DX D400 Futures?

Sorry all wanting something lighter, this will be another long one and without any photos; as I’d rather just write the piece than spend time illustrating it. Photo-blog type pieces will come, too, but I’d rather just focus on the ideas here and maybe, maybe illustrate it later…

As anyone reading here recently may know, I’m both a DX and M4/3 system user, though in terms of equipment owned/investments made, am certainly more in the DX camp. As much as like M4/3 it is by no means as complete a system as the major DSLR offerings, including DX. Which makes me wonder what is afoot in Nikonland with what is, for many like myself, their major system. As Thom Hogan so rightly says, DX is a distinct system from FX. Sure, you can use FX lenses on DX, but they will probably be both larger and more expensive and although there are some very good, even remarkable FX lenses, there is nothing about the format that makes them inherently better. In fact, with the larger image circle, it is harder to make a good FX lens. Still, it seems pretty clear that Nikon would like their more serious users to pony up the cash and ‘move on up’ to FX, but the problem with this strategy is that it makes their DX lenses redundant. Despite the message that FX is the upgrade, might  a serious DX upgrade path, a.k.a. ‘D400’, emerge after all?

Right now, depending on your tastes and needs, there isn’t really one ‘almighty’ FX DSLR to get. The D800 may have great resolution, but that brings with it the problem of storage and processing power to handle the huge files, files that have more resolution than many would realistically need anyway. It’s also, at 4fps, it’s an unusually slow camera for general usage, matching the D3100/D5100 in this department, not to mention heavy and prone to showing the shortcomings of everyday lenses and techniques. The ‘fix’ for this may well be the D600, but at $2000 it is certainly expensive, yet despite this, lacks a pro build and comes with handicapped features. Bracketing is artificially limited to 3 shots, the AF points are clustered in a tiny space in the middle, as it has a modified D7000 DX AF unit, rather than the newer one of the D4 and D800. In short, you pay a premium for FX whichever way you see it and with all the advances made in DX, it makes little sense.

The situation is quite different from when I (and thousands of others) bought our D300 so many moons ago. This camera revolutionised our DX usage with far better dynamic range, high ISO and AF than anything before it. Most couldn’t afford a D3, anyway. Soon after came the D700, which was more expensive, but a natural upgrade for those who’d been looking for a body to use their 35mm film lenses on and have the usual usage of them. D200/D300 to D700 made some sense. Those who stayed with DX probably kept filling out their lens line with DX lenses, especially wide-angle zooms and perhaps the 35mm f/1.8 DX, too. They might have a mixture of older FX lenses (and some new ones) and DX ones. Here though is the cracker… if one wants to go for one of the newer FX cameras, you sacrifice resolution if you keep using DX lenses on the D600 and probably hardly any of the older film lenses will be any good on the, even the ones that are half-decent on DX. Which means a new body and new lenses and not so much sense in keeping many of the DX ones.

So, with all this in mind, it is natural that many, if not most people who want to stay with DSLRs will be quite happy with the economy and excellent image quality possible with APS-C sensors. Even some of the mirrorless formats are using APS-C, such as Fuji or NEX. It isn’t dead, it isn’t redundant, it hasn’t been superseded by the expensive, unwieldy world of FX, which remains very hard to design suitable lenses for (even more so, as the resolution rises, with such a comparatively large sensor area to cover). The best FX lenses are very expensive, out of  reach of the average consumer. So where is the DX love, Nikon?

DX Needs

What we need are a few things, which are mostly overdue (and I’m willing to believe that the flooding in Thailand and time set aside to update the FX line is more responsible for this than a lack of will on Nikon’s part)…

1) A D400 with the pro AF from the D4/D800, advanced metering and pro build. It should have between 7-11 FPS, making it a great choice for sports. It could be anything from 16-24MP and still be an upgrade from the D300S, but I expect it also needs to be seen as an upgrade for D7000 users (or D7100 users, when they exist). If this involves more resolution, it puts Nikon in a rather difficult position, as well-performing 24MP DX sensors and compatible lenses are thin on the ground, so it might stay at the ‘more sensible’ 16MP and have other innovations, such as better dynamic range, or on-sensor PDAF for filming videos. Since the D4 is 16MP, I can’t imagine too many complaints, though super-high resolution might be interesting! Either way, such a camera could be cheaper and a lot better than the D600, being a DX D800 to match the D600’s ‘FX D7000’ placement.

2)  More AF-S primes, preferably some DX specific ones, but at any rate updates to ‘D’ models that won’t autofocus on the smaller DX bodies, which many have as their main, or perhaps backup, camera. Of these, a 16mm, 24mm and hopefully a 60-70mm ‘portrait’ prime are needed. I say needed as here we are talking of an independent DX format, not a limited one that lacks such essential lenses of relies on clunky zooms. A 58mm f/0.95- F/1.2 DX might be expensive, but it would sort this out quite quickly. In a world without pro DX it will of course never come.

3) While we’re at it, some updated DX zooms would also be nice, a 16-85mm F/4 and an 80-400mm (which would probably be FX, but could probably be more cheaply be made if optimised for DX  as there’s less worry about corners). For the format to be serious, a new, 16-55mm f/2.8 VR (or so) would be needed and possibly even a 50-150mm f/2.8 VR. If there is a move to 24MP, this may be even more important, as the 17-55mm F/2.8 won’t be enough… and sooner or later I can’t really see such a move being avoided, as even compacts have 20+ MP. What would be really interesting would be some F/2 zooms, which would in a sense give FX levels of DOF control, but then there is the price (see #2).

4) If there is to be a DX mirrorless line, sooner rather than later would be a good time to announce it, or at least drop some serious hints. If new wide primes are being ‘saved’ for such a camera, that would make some sense as many say DX s it is is poorly suited to such lenses, but without any announcement and the sparse primes offered for Nikon 1, it’s really unclear what is planned. This means that more people looking for such lenses may jump ship to get them. For many enthusiasts, after all, such lenses are the very core of their photography and suggesting they use outdated (and still expensive) AF-D primes, or MF lenses carries less weight now that there are so many alternatives out there. Nikon seems not to care about this issue, but taking a look at market trends, I think they must notice.

A lot of Nikon users love the brand and want to stay with it and many others have already invested to the point at which they are wedded to it anyway. There is certainly not much advantage to switching APS-C DSLR lines (other than to Pentax perhaps). People like me who are sick of waiting and have decided they might well be waiting for ever have started a system in a mirrorless line, in my case M4/3 and for others NEX. This already eats into Nikon’s sales and also means that if I am extending my line, I might well do so in the M4/3 system, which gets more capable every generation, whilst DX for the last few years (leaving aside consumer zoom updates), seems to be stagnating a bit, or is even in a confused position as it confronts the space-saving, live-view friendly nature of competing systems.

Whilst FX offers a way out, I can’t see myself completely switching to an FX system… ever! I think APS-C was a necessary stage in the evolution and miniaturisation of the SLR and now the DSLR, which produces more than fine results for most uses. Advances in sensor design, such as Fuji’s, or Foveon’s improvements, not to mention Sony’s excellent innovations in greater dynamic range and lower noise, offer great possibilities for the future. People have said that Foveon can equal D800 resolution and the PRO-1 can match full-frame high-ISO, so the advantages of FX are hardly exclusive anymore, the way they were when smaller sensors performed relatively poorly. Even if I do get an FX body, It will be for specific uses and I’ll use my DX bodies/lenses alongside it. The short DOF of the format is very attractive, as are the viewfinders and traditional lens lengths. Yet the bodies Nikon offers now are so slow and lack reach (unless DX lenses are used on them, at lower pixel counts), so it does seem like a mixed blessing and not a straightforward ‘upgrade’, as is made out. My main concern is size as I can’t see myself travelling with a full FX kit, though DX is more manageable for this. Certainly, for certain things like birding or sports from a distance, DX makes more sense with its shorter lenses.

As for myself, I’d probably rather have a great D400 than settle for a D600 (or, for that matter, a D7100). A pro camera with pro features need not be out of reach and of course  I’d want one for the lenses I already have, many of which are excellent on my DX D300 and will be worse on FX (yes, including some FX ones). Some see the D7000 line as the new apex of DX, but I’m not so sure it’ll happen. People tend to read too much into delays or announcement of other products and mirrorless cameras won’t supplant DSLRs just yet and maybe not for a long time to come, if ever. The D800/D600 releases don’t preclude high-end DX, any more than the D3200 meant that there would be no serious high-resolution camera (the D800). Horses for courses will continue to emerge.

The D400

In truth, I think the D400 will probably arrive some time next year and face the Canon 7D MkII for competition. I expect it will have on-sensor AF, 18-24MP, pro-build and very high FPS, perhaps even 12 in some modes. It will be as much a game-changer as the D200/D300 were before it and not just more of the same, as it will have to also show how superior DX is to the mirrorless cameras in its element. On the whole, I expect a faster, DX D800 with a few new features. It’ll be a very attractive camera, even if by not being FX it won’t  have the DOF control that format offers, I still think that brighter or longer lenses are a better way of achieving that for most people than switching to a new format all-together. DOF is a relationship between sensor/film size, lens length/distance from subject and aperture. Equivalents are often possible (although they may be less convenient in certain usages, hence the appeal of larger formats for certain usages).

On a personal note, I’m not really all that bothered it took so long to update the D300 properly. Having a radically new sensor and better AF will make for a much better upgrade than just an incremental one and also one that will last for longer. I’m pretty happy with my D300/D5100 combo and look forward for something even better yet. Attractive though M4/3 is, I still like the advantages of DX and the access to my range of lenses. I’ve tried EVFs and to my mind, they are all still pretty horrible compared to a good OVF, despite their massive advantages. That alone is reason to keep using DSLRs, as it’s the camera in the present that counts, not what might be in the future.

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