DX Month, Week Two

The compilation of DX stores from Week Two of DX Month (October 2012)

One Reason Nikon Is Happy
Oct 12, 2012--
In the next story I talk about creating a decision matrix, and one of my suggested factors is Image Quality.

In the digital era, Image Quality has been an interesting thing to watch. Early on, the Nikon D1/D1h/D1x/D100 set the standard for what you could get from high-end digital. Canon was caught a bit by surprise, I think, and it wasn't until the 1DII that I felt they really began to excel. During the D2 generation, Nikon clearly fell behind Canon, particularly at high ISO values, but also in resolution. The D3 was the start of Nikon's re-emergence as the Image Quality leader, poking one hole in the Canon lead, to be followed by a series of additional pokes.

I'll give credit where credit is due: Nikon targeted sensors (along with their sometimes partner, Sony). And today the results show. With perhaps the exception of the D4 versus 1Dx pairing, I'd clearly take the Nikon choice over the Canon in terms of sensor ability at almost every level. D3200 versus latest Rebel? D3200. D800 versus 5DIII? D800. In some of the cases the race is closer (D7000 versus 7D), but Canon still seems to be falling behind on critical attributes, such as dynamic range, and these days we have independent confirmations of this via very visible sites like DxOMark. I have no doubt that we'll see Canon respond, but at the moment the sensor battlefield is tilted back towards Nikon (and Sony).

Many DSLR shoppers are mostly tuned to particular Image Quality aspects: pixel count and dynamic range mostly, as these are easily measured and compared numbers. They believe in the power of numbers and they buy on the power of those numbers. I wrote about "leaks" from Nikon to m4/3 and from DX to FX, but one reason why Nikon might be mostly ignoring those leaks is that their attention is focused on creating a different leak: Canon to Nikon.

If you look at the cameras Nikon's launched since 2007, we get quite a list of cameras that put into question Canon's former top-of-the-heap-in-sensors status (and thus implied Image Quality): D3, D3s, D3x, D600, D800, D3200, D7000. You could probably add the D90 and D300 to that list, though their advantages were temporary (D90 was the first video-enabled DSLR; D300 was the best high-end crop DSLR for awhile).

As you'll see from my D3200 review (coming shortly; I'll be posting reviews this weekend), Nikon's hit a new high in DX sensors with this camera. We really need that level of sensor capability to move upstream to the D5100, D7000, and D300s replacements as quickly as possible now.

But my point is this: Nikon's focus is on Canon, not users. Canon still holds the interchangeable lens camera lead by a significant amount, and Nikon still seems stuck near the 30% share range they've been in for a long time (low of 25%, high of 35%). Thus, to Nikon success is seeing siphoning from Canon to Nikon, not beating m4/3 or NEX. At the FX end, there are signs that Nikon has now at least equalled Canon's share, and maybe has gained the number one position. That will be a battle determined now by the 6D versus D600, though Nikon has a head start with the shipping D600.

Given that DX is such a large part of Nikon and Canon sales and such a large part of the interchangeable lens camera market, those that think DX (or APS) is dead are wrong. More likely, it's next on Nikon's target list. But again, Nikon's target would be to eat into Rebel, 60D, and 7D sales. I doubt that Nikon sees lenses as nearly as critical a component to iterate as they do sensor (and thus camera body).

This reminds me a lot of the US auto industry at one point not too long ago. GM and Ford were mostly looking at each other and trying to figure out how to steal customers from one another while a third smaller player, Chrysler, tried to just stay alive while the elephants danced. Sound like Canon and Nikon plus Sony to you in DSLRs? Nikon is in the Ford position (early pioneer eventually passed by a strong rival). (Dare I say that Nikon needs to do one of the things that Ford had to do? That would be Quality is Job One.)

Being number two in a market--here interchangeable lens cameras--is always a tricky place to be. You aspire to number one so your primary focus is on what you have to do to top the current number one. But you also need to beware that disruption below you can quickly topple both the number one and two if left unmatched.

Let's Play With Operators
Oct 12, 2012--
Let me make some broad generalizations for a moment:

Weight -- m4/3 and NEX < APS/DX
Size -- m4/3 and NEX < APS/DX
Image Quality -- m4/3 < NEX = APS/DX
Price -- m4/3 and NEX = APS/DX
Lens Choice -- m4/3 > NEX/APS/DX
Retro Style -- m4/3 (OMD) > APS/DX > NEX

If you don't like the operators I picked for something (<, >, =), substitute you own. If you only want to compare m4/3 and DX, leave the other stuff out. If you want to add in FX or CX, do so. It doesn't really matter to me, just as long as you build a simple matrix like the one above with some operators indicating better than, worse than, or equal to for all your possible choices of things that matter to you. You can add or subtract categories if those are important to you (e.g. add third party software or hardware support, or customer service, or even a feature like "flash"). Just build a matrix.

Now, what happens if any of those operators in your matrix change? For example, m4/3 and DX pretty much produce a similar Price for similar products these days, but what would happen to your final evaluation of the matrix if that operator changes from an = to a < or >?

This is why I think that discussing entire systems is important. When people have a empty shelf choice (either no system, or no lock into an existing system, or have just realized that maybe they should step back and reassess a previous decision), they have to have some methodology to proceed, or they just get confused. They might not write down a formal matrix and evaluate products within it as I suggest above, but they do some form of this informally (either that or they just do what the sales person says they should ;~).

One of the things that's driving a few people to m4/3 (see next) are the Weight, Size, and Lens Choice items in that matrix, above. That plus the fact that the Image Quality < is getting closer to an =, and may even be an = for some people for their needs. If Price is the same but all the other things either are equal or tilt to one side, the choice ought to be obvious (again, assuming that they value these particular matrix points).

And one of the things driving some to FX (again, see next), is that FX > DX in Image Quality, and FX > DX in Lens Choice, and these folk aren't Price, Weight, or Size conscious.

Now I mentioned that you should think about what happens if one of the operators changes. For example, I've been writing about DX lenses a lot, so what if m4/3 = DX > APS > NEX? Would that change your impression of the suitability of DX for your needs? Of what if Price became m4/3 < DX?

The fact is that some of the operators are going to change in the coming months. Moreover, there may be more possible choices in your matrix of possible systems (CX, m4/3, NEX, NX, EOS M, DX M?, APS, DX, FX, dare I say FX M eventually?). So the status quo won't remain the status quo forever. But this month I'm writing about the current status quo as I see it.

The Informal Poll
Oct 11, 2012--
I just did a quick count. I see slightly over 300 "Nikon lost me" emails in just over 3000. By "lost me," I mean that the customer has already moved to something else, or says they've decided to move to something else.

Now, I'm being provocative and those "lost me" emails are sometimes parroting things I've written this month, so you can't take the number as meaningful (e.g. "10% of Nikon users are abandoning ship" is not supported by this informal assessment). But that's still a far larger number than I expected to receive or would have guessed when I started this month's posts.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the current count is slightly over 200 "I've given up DX for FX" messages (and I'm including those that went to Canon full frame). That still leaves a big majority waiting for DX replacements/additions.

So we have fan boys who claim loyalty no matter what, a group of serious users that are making migrations, and a majority waiting for what's next.

So Is Nikon Any Worse Than Others?
Oct 11, 2012--
It seems the most common email this week actually anticipates something I was about to write. Basically the question is this: "so is Nikon really worse than the other choices?"

The answer is "not especially." That's damning with faint praise. I do believe that NikonUSA's policies have gotten more restrictive faster than CanonUSA's, but there isn't a camera company I know of that's hitting it out of the park when it comes to support, service, and attention to customers. Heck, I'm not sure any of them are even hitting a single.

I've used the term "race to the bottom" before, and it really feels like we're headed that way when it comes to cameras. The camera companies are busy trying to chase any new customer they can, but the need to cut costs and push more boxes is redirecting resources away from the loyal customers.

In essence, the camera companies purport to sell systems, but their support of the actual systems they produce is severely lacking. They're more interested in getting more people into the system than keeping people in the system. They think that the existing customers are locked in due to lens and other purchases.

In Nikon's case, it's even more disingenuous than that. Nikon has effectively said to DX customers: start in DX, buy FX lenses, then move to FX. Not just a lock in, but an expensive lock in when it comes to upgrade time, as the equivalent FX bodies are 2x the price of the DX body they mimic (D600 versus D7000, for instance). In other words, they're playing you for an upsell. Of course, if you didn't buy any FX lenses (and there aren't really many DX lenses you'd be buying into), you're not locked in at all.

Indeed, one correspondent pointed something out to me that I hadn't considered before: the D3200/D5100 user can't use anything but AF-S lenses. For the most part these are much more expensive than the camera body they're buying into, so they don't buy (m)any. Meanwhile, if they could have used the older D-type AF lenses, they might have been accumulating lenses on the used market, and those lenses would have been FX. In short, the low end purchasers aren't locking in much, but that's the bulk of Nikon's DSLR sales. Nikon has to get those folk up to the D7000 or higher level to truly lock them in. I think there's a high likelihood that these users will go downwards, not upwards, when it comes time to upgrade. If m4/3 and NEX can fix continuous autofocus performance, that would be exactly where these folk go.

But the other part of the "is Nikon really worse" comments have to do with crop-sensor lenses. I've already outlined that Nikon has a very limited list of DX lenses, and some clear gaps. So maybe the other crop-sensor DSLR makers do better?

  • Canon. No, they don't. Canon's EF-S lineup in some ways is more limiting than Nikon's DX lineup. They have fewer of the "kit zoom" and "convenience zoom" type options, and the same kind of missing primes problem. Since Nikon watches Canon as their main competitor (and vice versa), it's almost like each is watching to see if the other will make a real move in crop lenses. So far, neither has.
  • Sony. No, they don't. Sony's APS offerings for Alpha aren't really any more robust than Nikon's or Canon's. Sony's looking at Nikon and Canon and trying to figure out how to leverage themselves upward in market share. So far, Sony's innovations all lie in the camera body. In terms of crop lenses, they're pretty me-to. Given that the innovations in body haven't made a dent in the Canikon domination of DSLRs, maybe that's not where the way to crack the market lies?
  • Pentax. Yes, they do. The smallest player has the most options. True, a lot of the primes they're produced are capable of full frame sensor coverage, but most of those are small and many are pancake, which suits the crop sensor shooters perfectly. Pentax is also the only DSLR company that produced a fast crop sensor telephoto zoom (50-135mm). In short, if you were buying a crop sensor DSLR to fulfill small/light/inexpensive (as compared to FX), the most complete answer to that right now is Pentax. Indeed, it's probably one reason why they're still in the game at all. But their body choices are limited, and some of their technology (autofocus comes to mind) feels a bit dated. That plus their migrant status as they've been bought and sold by bigger companies twice has slowed their execution and completely muddled their sales and marketing. Still, they seem to be trying, where the other players seem to be just looking at each other.

My cynical view is that nothing will change until something forces it to change. Right now the thing that is changing is that some high end DX shooters are simply moving to low end FX, which, of course, isn't going to motivate the camera makers to fix their crop sensor deficiencies. Likewise, as long as Canon and Nikon can push sales of their gear upwards and not lose share to other companies, they're not motivated to change direction or policies toward user support, either.

As I've noted before and on my sansmirror.com site, m4/3 is the first thing that has really started to challenge the status quo (with Sony NEX adding a bit to that). Olympus, for example, has restored their previous high in interchangeable lens camera market share. It's probable that this will go even higher if they can continue to fill out their system and improve performance. Both Nikon and Canon now have mirrorless answers of their own, but these are again incomplete systems. As I've written before, if a company gives you an incomplete system after 13 years of producing it, what makes you think that their new system will ever be complete?

In short, I applaud Olympus and Pentax. I hope they continue to push the boundaries and produce better and fuller systems. I also respect what Sony has done with NEX, though it isn't yet clear Sony understands what they need to do with it to fill it out and make it a formidable competitor.

In DSLRs, Nikon and Canon are basically on the same course they were with film SLRs: just keep iterating the same products while grabbing market share through marketing, distribution, and price. Note that there used to be a third company doing that in film SLRs (and more successfully than Nikon): Minolta. It only took a lawsuit to disrupt them enough that the iteration tactic failed (that was true of Kodak in instant photography, too).

So I repeat: nothing will change until something forces it to change.

A few readers are tired of negative news about Nikon and blame me. I'm sorry, but I didn't stop selling parts. I didn't have a QA problem I wouldn't acknowledge with the D800. I didn't delay a D300s update. I didn't fail to produce more and more interesting DX lenses. I didn't raise repair prices. I didn't fail to keep Capture NX2 up to date, and I didn't change the protection system so that it limits the number of installs on the same computer. I didn't fail to repair 10% of my products on the first repair service. The list goes on.

Thus, it's possible that the thing that eventually forces a change is entirely self-imposed. One of these days, one of those negative news stories is going to spiral beyond Nikon's ability to manage it. In other words: could have been avoided.

So I'll continue my advocacy. Nikon needs to:

  • Quickly refresh the DX DSLR lineup. The D5100, D7000, and D300s are all overdue for replacement on Nikon's established schedule (and the D3200 was late).
  • Complete the DX system. Fill out the lens gaps and bring all the lenses up to the level that will be necessary for a post 24mp DX world.
  • Re-establish the message. With three interchangeable lens camera lines and a likely fourth in the future, Nikon really needs to get the marketing message for each right. CX is for compact camera users wanting performance (and it really should be called Coolpix, as I wrote several years ago, even before the Nikon 1 appeared). FX is for serious shooters looking for a system that matches the legacy equipment they're used to and performs at the highest levels. DX is the affordable, complete, and best choice for balancing performance, size, weight, and price. It's the everyman's interchangeable lens option.
  • Re-embrace their customers. Stop building walls and tear down most of the existing ones. If you have to charge for service and support, do so, but make sure it's quality service and support.

Today's Thought
Oct 10, 2012--
The camera companies want you to show brand loyalty. Indeed, to some degree, their entire strategies are based upon brand loyalty. But let me ask you this question: what camera company is showing "customer loyalty" in return?

Loyalty is a two-way street, and it's earned. You'll note that a lot of my criticisms of Nikon have been in ones that impact customer loyalty. As NikonUSA withdraws services and hides further behind outsourced support, that shows a disrespect to the customer, which decreases customer loyalty. Yet Nikon expects brand loyalty. See any problem with that continuing as it has?

Brand and customer loyalty go hand in hand, and need balance in order for both parties to benefit. Since Nikon bought the US distributor of Nikon products many years ago to form NikonUSA, there's been a slow erosion of things that would hold customer loyalty. Indeed, it seems that each new Japanese executive that rotates in to run NikonUSA has only one agenda: squeeze harder.

Well, if you squeeze hard enough, you'd better expect the pig to squeal.

Reviews are Coming
Oct 10, 2012--
It's taken me a bit longer to get a few details finished than I thought, but DX reviews are coming this week. Stand by.

Answering Mom
Oct 9, 2012--
My mom asked me this weekend what a fan boy was. It so happens that someone sent me a tongue in cheek email right after that, and I think it might answer the question:

"Dear Thom: I'm writing to express my anger over your libelous rants expressing doubt over Nikon's brand image as the globe's leading imaging company. As a dedicated Nikon fanboy end user customer, I've staked my reputation as a serious amateur photographer on my choice of gear. When people come into my home and see my pristine D800e sitting next to the D4 that just arrived, along with my collection of brand new f/1.4 primes, tilt/shift lenses and the f/2.8 trinity of zoom lenses, they know that I take photography seriously and am willing to spend any amount of money necessary to improve my images.

But with your constant writings filled with criticism of Nikon's customer service and quality control, I fear that my friends and the people I invite to my house to show off my gear to may think that I've chosen to align myself with an inferior brand name. If this situation continues, I may be forced to sell off all of my gear and spend thousands of dollars investing in a photographic system with a more "up-market" brand affiliation. And all of this because you keep writing that the D800e I bought may have a left-side focusing issue when it in fact focuses perfectly (at least, I suspect it would were I to ever remove it from its protective plexiglass display case in my living room).

So please, stop criticizing Nikon and just let some of their minor "oopsies" go unnoticed. Some of us actually have egos at stake in this race." [special thanks to ds, who wrote this]

Again, tongue in cheek. But that's basically the rationale behind fan boy attacks on messengers: they don't like people criticizing their choice.

Update: someone else found this posting on eBay. Might be from a relative to the previous poster:

"Mint condition Nikon D300 DSLR with power drive, battery, memory card, strap in original box with manual and all accessories. Camera is in mint condition with only 7505 actuation. Never taken outside the house. Selling all my photo equipment because of no time due to school and work..."

It's clear that some people over buy and under use a lot of DSLR gear. Is that really the customer Nikon wants to cater to, or might it not be better to actually produce more products that those that actually use the gear want?

Seems Simple Enough
Oct 9, 2012--
Here's a question from a reader: "If it is Nikon's dream that we all upgrade to FX, what are they doing to make us want to go for Nikon FX?"

Uh, well, my point last week was this: they're not giving you what you want in DX, that's what they're doing to make you want to go for FX. Yes, it's that simple and that wrong.

Now this particular person was actually trying to make a different point, which is that if you have to get rid of DX gear, what's to stop you from going to Canon full frame instead of Nikon FX? Nothing. So it's still a wrong strategy.

At this point I've heard pretty much every excuse for Nikon (including the ones I've heard from Nikon) about why DX isn't a complete system and why it's taking so long to get the high-end iterated and why the status quo is okay. They pretty much all fail as explanations except for one: Nikon is being lazy and not really seeing, let alone delivering product for, some key and relatively large DX sub-groups. I'd love to be proven wrong on that. I really would. But the evidence to date is to the contrary.

A Pivot
Oct 8, 2012--
With Week One of DX Month now in the books, it's time to pivot a bit. We know a bit about where we've been, but where are we? So look for reviews to dominate later this week, not stories.

As part of the pivot, let me point this out. In film Nikon built a full system. That returned with the introduction of FX. In DX, Nikon built a partial system. In CX, Nikon has demonstrated a more full system, but delivered a partial system. It's a little premature to talk about futures, but here's Nikon's dilemma as I see it: they clearly will have to take the low end of DX into mirrorless some day. Canon's already there with the EOS M, and that's Nikon's main competitor.

So, if Nikon didn't produce a full DX system, didn't produce a full CX system, and relied upon the full film system to limp into the future and provide a full FX system, what's the evidence that any move by Nikon into DX mirrorless won't also be partial? You know, if you send the same message to the customer enough, the customer eventually picks up on it.

In other words, not only am I pivoting a bit with my coverage this week (from where we've been to where we are), but Nikon has a pivot coming in front of them. They didn't exactly anchor their pivot point. That pivot is right in the heart of their most profitable line and the bulk of their interchangeable lens cameras. Note the words "interchangeable lens." They're not really all that interchangeable if you don't give the user the right things to change ;~).

Those of you who want to believe that FX replaces DX and that's why DX is being ignored by Nikon should note this: FX is less than 10% of Nikon's interchangeable lens camera sales. That means that we need FX cameras (and lenses) that'll replace 90% of Nikon's sales. Not happening, folks.

Every time there's a pivot in the market, it gives you both opportunity and risk. Make the pivot better than your competitors, and you win more customers. Make it worse than your competitors and you lose customers. Nikon is already losing customers to m4/3 from DX. Not a huge number, but a very visible and measurable number here in the US (sample email subject header last week: "Nikon DX to m4/3rds and HAPPY!").

Nikon's lucky that their competitors aren't exactly pivoting great, either. Canon in particular seems to be down playing the EOS M at the moment, Sony doesn't seem to fully realize that the NEX is their best pivot point in terms of grabbing market share against Canon and Nikon, and Samsung has made decent cameras but forgot that they need to market and distribute them.

Keep those things in mind as we examine the lenses that Nikon has given us in DX.

Confirmation Bias
Oct 8, 2012--
One thing I saw a lot of in the thousands of emails I got last week was something called "confirmation bias."

We're in the midst of our presidential election here, and confirmation bias comes up all the time in that. Basically, it works like this: voters don't actually use facts to ferret out the truth, they use them to confirm what they believe. When a fact contradicts what they believe, most people will disbelieve the facts.

This was obvious last Thursday when the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) came out about unemployment. Those that believe the Obama position saw the drop in unemployment as confirmation of their belief that the economy is headed the right direction. Those that believe the Romney position dispute the facts. Indeed, I found it ironic that the person who started the dispute firestorm was none other than Jack Welch, the man who made statistical and factual analysis the basis of Six Sigma at GE. (People also seem to have a short memory. Richard Nixon was so paranoid that he thought BLS was distorting labor figures to make him look bad, so he had one of his hired hands secretly investigate them.)

What does this have to do with DX? Well, I presented a lot of facts last week (and yes, some opinions). Responses to those facts tended to be along the lines of straight confirmation bias. Two basic camps were strongly evident in the confirmation bias hitting my In Box: (1) Nikon hasn't made DX lenses; QED Nikon is abandoning DX; and (2) Nikon hasn't made DX lenses; QED Nikon always planned for us to use FX.

I actually don't think either of those positions (beliefs) are true. Nikon's interchangeable lens camera sales tend to be 90%+ DX bodies. Nikon would be absolute fools to abandon DX without establishing something else to completely replace it, which they have not done. Likewise, believing that Nikon always intended us to shoot FX means that Nikon always only wanted to sell us more expensive things and was going to completely abandon the lower cost market (try as you might, you can't make an FX-based D3200 for US$650, including lens, and make any profit at all; that's not likely to change any time soon).

But confirmation bias also works within companies. Nikon managers look at improving sales numbers and that confirms that they made all the right decisions ;~). What if sales could have been higher with different, better decisions?

Or consider this: you're a third party company and trying to figure out which lenses you might want to make. You look at Nikon's DX numbers and discover: wide angle zooms, mid-range zooms, and superzooms. So what do you make? Well, wide angle zooms, mid-range zooms, and superzooms. (Didn't anyone else notice that Sigma made zooms for DX, but made primes for m4/3? And that Nikon sold mostly zooms for DX while in m4/3 primes have been selling well? Go figure.)

Technically, you need to apply a more rigid, scientific approach to determining what facts mean rather than just thinking you know what they mean. You have to test them. It's one of the reasons why I test my own assumptions with both public and private surveys all the time.

The Internet is full of discussions that have at their root some form of confirmation bias. "KR wrote...", "Moose said...", "Nikon Rumors says...", and yes, even "Thom wrote...". I try my best to isolate facts, and I try my best to test and report what I think those facts mean. It doesn't mean I'm always right (though my track record is pretty good). The Internet fora get all testy when a discussion is started with a confirmation bias, because then all the believers of "the other thing" chime in with their confirmation bias retorts, including the usual disbelief of facts. It's amazing how infrequently actual facts are correctly tested and analyzed, and even when they are, the messenger is usually shot. Repeatedly.

I do believe a serious evaluation and discussion about DX is necessary (otherwise I wouldn't be doing it ;~). It's overdue, as a matter of fact. That's what I'm trying to provoke this month. But watch out for your confirmation biases. You'll get quickly astray if that's the only way you respond to information.


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