April 2020

Thursday —  April 30. 2020

One thing I'm noticing is that people are expecting consistency in an inconsistent time. That's not the way it works. Businesses love knowing what the playing field will be like ahead of time. When they have good knowledge of that and stability, they can plan and they can use their assets wisely (though we all know examples of ones that don't ;~). 

The pandemic we're all fighting is a minefield of unknowns and instability. Thus, business management is dealing more with contingency plans than it usually does. And there are more contingencies to plan for, too.

Best case scenario: COVID-19 will indeed fade over the summer months like flu does, due to both the nature of the virus and the self-isolation that is limiting its spread to something a bit less than an uncontrolled wildfire. And best case is also that some form of vaccine, in limited numbers, will be available when the virus re-emerges in the Northern Hemisphere in the fall. But that's both a best case scenario and it doesn't return us to "normal." 

Technically, we probably need 5b vaccine deployments to get to the level of herd immunity globally that would let us act normally. The Oxford vaccine that is already being ramped up into production before it's even undergone human testing projects can only make 400m units in a year. So "normal" is going to be further downstream than even the optimists project, methinks.

Camera companies are going to struggle with this. Photography won't seem all that relevant again until we're more back to normal, given that travel is one of the key sales factors for higher-end gear, and big events are another (particularly for pros). Moreover, the virus is more virulently attacking the long-term core that buys cameras (e.g. older folk). 

Meantime, the camera companies are working a bit like nothing has changed. For instance, NikonUSA just announced their May lens rebates [see advertiser link, below] and Mother's Day deals. We're pretty sure that this is just going through the motions still, while Tokyo huddles in video conferences and tries to figure out what the future actually looks like. 

Back in November I outlined a more concentrated Nikon lineup: two "last stand" DSLRs and six mirrorless cameras (two of which technically are transitions from the DLSRs). Interestingly, I still think that's the right approach for Nikon, as the pandemic really is only speeding up the bigger market contraction I was already anticipating. But none of us know what will really happen because this is an inconsistent time with lots of unknowns and instability exploding around us. We're going to see the camera companies carefully testing the waters moving forward. And not being terribly consistent as they do so. 

Tuesday —  April 28. 2020

If you don't have a good color/white target you carry with you for critical work, the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo is on sale for 33% off (US$59.99) today only at B&H [advertiser link]. There are other solutions out there, but I like the X-Rite models that fold up in a clamshell like this, as it's easier to keep the patches clean and unscratched. If you're not carrying some form of color/white target, then I assume that you just absolutely adore the automatic features of your camera and they are turned into perfect color by your photo editor. Here's just one example of why it's necessary: shooting through the windows of small planes. Cessna's, in particular, have a green/blue tint to their windows. Getting perfectly dialed in color shooting from the air in one is tough without first getting a reference (e.g. have someone stand outside the plane with the color chart and take a photo of it from within the plane before you take off). This is just one example. I don't use my color targets everywhere, all the time, but I use them pretty regularly. With indoor sports, for example, I almost always shoot the target at least once in every new venue, so that I can understand how the lighting skews the color.

Nikon updated the D850 firmware to version 1.11 to fix "an issue that disabled firmware updates for certain lenses and accessories." Hmm. Would have been nice to know which updates were being disabled, wouldn't it? 

Reminder: Nikon is streaming its Online School for free, as well as interviews with a number of the Nikon Ambassadors.

Friday —  April 24. 2020

CIPA numbers for March: interchangeable lens camera shipments down 60% year to year. Canon Imaging's first quarter: camera sales down 27% and profit down 80%. Slackline's US retail camera sales in March, down 64%. Yep, you're not buying cameras when you can't go outside or travel. Lenses do a bit better, with CIPA's lens numbers down 45% year to year. I don't see these trends changing for the second quarter of 2020. Maybe come mid-summer things will stop looking so grim.

Darktable 3.0.2 is a free Lightroom-like application, which adds new camera support, and continues to clean up bugs and UI from the recent really big 3.0 update.  

RAW Power 3.0 (macOS only) is a program from a former Apple Aperture manager that provides both a plug-in for Apple Photos as well a standalone application. In many ways, it's an improved Aperture, but without the cataloging. A companion iOS application does the same thing. This latest version has better integration with Apple Photos on macOS Catalina, including iCloud Photos, plus adds rating, flagging, and filtering of images. 

Thursday —  April 23. 2020

A number of small Adobe updates this week: DNG Converter 12.2.1Camera RAW 12.2.1Photoshop 21.1.2, Bridge 10.0.4, and Lightroom Classic 9.2.1. Besides support for new cameras and lenses, these were all bug fixes and security improvements.

The Omnicharge 20 portable battery system that I, my teaching assistant, and lead guide use in Botswana is on sale for US$50 off (US$150) today only at B&H [advertiser link]. Note that this is the USB Type C version (there are other versions that include an AC outlet, but those aren't on sale). This is a 72Wh large battery that is still TSA compliant. This version about doubles my older 15" MacBook Pro running times, and we recharge it via our vehicles during the day while on safari.  

Tuesday —  April 21. 2020

The Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens for the Nikon Z-mount is on sale at B&H for US$350 (limited supply) [advertiser link].

Monday —  April 20. 2020

Last Monday I wrote about the threat to camera stores. A day later, we saw the first way that threat will materialize: GoPro announced that they are mostly discontinuing sales through retail distribution, and will instead sell primarily Direct to Consumer in the future. A select few retailers will still be able to sell the camera, but GoPro expects most of their future sales to be direct. This is the Apple model: primary product distribution is direct—and in Apple's case, that includes Apple Stores—but a handful of large volume retailers still sell the product. 

I think I first mentioned this business model back when Ricoh bought Pentax. I suggested that the rollback of the Pentax dealer network was severe enough and Pentax's sales volume was low enough that they should just go Direct to Consumer. In the Amazon-dominated world, the customer preference for local versus online had shifted enough to make this possible.

Thing is, the virus pandemic has every business closely examining their sales model and business assumptions, looking for ways to get more leverage with fewer assets and to adapt to what is likely to be a lower sales volume coming out of the crisis. In GoPro's case, not only do they now get to keep the dealer margin on those new direct sales, but they also found they could cut as much as 20% of their workforce they no longer need to support full retail distribution.  

I won't be surprised if we see others follow GoPro's approach. No, it probably won't be a Canon, Nikon, or Sony that does this—though Sony did put their toes in the water with Sony Stores at one point—but I'd have to think Olympus is a candidate for such a transition. Some accessory companies (e.g. Think Tank, RRS, Peak Design) mostly started as Direct to Consumer, then discovered they could leverage that by going retail. I wouldn't be surprised to see some of them pull back to a more direct approach again. 

The thing we're starting to learn from the COVID-19 crisis is this: expect change. As I hinted at last week, if you want something to survive—such as your local camera store—you're going to have to support it rather than just give it lip service. 

Those of you who are looking to up your game with audio that matches your video quality should take a look at the Zoom F4 multi-track field recorder that B&H is selling for 27% off today (US$400)[advertiser link]. This unit, coupled with the right mics and technique can net you professional level audio for your videos (that you sync in your RLE). 

Scott Kelby has a free "Lightroom: From Flat to Fabulous" hands-on Webinar (he supplies you the files to work with) tomorrow (Tuesday) at 11-12am (EST).

Thursday —  April 16. 2020

The Nikon 24-200mm f/4-6.3 lens for the Z system has had its release delayed, apparently due to production issues.

A lot of you have asked about macro lenses now that you're stuck at home, particularly for the Z cameras. The easiest way to do macro on the Z6, Z7, and Z50 is with an extension tube, such as the Meike AF1 [advertiser link, also available on Amazon and eBay]. A tube set is a low cost way of getting real macro ratios with existing Z mount lenses when you're shooting in controlled circumstances, such as your garden or tabletop. If you are shooting a different mount, pretty much all mounts have extension tube sets available [advertiser link].

Nikon issued a firmware update for the 70-200mm f/2.8E F-mount lens. This update is done via the camera (it can only currently be done on a D5, D6, D500, D780, D850, D3400, D3500, and D7500, though). Download the installer, run that to extract the .bin file, copy that file to the top level of a card that was formatted in the camera, go to the SETUP menu and select Firmware Version. Follow the in-camera instructions at that point.

Nikon issued firmware 1.11 for the Z50, which adds support for the Fn2 button found on some Z-mount lenses. 

Monday —  April 13. 2020

The retail numbers were grim for March. In Japan, mirrorless camera sales were down 50% year-to-year (BCN). In the US, camera sales were down 64% (NYT). April is also likely to be grim. Even smartphones are impacted: China's smartphone shipments are likely down 40% for first quarter 2020 (CNN). Not every camera business was down, though: Logitech Web cams are sold out everywhere and the company says it might be a month or more before they can catch up to demand (disclosure: I helped design and produce the original QuickCam, which Logitech bought and eventually renamed.)

Now, a lot of this is that the world economy was basically placed in a coma due to shelter-in-place restrictions. The hope is for an artificially-induced, V-shaped economic plummet with a sharp recovery. (The choices economists talk about are V, U, and L; I'd guess that we're going to see a sharp V that doesn't come all the way back up, which is closer to the L definition.) 

While people keep asking me if the camera companies will survive this downturn, I tell them this is the wrong question. There's a bit of the "too big to fail" aspect to companies that size; the Japanese government and banking industry will do what they can to prop the CES companies up, because it's in their best interest to do so. Some camera companies might have to get smaller or further restrict or postpone offerings, but I don't expect to see outright failures. 

The right question is this: what companies really get hurt by prolonged shelter-in-place orders? Hint: it's always the smaller parties that are impacted most (one reason why we need the biggest actors in the system, governments, to act decisively and convincingly, and to re-lubricate the system). The businesses I worry about most are the local camera dealers. They don't have much margin to work with (typically 15% on cameras/lenses), and here in the US, the camera companies basically forced dealers to make more frequent inventory turns just to stay alive, let alone make a profit. The camera makers currently have a lot of inventory stuffed into dealers, often on terms, but many of those dealers currently can't sell them, and will get in a serious cash crunch very quickly now.

Meanwhile, let me illustrate the other problem. Everyone I know that was going to order a Nikon D6 has placed that on hold (including me). The reason? No sports, no idea when sports will return, and no idea whether the clients we were shooting for will have the budget to afford us moving forward. While sports pros are an obvious casualty, pretty much all those contemplating buying new cameras now have some sort of friction they have to consider before plunging more money into their gear.

What this all starts to resemble is "clogged pipes." The camera makers will eventually be trying to restart their subsidiaries and move product from supply chain to manufacturing to distribution to customer. But the pipes beyond the camera maker's control are all clogged up. Nothing's moving. It's impossible to tell when the blockages will be freed, and you might have to repair or replace a lot of broken pipes for things to get even close to the previous normal. 

So, when things become a little more normal and you decide to part with some of your dollars, don't forget your local camera dealer. They'll need every bit of our help to survive. But I think more importantly: don't let all the bad news you're hearing destroy your joy of photography (or anything else you're interested in). Because it's from that joy that the camera industry exists in the first place. They'll need us to rekindle our joy in order to survive. 

Topaz Labs updated Gigapixel AI to version 4.5.0 and DeNoise AI to version 2.1.3. ON1 pulled a Skylum and announced ON1 HDR 2020. 

Nikon, as Canon announced last week, has introduced a work-at-home policy for its headquarters and five of its manufacturing subsidiaries in Japan, effective through May 1st.

Everyone should have a LensPen (or equivalent). For mild field cleaning, a LensPen, used properly, is about all you need to keep that front element clean. B&H has a one-day 40% deal on a three-pen set [advertiser link].

Wednesday —  April 8. 2020

With Japan now declaring a state of emergency action (but not lockdown), Canon is the first to announce a shutdown for one month (of their corporate headquarters in Tokyo, plus four other offices and two manufacturing plants in Kanagawa). The two plants are listed as "development and manufacturing of next generation devices, and semiconductor devices." The shutdown began yesterday and extends through May 6th.

Meanwhile, the Canon 1DX Mark III is now in stock and available to purchase [advertiser link].

Tuesday —  April 7. 2020

Tamron today officially introduced the 70-180mm f/2.8 lens for the Sony FE mount. Official price is US$1199, and the targeted—but not guaranteed—ship date is mid-May.

Monday —  April 6. 2020

B&H has the very good Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 Art on sale today only for US$999 for the Canon EF and Nikon F mounts, US$1199 for the Sony FE and Leica L mounts [advertiser link]. Definitely a lens that plays above its price point optically (the excellent Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 is currently US$600 more).

Time for some more Photography in Isolation:

  • Workflow — Yes, a very big subject, which we'll tackle piece by piece

Friday —  April 3. 2020

Nikon's April discounts on gear are now in effect. Basically all the DX bodies (including the Z50 two lens kit) have significant but not deep discounts on them this month. The D610 body+lens kit is still out there at US$899. The D750 is at US$1499. The Z6 is US$1799, while the Z7 is a thousand dollars more. The f/2.8 F-mount lens trio all still retain a nice discount. These aren't aggressive prices trying to move gear, they're more like prices trying to keep some volume of product moving through the system without completely destroying margins or inducing supply issues.

A lot of you have asked me about pricing and whether bigger sales will return. We're in a period worldwide where it's difficult to conduct business as usual. I don't think we'll see big breaks on cameras and lenses until such time as the camera companies can determine that things have returned to some sort of normalcy, even if that's in a temporary recession. The big issue that's unresolved is what the Japanese companies do about product that was planned for launch this spring. Not only do they have supply problems to fight through, but there's little demand, too. I wouldn't be surprised to see late this summer be the new launch timing for a lot of expected new products. And, assuming the virus has been tamped down, I expect a highly competitive holiday period this year with a lot of discounting on established gear, as everyone tries to catch their numbers back up.

Software companies have a bit of an advantage at the moment. Because most use downloads and don't incur much in the way of additional cost for each sale due to their virtual nature (other than all those affiliate fees they're piling up), I expect to continue to see everyone try to pile on new users for their software products (I'm surprised Nikon hasn't figured this out and offering Camera Control Pro at a discount, for instance, or to make a bigger play with Nikon Image Space). Moreover, software companies have an easier time with work-at-home practices, including for on-going support. 

Which brings me to business failures. No, we're not going to see the Japanese camera companies fail. They either are part of a much larger company that will shield them, or they have good enough basic financial fundamentals that they're just going to hunker down. Moreover, the Japanese government isn't likely to let significant exporters fail. The software companies, if they're managing their finances right, should all come through just fine. What's worrying is the brick and mortar shops, the companies that make accessories, and even some of the photographers themselves. For instance, those of us who shoot sports have all had talks with our clients where the gist we hear is "we don't know what budget we'll have for that in the near future."

Thing is, where there's crisis, there's also always opportunity. You have to be nimble, creative, and willing to part with the easy known path, because it may not exist in the future. The photography industry may change some from what we've known, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Hang in there. Stay focused ;~).

Thursday —  April 2. 2020

NikonUSA has made all their video classes free for the month of April. NikonUSA also has an active YouTube channel with literally hundreds of short to moderate length videos. All of these have a marketing/sales slant to them, but there's plenty of useful information in there, too. 

Wednesday —  April 1. 2020

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