The Future of DX?

Note-the following is culled from my reply to a comment on the post The Future of DX- Some Predictions From Thom Hogan, an issue that I feel is even more relevant now, with mirrorless cameras gaining abilities so quickly, one wonders about the long-term future of the smaller DSLRS. I got so involved in writing it, I thought it best to make a full post, lest it be lost in digital obscurity.

Essentially, it maintains that the DX format is far from dead, nor is it really ‘killable’, whether at the lower end by M4/3, or the higher with full-frame, as it offers a great and times even high-end compromise with the virtues of FX. Digital allows for miniaturisation of resolution as never before and newer lens designs make for bright primes of incredible quality, even at lower prices, designed with the help of computers and mass-produced to exacting standards with modern processes. If phone cameras can make so much progress, can something as relatively large as APS-C really be too small for most uses? More likely too big!

Does DX have a future despite the advent of FX (full-frame) digital systems and their advances? Yes, I think so, absolutely. DX sensor size 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 advantage 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 (except 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! Perhaps some time in the misty future when ultra-bright lenses are easily made and it can achieve depth of field control. I’m sure it can offer more than adequate resolution and even dynamic range (just look at the warm response to Sony’s recent RX100). Yet to offer the control over depth of field a larger format has on, say, an f/1.4 lens is talking f/0.8, or even less. Sorry if my maths are out, but whatever the exact figure, it’s science fiction with today’s technology and for me, at least, some control over depth of field and the resulting ‘bokeh’ is essential.

Looking forward to the far future and yes, of course the Nikon 1 system could reign supreme, with unimaginably good sensors and the lenses o take advantage of them. If Leica can make small yet immaculate primes for generations, it must be possible! But so far, no-one has been able to do so affordably. If a format lives or dies with its lenses, we will be waiting years for the 1 system to mature and for this user, at least, it makes more sense to use other systems like NEX or M4/3 in the meantime, alongside my trusty, yet also evolving, DSLRs.

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