News/Views

Yes, The Camera World Changed

Photographers as old as I am have gone through a number of sea changes in cameras: exposure metering, autofocus, DSLR, mirrorless, and now shutterless. Curiously, Nikon has been early in all those things, though not always with their final solution (witness the Nikon 1 versus the Z System for mirrorless). 

But we need to discuss what's going on with these changes, and how something fundamental is at the root of it. 

Early on, automation was the primary change to cameras. Adding metering and later autofocus were both basically additions to the existing film SLR; they added automation for the user, but didn't really change the core mechanical aspects of the camera. In essence, this era was about adding electronics to what had originally been a mechanical device. 

The DSLR started a process we're now deep into: silicon taking over from mechanical. This is not just a camera thing: silicon takeover has been happening across a wide range of industries and products. Why? Because producing silicon is an automated manufacturing process where costs go down with volume (the old Texas Instruments discovery). Moreover, two other trends have been going on with silicon: (1) feature size reduction that allows you to put more on a chip; and (2) the creation of additional functions on a single chip due to #1. 

Initially, DSLRs didn't take full advantage of those trends, it was just more about removing mechanical film transport mechanisms and providing an all-electronic imaging system. DSLRs were still adding automation to the camera, too, which started to coalesce into a system on chip (SoC), such as Canon's DIGIC, and eventually Nikon's EXPEED, and Sony's BIONZ. 

Because compact digital cameras date back to the 80's and don't have mirrors, the camera makers got a lot of experience with the imaging sensor doing "more tasks" as digital progressed. It was inevitable that as this experience advanced the camera makers would start to think about how they could apply that to interchangeable lens cameras. Mirrorless was the predictable result of that. Why? For the same reason as DSLRs replaced film SLRs: taking out a mechanical parts (mirror system) makes the cameras easier to make, and less expensive to produce, too. 

Which brings us to the latest change: removing the shutter. 

Nikon isn't the first one to take out the mechanical shutter, but the Z9 is the most important iteration of this change (just as the Nikon D1 was in the film-to-digital transition). Like the D1, the Z9 is a bold statement about the future. Nikon has tended to make these bold statements first in their flagship cameras, then work to move that technology down into their entire range. Canon, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony now all have to think about doing the same. 

Which gets us back to why silicon is at the core of these changes now. The other camera makers have to respond because Nikon just took out parts costs, as well as assembly/maintenance/repair complexity and costs, and did so without removing function. As silicon progresses, Nikon will add function and performance. 

No, I'm not going to start noshutter.com, but the change that is now about to happen to interchangeable lens cameras is not stoppable at this point. 

You're probably wondering "what's next?" 

Again, that's relatively predictable, though exactly how exactly it will work for cameras is still somewhat unknown; several paths exist, and it's not clear which one the Japanese will take. But look at what Apple is doing: complete SoC integration (CPU, GPU, ML, RAM, etc.). Moore's Law predicted this type of increased function, and it has clear benefits to both the producer and the user.

Back in the 70's at a tech conference I also predicted that the third dimension would have to be exploited at some point with silicon. Stacked image sensors are a basic form of that: image capture happens in one layer, data storage happens in another. Nikon themselves have shown something beyond that, though, with their 1" prototype sensor: control of the imaging layer from the second, stacked layer. 

Image sensors were an easy point for exploiting the third dimension: converting a photon to an electron and doing something with that isn't intensely heat producing. It would be more problematic, for instance, to put a RAM layer below a CPU layer, for instance.

Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see another layer added, though this will have tough heat issues to deal with when you start making every layer into a "processing" layer. But I'm sure we'll see more integration into silicon, and it has to go somewhere. Some of it will go alongside the imaging area, some below. 

The problem the camera companies have is one I wrote about well over a decade ago: volume. Think about this new shutterless revolution from Nikon's standpoint: they now need a DX sensor that is shutterless, as well as another FX sensor that is shutterless, at a minimum (it's possible that a Z7 III could just use the Z9 sensor, perhaps even using binned—not image binning, but the semiconductor process of selecting out "best" chips from the batch—versions that don't suss out some of the more advanced features. Still, that's a minimum of three different image sensors to get produced, for a company that's currently under the 1m annual volume level in terms of units sold. The initial cost of building that first chip is huge. You get payback by selling a ton of products with that chip. 

That's one reason why Nikon tends to start their new eras at the flagship end of the product line: the higher customer cost returns pays R&D investment back reasonably fast.

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Bonus: Guess what's the new "most complex" mechanical thing left in cameras? Hint: it was added recently. That's right, it's sensor-based image stabilization. Three axes of that can go away electronically (left/right, up/down, rotation ;~). Indeed, we see hints of that with Nikon's Electronic VR in video (as well as similar implementations from others). But, as fast as it was added to cameras, I have this strange feeling that it will disappear, too. Not the ability, just the mechanical parts. The tricky bit will be the tilt components of the IS mechanics. But remember, we're starting to get depth maps produced by image sensors. 

Okay, Props Where Props are Deserved

Nikon's introduction of the Z9 this morning was about the best marketing I've seen out of Nikon. Certainly in recent years. Very nicely done. A few comments are necessary to point out the things they did right:

  • The teaser campaign was just that: teaser. I'm not sure everyone got the metaphor in the final last minute teaser, but in the first three 30-second videos Nikon revealed just enough information to intrigue, while leaving things to still be found out at launch. The 20 fps in the teaser turns out to be "no limitations," but there's 30 fps (JPEG only) and 120 fps (11mp only) options if you really need insane speeds.
  • Storytelling abounds in the launch videos. Storytelling is most powerful form of marketing, and I don't know if it was entirely by choice (McNally is a natural story-teller), but the selected pre-production users pretty much all told stories. Even Nikon's own marketing spiels tended towards story telling rather than specifications. I suspect specification-concentration comes next, because it answers specific questions that might come up.
  • The launch videos were themselves almost a story: the various sub-video elements were all woven together very nicely, not devolving into boring talking heads for very long, and moving from benefit to benefit very nicely. This was NikonUSA's launch—Nikon puts the lead in different subsidiary/regions for each big announcement—and this was the best I've seen them.
  • Nikon took some subtle swipes, comparing a few capabilities to "competitors" directly (see above), without mentioning who they were. Very Japanese passive aggressive, but still nicely done. 
  • Nikon didn't dead end into an endless discussion of "newness", leaving many things to be still discovered and to be marketed in subsequent sessions. Marketing emphasis was exactly where it should be: a complete, pro, do-anything camera with unique capabilities, not on a specific feature.

There's a lot we still need to learn about the Z9—remember I already write 1000+ page books on these cameras—but that's okay in a launch presentation. Nikon did an almost perfect tease and launch. Now they have a lot of details to fill in, and I'm hoping they do it as well as they've done everything else so far. Fingers crossed.

Amazingly, Nikon is letting people discover one critical aspect of the new camera for themselves: price. US$5500 is well below where most people thought this camera was going to be priced. US$5500 turns out to be a "delightful surprise" as people pick up on just how capable the new Z9 actually is. I already know several Nikon DSLR pros who weren't planning to pick up a Z9 that changed their mind, and it's the coupling of capability with price that did that. I'm pretty sure the Z9 will be sold out for quite some time.

So, as harsh as I've been on Nikon's marketing recently, I'll give credit where it's due: great job so far on the Z9 launch. Keep it up.

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And yes, the engineering team needs some kudos, too. But that's a story for another day.

Where's My Z9 Coverage?

I've gotten a few emails asking where my Nikon Z9 coverage is. Well, exactly where it's supposed to be: on zsystemuser.com

Besides my announcement article (tl;dr), I've got two other articles plus data pages on the new gear Nikon announced. That coverage will be updated periodically throughout the day (which removes the images temporarily during the update, as they are resized by an external engine to the pages themselves). 

More coming...

Well, That's One Way to Solve the Problem

Sony today introduced the new Xperia Pro-I smartphone. While it has three cameras like most modern high-end smartphones, one of them is a 1" sensor with a Zeiss 24mm f/2 lens (also can be set to f/4). Potentially a better solution than the Sony RX-0 for small 1" work. 

Okay, maybe not as good as the headline stats seem to suggest: while the image sensor is an improved one from the RX-100 Mark VII, the Xperia Pro-I is only using about 60% of the image area (e.g. 12mp rather than 20mp), which effectively starts to put the Xperia Pro I in iPhone 13 territory for the main camera. The good news is that the smartphone does have a BIONZ X processor, has phase detection, and can perform eye-detect focus in real time. Coupled with the 12mp pixel count and fast image sensor, the smartphone can run very fast still image bursts, and apparently even do 4-frame image alignment to reduce noise.

bythom sony xperiapro1

What's being solved? Being able to push a higher-end photo/video capture to the Internet. Wait, what? How do you do selfies or vlogging, as the display is on the wrong side? With a small set of selfie/vlogging accessories, which include a grip/handle, audio and monitor options. I wouldn't be surprised if the monitor and audio accessories came fairly directly from pulling apart a ZV-1.

The result ends up a bit more awkward than the Sony ZV-1 (which also has a 1" sensor, though with 24-70mm equivalent zoom), but not a lot more awkward. But it also means that you can stream directly, post directly, and basically solve the communication problem that cameras have now long had in the post iPhone era. 

As with other recent high-end Xperia's, this new version also works well when connected to the Sony A1, opening up new capabilities there. 

It seems that the R&D merge of smartphone and camera groups at Sony is now producing interesting products that Canon and Nikon would have difficult making themselves.

Thing is, we've been expecting smartphones to start nibbling away at the 1" market (even with smaller image sensors). Here we have a clear example that they may do more than nibble. 

Of course, one problem with the Xperia Pro-I is the price: US$1800, and the selfie/vlogging accessories push that up another US$300. Also, for some of us, we're not going to introduce Android into our ecosystem. 

What About Apple's New MacBook Pros?

I'll eventually update my Apple computer advice, but some of you have asked for some early reaction to the new M1 Pro and M1 Max based laptops. Okay, here goes:

  • If your apps are mostly using one core, the original M1 models are just as good. Indeed, they tend to be a tiny bit faster when only one CPU core is engaged. So one real question you have to ask yourself is how much you're engaging the other cores. Because that's where the 1.5x to 2x performance gains will come from. That said, if you're editing video on a MacBook Pro, you want the new models, for sure, particularly if you're using Final Cut Pro or DaVinci Resolve. GPUs, same thing. The original M1's had 7/8 GPU cores, the new ones with 32 CPU cores are decidedly faster with anything that's using the GPU. 
  • Yes, it's nice that the MagSafe cable is back, but that comes with a bunch of small footnotes you'll want to be aware of. Apple has now gotten into the confusion zone with power options: different charger ratings, different ratings on different cables, and a host of other things you need to be aware of.
  • No, Apple didn't kill the need for dongles. They robbed Peter to pay Paul. To get the HDMI port, you lost a USB-C port (and received a MagSafe to partially get that port back if you're charging). We did gain a UHS II SD slot with good performance. Need CFexpress slots, Ethernet, USB-A, or a host of other connections? You still need a dongle. 
  • The display notch for the camera isn't a big thing, except if you have programs with lots of menus or use too many status/shortcut icons in the upper right. As Apple points out, the menu bar actually now extends above the previous 16:10 display area, so you didn't lose any useful display area, you just get the menu bar items pushed up to the edge of the bezel. Apple is still relying upon no one getting around the security notification light, though. I'd prefer a physical shutter to keep the camera from seeing me when I don't want it to.
  • Yes, the display is brighter. If you use your MacBook Pro outside that's likely to be of clear interest. If you're not viewing or editing HLG or other HDR-like content, I don't see it as an advantage. The 120hz smoothing is nice, though.
  • Battery life seems clearly better under "normal" use. Likewise, the fans mostly aren't on or inaudible. Took me compressing video to hear them kick in.
  • I'm actually not a fan of the full-size function keys. A full size Escape key and Touch ID key, sure, but being a completely touch typist, the ubiquity of the flat, same-sized chiclet-type keys needs help clues to keep me oriented. Perhaps time will help, but initial impressions were not favorable. Keyboards have long been Apple's weakness. Yes, they last a long time; no, they aren't great for fast typers.
  • One thing to consider: these new computers ship with macOS Monterey. macOS Big Sur just got into the realm where I'd consider it stable for production work. It'll be awhile before Monterey joins it. macOS Catalina is currently the most secure and stable version Apple supports. It's also the last version before the completely "flat" UI took over, which some will not like.  

As with the original M1 Macs, you need to be prepared to "buy high." Because RAM is part of the main chip now, you must buy as much RAM as you'll ever need. Likewise, the SSDs are locked down and not user replaceable, so you have to opt large there, too. I'd say the minimum photographer configuration is likely M1 Pro, 32GB RAM, 2TB SSD. A 14" configuration that way is US$3300. Moreover, you'd really need to think long and hard about whether to go to a M1 Max configuration, which will add US$200-400. And if you want 64GB RAM—RAM is speed in photo processing—you'll pay a minimum of US$3900. At those prices, the MacBook Pro should probably be your main computer (and you'll want a larger external display). 

I'm in no rush to replace my current Macs. They suffice just fine, and I bought them up-specified in the first place, so all the memory and SSD room provides plenty of performance for what I need, still. The only reason I can think of to move to one of the M1 Pro or Max models is if I were to start doing a lot of location-based video. 

So those are my early, quick thoughts after a very brief test drive (and looks at some tests that trusted friends have done). No doubt Apple has moved the bar. But most of us didn't need the bar moved yet. 

The Reviews Are All In. Yippee!

Sony's gotten incredibly good at this, but others are quickly catching on: make sure friendly media with broad reach all have your new product in hands a week or so before introduction so that reviews magically appear the day of—or in the case of a Northrup slip up, the day before—the launch. 

What then happens is that dozens, maybe many dozens of YouTube videos and mainstream media articles all appear anointing the new product as some sort of winner. 

Those aren't reviews. Those are biased impressions. And quick, first impressions, at that. (Disclosure: only about half of the 30 or so A7 Mark IV videos I looked at labeled themselves "reviews", but they all had plenty of final pronouncements.)

Surprisingly, the supposedly great Sony autofocus system in the A7 Mark III now appears to have had warts in it all along, because virtually all these quick impressions are now proclaiming that the new camera just performs so much better than the old when it comes to focus. In reality, the Sony A7 Mark III autofocus system, in my testing, lags behind the Nikon Z6 II autofocus in a number of ways. But that notion never made it into the mainstream press, because the mainstream press is only interested in being the first to reveal the Next Big Thing or make a Provocative Proclamation. Of course, they wouldn't really know what the Next Big Thing is unless the brand's marketing department told them what it is. 

Note: I did see some criticisms in the plethora of quick impression videos. These tend to be along the lines of "not what I expected/wanted." In other words, inflated expectations weren't met. But those criticisms, too, have a problem: the actual camera is probably darned good (note that I'm going to reserve my full assessment until I can adequately review it, which probably won't be until 2022).

Which leads us to the other aspect of brand marketing that's going on right now: halo cloaking. A company announces a top end and expensive camera that indeed does push the state-of-the-art forward in some way. The Sony A1 is one recent example of this, and the Nikon Z9 will be another very soon now. What the brand believers all then start to align with is the following: since the halo product has industry-leading performance/technology in some regard, all the products in the brand must be industry-leading. 

Halo marketing has been the go to mantra of the automobile industry for decades: if we can make an incredible car that wins races, all our cars are incredible. In the NASCAR world, there used to be a saying that said "if it wins on Sunday, it sells on Monday." This has turned into DIGICAM world as "If it's hyped on Sunday, it sells on Monday." 

No doubt we've had some incredible cameras introduced in 2021: Canon R3, Fujifilm GFX50s and GFX100s, Sony A1 and (maybe) A7 Mark IV, and soon, likely the Nikon Z9. Though if these were the only cameras that these company sold, they'd all be out of the photography business in a year, and your local camera dealer would soon disappear. 

Fundamentally, the Fujifilm X-E4, Nikon Zfc, and Sony EV-10 are the more important cameras introduced so far this year, as the quantities that will be sold and how they influence the actual market will be more important to the long-term viability of the camera companies. Indeed, I'm a little worried at the moment, because the number of such cameras has basically bottomed out in terms of yearly announcements in 2021. We had way more cameras in the middle introduced in 2020 than we've had in 2021. The good news is that those 2020 cameras are all still very current, but at some point we'll need to see another round of bottom and middle cameras being iterated, or else we'll just return to market downsizing. 

The reality is this: Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, OM Digital Solutions, Panasonic, and Sony are all incredibly competitive. Each is pushing hard to show what it is they can do in the camera space. And they all have things they can point to that make them a leader in some way. Some of them have gotten quite good at the marketing game, but a very specific type of marketing game: launch hype. 

Yet most of the camera sales this year will be "well behind launch hype." That's because it's in the long sales tail that you make your money. R&D costs need to be paid back in unit volume, not launch hysterics. Sony, for instance, is still selling the A7 Mark II, which simply isn't up to the level of the similarly priced, newer, and never really hyped Nikon Z5. True, there are more lenses available for the A7 Mark II, but just exactly how many lenses does this type of customer buy? One, maybe two, typically, though having a full lineup is a marketing check box that many look at. There's a marketing position that isn't being actively promoted well: all you need. All a lot of you need is a Z5 and a 24-200mm f4/-6.3 lens. Solidly good camera, excellent imagery, excellent optics, and that's true across most types of photography its target customers would attempt.

I'll continue to do what I've been doing: actually use a product for some time before writing what I hope is a thorough and fair review. I could join the Launch Enhancing Crowd and produce talking head videos with camera body fondling, but that would go against everything I've done in the media since I wrote the first set of product review guidelines for a major national tech publication back in 1980 (a 75-page set of very specific things that dictated how we reviewed products, and for which I had to fire several people for not adhering to). Of course, full disclosure: this was shortly after I received an award from a prestigious organization for misusing the words "this computer screams." That, of course, is a total bastardization of both the English language and common sense, and full of hyperbole. But I came to my senses and settled into a more disciplined approach thereafter.

In the meantime, if you're truly interested in improving your photography:

  • You have a current camera — look at your lenses, enroll in classes.
  • You have an older camera — look at the updated model, look at your lenses, enroll in classes.

Naughty or Nice, Merry or Lump of Coal?

I'm still trying to figure out what the upcoming holiday shopping season is going to look like for photographers. The pandemic-influenced supply chain and shipping problems has every company, big and small, scrambling to get organized.

Let's start with one thing that's going to cause some clear frustration: new cameras. Sony launched the A7 Mark IV today, and it should be a very popular camera. But it won't be available until December, and there's already backchannel whispering that it will be in short supply, at that. Meanwhile, Nikon is about to launch the Z9, and I don't have to go very far out on a limb to say that when it ships in the last week of November, it will be a sell-out. In fact, I think I'm still just hugging the trunk of the tree saying that, and not even on a limb at all ;~).

Plenty of other recently introduced cameras—Canon R3, Fujifilm GFX100s, Sony A1, etc.—are also in exceedingly short supply and will be difficult to obtain before the end of the year. 

For those that have to have the latest and greatest, this will not be a merry holiday, methinks. You'll be scrambling to get that shiny new tool if you don't already have your order placed with a dealer that has strong fulfillment capability. 

But I've been watching the more mainstream products that have been out for awhile slipping in and out of inventory almost constantly. Demand for cameras is the highest it's been since 2018, it seems, and the scramble at the manufacturers to keep up has gotten so intense that some have now resorted to shipping via air freight. 

It's not just cameras that are going through this: lenses, flashes, accessories, and pretty much everything. Nikon just announced in Japan that it won't take any more orders for the 70-200mm f/2.8E FL VR lens or SB-5000, for instance, because they can't supply them at the moment. 

I'd tend to say "well, just concentrate on updating and enhancing your computer system," but there, too, the answer is "supply limited, more on the way." 

I suspect that we're going to see three types of products being promoted by the camera makers this holiday season: (1) refurbished; (2) older generation, lingering inventory; and (3) bundles. I also expect to see that anything that looks like it isn't completely selling through will go on sale, too. This may be a very micro-managed process, where deals come and go very quickly. So I wouldn't wait if something comes on your radar that you want at a price that is better than usual. That might be a very ephemeral sale.

Aside: We really can't afford to lose any more camera dealers. But camera dealers are going to be really stressed this holiday season given the supply constraints. I strongly encourage supporting your local dealer as much as you can. Yes, I know that the big online sources are convenient, and I use them a lot myself, but companies like Amazon and B&H aren't going to go away if they have a difficult time fulfilling pent-up demand in the next few months. Your local dealer might. So drop on by and see if there's something they're selling that you just might want or need. Another possibility: if you know you want Camera X in December and your local dealer doesn't have one in stock today, go ahead and order it from them now. Dealers will be getting refreshed supply several times in the coming two months, but it's going to be first-come, first served for what they do get. 

I'll have some suggestions soon on things to buy to keep you happy this year end, but they're likely to be a little oddball and definitely aren't likely to be out-of-stock cameras and lenses ;~).

Is The Evidence in Plain Sight?

Technically, Nikon still sells more DSLRs than mirrorless cameras. With Canon, I'm not quite as sure, as we start getting a bit too much into the definition of what "sell" means (into distribution, into dealer, into customer hands?). 

So let's start with Nikon. 

NikonUSA's landing page as I write this is:

  • Z9 — Get ready to experience image-making like never before
  • Z7 II — The proof is in the rating (DxOMark score of 100)
  • Nikkor Z — See the rapidly expanding lineup
  • Classic design meets Z mirrorless — about the Zfc
  • Z6 II — 2021 Winner! (TIPA award)
  • The power of photography — Four photographers tell their stories

Where are the Nikon DSLRs? (answer: in a sub-menu)

You see the same mirrorless emphasis in all the recent articles in the Education menu on NikonUSA's site, as well, though another anomaly appears in the Products & Innovation sub-section: all the recent Z mirrorless articles are labeled "Beginner." It isn't until you get to the "Intermediate" and "Advanced" articles that the DSLRs show up (ironically the Nikon 1 still makes its presence known in the Intermediate category!). That seems to contradict what Nikon corporate says is their customer emphasis: shouldn't NikonUSA be selling mirrorless to its prosumer and pro customers?

Nikon's marketing, in other words, has moved on from DSLRs. If you end up buying a Nikon DSLR, great, but that's not what the company is pushing today.

Supply chain issues may be driving Nikon, too. If you can only build X widgets, which widgets do you build? We have evidence that Nikon has been choosing mirrorless over DSLR when this problem comes up. 

CanonUSA's "Products" landing page seems retro and eclectic. Mirrorless isn't actually mentioned per se (at the moment; subject to change). We have categories for Cameras as well as for EF & RF Lenses together, along with 10 other categories. If you click on the Cameras shortcut you get a database retrieval that simply puts the newest things on top. Which right now isn't a camera, let alone a mirrorless one, but rather accessories ;~). 

CanonUSA's Learn page also doesn't seem to to want to talk about mirrorless or DSLR, but rather overall photographic concepts. It's almost as if CanonUSA has taken the anti-marketing approach to mirrorless (let the user figure it out). This is in deep contrast to Nikon's very targeted "tell them everything about Z mirrorless first and foremost." 

The oddity with this disparity is that most of us believe that Nikon will likely hold onto selling key DSLR cameras and lenses longer than Canon. But that's not what the Web sites seem to suggest.

As I've written for some time, messaging is extremely important in the reduced-size camera market. Nikon's current messaging is that they've moved on from DSLRs. Canon's messaging is that they have some cameras, come on down and browse to find out which ones. Neither of those things seem right to me, and both approaches are likely sub-optimal in terms of moving boxes. 

My headline is a question: has Nikon really moved beyond DSLRs and told us so via their visible actions, or is this just an anomaly because there isn't a new DSLR thing at the moment to promote (though the D780 sure made like a submarine real fast on Nikon's site, and quickly disappeared beneath the front page waves)? I can't tell for sure. History says Nikon only actively markets the latest and greatest thing, though. It's as if they can't do on-going marketing.

I'm on record as saying Nikon should lock in "top DSLR models" for the foreseeable future: D580, D780, D880, D6 and jettison the rest. Doing that would send a strong, and appropriate signal to the existing top-end Nikon DSLR crowd: you can transition now or later, your choice, we've got your back. It would also send a clear signal to the D3xxx to D7xxx users that it's time to upgrade to the higher-end DSLRs, or move to mirrorless.

The problem with trying to tell everyone to transition from DSLR to mirrorless today is this: Nikon doesn't have the lens lineup to fully justify that, and in crop sensor, they don't have the lenses or the cameras necessary to satisfy all. Moreover, the minute you talk about replacing lenses, you open the choice up to competitor's products, and one of them—Sony—has an extensive and excellent lens lineup with lots of third party support. 

Nikon's marketing should be "with you today, ready for your future." Unfortunately, by de-emphasizing the DSLR side of things, they're simply reducing their overall volume and market share faster than they can grow it with new mirrorless models. But again, consider the headline: maybe that's what they want to do.

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Another evidence-in-plain-sight point for Nikon: if you go to the corporate site's landing page, you are first presented products for corporate customers (business-to-business). You have to click on a tab to get to the consumer products, where you find the categories of individual products, including Digital SLR Cameras and Mirrorless Cameras. 

So, strawman thesis: Nikon corporate primarily wants to sell you businesses equipment, while the more consumer-focused sites such as NikonUSA want to sell you mirrorless cameras and lenses. That's Nikon 2021 in a nutshell. 

 

Conflating User Issues

I see a common theme among many since Sony pushed their top pro camera to 50mp: “I don’t want more pixels in a sports camera.” If not sports, then event. If not event, then wedding. Simply put there’s a relatively large group that claims that fewer pixels would be better for them.

You have to ask the question: why that would be?

When you do, many will immediately say that “smaller pixels mean noisier results.” Nope, not exactly. Those folks don’t understand pragmatic equivalency. If you’re outputting to a double-page spread in a magazine, that’s a fixed output size, and both a 24mp and 50mp camera will have basically the same noise profile because they collected the same number of photons over the same area and are now outputting them over the same area. There’s no user issue with noise here. None. Not for any sports, event, or wedding photographer I know. Nothing’s changed in lighting, capture size, or output size. The results will have the same quantum shot noise within a small margin of error. Best case there may be some margin issues where one approach is better than the other, but again, pragmatically, the results are essentially the same.

So you ask again, and you get this answer: “I don’t want to deal with large file sizes.”

Bingo. We have about twice as much data to collect, so our file sizes should about double. That means you need larger cards, faster communication from card to permanent storage, and more permanent storage. This is actually a bit of a user-perceived pain point (and has been for some time).

But is it really?

Kryder’s Law (similar to Moore’s Law, but for disk density) used to net us a doubling of drive capacity every year, though the complexities have slowed that to something more like 15% additional capacity a year. Since we’re mostly transitioning from physical platters to electronic storage these days, Moore’s Law will come back into play, though. 

Certainly we have no problem getting fast and large capacity cards. Sony skipped right to a 128GB minimum card size for CFExpress Type A cards. And Lexar makes a 128GB UHS-II card that works in that Sony A1 just fine that sells for US$50. You should be replacing your cards on a regular basis anyway—particularly if you’re a pro and must have ultimate reliability—so the card isn’t really the pain point. 

So when was the last time you bought a hard drive and how big was it? Costs per gigabyte of permanent storage used to go down fairly substantively each year, but as Kryder’s Law began to erode, that’s become somewhat less true. Still, the cost per gigabyte is not particularly high. A 10TB drive might set you back US$400, and that would store literally millions of Sony A1 images shot in uncompressed raw. So permanent storage isn’t that much of a pain point.

The real pain point is in moving that data, which can be as high as 102MB per image. Moving it to clients via wireless communication, or moving it from camera to permanent storage. You can solve the latter by buying state of the art cards and a state of the art card reader and using that on a state of the art computer (basically CFe and USB 3.2 minimum). And not using Lightroom ;~). Seriously, most of us sports photographers use Photo Mechanic for the task of ingesting images because it’s just faster to get to results, including captioning.

That leaves us one pain point: getting 50mp from the camera to a client via wireless. Actually, that’s mostly a workflow pain point, and Sony has done a number of things to help you with that (most of us on the sidelines use one particular workflow that Sony enabled). You can also have the camera create 2mp proxy images and push them out, and sometimes I do that (and have done that on my Nikon cameras with far smaller pixel counts). 

Finally, our poor exasperated customer who doesn’t want 50mp will tell you: “I just don’t need that many pixels.” 

That’s probably true. I have to wonder if those folks are buying the right camera in the first place. A Sony A7 Mark III or Nikon Z6 II might be the right camera for them. But FOMO and bragging rights get in the way, and they opt for the more expensive camera that does things that they don’t need done.

But even here I’d be cautious. I’ve heard the “don’t need that many pixels” complaint at 12mp, 16mp, 24mp, 26mp, 32mp, 36mp, 45mp, and these days at 50, 61, and 100mp. Those folk should think back just a bit. They said they didn’t need digital HD TV, that the old NTSC analog system was fine. They said that they didn’t need 4K, that HD was fine. They also were saying those things when they had 30” screens. So just how good does that old NTSC VHS tape now look on your 60” 4K TV? 

I’ve written this before and I still believe it will become true: we’re going to get to wall-sized displays in your house (and office). If you want to see/show your photos on that wall, expanding them to full size is going to reveal how many pixels you had when you took the image ;~). Of course, we might not get there for a few years, but that doesn’t change the issue, just delays it. Are there images in my files I wish I had been able to take with a higher resolution camera? Yep. Even in the last five years I can say that to be true for a few photos. (We now have AI-based programs that can upsize better than before, but I've yet to see one that doesn't trigger odd artifacts that might come into visibility.)

So what’s the real problem with 50mp? None that I can see that would make me say no to a 45mp Z9 to replace my 20mp D6. 

I read a conjecture recently that the number of technology improvements we’ve seen in the past 50 years will be matched by those we see in the next 10. I’m not sure I agree with that, as we’re getting closer to some physical boundaries with a lot of tech and would need some as-yet-unknown “breakthrough” innovations to keep on a faster track. I’m not sure what those breakthroughs are going to be or when they’ll show up yet. But there are plenty of folk out there looking for them. It's not that we won't have progress, it's just difficult to predict right now when we will get it. 

10 years from now I suspect we’ll be arguing about much different things in photography than we are today. I was reminded of that when I took a photo of a procedure at a medical facility recently with my iPhone. Only I accidentally had my phone set to record a “live moment” not just a single still image. Not an issue, I can still get the image I want out of the data set. But I have more information than I needed for that photo. That’s exactly where I think photography is headed next: more information. Pixel count is only part of that.

People talk about computational photography a lot these days. Those of us in the digital business were talking about computational photography in the 90’s and 00’’s; it’s only recently showed up clearly in consumer products. I think the next step is database-collected photography. By that, I mean that you’re going to have multiple devices collecting image (and other) data for longer than a moment in time, from which you can re-create a moment in time from an observational position. (We can already do that with some post mortem brute force. Researchers at Microsoft and others have “built” new photos from all the photos of an object that appear on the Internet. What I’m talking about here is you making your own “photos” from your own data, easily and quickly.)

Meanwhile, 50mp image sensors are just fine for my uses. They should be for yours, too.

Who Do You Believe?

Today I posted a brief article in the Technique section about Dynamic Range. Short version: there’s no specific, agreed upon definition of dynamic range. 

Unfortunately in photography today we have a lot of those “no one agrees” type definitions. Consider depth of field, for example. Technically, only one flat (or curved) plane is in focus. What depth of field tries to define is “what’s acceptably in focus.” 

Unfortunately, a ton of variables come into play for determining acceptable focus, and not everyone agrees on the variables, let alone the results. The much used so-called Zeiss formula sets specific eyesight, viewing distance, and print size variables, for instance. Do you know what they are? Other depth of field thesis’ use different variables. No agreement.

Diffraction is another area where there’s definition contention, though less so today than there used to be. Why? Because with some early digital cameras the complete Airy disc wasn’t recorded over multiple photosites, it landed on just one, thus couldn’t really impact edges. Even as things changed so that diffraction was recorded on adjacent photosites, the demosaic used to get RGB values may or may not have picked up the full diffraction impact, particularly because the actual diffraction varies with light spectrum. Now that we have high megapixel count image sensors, the Airy disc is getting well-recorded, regardless of demosaic. So the term “diffraction limited aperture” has different meanings to different people, even today.

And let’s not get started with ISO, which is a standard, but a standard that’s interpreted differently by some. 

We have all kinds of claims navigating the Internet these days (e.g. “15 stops dynamic range!”), but those claims aren’t useful without definition. We then get people arguing over claims (“my camera has more usable dynamic range”), but again lack of definition gets in the way of truth. 

I’ve mentioned apples-to-apples before, but it seems that the Internet is now full of apples-to-whatever_makes_my_product_look_better comparisons. Camera and lens maker marketing departments aren’t immune from this, either. 

So how do you figure out what’s real and what applies to you? You test. To your standards and needs.

For nearly 30 years I’ve been an advocate of “learn your tool” when it comes to cameras and lenses. The first thing I’m doing with any new camera or lens is run it through a bunch of my personal semi-standardized tests to see how it performs. That usually is enough to inform me as to which standardized and carefully controlled tests I might need to make to further understand how the product performs. 

For instance, noise propagation at various ISO levels. I have a couple of quick tests I’ve used for years that allow me to quickly make an assessment of what the camera can do. They’re not specific or controlled enough to give me clear, useful results, though. What those quick tests generally tell me is where I need to spend time assessing controlled results. Often I can tell whether something changes at specific ISO values (I’m not just talking about dual gain, but I noted very early on that something was different about the low ISO on the R6 when I began applying my quick tests, and often I see some sort of scaling or noise reduction kick in on a new camera at high ISO values). 

With some cameras I spend more time learning how it deals with something specific. For instance, I take astrophotography with my Z7 II or D850. So how they handle very long exposures is of deep interest to me and requires some rigorous testing to understand what might be happening in the DNs and what might be causing what I see. But a D6? Nope, I don’t use that camera for astro work, so I don’t need to do more than quick testing at longer shutter speeds. 

What amuses me is when someone is quibbling over pixel-level issues in edge circumstances, but is using their camera with a low cost superzoom lens. That’s why I can’t perform every test for every person for every photographic situation, and thus advocate that you do your own testing. 

While “good enough” is not a trait I seek out in my gear or work, if it is for you then you have different standards, and a more casual testing of your new gear may be all you need to do. The more you want to be Ansel Adams (or follow my “best possible digital capture” mantra), the more you need to be diligent about testing every aspect of your new gear the way you’re going to use it (again, might not be the way I or others would use it). 

Somehow I doubt we're ever going to see agreement on what some critical terms mean. And yet that (certain terms) seems to be what most of you are obsessing over at the moment. 

We have a linguistics problem in photography, and pretty much always have. Even Kodak and Ansel Adams disagreed about what gray meant. I don't see this changing any time soon, and it's not my role, nor do I have the audacity to suggest, that I can fix that. 

(We also have semiotics problems in photography, too. But that's another story for another day.)

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I'm appreciative of those site readers who've caught me in conflict with word usage or definition from time to time. It's hard to write (and self-edit) as much as I do without catching myself in a contradiction in usage from time to time. When that happens and I'm made aware of it, I try to go back and make things "align" better in the thousands of pages on my sites, but I don't always catch every instance. Nor would the best proof reader/copy editor I've ever used, though my ex-wife (a copy editor) managed to catch far more of those inconsistencies than you'd believe was possible. 

You’re Going to Complain About Something

Having now supported cameras on the Internet for 28 years (yes 28), it’s very easy for me to conclude the following: no matter what camera brand or model you buy, you’re going to complain about something. 

It might be a feature you consider to be missing, it might be some UX bit that bothers you; it might be that the grip and control positions just don’t align with your abnormally large (or small) hands; it might be that performance is 99% of what you need but not 100%. You’re going to complain. And I’m going to hear it ;~). 

If you want to hear my own biggest and most consistent complaint, here it is: I fail to understand why a company will change something that was proven to work with a new choice just because they feel they have to change something. The classic example of this was when Nikon spent a decade establishing that the exposure compensation button was to the right rear of the shutter release, then suddenly moved it with the N80. My complaint was quick, loud, and heard by Nikon: they’ve not repeated that mistake in multiple decades since.

We really need to group complaints into some categorization system. Something that makes a camera more difficult to use than before but has no clear benefit—moving the exposure compensation button, for example—is a terrible thing to do to customers. If you make changes like that, you’d better quickly fix it, or you'll start losing customers. 

Many of the things that I complain about—which almost always happens in the How’s it Handle? section of my reviews—are things you only discover with continued use of the product. I’m constantly amazed when in Tokyo about how many of the folk I meet who design our cameras and lenses aren’t actually active photographers themselves. 

This means that problems that come up in actual use have to get relayed to the engineers in order to be heard. The current system  to do that is no different than the system that’s been used for this for many years: (1) product managers in the subsidiaries need to hear the complaint, (2) those product managers often then need to convince the subsidiary CEO of the problem because (3) the CEO is typically a Japanese executive currently serving a stint overseas and he’s the one that tends to do all the translation and direct contact work with corporate, or at least directly manage that process. 

Since photography is a global thing, it’s important for all the Japanese camera companies to have a well-tuned and efficient methodology of interacting with and understanding their customers, and no where is that more important than in terms of hearing and understanding complaints. 

The problem, of course, is that the Internet is full of complaints, and some complaints are posed by people who don't even own or use the product in question. So you can't just casually look at the disinformation on the Internet and decide what needs fixing and what doesn't. Not that the Japanese camera companies even do much of that. 

As I noted, every one of you has a complaint. So a number of filters immediately start to come into play: (1) is that just a wishful thinking thing (“please make a 200mp full frame camera”)?; (2) is it a personal preference (“I want more control over the focus-shift function”)?; (3) is it a legitimate-to-purpose need (“for selfie video I need an articulating LCD”)?; or (4) is it something that’s broken (“the camera forgets my setting when I change exposure modes”)?

#1 will be ignored, always (though product marketing might try to quantify how many people think that way, because someday they might need to decide between a 60mp and 100mp full frame sensor, and 100mp may come closer to satisfying those 200mp requests than 60mp). 

#2 tends to also be ignored, unless you’re a super-influencer and famous photographer, particularly if you have a big audience and might bolt to a competitor’s product if a feature isn’t changed or added. Also: if a competitive product suddenly sports this feature, that will sometimes get a camera company’s attention, particularly if the Internet starts amplifying its impact (truthfully or not). 

#3 gets promoted into consideration within product marketing’s long list of things they can/might do, but only if product marketing heard the complaint in the first place and recognized it as important. I'm pretty sure the "full list" never gets conveyed to Tokyo, but rather a carefully curated capsule. Why? Because a big, complete, huge list would essentially say "you messed up" and it's not proper in Japanese culture to be that critical. It would be shameful to the engineers. Even if such a list did exist, it's unlikely it would be conveyed to the product designers for that reason.

#4 needs to be duplicated or verified by someone at the subsidiary before it will be relayed back to Japan to get prioritized by engineering. Loss of function complaints tend to get priority here. If the problem can be duplicated, a fix might show up in firmware; or it might not, as it depends upon how big the problem is perceived to be and how often it would be encountered. Higher end cameras will get "more fixes" than lower end cameras.

What we have here is capitalism at its worst. #2 through #4 may actually get done by the camera maker, but only in the followup product. It does you no good that the complaint was heard and addressed, as you don't want to buy a replacement for the product you already paid money for. You even see vestiges of this on the Internet: "why should I pay to be a beta tester?" 

Unexpected Demand versus Unable to Supply

I’m getting more and more troubled about the language in notices that the camera companies are using to describe why a product is not in stock. 

In particular, I keep seeing words on the order of “unexpected demand” or “demand beyond our expectations.” 

Really? Your high-paid marketing and PR team is telling the world that they can’t judge how well a product will sell? That you’re so far out of touch with your customer base that you can’t reasonably judge what demand might be? In other words, you might as well be saying “we made this but we didn’t know if it would sell.” I’m sure the shareholders would be interested in the fact that you’re simply speculating with products and hoping that you’re right.

It’s not like this is a new thing. I’ve witnessed this same “apology to customers” approach from the Japanese for five decades now, and I’m pretty sure it preceded my early technology press work. Because the words keep getting repeated with each new product release, these notices seem to be more a cultural thing in Japan than a true apology or explanation to customers.

What’s really happening behind the scenes is mostly “normal.” For obvious reasons, you don’t build the entire supply of a product before releasing it in the tech world. Most cameras have two-year to four-year product life spans, so if one sells 250k units over its lifetime, that’s a bit over 10k units a month. You’re not going to sit on 240k units of inventory at month one. No, you build out your product on some production curve given to you by sales and marketing. So maybe you have a first month target of 25k, second month of 20k, and so on. 

Here's what’s actually happening in Japan. Short version: no one gambled and then they got caught out by supply chain shortages they helped cause. 

The pandemic led most manufacturers to cut back on all production. My local camera store and auto dealer, for example, were completely closed for four months in early 2020, and partially open for another four months. Hard to sell product when the stores are closed (and in the case of cameras, no one could really go out and use them as they normally do, so why did we need them?). So the companies shut down (or slowed down) their factories. Unfortunately, there were technology products in high demand that were still being sold through the Internet, particularly things that enabled remote Zoom-type meetings (Web cams, laptops, screens, microphones, etc.). So parts suppliers shifted to catering to the companies that were calling in desperately trying to get parts for high-demand products. 

By the time the low-demand product producers who had slowed manufacturing discovered they needed to ramp production back up, and fast, getting the parts they needed was no longer simple. Because everyone had switched to some form of Just in Time parts deliveries for manufacturing, there wasn’t much inventory around to restart full manufacturing of existing products, let alone deliver new ones. 

I’m told by someone in a position to know in Japan that every camera company is basically “juggling priorities” right now; no one has the full incoming parts stream they require to produce all the products they want to produce, so they have to make constant decisions on where to allocate parts that are common among products, and even which part they want a supplier to produce when the supplier tells them that they can only produce a fixed, small quantity in the immediate future. “I can fit making you 10k chips into our fab schedule, which one would you like us to produce?”

I’ve commented already about the fact that the market analysts that follow the camera industry have no agreement at all about how many cameras will be shipped in 2021 when the books finally close. Even the camera companies disagree. It seems clear to me that 2021 will end up higher than 2020, but by how much? And what would the number have been if there were no parts shortages? At the moment it looks like we’re headed towards an ILC number in the high six millions. I’m pretty sure that it would have easily exceeded 7m with no supply constraints. 

Canon recently sent out a notice that seven RF lenses can’t be produced to current demand. They used the “more orders than expected” line again. No, they should have expected the number of orders they received if they had any reasonable connection to their customer base. 

The latest variation is that no sooner did Tamron introduce three new lenses (18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XF mount, 28-75mm f/2.8 Di III G2 FE mount, and 35-150mm f/2-2.8 FE mount) their PR department issued the "have received reservations that significantly exceeded our expectations, and it is predicted that the number of production will not keep up with customer requests" notice. This is bragging at the same time as apologizing, which is some new form of psychological communication that really needs to be discouraged. If you don't have them to sell, they aren't sales ;~).

Apple seems to do things better (IMHO). The recent iPhone 13 introduction is just another example of how Apple handles initial demand: they don’t apologize for not being able to deliver to demand, they simply try to give you an idea of when an order you make today would actually arrive (and in my experience they’re really accurate at that). 

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I notice that Nikon has changed their wording recently. This week the EP-5A, EP-5B, MB-N11, and 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P are the latest Nikon products to succumb to production problems (the AS-15, SC-29, and EH-5D, however, are back available to order). I suspect that the 70-300mm lens, in particular, is one of those parts juggling decisions, as it uses the same sort of stepper motor that the Z lenses do. The good news is that Nikon seems to have changed their wording to "we can't deliver these products for production reasons, so we'll temporarily stop taking orders for them." I'm not sure that's exactly what the customer wants them to do, but it's better than blaming the problem on unexpected customer demand. 

Strange Things Said or Written, Part XIV

"I'm a Nikon shooter, today I've seen the Canon R3 and I've seen the future. Got over £10k worth of Nikon DSLR gear and it's worthless. Wouldn't get more than £3K trade in for it at all now. DSLR is dead." Tweet from Lee Blease, UK soccer photographer. 

Aside from the internal contradiction—£3K is not "worthless," his gear is just worth less ;~)—this feels like a complete overreaction for unknown reasons. Moreover, apparently he also hasn't seen or used the Sony A1. I looked over his online portfolio just to see if I could figure out what he meant. His photos are fine (most of the ones I looked at seemed to be taken with a D4 and the 300mm f/2.8). Doesn't seem to have focus issues. Might enjoy more fps. So his proclamation seems odd to me. He's using a nine-year old camera, so yes, a future camera just might have some advantages over it. But I'm unclear exactly how that's going to help his photography. 

I should point out that for a working professional the US Internal Revenue Service basically says that you can depreciate the camera body over a five year period (not sure what the situation is in the UK). This implies that the annual amortized cost of something like the D4/D5/D6 body is about US$1300. Smart photography pros are doing the same thing any business does and evaluate costs against incomes constantly, and upgrading equipment on regular schedules that are determined by useful life, not some new technology that appears. 

"I thought that a grip-less design was indispensable to make the appearance [and feel of a] FM2." DC.Watch (Japanese Web site) interview with Nikon on Zfc camera design.

Okay, the question here is whether that—appearance and feel of an FM2—is something that is actually desirable. It's clear that Nikon set the FM2 as a style guide for the Zfc, as they were selecting details right down to trying to match the metal colors (the magnesium alloy of the Zfc had to be painted to match the metal used in the film camera). Making the camera grip-less involved pivoting the battery and card slot, which in turn changed some other internal body use, as well. This is really design for design sake, rather than design for use and function sake. Hand grips, after all, have a function. 

The real question here is "why?" Yes, Nikon is supremely proud of their long heritage of cameras, but given how little the Zfc deviates from what would have been a Z50 II, the "why" question is important to ask. Nikon's marketing (and even engineering) keeps talking about "casual" and "happy" as emotions they want you to have when using a Zfc, but that's really strange to me. Essentially Nikon keeps putting the Z50 under the bus and then driving over it repeatedly. The Z50 isn't fun and doesn't make you happy, apparently. (I think the Z50 is a great little camera, one of the best small options out there.)

Moreover, according to the interview, the Zfc concept was considered from the very beginning of Z System development, which makes it even more curious that we have a Z50 and Zfc that share almost the same specifications, but which Nikon seemingly can't figure out how to market together. And for some strange reason, the Zfc marketing keeps coming back to the phrase "younger generation appeal." As we've seen in the past, that kind of appeal is very ephemeral; whims change fairly rapidly when design is prioritized over function. Moreover, the colored versions appear to have been tailored towards young women's tastes (sand beige apparently is the most popular, by the way, at least in Japan).

I should point out that the final comment in the interview ("we have received many requests for style accessories") is an echo of the Goto-san commentary on the older Nikon Df camera. We're going to see more than the optional accessory grip pop up (again, at least in Japan) for this camera.

"The Nikon Z 50 is a camera that is easy to shoot, and the Z fc is a camera that has a high degree of hobby and is a pleasure to own." Digicam.info (Japanese Web site) headline.

This headline was trying to summarize the content of the DC.Watch interview on the Zfc camera design. But it illustrates the problem that Nikon hasn't figured out how to deal with. (For what it's worth, I'm not sure the headline quite got the summary right.)

Taken inferentially, the Z50 is easy to use but not a pleasure to own, while the Zfc is the opposite. Yikes! 

Nikon's been going out of their way to use what are essentially patriarchal generalizations concerning the Zfc: it's for the young. It's for the legacy appreciator. It's easy to carry (I wouldn't agree). It makes you feel happy. The advertising and marketing have a lot of women in it, and the colors were selected with young women in mind. 

So what's the Z50 all about then? "Tiny has never been a bigger deal. Insanely small. Amazingly bold." In terms of volume, the Zfc is smaller, oops. So what, the Zfc is a bigger deal, then?

I hate it when companies step on their own feet, and Nikon has done just that with the Z50/Zfc models. Selling the Zfc is going to come at the expense of Z50 sales, because Nikon's marketing can't differentiate how the products are actually different in ways that makes the Z50 look good. The only thing that's left is price, and the Z50 is currently about US$100 cheaper. It will probably need to drop more. I can hardly wait for Nikon's marketing to claim "older technology, less expensive." ;~)

What makes me think that Nikon is going to drop the Z50 from the lineup, but instead use that model without an EVF to create a Z30? That might solve the pricing/positioning problem in one sense, but having a Z30 doesn't solve the modern versus dedicated dials problem at all.

It's interesting that the Japanese Web sites are all picking up Nikon's marketing schtick and finding that they're then having a difficult time then describing why a Z50 exists. Just like Nikon is. 

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