Commentary

Nikon not at the heart of the image in its centenarian year

Instead of a celebration, it is restructuring and has no new compelling product out

Camera giant Nikon turns 100 on July 25, less than a week away.

But instead of celebrating its centenarian year with gusto and fanfare, Nikon is spending it restructuring its camera business.

During this February's CP+ Camera and Photo Imaging Show in Yokohama, Nikon did not announce a single new product. That has never happened since the inception of the show in 2010.

Nikon's slogan is "At the heart of the image". But it is not at the heart of anything at the moment.

Its DL premium compact camera series announced last year was cancelled and Nikon notified its shareholders about "extraordinary losses" for last year. There is also an on-going, special voluntary retirement programme to let go of 1,000 or more workers.

Last month, Nikon reported a net loss of 7.1 billion yen (S$86 million) for its 2017 financial year which ended on March 31, against a net income of 18.2 billion yen in the previous financial year. It blamed the loss on restructuring costs.

Significantly, imaging product sales for its 2017 financial year fell by 26 per cent compared with a year ago.

The Nikon booth at CP+ Photo and Imaging Show in Yokohama earlier this year. Nikon did not announce any new product at the event, the first time it has happened since the inception of the show in 2010.
The Nikon booth at CP+ Photo and Imaging Show in Yokohama earlier this year. Nikon did not announce any new product at the event, the first time it has happened since the inception of the show in 2010. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

I am not surprised by the drop in sales. Despite its 100th anniversary, it has not announced any compelling or flagship product. Too busy restructuring, I guess.

Yes, there are the 100th Anniversary limited editions of Nikon D5, D500, lenses and merchandise like camera strap, pins and miniature Nikon F camera.

There are also a mid-range APS-C DSLR camera, a rugged compact camera and a new lens. But none of these products can be described as compelling.

One might point out that it is normal to have no new products as last year was a Photokina (a bi-annual camera trade fair) and Olympic year, when all the latest cameras are usually released.

However, Canon has just announced a successor to its entry-level full-frame EOS 6D DSLR camera, while Sony has released its flagship a9 full-frame mirrorless camera.

And all Nikon could muster this year is to have a Guinness world record attempt of the largest human image of a camera by more than 1,000 people in Italy. That is just sad.

There was a time when, if people knew you were a photographer, the next question they would ask is whether you use Canon or Nikon. I was even asked this question by the presenter when receiving a photojournalism award in 2010.

These days, other than the two brands, budding photographers are looking at the cameras from the likes of Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic and Olympus.

It would be a shame if Nikon goes the Kodak route, as professional photographers and photography enthusiasts have always loved Nikon, even if they are not primary Nikon users like me.

When I first joined this newspaper as an intern news photographer, the camera issued to me was a Nikon F90X film SLR. It was a workhorse and never failed me whether I was photographing funerals or floods.

In the modern digital era, Nikon has always impressed with the superb image quality its DSLR cameras are capable of. For example, last year's Nikon D5 is a professional's dream camera with its sturdy build, great shooting speed and fantastic image quality.

Yes, like the rest of the camera industry, Nikon is suffering from the onslaught of convenient smartphone cameras and the resulting decline in compact camera sales.

But, according to the camera industry trade group Camera and Imaging Products Association, camera sales grew by 42.2 per cent this May compared with the same month last year.

It is time for Nikon to move quickly to capitalise on this uptrend, instead of restructuring and trying to cut costs.

For example, I would love to see a successor to Nikon's mid-range full-frame DSLR camera,the D810, which has not been updated since 2014. If not, current D810 users might move to Sony's full-frame a series.

I also think it is time to revive the Nikon 1 mirrorless camera series. But with a much larger image sensor than the current CX format, which is only a quarter of the size of an APS-C image sensor.

And, as I was writing this, news broke about Nikon developing a new mirrorless camera with a "Nikon-ish" trait.

I certainly hope it is the original Nikon Model I rangefinder but in a modern mirrorless reincarnation with a full-frame or APS-C image sensor that supports current Nikon lenses. I bet this will sell.

I want Nikon to be successful, just as I want the entire camera business to blossom.

A strong Nikon is good for the entire industry, by giving its competitors a good run for their money, and would help banish the collective doom and gloom that has clouded the industry for years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2017, with the headline 'Nikon not at the heart of the image in its centenarian year'. Print Edition | Subscribe