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.

A D400 Soon to Come?

Some more thoughts on DX. Seeing the rumour and then soon after, news of the D7100 got me thinking, positioned as it is above the ‘mid-level’ D5200 and below true semi-pro cameras like the D800. I’m not too sure whether or not I can expect, right now at least, a D400 with such a build. The problem for Nikon would be selling it. Not only is the market for higher-end DX dwindling, it would also mean supporting such a venture, meant originally surely as a stop-gap until FX became affordable. To an extent, with the advent of the D600, this has come to pass. I say to an extent, as that is a mid-range camera with a pretty-much high-end sensor. By having a smaller sensor, you can still make all the por-level features a lot more affordable, due to cost savings. Hence all the mirrorless crop cameras, some of them quite serious machines in their own right.

In the DX world, there have been new lenses periodically released, most of them very good and here I speak of the 40mm f/2.8 macro, 35mm f/1.8 and more recent 10-24mm zoom., but no pro-level models. Even if most people are happy with DX consumer models and a potential D400 with updated sensor, AF etc would be a fantastic camera, the benefits of affordable FX are too much to ignore by enthusiasts. I’m still a DX user but can see why Nikon can only realistically offer FX pro glass right now, which of course works fine on DX despite the huge size of it. To make new pro-level DX glass would divert precious resources and they would certainly like pros to go the FX route after all.

The only problem with this line of thought is the idea that the D600 is equivalent to a D400, as in AF, build and ergonomics it is nowhere close. If I wanted to have those, I’d have to go to the D800, with its slow shooting speed, just as the D700 was the only other option earlier. I’d admit, the D800 is a much more comprehensive camera for our time, with competitive resolution and video with what Canon has been producing all these years. Still, I can’t really afford a D800 right now and I’m not taken with the build of the D600 (or either camera’s prevalent bugs!), Nikon’s taking a huge gamble in effectively raising the price of its semi-pro line to the $3000 mark, plus lenses. Alongside the D7100, with more capability than the D600, I wonder if we may still see a D400 as well. There may even be a new kit lens for it, with constant f/4 aperture. Why? Because even if DX is dying, there is still some life in it, especially for event or sports shooters who don’t need so much resolution. Enthusiast-aimed, f/4 or f/1.8 lenses are aimed at the mass market, whilst f/2.8 zooms and f/1.4 primes are targeted at uncompromising pros.

I’ve always thought the D800’s Achilles heel is its slow speed and I don’t think that would be tolerable in a leading DX camera. Whilst a lot of pros are moving to FX, many enthusiasts can’t afford to, so the gap between D7100 and D800 is massive, only partially filled by the D600, which of course has poor AF for sports or events, not even covering much of the sensor! There is lots of room for a D400, even though the distinct lack of any pro DX lenses speaks against that. People with lots of DX glass may well want a better body to use it on and from Nikon’s point of view, they may also be buyers of expensive FX gear in the future.

(more…)

Preview of the D7100

Well, the wait is (almost) over for the D7100. As someone who skipped the D7000, but went for the D5100 for the more advanced sensor, which I can say now I’m very happy with, it is intriguing to see what is available. I have been watching Nikon’s models keenly ever since I originally got my D300, around 5 years ago. Aside from a slight update in the form of the D300S, which certainly modernised the camera for newcomers, all Nikon’s subsequent pro models have been FX and with the semi-pro D600 it seems to many that there may never be a pro DX again. For reasons I’ll go into below, I disagree, but first of all lets see what makes the D7100 such a great upgrade, which I believe it is.

New Features-

  • 24mp sensor, with AA filter removed. This in itself, used with the right lenses, offers a far more detailed and potentially subtly sharper photo. Whilst we are quite used to getting slightly soft photos from DSLRs due to this filter and then digitally sharpening them, it seems to me much more natural to capture the native sharpness being offered. Removing one more item from the imaging chain gets closer to the native performance and for me, despite the risk of moire (which presumably can be fixed digitally when it occurs, if not so well now, more so in the future.) we have a step in the right direction. 24mp also offers similar detail to the D600 and if not nearly the same high-ISO or dynamic range, apparently more than the 16mp sensors gave.
  • D4/D800 level autofocus, using an ‘advanced multi-cam DX3500 module’. I have a similar 51-point DX module being used in my D300, where it is excellent and apparently way better than the unreliable one in the D7000/D600. With the D4 algorithms, this should now have the best AF in any DX camera. Not only that, but the central AF point is usable up to f/8, making teleconverters with lenses like the 70-200mm f/4 useable with a 2X teleconveter and perhaps even the 70-300mm or upcoming 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 with a 1.4x. As someone looking for a lot more reach, this combination is very attractive!
  • The fact that the AF is better than the D600’s should raise eyebrows. AF is more important than you might think, especially with higher MP sensors and bright lenses. It will still suffer from the DSLR problems of back/front focus meaning each lens should be optimised, but at least it will make for an effective action camera, (though see below for the proviso with this.)
  • There’s a new crop mode, bringing a 1.3x crop (making for a 2x crop from the 35mm perspective), facilitating faster shooting and even better use of all those autofocus points. This will make for more reach, whilst retaining about a 16mp capture. Even with shorter lenses, it does make for varied crops as you take the photo and interestingly enough, these will offer the same crop as m4/3 cameras do. Now a 24mm lens will give you 36mm and a 47mm in one. The effect, combined with the usable teleconverter, may be most dramatic with the 80-400mm VR, assuming it is as good as the price suggests. Out of the camera, you’ll have a 120-600mm lens. Use the 1.3 crop and you get a 156-780mm at 5.6. Ramp it up with a 1.4x teleconverter, which we hope works as advertised and you have a massive 220-1090mm lens. If the AF and VR are effective enough, you now have something quite special for birding or safaris. Or even zoos!
  • Better weatherproofing also brings it up to the D300 level. Only the ergonomics are not nearly as good, which means it is still seen as an enthusiast, but not a professional body, something that the relatively low price reflects.
  • It brings better video options, with 1080P at 30fps, at a much increased bitrate, also offering stereo mikes, headphone out and uncompressed HDMI out. For anyone into video, this is a step up to the D5200 level and good news indeed.

On the Downside

Almost everything is an improvement, except for the disappointingly smaller, or at least less effective buffer. Presumably, they simply kept the buffer the same size, but raised the file size, but it all means that it can only shoot constantly at it’s full 7fps for 1 second with raw files. 1 second! Anyone getting this for sports or much wildlife shooting suddenly finds themselves with a handicapped camera in their hands. This little ‘gotcha’ is a dealbreaker for many D300(S) users, which presumably is intentional, so we pony up the cash for a ‘true’ D400 in the summer, or whenever. I find it pretty frustrating in itself and it means that, for now at least, the only other Nikon DSLR suitable for fast sports/wildlife shooting is the monstrously-sized and priced D4.

I’m personally on the fence about this being a true dealbreaker (for me). Of course, it is a massive limitation and I can’t stand it when my D300 freezes up from this, though it takes a lot longer to get there. There are some workarounds, though. First of all a fast SDHC card combined with the presumably faster throughput will help clear it a bit faster, though those seconds of pausing even with the fastest cards will seem like an eternity. Then you could always shoot in jpeg and with the crop mode, neither of which is always desirable, but it would raise the available buffer quite a lot, jumping (in fine jpeg) to 33 or 73, respectively, which is a big advance from the paltry 7 or 12 for Raws. This is one of the benefits of the crop mode itself and something we may see more of in high megapixel cameras to come.

Another potential issue is the lack of total modernisation. It seems the sensor is the same as in the D5200, so if the only issue is IQ, people may well just settle for that model. The LCD, though refined with white pixels for brightness, won’t swing down or out, a great convenience I use a lot on my own D5100, especially on a tripod. There is no touchscreen and the reliance on CDAF in live view means it won’t be able to AF very well in that mode, or be used as an LCD-based camera. Something we are used to in DSLRs, perhaps, but a weakness compared to mirrorless systems.

There is the persistent lack of in-body stablisation and of course this is also absent from almost all of Nikon’s prime lenses. This doesn’t just limit the usable shutter-speed, it also necessitates a tripod for video. Having used VR lenses for video hand-held, I know how well they work. It’s true though that sensor-based VR is seldom active for video, but at a time when video is becoming central, it is a bit of a handicap.

Other potential modernisations are buit-in Wi-Fi and GPS, both requiring bulky adaptors which I can’t see too many people buying into and reduce the camer’s vaunted weatherproofing when used, though more carefully designed, smaller door-flaps help a bit here.

Aside from this, there just isn’t all that much that’s new here. It’s a D300 in a smaller body with a better sensor. The sensor, weathrproofing and AF have simply migrated from other models. Yet in a sense, this is always what the D90/D7000 level of camera is all about. A price-sensitive, comprehensive and upper-mid level camera that can be used for a wide variety of photographic tasks. Aside from the crippled buffer, there isn’t much missing from this and it creates an exciting impression. It just doesn’t scream ‘future proof’ the way some of Nikon’s former DSLRs did. Most users will be more than happy with this model, yet I hope the ‘D400’ innovates more, showing us what the future is made of, with features that have us full on anticipation to try them out for the very first time.

Overall

This camera shows that DX is not only far from dead, but capable of being very exciting. Even without having any new lenses announced with it, the vast collection of on and off brand ones and the use of FX lenses make for a compelling system. The handicap of a small buffer and cramped ergonomics point to a potential D400 (D9000?) to come in the near future, hopefully with an even better sensor and video capabilities. The D7100 is so comprehensive that it is hard to imagine how the two could be differentiated, but the addition of typically pro features could make the difference.

The elephant in the room is of course the rise of mirrorless. So far Nikon has done little to take it seriously. The 1 series has too small a sensor for many users and this interferes with backwards compatibility. I think in the new Nikon A, with it’s 16mp DX sensor and 28mm equivalent lens, we have Nikon’s first foray in that direction, yet it seems to offer nothing unique other than size. It seems that any serious mirrorless camera from Nikon is years off and that even the early generations of a DX sensor-based mirrorless system will be simplistic. Still, as these will mature into primary systems, Nikon has continued it’s policy of making no new serious lenses for DX. It would be nice if the seemingly inevitable D400 brings any new kit lenses with it, but it seems Nikon still wants such users to invest in an FX system, despite the relatively huge sizes involved.

If this is music to the ears of Sony, Olympus and Panasonic, it should be tempered with the realisation that they still have some way to go to satisfy the needs of the typical pro user, especially when it comes to bright (in terms of bokeh abilities) zooms and also longer lenses. The mirrorless systems strength is still to be found in bright primes and good, convenient zooms.  Only when consumers are more willing to consider larger mirrorless lenses that forgo that size advantage, will that change. Which means that DSLRs, love them or loath them, are still the most flexible system cameras around.

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.

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.

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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