Bye, bye Nikon, hello Canon

(This was written in 2015 — things have changed since then, not for the better for Nikon).

For 25 years I was a Nikon fan, bordering on fanboy/bigot. That’s changed now, and the reasons for the change I found were both emotional and logical.

Interestingly enough, my very first SLR camera wasn’t a Nikon. It was a Pentax that I bought on a whim while on a trip to Edmonton, primarily because my wife-to-be had a Pentax camera.

Not too long after that, I was convinced to buy a Nikon F-801 by my father-in-law to be. He was also getting into Nikon after some years with Pentax (Pentax was a family thing).

Thus started a 25 year journey with Nikon. Through its tenuous days as a camera company when autofocus was invented I remained loyal, occasionally checking out the competition (Canon) but not liking what I saw despite intriguing technology. I continued to buy the top of the line pro cameras (F4s, F5) and lenses, building a system to last.

Nikon was a conservative company at the time, focused very much on engineering and lens design. Film cameras had pretty much reached their peak around the late 90’s / early 2000’s, with new designs basically being rehashes of old designs. The emergence of digital re-energized the camera market, to the relief of manufacturers.

When digital SLRs appeared, I continued to be a fan, despite some initial quality differences. I envied some of the Canon offerings at the time, which offered some fantastic high-ISO results in dim lighting. But I remained a steadfast supporter of Nikon despite Canon arguably being the go-to pro system at that time. After all, I could still use my lens collection on the new bodies. Nikon was just “better” in terms of having this spiritual connection to its users, and a heritage of engineering excellence.

When the D3 came out, Nikon started to take the crown away from Canon. Nikon users now had bragging rights with what really amounted to a save-the-business set of products (D3/D300). This ushered in a generation of excellent products that brought in unsurpassed image quality (culminating in the current D810, but really, all Nikon products using the Sony sensor technology have, in my opinion, outclassed their Canon counterparts). Canon users started switching to Nikon.

So why, when I was already an owner of a large Nikon lens system, along with the best image quality in the industry would I even contemplate switching over to start again, with less image quality?

The answer is twofold. The first would revolve around video, and my needs for a system that could support stills and video. Canon certainly had the lead there, with the 5D series and their Cinema EOS series (I own the C300 and C100). I could certainly still use my Nikon glass with adapters on the Canon bodies, and in fact older Nikon F-mount lenses are very popular due to having aperture rings, so that wouldn’t have been a substantial problem. Still, having native compatibility was a nice-to-have feature.

The second revolved around the Nikon D4. The logical progression would have me upgrade to the D4 as a mere formality. I loved its predecessor, so it would have been an utter no-brainer to move up in terms of features, resolution, and quality.

But Nikon messed it up. They introduced a new battery system and in a giant indecision introduced a dual card system with different formats (Compact Flash and XQD) instead of the previous dual CF system. This caused problems for pros like me — you could not as easily shoot with your previous camera (D3) without bringing extra crap around (another charger, another different set of batteries), and another set of cards.  Previously I had shot with a D3x and D3s side-by-side. Now I couldn’t ease into the D4 world with a D4/D3 combination. I’d have to either buy two cameras or stand pat.

The D4’s video capability, had it been decent, may have tipped me to Nikon. But it wasn’t. It was awful compared to the cheaper Canon 5DII/III. For the flagship camera to have such middling video was a disappointment, but in all fairness, Nikon is/was not a video company, and the technical challenge for what was at the time may not have been worth it.

In contrast, Canon’s 1Dx camera introduced a backward-compatible battery (LP-E4n) and charger that can power the older cameras. Perfect. No friction.  1Dx video is quite good as well.

As I’ve become more involved in customer and user experience in my day-to-day work, I’ve become more sensitive to this type of friction — making someone’s life just a little harder may not be a big deal, but small frictions add up until, like me, they move over to a competitor and nothing will bring them back.

In my case, I knew I was giving up superior image sensor quality, great support (at that time, Nikon had a service depot 10 minutes away from me with excellent service — now, alas, they have shut it down). The peer pressure (Nikon was this wonderful, underdog company, sort of the rebels against the evil Canon empire) from family and work (completely Nikon-focused) made the decision even harder to contemplate and even admit.

But, when you create enough friction, enough reasons to go elsewhere, and you create the impression that you do not understand how your customers use your products, you are vulnerable to your competition — to a new upstart, cooler rival, or even to your old nemesis. This is what ultimately happened in my decision process.

Even absolute superiority of one’s product is not enough if it is not taken in context with the rest of the product’s ecosystem. Nikon makes better images, but the inputs into the system – lenses, ergonomics, accessories, batteries, cards, support – all factor into the decision for a professional. It came down to “what system can I trust to give me the best quality image in the most adverse shooting conditions?

Recently, I feel that Nikon has gone down a perilous path that unchanged will see its demise. For example:

  • Denying issues with the D600 sensor dust (a design defect where bits of material slough off the shutter mechanism and deposit on the sensor). It took a massive effort, including China denying sales of cameras to Nikon, to finally get admission of a problem
  • D800 focus sensor alignment issues (again, not admitted until a huge internet uproar)
  • Closing of service depots
  • Lens firmware issues (several recent lenses have had recalls for compatibility firmware updates). To add insult to injury, customers have to pay for shipping to the (no longer convenient to some) service depot.
  • Overall build quality of lenses is variable compared to competition (e.g. 24-70/2.8)
  • Terrible design decision for their 70-200/2.8, a staple pro lens, to “cheat” on focal length.
  • A general sense that maybe one shouldn’t buy a Nikon product at introduction until the bugs are worked out
  • No wireless (radio) flash support. This is a great feature of the Canon 600EX-RT system I enjoy. This creates reliability in the field under tough shooting conditions versus the Nikon line-of-sight SU-800/SB9x0 system which creates a total crapshoot knowing IF the flash will fire even after the photographer has painstakingly positioned the flashes for successful firing.
  • Lack of direction or strategy for its mainstream crop-sensor (DX) products. Nikon appears to want to push users upwards to its full-frame products (where higher margins exist).
  • Lack of compelling mirrorless product (pro/prosumer level) or pro camera with at least an EVF option.
  • Underwhelming software offerings (Capture/Capture NX) that have not kept pace with the ease of smartphone transfer, or the needs of bulk processing by pros.

I feel that Nikon is not listening to its user base, is cutting costs (sometimes the cuts appear too deep, like with quality assurance). This smells like a company in trouble. The have done impressively well with cutting costs to keep their margins up, but that is the only thing that seems to be keeping them profitable. At some point all the low-hanging fat (to mix metaphors) will have been trimmed. Where will growth, or even continued sustenance, come from?

Nikon still has impressive products and an engineering mentality, but in the absence of real customer feedback, an engineering-centric company creates products that only its employees feel are useful. Customer input has to drive some of these decisions.

More to follow on Nikon…