News/Views

What's Easy and What's Difficult for Camera Makers

One thing that continues to astound me is that the camera makers continue to pick "difficult" problems to solve while often failing to solve the "easy" ones. Moreover, the difficult problems they pick may not be a problem that most of their customers want solved.

So let's just break down some new camera design needs for a moment:

  • Body changes — Easy. Most things involved here—size, grip, controls, buttons, LCD, sealing, etc.—are testing and iteration problems, not invention problems. Yes, the grip size sometimes is dependent upon battery and the battery size is dependent upon power requirements of the electronics, but these are communication and balancing issues within engineering. Any controls/buttons require cabling within the body, for which there is sometimes minimal room. But these are common problems, and should be easily dealt with. It surprises me how often camera companies make changes in the body and get them wrong. Moreover, if you're really trying to build a customer base who will upgrade over time, it's important to get this right early and then stay consistent as much as possible.
  • Menus and feedback — Easy, but time-consuming. Building out the UX—which includes some body changes (above)—is a well understood process and should have a well-understood goal. You know you've got this right when users don't need a manual to understand anything (or perhaps better: "most things"). Nikon's "This option is not available at current settings or in the camera's current state" message is a really good example of getting this wrong. The camera knows exactly what is causing the conflict, but doesn't report that to the user. This is equivalent to the old "Error -45" messages some operating systems would throw up. Okay, Houston, we've got a problem, but what exactly is that problem? The reasons why this aspect of a camera is time consuming to get right is that it requires a full, complete process involving customer interaction to do right, and it has to work in any language. Too often camera makers just "pile on" to what they've already done and we end up with sprawling, incomplete, contradictory, or confusing UX. Corollary: it's okay to do a complete redesign—as Sony just did with its menu system—as long as it makes things easier, adds logic/organization, and is clear progress from the earlier design. It's not okay to change things just to change things.
  • Rear LCD/Viewfinder — Easy, but nuanced. Let's be clear: a poor viewfinder makes for a poor user experience, and should always be avoided. Cutting costs and performance in the viewfinder is a recipe for dissatisfied customers (and yet that's exactly what happened with low-end DSLRs, and was probably a small part of their demise). With EVFs, the minimum bar today is 3.7m dot, and with good optics/positioning behind it. Blackout and lag time needs to come down (except for the Sony A1/A9). Meanwhile, the rear LCD is either fixed, tilting, or fully rotating. Cases can be made for each for different uses, so it would be important to fully understand the likely customer's use case first and foremost before making a decision here. Moreover, responsive touch is now required, and that includes focus control. But all these things are again common issues that a good engineering team should get right from the beginning. I still see too many compromises made due to economics or schedule. Getting these things right is integral to the user experience, so should have higher priority than they seem to have with some products.
  • Wired connectivity — Easy. A camera has to live in an environment of other devices, and standards apply with connectivity. USB-C and HDMI are defined not by camera makers and are widely used standards, but surprisingly the camera makers tend to be well behind current standards in terms of support. The problem here is that the bean counters don't give a lot of credence to connectivity—it's just a camera, Jim—and thus cost reduction comes into play here: use last decade's part if you can, because it's cheaper. Moreover, the internal structure of the camera de-prioritizes external communication, so even with state-of-the-art connections you get far lower transfer speeds than expected. There needs to be a mode where the camera floods the connection pipeline at full speed (and yes, the camera doesn't have to be operative as a camera in that mode). We used to have it, and then Microsoft decided MTP/PTP wasn't something that should be supported. The camera makers quickly followed (and didn't invent something new to keep transfer speed maximized) because it let them concentrate on something else.
  • Wireless connectivity — Difficult. It's not the hardware side that's difficult, as things like Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi 6 are highly standardized and easy to obtain parts for (and even code stacks for). It's the logical side of wireless that makes for the big problem, mostly because the Japanese companies don't really control many aspects of that (Sony finally seems to have figured out that they can make Alpha cameras and Xperia phones talk more productively, but why that's only happening 13 years after they should have figured that out is a mystery, and they've really only done that at the high end). The real issue here is that camera companies don't think much about what happens to an image after it is taken. This derives partly from the film era, when the camera companies didn't really have any involvement with film processing and printing. Thus, even though electronics would allow them to have involvement about what happens to a photo, they don't prioritize it. Thing is, the customer prioritizes it, because workflow and presentation become the bulk of the customer's work now that we have auto exposure, autofocus, and auto everything. And yes, I know that Facebook, et.al., keep changing APIs and and the way photos work on their services—which is another reason why this bit is difficult—but that's just an excuse to not do what's necessary, not a real reason not to do it. 
  • Image storage/cards — Easy, but fast moving. Funny thing is, the camera companies have been on top of this one since forever. If you think about it, Secure Digital improvements, CompactFlash, CFast, XQD, and CFexpress all tended to be pioneered and standardized in the consumer world by cameras. To a large degree, the computer and mobile device worlds—and cameras are mobile devices—have merged around various technologies over time, today that being forms of PCIe. Canon, Nikon, and Sony can all point to pioneering use of a format (CFast, XQD, CFe Type A, respectively). Unfortunately, once that card is removed from the camera, the camera companies don't care about it any more. Moreover, they seem to not have understood that since they speak PCIe, they could have other solutions, as well, including fast internal storage or via-wire external storage (I'd point out that Apple has a similar issue with iOS, which still tries to avoid having a user-accessible file system). 
  • Mechanical shutter — Getting more difficult with less payoff. We have plenty of shutters now that can achieve 10 fps (and even faster). Going beyond that is certainly possible as some have already proven, but costly to do given the speeds involved and the need to minimize other things, like vibration. Of course, global electronic shutter is now the goal, as it would eliminate one of the last remaining complex mechanical mechanisms from ILC devices. So we're sort of on the verge here of something changing. Thus, no one really wants to invest to much on making the mechanical shutters perform even better than they currently do. 
  • Exposure meters — Easy, but can be made difficult. The basic job is simple—my group once did a relatively good job of this by just examining a 30 fps stream of four pixels we were controlling (the secret was in knowing which pixels to use)—but it can be quite complex and difficult. This is one of those "how difficult was the dive" issues. Some camera makers are attempting only a 2.1 degree of difficulty (3m forward pike 2 somersaults) while others keep going for 4.0 (1m forward pike 4 somersaults). Users seem to be happy with 1.0. I see putting work into this part of a camera is more of a work of honor than of need these days. Most customers are happy with repeatable results with some sort of real-time indicator as a hand-hold (which is why everyone insists that cameras have to have exposure compensation dials and on-screen histograms). 
  • Focus systems — Moderate, but time-consuming. As Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) gets more and more involved with the auto focus systems, the testing and improvement cycles tend to lengthen. Not that the work itself tends to be difficult, but it is resource intensive. Moreover, this work tends to be driven by two of the more complex tasks (below), the image sensor and image processor. Of all the areas I list here, focus is the one that's showing the most growth in capability recently. Yet for some reason I see each maker managing to miss on small details that are important, so we're not quite there yet. That's actually good news, as it means that more investment in this task will have functional payoffs in future products.  
  • Color reproduction — Difficult, because of subjectivity (and some other things). I almost don't even want to type anything here. A camera could have "perfect" color reproduction and someone would complain about it. None of the camera defaults I've seen are accurate, they're subjectively tailored to the company's audience testing. Some camera companies have huge teams working on creating the color for their images, and that color won't match a ColorChecker chart with close to complete accuracy (and then some raw converter will put their own interpretation on the data and cause further arguments). 
  • Image sensor — Difficult. The heart of all cameras now comes down to two parts, the most important one being the image sensor. Basically, how well the image sensor works impacts pretty much everything downstream. We probably hit a reasonable ability to accurately resolve photon randomness six to eight years ago with a wide-enough dynamic range (in full frame). A Nikon D610 image still looks remarkably good today compared to the latest 24mp full frame sensors. Canon, Nikon, and Sony have all proven that they can keep that intact while upping pixel counts (at least at most ISO values you'd use and up to maximum implied print size). Sure, we've had small image benefits along the way, but perhaps not enough to justify a customer upgrading for that alone. What's happening now is that we're seeing really advanced techniques slowly working their way up from smartphone type image sensors. First was BSI (backside illumination), then stacked, and eventually we'll probably see deep trench integration and other techniques. The strange thing here is that the costs on this work are the highest (and take the longest time), but the benefits now are very small. Yet this is where Canon, Nikon, and Sony, in particular, are spending most of their engineering time.
  • Image processor — Very Difficult, but they have help. Finally, we get to the heart of what makes the modern camera tick. The smartphones have led the way with this, as the huge volume of phone sales have allowed Apple, Qualcomm, and Samsung to push more technologies and performance into a single chip. Virtually all of the "smarts" in phones and cameras these days is driven by ARM cores with dedicated memory and GPUs. That said, the camera makers have lagged behind the phones and are playing catch up. We're just starting to see machine learning (ML) cores and more trickle into camera image processors. The good news is that all the camera makers have an external engineering organization helping them with their processor in some way. Nikon uses Socionext, for instance, to build out EXPEED chips. Still, there's a tight critical path with multiple entities feeding the image processor work. I've seen instances where something has been left out of these processors because it just didn't meet the timelines. In Nikon's case, they also claimed that their current EXPEED (at the time) didn't perform well enough for the needs of the DL cameras (which likely involved image sensor pipeline speeds). If there was one place I'd be concentrating my engineering resources, it's the image processor. I can point to things with every camera maker that haven't been done because it's not supported by their current image processor.

That's not a complete list, by any means. Power distribution and consumption is becoming a bigger and more important task, for instance, and the camera makers were mostly late in supporting the USB Power Delivery standards (though they've now mostly caught up). 

With each new camera introduction I look to see which of the above tasks the company spent their engineering resources on. The Nikon Zfc, for instance, is mostly about Body Changes. Easy to do, and not a lot of resources needed to do it. The upcoming Z9 will be a different story, as virtually all of the more difficult tasks are being tackled, and apparently both deeply and broadly.                                                                                                                                           

Video is Still (Mostly) Video

While our mirrorless and DSLR cameras these days pretty much all have video capabilities, "Hollywood"—I'm using a really broad brush here—tends to march to a different drummer. 

The 52 feature films presented at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival break out like this:

  • 41 taken with Arri cameras
  • 14 taken with Sony cameras (only 2 of which were not dedicated video cameras, both of those were A7S)
  • 5 taken with Canon cameras (all dedicated video cameras)
  • 4 taken with RED cameras
  • 1 taken with an iPhone
  • 1 taken with a Panasonic S1H
  • 1 each taken with three other video cameras

Numbers don't add up to 52 because some films used multiple cameras.

So, of the 52 features, three primarily used mirrorless still/video crossover cameras (A7S, S1H). Dedicated video cameras still dominate, even in the documentary categories. 

Which brings me to a bit of ironic news: the Nikon Zfc has dropped the word "movie" from its menu naming: it's now the VIDEO SHOOTING menu and not the MOVIE SHOOTING menu. Other "movie" references are also now "video." It's about time. The use of the term movie was a bit pretentious considering that Nikon's inroads into the actual movie business have been declining so rapidly as to be nearly non-existent.  

Engineers, Dreamers, Artists, and Practitioners

I've commented before that Nikon is an excellent engineering company. Indeed, most of the camera companies have large rosters of great engineers. What I haven't gone into at length is the team balance that's needed in building out a product. Let's call that product management, though some of you may disagree with my broad use of the term.

The goal of product management is to build competitive products that people (or businesses) will buy. Those products might be targeted toward the lowest common denominator (e.g. true consumer products) or toward high-end niche, plus anything in between. Company A might use economies of scale to reach more consumers more broadly, while Company B might use narrow and concentrated focus to fully satisfy a smaller group.

I personally think of product management differently than do many others, and you can see a bit of that in the headline: you need a broad range of staff who come at the problem—figuring out what constitutes a sellable product—from different angles. If you get out of balance in any of those things you start being less efficient (fewer sales than you could have had). 

Good engineering isn't a problem in Tokyo. I've met a lot of camera company "engineers" (they don't always have that specific title, but their point of view is almost always from the engineering side), and I can't remember a single one who wasn't sharp, well educated, and highly intelligent about the typically narrow problems they were tasked at working on. A modern camera has many "narrow" problems to solve: sensor, processor, metering, focus, speed, image quality, communication, alignment, stabilization, viewfinder, controls, and a host of others. 

Each company breaks the engineering problems down a little differently, but it's not unusual to find a small group focused (literally) only on autofocus. Nikon has had such a group (actually groups) for as long as I've been dealing with them (I first met with Nikon engineers in Tokyo in 1994, and have done so several times since). Likewise, Nikon has long had a group peeping at the details within image sensors. I remember one meeting at Nikon HQ where I was meeting with "one each" from about a dozen such narrowly defined engineering areas. The generalist in me felt entirely out of place with all those specialists.

One thing that's been a bit strange while closely watching Nikon is that sometimes the engineers "invent" something useful only they don't actually deploy it into a product. Nikon was first with image stabilization (in patents), but was actually late to roll it into their serious cameras (Canon did so first). I can point to quite a few instances like that, where Nikon's engineering team figured something useful out but that didn't initially become something that got into their key products. Heck, even the phase-detect-on-sensor first done with the Nikon 1 took too long to get to the mainstream Nikon ILC bodies. 

So the question is why would that be?

It's because of three types of engineers you need on your design team to create great products. Let me tackle those roles and tell you how they apply to a product such as a camera:

  • Dreamers — Engineers can be dreamers. But most aren't. By dreamer I mean "imagine entirely new possibilities due to newly or about-to-be available parts." Engineers in Silicon Valley were even dreaming about things like iPads long before the parts necessary to make one became available (e.g. Alan Kay and his Dynabook concept back in 1968). "Dreaming" was the reason why I personally abandoned my formal educational training and embraced silicon in the late 70's. I wanted to be part of defining what was newly possible due to advances in underlying building blocks (mostly semiconductors, but there were other building blocks, as well). Indeed, Ted Nelson's 1974 book, Computer Lib/Dream Machines was an eye-opener for me, because as a writer here was someone talking about how the future of "hypertext" would unleash writers ;~). Hypertext was a fundamental dream idea that ultimately led to the Internet's URL links, though Ted was consistently disappointed in how that didn't live up to his dream. We do see dreaming happening with camera designs from time to time. IBIS is one example, and the extension of IBIS to pixel-shift is another. You see, one building block can lead many directions, but only if you dream well. 
  • Artists — Jony Ive at Apple is an extreme example of someone in product development applying "art" over all else. Jony is a primary reason why things were removed from Apple products and forced into a Bahaus and Dieter Ram-inspired modern simplicity. The only problem was that Jony seemed to keep stumbling on #2 and #4 of Ram's design principles. But much of Ram's influence is indeed useful in product development. We don't want products that are obtrusive, for instance, which is where things like Olympus' menus, Sony's strange naming conventions, and things like Nikon's MB-N10 grip that was really just a second battery holder come into play. We also want products that are long-lasting. But it's really Ram's "aesthetic" and "as little design as possible" bits that speak strongly to the "artist" side of product development and engineering. 
  • Practitioners — Here I mean developers who are actually using the product, and in the ways that customers are also using the product. Fujifilm and Panasonic have the engineering staffs that I see as most interested in cameras as cameras, much as you and I are. I've met engineers at other camera companies that don't even use cameras! Yet at the two Japanese companies I just mentioned I keep running into engineers who've got a camera with them most of the time and are discovering the pluses and minuses of features and controls directly, the same way we customers do. Apple is one such company where that is taken to the nth degree: those working on Apple products use Apple products, and not just one or two, but typically almost all of them. It's one reason why the Apple ecosystem is arguably more focused than those of other companies: Apple designers are also Apple customers; they see the limitations, flaws, and possibilities directly and quickly. 

You need four specialists in a product design group. (1) You need talented engineers who can apply both known and newly discovered technologies to a problem, and in iterating small, but important components of the overall product. (2) You need a few dreamers who have imaginations that expand what is being done to new, useful horizons. (3) You need artists who can keep the overall design approachable, understandable, and useful, as well as visually desirable. (4) And you need practitioners who discover the limitations and issues with what was created by actually using them, and then figuring out how to move products forward in the future iterations. 

The recent Nikon Zfc is getting a lot of attention lately, so it's a good product to examine for those four specialists. In particular, Nikon is getting a lot of credit for #3, particularly in the "desirable" aspect of art. It's in #4 that I see Nikon stumbling with the Zfc, as, just as with the Df before it the dials that are so elegantly part of #3 can start lying to you or become unused in practice. I don't see much of #2 in the Zfc, but there are plenty of examples of #1 (tuning and improving the focus system, for instance).

I'd tend to argue that all the camera companies have too few dreamers, artists, and practitioners, and too much concentration on straight out engineers working on specific problems. Which ironically has made cameras lag what is happening in other tech fields. 

We need more dreaming, artistry, and practical focus in our cameras. We don't need 15% more pixels with 5% better DR. We don't need 30 fps instead of 20 fps. We don't need a lot of the things you see in every new camera announcement. Not that we won't accept them—improvement is improvement, if it doesn't cause additional problems—but engineering-centric iteration isn't moving the bar fast enough to keep up with what's possible, nor is it solving some of the bigger outstanding user problems.

Emotional Bonding

Some questions you should ask yourself: are you emotionally bonded to a brand? If you are, is that clouding your judgment? And what was it that triggered that bond in the first place? Is that trigger still present, or has it disappeared completely?

A lot of Nikon's DSLR-to-mirrorless transition problems are rooted in those questions. Back shortly after Sony took over the Konica/Minolta camera teams but pointed them more and more towards mirrorless, Sony (Minolta users) faced similar emotional bond issues. Even non-engineering changes can trigger bonding angst: many Olympus users are currently fretting over the fact that it's now an independent company called OM Digital Solutions, and that a different financial discipline will likely ensue within the company (and that might mean something different in terms of products at some point).

From a corporate view, when your customer base is bonded to you emotionally any transition becomes a big problem to navigate. Auto makers are going to face this in the gas-to-electric transition (yes, I know some of you would prefer gas-to-hydrogen or some other choice, but everything currently points to electric winning because it's an easier, mechanically simpler solution). 

Are you making things worse for the company you're bonded with than it has to be? 

What I see from users—including myself—is that we want a "perfect" transition, which generally never happens. Apple has managed multiple processor transitions pretty darned well, but Macintosh users still complain about things that fall off the table. 

Humans are fairly tribal. We want to belong to something, and then we don't ever want that something to change. We lock in intransigent positions as we do so, and that doesn't help us navigate the changing world around us. But leaders of the tribes (camera maker management in this instance) also get intransigent and expect the tribe members to just follow them without questioning anything. Nikon's management isolation from customers is not a good thing in this respect, which is one reason why I've been pretty vocal about Nikon needing to get closer to their loyal customer base.

At Connectix I managed emotional bonding with our customers to a high degree. We established a pattern of announcing and having immediately available something that hadn't been done before at every Macworld Expo (which happened twice a year during that time period). RAM Doubler, Speed Doubler, Virtual PC, QuickCam, and more. The customers we had bonded with literally ran to our booth the moment each Macworld Expo opened its doors, just to see what the new thing was, and our in-booth sales were the envy of all the other Mac developers as a result.

But I also used that customer rush for something else: we prepared our staff so that they peppered our faithful with questions and tried to understand needs and wants that weren't being satisfied (which produced product ideas we mulled over and often turned into reality). It was all hands on deck at the shows, including everyone in our engineering and design teams. Part of that was that we needed everyone there to staff the demand, but we also wanted everyone in the company to be hearing directly what the customers were saying and interacting with them.

Last time I was at a Nikon-sponsored event, top management was there. But I didn't see them interacting with any of the attendees present. And, of course, no engineers or designers were there at all. (At the Olympics and other big events, the NPS loaner station does tend to have engineers in attendance, and it's one of the very few ways I've seen direct customer/engineer interactions at Nikon.)

But my questions up front were about you, not the companies or products you're bonded to. From time to time you need to re-examine those emotional bonds and see if they're real and worth keeping. Beginning a decade ago I described a percentage of you that did just that and started sampling or switching. Some of those discovered the grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome, and a handful returned to their original product bond. 

So where are you? How good is that bond you have and what would completely break it and force you to explore other brands and products? 


It's Mostly a Mirrorless Day

The following new articles are on zsystemuser.com:

Meanwhile, over on sansmirror.com:

Okay, DSLR users get one new article from me today:

Better, or Worse?

bythom glasses

Having just gone through my annual (except for 2020) eye exam, I'm reminded of the trial and error process that optometrists go through to verify what the best possible correction might be for your eyes. That refraction process involves switching different corrections in and out, and is the source of the "better, or worse" sequence you go through.

What's occurred to me is that a whole heck of a lot of gear buyers are doing a much more random refraction-like test. I'm going to push my tongue deep into my cheek here, but the process usually goes like this:

  1. "I'm pretty sure my gear isn't the best."
  2. "I wonder if Brand/Product X is better?"
  3. [buys Brand/Product X]
  4. Repeat

One thing that comes up for me in eye exams is just how much to correct, and how. I do significant work at three common distances: reading, computer, and general. I'm old, so presbyopia means my eyes don't do a good job of changing focus distance, and even among the young that process isn't necessarily perfect. I'm strongly right-eye dominant but it's also my poorer eye, which means that there's also a balancing act between the eyes that needs to be juggled. My left and right eyes have slightly contradictory aberrations, tending to squish things slightly perpendicular to one another.

More than once in the full exam—and mine tends to run long because my doctor is fully dedicated to giving me the best possible result knowing that I so fully rely upon my eyes in my work—we backed off a correction to something not quite as good in terms of absolute acuity. That's because of all the balls we juggle as we work towards a solution that's the best balance for everything. (Disclosure: we eventually decided I should have cataract surgery on one eye earlier than is necessary as the cataract was just beginning to get in the way of some of the balancing. I'll be taking a short break soon while I have the surgery done and recover from it.)

We juggle plenty of balls with our camera gear, too. And it's balance you should be seeking most of the time, not today's "best possible" (which will not be the same tomorrow anyway).

The question I have for you today is "do you know what it is you're balancing?" Because, if you don't, then you're going to have trouble finding the right balance; you're going to start a whole random walk of "better or worse" (and probably casual) testing, and you might not even be doing the right tests in the first place.

I can think of a ton of things people are trying to balance right now:

  • size/weight
  • sensor size
  • dynamic range
  • autofocus performance
  • resolution
  • acuity
  • battery life
  • ergonomics
  • file size
  • lens choice                                                                                                                                                                                                              
  • buffer
  • frame rates
  • video quality
  • cost

The list actually goes on and on. And on. Moreover, things like "autofocus performance" may mean "usually gets it right without any interaction from me," or it may mean "nails focus every time when I use all the attributes of the system properly." And yes, there is a difference between those two. I'm of the latter persuasion, but most of those raving about autofocus on their cameras on the Internet (good or bad) are of the former school of thought.

As much as you might think you can get "everything," you can't. This is why I started the "all-around camera" comments in my camera suggestions quite some time ago. "All around" is about balance in performing all the photography tasks you might encounter, not one specific one. The camera I deem to be "best all-around" has tended to change every couple of years. Currently my three top all-around cameras IMHO are the Sony A1, Nikon D850, and Canon R5, and in that order. But note the price differences! The number two in my list is the least expensive by at least the cost of one good lens to go with it.

Balance. That's today's thought word. 

Are you balanced photographically? What would put you into better balance? How's your balance point different than those you look to for information and advice? Will the product you currently lust after—admit it, there's at least one—take you out of balance or put you in better balance? How would you know?  

For professionals, there's always a small set of questions they can ask themselves that relate to balance: (a) am I doing better work today than I was before? (b) is my work holding up against the work of my competitors? and (c) is there work I could get if I had something I don't currently have today? The "perfectly balanced pro" should probably answer Yes, Yes, and No. If their answers are No, No, and Yes, then their gear closet and technique capabilities are widely out of balance. 

Some Z News/Views

Over on zystemuser.com I've posted:

A few tables and database items have been updated, as well.

NikonUSA Camera/Lens Maintenance Choices

Hmm, NIkonUSA (and other subsidiaries are rolling this out as well, I believe) has a new set of "camera maintenance" options. This first appeared last month while I was traveling, and I'm just now getting around to writing about it.

It used to be that you would send your (film SLR) in for a "CLA" every now and then (clean, lube, adjust). Over the years I've tended to send my pro bodies to NikonUSA every two years or so for a complete "service," and that's ranged in price from about US$50 to as much as US$200 (higher end cameras are more complex and require more checking). It appears that NikonUSA has now formalized this process and made more clear the things they do.

"Basic" appears to be all the cleaning things in the old CLA, coupled with updating firmware, if necessary. "Standard" and "Premium" now separate out the rest of the old CLA operations into two further categories. Most people probably really only need the "Standard" package, unless the camera's rubber grips need replacing, in which case you need the "Premium" package for sure. 

The point of a periodic maintenance is to keep the camera clean and operating correctly. "Basic" does the cleaning, while "Standard" does more to verify the operation. I'm personally hesitant to have NikonUSA recalibrate my focus and meter unless I know there's an issue there, in which case I'm usually asking for the camera to be repaired in the first place.

Which brings up a new question? How much of these things does NikonUSA do if your camera comes in for a real repair? I'm thinking that it's "Premium," but I'm going to have to check to verify that this is the case. They certainly perform "Standard" during any real repair. 

Of course, NikonUSA isn't NikonUSA without some mixed up language. Nikon Professional Services now provides at least three free "Clean & Check" sessions for gear with the new paid options. So which is this clean and check, "Standard" or "Premium"? ;~) 

Personally, I'm happy to see the new, fairly clearly described, maintenance options from NikonUSA. I've long been clamoring for more clarity and transparency, and as I've said over and over, I'm more than happy to pay for services if I know what I'm getting and can evaluate what I get for the price. 

I'd encourage those of you who have higher-end Nikon gear to get it maintained by Nikon at least every 24 months. But a word of warning: when Nikon does their checks, if they find things that need repair they generally will demand to repair it before doing the other maintenance work. That's particularly true of the "Premium" level, because doing the adjustments and calibrations you're asking for requires all the sub-systems to be working correctly. 

The Tyranny of Lenses

I'm noticing all kinds of lens problems these days. 

Oh, no, not problems with the optical quality of the lens itself. Rather, problems in people grappling with the choices that involve lenses. Logic problems. Bias issues. Supply issues. Choice issues. 

Let me outline some of what I've seen:

  • Loyalty issues. Between just Canon and Nikon we've got 200 million lenses out there in closets and bags and that are of the classic EF and F DSLR mounts. People spent good money on those lenses and don't want to give them up. First off, if they sell the old lens and buy new, they get less than they expect for the trade-in, and they often perceive (usually incorrectly) that they won't get anything of value in return for the extra money they had to put out for the new mirrorless lens.

    It's a little like wanting to keep the tires from your old car when you buy a new 4WD truck. Yeah, you could do that, but you shouldn't want to.

    What Canon and Nikon (and now Sony in their most recent round of G and GM lenses) are getting right in their new mirrorless lenses is that they are generally just simply better lenses than you've been using on your DSLR. The one exception to that tends to be the exotics, which were already about as good as we're going to get.

    Nikon, in particular, has been creating lens after lens in the Z-mount where the mirrorless one is clearly better than the equivalent F-mount one. The Z-mount f/2.8 zoom trio is the best f/2.8 zoom trio I've seen from anyone, any mount. The 14-24mm f/2.8 S is better than my 14-24mm f/2.8G. The 24-70mm f/2.8 S is better than my 24-70mm f/2.8E. And my sample of the 70-200mm f/2.8 S is just a teeny bit better than my 70-200mm f/2.8E.

    Do I want any of the older lenses still? No. Could I use the older lenses on my Z cameras? Yes.

    But most people get hung up on their loyalty to their old lenses, and then cost completely stops them from replacing them. Canon users have a more seamless EF-to-RF adapter than Nikon users have F-to-Z, so the Canon users get caught up in this cost-bound-loyalty thing a bit more than Nikon ones do. Meanwhile the Nikon users often complain that Nikon has broken their "legacy loyalty" and often use that as an excuse to try another mount.

    Let me be clear: there are very few SLR/DSLR lenses that I'm holding over into the mirrorless era. I even sold my 58mm f/1.2 NOCT.

    People get too attached to what is in their closet that they aren't always using, and they allow that to impact their decision making.

  • Choice issues. In the mirrorless mounts we have huge disparities in available choice, mostly because the various companies transitioned at different times and have had differing lengths of times to produce lens sets.

    The early transitioners, Olympus/Panasonic and Sony, have a huge array of lenses to choose from, as does the fairly early transitioner (Fujifilm).

    Canon recently dropped EF production to promote more RF production, but they're still at only 21 lenses in RF and 8 in M. Coupled with the next problem (supply) and the fact that many of these RF versions are expensive lenses, it's still somewhat difficult for Canon users to make a DSLR to mirrorless transition without complaint.

    Nikon is slightly worse in terms of choice, with 17 Z-mount lenses (2 are DX). What happens is that someone who wants to transition from DSLR to mirrorless—or even start out in mirrorless—stumbles with lens choice: something they would want isn't yet available (or sometimes not even hinted at in a Road Map). So these people look at the lenses they have in their gear closet because they're forced into the loyalty issue. But that doesn't feel right. They were willing to make the change, but if they do, they feel stuck with some older lenses. Eek.

    For me, the choice issue—even with Sony I have some choice issues—forces me to rethink what I really need versus what I want. For my Nikon Z and Sony A systems I'm using much more limited lens sets. Funny thing is, I'm enjoying that, which means I probably had more lenses than I really needed.

    People put a little too much weighting into the choice that's available today. If a lens is really needed, Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus/Panasonic, and Sony will all get around to making it. So the critical bit is "do you need it today?"

  • Supply issues. Today's lenses are sophisticated. They have stepper or other advanced motors, and they have semiconductors in them that are handling lots of communication/control. The plant that burnt down in Japan made some of those parts, which has put a strain on parts supply. The pandemic added to that, as plants started lowering their production due to economic slowdown, but weren't prepared to ramp up as fast as the economy-bounceback needs.

    So balancing lens production lines got tricky, real fast.

    Nikon was originally caught up in this, but the good news for them is that because their mirrorless body sales are lower, new Z-mount demand hasn't built fast. That means that most of the Z-mount lenses got balanced out in production fairly quickly. As I write this, other than the recently announced macros and 28mm, only the 85mm f/1.8 S continues to be in short supply. Things should balance out reasonably quickly. 

    Canon, on the other hand, has a long list of RF lenses in short supply, and many of them are critical lenses, such as the 70-200mm f/2.8L or the 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L. Indeed, some dealers I talk to believe that the lack of RF lens supply is impacting sales of Canon RF bodies.

    Personally, I'm fine with waiting for a lens to come into supply. I'm a little unique in that my gear closet is strong enough that I'm pretty sure I have something that would suffice as I wait.

    Get on a wait list and be a little patient. This problem should go away over time.

  • Gap issues. Every mirrorless mount has lens gaps. Some might argue that the DSLR EF and F mounts had some gaps, too, but if you dip into all the lenses that were produced in those mounts, I'm pretty sure you'll find what you want.

    Nikon Z-mount has the most obvious gap issue at the moment: no real telephoto presence. The only ways to get to 200mm are the 70-200mm f/2.8 S and the 24-200mm f/4-6.3, and you can only get to 200mm (without a teleconverter or the FTZ adapter). Canon RF has a dearth of common primes. Sony FE is missing telephoto exotic options (e.g. 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 200-400mm f/4, 500mm f/4). And this is just in full frame. Things get crazier in crop sensors (other than the m4/3 mount, which has probably the most complete set of available lenses).

    I worry a bit about the telephoto side of things, because I rely upon them for much of my work. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all have 200mm+ issues that give me pause at the moment. Yet all seem to want me to buy a US$6000+ body this year ;~).

    Again, it's patience that solves this issue. Lens gaps go away with time. Unfortunately, that time can be extended, because none of these companies are really going to produce more than 6-10 new lenses a year. 

  • Logic issues. Jeff Keller at dpreview recently published an article about choosing a new system for future once-in-a-lifetime trips. He quickly got bogged down, partly because of lenses. One strange point I fail to understand: he chose a higher priced product with a smaller sensor because he wanted three lenses instead of two? Moreover, once equivalency is taken into account, one thing he slammed the Nikkor lens on actually would be in its favor over some of its range, plus he gave up some focal length at the wide end, where small differences are actually large.

    I think a lot of folk were confused and surprised by Keller's logic, because, well, we don't understand how he got to the conclusion he got to despite his explanation. Obviously, there's a hidden bias in there that didn't really come out in the article. Lines like "the factor that drove my decision-making was not image quality, which was the first thing on my 'must have' list" just make you confused. Not to pick on Jeff, but I see this a lot: people make up a desire/need list then don't go where that list dictates they probably should. Jeff listed his upcoming Galapagos trip as dictating many of his decisions, but having been there many times, I'll tell you that I'd rather have one lens going from 24-200mm on my camera than two lenses. Because tours tend to move fast through the trails, you have to stay on the trail, and the group has to stay together (so slowest person loses), changing lenses isn't something you can always take the time to do without missing shots. I'm biased against superzooms such as the Nikkor 24-200mm, but I'd still have picked that choice over two lenses for a Galapagos trip.

    My personal Galapagos solution is two bodies. Think of it as a safari on foot (though you don't need an exotic). One body/lens for close-in and larger subjects, one body/lens for far and smaller subjects.

    Make sure you're evaluating the right things the right way.

Unfortunately, the cumulative sum of all these things—including that many with DSLRs already have what they need—is making for a market that's lower in volume than the camera makers want it to be. What volume there is tends to be in those making the DSLR-to-mirrorless transition, and that's only going to be a temporary volume. Post R3, Z9, and A1 I'm seeing I'd be Last Camera Syndrome myself. Maybe I'd pick up a few lenses, maybe not. 

It's incumbent upon the camera makers to figure out marketing messages that help you break through the above problems and get to your personal solution. 

Peak Interest, not Peak Camera

I’ve seen a number of folk refer to where we’re at today with dedicated cameras as “peak camera.”

Using the generally accepted definition of the adjective peak in conjunction with something, we hit peak camera—i.e. in terms of unit sales—in 2011/2012. That’s almost exactly when I predicted it would happen with an article back in 2003. 

What’s happening now is that people are using “peak camera” to refer to ultimate performance, or ultimate feature set, or some other attribute other than sales. 

The two uses of the term “peak” aren’t unrelated. Camera makers sell fewer cameras today because they can’t convince users that LatestGreatest is arguably better than PreviousGreatest. Those of you with long experience with this site will recall that I started writing about Last Camera Syndrome about the same time as actual peak camera sales occurred (actually a bit before, but I won’t quibble). It was predictable that if all you did is iterate, and particularly iterate small things, then more and more people would end up in Last Camera Syndrome (LCS). LatestGreatest didn’t seem all that much better than PreviousGreatest, so why spend the money? 

Last Camera Syndrome (LSC) refers to a user who is satisfied with their current camera and not likely to buy another body. Unless their current camera breaks, they aren’t in the buying market any more.

Today, the quintessential case of LCS comes with Nikon D850 owners: they simply don’t perceive that a better all-around ILC exists, and as I’ve articulated recently, I mostly agree. The D850 set a very high bar that not just Nikon is having trouble getting over, but so too are the other camera companies. 

For most people, they don’t need the bar set even that high. A Sony A7 Mark III, Canon R6, Nikon Z6 II, or Nikon D780 is plenty of camera, and these are triggering LCS in a wider circle of users (of course, that doesn’t mean that these folk stop buying lenses, particularly if they had to switch mounts to get to LCS).

So why are we stuck where we are with camera capabilities and performance? I see it this way:

  • Image sensors record the randomness of photons dang near correctly. The primary foe of clean, low-light photography is those pesky random photons, not the ability of the image sensor to record them accurately. We got near the ceiling of what is possible with current image sensor technology back in 2011 or so, so we’ve only seen small increments in ability other than in terms of speed. Speaking of which...
  • At some point speed = video, and we already have video. A lot of folk don’t initially realize that the Nikon Z7 II, for example, will happily take 4K (8.3mp) still images at 60 fps (at least for a second). Do we really need 8K ones (33mp)? Moreover, if we really do need that type of frame rate, at some point it’s better to just turn on the video features of the camera, particularly as we get more and more raw video capabilities. Then all we need is a “best frame extractor” AI product ;~).
  • Features haven’t received enough innovation. Yes, we have on-sensor stabilization now along with pixel-shift capabilities, which are indeed useful innovations. But the list of “big” steps like this that cameras have taken is short, and those steps don’t come very often. We’re in a “what’s next?” cul-de-sac at the moment, with no obvious way forward in terms of abilities.
  • Camera makers haven’t embraced how photos are actually used. Oh, we get some lip service about connecting your camera to your mobile device via Bluetooth/Wi-Fi, but it’s still way too manually intensive, unstable, and not-to-the-point. Nikon, for instance, will allow you to add a hashtag, but only if it is one of the two Nikon defines ;~). Way not to get Millennials, Tokyo. 
  • As marketers, the camera companies get D’s and F’s (best case so far would be a C from me, but I’m a tough grader). Great marketing is difficult to quantify, as despite the fact that everyone tries to measure effectiveness, in the end it’s much more about setting wildfires rather than fires, and the break point between those two categories isn’t well defined, or even predictable. You have to spend money, time, and effort to market well. Money is something the camera companies are trying to conserve, while time and effort requires people and the camera companies are trying to cut back on those, too. All of which ups the necessity to have the few people left in the marketing room be superb at viral, social, and innovative marketing approaches. Not seeing that in Tokyo. 
  • Customer engagement. Are camera users truly excited these days? I’d say no. Excitement doesn’t just come in the form of new models and more features and better performance. It also comes in terms of satisfaction and being part of what feels to be a special group. Particularly part of a group that includes and is made exciting by the maker of the product you engage your hobby/discipline with. Sony Kando—which I really hope returns to a live event again soon—was a great example of customer engagement, even if it wasn’t every customer. Wouldn’t you want someone who pays US$2000 or more for the equipment you make to feel special? After all, there isn't an infinite supply of those customers, and there’s lots of competition for them. Here’s a radical thought: the best ambassadors for your product aren’t experts you pay to be part time ambassadors with unclear goals, but rather people who bought your product that feel compelled to proselytize it because the product is so good and the company treats you like royalty.  Kando, yes. NPS mugs, no.
  • Japan too insular. Maybe also too paternal. There’s definitely a cultural aspect that comes into play. I know this will be controversial, but let me ask this question: do you think that the salarymen in Tokyo really have your interests and needs fully in mind as they produce new camera products? Do you believe that they have a good sense of what it is you want? Global is tricky (disclaimer: I’ve personally tended to avoid global considerations in the products I’ve helped design, build, and market throughout my career. At Connectix, for instance, while we had a distributor in Japan [Mitsubishi], I found it difficult to put Japanese market needs into play within product development. I spent a lot of time working with our partners trying to figure out how the Macintosh market in Japan differed from that in the US and Europe, but didn’t feel I ever got a complete handle on that). This sort of gets back to customer engagement: if you’re not fully engaging the customers you can end up not designing products they embrace. If they don’t embrace your products, you have no customer engagement. 

The bottom line is simple: we need a camera company to really break through one or more of those bullets before things get interesting again.

Thom’s Buzz Wave Theory

sinewave

Since the late 80’s I’ve been well aware of something that happens in the description of new tech products and technology: journalistic and public reaction follows something of a wave (note: I sometimes call it a sine wave but it's really a decaying and variable wave). If the “proper” reaction would be that flat black line in the illustration, initial reaction will go higher than that line if an item is perceived to be needed/useful and/or the marketing was good, or it might go lower than the expected line if the perception is that the product isn’t needed/useful and/or the marketing was bad. We’ve seen examples of both in the camera market.

How far from the proper reaction line you are at given time is determined by a lot of things.

Companies want their new products to be perceived as “hot” (in the green part of the wave) because this juices initial sales and kicks off the word-of-mouth echo. Companies also want the buzz to stay on the positive side of the line forever, but that rarely happens.

What typically happens is that the product is initially over-hyped to its reality, but opinions eventually push the buzz trend downward, going below the proper reaction line and becoming negative compared to the reality of the product. How fast that happens depends upon a few things: (1) how good the product really is; (2) how long it is before the bulk of those talking about it have actually gotten a chance to try/use the product; (3) whether the buzz was about things that turn out to be actually useful; and (4) whether there are downsides to the product that were ignored in the early buzz. Early reviews and First Looks from influencers can distort just how positive or negative the initial buzz about a product is. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to name names about how that happened with the Nikon Z’s initial mirrorless autofocus commentary.

The important thing about using waves as a metaphor is that customer perception/reaction rarely is fixed. People overreact to marketing and promotion of “new", then they get over disappointed when it doesn’t meet their enhanced expectations. Eventually, enough people actually use the product and pass on their considered thoughts that the overly negative response tempers and we head back towards positive descriptions. 

Over time, the cycles tend to get longer, but the strength of these views gets smaller. Eventually the overall perception typically ends up just above or below the proper reaction line. Thus, the initial over/under cycles are really important to the success of a product. High positive buzz early on starts a product off right, high negative buzz early on can doom a product. 

Cameras today are four-year products in terms of sales cycles. A few last longer than that (eight years is really, really good), a few don’t last that long (two years is problematic because it implies no replacement product sales overlap). 

So let’s talk about some cameras. The Nikon D800 had a really high initial response that was a bit bipolar. While some of us were really interested in the product, there was an awful lot of “why do I need 36mp?” and “it’s not a D700 replacement" response at the announcement. I judged the initial reaction as somewhat negative. That turned into a highly positive reaction when first samples got into people’s hands and people discovered just how good that camera was, then got distorted into a bad negative cycle of response when the left-side AF problems surfaced. Eventually the cycle flipped back to positive as cameras got fixed and people really used them. The D800 buzz wave was slightly down at announce, highly up as people really figured out what that camera was, moderately down as shipping delays and focus issues surfaced, but eventually ended up in a positive region. 

The Sony A1 initial buzz has been highly positive. Just as the EVF-shutdown-in-strong-light and IS-slow-to-respond complaints started to scale up, Sony issued a firmware update addressing those issues. Good for Sony. They’re doing everything they can to extend the over-positive buzz on that camera and keep things from eroding down to the negative. Canon’s upcoming R3 and Nikon’s upcoming Z9 have the potential to damp the Sony buzz temporarily if those products really deliver on some new things. So Sony marketing has its work cut out for them in trying to extend the positive cycle and keep its strength up. 

Recently we’ve seen more and more bipolar response to camera introductions, though. The Sony A7C (and upcoming ZV-E10 or whatever the APS-C version is called) comes to mind. For a vlogger, yes I can see why they were excited. For the more traditional camera user the complaint was “where’s the A7 Mark IV?” This points to a tricky problem for the camera marketing departments to navigate: not every camera is for every user. 

Which brings me to the Nikon Zfc. This is definitely not the camera for every user, because there’s a very different-but-same model sitting right next to it (Z50). Nikon marketing is clearly aware of this, as they’ve been totally quiet about the Z50 while constantly emphasizing the “casual user” nature of the Zfc (with a small nod towards vlogging). 

The problem is that Nikon isn’t managing the buzz from the bulk of their user base, which is trending negative. I keep seeing the following: “why did Nikon waste engineering and resources on this when X hasn’t been done?” If you’re going to introduce a product for a more niche customer you have to placate your non-niche customers at the same time or else they can start to drive the buzz downwards on you (that's one reason why Nikon used to announce an FX lens at the same time as a DX body, or vice versa). That’s exactly what’s happening with the Zfc. The danger is that if the Zfc gets into users hands and they discover that the retro dials really aren’t used all that often (not in Auto ISO, not in P or A modes, etc.), the initial retro buzz dies and the overall buzz goes negative because of the non-niche users. This happened with the Df, and I believe it might happen again with the Zfc. 

Had Nikon dropped a couple of well-considered firmware updates for their main cameras alongside the Zfc, Nikon could have controlled the bipolar buzz that’s happening with the Zfc. In fact, a Z50 firmware update that applied the things that aren't changed with hardware in the Zfc would have eased fears a lot.

At the moment, the buzz for the Zfc is clearly on the positive side, but without a lot of strength. When cameras get into user hands we’ll get another wave of buzz, and I don’t know which way that will go. However, I note that the first big review in China (Xitek) dings the Zfc for lack of lenses (buzz, buzz ;~). 

With more and more cameras being bought over the Internet—and fewer brick and mortar dealers to visit to see things firsthand—my Buzz Wave Theory is becoming more and more important. What a camera maker really wants now is positive buzz off announcement that drives a big initial wave of buying, and those buyers to push another wave of buying when they start saying they’re happy with the camera they bought (I should note in passing that this is being gamed on the Internet with “paid” user reviews). 

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