2012 News and Comments


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

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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.

So What if I Had to Pick?
Dec 24, 2012 (commentary)--
What if I had to pick the best camera or lens Nikon introduced in 2012? Yeah, some of you are already shuddering about where this is going. Let's make it easier, and separate lens and cameras.

In lenses we have seven entrants: 11-27.5mm (CX), 18-300mm (DX), 18.5mm (CX), 24-85mm (FX), 28mm (FX), 70-200mm (FX), and 85mm (FX) introductions. I can cross three of those lenses off the list quite quickly, as they're entry and consumer oriented zooms (11-27.5mm, 18-300mm, 24-85mm). None are bad, but "best"? No.

Of the remaining four, we have three primes and a zoom. While I like all of the primes, the 28mm f/1.8 has some small focus shift/plane issues you have to work around, the 85mm f/1.8 is very good but not great, and the 18.5mm is a really nice fast normal prime for cameras that aren't selling well except with massive discounts, and even then, not all that well.

So we end up with a winner almost by default: the 70-200mm f/4. So far it is looking very good optically in my testing, doesn't have the focal length breathing of the f/2.8, but...is missing a tripod collar and is fairly expensive.

That said, 2012 was far better for lenses than 2011, when I would have had to pick between the 40mm DX and 50mm f/1.8. We have to go back to 2010 to find a year with some real competition (I probably would have chosen the 16-35mm f/4 that year, though there were five other lenses that would give it a strong chase).

Someone asked me this week if "all the news was bad." Well, the lens situation says: it hasn't been a great year for Nikon fans.

But how about the body side? There we have seven candidates: J2, V2 (CX), D3200, D5200 (DX), and D600, D800, and D4 (FX). That's strong (and certainly a far cry from the previous year's J1, V1, and D5100). But closer examination reveals Nikon self-imposed issues that take away from that strength.

I can eliminate the J2 and V2 quickly: they didn't really move the bar in any meaningful way (which you'll find me writing about soon over on sansmirror.com). I can also eliminate the D5200: it's a no show where I live. The D3200 is a very nice camera at the entry DSLR point. I've long felt that the low-end DSLR wasn't quite all there in the Nikon lineup, but the D3200 pretty much puts an end to that: it's a really strong entry camera. But is it the best of the bunch?

On the FX end we have the D600, D800, and D4. Here's the sad thing: had 95% of the D800's delivered been problem free, I think it would have been a no-brainer: the D800 would have been the best camera Nikon put out this year, and maybe even the best camera they've released in the last four years. But my statistics say that more than a fifth of D800's shipped with issues through most of the year. That means that at least 50,000 people didn't get the kinds of results that the camera should deliver. Hard to say best when that many were disappointed. Especially when the company has essentially remained silent about the problem and had trouble fixing it for many.

The D600 didn't exactly inspire in that respect, either. Again, a very good camera, probably the best entry full frame DSLR to date, especially when value also comes into play (assuming you didn't buy on day one ;~). But the dust/oil controversy didn't exactly get it out of the gate cleanly, either (pun intended).

Meanwhile, the D4 doesn't really move the bar from the D3s except in pixel count. Almost all the other iteration Nikon did has downsides (XQD card, always-red AF sensors that ghost, new battery, etc.). The D3s was a great camera, which means not moving the bar makes the D4 a great camera, but again, is that enough to justify "best"?

What it boils down to is this:

  • CX -- you got one warmed over update, and one with more pixels that don't deliver more in a body that fixes the mode dial/control problem but now requires yet another battery and has an EVF that isn't as good. No best here.
  • DX -- only the entry level camera is current. That update gives you the best DX image quality in the worst DX body. If you're new to Nikon DSLRs and on a budget, you'll like that. If you're already using a Nikon DSLR, as most of this site's visitors are, you won't. No best here.
  • FX -- the lineup has been completely refreshed (if you consider the D800 the D3x substitute), and all three cameras are capable of great image quality. Yet all three came with frictions that mitigated the joy that would be generated by that great image quality. Assuming that you got one that worked right from the beginning, the D800 would be clearly the best here. Assuming that you don't mind doing a lot of extra sensor cleaning early on, the D600 is the best value, by far. And if you truly need to squeeze out a few more in focus frames a second in low light, the D4 is still a contender.

Bottom line: Nikon gave FX a lot of love this year*. Their best products were all FX products. That love was mitigated by issue after issue: supply meeting demand issues, quality control issues, denial issues, and most recently, quick big discounts that made customers who bought only a month ago feel foolish.

So was there good news in Nikon-land this year? Sure. I'm pretty happy now with my FX lens set, and I've got a wide range of choices of what to use them on. The D600, D700, D800, D800E, D3, D3s, D3x, and D4 are all darned good cameras. Indeed, in that list almost certainly is a camera that will meet nearly every one of your needs for several years or more. That's got to be good news, right?

*How much love? Check out this Nikon Imaging division video. How much DX love do you see? Note the continuum they present at about the one minute mark: Coolpix to Nikon 1 to Nikon FX pro, totally skipping over DX cameras, which outsell those last two by far. While there are a couple of DX cameras in some of the scenes, the vast majority of the examples are Coolpix, Nikon 1, and FX. Heck, binoculars, scopes, and laser rangefinders get callouts (even though they're not part of the Imaging group) but DX never is mentioned once, even though they mention the Thailand plant that makes them.

Five Things to Watch for in 2013
Dec 24, 2012 (commentary)--
While I made some basic predictions earlier in the month, I actually think that there are more important things than individual products that we need to be watching for from Nikon in 2013. The five things I'll be looking at in 2013:

  1. Does Nikon do video? With both Canon and Sony having DSLR-derived but video-specific camera lines now, just having uncompressed HDMI out of the pro Nikon DSLRs is non-competitive. The video pros are starting to migrate back to video-specific cameras. Hollywood has already migrated away from the F mount.

    If Nikon is to be a true imaging leader, they need to play in this game, and soon. The question is whether they're ready to or not. But frankly, if they don't come up with their first camera equivalent to Canon's C series in 2013, I think Nikon will be playing from behind, and so far behind, that it's unlikely they'll catch up.

    So I look for a V1 in 2013. If it isn't there, Nikon ceded the market to Canon and Sony (and a few other non-Japanese like Blackmagic and RED, who are creatively disrupting the Japanese).

  2. Do the unit estimates flatten? Each quarter Nikon updates their estimated unit volume across key lines (Coolpix, interchangeable lens cameras, lenses). Even as others have been lowering their estimates in 2012, Nikon stuck with theirs, implying that Nikon expects to grow their share of the market.

    The economic weather ahead isn't good. Japan and Europe, the number 3 and 2 markets for cameras, are in recession (okay, parts of Europe aren't, but overall I think we can say Europe is in recession). The US has yet to deal with its long-term fiscal issues so its economic future is hazy, too. Smartphones continue to cannibalize the low end of the camera market. Mirrorless growth seemed to stop in 2012 (though we still have two months of numbers that haven't been reported yet). In other words, the camera makers are sailing against the wind at the moment.

    In the last two years Nikon has looked like a growth company compared to most of the rest of the industry. Even Coolpix sales have been expanding, despite dramatic declines in compact sales overall. If Nikon doesn't start pulling back their estimated sales numbers, it indicates that they're pursuing unit volume at all costs. That has strong implications on money left over for quality control, customer support, and service (see point 5).

  3. What happens with DX? 2012 was a very FX-centric year, and we currently have half the DX camera lineup beyond its expected update cycle time. Plus only 17 DX lenses in 13 years (plus only one new DX lens each year for the last three years).

    Yet DX is the core of Nikon's interchangeable lens camera sales. No matter how you try to slice it, DX is the volume in that category. Even deeply discounted CX and FX cameras don't change that. Another year of neglect in the DX lineup should create massive concern to Nikon users, so I don't expect one. Still, there seem to be three potential scenarios: (a) DX entries continue to limp along with a D7000 replacement and a lens or two; (b) Nikon freshens the entire DX line and is aggressive about it like they were with FX this year; or (c) DX starts a transition of some sort, to mirrorless or SLT or something a bit different than the current DSLR. (b) is what they should do, (a) is what everyone is expecting them to do, and (c) would be unexpected.

    The first opportunities for DX redemption come in the big trade shows in January and February. Last year it was the D4-D800 one-two punch, with two great f/1.8 primes wrapped around it. So we shouldn't have to wait long to get a taste of how much Nikon thinks they have to do with DX.

  4. Does the lens plant reopen? Okay, that's a bit snide, but something has been seriously amiss with lenses since early 2011. Consider this sequence: 7, 7, 6, 9, 2, 4. That's the number of DSLR lenses introduced in each of the last six years. Historically, 6 is a good number to expect in one year, but we only got half that in the last two years.

    The DX lens dearth aside, Nikon still hasn't made good on an 80-400mm replacement, a long telephoto with modest aperture, PC-E lenses that orient both directions (plus a 17mm to match Canon), a 24-70mm with VR, replacements at the 105/135mm mark, or anything that approaches a pancake.

    Nikon's lens releases in the past five years have been basically: (a) f/1.4 and f/1.8 prime updates (not complete); (b) DX macro lenses; (c) redesigns and extensions of basic zooms; (d) the new f/4 zoom set; and (e) the PC-E set. The only exception to those were a DX fast normal lens and a wide angle DX zoom. From that one must conclude that Nikon thought everything was basically just fine if they managed to complete the fast primes, PC-E, and f/4 sets. It wasn't, and won't be until they get a little imagination, forward thinking, and customer input into their lens planning.

    So I'm looking to see if we get a "normal" year (6+ lenses) in 2013, and whether Nikon answers any user request (I'm looking at you, 80-400mm) or shows any imagination in their new new lens offerings. I've already left my sacrifice to the gods at the side of a volcano for more DX lenses; we'll see if the Nikon optics gods answer.

  5. Do they care about current customers? I can't begin to count the number of things that Nikon did (or didn't do) in 2012 that showed no real interest in their current customers but more interest in potential new customers. If you sell "systems," you'd better care about your current customers. After all, you probably want to sell the rest of the system to them, right?

    So the one thing I'm looking most for in 2013 is any indication that Nikon understands that many of their actions and inactions have been slowly upsetting their current customer base. Denials (or simply no acknowledgment) of quality control problems. The continued use of "impact damage" as a primary response to product problems that are more likely design defects (why is it that "tight zoom" rings on 24-70mm lenses are common, but always marked up as impact damage? Does Nikon think we're all hitting our zoom rings with hammers?). Huge discounts on relatively new equipment that the faithful probably paid full price on. The list goes on and on and on.

    Just once in 2013 I'd like to see Nikon do something that's not customer antagonistic but customer friendly. Just once I'd like to see Nikon do something proactive for their loyal customers rather than reactive. I actually don't get pleasure from writing about the things that Nikon has been doing to its customers in the past several years. Behind the scenes I've been trying to help Nikon users get satisfaction on repairs and problems, and sometimes have success at that. But sometimes I encounter things like this: I asked two different Nikon product managers two simple but specific questions at Photokina. Both wrote down my questions, took my card, and promised to get back to me. Three months later, neither have. If I can't get a response out of Nikon, heaven help the casual customer.

    So once again in 2013 I'll be looking to see if anything changes for the better in this respect. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this one, because ultimately I believe it's more important than the other four.

A Torch Passes
Dec 19, 2012 (news and commentary)--
Kodak is now pretty much out of the digital imaging business. Having previously closed down its camera division and sold off its sensor group, today the deal to sell the remaining intellectual property was agreed to by the company, and now awaits approval by the bankruptcy court.

But look at the 12 tech companies that stepped in to buy the digital imaging technology patents: Adobe, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Fujifilm, Google, HTC, Huawei, Microsoft, RIM, Samsung, and Shutterfly. Fujifilm is in there partly to protect their own existing digital imaging patents, which intersect with Kodak's. But the rest are all future-of-imaging companies, not existing digital camera companies.

Those camera and software companies that are licensing Kodak patents (or should be ;~) will now be paying their tithe to Intellectual Ventures, which is acquiring the existing licenses and the rights to those licenses outside the group of 12 I noted earlier. That would include Canon, Nikon, and Sony, amongst others.

The camera companies are now in much the same position as the old IBM PC cloners were in the late 80's and early 90's. There, Intel and Microsoft (the Wintel IP) drove the industry, so the hardware makers sought customers by cutting costs and profit margins and drove themselves to the bottom (and for many, eventually out). Remember Dell? Their disruption was to remove the middleman in sales, not necessarily to build products that were highly distinguished in IP from others.

As I've pointed out many times in the last seven years, the camera companies are boxing themselves in. They will need a real disruption to change their fate. So far, I see no evidence that they fully understand that and have a plan for reinventing themselves. Iteration only takes them so far, and the market dynamics have already shifted away from cameras being the primary image takers in the world.

The thing that saddens me is that I see evidence that the camera companies are getting less customer friendly. It's not just Nikon, though they certainly have been on a tear recently with policies and non-policies that impact customer service. I hear it about other camera companies too, as they tighten their budgets and try to drive costs out. The end result is that this just accelerates the race to the bottom, as price and more rapid iteration start to become the only things that differentiate.

I've written before that the digital camera industry is ripe for a Harvard MBA school case study. Turns out, that's happening. Today's news is just another piece of the puzzle that future MBA students will look at to try to figure out what the companies should have done.

The Question Not Being Asked
Dec 17, 2012 (commentary)--
Okay, here's a quick question: if you're a loyal Nikon user thinking about moving up, did Nikon do the right thing for you by offering the D600+lens discount, but no new body-only discount?

Put another way, there are three groups who look at the D600+lens discount in different ways:

  • New to Nikon — body, lens, great deal.
  • DX User Moving Up — body, great. Lens, maybe.
  • Long-time Nikon User — already has plenty of lenses, including some from pre-digital days.

So just who is Nikon showing love to? Its current customers, or someone else?

Obviously, Nikon made this offer hoping to hook some non-Nikon users. I'll bet they mostly hooked existing Nikon users, though. Which brings us to...

The Free Lens Continues
Dec 17, 2012 (commentary)--
With the US instant rebate of US$700 on the D600+lens kit extended through December 29th, the conspiracy theorists are all out in force. Herewith, the top 5 conspiracies:

  • #5 -- NikonUSA was assigned to play secret Santa this year for well-heeled DSLR purchasers. Ho, ho, ho, free lens, Happy Holidays!
  • #4 -- Someone mistook a "2" for a "7" in the handwritten notes and managed to print hundreds of thousands of fliers with the error before it was noticed. Hiring a copy editor and reprinting the fliers would be more costly than the extra discounts, so...
  • #3 -- Nikon is certain that the US will go over the Fiscal Cliff on January 1st, and wants to unload all its inventory before the US economy comes to a complete halt. Corollary: Nikon will go on vacation for the first three months of 2013.
  • #2 -- The glass plant had lots of extra material sitting around from all the DX lenses they decided not to release, so they just put it into 24-85mm VR lenses. Of course, demand for such lenses wasn't terribly high, so the new no price is a bleed-off of inventory.
  • #1 -- Nikon believes that the world will end when the Mayan calendar does later this week, and is hoping that by pushing out a lot of extra cameras with lenses, the last great Instagrammed photo documenting the moment just before the end of the world will come from a D600 (or a V1). Plus Nikon should have a workflow solution for getting images to Instagram easily sometime in 2013...oops.

(Don't believe that there are these conspiracies being talked about? I've already received variations of the last four from site readers.)

So what's the real reason? Hard to say for sure, though it's probably a combination of trying to make quarterly numbers and balancing inventory load, along with what I mention in the next article: attracting non-Nikon users. The D600+lens kit and the V1 kits are essentially off-the-charts deals at the moment. You don't make such offers unless you're 100% committed to moving product at the expense of product margins.

Why? Because in both cases Nikon is seriously hurting product margins for new product. Take the V1, for example. The inventory sell-off there forced Nikon to introduce the V2 with an instant rebate. Even with that rebate, the V2 isn't exactly setting the world on fire with its sale rate (#3193 in Amazon Top Camera & Photo sellers list at the moment). Essentially, dumping V1's at US$300 means that no one wants a V2 at 2x+ the price. So the short term sale of the V1 (#293 in the Amazon list) has reduced the long-term value of the V2 in the lineup. Everyone will just wait for the V2 fire sale now.

In the case of the D600, note that US$700 discount is only with the 24-85mm lens. Remember, that lens has been on the market for months prior to the D600's release. Thus, one has to again assume that Nikon overbuilt 24-85mm lenses and is trying to re-balance the inventory. The problem here is that they've essentially created a month where you can buy a D600 body or D600 body plus lens for the same price. Which one do you buy? Obviously, the kit (and looking at in stock status late on Sunday seems to indicate that's exactly what happened).

But in pushing the kit, Nikon has devalued the body. There are a ton of 24-85mm lenses on eBay already. The lowest Buy it Now I found in a quick perusal was US$300, so let's be conservative and say that you can unload the lens for US$250 (by the way, it would be a bargain at that price--it's a pretty good lens and very well matched against the D600's capabilities, and certainly would make a good DX lens for those that don't need very wide angle in their mid-range zoom). Thus, you could buy the kit, unload the lens, and end up with a D600 body for essentially US$1750. So why would you buy a D600 body for US$2000 (the current price)? You wouldn't.

So what happens next is that D600 body-only boxes pile up in inventories everywhere this month while body+lens kits sell. Come January when the rebates expire, we next have a D600 body only inventory problem to deal with (and only a couple of months into its availability). Put another way: what would you pay for a D600 body in January? US$2000? Then why didn't you buy it in December and get a free lens?

For the customer, these deals are good for the short term. Get 'em while they're hot.

Untimely Information
Dec 17, 2012 (commentary)--
Today, Nikon Message Center popped up with a message about a new software update for me: Nikon View 2.6.0. Only one problem, that update was actually issued about 45 days ago when the V2 was launched. Apparently Nikon's message clock is running just a little slow.

The FX Sales Begin
Dec 14, 2012 (news & commentary)--
As I warned earlier this month, if you were in the mood for a Nikon FX DSLR, Nikon was planning some mid-month changes that are significant. It's mid-month, and here they are.

The D800 body now has a US$200 instant rebate (and I believe that renews on Sunday for the rest of the month). The D600 is now priced at US$1999.95 including the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 VR lens, essentially making the lens free. It's unclear how long this deal lasts. Technically it is for today and tomorrow only, but Nikon has a new rebate plan going into effect on the 16th, and some places (Amazon, for one), seem to imply that this deal will also extend to the end of the month.

If you're a B&H or Adorama buyer, you need to get hopping: because of their Sabbath closings, you need to order today before they close to take advantage of their current D600+lens deals.

Nikon's own store is not only offering the D600+lens deal, but sweetening it with a free shoulder bag and free Next Day shipping. Other places have other sweeteners.

As I've written before, I don't know what the heck is going to happen in Q1 of next year. The camera companies are scrambling to sell before the Christmas season ends, as the Nikon FX deals indicate. With Europe and Japan both in recession, two of the big three camera markets probably won't have a lot of momentum after the new year begins. So we very well may be seeing more pricing aggression in the future.

Is Nikon the New Ford?
Dec 6, 2012 (commentary)--
If you've been in the market for a new compact SUV, you probably know the story of the 2013 Ford Escape: Four recalls in the first six months, including one that urged owners to stop driving their new vehicle due to fire risk. Ford doesn't seem to know the cause of the problems involved with the latest recall, and is having customers contact dealers to get loaner vehicles while they figure things out.

Now consider this message from Nikon to a D800 owner this week (I've now collected several such Nikon responses along the same lines): "we are forwarding your images to Japan for further review. We are recommending that you do not send your D800 in for service. We are recommending for the time being that you use center or right focus."

I have lots of problems with this still being the case so many months after the camera first shipped.

First, let's deal with that "use center or right focus" statement. What Nikon actually means is use Single Point AF with center or right sensors only. You can't use Auto Area, 3D, or even most Dynamic Area methods without the left sensors being involved and possibly causing out of focus images. In other words, much of the focus system is off limits for users following Nikon's instructions.

Note that Ford is at least trying to do the right thing by customers by lending them functional vehicles while trying to figure out what the engine problems really are. True, fire in a vehicle is a real safety issue while lack of good focus in a camera is just a nuisance. Still, we're talking about customers that paid a heck of a lot of money for a top-line camera here: they expect top-line support and instead they're getting "just use the parts of the camera that work" messages from Nikon.

I also have to wonder just how effective sending test images to Japan is in detecting what a camera's real problem is. Essentially you have a well-trained and equipped subsidiary saying "we don't know what the problem is, so it'll have to checked by the factory." So why not just send the actual camera to Japan and give the owner a loaner or replacement in the mean time? Oh, right, cost. So are we now to assume that high-end Nikon products get low level customer support?

I first reported focus issues on some D800 models back in May, then elaborated at length in June and July. Here we are at the end of the year and Nikon is still responding to some D800 customers just now discovering those problems with "we don't know what the problem with your camera is." That alone is disconcerting, but there doesn't seem to be a strong enough urgency on Nikon's part to close this problem down.

The answer to the question in the headline is "no, Ford at least seems to be trying to do the right thing." Heck, they responded after only 13 reports of problems in the latest recall.

Lest people get the notion that this is a backtrack on my previous message about the D800 focus situation, please note that we still have a lot of early purchasers just now discovering the camera they bought some time ago has a problem and corresponding with Nikon about what to do about it. It's the customer support response that's in question here, not the quality of currently shipping cameras.

Will the Real FX Please Stand Up?
Dec 5, 2012 updated (commentary)--
There seems to be some confusion over how well FX is or isn't doing. I've seen lots of speculation, much based upon over optimistic interpretation of a random number somewhere. Let's try to bring things back to some form of reality.

  • FX is not fizzling. Full frame camera sales are increasing. Nikon almost certainly sold more FX cameras in 2012 (D4, D3x, D700, D800, and D600) than they did in 2011 (D3s, D3x, D700). It would be hard not to, especially since no new high end DX DSLR has been seen from the company since September 2010. I'm sure that Nikon considers their FX push to be at least a modest success, and the numbers support that.
  • FX is not 15% of Nikon's interchangeable lens camera sales. Using cash register numbers in the US and the proportion of US sales to other regions, it probably is still around 5% through October 2012 (also see fourth bullet, below), but the D600 will change that right at the end of the year. We actually can't yet tell where FX sales will fall overall as opposed to DX because we don't have a full year of full FX product to compare against a full year of full DX product. The percentages do gyrate a bit with product introductions.
  • Nikon might not have sold 250,000 D800's yet; they likely haven't made 55,000 D4's, either. Nikon announced the capacity to make 30,000 FX bodies a month out of Sendai (25k D800, 5K D4). If you believe that Nikon just continued to make D800's at full capacity all during the time when people were complaining about getting ones with focus problems, then the maximum Nikon might have made so far is likely 250k. Made is not sold, though. Given non-air shipments from the factory to subsidiaries, there can be as much as a month lag between leaving Sendai and arriving at a dealer. Check to see if your dealer has any in stock. Many do. And remember that a lot of D800's were returned to dealers and Nikon due to the left sensor focus issue. Thus, even if 250,000 were made, that doesn't mean 250,000 have been sold as some are claiming. But I'm not sure 250,000 were made.
  • FX is not a majority of Nikon's interchangeable lens camera sales. From April through September, Nikon built and shipped 3.45 million interchangeable lens cameras. Of those, if Sendai built everything they could and those immediately sold (possible, since we're mostly talking about early D800 sales), only 180k were FX cameras. That's 5.2%. I've been saying 5% for FX sales for a while now. When the number actually really changes, I'll change my number ;~). Based upon Nikon's future forecasts, the number might hit 8.9% for the full fiscal year (April to April).
  • FX strength alone will not help Nikon to pass Canon in interchangeable lens cameras. Canon's last projection: 9.2 million units. Nikon's last projection: 7.1 million. Granted, Canon and Nikon are off by one quarter in their fiscal years, but that's a reasonably large gap to make up, and most people are estimating that Nikon's actual FX production will be less than 1m units a year at the moment. So, for Nikon to pass Canon it will have to fall on DX to pull its share upward.

So, is FX doing well? Yes, it is (but see last paragraph, below). It's kept the Sendai factory operating at or near capacity, and Nikon has an even bigger capacity for producing FX now that they've shifted the low end production to Thailand, where they have more flexibility.

Is FX replacing DX any time soon? Nope. Not until Nikon can come up with US$600, US$900 and US$1200 FX models and produce them in Thailand at DX levels. But the problem is sensor cost. I don't believe it is possible to produce even a US$1200 list price FX camera at the moment and keep anything close to historic profit margins. Remember, a US$1200 camera will eventually come down to US$900 at retail, which implies an eventual dealer cost of about US$750. Even if an FX sensor is only US$250 fully burdened in large quantities, that doesn't leave much room for anything else. (Again, for those of you just tuning in, image sensor costs scale dramatically upwards with area: a DX sensor is probably 1/10th the cost of an FX one, and the sensor is most expensive part in virtually all DSLRs.)

Finally, I'm going to re-issue and increase my warning: if you're in the market for a Nikon FX body, wait until at least December 15th. My warning has to do with pricing. Just as early Nikon 1 adapters are now wondering why they didn't wait, those shifting from DX to FX now may face some similar pricing displeasure. Certainly not the 50%+ drops that the Nikon 1 models have made, but if you like to preserve your Franklins (US $100 bill), have some patience. While FX bodies are doing okay, it appears that the sales are soft enough that Nikon will sweeten the deals in the US soon.

PJ Followup
Dec 5, 2012 (commentary)--
Two things need to be clarified in the following story:

  • The large Canon bias is mostly because Reuters has tended to buy Canon product for thier staff. We are not looking at an un-biased sample in terms of brand. Plenty of photojournalists and other agencies have Nikon gear, it's just that Reuters is a Canon shop.
  • One thing people aren't catching that I need to explain a little further: why ISO boost manually and not by Auto ISO? Simple: image quality. Every time you boost ISO by a stop you lose a stop of dynamic range, which is a real image quality difference. Every time you lower shutter speed by a stop you might get an image quality difference, but generally if you're above a certain bar, you get none. Thus, if you're optimizing for image quality, you never boost ISO unless your shutter speed would compromise image quality. Most Auto-ISO systems still don't get this quite right, and it seems clear that the Reuters photographers are exerting manual control over ISO, which means that they're directly managing image quality.

What Pro PJ's Do
Dec 4, 2012 (news and commentary)--
A photography buff on Reddit decided to take the Reuters best photographs of 2012 and analyze the EXIF information to look for commonalities. This was then compiled into graphics by another Reddit user, and then published as a news article by petapixel.com.

Some of the stats are illuminating. First, lenses: you'd be in good standing with a 16mm, 24mm, 50mm, and 400mm prime, plus a 16-35mm and 70-200mm zoom. (Gee, I can't resist: where are the DX and CX equivalents of many of those lenses? ;~)

Compare what these pro photojournalists are using against what the camera companies are selling amateurs: the number one kit lens is basically 28-85mm. Yet there's a strong preference in the pro world for wider than 28mm and longer than 85mm; even the zooms that covered midrange often were used towards the extremes. Why? Simple. At the long end it's about positioning: you can't always position yourself where you want to relative to the subject. Long lenses are helpful in "fixing" that problem.

At the other end, it's about subject inclusion, typically near/far relationships. Look at the montage of nine images at the top of Petapixel's article: the right column are all near/far relationship images. Tough to do with a 28mm or 35mm focal length. Much easier to manage with a 16-35mm zoom or even just a 24mm. It doesn't help that a lot of photojournalism happens indoors, and there the critical element is that you can't always back up any further to include something in your frame, thus you often need a wider angle.

But look at the aperture and shutter speed values for these images. f/4 or faster apertures account for over half the images. My guess is that the photographers are trying to shoot at the highest shutter speed they can most of the time (there is a slight anomaly with shutter speeds, with 1/250 and 1/320 being used about one fifth of the time, but this is likely caused by flash use). But if I were a high-end lens designer, I'd be taking a stronger look at how well my lenses shoot wide open, because it's clear that pros are using lenses at maximum aperture. Heck, not one image was stopped down to f/22, and images taken past f/8 were rare.

Again, what are camera makers giving consumers, though? f/5.6 lenses and automatic programs that don't necessarily push shutter speed aggressively and which pay no attention to diffraction.

In terms of ISO use, I was struck by how the four lowest ISO whole stop values were the most often used: 200, 400, 800, and 1600. Not a lot of "auto ISO" in there, as auto ISO would be setting third or sixth stop values.

So, if we were designing a pro photojournalism camera from scratch, what would we conclude about how the cameras were actually being used? Well, likely the camera is in aperture-priority mode and the lens left wide open. From there, the photographer is varying ISO in whole stop values to keep shutter speeds up. When flash is used, the camera is always set to maximum flash sync shutter speed. Wow. Do we need any direct controls other than ISO?

Now, obviously this is a very small data set to work with, only 95 images selected as best of the year from an organization that probably is generating more images than that every second. To really get a handle on what's being done, we'd need to do a much more inclusive data analysis, and we'd need to do so amongst numerous pro groups.

But, you know, I'm not sure the data would shift a lot. Photojournalists, in particular, don't like to be making lots of decisions about camera settings, they are trying to capture moments when everything around them is in a constant state of flux. Funny thing, is, though, that pretty much defines amateur photography to a large degree, too: the more things you have to control the less likely you frame and hit the button at "the moment."

The camera maker's solution for the amatuer has always been "more automation." But you know what, I'm not sure that's the right choice, especially given some of the automation decisions that modern cameras make (I'm looking at you, Auto ISO on the Nikon 1).

So here's a simple technique to try: shoot like a Reuter's PJ next time you head out. Bring a wide angle zoom and start with it at the widest focal length. Set aperture priority with your fastest aperture. Change only one camera setting: ISO value to keep your shutter speed in a range you're comfortable that you'll get sharp images from (and if you're really following the rules, set your Nikon body to one-stop increments for ISO ;~). Spend all your remaining energy on just three things: framing, focus, and timing. Note that "framing" may mean moving forward, backward, and sideways! You, not the zoom. (For those that think landscape photography can't be done this way, think again. It's actually very close to the way I learned from Galen Rowell and still practice, only we don't usually set maximum aperture, but rather something like f/8.)

I'll make a small wager: you get better images by concentrating this way. PJs do, so why should you be any different? ;~)

What a D400 Could Be
Dec 3, 2012 (commentary)--
Many people are writing me with the contention that "there will be no D400 (D300s replacement) because such a camera wouldn't be very distinguishable from an upgraded D7000."

Nonsense. Even with the D300s we have some clearly visible differences: TIFF support, better body build, buffer size, different autofocus sensor, shorter shutter lag/blackout times, faster frame rate, 10-pin release support, more direct buttons for common settings, multiple settings banks, and so on. While none of these things by themselves is a game changer, added together they make for a more responsive, hardier, easier to control camera.

The "D7000 replacement will be better than D300s" position some are arguing basically works this way: The D7000 and D300s replacements will both have the 24mp sensor, the D7000 will get boosts in buffer and frame rate, plus the D7000 already has some things the D300s doesn't, such as the 2016-pixel metering sensor. Further, their contention is that the D800, which should be above the D300s replacement, doesn't exactly have a lot of things the D300s doesn't already have.

While I'd be the first one to say that Nikon hasn't shown us recently that they have any truly new ideas in how to improve DSLRs--everything lately has been sensor upgrades, video, and small incremental changes--that doesn't mean that there aren't things that could be done to set a D300s replacement above a D7000 replacement.

If Nikon kept a purely incremental change mode going: higher pixel sensor, bigger buffer, faster frame rate, higher specified shutter, 91k dot metering sensor, 51-sensor f/8 focus system, uncompressed HDMI out for video, 1.2x and 5:4 crops, USB 3.0, and more.

If Nikon were being more evolved, to this you could add: built-in WiFi, built-in GPS, more bracketing sophistication, Live View histograms and focus peaking assist, and a few other obvious things that should be laying around in various development bins and that Nikon should have heard the requests for by now.

If Nikon were smart, programmability and other future-leaning technologies would make their way into the camera.

So I don't buy the notion that you can't differentiate a D7000 and D300s replacement. The question is whether Nikon can ;~). Gee, they've been doing this for six decades now and I don't think they're getting senile, so, yes, Nikon can make a D7000 and D300s replacement and differentiate them.

Thus, the question becomes more "should they?" As I've outlined in previous stories, I believe the answer to that is yes. From continuity, competitive, and unit volume standpoints, strong reasons exist to carry over a four model DX line.

One point I was trying to make in DX month was that Nikon seems to have gotten a bit lost in how to market CX, DX, and FX at the same time. DX is the value proposition. If you want a camera that performs at high frame rates with a high degree of precision and quality, without a D300s replacement in the lineup your choice is to plunk down a lot of bucks on a D4. A D400 would be a value proposition, just as the D300 was to the D3.

Even if Nikon doesn't really understand how to market DX, I think they understand that they need a full DX line of cameras. What I believe that they don't understand is that DX needs a full set of lenses.

Clarifications
Dec 1, 2012 (commentary)--
A couple of things I wrote in the past week seem to be prompting repeated emails, so perhaps I'd better clarify those things.

First, why did I predict that Nikon will drop the D800 and only make the D800E? This has to do with prices. With sales softening enough on the D800 now that we're about to see a significant discount appear in the US, things get tricky for Nikon. Nikon uses new product to reset price points. The D800 reset the original D700 price point (US$3000). But the D800 isn't likely to be updated for quite some time (three to four years if we use the D700->D800 process as a guide). Having it slide in price in less than a year would predict it would have to slide in price quite a bit over the course of its lifetime. Nikon's typical lifetime slide is 25%, thus a D800 that should hit US$2250 in 2015. But Nikon wouldn't want it to do so before then.

The D800E shouldn't really cost Nikon more to make: it's a lower volume production, which is why they charge more. The other reason for the E in the lineup has to do with video. I think Nikon thought that the D800 would become a go-to video camera, replacing the 5D as the poor man's Hollywood camera. The fear was that the E would trigger too many motion artifacts.

But people are buying the D800 models for their still abilities. They were the hot model this year because they basically gave grade school bragging rights to landscape and a few other shooters ("nah, nah, I can print bigger than you.").

What I'm predicting is that Nikon will figure out that by making only a D800E, and making it US$3000, they will be able to prolong the price point. This looks like a US$300 drop in price in the E model, but it's effectively a US$200 price increase on the D800 from where it will be in a couple of weeks. Everyone wins ;~).

Second, we have my prediction of a D7000 replacement before the D300s replacement. This is the opposite model that Nikon used for the FX roll-outs (highest priced first, lowest price last). I'm not sure that the FX roll-outs were dictated by a pricing strategy, though I'm pretty sure that Nikon has discovered that this did indeed cause people to overbuy with the D800 when they probably would have been happy with a D600 had they known it was coming.

There are three possibilities:

  1. D7000 replacement comes first, D300s replacement next.
  2. D300s replacement comes first, D7000 replacement next.
  3. The next DX camera is a replacement for both the D7000 and D300s.

My prediction obviously rules out #3. It's certainly a possibility, but as I noted in my predictions, I don't see how Nikon keeps unit volume up with a reduced model lineup. Nikon's goal in DSLRs is to have the largest market share, with Canon second. Reducing model lineup is a tough way to get there, as it would put more pressure on individual models to sell in even higher quantities than they do. Note that the D3200 is already on instant rebate (as is the V2 the day it shipped; what makes me think the D5200 will be on instant rebate the day it ships in the US?). So, if Nikon is doing #3, I would change my prediction: they'll end up with lower DSLR sales in 2013 than 2012.

So the question is whether #1 or #2 is correct. We have two additional data points to examine:

A. The D300s does not have an instant rebate
B. The D7000 has a very large rebate and price drop

Now A could be that Nikon stopped making D300s models quite some time ago and they think they barely have enough quantity to make it through until February, when the next DX camera should appear. Some US dealers think this is the case; more than one has indicated to me that they think NikonUSA has virtually no stock of D300s models. But why the sudden and urgent change that triggered B? B looks more like "model clearance" to me than A.

Of course, both A and B could support a #4 option: Nikon launches both a D7000 and a D300s replacement in early 2013. I'd find this unlikely for one reason: both products would be produced by the Thailand plant, and both would require a fairly high number of units to be produced to even launch. Only twice in DSLR history has Nikon attempted a simultaneous Thailand launch: the D50 and D70s, where the D70s was a minor update to a product already being produced; and the D3000 and D300s, where the D300s was a minor update to a product already being produced.

So, in evaluating the likely scenarios with some of the information I do have coming out of Thailand, I ended up with the following order of likelihood: #1, #2, #3, #4. Good thing I numbered them that way ;~).

It certainly is possible that #2 could be the correct choice. At the moment, though, there haven't been any rumblings that usually accompany the high end product launches. For a February launch, there'd be a name pro shooting with a D300s replacement already, and it would be hard for it to be kept quiet that a replacement was near just from the logistics involved. All I can tell you is this: I haven't been approached by Nikon to shoot with a new camera ;~). Of course, if I was, I'd be absolutely silent about any speculation on Nikon models and not doing predictions. (Technically you can't do predictions if you actually know for sure.)

Predictions
Nov 30, 2012 (commentary)--
It's been a long time since I've done specific year-end predictions. This year I'm going to take a stab at some, but just for Nikon. Enjoy.

  • Sales. Nikon will (barely) hit their Q3 estimated sales (Q3 for them is Oct/Nov/Dec), and mostly by heavy promotion and discounting. Basically everything will be on sale by the end of 2012, and backed with expanded coop advertising and spiffs. That's what it will take to make the numbers. Q4 (Jan/Feb/Mar) will be a tough slog, but given a few new product intros they probably will make their final projected numbers for their fiscal year.

    However, I'm now predicting this: in Nikon's next fiscal year (starts in April), they will have flat unit volume, not growth. In the fiscal year after that, they will have unit volume decline.

    Before some start writing that Thom's predicting the demise of Nikon, no I'm not. I'm predicting that flat sales and declining average selling price are going to make it difficult for Nikon to make a profit next year, and if that continues, they could swing to a loss position. Obviously, a company has to deal with that when it happens. Nikon currently appears to be "pre-dealing" with it by trying to cut costs everywhere they can. Long term, they'll have to do more than cut costs, I think.

  • CX. It's good news/bad news here. Nikon wants to move on (J2/V2 and beyond), but the inventory still has them stuck in the past. Already Nikon is using significant spiffs (cash to salespeople) on the Nikon 1 line. I suspect they're going to have to bite the bullet and lower Nikon 1 prices permanently within six months. We'll get a J3 in summer with 14mp, and we'll get at least five new lenses (includes the three pre-announced). But...

  • RX. Oh, wait, that's a Sony thing. I suspect that the Sony RX100 success will have Nikon taking the J2 and making a compact version of it before the end of 2013. Easy to do. Call it the Nikon 1 Fixed Lens option. Nikon will get antsy, however, and make a critical mistake: they'll take out raw support and maybe more, fearing that such a camera would cut into other camera sales (J2, of course, but also P7700).

  • DX. February will likely see the next DX camera launch, almost certainly the D7000 replacement. The higher end specs on it will probably have some saying it's a D7000/D300s replacement, but I'm sticking with my prior prediction: there will be a D300s replacement, too. You only have to look at Nikon's sales numbers to figure out why: what other cameras can they bring to market in 2013 to even match the 2012 sales numbers, let alone have a chance to exceed them? A three model DX and three model FX lineup won't do it: they need every incremental sale they can pick up. Also, they're not going to make the D600 the only body made on that chassis, and D300s owners wouldn't be happy with a D7000 replacement that stays on the same chassis (if you look closely at my predictions, I'm predicting that they have two DSLRs on each of their four established body chassis at the end of the year, not an imbalance of one chassis over another).

    My guess is that we'll see four new DX cameras in the US in 2013. First, the D5200 is a no-brainer: we didn't get it in 2012, but will get it in January at CES/PMA. That will be followed by the D7000 replacement at the next trade show (it might show up at CES/PMA, but Nikon doesn't often launch two cameras simultaneously, and there are other big trade shows in early 2013 Nikon will want a new major launch at, e.g. CP+ in Tokyo). A D300s replacement would come in August in this scenario. So what's the fourth? The D3200 replacement, which will be basically the current camera with phase detect focus on the imaging sensor, plus a few other modest changes.

    DX will also get at least three new lenses in 2013, with the 16-85mm f/4 being first out the door. We'll get a poorly specified DX wide angle prime (24mm f/2.8 or something lame like that). It's also possible that we'll get the next 18-55/55-200 tweaks some time during the year, most likely with a D3200 replacement.

  • FX. What, you want more? I know some are speculating that Nikon would do something with the 16mp D4 sensor just as they did with the D3/D700, but I am not predicting that they'll add any other small body FX variants any time soon. Sales are soft on the D600, and the bloom is finally off the D800, too. Why would they throw in a third small body option? It would likely be made on a D3200/D5200 chassis, too, if such a thing existed. But it would still be more expensive than the most expensive DX camera. The only FX body I think is likely to come in 2013 is a big body one. The most likely candidate is a D4x with the 36mp sensor. It's possible Nikon could go higher in pixel count given the high cost of the camera (i.e. they have more margin to recover small sensor runs from, especially if they price at US$8000 again). I'm not getting the sense that's where Nikon is going, though, even though I know they've tested higher count sensors. Also, the D800 will go away and the D800E will take its place at the US$2999 price, as Nikon tries keep average selling price up instead of trending down. So a predictable D4x and some lenses is all we'll get new for FX, I think. One of those lenses will be the long-overdue 80-400mm replacement, thankfully. With VRIII.

    But here's another scenario: a D4s. Lose the XQD slot for a second CompactFlash one, a tweaked sensor, lots of small fixes/changes/additions. I regard this as a long shot, but it's not out of the question. As you'll see from my upcoming D4 review, there are enough questionable decisions on that camera design that it's not fully resonating with the pro community.

    I also expect the FX log jam will seem to break. In 2011 and 2012 combined we had fewer lenses introduced than in 2010 alone. VRIII (or whatever Nikon is calling the newly tweaked system; note to Nikon: figure out how to standardize and market this please) means that redesigned 70-200mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm may be on the board. But there are plenty of known FX designs that seemed to have disappeared with the quake and flood: 16-30mm variable aperture zoom, 17mm PC-E, 28mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, 80-400mm f/4-5.6, 105mm f/2. Plus the 800mm f/5.6 is an almost certainty to appear in 2013.

  • Back to Sales. I think you see now why I'm predicting flat unit volume for Nikon. The channel is full of excess current and past DSLRs, so much so that we're about to have most everything on rebate and the US didn't even get the new D5200 because of all that overhanging D5100 inventory. 2013 isn't a five new DSLR year for Nikon for sure: they'll be lucky to get four new ones out in the US (3 elsewhere), and one of those will be a low volume camera.

  • End of Year (2013) Interchangeable Lens Camera Lineup (new models in bold): J3, V2, D3300 (or whatever they call it), D5200, D7100 (or whatever they call it), D400, D600, D800E, D4, D4x.

The good news is that without as big an onslaught of truly new cameras and with a stable of very good existing ones, we can finally stop talking so much about equipment and spend more time talking technique. I look forward to it.

Disclosure: my past prediction accuracy has been between 50-60%. I predict that will be about the same this year, but I could be wrong about that ;~). Why do I do my predictions in November rather than at the end of the year? December 30th is too close to the first launch sequence (CES/PMA). People would accuse me of not really making predictions if I'm doing them one week in advance ;~).

As always, I intend my predictions to be provocative and produce extended discussion of the near future possibilities. To fully appreciate your gear and plan for future purchases, you must consider where we've been (historical), where we are (present), and where we're likely to go (predictions). Nikon doesn't help its customers with this by presenting even vague road maps, thus we have to debate what the tea leaves say.

Decisions, Decisions
Nov 27, 2012 (commentary)--
One site reader pointed out something to me in an email that really needs some extended commentary this time of year.

Consider this dilemma: right now you can buy a Nikon V1 or Samsung NX1000 for US$350 (with kit lenses). Now the factors that most people are using to determine whether to buy these days tend to be price, size, and image quality. What happens when one of those factors is the same, and the other two are opposites?

We're back to my old bugaboo: what's your goal here? Are you buying a camera just to buy a new camera, or do you have a particular need in mind that should drive the decision? The NX1000 is the clear winner in image quality, but it is somewhat bigger than the V1, doesn't have an EVF, and has slower focus. In other words, we start tallying pluses and minuses.

Or consider this: you can get a Nikon V1 for US$350 and a Sony RX-100 for US$650. Both use 1" sensors, though the Sony divides that into 20mp (and very competently). The Sony will slip into my shirt pockets, the V1 takes a big jacket pocket, minimum.

You really need to start your shopping with a tally list of needs and wants and priorities before you start looking at what's available and what price it is. If your tally list was "viewfinder, smaller than DSLR, compatibility with Nikon," that V1 at US$350 will look really tempting. Indeed, it's probably a slam dunk. But if your tally list is "fits in pocket to carry everywhere, best possible image quality," then the Sony RX-100 starts to look very good, and you have to then compare it to other options that fit tally point #1 (pocketable): Olympus XZ2, Panasonic LX7, Canon S110, etc. Oh, there the "best possible image quality" point suddenly picks the Sony, doesn't it?

But we're back in the old joke: cost, speed, size, pick two. That's the way the camera market is right now. There isn't likely going to be a camera that hits all your tally points perfectly. That RX-100 is a great camera for carrying all the time, but it's expensive.

The camera makers just want to move hardware. Some of it they want to move more desperately than others. They know that price is a factor everyone picks up on when all else is equal. Just make sure everything else is equal! If it isn't, make sure you know what it is you value most.

Technology always impresses me with one thing: over time we tend to get more and more competent products at (inflation adjusted) lower and lower prices. My mom paid more for her Nikkomat FTN and lenses back in the 60's than she would for a very high-end DSLR set today. Don't get too hung up on the price side of the equation. Make sure that you're getting what you need.

Wait Until December 15th
Nov 27, 2012 (commentary)--
I still get tons of "is it safe to buy a D800" questions. My answer remains the same as before with a slight new twist: in the United States wait until December 15th if you're going to buy one. You'll thank me for that (and no, asking what this is about won't generate any additional information, so don't send emails asking what's going to happen on that date).

Maybe I Should Have Called it Thom.i.am
Nov 26, 2012 (news and commentary)--
It seems that Black Eyed Peas founder and star Will.i.am has picked up on a variant of the iOS camera idea I proposed a few years ago and have mentioned several times since: he's about to launch an accessory that clips into the iPhone's dock connector and hangs a 14mp, larger-sensor-with-flash camera and lens off the end.

Personally, I like his statement about this soon-to-be product: "turns your smartphone into a genius-phone," but I think it should have been "turns your smartphone into a genious camera."

As I've stated before, done right this would be the end of compact cameras as we know them. I don't know if this future accessory was done right, but Will.i.am is well known for his smart production and marketing in the music business. What makes me think we're going to have a lot of Black Eyed Camera Makers soon?

Ho Ho Ho
Nov 26, 2012 (commentary)--
Let's take a moment to look at where things stand in the US with interchangeable lens Nikon cameras at the moment:

  • J1--US$400 with 10-30mm lens
  • J2--US$550 with 10-30mm lens
  • V1--US$350 with 10-30mm lens
  • V2--US$850 with 10-30mm lens

Anyone else notice something strange about that list? Yeah, the V1 is completely out of place in pricing. Nikon must have an awful lot of those in the warehouse.

  • D3100--US$480 with 18-55mm
  • D3200--US$600 with 18-55mm, extra stuff
  • D5100--US$450 body only, US$550 with 18-55mm
  • D5200--not available in the US
  • D7000--US$900 body only, US$1299 with 18-105mm
  • D300s--US$1700 body only
  • D600--US$2000 (plus extra stuff), US$2500 with 24-85mm
  • D800--US$3000 (plus extra stuff)
  • D4--US$6000

I've noted before that Nikon's pricing model for DSLRs is a fairly regular curve (green is with kit lens, blue is body only). Indeed, take the D300s anomaly out of the current data and it's as regular a curve as usual, just lower at the starting point.

What's strange to me is the Nikon 1 versus DSLR pricing. The Nikon 1 models are very low cost to produce compared to the DSLRs. We're talking 300 parts versus 3000, we're talking about parts that scale significantly in price with size (sensor), and we're talking about simplified manufacturing using Nikon's lowest cost manufacturing plant. So why are the Nikon 1 models priced so high compared to DSLRs?

The simple fact of the matter is that US$500 to US$1000 is the sweet spot for camera makers. They've trained you to expect "serious cameras" to be in that price range, and they get healthy product margins when they can sell in that range.

But we're entering into a strange new world now. The 24mp D3200 is a darned competent camera. It's getting tougher and tougher to deferentiate at the bottom of the DSLR curve. Worse still, all the major online outlets seem to have moved to a 2% back in future purchases strategy, plus are sweetening deals with things like cards and cases.

Thus, this Christmas we're seeing the lowest effective prices yet for brand-spanking new, latest-and-greatest DSLR gear. Strip out the lens and resell it, subtract the sweeteners and the future discounts, and the effective body price of a D3200 is US$450 and that of the D600 is about US$1850. Those are, I believe historical lows for the latest-and-greatest in DX and FX from Canon or Nikon.

If we're already pressing hard on discounts now, what will the first quarter of 2013 look like? Hard to say, but as I've noted before, once heavy discounting is in place, it's difficult to get rid of it. The market basically has been trained to expect discounts now. Enjoy that as you shop for Christmas.

That Was Fast
Nov 24, 2012 (commentary)--
This site has enough dedicated Nikon users so that when you ask for information, you get it. Fast. Real fast.

I now have more than enough data to make a further statement about the 16-35mm. Your testing identified six lenses that clearly seem to have the problem. However, when all is said and done, that's a very small percentage of the number of lenses that were tested. Indeed, it works out to a low single digit percentage. In tech, single digit problems are common. You can't make tens of thousands of gadgets without some having issues. So I'm going to call this issue "within expectations for a complex product" and not a QA problem.

Obviously, if your lens has the problem and you shoot really long exposures, you'll need to have the lens looked at, unfortunately. One thing before you get too hot and bothered by that: make sure you do the tests with the eyepiece covered. I forgot to mention that parameter in my original sparse text, and I've had to have a few people retest because of that. Light can and will leak into your long exposure images via the viewfinder on most recent Nikon DSLRs.

Thanks to the hundreds of you who performed the test. I hope you don't mind that I didn't acknoweldge every email I received. I actually didn't think I'd get as many responses as fast as I did.

As for the D600 dust issue: still not enough data, but I also received plenty of comments about people's experience with this, as well. The trend seems to be this: some D600's came with dust, it doesn't clear off with built-in sensor cleaning, but when it is cleaned, the dust doesn't tend to recur at the same levels. Most people who reported shooting a lot with their D600s (thousands of images ;~), seem to think that once the initial problem was handled, the D600 acts no different than other Nikon DSLRs. But I don't have enough data to say anything more than this seems to be the general gist, and this is all fairly anecdotal data (unlike a "is there a red streak" or "did it focus as well as Live View" test, people have differing opinions about what constitutes "some" versus "lots" of dust).

I have reports that the walk-in Nikon repair stations in Japan are cleaning D600 cameras for free when a customer shows up with this problem (usually sensor cleaning by the Nikon Japan repair centers is about US$12). Unfortunately, we don't really have such centers in the US.

Quality Control
Nov 23, 2012 (commentary)--
My next story is "Connect the Dots." Keep it in mind when reading the following.

A lot of you have been asking for my opinion on the D600. In due time. But it seems that I also get a dozen or so requests a day to comment about the "dust and oil" problem with the D600. I'm tempted to say, in due time. But that would need explanation, so let me give an explanation for my silence on this issue.

I have no "instant" ability to recognize and report quality issues as some of you seem to think. I collect data. I analyze data. I interpret the data, devise tests, collect new data from the tests, interpret the results of those tests, and then report. With the D800 I was lucky enough to get a fair number of D800 bodies to test in a very short period early in the camera's shipping, and the problem was either recognizably there or not. Unfortunately, it was there in a high percentage of cases, and the tests showed repeatable and verifiable data, so it made the tests easy to interpret.

I'm currently dealing with data on two additional quality issues in the Nikon camp. First up is the 16-35mm f/4 lens. As some have discovered, on really long exposures (say two seconds or more) you may get red streaks in the image data. At the moment all I can say is that thanks to a reader and dealer, I've identified copies of the lens that don't produce red streaks, and copies that do.

If you own the 16-35mm, do me a favor. With the lens cap on and long exposure noise reduction off, take an 8 second exposure with the lens set to VR on and then another with VR off. Do the test at base ISO and ISO 3200. Let me know what you see.

Meanwhile, D600 "dust and oil" is a different kind of problem, and so far all the discussions I've seen of it are a little short-sighted and naive. At this point, it seems clear from examination of new bodies that some D600 bodies are coming from the factory with significant dust showing on the left side of the finished image. In examining that "dust," I actually think it's debris, not dust. It has a different size and pattern to what I associate with common dust.

A lot of people immediately have jumped to the conclusion that the D600 is a "dusty" camera, as the number of people reporting that their D600 came with dust is high enough to be clearly visible on almost any Nikon-oriented forum.

These people are concluding it will always have this dust problem. The data so far don't warrant that conclusion. If, for example, there was excessive debris that was present (perhaps from a drill or other tool in assembly that threw off small particles that weren't caught by cleaning procedures), you'd expect that the initial camera inspection would show debris, you'd clean it, then after use you probably would see some debris reappear. That's because if there is debris inside the camera, it wouldn't all just be on the sensor on delivery. Air movement in the mirrorbox area would eventually move debris from other places to the sensor. Over time, if you kept cleaning, the problem would slowly go away as the debris is either removed from the mirrorbox or ends up on the glue strip of the sensor cleaner. If, on the other hand, the D600 was just a camera that was prone to dust adhesion, the camera would just as dirty after the 100th cleaning wears off as the first.

At the moment there's no way to know which of those two cases is correct. I suspect the former (camera assembled with loose debris inside), which means that those that are diligent in cleaning should see it go away over time. But there's not enough data yet to conclude anything, so I can't rule out the thing that everyone is claiming, that the D600 is just a camera prone to dust. This is one reason why I've remained quiet on this issue: I'm in data collection mode.

I can say that my own camera seemed "normal" out of the box and I haven't seen the sorts of terrible problems some have demonstrated on the Web. But I also haven't shot with it a lot yet, and have only dragged it on one trip through my usual dirt-prone hikes. Not enough data.

As for the "oil" part: we've been dealing with this issue pretty much since the D3 appeared. Something changed in shutters and mirrors for high end cameras around that time. I note that it corresponds with when both Canon and Nikon started upping the "tested cycle" numbers for their cameras, but I have no way of knowing if that's just a correlation, or causal.

What you're seeing is not oil, per se, but a synthetic lubricant that, if applied even slightly excessively, tends to get thrown by the mirror. When some of this gets on your AA filter over the sensor, it looks a bit like a ring-shaped water droplet in images as opposed to just a blurry black dot. Unfortunately, it requires a wet cleaning to remove, and it usually requires a more detergent-based cleaner than alcohol-based to remove it easily. But this is one of those "over time" things like the D600 dust might be: I've rarely had to do oil cleanings on my high end gear more than two or three times. The tendency to throw oil comes because of excess liquid left over during manufacturing. Thus, as you remove it, it is less likely to recur (though it can recur for awhile).

When Canon users complained about oil on the sensor, Canon's response was to offer a free inspection and cleaning to anyone who had the problem. That's probably the right response, since the issue is caused by sloppy manufacturing. Nikon will usually clean an oil-stained sensor for free (after you ship it to them at your expense), but they have made no acknowledgment that such a thing can happen, let alone an apology and specific course of action a user should take, as has their competitor.

I keep getting hammered by a few Nikon fans for writing so many negative things about Nikon. The fact of the matter is that we're seeing more and more indicators that quality control really has slipped a bit at the factories, while at the same time the ability of a customer to even engage in a discussion about said problems with NikonUSA has gone down. I happen to really like most Nikon high end cameras and lenses, but it's hard to say something truly positive about Nikon overall when it's clear there have been some real, significant problems with new gear, especially when the company refuses to talk to its customers about them.

Connect the Dots
Nov 18, 2012 (commentary)--
In case you haven't figured it out yet, a close look at this week's promotions tells you everything you need to know: Nikon relies on price as their primary selling point. Every Nikon camera other than the D800 and D4 are now on discount, including the most recent cameras introduced here in the US (e.g., the D600).

So what dots should we connect? Well, how about the poor customer support at NikonUSA? Or apparent lapses in quality control?

The D600 is the most interesting of the bunch in thinking about this. If you shop around in the US, you can find it for an effective price of around US$1860. In other words, here we are less than two months after first shipment and we're seeing mid-life pricing. Nikon themselves have thrown in a 5% discount (US$100 instant savings), but their strong push of inventory to dealers is further weakening the effective price.

Add to this a lingering inventory problem: here in the US there are still D3000's on shelves, and certainly plentiful supply of D3100 and D5100 models. With the low-end models cycling on twelve to eighteen month intervals, any buildup forces margins down.

The bottom line is that Nikon is more interested in making additional sales at the moment than they are in fully preserving margin. In the overall declining camera market, that smacks of the old "buy market share" tactic, and apparently Nikon is willing to compromise margins to do that.

I suspect that at the core is the age old Nikon problem: Canon envy. Nikon desperately wants to say they are the leading camera company. Not just in overall sales (I believe they might be at #2 by the end of this year across all cameras), but in every individual market that's tracked, as well. Leader in Japan. Leader in the US. Leader in compacts. Leader in mirrorless. Leader in DSLRs. Leader in lens sales.

But leader in this context simply means "sold the most units." By squeezing prices hard, and thus also squeezing resources in the subsidiaries and likely even in manufacturing, Nikon is potentially messing with their brand reputation. I'm not sure I'd trade "best camera" for "most cameras" in terms of reputation, but that appears to be a compromise Nikon is headed for.

Pricing wars always end up with a race to the bottom, and then, once at bottom, the remaining entities all struggle for air. It's one way that the traditional leaders defend what they perceive to be their turf, too. Given the fact that few of the Japanese camera concerns actually show profits at the moment, Nikon's still profitable group reducing margins to make more sales is a big warning shot across everyone else's bow. But it's coming at a customer cost, I think. That's how I connect the dots, at least.

Well, at Least it Didn't Crash
Nov 18, 2012 (commentary)--
NikonUSA is out surveying customers again. This time about lenses. Their last US survey about cameras was so unwieldy, long, and problem filled that I'll bet they had a very low percentage of actual completed surveys. I personally wasn't able to complete it due to errors in the survey logic.

Unfortunately, things have barely changed for the better in this new survey. At least the current survey doesn't crash on me like the last one did. But it's still bad. Really bad. Bad enough that it's highly likely that the results aren't meaningful or usable. Bad enough that my In Box started showing complaints about the survey within minutes of it deploying.

How bad is it?

The survey tries to do too much, and succeeds at little. Nikon seems to have listed every lens currently sold (not just by Nikon, but by third parties, as well), and then wants to know lots of information about everything associated with those lenses. Actually, it even wants to know information about things that don't exist. For example, depending upon your lens choices, it can ask VR questions about non-VR lenses ;~). Or better still, the survey wants to know if I compared the 12-24mm f/4 DX to the 500mm f/4 when I bought the wide angle zoom. Yes, I did, and I bought the 12-24mm because it was smaller ;~). Oh, wait, they only wanted to know if I compared the two, they didn't really ask why I bought A over B, C, D...ZZ.

Or how about this: "With which lens do you use the teleconverter the most?" This question will supply a list of answers based upon all the lenses you indicated previously that you owned, whether they can be used with a teleconverter or not. For someone like me, who has a lot of lenses, that produced a damned long list, most of which are lenses that can't be used with a teleconverter. Worse still, the way the question is worded doesn't actually capture my teleconverter usage properly. I own three lenses I use the TCs on with regularity, and whether I use a TC is dependent upon which camera I have with which lens and what the situation is in front of me. TC use for me is not lens dependent, it's situation dependent. What we see in the wording of the questions is that Nikon doesn't actually see the way users use the product. Given the possible answers, Nikon won't see how we use the product any better even after we answer factually.

This survey apparently got triggered by my registering my 12-24mm f/4 DX lens. The survey is a "one-size fits all" type that tries to fit all possible lenses into the same shoe box. For example, for this DX lens I was asked whether I bought it because "I wanted to have an FX-format compatible lens" or if "I wanted it on a Nikon 1 with the mount adapter." Unfortunately, by taking this all-in-one approach, the survey ends up with questions that scroll off my 30" display (and the survey itself pops up with a window that fills the display). I'll bet the abandonment rate on this survey is nearly as high as the camera one. In fact, I'll bet the abandonment rate can be predicted by the display size the respondent viewed it on.

And what the heck is an Ai AF lens?

As inclusive as the survey tries to be of everything, it still misses critical information. For instance, the why did you get this lens question leaves out some critical possibilities (including "I read a review on bythom" ;~). You can only select "It came as a kit when purchased," "my friend recommended it", "I took advantage of a sale or rebate", "A used lens was on sale in a good condition", "collecting lenses is my hobby" (!), "I wanted to improve my photo technique". Conspicuously missing are things like "my dealer convinced me that I needed it" or "I read really good reviews/analysis/test of the lens", or even "I needed a lens of that specification."

Then there are the head scratching questions. For example, which of the following do you agree with: "A: Even if the lens is larger or heavier, I would like the maximum aperture to be fast" or "B: Even if the maximum aperture becomes fast I would still like the lens to be small and light"? This strange question implies that a lens can always be both fast and small. Okay, then why exactly would we want larger and heavier?

Some of Nikon's questions are just amusing in context. For example: how important is it that a camera "Has good after-sales/warranty"? Well, if it's a D800, really important as it turns out. But what the heck is "after sales"? Ah yes, the old Japlish problem has re-raised its head, as in how important is the "bigness of filter attachment size"? (Hint to Nikon: it isn't the overall filter size that's important to users, it's the fact that you're making lenses with six different filter sizes that's important. But you didn't ask that question.)

The survey also seems to not like experts. If you answer all the questions about what photography terms you could explain to others positively, the survey will gripe about that in language that is a bit dismissive. Some of us are experts, Nikon. Moreover, the terms you presented can be explained by a large percentage of the serious photographic population (I wonder if the survey writer could have explained them? ;~).

One of the problems with surveys is that they only tell you the information you ask for. Nikon asks for far too much information (and information not exactly related to the lens in question, it's usage, or why it was bought), which means it'll get a high abandonment rate. It asks for wrong information. It doesn't ask for information that suggests that they know how/why we're buying lenses.

Having gone through the thesis process and getting my own surveys vetted by experts, I can pretty much guarantee you that no doctoral committee would ever accept Nikon's recent surveys. It would be back to the drawing board in almost every regard.

The fear, of course, is that Nikon actually uses this survey data to make or validate decisions. I'll bet that whoever wrote this survey doesn't actually use lenses. It's reflected both in the types of questions and the way they're asked. Garbage In, Garbage Out. Nikon is getting Garbage In via this survey, let's hope we don't get Garbage Out in future lens choices.

Radio Interview
Nov 14, 2012 (news)--
My radio interview for Your Day (South Carolina NPR via Clemson University) is now available on the Web in mp3 form. By the way, that interview was recorded live in one take, I didn't receive the questions in advance, and there are no edits in the MP3 file to remove anything.

Coolpix S800C No, Sony RX-100 Yes
Nov 14, 2012 (mini review)--
Two cameras that have been traveling in my shirt pocket lately are the Nikon Coolpix S800C and the Sony RX-100. Let's get the good news out of the way first.

The Sony RX-100 is definitely a recommended product. It's a little big for shirt pockets due to the slight protrusion of the lens, and it's fairly dense in weight for its size, but it's a pocketable camera nonetheless. With a 20mp 1" sensor at its core, it lives in the realm of "big sensor compact cameras." A 28-100mm f/1.8-4.9 equivalent lens sits in front of the sensor. The 28mm side is pretty good overall (and fast), the 100mm side a little weaker in the corners (and slow in aperture at f/4.9).

Sony did a good job of not getting carried away with the UI on this camera. It nicely straddles the better Sony compacts and the NEX/DSLR offerings in terms of controls and complexity. The mode dial doesn't tend to move, most of the rest is handled by the four buttons arrayed around the Direction pad wheel. Sony did what Nikon should have done on the Nikon 1: a function button gets you one step closer to other common core functions (exposure compensation, ISO, White Balance, Dynamic Range enhancement are what I've set it to; you get up to seven items out 17 possible ones, so I'd be surprised if you can't find a few you want the FN button to pull up). So, to change ISO means I press the FN button, navigate to ISO, use the dial to set it. Much more direct than menu diving (which you can also do). The menus themselves are very DSLR-like, extensive, but organized (why is the NEX so crazy in its menu system?). The camera also has a control ring that you can customize to 9 things. I tend to leave mine set to aperture (in aperture priority exposure mode).

I wish the tripod socket were lens centered and away from the battery compartment door (makes for awkward Arca plate use for tripod work), and I wish the battery was bigger (330 shot CIPA, which I've yet to achieve), and it would have been nice to get a hot shoe up top (the camera has a small built-in flash). The camera could also use a better grip (hint: get Richard Franiec's). But we're talking about a shirt pocket camera here, so I'll put up with those things for a competent shooter.

And the RX-100 is beyond competent. Heck, if you're a vidiot, uh, I mean videographer, the RX-100 has become one of the best of the small cameras: largish sensor and 1080P/60 (unfortunately 1080P/50 in PAL countries). But you want to know about stills.

Okay, still photography is quite good, too. As long as you aren't treating this as 20mp to print as big as possible I think you'll be quite happy with the results. At pixel level, the RX-100 can fail you a bit, in other words. But for modest output sizes, it's actually quite good. Indeed, Sony has a couple of interesting twists that make it not just good for bright light, but for low light, as well. The Hand Held Twilight mode takes multiple shots and stacks them, subtracting out noise (and ignoring shots with motion in them). Thus, in a pinch (and again not trying to print 24" wide or larger), you can shoot with this camera up to ISO 6400 with a bit of care. At 28mm, f/1.8, and ISO 6400 there's not a lot you can't shoot. At 100mm f/4.9, okay, you're a little limited. But again, this is a shirt pocket camera we're talking about. For 8x10 or even 11x14" prints, this camera produces images better than many of the DSLRs we were using only a five or six years ago. That said, the Sony's JPEG engine is still a little NR heavy, and the raw results will need careful work to optimize. Remember, you've got slightly limited DR to work with due to the small photosite size (DxO says 12.4 stops, but it's more constrained than that in practical use).

Compared to other pocket cameras, it's no contest. Cameras like the Canon S100 or the Olympus XZ-1 can't match the output of the RX-100, in my opinion. Compared to the Canon G1x, it's a close call except for one thing: the G1x is massive compared to the RX-100. I like the handling and additional features (swivel LCD) of the G1x a lot, but it's a handful and requires a big jacket pocket minimum. Diffraction is also a bit less of an issue on a G1x than the RX100 if you're going to push each to their maximum print size.

Meanwhile, we have the Nikon S800C. Overpriced and underperformed would be two simple ways of describing it. The funny thing is that I thought that it might be an interesting tool for bloggers looking for more camera than their iOS or Android phone/tablet gave them, but, if anything, those folk would be better off with any number of other solutions that just use a simple connection, like WiFi.

When I talked about what was to become the S800C with Nikon executives several years back, one of the things they didn't get is that you want to simplify user workflow, not complicate it. I haven't yet found a way that the S800C simplifies workflow, but I've found plenty of ways that it complicates it. As compared, say, to an Eye-Fi card.

In terms of camera functions, the S800C is dirt basic. Easy auto, Auto, or Scene modes, basically. A few modifiers, such as exposure compensation. But everything is pretty much auto. As in auto bought a different camera.

Up front we have a 25-250mm f/3.2-5.8 lens, which I think is the main selling point versus just using your smartphone's camera.

But let's jump to the negatives: battery life is abysmal, especially if you try to use the Android side of the thing for anything. The camera always uses slow shutter speeds over higher ISO to keep the small sensor from showing a lot of noise, but that means motion blur is something that happens a lot. The color rendering is the worst I've seen out of a Nikon camera (maybe I haven't looked at enough recent Coolpix). The flash overproduces for short distances, doesn't have enough reach for medium to long ones. Startup (and shutdown) time is a bit slow. The device is either a camera (lens out) or a version 2.3 Android phone without the phone (lens in), which makes going back and forth slower because the lens has to be moved in and out. As an Android device, it's basic and relatively poor. I'd rather browse, do email, look at maps, or any of the other things I'd normally do on an Android device on a dedicated Android device with a bigger and better display, and a better touch-screen.

In terms of camera, the S800C is basically a S6300. So you're paying US$150 for the Android additions (and a slightly bigger screen). But wait, you can set a few things on an S6300 you can't on the S800C (ISO ranges, for example). Plus you get 230 shots per charge rather than 140 with the same battery. That Android graft-on is a bit of a power consumption hog.

And yes, it's an Android graft-on. The S800C is a frankencamera, built of parts from two different bodies and forced to work together. It's not a great camera. Certainly no better than any other US$199 camera on the market, of which there are many that seem better to me, so why pay the extra money? Get an Eye-Fi card for a non-Android compact instead. The S800C is not a great Android device (and will remain version 2.3 forever, probably).

The real shame here is that Nikon didn't add anything to the Android side to show us what this camera might really do. The Nikon Picturetown application isn't even pre-loaded on my copy! So I'm left to the devices of Google Play's application store. Let's see, let me try a couple of things in the Photography category. Oops. These apps can't control the S800C's camera. Well, gee, what can I get that would work?

Well, I found a couple of apps that can do post processing on an image I take with the S800C. But I can already use those on my phone/tablet if I can just get my image over there. Which I can with a lot of cameras that have WiFi, or an EyeFi card in many cameras. I'm not going to waste what little battery I've got in the S800C on those apps.

In the next story I wrote about ecosystems. Nikon has joined an ecosystem (Android) and diminished it (the sum of the parts is less than the sum of the parts, as none of the camera apps I've tried work with the camera ;~). That's exactly the wrong route to success, both for an individual product and for the ecosystem.

The S800C gets an Epic Fail rating from me. Not just a Not Recommended, but a total failure on the part of Nikon to put out a product that deserves to exist.

If you don't believe me, try Samsung's Android camera next to Nikon's. Even though I wouldn't recommend it, either, Samsung did a far better job of creating something useful. Unfortunately, it's even more expensive.

Still, the right answer is simple: enable communication on the camera and do the heavy lifting with something that's designed for heavy lifting (smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, whatever). Wannabe phone cameras without the phone need not apply.

The Advantage of Ecosystem
Nov 12, 2012 (commentary)--
Apple is deep into its i-everything world, having built a deep and wide ecosystem where low end products lead to mid-range products lead to high-end products; where one product line enhances a parallel one; where software ties the product lines together; where accessories are highly commonalized; where third parties are encouraged to support the products via accessories and apps.

It appears that Microsoft is finally headed this way, too, with the "Windows Everywhere" mantra finally getting some backbone to support it. Which leaves Google to be the Silicon Valley player that doesn't seem to care much as their "standard" gets torn in far too many splinter directions. Android isn't an ecosystem, it's a mutatation-prone monster that's consuming huge amounts of resources but not really building something bigger than its pieces that individual players benefit from.

I understand ecosystems. I helped successfully build three of them in my Silicon Valley career. By definition, an ecosystem is "the sum of the parts is greater than the sum of the parts." When players other than the ecosystem creator make things that help people want the main item the ecosystem is designed around, you get an amplification effect that is hard to beat.

Put simply, the Japanese camera companies mostly have no amplification effect because they're not creating ecosystems. Which is why many of them will eventually die (at least their camera groups will). They all try to do everything themselves, and they can't even get that right. The one exception at the moment is m4/3: since this started as a partnership and grew into a consortium, it has multiple players all riffing off one another. I suspect collusion, as well, as the fact that most of the lenses coming out of the m4/3 group are not directly competitive with one another; each player seems to be picking different fruit to grow, and that usually doesn't happen without cooperative decision making.

Still, m4/3 is doing well partly because it's an ecosystem, and the sum of the parts are greater than the sum of the parts. People look at the lens choice and decide they'll buy an m4/3 body because of that. Say what? They didn't buy a camera because it's Brand X and then choose lenses? Does that happen? Yes, it does, but not in the minds of the executives running most of the Japanese camera companies.

Nikon is a highly go-it-alone company. They don't license the lens mounts, they don't share much in the way of APIs, they are highly prone to making some types of connector changes (yet don't make the one change they probably should ;~). They have made lots of small but potentially fatal-for-third-party-product-changes to electrical specification on the mount and hot shoe. They like inventing new technologies that they don't share with others.

Even within Nikon's own line we have discontinuity of ecosystem. Was the Nikon 1's flash system truly CLS compatible? Not really, though they're now claiming more compatibility. This is the same problem Nikon had with Coolpix CLS. It sort of was the same, but not quite, and there were not only a lot of restrictions, but many anomalies, too. Personally, I gave up trying to use CLS on the P7000 and just went to manual flash. At that point, I could pick any flash on the planet, so I went out of ecosystem. Oops.

One of the key tenets to what I said would eventually disrupt the current camera market was programmability. Programmability requires an API and a solid effort to extend to the ecosystem to third parties. That's especially true since most of the Japanese software to date fails to meet current programming standards. The Japanese do low-level real-time firmware well (though a lot of it is still centered around variants of DOS or Linux). What they don't do well is object-oriented, modern UI specific, extendable, feature-rich applications. One of my programming friends had this to say about Nikon's iOS and Android apps for the WU-1a: "Looks like an intern programmed it. An intern I wouldn't be hiring."

In theory, you can build an ecosystem that's closed (i.e., you make all the pieces yourself). Sony seems to be at least partially headed down that path with their PlayApplications concept: Sony will write applications you can buy, but only Sony. The products get extended via these applications (modestly at the moment), but only in ways that Sony sees, and only with Sony's programmers. See my programmer friend's comment about Nikon apps ;~).

It's far better to build the core of an ecosystem, extend it with key products, then open it to third parties willing to sign licensing agreements in return for access to key, necessary information. You also need developer support and an evangelical aspect to attract developers and bring critical information back into the company. To date, I've not seen any of the Japanese companies manage these things. Even the so-called SDKs some produce are not exactly prostelitiized or well supported.

So what does Nikon need to do to build a real ecosystem? Let's see:

  • Open the mounts. Set up a licensing program that shares mount information and provides a full set of options to third parties. Yes, that implies that things like the chromatic aberration and distortion lens tables in the cameras might get updated with third party information. This old notion of "people will buy our lenses because third party lenses aren't corrected by the camera" will just eventually cause people to buy cameras in systems where every lens is corrected.
  • Standardize CLS and standardize on CLS. Stop the constant tweaking of signal definitions, license the API, and use it consistently across all cameras that support external flash.
  • License the connection. Nikon partly does this. You can license an SDK that gives you binaries you can include with your product that access many of the main protocols to the DSLRs. Last time I looked, those binaries didn't multi-threaded, had onerous restrictions on them, and weren't exactly performance oriented. Just license the API itself and let real programmers figure out how to do it right.
  • Standardize power. Let's see, in EN batteries we're up to 21 (though we did skip a few numbers). Worse still, Nikon used Japanese regulations to force the change from EN-EL4 batteries in the pro bodies to a new battery set. No regulation in 85% of the world forced them to do that. In other words, for the convenience of selling pro equipment into the Japanese market that used the same battery as the rest of the world, 85% of the pro users had to suffer. This is ecosystem friction at its worst: random changes that make ecosystem investments by the user worthless.
  • Market the ecosystem. Let's see, Photoshop has become an ecosystem. Is there a PhotoshopWorld convention? Yes, twice a year. Plus Adobe's own events. Plus third-parties marketing Adobe's products both directly and indirectly. Not only does someone have to write a better software program than Photoshop to knock Adobe off the mountain, they'd have to do the third-party management and ecosystem marketing better. Tall order (and here's a hint to any of you Japanese software folk reading this: you haven't proven you can do either, yet you need to do both to break Adobe's grasp on imaging software).
  • Listen to the users. You don't have to (and shouldn't) blindly follow any user request, but you have to listen closely to the user base in the ecosystem and figure out where their frictions are and remove those. Then check the lubricant to the things that are working and refresh it if necessary. Next analyze the user base and figure out what they're missing that they don't realize they're missing and add it. Then repeat that whole process over and over. Nikon currently doesn't listen well, doesn't remove frictions, removes lubricants, and randomly builds new product lines without being able to say how they fit with existing ones.
  • Build a real support system. Ecosystems don't work without a two-way communication channel between internal and external development groups, and that takes a real developer support system that doesn't play professional-level voice mail disengagement. Sure, not telling Sigma what you changed in the signals will slow their sales of lenses. But it doesn't improve your sales of bodies (or even lenses); it just makes customers upset.

From the Analagous Files
Nov 9, 2012 (humor, or is it?)--
Time to do some answers to emails I've received this week:

"I've just returned my fourth Toyota Camry because the car keeps getting dirty. After a few days of driving around on unpaved roads, the car seems to be coated in dirt. The windshield washer only removes some of it, and not even all of it from the glass I need to look out. Don't the car makers test their products before shipping them? Signed Filthy in Iowa"

Dear Filthy: Assuming you want to use your product for its intended purpose, you need to learn to maintain it. Yes, I know the owners manual says "paint may be damaged by automated wash facilities" and other similar warnings, but the reality is that you've bought a product intended to be used, and use has consequences. Regular maintanence is necessary, and it's up to you to see that it's done.

"I've just returned my third Honda Civic because the car always pulls to the left. When I let my hands off the wheel, the car always go left. Don't the car makers test their products before shipping them? Signed Crossing the Line in Nevada"

Dear Crossing: Certainly seems like a design defect. While some front wheel designs will tend to steer under extreme torque (acceleration), good designs and good QA mitigates or corrects that. Still, I have a couple of points to make. Even a data sample of two ought to tell you everything you need to know. If two are bad, all are likely bad. Unless you're known to have terrible luck ;~). Three bad and even luck probably has nothing to do with it, as we're well out in the tail, statistically speaking. Thus, one would have to assume that the problem you relate is implicit in the product. In such cases you don't have any great choices. The fact that you keep trying to buy this vehicle seems to indicate that you want it really, really badly. At some point you have to come to a reality: if you really want it you'll have to figure out how to live with its idiosyncracies. If you can't do that, you don't really want it ;~).

"I bought my Nissan Altima from a local shop that imports them from Japan directly and bypasses the US dealer chain. The transmission is skipping gears and the place that I bought it from now tells me there is no warranty and it'll cost US$500 to fix. I tried complaining to Nissan, but they just laughed at me. Signed Broken in North Carolina."

Dear Broken: You saved US$500 on the purchase price of your new auto, but are complaining about paying US$500 to repair it? Bargains that are too good to be true are just that: too good to be true. If you buy official product from an authorized dealer, you get official support. If you don't, you don't. It really is as simple as that. Now some people will take the risk implicit in that for a discount. That's called gambling. Gambling is not only legal in this country, but it seems to be the way we do everything now, including finance governments. But it's still gambling, and there are no sure bets.

"I really like the Toyota reliability, but I like the Subaru all wheel drive, and I really want the Ford Sync system for my next car. What should I do? Signed Confused in Michigan."

Dear Confused: Same as it ever was: you have to sort out your needs and priorities. What you buy has to meet all your needs, and should fulfill your highest priorities. You won't get everything in anything. By the time manufacturer two gets around to copying something that manufacturer one does (and they will), manufacturer three will have something new you think you want and the whole problem will just repeat itself. So let's look at your three specific points. If you drive a lot of miles and constantly, that Toyota reliability (should it be actually true ;~) sounds like its a near requirement versus a non-reliable brand, right? But if you're driving to work in blizzards all the time, perhaps the all wheel drive is a higher requirement. The sound system isn't fundamental to the function of the vehicle (transporation), and there are plenty of third-party after market add-ons that might fill that role should you really put a high priority on it. In other words, sort out your needs and priorities, then evaluate you options. Does Toyota have an all wheel vehicle that you can add an after market stereo to?

"What car should I buy? Signed Waiting for Your Answer in California"

Dear Waiting: I have no idea. Why would you think I would know? Just because I'm a car expert? While I know everything there is to know--okay, close to everything--about vehicles, one reason why there are so many vehicles out there is that they serve different purposes and have different personalities. Almost certainly you know more aobut what you need and what you want than I do from your question. Indeed, I know nothing about what you need and what you want from your question. Had you asked me something like "I love to drive fast, should I get a Jeep Wrangler or a Ferrari Testarossa?" I might have been able to supply an answer (that answer would probably be "move to Germany, buy a Porsche, and drive the Autobahn"). But from your question I'm not even sure you should buy a car.

For those of you who haven't had their coffee yet this morning, the four questions above are indeed disguised questions I've received (in multiples) this week: (1) Do all D600's get dirty sensors? (2) Why does every D800 I've tested have left focus issues? (3) Why won't Nikon repair my gray market camera? (4) Is there a product with Nikon's UI, Canon's QA, and Olympus's lenses? (5) What camera should I buy?

I'll leave it to you to figure out if my analagous answers translate to the camera questions ;~).

Why the Delay?
Nov 8, 2012 (commentary)--
Nikon's staggered release of the D5200 for different markets has raised a few eyebrows, as Nikon previously hasn't tended to do this sort of regional roll-out of a key product. Given that a new D5200 can be had in Asia and Europe for Christmas and not in the US until post-Christmas, the delay for US shipments is certainly a head scratcher.

This has the conspiracy theorists out in full force, and here's a sampling of what they're saying:

  1. Nikon doesn't have enough D5200 bodies to go around. Whether it be parts availability, late manufacturing ramp up, or something else doesn't matter, there's just something that's keeping production down. Reality: the only part that would really seem to be a potential issue is the sensor, but that's a Sony sensor being shipped in a lot of products worldwide at the moment.
  2. The US is all about discounts. Here the theory is that the D5200 would be under immediate pressure to discount, and the US prices already tend to be the lowest. Thus, Nikon is trying to get some full-price sales first. Reality: the longer the product is delayed in the US, the less we'll pay for it ;~). The more likely there will be something else that attracts our attention that is newer.
  3. NikonUSA has too many D5100's in inventory and needs to sell them first. This is the end-of-life issue so many tech products face. Reality: there's probably some truth to this notion, as the D5100 just went on a stronger instant rebate, enough so that it's now priced lower than the lower-end D3200.
  4. Americans keep finding quality problems with new Nikon DSLRs and complain loudly about them. I love this conspiracy theory. Basically, it would mean that Web sites like this one--which regularly reports Nikon's foibles--are modifying Nikon's behavior. Unfortunately, Nikon's change in behavior here wouldn't be the proper one, if true (e.g. roll out new product in markets where the public complaints would be less visible, fix them, then roll out the fixed product in the noisy US market). Reality: unlikely. Even Nikon's strong micro-management tendencies aren't that sneaky.
  5. The dollar is going to drop dramatically. While dollar devaluation continues to be one of the unstated policies of the US Fed, it's actually the Euro that's most worrisome to the Japanese makers at the moment. The dollar remained in a relatively narrow range to the yen in the last year and is predicted to remain so, while the Euro has fallen in double digit levels and there are fears that it will continue. Reality: if the dollar is really going to drop against the yen, you'd normally want to get the product into the US and sold as quick as possible, not more slowly than usual.
  6. Nikon is punishing the US for something. Another of my favorites, as those proposing this seem not to have run a business. Right, punish your customers. That surely increases sales. Reality: punishing customers only punishes your business. Such tactics would show dysfunctional management with psychological problems, which isn't likely.
  7. Canon isn't exactly launching new DSLRs in the US, either, so there's no hurry. This is a derivative of #2 and #3, and maybe #1, as otherwise the market's demand for an update should be stronger than laissez fare Canon imitation. Reality: while Nikon looks at and imitates what Canon does very carefully, inaction by Canon should be looked at as an opportunity to take market share with newer products, so I deem this one not likely.

Okay, so what's the real reason? This year Nikon will have announced a record number of interchangeable lens cameras: seven (D4, D800, D3200, J2, D600, V2, D5200). The previous high for them was four. As it is, Nikon is stumbling all over themselves in trying to get their lineup refreshed. Here in the US, there are still significant inventories of D3100, D5100, J1, and V1 cameras to get rid of, and the D4, D800, D600 launches have distorted the high-end DX market, too, as some customers sense that all these FX bodies mean no more high-end DX.

In other words, the real reason is probably Nikon's continued inability to execute a marketing program that moves product across all categories, and efficiently. Inventories of older products are still there and need to be moved, but the quake/flood delayed enough products that the dearth of new cameras in 2010/2011 must now turn into a constant stream. Someone at Nikon thinks that one-at-a-time marketing is better than multiples/system marketing to deal with this.

The Nikon 1 is a good example of that. Nikon could have gone to Photokina with a "Nikon 1 gets a one year refresh" message: J2, V2, new lenses and accessories. Instead, they chose to do four different press releases over a three month period, and the actual products will appear on shelves over an even longer period. That latter bit (products coming out over a longer period) is probably propelling the former bit (one-by-one announcements).

This is not the approach I would have used, as it allows products to be evaluated one-at-a-time by the press and customers, and the Nikon 1 products all have liabilities compared to their competitors, so those weaknesses will get amplified and then repeated with each subsequent release. It would have been far stronger to make a full system statement ("we're upgrading everything and adding more") than these weak upgrade and eventual release announcements.

But DX isn't far behind the Nikon 1 in this. We have four models, two of which got their upgrades this year (well, only one in the US ;~). Again we get one-at-a-time announcements (even with lenses, or should I say "lens") spread out. Plus we have two products still awaiting announcement and only one DX lens announced in the 14 months. Weaknesses again get amplified and then repeated with each subsequent release ("where are the DX lenses?" got repeated 12 times this year because of that approach).

Only FX seems to have survived this one-at-a-time strategy, but note how many of us pointed out the sneaky most-expensive, less-expensive, least-expensive sequence. People bought D800's that probably should have bought D600's because they didn't know that a D600 was coming (hint: the lenses said it was: 28-300mm, 24-85mm, even the f/1.8 primes, but again, those all came one-at-a-time, too).

All high tech companies have issues with multiple line, multiple product introductions, and multiple product updates. Nikon, however, seems to be struggling more than they should with this. Some of it is #3, above: lingering inventories aren't allowing for clean end-of-life transitions for some of their products, making big system-type announcements more risky for them. But I'm betting that their marketing/sales system is stretched thin this year by so many announcements and so much inventory.

What's the marketing message when you have seven new bodies to launch? Right, Nikon doesn't have a strong overarching message for CX, DX, or FX, let alone for the three together. I suspect things won't get better in terms of launches until they do. Nikon's line management of interchangeable lens cameras is a good candidate for a Harvard Business School case study. A lot of you complain to me that "Nikon's financials say they're doing okay," but that misses the point: they should be dominating the camera market. It's their marketing inefficiency and lack of strong product messaging that's not allowing them to do that.

NikonUSA Melville
Nov 6, 2012 (news)--
A few of you wanted to know about the status of Nikon's US headquarters in Melville, which is on Long Island and thus was hit by hurricane Sandy. The headquarters lost power for almost a week, but as of yesterday was back up and running. If you've got repairs in progress there, basically everything is backed up by a week.

Databases Updated
Nov 6, 2012 (news)--
The current Nikon DSLR and older Nikon DSLR databases have been updated to reflect the changes in Nikon's DSLR lineup. Please let me know if you find any lingering mistakes; this is a lot of fine print to look at by one's self, so I need all you eagle eyed folks out there to help me find the few remaining mistakes/typos.

Nikon Introduces the D5200
Nov 6, 2012 updated (news and commentary)--
As I suspected, the D5200 was next up in the DX update scenario. Not many surprises in this release, as it has a 24mp DX sensor in the traditional D5xxx body that uses a swivel LCD on the back.

One thing that will surprise the US market is this: the camera won't be available in the US until around CES (January). In other words, Nikon is launching the D5200 in markets other than the US (primarily Asia and Europe) first. No US announcement will be made until January, apparently. That's why you won't find a US press release or other information on the product on the NikonUSA product yet.

D5200

There are some other slight surprises. For example, the D5200 has been upgraded from the 11-sensor autofocus system to the 39-point system used by the D7000, and the metering sensor is the 2016-pixel version, as well. The Information Display screen has been modernized and provides quicker access to common settings. Live View now allows shooting with the mirror remaining up at all times (except with flash). Maximum shooting speed steps up to 5 fps from 4.

NEF is still recorded only in 14-bit compressed form (highlight data removal), the viewfinder is still a 95% pentamirror, and most of the rest of the camera remains unchanged. Video now supports 1080i/60/50 or 1080P/30/25/24 along with stereo sound (built-in mics or external mic). The camera uses the MC-DC2 connector for wired remote (and GPS and the WU-1a WiFi accessory; the camera also supports the Eye-Fi cards).

One new accessory that came up in this release is the WR-R10 wireless remote receiver and the WR-T10 remote transmitter. This device works with all 10-pin (requires WR-A10 WR adapter) or DC2 pin cameras (e.g. D3100, D3200, D5100, D5200, D7000, D300, D600, D700, D800, D3 series, and D4). It can be paired with a single or multiple cameras and has a radio-based communication distance of about 66 feet (20m). The remote can control Live View and Video operation on recent cameras (D4, D800, D600, D3200, and D5200), and can have a pre-programmed function button on it for some cameras, as well.

The D5200 has succumbed to fashion, and is available in three colors: black, red, and bronze. The camera won't be available until December in Asia and Europe. Meanwhile, the instant rebates were increased in the US on the D5100 effective yesterday.

Hello South Carolina
Nov 5, 2012 (news)--
If you're in South Carolina, you might want to listen into South Carolina public radio this Thursday. A post-Photokina interview I did with Your Day will air then. After it's aired, you should be able to listen to the interview at this site.

Nikon Financials
Nov 1, 2012 (news and commentary)--
Nikon seems to be the only camera maker that is close to hitting their sales estimates and it continues to defy the overall market trend of a shrinking camera market (just 99m units overall now forecast this year).

DSLR and mirrorless sales were actually up slightly from earlier estimates, to a total of 3.45m units in the first half of the fiscal year, up from 2.7m in the same period last year. Coolpix sales were slightly down from estimates, to 8.26m units, though this was still higher than last year's 7.86m units, bucking the trend reported by virtually every other camera maker. Since compact camera sales shrunk overall in the year, Nikon gained market share in compact cameras at the expense of other companies.

To put that in context: Nikon grew Coolpix sales from 7.86m units to 8.26m units when Sony's compact camera sales slid from 11.3m units to 8m units.

One interesting point was that lens sales missed their estimate, selling only 4.77m units instead of 4.9m units, though this was still up considerably from last year's 3.93m units. My guess is that lenses that Nikon thought they'd deliver in the second fiscal quarter slipped into the current quarter (or later).

Another curious point was that inventories held by Nikon in the Imaging Group grew by 31% in the last six months. Either some products were being held for delivery during the period (e.g. the upcoming D5200) or Nikon's inventory of product is growing faster than their sales. I'd bet the former more than the latter, yet it's still an anomaly that I haven't seen recently in Nikon's statements and warrants watching. Because Nikon's cash has shrunk during this same period, you'd expect them to want to move that inventory and convert it to cash soon.

Overall, the Imaging Group at Nikon remains highly profitable, returning a 41.8b yen profit on 381b yen in sales. This is in stark contrast to a number of other camera groups in other Japanese companies, many of which are either not profitable at all, or have far smaller profit margins.

However, all is not positive news in Nikon's presentation. The Precision group that makes semiconductor equipment had a lean first half and expects even more tightening in the second half of Nikon's fiscal year. The net result of that is that Nikon is even more of a camera company now than ever before. The expectations for the full fiscal year are that cameras will produce a whopping 73% of the company's sales. All those steppers, semiconductor equipment, microscopes, binoculars, glasses, spotting scopes, and other equipment Nikon makes are now down to close to one-quarter of the company.

As I've written before, Nikon is now a camera company. As goes the camera group, so goes Nikon. Nikon expects to sell almost 22% of all compact cameras this year, 37% of all interchangeable lens cameras (DSLRs and mirrorless), and 24% of all cameras. Nikon's current position can be summed up as this: for Nikon to continue to grow, it will have to take sales away from other camera makers. Indeed, for Nikon to continue to grow at the rate it has in the last two years, Nikon will have to aggressively take market share from other competitors.

Isn't it Ironic?
Oct 26, 2012 (commentary)--
The Nikon Photo Contest, 2012-2013 is now open, but not to anyone who buys and uses the only film SLRs still being actively marketed (by Nikon ;~). For example, if you use a Nikon F6 you're just not eligible to enter The Nikon Photo Contest.

You Call This Parts?
Oct 26, 2012 (commentary)--
A NikonUSA employee posted on the D1sscussion list that "NikonUSA sells parts." He pointed to the Nikon Store (note my repeat of my comment that they should do just that in an earlier story). You'd better click on that exact URL, though, because if you type "parts" into the Nikon Store search box, you'll get a "no items found" response, and if you search for "parts" in the menus, you won't find it.

Even if you use Nikon's exact wording they use on the site for a part (say "D3x hot shoe cover") in the search box, you might not quite get back what you expect. The first result, for example, is actually the accessory shoe cover for the Nikon V1, with a 100% confidence level that it's the right answer. And the second result is the BS-2 cover with only a 60% confidence level, even though that's the right answer.

The list of parts on Nikon Store seems to be the same as the parts list I published previously, for which you used to be able to just call and order. Online makes more sense, so that's not the problem.

The problem remains: none of the parts that triggered me to write about this issue are available on the Nikon Store. So the problem is still the same as I wrote, despite NikonUSA trying to tell some folk that they "sell parts." If you lose or need certain user-installable parts (say the rubber gasket covering the vertical grip connectors on your D800), you'll have to send your camera in for repair. At least until someone at NikonUSA finally realizes that they are doing the wrong thing here and they start stocking all the user installable parts and make sure that every NikonUSA customer support rep knows the URL to point people to.

70-200mm f/4 Announced
Oct 25, 2012 (news and commentary)--
Nikon yesterday announced the long-awaited 70-200mm f/4G AF-S VR lens. It's what Nikon users wanted but not at the price they'll like.

In the "wanted" category we have size, weight, and features. The new lens gets Nikon's latest VR system, which is said to provide a five stop gain in some hand holding situations (up a stop from VR II). It's a fairly compact lens at 7" long (about an inch shorter than the 70-200mm f/2.8). It's definitely much lighter (30 ounces instead of 54). Close focus is now 3.28' instead of 4.6', so the maximum reproduction ratio increases (not to 1.36 as in the Nikon specifications--apparently someone made a typo that has now been replicated around the Internet like wildfire; I'll bet it's 0.36x or 1:3.6). All these things are good.

The bad is this: the tripod collar is optional, and expensive optional, as in US$230 or so. All I can say is that for that kind of money, Nikon had better hope that this a better tripod collar than they've been making on their lenses lately. Coupled with the US$1400 price of the lens itself, this really pushes the overall price up high. At least we still get caps, hood, and a soft case at the regular price.

My guess is that we'll see the Really Right Stuff's and Kirk's of the world get into the tripod collar business, which will make Nikon's bean counters wonder why they aren't selling any and then eventually tell product management to stop selling them.

Nikon (and Canon) should have learned their lesson here from the vertical grip business, but apparently hasn't. Because the vertical grips are now such expensive accessories for the bodies that use them, a whole cottage industry of clone (and better) vertical grips have appeared at far lower prices. Buying a D600, D800, of D7000 with a Nikon-supplied grip is no longer a given. Most users are better served by looking at the third-party market now. That's likely to happen for tripod collars, as well.

Overall, this is a highly desired lens, but it's also a "see we can do what Canon does" type of product for Nikon. Even the act of charging for a tripod collar is a direct copy of Canon. There's no product creativity in this: Nikon is just attempting to do what Canon did so successfully (create a lower cost, smaller, lighter, less expensive telephoto zoom option). Yet apparently Nikon thinks that they're the premium brand and can charge more. (The Canon lens is selling for about US$1100 at the moment, with the tripod collar being US$150 extra. Even without the current US$150 discount on the Canon, the total package from Canon is US$1400 versus US$1630 from Nikon.)

That said, I look forward to this option, as I don't always need f/2.8, and a lighter option is highly welcome.

Focus on Focus
Oct 22, 2012 updated (news and commentary)--
First things first. Potential D800 folk want to know what the status of that camera is. At this point I'm 100% certain that NikonUSA knows how to get a body to where it should be if it does have misaligned AF sensor information. The second procedure deployment seems to have corrected the problem I saw with the first (all bodies were coming out with what was effectively a center of +10 AF Fine Tune).

Second, I've now seen enough just delivered D800's without the left sensor problem that I'll probably revise my D800 review back to Recommended later this week (applies to US serial numbers 3050000 and higher). This has taken me longer than expected for a simple reason: people are doing more tests and seeing more things, but I then have to figure out if they're performed the tests right and what it is they're seeing. A modest AF Fine Tune miss is not the same as the left sensor focus problem, and very common with all bodies. Moreover, the former is user correctable and the latter is not.

Update: after being challenged on this, I went back and carefully looked at my data and notes. I'm not sure where the extra 5 came in; probably a typo I didn't catch while updating the site while traveling. Trying to figure out an exact number from anecdotal data is not simple. I've seen many reports of problems with "new" bodies still in the 304xxxx numbers, and none in the 305xxxx numbers. Now that everyone's checking cameras, I'm also seeing "bad focus" reports that are clearly not the left sensor alignment problem.

Which brings me to some news: Michael Tapes, the man behind LensAlign, is introducing a new software product on Wednesday called FocusTune. This US$30 (intro price; US$20 for current LensAlign owners) program helps automate the process of getting your camera's AF Fine Tune settings right. The software can be used with or without LensAlign (you get some additional data this way, and as the name implies, it's very quick and easy to get correct test/camera alignment with the physical tool, whereas it's not always so easy with just a flat chart and software).

The FocusTune software works on both Macs and Windows; it doesn't use tethering like FoCal, but it's also not linked to specific camera serial numbers like FoCal. The reports generated by FocusTune are straightforward and easy to interpret. It can be used with any Nikon DSLR that supports AF Fine Tune (currently: D7000, D300, D300s, D3, D3s, D3x, D4, D600, D700, D800).

Given how many folk are testing their new D800's to find out if it has a problem and discovering that it could use some tender loving AF Fine Tune, FocusTune seems like an appropriate tool for the problem. Details can be obtained here.

I Tried to Stay Out of This One, But...
Oct 8, 2012--
Early this year NikonUSA made another of their many arbitrary changes in policies. In particular, they stopped selling parts, both to independent dealers and to customers, as well. It's that last part that's pushed me over the edge.

Let me give you the absurdity of NikonUSA's policy: you lose the rubber gasket on the bottom of your D600 (or other camera), the gasket that protects the connector for the vertical grip. It's a part that Nikon has users remove and re-install as a matter of course of normal use, by the way. So, can you get that part from Nikon or your dealer if you lose it? Nope. Your camera must be sent back to NikonUSA for repair. By the time you insure your shipment and Nikon charges you for "the repair," you'll probably be out three or more Jackson's, maybe even a Franklin. For a one dollar (Washington) part that requires no instructions to install.

This is now true of other easily installable user parts, including the ring eyepiece on the pro bodies (though you can buy an optional anti-fog or diopter version of it!), the rubber doors over connectors, the battery compartment door, and a host of other things that really don't need a trip to Nikon for an actual "repair."

I originally thought that this new policy would just get rid of things like the replacement grips Nikon used to send when they come undone, which is a slightly more sophisticated procedure to perform and probably shouldn't be done by most users. But I've lately been getting plenty of messages from site readers that NikonUSA has extended the parts ban to the point of absurdity.

On top of that, as some folk are learning, "local repairs" are disappearing as an option. Nikon only sends parts to authorized repair centers, even parts that really don't need a manual or training or alignment tool for a decent camera repair person to deal with. So now all cameras go to one of the 20 Nikon authorized repair centers, or more likely to NikonUSA themselves. How many of you live close enough to one of those repair centers to drop things off rather than have to ship and insure your camera or lens? Right, increased direct cost to the customer due to having to ship and insure an expensive product. By the way, NikonUSA increased repair prices for many common repairs this year, too.

I've written about Nikon's increasingly customer antagonistic policies several times now. This is just another in that lengthening stream. Once you've bought a Nikon camera, they don't really seem to care much about you any more. Support is difficult to get and is often wrong. Did I mention that my own surveys and those of others now show that about 10% of the cameras sent to NikonUSA for repair require more than one trip to fix? Bottom line is this: the cost of owning a Nikon camera has gone up, and mostly because of changes in NikonUSA policy and capability.

Gee, Nikon has a Nikon store on the web. Is it all that difficult to add rubber connectors to that site? Bottom line: this new policy has turned out to be absolute nonsense and so customer unfriendly as to raise the eyebrows of Nikon's most loyal customers. I like what Marianne Oelund wrote on dpreview: "Instead of asking 'Why, Nikon?' perhaps we should be asking 'why Nikon?"

You're probably wondering why I didn't jump on the criticize NikonUSA bandwagon when this policy was first announced early this year. Well, some of the arguments NikonUSA provided me made some sense. DSLRs, for example, are not easy to fix (as Nikon's own practices have made evident). I decided to see how this policy played out in practice before I commented deeply. As much as some people think I just exist to criticize Nikon, that's actually not at all true. But in this particular case, some of the arguments that NikonUSA employees used in defending the policy to me are now playing out as false. I've received a number of "silly repairs" lately by site readers, and NikonUSA seems to refuse to do the right thing in these cases. In other words, practice turned out to be a lot different than the stated goal here. That's now obvious to me through the facts. So I've decided I needed to write my thoughts about this and advocate for a different policy.

I encourage everyone to sign Matt Fuehrer's petition to Nikon about this. It already has over 7000 supporters. How high does that number have to go before NikonUSA gets a clue that they've seriously aggravated their user base? Of course, maybe NikonUSA only wants to sell cameras to people that mostly keep them in their closet these days and doesn't really care about people who actually use their cameras enough to need a replacement part once in awhile. In which case Marianne's question becomes very relevant.

Lest you non-American readers think that this is just a NikonUSA anomaly, beware. Nikon seems to be retreating from support in many ways across the globe. Someone just told me that one walk-in repair center Nikon runs in Europe is now closed to walk-ins unless you're an NPS (Nikon Professional Service) member. Nikon might call this "cost cutting," but it's effectively moving themselves further and further from their actual customers. Building walls that customers can't get over just sends customers elsewhere eventually.

Update: a few people have pointed out to me that NikonUSA does have a parts list you can order from as a customer. There are no products past 2010 on that list, however. I suspect that this is just continuing to clear out inventory of parts previously stocked for customers.

Yes, It's That Bad
Oct 20, 2012 (commentary)--
I mentioned the NikonUSA parts withdrawal last week. Here's yet another example of the lovely service we get from NikonUSA these days (I've gotten six similar emails in six days):

"Last night, while photographing my son's football game, the small locking knob on my 70-200 lens collar came off and I could not find it (grass field, night time, poor lighting). I immediately thought of your commentary on Nikon parts and thought...I'm screwed.

I called Nikon USA Parts and they would not sell me the part. So it is in fact true, they are a dumb as you say. Unbelievable they won't sell me a simple part and insist I send [the lens] to them for evaluation and repair. I called Nikon service centers to see if I can acquire the part. A place in Dallas that used to be an authorized repair center said he does not have the parts and Nikon will not sell him the parts unless he sends them $168,142.68 for their service equipment. He said 23 other dealers are in the same boat and are getting ready to file a class action lawsuit against Nikon over the issue.

I did find the parts manual on line and the knob can be easily screwed in place without disassembling the lens in any way (one service center tried to tell me you have to take the lens apart to replace the knob. Someone had called him earlier in the week about the OLD 70-200 and he kept asking me if I was the same guy - I kept having to tell him "NO, this is the first time I've called you!" After 5-minutes I realized he was talking about a different lens b/c he was not paying attention to what I was saying and gave up - great customer service). I called several other service centers and they either did not have the part and could not get it, or would not sell me the part. I have to send it to them for "evaluation"."

Fortunately, this person managed to eventually find the part on eBay. But note that the problem here isn't just the lack of parts availability, but also NikonUSA's customer service seems to want to argue with the customer, plus wants cameras and lenses back for repair just to screw something on. Exactly how much time did this customer waste trying to track down a US$10 part that is customer replaceable? How much did NikonUSA spend on phone calls telling the customer "no." How much time and expense will they waste doing user-installable parts repairs? As I wrote before, this is just absurd.

Nikon has an online store. Have someone go through all the current product lines with the repair manual, figure out what parts are user replaceable, and put them all up on the store for sale. Is that so hard to figure out?

Not Exactly DX, But...
Oct 14, 2012 (commentary)--
Let me get this right. The Coolpix S01, recently announced, finally ships and NikonUSA puts it on a 17% discount with free shipping at the online Nikon Store? If a brand new camera needs that big a discount to sell, something is wrong.

But here's the thing: the entity that suffers here is your local dealer, who paid more to NikonUSA to stock the S01 than Nikon is now selling it for directly.

A few people keep saying I'm only writing negative news about Nikon. Maybe you ought to look at the source of the news: Nikon is generating negative news near constantly now. For whatever reason, NikonUSA is in full-squeeze mode, squeezing customers, squeezing dealers, squeezing everything they can find to wring out a few more pennies. And here it's to sell a product online at a 17% discount from the price they announced just one month ago.

The good news? You can buy 10 of them at this price (well, actually 20 if you placed two separate orders a week apart). Hmm, I wonder if there's an arbitrage position (buy in the US, sell overseas)? If you wondered how Gray Market happens, this is one of the ways.

Update: NikonUSA did extend the instant rebate to dealers selling the S01. But the problem is still the same. When the S01 was announced, dealers put in orders for the unit at about US$153, their cost. By the time the product shipped, NikonUSA asked dealers to sell them for US$150, promising them a ~US$25 credit when they filled out the proper paperwork for sales of the unit. In other words, a dealer basically gets about the same amount in cash from a customer as they gave to NikonUSA, then gets a credit from NikonUSA for a slightly lower than expected "profit," and the likely scenario that this will all play out all over again with the next released products. In other words, dealers are fronting Nikon money. They've done this before, but generally not on just-announced, just-released products.

Camera Users Explained
Oct 16, 2012 (commentary)--
Rick Sammon recently made a very cogent post that perfectly explains social media in a few words. I was immediately struck by what would happen if we applied this type of definitional logic to camera users:

  • Nikon DSLR user: look at all these pixels of my donut
  • Canon 5DIII user: see the video of my donut
  • Crop sensor user: couldn't take a wide angle shot of the donut with a prime lens
  • m4/3 user: the donut is bigger than my camera
  • NEX user: the donut resembles my main camera control
  • D800 user: with three donuts, I can't focus on the left one
  • Fujifilm user: love donuts, they're so retro
  • Pentax DSLR user: I'd rather have pancakes
  • Full frame users: my donuts are bigger than yours
  • MF users: you call that wimpy thing a donut?
  • Compact user: can we move the donut into brighter light?
  • Cell Phone user: Facebook post: here I am eating my donut

DX Month

DX Week One

DX Week Two

DX Week Three

More D800 Data
Sept 28, 2012--
I've now had the time to go through the August and much of the September data I've received from D800 users and other sources. A couple of things seem clear:

  • Newly received cameras reported as having a focus problem are going down. But they still aren't zero.
  • The latest fix seems like a fix. Almost all "early fix" cameras came back fixed, but offset to something like +10 AF Fine Tune. It appears that the latest deployment of the procedure actually fixes cameras to 0 AF Fine Tune. People who had a difficult time calibrating lenses after "the fix" who sent the camera back, now report that they've got a system that can be AF Fine Tuned properly.

I've also now heard a report that Nikon is supplying new 50mm lenses to the focus test stations at the subsidiaries. While the lens isn't directly used in the calibration process, it is used to assess focus performance before and after calibration.

In short, while Nikon has said virtually zip to customers, behind the scenes it seems that they've been scrambling to iron out every lose end. I have to compare Nikon's response to this problem to Apple's iOS Map problem: Tim Cook did the right thing and issued a public statement and apology and an assurance Apple would do what it takes to make Maps better quickly. Nikon has said nothing to customers, even customers who've had to send their cameras back multiple times to get them working as they should.

At the risk of sounding like a broken tape that plays over and over again: this is customer antagonistic. All you do is piss off your loyal customers by taking the approach Nikon has taken. Thing is, if camera sales have indeed peaked and will show no real growth through 2018 as many analysts, including myself, predict, how do you retain your current customers and get new ones from your competitors when you're taking a customer antagonistic approach to support and service? Having people running around saying "yeah my D800's really great, but it took four months for Nikon to make it focus right and they never did admit that there was anything wrong, let alone pick up the initial shipping back to them" is not going to get you a lot of new customers.

Is The Switch On?
Sept 28, 2012--
I made the statement during my Photokina coverage that I was seeing more and more people giving up on DX and going to m4/3, in particular the OM-D. Since making that statement I've gotten more than a couple of dozen "me too" emails. In almost every case the bottom line was simple: "Nikon didn't give me what I needed in DX." Typically, that revolved around lenses. Small, light lenses.

The funny thing is that Nikon has their own precedent to look at. The Series E lenses were smaller, lighter lenses targeted towards enthusiasts rather than pros, and were made for smaller-than-pro film SLR bodies (e.g. the FM's). Slightly less aggressive apertures (typically f/2.8), but also less bulk and weight. It's also not as if Nikon has never made a pancake lens. Consider the 45mm f/2.8P, which sold 30,000+ units in four years, despite being a manual focus lens in an autofocus world. Nikon also can't be oblivious to how well pancakes from other makers have sold, either (the Pentax K pancakes, or even things like the 16mm f/2.8 NEX or the many m4/3 pancakes).

So the fact that Nikon has avoided "going small" in DX means they're following a particular strategy. Indeed, the popularity of the 18-200mm seems to have pushed them to up the ante with the 18-300mm. Only problem? It's bigger and heavier, and thus running exactly counter to the current developing trend. Does it really matter if the 18-300mm is a good lens or not if what some of the key customers wanted is still missing in action? I don't think so.

The problem for Nikon is that trickles tend to become streams, which tend to become rivers. We're deep into the trickle out of DX. As more and more people discover that an OM-D is smaller, lighter, has more small/light lens choices, yet is virtually as competent image wise as a D7000, what's that mean for DX?

That's not a rhetorical question, so I'll answer it: Nikon (and Canon and Sony with their APS systems, for that matter) needs to re-make the case for DX. It has to sit in a pocket between mirrorless and FX to live on. Mirrorless is becoming a complete system (m4/3 especially). FX is a complete system. DX isn't. Considering that Nikon sells more DX cameras and lenses than anything else other than Coolpix, the lack of a "complete DX" is an egregious mistake by Nikon.

So what can I do? Well, I'm declaring October DX month here at byThom. Look for a number of DX reviews and commentaries during the month. With a little care, you can fill some of Nikon's negligence by adept juggling of what's available.

Good Times
Sept 27, 2012--
Let's assume for a moment that you're shopping for a new camera. You should be a very happy person (unless you want a direct D300s replacement ;~). If Photokina proved anything, it's that the number of extremely competent cameras of virtually any type is on the rise. It's very difficult to imagine someone that can't find the right product for them (other than that person wanting a D300s replacement).

Compact cameras? Faster lenses, better sensors, bigger sensors, better performance. Mirrorless cameras? Consumer to pro, all covered, including video pros. Plus lots of new lens choice and better sensors makes some of these systems as viable as the two big SLR/DSLR legacies. DSLR? The low-end cameras are awfully good, the FX stuff is all better than most people need. Medium Format? Still alive and kicking, with quality still rising there, too. Want a rangefinder? They're available. Want a traditional DSLR? Plenty of choices. Want an unconventional, modern DSLR? Sony is there for you. Want smaller systems? Mirrorless is there. Need something for your pocket that's better than your phone? Yep, that's all there, too.

What's happening here?

Simple: declining camera sales--especially in the volume compacts--have camera makers madly scrambling to produce things that will appeal to customers. Any customers. Preferably in the US$500+ range, where they can get decent product margins. It isn't that the camera makers have just figured out how to do these products: it's that they have to do these products to survive. That DSLR you already own does just fine for most of your uses, after all. So to sell you something new, the camera makers have to push DSLRs to new levels or offer smaller, competent alternatives that might get you to leave your DSLR in the closet for most shooting to be replaced with something you carry around all the time.

The fact that customers are responding to things like the OM-D, X-Pro1, RX-100/RX-1, and a host of other models means we're going to get more of this, not less.

Unfortunately, the numbers don't add up for the camera makers. To continue growing overall, Canon and Nikon now have to take market share from other camera makers. They're likely to do that via price, given that they have the best economies of scale. That plus just copying the things from other makers that do get traction. Likewise, the other camera makers must take market share away from Canon and Nikon to have sustainable volumes. They have to build better, more interesting products and price them right.

For customers, these are good things. We're going to see a fiercely competitive marketplace with a lot of compelling entrants over the next few years. Photokina 2012 was the first salvo. I suspect Photokina 2014 will be about the last significant salvo from a few of the more marginal companies. But in between: lots of interesting, great products, and lots of price wars are likely to be the norm. Good times*.

*If you're patient. As usual with Photokina, a number of announcements were actually pre-announcements. Some of the cameras won't appear for sale until December, and some of the lenses won't appear until next summer.

D600: Where's the HDMI?
Sept 26, 2012--
One of the questions I asked Nikon at Photokina more than a week ago was this: how the heck do you get the promised uncompressed HDMI out of the camera? The D600 doesn't have the same Advanced options on the HDMI menu, meaning that you can't really control overlay or size of the output. As many people are beginning to notice, it's not obvious how you get clean HDMI out of the D600. Indeed, hooked to all three of my HDMI systems, I get 95% output, which isn't exactly right.

Nikon promised to get back to me. So far: nada.

D800: Where Do We Stand?
Sept 25, 2012--
Some of you have noted I've been quiet about the D800 as of late. That's not because I haven't been continuing to investigate the situation, it's because Nikon is making this all a lot harder on everyone (including themselves) than it has to be. I do have a bit of new information, but before we get to that, let's deal with what appears to be new information out of Photokina, but really isn't.

Falk Lumo reported on his site during Photokina about a talk he had with Nikon Europe customer and technical support people. I'll let you just read what he wrote on his Web site. Do that first, then come back here.

Falk's information isn't really new. Indeed, it's been the Nikon party line for almost two months now. When you do get someone from Nikon to talk about the problem--usually only off the record--you get the answers that Falk reports.

I believe the truth lies slightly elsewhere; my information comes from off-the-record and other sources, at least one deep within Nikon. So let's deal with some of the points being made:

  • Problem. Individual autofocus sensors aren't at the actual position stored in internal tables in the camera. In particular, the left side of the focus system may have incorrect positions reported. Thus, when the AF system tries to position a lens based upon that bad information, you get incorrect focus. Call it an alignment issue if you'd like, but it's a bit more subtle than that. In theory, Nikon had a procedure during manufacturing for dealing with individual part variation and positioning. In practice, that procedure didn't work on a large number of D800 cameras, and even a few D4s.
  • Fix. There has been a repair procedure in place worldwide since early July. It has been recently updated with a newer repair procedure. That's partly because the reference bodies sent to program the calibration had issues in themselves, I believe. Most cameras coming out of Melville repair early on seemed to get a +10 bias in AF Fine Tune along the way, for example. That should be fixed with a new version of the procedure that was deployed. I'm told the full procedure takes at least an hour a camera. It also doesn't seem to be as difficult to convince Nikon to take a camera back and check/recalibrate it now. They're a little more accepting of "it doesn't focus right" complaints and less demanding of specific test results. So the good news is that if you do get a camera with a problem, it can be fixed. Incovenient, sure, but still gets you where you want to be.
  • Extent. Nikon continues to claim that they don't know how many, or which serial numbers were affected. I strongly doubt this claim, partly because of information I've gotten directly out of Nikon personnel who would only talk off the record. I believe that Nikon knows that there was a considerable number of problem cameras. Based upon three different sets of data I would put my confidence level at greater than 10% with problems, but less than 40%. I believe Nikon also knows the serial number cutoff at which the problem should no longer be found.
  • Continuation. New cameras out of the factory really shouldn't have the problem. I get this from three different sources within Nikon. However, that didn't stop the number of reports I got in August about a new camera just acquired having the problem. Now, it very well may be that we're in the hypochondriac mode here, that Nikon's silence and the public's fear has everyone testing their new gear in ways they never have before and finding all sorts of things that were probably always there but they didn't notice. I know that to be true in one case, where someone thought they had the D800 left focus problem but my analysis of their images told me that it was more likely their lens had the problem (something we verified with another camera body). Nevertheless I worry about returned cameras just re-entering the market from some providers.

A number of people thought I was nuts reporting this issue. They thought I was hallucinating, or something worse. As you can now infer from Falk's post and others, I actually reported a real problem and pretty accurately, I believe. I wasn't the first to note a problem (I think Ming Thein was), but I was the first to note how widespread it was and give any details about it.

The real issue here is Nikon's customer antagonistic response. Denial, followed by requiring a lot of hoop jumping, followed by quiet. Nikon seems to think that if they just ignore the elephant in the room, there isn't an elephant in the room. Nikon has been lucky that this elephant remained relatively calm and didn't cause collateral damage. Next time the results may be different.

So where does this leave my recommendation? I wish I could say that I could change it back to what it was (Recommended). But until the noise quiets down and I see more information about new shipments being clearly devoid of the problem, I don't think it fair to do so. I am instead going to tentatively remove the Not Recommended rating, but in doing so I'm also trusting some sources within Nikon itself.

If you buy a new D800, look for any evidence the box has been opened and the camera been used in any way (i.e. might be a returned unit). If you don't get the prompt for setting the date and time, for example, there's a chance that the camera has been returned and you need to ask some tough questions of your source.

Photokina Coverage
Sept 13, 2012--
Nikon F-mounters and the non-mirrorless pages can be found on the following pages:

While coverage of all things mirrorless is on sansmirror.com, as usual:

Where's the D600 Stuff?
Sept 13, 2012--
Now in the D600 compendium article, which I update as I learn new things.

Large Format Compacts Get Larger
Sept 13, 2012--
Back in 2007 I issued a written challenge to camera companies (an echo of one wrriten by several other photography bloggers at various times over the years): build a large sensor compact.

Most of the feedback I got was "can't be done." As I responded at the time: "yes it can." The camera that came the closest to my original specification was the Fujifilm X100, and it's a good camera that changed Fujifilm's fortunes in cameras (now spawning X models galore).

Today Sony adds its second large sensor camera (the 1" sensored RX100 was the first). Today's RX1 announcement is for a full frame compact camera, with traditional controls and a 35mm Zeiss f/2 lens up front. So we now have the largest sensor compact camera yet. While the US$2800 price might scare a few of you off, I suspect this camera will be a hit. Full details are all over the Web, so I won't repeat them here. But I say Bravo, Sony, well done.

Indeed, I've been shooting a lot with the RX100 lately, which is slightly more compact camera-ish vesion of the same thing (smaller, but still large sensor; modest zoom lens; more reliance on menus and the Control pad for changing settings). Given how good the RX100 is, the RX1 is going to be a real market changer, I think. Exactly as I thought something like that would be back in 2007 (actually well before that, but that's the date of my major article on the subject).

So let's see, Canon has a large sensor compact. Sony has two large sensor compacts. Fujifilm has a large sensor compact. Sigma has two large sensor compacts. Nikon has...doh! When do you think the Nikon large sensor compact project got green lighted? ;~)

The Split
Sept 11, 2012--
Without giving anything away about the announcements that are coming in the next week or so, I'm going to point out something in advance of my Photokina reporting that ought to be obvious, but apparently isn't. Certainly not to the camera makers.

For a long time I and others have pointed out that there was nothing "broken" about camera controls in the film era. Give me direct control over changing aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation. Provide obvious ISO setting so we don't overlook it (even in the film days, we wanted that, because we didn't always remember to reset it when we changed films). Give me an accurate 100% view of my composition and focus. Make the shutter release respond as quickly as possible. Done. The only major control that digital added that needs to be fully exposed is white balance.

A lot of us griped when the aperture went from lens ring to a dial on the camera body, though we quickly adapted. It was still direct control, after all. While each manufacturer had a slightly different take (Nikon's has been button+dial since the N8008 in 1988, so about 25 years), they all had pretty direct controls that were easy enough to adapt to.

So why is it that we keep getting new digital cameras with missing dials, missing buttons, completely different interfaces, hidden controls, Game Boy controls, crippled viewfinders, and more? It's a bit as if the camera makers don't believe in their own well-proven designs. (The cynic in me says that it is just too many engineers on payroll left to their own devices to "iterate" any and everything, otherwise they wouldn't have a job.)

But it isn't just controls that were well proven over the years. Certain lenses should be de rigueur. Diopter adjustments on viewfinders are a necessity. Terminology is well established. Certain capture sizes are desired simply for historical consistency (e.g. full frame or as close to it as possible).

So why is it that every time a camera company accidentally rediscovers one of those things that the press and user base praises them to high heaven? Woo hoo, Fujifilm has put an aperture ring back on lenses! Hey, and they've got dials and an optical viewfinder, too! (Oops, they forgot the diopter adjustment ;~). Woo hoo, Company X is introducing a new full frame camera.

Realistically, the core of the higher end camera market is comprised mostly of folk who used film cameras (or at least remember their dads using them). Why would the camera makers think that we'd like all-electronic monstrosities with user interfaces that are new and untested?

Here's the sad truth: market leaders Canon and Nikon keep those core users on an upgrade leash. Oh, they've got the basic camera designs you want, right down to the G1x/G12 and P7700, and they roll them as updates so that you'll buy a new one every time the internal technology gives you something you didn't have before (bigger sensor, 36mp, video, etc.). If they can keep you buying every few years, that keeps their core sales up.

The reason why we get these oddball things like the Nikon 1 or Pentax Q or even the Sony pellicle mirror DSLRs, and the reason why we're about to get Android cameras and a host of other things that don't fit the term "traditional" is that the camera makers are looking for new users. Those of us who grew up on film SLRs are a dying breed. We happen to have a lot of disposable income (and often a lot of time to devote to our photographic passions), so the camera makers keep discovering that when they pop something out that is "retro" in any sense, we respond.

But the camera companies need new users because new users are the only way they can obtain growth, and they are now as addicted to growth as any public companies are. Unfortunately, they may be too late to that game, as camera phones recognized the real shift in generational use of images and have been catering to that from day one. We're seeing camera makers (Nikon and Samsung so far, but about to be joined by a host of others) suddenly make cameras that are essentially camera phones without the phone. The only card the camera makers have to play here is larger sensor and bigger lens, but there is no real barrier keeping the phone makers from going that route, so the camera makers really don't have any real way of holding off the phone onslaught other than to join it.

That won't stop the camera makers from casting their lines for any fish they can hook. The oddball concept cameras still are coming out of R&D, and we're still seeing the camera makers chase any trend, real or imagined. For example, you might note that one trend is "tough" compacts. Gee, you think? How many times did customers have to replace their compact camera because blowing dust or sand got into the lens cover blades and stopped the camera from operating? ;~) Another trend some companies are following is the "hey, what's with that GoPro thing?" fad.

The funny thing is this: the camera makers just don't seem to understand the young, yet they think they can make products for them. The truly young have lived with ubiquitous software all their life. They're inventing things like Instagram and Flipbooks, et.al., because the camera makers aren't (not to mention that they often don't use a conventional camera, but rather their camera phone). How good are the camera makers at software? Uh, pretty terrible, actually. A teen in his room at his parent's house with Xcode stands a better chance of making a significant contribution to photography software than do any of the camera companies.

What we're seeing is a split in the market. If you'r'e under 30, you think of cameras and photos differently than if you're over 50. All the camera makers are over 50 ;~). Yet they continue to try to design for the young while missing obvious things their loyal, older market strongly desires. Does a full frame camera really have to weigh two pounds? (Answer: no. You can create a full frame camera at half that weight without giving up anything if you really try.) Do we really need buttons and controls moved around? Are we really videographers? Has any camera company given us software that truly answers our needs in the digital world?

So let's see. I'm going to start a camera company from scratch. I'm going to design two cameras: one for the younger crowd, one of the older. The younger crowd gets communicating and programmable with modern controls (allof which can be programmed). And it's waterproof, shoots video, focuses quickly (because the younger crowd moves fast) and operates well in low light (gotta get those bar shots on Spring Break). The older crowd gets, oh, say an FM3a body with a 24mp FX sensor. It works just fine with older film lenses as well as newer autofocus wonders. I'll put an LCD on the back and add Live View because our eyes aren't getting better, but I'll leave most of the control functions as they are on the FM3a.

Did I just hear two cheers? ;~)

Yes, it's about that easy. You wouldn't know it from most of the gyrations the camera companies are making, though. Prepare for an up and down week of announcements.

Photographers Credo
Sept 10, 2012--
With Photokina nearly upon us and all the gear hype that comes with that, I felt that it might be appropriate to back up a bit and reassert what it is that drives me and probably drives you. Herewith, my photographer's credo (I suspect a few people would like to link to this, so I've also created it as a separate article here):

I am a photographer.

I expect a camera to take pictures. I expect a camera and its accessories to do that job well, and to do it with consistency. I expect the design of the camera to be focused on taking pictures, and don't care how good the camera looks or whether it is fashionable or not. The primary reason I care about what materials a camera is built from have to do with reliability, protection from the environs and practices in which I use it, and its durability. I expect to be able to control the camera completely and directly while taking pictures, and do not support designs that make me stop taking pictures to change something important.

I expect the company that produces my camera to create it and support it with diligence and attention to quality control and with high consistency between samples. I expect the company that makes my camera to admit to and fix any problems they discover, and to do so without delay. I do not expect to have to discover those problems for the camera maker, but when I do, I expect the company to acknowledge them and fix them not just for me, but for everyone who owns the product. I expect the company producing my camera to provide useful accessories that follow all the same principles I outline above, and to make them available in a timely fashion. I do not expect to shoot forever with one battery or a single lens.

I am a photographer.

I take pictures. My camera is merely a tool I use to accomplish that. I do not worship my tool. I am not committed to always using one particular tool. I will use the best tool available to me to create each of my photographs. My loyalty is not principally to my camera maker, but instead to the photographs and images I wish to create. However, a camera maker who fully caters to my needs will find that I am loyal to them as long as they continue to do so.

I would like my camera to be better integrated into my work flow, helping me automate and simplify my use of my tools. In order for that to happen, the camera maker and I (as well as other photographers) need to have an open and candid dialog; there needs to be a place where I can express my interests and needs for my tool(s), not a voice mail wall and lack of email addresses available for supplying feedback.

I am a photographer.

I am not interested in video, phones, or other non-camera features added to my tool. I tolerate such things only if they don't get in my way and they are necessary for my tool maker to stay in business. I look to technology only if it has a direct impact on making my images better or helping me to more easily create or work with the photos I take.

I evaluate my potential cameras and tools for what they do for me, and in a fairly narrow sense. Do they let me capture the exact moment in time I desire? Do they focus where I want them to and put only the range of things I want in focus within a given DOF calculation I've calculated? Do they allow me to control exposure, white balance, and other core functions the way I need them to? Are the files my camera creates clean and free from artifacts and un-asked for changes? Do all these things happen with consistency? I ask these things and will change tools if I find the answers lacking.

I am a photographer.

I vote with my pocketbook. Given that I make less and less from each image every passing year as market forces propel the average value of images downward, I must vote with my pocketbook. I purchase only those things that let me accomplish what it is I am trying to create. For "casual" images, I have choices other than the tools in which I've invested most, and I'm not afraid to use them. I need my tool to be productive, useful, convenient, consistent, and to not break. And I need that tool to be within a price range I can afford and justify.

Given this credo, I as a photographer give my allegiance only to those companies that fulfill my needs, and only as long as said companies live up to them.

New Lenses
September 7 (news)--Nikon F-mount users are getting a little pre-Photokina love, with two new lenses pre-announced this week.

First up we have the South Korean firm Samyang's new 24mm f/3.5 tilt-shift lens, likely to be a lower-priced option than the Nikkor 24mm PC-E. The official "launch" will occur at Photokina, and I'll have more to say when I get a chance to see and try the lens firsthand. (Aside: stangest launch language so far. From the press release: "Samyang is about to release..." [my emphasis]).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Zeiss followed yesterday's tease announcements with a real one: the new 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar ZF.2. This US$2000 lens weighs in at 920g and has a 77mm filter thread up front. It focuses somewhat close (2.6 feet, .8m) giving it a one-quarter lifesize macro function (1:4). The lens should begin shipping in December.

Software Updates
September 6 (news)--A couple of significant software updates were announced at Photoshop World in Las Vegas this week.

First up we have Adobe Photoshop Touch 1.3 for the iPad. Besides Retina display handling, the big change is the ability to work with images up to 12mp. Coupled with the ability to move images, layers and all, into Photoshop CS6, we're now starting to see iOS software that has pretty good processing capabilities. Remember, Android and iOS tablets have more limited memory and CPUs than desktop and laptop systems, so we're still a ways from having the full Photoshop experience in our one-pound wonders. We'll get there, and Touch 1.3 is another step in getting us there.

Many of you know that one of the Photoshop Plug-In sets I use is Perfect Photo Suite (onOne Software). Version 7, pre-announced at PhotoshopWorld, adds a new module, Perfect B&W, and an improved Perfect Effects 4. The full suite is now Perfect B&W, Perfect Effects 4, Perfect Portrait 2, Perfect Layers 3, Perfect Resize 7.5 (formerly Genuine Fractals), Perfect Mask 5.2, and FocalPoint 2. (Items in italics are the plug-ins I tend to use with some regularity.) The new full suite is US$300, and those with earlier versions of the suite bought prior to August 1st will be able to update for US$150 (if you bought after that, the update is free). The new suite doesn't ship until next month.

Nikon Pitters Updates Into the Net
September 5 (news)--New cameras mean that someone at Nikon has to "rework" the Nikon software. I put "rework" in quotes, because sometimes--and I think the Nikon J2 is an example--the actual work probably consists of making sure that the text string J2 is recognized in the EXIF file and processed the same as files with the J1 string. Nikon NEF Codec 1.15.0 was also released for Windows systems, also bringing "J2 support."

Capture NX2 goes to version 2.3.4 and adds J2 and P7700 support as well as fixing one known issue (uh, I think Nikon meant "crash").

In addition Nikon ViewNX 2.5.1 for Windows has appeared with a change to fix a printing problem with International sized papers, while Camera Control Pro 2.11.1 gets a fix that allows it to be recognized on Macs with PowerPC processors.

Photokina Coming
September 3 (commentary)--Every two years we have the big photography trade show in Germany, called Photokina. Big, as in 1200+ exhibitors and 180,000+ attendees. Heck, there are even over 6000 journalists in attendance.

This year, I'll add to the journalist count by one, as I, too, will be wandering the scene with my press pass from September 18 through 23rd.

Obviously, I'm planning coverage of the show on both the bythom and sansmirror sites. I've not yet decided how I'll manage that coverage. If I spend too much time trying to update Web sites on the scene, I have less time to see what's (and who's) there and start limiting myself to the primary camera makers (with whom I hope to be doing interviews with a number of product managers along the way; I've already got a couple scheduled and am working on more; curious, no response from Nikon so far ;~). I'm contemplating doing some video coverage at the show, but as a one-man band that would mean you wouldn't see the video results until after the show.

So for the next month or so, my sites are going to be filled with new product, strategy, differentiation, and some general future speculation, because that's what tends to happen around Photokina. Come October, you'll see those long-awaiting reviews appear as the Photokina dust settles. Finally, late in the year we'll get back to more instructional articles again.

Bottom line is this: there will be a lot happening in the next three weeks centered around product introductions. For some of it I'll be right in the middle of the mix, and trying to ferret out some of the things and details you normally don't see on other sites. While there will be important product introductions, I'm also curious to see how strategy and marketing are being promoted, to see how the companies are jockeying against one another, and what their messages to customers are.

Final note: because of some long travel legs, there will be a few days in the next four weeks where there aren't any posts. Never fear, I'm probably on a plane somewhere trying to catch up with articles that need to be posted.

Sensor Economics
August 27 updated (commentary)--Back when the D3 came out I made a number of comments about sensor costs, some of which have been embellished over the years into near Internet myth.

Basically, I wrote that I thought that a DX sensor was probably about US$50 in actual cost at the time, and an FX sensor, as far as I could tell, was about 10x more, or US$500. The part that got picked up more and embellished into mythdom, however, was my point that the rule of thumb in manufacturing is that one dollar of parts cost often ends up being about three dollars of consumer cost. In other words, a US$500 sensor cost implied US$1500 worth of price to the consumer. In other words, don't expect a US$1500 full frame camera (because all the other costs, when also multiplied by three would quickly push the consumer price higher).

Of course, Sony eventually had a US$2000 full frame camera (the now discontinued A850) and we now have rumors of Nikon (and not long after, Canon) getting ready to introduce entry-level full frame cameras at prices far lower than the current models, perhaps even below Sony's ending A850 price. So did something change?

Several things have changed. But I doubt that the DX/FX cost ratio has changed quite as much as some think it has, or that large sensor costs have reduced as much as people think.

One of the things that changed is the use of larger wafer sizes. Another is improvements in actually laying down the silicon. Improvements garnered by making smaller sensors with extremely small line size have had an impact, too, as a 24mp FX sensor doesn't have nearly as small features as state-of-the-art 24mp DX sensors; making changes to improve yield with smaller features should have implications on sensors with larger features, too.

A more interesting thing to contemplate is "what else is being made on the wafer?" Here's a challenge for you: take a 12" round area and in it place as many 24x36mm rectangles as you can. Notice something? Yep, you've got all these areas around the edges that aren't being used. Could you fit in some small chip designs in that space? You bet. It'd be nice if they were other smaller imaging sensors using a similar process. Hmm. Nikon is now creating its own sensors at CX, DX, and FX sizes. Have they figured out a yield benefit to mixing those intelligently? I'm going to alter this paragraph after talking to some sensor experts. One thing that some reading the original didn't understand was that most FX sensors require multiple lithography steps per sensor (DX sensors require a single step). The D3 sensor appears to require four, for example. It's actually this lithography step action I was trying to speculate about, though my original wording got in the way. Let's just reduce this to a simpler thing: can you produce what's on the wafer more efficiently?

I don't know the answer to that question, though after a few new conversations with those in the semiconductor business the answer is probably yes. Which leads me to believe that you could produce FX sensors less expensively now than you could five years ago. Not amazingly so, but a step forward in cost structures that would change product costs.

So let's back into the cost discussion a different way.

The D600 is rumored to be made in Thailand, the plant where all the DX cameras are made. It's rumored to basically use D7000 parts content where possible. Getting the sense that the overall product margins might be similar? Let's run the D7000 at introduction versus a US$2000 D600 at intro and see what happens:

  • D7000. US$1200 list. US$960 to Nikon. US$580 cost at 40% margin.
  • D600. US$2000 list. US$1600 to Nikon. US$960 cost at 40% margin.

A US$360 difference in cost mostly associated with the sensor. Make the DX sensor 1/10th the price (the factor I reported in 2007) and we have US$400 for an FX sensor, or about 80% of the US$500 price I guessed five years ago. Simply put: we don't need a drastic drop in sensor price to get a US$2000 FX body.

My guess is that Nikon thought that the hyped up market energy that would come from introducing a remarkable leading edge 36mp camera could generate really strong demand for something lower priced that maybe didn't quite go as far (e.g., the rumored 24mp D600). Introduce the D800 first, grab the "gotta have the best" customers first and get them to talk about how great it was, and then follow up with a lower priced option for those on more of a budget.

Which makes the next story all the more remarkable.

Random Statistic of the Week
August 27 (commentary)--Care to explain this? These are customer ratings of two cameras, with 1 being the lowest rating, 5 being the highest.

Camera One (average: 4.85 rating):

  1. 3 responses
  2. 1
  3. 1
  4. 12
  5. 180

Camera Two (average: 4.02 rating):

  1. 16 responses
  2. 9
  3. 18
  4. 9
  5. 87

Camera One is the D700, while Camera Two is the D800. The numbers came from Amazon US customer ratings a couple of days ago, so there obviously are issues right from the start, as Amazon's customer-entered reviews aren't necessarily without bias.

But my point isn't the exact number, it's that this is what happens when a camera company remains silent when they have a critical issue facing even a modest number of users. You guessed it: most of the non 5 ratings for the D800 mention the left sensor focus problem. The interesting thing is this: I've now found three sources of data in addition to my own that all suggest that the number of early D800's with problems, imagined or real, was well above 20%, and probably more like 33%. When that many customers think they have a problem, you as the manufacturer have a problem, simple as that. To not get in front of that and fix that impression tends to have longer-term consequences.

Nikon's continued silence boggles the mind.

Death Watch
August 24 (news and commentary)--Kodak is now down to five businesses: commercial packaging and printing, consumer inkjet, entertainment imaging, commercial film, and speciality chemicals. Along with exiting the digital camera business, Kodak has announced an exit in personalized imaging and document imaging businesses. Gone will be the Kodak kiosks, Kodak paper, and event imaging bits.

At issue is Kodak's cash. Short answer: they need more. While the last 10K they filed shows a cash increase, much of that was due to debter in possession (DIP) financing (US$686m out of US$1,361m). To get out of bankruptcy, Kodak has multiple issues it has to deal with, the two biggest of which are (1) get the businesses they want to keep (mostly commercial printing and packaging) into sustainable growth and profitability; and (2) raise enough cash to pay the DIP and put the company coming out of bankruptcy on a healthy footing.

The original plan apparently was to shut down the hemmoraging digital camera business and sell off the patent portfolio. But it's becoming clearer that the bids on the patent portfolio are relatively low, probably not even enough to cover the DIP financing. So we get yet another spin out. If I'm reading the first quarter results correctly, these are not all currently profitable businesses Kodak is trying to shed, though some are. The quote in the press release says "enjoy leading market positions," not "are healthy businesses" after all.

The problem here, and the reason for my headline, is that Kodak is still in a downhill spiral as far as we can see. We keep getting additional businesses they'll exit, more products they'll sell or cease, and no positive news. They were in a dive when they entered bankruptcy. The question is whether there is any evidence they've hit the bottom of the dive? The answer to that, as of today, is no. They're still throwing stuff overboard in hopes the plane will level off and start climbing again. At some point, you run out of altitude.

I note that Kodak is now saying that they hope to emerge from bankruptcy sometime in 2013. Do they have that much more altitude left? That's a minimum of six more months of losses and tightening cash. They need a healthy chunk of cash from somewhere. Today's announcement is another attempt at raising it (selling the non-profitable personalized imaging and document group). But the previous attempt hasn't raised any cash yet (patent sales). Today's announcement smacks of fire sale, thus I've put Kodak on my Death Watch list.

No matter what, the Kodak of the future (which could be as extreme as someone buying mostly the name, as with Polaroid), won't look anything like the company you once knew. Their once famous slogan now takes on new meaning: "you press the (eject) button, we (creditors) do the rest."

Shotgun Strategy
August 23 (commentary)--So what's Nikon's strategy for selling more cameras?

From all appearances, it looks like they're using the shotgun strategy, or to use a food metaphor (because I'm hungry at the moment): they're throwing the spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

Evidence? A mirrorless camera system different than everyone elses. An Android based camera. A camera with no card slot or removable battery (S01). A camera with a projector in it. A camera with 36mp, or 50%+ more than anyone else is doing in the same format. Cameras that need to be supplied with "Stylus Touch Pens" (which is a fancy name for a slab of plastic). Cameras that are square in shape (P310). Cameras that are round. Indeed, a total of 44 cameras are currently listed on the NikonUSA pages, including one that NikonUSA appears not to have issued a press release for (but it comes in two shades of purple and one of teal, so colors, too, are all over the place).

What sticks in your head is the scream you hear from your local dealer as they realize that they have to stock 75 different cameras just to stock what's in Nikon's coop advertising flyers that you'll find in your local paper most weeks. And that's not counting special lens or other kits. As I noted in a story earlier this week, Nikon now has Coolpix cameras priced every US$15. There's gotta be something in there for you, right? (To all you Nikon employees and camera store sales counter folk, here's a challenge: take just the Coolpix line and give me a clear, one-page summary of who'd buy what for what reason. It can't actually be done. Consider the L610, just introduced at US$250 and the next model up in that lineup, the L810, which sells for, oh, US$200. How do you sell the L610?)

Such shotgun tactics tend to tell me that a company is jumping the shark (yes, another Hollywood reference). They've elevated themselves to thinking that they need to sell every possible widget you might like or need, rather than the best possible widgets.

This isn't the first time Nikon has pursued such a course. Back in the 60's through 80's, Nikon managed to put out more than 40 variations on film SLRs, and don't get me started trying to count all the other stuff. Very little of that stuck to the wall, either.

My question is this: who's driving Nikon's camera strategy and where are they taking it to?

The good news, I suppose, is that DSLR lineup hasn't quite been hit with the same level of chaos as the compact camera lineup.

1, 2, 3
August 23 (commentary)--Some people have asked me what Nikon should have done re: the D800 focus problems. Okay, here it is:

  1. Show the customer that you are listening. "We've been hearing that some users are having issues with focus on the D800. We're heard you, and are looking into this. Please give us a little time to complete our research."
  2. Clearly communicate any problems you found and their resolution. "We've determined that there was a problem with some D800 cameras. Here's what the problem is: X. Here's how to test for whether your camera has it: Y. Here's what to do if you find that your camera has it: Z. We are committed to fixing any and all cameras that have this problem as quickly as possible and apologize for the inconvenience."
  3. Thank and reward your customer. "Thank you for sending your camera in for fixing. We have determined that it (had/didn't have) the problem and have (fixed it/returned it with a clean sensor). We hope you will accept this small gift (4GB card, Nikon keychain, something) for the inconvenience that this problem caused you."

And no, I can't take credit for those steps. They are basic PR Crisis 101 for big companies, and well documented. Thus, I'm left with only two possible conclusions: (1) Nikon doesn't believe there is a public relations crisis; or (2) Nikon believes they have a better (non) response than the standard public relations crisis handbook lists. Since I think #2 is a wrong answer, that only leaves me with #1 to consider.

It Strikes Me, But Not Nikon
August 22 (commentary)--The Coolpix S800C is destined to become The Blogger's Camera, at least for a little while, though only if it actually functions better than the better smartphones as a camera. But where is this in Nikon's marketing? Nikon's marketing basically just ticks off the checklist: Facebook, Twitter, email, my Picture...oh, wait, that last one's not on most people's checklist.

But this isn't marketing, this is checklist management ("Hey Junior Assistant Marketing Assistant, here's a list of the specs, make sure they're all in the copy on the Web site.").

A better marketing approach is benefit marketing: "Want to add 140,000 words to your Twitter message? The Coolpix S800C lets you do just that by adding a photo you can't take with the simplified setup of your smartphone." "Need to update your blog with a quick story and pic? No problems for you WordPress users: use the apps and tools you're used to, but have access to better photos via the S800C's 16mp, large sensor, 25-250mm equipped camera. Everything you need to blog photographically is right there in the S800C." "Stumble upon a news event happening in front of you? The S800C's 250mm equivalent lens will take your viewers closer than those from the person using a smartphone next to you. Gives your audience more pixels on what's happening, too."

Only one problem with all this: 140 shots per charge. Okay, so the portable blogger will have to carry lots of EN-EL12's in their pockets. (Oh dear, of all the times to not have the camera charge via USB! This is a camera that cries out for people pocket charging via a battery brick connected to the USB socket. But Nikon instead supplies a real charger this time!)

It strikes me that if a company doesn't know how to market what they've got, they might not realize what they created.

The More I Ponder It
August 22 (commentary)--I wonder if Nikon truly realizes some of the implications of what they've done by creating the Android-based Coolpix S800C.

One of the things I've been trying to figure out is why they're using version 2.3.3 of Android. As it turns out, the current 4.x versions require OpenGL and a GPU. I suspect there isn't a GPU in the S800C (that'll be one of the questions I'll be asking Nikon at Photokina). If so, that would mean version 2.3.3 is it.

That's not bad in and of itself, as 2.3.3 is stable and has a great deal of capability. The problem is this: the hardware is now disposable. Maybe that's what Nikon wants (that would after all, allow them to continue to sell tens of millions of Coolpix at low margins each year if everyone is constantly disposing of them to upgrade). But it signals that they just lost control of their ecosystem, too. When you think about it, in this context, to the customer the apps they buy (software) become more valuable than the device (hardware). That's because the apps carry over to new devices (especially if we're talking about buying once and running on phone, tablet, and camera).

This is a little like developing a DSLR but ceding the lens development to another company, and a company that licenses those lenses to any and all of your competitors at that.

Tech companies that thrive and survive control their own products and pricing. Companies that license commonly available IP to create products get marginalized into low margins for commodity products, and they end up with plenty of me-too competitors trying to do the same thing. As far back as 1976 I realized that the high tech business was really a software business. While you could make hardware companies, ultimately you needed to either have your own IP that kept your products unique or you would fight the long march towards commodity and low margins. When I helped create the QuickCam, it wasn't to sell cameras, it was to jumpstart a market for software that required cameras (videoconferencing, for example).

Ask yourself this: of all the personal computer companies that started in the first decade (1976-1986), how many and which ones are still in business? Apple (owns their own IP). The rest nova-ed out (including one I helped run), got sold (IBM to Lenevo, Compaq to HP, etc.), or just have never managed to get into the mainstream (Sony, still trying with the Vaio, but now facing their software provider entering the hardware business ;~). All the action moved to China/Taiwan for one simple reason: cutting costs.

Thus, Nikon seems to be saying with their massive push in Coolpix (28 currently sold models estimating that they'll take more market share from competitors) that they are going to be the lowest priced provider. In other words, commodity at high volume and low margin. Let Google steer them where Google wants them, there are pennies to be made! And made again soon when the customer needs a newer version.

This Isn't It
August 22 updated (news and commentary)--
Nikon today announced three new Coolpix cameras. On first glance, two of the three should be of interest to this site's readers, as one is a high end Coolpix (P7100 replacement), and one is a programmable, communicating camera. First, the high-end camera.

The P7700 is the P7100 replacement. It features a 1/1.7" (small) BSI sensor with 12mp. It will sell for US$500 and be available in late September. I don't plan to get one. Why?

Someone at Nikon (and Panasonic) forgot to forward The Memo to the design group: the market has moved on. If you're going to build a compact camera for high end users, it needs a large sensor. Instead, the Junior Design Division was given the extensive task of: (1) removing the viewfinder; (2) putting in a real grip and making the front dial something closer to Nikon standards (they failed); (3) putting full swivel into the LCD; adding a mini pop-up flash; (5) making the lens a stop faster; and (6) adding a port to connect the GP-1 to. Oh sure, we get more pixels, but we always get more pixels, though usually more than 2mp. Overall, the big step forward for the P7700 over the P7100 is the one stop on the lens. This might have been a step forward except for the fact the RX-100 with it's 1" sensor has an f/1.8-f/4.9 lens: slightly faster at the wide end, slightly slower at the telephoto.

What virtually every P6000, P6100, P7000, and P7100 user wanted was one of two things: (a) a bigger sensor, ala the RX-100 and G1x which now completely bracket the P7700; or (b) put that flipping LCD and those sturdy dials on the V1. Voila, instant hit, either way. Instead, it's a swing and a miss. Coupled with the Android Coolpix (I'm getting to those), that's two strikes. One more and they're outta here.

Seriously, where Nikon seems to be taking Coolpix is into a strange land that wasn't exactly requested by users. I for one, am not even planning to test the P7700 at this point. Basically the name of that game is "if you liked everything the P7100 was, the P7700 is more of that." Heck, even the name is a bit strange. What does the P7700 have that justifies skipping the P7200, P7300, and P7400 numbers? Oh, right, the lucky 7 number that reinvigorated Sony's lineup. "You've got a double 7? We've got a double 7!" Whoo Hoo, great marketing guys. Now, get back to explaining why someone buys this over a RX-100 and G1x. Yep, one answer to that: cheaper (but it is less capable at the sensor).

Long time site readers know I asked for a large sensor Coolpix first in May of 2007 (pre D3). Don't believe me? Here's the article. At the bottom of that article are my specs. Turns out I designed a Canon G1x (only they gave me some extra pixels squeezed into a slightly smaller sensor). I'll note that quite a few people at the time sent me email that said I was dreaming, it could never be done. I'm guessing now that those were mostly Nikon Coolpix designers ;~).

And did I really see a video with the great wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg pretending to be taking a shot with the P7700 by holding the folding LCD with two fingers and his right hand barely cradling the right side of the camera?

Now about that Android. The new Android camera is the US$350 Coolpix S800C (strange to be going backwards from S9xxx, S8xxx, S6xxx numbers, but when you just spray Coolpi all over the place, you're bound to have numbering issues; just prior to announcing the S800C, the NikonUSA listed 25 different currently available Coolpi ranging from US$89 to US$499, and if you're counting that's one Coolpix every US$15 price increment). Why this isn't an Axxx model, well, I guess Nikon thinks Android has "style" [S] (and is not "professional" [P]).

In case you're wondering what the apps installed on that screen are: Shooting, Play, Upload, Browser, Email, Calendar, Gallery, Download, Contacts, Music, Clock, and Settings.

It looks to me that Nikon basically took, oh, a Coolpix S6300 (16mp, 10x 25-250mm equivalent, f/3.2-5.8) model, stuck Android inside, and raised the price US$150. Curiously, there's no indication of Android on the outside (someone was asleep in Google's marketing department when Android licensing terms were drawn up, or apparently never heard of "Intel Inside" [update: Nikon places a removable label that has the Powered by Android message on it]). As usual, Nikon's S terminology means the camera "looks like a soap bar." Since we're down to five buttons (including the shutter release and subtle on/off button), all that plastic is likely as slippery as a bar of soap, too. I wonder how that'll work, as you'll be doing a lot of poking and gestering at it. Basically this is the iPhone approach to cameras: grasp between thumb and other fingers on the left hand, poke/slide/gesture with the fingers on the right hand.

Okay, so it operates a lot like your phone. Only it's not a phone and duplicates all the functionality of your (old) phone while really adding only a bigger sensor and that wide-to-telephoto lens. The terrible thing for Nikon is this: if there's anything about the camera/phone (uh, I mean Android) integration that Nikon figured out that all the previous companies that tried this didn't, it'll just get copied. In a phone. Some of you may remember my suggestion:

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

In this configuration there's a reason to have both a phone and a camera module: they don't duplicate each other, they augment each other (and yes, I would have allowed the camera to work independently of the phone, it would just work better when attached ;~). Ah, but then Nikon wouldn't actually be making the primary object, they'd be making an accessory. Ah corporate ego.

Those of you who cling to every word I write know what I think about Android (not a fan). With Android 4.1 popping out to most current Google devices, Nikon customers get version, wait for it, wait for it…version 2.3.3. It feels a bit like some demented version of the Seinfeld Soup Nazi: "No Ice Cream Sandwich for you. Next in line!" (No Honeycomb or Jelly Bean, either.) (Since my mom is probably reading this and scratching her head: Google names versions of Android after sweets, although I love sweets and can't remember the last time I had Honeycomb.) This isn't a moot point. If we're going to get apps developed for these new Coolpix cameras, the developers have to do it with API level 10 and NDK 5, not the current API level 16 and NDK 8. (Aside: one reason Nikon may be using 2.3 is that Google moved to multi-core support with later versions; if Nikon is using a cheap single core processor to run Android in the Coolpix, they may have tied their hands behind their back before they even started gathering rope.)

But let's step back further for a moment. Android, is, after all, an API. Meaning that, coupled with the camera's WiFi capabilities, they do indeed serve as Communicating, Programmable cameras, or two thirds of Thom's Holy Future Grail. I should like this Nikon Android, right?

Truth be told, I had a short argument with one of Nikon's engineers a couple of years ago about this very camera. I had just presented my CPM (communicating, programming, modular) business case to a group of Nikon executives and engineers. The question came back as to what program I'd write for a "consumer camera" (which turned out to be the S800c). My answer was quick and specific: hands free workflow. A consumer user wants to take images and have them magically appear where they want them (Facebook, Flickr, iPhoto, whatever), with the ability to jump in and override or augment them (and send the ones I marked via email to Person A in Address Book).

Likewise, even on the camera itself a consumer wants easier workflow. As I've noted earlier, a large percentage of compact camera users just keep their images on their camera (hey, Android has a Gallery app). Thus, finding them becomes important after the fact. The new Coolpix has GPS, WiFi, and Android, so…why doesn't the camera automatically generate "albums"? Via GPS we know where the camera has been (and we can look up the name of that location the next time we get to WiFi access). So let's consider several things that might have happened. You used the camera in the afternoon on a walk through Tokyo taking a photo every now and then. The fact that we have photos with time stamps and small distances between them via the GPS information suggests "walk." We have a starting and ending time (all were in the "afternoon"). We have a location (all were in "Tokyo"). So we create a photo album called Photo Walk 8/22/12 Afternoon in Tokyo. That evening we were at a wild party (reasonably fixed GPS) and took a lot of pictures. So we get another album called 8/22/12 Evening at Shin-Yurakucho Building. (Of course we allow the user to rename these, as desired.) And when I get on my home WiFi system, why wouldn't those albums be transferred automatically into iPhoto albums? (or Lightroom, or basically any of the popular software's definition of albums).

In other words, use programming to make things easy for the user. Reduce the workflow steps that the user needs to do.

The argument that I got into had to do with what "programs" I would create for such a camera. I think Nikon wanted to hear me say "Instagram." They wanted something splashy and fun, not something useful. In fact, I think if I had something splashy and fun, they might have given me a prototype to program.

But look at how they've implemented workflow on the new camera: via app. Now, does that app set up an easier workflow for me? Well, lets look at Nikon's own myPicturetown app: "When the my Picturetown app on Google Play is downloaded and installed, images captured with the S800c can be easily uploaded to my Picturetown. In addition, the app can be used to browse uploaded images, or to post a URL to a specific my Picturetown album to Facebook or tweet them on Twitter. It can also be used to view a list of my Picturetown albums, to rearrange albums using drag-and-drop operations, or to change their layout. Since images stored on my Picturetown can be accessed directly from the camera, users can easily view or share them with others, almost as if they were carrying photo albums around with them."

Did you note the "can be easily uploaded" in the description? As in "you can do a bunch more tapping within the app to move stuff from camera to the cloud." Not as in "you can configure your camera to send images where you want them." Workflow to Nikon is still a series of steps the user must complete mostly manually. Except now you just have to get your camera to a WiFi hot spot to do so instead of plug it into a USB port on your computer. Excellent improvement. Replace cable with air. Move app from computer to camera. Leave everything else the same.

One thing that will be interesting is whether a tangible market actually exists for app development for a specific camera model like this. iPhones and Android phones have healthy app markets because those devices sell in huge numbers. We're talking about more than 1 million such phones being activated a day. How many S800C do you think Nikon will sell in a year? A million? I have great fear that the economics of the situation will probably preclude tangible, deep, S800C applications. It's the Small Fish in Big Pool versus Big Fish in Small Pool problem for developers. But assuming Nikon sells a million Android Coolpi this year, how much do you as Big Fish in Small Pond have to sell your app for to survive? (Remember Google will be taking its cut.) And I can hardly wait to see ads on my camera display, can you?

Nikon has a long history of getting lost in technological dead ends and not making the technology perfectly useful. On my first trip to Japan back in the 90's I was introduced to two upcoming compact cameras: the first Coolpix. One of them had a pen-based interface (which was why I was shown it: I had just spent three years proselytizing pen-based systems for GO). This was the first of many Coolpix technologies in search of an actual use. More recently most of you probably have seen the Coolpix with projectors in them. Another nifty technology without solving a real user need. Heck, even WiFi escapes Nikon: the inexpensive WiFi dongle for the D3200 is completely useless to me, as it only currently communicates to Android devices. But even if I had an Android device, I'm not sure it really solves the user problem the right way. (Ironically, now we have a real brain buster: we can use a D3200 to communicate to a Coolpix. I suppose we also might get the ability to use the Coolpix to control the D3200--assuming Nikon's crack software team actually manages to get cracking something other than their knuckles.)

My sense is that an Android Coolpix is the same dead end as the Pen-based Coolpix and Projector Coolpix. A shame, because there is promise in having programmability in a camera. Especially when communications is also present.

As if all that weren't enough, we also have the new Coolpix S01, for which the press release gushes: "combining the simplicity of a cell phone with the advanced capability for expression of a camera." Say what? Send that sentence back to the translator, please.

Something's Up
August 21 (commentary)--
For someone who branded himself, I'm not exactly the most social guy in the world. But lately I feel like I'm in virtual social overload with all the close communications with D800 users trying to figure out focus. I awoke this morning to another 320 emails, and I was up late last night trying to get to the lower half of my In Box (my apologies if I haven't gotten to you yet).

With all this input, I noticed something last week that I was pondering whether to write about when I got another series of emails in the last couple of days. What I noticed last week is that there seemed to be two different outcomes of D800 bodies that went in for repair: (1) the cameras came out with left to right sides in agreement, though almost always quite a bit on the + side of AF Fine Tune; or (2) the cameras came back still with side to side or other focus issues.

So while I'm pondering that, in come some additional emails with previously not seen information. The net of them is that "Nikon is researching [my D800 focus] problem." In at least two cases, it appears that images have been sent to Japan for analysis.

I actually take this as good news. Perhaps there was more than one issue, and one masked the other. Perhaps an assumption was incorrect. Perhaps there are parts variations that were unknown. The good news is that Nikon hasn't declared a victory and moved on. They seem intent to get to the bottom of the focus problems and solve them. I still believe they need to be more communicative, but I don't think I can fault them for actions behind the scenes.

It Doesn't End
August 20 (commentary)--
While I might have been quiet about the D800 last week, the number of people contacting me about their problems with that camera hasn't really abated. Besides the left sensor AF problem, I've gotten five nine different reports of the 10-pin connector simply disappearing into the body the first time someone tried to connect to it. Add to that many "it came back with different focus issues" problems, and my In Box was just as full last week as the previous weeks. [As usual, many don't quite "get it." I've seen multiple "a few reports = big problem?" kinds of posts. The issue here is a delta (change) in quality control. The number of such reports I've gotten on all previous Nikon DSLRs? One. I get enough volume of email from Nikon DSLR users that changes tend to be fairly easy to detect. Broken 10-pin connectors out of the box is something new.]

More so than any previous Nikon DSLR, the D800 has become a constant "support issue" for me. There appear to be four aspects to this:

  1. People buying too much camera. I'm a little surprised at how many folk are buying this camera to use mostly as a point and shoot. Something about the 36mp bragging rights, I guess. I've run into a number of these folk in the field with the 28-300mm lens hanging off the front, too. US$4000 seems like a lot of money to spend for such uses, but maybe this is the way we'll work our way out of the economic malaise: conspicuous over consumption. The solution: there are better cameras for casual shooting. Indeed, there are tons of nice cameras now for casual shooting.
  2. Upgraders trying to cope. One thing I've taken to when I get asked some questions about how the D800 does something or whether to use a certain feature is to ask the asker what camera they used prior to the D800. A surprising number of those are longer leaps than I'd expect (e.g. D70 to D800). As much as Nikon has done many things consistently over their long SLR/DSLR history, there's still an enormous amount that changed from the D70 to the D800. Picture Controls versus Modes, for instance. Completely new autofocus system with new nomenclature and different traits (focus can no longer "trap" for example). The list is actually quite long, especially when you consider the additions. The solution: to keep up with technology of any sort, you're in constant learning mode. The bigger the leap you make, the more you need to make an effort to catch up on that learning.
  3. The D800 as dominatrix. This is the category that both Nikon and I were worried about from introduction day. At pixel level we're looking at some pretty tiny levels of detail now. Small shooting issues get revealed fairly clearly now. There's a simple way to tell if that's your issue: downsize your D800 images to 12mp and compare them to your D700 (or D300 or whatever other 12mp camera you were using; if you were using something <12mp, downsize to that). The solution: If you see the same thing from a downsized D800 image that you do in your D700 image, then pixel level problems on the D800 would tend to indicate shooting discipline issues you need to fix. The increased sampling is letting you see what was always there, just not visible. Start with Nikon's D800 Technical Guide, read my shooting discipline articles (here's one, here's another, and note the dates on these: back in the 12mp era; triple that advice!), take a workshop from a pro, pay more attention to what you're doing while shooting, get a better support system and learn how to use it, make sure you're using the right lenses, make sure you understand diffraction.
  4. Quality control. Or rather, the apparent lack of it, which is shocking for a Sendai-produced product. This is where most of the Internet chatter has been for the last couple of months. Now it's being added to by another factor: I'm getting lots of reports of folks where it took two visits to Nikon repair to get their autofocus system into a well managed state (little side to side variation at a position where they can AF Fine Tune all their lenses). The solution: will have to come from Nikon.

As a long-time Nikon user (45+ years) #4 is disappointing. I can only hope this is a short-lived anomaly and not a new normal we have to live with. I also don't deal with many folk in #1 on this Web site, either: I write too many words for them; they want convenience and a short answer (shortest answer I could give them: RX-100). If they're happy that the D800 delivers what they need, then I'm fine. But these folk pixel peep, too (often just showing off how much detail is in their shot of Johnny in front of Half Dome), so I hope this isn't a new normal, too.

The rest of us are all in #2 or #3. The good news is that it's just another of those time = reward scenarios. The more energy you put into mastering the nuances of the D800, the more you'll be rewarded. Because that's still the bottom line here: despite all the "doesn't focus right" and other QC complaints, the D800 is capable of creating stunning images. Personally, I'm going to work more on dominating my D800 than having it dominate me. When I shoot with it, I'm tightening my shooting habits a bit, and it shows.

Assignments
August 20 (news)--
Last week's assignments weren't moved to the news archive, instead they are now in a separate article.

Photokinatries
August 15 (humor)--
I hear from Nikon that the marketing department hasn't yet come up with a focus for the left side of their Photokina booth.

Another View
August 14 (commentary)--
I decided to chart Nikon's DX introductions to see what that showed. This is a little tricky, as I have a couple of subjective decisions in the data. In particular, I've classified the D7000 body as consumer, the 35mm and 85mm DX lenses as prosumer. These two decisions could be argued to go the opposite way. But it really doesn't make much difference to the overall results. Here's what things look like (the lines are a two-year moving average):

See the loud thunk prosumer DX made (and it would have been bigger if I'd taken those two lenses and classified them consumer)? Even consumer DX seems to be a bit off when looked at this way, though the Thailand floods certainly affected the DX schedule a bit (late 2011 and early 2012).

Obviously, you'll want to see the same thing for FX (you can't quite call lower end FX consumer, so I've labeled it prosumer):

The pre-2007 items are all lenses, but note the spike of pro activity with the release of the D3 in 2007 (which correlates with a the highest DX consumer activity). 2011 has to be considered an anomaly, as the earthquake shut both the FX body and lens plants and changed product introductions for FX gear. We'll get some more 2012 announcements soon, and the 2011 gap will become even more obvious.

Heck With Shooting, What to Buy?
August 13 (commentary)--
Sarcasm filter off. You've been warned.

Many people buy DSLRs based on the image they want to portray to others. Let me illustrate.

Right now, Sony Alpha fans tend to be younger and want to project some sort of hipness. How is this manifested in the product? Sony is pushing the new tech angle (even if some of it is old, it's new to DSLRs): pellicle mirrors, EVFs instead of optical viewfinders, GPS, industry leading megapixels, AVCHD 2, and more. It's a bit of the kitchen sink philosophy, but it's the latest and greatest technical kitchen sink. You're hip to the future if you're shooting a Sony Alpha. Plus 24mp is perfect for those Facebook photos.

Nikon, on the other hand, has been projecting the old Oldsmobile*/Buick thing: we made great stuff in the past and we still do (well, at least Buick is still making things ;~). It was good enough for your parents, so it's good enough for you. (Oh, wait, you're a parent now, too, maybe even a grandparent. It is your father's camera [or at least his lens].) Things don't change much in the Nikon F-mount system: same lens mount for over 50 years, same basic UI since the N8008, less embrace of tech for tech's sake. You're buying "old reliable" with Nikon: you want something that works, but even if there's new technology in it, you don't want it to be much different than before. Of course, the Nikon 1 poses a problem for Nikon, as it IS different, it doesn't work the same, it does embrace new technologies, and it tries to be hip (if white, black, silver, red, and pink can said to be hip).

Canon has had the name Rebel prominently emblazoned on most of their DSLRs in the US for years. That, plus the futuristic sounding EOS name (in old NASA logo-style type) was an attempt to be hip back in the 80's. But where are they today? Well, they make great video DSLRs, if you're into that ;~). The whole Canon Rebel/EOS shtick is wearing thin these days. Okay, we get it: it's the camera to buy if you take pictures of your kid's sports, even if they aren't a pro tennis or football player. But Canon users are feeling a little undefined right now. Sure the Rebel models keep on coming, but their users hear that Nikon is kicking butt with the pros and Sony is now the obvious hipster camera, so where does that leave the Canon user's self worth? Canon hasn't launched anything lately to renew the Canon user's spirit. Heck, they even said the EOS M wasn't for men, so what's with that?

Sarcasm filter back on.

While I had my tongue firmly planted in cheek in the above paragraphs, there's also a fair amount of truth in what I wrote. Sony is up and coming and relying on technology to drive their products, Nikon is same as they ever were, and Canon seems a bit confused at the moment about whether they're making video or still cameras.

People do indeed buy product based upon their perception of a brand and how that makes them look. Guys coming out of their twenties hate the thought of buying and driving a minivan for their growing family. It's not who they think they are (or want to be still seen as). Women don't have that problem, they see a minivan as a mobile nest.

On the other hand, women tend to like smaller vehicles (VW bugs, Mazda Miatas, etc.). Bigger isn't necessarily better to a woman. On the other hand, a Ford F350, now that's manly. (Darn it, I thought that sarcasm filter was off.)

So the question of the day is this: are you buying a camera and brand because it's the right camera for what you need to do, or because it fits what you want others to think of you as? (It's right about here that I launch a new accessory line of custom camera coats that help disguise your camera by making it look what you want others to think you're carrying. Like my new Nikon F350 DSLR Cover for your Nikon V1 camera.)

Really? Challenge yourself. What is it you seek: right camera or right public image? Which did you choose?

Yep, I'm taking a week off from the D800 autofocus craziness to hit back on one of my common themes. This week is "go out and shoot week." But I want to make sure you're shooting with what you need, not something for which you're practicing idolatry or brand worship.

Some of you might have noticed it, but let me remind all of you while there's a photograph taken with a consumer Samsung model at the top of my site: when I pick up a camera, my goal is to take the best possible pictures. I don't look at the brand name emblazoned on the back (ever notice that, you already know the brand, so why do you need to see it?) and genuflect before taking a shot. I figure out what the camera can do, how it needs to be set, and then concentrate on trying to get the best possible shot. That's the goal: make a good picture. Create the picture you desire.

Let's not forget that goal, even when we have to degrade into dealing with equipment issues (cleaning sensors, checking focus, or solving any other gear problem).

I'll give you a day to contemplate that, then we'll start some shooting assignments tomorrow.

*I was amused when my spell checker didn't have Oldsmobile in its dictionary, but instead suggested "disenable."

The DX Problem
August 13 (commentary)--
I'm not expecting a DX camera body announcement in the Photokina run-up, but can't rule one out. I'm sure we will get a couple of DX bodies updated in the next six months, though.

But that (lack of updated bodies) is not the problem. The problem is that Nikon sees DX differently than many of its customers. With the pro gear having moved to FX in 2007, this is now more obvious than ever: Nikon apparently sees DX as only for those consumer folk that buy 1.5 lenses, both of which will be convenience zooms.

Of course, Nikon can look to their sales numbers and say "see, we're right," as Nikon has sold a boatload of DX bodies and convenience zooms (as has Canon). The problem is that Nikon simply doesn't see nor cater to the serious photographer who wants a smaller and lighter, but still pro caliber, set up. Ironically, they did just that in 2007 with the launch of the D300. But here it is five years later and we're in "what have you done for us lately" mode.

Worse still, Nikon doesn't seem to see the serious "reach market" (wildlife, predominately, but also some sports) nor the serious "smaller than those heavy FX bodies" market. Thus, there's not a lot of emphasis on a D300s replacement, a 16-50mm f/2.8 and 50-150mm f/2.8 DX lens set, a 16-80mm f/4 VR DX, a full set of DX primes, or any of the other things that a large number of DX users have been patiently waiting for.

Meanwhile, the m4/3 market has the OM-D, a 12-35mm f/2.8 soon to be joined by a 35-100mm f/2.8, and a full set of primes. Guess which system these serious shooters are moving to when they want smaller/lighter, but still serious cameras?

This week's Business Week had two quotes that resonated while I was thinking about Nikon's DX lineup, one of which I had forgotten, the other of which was new. Let's deal with the new quote first, from Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai: "let's see if we can come out with products that fundamentally change consumer behavior." Uh, no. The goal shouldn't be specifically to change consumer behavior. The mark of great products is to enable new consumer behaviors that consumers didn't realize they wanted or needed, not just change their behavior by brute force.

In the DX context, Nikon (and Canon) believes that they already changed consumer behavior: they've delivered convenience cameras with good performance, but which are based upon legacy designs. In short, they successfully navigated the film SLR to digital SLR transition. Okay, so now what, just keep forcing more of the same down the user's throats?

The second quote was originally a Steve Jobs quote being re-iterated by Bob Iger, the Disney CEO: "there's [sic] brand deposits and brand withdrawals." By this, Jobs meant that when a brand does something positive in the customer view it will add to brand value, but when a company does something negative or fails to correct something it decreases the company's brand value.

So let's tally up Nikon's deposits and withdrawals as of late:

  • The Positive Deposits: A solid pro and FX camera line (e.g. D800 and D4 on the heels of D700, D3, D3s, D3x), with multiple models and supported with lenses, with more about to come (e.g. D600); a quick and strong response to rebuild both the Thailand and Sendai plants after natural disasters; the D3200 imaging sensor.
  • The Negative Withdrawals: Coolpix that have become ubiquitous lowest common denominators and shelf space discount fodder; a unacknowledged quality control problem with one of their positives (D800); lack of expansion of the DX line with products desired by the long-term and loyal customers; in the US a D800 survey that most customers couldn't fill out; another new OS launch (or two) without Nikon software keeping up.
  • The indeterminate: the Nikon 1, especially considering the one year follow-up announcements. The Nikon 1 has some positives (phase detect autofocus on sensor, the FT1 use of existing Nikkors), and some negatives (small sensor size and pixel count, high price, etc.)

Given that DX is a primary breadwinner for Nikon (FX is a halo product for the overall brand as well as a significant profit producer, but not the primary sales producer), you'd think that they'd be trying to make more brand deposits there.

But I think the real issue comes back to Hirai's quote: the Japanese camera companies think they know what's best for the users (I'm tempted to add "and herd them like cattle," but I won't ;~). I think they're wrong in this, particularly in the case of Nikon's recent treatment of DX. Let me put it this way, is a BMW 3 series a different brand statement than the BMW 5 series? No. But Nikon is slowly trying to make four different brand statements (Coolpix, 1, DX, and FX). That approach won't win the day in the long run.

The irony is that it really would only take three or four specific products to completely change the tide in DX (high spec body update, wide angle prime, fast constant aperture mid-range and telephoto zooms). Those aren't in replacement of anything. They don't really take sales away from anything else. They reward long term customers. They build long-term brand equity.

So I have a new metric I'll be using with upcoming announcements: brand deposit or brand withdrawal? The J2 and Coolpix S610 announced last week? Brand withdrawals. Let's hope Nikon can do better in the coming weeks' announcements.

Autofocus Repairs
August 10 (commentary)--
When NikonUSA repairs a camera, they create an Invoice Repair Description that has cryptic information on it. I've noticed that there seems to be two different types of repairs happening on D800 models submitted with focus issues. Both are generally labeled Service Repair Rank B1.

If your camera was fixed for the left sensor problem I've been writing about, you'll see an item labeled Repair SC 201759. I believe this refers to a service procedure number on the problem, though I've not been able to get my hands on that document (turns out that this is a long established procedure, but it's not clear why so many D800 cameras require that specific procedure). Cameras that are repaired this way also get an ADJ AUTO FOCUS OPERATION notation, which indicates that the camera went onto the normal rig for verification of focus operation, and which sometimes causes the technician to make other minor adjustments.

Some D800 camera repairs are not showing the SC 201759 notation but additional ADJ AUTO FOCUS entries and sometimes B2 level repairs. This is probably because the camera was determined to have a mirror adjustment problem or other focus system error, not the one that is causing all the fuss.

B level repairs generally require bench testing time but not any critical disassembly of the body (which tends to be the case at C level). NikonUSA charges a fixed price on B level repairs out of warranty, which I believe is something around US$250 at the moment (and includes shipping costs back to you).

In all cases with B level repairs, the camera goes through three other procedures: Nikon checks the camera's internal data communications, they clean the image sensor, and they do a general check and clean to look for other items such as dirty mirrors, unclean contacts, or controls that are loose or jammed or not working properly. In theory, a camera coming out of a B level repair should be at or above the level of quality coming out of the factory.

This brings up something I've mentioned in passing before: many of us pros send our bodies and lenses into Nikon every couple of years (or less if we've been abusing them ;~) for something called a CLA (clean, lube, adjust). This is an extension of the tail end of the B level repair (camera put on test rigs and checked for correct operation, then thoroughly cleaned and checked). Autofocus systems do go out of adjustment after all (vibration and constant use can change mirror positions, for example, and dust and dirt can get down into the autofocus sensor area at the bottom of the mirror box).

There's one caveat with a CLA, though: if Nikon discovers something that's faulty, they will want to repair it. If the camera is out of warranty, obviously, you'll have to pay for that. Basically, NikonUSA won't do any work on a camera unless they can bring it up to the standard of cameras leaving the factory. Thus, they won't repair just one thing (scratched sensor) if another thing (impact damage that causes a crack on the casing) is present and you don't authorize full repair. This catches a number of out-of-warranty repair or CLA requesters by surprise: they submit the camera for X and find out it needs X+Y+Z and the bill is substantive to make those repairs. The plus side of this is that you'll get back a camera that is as close to new as NikonUSA can make it. The downside is that you might have a bigger repair bill than you thought.

The Sounds of Silence
August 9 (commentary)--
Nikon's continued silence on the D800 focus issue is seriously hurting them. Why? Because while there's a real problem with some bodies, I can now say with some confidence that quite a few of the folk complaining that their cameras have that specific problem actually don't.

I've now looked at hundreds of test samples on URLs provided me from site visitors who've attempted my test. The statistics aren't good, but not for the reasons you think. Nearly 40% actually haven't done an adequate test. Of the remaining group that has, about a third have a camera that looks like it may have the problem.

As I've noted before, the problem cameras are obvious if the test is done correctly. Indeed, so obvious that I actually don't have to look at images to make the assessment! Wait, say what?

Assuming that you're on a sturdy tripod and really performed the test well, just the file sizes of JPEGs will usually tell you all you need to know. Five results will be within a percent of each other, one will be more than 10% different (smaller, since out of focus results in less detail). Guess which one that will be? Yep, the lefthand phase detect sensor sample. Not good enough for you? Well, if you used black and white test charts I can run a pixel value assessment and determine the same thing chromatically for many lenses: longitudinal chromatic aberration is a dead giveaway of missed focus on the 50mm for example, so I can just tally up purple values and see the difference immediately just as I can with file sizes.

So far, I've encountered samples from misaligned lenses, samples from cameras that definitely needed to be AF Fine Tuned, samples taken in really low and strange light that seems to trigger random behavior in the focus system, samples with test charts that aren't parallel to the image sensor or won't necessarily produce appropriate focus behavior, samples where the camera wasn't actually set to Single Servo, Single Point so the camera didn't actually focus where the user thought, and a person that thinks that striped puffy pillows are flat test targets (though in that particular case, I suspect his camera does have the problem; it's just that his choice of test target isn't definitive enough to prove it).

Now back to why this is hurting Nikon. For every 100 people that have shown me test results, slightly less than 20 have produced results that suggest the camera might have the problem we're looking to detect, but over 50 think they have the problem. Bad word of mouth is a bitch to deal with, but bad word of mouth due to false positives is a real bitch to try to overcome. Put another way, the false positives are adding to the Internet chatter about the problem, and thus causing even more people to test and even more people to report false positives.

This is one reason why the proper PR method for dealing with a serious problem like this is for the company to get ahead of it: be forthcoming on what the problem is, how to detect it, and what to do about it before anyone thinks to ask. Exactly the thing that Nikon is not doing. Nikon isn't ahead of their customer on this, they're not jogging alongside, they're not even following them at a distance; Nikon appears to instead still be in bed napping.

Some people seem to think that I'm ragging on Nikon's engineering or manufacturing abilities. No, I'm not. Manufacturing and QC problems happen, especially with complex devices early in the production run. I'm okay with that. It's not whether you have such a problem that's the issue, it's what you do about it. I'm holding Nikon to the fire for one thing: their customer response on this issue. It's not the right response, and it's actually now making matters worse for them.

Given that Nikon will be launching another new DSLR shortly, what kind of spillover do you think the focus issue with the D800 will have on that launch? Think about it for a moment. We're six months after the D800 launch and four months into shipments, yet we're still here talking about what appears to be a manufacturing issue with initial units. If you were actually a likely customer for any new Nikon DSLR announced later this month, how long would you wait to see if there were similar launch problems with it?

As the song says: "silence like a cancer grows."

Nikon Updates (or Non-Updates as the Case May Be)
August 8 (news)--
Nikon announced Nikon View 2.5.0 yesterday, which is a minor bug fix. As usual, NikonUSA is the last to actually have it active on their site, so I'm not at all upset with my being a day late with the news. Another software update came from Microsoft: the Camera Codec Pack 16.4.1620.0719 (is that an Internet address or a version number?) adds D4, D800, D800E, and D3200 support for Windows.

Meanwhile in Japan, Nikon corporate announced their first quarter financial results with absolutely no surprises. Overall profits were a bit lower than originally forecast, attributed to increased sales costs and yen appreciation. In terms of cameras and lenses, they sold what they said they were going to sell and haven't changed their estimates for the full fiscal year, so I'm not going to roll additional commentary on that from what I did at their last financial disclosure.

Other than to point out that all shipments of cameras and lenses are predicted to be heavier in the second half of their year (October 2012 through March 2013) than the first. This is particularly true of Coolpix. Also, Nikon's current yen value is 80/dollar and 100/Euro looking forward, much like that of other Japanese companies. Actual values are a bit under that at the moment, so Nikon would be vulnerable to further yen appreciation, should it occur.

I'll have much more to say later in the month when some products for which I was under a gentleman's agreement not to talk about finally appear (I honor all non-disclosure commitments, even verbal ones).

Really Nikon?
August 7 updated (commentary)--
Consider this email: "I got the estimate today for my D800 AF repair; it's listed as a B2 repair and they want to charge me $245 for the repair as I did not include the bill of sale. I called and asked them if there were any D800's out of warranty and they insisted that it was procedure. I was bucked up to a supervisor who also insisted that I needed to send them a bill of sale."

Let's see, the camera has a NikonUSA sticker on it, the serial number starts with 30, the camera has only been out for a couple of months, the camera was registered immediately on purchase on the Nikon site, need I say more? In short, Nikon's customer support has always been on the poor side, but making customers jump through hoops to service a known problem is just pathetic. Oh, did I mention that the person in question was an NPS member and someone who has taught photography for 30 years? Just how many students do you think he might influence as to camera decisions?

Long term readers (and those that have my books), note that I've always said include a copy of the receipt when sending your camera in for repair. The above email is one of the reasons why. Shouldn't be that way, but it is.

Oh, and the kicker: this isn't the way it works in Japan. Try bringing your camera into any Nikon repair station in Japan and note the difference in attitude, attention, and service. If Nikon doesn't think the way they handle American customer support will ever come back to haunt them, they are probably wrong.

And the just as bizarre update: the dealer faxed Nikon a copy of the invoice signed by the store manager. The customer called Melville. At first they couldn't find the fax. When they later called back they said that they would "re-evaluate the request for warranty repair and consider a change." Consider? The customer did as the company requested. What is there to consider?

I talk about frictions when I do business consulting. NikonUSA is so full of frictions (as is Nikon corporate) that I'm not sure I could list them all in a 64-bit document space. Frictions are additive. Eventually, they completely stop a customer from buying a brand. The only way you get that customer back is by applying lubricant (lower prices, more features, lots of direct marketing, etc.). Frankly, we US Nikon customers put up with a lot of frictions. Nikon View NX 2.5 was available throughout most of the world yesterday, but not from NikonUSA. Friction. Given that the US represents over a third of Nikon's sales, you'd think that we'd get less friction, not more. But you'd be wrong.

Variable Isolation
August 7 (commentary)--
D800 owner tests continue to pour in (again, URLs please, not attached images). As they do, one thing is clear: focus testing isn't easy and many of you seem to think you can improvise on my instructions (don't).

Let me reiterate why we're testing cameras and why we're testing them one particular way: Nikon programmed some cameras incorrectly. Thus, we want a test that checks for that single problem first and foremost, and that's what I proposed in my original article on the problem, which I've updated with a couple of additional notes. We are looking for a very simple pattern: out of six shots (three live view, three phase detect), one may be very, very different than the rest. If you find that result using my test, your camera is potentially a candidate for having its internal focus sensor table reprogrammed. If you don't find that result, then your camera likely doesn't have that problem (it might have another problem, or it might have no problem).

What's happening is that many people are testing in ways different than I suggest, with different targets, at different distances, and with different techniques. The problem with that is simple: you're not testing for the thing we know is wrong with some number of cameras, and you're not isolating out that variable well enough to discern if your camera has the problem. As one reader pointed out to me, some of what we're seeing on the Internet related to the D800 focus issue must certainly be attributable to the Dunning-Kruger effect: a situation where an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions.

So let me enumerate for a moment. Any number of things can cause focus problems. Here are just a few:

  • Misprogrammed tables. This is the thing we're looking for. Some number of cameras were misprogrammed at the factory. The problem manifests itself as a clear left side focus miss for phase detect autofocus. When tested for as I suggest the result is obvious if you have the problem: you'll have five "good" or "near good" results and one that is clearly "really bad." If you find that result, that's when you contact Nikon to see what they say and how to return your camera for correction if they agree you have the problem.
  • Misaligned mirrors. There are two mirror adjustment points that position the main and secondary mirrors so that light falls in the correct path. Misalignment of these can cause side to side or top to bottom errors. But those errors look different than those from a misprogrammed focus position table. At the risk of oversimplification, you might have "bad", "less bad", and "good" results on the three phase detect tests (there are other possibilities).
  • Misaligned mounts. The lens mount itself needs to be absolutely parallel to the image sensor. Again, you might get side to side issues, but the results again look different than from a misprogrammed table.
  • Misaligned lens elements. Again you'll get side-to-side variation, and this variation may have sub-variations in it when zooming or using different focus distances.
  • Misaligned sensor. Image sensors are shimmed to be parallel to the lens mount. This problem would look very much like a lens mount alignment problem.
  • Field curvature. This one is tricky. If you focus on the left side, the center may not be in focus due to field curvature on some lenses. This is one reason why I asked for six different samples. The Live View samples should show the field curvature, so we'd have something to compare the phase detect samples to. In other words, if you focus at the left and the center phase detect and Live View samples match, I'm not overly worried about whether they are in perfect focus or not, only that they match.
  • Focus shift. Even more tricky: if you use anything other than the maximum aperture (e.g. stop down), internal focus shift can produce results different than you'd expect and depth of field may or may not compensate for that (depends upon the lens, distance, aperture).
  • Non-flat, improper target. Yep, even trickier. The reason is that the autofocus sensor you're testing is actually composed of multiple sub-sensors. If you have a curved target (real object instead of flat, parallel test target) it becomes a real crap shoot in terms of where within the overall sensor the camera decides to focus. It's a bit of "majority rules" but "closer is sometimes used instead" logic that Nikon has never explained. I proposed a flat target with detail only in the direction I wanted to test in order to eliminate this variable.
  • AF Fine Tune. In theory, lenses ought to group in a bell curve around 0, thus my suggestion not to use AF Fine Tune for testing for the left sensor problem. If you saw different results between Live View and phase detect across the board, then perhaps doing an AF Fine Tune would be appropriate before doing the test I proposed. The problem, however, is that AF Fine Tune, especially not done correctly, can mask the problem we're looking for.

Yes, there are even more variables than those. I was specific in my suggested test in an attempt to isolate out the one thing we were looking for. Even that wasn't perfect, but it should be good enough to get to a simple answer: was my camera's focus sensor table programmed correctly at the factory?

One problem that is now obvious is that people are testing in ways they never have before. And they're seeing things they've never seen before, mainly because they never looked for them before ;~). Coupled with the increased sampling of the 36mp sensor, people are seeing things that may have always existed, but have been hidden by the lower resolution of the system. As I noted when the D800 was announced: you'll see just how well your lens performs. You'll see how well the focus system performs. You'll more easily see subtle mis-alignment.

With a few people I've had them perform the following (and often revealing test): shoot the same thing with your 12mp camera and your 36mp D800. Now downsize the D800 images to 12mp. Hey, wait a minute, the problems went away! No they didn't. They were always there; we just now have a high enough sampling to see them.

But this is a bit of a diversion. First and foremost: some D800 bodies apparently were programmed wrong. You probably want to know if yours is one of them. That's the whole (and only) reason for the test I suggested. The results on a misprogrammed camera are generally not ambiguous. If your camera tests "positive" following my directions, your next step is to contact Nikon to see about getting it fixed.

As I noted in the next story, at some point I need to write some articles and expand sections in my books that help you do other testing and what different results may mean and what you should do about them. But that's not going to happen today, so be patient.

This is Only a Test
August 6 (commentary)--
One of the things that's been a real issue in trying to resolve whether any individual D800 focuses properly or not is the casual approach to testing a lot of people have. When someone complains to me about their camera having the problem, I've generally responded with "show me the images." (Put them on a Web site and send me the URL; downloads don't work for me, especially while traveling.)

About half the time, the images I get pointed to are not close to being proper tests, with very little control over the test itself. I've seen round bottles used as test targets, I've seen handheld tests, I've seen focus targets where there's little chance that focus sensors could clearly differentiate appropriate detail, I've seen cameras that are clearly not parallel to the test targets, I've seen...well, I've seen it all, basically. What I don't see nearly enough is a proper test done properly.

Out here in Alaska during the last week I came across several D800 users shooting the same landscapes as I was, so I was curious to their experience. I introduced myself to each and asked what they knew about the focus performance of their camera. Most didn't even know there was a problem. In all those cases, I noted that their camera was set to Single Servo, Single point AF using the center sensor, and most said that's what they always use. In two cases I was allowed to do a quick and dirty check of their cameras, and the end result was that in both cases I told them they needed to do a full check when they got home, as I think their cameras have the left sensor problem (it's not easy to do tests in random environments, as you can't easily control all the variables well enough, but there was certainly a variance on the left side of their cameras to what I was expecting in the quick tests I could do).

This brings up a conundrum. Very early in the transition from digital to film (D1 era) even pros were confused. Digital has quite a few differences from film, and all the new-fangled controls and options needed ferreting out. Try explaining white balance to someone who's only had two choices in the past (indoor or outdoor film). But pros being pros, they sought out sources to help them understand their new gear,, learned it, and moved back to "taking pictures" mode.

For awhile--I'll call it the D2 era, though it extended a bit into the D3 era as well--the cameras got better and they mostly attracted sophisticated users willing to learn.

What I'm seeing with the D800, though, is that a lot of people are picking up this camera who aren't ready for the experience. I've now taken to asking any D800 owner I encounter what they're using the camera for. I'm stunned by how often the answer is merely "to share images on the Web."

What I think we're seeing is the iPhone effect. As most of you know, I've long been writing that camera phones would change the camera market completely. But even I didn't quite see this new consequence clearly. What consequence is that, you ask? Simple: when a camera phone (or compact camera) user decides that their low-end camera can't capture some of the pictures they now want to take (usually has to do with low light, speed of focus or acquisition, sometimes detail, but rarely feature control), they look upwards. What I didn't expect is how far in the camera lineups they might look upwards toward. Many of these folk would be happy with a Nikon 1, a m4/3 camera, maybe a large sensor compact like the RX-100 or GX1 (but not these last ones if focus speed is the complaint). But they're buying higher than that. Considerably higher.

Here's the thing about the D800: it's clearly better than film, so that's a big plus in everyone's mind; it's got way more pixels than its nearest competitor, so it seems a bit future proof; people are raving about its image quality, so it must be good; it's the same format as film (FX), so the lenses in the closet (or dad's closet) all work; it's not out of their price range. Bingo, we have a winner.

Then along comes a slightly subtle but real problem that would take photographic sophistication to test for and see.

I'm not going to let Nikon off the hook here. I believe their silence on the left sensor focus problem was wrong and implies a "customer comes last" attitude that needs correction. Still, you almost can't blame Nikon when you see what happens when the problem does get written about on the Web by multiple influential sites: there are a lot of false positives being reported, and when I push for actual test results from people, I'm finding that for a number of them a false positive is coming directly from their test skills. Plenty of those requests for results have come back with real positive results, though, which is another reason why we can't let Nikon off the hook for their silence. But the false positives made it difficult to determine the exact number of problem cameras in the field, so this made it harder to figure out how big and how real this problem really was.

As I look around at the cameras that have come available in this year--D800, D3200, A77, NEX-7, OM-D, X-Pro1, GF5, RX-100, G1X, and more--what I see is a one heck of a lot of sophisticated, highly competent cameras. Cameras that, when used correctly, should produce excellent results. Maybe even superb results. As I use and review these cameras I'm finding that there's less and less of substance to talk about in terms of meaningful image quality (unless, I suppose, you shoot black cats in unlit coal mines and print them at 48"). Describing handling and feature issues is getting more into nit-picking, too.

What I saw in Alaska this week were a lot of cameras that were more sophisticated than their owner's photographic skills. Heck, I might even have to put myself in that category, as I didn't quite get "the shot" I was looking for. This is an opportunity as well as a problem. The opportunity is to increase the imaging sophistication of users.

This is all is no more than a long essay leading to a simple conclusion on my part: I need to write more about how to test a new camera or lens. Most of you reading this are upgrading your equipment regularly, but the equipment is so good now we all need to upgrade our skill sets to keep up. Knowing exactly what your camera should do versus what it is doing is a useful piece of knowledge. Indeed, without it, you tend to drive your Ferrari only to church on Sunday on suburban streets with 25mph speed limits.

A Bit of Site Maintenance
Ju
ly 27 (commentary)--
No, it's not your imagination. I've moved some things around on the front page and to other places. That's partly because I don't really want to have to make changes to the site with the computer I'm traveling with this week, there won't be many (if any) site updates until the first week of August, and I wanted to get the things I've written lately reorganized and more useful to someone who came in late to the party.

Thus, a few less important articles have been moved off the front page, one really big important set of articles has been reconstituted into something separate. Nothing's been lost:

It's likely that I'll be relatively quiet for the next 10 days as I'm mostly in shooting and testing mode at the moment, but the next two months are going to be Big News Months, so enjoy the breather. Me, I've got some ice I want to photograph. Maybe that'll cool me down ;~).

Update about New D800 Bodies
Ju
ly 26 (commentary)--
I've heard from three dealers in the past two days who've been checking newly received D800 shipments for focus problems. Combined, they received a bit over 100 bodies, and if I'm adding up the numbers right, they sampled about a quarter of those overall with some basic focus testing. None showed the left sensor alignment problem.

That's a good sign, and based upon what I know about when the problem was detected and product shipments, that's what I expected to hear. Unfortunately, with Nikon's continued silence on this issue, that's not a large enough or random enough sample for me to say that the coast is clear. Therefore I can't change my recommendation back yet.

I'm in the midst of my summer travel and product testing schedule at the moment, so I probably won't be making a further statement about this until I get back to the office in early August and can double check and broaden my sources of information.

I've never doubted that Nikon would fix this problem once it was discovered. It's really the uncertainty that Nikon has promulgated and the lack of clear and specific response that has been the problem. This is an example of a company in denial about the level of their customer service and communications. Most Nikon users are quite loyal. But that loyalty gets strained when Nikon goes silent instead of acknowledging an issue.

The proper response would have been: "(1) we made some D800 cameras that have incorrect data in them; (2) we don't know the serial numbers of affected units; (3) here's a simple way to test to see if your camera has the problem; (4) if yours does, here's how to arrange to have it promptly reprogrammed at no charge; and (5) all units shipped after July 1 are free of this problem and don't need to be tested. We apologize for the inconvenience."

Ready for Your Nikon DSLR Olympics Robot?
Ju
ly 25 (news)--
The Olympics are a big test and showcase of cameras. The amount of preparation that goes into getting cameras ready to perform to take unique shots always amazes me. For example, Bill Frakes slitscan camera work at the Beijing Olympics.

Well, the upcoming Olympics are no different. Nikon provided me with a link to a behind the scenes video for the 12 robotic D4 cameras they're preparing for London. Boy do I want to drive one of these babies. My simple robot head isn't anywhere near as sophisticated (and I have to be nearby to fire it).

Go Big or Go Home
Ju
ly 12 (news)--
Nikon today pre-announced that they will be producing an 800mm f/5.6 lens. (It's now the policy on my sites to use the word preview or pre-announce when no details are made available on an upcoming product.) Other than focal length, aperture, and a note about dust and water resistance, no details were released. We don't know when, how much, how many, minimum focus distance, or any other of the details that are usually made with a lens announcement.

So why pre-announce? Apparently the lens will be displayed at the British Open later this month, that's why. Now why would it be displayed at the British Open? I suspect that one or more pre-production copies are sneaking into Britain for the Olympics, at which point the lens would be "outed," so might as fess up to its existence. Strangely, the Olympics aren't mentioned in the press release; only the British Open and Photokina. Still, if that's a working lens, I'll bet bottom dollar someone will get a chance to use it at the Olympics.

It is also curious that the one line offering any tangible details ends with "...and will be fully compatible with Nikon FX-format cameras." I realize why that line is there: it's an FX lens, after all. But by phrasing it that way, Nikon is going to send another shiver of paranoia to all the DX users in the world, users who aren't exactly feeling loved by Nikon at the moment. The line could have read: "...and will be fully compatible with Nikon's complete line of DSLRs, both DX and FX format."

While the press release also mentions that the specification, finish, and design are not final, the photo released with the pre-announcement suggests that while Nikon has changed its tripod mount arrangement, it's still likely to be highly compromised in support integrity. Balancing a big, heavy lens on four small screws in a very narrow area is a well-known design liability of existing long Nikkors, and this new arrangement doesn't look like that has been addressed at all. I'd show you what that looks like except that, as usual, the NikonUSA subsidiary's Web site doesn't yet offer the image to the press (or even have the press release) as I write this.

Sigh
Ju
ly 26 (commentary)--
Nikon today sent me (and many others) a survey to fill out about our D800 experience. At the first "Other" text entry I got (in case anyone from Nikon is reading this: Firefox, current version):

This wasn't the only problem I had. Some questions repeated themselves more than three times; if I tried to navigate backwards to correct something my answers were lost and sometimes the survey itself would get lost; some questions were mislabeled ("We would like to ask you about the viewfinder" when the actual table presented to fill in was about flash units); the list of problems I encountered goes on. I gave up after (I think) completing 30% of the survey. Here's another problem:

Good thing I have a 30" monitor. But if you can't see the problem, let me describe it: the top is an illustration directly from the user manual with parts labeled only with numbers. The bottom is a list of those part names, but without the numbers. I hope you know which number goes with which part name ;~).

Hey, I just tried you,
And this is crazy.
I made my responses,
Some data, maybe?

A Different Kind of Focus
Ju
ly 20 (commentary)--
Sitting on the tarmac for two-and-a-half hours after two aborted flights across two days gives one some time to try to amuse themselves, especially when that led to a third aborted flight. For some reason I ended up on Canon's Web site. Consider the following:

Ah yes, check box marketing at its finest. Looks really impressive, doesn't it? Lots of features in that camera (G1x if you're interested; I was actually looking up how Canon characterized the sensor in that camera, and you'll note that they've moved from "near APS-C" to "1.5 inch" in their descriptions).

But let's look a little more closely. Anyone care to explain what these icons mean:

Let's see, from left to right that would be "two-tone camera," "climbs hills," and "self-parks" (or is it "can take pictures of cars in cities"?). Take the text out of some of the icons and you end up with these bafflers:

which seem to be "can photograph moving eggs" and "can photograph fast-moving super heroes." Or how about this one:

which I like to call "press here when you see a smile on the LCD." Also, notice how the "camera" in all these icons seems to change in style, with many of them suggesting DSLR with the viewfinder hump?

This is marketing? Lest you think I'm just picking on Canon, here's a Nikon version (P310):


Ah, color icons and icon design consistency! Moreover, Nikon has Screen Tips enabled on them, so at least you might be able to make some sense of the heart (third from right), which Screen Tips tells us is "Scene Auto Selector." Of course, clicking on the icon doesn't actually take us somewhere that explains what "Scene Auto Selector" means. Also, the middle icon is "Clear Color Display." As opposed to what, an unclear one?

I've always thought that Fujifilm's marketing was more on target, so I went there to see how they handled the same thing:

Pretty straight forward, though EXR Auto isn't obvious and it took me a few clicks to find out what the heck it meant ("...instantly recognizes 58 scene types, automatically optimizes every setting from exposure to white balance..."). Again, a clickable icon (even if a text icon) would have helped.

The tricky part of this is that everyone is playing by their own rules. When you look at all these icons on Web sites, sides of boxes, and in-store displays, you get a mishmash of what the camera maker wants you to get. In reality, a customer would want to know three things:

  • Common features: megapixel count (and sensor size), focal lengths, maximum aperture, display (size and pixels), ISO capabilities...
  • Advanced or Camera Specific features: focus abilities, IS, raw support, video formats...
  • Standards support: PictBridge, HDMI, USB...

and probably in that order. By jumbling everything together in random ways and with different and confusing icons, the camera makers are trying to keep you from being able to make easy comparisons while appearing to provide everything you'd want. It's the "more is better" game.

Compare what the camera makers are doing with icons to what Apple does in its marketing:

Icon. Name. Overview of benefit. Deeper explanation of benefit. Link to even deeper explanation of benefit. Further: the icons you learn in the marketing materials turn out to be the icons used on the device itself (that's mostly true of Canon, too, though with less consistency). There's a high clarity of messaging and a built in reinforcement so that once you learn what something means, it applies everywhere, even in use of the device, even across devices. In fact, Apple is so good at this that their icons are copied by others (or at least mimicked really closely); that was part of Apple's complaint against Samsung.

So let's go back to that Canon icon of the car and the city. You can click on their Web site under Features and eventually get most of those icons explained to you. (None of the icons on that front page are hot-linked to features, so you may be clicking for awhile to find what something meant and what the benefit of that was. I suspect that most people would have click fatigue before finding out what they wanted to know.) I actually missed the explanation on Canon's site the first time around because here's the actual size where they describe it (I added the orange arrow to point out the icon, which has changed in style and color and is so small now I didn't recognize it):

Before I discovered that, I decided to download the camera manual, and eventually found what I was looking for: that's the icon for miniature effect shooting. (Those three icons I called out earlier are: Toy Camera Effect, Monochrome, and Miniature Effect.

But even after looking the G1x manual I still don't know what a happy face in a camera with an arrow on the opposite side of the shutter release means, so maybe it does mean "press here if you see a smile on the LCD."

A Small Factoid
Ju
ly 12 (commentary)--
I hypothesized that Nikon brought about 5000 D800's into the US in the initial month's shipment (seems like so long ago now ;~). Information just published in Canada via their recall process gives us a new data point to consider: the EN-EL15 battery recall affected 5100 units in the US. Since this lot of batteries was pretty much isolated to the D800 at the time, the only question is whether that D800 shipment batch all had affected batteries or not. Don't know the answer to that question, as I don't have enough sample points. Update: it appears my first update was incorrect; I now see batteries from three different shipments of the D800 models into the states, most centered on the second big shipment.

 

Strange Twist
Ju
ly 11 (news and commentary)--
Lexar has announced that they'll be producing XQD cards (only used by the Nikon D4 at the moment) later this year. The strangeness to this is that the original co-developers of XQD were Nikon, Sony, and SanDisk. SanDisk so far has declined to make a XQD card, which has raised eyebrows.

On the other hand, we have only one low-volume camera at the moment that supports them, so it simply may be not wanting to be ahead of the market. In that sense, it's a bit like Apple's very early adoption of Thunderbolt. For accessory makers, it's installed base that really interests them, and it will take some more cameras with XQD to build a useful base.

That raises the question as to what those future cameras might be. D600? Not likely. D400 (replacement to the D300s)? Maybe, although that would also imply something about the D400 target being even more pro than it currently is. Canon? Not likely that they'd roll XQD in lower end models when they didn't in their just released high-end models. That really leaves Pentax and Sony.

Sony, of course, was first to put out an XQD card. It seems unlikely that they'd do that solely for a D4 from Nikon. Indeed, if a Nikon D4 was going to be the only camera to use XQD for the first year or two, I'd have thought Nikon would just OEM a card under their own name. Thus, it seems logical that we'll see at least one Sony DSLR with an XQD slot in the coming year. The Nikon D4 gave Sony the chance to iron out any wrinkles in their cards and reader before committing their cameras to them. Indeed, being used in a D4 is a sort of endorsement, as it's basically top-of-the-line and it really shows off the XQD card performance.

Consider a different scenario: Sony launched XQD with one of their own cameras and no other cameras used it. We'd be getting the "it's Memory Stick all over again" comments on the Internet. XQD is not Memory Stick by any stretch of the imagination. XQD has some real long term benefits for cameras needing write speed. Benefits that CompactFlash and Secure Digital can't match under their current definitions.

But SanDisk, curiously, has been silent.

The Africa Question
Ju
ly 10 (commentary)--
A number of people have commented about my Big Cropper comment and professed that they think they're not one. In particular, the African safari shooters tend to make a comment like this one: "the DX crop of the D800 allows me to still produce 15mp images and get the longer reach benefit. I don't need to bring as long a lens to Africa."

There are several problems with that thought, but let's deal with the last: on safari, you never quite know what you'll need. You need extreme flexibility because a close-in elephant may have you wanting wider than 70mm (FX) and a distant chase you can't quite get to may have you needing more than 600mm (even DX) to do it justice. The typical answer is that you have two, sometimes three cameras handy at all times, all with different lens options. For example, the 200-400mm on one body, a 70-200mm on another, maybe a mirrorless with a 24-100mm equivalent for close to the vehicle stuff. You "crop" by picking up the right camera.

The argument is that a D800 changes that in some way. Not as much as you'd think. First, you need two of them ;~). You still need a "reach" camera and a "less reach" camera. You're not likely to be using DX crop on the body with the 70-200mm (that gives you 350mm equivalent, which overlaps your 200-400mm ;~) You might with the body with the 200-400mm. The question is how often would you be using DX crop on that 200-400mm body. If it's "a lot," then maybe it should just be a DX body in the first place. Either that or you need to be using a TC or just bring a longer lens in the first place.

To understand that, you have look at the pluses and minuses of the D7000 native and the cropped D800: (1) As a DX camera the D800 gains perhaps a third to a half stop of dynamic range over the D7000, and it has a slightly better focus system; (2) The D7000 has a faster native frame rate (6 fps versus 4 fps), has a few more pixels (16mp versus 15.4), and costs a lot less (thus you're putting less value at risk on your trip). There's not a clear winner between the two if you're shooting DX most of the time to get reach. So many people would be better off putting their money into the lens in this situation, that I'd tend to lead them towards the D7000 just on that point alone.

I'd be remiss if I also didn't point out that a lot of people get hung up on "head shots" of animals. The reason they want reach is to produce an image that they could get in a zoo. "See how close I got?!" If you look at the work of the best wildlife shooters (Chas Glatzer, Andy Biggs, etc.), you'll find that a lot of the time it isn't animal isolation that makes their best shots, it's animal-in-environment. They simply don't value reach over everything else, though they certainly carry reach with them (again, you can't always control your position relative to the animal or what's happening). Yes, you sometimes see extreme closeups from the name shooters, but note what those shots are: extreme animal behavior, not just portraits of a lion resting during the day. But those shots come rarely. What are you going to be doing the rest of the safari?

My use of the words "Big Cropper" need a bit more explanation, I guess. There's nothing wrong with crop flexibility. We've all been in situations where we couldn't quite get the shot we wanted, or perhaps the shot we saw wasn't a 3:2 aspect ratio in the first place. Cropping for a valid reason because a situation warranted it isn't bad. Thus, the word "cropper" isn't the key word here. It's the "Big" that's the important word. If you're always cropping, and if when you crop you're always cropping in large amounts, then FX probably isn't the format camera you need. A D800 becomes a lazy (and expensive and maybe even post processing intensive) way to achieve the images you output.

I grew up with mentors telling me "lenses first." I think that's as important today as it was 40 years ago, maybe more so. Let's put that to a little test. Let's say you're going to Africa for safari and you have US$4000 to invest in equipment. Would you (a) buy a D800 and a 28-300mm lens; (b) buy a D7000, a 70-200mm f/2.8 and a TC-20EIII; or (c) buy an OM-D and the Panasonic 100-300mm and have some money left over for other things, like a backup body?

The first option gets you a focal length breathing 300mm (i.e. not 300mm close in), the second and third nets you 600mm equivalent. Even with DX crop we're only at 450mm for the D800 option.

I'll stand by my (implied) comment: if you're always cropping, and especially if you're always cropping in large amounts, buying a 36mp FX camera probably isn't the right solution to your problem(s). Too many people are seeing the D800 as a Swiss Army Knife, capable of doing any and everything. But as with most Swiss Army Knife owners, they'd be better served by the right tool in the first place.

Some people think that when I write something like this, I'm looking down my nose at them and asserting some sort of superiority. Not at all true. I'm trying to help people solve the right problems with the right solutions. I've watched so many people pour massive amounts of money into "solving" some photographic problem only to find that they aren't treating the disease, they're just moderating the symptoms. They'll spend more money down the line until they get to the core of the problem and eradicate it.

Recommended
July 10
(commentary)--
In my D800 review I gave it high marks for performance, features, build, and value. But I only gave it a "Recommended." Not a "Highly Recommended" or even "Strongly Recommended." Why?

I thought long and hard about word usage. Indeed, I originally had the words "Strongly Recommended" on the review but backed off. The reason is simple: people read things into summaries which aren't necessarily there. I've learned over the last 15 years of doing this site (yes 15) that people take shortcuts. Enough of you value my comments that when I say "Highly Recommended" you just jump at buying it, even if you don't need it ;~).

The D800 isn't for everyone. I suspect Nikon thinks so, too, otherwise we wouldn't have all those detailed rumors about an upcoming 24mp D600 FX body, nor would we need a D4 in the lineup. The prospect of having three FX body choices (still: previously we had D700, D3s, D3x) means you have to think about what you need and how it will benefit you.

If you're a D700 user who needs a lot more pixels to print larger plus better dynamic range, the D800 would indeed be a "Strongly Recommended" camera for you. If you're a D80 user looking for your next body, not so much. You'd really have to consider what's likely to appear in the next six months before deciding on a D800. In that sense, the D800 is still "Recommended" because it is a good camera, after all, but it might not be the right camera for you.

In short, I used the term "Recommended" because I think everyone should take a short pause and question why I didn't precede that with "Highly" or "Strongly." Basically, I can recommend the camera to you if its features and performance are what you really need. But I'm not going to hype it to death and give the suggestion that it's the camera for everyone by giving it a "Highly Recommended."

Read the detail in my review. Note that I wrote "Personally, the D800 and D800E are near perfect for me and the types of things I shoot (nature, wildlife, landscapes)." That's me. Don't let a single word used to summarize a long review characterize whether you should or shouldn't buy the camera.

We Don't Want Your Images III
Ju
ly 9 (received email)--
"Dear valued Kodak Gallery member, As you may be aware, earlier this year, Eastman Kodak filed for U.S. bankruptcy court protection in order to restructure the company for future growth. As part of that restructuring, we recently announced that we would cease operations of our Kodak Gallery US and Kodak Gallery Canada businesses on July 2, 2012, as a result of a sale of those assets. Sadly, today, we must also announce that in order to best enable future Kodak success, we will be ceasing all other remaining Kodak Gallery business worldwide as well, also effective July 2, 2012, 9pm CET/ 7pm GMT.

Due to Kodak Gallery's closing on July 2, 2012 it is urgent that you take the following actions to protect your photos and projects. Please take a moment to: Download your Kodakgallery.eu.com photos or they will be lost
Complete any unfinished projects and purchase them
Purchase any extra copies of projects you've made previously, including photo books and calendars

Please note: If you use Kodak Easyshare software you will be able to download your photos until July 23, 2012, 9pm CET/ 7pm GMT. Click here to download Easyshare software."

Is there a moral to this continuing story? Yes. Cloud storage may seem convenient, but it's not a be all, cure all, end all solution. Make sure that you have local and off-site backups that you control. Just to be clear: the number of companies that have stopped providing services on the Internet probably surpasses the number of ones that are providing services profitably on the Internet (which means there's some in the middle "gray" area, too).

Review Followup
Ju
ly 9 (commentary)--
In looking at responses to my D800 review, I notice one thing that a lot of them have in common: people are missing the generational shift we've just begun.

Nikon has a tendency towards clear generational shifts. Going back to the film days, the N6006, N8008, F4, N70, and N90s had clearly identifiable generational DNA, while the F5, F100, N80, N75, et. al. had a different generational DNA. While some things carried over, many key attributes (both internal and external) changed.

Carrying that forward to today, the D4/D800 launch was that of a new generation. We saw a sneak of some of the new generational DNA in the D7000 (change in metering, change in AF mode selection, for example). The D300s and D700, however, are clearly the previous generation.

That leads to the question: where are we in the generational change? In the cameras still generally available:

  • New generation: D4, D800, D800E, D3200
  • Transitional: D7000
  • Old generation: D3100, D5100, D300s, D700, D3s, D3x

Here's the problem: when you start making statements like "I'm not going to go for a D800, I'm going to pick up a D700" or "I'm going to stay with my D300" [or D3 et. al.], you're tacitly saying the previous generation is good enough. It very well may be, but make sure that you understand that you're comparing different DNA.

The expectations are that this new generation we're in will look something like this:

  • FX: D600, D800, D4, D4x
  • DX: D3200, D5200, D7200, D400

We don't now if all those models will show up (the D400 and D4x are speculative), which makes trying to buy something during these generational changes all that much tougher. Nikon's been remarkably predictable on generational change, though, and the lineup I just presented covers Nikon's usual price curve from bottom to top, so it's a reasonable guess.

One problem is that there are other forces at work now. Mirrorless done right nibbles away at the low end DX space, where Nikon has most of its DSLR volume. Nikon may be forced to cannibalize and produce something that is different in that low end DX line, which might upset the fairly clear generation cues we usually get. But I'd guess that's a minimum of a year off, probably more like two or three. I expect we'll see the full iteration of the current generational lineup (again, whether that includes a D4x and D400 I don't know).

So, note which generation you're buying into and make sure you know why you're doing that. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a D700, obviously. It's a highly competent camera at a very reasonable price right now, but it's a previous generation camera that's likely to be replaced by a new generation camera soon (the rumored D600). Still, bargain hunters can pick up something that'll perform well, much like some car shoppers buy last year's models at a discount when the new ones arrive.

Just as with almost any complex product (computers, cars, etc.), there are times when everything is crystal clear, and other times when you're in the transition and things seem a little murkier. We're in the transition period for Nikon DSLRs at the moment. Come February 2013 I'll bet that everything is reasonably clear again.

One final thought: the three cameras of the new generation all push pixels: D3s->D4 was 12->16mp; D3x->D800 was 24->36mp; D3100->D3200 was 14->24mp. Nikon appears to be using the new sensor tech to drive resolution upwards. That has implications for the D5200, D7200, D400, D600, and D4x models, doesn't it?

Review and Book, for you D800 Lovers
Ju
ly 7 (news)--
My review of the D800 and D800E cameras is now available in initial form (it will likely evolve a bit as I get more experience with them and the D4 cameras in the coming month). Short version: it's a complicated product that has some stellar traits and some aggravating handling issues for long-time Nikon users. But basically, yes, it delivers on its promise and it's probably my new go-to camera.

Meanwhile, I also offer the initial version of my Complete Guide to the Nikon D800 and D800E, which is now available for immediate download for US$29.99.

Why only a download? Because the book is enormous, clocking in at around 850 pages. That's bigger than my printer can handle in terms of making a quality paperback, so for the time being at least, there won't be a printed version. The PDF file is tested on Macintosh, Windows, iPad (with Goodreader), Nook, and Kindle.

We Don't Want Your Images II
Ju
ly 5 (received email)--
"We love our users [but] SMALL GUYS like Fotki have to find ways to adjust.

We analyzed our servers, and it looks like many of our
members, like you, store many gigabytes of old photos, which
are never viewed by anybody for years and years. It costs us
money to host these photos, and since nobody is looking at
them, we are wasting our valuable resources to host them.

In order for us to optimize our service, we are reaching out
to you, and asking for your help. If you really want us to
keep your originals, we have no choice but to start charging
for hosting them, but don't worry, we need VERY LITTLE. We
are not asking for much, just to know that you care about
your photos and you really need them. If you don't need
your photo originals, then you don't have to pay for
anything extra, and we will just go ahead and erase them
from our servers."

Moral of these stories: read the agreements before committing to image storage in the cloud. The days of "free" are ending, and that might also mean the end of your images if you've committed them to the cloud only. If you think you're safe because you're using a Huge service (Facebook, Flickr, etc.), don't be so smug. Your day will come.

D4 Gets a 1.02 Boost on the 4th
Ju
ly 4 (news)--
It might not make the NikonUSA site today, but elsewhere we're seeing version 1.02 of the D4 firmware starting to appear. This is mostly a bug fix, correcting four obscure stability issues with video and when the camera is connected to a network. In addition, two missing features have been added: (1) you can now add Format memory card to your My Menu page; and (2) the color LCD corrects its display gamut when you set AdobeRGB.

Why Patent Lenses?
Ju
ly 3 (commentary)--
With Nikon's recent APS mirrorless kit lens patent suddenly revealed, I have to ask the question: why patent lenses?

Lenses are not something you just knock out in a month or two. From initial design work to finished lens in customer hands is typically about a three-year process with Nikon. Even once you've got a design you don't get finished product very fast, as glass takes time to create, cure, grind, and polish.

Patents tend to get seen one to two years before the lens is in customer hands. Thus, patenting a lens design is an early-warning system for competitors and a clue that maybe they should be working on similar designs or at least products to deflect yours. Note I said similar. As in focal length/aperture decisions, not exact copies of the optical definitions. I don't know of anyone who is getting strong benefits from seeing other company's exact optical design. That's probably because they're all using variations of the same software in their design process.

Now, if you'd discovered a new type of glass, or completely new way to create a lens element (Canon's DO comes to mind), I can see the point in filing for a patent. But to "protect" the upmteenth iteration of a basic mid-range kit zoom? Someone is looking through rose colored glasses and not seeing the weeds.

Corporate habits are hard to break. Lens patents are a corporate habit. But I'll bet that a real analysis of the situation would reveal that lens patents actually cost the company money and gain them nothing. Let's put that in perspective. Let's say that a customer is hesitant about buying a Nikon 1. They see the APS mirrorless patent and now they have the justification for waiting to buy a Nikon mirrorless camera (implication of a camera with a bigger sensor coming). That's a real cost. Heck, it's basically FUDing yourself [FUD = fear uncertainty and doubt, a marketing tactic often attributed to IBM]. Partly due to the language issues, the Japanese camera companies are not very good at understanding and monitoring the Internet in their largest markets (US and Europe). Thus, from a corporate perspective, they have blinders on with regards to this type of "cost."

Meanwhile, all the competitors now know something different is brewing in Nikon's mirrorless R&D. In the case of an APS mirrorless kit lens, the big news to the competitors is the possibility of YAM (yet another mount). They'll be studyiing the likely mount position to see whether they need to adapt their similar lens designs to accomodate yet another mount distance. Not a big thing, actually, because if a third party lens maker hasn't already studied what exists and what was likely and what was potentially possible and adjusted their lens designs accordingly, they aren't much of a competitor. But what if the lens in the patent was a 12-70mm APS mirrorless (18-105mm equivalent)? Yeah, they'd all be running with the patent information to their software to see why they hadn't come up with that. They'd now have a year or two to try to ferret out the clues they'd need to do something competitive.

Note that those pages are not on the subsidiary sites! They are posted on nikonimglib.com.

We Don't Want Your Images
Ju
ly 3 (received email)--"
This mail has been sent by Nikon my Picturetown. Dear [email address]. This is an important notice regarding your use of my Picturetown. The my Picturetown account of [email address] has not been logged into for an extended period of time. If you want to continue using my Picturetown, make sure to log in to your account once within 30 days of receiving this mail. You can log in to my Picturetown here. However, if you do not log in to your account within 30 days of this mail being sent, your account will be automatically deleted based on the Terms and Conditions.

Please note if your account is automatically deleted,
all image files in My Photos will be deleted."

Just by way of comparison, here's a quote from a Mobile Me user: "On the day Mobile Me went offline, Aperture presented a dialog informing of the fact, then proceeded to download and save all images I had on Mobile Me."

Rebates on Hard-to-Get Cameras?
Ju
ly 3 (commentary)--When I saw the details on the new Instant Rebates from NikonUSA this weekend I had to scratch my head. If you buy a D4, D800, D800E with a 24-70mm or 70-200mm lens this month, you'll get an extra US$200 off the price.

Obviously Nikon isn't discounting these cameras because they aren't selling. What that means to me is that they've got too much stock of those lenses. Which just makes me question even more what's happening on the lens front. These two lenses use glass from and are assembled in the Togichi Japan plant, which has long appeared to be production constrained (and doubly so due to the 2011 quake and subsequent power shortages).

You'll notice that most of the lenses we've seen lately aren't marked Made in Japan. Some of them seem to be getting glass sourced elsewhere, too, as the color rendering is a bit different than we've come to expect from Tochigi. Some lenses that we want, such as an 80-400mm replacement, would almost certainly come out of Togichi (at least before the quake; not sure after). Rebates on the 24-70mm and 70-200mm seem to indicate that capacity at the plant hasn't been used exactly in a way that meets demand.

I suppose someone from NikonUSA will tell me that "no, we're just trying to incentivize switchers," and that's probably true. Except you can't do that unless you've overstocked those lenses in the first place ;~).

Unfortunately, this simply has the likelihood of making these hard-to-get cameras harder to get. Or maybe Nikon knows something about new shipments to the US that'll break the wait lists for good?

How Hard Can It Be? (#5 in a series)
Ju
ly 2 (commentary)--My article on sansmirror last week about declining digital camera sales in the UK had at the end a brief note about what the Mintel survey said people do with their photos. Just to remind you:

  • 53% send by email
  • 50% upload to social networks
  • 35% just leave them on the camera or smartphone

So I picked up a camera sitting on my desk (Panasonic GF3) and mocked something up. Here's the screen shot:

What Panasonic Didn't Do

That's an actual screen shot with just one little addition: the heart icon. Those blue/gray boxes on the right are touch screen icons, just touch them to do what their icon hints at.

So what happens if you touch the heart? Well, imagine that the camera has Bluetooth and/or WiFi inside and that it "just connects" when it finds something you've previously paired it with and immediately performs any queued up job. The heart button therefore leads to a menu that allows you to queue those jobs:

I've left some nice areas there for some help text and icons, so that the Japanese screen builders still have something to do ;~). (Extra credit: add Cloud option. Extra extra credit: make it work for groups of images) The things in brackets lead to a list of defined social networks or defined albums on the camera's card. (Technically, "Email" should probably be in brackets, too, but all first versions have bugs in them ;~).

That's it. I've just solved the problems of 138% of the UK camera users. Oh wait, statistics don't work that way, do they? Okay, I've helped some number of them between 53% and 100%. That would a signficant percentage above the 0% currently having their problems solved if I'm not mistaken.

For things that have been done at least once before, all those users' workflow on any image they're playing back becomes tap, tap, tap. Yeah, that simple. Simpler than a lot of smartphones, actually.

Yes, there's some plumbing that needs to be done: (1) you need to add the communicating hardware and its corresponding software drivers to the camera, plus handle the connection/disconnection sequences well; (2) you need to have a software interface for pairing the camera with your devices in the first place; and (3) email, social network, and album need an "Add..." option for new entities in the menus they bring up, and that will involve another screen or two where the user creates those new locations. But that's it. It really is a simple design task and a simple engineering task.

So the reason we don't have this is what?

Come on, chant it with me: Communicating, Programmable, Modular. Heck, today I'll be happy if you just chanted the first word.

But then there's our next story...

Sofware Isn't Our Day Job
July 2 (commentary)--When I broke the story on the lens firmware update last week, I pretty much expected what would come next.

You see, Nikon has chosen to create a 1.91MB (Mac) or 6.99MB (Windows) installer that does one thing: it creates a folder on your desktop (not anywhere you specify, but only on your desktop), into which it puts a 57KB (that's kilobytes) file and a copy of a license agreement that isn't the one you agreed to on the Web site (yeah, really; read them carefully and you find that they're different, and they're not even the same type of document as one is a Terms and Conditions, the other is a License Agreement).

So how fast do you think my In Box started filling up with "Nikon doesn't understand software" messages? Yeah, pretty much that fast. Moreover, by making a small little binary file into an installer, Nikon makes the update only work for Macintosh and Windows users. Linux and other OS users need not apply. Plus, since you have to install a program you'll trigger the Admin priviledges request for password on your machine. At least one email message was from someone who won't do that unless the program is known to come from a safe source (downloads not being considered safe without previous vetting). Plus some people object to their systems being strewn with one-use programs and extra folders like this. Well, not some: many. Well, not many: most. Well, not most: all.

Now, it would be one thing if this were a program that could fetch all firmware updates and make them available with a click on your system. Heck, attach Growl notification so I know when a new update has been downloaded. Oh, wait, that's what Nikon Message Center is supposed to do for Nikon Software. Only it has almost never actually done that for me. Ever. On either machine it's installed on. I write books about that software, so I kind of keep track of it, you know. How many times has Nikon Message Center notified me of something I needed to update? Once, and that was only when I came back to my desktop from a month of traveling and the message itself came 15 days after the update was actually available and days after I started using the desktop again. Oh, and Nikon Message Center 2 keeps telling me that I should update something I've already updated. (Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do...)

So I can't blame the guy who doesn't want to enter his password. If the installer creator can't get the right license agreement in the file, what are the odds he didn't write to the desktop correctly?

The quality level of most of Nikon's software is questionable, at best. Let me put this fimware installer program in context: I used to have people who worked for me that did installers. If one had come back with this as an answer for a 57KB file, he'd be hearing my screams in his sleep.

But let's put this into some other context:

  • Some D800 models certainly have a focus issue.
  • Tech support for Capture NX2 can take ages to get a solution (I just got an email from someone who finally had their problem identified after 12 months of looking by Nikon: it seems they can't deal with more than 251 color profiles in all folders).
  • The results from my NikonUSA repair surveys show some considerable problems with getting repairs done right the first time.
  • Products are shipped (Nikon 1) where virtually every user is guaranteed that they'll miss a picture someday because a key dial has moved.

I'm not going to make an exhaustive list otherwise you'll still be reading this article tomorrow; I just want to illustrate the variety of quality issues Nikon is currently facing.

We buy Nikon cameras because they are state-of-the-art in terms of features and potential performance. For the most part, Nikon has the design and manufacturing of cameras down to a science. Once they get something right they tend to just keep doing that. No issues there. The problem is that there are a lot of things that Nikon isn't getting right. Is the company and its practices state-of-the-art? No. And this firmware update is just another in a long line of things that show us that.

Nikon Updates All Lens Data
June
28 (news)--Nikon today updated the distortion correction tables for all their lenses, bringing things up to date even for the lenses just shipping this week. This update is a little tricky, because the D90, D3100, D3200, D5000, D5100, D7000, D4, D800, and D800E use this table (users of older cameras can't use this update). Rather than issue individual camera updates, there is now a lens table update process that's the same for all affected cameras. We now have a new type of firmware update file in the form NKLD####.BIN, where the #### would indicate the update.

If you look at the Firmware Version menu item on your camera (if it's one of the ones on the list, above), you'll find an L version number, probably L1.04 if you've been updating regularly. The new file you want to update with is NKLD1006.BIN, and it uses the typical firmware update instructions (copy file to the root of your card, use Firmware Version->Update to start the update process).

But new to this release is a file extractor tool (at least on the Mac, not sure about Windows): you download the extractor, not the binary update file itself. You then run the extractor, which puts a Nikon folder with the right binary file on your desktop. Copy the .BIN file in that folder to your card (your camera doesn't need the legal disclaimer also put in the folder ;~).

To get the update, see Nikon's lens update page.
To get the instructions, see Nikon's lens update instruction page.

About Those Macs
June
27 (commentary)--Some of you have wondered why I've been silent on the MacBookPro Retina (and the "new" iPad, for that matter). Heck, Microsoft's Surface announcement last week was another instance of Thom being unusually quiet. Truth be told, I just haven't had time to do the computer side of photography justice lately, though I will correct that once I get gearophile.com running (obviously I have higher priorities at the moment, e.g. things that this site deals with directly, including the site itself).

That said, I do have a couple of comments some might find useful.

Apple is doing what Apple does sometimes: getting ahead of the market and even itself. There's no doubt in my mind that extremely high pixel count screens and Thunderbolt and non-updateable hardware are where we're headed. The MacBook Pro Retina is a signal that Apple is already headed that direction (especially when you consider the Retina displays on the iPhone and iPad now). The question you have to ask yourself is whether you want to be ahead of the wave, on it, or see how the others who ride the wave do before you commit to the water.

More screen pixels is tricky, as Apple is finding out. On the one hand, the displays look simply amazing when used right. On the other hand, we need to rethink OS and apps a bit in order to use them right. Apple is doing okay on that front, but not great. Maybe next month's OS update and a slew of application updates will change my mind, but the MacBook Pro Retina seems like an awkward choice at the moment. Moreover, be aware that you'll be taking a step backwards in terms of how much of the AdobeRGB Color Space is shown. Plus we haven't heard much about how the screen calibration devices work with this new model. So jumping on board is definitely pre-wave, if you ask me.

Thunderbolt is definitely an asset. What most photographers know is this: memory and drive access are our two primary bottlenecks now, not CPU/GPU. Unless you're a one by one, not in a hurry , take your time image post processor, even 8GB seems confining when working on D800 images. And moving images around, heck, even just doing a complete backup of them can now be an hours-long process. Firewire and USB 3.0 help compared to USB 2.0. But I didn't really appreciate Thunderbolt until I upgraded my MacMini video workstation to use RAIDed Thunderbolt drives. They don't quite keep up with internal drives (especially SSD or RAID1), but there's a limit of how much internal storage you can stuff in machines, especially portable or small ones like my Mini. It's astonishing to me that just adding a Thunderbolt RAID to the Mini allows FCP X to Multicam (simultaneous HD video feeds) very, very comfortably (I ran 12 feeds of 30 fps HD material into it at one point; gotta love those little GoProHD2s for unique angle shots ;~).

But choice in the Thunderbolt world is still somewhat limited, so again we're a bit ahead of the wave, though I can feel it starting to crest.

So come a year from now the computer side of photography is going to be different. Especially on the portable side, which is exactly where we needed some change. You can get in early and suffer the usual fate of first adapters. Or you can wait a bit and see how the wave settles in and decide where the best ride will be and how to get up on it (what's with the surfing metaphors today? [and don't tell me I'm all wet ;~]).

Nikon Deliveries
June
27 (news)--Based upon dealer responses, it appears that 18-300mm DX lenses should be showing up in stores today and the 24-85mm lens tomorrow, which means that those lenses snuck into Nikon's first quarter fiscal results. This end-of-quarter ship is now starting to be a pattern with them. Dare we suggest that a D600 might just ship in late September? ;~)

There also appears to be small quantity of D4 bodies still available off the shelf from a few local dealers, and if you really look hard you can still find D800 bodies (though not D800E). One thing to note: because of the holiday next week and Nikon's usual end-of-quarter practices, the next deliveries of any significance will probably be in the week of July 9th.

Here We Go Again
June
25 (news)--Ritz Camera filed for bankruptcy again on
Friday. The company exited its previous bankruptcy less than three years ago. A double dip into the courts like this is nicknamed a Chapter 22 (because it's two Chapter 11s; lawyers aren't very funny, are they?). In the new proposed restructuring, the company plans to close about half of its 265 store locations across the country. Once again Nikon is listed as one of the primary creditors, as were Sony and Fujifilm.

Ritz is not a small operation, with US$250+ million in annual overall sales (though that's less than a million per store), and last time they declared bankruptcy it left NikonUSA on the hook for millions of dollars of accounts receivable, some of which apparently was eventually collected back as returned inventory.

While some might posit that it is declining sales that are the root of the problem--we've had other small camera stores and multi-store operations declare bankruptcy in the US in the last year--the real culprit appears to be lease arrangements. As margins tightened and the high-profit processing and printing businesses dwindled, locked-in leases on commercial property have proven to be a thorn for quite a few dealers.

Curiously, in my region the two main local stores have expanded and opened new stores across the Lehigh Valley. Still, you have to run a very tight ship to operate a profitable camera store at the moment. I'll give one example: those flyers with all those instant rebates. For Canon Powershots, the net to the dealer is negative on many models, meaning that they pay Canon more than the cash they'll take in from the customer and from Canon's eventual payment to the dealer. So, for the privilege of being able to sell the more expensive models in the line, you have to take a bath on the low end.

Which makes me scratch my head. Because if you look at Canon's compact camera market share (Powershots), it's under pressure and going down. You think there might be a connection? Why would a dealer order those models (other than being forced to)? Cause meet effect.

The camera business has gotten crazy in the last five years, partly because the days of high digit sales growth that disguise real problems are long gone. Some, like Fujifilm and Panasonic, have pinned their hopes on distribution outside one or more of the big camera markets (Japan, US, Europe). Others are squeezing every dollar they can. Some have just left the keys under the mat and left the building (HP, Kodak).

Unfortunately, it's not going to get better. There simply isn't enough room for the number of companies that all claim they want a significant share of the camera market. You can't squeeze the retail chain (and Big Box and online for that matter) much harder than they've already been. I'm surprised that Best Buy hasn't cut back the square footage of the camera displays, but then again, the weakness in camera sales isn't any worse than they're experiencing in some other key categories in the store, so what would they replace the footage with? A bigger Apple mini-store? (Ugh. It just struck me: Sony and Samsung mini-stores.)

I've written it before this whole slow-down scenario became writ large: we'll have a Big Two or Three winners (choose between Canon, Nikon, Samsung, and Sony) and the rest will be forced to go rogue or go under. One of those others will go all-direct (online) I'll bet. The right communicating, programmable, modular camera would find a nice rogue niche, too.

One thing is clear. The days of piling boxes of consumer electronics onto the floors of stores is over. Cherish the stores you have.

Sensor Sophistication
June
22 (news and commentary
)--Many folk get all religious about sensors. Obviously, sensors are at the core of our cameras, so it's probably right to think of them as a key technology that drives our imaging process.

But we also get carried away with this thinking. For example, the Sony fan boys get all exited every time Nikon uses a Sony Semiconductor supplied sensor, apparently because they think this validates their choice of a Sony camera. That's a bit like saying that Windows PCs are great because Macs use Intel processors.

I mention this because a comment I got pummelled on earlier this year has now proven to be accurate: the D3200 does not use the common 24mp Sony sensor. It uses a Nikon part (as now verified by Chipworks). Now what does that mean? A lot and not much. I'll use a different product to illustrate my point: the Apple iPad.

At the heart of an iPad is something labelled the Apple A4. This is a chip manufactured for Apple by Samsung, using technologies licensed by Apple from ARM. Over the years, Apple combined its own internal processor R&D with several small processor performance tweaking companies, and that group is responsible for the actual layout of the A4 chip. But Apple didn't design the CPU cores nor they actually manufacture chips. So, what is that chip? A Samsung? An ARM? Or an Apple?

Obviously, an Apple with licensed technologies (ARM), and which is produced by yet another company (Samsung). In the case of the D3200, I suspect much of the same thing is afoot. The sensor does not seem to be fabbed by Sony. It tests very similarly to the Sony, so there's likely some licensed technology that are in both, or Nikon has come up with an alternative that tests the same as the Sony.

There's a key advantage to being close to the low levels of a sensor like this: if you control both the hardware and the software you can tweak performance in interesting ways. That's why Apple has an A4 and doesn't license one of the many existing variations of ARM that are around. And I suspect that Nikon is using the same strategy, as well. The software side in this case is EXPEED3 (which has some licensed technology in it, too). That imaging ASIC is becoming more important to the sensor design as we drive up pixel counts and need higher internal bandwidth in the digital parts of our cameras.

The D4 and D800, for example, are driving nearly 120MBps on the HDMI port, which means that the sensor and EXPEED3 processor need to be capable of keeping up. You want to be involved with the low level aspects of sensors, otherwise you're a slave to what one sensor designer thinks the world needs and you might not be able to do things like that clean HDMI output.

So, do I really care whether the D3200's sensor is "made by" Nikon or Sony or Aptina or whoever? No. I do care that the sensor has been picked, and probably tuned, to the design needs of the camera, though. To that end, Nikon seems to be doing a fine job lately, regardless of whose name is etched on the substrate.

One More Time
June 1
9 (commentary
)--A common theme in criticisms of my "Catching up with the D800" article (below) seems to be "the D7000 had the same problem, why didn't Thom write about that?" Some get more personal and slander my reputation by accusing me of not doing research at all.

But this is all about research. For over a decade I've been commenting on and dealing with the issues that come up in the Nikon world. In almost every case of a new Nikon DSLR appearing I've worked with at least a half dozen, often more, owners trying to come to grips with their cameras. The D7000 was no different, indeed, I probably worked with more D7000 owners and cameras than I did any other new Nikon DSLR in the past couple of years.

A common complaint about the D7000 was "it doesn't focus." Just got another one in my In Box today, as a matter of fact. The question is whether that represents a real defect in Nikon's QA or not. In other words, does the camera actually not focus correctly? The answer for the D7000 cases I examined was often that the camera was perfectly fine, but both changes in the camera's focus system coupled with other issues such as field curvature, focus shift, and the higher pixel density came into play.

One key test is simple. The person says their camera doesn't focus. They hand me the camera. I shoot a picture and it's in better focus than their shot. Is the camera at fault? No, so we have to fix a user assumption before continuing. Assuming my shot didn't get a better result, the next test is to calibrate the lens/camera properly. Did that solve the problem? If yes, then Nikon's factory tolerances are loose enough that it causes issues in the field, but they're manageable if you know what you're doing. Virtually all D7000 cases I've examined ended there, save one that indeed needed repair. At this point I've been through this several dozen times with D7000 samples. I myself have two D7000 models, both of which test out the same.

From Auto fine-tune the testing gets much more tricky, by the way, because so many different factors come into play. Mount alignment, mirror alignment, focus sensor alignment, focus shift, field curvature, even just getting the test equipment properly lined up for the test itself.

Short version: I've been doing this kind of early user testing since the D1 appeared, and with cameras well beyond the ones I purchase. When I was teaching a lot of workshops (up to 2010), I had a lot of chances to do side-by-side comparisons of cameras, and often did. But I still try to do a handful with every release. What I found with the D7000 was that I could align and get acceptable focus with every camera I handled (except that one); in one case we even found a lens that couldn't align with any of my cameras.

The D800 case seems different. Two of the twelve D800's I've had in my hands had a clear left/right focus alignment problem, the same problem that is getting commonly reported on many Internet fora. It's a little tricky to test for, as field curvature on most lenses means you have to move the camera or the test rig with some testing jigs (e.g. LensAlign). But I'm comfortable in reporting that I've seen two cases of the problem that would require Nikon to do something about.

I believe I wrote this before, but it bears repeating. Way back in the early 90's Popular Photography's Herbert Keppler wrote a series of articles about autofocus "tolerance." Simply put, a phase detect system always has a small amount of tolerance to where it puts focus to start with. A good manual focuser can beat an autofocus system on a static target every time. Couple that with the fact that the viewfinder neither shows the exact position nor shape of the autofocus sensor being used, nor does Nikon provide much of an explanation of what happens when only part of that sensor covers the desired target, and there's plenty of room for inconsistent results built into the system in the first place. Now couple that with field curvature and focus shift and a whole host of other things and things get complicated very, very fast.

So I'll repeat what I wrote below: I'm concerned about how many D800's I've examined that seem to have a real QA problem (that number would be six). To that I'll add, I was not concerned about how many D7000's I examined that seemed to have a real QA problem (that number would be one, out of a much larger sample).

People need to stop trying to shoot the messenger and try to understand the message better.

That said, I'm also confident that Nikon will deal with any real problems that have shown up. Yeah, it sucks to have received a bad camera.

For the record: my experience with Nikon DSLRs is currently that three out of thirty bodies I've personally acquired (usually to research books) over the years needed immediate action by Nikon to fix something; further, three others needed fixing at some point down the line, none for problems I caused). Couple that with the cameras bought by my assistant and a few of my peers I'm in close contact with and the numbers stay pretty consistent at 10% or less. So I'll repeat: my concern is that in an admittedly random sample that is biased towards bad samples, I'm seeing more real problems this launch than before. It's not statistically valid, but it is a worrisome situation that I'll continue to monitor.

Should you avoid a D800? No. I've plenty of reports from very happy users, and if I ignore the AI-S arm issue on my D800, my cameras are pretty incredible, too.

Wireless Light
June 1
9 (news
)--While most of us would really like to see Nikon embrace a new flash system that has built-in wireless support, slowly we're getting more and more third party options. I've been using PocketWizard FlexTTL5, miniTT1, and AC3 for over a year (though where's the D4 and D800 support?), and it's just a better experience than trying to do wireless flash with infrared light.

Now we have another option: the Phottix Odin TTL flash trigger. This US$350 combo provides full wireless flash, including grouping. You get a transmitter and receiver unit for the price; to add additional flashes you'd need additional receivers (US$145).

Several years ago, Phottix accessories were a bit unpredictable in terms of quality and consistency. That's gotten better with each generation of product, so let's hope that this new option gives us a full alternative to PocketWizard (competition is always good).

Phottix Web site.

Software Updates
June 1
9 (news
)--If somehow you missed the Apple Retina Display MacBook Pro announcement last week, then you'd be surprised by all the Mac software updates that are starting to pop. Basically software needs to be rewritten to take advantage of all those screen pixels. Apple did so with updates to iPhoto, Aperture, Final Cut Pro X, and a few other programs, and in asking around, it seems like every imaging product is deep on testing their updates, too. I'm currently taking bets on just when, if ever, Nikon will update View NX2 and Capture NX2 for the Retina Display. Bueller? Bueller?

Apple didn't stop at just Retina Display updating, though, they did another little trick that should catch everyone's attention: their new versions of iPhoto 9.3 and Aperture 3.3 share libraries. Make a change in iPhoto and it appears in Aperture, and vice versa. This is a bigger deal that most people might think, as so many Mac software programs have a "media" panel that can grab from an iPhoto library (FotoMagico, Final Cut Pro X, Sandvox, and so on). Apple is moving more and more towards a universal database with sophisticated metadata on their platform. If you postulate forward, photos will be a basic building block on OS X and iOS in the future: they'll be handled from a central place and available everywhere, with a change in one place being reflected everywhere, as well. Adobe just sat up at attention. The software developers at the Japanese camera companies? They're probably still asking "why would anyone want a central metadata repository?"

In other Macintosh software updates: Raw Developer 1.9.5 added D3200, D800, D800E, and D4 support (plus a bunch of other new cameras). Angry Chicken Software (I don't make these things up) released One Stop Crop 1.1. Sprite Labs added HDR effects to Paint FX version 3.1. The low-cost Photoshop imitator Pixelmator hits 2.0.5 with some additional graphic card support plus some new linkages to iPhoto and Aperture (now what was it I wrote in a previous paragraph? ;~).

Both both Mac and Windows AKVIS updated ArtWork to version 7.0, adding the Gouache style of painting. PhotoStitcher is YAPP (yet another pano program), but for less than twenty bucks.

I hadn't noticed this before, but one of my favorite noise reduction programs is available for video: Neat Image 3.2 for Final Cut Pro now supports FCP X and uses the video GPU for improved performance.

In the iOS world we have a few things you'll want to pay note of: onOne updated their DSLR Camera Remote to version 1.4.3, which not only fixes some lingering issues but adds D4 and D800 support. GeoSnitch now hooks up with ShutterSnitch, allowing your iOS device to serve as your GPS for your WiFi connected camera. If you haven't looked at ShutterSnitch, you should, it's one of my recommended iPad apps. Photosmith, another of my recommended apps, has updated to version 2.0.1 and fixes a few issues that some of us had with syncing with Lightroom. OptimumCS-Pro2 (don't they know they should have named it iImageSharp?) is a comprehensive program for depth of field and sharpness, and it can help with tilt lens users, too. But tilt lens users really need to pay attention to Tilt Calculator. This handy little US$4 calculator is the best one I've seen yet.

Catching Up With the D800
June 1
6 (commentary
)--Based upon an informal survey of a handful of dealers here in the US, most are getting close to clearing their D800 wait lists (and those wait lists have some fairly recent orders on them).

NikonUSA has been sending a steady stream of these cameras in the last month, with most dealers getting more than just a few every two weeks or so. D800E models haven't reached that level yet, though. Wait lists still abound for this model (save your money if you shoot mostly at f/5.6 or smaller).

All those online outlets that opted to strongly push online pre-orders through affiliate programs don't seem to be close to catching up if my In Box is any indication. But pretty much everyone I've advised about how to get a D800 in the last month got one within two weeks by playing the dealer phone shuffle game right. What game is that? Get two lists: (1) Top 50 cities in the US; and (2) Nikon's Authorized NPD list. Scratch off the ones on list #2 that are in cities on list #1 and start calling around. Ask the right questions and you'll find someone that'll be able to deliver you a camera in a few weeks, if not immediately. Don't laugh. It works. And I've got a few dozen folk I've helped with this that can attest to that.

Given how good the camera is, I don't expect to find tons of D800 units sitting waiting for you on shelves any time soon, but I also expect that within the month we'll see Nikon producing close to demand, thus getting a D800 shouldn't be all that difficult by mid-summer.

That said, I'm a little concerned about quality. Beyond a couple of bugs in the firmware I've been able to find and a couple of questionable software decisions, out of the dozen D800's I've had a chance to look at, half have had some form of clear problem, including one of mine (AI-S index arm on my D800 does not work properly with many lenses). The left-focus problem still seems to be one of the QC roulette gambits users are facing, too.

Update: before people get blowing this too far out of proportion, it doesn't mean that half of the D800's being shipped have problems. It does mean, even with this small sample, that there are enough bad eggs out there that my sample is worrisome, which is what I wrote ("...I'm a little concerned..."). This hasn't happened with any previous Nikon DSLR that has been launched. This launch feels different, is all I'm saying.

At pretty much every Nikon DSLR introduction we get the "it doesn't focus," "it has problems," "it doesn't X right" complaints. I always try to investigate a handful of those personally to try to learn about things that perhaps ought to be in my books. In previous "it doesn't focus right" complaints I rarely found a fault; the problem could almost always be explained by something else (to be overly blunt: user error). I added that to the things I wanted to cover in my Complete Guide for the camera. This time is different. I've seen two bodies with clear left/right focus issues, one with a secondary mirror recovery problem. Add that to my AI-S arm problem, and two viewfinders not quite right (one shimmed wrong, one simply offset) and that's a lot of real problems to find compared to previous Nikon DSLR launches.

Statistically, you can't predict from a small sample (i.e. you can't say that because I found 50% of 12 bad, that of the 20,000 units in the US, 10,000 must be bad). However, calculating the other way you shouldn't expect so many problems in a small sample. If there are 20,000 units in the US and I sample 12, the likelihood that I should find 6 with problems is very, very low if there are few problems in the population being sampled. Of course, if there are a fair number of problems in the population, what I see becomes more probable, which is why I wrote "I am concerned."

That said, I've never known Nikon to shirk real problems. While they might not be wholly forthcoming about what was wrong and how many were affected, they always fix real problems (though my annual surveys show that it takes on average almost two trips to the shop to fix).

It's not different than before: Trust, but verify. Given the possibility (note I wrote possibility, not certainty) that there are some real issues lurking, every new D800 purchaser needs to make a thorough test of their new camera. You don't have to be anal about this, as some are being. But a quick focus test, a viewfinder accuracy check, and a quick skim through all the controls are probably warranted.

More Superzooming
June 1
5 (news
)--A day after Nikon's DX superzoom announcement we get Sigma's pre-announcement: 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM. (I'm beginning to feel I need to add some acronyms to my name, I feel so plain in comparison to these lens names.)

This lens is a redesign of the existing lens, being lighter and closer focusing than its predecessor. To add to the acronym parade we now have TSC (Thermally Stable Composite). Basically it means that the polycarbonate in the lens barrel doesn't expand or contract in extreme temperatures as did previous designs. Of course, if they didn't use black they might not absorb so much heat in the first place. I suppose now Canon with call their telephotos TSP.

No price or release dates were given for Nikon mount versions of this new lens. Which brings me to a new byThom policy. Beginning today, I'm only going to get more careful in the way I use words describing new products:

  • Released, Shipped, Delivered—I'll use these words only when deliveries have begun to customers.
  • Announced, Introduced—I'll use these words only when full details of the product, including pricing and delivery dates in the US are available or clearly implied.
  • Pre-announced, Planned, Previewed, Upcoming—For press releases like Sigma's latest, where there are no fine details (heck, the upcoming lens I just described isn't even listed on Sigma's Web site yet).
  • Roadmap, Intention, In Development—Vague future products plans with little or no details, basically just a stake in the ground with no promise of specifics.

Thus, the new Nikkor superzoom I describe in the next article is "Announced" while the new Sigma is "Planned." While the press release says "availability...starting in July" further down the press release you find that this is for the Canon mount version: "Pricing and availability for other mounts have yet to be announced"

From a former marketing manager's perspective, the camera companies are getting into the same "gotta have a press release" frenzy that the computer industry once was in. There's a paranoia factor that says "oh no, the competition has announced something so we'd better, too." Coupled with all the intentional leaking that is going on, we basically have a full resurrection of the old IBM FUD tactics (echoed by many in the computer industry, and now the camera industry).

FUD is fear, uncertainty and doubt. Basically these companies don't want you to make up your mind about something that you can buy today because there might be something you'd like better coming down the pike at some unspecified time.

In the case of Sigma's pre-announcement, things are doubly dangerous. Since they have an existing 18-250mm lens sitting on dealers shelves, some people will walk into the store and buy it thinking they're getting the lens just pre-announced.

Thus, in good faith to my readers, I can no longer promulgate the marketing messages the way the marketing organizations of these companies is issuing them. I'm going to be much more careful of my wording concerning "announcements" in the future. Oh, and one other thing: this site (and sansmirror) respects embargo dates. I don't try to sneak press release materials in early in order to look like I'm the first. I don't care if I'm the first, and neither should you. I care about accuracy and clarity and context.

Two New Lenses Join 70 Million Others
June 1
4 (news
)--Two new Nikkors, previously leaked, were announced today by press release by Nikon, along with the expected news that Nikon has now produced over 70 million lenses.

New lenses first:

  • DX users will be looking closely at the 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR. This superzoom is a largish (almost 5" long) and heavy (almost two pounds) "travel" or "all-in-one" lens that will list for US$1000 and probably take over the one-lens solution from the previous 18-200mm for most people. Nikon's marketing materials call the new lens "surprisingly compact and lightweight," but it's nearly 10 ounces heavier than the 18-200mm and uses 77mm filters. Better like having four pounds hanging from your neck (camera and lens).
  • FX users get the new 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR. This finally gives the FX user a smallish (3.2" long, one pound weight) mid-range zoom with VR. Nikon's marketing department calls this one "advanced and versatile." Advanced at what isn't explained. This US$600 lens, like the existing 28-300mm, doesn't seem to have a clear home camera at present. Nikon's published MTF ratings-- especially at 24mm--don't show it to be a strong enough performer on something like the D800, and it also seems to be a mismatch to the D4 crowd, so it appears that Nikon is getting a head start on lenses for the rumored D600 to appear this fall.

In the 70m lens announcement there were other tidbits of interest: 30 million AF-S lenses have been produced, for example. We're getting close to the point where over half the existing Nikkors will have internal focus motors. We now have 58 different models that have internal focus motors.

For those interested in the nuances of press releases, I note that Nikon managed to mention the D4, D800, and Nikon 1 models in passing, but didn't mention any DX camera by name. This continued DX neglect--new lens notwithstanding--is causing paranoia in the Nikon user community, where the current speculation seems to believe that Nikon will drop at least one DX camera soon and the very paranoid think Nikon will drop DX entirely.

Take a chill pill, people. DX isn't going anywhere. The Thailand floods certainly caused Nikon a bit of a scramble as far as DX is concerned (all models are made at their plant there, which was flooded for almost three months last year and required a complete floor to ceiling re-do).

Four Years and Waiting
June 10 (commentary)--
It has now been four years since Capture NX2 appeared. To put that into context, we were using Photoshop CS3 and Lightroom 1 at the time. That means that Adobe has iterated Photoshop and Lightroom both with major changes three times while Nikon basically added only 64-bit handling.

Software time is a lot like dog years: it feels like 28 years since Capture NX2 had a real overhaul. It's fallen progressively behind other products in its ability to handle complex workflow and the promised plug-in support basically amounted to ColorEfex.

Funny thing is, Nikon had it right back in the D1 days: they supplied a Photoshop plug-in that did the basic Capture work. Imagine if they had worked with Adobe to allow an NCR (Nikon Converter Raw) to be chosen instead of ACR (Adobe Converter Raw). Nikon could still be getting money from customers for that, and it wouldn't disrupt our workflow. Instead, we have a program that is out-of-date, doesn't integrate into our workflow, doesn't have most of the abilities we want besides conversion, doesn't have much in the way of options (e.g. plug-ins), and tends to break at OS changeovers.

So here's the challenge Nikon: either get out of the software business and support those that know how to do it right, or man up and show us that you have some real understanding of both user workflow and imaging needs and the technology to do both better than the competition. Oh, and fix the bugs while you're at it and stop claiming that you need so much time after a new OS ships in order to support it (apparently mail delivery of OS release candidates is slow to Japan).

The Collision
June 6 (commentary)--
I've posted this article on both sites partly because its of importance to be both mirrorless and Nikon DSLR users, but also because my whole "large sensor compact" request started here on bythom many years ago and it seems like what I've written here is an appropriate update to that.

With today's Sony announcement of the RX100 compact camera with a 1" sensor and Canon's near m4/3-sized G1x the squeeze that I predicted over three years ago is well upon us.

As a reminder, I pointed out that as smart phone cameras got better—and it was clear they were going to because of all the dedicated engineering from huge companies that was happening on the sensor and lens constraints of phone cameras—compact cameras would have to move upwards. Meanwhile, low-end DSLRs would have to get better to cope with the then emerging mirrorless cameras in the middle.

It hasn't played out exactly as I predicted. The DSLR makers are still using price as a hammer at the low end. A brand new 24mp D3200 with kit lens is US$699, which makes for a pretty narrow window between compacts and DSLRs (a Canon G12, a previous very high end compact is US$450, the new Sony RX100 is US$649, making virtually no price gap). Meanwhile, an Olympus E-M5 body is US$999 while a Nikon D7000 body is only a US$100 more. What's happening is that mirrorless—especially the high end of mirrorless—is playing small/light against performance at overlapping prices. (Please don't tell me that an E-M5 performs as well as a D7000. As good as the E-M5 is, and it's quite good, there are things the D7000 easily does better in the performance realm. So if you're picking an E-M5 over a D7000, you're picking size/weight first over things like continuous focus performance.)

Frankly, I didn't expect so much pricing overlap between mirrorless and DSLRs (nor between compacts and DSLRs, for that matter). Nikon especially is guilty of this: you can buy a D5100 for less than a V1, which is a pretty astonishing thing when you consider that a D5100 costs more to produce in almost every way (more expensive electronics, more complex build with additional hand assembly, more parts overall, more alignment constraints in manufacturing, etc.). Essentially Nikon is charging a "newer and smaller" tax.

Meanwhile, at the compact end we now have Sony and Canon overlapping the two smaller main mirrorless sensor sizes (Nikon's CX and m4/3). And again with the price overlap: you can buy a mirrorless Panasonic G3 with kit lens for less than the Canon G1x compact. Plus many of the low-end m4/3 cameras are cheaper than the new Sony RX100.

This is tricky stuff, but basically we have a giant collision taking place in the US$499 to US$999 realm: compacts, mirrorless, and crop sensor DSLRs all want to live in this price range. (If you back out the numbers: US$500 list means US$425 to the manufacturer, who wants at least a 30% gross product margin, which means you have to produce the product for US$300 or less. So, given 30-40% GPMs, the camera makers are trying to keep manufacturing costs in the US$250 to US$600 range. A big sensor might chew up US$50 of that, fully burdened. A top-end LCD and EVF are going to chew through at least that much more. Put another way, it would be difficult to truly push the all-in R&D and manufacturing costs below US$250 for a competent camera, yet camera makers know that above US$1000 list the sales numbers begin to plummet.)

From a consumer standpoint, this is (sort of a) good thing. The "sort of" is in parentheses because there are clear overpriced and underpriced cameras at the moment, and trying to figure out which is which isn't necessarily easy. As much as I really like the Canon G1x (I took it with Canon's low cost underwater housing on my Grand Canyon rafting trip), it's priced like a mid-range DSLR but most certainly doesn't perform like one. Thus, Canon is saying you're paying for the convenience of a large sensor in a small compact camera capable body. I'd say you're paying too much. US$599 is a more reasonable price for it, considering the alternatives you can get.

But the "good" part for consumers is that you have a wide range of choices, and this is only going to get more crowded in the near future. Canon (G1x), Fujifilm (X100), Leica (X2), Sigma (DP1/2), and Sony (RX100) will not be the only large sensor compact camera makers. Canon has yet to introduce their mirrorless entry. Olympus will be back with more 4/3 (not m4/3) DSLRs and Canikony (that's Canon, Nikon, Sony) will continue to push the low-end DSLRs. All these things mean you're going to find a lot of choice in the US$499 to US$999 range, and there's going to be a lot of overlap.

The plethora of choice won't last, though. We have maybe two years before the dust settles and we see where the clear winners end up. There's no good news for anyone. The large sensor compact really steals the thunder from the E-PM1, GF5, and J1 type mirrorless cameras, I think. With full frame (FX) DSLRs slowly pushing down their price into the under US$2000 range, that squeezes the crop sensor DSLRs and we'll see more competent models of that type at the US$1000 mark. That leaves a narrow window for mirrorless with one potential out: add phase detect autofocus to the sensor and high-end mirrorless makes more sense to most people than low-end DSLR at the same price.

The operative word here is collision (thus the title of the article). The level of camera we're talking about sells between 20-30 million units a year, depending upon exactly where you draw the high-end compact line. Now count the players that want to be there: Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung, and Sony. You can't carve that pie nine ways and have everyone happy. Nikon and Olympus are under enormous pressure to get major shares in this range. Nikon because they're the only large "mostly camera company" left, so any damage to their sales threatens the entire company. Olympus because for them to continue in cameras they have to win in this game; the recent financial problems outside the imaging division have put the camera division under intense scrutiny to produce results. Canon, of course, expects to be number one, and Sony aspires to be number one. Samsung wants to do better than Sony in cameras (and Apple in computing devices) because their brand focus is basically "best mimic." Pentax needs to perform because they need to prove themselves to their new owner (Ricoh).

So collision is the right word. As always, we'll end up with a couple of clear winners, a couple more hanging-on also-rans, and the remaining ones scrambling for a hold of any kind. But those competent compacts are a big threat. Imagine Nikon's V1 autofocus in an m4/3-sized sensor with Canon's G1x type controls and Samsung's WiFi. Heck, imagine what Apple would do with a large sensor compact camera.

We're within sight of a truly competent pocket camera. That makes "your other camera" choice much more interesting, doesn't it? You can choose something like the Nikon 1 models, which doesn't get you very far from the competent pocket camera, if at all, all the way up to the makes-wall-size-murals FX DSLR.

This collision is going to produce victims. The legacy mounts have the best chance of surviving, the newest ones are suspect, and m4/3 is right there in the middle.

It's going to be an interesting couple of years.

Galapagos Workshop Now Posted
June 4 (news)--
I've posted the itinerary and additional information for my Galapagos 2014 photo workshop, and it is now available for registration (see PDF).

Update: the trip is now filled. We will continue to take names for the wait list, as we generally have a few spots open up by the time the trip rolls around due to changes in people's plans. It costs nothing to get you name on the wait list. Use the contact in the PDF to do so.

To all those that have signed up for the two trips I've posted so far, welcome aboard. I'll have more communications as we get closer to those trips. The next itinerary that's likely to get opened is the Patagonia trip (mainly because I've been there so much and have established good enough relationships with the vendors we use there that it's easy to lock down itinerary).

Slow Week
June 4 (commentary)--
I'm concentrating on book writing this week, so I don't anticipate a lot of site updates this week. The D800 and D4 cameras are fascinating in how many small things are different or subtly changed, so I've got a lot of work still left to do to make my Complete Guides for them actually Complete.

Software Updates
May 29 (news)--
The big news is Lightroom 4.1 and Adobe Camera Raw 7.1, which add D800 support and 8 new lens profiles for Nikon users. Likewise, DxO 7.5 is now 64-bit and also supports D800 files. On the Macintosh, Apple Digital Camera Raw Compatibility Update 3.13 added support for the D800E and D3200.

Apple also updated Aperture to version 3.2.4, which is mostly a bug fix.

On iOS devices, Facebook released their camera application, appropriately titlted Facebook Camera. Meanwhile, Photosmith 2.0 is a complete revamp of their iPad application, with many more useful cataloging features and better Lightroom integration. It also includes support for cameras using Eye-Fi cards, which, of course, includes the D800.

Still Not Seeing the User View
May 29 (commentary)--
Panasonic just released a remote application for the FX90 that runs on iOS and Android devices (requires a camera firmware update, too). But as Engadget described it, it's "pretty much a glossy dumb remote." Once again we have a Japanese company doing technology implementation over features.

Consider how you'd use such an app and why. Perhaps I want to be in my own picture. One of the user problems with Self Timers is this: you're not sure what the framing is. Great, set your camera up on a tripod, invoke the remote live view on the Panasonic App and...uh, that's where start to see the disconnect. I don't want to be holding up my iPhone in the resulting picture, so I need a self timer in the app and it isn't there!

The Japanese companies are great at solving technology problems, not so much at actually seeing user needs and solving them before the user discovers they have a problem. Now perhaps I'm being a bit harsh on Panny. Maybe they just wanted to get the app out into the market and get the connection tested before they doll it up with useful functionality. Let's hope that I'm wrong and they actually see what they should do next (and there are a lot of missing things they need to consider).

D4 and D800 Firmware Update
May 28 (news)--
It's still percolating to the various subsidiary sites, but Nikon today released version 1.01 firmware for the two cameras, which fixes three bugs found by early users. In particular, the problem that caused the camera to lock up when reviewing images with Highlights and RGB Histograms active is now fixed.

Thom's New (Old) Book
May 24 (news)--
I'm slowly transitioning some of my materials and books into new sites and products. Today that transition gets a big kick with something I've been wanting to do for some time: offer Introduction to Nikon Software as a separate book.

First, some background. From the beginning, I've included software information with my Complete Guides. As the cameras got more complicated, Nikon introduced more software, and I increased the level of detail about software in the books. The software section section became a bit of a problem as it grew. When the D3 and D300 appeared, I separated out the software section of the guides into a separate included work, Introduction to Nikon Software.

Introduction to Nikon Software
Introduction to Nikon Software covers Transfer, View NX2, Capture NX2, and Camera Control Pro 2. It also has short sections on workflow and third party software that makes sense for Nikon users.

Creating a separate work only solved one problem, though. Nikon's software frequently updates, but I don't update my Complete Guides with the same frequency. The solution was obvious: make the software book a separate, optional work. That's what I'm announcing today.

But there's more to it than that. I've taken another complete pass at the book, brought it completely up to date, and tidied up a few bits and pieces that were not quite up to my high standards. I intend to keep updating this book on a regular basis, and for minor updates, I will provide these updates for free to those that purchase the stand-alone work.

Rather than complicating things by sending out discount coupons to previous byThom book owners, I'm going to do something a bit different: until July 1st, the price for this new downloadable book will be US$9.99. That's US$10 off what will be its price after that date, and is my thank you to all those who've supported me over the past 15 years, whether you've purchased a book from me in the past or not (yes, I've been supporting Nikon for 15 years on the net; hard to believe, but true).

I should point out that if you've recently purchased a D5100, D7000, D300s, D700, or D3 book from me, you've got a third edition version of the Introduction to Nikon Software (version 3.01 to 3.03). This separate for-sale version is version 3.04. As the numbers indicate, there's not a lot of difference, so don't feel like you have to buy the new version. If you've got older cameras, then this new edition will certainly be much more up-to-date and complete than the version you might have gotten with your Complete Guide. Indeed, if your camera dates back to 2006 or earlier, what you have is only a small piece of what's in this new book.

This new book has been tested and is supported on Macintosh and Windows computers with PDF readers, an iPad with the Goodreader app, with the Kindle Fire, and the Color Nook, as usual.

To order, use the link in the right column or click here.

Recording HDMI Output from a D4 or D800
May 22 (news)--
I've now posted a short video article based upon my initial experience of trying to use both these cameras in video productions.

Software Updates
May 22 (news)--
With my Internet absence I got a bit behind on updates, so let's catch up on what's been happening.

Nikon released View NX2 version 2.3.1. Not a big update, as it mainly added some new Coolpix support. Nikon also released Wireless Transmitter Utility 1.3.1, which every D4 or WT-4/5 owner will want to get. Nikon also released View NX2 2.3.2 with a bug fix. Finally, Nikon released firmware 1.0.3 for the D700, which fixes a problem that sometimes causes underexposure.

Photomatix Pro updated to version 4.2, adding new options for thumbnails, a Finishing Touch palette, 20 new presets, better handling of bright windows for interior HDRs, plus raw support for additional cameras, including the D4 and D800.

Akvis released new versions of most of their programs. Version 5.5 of Magnifier, is a plug-in and standalone combination that uprezzes images for large prints. Retoucher 5.5, Coloriage 8.5, HDRFactory 2.5, NatureArt 4.5, and MakeUp 2.5 also got revisions. These new releases are CS6 compatible.

Eye-Fi released firmware 5.0008 for the X2 card series, which fixes a Direct Mode bug and makes general wireless handling improvements.

In the Macintosh world, Apple released Camera Raw Compatibility Update 3.11, which added D800 support. Raw Photo Processor (RPP) hit version 4.5, adding support for the D4 and D800 as well as a number of recent Olympus, Panasonic, and Canon cameras (including compacts using CHDK). This was a relatively big update for the program, with quite a few other improvements, as well. Limit Point introduced Panorama 1.0.3, yet another Pano program for the Mac, available for US$20 in the App Store. Pixelmator updated to version 2.0.3, adding some performance and stability improvements. Snapseed 1.1 adds support to save to TIFF.

For iPad/iPhone Snapseed Mobile 1.4 improves compatibility with the new iPad and can open images directly into Instagram. Decosoft's free Photo Borders 1.1 is also aimed at Instagram users, and features 60 customizable frames. TrueDoF-Pro is yet another depth of field tool (US$6), with a straight-forward and useful one-screen interface. Shuttersnitch got an update to version 2.2.2 to make it compatible with the D4. Pholium is a new $10 digital photo book design app for the iPad.

Finally, a project called Triggertrap Mobile (US$10+US$20 cable) looks very interesting, as it provides triggering mechanisms that haven't been seen before, including things like Distance-lapse, and Eased Timelapse. If that weren't enough, we've got HDR up to 19 exposures, HDR timelapse, and Star Trail modes (plus others, including a number of trigger releases). Indeed, this is the sort of stuff that we all wish the camera companies would actually be doing. The camera companies seem to have no imagination about how the computing power within their cameras could actually be used in imaginative and new ways to provide useful tools like this. It's as if they don't actually try to use their products except in ways that they've been used before. Frankly, some camera company should gobble up these guys and integrate this stuff into their lineup fast.

Slow Start to Week
May 21 (commentary)--I'm still trying to get all the pieces picked up after my major video shoot this past week. I only have nine hours worth of material I've got to get properly managed into the video workflow, plus there are few other odds and ends I've got to do before I can get back to regular function.

That's a polite way of saying it may be a couple of days before there are any new site updates here.

Features Versus Usage
May 18 (commentary)--I'm doing a major video project this week, which is letting me flesh out the D4/D800 capabilities a bit more. Here's the bottom line: you can capture superb video, good video, or poor video, but those aren't settings you dial in, they're the result of a lot of attention to detail.

Never have I been more aware of the difference between having features you can set, versus making a shooter's life easier by the camera maker understanding what the user is trying to do. Nikon put in the features. They don't understand what the video shooter is doing. Yes, it's the age old workflow issue all over again, but this time caged with nuances in workflow that extend back into just getting the camera ready to shoot.

Things you need to set are scattered willy-nilly through the extensive menu system, not explained in the Nikon manual, not capable of being set as a logical group, and one of them will almost certainly catch you by the short hairs if you don't cross all T's and dot all I's every time you turn the camera on. Everyone knows about the "take card out to ensure that you record the highest resolution video out the HDMI port," right? You're going to forget some day, and there's nothing to remind you. But it doesn't stop there. I count five other major things that can trip you up when you're not looking. One of them is the croc sitting in the water waiting for you to not be paying attention.

I'll have an article on getting state-of-the-art video out of these cameras some time next week. In the meantime, if anybody at Nikon is listening: just because a user can doesn't mean a user will. If you don't understand that sentence, you don't understand how to create discoverable, reliable, and repeatable UI to a purpose, simple as that. A good tool makes what we're doing and how the camera does it obvious. Sure, we can get clean HDMI, but we're never sure whether we're actually getting that until we review the outboard signal carefully. Yep, another darned set of workflow steps that we don't want or need.

Video is bad enough for workflow as it is. We don't need even more steps and more settings that can cause you grief. This is doubly problematic because the D4/D800 are very portable units. Even with a Ninja hooked up you can be extremely spontaneous and free in movement. But, that spontaneity is broken by all the detail you have to pay attention to.

The problem is made more acute by Nikon's stubborn insistance on how settings banks work (or don't work, as most of us have been saying for years). Yep, you guessed it, the settings you'll be dealing with are scattered between the SHOOTING, CSM, and SETUP menus, which means you can't configure a "Video bank" to ease the pain.

So, while I appreciate the features—and there are plenty—I don't appreciate what I have to do to fully take advantage of them, particularly when it comes to video. I don't think I'll be alone on this complaint. Sure, some of the long-term video pros are used to dealing with this kind of nonsense, and it's a job creation program for them, too. But it doesn't have to be this way, it shouldn't be this way, and it needs to change if Nikon really wants to get some attention in the video world.

Are You Really Locked into Glass?
May 15 (commentary)--One common statement I see in emails is that "I'm locked into Nikon (or Canon) glass, thus can't change mounts."

I'm not convinced such a statement stands up to full scrutiny. Most people are falling into the Cost Trap. They bought a lens for US$1000 ten years ago. They can only get US$500 for it if they sold it. This is seen as "losing US$500."

In reality, it means that the use cost of the lens was actually US$50 a year ([cost-resale]/years). Seems pretty inexpensive to me. If someone offered to rent you that lens for US$50 a year, you'd pretty much jump at the deal, right?

Things have two worths: (1) what you can get for it by selling it today; and (2) what you benefited from having it during its lifetime. #1 generally goes down over time, while #2 generally goes up. The balance line of how you make a "monetary decision" changes over time, eventually favoring #2 because #1 for good lenses doesn't usually approach zero.

Now, if you're a constant switcher, dumping everything every generation to jump to a different brand, sure, your costs go up. Consider someone buying US$6000 worth of reasonably high-end gear and then selling it and buying another US$6000 worth of gear when the next generation of equipment comes out. Their use cost is about US$3000 a year, which could easily reach 5x the use cost the ten-year switcher had.

The "lock," therefore, is very short-term. Hold equipment three or more generations of camera, and frankly I don't see a lock. Switch every time a maker issues a press release, and you'd be beyond foolish because you're ignoring the cost of use (e.g. locked).

Not that I advocate switching mounts, especially between the big two (Canon and Nikon). One or the other brand tends to have some advantage at any given time, but over a longer period of time, the distinction isn't all that dramatic. Better to be a little patient and keep driving your use costs down.

Jumping to a different class of camera is a little different. Whether you're going DX->FX or DX->mirrorless, you're probably jumping because of something that can't be matched by future generations of your camera.

Within any given sensor size, if you're only an occasional switcher, you're probably not locked, you're just over valuing what you'll get paid for selling it versus what you gained from owning and using it. Of course, if you never used it...

D800 Lens Choice
May 14 (commentary)--It seems a lot of readers are grappling with which midrange zoom to stick on a D800. The commonly cited choices are 24-70mm f/2.8, 24-120mm f/4, and 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6.

Give me a moment. I need to put my flak suit on, buckle my helmet, and check the protective sandbags I'm crouched behind. Ah yes, all good.

All the things you read about resolution are both right and wrong. We've been in a tricky area with DSLRs lately, and it's going to stay tricky until we get far higher pixel counts. More resolution is always good, as you lose nothing and potentially gain something. But we're currently negotiating a specific rapid that has some hidden rocks we need to be aware of. (Can you tell I just got back from that Grand Canyon trip?)

In particular, diffraction is at the heart of some of the confusion. The irony is that compact cameras negotiated this rapid long, long ago. The small sensor size and huge pixel counts we've had most of this decade in compact cameras means that they're all pretty much efficient diffraction recorders. In other words, if you stop down the aperture at all, you record more diffraction on those compact cameras. The lens opening itself, even at maximum aperture, is already contributing diffraction to every compact camera's recording of detail. In fact, it acts like an AA filter, so guess what, you can remove the AA filter (or at least temper it considerably).

Back when we had 6mp DX or 12mp FX cameras, we didn't really have to worry much about diffraction impacts. At the extreme small apertures you could provoke diffraction far enough that it extended across the Bayer pattern enough to be fully realized, but at most apertures it wasn't an issue worth stressing over.

At 36mp on the D800, though, diffraction impacts start recording noticeably at f/8 and above. So we have about half the typically used apertures (f/2.8, 4, 5.6) where we don't have to worry much about diffraction, and half (f/8, f/11, f/16) where we do.

Now let's put another variable into play: maximum performance of a lens. Typically, that's one or two stops down from maximum aperture. And there's the rub. With the 24-70mm we're at f/4 or f/5.6 for optimal results and thus "okay." With the 24-120mm we're at f/5.6 or f/8 for optimal results and venturing into diffraction land. With the 28-300mm much of the range we're at f/8 or f/11 and definitely in diffraction land.

So here's why I put my flak jacket and helmet on and ducked behind the sandbags: different shooters are going to come to different conclusions about those three lenses on the D800.

Let's assume for a moment that they're all "equal" in performance at the same focal length. Let's pick 50mm and assume further that we need to stop down one stop for "picture perfect" results from our lens candidates. The 24-70mm is f/4, the 24-120mm is f/5.6, the 28-300mm is f/6.3. Yeah, I picked this case for a reason: the 24-70mm is not recording visible diffraction (it's there, it's just not a key influencer in final results). The 24-120mm got into the realm where some people say they see a difference on a D800, though a minimal one. The 28-300mm is further up that realm and more people will notice a small difference when pixel peeping.

Put a different way, faster apertures give you more leeway to avoid visible diffraction impacts. Couple this with the fact that the prices on these lenses predict a level of performance, too, and we get to this: the 24-70mm is the best mid-range zoom to put on your D800. Duck!

Phew, that one almost hit me.

Okay, but there's another way to use a D800: shoot at 36mp and reduce in size to 12mp or 18mp. Done properly, the diffraction problem pretty much goes away and these lenses are back to performing like they're on a D3 or D4, which is to say that even the 28-300mm looks pretty darned good. Duck!

Nah, Nah, missed me.

In reality, all three lenses are pretty good. The 24-70mm has some small faults, the 24-120mm very few more, and the 28-300mm surprisingly only a few more. But those faults do add up. On MTF tests, they array like this: 24-70mm best, 28-300mm worst. So how much worse is worse? As much as 20% in terms of absolute numbers averaged over the frame, but some of that is that the 28-300mm's best results occur at f/8, where diffraction is robbing it of a bit of performance, while the other lenses both top out at somewhere around f/5.6, where diffraction isn't yet a major factor.

I'm always reluctant to quote numbers, though, as my photographs don't consist of numbers ;~). If you can live with f/8 as your smallest aperture, the 28-300mm may be good enough that you won't notice the difference. Duck!

Phew, that one almost hit me.

Come on guys, I said "may not notice the difference." I didn't say there was no difference.

Back in the film days, Galen Rowell almost never shot below f/11. Why? Because of diffraction. I suspect that if we pixel peeped as thoroughly then as we do now, Galen might have upped that to closer to f/8. Basically, he was trying to balance depth of field with diffraction, and I think the D800 puts us right back in the same realm as film. If you're shooting at f/11 to get DOF, it might not make a huge difference which lens you're shooting with. Duck!

Phew, you almost hit me again.

Of course, the reason to buy a D800 is...well, what is the reason to buy a D800? If you answer "resolution," then I suspect that you need to stay under f/8 and you will definitely find that the 24-70mm puts up slightly better numbers than the 24-120mm, so you automatically put yourself in the "must buy 24-70mm" camp. Duck!

Ha Ha! Didn't even come close to hitting me.

I suspect that people are stressing over the wrong thing. Yes, you can select a lens that takes away some of what the D800 gains you, but if you're jumping from a 12mp camera to 36mp, is that really going to hurt you?

But so far we've just talked about resolution (and its cousin sharpness). Don't these lenses have other attributes that come into play?

Sure. Some of you will reject the 24-120mm because of its vignetting, for example, which is at least a stop wide open (and two stops at 24mm) and at least two thirds of a stop at f/5.6. Remember, you're going to be avoiding f/8, Duck!

Wow, that one came in fast and low.

The linear distortion and chromatic aberration production is relatively high on all these lenses. The 24-120mm isn't particularly better or worse than the 24-70mm. The 28-300mm is slightly worse at a few of those things (linear distortion at the extremes) and slightly better at others. Personally, none of those attributes bother me all that much as they're pretty all correctable after the fact.

Hey! That was a cheap shot, I didn't even say Duck! Fortunately it bounced off me.

For me, it all comes back to center and edge performance, and there the lenses stack up exactly as you'd expect: (1) 24-70mm, (2) 24-120mm, (3) 28-300mm. In particular, the 24-70mm has extremely strong central performance, weak corner performance at maximum aperture that rapidly gets to very good. The 24-120mm has surpisingly good center performance wide open, though at most focal lengths the corners are far weaker, but those corners are quite good up to about 50mm once you get to f/5.6 or smaller. The 120mm performance is good in the center, weak in the edges, pretty much no matter which aperture you pick. The 28-300mm is the weakest in the center but still very good (better than I expected and strong enough for some to consider even on a D800), but at anything less than f/8 the corners are very weak. At above f/8 the lens is diffraction limited in what it can do and isn't far off from the rest.

So my preference is exactly as you might think it is and the price points suggest: (1) 24-70mm, (2) 24-120mm, and (3) 28-300mm.

Let me check my helmet for a moment. I think I'll put on another layer of flak protection.

Buy the 24-70mm. While it has plenty of modest weaknesses, that extra stop actually buys you a bit of performance at f/4 (plus, of course, you have f/2.8 ;~). If you're on a budget or can live with the edges, okay, buy the 24-120mm. It's surprisingly good on the D800, enough so that the extra focal length starts to make it highly tempting, even if that focal length is the weakest part of the lens. Plus you've got VR.

Whoa, almost didn't see that shot coming. Fortunately I'm immune to that shot, as I've long said that the 24-70mm needs VR.

The 28-300mm? No, I'll pass. I know a lot of people like the notion of one-lens-does-everything, but that seems to me to be in direct contradiction to the core of what the D800 is. I really don't see the point of buying the DSLR with arguably the best image quality available and then slapping it with the penalty of less capable glass (probably with a protective filter out front that further reduces capability).

Hey, was that a Swiss Army Knife someone attacked me with?

There's another option out there, though. Get the upcoming 28mm f/1.8G, plus the existing 50mm f/1.8G and 85mm f/1.8G. Yes, f/1.8. Another hint at what I'm likely to write in future reviews: I like the 85mm f/1.8G better than the f/1.4G, and I've already written that I prefer the 50mm f/1.8G over the f/1.4G because of focus speed. I'm betting that the 28mm will round out this prime powerhouse trio. And it'll chase away most of those demons you see in the corners of the zooms. If you're not on a budget and don't mind manual focus, the Zeiss ZF.2 primes will polish those D800 pixels even more. A 21/25mm, 50mm, 100mm Zeiss combo basically nets you the best you can do right now on a D800.

This also brings me to my last thought before I duck down deep behind my bunker: maybe the 24-120mm f/4 is the right choice. Coupled with three primes, what would you be missing?

Small clarification. There was one post about this article on dpreview that pointed out a point I didn't make fully clear here. I'm writing about peak lens performance in this article (and peek performance, as in peeking at pixels). Some people do indeed get confused, as that poster wrote. If we print a D3, D3x, D4, and D800 image all at 14" wide, diffraction isn't going to limit the D3x or D800 image (it's buried too deeply in the print's pixels where you can't see it). As I noted at the beginning of the article, more resolution is always good. While I write for sophisticated shooters who know these things, I forget sometimes that there are others trying to get up to that level that might not have yet learned everything I assume or are confused by something I write because they're missing a piece of information.

One reason why Galen was often criticized by other photographers during his career was that those (medium and large format) photographers felt that he was limiting his potential gallery print size by using a smaller capture format. The diffraction would show up in very large prints because you were magnifying the small frame more to get the big print (compared to 645 or 4x5). Yet he was very careful to understand just how far he could go, and pretty much went right up to the edge by practicing great shot discipline and understanding the balance between DOF and diffraction in the equipment he was using. I'm reminded of that when I use my D800: with care I can push into what used to be the sole territory of medium format. But push too far and things like diffraction starts to show.

So let me state this: there will be times when it is worth going into diffraction-limited apertures to capture more DOF. As I noted, more resolution is always good, and done right you should gain more from the DOF than you lose from the diffraction. But once diffraction is the primary limiting factor of your len's resolving power, the gains from the extra resolution start to fall. A lot of people are buying D800's to "print big." Those people, especially, need to understand the gains and losses they're going to encounter, and to do what Galen did: carefully balance them.

Cards
May 11 (commentary)--
A reader asked me a good question yesterday: with the proliferation of card formats (XQD, CompactFlash, Secure Digital) which should they invest in?

Unfortunately it's a trick question. Anyone looking backwards will tell you that card formats/abilities aren't secure enough for long-term investment. Had you bought a bunch of state-of-the-art cards five years ago, today's cameras would all perform less than optimally with them. If you're a deliberate, slow-paced, one-shot-at-a-time shooter, that might not be a big penalty, but if you're thinking about current and future performance, old cards should be retired.

Unfortunately, Nikon has completely garbled (and will continue to garble) the whole subject with their lineup of cameras. Simply put:

  • D4 — You bought the camera for performance, and the clear winner here is XQD cards. At the moment you get one free with the camera, so it's easy enough to compare it with your best CompactFlash card. I'll bet the XQD card wins every time.
  • D800 — A trickier battle, but CompactFlash wins for still performance, at least if you have the state-of-the-art (1000x). The SD side of the camera, despite being UHS-1 compliant, doesn't match the CompactFlash side performance with state-of-the-art cards (1000x CF, 95MBs SD). Exception: video, where I'd tend to use SD.
  • D7000 — dual SD basically made all the upgraders junk their CompactFlash cards for Secure Digital cards.

In essence, there's no consistency in Nikon's lineup or thinking, and I don't believe we'll have any more consistency with the next couple of models being introduced (other than SecureDigital is the choice for lower end cameras).

But again, it's a trick question. You sacrifice ultimate performance if you use cards from your two-year camera in your new camera because write performance is consistently moving upwards. A different way of putting this is: buy a small number of new state-of-the-art cards with your new state-of-the-art camera. For me, that meant buying 3 XQD cards and some new CompactFlash for my D4, and some new SD cards for my D800 (I can use the CompactFlash I bought for my D4 on my D800). Even when the card slot is the same as what you've got (say a D3000 user moving up to a D7000), you still should look at the state-of-the-art in card performance at the time your new camera was introduced and buy a couple of those. That advice is even more important if you're one of those that ever fills the buffer.

Features Versus Usage
May 18 (commentary)--I'm doing a major video project this week, which is letting me flesh out the D4/D800 capabilities a bit more. Here's the bottom line: you can capture superb video, good video, or poor video, but those aren't settings you dial in, they're the result of a lot of attention to detail.

Never have I been more aware of the difference between having features you can set, versus making a shooter's life easier by the camera maker understanding what the user is trying to do. Nikon put in the features. They don't understand what the video shooter is doing. Yes, it's the age old workflow issue all over again, but this time caged with nuances in workflow that extend back into just getting the camera ready to shoot.

Things you need to set are scattered willy-nilly through the extensive menu system, not explained in the Nikon manual, not capable of being set as a logical group, and one of them will almost certainly catch you by the short hairs if you don't cross all T's and dot all I's every time you turn the camera on. Everyone knows about the "take card out to ensure that you record the highest resolution video out the HDMI port," right? You're going to forget some day, and there's nothing to remind you. But it doesn't stop there. I count five other major things that can trip you up when you're not looking. One of them is the croc sitting in the water waiting for you to not be paying attention.

I'll have an article on getting state-of-the-art video out of these cameras some time next week. In the meantime, if anybody at Nikon is listening: just because a user can doesn't mean a user will. If you don't understand that sentence, you don't understand how to create discoverable, reliable, and repeatable UI to a purpose, simple as that. A good tool makes what we're doing and how the camera does it obvious. Sure, we can get clean HDMI, but we're never sure whether we're actually getting that until we review the outboard signal carefully. Yep, another darned set of workflow steps that we don't want or need.

Video is bad enough for workflow as it is. We don't need even more steps and more settings that can cause you grief. This is doubly problematic because the D4/D800 are very portable units. Even with a Ninja hooked up you can be extremely spontaneous and free in movement. But, that spontaneity is broken by all the detail you have to pay attention to.

The problem is made more acute by Nikon's stubborn insistance on how settings banks work (or don't work, as most of us have been saying for years). Yep, you guessed it, the settings you'll be dealing with are scattered between the SHOOTING, CSM, and SETUP menus, which means you can't configure a "Video bank" to ease the pain.

So, while I appreciate the features—and there are plenty—I don't appreciate what I have to do to fully take advantage of them, particularly when it comes to video. I don't think I'll be alone on this complaint. Sure, some of the long-term video pros are used to dealing with this kind of nonsense, and it's a job creation program for them, too. But it doesn't have to be this way, it shouldn't be this way, and it needs to change if Nikon really wants to get some attention in the video world.

Are You Really Locked into Glass?
May 15 (commentary)--One common statement I see in emails is that "I'm locked into Nikon (or Canon) glass, thus can't change mounts."

I'm not convinced such a statement stands up to full scrutiny. Most people are falling into the Cost Trap. They bought a lens for US$1000 ten years ago. They can only get US$500 for it if they sold it. This is seen as "losing US$500."

In reality, it means that the use cost of the lens was actually US$50 a year ([cost-resale]/years). Seems pretty inexpensive to me. If someone offered to rent you that lens for US$50 a year, you'd pretty much jump at the deal, right?

Things have two worths: (1) what you can get for it by selling it today; and (2) what you benefited from having it during its lifetime. #1 generally goes down over time, while #2 generally goes up. The balance line of how you make a "monetary decision" changes over time, eventually favoring #2 because #1 for good lenses doesn't usually approach zero.

Now, if you're a constant switcher, dumping everything every generation to jump to a different brand, sure, your costs go up. Consider someone buying US$6000 worth of reasonably high-end gear and then selling it and buying another US$6000 worth of gear when the next generation of equipment comes out. Their use cost is about US$3000 a year, which could easily reach 5x the use cost the ten-year switcher had.

The "lock," therefore, is very short-term. Hold equipment three or more generations of camera, and frankly I don't see a lock. Switch every time a maker issues a press release, and you'd be beyond foolish because you're ignoring the cost of use (e.g. locked).

Not that I advocate switching mounts, especially between the big two (Canon and Nikon). One or the other brand tends to have some advantage at any given time, but over a longer period of time, the distinction isn't all that dramatic. Better to be a little patient and keep driving your use costs down.

Jumping to a different class of camera is a little different. Whether you're going DX->FX or DX->mirrorless, you're probably jumping because of something that can't be matched by future generations of your camera.

Within any given sensor size, if you're only an occasional switcher, you're probably not locked, you're just over valuing what you'll get paid for selling it versus what you gained from owning and using it. Of course, if you never used it...

D800 Lens Choice
May 14 (commentary)--It seems a lot of readers are grappling with which midrange zoom to stick on a D800. The commonly cited choices are 24-70mm f/2.8, 24-120mm f/4, and 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6.

Give me a moment. I need to put my flak suit on, buckle my helmet, and check the protective sandbags I'm crouched behind. Ah yes, all good.

All the things you read about resolution are both right and wrong. We've been in a tricky area with DSLRs lately, and it's going to stay tricky until we get far higher pixel counts. More resolution is always good, as you lose nothing and potentially gain something. But we're currently negotiating a specific rapid that has some hidden rocks we need to be aware of. (Can you tell I just got back from that Grand Canyon trip?)

In particular, diffraction is at the heart of some of the confusion. The irony is that compact cameras negotiated this rapid long, long ago. The small sensor size and huge pixel counts we've had most of this decade in compact cameras means that they're all pretty much efficient diffraction recorders. In other words, if you stop down the aperture at all, you record more diffraction on those compact cameras. The lens opening itself, even at maximum aperture, is already contributing diffraction to every compact camera's recording of detail. In fact, it acts like an AA filter, so guess what, you can remove the AA filter (or at least temper it considerably).

Back when we had 6mp DX or 12mp FX cameras, we didn't really have to worry much about diffraction impacts. At the extreme small apertures you could provoke diffraction far enough that it extended across the Bayer pattern enough to be fully realized, but at most apertures it wasn't an issue worth stressing over.

At 36mp on the D800, though, diffraction impacts start recording noticeably at f/8 and above. So we have about half the typically used apertures (f/2.8, 4, 5.6) where we don't have to worry much about diffraction, and half (f/8, f/11, f/16) where we do.

Now let's put another variable into play: maximum performance of a lens. Typically, that's one or two stops down from maximum aperture. And there's the rub. With the 24-70mm we're at f/4 or f/5.6 for optimal results and thus "okay." With the 24-120mm we're at f/5.6 or f/8 for optimal results and venturing into diffraction land. With the 28-300mm much of the range we're at f/8 or f/11 and definitely in diffraction land.

So here's why I put my flak jacket and helmet on and ducked behind the sandbags: different shooters are going to come to different conclusions about those three lenses on the D800.

Let's assume for a moment that they're all "equal" in performance at the same focal length. Let's pick 50mm and assume further that we need to stop down one stop for "picture perfect" results from our lens candidates. The 24-70mm is f/4, the 24-120mm is f/5.6, the 28-300mm is f/6.3. Yeah, I picked this case for a reason: the 24-70mm is not recording visible diffraction (it's there, it's just not a key influencer in final results). The 24-120mm got into the realm where some people say they see a difference on a D800, though a minimal one. The 28-300mm is further up that realm and more people will notice a small difference when pixel peeping.

Put a different way, faster apertures give you more leeway to avoid visible diffraction impacts. Couple this with the fact that the prices on these lenses predict a level of performance, too, and we get to this: the 24-70mm is the best mid-range zoom to put on your D800. Duck!

Phew, that one almost hit me.

Okay, but there's another way to use a D800: shoot at 36mp and reduce in size to 12mp or 18mp. Done properly, the diffraction problem pretty much goes away and these lenses are back to performing like they're on a D3 or D4, which is to say that even the 28-300mm looks pretty darned good. Duck!

Nah, Nah, missed me.

In reality, all three lenses are pretty good. The 24-70mm has some small faults, the 24-120mm very few more, and the 28-300mm surprisingly only a few more. But those faults do add up. On MTF tests, they array like this: 24-70mm best, 28-300mm worst. So how much worse is worse? As much as 20% in terms of absolute numbers averaged over the frame, but some of that is that the 28-300mm's best results occur at f/8, where diffraction is robbing it of a bit of performance, while the other lenses both top out at somewhere around f/5.6, where diffraction isn't yet a major factor.

I'm always reluctant to quote numbers, though, as my photographs don't consist of numbers ;~). If you can live with f/8 as your smallest aperture, the 28-300mm may be good enough that you won't notice the difference. Duck!

Phew, that one almost hit me.

Come on guys, I said "may not notice the difference." I didn't say there was no difference.

Back in the film days, Galen Rowell almost never shot below f/11. Why? Because of diffraction. I suspect that if we pixel peeped as thoroughly then as we do now, Galen might have upped that to closer to f/8. Basically, he was trying to balance depth of field with diffraction, and I think the D800 puts us right back in the same realm as film. If you're shooting at f/11 to get DOF, it might not make a huge difference which lens you're shooting with. Duck!

Phew, you almost hit me again.

Of course, the reason to buy a D800 is...well, what is the reason to buy a D800? If you answer "resolution," then I suspect that you need to stay under f/8 and you will definitely find that the 24-70mm puts up slightly better numbers than the 24-120mm, so you automatically put yourself in the "must buy 24-70mm" camp. Duck!

Ha Ha! Didn't even come close to hitting me.

I suspect that people are stressing over the wrong thing. Yes, you can select a lens that takes away some of what the D800 gains you, but if you're jumping from a 12mp camera to 36mp, is that really going to hurt you?

But so far we've just talked about resolution (and its cousin sharpness). Don't these lenses have other attributes that come into play?

Sure. Some of you will reject the 24-120mm because of its vignetting, for example, which is at least a stop wide open (and two stops at 24mm) and at least two thirds of a stop at f/5.6. Remember, you're going to be avoiding f/8, Duck!

Wow, that one came in fast and low.

The linear distortion and chromatic aberration production is relatively high on all these lenses. The 24-120mm isn't particularly better or worse than the 24-70mm. The 28-300mm is slightly worse at a few of those things (linear distortion at the extremes) and slightly better at others. Personally, none of those attributes bother me all that much as they're pretty all correctable after the fact.

Hey! That was a cheap shot, I didn't even say Duck! Fortunately it bounced off me.

For me, it all comes back to center and edge performance, and there the lenses stack up exactly as you'd expect: (1) 24-70mm, (2) 24-120mm, (3) 28-300mm. In particular, the 24-70mm has extremely strong central performance, weak corner performance at maximum aperture that rapidly gets to very good. The 24-120mm has surpisingly good center performance wide open, though at most focal lengths the corners are far weaker, but those corners are quite good up to about 50mm once you get to f/5.6 or smaller. The 120mm performance is good in the center, weak in the edges, pretty much no matter which aperture you pick. The 28-300mm is the weakest in the center but still very good (better than I expected and strong enough for some to consider even on a D800), but at anything less than f/8 the corners are very weak. At above f/8 the lens is diffraction limited in what it can do and isn't far off from the rest.

So my preference is exactly as you might think it is and the price points suggest: (1) 24-70mm, (2) 24-120mm, and (3) 28-300mm.

Let me check my helmet for a moment. I think I'll put on another layer of flak protection.

Buy the 24-70mm. While it has plenty of modest weaknesses, that extra stop actually buys you a bit of performance at f/4 (plus, of course, you have f/2.8 ;~). If you're on a budget or can live with the edges, okay, buy the 24-120mm. It's surprisingly good on the D800, enough so that the extra focal length starts to make it highly tempting, even if that focal length is the weakest part of the lens. Plus you've got VR.

Whoa, almost didn't see that shot coming. Fortunately I'm immune to that shot, as I've long said that the 24-70mm needs VR.

The 28-300mm? No, I'll pass. I know a lot of people like the notion of one-lens-does-everything, but that seems to me to be in direct contradiction to the core of what the D800 is. I really don't see the point of buying the DSLR with arguably the best image quality available and then slapping it with the penalty of less capable glass (probably with a protective filter out front that further reduces capability).

Hey, was that a Swiss Army Knife someone attacked me with?

There's another option out there, though. Get the upcoming 28mm f/1.8G, plus the existing 50mm f/1.8G and 85mm f/1.8G. Yes, f/1.8. Another hint at what I'm likely to write in future reviews: I like the 85mm f/1.8G better than the f/1.4G, and I've already written that I prefer the 50mm f/1.8G over the f/1.4G because of focus speed. I'm betting that the 28mm will round out this prime powerhouse trio. And it'll chase away most of those demons you see in the corners of the zooms. If you're not on a budget and don't mind manual focus, the Zeiss ZF.2 primes will polish those D800 pixels even more. A 21/25mm, 50mm, 100mm Zeiss combo basically nets you the best you can do right now on a D800.

This also brings me to my last thought before I duck down deep behind my bunker: maybe the 24-120mm f/4 is the right choice. Coupled with three primes, what would you be missing?

Small clarification. There was one post about this article on dpreview that pointed out a point I didn't make fully clear here. I'm writing about peak lens performance in this article (and peek performance, as in peeking at pixels). Some people do indeed get confused, as that poster wrote. If we print a D3, D3x, D4, and D800 image all at 14" wide, diffraction isn't going to limit the D3x or D800 image (it's buried too deeply in the print's pixels where you can't see it). As I noted at the beginning of the article, more resolution is always good. While I write for sophisticated shooters who know these things, I forget sometimes that there are others trying to get up to that level that might not have yet learned everything I assume or are confused by something I write because they're missing a piece of information.

One reason why Galen was often criticized by other photographers during his career was that those (medium and large format) photographers felt that he was limiting his potential gallery print size by using a smaller capture format. The diffraction would show up in very large prints because you were magnifying the small frame more to get the big print (compared to 645 or 4x5). Yet he was very careful to understand just how far he could go, and pretty much went right up to the edge by practicing great shot discipline and understanding the balance between DOF and diffraction in the equipment he was using. I'm reminded of that when I use my D800: with care I can push into what used to be the sole territory of medium format. But push too far and things like diffraction starts to show.

So let me state this: there will be times when it is worth going into diffraction-limited apertures to capture more DOF. As I noted, more resolution is always good, and done right you should gain more from the DOF than you lose from the diffraction. But once diffraction is the primary limiting factor of your len's resolving power, the gains from the extra resolution start to fall. A lot of people are buying D800's to "print big." Those people, especially, need to understand the gains and losses they're going to encounter, and to do what Galen did: carefully balance them.

Cards
May 11 (commentary)--
A reader asked me a good question yesterday: with the proliferation of card formats (XQD, CompactFlash, Secure Digital) which should they invest in?

Unfortunately it's a trick question. Anyone looking backwards will tell you that card formats/abilities aren't secure enough for long-term investment. Had you bought a bunch of state-of-the-art cards five years ago, today's cameras would all perform less than optimally with them. If you're a deliberate, slow-paced, one-shot-at-a-time shooter, that might not be a big penalty, but if you're thinking about current and future performance, old cards should be retired.

Unfortunately, Nikon has completely garbled (and will continue to garble) the whole subject with their lineup of cameras. Simply put:

  • D4 — You bought the camera for performance, and the clear winner here is XQD cards. At the moment you get one free with the camera, so it's easy enough to compare it with your best CompactFlash card. I'll bet the XQD card wins every time.
  • D800 — A trickier battle, but CompactFlash wins for still performance, at least if you have the state-of-the-art (1000x). The SD side of the camera, despite being UHS-1 compliant, doesn't match the CompactFlash side performance with state-of-the-art cards (1000x CF, 95MBs SD). Exception: video, where I'd tend to use SD.
  • D7000 — dual SD basically made all the upgraders junk their CompactFlash cards for Secure Digital cards.

In essence, there's no consistency in Nikon's lineup or thinking, and I don't believe we'll have any more consistency with the next couple of models being introduced (other than SecureDigital is the choice for lower end cameras).

But again, it's a trick question. You sacrifice ultimate performance if you use cards from your two-year camera in your new camera because write performance is consistently moving upwards. A different way of putting this is: buy a small number of new state-of-the-art cards with your new state-of-the-art camera. For me, that meant buying 3 XQD cards and some new CompactFlash for my D4, and some new SD cards for my D800 (I can use the CompactFlash I bought for my D4 on my D800). Even when the card slot is the same as what you've got (say a D3000 user moving up to a D7000), you still should look at the state-of-the-art in card performance at the time your new camera was introduced and buy a couple of those. That advice is even more important if you're one of those that ever fills the buffer.

Maybe I Should Ask for More Things
May 10 (commentary)--
Let's see, I asked for a large sensor compact camera, and now we have five (Leica X1/X2, Sigma DP1, DP2, Canon G1x). I asked for a monochrome camera and today we got just that (Leica M-Monochrom). Even "Communicating" seems to be the word of the day for new camera intros (still waiting on Programmable and Modular, though). I guess I'm going to have to think further into the future and ask for more ;~).

Nikon is a Growth Company
May 10 (news)--
Nikon is probably the most transparent of the camera companies in terms of information about camera sales, probably because most of their sales are in cameras (64% this year, compare that to Sony's 8%). Today they reported their full fiscal year numbers (fiscal year ended March 31st).

While Nikon was impacted directly by the Thailand flood, they actually reported an extraordinary gain (due to insurance proceeds), though this doesn't include the impact it had on DSLR sales.

Surprisingly, Nikon managed to beat their previous estimates (made only a couple of months ago) in the Imaging group. They finished the year with 587b yen in imaging sales, and a strong 54b yen profit. Nikon sold 4.74m DSLRs and mirrorless (compared to 4.29m last year; and remember, most of their DSLRs are made in Thailand), 7.13m lenses (compared to 6.36m last year), and a whopping 17.37m Coolpix (compared to 14.26m last year). Nikon claims 29% of the interchangeable lens camera market (DSLR and mirrorless), 17.5% of the compact camera market, and 19% of the overall camera market. Nikon described sales of the Nikon 1 model as "brisk."

Nikon also makes forward predictions. They expect camera sales to increase 24% and profits 48% in the coming year. Yeah, you read that right. Nikon thinks they're a growth company. Let's put that in numbers: DSLRs and mirrorless sales in the coming year: 7m units (up 48% over last year). Compact camera sales: 18m units (up 3.7% over last year). Coupled with the CIPA estimates for industry wide sales, that would put Nikon's market share for DSLR/mirrorless at 37% and their overall camera market share at 22%, both significant gains in what is a flat camera market. Heck, if that weren't enough, Nikon expects to sell 10m lenses in the coming year (another 40% increase).

Because yen value is an important part of forward estimates, here's Nikon's numbers there: 80 yen to the dollar and 105 yen to the Euro: basically no substantive change expected in the coming year, which implies no yen appreciation price increases in the coming year.

Botswana Workshop
May 9 (news)--
My August 2013 workshop and safari in Botswana is now open for registration. Other than the changes in park fees and internal airfare (over which we have no control), we've been able to keep the costs from rising from the 2010 workshop. I think it would be tough to top this trip at the cost.

If you want details, you can find the PDF description of the workshop here. Pretty much everything you need to know is in that document (if there's something that isn't that you need an answer to, either call the number in the document or drop me an email with the question).

Hurry, because as I write this the workshop is already half full. Wait, how does that happen when I'm just now announcing the details? Simple, I gave my former workshop students a couple of days head start. I do try to reward my former customers, and I'll be doing more of that in the future, as I think it's the right thing to do, especially when the resource is scarce.

If you want to know about my other planned workshops, here's the current 411:

  • South Africa is an extremely small trip (6), and already has a wait list, so I'm not going to promote it except to former workshop students at this time.
  • Galapagos is slowly moving towards some final decisions. We've changed boats, we've changed the itinerary, we've changed a lot of things, but it's all starting to lock down now and I should be publishing that itinerary and opening up registration within a month.
  • Patagonia and New Zealand are both at stage one of planning, and it will be some time before I have any details. Given that we're talking about workshops at the end of 2014 or start of 2015, there's no rush; I'd rather get things done right rather than lock into something I later decide isn't optimal.

I can't really promise anything other than those four. Here in the US, I really don't like to do large scale workshops (more than 6 students) and small ones have turned out to be economically unfeasible. I can't really do lots of big International workshops, as they chew up large chunks of time. So I'll continue on the two-international-workshop-a-year schedule for the foreseeable future. I'll continue to look at other options, as well, but for now, what you see is what you'll get.

Users versus Units
May 7 (commentary)--
I called Engadget on the carpet for sloppy reporting (small part of next story). Some of you have tried to call me on the carpet for that. So let me restate things.

First, I wasn't picking on Engadget, per se. They just were the first of what how has become several to commit the sin I was pointing out. Most of the stories about this problem that have appeared to date appear to be paraphrases of the original PDN story. Why a paraphrase? Because then it looks like you're doing your own reporting, not quoting someone else's story verbatim. Worse still, Engadget lists their source as Nikon Rumors, who correctly and clearly quoted the PDN story. Bonus points for Nikon Rumors; Negative points for Engadget.

However, in doing all that paraphrasing, a key word got changed by Engadget, and now by Galbraith's site and others, too: units are not users.

The original PDN story wrote "a small number of users." Engadget wrote "a 'small number' of units." There is a difference, and the nuance is important here in understanding what the problem might be.

Highlights and RGB Histogram are set to a default setting of Off. If you leave your D4 or D800 set to the defaults, you won't experience a problem. If you turn those things on (which is one of my recommendations in my books and something a pro would tend to do), some of you will lock up your camera eventually. Nikon used the term "small number of users" in their response to PDN very pointedly, I think. They meant users who turn those features on, and even then a subset of them.

There are two possibilities: (1) it indeed is a "units" problem, which would tend to imply that there's a part failure in some cameras; or (2) it is a "users" problem, likely meaning that it's a firmware issue that won't be triggered unless you set those two Display settings off their defaults. I'll vote for #2, as I don't think there's a separate part involved in the Highlights and RGB Histogram display.

So let's do some real reporting. I took both my D4 and D800 and ran 2000 shots on both, 1000 first with Highlights/RGB Histogram off (default), then 1000 with those settings turned on. I performed random reviews, different camera settings, shot a variety of subjects, and a few other odds and ends I'd expect people to do in shooting that many images. Neither camera locked up.

So what does that prove? Nothing, really. It still could be "users" or "units." That would be true regardless of whether my camera locked up in my test or not.

However, Nikon is generally careful in their wording, so I'll continue to use the word "users" in the same context they did. That's what the original story that started this all had as the quote, after all. Like me, PDN seems to think it's a firmware problem (they write "[firmware update] seems likely").

This all gets me back to my next story: one problem with the Internet is the tendency towards false positives. Everyone wants to beat everyone else to stories. Plus, because once you start a news site it becomes a black hole (e.g. sucks up all news content constantly), the tendency to jump on a "story" is doubled.

The problem is that the original expression of something might not be fully accurate. Certainly paraphrasing the original ex per es si on can lead to inaccuracies. By the time an actual, accurate statement verifies something, the Internet is often filled with plenty of conflicting information derived from that first "gotta publish" spurt. This is one reason why I believe camera companies need to be more forthcoming when they discover problems: the Internet vagaries can be worse than the actual problem. Nikon probably needed to issue a "Don't use Highlights/RGB Histogram until we fix the firmware" statement. Followed by a "remove the battery and put it back in" statement "if you do encounter the problem." There, done. If someone misquotes it on the Internet, jump on them to fix their mistake. No serious user is going to be upset by that type of problem on a brand new complicated camera, especially if a quick fix is promised. They're going to thank the camera company for making it less likely that they miss a key shot.

I'm not 100% accurate. I don't know anyone that is. But I try to wait until I have real information that's useful before passing it on. I try to correct previous misstatements and those of others, as well. I'm not perfect at that, but I think I have a pretty good track record there.

All those asking for me to verify production issues therefore will have a bit of a wait: I can't actually do that until they're really verified, after all. That was the point of the next story. I test, I research, I ask questions of others (including the camera makers), I report what I find when I'm sure of what I've found. Simple as that.

In terms of the problem being reported, this user and his units have not triggered, and thus not verified, the problem yet.

Production Issues or Not?
May 4 (commentary)--
I usually stay quiet on possible production issues when a new camera is released. The likelihood that there will be some on a product as complex as the D4 or D800 is near 100%, especially given the way (the limited) field testing occurs these days. In essence, first purchasers will almost certainly find some issue that needs addressing. Historically, Nikon addresses such problems with real fixes. Maybe not instantly, but with reasonable haste.

Some online sources are now reporting issues that are known with loose journalistic standards. For example, Engadget wrote "a 'small number' of units can lock up and become unresponsive." That's actually incorrect, I believe. There appears to be a firmware bug in every D4 and D800 that, when you have Highlights and RGB histogram active (my usual recommendation and what most pros would have set), the D4 and D800 will experience random lockups. The quick fix is to turn those things off. The long term fix will likely be a firmware update. Nikon has acknowledged a problem, and I have no doubt that they'll act quickly to put together this and a few other "fixes" into a firmware update soon.

Then there's the usual "doesn't focus right" complaints. I say usual because as we've gotten higher resolution cameras we're finding more people who aren't handling their cameras right or understand the autofocus system correctly. We've had this complaint now about the D3/D300, the D7000, and now the D4/D800. Yet the vast majority of those complaints actually turn out to be user misunderstanding or AF Fine Tune tolerance differences. Yes, I'm aware of the "left side doesn't focus same as right side" complaints. I can't verify them on three bodies I've tried, so short of actually getting a body in hand that displays this problem, I can't really say anything. At the same time, I know that if you do experience a real issue and can report it to Nikon clearly and show examples, they'll definitely look at your problem and fix it if they find it is real. Ranting online won't fix your problem, should you actually have one. Sending your camera and maybe lens back to Nikon with a clear report of the problem and how it is triggered will.

Finally, let's put some numbers on things. At this point Nikon has produced at least 25,000 D800 bodies. A typical early run manufacturing problem rate would be 5-10%. That means that of the 25,000 bodies first shipped, we'd expect 1,250 to 2,500 of them to have an issue reported by the user, of which not all of those will turn out to be real manufacturing or QA problems (see previous paragraph). That's normal. Over time, problem rates go down.

This last week I've had to write the following many times to people who've emailed me: if you decide to live on the bleeding edge of technology, you'll sometimes get cut. That's why they call it the bleeding edge. If over 40 years you buy 10 new camera bodies right at introduction, the law of statistics say that probably one of those will have a real manufacturing problem. Likewise, complex software (e.g. camera firmware) never ships with no defects at version 1.0.

If you don't like those odds, don't buy the first product that comes off the assembly line, simple as that.

Moreover, here's the other thing I've had to write in email responses to a lot of people this week: never, ever rely upon new equipment until you've had a chance to thoroughly and completely vet it. If you sold your D3s in anticipation of getting a D4 and then ran out the next day after getting your D4 to do a for-hire job, any problems you encountered are due to your decision making, not Nikon's manufacturing or QA. You should have kept your D3s and did the job with that. You should be testing the new camera in parallel with your old, and only switching when you're convinced that it's production ready.

That last bit brings up a problem for Canon: just how soon before the Summer Olympics is the 1Dx going to actually appear? If I were shooting the Olympics for hire this year (unfortunately, not happening though I'd love to), I'd be vetting the equipment now. No way would I want to get a camera in July and head to the stadium within a few weeks after that. While CPS and NPS have service and loaner centers at the Olympics, I want to know that my gear is top notch and I understand it perfectly long before I rely upon it for a one-off event like the Olympics.

The Pre-Order Mess
May 3 (news)--
Just prior to Pennsylvania deciding that the US Supreme Court couldn't possibly be right and that the state should ignore the established law and change affiliate nexus interpretations on their own (which caused me to be dropped as a B&H affiliate), I was invited by four different affiliate programs to post "pre-order" links.

While I eventually did post a couple (since removed), I balked. Why? Because I knew that we were about to proceed into the unknown, and the unknown has a reputation for biting you in the butt. Hard.

My hesitation has now proven prescient. While the problem I anticipated happened with a number of cameras (D4, D800, OM-D, etc.), it has been particularly problematic with the Nikon D800. Here's what my hesitation was about: did the companies taking these pre-orders have any notion of how many units they'd receive and when?

The answer to that question was "no." Basically these companies were counting on their largeness, believing that their high volume would compel the camera companies to move product through them. As it turns out, that sort of worked with Olympus, who doesn't have as strong a regular dealer network in the US (the dealer I use still hasn't seen an OM-D body, by the way, though he did get a grip for the camera). But it didn't work with Nikon.

When I asked representatives at two of the large pre-order takers why they were doing it if they didn't know when they could deliver, the response (both representatives did not want to be identified for obvious reasons) was the same: "because our competitors are doing it."

I'm going to use some back-of-the-envelope numbers here to suggest how big the problem turned out to be. Nikon says they can make 25,000 D800's a month. One of the large US vendors is reported to have received over 5,000 D800 pre-orders. The US is about one-third the overall sales of any given photography product, so those pre-orders represent about 60% of the US first month shipments. And remember, we've got at least three big affiliate programs that were taking pre-orders. If they all did equally well, that's 180% of first month shipments.

Here in the US early deliveries for products in shortage are compounded by two things: NPS Priority Purchase (PP) and US law. Nikon did not allocate all of the initial D800's to NPS PP, but this most decidedly took a chunk of cameras from initial US shipments. The two dealers I talked to at length reported a total of 5 NPS PP bodies and 10 for regular sale in their initial shipments. The other aspect—US law—says that you have to treat all dealers on the same contract level equally. If you send 4 units to dealer #1, you have to send 4 units to dealer #2 through n. (Yes, there are few things that modify this slightly, like a dealer being on credit hold, but overall, NikonUSA appears to follow the letter of this law.)

So how many US dealers are there?

I don't know for sure. The addition of outlets like Best Buy has muddied the overall waters a bit, but we're talking hundreds, if not into the thousands. I'm not privy to how NikonUSA would allocate between local dealers and the few big volume NYC and online outlets, but even if we put 60% into dealers and 30% into the big boys, our back of the envelope calculations now say those pre-orders represented over 500% of the first month production deliveries. With no assurance that they'd actually receive them in any particular time frame.

Before you go blaming the big stores and online sources, though, you might want to look within. Here's the other part of the problem: how many of you actually "pre-ordered" from more than one source? I know of quite a few people who put their names in at all their local stores, and at all the online sources taking pre-orders. These people figure that they'll cancel all the other sign-ups the minute the first one ships to them. (Worse still, these customers rarely cancel their order at local stores, as there's no deposit required and no likelihood their credit card will get charged. At some point that local dealer will end up with extra inventory because of that. That's one reason why the smaller market shops are your best bet for picking up a body quick.)

It doesn't help that Nikon is relatively conservative in its approach to building products. I can't think of any higher-end product they've not underestimated demand on since the D2h in 2003. It's not difficult to guess that Nikon isn't going to meet initial demand on any pro product, ever. Those that say that Nikon should be more like Apple and have plentiful supply on day one are missing a point: Nikon makes lowish volume niche products (the more pro it is, the more niche it is). Many of these products have life cycles of two to three years or more, and lots of them have very low overall volumes. A D4 might only achieve 150,000-200,000 units in its lifetime. There are only two realistic possibilities, therefore: make one huge batch up front and when it sells out, it sells out (and the factory then shutters until the next product comes along); or balance the factory size and production levels out over most of the life cycle of the product(s). Nikon has elected to do a form of the latter, and I believe that's the right choice. To choose the first option would be to have inventory buildup that kills some quarterly financial results.

To put things in perspective: Apple sells 35 million iPhones in a quarter. Nikon sells 20 million of everything in a year (that includes Coolpix, lenses, DSLRs, and more). Nikon isn't currently in a place where they could do what Apple does. Not many companies are.

So where does this leave pre-orders? In a waiting queue of indefinite length, as I suspected when I was asked to link to pre-orders. The queue will clear when it clears. Nikon certainly has done what they can to build more D800's, though that has only a modest upside to it given the size of the Sendai plant and staff. D800's appear to being expedited in delivery (air instead of boat deliveries, for example). But I don't know of a single dealer that has worked completely through their pre-order list and all the above still applies.

As I've noted elsewhere, I no longer will link to pre-orders (unless I get some assurance that the company in question has a firm commitment of both quantity and delivery date, and agrees that they won't take pre-orders beyond what they can guarantee delivery on). There's just too large a likelihood that the customer won't be satisfied with the result. While this certainly hurts me in affiliate revenue (I know of no other Web site that has taken the stance that I have—most seem to be doing pre-order links for everything these days), I think it's the right thing to do.

I've gotten a lot of emails claiming that Company A or Company B is at fault for the pre-order fiasco. Not really. The D800 is a high-demand product produced in relatively small volumes each month. It will take some time to clear the initial demand. Heck, it'll take a long time to clear demand, as the more people who get a D800 and find out what it can do the more demand there will be just on word-of-mouth alone, let alone reviews.

My advice is still the same as it ever was. If getting the latest and greatest is really so important to you, it's beneficial to be loyal to a dealer. In particular, a dealer that appreciates and reciprocates the loyalty. I have no doubt that my current dealer does his best to keep me happy, and I do the same for him. The big NYC and online stores aren't going to suddenly be prioritized over local dealers for deliveries by NikonUSA. The same scenario as has played out will continue to play out: NikonUSA will continue to fill orders to all dealers (who have orders in with NikonUSA) in basically the same proportions. It's the small market dealers that will clear their wait lists before the bigger market dealers, who will probably clear their wait lists before the biggest of the biggest.

I've written that several times before, the last time was when the D3 shipped. It took about six months to clear demand with that camera to the point where you could buy one off the shelf. It may take as long to clear the D800 backlog. The only way you're going to get a D800 sooner rather than later is to establish a good relationship with a Nikon dealer that will in turn prioritize you, or to be opportunistic and try to grab one of the unclaimed D800s wherever that turns up (again, typically smaller market dealers first).

One final thought. So why can you find a Canon 5DIII more easily than a D800? Several reasons. I believe Canon built up a bit more inventory before shipping, the demand is less, and the difference between the 5DIII and the previous model is not as extreme as it is with the D800 versus the D700. But I note the big NYC dealers seem to be out of it, too.

So let's take a different approach at the problem: we're living right now in a time when we've been presented with quite a few significant steps forward for serious cameras fairly close together. The Canon 1Dx and 5DIII, the Fujifilm X-Pro1, the Nikon D4 and D800, the Olympus OM-D, and the Sony NEX-7 and A77 are all arguably very interesting and high-performance cameras. Is it any surprise that they're all in short supply? Being angry at some vendor is, I suppose, a way of channeling your frustration at not getting what you want when you want it. But being angry at not getting something you want when you want it is also a form of narcissism.

In short, all parties are guilty, not just one. Being angry won't change that. I hereby apologize to those of you who used one of the few pre-order links I posted (before I took them down). I'll try not to be one of the guilty parties again in the future.

Recall the Recall
May 1 (news)--From a discussion with a Nikon executive: "You're going to let us have it (deservedly) on this one."

Here's the deal: batteries did indeed start getting to customers today on the EN-EL15 recall program. But here's the bad news: Nikon apparently shipped a few hundred replacement batteries with an E in that lot number. In other words, bad batteries.

I became aware of this when one of those customers emailed me with a "hey, I gave the UPS guy a battery with an E on it and got a new battery with an E on it in return" message. Yep. That was a mistake on Nikon's part. They'll be notifying those people shortly and shipping them a new battery overnight. So now the recall has a recall. Embarrassing.

Update: so no sooner do I get the above posted when the UPS delivery person shows up with my replacement battery. Which, as it turns out, is another defective battery ;~(. However, Now I can see the whole process and describe it for you, even if I don't have a proper replacement yet:

Delivery happens via your usual UPS delivery truck at the usual UPS delivery times (I tend to get UPS deliveries in a narrow one hour window here). You'll be getting a big UPS envelope. If the courier is paying attention to their tracking device, they'll see a very long message there that tells them what to do. This was the first my UPS guy had seen the message (won't be the last time ;~).

Inside the envelope is a sealed box (new battery), a piece of packing tape, and a label. The instructions are this: take the new battery out of the box and put the bad battery into the box in its place. Re-tape the box, put the label on, put the box on the truck. A simple enough procedure, but the delivery folk haven't been trained on it. Mine walked halfway back to his vehicle before he started to comprehend that he had a long set of instructions he needed to follow. Basically, I knew more than he did at the start of the process.

But it's a simple enough process. Once you've done it, it becomes easy to repeat. Out here in the sticks I suspect I'm the only person who my driver will see that message for, but in more populated areas I'll bet the drivers get very quick in following the instructions.

Software Updates
May 1 (news)--
With my Internet absence I got a bit behind on updates, so let's catch up on what's been happening.

Nikon released View NX2 version 2.3.1. Not a big update, as it mainly added some new Coolpix support. Nikon also released Wireless Transmitter Utility 1.3.1, which every D4 or WT-4/5 owner will want to get.

Photomatix Pro updated to version 4.2, adding new options for thumbnails, a Finishing Touch palette, 20 new presets, better handling of bright windows for interior HDRs, plus raw support for additional cameras, including the D4 and D800.

Akvis released version 5.5 of Magnifier, a plug-in and standalone combination that uprezzes images for large prints. This new release is CS6 compatible.

Eye-Fi released firmware 5.0008 for the X2 card series, which fixes a Direct Mode bug and makes general wireless handling improvements.

In the Macintosh world, Apple released Camera Raw Compatibility Update 3.11, which added D800 support. Raw Photo Processor (RPP) hit version 4.5, adding support for the D4 and D800 as well as a number of recent Olympus, Panasonic, and Canon cameras (including compacts using CHDK). This was a relatively big update for the program, with quite a few other improvements, as well. Limit Point introduced Panorama 1.0.3, yet another Pano program for the Mac, available for US$20 in the App Store. Pixelmator updated to version 2.0.3, adding some performance and stability improvements. Snapseed 1.1 adds support to save to TIFF.

For iPad/iPhone Snapseed Mobile 1.4 improves compatibility with the new iPad and can open images directly into Instagram. Decosoft's free Photo Borders 1.1 is also aimed at Instagram users, and features 60 customizable frames. TrueDoF-Pro is yet another depth of field tool (US$6), with a straight-forward and useful one-screen interface. Shuttersnitch got an update to version 2.2.2 to make it compatible with the D4. Pholium is a new $10 digital photo book design app for the iPad.

Finally, a project called Triggertrap Mobile (US$10+US$20 cable) looks very interesting, as it provides triggering mechanisms that haven't been seen before, including things like Distance-lapse, and Eased Timelapse. If that weren't enough, we've got HDR up to 19 exposures, HDR timelapse, and Star Trail modes (plus others, including a number of trigger releases). Indeed, this is the sort of stuff that we all wish the camera companies would actually be doing. The camera companies seem to have no imagination about how the computing power within their cameras could actually be used in imaginative and new ways to provide useful tools like this. It's as if they don't actually try to use their products except in ways that they've been used before. Frankly, some camera company should gobble up these guys and integrate this stuff into their lineup fast.

Anyone Recall the Battery Recall?
May 1 (commentary)--72 business hours later (the statement at Nikon Canada) the only person I know that's gotten their battery exchanged in Canada did so directly at Nikon's offices. Here in the US the stated time was 7-10 days, and we're in that window now. Let me know if you hear anything about your recalled battery or actually get it swapped.

Battery Recall Redux
April 26 (commentary)--For some reason, a lot of people are either mad or confused by the battery recall instructions here in the US. A couple of additional comments are warranted.

First, on the NikonUSA page that describes the recall, don't call the phone number as it'll add a step. Instead, use the subdued click here link just before the phone number. That'll get your information directly into the queue.

The "mad" part seems to come from the 72 hours (or 7 to 10 days) and need to be around when the UPS courier drops off your replacement battery. I've talked to Nikon managers about the recall, and I'm convinced that they're trying to do the right thing.

The affected batteries are assumed hazardous. You shouldn't be sending them willy-nilly through the post or shipping services. Because the casing has deformed on some of the batteries and because a short circuit is involved, the batteries have to be assumed to be an explosion and fire hazard. Lithium is volatile when exposed to air. Nikon is trying to get the batteries back in a responsible and reasonable way, and as quickly as possible. They can't just send you a new battery and ask you to dispose of the old one. And you can't just stick these batteries in a box and put that on a plane, either. Essentially, the recall forces the batteries to be treated as hazardous material, which they are.

From my discussions, it appears that Nikon acted nearly instantaneously when they confirmed the problem. This caused a bit of a problem in that the service advisory and procedures were put together very quickly at all the subsidiaries, basically over the weekend. It's clear that the Dominican Republic call center wasn't 100% prepared for the recall, especially for Canadian customers, but I know that steps have been taken to try to get every tech representative up to speed. I've forwarded customer emails that indicated problems to the appropriate Nikon personnel and they've acted immediately on them. I'll continue to forward problems I receive via email so Nikon can continue to try to refine the process.

The delay in getting new batteries out is a dual problem. First, Nikon has to get an adequate supply of replacements to the right places (in the US, that would be UPS distribution centers). If I'm not mistaken, two-thirds of the batteries just made are impacted by the recall, so there aren't a lot of extras sitting around, and they aren't all in the right places yet. Second, when the program started there was no way of knowing just how fast couriers would get to customers (thus the 7 to 10 days or 72 business hours figure being cited by Nikon). I'm convinced that Nikon is trying to expedite the process. Given all the moving parts, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt here.

Which brings us to the biggest bone of contention: the need for someone to be around when the UPS courier delivers the new battery. Again, Nikon needs to get the hazardous batteries back and dispose of them properly. They can't drop off a new battery and hope you ship the old one back via whatever's convenient to you. That would be irresponsible. Lithium has been responsible for fires on planes, after all. Here in the states, that's the reason why TSA doesn't allow lithium batteries in checked luggage.

A lot of the "required to be present" complaint seems to center on "I need to be home." Not exactly true. Nikon's site doesn't make it clear, but you could specify your business address for the courier pickup. If you do, however, you're going to have to make sure your front desk knows what's going on and has your original battery handy. If your receptionist is off having a lunch or whatever when the courier stops by, someone still needs to know what to hand the courier.

Recalls are never pretty. When they involve potentially hazardous materials, they need to be done quickly and with monitoring capability. I'm personally convinced that Nikon is trying to do the right thing. Yes, things were rushed, but that's a small price to pay for getting the hazard out of the system quickly. I've seen other companies act less responsibly with similar issues, so I'm going to be on Nikon's side on this situation. Long time readers know that I'll call fault on Nikon quickly when they do something wrong. Other than some clarity that got compromised due to the rush, they're not doing anything wrong here that I can see. I'd challenge any other company to do better.

More on Being a Camera Company
April 25 (commentary)--My comments on the D3200 and 28mm lens announcements provoked a deal of feedback, enough that I think I need to make a few of my thoughts more clear.

Nikon is a camera company, first and foremost. Nikon's continued success as a company now depends upon how they do in the camera business. That's because two-thirds of their sales and a similar high degree of their profits come from cameras. Nikon is unique amongst the Japanese manufacturers in that. While cameras have produced some of the largest profits for other companies (e.g. Canon), no other Japanese camera producer is dependent upon cameras as their main business. Not Canon, not Sony, not Panasonic, not Olympus, not Ricoh/Pentax, not Fujifilm. Those companies all have much larger businesses that have nothing to do with cameras, even when you add in incendental-to-photography products (pro video divisions, etc.).

Overall, the "camera business" is flat. There's almost no one predicting any meaningful overall growth in cameras, mainly because cell phones now account for a majority of "camera" sales and use. Yes, there are pockets of growth, such as mirrorless (essentially higher end compacts or smaller/lighter DSLRs depending upon how you look at them). But even factoring the mirrorless growth in, all you get is a flat market.

Nikon has four lines of cameras: Coolpix, CX (Nikon 1), DX, and FX. All need to be successful for them. Overall, Nikon produces a bit over 20 million units (cameras, lenses) a year at the moment, and they've actually looked like a growth company in a flat market (thus, they're stealing market share), and that's despite the quake and flood. That's been an incredible achievement.

Nikon's recent success does bring up some questions, though. They've had a string of body hits (D3, D3s, D4, D300, D7000, D700, D800) at one end, solid perennial sellers at the other (D3100, D5100, a number of Coolpix), and even the unusual Nikon 1 has done okay for them, at least dulling the m4/3 and NEX mirrorless juggernauts temporarily. But as I've noted many times, supply is not meeting demand for many items, and that's a dangerous proposition as you always leak sales to competitors when that happens. Nikon is fortunate that the Canon 5DIII didn't push the bar particularly far forward from the II, but I'm still sure that a few potential D800 sales turned into 5DIII sales because of supply issues.

Lack of lenses is one of those supply issues. Both CX and DX are impacted by this (CX in lack of lenses that competitors already have, DX in lack of lenses that users want). Personally, I judge this to be one of Nikon's biggest problems: users are buying bodies on faith that lenses will appear. That faith has not been rewarded lately, especially for DX users. Consider the DX lens announcements over the last two-and-a-half years: 40mm Micro-Nikkor, 85mm Micro-Nikkor, 55-300mm. Did that round out the offerings for DX users particularly well? Not at all. Indeed, it's puzzled the DX users completely and sent them to third-party lenses.

I have this fear about Nikon: that they believe that their recent results reflect right decisions. It's always dangerous to equate "more sales" with "right decisions." While Nikon's DX and FX bodies have been quite good as of late, these are systems cameras, and bodies can't stand alone for long. Thus, we can extend my fear to this: that Nikon thinks the system is okay because the bodies are selling well.

We'll know later this year what Nikon is up to in DX. The overdue D300s replacement is a critical clue (a D5200 is as predictable as the D3200 was). But the clues we've gotten so far aren't exactly encouraging:

  • CX was crippled from the start. The removal of controls that might appeal to enthusiasts and the Coolpix-like marketing messages all seem to point to a design decision that goes like this: it's an all-automatic Coolpix type of camera but with focus and low light performance. Oh, and some lenses.
  • DX stopped growing with the D300s. 2009 was the last big push in DX. In the 2008/2009 time period we got the 16-85mm, 18-105mm, 35mm, 10-24mm, redesigned 18-200mm, and the strange 85mm Micro-Nikkor. The D300s itself is now a year overdue for replacement. The D3000/D5000/D90 line made the expected move to D3100/D5100/D7000, and has started the expected move to D3200/D5200/D7200, but this is just basically "rising with the tide." A simple DX line that consists of only three consumer DSLRs would be a serious mistake.
  • FX has gotten super serious, except for some lenses that look like they're targeted for something else. Love the D4 and D800 (so far ;~), but how to explain the 28-300mm or even 24-120mm, let alone the upcoming 24-85mm vari-aperture? Is Nikon's notion that you should put compromised lenses on uncompromised bodies? This (plus the inexpensive 28mm f/1.8G) argues that there is a missing FX model, possibly an FX D400 that replaces the DX D300s and FX D700.

Yuck. The net net of all that, if I'm right, is that Nikon sees a Coolpix user growing into a CX user growing into a DX user growing into an FX user. What's wrong with that, you ask? Nothing as a secondary strategy, but everything as a primary strategy. Not all camera users upgrade upwards. Some just want a product that works at the size/weight they desire.

I'm a believer in "best possible product." You can still upsell from a great Coolpix or Nikon 1 or DX DSLR. Bigger sensors have real advantages, and physics isn't going to change in your or my lifetime to disrupt that. I don't believe you should compromise a product line in order to have a "more natural upsell." A more natural upsell is simple: you make the best products, at all levels. Compromising any product at any level in order to make a higher end product more enticing is just wrong thinking. If you compromise DX, don't you think the customer will wonder if you've compromised FX, too?

What Nikon needs are uncompromised Nikon 1 models that are the model of choice for anyone who decides they want a small, mirrorless camera. They need uncompromised DX models that are the model of choice for someone who needs a higher end system but can't afford FX. And those uncompromised cameras need a full line of lenses and accessories that are uncompromised, too.

Apple doesn't care if you buy an iPod Touch, an iPhone, an iPad, a MacBook Air, or a higher end Mac. They only care that you buy an Apple. They know if they give you a great product at the level you buy at, you'll come back to them when you have a different need.

Nikon does seem to care what you buy. If you're an enthusiast, Nikon has one Coolpix for you (P7100), no mirrorless camera for you, and a range of four DX cameras, the highest end of which is sadly outdated and most with significant limitations...but the FX D800 seems like what they really want you to buy. If you're a pro, Nikon wants you to buy an FX body only (sorry about that Bob Krist). No, Nikon's strategy isn't to sell you the great camera you want/need, but to direct you to a line of cameras that they've decided you should want, even if the accessories you might need/want aren't available.

The good news for Nikon is that no other camera maker has figured it out, either. Sony has decided that EVFs are your only choice. Canon decided that all still users were actually closet video shooters in disguise. Fujifilm seems to think that lots of performance issues can be overlooked if they just make everything look like old rangefinders from the 1960's. But really, Nikon, is that all you aspire to be: better than an inept group of other players?

Industry in crisis (camera sales are flat at best) is the perfect time to execute perfectly. Basically, you end up owning the market when you do that. To keep growing, Nikon is going to need to own the camera market. To do that they need no compromise systems at all four levels. At the moment, they only have that at one level, FX.

And if you don't believe me, perhaps this reader comment will prove my point: "I cling to my D80. I have the money to upgrade/update (this only happens every five years or so), and I love the D7000, but I won't spend it until I have clarity on Nikon's commitment to DX -- or until I decide to switch brands, probably to Olympus mirrorless." That's not the only such response I received, and it's highly indicative of what's happening when users think about DX these days. Nikon has a problem with DX (and CX). The customers are aware of it. Is Nikon?

To All Those Trying to Compare a D800 and D800E
April 25
(commentary)--Just remember, resolution is not equal to acuity (or vice versa). Just because you believe something is sharper and more defined doesn't mean that there's more resolution. What a lot of people are seeing is that the anti-aliasing is gone and edges have more acuity (and potential other issues, like stairstepping or moire).

That said, an AA filter will "fuzz up" resolution right around its filter point, so there can be some modest measured differences in resolution between a non-AA and AA equipped camera. In my experience, that difference has been below the threshold of visibility in normal image presentation (it takes at least a 15% resolution increase to be visible to most people, all else equal).

Add a Recall to the Accessory Woes
April 24 (news and commentary)--Nikon today announced a battery "service advisory" for EN-EL15 batteries. If you've got an EN-EL15 with an "E" or "F" as the 9th digit in the 14 digit part number, you should stop using it and follow Nikon's instructions to return it and have it replaced. Apparently there are multiple reports of short-circuiting that causes that battery to overheat and become a fire hazard.

Frankly, "service advisory" is too polite a term and too easy for people to ignore. This is a recall by any stretch of the imagination and should be labeled as such in the headline on Nikon's site. And to further label it within the text as a "voluntary" recall additionally softens the language. The bottom line is simple: continuing to use one of the affected batteries is a severe risk and should be avoided.

Unfortunately, EN-EL15s are in short supply at the moment (the V1, D7000, and D800--all popular cameras--use them). The affected batteries appear to be in two of the three latest production batches (starting in March 2012), thus D800 purchasers are getting them, but those owners also tell me that they've been having a hard time getting additional batteries. This recall is just going to exacerbate that problem. Still, the fire risk is too high to continue to use a D800 and charger with an affected battery.

Nikon has a supply problem, short and simple: they can't make bodies fast enough, they can't keep lenses in stock, and they haven't supplied enough accessories for the new products into the chain. Thus, a recall like this is disruption on top of disruption. While it is easy to blame short supply on last year's quake and flood, supply meeting demand is a systemic problem for Nikon. We've had a constancy in all three of these problems pretty much since the D3/D300 announcement in 2007.

Nikon Announces the D3200
April 23 (news and commentary)--If you ever want to know when Nikon will announce another DSLR, just look at my travel schedule. Virtually every Nikon announcement seems to come while I'm on the road, and the D3200 announcement last week was no exception.

The low-end DSLR body has come a long way since the D50 introduction in 2005. From the humble class-trailing 6mp and 10mp D50, D40, D40x, D60, and D3000 versions, we've now catapulted up to a class leading 24mp entry body. With a kit price (with 18-55mm lens) of US$700, the D3200 becomes the Nikon DX body with the most pixels (6016x4000, which is another odd masking choice by Nikon).

D3000 and D3100 users will find a lot hasn't changed. Most of the external body and basic functions are unchanged. What has changed is this: (1) 24mp sensor (not Sony supplied it appears); (2) new video capabilities (1080P/24/25/30, 720P/50/60); (3) EXPEED 3 image processing; (4) optional (US$60) WU-1a WiFi capability; and (5) the 3" LCD is now 921k dots. Other changes include a slight bump to frames per second (to 4) plus some modest menu updates.

The camera will be available in late April, with the WiFi adapter following a month later. The WiFi adapter will ship with an Android (2.3 or later) app for controlling and transferring images, with iOS support to come later. Given Nikon's historic inability to keep up with multiple, iterating operating systems, I'm a little leery of the Android-first approach. I expect a lot of footnotes in their support documents.

It's clear that WiFi is coming to virtually all cameras, even DSLRs, in the near future. This is happening with either built-in (as with the recent Samsung mirrorless camera announcements) or external options (as with the D3200's dedicated WiFi controller and the D800's Eye-Fi card support). The question is whether the camera companies actually understand what users want and can create a simple, integrated workflow. The lack of details coming from Nikon on the WU-1a aren't promising in that respect. Unfortunately, it looks as if we're once again entering the land of everyone-doing-it-themselves-in-some-proprietary manner.

The problem for users (remember them, they're the ones buying the products, guys), is that there are three entities in the workflow that are now in constant change: the hardware (camera and its connectivity), the media hub (iPhoto, Lightroom, View NX2, etc.), and the ultimate destination (cloud, Facebook, Flickr, myPictureTown, etc.).

Nikon obviously wants to play in all these areas (witness the WU-1a, View NX2, and myPictureTown), but frankly, they're not nearly close to state-of-the-art in any of them, which produces a kludgy, unsatisfactory sum of the parts. Moreover, because they want to own the whole workflow, it's unlikely that they'll cooperate closely with others with a similar goal (e.g. Adobe). I'll just go out on a limb here and predict that while the WU-1a may be popular, it won't be used in the way Nikon expects and most of us will find the software support lacking in some way. Let's hope that some enterprising entrepreneur gets in there and develops the software to do the right things for users.

Where are We?
April 2
3 (commentary)--Nikon has introduced three new DSLRs in 2012, with at least one more DSLR announcement to go this year (likely the D5100 or D300s "replacement")
. Curiously, the low and high end of the interchangeable lens camera lineup is reasonably current and highly competitive:

  • Low: J1, V1, D3200
  • Mid: D5100, D7000, D300s
  • High: D800, D4

As I noted before, it's that middle that seems to be perplexing Nikon somewhat and may be subject to some change. If the D300s becomes an entry FX body as many expect, that makes the DX lineup look a bit anemic (not to mention the still missing DX lenses).

I personally think that Nikon needs to be here:

  • CX: J1, V1, Z1 (the Z1 being a more enthusiast tailored version). The prices need to be pushed downward from their current points so that CX clearly lives below and up to DX (e.g., Z1 being top of the line and priced at the D3200 price point).
  • DX: D3200, D5200, D7200, D8000 (the D8000 being an integrated vertical grip pro caliber DX). The price points are okay, but there are a considerable number of missing lenses to keep DX living healthily (see next article).
  • FX: D400, D800, D4 (the D400 being an entry FX body that replaces the D700's current position in the lineup).

New 28mm Lens
April 2
3 (news and commentary)--In addition to the Nikon D3200, Nikon announced a new lens, the 28mm f/1.8G AF-S. Suggested retail price is US$700, a lower price than many expected.

Okay, so WTF? We've now got a complete modern set of historical fast lenses (24, 28, 35, 50, 85). That's for FX bodies that already excel in low light. What's the DX user to think? Right, they've got basically two of the five, none wide (35mm f/1.8DX, 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 as a somewhat short substitute for an 85mm equivalent).

Nikon's lens announcements of late have been bordering on absurd. The 28-300mm has no body on which it performs great (well, okay, it makes a decent 42-450mm equivalent for DX bodies, but that's not how Nikon marketed it). The lens doesn't make Nikon's own D800 recommended lens list, and it seems a bit bizarre as a possible D4 lens. Meanwhile, the unexpected 40mm DX macro works okay on a Nikon 1 body (with FT1 adapter), but wasn't really necessary for DX once the 60mm macro appeared. Lately it really feels like the wrong folk are designing the wrong lenses for the wrong cameras.

Meanwhile:

  • CX needs something wider than 28mm equivalent, and it needs it yesterday. It also needs a couple of small, fast primes (particularly portrait).
  • DX needs a whole range of things: true wide angle primes at 24mm and 35mm equivalent at a minimum, a PC-E wide, a true portrait lens for DX, a 70-200mm f/2.8 equivalent (preferably 50-135mm f/2), a far better 18-200mm, a faster and fixed aperture 24-120mm equivalent, and more.
  • FX is still missing a few primes, most notably 18/20mm and 105/135/180mm, plus the PC-E lenses really need redesign so that they work fully on a D800 body and have switchable tilt/shift.

Let me put things a different way. When I go out to shoot events, sports, or wildlife (with FX bodies), I don't have any lens compromises I make. None. I'd like to see a really fast moderate telephoto (e.g. 105mm or 135mm f/2 AF-S), but I don't feel like I'm short lenses: what I need pretty much exists.

But when I go out to shoot FX landscapes, I miss the 20mm f/2.8 and have to make a choice between the 14-24mm (no filters) or less capable 16-35mm, and I've got a 24mm PC-E that has a fixed tilt/shift orientation while all my Canon buddies not only have changeable orientation, but they also have a wider tilt/shift option. Bzzzt. Someone asleep at the wheel, especially for a company with a state-of-the-art 36mp body that screams landscapes.

Heaven help me when I go out to shoot DX. I make lens compromises all over the place. Basically, I have to pick a zoom to go wide at all. I have no PC-E option that's reasonable. I end up with bigger FX lenses than I need, and bastardized focal lengths from what I want (e.g. using a 50mm f/1.4G when I want a 58mm f/1.4). Bzzzt. Not only someone asleep at the wheel, but the vehicle's veering off the road and about to crash.

Things don't get better when I go CX. Compared to my m4/3 kit, I have compromises all over the place except for one (the 30-110mm, which is a sterling performer). Bzzzt. Still asleep at the wheel, and the competition's got the pedal to the metal and pulling away.

So, welcome the 28mm f/1.8G if you will. But it doesn't exactly fill a large hole (the previous 28mm f/1.4 sold about 7000 units in 13 years, though it was considerably more expensive). It's as if the road crew came and laid some oil over a small crack, but ignored the nearby potholes.

Didn't Know I Knew Italian
April 3 (news)--
The Italian paper La Republica interviewed me about the surge in mirrorless camera interest. Can't vouch for whether my comments held up in translation, but you can find the interview here.

byThom Gallery-in-a-Box
April 1 (news)--
Today byThom announces Gallery-in-a-Box. This new product effectively solves four problems. First, it provides an outlet for my images in a way that provides some meaningful revenue without a lot of investment of my time. As you all know, when the state of Pennsylvania changed its laws regarding affiliate income, the loss of B&H's support took away a substantive portion of the income this site makes. Second, Gallery-in-a-Box allows pro photographers with a gallery to deal with the issue of too many places, not enough time or money. Next, it gives art gallery owners the ability to pick and choose amongst a huge array of options to sell. And finally, it allows collectors to finally get access to my images.

Copyright 2012 Thom Hogan

Here's how it works. I've taken terrabytes worth of images in the 30+ years I've been photographing. From that collection, I've taken a selection of my best original files (mostly NEF, a few other raw formats) from 200+ worldwide scenic locations and put them all onto a 1TB drive. I will sell 100 of these drives for US$2500 each. Each drive includes a declaration of rights to the purchaser that allows them to print and sell these images (they may not be subdistributed or sold to stock or for editorial purposes; the rights granted only include the right to print and to sell that print for display purposes, in other words, gallery rights, thus the name of the product).

Why would another photographer or an art gallery want such a product? Well, let's start with the galleries: normally relationships with a photographer are a constant negotiation. Both sides are trying to extract benefits for themselves, the negotiations change over time, and it's rare that either the gallery or photographer get what they want in the end, thus the relationship crumbles quickly. The photographer spends a lot of time and energy trying to forge a relationship that brings in money, but the return for effort is minimal. For the gallery, it's a matter of image selection and cost of acquisition. Gallery-in-a-Box solves both problems. The gallery gets to select the images they want and, other than the initial cost plus actual print and framing costs (which are the smallest cost of the puzzle), pay nothing else for each print they sell, thus maximizing profits.

Many photographers have galleries of their own. To keep up with the Mangelson's of the world, they either have to specialize (thus reducing their potential market size) or they need to constantly update the images in their galley with new material, preferably material that goes beyond what they've been shooting and exhibiting. Traveling to any of the many exotic locations represented by Gallery-in-a-Box would set a photographer back far more than the US$2500 they spend on the product, thus to a photographer with a gallery of their own, having the ability to add fresh new images to their walls without taking costly trips is a large benefit.

A few collectors might want Gallery-in-a-Box, too. There's been strong demand for prints of my work, to which I have not responded. An excellent large gallery print would sell for US$800 or more, so for little more than the cost of a few such prints, a collector would be able to not only get Thom Hogan prints, but be able to choose which of my many images to display. When they get tired of one, they could print and rotate in another. To facilitate this, I've included several dozen Photoshop files with my full set of corrections and printing instructions.

When all 100 drives are sold, Gallery-in-a-Box will be removed from the market and no longer available. Because some will want to create "limited editions" from this product, for an extra fee (variable with location of purchaser due to travel expenses) it can be arranged to have Thom come by and sign up to 100 prints made from the collection.

To order Gallery-in-a-Box, click here.

Grumbling
March 29 (commentary)--It happens with every new camera introduction: people get their hands on the new camera and they start grumbling about "issues."

The interesting thing is that all of Nikon's warnings about lenses and camera handling on the D800 seem to have done their job: I've seen very few "it isn't sharp" grumbles so far. Fewer than on almost any previous Nikon DSLR resolution bump. Perhaps Nikon will learn from this that much of their problem has been lack of expectation setting in their marketing messages.

That leaves the "other" grumbles:

  • Build quality complaints. Not a lot of these yet. A battery door that fell off because a pin was missing (this, by the way, is why cutting off parts to only authorized repair centers was a mistake--it'll take longer and cost more to fix). A miscentered viewfinder or two. Complaints about the plastic quality of the shooting method selector. But the big winner in this category is the LCD: I've seen a lot of miscalibration complaints, with color tints and brightness issues being the common ones. The camera has some ability to change brightness (and hue in Live View), but the Auto setting appears to be the culprit most of the time.
  • Functional complaints. I haven't been able to test this one yet, but there's a prominent complaint about wireless flash reliability using camera's flash as master. There are definitely issues with tethered shooting, and I've already pointed out the missing functions in Camera Control Pro. Noisy long exposures once you jump above the analog gain limit (ISO 1600 or higher). The return of amp noise (visible at bottom of frame at high ISO, visible as horizontal bands at long exposures). "No crop" movie is actually a 1.1x crop horizontally (91% of the horizontal width of the sensor).
  • Design issues. Why no WT-5 support? Why no RCA video out? Why do the PC-E lenses hit the flash housing in some orientations? Why no camera-wide "setting" ability (still only shooting and custom settings banks)? Why do we still have the 1EV bracket limit outside of the built-in HDR?
  • Documentation issues. Uncompressed HDMI video out seems impossible if all you do is read the manual, yet it works if you know the secret spell and wave your wand correctly (Relashio! Engorgio!).

Personally, nothing so far seems like anything other than the usual product launch noise level. A few things will need to be addressed by firmware fixes. Quality control will get better with each new wave of shipments. The design issues are typical Nikon, where they seem to have blinders on to things that are obvious to serious users.

All in all, a quiet post-launch, as far as post launches go.

Balance Points
March 26 (commentary)--As often happens with the popular Nikon camera launches, first deliveries have been made and the product is sold out. Now we get the grumbling about "why didn't Nikon make more?"

It's a delicate balancing act that Nikon has to go through. We're not talking mass market consumer item here, where you build huge, permanent capacity to meet insane demand (the current Apple model). A D4 is going to sell a few hundred thousand copies in its lifetime, a D800 maybe a million+. Sendai's current capacity is 5,000 D4's a month, 30,000 D800's a month. Best case scenario (assuming that the parts are actually available, which is a huge assumption considering we're talking about precision sensors here), is that they could double production by doubling staff or making everyone work double shifts.

It should be clear that initial demand was far greater than what Nikon delivered. Let's assume for a moment that what Nikon delivered was two months of production. How many months do you think Nikon should make a product before actually delivering it to a customer? Three? Ten? Initial demand on these units was probably 3-4 months worth for the D4, 6+ months for the D800. Would you be willing to wait until June in order to guarantee a D800 on day one? Didn't think so.

There's a risk in building months worth of production and having it sit in warehouses: the product doesn't get user tested. As much as every tech company wants to ship a product that's perfect on day one, it's unusual that something wasn't caught. It's a numbers game. Even a few hundred testers testing round the clock aren't going to hit every last nook and cranny that tens of thousands of actual users will.

Nikon faced this problem more than once in the past. The D1x shipped initially with a real issue. It was already heading to user's hands when the problem was found. Nikon had to scramble to fix the problem in the field and it took a few weeks to get every unit dealt with; the volume back then was far lower than it is today, and that was without piling up many months worth of units before first ship.

Let's look at the other end of the demand chain: when the product's three years old the demand is low, because people are waiting for the "next generation" (which builds a new initial demand stream). You don't want to have a factory that can build far beyond late product cycle demand, otherwise you have idle capacity and lots of workers you're going to put into furlough.

Overall, Nikon tries to balance the problems it faces in delivering a new, high-demand product like the D800 (and to a lesser degree, D4). Build enough so that there's not a tickle at launch, but a significant number. Don't build and sit on too many and risk bigger problems and idle capacity afterwards.

If we look at Nikon's factory numbers, they add up this way: D4 will likely have a total product build in the neighborhood of 120,000 units (5k * 12 months * 2 years); the D800 might manage 1.44 million units (30k * 12 months * 4 years). That's assuming they stay popular enough during their entire life cycles to keep the factory at full capacity. Compare that to the Apple iPad's 3 million units delivered in the first three days. So all those writing me saying that Nikon should just do what Apple did are a bit off in their objection: the iPad is a mass market item with a one year life cycle that sells in the tens, maybe hundreds of millions of units a year. It's worth building additional factory capacity for that kind of demand. On the other hand, Nikon professional cameras are niche products that take a long time to reach even a million units (and that's assuming they're popular and state-of-the-art through their life cycle). It's not worth building huge capacity for that because it will go unused after initial demand dissipates.

Personally, I think Nikon has chosen a reasonable balance point. That doesn't make those waiting in line for a D800 any happier, obviously. I'm confident that Nikon will make some short term adjustments to try to quell some of the thirst for product. I noticed that they seem to be sending weekly shipments by air out of the factory at the moment, for example. They're not trying to amass a large number and put them on a slow ship to the customer. Instead they're delivering them hot off the line as fast as they can. They're likely to run some overtime and speed up their parts supply chain, too. They may even shift some D4 work to D800 work. What they won't do is try to meet all demand instantly.

Given what I'm hearing from dealers and users, I'm betting that D4 cameras will loosen up in supply within two months to the point where you can find one here in the states if you really want one. D800's, on the other hand, are going to be in relatively short supply for a longer period, especially once people realize just how good the camera is. There was always a stronger demand that went unfulfilled for a D3x at the D3 price, but we received a better-than-D3x-at-half-the-D3-price. Demand is high simply because of that, let alone the pent-up D700 upgrade demand.

Hello? Anyone There?
March 26 (commentary)--You learn something every day. Where you learn it from is a different matter.

I mentioned my issue with looking up serial numbers while doing Nikon software updates in a previous story. Turns out there is a way to keep those handy while you're traveling: register them in your Nikon online account. Yep, the same way you register camera and lens serial numbers with Nikon online, you can register software serial numbers.

Now why no one at Nikon thought to mention that to me after I wrote what I did I can't say. It turns out that one reader of this site had stumbled upon that possibility and started using it. Basically, Nikon doesn't seem to publicize this anywhere that I can find (I'd be happy to stand corrected).

But why the heck don't they just automate this? When you install, give the user the option of adding the software license number to their Nikon account registry ("Would you like to register your license number with your Nikon account so that it's available to you in a convenient fashion when you update software?"). Plus, when you create an update just give the user the option of filling in the serial number from their Nikon account.

Solve user problems, don't create them.

Clarification on Video
March 24 (commentary)--It seems a lot of folk are confused about what the HDMI output of the D4 (and D800) is. The manuals aren't any help. The answer is a bit convoluted: it depends. If you take the cards out of the camera and use LiveView, you'll get uncompressed HDMI output (with audio) that matches the Movie Settings. No wrappers, no interpolation, but straight video matching what you selected. I hope you have a big storage device attached if you try that, as that's one heck of a lot of data coming down the pipe. Indeed, I'm not sure how I'd record that short of bringing a small and very fast RAID farm with me on a shoot. Even just testing this in my office I chewed through a lot of drive space.

The better choice is to use an Aja Ki Pro Mini or an Atomos Ninja and record the HDMI uncompressed output directly into 4:2:2 ProRes (Apple's native compression for Final Cut Pro X, and a very high quality compressor). But you'll have to press a lot of buttons and jump through a lot of procedural hoops to do that (which is what books like mine are for ;~), plus you'll have an HDMI cable between the camera and the recorder. Who's going to do that? Dedicated high end videographers who post grade their footage. If you're never going to go beyond Blu-Ray quality and don't do a lot of post grading, then just record to the cards and use the built in AVC compression.

Waiting for Version 12
March 24 (commentary)--One gets the impression that Nikon's software coders haven't yet caught up to the cameras. For example, in Custom Settings of Camera Control Pro, the C, F, and G groups aren't there for a D800. For a D4, one G setting is there and three aren't and the C and F groups are missing.

Oh, and if you're traveling or visiting a client, make sure to update your software before you head out the door. If you're moving from Camera Control Pro version .9 to .10 or .11 you're going to find it asks for your serial number. If you've upgraded that software, you're going to be asked for both serial numbers (same thing happened with the last Capture NX2 update). I know this might seem beneficial to Nikon, but to a working pro who travels a lot, more often than not we find ourselves needing to update a system on the road.

It's a big pain in the butt to get hit with the double serial number query when you're not expecting it. Even dropping back to trial mode isn't always a solution: I have three trips in the coming year that are longer than trial mode and where I'll be out of Internet access and need to rely upon what's on my computer.

How to Mess Up a Successful Launch
March 24 (news and commentary)--Numerous British sources are reporting that Nikon UK has raised the price of the D4 and D800, apparently due to a "systems error."

Okay. How the heck did a "systems error" persist for more than 45 days? Well, because you promulgate it, that's how. The only question is whether this was caused by mismanagement or by intentional postponement. Neither are the measure of an organization that's on top of their game.

The change Nikon is making isn't trivial. In US dollars it amounts to a price change of US$778 on the D4. A British purchaser will now be paying the equivalent of US$8394 for a D4. Let's see, US price is US$6000. The UK 20% VAT is US$1200. Not sure what UK duties are on cameras these days, but I doubt it's another 20%. But even if it is, you'd think that Nikon UK would know what that number is and wouldn't promote a wrong number right up to the day they start shipping product.

The net overall price increase just made measures out to a bit over 10%. Hard to figure how you miss by that much and not notice it somewhere in your organization the first week, let along the second, third, fourth, fifth, right up to the 11th week.

But wait, they did it twice. The D800 was also changed in price this week by Nikon UK. So six weeks after its price was announced, we suddenly have a realization on Nikon's part that their numbers are wrong?

UK Nikon users are noticeably (and understandably) upset at the moment. Many who haven't yet received their cameras don't know exactly what they're going to be charged (though Amazon UK has a relatively clear policy of matching the price quoted when ordered).

In the UK Nikon has now messed up what otherwise should have been a successful launch. Moreover, what they haven't done is be forthcoming to Nikon users. You don't change product price by 10% without making a statement to users, up front and no later than when you make the change. PR 101 says this is a major credibility issue for an organization, and that they will continue to suffer from upset users spreading the word. Nikon UK needs to step forward to make it clear what happened and why, clarify what price people will pay for their preorders, and vow to fix whatever problem caused this so that it doesn't happen again.

Feeding Frenzy in Full Force
March 23 (commentary)--With dealers getting D800's out to customers today, and with DxO ranking the D800 as the best camera yet in their tests, the Web is ablaze with D800 chat.

  • For those of you who pre-ordered from B&H: my understanding is that those orders are being drop shipped from Louisville. The lucky winners should be getting email notifications about that today.
  • For those thinking that the D800 is better than a D4: maybe. Depends upon what you use it for. At base ISO the D800 has more dynamic range than a D4. At above ISO 1600, the D800 lags the D4 by about one stop in dynamic range. Signal to noise is nearly identical according to DxO (still doing my own tests, but I haven't found anything yet that would contradict that). But as with everything, there's no free lunch. I note a high red channel boost on the D800 and a slightly lower one on the D4, but still higher than previous cameras. This ties into an observation I made with early D4 samples: equal to the D3s but not always and sometimes different color detail. Bottom line, Nikon made the decision to boost color over letting noise propogate. I still don't know everything that means in practice, but there is no free lunch.
  • Overall, both the D4 and D800 are impressive in my initial testing. Impressive enough that it may change my decision of which tool to use when.
  • Lots of small details are starting to emerge. I'm not able to get the USB 3.0 capability of the D800 to work with my Mac, and neither have some others (we're stuck with USB 2.0 speeds). The D800 uses a different USB cable connector at the camera, so we've got yet another cable to add to the travel kit. Meanwhile, the standard RCA out is missing (hadn't noticed that before) on the D800, meaning you'll be using HDMI if you want video out.
  • Nikon posted another technical guide for the D800 (see http://nps.nikonimaging.com/technical_solutions/), which seems to be bits and pieces from the PDF they put out. Apparently they're really worried about potential "doesn't get sharp pictures" complaints. They should be. My article the other day prompted another half dozen such complaints from D7000 users. Two of them I asked details from are on Auto Area AF, Dynamic Area AF. In other words: camera gets to decide where to focus, completely. Hmm. And they wonder why the camera didn't focus where they wanted it to?
  • Warning: it appears that the original Nikon Transfer doesn't like D4 raw files. Make sure you're using the latest version of Transfer or another software product that understands D4 files for transferring. Either that or just bring them across manually.

Trickle Shipments
March 23 (news)--From conversations with dealers here in the US, they've received as many as two separate D4 deliveries and are expecting another small D800 delivery before NikonUSA closes for inventory. I'm guessing that Nikon is using air delivery from Japan just as soon as there are enough units manufactured to allow a one-for-every-dealer (or more) shipment to occur. That will likely stop next week for the year-end inventory process here in the US. But before that happens, it appears that Nikon is pushing everything it can out the door, which should help its year-end financials.

Also, dealers should be getting the MB-D12 grip on Monday, so Nikon appears to have gotten all the significant parts into the chain about the same time for a change.

While the flow of new cameras and accessories is now a measurable trickle, lenses still seem to be very very tight in supply. We seem to be back to where we were before the quake: high demand not met by supply.

This Week's Common Question
March 22 (commentary)--With D800's popping into users' hands this week, a new common question seems to be flooding my In Box: is a D800 any more averse to hand holding than a D7000?

Short answer: no.

Nikon's technical paper on the D800--which warned about shot discipline--plus the comments of others, including some here on bythom, have scared a few potential D800 users. A few should be scared. You shouldn't be spending US$3000 for something to make casual snapshots with. You don't need a D800 for that, and you might find that you've chosen a bigger hammer than you're comfortable lifting if you approach photography casually. Most of the rest of us shouldn't be scared, at all.

But my D7000 versus D800 answer does need a bit more explaining. If you recall when the D7000 came out there were quite a few "it doesn't focus" comments. While I'd judge from the data I have that yes, D7000 bodies did seem to leave the factory with a bit less precision on focus tuning than some previous models, a lot of those "can't focus" comments were actually "not getting sharp images" comments. That's an important difference.

A few things have changed over the years, but some users didn't note the change. For example, the old 1/focal length rule of thumb for hand holding. On a 35mm film SLR with a 200mm lens, 1/200 or faster generally was a good starting point for getting sharp images handheld (assuming good technique). On a DX DSLR with a 200mm lens, you really should use 1/300 as the new rule of thumb. Moreover, as pixel densities go up, you might want to push that further.

While I don't want to get into complicated age arguments, I'd also point out that all those folk that remember hand-holding their N90s film SLR at 1/200 and getting sharp images probably can't do the same today. They just remember getting steady shots at 1/200 and assume that nothing's changed. They've lost muscle mass and sometimes fine coordination, but that happened so slowly that they are probably wrong when they think they can still do what they did 30 years ago. I know I can't hold a camera as steady at 60 as I did at 30. I doubt you could, either.

As I noted at the time, the 12mp cameras needed a bit more attention to shot discipline than the 6mp cameras. Likewise, I noted that again with the 16mp D7000, and those moving from 6mp to 16mp got a double hit. As I've also explained (see my VR article), VR isn't a solution to every problem in terms of handling a camera, either. Throw in a bunch of auto settings that can make wrong decisions and a new autofocus system, and the D7000 was a challenge for some to master. Add cameras with a factory-tuned focus system that was a bit off, and there's no wonder we got a lot of complaints about sharpness.

All that said, the D800 has almost exactly the same pixel density as a D7000. If you can get sharp shots with a D7000, you'll be able to do so with a D800, especially if we put the same lens on and just look at the central area of the shot, where all lenses perform best.

The notion some people have that the D800 can't be handheld is wrong. It can. It just takes the same level of technique that D7000 users have had to attain.

What People See
March 20 (commentary)--It'll be a bit longer before I can finish my own controlled tests, but all the D4 and D800 samples now starting to appear on the Web allows us to make some preliminary observations.

I believe I wrote this before, but I'll repeat it: the D4 images look a lot like D3s images. The D4 has some dynamic range benefits at the lowest ISOs, while the D3s still appears to create the HI ISO values slightly better. The operative word for the most part is "slight" (Base ISO dynamic range may be the exception). In my opinion, not enough to make a tangible difference to decision making.

Image quality-wise a D4 is visually an awful lot like a D3s with 16mp instead of 12mp, and more dynamic range at base ISO. That's a very nice jump in sensor capability considering that the D3s was essentially state of the art. But it doesn't truly dethrone the D3s as a low-light camera. Technically, you could downsize the D4's 16mp to 12mp and get a slight benefit, but in practice I'll bet that most D4 shooters will just consider the change in pixel count a "cropping flexibility."

I believe some slight differences in channel response between the D3s and D4 exist, as I'm seeing higher blue channel WB shifts on the D4, and thus different light types could trigger slightly different response. But that difference, too, is small, and I'll need more time with the D4 in my hand to figure out how to describe this. Overall, the D4 is turning out to be more impressive than most of us were guessing it would be given the pixel count boost. Good job, Nikon.

That said, the D3s doesn't immediately go into the garbage bin. It still is an amazing camera, just 12mp. If you can pick one up cheap (doubtful, but there's always those who are quick to abandon good for good+), it'll still take great shots tomorrow. To put it a different way: if someone were to invite me to shoot the Olympics this year I wouldn't worry if all I had was a D3s.

Meanwhile, the D800 is a slightly different story. To date, most of the discussion has been about D700 versus D800, but I think we now have to compare D4 versus D800. Here, things are going to settle out just about as they did with the D3x and D3s, I think. If you downsize a D800 image to D4 size, the D4 image is visibly better at some ISO point. Again, I need much more time trying to quantify and explain the differences, but they are clearly apparent to me.

So let's rewind back to the D3 era. What I wrote about the D3/D3x combo boiled down to this kind of gross simplification:

  • With the D3 I'd shoot with a complete disregard towards ISO up to about ISO 800. It's a camera that you can shoot at Auto ISO 800 without seeing any high level visibility in image differences.
  • With the D3x, I always wanted to shoot at base ISO, and always pulled the ISO down as low as the situation allowed. Any bump in D3x ISO basically undercut dynamic range and increased noise production, and it was marginally visible at any 2x increase in ISO, and definitely visible at a 4x increase.
  • Thus, I tended to shoot with my D3x only up to ISO 800, at which point I always felt that it was better to use the D3 (and especially D3s).

So here we are with a D800 and D4. Did anything change? So far, I'm betting no. Substitute D4 for D3/D3s in the above, and D800 for D3x, and I'll bet I'll end up writing something very similar to those three bullet points.

Oh, I might change that third bullet to ISO 1600 (or 1000 or 3200 or whatever the number turns out to be), but so far in every sample I've seen, whether it be from Nikon, from a pro shooter I know, from a Web test sample, or the few samples I've been able to shoot myself under uncontrolled conditions, I keep seeing the same thing. (Before anyone says "well, you're seeing what you expected to see," no, that's not the case at all. If you recall, I wrote not too long ago that I didn't think that Nikon could match the D3s while increasing pixel count. The D3 was state-of-the-art when it appeared, the D3s trumped that by almost a stop, now the D4 moves beyond that mark yet again. That's one hell of a sensor parade, and wasn't what I expected.)

Now let's get to the title of this little article: "What People See." Here's where things get noisy (pardon the pun). Some of us have been trained in low-level image analysis. Most people posting on Internet fora are not. I see mostly hyperbole and exaggeration ("OMG the D800 is as good as a D4"), as well as a few pixel peeping party poopers ("OMG look at all that noise at the pixel level").

Comparing image samples is not an easy thing to do. Looking at JPEGs on the Web created from converted raws of not tightly controlled shooting is not conducive to making high quality analysis. I can make many cameras "look like" other cameras if you give me that many loose variables. It's one reason why I went more to a "read what I write" versus "here's some samples or numbers" approach in my reviews.

To be truly equal, cameras would have to have the same resolution, same dynamic range, same noise propagation, do so under a wide range of test conditions and lens settings, and be post processed exactly the same. I currently do see equality between the D4 and D800 at the higher ISO values.

Just like a D3x had an advantage over the D3 at low ISO values when downsampled to 12mp, so will the D800 have an advantage to the D4, I think (again, very early analysis; I reserve the right to change my mind after a more thorough examination). At some higher ISO value, there will be a crossover point where the D4 image will be better than the downsampled D800 one. I've seen people speculating that this could be really really high, like ISO 12,800, but when I look at their samples, I don't see what they see (plus the samples themselves have issues). Moreover, be careful about what you're looking at. The same test at f/2.8 might show something slightly different than a diffraction impacted f/16. That's why some of us have to spend days running a complicated series of tests before we come up for air with an answer. Until you see the white smoke coming up from the chimney of my office, I haven't elected a new leader yet.

There's no doubt in my mind at this point that the D4 and D800 are going to be great cameras to shoot with. Compared with the D3 and D700 that kicked off the last generation, the bar has been clearly and tangibly raised. Just be careful of people who aren't seeing differences between a D4 and D800, or are stating that a D4 is vastly superior to a D3s, or are making other claims that aren't quite supported by the evidence to date.

The news is good (the D4 and D800 are excellent). Just not necessarily as good as some people are writing in haste. Heck, they may be better. I don't know for sure yet, other than to say that Nikon is continuing to make fantastic progress tuning their sensors and getting results that make for great photographic images in a wide range of conditions. It's going to be fun pressing the D4 and D800 as far as they can go. Indeed, they're good enough that I think they'll challenge my photographic skill.

D800 Ship Date
March 20 (news)--Here in the US it appears that the first D800 shipments will hit dealers on March 22nd. With both the D4 and D800 shipments, NikonUSA is apparently using overnight services to make sure that all dealers get as close to simultaneous delivery as possible.

Thus, by the end of the week, the following things will have started shipping in the US: D4, D800, EN-EL18, and WT-5. Almost certainly, all except the WT-5 will be sellouts in the initial deliveries. According to several dealers I've talked to, almost none have gotten all the D700, D800, or D4 bodies they have on order. FX is in short supply for awhile.

One other bit: in the US the warehouse closes the last week of each quarter for inventory, so nothing is likely to go out next week. I don't yet have information about when the next shipment hits the US, though in previous back order situations like this, it appeared that Nikon did a new shipment within two weeks of the original. If I had to guess, that means Ides of April is about when we'll see the second small batch hit the US.

We Aren't There Yet
March 19 (commentary)--The recent camera news has all been interesting and even a bit tantalizing. High resolution captures. Possibly connected cameras. iPads with better than HD screens. Cloud image storage that pushes to any device you'd like. In an ideal world, putting all those things together would make me very happy.

We don't live in an ideal world. Consider this scenario: I put an 8GB EyeFi card in my D800's SD slot and capture images to my iPad. At the settings I use, that's 103 images. Now, my iPad is used for more than just photos. It's got apps, books, references, sketches, mockups, databases, contacts, calendar, and usually a movie or two on it. Even with my 64GB iPad it's rare that I have 16GB of free space. So two D800 card's (8GB) worth of images, or 206 images.

Now the 206 images sit over on my iPad. That's not really where I eventually want them. They should just migrate to the cloud automatically in the best of worlds. The software to do that isn't all there yet. But we run into another problem: 16GB is 12GB more than my data plan allows in a month, let alone in the day or two I'd shoot 206 images.

Thus, my images have to wait until I've got a reliable WiFi connection to move off the iPad. Of course, when I get back to the hotel or office or wherever I've got WiFi, I need to do some other things on the Internet, so the downloads steal some (maybe all) of my bandwidth. If you've used WiFi at hotels/airports/etc., you'll know what I'm talking about: the shared bandwidth you get is usually good enough for slow, casual Web browsing and email, but guaranteed to frustrate you if you try moving big files.

Yes, this is a US centric view of the world. There are parts of the world where bandwidth is more reliable, but there's still usually the issue of cost.

The bad news is that the camera companies and the photo software companies don't really have any say in what happens in that "in between" world (the wireless world between our cameras and our computers). Worse still, the mantra of the service economy, which does define that world, is fees, fees, fees. Preferably big fees for little actual service, with tack-on fees for more services.

So let's see, I've got an Internet provider, a mobile wireless provider, a cloud provider, and more all wanting a monthly tithe (plus overages). No wonder I prefer to do my workflow manually.

Still, we can't change the world for the better unless we can dream up that better world. That's how those of us who were involved in the emergence of Silicon Valley in the 70's and 80's thought: dream of a better future, then try to invent the things that make it real.

The problem, of course, is that you can dream ahead of reality. That's where we are today. Quite frankly, anyone who thinks the communications infrastructure in the US is good, let alone optimal, is having a different kind of dream: delusion. We got to our duopoly and oligopoly mess under the mantra of "free enterprise." Sorry, but it's a loosely regulated oligopoly at best, and oligopolies aren't good at anything other than increasing the money coming to them.

For we photographers to get what we need, we require what we used to have in the FCC: an agency that regulates a restricted resource for the public good, not for the business good. In the current political environment, that won't ever happen, so getting to the dream is going to take longer than it should, and the dream is going to be watered down (and expensive) when it arrives. At least here in the US.

Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Lens Announced
March 16 (news)--The wraps are off the new Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon ultra wide angle lens. At almost US$3000 and 15mm, it isn't for everyone, but it gives another strong wide angle choice to FX shooters.

The lens is chipped for exposure automation on Nikon bodies, and weighs in at about 26 ounces (730g). The front element is big (95mm filters), and it comes with a petal-type lens hood. Near focus is about 10" (0.25m). Zeiss claims a low (2%) barrel distortion figure.

Some will want to know what I meant by "15mm...isn't for everyone." Lenses with really wide angle capabilities aren't exactly used for their "wideness." If you're trying to frame a very wide subject, you're probably better taking a pano approach with a longer focal length, because just using a wide angle lens will give you a very flat look and include huge areas that aren't important to you. You get a very flat, distant look if all you use a wide angle for is to frame wider.

Where ultra wide starts to have great use is in altering perpsective: getting really close to foreground subjects and letting the perspective push depth into your subject. To that end, the 10" minimum focus distance is a good thing. With lenses like this new one, you need a really strong near, a solid middle, and a decent far to pull off a great shot.

Android is Not the Answer
March 15 (commentary)--With Engadget's reporting that Samsung is developing an Android-based camera, I'm seeing more and more people saying Hallelujah, here comes what Thom asked for.

Sorry, I didn't ask for that.

I love some of the comments I've read about the Android camera possibility:

  • There's a big universe of Android photography apps that could be run. Uh, no. If you talk to any Android developer they point out that they pretty much have to do a custom compile for every Android device they support. There is no perfect common code base you can deploy in the Android world. Thus, a camera would have to become incredibly popular to attract developers. Unfortunately, compact cameras sell in far lower volumes than even the mediocre smart phones. So when the developer of Super Android Photo App With Angry Birds is looking at which platform to next spend time and energy to get it working, it's going to be on Mediocre Smart Phone Ten, not Android Camera One.
  • We'll edit on our cameras! Do you really think we're going to edit images on 3" VGA displays? Not very useful, IMHO. So the Android camera has to either grow a few pixels on its display (like 4x) or I hope you like crude. Oh, and the display will need to be touch, plus we need a fast CPU with a lot of internal memory. Hmm, all this on a cheap compact camera? While smart phone prices look cheap, they're subsidized by the carriers. Are you really willing to pay US$700 for an Android compact camera?
  • Users will start programming their cameras. After all, Android is an "open" environment, right? Less open every day, but that's not the point. How many of you actually program? And how many of you who program actually know how to do "camera things" or "image editing things" in the Android environment?
  • Cameras will start talking directly to the wireless phone networks. That'll be fun to watch. A couple of the camera companies (Panasonic, Samsung, Sony) do have divisions that work with the network carriers, but again we run into that volume thing: if Android Compact Camera can't outsell Mediocre Android Smart Phone, what network is going to give a darned about it? And who wants an AT&T logo on their camera with AT&T exclusive features, because I don't think networked Android Camera will happen without the phone carriers getting into the design act. Oh, and can you imagine the firmware update issues with an OS (Android), carrier (AT&T), and camera company involved?

The simpler solutions are twofold: first, the one I showed last week (camera add-on to the phone) or just WiFi to the phone and have an app that understands the camera on the phone. Both are simpler to do and cheaper to the user.

All that said, someone will be first. First to fail with an Android-based camera, that is. I forget where I read it recently, but one of the wiser Web writers wrote something akin to "the sad thing about bad products or poorly considered products that come out of R&D is that the company decides they have to sell them anyway." Note to consumer electronic companies: that's not what Apple has been doing, and it might actually be part of their success. Just a thought.

When I first wrote about Communicating, Programmable, Modular cameras, I wrote about a manufacturer starting and controlling its own new ecosystem, not drinking the Kool Aid of someone else's.

D4 Shows up Tomorrow
March 15 correction (news)--It appears that the first NPS (Nikon Professional Services members) Priority Purchase orders for the D4 will arrive at dealers tomorrow along with some additional cameras. Included with the camera for those orders is a free Sony 16GB XQD card and card reader. That's the good news.

The bad news is that it appears that not all NPS Priority Purchase orders will actually ship tomorrow, only the first batch of them. Dealers appear to be getting a small number of non-NPS D4s as well. So far, most dealers I've talked to have not gotten the full number of bodies they ordered initially. But there are a few D4's out there if you look hard enough. As I suggest during any Nikon shortage: because Nikon has to supply all US dealers equally at each level, it's usually the smaller market dealers where you'll find an extra body. Philadelphia, no. Harrisburg, maybe.

Short story: D4 bodies are going to be in very short supply for a while. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure we'll go through the same thing with the D800.

Wrong!
March 12 (news)--
TechRadar reports a quote from the UK Marketing Manager for Nikon saying: "...ultimately, we want pros to be buying our DSLRs...I'm not sure [a pro Nikon 1] would help us to be the number one brand."

Sorry, but very wrong thinking. Indeed, completely bungled thinking. The correct thinking would be "we want every pro to have a Nikon 1 in their bag along with our DSLRs." The Nikon Marketing Manager's quote is a bit like saying "we won't make minivans because we want our contractors to buy trucks." No, you want your purchasers to buy any and everything Nikon. If you think a pro only carries one DSLR, you're badly mistaken. Moreover, you absolutely, positively, tremendously want that pro to be shooting with your Nikon 1 for casual shooting. You want them to tell all the people that ask "yeah, it's a great little camera for casual shooting."

Myopia can become not only viral within an organization, it can prove fatal, too. So let's help Nikon along here by doing a little survey.

Speaking of the Nikon 1
March 12 (news)--
My Complete Guide to the Nikon 1 is now available for US$19.99 as a download (yes, I wrote download). Over 500 pages of detailed information on the J1 and V1 cameras written in the easily understood language you've come to expect from me.

Did you know that the V1 takes different sized still images when you're recording video depending upon the frame rate you've set for 1080 recording? You would if you read my book. One thing that took me a little longer with this work is that there are lots of these little arcane details where Nikon did something different than usual. Moreover, they didn't catch some of their own changes! For example, you can attempt to set 1, 2, 3, or 4 seconds in the Interval shooting method, but the camera won't use them. Catching and documenting all these things without creating too much complexity in the resulting work took me a little longer than usual.

And Speaking of Buying
March 12 (commentary)--
When you make a purchase of a new piece of equipment for your photography there are a number of elements which you can use to dictate whether to buy or not. Do you know which ones you really value? Let's find out.

  • Price. Some people buy primarily on price. A product at US$X gets an immediately higher ranking than one with a price of US$X+Y. The bigger Y gets, the more that these folks buy the former over the latter.
  • Performance. Some are more attuned to the low-level performance of the product. The pixel peepers tend to fall into this category, as small differences in noise, dynamic range, resolution, etc., are important to them. Unlike price, it sometimes only takes a very small difference for someone to decide that product A is worth buying over product B.
  • Quality. This is the old Yugo versus Toyota thing wrapped into a different product category. Why buy a product if it is likely to break, or if you might get a sample that's less than perfect?
  • Brand. A relative of the quality argument, but it goes further. Brand loyalists will buy Brand J over Brand K even if the price is a little higher, the performance a little less, and the quality a little less. Why? Usually one of two reason: (1) they bought into a brand in the first place, and they're constantly trying to validate that choice; or (2) they bought into a marketing message and are now a "believer," even when evidence might contradict their choice. Essentially, a brand purchaser has bought into a first premise (belief), and it's near impossible to break someone of that. When you do, they're clueless and have to start from scratch in their assessment, which makes them defend their first premise more.
  • Newness. Hey, ain't capitalism grand? New is always better, right? This is another first premise thing: somewhere along the line the marketing folks managed to program your brain into believing that a newer product is more valuable and capable than an old one. Sometimes it is (though not always in every way). Often it's just new. (Companies can't claim the term "new" after certain time periods elapse, usually 12 months in most jurisdictions, so they change something small and claim it's new.)
  • Feature. A specific aspect of the product that you were waiting for and wasn't available to you before. Unfortunately, some get the feature/performance line so blurred that they misinterpret one for the other. One good case was the move from 10 to 12mp sensors. 12 is better than 10, right? More resolution is a feature, and it's a performance gain. Well, yes, it's a feature, but the question these days is "just how much performance gain?" And is that gain worth paying for?
  • Size/Weight. Really a feature, but I've broken it out for a reason. Here's a category that some of the camera makers are partially ignoring. I say partially because they are coming up with lesser cameras (Nikon 1, for example) to achieve the size/weight difference. Why the camera makers are ignoring one of the top requested features and one of the things that would provoke the most upgrading amongst existing users I don't know. They seem to fear something about selling a 24mp FX DSLR that's the size of an FM2n and not the size of an F100 or F5. Or even a 16mp DX DSLR that's the size of an FM2n. But it's clear to me that a good deal of buying is now being considered with size/weight in mind, and the world around me just amplifies that. I can't carry even a full DX kit to Africa without hitting the 30 pound mark, a mark that goes beyond virtually every airline and bush plane limit I'll be exposed to getting there.

So in the context of all the new product launches earlier this year we get:

  • 1Dx v. D4, 5DIII v. D800, Canon v. Nikon: this is really the Brand argument, though people keep trying to wrap in the Price, Performance, Quality, and Feature arguments. Personally, I don't see enough differences in those latter four arguments to make a strong call one way or another, thus the discussion is really about Brand. I just don't understand the brand switchers. We've had at least four measurable migrations in 13 years, and really only the first two had enough difference in the other factors to be remotely justified. If you're switching brands now, it's because you're switching brands, period.
  • OM-D: Olympus has threatened to make good on the Size/Weight argument for almost nine years now. With the OM-D it looks like they may finally be able to say "smaller with near equivalent performance."
  • Fujifilm X-Pro1 or Canon G1x: Here we have a Feature doing all the talking. For the X-Pro1 it's a hybrid viewfinder, for the G1x it's a big sensor in a compact body. If either is what you've been waiting for, then you're good to go: you now can get what you want, so pony up the dough, boy.
  • Panasonic: I'll be posting a bunch of Panasonic reviews on sansmirror.com shortly, but one thing I'm struck by is this: Panasonic thinks New is the way to go. The GH1 and GF1 were fine cameras. Not a lot to critique about them other than some nits about m4/3 sensor performance. GH2, G10, G2, G3, and GF2, GF3, GX1 later, and...there's not a lot to critique about them (because they are refinements on the originals) other than some nits about their sensor performance. Now, if you ask Panasonic, they'll say the new cameras are all about Features and Performance. Sorry, but the Features are gimmicky (e.g. touch screens) and the Performance didn't move much from, oh, say the GF1 to the GF3. Even the 16mp versus 12mp sensor change didn't move the Performance bar much. So I'm personally just left with New as the primary driver. Only problem with that is that, here in the US, Panasonic barely manages to deliver the New before they've launched a new New.
  • Closeouts: Meanwhile Price is driving a lot of the m4/3 uptake here in the US. We're seeing E-PL1 and other older bodies on incredible closeout sales, and that's finally moved some market share from DSLR to mirrorless here in the US.

Return of the Fans
March 7 (commentary)--
I thought we were mostly through with the brand rah-rah (or is it raw-raw?) Internet chatter regarding high end cameras. Silly me. Apparently the fan folk were just catching up on their sleep while the quake and floods delayed key products.

So which is better: a D800 or a 5DIII? A D4 or a 1Dx?

Trick question. None of the above. They're tools. How well you'll do with one of those tools depends upon how well you study their capabilities and how good you are as a tool user. Simple as that.

Yet every hour I get new emails from one camp or another touting how much better X is than Y, or how terrible the things they see in a pixel level view in a poorly captured sample look, or how a missing setting ruins the whole product, or sometimes just outlandish (and often incomprehensible) claims that appear to be fueled by to much H and OH bonded to their carbons.

Of course, you'd think by now that the camera makers would know that they probably ought to really think through their sample image production. When you pick a location with stained, peeling, and bubbling paint, some people will mistake those things for "pixel defects," after all. And if you miss your focus point, even by a tiny amount, the AA filter must be tuned incorrectly.

Still, the simple truth is this: at the levels the high-end cameras (and even some of the lower- and mid-level ones) are today, there's little to separate Brand A from Brand B. That doesn't stop even some knowledgeable pros from seeking out even one smallish push forward in performance, whether that be in dynamic range, noise, focus, frame rate, lenses, or whatever. Frankly, planning, preparation, and patience tend to gain me more than what the camera makers are gaining in their latest tweaks. Don't get me wrong, I'll always take improvements, but is there any chance I care to switch brands to gain a small improvement in Items A,B, and C and lose it in Items D, E, and F? Nope. Heck, not even for reasonably big gains. Both Nikon and Canon have user interfaces that some of us have decades of experience with. Just the handling change alone is often enough to make me lose a shot.

I do shoot with the competitive brand from time to time, usually borrowing it from a pro friend or two. But I try to make sure I only do that on work that isn't for pay, as I've sometimes found myself staring at the camera wondering where the heck a button or menu choice is, or worse still, what some item's name in the menu system actually means. Do that at a paying gig and you won't have many more paying gigs to worry about.

So let's boil some of this down:

  • Does it make a difference whether I can shoot at ISO 6400 or 12,800 in getting the same noise level? No. Not to me it doesn't. First, I'm not shooting at those levels except under exceptional conditions where there is no other choice. I'm already at least three stops better than I was with film, and I managed that kind of shooting in some pretty tough conditions without ISO 102,400. Or even ISO 3200. Even where a camera is indeed a stop better (and I doubt that these pro cameras are that far apart), at high ISO values I'm having to apply noise reduction anyway, and with care the difference is mostly moot.
  • Does it make a difference whether I have 51 or 61 or 135 or some other amount of AF sensors? No. What matters with autofocus is how well I know the system, period. Autofocus isn't a crutch. It's a nuanced tool that needs to be embraced. Do I miss shots from time to time? Yes, but almost always because of something I did or didn't do.
  • Do I need 1 or 2 more fps? Absolutely not! In fact, I'd argue that there's evidence that these gains tend to come at the expense of autofocus performance more often than not. For what? At 1/500 second, which is usually the minimum of where I'm at when I'm shooting any kind of burst, the difference between "getting the shot" at 4 fps versus 12 fps boils down to not a lot of advantage: 1 in 125 of a chance of getting "the shot" versus 1 in 42. Meanwhile, if I actually use my senses to carefully time a single shot, I find my odds go up significantly, to something like 1 in 3 or 1 in 4. Which do you think I prefer?
  • Is 36mp better than 22mp? Or 18mp better than 16mp? I suppose if I were blowing my images up to compete with Peter Lik's galleries, I might prefer 36mp. But then again, I'd probably just shoot MF if I were going that big on non-moving subjects. I have plenty of resolution in the 16-24mp range. Most of my clients need less.

I've written it before and I'll reiterate it here: we're at the peak of DSLRs. I can't really think of a shot I'd like to take that can't be taken and produce good results with this latest round of cameras. I'll be happy to argue the nuances at the pixel level with anyone, but we're definitely in the realm of nits. So don't be a nit-come-poop: either you need top level capabilities or you don't. If you don't, why mouth off?

That said, as usual both Nikon and Canon have managed to include enough irritations in their new products that there's definitely something to complain about from everyone. I'm still convinced that the camera designers don't really know how people are shooting (or perhaps trying to dictate how people shoot). I'll cite one example: HDR. On the Nikons, you have exactly one choice: create a two-shot HDR JPEG or not. If you choose not, the bracketing system will fight you in setting up exactly the sequence you want. Neither option (automated or on your own) gives you any help in defining where the "edges" of your scene's brightness are. In other words, none of the engineers seem to actually have shot an optimized HDR sequence. They do know how to combine a dark and light image, though, thus the JPEG two-shot combo. I'll reiterate my offer: I'm willing to take a dozen Japanese engineers out shooting for a few days and show them the way things are actually done in the field. My only goal would be to make sure that the camera engineers actually here real user demands.

Meantime, the Canon and Nikon pro shooters are doing just that: shooting. All they need to know is whether the new stuff gives them any advantage in actual use than the stuff they're currently using. The answer is almost certainly yes in both camps. D4 users, for example, get more pixels and more reliable autofocus. Who would balk at that? Not me.

I'm Just Saying
March 7 (commentary)--
Someone asked me how the camera companies could survive in the cell phone era.

Copyright 2012 Thom Hogan

Just twist and shoot baby. Any other questions? (Link to this here.)

My New Gig
March 6 (news)--
I'm writing a column for a new iPad-based magazine edited by Michael Freeman (one of his books, The Photographer's Eye, is on my recommended book list).

I'm awed by the talent writing for the magazine: Bob Krist, Steve Sint, Jay Maisel, Douglas Dubler, as well as Michael and a host of other very talented folk. The images inside will give you the shakes. The range of topics and styles covered is amazing. The photographic talent on display is nothing short of sterling. My humble contribution is a column entitled Optimal Data, my mantra when out photographing. I hope to explore how to achieve just that when photographing, and all the ways in which photography's entropy works to stop us. Eventually those columns will make it to my site, but probably not for months and well after the rest of the world has had a chance to enjoy them.

The new magazine is called The Photographers i, and you can find more about it at www.photographersi.com/. The second issue with my debut column is now out. Look for it.

Software Day
March 6 (news)--
The big news is Adobe Lightroom 4.0, which ships today at a new lower price (US$149, US$79 for updates). D4 and D800 owners--hey, wait, are there any yet?--will be happy to know that Lightroom 4.0 supports the new cameras.

Lightroom's changes aren't monumental, but they're scattered throughout the product and very important. The Develop changes alone are probably worth the price of upgrading. If you're a video shooter, the fact that Lightroom now deals with organizing and working with your video is also a key feature. The book creation ability (through Blurb) has improved significantly. Throughout the program you find that Adobe has reworked, augmented, and supplemented key elements. XP users need not apply, though, as that decade old OS is no longer supported. At the new price, Lightroom is almost a bargain.

Meanwhile, Adobe also released the US$9.99 Photoshop Touch for the iPad. While it's not everything Photoshop is on a desktop machine and it can be a little sluggish on big files, it's really the first iOS photo editor that feels robust and works the way we're used to. Definitely a bargain.

Elsewhere in software we've got Nik's Snapseed now available for Windows, which makes it pretty available on everything now. It's a completely different approach than Adobe's in terms of image editing, but also one that resonates with a lot of users.

In the Mac App Store convert 1.0 is a batch image conversion program for photographers dealing with large numbers of images; Camera Awesome is SmugMug's contribution to the camera and dispatcher realm, and quite a good one at that; Panorama 1.0 is another in the long line of panorama stitchers; Graphic Converter 7.6.2 adds some minor features and tweaks some of the interface; and PhotoStyler 6.3 is another of those Polaroid/Lomo/et.al. image transformers.

Site Slowdown
March 5 (news)--
The next ten days or so probably will be a bit lean on site updates. I've got a gaggle of product reviews I'm trying to get completed, and I'm spending most of my time doing product and sample shots to finish them up. The first batch will be reviews for sansmirror.com late next week. The second batch will be catching up on DX lenses, probably the following week.

What about FX lenses? I decided that it was appropriate to wait until I've had time to double check those products with the D4, D800, and D800E. We're moving from 12mp to as much as 36mp in FX, and that's going to bring small things more to the fore on many lenses. Indeed, I believe I'm going to have to run everything back through the wringer just to verify that all those pixels don't change anything substantive in my Rationalizing Lenses article. All that extra work is going to take some time, and I need cameras before I can begin (no, I don't get advance copies of products from Nikon; I usually buy my equipment just like you do).

What Would You Do?
March 2 (news)--
IC Insights published information on what they thought the compact camera marketplace will look like versus the cell phone camera (over 3mp). Here's my version using their numbers:

The blue is compact cameras, the green is cell phone cameras.

Pretty daunting, yes? The numbers work out to 144m compact cameras in 2015, 1.515 billion cell phone cameras produced in the same year. Compact camera growth is anemic, at best (2%), while from 2011 to 2015 the cell phone camera market triples (200%).

So if you were a camera maker, what would you do? If you wrote software for photography, what would you do? If you were to invest in a company associated with imaging, what would you invest in? If you were considering buying a low-end camera, what would you do? (Remember those 38mp images from the Nokia 808, described below.)

New Article
March 1 (news)--
Over on sansmirror.com I posted a basic sharpening/noise reduction technique article some readers of this site might be interested in.

Swimming in Ponds
Feb 29 updated (commentary)--
How timely. On March 1st Kodak discontinued its remaining slide films.

When things shift in the modern world, they shift fast. And when you make mistakes, you pay for them quickly, too. Film as we know it is in deep jeopardy at the moment. No, it won't go away, but it's likely going to end up much like high end audio did: a handful of players catering to a small pond occupied by an analog crowd.

One thing that's hastening the shift is Kodak. They used to be the big boat in a huge pond. Now it seems that they simply are going to hold onto their sinking boat right to the bottom. Three interesting data points: (1) they're closing down and selling off almost all their digital imaging assets (cameras, sensors, patents); (2) they're counting on printers to be their main business in the future; and (3) if your local theatre doesn't change over to digital projection this year, it won't have anything to show next.

It's sad to see Kodak abandon the digital world they helped create. But they've always had Big Company mentality in what was essentially a startup business. It was product margins that caused Kodak to not embrace digital as they should have. Film, paper, and chemicals have huge product margins, consumer electronics have thin ones (Apple notwithstanding ;~).

Kodak never embraced the TI perspective on semiconductors that pervades consumer electronics (volume eventually creates product margin). Kodak acted much like Xerox did with its R&D: invent the future but not productize it (I'm referring to Xerox PARC here). Kodak made strange and inconsistent decisions, too: first they used contract manufacturing, then they bought a manufacturer, then they mostly abandoned that. At almost every turn in digital photography you see Kodak's Labs doing interesting things and the company waffling around making inconsistent and contradictory decisions, or worse, no decisions at all. This part of the story is a management case study writ large.

Of course, the rest of Kodak's business decisions haven't been all that wise, either. Kodak is pinning it's future on another dying market: printers. Even industry leader HP is having a tough time finding future growth in printers, as overall printing demand is down at the consumer level. The pond is getting smaller. How becoming a printer company will save Kodak is beyond me. So mismanagement isn't a thing of the past at Kodak: it's ingrained in their culture now.

Even if Kodak were to succeed, they're electing to swim in a pond that's drying up. The modus operandi in consumer printers is this: build a printer at a loss, make big profit and volume on supplies. Unfortunately, to make a printer and not make too big a loss, you cut corners, so the printer eventually fails, creating a new event a couple years down the road where the customer needs a new printer (which you'll make another loss on). Yes, I know that Kodak says that they're trying to change that model by making the printers more expensive and the supplies less expensive. That model hasn't really made a dent in the marketplace after several years of trying. And going up-scale in price in a down market is another of those big fish in a pond that is drying up things.

From Kodak's mismanaged perspective printing looks like a "win" because they have enough volume to make a "profit" at this business. The problem is that, if Kodak was reduced to just a printing business, its legacy overhead costs pretty much kill that. Which, of course, is the real reason why it is in bankruptcy.

I'm betting, however, that the post-bankruptcy Kodak will continue to have the same problems in its new business as it had in the old. They went for printers over cameras for a simple reason: the supply business is akin to the old Kodak business (paper, chemicals/ink). They got margin-centric in their thinking. However, I'd argue that digital photography could have had a "supply" component: the cloud. The Internet's create-the-site-first-do-the-business-model-later aspect probably confused them on that. But if there was one business Kodak should have owned, it was social sharing of images. Seems like others have figured out to build a pretty darned good profit margin doing social net stuff. Some of them are growing a pretty darned big pond. So, more Kodak mismanagement.

The last of the three data points I pointed out is the real killer, though: film is going away in moviemaking, and specifically, this year. Hollywood was a nice highly-profitable business for Kodak (and Fujifilm). It's directly tied to the legacy film business in all aspects, R&D, manufacturing, and so on, so running stock off for Hollywood was a no-brainer operation. There's only one problem: the biggest aspect of this business, the printing of films to be distributed to theaters, is about to die completely. Several studios have already gone all digital for projection. The rest are now following. Small theaters are struggling with the costs associated with that transfer, and we have estimates that we'll see at least a thousand of them die this year, maybe more. But by the end of 2012 almost all movies you'll see in a theatre in the US will be projected from encrypted hard drives, not film. There's a permanent drought drying up this pond!

What I find strange is that everything that's causing Kodak problems has been predictable, and some of it has been predictable for a very long period of time. The predictions don't get any better for Future Kodak than they are for the current in-bankruptcy version or their previous incarnation. Their projected post-bankruptcy future is mostly defined as trying to take market share away from industry leaders in a market that's shrinking. Hmm. Doesn't that usually mean taking less margin and competing on price? Wasn't that what they didn't want to do and caused them to skip digital photography in the first place?

So let's circle back to my third sentence: Film as we know it is in deep jeopardy at the moment. Even the things that Kodak was counting on keeping some healthy volume going with film, e.g. Hollywood, are disappearing. It won't be long now before they have to jettison film altogether, I think.

With the Kodak domino falling, that really only leaves one last big film domino, and that's Fujifilm. Fujifilm has been smarter at dealing with transitioning their legacy business (and by far). They'll likely ride fllm for as long as any significant volume holds up, as they've already written off plant and equipment. They'll get a slight boost, actually, if Kodak really drops the ball as I expect them to. But the handwriting is very much on the wall: film is already a small pond, and it's about to become a very small pond. It's not a great time to be a fisherman.

All Washed Up
Feb 28 (news)--
Just how bad did the Thailand floods hurt camera production? Bad, real bad.

When you compare the third quarter (pre-flood) to fourth quarter (flood) you get these numbers:

  Pre-flood Qtr Flood Qtr Change
Compacts 29.7m 23.6m -21%
Mirrorless 1.2m 862k -28%
DSLRs 4.5m 2.4m -47%

With compacts, most of the production is done in China and a number of other SE Asian countries. Moreover, compact sales have been falling slightly to start with, so the change can't necessarily be attributed all to the floods. Still, much of the change probably was parts supply affected by the flood.

Mirrorless and DSLRs are still growing categories, and here we see big drops, especially for DSLRs (Sony and Nikon both produce a majority of their DSLRs in Thailand where the floods closed plants).

True, quarter-to-quarter estimates aren't a perfect measuring tool. But we've not seen this large of change in the negative direction in any previous years when comparing the same quarters (typically the opposite, as the flood-impacted quarter has a lot of Christmas season re-stocking in it).

Deja Vu all Deja Vu Again
Feb 27 (commentary)--
So here we go again. I don't know how many times we have to have this discussion, but it seems that we keep having it. Which is better, compressed or non-compressed? Bit reduction or full bit recording?

Back in the early days of DSLRs I used to fight with some other well known big name shooters who went around saying "you only need to shoot JPEG." Every time they said that, I would have to go around saying "raw is better." Funny thing is, every one of those early JPEG pundits is now shooting raw. Why? The explanation is simple: data reduction can't be retreived. You're always better off with more and more accurate sampling data than data that's been through the wringer.

The "evidence" for "JPEG is good enough" is always the same: "I can't see any difference." Well, that's the point. JPEG (and MPEG which I'll get to) were about data reduction that didn't become visible to the majority of people. The data reduction is still there, though, and it'll nip you by your short hairs the minute you start trying to do much in the way of post processing on the data. 8 bits is not 14 bits. sRGB is not ProPhotoRGB. Fourier reduction of pixels to formula is data reduction. Lost data, lost data, lost data. You never get this data back, and some day you'll find that you want to make a change that requires it. Sure, most of us have learned how to patch over JPEG issues in post, but it's more work and there will always be things you can't do because the data just isn't there.

Don't get me wrong, JPEG is indeed "good enough" for most people, and a lot of pro work, too. But if there's a chance that anyone is ever going to touch your files post-shoot and make changes to pixel data, not having missing data is really, really helpful. So helpful, that the first time you encounter what missing data does to you in post processing, you'll start shooting raw. Heck, you still get a JPEG every time you shoot raw, so if that's what you want, have at the embedded image.

Lately we're hearing the same argument all over again: "you only need to shoot video in AVCHD." The well known pros saying this are using the same old "good enough" and "can't see a difference" arguments. Apparently they've never had anyone seriously color grade (post process) their video to any extreme. Because missing data is still missing data. Again, we get bit reduction (typically 10 bits is being dropped to 8 bits). We get color reduction (4:4:2 or 4:2:2 becomes 4:2:0). We get completely missing frames (we're doing a JPEG-like compression only on the data that changes between frames), and we get variable compression levels (bit rates).

Video is no different than still photography. Indeed, I try to approach both similarly: collect optimal data. Make the data neutral and flat. Don't put compression or other data reductions in place until you've made all your pixel level corrections (which includes post processing). No difference. Shoot flat, neutral raws with no highlight blowouts in stills; shoot flat, neutral uncompressed 4:2:2 or better (preferably in 10-bit) with no highlight blowouts in video. Post process the proper contrast and other effects into both. Post processing isn't a chore, because all the data is there and you're not dealing with gaps. Simple as that. Yet we still have pros saying "AVCHD is good enough." I'm betting that in a few years they're all shooting with less or no compression.

So let me predict the future. Some day we'll have holographic recording at the consumer level. Because there's a lot of data involved, the holomakers will come up with HPEG. Early pro pundits will go around touting "you only need to shoot in HPEG" because they "can't see a difference." Meanwhile, the rest of us who know better will be shooting in HoloRaw. And when people start asking why our work looks so good and how we managed to pull out highlight and shadow and 3D detail, guess what my answer will be? ;~) Heck, guess what Hollywood will be doing?

Record optimal data. Keep that data intact for as long in the processing as possible. Reduce data only when the output format is known, and optimize for that format at output only.

Of course, the masses will continue to use JPEG/MPEG/HPEG and be perfectly happy. But you're not the masses, are you? You're the 1% of photographers. You know what to do. (No, the answer isn't Occupy Sony.)

Okay, maybe some of you still don't know the right answer, so let me make it personal. I just invented a cloning machine. It can only make its snapshot of you just before you die (exactly when you most want to be cloned, memories and all). I've put two recording settings on my machine: 8-bit DNAPEG compression and 32-bit CelluRaw. Which setting would you like me to use for your clone?

What makes me think some pundit is going to say "DNAPEG is all you need?" Well, at least you'll save on memory (see next story).

75MB Isn't That Expensive
Feb 27 (commentary)--It appears that not enough of you have read my article on shooting less. I write that because one of the "complaints" about the D800 is that it creates 75MB raw files (it can do better than that with judicious use of compression, but for the sake of argument, I'll just use the largest size).

Back in the days of film, taking each image cost me out of pocket about 28 cents. That includes film, processing, and some courier service (I'd drop it off at the lab on my way home from the airport because it was convenient, but then have it couriered to me at the office the next morning). Even the most frugal person probably paid at least 17 cents a shot (and got random processing at that price).

What took me down this nostalgic road was far more than a few people making the contention that storage costs, especially once considering backups, would eat them alive if they shot with a D800 with it's 75MB a whack penalty.

One man's penalty is another man's gain. As I've written many times, I'll take as many pixels as I can get assuming all else equal. More sampling equals better processing choices, amongst other things. But is that 75MB really a penalty in the first place?

Let's take what some view as a relatively expensive storage option: Amazon S3. Worst case, for a fully backed cloud storage system: 12.5 cents a GB/mo, or less than a penny a D800 image a month. It would take two years of storage before I even equalled my out of pocket film costs. Actually, less than that if I did critical editing out of shots that don't make the cut (in film, the cost was already incurred; in digital, if you delete the file, the cost isn't incurred).

But wait a minute, 12.5 cents a GB is US$125 a terrabyte a month. That sounds like a lot. After all, I can buy a 1TB hard drive from NewEgg for less than that. Okay, I'd need two, because I want a backup. Actually three, because I'd want an offsite backup, too. So call it three months worth of S3 storage costs to do it at home for a longer time. I'm starting to lose track of what fraction of a penny my D800 image is actually costing me.

I've written elsewhere about how expensive digital photography is. The camera body cost is just the tip of the iceberg. And the per image cost is pretty darned cheap, even with 75MB files. But this does raise an issue: the incremental cost of all those things--camera, lens, support, travel, computer, storage, and so on--does start to overwhelm more and more people. That's one of the reasons why I started predicting flattening sales of DSLRs way back in 2003. From the film days, we have a pretty good metric on how many households eventually go SLR and how many eventually stop using it for something simpler and cheaper.

A lot of the folk complaining about the D800 are candidates for getting off the DSLR escalator.

Or Maybe Even Just 17MB Is Expensive
Feb 27 (news and commentary)--As it turns out, the megapixel war has moved from the Nikon D800 to the Nokia 808 PureView. Yep, a cellphone. A cellphone with an enormous sensor (and a Zeiss lens). The new sensor measures out relatively close to the Nikon 1 sensor (about three quarters the size).

Of course, if you had to upload those 38mp images, even in JPEG format, via your cell phone service provider, you'd be paying for one heck of a lot of data transfer. (Wait, 38mp? Yes, while the sensor is 41mp, the max image size you can produce from it is 38mp. It's a multi-aspect ratio sensor.) A single image would chunk out at about 17MBs, which means your 1GB wireless plan would get throttled at about 60 images.

But here's the kick in the seat of camera maker's pants: Nokia has built in something called PureView, which allows you to do digital zoom and crop, or to downsize to 2, 3, 5, or 8mp image sizes to get better low light performance. All both during and post shooting and without clumsy menus or procedures. Hmm, why doesn't a D800 have that? Well, it does, sort of, via the old kludge menu-driven, procedural RETOUCH menu options and JPEG and crop sensor shooting sizes. Can you say "lack of imagination?"

We're at a crossroads of a different kind: it's the old DOS versus Windows thing all over again. The camera companies are still producing DOS. The cell phone and tablet makers are all heavy into the Windows side. For the same reason Windows eventually won on personal computers, so too will it win on cameras. The problem I see is that so far every last little bit of touchscreen and modern UI use on a camera I've seen is follow-the-leader: the camera companies are imitating things that others did on other devices long ago (makes you wonder whether they're ignoring patents again). Where's the UI that originates with a camera maker? Doesn't exist. Japan's camera makers are not driving the lead car, they're tailgating.

Still, you also have to wonder whether Nokia has gotten too ahead of the curve. A 41mp camera in a phone means that the phone really needs 64GB of storage. The choices are tough: you either pay more for all those pixels (storage, transfer, etc.) or you just don't take very many pictures.

Almost on Cue
Feb 25 (news and commentary)--Dealers on Friday got some new pricing from Nikon, specifically on the D700. The new suggested price is soon going to be US$2199 (currently US$2699). But here's an interesting kicker: there apparently won't be a minimum advertised price (MAP) associated with that, which would mean we'll likely see someone drop under the US$2000 mark.

Some people have questioned my slight shift on predicting what Nikon will introduce next. Actually, it hasn't been a slight shift. If you go back and read what I wrote in 2010 versus where we are today, I think you'll find that Nikon went a bit different direction than I originally expected. The post-quake thinking at Nikon seems to be a bit different than the pre-quake thinking, too. Nikon seems a bit more emboldened in its decision making since the last management change. Looking back on my conversations with Nikon executives over the past couple of years as well as anonymous tips I receive, I can see that I didn't pick up on all the clues that were dropped. Mea culpa.

But let me explain one thing that still seems to be hanging a bunch of you up: entry FX. First, it should be clear that a US$2000 D700 is very much an "entry FX" model ;~). And a danged good one, at that. Many of you seem perplexed by why an entry FX model makes sense, and why a US$1000 difference in price between it and a D800 works.

First the rationale: the market for new DSLR sales boils down to upgraders. The notion of "new camera users" coming into the market is mostly wrong. Young adults aren't opting for DSLRs, and that would be only a small percentage of the purchasers now, anyway. The side-grade from film SLR to DSLR is now mostly complete.

So today Nikon is actively soliciting Coolpix users to upgrade to CX (Nikon 1). CX users will be solicited to upgrade to DX. And DX users, well, it's only natural to upgrade them to FX. But if the entry FX body is 3x the price of the top DX body, that's a pretty big money leap. Entry FX can't be more than 2x the top DX price if it is to encourage upgrading. Indeed, it probably should be 1.5x (which would be about US$1800). That puts us right at the likely D400 pricing, which is one reason why I think the D400 could go either way (DX or FX).

Yes, a DX D400 at US$1900 and an FX D800 at US$3000 are almost 1.5x apart, too. So what's the advantage to making a D400 FX? Lenses. Indeed, the "where are the DX wide angles" question continues to be an interesting one. One might leap to say that this is more evidence that the DX line might stop at the D7000 point: someone who pays US$1600-2000 for a DX body is going to want lenses that don't exist. But those lenses do exist in FX.

I still think a D400 could go either way and is more likely to be DX, but given Nikon's recent aggressive push, I can't rule out an FX D400, thus what I wrote in the next article. The new US$2200 pricing on the D700 just throws another wrinkle into the mix.

The D700s and D700x
Feb 24 (commentary)--I notice that Nikon Rumors is recreating a poll that I've run many times, only in a slightly updated guise. It's basically the "what do you want to replace a D700" poll. The choices have always been (1) improve the low light capability (the D700s choice: 12mp D3s sensor in D700 body), or (2) increase the pixel count (the D700x choice: 24mp D3x sensor in D700 body).

With over 25,000 responses prior to the D800 leaks, my results put the D700s and D700x options neck and neck: within two percentage points, at 49% versus 51%. As I write this, the Nikon Rumors results are 58% versus 42%, still very close and within sight of a coin toss.

Indeed, one might explain the slight tilt Nikon Rumors tilt towards the D700s option as being people deciding that the D700x option (the D800) was a little too x for them once it was announced. That, coupled with the 16mp versus 36mp choice--16mp is closer to 24mp but keeps the essence of the D3s sensor--probably explains the difference. Still, taken at face value, all these polls that have been run about the D700 follow up choices still indicate the same thing: there's strong demand for both options. Put another way, Nikon needs to produce both options.

So the question is: will they?

I keep getting vague hints from anonymous sources that the D400 is indeed not a DX camera but something akin to a D700s. To date, no information I've received about that has the clear ring of authenticity to it, though.

The interesting thing is that there are two missing cameras from Nikon's DSLR lineup: a high end DX model, and an entry level FX model. The D7000 doesn't satisfy the high-end DX side primarily because of its buffer. That, coupled with the new "top" for DX being 24mp (Sony A77, NEX-7), means Nikon doesn't have a true competitor at the top of the DX line at the moment. I can't see Nikon foregoing that, so it's easily imaginable that the D300s replacement is a 24mp DX D400.

On the other hand, there's that strong demand for a D700s. Curiously, Nikon announced that they'll continue to build the existing D700, but they didn't change pricing at all. That seems like a "patch," not a solution. Either the D700 needs to come down to a price one full step below the D800, it needs to get the D3s sensor, or both.

Meanwhile, the D7000 is coming up due for an update late this year. Could it be the new high-end DX? Imagine this lineup for a moment:

  • D3200. Entry DSLR, and entry DX, 24mp.
  • D5200. Mid-level DX, 24mp.
  • D7200. High-end DX, 24mp.
  • D400. Entry FX DSLR, 16mp.
  • D800. Mid-level FX, 36mp.
  • D4. Pro FX, 16mp.

versus:

  • D3200. Entry DSLR, and entry DX, ??mp.
  • D5200. Mid-level DX, 16mp.
  • D7200. High-end DX, 16mp.
  • D400. Top DX, with 24mp sensor.
  • D700. Entry FX DSLR, 12mp. (Eventual D720 or phase out?)
  • D800. Mid-level FX, 36mp.
  • D4. Pro PJ FX, 16mp.
  • D4x: Pro studio FX, 36mp.

Basically, it boils down to which of those lines you think makes more sense. The first list seems lean and clean to me. The second list has a lot of historical slop in it, and some pixel count marketing issues. Add in a third Nikon 1 model (my Z1), and the first list would be 3 CX, 3 DX, and 3 FX: basically an entry, mid, and top in each line, with the lines being spaced nicely (except for the Nikon 1, which is currently out of whack in terms of pricing).

The second list is more hodge podge, with new/old overlap and essentially four choices in each category.

I know which list I'd want to market. Does Nikon?

New Article
Feb 22 (news)--Another new article for your amusement: the pain of photography.

Software Updates
Feb 22 (news)--Time for the regular software update news. I called out Camera Control Pro, View NX2, and Capture NX2 separately, but in case you missed that, all of the Nikon apps have now undergone updates to deal with the upcoming D4 and D800. There were even some nice little additions in those updates, as well. Everyone using those products should update.

DxO updated Optics Pro to version 7.2.1, and this now adds the Nikon 1 cameras into the mix, as well as updating for some other recent cameras.

Akvis continues to see how they can count, with version 13 of Enhancer adding GPU acceleration, new presets, and DNG support.

Alien Skin introduced Exposure 4, with these Photoshop and Lightroom plugins getting a completely new UI and controls. Everything is faster, too.

In the Mac App Store world: Photo Sense 1.7.0 is a photo enhancer which now adds customizable aspect ratios, improvements in the crop and straighten tools, plus some bug fixes. CameraBag 2 is a non-destructive image editor that uses a 32-bits/channel engine. It has layers, filters, and over 100 styles.

Changes Impact bythom.com
Feb 19 (news and commentary)--I've removed the B&H Support this Site links, as B&H has cancelled the program for Web sites located in Pennsylvania. For the full details on what's happening, click here. Short version: the state of Pennsylvania just made a revenue grab that's actually likely to cost them money. It certainly cost me money. The Amazon links remain for the time being because Amazon has a presence here in PA, and apparently hasn't yet decided what to do.

There's a high likelihood that bythom.com just lost it's only revenue sources, and this was done not by changes to state law open for public comment, but by press release edict. This came from the Governor's initiative, so if you're a PA resident and wish to complain, click here. Also, you can complain to your PA state senator by contacting via here.

Update: Don't panic. Bythom isn't going away. But it will mutate. As I always do, I'm using the change imposed on me to re-evaluate everything. I'm sure there will be some short-term visible changes, but I also want to use this "opportunity" to make long-term, functional changes to just about everything I do, and make what I do for the photographic community even better.

Nikon Still Doesn't Get Workflow
Feb 19 (news and commentary)--myPicturetown got a bit of an update this week (hmm, services don't seem to use version numbers, so you can't say v1 versus v2; that hides the progression of features, which is I guess what they want). Specifically, myPicturetown now has links to Facebook and can Twitter about new albums that you create. There's also some new album designs and a couple of new security features for those who actually pay for the service (those that don't pay don't need security?).

But here's my problem. myPicturetown is actually growing the workflow hassle, not reducing it. Shoot>card. Card>computer. Computer>myPicturetown. myPicturetown>Facebook. Apparently no camera manufacturer other than the deceased Kodak has read my manifesto on socializing photos: Shoot>Anyplace with the migration happening automatically on connection using preferences or overrides you make on the camera. That's the workflow users want. Not Camera>Transfer>myPicturetown>Facebook.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good thing that Nikon is beginning to realize that photographers actually want their images to go somewhere other than a Nikon server. After removing the emailing option from ViewNX2, the howling protests got them to put it back and actually add a bit to the options on that. Now myPicturetown has some nascent Facebook and Twitter capabilities. Those are small steps in the right direction. But where's Flickr support? Oh, wait, that's a rival to myPicturetown ;~). Where's EasyShare? Uh-oh, another competitor. Where's Blurb, Shutterfly, and a ton of others?

Nikon is once again trying to find a lock up in which they can ensnare users. If you use Nikon Transfer, for instance, there's a myPicturetown option, but no Facebook option. You can't tag some images to be sent via email to someone as well as stored to your computer. No, you have to use another Nikon software product to do those things, and then you can only do the things that Nikon gets around to letting you do. That's not a good workflow solution.

Over ten years ago I gave a presentation to industry folk on the notion of hub. Cameras need to feed a hub and the hub needs to be where you manage all your workflow. The hub can't be two steps removed from the camera. The hub should be where the images go automatically. The hub should be extensible, and it should be capable of doing all the image management a user desires, regardless of what that is.

To some degree, iPhoto, Aperture, and Lightroom now come somewhat close to my hub concept. myPicturetown could get there, but as it is currently being developed, it's decidedly sub par. A hub, properly configured by its user, reduces workflow, not increases it.

Let me end on this note, which will probably be a surprise to many readers of this site (and unfortunately, a few camera makers): most images now live in the cloud. That's being driven by the images that are coming off camera phones, which need somewhere to go and the easiest place is to somewhere on the Internet. The hub for the youth is fast becoming not their home computer, but either the phone itself or some Web service, such as Facebook or Flickr. The workflow for taking an image on a phone is simpler than that of taking an image on a camera. Is it any wonder that compact camera demand is drying up? (And wait until the phone makers discover that accessory camera modules open up new revenue streams for them.)

True, many of you reading this are older, more conservative, and use more film-like linear workflows. Your images don't live in the cloud (partly because you can't afford to put thousands of those 36mp D800 images you're about to shoot into the cloud, and it would clog your Internet pipes if you tried. Still, the same concept of hub applies locally as well as remotely, and the popularity of Lightroom is a testament to that. Nikon needs to move the hub closer to the user if they want to play at software.

Why is the D700 Still in the Lineup?
Feb 19 (commentary)--Nikon's made it clear that they're still making D700's. Some are misinterpreting this to mean that a D700-like camera will stay in the lineup until it is directly replaced by something other than a D800.

I believe the reason why we're still getting new D700's is simple: the quake and flood. I'm pretty sure that Nikon ordered parts to make some fixed number of D700 units. They continue to make the camera because they haven't hit that number. The quake shut down Sendai, then caused them to redesign and change the plant, then some parts didn't come in because of the flood plus then they began early production of other new models at Sendai, which involves training and new procedures. All of which conspired to keep finished D700 models in short supply recently. But I don't think Nikon cancelled parts orders. In other words "we still have parts in stock or coming in, so we'll keep making them."

Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it gives us more FX options these days than ever before, and the D700 is still a very competent camera. It's playing the role of entry-FX even more so than before. But a lot of people are making the leap to "there will be a direct D700 replacement, too." I'm less sure of that. There should be one, but I'm not sure there will be one. Even if there eventually is something to fill its role as entry FX, that would still be more than a year off. Nikon has three other cameras to update first, and they're all DX.

So enjoy the extra FX option while it lasts.

Systems
Feb 19 (news)--byThom readers might be interested in an article I posted on sansmirror.com about what it means to select a "system" these days.

Nikon Shakes Up D800 Worshipers
Feb 17 (commentary)--If you haven't yet seen it, NikonUSA released a D800/D800E Technical Guide today. Based upon some of the early emails I'm getting, it's shook up a few of the faithful. As one reader queried me "does this mean I won't be able to handhold the D800?"

Oh dear.

There's nothing new in Nikon's document. As I've written for some time now, in order to achieve the best image quality these new high-end devices are capable of we as photographers have to get better at shot discipline. If you're sloppy in your shooting techniques, you'll get sloppy results. Indeed, if you think that just increasing a number (megapixels) gives you better images, you're naive. More megapixels might give you better images, but it doesn't guarantee it. Just like a Ferrari might allow you to get up the winding road to your hilltop home faster, but it doesn't guarantee it (fortunately cameras won't spin off the road and run into trees ;~).

We've actually gone through this dance twice before: once when the 6mp users finally got around to upgrading to the D7000, and once when everyone starting trying to use the D3x.

Anyone opting for a D800 who wants it to achieve the image quality it's capable of needs to:

  • Use good shot discipline.
  • Retire the inexpensive lenses they own that aren't up to the job.
  • Understand where diffraction begins to steal back acuity.
  • Learn how to focus accurately.

Exactly what I've been writing about for years. If you're worried, check out some of the Technique article links in the left column. Or read these two articles along with Nikon's new brochure:

Shot Discipline 1
Shot Discipline 2

Update: A D7000 isn't exactly a D800. Some people think that the pixel density is the primary factor requiring tight discipline and because those cameras are the same, shot discipline needs to be the same. Consider this: a 16mm lens on D7000 puts ~5000 pixels across 74 degrees, while a 24mm lens on a D800 puts ~7000 pixels across the same angle. Put another way, 1° of motion is 68 pixels on the D7000, 94 pixels on the D800. 1° on a D2h was just 33 pixels and 41 pixels on a D70, You've got to handle a D800 cleaner than a D7000 folks. At least if you're going to pixel peep to see how good the results are.

Update 2: A few people objected to my Update; "just raise the shutter speed" they said. But that's my point. If I'm in a situation where I need f/8 for DOF and the correct exposure is 1/125, I might not be able to raise my shutter speed unless I change something else, like ISO. This is what shot discipline is all about: running through all the negative factors that might impact your photograph and pick actions that will remove, mitigate, or compensate those factors.

Capture NX2.3.1
Feb 16 (news)--Nikon introduced a new version of Capture NX2 that's compatible with the upcoming D800 and D800E.

More on Moire
Feb 16 (commentary)--A recurring question in my In Box right now has to do with what subjects trigger moire.

Moire happens when your sampling frequency (sensor pitch) begins to coincide with the captured detail frequency (subject pitch). As you pass the Nyquist frequency, problematic artifacts are produced, moire and color fringing being common ones on Bayer systems.

However, nature is pretty random with frequencies while man isn't. Even things that look like exact patterns, like bird feathers or tree rings, usually aren't. They have some randomness to them much of the time, and thus when you shoot natural objects, the tendency to get large patches of moire is relatively low. It's possible, certainly, but in my experience, I've not photographed anything in the natural world where I've had an image ruined by moire. A few here and there that need some post processing touch up, but ruined, no.

That's not exactly true in the man-made world (especially the Western cultures). Buildings tend to have all kinds of repeating patterns. We typically build on grids and we use products that have fixed sizes. Exactly the type of thing that can trigger moire. Same thing applies to the clothes we wear: many are made with repeating weaves with fixed size threads. Another common problem occurs with hair, where you don't get large blocks of moire, but you do get color fringing and artifacts on edges.

It's not a coincidence that most of the moire examples you see in articles about it are one of three things: test charts, buildings, or fabrics. I have a screen door at my office that does a very nice job of showing moire when I need a sample.

So the question you have to ask yourself before removing the AA filter on a camera is this: what do I shoot? Is it things that tend to occur in nature and mostly randomly, or is it things that have man-made, non-random components to them? If the former, it's going to be rare that you have to worry about post processing moire, and it's also not likely to be large and highly destructive moire, at that. If the latter, you're going to encounter moire a lot more often, and it can be over very large areas and occur in ways that are much more difficult to remove visually.

That's a gross simplification, of course, but it's a good starting point from which to base a decision.

D3, D3s, D3x, D4, D700, D800, D800E, or Wait?
Feb 15 (commentary)--That headline seems to be the question of the month. More so than I think Nikon or anyone else expected, a lot of you have been planning to "eventually get to FX." You've been making your lens choices that way, often buying lenses that make some sense for both DX and FX use. The fact that Nikon seems to refuse to make a full range of DX lenses just adds to that customer tactic.

But some of you seem surprised that US$3000 is still the lowest price for an FX body. It's the sensor that does that. Sensor cost goes up rapidly with size. It used to be that it was $5, $50, $500 (compact, DX, FX). While those prices have changed a bit in relationship to one another, FX sensor prices are still very high and ultimately dictate the price of the product. Manufacturing rule of thumb is you multiply parts cost by 3.5 to get retail price impact, so a US$400 sensor means that there is US$1400 worth of cost in the final product implied by the sensor alone. You still need to put electronics, viewfinder, shutter, battery, body, LCD, controls, and more into the product.

So how did Sony manage a US$2000 FX body? By ignoring costs, basically. Their hope was that by underpricing cameras like the A850 they could get leverage in the high-end camera market. The strategy didn't work, and next time we see Sony in the full frame market, they'll take a somewhat different approach (EVF, for one thing).

Meanwhile, we've got what looks like Nikon's next generation of FX sitting in front of us, so Nikon users who were thinking about FX are all asking themselves the question in the headline. Let's take things backwards:

  • Wait. There's a chance that the camera that appears between the D7000 and D800 will be FX. Many think there won't be a camera between those, but I'm 100% sure there will be. The price gap is too large, and it's too easy for Canon, Sony, and Pentax to use that to advantage if it's not plugged. There needs to be a camera at somewhere between US$1700 and US$2000 in Nikon's lineup. The question is whether that will be a high-end DX or a low-end FX. History and price say that it will be DX and called a D400. But Nikon's been on an aggressive bent lately. It's not out of the question for them to pull an FX rabbit out of the hat. I just don't think it's very likely. If you're waiting for a US$2000 FX camera, you only have one clear option: buy something used.
  • D800E. I suspect demand for this is running higher than Nikon expected. Everything Nikon officials have said, plus the one month extra wait, all seem to indicate that they thought only a few would opt this way. Based upon talks with dealers and looking at what people say they did for preordering via my In Box, I'd say that at least a third of you are opting to go this route. My personal advice: unless you're primarily shooting something you know shouldn't be a big issue--basically landscapes--you shouldn't go this route. Shooting in and around cities and shooting people that aren't nude makes you susceptible to moire. Moreover, you're not likely to see it at capture time: you'd need to be constantly zooming the playback on the LCD to see it, and 36mp is a pretty big mess of pixels to try to examine closely on the 3.2" LCD. Simply put: removing moire is way harder than adding perceived acuity through sharpening. Way.
  • D800. The D700 upgraders keep getting hung up on the sensor. They have very good high ISO results on a pixel basis with their current camera, and they anticipate that they'll get far worse results with three times the pixels. Well, yes, if you look only on a per-pixel basis, that might be true (we won't know for sure until cameras are available). But if you blew up a D700 image to 36mp the per pixel results wouldn't look so great, either. This is a tricky subject, but the net is the same as the D3/D3x debate once was: using all the pixels, I'd pick the D3x over the D3 up to about ISO 800, the D3 above that. Using only 12mp sizes, the crossover gets pushed higher (for me, ISO 1600, but for others they'll take ISO 3200 from a downsized D3x image). One thing people are forgetting is that the D800 sensor is at least two generations newer than the D700's. Sensors are getting better. I think people are going to be surprised by the D800 sensor, but again, we must await cameras to test to verify that.
  • D700. At the moment, used D700s are running close to the price you can find one new (assuming you can even find one). As I wrote not too long ago, if you told me I could only have one camera, the D700 would be that choice. It produces high quality images, it's more compact than a D3 series body and thus more carryable in more situations, it has a solid, advanced feature set, and it's a workhorse. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a D700. A lot of you are expecting D700 used prices to plummet when the D800 hits. I'm not so sure. First, it's a damned good camera, and even US$2300 is enough different than US$3000 that the demand will stay high for D700s. Moreover, D800s are going to be in short supply for awhile, and there aren't that many D700's out there changing hands. No, I suspect the D700 will command at least D300s/D400 prices for the foreseeable future (currently it fetches more).
  • D4. Here's another connundrum. Is the D4 better than the D3s? Again people get stuck on the sensor, though here the answer is already a little clearer. I'm slowly coming round to the position that I'll shoot my D4 exactly the same as I did my D3s. Same ISO limits and expectations. There are some small caveats in there, as I do think channel response has changed slightly, but all evidence I see so far points me towards considering a D4 as being a D3s with 4mp more. Is that enough to make you switch? I have strong doubts about that. Yes, it gives you a bit more cropping flexibility, but the primary D3/D3s users probably will consider the changes to the focus and metering systems as being more substantive for their work. Add in the video and live view changes, and there's a lot to like. Subtract out the new battery and hefty price, and there's a lot to keep you from upgrading quickly. Even more so than the D800, the D4 is going to be in very short supply for the forseeable future. Unless you're already in a high position in a queue, you have plenty of time to consider what you'll do about this camera if it's in your target list.
  • D3x. Prior to last week, the D3x was the DSLR capable of producing the very best images at base ISO. This week, it might be number two. That's nothing to scoff at. It's a rock solid camera that produces exceptional results, even when pushed to some higher ISO values. I've shot wildlife with it at ISO 1600 and been pleased with the results. At ISO 800 and below it arguably holds its own against the other D3 models when you do apples-to-apples comparisons. I suspect we will eventually see prices drop on this camera on the used market, but not as fast or as far as most people are anticipating. #2 is still damned good, and landscapers who have it shouldn't be in a big hurry to drop this fine camera. Price is a component of supply and demand. Supply has always been low. Demand is still reasonably high. For the life of me, I still don't know why Nikon priced it so high in the first place, but it's more than paid for itself in my book. Over the long term, as the D800 becomes available off the shelf (and assuming it's as good as we expect), the D3x will see large drops in its used value. That doesn't mean it will be cheap.
  • D3s. Still state of the art at high ISO values. Where the D3x dropped to #2 camera at something with the D800E intro, the D3s remains #1 (now tied) despite the D4 introduction. Yes, you can now get more pixels and better video and some nice tweaks in focus, exposure, and live view. But is that worth the upgrade price and hassle? I can't answer that, only you can (if you're in this position). The battery change didn't make the decision any easier, and it made it less likely that people want mixed D3/D4 bags. I expect D3s bodies to stay popular for some time, and command fairly high prices on the used market.
  • D3. The D3 slipped to #2 at high ISO work when the D3s came out. You need to think of this camera in conjunction with the D700, as they use the same sensor and generate the same results. At the moment, if you look closely, you can pick up a used D3 for about US$800 more than a used D700 from the reputable sellers (e.g. KEH). For that US$800 you get a more solid body, the vertical grip, a bigger battery (by far), faster frame rates, a 100% viewfinder, and more. For a lot of you who decided that the used market is where you'll go to move up to FX, the D3 is a very tempting camera, and I think that's going to continue to be for some time.
  • Wait. Hey, didn't I already cover that? Well, here the "wait" is about what's next in the D4 line. Will there be a D4s, a D4x, a D800 with the D4 sensor? Well, yes, probably yes to all of those. But not any time soon. Nikon has its hands full for 2012 just trying to build what they've announced. If you look at historical patterns, Nikon uses two-year refresh cycles on the high-end products (though the D700 appeared a year after the D3). So best case: D4 sensor in a D800 body in 2013, D4s/D4x in 2014. Worst case? D4s in 2014, no other FX models in the interim.

Thus, if you accept what I just wrote as being likely, and if you don't believe a D400 will be FX, then all your choices are laid out in front of you today and you should be able to make an intelligent choice just as soon as the initial image quality verifications start to hit.

We are indeed in a sweet spot for FX shooters. Maybe not sweet in terms of pricing, but certainly sweet in terms of our options. We have six different Nikon FX bodies, any one of which I'd be happy to shoot with for the next couple of years.

Nikon View NX2 Updated
Feb 15 (news)--View NX2 was updated to include support for the D800 cameras as well as provide full 64-bit support to both Windows and Macintosh versions. Other changes include the ability to send original files via email, set margins in the print function, and Save/Save As has been added to the File menu. Some bug fixes were made, as well.

Now if we could only say the same for Message Center 2: "There are no updates available at this moment." I can't remember the last time that Message Center actually found an update before I did. You'd think it would be the other way around.

Corrections and Clarifications and Comments
Feb 12 (commentary)--It's been a busy month, and I'm still trying to dig out and get everything cleaned up and some projects I've been working on finished. However, I slipped up on a few things, so let's correct them. Plus I didn't make clear enough explanations or comments on a few others. Here's my quick make-up session:

  • Sendai. The D800 is indeed made in Sendai. That's what I originally wrote and asserted, but somewhere in the launch excitement I wrote Thailand (which was one of the main places where it was launched). Sendai is assembling both the D800 and D4, as expected. Capacity--at least for a single shift--seems to be about the same as in the D3/D700 era: 5k D4 units a month, 30k D800 units a month. To my knowledge, Nikon is only running one shift at Sendai at the moment.
  • D800E. I haven't been perfectly clear on this: there is indeed a filter on the D800E, it's just not Nikon's traditional two-stage antialiasing filter. I've been having a hard time tracking down an absolute answer on what that D800E filter does. Rob Galbraith wrote that it blurs verically and then deblurs, while the non-E model blurs horizontallly and then blurs vertically. I've gotten conflicting answers out of Nikon sources, but I believe Galbraith is correct: the front stage of the filter on the D800E is part of an optical system in the filter itself.
  • D800 versus D700. Do me a favor. Forget about the sensor. Pretend for a moment that they have the same exact sensor, but all the other features stay the same for each model. Which one do you want? Right. Thought so. The notion that the D800 isn't an upgrade for D700 users is mistaken. It is. Clearly it is (video, exposure, focus, new menu features, better Live View, etc.). Most of the complaints are about two things: (1) pixel-level noise likelihood at high ISO values; and (2) file size. I can't do anything about #2 (though see next point). I'd also say it's premature to make conclusions about #1. We went through this same thing with the D3 versus D3x, though there the controversy centered on the cost differential for reduced pixel-level integrity at high-ISO values.
  • D800 "sizes". A lot of people seem confused by "size" versus "crop." The D800 supports Large, Medium, and Small sizes for JPEG and TIFF. It supports 1.2x and DX (1.5x) crops for NEF, JPEG, and TIFF. Can you shoot an image that stores in a smaller number of MBs? Sure. With JPEG and TIFF pick the smaller sizes, which downsample from the full frame. With NEF, it's trickier: you can pick a smaller frame crop to get smaller sized files, but you're also cropping from the full sensor, not downsampling.
  • Lenses. Everyone seems to want a list of "D800-approved" lenses. There will never be such a thing. Absolutely nothing has changed from my Rationalizing Lenses article just because someone sprinkled in a few more megapixels. A good lens is still a good lens. A poor lens is still a poor lens.
  • D4 Delivery date. I had heard in an interview with a Nikon executive last week that the D4 delivery date was being moved, but didn't report it at the time (call it a senior moment). I've now heard three different reasons for the delay from three different sources, but I don't think the reason is important. The net is that deliveries will start in mid-March instead of mid-February. Disappointing, yes. But Nikon doesn't make such delays unless they discovered something that is better dealt with before the camera ships. I trust that they're trying to make our initial D4 experiences top grade.
  • WiFi. It appears the D800 can't use the new WT-5 transceiver. This has caused a lot of whining. But there's a simple solution: use an Eye-Fi card, which the D800 supports. It's actually a cheaper and simpler solution. But transferring 75MB raw files isn't going to be fun over WiFi no matter how you do it, especially if you're shooting continuously.
  • Lenses. Conspicuously absent so far in 2012 are lens announcements. One with the D4, none with the D800. I'm sure we'll get some when the D400 and other stuff rolls later this year, but I'm now very, very worried that Nikon doesn't understand lenses. Still not much in the way of DX wide angle options (two zooms). Still missing in action updates (notably 80-400mm, but there are more). But here's the big one that shows that Nikon doesn't get it: no lenses ready for video. If the D4/D800 are such great video cameras, does Nikon really expect us to use them with contrast AF? Where are the geared focus rings? Yes, I know that I can buy plenty of add-on choices here, some of which are okay. But Nikon isn't driving the car here, they're assuming we'll get there on our own. When you abdicate like that, you'd better watch out: the user may drive somewhere else. For example, I find my Zeiss lenses more suitable to third-party modification for video, not my Nikkors. Oops.

The Show's Over
Feb 12 (commentary)--With PMA, CES, and CP+ out of the way, the big shows where companies want to make a splash are out of the way until Photokina this fall. So the question is this: what didn't get announced? In no particular order:

  • Canon DSLRs. The 5DIII, in particular, is noticeably missing from the launch frenzy. I suspect that they were trying to steer clear of Nikon's D800 announcement. It'll come soon enough.
  • Nikon lenses. Did the quake really disrupt glass this much? We've had three lenses in 17 months, where Nikon's average would tend to imply we should have had nine. (I don't count the Nikon 1 lenses because they're made in China, not the main Nikon glass plant.) Beyond the fact that Nikon isn't pushing out lenses, it also isn't filling in absolutely necessary gaps in their lens lineup. Of the last 10 lenses, we got six modest refreshes and two consumer superzooms. Nikon isn't even at parity with Canon on speciality lenses, but the m4/3 crowd is proving just how bad Nikon's judgment is for DX: no 24mm equivalent, no 85mm portrait equivalent, and more missing options.
  • D400. It's coming. Best guess? April announce, May ship. Even that's cutting it awful close to the D4/D800 launches. Nikon's going to be scrambling early this year to get everything that was delayed launched with some appropriate noise and efficiency.
  • Capture NX3. I have no solid idea about schedule for this or what it might comprise. If Nikon themselves are doing it, they're not known for being a quick software developer. We just got a 64-bit version of NX2, after all.
  • Canon mirrorless. The G1X is an interesting stop gap, but it doesn't completely plug the hole. Moreover, it won't be counted when market shares are determined in the interchangeable lens category, which could be problematic to the way people perceive Canon. They've owned interchangeable lens cameras for a long time, with a near 50% share. This is a moment of weakness for them, and others will pounce on it.
  • Sony ship announcement. I was surprised that Sony didn't try to make a big deal at CP+ to re-launch the A77 and NEX-7, which got lost in the Thailand floods. They should have re-announced them and how shipping will unfold.
  • Leica. Not surprisingly, as a European company they'll wait until Photokina for their big news.
  • Panasonic GH3. It's coming, but not for awhile yet. Panasonic was reasonably quiet for a show on their home turf when they just had a very successful year in country. Pre-announced lenses under glass isn't a very effective presentation, IMHO.
  • Samsung. The NX11 replacement is still MIA. But given Samsung's low sales numbers for their mirrorless camera (120,000 a year), I understand. Something's not quite right (marketing and sales, IMHO), and they need to fix that, not iterate a bunch of products.

Right now we're in delivery time. Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax all have important already announced products they now need to get into consumers' hands. Think of it as waves. We've had the first wave of announcements for the year and those products will be washing up on our shores shortly. Another wave comes probably in April, another in July/August, and because of Photokina, one last wave in fall.

Camera Control Pro 2.10.0
Feb 12 (news)--With the D4 out in the field in a few hands and nearing release, Camera Control Pro was updated to support it. Movie gets its own camera function tab, too. For Mac users, Lion (10.7) is now officially supported.

Meanwhile, Nikon has also added D4 support to the NEF Codec for Windows, now at version 1.13.0.

Yes, I'm Aware
Feb 12 (commentary)--A few of you have been asking why I haven't commented on a couple of topics recently. For example, the halting of parts sales to independent repair stations or the strangely high price of the MB-D12 grip for the D800 (especially if you want faster frame rates and thus need the D4 battery).

Sometimes there are other things I'm working on where commenting about a topic makes more sense when I complete those articles.

How Good is the Q, II?
Feb 9 (commentary)--Still not my words. But I love it when I get engineers talking ;~):

  • diffraction limited spot size = 2.44 * wavelength * fno
     
    Which means Q = spot size / (2.44 * pixel pitch)
     
    If spot size = 2.44 times pixel pitch, Q=1.
     
    For the D800E, there will be a steady loss of resolution above f/8.9

You Knew I Was Going to Say Something
Feb 9 (commentary)--Kodak's disclosure today that they were getting out of the camera and digital frame business seems like a shock, but it isn't. Most of us had predicted that for some time now. I believe I first wrote that the end was inevitable for Kodak cameras when they bought Chinon a number of years ago. I'm a little surprised it took this long to close the door.

I believe Kodak's management is more clueless today than it was at the end of the film era when it needed to transition to digital. Paper printing and print kiosks are where they're putting the last stake in the ground. I'm not even sure they'll get that stake fully secured before the steam roller hits it.

The future of displaying images isn't on paper. The print kiosk business is slowly dying, so being a big player there is just another dinosaur business and delays the inevitable. Two technologies are pushing forward for display of images: LCDs (dynamic) and E-Ink (static). Kodak has almost no skin in either game. The skin they did have--digital frames (LCDs in frames)--wasn't very much to start with, but now it's gone.

The future for images is clearly cloud-stored, wireless displayed on whatever device screen you desire. It is not "print it on paper."

Note that I'm not saying that paper will go away any time soon. Just as the US Postal Service hasn't gone away because of email, paper will stick around for quite some time. The problem is the same one as the USPS has, though: the primary driver of volume and profit (letters for mail, prints for photos) is moving to a new medium (email for mail, displays for photos). These kinds of transitions tend to leave a smaller, less profitable, and non-growing market behind. But that's exactly where Kodak just placed its bets: on smaller, less profitable, and slow-or-no-growth markets. Meanwhile, they couldn't wean themselves off the high profit margins in film, even as that market dramatically shrinks, so they kept that bit of the company.

Kodak is now on Death Watch, AFAIC. To win in printers, they have to beat HP, Lexmark, Epson, Brother, and Canon, who will all definitely fight hard to protect their territory. Worldwide, those companies were about 85% of the printer market in 2010, and year-to-year growth is modest (maybe 15%). This is no different than the challenge in cameras: there you have to beat Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Olympus, and others that hold more than 80% of the market, and the year-to-year growth is non-existent. I don't see a lot of difference in the market Kodak chose to exit versus the one it choose to stay in.

Kodak's strategy seems to be "we were too late with the right things for the game in market 1, let's see if that's true in market 2" (it is) and "Keep the things that still have higher profit margins and hold on as long as we can" (which probably won't be long).

Kodak's best business still in the fold is the higher-end commercial printing business, but it's not a big enough business for anything like the old Kodak to survive. Indeed, last year Kodak was projecting something near US$6b in business in 2011 (they're not going to make it). Their projection for the core businesses they now plan to keep was US$2b in 2013 (not clear they'll make that). In the 9-month year-to-year results for 2010 and 2011, we find that they've slipped 18% in sales but increased 2% in cost of sales. That's before we get to all the corporate stuff like admin, R&D, restructuring, etc.

The best case I see is a Kodak that's less than one-third its size at the start of last year, that's not overly profitable, has only modest growth, and will have to use patent sale revenue to pay back the debtor-in-bankruptcy and restructuring charges.

Short story: Kodak never solved its management decisionmaking problems. It's still making them.

How Good is the Q?
Feb 8 (commentary)--I'm going to let someone else do the talking:

"I’ve spent the past 45 years involved in the analysis and design trades of spaceborne imaging systems (like the earth viewing Geoeye-1 telescope in orbit today), and Q is a wonderful, insightful and useful parameter. Q can be shown to be equal to wavelength x fno / pixel pitch. If we ignore the use of Bayer filtered pixels and do the calculation on a monochromatic basis (without a de-aliasing filter), for a Q=2 D800E (fully satisfying the Nyquist criterion at 0.55 microns), the fno turns out to be f/17.7. Thus an f/8.9 lens aperture setting on the D800E gives you a Q=1 system, which makes the D800E equivalent from a sampling standpoint to the Geoeye-1 telescope (which has a Q=0.95). In fact, many spaceborne imagers are about Q=1, which has turned out over the years to be a good compromise between resolution (NIIRS, if you are familiar with the government image quality measure) and low light performance (i.e. , SNR). And it’s interesting to note that the use of a lens set at f/8 (often the aperture that delivers the best quality image – i.e., best MTF) dovetails nicely with the achievement of a Q=1 D800E imaging camera.
 
So one could consider theD800E, at f/8, to be a miniature Geoeye-1 telescopic camera. The D800E has hit the traditional sweet spot for earth imaging satellite systems!"

Miss Conceptions and Mister Correction
Feb 7 (commentary)--The D800 announcement (see below) is causing some misconceptions to be espoused, so let's cut that off before it becomes Internet Truth:

  • 36mp makes the D800 a Medium Format camera. No, it doesn't. It means it has about as many pixels as some older and lower cost MF digital backs, but it doesn't elevate a D800 to "medium format." For the same reasons that we used MF in film, some continue to do so in digital: less magnification for same print size, differences in lenses for larger versus smaller formats, plus a new one in the digital age, more true bits of data per sampling point.
  • The D800E should be cheaper because it removes something. No, it replaces something. What happens in the AA/IR filter, microlenses, and Bayer filtration is a very complex optical dance. You cant remove the AA filter and expect to shoot--the focal plane would have moved and the optical paths trying to make light telecentric would have changed. The D800E has a different filter than the D800, one without an anti-aliasing component. As to why it is more expensive, that's going to be an embarrassment to Nikon, I think: they predicted they'd make far fewer D800E's than D800's, thus it would cost them more (both in parts and in all the things associated with an item sold in lower quantities, e.g. inventory costs). I predict they'll be wrong. Completely wrong. Of course, Nikon gets the last word here, because they can't make more D800E's than they order parts for ;~). That leads me to a prediction: the D800E will be a constant sell-out.
  • You won't see any resolution improvement because lenses aren't good enough. Wrong. You'll see improvement, the question is how much and what you'll see. Let's just pretend for a moment that all lenses are perfect in the central area. More pixels will mean that the central area stays nice and truly resolves what the increase in pixels implies, but the corners will look worse, ironically because the sensor is resolving how much worse the corner is than the center. But even with the visually worse-looking corners, you're probably still resolving more.
  • Corollary: you need lenses that resolve 100 line pair per millimeter on the D800. From one standpoint, yes, you do. If you want to obtain all the gain that moving from 24mp (D3x) to 36mp (D800) implies, you'd need lenses that resolve somewhere near 100lppmm versus 80lppmm. This is one of the reasons why I wrote previously that we're entering into the realm of declining returns. Going from 3mp to 12mp was a big, dramatic change, and no other component started to hold back the gain from the sensor itself. Going from 12mp to 24mp was reasonably big, and again no other component really hurt you much, though some lower-end lenses definitely showed their shortcomings. Going from 24mp to 36mp is not so big, and now we do have other issues starting to keep us from getting all the gain we expect, with lenses being potentially one of them.
  • Not much new over the D700. Untrue. The skin may be (mostly) the same, but underneath virtually everything is new. For the most part, it's a D4 with a different sensor in a different body. If they had just stuck the same 12mp sensor into the D800 I'd still call it a substantial upgrade from the D700.
  • You can't buy an AA filter for the front of the lens. It's been a long time since I looked, but last time I did, yes, you could. But it's very expensive, hard to find, and doesn't quite produce the same results as having the AA at the sensor.

How Not to Implement "Communicating"
Feb 7 (commentary)--I'm doing this mostly from press release materials, but I think I've got this right. Canon today announced a couple of WiFi equipped compact cameras. One of the headlines in their press release was "Sharing made easy," so of course that catches my attention.

The good news is that you can upload to iOS devices (iPhone, iPad) and the Canon CameraWindow application can then share to Facebook, YouTube, or via email. The bad news is that Canon has also launched Canon Image Gateway (CIG), which is where they want you to really put your images (and then share them socially from there). (Nikon has a similar myPicturetown, which I'm sure will be the destination for any WiFi equipped Coolpix.) Indeed, CIG is the simplest "communicating" function the cameras support: no computer or other device necessary, you just need access to a Wifi network.

Put another way, this is "hey, we want some of that social networking and cloud pie." The problem with this is that it's the wrong approach, and always has been. Proprietary gateways are just another workflow block that complicates the user's life. The camera phones are educating users to take a picture, then press a button to say where it should go. Simple. That's different than "take a picture, upload it to someplace else, then tell us where you want it to go." Indeed, when phrased that way, all we're really taking out is the card reader or USB cable to replace it with WiFi, and we're adding a new proprietary program that's not the one you're already using (iPhoto, Lightroom, etc.).

So let me state it emphatically: if your primary business is selling hardware, your goal on the software side is to be agnostic and simplifying. This is actually one of the reasons why "programmable" is part of my Camera Redefined definition: if you truly have an open API, the social sites can all provide their own solution (program) for you. Again, that's what's happened on the phones/tablets, and that has progressed to "bundle applications" as well as add-on applications.

None of the Japanese camera companies have proven to be a good software developer (other than perhaps camera firmware, and even there I have some major quibbles). That they think that they can keep up with operating system changeovers (Nikon certainly can't) is laughable, but that they think they can program at Internet pace is so absurd I'm wondering if I've woken into a parallel universe.

And Now For What We've All Been Waiting
Feb 7 (news and commentary)--Nikon today announced the D800, the 36mp replacement for the 12mp D700. I phrase it that way because this followup does seem a bit odd in the pixel department. We now have the D800 leapfrogging both the D3x and D4 and everything else that's in a DSLR body, and not by a small margin. That has to raise eyebrows.

My full comments are available in a separate article on the D800 announcement, just as I did with the D4.

I've been regularly polling Nikon DSLR users since the D700 came out about what they wanted for a replacement. Half say they wanted an x version (more pixels), the other half want an s version (high ISO capability). Thus, getting an x-on-steroids version is going to definitely rattle quite a few folk.

Given the long lead times on tangible camera updates (not the minor stuff we often see at the low consumer end and in compacts), I suspect Nikon simply picked something that they figured would guarantee that a Canon 5DIII wouldn't top. But I think there's more to it than that, as you'll see in my D800 introduction article.

More later as I get caught up today on all the news (there's a lot going on this week).

The Stabilized 24-70mm
Feb 6 (news)--Tamron beat Nikon to a stabilized 24-70mm that covers the FX sensor format. The new Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD was announced prior to the CP+ show this week in Japan. It features 17 elements in 12 groups, with eight of those elements being special formulations (aspherical, ED-type, and high-refractive glass). The lens has a built-in focus motor, so works with any Nikon DSLR. Close focus is 15" (0.38m) and maximum magnification works out to be 1:5. At almost two pounds (29 ounces, 835g) the lens is no lightweight contender. 82mm filter size, and comes with petal hood. No word on price or availability yet.

Software Updates
Feb 6 (news)--I'm a little behind on new software and updates, but fortunately, there hasn't been an overwhelming amount to catch up on:

IOS: ShutterSnitch 2.2.0 recognizes personal hotspots, adds a rotation gesture, and fixes a few things. Timelapse Video Recorder is a simple app that mimics Nikon's Intervalometer feature (but has a far better interface for timelapse definition).

Computer: SubRosaSoft updated CameraSalvage to 7.5, gaining some operating system compatibility and updating their scan and recovery engine. Topaz Labs released Star Effects, a plug-in that creates radiant lighting and star effects. Digital Film Tools' Film Stocks is a plug in that mimics 288 color and black and white film stocks. DxO Labs released DxO Optics Pro 7.2 with a lot of new m4/3 camera support, plus new lens definitions. Akvis released version 1.5 of Refocus, adding support for raw files, new presets, and more. Adobe renamed Carousel--it's now called Adobe Revel--and updated it to version 1.1. Eye-Fi updated their firmware for X2 cards to version 5.001.

Mac-only: GraphicConverter 7.6 adds a bunch of adjustment tools, network scanner support, and bug fixes. PhotoSweeper 1.4 adds Aperture support and improved performance to their duplicate image finder. Exif Editor 1.0.5 adds support for many new tags and an option to remove all EXIF data. Photo Transformer 1.0 is a new photo manager that organizes photos on your computer no matter where they're physically located.

Windows-only: Photodex released Version 5 of ProShow Producer and Pro-Show Gold, my recommended slide show generator for Windows, with a new UI and lots of new features, some of them major.

Not Many Could Do This
Feb 3 (commentary)--As most of you regular readers know, I'm very hard on Nikon when they do the wrong thing. Today, I'm going to balance that with a different thought.

In less than one year, Nikon has completely replaced its entire DSLR manufacturing capacity while increasing DSLR production.

They hadn't planned to do that. They were forced to, first with the quake in Sendai, then with the floods in Thailand. Both plants have had a floor to ceiling redo. Both plants were closed without warning for at least a month. Both plants got new equipment, and not little things like screwdrivers and shelving, but big things like machines that make complex camera parts or do intricate alignments. It's an impressive accomplishment and should be heralded. How many multi-billion dollar companies do you know that lose their entire production capacity to disaster yet still manage to increase sales and operating profits in that year? Any? Bueller?

Yet, contemplate this: during that same year we've had a constant stream of whining from users: the D4 is late, where's the D700 replacement, where's the D400 replacement, how come there aren't any D5100's on my dealer's shelves, how come my D7000 needs a focus adjustment?

So let's get real for a moment. Nikon accomplished something downright amazing in the past eleven months. We shouldn't be criticizing them at the moment, we should be praising them. They made an incredible response to an overwhelming set of problems they weren't expecting. Their business contingency plans worked.

Now, six months down the road from now if you can't find the Nikon product you want on your dealer's shelves or if quality control slips noticeably, maybe then you can complain. But right now, anyone not 100% impressed by what Nikon accomplished should just stay quiet for awhile.

Fewer DSLRs, More Coolpix
Feb 3 (news and commentary)--Nikon reported their third quarter results today, and they're much as expected. The floods in Thailand completely shut down DSLR production there for over a month, and it didn't resume at all in the original plant until early January. Production won't hit "normal" again until late March.

That explains the drop in DSLR sales from 1.25m to 940m units year-to-year (for the quarter). Overall, though, DSLR unit sales are still up for the full nine-months that have been reported (3.67m compared to last year's 3.15m). Lens sales reflected the same trend (many popular consumer lenses are made in Thailand): 1.63m this year's quarter compared to last year's 1.85m, but for the full nine months 5.56m units compared to last year's 4.8m. Simply put, we're seeing what happens when a key plant is closed for a quarter.

On the other hand, Nikon sold compact cameras like there was no slump in compact camera sales. Nikon sold 6m Coolpix in the quarter compared to 4.9m in the same quarter last year. That's the most Coolpix they've ever sold in a quarter. For the full nine months, we're at 13.87m versus 11.6m, an 18% increase in unit volume.

That said, Nikon's forward projections for the full year (which ends at the end of March for them) is still aggressive. In fact, it's more aggressive than it was before the floods in Thailand: 4.7m DSLRs (same as before), 6.9m lenses (up .2m), and 17m Coolpix (up 1m). Translated into market share: DSLRs 31%, compacts 17%, for an overall camera market share of 19%.

The quake and flood also forced Nikon to up their capital investment by US$920m to replace equipment, but curiously R&D spending just took a big jump, too, hitting 7.7% of sales.

For those worried about prices, Nikon is projecting the yen/dollar ratio at 75 this quarter, and the yen/Euro at 100. As I write this, I'm seeing 76.26 and 100.3391 as the current ratios. As long as those exchange rates hold within 3% or so, I doubt we'll see any further price adjustments. Indeed, it appears from their statements that Nikon will be more aggressive in pricing in the Coolpix and Nikon 1 lineups shortly.

With the big Japanese consumer electronics companies mostly showing losses for the year (e.g. Sony), Nikon is projecting a bigger profit for the year than last, despite the highly down third quarter (-3.7b loss). Nikon actually upped their projected full year profit a bit.

Finally, an update on one key metric we all need to be cognisant of: 63% of Nikon's overall sales this year will come from cameras and lenses. I've been noting that Nikon is "two-thirds" a camera company and the only camera company that's actually mostly a camera company (all the others are massive conglomerates of which cameras are a small fraction of their overall business). So goes the camera business, so goes Nikon.

With the overall unit volume in cameras trending mildly downwards, that means that for Nikon to continue to grow they have to take market share from others. They've been doing just that in compact camera sales. While the fiscal years of Canon and Nikon are off by three months and that makes exact comparisons nearly impossible, Nikon predicts it has 17% of the compact market and Canon just reported 18.7%. That's getting remarkably too close for comfort. Of course the devil is in the details, because both those numbers would reflect what they shipped into subsidiaries, not what was actually sold to consumers. Still, I don't think Canon ever thought Nikon would challenge them in compacts, and now they are. This has to be worrying to Sony, Panasonic, and Fujifilm, as well, as Nikon's gains are coming at the expense of others.

More on More
Feb 1 (commentary)--After getting a few comments on this morning's earlier article, I decided to do a bit of SKU snooping on B&H. Here's what I found in the compact camera range (including the latest announcements, which are already live; I took out the X100 and any B&H "kits"):

  • Olympus: 37 compacts
  • Canon: 54 compacts
  • Fujifilm: 59 compacts (I took out the X100)
  • Sony: 60 compacts
  • Panasonic: 62 compacts
  • Nikon: 71 compacts

Put another way, if you were looking for a compact camera you'd have a choice of 343 camera/color combinations, most of them in the US$200-400 price range. Moreover, you can find fault with any of these cameras. Oh, yeah, that one over there has a faster lens, but this one has GPS, yet that one has more focal range, and yet another one has more (or better [BSI]) pixels... The list goes on and on.

So if you asked a camera salesperson "which one is best" you're going to get a random answer at best, too. More than likely, you'll get sold on the one that's in stock ("The XYZ is the best of the bunch, but we only have it in black").

Someone suggested that all this was just a way to get rid of dealers and push everything through Amazon and a few big boxes. Maybe, but Amazon wants bigger discounts than dealers, so on top of all the other woes the compact camera makers have, they'd be getting pressed for lower product margins, too.

Yet in browsing through all these 300+ cameras I was struck by one thing: almost none of them (it might actually be none) actually do what I would want of an entry level camera. That's: let me put my image where I want it. Not on a card in the camera, but on a Web site, in an email, onto my digital picture frame, over onto my phone or tablet. Instead, they include ridiculous things like an HDMI connector, so that I can trip over expensive cords while I manually thumb through my images on my TV only to discover that the battery goes dead in the middle of showing them off. Are you kidding me? That's part of what constitutes a correct entry level design? (Go ahead, try it with yours. I'll wait for you to find the right cable [there are three possibilities], find an open HDMI In on the back of your TV, and start up your slide show. I might be waiting awhile, though ;~)

It's as if the camera makers either have no imagination about what a user might want, or are afraid to try making something that meets those wants. Maybe both. And then they wonder why compact camera sales are getting pummelled by camera phones.

How about this as a design goal: Design a US$400 product that takes far better pictures than a camera phone, has more flexible user control/options (that are photographically motivated), and offers all the programmability and workflow (communications) capabilities that make getting a picture to where you want it easy? Is it really that hard to do? Or will we get another 300+ iterated compact camera designs before someone stumbles on getting it partially right?

More
Feb 1 (news)--So it looks like we now know how Nikon is going to address the fast collapsing compact camera market: more. More pixels, more focal length, more technology, more DSLR-like looks. The Coolpix P510 is the best example of that: 16mp, 24-1000mm f/3-5.6 lens (yes, you read that right), built-in GPS, and a clear DSLR styling.

That's right, it's that time of year. Nikon's new Coolpix line (Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, and others have been introducing their new compact lines, as well) now includes these new models: P310, P510, S30, S2600*, S3300, S4300, S6300, S9300, L25*, L26, L310*, and L810. *=not US market.

Other than some obvious trends towards "more," much of the rest remains the same amongst the 12 Coolpix just introduced. Indeed, one way of looking at the introductions was what didn't get updated: S100, S1200pj, S8200, AW100, and P7100. Coupled with the new models, the carry-over cameras--some of which are certainly just carry overs until their inventory sells out--now amount to 23 Coolpix cameras here in the US. Yeah, more.

It appears Nikon's strategy is to continue to flood the market with iterated choices and let buyers pick older models on price or newer models on "more." But let's look at the absurdity for a moment: with color variations, a potential Coolpix buyer is facing 79 choices here in the US. What dealer in their right mind is going to stock all those?

Tokina Updates 11-16mm
Jan
25 (news)--The Tokina 11-16mm gets a refresh with slight optical change (new aspherical element), new lens coating, and an internal focus motor. The AT-X 116 Pro DX II will be available in late March.

Discontinued in Japan
Jan
25 (news)--New battery regulations in Japan, along with the end of life cycle itself, have prompted Nikon to stop selling the D300s and D700 there, and these models have been moved to the Discontinued camera list on the Nikon Japan sites.

Given next week's big camera trade show in Japan, don't be surprised if new models get announced. Nikon isn't likely to leave a huge gap between the D7000 and D4 open for very long.

Snap Results
Jan
24 (commentary)--This commentary appears on both sites.

At the point where I had 1500 responses to my How Far We've Come survey (which happened in a few hours) I decided to take a peak at the results.

First, some background stats. 44% of respondents owned one DSLR, while 51% owned two or more (95% owned at least one DSLR). 24% of the respondents owned at least one mirrorless camera. This biases the results a bit, as it implies that many of the people taking the survey don't have experience with mirrorless. Nevertheless, I was going after people's impressions, not what they've discovered in shooting. The survey takers are a group that shoots a lot of images, though. Over 50% said they've taken more than a 1000 images in a single month some time in the last couple of years. Indeed, 14% of those said they had a month where they took more 10,000 images. I'm not sure I have had such a month in the last couple of years.

So here are the breakdowns of the head-to-head comparisons:

  • 2002: 89% chose V1 (mirrorless), 11% chose D100 (DSLR)
  • 2003: 92% chose E-P3 (mirrorless), 8% chose E-1 (DSLR)
  • 2004: 96% chose NEX-7 (mirrorless), 4% chose Maxxum 7D (DSLR)
  • 2007: 64% chose V1 (mirrorless), 36% chose D80 (DSLR)
  • 2009: 83% chose D90 (DSLR), 17% chose V1 (mirrorless)

My comments in the article seem to be validated by the results (even though this wasn't a scientifically accurate poll, especially since I gave my answer before surveying): most of us would have indeed chosen a V1 over a D100 if we had been offered one in 2002. And it seems like most of you think that the high-consumer V1 mirrorless is about equivalent to the high-consumer DSLR of about 2008 (four years ago).

I'll leave you to make of that what you wish. My original article was intended to provoke people to really think about where we are versus where we've been.

Sensor Madness
Jan 24
(commentary)--It seems like every time that someone announces a non-Bayer sensor the Internet gets all abuzz with hyperbole and overfed expectations. The latest Sony story got picked up on 14 RSS feeds I monitor (and rising).

Sony's announcement was about an RGBW sensor. The W is "no filter." Besides the fact that it's a bit of a replay of the Kodak Monochrome arrangement announced a couple of years back, you don't abandon Bayer without having other implications. While a non-filtered photosite does give you more luminance data, that only helps when it doesn't clip ;~). In bright situations, it's likely to clip. Indeed, if you set your W exposure so it doesn't clip, then you have trouble with color, where there will be more noise (chroma noise, the worst kind).

Others were excited because they thought Sony's announcement would impact serious cameras. Not likely. What most didn't notice (because they got summaries of English translations) is that this new sensor is attempting to give 1.4 micron photosite performance in a 1.1 micron photosite. In other words, camera phones and compact camera sensors with more pixels, but "same" image quality. Only problem is, it won't be same image quality for reasons noted above.

Sensor progress is relatively constant. We get small gains in efficiency, read noise, light gates, photosite isolation, well capacity, microlenses, or any of the other elements that already exist in our sensors as we've got a huge number of organizations iterating those things.

To get a big bump instead of the small steps forward we're used to, I think it's going to take one of the disruptive technologies lurking in the background: quantum dots, full color photosites, light field microlenses, or perhaps moving from silicon to another more expensive and harder to work with material. Don't worry, you'll know it when it happens, as we'll likely make a bigger than D3 step forward when it occurs.

Let me flip that to another context more relevant to this site: what if the D4 is simply equivalent to the D3s sensor with 15% more resolution? In other words, very equivalent results, but a marginal move forward in number of pixels. That's the level of change we typically see in sensors in a two-to-four year stretch. Not a bad change at all, but not the over hyped type of change that gets stirred up every time we have a "new sensor design" announced on the Web.

How Far We've Come
Jan
23 (commentary)--This commentary appears on both sites.

I've been struck lately by the polarization in attitude about mirrorless cameras. There's one group that thinks they're the best things since sliced bread. There's another group that thinks they're simply not good enough and should be avoided like the plague.

I have a simple test to see whether you actually believe what you think you believe.

Let's teleport back to 2002. I'm going to offer you a free D100 with its then available lenses or a free Nikon V1 with its now available lenses plus FT1 adapter. I'm pretty confident that you'll pick the V1. It has faster and better AF, faster frame rates, better metering, 4 million more pixels, better high ISO capability, and a host of other improvements. Personally, I'd pick the V1.

Okay, fair enough, that was ten years ago, how about fast forwarding five years to 2007. Now I'll offer you a free D80 or a free V1. I'm still pretty confident that you'd take the V1. Okay, let's move a bit more forward, to 2009. You can have a free V1, D5000, or D90. Finally the choice gets a little more difficult, though I suspect that your answers would polarize towards the V1 and D90. (Let's check that. Here's a survey you can take to see if you agree.)

So here's a question: if today's smallest sensor mirrorless camera is better than all but the pro DSLRs of a few years ago, why would anyone construe them as being "not good enough?" Were the millions of DSLRs sold that year also not good enough? ;~)

We can play this same game with other brands, by the way. In 2003 I can offer you an Olympus E-1 or an E-P3; which do you take? It's a little tougher question, as the E-1 is a higher-end specification DSLR and the E-P3 is a rangefinder-style mirrorless. But if image quality is your game, I'm pretty sure you'll pick the E-P3.

If you're a Sony user, try this: we'll go back to 2004 and I'll offer you a Maxxum 7D or a NEX-7. I'm thinking most of you are going to pick the NEX-7.

I use the Nikon V1 versus D100 as my primary example in my testing for a reason: right now it's the only 10-year comparison where we have true DSLR versus DSLR-like mirrorless. But we're going to get more of these in the next few years, and I suspect the answer will remain the same.

So now I have to remind you that many pros were using and getting published with a D100 back in 2002. Has the image quality at your favorite magazine gone up significantly in 10 years? No, though they are now able to publish shots taken in lighting that their photographers couldn't shoot in 10 years ago. Would that have been true with a V1 ten years ago? Yes, I think it would have allowed shots you couldn't really take with a D100. Therefore a pro would have picked the V1, I think. (Ironically, both the D100 and V1 user would have had problems with truly wide angle lens options. Hey, Nikon, a lot of us use your equipment because of how great Nikon wide angle lenses are; where are the DX and CX wide primes?)

So just how bad are the mirrorless cameras? Uh, not bad at all, which has been my point for three years now.

DSLRs are now 16mp or more, with "a lot more pixels" coming right at our event horizon. We have shoot-in-the-dark pro models, plus more-pixels-than-most-actually-use prosumer and consumer models, all with more features than anyone really uses. If you had asked me back in 2002 what was the ultimate set of specifications and quality I needed in a DSLR, we're now passing that definition. For a lot of my shooting, the V1 is actually enough, and that's probably true of a lot of you, too. It's the same for m4/3 or NEX or NX or any of the other mirrorless cameras, too.

Don't get me wrong, I'll take any additional bit of quality, performance, or comfort I can get, but when I fail at something photographically today, it almost never is my camera that's the problem.

Note to camera manufacturers: You still don't get it, do you? One of the reasons why the mirrorless cameras are getting more popular is because they are as competent as DSLRs but are smaller and lighter--they're less trouble to carry. When a DSLR user decides it's time to upgrade and they have a choice of same-old-big-beast and a competent smaller choice, a lot of them are picking the smaller choice. Even more would do that if you'd just design the darned things for a serious user in the first place. That doesn't mean you have to stop building those entry models (GF3, E-PM1, J1, C3), it just means you need to make sure you have the upper end ready, too. The popularity of the NEX-7 and the likely popularity of the upcoming Fujifilm X-Pro1 and Olympus OM-D ought to get your attention. But just in case they don't: make more and better serious mirrorless cameras, please. I'm looking at you Nikon.

It's Been a Strange Week
Jan
20
(commentary)--Updated. Since some people apparently can't associate questions with answers, I've numbered all of them. More so than any other week I can remember in the long history of this site (now well into its second decade), I've been getting tons of emails this week asking me to write about various subjects. I don't recall asking "what would you like me to write about?" but apparently someone must have done that for me, because I've been getting such requests in a constant stream all week. Only problem? I don't do requests. I have planned set list in mind.

The big four requests seem to be (1) what happened to Kodak and what's that mean for film?, (2) how good is the D4?, (3) what would the difference be between a D800 with and without AA filter be?, and (4) what do I think of Nikon not selling parts to independent repair shops? I also got a lot of (5) "is it okay to post process in 8-bit?" questions, too. (6) Another bunch wanted me to write about Fujifilm's new color filtration on the sensor. (7) Add to that a number of students that simply asked me to write out the answer to teacher's question (see "Try This at Home," below).

So, in order to get all those questions answered in the most efficient manner: (1) they screwed up and my drugstore still sells film, (2) very, (3) some amount of money to get more moire and maybe a bit more acuity (see also #7), (4) still thinking about it, (5) no, (6) it collects less color information, and (7) see my D3x review. There. I've just satisfied 250+ emails in one sentence. Now I can go back to trying to finish what I was working on (books, if you must ask).

Seriously, I do try to cover subjects that most of you are interested in. But I can't do everything at once, nor do I always do it when you think I might. You'll be surprised to find that many of the things that appear on this web site were written long before they appear ("Try This at Home" for example), while others were mostly written and then some event triggers my finishing them ("4K Video Future" for example). Basically, you get what you get when you get it. Anything else and you aren't getting byThom.

So keep sending in those requests. I note them. I consider them. I may eventually act on them.

Most important word in the previous five paragraphs: very.

It Must be the Extra Day This Leap Year
Jan 18
(commentary)--
February is shaping up to be a big month for photographers. First, we have a number of new and significant cameras being delivered for the first time (e.g. D4, G1X). Second, we have resumptions of near-regular deliveries of new cameras consumed by the floods (e.g. Sony A77, NEX-7) plus existing cameras in previously hot demand (D7000). Third, we have new announcements coming (mostly in first seven days of the month due to the big Japanese show that starts on the 7th, and 7 is always a good number in Japan), and a few of those announcements are going to be surprises. I now believe Nikon will introduce something beyond just the D800 and Coolpix. Overall, I know of three new significant camera announcements in February, and I suspect there are more.
So perhaps we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Uh-Oh
Jan 18 (commentary)--
The Economist last week published an interesting article, "The last Kodak moment?" Definitely something readers of this site should read (especially you lingering film users), but it was a quote within that article that really got me to thinking.

Fujifilm's CEO Shigetaka Komori was quoted as saying "[a digital camera company] is a small business and not enough to support a big company." Okay, I added the word "camera", but I think in context that is justified. Indeed, a digital camera company would be an even smaller market than a digital company, which is the point I want to address.

Let's do some back-of-the-envelope calculation here. Let's first assume that the overall camera market (compacts, mirrorless, and DSLRs) is going to be relatively flat for the next five years. After all, phones are nibbling at the bottom, and DSLRs have reached saturation. So we're talking about 115-120m units. Nikon grew Coolpix 8% and interchangeable lens cameras 10% in the past year, so let's just assume 8% overall unit growth.

See the problem? Nikon has about 18% of the overall camera market (23m out of 120m) at the moment. If they grow their unit volume 8% a year as they currently suggest, we get 20%, 22%, 25% for future annual market shares. One out of every four cameras sold would have to be a Nikon by 2014 for them to continue their current growth.

That's not impossible, but given the players in the market and the potential for both buyer burnout and product disenfranchisement, it seems a bit unlikely. Indeed, it's possible to envision a future where Nikon's unit volume drops but their market share grows.

As Komori-san hinted, it's not a big market. It has huge price pressures, too, so retaining margin is tough. This is a similar problem facing Nikon to that which faced Kodak. Which leads me to one of three possible conclusions: (1) we're seeing the zenith of Nikon in the next few years; (2) cameras need to be reinvented to an extent that it rekindles new purchasing; or (3) Nikon needs to find another market to play and grow in (that could be phones, but that seems unlikely).

So what does Nikon look like 10 years from now? Just the biggest fish in two ponds that are growing smaller? Or a fish that flies over land and finds a bigger pond? Here's hoping for flying fish.

4K Video Future
Jan 17 (commentary)--
I was a little surprised to see Michael Reichmann's Ode to 4K last week. Yes, 4K is certainly here in Hollywood, and thus is trickling down into the ad agencies and high-end videographer ranks as they try to keep up and bulletproof themselves from any future format change. But 4K has some huge stumbling blocks before it becomes prevalent, and one of those stumbling blocks is a killer.

It's not like we haven't gone through this before. We did, with HD TV. And before that, digital capture. And before that, color TV. The debate over formats and standardizations for HD TV took over a decade, was highly contentious, and the rollout to the point where a majority of customers had it took almost as long (at least here in the US; but the US is a critical market for high tech still, so real solutions tend to have to reflect our regulatory and other issues).

Some of you reading this are asking "what is 4K"? It's a loose term for a jumble of video formats. We have several 4K definitions in place at the moment, mostly via Hollywood, which is pushing digital projectors on theaters. In a simplistic sense, HD TV tops out at 1920 x 1080 pixels. 4K tops out at 4096 x 3112 pixels. Yeah, that's a 4:3 aspect ratio, and aspect ratios are one of the things we fought about with HD TV for years; in 16:9 aspect ratio 4K is usually, but not always, defined as 4096 x 2160. But Hollywood likes to shoot wider than 16:9. No matter what the actual pixel count, the basic definition of 4K is something akin to this: four times the pixels of HD TV and a doubling of resolution.

Let's tackle some of the 4K stumbling points.

Price: Michael seems to think this is the roadblock, but it is not. While current prices are in the five figure category for a big screen 4K monitor, the only thing that holds it there is volume. Ultimately, a 4K panel should be about as cheap to produce as 2K panel, but it takes volume to get to that point. It's the other stumbling blocks that keep volume from increasing to the point where 4K is affordable to consumers. The TV makers won't be the stumbling block, as they'll be happy to produce 4K sets at somewhat higher than 1080P prices--it would restore their product margins. Indeed, this is part of the problem with 4K, just as it was with HD TV: it's being driven from the wrong end. It isn't consumers that are clammoring for it, it's manufacturers looking for a way to get away from the price wars that have made HD TV mostly unprofitable for most of them.

Standards: Hollywood has defined 4K. So has NHK in Japan, and they'll be demonstrating it in Japan for this year's Olympics. Both of the main standards bodies involved in International TV are discussing 4K. There are still a lot of conflicting bits (literally) in the definitions being used, including compression (more on that in a bit). Patents also come into play, as we've got multiple players holding key patents with everyone wanting a piece of any future patent pool. We'll need that patent pool merge (or at least an extension of the MPEG LA pool) to agree on a standard, is my guess.

Visual: A 4K video camera running at 60 fps (one of the current definitions) is likely going to have a faster than 1/60 minimum shutter speed. Hollywood 4K shooters seem to want 60 fps. I'm not sure why, as it moves them a long way from the traditional Hollywood look, where intraframe blur is actually part of the visual style (24 fps film cameras generated 1/50 minimum shutter speeds). Maybe a new visual style will be welcome, and of course we can always post process intraframe blur in ;~). Still, it's a change no one is in agreement on (there's a move afoot from some for even higher frame rates).

Delivery: Here's the killer problem. We can't deliver 4K video to consumers. Heck, we're still having big trouble delivering 1080P/30 to consumers. We need bigger, faster pipes. True, some countries involved in TV production (Japan, Korea) have fast and ubiquitous Internet access, and this is a danger for 4K: a standard is evolving that can't currently be delivered at the consumer level in most countries, even the US and Europe. Here in the US we can't really deliver highly compressed 1080P reliably, let alone to everyone. So we also need a well-defined and widely available physical format to distribute content with (oh dear, here we go with the DVD HD versus Blu-Ray wars again). We also need to settle on a compression to deliver content with, too, as we certainly have no chance to deliver uncompressed 4K content any time soon. Delivery is a classic Chicken versus Egg problem. 3D has been going through this: we can deliver fancy 3D TVs at regular TV prices, but we don't have enough content to justify really having to buy one. This is 4K's basic problem: until delivery of content is assured, it isn't a consumer format.

Theaters: Your local theater isn't going to like investing in 4K projection equipment if you can do the same thing at home at consumer prices. Hollywood has a vested interest in 4K digital projection, but not in consumers' hands. This is one of the things I hate about tech: we get deep pocket organizations that are resistent to change because they believe it removes their advantage and they won't be able to market against it. We've watched the music, video, and publishing industries all try to stall tech advances because they were afraid of them. That resistance hasn't gotten lower over time. Hollywood still wants to distribute first to theaters, second to premium pay-to-view, third to physical media, and finally to streaming. They want each progression of distribution to be done via a time delay, and in lower quality. Yes, I strongly believe there's a potential business model to flip that and prove them wrong. But my point here is that these are the deep pockets that 4K as a potential consumer format is fighting today.

The funny thing is that the one impediment to 4K is not equipment (the thing that prompted Michael to write about 4K was the appearance of US$5000 4K video camera). We have 4K cameras. We can capture and edit 4K content with many of our current tools. We can show 4K content (albeit mostly at theatres that have the right equipment). More 4K equipment is being produced every day and will continue to be. This is no different than any other "revolution" in video over the past 50 years. I first saw 1080P in 1975, for instance. I could have bought a very expensive camera, editor, and display to work with it, had I wanted to. A few did, but what we got as the actual standard in the late 90's was different than those original models could work with ;~).

I have no doubt we will have 4K in our future. The questions are when will it impact you directly, and when will it become a widespread consumer format. If you're a high end professional videographer, you already need it (and preferably a large sensor version of it that shoots raw, such as that which the RED produces). It's the same problem as still photographers have: high-end clients demand over sampling and highest possible quality. If you're shooting stills for big agencies these days, 24mp is a bare minimum. Most of them want medium format levels of pixels (30mp or more). The same thing is happening in video. They want 1080P/60 uncompressed at a minimum, but would really prefer 4K. Why? Because it "future safes" them. If they have to pull up something they used in a previous campaign it'll be in a high enough resolution that it can still be used with that future technology.

So you may ask why I'm writing about 4K on a predominately still photography site. Whether you want them to be or not, stills and video are now interlinked. Sensor work now is done trying to accomodate both. I was curious as to whether Nikon would get to 4K on the D4. They didn't. As a matter of fact, they didn't get to AVCHD 2 (1080P/60). But it's clear that they'll probably have to get to 4K with a D5. To put that in clearer terms, the big issue that would be happening at the sensor and in the digital circuitry is an attempt to expand the internal bandwidth to handle four to eight times the data it currently is. There are potential pluses for still work from that (look at the 60 fps still mode on the Nikon 1).

Let's hope that the camera makers don't forget that more of us buy cameras for stills than for video.

My The Card Market is Suddenly Contentious
Jan 16 (commentary)--First up, we have the SD group announcing at CES that they're coming up with an open standard for wireless transmission from an SD card. This was almost immediately met with a response from EyeFi, which I interpreted as saying "we own the intellectual property on that, back off."

So we probably won't have standards for WiFi-on-a-card any time soon, at least not without litigation involved. I suspect that some camera makers were behind this new standard idea: by putting WiFi on the card instead of the camera it takes the cost of implementation out of the camera itself.

Frankly, I think the right approach is to put WiFi in the camera: first, it reduces potential consumer duplication costs (WiFi in every card you buy), but more importantly communication is something that's more useful if the camera controls it. We need integration of communication, not addition. Of course, the problem is that the camera companies haven't figured out "integration with what and how" despite the obvious answers being right in front of their noses.

Meanwhile, Photography Blog reports that both Lexar and SanDisk have no plans to release XQD cards, at least in the near future. This makes Nikon's decision to go with XQD in the D4 potentially more eyebrow-raising than it at first seemed (which was already eyebrow-raising). What seems a bit strange is that SanDisk was one of the three proposers of the XQD card back in 2010 (Sony and Nikon were the other two).

Technically, the CompactFlash Association is the holder of the XQD specification now, but with SanDisk and Lexar declining to produce cards, at least at the moment it appears that Sony and Nikon are the only real players in this new game. The quote from in Rob Galbraith's interview with Toshiaki Akagi--"we don't know which companies will be making XQD, other than Sony"--is a disturbing one, as it seems to imply that Nikon knew that there was a strong potential for XQD to be single source for awhile. That, of course, has implications on XQD card availability and prices.

Nikon's XQD commitment is feeling a bit like Apple's Thunderbolt decision at the moment: too early. The potential D4 user wanted matching card slots, but with little third-party XQD support early on we effectively got a single CF slot. Yep, another friction for the customer.

Try This at Home
Jan 16 (commentary)--A common question I seem to be getting since Nikon Rumors pre-announced a 36mp D800 is this: should I get a D700 or wait for the D800? A variant of that question is: I have a D700, do I really need a 36mp D800?

Most of the nervousness comes from all those pixels. But if you're worried, here's a little experiment to try at home. Borrow a D700 and D7000. Set the D700 to shoot in DX mode. Shoot the same exact composition with the same lens on both cameras. Now downsize the D7000 image to 5.4mp. Compare away. Extra credit: use the same zoom lens with 1.5x focal length differences to shoot the same scene with the D700 set to FX crop, but downsize the D7000 to 12mp.

We can't isolate all variables when we attempt to make image quality comparisons between two competing models/products. But we can often isolate enough to make an intelligent decision. The D7000 has about the same photosite size as we'd expect from 36mp FX. Any new sensor might be even better at some underlying dynamic than the 18-month old D7000 sensor, so you're probably looking at worst case in the above comparisons.

Of course, the next problem is that some people won't notice any differences, while some will. The question is this: if you can't see the tree fall in the forest, did it fall? Or worse still, quantum mechanics might be involved if you don't actually perform the comparison: if you don't look in the forest, the tree might or might not have fallen, and which of those is true won't be determined until you look.

The Fix is In
Jan 13 (news)--Nik Software yesterday released a 64-bit version of Color Efex Pro 3.0 for Capture NX2 (version 3.0.0.4). Both Mac and Windows versions are available. This resolves the issues with CEP and Nikon's 64-bit update for NX2, and is much welcome for those that use the plug-in.

Credit Where Credit is Due
Jan 13 (commentary)--Last November I wrote an article objecting to Adobe's announcement of a "one-version update" policy for CS6. Simply put, Adobe was only going to offer update prices for CS5 users. Many of us with very visible sites, such as Scott Kelby, complained and offered alternatives.

It appears that Adobe heard their customers. The one-version update policy will be rescinded for CS6. When CS6 comes out in the first half of this year, anyone owning CS3, CS4, or CS5 versions will be able to get upgrades until the end of the year. In short, Adobe accepted one of the proposed compromises: a longer transition period before a one-version update policy takes effect (which, if I'm reading Adobe's statements correctly, will begin in 2013).

So, Adobe, thank you for listening.

Friction and the D4
Jan 13 (commentary)--Yesterday on sansmirror I wrote an article where I used the following statement: "[no] camera [exists that] allows me to get to great images without any friction." Today we get an interview by Rob Galbraith with a Nikon engineer that allows me to show my concept of design friction at work.

Basically, the D4's new battery and charger solve frictions that Nikon themselves have: they need to comply with new Japanese regulations (size of battery) and don't want any liability (chance of problems using new battery in old charger and vice versa). The result of those frictions to Nikon is that they changed the battery and charger designs to be incompatible with older versions.

This introduces a customer friction: a pro user now has multiple batteries and chargers if they have a D3s/D3x and D4, and they have to buy new batteries and chargers, which is a cost friction. (According to Nikon, but unverified, there is no real shots-per-charge friction introduced by the change; I'm doubtful of that assertion, especially in certain shooting scenarios, but I'll reserve judgment until I can check it.)

This is exactly how frictions shouldn't be resolved. It's fine for a company to remove frictions in their manufacturing and costs, but not if they introduce customer frictions. It's fine to reduce customer frictions even if they increase manufacturing and cost frictions to the manufacturer (within reason, of course).

Nikon got it backward. Let's hope that's the only friction they increased.

Waterproofing Reinvented
Jan 12 (news)--While everyone else announces SmartThis and SmartThat and X1's and 1X's and all other forms of X, the more interesting announcements at CES tend to be things you have to look harder for. One of those: Liquipel. Update: there's more than one, and the relationship between them (competitors, licensing?) is unknown. The other is HzO, a Utah-based company, whose product is WaterBlock.

Liquipel is a nano-coating agent, and you can get it today for a number of smart phones (iPhone, for example). But I suspect we're going to see manufacturers who don't have to be hit over the head with this new technology to appreciate what it might do. Like underwater cameras without housings, or at least cameras that can function in rain without concern.

Okay, maybe we do have to hit the camera makers over the head, can someone please hand me a bat? This seems like a no-brainer for high-end equipment, and it can be integrated into manufacturing. Would I pay a few dollars more for a camera more impervious to water? Absolutely. More than a few dollars, actually. SWINGS BAT. SWINGS BAT AGAIN. "Hello, anyone there?"

Love their tag line, by the way: wet and wired. Just don't mispell the last word ;~).

Camera Databases Updated
Jan 12 (news)--I've updated the Current Nikon DSLR database with D4 information and the Old Nikon DSLR database with the D3000, D5000, D90, and D3s being moved over.

New Sigma Lens
Jan 11 (news)--Sigma introduced the APO Macro 180mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM lens at CES/PMA. A big lens (8", 204mm in length), it's an interesting combination of fast telephoto and macro, with a fairly complex optical design as a result (19 elements in 14 groups). It's got a built-in tripod collar, OS (Sigma's version of VR), supports both DX and FX cameras, and gets to 1:1 at 18.5" (47cm), which is about a 10" working distance. Bad news is the size/weight, especially the 86mm filter threads. No pricing or availability date was announced.

The Software Parade
Jan 11 (news)--I've got a bit of software announcements and updating to catch up on. Here goes:

In the iOS world, NightCap is a new camera app that extends shutter speeds on the iPhone down to a full second. AntiCrop uses content-aware fill to fill out things when you rotate or straighten images.

Updates include RAW Developer (Mac) 1.9.4, which for Nikon users would be mostly a bug fix version. FDRTools hits version 2.5.1. DataRescue's PhotoRescue Wizard is updated to v.3.2.9 Build 13221, and now supports the Nikon D5100 NEFs and Olympus E-P3 ORFs. Capture One Pro hits 6.3.3 with improved color noise suppression plus support for the Nikon J1, V1, and P7100. Capture One Media Pro likewise updates to version 1.2, plus it gets some metadata handling enhancements. RPP 4.4.2 (Mac) gets new profiles for the Nikon D5100 and Kodak SLR/n.

In the "sorta new" category, Ingestmatic 1.32 (Mac) has a bunch of new features, and is now available for Windows 7. Nik Software has announced that Snapseed, a popular iOS application, will also be available for the Mac OS (and Android, too, though I don't usually tend to report Android products). Corel's AfterShot Pro 1.0 is basically Bibble 5.x repackaged and under new ownership (it's unclear if there are any new features in the 1.0 release, but there eventually will be).

CamTethering 1.02 (Mac) is a new application that supports tethered control of most recent Nikon cameras.

Trends Part Two
Jan 11 (commentary)--Over on sansmirror.com I've published a mirrorless view of the camera trends that compliments the following story.

An Ugly End to 2011 for Photography
Jan 10 (commentary)--
We're now deep into the trend I predicted quite a few years ago: that smartphones and low-end system cameras would cannibalize compact cameras.

DCWatch reported that compact camera sales were down 17% over the first 11 months of 2011 over the same period in 2010. At the same time, interchangeable lens cameras were up 12%. Since the interchanageable lens camera market is about one-eighth the size of the compact camera market, the overall camera market probably declined.

Worse still, NPD has now reported that the five-week Christmas sales tally here in the US showed that point and shoot camera sales were down 20.8%, digital picture frames down 37.5%, and camcorders down a whopping 42.5%. It was not a imaging Christmas season, especially since Nikon and Sony interchanageable lens camera sales were limited by supply due to the Thailand floods.

Dealers were hard pressed during the Christmas buying season, partly due to product availability, but also due to that demand reduction. Penn Camera Exchange, an eight-store retailer in the Washington DC area, announced it was filing for bankruptcy protection and closing five of its stores.

The traditional response by the camera makers to lower demand for compact cameras in the US has been "we'll push those products into developing countries, instead." Unfortunately, everyone's finding that strategy isn't exactly a great one, as (1) the demand in those countries is for lower priced product, putting margin pressures on what sales you do get; and (2) cell phones are well established in those countries, and the trend towards just using the phone for stills and video is just as rampant in the developing world as it is in the developed.

Since this is Photo Marketing Association (PMA) week, it seems like a good time to ask who's doing what to fight the trend?

Canon: doubles down on compact cameras! Instead of producing a mirrorless camera, they've chosen to produce a large sensor compact camera (G1 X). Actually, possibly more than one according to rumors. The G and S models still do decently, despite terrible marketing support (at least here in the US). However, Canon also seems distracted by wanting to convert their still users into videographers. Tackling pro video is a niche business, though with decent growth at the moment. The top-end DSLR refresh was a bit disappointing. Canon seems a bit random at the moment.

Nikon: bet big on interchangeable (Nikon 1, complete DSLR line refresh in less than two years [though the quake and floods slowed this]). Also continues betting that they can market compacts better than the others and gain market share while others lose it (so far, so good). More than any other company, Nikon is a camera company first and foremost, and they are the most vulnerable should they misjudge the future of cameras. Fortunately, the Nikon 1 shows that they still have some technology skills that make for interesting and useful products (and Nikon just announced the J1 model was the best selling mirrorless camera in the UK in the week before Christmas, and Nikon is now the second best selling brand of mirrorless cameras in Britain). The D4 shows that they still can produce the best pro products. The devil is in the details, and Nikon still gets too many of those wrong. Still, Nikon is more seemingly on target than the other camera companies, and executing well.

Fujifilm: bet hugely on compact cameras and continues to do so. Technically, their numerous bridge cameras and X100 are compact cameras, but they have plenty of regular compacts, too. Their marketing messages tend to be good, but they don't generate the in-store customer traffic Nikon does from their ads (hint to Fujifilm: coop promotions work). Minor bet made by putting interchangeable primes on an updated X100 frame (upcoming X-Pro1). Fujifilm also has a sub-theme of retro, mainly because a retro design worked for them on the X100. Duh. I've been telling the camera companies that for years: cameras weren't broken. They didn't need to be redesigned into button-laden, mode-filled, option-overloaded devices. Still, the overrelliance on compacts without a marketing program pushing them into customers' hands means they aren't making market share progress easily, if at all. They're betting on a declining market, and going high end in that market to retain margin.

Sony: bet big on interchangeable (NEX, complete refresh of Alpha to EVF). Seems to have lost their way with compacts, but has some winners in the interchangeable arena and has started to work better with dealers in promoting them (Thailand floods notwithstanding). Unlike Canon, real Sony Video is still mostly being done by Sony Video, not Sony Stills. Nevertheless, the decline of compact sales is hurting them, as that was where they had their biggest share, and now they're losing that both to competitors and to the shrinking market.

Olympus: bet big on mirrorless, almost exactly where I would have bet big (though with programmability and communications). But they've cratered on compacts (other than the XZ-1 and perhaps their underwater compact), cratered on DSLRs, and thus are a smaller player than they should be. Moreover, it's been fire sales of their older Pen models that are giving them volume, not list price on the new stuff. With management distracted and marketing stalling, they need someone to come in and fix both those things, fast.

Panasonic: bet big on mirrorless, but also still trying to regenerate momentum in compacts (they've been losing share to Nikon, and Fujifilm now wants their market share, too). Simple problem: they suck at marketing their products, especially in the US. Nothing wrong with their products. Everything wrong with their distribution, sales, support, and marketing (again, especially in the critical US market). Unfortunately, that's not likely to get fixed.

Samsung: bet on everything except DSLRs, where they've retreated. However, I still scratch my head about them. What are they really trying to prove? That they can create all the same products as ALL other consumer manufacturers? The synergy is missing. Samsung cameras don't really drive anything else Samsung, and Samsung TVs, et.al., don't really drive camera sales. If any maker was going to take a flying leap and reinvent the camera (programmable, modular, communicating), it should have been Samsung, as they have all the components to do so, and that would create synergy with other products. That's the problem with copying others rather than leading. Instead of copying the curves of iPhone and iPad, Samsung should have been sticking in bigger sensors and making better smartcameraphones.

Pentax/Ricoh: incomplete information as they're still meshing. Ricoh was primarily a niche compact company and Pentax had become primarily a DSLR company. The growth is in between, so they have a lot of work to do.

Meanwhile, one compact camera producer, Kodak, is rumored to be very near filing for bankruptcy (source: Wall Street Journal).

The overall problem is only going to get worse, I think. On a recent trip to the Galapagos I counted cameras: smartphones outnumbered everything else in use, and by a substantial margin. That was a bit of a shocker to me, and shows how fast things have changed in the photo taking world. Not too long ago, Galapagos tourism was mostly a SLR/DSLR world.

The trend lines in photography have a lot of conflicts in them. Overall, the smartphone trend is driven by the young (and getting younger), the retro/interchangeable trend driven by an older, more mature user. Photos are heading more and more into the cloud rather than local hard drives, getting printed less, and neither camera companies nor camera users seem to get the fact that electronic display is the likely future but is typically maxed out at 1920x1080 due to HD TV definitions (and 16:9 aspect ratio, to boot). Workflow is still broken, and more so for the mass market than the pro user. There's opportunity in all this confusion and conflict, but no camera maker has managed to take advantage of it. Maybe it's time for a startup...

This article also posted here.

Canon Bets on X
Jan 9 (news and commentary)--X apparently was recently discovered in Japan to have magical properties, as virtually everyone except for Nikon has come out with a product using the letter. This time, it's Canon with the G1 X.

Take a G12, make a few refinements and stick in a 14mp slightly bigger than m4/3-crop sensor (18.7x14mm), and you have a G1 X (technically, in Roman numerals, that a G9 ;~). The lens is 28-112mm f/2.8-5.8 equivalent, the camera shoots 14-bit raw, has a Speedlite compatible hotshoe, keeps the swivel LCD, and ships in February for US$800. Should you want a lesser camera, the G12 will continue to be sold.

Note: I'm going to call Canon on marketing hype here. Their press materials all use the term "near APS-C" in terms of size. The sensor is not close at all. It is "near m4/3" (262 mm squared area versus 243, with APS-C being somewhere above 350 depending upon whose definition you accept). Still a large sensor, but it's actually about about two-thirds of a stop smaller than APS-C (see my sensor size article on sansmirror.com for what I mean by that).

My D4 Introduction Analysis
Jan 9 (news)--I've posted a long article and commentary on the new Nikon D4. If you're interested in the camera, you'll want to read that from start to finish (and I'll update it as I learn more).

If you want the short synopsis: nothing revolutionary this time, just a great deal of iteration. Indeed, at least three things I've long requested have been fixed/added, so either Nikon finally got around to discovering those problems themselves or they finally got the message from users.

Video shooters will be impressed with the D4. There's little Nikon got wrong with the changes to the video, and the D4 now becomes the best of the bunch in terms of DSLR-based video, I think. Full manual control, uncompressed output (via HDMI), remote control and monitoring, plus audio monitoring are nice additions. What did they miss? Dual mic audio, mini-XLR, AVCHD 2, under/over cranking, multi-camera syncing.

In terms of still use, it's mostly tweaking. Bigger buffers (with the right cards), better autofocus, and improved metering are the main bits. But there are some hidden pluses, too, including IPTC data entry, a built-in HDR mode for JPEGs, silent shooting (2mp), and more. The 15% resolution increase isn't going to excite many, though it is welcome, and just enough to produce visible differences.

One gotcha with the D4 is cost. No, not the US$6000 price tag, which is in line with inflation and currency conversion changes. You'll need new batteries. If you want the best remote capabilities, you'll need the new WT-5 and an iPhone/iPad. You'll want new, faster cards (both XQD and UDMA-7 CompactFlash). In short, you'll spend a lot of money updating the ecosystem around the camera.

Again, read my full article for the details.

Oh Yeah, There Was a Lens Announced
Jan 9 (news)--
A curious sub-item in the Nikon D4 introduction was the 85mm AF-S f/1.8G announcement. An update of the budget f/1.8D portrait prime, this new US$500 lens will be released in late March (so why announce it with the D4?). Details are nine element design, seven blade rounded diaphragm, AF-S focus motor, 31.5" (80cm) close focus distance, 67mm filter size, and a weight of 12.5 ounces (360g). Comes with the HB-62 hood and CL-1015 carrying case.

Should be a welcome addition to Nikon's prime lineup, especially given the dramatic price differential between the f/1.4 and f/1.8 models. But really, Nikon, how many 85mm lenses do we need? We now have four, but no DX wide angle primes. Did the lens designers all major in telephoto?

That said, I'll go out on a limb here: the 85mm f/1.8G will be a huge seller. Not to D4 users. Not to D800 users. Not to D400 users. Not to existing Nikon DSLR users. Nope, it will turn out to be the lens of choice for Nikon 1 users. At 230mm equivalent, f/1.8, and relatively compact on a Nikon V1 body, it becomes the poor man's 200mm f/2. What soccer mom/sports dad wouldn't like one of those?

Bye Bye Bibble
Jan 8 (news)--Bibble was one of the first third-party raw converters, and one of the few that pushed back when Nikon started encrypting white balance data. Corel has acquired Bibble and announced that it will use the core technology in a new workflow product called AfterShot to be announced at PMA this week. Unfortunately for Bibble users, the current 5.2.3 version is to be the last, as Bibble is now to be discontinued and no longer available for sale.

It's always sad to see a pioneer disappear, but particularly so in this case because Bibble was at the forefront of many raw conversion capabilities and trends. Let's hope that the technology finds a good home with its new owner and in a new product. One other thing to note: AfterShot will only support Intel Macs. PowerPC users have suffered another casualty.

Nikon D4 NPS Orders
Jan 6 (news)--Just a note to those of you who are NPS: you should have received an email from Nikon today with information about how to go about a Priority Purchase of the D4. Don't ignore that, as Priority Purchase orders are shipped based upon the date of the order. If you wait, you may find yourself not getting a D4 on February 16th (delivery date in the US).

Nikon D4 Announced
Jan 6 (news)--Nikon today announced their new pro camera model, the D4. The D4 will be available in mid-to-late February at US$6000. Nikon is demonstrating the new camera at PMA, amongst other places.

Rather than rush my analysis of the new camera, I'm going to wait until Monday to publish a full description and commentary on the camera. As usual with Nikon, there's a lot of good news and a bit of bad. While the outside of the camera isn't much changed, the list of internal changes is very extensive, and it's easy to overlook significant new features (completely silent shooting mode, for instance).

My initial assessment: the D4 looks like a nice iteration of the Nikon pro DSLR. Lots more on Monday.

 

 
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