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News and commentary of interest to Nikon and Nikon F-mount users. Hundreds of other articles and reviews are available on this site: click here to see them all.
It's Not the Software, It's the Person Moving the Mouse
May 17, 2013 (commentary)--One reader reminded me of something else I've been writing for years: it's not the camera, it's the photographer that makes the photo. The better I get, the more I want out of my tools, yes. But the better I get the more I can extract out of any tool, even basic ones.
This is definetely something to remember with sofware as well as cameras and lenses. As much as I like Photoshop--and yes, I do like Photoshop--and as much as I'm intrigued by some upcoming features in Photoshop CC, the tool itself isn't the end result, it's the knowledge, skill, and work that the tool user puts in that creates the final result. If Photoshop disappeared tomorrow, would I stop being able to put final touches on my images? Would my images get worse? No. I might be less productive (especially until I fully mastered another tool), but I would get by just fine, I think.
I wrote about the "risk" of sofware in the next article. There's also the "reward." Many of us picked Photoshop over the years mostly because of the rewards. It made a lot of tasks easier, allowed us to do new things that we couldn't before, it took advantage of advances in computers, and much more.
Still, Photoshop is just another tool. A great tool, true, but just a tool nonetheless. So don't get too caught up in the tool itself; make sure that you're advancing your knowledge and skills, and pick tools that you feel have the right risk/reward balance.
Another Last Comment ;~)
May 15, 2013 (commentary)--Choosing software is always a risk. You're balancing what the software product does for you against the cost and against how long the software is likely to be able to do that work for you.
The thing about high tech--and in digital photography both our cameras and our computer darkrooms are high tech--is that it produces a constant stream of transitions. Hardware changes. Operating systems change. UI changes. Underlying technologies (CPU, ports, etc.) changes. The one thing you know for sure will happen is that something will change. And many of those changes impact software developers.
We have very few software companies left that have weathered the constant storms of tech changes. Consider word processing. I started with Electric Pencil, moved to WordStar, eventually moved to Word, and now use Nisus Writer Pro. Each change in my software choice was precipitated by hardware and OS changes, sometimes because a vendor didn't weather the change themselves.
When you choose a software program, you're committing your work (and often data) to a product and process. If things go well, you chose wisely and have (relatively) pain-free transitions as the underlying hardware and OS change. This has been the reason why I've withdrawn my recommendation for Nikon Capture NX2, by the way: historically it doesn't weather changes very well, and it now has an oddball UI that doesn't match our underlying systems (try touch with Capture NX2).
Eventually every company stumbles in tech. Some, like Apple, manage to dust themselves off and get back on a good track. With others, like Microsoft or Dell right now, it isn't clear whether they'll get back on track. Some, like Sun, get absorbed into another organization. Still others, like Digital Research and CP/M, disappear.
For Photoshop, we've had an almost 25-year run (most people don't remember that it was originally bundled with the Barneyscan and was revolutionary at the time for its advanced color management). There have been some rough patches in that history where tech delayed and almost derailed it (64-bit and the change in the OS X library support that caused a rewrite to the product, for example).
The problem, as I point out below, is that Adobe's business decisions have caused a massive user re-evaluation. The user perception is that the risk of continuing to use Photoshop (and the other Creative Suite apps) has risen due to the chance for file lock-in and requiring a current subscription to even access your data and work, let alone make changes to it.
Whether that perception is accurate or not is not the problem here. Sometimes you get these chicken-and-egg issues where it doesn't really matter what the issue is, only that there is an issue. The real problem for Adobe is how badly they marketed and managed this transition. They did so poorly at it that they actually may have jeopardized sales, and that in turn then just makes users evaluate the risk as higher. Like I wrote, chicken-and-egg.
Even the solution that some users are choosing--buying CS6 and not subscribing to CC--is risky. CS6 will work until the hardware or OS changes enough that it needs a fix. Whether Adobe would make that fix is now questionable, given their comments about "one code base."
In short, there's no simple answer. All three possible solutions--going with CC, stopping at CS6, finding an alternative product--have risk. Twenty years from now, it's possible that all three solutions will have turned out to be dead ends and we had to move on.
A number of folk have questioned my workflow. I always save and rename raw files into a file structure heirarchy first. Then and only then do I import into Lightroom or Aperture. Why? Because I can find any file in my structure without relying upon a software product with a proprietary database that some day may no longer make it through a tech transition. In other words, I evaluated the risk of committing to a proprietary solution and then did something to mitigate that risk in the future. In looking back, I now wish I had done that with more of my data and work: I've found a few things that had rocky transitions for me because I didn't do enough mitigation early on.
For example: NEF+JPEG. I think I may have been a little too harsh on this option in some of my comments in retrospect. While a NEF has an embedded JPEG you can extract, it's not as high in quality as you can record separately. What I really want is NEF+TIFF. Maybe I should have built an automatic Create TIFF into my ingest workflow.
So the real story here isn't about Adobe, it's about your photos. I'm going to have to do some more thinking about this subject, but once I have, I'll try to give you some further ideas about how you can take as much risk as possible out of your choices.
One Last Comment (I hope)
May 14, 2013 (commentary)--Adobe's dramatic change to their suite products heading to subscription-only has had one simple impact that I'm not sure Adobe fully anticipated. Every--and I mean every--Adobe product user I've talked to or corresponded with has come to the same conclusion: "I need to reevaluate my product choices and my commitment to Adobe." Every last one.
This is not something you usually want to trigger in your customer base, because some number of them will come to the conclusion that it is time to move on. I mentioned Universities in the next story, and I've already received notice from one that they are indeed doing the evaluation I suggested they'd need to, and that they have tentatively decided to pull Photoshop from the lower-end curriculum.
Those of us who have CS6 and haven't been tempted by any of the CC features announced so far have some time to do our re-evaluation. But we're all re-evaluating, which I don't think is what Adobe wanted us to do.
The Future's So Dim I Have to Take Off My Shades
May 13, 2013 (commentary)--One problem for Adobe is that the more people think deeply about the change to the Creative Suite with the (faux) cloud offering, the more they discover some substantive underlying issues.
Let's just say for a moment that I'm at a University and teaching future media students (this isn't a moot point for me, as I've been approached several times to be an adjunct professor lately). What software do you teach and train students on?
The file lock-in potential on products such as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere, and After Effects now becomes a tangible issue in answering that question. You'd essentially be committing your students to a life of having to pay software fees to access their work. Not a good thing, and not really a decision you can morally justify easily. You do want to train students in products they're likely to encounter in the field, but you don't want to promote lock-in to any particular brand, let alone suggest that, once trained, you'll have to pay a monthly tithe to continue to use those skills. That's especially true if there are alternatives.
A similar thing happened when Apple moved from FCP 7 to FCP X (Final Cut Pro). In that situation, the product changed incredibly overnight (which would change what and how you teach), features disappeared, and while the pricing went down, the way in which licenses were handled changed. This caused every department teaching video production to rethink it's commitment to FCP. Some switched. The same thing will now happen with Adobe, I think. It's difficult to predict how it will play out, as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign don't have great teaching alternatives at the moment. But Premiere does.
Let's See If I Can Get This Right
While I noted in an article last week that the real issue wasn't the price of Creative Cloud, Adobe has managed to make a muck of the pricing just enough that I'm finding a lot of people confused. Here's what I think the pricing situation is (warning, complications ahead):
- Creative Cloud Suite (all apps):
- US$49.99/month on annual basis (~US$600/year)
- US$74.99/month on month-to-month basis (~US$960/year)
- Upgrade from CS6: US$19.99/month (~US$240/year) for first year only
- Upgrade from CS3 or later: US$29.99/month (~US$360 year) for first year only
- Students/Teachers: US$19.99/month (~US240/year) on annual basis, for first year only
- Students/Teachers: US$29.99/month (~US$360/year)
- Teams of 4-10: US$39.99/month (~US$480/year) per team member for first year only
- Teams of 4-10: US$69.99/month (~US$840/year) per team member on annual basis
- Government/Education without Internet access or needing term licensing have to license a special version of cloud software ;~). Education should inquire about EEA programs, government should inquire about CLP-G programs
- Photoshop only:
- US$19.99/month on annual basis (~US$240/year)
- US$29.99/month on month-to-month basis (~US$360/year)
- Until July 31: US$9.99/month (~US$120/year) for CS3 to CS6 upgraders first year only
- No student/teacher pricing available
- Limited access to services, whatever that means
It currently appears that the NAPP member 15% discount still applies to these purchases at adobe.com, though I haven't been able to verify that yet.
What's particularly galling about Adobe's Web site right now--besides the fact that the above chart doesn't actually seem to appear anywhere ;~)--is that even though Adobe claims that CS6 is still available and it technically is still the current version of the product, try finding the download (or upgrade) information about CS6 anywhere on the Adobe site and you'll run into dead-end after dead-end pointing you to CC. Thus, I'll point out that places like B&H still have limited quantities of Photoshop CS6 that they can sell you (B&H Mac version, B&H Windows version Advertiser Links).
Here's the main Adobe CS6 purchase page on the Adobe site (US)
And here's the UK version
CDW is still selling upgrades from previous versions here
On the Adobe pages you can still get upgrades, you have to first click "Buy" then click the pop up of "I want to buy" to "Upgrade."
It seems a little silly that I need to write an instruction manual for how to order something, but that seems to reflect the quality of Adobe's marketing at the moment ;~).
Based upon emails I've received, it appears that if you engage the "chat live now" function on their site or phone Adobe, you'll get the upgrade to CC pitch hard sell and only if you persist forcefully will anyone tell you how to upgrade to the actual current version of Photoshop (CS6). What's amusing is that in the CC FAQ Adobe has now added a section about how you can save to CS6 file formats with most of the CC programs should you want to use a perpetual product with the files you create in CC, but they won't help you get a perpetual product without you breaking their arm first. Isn't it in Adobe's interest to sell you CS6 and CC?
Adobe is acting like a ham-fisted monopolist. In doing so, they're pissing off their customer base. They've already pissed me off by breaking Acrobat, never fixing bugs in Dreamweaver, having unstable installers and DRM, and much more. How long creative professionals will stand for that is now a serious question that needs to be entertained.
Nikon Still (Mostly) Defying Gravity
May 9, 2013 (news & commentary)--Nikon today reported not only their year-end financial results, but also their update to the mid-term management plan. Both are fascinating in their own way.
I use the defy gravity term because Nikon has managed to somehow do a few things that no other camera company did in the last year. Take compact cameras. The market itself lost about 20% in unit volume year-to-year, but Nikon went from 17.37m Coolpix to 17.14m Coolpix, barely over a 1% loss in volume. Put another way, they gained market share in a declining and very competitive market, a tough thing to do. The question, of course, is how many of those cameras are actually in customer's hands at this point, and what was the average selling price to manage that task, but Nikon's numbers don't reveal those answers.
DSLRs (plus the Nikon 1) and lenses both came in slightly down from their previous estimate, though significantly up from last year. Both were a little softer in sales than Nikon anticipated in the first quarter of 2013, but look at these charts and you'll see that that, too defied gravity a bit.
Overall, Nikon turned in a profitable year, though not a hugely profitable one (4.2% net profit margin before taxes). Cameras are now 75% of Nikon's business, and after everything is said and done, basically all of their profits.
The mid-term plan renewal seems aggressive, and it has some assumptions in it that are seriously subject to debate. First, let's talk about those assumptions: a compact camera market that sells 50-60m units in 2015, and an interchangeable lens camera market that is 24-26m units. To put that in perspective, 2012 was 78m compacts and 20.2m interchangeable lens cameras sold. So Nikon is forecasting that compacts will contract no more than 36% more and interchangeables will grow a minimum of 19% from their current rate. I know analysts who'd dispute both those overall market forecasts.
But let's look closer at Nikon's goal within those forecasts: 25-30% of the compact market, 40-45% of the DSLR market, and 25-30% of the remaining interchangeable lens camera market (e.g. mirrorless). At the moment Nikon has 25% of the compact market and 36% of the interchangeable lens camera market. Specifically, Nikon says they want to "strengthen" both the DX and FX cameras "to secure profit," leverage the Nikon 1 to "differentiate" and gain new customers, and tailor the compact lineup to each geographic region.
If all that weren't enough, Nikon continues to think of themselves as a growth company: they anticipate raising overall sales by 29% and profits by 159% in three years. So the pedal is still to the metal at Nikon. They have probably the most confident and aggressive forward forecast of the camera companies. Hopefully time will prove them right.
May 9, 2013 (news)--As many of you know, Pennsylvania's attempt at trying to force all companies to collect PA sales tax on Internet sales caused me to be dropped by the B&H affiliate program, one of the key ways I was funding this site. It took some time for me to negotiate and for both B&H and I to do the legal research necessary to create a valid relationship between us that doesn't fall under the change in PA's interpretation of the law (an interpretation I still maintain falls afoul of the Supreme Court's decision in Quill v. North Dakota).
Today I'm happy to announce that I've entered into a deal with B&H as exclusive advertiser for the byThom sites, and you'll see that the Google Adsense presence I had been testing is now replaced by an ad served from B&H. I've done the same over at sansmirror.com, as well. By making this an exclusive deal, I'm hoping to keep the ad clutter and intrusiveness to a minimum, while still providing you direct access to be able to see prices and deals on the equipment that I'm writing about from a vendor that I personally buy from and can vouch for.
With this deal in place, I can now start rolling out some of the things I've been working on over the past year that I hope make for more, better, deeper, and modern sites that cover the full range of my photographic interests. Stay tuned for more on that, hopefully with the first new bits showing up next week. One of my goals in putting together this deal was to fund some part time help, maybe even full time help, to add to and maintain my Web presence. With that now in place, I can begin the process of moving this site to a new platform with new features, look, and organization. Don't expect too much, too soon, but good changes are now locked and loaded and I can start moving towards deploying them. I'll do so as fast as I'm able. I'm pretty sure you'll be pleased with the changes and additions.
Ironically, by the time is all said and done, Congress may have finally passed a bill that forces sales tax collection on almost all Internet sites. Still, I think this new relationship with B&H is the right one for me, for B&H, and for you site readers. I'll be working with B&H to make sure that what appears on the site is relevent to what's being written about. Please join me in welcoming back B&H, and if you find the ad links useful, by all means click on them, which will help B&H know that they've made the right decision here and help me keep the site going full steam ahead.
After all the kerflufal over the Adobe Change this week, I was almost ready to run for the hills and not announce any changes to my own product until the heat died down. Hopefully, I'm making changes that you'll like, though, so there's always that.
Thom's Sine Waves
May 9, 2013 (commentary)--It's a little off topic, but Adobe's recent move to Creative Cloud actually represents something that's predictable. I've been involved with personal computers from the beginning and spent much of my career in Silicon Valley. Back in the 1970's I observed something that has remained true from the beginning: that computing (and all the bits and pieces that go along with it, including software), goes through sine waves.
The horizontal axis is time, the vertical access is "centralized" at the top and "decentralized" at the bottom. Mainframes were centralized at the beginning. There was one in a company, and everything went to it and was done by it. Almost perfect centralization. Step forward in time: Minicomputers were distributed computers, and decentralized data and services within companies using them. Suddenly a subsidiary or district office could have it's "own" computing capability. Step forward some more in time: Networking pulled things back towards centralization. Step: Personal computers pulled things back towards decentralization. Step: Local networks, and especially the emergence of the Internet have pulled things back towards centralized. Adobe Creative Cloud is just another pull towards centralization.
But every time you move one direction very far (centralized, decentralized), it increases the pull in the other direction. So while Creative Cloud and Office 365 and Google Docs are all trying to pull you to centralization, the smart software developer is working on something you own, you control, works the way you want it to, and is much more decentralized and keeps your data local and safe. For every customer that values centralization (and social sites like Facebook are another example), there are other customers that value local control and decentralization.
Photography practiced as a hobby isn't really something that is particularly demanding of centralization. Just the opposite: you have lots of individuals who want their own digital darkrooms at their beck and call and completely under their control and customization. Image editing as practiced by, say a large ad agency, has demands to pull things towards centralization: commonality of products and data sharing. Adobe makes most of their money from the latter, not the former, so it's not surprising that they think centralization is the best place for them to go. In doing so, however, they just opened the door for a decentralized solution to emerge. What that will be, I don't know. But if I were still managing software firms, I know where I would have been headed.
It's Not About Price
May 9, 2013 (commentary)--Adobe's change to the cloud has a lot of you complaining about pricing. A company can (and should) try to charge what it feels is fair value for something, and their idea of the "right price" won't always agree with the customer view. We as customers speak about bargains, fair value, and highway larceny about all products. We can debate whether Creative Cloud is a bargain, a fair value, or an overreach by Adobe, but we'd be doing that whether we were talking about CC or CS7 pricing. The price is established and out there, you can choose to not partake because you think it's too high, or you can opt for it because you perceive it to be okay. That's always been your choice as a customer.
The real issue here is the transition from ownership to renting. Ironically, Adobe may have just made your already-purchased older software more valuable, as people will be seeking out "for sale" versions, even used, to make sure that they always have access to their data files. It's called "residual value," and products you buy often have some, while products you lease or rent never have any.
But there's another residual value besides just dollars and cents: the value associated with being able to continue to access your data files. Now, Adobe has in the past done things that helped people keep access to their data files. When they turned off the authorization server for one of their older, non-supported versions of Creative Suite, which stopped people from being able to reinstall, they provided a version that could still be installed. So I think Adobe understands it's not in their interest to cut off customer access to files. The problem is that some people are worried about Adobe itself. If it were no longer around for some reason, then what?
This isn't a moot point. It's actually an important one. OS versions and computers keep changing. But not everyone is on the "update everything all the time" train, nor should they be. Indeed, the group that's hardest hit by Adobe's decision is the older hobbyist, who doesn't have the budget (often in retirement) to be upgrading everything at every iteration, nor the time to learn new interfaces, features, or processes (I'm looking at you Windows 8).
There's always been this delicate balance in a software company: at some point you have to stop supporting older hardware and OS versions. At the same time, you can't assume that every one of your customers will just update everything to keep up with your software. Plenty of companies have been on the wrong side of the "best possible balance" line over the years, and if you get too far from it, you get a heck of a lot of customer negativity in response. That appears to be one of the things that is happening here.
A Few More Cloudy Thoughts
May 8, 2013 (commentary)--You may remember my Last Camera Syndrome article. There's an intersection here. If you've bought your Last Camera or if you buy your last camera while Photoshop CS6 is still updating ACR for it, just buy Photoshop CS6 and you're done. At least until you need to switch to a newer computer or OS where CS6 doesn't run (still in the future at the moment). True, you won't get any new Photoshop features, but given how many people still manage to do their work with versions of Photoshop dating back to CS3 and before, I don't see that as a big issue. You'll have time to figure out a longer term solution if you need it.
Petitions to Adobe to go back to boxed software aren't likely to work. They've already made the commitment within their organization to go this route. You might get them to continue to sell CS6 for longer, but CS7 ain't going to happen without Adobe undoing all the changes they put in place in their development teams over the last 18-24 months. Going back would send the wrong signal to Wall Street, too. If you want to petition Adobe to do something, it's probably better to petition them to reconsider their pricing for a photographer that just needs Lightroom/Photoshop, and what happens to the software on major change (sale of Adobe to another company, failure of Adobe to survive, etc.). The biggest fear I have is of ending up with a product that needs to dial home but home isn't there any more. I find it amazingly ironic that Adobe, who was pitching DNG as the solution to proprietary and file format lock in camera raw files, is now in the position of potentially locking users into their file formats with no outlet should they fail. So maybe we should start the "make the PSD file format into an open standard" chant? ;~)
One serious thing that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere is the "Adobe bug" problem. With the boxed software, when you updated and encountered a new bug that made something not work right in your workflow, you could just uninstall and reinstall your previous version. I don't think this is going to be the case with the cloud versions. Adobe's history of introducing bugs into new versions that cause we users to go back to an older version isn't exactly perfect.
Much of Adobe's dilemma is their marketing message. Delivered as a fait accompli. Certainly not clear enough, as far too many people associated the "cloud" aspect with always needing Internet access to use the product or that the product code lived in the cloud itself. The pricing is essentially a net price increase to many (if not most) of their loyal users. The benefits of the move that were mentioned most mostly accrue to Adobe, not to users. Even the "more frequent update" message was worded very clumsily, and appeared to be more of an advantage to Adobe's developers than to users (e.g. "we can introduce features more quickly," not "you'll get new features more quickly") Uh, did they say that anywhere: users will get new features faster? Maybe they did, but that's not what people heard based upon the hundreds (and it might be thousands now) of emails I've gotten on this subject.
But here's the big thing I've decided is the real problem here: when you switch from selling something as a product (boxes) to selling it as a service (cloud), you're now in the service business, and you'd damned well be at the top of your game in terms of customer support. Those customers are paying you every month and expect good 24/7 support in return. Adobe needs to turn around their customer service attitude, and fast. If I'm paying money for something every month and get the kinds of answers I've gotten from their customer service that I've received in the past, I'm going to be a little more upset than I was. This big of a change really needs to not only be clearly expressed in the ways it benefits the customer, but it has to be backed by real customer support that goes above and beyond to keep them happy and paying their monthly tithe. This is especially true outside the US, where Adobe appears to be tacking on their usual "user not in US" tax to their pricing.
And finally, sarcasm. The camera industry is hurting. Adobe thinks they're a necessary service. It seems the perfect time to announce: "Subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud and get a DSLR for US$199 with your two-year contract*." *Some restrictions apply; DSLR is locked to Adobe software during the term of your contract.
And Here Start the Discounts
May 8, 2013 (news & commentary)--Inventory must be piling up on Nikon. The latest offer is a D3100 plus both the 18-55mm and 55-200mm DX lenses for US$499.95 with free next day air shipping from the Nikon Online Store. The free shipping is only available today and tomorrow, but the two-lens kit price is available through June 1st.
The fact that there are plentiful D90, D3100, D5100, and D7000 products still available new means that Nikon miscalculated and built too much inventory for demand. At some point, you have to fire sale these things and get them off your balance sheet. I don't think that's the last we've seen of previous generation sales. The real question is when does the problem become so bad that we start seeing aggressive deals on current generation gear?
May 8, 2013 (commentary)--Having had two long bus rides yesterday staring into the looming clouds, I have a few more words to write about Adobe's move to Creative Cloud applications (see Monday's story, below). I probably got more email on Adobe's change than any other subject in recent history; I'm still digging through it. Thanks for the feedback, it has helped me focus my own thoughts a bit more.
First a clarification/update: Tom Hogardy sent me an email while I was traveling to clarify the ACR/Photoshop CS6 relationship. I had quoted him as saying there would be one more ACR release for CS6 users. He wrote "I intend to provide Camera Raw updates for as long as we continue to sell CS6." Of course, we don't know how long Adobe intends to sell CS6, so this is still a bit of a vague promise, but it's still potentially better than the way I originally wrote it. Thanks, Tom, for the correction.
Now, onto my further thoughts:
- Current pricing -- Some are pleased, some aren't. This is part of the problem with making a major disruption like this. The ones that are pleased tend to be users of multiple Creative Suite applications. The more Adobe applications you use, the more you tend to be pleased, mainly because the pricing is essentially "one app = x a month, two or more apps = 2x a month. Adobe's key accounts--businesses, bigger agencies, etc.--are likely to be pleased because the pricing is on the favorable side for them and they can turn "seats" on and off at will, which is great when you have temps, interns, and other folk that come and go in your organization.
It's really the individual users that are mostly upset with the change, and for quite a few reasons. One is just timing. Before, I could advance or delay my update based upon my cash flow. Now, once you're in the cloud with Adobe, it's "pay every month or we shut you down." That, more than anything, is the bad takeaway that individual users seem to have: they no longer have control over if and when they update, and they've just added YAMP (yet another monthly payment) to their growing stack of those (phone, cable, mobile data, etc.).
Overall, the pricing is at least initially acceptable: US$10/month for Photoshop is US$120/year, or about US$180 for "a typical Adobe upgrade cycle." That's reasonable. But it goes up to US$20/month after your first year. Now we're at US$240/year or about US$360 a previous typical upgrade cycle. That's close to what a lot of people have been paying, more than others have.
- How many? -- Obviously, Adobe must have studied this change to death in order to commit to it. Note that there will certainly be people who value the change from boxed product to cloud. Those people will tend to be multiple product users who need to stay at the forefront of the software categories Adobe includes in the cloud. They're essentially getting a discount, they'll see more frequent updates, they have a predictable "per seat" cost that can be turned on and off as they add or lose employees, and much more. The cloud program has an advantage for multi-platform users, too, as you can switch between Mac and Windows at will. I don't at all question whether or not there will be people that are happy with the change. There will be many.
The real question is how many will be negatively impacted by the change, and what will they do? Given that there aren't a lot of deep, broad replacements for Photoshop, I suspect that most Photoshop users will move to the cloud in order to keep up with the latest features. But Adobe just put a target on their back, and the incentive for an independent software shop to try to pick off those dissatisfied users is now in place. Whether that will happen or not, I don't know. But for the near term, Photoshop is more vulnerable to competition than it has been in the recent past. As I note below, Adobe has slowly lost me as a customer for most of their products, with Lightroom/Photoshop really being the only ones I'm likely to continue using.
- Adobe's legacy -- They invented PDF, but the last several versions of Acrobat not only suck, but they're simply so terrible that suck no longer a strong enough word. They invented Flash (actually they bought it), but it was always a pain, buggy, and never really deployed to mobile devices well. They bought Pagemaker, killed it. They bought Framemaker, killed it. They bought Dreamweaver and managed to not make any substantive changes and it still has legacy bugs that seem to never get fixed. They bought other Web products, as well, killed them. For a long time they dropped Macintosh support for a key product, Premiere, suffered the consequences and were forced to get back on the platform.
About the only product that has had a long, relatively smooth history at Adobe is Photoshop. And now it's taking on some rough water during this transition.
- Teaching -- I've been considering doing a number of workflow videos for the new site (coming Real Soon Now, as Jerry Pournelle would write). But Adobe's change puts a hesitation in my step, and I'm sure others might be thinking the same thing. If enough individual users (my typical site visitor) balk at the change to the cloud, the number of people interested in a Photoshop-centric workflow falls. This is both an opportunity and a curse. It's an opportunity because it opens up the road to start exploring and demonstrating new workflows, and plenty of others will be looking for how they replace Photoshop. But the problem is curse is that there isn't a great replacement for Photoshop that bridges both major OS versions and does all the things a user wants to do.
Scott Kelby's Q&A about the change was mostly supportive, but somewhat subdued (note the answer to "So have you talked to Adobe about all this new pricing stuff?). With 70,000 NAPP members, a magazine devoted to Photoshop, and two PhotoshopWorld expos a year, I'm sure he's at least a little concerned about whether the Adobe change will have impacts on his company and all the Photoshop training products it has.
- This is an opportunity for Nikon. The "opportunity" for Nikon was to make good software in the first place. They tried and failed. They tried again and failed. They tried some more and failed. What makes anyone think that another try will succeed?
Beyond that, Photoshop is not the same product as Capture NX2. Capture is essentially ACR, not Photoshop. ACR is built into Lightroom and Lightroom runs rings around View NX2 and Capture NX2 in design, stability, updates, integration with other software, performance, and feature depth.
Is Nikon happy about Adobe's change? Probably. But Nikon is delusional when it comes to their software ability and quality to start with. There's no new opportunity here for Nikon, just the same one they've had for nearly 20 years now: write good software that solves photography workflow problems.
- The change solves piracy. I doubt it. I'll bet that someone will figure out how to break the "check in" process, and then we'll have people subscribing for a month to get the product, stopping their subscription and running a cracker on the install. And that will eventually end up on Torrents, just like every other cracked piece of software. So I don't think this was a DRM enforcement move, at all. If it was, like all DRM attempts, it will be broken.
- Don't I need lots of bandwidth for this? Probably not for most of you, unless you're saving documents into the cloud. The full program(s) is (are) downloaded to your computer. The only Internet need is to check at least once a month for monthly subscribers, once a quarter for yearly subscribers. Adobe does plan to make program updates more frequent now, but I doubt that this is going to be bandwidth hog for most of you. Adobe's announcements and marketing weren't exactly clear on this point unless you read down into the details.
There appears to be a caveat, though: it appears that some features--for example that camera motion remover function they've been showing--require your data to be uploaded into the cloud for big server power to work on and then return to you. I'm a little worried that this will become more the norm for new features rather than an exception, but we'll see. I do wonder what the Department of Defense and some of their contractors are going to do, though, as in some situations those computers are not allowed to be connected to the Internet and use different private networks.[update: while it was demonstrated in the cloud, the product manager tells me that, when deployed, the function will run on the desktop.]
- What will Thom do? Frankly, I don't think I need any updates to InDesign. I'm already moving away from Dreamweaver due to Adobe's neglect. Acrobat isn't part of the Creative Suite, so it doesn't matter in the decision. I don't use Flash. I did use After Effects, but not very often. I stopped using Premiere and went back to Final Cut Pro X once Apple fixed a few things. I don't use Flash or any of the other suite tools. Basically, Adobe is going to lose revenue from me, as I'll simply move from upgrading the suite to subscribing to one product, Photoshop. I'm pretty sure that wasn't Adobe's hope in making this change. They're hoping that people will go the other way: move from updating one product to subscribing to the suite. But there you have it: I'm swimming downstream, and I suspect quite a few others will, too.
- What do I recommend you do? Here's the only pragmatic way I see of looking at it: take Adobe up on the US$10/month price for Photoshop CC. Essentially, you're getting the next update to Photoshop for US$120, which is a bargain. But there's a catch: the product stops working 365 days from when you do that. Essentially you've bought a short term solution on the cheap while you contemplate what to do next. You may decide that it's worth US$240/year moving forward, or you have twelve months to figure out what your new workflow will be. That seems like a reasonable compromise for now.
Don't Say I Didn't Warn You
May 6, 2013 updated (news & commentary)--Adobe made it official today: no updated Creative Suite applications for sale in the future (standalone or suites). Creative Suite 6 is the last in the boxed line of software. In the future, new versions of Photoshop and the other CS apps will be by monthly rental only. That includes the version that will include the motion blur sharpening tool Adobe demonstrated at PhotoshopWorld and other places recently.
If you have a CS3 or later application, you'll be able to get your first year of Creative Suite Cloud applications (coming this June) for US$360 (US$30/month). The regular price will be US$600 a year (US$50/month). The good news--according to Adobe--is that for that price you get access to all the Creative Cloud apps for that price, plus other benefits (your basic assets and preferences are synced across the cloud no matter what computer you're using them on, for example).
Of course, if you were just a photographer using Photoshop as an adjunct to Lightroom (which isn't a cloud app and still remains a standalone boxed product) on one computer, you're suddenly burdened with what will be a US$20/month Adobe tax (for a single cloud app) if you want to continue that process. A lot of this group skipped every other update, so their net cost worked out to something under US$17/month.
This also raises the issue of plug-ins. Google gobbled up Nik recently, and I'm sure they are thinking cloud photography in some way, too. With Adobe disappearing into frequent cloud updates (or so they say), how long will it be before Adobe announces an "add-on" plug-in cloud option?
Adobe says that they'll "continue to sell and support Adobe Creative Suite 6 applications, and will provide bug fixes and security updates as necessary." This statement has no meat on it. For how long? How much priority will they put on bug fixes and security when it isn't their main product? What happens when the code bases start to diverge and it becomes more difficult to keep engineers up to speed on the CS6 code? Given the terrible digital rights management (DRM) in CS6 (I've had to reinstall once, and I've been hit with multiple sequences of re-entering license information, which is a real hassle when I'm traveling), how fast do they want to shut that server down?
Personally, I'm wondering what happens when Adobe gets hit with a denial of service hack on the server that checks to see if people are paid for the month. We've already had one instance of a photographer using Creative Cloud who didn't have Internet service (in Antarctica) when the software went to check his status and shut him down.
My guess is that Adobe just put a cap on the size of their market. Microsoft has their finger in the water with a similar approach for Office 365, but that's a bit different in that it's at a much lower price point, services more users (a household's set of computers), and is still just an option.
As you might guess, the Internet is all abuzz at this news, with lots of Sturm und Drang in the posts. I do think that a lot of people are forgetting about Photoshop Elements, which like Lightroom, isn't running to the cloud (yet ;~). Though I note that Pixelmater today is #19 overall in the paid apps in the Apple App Store, while Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 is #170. (Pixelmater is a Macintosh-only Photoshop-like editor.)
For the time being, CS6 users don't have to worry. But remember, ACR iterates with the Photoshop version, which in the future will be Photoshop CC (according to Tom Hogarty, the product manager, there will be one more iteration of ACR for Photoshop CS6 users). That means your next Nikon camera might not be able to be used with your current CS6 version of ACR. Of course, Adobe will say that if you just subscribe to the Creative Cloud, you'll be protected from that problem forever...wait, no: as long as you pay your bills and can get to their server.
Sigh. I've lived on the technology front edge for almost 40 years now. I've been through a lot of brutal transitions because of that. There's a good chance that many of us will be going through another soon. The problem I have this time is that while I can see the advantage for Adobe, I really don't see much of an advantage for me to make the switch. Indeed, for the implied extra cost--unless they want to permanently grant the discounted price to those of us who've been around since Photoshop 1.0--it just feels more like a pending price increase than anything else.
This one is going to end up a Harvard business school Case Study for future MBA students to chew on. What makes me think that some of those students will come up with a better answer than Adobe did, one that doesn't upset their user base nearly as much?
Update: Several of you have asked me what I'm going to do. Honest answer: I don't know for sure. I've been a suite user, but frankly the latest version of InDesign broke a number of my documents, the latest Dreamweaver still sucks at a lot of things and shows serious signs of neglect, and even Photoshop hasn't delivered many new, useful things to me. My main reason for keeping Photoshop up to date has been ACR, actually. As I did when I abandoned Office, I'll have to think about where I want to go and what I really need moving forward. The natural thing to do is to "just say no" to Adobe and not grace them with any more money. They've already managed to make Acrobat a mess and I stopped upgrading that (the last reasonably decent version was 9.5, and we're on 11).
More on the Sickness and the Cure
Apr 27, 2013 (commentary)--A common response to yesterday's article was "I get it, compact cameras are dead." Some of you asserted that they've long been dead. No, I wrote "sick" not "dead." Now, certainly if you get really sick and do nothing about it you can die, and that might be the fate of the compact camera if things stand as they are.
However, that's not how I see it. Consider this: more people are taking more photos than ever before. The cameras with which they're doing so are low in performance and basic in features. I outlined the proper marketing response in the dad/son quotes (next article). There's actually a larger opportunity to up sell into a decent camera now than there ever was before, because we have more people using cameras (smartphones) and eventually hitting the limits of them.
The problem is as I described quite some time ago: camera makers still don't understand workflow or what users actually want. They made this same mistake back at the end of the film era, when "instant" and "disposable" ate their lunch. Workflow changed, the camera makers didn't. Now we're seeing the same thing again: smartphones changed the workflow, and again the cameras really aren't changing fast enough or correctly. This whole "put an app on the mobile device and pipe some WiFi to get the images over" isn't being done right to start with, but that response isn't exactly the answer users seek, either. Not to mention that almost none of the camera makers have got it working without adding to workflow.
The opportunity is huge. If you can figure out the "next camera for smartphone users" before Apple or Google does, you'll have billions of people to sell to. If you wait for Silicon Valley to show you what to do, you're back to playing from behind at the best case.
The camera industry is sick. It needs the right treatment. This matters even to those of us who are already happy with and shooting with top-end gear (e.g. D800's and D4's and great lenses). We need Nikon and the others to stay financially healthy in order to keep making and repairing our gear.
When Apple Speaks, The Camera Industry Gets Sicker
Apr 26, 2013 (news & commentary)--Apple today launched a new TV campaign. A one minute ad of people using iPhones as cameras with only one line at the end: "Every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone than any other camera."
In marketing, this is known as the "validation point." We have the new leading practiioner making a claim that is not going to be easily refuted (if at all) and doing so in a broader marketing campaign than the established industry generally runs. If you didn't believe that most pictures were being taken with smartphones before, once this campaign gets broadly seen, everyone is going to start thinking of the primary camera in use today as being a smartphone. Everyone.
The net effect of that will be to increase the speed of demise of the compact camera, I think. The next steps we'll see are things that make smartphone cameras more like the old low end compact cameras: bigger sensors, modest zoom lenses, better imaging ASICs, etc. That will just reinforce the message that compacts are no longer necessary.
Frankly, the camera makers are getting what they deserve. What camera maker has actually managed to get across a clear message about why you need their compact camera even if you have a smartphone? None. Zero. Nada.
Such marketing should actually be very easy: "Daddy, why don't my phone camera pictures look like yours?" "Well, son, that's because my camera has features and abilities your camera doesn't." Instead, we get ads trumpeting 40x zoom and BSI sensor and a whole host of technological terms. But we're talking about the great mass market here. They don't understand technical. They would understand the message I just presented.
The sad thing is that the camera industry made this mistake before, back in the late film days, when instant and disposable cameras stole their sales in the mass market. The camera makers not only didn't learn anything from that, they apparently also didn't think it would repeat (though I and others started writing that it would back in 2003, so it's clear some of us saw what was about to happen).
When you consider how many photography resources Apple and Google have, how good those organizations are at marketing when they want to be, the camera makers have a long tough road ahead of them.
Fortunately, Nikon has strong DSLR sales, even though the market itself is somewhat weaker than it was. I'm going to write it again: Nikon needs to shore up DX before it's too late and before Canon gets off their butt and shores up their APS line. Then they need to make both DX and FX shine even brighter. "Why don't my pictures look like yours?" "Because I'm using a camera and accessories that are the best there is."
Here's the thing. Ask any Nikon DSLR user if there's something missing (feature, performance, ergonomics, lens, accessory, simplicity, workflow, whatever), and the answer is yes. If you want to be the leader in cameras, the answer should be no from as many of your potential and current customers as possible. It doesn't feel like Nikon is closing the yes gap very fast, if at all.
When Canon Sneezes, Nikon Gets Sick
Apr 25, 2013 (news & commentary)--Canon yesterday started the first quarter financial statements with a downer: they cut their full-year estimate of camera sales (compact estimates down 15%). Growth rate for the first quarter year to year in compact cameras was -37%, in interchangeable lens cameras -15%. For the full year, Canon projects interchangeable lens camera sales will be up 12%, compact camera sales down 21%. How they achieve that dramatic change from the first quarter results is unclear. The continued devaluation of the yen might help some, but I suspect it's the "activate the market through vigorous sales and marketing activities" that is the real hope.
Canon's stock immediately fell 5.7%. And echoing that, Nikon's stock fell 2.3%. Nikon reports their results on May 9th.
However, it seems that the financial and news media hasn't quite caught up to some real numbers. Here's the first quarter year-to-year comparison for all cameras shipped by camera makers:
Compact shipments plummeted in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the previous year. This is a disaster for most camera companies. Canon and Nikon share nearly 90% of the DSLR marketplace. That's important, because the dollar value for DSLR shipments in Q1 2013 exceeded the dollar value of all compact camera shipments. While DSLR shipments went down a bit in the quarter, in terms of bottom line dollar hurt on the camera division's financial statements, Canon and Nikon are a bit more insulated from the compact camera collapse than the others. As Canon shows it in their financial results: interchangeable lens cameras are 81% of the "value base" (dollars taken in) for the Imaging group, and that number is anticipated to go up.
Still, the squeeze is on. Note that all three camera groups showed declining sales year to year, thus you can't just shift to the growing market and hope that solves your problems, as many of the mirrorless entrants thought they were doing. There are only a few established ways out of a declining market problem: (1) lower prices; (2) market more heavily; (3) build more/better products than competitors; (4) get more efficient (lower costs); or (5) redefine the product category. Nikon is more vulnerable than any of the other Japanese camera companies because it's the only one that derives the majority of its sales from cameras.
DX versus FX (again)
Apr 23, 2013 (commentary)--Someone asked me via email why they should buy a D600 instead of a D7100, which is less money. After all, they're both 24mp and have much the same feature set and build quality.
Now technically, Nikon's Marketing Department ought to be the one answering this question, as Nikon is the one that should benefit from people understanding the difference. But what the heck, you all know that I'm not going to back off from doing their job when they fail at it ;~).
Unfortunately, things are a bit more confusing with digital these days than with film. With film the underlying grain structure was the same on 35mm and medium format (MF) film stocks. Thus, if your goal was to produce a 36" print, because you had to magnify the 35mm capture more than the MF capture, the grain also became more visible in the 35mm print, as it was magnified more.
In digital--in particular with the D7100 versus D600 comparison--that low-level detail magnification problem is no longer quite true. Both DX and FX can capture the same number of discrete elements at the core (e.g., 24mp of data across the frame). In theory, if you use an equivalent lens and then magnify a base ISO DX (D7100) result to 36" you should get pretty much the same pixel-to-print relationship as when you magnify the base ISO FX (D600) result. Each feature you're magnifying in the image has the same number of sample spots (pixels) in it, after all.
Some of you wonder why I've been harping on Nikon's DX lens absentees so much in the past year. Well, it's simple: we've now moved past the bar where the larger sensor is so clearly better than the smaller one that you'd always pick the larger one. If you don't believe me, go back and compare a Canon 1Ds image (full frame, or FX equivalent) with both a Nikon D100 and a Nikon D7100 image (both DX). Almost everyone would take the D7100 image over the 1Ds or D100. Thing is, our sensors today are very good at capturing and correctly converting every photon received into a digital bit count. You have to really stress the system (low number of photons due to low light) in order to see visible, meaningful differences between a DX and FX sensor with the same pixel count. For most of our picture taking, both the D7100 and D600 have more than enough dynamic range and noise avoidance. It's only in low light that any meaningful difference surfaces.
So the first of the marketing messages is this: all else equal, FX probably gives you another stop of high ISO capability over DX. By that I mean that--assuming everything has been managed perfectly equal, which isn't always the case--when we make a 24" print from a DX body at ISO 3200 we should probably get visibly indistinguishable results from an FX body at ISO 6400. This also ties into one of my sub-themes lately: we have fast FX lenses, but we don't have fast DX lenses, so the differences tend to be actually higher in practice because we have FX folk shooting ISO 6400 at f/1.4 and DX folk shooting ISO 3200 at f/2.8 or higher. Still, the marketing message regarding the body is the same: FX is a better choice for very low light work, while the DX system should hold its own against FX in almost any other amount of lighting.
Another aspect of the DX/FX difference generally doesn't get a lot of mention, though: pixel density. The DX body with 24mp packs smaller pixels than a FX body with the same count. That has other implications than just light collection. It has lens implications. Yes, I'm back on my repeated "where are the DX lenses" complaint.
Modern lenses resolve quite well, so let me explain this a bit more theoretically than practically. Imagine a lens that can only resolve lines about 6 microns in size (that would be one photosite wide in a 24mp FX sensor). What happens when you put that lens on a camera that resolves 4 microns in size (the photosite of a 24mp DX sensor)? Right, the lens isn't up to the capabilities of the capture system behind it and you'll be getting a little bit of edge blur as discrete lines spill over into part of an adjacent pixel. Moreover, let's assume that you're handholding and you move the camera 1 micron while shooting your image. In FX we've got a 17% pixel blur, in DX we've got a 25% pixel blur. (Remember, this is all theoretically arbitrary to help you understand the point I'm trying to make; in practice things are much more complicated.)
Technically, the FX camera is a more "relaxed" system than the DX camera when it comes to critical sharpness: FX can use lenses with a little less resolution than DX (all else equal), and you can handle the FX body a little more sloppily and get the same results you'd get in DX being more careful. While this may surprise you, this is not really different than the way it was with film. Medium format cameras could get by with lenses that were a little less resolution capable than 35mm cameras. That's not exactly the way people tended to use them, though: most medium format film users were trying to make bigger prints, so it was really the magnification issue that drove most of the 35mm/MF comparisons. As long as you didn't compromise the lens quality/handling in MF more than the extra magnification of 35mm, you were still better off, and if you didn't compromise those things at all, you were far better off.
Some of you were surprised at my D600 Lens Set comments recently. To some degree, the difference in needs at the photosite are part of that: the D600 is a bit more forgiving than the D800 in that respect. But we're talking DX versus FX here, so let's get back to that: the D600 is a bit more forgiving at the pixel level than the D7100 when you shoot equivalently from the same spot (e.g. D7100 with 200mm f/2 and D600 with 300mm f/2.8).
Here's the second marketing message: if you're buying solely for pixel count, you need better lenses and shot discipline with DX to deliver the same optimal pixel data that you would get with FX. Not by a lot, but every little bit can hurt you if you're not careful. Plus, what you save on camera body may be lost in lens, support, and other costs as you try to drive your quality up as high as the camera itself is truly capable of. Of course, this is why Nikon's marketing department isn't saying anything here: it's a negative message, and one made worse by the fact that Nikon doesn't have many better DX lenses to sell you, doesn't sell tripods, and isn't in the photography instruction business. Thus, they'll mention the higher number ("now with 24mp!") but stop at telling you what the consequences of that might mean if you're quality driven.
Of course, not everyone is printing large and trying to extract every last iota of quality out of their gear. What if you never really output to anything bigger than an HD TV? That's 1920x1080 pixels, which on a 24mp camera suggests that you'll downsize each pixel on the horizontal axis by about 3 (i.e. take 6000 pixels and make them 1920). Does it now matter how good the lens is, how much you moved the camera during the exposure, or even how noisy the high ISO results are? Not really. All those things tend to dive under the surface to invisibility when you downsize like that.
So the third marketing message is this: For email, social site use, Web display, and even slide shows (we don't use slide projectors any more, we use HD video outputs), you're not going to see a difference between DX and FX, so buy what you can afford. Hmm. That would raise DX sales and lower FX sales if Nikon made that marketing message, and the profit margins on FX are higher, so any guesses as to why they don't trumpet this message? ;~)
Most people asking the D7100 or D600 question are thinking mostly along the lines of image quality without really paying attention to what their needs are. For me, the question gets back to pixel density: do I need to put more pixels on a distant subject? The DX body allows me to do that at the sensor (smaller area with same number of pixels), the FX body requires me to buy longer lenses (by 1.5x the focal length). This is why a lot of sports and wildlife photographers on a budget all loved the D300. While the D3 was clearly better in the low light realm, it was more expensive and pushed people 1.5x upwards in lens focal length from the D300 (and until the 800mm arrived, there wasn't always a 1.5x longer lens available). Both cameras had 12mp, so it wasn't about pixel count. It was a simple tradeoff: low light performance versus pixel density. If you could tolerate the D300's low light performance, the cost equation favored it. If you couldn't, you had to bite the bullet and pay for the D3 and longer lenses.
The D7100 and D600 have the same relationship, only not quite as separated in cost as the D3 and D300 were, nor are they quite as separated in low light performance, either. Still, costs add up if you're not careful. But again, this brings us back to lens choice. At the consumer zoom level, the D7100 has plenty of decent choice: 10-24mm, 16-85mm or 18-105mm, 70-300mm. This matches up reasonably well against the D600's 18-35mm, 24-85mm, and again the 70-300mm (though the crop of the D7100 sensor makes that lens have more "reach" on that camera for the pixel density crowd).
But here's the strange part: look at the 10-24mm versus the 18-35mm, for example. The FX lens is a little cheaper than the DX lens. Ditto the 16-85mm versus 24-85mm (and over Christmas, the 24-85mm was essentially free if you bought a D600, a price that DX couldn't match even with the 18-105mm kit lens). The fully-burdened system cost equation between DX and FX has never been quite so close. Still, US$800 is US$800 (and over time I expect the body cost difference to probably average closer to US$1000). That's another lens you could buy, or a very good tripod and head, or a lot of photo instruction.
Which brings me to the last marketing point: the D7100 is the "value" product in this comparison. Maybe not as big of a difference in value as in the DX versus FX past, but still, it's essentially a slightly improved D600 body with a DX sensor at a lower price.
Realistically, though, what's happened in this generation of cameras is that we've gotten four products that are not hugely apart in terms of their features and performance. The 24mp D3200 is the "stripped down" product, the 24mp D5200 is the "modestly equipped" version, the 24mp D7100 is the "fully loaded but with the smaller engine" product, and the D600 is the same thing with the bigger engine. We're exactly where we are with many automobile product lines: enough choice to confuse you and put you at the mercy of the clever salesperson, who will almost certainly make some attempt to up sell you.
So here are the key differences between a D7100 and D600: US$800, one stop difference in high ISO shooting, 1.5x difference in pixel density on a distant subject with the same lens. One of those, or some combination of those, is what should determine which camera you buy. Be realistic, though. Are you really always shooting at ISO 3200 and 6400? Do you often go out and try to do distant wildlife shooting? Could you use US$800 in your bank account for something else? Answer those questions before anything else.
Yes, there are some other differences I've been ignoring: the breadth of the focus sensors across the frame, the perceived brightness of the viewfinder, buffer size differences, and a few others. But I think it unlikely that those things are really driving your primary decision. These might tip you the rest of the way, but it's those three things I mentioned in the previous paragraph that are they key to your decision.
A Strange Press Release
Apr 22, 2013 updated (news and commentary)--Canon today produced a press release in which the title contained basically all the information ("Canon holds No. 1 share of global interchangeable lens digital camera market for 10 consecutive years"). The asterisk and footnote say "based on a survey by Canon," but no further information about the claim is made.
The weird thing about this latest world-wide press release is that Canon actually first made the claim that their 2012 unit volume for interchangeable lens cameras was the tops back in March. Thus, someone could have simply said back then that this was the tenth consecutive year they could make that claim. Apparently they held off a month so that they could issue a press release about the obvious. Either that, or they were asleep at the wheel and nobody had actually counted.
We talk about "slow news days" in the media. Well, Canon is showing what happens on "slow marketing days." Basically they came out of the jungle for the moment, banged on their chest, made loud noises, then went back to their cubicles.
Update: I now count six photography sites that basically reprinted the press release. Chalk that up to a win for Canon PR. Not one of those sites commented on odd delay in releasing old information, the fact that Canon had to win back the leading market share from Nikon, how well that market share has held up (or not) over the 10 years, how Canon did the count, or why Canon would even want to trumpet this statistic all of the sudden (e.g. declining camera sales, and mirrorless camera growth).
That's More Like It
Apr 17, 2013 (news and commentary)--Sigma today preannounced (no price or availability) a new crop sensor lens that is certainly going to attract attention: an f/1.8 mid-range DX zoom: the 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM. Yes, constant aperture f/1.8. While a bit large and heavy (about 5" long and 28.6 ounces[121mm, 810g]), it's the first lens to bring a high level of equivalence to the DX crop.
Since "equivalence" means different things to different people, let me explain: I mean it allows a DX shooter to get basically the same picture from the same spot as an FX user. It's not quite a perfect equivalence, as the FX shooter is probably using a 24-70mm as their fast mid-range zoom, and the new Sigma is only a 27-52mm equivalent in terms of angle of view, so the DX user is clipped a bit at the two focal extremes, but in the overlapping focal range, the DX user should now be able to get the same DOF isolation as the FX user.
Other things you'll want to know: 72mm front filter threads, 11" (.28m) close focus, 9-blade aperture diaphragm (though it only goes to f/16), and an HSM internal focus motor. The lens doesn't change length or rotate the front element while focusing and zooming, a nice touch.
All in all, one of the more interesting DX lenses to come around in a long, long time. Of course, we don't know when it will actually appear or at what price, nor do we know how it'll perform. Nonetheless, one would have to say that Sigma mostly gets it when it comes to serious DX lens needs, and Nikon once again is left fiddling with mass market, lowest common denominator stuff despite having established the DX market in the first place.
Now if we only had that ultimate (D400) DX body to put something like this on. Balls in your court Nikon. Stop dropping it.
What Do Numbers Tell Us?
Apr 16, 2013 (commentary)--Pretty much forever, photographers have been arguing over numbers.
Back in the film days, we argued about granularity (Velvia was a 9 while Ektachrome was an 11). With printing of images, we continue to argue about Dmax (print density; e.g. most matte prints only get to about 1.7, while glossy tends to be about 2). In the early days of digital on the Internet, the big number was the standard deviation of mid-tone gray (higher is noisier). These days, we have DxOMark, Imatest, and other test suites providing lots of numbers to argue about.
I've written this before, but it seems as if it needs repeating and amplification: I'm a fan of testing the gear that comes into my office. Almost everything gets a basic Imatest suite of tests thrown at it. What I'm not a fan of is arguing that any one number, or even groups of numbers, makes a product better than another.
Numerology has a long history in evaluating consumer products. Back in the high fidelity audio days everyone measured frequency range, power, distortion, and a host of other supposedly critical numbers. Notice how we don't do that anymore? In the CD and MP3 eras we moved on. In many ways CD and MP3 tracks test worse than LPs and tape did. With MP3s in particular, there's compression at work, and a sophisticated compression that tries to hide data that isn't generally audible so as to promote the data that you can hear. An MP3 output from most players would test terrible against my old reel-to-reel tape gear. But it doesn't matter. Those numbers don't matter much any more.
Or maybe automobiles? How fast does the car go from 0 to 60? How many feet does it take to stop it? How many G's does it manage in circles you and I would never attempt? Automobile magazines and reviews are filled with numbers. But frankly, the numbers you probably mostly base your purchase upon are price and miles per gallon, which represents an ongoing price.
Here's the thing: early in a technology's history, the numbers often do describe critical differences between products. Nascent technology starts to mature and gets better as it does. At some point, generally when a product category has become completely mainstream and ubiquitous and stays so, the numbers start to matter less from a practical standpoint. All the products do 90% or more of what you need and the actual measured differences between products becomes smaller and less useful in making decisions about them. Price starts to become more of a factor than performance as products move towards commodity.
That doesn't stop marketing departments from trumpeting numbers, though (6! 12!,16! 24! 36!). Nor does it stop the truly serious from testing and announcing other numbers (80! 83! 89! 94! 95!). Obviously the 16mp camera that scores a DxOMark of 80 must be worse than the 36mp camera that scored a 95, right?
Sure, just like 420hp 0-60 in 5.5 seconds is better than 273hp 0 to 60 in 7.6 seconds (Porsche Cayenne versus Mazda CX-9). Of course, one costs about US$100,000 more than the other (as tested). Can you guess which one?
Photo taken with a crappy 6/50 camera ;~)
Here's the thing that people don't ask: does the number in question make any practical difference to my needs? Or better still: for 99% (or some other well considered percentage) of my work what's the number I actually need?
Marketing departments never want us to ask that question. Bigger is always better, higher is always better, or sometimes lower is always better, depending upon the number in question. Always. You'd be a fool to buy something whose number isn't "the best." I pity the fool who won't buy the best.
Which brings me to why I measure my equipment: I want to know what it can actually do, where its limits are, where I can ignore differences and where I have to pay attention to differences. For example, on that last one, after some careful measuring I determined that my D3s could be shot at base ISO to ISO 800 without anything changing in my overall perception of the images or my processing of them. It didn't matter if I shot at ISO 200, 400, or 800. For my work, the results were as close to the same as to make no difference to me. At the far end, the question is where the results started to severely change how I had to deal with both the image taking and the image processing. As it turns out: up to ISO 800 I didn't care, from ISO 800 to ISO 6400 I would tend to try for a lower ISO but wouldn't be afraid to use a higher one if it was necessary, above 6400 I had to really need the shot because of the compromises that started to come into play.
Great. Most of my work is at ISO 3200 or less, so the D3s was not a problematic camera for me in any sense. I could ignore the numbers until they got above 800, pay more attention to them progressively until they hit 6400, and then stop and seriously consider what I was doing and why.
Pros work a little differently than amateurs. First, we get paid more for higher quality and more creativity. A camera that is not restrictive to either of those things is more enticing than a camera that puts some restrictions into place. Second, we have to stay ahead of the masses. If we're selling gallery prints or stock, larger allows us to stand out a bit more from Joe and Jill Weekender. Third, we tend to have to work faster than you think. Most photographers actually spend very little of their time photographing and post processing, as we're too busy with the marketing, sales, and promotion aspects of our businesses. Thus, anything that causes us to have to work more diligently or changes or workflow towards slower is a real issue. It used to be that we needed lots of massive, time-consuming lights for studio shooting. Now, not so much. I've moved mostly to continuous LED lighting (partly because I need it for video shoots) and my cameras don't need as much light as before to get noise-free results.
I would argue that most amateurs can often get around certain numbers and limitations because they're not under the constraints that pros are. I'll give you an example. Someone recently sent me an example of the "horrendous" banding in the D7100 images when you underexpose significantly and then bring deep shadow exposures up by large amounts. First, that's not likely something a pro would do: they'd be exposing right and lighting the shadows well if they had any option to do so at all. But that's besides the point. The point was, yes, there was very visible banding with color noise in the sample. Curious, I brought it into Photoshop, ran Topaz DeNoise, adjusted the parameters, especially the Debanding control, and found that I could remove all of the banding. I did have some vague blotchiness to the darkest colors, but I suspect I could have dealt with that, too. Time heals all wounds. To "solve" Nikon's supposed banding problem I just had to spend more time working with the image.
In other words, who cares what the actual "number" for noise was in the D7100 image? I could make it "better." Indeed, I could make it much, much better. And of course, this was at the pixel level, which isn't the way I'd be outputting the image. At 300 dpi my fixes were invisible to the eye. In an 600x800 Web version, ditto. So why are we obsessing about how many stops we can recover shadow information from without visible noise? It's a non-number. A number that has little overall implication about whether you should buy the camera or not.
I'd argue--indeed I've been arguing for some time with many people who email with the "what camera should I buy" question--that how you respond to the controls of the camera may be more important now than any number you can cite. A picture is a precise moment (or moments) in time. If you miss that moment, you get a lesser picture. If you're fiddling with controls trying to change something, you'll miss the moment. If you can't see well through the viewfinder, you can't frame the shot. If you can't hold the camera steady, you've got even bigger problems. If the focus system fights you, you won't get the picture. If the camera's so precious or so big that you always carry it in a pack on your back, I hope you're not thinking that you're going to capture spontaneous images.
Even pros think this way. One reason why we like the big body designs is that they've been well-designed to our hands and shooting needs. We have dedicated buttons for everything (and in the Nikon pro world, you theoretically can change most critical controls without ever taking your eye from the viewfinder or your index finger off the shutter release). The big batteries last forever and the dual card slots can hold a ton of images, so we're not constantly having to stop to change things; we just shoot and shoot and shoot. I even go so far as to try to always have my main and backup body the same. This was great in the D3s/D3x era: I could move from camera to camera without ever having to think about the camera itself (other than ISO, basically). It's not so great in the D4/D800E era, when the cameras just aren't the same and I do have to think about which one's in my hands. Even if it were the same 36mp sensor, I want a D4x. Likewise, even if it were the same 16mp D4 sensor, I want a D800h.
But let's back up a bit and hit numbers from another angle. Let's talk lenses for a moment. The general question I get is "how sharp is it?" Okay, you want an MTF number, is that it? Good luck. Which camera? What aperture? What focal length? What target? What target distance?
Oh, so we get a range of numbers when we use something like Imatest to check out our lenses. Interesting. Let me ask you this: what's more important, some single number or knowledge of the full range as it applies to your camera?
There's some voodoo underneath the skin here we need to talk about. One thing I'm having increasing problems with and one reason why I haven't reviewed any F-mount lenses lately, is that I'm finding that I'm getting variable results. My favorite example of this is the 20mm f/2.8. It tested very poorly on early DX cameras. It still tests less than well on current DX cameras, but it tests better, all else equalized, on some current DX cameras than the older ones. But it tests better still on some FX cameras. What?
With lenses things are compacted by a second optical system. What system is that? A glass surface transition followed by UVIR filtration, followed by horizontal displacement (AA), followed by vertical displacement, followed by another flat glass surface transition, followed by air space, followed by microlenses, followed by Bayer filtration, sometimes followed by a photosite tunnel. Where's the focus plane in that concoction? And what happens to light after it passes that point? Turns out, it makes small, but sometimes tangible differences.
That's why I turn the lens question completely around these days. Given that a lens is reasonably competent at what it purports to do (e.g. has a respectable level of sharpness and a minimal number of artifacts or distortions), I choose a lens on how I need to use it. For example, while the 24-70mm f/2.8 tests a bit better than the 24-120mm f/4 at a number of things, the real question is how I'm using the lens. If I need true versatility and may be shooting a number of shots at f/8 or f/11 on my D800, then the Nikon-supplied MTF numbers aren't totally relevant. I'm into the diffraction zone at those apertures, and 70mm cropped is never going to be as good as 120mm not cropped. On the other hand, if I'm in that low-light gym shooting sports, f/2.8 is the only number I really need to pay attention to (indeed, I'm balancing the f/2.8 of the zoom against the f/1.4 of some primes and deciding that, again, versatility wins over "the number").
But don't get me wrong. I've tested my gear so that I know what to expect from any combination I'm using. I know what the "best aperture" is on each of my lenses on each of my cameras because I tested that. Indeed, I try to do something that none of the published lens tests on the Internet ever seem to do: test at close, medium, and far distances. Most of the test results you see on the Web are at what I'd call medium close distances. That might be right for event shooters, it might not be right for wildlife shooters. (Aside: do you know how big the test target is for 14mm at "distance" ? ;~).
Thus, numbers do come into play in my choices when shooting, but there's never a single test number that I'd ever consider in buying equipment. Okay, maybe that's too strongly stated: I suppose if I saw a test that said the MTF of lens A was 300 and the MTF of lens B was 800 at a critical aperture/focal length, I'd fairly quickly start dismissing lens A. (Warning: those numbers might be on a camera that has a top MTF capability of 800 or one that tops out at 2000 or 4000. Does that make a difference in what you think?)
Amusingly, no sooner do we get all excited about something and a trend comes along that destroys that. Lenses have to be sharp, right? Why did the LensBaby become popular, then? Or using a shift/tilt lens to isolate focus and blur the rest of the scene? Colors have to be accurate, right? Then what are all those Instagram effects all about?
Ultimately, the real issue is whether a photograph communicates to and resonates with a viewer, not how your gear measures on some arbitrary tests. Tests help you understand what you gear can and can't do, and help you optimize your shooting choices, but tests are not photographs. Moreover, there's not a single number, or even a small set of numbers, that can fully inform a buying decision, IMHO. Not even close. So why everyone is so obsessed with obtaining these magic numbers that have no clear meaning, I don't know.
He who dies with the highest MTF wins. Sounds sort of lame, doesn't it? (Why do I get the feeling I'm going to see a t-shirt with that on it soon? ;~) She who makes a great photograph that impresses everyone who sees it is the real winner. No number can express that.
How to Choose a Camera (Intro with Homework)
Apr 11, 2013 (commentary)--Historically, spring is a time when I get more "which camera" questions than usual. That's probably because for a lot of folk, their primary serious photography time centers around vacations, and vacations tend to be taken mostly in summer.
Let me start by just saying what should be obvious now: at this point in the digital era, almost all cameras are highly competent. At the DSLR level, image quality even with the entry models surpasses what most people could have gotten from film SLRs (assuming you understand the camera, what it can actually do, and how to make it perform optimally). As I've written for a number of years now about all DSLRs: if you can't get a good-looking image at the largest size a desktop inkjet printer can create (13x19"), it isn't the camera that's the problem. Assuming your DSLR is not broken, it will be your decisions and your handling of the camera that are the gatekeepers on image quality these days.
Take a look at Nikon's current DSLR offerings: 24mp, 24mp, 24mp, 12mp due to be replaced, 24mp, 36mp, 16mp. The first three use very similar, high performance DX sensors; the last three use FX sensors tuned slightly to different needs (general purpose, studio, action). That said, you can probably use any of those cameras for almost any purpose these days, and I know plenty of photographers that do.
Still, you probably have a type of photography that you like to do more than others, and that might influence your decision of which camera to own. Features and performance are still different amongst models despite the high pixel counts we have across the board these days. Types of photography you might do more than others: portrait, kids, event, travel, landscape, sports, macro, wildlife, macro, underwater, street, black and white, astrophotography, architectural. (Some categories have sub-categories. For example, I distinguish between indoor and outdoor sports, and between types of wildlife photos, in particular birds in flight versus animals on ground. For our purposes, we're going to ignore the sub-categories for now).
Depending upon what type of photography you do most, you might prioritize your decisions about which camera to choose a bit differently. For example, consider this simple, incomplete table:
||Continuous focus performance, low-light performance
||Dynamic range, long-exposure performance
||Pixel density, long lens availability
||low-light performance, flash, versatility
Again, that table is very incomplete (both in types of photography and in things to prioritize). I just wanted to show you a simplified sample to consider the problem we face in choosing cameras. Even in this simple example we start to see some intriguing and problematic differences. Sports and Event photography both prioritize low-light performance, but I'd put a higher priority on continuous focus performance for sports above low-light performance (doesn't matter much if the pixels have no noise if the subject is out of focus).
What I'm going to do over this spring and summer is take each type of photography individually and write about the priorities for that type, why those priorities are what they are, and give examples of how individual cameras might fulfill those priorities better than others.
Before we get started with those articles, though, you have some homework to do. First, you need to know what type of photography you really do most. Now a lot of you are going to try to punt on this. You're going to come back with "but I do all kinds of photography." First, I would doubt that. You'd like to think you're a generalist, but you're almost certainly not. If somehow you really are a generalist, you have only one choice of camera: the camera that has the best balance of everything. There is no such thing, so you'll be compromising something. Thus, you still need to prioritize.
So your homework is the following:
- Make a decision. Before doing anything else, pick a type of photography you really think is your wheelhouse. The thing you like to do most, the thing you do best, the thing everyone else thinks you're good at. Don't go to Step 2 until you've completed this step. Give it a day or two to ponder. Don't just rush through this step. Think it through, thoroughly.
- Examine your archives. Now go through the photos you've taken during the last year and categorize them (landscape, event, kids, portrait, travel, sports, etc.; see above list). If you're a glutton for punishment, you can go through more than a year's worth of photography, but I'll make the assumption that what you've done in the last year is relatively indicative of where you're at. Don't dismiss anything ("oh, I won't count those because I did them for a friend."). Count everything. How many landscape photos, how many event photos, how many travel photos? Don't lie to yourself or skip anything. Justification is not what we're doing here; instead, we're just collecting data.
- Examine your archives some more. Now go through the last year's photos one more time. I have three things I want you to categorize: light, subject, and focus. For light, let's just divide things into four categories: outdoor day, outdoor night, indoor, and indoor low light. Subjects: people, small animals, large animals, small objects, large objects. Focus: subject was moving, subject was static. If you really are a landscape photographer (Step 2), you should probably see that outdoor day, large objects, and static subject are your highest categories. If not, then you have some rationalization to do: either you're a sub-category of landscape, or you're really not a landscape photographer. Figure out which it is. Define a new category if you have to.
- Consider your future. Now that you know what you are, will you admit to it? ;~) You've either established a pattern that you're likely to repeat in the future, or you've revealed that you're not what you thought you were photographically, and maybe you'd like to change that in the future. Maybe you've been doing landscape work, but your child just got on the varsity sports team and now you want to document that. That's okay. What Steps 2 and 3 told us are the priorities you should have had with your existing camera. What Step 4 tells us is whether we need to change those priorities.
- Develop a priority list. Now that you know what you've done and what you're going to do, you need to start considering priorities for that type of photography. What exactly are the priorities that your camera has to have? You'll see some simple examples in the table I presented earlier. I'm being deliberately incomplete at this point because I want you to think through this process on your own rather than me just telling you (darn you Socrates!). There's a good reason for this: I can only generalize, but you're a specialist. For example, I can tell you some of the general things to look for in a camera for conventional landscape work, but what if you've established a specialty form that mostly does light painting of landscapes? The generalist wouldn't prioritize long-exposure performance as high as the light-painter. Which reminds me, when I say priorities, I mean list them in order of importance (1-low light, 2-focus speed, 3-superduper vivid JPEGs). I don't want just a list from you, I want an ordered list.
- Examine what you've got versus your priorities. If your current gear matches your priorities, you're done. You don't need a new camera. You can just sit and evaluate any new camera introduced to see if it better matches your priorities, and if it does, consider the costs/benefits of dumping your current gear for it. If your current gear doesn't match your priorities, you're probably already in the market for a new camera. You may have enough information to proceed, or you may want to wait for my series of articles to fill in some blanks and help you through the process.
Funny thing is, the camera makers all want to capture those smartphone and compact camera users with higher-end gear. To some degree, they short-circuit all the above down to very primitive marketing messages: the reason to get a DSLR to replace your compact camera is because it works better in low light and focuses faster. But go back up and look at the simple table I presented. Low light only showed up in two of the entries, and focus performance in one. The cynic in me says that the camera companies created low-cost cameras with clear deficiencies and are now marketing high-cost cameras that address those deficiencies. That's a pretty traditional, basic product marketing approach. But it doesn't necessarily solve the customers' problems well.
If you look in that right-hand column of this front page, you'll see that I use eight different still cameras regularly. Why? Because I'm picking gear based upon priorities, and depending upon what I'm doing my priorities change enough that I use different products. If I were just to pursue photography solely for my imaging (i.e. live solely off my image income), I'm almost certain that list would be down to four or fewer cameras, as I would almost certainly specialize in what I believe I do best.
So. Do your homework. Soon I'll have my first article that further develops this idea, targeting landscape photography.
Playing from Behind
Apr 9, 2013 (commentary)--With the National Association of Broadcasters convention in full force this week in Las Vegas, it's easy to see another of Nikon's problems: they're playing from behind in video.
To put this in context, the D90 was the first large sensor DSLR to have a video capability, back in 2008. In tech, that's like the Paleolithic age. Here in the modern era, large sensor video has moved in so many directions and blossomed in so many ways it's stunning. The NAB show each year is the place where most of the pro video stuff shows up first. When I first attended an NAB convention back in the mid-80's, the convention floor was mostly stuff I'd never have a chance to individually afford in my lifetime short of inheriting a profitable TV station. Today, the portable aspect of video creation is omnipresent at the show, from GoPro through RED and Arriflex, with just about everything you'd expect in between, and the costs are getting down into the range where even students can afford quality gear. Amongst all the usual noise and fanfare at the NAB this year is a modest-sized Nikon booth.
It's probably a good thing that the Atomos booth is kitty corner to the Nikon booth, because the D800 and D4 aren't close to complete systems if your goal is to record high quality video for broadcast: you need something external to grab that uncompressed HDMI stream and do something with it, such as an Atomos Ninja or Samurai (just updated to the Samurai Blade with a true HD LCD, while the Ninja was just dropped in price to US$700).
Thing is, the buzz is long gone from the uncompressed data stream of the Nikon DSLRs. That apparently was Nikon's complete video salvo for the foreseeable future, and it's falling short. Canon and Sony are showing dedicated large sensor video lineups. 4K video capture is ubiquitous, with everyone from GoPro on up showing it (except for Nikon). High speed captures are now up to 1000 fps (at 4k). RED has a clean room (!) on the show floor where they're upgrading older cameras to 6K state-of-the-art. Everywhere you find things that Nikon isn't even doing as basics yet, including something as simple as a lens designed for video usage (focus pull and true stepless apertures, and marked in actual t/stops, not theoretical f/stops).
The buzz of the show, if you haven't heard, is Blackmagic Design's US$1000 Pocket Cinema Camera (PCC), which has an m4/3 lens mount (and I cover over on sansmirror.com; click the link). So for about one-fourth the cost of a D800 and the Atomos Ninja necessary to get high quality ProRes 422 HQ video output in 1080P, the PCC is turning heads. Or, if you'd rather have a Super35mm sensor 4k rig that has a built-in solid-state drive slot, Blackmagic also just introduced one of those for less than the price of a D4. It's the usual thing in tech: innovative state-of-the-art, design-to-function suddenly establishes new price points that legacy systems have a difficult time dealing with. Assuming the PCC is even remotely close to delivering on its promise, the "let's use a DSLR for high quality video" premise has basically fallen on its face. From birth to deathbed in five years.
This is exactly why just after the D90 appeared I started writing that Nikon needed a true video system if they wanted to play in this market. Thinking that a DSLR with video solution was going to hold serve was a terrible bet, and even Canon and Sony knew better than making it, and they were better positioned to do DSLR video than Nikon from the beginning. The Canon 5DII was not an end in itself, but a fast response to swing to where they needed to get (the EOS C series).
It's not just cameras where Nikon has been making mistakes, but lenses, too. Back when I started in film and video in the 70's, it wasn't unusual to find Nikkors sitting in front of Hollywood production cameras. These days, not so much. Why? Well, dropping the aperture ring and moving to AF-S with short focus ring turns weren't good choices for film/video production. When you do find someone using Nikkors on their video gear these days, it tends to be older legacy lenses, not the stuff Nikon is making these days. I asked someone at RED recently how many Nikon mount systems they're selling these days compared to PL or Canon mounts, and the answer was "not many."
So how's this affect us DSLR users?
Nikon is playing from behind in video, and since it doesn't appear that they've got a video system up their sleeves (it'll be very late now if they do), yet they still seem to aspire to be considered in the video world (otherwise why have a very expensive booth presence at NAB?), I suspect that we DSLR users are the ones that are going to bear the brunt. Again. The critical path timelines for upcoming Nikon models are probably now filled with video feature dependencies (e.g. "when can we get to 4k?", "how can we stuff broadcast quality compression into EXPEED?", "can we remove the rolling shutter effect?", and so on).
To what end?
Let's assume for a moment that Nikon (and Canon) was right about the photojournalist of 2012: that the demands of their job meant that they needed to be able to shoot stills and video. None of these folk wanted to carry a full still rig (D3) and a full video rig (say something at least at the capability of the Canon XA10, probably higher). Beyond the extra stuff (microphones, batteries, cables, etc.), having one big hunk of a camera to carry around was already a burden. Today (okay, in July) they could shoot stills with a D4 and carry a Blackmagic PCC in their jacket pocket for the video. What they probably want is a smaller D4 next, maybe something like a D400? ;~).
It seems to me that Nikon has put themselves in a box. The semiconductor equipment portion of the company has shrunk to being only a small piece of their revenues (and not always a contributor to profits). It shrunk because Nikon failed to see the market maturation correctly and blithely kept running terrible service and support at their existing customers until things were so bad an upstart startup came and took the majority of the market from them (sound familiar?). Smartphones are killing the low end of the still camera business. With no real presence in the growing video business, that leaves Nikon with just a still camera business, one that is under intense pressure to produce. Meanwhile, the cost to Nikon to exhibit at something like NAB is going up due to the depreciating yen. Indeed, running all those foreign subsidiaries is getting more costly, and much of the world is still in or near recession, so goosing still camera sales further upward via brute force of price reductions isn't going to be as effective as usual, I suspect.
If we look closely at what Nikon's done in the past decade photography-wise:
- Iterated their main lines of cameras. Yep, they know how to do that. They're darned good at it, though any given iteration doesn't always move the bar particularly far. Still, I'll give them full marks here. As long as there are loyal Nikon DSLR users, the DSLR line should continue to iterate, even as growth moves to flat and eventually declining.
- Tried a new type of camera. The Nikon 1 took some of their best engineering team and put them at work to produce a "different" kind of camera. Parts turned out great (focus, ease of manufacturing) and other parts didn't (wrong sensor choice, too high price). At the moment, it hasn't added tangibly to Nikon's bottom line. Partial marks.
- Tried another new type of camera. The Android Coolpix is a mess, expensive, and doesn't really sell to customers that know better, which is most of them. It's a Frankencamera problem, basically. You have a smartphone without the phone, you have a Coolpix. Put them together and you have a Coolpix bolted to a non-phoning phone. Why not just have your regular cameras talk to phones? Seems simpler. No marks.
- Failed at the software business. Farmed out a key software product, brought it back, took too long to iterate it to 64-bit, haven't added anything useful to it in a geological era (in Silicon Valley time frame), can't keep it up to date with OS system updates, has an update notice system that fails to send out timely update notices, and…oh, I'll be typing all day if I keep iterating this list. Oh, and did we mention the encryption system for images whose encryption was easily broken? Or the fact that Nikon is slowly removing cameras from the support list on some of their software, like Camera Control Pro? The Keystone Kops have a more consistent software business than Nikon. Negative marks.
- Failed at the social network and image cloud business. Came out with a modest, lightly featured cloud-based social network, didn't manage to get many to use it, figured out that it needed an update, and then produced an update that had fewer features and worked worse. More negative marks.
- Took forever to iterate some lenses, still hasn't iterated others that need it, didn't bother to make some. There seems to be no sense of urgency in the lens business. No cohesive thinking as to how to build three lens lineups that mesh well. Not much interest in doing anything other than clearly exotic products (PC-E, longer telephotos) or things that sell in the highest quantity iterated ad infinitum. Best grade they'll get: incomplete.
- Dabbled at video. Which brings us back to the current NAB: any clear-headed person walking around the show would have to come to the conclusion that Nikon is dabbling, not committed. But look at all the committed companies producing interesting things? Which will you really place your attention (and dollars) on?
Don't get me wrong. Now that we've got video in virtually all still cameras, it's not likely going to go away. It's a useful adjunct to the main function of the camera and not that difficult to execute at the current levels. The problem is the "what next?" syndrome. Nikon has no clear what next. What they have in place is a still camera iteration system that works, and not much else. And much of the still camera iteration these days is dabbling in video.
Does that sound like a sound strategic plan to you?
What a D400 Should Be
Apr 8, 2013 (commentary)--We're getting near the point where we either finally get our D300s replacement, or we never get one. A lot of you believe that the mythical D400 is the Rip Van Winkle of DSLRs, albeit destined to never wake up. I still believe that Mr. Van D400 will eventually wake, and my best guess would be he needs to break his slumber late this summer (see next article).
Let's start with why the D7100 isn't the D300s replacement: Consumer versus Professional. That's the real underlying difference between a D600 and D800, it's the underlying difference between the original D90 and D300, and it should be the difference between the D7100 and the D400.
The question, of course, is what makes something professional in Nikon's thinking?
Right now, the answer is slightly confusing, as at first the specs look really close between consumer and pro bodies. The D600 is listed as a consumer camera by Nikon, the D800 as professional. So what's the difference between them other than the 12mp difference in pixel count? Closer inspection reveals the following. Full metal chassis for the pro camera versus partial. Additional crop modes in the pro camera versus one in the consumer model. Slightly compromised video and fixed aperture on the consumer body versus more video options on the HDMI port plus manual power aperture change in Live View/Video. The addition of TIFF support for the pro bodies. Consumer 2016-pixel versus pro 91,000-pixel metering, which requires a bit more CPU. Simplified 2/3 frame consumer bracketing versus 2 to 9 frame pro bracketing. Overloaded buttons on the consumer body versus dedicated ISO/WB/QUAL buttons and a dedicated AF-On button. The pro bodies get more advanced, longer-life shutters. The pro bodies get PC Sync sockets and 10-pin remote connectors, while the consumer bodies go without PC Sync and use IR or a simplified MC remote. The consumer bodies get U1 and U2 user settings, while the pro bodies get settings banks. Not a lot of big changes, but the sum of the changes is tangible for those that use their cameras heavily.
Given Nikon's iterative process, it's likely that any D300 replacement would have all the things just listed above as pro instead of the consumer variations that are in the D7100. But is that enough for differentiation?
Given Nikon's long-held modus operandi, a D400 would need a focus and/or frame rate improvement over both the D300 and the D7100, preferably both. That, folks, may be why we're waiting: 24mp at 10 fps is more data than a D4 is moving around. A D400 would also need a substantive buffer improvement in terms of hardware: Nikon would need to stick another DRAM module in and maybe even boost the size of those modules. So add these things to the previous list and you probably have Nikon's approximate D400 design goal.
Some of you have been suggesting that fewer megapixels would be okay. Indeed, a lot of you would sacrifice pixels for speed, just as the pro FX users have to. I doubt that's Nikon's intent, though, nor is it a notion I agree with. Nikon is on a pixel craze, and they've got sensors with relative large saturation wells and low read noise, so they like being able to say "lots of pixels, low noise." I believe a professional DX camera these days has to be at least 24mp (remember, it's likely to have multiple crop modes).
Is all that what a D400 should be?
This is where things get tricky, because we're going through a few market gyrations that impact the definition of what a D400 should be. I'd take all of the above plus add just a few things. For example:
- On sensor supplemental focus. Imagine this: the mirror system stays for 8 fps and we have the usual Nikon focus system, but…we get a "mirror lift" mode that reveals phase detect on the sensor ala the Nikon 1. Yes, there may be some limitations with that mode (limited area, maybe no tracking), but coupled with the next bit it just extends the camera into new capabilities a pro would love.
- Electronic shutter mode. Again, ala the Nikon 1, this lifts frame rates beyond the 8 fps the mechanical shutter provides. Nikon has demonstrated 15 fps with autofocus on the Nikon 1, why not have the same thing on a D400, even if it was a crop?
- Sony's gadgetry. Sony is moving towards WiFi, GPS, and more built in, and it already has an EVF. I think Nikon should probably match this, but I doubt they will. I wish they'd stop proliferating these things via external gadgets, as the extra cables and appendages get in the way for pros. But almost certainly we'll get WiFi support via an adapter, and the usual GPS support. What we really need is a more integrated radio system that supports camera control and remote flash.
- The inevitable video stuff. Uncompressed HDMI out and the full set of video controls, including power aperture, seem likely. Personally, I think Nikon's going the wrong path with video these days. The true videographers are much more likely to look at Blackmagic Design, GoPro, RED, Canon's C series, and Sony's F series cameras. Nikon isn't really winning any of them over with their consumerish video moves. Nikon either needs a dedicated video camera line, or it needs to understand the video user more. That means ProRes or DNxHD support, CinemaDNG support, metadata support, and more.
Of course, with a sophisticated DX camera appearing we'd be back to my chant of late: DX needs some lens love. A D400 as described above would really need some lens love. Not so much above 50mm, as the FX glass can pretty much suffice for that. It's in the wide angle and mid-range where such a camera would beg for some new lenses. So I have to say that not only should Nikon introduce the D400 as outlined above, but it needs to (1) refresh the 12-24mm f/4, (2) add a 16-50 or 16-85mm f/4 VR, (3) refresh the 17-55mm f/2.8 with VR, and (4) deliver at least one or two f/2 wide angle primes (16mm and 18mm would be nice, some might prefer 20mm).
Believe it or not, there are ton of DX-using pros out there, even today. Far more than you might think, and it was the D3/D300 launch that really pulled them in. Why? Because while the D300 didn't have the D3's insane high ISO capabilities, it had pretty much everything else for US$3200 less. That buys a lot of useful glass or lets you shoot "pro" at an "affordable" cost, so it pulled more folk into the pro Nikon ranks than ever before. The same equation would still be true today if done right. Those D300 folk are chomping at the bit for another upgrade to their shooting abilities, and there's a new generation of not-so-rich who wouldn't mind trying their hand at going pro. Imagine this: come August Nikon launches a D4h and D400 simultaneously, both 24mp. Same thing would happen as happened in 2007: the Nikon faithful would be ecstatic.
So, please Nikon, pretty please with heaps of peanut butter on top, will you just make the D400 and end our torture?
Apr 5, 2013 (commentary)--If you've been paying any attention, Nikon's pattern for releases has been February/April, and July/August/September. With all but the D300s and D3x in Nikon's current camera lineup having been refreshed and the known weakness in shipments Nikon experienced towards the end of their last fiscal year, we're left with a lot of questions:
- What will they release in 2013? The D4x is the only camera that's even been hinted at. The D400 and D4x are the only two logical candidates. A D3300, given the speed at which the low end has incremented (almost yearly) is a possibility, but what would it even be given that we're already at 24mp? It's difficult to imagine Nikon expanding either the DX or FX line, so we're not left with many choices.
- Will there be an April release? We've had them in four of the last nine years; we've also had lens announcements in four of the last five years. So I'll say yes, something will be announced. Especially given Nikon's release-of-the-month club marketing as of late (J2, D600, V2, D5200, Christmas, S1/J3, D7100, A).
- What will the last Fiscal Year results turn out to be? We won't know until May 9th whether Nikon continued to experience a bit of a year-end slump in sales or whether those last minute announcements and sales managed to push the volume up just enough to meet their revised numbers.
The problem is simple: just emptying the warehouse of inventory isn't going to make Nikon's current fiscal year numbers look very good. Economies haven't rebounded, dealers still have plenty of hang-over inventory from Christmas and the first quarter release rush, and a lot of Nikon's inventory is still models from earlier generations (currently D90, D3100, D5100, D7000, D300s, D3x). D4 and D800 sales can't be going up at this point, they're likely in a slow drift down.
As I've written before: we're reaching the end of the straightaway and we still haven't seen Nikon brake, turn, or otherwise react. At the moment, Nikon is still only one week into their new fiscal year, and probably busy studying what happened in the last six months of last year pretty carefully. One would think that a D600, D5200, D7100 blitz would have bolstered unit volume in the interchangeable lens cameras, especially given the Nikon 1 refresh. The feeling I get is that it hasn't, and the Nikon 1 went from soft to softer, too (I'm not sure Nikon has hit one million Nikon 1 sales yet).
Which brings me back to "what can Nikon introduce that will change things in 2013?" A D4x won't move the meter enough to notice. While some of us will welcome it (so we're back to a performance/studio combo at the high end), such a model is never going to sell more than 5000 units a month over any long period.
A D3300 just makes the built inventory problem worse. Such a model would mean Nikon would take a bath on the existing D3100 and D3200 models sitting around waiting for buyers. So that doesn't help much.
Yes, you know where I'm headed: there's only one known possible model that can pick up some sales (though it would do so partly at the expense of the just-released D7100, which is why I don't think what I'm about to write is the late April, early May release, but more likely a late summer release). Yep, you guessed it, the missing the D300s replacement. I promised I'd get around to writing what I think that model will be, and I will, but not quite yet. Right now I want to talk about product lineup in general.
- Low-end Coolpix -- Can't be very profitable, if at all, and the inventory glut for low-end compact models is killing everyone. Smartphones won this war. Time to retreat and put up just a few good defensive positions.
- High-end Coolpix -- The P330 and the A were late, as far as I'm concerned. Thus the benefit to Nikon will be less overall. We should be deep into iteration here to protect those cameras against other comers, but we're basically at generation one for the A, and the P330 hasn't moved the bar very far in its third iteration.
- CX (Nikon 1) -- Oh dear, the J2 was a complete dud, and the J3 and S1 misfired as well. Indeed, why the P3xx isn't a fixed lens S1 I don't know (i.e. move the 1" sensor down to high-end Coolpix, Nikon! We don't need two entry mirrorless models). The V2 has just repeated the "too expensive" sin of the V1. Examining sales numbers, I'm not seeing forward movement by Nikon here. The only forward movement they got was from heavy discounting. What amuses me is that Nikon can't even come up with clever marketing to hide the discounting.
- DX -- Things are getting a little softer, and this is the really scary part, as this is the heart of the volume/profit combo for Nikon. That we still had D3000's coming out of the Nikon warehouse in December, and we still have D90's coming out today indicates that Nikon is either overbuilding to demand, or demand is weakening. Maybe it's a bit of both. Fortunately for Nikon, Canon is floundering here, too, as they seem to just release the same 18mp camera over and over again in different bodies. The lack of imagination and product management acumen in the crop sensor DSLR realm is getting mind-boggling to me.
- FX -- Things are pretty much okay here. The D600 is a little soft, partly because Nikon has botched the whole dust/oil controversy, but overall Nikon put three FX DSLRs into the market last year that hold their own for the market. My guess is that they're mostly happy with the FX sales (note to Nikon: you'd be ecstatic with the FX sales if you hadn't botched the D800 focus issues and the D600 dust/oil issues; high end customers expect high-end quality and support and you haven't delivered).
The way I see it, besides addressing all the issues that come up in those five product markets for them, Nikon has several potential outs that we need to consider:
- Get in bed with a phone maker. I actually suggested this to them several years ago. The only way Nikon can really play in the phone market is to go the "Nikon Inside" route. In other words, become the camera contributor to future phones. Of course, we can probably cross Samsung and Sony phones off the list of potential targets. And Apple, too, as Apple is almost certain to go it alone. Which doesn't leave us a lot of candidates: Blackberry, Google, HTC, Nokia basically. Still, it's a possible play, and I expect them to eventually realize they have to make it. Whether that produces profits for them or not is another matter, but if you're mostly a camera maker, you need to have a presence in as much of the camera market as possible, and the biggest chunk of that is now smartphones.
- Book a return trip to Hollywood. There was a day when Nikkor lenses sat in front of many, maybe even most, cameras shooting feature films. Not so much any more. With Canon doing dedicated DSLR-like video cameras, RED doing the same, and Sony trying to leverage the E-mount, Nikon is mostly missing in action in both Hollywood and high-end video production now. Yet, go to any trade show where Nikon has a booth, and you'll see lots of video demonstrations. Uncompressed HDMI ain't going to cut it. You need that and a lot more, including lenses that can be focus pulled, lenses that have power aperture control, cameras that have XLR inputs and 4K video capabilities, and a lot more. Did I mention "a lot more"? All those demonstrations are mostly sponsored stuff. The folk that are paying their own money to build a video producing company are buying other gear. It's put up or shut up time (and the National Association of Broadcasters convention is this coming week, probably the most important one for video gear, so we'll have a good idea whether Nikon is putting up or shutting up for another year by the end of the week).
- Join the mirrorless crowd in search of customers. Wait, Nikon is already there with the Nikon 1. Right, but that ain't getting them any traction. A 1" sensor isn't going to win against m4/3 or APS sensors short of being lower cost, and that doesn't seem to be happening. No, I'm referring to the DX-rewrite. Basically put phase detect on the sensor and restart DX from the bottom (something akin to what Canon tried with the EOS M, but has failed miserably at so far). Of course, that means more lenses, another product lineup to market (when four already seem to be proving to be too much), along with the possibility of making both existing CX and DX grow weaker.
- Disrupt the camera marketplace. I've been quite vocal on how I'd do that for the past seven years (communicating, programmable, modular). A three-layer, non-Bayer sensor that had low noise at high ISO might disrupt, too. There are definitely things you can do to try disruption, but let me just state right up front that Android-based compact cameras are not "it."
My belief is that Nikon has to do both things (clean up their existing product lineup while marketing it better, and finding a new outlet or two for additional products). But the game has already started: we're in the new fiscal year. Just playing the same game as before will almost certainly trigger a slide in sales and profits for Nikon. Of course, as one of the only two profitable Japanese camera makers, as long as they can stay profitable, some in Japan will think they have super powers. I've said it for about 18 months now: 2013 is critical to Nikon. They can't afford to slide into the no-growth, little-profit doldrums again like they did in film cameras.
So Nikon: Show us the cameras. Show us the lenses. Show us the new products. Do so and customers just might show you the money.
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