Ronny Nilsen brought up a very interesting point.
"Nikon and Canon are making money because they deliver what the average person wanting to buy a DSLR wants to buy. A competent camera with a kit lens. Most don't care about a full lineup of DX primes. They just want a cheap kit lens, and at most another tele-zoom. All that other stuff is for people like us reading TOP, and we are probably few compared to the number of DX customers. The primes are probably only wanted by FX users. Making an additional range of DX lenses for 5% of your customers (pro DX customers) is probably not profitable; let them use the FX lenses. I'd say that Nikon seems to be competent and know their customers well enough to realise that making lots of different DX lenses is not going to be profitable."
I do believe that neither Nikon nor Canon will ever make even a basic set of DX primes such as I outlined yesterday. But the point I want to make is that profitability in a camera system isn't necessarily evaluated on a product-by-product basis...only on a system-wide basis.
When I wrote "The EOS Revolution" for Darkroom Techniques magazine in 1992 or so—it was a major article at the time, and Canon bought reprint rights* so reprints of the article could be provided to customers at dealers and at trade shows—I was told specifically that there would be products in the system that would never pay for themselves. Canon understood at the time that the system concept—and this included the professional services department—was to bring as many photographers as possible under the Canon tent. Long a powerhouse of amateur SLRs like the famous AE-1, which was a record-setting bestseller in its day, and cash-rich because photography was such a small percentage of its overall business, Canon had its sights set on Nikon: it wanted to rival and even surpass Nikon as the choice of professionals. That was an audacious goal at the time.
The idea was that the system had to be complete so that no one would be turned away for the lack of a specific component—body, lens, or accessory. And, a specific product or system component might serve as a lure to get a pro to switch. Products didn't necessarily have to pay for themselves directly if they served these broader purposes. So, for example, it was assumed that the 24mm tilt-shift lens might never pay for itself in direct sales—but it might be a reason for a particular professional to switch from Nikon to Canon, and it might also remove another reason why someone might stick with Nikon despite having other reasons to switch to Canon. (I believe Nikon had 35mm and 28mm shift or "PC" for "perspective control" lenses at the time, without tilt.) The idea was that even if Canon never made a profit on that specific lens, if it brought a photographer into the Canon ecosystem, the company would then make money selling that photographer all the other bodies, lenses, and accessories he or she needed. More than enough to make up for the loss.
Sure enough, I heard from many photographers over the the ensuing decade or so who said they switched to the EOS system just for the tilt-shift lenses.
This brought up another fascinating idea, which was that in some cases it was important for a system component just to exist because a given photographer might simply want to know that it was available. At that time, it wasn't uncommon for professionals to buy a lens just for one specific assignment or job, billing it on to the client. There were all sorts of reasons why you "might need" a certain component in the future. What this meant was that a pro might choose a system because of the existence of system components they would never actually buy. That idea fascinated me.
So when Bruno commented:
"The absence of an 18mm ƒ/2 or ƒ/2.8 or a 23mm ƒ/2 for DX cameras is the very reason why in the end I switched to a Fuji X100 and then the X100T. My 10-year-old D200 body is still superior in handling and responsiveness to any modern mirrorless, but I need those damn lenses."
...This is a specific failure of the system concept. Here's a photographer who was driven out of the entire Nikon ecosystem because he needed two components that the system didn't provide. Even though those two components might be only a tiny fraction of his overall investment in Nikon products.
It's still a business decision, and it might be worth it to Nikon to lose Bruno as a customer. But according to the system concept as it was described to me by Canon's U.S. representatives in the early '90s, it doesn't necessarily matter if a specific DX prime (or any other specific system component) is never profitable by itself. If it keeps enough customers such as Bruno within the Nikon family, buying other Nikon bodies and lenses, then it might still be worth making...even from a strict profitability standpoint.
*Canon offered to pay me $1,500 for the reprint rights. I had been paid $750 for the article by the magazine. I saw this as a clear conflict of interest. Imagine the situation: you're writing an article as a journalist. You're supposed to be objective. But you know in the back of your mind that if you praise the company or the product highly enough, the company might triple the amount of money you receive for the article. Wouldn't that tempt you into praising the company or the product more than you intended to? Or more than you might have if there were no potential reward in the offing?
I sorely needed the money at the time, but I turned Canon down. I told them they could have the reprint rights if they promised to buy two full-page ads in the magazine within some specified amount of time (which would benefit my employer but not me). A Canon employee later crowed to me that Canon had already been planning to buy that much advertising and more, so Canon got the reprint of my article "for free." Which didn't concern me, of course—my only responsibility, as I saw it, was to preserve my own integrity.
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Featured Comments from:
Keith: "When I switched from film (Minolta 35mm / Mamiya medium format) in 2009, I went with a highly rated camera at the time, a Nikon D90. Nikon was pushing DX format so I expected a full system. Never happened. I've since added a compact for travel (Olympus E-PL5 with 14–42mm and 40–150mm) and an E-M1 with 12–40mm and 40–150mm ƒ/2.8 PRO lenses. So there's over $4,000 I wanted to give Nikon but couldn't. And a 7–14mm PRO is next to be added. Oh well...Nikon's loss."
Paulo Bizarro: "What I see all the time, wherever I go, is that the majority of tourists that still carry a camera, carry an entry level DSLR with kit zoom. So I don't buy into this mantra that 'DSLR is (will be) a niche product.' Next up I see perhaps some tourists with mid-level DSLR (say a Canon 70D) with a better zoom. Or others with a Canon 6D or 5D with an L zoom. I can't remember seeing a tourist with a Fuji or Sony MILC...."
Doug: "I was a Nikon user for over thirty years, most recently shooting the D7000. When they introduced the Nikon 1 concept, I was thrilled. Why? Because I travel internationally for a living. Here, I thought, is a fabulous solution to my specific needs. Small, light, amazing AF and such promise for the future. But, Nikon chose to cripple the Nikon 1 system, afraid of cannibalizing its DSLR sales, I guess. Had Nikon simply offered an enthusiast-level Nikon 1 (like a D7200 equivalent) with a really good 1" sensor and a couple of fast zooms, I would still be a Nikon user. I'd own two bodies, three to four lenses, a flash, etc. And, I'd have touted the system to my traveling friends.
"But this was not to be. So, now I have left the Nikon family. This makes no sense to me. But, apparently, Nikon was content to lose me as a customer to save its DSLR sales. Irrational sales strategy in my view. Why would Nikon care what Nikon I shot as long as I shot Nikon? Oh well...I'm currently shooting Fuji, by the way."