Nikon 1 Cameras (courtesy of the Nikon USA website)
As I ponder Nikon’s announcement of their Nikon 1 line of cameras, I realized that Nikon has created a tweener camera. A photographic device between the large DSLRs and the portable point and shoots. In many ways, it reminds me of the recently popular tweener computing device, the tablet, which lies in-between the personal computer and the smart phone. Will Nikon succeed with this completely new product line? Does the Nikon 1 have the feature set and ecosystem to become the iPad of the camera industry or will become just another tablet?
The Nikon 1 has some fantastic technology. The ability to take high-speed movies, fully focused photos at 10 frames per second and a convenient, compact size makes this a potent camera. Nikon worked hard. They re-imagined what a modern camera should be. The Nikon 1 fuses video with stills and blurred the line between the two. Nikon didn’t take the easy route and just slap a smaller sensor into a existing camera and yank out the mirror. If they did, their success, to some extent, would have been assured.
Nikon has a great reputation and a large fan base. A smaller than DLSR mirrorless camera capable of using legacy Nikkor lenses would have been the easy way to go. The real controversy with the Nikon 1 is the sensor size — it’s quite small. The sensor is larger than a point and shoot’s but smaller than the micro 4/3 standard. Sensor size is important since it’s a key factor for image quality, particularly in darker areas. By using a smaller sensor, the Nikon 1 is at a disadvantage, at least that is what the serious amateurs and pros would say.
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But the Nikon 1 system is not designed for the professional photographers and serious amateurs. It’s designed for the point and shoot crowed that wants to upgrade to better quality and more speed. It’s also for people who don’t want the size and complexity of a DSLR. I’ve seen plenty of parents with expensive DSLRs that shoot in the green, auto everything mode. They don’t know enough to take advantage of a DSLR and I suspect most of them don’t have the interest or dedication to learn. A smart and small camera that takes high speed photos with better quality is what these people need. They can shoot stills and take video at school plays and soccer games. They can get higher quality snaps that would run circles around a point and shoot.
Look at the Nikon 1 — even the interface is different. Gone are the typical P S A M modes (though accessible from the menu) and all those icons that represent a sport mode or a portrait mode. According to DPreview, The main dial only has four options that contains an auto mode, movie mode and some interesting functions such as a motion snapshot, that combines slow motion movies with stills, and a smart photo selector mode that shoot 20 images quickly and intelligently picks what it thinks are the 5 best frames.
This is no ordinary camera — Nikon has rethought the camera interface. To support some of unique smart modes, the camera must be capable of incredible speed, focusing accuracy and data throughput. A true camera for the digital and computer age, something that just is not possible with film. Until now, digital cameras pretty much functioned the same as film cameras except for the addition of a movie mode. The digital sensor replaced the film but the interface and function stayed the same, particularly with DSLRs. In the same way, Apple reinvented the computer interface first with the iPhone and then with the iPad, Nikon has reinvented the camera interface. It seems to me, Nikon’s objective is to do for the camera what Apple did with iPad.
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The serious camera people wanted a Nikon mirrorless with a micro 4/3 sensor or the larger APS-C size used by the Sony NEX. I too was hoping for this. And while the Nikon 1 may indeed be revolutionary, the sensor size issue and the non-traditional interface is what the experienced photographers are grumbling about. Despite the tremendous effort and years of development Nikon must have spent developing the new system, its success is not assured. There is a concept in computing called the Alpha Nerd, who is the person that has a larger than normal pull in their domain. They are the early adopters and the key people needed for a technology to succeed. The camera industry also have their equivalent of the Alpha Nerd. These are the people who adopt and push the latest technology that interests them. They are the go to people when other, less knowledgeable people ask “What camera should I get?” Getting the support and buy-in from these people are essential for a product to be successful both for computers, cameras and technology in general. They are the influencers of their respective communities.
Is the Nikon fan base, the Alpha early adopters, excited about the Nikon 1? From what I read, not so much. They were looking for that large sensored mirrorless cameras that would seamlessly use the existing Nikkor lenses. Something that is small, powerful with great image quality. To be fair, the Nikon 1 has not been released to the public. Maybe as the product gets out there, used and reviewed the Nikon fan base will warm up to the new system. This, I believe, is essential for Nikon. When their friends and family ask what kind of camera should they get, the Nikon early adopter fans are the ones that need to recommend the Nikon 1. I suspect that Nikon, with advertising alone, will not be large enough to get the word out on the street about their wunder-camera. They need the vast army of Alpha camera nerds to be excited about this thing. It is going to be an uphill battle.
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What if Nikon were able to create the Nikon 1 with a larger sensor? The buzz from camera and photographic community would have been off the charts. Nikon fans would have sung the praise of the all mighty Nikon and non-Nikon customers would have switched to this system in droves. In one stroke, Sony’s NEX system would be in trouble and the more established micro 4/3 supporters would have to think very hard. I think the Nikon 1 would have been the system to get. A clear and definite upgrade for the point and shoot crowed and a second body for the DSLR crowd. I know that personally, even though I own a Sony NEX-5 and a Olympus E-PL1, I would have jumped to this new Nikon system.
There is no question that such a product will kill the low-end DSLR sales for Nikon. But it would also kill the low-end DSLR sales for Canon and every other DSLR vendor. A tidal wave of people would have moved to Nikon. I once heard someone say, it’s better to cannibalize your own product rather than having your product cannibalized by a competitor. When I look at the Nikon 1, I can’t help but think that someone at Nikon was worried about cannibalizing their DSLR line. They figured they can come up with a third line, that slots nicely between their CoolPix point and shoots and their DSLRs. This, to me, is a big risk and Nikon may end up losing. By not taking the chance to come up with a truly revolutionary product that can potentially take on the DSLR, they have lost a golden opportunity to redefine the camera industry. While the analogy between cameras and computers may not be perfect, I’m left wondering has Nikon created just a regular tablet instead of an iPad? Only time will tell.