Nikon Needs to Fix the Nikon 1

(commentary)

I’ve been both a fan and critic of the Nikon 1 since it first came out. The original J1 and V1 suggested that Nikon could do two incredible things: make cameras very efficiently and cheaply, and provide DSLR-like performance attributes (particularly in terms of focus and frame rate). Those two things underpinned our expectations and excitement about the Nikon 1 line.

Unfortunately, Nikon chose to price these cameras to consumers way out of line with their costs. Ridiculously out of line, as it turned out. So, one of our possible excitements turned out to never be acted on until Nikon went into a fire market sale of leftover inventory. Worse still, with the later J models Nikon moved away from their ridiculously simple designs and went back to their old Coolpix habits of making more complex, harder to manufacturer, more expensive products. So now the J5 looks and feels like a Coolpix, is made like a Coolpix, and won’t ever have that original Nikon J1 pricing flexibility. Sad.

Okay, how about excitement two? Well, focus and frame rate performance has indeed been exceptional on all the Nikon 1 models, even the underwater AW1. But focus is only one of the things a photographer needs to control. Those other things we want to control turned out to all have silly, incomplete, and dysfunctional designs, which persists today. Indeed, Coolpix-like designs that limit what you can do and which try to make decisions—almost always bad—for you. Nowhere is that more evident than the Auto ISO implementation on the Nikon 1 models, which is not only missing the most useful choices, but is almost virtually guaranteed to set a shutter speed too slow to get a sharp shot. Wait, isn’t focus performance about getting great, sharp shots? Why would you allow Auto ISO to change those into terrible, unsharp shots? 

With 1” sensor, fixed-lens Coolpix models about to be announced, Nikon is now about to box themselves into an even deeper corner. It’s as if they were painting the floor, discovered that they might be painting themselves into a corner with no exit, but kept painting anyway. Ugh. 

So what’s this corner that Nikon is in? 

Well, a 1” Coolpix model now has to compete with the Canon G series, the Panasonic FZ1000 and perhaps the LX100, and the Sony RX10/RX100, all of which are 1” or  larger in sensor size. Technically, that means they need fast lenses (f/1.8-2.8 worst case), they need 4K video, they need full user control, they probably need EVFs. Wait, the J5 doesn’t have much in the way of fast lenses, doesn’t have 4K video, doesn’t have full user control, and doesn’t have an EVF, not even an optional one. So a “perfectly competitive” Coolpix with a 1” sensor is likely to look better than a Nikon J5. Oops. Well, they could make the 1” Coolpix not so competitive. Oops. 

Technically, Nikon needs a Coolpix P### with a 1” sensor that’s at least 24-70mm f/2.8, has 4K video, has the Nikon 1 autofocus, has decent enthusiast-level user control, and either a built-in EVF or optional one. What makes me think Nikon would price that at  US$1000? ;~)

The J5, that’s what. To keep the J5 price point intact, such a Coolpix would have to be more expensive than it, by a good margin. But at US$1000, it’s now competing with the V3: oops I did it again. And such a Coolpix looks better than a V3—using my definition in the previous paragraph—at the same price. Nikon hates putting products out that might cannibalize another of their own products, indeed, that’s implicit in the organization of their design groups. (It’s also the wrong choice, as I outlined in my recent article on dslrbodies.com.) 

So we’re now at the point where both the J5 and V3 need entirely new product designs to get us out of an embarrassing corner. 

Frankly Nikon has needed new product designs for these models for quite some time. Truly embarrassing, though, is the fact that Nikon has been making the same mistakes with CX (Nikon 1) that they’ve made with DX (crop sensor DSLRs). One of those mistakes is that they simply aren’t making a full, useful lens set for people who actually know what they’re doing photographically. Nikon is stuck on the “let’s make kit zooms and superzooms” philosophy for everything that even has a small stink of “consumer” to it. 

The problem is the era where that was okay has pretty much passed. Nowadays the “camera” market is shifting more and more towards enthusiast and high-end users in terms of who’s still buying; true consumer models are drifting rapidly downward in volume. Moreover, high-end is where all the competitors' buzz is, too, which means trying to do the same old consumer zoom thing gets harder and harder to market. 

Personally, I have no problem with overlapping and competing product lines that establish clearly different performance and price points. If I were in charge of Nikon I wouldn’t care if you bought Coolpix, Nikon 1, DX, or FX, as long as you bought Nikon, and as long as I was doing things that kept you a Nikon customer for life. That last bit isn’t happening, either, and extends far beyond product definitions, but that’s a different story for a different day.

I want your Coolpix and DX, or your Nikon 1 and FX (or any other combination you can come up with) to work the same, be set the same, offer the same subsets of options, and to work with the rest of your life the same way (e.g. workflow). So in that scenario how would a Nikon 1 (CX) be different than DX or FX, and how would it be different than Coolpix? Let’s try to rationalize that:

  1. Coolpix is fixed lens only. The definition of a Coolpix is a camera that’s an all-in-one solution, and has little or no add-on options. It’s definition embodies compact in size, but with as much performance as possible. But it’s using a smaller sensor size, so it’s performance won’t match the bigger cameras.
  2. Nikon 1 (CX) is the same thing as Coolpix, only using interchangeable lenses and offering flexible extensions. It’s for someone who wants one small camera, but needs much more flexibility from that camera. It’s still compact in size with as much performance as possible. It’s still using a smaller sensor size. But it offers more options for user growth (lenses, flashes, and other accessories). Perhaps it’s programmable and customizable where the Coolpix isn’t. 
  3. DX is a larger crop sensor variation on the theme. Not smallest in size, but not largest in Nikon’s lineup. Like CX, it offers even more options for user growth. It certainly must be programmable and have reasonably deep customization, and it adds some things that CX doesn’t offer, as well. 
  4. FX is the top of the line, and has everything Nikon has to offer, including the biggest, best sensors. It ups the ante in customization and programmability over DX. But it’s also a larger product centered on Nikon’s legacy glass. 

Would I own two or more of those options? You bet. But not if they aren’t aligned properly, and not if they produce different user experiences. Which is why I own no Nikon Coolpix anymore, and aren’t really using my Nikon 1’s any more, either. 

Which brings me to:

  • A J6 needs to be much like a smaller D3300 or maybe D5500. Yes, there are few controls missing (front command dial, for example). Yes, there are fewer options in the menus. Yes, raw files are always compressed. You get the idea. I’d suggest it needs at least an optional EVF, or perhaps a fully rotating LCD.  
  • A V4 needs to be much like a smaller D7200. Proper enthusiast-oriented controls and lots of them. This is a performance camera with a small sensor, period. Built-in EVF, swivel LCD. Some modest level of programmability and customization.
  • Both new cameras need to communicate fully with the WiFi/Cellular world, and do so well. That means Infrastructure as well as AdHoc WiFi, it means 802.11ac, it means better iOS/Android apps, it probably means Bluetooth and it means more options on what goes from camera to phone/tablet/computer (plus when and why, which is the tip of the programmability iceberg).
  • The lens set needs to be complete and appropriate. Appropriate means “small and light.” Even the current 70-300mm is an example of wrong to me: it should have been a PF lens (phase fresnel), and smaller still. I’m willing to give up some flare control for size on a Nikon 1. More than willing. I’m buying the Nikon 1 for small and compact, with as much performance as possible in that limitation. Short of a 70-300mm PF, maybe then a 200mm f/2.8 PF instead? See how I’m pushing compact and performance together? We also need the 24-70mm fast zoom equivalent and the 70-200mm fast zoom equivalent. That’s a little trickier to do right and make small. But come on Nikon, you’re supposed to have some of the best optical engineers in the world. Others are solving this problem. Why aren’t you? We also need a better wide angle prime than the 10mm f/2.8, though not one that’s bigger ;~). The goal should be 24, 35, 50, 85, 300mm (maybe 200mm or 400mm) equivalent primes, 10-24, 24-70, 70-200, 100-400mm equivalent zooms. All designed with performance and compactness as their critical attributes. 
  • If Nikon wants to continue to make consumer crud in the CX space, great, make an S3 that’s like the current J5, and upgrade the consumer kit zooms with even more emphasis on size. Still, I’d think this would be a hard sell if Nikon did Coolpix and the J6 and V4 right. Consumer crud is going to go away as smartphones continue to nibble upwards (the first decent 28-70mm zoom in a smartphone is going to crush the next level of the DSC crud market).

Will Nikon do all this? 

No. Which is why next year I’ll be writing an “Nikon Still Needs to fix the Nikon 1” article. Sadly, whatever disease the Nikon design and engineering teams have, it’s not responding to treatment. 


Update: so it seems that some people can’t get their heads around the fact that I believe that the Nikon 1 product line needs an incredible amount of work to stay competitive and the fact that I chose the J5 as my Entry Mirrorless Camera of the Year.  And that’s despite that I also noted that doing so made me “cringe a little bit” and had extended comments about my love/hate relationship with the J5. 

So let me lay a couple of things out. I only consider cameras introduced during the year for the award. The J5 was lucky that a Panasonic GM7 didn’t appear in 2015, amongst other possibilities. The Nikon J5’s “win” was a narrow one, and reflective of my personal choices when going out to shoot. Is the J5 a decent camera? Obviously, but the line that everyone keeps getting ignored in the award article is this: “Nikon makes getting the best out of this camera way more difficult than it should be.” 

That’s actually what makes me cringe about awarding it Best Entry Mirrorless for 2015: “entry” implies a user that isn’t ready to deal with fighting the camera to make it work well. 

There’s a reason why I posted these two articles together (what Nikon needs to fix on the Nikon 1 and the Mirrorless Cameras of the Year). Doing so provides more clarity on my thinking about the J5 and its siblings. It seems that some people have the mistaken belief that if something “wins an award” it is perfect. The J5 is a clear example of that not being the case at all. 

Cameras are so imperfect these days (to the task of taking and sharing images), that one has to choose between far-from-optimal compromises. The reality is that all the folk running around claiming that Camera A or Camera B is the be-all, do-all, just-gotta-have-it camera are wrong. I make no such claims. I call the warts as I see them, and the J5 has quite a few, most of which didn’t need to be there. 


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