Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Rumor Mill Speculation

There is an inordinate amount of buzz encircling the mirror-less photosphere at the moment given a credible rumor that Samsung's quiet (but not-so-quiet) exit from the camera business is due to its acquisition by Nikon in effort to integrate their expertise in the mirrorless front in their own engineering portfolio. This... actually has me super jazzed.

Though not an early adopter, the form, fit, and feel of the Nikon V1, their first entry into the mirrorless ILC market, was too enticing not to buy into, and I doted with fond nostalgia on that camera in this blog in the past. It was a camera for experimentation, using its speed for unconventional attempts at the creation of something new. But as a conventional photographic tool, it was cumbersome. No need to elaborate on that fact, really... there are plenty of reviews out there detailing the misery of menu diving and poor button/dial placement.

That said, I sold the camera around this time last year and have regretted the decision every single day since.

Part of the appeal of Nikon is in the quality, the look of its RAW files (and no, not all RAW files are created equal). Like flat color and tonal profiles for video, they provide the ultimate canvas upon which values can be stretched and torqued and manipulated into a preconceived vision. That quality was present in the meager 10 megapixel files of the V1, and I absolutely anticipate it to be present in the whatever-sized files of a pending future Nikon mirrorless release using Samsung's sensor technology. Because that's the big technological acquisition here, the sensor tech.

Samsung's attempt to push into the extant camera market was noble and well executed, but jingoism in market (the American market, especially) proved too tall a hurdle for the company to overcome. And aside from Canon, they were the only company willing to put forth the investment required to develop all technology in-house, from sensors to optics to interfaces. That their investment did not pan out commercially is unfortunate, but the acquisition of their technology and expertise by a brand as lauded in the annals of photographic history as Nikon should speak to the respectable competency of their technology. Samsung sensors are great, and the only realistic alternative to Sony's monopoly on the commercial imaging sensor market. Their optical prowess is equally laudable, as well as their understanding of how to strike the best balance between milled optical perfection and software based correction. Nikon may not necessarily need much support in the realm of optics as it applies to lens manufacture, but in lacking an established line of lenses supporting larger format mirrorless digital cameras, inheriting NX patents is an immediate lift. Barring the time necessary for production schedules, it wouldn't be unreasonable to see Nikon's take on the old NX line springing into stores by next Christmas.

This is an important shift because Sony has been the elephant in the room for too long, owning the majority of the imaging sensors used by the likes of Nikon, as well as Olympus and Sony's own brand of Alpha digital cameras, even cell phones market-wide. As it applies to the camera business, Sony and Nikon have had a strong partnership but Nikon will always be in the submissive position, the bleeding edge technologies consistently reserved for Sony's flagship models. With growing popularity among the mirrorless crowd in the A7R II, moving to a different sensor standard for their own reimagined mirrorless line is the best move Nikon could have possibly made, and after 7 years of innovative stagnation I once again have hope in the potential of future Nikon releases.

I wouldn't presume to predict Nikon's next moves, but I certainly know what I'd like to see from them from both product and market standpoints:

  • A diminishment in tiers of DSLR models. There are so many redundant middle-ground models being released in ill-fated attempts to recapture the long lost market of compact camera buyer sales volumes that the flood of nearly identical models released year after year have super saturated the camera market and driven the value of all cameras to insane lows. While good for consumers on the short term in the form of alarmingly cheap used prices, when the company making the cameras is no longer earning revenue from new camera sales due to used camera sales volumes, innovative progress grinds to a halt, which is what we've seen play out for the past 10 years in excruciating slow-motion.
  • Presuming the release of a new mirrorless system, should sales of that system exceed sales of new entry-grade DSLRs (which I absolutely anticipate they will if the mirrorless model is not artificially hamstringed as Nikon and Canon have both done in past mirrorless releases), I expect Nikon to take the active, market affirmative approach of diminishing their lower tier DSLR offerings and supplant them readily with their mirrorless evolutions (because evolution of the imaging system is ultimately what the strong wave pushing toward mirrorless has always been about).
  • From a product design standpoint, the original, impulsive design tendency toward super tiny models has finally reached the point of faux pax. Yes, our hands are only ever so small on average, and yes, it's nice to have something sizable to hold onto in regards to cameras. So, perhaps, given old guard worries of things like flange distance, it is not unreasonable to design a mirrorless camera retaining the same flange distance as conventional mirror-equipped DSLRs? This design choice would allow for the legacy of the F-mount to continue uninterrupted, and the afforded "empty space" in body design would actually be quite ideal for the integration of sensor cooling technologies which are of extremely high demand to video enthusiasts (and video competency is a huge asset inherited from Samsung). More so, sensor cooling technologies would enable previously unexplored potential in exposure length in mirrorless systems, as well as afford benefits to high-ISO applications by dissipating the heat which contributes to poor SNR. (Plus, there's always the aesthetic aspect of keeping that genuine DSLR look and feel while simultaneously integrating newer technologies)
Personally, I'm excited. It would be dangerous to get my hopes of too high given the consistent history of godawful disappointments coming from CaNikon struggling to maintain hold on a market that left them behind a decade ago, but this acquisition was not a cheap move and I fully expect that if Nikon were willing to put their necks out far enough to put money down on Samsung's imaging division that maybe, just maybe, they won't foolishly hinder their own engineers and designers trying to bring forth the next generation of Nikon camera (as if there were anything left to cannibalize from the former).

Nikon V1 running time lapse capture over Baltimore's Inner Harbor.