Nobody Knows Anything
By Michael Reichmann
"Nobody knows anything......
Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work.
Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one."
— William Goldman. Adventures in the Screen Trade
Chance Encounter. Sierra Gorda, Mexico. February, 2014
The motion picture business is somewhat like venture capital investing. Against all hope, and many hundreds of millions of dollars put at risk, it turns out that each year studios produce mostly mediocre pictures, a few that are real dogs, but fortunately also a very small number that are artistic and / or financial successes.
Why should the camera business be expected to be any different?
Yet, in spite of companies having dozens, even hundreds of very bright product planning, marketing and engineering people on staff, many camera dogs are produced. It's just the way of the world. "Nobody knows anything......"
The Nikon Df is a new song written by a tone deaf composer. Nikon's attempt to create a trendy retro-style camera has produced something of a Frankenstein. I'll grant Nikon great image quality. Being Nikon, it's a given. But otherwise the Df seems like an elephant designed by a committee. Control placement is contrary to good ergonomics — ie; the vertical front wheel. Things which needn't lock, lock, and things that should lock are hard to release. There's no WiFi, no GPS, and no video capability. Not because omitting these will save costs. It won't, but rather because some marketing genius at Nikon thought that by their non-inclusion a bold statement about the camera's retro-ness would be made.
Really? Excuse me, but this is a digital camera. Digital is as digital does. You don't want video? Just don't press the button. Don't want GPS? Don't want WiFi? Fine, ignore them. But to leave them out and then sell the camera at a premium price because the features are omitted seems ass backwards.
Then there are the locking dials. Great you, say, no more accidental settings. Well, yes, but also missed shots because every time you want to change an important setting you have to unlock the knob. Really? Really! And how about a shutter dial which is overridden by the Mode dial? This is one of the Df's major design goofs. You look down at the shutter dial and it displays a speed setting, but if you're in any mode except M or S the speed shown is not the speed the the camera will use. Redundant and confusing. What were they thinking?
Ok, let's calm down. There are some good things going on here. The Df can take legacy non-AI lenses and can provide open aperture metering in A and M modes as long as appropriate values are entered. This is a good thing. But, these non-AI lenses are not, of course, autofocus. Yet Nikon does nothing in this 2014 model to assist focusing, such as a traditional split image focusing screen (which would be both useful and retro) or, god forbid, focus peaking. Apparently in the Df's design brief, looking retro was more important than actual retro inspired usability.
In a word or two, what Nikon has done is create a camera designed to appeal by its "look" rather than its function. Marketing asked for it, but did the marketplace? I think not. In the end, because it uses the same sensor as the fabulous D4 the camera has great image quality. But in terms of handling and features it is a serious compromise, and in terms of price and quality of fit and finish the Df is a real disappointment.
Take Hasselblad — please. A joke, but actually I wish someone other than the company's current VC owners would. These people don't appear to have a clue about how to run a camera company. Given that Hasselblad has been one of the most venerable names in the professional camera world for more than half a century, their management's current dearth of marketplace savy is quite sad to witness.
Of course I'm talking about the ridiculous Lunar, Stellar and HV models, which are simply pimped-out Sony cameras at 8X to 10X their Sony branded pricing. Producing such wretched baubles signals that Hasselblad has lost its way. Of course the excellent medium format H series cameras continue to attract both pros and wealthy amateurs, but in all honestly, it's been 12 years since the H1. Every model since, up to and incuding the current H5, has offered nothing more than incremental enhancements over previous versions. The camera's backs produce fine image quality, and offer competitive sensors, but frankly, a 460x320 pixel LCD screen on a camera here in 2014 is just risible. Management's idea of permitted innovation seems limited to their tasteless marketing team rather than to their engineering group.
My recent review of the H5D-50 was not uncomplimentary, but I have nothing good to say about the seemingly pointless direction that the company is taking with its wretched rebranded Sony wares. Hasselblad really needs to get back to basics and refocus on the professional market which it once dominated.
Sony desperately wants to be number two. Being number one in the global camera marketplace seems like a bridge too far, but for the past few years the company has set its sights on a top ranking. To accomplish this they have produced some very impressive cameras and new technologies, as well as having taken some, well, shall we say, mis-steps.
Their lens mount fiasco, coupled with the launch and then demise of the NEX series is case in point. First we have the Alpha or A mount, which was inherited from Minolta. From the film days, this mount was full frame, but the new digital cameras had APS-C sensors, so Sony started making DT lenses (APS-C coverage) in the same mount for the smaller sensors. This made the lenses somewhat smaller and lighter. But then they brought full frame sensors to A mount cameras, and buying DT lenses no longer made sense. (Admittedly, Nikon and Canon have also walked up this same dark alley).
Then the E mount of the NEX series was introduced. This brand new APS-C sized mount for mirrorless cameras was given life on the first generation of NEX cameras, which incidentally had possibly the worst user interface even conceived by man. Fortunately second and third generation NEX models improved in this area.
In 2013 Sony introduced yet another lens mount, the FE, which is an E mount that can handle full frame. (I hope that you're following this. There will be a quiz.) So yet another new line of lenses is needed. True, there are adaptors that allow A and DT lenses to work on both E and FE mount cameras, but they are bulky, as are the lenses themselves. Yes, you can also use an E mount lens on an FE camera, but only in cropped mode.
So now in early 2014 we find Sony with four separate lens mounts and two camera types, which used to have two names but now that the NEX brand is kaput, are all called Alphas. Will there be more A mount lenses and A mount cameras? No one is saying. Will there be more E mount lenses? It isn't clear. The just introduced A6000 is a NEX style camera, branded Alpha, but with an APS-C sensor and an APS-C sized E mount. All we really know is that Sony says that there are more FE lenses on the way.
As for the FE mount, the first two cameras that used it, the A7 and A7r, were first available with just one FE lens in the line-up. The list is now growing, but it'll be a while till the line rounds out. Since these cameras are aimed at the upper end of the marketplace, will a handful of FE lenses, and legacy lenses via adaptors, be enough to satisfy savvy purchasers?
Which brings us to the questions — how much of this lens / camera model strategy was planned, and how much was rapid, almost panicky response to marketplace changes. Four lenses mounts? Really? A mount, DT mount, E mount and FE mount cameras, mirrored, translucent mirror, and mirrorless, all now sharing the Alpha brand name. Does this strike you as a coherent marketing and product plan, or has it been simply an ad hoc response to whatever seemed to be working at the moment?
Homework. Jalpan, Mexico. February, 2014
If nothing else, I am an equal opportunity curmudgeon. No company is immune from the "Nobody knows anything......" syndrome. For example...
It's now an old story, but the saga of the Sigma SD1 is the case of a company totally misunderstanding the marketplace. I wrote about it in this article from 2011. But briefly, what happened was that senior management believed that the SD1, a model that now sells for about USD $2,000 (an appropriate price point, if not a bit too high still) should sell at launch for USD $9,700. Really.
This turned out to be a complete fiasco, but is just another example of "Nobody knows anything......". Except this time, it was for the world to witness. In the end, with sales in the cellar, Sigma was forced to lower the price numerous times and to give product rebates to early purchasers.
Recently Sigma announced a new line of cameras called Quattro. In addition to its novel physical design Sigma has re-imagined their Foveon X3 sensor technology and moved to a design with one layer for luminance information and two lower resolution layers for colour. It will be most interesting to see how this evolves. But, combining Sigma's excellence in lens design and manufacture (not all lenses, and not all the time) and their persistence with Foveon technology, they certainly deserve points for innovativeness, not to mention chutzpah.
This company seems to be getting by in recent years by putting new chrome and fancy wheels on aging models. Where's the innovation? Where's the umphh? Slow, safe and boring seems to be the watchword at Canon. Take no chances, make no errors. Oh yes, then there's video. Now here Canon has been an innovator, no doubt. But one wishes that they applied similar inventiveness and risk taking to their still camera business. Still, being #1 means not taking risks.
With the notable exception of the fantastic D800 and D800/e, Nikon is taking the mid-ground. They experiment (sometimes, such as with the Df, not so successfully) but they at least appear willing to stretch themselves. They work hard at being #2.
Canon, Nikon and Mirrorless
The two marketplace leaders are in the same boat here. They'd rather follow than lead when it comes to the inevitability of mirrorless. Canon's M series like Nikon's 1 series is just a half-hearted attempt. These companies seem to prefer following the market rather than leading it. (Original error corrected. M cameras are now available outside of Japan).
Why? I believe that the answer is fear. It's clear to everyone in the industry that the future lies in mirrorless technology, but the two market leaders have DSLRs as their current bread and butter products. Their wisdom seems to be — if someone is going to eat our lunch, let's let them at least do it slowly. Doing the brave move of eating it ourselves, while maintaining our dominant market share, is just is a bit too risky.
Business history shows that this is how seemingly unassailable market leaders become history rather than make it. Fear of the future! Kodak is but one example within the photographic industry of a company that invented the future, but then failed to capitalize on it. Remember Xerox? Remember GM (before the bail-out)? Harvard Business school failure case studies all.
Balloons and Shadows. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. February, 2014
Olympus and Fujifilm
Both companies are leaders in mirrorless technology, innovating and producing new and fresh models at a hectic pace. Indeed, as pointed out by Nick Devlin in his X-T1 review, Fuji seems to have been "thinking-out-loud" for the past few years, experimenting with novel designs and trying new technologies. Some are misses, and some are hits, but they certainly appear to have the cojones to try something new.
Part of the reason is that unlike Canon and Nikon, they had no lunch to speak of to fear any one else eating. Fuji's now defunct DSLR business was based on Nikon bodies, and when that source dried up they had to come up with something unique. This they did with the X100, the X-Pro 1 and now the X-T1. Fuji, always a great lens maker, are also bringing out new X mount lenses at a fairly rapid clip, and offering the high-end market some interesting primes as well as bread-and-butter zooms. When combined with their innovative cameras this makes for a compelling sell, at least compared with some others.
One area where Fuji shows that they "get it" better than possibly any other camera maker in Asia, is with regard to firmware updates. Not only do they release regular updates for current models, to fix bugs and add features, but they even do it for older discontinued models. Some camera makers don't even bother with bug fixes, and if they do, it is often months after these are well known before they become available. Nicely done Fujifilm!
Olympus has never been a company afraid to innovate. Always a niche player, Olympus has a multi-decade track record of regularly reinventing their product lines. Along with Panasonic they introduced the Four Thirds platform, but stumbled. Olympus actually spent a fortune originally trying to market that format to pros. The problem was that while the lenses were smaller, the bodies weren't, because they still had a DSLR physical format. Also, sensor technology had not then advanced as far as it has within the past few years, and so initially the smaller sensor just couldn't compete in terms of the IQ that pros needed. Then, with the transition to Micro Four Thirds, and abandonment of the mirror box, their fortunes took off. Recent advances in sensor technology have also levelled the playing field against APS-C. Between both Panasonic and Olympus, there is now a good selection of lenses in almost every category, and also the choice between in-body stabilization and lens-based stabilisation.
Olympus stumbled badly with their financial scandal of a couple of years ago, but now appear to recovering. Their cameras, especially the best-selling OM-D E-M1, offer compelling technology and are receiving fulsome praise from reviewers.
Panasonic remains the conservative colossus that they always have been, and though not as daring as Olympus, is carving some interesting niches for itself, first with the GH3 and now with the quite impressive specs of the yet-to-ship GH4. This may turn out be the go-to video camera for many, and it appears that the GH4 will be no slouch on the stills side either. The new GM1 is a stumble, but — nothing ventured, nothing gained.
That leaves Phase One, Pentax, Samsung and Leica.
Phase One have actually managed to comport themselves well in a specialized niche market. Their financials (or at least what's publicly visible) show them to be profitable each year, and now with a recent fresh capital infusion they seem likely to continue to bring out new backs, hopefully a new camera soon, and maybe even make an acquisition or two. Certainly their acquisition of Mamiya, and partnering with Schneider on lenses, shows a company that understands what it needs to do to survive and grow in a specialized segment of the marketplace.
Leica continues to confound its critics. A very profitable company, Leica caters to wealthy aficionados, and as it has for the past almost hundred years makes some of the world's finest lenses. They also can't make them fast enough, even though they are extremely expensive. So, though they dance to a different drummer, it's hard to fault Leica when they are as successful as they appear to be. Not everyone's cup of tea, but Leica appears to be confident and successful doing their thing.
Pentax is an enigma. Traded first to Hoya and now to Ricoh, it's hard to understand what their product strategy is, if there even is one. Their Q series mirrorless isn't taken seriously, and their DSLRs, while quite nice machines, don't really blaze any new ground. The company has some excellent lenses though.
The Pentax 645D was (is) a great low cost entry into medium format digital, but Pentax never followed up with the new lenses that were needed to support it. Now, it appears that Pentax will be releasing a version with the new 50MP Sony sensor that everyone else is using. If Pentax can keep the camera at under USD $10,000 this could be a win for them, but the sparsity of 645 lenses still haunts them and will negatively impact sales no matter how good the camera itself may be. Release some needed 645 lenses Pentax and you could really gain some traction.
Samsung. What can I say about Samsung? One of the world's largest consumer electronics manufacturers, Samsung has been hugely successful making camera phones, but has hardly made a dent in the camera market itself. In the mirrorless segment the just released NX30 looks like it could be a contender, but Samsung has almost no market presence, and seems to have no success in gaining marketplace traction. They just don't stand out, one way or the other.
Slingshot. Jalpan, Mexico. February, 2014
"Nobody knows anything......"
As I was considering how to write a conclusion to this ramble, I read an article in the New York Times about how just-released transcripts of meetings of the US Federal Reserve in 2008 showed how little that board understood the seriousness of the problem that the US economy was then facing. How close to fiscal collapse the country actually was. And these are the people who are supposed to be the best and the brightest, and in whose hands the fate not just of the US, but the world's economy hung. It was a truly close thing.
So when we look at major corporations and see them launch flawed products, produce devices that the marketplace will reject, and ignore developing trends that even unsophisticated members of the general public are aware of, why should we be surprised?
Being a product planner is a precarious job. Many vested interests are at work. Opinions and prejudices among ones superiors and colleagues need to be managed, and nothing ever happens overnight. A project that seems sensible when conceived can turn out to be too late, too expensive, and inappropriate for a marketplace six months to two years later when it arrives at retail.
Sitting on the sidelines kibitzing is easy. Millions of dollars, ones job, and one's company's future aren't on the line they way they are for people who design and bring to market the products that we eventually choose to purchase, or not to purchase. No wonder some companies are conservative in recognizing and embracing new trends and technologies. To bend a phrase, no one ever got fired for doing what succeeded yesterday. On the other hand, tell that to the tens of thousands of people that used to work for Kodak, Polaroid, Xerox and countless other failed companies.
Failure can come two ways — by innovating and possibly betting wrong, or by failing to act or to innovate, and thus falling by the wayside. They are both equally painful. Indeed, it seems that in the camera industry that nobody knows anything may not be the whole truth, but it often isn't far off the mark.