It is now a pretty tough time to be upgrading cameras. Of course, I really want the benefits of a better body and especially a more advanced sensor, even if (as I say in my last article on Clarity), I’m starting to think the newer sensors give up some definition in search of more flexibility. Perhaps removing the AA filter and using newer software designed for them will help, certainly I would like the lower-light abilities for street shooting and anything handheld, not to mention that wonderful dynamic range boost.
In Nikon-land, as many rue, things are pretty tough. I am still a D300 user and remember when that first came out and I pretty much rushed out to buy it, it being a no-brainer to upgrade from my trusty, but 6mp D70. I ended up loving the image quality and colours, but not so much the increased weight and (my choice entirely) new tendency it gave me to machine-gun shoot on my larger CF card. The incredible and even now hardly surpassed AF meant it got just about every shot and the larger viewfinder and dramatically improved LCD helped here. In short, it gave me a much greater tool, but as with so many things, I’m not so sure it made me a better photographer in the slightest!
At the time, it was released alongside the massive but wonderful D3, which I obviously couldn’t afford. If the later-announced D700 had come sooner, perhaps I would have been tempted by that, even with the higher price-tag, it would allow me to do something I have long missed- shooting with my lens collection at native lengths, rather than cobbling together a collection of almost-right primes (28/35mm being the range I’m talking of, in the search for normal, which in fact 35mm is a little long for, truth be told). I also found myself needing to invest in DX zooms to get back wide-angles, though never liking them as much as a prime. In this, I’ve gone through, (and in fact still have, hoarder that I am), the Tamron 17-50mm, Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8, 18-55mm VR, 18-105mm VR and Tokina 12-24mm, though of course that’s also an ultra-wide.
Of all these, the 17-55mm f/2.8 is undoubtedly the best and I bought it for wedding photography. It has much lower distortion, excellent image quality and extremely fast autofocus in decent light. Yet as it’s massively heavy and doesn’t really offer much control over DOF on my DX camera, which is what you’d really want for such a struggle of man and machine, it doesn’t come out so much and certainly not on a longer trips where weight is a concern. It also has the problem of not being so good at landscape photography, optimised more for events, meaning other lenses actually are sharper for this.
Generally, though a little short, I find the image quality from my affordable Tamron is excellent, very sharp closed down and even good wide-open, where it does pretty well for portraits on the long end if need be. With lens profiles in Lightroom I can fix that distortion at the press of a button and as the colours and sharpness are pretty much excellent for this range, I’m a happy camper- but one without much to compare it to. With the 18mm… range, the kit lens is excellent for IR or travelling light, and is a very good performer. The 18-105mm is good when I can only take one lens, but I do find it a bit soft and not really all that exciting. Still, as a replacement of sorts for my FX Tamron 24-135mm lens I used a lot on film and even on my D70 as an all-in-one (putting up with 36mm as a wide-angle equivalent), it does the job.
Anyway, I digress, though I expect my story is familiar to many users caught in the ‘upgrade loop’ Nikon has created with its current line-up. My only pro camera is a 5-year old D300, with none of the sensor advances I see around me made since. Yet Nikon’s current releases, at anything less than the D800 level (forgetting completely about the mythical and not for me D4), are massive downgrades. The D7100 offers the sensor advances I’d like, though to be honest, I wouldn’t mind an even better one as it seems to be getting a little long in the tooth now and is pretty much the same as the budget D5200 model’s one. Yet I have to sacrifice the pro build, AF On button and the massive D300 buffer. But I do get a much more advanced sensor and even better AF, without breaking the bank too much, especially if I wait a bit for the inevitable reductions and deals.
If I do wish to step up to FX, then I get totally confused. Nikon is essentially pushing me to invest in the D800, or even the superior D800E, just to get rid of the by now pretty much redundant AA filter, moiré not being much of an issue at such stratospheric (for our times, not for the near future) resolutions. Invest! Yet in a couple of years there will be a better one and then, in not too long a future one so much better the D800 will lose at least half it’s value. So really, it is only an investment for successful pros, who will easily make up the difference on their day job, them and serious amateurs who can afford it. Not only that, but I need to get new lenses to make use of the sensor, plus a new computer that hasn’t even been made yet to have easy access to the files. And in all this, I am put off by the snail-like frame-rate, even my D5100 can manage more than 4 frames a second, what is this, 1995? I realise it would need a better processor, but surely they could make one.. oh what’s that… it’ll be in the soon to be released D800S?
Then we have the most tempting, but most sacrificing D600. I can use the same lenses and computer without too much problem. Well, I can use computers that currently exist, anyway. Sure, I may want some more FX glass, but the decent film-stuff will suffice alongside some modern primes. But I don’t get much resolution if I use a DX lens, though it’s better than the 6mp with the D700, and I won’t be able to zoom in as much as I can now either (which I can by cropping the D800). So birding is out. Plus you get a crappy (sorry for my French) AF unit that went out with the dinosaurs, not even designed for FX use. Also, crappy build and controls, considering the $2000 cost of the camera before you get the kit lens. Stick in a proper AF unit, some more buffer and you have a decent camera, but, From Nikon’s point of view, less reason to buy a D7100.
So here you have it. Nikon’s own models fighting with one another for ascendance, with the not so obvious message to either make do, buy a D4, or get more than one of them to make up for their foibles. I know Nikon is a business and needs to make money, though at the same time they can’t afford to annoy their customers too much. I, like many others have moved to other brands for compacts and mirrorless solutions as, to my mind, Nikon gives us no choice, their sensors being too small (other than the new and more interesting Nikon A). At the same time I don’t really believe camera designers are such a cynical bunch. If they could, I am sure they would love to design a perfect, balanced camera like the D300/D200 was for their time, or; earlier, the F90 and F100. I am sure once the processors and so on are ready, the successors to the D600/D800 will be a lot better and more efficient. Yet how long am I expected to wait? This brings me to the obvious short-term solution, if FX is just too hard to manage for many of us; a D400, (or perhaps D9000, in Nikon’s new numbering system).
In my next post, I’ll go into what I’d hope to see in it, as I think it would be the right camera for me. Indeed, I believe Nikon should announce it sooner, rather than later for anyone serious about DX. Otherwise I might just pour my funds into m4/3 equipment that will be lighter to carry around and give me much better manual focus options on the fly. As Nikon have neither kept developing DX the way I’d hoped or offered a balanced full-frame alternative for the semi-pro user.