The Future of DX- Some Predictions From Thom Hogan

2011 Nikon News and Comments by Thom Hogan

More on the strange lack of DX lenses (not just primes, which is my concern), from Nikon-watcher Thom Hogan, who he puts it better than i could ever have done. Here is a quote-

But look at that big gap in DX: no wide angle prime. Why is m4/3 catering to that group when DX isn’t? Because of size. A m4/3 body (especially the latest E-PM1 or GF3) with a prime wide is a small little devil, and quite capable. Of course, a D5100 with a 16mm f/2.8 would be a pretty small package, too. But apparently Nikon wants to concede the “small package” market to the mirrorless companies. Note this: Nikon has had 12 years to come up with one wide angle DX prime. The m4/3 makers have come up with two in two years.

A more likely explanation is that Nikon thinks that their upcoming mirrorless “solves” the small package problem and will hold off all those m4/3, NEX, NX, and whatever comes next bodies. If so, that logic is severely flawed, and again because of the lens issue: Nikon isn’t likely to have nearly enough lenses on launch to satisfy the market. Meanwhile, the m4/3 consortium seems well on the way to replicate the basic lens set enthusiasts want covered. Three well chosen primes and a couple of high-end zooms will finish their task. So where does that leave the serious DX user? Well, they move to m4/3 or FX, I guess. Nikon is one good m4/3 sensor away from having DX suddenly look like a bad choice.

Two-thirds of Nikon’s business is cameras and lenses. Unfortunately, they are now in a really tough place. They need to sell 20+ million cameras and lenses this year just to stay in place. The 40mm Micro-Nikkor, at the low price it’s being offered at, will sell a nice chunk of units, I have no doubt. But to what end? Nikon’s brand reputation is built on high-quality, high-performance, pro and prosumer products. It’s the serious shooter and enthusiast that has made their brand reputation. If some of those customers start feeling like they’re not being catered to, they’ll migrate to other mounts. What happens when you don’t have any serious shooters telling their friends about how great Nikon is but instead how much they love their Panny, or Oly, or Sony, or heaven forbid, Samsung?

It doesn’t take a lot of love, Nikon: a 16mm f/2.8 or faster wide prime, a 60mm f/2 or faster portrait lens, a 50-150mm f/2.8, and a rework of the 17-55mm would keep your faithful DX users happy, I think. Until then, the love is fading.

It seems that right now, Nikon is either trying to push users to FX, has or is just not seeing how important an issue this is. The reality is that Micro 4/3 is literally breathing down their necks. Non-pros (and even some pros) may well like having much lighter gear, but still getting good results and the virtues of DX- an extensive range of compatible lenses, bigger sensors and optical viewfinders may not be enough if there aren’t enough optimised lenses to use. As Thom says, it would only take a few lenses to cement their position, but on the other hand even this may not be enough for casual users in the longer term.

I personally think Nikon is saving their energy for a M 4/3 type format of their own. It will take them a while to catch up, but so long as at least their AF-S lenses work well with adapters they can very quickly have a viable system which itself will be increasingly optimised, much like the early days of DX, when just a few crucial lenses got the ball rolling, the rest being FX. Rumours point to this being a little smaller than M 4/3, at a 2.5x crop, rather than going with a Sony-NEX APS-C approach. I’m a little disappointed with this, but  I’ll wait and see what really emerges before I pass any judgements, as with the right lenses it could well be very usable.

Another issue is the coming D400 Thom speaks of. Some may think that the D7000 was all we’ll get, but I very much doubt it. That is, for all it’s features, a mid-range camera through and through. Pros and a lot of prosumers will never be satisfied with it, if only because of the inferior ergonomics to the D30(S), which is still on sale and higher-priced than it for good reason.

…So timing, pricing, and competition say a D400 is due soon, and August is Nikon’s traditional next launch window.

When I wrote earlier that the D400 would be 24mp, I got a lot of emails asking if I had written the number wrong (or if I was just plain crazy). Neither. First, we know that a 24mp DX sensor exists (or is about to exist in production form, from Sony). Second, back in 2003 I pointed out that the math said we’d get to about 24mp on DX before we exhausted the easy-to-see gains and started outshooting the best existing lenses. Third, at 16mp the Nikon would be trailing its two primary competitors in that market. Fourth, there’s the “it’s a mini D3x” notion that many will have when they see the D400. So, yes, we’ll go there. 24mp is a done deal at some day in the future, so if that Sony sensor is good, the future is just about here. (Beyond 24mp I think things get much more fuzzy, and that’s not just a pun on diffraction impacts.)

So Thom says that the D400 will probably be 24MP, a kind of small D3X, which when you look at the resolutions and usability of compacts these days, makes a lot of sense. It will also push into an area where M 4/3 (or even their hypothetical version of that), will find it very hard to follow. I think it will be a very exciting camera, pushing the boundaries of the DX format just as much as the D100,200 or 300 before it.

DX is an interesting format, as it was developed as a kind of stop-gap until the introduction of FX digital, but ended up becoming wildly successful in it’s own right. The huge quality advances of digital in the areas of convenience and clarity enable it to be something like the 35mm of our time, whilst FX is the medium format. Medium format, but this definition, would be replacing a large format that will possibly never be needed again, though I suppose even this could be resurrected for ultra-large uses, like space photography and so on. Seen this way, it makes no sense to talk of ‘upgrading’ to FX, as it is a larger, finer genre all of it’s own. As technology progresses, we tend to find ways to have enough power and quality in a smaller, more portable package. Hense the commonality of laptops over desktops these days and very probably in the future tablets doing the same. My prediction  is that DX will be here for a while (including Sony Nex and the like, as here we are talking of the sensor size more than anything) and eventually something smaller will have such miraculous lenses and sensors available that it will take over in turn.

If there really is a D400, which I think there will be, we may well start getting some more lenses. Aside from FX ones, which I think with their size defeat the advantage of DX, I think we may see an updated version of the 17-55, perhaps as a 16-50 (or more) f/2.8 VR II. I’d also like to see some more of those delicious, elusive DX primes. With 24MP to play with, I think we well may. Perhaps a 16mm f/4 and a 24mm f/2 primes, both reasonably priced and very sharp, but offering a digital-optimised render that won’t win over the old school, but then again they won’t be trying too hard to. This will keep a lot of DX users in Nikon’s hands, even ones they might hope would go to their mirror-less camera, but won’t want to until the lenses are fleshed out and the sensors improve enough.

With DX there is always the possibility of exotic-sounding lenses like the 12-24mm, which are actually just scaled down full-frame models being suddenly made affordable (in this case a constant f/4 18-35mm), or in some cases made possible, like the remarkable 18-200m zoom, which as far as I know is still unmatched in it’s realm. So, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a 14-85mm f/3.3-5.6, or the like emerge, making for zooms wider than ever before thought possible, because of the difficulty of filling a full-frame sensor without wildly vignetting. If that would be a development of the 16-85mm, then I could see the 18-200mm stretch into longer telephoto areas, say an 18-300mm f/3.3-6.3, internally zooming to save space. With in-camera digital correction, aberations can quickly be fixed before people even know they’re there- a trick perfected on M 4/3, but now universally applied. Nikon’s bottom line are cameras like the D3100 or D5100 and zoom lenses to match them, so if they can keep developing these into ever-greater ranges, whilst still keeping up the quality, they could be very interesting photographic tools, even if their lower absolute quality compared to full-frame editions  makes them a little gimmicky.

 

Note on September 8, 2012

Since writing this, there has indeed been a 24mp DX camera, albeit in nikon’s case so far only the consumer-level D3200. Also, an 18-300mm lens has emerged, though a far bigger and perhaps higher quality one (?) than I could have imagined. Yet with the continued lack of a D400 or any ‘pro glass’ for DX from Nikon, we have to wonder about their plans for the format. My best guess is that they will try and migrate it to a mirrorless equivalent as soon as they can, for the cost and size savings. Since a two-zoom lens kit and perhaps a bright prime is all most users need, this won’t be as hard as it sounds, at least for the lower end. At the higher end, though, ‘moving people up’ to FX will be a hard sell, except of course for the pros, who can make their living off of it, or very serious prosumers who are pro-wannabes to an extent anyway.

I think, though, if DX mirrorless grows it will be a fine future for mainstream Nikonites and the plan overall makes sense. Yet in the meantime, there should be more DX development to keep users onboard. They may not be willing to wait as long as Nikon would like them to and, so far as I’m seeing, they aren’t. Mirrorless is quite a challenge for the main DSLR makers, yet I believe the sooner they make a smooth transition the better and by ‘smooth transition’, I mean one that makes it easy to use current lens collections (i.e. slim adapters with fast, on-sensor phase-detection AF).

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10 Comments

  1. Thanks for the reply. All good points.

    I think for m43 it’s no longer the pixel count that is the issue, but perhaps dynamic range and things like bokeh, which are both starting to be fudged digitally.

    As you say, with lenses, m43 offers a range of impressive lenses and more are coming, with third-party manufacturers also planning to fill gaps. You can now carry a range of zooms and primes, and barely be aware of them. Nikon hasn’t put in a similar effort.

    Personally, I want a capable, convenient camera, not a boastful tech spec. We’ll soon be at the point where only boffins looking at lab tests will spot any difference.

    So I think you’re right about compromises. DX should beat m43 constantly, but can it do it significantly enough to remain worthwhile?

    You might find these links interesting that consider some points you’ve raised…

    http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/09/micro-43-is-the-big-kahuna.html

    http://www.stuckincustoms.com/2012/01/04/dslrs-are-a-dying-breed-3rd-gen-cameras-are-the-future/

    Reply
    • First of all, thank you for further reply and sorry I couldn’t get back to you sooner. I am coming around to a position wuite similar to ours. In fact I had read the links you suggested, which I came upon by chance before, but still thank you for posting them.

      It seems to me that whatever we have lost in the transition from film to digital, it has made miniturisation possible that was pretty much unthinkable before. On the whole, people will only carry what they need to and like you say, the mirrorless formats bring this to new levels, especially the smaller ones.

      The lenses coming out for M4/3 are quite remarkable. I just read a review of the 60mm macro which declare it perhaps the best macro ever, and the incredible quality of some other M4/3 lenses really stands out. As the sensors behind them improve (and the EM-5 is apparently already very good), there will be little need for a larger format in terms of quality, though I still find them attractive for bokeh.

      I don’t see M4/3 dominating entirely, as NEX and other systems are also growing. I can see Nikon and Canon being in trouble if they don’t develop their mirrorless systems, as full-frame is too big to predominate now. If they can make good APS-C systems, with foldable optics, I think they will be fine. In the meantime, I see Nikon (most relevantly for me) neglecting it’s DX line in terms of the prime lenses made, which really is the core issue for serious enthusiasts who love photography.

      I see myself more and more developing my M4/3 system, as the results are just so good and it is such a pleasure to use. Using it alongside my Nikon system makes a lot of sense to me, with it’s bright zooms, flashes and PDAF systems, but making up for it’s bulk and lack of really inspiring primes, unless one goes into Zeiss MF ones, or the hyper-expensive f/1.4 primes.

      Reply
  2. junkstuffrichard

     /  September 8, 2012

    I think your comments and those of Thom Hogan are very true and must be the sort of issues causing a bit of gut wrenching in the camera industry just now. The ground is shifting and companies have to consider where they position themselves.

    If Nikon remains complacent or burdens its DX customers with weighty FX lenses, then as technology advances in formats like m43, customers will be increasingly tempted to switch. Already Kodak has fallen by being too slow, and Olympus has jumped to m43, Panasonic is investing heavily along with them making it hugely alluring.

    As Thom says, m43 is a sensor or two away from really challenging DX. I have a Lumix GX1 and a Nikon D7000, both with a range of lenses, and it is not easy picking between them. It doesn’t say much for Nikon that with a D7000 I can’t buy a fast wide prime or zoom, unless a weighty FX lens.

    If Nikon renders DX obsolete through neglect, any new format it tries to push will face a lot of scepticism

    Reply
    • Yes, I think so, absolutely. DX was and is a compromise format. Looking at it’s history, it was first an attempt to modernise film, though the ill-fated ‘APS’ Advanced Photo System films, which were certainly enough of an advance in convenience for most users, if film had survived as the mainstream media long enough to continue in the face of rising digital. Yet even 35mm film was originally a compromise, with medium format being the choice of pros, 35mm meanwhile offering either acceptable or in the case of specialised films and lenses, stunning quality in a portable package.

      Things have moved on and people’s expectations have changed. Ultrawide and telephoto lenses are seen less as exotic and more as integral parts of any real system that wants to be taken seriously. DX quite simply can offer smaller versions of these, with acceptable or astounding (relative to the films that went before) resolution and dynamic range. It captures a lot of information and with the rise of 24mp sensors and presumably lenses to go with them, it could well evolve further.

      Compromises tend to do very well. DVD was originally a compromise, limiting resolution for lower processor needs for display and to satisfy Hollywood’s desire to control digital distribution. Then a more convenient distribution system came along (not always legally…), in the form of direct digital downloads. These evolved into HD and full-HD varieties and Blu Ray was unveiled, offering sumptuous quality and gorgeous sound… I know, as I enjoy using it. Yet since digital downloads are so perceptibly close for most users and also offer a decent enough advance over DVD for larger screen (a video equivalent to larger print sizes?), Blu Ray is having trouble gaining faction. Perfection has always had trouble competing with a combination of convenience and decent, if not absolute quality.

      DX offers Nikon’s and a lot of company’s best chance of competing with the ‘engineered’ compromise of M4/3. DX will always offer a stop or two of advantage and has the benefit of many legacy lenses of all sizes, especially if we include the altered angles on FX lenses. It can be shrunk and even shrunk further, as we see on Fuji’s new Pro-1 system and the success of NEX (which at least shrink the bodies…) The idea of making FX mainstream is, in my view, doomed and not just for price. The lenses and gear generally are just too big and heavy for our digital age. Telephotos, especially, will have to be longer and with the popularity of capturing amateur sports and birding, etc, this is a clear disadvantage, which continues into the bulky ultra-wides. It’s only real advantage is the easy usage of legacy lenses, which with their lack of built-in motors or stablisation isn’t such an avantage after all, at least in the long run.

      Nikon are evidently trying to push FX and will soon offer the D600; a smaller, lighter and well-equipped body, yet one that will need relatively humongous lenses in many cases. Legacy lenses often won’t have much in the way of IQ on high resolution FX, with light falloff and soft corners. This wasn’t so bad on the D700 perhaps, but with 24mp sensors and up, it will increasingly show. I’m not sure how long people will put up with that in the face of the incredible quality being offered in smaller formats. In fact, my guess is they often won’t, especially as resolution rises, and newer and even larger lenses will need to be offered. My M4/3 25mm Pana-Leica is perhaps the best lens I own and had the format been any larger, the cost of perfection would have been prohibitive.

      This isn’t to say that FX doesn’t have a great future- I think it does and may well buy into the D600, partly for all the lenses I already have. Yet Nikon should be careful to remember that due to technological progress, this is most probably the medium format of our day, medium format replacing large format and large format becoming increasingly obscure.

      Canon has worked this out and made a foray into DX-sized mirrorless, even after their M4/3-sized (or so) sensor in the G1 X. Nikon should and I believe will do the same, yet in the meantime both companies have lost a lot of sales to the mirrorless makers, customers that it may be hard to win back in many cases. The reason for the neglect, to ‘push people’ to FX, a format they may really neither want nor need (accept for specialised applications), a format that the D800 has shown needs the very best lenses to function well at higher pixel densities, is a very risky proposition. Other brands are making the DX primes and even wonderful zooms to go with them.

      I have friends who say they don’t mind about weight, but then their actions speak louder than words, when they tend to use lighter lenses, or a smaller camera, given the chance. People with D700s and a 24-70 f/2.8 are picking up an Olympus OM5 (or Panasonic G1X) and saying, “Hey, this does everything I need to and without the chiropractor!” I think the D600 will be a wonderful camera and open up FX, with it’s fantastic control over depth of field, to a lot more people, yet it will never be as mainstream as, say, the D7000, or even more so, the D3100, or D3XXX. Beautiful, sharp, small primes are the future for enthusiasts. People who salivate over Leica will flock to Fujifilm or others offering something similar. In refusing to offer them and making ever-larger lenses instead, Nikon is looking to the past, to mediums format’s mantra of ‘quality at any size’ for inspiration, ignoring a huge and growing market segment as it does so.

      And no, in case anyone is wondering, the Nikon 1 as it stands now is in no position to rectify this!

      Reply
  3. Your predictions are running pretty true. Personally, Nikon’s new lineup, almost a year later, is going to keep me buying cameras. I’m an enthusiast and predominantly shoot wildlife, and I’m on a never ending quest for better image quality and closer shots. I have the D4 and D800E but neither is really a bird camera, and now I have the V1. I got the V1 because it was just too much of a temptation for me to turn my 400mm/2.8 into a 1080mm/2.8. I’m going to buy the D400 for the same reason. I expect better image quality than the V1, and I’ll have a 600mm/2.8 to use on it. My hope is that the D400 is Nikon’s first professional mirrorless (fast/noiseless) and that they expand on the excellent feature set of the V1. So I need a new lens adapter too. But I plan on picking up a couple V1 lenses also.

    Thanks for your tireless efforts in this blog. And your sage advice.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Paul! Yes, resolution possibilities are increasing along with sensor technology. This means a kind of ‘digital zoom’ by way of smaller high-resolution sensors that offer better image quality than ever before, though always at the cost of a relative compromise.

      How is the V1 working out for you? That 1080mm equivalent must be great for birding. I’ve seen some incredible examples that no mere mortal would have captured with full-frame lens lengths.

      I think that despite the push to full-frame, APS-C is the best compromise for most people. Smaller sensors sacrifice quality and encourage such a small camera body that longer lenses look ridiculous, though I suppose if mirrorless becomes more mainstream, it will have less pressure to be small.

      As for me, I’m quite happy with my D300/D5100 performance and would actually want an FX camera as my next body, preferably one with enough resolution to keep using DX lenses on it. I’ve given up on Nikon giving me the DX primes I wanted and would really like to have more chances to limit the depth of field for portraits and other nearby subjects, such as street photography. On the side, I already started using M4/3 and it is a wonderful format for it’s size, not on a par with larger ones for sheer quality, but a worthwhile tradeoff in my book.

      Really, there is too much focus on formats and not enough written about equivalents, or lenses designed as such. There could definitely be viable alternatives designed for Nikon for DX, just as Fujifilm is making for their new line. Yet at this point it doesn’t make much sense to expect them. Nikon’s ‘big guns’ are it’s FX cameras and their sensor size and rich lens collection makes them pretty much unassailable by anyone other than Canon.

      Reply
  4. MasonJones

     /  November 2, 2011

    Nikon is getting out of the Pro Segment. DX is a lot more profitable, they said so themselves. Where is the D4 or a D700x or a D800? No new FX bodies since years and 0 communication can only mean one thing and one thing only.

    Reply
    • MasonJones, thank you for your comment, but I think I have to disagree here. Personally, I see them staying in the pro segment, at least for FX, even if no D400 is forthcoming (though I doubt that too, despite the delays). The D800 is doubtless on the way, with a 36MP or so sensor rumours point to, just set back by the problems Nikon has faced at their plants in Sendai and now in Ayutthaya . Just looking at recent or fairly recent FX lenses, such as the 24 or 35mm f/1.4, or the 14-24mm f/2.8 tells us that Nikon has made a serious long-term investment in the pro sector, simply because no-one else could afford them!

      I would add that this situation was not so clear a few years ago. Rumours were flying around about an ‘MX’ format, something close to or even exceeding medium format, a bit like Leica’s S2. Had they jumped this way, they might have sacrificed FX, at least to an extent and gone for something larger than before for the pro segment. Pentax, with their medium format digital offering 645D and no ‘full frame’ DSLR on the horizon, seems to be taking that approach. Well, we will never know how such an approach would have worked, though there is the possibility of MX coming out some time in the future.

      I’d argue that the pro segment is vital for Nikon if they want to still be taken seriously. The sheer prestige of having their lenses used on space missions or at the Olympics, just for extreme examples, means a lot of sales further down the scale from people wanting a little taste of that for their own photography. Now, it is true that Canon is a tremendous competitor and also that their vital interest is in the lower end of consumer DSLRs, where if amazon sales charts are anything to go by, they are often the king. Yet this doesn’t take place in a vacuum. The dream of moving up to increasingly pro gear is surely why many invest in a Nikon in the first place. Killer sensors like that in the D3S are unbeaten by competitors, so even if it is a niche product, the lessons learnt and reputation gained can trickle down into the lower end products. As a new D5100 user, I can attest to how valuable Nikon’s research into image quality has been. An excellent image is an excellent image, whatever camera it is captured with and digital sensors, just like film, certainly vary in their quality, which means to say there will certainly be a need for larger sensors even if the smaller ones improve, at least for the foreseeable future.

      Reply
  1. The Future of DX? « Perfect Futures

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