Nikon should have gone further than 1-inch

I’ll just start off with the disclaimer that I don’t fancy Nikon cameras. There is a long story behind how I gained much respect for the Nikon semi-auto F4 camera, and lost it all when I was forced to use the atrocious Nikon D1 as a young photojournalist. When it comes to professional dSLRs, it’s Canon or bust for me.

(Never mind the fact that I use my Olympus Pen more frequently than any other camera these days.)

Anyway, the world was waiting for Nikon to announce its new mirrorless camera system and they did just that this week. I was expecting more from Canon’s longtime rival, but they lived up to their disappointing reputation. Calling it the “Nikon 1” system after the 1-inch sensor in the camera body, this will no doubt send the fanboys into ecstasy. But there is little reason to, and here’s my take.

The 1″ sensor is just too small to compete

Here’s how the various sensor sizes stack up, from Dpreview.com

This Dpreview article goes into detail about why the author thinks that making a 1″ sensor system will work well for Nikon – that it will not cannibalize their cash cow dSLR market. I completely disagree. The Nikon sensor needs to be at least as big as the Micro Four Thirds sensor to succeed.

dSLRs, despite their popularity, are really designed more for professional work than casual use. The casual user will probably never bother to learn how to use the manual dials on his dSLR camera, and sooner or later, will be frustrated by the sheer bulk of it. Neither will they be keen in investing in better zoom lenses, or even prime lenses.

The main reason why many people have upgraded to dSLRs in the past ten years, is due to the obvious limitations of their compact cameras in terms of image quality and flexibility. And some very effective marketing too.

With the Micro Four Thirds and NEX sensors being about half the size of a 35mm film frame, yet producing an image that is nearly as good in color and resolution as a dSLR (to most consumers), the three small players Panasonic, Olympus and Sony have grabbed an amazing amount of market share in just two years.

According to this Bloomberg article, the mirrorless camera has jumped from 5% in 2009 to 40% market share today in Japan. Canon and Nikon’s number crunchers must be petrified by this figure, but I’m sure things aren’t so bleak for them worldwide. Still, it’s a sign of things to come as the Japanese are often early adopters.

Nikon is coming into a new market that has been created by the smaller players. It has to play by their rules and benchmarks. By now, many consumers may have become aware of the great quality produced by the current crop of mirrorless cameras. Consumers are not stupid, and many do their research online (especially those who can afford a mirrorless camera worth USD700).

It just takes a few review websites to demonstrate in coming weeks that a smaller sensor will not produce the same image quality, especially at the same megapixels. It will also produce less depth-of-field effect, which is a great marketing tool (hey see that dreamy out of focus look!).

Nikon might be trying to avoid cannibalizing its own dSLR market, but as market data already shows, the mirrorless cameras have already done just that. So why not just go with what consumers want, and grow the market by selling a big-sensor mirrorless camera rather than run away from the inevitable decline of dSLR units?

The Nikon V1 is not that small

And furthermore, Olympus has an upcoming Micro Four Thirds camera called the E-PM1 that is 110 x 64 x 34 mm in dimensions. The Nikon V1 is 113mm x 76mm x 44mm, and the lower-end J1 is 106mm x 61mm x 30mm. The J1 is not that much smaller, and yet has a smaller image sensor than the Micro Four Third line of cameras.

Now personally, I’m comfortable shooting with a modern smartphone, my Olympus XZ-1 compact, my Pen camera or EOS 5D. They all produce great images for the money, and my photography experience can help overcome most of the inherent limitations they pose. But to the average joe, they want the best of every world, and yet they don’t know how to expose a photo correctly. They just want to buy a camera that can do it all, and must be the most advanced out there if they are going to fork out the cash.

The consumer will judge the Nikon 1 system not merely by its design, but by its minute specifications and review ratings. So unless Nikon pulls a big rabbit out of the hat, the N1 series already takes a hit before launch.

Legacy lenses support but…

What can help Nikon or Canon catch up is some form of legacy support for its older lenses on the new, smaller body. On my Pen, you can use an adapter ring to mount other bigger Oly E lenses or old school manual lenses from brands like Leica. For example, I currently use a 25mm lens meant for the bigger E-series on my Pen.

The Nikon 1 system will have an adaptor for older Nikkor lenses, but the crop factor is so high at 2.7x, I’m not sure if this will entice any existing Nikkor owner to get the new body. For example, if my maths is correct, a 24mm Nikkor wide angle lens will produce a telescopic 65mm field of view on the N1, totally negating the value of the original wide angle. And imagine a 300mm Nikkor lens on a Nikon 1 body! This is all because, I reiterate, the sensor is just too small.

I won’t comment on subjective things like design (I do dig the metallic red!) but I would just say that in trying to compete with the smaller players, Nikon may have actually forgotten that it’s no longer just a two-horse race. Instead, the hounds are actually racing ahead of the horses.

Now, I could be completely wrong in my analysis above and the Nikon 1 does roaring business when it launches in late October. And my bias towards Canon will never motivate me to buy a Nikon to begin with.

I just hope I’ve laid out some objective facts before you spring for this system. Do give all the various platforms a try and make your own decision.

Let’s see what Canon comes up with, and I hope to be thrilled.

Update: An interview with Nikon’s RnD GM was published by Dpreview after I had posted the above. It’s interesting how the Nikon 1 sensor is able to do all sorts of advanced stuff like shoot at 60 frames per second, and uses a hybrid autofocus system. There’s also this quote:

And, if the company’s market research is correct, there’s every chance this market sector’s expectations are very different from those of the enthusiast photographers who are currently scratching their heads and expressing their dissatisfaction about the new product.

Hey, they’re referring to me! But Nikon, please hear me out. For any new camera system to take hold of the mainstream, it is often up to us early adopters and enthusiasts, as well as the professionals, to embrace it and start spreading the word around. The average consumer is not confident of investing in any new camera system unless it is obviously amazing/groundbreaking or comes with much recommendation from their friends or from their social networks.

One mistake I felt that Olympus made when they were launching the Pen system in 2009 was trying to attract the female crowd with lifestyle ads. That’s not wrong in itself, but they failed to convince the early adopters and pros to come onboard (“is this Pen a girly camera?”), and that’s also part of the reason why Panasonic had more opportunity to shape the market despite Oly launching its products first. There are those of us who sprung for the EP-1 immediately at launch even without reading an Oly ad (and I never regretted it), but there are even more who have sat on the fence because of mixed messaging.

And Nikon is also assuming that the new features they’ve packed into the Nikon 1 system is a big carrot to entice the average consumer – let’s see how the market reacts.

2 Replies to “Nikon should have gone further than 1-inch”

  1. Hey Ian, I always look forward to reading your camera posts! So the APS-C sensor is actually bigger than Micro 4/3. Does that mean it takes better pictures? Which would then mean that the Fuji X100 and Sigmas should take better pictures, right?

    1. Gary, only the photog can take better pictures 😀 What the sensor determines is the image resolution and light capturing ability. I wouldn’t buy the Fuji or Sigmas, they are all a waste of money for general use.

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