Confusion


Nikon has confused some of the faithful...

After receiving many emails with basically the same comments, I've come to the conclusion that Nikon has not communicated a few things well with the D3 and D300 introductions. Let me excerpt a few bits from one such email:

I'm one of the "old guys" whose been around a while. Start[ed] out with Nikon back in the eighties...I too like many am left confused by Nikon...the crop on the D3 will reduce the pixel count...I believe many pro's have sold their old lenses to acquire new gear...I'll go with a 400mm to Africa if I haven't jumped ship which just might happen.

I've consolidated a much longer email into just a few bits here, but the bits all share common themes with all the other emails that are stacking up in my InBox since the announcement:

  • I'm a long-term Nikon pro. These guys have all been shooting Nikon for decades.
  • I bought DX lenses. Because DX negated their existing wide angle lenses, they bought DX lenses to recover angle of view.
  • The 5mp DX crop on the D3 isn't enough. Another way of putting it: pros feel they lost pixel density, one of Nikon's key advantages over Canon.
  • The new offerings aren't enough to keep me from switching. I don't necessarily agree with the conclusion these emails come to, but this is still the usual conclusion I see in such emails.

What's causing all this confusion? Well, for one thing, a missing "h". Had Nikon simply named the D3 the D3h instead, I think a lot of the confusion might have been eased. Quite a few of the faithful are worried that no high-resolution Nikon DSLR is going to appear any time soon because the D3 name implies that there will only be one pro model. I don't believe that to be true--I think we'll see at least one other pro model announced in the coming twelve months--but the D3 name certainly implies otherwise, and is a very big marketing mistake by Nikon (if there's no higher-resolution pro body coming, then this is a big engineering and strategic mistake instead; either way, it's a critical mistake). Let's look at that contention more carefully. Without the H the assumption everyone seems to be making is this:

Nikon D300 (12mp 1.5x crop) Canon 40D (10mp 1.6x crop)
Nikon D3 (12mp no crop) Canon 1DIII (10mp 1.3x crop)
Nikon D3 (12mp no crop) Canon 5D (12mp, no crop)
no product from Nikon Canon 1DsIII (21mp, no crop)

You see the problem, right? While Nikon wins in the first two cases (assuming image quality turns out as we expect), they are non-competitive in the last two cases (the first due to price, the second due to a missing product).

Now let's turn things around with just a little bit of marketing. First, we name the D3 the D3h instead, and we make the statement "we'll have two additional FX bodies in our lineup in the future." Now the table becomes:

Nikon D300 (12mp 1.5x crop) Canon 40D (10mp 1.6x crop)
Nikon D3 (12mp no crop) Canon 1DIII (10mp 1.3x crop)
likely unnamed future product Canon 5D (12mp, no crop)
likely D3x future product Canon 1DsIII (21mp, no crop)

Suddenly, the pro's choices are clearer: (1) buy the D300 and/or D3 because they fit your needs today; (2) wait for the camera that fits your needs, perhaps supplementing your current holdings with a D3 or D300 if it improves your image quality enough; or (3) switch to Canon.

Why would you do #3 after this bit of marketing finesse? Well, you wouldn't if you primarily shot with the first two choices in the table, as it seems relatively clear that Nikon is offering a few more pixels and better high ISO quality in the equivalent cameras. You might switch to Canon if you needed high resolution today, as even with my proposed marketing statement you can't predict when the camera you need might be here, and Canon's offerings seem pretty clear at the moment (only the 5D hasn't been updated). Choices #1 and #2 seem pretty clear cut and where most Nikon shooters would see themselves.

But there are more problems than just the missing "h." The two-format aspect, while expected (and even asked for) by many pros, still seems to have left some of those pro shooters confused about a lot of things. First, there seems to be a underlying feeling that "the D300 is it for DX--no better DX bodies will come along." This is usually unstated, but underlies the premise that most of the emails I receive seem to be espousing. A few go further and say that "better ISO and DR performance can only be achieved in the future with a bigger sensor." I believe that to be an untrue statement, and history has shown it to be untrue: each generation of DX cameras has gotten better at both things, so why would you think that this trend would suddenly end? So let's get that out of the way first: Nikon made a vague statement about the DX line continuing in parallel with the FX line. I wrote that they needed to make that statement more emphatic and perhaps more specific, and here we have the reason for it: if people think the D300 represents as far as DX can go, then they make choices today about what format they'll shoot now and in the future, and DX starts to be undervalued in that thinking (as in "I guess I'll switch to Canon and full frame now and just be done with the decisions.") I got a lot of flack on many Internet forums about my saying Nikon needed to be more forthcoming about future plans for their lineup, but here's a good example of why I said that: an awful lot of people are assuming that the DX lineup doesn't continue to evolve better products than the D300. They assume the "develop in parallel" statement means we'll get lots more consumer DX bodies, but nothing at the top end. I don't believe that to be true, and from what I hear from Nikon, they don't either. At a minimum, they need to state that where everyone can see it, not just whisper it behind the scenes.

Another related problem has to do with DX lenses. I'm always amused when someone writes to me saying their DX lenses aren't worth anything in the future so they're switching to Canon. Hmm. Sell the DX lens and buy a new full frame lens. What does that have to do with switching to Canon? You can do the same thing and stick with Nikon now (though that missing "h" still is haunting us ;~). And the funny thing is, there are over 6m DX shooters out there and no FX Nikon shooters out there at the moment. There's a huge market for used DX lenses, actually, so those DX lenses aren't really going to lose much value, if any, with the introduction of an FX camera. Moreover, what happens if a D3x appears with 18mp and a 7.5mp DX crop? Is that enough to keep the DX lens (especially if your backup body is a D300)?

There is, however, one aspect to the DX lens saga that has caused many to rebel a bit: when it looked like Nikon would stay DX for a long, long time (because Nikon made vague statements about their future product lineup--see a trend?), some pros sold their older lenses (say, the 17-35mm) and bought new ones (say, the 17-55mm, which would give them a more full mid-range zoom than the 17-35mm). Basically, anything less than 35mm in focal length in the old film lineup started to have little useful value with the digital bodies, which prompted a lot of lens swapping. Now, with the return of the 36mm frame with FX sensors, we go back the other way: most of the DX lenses have no useful value with the FX bodies, present and future. This is at dissonance with Nikon's usual compatibility message. True, we have a DX crop ability in the FX body(s), and a few DX lenses can cover the FX sensor frame at some focal lengths, but it's a story of a little too little to make a difference.

One huge problem with all the above is this: it's the subsidiaries that will directly feel the complaints and have to deal with the confusion produced by the aftermath of the D3 and D300 announcements. I'm not yet sure those subsidiaries have heard the right messages yet, too, as they're still basking in the congratulations and glory of two very nice new products and haven't yet faced the longer-term implications the launches have had on the faithful. Two decisions by the corporate parent--the lack of an h and vague statements about the future--are the problem. The subsidiaries can't override those things and Nikon Japan is relatively inefficient in getting and understanding such messages from the individual marketing and sales organizations they established throughout the world. Even when they do get a message--for example, "Sony is doing anti-lens VR ads that are hurting us"--corporate doesn't always get all the T's crossed and I's dotted in response (the marketing visibility for VR has been upped, but, oops, Nikon just introduced two key lenses without it), and there's always a considerable delay in the response.

So I once again renew my assertions:

  1. Nikon needs to be more forthcoming about their future product lineup.
  2. Nikon Japan needs to truly embrace becoming a global company, not a Japanese company that owns a bunch of sales distributors across the world.
 

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