Nikon's Mirrorless Options

Given that Nikon attacked GoPro in the action camera market and also tried to attack the high-end compact market with DLs before they tripped over their own toes, it's only a matter of time before Nikon opens up a new defense in the mirrorless realm. The simple matter of truth is this: Nikon is a camera company (over 60% of their revenues and even more of their profits). Not competing in the healthiest of the camera markets is suicide.

So what are Nikon's options? I identify five basic approaches Nikon could take:

  1. Stay the course. The "course" being Nikon 1 and the CX mount. The problem here is that the Nikon DLs basically already steal the 1" thunder. The only thing that Nikon can do with CX is make new Nikon 1 models that are as good and compatible with DSLRs as the DLs are, but have interchangeable lenses. Only one problem with that: the interchangeable lenses Nikon currently offers in CX aren't as good as the lenses built into the DLs (or other 1" compacts from Canon, Panasonic, and Sony). You end up with the problem that a compact camera performs better than an ILC, is more compact, and in the case of Nikon's previous Nikon 1 pricing, costs less.

    While a lot of folk believe that a Nikon J6 is just around the corner, this would be a terrible signal by Nikon. Basically they'd be giving the Nikon 1 owners one last gasp via purchasing a DL-type body for their already-owned lenses. Yet for the same price (probably) those same folk could just get the body and a better lens by buying a DL (and keep their existing Nikon 1 to use with their existing lenses). I fail to see how such a Nikon 1 extension plan would work. It just has no legs.

  2. Improve the course. Keep the CX mount but put a larger sensor in the new Nikon 1 bodies (or are they then Nikon 2's ;~). It's unclear how big a sensor the existing CX lenses might be able to support, but there's always the old DX/FX type of auto-cropping that could be done, coupled with new lenses for the new sensor size. 

    The question has always been what size sensor could Nikon fit into the CX mount. Certainly m4/3, but I think DX (APS-C) is a size too far. Nikon's not likely to join the m4/3 group, as the Nikon mantra has been "proprietary all the way." So anyone thinking that Nikon would go this route would be believing that a new sensor size is coming. I find that difficult to believe, frankly. That would make Nikon the only user of said sensor, which has cost implications. I just don't see this happening.

  3. Deprove the course. Build a DX entry mirrorless system, ala what Canon has done with EOS M. This is trickier than it at first looks, as Canon themselves discovered through their experimentation. You can make a smaller DSLR (witness the Canon SL1), so why is a largish mirrorless camera that uses similar sized, but different, lenses the answer? 

    One reason, basically: cost and manufacturing implications. If you want to build US$500 ILC cameras moving forward, you really need to be building them with fewer parts—and silicon-based parts that derive cost benefits from volume—plus fewer manufacturing process and alignment steps. The lowest end Nikon DSLR has over 2000 parts, the original Nikon mirrorless, the J1/V1, less than 300. The lowest DSLR has multiple alignment steps, the mirrorless cameras basically one. 

    This course has two sub-routes to it: (a) use the existing DX mount; or (b) create a new mount (and offer a DX/FX adapter). Canon chose (b) for the EOS M, but I'm not sure that's necessarily the correct choice. As I've noted before, you could build lenses in the future that use Nikon's existing mount but which use the empty space vacated by the mirror to keep their size down (that works fine for DX, not so much for FX). 

  4. Choose Sony's course. Build a new FX mirrorless system. Based upon my email and surveys, a lot of you reading this think that's the correct route. I don't. First, there's the signal it sends ("DSLR is dead"). That's a hugely dangerous signal for Nikon to ever consider sending, as DSLRs represent such a huge percentage of their sales and profits (at one time, over half). The only way this works is if the mirrorless cameras are better than the DSLRs (and clearly better than Sony's mirrorless entries), and a full set of lenses is available. Yeah, you just realized why it won't happen.

  5. Find a new course. This is Nikon's 100th anniversary and Nikon started as a different kind of camera maker. So why not start again? In particular I'm thinking of a Nikon S inspired system that uses an optical rangefinder and shoots for staying small and classic. That means more of a Df type control design, a small set of new primes (28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm minimum), and a still-camera-only focus (again Df-like). Sensor could be DX or FX, though I think most of the Nikon loyalists would all vote for FX over DX. 

My best guess is that Nikon will attempt 3b. First, there's the fact that Canon chose that route, and Canon is Nikon's primary competitor. But it's also the least risky path for Nikon's already existing products. After announcing a 3b type mirrorless system, Nikon could even then pop out a J6 (course 1) to placate their small existing mirrorless base, coupled with having a CX mount adapter for the new mirrorless system. A J6 at that juncture no longer becomes a terrible signal if there's a clear future Nikon mirrorless path and Nikon is perceived as giving CX users some way to stay active or move up (much like FX did with DX). 

Personally, my temptation would be to try 5, and at the same time take as much size and weight out the DX DSLRs as I could (the older Canon SL1 approach). Why? Because I think that Nikon actually hurts themselves by spending too much time studying what Canon is doing and responding. That almost invariably insures that Nikon will be #2.

Then again, retaining #2 may be all Nikon aspires to now. After all, the other alternative is to fade to #3 behind Sony and end up significantly downsizing the entire Nikon company in the process. 

As I've written on, I'm somewhat doubtful that Nikon will tell us which mirrorless course they've taken in 2017. Nikon is a company with many fires burning that all have to be dealt with, and I think 2017 is more dedicated to putting out fires in their existing lines than it is in starting new ones.

You might say that Nikon 1 (CX) is one of those fires that need to be attended to. But it's probably the smallest fire that the Tokyo Brigade is dealing with right now. I'm not expecting Nikon to get around to that fire in 2017. Indeed, I'd argue that it's more important to get their choice right than it is to rush to the market.

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