Thom's year-end analysis of where we're at and what needs to be done
Original: 2/28/2011 (FX)
Update: 3/1/2011 (DX)
Update: 3/2/2011 (Mirrorless)
Update: 3/3/2011 (Compacts)
Update: 3/5/2011: (Wrap-up)
[Please note that this article has a Nikon-user and serious shooter spin to it. I'm commenting about the industry on behalf of the Nikon user, not necessarily all users.]
The State of FX
Feb 28--FX went through a fallow year in 2010, with no new FX cameras being introduced. This is expected to change in 2011 with at least two new Nikon FX bodies (D700 replacement and D4 generation launched), and potentially a third if Nikon decides to continue the speed/resolution split in the professional line.
Lenses fared a bit better, with the three f/1.4 prime set trickling out. But the two consumer FX lenses (24-120mm f/4 and 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6) seemed out of place, as the D700 is better than the lenses can reproduce (at least wide open). It's unclear what new FX lenses will be introduced in 2011, as Nikon has given no hints and their lens introductions appear to be nearly random.
Let's identify what the current Nikon FX shooter has and doesn't have.
- State of the art low-light (D3s) and high-resolution pro bodies (D3x).
- Solid lower-cost body (D700); smaller, but not small.
- Handful of f/1.4G primes (24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm), all but one expensive.
- Solid f/2.8 zoom set (14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm).
- Incomplete f/4 zoom set (16-35mm, 24-120mm).
- Incomplete PC-E set (24mm, 45mm, 85mm).
- Incomplete macro set (60mm, 105mm).
- Complete (but often unavailable) exotic telephoto set (200, 200-400, 300, 400, 500, 600).
- Strong historic lens support (AI, AI-S, AI-P, D, G, etc.).
- Solid R1C1, SB-700, and SB-900 flash offerings.
- Small, light, simple portable body (FM3D).
- Advanced video capabilities to match competition, specifically the 5DII.
- Set of smaller f/2.8 primes (20, 24, 28, 35, 50, 70).
- Refresh of f/1.8 primes (50mm, 85mm).
- AF-S on many critical lenses (80-400mm, 105mm DC, 135mm DC, 200mm Micro-Nikkor).
- VR on critical lenses (24-70mm, 300mm f/4).
- Long state-of-the-art macro (200mm) or >1:1 macro.
- True wide PC-E (20mm or less).
- 70-200mm f/4, 400mm f/5.6 offerings.
- High end flash that can sustain near abusive use.
- D3 bodies throw oil on sensor, difficult to clean.
- Lot's of reported alignment issues on new bodies (viewfinder, mount, etc.).
- f/1.4G lenses have strong longitudinal aberrations, difficult to correct.
- Full equipment set for a working professional is 30+ pounds.
- Video and Live View capabilities lag, manual override possible but not convenient.
- Still no "set entire camera simultaneously" capability.
- Histograms are not accurate to raw data.
- PC-E lenses are a tight fit on D700.
- SB-900 overheats in real use by event professionals.
Most FX shooters are in a wait-and-see attitude right now. D700 users are particularly anxious, as they feel the 5DII has had capabilities (megapixels and video in particular) that should have been in the Nikon lineup by now. The non-appearance of a D700s was particularly disturbing to this base of users, as it means that the D700 didn't get a mid-life refresh while other cameras, such as the D3 and D300, did. D3 users are not upset, as they were treated to third generation bodies that they felt recaptured Nikon's place in the pro realm (the low-light capabilities of the D3 and D3s aren't exceeded by anything else on the market, nor are the high-resolution capabilities of the D3x exceeded by anything else). Also, D3 users know that the D4 generation starts sometime this fall, so it's unlikely that Nikon's top FX bodies are going to fall short of competitors any time soon.
What Nikon needs to accomplish with FX this year to make FX uses truly happy:
- Introduce a D4 generation that is a clear and logical step forward from the D3 generation.
- Improve availability of D4 compared to D3s/D3x.
- Not only update the D700, but make it fully competitive with the expected 5DIII, not just the 5DII.
- Continue the f/1.4 lens lineup with a 28mm, a better 50mm, and perhaps a 105mm.
- Complete the f/4 zoom set with a 70-200mm zoom.
- Add AF-S to the 80-400mm, 200mm Micro-Nikkor.
- Add VR to the 24-70mm and 300mm f/4.
- Update to the SB-900 to deal with overheating complaints.
- Provide better availability of all pro-level lenses.
Prognosis: Good. Nikon should manage to do enough of the above list to keep most FX users happy and the overall lineup competitive with pro offerings from its competitors. But availability of high-end gear has been a stumbling block Nikon needs to fix.
The State of DX
Mar 1--DX went through a relatively weak year in 2010, with only two new camera bodies introduced (D3100 and D7000). The remainder of the lineup (D5100 and the D400) should be refreshed sometime in 2011. Nevertheless, even having turned over the entire lineup, it appears that Nikon isn't making any waves in DX. The D3000 begat D3100, D5000 the D5100, D90 the D7000, and the D300s is likely to eventually give way to a D400. Thus, other than moving the bodies forward with contemporary sensors and pushing them slightly upscale from those they replace, there's nothing new under the DX sun.
DX lenses showed considerable neglect by Nikon in 2010, with only a low-end 55-300mm appearing. Missing in action are constant aperture DX zooms (even f/4, but specifically a 16-50mm f/2.8 and a 50-150mm f/2.8) and any sign of anything resembling a DX wide angle prime. There's no indication from Nikon that they think anything is wrong with their DX lens lineup, yet users can find considerable fault with it.
Let's identify what a current Nikon DX shooter has and doesn't have:
- State of the art high-end consumer body (D7000).
- Average low-end consumer body (D3100).
- Aging pro DX body (D300s).
- Aging mid-range consumer body (D5000).
- A range of 18-xx and 55-xx variable aperture zooms, most with lower level AF-S and build quality.
- One excellent and low cost prime lens (35mm f/1.8).
- Two oddball lenses (10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye, 85mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor).
- A choice of two good wide angle zooms (10-24mm, 12-24mm).
- An excellent mid-range zoom (16-85mm).
- An SB-700 that matches up well with consumer needs.
- Access to the Nikon FX lens lineup to fill gaps and needs, but this works mainly at the telephoto end.
- A state of the art, pro-level body (D2x body type, or D300s replacement, or both).
- Advanced video capabilities to match competition, even considering D7000.
- Any hint of wide angle primes, let alone a set of DX primes.
- Serious f/2.8 lenses with full technology sets (e.g. 16-50mm f/2.8 AF-S VRII, 50-150mm f/2.8 AF-S VRII, with weather sealing).
- A PC-E lens with a useful focal length for DX.
- Any consumer-priced 400mm reach option.
- Lack of consistent accessory connections (three different remote styles on four bodies).
- Lack of consistent body style (D3100 is different from D5000 is different from D7000).
- Lack of AI/AI-S support below D7000.
- No in-body focus motors below D7000.
- Strange feature inclusions/omissions to differentiate bodies.
- Positionable LCD available on only one body.
- Video still lagging, and no video enabled lenses in sight.
- Constrast AF still lagging considerably compared to competition.
- Quality control in Thailand plant seems to be strained, at best.
High-end DX shooters tend to be highly satisfied with the D7000, as it continues the lucky seven streak for Nikon (D70, D700, D7000). It's a well-specified, high-performing DX body at the very top of the consumer lineup. Below that, though, things aren't nearly as good. The D5000 is overdue for update and has an odd definition/place in the line to start with. The D3100 certainly was better than the D3000, but compared to competitive low-end bodies it is very lacking in features, video, and even in some performance aspects. The D300s is limping along holding the high-end position in DX, but the D7000 is a better choice for many. A D400 needs to be clearly better than the D7000 to succeed now. It also will have a strong competitor in Sony's high-end crop sensor camera, too.
What Nikon needs to accomplish with DX this year to make DX uses truly happy:
- Introduce a D400 that is clearly a pro-level DX body.
- Replace the D5000 with a D5100 that is more than just a sensor transplant in disquise.
- Outline a clear strategy moving forward for DX lenses, and provide first samples to indicate the strategy is already in progress.
- Introduce three or four necessary DX lenses that are not just another iteration of the consumer mid-range zoom and moderate telephoto zoom.
- Get quality control under control on initial product launches from Thailand.
Prognosis: Poor. Nikon will introduce one mediocre body update and maybe one decent one, and have little or nothing to say about significant new DX lenses and the future of DX lenses. Considering that DX is the core of Nikon Imaging's profit engine, this is disappointing and bodes ill for the long-term health of the company.
The State of Mirrorless
Mar 2--Nikon does not currently have any mirrorless cameras, but mirrorless cameras were in the news often in 2010 and will continue to be in 2011. The industry is trying to find the right formula that will generate huge new sales volume with reasonable or even high profit margin. At the moment, mirrorless is the only growth market in the camera business (other than cell phone cameras). I'll look at the various players besides Nikon in this article, but remember that Nikon has said they will play in this segment, and soon.
Olympus iterated frequently since first introducing the original rangefinder-type mirrorless camera, the E-P1, but has yet to get very far from their original offering other than in price and minor handling changes. On the flip side, they are iterating on basic lenses. Panasonic has been madly iterating in three different "styles" of mirrorless, with the GH2 becoming the go-to video camera of choice. Yet with all of Panasonic's model madness (GH1, GH2, GF1, GF2, G1, G2, upcoming G3, etc.), they, too, haven't gotten very far from where they started. Like Olympus, Panasonic has been active on lenses, and since Olympus and Panasonic share the mount, the one-two thrust of lens introductions has given m4/3 a far amount of choice in lenses in a relatively short period of time. Sony made a reasonably strong introduction with the NEX series, but the cameras are held back by lack of lenses. Ditto Samsung with the NX. Ditto Ricoh with the GXR. Nikon and Pentax are expected to announce their offerings in 2011, adding to the group chasing opportunity. But watch carefully what they offer in terms of lenses. Lenses will ultimately determine winners and losers in this market.
Meanwhile, third parties sense growth possibilities in the mirrorless arena, so Cosina, Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and Zeiss are all making noise about upcoming offerings and 2011 will start to see more of those turn into reality. On the negative side, we already have four lens mounts in mirrorless with two more coming. Plus many of the lens offerings themselves are old dinosaurs being retread for mirrorless. Further, the camera and lens companies all see mirrorless as mainly consumerish in opportunity, so lots of variable aperture me-too zooms are in the offing. Fortunately, there have already been a few non-zoom, non-consumer gems appearing (14mm Panasonic, 25mm Cosina, etc.), so all is not lost for the more serious user.
Let's identify what a current mirrorless shooter has and doesn't have:
- A choice of competent-or-better platforms (m4/3, NEX, NX, GX).
- Better-than-compact image quality in near-compact camera bodies. In some cases, DX image quality in near-compact camera bodies.
- A wide range of small, light, consumerish bodies (E-PL2, GF-2, NX100, NEX-3/5, GXR).
- The best DSLR video implementation to date (GH2).
- Kit zoom lenses for all mounts, and usually at least one pancake prime per mount (true of m4/3, NEX, NX, GX).
- Choice of colors (?@#!!).
- EVFs available for most models (Samsung and Sony are exceptions, though Samsung is promising one).
- Modest set of accessories starting to appear (microphones, flash units, bluetooth).
- Road maps on lenses from all major players to date (Olympus, Panasonic, Ricoh, Samsung, Sony).
- Any pro camera. No weathersealing, no high-end build quality.
- Full lens sets by any stretch of the imagination, though m4/3 has an acceptably wide range.
- DSLR-level autofocus performance (GH2 notwithstanding).
- Any clarity about which mount will survive and have a full, strong lineup.
- Full range of accessories (remotes, GPS, etc.).
- Models turning over very fast. What you buy will be outdated very quickly.
- Image quality tradeoffs in some of the contestants, particularly low-light and dynamic range in m4/3.
- Unknown where Canon, Nikon, and Pentax will fit in; high possibility of more disruption in this type of camera.
- Feature sets and user interface often favors compact camera upgrader over serious shooter.
- Manuals are atrocious, even by the low standard of camera manuals.
- Don't be fooled into thinking you don't need to manually clean the sensor. You need to clean these sensors more often than DSLRs, but they weren't designed for that.
- Diffraction an issue on some smaller sensor models.
- Lens size can overwhelm body size.
- Small battery capacities.
- EVFs are okay, but not great, they add size and bulk and they wear down batteries fast.
- Can end up spending more than for a low-end DSLR and get less.
- Arms-length composing is the norm.
In terms of image quality, Sony leads the pack, and by a very visible margin. In terms of building a full system, Olympus and Panasonic lead the pack, and by a very large margin. In terms of video, Panasonic leads the pack, and by a very clear margin. Getting the feeling that things aren't settled? You would be correct. Things are very unsettled and will get even less settled in coming months, I think.
What Nikon needs to accomplish with mirrorless this year to make mirrorless uses truly happy:
- Introduce a competitive mirrorless body.
- Introduce multiple lenses with the body and produce a clear forward picture of future lenses, lenses that will be valued by the potential buyer, not just a list of me-too lenses.
- Find something that distinguishes a Nikon mirrorless camera from the competition (e.g. image quality, flexibility, technology, build quality). Note to Nikon: you're known for engineering, not smallness.
- Get the product to users fast (before May), at a price that is competitive, and with a marketing program that is better than the competition.
Prognosis: For Nikon, Poor. Sony has the image quality position, Ricoh the innovation position, Panasonic the video position, Olympus/Panasonic the full system position. Pentax will take the smallest camera/lens/system position. There aren't really any positions available, so you have to go the competition one better, and clearly so. I doubt Nikon will do that. They've yet to prove that they can do that with any true low-consumer product. Nikon is also averse to lens roadmaps, and if they provide one for mirrorless, then the question becomes why don't we have one for DX and FX? ;~)
Prognosis: For Olympus, Fair. They're squandering their head start slowly but surely, and that's not a good sign. But they've built a lens set, they've gotten many of the kinks out of both their design and their production. They need to prove they can push image quality upwards, though, and they need both higher and lower-end bodies as well as more serious shooter lenses. They need to improve their marketing of the product, as well.
Prognosis: For Panasonic, Fair. I've rarely seen a big consumer electronics company fail so completely as Panasonic has at actually delivering product to customers. They seem unsure of themselves (the only other conclusion is that they are completely incompetent). There's a massive failure somewhere in how Panasonic is organized and executing in the field that is opening the door for the other competitors, and there's no sign that they recognize that or are doing anything about it. No sign. But in terms of developing product, they seem to be doing just fine. Too bad the potential user doesn't know that.
Prognosis: For Sony, Good with a caveat. Sony took a chance with the NEX in almost every aspect of design, but the APS sensor size puts them at the top of the heap in terms of image quality, which got enough people over the odd-design hurdle to actually try the product. And it grows on you. Sony got a lot of things right, and the rest right enough. From what I know about the NEX-4, NEX-5 replacement, and NEX-7, Sony is continuing to roll the dice and it is pushing the same ideas even further forward at a pace faster than the others will manage to compete at. So, come a year from now, I expect Sony will still be the image quality leader in mirrorless, and most of any other complaints will have died away. The caveat? Lenses. What Sony's produced so far is mediocre. The roadmap is more sparse than most of the competitors, and I only see two higher end lenses coming in the next year. That's not enough, I think. Sony needs to put the same energy into lenses they do into the bodies.
Prognosis: For Ricoh, Good. Let me make a prediction: the Leica M-mount module will make the GXR a complete sell-out. Ricoh doesn't have the capacity to produce what the market will demand. A good problem to have, but Ricoh also doesn't have decent global distribution. And they're a generation behind in sensor use. They have problems they need to address, but it's not really the camera design.
Prognosis: For Samsung, Good, with two caveats. Samsung is the darkhorse, and one not to be underestimated. The NX camera designs are good. Real good. No silly ugly icons scattered all over the screen hiding the image. No silly frill features. Just good basic let-the-user-be-in-control camera designs. The lenses aren't as bad as Sony's, but they still need a boost. The caveats? First, Samsung is even further behind in sensors than Ricoh. The NX models so far are underperformers for having an APS sensor. That has to change. Second, Samsung needs to think about marketing. They need a clear strategy for establishing themselves in people's minds as a legitimate contender for the serious camera arena. They count far too much on their name and their clout in distribution. It's not enough in this crowded market.
Prognosis: For Pentax, Poor. Pentax has made a poor choice in attempting the "really small system camera" again (they tried and failed in film many years ago with 110 film). It's difficult to imagine where they're going to sell this product, amongst other things. The type of store that could sell it (e.g. Ritz stores in the mall) don't exist any more, let alone carry Pentax as a brand.
Further Prognosis: the question is how much of the high-end compact market and low-end DSLR market the mirrorless cameras will take. My prediction is: a lot. Cameras like the G12 end up having something like one advantage--a wide zoom range--against a significant disadvantage--poorer image quality. A G12 type of camera will have to sell for US$399 at most to stay in the market for long. Meanwhile, a NEX-5 already has better image quality in a smaller package than the Nikon D3100, and it's considerably more friendly to the low-end customer to boot. The low-end DSLR is going to compete on two things, neither of which they'll be able to hold onto for long: autofocus performance and price. A NEX-5 with kit lens is US$699, the D3100, US$599. But what happens when the next version of the NEX is US$599 and has Panasonic GH2-like autofocus? Short answer: Nikon didn't push the D3100 far enough up-market (they did with the D7000).
Within the mirrorless market, Sony and Panasonic (assuming they ever learn how to distribute) potentially will be our leaders, with Samsung and Olympus trying to hold on for traction. Pentax doesn't have a chance that I can see, given their offering. Nikon, too, is going to be considerably challenged by this market. In some ways, Canon is being wise to wait, as there's another little hidden gotcha that isn't getting discussed (but will once Nikon and Pentax introduce): once you choose your mirrorless lens mount, you're stuck with it. Choose wrong and you'll die, because having to abandon a mount and start again is not going to work. Olympus and Panasonic are fighting the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde nature of m4/3: yes, it's a small mount, but it also means you're stuck with a smaller sensor. The smaller sensor means you have lower sensor costs, but you're behind on image quality. Sony and Samsung chose well. Ricoh initially chose poorly with their lensor idea, but the M-mount will save them. Pentax chose wrong, IMHO. Nikon and Canon remain to be seen, but choosing wrong can hurt you if you're not careful.
Finally, one huge caveat: Sony's use of pellicle mirrors and the huge development interests in EVF and contrast AF means that a low-end DSLR could (and will) go mirrorless. When Nikon introduces their mirrorless camera, remember that little fact. DX could very well become a mirrorless mount, too, much as it appears the Sony Alpha mount will. This throws a monkey wrench in the whole mirrorless market. Canon could simply make EF-S mirrorless, for example, which puts them instantly into the game with high-end image quality (though they'd need to work on downsizing their bodies some more).
The State of Compacts
Mar 3--Compact cameras have had a mostly discouraging year, as we're still in the same place we've been in for some time, just with more choices, slightly newer sensors, and different colors. Compact tends to fall into two broad categories, of which readers of this site really are mostly interested in only one. The two categories I'm referring to would be (a) the low-end, all-automatic, 100% pocketable camera; and (b) the serious, manually controlled high-end camera that supports raw output. In the Nikon lineup, the L and S lines are all (a), and even most of the P series is (a) on steroids (and no longer pocketable). Only the P7000 and the recently introduced P300 would qualify as (b). In part, that's one reason why the year has been discouraging for readers of this site: serious compacts don't get a large component of Nikon's attention. Other manufacturers have been active with (b) type cameras, too, but the simple truth is that almost none have much model breadth or depth when it comes to category (b). Thus, ultimately, choices for serious compact seekers are limited within a maker's lineup, and have been for awhile.
We can dismiss most (a) type compacts out of hand. For under US$300, you can get any number of colorful, all-automatic, small, cameras that all have the same ultimate attribute: they fail to do well in low-light and they also tend frustrate the serious shooter who wants more control. They don't save in raw formats, either. As I wrote, category (a) compacts don't tend to be of interest to readers of this site. (I do have a couple of upcoming quick take reviews of the highest end of this spectrum, mostly done because I wanted to be able to write about the differences that the (b) type cameras provide). In the (b) category, Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Olympus, Ricoh, and Samsung all have recently produced interesting options, but…
What's happened lately in high-end compacts is mostly a two-prong approach to making them work better in low light. First, at the sensor everyone's backed off from megapixel count. Some are using slightly larger sensors, adding backside illumination (BSI), or making other changes to make them more efficient light collectors. Second, there's the promise of "fast lens." Unfortunately, a fair amount of what the industry is ballyhooing is actually only modest in actual practice. Nikon made a big thing about f/1.8 on a camera that is only f/1.8 at the widest focal length and is decided old-school slow at the other end (f/4.9 at 100mm, compared to the LX5's f/3.3 at 90mm, which is over a stop faster, or put another way, a full stop ISO boost lower in the same circumstances; the XZ1 is f/2.5 at 112mm, which is means even less ISO boost). Many have made claims about BSI and now being able to produce ISO 3200, but in practice ISO 3200 is either still noisy or its been noise reduced to the point where detail goes missing. Put simply, modest gains have been made, but the industry is trumpeting them as major. Given that many of these high-end compacts are larger than pocket size and some of the mirrorless entries are nearing pocket size, the inevitable conclusion is that at least some of the high-end compacts are easily dismissible.
The one bright spot in high-end compacts might be the emergence of large-sensor, fixed lens compacts. Fujifilm, Leica, and Sigma--all smaller players in the overall camera market now--seem to have adopted the "let's find a niche" tactic, and large-sensor, fixed lens is one of the perceived niches. The good news is that larger sensors do make for better image quality. The bad news is that you pay more for these one-lens wonders than you do for a mirrorless camera. Still, if any of these catch on with users, it might move the bigger players to do a better job in the compact marketplace. One can only hope.
In the overall high-end compact market we now see the following.
- Wide choice of reasonably similar-performing cameras (P7000, G12, LX5, TL500, XZ1), most of which are bigger than shirt-pocketable.
- Small choice of shirt-pocketable cameras (LX5, S95).
- Very small choice of fixed lens cameras (GR III).
- A few large sensor, fixed lens choices (X100, X1, DP1/2).
- Video tends to be lacking in some way.
- Battery life is minimal.
- Optical viewfinders are unusable if they have them (X100 notwithstanding).
- Still are small sensor cameras, with all the problems of small sensors.
- Tripod sockets and hot shoes not usually aligned with lens.
- Has anything really changed since the G9?
Nikon fans, in particular, are annoyed. Nikon has yet to produce this century a product that's at the top of the heap in the high-end compact category, though they're getting closer to the established competition. It seems that every Nikon offering has an Achilles heel that keeps it from being the compact of choice, so you rarely see a Nikon DX or FX shooter that has a Nikon compact. Nikon, are you listening? Virtually every DX or FX shooter owns a compact for walk-around, general purpose, always-with-them shooting. It's rarely a Nikon Coolpix. Doesn't anyone at Nikon see that as a problem? Apparently not.
What Nikon needs to accomplish with high-end consumer compacts:
- Get serious about contrast AF or invent something better. Performance in the highest end Coolpix is still sub-par to competitors.
- Get real about lens specs. Slow telephoto is not what the serious compact user is looking for. Fast overall is the correct design goal for high specification, small sensor compactsl.
- Fix the responsiveness issues. Lags to display pictures or get out of menus is not something a serious shooter will tolerate. And "no buffer" in raw is just a huge critical mistake.
- Drop the nonsense features (e.g. optical viewfinder).
- Drop the Windows-centric thinking that gave us NRW. The world is no longer Windows-centric.
- Either produce the accessories early and in sufficient quantity (e.g. adapter rings and add-on lenses) or stop teasing customers.
Prognosis: Poor. Nikon hasn't yet proven they can make a better high-end compact than their competitors this century, despite having been at the top of the heap in the 90's. Indeed, they're still playing catch-up, despite targets that aren't moving much.
Further prognosis: Canon has proven with the G series (and now the S9x variants) that they know how (mostly) to cater to the serious shooter. They got the G figured out a long time ago and haven't really screwed it up yet, though it, too, has some puzzling lapses (no video AF?). Panasonic's LX5 is often my go-to compact, as it is small enough to carry everywhere, handles well, and gets enough right. Fortunately, the lens on the LX5 is fast at all focal lengths, which helps counter Panasonic's still-a-bit-behind-the-times sensor abilities. Like Canon, Panasonic got the basic formula right several generations ago and hasn't screwed it up yet. The Samsung TL500 is much like the Panasonic in terms of ability, more like the G12 in terms of size (and the swivel LCD). That a relative newcomer to this type of camera can get more right than Nikon is a condemnation of the Coolpix design group, I think. Finally, the Olympus XY1 looks like another good effort in the arena, putting Nikon clearly in last place out of five main competitors.
Still further prognosis: Related to the small sensor serious compacts are the large sensor, fixed lens compacts. At the moment we have three serious competitors (Fujifilm X100, Leica X1, Sigma DP1/2). The Leica is easy to dismiss now: it's overpriced for what it offers. The Sigmas have had handling/performance issues from the beginning, though with each minor revision Sigma finally seems to be getting a handle on those. The Fujifilm is the most promising of the bunch, as it appeals to the serious shooter for one reason: you can put the camera to your face and compose. Coupled with the serious manual controls and retro style, it has great appeal to the serious shooter who can live with the dedicated focal length. I predict that the X100's success will influence other companies in the near future.
Final point: low-end compact camera sales are flat at best, declining against camera phone sales at worst. In my view, short of completely redefining the low-end camera, the only place in compacts that has any potential at all for growth is the serious compact camera. It's important for the health of the entire compact lineup that companies get the models at or near their top end right. That's not happening enough.
Camera Week Wrap Up
Mar 5 (commentary)--I have more to write about in terms of the state of the camera industry. I haven't covered sensors, distribution, or company/industry financials, and that will come in another "week" soon. But I need to post some gear reviews and discussions first. However, before we leave Camera Week I wanted to make a few final commments and responses.
I originally started to write this series solely about the overall State of the Nikon Shooter. But about half-way into it, I realized that it needed more context than just purely Nikon, especially since mirrorless is currently the area that's growing the most and Nikon is expected to enter that area soon. My ucpoming State of the Industry Week hopefully will fill in the missing thoughts that aren't in the Camera Week series, which summarizes things from the shooter's viewpoint.
Some people thought I was hard on Nikon (or their mirrorless camera of choice). There are two schools of thought here. The first is that "photographers aren't restrained by the current offerings." Behind this notion is that the current state-of-the-art is good enough, that the current choices let a creative and productive photographer do pretty much anything they desire. In one sense, that's true. If you need to shoot in low light levels, a D3s and the available really fast lenses will work just fine. If you need exceptional reach with wildlife, the D7000 and the 500mm work well. If you need a small DSLR, the D3100 is pretty capable and fits the bill.
But this notion falls apart for most photographers, who have to pick one body and then apply it to multiple types of shooting. It's one of the reasons why I didn't write one article covering everything simultaneously, but broke things down into distinct camera groups (DX, FX, mirrorless, compact). If you can only afford (want) one camera, once you make a choice of that camera, you find that there are indeed gaps in things that you can do and lenses that fit your need. Of course, if you're a well-heeled pro that can afford a full outfit, you have no problems with getting a D3s for low light and action work, a D3x for studio and high resolution work, and a D300s for portable reach. And a full set of lenses to cover all possibilities. But that doesn't define most users.
I actually asked the question of a subset of my site audience recently: for the camera you've chosen, do you feel there are things you can't do, either because of missing features or missing accessories and lenses? The answer was overwhelmingly yes. When I further asked what those things were, the answers mimiced what I wrote about in my article, which hadn't been published yet. So I'm pretty sure that Nikon's customers are seeing gaps that aren't being filled. And third parties aren't always filling those gaps, either, which is another story for another day.
But the second school of thought here is the one I tend to use in writing about where we are: what could/would we have if the company/customer relationship were operating at peak efficiency? The answer is that we don't have a full system. FX comes closest, DX is not nearly close to being a full system (despite now being 12 years old), and we're all expecting Nikon to add a third (mirrorless) system soon, which is likely to be incredibly unfull at introduction while competitors are filling out holes in their mirrorless systems reasonably well. One point to ponder is this: if Nikon can't completely fill out two systems in 12 years, what's the likelihood they'll do so when adding a third? Or that the third system will be close to filled out any time soon?
Thus my tough prognosis comments.
Anyone that reads this site regularly knows that I encourage people to minimize and try operating without. Grab two primes and go out and shoot for a day. You'll find that you see differently and can make great shots without a bag full of zooms. Nevertheless, what we're being sold by camera makers are tools that are systems. Incomplete systems. Systems with missing features or abilities. Systems that don't always integrate well. Systems that are in constant change at one core aspect (sensors) of which the camera makers are driving so that they obsolete what we bought last time (e.g. your old DSLR needs to be replaced).
We're currently in a stage where the camera makers are going to find the same thing that the personal computer CPU makers found years ago: just upping the specs at the core--in the case of CPUs, clock speed, in the case of sensors, megapixels--has diminishing returns and eventually market growth goes away because no one perceives a real need to buy the new to replace the old. It doesn't make the word processor run faster or their pictures any better. Meanwhile, the core changes take up so much of the engineering and require so much of the other componentry to change to keep up that systems never get fully fleshed out and completed. If you think about it, mirrorless is the netbook all over again. (Dare I say that what we really need is an iPad-like rethink? Communicating, Programmable, Modular ;~).
Finally, there's one other thing that the camera companies ignore at their own risk: perception. It isn't that a user is going to buy 64 lenses for their FX or DX or mirrorless body, but the notion that there are 64 well-chosen and well differentiated choices is indeed something that makes buying into a system easier for the customer to do. Canon and Nikon (and to a lesser degree Sony) have large legacy systems that carry over to some of their current digital systems. But new systems (APS/DX, mirrorless, etc.) start mostly fresh--legacy options don't exactly fill an exact need or add compromises that don't always play against modern bodies (no body-based focus motor, for instance).
To Panasonic's and Olympus' credit, they've created a reasonable new community of useful lenses for m4/3 in a fairly short time. Compared to Sony's poor lens offerings, it could sway a customer even if they didn't buy anything other than a kit zoom and a fast prime. Systems are systems. Full systems are better than unfull systems.
But I guess some of you won't be satisfied unless I offer an NRINO (look it up: Google "NRINO site:bythom.com"). So here it is: one thing that's easy to forget is that the serious shooter can get better results today and have more control of them than they ever could in film. Remember shooting ISO 1600 color film in 1995? Not a pleasant experience, yet virtually every current mirrorless, DX, or FX camera can do a better job. That's a very good thing about the State of the Camera.
Still, the camera makers can do better. Much better.