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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