New Nikon Digital Cameras


Not with a bang, but a whimper...

Updated: 2/17/05
Added Coolpix Prices: 2/18/05

Most Nikon followers had high expectations for PMA 2005, but at least so far, I suspect that they're coming away a bit disappointed. (Never fear, I think there's at least one more set of announcements coming, most likely for lenses and accessories, and the current rumors are that at least one of the expected announcements will come later this spring or summer.)

In the DSLR scene, expectations were of a D2h improvement, a D100 replacement, and/or a D50 introduction (along with the shipment of the D2x at the end of PMA). The D100 replacement and D50 intro are no shows, and the D2hs announced today (2/16/05) is a minor update of the D2h. I've noticed that a lot of folk posting on forums are reading more into Nikon's announcement than is there, so let's start there:

  • The Nikon Japan press release doesn't say that Nikon interviewed D2h users and specifically addressed their concerns to produce the D2hs. Most people aren't reading the following very carefully: "Since the launch of the D1 series and successful introduction of the Nikon DX Format in 1999, Nikon has been conducting extensive research into the needs of photographers in every field and discipline. This research, coupled with painstaking analysis of feedback from Nikon users worldwide, has led to a string of technological and design innovations for the Nikon DX Format aimed at enhancing system performance for the serious photographer." What that says is this: Nikon does some user research while designing digital cameras.
  • Nowhere is lower noise at high ISO values or more accurate color specifically mentioned. Yes, the press releases mention new digitization routines and "rich...color" and "smooth tone range." There's a brief quote that says "producing images with...lower noise." And white balance routines have been specifically addressed, which could produce more accurate color. But the specific complaints about the D2h: response to near-infrared distorting colors and high ISO noise are not addressed by the press release, and the noise remark seems specific to the JPEG encoder. A few people apparently have been told privately by Nikon that these two issues have been dealt with, but Nikon has not pubicly said anything. I've been looking at the Japanese press reports on the D2hs and most of them all say something about the sensor being new and lower noise being a specific attribute. Okay, so why haven't these things made it into the English translations?
  • The pricing is getting people confused. At present, the D2h sells for US$1995 (that's a MAP--minimum advertised price). The D2hs MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) is US$3495. Since we don't yet know the MAP for the D2hs, we can't exactly compare prices, but it seems clear that Nikon is trying to boost the price back up with the new version of the camera.

Now let's tackle exactly what is new with the D2hs:

Item What it is What it means
3D Matrix Metering* New software algorithms for the matrix metering system. More accurate exposures in more conditions.
Faster AF* The camera acquires focus quicker, and the tracking of moving objects is done more efficiently. Improved autofocus.
50 JPEG, 40 NEF buffer The buffer isn't bigger; the camera is faster at processing and handling images. Less likelihood of interrupted shooting, even with long bursts at fast frame rates.
White Balance Improvements* Low Kelvin value lighting (incandescent), mixed lighting, and lighting that includes flash have been addressed in the software. More accurate color under those conditions.
12-bit ASIC* Camera's internal image processing routines are kept in 12-bit space before creating JPEG. Better tonal ramps, fewer processing artifacts.
sYCC Support* The native JPEG color space is supported. Bigger color space than sRGB for JPEG shooting, at the expense of potential post processing requirements.
Standards Compliance* EXIF 2.21, DCF 2, and the current DPOF are supported. Software that understands the standards should work with the D2hs.
GPS support, WT-2 support* A GPS receiver can be plugged into the camera; the WT-2 can be mounted on the camera. GPS data can be integrated into EXIF, the camera can connect to the WT-2 for faster wireless transfer (than the WT-1) and be controlled by it (not possible with the WT-1)..
Monitor/Menu Changes* The color LCD has 21k more pixels (232k). Help menus have been added to the menu system. Playback can be magnified up to 15x (from 8x). Histograms have RGB data. Five languages have been added to the menu system. A recent settings function has been added. The big thing here is the increase in ability to study images that have been taken more closely (magnification and histogram).
Software* PictureProject 1.5 is provided and Capture 4.2.1 is needed. A big step backwards from Nikon View to PictureProject.

 

*Shared with D2x

Overall, the changes are modest and mostly an attempt to keep the D2h and D2x firmware aligned. An already speedy camera is made slightly more speedy, and image quality of in-camera JPEGs should improve (none of the announced changes seem to have any impact on RAW shooting quality). Whether they will have the impact Nikon appears to hope for (restoration of price point and margin, increased sales, etc.) seems somewhat in doubt to me. At least one Japanese site is reporting that Nikon plans on making 3000 D2hs units a month. The D2hs is not the 1D competitor many were hoping for, but merely a tweak to a camera that had already plummeted in street price by almost 43% in its one-and-a-half year history.

Also on Nikon's announcement plate were new Coolpix models. Let's go to the table first:

Feature 4600 5600 5900 7600 7900
Sensor 1/2.5" 4mp 1/2.5" 5mp 1/1.8" 5mp 1/1.8" 7mp 1/1.8" 7mp
Lens 34-102mm f/2.9-4.9 35-105mm f/2.8-4.9 38-114mm f/2.8-4.9 38-114mm f/2.8-4.9 38-114mm f/2.8-4.9
LCD 1.8" 80k TFT 1.8" 80k TFT 2" 115k TFT 1.8" 85k TFT 2" 115k TFT
Battery 2 AA 2 AA EN-EL5 2 AA EN-EL5
Weight 4.6 oz (130g) 4.6 oz (130g) 5.3 oz (150g) 5.1 oz (145g) 5.3 oz (150g)
Price US$199.95 US$279.95 US$349.95 US$379.95 US$449.95

In case you haven't noticed, these are all commodity-type cameras. All five are essentially in the me-too point-and-shoot category, which features small size (for pocketability), modest 3x lenses, SD storage, mostly automatic features (no A, S, or M exposure modes, just lots of scene modes), and modest other features (built-in flash, bracketing, macro, etc.). What little differentiation that comes in specification is in the software side of things (those scene modes, Nikon's BSS and now D-Lighting algorithms), and that, too, is modest. That means these cameras fall into the same category as everyone elses compact digital camera, and thus will end up mostly competing on price and distribution channel (e.g., who gets the shelf space at Best Buy, et.al.). Coupled with the 8400 and 8800, Nikon appears to pretty much have abandoned any of the wild design efforts that differentiated early Coolpix (e.g., the twist-and-shoot models pioneered by the Coolpix 900). Frankly, I'd guess that this bodes for even lower market shares for Nikon in the compact digital camera market. Why? Well:

  1. Nikon isn't the price leader. I think Kodak has proven that they'll be the ones that try to get into the Wal-mart's of the world. And with overall growth now slowed in this market, we'll sell a lot of companies try to survive by slashing prices. Okay, the new Coolpix prices are somewhat aggressive for Nikon, and I'm sure that they've worked to cut cost out of manufacturing, so these prices will eventually reduce. But my point remains, I don't expect Nikon to be the price leader, and to gain market share the prices would have to be head turning.
  2. Nikon isn't the performance leader. You only have to use a Casio Exilim side-by-side with a current Coolpix to see how far Nikon has to go with AF and shutter lag performance. And since everyone's using the same sensors, it'll take some big leap in software to get image quality performance that simply stands out from the others.
  3. Nikon isn't the manufacturing leader. Most of the Coolpix line has been contracted out to Sanyo, who's already shown that they have had troubles ramping production as quickly as the market grew.
  4. Nikon isn't the bling-bling leader. While the newer Coolpix models are getting closer to the gotta-have-it style and compactness of the Canon Elph (which, I'll remind you, started back in the APS film days), they're not there yet and others are right in the same league.
  5. Nikon isn't the specification leader. Put up the traditional marketing table of specifications and start checking boxes. Nikon is mid-pack.

These are strange times for Nikon. They have three standout digital cameras: the Coolpix 8800 (yes, it's heads above the other 8mp I've tried in image quality, including Nikon's own 8700), the D70, and the D2x. But this isn't a standout product lineup, which makes Nikon vulnerable to market share erosion, competitive thrusts into the blank spots in Nikon's lineup, and so on. What's missing? Well:

  • Low-end DSLR dominance. A D50 that puts the Digital Rebel into its coffin. A D70 update that keeps it shoulders above the 20D (and upcoming 350D) in terms of value.
  • Upgraded replacements. The D2hs does not really compete with the 1DMarkII and it should. The D100 needs to be replaced with something that can hold it's own against the 20D and its successor.
  • Exceptional compact. The Coolpix 8800 notwithstanding (and it's not really a compact camera), Nikon doesn't have a single compact digital camera that stands out from its competitors.
  • Flagship. The F6 is a flagship, unfortunately a film-based flagship. The D2x comes close on the digital end, but ultimately I think DSLR users are expecting that their flagship camera will substantially outperform medium format film cameras, and that's likely to take a full frame sensor.

Don't get me wrong, Nikon's announcements were necessary and important. Nikon is obviously not neglecting their lineup of digital products, and continues to push forward on all fronts. But we all have higher expectations of the self-proclaimed leader in camera engineering. These six cameras don't satisfy the urges that the original D1 and Coolpix 900 first triggered amongst the Nikon faithful. Yes, we'll take these offerings, but we want more.


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