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Reader Comments: Whither Nikon?

Glenn K writes:

Sounds like you have gone in pretty deep with the A7RIV and some nice lenses. I certainly got great results from my rental of the A7RIV and the pending arrival of the Voigtlander APO-Lanthar 50mm f/2 is promising.

Nikon Z7

What are your thoughts on the Nikon Z system at this point? I still like the viewfinder, ergonomics and firmware (including lossless compression) and the 24-70 f/2.8, but slow release of native lenses, the lack of any third-party lens support and poor accessory support from Nikon is worrisome. Is Nikon too slow to stay in the race?

Their latest financial statements are not very encouraging. They seem to have sunk a lot of resources into the Noct; a lens that few can afford and apparently even fewer can buy since Nikon isn't able to produce enough to keep orders open. They have a nice Bluetooth remote that works on the Z50, but won't work on the Z6 or Z7 even with the latest firmware update.

Seems like a ship in a storm, without a captain, heading for the rocks.

DIGLLOYD: the essay below by Roy P addresses this well. I cannot see a future for Nikon mirrorless on the lackluster course that Nikon is steering.

The Nikon Z7 offers the best mirrorless experience in terms of camera design. Image quality is high, and the lenses are very good to excellent. Too bad it has no pixel shift, but it does have focus stacking support and it is the best mirrorless option for adapting Nikon F-mount lenses. If you bought one here in late 2019, it would serve you well for years.

See my comments on dinosaur companies and more starting back in 2015 in “Sony, Fix These Things and Win” aka How Does the Sony A7R II Stack Up? I have many other apropos comments and essays over the years, but it would take some time to find them all.

Roy P wrote with an apropos essay the day after I received the note from Glenn K:

I think features like frame averaging, focus stacking / stepping, multi-shot high-res mode a la Panasonic, etc. will all become standard features in all the high end cameras in the next 1-2 years.

BTW, Nikon is extremely vulnerable because of this, I think. A couple of days ago, I ran into this video by Tony and Chelsea Northrup:

I think they’re spot on in identifying the problem, but Tony’s prescription is a disaster, I think. I posted a long response, but no one has shown any reaction to it, either positive or negative. Maybe it’s too geeky. I don’t usually post public replies like this, but Tony’s recommendation made no sense, so I thought I’d make a comment.

Roy P has extensive experience in the semiconductor industry, and his thoughts are always bitingly insightful. His essay:

Tony and Chelsea:

You have identified the problem, and indeed, Nikon is in trouble. However, I respectfully disagree on your prescribed solution. IMHO, the strategies presented above will not work. Below, I outline a roadmap that could save Nikon, but it is a hard road, and I don't think they have the will power to take it.

As a quick backgrounder, I was a Nikon user for 20+ years before starting to transition to Sony mirrorless beginning 2011, and especially, after the Sony A7R came out, when I sold all my remaining Nikon gear. I would very much like to see Nikon survive and thrive, but unfortunately, Nikon has been a train wreck in slow motion for years, and that will only begin to accelerate.

First, the mirrorless revolution is not just getting rid of the SLR and the mirror box. It is a completely new paradigm that enables many new capabilities that are simply not possible with an SLR / DSLR. The stacked CMOS sensors with a huge array of embedded AF points and integrated DRAM in the Sony cameras with means super-fast read out from the sensor, near-real time EVF and live view, 60 AF measurements / second which enables unprecedented speed of AF acquisition and tracking, software-aided functions like focus peaking, Eye EF, face recognition / registration, high frame rates, large buffer sizes, etc. These are things that simply are not possible in DSLRs.

Second, the ability to take 60+ AF measurements over large areas of the sensors has led Sony to create new lens designs with linear motors that are specifically designed to take advantage of Sony's mirrorless technology and sensors. Just see the Sony 400 f/2.8 or 600 f/4 lenses, for instance. There's no way Nikon is going to be able to match the performance, handling and weight of these new Sony lenses. Eventually, every DSLR lens is going to be way behind its Sony equivalent.

Third, we are at the onset of an entirely new dimension in imaging, namely computational photography. We already have had glimpses of these: the original pixel shifting implemented by Pentax, leapfrogged by Sony, and further leapfrogged by Panasonic in the multi-shot high-res mode in the S1R, is just the beginning. I expect the Sony a7R V to have an S1/S1R-like real high-res mode, by means of a dedicated processor that also supports motion estimation / compensation for foliage, etc. The Panasonic S1R already has focus stacking of sorts; I expect this to become standard in the next generation Sony a7x cameras. I'm also sure we will see frame averaging, along the lines of what you see in the Phase One IQ4 digital back. These kinds of capabilities interact with the sensor and the camera architecture, and it's tough to fit these into a DSLR.

[diglloyd: Pentax pixel shift has not been leapfrogged by Sony; I deem Sony’s pixel shift to be inferior in all practical ways. Pentax also did frame averaging for years now]

Fourth, the sensor. Sony went for broke and made massive investments into image sensors in the late 2000s. I don't know if it had to do with Kazuo Hirai san taking over as the Chief. But Sony leapfrogged in sensors and is 3-4 years ahead of everyone else in the industry today. It's not just resolution, but also tinkering with entirely new approaches to image sensors, like modified Bayer sensors, curved sensors, non-Bayer matrices, etc.

So Sony knows the sensor technology roadmap, which makes its cameras also far more competitive the day they come out. This leads to a much more closed loop integration of all the various elements of an imaging system, with the sensor technology as the stake in the ground, and CPU design, firmware, camera functions and features, optics, all harmoniously coming together. The only other camera company that has this ability is Canon, which makes its own sensors.

Fifth, business model. Unfortunately for Nikon, Pentax, et al, they don't make their own sensors, so they can only do their planning of new cameras well behind Sony. How do you compete when you are sourcing such a critical component of the system from your chief competitor? This is not like the microprocessor business in which anyone can build a computer by buying the processors from AMD or Intel, and licensing the O/S from Microsoft, Google or IBM / Redhat.

There are independent image sensor makers, like CMOSYS, Tower / Jazz, etc., but they are not in the same class as Sony. Look at how long it has taken Leica to ship the S3 (now promised for 1H/2020, after announcing it at Photokina in Sept. 2018). There is also a matter of cost for Nikon: they have to pay Sony a high price for sensors, so Sony can make a profit on the sensors. That's not a very happy supply chain relationship.

The medium format guys (Phase One, Hasselblad) can buy their sensors from Sony – Sony is not in the MF business. So Sony can make a profit, and the MF guys can make a profit, and everyone is happy. That doesn't work for cameras that have to compete with Sony's own offerings.

Sixth, software. Not only Nikon does not understand software, but your idea of offering a cloud-based storage service would be a disaster for Nikon. Do you seriously expect Nikon to take on Adobe, Dropbox, et al? Enough said.

Seventh, the packaged cameras that are user-friendly, not complicated, come with built-in storage, can instantly transfer files to computers or iPhones or Instagram, etc. – all very good ideas, except that even here, Sony is way ahead of the game. Sony has the entire Sony RX100 series (amazingly, seven different models concurrently available), the Sony RX10, etc. The pace at which the RX100 series evolved is unprecedented – Sony practically came out with a new model every year. All the good ideas you pointed out to make photography easy for millennials or novices are likely to be seen in future versions of the Sony RX100 or RX10 cameras before Nikon can build new cameras.

Eighth, video. I'm not a videographer, but basically, mirrorless allows video capabilities simply not possible with a DSLR.

So when you put it all together and look at the competitive landscape, Nikon can no longer buy time with a $7000 D6 / $4500 D860. It's way too late for it. The Z7 / Z6 has been a disaster, as a panic move. You're right that the price was totally unsustainable, and this is a loser line. Any strategy that either attempts to extend the DSLR or tries to catch up with Sony is doomed to failure, I think.

Here is what I would prescribe as a roadmap:

1. Reduce all the current DSLR lines to cash cow status. Except for product support / firmware maintenance, cut all R&D and marketing costs, let go of anyone who was needed for DSLR designs, drop the prices, and make the D5, D850, D750, etc. pure cash cows that will ship until end-of-lifed over the next 3-4 years.

2. Get back into the image sensor game. Maybe acquire a smaller player to jump-start the program, but then commit a good chunk of money, like $250MM, to develop serious, proprietary sensors. Make this a long-term commitment.

3. Come up with a game plan and an architecture for a new mirrorless camera system that will be launched in 2022 and very importantly, offer 2022 features, not 2019 features.

4. This camera system will require its own propriety silicon that is way beyond what Nikon has had to deal with all these years. The newer cameras will require processors built with 7 or 6 nm, and will include CPUs and computational photography co-processors. Nikon will need to significantly add to its IC design team.

5. Build up a new software / UI / firmware team, perhaps based in Silicon Valley (with a few people raided from Apple, perhaps). It doesn't have to be a huge team, but it has to be strong visionaries and implementers.

6. Historically, Nikon has been an extremely conservative and timid company, afraid to make bold moves. To make a plan like this work, the entire upper management needs to be fired or re-assigned, and a new executive team must be put in place, with a really charismatic CEO that has a vision and excellent operational skills.

7. Last, but not least, financially, a plan like this means burning a couple of billion dollars out of its piggy bank. In the mean time, the stock will take a nose-dive. Stop paying any dividends. Explain the plan to investors and stakeholders (customers, employees). Some loyal shareholders will hang on, others will sell and get out. That's the way it is. But use the money wisely to get it right.

Nikon has three solid assets going for it that provide a basis to reinvent the company: its brand name, loyal customer base, and its truly world-class optical engineering. But it is a tough reinvention that will likely shrink to 50% of its current size, maybe even smaller. But remember, Sony was tiny ten years ago, and has built up to a 20% market share today. But Nikon has no choice: it has to get out of its current downward death spiral. I think it can put itself back on an up trend with the strategy I outline above. It's unlikely to catch up with Sony and Canon any time soon, but Nikon can at least end up as a solid and thriving #3, which would give it an opportunity to innovate and compete for market share gains in the future.

My 2 cents' worth...

... One other thing that just occurred to me: Nikon has one more asset going for it, and that is usability of its cameras. Once a camera architecture is defined, they do a heck of a good job of making it really Photographer-friendly. Of all the cameras I’ve used over the years, the Nikon cameras like the Nikon D850, Nikon D810 and Nikon D5 stand out head and shoulders above all other cameras in terms of usability and haptics. Every control and function feels natural and intuitive. That is a strength they can still bring to the game, provided they play the right game.

Problem is, they have been excessively conservative and too afraid of disrupting their DSLR business. It’s not like they didn’t see the mirrorless revolution coming; they just naively believed putting out the weak-by-design Nikon 1 system as a box checker was all that was needed to placate the media hounds while protecting the DSLR sacred cow.

It was exactly this thinking that made both Intel and Microsoft completely miss the mobile revolution. So first and foremost, Nikon needs to start playing in the right sandbox.

David W writes:

I read with interest the various comments regarding Nikon. I cannot comment on the financial aspects of Nikon’s strategy and whether they will survive in the medium to long term.

I agree with the comment that Nikon have superior usability and really good lenses and I wonder what weight users put on these characteristics versus the sensor and technical wizardry of the latest Sony offerings. From my personal point of view I have owned both systems and prefer the handling, menus and operational utility of Nikon’s current DSLR and Z series mirrorless over the A7 series from Sony. On a winter trip to Iceland with an A7R3 outfit I was frustrated by the diminutive size of the buttons and complexity of the menus. I have not found the same problems with my Z7 outfit.

Those users who would prize sensor size and technical innovation over every day usability and a more than adequate sensor size may well be seduced by the latest A7R4. I for one would not.

DIGLLOYD: I agree and I think most everyone who has used both would agree that the Nikon ergonomics are better.

To the last statement, it’s not about sensor size (equal), so I presume resolution is meant. Regardless, the market has spoken, and the statement might be reframed in many ways, such as “those would select a system with a pathetically small lens lens are not going to be seduced by the Nikon Z7”.

James K writes:

Sony recently announced the construction of a new $900,000,000 ground up sensor fabrication plant in Japan. Another big nail in the coffin. I can’t see how the others will able to match Sony’s aggressive tech push. Add their new video codec and upcoming global shutters and it is game over. Olympus will benefit from a new 36mp global 4/3 sensor release in 2020. This new tech should be interesting with Oly legacy 4/3 glass.

... It might produce a very specific type of sensor.

DIGLLOYD: I thought fabs cost more like $10B, not $900M. But maybe that figure is just the building or some such. Regardless, Sony has a lead they’re expanding.

Roy P discusses the cost of fabs:

The $10-20B fabs are for state of the art IC fabs (14nm-7nm). Sony gets its processors for the cameras made at TSMC, and those are indeed $10+ Billion fabs, but owned and operated by TSMC.

Image sensor fabs are much cheaper: you're dealing with much larger geometries. The photo sites are in microns, and that leaves plenty of real estate for the sense amps, row / column address logic, integrated DRAM), etc.

But within that context, for Sony to invest close to a billion dollars on a new sensor fab is huge. That is a substantial investment for a camera maker. No way companies like Leica, Olympus, Rico, Phase One, Hasselblad, Pentax, Sigma, Fujifilm, etc. or the independent sensor companies like CMOSYS, Jazz, et al, can afford to invest.

Among the camera makers, only Canon, Nikon and Panasonic have the operating scale to support investing in sensors on such large scale. Sony, Canon and Panasonic make a ton of money, so they could underwrite big investments in sensors with low-cost debt financed by cash flow, for instance. But Nikon will have to dip deep into its balance sheet.

DIGLLOYD: not many players can afford it, or execute.

John W writes:

Sony just made it plain that they’re not just investing in sensor dominance. See this press release on the founding of “Sony AI”:

It’s not only hard / expensive to build world-class imaging sensors. Cutting-edge software capabilities can also be very hard to bootstrap. Sony’s moat appears to be growing.

DIGLLOYD: I suspect there is also a limited supply of top-flight AI programmers available for hire too—and for them, the appeal will be a big budget company and freedom to design.

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