May 2020

Friday —  May 29. 2020

As I intimated yesterday, NikonUSA is going to get leaner. How lean, I don’t know yet. I’ve got the names of several folk that have been let go, but I’m still trying to verify everything I’ve been told. I’ve also asked NikonUSA for comment, though I’m not holding my breath on that.

Since some of the cuts are in NPS, I simply have to repeat what I’ve written before: I have no idea why NPS isn’t open to all comers for an annual fee. NPS can and does provide useful services to pros, but this has always been done for free. What’s slowly happening is the Tokyo-mandated free stuff is being eradicated or harder to get to or make use of. 

The other cuts that I have been told about and am trying to verify the details of will have an impact on several different constituencies: dealers, Hollywood, and consumers. 

Meanwhile, over at Olympus, mirrorless camera sales for the year decline 10%, but in the Jan/Mar quarter dropped 17% year to year. Unit sales of mirrorless cameras dropped to 310,000 units (from 340k).

The operating loss for their fiscal year dropped by 44%, but the division still lost Y10.4b on Y43.6b worth of sales. So the camera group has essentially been non-profitable for almost a decade now, and the situation simply hasn’t gotten better (“better than last year” isn’t particularly compelling when you lose 25 cents on every dollar received). Note also that the loss might be worse: Olympus has long hid some costs in SG&A expenses, which is reported corporate wide, not within the group.

Overall, though, Olympus produced a good profit on continuing strong sales in 2020, primarily from medical devices. But take a look at this chart:

The green line is the Imaging division. With new product at the start of the year, Olympus was seeing a modest gain in sales—they also saw a small bump over the holidays—but that’s disappeared. Like Nikon, Olympus made a comment about moving to more online sales as the virus impacts decline and things start to return to normal.

Thursday —  May 28. 2020

Nikon today reported their year-end financial information (their fiscal year ended March 31st). It’s an interesting read, because Nikon took the extra time during their delay in reporting to be a bit more specific and they combined that with their mid-term management plan report. 

Imaging revenue dropped by US$650m due to market shrinkage and the COVID-19 crisis. Profit in the group dropped by US$37m due to “distributors mainly selling mid and high-end cameras," plus "delays in launch in products” due to the virus.

Much to the chagrin of the “Nikon will disappear” crowd on the Internet, the company overall booked US$5.4b in sales, and made US$62m in profit. No doubt there’s bad news in Nikon’s results—much like that of most big companies at the moment—but the financials they just reported show a lot of effort and control over their continued retraction that leaves them with reasonably healthy fundamentals. They have US$3.7b cash in hand and an equity ratio of 54%, with lines of credit still open should they need it. Free cash flow did drop to basically zero, though (operating cash flow was down but positive).

Since you’re interested mostly in cameras, the Imaging group was down in revenue by 23.7% year to year. The group took a loss for the year, though somewhat smaller than expected, as they wrote down less plant and assets than originally planned. For the year, Nikon sold 1.62m ILC, 2.65m lenses, and 840k compacts. That translates to market shares of 20%, 20%, and 14%. Specifically, Nikon reported that sales of mirrorless cameras increased, though they have three models now instead of two previously so that should have been a given. Ominously: “Online sales ratio also grew.” In other words, fewer of their cameras sold through your local dealer. Also: “sales in April and May decreased significantly.” 

As you might guess, there are no forward forecasts. Frankly, anyone who believes they can reliably forecast the next six months needs to be sainted. Or committed. That said, the medium-term management plan still has significant restructuring coming, as the combination of market slippage and asset writedowns is making it difficult to turn a profit in Imaging soon, which was and remains the goal. If you thought staffing at NikonUSA was already lean, consider this management statement: “optimize the number of staff at overseas sites by about 700 people.” Meanwhile factories are shifting to more robotic assembly. 

Nikon is still a two-horse pony: semiconductor equipment is 41% of the business, cameras 38%, basically a reversal of a year ago. The largest R&D investment, though, is in the camera business. Make of that what you will. Over the last few days I was doing some deeper analysis of the last ten year’s data from Nikon. They’re slowly shrinking in size, their market value is slowly shrinking in size, and their stock price is slowly drifting downward. I was struck by many of my graphs that this was a “controlled descent.” 

While Nikon still keeps talking about “realizing growth,” I’m not seeing it (yet?). Heathcare isn’t growing in revenue and still producing losses (as I predicted when they started that business). The remaining business other than semiconductor equipment is one-quarter the size of Imaging and very mildly profitable. These are the results of a well-managed company that can’t figure out how to come up with a break-out product. 

Meanwhile, people keep ragging on me when I say I don’t want camera companies to write quick little utility programs to make their ILCs serve as Webcams. We already have solutions for that. But here’s some evidence for my assertion: "When using the EOS Webcam Utility Beta software with macOS 10.14(Mojave) and 10.15(Catalina), the following applications will not list or permit EOS Webcam Utility Beta software to function on your device: Safari (Use Google Chrome), FaceTime, Skype*, Zoom*, WebEx*.” That seems like an important list to not be compatible with. 

Wednesday —  May 27. 2020

Panasonic introduced an intriguing 20-60mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom for the L system cameras today. Intriguing because of the “wider” focal length specification in what is otherwise a mid-range zoom. Moreover, it focuses close (6”, for a 1:2+ magnification ratio). I like it when camera/lens makers think a little more creatively and try to find new solutions rather than just replicate the same old primes, same old zooms, same old specs. So kudos to Panasonic. Let’s hope the lens turns out to be an intriguing performer, too.  

Just a reminder that Nikon is still sharing near daily new Ambassador presentations (and the previous ones are still available to view). Some of these have been quite good. I’m looking forward to Joey Terrill’s presentation on Friday, as he’s a talented photographer who’s pushed his creative boundaries several times. I’m not sure what happens at month’s end. The area where NikonUSA is headquartered on the East Coast is likely to open up soon. Perhaps we’ll get a return of the service and repair department next week or soon thereafter.

Tuesday —  May 26. 2020

Sony today announced the ZV-1, essentially an RX100 that’s been completely reconfigured for vlogging. While there’s no question whether or not such a camera is desirable or even necessary these days, there is definitely a question as to whether the ZV-1 is the complete solution. 

Some things Sony got right. In particular, the audio side seems nicely thought out, and the flip out LCD and the optional accessory handle/tripod are positive touches. However, there are too many things Sony didn’t address, such as touch controls (or any direct manual control while videoing yourself). Moreover, while advertised as a 24-70mm lens, the ZV-1 doesn’t seem to get to 24mm with stabilization active, and for a true selfie vlogging camera, we really need 16mm or at least 20mm at the wide end.

At US$750 for the camera and another US$100 for the handgrip accessory kit if bought at the same time, the ZV-1 is probably priced right, and will attract plenty of attention. It’s clearly a step above using a high-end smartphone. But is it the right set of features/performance to solve the vlogging needs? The jury is out on that. 

You can pre-order the Sony ZV-1 from this site’s exclusive advertiser, B&H [advertiser link].

Sunday — May 24, 2020

There's been some confusion about Capture One for Nikon. As with the Fujifilm and Sony versions, there are actually two choices: Capture One Express for <brand>, and Capture One Pro for <brand>. The Pro version is exactly the same as the full Capture One Pro (currently numbered 20, but really version 13.1.0 [sic] if you look at Get Info for the application). The only difference between the "for <brand>" and the unlimited version is that the "for <brand>" version only opens raw files and supports cameras from the camera brand you licensed it for. The full Pro version will open any raw file and tether with any camera that Capture One supports. 

Meanwhile, the free Express for <brand> versions differ in the following ways: they omit any tethered capabilities (including camera control and Live View); they can't synchronize folders; don't support sessions; no loupe and focus tools; no hierarchical keywords; no annotations; no direct color editor and all its relatives; can't add film grain; don't have keystone correction;  can't use multiple monitors; have a fixed interface; don't allow macOS scripting; and finally a few big ones: don't support linear gradient masks, spot removal, and luminosity masking. 

So: Capture One Pro > Capture One Pro for Brand > Capture One Express for Brand. Currently that's US$300 > US$130 > US$0. However, if you go to Capture One's Web site, the free Capture One Express version is hard to find. Click here to see Capture One Express for Nikon. If you're looking for the free Fujifilm or Sony Express versions, they’re on the same page.

Friday —  May 22. 2020

Fujifilm reported their full fiscal year financials (April 2019 through March 2020). Yearly sales declined 14% and operating income 51% for the Imaging Solutions group. The Imaging group was pushed to a loss in the January through March 2020 period. Slightly worrying is that the digital camera group appears to have lost 20% of sales in the year-to-year comparison. Some will read that wrong, but it does appear that Fujifilm's continued growth in digital camera sales didn't really continue in the past year. 

Wednesday —  May 20. 2020

Tuesday —  May 19. 2020

Yesterday's Capture One for Nikon announcement has triggered the perpetual license versus subscription question all over again. The problem with tech is that it keeps moving, and things eventually break if you don't move with it. 

If you buy a perpetual license, most of them these days are one-year or one-major update licenses. When the next year rolls around or the next major version comes out, you'll have to pay an update fee. If you don't, you risk having a new camera no longer operate or an OS change break something. 

The Capture One current pricing is US$100 subscription, US$129 perpetual for the for-one-camera option. I'm not aware of what the upgrades are running, but the major upgrade ones  for the full product have run from 50-80% of the full cost. Thus, to "stay current" in perpetuity, my guess is that your costs are going to average about the same amount each year as a subscription. 

The problem with Adobe's Photography Plan subscription-only choice, which runs about US$120 year, is really only one thing: if you stop paying, some parts of both products stop working. I still believe that's the real problem with the Creative Cloud, and one that Adobe really should fix. 

You want software developers to stay active and keep updating their products. One and done buying doesn't foster that. Products that are managed that way tend to die early deaths.  

Monday —  May 18. 2020

Hey, a new article!

Hmm. An old trend continues. Both Lightroom and Capture One now seem to have squads of ambassadors. 

From early in the film era there's always been an active marketing method that uses "name" practitioners to endorse and promote photography products. Over time the camera and lens brands developed ambassador-type programs that officially codified the relationship between company and advocate. Meanwhile, in this century the whole "influencer" thing on the Internet (Instagram, YouTube, et. al.) added yet another layer, where people found a way to become unofficial ambassadors in ways that still paid them, sometimes from the companies themselves.

The problem is that we now have a huge web of voices where it isn't always obvious where the sponsored relationships lay. For instance, at the moment, none of the Web sites of the Lightroom ambassadors actually identifies themselves as a Lightroom ambassador (and two of those Web sites seem to just be landing pages with no content). 

So, in the interest of clarity (and to go beyond the official FTC guidelines), here's my full disclosure: the only "paid" relationship I currently have is that B&H pays me an advertising fee each month for exposure on my sites. This relationship is exclusive; B&H is the only advertiser you'll see. There are still a few Amazon affiliate links on old pages on my sites (all should be clearly disclosed). I am a member of Nikon Professional Services (NPS), mostly so that I can get priority access to new gear; there's no requirement of NPS members to promote Nikon products. I'm also a member of NPPA (National Press Photographers Association), something I'd recommend every photographer shooting for editorial or sports also do. 

For over twenty years I've tried to make my opinions solely my opinions, and to avoid real conflicts of interest. I always try to base my opinions on real, extended, practical use of products. If I recommend something, it's because I've used it and found it to warrant my personal recommendation. There's no "paid" endorsement on this site. That includes when I single out a product B&H might have on sale. I only do that when I have experience with that product, and find the promotion to be a good deal.

Meanwhile...Capture One 20 is now out (labeled 13.1.0 [sic]),  and with it, a Nikon-only version is now available for US$129, similar to the Sony-only and Fujifilm-only versions that they've made available. This is compared to the US$299 price for the all-cameras version. (There are also subscription versions of the products.)

In general, Capture One is a mature, well-thought out converter and editor. The latest version adds in a few of the things that Adobe users were still not comparable, including dedicated healing and cloning brushes. The latest version has an improved Lightroom catalog import function, as well. For Nikon users, Capture One is now providing profiles that can match Picture Controls (for D500, D610, D750/780, D8xx, D5500+, D3300+, D7500 plus the Z cameras), and tethered shooting support.

Friday —  May 15. 2020

Earlier this week, Nikon began producing a Z50 Creator's Kit. Nice try, Nikon, but you scored an own goal. There's nothing wrong with what they included in the kit, it's what they didn't include that is telling: an EN-EL25 battery dummy to be able to use the camera with continuous power. I think the Z50 is a great little camera for streaming, right up until just after an hour, when it shuts down because the Z50 exhausted its battery. The tricky part? You'll exhaust another 1.5 batteries before the first one is recharged. Thus, to do semi-continuous streaming with the kit, you'd need three EN-EL25's (hint: go to eBay and buy one of the third-party dual battery chargers, as you're going to need it).

Camera makers are still thinking inside the box (sometimes literally). Nikon, in particular, seems to have gone from a company in the film era that supplied virtually everything you could think of as an accessory for a camera to one that is abandoning accessories right and left, not supplying them in a quantity that meets demand, and missing critical accessory needs necessary for a true system camera.

This is bonkers. The only camera business that will continue in the future is one that is catering to all the needs of its remaining customers. I'd rate Product Management at most camera companies as a complete failure these days. A failure big enough to threaten the industry's long-term survival if the trend continues as is. 

One thing I learned from my many decades in tech is this: managing the fast growth stage of products is easy, but managing the mature and declining product stages takes exceptional ability. Who's going to step up and show us they have that ability? 

Thursday —  May 14. 2020

So how bad was it, really? Bad. 

Sony reported their fiscal year financial results yesterday. The thing we want to look at most closely is the 4th quarter, which was January thru March, when the pandemic began to be clear. From the Christmas quarter, camera sales were down 49%. From last year's same quarter, down 25%. The unit volume for still cameras dropped to 400,000 units, down from 900,000 over the holidays (and 600,000 last year). While Sony didn't call out specifics, as Nikon just did Sony also took a hefty restructuring charge in the group cameras are in, but it might not have been related to cameras (mobile phones and TVs are in the same group).

If you're curious, here basically is Sony's current prediction: the spread of the virus peaks in June, and restrictions on people and retailers will begin to be eased in the July to September quarter. Thus, Sony expects that business operations will return to something near normal come the 2020 holiday season. 

We're going to see replays of this from the other Japanese companies over the next two weeks, with only minor variations on the themes: the first quarter of this calendar year was bad, things will remain bad for an indefinite period, things will eventually return to normal. In other news, Sony PRO Support has been extended an additional six months for all current members.

Hang in there. We'll all be photographing and buying new gear again in the not-too-distant future.

Wednesday —  May 13. 2020

The NAB Show (National Association of Broadcasters) went online this year due to the virus. 100,000+ folk crowded around in Vegas is not something we should be doing right now, after all. There are still exhibits and sessions this year, they're just all virtual. To see what's going on, use the main NAB Show portal. As always, this site's exclusive advertiser, B&H, has put together a page that has direct access to the new gear "at" the show, as well as video-oriented deals and promotions [advertiser link].

Tuesday —  May 12. 2020

As I predicted, Nikon has chosen to take an additional write down of assets in the Imaging group for the fiscal year just ended (of 7.5b yen, or about US$70m). While COVID-19 is partially to blame, the words "future utilization" are the giveaway that Nikon was already anticipating lower sales in Imaging, and adjusting its physical assets accordingly. Nikon still expects to report a profit for the fiscal year just ended, only now a smaller one. Full results won't be available until May 28th. 

Nikon today also announced the Z50 Creator's Kit, which is basically the Z50 and kit lens with a SmallRig Vlogging mounting plate, a Joby Gorillapad 3K, and a RODE videoMicro microphone (plus a bag and some training materials). Price for the kit is US$1150 and it will be available on May 21st. This isn't a surprising launch, as you may have seen this setup in Nikon's "How to Live Stream with Nikon Cameras.

Meanwhile, according to DC.Watch, SanDisk has updated its CFe cards. You identify the old ones by a product number that ends in IN, while the new ones use NN. It appears that Nikon is now saying that the Z6/Z7 support SanDisk cards with the product number in the format SDCFE-xxxG-JN4NN. See this page for currently supported cards, which was updated on May 8th.

Monday —  May 11. 2020

Yes, you've observed correctly: updates in and around the site have slowed. That's not because of the virus (directly), it's because I'm dealing with a family emergency. That said, the D780 book and review should get finished soon as I complete editing them in my free time, and the In Isolation series will resume soon, too, I hope. 

Wednesday —  May 6. 2020

Tomorrow (Thursday) at 3pm EST my sports shooting friend and long-time Sports Illustrated photography Peter Read Miller will be doing a streaming discussion on Peter's YouTube channel about the state of the art in sports photography. Guest is Haim Ariav of Glossy Finish, a very interesting sports event photography company.  

B&H has the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art on sale (in seven different mounts) for US$599 today only [advertiser link]. This is a really good price and a 33% discount for a fast, sharp lens. I suspect this item will sell out before the day is over. 

Tuesday —  May 5. 2020

The camera retail business is hurting badly. Obviously, in most states camera stores simply aren't open for retail business, though many are still eeking out a bit of business by selling on the Internet. Now it's obvious that the bigger stores aren't exactly riding the virus storm out so easily, either.

The New York Post reports that B&H has furloughed 20% of their staff. That's despite an uptick in sales of products that enable work-at-home. Meanwhile, up in Canada, the 29-store camera store chain Henry's took a serious step towards trying to avoid bankruptcy, announcing plans to close seven of the stores permanently and filing a "notice of intent" regarding the CA$29 million in debt they have outstanding. If debtors don't approve their restructuring plan, it's likely that Henry's would then have to formally file for bankruptcy. 

These are not unexpected problems, given the worldwide pandemic that has shut down large swathes of the economy. As I reported a couple of weeks ago, camera sales are down 64% here in the US. People simply aren't acquiring cameras when they can't really use them the way they'd want to. But I also see that overall interest in "things photographic" is down pretty much everywhere right now. Even popular sites are seeing less traffic for the moment. 

The problem is simple: cameras capture memories for most people. Even pros capture memories for others to use, enjoy, and sometimes share. With everyone isolated at home with their family, the types of events that people want memories of—proms, graduation, weddings, stage events, sports, vacation, etc.—simply aren't happening. 

I'm struck by one thing that bodes ill for the camera business: American Idol. Let me explain. The American Idol TV talent show had just gotten to the stage where it had picked its final 20 contestants when the virus hit the US and shut things down. That effectively ruled out doing what American Idol usually does, which is to stage events in LA each week where the contestants perform live until the last (best?) one is standing. 

What American Idol did is eye-opening (though it's not quite live, it's close). And it involves zillions of iPhones. The competition is still going on, but now it's coming from every contestant's home, each of which is littered with iPhones and other goodies sent the contestants from the production company. The program is juggling dozens of locations—more than the 25 they claimed—with multiple iPhones and some as-yet-undisclosed audio syncing method, and that has now produced two pretty darned good looking shows. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to tell they weren't using high-end professional video gear and crew like they usually do. Since Apple is listed for their support in the credits, I'd guess that there's been a lot of help from Apple for the American Idol crew in order to pull off what they have. 

The cable news networks would do well to emulate what Idol has done. But frankly, so would all of us. Those darned iPhones have turned into excellent video cameras, and darned good still cameras. And they are connected. As I've written for over a decade, the camera companies have ignored the Internetification of things at their risk. It's an indictment of Tokyo that we couldn't have done the same thing with work-at-home as American Idol just did for broadcast; and as easily, but with zillions of lower end Canons or Nikons or Sonys instead of iPhones. 

I've been looking at finalizing a new "streaming studio" for awhile now. Yes, I can use my existing Nikons (or Canons or Sonys; fill in your camera brand here) as the cameras, but not without a lot of other products or without grief (uh, Nikon, how do I power my Z50 continuously?). And even then there are glitches I'm still trying to figure out how to eradicate. 

If I were Apple (or Google or Samsung), I'd be spending lots of time creating the "How do I best share my Fill_in_Event_Here?" tutorials during this virus downtime. If I were a wedding photographer, I'd be trying to figure out how to do what American Idol just did, and make a lot of iPhones (coupled with a dedicated camera or two) into a "wedding event" that can be shared live and enjoyed in all its parts forever. But don't expect the kind of help from the camera companies that American Idol got from Apple.

Sony Kando 4.0 has been postponed until summer 2021. An online event for 2020 is being explored.

Monday —  May 4. 2020

Most of the camera companies have postponed their fiscal year financial reports (Sony May 13, Fujifilm May 22, Nikon May 28, Olympus May 29). This has to do with the logistics of finalizing audited results for the year when so many of their offices are closed. I'm also hearing that product launches are getting pushed back, and product deliveries are still an issue for some recently announced products. 

Meanwhile, Apple today quietly launched the latest iteration of the MacBook Pro 13". The big news there: latest Intel processors with better graphics, ability to add more RAM and SSD space, and the Magic Keyboard with the scissor-type keys is back. I really like the previous version of this computer—it's the laptop I use when photographing sporting events—and everything that's changed should simply make the new version better.

Friday —  May 1. 2020

Canon's announcement this week of a beta version of software to use your EOS camera as a Webcam has everyone asking me "why doesn't Nikon do this?"

Frankly I don't want or need them to. First, if you have software already for streaming that can use your Mac's built-in camera, try CamTwist. This is a little geeky to get set right, but works well in practice with my Nikons. 

If you're beginning to stream on a Mac, consider Ecamm Live, which has direct support for most Nikon and Canon cameras (it even sees my Nikon cameras connected to my Blackmagic Design Intensity Extreme). (Windows users will find similar solutions if they look closely enough.)

Realistically, we don't want camera companies now trying to write mediocre streaming software from home any more than we want them writing Lightroom equivalents or raw converters or any other add-on. Maybe, just maybe, we want camera companies to make camera cloud solutions that integrate with existing software products. 

What we really want is for the camera companies to cooperate with the existing software companies that have good solutions already. Remember, our DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are supposedly "system" cameras. An open and expansive system is better than a closed and proprietary one.

Now maybe it would help if Nikon, or a subsidiary such as NikonUSA, had one of their ambassadors document how to best use a Nikon system in a streaming situation (updateit's been done: see How to Live Stream with Nikon Cameras). But write new software from scratch? Nope. Been there, failed that. 

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