As I was writing my Nikon D7100 vs D600 comparison article a while ago, I had a lot of conflicting thoughts that crossed my mind and made their way to the article. I then decided to refrain from making the comparison article negative and rather move my thoughts to a separate post, because I thought that it would be worth the discussion with our readers…
Nikon Quality Assurance Gone Bad
Nikon has been quite active since last year. We have seen a lot of ups and downs of the company, most notably with the amazing D800 and D600 cameras that became available last year, both of which were accompanied by quality assurance issues and escalated into the “Nikon D800 autofocus fiasco” and the “Nikon D600 dust issue“. And as you may already know, these problems were covered rather extensively on our website through detailed posts and reviews.
On one hand, we have been praising Nikon for their amazing cameras that have no equivalents on the market. The Nikon D800, for example, is a remarkable camera – a tool the photography community has been longing for a number of years, featuring superb dynamic range, beautiful colors and enough resolution to even challenge some of the medium format market. The Nikon D600 is no slouch either, with similar sensor performance and more impressive specs than its direct competitor. Without a doubt, another win for Nikon.
On the other hand, we have been heavily criticizing Nikon for the quality control issues that seem to be accompanying each new product launch lately. Nikon’s dead silence on these issues has not helped either, despite our attempts to provoke Nikon with fake press-releases, hoping to see some kind of action. And when Nikon came back acknowledging the dust problem on the D600, just when I thought “finally” after seeing the headline, it turned out that Nikon did not care to take real action and rather chose to once again ignore its valuable customers by telling them to clean the dust themselves and send their cameras to its service centers if the issue did not go away. Seriously? Why is it so difficult to admit a mistake and do right by your customer? Mind you, most D600 and D800 owners and potential buyers are not newbies – these are experienced users who know their stuff. And when Nikon says that dust is a regular fact of life on the D600, just like it is on any other camera, these folks know very well that Nikon is being less than truthful. Not after watching those videos that clearly demonstrate dust accumulation and not when the Internet is full of people complaining about well-documented and tested D800 autofocus problems. Heck, even the “review” sections of the D600 and D800 product pages contain a boatload of negative comments on these specific issues. Nikon does not seem to care to read about what their customers are saying on their very own website.
When a product is defective, you know how it rolls in America – you get sued before you know it. We see it every day on the news: from crazy hot coffee spill stories at McDonald’s to Toyota’s sudden acceleration recalls. Thousands of similar cases with all kinds of products. My point is, when you buy the Nikon D800, it does not come with a disclaimer that says “this camera can potentially have left AF point issues”. Or when you buy the Nikon D600, its label does not state “can initially spit oil and dust all over the sensor”. You pay thousands of dollars for a product and there is nothing wrong with expecting it to work out of the box. You do not expect it to have problems, requiring you to send the product at your cost plus insurance, do you? Nikon seems to think otherwise. It expects you to find a problem in the camera it made and it wants you to pay for shipping a damaged unit, waiting for weeks, if not months (with several trips back and forth) until the camera is fixed. How cool is that? People take their iPads back to the Apple store, expecting a brand new unit when they see a slight imperfection and here we are – stuck with a company that makes the best cameras on the market, with the some of the worst possible quality assurance and service. How did it come down to this?
Marketing Gone Bad
What pains me even more, is to see how we get manipulated by Nikon, ready to spend our hard earned money on intentionally crippled products. Camera announcements several times a year, with other overpriced crap that accompanies them. And we buy and buy and buy…it never ends. Always doing our best as consumers. We buy overpriced products just because we can afford them and we want to pay even more when we see something a little more exciting. Rumor sites are thriving, because we want to know now what might come out tomorrow, even if it is just…a rumor. We see a list of features with some image samples and we are ready to pay now for a product that we might get a chance to touch in the not-so-distant future, if the manufacturer supplies enough units. God forbid when we have to wait for a few months in agony, while some guy out of Taiwan is happily shooting with his camera and provoking our lust with sample images in Flickr. We are willing to fight for our pre-order spot at a local store and we make sure to place those pre-orders at multiple places at once, just to make sure that we get it first.
We realize that the piece of gear we buy today will be worth nothing in a year or two, but we still want it. Lust, envy and pride do their job in making sure that we walk around with the most expensive gear hung on our necks. And most of us have no idea that the gear we hold in our hands was designed to be inferior from the next model, so that another model with better features could be pushed on to us next time. Manufacturers even created multiple camera segments with entry-level to high-end cameras, with all kinds of cameras to satisfy every need and budget. These segments are carefully crafted: with the cheapest cameras having the least number of features, to the high-end cameras having the most features at obviously premium prices. And when it is not enough to differentiate between these segments, some features are intentionally downgraded, even if it costs more money to do it. Sure, it seems crazy, but that’s marketing at work for you.
Nikon clearly demonstrated its marketing ingenuity when launching the D600 and the D7100 DSLRs. A full-frame camera with an old and inferior autofocus system and a cropped-sensor camera with the top-of-the-line autofocus system. Doesn’t sound too bad at first, but let’s take a look at this in more detail. The Nikon D600 has 39 autofocus points that are tightly placed around the center of the viewfinder – I covered this in my previous reviews and articles. The Nikon D7100, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of the D600 in that regard. It uses the autofocus system from high-end full-frame cameras, with 51 focus points spread out across the frame. Compose any way you want and place those AF points anywhere in the frame, even close to the borders. And if you use the 1.3x crop mode, those focus points are right next to the extreme borders. Now let’s take a closer look at the difference in focus point spread between the two cameras:
To me, this looks simply idiotic and funny. Use a high-end FX AF system on a DX body and use a lower-end DX AF system on an FX body. By using the 51 point autofocus system on the D7100, Nikon demonstrated that it costs nothing to use a high-end autofocus system on any camera. So using the lower-end AF system on the D600 was intentional, similar to the 1/4000 shutter speed or the 1/200 sync speed limits. Nikon clearly did not want the D600 to compete with the D800, so it crippled the camera by stripping off important features. Did you really think it was a move to keep the cost of the D600 low? You would be very naive if you thought so. Even if there is a cost difference, it is very minor. Not in the hundreds or thousands of dollars that Nikon wants you to think.
The small buffer limitation of the D7100 is also equally intentional. When the D7100 was announced, I made a hasty statement that it possibly marked the death of a high-end DX line. After I discovered the buffer limit on the D7100, however, I reconsidered my thoughts. Why would Nikon intentionally cripple the D7100’s buffer capacity? Another ingenious game by Nikon’s marketing – get plenty of attention to the D7100 so that a lot of people buy it, but cripple it enough for sports and wildlife photographers to either have them switch to the expensive D4, or wait until a D400 comes out (if it comes out). Do you really think that extra buffer memory is going to cost a lot of money? Of course it doesn’t. The Nikon D7100 seems to have around 256 MB buffer memory. Guess what the cost difference of putting 256 MB versus 1 GB memory is? Pennies on a dollar. I bet it costs the same, perhaps even more to put old 256 MB chips on a circuit, than use higher capacity storage.
But wait, there is more – firmware limitations. More crippled features to differentiate between camera segments. Why would one camera have 2-3 frames of bracketing (D600), while another 2-9 (D300s)? There is no cost involved in making 2-9 frames of bracketing available versus 2-3. The same line of code could be copy-pasted between different models. But no, Nikon won’t give you all that, because only “premium” cameras can have such options. Any time you see differences in camera menu and firmware between different camera models (of the same generation), those differences are intentional.
I know that some readers might argue that there is nothing wrong with intentionally limiting a product. After-all, software companies do it all the time – you buy one software component and pay more to unlock more functionality. However, cameras are a bit different; they are more hardware than software – at least for now. How upset would you be if you bought a computer that was intentionally crippled? Or a car that has a 6 cylinder engine but only engages four of them? Doesn’t sound OK anymore, does it?
Marketing at its best.
A Captive Audience?
One of the main reasons why Nikon and other product manufacturers make such product decisions is that many people are “locked in” to a given brand, because one cannot easily switch products. This has the effect of limiting competition and choice – or at least making it expensive and/or time consuming. And even in segments where the name brand manufacturers have competition, such as flashes and lenses, it is only from third parties that makes products specific for that brand. Thus, Nikon and Canon are insulated from competing with directly competing with each other for flashes and lenses.
As an example, if you wish to change dish detergents, there is no cost – simply buy a different one the next time you visit the grocery store. If you change PC brands? No problem – monitors, printers, software, disk drives, etc. can all be switched. Switching from a PC to a Macintosh (or visa versa) is a little more difficult, but is eased by the fact many software companies provide both the PC and Macintosh version of their software in the purchase price, and printers and monitors may be interchanged easily enough with the right adapters.
Change a camera brand? Now you have to stare at your growing stable of branded equipment, which for many serious amateurs and pros, includes lenses, flashes, flash triggers, teleconverters, extension tubes, filters, and contemplate selling it all on eBay, dealing with the daunting logistics and time commitment associated with the sales, and purchasing the competitor’s equivalents. If you have ever switched brands after accumulating a healthy amount of brand-specific gear, you know that this is not a casual exercise. Even if you fare pretty well on the sales of your lenses and flashes, you will likely burn the equivalent of a few days to a week taking pictures, creating your copy on eBay, answering questions, packing, shipping, etc.
Camera manufacturers are well aware of this “exit cost”. This gives them a bit more flexibility to control their product line features, without necessarily dealing with competitive pressures. If you have been involved with any form of engineering or software development, you know that there are a variety of “standards”, which enable products to work with one another through defined interfaces. If so, you probably also realized that having an industry standard for lens and flash attachments could easily be created. This isn’t a technological issue, but rather a business issue – companies have no incentive to generalize/standardize such interfaces, since it would only lead to additional competition based on price. This could lead to increased sales if some companies were more efficient or had some technological edge. But it could also lead to reduced margins. Apparently Nikon and others decided that it is better to have a captive audience and forego the potential of selling lenses to those that own other equipment brands. Good for them. For you? Well…
A Quick Update on D800, D600 and D7100
It has been a year since D800 was announced and over 6 months since the D600 came out and I am still receiving emails from our readers about potential issues. Is the D800/D800E asymmetric AF issue completely resolved? Are dust spots no longer showing up on the D600? These two are very common, so I will do my best to address them both in this article, based on the feedback I got from other readers, from recent camera acquisitions and from talking to local photographers.
Although the Nikon D800/D800E asymmetric focus issue seems to be more or less contained, reports of misaligned left AF points are still coming up occasionally. Not as often as they used to before, but still quite a bit. Some of them could be related to bad testing methodologies, but some I know for a fact are legit, coming from experienced photographers. I first thought that the units showing up as faulty were older ones from the initial shipments, but these are reports coming from B&H, Adorama and Amazon shipments. Those three sell most cameras and they do not stock old shipments anymore, so these are brand new Nikon shipments, with the latest serial numbers. There was some talk on the Internet about some specific serial number being “golden”, meaning that if you get a camera with a higher serial number, that it would not be faulty. Well, I found this to be untrue. Even some of the most recent serial numbers are showing problems. Again, the ratio of bad to good is quite low, definitely not what it used to be in the beginning. If 8/10 tested bad in the beginning, now we are talking about 2-3 out of 10 having the AF problem. Still pretty high if you ask me…
As for the Nikon D600 dust issue, that one has also gotten a little better, but it is definitely not 100% contained. I tested another brand new D600 recently and it surely accumulated some dust. Gladly, this one is not a deal breaker for me, because even in worst cases cleaning the sensor 2-3 times after several thousand actuations takes care of it. I wet cleaned my D600 twice and I never saw any dust/oil show up again.
In summary, both D800/D800E and D600 issues are still out there, albeit in lower numbers.
As a bonus, here is a quick update on the Nikon D7100. The unit that I am testing does not have any problems with dust / oil. Preliminary tests show that the AF points are also quite accurate across the board.
A Note to Nikon Management
If anyone at Nikon reads this, I hope they forward these concerns to the upper management, from people that love their products and use them every day. Here are 5 suggestions we came up with, based on the feedback from our staff and readers:
- We know it is not cheap, but please do increase your QA acceptable “tolerances”. Standards from 5-6 years ago just won’t cut it anymore, not when you sell 36 megapixel cameras.
- Do stay in close contact with your service centers and improve your communication. When a large number of your customers report a problem and it is no longer a small acceptable variance in production, please do acknowledge the problem. Customers should know when they are potentially affected. Issuing a small press-release and apologizing won’t hurt your reputation. In fact, it will greatly improve it, because your customers will appreciate your honesty, integrity and care.
- Make sure that service centers can share their findings and help each other out in resolving problems. Many of the service centers did not know how to deal with the D800 AF issue and only a select few received proper instructions initially. We know communication is there, but perhaps serious issues should be expedited, with faster training to help close out issues.
- For affected customers, do offer an incentive – whether it is in the form of free repair with free shipping back and forth, or perhaps a discount on the future purchase. Asking customer to pay for shipping a defective product is not nice and it only costs you more in the long run, since many choose to return the item or exchange it for a different one, instead of getting it serviced.
- Spend some time talking to your customers, your distribution channels and your own employees. They will gladly provide great feedback and things you could improve to gain customers and retain existing ones.
- Stop pre-ordering gear – as we have discussed in previous articles, think long and hard about whether you are willing to deal with the challenges of new product launches that are often fraught with issues and manufacturers and customers alike struggle with quality issues, software bugs, and other unforeseen issues. For some products, new product introductions are not very eventful. For complicated equipment such as cameras, however, you can bet that from time-to-time, you will get a lesson in why they call it, “the bleeding edge” of technology. If enough people hold off purchasing new products until there is sufficient reason to believe that most of the new product introduction snafus have been worked out, camera manufacturers will think twice about delivering products that clearly have issues and staying “mum” about the existence of problems.
- Use your camera until it dies – reconsider how much bang-for-the buck you might get out of a new upgrade. For some product introductions, you can count on significant new features and functionality – at least by the specs of the new product compared to the previous generation. But how much will you get out of these new features? If you read enough photography forums, you might get the impression that most photographers constantly need an aperture of f/2.8, a minimum of 24 MPs, the need for clean 6400 ISO images, 7-9 frames per second capability, and generous image buffer that will enable them to take nearly unlimited RAW files without a delay. Really? No doubt that some photographers will indeed make use of such capabilities more than others, but being realistic about our shooting needs is the first step in making wise decisions regarding new product introductions. If we are honest regarding our needs, we will be less enticed to jump on the bandwagon and buy more gear than we need.
- Don’t pay attention to new product announcements – give the rumor mill a rest and enjoy the equipment you have! It may be interesting to scour the photography forums for the latest gossip, but most of us would likely be better served by learning more about photography, our gear and how to use it effectively, and improving our post-processing software skills. It is entertaining to poke fun at gear junkies at times, since we always think it is the “other guy”, but the truth be told, more of us should look in the mirror! If more of us got off the Internet, spend more time shooting, and getting to know our gear better, we would likely find that we might not feel the need to purchase every new gizmo that comes along.
- Shoot and enjoy photography instead of being a gear junky – aren’t you getting tired of all this?
- Be willing to change brands – we are all familiar with the proverbial “fan boys” who drone on endlessly about their devotion to a given brand and will defend a company and their products to the point of silliness, despite any evidence to the contrary (even as I write this, there are those in the Nikon camp that continue to deny that the D800 ever suffered from focusing issues). If you talk to some wise pros, however, you may be surprised to find that they are not quite as “religious” as some of the serious amateurs regarding brand loyalty. They buy what they absolutely need and don’t obsess about every minor product distinction of every new piece of gear that is announced. And they are sometimes much more willing to change brands than some of the serious amateur crowd.
How can you minimize the “pain” of switching? Pair down that collection of gear that you no longer use. Buy and keep only those lenses that you get value from. Many serious amateurs cringe at the idea of switching brands – for a good reason. But if you look behind some of their concerns, part of this fear is that they have to deal with the growing collection of lenses they rarely use. Every now and then, ask yourself “How much value am I getting from this lens, flash, or other piece of equipment?”. If you find that a given piece of gear spends more time on the shelf than on your camera? Sell it. Having a stable of good gear that actually gets used thus serves two purposes: 1) It preserves your hard earned money, and 2) If and when you decide to switch brands because situations change and you are no longer with the products and service of your existing brands, you will have a much easier time.
If it seems like I am fuming a bit, I am. To be sure, Nikon has introduced some wonderful products and significantly moved forward in providing the photography world with new technologies. At the same time, there are legacy aspects of the camera manufacturing business that inhibit true competition, reduce the availability of features and functionality within product lines, and make it difficult for customers to switch brands.
The good news is that the Internet has significantly improved our ability to share and disseminate product-related information in real time. And we have so many choices. Even entry-level DSLRs selling for $500 are far and away better than those that cost $5-7k just a few years ago. If we are rational about our product choices and prudent in our buying habits, we can indeed spur the camera manufacturers to introduce more feature rich products and deliver the service they aspire to and we deserve.