Nikon ‘D400’ Dream Specs

It’s that time of year again, folks! There is a bit of a lull in new camera announcements, which gives us the chance to focus on what it is we’d really like to have. In my case, here are my ‘Dream specs’ for a D400. I think it is all very feasible and desirable for those interested in such a camera, though I do admit that many serious users and probably most pros have already moved to FX. One day, I may too, but for the moment, I think DX can offer some unique advantages and be a lot more portable to boot. Also, with pro spec lenses like the new Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 being released, there is no reason why the ‘crop formats’ shouldn’t have an equally serious future.

 

Here they are-

  1. New 24mp sensor with faster readout, better dynamic range and no AA filter. A step up from the D7100, in other words, to justify getting a better camera. Too many cameras these days seem to outperform their sensors, or occasionally visa-versa. A balance would get this right, though I’ll add I’d be pretty happy just with the advances of the D7100, though I’d consider it a bit short-sighted to release it like that. This should be a camera that lasts and impresses, like the D800 big brother.
  2. Better video (1080p at 60fps and higher bit-rates), and video AF, perhaps with on-sensor phase-detect. This would improve live-view, even if it falls short of that on the mirrorless cameras. With focus-peaking, we’d finally have an accessible way to MF on a DX DSLR. We’d have it now, not when Nikon’s mirrorless APS-C range finally comes out and scales to this type of body, which in mirrorless terms I’d compare to the Panasonic GH3.
  3. I’d also like a tilting screen, which would be especially good if the live view is improved. I use the one on my D5100 a lot and in my view the ‘serious’ DSLRs suffer for its omission. It’s great not only for video, but especially for tripod work, or unusual, creative angles. Plus AF is not always so reliable at smaller apertures on high-density sensors. Why not help us MF like in the good old days, with a wonderful big screen?
  4. A new processor might be needed for all this, especially since we are dealing with 24mp of data, so perhaps Expeed 4?
  5. Since this is a generational camera, it may be time to really move on from the D300 AF and even that in the D800/D7100. Why not move to the next generation, perhaps in a manner linked with on-sensor PDAF? More focus points means better tracking and also, hopefully, more sophisticated face-detection, which comes in very handy on the smaller formats.
  6. Of course, this camera should have a large buffer, whatever a reasonable price can bear, but certainly offering at least D300S performance.
  7. Along with this, we should have around 8-9fps shooting speed. This should be a sports/wildlife compatible camera like the D4, an amateurs’ D4, if you will, but a semi-pro camera in it’s own right, just as the D300 was a poor man’s D3. Perhaps a grip will push it up a notch. The fear for FX sales may be unfounded now that so may pro sports photographers have already gone that route. They can be offered a D4S/X.
  8. The body should be like the D300S/D800, with a choice of CF or SD cards (or perhaps even the new XQD cards). As long as one slot caters for CF many pros will be happy, even if SD has moved very far, it’s all about legacy support for something that is incidentally still very much alive and with great room to grow. It should have all the pro controls and ergonomics, there isn’t much that really needs changing there. If they can find a way to make it a little lighter too, the way the D800 is vs. the D700, that would be nice progress, but I realise I can’t really hold my cake and eat it (or something like that)
  9. There should be an option for film and a built-in scanner for the ultimate in image versatility and backwards compatibility. (Just kidding!!)
  10. Do we really need a ‘10’? Well, hopefully with the new processor, there will be even better in-camera lens correction, with the option to have this effect the Raw file. I’m talking even compensating for lens sharpness issues, which will of course be more of an issue on the new sensors than ever before. It will be interesting to see what can be done on the software side, even on-camera, which could help the project of giving us lighter lenses with better abilities, their aberrations corrected digitally as well as optically where possible.
  11. I know I’m dreaming, but I’d love in-camera shake-reduction, which would bring such benefits to primes and even video use. Now I know many will chime in and say on-lens is better and I’m not denying that, when it exits. Or they’ll say it’s no substitute for cleaner high ISO to freeze the action, which is also true, though to my mind they can compliment each other. But in many cases a lens has no VR and you want to conserve dynamic range by shooting at native ISO, which will always be best, even if it takes a few years to look back and realise the noise reduction wasn’t do good after all. *1
  12. I’d ideally like more processing to be available on the camera. The current presets are either boring (landscape/vivid, etc), or too extreme (‘colour painting’ etc), giving a toy-like quality. Why not have some film simulation modes onboard, to reduce the need to process off-camera, after the event? Also, far better and configurable HDR, even giving a 32bit HDR file (or a I’d settle for a raw file, or 16bit Tiff). I love HDR but am getting pretty tired of bracketing, filling my hard drive with the files and then sitting down to do it later. I’d like some way to ‘compress’ the unnecessary data and the camera is a great place to start.
  13. While we are in the realm of exotic possibilities, why not have in-camera panorama and even multi-capture modes that shift the sensor slightly for extreme resolutions? Or in-camera focus-stacking, for macros? Something like that found on medium format backs. Again, you can do that after the event, but it means more time, more data and less fun. Such features, which suit today’s fast digital cameras to a tee (especially in good light, where we are talking of small fractions of a second for each shot). It may be exotic, but if it is the next level of processing, why not?
  14. It’s taken a while to come to DSLRs and arguably is only really covered by the 6D and a few other Canon cameras, but how about built-in Wi-fi, GPS and a capacitive touch screen to do your editing, AF points and get to all those settings? Doesn’t sound pro? Neither did colour film or autofocus at one point, but now no pro can live without them!
  15. Finally, how about a silent, electronic shutter, preferably with super-fast flash synch? Perhaps it might only work at lower frame-rates, or with reduced AF features, but it would be a very neat feature to have and I’m sure invaluable for many pros.

I could go on, but I think all this is more than enough to justify an upgrade, the ‘d400’ 8, or D9000 designation and to make a keeper camera for the next 5 years. It goes without saying that new lenses would be nice, but if Nikon doesn’t step up to the plate, we can already see Sigma, Tamron and Tokina making efforts, though of course I’d like Nikon to do so. I’m just not sure they will get around to it, what with their FX and 1-Series commitments. One thing they should definitely do is offer a fixed f/4 update to the 16-85mm VR and one, or some new wide DX primes, even if they’re big but light (due to the registration distance). Relying on other companies to make your lenses for you doesn’t sound like a particularly good strategy.

Having a removable IR blocking filter like the Sigma SD1 has would be wonderful, but I concede it’s a feature only a minority of people would even understand the use for. If you could have a removable Bayer filter to convert it to a black and white camera at will, that really would be amazing, but that would perhaps even be impossible with today’s technologies. Beyond that, multilayered sensors like Sigma’s Foveon-Merril would be a great advance, but here we are talking many years, perhaps even a decade.

Some will still say, well, with the full frame for pros and the already excellently specced D7100, isn’t it a bit unrealistic to want more from DX? Well, maybe so, but there are still pro DX lenses being made, of especial interest being the newer Sigmas- the 18-35mm f/1.8 zoom, which is unprecedented and also their 30mm f/1.4, which if it is anything like their incredible full-frame 35mm edition, could be an absolutely stellar lens.

Don’t forget also the potential offered by the ‘speed-booster’ technology, which promises to make full-frame lenses brighter, sharper and wider on a smaller sensor. Without AF, I’m not sure it will be all that useful for a lot of people, but if they can get that together, it will solve a lot of the problems that brought people ‘back’ to full-frame In the first place. I say ‘back’, as it’s still the heavier, less convenient and most expensive format. This may be something pros may be more willing to deal with than others not being paid to carry the gear around. Call me a light-weight, but I’m not sure it’s something I really miss!

*1 I really believe we should be free to shoot handheld and an intelligent on-sensor VR could help make the micro-adjustments possible to make these new high-density sensors more usable. Being stuck on a tripod for good results just isn’t a future that makes any sense. On-lens VR can also compromise lens design. People can always switch it off and use VR on the longer lenses where it works so well. Financially speaking, I’m pretty sure such lenses will still sell, if that’s the real concern holding up development.

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DX Futures- the View From 2013

Looking at my stats, as I find myself obsessively doing, I saw that one of my most often hit on pages is “DX Futures”, whilst others relate to Thom Hogan’s speculations, (which are now nearer lamentations) on Nikon’s plans for DX. Ever since the announcement of the Sony NEX 7, there has been some expectation of a D400 with a similar 24mp sensor. In actual fact, what came were better sensors, or perhaps uses of that sensor, in the more budget priced D3200 and more recent D5200. Those entry-level models, whilst capable of astonishing results in the right hands, are no-where near well-specified enough to be the main camera of a serious enthusiast. For this, you need at least the features of a D7000, in terms of speed and build, or preferably the ‘semi-pro’ standard of the D300(S). In fact, only the later makes the semi-pro grade and is currently the nearest a DX user can get to the ergonomics and security of a D800. So, for some time and perhaps still, a 24mp D400 has been expected, yet the future of DX definitely is cloudier now. I can tell you why in two words; ‘D600’ (if that counts as a word!) and ‘mirrorless’.

Whilst we probably will see a D7100 with such a sensor, if not better, it is far from certain that a D400 will make it to the living breathing world of reality. The D600, whist itself a little under-specced, is being offered as the D800 ‘lite’. Now a D400 may well make the cut, with presumably better video (1080p at 60fps) and HDMI out, the D800 AF unit and 7-8fps, which will be a very attractive camera for a lot of people, but if the price is high, it may be a hard choice between that and a D800 or even D600, for those who can’t get both and have actually been waiting for full frame. Plus, the D800 does offer 15mp DX shooting, with fantastic dynamic range, which for many purposes would be more than enough. Okay, but lets say the D600 is really treated the way it should be, as the second rung of full-frame, the D7000/D90 etc choice below the pro (D4) and semi-pro (D800) and above whatever lower-specced one Nikon might make yet. Suppose the D400 comes out and suppose it sells at least okay… which is a worry for Nikon, no doubt. What then, does that mean that there will be a new generation of serious DX lenses to go with it? I have to say, probably not. Yet the answer for that is the second magic word, ‘mirrorless’.

Sooner or later and preferably sooner, to be honest, Nikon needs to have DX mirrorless, or something like it. N1 is an interesting and even fascinating addition, but it’s inability to capture sufficient dynamic range or use existing lenses as anything other than near-telescopes (okay, I exaggerate, as telephotos one and all, though), not to speak of the impossibility of bokeh shots with today’s technology, all says that if Nikon is going to have a serious mirrorless, it will have some aspects of the Canon M. Yet I fully expect it will have much better build, EVF and the fast AF of the 1-series. Such a mount will be able to easily use DX or any AF-S lenses with an adapter, with full AF functions. even better, if the phase-detect is as good as the positively revolutionary Nikon 1. Yet they will be large and ungainly on the small body, they will negate the miniaturisation  slight as it may be compared to smaller sensors, but with pancakes and foldable optics very significant nonetheless. All they will do is entice current users to stay in the system… but a new system with new lenses, which undoubtedly are being planned and designed as we speak.

Which all means that I don’t expect many, or even any DX primes, but rather for Nikon’s main efforts to go into DX-sensor compatible mirrorless lenses, which may well be sharper and better than DX ones, anyway, if the m4/3 system is anything to go by. I have no information about this, by the way, but it does make perfect sense. The process will indeed take years and yes, it is wrong of Nikon to keep DX users ‘hanging on’ for new lenses, but I think most of us know by now that it is an unrealistic expectation both technically and (for Nikon) economically, as their pros and serious users migrate to full-frame, only a minority of serious ones staying solely with DX and those same users would be better-served by a Nikon V2 with DX sensor, light adapter and grips to help use longer lenses. That, anyway is the way I see things going. Which is why I went into m4/3 for my primes, but keep using DX for other uses, as I currently have no need for Full-frame.

Would I get a D400, if it cost more than a D600? It’s a good question. It would certainly have much better performance in many areas. But it wouldn’t offer the wide-angle bokeh and supreme image quality of FX, so it is a toughie. I couldn’t promise either way. Would I go for a serious, competitively priced mirrorless DX, that effectively used my existing lenses and offered great video and high frame-rates? Now that is much more likely, even if it didn’t have a focus motor. It’s a price I’d be willing to pay. Assuming many others think like me, despite the potential for ever-greater sensors in DX as in other sizes, it seems likely that we will only have a turbo-charged D7100/D9000 which will attempt to amalgamate the D300S and D7000 into one body, but whether it will have the build quality of a true ‘D400’ isn’t clear.

Finally, despite their attempts, I don’t think Nikon will be able to tempt enough people into FX with their compromised bodies, or massive FX lenses as they would like. This means there will remain serious, lens-buying DX users who want newer technology than their aging cameras can provide, so Nikon will simply have to offer higher-end DX bodies, or else risk losing users. They also can’t ignore the fact that people leaving DX if they think it’s abandoned, may just as well go the route of Canon, or even m4/3, since they need to get new lenses anyway. Sony especially hopes to cash in here, though as ever their lens selection holds them back. So even if it means them using third-party lenses from Sigma or Tokina, who are making some very interesting options, Nikon would rather keep such users on board and perhaps at some point migrate them to DX-sized mirrorless, or get them over to the FX camp the next time round, when presumably the AF issues and low frame-rates are fully worked out.

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).

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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