About this Blog

Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Nikon bought RED. Say what?

Yup, as of the the 7th March 2024 Nikon and RED have signed an agreement that RED will be 100% purchased by Nikon corporation. Of course this means that the internet world of photography has exploded, both with memes and opinions. There’s a fair amount to unpack here. Naturally the inclination by the overreactive internet is that this is the death of RED as we know it (well, yes, actually that is true, but not in the sense that the camera is going to disappear and the world come crashing down in flames), and that we are all bereft of an awesome cinema camera line. It’s also true that Arri are probably popping champagne bottles and crowing that they are now peerless and firmly on the top of the heap…or not. This is where I think Nikon have actually been quite astute.

In case you have been living under a stills photography rock for the last 19 years, RED - started by Jim Jannard in 2005 (who was also the founder of Oakley sunglasses) - has been a seismic upheaval for camera tech in the film industry. I remember writing in the Photo Writing newsletter years ago (2008) about RED’s bold claims with their RED One modular camera (which interestingly enough had a marketing image at the time with a Nikon Ais lens up front). At the time time they were touting the stills possibilities of the then nascent camera system. This obviously was sidelined almost immediately, but the camera has come to be an incredible, and comparatively affordable tool in the high-end cinematography world. In fact the rise of RED is claimed to be a large part of why Panavision and Arri decided to stop making analog cine cameras. As some commentators now point out, the big three in Hollywood are currently, Arri, RED and nipping at their heels is Sony.

So in theory you’d assume that RED is doing pretty well. Why on earth would they want to sell to Nikon then? Naturally some readers would be befuddled by the fact that this follows pretty close on the lawsuit that RED instigated against Nikon for supposedly infringing RED’s video compression patents. This was eventually settled out of court, but this took place literally less than a year ago. What on earth happened behind those closed doors?

I am going to look at it from Nikon’s point of view. Jim Jannard is first and foremost a marketing guru. He founded Oakley and then sold it. He founded RED…but didn’t sell it. He handed over the curatorship in 2013 to Jarred Land who is the current CEO. Jannard is an entrepreneur (his first product was actually a motorcycle grip that wicked sweat from the rider’s hand while in use). So it seems almost natural that he would sell the company that he founded. Jannard and Land were the main shareholders in RED prior to the sale to Nikon.

A few years ago Nikon made a statement about how they wanted to become a relevant feature in the film industry again. A lot of photographers might not realise, but Nikon was a player in Hollywood in the 80’s and 90’s, but in the lenses that were in front of the Arri’s and Bolex’s. Year’s ago. When I was teaching photography at a volunteer outfit in Northern KZN, I had a camera operator from Los Angeles attend the course, and she a had a full set of geared Nikon manual focus lenses. She explained how these old lenses were still sought after, particularly by independent film-makers. Big blockbusters tended to be shot on Cooke, Zeiss or Angenieux (and remains the case for the most part). Until a few years ago at least Nikon lenses continued to be widely used by a number of camera operators ad directors in the film industry. Part of the reason was they were excellent manual focus lenses with long focus throws, so fitted very nicely onto the small camera systems coming into vogue, like RED’s.

Apart from independent usage of lenses, Nikon sort of drifted away from the film industry. Canon aggressively entered the film-making space in the late 90’s and the result is that a whole host of cine cameras and high end camcorders ended up coming out in two mounts: PL and Canon EF. PL, which stands for Positive Lock, is an extremely durable mount that can hold very heavy lenses. Most true cine cameras come with PL mount as their native mount. PL mount does not support autofocus incidentally - manual focus still being predominant in just about all serious film-making. The EF mount has in some ways become synonymous with smaller independent films thanks to the more run-and-gun style of high-end video camera (or camcorder) that Canon introduced from the 90’s onwards. Just about every local film-maker I know from my student days trained on cameras like the Canon Canon L-1 (a Hi-8 system) and then later the XL-1 MiniDV camera which was a three chip digital version of the 8mm L-1 (the horror film ’28 Days’ had a number of scenes - particularly the street scenes of London - shot on an XL-1).

The company that interestingly gives us some idea of where Nikon is going with this is Sony. Sony bought out Minolta in everything but name in 2006. At the time Minolta was sort of tied with Pentax as the defacto #3 in camera manufacturers (behind the big two; Canon and Nikon). Sony made some very bold claims that a lot of people scoffed at, saying they planned to be the dominant camera manufacturer within a few years. Depending on which metric you use to calculate Sony have very much begun to dominate the photographic industry now. At any rate Sony dismantled Minolta almost in its entirety. It gutted the knowledge and technology that it needed (autofocus, exposure controls, camera design, industry leads and contacts, patents and lenses) and sold the rest off as detritus (including the name which is now associated with copy/scanners). Sony’s aggressive stance towards high-end filmmaking has also not gone unnoticed by the likes of Nikon. Currently Sony is pretty much in the top three when it comes to cameras used on set, with Arri and RED ahead of it. From my own anecdotal evidence (ie filmmakers I know in South Africa), it would be Sony, then RED, simply because the Sony is more accessible and a whole lot cheaper. Following that would be Canon (maybe BlackMagic) and Nikon doesn’t even feature. Which is a shame for Nikon as the Z9 and now Z8 are truly impressive hybrid cameras.

So how do you leverage your way into an industry where there are already some serious heavyweights playing? You do exactly as Sony did with Minolta…you buy one of those heavyweights. As evidenced by RED’s litigation against Nikon last year, Nikon was already testing the waters and trying hard to get into the video and film industries as more than just an amateur hour camcorder manufacturer. Now, with serious glass kudos coming out of the new Z lenses, a large manufacturing and distribution machine, as well as excellent sensor design, it kinda makes sense that Nikon would want to make life easier for themselves by absorbing a smaller company and essentially ingesting said company’s patents and knowledge. If Nikon does this right, it could be quite an exciting period for filmmakers (so long as they can swallow their bias). 

No comments:

Post a Comment