 25 (news and commentary)--
Nikon has sued Sigma over patent violations related to VR (Sigma's OS). Japanese companies don't tend to be litigious. There's a lot of behind the scenes negotiating and patent swapping that happens, but it's much more rare in Japan for one company to sue another than it is in the US or even Europe. But today Nikon announced that they were doing just that. Apparently negotiations to reach a settlement went nowhere, and now Nikon is seeking an injunction to stop all shipments of Sigma OS lenses.

As long as Sigma was primarily making Nikon and Canon lenses, I somehow doubt that Nikon would have taken this step. But with the prospect of Sigma lenses for NEX and m4/3 mounts, if Sigma really is infringing on Nikon's patents, it makes perfect sense for Nikon not to let that technology propagate into their competition.

The gloves are coming off in the camera industry. Coopetition, that unique form of collaborating and competing with a rival firm, is more and more giving way to straight out competition in Japan. That bodes well for the vertically integrated companies (Panasonic, Samsung [Korean], and Sony). It bodes less well for the non-integrated companies (Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Sigma).

Style versus Technology versus Joy of Photography
May 25 (commentary)--
As a follow-up to my article on buzz (below), one comment I received needs a bit more addressing. Many of the products I mention have "style." In other words the form has appeal. But style is similar to technology. By itself style doesn't necessarily contribute to the joy of photography. It does when the style is in support of a photographer-centric approach (e.g. Leica, some of the X100).

A lot of cameras are bought because of cachet, something to which style contributes. A lot of M9's and D3's and even 5DII's hang around people's necks more to show off their wealth and good taste rather than to shoot better pictures. This is similar to the person that buys a Ferrari (or Corvette, or even Camaro these days). It's not the ability to drive faster that is important, as here in the US you really can't drive faster than even a Prius can easily achieve. It's the fact that men think that women will like them more and other men will be jealous of them when they see them behind the wheel of Prestige Car of the Year.

So, yes, style sells cameras. But it doesn't get them used. In order of importance to a true photographer, from least to most:

  • Style. Looking good or being made of titanium doesn't take better photos.
  • Technology. Having all the latest chips and gizmos and features isn't, by itself, useful.
  • Photographer-centric design. Bingo. Having the critical necessities in direct control at your fingertips is the most important part of a camera design.

This is not to say that I wouldn't want style and technology in my cameras. But they play supporting roles and shouldn't get in the way of the most important aspect of design. Sony used to get this. Apple mostly gets it. Samsung is starting to get it. Nikon tends to get it on their high-end camera mainly because they spend so much time with a true designer on that product.

So let me give you a recent example to illustrate my point. The Sony NEX-5 has appealing style to it. It's small, it's got a real grip, the swinging LCD is useful, the debuttoning of the camera makes it seem like it will be simple to use, the lack of a hot shoe makes for a cleaner look. Some of those style points help, some detract (the proprietary hot shoe replacement under the awkward plastic door is one of the most fouled up bits of design I've ever seen in a camera).

In terms of technology: state of the art sensor, great video capability, massive size reduction. That sensor is appealing, as it performs at state-of-the-art DSLR levels in low light. So is the size reduction. Score one for technology in support of joy of photography.

But then we hit the photographer-centric part of the design. There isn't any. Everything was buried into a menu system, and a menu system that still seems unfinished, at that. In the initial form, it was totally buried--you couldn't even program one of the three buttons to bring something you wanted to control up to the top level. Fortunately Sony fixed that, so we're slightly better off than before. But with three buttons and a wheel we have to at a minimum get aperture, shutter, ISO, exposure compensation, exposure mode controls to the top level, and we obviously don't have quite enough things to put them in. So ultimately the style aspect of design trumped the joy of photography part. Not the right decision in my book.

Fortunately for Sony, the pluses just barely outweigh the minuses. At least in low light where it's become my preferred "carry around" camera (with the 16mm pancake). But if I had to pick a more jack-of-all-trades small system to carry around, I'd pick one of the m4/3 bodies, because they didn't forget the photographer quite as much in their designs.

What Does All the Recent Buzz Have in Common?
May 24 (commentary)--
Here's something for you to puzzle over, what do the popularity of and buzz about iPhone camera applications, m4/3 and NEX, the Fujifilm X100, and the resurgence of Leica all have in common? Even the Olympus XZ-1 shares a bit of this buzziness.

Frequent readers of this site probably know the answer I'm about to give.

The commonality? They're generating buzz because they're giving the photographer something they're not getting from most cameras (compact or DSLR).

Let's face it, even the lowest of low DSLRs these days is a pretty amazing instrument. It'll take great images, even in low light, that'll print well up to the size (and beyond) that you can really consider doing at home. Sure, the build quality might not be robust and a few features you might want aren't there and a few hand-holding things you don't want are, but as a basic "take more-than-competent-photos-in-almost-any-situation device," the low-end DSLR is mature and capable of excellent work. We all need to spend more time maximizing what our current tools are capable providing us, because I'll bet that 99.9% of us are underutilizing what we've got.

Move up the DSLR ladder and we have some even more amazing products. The Nikon D3s and D3x are incredible machinery that extended photography well beyond where we were with the best SLRs at the end of the film era (and Canon has a similar pairing). They ought to be incredible, as they represent the eighth generation and almost fifty years of constant iteration, with the only two "big" changes being the addition of autofocus and the change from film to digital.

In the compact arena, pretty much the same thing is true. Even basic compacts are pretty credible cameras for family and Web use (at least in good light), and the high end currently is getting close to challenging where we were with DSLRs less than a decade ago.

As photographers, we ought to be happy, right? So why is it that we get these short frenzies of extreme love for things that are new and not the traditional digital offerings? Apps on the iPhone triggered it. The Leica M8 and M9 triggered it. The E-P1 sort of triggered it and the GF-1 and GH-1 amplified it, as did the NEX-5. And lately, the X100 is triggering frenzy again.

Some have labeled these products as "the future of photography," others as "retro," and still others a host of additional names to try to describe why they generate so much interest, but I'm of the opinion that they share something much more important. They offer an alternative. In the case of phone cameras and apps: spontaneity, creativity, connectivity, and power to do things that you couldn't do in the camera before. In the case of the M8/9 and X100: simple direct control coupled with getting out of the way of the photographer while producing state-of-the-art images.

As everyone from Apple to Leica has shown, price isn't an issue. The iPhone was more expensive than other phones (and the original didn't even have a camera or apps yet). The M9 is more expensive than most DSLRs. The X100 is more expensive than most compacts. That they can be more expensive and still generate such buzz should be a real wake-up call to the rest of the industry. There's something missing from the current best compacts and DSLRs, and people are willing to pay for it.

That missing thing is a bit nebulous, though. It's not a particular feature, nor is it retro design, higher build quality, or even necessarily a better user interface. If I had to pin a label on it I'd call it "photography centric design" as opposed to "technology centric design." Most of the cameras I've mentioned are much more photography-centric in design than the current DSLRs. Even the m4/3 and NEX have at their core the notion that if the products are smaller and more convenient you're more likely to carry them for casual photography.

To put it more bluntly, the "joy of photography" has been de facto replaced by the "joy of owning the latest technology" because of the camera makers' constant push on technology. As I've noted elsewhere, there's a long list of photography-requested features (a short version of things you've requested can be found here) that is not getting done while still cameras get turned into video cameras and stuffed with megapixels beyond what the majority of the market actually needs.

I was quite disturbed two years ago when Nikon executives responded to a question that they would back off from high ISO capabilities and come up with a "better balance" between more pixels and high ISO in the future. Did they not actually understand the D3's success? Or the D3x's, for that matter? Despite the many small changes, the D3 wasn't a better camera than the D2x for any other reason than it's ability to shoot in low light and deliver a quality 12mp in virtually any conditions. The D2x was also 12mp, but couldn't do that. The photography-centric thing here was that you could shoot in light you couldn't before, and get quality results doing so. You only had to look at the sidelines of the 2004 and 2008 Olympics to see how the pros voted: it was the low light capabilities of the D3 that resurrected Nikon at the pro level. Nothing else. Just low light performance was enough to flip the tide.

Low light capability is definitely a photography-centric thing. If you ever shot film at an NBA game in the 80's before strobes became popular, you'll know exactly what I mean by that. Megapixels are not so much photography-centric. Yes, there's demand to print larger with a smaller camera, but it's not quite the same thing as enabling a photographer to break through something that was a clear barrier before. Iterative improvements are expected; but it's clear photography-centric improvements that are buzzworthy.

So how are each of the hyped things I mentioned earlier photography-centric?

iPhone: many apps allow you to pre-visualize processing effects, but the big buzzworthy thing is the connectivity (being able to live-blog photos, for instance). Camera phones tighten the connection between shooter and viewer because they collapse the process to near instantaneous ("publish to Facebook, Twitter, yourBlog, etc."). It also seems interesting that the iPhone got to HDR, pano-stitching, and more, faster than most compact cameras. Photography-centric.

M8/M9: simple four-decision photography is back: aperture, shutter, ISO, focus, all controlled directly and manually with individual controls. And some people value the photographer-friendly optical rangefinder: bright, shows what's happening outside your frame. More buttons, more features, not so important. Photographer control, buzzworthy.

X100: similar to the Leica, though not quite as direct and simple in control (but close in everything except focus, where AF is basically the substitute). And again, that bright optical finder with a bit of overscan.

m4/3: most of the ability of the modern DSLR with less bulk and weight. Initially, the E-P1 and GF-1 had a bit of that direct control design to them, too, but both Olympus and Panasonic have moved to more novice-friendly UI and away from direct controls and buttons (a mistake, as the buzz generators have all balked at this direction, and thus the buzz has disapated).

While there is technology behind each of the products in question, it isn't the technology itself that's driven the buzz, it's what the technology enables for the photographer, and in very practical ways. After all, it's the user who generates the actual buzz, and the group of users that amplify and broadcast it. (Why do I think someone will miss the point and put a Buzz button on their next camera? Oh wait, I should write a Buzz Photo App for the iPhone and make a fortune before they do ;~).

Part of the problem is that camera marketing got waylaid by numbers, much like a lot of marketing does: 25% more pixels! 50% more focal length! 15 new post processing effects! Benefit marketing claims seem to have disappeared, which is another indication of technology-driven versus photography-centric design. (What's benefit marketing? Oh, something like "Shoot in light that makes Halloween Haunted Houses look overlit. Only with a D3s.")

I watched the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic the other night. So-so film. But we camera users have become a bit like the main character and are way too addicted to the act of acquiring new. Let's fall back in love with taking pictures instead, okay?

Nikon Refurbished
May 23 (commentary)--
A number of hard to find bodies and lenses have shown up in the Nikon Store Outlet refurbished bin (D7000, D700, 70-200mm, 16-35mm, 35mm DX, 24-70mm, 14-24mm, SB-800. I don't normally suggest buying from the NikonUSA Nikon Store Outlet, as they don't clearly disclose their warranty policies. But I know a lot of you are looking for some of those short supply items, so it's worth taking a look if you can't wait and can't find those items elsewhere. Nikon's email message announcing this re-stocking of refurbished items was headlined "Hurry - products are flying off the shelves." Of course they are, as there a fewer stocked shelves than buyers right now.

Lens Acronyms
May 23 (update and commentary)
--I've added another small table to the lens acronyms page, as I keep finding that people have a difficult time distinguishing between Nikon's abbreviations and those used by other vendors:

  Nikon Sigma Tamron Tokina
Lens with motors AF-S or AF-I HSM USD (IF-S)
Lens with stabilization VR or VR II OS VC not applicable
Lens for Full Frame Cameras (D700, D3 series, F6) (FX) DG Di (FX)
Lens for Cropped Frame Cameras (all other Nikon DSLRs) DX DC Di II DX

Items in parentheses indicate that these abbreviations are not normally marked on the lens itself. And that's a problem. Even this short table shows just how incomplete Nikon's own marketing is (why can't they mark FX on lenses?), and how confusing other's sometimes is (really Tamron, Di and Di II? II is normally used to indicate "newer" not "different").

May 23 (news)--
The PlugIn Site announced their new US$49.95 NoiseControl plug-in. Currently available only on Windows, but a Mac version is coming soon. VueScan was updated to version 9.0.40 and fixed a number of minor Mac issues as well as improved the handling of infrared information to detect and clean dust from slides scanned on the Nikon scanners. HDRtist Pro 1.0.2 is a low-cost, Mac-only HDR processor.

Capacity versus Utilization
May 23 (commentary)--
Nikon clarified in meetings with Japanese business press last week that when they said that all plants were back up to capacity, that this didn't mean that they could produce the same number of units they have been. Capacity means "this is the maximum we can do." (Both the FX body and the lens plant had to be close to if not at capacity prior to the quake.) The important number to know right now is utilization ("what we're actually making."). Nikon did not clarify their utilization numbers other than to reiterate that they do not expect supply chain issues to clear up until at least August.

What I interpret both their original remarks at the year-end results announcement as well as their follow-ups in the Q&A session and subsequent press interviews to mean is this: "we can only make as many products as we can get parts for." The full reading of all the information Nikon has released would go something like this: "we can't get as many parts as we'd like and we don't know when that will change, thus camera and lens production levels will be lower than capacity (and likely demand) for at least the first half of our fiscal year."

Nikon generally isn't reluctant to provide detailed production forecasts. The fact that they are hesitant to do so right now indicates that they are dealing with a lot of unknowns right now. Until those clear up, we won't know more.

Prices (Up and Down)
May 20 (commentary)--
Sigma today has provided more details on their long-gestating SD1 DSLR: US$9700 for the 15mp non-Bayer APS-C sensor camera. Meanwhile, multiple rumors have the upcoming APS-C 24mp Bayer-patterned Sony A77 (to be launched 7/7, get it?) coming in at US$999 for the body only. Anyone else feel like we're riding on a roller coaster?

Welcome to the beginning of the end of the digital SLR era.

As I noted elsewhere (and predicted within the correct 12-month window over six years ago), DSLR unit sales have been flat and appear about to fall. Revenue per unit has fallen. Household penetration for DSLRs peaked some time ago, and much of the market now is replacement, not new sales. That's certainly true above the entry level. We saw this same pattern in film SLR sales. Twice. Once in the late 60's when MF hit its nadir, and again in the late 80's and early 90's, when autofocus SLRs peaked and the current power couple of Canon and second-place Nikon took their place on the throne.

Meanwhile, we've got 6 players (Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung, Sigma, and Sony) who'd really like to wrangle a significant piece of the high-end camera business away from the ~80% share Canon and Nikon have enjoyed through most of the DSLR era. And as should now appear clear, they've all taken different strategies at doing that:

  • Olympus/Panasonic: made a big bet on m4/3 taking the DSLR initiative away at the low end. Both pretty much neglected or abandoned any traditional DSLR approach to do so, which on Olympus' side has alienated customers. Both increased their overall interchangeable lens camera sales significantly with their strategy, but at a lower price point. Still, they haven't really blunted the low-end Canon and Nikon DSLR sales, they augmented them. Status: tenuous foothold at the low end, very tenuous above that. Forecast: continued tough road ahead.
  • Pentax: still pursuing the DSLR tactic for the most part. And still in the low single digits of market share while doing so. Status: current strategy didn't work, still in same position as before. Forecast: needs a new strategy or risks becoming irrelevant.
  • Samsung: saw where Panasonic and Sony were headed and broke off from their Pentax-fueled DSLR tactic to create NX. Basically same strategy as Olympus/Panasonic, but with a bigger sensor. Status: still looking for a clear winner. Forecast: their problem is marketing, not product, thus their future strength depends upon whether they solve that problem or not.
  • Sigma: cast its lot with a different sensor (Foveon), so much so that they bought the technology. The SD1 shows both the gain and risk in their strategy: they're unique and potentially have a very high quality sensor, but they're also very low volume which makes the same sensor pricey. We'll see how the SD1 body fares soon, but previous Sigma cameras have always had this feel of the sensor outmanning the rest of the camera. There's potential for the SD1 to feel like a turbocharged V8 engine in a Ford Pinto body. Status: not a significant player due to low volume. Forecast: high price of the SD1 says their volume won't change and they'll stay at the margins of the market.
  • Sony: most interesting strategies (yes plural) of the bunch. On the Alpha side went for very different technologies (e.g. pellicle mirror), which took awhile to get settled, but has clear benefits long-term. Also has been shoring up and improving dealer network here in the US, giving them a potentially significant advantage over the other players, above. Has been aggressive on price with the Alphas (some of which is happening with the dealer), and appears to be about to get more aggressive. Meanwhile, they've made NEX into a potentially serious mount (it currently extends from a low-end mirrorless model to a highly professional video camera). Too bad they don't have the lenses to back it up yet. Status: making progress on all fronts, and Canon and Nikon need to be especially wary of this competitor. Forecast: one weakness is still not having all the right lenses. This blunted sales of both the full frame Alphas as well as NEX models. Even the Alpha is missing a few key lenses if it wants to tackle the high-end Canons and Nikons well. Rumors show progress on this front, but it needs to happen faster. Other weakness is in marketing. The dual strategy makes a strong cohesive "why Sony cameras matter" message very necessary.
  • RIP: Fujifilm, Kodak.

Canon and Nikon have continued to pursue their old strategies: entry to pro DSLR lineups, iterated regularly, moved upscale in features and performance with each generation. Status: Quo. Forecast: declining returns from this strategy. A 24mp A77 at US$999 that performs well threatens the more expensive D7000 and D400 on Nikon's side, the same-priced 60D and more expensive 7D on the Canon end. The multi-competitor thrust at the entry position (Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony) will eventually break through if left unchallenged.

Thus, significant changes in the interchangeable lens camera landscape are almost upon us, and the pricing roller coaster is just a symptom of that. But here's the thing: overall sales aren't going to grow much, if any. Not without some unforeseen product pulling an Apple (iPod, iPhone, iPod) and obsoleting the conventional products.

We're seeing price moves (other than the quake-caused supply/demand ones) because the camera companies are using a crude lever to try to gain advantage. None of the players have exceptional marketing. Even the Big Two seem to be struggling with that. Nikon backed off the best campaigns they've ever created (for the D40 and D80) to the second best (the Ashton Kutcher "shoot like me" ones), while Canon seems to keep folding up their marketing tent as budgets get tighter.

I hate to keep using Apple as an example, but they've been the best available one in high tech for a long time now: strong product definition that creates new categories and quickly dominates them; effective and ubiquitous advertising and marketing; best-in-business customer support (not a very high bar); consistency in design and message; creation of ecosystems around their products. Now take that list and see how many camera companies manage any of those things. No wonder DSLR sales have peaked. No end in sight for the roller coaster ride, though we're coming up on a big drop.

Prices (Up)
May 19 (commentary)--
With some Nikon cameras getting very pricey during this time of limited supply, I thought I'd share a couple of pricing tips I tend to give people who email me about the subject.

  • Old generation at lower cost or New generation at higher cost? Well, let's start with this: at equal cost you'd buy the new generation, right? So the real question is how much does the previous generation need to be discounted in order to justify getting it over the new? For like bodies (e.g. D90 versus D7000) I'd say the discount has to be greater than 30%. Why? Because brand-new DSLRs historically lose about 30% in price from introduction to end-of-life. So unless you get more than a 30% discount, you're paying "retail." For example, buy a D7000 today and it'll cost you US$1199. Wait until it's being replaced by a new model and it'll cost you about US$849. Thus, US$849 for the last generation isn't exactly a bargain, it's full price. Much like cars, you couldn't turn around and sell it again in two weeks for that price if you decided you didn't like it, because it's now used. On the other hand, you could get most of your money back out of a new model in short supply if you changed your mind.
  • Old generation higher end model or New generation lower end model? The D300 versus D7000 is causing this conundrum at the moment. Tech is ruthless and keeps marching on. The D7000's sensor is better than the D300's. Simple as that. So if what you need a new camera for is mostly sensor related, you have your answer. It's where features come into play that gets tricky. Nikon's habit of pushing newer models up-scale in features means they often come close to older models at a higher level. So you also have to look very carefully at features that are critical to you. A sports or birds-in-flight shooter, for instance, wants buffer depth (and to a lesser degree frame rate). The D300s and D7000 are enough different in that one feature area that it may be enough to push the decision one way or another. So examine your critical feature needs and make sure the newer lower end model doesn't crimp something you count on.
  • Repair or abandon? This one is coming up more and more as some older DSLRs fail and the repair cost is high. For instance, you could easily encounter a US$650 repair bill on a D70s or D80 when something critical fails. I've got a simple method of determining the answer to this question, though: go to eBay and look at the average price that the camera is question is fetching on open auction. If it's more than the repair price, repair it. That's because you could always just auction it off and get that money back (and maybe a bit more). Alternatively, look at the cost of buying that camera used from KEH. Their prices tend to reflect about what you'd pay to REPLACE your camera instead of repair it. If the replacement cost is less than the repair cost, then strongly consider replacing (repair does bring a camera back up to original manufacturing levels and nets a short warranty on the repaired camera, which you have to factor in). And by the way, even if you decide to abandon the repair, the non-functional camera still has some value (not a lot, especially depending upon what's wrong with it). If nothing else, you can donate it to research by sending it to me ;~).

Prices (Down)
May 19 (commentary)--
Meanwhile, some cameras either aren't in short supply, the brands don't have enough demand that the prices got affected by shorter supply, or the makers just decided that they wanted to try to buy market share. A lot of this action is happening in the mirrorless realm (m4/3, NEX, NX, etc.). Consider (all prices current B&H prices as I write this):

  • Samsung NX100: US$549 with kit lens.
  • Sony NEX-3: US$599 with kit lens.
  • Panasonic GF-2: US$499 with kit lens.
  • Olympus E-PL2: US$549 with kit lens.

Hmm. That looks interesting ;~). Basically you've got a few camera companies being highly competitive trying to grab a lion's share of this emerging compact system camera marketplace. Or maybe there's a different explanation:

  • Nikon D3100: US$598 with kit lens.
  • Canon Rebel T1i: US$599 with kit lens.

What the mirrorless group is discovering is that you can't sell a GF-2 type camera in the US in the quantities they sell in Japan without getting under the entry-level DSLR price, and even then it's a tough slog. Americans like viewfinders. They also like autofocus performance. The selling proposition of smaller/lighter doesn't win against viewfinder/fastfocus. Thus, the old US$999 price point Olympus tried with the E-P1 was doomed to fail here. And it's why Olympus has released the same basic camera four times, each time pulling cost out of producing it. I think they have a ways to go with the entry models. US$449 with a kit lens is about the point where it works against a US$599 DSLR in the US. Not so sure about other markets. Note that even in Japan where the mirrorless craze is the highest, the D3100 is in the top of the top 10 sellers of iinterchangeable lens cameras pretty consistently.

But consider this: the Olympus XZ-1 is US$499 and the E-PL2 is US$50 more. Pressure is getting exerted at both ends of the spectrum. You want to keep your most elaborate compact camera (XZ-1) up as high in price as possible, but you can't push your mirrorless (E-PL2) above the entry DSLR price point. That's a really tough place to put a product, because it's difficult to get your margin on the larger sensor model above that of your similar-priced compact model!

The Japanese are great at this game, though. They think nothing of putting out six models in very tight pricing increments. The problem for them is that there's great pressure on those price points to drop. I'm actually a bit amazed that the high end compact price has managed to be maintained at around the US$499 point for so long now. The market wants US$299. I'd be very interested in the elasticity of demand chart right now with all these models (compacts, mirrorless, DSLRs). I'm betting that all three are showing a strong push of volume leftwards (lower prices), but the Japanese are resisting it. Who's going to be the first to break out? My bet would Sony or Samsung, because of their vertical integration and distribution advantages.

Weekly Software Updates
May 18 (news)--
Apple updated the OS-X raw compatibility to 3.7, which includes five new cameras, four of which I've been dealing with here (D5100, X100, E-PL2, and XZ-1). Also, the ProKit 7.0 update fixes a number of minor Aperture issues. Media Pro 1 is the renamed renamed (yes, two renames) product Phase One bought from Microsoft, and represents their first overhaul of the venerable iView MediaPro (or Expression Media). Lots of new features and better integration with Capture One. Essentially, Phase One appears to be trying to come as close as possible to duplicating the Lightroom/Bridge/Photoshop functionality. This is a charged update (not free). Neat Image Pro 7.0 pops up with GPU acceleration and other performance optimizations.

D7000 Overexposure
May 18 (tip)--
I continue to get "the D7000 overexposes" messages from people. It doesn't. Most of the time you LET it overexpose.

Case in point that I'm seeing more and more complaints about: beach photos. The matrix meter has an EV limit of 16.3 on the D7000. To put that in perspective, that's just beyond f/11 at 1/500 at ISO 100. Sunny 16 tells us that a normal sun exposure at ISO 400 would be f/16 at 1/400, and Kodak's handy references tell us a beach scene is at least one stop brighter and sometimes two (due to the added reflected light). Guess what? You're beyond the limit of the meter. You may even be beyond it at ISO 100 in some situations.

What to do? Well, pay attention to what the histogram is telling you or try switching to center-weighted metering in really bright light.

Mirror or No Mirror?
May 18 (commentary). With Panasonic's introduction last week of the US$599 16mp G3 camera body, the question that's coming soon is this: D3100 or G3? (Substitute the latest low-end Rebel if you're a Canon user.) In interviews at the G3 introduction, Panasonic executives made a number of points. For example: while the interchangeable lens camera market is still expanding, traditional DSLR designs are flat in sales and Panasonic expects them to collapse by as much as 30% in the not to distant future.

In Japan, m4/3, NX, and NEX cameras are continuing to gain ground. As much as 40% of the interchangeable lens camera market there is no longer traditional DSLR in any given month. There are other pockets around the world where similar things are happening. But one comment struck me: the Asian markets prefer the slim non-finder versions such as the GF2 and NEX-5, while the American and European markets prefer viewfinder-equipped cameras, such as the GH2 and G3.

Anecdotally, I find that to be true. It's one reason why the E-P1 through E-PL2 and the GF1 and GF2 didn't get the same response in the US market as in Japan (it's not the only reason, though).

With the G3, which has a viewfinder, we're now down to really only two questions that determine DSLR versus the EVF cameras: (1) focus speed? and (2) EVF quality? The differences between a DSLR such as the D3100 and an ILC such as the G3 are getting smaller. The G3 has the GH2's very fast contrast AF system, which is good enough for most people for most situations. And the G series has always had a competent viewfinder that's brighter than some of the dark pentamirror systems in low-end DSLRs. So suddenly a metal body, 16mp, positionable LCD, interchangeable EVF camera at US$599 that's also smaller than a traditional DSLR seems fairly competitive. Of course, here in the states Panasonic would actually have to fix their distribution, sales, marketing, and support systems to sell anything ;~).

But what I started predicting a few years ago is coming true: cell phones kill compact cameras from the bottom, EVF interchangeable lens cameras marginalize compacts from the top and cannibalize DSLRs from the bottom. To compete, DSLRs need to be reinvented. Soon. Substantially.

May 16 (commentary)--
I monitor Web site visitor behavior regularly. It appears that many of you are coming in and visiting the front page of this site at the beginning of the week, then not also looking at the 2011 Nikon News page. You're missing articles. Quite a few of them. I've been averaging about four or five articles a week. If you only read on a Monday or Tuesday and don't visit the archive, you see only one or two of the articles I write a week. You also can't go by the photo at the top to indicate whether something has changed on this page. I update that photo every 7-14 days, depending upon my mood (actually depending upon my available time, but it's easier to blame it on my mood ;~).

In Lieu of Reviews Two
May 16 (reviews)--
I did some short takes on cameras recently (see the 2011 Nikon News archives), now it's time for some lenses.

Where I don't make a specific final recommendation, I haven't yet formed a strong enough opinion about how to assess the lens. These are all lenses that I continue to test in real situations, mostly with D5100/D7000 and D3s/D3x bodies. This article is archived here.

  • Nikkor 24-120mm f/4. Good news: it's sharper than the lens it replaced, and very visibly so wide open in the center. Vignetting is interesting, with a wide central area at 24mm that doesn't have any, but then a big dramatic increase just before the corners. Overall, though, vignetting is well controlled. Bad news: it produces a high amount of visible chromatic aberration, and it's never quite sharp in the corners. Overall: I'm a little ambivalent about this lens. I had higher hopes for it, but at least it's well in the usable range now. Recommended.
  • Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6. Good news: for a super-zoom, it's not bad in the center when stopped down a bit. Low to Medium vignetting (at extreme focal lengths), improves rapidly. Bad news: it's a superzoom, so it's less than perfectly sharp over much of its range, even stopped down; it's soft in the corners in many setting combinations; it has visible chromatic aberration (though less than the 24-120mm), it has considerable focus breathing. Overall: Doesn't have the acuity bite I want to see out of a lens I'd leave on the camera most of the time. Not to say that it's a bad lens, but it just doesn't rise above the bar for me, especially on the D3x. Note: haven't tested on DX bodies yet.
  • Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8. Good news: center is stunning even wide open, corners are decent stopped down, fairly free of chromatic aberration except at the extremes. Bad news: no filters, big honking piece of glass is brutally exposed to whatever's poking at you, linear distortion you'll want to deal with at 14mm, medium high (1.5 stop) vignetting wide open that improves only slightly at 14mm, but quite good stopped down at 24mm. Overall: I'm rarely disappointed with this lens and often pleasantly surprised, despite my already high expectations. The lack of filters seems to put a lot of people off, but it hasn't stopped me from loving this lens. Highly Recommended.
  • Nikkor 16-35mm f/4. Good news: nice central sharpness, best stopped down a bit. Vignetting is well controlled at all but 16mm, where it's medium when the lens is wide open and improves a bit as you stop down. Bad news: soft corners, even stopped down. Overall: still in progress on testing (especially DX bodies). The real problem this lens has is that it competes against the 14-24mm, which is exceptional.
  • Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 DX. Good news: nice central sharpness, decent edge sharpness, even wide open. Bad news: for its range and price point, none, really. Some people might dislike the lower build quality compared to the 12-24mm. Vignetting is medium at 10mm (1 stop in corner) and doesn't improve as much as you might think it should when stopping down. Overall: I tried this against both the new Sigma and the Tokina 11-16mm, and I like the Nikkor better by a teeny bit. The only problem with that assessment is that it seems there appears to be significant sample variation amongst all three brands in the wide-angle zooms. Trust, but verify. Recommended.
  • Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DX. Good news: surprisingly good, perhaps even stunning from 55-200mm from center to corner stopped down, but still quite good in the center even wide open. High contrast edges are clean at all but 300mm, where a bit of chromatic aberration sneaks in. Vignetting is modest. Bad news: from 200-300mm everything goes downhill rapidly, making it only serviceable as a 300mm. Nikon gets demerit points for the lens hood, though. Mine fell apart within days--it won't withstand heavy handling. Overall: at the price, better-than-expected performance and probably a better choice than the 55-200mm, which was already very good. Highly Recommended.
  • Nikkor 24mm f/1.4. Good news: stopped down there are no complaints. Bad news: wide open it struggles a bit, as do all f/1.4 lenses. Vignetting is strong wide open (2 stops in corners), and the center of that is slightly south of image center. Needs two stops to get in control. Overall: if you need it, you need it (and you'll probably like it). It's a large heavy lens, though. Recommended.
  • Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8. Good news: sharp in the center by f/4, deadly sharp by f/5.6. Bad news: corners need more stopping down to get into high acuity, surprisingly strong vignetting wide open improves to decent in a couple of stops. Overall: I was a bit surprised by the corners on this lens, and that's about my only reservation so far.
  • Micro-Nikkor 85mm f/3.5. Good news: stopped down it does very well. Vignetting is only moderate wide open and very rapidly improves to ignorable. Bad news: it's not nearly sharp enough until f/5.6, never really knocks anything out of the park. Surprisingly a bit weak on flat test charts compared to other macro lenses. Overall: I still don't get this lens. I suppose it's Nikon's idea of "DX-ing a staple" (the 105mm Micro-Nikkor), but it's just not even close to being in the same league. Tamron's 60mm and 90mm remain better choices for those seeking economy macro, I think.
  • Nikkor 200mm f/2. Good news: as good as it gets at f/2 in the center, remarkably good in the corners by f/2.8. The Fat Boy just rocks the sharpness charts. No real chromatic aberration to worry about, either. Vignetting on the original is very low, a bit higher on the newer version. Bad news: it's expensive and heavy. But you knew that. I shot some sports with this lens again last month and fell in love all over again. Tolerates converters well, but you'll lose some of the hard edge sharpness you see without them. Note: the II version I tried was a little worse in the corners than my I version. Don't know if that was sample variation or something significant. Probably nothing to worry about as the one I borrowed had been knocked around by others. Overall: Because of its size and weight, I often don't carry the 200mm f/2 with me. When I do, I regret the times I didn't. Highly Recommended.
  • Nikkor 500mm f/4. Good news: the 500 f/4 continues to be one of those exceptional exotics. Doesn't quite match my 400mm f/2.8, but it comes awful close stopped down one stop on my D3x. Even wide open the corners are well above good. At f/5.6 they're very good, though a hint of chromatic aberration will rob a bit of the edge. Vignetting only reaches about a stop in the corners wide open, and is ignorable at f/5.6. Bad news: you can't find one in the US, and even if you did it costs as much as a good used car. Overall: still the best "reach" option out there. While it gives up 100mm on the 600mm, it also gives up a lot of weight and size, a trade-off most users should and will make. Highly Recommended.
  • Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8. Good news: center is sharp wide open up to about 35mm, then loses a bit of edge. Vignetting is modest. Bad news: the corners never get close enough to the center, even at f/5.6. Overall: This has become my mid-range zoom on DX, though it's not perfect (nothing is, that's the problem).
  • Zeiss 18mm, 21mm, 25mm. Good news: centers are sharp wide open, razor sharp two stops down. Corners are very good but never great, and chromatic aberration and distortion are low. Bad news: tons of vignetting on my D3x. Disappears within a couple of stops, but very visible wide open. Overall: All three lenses are very good, don't get me wrong. But I was a little disappointed by all three. The 25mm doesn't beat the Nikkor f/1.4! The 18mm beats the 14-24mm only in the corners. On the other hand, the build quality is exceptional. Old school metal with long focus throws and excellent markings. But big filters on some of these (82mm). Recommended (with reservations)

Nikon Fiscal Year Results Are In
May 12 (news and commentary)--
Nikon's fiscal year ends each March 31st, and today Nikon reported their results for their last full fiscal year (April 2010 thru March 2011).

The good news is that both the Precision and Imaging divisions did well, though Precision didn't quite make it to Nikon's previous forecast and Imaging exceeded it in every category. Imaging (cameras and lenses) remains a huge 67% of Nikon's overall sales, so Nikon remains pretty much the sole significant Japanese company whose majority business is cameras.

Nikon sold 4.29 million DSLRs, which represents almost exactly 30% of the worldwide market for interchangeable lens cameras. Both the D3100 and D7000 were reported to be selling quite well (duh). 6.36 million lenses were sold (27% market share), as well as 14.26 million Coolpix (13% market share). All those numbers are slightly above Nikon's last forecast, made only a few months ago. Surprisingly, the Imaging division "inventory" grew significantly year-to-year (+27%), though some of that may represent product buildup in progress. Curiously, Nikon noted that they had a parts procurement problem in the Imaging division even before the quake.

Speaking of the quake, it appears that Nikon said that the lens plant in Tochigi has reached pre-quake capacity again. But the parts supply chain feeding it and the other manufacturing plants isn't expected to fully recover until fall. For the overall company, Nikon is forecasting a sales reduction of 120b yen and profit reduction of 30b yen as a result of the disaster. Despite that, Nikon is predicting a 6% increase in overall sales and a whopping 26% increase in operating income for the coming year. Almost all of that is coming from the recovery in the semiconductor market and Precision's sales. For those interested in semiconductors, Nikon sees their next generation of 16nm machines hitting production by 2018 (state of the art is basically 22nm these days).

For the first time that I can remember, Nikon is not providing estimated sales numbers for the coming year in the Imaging division. Instead, they predict a "slight increase versus previous year" in both DSLRs and lenses, with Coolpix being "even with previous year." Overall sales and income are expected to be down. Most of these changes are put off to limited production due to difficult procurement, plus fierce competition when the supply chain does recover. Even though Nikon is forecasting 80 yen to the dollar (115 yen/Euro), they appear to think the yen will appreciate further in the coming year, which also impacts Imaging greatly, and which has potential pricing implications for the next generation of products (i.e. higher prices for the US and Europe).

Meanwhile, R&D and capital expenses are back up (both dipped last year). Hidden within the main points made by Nikon was an interesting thing: Q4 for imaging (Jan-Mar 2011) was very strong, much stronger than the previous two years. That's going to make Q1 of the current year look very weak, I think. Another buried point was "[strong Coolpix sales] led to the capture of a leading share in the North American market in the second half of the fiscal year." That raises my eyebrows. It's such a specific claim, but I haven't seen any other numeric support for it.

I need to do some more reading of the Q&A session and coverage and interviews in the Japanese business press, but it appears that Nikon's message for the coming year is: "we think we'll have all operations and procurement back to normal by fall and while we think the competition will be intense at that point because everyone's going to be hungry for sales we expect to maintain market share." What's that mean to this site's readers? Perhaps some inability to meet demand for current products through the summer, perhaps some modest delays in expected new products, but by the end of the year it should be business as usual. Q3 (Oct-Dec) is historically the most important quarter for Imaging, so they're doubly motivated to get things rolling again by then.

The one worrying thing to me is the lack of specificity in Imaging for the coming year. Nikon is generally very forthcoming about forward year plans, but the fact that they aren't right now indicates that there must be a lot of unknowns for them right now. I read that as that some problems haven't actually been solved yet, but they think they will solve them. That's not quite as good as what I expected to hear, which was "we know what the problems are and both how and when we'll solve them."

Message Sent Versus Received
May 11 (commentary)--
I wonder if some of the camera companies are about to get the wrong messages?

Let me back up for a moment. We have a confluence of things happening at the moment. First, we've got the whole mirrorless initiative. Second, we have cell phone cameras hurting compact camera sales. Third, there's all that video enablement in still cameras, which is slowly working its way through the entire still camera lineup. Fourth, we have some user resistance building, as the gains from each increment in cameras is getting more and more difficult to notice, thus more difficult for a customer to justify the upgrade to. Fifth, the yen appreciation has priced some equipment out of some customer's budgets. Next, we have corporate decisions, such as Nikon's tight inventory and Sony's backing away from full frame. Finally, we have an earthquake. That quake has produced a deadly silence about a lot of things from the camera companies, and some oddball results, such as today's cancelling of the Coolpix S4100 by Nikon.

Here's the thing: the sales mix of cameras in 2011 will look very different than in 2010. Not necessarily because the customers want exactly the mix we end up with, but because all of the things I just mentioned have stirred the pot into a new sales mix. Consider inventory. Nikon had none, Olympus had a lot. Joe and Jill Average walk into their local camera shop to buy graduation presents for their twins Joe and Jill Jr. What are the choices on the store's shelves? Not that it was a likely choice, but no full frame cameras, few high-end cameras, a mix of compacts, and a lot of mirrorless. Pretty much everything they might find will have video built in.

So, the sales numbers come down at the end of the quarter and it says "mirrorless cameras with video increased in sales relative to everything else." Now, you could be a brain-dead marketing manager and just jump to the conclusion that "we should be designing and making more video-enabled cameras." If I were your boss and you did that, you'd be on the street looking for another job next week. But in Japan, your job is safe, I think.

Data is a great and powerful thing. Collect the right data and interpret it well, and you can make very intelligent decisions. Collect the right data and interpret it incorrectly and you can make very dumb decisions. Collect the wrong data, well, you were just dumb to start with.

I have this terrible feeling that the 2011 numbers are going to be read wrong even if collected right. This week was Mother's Day. My local Best Buy was out of a few low-end DSLRs but had the Olympus E-PL1 on sale at US$399. Guess what sold? Now if you look just at the numbers next week, you'll say "inexpensive mirrorless systems are selling at the expense of DSLRs."

Don't get me wrong, the camera companies aren't quite so bad that they'll just look at the numbers and change direction. They have large staffs trying to make sense of sales trends and patterns. The problem I see is that a lot of the "pattern" recently is self-fulfilling. DSLRs with video sell more than ones without because, well, we've made more DSLRs with video than without, and companies have been marketing video-in-the-DSLR heavily ever since the D90 came out. Of course the numbers would go up. But is it cause or effect at work?

Many industries over time manage to get themselves rendered into a corner because they start believing the numbers and their analysis of them. The American auto industry is well known for designing from past data and either ignoring or misinterpreting it. I once was a participant in a Jeep focus group and by coincidence, later saw a copy of what was reported to headquarters. The "results" didn't match what I and my fellow groupies said, at least in my humble analysis. Indeed, one common comment amongst almost all those in the group didn't even make it into the report. So I asked "why?" Turns out that the specific task of the focus group had been exceeded by the group. The company didn't actually want to hear anything other than what it had sought out to hear.

One thing that is happening already is that the Japanese companies aren't hearing what the potential buyer is saying right now. Everyone's wondering about when things will change in supply and whether product announcements are going to be delayed or cancelled. Nikon's the first to tell us about a particular product (the cancelled Coolpix) but there's no information about anything else.

That's already distorting sales. Let's just take the D700. Three things have happened in the customer base: (1) some have simply decided to stay with what they've got; (2) some have decided that the D800 isn't coming thus they'd better pick up a D700 when their dealer gets one in stock; and (3) some have simply diverted to a D7000. #1 lowered demand, #2 raised demand, and #3 lowered demand. Overall, Nikon must be thinking to themselves that the D700 and D7000 are really popular cameras (because of #2 and #3). But they're missing seeing #1, people that are leaving the market, possibly more than temporarily. Also, note that the more #2 and #3 that goes on, the less likely those people will buy a D800 when it does appear.

These are interesting times for a manufacturer. Times when they need a close connection to their customer to understand what's actually happening.

Has Nikon Finally Embraced all HD Video Formats?
May 10 updated (commentary)--
When I pointed out that the D5100 had "better" video than the D7000 I was mostly alluding to video format decisions: the D5100 can do 1080 24/25/30P while the D7000 can only do 1080 24P. On the negative side, the D5100 doesn't allow manual control of video, meaning you have to jump through some hoops to get video that doesn't constantly change ISO to deal with exposure changes. It should be obvious from my comments that I regard format choice more important than manual control.

Why? Because I can figure out ways to get around some (but not all) of the D5100's lack of manual control, while there's not a lot I can do about getting a different frame rate out of the D7000.

Let's talk about frame rates. I'm of the opinion that if a camera does HD video it needs to do at least three and preferably five frame rates: 24P, 25P, 30P are required, plus 50 and 60 are nice to have, preferably in Progressive (P) rather than Interlaced (i) format. If a camera doesn't have at least the first three formats (preferably in both 1080 and 720 frame sizes), then it isn't a fully functional video camera.

So what are those frame rates for? 25 is easy to explain: that's the PAL/SECAM frame rate. 30 is the frame rate of NTSC. Those represent the broadcast standards around the world. If your video is ever going to be transmitted over a broadcast transmitter or cable network, it's going to be at 25 (PAL/SECAM countries) or 30 fps (NTSC countries).

50 and 60 fps come into play in two ways: (1) if you're using progressive scan, you get a straight 2x slow motion capability (overcranking); and (2) if you're using interlaced scan you get 25 and 30 fps progressive or 2x slow motion in interlaced scan (this last is not typically used, as it doesn't hold up well). But we can do without these.

24 fps comes from Hollywood. It's the frame rate that motion picture film cameras typically use. You can stream 24 fps, display it directly on a computer, or convert it to film, but if you want to broadcast it in an NTSC country you have to resort to tricks that make it look a bit jerky: the dreaded 3:2 pulldown. Imagine that you're running at 120 fps (60i is essentially 120 "half frames" a second). You take four frames from the original and repeat one of them (technically half of one interlaced frame, half from another interlaced frame) to get 5 (5*24=120). The result is that three of the 120 fps "frames" will be your original material and two will have overlapping material from two adjacent original frames. Those of us who are trained in the motion arts can immediately distinguish 24 fps source material from 30 fps (here in the US) when broadcast. You can see it most easily in slow pans or motion, but once you see it it's annoying.

So why did we want 24 fps in our video cameras in the first place? Well, it turns out that audiences have about a century of training to recognize 24 fps as "film" and about a half century of visual training to recognize 30 fps (actually 60i) as "video." They do indeed look slightly different to our brains when played back correctly. Part of that is the different shutter speeds used (film tends to have a bit more blur than video), part of that is just the rhythm of the repeating images. Couple 24 fps with shallow depth of field, and you have something that looks "Hollywood." Couple 30 fps with deep depth of field and you have something that looks "TV."

So we need 24, 25, and 30 fps to create all the necessary "looks" we might want worldwide. Anything less and there are looks you can't create and you'll have footage that needs some sort of conversion to play in some formats. That conversion will make your footage look a little odd compared to native footage in that format. Video conversion is a bit like image resizing: done quickly it loses some quality, doing it right is difficult and time-consuming.

Nikon doesn't have a video division to compete with or a dedicated video camera to compete with, so there's absolutely no reason why they should cripple frame rates in their products (I'd argue the others shouldn't, either, but that's another story for another day; Sony, I'm looking at you). By only providing some of the needed frame rates, you essentially leave your "video capability" without a few critical limbs.

Yet Nikon pretty much did just that until the D5100 appeared:

D90: 720/24P
D3s: 720/24P
D300s: 720/24P
D5000: 720/24P
D7000: 1080/24P, 720/24/25/30P
D3100: 1080/24P, 720/24/25/30P
D5100: 1080/24/25/30P, 720/24/25/30P

Finally, with a D5100 I can match against what I actually need in terms of video format. Of course, I lost manual control of the camera and have to jump through hoops to keep the camera from jerking ISO all over the place, but at least I can intercut to all my video projects in different formats without facing the dreaded conversion. (Yes, I know Premiere can do on-the-fly conversion, but I find that it tends to introduce artifacts.)

So, let's all carefully watch Nikon's next DSLR announcements. If they have the same (or better) video formats as the D5100, the frame rate confusion up through the D3100 was all about Nikon catching up to video reality. If they don't include the full set, well, Nikon is screwing with us by divvying up features amongst models.

Footnote: Why 1080 and 720? At the moment, 1080 is the choice you want to make if your final destination is the big screen or Blu-Ray (note that you'll have to switch your 30P to 60i in your video editor, though your 24/25P will be fine as is). The 1920x1080 pixel count of 1080 is essentially what we might call 2mp video (Hollywood is using 4mp and higher for digital productions these days, but there has been a lot of 2mp that's made it to the big screen). The 1280x720 pixel count of 720 is about half the pixel count. That's perfect for bandwidth-constrained output, such as streaming on the net. Eventually the net's bandwidth will be high enough that we can use 1080 the way we do 720 today, but not yet, especially considering where mobile devices are. Thus, 1080/24P would tend to be the preferred format for going big screen and 720/24P would tend to be the format to shoot for streaming. For US broadcast use, some outlets want 1080/30P and some 720/30P (though you can usually shoot 1080/30P and let the 720/30P outlets downconvert). For Blu-Ray output, 1080/24P or 1080/50i/60i would be the preferred formats, and again, you can get the 60i from most editors if you shoot 30P (and some camera video formats actually put 30P in a 60i container anyway).

In Lieu of Reviews
May 9 updated (commentary)--
I'm deep into several big projects at the moment, and it's preventing me from finishing up some reviews. So herewith a few mini-reviews (any updates are after the bolded recommendations):

  • Coolpix P300. I'm not sure what Nikon's thinking is here. The camera comes across a lot like a very quick project to try to match Canon's S90/S95. And it falls way short. No raw. Some questionable decisions (the Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde nature of the fast/slow lens). No separate battery charger. Mismatching dials (horizontal and vertical aligned command dials). It does have a nice solid metal outer body and the Mode dial doesn't dislodge as easily as on some other small cameras. But one has to wonder if Nikon is really in touch with the user seeking this type of camera, especially given that I know of three companies that are executing the small, fast lens compact idea better. Image quality is decent but not outstanding. Swing and a miss, Nikon, swing and a miss. Skip. Nobody has taken to me to task for this recommendation ;~).
  • Samsung TL500. Samsung is getting a lot of the things right that Nikon is missing. While the TL500 is a bigger camera than the Nikon P300, it's a better camera than the P300 in most respects, especially the ones that serious shooters will find of interest. Not sure about the dueling dials on the top plate, both of which stick out where they're more easily dislodged in handling, but the bright positionable and flippable AMOLED LCD is a nice touch that makes up for a lot of the small complaints I have. Samsung is very close with this camera. It only needs a few tweaks to make it a top choice in the serious compact game. Consider.
  • Olympus XZ-1. Olympus got most everything right except for one thing. The lens on this camera is superb, and the image quality is very good in raw (less so in JPEG). So what did Olympus miss? The same thing they've been missing on virtually every camera they've made in the serious realm lately: controls get reset too easily while handling the camera. The Mode dial has never been the same spot as I left when I grab the XZ-1 out of my bag or jacket pocket. The "quick menu" settings also seem to get changed about as much as they do on my m4/3 Olympus bodies, which is to say a lot. Thus, you absolutely have to look at the camera settings and verify them every time you pick up the camera. Other than that it's a winner. Recommended (with reservations).
  • Fujifilm X100. I've got to be a little careful here as I had a strong sense from the Photokina demonstrations of this product that Fujifilm would botch the buttons and menu options. In other words, I am predisposed to a finding now that I have the finished camera. This is a gorgeous camera that'll appeal to anyone that remembers the rangefinder cameras of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Hefty and solid metal body, an aperture ring, a shutter speed dial, an exposure compensation dial, a strong optical finder, and even a shutter release with threads for a mechanical remote. Can you say retro? Image quality is quite good due to the excellent 12mp APS-C sensor and good Fujinon lens (23mm f/2). But the camera has an incomplete feel to it, and that mostly comes through the firmware, which means the buttons and menu system, as well as the underperforming focus system. The viewfinder, which is the center of attention on this camera, is good, but I have to admit I'm a bit disappointed in practice: the optical side isn't nearly accurate enough and the EVF side is good but not outstanding. It does have some strengths, including an excellent virtual horizon feature. Still, the camera has some near fatal flaws: for example, if it powers down due to inactivity, pressing the shutter release doesn't bring it back to life. So you cycle the On/Off button and the power-on sequence is not fast to begin with. So much to like. So much to dislike. Oh, and a proprietary US$130 lens hood? Stinkaroo on that. Shame on Fujifilm for playing that game. Skip for now. It seems that those that don't agree with me seem to think that Fujifilm will just fix the problems with the camera in future firmware updates. One would hope so, but there's a difference between functional changes and bug fixes. We can certainly expect the latter, but companies often save the former for future models. That's why I wrote "skip for now." Until it becomes clear if Fujifilm will put more work into the firmware, I just can't recommend the camera.
  • Panasonic GH-2. So much different, so much the same. I'm still trying to get my head around the GH2. While we've got a new sensor, touch control, and a host of other "changes," what I'm getting out of it in images and video looks a lot like a GH1. (Of course, I hacked my GH1 to get better video out of it.) Given the low clearance prices of the GH-1 these days, I'm very tempted to say "just buy the GH-1." In short, the GH-2 doesn't feel like a "2" to me. More like a " 1.1" or "1.2." But that's okay, because Panasonic's distribution and sales in the US is so screwed up you're not going to find one on your dealer's shelves anyway. And if you do, something else you want with it will be missing (hey Panasonic, where's my AC adapter?). As much as I like the GH-1/GH-2, especially for video, I can't recommend it to anyone here in the US. Maybe it's different overseas somewhere, but here Panasonic has moved from shooting themselves in the foot to something of a gut shot. Skip. I got compared to Yogi Berra on this advice. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. ("Basically, Thom’s saying: 'If you find one, don’t buy it, because they’re too hard to find.' Sounds a bit like Yogi Berra’s famous aphorism: 'Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.'”) That's not quite what I'm saying, and the problem isn't demand, it's supply. Panasonic here in the US has been going backwards with users. Supply has gotten worse with each new release since the LX-3. Batteries change with every iteration, then aren't available. Ditto other accessories. The manuals are insanely unhelpful, as is Panasonic's US support system. One thing that I didn't mention that I should have is that the GH2 does indeed have a better AF system than the GH1, easily the best of any mirrorless system yet. Still, I just can't recommend you get into this system until Panasonic gets its act together (at least here in the US; maybe in Japan everything is hunky-dory).
  • Sony VG-10. I've been doing more video work lately, trying to rebuild my filmmaking and video skill sets back up (I have two degrees in filmmaking and video, plus I taught filmmaking for several years at IU and have been invited back to teach some special classes). One project I'm working on right now is being shot on a VG-10, and, you know, it's not a bad video camera at all, even though it's a kludge of a still camera (it's basically a NEX-5 thrown into a camcorder body with a few extra video features thrown in). The downside to this camera is the inflexibility of its video formats. Hope you like 1080/60i. You'll probably need some lens adapters to get the large-sensor look you want, as the Sony E-Mount is still very much under-lensed. I'm not blown away with the VG-10, but I'm also not dissatisfied with it, either. It'll suffice until my large sensor pro video body shows up. But here's the bummer: it's way overpriced for what it is. About double, in my estimate. That means that I can't recommend it except to people who are willing to prop up Sony stock. Skip.

Next up: some quick lens opinions.

Unanswerable Questions
May 5 (commentary)--
Rumors abound that the prosumer and mirrorless camera launches by Nikon have been postponed. I'm not sure that "postponed" is the best word to describe what's happened. News out of Japan shows just about every vendor of products--and not just electronics products--is scrambling to secure supply chains and schedule around power issues. We're in that "unknowns we don't know" period (yes, I'm channeling Rumsfeld today). The electronics companies in Japan still aren't sure what they will and won't be able to produce in the near term.

What we do know is that Nikon will announce their full year results next week. The fact that they didn't change their advisories to investors tends to say that "up through March 31 nothing changed from what we estimated three months ago." Put another way, the earthquake hit on March 11th, and Nikon would have been in "inventory count mode" by March 24th, so the approximately two weeks in between apparently didn't meaningfully change their numbers.

But Nikon's numbers are certainly changing now. The already widespread product shortage in the US has become wider. NikonUSA scaled back their instant rebate program and cancelled a chunk of their coop program, including a critical Mother's Day flyer that apparently got printed but was sent to the recycler instead of distributing it.

Here's the thing: NikonUSA has been living off the frequent local advertising that centers around the instant rebate program. It's efficient. It drives customers into stores, keeps the stores focused on supporting Nikon sales and keeping store inventories up, and small changes in those published rebates have been micromanaging inventory well. Without enough new inventory, without the coop program being active, and with other companies like Olympus and their US$399 E-PL1 Mother's Day promotion, most of the dealers I've talked to are already noticed a drop-off in their Nikon sales in April.

Indeed, it's gotten to the point where we're about to lose a few local dealers who were running on thin profit margins. Even though prices are pushing back up at the retail level, that isn't useful to a dealer on the edge if they can't quickly replace inventory they sell.

One problem is that the Japanese companies all seem to be sending the same message to subsidiaries: "stop pushing new products at discounts because we don't know when we can replace your inventory." Sony's rebates, for example, end in the middle of this month in the US, and it's unclear if they'll extend them again. Even auto dealers are hearing the same thing. All it takes is one or two parts that are sourced in Japan that are under constraint (or completely unavailable due to a loss of supplier) and an entire product's production suddenly is in jeopardy. Even the Thailand and Chinese manufactured products Nikon sells, including Coolpix, have parts sourced in Japan, so offshore manufacturing doesn't necessarily solve the problem short term.

Fortunately, some of the "unknowns that we don't know" should become at least "unknowns that we know" very soon. Nikon's two big product lines, semiconductor equipment and imaging products, are both highly affected by the quake and its after effects, and the local business press knows it. Nikon will not manage to get through next week's press conference and business press meetings without answering some key questions about production in this and next quarter. I don't expect that news to be good. The current quarter forecast is going to be down, probably significantly.

One sense I get from my contacts in Japan is this: "if we can just get through summer things will get much better." This sentiment relates to the (current and) impending power crisis as the summer months bring additional power demands from air conditioning needs. Recently, TEPCO published new figures that show the shortfall in power supply won't be as bad as originally predicted. But it's still a significant shortfall, which means rotating blackouts. Semiconductor fabs, glass foundries, even a number of metal parts plants, all have significant warmup and shutdown times that'll make even short power cuts into much longer ones.

I don't expect full clarity next week, only a partial lifting of the fog. We'll get some sense of how badly the quake affected Nikon. We'll get a little sense of whether any additional products are likely in the current and next quarter. We'll get some comments about what Nikon is doing to deal with the problems the quake caused.

One final point: May is not a month that Nikon announces new products (Nikon otherwise tends to announce products a week after a quarterly financial report). It's very rare that Nikon announces something in June. I'm not expecting any product announcements before August at this point, but if we do get a product announcement in this period, it will almost certainly be a product whose launch was disrupted by the quake. There are only two products that could be: Nikon's mirrorless camera, or the D700 replacement, and the latter seems unlikely to me.

I don't mean to put everyone in a downer mood today. But let's be realistic. The quake and tsunami hit every Japanese business from mom-and-pop parts suppliers you never heard of all the way up to Sony and Toyota, two of the manufacturing leviathans of Japan. It's going to be awhile before things return to normal and all the "unknowns become knowns."

D3100, D5100, or D7000?
May 4 (commentary)--
With the Nikon consumer DSLR now completely refurbished, a lot of questions are coming to me about "which one should I buy?" So I thought a few general comments would be in order.

First, the new generation definitely upped the game. While you'd expect that more pixels would cause image quality issues, especially at high ISO values, that's not been the case. If anything, the opposite is true. Sensor development is much like processor development: each generation makes a stride forward in ability. Sometimes those strides are small, sometimes they're bigger. This generation is one of those bigger forward pushes. Let me put it this way: once we get to ISO 1600 I'd rather use a D3100 than any of the 6 or 10mp cameras Nikon produced, and I'd rather use the D5100 or D7000 than any of the 6, 10, or 12mp DX DSLRs Nikon produced.

Even at base ISO there are some modest gains to be found (dynamic range is slightly improved), though from a practical standpoint these don't show up unless you're meticulous about image capture and processing.

Thus, right up front we can say this: if you're shooting mostly at base ISO it will only be the feature sets that really interest you if you've already got a 12mp Nikon DX DSLR. If you're shooting at high ISOs a lot, the current generation is a clear step up from where we've been in the DX line, and so you have to evaluate both on image quality and feature set.

So what about those feature sets? All three cameras went a bit upwards from where their predecessors were, with the D7000 taking the biggest step upwards and the D3100 taking the smallest. Curiously, all three cameras have a slightly different personality, and different strengths and weaknesses:

  • D3100. Strengths: price, size, weight, simplicity (if you avoid the novice features, e.g. Guide), ability to mount pre-AI lenses (but not meter with them), best entry-level body Nikon's made in the digital age. Weaknesses: autofocus system (really set to Focus Priority and can't use non AF-S lenses), limited customization, only available with lens bundle.
  • D5100. Strengths: best and most flexible video of the bunch (except no full manual control), positionable LCD, size (smaller than D5000 it replaces), upscale features (GPS, intervals, multiple exposure). Weaknesses: autofocus only with AF-S lenses, button scatter (controls not well placed/organized), no remote CLS control.
  • D7000. Strengths: excellent build quality, excellent AF system, supports AI lenses, remote CLS control from internal flash, twin card slots, larger battery, optional grip, upscale features (GPS, intervals, multiple exposure, 100% viewfinder, more). Weaknesses: buffer depth in bursts, pricey for a consumer body, 1080P only at 24 fps.

Nikon makes it a bit tricky for someone to choose between the three. The D3100 is a bit like an entry model car: there are features that just can't be had, but the price is right. The D7000, on the other hand, is a bit overloaded with features, trying to get you to overbuy. Still, if you have older Nikon lenses (post AI but pre AF-S), the D7000 is the only model that fully supports those lenses, so it's generally the camera of choice for the upgrading Nikon user. Meanwhile, the best video capabilities were left to the D5100, and that positionable LCD just adds to that: if you're into video with a DSLR, the D5100 is your best choice in Nikon's consumer lineup.

If you've already got a previous Nikon consumer DSLR the question is whether this is the time to upgrade. Simple answer: if that older model is 6mp or 10mp, yes, but make sure you have good lenses. If you have a 12mp consumer DSLR, the gains aren't large enough for most people to consider moving up. As I've written before: update every other generation.

If you've already got a previous Nikon prosumer/pro DSLR the update question is easier to answer: if you really truly want to go from a pro-type body to a consumer one and you can tolerate a smallish buffer, then get a D7000. Otherwise wait. The prosumer/pro bodies are next in line for updating.

Software Updates
May 3 (news)--
Last week we got a couple of important software updates. Capture One was updated to version 6.2 and includes D5100 support and tethered support for the D7000 (also includes Ricoh GXR, Samsung mirrorless, Sony NEX, and GH2/GF2 support for those of you who've been following my reviews of those cameras). Likewise, Adobe updated Lightroom to version 3.4 and ACR to 6.4. This added D5100 support (and Olympus E-PL1/2 support). Five new Nikon lens profiles, and D7000 tethering in Lightroom were added.

P7000 Takes a Dive
May 3 (news)--
Fantasea launched its new housing for the Nikon Coolpix P7000 (US$599).

Next Generation Pricing
May 2 (commentary)--
One of the constant questions I receive is this: "what do you think the D800 (or D400, or D4, or whatever) will cost when it comes out?" Anyone who's been paying attention should be able to answer that question.

Unfortunately, the answer isn't one that most people like: "about the same as the model it replaces cost when it first came out plus an adjustment for currency fluctuation."

The D700 had a MAP (minimum advertised price) of US$2999 when it came out. A D800 is likely to be roughly US$3499 when we finally see it. Nikon might price a little lower than that if they feel they need to be more competitive, but US$3499 is about the price you should expect. "But wait," some of you are saying, "the D700 was US$2399 for a long time." Sure.

The short history of DSLR pricing is already laden with data points to predict from. Typically a DSLR will fall about 25% from its launch to its liquidation sales. US$2399 is well within that range (20%). How fast the price falls and how far depends upon how popular the product was versus supply. We're seeing now just what happens when demand exceeds supply: the D700 price has risen since the Japanese earthquake because the plant that makes it shut down for a long period and is still under capacity, yet the camera is still popular.

Another common "but wait" statement I hear goes something like this: "the D7000 is so good Nikon doesn't need a D400, so the D800 will come in at the D300's price point."

Sorry, but that argument doesn't hold, either. When you have a range of product in a category (Nikon basically has seven DSLRs), you try to avoid huge price gaps, and you don't reduce your model lineup. Nikon is not going to price a D800 at US$1999 and a D4 at US$5499 with nothing in between. Plus see my first point: Nikon is not going to drop the D4 price to US$3999 or even lower.

The Nikon DSLR price points currently go something like this (at original MAP): US$699 (with lens, US$599 implied), US$799, US$1199, US$1699, US$2999, US$5199, US$7999. Yes, those get discounted somewhat in times of plenty and yen of weakness, and yes, there is a fairly large gap between the prosumer and pro product. But that gap is not going to get larger, nor is the pro product going to get cheaper. The basic curve looks like this, and it's a classical pricing curve:

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

The tragedy in Japan has thrown a monkey wrench into things, though, not just in terms of Nikon's ability to produce several of the expected products, but also in terms of whether the yen can be protected from going still higher (it's taken G10 intervention to keep it from doing so since the quake due to the belief that Japan will have to repatriate yen back into the country to pay for the damages and rebuilding). Let's ignore that for a moment and pretend all is well in terms of manufacturing and yen (it will be some day, the only question is how soon). Here's about where things should stand sometime in early 2012:

  • US$599 (discounted from US$699): D3100 with lens.
  • US$699 (discounted from US$799): D5100, no lens.
  • US$1099 (discounted from US$1199): D7000.
  • US$1999 (new): D400.
  • US$3499 (new): D800.
  • US$5499 (new): D4s.

Figure that below that bottom we probably will have a mirrorless entrant and above the top we'll eventually have a D4x, and you've got the full interchangeable lens camera lineup. You'll notice that it has plenty of price points to keep everyone happy. To quote David Byrne "same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was."

Best US$399 Camera
May 2 (news and commentary)--
Olympus has decided to use Mother's Day as a way to quickly reduce their remaining inventory of E-PL1 cameras here in the US. US$399 buys you a body and 14-42mm kit lens (28-85mm equivalent), which puts an interchangeable lens, large sensor camera squarely in the compact camera price range for a change. The newer and more expensive E-PL2 fixes a couple of small issues with the E-PL1, but the image quality and basic camera handling are the same between the two models. It isn't worth the US$200 extra bucks to get the E-PL2 right now.

If you've ever considered trying one of the mirrorless cameras to see what they might do for you, this is about as good as it will get in terms of pricing for awhile is my guess. From an image quality standpoint, I don't know of a better camera at that price point. Not shirt-pocketable, but certainly jacket-pocketable.

Another US$150 will net you the very decent and quite compact 40-150mm (80-300mm equivalent) lens, by the way.

From the DSLR standpoint, one of two things typically happen when you try mirrorless cameras: (1) you realize that you absolutely need a DSLR because you do too much high-speed, fast-focus, or high-ISO shooting; or (2) you find that you shoot more with the mirrorless camera than your DSLR because it's less painful to carry around all the time and achieves acceptable quality (better than your compact).

From a compact camera standpoint, one of two things happen when you try a mirrorless camera: (1) you balk at the fact it doesn't fit in your shirtpocket; or (2) you rejoice in the added control plus the better image quality you enjoy even at the lower ISO values.

I've got no skin in the Olympus game (even though their US headquarters are only a couple miles away they don't even know I exist and have been shooting with their m4/3 cameras pretty much since they came out). I'm just saying that I've found mirrorless cameras to fit right between the other two categories I use (DSLR and compact), and indeed, have become my go-to, carry-all-the-time cameras.

D700 and D3s Trickle into the US
Apr 28 updated (news)--
I've now heard from four different dealers that they got a small shipment that included some hard-to-find items, including FX bodies. If you need a D700, D3s, 35mm f/1.8G DX, or 50mm f/1.4G and can't find one elsewhere, let me know and I'll pass you on to a dealer that has them. My bet is that those things won't stick around long and it'll be a bit before the next shipments arrive.

No Words Necessary
Apr 28 (news)--
Kodak digital camera sales:

  Sales Profit (loss)
Q1 2010 US$884m US$401m
Q1 2011 US$330m (US$168m)

News Not So Kind to Nikon
Apr 28 (commentary)--
We have two breaking news stories today that concern Nikon. The first, about likely Sony DSLR sales improvement at the expense of Canon and Nikon appeared in this morning's USAToday. The second is ElcomSoft's revelation that they've broken Nikon's Image Authentication System.

USAToday speculates that the shortage of Canon and Nikon cameras caused by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami will benefit Sony's DSLR market share. Maybe, but not for any of the reasons USAToday suggests. First, Canon has already announced that it doesn't expect any drop in DSLR sales, so USAToday would essentially be saying the Sony share increases would come at the expense of Nikon. That's probably true, but it isn't really the earthquake and tsunami that is the root cause here.

I've been harping on Nikon's tight inventory for some time. There's a belief that single-provider supply chains and inventory kept very close to the vest is a good thing in business. I've never been convinced of that, as I've seen disruptions of both things cause major grief for tech companies for decades now. While I'm sure someone will write me to disagree, it's possible to be too conservative. (I'm sure that part of that person's complaint will be that I'm too liberal ;~).

Nikon has been running so conservatively tight in terms of production and inventory that it impacted customers long before the earthquake. Nikon's already given up market share because of that.

But what USAToday doesn't quite get is that disruption of inventory is essentially going to render NikonUSA's whole marketing and sales strategy dead-in-the-water. For some time, the core of strength in Nikon's US sales has been the reliance upon coop advertising with instant rebates as the driver. Nikon has consistently been the only camera company in the US that is driving customers to stores. The problem, of course, is that NikonUSA now doesn't have enough inventory to continue pushing that program. Some coop flyers for this spring have now been cancelled, and the rebates had already gotten smaller and on fewer items (or with more restrictions). In their place? Nothing. So of course Nikon sales will go down in the US. This is a critical buying season, with Mother's Day, Father's Day, and graduation all coming up. All would have been targeted by Nikon with extended coop advertising programs.

Ironically, Sony's inventory problems had been somewhat the opposite of Nikon's: most items have been in plentiful stock, partly because they're not as efficient as Nikon in getting a customer in a store asking for something. So, yes, USAToday's basic premise is correct: if sales shift away from Nikon, Sony should gain.

Meanwhile, the other breaking story, that of Nikon's image validation program being broken, revolves around a different issue. I've long had a problem with Nikon's Image Authentication System (IAS): as far as I or anyone else can tell, Nikon has done nothing to get it certified by a court. Because of that, when asked, I've given a "not recommended" categorization to that product.

Nikon targets IAS at law enforcement. But to date I know of no successful use of it in a court of law. That's because, in order for a court to uphold that an image verified by IAS is indeed valid, the IAS system itself has to withstand court challenge at least once. Most experts in encryption I've talked to claim that it would only take one or two key questions for them to get a court to deny the use of IAS. Why? Because Nikon doesn't seem to want to talk about how the authentication is done and submit it to expert challenge and test. "It's a secret" doesn't impress a US court (well, except when the Federal Government makes that claim regarding something connected with terrorism ;~).

As it turns out, ElcomSoft has demonstrated that the 1024-bit private key can be extracted from the camera, and once that's done, it's easy enough to create fake values for the two EXIF MakerNote tags that are used by IAS to authenticate an image. This is doubly disturbing for a simple reason: Nikon hasn't done anything to get IAS authenticated by a court, and now there's clear evidence that it can never be authenticated.

I've been on record as not recommending Nikon Image Authentication System. I'm not sure how I can increase my "not recommended" ranking, but it feels like I should. Short of Nikon both addressing the private key weakness and providing the necessary support to get a court to accept the program's authentication, you are wasting your money buying IAS. Wasting your money. Of course, the ones that are buying it seem to be government agencies. So here's one thing we can all agree on that should be cut from government budgets: any spending on Nikon's IAS. That won't dent the deficit much, but it's a start.

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G AF-S Officially Announced
Apr 27 (news)--
In what's starting to look like another pattern, Nikon released one lens by itself (this has happened in April for the last three years running). If the pattern holds, we'd get another handful of lenses announced in July or August.

The 50mm f/1.8G AF-S was accidentally leaked by Nikon last week when a Web page went up early (and was taken down very quickly), so we already know the pertinent details: this is the AF-S replacement to the 50mm f/1.8D. The lens covers the full FX frame and has MTF numbers that make it look like it might be the best 50mm yet. 58mm filter threads, 1.5' close focus, very small and very light (6.6 ounces).

What wasn't known at the time of the leak were two things: price and availability. Price is US$219, and NikonUSA is telling dealers to expect a mid-June arrival date.

At this point I think it's safe to expect a revised 85mm f/1.8G AF-S, too, though when is another matter. It does appear that Nikon is going through and refreshing most of the previously popular fixed focal length lenses, something they've done for pretty much the entire history of the F mount.

I should point out that the 50mm f/1.8G looks like it will make a very respectable (and small) DX portrait lens. At 75mm equivalent, 7-blade aperture, and f/1.8, it isn't a perfect fit. Still, the image samples I've seen seem to suggest that it works quite well for portraits on a DX body. And at US$219 and 6.6 ounces, it doesn't make much of a dent on your wallet or bag, so is worth experimenting with.

How Many Parts Do We Need?
Apr 26 (commentary)--
I had already planned to write about "parts" when iFixit's D5100 tear down press release popped up in my email this morning. But before we get to that, let's back up a bit.

Back when we designed the original Quickcam in 1994, one of the design goals (in the Marketing Requirements Document, otherwise known as the MRD in product management speak) was "fewest number of parts necessary to get the sensor signal into the computer's CPU." To refresh you, the Quickcam was a simple tethered digital camera that plugged into your computer. Software on the computer provided still, video, and conferencing capabilities.

The design goal was specific for a few reasons. First, the company creating the Quickcam, Connectix, was a software company. We were worried about three things we weren't used to in the software business: how many parts we had to stock in inventory to build cameras, how much hand assembly time it might take to manufacture it, and the overall product margin. We felt that by reducing the complexity of the product we could minimize the first two things and maximize the latter. It actually became a bit of a game for the engineering side to reduce the number of parts. If I remember correctly, the final count was 28 (though I include the lens mount and lens itself as one, as we received it that way from the manufacturer).

I was reminded of that the other day when I first saw the BigShot project. BigShot was developed at Columbia University and represents a work in progress. The idea is to create a simple, build-it-yourself camera that allows you to learn some science while constructing your functional camera. If I'm not mistaken, the BigShot comes in 18 parts (though they label the two digital boards as one part each). And you can see how that brought up the Quickcam memory. Simple. Direct. To-the-point.

Reducing parts volume doesn't necessarily make for a less capable or durable device. In some ways, it's better because the device can be more easily repaired should something happen to a part. But parts reduction also forces designers to think strongly about function. No features that only 1% of the users will ever try: you've got to make sure that the parts you do use actually perform the functions that everyone needs done. It's always interesting to me how such design focus usually results in something unexpected. In both the Quickcam and BigShot, the "unexpected" bit has to do with power. The Quickcam didn't have a power supply, for example. Instead, Jon Garber came up with a wild idea when I insisted on no AC wall wart: use bits coming from a serial port on the computer much like you use water to drive a wheel to generate power. There was just enough energy derived to power the sensor and the communications. Likewise, the BigShot has a power surprise: you can hand crank it to power it for a shot if you don't have a battery handy.

Which brings us to the D5100 tear down. Ifixit jokingly refers to 4 billion screws, but that's less an exaggeration than it seems. The number of hand-assemble points (screws, cable plug-ins, etc.) on modern DSLRs is crazy. The overall parts count reaches well above 2000 for even the low-end DSLRs. Part of this is the propagation of old designs. Late film-era SLRs were already getting complex by the addition of automated features (metering, focus, frame advance, etc.). Even back in the N8008 days cameras had a CPU. By the time we got to the F5, we not only had a CPU, but both flash and RAM memory as well as serial communications (through the ten-pin connector).

The question that needs to be asked is this: how much of all that complexity we've added to a camera is really necessary? For example, how many of you have actually connected something to the USB, video, microphone, and HDMI ports of your DSLR? That's four connectors that aren't getting a lot of actual use. Of course, if you took those things off the camera, your competitor will ding you for not having those items.

This is one reason why I've been arguing for modular cameras. All that communication (USB, video, microphone, HDMI, as well as things that we don't have but will such as Bluetooth and WiFi) should be optional and upgradable.

One strong trend that appeared not long after the first DSLRs appeared and continues to this day is the demand for a "digital FM2n." Simple. Direct. Purposeful. To-the-point. How many parts do you think would be in it? 400? 500? Certainly not 2000+. What's that say about costs, profit margin, and assembly time? It really startles me that the camera makers don't see and attempt to satisfy this pent-up demand.

D7000 Firmware Update
Apr 25 (news)--
Nikon has posted firmware version 1.02 for the D7000. A number of small bugs have been squashed, but two larger changes should be noted: first, Long Exp NR is now done for all exposures longer than 1 second (previously it was 8 seconds); this reduces the appearance of hot pixels. Second, Nikon has fixed an issue with their movie files that prevented D7000 video from being opened with a number of video editing applications.

Video Still Driving Design
Apr 22 (news and commentary)--
Impress Watch in Japan just reported another new Sony sensor design, and other outlets have already started postulating about its use in future cameras. But read the details closely and you discover a few interesting bits.

First, it's not a standard format sensor. It's 24.3x12.8mm in size, which makes it slightly wider than APS-C but substantially shorter. The 2160 vertical pixels are exactly double what's needed for 1080P (the horizontal component is almost exactly 4x). It looks like a straight-out video sensor to me. That's confirmed by the other details: 60 fps 14-bit output, 120 fps max speed, and the first target: NHK's Super Hi-Vision format.

That last bit is interesting, because technically the new Sony sensor doesn't generate the vertical resolution needed (4320 pixels). That's why Sony talked about using line doubling in generating the final pixel set, something we haven't seen in a digital camera since the Nikon D1x. Super Hi-Vision is sort of the digital equivalent to Imax, designed for large theatrical presentations with a screen that has a highly involving angle of view (100 degrees).

So why is this important to still digital camera users? Well, it's something I've been harping on for awhile now: video implementations are driving a lot of the Japanese engineering these days, including sensor designs. Almost certainly some of the bandwidth-breaking implications in this new sensor will work their way into still camera sensors, because it'll improve contrast-based AF if nothing else. There's a distraction in trying to up the video side of the coin in all designs that's taking resources away from upping the still capabilities and designs, in my opinion.

To what end? Well, DSLR-enabled video is pretty compromised and about to be eclipsed by prosumer and pro video equipment, much as I predicted some time ago. Both Sony and Panasonic now have large sensor video products, with more coming. Those products blow away the capabilities within DSLRs for one simple reason: the sensor is optimized for video use. In order to get 1920x1080 (1080P) or 1280x720 (720P) out of our DSLR sensors, the cameras do two things: they line skip and they sub-sample within a line. The results are rolling shutters, artifacts, and less than optimal color information. Those dedicated large-sensor video cameras fix all those things. The output from the new Sony NEX-FS100E is noticeably better than any video-enabled DSLR I've seen to date. If I'm serious about video production, why would I compromise by using a DSLR? Plus the FS100E is configured to be a video camera from the get-go.

Consumer DSLRs
Apr 21 (commentary)--
In case you haven't noticed, Nikon has now turned over their full lineup of consumer DSLRs. We have the D3100, D5100, and D7000 having been released within a relatively brief nine-month period. That's slightly faster than the eleven month period in which the previous generation appeared (D3000, D5000, D90).

Side note: The D3000, D5000, and D90 all live on at the moment mainly because of built-up unsold inventory. As inventories disappear on these items, they'll be removed from Nikon's "current cameras" list. None of these models are still being manufactured.

Some things are now clear. First, all the models went somewhat upscale in feature sets. Many of these additions are little items that aren't at first apparent (like the dual IR receivers on the D5100 and D7000, or the built-in intervolmeter and multiple exposures on those models). But taken together, the current generation of Nikon DSLRs is more feature-laden than the one it replaces. Each model has gone somewhat upscale from the one it replaced.

Sensors, obviously, have changed. From 2002 through 2007 we had 6mp sensors in the consumer lineup. From 2005 through 2009 we had 10mp sensors in that lineup. From 2007 through 2011 we had 12mp sensors in consumer cameras. Moving forward we're at 14 or 16mp for this and possibly the next generation. Despite the upward tick in pixels, there's been a pretty good progression in underlying sensor ability along the way. Today's 16mp sensors are clearly better at high ISO (both in JPEG and raw) than those older 6mp, 10mp, and 12mp sensors, for example.

Price points--adjusting for the vagaries of currency fluctuations--remained about the same. Thus, new buyers are getting more camera and better images for about the same money as before. This represents a typical product strategy from a consumer electronics company: keep price points about the same, drive manufacturing costs down and add enough compelling features to trigger upgrading as well as new customers, and you have a recipe for unit growth with no loss of product margin.

The question that needs to be asked is whether or not this strategy will work for another consumer DSLR generation. Such a generation would start to appear in md-to-late 2012. But what would it have that the current ones don't?

Yes, the feature list could be bumped a bit more, but we're already in what I'd call the marginal features realm (realistically, how many of you have actually used the Multiple Exposure capability of your camera?). Pushing more pixels into DX seems marginal, too. At about 24mp you exhaust the capability of the best lenses, and diffraction is robbing you of most of the resolution increase anyway. True, you could go the Sony route and move to pellicle mirrors to improve AF performance in Live View and moviemaking. Still, by any means you examine it, today's consumer DSLRs are more capable than most of the market needs. That makes "adding features" not as compelling as it used to be.

And then there's the missing lenses. Let's just backpedal to 2007 and look at what DX lenses we've gotten since: 18-55mm and 55-200mm updates, 18-105mm VR, 35mm f/1.8G, 10-24mm, 85mm Macro, 55-300mm. Note that we've had two generations of upscaling the DSLR body in that time frame, and went from 10mp to 16mp. Do the lenses we've been given match the upscaled cameras? No.

I have no problems with the 18-55mm and 55-200mm updates. These are key base constituency lenses that sell in large quantities at low cost and need to be done right (optically better with each generation, cost driven out to keep price down). Other than the 35mm f/1.8, which is a superb lens for its price, we haven't gotten enough other help in the DX lens department as the cameras have increased in ability. The 10-24mm was a nice option, I suppose (and I use it on my D7000), but we continue to miss a whole host of other needed lenses. At the risk of repeating myself: 16-50mm f/2.8, 50-135mm f/2.8, 16mm f/2.8 (preferably faster, but needs to be small), 20mm f/1.8, and 50mm f/1.8 at a minimum. To put it in ad-speak terms: "our latest cameras are better, so you deserve better lenses, too."

Nikon's done a nice job of pushing the consumer DX bodies upward, but we still need them to do the same with the lenses.

D5100 Software Updates
Apr 19 (news)--
Nikon updated Capture NX2 to v2.2.7 and Camera Control Pro to v2.9.0 so that they work with the recently introduced D5100.

Losing Cameras
Apr 19 updated (commentary)--
By my count I've lost 37 cameras recently. I set them down and then they seem to just disappear. One second they're there, the next second they're not. Of course, this is in my dreams, not reality (where I don't even lose lens caps), but still, if you find any of my lost cameras in your dreams, please return them to me.

Update: I was a bit surprised at how many people responded with similar dreams. It appears that dreaming about losing equipment is not uncommon at all, though curiously most of those responding seemed to lose lenses more often than cameras.

Overall Camera Market
Apr 18 (news and commentary)--
IDC Japan released their 2010 worldwide market share numbers for cameras last week, and it looks like this:


Those numbers include all cameras, compacts through DSLRs, for all worldwide markets. Companies gaining market share in 2010 were Sony, Nikon and Samsung. Companies losing market share in 2010 were Kodak, Olympus, Fujifilm, Casio, and Pentax. Canon and Panasonic market shares remained the same in 2009 and 2010.

I had to dig to find some older numbers. Back in 2002, for instance, Nikon had 12% of the total market share (Sony was on top with Canon close behind, both well over 20%). Curiously, Nikon's share maxed out at 14% in 2004 before dropping below 10% before returning back to 12.6% last year. The surprise in the mix is how fast Samsung has risen to be a contender, easily passing Panasonic in a relatively short period of time.

In interchangeable lens camera sales (DSLRs and mirrorless), the IDC press release indicated that Canon held 44.5% of the worldwide market in 2010, Nikon 29.8%, and Sony was third with 11.9%.

Note that 2011 is going to show market disruption. Samsung, for instance, wasn't particularly impacted by the earthquake, while several other makers have camera parts or assembly plants that are in an area where both the quake and reduced power will produce great changes on their ability to manufacture (see two stories down).

I subscribe to the old Ries and Trout philosophy: you need to be #1 or #2 in a market, or perhaps #3 with some prospect of making #2. If you can't make those positions you are going to have a tough time staying profitable and generating a good ROI on your R&D investment. Right now, the power players are Canon, Sony, Nikon, and Samsung. They all have strengths that have them competing for #1 and #2 in multiple camera markets. Panasonic and Olympus arguably have some niche strength (mirrorless and high-end compacts). Kodak and Casio are falling out of contention in the compact markets where they compete with no sign of turnaround. Fujifilm has been in a constant slippage for some time. They used to be a contender in the top three, now they've slipped to eighth and are continuing to slip. Pentax is about to be passed by Vivitar, a rebrander.

Techcrunch this weekend had an article about popularity of various cameras on Flickr. The results should greatly disturb the camera companies, and it should absolutely scare Kodak, Fujifilm, and Casio out of their wits: the iPhone 4 is about to become the most popular camera used on Flickr (right now, the D90 holds that spot). Compact cameras have a long history of decline on Flickr, which is why Kodak, Fujifilm, and Casio should be worried: camera phones are replacing compact cameras very rapidly now, and those companies only make compact cameras. Next year at Best Buy, expect the rack of compact cameras to no longer be a two-sided 40' counter. Big Box stores do not waste square footage on products with declining markets. Note how the desktop/laptop computer space at Best Buy flipped in the last two years.

Those that know me well probably can guess what I'm going to write next: all of the camera companies are failing. None have managed to reinvent the camera and bring it into the 21st century, where bits fly through the air at the control of the user. None have managed to be particularly good at marketing their product, let alone distributing it (I'm looking hard at you, Panasonic). Most of the companies are basically caught in a rut where the same players win for the same reasons. Just doing what the other guy is doing is not going to win you more customers.

Unfortunately, the quake has many of the companies just looking at something even simpler: how to keep assembly operations going at levels near what they were before the quake. Things are not looking good in the camera industry right now. Exepct next year's IDC numbers to show some major changes.

D5100 In Stores on Monday
Apr 16 (news)--
In the US, most stores should have their initial shipments of D5100 models on Monday (a few have received them already).

Camera Industry Discussion
Apr 16 (news)--
I participated in a long discussion on the future of cameras you might be interested in. You can find Part 1 (yes, that's just the first part) here.

Camera World Still Shaking
Apr 16 (commentary)--
It's been more than a month since the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, and some of you have asked for more about what's happening there. The news isn't particularly good. The news from the region continues to be be mostly bad.

Japan is still being hit by aftershocks, many of them significant (two 6+ magnitude quakes this past week), some of them now on the plate itself (often meaning inland, not offshore). This stopped both Nikon plants (as well as other camera company plants in the area) at least briefly, as additional damage was sustained and needed to be cleaned up. There's also evidence that stress has now built up on the neighboring plate, which could generate a quake close in to Tokyo itself. In short, this was a highly destructive event that has not yet wound down.

But the big news is power. I see several different estimates from various sources within Japan, but in no case does the Northern Japan power grid (which includes Tokyo itself) look like it will be anywhere near handling the demand this summer. There could be 50% shortfalls some days, and the average shortfall in July and August could reach 30%. That means frequent and long power blackouts, which is bad news for the camera industry. Sensor fabs, for instance, of which several are in the area, need continuous power (on top of the temperature issues in many critical processes, you've got to maintain continuous air filtration to avoid contamination). High quality glass factories can't be turned on and off easily with rolling blackouts. It appears that the deeper into the supply chain you go (e.g., back to chemicals and raw materials), the worse the problem gets: those plants can't be toggled on and off at whim. Many need long warm-up periods or continuous power to operate.

The auto companies are already talking about rotating their production (e.g., only one maker's plant open at any given time) to try to deal with the need to have continuous operation while painting/assembling yet still be down enough of the time to contribute to lower power demand. In other words, if it's Tuesday or Wednesday it must be Toyota, Thursday or Friday Honda, and so on. I'd say there's a strong chance that the camera industry might come up with something similar.

Between the March quake and early winter when things even up a bit in the power realm, I'm guessing that the output of the plants in the affected area could be less than 50% of normal. That could mean nearly nine months of significantly reduced production of everything from Nikon FX bodies, to Nikon/Canon/Panasonic lenses, to Sony CMOS sensors, to all those proprietary lithium batteries, and more. (In a few cases in the tech industry, for instance Sony HDCAM SR tape, production is completely stopped with no news of when it might resume, as the only plant in the world where it is produced is one in Sendai that was flooded by the tsunami.)

Frankly, the quake couldn't have come at a more critical time for the camera industry. Instead of moving forward into the next generation of cameras needed to hold off the cellphone camera craze, the camera companies are spending a lot of management and resource time just trying to stay operational at anything near "normal" levels. Critical paths no longer are held up by engineering missing a deadline, they're full of red flags as parts, resources, and plant time get scarce. 2011 is going to be a rough year for the camera companies, and their stocks already. On March 10th, for instance, Nikon holdings were trading at about 16 on the Berlin exchange, and immediately dropped to below 13 after the quake, which is about where they've remained. The same pattern is repeated for virtually all the Japanese electronics industry companies. In short, the world's financial markets are betting that all these companies will show significantly lower sales and earnings for the foreseeable future.

What's that mean for you? Well, at the consumer end (Coolpix, D3100, D5100, D7000, consumer DX lenses) I don't expect a lot of disruption. These products are made overseas (Thailand or China for the most part). While they still have some Japan-produced parts in them, so far we're not hearing of any critical shortages that should greatly impact those products. At the pro end, though, there's almost complete disruption occuring. The Sendai plant that makes the FX bodies has been closed several times since the earthquake, and many of the parts those cameras require are made in that plant, including chassis, lens mount, and more. Likewise, the pro lens plant has been slow to get back up to speed and disrupted by the frequent quakes and power outages. Nikon has not made a specific statement about availability of pro products, but I'm betting they'll be scarce for the next few months.

I'm going to again comment on one of Nikon's policies: the serialization of product by region and the way Nikon distributes and services globally is going to once again come into play in ways that are negative to the company's fortunes. Inventories of pro gear cannot be easily shifted from where they are to where they're needed due to Nikon's "global subsidiary" policies. Thus, when your local subsidiary runs out of something and can't get more from the factories in Japan, Nikon can't shift inventory easily from places that might have excess. Canon is looser in this regard, and I'll bet that's going to shift some pro sales to Canon during this period.

Nikon thinks their current global policies work to their advantage. They do not and never have. They arbitrarily limit sales in unusual ways that are not efficient. Markets aren't perfectly efficient, but Nikon's methods are less efficient, as anyone seeking an exotic Nikkor telephoto lens lately has discovered. It's time to change, Nikon.

Non-Marketing, Nikon Style
Apr 13 updated (news and commentary)--
Last night Nikon Japan updated their product pages to include a new 50mm f/1.8G AF-S lens, apparently a replacement for the long-in-the-tooth but still popular 50mm f/1.8D. This small, light (6.6 ounces, or 185g) lens has a few small differences from the one it replaces: 58mm filters instead of 52mm, f/16 smallest aperture instead of f/22, plus an AF-S focus motor. The lens covers the FX format and appears to have better MTF numbers than the older D-type lens. Unfortunately, later in the day, the page was removed by Nikon. Obviously, someone jumped the gun on Nikon's Web site. We'll just chalk it up as another strange tale in Nikon's long history of strange product marketing.

It now seems more likely we'll see an updated 85mm f/1.8 in G and AF-S form some time in the future. Nikon might even get around to sending out a press release on that one when they launch it, though maybe not ;~).

Nikon Introduces the D5100, Microphone
Apr 4 (news and commentary)--
Nikon today announced the replacement for the D5000 as expected, the D5100. It's 100 better than the old camera, guaranteed. The new camera uses the same sensor as the D7000 with the fundamental body and stylings of the the D5000.

The swivel LCD now swivels from the side instead of the bottom, the battery is now the EN-EL14, there's a quiet shutter mode, plus in-camera HDR and night shot video abilities have been added. Another nice thing is that we get a 920k dot LCD, not the older 233k dot one. Video is now 30/25/24 fps at both 1080P and 720P. The new body is also slightly more compact than the D5000. But still, the basic DNA is recognizably the D5000, as the new camera has the D5000 autofocus and metering systems and basic feature set, for example.

Nikon has approached HDR right, I think. I've never understood this "you need lots of overlapping images to do HDR" thing that is being promoted by what now seems like everyone under the sun. What happens is you end up with a lot of the same data that has to then be curved against each other. The D5100 does two-shot HDR (up to three stops apart), which is exactly what I do in the field. Shoot for the highlights, shoot for the shadows, you've got enough overlapping data in the middle. If you need more than three stops on top of the eight or nine real stops the camera can give you, you've got a different problem: you're so outside the DR that can be put on paper or on a screen that you've just made your curving of the data a really big pain to get right. Two exposures should be all you need to establish the toe and the shoulder data, and give you enough overlap in the middle ramp to use for your mid-tone blending. But I'm sure we're going to see a chorus of complainers asking why they can't have three, five, and seven stop sequences as much as two stops apart. Don't listen to those people. I think they all own stock in companies that make storage cards and hard drives.

Changing the swivel point of the screen has Nikon making a slightly wrong decision, in my view. Instead of doing what at least one other maker has done and put a tightly notched swivel so that you can keep buttons to the left of the screen, Nikon has instead moved or removed all of the left-of-screen buttons. As much as some people don't like the D7000's left-of-screen buttons, it does mean that with practice you can left-hand a button and right-hand a dial while still looking through the viewfinder. When you move too much to the right side of the camera, the user has to keep changing hand position, and that means you move the finger away from the shutter release too much and too easily. The Giugiaro design Nikon has been well known for is often bastardized on these lower end cameras when the engineers simply think that, because a camera like the D5100 doesn't have any "settings" buttons on the left, they can just move buttons whereever they fit. There's a reason why Giorgetto Giugiaro placed things as he did. And users of multiple Nikon bodies expect some continuity in control placement when they move between cameras. It's one of those subtle ways in which Nikon doesn't achieve Apple-ness in their designs. And once again we have Nikon fiddling with the Live View/Movie Record levers/buttons (now positioned on the top of the camera). True, the changes aren't a big thing on the D5100, as none of the buttons that were moved are involved in normal shooting, but moving between a D5100 and D7000 will now present cognitive dissonances to a shooter, which I think is a bad thing. The good news? The FN and flash buttons didn't move on the front of the camera.

Also introduced with the camera was the ME-1 microphone, which mounts into the hot shoe of a camera and plugs into the microphone-in jack of the camera. But I have to comment a bit harshly on this one. Just what the heck is Nikon doing with accessories? They not only seem to be afterthoughts, but when we do get an accessory it seems to be a quick and dirty project that doesn't represent Nikon's full technological engineering capabilities.

Really, Nikon? Almost three years of shipping cameras with movie capabilities and you just now get around to shipping a me-to microphone that takes up the hot shoe and adds another dangling cable to catch on things? We've been able to buy those things for many years now, so if that's what we really wanted we'd already have one ;~). Not that I really want to plug in a microphone to any current Nikon DSLR anyway. The D7000's built-in amplifier system is decidedly lower in quality than the video stream the camera can generate. Even feeding a D7000 a clean, well managed signal from an external mic and amplifier you don't get great sound. And, of by the way, in one-person videography, the camera operator needs a headphone monitoring system. Where's that?

Note the more integrated microphone solutions that Sony (NEX) and Olympus (E-PL1/2) have provided. No cables. Hey Nikon, you used to be the technology leader. Now you're OEMing kludgey accessories? Is that really the future we're headed towards? I expect more from Nikon's talented engineers. We didn't get it in the ME-1, and we got it several years late. That's simply not good enough. Not for a company that considers itself a technology leader.

Where Did Risk Week Go?
Apr 5 (apology)--
Two more "risk" articles sit unedited on my computer. I was sure I'd get them completed, but all sorts of strange things have conspired against that for the time being.

It seems I'm in a strange time warp. I ended last week at my Alma mater meeting giving a keynote speech to university students. In the process I got a little too inspired on some side projects (don't worry, those projects would eventually benefit this site's readers, too, perhaps in dramatic ways). Meanwhile, this last weekend was also the 30th anniversary of something significant that I did in the past: the Osborne 1. So I also ended up giving interviews and dealing with press that I wasn't expecting (I'd forgotten that it's been 30 years since the Osborne launch). See, for instance, this article.

This week I'm busy shooting, hopefully filling some holes for many projects, including some lens reviews, so it's not that I'm neglecting you, dear reader, it's that I just got in an unexpected time crunch. The rest of Risk Week should pop up next week some time and we'll get back on a more regular schedule again.

Risk Week
Mar 28 (commentary)--
I've just posted the first of several articles on minimizing risk in your imaging pursuits. Originally I had intended this series to begin two weeks ago, but the Japanese earthquake and tsunami made me decide to postpone the series. I didn't want to look as if I were insensitive to the greater suffering those events caused.

Still, it's a timely topic. We all encounter and have to deal with risks, and rather than wait until catastrophe strikes you, it's better to have a plan up front and act on it before disaster strikes. Today's article--which I had written prior to the Japanese earthquake--is about the risk of losing images. I'm sure that there are some Japanese who lost their precious images. Indeed, NHK TV had a featurette this past week on just that subject. Apparently the Self-Defense Force is collecting any photograph they find in the rubble while looking for victims and saving it. And people are indeed finding their lost photos in the SDF's collections. But those are printed images. What happened to the ones on their computers?

Today I'll address how to make sure the digital bits of your images get preserved from the moment you capture them to after a big disaster. I'll address other elements of "risk" in photography later in the week.

Mar 28 (news)--
Aperture and Nikon View both got minor bug fix updates last week.

Flash Wish List
Mar 25 (commentary)--
I've just posted another wish list using B&H's sytem. Because of the tight limits for notes in their system, I thought I'd better explain this one a bit more.

First, this is an incomplete list. Obviously missing are flash units ;~). Please note the name: Flash Accessories. This list is merely some flash accessories I've used that I find useful. Let me explain the basics:

  • Pocket Wizards. The new PW system is a very welcome update. Basically it's a radio version of Nikon's wireless TTL system (Nikon's own system uses infrared light detection). Yes, I've tried Radiopoppers, and they work, but they're a little bit of a kludge. The new PWs are nicely designed, small, and work pretty much as advertised. They have some other benefits you'll discover, too. Those inexpensive Speedlight clones? Yep, some of them work fine with the PW, even though the flash itself doesn't have the wireless goodies built in. Overall, a nice update, and I'll have more to say about it later.
  • Softboxes. Bouncing wastes power and doesn't achieve the same thing as softening direct light. You need some sort of softbox in your Speedlight kit. Both these work decently.
  • Other modifiers. Flash isn't just about adding light, it's about controlling the light. That means not just intensity, but also direction and properties. The Pocket Wizards help you move the direction, the modifiers I list help you control the properties. Every shooter should have a set of color filters in their kit, and the Strobist kit is a nice starter kit and inexpensive. The Flashbenders and Honl modifiers allow you to play with the shaping and sculpting the light. It helps to have a handful of these in your lighting kit. All the modifiers I list are small and portable; they'll fit in your bag even when you don't have much space left.
  • Better Beamer. I'm not a huge fan of the beamer, but if you're trying to put rim light into a distant animal's eyes, there aren't any better choices. Note that the Beamer is Speedlight specific; I point to the SB-900 version.

My full Speedlight kit takes up two Pelican cases and an additional soft case for the Lightware FourSquare kit that allows me to put four Speedlights together and outshoot the sun. So what would be a "full" portable Speedlight kit be like? Something like this:

  • Four matching Speedlights. These days, that would be SB-700, SB-800, or SB-900s. That gives you one for key light, one for fill light, one for background light, and one for back light. For close in work and single human subjects that's usually enough. For distant work or large subjects you might need more flashes ;~). Also, you can group the four flashes into the FourSquare and make one very powerful flash. While technically you don't need matching flash units, they work better with that FourSquare.
  • Pocket Wizard set. That would be one MiniTT1 for control, and four FlexTT5's for remote flash, plus an AC3 controller if you want to use groups.
  • A full set of modifiers. You need to be able to soften, reflect, bounce, color, flag, and grid your lights. You often need multiples of the modifiers because you want to do the same thing to multiple lights. I have most of a Pelican case full of modifiers. Some flash gurus have multiple cases of modifiers.
  • Holders. You're going to want to position your flash units where you want to. That's often a challenge. I've got a full set of Nastyclamps and another handful of Manfrotto's clamps. Plus light stands and the things necessary to connect my flash to them (stands allow you to use big modifiers, like the FourSquare or a large softbox).
  • Rechargeable batteries and quick chargers. Let's see, my usual setup takes 20+ AA batteries, and I've got some other goodies that use batteries, too. Note also that the MiniTT1 takes yet another kind of battery. Have backups. Have a way to get recharged quickly.
  • Background. If you're doing portraits it helps to have a background stand and a reversible backdrop cloth (you never know when someone will show up with something on that'll disappear against your selected background ;~).
  • Hair and makeup specialists optional, underpaid assistant to carry everything and set it up not optional ;~).

Lightroom Trick II
Mar 25 (tip)--
I mentioned "sharing" a catalog between two computers a little over a week ago. Some Windows users haven't been able to get this to work for them. When you map network drives, Lightroom won't use the catalog. Typical Adobe problem. That doesn't stop us old-school DOS geeks. Instead, you have to use the old MSDOS SUBST command in a command line. Lightroom doesn't see that as a mapped drive, even though we're doing the same thing ;~). For example, if you have your data on network drive X: and your catalog on drive Y:, create a Batch script to reassign those locations (text file with a .BAT file extension). In my example, I'll reassign them to M: and N: (obviously, substitute the right drives for your system). Call the text file you create to do this LRMAP.BAT:

REM >> run on startup to assign data drives for LR

That's it. Just add LRMAP.BAT to your startup items. You now can access the data on drive M: and the catalog on drive N: from within Lightroom on both computers. Just don't try to do this simultaneously ;~). (Tested on XP, but not Vista or 7.)

Nikon's Second Quake Update
Mar 22 (news)--
Nikon this morning released a second press release regarding the status of employees and plants after the earthquake. One Sendai employee has now been confirmed dead, and three employees are unaccounted for. My sincerest condolences to the Nikon staff on this sad news.

The Sendai plant (which makes FX bodies) is considered "severely damaged" and not scheduled to re-open until the end of March. The other affected plants, including the lens plant, should all be in operation by tomorrow. However, due to the many unresolved issues (power, supply chain, etc.), Nikon is unable to say when full production will resume; there may shortages of some products due to this.

One thing I should mention: Nikon has been amongst the most financially transparent of the Japanese companies. They share unit volume sales numbers that other camera companies don't, they are quick to issue statements on anything that might impact company business, they do not appear to try to hide anything about the business fundamentals. So when they issue a press release like this, I take it at straight face value: they are scrambling to restore production as fast as they can, but they do not yet know how much production that will be.

RIP Apertures
Mar 22 (news)--
Get ready for a wild ride. Ready? Really ready? Okay, you said you were ready: do we still need a set of 28 apertures all neatly spread 1/3 of a stop apart?

I'll wait a moment for those of you with pace makers to be revived.

I started pondering that question when I began using an APS sensor camera that had only two apertures. At first I wondered where the rest of them were, and then I thought about why I wanted them. Oops. Too much thinking gets me in trouble, doesn't it? Can't help it. I'm just wired that way, much to the chagrin of far too many former girlfriends.

In the film days, we used a roll of film that was absolutely fixed in sensitivity to light. While there were times when a few of us changed ISO rating mid-roll (and suffered a lot of pain and agony in doing so), most people never did that. Ever. So we needed both apertures and shutter speeds to change exposure. Sometimes you needed to fix one (shutter speeds for motion), sometimes you needed to fix the other (apertures for depth of field). Whatever you set, the other needed to balance to get a proper exposure.

But realistically, once exposure automation came along how often were we camera users setting intermediary settings? Not much. With apertures most photographers had three choices they made: wide open for low light, two stops down for sharpest results, and some small aperture (but not too small because of diffraction) for maximum depth of field. Yeah, all those charts in all those books (including mine) that gave you page after page of depth of field numbers were mostly wasted. For any given fixed focal length lens, most people only needed three small sets of numbers. Indeed, I memorized them.

The real reason why we had so many intermediary apertures was because of shutter priority. If the ISO was fixed and we needed 1/500 to stop motion, then the light would give us an arbitrary aperture opening we needed, and if we wanted exposure to be "accurate," we wanted a lot of small intermediary stops.

With me so far?

Is anything different today?

Yes. We can vary ISO. Most of us digital pros are still only using three apertures we set directly in aperture priority exposure mode (wide open, sharpest, and diffraction limit). But now both shutter speed and ISO can be moved to get the proper exposure. Likewise, if you shoot shutter priority, you can move the ISO. And with cameras like the D3s, I don't mind moving the ISO.

So this camera I was playing with was about to get a negative reaction from me for having only two apertures when I realized something: it had a built-in ND filter capability, plus it allowed me to set what were basically the wide open aperture or the diffraction limit aperture. Wide open the lens looked pretty darned sharp. So what did I need all the in between apertures for? Well, I didn't. And I don't miss them. Indeed, I get from one type of setting (low light) to the other (maximum DOF) with barely a flick. I'll be darned.

Legacy designs sometimes carry over useful things, and sometimes they just retain things that have lost some of their usefulness. If you think about it long enough, you're realize that we may not need all the apertures we've been hoarding all these years (1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22 and 18 other intermediary ones). But it's not a trivial process dropping them all, as there are consequences of messing with ISO and we do need NDs in the camera to help finesse that problem. Still, I'm not missing the missing apertures on this particular camera. Huh. Whodda thunk it?

Shh! Don't tell this to Apple! This is the kind of thing they like to discover and then disrupt an industry with. Oh dear, the Apple iStill, with Low-Light, Sharpest, and Deep Focus "apertures" only. Yeah, that'll confuse the mass market consumer ;~).

Mar 21 (news)--
RPP 4.2.1 adds and updates new TrueFilm profiles and fixes bugs. AKVIS has introduced HDRFactory, YAHP (yet another HDR program).

Your Messages to Nikon
Mar 21 (comment)--
Don't forget that I'm posting your condolences and other thoughts on the Japan earthquake on a page for all at Nikon Japan to see. You can add yours by sending me an email.

D3100 Review
Mar 21 (news)--
I've now posted my D3100 review.

Final Quake Thoughts (for now)
Mar 21 (commentary)--
We're seeing something similar in Japan to what happened after Katrina hit the US: businesses move faster than governments.

The government in Japan is still trying to grapple with all the different crises that are in play at once: debt, infrastructure damage, communication, record-keeping, people living in shelters, shortages of supplies, and the ongoing threats (shortage of power food and water in the North, possible further quakes, tsunamis, and of course the multiple ongoing issues at the Fukushima nuclear plant). Simply put, in a huge crisis like the Japan quake, even a prepared government with disaster recovery bureaucracies can't integrate information, make decisions, and get feet on the ground at a pace that many would hope for. In Katrina, there was a long delay before the US began using military resources and got private resources lined up to make direct help. Things are going to take longer in Japan, it seems.

Meanwhile, we're seeing businesses in Japan grab their contingency plans and snap into operation as fast as they can. That's ranged all over the place, from hiring buses to move employees out of the affected area to a new temporary facility to doing what Nikon did last week: move some parts production completely overseas.

It's far too soon to be making any long-term predictions about what the full consequences of 3/11 will be on Japan, let alone the camera industry or Nikon in particular. But the bottom line is the bottom line: businesses don't survive if they don't act quickly on major disruptions like this. Virtually every tech business on the planet is looking at its supply chain right now (see this New York Times article). And they're not hesitating to act where they see gaps and shortages occurring.

That alone may have a big impact on Japan, because almost certainly short term fixes to the highly disrupted supply chain will be made outside of Japan. Why? Because the Japanese government can't tell you how fast reliable infrastructure will return to Northern Japan. Indeed, the World Bank today estimated that it might take five years for Japan to rebuild. Businesses can't wait that long. Most can tolerate a quarter or two of lower financial results, if need be, but not five years worth.

Now that it's clearly visible just how vulnerable a tightly grouped supply chain is to this kind of disruption, we're back to the idea of spreading risk over more areas, not grouping it in one. Thus, it's very possible that we'll see Japan themselves doing more outsourcing and less manufacturing. You can already see that in the lowest cost items, but the higher cost ones (high-end cameras, automobiles, etc.) survived the first way of off-shoreism that hit Japan. They might not survive this one. There's opportunity in that transition, too. It's time that more of Japan's companies become truly global, for instance, and some of the decisions they're facing are a chance to do just that.

I've gotten a lot of "will the quake change Nikon's product announcements" questions in the past week. My answer to that is "for many, no, for a few, we may see some slippages in delivery." So let me elaborate:

  • Coolpix: no likely changes. Supplies might get limited at times due to temporary parts shortages, but both announcement, release, and shipment dates ought to stay pretty much on track.
  • Mirrorless: this camera is being produced off-shore as I understand it, so it's like the Coolpix in most respects. Given how far Nikon is into the release preparations, I doubt that it will be delayed.
  • D5100: this camera is produced in Thailand. The big problem for it has always been the ongoing D7000 demand clogging the plant's delivery abilities. But we'll see it soon.
  • D4: at this point the D4 hardware would probably have been locked, though not yet in production. Sendai would have been retooling for parts changes, but that plant is currently not operational. Putting a camera into production follows a fairly regular course and the primary things now would be moving everything into production and continuing last minute work on the firmware and tuning. My guess is that Nikon has two things to solve that just became huge hurdles: how to machine parts (Sendai did most of that for the higher-end DSLRs) and where to assemble. It's already been noted that the lens mount manufacturing has been moved offshore; we'll probably see more of this to solve the machining problems. The only question is where they'll assemble. Sendai does not seem likely simply because shipping things into and out of there is still going to be problematic in the time frame we're talking about (late this summer). I think that assembly will dictate when we see the D4 in customer's hands.
  • D400 and/or D800: these are the wild cards. A D400 would likely be made in Thailand, so the primary hurdles would be productivity in the headquarters R&D unit and parts supply. The D800 would represent another Sendai product, and would involve all the same problems as the D4.

Will parts supply impact schedules? Not likely that I can see for the camera bodies. Parts supply might impact how many get produced and how fast, but not likely change development or release schedules. We may see some "announce then ship" rather than "announce and ship" situations, but I'm pretty sure the camera companies need to push through the problems and keep on schedule. The expected revenue from new products is needed, even if margins drop for a time.

What we haven't heard anything about is lenses. The Made in Japan lenses (both Canon and Nikon) are made in plants in Tochigii, which is an area that suffered some quake damage (it's inland, so no tsunami damage), and which is going to be impacted by the power situation. Moving glass operations is much bigger deal than moving the camera operations, I think, so I would guess that Nikon will stay the course with high end lens production, even if it means shortages in the short term. Note to Nikon: this would be the perfect time to revisit your antiquated distribution and warranty policies. You don't want inventory sitting unsold in Country X when it could be sold in Country Y. Unfortunately, that's exactly what is likely to happen if you don't change the policy.

I'll continue to report anything I hear about changes in schedules, products, or production that impact this site's readers, but it's time for me to get back to catching up on reviews, articles, and more.

Japan Quake Update III
Mar 17 (news)--
A quick summary of what is known: Nikon has closed their FX body and lens plants with no word on when they might be re-opened. Canon has closed several plants, the most relevant one being the one that makes their pro lenses. Fujiilm has closed the plant that makes the just released X100. Panasonic has closed the Fukushima plant that produces Lumix digital cameras. Sigma reported damage to equipment at one factory and suspended operations at two others due to rolling blackouts. An Epson plant was hit by the tsunami, and three others are currently shut down due to rolling blackouts. None of the photography-related companies so far have reported loss of life at any of the affected plants. Additionally, it's now reported that some container ships, of which some certainly held photographic gear, were destroyed in the tsunami.

It's clear that it is not business as usual in Japan and won't be any time soon. While all these companies have detailed business resumption plans, the rolling power outages are an unknown--it's difficult to resume operations at some plants, even outside the areas with damage, without knowing how reliable the power service will be. Some processes require continuous power availability. It may be awhile before this situation resolves itself and the industry gets back on its feet. Every company I've been monitoring has issued statements indicating that they are doing everything they can to get operations back as close to normal as possible. Most have also donated money and more to relief efforts, as well.

I've updated my Earthquake Thoughts page with the first round of messages for Nikon Japan.

Japan Quake Update II
Mar 16 (news and commentary)--
The 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Sendai, Japan is an event that will dominate the news out of Japan for some time. Sadly, many lives have been lost, and many more have been disrupted and will continue to be disrupted in the future.

Since the quake first hit, I've received a huge number of messages from my site readers. They've asked for several things: (1) news of how Nikon has been affected; (2) ways to donate to the relief efforts; and (3) a way to send their supportive comments and thoughts to Nikon Japan.

The already-posted stories (below) have tried to deal with #1. I believe that we're not going to get a lot of significant news on that front for quite some time, as the situation in Northern Japan is still quite fluid. Rescue operations continue. Infrastructure will take a long time to restore to previous levels. The situation at the nuclear plants is ongoing and the resolution of that will further change things. Two Nikon plants are in the most affected area: the one that makes the FX bodies (Sendai) and the one that makes most of the lenses labeled Made in Japan (Tochigi). Thus, until things settle down and that area of Japan is more in a "recovery" mode we won't hear much much more about them, I think. But I'll continue to report what I do hear.

In terms of donating to the relief efforts, I'm always a little leery about the instant requests for donations that pop up after any disaster. Even the big organizations, like Red Cross, don't necessarily work the way some people think. If you donate to Red Cross here in the US, for instance, it's not guaranteed that your money will actually go towards the current Japanese relief efforts. If you want to give to Red Cross efforts, I'd suggest that you do so to the Japanese Red Cross directly. You can do so here. Unfortunately, that's not tax deductable, here in the US, so some of you may not want to do that. Also see this site for more information on charities.

Personally, I'm going to donate US$5 of every book sale I make during the month after the quake to the Japanese Red Cross (and perhaps another organization or two as I sort out who'd doing what). That's on top of my usual 2% to charity.

Finally, many of my site readers have asked for a way to express their sympathy and thoughts to Nikon after the recent quake and tsunami. What I've decided to do (thank's for the suggestion Paul) is to put a page on my site on which I'll post your messages. Simply send me an email with the text you wish posted, and each day I'll add those toughts to the page. Negative, off-topic, or hate messages will not be posted--I'll be moderating that page so that it stays on target to its purpose. The person who suggested the idea will find their message already on that page; use it as an idea of what you might want to say. There is no length limit, but do keep your thoughts on target.

The thing I like about this idea is that not only will I make sure that those I know at Nikon see it, but you'll see it, too. Nikon has many friends around the world, and it will be good for all of us to hear their thoughts, too. I know I can sometimes seem like I'm coming down hard on Nikon. I'm a perfectionist at my core, and when I see things that need improvement so I call them out. Consider this new Earthquake Thoughts page to be a small atonement for any negativity you might have sensed from me.

Japan Quake Update
Mar 14 (news)--
Nikon has issued a statement about the impact of the earthquake on their operations. Bottom line: there was damage to some equipment and buildings, some employees have been injured, and it is unclear when they'll be able to resume full production at their affected facilities. Note that plants referred to in the statement include those that make the D700, D3s, D3x (Sendai), and lenses that are labeled Made in Japan (Tochigi).

Other camera and tech companies that have plants in Northern Japan have issued similar statements. Panasonic, Sony, Canon, Fujifilm, and Sigma all have factories that are likely going to be affected by Friday's quake and tsunami, and power infrastructure in Northern Japan will be compromised significantly with so many nuclear plants shut down and power lines down.

At least two and possibly more of those nuclear plants will never reopen: once you choose to use sea water for cooling you contaminate the containments in ways that preclude you ever using the reactor core again. While news outlets are playing up the radiation potential, anyone with knowledge of BWR plants like Fujushima will recognize the bigger long-term issue is the total loss of the plant itself for power generation. Nuclear plants in Japan had been producing about 30% of the electricity (source: World Nuclear Association). It's unclear at the moment just how much of that generation has been shut down, and for how long, which is one reason why so many companies are citing power as one of the unknowns in terms of resuming future operations.

(commentary) Again, our first concern and thoughts are for the people of Japan, especially those in the hardest hit areas of the Tohoku region. When it becomes clearer how those of us outside of Japan can best help those people, I'll post information about that. Right now it is still early in what will be a very long-term crisis and rebuilding effort, and thus it is unclear what the best and most effective way to help will be. That's especially true if you want to direct your contributions towards specific areas, like Sendai (though Salvation Army has indicated that they are targeting this area).

From a more pragmatic and very impersonal standpoint, there is almost certainly going to be disruption to supply of camera and other high-tech equipment worldwide. For how long, and by how much, is very unclear at the moment, though I'm certain that the companies involved will be working their hardest to minimize that. But if you need a particular product and it is available now, I wouldn't hold off on purchasing it. In a very small way, that would tend to help the company and people who produced it recover by clearing inventory and increasing demand at the plants as they reopen.

Personally, I'm deeply saddened by the tragedy that's unfolded. I've been in contact with many of my friends in Japan, and they all appear to be fine, but this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime, never-forget events for them. I've visited some of the places that now no longer exist, and I remember them as being amongst the most quaint and pleasant I've encountered, mostly due to the people. I feel the pain they're experiencing. I think anyone that's human feels that pain. Let's all send our best thoughts and wishes to those in Japan along with our hopes for a better future for all.

Japan Quakes
Mar 13 updated (news)--
First thing first: what's happened in Japan is a human tragedy of enormous scale, and our first thoughts go out to the people of Japan. But many of you continue to ask about the impact on Nikon, so I've tried to keep up with the live TV feeds out of Japan and with friends in the area, and will report what I see or know. Please understand that there is much still chaos and not a lot of verifiable information getting out of the most affected areas, as the power, telephone, and transportation infrastructures have been severely hit.

All this is the result of the strongest recorded quake to strike Japan. This tremor hit the Northeast coast of the main island of Honshu. The 9.0 (recalculated) Japan-scale quake was relatively shallow (no more than 15 miles) and as close as 81 miles (130km) east of Sendai, and caused a tsunami that added to the damage in coastal areas.

That city name will be familiar to Nikon users: it's where Nikon's professional camera body manufacturing plant is located. D700, D3s, and D3x cameras are made there, as would be the followup camera to the D700 and the D4 expected later this year. The Sendai airport, which is not far from the plant, suffered massive flooding from a 10m-high tsunami wave that hit the coast (see this video). Initial reports said that the Nikon plant was not significantly affected, but almost certainly there are power, people, transportation, and perhaps even more issues that will directly impact the plant, even if it wasn't hit with the water. I currently doubt those initial reports, as earlier this morning I saw an aerial shot passing over the Sendai area that I'm pretty sure included the Nikon plant. That shot seemed to show at least some cosmetic damage to the structures in those blocks. Asahi.co.jp is reporting that the Nikon plant cannot reopen on Monday mostly due to lack of electricity.

In one post-tsunami image I've seen, it's clear that the water did not get to the plant (it's under the cloud in the upper left in this shot, but I can triangulate using known buildings and the water line doesn't approach the area). According to NHK, power has been restored to some parts of Sendai, but there's also heavy devastation in the area between Natori where the plant is located and the coast (see this Terra satellite comparison). In an area south of where the Nikon plant is, there's this before/after comparison (Natori is above and to the left of where this pair of images show). Here's another interesting set of before/after comparisons of places near the plant. This devastation certainly has had to directly impact some Nikon Sendai employees, and they have our sympathy and condolences for their losses.

If you're interested in seeing the Nikon plants most threatened by the quake, type "277, Aza-hara, Tako, Natori, Miyagi, Japan" into Google maps. That's the Sendai plant. Google maps doesn't recognize the lens plant factory address, but you get to the region by typing "Midori, Otawara, Tochigi, Japan" and then look at the top entry. Another map put together by one of my readers (thank you) with locations of where key videos that are circulating on the net were taken.

Sigma's COO tweeted that there was damage to machines and faciilities at their Fukushima Aizu factory, but no injuries or casualties. He later tweeted that they hope to resume production next week some time.

If you'd like to see just how many large scale earthquakes are happening in the area, the USGS maps this and you can see that here. As I write this, the threats to the area clearly are not over, as there have been repeated 5+ and 6+ magnitude quakes, including one at 6.8. The current prediction from Japan's geological experts is that there is more than a 70% chance of another quake as high as 7.0 in the next week. Since these are happening close to coast, the tsunami threat is also still present, though the overall warnings have been dropped at the moment. One geologist interviewed seems to think that the quake actually put more stress on other areas in the zone, which would mean continued quakes for awhile, and doesn't rule out the possibility of another very large one. The biggest worry about the plate structure off the coast of Japan is south of the area where these quakes are occuring, and much closer to Tokyo itself.

Again, our sympathy and support goes out to all those who have had their lives impacted by this event. I'm sure that the entire camera-using community is thinking of our camera-making friends and wishing them the very best in this tragic situation. When things settle down some and it is clear how we can best help, I'll post that information here.

Interesting Lightroom Question
Mar 10 (software)--
The question I received was whether multiple users can share in Lightroom. The direct answer to the question is no, Lightroom isn't designed for multi-user access across a network.

On the other hand, many of us use a form of "networking" with our personal systems. In other words, I access the same images from my laptop and desktop systems. Remember, the photo files you have Lightroom point to aren't stored in the Lightroom database (catalog) file. They're pointed to by the catalog. It's not uncommon for photographers to have a central (or even remote) drive on the network where all images live. Indeed, I'd recommend it, otherwise your backup chores will get very complex very fast. My images live on a dedicated data drive that can be reached by both my machines. Lightroom points to those images no matter which computer I use. For example, I have one catalog file, which I synchronize between the laptop and desktop using Chronosync (Mac program). I just have to make sure that I never have the catalog open on both machines at once making changes.

News I Didn't Cover Last Week
Mar 10 (news)--
DxO added more lens support and Coolpix P7000 support to version 6.5.5. Iridient Raw Developer 1.9 for the Mac added 64-bit support, which improves performance dramatically on OS X 10.6. Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 was released.

Do I need to Comment?
Mar 10 (news)--
Email to a customer from the Panasonic US online shop about their order for GH2 batteries:

Due to a recent discontinuation of model DMW-BLC12PP from PanasonicDirect Order NXT0003991327, we will unfortuantely be unable to fulfill this purchase. At this time we do not have a similar model available, however a sub model should be available for purchase through our National Parts Center. You may also wish to investigate other vendors like www.amazon.com. Thank you for your interest in Panasonic products and we hope our new line of products will offer more features and benefits for your enjoyment.

D7000 Guide Shipping
Mar 10 updated (news)--
D7000 Guides began shipping on March 9th to those that pre-ordered them. About half the outstanding pre-orders have shipped, and virtually all of the remainder will ship by next Wednesday. We're shipping on a first in, first out process, so those of you who ordered first will get your copy first. Shipping emails are sent to the email address used when you ordered as items get packed.

Based upon the continuing order volume and how fast my printer is working at the moment, we will fully catch up to all orders coming in by March 23rd, at which point the product will be treated like all others (orders received each week by close of business Tuesday will be shipped on Wednesdays).

My apologies for the delay in getting initial orders out. I pulled the original disc out of production at the last minute to make a few more changes and additions to the book, and this delayed things by about a week from where I thought we'd be. Thank you for your patience.

Comments on Enthusiasts
Mar 9 (commentary)--
Wow did that hit a nerve! Emails started popping in about as fast as someone could have read the article after I posted it, and haven't stopped flowing in since. A few things:

  • I'm going to separate the article out into a separate article with its own URL when it falls off this page. The reason will become clear later when I add one of your suggested thoughts to it.
  • Why didn't I include the 17-55mm DX instead of the 16-85mm? A few things: first, I think 16mm is important for that market now. 24mm equivalent is better than what works out to be 26mm+ equivalent. Second, the 17-55mm DX seems like a pro lens in all respects. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but... Third, based upon my surveys the Nikon DX enthusiast is buying the 16-85mm instead ;~).
  • On a similar vein, the old 50-135mm f/3.5 Nikkor isn't all that far off the mark for what DX needs, and it's a good lens. But buying used to solve a problem isn't for everyone.
  • And what about the recent 16-35mm f/4G? Well, it's got the right focal length range for a DX mid-range zoom (24-52mm effective), but it's a big lens to hang off the front of a DX body and that f/4 part isn't optimal.
  • Several people correctly pointed out that Pentax is already there. To illustrate that, I put together a Pentax Enthusiast list to show you how it goes together. Price for the whole kit? ~US$4300. Pentax, like Nikon, has always had a high enthusiast component in their mid-to-high range sales. Unlike Nikon, Pentax seems to have produced the right lenses. So why doesn't Pentax do better? The whole transfer to Hoya didn't help confidence in the brand, especially since Hoya executives haven't exactly expressed confidence in the brand themselves. But there are more components to Pentax's current position than just that. One is dealerships, which have eroded. Another is marketing on point and in people's faces, which isn't happening. You can make the right product, but if no one knows about it and can't get it in their hands to check out, they don't buy it.
  • Enthusiast brands? Historically: Leica, Nikon, Pentax. Add: Minolta, oops, I mean Alpha, no I mean Sony, somewhat less so. Canon is probably the least enthusiast-heavy in terms of percentage of users, though Canon's sheer volume means that there are still a lot of Canon-wielding enthusiasts. But my point would be that the Leica, Nikon, and Pentax brands were built on the enthusiast market as much as the pro market. When Leica re-connected with their users with the M8/M9, they were re-embraced. Where's the FM2 embrace?

Mar 8 (commentary)--
My State of the Camera Week article set off a number of discussions amongst me and my readers, and so I want to try a slightly different take on the subject. Let's look at the interchangeable lens camera market a slightly different way: we have consumers, enthusiasts, and pros.

In a perfect world, mass market consumers would buy mirrorless, serious shooter enthusiasts would buy DX, and working pros would buy FX. As it turns out, some consumers tend to overbuy (D3s!), some pros want smaller, lighter, but still flexible cameras (GF1 only better), while enthusiasts tend to split between all three camera types. I see enthusiasts who want to travel light looking at mirrorless, enthusiasts who want performance without price looking at DX, and enthusiasts who have pro aspirations using FX.

Thing is, Nikon has the consumer market covered (and who says I never say anything positive about Nikon? ;~). There's absolutely nothing wrong with the D3100, D5100 (when it gets here), and D7000 and the lens sets that are available when looked at from the pure consumer level. Consumers tend to like all-in-one or minimal lens sets and will give up aperture specs for size, price, and convenience. Nikon has lenses out the wazoo for those customers, now in both DX and FX forms. What Nikon yet has for the true mass market consumer is a smaller, lighter system (e.g. mirrorless), but that's coming too.

At the pro end, things are reasonably healthy, too. Pro FX shooters have a wide selection of current and legacy lenses from which to select, and there's little that they're left wanting for other than some much-overdue updates of some key lenses and perhaps a smaller, lighter body choice.

It's really the enthusiasts that are caught without perfect Nikon-supplied solutions, and I find this not just strange, but playing directly against Nikon's past strength. Nikons have always been highly sought after by enthusiasts, more so than any other brand. So the current lack of attention to them is puzzling.

Unfortunately, as I noted earlier the enthusiast plays in all camera markets: compacts, mirrorless, DX, and FX, so they subset themselves into further subsets, which doesn't help the camera makers cater to them.

Let me define who I'm talking about. An enthusiast is serious about photography. Call it their hobby, their avocation, their second love. They seek quality and direct control. They're not afraid of raw, and in fact embrace it. They shoot regularly, and indeed often plan trips and vacations around photography. They tend to have plenty of disposable income to spend on photography, and they tend to be older in age and mostly male. Most have film experience with SLRs. The big problem for camera makers right now is that this group has become amongst the least loyal. That's because no maker is quite serving them well, so the enthusiasts sample and switch looking for "the right system" all the while driving plenty of word of mouth dissonance into the rest of the camera maker's attempts at marketing.

At the core of an enthusiast's desire are a camera that is relatively small and light, highly competent in performance, lets the user be in direct control of about 10 key settings without taking the eye from the viewfinder or the finger off the shutter release, and has a strong base set of key high-quality lenses they desire.

Such a core enthusiast product set doesn't exist in mirrorless, it doesn't exist in DX, and it doesn't quite exist in FX, either. Pieces of the puzzle exist in all these areas, but not the full set. For instance, on the lens side we need five basic lenses at the heart of any enthusiast's system. In DX that would be a 16-50mm f/2.8 and 50-135mm f/2.8 (that's 24-70, 70-200 equivalent), plus 16mm f/2, 35mm f/2, and 60mm f/2 primes. I pick DX for this because they form the largest group of enthusiasts.

Look how the DX-based enthusiast gets there today: 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6, 70-200mm f/2.8, ??, 35mm f/1.8, and 50mm f/1.8D. A smorgasbord of not quite right pieces. The main zoom is variable aperture and a bit slow, the telephoto zoom is a bit long (and thus bigger than desired for the camera platform), one prime is missing in action, one is dead on, and the other comes from the FX lineup, is a little short, and doesn't exactly fit perfectly. In short, the DX user can kind of get there by cobbling a bunch of things together, but there are compromises. (Before I get bunches of emails: note I wrote "core set." I'm not saying enthusiasts don't need or want other lenses--they do--but overall most tend to want a strong traditional base set from which to build their system. They prefer compromises to the extended choices, not in the base set.)

The FX enthusiast picks a D700 body, the 24-70 and 70-200mm, and gets a set of expensive f/1.4G lenses to fill out the prime slots. It can be done there, and there are some intriguing alternatives (16-36mm and 24-120mm f/4) to consider, as well. The FX enthusiast can and does dip into the supply of older f/2.8 primes, too. But they also end up with a fairly large and heavy system.

In mirrorless, Sony and Samsung aren't close to there yet for the enthusiast group. Even m4/3 has its problems: there's no reasonably fast aperture, high-quality zoom set, though we've got 28mm, 35mm, 40mm, and 100mm equivalent primes. Not quite on mark with the primes, yet still a promising start. But where are the constant, faster aperture zooms (12-35mm, 35-100mm)?

In short, this site tends to cater to enthusiasts, less so to pros and even less so to mass market consumers. Thus my comments in State of the Camera Week were mostly slanted towards the under-served enthusiast group.

Knee in Sight, Fire!
Mar 7 updated (commentary)--
So just how does a camera company shoot itself in the knee, crippling itself? Witness Panasonic the Pathetic.

The GH2 was announced in September 2010 to much fanfare. Here in the US, it wasn't until January that someone who got into the front of the line for it managed to get one, and even today you'll be hard-pressed to find one. During this time, Panasonic has been on/off with dealers, including big outlets like Amazon, as to if/when/whether/how many cameras they would get, resulting in preorders that got cancelled on top of everything else. So we're six months in and essentially nada in terms of cameras and a disgruntled set of expectant customers. Consider that a shot in the foot.

But that's not the worst part. Let's say that you actually managed to get one (I have). The problem you now face is that you can't actually use it for production video. Why not? Because you can't get replacement batteries. Panasonic, in all their infinite wisdom has this knack of changing batteries with every camera update and using security measures in the battery to keep cloners at bay. Not that this is doing Panasonic any financial good, as you can't get an extra battery from them, either. Nor has this practice stopped cloners. It just slows them down, so you'd think that Panasonic would want to be supplying batteries early and often. But no, someone didn't think that through. And AC power? "Not specified by manufacturer" appears on most Internet sales Web sites, even though a DMW-AC8PP is listed in the manual. Apparently Panasonic hasn't even informed many of their sales outlets about whether an AC accessory is forthcoming.

So what the heck, lets go to the US Panasonic online ordering site, which is promoted in the manual. Surely Panasonic USA must have these parts, right? Well, first you must know the part numbers (curiously, searching on GH2 produces no results ;~). Aha! entering the right part numbers brings them up and you can add them to your shopping basket. Of course, when you click the next button--Verify Availability--you end up with…you guessed, your cart being emptied because the parts aren't available. Knee in target and now shot.

In my testing, the GH2 is the best of the video-enabled DSLRs on the market at the moment. It produces clean, well detailed video, and even cleaner video if you elect to use the direct crop feature (at the expense of another crop, putting you at a bit more than 4x). The autofocus is usable in most situations. Only problem is, you'd better be doing very short videos or you need to be able to take time outs to recharge the battery, because right now that's all you've got: one battery. Unfortunately, I have a video project that is starting now, so I've switched from using the GH2 to another camera for it. See the problem now, Panasonic? No? Fire again!

Obviously at some point Panasonic will get around to shipping necessary accessories. Let's hope that's before someone else builds a better video-enabled DSLR, because if it isn't, then the whole GH2 experience will be a painful one for Panasonic. What's next, shooting oneself in the hip?

Thing is, Panasonic knows how to do this right. The AG-AF100 is the GH2's professional uncle of a camera, and guess what, the camera itself and batteries for it are available and have been pretty much since that camera first shipped. Ah, so you don't really want us to buy GH2s, do you Panasonic? Excellent shooting. Full marks.

NRINO comment: Extra batteries lagging the D7000 by a week look pretty darned good. Way to go Nikon!

Update: Panasonic US now appears to take an order for the back-ordered part. Meanwhile, folks in Europe report that there are batteries available there and have offered to get one for me (of course, that works out to a cost increase of 23% even after paying local taxes). That wasn't my point. I'm starting my latest video project now, so I had to make choices based upon what's available to me now. And that's not going to work with a one-battery GH2 at the moment, unfortunately. Like many pros, I dislike trying to intercut mismatching camera footage, as you end up spending too much time in post trying to get colors and contrast to match across cuts. So once you start shooting with one video camera, you tend to stay with it. What I'm pointing out is the reality of the situation today. And I'm not the only one that's come to the same conclusion.

Oh, and one more thing: the GH1 and GF1 shared a battery, which was nice. The GH2 and the GF2 do not share a battery, so Panasonic definitely took another step backward there.

Camera Week Wrap Up
Mar 5 (commentary)--
I have more to write about in terms of the state of the camera industry. I haven't covered sensors, distribution, or company/industry financials, and that will come in another "week" soon. But I need to post some gear reviews and discussions first. However, before we leave Camera Week I wanted to make a few final comments and responses.

I originally started to write this series solely about the overall State of the Nikon Shooter. But about half-way into it, I realized that it needed more context than just purely Nikon, especially since mirrorless is currently the area that's growing the most and Nikon is expected to enter that area soon. My ucpoming State of the Industry Week hopefully will fill in the missing thoughts that aren't in the Camera Week series, which summarizes things from the shooter's viewpoint.

Some people thought I was hard on Nikon (or their mirrorless camera of choice). There are two schools of thought here. The first is that "photographers aren't restrained by the current offerings." Behind this notion is that the current state-of-the-art is good enough, that the current choices let a creative and productive photographer do pretty much anything they desire. In one sense, that's true. If you need to shoot in low light levels, a D3s and the available really fast lenses will work just fine. If you need exceptional reach with wildlife, the D7000 and the 500mm work well. If you need a small DSLR, the D3100 is pretty capable and fits the bill.

But this notion falls apart for most photographers, who have to pick one body and then apply it to multiple types of shooting. It's one of the reasons why I didn't write one article covering everything simultaneously, but broke things down into distinct camera groups (DX, FX, mirrorless, compact). If you can only afford (want) one camera, once you make a choice of that camera, you find that there are indeed gaps in things that you can do and lenses that fit your need. Of course, if you're a well-heeled pro that can afford a full outfit, you have no problems with getting a D3s for low light and action work, a D3x for studio and high resolution work, and a D300s for portable reach. And a full set of lenses to cover all possibilities. But that doesn't define most users.

I actually asked the question of a subset of my site audience recently: for the camera you've chosen, do you feel there are things you can't do, either because of missing features or missing accessories and lenses? The answer was overwhelmingly yes. When I further asked what those things were, the answers mimicked what I wrote about in my article, which hadn't been published yet. So I'm pretty sure that Nikon's customers are seeing gaps that aren't being filled. And third parties aren't always filling those gaps, either, which is another story for another day.

But the second school of thought here is the one I tend to use in writing about where we are: what could/would we have if the company/customer relationship were operating at peak efficiency? The answer is that we don't have a full system. FX comes closest, DX is not nearly close to being a full system (despite now being 12 years old), and we're all expecting Nikon to add a third (mirrorless) system soon, which is likely to be incredibly unfull at introduction while competitors are filling out holes in their mirrorless systems reasonably well. One point to ponder is this: if Nikon can't completely fill out two systems in 12 years, what's the likelihood they'll do so when adding a third? Or that the third system will be close to filled out any time soon?

Thus my tough prognosis comments.

Anyone that reads this site regularly knows that I encourage people to minimize and try operating without. Grab two primes and go out and shoot for a day. You'll find that you see differently and can make great shots without a bag full of zooms. Nevertheless, what we're being sold by camera makers are tools that are systems. Incomplete systems. Systems with missing features or abilities. Systems that don't always integrate well. Systems that are in constant change at one core aspect (sensors) of which the camera makers are driving so that they obsolete what we bought last time (e.g. your old DSLR needs to be replaced).

We're currently in a stage where the camera makers are going to find the same thing that the personal computer CPU makers found years ago: just upping the specs at the core--in the case of CPUs, clock speed, in the case of sensors, megapixels--has diminishing returns and eventually market growth goes away because no one perceives a real need to buy the new to replace the old. It doesn't make the word processor run faster or their pictures any better. Meanwhile, the core changes take up so much of the engineering and require so much of the other components to change to keep up that systems never get fully fleshed out and completed. If you think about it, mirrorless is the netbook all over again. (Dare I say that what we really need is an iPad-like rethink? Communicating, Programmable, Modular ;~).

Finally, there's one other thing that the camera companies ignore at their own risk: perception. It isn't that a user is going to buy 64 lenses for their FX or DX or mirrorless body, but the notion that there are 64 well-chosen and well differentiated choices is indeed something that makes buying into a system easier for the customer to do. Canon and Nikon (and to a lesser degree Sony) have large legacy systems that carry over to some of their current digital systems. But new systems (APS/DX, mirrorless, etc.) start mostly fresh--legacy options don't exactly fill an exact need or add compromises that don't always play against modern bodies (no body-based focus motor, for instance).

To Panasonic's and Olympus' credit, they've created a reasonable new community of useful lenses for m4/3 in a fairly short time. Compared to Sony's poor lens offerings, it could sway a customer even if they didn't buy anything other than a kit zoom and a fast prime. Systems are systems. Full systems are better than unfull systems.

But I guess some of you won't be satisfied unless I offer an NRINO (look it up: Google "NRINO site:bythom.com"). So here it is: one thing that's easy to forget is that the serious shooter can get better results today and have more control of them than they ever could in film. Remember shooting ISO 1600 color film in 1995? Not a pleasant experience, yet virtually every current mirrorless, DX, or FX camera can do a better job. That's a very good thing about the State of the Camera.

Still, the camera makers can do better. Much better.

It's State of the Camera Week
Mar 5 (commentary)--
This week I tackled a subject near and dear to everyone visiting this site: what's the state of camera industry as it applies to Nikon users. Today, I finish up with some overall comments (next story). You'll also hear about the State of FX, State of DX, State of Mirrorless, State of Compacts and more by the time I'm through. The whole article (including the already published components) is compiled here for those of you who wish to link to it.

What About Video?
Feb 21 (commentary)--Someone asked me this weekend about why my reviews of DSLRs haven't said much about video quality. Good question, with an answer Nikon won't like: it's not that great.

If you're buying a DSLR for video, think about that idea very carefully. Yes, there's a reason why professional videographers and Hollywood have jumped on DSLRs: it's a low-cost and small package way to do things that they need done. But they're making a compromise when they elect to use a DSLR over a dedicated video rig, especially now that we've got plenty of high-quality, large sensor video rigs from the likes of Arriflex, RED, and even Sony. For a few of the pro videographers that are caught in between the consumer and Hollywood and can't afford the US$100,000 or more to rig out a high quality large-sensor video camera, it's a way of doing Hollywood-style looks without the Hollywood price tag.

Another thing driving the DSLR video craze is the fact that pro still photographers discovered that they could earn more money doing video, too. Indeed, if you're on the call list from ad agencies and even many media outlets these days, you'll find that more often than not the bids ask for both still and video components. The video guys have to hire still guys to do that for them apparently, but the still guys think nothing of saying they can do video ;~). Since the video requirements often aren't set with too high a hurdle, sometimes the still guys are right: they can do it.

But don't let all that make you think that DSLR video is delivering the goods. For the most part, it isn't. To wit:

  • Downsampling. The 1080P or 720P that's coming out of DSLRs is done by subsampling the sensor, and that means that artifacts are most definitely an issue. I've seen a large sample of them on every Nikon DSLR video implementation to date. Thin, near horizontal (or vertical) lines tend to have "breakage" on them due to sampling, for instance. Canon's 5DII has a large moire issue with video sub-sampling. By way of comparison, the Panasonic GH-2 has a mode where you can directly sample adjacent pixels (which is a crop), and the quality is astonishingly high. If you need telephoto video, the GH-2 is a no-brainer.
  • Compression. While there's no specific "broadcast standard" (after all, many news networks are running cell phone videos submitted by viewers), it's commonly understood that networks shoot for about 48Mbps in the video master. The best DSLR videos of the bunch manage about half that. The worst are one-quarter that or less. Since the compression is usually baked into the imaging ASIC, there's no real way to increase that, though the Panasonic GH1 hacks can get you closer. On the Nikon DSLRs, you're stuck with what Nikon gave you, which is pretty bad Motion JPEG on all the earlier DSLRs and better on the D3100 and D7000. But not "broadcast quality" IMHO.
  • Audio quality. Even though the D7000 records at a CD-quality sample rate, the microphone (internal or external) has to go through the D7000's pre-amps, which are decidedly low quality. Moreover, you're got very little control over the levels, so most people end up using external pre-amps, too. Still, what gets recorded by the camera is lower quality than the same thing from my standalone dedicated digital recorder. Which means, of course, that I do the Hollywood thing sometimes and record audio separately from video, then combine them later in post.
  • Rolling Shutter. The jello and leaning problem on fast motion is minimal but still present on the D3s and D7000, excessive on the D3100, and in between on the D90, D300s, and D5000.
  • Missing formats. At a minimum a video camera should support 720P/1080P at 24, 25, and 30 fps, and preferably also 60 fps. We seem to get different subsets of that on different cameras, for reasons that are totally unclear. What Pentax is thinking doing only 25 fps is bizarre to contemplate.
  • Terrible autofocus. While Nikon touts that there's autofocus in video on the D7000, it's not usable in my opinion. And the other Nikons? Not even worth trying. Every Nikon engineer should be forced to work with the GH-2 and the 14-140mm lens for a week. They'd be shamed into fixing their problem.
  • Limited manual control. Yes, we know the camera companies are using ISO to finesse exposure in manual mode, but not being able to change apertures during recording and not having really good control over both aperture and shutter speed for video is frustrating. You can jump through hoops to sort of get what you need now, but it's still subpar to what's desired by someone really interested in video. Nikon is especially feeling the results of using the same lens mount for over 50 years: the aperture activation arm scheme is not the best for real time aperture adjustment.

The list is actually much longer than that, but I'm going to stop here instead of boring you with small details. Simply put, we've taught an old dog how to do bird tricks, and obviously, a dog is not a bird so you don't quite get the same thing from it. But if enough people really want me to do a thorough review of the video features of new DSLRs in addition to what I'm doing with my current reviews, I suppose I'd oblige. But you might not like the result ;~).

So a couple of things. In order of best video quality to worst on Nikon DSLRs: D7000, D3s, D300s/D90/D5000, D3100. In order of best video quality and handling to worst on DSLRs I've tried: Panasonic GH2 (by a clear margin), Panasonic GH1 (with hacks), Canon 5DII, NEX-5, Nikon D7000 (a fair ways down from the best), D3s. In order of audio quality: same list in same order, except the D3s is better than the D7000.

If you really want to use old F-mount optics to capture large sensor video, in order of best to worst: RED ONE, Panasonic GH-2, GH-1, Canon 5DII, Nikon D7000, D3s. I wouldn't bother with the rest.

I've been doing a lot of video projects locally lately. I currently use two DSLR cameras when I'm doing this: the Panasonic GH-2 and the Sony NEX-VG10. If there is no light present, I'll drag out the D3s, but then I'm committing to 720P/24, which I'd rather not do. In general, I'm pleased with the results I get out of the GH-2, I can live with the results I get out of the NEX-VG10, and I don't drop down to the Nikon DSLRs unless there's a clear reason I have to (e.g., the low light capabilities of the D3s).

Do I care if Nikon does better video with a D400, D800, or D4? No. I can't see them topping what I'm getting out of the GH-2, nor do I want them to spend the engineering effort to do so, as there are still hundreds of things I'd like them to do on the still side. Will Nikon try to improve video on the D400, D800, and D4? Of course they will. They've committed themselves to go down the dead end alley (for them) and aren't about to stop until they butt their heads up against the final wall they can't get through.

Negativity Reversal Initiative Number One (NRINO): a few of you think that I can only write negative things (apparently you're not reading everything I write ;~), so I'm implementing a new policy. Every time I come down hard on Nikon I'll find something to praise ;~). Here's today's NRINO: Nikon's Intervalometer function (D7000, D300s, and D3s all have it) is great for time-lapse videos. As a bonus, the Resize function on the RETOUCH menu allows you to downsample to 1920x1280 if you wish and to batch the entire interval set, which gets you quite close to 1080P framing (still would need some trimming). But do yourself a favor and drop your original Image Size down to Medium or even Small (but keep the JPEG compression quality high). This allows you to run intervals at mind-blowing ISO levels, even on a D300s.

D5100 Near, D3000 Coming Back?
Feb 18 (rumors)--
Word from Thailand is that the D5000 replacement has been in production for a bit now, and that containers have started to be loaded. That means an announcement must be near on that camera, though I have no useful details to report. I think the only real question most of us have is whether it contains the D3100 or D7000 sensor. My guess would be the former, otherwise doing a separate sensor for the D3100 doesn't make a lot of economic sense to me. My best guess? Next week or the first week of March would be the likely announcement time frame, and it won't have a lot of fanfare, as it's likely to be just the D5100 and perhaps a lens. That's the type of thing Nikon does by press release, not formal get together. Nikon's next big announcements (I believe there will be two, plus lenses) won't be until late March or more likely early April. April, by the way, is looking like another cluttered announcement month. At least two other camera makers have targeted that month for new announcements, too.

Meanwhile, one interesting rumor that's circulating is that Nikon thinks they need a less expensive entry DSLR. I suspect some of the mirrorless models hitting as low as US$399 in closeout may be driving that. But with the NEX-3, E-PL1, and GF-2 running at US$599 and the NX100 at US$499, there's a lot of pressure at the low DSLR end right now. Can you give up a bit of image quality and focus performance for much smaller size and weight? Sure. Plenty of people are doing it. As the rumor goes, it has Nikon bringing back the D3000 as a lower-cost entry camera. I'm not sure I believe that, as that seems a little bit of a stop-gap type of measure, and I've not known Nikon to go that route. I'm also not sure how that would produce a lower cost camera, either, unless Nikon has a bunch of sensors and imaging ASICs laying around from that generation that are already paid for.

Feb 17 (news)--
Now that the Complete Guide to the Nikon D7000 is buttoned up and off to production, I'm going to open the pre-ordering process. It's "pre-order" because at the moment I'm not expecting to actually ship until at least March 9th, and I'm not yet sure how many copies I'll have in hand on the first day of shipments.

I use just-in-time, print-on-demand methods these days. If demand is too high initially, it might take a week or more to clear all early orders. The machine doesn't spit out that many 800+ page bound copies a day, after all. By taking pre-orders like this, I'll be able to keep the machines running so that I can clear first orders a bit faster than if I just guessed.

You may wonder why things have taken so long. It actually had nothing to do with my writing. The book was written by the time I left for Chile just before Christmas. First, there was the almost week-long delay in getting home from the workshop. Then the motherboard on my main work machine decided it didn't know that anything was plugged into it, necessitating a lengthy repair and restore process. And then there is something that has had me tearing my hair out (fortunately I've got a lot of it): eReaders aren't very good at reading, and Adobe's PDF standards aren't very standard.

Demand for reading my works on eReaders has been increasing over the years. I've actually always tried to support it. Early Sony eReaders had no problem with my files, for instance. But lately, well, there are some software developers that need to be taken out to the back shed and given a few whacks. Yes, I'm talking to you Adobe and Amazon.

Let's start with Adobe. Acrobat Pro has iterated several times in recent years, including the most recent version 10. Version 10 is, to put it mildly, one of the most wretched excuses for an upgrade ever made. Things moved, features went away, other features are no longer working the same, but there's nothing really new in the product other than the terrible UI. Seriously, Acrobat Pro 10 makes Capture NX2 look like a slick upgrade. So back to Acrobat 9, even though the point iterations on that have made some unwanted changes, too.

Meanwhile, up in Seattle, the Amazon programmers are all smoking their coffee grounds, apparently. Would you believe that the Kindle 1, Kindle 2, Kindle DX, and Kindle 3 (that last one is the current one) all have different PDF support? Files that work on one don't work on another. Trying to figure out what they're doing and why has been a serious time sink. I finally gave up trying to find a file format that all four Kindles could handle.

While I'd love to support everything, in the end I've decided to support only the following eReaders for now: B&N Color Nook, Amazon Kindle 3, Apple iPad using Goodreader. I'll test my PDFs on new products and updates on those three things. Other eReaders may work, but I won't be claiming that they do. Even the eReaders I am supporting seem to change constantly. Even as I was preparing the final files for production Amazon updated the Kindle 3 firmware and it appears to have changed some small things in PDF support.

Feb 17 (news)--
Apple updated their RAW Compatibility to Update 3.6 for the Mac OS, which fixes a few issues that occurred with the D7000 and P7000. Autopano Pro 2.5 has a new UI and look, a haze remover, HDR Fusion, and more. Nik HDR Efex Pro 1.1 is now available with improved memory management and a number of bugs fixed. Capture Pilot for Capture One and iPads is now at version 1.1, adding ratings and tagging. Shuttersnitch for iPad is now at version 2.0.2 and has better Eye-Fi card support, resizing, and more. Bibble 5.2.1 resolves some small issues.

Photocrati Fund Competition
Feb 17 (news)--
The US$5000 grant to a professional or aspiring photographer working on important humanitarian or environment projects is now open for applications. Deadline is April 1st, with the winner to be announced in June. No, you won't be competing with me; I'm not currently working on any project that would be right for this grant, moreover I tend to help fund grants, not apply for them.

A Valentine's Gift for Camera Makers
Feb 14 (news) updated--[A lot of people have been reading this as me suggesting the "only" or "best" solution. See my comments, below.] I've been harping about compact cameras for awhile now (my latest rants about Nikon's most recent Coolpix introductions are now on the 2011 Archived News page).

Every now and then I offer a glimpse at the product that we're not getting in hopes that some engineer somewhere in Japan will get the nerve to try something a bit different. Today I expand on that theme by adding an article on how to socialize compact cameras before they're even more marginalized by cell phone cameras. Consider it my Valentine's Day gift to the camera makers.

Not that the way I describe is the only way to "fix" low-end compact cameras, but it is a quick and to the point way. One that could probably be achieved in the very next wave of Coolpix.

Update: Many have suggested that the camera makers should just Bluetooth to phones. They could--as I point out that's a high-end solution. From the camera maker's standpoint Bluetooth is problematic in another way, though: either you (1) lose the relationship with the customer the minute the image is taken (i.e. the phone is the device controlling what happens to Bluetooth inputs), or (2) you end up having to write apps for dozens and dozens of phones and keeping them up-to-date. Of those, #2 is probably preferable, as you can continue to sell something to your customer (the app). But we already know that the Japanese camera companies aren't capable of keeping up with the minimal software they already do--keeping up with the cellphone world would be beyond their ability, I think.

Anyhow, the point the article wasn't to necessarily suggest the best possible solution, but only that a workable solution has been and continues to be available to the Japanese camera companies, and they just don't see it. First, they don't see the need for it, and second, they just don't see what can already be done. The point is this: the customer wants something that the camera companies aren't providing.

A Test
Feb 11 (news)--If you go to my D7000 review, you'll find something new in the right column. I've put together a short list of items I recommend with the D7000, using B&H's Wish List capability. Things on that list are things I've personally used and tested, and believe that a D7000 user might want to seriously consider adding to their bag. If it doesn't work or perform well, it's not on that list.

Note that this recommended accessory list works the same as the Support this Site links on bythom.com: if you click through and actually purchase any of those items from B&H during that browser session, I get a small commission from B&H. (If your browser session times out, you leave them in your cart overnight, or you put the items in your B&H wish list I get nothing.) I see this idea as a win-win for both of us, as it helps pay for the site costs while at the same time providing you some additional useful information. I've added short notes to each item in the wish list, as well.

Here's another example: my basic recommended starter lens list for a serious shooter in the D90 to D300s realm. To this list you might add a faster prime or two, or perhaps a macro lens (I'd also add a 35mm f/1.8G to this list, but B&H's Wish Lists don't allow the same item to be in more than one list). Low light shooters would want to probably pick this set instead. I'll eventually have articles describing my rationale for these lens sets, plus the missing reviews for a couple of the lenses mentioned.

If the feedback I get from these new links is positive, I'll look to expand the idea throughout the site, giving many more recommended lists (other cameras, lenses, flash accessories, etc.).

In Person
Feb 11 (news)--Keep a watch on the B&H Event Space listings today, as they'll be adding a special appearance by me on February 22nd, from 3-5pm. Update: here's the link.

Bad Decisions
Feb 10 (commentary)--While Nikon continues to grow their Coolpix sales, you have to wonder if Nikon is making the right decisions in their product line.

Nikon's brand reputation comes from the pro side of things: best technology, best handling, best image. The Coolpix designs of late reflect almost none of that: mediocre technology, mediocre handling, poor images.

Let's consider the P300. The one full frame image Nikon shows on their site at the moment is horrendous. It shows almost no detail in an underexposed shot, and overwrought noise processing that adds that liquid paint look to areas that do have detail and edges. I'll make you a wager that if we could get the actual raw data for that image that we could process it better. Of course, Nikon foreclosed on that option by not offering raw storage capability on the camera, so we'll never know.

But "no raw" isn't the only bad decision that's getting made. The P300 hits f/4.9 at 100mm. The Panasonic LX5 hits f/3.3 at 90mm. To the uniniated consumer that Nikon is now preying on, the f/1.8 versus at f/2 at the other end looks significant. It isn't. Meanwhile, at their telephoto ends, the cameras are more than a stop different, and with these small sensors, that's generally very important when it comes to image quality.

Meanwhile 240 shots on a fully charged battery seems low, too, especially since Nikon has once again gone to the "battery charger optional" route (you charge the battery in the camera by plugging the camera into the AC adapter).

The pano sweep feature added to many of the Coolpix models, including the P300, works decently enough, but 560 pixels? Really? This pretty much restricts the output to Web use, as it's not enough to print even 2" high panos on a high-end inkjet.

There's a difference between "“market accepts” versus “market wants.” The market has been accepting the Coolpix models, mostly because they're heavily advertised and discounted. We currently have B&H selling the Coolpix S3000 for US$92, for instance. There's not a lot of margin there, so the manufacturer starts thinking "we'll make it up in volume" and pushes harder. Yet the market wants better products, not more of the same crap, iterated in new colors and with a bit more sensor and lens. Over time, it'll get more difficult to make the market "accept" the Coolpix line, as the megapixel and lens pushes on top of mediocore designs start to lower the brand perception. It's a losing battle, and it means continued eroding prices and profit margins.

It's long past time for Nikon to fix the problem, at least for the P series cameras. Coolpix P1, P2, P3, and P4? Swings and misses. Coolpix P5000? Swing and a miss. Coolpix P6000? Foul ball off the end of the bat. Coolpix P90 and P100? More swings, more misses. Coolpix P7000? Fouled to the backstop. Coolpix P300 and P500? Strikes nine and ten. Five years later the inning's over. Time to fire the manager, hit the free agent market, and try fielding a different team.

G11 Killer To Be Followed by S90 Killer
Feb 9 (news and commentary)--Nikon seems to be aiming at Canon's tail lately. At least with the high-end Coolpix models. The P7000 set out to be a G11-alike, the new P300 announced today appears to be an S90-alike. Note that I didn't write G12 or S95. Nikon clearly was aiming at the existing cameras at the time they kicked off these designs. With the P7000 they didn't fully hit the mark, IMHO (see my comparison review), and I'm pretty sure that they missed again with the P300. But I'm getting ahead of myself. News first.

Eight Coolpix were announced:

  Sensor Lens Other
L120 14.1mp CCD 25-525mm f/3.1-5.8 21x 3" 921k dot LCD, US$279
L24 14.1mp CCD 37-134mm f/3.1-6.7 3.6x 3" 230k dot LCD, US$119
S3100 14mp CCD 26-130mm f/3.2-6.5 5x 3" 460k dot touchscreen, US$139
S4100 14mp CCD 26-130mm f/3.2-6.5 5x 3" 460k dot touchscreen, US$179
S6100 16mp CCD 28-196mm f/3.7-5.6 VR 7x 3" 460k dot touchscreen, $US199
S9100 12.1mp BSI CMOS 25-450mm f/3.5-5.9 18x 3" 921k dot LCD, 1080P, in camera pano, US$329
P300 12.2mp BSI CMOS 24-100mm f/1.8-4.9 VR 4.2x 3" 921k dot LCD, 1080P, in camera pano, HDR, US$329
P500 12.1mp BSI CMOS 22.5-810 f/3.4-5.7 36x 3" 921k dot LCD, 1080P, in camera pano, US$399

So what's new here? Not a lot. The P300 is the only truly new camera here, and potentially interesting if it has good enough image quality. Unfortunately Nikon once again missed the mark: no raw capability, and it uses a smaller sensor than the S90/S95. The lens gets slow very fast, so that f/1.8 really only happens at 24mm. So the S95 can rest easy: the P300 isn't going to overtake it. The P500 is just an update with more lens and a few iterations on features. The Sx100 models are mostly iterations (the 9100 an extension with even more lens than the previous 8100 top).

It appears that Nikon's method for competing with cellphone cameras is "more megapixels, more lens." Not a terrible short term strategy, but the real issue is workflow convenience. The S3100 and S4100 appear to be attempting to address that last bit: auto-sharing with social media Web sites. But what's that really mean? Yep, more myPicturetown support and an unclear "or other social media websites via computer." I suspect that Nikon is adding an EXIF tag and then updating View NX2 and/or Transfer to deal with that automatically, but it's unclear from the information I've seen so far. And why you'd only do that for two models I don't know.

Footnote: outside the US it appears that Nikon has also added an L23 and S2500 model.

Bravo Sony
Feb 9 (news and commentary)--Sony announced yesterday that they'll share the E-mount specification (mount used by the NEX series) free with any interested third-party lens makers. Finally. Someone gets that the lock isn't selling your own lenses, it's instead getting users invested in lenses with a certain mount. Sigma has already announced that they'll support the mount and is showing a 30mm f/2.8 lens.

Lately the m4/3 group has been getting all the press regarding lenses, as joining that consortium nets you the mount specs, and we now have six companies officially signed up to create lenses for that mount (Olympus, Panasonic, Cosina, Sigma, Zeiss, and Schneider).

Lens choice is one of the things that have locked people into the Nikon/Canon duopoly over the years. While other players produce a number of lenses, the sheer choice in the Nikon and Canon mounts has led people towards Nikon and Canon cameras. For the first-time purchaser who just goes all-in-one, that isn't a big thing, but the camera companies make good money hooking people into systems. And those systems have been proprietary for far too long.

It's time that Nikon and Canon dropped the proprietary tag on their mounts and divulge the full specification. Given that in the Nikon mount a lens registers itself to the camera with a "code," it's time those codes got opened up, too.

Meanwhile, Sony has updated their NEX lens roadmap. 2011 will bring a Zeiss 24mm, plus 30mm, 50mm, and 55-200mm lenses. Three further lenses will be released in 2012.

Sigma Lens Updates
Feb 9 (news)--Sigma announced two revised lenses: the 50-150mm f/2.8 with OS HSM for crop sensor (DX) cameras (adds optical stabilization and weather resistent design, no price or availability yet), and the 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 revision with HSM and weather resistent design (US$1400 MSRP).

Two previously announced lenses, the 120-300mm f/2.8 OS HSM and 150mm f/2.8 Macro OS HSM now have release dates and MSRPs: US$4700 and late February for the former, US$1600 and late March for the latter. (Remember, these are suggested retail prices, not street prices.)

Finally, another new lens is planned: the 105mm f/2.8 Macro OS HSM. No price or availability was announced.

Camera For Life
Feb 8 (commentary)--When I was traveling last month someone emailed me an interesting question: if I had to pick just one camera to last me the rest of my life, which would I pick?

Given that I'm closer to the far end of my life than the near, that's not a silly question, nor is it for many of you reading this, who tend to skew older than the usual teen reading blogs.

I'm not sure I have a perfect answer to the question, but I do think we can narrow things down to declare a victor:

  • Most of the consumer DSLRs fall into a gray area: I'm reluctant to say that they could last a lifetime. They certainly weren't built with that assumption in mind. Since I know I'm abusive to equipment, I pretty much have to let the D3100 and D5000 (and all their former cousins) off the hook. Repairing them if they broke could also cost more than the value of the camera, which means that you usually just replace the camera outright. That's sort of the opposite of "camera for life."
  • Cases can be made for both the D3s and the D3x. I'd lean towards the D3s, as the things I need more resolution for I can often use stitching on. Certainly we have no problems with build quality here, the feature sets are full and useful, and the image quality on the D3s is hard to top unless you have to print really, really large.
  • But the D3 bodies are big and heavy, and that's counting more and more against them as I get older. So a case could be made for the D700 (being the closest we can get to a small D3s at the moment). All my lenses work as designed, I'd have excellent but not absolutely best case image quality, and the build is good enough to withstand my dragging cameras through the wilds with abandon.
  • If the DX lens collection were more complete and had all the alternatives I ever needed, I could consider the D7000. But it doesn't so I can't. But perhaps some of you can. The D300s doesn't make the cut because it struggles as you bump the ISO.
  • The m4/3 bodies and the NEX-5 hold promise, but aren't there yet. The m4/3 bodies don't hit high enough on the image quality bar to be my "sole" camera, and the NEX-5 lacks lenses (see D7000).
  • The Leica M9 appears tempting at first, but I think I'd miss telephoto options, really low light shooting, and getting things framed exactly right in the field.
  • Virtually all of the compact cameras just compromise image quality in ways that would annoy me for my "only" camera.

So, given the current situation, I think my choice would be a D700. Curiously, that's one of my cameras that I use the least. That's mostly because for any given purpose I can find something else in my gear closet that will get me where I want to get just a little better. But if I had to pare everything down to one, the D700 would be right near the top of my list as the jack of all trades.

I know a lot of you reading this think similarly. The D700 has proven to be one of Nikon's most popular serious cameras since the minute it first appeared, and with a modest reduction in price has stayed that way right through to today.

We'll find out how Nikon decided to update the D700 within a few months. I have to wonder if we'll still think of it as being the jack of all trades and the right balance for a one-camera user or not. Just adding pixels isn't going to work.

An Ad Tells All
Feb 7 (commentary)--Sometimes corporate think is revealed in interesting ways. Consider NikonUSA's Valentine's Day ads, which have a headline for the Coolpix P7000 that reads "Serious shooters have never been known to travel light. Until now."


First, this seems like an outright admission that the P6000 didn't appeal to serious shooters. Oops. Second, it explains why we're getting two-pound cameras at the serious end: because Nikon doesn't think we want lighter cameras. There's also a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy hidden there: if you think serious shooters only want heavy cameras, then you only build serious cameras that are heavy, and then serious shooters only carry heavy cameras. Third, the ad actually says nothing about the P7000 that would appeal to a serious shooter! (Well, okay, "stunning image quality" might, but that's a fairly empty statement on its own without support.)

So not only is the ad a total disconnect to its goal--i.e. it doesn't support the contention--but it reveals what Nikon has been thinking about serious shooters.

The irony is that NikonUSA's newspaper ads have been the primary driver of the company's sales success in the US in the past two years. No other company is doing as much consistent advertising that tries to create pull off the shelf, let alone tying that advertising to dealer incentives to increase the pull. The constant weekly drum of "instant rebates" and/or "instant savings" has worked for Nikon, but it won't work forever. Especially when it reveals your corporate angst and pysche so openly and fails to actually support its point.

Consider the line "Serious shooters can now travel lighter than ever" versus what NikonUSA wrote. It's a subtle difference, but one that simply says "we've extended serious shooting into smaller cameras than before" versus the implied "we've been ignoring serious shooters' requests for smaller, lighter gear."

I've written it before, I guess I'll be writing it until I die: Nikon's marketing leaves a lot to be desired. It rarely executes at the level of the best in the business, and gaffs like this one are an additional friction that the rest of the ad has to break through. Right now Nikon uses dollars to break through ("Instant Savings of US$50"). They would be more effective if the ad text truly supported the sales push, though.

CP+ Thoughts
Feb 7 (commentary)--The big Japanese market photo show starts this week, and there have been a lot of announcements and re-announcements and development announcements that need some commentary:

  • Business as usual at Canon. Canon continues to think that the name of the game is a flood of compacts and more DSLR iteration. Supposedly, Canon has one more announcement coming in the short term, and I'd guess that would have to be the 1DsIV. But who knows, maybe they'll surprise us and get on the mirrorless bandwagon.
  • m4/3 proliferates. With Schneider and Zeiss announcing that they'll join m4/3, everyone is now over excited about the format. Don't read too much into this. While it's nice to see that we're getting more independent makers into the mount, the likely prices and capabilities of new lenses is going to be specialist, not generalist. We'll get expensive fast primes out of these companies, and probably in a dribble. The announcements are more about two small lens companies looking for additional growth, not that the m4/3 mount is suddenly mainstream and going to have lots of new choices. In the end, m4/3 still has a size penalty at its core, and most of the action that will deal with that is at the sensor level. That's why we need Fujifilm to get off the pot and create a m4/3 camera with their top sensor capabilities. Ditto Kodak.
  • C-mount arrives. Why it took so long I have no idea, but Kenko has announced the first C-mount camera, though judging by the prototypes, they have a long way to go to get to production. C-mount is an old video mount that was highly popular in the 70's thru 90's when sensors were all small, and is still popular with security cameras. There's a large number of existing (and some quite good) C-mount lenses in the used market, and many of them are inexpensive. I've wondered for years now why someone didn't try to exploit them.
  • Mirrorless updates? It's not likely we'll see any mirrorless announcements at CP+, though there are at least five significant ones lingering in the background, so we may hear talk about one or more of them. The five? Panasonic G3, Olympus EP-?, Sony NEX-7, Pentax Mini (2.7x), and the long-rumored Nikon offering.
  • Nikon Coolpix. More on that shortly, as Nikon's announcements will occur later tomorrow.

The Fatal Lure
Feb 5 (commentary)--In recent days I've been asked a couple of times about accessories to make a DSLR into a pro video rig, plus I noticed a post by another acquaintance on a forum asking the same question. It seems to be the question of the week.

You won't like my answer (nor will the camera companies, who've been spending most of their engineering efforts on adding video to still cameras). The short answer is this: you can do it, but you'll spend more money making a fish that can fly than just buying a bird in the first place.

(Most, and certainly all Nikon) DSLRs aren't ergonomically designed to be held for video. That's because you need to see the color LCD, as the normal viewfinder is now inactive. Yes, I know there are some cameras, such as the GH1/2 and the recent Sony DSLRs that get around this limitation. But with them you still find things aren't perfect: video shooters have long been two-eyed shooters because they need to see what's happening outside the frame in order to anticipate changes in framing. In my video shooting days, that meant camera on the shoulder with my right eye in an EVF cup and my left eye open and not blocked by a camera partially in front of it.

In the case of the Nikon and Canon DSLRs, the minute you want to shoot handheld video you're going to discover that you want bars or a gimbal rig to hold it securely in front of you. Ka-ching. Of course, you can't always see the small, built-in color LCD so well, so you either purchase a hood for it or a larger positionable LCD. Ka-ching.

Next, you discover that the built-in mic is picking up camera handling sounds and not particularly good. So you invest in a shotgun mic with muff. Ka-ching. Oh, and the camera's audio input isn't exactly all that great, giving you a crude (at best) recording level setting and no way to monitor it. So you buy a pre-amp and headphones. Ka-ching.

The Ka-chings start adding up. Pretty soon you've spent more on making your DSLR capable of being used for handheld and remote video than it would have cost to buy a dedicated video camera that doesn't have those blind spots. To what end? Oh, right, Hollywood-like bokeh and better low light capabilities. Of course, to get that Hollywood-like bokeh you've also added an expensive fast aperture manual focus lens (okay, maybe you already owned that, though on the crop sensor DSLRs your 28mm f/1.4 is no longer 28mm equivalent ;~). As for the low-light advantage, I'm not sure that it's all there any more, as current video cameras are fairly decent. Sure, a D3s really shines at video in low light (though it will be 720P/24, which isn't exactly the highest resolution or broadcast frame rate), but it sucks at almost everything else video-wise. I'd rather spend the time and energy putting a little more light on the subject and using the right equipment.

Plus, with the Sony NEX-VG10 and the Panasonic AG-AF100 we're now seeing large sensor video cameras in the US$1500-5000 range, and I'm sure we'll see more. One only has to shoot with one of them for a few hours to see just how much kludge we're tolerating with DSLR video.

Don't get me wrong. I've come around from my "no video in a DSLR" position. First of all, it's too late: the cat's out of the bag. But second, it is nice to have the flexibility to shoot some video when my DSLR is all I have handy. But I'm not shooting video with a DSLR any more. I've switched to a video camera for video. A large sensor one, to be sure, but still, a camera designed for video. It's just a better choice.

All-in-One versus Lens-for-the-Need
Feb 4 (commentary)--Ever since Tamron first introduced a 28-200mm "all-in-one" lens in 1992, the interchangeable lens world has split into two camps: the all-in-oners versus the lens-for-the-needers. As I've been playing with the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 and 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 lately, I'm reminded that most of the world falls into the former camp: all-in-one lenses are the most popular options for DSLRs.

Nikon has sold, for example, something over 11 million 18-xx DX lenses in the five years they've been making them. That alone represents something near 40% of all lenses Nikon made during that period. Add in the 55-200mm and you've accounted for over half of the lenses made from 2005 through the end of 2010. Throw in the 70-300mm (both versions) and we've got another 1m lenses and are pushing 60% of the total. By way of contrast, the 24-70mm and 70-200mm, the two most popular high-end lenses, didn't come close to a 1m units between them. Many of the over 60 lenses in Nikon's current lineup sell only in the tens of thousands of units, and I'm pretty sure that Nikon would consider a lens that sells 100,000 units or more a "popular" lens (the 16-85mm is now over that hump).

The popularity of all-in-one lenses makes one wonder if a DSLR or even mirrorless camera needs a lens mount at all. The camera makers are essentially making cameras more flexible than the majority of the users need or use.

Of course, those same camera makers remember what happened to Olympus when they made the decision in the film days (1990-1999) to concentrate on the "ZLR", essentially an SLR without a lens mount but with a dedicated zoom (and eventually superzoom). So-called "bridge cameras" in the digital age haven't exactly proven to be mainstream popular, either. Still, when you look at the 30-300mm equivalent lens in the Coolpix 8100, you see echoes of the idea. Yet for some reason, once a camera gets to near DSLR size, the buyer wants a DSLR, even if all they ever do is slap an 18-200mm or 28-300mm lens on it.

It's easy for those of us who are serious about photography to forget just how much photography is done by all-in-oners and convenience shooters, and how much those masses dominate the thinking of the camera companies. As important and great as a D3s and 30+ specialized lenses are to us, a D3100 with an 18-55 and 55-200mm (or better yet an 18-200mm) is much more important to Nikon.

I've made this proposal before, and I make it again today: Nikon needs two imaging divisions: the cameras-for-masses division and the serious-shooter-niche division. As Leica's latest record breaking quarterly results indicate, there's plenty of money to be made in the serious niche, but you also have to have a better and closer relationship to those shooters. It's not surprising that Leica was the first to recognize that we need histograms from the raw data, for instance. Why hasn't that made it into a Nikon DSLR? Because they're too focused on the masses is my guess. Oh, we'll eventually get some more goodies (the D4 is coming, the D4 is coming...), but selling those through a company now focused on masses works less and less well the longer you do it. Nikon's setting themselves up to be sold primarily through Best Buy and Amazon and their own Nikon Mall, none of which is an optimal place to try and buy a D4.

So it's time, Nikon. Start by appointing two heads of cameras: one that takes (phone and) Coolpix through the D7000 and the all-in-one and consumer lenses, the other in charge of the D400 through D4 (and beyond) and the speciality lenses and accessories. Make it their job to get serious about doing the right thing for the two different customers.

Nikon Third Quarter Results
Feb 3 (news and commentary)--Nikon today posted their third quarter financial results (for the last calendar quarter of 2010). Overall, the company reported an increase in sales and profit, mostly due to a recovery in the Precision division's sales of semiconductor manufacturing equipment. The Imaging division was a different story: slightly down in year-to-year sales and profit, but up in unit volume, especially Coolpix models.

Nikon sold 1.25m DSLRs, 1.85m lenses, and 4.9m Coolpixes in the last calendar quarter of 2010. That represents a slight increase in DSLR sales, a modest increase in lens sales, and a whopper of an increase in Coolpix units (20% year to year). Nikon called the DSLR and lens sales "favorable results" and blamed the lower sales and profit on the strong yen. Nikon changed none of their estimates for the full year (4.25m DSLRs, 6.35m lensess, 14m Coolpix). Given their estimates, it's unlikely that any new DSLR from Nikon will ship before April. Nikon's calculation of DSLR market share remains at 33%, Coolpix at 12.5%.

Nikon's "future outlook" also called out the following efforts for Imaging:

  • Penetrate emerging markets. This refers to expanding marketing and sales in countries like India, China, Brazil, and others.
  • Improve product competitiveness. Seemingly an admission that many of Nikon's products are feeling a little old and stale. A little Sony envy, perhaps?
  • Improve customer satisfaction. No, that's not likely what you think it means. In Nikon-speak, that means products that you'll really like. The original D3 was a product Nikon believed would "improve customer satisfaction," for instance (and it did ;~).
  • Higher than market growth. The market's not really growing much, so this is really means "recover lost market share."
  • Improve profitability. Basically the usual call for cost cutting. It's difficult for me to see where they achieve that, though, as plenty of things have been pared to the bone already, including dealer margins.
  • New generation digital cameras under development. Duh. The D4 is due in August and should introduce Nikon's next generation of technologies in the mainstream products, and Nikon's mirrorless entry is long overdue.

Current exchange rate assumptions are 80 yen to the dollar, 110 yen to the Euro. Bloomberg today reports 81.7 for the dollar and 111.7 for the Euro, so there's not a lot of wiggle room for any additional drift between now and April if Nikon is to make their current quarter numbers.

I haven't yet found any statement or explanation concerning the two 10b yen bonds that Nikon recently announced (other than they've been issued). That's about twice the size of the long-term debt Nikon retired recently, so it's a curious thing. I'd have to guess that there is an acquisition or expansion plan being considered that requires a big hunk of cash (and Nikon already has nearly 150b yen in cash equivalents on hand).

Overall, other than the surge in Coolpix sales (again), not much new or interesting.

Announcements Week(s)
Jan 31 (commentary)--Nikon announces their quarterly results on Wednesday, February 2nd (in Japan). All kinds of informal reports have surfaced lately saying that Nikon has lost market share in interchangeable lens cameras during this quarter, so it will be interesting to see whether that's real or not. It's not difficult to imagine that it is: 2010 was an off-year for DSLR introductions for Nikon (only two, and both announced in second half of year), they were late in getting the D7000 into production, several key cameras (D3000, D5000, D90, D300s, and perhaps more) went out of production, plus Nikon had no mirrorless entry during that period, and everyone knows this is the new "hot" category (see next story).

Of primary interest to me is whether Nikon shows a decline or increase in DSLR unit volume for the current quarter (through their estimates). I'm guessing that what we'll see is a rebound predicted for the next fiscal quarter. That's because I expect to see at least two and possibly three interchangeable lens cameras introduced in the April-June time frame. And then another two in August. That would mean that all of Nikon's interchangeable lens cameras would be a year or less old come August. In other words, this is a year of "refresh."

Nikon generally follows their February quarterly results announcement with product announcements (though typically Coolpix heavy). It appears that announcement is set for the following Wednesday, February 9th. It should include at least two higher-end Coolpix (though "higher-end just means "P" models, not necessarily cameras like the P7000).

One final note: Nikon issued two new 10b yen bonds this month, increasing their long term debt once again. They made no statement that I know of about why they were raising this money.

Is Mirrorless Really Hot or Not?
Jan 31 (commentary)--Some things--the iPad comes to mind--are clearly so overwhelmingly accepted and adopted by users that they are a clear and definite trend that predicts the future of a whole group of related products. Other things show different adoption curves, ones that aren't straight lines up and to the right on the inevitable graphs.

Interchangeable lens camera growth has been modest the past two years. But take out mirrorless cameras, and DSLR growth has been negative. (It's difficult to verify that last point because there aren't any easy statistics to back that up--you have to do a lot of careful assembly of multiple sub-statistics to come to that conclusion, but I believe it to be accurate).

The question in my mind is how much of the mirrorless purchasing is "sampling" versus "adopting." It's clear from my surveys that there's a backlash on big, heavy, feature-laden DSLRs. Sure, the pros still love them, but the pros don't drive the mass market. More amateurs buy D3 series bodies than pros, and after doing so, one of the most common comments they have is "love the image quality, don't like the size and weight." That's true even for smaller DSLRs, such as the D300s and D700. Given that airlines are likely to start charging for carry-on weight soon, I can only see the size/weight complaints increasing.

Still, the complaint is already there and in significant volume. Every day I receive many "I'd love the same quality, only smaller" emails in my In Box. These are usually accompanied by the "is mirrorless good enough" question.

As should have been clear back in summer of 2009 when I first started experimenting with mirrorless cameras, I started out a "sampler" or mirrorless, not an "adopter." I brought an E-P1 to Africa and managed to take some very nice pictures with it. My sampling, however, wasn't to replace my DSLRs, but rather to replace compact cameras (e.g. Canon G10 at the time).

Since then, I've pretty much always had a mirrorless camera with me, as I did go from sampler to adapter. But again, as a compact camera replacement, not a DSLR replacement. Simply put: a GF2, E-PL2, NX100, or NEX-5 make for a very competent compact camera replacement, and one that has a lot of flexibility. Yet they don't yet really make it to DSLR replacement in my mind, though the NEX-5 is basically there in image quality.

I'd say that the primary mirrorless user has been a "sampler" up to this point. People are testing two hypotheses: (1) whether something slightly bigger than their compact camera gives them more performance and flexibility; and (2) whether something much smaller than their DSLR gives them enough performance without sacrificing too much other capability.

The camera makers see things differently. They see that a couple of million mirrorless units have been sold. If you're not playing in a market that sells in the millions a year, you ultimately get hurt. So we'll see Nikon, Canon, and Pentax all come into the mirrorless market, too, while Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, and Olympus redouble their efforts. These camera companies aren't sure why mirrorless cameras are selling, but that won't stop them from entering the market or further pushing their efforts. Go back and read what I wrote about Olympus original misguided marketing for the E-P1. At least they've figured out that that wasn't their target market, but I'm not sure they've figured out what is.

But consider this: a D700 is ~83ci and 35 ounces while an FM2n was ~47ci and 19 ounces. Cameras don't have to be as big and bulky as they are. As one reader wrote me: "I just don't get it. I mean what is wrong with Nikon? They were able to make that excellent FM2 and now we don't have anything that fills its place."

To me, the camera companies are chasing the wrong rabbit. What users want is smaller and lighter, not "remove the mirror box, optical viewfinder, and sophisticated focus system."

Jan 27 (commentary)--My brief suggestion (next story) that Nikon take the D3s sensor and make a small, light mirrorless camera from it along with a handful of new small primes provoked a lot of emailing from my readers. Manufacturers need to hear responses like these:

  • "I will pay whatever Nikon dare to charge for such a body. Actually, I will buy two."
  • "If Nikon could act quicker than an improved Leica M9 surfaces, I would buy one in a heart beat." (And the writer was assuming MF only.)
  • "To Mr. Kobayashi, would I buy a digital Bessa? I definitely would. To Mr. Kimura, would I buy a digital FM3a? Hell yes!"
  • "If they produce it and get it right, I'll buy it in a heartbeat."
  • "I'd buy a small mirrorless Nikon with D3 sensor if I can use my 28mm and 50mm lenses...I might even buy two."
  • "Count me in. If I can afford, I may also buy two."
  • "I'd also buy two in a heartbeat. I'll order and pay for them right now. Then I'll happily wait for delivery three years from now."
  • "Sign me up."

And they need to stop making snap judgements like these:

  • "In 2006 at PMA I was having a chat with a Nikon VP. I mentioned over dinner how they would make a killing if they only released a digital FM2 (small, even monochrome). He looked at me and said 'how many millions will you buy, because you'll be the only one.'"

As I discovered over three years ago through surveys, there's strong demand amongst the serious photographer for a small, light, mostly (or all) manual, but highly competent in image quality FX camera. Unfortunately, the traditional camera makers have transformed (possibly temporarily) into mass market product makers. That means that they'll prioritize a product that sells in large quantities at normal margins (think D7000 or lower) over a product that sells in low quantities at high margins (think D3x).

In Nikon's case, they're now selling more cameras by far than ever before (true, 10 million of them are Coolpix, but they never sold 10 million compact 35mm film cameras in a year that I know of). That's a dangerous addiction, and one that is changing the company in both good and bad ways. Leica's resurgence is directly related to the Canon/Nikon/Sony(Minolta) shift towards volume. That's exactly how these things play out in tech: as the big volume game narrows to a few viable competitors, niche players emerge (re-emerge) as viable.

It strikes me that a small, all-manual, F-mount camera from a new player is not only possible, but a relatively easy design problem. At some point, if Nikon doesn't do it, someone with a modestly deep pocket will. (For those who try to read too much into that: I don't have a deep pocket; I'm not even sure I have a pocket.) Given all the success that Cosina has had with the Voigtlander lenses, I'm surprised they haven't attempted this themselves. They've got all the pieces.

Where Are We?
Jan 26 (commentary)--It's easy to lose track of the actual and expected Nikon lineup with all the rumors and contemplation that goes on. Just a reminder about where we are:

  • D3100. Nikon's entry DSLR until late 2011 or more probably early 2012.
  • D5000. No longer in production, some still in the sales channel. A strong candidate for replacement in the first half of the year.
  • D7000. Still in short supply and should remain Nikon's top consumer DSLR until at least summer of 2012.
  • D300s. No longer in production, many still in the sales channel. A strong candidate for replacement between now and September.
  • D700. Approaching three years old. A strong candidate for replacement in the first half of the year.
  • D3s. Will be replaced by the D4 in August.
  • D3x. Probably obsoleted by the D4 in August, but not certain.

If you look at that list, you see that Nikon is likely to be quite busy this year. There are at least four DSLR bodies that need attention, and soon. On top of that, we all expect Nikon to announce their "special" camera soon.

I'm still a little concerned about the D3s sensor going away. There's nothing that really matches it anywhere in sight, and, despite the D7000's decent mix of pixels and noise, I'd hate to lose the D3s low light ability just for some more pixels. So here's an idea: take the D3s sensor, put it into a small mirrorless body, plus refresh the f/1.8 and f/2.8 primes. Voila: instant winner. A body a little bigger than a P7000 plus new 24, 28, 35, 50, and 85 primes would be a night and street shooter's delight. If only Nikon could get contrast AF down ;~).

D3100 Firmware Update
Jan 25 (news)--Nikon introduced a 1.01 firmware update for the D3100. This update fixes five problems plus adds Long Exposure Noise Reduction to the camera for shutter speeds longer than 8 seconds or when the internal temperature is "high." A couple of messages have been revised slightly.

Some Adjustment of Opinion
Jan 25 (commentary)--I've been continuing to work with a lot of compact and mirrorless cameras, including those I've already reviewed. A couple of updates:

  • Sony NEX-5. After more use, I've upped a couple of my ratings for this camera, mostly due to the image quality it produces. With the right lens (I've been using some Nikkor, Voigtlander, and Leica lenses on it) it does an excellent job in terms of pixel quality--arguably better than the other mirrorless camera options. The UI is still a bit of a frustration at times, though you learn to cope. One small new nuisance: turns out it is possible for the camera to change settings on you (despite only three buttons) without you noticing if you handle it roughly (and believe me, I do). Not nearly as bad as the Olympus E-PL1 at this, but it can still happen. But ultimately, the image quality is better on the Sony than any of the other mirrorless cameras. That means something. One small little thing to consider, though: you will need to manually clean the sensor every now and then on this and other mirrorless cameras. Unfortunately, Sony has made it very difficult to get the sensor clean to the edges due to the way the shutter mechanism frame extends.
  • Panasonic GF1. I've gone back and forth between the Olympus and Panasonic m4/3 offerings for some time. My original conclusion over a year ago was that I slightly preferred the Olympus to the Panasonic. I'm now going to adjust that a bit: I still slightly prefer the Olympus raw files to the Panasonic--I spend more time getting my Panasonic raws the way I want them than for the Olympus. But I now slightly prefer the Panasonic handling to the Olympus. This makes it an even closer call than when I first wrote about the m4/3 bodies. Better handling gets you the shot faster when you need it, so I've opted for the Panasonic over the Olympus in my shooting recently. I'd rather get the shot and spend more time refining it than not get the shot. Like the Sony, the GF1 sensor is difficult to clean manually. Unlike the Sony and it's APS sensor, you're not as tempted to get to f/11 and f/16 to preserve depth of field, and thus show the dust spots that have accumulated.
  • Coolpix P7000. Sigh. The firmware update doesn't really fix any problem other than raw shooting speed. I was actually okay with slow raw speed for a compact camera (but obviously welcome any improvement). I don't tend to be a burst or fast shooter with my small cameras. But focus is still an issue. While the camera no longer reports Lens Initialization error messages, it also still seems to get confused on focus from time to time, especially when shooting through glass. The sad part is that Nikon appears to have gotten a slight bit more quality out of the sensor than Canon did. But I'd still pick the Canon G12 first.

I've made some small changes to my reviews to reflect the above and will continue to do so. Also, I'm still working on reviews of other compact and mirrorless competitors, so stay tuned.

No End in Sight
Jan 24 (commentary)--With this week's Phase One 80mp medium format back announcement and Sony's rumored 24mp APS sensor cameras nearing, it ought to be obvious to everyone that there is no end in sight to the More Megapixels race. As I've noted before, we're in the land of diminishing returns, though. The doublings from 3mp to 6mp and 6mp to 12mp produced highly visible differences to most people, but 12mp to 24mp and 24mp to 48mp and whatever else is in store will (do) produce less visible image quality increases.

So is there an end to this madness? After all, 24mp is enough for a 20" print without compromising dpi, and how many people really go beyond that?

Again, the answer is no. High tech is a little bit mindless at times. Once you get large numbers of engineers working on refinement of a basic technology, they just keep doing that over and over. Every now and again we hit "flat spots" where the refinements don't really produce any real user benefit without something else happening. For example, in computer CPUs, just pushing the clock speed wasn't enough at one point. Word processors and email programs rarely wait for the CPU, for example--they're waiting for the keyboard, memory, or storage. Parallel processing, faster memory buses, and faster peripherals all opened up new abilities for our computers. My word processor doesn't go any faster than it did (indeed, it might be slower), but I can now have image editing, cataloging, email, databases, Web creating and browsing and far more going on simultaneously without impacting my writing speed.

We're going to see similar things happen with image sensors. Just pushing pixel quantities up means we hit limits with lenses, for example. But if we put multiple sensors behind that same lens or clones of the same lens, new things happen. Fujifilm gave us a taste of that with the dual-pixel sensors. We're going to need more of that in the future to break through image quality barriers. Ctein proposed recently using an array concept rather than pushing up a single sensor pixel count. That's exactly the right path to increase image quality, IMHO. We've been trying to brute force image quality by making better photosites, but there are alternative strategies that actually take us further, faster.

But does it matter? Do we need better word processors or better image quality? Probably not. In both cases most people are bound by other constraints: time and output. The time and output equations are why cell phone cameras are becoming so important: the collect-and-distribute equation is faster for a cell phone than it is for any other camera. By a long shot. Given that our output is slowly changing to 1920x1040 HD TV displays, just how many megapixels do we need in the future?

Yet the sensor and camera makers keep toiling at reducing photosite size while increasing performance. So this year we'll see 24mp APS/DX cameras and heaven knows how big an FX sensor (32mp? 38mp? 44mp?). Those new devices will be on the same steady linear line of progress we've seen for the past 20 years in sensors: more pixels, more efficient. But to what end? If your output is your Facebook wall, even the 5mp iPhone 4 does just fine. If your output is the news wire (photojournalism), the D3 was just fine and the D3s is sweetness. If your output is a desktop inkjet, pretty much any of the current DSLRs are fine.

The camera makers know this. That's why we're seeing the experiments with 3D (Panasonic and Fujifilm), more video (everyone), and the tweener mirrorless cameras. They're looking for traction to continue their growth in unit sales. As I've written before, I think it'll take a complete break from what we currently consider a camera to something new (communicating, programmable, and modular) to regenerate rapid growth (mostly due to replacing outdated generations of equipment, much like DSLRs replaced SLRs).

What I think will happen with those More Megapixel efforts is this: narrower and narrower niche users will get charged more and more money. The Leica S2 is a good example of the future at the top end: more megapixels, higher quality lenses, higher price. The majority of the market is going to opt for smaller and lighter cameras with "enough pixels and performance" that integrate better into their everyday life (emails, social networking, Web, etc.).

But that's in the future. The present is more of the same. After all, it worked for the camera companies in the past, it has to work in the future, too? But just like adding megapixels gives customers less and less visible improvement in image quality, adding pixels gives camera companies less and less improvement in sales and profit. Eventually they'll figure that out. Until then, the engineers will toil at increment improvements regardless of whether they're useful or not. After all, that's their job.

What's With Panasonic?
Jan 24 (commentary)--You'd think that a camera company would actually like to sell cameras. But if my experience in trying to get a GH2 is any example, Panasonic doesn't think so. Amazon ended up cancelling my pre-order. My local dealers are having troubles getting any GH2s from the Panasonic distribution channels in the US. My favorite dealer tells me that he has no idea if he'll get even one, and when. (Several people have written me about trying to get a GH2 from Panasonic's own Web site in the US and having their orders dropped or not fulfilled.)

This isn't the first time Panasonic has had trouble getting product out in the US in a timely fashion and meeting demand. The GH1 and GF1 both went through similar problems. By the time Panasonic managed to get sufficient supply into the states and distributed into the sales channels, they had to discount the product to sell it.

Nikon and Canon would be in a lot more trouble if the other camera companies actually were better at predicting demand and filling it. The current situation won't stay the same forever. You have to think that a big brand like Panasonic will eventually figure out how to sell in the US.

Valentine's Present
Jan 24 (rumor)--It appears that the D3100 will get a US$100 instant rebate just in time for Valentine's Day. That puts its price at US$599, a fairly common price point Nikon has had for its low end DSLR in the past few years. (Yes, the D3100 is advertised at that price in a few places already, but that is under the MAP price.)

Don't Believe Me?
Jan 21 (commentary)--Apparently there are quite a few folk out there that don't believe my story, or call it hyperbole or even worse. My In Box has filled with vitriol and hate, and I've been called any number of names on Internet forums. How about a report from someone who lives in Puerto Natales, posted on CNN's site? Note carefully the words in his first two paragraphs. Also note that the impact of the strike is already considered monetarily negative to the region. Or perhaps this notice from the US Embassy that wasn't posted on their site, but on a local Chilean travel site (and why was that)? Note the "an unknown number of tourists, including Americans, are unable...to travel freely." That would have been me and my group, and at the time the notice was posted, that would have been for three days that we couldn't travel freely.

Just to be clear: I'm not rich and I have nothing against the poor. I have a long track record of trying to help others as best I can. The irony of the recent situation is clear and overwhelming, though. Here I am at home where the outside temperature is 22F and my thermostat is set to 64F, but I was actually trapped by people protesting that their gas rates were going to be less subsidized while in rooms that were set to 80F (and couldn't be lowered by me) when the outside temperature was 64F. Some apparently think that sort of statement is "condescending." It is not. It's a statement of (directly observed) fact and illustrates some of the sillyness behind the protests. The protest was much more about political balance of power in the region than it was about the poor struggling to pay their heating bills. At the moment, the poor in the region don't seem to have figured that out yet, though.

Two common questions I've received need answering:

  • What about trip insurance? Most trip insurances only reimburse costs paid where services weren't rendered, and most preclude repayment for strikes, riots, terrorism, or war. The extra costs I and others incurred wouldn't normally be repaid under any circumstance, and I wasn't denied any of the services I had paid for (as we were stopped essentially on the last day of the trip).
  • Why didn't I post on my site during the situation? Not only did I have Internet access, but so did those holding me. Given that there were mild but threatening behaviors against the tourists at several times during those days, I did not want to do anything that might provoke escalation of that. Citizens of the area that were writing about the situation on the local Internet forums were hiding behind anonymous names, which told me that they, too, feared retribution.

This will be the last I write about this on my site (though I'll probably update some details in my original article, especially anything that I find out is inaccurate or needs further explanation). I'd like to now get back mostly to writing about photography, if I may.

Finally, a thank you to all of you who sent positive messages or just simple "glad you're home safely" emails. They were very much appreciated.

New Software
Jan 21 (news)--Various updates you should know about:

  • Bibble 5.2 now includes support for the D3100, D7000, and P7000.
  • AKVIS NatureArt 2.0 introduces a new effect, frost.
  • Silver Efex Pro is in the process of being updated to 2.0, and adds history browser, intelligent brightness, amplify, fine structure, selective color, vignettes, and borders.

More on the Canon "Increases"
Jan 21 (news)--It was pointed out to me that users might not actually see real price increases. So how can they be price increases? Well, deal margins are being cut. For one popular f/2.8 lens, for instance, the MAP price is US$70 more than the dealer price, representing a product margin of 5.3%. As one dealer told me: "this means that I'll be stocking fewer Canon lenses."

Again, no word on whether Nikon is planning anything similar. But the trend over the past two or three years has been to keep squeezing margin out of the dealers. The net impact is that, if this continues, there won't be many dealers left. Dealers certainly won't be stocking much if their holding costs become greater than their potential profit. One fails to see how this ends well for the camera companies.

The Internet Doesn't Always Work
Jan 20 (news and commentary)--Those of us Internet old-timers have seen the Web evolve from a nascent researcher tool that had a crude hypertext element to it to the full-fledged force it is in the world of technology and media today. The common assumption today is that things can't happen in the world without the Internet revealing it.

To which I can now say: nonsense. While it may seem that the Twitters and Facebooks and Blogs of the world will reveal all that's happening and deliver world events to everyone as they are happening, this just isn't true, and I just lived through an episode that proves this. The full story is here. I strongly suggest that you read that first before continuing with this particular story. The short story is that as many as 3000 people were essentially held hostage in a supposedly civilized nation without the world really ever hearing about it as it happened. Just so that you don't panic, I'm safe and am finally home, after a long and unexpected delay.

Since I've had (slow) Internet access off and on as the story unfolded, I was obviously using my search and Internet savvy to try to find out useful information as it applied to my personal situation. I could find some local Chilean coverage, most notably from the local cable provider where I was, but little else. The story essentially started January 7th. It wasn't until January 15th that the BBC became the first major world news outlet to even break the tip of the iceberg on the story. At no time during the crisis did the US State Department have a travel warning in place for Chile, despite the fact that I personally interviewed the local Vice Consul for American Citizen Services from the Santiago embassy, Lee Calkins, and he confirmed on Saturday that he knew of at least 300 Americans that were impacted and whose right to travel freely had been restricted.

Further to that, there's the belief that the Internet always "gets it right." Not really true. I've now read pretty much everything I can find on this story on the net (and again, there's not a heck of a lot considering the impact it had on so many tourists), and I can find small (and sometimes large) inaccuracies in virtually every page I've seen. By inaccuracies, I mean report of fact that my personal experience or research can verify as incorrect. The best of the lot seem to be a small handful of travel bloggers. I've found a couple of blogs from people who, like me, were caught in the middle, and who seemed to report accurately what was happening to them.

I hope that in the nearly 15 years I've been active on the net and the four decades I've been involved in news, media, and reporting of all types, that I've built some credibility and trust amongst my readers and that you'll view what I wrote as a clear, researched, straight shot report of what happened. But given my recent experience, I'm even more skeptical of the "Internet Brain" that people thinks exists and which everyone thinks reveals all that's happening with the world with speed and accuracy.

Again, read my full article. It's an eye-opener, and if you're considering a trip to the Torres del Paine area in the near or far future, you need to read it. Now.

No April Fools
Jan 20 (rumors)--I've heard from two different and unconnected sources now about planned advertising by Nikon for a new camera that will run in April in both newspapers and magazines. Based upon the language used, this has to be Nikon's mirrorless camera entry.

Price Hikes Ahead
Jan 20 (news)--Canon and Sony have price hikes for lenses and accessories coming up on February 1st. I haven't heard any rumors about Nikon raising their prices, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see them do so.


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