It is no surprise to everyone that Nikon’s mirrorless strategy is in a shambles. Although the recently released D850 is getting rave reviews and in high demand, there is no doubt among observers that this camera could well be the DSLR’s last great hurrah. There will definitely continue to be DSLRs after the D850 for users who insist on using them – even Nikon did not kill film cameras immediately when digital cameras usurped film cameras in popularity. But I sense we have reached a turning point.
The first MILCs surfaced around 2008. Many photographers resisted them for practical reasons such as compromised ergonomics, limited battery life, EVF latency, substandard AF performance, etc. The list goes on. However today at the end of 2017, the progress in MILC technology has come far enough that the premium range of MILCs have addressed most of these problems. At the same time, they bring distinctive advantages over their DSLR cousins such as wider AF coverage, no need to AF fine-tune, no mirror-slap vibration, silent shutter without mirror-up, reduced weight and size, etc. We are at the point where we see most of the traditional shortcomings of MILCs being resolved while their unique strengths make them more advantageous than DSLRs. I mentioned earlier that we are seeing these qualities from the premium line of MILCs. In another two years I expect such technological advances to be available in all prosumer MILCs. And in another two years, these characteristics should be common down to the entry-level MILC. We are indeed at a turning point.
Which is why as of the end of 2017, Nikon’s outlook for the future is actually pretty grim.
With the complete absence of any signs of life in the Nikon 1 system, Nikon’s MILC lineup is practically non-existent as of today. In 2016, I felt that Nikon must make an MILC launch in 2017 to be competitive. Well it looks like the earliest date Nikon could make a new MILC launch will be 2018. This makes a difficult situation even more desperate. Not only is Nikon last to the market, they are competing against incumbents who have already built up comprehensive and mature MILC lens collections, while Nikon is starting at the number 0. In addition, the competition have honed, tested and revised their camera products in the market with real users with multiple generations of products. And this competition will continue to release new lenses and new cameras to enhance their lineup and ecosystem at the same time that Nikon is only doing a maiden launch! The situation actually looks near hopeless.
It is not unbelievable for giant brands to collapse. Consider Asahi-Pentax, which was the leading camera brand of long ago. A combination of slow reactivity to competition, poor decisions and declining revenue fed into a vicious cycle which decimated the company over many years. Today the Pentax camera brand is a pitiable thing. What is frightening is that “slow reactivity to competition”, “poor decisions” and “declining revenue” are all descriptions that we can attribute to Nikon today. Giants usually do not fall overnight. They fall slowly, then snowball into a heavy, long-drawn, catastrophic collapse that is very difficult to halt. With sufficient time and inaction, Nikon could well go the same way that Pentax did.
Yet despite all these, Nikon still has a chance to win market share in MILCs. And the reason is because of one thing that seems to have eluded most MILC makers today. I describe this as: ergonomics and handling intuition.
A lot of people really want an MILC that handles like a DSLR. Canikon spent years developing and evolving the ergonomics and handling of DSLRs in their competition for professional customers. These customers need a tool that can let them focus on taking pictures, getting work done and getting paid. Why most MILC brands refuse to build on top of such a treasure trove of proven usability study is a mystery to me. Samsung understood this with the NX1 before they pulled out of the ILC business. Panasonic understands this with the design of the GH5 and G9. Canon finally understands this with the M5. Everyone else seems obsessed with making rectangular blocks which you can’t grip properly fitted with buttons and knobs that you can’t press or operate comfortably.
To understand how important this is, just view the interview with Rob Galbraith where he discusses how the very best MILCs still lack the usability that qualifies them to be a tool for photojournalism. (He also makes the case for how far MILCs have come today, and bring real practical advantages to photographers.)
In other words, JUST GIVE US AN MILC WITH THE ERGONOMICS OF A DSLR.
So yes, Nikon still has a chance to succeed. Launch DX MILCs with two models. One cheaper entry-level model with no EVF that operates like a D3400/D5600. One prosumer model with an EVF that operates like a D7500. A minimum of 5 lenses for the launch (Nikon announced 4 lenses for the Nikon 1 launch) – an 18-55 standard kit zoom, a 55-200 telephoto kit zoom, an 18-105/140 prosumer zoom, a fast 24 or 35 prime, plus a 10/12-24 ultra-wide zoom. If these lenses and bodies are also built to a similar level of durability, weather-resistance and price as their DSLR brethren, Nikon would have delivered some challenging competition to the incumbents. The big question of course, is whether Nikon is even aware of what might help them succeed.
So yes, 2018 could be the year of reckoning for Nikon. Will they defy the odds and surprise everyone, or will they walk in the same footsteps of failure that Pentax walked. We’ll find out in less than a year.