Nikon Q&A @ Photokina 2016: Can KeyMission break out of the action niche, who needs AF tuning & more


posted Thursday, November 10, 2016 at 1:45 PM EDT


Recently, IR publisher and founder Dave Etchells had the opportunity to meet with executives from Nikon Corporation at the Photokina tradeshow in Cologne, Germany, as part of our ongoing series of interviews from the show. (Sincere apologies for the delay in bringing you this article, but between Photokina itself, the subsequent PhotoPlus Expo and several major announcements over the last few weeks, our editorial team -- and Dave in particular -- have been stretched a little thin.)

For this interview, Dave sat down with two familiar faces from Nikon's executive team whom you may remember from our interview at the CP+ show in Japan, earlier in the year. Answering most of Dave's questions was Masahiko Inoue, Group Manager, Marketing Group 2, with some insights from Naoki Kitaoka, Department Manager. (Both gentlemen are part of the Marketing Department, Marketing Sector at Nikon Corp.'s Imaging Business Unit.)

Topics for discussion included Nikon's KeyMission series of action cameras -- we find the KeyMission 360 particularly exciting, as it shows strong potential to cross over from the action camera market and become a more mainstream storytelling tool -- as well as the company's upcoming DL-series enthusiast compacts, the electronic first-curtain shutter and auto AF fine-tuning features of the D5 and D500, and plenty else besides. Without any further ado, let's dive right into the interview!


Dave Etchells/Imaging Resource: Many of my questions are about the KeyMission 360. I think of it as being a very interesting product for many photographers, not just for action sports. As you showed in the presentations yesterday, it's for documenting life, so I'm excited about it.

Masahiko Inoue
Group Manager
Marketing Group 2
Marketing Department
Marketing Sector
Imaging Business Unit
Nikon Corp.

Masahiko Inoue/Nikon: Thank you!

DE: I see it as a reason for people to buy another camera again. One question that readers are curious about is that the KeyMission 360 was originally scheduled for release earlier this year. Can you comment on any of the challenges that were faced, and what difficulties led to the delay?

MI: I'm so sorry [for the delay in delivering the KeyMission] 360. We announced the Keymission series at CES, [but] more time was required for software adjustments, especially the 360[-degree panoramic stitching and warping].

DE: Ah. Yes. I can imagine that, especially given that you have more resolution than the competing Ricoh Theta S. It's always hard when you have to deal with more data. But I imagine it would also be very tricky because you have one exposure on this side [of the camera], and an entirely different exposure on the other side. Somehow, you have to blend them smoothly.

MI: Yes.

DE: We'll be very interested to see that! I'll move on, and this is kind of a market question: The action camera market grew very rapidly, but lately it has been contracting quite a bit. The market has been getting smaller. And GoPro, you know, they've really slowed down a lot, and their stock price has fallen. But the KeyMission 360 offers a very different value proposition with the 360-degree coverage.

MI: Yes.


DE: But the KeyMission 80 and KeyMission 170 seem like they're closer to the GoPro market, the existing market. In what ways do you see the 170 and the 80 models giving people reasons to buy Nikon, rather than a GoPro? How do you differentiate?

MI: First of all, speaking of the action camera category, while growth seems to have slowed in some markets, we foresee further growth in the action camera market overall. And we decided to participate in the action category to respond to change, and give us [an advantage] in the environment surrounding imaging. Especially videos, and focusing on new ways of enjoying imaging so that we can expand the domain of our imaging businesses. Also, one of the new overall policies we have for 2016 is higher compatibility with the internet [connectivity and sharing]. To make this policy clear, we decided to introduce the KeyMission cameras this year, together with the SnapBridge apps. That's the start of our marketing.


DE: Ah, I see.

MI: And with the KeyMission 80, 170 and 360, we think that every single product presents a different opportunity for the customers. We think that a lot of customers needed their own category's camera.

For example, the KeyMission 80 is especially well-suited to trekking. The KeyMission 170 is more suitable for adventure photography, and the KeyMission 360 is good for the story teller. I don't think it's a perfect analogy, but if you go to a Japanese restaurant, you use chopsticks. If you go to a hamburger restaurant, you don't need any equipment to eat. And if you go to a fancy French restaurant, you would use a bunch of knives and forks. It's a bit like this, with the KeyMission series. Everything has a purpose, every product -- we wanted to offer you what you need...

DE: <laughs> OK.

MI: ...for whatever kind of adventure you are going into, and what kind of images you need. And we don't want to interrupt your adventure, that's why we need three products.


DE: So for each of them in their separate areas, they can all be sort of "set and forget" -- you just wear it, mount it, or whatever -- and then you have your adventure.

MI: If you look at GoPro's product line, the Hero5, Hero4, they have a kind of hierarchy.

DE: You mean they all are more or less the same in terms of functions, they just have different features?

MI: Yes, but we don't have a hierarchy. Our products' axes are horizontal, [whereas] GoPro's products are kind of vertical.

DE: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense to me, the different cameras for different uses, because I think that's a problem GoPro has had. It's great if you can get slightly more image quality, or better video, but it's all the same basic functionality. And so they have a problem: Everyone who wanted a GoPro has already bought one, so now how do they get them to buy another one?


A big part of your strategy, too, is the connectivity in the camera. I'm not so familiar with GoPro, but you link them to your smartphone I guess. Your SnapBridge technology in the KeyMission cameras is more capable than that connection?

MI: [We're focusing heavily on SnapBridge], we are now trying to install it in every single product.

DE: Ah, so that'll be a common thread through everything.

MI: That [helps users] share their stories and images. It's [an] end-to-end solution.

DE: That makes sense, and as you say, you want to participate fully in that market, so you need different products for the different use cases.

MI: Yes, exactly.

DE: I wrote this question before I saw the presentations yesterday, but the KeyMission 360 gets into the virtual reality area some. Was that particular aspect of it something that was key in your thinking? It sounds from your comments now and in the presentations yesterday that it was really more about story-telling, whereas virtual reality might be a small niche for it. Is that the case, that the big market is really story-tellers?

MI: 360[-degree] videos or images are not so common these days, but we don't just want to offer users 360[-degree] videos or images. From now on, we are going to capture the whole world. That's our vision; a technique to capture the whole [experience].

Photographer Martin Edström used the Nikon KeyMission 360 to document the spectacularly colorful Holi festival in India. For the full immersive experience, be sure to set the quality to the maximum before watching, and try panning using the controls at top left or by clicking and dragging with your mouse pointer.

DE: Yeah. I thought your speakers yesterday did a very good job of showing the capabilities of the camera. And the young man who did the Indian Holi festival, my editor William Brawley, who was with me, said "Wow, that's a lot of dust!". You really need strong dustproofing, because they're throwing that colored dust everywhere!


DE: But I also thought that it was interesting, in that the video he showed was obviously on a 2D screen; he was moving the viewpoint around in the 360-degree "bubble". Is there a tool for editing the video, that will let you overlay a viewport on the video like that? Or is that something he would control just by the camera, and then just recording the 2D? It seems like for a storyteller, they might like to guide their viewers; perhaps the viewers could still override that and choose to look somewhere else, but the storyteller should be able to create kind of a guided tour through the 360-degree scene.

MI: We [have only just completed the] final version of the software, so I couldn't say the exact specification, but for now, when editing the 360[-degree] video to show to someone else... [that feature] is not included.

DE: It's not included currently.

14-year old Japanese rock climber Ashima Shiraishi uses the KeyMission 360 to tell her story in another beautiful demonstration of the camera's capabilities. Again, for the full experience be sure to set the quality to the maximum before watching, and try panning using the controls at top left or by clicking and dragging with your mouse pointer.

MI: And so [it's up to] the viewer [to decide where to look]. Of course, if you want to render the 3D video to 2D, you can do that. But it's not a 360[-degree video any more at that point].

DE: It's going to be interesting to see how 360-degree video evolves as it becomes more available to people. And actually my next question was answered already. I was going to ask to what extent do you think non-adventure people will be buying the 360, and it sounds like your expectations are in line with my own, which is that I think it'll be very popular with the general public.

Years ago my son was doing a semester abroad in Spain, so my wife and I went over to visit him, and we were up in the Basque country. It was a little town called Hondarribia, and they had a festival because their rowing team had just won, and they had a parade through town. They had their oars crossed, with the victorious rowing team passing beneath. I took many pictures on that trip, but I also took videos. And really, when I go back and revisit them, it's the video that makes me feel like I'm there.

Now I'm thinking that if I had had a 360-degree camera then, it would be so cool to be able to look around at the crowd. You know, I could follow one of the rowers as they walked past, or look around at the people who were in the crowd around me, my wife and my boys, etc. I think that many photographers, when they first think of it or hear about it the KeyMission 360, they're thinking "Oh, that's adventure. That's somebody else, not me." But I think that it's very much something that photographers would be interested in.


Moving on, this may be an uncomfortable area, but a question that our readers have been very interested in the DL-series cameras. I know there has been a problem with the image processing chips. Can you say anything about the status on that?

MI: The remedy for the issue, an integrated circuit for imaging processing, as you mentioned, has been proceeding well. [We need a little] more time to announce an exact sales start-date. We have made every effort, and we hope we will announce available in the not-so-distant future. I'm sorry, I can't say any more...

DE: You probably can't comment, but somebody else manufactures that chip, so my sense has been that it has been an issue with the fabrication more than anything.

MI: Yeah, but it's proceeding well.

DE: So in the near future, hopefully. That'll be good! We ourselves at IR are very interested in seeing those cameras, and even though they're not out yet, we've been seeing a lot of traffic, there's a lot of interest with our readers to those pages.


Next, this is a little bit more of a technical question -- well, not so technical, maybe -- but the recent high-end bodies like the D500, the D5 and the D810 have offered an electronic first-curtain shutter to help minimize the blur from shutter shock. Can we expect to see that feature trickle down to lower-model cameras, you know the class of the D7200 or even the D3400-class, perhaps?

MI: We started selling the D5 and D500 from the beginning of this year, and we are now analyzing the reaction from the users.

DE: Seeing how people respond to it, I understand.

MI: So generally, it's possible to install that function into the middle-capability cameras, but that's a second step I think. We are now analyzing the reaction from high-end photographers.

DE: Assessing how they feel about it.

MI: Yes. And so there are two stages. First, we try the feature at the request of high-end photographers, in the D5 and D500. If a lot of photographers love the function, after that we can start considering whether to install that same function in the mid-range cameras.

DE: Ah, yes. Also, it's only supported in mirror-up mode, which in one way makes sense because the mirror causes a lot of vibration, so when you want absolutely no vibration, you would have mirror up, and also electronic first-curtain.

But from what we've seen, the shutter shock usually affects much higher shutter speeds than the range that mirror slap will, so usually, at slower shutter speeds the mirror bounce has a bigger effect, but when you are at something 1/100 second, I don't think mirror is such a big factor. But we've seen -- and this wasn't in Nikon cameras, specifically, but pretty much all of the mirrorless cameras -- that the shock just from the shutter blade dropping would cause vibration or blurring in the image, even at 1/100 second. So at a higher speed [than where mirror bounce has the most effect].

Again, we haven't really experimented extensively with the cameras, but I'm wondering if there would be value in offering electronic first curtain in normal mirror operation?


MI: That's a good question. <laughs> It's hard to answer, but it depends on the situation. What type of camera you use, and what kind of tripod...

DE: How steady are your hands...

MI: But it's true, if there is no first-curtain, it helps to reduce the vibration. But I don't think...

DE: You'd think it would be a minor reduction compared to how much the mirror does?

MI: It depends on the situation.

DE: Switching subjects a bit, we really liked the D5 and D500's new autofocus auto-tune feature. Are there any plans, again, to add that to lower models coming up?

MI: I'd say again, <laughs> we are studying the reaction from customers, but speaking personally, maybe it depends on the customer's shooting style. Middle-range customers may not need such a function on the AF, because I believe they're satisfied with the AF.

DE: They're happy with the standard focus accuracy; they don't feel the need to adjust it so much.

MI: But on the other hand, high-end photographers, they have tighter requirements for autofocus. Which focus position is the best; every single photographer has a different taste.

DE: Oh! So some will choose to focus, say, so that their subject is at the back of the depth of field, and they want that control. Depending upon their style, they may want to shift it one way or the other. Ah, I see...

The Nikon D5 and D500 can adjust autofocus fine-tuning automatically, taking the legwork out of achieving sharp focus.

MI: Yeah. But middle-range customers don't have [the requirement for such fine adjustments].

DE: Yeah. My sense of it for enthusiasts was that it was more about a desire for better focus accuracy, so that different lenses may be a little one way or the other, and so they're wanting to adjust to correct for that.

MI: High-end photographers are using this function in two ways. They need accuracy, but on the other hand, some of them need to [cater to] their style. So of course we have to consider the reactions of the high-end photographers, and then we have to decide whether we install it for the middle-range customers or not. And speaking of the autofocus modifier, we believe our autofocus accuracy is perfect, so we don't recommend you to change the tuning.

DE: You don't recommend that customers play with it, really? Ahh!

MI: As I mentioned, some professional photographer have their style...

DE: ...and they'll choose to shift it.

MI: We believe our autofocus accuracy is the best.

DE: So your feeling is that the AF adjustment is really not for the purpose of so much accuracy, as it is to be able to shift it according to your style.

Naoki Kitaoka
Department Manager
Marketing Department
Marketing Sector
Imaging Business Unit
Nikon Corp.

Naoki Kitaoka/Nikon: Can I comment on this? So the picture is not always adjusted perfectly, sometimes a customer can see the AF performance is slightly different, then they need to use that capability. Without any error in the AF system, customers don't have to do that.

DE: So speaking of autofocus, we're seeing hybrid autofocus and more on-sensor phase detect from other companies, and you have phase-detect pixels on the 1-series sensors. Is there a barrier or a reason why we haven't seen that technology on the SLRs?

MI: So, hmm... That's a good question. <laughs> Of course we have phase-detection AF or so-called hybrid AF in the Nikon 1-series. We are very proud of that, and now, we have been studying the phase detection AF so that we can install that function in DSLRs or other categories. But we haven't decided exactly when to install the [on-chip] phase-detection AF, because there are pros and cons, and we have to [address the technical factors] on the large sensors.

DE: There are trade-offs for you, yeah. Certainly there are issues in that the phase-detect pixels are only seeing half of the light, so you have to either substitute or fill in...

MI: For example, that is one of the technical issues, so we have to decide how to handle it.

DE: Yes. And also I would think there are many constraints in terms of being able to get the autofocus data off off the chip very quickly, and that sort of thing.

MI: Yes.

DE: So the answer is that it's something you're studying, and you are working on, but you haven't refined it to the extent yet that you would require for a Nikon product.

MI: Yes.

DE: Good. I guess we could maybe answer this ourselves out on the floor by playing wiith them, but we haven't seen an AF-P lens yet. We've got the D3400 in our lab, but the kit lens hasn't arrived yet. The AF-P lenses use stepper motors for fast and quiet AF. How does the focus speed and noise compare with an equivalent AF-S lens?

MI: I think that there is a very small difference between the AF-P and the AF-S [motor] types, but the generation of the lens is different. The new lenses have less noise and higher speed.


DE: And so some of that is more a difference in generations of the lens, rather than the actuators, particularly.

MI: Yes. Speaking of the generations, for example, [consider] an AF-S lens we launched three years ago, and an AF-P lens we are going to announce, the difference may be due to progression in the technology, and that's why the AF-P lens is looking good [by comparison].

DE: So some of the differences in speed and sound level are just because you've had three years of development. It's not necessarily the stepper motor technology that contributes to the quietness or increased speed, or...?

MI: Yes.

DE: I guess another way of asking the question would be what are the advantages of a stepper motor compared to an ultrasonic motor or what you were using previously?

MI: So that's a good question. <laughs> There are a lot of differences, even between AF-S lenses. Because the old AF-S lenses used different AF-S motors. So they have a different kind of feeling, speed or noise or things like that. So I couldn't compare directly between AF-S and AF-P.

DE: Yeah.

MI: The stepping motor is good for small lenses, but the D5 and D500 because the AF-S silent wave motor have lots of torque. So it's good for big telephoto lenses. We don't think AF-P is a good fit for a big telephoto lens.

DE: Mmm! You wouldn't use the steppers for a 600mm tele, yeah, you'd need more torque.

MI: On the other hand, with a small lens, AF-P is good. But that's just [talking about] nowadays.

DE: Yeah, and technology can advance. So the stepper motor is maybe faster to actuate, but has less torque, and the Silent Wave has a lot of torque, but it's slower.

MI, NK: Yes.

DE: Ah, OK. Very good. Thank you, that's... I understand that now.

Nikonos V camera. Image courtesy of rama / Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 FR license. Image has been modified from the original.

Next is a reader question that I... <laughs> I feel like I know the answer already. He's a reader who has been a Nikonos fan, he has a Nikonos V, the underwater film camera. And so he's saying, you know, there's a very successful camera and there's four very good Nikonos underwater lenses, and he's asking will there ever be a full-frame digital form of the Nikonos? You know, where the body and everything is waterproof, compared to putting a D5 in a housing.

MI: <laughs>

DE: As I say, my sense is, "No way." You know, it's such a very small market, right?

MI: <laughs> Yeah, exactly. The market is so small, so I think that the best way to offer customers an underwater camera is to use a housing. It's the most reasonable option for all customers.

DE: Yeah.

I'm interested in your acquisition of Mark Roberts Motion Control. That was a very big surprise to me. It seemed like it was very far outside of what Nikon's business had been, but I gather you had been working together for a while. Is that a significant volume business? Will you sell a lot of camera bodies in their systems?

MI: So we don't have any exact figure of our new business, but we think that it's a great chance to offer business customers the whole solution. We have a lot of cameras, and they have a lot of technology for controlling the movement. So the combination of both of us might offer the best opportunity.

DE: So it broadens your base into much wider areas, yeah.

I see we're about out of time, so I'll end here. Thank you as always for your time!

MI, NK: You're welcome!