Saturday, February 24, 2007

Canon vs. Nikon: Nikon's Low-And Mid-Level Success

Yeah, the old Ford versus Chevy wars are back on, only this time it's Nikon versus Canon. Or is it Godzilla versus Mothra? Regardless of who's duking it out, or where they are duking it out, you can rest assured there's somebody keeping score of how the battle is going. That's what makes a fight interesting, watching the give and take,and keeping track of the score. Once the event has been decided, there's not much interesting to see. It's kind of anticlimactic. Unless of course, the event ends with a stirring comeback, or a thunderous knockout, the end game or final stages of a battle are often not all that interesting. And unfortunately for the loser, oftentimes he's unaware that he's soon going to end up down, on the canvas, the loser, knocked out and on his ass. Yeah, the battle can be going along,going along,going along, and then suddenly there will be a trendous swing in the momentum, and the battle can be over in a flash. Am I talking about Chevy and Ford here? Or am I talking about Canon and Nikon? A little bit of both.

Let me say, we recently bought some Ford stock. We think they're on the verge of a good,solid turnaround. But right now, Ford stock is very much almost worthless compared with where it has been in recent memory. American consumers have expressed a lot of unwillingness to buy Ford products. Ford last year announced they were killing off the long-standing Taurus line, and stopped Taurus production. They fired 30,000 plus good people. Toyota products outsold Ford products in the USA for the first time in 2006. And as recently as two weeks ago, Ford announced that it was going to be bringing the killed-off Taurus line BACK into production. WTF is up at Ford ??? I dunno exactly, but I think it'll climb from the eight dollar range to into the high twenties within two years or so. Why? Because it's Ford Motor Company, and because I think they have what it takes to stay the course,right the ship,and get things back in order. But not without some effort and some good decisions. Ford's made it big on the F150 pickup, as well as the heavier-duty pickup lines, and high gas consumption (low MPG) engines have long been something Ford buyers never worried about. American Ford buyers have not really minded the gas hogs Ford has been making...but now the market is demanding higher fuel economy. It's kind of like image sensor's gotten to the point that now, we can have high performance AND GOOD FUEL ECONOMY. But not in today's Fords. In two and three years' time, I think the Ford lineup will be re-tooled significantly and brought more in line with what people actually WANT to BUY, and not what FORD has been telling the American public it wants. People ain't buying into Ford any more. The market has changed. That bad fuel economy that was not a concern, has now become a concern. As a company Nikon is similar to Ford,in some ways.

I think Nikon is in a similar position as Ford now finds itself stuck in--an old and established company,with a good reputation, a wide range of products, and a good name that's understood to be a name with a long tradition behind it,and which symbolizes the CAMERA COMPANY mentality. Some of the other camera companies remind me more of consumer electronics companies. Not that that is a bad thing. Call the consumer electronics camera companies the new kids on the block. Interestingly, about a year ago Canon announced that it had plans to try and drive ALL of the "non-traditional camera companies" out of the camera business. WOW, what a ballsy move to announce such a business intent to all the world. Meaning, look out Sony and Samsung and Panasonic and all other newcomers to the camera market, we are Canon and we are planning on driving you and your consumer electronics newcomer butts right out of the c-a-m-e-r-a business. Simply an amazing declaration from Canon, that they want to drive non-traditional camera makers out of the camera business. Sublimely ballsy.

A lot of people in the next few weeks are going to be talking about what does or does not come out in 2007. There are going to be some new cameras arriving in stores in the next few months--confirmed new cameras will be the new Sigma SD-14, the new Fuji S5 Pro, and the new EOS 1D Mark III, and hopefully there will be a mid-2007 anouncement of a Nikon D3-series body. In terms of a segment that needs a shot in the arm, it's the Nikon PJ/sports/event/generalist pro camera; the D2Hs slot in Nikon's lineup has been a most disappointing seller, and it has not been a well-received camera. Many people who tried it felt that the sensor was the weak link. Great body, wonderful subsystems, but a weaker than expected sensor. The D2Hs suffers from too low of a megapixel count at 4.1 MP to compete well with Canon's doubled count 8.2 MP 1D Mark II-N. And now Canon has announced a Mark III variant in this category,with a 10.1 MP sensor capable of shooting at up to 10 frames per second. If one is keeping score, it looks like Canon is now two generations ahead of Nikon by some metrics, especially at the highest end of the market, where Canon has already built two professional-level Full Frame offerings to Nikon's zero offerings. A more Canon-like bias could be used to say that Canon is ahead by three generations over Nikon; two flagship full-frame models, the 1Ds and 1Ds Mark II models, AND a mid-priced Full Frame 5D model, the likes of any of the three which have never been offered by Nikon. Add in the EOS 1D Mark III,and some might say that Canon offers four solutions that Nikon has absolutely no counter-offers for. Nothing.

But let's not get bogged down in adding up the scoring that's taken place so far in this fight. The real fun in watching is the see-saw thrill of battle,not adding up the round by round score, right? A fight's not really fun to watch unless it's had some actual give and take. In a round from the last month's issue of Popular Photography & Imaging,the cover-story shootout article awarded the image quality nod to the Nikon D80 as the best of the five 10-megapixel d-slr's now being sold in the United States market. That endorsement alone, will probably allow Nikon to sell thousands and thousands more D80's to people who just go with whatever the big magazines and reviewers determine is "the best in class". And according to a pretty broad-based analysis and evaluation, in the 10 megapixel lower-level class, the Nikon D80 is the best overall imager. Score one for Nikon. (The Nikon D200 was not in the shootout, nor were the Canon EOS 20D or 30D models.)

In the mid-to serious enthusiast market, my feeling is that the Nikon D200 has outsold the EOS 30D by a very large margin. The D200 has a really nice feature set, with pretty good performance overall,especially considering the price. The D80 seems to actually be a little bit better camera than the other competing 10-MP models in its price class,and the D40 seems to be a pretty doggone good performer in what is now ostensibly calld the "hobby d-slr segment". It seems to me that the entire hobbyist end of the market is well-covered by a Nikon lineup that represents the best offerings Nikon has ever had in all of the segments.The D40-D50-D80-D200 span really is as good as Nikon has ever been able to come up with, and that span encompasses users with wide variety of different needs, and I think Nikon's doing quite well all the way from their entry-level models to their most-costly cameras in the non-professional lineup.

But in the higher end offerings of full frame professional, full frame advanced amateur, and PJ/sports/event/generalist d-slr models, Canon has the best products. Seriously. It doesn't bother me to say that the 1D Mark II-N is a better camera than the D2Hs, as say a "generalist d-slr",which is my category for the best all-round compromise camera that's capable across many disciplines, which offers rugged construction,and offers a WIDE WINDOW of reasonably easy and productive shooting across a wide range of disciplines, be it PJ, sports indoors, sports outdoors, event coverage,and well, "general assignments" of various types. Imaging Resource has been given a prototype 1D Mark III to test and evaluate,and has been given the authority to post pre-production samples from the camera.

The good news to take away from the current state of affairs is that 1) Nikon's NEWEST PRODUCTS, like the D40, have incorporated more of the best Nikon has to offer,at ever lower and lower prices. I'd rather have a D40 than a D70, if offered either for the same price, the D40 is THAT much of an improvement in image quality and so much less of a pain in the ass to shoot with. 2) Nikon has started to realize it needs to offer better image quality and better image optimizations in JPEG mode right off the card. and 3) Nikon seems to be doing a fine job at the beginner,intermediate,and serious enthusiast segments of the market camera body-wise and 4) the very-newest Nikon lens designs are offering VERY good performance,at fair prices. As a consumer and mid-level camera body maker, Nikon is now, finally, doing pretty well with a product matrix that has some really neat cameras in it.

For the wedding photographers who cannot seem to get the Nikon D200 to shoot decent JPEGs, my advice is to quit bitching about the D200's image sensor, forget the D200, and buy yourself a D40 and see what a CONSUMER-ORIENTED JPEG engine will do for you....go back to an sRGB JPEG camera, like the D40, so it'll deliver the kind of straight out of camera JPEG images that you want,s o you can ship 1,000 or more images off to print without having to custom alter hardly any images at all. If 10 megapixels' worth of imager is not needed, and it is NOT for most wedding pictures, why not go for the best 6 MP d-slr on the market, the D40? Sending native sRGB JPEG files to an automated printing system, from a camera that offers highly saturated image processing with good shadow detail and nice highlight handling, is kind of what a lot of these high-volume photographers want. If one wants to spend almost NO TIME adjusting images at the computer, one needs to learn how to either adjust and custom tune the camera, or one needs to depend almost totally on the camera to make the right choices. Pejoratively characterizing the D200's out of camra JPEG's as "Nikon's color" is putting a lot of the blame on the camera, when some of the problem is prior experience with pretty much highly-processed SOOC images from cameras like the Fuji S2 or the Sony or Olympus higher-end P&S cameras, and so on. A lot of people actually want an "eye candy" type look to their images, and they want that look right off of the storage card. This is what a lot of the Straight Out of Camera JPEG shooters want, and it's what Nikon has done with D40 JPEG images.

My feeling is that the many,many,many newbies who've only recently joined the Nikon system will enjoy their D50's, D200's,D80's,and D40's and will stay with the Nikon system for quite some time, enjoying the many new consumer-priced zoom lenses and nifty flash systems that Nikon is now making. What I would ask though is for people who feel perfectly content with their D200,or D80,or D40 to not be so all-fired happy with the entire Nikon system as a whole, and that they stop to consider that right now, Nikon appears to be spending a lot more R&D and time and money and focus on low-end stuff,and not nearly as much money on high-end equipment. Nikon _is_ losing a lot of serious amateurs, a lot of small-time professionals, and a lot of photojournalist/event/wedding shooters to the Canon onslaught. I think Nikon has taken the attitude that, in the consumer realm, no matter what the price of the camera, the newest Nikon cameras will delight and startle and thrill their buyers, delivering MORE than they had anticipated. And that is the way to turn things around, one new customer at a time. So, if you're happy with your first or second Nikon d-slr, fine, that's great. But don't pretend that Nikon's doing just wonderfully in the professional/serious end of the market. And please, let's stop with all this talk about how nobody needs a "better camera". Who seriously thinks the Nikon D2Hs is a better PJ/sports/event/generalist d-slr than the 1D Mark II-N or the soon-to-be-here 1D Mark III?

While I think Nikon as a company has what it takes to stay the course, right the ship, and get things back in order at the beginner,mid-,and advanced amateur market segments, I am not sure at all that Nikon has what it takes to stop the migration of so many top-level Nikon shooters to the Canon system. If you're interested in watching, I think the arrival of the 1D Mark III is going to mark the beginning of yet another fairly substantial exodus of shooters who finally call it quits on the F-mount,abandoning either Nikon or Fuji or a Fuji-Nikon camera body mix, and making the switch to Canon and the new 1D Mark III. The less equipment you have, the easier it'll be to switch to Canon. And the less time you've been with Nikon, the easier it is to stay with them. It's a great time to get INTO either Canon or Nikon gear, it really is. It's a great time to be leaving Nikon for Canon. It's a great time to be interested in digital slr photography, since if you look around you can get almost anything you NEED. OR want. The next year is going to be very rough and stressful and disappointing for Nikon users at the top end of the market,and it's gonna' be great for the buyers of the newer, D40-D80-D200 class Nikon bodies.

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